There are a few things that always tell me I’m back in Asia: that wall of humid heat which smacks you in the face like a warm, wet hand; the general hubub of noise that fills the air beneath the jungle of flashing neon signs; the tantalising aromas of exotic dishes wafting out from street hawker stands and restaurant doorways, and the sheer number of bodies crowding the streets – what the Chinese call “people mountain, people sea”…this is definitely not the place for those with “personal space” or claustrophobia issues!
Oh, don’t get me wrong – Chinese people do value & respect personal space. But the Asian concept of personal space can be very different from a Western one. You might think that’s an odd thing to say after just hearing me rant – a few posts ago – about the Asian aversion to hugging, etc. – but that’s a bit different. That’s to do with physical demonstration of affection. Standing really close to someone in a queue or a lift is not the same as hugging & kissing someone in public – although funnily enough (to us!) most Westerners find they’re more comfortable doing the latter than the former!
In Taipei, (the capital of Taiwan) it isn’t just the number of people you have to contend with but also the number of motorbikes & scooters! Swerving round corners, darting through traffic, roaring past you in small alleyways… (and yes, also polluting the air with fumes…)
…or neatly lining the roadsides in rows, like an army of silent drones…
People love them for their convenience, low petrol consumption, their ability to squeeze down narrow alleyways, their easy parking and their speed weaving through traffic jams – you often see whole families perched haphazardly on the back of one scooter. Even Taiwanese dogs have learnt to get around on 2 wheels!
The other thing about Asian cities is the plethora of shops spilling out of every street corner, subway tunnel, train station, back alley, memorial park, temple, doghouse, toilet…(ok, I’m exaggerating a bit but you get my drift – they can find a way to squeeze a shop in just about anywhere) – all to cater to that great Asian obsession: Shopping.
You’re probably thinking, “What’s the big deal? Everyone goes shopping.” Nuh-uh. Not like this. We’re not talking about shopping as an occasional leisure activity – oh no. Shopping in Asia is practically a religion and is practised with the fervour of an Olympic sport. And my mother is a multiple Gold Medalist.
I don’t know about you but I’m a bit of a “mood shopper” – in that I have to be in the right mood to feel like shopping. Otherwise, I can walk past racks of beautiful clothing and shoes with barely a flicker of interest. My mother, on the other hand, would probably stop her hearse and climb out of her coffin if she passed a shop with the letters ‘S-A-L-E’, on the way to her own funeral.
Her appetite for shopping is insatiable and her ability to get a discount legendary. Watching her negotiate, with a purse and a smile, is like watching a skilled predator at work. I wish I had even a quarter of her bargaining skills but – like a typical “banana” – I carry too much Western awkwardness and embarrassment about bargaining to ever do more than hesitantly ask if there might be the possibility of a discount…perhaps…please? They see me coming a mile away and give me the same treatment that all naïve Westerners deserve, ( ie. they fleece me ). Any time I’ve been let out to wander the shops of Taipei on my own results in my mother inspecting my purchases upon my return, glowering and saying incredulously, “You paid what??”
Of course, anyone who has been to Taiwan knows that often the best buys are not found in the swanky department stores and shopping malls but right on the side of the street. Known as “Lu Bian Tan“, these are little temporary “shops” that spring up along the roadside, especially in the evenings. After all the official department stores have shut their doors, hard-core shoppers can get another couple of hours in patrolling the little blankets laid out on the sides of the pavements, selling everything from shoes to kitchen knives, ballgowns to home-made rice buns…
Setting up shop on the side of the street is officially illegal and most “shop keepers” have their wares laid out on blankets, so that they can easily grab the corners to bundle up their goods and make a quick getaway if a policeman is sighted. But to be honest, this has been going on for so long and is so much part of the everyday culture of Taiwan that most policemen turn a blind eye (and probably have a browse themselves when they go off-duty! )
I love Lu Bian Tan. Everything is CHEAP, the variety is enormous and I’ve gotten some pretty amazing things – things that people have admired and asked me where I got it from, only to be disappointed when I explain that it’s one-of-a-kind and not available in stores.
Here’s a dress I got a couple of years ago when out roaming the streets with my mother late at night…and everyone who has seen me wear it thinks it’s from some expensive, designer store!
It isn’t just the goods on offer that makes shopping in Taiwan so amazing – it’s the service too. Asia is renowned for its service culture – and Taiwan, with its heavy Japanese influence from 50 years of colonization, excels at “(thoughtful) service with a (beaming) smile”
They really fall over backwards to make things easy for you. If they don’t stock your size or preferred colour, no problem – they’ll find it from another branch in the country and courier the items over for you the next day, free of charge. Trousers too long? Dress too big? No problem, many stores come with an in-house tailor who will do alterations on the spot, again free of charge.
As for discounts…I laugh when I walk around Western shopping malls making a song & dance about “20% off”. That wouldn’t even get you in the door in Taiwan. When serious sales start here, we’re talking 50% off or sometimes even more. My mother would consider anything less an insult. And if there really are no official promotions running, most shop girls will use their employees card to at least get you a 5% or 10% discount, if you ask nicely. You should never have to pay full price, if you “know the ropes”!
Admittedly, sometimes the “service” in Asia can come across a bit overwhelming to those used to the Western style of shopping.
I used to be terrified of walking into a clothes shop in Taiwan because you could never say “I’m just browsing” to a bored shop assistant who’s more interested in their next coffee break than in helping you (a common scenario in the West)….
Oh no. You would be instantly accosted by a beaming shop girl the minute you stepped in the door and followed around the store, inundated with suggestions of what to try and what to buy. Some shop girls could be downright aggressive and if you dared try something on and not buy it, they would act like you’d killed their first-born child. It used to really put me off.
But I’m happy to say that in recent years, Taiwan has changed a lot in this respect – perhaps it is due to increasing Westernisation (although Taiwan remains one of the least Westernised countries in Asia: it is modern and cosmopolitan but not “Westernised” the way Singapore or even Hong Kong is) - or perhaps it is simply the change in attitudes with the younger generation but you can usually walk into most stores now and be left alone to browse if you wish. When you do need help, you will still get that wonderful service.
Of course, there’s a downside to all this awesome shopping…how on earth am I going to carry everything home without paying excess baggage??
Meanwhile back at the hospital…
My mother’s continuing to make great progress with her recovery (to be honest, I think the hardest thing about being in hospital for her is not being able to SHOP! ) but to stop myself writing HUGE, long posts again, I’ll give you all a proper update in the next post!
ps. Unlike some other parts of Asia (eg. Singapore), Taiwan does have 4 seasons so it doesn’t always have to feel like you’re stepping into a sauna. In fact, the northern parts of the island (like the capital, Taipei) can get distinctly chilly in winter, with temperatures dropping down to 2°C (35° F) and snow up in the mountains. So the best times to visit are Spring & Autumn and avoid the hot, humid summer months of Jul/Aug if you can!