Things I’ll miss about Taiwan

In many ways, Taiwan is a sad place right now (and not just because they know I’m leaving). There’s a sense among so many I speak with that they’ll never spread their wings again and soar. That they’ll always be in China’s shadow, and that China will continue to chip away at Taiwan’s businesses, which simply can’t compete with prices in the mainland. Everywhere you look in Taipei, there are long lines of taxis. Lots of taxis. Few passengers. A taxi driver was telling me just the other night how hard life has become for him and his family. What can you do? They always ask me when me I think things will turn around, when Taiwan will “bounce back.” I don’t know what to say.

In every industry, multinationals are cutting their budgets in Taiwan and other relatively small markets as they focus on the “BRICs” (Brazil, Russia, China and India), those as yet untapped markets that seem to hold so much promise, and you wonder how the other markets will cope. I want to think there’s still a lot of hope for Taiwan. There”s so much wealth here and so much success, and a visit down any of the main streets will tell you that people here are still buying. But everyone’s nervous. Just about all the young people I meet have plans to study abroad. The mindset is that the only way to survive is to get out, to master English and perhaps find a job in China. English schools are everywhere, and they, too, are thriving. English is thought to be one of the keys to getting out, or at least to getting a better-paying job. And it’s true. Jobs are scarce, but there’s a serious need for competent people who speak fluent English. If you can read and write English, you have a tremendous advantage.

Still, I think it’s important not to get sucked into the trap of feeling grief and pity for Taiwan. As I said, there’s still a huge amount of wealth and opportunity here. It’s still one of the most vibrant places I’ve ever seen, and there’s a lot here to love and enjoy. And I know very soon I am going to miss these things terribly.

First, there are the people. The Taiwanese are truly a class act – gracious, polite, willing to stop and help strangers, always putting their best face forward even in hard times. And even the aforementioned taxi drivers – they, too, amaze me with their kindness and honesty and refusal to sacrifice their morals. At least three times, including just this past weekend, I’ve gotten into a taxi not knowing my destination was just around the corner, and they dropped me off and refused to take any money. (In Shanghai, I’ve been driven literally a few inches and paid the full fare, though the driver could simply have pointed and said, “It’s right across the street, over there.”) And the taxi drivers, and just about everyone else here, are just so nice, so decent and caring. Quite a different story than in Hong Kong. Similar to what I often experienced in Singapore, but no where else in Asia (or the US, for that matter).

I don’t think I love the people of any other country more than I love the Taiwanese. I can tell story after story about good Samaritans, delightful conversations with strangers, offers to help from out of the blue. And just thinking about it now, knowing I will be here only another five or six days (three days this week, and a couple days in January when I return and gather my stuff), I am filled with a sentimental mixture of sadness and appreciation and respect. I know I am going to miss these people soon. Very soon.

There are lots of little things that make Taiwan so magical. The throngs of people lining the main roads like Zhongxiao Dong Lu all through the night, even at midnight, shopping and eating and drinking. The immaculate subways and an infrastructure that really works. The courtesy of the drivers, who actually stop as the light turns red and always yield to pedestrians. The odd weekly ritual when seemingly everyone in the neighborhood gathers on the street to socialize with one another as they wait for the garbage truck to come and take away their trash. (There are almost no public wastebaskets here, and getting rid of garbage is a social event – you really have to see it to understand and appreciate it. Literally hundreds of people pour onto the street to participate, carrying their plastic bags of carefully separated recyclable and disposable rubbish.) The gorgeous mountains that surround the city, leading to the hot springs of Beitou. The boisterous night markets where the vendors never push you to buy and the prices are fair (bargaining doesn’t seem to be part of the general culture here). The little alleys that wind around the major streets filled with small shops and restaurants. Honest landlords who go out of their way to provide excellent service. Even honest real estate brokers. I know there must be crime and dishonesty here, but I’ve never seen it.

