10 Things I Learned in Taiwan

I haven’t been out of the country in years. I’ve lived in Ohio for most of my life, and more recently New York City, but this January, I went to Taiwan for a little. My mom grew up there and we went to visit family. The last time I was there I was a little 12-year-old baby, getting sent to live with my grandparents because of behavioral problems I had in school like getting suspended for vandalism.
This time it was like the first time ever again because I’m much older now. Like rereading a book from one’s childhood, I noticed things that I never noticed before. I arrived at the airport and thought, “What’s the move in Taiwan.” 10 days later, I left Taiwan an older man, a wiser man, a man whose internal compass pointed more towards the East than ever before. Here’s some of the things I learned:
Janice Schwartz

Americans are treated better

When we got off the plane, we had to wait in a long customs line. There were a ton of Southeast Asian-looking dark-skinned people in front of us. An official came over and pointed my family to a separate booth where there was no line. We gladly accepted. However, while the other two white people in the line were asked to follow us, none of the Southeast Asians were. My dad (who is white) said that it was probably because they wanted to please Americans. I thought, “The benefits of being an American in the world.” I also thought more about America’s place in the world. It seems like if you’re an American in a different country, they either want to please you or kill you, not unlike my last ex-girlfriend. Because Taiwan wants America’s business and tourists, they treated us very well.

Most of Taiwan is uninhabitable

On the way to my grandparents’ house in Taipei, we drove by lush mountains with an impenetrable layer of thick broccoli cover. My mom said that this was what most of Taiwan was like. She said that only 2/5 of Taiwan was inhabitable because the rest was too steep and mountainous to live on. As a result, Taiwan is a very developed country; every space that can be lived on, is lived on. And it rubs off on society—during my time there, I got a sense that Taiwan society simply worked; everyone was very courteous and respectful of each other, perhaps aware of their precarious situation on their island and in the world in general.

There are wild dogs running around

When we got to my grandparents’ house, it was very early in the morning, so everyone was still sleeping. My sister, dad and I decided to take a walk in the park near the river. We crossed a bridge and saw a pack of dogs running gloriously alongside the water, their fur glistening and their tongues out bobbing as their legs moved like those of horses. I asked my dad, “What is going on.” My dad told me that in Taiwan, there a ton of abandoned domesticated dogs. While my dad sat down and rested his old bones, my sister and I ventured closer to the pack. Although they seemed docile from from faraway, when my sister approached, they flipped the fuck out. They chased us and barked as we ran away.

We also saw a lot of “doges,” aka the rare Shiba Inu breed from Japan immortalized by the Reddit meme. I took a picture of one in the aforementioned park, shown below.

Zach Schwartz

How to communicate nonverbally

Unfortunately, I don’t speak Mandarin, and my grandparents are from the older generation, so they never really had to learn English. So I had to figure out ways to communicate with them nonverbally.

Obviously a big one was touch. Putting my hand on or hugging my grandparents would make them smile. But there were other things too. For example, I shared a magic trick with my grandmother. I had her choose a card, then I pointed at it for her to remember it. I shuffled the deck and produced a card which wasn’t hers. She nodded her head no and started to walk away, but then I put the card in her hand, shook her hand, and let the card drop out; it had turned into the card she had originally chosen. She raised her hand in surprise, and for a second I thought she was going to strike me; then her eyes changed and became bright. She slapped me on the back and started laughing. “Very good, very good,” she said in Chinese as she kicked me out of the kitchen.

Good food is part of the culture

The food in Taiwan is virtually always healthy and delicious. My uncle told me that because housewives in Taiwan are so good at cooking, the restaurants have to be very competitive as most people would prefer to stay home. My grandmother was no exception. She got fresh groceries delivered to her each morning, and she cooked three meals a day.

When people talked about America, they asked me why the food was so heavy and the portions were so big. I would shrug my shoulders—I knew we were guilty. Americans might think we’re being healthy, serving salads in fast food restaurants and drinking Diet Coke and all, but go to Taiwan and you’ll see that we’re all just big phonies. Out there, they’re really all about that healthy lifestyle, effortlessly. For example, below is a picture I took of a meal we had in an outdoor restaurant.

