July 11, 2006

Back from Taiwan

I'm back from Taiwan, where Heidi and I visited two relatives who were very ill.

I am a third-generation Chinese dyed-in-the-wool American who speaks no Mandarin. I am truly a foreigner in Taiwan. And so everything surprises me. For example...

Cold Drink Cups

Asia enjoys superior cold drink cup technology. Everybody drinks bubble-tea-style drinks, which are cold drinks with little balls of tapioca or jello mixed in. But best of all, the drinks are usually served with a heat-sealed lid that will not fall off or leak. This is way better than McDonald's press-on plastic cup covers. Why is American fast food so backwards? Everybody should use Handy Cup Sealing Machines or Z-Cup Sealing Machines.

Why 7-11?

In Taiwan, the most highly penetrated western retail brand is 7-11. McDonalds has nothing on 7-11. Whereas I saw maybe three McDonalds, a couple starbucks, and a couple KFCs during my entire trip, I cannot count the dozens of 7-11's I saw every day. In the biggest cities, a 7-11 was on every corner. In the smallest rural non-Westernized villiage in Taiwan, between the barber shop and the local tractor repair shop, you'd turn a corner and see the orange and green colors of a 7-11. I wonder why.

Countdown Crossing

Asia has superior crosswalk light technology. Every crosswalk light includes a countdown timer so that you know exactly how many seconds you have before the light changes color again. This lets you plan. For example, if you have 75 seconds before the light changes in your favor, maybe that's enough time to duck into the 7-11 to get yourself a bubble tea before crossing the street. Countdown crosswalks are slowly appearing in the States, too, but they're the standard in Taiwan.

Boating Boulevard

When crossing the street, you will notice there are a lot of little motorcylces among the cars in Taiwan, which seems a bit perilous until you realize that the cars are small, the roads are wide, and everybody drives a bit slower than in the States. Driving is sort of like boating, with lots of weaving and random U-turning. People on motorcycles like to wear their shirts and jackets backwards, with the buttons in the back, and lots of people wear surgical face masks.


Many things in Taiwan cities are labeled in both English and Chinese. Every time I saw this, I tried to imagine what suburban Philadelphia might look like if every department store, street sign, warning label, museum display, and product package had Chinese next to the English. The Asian edition of the Wall Street Journal was easy to obtain (it's in English, and a pleasure to read). Suddenly unilingual America strikes me as a very strange place.


The flavor of the multiculturalism in Asia is striking. Our hotel breakfasts offered a buffet smorgasborg of American bacon and eggs, European cheese and cereal, Japanese vegetables and fish, and Chinese rice soup and pickles.


On the other hand, Taiwan is remarkably uniracial. When we went to the dress store to buy a dress, there was only one size. Tailoring to fine-tune the size is enough in Taiwan, because everybody is the same race (Chinese), same height (short), and same weight (thin). Landing in America you are struck by how suddenly fat-and-thin and tall-and-short and multicolored everybody is. And while you're looking at everybody's body you notice how out-of-shape Americans are. There are very few fat Taiwanese. Taiwanese people are all the same shape.


Asian flight attendants are far more polite than American attendants. For example, American attendants run down the aisles forward safely and efficiently, and by the time you hear what they have to say and raise your hand, they can't see you any more. Or maybe they are working on union time and they pretend not to see you. But Asian flight attendants walk through aisles backwards, facing the passengers instead of watching where they are going, smiling and nodding as they hand out customs forms. This gives passengers time to raise their hand and call the attendant back.


Elevator doors in Taiwan close a lot faster than in the U.S. In the U.S., the common elevator exprience is an uncomfortable pause after everybody has boarded, after which the most type-A passenger clicks on the "door-close" button several times. In Taiwan, elevator doors do not wait for all the people. The Taiwanese elevator experience is typified by a hurried rush, with the last passenger's foot getting stuck in the door, and lots of banging and shoving and pressing on the "door-open" button at the last minute.

Reinforced Concrete Houses

There is only one style of residential building in Taiwan: the vertically-stacked flat-topped row house, built out of cubes of perfectly square reinforced concrete panels. Certainly in urban areas, row houses dominate just as in many American cities. And skyscraper apartment buildings resemble row houses stacked to the sky. But the striking thing is that in rural areas, row houses are also the only kinds of houses built. When a house sits in the middle of a big empty piece of farmland, it will be a three-story lonely row house, three little cubes stacked on top of each other, taking up as little space as it can. Each house is waiting to be crowded in by neighbors, even if there are no neighbors. Any low, flat gabled-roof building in Taiwan is not a house.

