Living in Taiwan


Confucius said: “The superior man makes the difficulty to be overcome his first interest; success only comes later.”

In the Wild West (and probably in many other rural places ages ago) I think the dentist was like a travelling salesman. You waited till he showed up in the town and then everyone queued to have a turn. That meant he had to bring his ‘stuff’ with him. The ‘stuff’ was only the essentials and what he could comfortably carry. Those essentials probably fitted into a case that was sturdy and could be carried easily. In every town or village someone would kindly offer him the use of a room that is not used daily, like the science classroom at the local school. There would be a table to place the all important case, a stool for him to sit on and a low chair for the patient. There would be two buckets for his use. One would be placed between the legs of the patient for the patient to spit into. The first patient would be the lucky one, all the others would be doing themselves a favour by keeping their eyes closed when they spit. One of the apparatus from the case needs to drain so the drain-tube is then inserted into the other bucket. The tube is secured to the patient’s chair with a piece of string to keep it from slipping out of the bucket when the apparatus is used vigorously by the dentist. With his wagon unload and horses grazing on the common, the dentist was open for business. 

You think this a scene from the Wild West or many small towns about 100 years ago? Yes? You are so wrong!! I have just described my first visit to the dentist in my rural village in Tainan in 2019!! Only difference is a Toyota has replaced the horses.

About two weeks ago at lunch I felt something in my mouth that should not be there. A tooth had broken. 

Initially I panicked and wanted as much information as possible, about what to do now, before the pain set in and turned me into a monster. The school nurse looked at my tooth and asked if there was pain. Then she proceeded to talk to everyone around about my situation, in Chinese. A long discussion followed with everyone giving their opinions and advice – in Chinese. Well by the time the group discussion came to a conclusion I had realised I will be pain-free through this ordeal. So I started to relax. The nurse took me to the English teacher and asked the English teacher to take me to a dentist in the next town, on her way home that afternoon. 

Hours later we walk into the dentist’s room and he takes one look at the foreigner and waves us out before we even said hello. The English teacher says she thinks he does not speak English so does not want to deal with me. I assure the English teacher I will be fine and I take the next bus back to my village. 

Next day, at Nanhua school, where I live on the campus, I ask advice again. The English teacher, a no-nonsense man, says there is a dentist who comes to the school on a Thursday morning and I can see him. I just have to bring along my medical insurance card. Back in my office I tell my tale and plans to the teachers in my office and again a discussion follows with phone calls being made, in Chinese. The conclusion is: avoid the dentist who comes to school because the students say he is not gentle. They tell me wait till next Friday at 9am, go to the local clinic and see the dentists who come from the Medical University, it’s also fee of charge and open to all the locals. So that was my, reluctant, first option. Reluctant, because on a Friday I have a very busy teaching day. So in my mind I make a mental note to talk to my superior about being late for school the following Friday and I totally forget to tell the English teacher in Nanhua about my new decision. 

Thursday morning, at about 10am I get called to the dentist’s station. The English teacher had made all the arrangements on my behalf so there is nothing to do but go to the not-so-gentle-dentist. His verdict leaves me elated: No big deal but come next Thursday morning 7:30 because it is a long process and he had to leave for another school. He spends about three hours at a school per day then he packs up all his stuff and moves to the next school in the district. 

So today was the day. A beautiful sunny day after about a week of rain and grey days. I wake early and immediately pick up the book I’m reading that I had reluctantly put down last night. I loose track of time and next moment I hear someone calling at my door. I open the door still in my pjs and find the dentist’s assistant telling me they are waiting for me. Well, I stripped out of pjs into the first clothes I touched all the while brushing my teeth. Three minutes later I’m in the chair, apologising. 

The procedure was to remove the filling in that tooth, replace it with a the new filling that would form the side of the tooth that had chipped away. No need for an injection and the whole procedure went smoothly and pain free. And the name: ‘not-so-gentle-dentist’ well, that is somebody’s opinion, it’s not a fact.  

Brave little Angela seeing the dentist at her elementary school

The science classroom serves as makeshift dentist room. See the red bucket between the student’s feet.

Confucius said: “You cannot open a book without learning something.”

