x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The practical traveller: In need of language lessons in Taipei

Without any Mandarin, our world traveller finds it difficult to navigate the Chinese city.

Chris Guillebeau, 33, is on a five-year mission to visit every country in the world. He is currently on number 164.

My first thought as I step out of Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport in Taipei is that initial impressions are spectacular. Chinese culture, as viewed through western eyes, is both amazing and disorienting.

It can also be a challenge to communicate. In recent travels through South East Asia, my naivety had allowed me to forget that most Chinese don't speak any English at all. Talk to someone who doesn't speak English in a lot of places and they will gesture or shake their head to indicate that they don't understand. Do that in China, and they'll stare at you and respond right back in Mandarin.

"Don't you know the world's most commonly spoken language?" they seem to be asking.

I experience this disconnect firsthand after taking the bus from the airport to the city. The ride takes longer than I expected, and after finally getting dropped off, I ask the driver a one-word question with the place I am staying.

"YMCA?"

He responds with a long explanation in Mandarin and I don't understand a single word. But at the end of the speech, he points down the street. Now it's my turn: "OK, so down that way for a while, and then what?"

The explanation continues. It appears that it's not so easy to find the YMCA, but I'm trying to get the general idea. My turn again: "Sure, I understand." (Sometimes that's the best way to handle a situation where you are completely clueless.) "But after I get to that street, do I turn right or left?"

You get the idea. After half an hour of hauling my bags, I find myself back where I started, hopelessly lost after wandering throughout the cavernous train station trying to find the right exit. I've asked three other people, who all stared at me or referred me to someone else who also doesn't know. Like I always do, I eventually find the YMCA after another 15 minutes of walking around. I check in and set a personal record of falling asleep almost right after entering my room. No shower, no reading - just straight to bed.

Make no mistake, Taiwan is China, even if its official name is the Republic of China (ROC) and not the People's Republic of China (PRC) — you know, the big one across the water. Sure, there's Starbucks and McDonald's here, but it doesn't mean we're all the same. Most Chinese don't see things the way Westerners or Arabs do. And just like among other large groups of loosely-connected people, there are a number of different Chinese ways to think about the world.

This fact is especially appropriate on the small island of Taiwan. In contrast to its enormous neighbour only 160km away, Taiwan is a nation without being an internationally recognised state. Taiwan has a representative to the UN, but he's only allowed on the property as a guest of another member.

Over the past 40 years, the two Chinas have competed for diplomatic recognition. The competition started off on equal footing, but over the years more and more countries have switched to a "one China" policy, the sole China being the big one. After the more politically and economically powerful countries had switched to exclusive recognition of the PRC, the competition shifted to the developing world, especially Africa. Several countries have gone back and forth between the two Chinas multiple times after receiving better offers of unrestricted foreign aid from one or the other.

A friend of mine lived in the Marshall Islands for a year, one of the few countries that continues to support Taiwan's claim of sovereignty. During his time there, his island had no electricity. Just before he left, though, the island began gearing up for an expensive new generator system. The system was given by Taiwan, under the not-so-subtle guise of rewarding loyalty. Generator systems aside, the long-term battle for loyalty is likely to be a losing one for Taiwan, at least politically.

A day later I head off to fly to Seoul, feeling somewhat oriented or at least more comfortable with the sense of acute disorientation. At the airport I discover that Eva Airlines has installed a video game room with five Xbox-360s set up for free play. Having grown up playing video games with my brother, I find this discovery to be noteworthy. I immediately take a picture of the room and duck into the business centre next door to upload it. Ironically, the business centre is smaller than the video game room, but there is no waiting for computers.

Before boarding I stop into the game room one more time. There are signs posted with important instructions:

"1. In case of rush hour, please limit play to 30 minutes for everyone can enjoy."

"2. Please watch boarding time and be careful for become distracted!"

Helpful advice, if ever there was such a thing in an airport video game room.