The Taiwan I Know -- By Pauline Wu

            To be perfectly honest, the first thing that comes to mind when I hear the word ¡§Taiwan¡¨ is ¡§food.¡¨  Even the shape of the island is food-related.  The fruit, the vegetables, the drinks, the noodles, the everything ¡V but as long as we're being honest here, I'll go ahead and confess that I don't like stinky tofu.  Put away that collective gasp and save it for when I say that I don't like Chinese parsley either, not even in oh-ah mee-swah. 

This past winter, I went on my third trip to Taiwan, at least in part motivated by the thought of authentic Taiwanese bubble tea.  Everyone drinks boba tea these days, but only Taiwan can claim the credit for this fad.  I am completely addicted to this drink.  It comes in several mouthwatering flavors like honeydew, passion fruit, taro, and more, but my favorite is still original.  I can¡¦t get enough of milk tea!  I love Taiwanese drinks: the teas, the juices, the soy milk!

There is food for sale everywhere you look.  Even in the dead of ¡§winter¡¨ (which in Taiwan is about 50 degrees Fahrenheit), there were ices for sale.  It's a miracle that Taiwanese people aren't obese, but I suppose it has to do with the way walking is the major form of transportation.  Eating out in Taiwan is always an adventure, because of the sheer variety of the food and because of the ever imminent prospect of food poisoning to non-locals.

            In Taiwanese, there is an expression, ¡§wu eh bo eh¡¨ that roughly translates to ¡§have it, don¡¦t have it, doesn¡¦t matter.¡¨  This expression may be applied to approximately 70% of Taiwanese goods for sale.  I swear the economy runs on little stuffed animals and affiliated merchandise.  I, for one, came home with suitcases full of 3-D pop up hello kitty dioramas, little marble pigs, jewelry, cell phone accessories, and more things you don't want to know about.  Kiosks line the streets, selling all kinds of things you could definitely live without but will not be able to part with once you've seen them. 

            The vendors will tell you all kinds of stories to get you to buy their wares, because they¡¦re competing with the other ten vendors sharing the next ten square feet

with them and pretty much selling the same items.  Taiwan is a dangerous place for people who are bad at saying no.  If you so much as slow your pace, the vendors are all but wrapping up whatever they thought you were looking at.  They will tell you that their hats would look great on you, their jewelry is brand new on the market (which market?  the blackmarket?), and any other stories they can think of before the cops come.

            Taiwanese markets are a microcosm of some small countries' entire economies.  I went to a market with my aunt, and we walked past shoes, blankets, watches, and clothing before we reached the produce section.  We passed a five year old girl standing behind a counter, selling bamboo shoots.  We browsed through fruit, all kinds of meat, vegetables, candy, seafood, and other food I couldn¡¦t identify.  My aunt bought a chicken, and the woman prepared it in front of us.  She took out its intestines, washed it, and the last step was to thoroughly beat the chicken with a mallet.  I was completely shocked, but apparently they do this to soften the chicken meat, who knew?

            Haggling is a huge part of being a Taiwanese consumer.  There is no set price for anything, only the lowest amount you can convince the vendor to sell for.  I know some people who love to play this game, but what, am I going to haggle with the obasang who I'm buying a hello kitty alarm clock from?  I think she probably needs the 50 NT more than I do.  And also, I'm terrible at haggling.  I think I may have actually brought the price up before. 

            Taiwan has a great nightlife.  You can't miss the nightmarkets!  What don't they sell?  Vendors are always in the streets during the day, but at night they are packed for blocks into pseudo shopping malls, selling everything you could possibly think of.  Every kind of Taiwanese delicacy, bootlegged CDs and DVDs, jewelry, cute stuff, etc. all the way to palm-sized puppies, kittens, gerbils, and any other animal you want to request.  Not that I endorse that. 

            Forget theme parks.  If you want to go for a thrill ride in Taiwan, flag down a taxi cab, but don't put on your seatbelt.  That's not cool.  For bonus points, talk to the cabbie in Taiwanese!  He won't lower your fare, but he'll probably tell you some good stories about Americans he's driven around. 

Taiwan is characterized by the pervasive presence of foreign products, pop culture, and general influence.  Most televisions in Taiwan receive many American broadcasts.  It's so hip to speak English, and just like people in America run around sporting Asian characters they can't read, Taiwanese people wear misspelled American words and quasi-brand name American clothing like ¡§Adidos¡¨ and ¡§DNKY.¡¨

            Traveling with the Tsunah Foundation on an eleven day tour around the island offered the opportunity to see many parts of Taiwan that I hadn't seen before.  The coast of I-Lan was breathtaking.  I was surprised to learn that Taiwan's aboriginal population faces a strikingly similar situation to that of American Indians, and I got to try on tandem clogs!  (Think bicycle for two, except wooden sandals for three.)  I think my favorite part of the trip may very well have been standing outside the Presidential Building, screaming like a teeny bopper over some of Taiwan's biggest stars on New Year's Eve.    

            The Taiwan I know is a place that reminds me of home, but at the same time isn't home.  Still, home wouldn't be the same without the Taiwanese food, the Taiwanese soap operas, the Taiwanese-speaking parents, and all the stuff that was made in Taiwan.  My home is in America, but Taiwan is an important part of my home.