Nobody Does It Better: Taiwan Shows the U.S. How

Guest Post by Valerie Soe

I've been living in Taiwan this summer working on my new documentary Love Boat: Taiwan, and being out of the United States for a few months has made me wonder: why can't things be like this in the U.S.? I'm not fetishizing Asia or throwing unnecessary shade at the US of A but there are definitely things we could learn from how it's done here in Taiwan. So here are a handful of examples of stuff that they do in Taiwan that I wish we could do in the United States.

Free, clean, convenient, and accessible public bathrooms. This is so simple but makes life so much better. Every station in Taiwan’s vast public transit system, the MRT, has bathrooms that are open to everyone whenever the station is open. They’re kept nice and tidy and they even have electronic sensing devices to let you know when stalls are vacant. Since everyone needs to use the bathroom it’s a nice to not have to search all over for a place to do your business. Somehow this seems like it should be a public right, not a privilege, which would be a great concept to adopt in the U.S.

Functional public transit and railways. Like many Asian cities Taipei has a great subway system. Trains run every 2 minutes from early morning until late at night, the subway maps are clear and readable, announcements (in three languages!) for each station are understandable (unlike the indecipherable static on BART trains), and train cars and stations are immaculate. In addition, there's a fast, reliable and affordable high-speed rail system linking the major cities in Taiwan. A HSR ticket from Taipei in the north to Kaosiung in the south is less than US$50. That's 200 miles, más o menos, and it takes about 90 minutes. Why can't we get one of these in Cali?

Added transit awesomeness. Taipei's public bike system, U-bike, has stations at every transit station as well as other locations all over town. Everyone and their granny uses them, which I mean literally—I saw 80-year-old women riding these bikes. Though there are plenty of private cars and scooters on the roadways there is also a healthy bike culture and pretty much every street throughout the city has a bike lane.

No sociopathic gun culture. Self-explanatory but after hearing about the Orlando shooting and the other daily mass shootings in the U.S. I realized what a relief it is to not have to worry about that particular public threat while I'm here in Taiwan. Taiwan has its share of social ills but having to stress about getting shot at a movie theater/mall/nightclub/restaurant/school/traffic stop isn't one of them.

More pop culture diversity. Now playing in multiplexes this week in Taipei are films from Hong Kong, Taiwan, the U.S., the UK, Germany, South Korea, and Japan. Likewise, instead of the suffocating hegemony of English-language American pop, this summer I've heard tunes in Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, English, Spanish, Hindi, and French on the speakers in various shops, restaurants, and other public spaces. I love walking into a sock shop and hearing Korean rock gods CNBLUE on the sound system, or seeing Jung Yong Hwa or JJ Lin alongside T.Swizzle and Rihanna on the monitors in the Carrefour. It's a kick to hear the theme song from Infernal Affairs while you're buying your morning tea egg in the 7/11. Which leads me to my next point:

Affordable, fresh, healthy protein for sale at convenience stores. As well as the usual cans of Pringles and bottles of Sprite at the corner store, every 7/11, Family Mart, and OK Mart has a pot of freshly cooked tea eggs for sale for about the equivalent of US 50 cents. I also like the varieties of fresh onigiri on the shelves in all of those stores (and I've heard the duck tongue is also good, but I haven't gone there just yet). Seems like a trivial thing but when you're on a budget and in a hurry, a quick, cheap shot of protein is so much better for your health and well-being than a bag of Flamin' Hot Cheetos and a Big Gulp.

Street life/night life. It's been ridiculously hot and humid this summer (like in the 90s every day) so I try to hide out in air-conditioned spaces until the sun goes down. But luckily that's when Taipei comes alive, with hordes of people swarming the shops, restaurants, food stalls, and cafes throughout the city.

This is facilitated by the city's numerous night markets. Some areas are designated as such and are famed for their ono grindz and cheap goods for sale—Raohe, Shilin, Ningxia, Shida, and Tonghua are probably the most well-known, where you can fill up on grilled squid, salty chicken mix, oyster omelettes, and other tasty Taiwanese specialties. But many other areas have street food vendors out at night (as well as during the day) and you can barely turn around without running into one.

For a person such as myself who likes to walk around at night and graze on cheap and yummy snacks Taipei is heaven, and I wish there were the same kind of street life and street food culture in the U.S. Instead of staying home and binge-watching dramas on Netflix it's great to get outside and interact with my fellow members of humanity which, with the possible exception of New York City, doesn't seem to happen much in the U.S.

So, yeah, I've been having a great time in Taiwan and I'll miss a lot about it. It's nice to be in a country where the infrastructure isn't falling apart and where people make eye contact and smile at you on the street. Maybe someday the U.S. will see the value of high-speed rail and clean public toilets but until then I'll be counting the days when I can come back again. And if the election in the U.S. goes badly in November it may be sooner rather than later.

Valerie Soe is a blogger, educator, writer, and filmmaker who has spent the summer of 2016 in Taiwan working on her latest film, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN, a documentary about the legendary summer culture and language study tour of the same name.

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