I’ve been quite busy and tired during the last few days. I wasn’t in the right mood to continue my ‘serious’ posts, so I decided to simply write a post about some of the things that I find very useful and nice in Taiwan and that Europe should and could, in my opinion, learn from.
1 – Convenience Stores
If there is a title that Taiwan undoubtedly deserves, then this must be “Kingdom of Convenience Stores.” With a total of 9,204 outlets, Taiwan has “the highest density of convenience stores in the world, with each store serving 2,500 people” (note).
When I lived in Berlin, I used to say that if you walk for five or ten minutes you will find an underground station. In fact, Berlin has one of the most extensive underground networks in the world, and you can truly go anywhere by tube. In Taiwan, if you walk five minutes you may not find an underground station, but certainly you will find a convenience store. Sometimes you see two or three of them on the same street, or even opposite one another. I’ve always wondered how they manage to make profits in spite of such density and all the expenses they have to sustain.
Anyway, convenience stores are really useful. They are like mini-markets, selling food, drinks, and products like shampoos, pens, notebooks etc. They also have a range of products such as fresh fruits, salads, sandwiches, cold noodles, sushi and so on. Some convenience stores, especially the ones opened recently, are quite big and have tables and restrooms. Besides, many convenience store chains offer wireless internet. However, you can access it only if you have a contract with certain telecommunication companies like 中華電信 (Zhōnghuá diànxìn). Convenience stores are open 24-hours a day, which makes them extremely useful especially for people who get off work late (and in Taiwan the number of these unfortunate people is not small).
In Europe, late in the evening or on Sundays all supermarkets are closed and there is virtually no place to go to buy food except for some restaurants or Kebap shops. I used to live in Pankow district in Berlin. There were a few supermarkets near my house, but on weekdays they closed between 8 p.m. and 12 a.m., and on Sundays they didn’t open at all. So, I had to plan when to go and buy food, and sometimes it happened that I simply had nothing in the fridge (especially when I returned from a trip abroad). In Taiwan, this will definitely not happen.
In my hometown in Italy it’s even worse. How many times did I hear my mother ask me on Saturdays at five or six p.m.: “Don’t you need to buy anything? Remember that tomorrow supermarkets are closed.”?
2 – Night Markets
I personally don’t like night markets very much. They are too crowded, and I don’t like to eat while I’m walking, let alone while walking in the summer heat. However, they are an integral part of Taiwanese life and apparently many Taiwanese (and Chinese) miss them when they go abroad. I’ve often heard Taiwanese complain that in the West there’s nothing to do at night. I’m not really sure if I agree with that; anyway, it is true that if you live close to a night market you can go there and have a snack in the middle of the night, which is quite convenient.
3 – 白花油
白花油 (pinyin: Báihuāyóu) means ‘white flower oil’. It is an aromatic ointment that is used to treat headache, bruises, muscular pain and – most important of all – mosquito bites. Since Taiwan has a lot of mosquitoes all year round, such lotions are extremely useful. The white flower oil is a traditional medication and is completely natural. It can be bought in convenience stores, supermarkets etc. Some of my Taiwanese friends saw me put it on mosquito bites and said to me: “I can’t believe a foreigner is using this! That’s what our grandparents use.” The astounding thing is that this ointment really works. You just rub it on the mosquito bite for a couple of seconds, and it will give you a feeling of freshness, and eventually make the itch disappear completely. It is way better than most products I’ve tried in Europe, which are mostly just a waste of money.
4 – Toilets in the MRT
One thing that really bothers me in Europe is that public toilets seem to be a luxury good. In Berlin, for example, you have to pay to use the toilet. Using the public toilet inside Zoologischer Garten Station, for example, cost 1 Euro 50 the last time I went there. The fee increases year by year, in fact the first time I went to Berlin I remember paying just 80 cents!
I mean, even if you just want to wash your hands you need to pay 1 Euro 50. This is absolutely ridiculous and unhygienic, because people will not wash their hands often.
In Italy, this is even worse. At least, in Germany you pay for clean toilets. In Italy, you pay for dirty ones. When I went to the main station in Rome this January, the cleaning staff looked like some mafia thugs that were there only to collect money. Sure, they cleaned from time to time, but I wonder whether they were just pretending to be cleaning, because the toilets were always as dirty as before.
In Taiwan, fortunately things are different. Every MRT station has toilets, and although they are not always perfectly clean, at least they are so most of the times. So, thumbs up for the MRT.
5 – Road Toll Payment
One nice thing in Taiwan is that before travelling you can buy at convenience stores a roadway toll ticket. Instead of stopping at the toll collection points to pay, you just use the ticket and in a few seconds you can continue your journey smoothly. I wonder why there is no such thing in Europe.
6 – Vegetarian Food
Asia has a long tradition of vegetarian cuisine. This is because Buddhism and Buddhist monks have spread vegetarianism throughout the Far East. The first precept in Buddhism prescribes that one should not take the life of or cause unnecessary harm to living beings. Accordingly, killing or inflicting pain to a living being, as well as inducing someone else to do so, are seen as offenses against this principle (Walters / Portmess 2001, p. 85). However, this precept is not followed strictly, and vegetarianism is not compulsory, most especially for lays. But monks are expected to respect this principle more strictly (see Harvey 2012, pp. 273-274).
References to the vegetarian diet of monks are numerous in Chinese literature. For example, in the famous work Six Records of a Floating Life (Chinese, 浮生六記 pinyin: Fú Shēng Liù Jì) by scholar Shen Fu (沈復, pinyin: Shěn Fù, 1763–1810?), there are many descriptions of the author’s travels, which involved frequent stops at temples. Just to name one of several examples,
The monks at the temples settled me in the Pavilion of Great Mercy. The pavilion faced south, and to its east was a Buddha. I occupied the pavilion’s westernmost room, which had a moon window and was directly opposite the shrine, the room where pilgrims would normally have had their vegetarian meals (Six Records of a Floating Life, Part III).
Another example can be found in the Ming Dynasty story by Feng Menglong The Oil Vendor and the Queen of Flowers.
Qin Zhong put his father on a sedan chair and went with him to his house. There he provided his father with a change of clothes, gave him a seat of honour and kowtowed before him together with his wife. Afterwards Qin Gong met Shen Shan and his wife Ruan, natives of Tong’an district.
A sumptuous banquet was held, but Qin Gong, accustomed to the vegetarian diet of the temple, refused to eat meat and ate only vegetarian food (The Oil Vendor and the Queen of Flowers).
During hundreds of years, the monks’ vegetarian diet of course led them to create a varied and rich vegetarian cuisine, which in my opinion should become more popular among vegetarians and vegans in the West, who often have no choice but to eat salads, cereals and bread.
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