Transportation Is a Utility: Thoughts on Airplanes and Trains (Part 1)

Note: This post is scheduled to go online a little less than a week after I wrote this, while I do not have access to the internet. It might already be out of date by the time it is posted, and due to lack of internet access, I may be slow to moderate/respond to comments.

***

I’m guessing that just about everyone who is reading this post knows that, on April 9, 2017, United Airlines (or more specifically, United Express) called in Chicago Aviation security officers to forcibly remove a passenger who was already boarded and seated and posed no threat to anybody, and those officers broke the passenger’s nose, gave him a concussion, and caused him to lose two teeth. This has sparked a lot of discussion, including (but not only) the fact that the airline industry in the United States is an oligopoly, and that this situation (the broader situation, not just oligopoly) exists partially because the government chose to hand over airline regulation away from democratic systems and towards airline managers.

Though it was published before April 9, this article explains how enforcing anti-monopoly/oligopoly laws is necessary to preserve/expand civil liberties. That article focuses on African-Americans, but I think its points can be applied more broadly, and I think the United Airlines incident is an example of the link between concentrated market power and violation of civil liberties.

Meanwhile, another piece of news which has gotten far less attention (for obvious reasons) is the Trump administration’s proposal to cut all funding of Amtrak’s national network trains. You know those trains which I rode last year? Those routes might be eliminated if the budget passes in its current form.

The common thread in these two news stories is that they are about how transportation policy in the United States has been moving towards giving the private sector, as opposed to public sector, more control over transportation, and that this is bad for societal cohesion. In other words, the United States is moving away from treating transportation as a utility.

Let’s go back to airlines. It has been more than ten years since I was ever on a domestic flight in the United States, and most of my experience with U.S. domestic flights was with an airline which no longer exists (TWA). Thus, I do not have personal experience with current conditions on domestic U.S. flights. However, I do have recent experience (within the last five years) with domestic flights in Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, and I can tell you that they have much better customer service than what people describe with domestic airlines in the United States at much lower prices. Now, some of that is because people are going to talk more about their horrible experiences with airlines than their boring experiences with airlines. However, it does seem to me that Americans are dissatisfied with airline service in the U.S. in a way that most East Asians are not dissatisfied with their domestic airlines. Furthermore, the domestic airlines in those countries either have government price controls (Taiwan) or are much more competitive than the regional air markets of equivalent size in the United States (Japan and South Korea).

Some of you are probably thinking ‘Domestic flights in Taiwan / Japan / South Korea? That’s ridiculous! Those countries are so small!’ Well, it’s not ridiculous because Taiwan and Japan are island countries, and South Korea has an entire province (Jeju) which is not on the Korean peninsula, just as the United States has an entire state (Hawaii) which is not part of the North American landmass.

Since I know most about Taiwan, I will focus on the airline industry there. Most domestic flights in Taiwan connect the main island to the outer islands. There is also ferry service to the outer islands (except Kinmen), but since air travel has some advantages over sea travel, having both air and sea connections means better transportation than having only sea connections. Since some islands are only served by a single airline and can only sustain a limited number of flights (for example, Qimei, an island with about 3,700 inhabitants, has only two flights per day), market competition clearly cannot keep airfares reasonable. Thus, the government imposes price controls. And when the airfares go up, the islanders make a big stink about it, and it is reported in the news.

Obviously, Taiwan’s regulation of domestic air travel has big problems because this happened (note: I once took a TransAsia flight from Taipei to Kinmen – if the timing had been different, I could have been on that flight). However, Taiwan’s approach – treating airlines as a utility – is the approach which best serves its interests. When I interacted with airlines in Asia, I generally felt I received good customer service. For example, I once got a refund for my ticket with very little fuss for a flight where I was a no show (I did not cancel – I was a no show). That airline had a monopoly for that particular route, so the most plausible reason why they gave me a refund so easily is that they were legally required to do so.

Now, one may ask ‘who cares if the outer islands, which have a total population of less than 300,000 people, have good, affordable transportation?’ First of all, good transportation is critical to maintaining the economies of the outer islands, but that is arguably not important to the 23 million people who live on the main island (the total population of all of the outer island is less than 300,000). The most obvious benefit to the people on the main island is military security – in every single instance in history when there was warfare between China and Taiwan, it started in the outer islands because they are the buffer zone. It is in Taiwan’s interests to keep the loyalty of the people in the outer islands, and for the outer islands to have sufficient resources to support Taiwan’s military (which is heavily concentrated in the outer islands).

