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Being Thomas Friedman in Taipei

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I landed in Taipei 36 hours ago and I’m trying very hard to re-calibrate. This is my first time to Taiwan and I already had a hunch I would like it. There’s a lot to love: Complex characters 繁體字, fast unfettered Internet, and all of the best stuff taken from the Forbidden City collection when Chiang Kai-shek abandoned the Mainland back in 1949. The problem is: I like Taiwan very much in a way that is not altogether healthy.

Nothing is more annoying than the eagerly uncritical writer (See: Friedman, Thomas) who arrives at a destination, and proceeds to gush and coo over every fucking miraculous quirk of local culture. It’s particularly execrable when the gushing and cooing have nothing to do with the place being described and everything to do with bashing whatever supposed hellscape the writer just left.

So when I say I love Taiwan, I do so with the full expectation that I may be simply exorcizing the accumulated demons of a life lived in Beijing. But you know what, fuck it… I absolutely love Taiwan and let me tell you why.

taipei

Photo by K X I T H V I S U A L S on Unsplash

First of all, the food. I’ve never thought of Taipei as a foodie destination mainly because in Beijing I associate “Taiwanese cuisine” with “Bellagio,” a forgettable restaurant with a dumb name and food designed to be picked at by peckish club kids and the women who date them in the small hours of a Sanlitun morning.

Almost every street in Taipei seems to have either open-air food stalls or restaurants and that’s before you hit the night markets. Night. Markets. The kind of thing Beijing used to have before the municipal government decided that al fresco dining and street food were the devil’s handmaidens.

(That said, the busiest “restaurants” in Taipei – at least at lunchtime – are the 7-11s. I’ve never seen business saturation like this. There is literally a 7-11 on every corner of every street in Taipei and they are almost always packed.)

Getting around Taipei has been easier than I expected, too. I’ve not been able to get Didi to work (Ding! Score one point for Beijing!) but then I realized that hailing a cab in Taipei is a relatively painless endeavor and the drivers – at least compared to their Beijing counterparts – do not believe that being a relentless engorged cock is integral to the passenger experience. Moreover, Taipei cabbies – at least based on the half-dozen or so cabs I’ve taken – do appear to have basic knowledge of geography and street addresses. Before I moved to Beijing I took such things for granted. Now, no more.

I’ve been traveling with my friend, The Mighty Ho. TMH’s parents are from Taiwan (his grandfather was a KMT officer) but he grew up in a college town in a part of the United States most people simply fly over unless they are playing football or running for president. TMH’s parents would routinely ship him to Taipei as a teenager in the hope of matching him up with somebody from the right Taiwanese family. He now lives in the PRC and is resolutely single, a situation which a lesser friend might suggest is a lifestyle meant to be a passive-aggressive way to torment his parents.

On this trip, TMH is house hunting. After a decade working in a smallish, coastal city in China, he was beyond ready for something different. To say TMH is “tired of China” would be a bit like accusing a drowning victim of being “tired of water.”

“Look, standing in lines! What’s up with that! Crazy Taiwanese.”

“You mean sidewalks are for pedestrians? Who knew?”

I’m not quite as far gone as TMH, but it’s hard to ignore that the delicate balance between the challenges and rewards of living in China has been tipping precariously to the wrong side in recent years. Beijing in particular has become something of a cultural wasteland as the municipal government continues to strip mine the soul of the city.

Related:

The Politics of Protection: Beijing Makes UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site Bids

“Are you guys here for the parade?”

The Mighty Ho and I had been hunkered over a bar table commiserating our inevitable return to the Motherland while simultaneously trying to work out a complicated three-team fantasy basketball trade when we made a new friend.

“What parade?” I asked.

“The Gay Pride Parade.”

Holy Jumping Jesus Fish! There’s a Gay Pride parade in Taipei?

Why, yes. Yes, there was. Unfortunately, I missed it.

But if there was any one thing which confirmed my belief that Taipei exists on a separate — and, I’ll say it, better — plane of existence than Beijing this was it: Over the last weekend of October, 137,000 people marched in the streets of Taiwan’s capital in support of gay marriage.

Related:

Gay Games 2018: “It’s Important for Team China to be Here”

There is absolutely nothing about that scene which wouldn’t make a CCP cadre itchier than a bag of bleached assholes:

137,000 people. Many in costume and/or expressions of gender fluidity. Marching in the streets. Of the capital. In support of a referendum. Which people will vote on. Deciding the issue of gay marriage.

I could live in Beijing for 100 years and so long as the CCP still runs the show and Mao’s picture graces Tiananmen, I will have a better chance of seeing a sex tape featuring Wang Qishan, Thomas Friedman, and a pack of fully-erect Labradoodles than I do seeing 137,000 activists marching for anything in China’s capital.

I’m willing to take all of this back, of course. I’ve only been in Taipei for three days. Maybe on the fourth day, I’ll get hit by a bus. I’m sure that anyone actually living in Taiwan can tell me 23 reasons why Taipei sucks. Maybe I’m just exorcizing my Beijing demons. It’s all entirely possible.

But then there’s this:

Well, The Mayor of Taipei Just Dropped a Trap Music Video

I’ll ask it again: What’s not to love?

Cover photo by Jensen Low on Unsplash

Jeremiah Jenne
    Jeremiah Jenne is a writer, educator, and historian based in Beijing.

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