Bryan (not) in Taipei: Borneo!

November 26, 2018

During an extended weekend in November, I had the chance to visit the island of Borneo. The island is shared by three countries – Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia – and is the third largest island in the world; I visited the Malaysian part in Sabah. This was easily one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been and it taught me a lot about this island’s unique history and fusion of peoples and cultures.

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Sabah City Mosque at dawn.

Though I traveled to the island during rainy season (which is not too different from Taipei’s), I lucked-out with the weather since it only rained the first day and second night I was there, giving me plenty of time to explore the city of Kota Kinabalu and the nearby islands, jungle, river, etc. As soon as I arrived, I realized how great a deal of multiculturalism was present, with a mix of Malay, Indian, Chinese, local indigenous, and other groups all present in the city and living together, eating together, and so on and so forth. I also saw the profound Muslim influence in Malaysia, with the Islamic Call to Prayer played publicly multiple times a day, wide array of halal food available in restaurants, and other cultural markers such as dress, though also saw many Catholic churches and other religious representation. Food was a brilliant mix of different cultures and local ingredients. The baozi 包子 I tried in a local Chinese restaurant easily rivaled and in my opinion surpassed those I’ve had in both Northern China and Taiwan.

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A local home located on a hillside in an indigenous village in the jungle, about a 90 minutes drive from Kota Kinabalu.

As a student of Linguistics, I was quite impressed by the level of multilingualism on the island. I was told that in Sabah alone there were 72 languages spoken (likely including dialects) and most people living there could speak at least 2-3 languages fluently. At Chinese restaurants and stores, I ordered in Mandarin and no one batted an eye. British historical influence was also quite present. Cars drove on the left side of the road and English was very widely spoken, even among the older generations. Beyond the city, I was also able to travel to the more remote countryside areas of Sabah and see local life and industry. Coffee and tea – two of my favorite things arguably – were both locally grown and quite good. I heard several different opinions on Malaysia’s place in the world and learned of the rivalry between East and West Malaysia.

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Whitewater rafting on the Kiulu River in Sabah.

Borneo seemed to offer it all in terms of things to do, with outdoor activities ranging from snorkeling in the crystal-clear oceans to rafting in the river to hiking in the vast swath of jungle landscape, though it still did not seem overrun by tourists (yet?) or otherwise inauthentic in any way. Malaysia itself is a relatively large country that varies so much from places like Kuala Lumpur to Penang, so any one thing shouldn’t be expected, but this trip offered me a much deeper insight into this cultural melting pot that admittedly I wasn’t fully expecting. In my case, leaving Taiwan helped me see it in a slightly different light upon returning, which is something everyone should keep in mind when studying abroad.

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Zipline from Gaya island to Sapi island, which is the longest island-to-island zipline in the world.

Bryan


Bryan in Taipei: Public Transportation and Daily Commute

November 8, 2018

Out of almost any city I’ve visited, Taipei has to have one of the best public transportation infrastructures in terms of both efficiency and convenience. While the roads can still get pretty jam-packed with traffic – especially with all of the motorbikes riding around – a significant amount of people in the city rely on public transportation. The city’s metro system, the MRT, is extremely clean and almost never late, running from around 6am to midnight everyday. The highest fare runs no more than $2USD, so it’s very affordable as well. There’s also the public buses, which are even cheaper and still very convenient. Like any city, rush hour means it can get very crowded, though this typically will only last several stops. It continues to amaze me that, even when it’s crowded, many Taiwanese people will leave the ‘priority seats’ open for the elderly, disabled, and pregnant passengers to sit. This is an attitude and level of respect that I’ve seen in several other respects here as well and one that is deeply linked to Confucian tradition. Much like the Japanese, queuing to the right side of the escalator and allowing people to pass on the left is also widely practiced here and lets you move at whatever pace you want. In fact, I’ve noticed that, even though Taipei is a relatively big city, people here are still fairly relaxed and not constantly rushing or jaywalking like in other cities.

