Monday, March 20, 2023

My 2020 trip to Taiwan, 2023 style

In late 2019, the Taipei American School booked me to speak in November 2020. 

That didn’t happen. You know why.

The invitation was tentatively rescheduled for 2021, then with even less certainty for 2022, and finally for March 13-21, 2023—four days with elementary, three days with middle.

You’d think the pandemic would have maxed out the bad luck regarding this trip, but no…three days before my first day at the school, one of my three librarian hosts had to fly home to America for a family emergency. The day before my first day at the school, another of my hosts got COVID. After my second day at the school, my third host got food poisoning! 

I missed the first host altogether; the third was out for only a day and the second was able to return to work for my last two days.

On the other side of the luck coin, the mask mandate in Taiwan was lifted one week before I arrived. I was not looking forward to presenting with mouth covered four to six hours a day for seven days. (I realize that’s what teachers in Taiwan and elsewhere have been doing for nearly three years. Yet another reason to treat educators with reverence.)

It was all worth it. The school, the kids, the culture have all been so welcoming. Not once but twice, a stranger handed me coins to pay for a matter at hand. When I was running and was somehow unable to find the huge river that runs through the area, I asked a boy of about 14 who was riding his bike if he could point me in the right direction. He spoke little English but said “together”—then gestured for me to run alongside him. He took me to the river, then took a selfie of us, then went on his way.

In what quickly became my favorite (if unadventurously Western) local spot—a French bakery—a local couple came up to me and asked if I’m Marc. The bakery, my hotel, and the school are within easy walking distance of each other and these nice people knew an American author was speaking at the school. I clearly stood out. In fact, in most environments here (subway, restaurants, my hotel), I am almost always the only person in sight who presents as non-Asian. 

Cultural observations:

  • virtually no public trash cans—or trash on the streets
  • unbelievably safe; I walked through unfamiliar dark winding streets at night without concern
  • uneven sidewalks; they’re paved or tiled nicely but can suddenly rise up or down
  • in bakeries, you take your own item with tongs, place it on a tray, and bring that to the counter to be bagged
  • 7-Eleven is more than a convenience store here; it’s the hub of life; people dine in, buy train tickets, pay bills, and more, and at times there’s one every few blocks
  • many locals speak more English than they admit to
  • I’m hearing little to no fear of China invading; as one Taiwanese person told me, “They’ve been talking about this for 30 years and nothing has happened”; this cover suggests otherwise:

My hosts said day-to-day life carries on without dread.

With some of my hosts, both staff and PTA.

The student population here was largely Taiwanese.
Many international schools I’ve spoken at have been more 
culturally diverse.  

Carol Youssif, middle school librarian, 
produces this clever newsletter and posts it
(you guessed it) in the bathroom.

Friends who have visited TAS ahead of me:

Peter Brown

Marissa Moss

Matt Phelan

Gordon Korman

Beginning my hiking exploration at Yangmingshan National Park in Taipei.

My first of three suspension bridges in Taiwan.

I loved the various styles of paths in the park.

I woke at 5:15 am to take a three-hour train from Taipei to
Hualein, then a 30-minute drive to Taroko National Park.
This is Taipei Main Station at 6:30 am.

My first trail in Taroko.

Due to the marble cliffs and other natural chemicals,
some of the water in the gorge is Caribbean/South Pacific blue.

Pacific Ocean

See who I met?

This macaque monkey.

My second (and favorite) of three suspension bridges.
(Third not pictured in this post.)

Can you spot my tour guide Ivan?

A monastery in the rainforest.

So yes, in one day, in one park, I encountered a rainforest, a monastery, gorges, suspension bridges, monkeys, and even the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

Yet more hiking: Tianmu Historic Trail, the start of which was a 20-minute walk from my hotel. After a steep, long set of winding stairs, you follow a flat gravel path along the forested mountain overlooking the city. At one point, a troop of macaque monkeys surrounded the trail, chattering. They are not aggressive but will try to snatch food (so I did not bring any).

The librarian who had to return to the States had been planning to take me to a new Jewish institution in Taipei called the Jeffrey D. Schwartz Jewish Community Center—indeed the first Jewish house of worship in all of Taiwan (but the second Jewish organization). 

Of an island of 20 million, fewer than 1,000 identify as Jewish. Schwartz is an American-born businessperson who has lived in Taiwan for the past 50 years and is married to a Taiwanese woman who is a popular entertainer.

This JCC is more than a synagogue. It’s also home to a museum of Jewish art and Judaica, a kosher culinary lab (AKA a restaurant), a mikveh (ritual bath), banquet and meeting halls, education spaces, and an apartment for the (Israeli/Orthodox) rabbi, his wife, and their six kids. (It is also not without controversy.)

Logically, my tour guide was a non-Jewish Austrian.



300-person banquet hall

the kosher (meat) restaurant

largest mural in the building,
commissioned by a Chilean artist
and bursting with symbolism

rooftop courtyard for the sukkah and
(eventually) weddings and other milestones

I ran along this canal to the river I think is called Keelung.

I did not run into any poisonous critters.

Modern Toilet is...a restaurant.

Speaking of toilets, my hotel room had its own
little library.

Some pizza had bizarrely
American toppings that you do not
even see in America.

Peanuts is popular here. I saw Snoopy
on many a T-shirt...and one bench 
(though it is not an exact likeness).

Turtles for sale.

This sign leaves little about hair removal to the imagination.

The sweet, handwritten greeting my hotel left me 
on my birthday.

Thank you again to librarians Brianna, Carol, and Mandy for the years of prep, the warm welcome, the overall wonderful experience. Thank you also to the many more who took care of me throughout including Ashley, Suji, Fantine, Cecilia, Rick, Becky, Erik, Kiley, Adrienne, Paul, Diane, Savanna... 

I shall be back.