My ninth day on the road was short and sweet. Tainan City 台南市 is less than 50 kilometers from my destination, Kaohsiung City, Taiwan’s great southern metropolis. I knew it would be an easy ride so I woke up late, checked out of my hostel at the very last minute, and went wandering through the nearby laneways in search of breakfast and a decent place to get some work done.
My shoes were completely waterlogged from the previous night’s torrential downpour so I was wearing flip flops this particular morning. I always feel like a big slob when I wear flip flops on the streets even if everyone else is doing it too. I imagine myself as The Dude in The Big Lebowski, slovenly sauntering around the supermarket in a housecoat. My cultural programming at work, I suppose—nobody else seems to mind.
That being said, I was looking even less presentable than usual, what with the heavy tan lines circling my ankles, clearly demarcating my ghostly white feet from the boiled prawn pink of my sunburned legs. I had soaked up far too much sun while riding from Budai to Tainan two days previously. I was not hugely concerned about this, mind you—I was bound to attract attention regardless of how much of a mess I was.
At this point in my journey I was starting to relax into my role as alien visitor from another galaxy. Taiwanese society is much more homogeneous than what I am used to back home and while the population here is diverse there aren’t so many obviously non-Asian people around, especially down south.
Since arriving in Tainan 台南 I have felt like even more of an circus sideshow freak than I usually do. I will admit that I am still surprised when I am treated differently simply because of the colour of my skin. I am generally not conscious of my whiteness when I’m out and about, nor do I find it in any way unusual or exotic to be around so many Asian people—that’s normal for a Torontonian! And so I really notice when people try hard not to stare at me or whatever. Not that I mind, for I have a healthy appreciation of the absurd, but it’s still very strange.
White privilege in Asia is very real. I am no expert in social justice matters so I won’t comment at length. I will, however, say that I am the beneficiary of a great deal of good will, patience, and curiosity not only because I am a foreigner in Taiwan, but also—specifically—because I am white. I recognize and appreciate that even though it makes me feel a little uncomfortable at times—which is one among many reasons why I have endeavored to be a good guest in this country.
That being said, I feel as if the benefits apply mainly to people who are just passing through. If I were to stay here I would probably grow to be somewhat annoyed with the everyday micro-aggressions commonly experienced by expats in Asia. I can’t say I really hold it against the Taiwanese people, however. Powerful forces have conspired to isolate Taiwan from the global flow of trade and culture. The fact that I am encountering increasing provincialism as I distance myself from Taipei 台北 should come as no great surprise. And, really, who am I to complain about big beaming smiles, awkward hellos, and children who pull on the shirtsleeves of their parents to point out the alien in their midst? These days I am still enjoying the novelty of the experience. And, anyhow, I have absolutely nothing bad to say about the hospitality of the Taiwanese people. It is an absolute pleasure to travel these lands.
In any case, I sauntered over to a place called Kaffe @ Home for breakfast, coffee, and to get some work done. I knew the ride wouldn’t be strenuous so I was in no particular hurry to leave. I spent my noonday taking care of business, developing photos, and jotting down notes about my trip for use in writing letters back home and blogging.
While I was working a young Taiwanese man attracted my attention and asked to use my Macbook charger. “Sure, here you go”, I said without a second thought, failing to note his unusual command of English. Later, when I went to prepare my bicycle for the upcoming ride, he came out and lit a cigarette in the beaming sun, fidgeting nervously. Again, I thought nothing of it; my mind was elsewhere, packing up. Eventually I stopped to look up, realizing how oblivious I had been to this young man’s interest in talking with me. Here I was feeling quite isolated—and I hardly even noticed someone’s attempts to break the ice!
Wei Ting, as I learned his name was, had recently returned from some time spent in the United States, and was intent on applying to American universities to study computer science, but was concerned about his English proficiency. Later I learned he was feeling very out of place back in his homeland—a sentiment shared by a young Taiwanese I met in Taichung a few days prior to this chance meeting. Having connected online I said goodbye to Wei Ting and made my way out to the main street, bound for my first brief stop of the day: the Koxinga Ancestral Shrine 鄭成功祖廟.