But beyond the question of how helping the outer islanders benefits the main islanders, there is the basic principle that they are all part of same society, and that it is the duty of a society to take care of its own people.

Here one might say ‘yeah, that’s Taiwan’s situation, how is that relevant to anywhere else.’ True, people in New York City do not depend on upstate New York to serve as a buffer against military invasion (though I suppose that, if there were any serious threat of Canada invading the United States, that could change). However, the point about broader social and national cohesion applies just as much to the United States as to Taiwan. That is the case made by this blog.

One of the issues I’ve seen come up again and again in discussion about United Airlines is that some people cannot avoid using United Airlines if they want to travel to/from certain places by air because United Airlines is the only feasible option. Though I do not know the details, apparently Louisville (the destination of the flight) is one of those places where flight options are limited. Thus, one cannot rely on the power of the market to ensure good service – if the government does not step in, then the managers of the airlines will just do whatever the heck they want, which is probably to make themselves richer at the cost of both passengers and employees (it turns out the employees who were working on that flight are grossly underpaid, which might be related to why they performed so badly – employees who can’t take care of themselves can’t take care of passengers).

I have zero sympathy for United Airlines, and I would not feel sorry at all for them if they go out of business because of this scandal. However, because the airline industry in the United States is an oligopoly which does not have sufficient public control, I do not expect eliminating United Airlines will improve conditions for passengers. On the contrary, I think increasing market concentration might make the surviving companies even less inclined to treat passengers fairly.

Now let’s get back to trains…

(To be continued in Part 2)

Being Terrified by the Unfamiliar

I have never felt classic culture shock – the type which goes in stages such as ‘honeymoon period’ ‘frustration’ ‘acceptance’ etc. (some models of culture shock have four stages, some have five, but they tend to be similar). The closest I came was when I lived in Mountain View, and I’ve even told a lot of people that that is when I felt classic culture shock, but now I think … if so, it was a really mild case of culture shock. I think at this point, I had been trying to fit my experiences in Mountain View into the culture shock model just to find any way to relate to the idea of multi-stage culture shock.

I recall, about six months after I moved to Taiwan, I was talking with another American, and she said ‘oh, you haven’t felt culture shock yet, but you will, it will hit you.’

In the three years I was in Taiwan, I never experienced anything like the four-stage or five-stage models of culture shock.

I recently read Pacific Crest Trials by Zach Davis and Carly Moree, which talks about how to psychologically prepare for long distance thru hikes (i.e. hiking over 3000 km on foot). Though it does not explicitly link the mindset of thru hikers to the culture shock models, it seems to be describing something pretty similar. They even use the term ‘honeymoon period’. And it makes sense that adjusting to life on a thru-hike would be like adjusting to life in a completely different culture. That is, first of all, it is a different culture (hiker culture is very distinct), but also, even though most people who do thru-hikes in the United States grew up in the United States, and some people do them in their states of residence/origin, life on the trail is really different from life at home, even if one’s home just happens to be a trail town (a trail town is a town near one of the trails frequented by thru-hikers – for example, Big Bear City in California is a ‘trail town’).

An example of how life is different is, even though most hikers carry watches, people generally do not live by the clock when they are on trail (unless they have to go into town and be there when a post office is open or something). Water is generally only available once every few miles (or less – one might sometimes travel 20+ miles between water sources, depending on which trail and under what circumstances). Food – well, a little foraging is sometimes possible, but generally food is only available in towns. I could keep going, but I think you get it by now that life in trail!United-States is different from life in most of the United States.

Anyway, so if I don’t go through classic culture shock, what do I experience?

I remember, when I was a girl, I dropped something on a sidewalk near my home. I wanted to go back and fetch it. My parents told me to go by myself to fetch it. I had never walked outside without adult supervision before. I was astonished that my parents thought it was okay for me to go outside by myself. Yes, it was my neighborhood, so the odds of me becoming lost were practically zero, and though people occasionally get murdered when they are outside in my neighborhood (in fact, IIRC, there had been a murder on the very street where I went to retrieve whatever I had dropped), the odds of myself becoming the victim of a violent crime were really low. But since I had never done it before – I had it ingrained in my habits (at that age) that I do not go outside without an adult – I was really nervous and terrified.

