Taiwan, part 4: 7-11’s, Noodles so Bad They Make You Ashamed to be Alive, and Cross-Straits Family Reunions

Can anyone out there please explain to me why there are so many 7-11’s in Taipei? Near the gate of our university there are two within 100 meters of each other. No lie. And that’s not uncommon. If I didn’t know any better I’d swear they were reproducing through spores carried on the wind to different parts of the city. I met a guy on the light rail yesterday who studies in Pennsylvania during the school year, and asked him if he could explain the 7-11 phenomenon. He looked thoughtful, as though he’d never considered it (And in reality he probably hasn’t; we don’t usually question the most common things in our lives. Seriously, ask somebody in America sometime if they can explain the ubiquity of strip malls.). He said, “Well, at first it was just convenient for buying food. But now you can charge your phone and credit cards there, receive mail, buy tickets, and a lot of other things. Maybe that’s why.” Maybe. Or maybe the government owns stock in the company. Or maybe it’s a plot by interstellar imperialists who plan to colonize earth but in the beginning stages of their efforts are using a convenience store as a cover. In any case, the stores are for me a kind of negative landmark, which is to say not only can you not use them to determine where you are, but there are so many that you’re liable to forget where you are.

But then in some ways that’s part of the fun, and on more than just this level. Yesterday my friends and I went out to Danshui, an historical coastal area featuring several old European forts and a promenade featuring all sorts of odd state-fair-esque games and snack stands. Sometime while looking out at the harbor from the perfectly-manicured lawn by the Fort San Domingo wall, and feeling the afternoon breeze, it really struck me that I wasn’t on the mainland any more. I know that sounds trite, but it’s also true that just because you’ve gone on vacation doesn’t mean you’ve left. To really leave requires a commitment of sorts, one you can’t make unless you’re doing more than just having fun. I can’t speak for everyone in our group, but Xuebin and I at least have really left. I have one more year in China, and while at times this scares me, at others the old tried-and-true TCK mechanisms kick in and it’s all I can do to stay in Tianjin. Yesterday we finished our tour of Danshui at the fisherman’s wharf, sitting on a long wooden pier for at least an hour and a half while the sun made its way down the horizon. Something about the ocean always makes me want to leave. It’s an odd sensation. I don’t feel drawn to fly somewhere, or travel to a different country, nothing that constructive; I just want to leave. In this case, as I reclined back on the pier steps and watched the sun change to orange and then red, I just wanted to pack my things and move on. To grad school in the States, to a boat, to anywhere.

I have to think it affected Xuebin in the same way. Later that night, after strolling around the old shopping streets near the harbor, we got absolutely, classically, royally screwed on some bowls of noodles that were beyond awful. Xuebin actually looked ashamed of himself for eating them, and noted afterward with intense seriousness that the noodles were “really not good”. I agreed, then told him that in English we say, “You win some, you lose some.” He and Xu Xu both laughed and said they have a similar saying in Chinese which comes from Laozi. I can’t reproduce it here, but the meaning really is the same. After the noodle fiasco, we took the subway and bus back to the campus. The bus drivers, like just about everyone else we’ve met in Taipei, are helpful and friendly to the point of absurdity, and have taken to driving into campus to drop us off at a different stop, even though it’s way off their route, because there are always about thirty mainland students on the bus at a time and the regular stop is about half a mile from the dorms. I think Taiwan may be the friendliest place I’ve ever been. When we got off the bus, Xuebin and I went to get something else to eat in the little market near our dorms, much to the amusement of the rest of our group, who are constantly laughing about how much Xuebin and I eat. It’s true that we both definitely have an appetite, but given that our last “meal,” besides a six-inch sandwich from Subway sometime in the late afternoon, was a bowl of something that tasted like it had been scoured from the hull of one of the fishing boats in the harbor, I think we can be pardoned. I could tell, as we walked off in search of something edible, that Xuebin was in one of his thinking moods, which he confirmed by saying, thirty seconds later, “I’ve been thinking a lot.” Fair enough.

“What about?” I asked.

“About why it is Taiwan and the mainland still aren’t together, even though our thinking is so similar.”

“I was wondering what you thought about that,” I said. “I was frankly expecting the mainland students and the Taiwanese to get in an argument or two, but so far everyone’s gotten along great.”

He made a brushing motion with his hand. “We don’t really care too much about the politics, you know. There are people in the mainland who get really angry about that kind of thing, but they don’t really understand too well.”

“Because they haven’t had an opportunity to come here.”

“Not just that. Even if they came here they wouldn’t be ready to really see. It seems sometimes like everything’s better here. The service is better, the streets are clean, everyone you meet is friendly, even the education and daily life are better. And it isn’t because people on the mainland are backward or ignorant, either. It’s other things.”