The passing of the 102 year old world renowned architect, I M Pei, who also left his mark in Taiwan, has prompted me to write about architecture in Taiwan. People who have landed in Taipei or see the iconic photos of Taipei with the Taipei 101 building centre stage might think all of Taiwan looks like that. That, sadly, is just not true. Once you leave the vibrant cities behind, and even in most areas within cities, the lack of any building or home that is worth a second glance could leave a person quite depressed. 

But if you know where to look Taiwan will show you some very eye pleasing secrets. I’m no architect and have very little knowledge about this creative field, but I know what I like: Concrete and lots of it used in gravity-defying ways. Tall shapely buildings (the Dubai type landscape) impresses me for the time it takes to drive past the building. It is concrete used in striking structures, creating something that feels light, airy, elegant and even delicate that grab my attention.

That juxtaposition will keep me returning to stare and experience again, at different times of the day to see how the light, and even the seasons, changes the atmosphere of the building. 

Kahlil Gibran: Trees are poems that earth writes upon the sky. 

How do you describe your feelings when standing in the presence of a living being that is nearly 3 000 years old? And to make it more awe inspiring, not just one, but 36 giants, many 1000 years old and older and most you cannot even see parts? The result of putting that experience into words is going to be cliché upon cliché and long lists of adjectives. 

The photographer, Steve Pearce and his ecologist wife, Dr Jennifer Sanger, founders of the organisation The Tree Projects have the same problem. In an interview with the news channel Focus Taiwan, Pearce and Sanger said (they) “believe that the simple experience of seeing a giant tree for the first time can break down preconceptions and that showing people forests in all their magnificence is more effective in building appreciation for them than telling people about them.” So if the experts say words are not effective, then I’m not even going to try. 

My advice is whether you are a nemophilist, just an average nature lover or a curios tourist, Ali Mount aka Alishan is a must-see when you are in Taiwan. Some of the oldest trees on this planet are growing in this area. The oldest was 3000 years old but collapsed in 1997 after heavy rain. It has been laid down and can still be appreciated. This tree was 53m high with a circumference of 25m and a diameter of 4,66m.  

Down the middle of Taiwan there are several mountain ranges and one of then is named Ali Mount. (Alishan is a Chinese word and translated literally means Ali Mount). Ali was the chief of the Tsou aboriginal tribe that settled here. This area lies 2 500m above sea level. It was a forestry area and logging brought in the money till the 1970’s when it was no longer viable. The Tsou also planted tea and wasabi and those farms against the mountain just adds to the beauty of the area. The Alishan National Scenic Area was established and now tourism has taken over as the generator of income.   

So what can you expect here. There is the narrow-gauge train, that has become the iconic symbol of the area, that can take you on a short trip to the Sacred Tree Station where one giant has been laid down. Walking there is easy too. From the station you just follow a well kept boardwalk that was built to protect the forest floor. This walk takes you to these old trees, most are Red Cypress. Not all are in this area, some stand alone and you have to hike different trails to get to them. All the trails are well marked and the map you get at the entrance is very user-friendly.

When you stand by these trees and you think about Taiwan and the past 3000 years… if these trees could talk they would tell about the first people arriving as farmers and fishermen. They will tell about the Dutch and the Spanish who tried to settle here, the Qing era, the Japanese rule, the Republic of Formosa and now Taiwan. The trees will tell about trees being chopped down to build a simple house and for firewood. They will tell about large scale logging because Red Cypress is resistant to rot and insects and therefore much sought after for furniture, bath tubs and even the torii gates in front of shrines and temples. They will also tell about visitors who came to appreciate their beauty and the majority who come now with their eyes glued to a smart phone screen. 

The park covers an area of 415 square km so there is enough space to explore, enjoy breathtaking views, savour the fresh air and the natural beauty around you. Because the mountain is so high you will regularly be shrouded by clouds floating past, well that was my experience.  In the park you will also find lots of other activities to keep the whole family entertained and fed for as long as you choose to stay here. I was visiting the area when the cherry trees where blooming and what a bonus. 

I will add some photos but they do not do justice to the magnificence of the giants. If you want to see a giant tree captured in a photo then visit The Tree Projects website and read how they take photos of trees. It is a fascinating process.