Nowadays, if you suggested that it would be a bad idea for me to go outside on my own without the supervision of my elders, I would be baffled. I’m a freaking adult right now, I don’t need to be escorted just to walk around my own neighborhood.

That is the pattern I experience. When I am thrust into an environment that is too unfamiliar – especially if I am alone – I experience terror.

I experienced the terror in Taiwan – twice, once when I first arrived in Taiwan, and the second time, when I moved to Taoyuan City. I liked the idea of moving to Taiwan when it was far in the future, but when it became imminent – and then it happened – I was frightened. It was the first time I had ever been outside of the United States by myself, and I had no return ticket. What made me stick with it – both staying in Taiwan and staying in Taoyuan – was that those decisions were difficult to reverse. That made me tough it out until the terror passed and I had adapted.

By contrast, when I hiked up Ishizuchi in Japan years later, I had read about how scary the ascent to the highest peak is (in fact, most hikers do not go to the highest point because it is so scary). When I got there I found … much of the path is a slanted uneven rocky scramble, with a sharp drop of hundreds of feet on one side – and it did not look that scary to me. I had done so many hikes with similar (or more extreme conditions) in Taiwan, that the final scramble of Ishizuchi felt familiar – it even gave me a sense of nostalgia. In short, I was not scared of that slope because it felt familiar to me.

This is me in Taiwan (yes, I am the person in this photo). Specifically, this is me at Wuliaojian.

Last year, I went on three section hikes along the Pacific Crest Trail. On none of those trips did I complete my planned itinerary.

One time, my choice to quit was very sensible – there was a heat wave (temperatures over 90℉ / 33℃), and the next section of the trail was steep, uphill, exposed to the south (i.e. very little shade), and all of the water sources for the next 14 miles were dry. I have ZERO regret about quitting at that point. I still want to hike that section, but I want to do it when it’s cooler and the water sources are actually sources of water. Besides, I had already hiked over fifty miles during that trip.

But the other two times? It wasn’t due to trail conditions, it was because I was not prepared for the psychological shock. I’ve read a lot of hikers can get through the beginning of the hikes on the ‘honeymoon’ euphoira and the psychological shock hits them later, whereas for me, it seems the shock is front-loaded.

I do not like admitting this publicly on my blog, because it runs counter to how I see myself – or rather, how I wish I were. I like thinking of myself as intrepid. These experiences do not give me the self-image I want.

Well, when something is hard to do, and you want to get better at it, it’s sometimes a good idea to TRY AGAIN. And that’s what I’m doing this week. I’m going to attempt another section of the Pacific Crest Trail. Specifically, I plan to hike from Barrel Spring (it’s literally just a spring near a road – it’s four miles away from the nearest town) to the border with Mexico.

It will be a backpacking trip unlike anything I’ve tried before. I’ve never hiked through a desert before, so yes, I will carry a lot of water, but at least the slopes are fairly gentle in this section, and because I will go south, I will hike uphill on the northern (cooler) slopes. Also, I’ve never had to deal with temperature swings of 25-90℉ (-4-33℃) within 24 hours while sleeping outdoors, so that will be interesting. I look forward to the novelty and challenge, while I am also aware that I might not like it at all.

For some reason, I am fixated on the danger of rattlesnakes. This is bizarre because Taiwan has snakes which are deadlier than rattlesnakes (most rattlesnake bites will not kill an adult human, even without treatment – Taiwan has snakes whose bite kills any human who does not get timely treatment), and the Taiwanese venomous snakes do not even warn you of their presence with a rattle, and yet I was never scared of them. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t raised in a culture which fears ‘hundred-pacers’, whereas I was raised in a culture which fears rattlesnakes. Rattlesnake bite is far from the most common reason why hikers need medical evacuation in this section (the most common reason is dehydration – which, thankfully, is preventable with good planning), but it’s still what has grabbed my imagination. Oh well, hopefully my paranoia will at least make my odds of being bit by a rattlesnake even lower (and yes, I have a plan for what to do if I do get bitten by a rattlesnake). What I’ve read is that many hikers freak out when they first see a rattlesnake, but after the third or fourth time they encounter a rattlesnake, it’s much less terrifying.