I’ve made it something of a Friday night ritual after work to eat at the TGI Friday’s at Zhongxiao-Fuxing, where I regularly meet up with employees of the AIT (the equivalent of the US State Department, which we can’t call the State Department because we don’t recognize Taiwan as a country) and other expats. The staff knows us all by name. They know I like my ice cream served with a long spoon, and that I want my salad dressing on the side. They help me with my Chinese characters and even send me text messages asking when I’ll be back. I am going to miss them like you wouldn’t believe. They offered to throw a party for me my last night here (I’m not much into parties and told them I’d rather keep my exit low-key).

Yeah, there’s a lot about Taiwan that is absolutely first rate. I’d recommend it to anyone considering living in Asia, especially if you have a family. It doesn’t have the sense of the unexpected that Hong Kong and Shanghai do, that sense that just about anything can happen as you walk into the night. It’s not a city of surprises. But it’s anything but boring, and I’d rate it high above Singapore in terms of things to do and see (though that’s not setting the bar very high, come to think of it). I know there will be moments in Beijing when I will look back longingly and wonder, Why on earth did I ever leave Taipei, where you can wear a short-sleeved shirt and no jacket in December, and where people walking in the pedestrian lanes aren’t considered moving targets? I know, Beijing has its own qualities, and comparisons like that aren’t fair; but they are inevitable.

So thanks to the people who brought me out here, especially Jerome Keating and Bill Stimson, without whose urging I would never have come. It was more than worth it, and I will have the fondest memories of this place and its people for the rest of my life. I’m trying to savor every moment I can as I prepare my belongings for the shippers and get ready to say my farewells. It’s when you prepare to leave a place that you suddenly realize all there is that makes it so special, and you feel the twinge of regret for the places you never got to and the people you never called. But Taiwan will still be here, and I know I’ll be back. And for all the angst and uncertainty, I think they will do okay. God knows they deserve to, and I believe a people as smart and motivated as this can’t be put down for too long. I can’t tell my friends when Taiwan will “bounce back,” but I can honestly say I believe it will.

I didn’t really know what this post was going to morph into as I started it, I just knew I wanted to tell the world how much I love Taiwan before i depart. Now that the post is written, I’m a little embarrassed at its meandering and occasionally mawkish tone, but its completely from the heart. So let me say it one more time: I love Taiwan.

The Discussion: 30 Comments

Damn, got me doubting all over again.

I’m graduating in a few days. I really, really want to go to Taipei (have lived there before), but don’t have a job or anything there yet. There is an internship in Beijing that I would probably get if I applied, and Beijing is a great city. The plan now is to apply for BJ, and at the same time try to find something in TP, and I am resigning to the fact that I might not go to TP, and hey Beijing is not so bad, in fact I love that city. But now you’re writing all this and I remember again that I really want to go back there.

December 12, 2006 @ 10:20 pm | Comment

I can’t say it enough – I love it here. It all depends on what you’re looking for, and only you can answer that question.

December 12, 2006 @ 10:36 pm | Comment


This is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing that you’ve posted. I can feel that the words come straightly from you heart.

I’ve been putting off my plan for an extended study leave in Taipei. Now you have inspired me to revive the plan so that I can spend some time in this lovely place.

December 12, 2006 @ 10:38 pm | Comment

You’d better get back in the habit of calling it, “Taiwan Province of China”.

December 12, 2006 @ 10:56 pm | Comment

Fat Cat, I truly apreciate it. The truth is, i think it’s a bit all over the place, but yes, my heart was in it, in every syllable.

Ivan, very funny.

December 12, 2006 @ 11:16 pm | Comment

Lovely post, Richard. Now I want to go there!

December 13, 2006 @ 2:05 am | Comment

Not mawkish!

December 13, 2006 @ 2:15 am | Comment

Don’t forget to take your respirator.

Sorry about the above post.