Koxinga 國姓爺1 is a pivotal figure in Taiwanese history. Born in Japan to a Chinese father and Japanese mother, he fought against the Manchu on behalf of the Ming Dynasty in the final decades of its existence. In a desperate attempt to secure a base of operations free from Manchu harassment Koxinga crossed the strait and expelled the Dutch from Taiwan in 1661. He perished a year later, a victim of malaria, but not before founding the short-lived Kingdom of Dōngníng 東寧 (or Tungning), the first culturally Chinese government in Taiwan, with its capital in present-day Tainan 台南.
The Koxinga narrative is interesting to me for more than just its obvious historic value. Consider, for instance, the near-universal appeal of the underdog story: Koxinga was up against a nearly unbeatable enemy, fighting what amounted to a lost cause. There really wasn’t much left of the Ming Dynasty by the time Koxinga arrived on the world stage. He was, in fact, still in university when Beijing fell to the rebels, and the Manchu had completed their conquest of most of China by the time Koxinga began leading military campaigns.
Then there are the curious parallels to the modern history of Taiwan. Much like Koxinga, generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek 蔣中正, the reigning president of the Republic of China from 1948 until his death in 1975, came to Taiwan out of desperation, as a last resort. Neither of these historic figures identified as Taiwanese. Both were buying time on Taiwan in a vain attempt to retake the mainland. Both perished with their dreams unrealized.
The Koxinga shrine itself is interesting enough, though I will admit that I did not stay long. The entire place was overrun by tourists, most of them from mainland China. I could tell from the volume—everyone was buzzing around like angry hornets, shouting over one another, marveling at every little detail and making a big show of things. One tour group leader wore a headset and had a portable speaker strapped to his chest simply so he could be heard. It was obscenely funny—but I had some ways to go before my day was done.
The brief ride from Tainan to Kaohsiung was not especially interesting. I kept to the main roads and pretty much never left the urban sprawl that connects the two cities. It is almost completely flat without much variation in terrain aside from the occasional river crossing. No wonder everyone recommends hugging the hills on the way south—the western coast of Taiwan is deadly boring, a fact made most apparent to me on my ride from Lukang to Budai.
Since I haven’t very much to say about the ride itself I may as well comment on the rules of the road in Taiwan. From a western perspective traffic in Taiwan looks like sheer chaos. East Asian people have a reputation for being poor drivers where I’m from—deserved or not, I don’t know—and here we have an entire nation of people cutting each other off, changing three lanes at a time, jostling for position, speeding up just to arrive at a red light a few seconds earlier, and so on. In addition, Taiwanese city streets are almost always lined with parked scooters, street food carts, and other obstacles, with no safe spaces for pedestrians to walk, compounding the sense of chaos. It has the appearance of reckless insanity on a mass scale.
Where I am from we tend to place a lot of importance on maintaining near-total spatial awareness around our vehicles while we drive. We look over our shoulders, keep an eye on the rear-view mirror, check our blind spot, and so on. Here in Taiwan you might not notice very much of that, especially not in the city. Motorists tend to look straight ahead, especially those riding scooters. This would be dangerous except almost everyone is doing it—at which point a new set of rules come into play. All of a sudden you don’t have to worry quite so much about cutting anyone off—you can just leap into traffic with the expectation that anyone coming up from behind will adjust their course accordingly. Obviously this is still dangerous—what if there is no room to maneuver? And yet it somehow seems to work2.
There are several notable differences in the style of driving between northern and southern Taiwan. Up north, especially in Taipei, there is some semblance of order. People generally stop when they’re supposed to. Not so down south. Red lights are routinely ignored, speed limits are disregarded, nobody signals, and everyone tailgates. I have a saying for this: traffic laws in Taiwan are merely suggestions.