So, why am I doing this hike if I expect it to be uncomfortable, and suspect I may hate it? First of all, there are my ego issues (described above), but if that was all there was to it, I would stop myself because there are easier ways to address ego issue. I am also really curious what it is like to hike in a desert, and even if I never do it again, I want to know what it feels like. Furthermore, I am fascinated by hiker psychology, and while one can learn about hiker psychology just by reading books, it’s not the same as first-hand experience (in particular, a book cannot tell me how *I* will react in certain conditions). I also hope that, maybe, just maybe, I’ll gain a little mental resilience which I may need later in life. Finally, I enjoy hanging out with the type of people who hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and the best place to find them is, obviously, the Pacific Crest Trail.

Why am I posting all of this on my blog. Remember how I mentioned the book Pacific Crest Trials, about how to psychologically cope with the trail? One of their recommended techniques is to tell everyone, and to announce your hike on your website, so that peer pressure will help you get through the tough parts. I’m trying this technique right now. I’ll see if implicit peer pressure will help me deal with the psychological shock better than before. But I’m not sure it will work, since most people I know think that hiking a hundred miles through desert mountains is so far out there that they aren’t going to think less of me if I do not complete the hundred miles – even my parents, who are calmer about this and find it less impressive than anyone else I know, wouldn’t hold it against me.

Reading Formosa Betrayed on 2/28

I am in the middle of reading Formosa Betrayed. I had hoped to finish today, but it did not happen. That’s partially because it is about a destruction of society, economy, and mass violation of human rights which was completely preventable.

I wished I had read this book years ago. I knew the broad outlines of what had happened, but there is a big difference between knowing the general flow of events, and knowing the details.

Today, of course is Èr-Èr-Bā, which is Mandarin for ‘2-2-8’ as in ‘February 28’. This is a public holiday in Taiwan, and I am sure many Taiwanese people have enjoyed their four-day weekends. (I briefly mentioned Èr-Èr-Bā in this post).

This is also the 70th anniversary of the February 28th Incident, also known as the February 28th Massacre. That is why this is a public holiday in Taiwan. To this day, new information and documents about the ‘incident’ continue to be released. For example, just recently, a letter sent among the main perpetrators of the massacre has been made public.

Formosa Betrayed is one of the best historical documents of the ‘incident’. I remember a Taiwanese man in Chiayi explaining to me how important Formosa Betrayed is. For decades, any Taiwanese person who dared to talk about the ‘incident’ would be, at best, censored, and at worst, would be tortured and killed and have their family members punished as well. To this day, there are Taiwanese people who are reluctant to talk about what their families experienced during Èr-Èr-Bā. That is why no Taiwanese witness has written a book like Formosa Betrayed. George Kerr, as an American, was safe from censorship and threats of violence, and that is how he, as a firsthand witness of Èr-Èr-Bā, was able to write and publish a book about it.

As an American, George Kerr does have a pro-American bias. I suspect that, if some Taiwanese witness had managed to write a book, it would not have been as pro-American as Formosa Betrayed. However, as an American, George Kerr had a better understanding of the U.S. government’s role in Èr-Èr-Bā than a Taiwanese witness would have been likely to have. And one of the new insights I am getting from Formosa Betrayed is just how badly the U.S. government messed up this situation. And that is one of the main reasons why this book is relevant to Americans, not just Taiwanese.

The U.S. government continues to make the same types of mistakes which are described in the book. Sometimes it makes those mistakes with regards to other countries, but since this is February 28th, I am going to focus on U.S.-Taiwan policy. Living Taiwan and observing how American media reports on Taiwan was eye-opening … in the sense of learning just how much fail there is in American media (both mainstream and alternative media, though mainstream media can do much more damage to Taiwan). I was in Taiwan when the New York Times decided to spew this load of dangerous crap (and if you do not understand how that editorial is dangerous crap – you really, really need to read Formosa Betrayed, though if you do not have time to read it, accepting that Taiwan belongs to Taiwanese people, and that Taiwanese people ought to decide what happens to Taiwan, not the United States and especially not China, is a step in the right direction).

