#AskAnAussie – Interview on Life in Taiwan

Coming up to a year of my Taiwanderful life, I sat down with Rose Vassel from the Australian Office in Taipei as part of their #AskAnAussie series to showcase experiences in Taiwan through my eyes.

Looking back on the interview, I wished I expanded a little further on my answers. Since the post, I’ve had a couple of  readers quiz me on a few points I didn’t get to cover. As a token of my appreciation to you who have been following my story, here is #AskQ in finer detail.

Why Did You Decide on Taiwan?

This question comes up more frequently than any other. Especially amongst locals. They all seem surprised that their little home is that enticing for someone to pack up and leave ‘The Lucky Country’ to this almost unheard-of island (well at least amongst some Australians. You’ll be surprised how many times people have confused it for Thailand).

It’s probably exactly this that enticed me in the first place. Yes, I came here primarily to study Chinese. But as I have mentioned here, even before moving here for the longterm, I’ve already had my heart set on Taiwan. I like that there’s still much of it to be explored. That it requires me to do some digging to find its gems. It’s not completely isolated from the rest of the world…but it definitely has plenty of room for someone like myself to discover my own adventure and experiences without having to look into a travel guide.

The secondary reason to choosing Taiwan to learn Chinese is because it still uses the Traditional characters which is becoming rare. Being overshadowed by the more commonly known Simplified Chinese adopted by mainland China and therefore better marketed to the rest of the world, means that the style here calls to my appreciation for the less-commonplace. Why I care for the extra few strokes in a character may seem arbitrary, but what I find is that with understanding how they are formed allows me to better understand the Chinese culture.

And if you don’t know already, Chinese culture is better depicted here in Taiwan rather than China itself. So for someone who wants to be thrown into the cultural deep end, Taiwan was the natural answer.

Do You Plan to Stay Here for Long?

A resounding, emphatic Yes.

I remember clearly the first day I arrived at Taoyuan airport. Alone but not lonely as my eyes drink in the surroundings I would be calling home. From that first rush of being in a new place and doing new things, the excitement I felt that I could reinvent my future into anything I wanted it to be, to finding my place in Taiwan six months in and feeling as though I already truly belong, the question now really is, what is it about this place that keeps me here?

It’s because these feelings have not faded in the slightest over the course of my time here. In fact, everyday I grow more and more enchanted by this place. The further I seek, the more I feel there is much to explore.

Taiwan is an eclectic and diverse island that allows me to mix and match my interests and more. Apart from its ever-changing landscape, its warm-hearted locals, and the array of food (some squirm-worthy yet unexpectedly delectable), it is the energy and vibe I get from this city that makes me want to stay. Afterall Taiwan isn’t crowned World Design Capital 2016 and viewed as a growing incubator of cluster and startups for nothing.

I am energetic and pro-active here. I constantly push myself to do new things – some things I didn’t dare to when I was in Australia. Like hitch-hiking. Scouring through abandoned buildings. Riding a scooter through Taipei’s peak hour traffic (and with drivers who don’t check their blind spot. Some day I will tell you how I was side-swiped by that taxi driver).

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Heading to work Taiwan-style.

These are just some of my little adventures that I have safely tucked in my memories forever. What I’ve learnt and what it has inspired me to do is stemmed from being in this place.

And if you’ve found that happy place, why would you leave it?

Seriously, No Challenges You’ve Met Along the Way?

As mentioned in the interview, sure there are some cultural differences I’ve been met with, but considering it’s all part of learning and gaining a better understanding of Taiwan and its people, I really don’t see it as a big challenge. Because I came here to have my mind opened and there’s nothing quite like a disagreement of perspectives to make me realise that goal faster and better. For the most part, the actual difference doesn’t bother me in the slightest…it is how people approach sorting out these issues that can be extremely frustrating. Like peoples’ views on public displays of affection and romantic gestures, for example (sounds familiar? check out the post here). But I almost think it’s necessary to have a disgruntled cultural experience to really understand your new friends at a deeper level. I seriously can’t imagine what my Taiwan life would be without these little disagreements to spur me forward. And I think that’s what the expat life is all about. Encountering differences, problem solving and onward adventures.

What Do You Miss and Don’t Miss About Australia?

I miss my family of course. Beaches within 10 minutes drive and hot balmy nights of an Australian summer. Oh…and a decent salad.

What I don’t miss is how comfortable it was in Australia. I had a great job, a decent wage and plenty of people who supported me. I was checking all the boxes in terms of what would give me security. But being comfortable makes me uncomfortable. I was restless and needed to do something drastic. Learning a new language amongst learning a new culture, heck, learning a new life, was the driving force that I yearned for. Despite being more settled here, I am still motivated by change. And it comes from my aspirations for a career I actually enjoy, and a lifestyle that involves discovery.

