An introduction to Taiwan

Taiwan is a cultural amalgam that is as much a product of history and geography as it is of social development. Often overlooked (literally) because of its small size, Taiwan is like a compact package of some of the best Asia has to offer. Perhaps the most influential ambassador for Taiwanese culture is its food. Din Tai Fung and bubble tea diplomacy, if you will. That in itself is pretty telling of the essence of Taiwan. All you really need to understand is that it’s a foodie culture is the purest form. Everything else is built around that.



Geography, Climate and Demographics

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In case you stumbled upon this page by means of a Thailand typo or something, here’s a little background information. Taiwan is a small island off the coast of China. To the north are Japan and Korea. To the south, the Philippines. It is very much a Pacific island when it comes to the humid weather and tendency for earthquakes and typhoons. It’s very mountainous (thanks to the earthquakes): nearly a third of the island is over 1,000m above sea level. At 36,193 sq km, it is a little bigger than the state of Maryland, but has a population closer to that of Texas (it would be right behind California and Texas if ranked by population). About a third of the population lives in greater Taipei - the capital and biggest city in Taiwan. Now, please forgive me while I get a little granular into the data for a sec: that’s over 30% of the total population living in under 7% of the total area. Taipei has a population density that rivals New York City while being nearly 3 times bigger than New York City. Welcome to an Asian metropolis.

There is a really interesting socio-economic-linguistic-cultural-political cross section when you map out Taiwan geographically. Generally, the further south and east you move from Taipei, the more rural it gets. Also, the more Taiwanese (Hokkien, the dialect) you’ll hear compared to Mandarin. People in Taipei are (as city people usually are) wealthier, more educated, more liberal, more likely to know English. Even though Taiwan is a small country, rural Taitung feels like a distinct world from Taipei, the political and economic capital of Taiwan. Most of the population lives on the western part of the island, where cities dot the coast and are efficiently linked by the high speed railway. On the other side of the central mountains, the east side is full of lush (& sparsely populated) natural landscape.

Taiwan is made up of 22 “administrative districts” that include counties, cities and a few islands. And no exaggeration: all 22 are worth visiting. Even the ones that seem to be “middle of nowhere” because that in itself is a destination. Plus, even when you are in rural nowhere, you’re never more than a couple km away from the nearest 7-Eleven (more on this later LINK). Random fact: the only county that doesn’t cover any coastline is Nantou. While this may sound sad, they have Sun Moon Lake, Xi Tou and Yu Shan (all beautiful natural parks), so don’t feel bad for Nantou.

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Before moving into culture talk, there’s another important thing you should know about Taiwan: the tropical climate. Summers mean extreme heat and humidity. Rain every day. Flooding, typhoons, earthquakes. Winters (and the high altitude mountains) are more dry and cool. Let’s just say Taiwan is not #blessed when it comes to weather. That being said, the tropical weather makes for abundant and diverse flora and fauna. From “exotic” fruits to high mountain teas, Taiwan is definitely #blessed when it comes to produce. Also, just because there’s a tropical storm, doesn’t mean your vacay will be ruined. Severe storms mean people get the day off, but while half the population hoards ramen (srsly, the whole aisle in 7-Eleven is gone) and hole up indoors, the rest of the crazies are out and about enjoying life (afternoon tea, midnight karaoke parties, you better hop on those reservations!).

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Taiwanese culture is difficult to sum up in one bucket. It’s quite a bit Chinese, with heavy Japanese influence, but it also embraces the tropical island culture too. Demographically, most of the population is ethnically Chinese (over 95%), and about 2% are aboriginal. Within the Chinese population, there is the Hakka and Han (pre & post 1940) subgroups. It seems complicated, but everything comes down to history.




History

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To begin with, Taiwan has several names. From Ilha Formosa to the Republic of China (ROC, not to be confused with PROC) to Taiwan. What’s in a name? A lot of politics and history, actually. In the 16th century, Portuguese sailors passed Taiwan and dubbed it Ilha Formosa, beautiful island. Over the next century, Taiwan fell briefly under Spanish and Dutch rule (you can still visit Dutch forts today). Insert a lot of violent and inhumane treatment to the aboriginal people (which, by the way, continues with every power and wave of immigrants over the centuries). Political turmoil in China led Ming loyalists to run out the Dutch, and the new Qing dynasty to try to limit immigration to Taiwan over the next hundred years or so.

