Taiwan refers to itself as “The Undiscovered Gem of Asia”, an astute self-appraisal given it seemed like no one I knew had heard of Taiwan before I moved there. “When are you leaving for Thailand?” I was asked repeatedly. If I’m completely honest, my own knowledge of Taiwan wasn’t exactly extensive and how I ended up there was down to chance more than anything else.
I was in my last year of college and like most final year students I was clueless about what I wanted to do once I left. All I knew is that I wanted to go as far away as possible and experience something unlike anything I had known before.
Asia had become a fashionable place to visit and, with a culture and history so different from our own, I knew it would be the place to satisfy my craving to experience something completely different.
Around the same time one of my college lecturers announced in passing that the Taiwanese government was offering Chinese language scholarships. Despite not speaking a word of Chinese nor knowing much about Taiwan, I sent in an application without giving it much thought. Eight months later I found myself on an aircraft headed for Taipei.
My overwhelming first impression when I arrived in Taiwan was just how warm everyone was. If I spent more than a minute looking at my Google maps, someone would offer directions. If I was struggling with multiple bags at once, a stranger would rush to help me carry them. Arriving in a country where I knew no one and couldn’t speak the language, the kindness I received from strangers softened the landing blow.
While my status as a “Westerner” may have had some bearing on my interactions, to reduce the benevolent treatment I received to my skin colour would be simplistic and unfair. The thoughtfulness and consideration I experienced was characteristic of the Taiwanese in all aspects of society. Crime was virtually non-existent, I always felt completely safe and the support given to the elderly would put Ireland to shame.
The cultural gulf between Taiwan and Ireland may be significant, but the parallels that can be drawn between the two countries are uncanny. Both nations are small islands, adjacent to the country that dominated them for years and in whose shadow they resided.
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Like Irish, Taiwanese tribal languages are dying out having been almost wiped out by the official language: Mandarin Chinese. Perhaps it is the consequence of living in the shadow of an “empire” for so long, but both the Taiwanese and Irish share a sense of humility, an unassuming nature which paves the way for our having a reputation for being some of the most welcoming people in the world.
Although lreland is almost 2.5 times bigger than Taiwan, the Asian island has an impressive population of 23.5 million people. Taipei alone has more than seven million people.
The sprawling metropolis became my home for seven months. Crowds and queuing soon became a part of daily life and skyscrapers were my playground. Despite the hustle and bustle, everything ran in a timely and orderly manner. People would spontaneously queue in a straight line and crowds felt comfortable rather than overwhelming.
When I became jaded by steel and concrete I could escape to one of the many hiking trails on the edge of Taipei, accessible within 40 minutes by public transport. Being an island, Taiwan has many beach towns as well as numerous national parks and countryside locations with stunning scenery. Although I am a city mouse at heart, periodically I crave the serenity of nature and Taipei provides the perfect hybrid between the two.
Known as one of the four Asian tigers, Taiwan is one of the most prosperous nations in Asia and spotting a Ferrari was a regular occurrence. For the first time in my life I became aware of how much money I didn’t have. Witnessing people’s frivolous spending habits was like going back in time to our own Celtic tiger era. Much like in Ireland, this new influx of money has meant younger generations are growing up in a country almost unrecognisable to their grandparents.
As Taipei is a capital city, I didn’t experience the drastic culture shock I had anticipated, and learning the Taiwanese way of life was more a gradual process than an immediate blow. Still, I’ll never forget the night when I first arrived and discovered that most Taiwanese flats don’t have a kitchen, street food being the most economical choice.
Image and status are a cornerstone of Taiwan’s society and in turn the Taiwanese are extremely conscious of how they present themselves publicly. Outfits are chosen carefully and with impeccable taste and the perception of affluence is just as vital as sporting the latest trend.
The glaring disparity of wealth between the classes was an unsettling part of Taiwanese life, and one I never quite got used to. Depending on how much money you had, it would be like living in two different worlds.
Despite the city’s tendency to lean towards ostentation, food and public transport are inexpensive so it is possible to enjoy yourself with a minimal amount of money.
Getting by on a student income yet accustomed to the exorbitant prices in Ireland, I was able to flitter between both worlds and find a balance to suit my budget. Sometimes I would find myself in a decadent rooftop bar, sipping on a drink that cost five times what I had paid for my dinner that night.
I went to Taiwan not knowing what to expect and when my seven months were up I packed my bag with great reluctance. My lifestyle there was easy and exciting, and I could enjoy myself without constantly having to ask myself, “Can I really afford this?”
With delicious food, a rich culture and some of the most beautiful landscapes in Asia, Taiwan offers so much more besides efficiency and affordability. It is no wonder it is known among expats as the best-kept secret in Asia.