In U.S. politics, there is a narrative that the United States is always the imperialist bad-guy, that the United States is uniquely responsible for international wrongs, etc. Sometimes the United States is the bad guy, and is responsible for international wrongs, but to present the United States as uniquely evil is as much a form of American exceptionalism as the line of thought which presents the United States as uniquely good and never wrong. Formosa Betrayed lays out how the ‘China-Firsters’, who kept on insisting that the United States ought to give Taiwan to China in spite of the lack of a solid sovereign claim, and that the United States ought not to intervene in the way China administered Taiwan in 1945-1947 because China was an oppressed Third-World country, actually enabled the Chinese war-criminals who pillaged and looted Taiwan, and stripped the Taiwanese people of even the limited legal rights they had under Japanese rule.

There are still too many ‘China Firsters’ who have influence in the U.S. government today. And there are too many people in the U.S. media, mainstream or alternative media, who want to enable China to annex Taiwan again. To them, it is not a problem that the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese do not want to be annexed by China. They do not want the mass looting which happened in the 1940s to be repeated. They do not want the massacres which happened in the 1940s to be repeated. They don’t want a repeat of the White Terror. And yes, I think those things are entirely possible if China were allowed to annex Taiwan again.

Even when I was living in Taiwan – specifically, the part of main island which likely be targeted first if China ever invades Taiwan (the first line of defence, of course, are the outer islands, not the main island) – I was never at risk the way my neighbors were. If an invasion had happened, I would have run back to the United States as quickly as possible, and option not available to most Taiwanese. I would not have had to live with the long-term consequences of an annexation. However, even though I was at less risk, spending years living in a place with the threat of military invasion hanging over one’s head … has affected the way I think about war and politics. Living among people who have lived with this type of threat all their lives, who believe the question of a China-Taiwan war is a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’ also had an impact. It is not easy to describe the shift which happened, aside from saying that it has made me more skeptical of mainstream American politics than I would have been otherwise.

This post is not the most brilliant thing which will be said about Èr-Èr-Bā. It’s not even as worthwhile as this this speech by a Taiwanese-American addressing other Taiwanese-Americans at UC Berkeley. But it what I have to offer.

Darn, I Got Mandarin in My English

English is my native language, whereas I did not even start learning Mandarin until I was about twenty-one years old. So there is no way that Mandarin can mess up my use of English … HA HA HA HA HA.

There are a few ways which Mandarin makes it harder for me to use English correctly. I’ll go over a couple of them.

First of all, I recently have been doing more Chinese -> English translations than … I ever have before. This means that not only am I exposing myself to a lot of Chinese written by native speakers, but I have to pay much more active attention than when I am, say, simply reading a book in Chinese. Ever since this recent spate of translations started, I have found that sometimes the Chinese way of expressing an idea is popping into my head before the English way of something pops into my head, and then I have to translate my thought into English before I speak/write. I had not experienced this much since I left Taiwan, and I find it interesting that it is working on Chinese -> English translations as opposed to other ways I have of using my Chinese language skills which is triggering this.

Second, even though English is my first language for most subjects, there are a few areas where, in a sense, Mandarin is my first language, and English is my second language. Tea is a good example. I barely ever paid attention to tea, let alone drank tea, before I moved to Taiwan, and practically everyone who introduced me to tea and taught me more about it did so using Mandarin. Therefore, I find it much more natural to talk about tea in Mandarin than English. This is why I sometimes talk about ‘red tea’ in English, even though that is the incorrect term. That is also why I tend to talk in Mandarin in tea shops in the United States, even though the people who work in those shops are fluent in English (fortunately, they also tend to understand Mandarin, otherwise speaking to them in Mandarin would cause communication problems).

Since I first got serious about hiking/backpacking/camping while I was living in Taiwan, I also feel that Mandarin is a first language for me there. I also always had a significant level of communication about hiking/camping/backpacking in English, so I was never so far behind in talking about hiking/camping in English as I was with talking about tea. However, when I went on my backpacking trips this year, it felt strange to me that I was talking about it exclusively in English, and not using Mandarin at all (yes, I’ve also done hiking/backpacking/camping in Japan, but I used a surprising amount of Mandarin while I was travelling in Japan, including rural Japan).