Just a reminder, I do not do selfies. When I’m alone and there are no other people around to ask to take a photo of me you will see my hat in the picture. That is my version of a selfie. 

Confucius said: The man who says he can, and the man who says he can not… Are both correct.

I’m a long-lived woman and walking fit. I can cover 20km per day without much effort. This made my fellow-teachers at Yusan school think I can do anything physical and they entered me into a 60km cycling race and gave me seven weeks to train. I like a physical challenge so I did not put up a too big fight.

What they don’t know is that in my entire life I have probably only cycled about 1 km, total, ever. I know nothing about bicycles. None of my three ‘partners in crime’ live near me so all the training I’m going to do is on my own.  But no surprises here: as the word spread about my latest crazy adventure, so the support grew. The P E teacher at Nanhua school offered to be my physical trainer, strengthening my core etc. She got a past-student, one of the most gorgeous boys I have ever seen, to go cycling with me and do that part of the training. The maths teacher lent me his 39-speed racing bike. One of the admin ladies at Nanhua school didn’t offer, but told me she was going to drive me to the event on the day and back home again. This event was about 400km from where we live.

With so many supporters cheering for me I stared training in all seriousness. To ride a bicycle in my area is not easy unless you are either very confident or have a death wish. The Nanhua village where I live is set in a depression at the foot of a 663m high mountain, and surrounded by hills of various sizes. The only way in and out and through the village is by two major roads with four lanes that carry heavy, and often speeding traffic, including very big trucks. These roads were not built for pedestrians and cyclists but for typhoons. There is no shoulder on these roads, instead they have a metre deep and about a 60cm wide gulley on either side to take to typhoon rains off the road surface as quickly as possible. Although two of my schools are on this road, and 6 and 8 km away respectively, there is no way pedestrians and budding cyclists can safely walk and ride here in a state of meditation. The alternative training route is to cross these main roads and ride on the much smaller and very winding roads among the farms. Here the problem is that you immediately start climbing the mountain or one of the hills. The roads take you to the top in about 4km and with many hairpin bends. It’s steep but it does offer breathtaking beautiful views when you rest around every corner. 

So I decide on the steep option for my training. The bicycle and I bond over many kilometres and hours spent together. I cover lots of ground, alone. I think the thought of spending lots of time alone in nature with a fit middle-aged women scared the life out of the gorgeous boy. He never showed up. 

As I said the bicycle and I bonded well but one day it let me down. I’m the only one who rides it and it’s stored at my unit. Nobody ever touches that bike except me. This particular afternoon I took the bike out and when I got on it felt strange. I started riding thinking I’ll figure out the problem as I go along. When I wanted to change gears the first time, I realised it’s not my imagination, something is wrong. The numbers are all upside down. To use the brakes are a mission now, and never before have my shoes scraped against the front wheel. I keep going but slowly, and several times I stopped to see if I can see the problem, but everything looks ok it just feels uncomfortable.  I decide to just ride around the village and call it a day. On returning to school, as I wanted to turn into the school grounds, I find another problem: the front wheel won’t turn to the right. So I get off and push the bike back home. On campus I meet up with the admin lady who said she will drive me to the race and I tell her I don’t understand what happened to the bike, it just won’t work today. Without saying a word, she takes the handle bars from me and swivels them around and just like, that all is where and how it should be. I was flabbergasted and then, thinking what I must have looked like if anyone was watching me ride around, I laughed, so much my stomach hurt. The admin lady probably did not have much hope for me to ever finish a cycling race. She was very gracious and did not even laugh. 

Knowing everyone likes a good laugh I decided to share this moment with the P E teacher the following day. Her English is limited so I take her to a bike to tell the story so I can demonstrate it. I show and tell and she is so totally intrigued. She doesn’t laugh either, in stead she stands there swivelling the handle bars and looking at the bike. She says she did not know a bike can do that. Oh happy day, I’m not alone in my ignorance. 

For the next weeks my training went well. I was doing lots of stair work when all the students had left the campus and on days it was raining. I would cycle, groan, pant, and suffer up those hills and that mountain, but I kept at it. 

