Some Taiwanese friends of mine make fun of me because I spend too much time in convenience stores. I have a favourite one near my home. Late at night, I am often the last customer sitting there. It is quiet, there is Wi-Fi, I can read books or surf the internet or do some work while drinking a beer, or coffee, or eating some snacks. Sometimes I also have dinner there.
And yet I don’t like convenience stores. They don’t have the relaxed, individual atmosphere of coffee shops; their packaged food – which must be heated in the microwave – is full of preservatives; Wi-Fi isn’t free; they are more expensive than supermarkets.
Nevertheless, there is hardly a day when I don’t go to a convenience store to buy a drink, to top up my phone, to withdraw money from an ATM, etc.
Taiwan is the country with the highest density of convenience stores in the world, and perhaps it is also the country where they have reached their highest stage of evolution so far. They have all sorts of food and snacks: rice dishes with meat and vegetables, cold noodles, noodle soups, fruit boxes, tofu snacks, vegetable snacks, tiramisu, cakes, soy milk, yoghurt, sushi, salads, rice and fish snacks – the list is simply endless. Apart from food, you can buy plenty of other merchandise; from disposable raincoats to umbrellas, from surgical masks to underwear, from deodorant to shampoo. You can also order drinks, withdraw money, buy train tickets, receive mail – well, you can do so many things there that I would need a whole catalogue to list them all off.
A recent article on the WSJ shows how fond Taiwanese are of their convenience stores. Many people go to convenience stores several times a day. They buy coffee, have a meal, meet colleagues, hold meetings, or take away food. Convenience stores have become a part of many people’s lives, most especially of single workers who have no time to cook. Besides, more and more convenience stores (like my favourite one) have tables, so that many people go there to eat food, read newspapers, study, surf the internet etc.
Many Taiwanese I met in Berlin complained about the fact that Europe has no convenience stores. “Where can I buy things at night?” they asked me. “Where can I buy things on weekends?” “It is so inconvenient!”
Divas and Open Chan, the ‘cute’ 7-11 mascot
Most of us foreigners tend to be even fonder of convenience stores than Taiwanese. I guess the majority of us resorted to convenience stores during our first days or weeks in Taiwan. There are so many restaurants and food stalls in Taiwan, but we don’t know which one to choose, how and what to order. We see the menus full of Chinese characters we can’t read, and only pictures can save us – but most menus have none. Little by little, we start to experiment, go to different restaurants, compare them, make some mistakes, but gradually we learn. At the beginning, however, convenience stores are by far the easiest option.
I am not a very talkative person and I don’t like crowded places. So I still go to convenience stores from time to time to have dinner. On weekends, when restaurants are teeming with people, who even form long queues in front of entrance doors, I choose not to eat in the rush hour; I just wait patiently, with empty stomach, until the crowds have dissolved. Then the atmosphere becomes more relaxed and quiet. But restaurants have already stopped serving food or are about to close (the rhythm of Taiwan’s dinner rush hour is something I’ll never understand). I have no choice but to go to a convenience store, eating a sad prepackaged meal. But better than sitting next to tens of people in an overfilled place, with customers walking around, searching for a seat, wishing you got up and freed a table, and while waiters look at me as if I was eating too slowly, and as if reading a book or watching a video during dinner was inconsiderate.
In such cases convenience stores become my refuge. They have air-conditioning, are open 24-hours, I can sit there and take my time.
When I first came to Taiwan, I actually loved convenience stores. But after some time I began to perceive them as symbols of what is not so good about Taiwan’s lifestyle. Many Taiwanese people are restlessly busy; busy with dealing with their family, busy with making money, busy with getting by. There is not much time to relax at home, to cultivate hobbies and interests, to stop and breathe in and just enjoy life. Convenience stores reflect this rhythm, this restlessness, this desire to consume quickly. At some point I got tired of eating microwave-heated food, of seeing the frustrated faces of underpaid store staff, especially of those who do night shifts. Convenience has its downsides.
A long 7-Eleven advertisement video