The Dissonance of Serenity and Mayhem

The Dissonance of Serenity and Mayhem

I’ve been cataloging things I’ve noticed about Taiwanese culture. They aren’t really the stuff of a story, but are those random observations that remind you that you are in the presence of a foreign culture.

  • The streets of Taiwan are pandemonium. Not all of the rules by which everyone pretty uniformly plays are encoded into laws.
  • As crazy as the driving of cars and scooters is, there’s one rule everyone universally lives by: no one gets hurt. I haven’t seen so much as a fender bender. I’m sure they must happen, but drivers here balance their need to go where they’re going to go with not hitting you; it’s a mix, the mayhem of what you see, versus the serenity of each driver’s individual attitude.
  • Corollary: I’ve yet to see anything that looks like malice among car drivers.
  • As far as potential for lethality goes, the sidewalks are a far more lawless location.
  • There are a lot of dogs up in the mountains. I’ve yet to see one of them chase a car. I have this sense that there’s a causal relationship between the Taiwanese culture and the fact that the dogs don’t chase cars.
  • It’s pretty easy to get around town by bike by just drafting off the scooters.
  • 7-Elevens are more plentiful here than they are in the U.S. It’s a more complete shopping experience in the same amount of space. You can have a sit-down meal, pay your utility bill, drop off laundry and given the way some folks hang out, maybe get a date for Saturday night.
  • Having a tour bus pass you with less than three feet to spare is scary. However, the fact that the driver is aware of your presence and doesn’t want you to die means that they leave you enough room to survive. The experience becomes surreal the third time it happens.
  • The only safe way for bikes and scooters to make a left turn at a street light is to loop into the traffic lane to your right and then wait for the light to turn. It’s an accepted practice and everyone makes room for each other.
  • There’s a get-it-done spirit that can seem freewheeling to the point of careless, at least, to my American eye. The Taiwanese can and will carry anything by scooter. A day’s shopping, dogs, multiple children, even sleeping babies. Among the American product managers here, the go to scooter story is the family of five all one one scooter. I’ve heard the story three times and because they weren’t together, I’m going to take five as the absolute limit of what a scooter can accommodate, it’s upward limit of floorboard and saddle space.
  • At 3 o’clock in the morning of my first night, a woman in the street outside my hotel began shrieking at someone, the kind of outraged fury that tells you she and the subject of her anger go back a ways. They have history. This was nine floors below me. It’s the only anger I’ve been able to note since getting here, but it was righteous. My takeaway: the Taiwanese may be the most placid people I’ve met, but don’t piss them off.
  • The only food you can’t find in Taiwan is Mexican. And maybe Greek.
  • The Taiwanese understand the charms of refined sugar in a way some European countries don’t (I’m looking at you, Italy). Anyone whose idea of a cookie is Oreo will appreciate Taiwanese confections.
  • While it’s safe to assume that if you bite into a baked good there will be something inside (that often goes for bread, too), don’t make the mistake of assuming said filling will always be sweet. It lessens the shock. Just sayin’.
  • I grew up in the South and have a knowledge of humidity informed by places like Memphis and New Orleans. They’re no match for this. You haven’t experienced humidity until you’ve experienced Southeast Asian humidity. Wow.


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  1. Pat O'Brien

    SE Asian humidity really is something, especially during the monsoon season. I experienced it 45 years ago a little further South. Great writing! Tell us more, please.

  2. Albert

    It’s nice to be reminded of these things, I my parents are Taiwanese immigrants and I have forgotten a lot of these insights from a foreign perspective since I have visited Taiwan at least once a year for the past 30+ years.

    But you gotta try the regular flavored 7-11 hotdogs, definitely a treat each time I go back!

    I have seen a mexican restaurant and they are indeed very rare, where employees speak Mandarin much better than I do and I’m fluent in Chinese!

    Please continue to share your experience, this was awesome to read!

  3. Geoffrey

    The last time I was in Taiwan, I spoke to a local, because I wondered about the seeming craziness as well. He had a very distraught look as he relayed a story of a scooter being wiped out by a car. He said that he has seen many folks get hit. So, yes, it does happen.

    As for humidity, go to Singapore. 95%/95degrees most of the year.

  4. Ransom

    Expecting sweet and getting savory is odd. I had a similar experience in Osaka; now I know that the “tako” in “takoyaki” is octopus, and I expect to live the rest of my life without getting tentacles where I expected custard.

  5. peter lin

    As a naturalized immigrant from Taiwan, there’s lots more weird stuff. Have you noticed lots of purple (aka Taro root) in things? It’s a taiwanese thing to put Taro in everything from soups, deep fried, bread, pastries, desserts and shakes.

  6. Quinn Taw

    Lived in Taiwan for several years. You should see the bike infrastructure that has been grafted onto Taipei in recent years – a widely available and widely used bike share program, bike lanes when streets are wide enough and on sidewalks when streets aren’t, and something like 50-some kilometers of bike path around the city with some very nice scenery. Stunning scenery on the East Coast of the island. Drivers almost always honk politely and shout encouragement as they pass versus LA, where they often honk angrily and shout profanities. Humidity is indeed profound and it was in Taipei during a summer that I learned to appreciate the quality of modern LED bike lights and the joy night riding. Oh yeah, love the food!

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