Saturday, October 29, 2016

Taiwan #1: List of the best things about Taiwan

10/29/2016 Taiwan Explorer
My photo of Hualien Port, August 2011

The longer I live in Taiwan, and the deeper I get integrated in the society here, the more nuanced and critical I have become of things that I experience and observe every day around me. That's reflected in my blog in the past years. A lot of times when I see statements by newcomers of sorts "Taiwan is the best in this and that...", there's always a footnote in my head, because things are much more complex than they seem on the outside. With that said, Taiwan still is great in many aspects, and I think it's about time for a critic like me to acknowledge this. In this article I'm going to list the best things about Taiwan that I believe are true, either based on empirical data, or just subjectively for me. The focus is on things that make Taiwan truly unique and remarkable, either in the world, or in East Asia. The numbers are not representing a particular order, these are all great things on their own, and should be seen as such, the numbering is random. Here we go:

1. Small country of many superlatives

With a little over 36,000 square km in size, Taiwan (a country consisting of several islands), is a tiny bit larger than Belgium (30,000 square km), and a tiny bit smaller than Switzerland (41,000 square km), Denmark (42,000 square km) and Netherlands (43,000 square km). Below is a visual representation of this data.

Image from TheTrueSize.com

Despite its small size and limited political presence on the global stage, Taiwan is a country of many superlatives. Here are just some notable examples:

- Taiwan is the most populous non-UN state and the largest economy outside the UN (source)
- Taiwan is the 5th largest economy in Asia (source)
- Taiwan is the world's largest supplier of contract computer chip manufacturing, and world's largest LCD panel, DRAM computer memory, and networking equipment manufacturer (source)
- Taiwan is the world's largest orchid exporter (source)
- Taiwan's Giant is the world's largest bicycle manufacturer (source)
- Taiwan is number 5 in the world when it comes to foreign-exchange reserves (it has more than USA, Britain and Germany combined, source)
- Taiwan ranks 5th globally in the number of patents acquired in the U.S. (source)
- Taiwan has the best press freedom index in Asia according to Reporters Without Borders (source), while neighbor China has one of the worst in the world

- Taiwan has the 13th strongest military in the world, ahead of countries like Germany, Canada and Australia (source)
- Taiwan has the  highest social media penetration in the world (source)
- The best whiskey in the world comes from Taiwan (source)
- Taiwan holds the largest gay pride parade in Asia every year in Taipei (source)
- Taiwan had the world's tallest building from 2004 to 2009 - Taipei 101 (source)

2. High spirit for democracy and human rights

This could well be said for other countries around the globe, however if we put Taiwan's democracy in perspective, and look at the countries in its region, we realize that Taiwan's achievements in democratization, advancement of human rights and civil freedoms do stand out, especially next to countries like authoritarian China, which is one of the worst abusers of human rights in the world, and constantly ranks the lowest in press freedom in the world (source).

My photo of the Sunflower Movement, March 2014

From the establishment of opposition parties in late 1980s, to the Wild Lilies student movement in 1990 (that brought about a peaceful transition to a modern democratic country), and all the way to the Sunflower student movement in 2014, that fought against selling out of Taiwan to China, young Taiwanese won't stop fighting to preserve what their parents have so long struggled for. These values are (figuratively speaking) in the DNA of a lot of Taiwanese, especially the young ones.

3. Religious tolerance

Taiwanese people are in general very religious and superstitious. Buddhism and Taoism and some variations of these are practiced by the majority of believers, followed by various smaller religious groups like Christianity, which represent a very small percentage of the population.

Religious parade in Monga, Taipei, May 2015

One thing special about Taiwan is that a politician's personal religious beliefs (or non-beliefs) are usually not a focus of a political campaign. Similarly, Taiwanese usually don't separate themselves by religious association, religion is mostly seen as a personal matter. The only exceptions are Christians and some buddhist sects, who do occasionally put religion into politics, but that's a complex matter that would require a separate post. All in all, you will not find religious violence in Taiwan, in fact Taiwanese often believe in things that span across religions and superstitions, and temples are generally open to everybody. In a world where religion is often the root of violence and devastation, Taiwan is showing how it should be done.

4. Indigenous Taiwanese culture

Before European and Han settlers came to Taiwan in the 17th century, the majority of Taiwanese were of Austronesian origin, and have been living on the island archipelago of Taiwan already for 8000 years. Consisting of several tribes located in the flatlands and mountains of today's Taiwan, Taiwanese indigenous peoples form one of the oldest cultures in the world, much older than China, that often prides itself with "5000 years of culture" (which are in actuality 3500 years).

A sculpture of Indigenous Taiwanese, Wulai, April 2010

Unfortunately colonial powers from the West, Japan, and China have had a very negative impact on the indigenous population over the past 4 centuries - land grab, killings and forced assimilation have greatly reduced the number of tribes and its people, destroying ancient cultures and languages along the way. Today there's something above a half a million indigenous Taiwanese living in Taiwan, representing a little over 2% of the population. With that said, what is left is still very valuable and important for Taiwan, and the rest of the world: The cultures, customs, food, arts, the languages, and the music are real national treasures, and if you come to visit Taiwan, I highly recommend to experience some of it.

