It would not be hyperbole to say that we stayed in Taiwan mostly because of the flight patterns between Vietnam and Japan. Plus, we remembered that we had friends who had enjoyed a short layover in Taipei on the way to Australia. So, we shrugged and decided to make Taiwan our home for a month, without really knowing anything about the island.
The Taiwanese I met seemed to be aware of their relative obscurity in the minds of trip planners. A tour guide in her young twenties noted that most of the people who come to Taiwan just stop as a layover on the way to somewhere else. (Like our friends.) Our cooking instructor said that she periodically heard people confuse Taiwan and Thailand. (Very different, by the way.) And sometimes, when I described our our trip and said that we were staying in Taipei for a month, even locals would look confused and ask, “A whole month? Why Taiwan?”
Even though we knew very little about Taiwan initially, I quickly added Taipei to my list of favorite cities ever.* In many ways, it felt to me like an Asian Stockholm**: clean, safe***, great food, efficient public transportation, ample green space, and lots of men wearing baby carriers.
* Other favorite cities: Stockholm, Boston, Oakland, Delhi, Istanbul, and Lyon.
** Stockholm is currently the bar of perceived perfection by which we measure cities. We (heart) Stockholm.
*** Safe, aside from from the missiles pointed at it from mainland China. More about that later.
At the same time, there were also layers of the less-familiar-to-us, from temples beside grocery stores to night markets with stinky tofu and snake soup. (I tried the first but not the second.)
I loved the bustling night markets and how I’d see very spiffily dressed twenty-somethings out on the town, lining up for street food. While I’m sure that, as a brief observer, I miss many of the nuances of people and cultures, I’m going to risk over-summarizing: Taipei feels like a very developed, shiny city that is still strongly linked to its cultural roots. This combination made it simultaneously a very comfortable place for us to live and a fascinating place to explore.
There are random things that we never figured out. For example, what was sold in this shop across from our apartment and why were there almost always several dogs watching us from the doorway?
And there were other things, that as we learned about during our stay, we were frankly amazed that we hadn’t known about before visiting. Most notably, the current political status of Taiwan and its complex relationship with mainland China, who has 706 ballistic missiles pointing at the island in case Taiwan formally declares independence.
I started writing a much long post about the fascinating, complex recent history of Taiwan, but decided that I didn’t have the time or the energy for the labyrinth of fact-checking and citations. Sorry.
I will say that currently, it’s somewhat of a political stalemate, with most surveyed Taiwanese favoring “maintaining the status quo until a decision can be made sometime in the future.” (Though, when asked to chose outright between independence and reunification with mainland China, most choose independence.) The PRC, on the other hand, maintains that reunification is the only option.