Riding a bicycle in the midst of all this chaos isn’t as dangerous as it seems. Rather, I hope it’s not! I have gotten into the habit of looking both ways when crossing intersections even if the light is green—motorists might zip through at any time. I also ride defensively, controlling the space around me as best I can. When things are tight I swerve a little to give the suggestion that I need more space than I’m actually using. Usually I needn’t do anything at all—with the laser-focus on whatever’s in front of them, most drivers—especially those riding scooters—will see me in advance and give me some extra space. It might actually help that I’m on a bicycle. Since cycling is so popular in Taiwan most motorists are very used to sharing the road with those of us getting by with pedal power. It probably doesn’t hurt that I’m an alien zipping around in tight-fitting bicycle shorts though!
Eventually I made it to the outskirts of Kaohsiung 高雄. I was expecting more of an industrial wasteland based on various reports I had read on the internet—but it wasn’t all that different from places I had been in the preceding days. Sure, there were plenty of corrugated metal warehouses, ill-kept scrapyards, and small factories belching noxious smoke into the air, but these are common sights all over western Taiwan.
Not long after entering the city I made it to Sanmin 三民, my destination. Mabel3, a girl I had met up with in Tainan had graciously offered me a place to stay, a welcome change from the hostels and hotels I had been lodging at since Zhubei 竹北. I was just in time, too, for the sun was setting over the Kaohsiung city skyline, and her apartment was high up enough to afford a great view.
I should describe something of my relationship to Mabel, my host, so that the rest of my story is more coherent. In brief, we met in Taipei at one of my gigs about a month prior to my trip, back when I was still just dreaming about it. The club I was playing at was almost completely empty that night so there was plenty of time to chat. She told me she went to university down in Kaohsiung 高雄 and was visiting Taipei to party and see some friends. We got along pretty well thanks to her excellent grasp of English but I wasn’t interested in anything other than friendship—and I made that abundantly clear in a forthright yet respectful manner when I sensed, in a roundabout way, that she might be interested in me.
After parting ways that night I mentioned that it would be cool to meet up in southern Taiwan if I ever got around to making the trip—which is one reason she came to visit me in Tainan with her friend the night before. And that, in turn, led to her inviting me to stay at her place in Kaohsiung. I accepted after reconfirming the ground rules in an open and frank conversation over text messaging.
Mabel had a roommate, Pearl. Apparently Pearl spoke English nearly as well as Mabel—but she was absolutely paralyzed in my presence and could hardly spit out a word. Instead she spoke in rapid-fire Chinese to my host, who revealed herself to be a skilled translator. In this fashion we managed to have awkward three-way conversations, bouncing between languages, as the night progressed.
Anyway, I had a shower after arriving, dressed in clean clothes, and joined my hosts for dinner at an American-themed diner a short bus ride away. To be honest I wasn’t especially impressed with the food nor the prices at whatever establishment we ended up at. I’d rather have had a hearty bowl of beef noodle soup than some poor excuse for a hamburger in Taiwan—but I was the guest, and I did my best to act amenable. My new friends seemed to like the place at least.
Once dinner was over Mabel asked me if I’d like to grab a drink. I said sure, why not? In Taiwan it has been my habit to say “yes” to requests like these. But I asked to go somewhere local. The roommate, with a twinkle in her eye, seemed to know just the place. Mabel smirked and off we went, walking through the wide streets of Kaohsiung.
I was keenly interested in how Kaohsiung might differ from Taipei but didn’t notice very much on this first cursory exploration of this southern city after dark. Kaohsiung, at a glance, seemed like more of the same only with more room to sprawl. Taipei is surrounded by mountains whereas Kaohsiung has plenty of flat land to build outward rather than upward. As such there was more room between buildings, wider roads, and seemingly less congestion, though it might have just been the neighbourhood we were in. Beyond that I didn’t pick up on much. I looked forward to riding around and seeing the sights the next day.