That said, English is still by far the language I know best, so when my thoughts appear in Mandarin, translating them into English is generally pretty easy. And I am glad that there are some parts of this world which I got to know in Mandarin before I got to know them in English. Perhaps that is the takeaway for people who are learning a new language – once one has a sufficient level of proficiency, take something you know little about, and explore it using the language you are learning rather than your native language.

Living in the ‘Ugliness’ of Taiwan

I recently read the essay “Formosa the Ugly?” which is about how, in spite of Taiwan being a ‘developed’ country, there is still an abundance of cheaply constructed buildings which makes it look ‘ugly’ compared to many other ‘developed’ regions of the world. In the comments, there is a spirited discussion about whether it is actually bad that Taiwan is this way or not.

I’ve seen plenty of photos of urban Vietnam on travel blogs, and if weren’t for the fact that the street signs use Vietnamese instead of Chinese, I could have believed that those photos were taken in Taiwanese cities. This is in spite of the fact that Taiwan is materially wealthier than Vietnam.

Ultimately, it’s because the Taiwanese have chosen not to invest as many resources into their buildings and streets as many other societies with comparable wealth (though, as some of the comments point out, new buildings in Taiwan do tend to be nicer).

Well, there is the distorting factor of Taiwan’s terrain – it takes more resources to make infrastructure functional in Taiwan than in many other parts of the world, so even when the Taiwanese do put in more resources than other societies, the results may look equally humble. For example, a well-travelled engineer I knew said he had never seen any place on earth which uses as much stainless steel in its street infrastructure as Taiwan. Most places would not use so much stainless steel because it is so expensive, but in Taiwan’s case, the maintenance costs would be amazingly high without the wide use of stainless steel. Yet to the casual eye, stainless steel does not make the infrastructure look any more aesthetic, or even more like part of the ‘developed’ world.

Like the writer of the essay, I have learned how to mentally crop out the sight of such buildings, so that seeing shack built out of corrugated steel does not interrupt my appreciation of, say, a natural landscape.

And to be honest … I like the rough and unvarnished look of Taiwanese settlements. I liked that, with few exceptions, there is little appealing about the architecture and streetscapes of Taoyuan City. I found something refreshingly unpretentious about it. Function, not form. I even came to almost like the tacky faux-bamboo which the article lampoons (if nothing else, that photo brings out quite a bit of nostalgia from me).

I also remember another comment I heard from a foreigner living in Taiwan. There was a TV in the room, and said foreigner commented – “That [place being shown on TV] looks like a Taiwanese home!” What he meant is that Taiwanese homes often look ugly on the outside – but the interiors are immaculate and pretty and reflect the aesthetic investment of the occupants (they also often are not – it depends on who lives there). Taiwanese generally would prefer a beautiful interior over a beautiful exterior for their homes – and that appeals to me.

I also cannot help but notice that one can have a relatively high quality of life (okay, it depends on how you define ‘quality of life’ – I’m using my own subjective definition) at a relatively low cost in Taiwan. Certainly the quality-of-life/cost ratio is better in Taiwan than anywhere else I’ve been to in Asia – Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea (and even after factoring in the incomes of those respective places, Taiwan still comes out ahead).

So, yes, the unaesthetic nature of Taiwanese cities and towns is noted. But if Taiwan had been filled instead with beautiful buildings all over the place, I don’t think I would have been much happier there.

Seven Rare, Unusual, or Otherwise Distinct Taiwanese Foods, Part 2

This photo of ban tiao

This photo of ban tiao “客家板條” by lumei is licensed under Creative Commons.

4. Hakka Ban Tiao
Region: Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Miaoli, Kaohsiung, and Pingdong, but it’s most strongly associate with Meinong (in Kaohsiung).

I notice this list has a bit of a Hakka bias (about 10-15% of the population of Taiwan is Hakka). Both aiyu and Oriental Beauty Tea originate from Hakka regions of Taiwan (Fenqihu and Hsinchu).