Zach Schwartz

There are a lot of healthy old people

Because the food is so good, and because exercise is a way of life in Taiwan, there are a ton of healthy old people. In America you don’t see that many old people out and about—they get put into nursing homes, their health fails them because of their horrible diet, etc. But in Taiwan, you see geriatrics functioning at optimal health: walking around, riding the bus, simply enjoying their lives. For example, my grandfather is 89 years old and lives with my grandmother who is 85. He walks up four flights of stairs to his apartment multiple times a day, and swims hundreds of meters each morning—after learning how to swim at the ripe old age of 85. But he was topped by my grandmother’s uncle, who came to visit from Japan the day before I left. He’s 92 years old, and he was traveling by himself to Taiwan, with two huge, heavy suitcases. And although he couldn’t do much but eat peanuts and smile his sagging face, it was still pretty remarkable.

There is also a lot of respect towards old people. On buses and in the subway, you’re always supposed to give your seat to an older person. You also always let an older person eat first at the dinner table.

Basketball is played differently

Even though I saw a ton of old people, I also met some young friends. My aunt introduced me to a cool cat named Kevin, and he invited me to play basketball with him and his friends at National Taiwan University. I thought, “I’m gonna show these Taiwanese how the Americans get down.” When we played, my style was definitely different from theirs: I was more aggressive, driving more and using crossovers. They were more passive, relying on clean shots and a team game. For example, in Taiwan, you have to pass the ball before you score, which ensures that you involve your team.

Even though a ton of people were using the same court, each game went to only 6 points so everyone got a chance to play. They were all really friendly; the word I heard most from them was “sorry.” Sorry for accidentally elbowing you in the face, sorry for fucking up the pass, sorry for scoring. Even if somebody did a sweet shot, no one did anything. They just kept their heads down and hustled towards the next play.

How to Sumo wrestle

Sumo wrestling, at least to my grandfather, was huge. He would sit cross-legged on the couch and grunt and clap in excitement at the matches on the TV. In sumo wrestling, two wrestlers kneel down and go at it, trying to push each other out of the circle. I kept wondering why for some of the matches, the wrestlers would kneel down and, instead of starting, re-retreat to their corners. I looked it up online and found that they did that so they could mentally prepare some more, and also stare each other down.

As a result, there was sometimes an absurd spectacle of the sumo wrestlers retreating to their corner three or four more times—taking upwards of 5 minutes for the match to start—while they kept mentally preparing and throwing salt on the ring to purify it. They would then get in position for the final time, charge each other, and the match would be over in seconds.

At one point I saw a huge white sumo wrestler. I pointed at the screen and looked at my grandparents. They struggled to find the word, but eventually they gutturally pronounced, “Mongol.”

Taiwan is very clean

Everything in Taiwan is really clean, from the airport where we came in, to the street, to the restrooms. It seems like Taiwanese people feel like a sort of unanimity foreign to us Americans; as a result they wouldn’t think of leaving shit for other people to pick up. I literally saw somebody drop something on accident once and somebody else swooped in and threw it away for them. I got the impression that, the concept of “not flushing a toilet” wouldn’t exist to a Taiwanese person. They would just think, “Why would you do that?”

Nudity is not a big deal

One thing different about Taiwan and America is that we view our naked old men completely differently. I’ll explain: one day, my grandfather took us to these beautiful hot springs Taiwan has in the mountains. They’re filled with minerals and are really good for you, and are probably one of the reasons why Taiwanese people live so long. In fact, my 89-year-old grandfather—who seems to hold the secret to longevity—visited these particular hot springs twice a week.

In the hot springs, everything comes off. You walk around, sampling the different tubs and treatments completely naked, with maybe only a little towel lying on your head. At one point, it was me, my father, and my grandfather all nude, sitting silently in a tiny little pool together, drinking green tea and straight chilling. And no, it didn’t feel uncomfortable—Taiwanese people would probably think you were immature if you couldn’t handle intense relaxation while being surrounded by a bunch of naked old men.

Honoring the ancestors is important

On the last day of the trip, my grandparents took us to the church in Northern Taiwan which held the cremated remains of my family going back 300 years. There were four sections of the funeral home: Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and atheistic. My family was interred in the atheistic section. We went to the urns that had Mandarin inscriptions on them and we would close our eyes and bow three times. My grandmother would say “ji-gong” each time she bowed, her words sounding like a sad bell.

My grandparents then took us to the floor to where they had purchased their urns for when they died. My grandmother smiled and chuckled as she pointed to them. Afterwards, we went out to lunch, to eat at a restaurant where the fish had been caught literally that morning.

Below: a video I made using footage from my trip. Thought Catalog Logo Mark


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