An Accidental Side Trip to Taiwan

Funny story: I accidentally put myself on a trip to Taiwan over Christmas. It wasn’t exactly anything I expected to do, and it sure wasn’t cheap, but I’ll be darned if it wasn’t one of the most memorable experiences I had here during my study abroad.

Here’s how it happened: students at Ritsumeikan University as part of the program I’m in (the Study in Kyoto Program or SKP) have to pick their classes in a very short time period with minimal guidance after they’ve already arrived. It’s not exactly optimal; however, since I was part of the Japanese language program, I had already been signed up for those classes before I arrived. However, I had the notion that “Intensive Japanese” wouldn’t be enough for me to stay busy- about which I was very wrong- and was told about a “fun” category of classes where you get to study alongside Japanese students.

Now, admittedly, I also signed up for it based on when it was scheduled because I’m the type who HATES late-afternoon or night classes. It had a basic description: “Projects with Asian Students” which was sufficiently generic that I had no idea what it was about, but since it was during a good time for me I signed up. Turns out it involved a mandatory trip to Taiwan to give a presentation in front of educators and students from various Asian countries at a conference for Asian exchange students.

Of course, I’m not Asian. It was weird, especially since the whole point of the conference is building English fluency amongst non-native speakers. But since I literally couldn’t drop the class because of school rules and I figured that it might be fun, I stuck with it…and I can’t tell you enough how worthwhile it truly was. It was probably a top-three moment of my entire study abroad. (Of course, I also had to spend almost two days teaching Japanese and Taiwanese students how to present in English, but that was worthwhile too.)

Group picture at the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas in Kaohsiung, TW. (Guess which one I am.)

I ended up spending most of my time in Kaohsiung, the 2nd largest city in Taiwan, located on the southern end of the island. It’s an interesting place; sure, there isn’t as much to do or see as Taipei since the city is primarily a trade center, but there’s still quite a bit to offer since you can tell they’ve worked to add a lot to the city lately. There’s a district down by the water that seems like they’re trying to cater to a younger and hipper crowd- parks, outdoor art markets, trendy eateries, and art exhibits. There was a ton of awesome things to look at, along with some neat temples just outside the immediate waterfront area (which I advise you to visit at night because they’re even more awesome lit up, and too touristy during the day).

The Rueifong Night Market, Kaohsiung, TW. Trust me, this picture can’t do the crowd justice. It was nuts.

The food is ridiculous and worth a trip to Taiwan simply by itself. One of the main things I was searching for when I visited Taiwan was a hujiaobing or “pepper bun”. It’s a kind of bun with a dense biscuit-like bread and minced pork filling that is cooked in a kiln. I had heard about it from a Japanese food show and was lucky enough to find one at the Kaohsiung Night Market. I had impossibly high expectations for it since I’d heard so many great things, but dang…it totally exceeded them. The filling is very juicy because the bun is so dense that it holds in all the moisture during cooking. It’s got a bit of zing and is well-spiced, but not burn-your-mouth spicy at all. It’s meaty, juicy, and absolutely ridiculous. It’s the best thing I’ve eaten since I left America, including everything I’ve eaten in Japan.

Yeah, you can literally see the juices pooling in the black pepper bun there. It’s that good.

Of everything else I ate and drank, the two other standouts I need to mention are xiaolongbao (a type of mind-blowingly tasty small dumpling with broth inside) and boba (tapioca tea/bubble tea). All three of those things are quintessential Taiwanese food and totally worth taking a trip out of your way to get. Of course, if you can stand the crazy crowds and absolutely bonkers atmosphere, you can get these and so many other tasty things at one of the night markets. (Well, maybe not the xiaolongbao because of how long they take to steam. Go to a proper dumpling place for that.)They’re absolutely crazy, but I’ll be darned if they weren’t also awesome fun. Food’s also cheaper in Taiwan than in America or even Japan, so that’s an added bonus.

It was also an interesting change of pace talking with Taiwanese people compared to Japanese. I’ve found that Japanese people tend to be more polite though not very approachable, while Taiwanese people are warmer and approachable yet ruder. Multiple Taiwanese came up to me to strike up conversations, and even more had a tendency to stare at me (though admittedly I’m a rather unique sight, given my 6’8” height and bushy beard). However, I would be hard-pressed to say that I ever felt unwelcome.

Now, about those problems I mentioned to which you definitely need to pay attention: first, you’re going to be short on two very important things. Internet is one: Taiwan may have public internet in many places, but you need to go through a ton of steps to get it and it’s both rare as well as unreliable. Additionally- and even worse- toilet paper is a scarcity here. Hardly any of the public restrooms in Taiwan do, and the host university didn’t provide it either. You HAVE TO buy it yourself and bring it around with you in your purse/bag. It will save your life.

Next, Taiwan has horrid air and water pollution- partially because of the country’s industrial nature and partially because it’s across the Strait from China. I ended up having a hard time breathing at one point. Plan accordingly: you may not want to drink the tap water, and if you are open to it wearing a mask in public is 100% socially acceptable as well as a way to ensure good health (it helps prevent you from getting sick as well as protecting you from some of the pollution). Lots of Taiwanese- as well as Japanese, Chinese and Korean people- wear masks out every day whether they’re going somewhere for work or leisure if they’re concerned for health.

Lastly, the language barrier is awfully large here. I will concede that there are more frequent and more proficient English speakers here than in Japan, but that’s not saying much if you’ve ever been outside the super-touristy areas in Japan. There are even fewer signs in English here and it’s very hard to find your way around if you’re not careful. Google Maps led me and my group astray several times- a rarity in Japan or America- due to it not knowing when the busses were scheduled or where they go. Additionally, public transit outside of the train systems are very unintuitive to ride. You essentially either need someone in your travel group to be proficient at Chinese or have a Taiwanese guide to help you go around if you want to enjoy yourself the most. At the very least, if you can’t do at least “guidebook” Chinese, you’re going to have a bad time. Also, keep in mind that Taiwan uses Chinese traditional characters that look so different from the simplified ones used in Japan and mainland China that I was hard pressed to understand anything at all, despite studying Chinese for two and a half years as well as learning Japanese intensively for six months.

Anyway, it was generally a good time and I enjoyed myself. Getting sick on the way back destroyed my fun New Year’s plans, but I still have some time to do some sightseeing. It’s hard to believe that my time is almost up here overseas. It’s been a long journey, but I still have tons to share. Stay posted. 🙂

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