Ban tiao is basically a kind of thick rice noodle, though there are certain other ingredients (namely the typical ingredients of Hakka cuisine) which are usually stir-fried with the ban tiao.

I did not realize that ban tiao was a distinctly Taiwanese food until I did some search engine queries, and found that Ban Tiao is mostly strongly associated with Taiwanese Hakka, not Hakka people in general.

I love Hakka ban tiao, and whenever I went to a Hakka town I would eat it. Ah, okay, I *did* live in a Hakka region, and I could get ban tiao in my neighborhood in Taoyuan City, but the ban tiao in the rural Hakka towns tastes a lot better.

“Taichung Sun Cake”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Taichung_Sun_Cake.JPG#/media/File:Taichung_Sun_Cake.JPG

5. Taichung Suncake
Region: Taichung (isn’t it obvious?)

This is a flaky pastry with a sweet, chewy inside. I find it tasty.

Note: some people will tell you it is not possible to find vegan Taichung Suncake. They are wrong. When I lived in Taiwan, I could buy vegan suncake right inside Taichung train station.

This photo of mud volcano tofu,

This photo of mud volcano tofu, “泥火山板豆腐” is by flashguy, and is licensed under Creative Commons.

6. Mud Volcano Tofu
Region: Southern Hualien, Taidong

To make tofu, you need three ingredients: water, soybeans, and coagulant. There are many coagulants which can be used with tofu, and different coagulants will produce a different texture.

The recipe for Mud Volcano Tofu is water, soybeans, and liquid from a mud volcano.

Of course, people don’t actually want to eat the mud, so the the liquid from the mud volcano must sit for at least three days so that the mud separates from the clear liquid (the mud particles are so fine that they cannot be filtered out).

Of course, the need for mud volcano liquid means that this kind of tofu is only made in places which have mud volcanos. There are mud volcanoes in various parts of southern Taiwan (this post is a good overview of Taiwan’s mud volcanoes). I have eaten a lot of tofu in my life, and mud volcano tofu is definitely one of the most delicious kinds of tofu I have ever eaten. I ate it in Luoshan, the Hakka village in Hualien (I told you this list has a Hakka bias) which is best known for mud volcano tofu. I have also heard that it is possibly to buy mud volcano tofu in Taidong City, which means that it is probably produced somewhere in Taidong County (probably Guanshan, since there is a mud volcano there).

There is a blog post describing the process of making mud volcano tofu here.

Okay, so what Taiwanese food could be even rarer than tofu made from mud volcanoes? Well, it is…

7. Kolitan Fruit
Region: Green Island, Lanyu, and apparently some other coastal areas

You can find a photo of the fruit here.

Kolitan is so rare that a) most Taiwanese people have never heard of it and b) it has no name in English. I borrowed the name of the fruit from the Tao language since it the name which is easiest for English speakers to pronounce. The Latin name for the plant is palaquium formosanum. The Chinese names include: 大葉山欖 (Big-Leaf Mountain Olive), 台湾胶木 (Taiwanese Gum Tree), 杆仔樹 (not sure what this means because my Taiwanese is no good), 臭屁梭 (Stinky Fart Shuttle, a reference to the scent of the flowers), and 蘭嶼芒果 (Lanyu Mango). (I think this is a lot of Chinese names for a fruit which the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese people, let alone Chinese-speakers, have never heard of – but maybe people kept on making names for it because they did not realize it already had a name in Chinese).

I ate Kolitan on Green Island, and even saw an old man harvesting the fruit from a tree. It tastes a bit like avocado, but it is sweet.  Apparently, the plant is related to the plant from which shea butter is made, so it probably tastes like avocado because of high fat content.

The people on Green Island told me that this fruit only grows on Green Island and Lanyu. However, when I was looking up the name on the internet, I found that it also grows in mainland Taiwan, though it is very rare on the main island. It also apparently grows somewhere in the Philippines, which is not surprising since Green Island and Lanyu are ecological melting pots of Taiwanese and Filipino species.

***

Have you tried any of these foods, and what do you think? Which foods would you want to try? Which of these foods is the weirdest?

Seven Rare, Unusual, or Otherwise Distinct Foods of Taiwan, Part 1

The vast majority of people familiar with Taiwan love the food. Taiwanese cuisine is basically a blend of Fujianese and Japanese cuisine influenced by indigenous cuisines, which has drifted from both Fujianese and Japanese cuisine over time.