After a short walk we arrived at a Canadian-themed pub, an expat hangout. So much for taking me someplace local! I ordered a can of Canada Dry, having grown apprehensive of drinking alcohol after riding in the sun. It was served on a red felt maple leaf coaster, obviously handmade.
The three of us reclined with sappy songs by The Tragically Hip wafting over the stereo. Across from us a bunch of lanky white guys leaned on a foosball table and conversed about hockey or something else stereotypically Canadian. Truly, it was just like being back home—except I never go to such places in my own country. Quite frankly, I assumed these girls were sharing a private joke with each other. I called them out for this cruel trick but they protested their innocence with such earnest conviction that I let the matter slide.
Our conversations that night continually drifted back to the subject of CCR, or cross-cultural relationships4, a Taiwanese term for dating across the culture divide between east and west. Pearl had, until recently, been pining for a much older foreign man with whom she had previously had some kind of relationship. He had broken up with her (or simply stopped seeing her—it wasn’t clear) with the stated reason that she was “too young”. At the time of our meeting Pearl was completely crushed by the news that the object of her affection had started seeing someone else her own age, exposing his explanation as a mistruth.
It was in many respects exemplary of a pattern I have observed since moving to Taiwan: uncouth, often older foreign men mixing it up with hopelessly romantic locals who fool themselves into thinking they’re on to something real. I can forgive Pearl for being young and naive—but I’ve met Taiwanese women in their 30s who seem shockingly clueless about the blatant self-interest of their various foreign paramours. I don’t mean to make any crass generalizations here—and I’m aware the innocence might be an act—but in my brief time in this nation I’ve heard an awful lot of sob stories about this sort of thing.
Case in point: I learned Mabel’s excellent grasp of English partly resulted from a relationship she had with one of her English tutors—when she was a teenager. You don’t want to know how old he was.
Anyhow, it may seem strange to discuss these subjects in what amounts to a bicycle journal, but the goal of this project is to capture my impressions from riding around the island—and this was part of my experience. I am not simply interested in tearing up some asphalt and putting the miles behind me. I am interested in exploring the culture of Taiwan as much as I ride around her shores—and cultural differences in relationship practices are among the most interesting topics to explore.
Of course, this did lead to some complications later on—but I am getting a little ahead of the story now. It is enough to say that I slept well that night and was ready to continue my journey the next day. I had Liuqiu 琉球 (also known as “little Okinawa”) in my sights—and I would indeed make it there on my tenth day on the road.
- The name “Koxinga” is a romanization of indeterminate origin, neither Wade-Giles or any other system I am aware of. There’s probably a good story here but I haven’t taken the time to look it up. His name in pinyin, for what it’s worth, is Guóxìngyé. He is more commonly known to Mandarin-speaking Taiwanese as Zhèng Chénggōng 鄭成功, hence the name of the ancestral shrine, 鄭成功祖廟. ↩
- I could be deeply wrong about this as I haven’t done any research to back up my sentiment. How many traffic accidents are there per capita? How many serious injuries and deaths? How does this compare to other nations? I leave this as an exercise to the reader. ↩
- Names changed to protect the innocent. For some reason I don’t completely understand Taiwanese women tend to adopt English names that make me think of grandmothers. I feel as if I have met (or at least seen) many names from this tables of popular names from 1920s America. Stay weird, Taiwan. ↩
- In case it isn’t obvious I don’t care much for the term “cross-cultural relationship” or the controversy that surrounds this practice. I’m used to a very multicultural environment where it isn’t at all unusual to cross cultural boundaries. In fact, it might even be the norm. I understand why the practice is so heavily politicized in Taiwan but I can’t help but feel like the whole thing is hugely overblown, a consequence of mild xenophobia and the dissolution of traditional gender roles in a rapidly changing society. ↩