In Taiwan, you will find a lot of people who believe that their strongest asset as a culture is 人情味(pronounced ren ching way), which can roughly be translated into a focus on human relationships and familiarity. My taxi driver from the airport told me this, again, on our way back, as the long highway stretched on in the night. He said that whenever people in Taiwan see international students, they always want to help.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because we feel obligated to make sure they’re doing well!” he said. I think that is true. I wish sometimes, though, that the Taiwanese people wouldn’t give preferential treatment to the foreigners who look different, but instead treat everyone more equally regardless of what their hair color is. To be a foreigner in Taiwan is becoming more common, but will probably still turn heads.
I saw the 人情味 in display on my breakfast run. I was wandering the streets before the bank opened, and as always there were individual stands lining the sidewalk selling different Asian breakfast foods like triangular crustless sandwiches and meat buns. As I passed by a small alleyway, I saw a cart and a group of around 5-6 people huddled around it. That’s my breakfast, I thought, follow the locals.
It was a couple selling green onion pancakes, sandwiches, and the specialty–rice balls. It’s clear that rice balls were their specialty because about a third of the heated cart was taken up by a big wooden vat of rice, kind of like the one they use in Jiro Dreams of Sushi. You can see it in the lower left below, under the menu prices.
The wife was scrambling fresh eggs for the green onion pancakes, and the husband was taking hot rice, flattening it, and filling it with mustard greens, pickled vegetables, 2 different types of meat sung (probably pork and fish), and finishing it off with crunchy Chinese donuts. What was most impressive is that they were in the middle of taking a big bulk order (crazy, right? That even a food stand with a bare lightbulb can get calls for bulk orders at 8:45 in the morning), and the owners were personally apologizing to every customer for the delay, and giving a spot on countdown of how many rice balls they needed to make before they get to one for you. They kept up a continuous friendly banter, even advising some customers to call ahead next time to make sure they don’t have to wait. Here he is, wrapping rice balls woohoo!
When he got to mine, he said that since I waited so long he would give extra fillings. I laughed and said thanks, because I love vegetables. Maybe that’s something he says often, but in any case it was good to have the long wait time acknowledged, and not have it be a given. After a while I received mine, then ducked inside a 7-11 to avoid the drizzling rain. It was yummy, and warm, and the crunchiness of the Chinese donut complimented the chewy rice!
A quick note on food prices: pretty cheap for street food! The rice ball was 25NT, and lunch bentos are around 70-90. But cafes have a tendency to be really expensive in comparison. This salad at Dante’s was 120NT…It was aite. I think people are willing to pay the premium for the WiFi. Unfortunately they switched to a new system where you have to download their app to get the 2 hours of WiFi, but the 20-minute trial period isn’t long enough for the app to download onto my phone given the slow speed, so I’m not too sure it was worth it.
Oh well. You win some, lose some. Most 7-11’s offer a government-sponsored WiFi hotspot, which is nice once you figure out how to connect to it. It requires signing up for an account using a cell phone, and you need to log in every time.
I got around the whole day by the public transit system. It’s quite easy to use, if you have Google Maps and an Easy Card. I don’t know how I’d get anywhere without Google Maps, since I can’t even figure out which MRT station I’m supposed to be at. It’s even harder for the buses, because the bus stops don’t fit neatly onto a foldable wallet pamphlet.
An EasyCard is a refillable card that lets you take busses and MRTs, and at some convenience stores you can pay with it too. The MRT is one of my favorite Taipei things, because you can go to so many places! This is what a typical MRT station looks like, you scan your EasyCard (or a ticket token if you want to buy just a single use ticket) at a gate with the green arrow, then walk inside.
For buses, the scanning is similar, but you should check first whether you pay when boarding or getting off (they call getting off alighting. I think it’s a weird word.). With this system, they can charge double fares for people going long distances. The bus driver remembers you!! So don’t try to cheat your way out of paying by getting on when the fare is during alighting, and getting off when the fare flips over to paying when boarding. Also, the bus driver greeted all the older people very enthusiastically when they came on, and they all acted like they knew each other. Is it really possible to make friends with people you see for a few stops each day?
There are buttons along the side and on the poles for when you want to stop, and an electric display up front with English and Chinese text announcing the next stops. The buses go more places, but they’re harder to keep track of. There are quite a few bus stops nowadays that have an electronic ticker letting you know when the next ones are coming, but if you want to be absolutely sure you know exactly where you’ll end up, take the MRT.
Let me know if there are other topics you’d like to see covered!