Eventually I will head back home, I know. But I’m definitely not ready to leave Taiwan just yet.

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All Photos Courtesy of Guang-Hui Chuan

So all in all this is a real insight into my life here in Taiwan. I hope you enjoyed this because I’m really laying it all out here which is quite unconventional of my blogging style. Thanks again to my readers, I hope to inspire you to experience living in Taiwan for yourself if you haven’t already. For fellow expats, I would love to hear of your own…what is your story?

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New Year Traditions in Old Taipei

I’m sitting in the still of the night of Lunar New Year’s eve, feeling mildly astonished with today’s sudden quietness compared to the recent experience of jostling through one of Taipei’s busiest streets during the Lunar New Year festivities. If you are a visitor to Taipei during around February, without a doubt you would have heard to hit up Dihua Street in Dadaocheng (迪化街,大稻埕) for its hustle and bustle as locals prepare for the new year.  The usual quiet and calm of old Dadaocheng will abruptly change, becoming loud and spritely of people eager to prepare for Taiwan’s most important celebration. I was one with the throng of people yesterday, sampling all sorts of delicacies that would only be be found this time of the year.

Dadaocheng is one of Taipei’s oldest districts. A wander through the area will give you a rough idea that this is the place for tea, Chinese medicine and old architecture. It became a popular base for foreign exports in tea and textiles after Taiwan opened its doors to Western trade following the Second Opium War (1856-1860). Dadaocheng quickly grew as one of Taiwan’s largest cities at the time, attracting locals from all over Taiwan and foreign merchants alike. Soon after the Japanese built the railway system, connecting major commercial ports such as Tamsui and Keelung to Taipei however, Dadaocheng’s importance declined and major companies left the city for greener pastures.

An example of the unique buildings of Dihua Street. Tall and narrow, this is typical of Ming-style houses. However the obvious influence of Western-style adornment shows just how rich and diverse Dadaocheng was in its hay day.

These days, Dadaocheng is a popular destination for visitors wanting a glimpse of Taipei’s glory days. A stroll down Dihua Street will leave most architecture geeks giddy. From Fujian and Japanese Colonial style buildings, to those of the European Baroque and Classical periods, these nostalgic facades are enough to impress even the most architecturally unphased. Thanks to heavy restoration, many buildings have been salvaged and repurposed for creative spaces. ArtYard1 for example was once an age-old Chinese pharmacy that was left abandoned after a fire. The building is now an interesting boutique and coffee shop, selling ceramics, textiles and vintage books.

This eclectic mix of old and new, of puppet museumsart galleries, Chinese apothecaries, tea houses and temples, breathes new life into what was once a forgotten reminder of Taiwan’s past, making Dadaocheng worthy of your time for some urban exploring.

Yesterday however, the nostalgic imagery gave way to roadside stalls and makeshift tents housing vendors hoping to bring in the new year with even more wealth. Meanwhile locals look to get their hands on the necessities for the eve’s dinner and what would follow it, a whole week or more of continual eating, drinking and merriment. Just like what Christmas is to Western societies, celebrating Lunar New Year is heavily dependent on gathering with family and friends and feasting appropriately. By which that means, eating plenty and eating frequently. The cultural belief that by bringing in the new year with such abundance allows for the rest of the year to be just as lavish and bountiful is further incentive to bust out that wallet, forget about budgeting (don’t be stingy at new years or for the rest of your days in the year you’ll be scrimping), and buy whatever it is that will complete the dinner table and adequately serve your guests.

So it is no surprise that locals flock to Dadaocheng in the week leading to Lunar New Year. The area became a huge purveyor of not only traditional food and snacks, but also decorations. Hand-painted calligraphy is particularly welcomed here as it is tradition to grace doors and gates with well wishes written on bright red paper to bless all those who pass through them.

Though the market heavily stress old Chinese tradition, people from all walks of life were seen jostling about. Whether elderly or young, the local or the foreigner, everyone wanted to take part in this atmospheric scene that only takes place once a year. As I waddled along with the crowds with my friends, sampling everything we could get our hands on, I took in the sights and smells of not only delicious food, such as what probably is the most delicious roasted pork knuckle and hock ham I’ve had to date, but also the unique odours of strange-looking roots and herbs, which come from the Chinese apothecaries that line the streets.

I am not one that is too fond of crowds, but I felt every bit revitalised experiencing Taipei’s greatest Lunar New Years market. Taipei falling into a sudden sleepy slumber while shops close and families retreat back to their homes on the eve of the new year made it especially reassuring that I didn’t miss some of the excitement. Having our own traditions when it comes to celebrating Lunar New Year in my family, it was rather comforting to come across some imagery that I hold close to heart despite not being with them.

