A steady drone of chatter engulfs the streets of Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. It’s a typical Sunday morning in February, a stream of buses and Metro trains, bright sunshine, and a cold air, and the urban Taiwanese go about their business as usual. A man sweeps the alleys. A policeman directs traffic. The unmistakable aroma of spiced fried chicken from a nearby food stall wafts over the narrow streets.
I’m trying to cram as much features of Taiwanese culture as I can in the short time I’m here. The train is crowded but I’m not stressed out. Despite the recipes for a chaotic environment, Taipei remains relaxed. There are crowds, sure. But there are no pushing. There are no jumping in queues. There are no shouting. Everyone’s polite and nice.
It’s hard to get a good grasp of Taipei, or any city for that matter, with just the weekend at your disposal. But it only takes two days to shatter whatever preconceived notions you have of the city. Hackneyed as it may sound, but it’s a city of contrasts, the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, the urban jungle and the virgin forests. And it’s further highlighted by the fact that Taiwan is in a geopolitical limbo, with one foot on the road to independence and another stuck on China’s doormat.
Yet while the country may still be trying to find its identity in the realm of geopolitics, its people more or less have a clear grasp of what comprises their table. Taiwanese cuisine is, to put it simply, delicious. And it’s special because it was made by the locals with the flavor they prefer as the guide. The stinky tofu, the fried chicken, the deep-fried squid cutlets. Even the tapioca balls-filled milk tea. Eating out in Taiwan, and in the streets of Taipei especially, is already an adventure.
As the evening deepens, we stroll down the Ximending in the Old District. It’s been called the Shibuya of Taiwan, which is somewhat expected, considering the Taiwanese affinity with Japanese pop culture. Bright neon lights belie the cultural significance of the area, which used to be an important site during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894. Nonetheless, Ximending is more popular now for its rows of shops and food stalls, where the young and hip of Taipei flock.
I dodge into an alley, following the scent of a noodle shop. Korean pop star Psy’s “Gangnam Style” blares from the square a couple of meters away. The cold evening air carries the thumping music into the pedestrian walkways, and the night gets more and more alive.