5. Violent crime is low

When it comes to violent crime, Taiwan is one of the safest countries in Asia, relatively speaking. Violent crime does happen, but usually among criminal groups, rarely are civilians dragged into that, the streets are very safe, also at night. There are occasional night club brawls and bar fights, but if we put all that in perspective, these occurrences are fairly rare, especially involving Westerners. One is much more likely to get hit by a scooter or car in Taiwan than be dragged into a violent conflict (check my Taiwan traffic survival tips), so while you can feel perfectly safe on the streets, be very cauctious when you're crossing a road.

6. People work hard

While Taiwanese are among top in the world when it comes to long working hours, foreign white collar workers who work in Taiwan often struggle with the general productivity of the working force, as well as with the often conservative hierarchical company culture. With that said, one also cannot deny that Taiwan is full of innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, and manufacturing brilliance.

Construction workers in Taipei, February 2015

Taiwan used to be known as the global manufacturer of cheap consumer goods for Western markets in the 1970s and 1980s, but has since grown into a leader in many industries: From PC components, smartphones, to LEDs and bicycles, however still quite often behind a big foreign brand in form of ODM partnerships, supplying the design and technologies. But there are many famous exceptions: Taiwanese companies like Giant, TSMC, Asus, Innolux, D-Link, and TrendMicro are all leaders in their industries, to just name a few. This success did not happen accidentally.

7. Traditional Han characters

Taiwan is the only country with a Mandarin speaking majority, where traditional Han characters are preserved and used daily. Many Taiwanese are proud of that fact.

Lunar New Year calligraphy, January 2013

Traditional Han characters are in use for over 2500 years, and have had a great impact on the cultures and languages in the wider region, from Korea, Japan all the way to Vietnam and other parts of South East Asia. The communist regime in neighboring China has destroyed traditional characters with an aggressive simplification, Taiwan is the only independent and sovereign country, where they are still in official use today.

8. Breathtaking nature

Taiwan's nature, or what's left of it, is truly breathtaking. The Portuguese were right to call the Taiwanese mainland "Ilha Formosa" or "Beautiful Island" when they sailed by in the 16th century. That's how one of the nicknames of the country's largest island came to be.

My image of the sunrise above Alishan, March 2012

If you come to Taiwan, you should not miss to see places like the Taroko Gorge, Qingshui Cliffs, East Rift Valley and Yilan County, Kenting, Hehuashan, Alishan, Lalashan, Penghu, Green and Orchid Island, to name a few natural marvels of Taiwan. Taiwan is great for hikers, and offers some amazing views, as it has one of the highest mountains in this part of Asia. Similarly, the views on the Pacific Ocean are stuningly beautiful. If you're a photographer, you will love Taiwan.

9. Temples

Temples play a major role in Taiwan's public life, they're often the center of villages, towns and urban districts, commonly surrounded with shops and food markets, where many people flock daily for their divine blessings and to fill up their stomachs.

Longshan Temple in Monga, Taipei, December 2015

Temples are often the only historic buildings that survived the tumultuous past and the current culture of knocking down old buildings only to replace them with gaudy Art-deco styled apartment blocks that offer a quick buck to land owners, and massive profits to construction companies and real-estate moguls. If you want to sample the traditional part of Taiwanese culture, temples and the areas around them should be your first destination.

10. Internet connectivity

When it comes to internet and internet infrastructure, Taiwan is repeatedly among the top countries in the world. According to the latest research of Akmai Technologies, Taiwan was among top 5 in the world when it comes to average internet speeds (in Mbps, Q1 2016). You can download the report here.

Screen grab from Akmai Technologies video (source)

Taiwan was also in the global top 10 when it comes to 4G penetration (source), despite being late to the 4G game. In addition, Taiwan is one of the leaders in developing and implementing 5G technologies (source). Free wi-fi is found very easily in larger cities and towns, lots of cafes and restaurants offer it to their customers. If you come to Taiwan, you won't have a hard time to be connected, and to enjoy speedy internet.

In conclusion

A lot of similar lists mention the friendliness, the food, and the convenience stores as being some of the best things about Taiwan, mostly by people who only visited Greater Taipei. Here is why I have not listed them: Living here for many years, I see things as much more nuanced and complex. Friendliness towards foreigners and strangers is part of the etiquette. Taiwanese food, while not bad per se, is often bland compared to most South and South East Asian cuisines. The usually mentioned night market snacks are not very healthy, and they're overpriced. And as a concerned father, I can't just look past all the food scandals of the recent years. Convenience, as it is understood in Taiwan, equals to riding scooters everywhere, and having small stores with mediocre food being open 24/7 on every street corner. This results in a mentality where people use scooters for short distances instead of walking, adding to the noise and air pollution that is plaguing most urban Taiwan. The 24/7 mentality is also very unhealthy as a lifestyle, I don't believe the benefits outweigh the negative side effects here. However this is just my opinion, you're free to disagree with me.

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