The cuisine which is most similar to Taiwanese cuisine is Okinawan cuisine (another melting pot of Chinese and Japanese cuisines on a subtropical island), so much so that if someone told me that the ‘traditional’ Okinawan meals I had were actually Taiwanese, I would have believed them. Taiwanese people who have been to Okinawa have also told me that Okinawan food seems to be just like Taiwanese food to them. And if you look at the labels of some of the ‘Okinawan’ specialties sold in touristy parts of Okinawa, you might notice that some of them are imported from Taiwan.

When I say a food is ‘distinctly’ Taiwanese, I mean it is a food which is primarily consumed in Taiwan and not in other parts of the world. For example, even though Taiwanese people eat a lot of stinky tofu, is not distinctly Taiwanese because it is also widely eaten in certain parts of China. Likewise, even though mochi is very Taiwanese, it also happens to be very Japanese. Thus, they are not distinctly Taiwanese foods. That said, I do give myself a some wiggleroom with regards to whether a food is exclusively Taiwanese.

So here are the seven foods, presented in order most common to rarest.

This photo of aiyu jelly is by brappy! from Taipei (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This photo of aiyu jelly is by brappy! from Taipei (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

1. Aiyu jelly
Region: Everywhere, but originally from rural Chiayi

This is a very common food in Taiwan, so much so that I don’t feel it belongs on a list of ‘rare’ foods at all. However, my research indicates that it is only produced and consumed in Taiwan and Singapore (and I am guessing that, due to a lack of farmland, the Singaporeans have to import the raw ingredients from Taiwan).

I really like aiyu. It is sweet and a little sour and very refreshing.

Aiyu jelly originated from Chiayi county, and the best aiyu I’ve had was in rural Chiayi, made from wild plants. There are also some villages which specialize in farming the plant in various parts of Taiwan. I’ve even been at the very spot on the Fenqihu-Rueili Historic Trail, where a man bent down along the path to drink water from a pool, only to notice the distinct taste and texture. He figured out that the water became that way because some seeds had fallen in it, and he figured out how to make jelly from the seeds. His daughter, Aiyu, sold the jelly in Fenqihu, and the jelly was named after her.

Here is a blog post about the Rueili-Taihe trail, which is connected to the Rueili-Fenqihu trail, though unfortunately since the blogger went to Taihe and not Fenqihu he probably missed the spot where aiyu was discovered.

A drawing of bird's nest fern.

A drawing of bird’s nest fern.

2. Shansu (Bird’s Nest Fern)
Region: Everywhere. It is one of the most common plants in Taiwan, and it grows abundantly in every county except Penghu.

Bird’s nest fern grows in many subtropical and tropical Asian countries, but Taiwan is the only place where people actually eat it. It’s a fairly common vegetable in Taiwan.

Personally, I agree with all of those Asians who refuse to eat it. It is my least favorite Taiwanese vegetable. I much prefer another species of fern which Taiwanese people eat and which is eaten in other countries where it grows, probably because it actually tastes good. But hey, this is a list of rare, unusual, and distinctly Taiwanese foods, not Taiwanese Foods I Like. Shansu is common, but it is unusual, and as a food, it is distinctly Taiwanese.

This photo, "Oriental Beauty", is by Cosmin Dordea, and licensed under Creative Commons.

This photo, “Oriental Beauty”, is by Cosmin Dordea, and licensed under Creative Commons.

3. Oriental Beauty Tea
Region: Hsinchu County

This is a kind of tea which is only grown in Hsinchu County (though there are similar teas grown in a few other spots). It is an unusual kind of oolong tea. Oriental Beauty Tea cannot be grown with pesticides because it requires a certain kind of insect to bite the leaves and flavor the tea.

I think most of the Oriental Beauty tea I’ve had was low-grade and/or adulterated because the price was too low to be high-grade/pure. The one time I’ve had Oriental Beauty tea which I am sure was the real thing, it was refreshing and a bit tangy. It’s not my favorite kind of Taiwanese tea, but it’s nice and different.

There is a more detailed description of this tea at this blog.

The next four foods appear in Part 2…