(Written yesterday in Tokyo-Narita Airport)
I am finally en route back to the United States and I will say my first excursion to the continent of Asia has exceeded all of my expectations. I never really cared too much about coming to this part of the world. My first priorities were always the continent of Africa, South America, the Caribbean, and maybe the Mediterranean countries at some point. The only country I really had considered wanting to visit in Asia was India.
I think Asia was always a bit more frightening because of the homogeneity of the population where I would stick out like an eye-sore, and that none of their languages are latin based, so that even if I wanted to look up something in a dictionary, I couldn’t because it would be all characters that all look the same to me.
But how wrong I was. This has been an incredible experience. I think Taiwan was a great starting point for tackling Asia because it is so modern and friendly. Many of the signs and automations are in English, and even when they aren’t, I don’t think I met one person who wasn’t willing to try and help us out through long processes of pantomiming, pointing, and pricing with a calculator.
I was especially worried about the pairing process for the program (where each of us got assigned a partner to spend the majority of our time with and do our research project with). I wasn’t sure how much English my partner would speak, and while he didn’t speak the most English in the world, it became a non-issue. In fact, all the students from Taiwan were really great, and I really hope they will get a chance to come visit us in New Orleans so that we can play host and they tourist (we’re gonna have to figure out some fundraising events to help get them over here!!).
Doing that type of exchange with other graduate students working towards a similar goal of becoming public health professionals made me realize how much more alike people are across the world than they are different. Different backgrounds, languages, foods, even clothing styles-yes, but fundamentally, we were all (mostly) just 20-somethings trying to finish school, struggle with being broke, and trying to have a good time—all, of course, while trying to save the world’s health problems.
Taiwan itself is a pretty amazing country/non-country. I say non-country because it’s technically not recognized by the UN as a sovereign nation. It is officially the R.O.C. (Republic of China). That’s why when you see different statistical lists of countries, like life expectancy, happiest people, best health care, etc, you usually won’t find Taiwan listed. But I think more people, especially people from Western nations, need to know more about Taiwan than just the “Made in Taiwan” labels on most of your clothes and toys.
Taiwan has been such a poster child for public health. They do so many of the things we only dream about in our discussions about programming in classes. Breastfeeding rooms in the metro stations and in most buildings, the prohibition of smoking in almost all public places, signage that includes the prohibition of chewing other addictive substances in addition to smoking, recycling stations EVERYWHERE (including food stations that separate food waste from everything else), and filtered water stations in most areas just to name a few. Plus all the fun little signs in the metro about being courteous that you always think about in the US but no one ever really talks about—like that person who reads their newspaper in the train and wants to take up all the space in the world, or people who talk loud on their phone or listen to their music loudly (or even better, the people who decide they want to listen to music on their phone without headphones AND sing along). There were signs for all of these things.
Plus they’ve enforced not eating or drinking on their trains so well that I don’t think I remember ONE person doing either of those things in the station or on the train. Those trains were so clean. AND orderly. People wait in lines to get in trains, not shove each other and pry open doors.
Taiwan’s national health insurance program (which basically means free health insurance for everyone) is also pretty amazing. It covers so many different things, including traditional chinese medicine, prenatal and antenatal care, family planning, and HIV antiretroviral therapy. And what is not included only has a low cost associated with it (such as abortions).
We visited a lot of different agencies–departments of health, bureau of health promotion, long term care agencies, and so forth. Most of their presentations were really great, and they explained well all of the services offered. The long term health for the aging population was also quite impressive with their at home bed monitoring system (where if an elderly person gets out of their bed for more than 15 minutes in the middle of the night, there’s a pressurized motion sensor in the bed that will notify a call center and they will send someone out to check on you to make sure you didn’t fall–crazy, right??).
I mean, in general, Taiwan is doing a lot of things right.
On a lighter note, Taiwan also has an interesting shopping culture. I mean literally at times, it seems like all that gets done is eating and shopping. There are a lot of stores I had never seen in real life before (Bulgari, Cartier, Ferragamo), that I’ve now seen about 15 times in just 3 cities in Taiwan and the airports. The airports themselves are also full of FREE amenities like the art museum and the children’s playground that were near our boarding gate today.
Also a learning experience has been the squat toilets. The first time we saw one of these was in the airport, and neither of us knew what to do with them. I avoided them for a while, but when we got to some places in Taipei that only had the squat toilets, well, then you had no choice. It was definitely interesting, but hey, they say squatting is better for your body’s elimination process anyway. While I was super freaked out that I would make a mess because of how you have position yourself over this porcelain pit in the ground, I am pleased to say I always used them with success (sorry if that was TMI :P).
All in all, these last few weeks have been amazing, and I think I am finally not terrified to visit other countries in Asia as well. I’m writing this on my shorter flight (being 3 hours) to Tokyo, which by the way has AMAZING food. A 3 hour flight in the US maybe earns you some peanuts or pretzels. 3 hour flight on Japan Airlines gets you a nice rice and chicken dish with cute shaped veggies, a side salad, some well seasoned bamboo shoots, an interesting little pasta dish, and a serving of vanilla haagen-dazs ice cream—all with REAL metal utensils and some chopsticks. Not to mention the pitchers of hot tea they follow it up with.
Funnily enough, as we were sitting at the gate getting ready to board, we saw some familiar faces. On the way to Taiwan from Tokyo, there was this couple with a child that were having a hissy fit because they were priority sky members, meaning they could board the plane before other people. But I guess their tickets didn’t say they were priority members. They literally said out loud that they guessed they’d just have to board with everybody else on the plane. *side eye* Once we got on the plane he was sitting in the same section of the plane as the rest of us plebians.
Funnily enough, that same couple is on our plane ride back to Tokyo, and I guess they must’ve gotten their priority membership thing squared away, because he got to board the plane before the rest of us regular folk. And what do you know, he’s sitting one row ahead of me AND he’s in the middle aisle. Whatever. HAHAHAHA!
It’s gonna be a long flight home, so excuse my stream of consciousness post–I have to find some way to entertain myself in between memorizing flash cards for a final that I didn’t get to take before leaving for Taiwan, and sleeping. I’m excited to go home, but I know that the outstanding treatment that we received in Taiwan (which is really just their standard manners and customer service), is going to make me secretly resent being back in the US a bit, and long to go back to Taiwan–even if that means being stared at and being asked to be in strangers’ photos.