No problem – deleted. Raj

December 13, 2006 @ 4:01 am | Comment


I spent two years in Taiwan, and it was absolutely wonderful. There is something truly magical about Taiwan, and you word it so well. It was actually my experience in Taiwan that made me decide to move to the mainland. Why? Because maybe somewhere in my illogical mind I thought somehow I could be a part of making China more like Taiwan. People keep talking about when Taiwan comes “back to the fold”, but I think China has much to learn from Taiwan, and I wouldn’t mind seeing the mainland returning to taiwan. No bargaining, a populace of good morals, beautiful skies and streets with no trash, and a constant feeling of excitement.

Taiwan will not get left behind, so long as it realizes it needs to keep doing what its doing and not focus on the beast next door. A lot of people recommend mainlanders should spend time in the states or Britain to see democracy in action, but that never works (ever met a graduate student from China in the states? They leave america more communist than when they got here). Instead, I strongly believe China would do best to send its best and brightest to Taiwan, that’s when you’ll see changes happenening and hearts opening.

Richard, I don’t know what your purpose in Beijing is, but don’t lose hope. I have been told that everything you see in the big cities in China today is what you’d see in Taibei in the late 80’s. There is still hope yet.

December 13, 2006 @ 4:44 am | Comment

“A lot of people recommend mainlanders should spend time in the states or Britain to see democracy in action, but that never works (ever met a graduate student from China in the states? They leave america more communist than when they got here)”

Oh, Chip, that is SO TRUE not only about Chinese students but Arab students, who turn fundamentalist in the West, and really, students from just about everywhere.

December 13, 2006 @ 5:58 am | Comment

Although once in a while you get some open-minded ones (they tend to be from Sichuan and the other southern provinces, anybody notice that pattern?). Last week, I went to a party held by the Taiwan student club at my college, and I was surprised to see a couple of students from Lanzhou there. It was kinda funny when a few people forced them to hold the Taiwan flag for a picture. They protested VERY loudly, but once the picture was taken, all agreed it was pretty funny. It was nice to see that people were willing to have fun together without getting all pissed off about politics.

December 13, 2006 @ 7:25 am | Comment

Displaying the flag of Taiwan is illegal in China. Some foreign (not Taiwanese) students did it at an international school and got in trouble with the school authorities. Hope that picture doesn’t get circulated.

December 13, 2006 @ 8:53 am | Comment

They leave america more communist than when they got here? I doubt there is a statistical basis for this. You need to draw a line between being patriotic and being pro-communism. They may love their country, but not necessarily the party. It resembles the situation here where you could be anti-war and the Bush administration, and be very patriotic at the same time.

December 13, 2006 @ 10:17 am | Comment

Sonagi, I’m in the states right now finishing my degree, I’ll be back in Beijing in a week. That story happened here, not in China. So no worries, that picture was taken in a safe environment;).

James, you’re picture of treatment of foreign students is horribly incorrect. I have NEVER heard of any treatment like that (I won’t deny it happens from time to time, but systematically? Doubt it). What makes you think that’s how I look at or treat Chinese students? You claim I see them as Long Duc Dong, yet I never said anything even resembling that comment. Stop putting words in my mouth, it makes you look like an idiot.

Sepa, I see what you’re saying, I was generalizing, and I don’t doubt the main cause of what I see is just patriotism. But I have made the general observation that a large portion of students from China do not absorb any of the democratic culture of their host countries, only watch CCTV (if they have access to it), and cannot see the forest because of the trees. They are surrounded by media that can question anything done by the government, yet they ignore it. They can openly discuss religion, yet were they to do that back home they may be arrested. They see the government being changed every two years by the power of the vote, yet they think it means nothing. And it never occurs to them that the liberal freedoms guaranteed by the constitution are crucial to building the educational environment that they are now using. If I’m wrong at this generalization, then I apologize, it’s just frustrating to see such amazing individuals being limited by the blinders they put on their eyes.