The sporatic sounds of firecrackers and fireworks are now being heard around the neighbourhood, marking that the Year of the Monkey is finally here.

And with that I wish you all a very happy year ahead! May luck, good health and prosperity follow you wherever you  go!

新年快樂, 萬事如意!!!

Late Night Discoveries at a Local Market

I was already out gallivanting around Shida with a friend for a late-night snack before yesterday’s earthquake struck. We ended up discovering some amazing local imagery as we watched vendors get ready for the market day ahead. Lunar New Year festivities is around the corner and no doubt the haze of over-indulging on epicurean delights will bring plenty of cooks vying for fresh ingredients.

Large vats of broth were simmering in makeshift portable kitchens; plump, whole chickens hung precariously on thin steel hooks, and even freshly cut pigs’ heads lay on the sterile tables. But what caught our utmost attention was the large bamboo steamers billowing with fresh shao mai. Tempted by the sights and smells, we couldn’t help but be their first customers of the day.

Quiet and dark, the market at 3 in the morning was a stark contrast to what it would later become. Being the only visitors there, we quietly strolled the alleys, talking to the local butchers as we went, and admiring the way they skillfully strip meat off entire leg bones. One man, who despite the early start was in a particular good mood, and we listened to his melodious voice as he sang along to classic Chinese tunes.

As we moved along enjoying our steaming cha shao bao, we wished the locals happy new year before stepping back into the dark streets.

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The Sky Lanterns of Pingxi

Once a year, the quiet little valley of Pingxi (平溪) is abuzz with festive spirit as glowing orbs light up the night sky. While Lantern Festivals elsewhere in Taiwan often meant spectacular exhibits of modern pyrotechnics and live concerts, the most popular light event to welcome the Lunar New Year is still based on the humble floating lantern known as tian deng (天燈), in a little county just a small distance away from Taipei.

As a new resident to Taiwan, I of course wanted to see the spectacle as I have heard that lanterns are released en masse, much like a real-life version of Disney’s Tangled (though without the water scene and the corny duet).  Together with my new friends, we made our way along the busy highways to the towns of Shifen (十分) and Jingtong (菁桐) to join in on the New Year’s celebrations. Upon arrival I was completely taken aback at how crowded the place was. Much like a night market, there were food stores and entertainment aplenty but it seemed doubly busy in an older town setting. Couples, families and groups of friends gathered along the train tracks to release the lanterns – though why I have yet to discover because trains do still run along them, making people scatter frantically whenever one arrives.

Lanterns are released sporatically as well as en masse at certain times
Lanterns are released sporadically as well as en masse at certain times

The sky lanterns are made of waxed paper weighed down by a small tray for coal or other combustible elements.  Akin to a hot air balloon, the lantern will naturally float once the hot air rises and fills the paper chamber.  This age-old custom of sending lanterns to the sky could be traced back to China’s Three Kingdoms period when they were first used as military signals.  For Pingxi specifically, once a sleepy farming settlement which drew the unwanted attention of bandits, sky lanterns were used to warn villagers of imminent danger, and to notify them when it was safe to return to their homes.  Sky lanterns have since been known as a symbol of peace, but for the musing of modern crowds, it is synonymously associated with making wishes come true.

A quainter impression of Pingxi
A quainter impression of Pingxi
"Safety and Health"   Our wish for the family
“Safety and Health”
Our wish for the family

To do this, write your wish on the lantern’s paper.  Plenty of lantern vendors will have this organised for you with Chinese calligraphy brushes and black ink and you will have the liberty to choose the colour of your lantern.  Each colour has a special meaning, and Ivan and I chose a white lantern to wish our family good health.

Once you have done this, you may take the yet to be inflated lantern to the train tracks to be ignited and ready for its release. As our lantern made its way to the night sky along with the throng of others,  I repeated my wish and hoped that my lantern has a safe journey (as I have seen many end up tragically in someone’s vegetable garden or the nearby river).

We were also fortunately able to join the collective launch of the lanterns in Jingtong. It felt special to be one with the crowd as we anticipated the release of the sky lanterns, and with it, make wishes for the new year ahead.

Lanterns of Jingtong on 21 February 2015
Lanterns of Jingtong on 21 February 2015

When:  This is an annual event occurring during Lunar New Year, usually in February. Check the New Taipei City Government Website for updates

Where: There are several locations where you can join in on the festivities –  Shifen Sky Lantern Square, Pingxi Junior High School, and Jingtong Elementary School

Getting There: Roads closer to Pingxi are usually closed to private vehicles during the event. It is best to catch the public buses from Muzha MRT ( 木柵) though lines can be very long, so come prepared.  To travel between towns, you can catch the regional Pingxi train (平溪線)