13 Surprising Things To Know Before Traveling To Taiwan

As a second-generation American, I grew up going to Taiwan (where both my parents are from) almost every summer; these were not pleasant memories. We stayed with family, who often had no air conditioning and usually suggested drinking hot tea as a way to cool off. All of their furniture was made of antique, hard wood – I would make-do at bedtime with makeshift towel mattresses.  We ate shrimp with their heads still on, something that I found horrifying in the 90’s. To cope, my brother and I made up a version of Sinatra’s “New York, New York” listing foods we would eat upon returning to the States: French Fries, Ice Cream, Hot Dogs, Candied Apples (huh?), and Burgers. 

21 years later, I finally returned to my mother (and father) land for a quick tour around the country.  Here are 13 things the teenager in me never expected to experience.

Luxury Hotels

I’m sure these existed when I was a younger, but we never stayed at them. The one that impressed me the most was 85 Sky Tower in Kaohsuing. The building has (you guessed it) 85 floors with impressive city views.  The breakfast buffet is three enormous rooms filled with everything from traditional Taiwanese dishes like Sao Bing You Tiao to Strawberry Corn Flakes. And yes, our bed had a legit mattress.

Boba Tea

Although most of our meals came with hot tea, a midday snack often came in the form of cold, heavenly Boba Milk Tea. We actually got some from Chun Shui Tang in Taichung, rumored to be the place it was invented. We’d had Boba (or Bubble) Tea in the States, but in Taiwan the drink was elevated – balanced, not cloying, with chewy, glutinous balls to make things much more interesting than a regular glass of soda (or dare I say, even a milkshake).

Night Markets

My parents would not let me eat Taiwanese street food growing up; they said I would get ill. I feel quite betrayed that nobody told me Night Markets are a thing in Taiwan and that they’re like daily Carnivals on steroids. All this time I thought candied-fruit-on-a-stick only existed in the States. Here, you can you find everything from glazed strawberries to tomatoes skewered and slathered in sugar. Also on a stick? Squid, Pork Blood Cake, Pork Knuckle. I wound up cooling off with a giant Mango Shaved Ice doused in Sweetened Condensed Milk.  It wasn’t until I returned to Los Angeles that I realized that was the “most dangerous” food I could have consumed, since the ice hadn’t been filtered. Still, I didn’t get sick. See, Mom?!?

Human Traffic Jams

Taiwan is small – about the size of Maryland. We drove quite a bit all around the country, and did not sit in much traffic, until we were en route to Taitung – home to seven aboriginal tribes. We stopped for a good 10 minutes while one of those tribes celebrated their summer harvest with some street dancing, composed mostly of young folks, who had returned home just for the celebration. Once they were done, they danced off, and we continued on —  if only LA traffic was that cheerful.

Foot Massage

Yes, I’ve sat in luxurious armchairs before. Yes, I’ve been massaged before. No, I haven’t done both in a room full of twenty other people. For $20 you sit in soft, leather recliners and dudes go to town rubbing your feet, your neck, your back, your head. True, a lot of it was borderline painful, but I was sure my liver or kidneys or something internal was getting fixed. The thing that surprised me the most was that all of my neighbors remained completely silent throughout while at any place in the States with thin walls, you almost always hear a mouth breather.

Buddhist Monastery with a Starbucks

We visited Fo Guang Shan, the largest Buddhist Monastery in Taiwan.  There are many temples to explore, many monks/nuns smiling, many large statues to kowtow in front of. On one end of the campus is Hi-Lai Vegetarian Restaurant with world-class food – serving meat-free versions of Dumplings and Zongzi. I didn’t expect for it to be so air-conditioned, modern – tucked into the corner of a mall (complete with Starbucks Iced Venti Mistos) and a view of a giant Buddha.

No Public Trash Cans

For a country that’s so clean, it’s surprising how few garbage receptacles I saw. Every time I needed to throw something out, a store owner or restaurant worker would silently remove it from my hands. I discovered this was part of the Taiwanese EPA’s plan to reduce vermin and odors – residents must hand-off their waste to sanitation workers.  One evening I heard what sounded like a Mister Softee Truck blaring down the street.  “Ice Cream?” I asked my Tour Guide. “Garbage,” she responded.  Sure enough, the truck was being chased down by several people clutching their recycling bins.

7-11 24/7

First of all, they don’t call 7-11 the Chinese Words for “seven” and “eleven.”  They call them the same thing we do in the States, and they are absolutely everywhere, even the most rural towns we drove through.  Inside, the goods varied – everything from disposable underwear to Sweet Potatoes roasted on hot stones. But for some reason, not one had a Slurpee. Not even a lychee flavored one that I seem to remember from my childhood!

Children of the Night

My parents always instilled a very strict curfew on me, claiming this was “The Taiwanese Way.”  So what in the world were little babies doing out and about at the Night Markets? Toddlers were enjoying – nay, dancing – around the Tiehua Music Village about the same time I go to bed.  I always thought the late-night kiddie culture was a European thing, but now I know it’s a Taiwanese one, and my folks were a lot more American than I had thought.

Chocolate Pizza

I don’t know why our tour guides took us to an American Restaurant called Pasadena. I regret every moment of it, especially dessert. As somebody born with a sugar spoon in her mouth, it’s not easy to admit I only took one bite of their Chocolate Pizza and almost spit it out. I don’t have kids, but this reminded me of something a well-meaning child would make for Mother’s Day – a dry, whole wheat crust topped with chocolate syrup and “fresh” brown sugar.  They shaved it from a block at the table!  All I wanted in my youth was “American” Food (and Chocolate) in Taiwan.  Turns out I dodged a bullet.

Bike Paths Everywhere

I am married to a cyclist and it broke his heart that he did not get to see the country via two wheels. There are trails all along the coast, and throughout the cities – an avid athlete’s dream. One morning in Kaohsiung he found a bike share, which was free the first hour – probably the best way to experience everything without suffering from the immense heat. Upon return, we immediately saw the film To the Fore – a good choice if you want to nerd out before your trip to the Island.

Pier 2 Art Center

Originally an abandoned warehouse site, Pier 2 Art Center is an outdoor arts center that features giant sculptures from local artists.  If this place existed in the States, it would be overrun with hipsters.  But it felt more like a public park – families, students, older folks doing Tai Chi - with amazing art.  If I lived in Taiwan, it would be within walking distance of this area.

Karaoke Bus

Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Karaoke. On a bus. Complete with giant plastic-covered binders that stick to your lap while you decide what to croon and little pieces of paper/pencils to write down your song selection. And wireless microphones, of course. The American Song Selection we had on our tour bus was slim (and sometimes lacking lyrics) but the videos were always entertaining.  By the way, I am a karaoke freak, but 2 hours straight of singing in a moving vehicle proved to be much more than even I could handle.

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Opening photo by Tommaso Tuzj