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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Attack of the bubble people

Taiwan is a safety country! All that grill-work on the front of this residential building, just down the street from mine, is for decorative purposes only.

One of my Facebook friends this afternoon related on the social networking site the experience a Japanese friend of his recently had:

"I lost my wallet at 新竹 HSR station, but I had to leave there as I need to take a last train... I thought I have to talk to 新竹 station when I arrive 台北 and maybe have to ask my creditcard/bank companies to cancel my cards. But the fact was not. When I arrived 台北, I heard an announcement calling me in JAPANESE! Some kind Taiwanese found my wallet and passed it to 新竹 station staff. Taiwan, what a country. Taiwanese, what a people..."

It’s a nice story, but the responses it generated were all-too-predictable. In addition to similar testimonials, there were a number of rose-tinted remarks left in the comments section, a sampling of which follows (those of you with sensitive stomachs are advised to have a paper bag handy):

“Only in Taiwan!”

“Taiwanese people are incredible!”

“...amazing Taiwan!”

“Amazing stories! It happens only in Taiwan!”

“Taiwan touches your heart :-)”

“Taiwanese are stunning people!! And that's a fact.”

“wonderful really a blessed country in many ways”

“This is why we love Taiwan !!!”

“I think it's 'cause the standard of living's so high, few people turn to thievery”

“..that and the fact that these people are CIVILISED...”

I have no doubt that the anecdotes are all true, and I believe the above responses are genuine in their enthusiasm for the honesty of the people. After all, one of the nice things about living in Taiwan is its relative safety. However, two things came to mind while I was reading the above postings. First, that the comments (as far I can tell) come almost exclusively from Westerners and not Taiwanese; and that I was reading these while sitting in an apartment that is completely encased in barred windows, despite the fact that it's five stories above street-level (see above photo).

Taiwan – both the land and its people – can be wonderful at times, but let’s face it, many of the Western and Japanese residents here live their lives in a bubble, protected from most of the harsh realities of daily life that exist for many of the local people. Most of us will never be the victims of crime during our stays here, and the fact that we are so obviously different also serves on occasion to act as a buffer between us and those among our host population who like to make trouble. That fact that even windows in high-rise residences have bars on them seems to suggest that their owners don’t quite share the same enthusiastic appreciation for the honesty of their fellow countrymen that can be seen in the comments above.

So here are a few stories of my own. There is the American friend of mine who had his camera stolen from a bench on the grounds of the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts 台灣美術館 in T'aichung (Táizhōng) 台中. Granted, it was at night, and he was making out with a girl on the bench in question and thus not concentrating on what was happening around him, but the thief certainly took a big risk in creeping up to make off with the camera. Then there was the time my wife stopped off at a convenience store in T'aichung, leaving a small paper bag filled with a few personal items hanging from her scooter while she went inside. When she came outside a few moments later, the bag was gone, along with the top-of-the-line Chinese-English electronic dictionary that was inside it.

As for me, the only time I’ve ever been a victim of theft was here in Taiwan. One afternoon while I was hiking in Tak'eng (Dà​kēng) 大坑, someone broke into my parked scooter, and made off with an expensive Seattle Mariners MLB jacket that I had stowed under the seat. I could go on about seeing parked cars with their windows smashed; or of the two neighbors, in two different locations where I've lived, who were taken away by the police in handcuffs; or of the woman who sued me after she went through a red light and hit me (she and her gangster-looking fiancé first demanded I compensate her for damages to her bike, as well as her medical bills, but when I refused, she filed a complaint. However, in front of an arbitrator, I presented the police report that blamed her for not stopping at the traffic signal, and a CCTV video that clearly showed her going through the intersection even though everyone else had stopped. She ended up getting nothing). I could go on, but the point is not that Taiwan is a dangerous society (it isn’t), but that it isn’t the low-crime paradise, populated almost exclusively by kind-hearted honest Good Samaritans, which some people like to pretend it is. Taiwanese society is a relatively safe one, especially for foreign residents and visitors (at least those from countries other than in Southeast Asia), but you still need to use common sense, and keep a proper sense of perspective.

“Although it was not my wallet which I had left on the train, I got my Gitzo tripod back. I reported my loss at the train station or calling the train station. They shipped it to me at my mother's address. When a niece of mine who was living with my mother at the time heard about it, she said that it would happen only in Japan.”

The above comment was left by a Japanese woman in regards to the same Facebook post. The fact that the woman’s (presumably) Japanese niece was surprised that this could happen outside of Japan suggests that perhaps “Only in Taiwan” might be overstating the case a little.

I’ll leave you with my own tale:

One afternoon I was driving on the freeway when my car developed engine trouble. I pulled over to the side of the road, and when it became clear that car wasn’t going to move, I started walking along the shoulder toward an off-ramp in the distance. A farmer in a small truck pulled up ahead of me, and offered to give me a ride to the nearest service station, which I accepted. It was only after he had dropped me off, and I had arranged for a tow truck to get my car, that I realized I had left my wallet on the seat in the farmer’s truck.

A couple of days later, the farmer stopped by my home, using the street address listed on my driver’s license. He returned the wallet, contents intact, and refused to accept any gifts in gratitude. I was not only grateful to have the wallet back, but also impressed that the farmer had traveled so far out of his way to return it to me (he could have mailed it to the address).

This happened in California.

Meanwhile, here in Taiwan, someone has been using my Mariners jacket to keep themselves warm during the cooler months.

A mysterious word in Japanese, all that's left on a fading storefront sign.

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