As you head south, Taiwan only becomes more intensely Taiwanese, or “local” as my friends say here. That’s not to say one part of the country’s culture is more important than another, but the south is definitely not as affected by the forces of globalization as is Taipei. I love it though. I’ve heard it said that until you’ve been to Kending, the “Hawaii of Taiwan” in the southernmost part of the island, you haven’t really experienced Taiwan; still, I would argue that all the tourists and foreign expats staking out claims in Taipei haven’t really seen Taiwan until they venture out of the commercial tourist-friendly areas and check out the south, 南部. I know my brief weekend in Tainan City is just that – a brief weekend – but I can’t wait to go back!
1. Night markets. “The night markets in Taipei don’t count; it’s just like walking down any shop-lined street,” said my uncle. No, the night markets in Tainan are something else. Not only does Tainan City host Taiwan’s biggest night market (Huayuan), these night markets have no store fronts or any illusion of permanency during the off hours of the day. Around five o’ clock, vendors start setting up their stalls, booths, and carts on an empty plot of land and then market their wares, advertise their carnival-like games, auction off toys and electronics until two in the morning.
2. Taiwanese dialect. Of course, Mandarin works in most places, but for the best deal, for the smoothest interaction with the lady selling the last bowl of beef broth, to understand the jokes the auctioneer at the night market throws out as he introduces each new toy to the surrounding crowd, you have to know Taiyu (台語). Even young people throw out Taiwanese phrases as they speak to their friends, not only to their parents but to each other when communicating specific ideas or sentiments. Maybe it’s because I grew up listening to Taiwanese dialect in the background of any family gathering, but I found the additional layer of language very intimate, almost creating a spirit of familiarity regardless of relationship.
3. Food. People in Tainan are very proud of the local cuisine. I finally understood one small reason why my roommates and friends go home (south) when they have the chance, that being the food in the south is usually cheaper – and better. 24 hour xiao chi shops selling the best beef noodles, sticky rice studded with pork and nuts and then wrapped and steamed in banana leaves (bazhang in Taiwanese, or zongzi in Mandarin), freshly-slaughtered river eels over rice, etc. I spent an entire day eating and eating and still haven’t exhausted my list of cravings.
Taiwanese people often wonder why trips to America focus so little on food or good restaurant stops while Americans may think the opposite, that the real stop is the sightseeing portion and not the meal. I find that being bicultural, I have come to expect both good food (adequate time to research and introduce said food) and the sights and views particular to that location. In any case, I didn’t mind doing almost nothing but eat for an entire day in Tainan because in traveling around, eating my weight in snacks and drinks, I got to see the city, vendors and motorcycle-filled traffic and hills and all.
4. “Dark Green” (深綠). If the north – particularly Taipei – is the stronghold of the KMT (Guomingdang, or Nationalist Party), the south – particularly Tainan – is its foil, the bastion of support for the DPP, the Democratic Progressive Party whose color is green versus the KMT’s blue. Most of the campaign banners I saw around the National Chengchi University campus in Taipei were blue, for KMT candidates in the upcoming “Five-City Elections” (五都選舉); the ratio of green to blue banners in Tainan was much more even, though I believe I saw more green banners supporting DPP candidates. I haven’t spent enough time in Tainan to know exactly how that political slant affects the residents there, but I do know from a few months in Taipei that party loyalty is still a felt influence, if fading among younger, independent voters (though of course their parents or grandparents of the old guard, whether green or blue, may still creep into their political decision-making…)
5. Pace of life. The pace of life is less hurried than it is in Taipei, for all that Tainan is a city, for all that the other cities in Taiwan are cities. People generally seem more relaxed and transportation certainly isn’t as congested as it is in Taipei. As an American, I’m already inclined to think Taipei people are generally very friendly and that compared to some other big cities, Taipei isn’t too harried; according to my Taiwanese tour guide earlier in the summer and my friends here at the university, Taiwan outside of Taipei is even friendlier, even more willing to lend you their time. “Taipei is almost like it’s own country, not much like the rest of Taiwan,” my friend Debbie said. A little bemused, I only nodded. Now, I can understand a little of what she meant, though I’m still not “local” enough to tell you how.
While Taipei has a clean, efficient metro system (the MRT), Tainan doesn’t, so unless you have a motorcycle (think a scooter or moped, rather than a hulking Harley) or a car – which may be more comfortable but is certainly more difficult to park, especially by crowded night markets! – it’s very difficult to get around. Motorcycles are surprisingly convenient; you can park anywhere and accommodate up to an entire family on one vehicle. I’ve seen dads driving their motorcycle with their wives sitting on the back, a child wedged in between, and another child standing up in front of dad at the front – not terribly uncommon. The “rite of passage” for Taiwanese youth is more often marked by being able to ride a motorcycle at 18 than driving a car, as it is in the States. Clearly, riding a motorcycle is another “local” experience necessary to be inducted into the average Taiwanese lifestyle. On top of that, it’s also INCREDIBLY fun. I almost wish I lived here longer to learn to ride my own.
I will be back in Tainan in two weeks time. Perhaps this time, I’ll have a chance to see the famous Chimei museum and finally, finally have some of Tainan’s famous oa jian (oyster pancake), my favorite night market xiao chi snack (小吃). I can’t wait!