His big concern was Japan's aging population. He was worried about who was going to pay for his kids' pensions if they don't have any kids themselves. His two kids were late 20s and both unmarried. I explained that this is also happening in other rich countries like Germany, and that's why Merkel - a conservative - is so open to refugees. Even if you don't give a shit about social justice, immigrants are a gift because they boost tax revenue. I know that Japan is historically very nationalistic and closed to immigration, so i explained my diverse background and philosophy on allowing free movement everywhere, then asked how he felt about it. He said it was difficult for him to understand someone with a background like mine because he was born in Japan, as were his parents, and his grandparents, and so on. He said even though he loved Taiwan, he would go back to Hokkaido to retire, because that's just what you do. Living overseas for work is normal, but migration seems incomprehensible.
We talked a bit about Taiwan versus mainland China. He said he liked Taiwan more than mainland because it is quieter. That's what the Cantonese guy on the bus said too - he couldn't fathom wanting to live in mainland, if you had the choice. They aren't wrong. The train here from Hualien was almost empty, so i changed seats and sprawled out next to the window. In mainland China, every seat in every carriage on every train is filled. One person gets off, that seat is immediately taken by someone else. You can go totally off the beaten path, scout out some seemingly-deserted part of town, then you'll turn a corner and there's a cop there, or six guys crowding round a chessboard, or a woman selling water and tissues, or something.
Last night i ducked down a seemingly-deserted alley here in Taitung and found a little fry stall. It was just a wok and a salad spinner and a bunch of ingredients laid out for you to choose. I picked out some tofu and green beans and king oyster mushroom and they fried it all up, spun off the oil and tossed it in some chili powder. I've seen this before at other fish'n'chip shop type places in Taiwan, but what made this one unique was they also deep-fried a bunch of Thai basil and tossed that in too. I really love that flavor - pad krapao (basil stir-fry) is my favorite Thai dish - so it kinda offset my disappointment at not finding any great vege food here yet.
Today, thanks to my blistering hangover, i just fucking gave up. It feels like a lot more effort to eat vegan here than in the mainland. I had some kind of beef-in-a-pastry thing that tasted like Chinese Muslim food, and a taco al pastor. Actually the al pastor i would have had even if i wasn't hungover because that is my favorite taco. It was alright, could've been spicier. Plus, you know, stinky tofu - my Chinese staple - and tropical fruit - my other Chinese staple - and dou hua - my other other Chinese staple.
But let's talk about things that could be spicier. Fucking Taiwanese food could be spicier. I mean, Taiwanese food is nice enough. Like all Chinese cuisines, it is cooked right in front of you, freshly prepared, the ingredients are treated with respect and there are lots of different colors and textures. Most importantly, the serving sizes are small and you never feel fat after eating anything like you do with pretty much everything you eat in North America and (to a lesser degree) Europe. So, Taiwanese food is kinda great. But man oh man, after the run through Guangxi, Guizhou, Sichuan and Shaanxi, all the food from the east comes off bland as hell. Even when they add chili it's not really very spicy. In Taiwan and Hong Kong it's even worse because - unlike mainland China where religion is pretty much stomped under the jackboot - ordering the veg option means ordering the Buddhist option. No garlic, no onion, sad face. So, yeah, the food is good, but it's not sock-knockingly good like the spicy side of the mainland.
It got me thinking comparisons.
In Taiwan, there are Buddhist and Daoist and Mazu temples everywhere. In Hong Kong shrines are tucked into every nook and cranny. The greatest temples are the ad hoc ones some guy sets up in his basement. In mainland China there are no ad hoc temples, because that would be illegal. There are only a smattering of religious buildings that survived the Cultural Revolution, and they're all registered with the government. A lot of them cost money to visit because they are tourist attractions.
In Taiwan, you can smell restaurants from the street. Stinky tofu really does smell stinky. There is a special "Taiwanese restaurant" smell that i am not sure whether it comes from beef noodle soup, tea eggs, those tea-braised tofu things or something else. It smells like five spice and tea. In mainland China the "smell" i most remember was burnt chili hanging in the air that made everyone walking by sneeze.
In Taiwan, there are no fucking garbage cans anywhere. The garbage trucks drive through the city every day like clockwork. Locals all gather on the streets when they hear the icecream truck music pass their house or storefront and toss the day's garbage. Fine for locals. If you are traveling it kinda sucks because you need to carry your garbage around with you all day, or look like an asshole for littering. In mainland China there are garbage cans everywhere, but people just litter anyway because there is always going to be some guy sweeping it up in the next twenty minutes.
In Taiwan, ice tea sold in bottles is not sweetened. It is literally just cold tea. In mainland China, ice tea sold in bottles is sweetened, whether it is green, jasmine, oolong, honey or whatever. When you go to a bubble tea place, in Taiwan your drink will come full of ice. Even if you order "less ice", it will still be a cup of mostly ice. In mainland China, your drink will usually be luke-warm. If you ask for ice they might scrape out a cube or two. The very cheap places don't even have ice as an option. But generally i drank less bubble tea on the mainland because bottle tea was cheaper and that hint of sweetness was just enough of a carb boost to get me through to the next solid meal.
Interestingly, on the mainland you see way more people drinking regular (not bubble, not ice) tea. Everyone carts around a thermos with tea leaves in it, and they refill it with hot water all day. There are (free) hot water dispensers all over the place. Here (and in Hong Kong), even though the temperature is pretty much the same, ice tea seems far more common.
Finding a bar here is much harder. It's hard everywhere. They don't have the same kind of bar culture that we do in the west. Taiwan has izakaya-type places. Hong Kong has pubs, but they're not on every corner like they are in Germany. Mainland China has bars with dice games and karaoke - as does Taiwan, if you know where to look - but they only open in the evenings. Although people drink on the street in Taiwan, i feel less comfortable doing it here than in mainland. Perhaps because in mainland pretty much every single roadside noodle place will also sell you a beer whereas here you might need to grab a beer from one place and noodle from another and then nab a plastic stool in front of a building and pretend like you live there.
I suspect the differences i noticed are very particular to my mode of travel and my habits. If you go to the "middle class" areas of China - the malls and the fashionable shopping streets - then you will get everything the same you do in the malls and the fashionable shopping streets of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Europe, America, whatever. But i enjoy wandering about in between those places - the mom'n'pop stores, the wet markets, the back alleys.
One thing i definitely did not miss from Taiwan back alleys is these fucking wild dogs. Even the pet dogs here look like they would chew your face off given half a chance. I got used to big'n'ugly off-leash dogs living in Berlin, but in Berlin the owner was always around. Here the dogs just wander wherever. I know i probably won't get attacked, but i'm always a little on edge. Perhaps i'd see the same thing in the mainland if i visited smaller towns. In the cities the only dogs i saw were handbag dogs of the nouveau riche.
Ugh. My shins are still bright red. My throat is still aching. I hope tomorrow i can finally move around comfortably again. I really would like to see a bit more of this town than just the 10 blocks around my hotel.