Patrick Rhein recalls his experiences from his time in Taiwan, from 1996 to 1999.
By Patrick Rhein
I am from Geneva, Switzerland, a city with a population of about 490, 000 and left for Hong Kong in April 1996. It was planned as a 6-month work trip. However, the organization I was working with asked me to relocate to Taiwan just after my fifth month in Hong Kong, and a quick “OK, why not?” was my answer. It was supposed to be for just a few months, but soon it became 3 years for many wonderful reasons.
I am glad that I get to share this part of my life with you but first, let me walk you through my journey in Hong Kong.
You might have heard of cultural shock, an experience that many immigrants go through when arriving in Canada. For me, I was immersed in discovery, wandering around and trying to understand and figuring how to adapt to the culture, so everything was novel and interesting.
However, I had just left my friends and my family, so it was still somewhat lonely. Coming from a relatively small city and arriving in such a crowded and noisy city truly took an adjustment. It was a good introduction to an Asian metropolitan.
I had my ups and downs in Hong Kong, but I was able to manage and learn to appreciate the culture. 6 weeks after my arrival, I met a wonderful lady who became my guide in discovering more of the hidden gems of the area. That contributed a lot to ease up my stay in HK.
A few months later, I was ready to discover Taiwan.
Welcome to Taiwan
Leaving Hong Kong and landing in Taiwan offered a surprising contrast. Even though they are neighbours, I still noticed many differences in their cultures and lifestyles.
Right from the start, I was very warmly welcomed in the organization I was part of, and everyone was ready to help me find a place to stay. They were also dedicated to helping with my integration. They took me out for lunch and dinner, and in a matter of a few weeks, I had an apartment and plenty of friends. It was truly a big difference from my prior experience. People were so friendly, smiling and supportive.
Interestingly enough, some people also asked me very quickly if I was single and they wanted to match me with some charming ladies, it was so cute. This match-making culture happened throughout the 3 years I stayed in Taiwan. It was clear that it was a supportive society and that people took care of each other on many levels.
Discovering new cuisine
My new friends took me out to discover a staple of Taiwanese culture, the food. I found that in my 3 years in Taiwan, I kept discovering new dishes despite not eating pork. Although pork is common in Taiwanese dishes, there were still so many alternative choices available.
I also found that vegetarianism was different from what I expected. Many vegetarian dishes were almost exact replicas of traditional meat dishes such as duck, pork, shrimp and fish. It looked and tasted like meat but was made from vegetables and tofu which I thought was fascinating. I was able to find very creative vegetarian restaurants along my journey.
Visiting Taiwanese night markets was an unforgettable experience. In just one place you could find a variety of things: from shopping and games to unique delicacies.
If you happen to be by the ocean, you’ll find super fresh seafood and if you go in the mountain, you’ll get access to fresh mountain chicken and garden veggies. Also on the way to your destination, you have many food vendors that may look like not much but had other delicious wonders.
Taiwan’s food is diverse in a local and international perspective as well. I also found a variety of other delicious Asian cuisines, such as Korean, Thai, Japanese, Singaporean and Vietnamese.
One thing for sure is that you will never starve in Taiwan, with its abundance of delicious food as well as fresh exotic fruits and vegetables, all at a very reasonable price.
The local scene
When it comes to non-food activities, Taiwan’s local scene is always bustling and filled with activity.
Karaoke is probably one of the most popular pastimes in Taipei. There’s no need to be shy at a karaoke bar, so be prepared to share your talents and don’t worry. Along with the exciting atmosphere of a karaoke bar, the country holds an endless number of possibilities to have fun.
When I arrived in Taiwan, I had to find a way to travel through the city and discover the area. Being a motorcyclist, the scooter was the next best thing. Scooters dominated the streets and were always seen in large numbers. It was funny to see a wall of scooters aligned in front of cars at red lights, waiting for it to turn green, just like a start of a marathon.
However, because of this and other factors, the pollution in Taipei was so bad that I had to constantly wear a mask to filter the exhaust.
Driving in Taipei was fun and I was surprised to see how everybody was respecting each other despite the chaos. There was a lot of traffic but you don’t hear the sound of the horn much as you would expect.
The weather is warm and humid in the summer, and it also rains a lot, almost everyday. You can start your day with a lot of sunshine but it will pour rain in the afternoon. So, be always prepared!
I had the chance to travel around Taiwan to discover the island. I found that the scenery and food were remarkably diverse depending on the region. However, one thing was constant, and it was the kindness of people. They were always warm, friendly and polite during my experience.
There were many big mountains to hike, beaches to discover, and different weather patterns and cultural differences to experience. The diverse Indigenous cultures were also fascinating and the temples too beautiful to not be mentioned.
One activity that really resonated with me during my time in Taiwan was the experience of hot springs.
To provide some background, Taiwan is a volcanic island and there are hot springs everywhere. Some are organized in pools and resorts but many are wild and in the middle of nowhere. I enjoyed them so much and I would always feel much better after soaking myself in the sulfuric spring water.
Winters in Taiwan are typically cool, around 14 degrees. However, because houses had no heat at that time and the weather was very humid, it felt super cold. Therefore, jumping in a hot spring really helps with warming up your heart. Drinking nourishing soups with sweet potatoes, radish and ginger also warms you up.
An experience of a lifetime
I could go on and on about the food, experiences, and all the wonders from my adventures in Taiwan.
I haven’t returned since 1999 and I have heard that the country has changed a lot. However, I know for a fact that the essence of what Taiwan is all about – the people, culture and food will always be unique and wonderful.
An experience like this cannot be done justice with one story, so go and enjoy it yourself if you can.