From the late 18th century into the early 19th century, more people immigrated from China, primarily from the Fujian and Guangdong provinces. These were the early Han settlers. There were also Hakka settlers as well (for our intents and purposes, just know that Han people are ethnically Chinese people, Hakka are those who speak the Hakka dialect). Throughout the 1800s, there were some conflicts between different groups, plus a lot of threats of foreign invasions: Britain, America, France, etc.

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And then comes Japan.

The Sino-Japanese War (1894-5) ended with the Qing dynasty ceding Taiwan to Japan. Here’s where history and culture really start to come together. Taiwan was under Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945 (aka the end of WWII). These 50 years were formative years for Taiwan. This is when infrastructure was implemented and a culture unique from China was developed. It’s no coincidence that Taiwanese (Hokkien) dialect songs sound like old Japanese music. It’s a complicated relationship, to say the least. There was raping and pillaging, but there was also a lot of modern development that came with Japanese rule. To this day, Taiwan probably owes its infrastructural foundation to this era. A lot of architecture and general Japanese-era culture has been preserved and memorialized throughout Taiwan.

But of course during WWII, things got a little messy. Taiwan was physically in the middle of global powers and was completely under Japanese rule. During this time, Taiwanese people were forced to assimilate to Japan. Children were educated in Japanese (the older generation probably speaks Japanese more fluently than Mandarin), many adopted Japanese names, and Japanese religion was instituted. All on top of the horrors of war that Japan was imposing across Asia. Meanwhile, the Allies were trying to return Taiwan to China.

Ultimately, Japan was forced out. The interesting thing (to me, at least), is that despite all of the terrible things that happened, Taiwanese people still truly love Japan and Japanese culture. They celebrate the food, the style, the language, the people. Whenever Japan needs help, Taiwan is the first ones on the ground (see: 2011 Tohoku earthquake). I’d think that most colonies aren’t so quick to be friendly, but...Taiwanese people are ridiculously friendly so..

Back to history. So it’s 1945 and Taiwan is officially no longer under Japanese rule. But the worst has yet to come. They kick out most of the Japanese people back to Japan. And the oppressive Kuomingtang (KMT) government takes over. Meanwhile in China, there’s a whole other mess: the Chinese Civil War. The Republic of China capital was moved to Taiwan as they fought the Communist party, and many mainlanders came along. These groups formed neighborhoods and enclaves, half assimilating to Taiwanese society. To this day, there is still somewhat of a distinction between those who have been in Taiwan before the Civil War, and those who came because of that. Generally, they are referred to as people from a different province. Almost like “out of state.”

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On February 28, 1947, there was what is now known as the 2/28 massacre. An uprising was violently put out, thousands of civilians were killed, and so began the period of White Terror. This period of martial law would last over 38 years, until 1987. This horrific incident was finally publicly acknowledged in the 90s by President Lee Teng Hui, who also named February 28 as a day of remembrance.

If you zoom out and look at the big picture, you’ll quickly realize that all of this was happening with the backdrop of the Cold War. Essentially, it was the same global forces at work. There was the threat of the Communists nearby, and of course the US throwing weight behind anything against Communism. For a while, Taiwan – the Republic of China, was the officially recognized government of China. Of course this and the One-China policy controversy still continues today.

Over the late 80s and 90s, Taiwan was increasingly democratized and Taiwanized. The first opposition party to KMT, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was established in 1986. President Lee made reforms that favored localization of the culture, economy, education, etc. The first direct presidential election in 1996 prompted an international conflict as China attempted to intimidate and influence the election. The crisis prompted then-president Bill Clinton to dispatch military power to monitor the situation. Lee ended up winning re-election.

The 2000 election put the first DPP president, Chen Shui Bian into office. His presidency was a mess: it included an assassination attempt and ended with a life sentence. It was full of juicy scandal well worth the Wikipedia rabbit hole...but for now let’s fast forward to today. Like the US, Taiwan has a two party system. Unlike the US, the political parties are divided more by governing and diplomacy stances rather than social issues. Essentially, KMT is more open to cooperation with China while DPP is more focused on independence. The current president, Tsai Ying Wen (first female prez of Taiwan) is from the DPP party.

All of this history and political background is relevant, I promise. It’s important to note that Taiwan is a democracy with a disputed and controversial political status. This affects the culture. Taiwanese people take pride in their democracy, and are in generally very politically vocal and active (especially compared to the US...before Trump, at least). Largely because of democracy (re: all of 20th century history, lol), Taiwan became a strong economic force in Asia early on, one of the “Four Asian Tigers.” Back before “Made in China” it was “Made in Taiwan.” Of course over the last couple decades, things have shifted around. For one, China. But also, Taiwan now has a tech industry (specifically semiconductor manufacturing) that works closely with Silicon Valley.




