First Impressions

We left the airport in Taipei around 7am. It was a foggy/smoggy morning. One of the first things we noticed was the population density. One of our sources describes Taiwan as the 2nd most densely populated country on earth. The streets and sidewalks are packed with cars, trucks, and motor-scooters, while every city block is packed to capacity with various businesses. Virtually impenetrable rows of parked scooters line the sidewalks – parking space is precious. The smallest buildings are 5 stories, and most are much higher. It seems every block shoves as much neon and otherwise lighted advertising Mingdaw (“ming-dao”) calls all this the “suburbs.” We have yet to see an actual house. The undeveloped hills outside the city were thick, solid green, like a jungle.

For those of you who have seen the 1980’s movie Gung-ho, about the Japanese company that takes over a Michigan auto plant and tries to make the Americans work like Japanese… that company dedication stuff is for real. One of the first things we saw driving away from the airport during the start of the business day was a Japanese car dealership with all their employees lined up facing the street behind the big display windows, bowing repeatedly in unison to the public. No yelling and screaming or ribbons of shame though.

We arrived on one of the days in the lunar calendar when people — especially merchants — offer meals, incense, and spirit-money to their ancestors. Little stands of nicely set meals with a handful of burning incense sticks dotted the sidewalks everywhere, along with special buckets for burning piles of spirit money.

Traffic here has been likened to river water flowing around rocks and trees. For every car or truck there must be 20 motor-scooters; all the road-space not used by cars is filled in with scooters. At red lights all the scooters weave up to the front and surround the first few cars before they take off in a pack race-like on the green light. A lot of people wear surgical-type masks if they are driving scooters or working outside (like in the SARS pictures). It’s also apparently a courtesy to wear one if you’re sick when out in public. They come in lots of different styles, too (including designer knockoffs from Burberry, Yves St. Laurent and others) – kind of like a clothing accessory.

Like the ice-cream trucks in North America, certain trucks here drive around with that kind of music, too, (Beethoven’s Fur Elise today) only they carry garbage, not ice cream. Also, the garbage truck music is quite a bit louder than the ice cream truck music – it’s to let people in their apartments know that it is time to bring down the trash.

Two competing schools down the street are called “Chocolate America Style School” and “Brown Sugar.” Our Taiwanese boss wanted to know if their elementary school was trying to make a reference to the Rolling Stones.

We’ve already frightened some little kids and made them cry. Three mothers and their children play in the downstairs reading room in our apartment building every morning, and we have to walk through to get to the street. We walked up and introduced ourselves the first day, and one of the little girls started wailing and wouldn’t stop ’til we left. The mothers got some good laughs out of our mangled Mandarin greeting attempt, though.

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