Polo Mania

When we arrived at the airport at Taipei, the first thing I noticed was a suitcase with a big brand name splashed on the strap: "MEGA POLO". Do you think that has anything to do with Ralph Lauren? It's like wearing a gold "Rolxe" Watch. But the Polo theme stuck with me in Taiwan. Everywhere I looked, people were wearing "Polo Girl," "King Polo," "Polo House," "Double Polo," "Marco Polo", "Polgren," "U.S. Polo Association," polo this, polo that, polo everything except Ralph. The preppy brand mania of the American 1980's landed in Taiwan and became a cancer, metastasizing and eating all other brands.

Swimming Caps

Traveling with kids isn't complete without a daily swim in the hotel pool. In our western-style Grand Hyatt (with many Americans), the pool had several lap swimmers and lots of kids splashing around in western bathing garb. But at our Taiwanese-chain Evergreen hotel (with few western guests), there were no lap swimmers: people lounged avoiding the deep end or holding the edge, and there were high-speed showerlike firehose jets that people used as back massagers. And every swimmer sealed their hair tightly underneath swimming caps. Us Americans were the only ones swimming around with loose, wet hair. I hope we weren't breaking some kind of unspoken hygenic rule.

Posted by David at July 11, 2006 07:36 PM

I found Korea to be disturbingly uniracial too. But they also had neato gadgety things that took another 3-5 years to make it to the states too. At the same time, San Francisco is fantastically multilingual, you just need to get out of the burbs more often and into town. The US has a lot of bilingual neighborhoods if you know where to go. In SF Chinatown, I often felt like I was back in Asia when I rode the bus through there.

Hey, thanks for the link. Technorati just noticed it. :-)

Posted by: mapgirl at July 13, 2006 06:17 AM

Welcome Back! It's fun to hear about your trip; I've never traveled (ahem, taken myself traveling)out of the US, so it is great to hear this kind of observational analysis. Blog on!

Posted by: Quadko at July 14, 2006 04:53 PM

Hi Dave!

I spend a few weeks in Taipei over the New Year visiting my new
family in-laws. I had been once before as a student -- both times were a
blast! I've noticed many of the things you did. Here are few others:

Swimming: guys must wear the speedo-style swim suits. When I first went to
the pool sans speedo, I was forced to "borrow" a suit from what I think was
the lost and found. *shudder*

Clothing: you can't find clothes that fit tall Americans. For a large
metropolitan city, Taipei just isn't as fashionable as some other cities I've
visited. Maybe I didn't visit the right parts of town.

Architecture: concrete everywhere. I had the pleasure of seeing a building
near my dorm be built using five or six stories of beautiful bamboo
scaffolding just to be replaced by a boring grey hulk when the scaffolding was

Glamor shots: My wife and I had to get some wedding photos taken when we were
there. They photoshop those pictures (with a pirated copy of Photoshop, of
course) until you look like your skin is smooth and your teeth are perfect.

Gadgets: I had the impression when I visited that electronics would be cheap
since it is the source where they're all built. Wrong! They are usually
about the same or slightly more expensive...

Food: Taiwan has some amazing restaurants. I'm glad I went with some people
who love food and know how to order a good meal. Taipei has some of the best
sushi I've ever had.


Posted by: kevin.krouse at July 19, 2006 07:48 PM

Haha, I just came back from Taiwan and everyone does seem to be the same size. My wife bought a whole ton of underwear there, but they were all one-size fits all. There is a lot of underwear in the garbage now...

Posted by: Jonathan at July 20, 2006 02:42 AM

On gadgets, it does seem that Taiwan is not such a gadgety country. I bought a Nintendo DS there, and although I was able to get colors (black, green) that aren't easy to get in the states, the prices were worse, and the software selection was thin.

I think the right place to go for gadgets is Tokyo.... Unfortunately Tokyo was only a brief layover for us on this trip.

Posted by: David at July 20, 2006 05:54 PM

i do quite agree with david the right place for gadgets IS Tokyo

Posted by: Anthony Tubbs at January 18, 2007 09:04 AM

i do agree with david, but i'm partcial to Japanese wine

Posted by: Anthony Tubbs at January 18, 2007 09:06 AM

I loved visiting Taipei and Taijun last November, as my first visit to Asia with my friend. I appreciated what you mention of the cups, I love them too.

Posted by: Jeff Mills at January 7, 2008 01:16 AM
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