Culture & Religion

The openness of the political and economic landscape also made Taiwan the center of Chinese (Mandarin) popular culture. Still today, a lot of the biggest pop stars come to Taiwan to be discovered, because of the established music industry and mentors. People from China, Malaysia, Singapore, all “made it” in Taiwan, which translated to fame across Asia.

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But the foundation of Taiwanese culture is hardly music. Unlike the US, the biggest cultural export isn’t the media. It’s food. If you only know one thing about Taiwan, it better be this: Taiwan has an excellent food scene. As in, the culture is the food, and the food is the culture. They are one and the same. So to understand Taiwanese culture, all you gotta do is pick up a pair of chopsticks.

If there’s another thing you should know about Taiwan, it’s that there are an obscene amount of convenience stores per capita. After you visit a 7-Eleven in Taiwan, you’ll never look at 7-Elevens the same. The foundation of Taiwanese society is convenience, and I’m pretty sure if you took out convenience stores, society would instantly crumble.

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Another important aspect of culture is religion. Taiwan is majority Buddhist / Daoist, sometimes blended with local folk religions. Interestingly, as Taiwan underwent rapid development, rather than getting more secular, there was actually a growth in Buddhism. Religion is a huge part of daily life in Taiwan. There are over 12,000 Buddhist and Taoist temples, and many families also have altars in their homes to pay respect to the gods as well as ancestors. No matter where you are, you’ll probably encounter a temple. They are everywhere, big and small. Often markets (& night markets) are centered around a neighborhood temple. People visit temples regularly, but it gets particularly busy during prayer holidays.

Even if you don’t venture into a temple (which would be a mistake – you definitely should go!), you’ll see rituals on the street. During prayer holidays, people often burn joss paper (aka ghost money) in urns on the street. Sometimes during major religious holidays, people set up makeshift altars with folding tables outside filled with food and incense.

Culturally, Taiwanese society is actually one of the most progressive in Asia. As of May 2017, it is the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage. Taiwanese society is also very environmentally aware. Pollution had gotten pretty bad over the decades of economic development, so every citizen takes it upon themselves to recycle, while governments and businesses have also taken steps toward environmental protection. Most importantly (from a traveler’s perspective, at least), Taiwanese society is very open to the different. Taiwan has always been influenced by a mix of other cultures, so learning and adaptation of different cultures is welcomed and celebrated. Locals are genuinely interested in visitors from other countries and backgrounds whether as close as Japan or as far as South Africa. There is general religious tolerance as well. There are small populations of Christians and Muslims, and the majority religions (Buddhism, Taoism, folk religions) are often practiced in a blended form.

Taiwanese culture, like many others, values family and respects the elderly. Even in the city, extended family often live together or close by. Parents often buy houses for their children. Children are often expected to live with and take care of their parents even after they get married and have children of their own. Familial relationships are more important than independence. Life is anchored by the oldest member of the family. If it’s a grandparent or great-grandparent, people could regularly interact with huge chunks of their family tree.

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Perhaps because of this, there is very specific vocabulary defining relationships. For example, in English, we call cousins cousins. In Chinese, there is a distinction between cousins that share a last name with you and those that don’t, and they specify gender and age in each term. Aunts and uncles, depending on if they are older or younger than your parents, blood related or married in, on your mother or father’s side of the family – all different names. Often, with big families, you simply number off the relatives rather than call them by name. For example, the second oldest aunt would simply be called “second aunt” rather than aunt Mary. But despite the specificity, the same base words are used to establish familiarity and respect among friends. A kid would call the children of family friends brothers and sisters (older or younger). Friends of parents would always be aunts or uncles (again, older or younger). There is always a sense of generational distinction in all relationships, and younger generations should always be respectful of elders, even if they are strangers on the street.

Most people also practice some form of ancestral worship. Families often burn incense for ancestors at home altars alongside the gods, with specific places for recent generations (like grandparents who recently passed away). Every spring on Tomb Sweeping day, and on the anniversary of the death, families visit the grave sites to tidy up and pray (usually a son’s family for his parents, but generally not farther back in generations). Traditional funerals are extensive events, with ceremonies and memorials that last for days and are much more public than funerals in western culture. Every aspect of life is family-oriented, which in turn is reflected in social traditions and practices.