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Taipei MRT on the Wenhua Brown Line

My commute to school each day is about 40 minutes depending on traffic. While this may sound like a lot, it is surprisingly pretty manageable given I only have class three days a week due to the 3 hour once-a-week class structure. I have several options for getting there, though I typically choose to ride the bus directly. This costs between $0.50-$1.00USD depending on which bus I take. With no transfers and some time to kill, I often use this time to listen to music, podcasts, or even do some reading, so it passes pretty quickly. I’ve found that the trade-off for living off-campus is living more directly in the city and engaging with the community in a wholly different way than by living in a school dorm. In this apartment, I have a Taiwanese flatmate with whom I practice my Chinese (in fact, he speaks English well but will only answer in Chinese), a friend from Richmond also on semester exchange, and one other roommate from Europe. Our apartment is located conveniently next to a metro stop, so I can reach anywhere in the city in about an hour at most. This has meant exploring the city has been a lot more accessible on weekends, on top of discovering new restaurants, parks, and other places.

Though it certainly wasn’t easy starting off, living like this in Taipei has given me more autonomy and independence than I’ve ever had and has helped me decide what I like most and least about living in a city, my living and spending habits, and other useful information that will teach me a lot after I graduate, too. I’m fortunate enough to have had other experiences abroad where I got to live in both a student apartment and with a host family, so I would say each has its own perks and each gave me different perspectives and insights. I’d encourage anyone studying or traveling abroad for extended periods to look into finding ways to engage with the culture and the community that are somewhat more unorthodox, like taking language/calligraphy/cooking classes and/or finding locals to help you get out of your comfort zone. I think what I’ve realized most of all is any experience like this is completely what you make of it, which is both a heavy responsibility and a fantastic opportunity.

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People ride mopeds/motorbikes like this all over the city. To make it safer for everyone, there are special rules for these riders to follow, but they’ll still often go beside buses and cars trying to pass!

Bryan


Bryan in Taipei: Expat Community & Elections

November 5, 2018

Dog and Flag

One thing that has surprised me during my time here is the representation of different countries from the expat community. In terms of students at my university, the vast majority of exchange students are from European countries, with the occasional American or Canadian as well. This helps create a different kind of abroad experience where I’m not just surrounded by other Americans, but get a whole range of different perspectives instead. Outside of school, most of the Americans I have met are English teachers and businessmen. The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) – the diplomatic and cultural exchange body of the US in Taiwan – hosted a ‘Town Hall’ event for American citizens staying here, which allowed me to hear from many different kinds of Americans living all over Taiwan. It struck me as quite strange at the time that this was the first time in several months where everyone in the room was American. Even during my other times abroad in the mainland or otherwise, I was always surrounded by a group of Americans from the program or group, so living without that has been eye-opening and has probably given me a more enriching experience overall as well.

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Town Hall hosted by AIT for US citizens at an American school in Taipei

Everyone attending this town hall was also reminded to make sure to vote in the November midterm elections. Though my requested absentee ballot never came by mail, I was able to get a Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot from the town hall to mail in and ensure I can still vote in my state. It’s also election season in Taipei, so there are ads and political rallies all over town. The mayor of the city, Ko Wen-je, has recently received a lot of Western press coverage from his music video with a popular Taiwanese rapper (look it up, it’s actually pretty catchy). It’s really interesting seeing how elections pan out somewhere other than your own community/country and seeing people’s passion. This city continues to surprise me with how modern and livable it is – American cities could even learn a thing or two from it.

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Local political rally in front of Taipei City Hall


Bryan in Taipei: Monkeys and Mazu

October 22, 2018

The title of this post should actually be ‘Bryan in Tainan’ since that’s the trip that inspired me to write this. Tainan is a city in southern Taiwan (the “南” (nán) in its Chinese name, “台南” (táinán), means south) known for its history and culture from the Qing Dynasty. I also visited its southern neighbor, Kaosiung (高雄), on the recommendation of a mountain there with scores of wild monkeys. Needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed.

Monkey Road

About a dozen monkeys along the road up the mountain in Kaohsiung

When I arrived at the hostel, the owner couldn’t understand why so many foreigners were obsessed with seeing monkeys. Whereas she saw them as annoying and bothersome animals, most of the tourists who visited this mountain from other countries were incredibly excited to see monkeys in the wild for the first time. Signs were up all over the hiking trails warning hikers not to provoke the monkeys or eat in front of them. Apparently these monkeys have grown accustomed to the presence of people walking by and to an extent feeding them as well, so they were much less apprehensive than I would have expected. I even saw a few walk straight in front of hikers and hang out beside two elderly people drinking tea.

