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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Copyright 2006 © David Bau. All Rights Reserved.|