People & Language

If Taiwanese people had to be described in one word, it would be “friendly.” Taiwanese people are absurdly friendly and welcoming. Like the kind of friendly where a stranger would not only give directions, but also walk you do your destination. The kind of welcoming where servers at popular restaurants are required to know English and Japanese to accommodate tourists. They are genuinely eager to learn about people that are different. People are very talkative. Even in the cities, people chat with taxi drivers, bus drivers, store owners. It’s normal to have political conversations, ask for advice and recommendations, discuss social (& personal!) issues with strangers.

In smaller towns, everyone is treated like family. Even visitors. In Taiwanese culture, you show love through food, so people are always trying to feed you, bringing local treats and gifts. You don’t have to go out of your way to get an “authentic” experience: Taiwanese people are always eager to show you their go-to spots and give you samples of local delicacies. Even if you’re pretty sure it’s something you can’t take home, it’s probably still best to graciously accept and then pawn it off to a local friend before you go. Also, if you are ever invited into someone’s home, you should bring some sort of treat with you (even if it’s just something you pick up from a bakery on the way there), to share with your hosts. A lot of shops sell decoratively packaged treats for this reason!

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The hospitality is reflected in the service industry. Taiwan has some of the best service in the world, likely a reflection of Japanese influence. It’s in the little things, but definitely noticeable to people unfamiliar with this culture. Every store you enter in, whether a fancy boutique of a 7-Eleven, you’ll be greeted with a verbal welcome by basically anyone within earshot. At many restaurants, they give you a separate basket to put your bags and coats and cover it so it doesn’t get any sauce or oil on it. At Din Tai Fung, they practically station someone at every other table to refill your tea as soon as you take a sip. At many sit down restaurants, waiters will come around halfway through the meal to swap out plates to clean ones.

In some department stores, there are uniformed women operating the elevator. They ask you what floor you are going to, push the button with gloved hands, and announce at each floor which way the elevator is headed. This used to be a lot more common, but now many of them have shifted to self-operated elevators (heathens, I know!). If you arrive at a department store right as it opens, not only do you hear a welcome song blaring from the speakers, you will also encounter a line of uniformed workers bowing and welcoming you as you walk past, and the same polite welcome as you make your way wherever you’re headed. Workers are required to stand outside their booth or kiosk or shop and do this for the first 15 minutes or so. Basically, if you’re used to...say...Parisian waiters, you’ll be floored by Taiwan’s service. This is beyond the infamous Cheesecake Factory smiling waiters service that Europeans make fun of.

And before we go, a quick note on language. The official language of Taiwan is Mandarin Chinese, and pretty much the entire population understands Mandarin. It’s the language taught in schools and the language (usually) spoken in government and formal settings. The spoken language is the same as the Mandarin spoken in Mainland China, but with different accents and sometimes different vocabulary (similar to English in the US and UK). However, the written language is different. Taiwan is a bastion of traditional Chinese (Hong Kong also uses traditional), while China has adopted simplified Chinese. In terms of phonetics, Taiwan doesn’t use pinyin like China, which is why the romanization is often inconsistent (you can tell by how people spell last names, and general city and street names as well - looking @ you Kaohsiung). Children learn how to “spell” using zhuyin, which is a phonetic system with 37 characters (not romanized).

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The Hokkien dialect (also called Taiwanese), is also widely spoken and understood by a majority of the population, usually in more conversational, informal terms. If you thought Chinese is difficult with the 5 tones, Taiwanese has 8. There are media outlets that broadcast in Taiwanese, and an entire genre of pop culture (TV dramas, music, live entertainment) in the dialect. Generally, people in more rural or southern areas tend to speak more Taiwanese. While some vocabulary is different, it is written in the same characters as Mandarin Chinese. There’s often a mixing of Mandarin and Taiwanese in slang.

Another dialect is Hakka, which is spoken by the Hakka subpopulation. They are the second biggest ethnic population, mostly living in northwestern Taiwan. Most Hakka people speak Mandarin fluently and Hakka at home.

The small aboriginal population is made up of 16 tribes, each with their own language. Many of the younger generations don’t really speak the languages anymore. However, there has been a cultural resurgence in recent decades as prominent singers of aboriginal descent have brought the culture of their tribes into mainstream conscience.

English is also a requirement in grade school, so younger generations tend to at least be familiar with basic English. Other popular languages are Japanese and more recently, Korean.


So there you go. An introduction to Taiwan. Now that you have a general idea of where you’re going, start planning your trip.