Hand Puppet Performance

Hand-puppet street performance by local students in front of the templeEnter a caption

In Tainan, I also saw someone dressed in a monkey costume in front of a temple doing some sort of performance. If I had to guess, this would have been inspired by the Monkey King from the famous classical Chinese novel, Journey to the West. It was just one of many of the street performances I saw – all accompanied by food stands, of course. I even ran into a hand puppet performance in front of a tiny temple in a not very busy side street. Although it was difficult to follow, I ended up watching almost the whole performance with only one other person in the crowd who likely worked at the temple. She was happy to see me interested and to explain the basic/dumbed-down version of the plot to me in Chinese as well.

Fort Zeelandia

The Dutch Fort Zeelandia in Tainan

Nearby, I also ran into a fortress built by the Dutch in the early 17th century called Fort Zeelandia (or 安平古堡 in Chinese, meaning Anping District Ancient Fort). This was another vestige of foreign influence/colonialism in Taiwan that now still stands as remembrance. Taiwan and its relatively young few hundred years of history have seen a striking number of foreign countries or empires’ presence and influence, which is interesting to see throughout the island. Tainan is the historic capital city under the Qing Dynasty, so these roots stretch even farther back than Taipei, which was more bolstered and developed under the Japanese colonial period than the Qing Dynasty.

Statue of Mazu

Mazu (sometimes spelled Matzu) is the Chinese goddess of nautical navigation pictured in the statue above. You’ll find statues and shrines to her throughout port cities throughout this region and Southern China. There are lots of legends about her and how she became elevated to the status of goddess, but the basic idea is that she helps guide sailors back home safely. In an area prone to typhoons, this was important before modern sailing technology. I’m not certain why there were so many children playing and blowing bubbles that night I visited, but with the sunset it was an incredible sight altogether. I was taken aback visiting the south by how friendly and laid back people there were. I had a problem returning the city bike to the station and asked someone also renting a bike if they could help, and they proceeded to spend upwards of twenty minutes of their time helping me. Another person I met at a food stand was surprised I could read some of the Chinese characters (traditional here is much harder) and told me that if I could read the street signs I ought to go to this restaurant that the locals love instead of the touristy place I was headed towards. It was fascinating how different it felt being in a place only two hours away from Taipei by high speed rail and I am tempted to go back before I leave.

Bryan


Bryan in Taipei: 7/11 and an Unexpected Culture Shock

October 18, 2018

 

Crowded 7-Eleven

A really crowded 7-Eleven store during a music festival in Taipei last week

Though it might seem unorthodox, I wanted to dedicate this entire post to 7-Eleven because of how iconic and different it is in Taiwan compared with the chains in the United States. Because of localization, it actually makes for a pretty decent case study into the habits, tastes, and needs of Taiwanese consumers versus American ones. For starters, 7-Elevens are simply everywhere in Taipei and are seldom if ever attached to gas stations. In many areas, you can look down one major street and see multiple of this chain, then turn down another street and see even more. Its major competitor here is FamilyMart, with some Hi-Life stores sprinkled in as well.

Many Taiwanese describe the island as “方便” (convenient), and 7-Eleven certainly contributes to this sense of convenience. In 7-Elevens, you can: refill your bus/metro card, buy train tickets, print passport photos, microwave frozen or refrigerated food, send packages, and pay bills/tickets, just to name a few. Like much of Taiwan, the Japanese influence is evident, this time in the food: items like bento-boxes, instant noodles, and sushi rolls are widely available and quite popular with locals. It’s also worth mentioning that items like the Slurpee are not found here, which is surprising given their popularity in the US but unsurprising given how different the stores in Taiwan and the US are.

7-Eleven X-Store

7-Eleven X-Store in Taipei

One store I ran into here in Taipei (funnily enough, right next to another 7-Eleven) was a concept store called “7-Eleven X.” This futuristic store without cashiers had a larger availability of specialty items (e.g. a cold brew coffee machine and imported chocolate) that could all be purchased using a certain type of card. It was very cool to see how 7-Eleven is innovating here and using its established preeminence to try new ideas and see how they work on the local Taiwanese consumers. Other people seemed as excited and curious about the store as I did, and it was nice to get the opportunity to go inside and check it out. Overall, Taiwan’s 7-Elevens are more similar to and have more influence from those in Japan than those found throughout the US, which was something I wasn’t expecting to learn studying abroad here.