December 13, 2006 @ 11:30 am | Comment

Hi Richard,
To me you are really an explorer! Hope everything will go well with you in the future… I have never thought about leaving my home country and worked oversea. I guess I am too afraid of loneliness… Take care…
all the best,

December 13, 2006 @ 12:01 pm | Comment

Hi Richard,To me you are really an explorer! Hope everything will go well with you in the future… I have never thought about leaving my home country and worked oversea. I guess I am too afraid of loneliness… Take care…all the best,V

December 13, 2006 @ 12:02 pm | Comment

(Sorry, I have to edit this. See top comment. Let’s bring it down a notch, okay? Lisa)

December 13, 2006 @ 1:09 pm | Comment


You make an excellent sales man for Taiwan and better than what Ah Mei has done so far. My parents studied there in the late 50s and early 60s. Society was not as genteel then I suppose but from what you have written it has improved significantly. And I was born there but never did return. You give me some reasons to do so.

Bon Voyage and Bon Chance.

December 13, 2006 @ 1:20 pm | Comment

“James” wrote (after having been banned several times already):

“Fuck you, Richy, this one is for you. You are nothing more than like little conservative Russy fucktard Ivan, and his little underling Fat Cat, whom he fucks every night in the arse.”

(Richard, I would prefer for that comment to remain, just as a reminder of what kind of creep we’re dealing with.)

Now. In another thread, “Flabbergasted” concurred with James’ personal assessment of me.

Flabbergasted, do you still concur with James’s, ah, “reasoning?”

December 13, 2006 @ 1:34 pm | Comment


You have a some what faulty logic which you so deviously employ here.

James like mandarin oranges
Flabbergasted like mandarin oranges
James has committed murder
Flabbergasted must also have committed murder

Now I am not the troll here, like The Great Mohammad Ali formerly known as Cassius Clay said oh so eloquently ‘there aint no fly on my face’.
My assessment of you may have been reinforced now.

December 13, 2006 @ 1:48 pm | Comment

Alright, it’s got to stop. This is a beautiful piece of work that Richard has written. It’s a way that Richard celebrates the start of a new chapter in his life. So please don’t ruin it.

Flabbergasted, you don’t know half of the history of what had happened in the past. If you do, you definitely do not want to be associated with the likes of “James”, whom we have verified as the reincarnation of a previous malicious troll. Believe me, he is the real racist who thrives on stirring up racial discontent. And he is not Chinese. No self-respecting Chinese person will call himself “Chinaman”.

This is all I want to say here. If you want to talk through this, I would like to invite you to come over to the Duckpond and leave me a private message. You have to email Richard first before he will activate your account.

December 13, 2006 @ 2:27 pm | Comment

Fat Cat

Peace man I come in peace. Yes I should have ignored Ivan and I had ignored what James had said to Richard. Believe me I want nothing to do with the expletives that he had used but Ivan wanted a fight and I donot back down easy.

As the Americans say, my bad, lets get on with interesting political debate instead of trading insults.

December 13, 2006 @ 3:00 pm | Comment

Richard, we will miss you in Taiwan as well. We will miss your participation in numerous ways–even at our Breakfast Club. Taiwan is a place that gives much to people like you, but also in turn benefits much from you.

And, you couldn’t have put it better as to why we want to maintain our democracy as well as our uniqueness.


December 13, 2006 @ 3:06 pm | Comment

Hope when you may return to Taiwan, its food would finally appeal to your liking. Not in advocating the “No Changes” talk, but Taiwan always welcomes back any second, third …, timers. It’s Taiwan afterall, you know.

December 13, 2006 @ 4:03 pm | Comment

Fat Cat, thanks once more for bringing the thread back on track. It’s so sad when you work on something and then see the conversation about it deteriorate.

Thanks Jerome and everyone else for your support. It seems a universal conclusion of everyone the troll excepted): Taiwan is a great and beautiful country, a jewel that has to be treasured and adored. I am so sad to be leaving, a sadness that is tempered only by my knowledge that I’m about to embark on yet another adventure. But I will always look back on this experience with boundless gratitude and affection.