I had no idea how to respond to that. Xuebin’s the kind of person who takes things very seriously. He and I are very similar in that regard. Even just having fun is rarely so simple; it could be grounds for a deeper insight into ourselves or society. We’ve joked a lot over the past few days about how different things are here. We were on the escalator going down to the subway the other day and he leaned back and said, “Take a look at the people on the escalator.” I did so and smiled. “Everyone’s on the right side,” I said. He shook his head and smiled back. “If this was Tianjin, there would be people everywhere.” And then, as if to prove the statement, we both looked back and noticed there was in fact one person standing on the left side: a girl from our university. To her credit, she quickly noticed the fact and got back on the right side. Everyone in our group, not just Xuebin and I, has noted the complete lack of trash in the streets. It’s almost eerie. Lots of jokes have been made about that. “If this was Tianjin. . .” is the almost constant refrain. “If this was Tianjin, there wouldn’t even be a street; it just be trash.” “If this was Tianjin, you wouldn’t be able to see the other side of the harbor because of the air.” And so on. The thing is, a joke is often far more revealing than a confession because the person telling it isn’t even aware he or she is sharing anything. I don’t for a second believe anyone in our group resents Tianjin, or any other city in mainland China—it’s home, after all—but there’s still an undercurrent of regret. I sense it whenever we talk about history, and I suspect, though of course I couldn’t confirm this without asking directly, something I’m not ready to do yet, that there’s an implicit question in the jokes. Could mainland China have turned out this way? Could Beijing have been more like Taipei if only. . .? I certainly wonder that.

Xuebin’s right, too: it has nothing to do with politics. Having spent years in Tianjin and Shandong listening to students proclaim with complete conviction that full-scale war would be far preferable to letting Taiwan continue its rebellious ways, I was prepared for some fireworks when I got here. But there’s been nothing of the sort. What it’s felt like, honestly, has been a family reunion. Any time we’re all sitting somewhere together and a Taiwanese person notices us, a conversation immediately ensues, and neither side mentions anything about cross-straits relations. Nobody really cares. Yesterday when we were waiting for the ferry, two of the ferry operators spent thirty minutes laughing with us and comparing housing prices, the cost of meat and vegetables, and about twenty other things between Taiwan and the mainland. The implication was the same in each case: we’re all getting screwed one way or the other. I can’t afford an apartment here, and you can’t afford one there, so zenme ban? They asked questions about what things were like in Tianjin, and didn’t do it with the kind of condescension you’d find in a different city, like Shanghai or Beijing for instance. Everyone we meet in Taiwan seems very, very excited to have so many mainland students here. Bus drivers go completely off their route to deposit us close to our dorms at night. A guy in a Rotary Club International van took it upon himself to drive us around Danshui and deposit us at a historical site he recommended. Random strangers beam and ask us all about our trip. Perhaps the best indication of all is that very Taiwanese people so far, when they interact with our group, give me more than a passing glance. They’re far more interested in talking with my friends from the mainland than in figuring out what a loan white face is doing in a group of Chinese university students.

This has had an interesting effect on everyone. We’re all aware of how loud we are, for one. Mainland Chinese tourists have become the Ugly Americans for this era. And you can lump me right in with that group because, well, my voice is not exactly what you would call subdued. So ordinarily we converse at a near-shout and take crazy pictures wherever we can, but we’ve taken to hushing ourselves up at times, like yesterday on the subway when Xu Xu wouldn’t finish a dirty joke because no one on the subway was talking and he was afraid he’d be overheard.

But thankfully, Taiwan has its fair share of oddities to make us feel at home. Xuebin and I were walking through a park the other day on our way to the subway station, and I saw a group of shirtless construction workers sitting in the shade drinking beer. On the side of each can was written, in big letters: “The Beer.” Yep. It’s a brand of beer called “The Beer.” Can you imagine the fun you could have with that? “What kind of beer are you drinking?” “The Beer.” “I know, but what kind is it?” “The Beer.” Too, we’ve run into several streetside shops that promised things like “Real Tianjin Baozi” or “Xinjiang Roast Lamb,” which upon viewing we realized were anything but. The roast lamb kebabs looked like skewered wood chips. I find it intriguing that mainland China is in some Asian locations as much a brand-name as America.

Needless to say, we didn’t eat either one. And after having blown our money on bowls of barnacle noodles or whatever they were, Xuebin and I walked around for a bit last night trying to find something else to eat, but got nowhere because it was too late and the dumpling shop was closed and we weren’t about to eat ma la tang in hot weather. So we looked at each other, sighed, and went to 7-11 instead.

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3 Responses to Taiwan, part 4: 7-11’s, Noodles so Bad They Make You Ashamed to be Alive, and Cross-Straits Family Reunions

  1. Paul says:

    Hmmm, still nothing about the waitress situation? Did you ever find out anything about the orientation meeting for mainlanders?

  2. Jessica says:

    We noticed the absurd number of 7-11’s as well and also never got a satisfactory explanation for it.

    Also, have you heard the ridiculously loud garbage trucks that play “Fur Elise” non-stop? It’s like an icecream truck on crack, only for garbage.

  3. Joel says:

    I just finished with my summer students, most of whom were from Taipei. They were teenagers, but stereotypes about Mainlanders came through: they spit, they’re dirty, loud, etc. Two of my students were out walking in their neighbourhood, one of them threw his candy wrapper on the ground. A Canadian saw it and actually went over and asked the kid where he was from, trying to make him embarrassed. He replied: China. Then the second student picked it up, and the Canadian asked where she was from and she said, “Taiwan!” I thought it was interesting; they definitely see a divide there.

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