It all payed off. On the day I was very nervous, so nervous I was vomiting behind a shrub when the starter-gun went off. I suffered less than other riders up a hill of about 5 km, the rest was ok and I brought home a medal.  

What the heck is wrong with this bike today?

That’s more like the bike I know.

Confucius said: “Without feelings of respect, what is there to distinguish men from beasts?”

The first weekend in April is Tomb Sweeping time  or Qingming Festival in Taiwan and it has been for 2500 years. It takes place 15 days after the spring equinox and is usually around 4-6 April. Now its a public holiday too, to remember the death of Chiang Kai-Shek in 1975. 

In Taiwan filial piety is an important virtue. Respect for your parents, elders and ancestors is a beautiful characteristic of the Taiwanese culture. My personal experience of this was when a boy in the Grade 6 class was called out by my fellow teacher, sent out of the class to go and brush his teeth and mouth, and on his return was made to apologise to me. I accepted his apology and later asked the teacher to explain all of that. She said he had said my name in a disrespectful way while talking about me in the class. 

That incident I applaud but then when a fellow teacher, about 40 years old, tells me about his current problem with his mother, then I frown. His English name is Jay. His siblings have all left Taiwan and he is not married as he cannot afford to keep a wife and care for his parents. Jay told me he has to find a way to sneak a tropical fish tank into his bedroom without his parents seeing it. His mother has forbidden him to keep pets because when he brought a dog home she had to take care of it, the same with the kitten. Now he wants to keep fish and knowing his parents never go into his bedroom he can do it “under the radar” but to get through the living room to his bedroom with all the stuff is the problem. 

Here is another one: This teachers English name is Candy. She is 35 years old. Her older sister left Taiwan soon after finishing her university degree. Candy has no choice but to stay and take care of her parents although they are financially independent and healthy. During the week Candy teaches at a school about 300 km from her parents home. Every weekend she spends at their home which she talks about as “my home”. And here is the part I do not get: her father regularly get very drunk and he beats her and her mom on such occasions. When I ask her why she puts herself in harms way by spending weekends there she says “Its our culture to be there for our parents”. To be there as a punching bag? I would handle the situation differently, but thats me.

Back to the Tomb Sweeping Day. This is the weekend when children and grandchildren visit their parent’s homes and the whole clan go together to the cemeteries and gravesite of the departed ancestors. The graves and area around it is cleaned up. Then fresh flowers are placed there. Incense and joss-paper is burnt, and food, tea, wine and chopsticks are left at the gravesite too.  When this activity is completed the clan gather at the parents home and celebrate being together very much like in the west we would celebrate big family gatherings like at Christmas time and Thanksgiving. Families also go on outings to the many beautiful places around Taiwan. 

My first Tomb Sweeping long weekend in Taiwan was also the last time I travelled over a long weekend in Taiwan. I cannot describe to you the amount of people moving around in this country. You will think I exaggerate grossly but believe me its scary. On one occasion I was running out of trains (having let a few pass because they were so full) and I just had to board this one to get to my destination over such a weekend. The doors opened and I squeezed into it. The people were not moving to make space for me, because they could not, they were so tightly packed in. I was really panicking because I was sure my backpack was going to get squashed when the doors closed. All was ok eventually. At times like these you do not think of train accidents but then again, I do not think anyone would actually get hurt because nobody can get flung around they are so tightly packed in. Its also the time when you can faces because there is no space to hold a mobile phone in front of you. 

So my next Tomb Sweeping weekend was very different as I stayed in my village. I went on my usual walks and at the homes where I usually only see  one or two scooters parked there were now very smart SUV’s and other expensive cars parked. Where I usually greet elderly people sitting outside their homes, I now find younger people chatting in groups and bored teenagers, faces glued to mobile phones. The absence of the elderly people tell me they are in the kitchens preparing food. 

On the Sunday afternoon I saw an old man washing and shining a big motorbike. I think it belongs to his child or even a grandchild. I can imagine the younger one having a nap upstairs before he hits the road back to the city where he lives. The father / grandfather showing his love and appreciation by cleaning this bike, and perhaps wishing he was still young and strong enough to ride a similar bike. 