December 13, 2006 @ 5:59 pm | Comment

When my wife dragged me to Taiwan I hated it and thought it was ugly beyond description. On a trip to Kyoto I started using her digital camera to get some pictures of Japan. When I returned to Taiwan I was surpised to start noticing things around where we lived that would make nice photos. One day I took the camera out and when I transferred the digital images onto the computer found they were beautiful. After that, strange the way this happened, I gradually, over the weeks and months began to see Taiwan’s real beauty, even without the camera. There is unique beauty here, but it is hidden. Once you learn to see it, it is everywhere. This is very much like falling in love with someone. I think it’s very possible to fall in love with Taiwan, like Richard says. The same thing has happened to me.

Because of the barbarian way in which China treats Taiwan, I expected the worse when I recently accompanied my wife on a trip to Beijing. I wasn’t too keen to go. The trip was a tour with my wife’s faculty at the university where she teaches. They bussed us here and there to this tourist spot and the next. In between each we were taken to big government enterprises where we were let loose so that we could spend our money on pearls in one, silk in another, fancy porcelain in a third, and jade in a fourth, and so on and so forth. The government mandated that the tour buses all had to stop off at these places. I resented the government interference. In particular there was a point where we made a long trip that lasted the whole morning. I wanted to stop to go to the bathroom. The bus wouldn’t stop for someone on the bus. And yet it stopped and spent over an hour or two at the spot where the government decreed it should stop.

And yet at some of these places, in my boredom, I struck up conversations with workers. I was surprised to meet some really nice Mainlanders and to discover that among them there are beautiful people too, just like in Taiwan. You can see how bad my impression was of China beforehand, that this would surprise me.

My categories now have crumbled. The wife of one of the other faculty members that I talked a lot with, kept saying that what she saw in China now was the way Taiwan was when she was growing up and going to school, before it became democratic, free, and prosperous.

At one point the faculty was entertained by the faculty of a major university. The head of that department, after treating us to a feast, leaned back in his seat (he’d drunk quite a lot by that time) and declared complacently, “China has been very generous with Hong Kong and Taiwan.” I found it hard to believe that not a single one of the Taiwanese faculty spoke up. Everybody was trying to be polite. I wanted to say something but was not even a member of the department so kept silent too.

At another bigger university, the department of that university met with my wife’s faculty for a luncheon discussion. The issue was the problem of building social capital. How to create community. A faculty member from that university spoke to the Taiwanese faculty about this. The problem, that Chinese department member said, was that there was no trust, no community, no “social capital.” And the issue was how the government could create it, by what policy this could be engendered.

The Taiwanese faculty were encouraged to participate. Each one simpered out some vague intellectual generalization that talked around the issue, but didn’t go to its core. One apologized for Taiwan’s embarassing disorder (apparently referring to the political mess over corruption). Finally, the room grew silent. I couldn’t hold myself back any longer. I raised my hand. I said I was the only one in the room who didn’t know anything about any of this. I wasn’t even in this field but was just present because I accompanied my wife. I said they were talking about creating community, engendering social capital, etc, as if they were talking about making a building or building a machine. But community, real community, I said, is not like that. It is a living thing like a tree. It comes alive from within. And then I mentioned the case of a village in China where recently the people had organized to oppose a Communist Party Official who expropriated and sold for his own profit a community asset. I mentioned this as an example of social capital engendering itself, of community building itself. What the goverment did was send in the police. People were shot and killed.

I said the problem is that when a real community organizes in China, the form its organization takes, which is of course to fight for justice and fairness, is a threat to the Communist Party and so the police are sent in to squash it.

Social capital, I said, can’t be created by the government. They have to learn how to allow it to exist and to evolve.

