I lived in Taiwan for five years as an English teacher and was well in love with the island when I left. Here’s a list of my favorite everyday items and experiences from Taiwan:
1. Beaches and mountains
Taiwan precariously straddles two fault lines in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The earthquakes that regularly rock the island are responsible for the jagged mountain ridges in the middle and along the east coast, which is breathtakingly beautiful in its severity. The infamous Highway 11 curves along the outermost edge of the island, hugging the cliffs on one side and plunging to the ocean on the other. Taroko Gorge in Hualien, despite the tour buses and winding roads, is easily the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. Stopping to admire the view, I would be speechless, my eyes too small to take in all that beauty at one time. The nicest beaches are in the south, which is considerably warmer. If you’re a nature buff, there’s no end of things to do in Taiwan.
2. Pearl green milk tea
Milk tea stands are ubiquitous in Taiwan, so finding my favorite pearl green milk tea was no trouble. A decent cup is less than US$1 and the sweet, chewy tapioca balls can substitute for lunch.
3. My scooter
When I first moved to Taiwan, the scooters zipping around like legions of flying monkeys were so terrifying that I vowed never to ride one. That is, until I did. As soon as I felt like I was part of the urban jungle instead of an imminent victim of it, I was hooked. Scooters are tiny, fast, and they use very little gas. You can park them on sidewalks or drive them the wrong way down one-way streets. A quick trip that would seem like a hassle in a lumbering car is quick, easy, and fun on a scooter. I carried groceries, moved to new houses, and drove around the island on mine, imagining myself as either a centaur or a velociraptor dodging brontosaurus buses.
|My scooter parked at the Tropic of Cancer marker on the east coast of Taiwan
4. My students
I miss hugs and secrets and smiles and crayon pictures and twenty pairs of eyes that look at me like I know everything. I miss watching them grow from timid new students who have never been far from their mothers’ hips to bold little boys and girls who want to take on the world. Teaching wasn’t a career for me, but I’d take another day with my students any time.
5. Bars that close at 4 a.m…or later
Thirsty teachers spent a lot of time in bars, but I don’t drink as much or as often as I did anymore. I can chalk that up to getting older and outgrowing the drunken party girl phase that starts in college and lasts til the onset of exhaustion or wisdom or to the fact that there just ain’t no party like a Taiwan party in my little town in the Valley. Nights out with friends in Taiwan could last for twelve hours, from dinner to breakfast, and whatever happened in between was the stuff of urban legend. By 2 a.m., when the bars are already closed in the U.S., the bartenders at my local in Taiwan might have been as drunk as the customers. And if there were still people hanging from the railing on the ceiling at 4 a.m., the doors wouldn’t close until we left. It just doesn’t seem like much of a party when everyone is still wearing all their clothes and shoes at the end of the night. (I would like to point out that we lived within walking distance of the bars in our town and also that taxis were very cheap, which is not the case here.)
6. Breakfast shops
If you left the bar at dawn, that was the perfect time to get breakfast. It seemed like there was a shop on every corner serving up danbing (egg wraps), sandwiches, steamed buns, turnip cake, chicken fingers, noodles, and hash browns. Best of all, you could get a danbing made to order and cup of warm soy milk or terrible instant coffee for about a dollar. A really decent spread wouldn’t cost more than three dollars. There’s no debate about making breakfast at home to save time or money because breakfast shops have efficiency down to an art.
7. Street food, especially barbecue
I love a greasy spoon after a night out at the bar, so it took some getting used to the teppanyaki restaurants and street vendor fare that people in Taiwan eat when they’ve been drinking. But scallions wrapped in pork and seasoned with the spicy local barbecue sauce is suprisingly easy to get used to. And then get addicted to. My favorite memories of Taiwan pretty consistently involve some kind of food on a stick.
8. Night markets
I miss night markets in large part because I miss street food, but even my favorite vendor on the corner can’t substitute for the rush of human flesh and activity that is an Asian night market. Vendors pedaling hermit crabs, snacks, clothes, sex toys, pirated DVDs and CDs, hamsters, shoes, Ferrari-wear, scented oil, linens, and cheap baubles line narrow alleys and pedestrians ebb and flow like a river. I almost never buy anything at night markets besides food and milk tea, but I love letting myself get caught up in the crowds.
9. Subsidized healthcare and cheap contacts
It might be un-American of me, but I took great comfort in knowing that a visit to the doctor would cost a consistent US$3 and that a few days worth of medicine would be about the same. The crowded waiting rooms and the sometimes-crowded examining rooms took some getting used to, but for $3, I was willing to let other people watch the doctor stick a tongue compresser in my mouth. Also, contacts were cheap and easy to get there. As in I could walk into the equivalent of LensCrafters, tell them my prescription, and get a few boxes of what I needed. The whole transaction took just a few moments and cost me half of what I have to pay in the States for the same lenses. And while I’m grateful that I even have health insurance in the U.S., the hoops I had to jump through last time I tried to buy a box of contacts online have me thinking I should just stick to glasses.
10. Green Oil
I still dab this stuff on my nostrils when I’m feeling sleepy or I have a stuffy nose, but now I rely on friends to send it to me. The sensation is similar to using Vick’s VapoRub, but Green Oil smells amazing. It’s made from wintergreen oil, menthol oil, camphor, eucalyptus, and clove oil. And it’s not just for nostrils: You can rub it anywhere you have muscle pain (like you would do with Icy Hot), on your temples if you have a headache or are experiencing motion sickness, or put it on mosquito bites to relieve the itching.
I’m working toward taking a trip back so I can relive my highlight reel. What’s do you miss most about any of the places you’ve been?