Another first was to see empty shelves in my local supermarket by the end of the weekend. I also realised I have become part of this community when I sat on the bus and see no familiar faces, just out-of-towners. I can now spot the city people. There was one lady who jumped up after every stop to look at the map on the side of the bus. Eventually I asked her where she was going and I was able to tell her how many stops to her destination. I was getting off before her. She was very surprised that this foreigner knew her way around here. What can I say, I don’t speak the language but it’s still home. 

How do my fellow teachers celebrate this weekend? I asked several of my fellow teachers what they will be doing this weekend. Nancy said she and her family will go to the temple where the ashes of her grandparents are kept to pray. Joan said the men in her family will go to the gravesite to clean up and do the rituals. The women and the small children stay at home and prepare a great feast for when the men return. Jack said he will fly with all his family, a total of 22 people, to China to visit their grandfathers grave there. Aaron said as a Christian he is just relaxing at home. Shirley another Christian says she will be hiking in the mountains with a group from her church. Charles said he is not going to do anything special and no he is not going to clean any graves, for no other reason except that its not something his family does. 

I just enjoyed the lovely springs days because, in my experience, after this weekend our rainy season starts. Oh and worked on my Japanese vocab. I live in Taiwan but I’m learning to speak Japanese? Yip, but thats a story for another day. 

Some graves look like this before April.

After Tomb Sweeping Weekend.

Confucius said: To see what is right and not to do it, is want of courage, or of principle.

The past week has been filled with beautiful things. 

In Taiwan, this time of year, the days are magic. It is still hot but without the humidity. So I have a lot more energy and cannot say no when I’m invited on a trip to a rural area I have never been to before. After a 10km scooter ride we took the local bus from Koahsuing into the mountains and to the village of Maolin. All year round there are places to see the butterflies: spring and summer in the Meinong area to see the lemon-yellow butterflies.  In winter Maolin area when the purple butterflies gather here. So many people travel to this area in the winter months to see the purple butterflies that the local government schedules extra busses on this route for a few weeks. 

Confucius said Imagination is better than knowledge.

If you think the people living in Taiwan and craving some cultural activities are stuck with drumming and dragon dancing, think again. 

October was a month in which I fed my craving for all things beautiful and I had loads to choose from. In this month I saw some world class performances all within 36 km of my home. My personal art and music festival started with The Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra from New York. Conductor Milen Nachev led this orchestra in performing a variety of pieces which included Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Sarasate as well as music by Asian composers like Yu Deng, Jing Xian, Yunyi Tan. It was interesting and refreshing to hear the classics with new sounds brought by the Asian instrument, the erhu. 

Confucius says: If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.

Mr Wen-Long Shi is the founder of the Chimei Museum. As a child he was a keen visitor to museums and as an adult and successful businessman he has established the largest private museum in Taiwan. Mr Wen-Long Shi is an amateur violinist so its no surprise that he has one of the largest collections of violins in the world. It includes instruments made by most the famous violinmakers, like Stardivarius, Guarneri del Gesu and Nicolo Amati. He was keen to raise the standard of classical music in Taiwan so he founded the Chi Mei Cultural Foundation and a scholarship to encourage young artists. 

Confucius said: The essence of knowledge is, having it, to use it.

The Mid-Autumn Festival started about 3000 years ago. It was a way to celebrate the harvest. Families would get together on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar at full moon. It was a time when people were looking forward to the sun’s heat again and women who wanted babies would send out those wishes at this time. All these wishes were represented by the lanterns that the Chinese would traditionally hang all over at this time of the year. Over time this cultural celebration has gone through many changes. 

Confucius says: We have two lives, and the second begins when we realise we only have one.

September 21 1999 was a horrible and tragic day in the Taiwan history. In the early hours of that morning, while most people will sleeping peacefully, the earth gave a shiver and an earthquake reading 7.3 on the Richter scale shook the centre of Taiwan awake. 12 911 aftershocks were recorded, on September 26 there was one that measured 6.8 on the Richter scale. 2 415 people were killed, 29 missing, 11 300 injured, 51 711 buildings were destroyed.