Finally, I said that I wasn’t ashamed of the political mess going on in Taiwan but saw that as a sign that the country was in transition. I said that China and the United States keep telling Taiwan what it should do, how it should behave, but that both these big countries would do well to listen instead to Taiwan, learn from what is happening there, and let Taiwan speak. The Taiwanse have many NGO programs and have built up quite a respectable social capital here in Taiwan. And yet at that luncheon meeting the Chinese faculty didn’t let a Taiwanese stand and give the talk on that topic, instead their faculty member talked down to the Taiwanese, addressed them as if he had something to teach them.

What struck me the most about this meeting was the way nobody said the truth. They talked intellectually around it. The real problem, the causative malignancy, nobody could talk about. Nobody could mention. The Taiwanese faculty were as guilty of this as the Beijing faculty. They knew what they needed not to talk about in order to be good guests.

When I’d finished speaking there was complete silence. And then, a moment later, the group started talking about something completely different.

A woman from Taiwan, who had accompanied her husband there, came up to me afterwards and said “You said just what I wanted to say, but I never could have said it because I would have embarrassed my husband in front of his whole faculty.”

I really appreciate what Richard wrote about Taiwan. It touched my heart. Richard came to one of my dream workshops in Taipei and the story came out that explained the motivation behind the wonderful work he’s doing with this website, the Peking Duck. I was deeply moved and touched to encounter someone so authentic, so true, and so deeply real as he is. Learning what I did from his work with the dream made me respect his work with the Peking Duck even more than I did before. I think Beijing is the right place for him to be. He may love Taiwan, and he may be Taiwan’s true friend, but China needs him. China needs some one person who has the courage to stand up and tell the truth. Richard is that one person and for me it has been a special treat to have met him. He’s made my life richer. I have no doubt that he will make China a richer place too, and be made richer by it in turn.

December 14, 2006 @ 7:53 am | Comment

Bill, you’re embarrassing me! Thanks so much for the amazingly kind words, and it’s I who should be thanking you for what went on in the dream group. It’s so funny (interesting), how in a few hours, and sometimes in just a few seconds you can gain so much understanding of yourself and your motivations.

I’m glad you were willing to reconsider your original perceptions of China. I have problems (to say the least) with their attitude toward Taiwan, but I also know many of the people that harbor these attitudes – and just about everyone on the Mainland does – are in truth just like you and me, decent people with their attributes and flaws, hopes, dreams, etc.

I will definitely be coming back to Taiwan, hopefully many times, and hope I can participate in another dream group. Thank you for what you bring to people’s lives.

December 14, 2006 @ 2:13 pm | Comment

Hi Richard,

It’s sad to know that you are leaving Taipei. But I know such wonderful opportunity in BJ only happens once in a life time. So go on and grasp that.

It was a great experience working with you and serving both of our favorite client (I am betting that you’ll agree). Please do not forget to drop a line from time to time and let me know how things go in BJ. The winter is cold there but I am sure you’ll make it just fine.

Let me know if you ever came back to visit Taipei and we’ll go to that TGI Friday again.

Take care and all the best,


December 14, 2006 @ 3:42 pm | Comment

Perhaps Taiwan just needs to muddle through and wait for its obnoxious bloated mainland brother to fall on its face, choking on “particulate matter 10 micrometres or less in diameter.” Another thing Taiwan has in its favor is an ongoing good relationship with Japan. Don’t despair just yet.

December 15, 2006 @ 8:55 am | Comment

Most enjoyable post I’ve read so no more apols for being mawish. Am I, btw, the only one here who doesn’t know what mawkish means?

Also, another great contribution from Mr Stimson. His insight, honestly and infuriatingly consistent “unique” observations turns a great-site into a world-class site if you ask me.

Although it also makes pretty grim reading for those of us who dream of similarly dazzling the rest of the expat world and producing gasps of astonishment in our local bars with our devastating and oh so clever repartee…..

Wow, all this honesty is catching.

I’ve said too much… I’ll end by supporting with both vigour and gusto the kind words and opinions of the Taiwanese. A truly brilliant people in many respects.

December 17, 2006 @ 3:13 pm | Comment

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