Taiwan: China, But Not China

If you’ve lived in China, going to Taiwan is a like going to an alternate universe. China, but not China.

It’s a place that invites comparison and analogy, and I found myself struggling to get a grip on the enormous familiarity of the place while enumerating its many differences from the Mainland.

It’s like China but without all the people!

It’s like China but without all the authoritarianism!

It’s like China but everyone in Taiwan stands in line and says please and thank you!

It’s like China but with freedom of the press and tropical beaches and absurdly delicious Southeast Asian-influenced food!

And when I put it like that, it kind of sounds like China…but paradise.

There were plenty of things about Taiwan that flummoxed me – for example, the fact that I could speak to people, but had a really hard time reading anything at all. Taiwan uses traditional Chinese characters, whereas the Mainland uses a system of simplified Chinese characters; a brief example of how complicated this can be is the name of Taiwan itself. In simplified characters it looks like this: 台湾. In traditional characters, it’s this: 臺灣 – i.e. so complicated that you can’t even see all the individual strokes on your computer screen.

It seems to me that the difference between Mainland Mandarin and Taiwanese Mandarin is about as big as the difference between British and American English. As an American, you probably wouldn’t have too much trouble understanding British English – but that’s because you’re a native English speaker. (Unless a Brit told you to do something like “Kindly put your counterpane on the car bonnet,” in which case you’d probably be mystified.) As a non-native Mandarin speaker, I was often left wondering what on earth people were talking about when they told me I could ride my 机车 to the 捷運 (ride my motorcycle to the subway), because I would have said that I was going to ride my 电动车 to the 地铁.

I know this is all a little abstract if you don’t speak Chinese, so let me get right to the point: political realities aside, for those of you who are wondering if Taiwan feels like it’s a part of China when you visit – no. It does not. It feels like a different country.

*****

In the end, our trip to Taiwan was slightly star-crossed. First, we missed our flight, which caused much anxiety and laying out of additional dollar bills. After spending our first few days exploring Taipei, it began to bucket down rain the night before heading to Hualien.

By the time we hit Hualien, we were in the throes of Tropical Storm Nalgae, meaning that we could barely leave our hotel room for two full days. Then I woke up with the worst head cold I’ve had in years, complete with giant, swollen glands and a croaky voice that I was hoping sounded seductive but I’m pretty sure just sounded tubercular.

After the rain finally cleared we were able to see Taroko Gorge and Taiwan’s dazzling East Coast, and had a blissful couple days on Green Island – and then RP’s grandfather passed away. We ditched plans for visiting the city of Tainan and headed straight back to Taipei so that RP could get the next flight out to New York via Tokyo.

I figure that if I loved Taiwan, even considering all that went wrong, it must be a highly lovable place. My affection for the place, however, was tinged with the familiar feeling that there was some pretty serious misdirection going on when I was educated about “Chinese culture” as an undergrad in East Asian Studies.

I’ve written before about the importance that was given to Mainland China when I was an undergraduate – Taiwan was never spoken of except in little staged debates to test your vocabulary (“cross-strait relations”, “political autonomy”, “difference of opinion”…). When, as a first year student, I expressed interest in East Asian Studies, I was immediately counseled to go study in China – meaning Beijing. This was where “real China” was, I was told – the only China. But I’ve discovered that that is a little like a Chinese student wanting to study English in “the West” simply being told to go to America – as if there were no Canada, England, or Australia.

Having spent so much time studying Mandarin and being focused on the Mainland, going to Taiwan made me do a double take. Wait- I could have studied here instead? In this place where they speak and write a beautiful Mandarin? Where they have an entirely alternate history, dominant culture, religious practices, minority languages, and view of the world?

Why didn’t anyone tell me?!

Again, it’s not that the Mainland isn’t fascinating – it’s that there are other fascinating places to experience Chinese culture, and these places are usually ignored in institutional settings like universities. I have to admit that it’s a little late – or, better, just bad timing – for me to start over in my engagement with “Chinese culture”. You all know that I’m a little weary of the whole business. I’m hoping that, when I return to the States and take a bit of a break from all things Chinese, I’ll be ready to re-engage and that Taiwan (and diaspora Chinese cultures) will be a part of that process. Taiwan inspired me to reassess my education about China and my level of Mandarin ability (ugh), and in return I ought to give it some serious attention.

For now, here are the places we went on our little trip to an alternate universe:

As everyone does, we began with several days in Taipei.

Longshan Temple

Danshui Night Market. (Apologies to squid rights activitists; there has been lots of squid violence on this blog.)

Taipei 101, the 2nd tallest building in the world (Dubai is such a spoiler)

We then hopped on a train for the several hour ride to Hualien, generally viewed as a good base city for exploring the East Coast. When the tropical storm finally cleared, we managed to get out for a beautiful walk in classic RP fashion (RP walk = normal person walk duration [hours] x 4 + mud + bushwhacking).

Qixingtan

We finally decided to make a break for Taroko Gorge, our entire purpose for coming to Hualien. We rented a car in Hualien, drove to the parking lot of Taroko National Park, caught a public bus into the Gorge, and then walked the many kilometers back to the car. (Taroko National Park has a very good website here if you’re planning a trip.)

Even if you’ve just hiked Tiger Leaping Gorge, Taroko is totally worth it. Unfortunately, damage done by the storm meant that the normal crystal blue river flowing through the Gorge was mostly grey, and many of the small hiking trails were closed. It was glorious nonetheless.

After hiking out to the car, we drove down Taiwan’s East Coast Highway 11 as the sun set. We weren’t sure where we would be sleeping but, as if by magic, the world’s most perfect B&B appeared right on the coast. We were the only guests. We stepped out briefly for the freshest seafood dinner imaginable, being served up just down the road, and then sat on a deck overlooking the Philippine Sea, wondering how we might manage to convince the B&B owner to let us stay forever.

We awoke at 5:30am for the sunrise.

We ended our coastal drive at Taitung, where we returned the car and spent a night before getting on the ferry to Green Island, less than an hour’s ride away. (Note: Much is made of the fact that this is a very bumpy ride and people often get seasick. That’s all true, but if you just take a little sea sickness medicine in advance and have a few saltines, you’ll be totally fine. Seriously not worth paying double the price to take a puddle jumper flight…)

Green Island is a little gem off Taiwan’s southern east coast where you can snorkel, swim, and get yourself all wrinkly in the hot springs. Your motorcycling skills had better be up to snuff, since that’s how you get around the island. (I managed to motorcycle us all around and, unlike on Cat Bat in Vietnam, didn’t crash! Very pleased.)

Green Island is also a former penal colony for political prisoners during Taiwan’s martial law period; there is now a “Human Rights Memorial” to those prisoners. I was under the misapprehension that the island was only a former place of imprisonment, but in fact, you can walk right by the building that still incarcerates some of Taiwan’s (supposedly non-political) prisoners. Just in case you start to feel too good about your vacation.

Sleeping Beauty Rock

Human Rights Memorial

Perfect water for swimming

After finding out that we needed to get back to Taipei immediately, we took the ferry back to Taitung, took a train to Kaosiung, and managed to get the highspeed rail back to the capital. It’s amazing; you can get from Taiwan’s southern-most tip back to Taipei in just a few hours.

And the rest you know: after a couple days on my own in Taipei, I flew back to the Mainland for some solo adventuring.

More photos from our trip to Taiwan can be viewed here and here.