Bryan in Taipei: Exploring Local History

October 5, 2018
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Flags of Spain, the Netherlands, Qing dynasty, Koxinga , U.K., Japan, Australia, U.S., and Taiwan flying at Fort San Domingo.

One of the most exciting parts of living in Taiwan so far has been discovering the many legacies and influences on the island’s rich culture. One of the courses I am taking while here focuses on this history from the arrival of the aboriginal tribes to present. This includes the arrival of the Dutch, the Qing dynasty, the Japanese occupation, and several different phases of history. I decided to go to 淡水 (Danshui, or Tamsui in the Wade-Giles romanticization), which lies just north of Taipei, to check out Fort San Domingo and the British Consulate to see one of the island’s first Western consulates, as well as some traditional Japanese architecture. Though I had the chance to visit the world-famous National Palace Museum, its contents are vast to say the least (it would take 15 years to see all of the items cycled through exhibitions) and pertain more to the history of the mainland than local history.

British Consulate

British consulate in Danshui featuring colonial architecture.

The photo above is the British consulate, which remained in operation for several hundred years. It sits among the top of the hill and neighbors the old Spanish (and later Dutch) Fort San Domingo. It was largely responsible for housing the British consul, who could assist British merchants during trade or British citizens during other matters, and remained in operation until 1972.

Japanese Residence

Residence of Tade Eikichi in Danshui. I had to take off my shoes before I could enter!

Another interesting site in Danshui is the former residence of Tade Eikichi, the township head of Danshui during Japanese rule. The Japanese occupied Taiwan for half a century and their influence is still felt in local cuisine, architecture, and several other customs. The house above is built completely resembling a traditional Japanese home, complete with a porch and a garden as well. This home faces the Guayin Mountain and Danshui River, which still serves as a source of inspiration for local artists to this day.

Guayin Mountain

View of the Guayin Mountain and Danshui River from Tade Eikichi’s residence.

While this post only scratches the surface of this topic, Danshui offers an interesting case-study on how this island came to become an amalgamation of several different cultures and create a unique one in its own right.

Until next time,

Bryan

 


Bryan in Taipei: Orientation and First Week of Classes

September 24, 2018

Orientation

After what seemed like ages, my semester finally kicked off with an orientation for international and semester-exchange students! I got to have a look around the campus and learn about the exchange program and all the student clubs at my school. From the “Traditional Chinese Medicine” club to the “Aboriginal Service Society,” there are a lot of ways for students to get involved on campus and many clubs quite unique to Taiwan. The other international students I have met here have been very open-minded and friendly, with the vast majority coming from European countries. It does feel strange to be the only American sometimes, but it also adds another layer of authenticity to this whole experience – that is, really getting out there and stepping out of my comfort zone from back in the U.S.

Campus

In many ways, I felt like a Freshman again when it was time for the first week of classes to begin. I couldn’t help but use my map to find the correct classroom, but on the bright side I got to practice my Chinese with students and staff when I needed to ask for help! The campus is not too large, but rather elongated, so there is a bus that regularly takes students around campus. There are a whole range of different restaurants nearby that offer lots of good and cheap food, from traditional Taiwanese to Japanese to Malaysian. I must admit it is quite interesting attending a school that is somewhat enmeshed in the city, since even schools like Peking University in Beijing have defined campus boundaries and four “gates” that serve as official entrances. One of my classes is on the 12th floor and offers great views of Taipei 101 and the surrounding mountainous region.

Street_Food

I decided to take classes here related to Taiwan that I wouldn’t be able to take back at Richmond. On top of the obvious Chinese language course, I am also taking a course on Taiwanese History, one on the Historiography of Buddhist Nuns, and an Introduction to Ethnolinguistics course. Classes here are offered in a 3 hour lecture style once a week, which is definitely new for me and will require a little adjustment. One class might even be extended to 4 hours a week to accommodate early-leave! Overall I’m excited to see how these classes turn out and what I can learn about Taiwan.

Sunset_Metro

Bryan


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