Most countries have their majestic views. They’re the sights that populate Google image results and Pinterest collections. I’m thinking Eiffel Towers and Mount Fujis.
In the capital of Taiwan, we could ride the gondola up to the heights of Maokong and gaze at Taipei 101 piercing the skyline of the city, surrounded by a ring of mountains. Or we could stand at the entrance of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Park, with its paved square and manicured lawns leading to the majestic bright-white, blue roofed Memorial Hall.
If you visit Taipei, I’d suggest you try to see both of these grand vistas. But living there for a while, I had some little vistas that impacted me more. For instance, there was the view from my favorite seat in a Starbucks deep in the subway system. Through the glass wall in front of me, I could look down a long corridor, lined with shops. The architecture was nondescript, but what impacted me was the constant crowds of people kaleidoscoping by. I spent a lot of time at that vantage point mulling over big decisions.
And there was an ancient tree on a college campus downtown that caught my attention. It was mostly sideways limbs, gnarled and stretching out in all directions. The limbs were so heavy and low that they had to be held up by short concrete pillars so they wouldn’t touch the ground. I admired that tree. It was old and weary but enduring. It was especially picturesque during a rain shower.
What about you, in your host country? Do you have a little vista that brings you joy or peace or hope or inspiration?
Go to A Life Overseas to finish reading this post, and to add your own little vista.
When you visit a country where the people don’t speak your language, there are several important phrases you should know how to say: things such as “Hello” and “Goodbye,” “How much is this?” “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Can I have ice with my water?” But when you move to that country, the stakes become higher. The important words and phrases become deeper and more necessary and more . . . important. They’re usually not covered in the first five chapters of your language book, and you may not end up learning them until you come face to face with the need for them. At least, that’s the way it was for me.
Are You OK?
The streets in Taiwan give new meaning to the phrase flow of traffic. Outnumbering automobiles two to one, scooters zip in and out to fill in the narrow gaps between cars, and when they all come to a red light, they pile up at the intersection, waiting to spill forward again when the light turns green. Watch that whitewater river for long, and you’ll see quite a few accidents.
One morning while I was walking to language school in Taipei, I came up to one of the city’s crowded intersections and waited to cross. As several lanes slowed for the light, a lady on a scooter was unable to stop and broke through the pack, sliding several feet on her side. She wasn’t hit by anyone, but she was slow getting up. My first thought was to run over to her and see how she was. I didn’t make it, though. First of all, by the time I could cross the street, she was back on her way, though pushing, not riding, her scooter now. And second, I didn’t know what to say.
Yes, I knew the greeting “How are you?” but that’s not the right question for someone who might be hurt. I knew how to say several other things, too, but none of them seemed appropriate. I could imagine the woman’s horror having me, a foreigner, rush up to her in her time of need, letting loose with my vocabulary of “Hello. How are you? I’m an American. What part of Taipei are you from? What’s you’re favorite food? I like pizza.”
It’s one thing to be able to say the equivalent of How are you? Howdy, or What’s up? It’s another to go beyond trite formality, to ask a caring question and expect a heartfelt response.
The latest issue of Travel and Leisure includes a “Definitive Guide to Taipei.” I guess I’m a little out of touch with the magazine’s regular readership, because I lived in Taipei for 10 years and I’ve only been to one of the hot spots that they listed. I’m not talking about the general areas. I’ve been to Daan, I just haven’t sipped tea at Cha Cha Thé. And I’ve spent time at Beitou, but I’ve never experienced the hot-spring spas at Villa 32.
One place I have been, though, was mentioned as a favorite by one of their “insiders.” Designer Chrystal Wang tells readers,
Catch a movie at Spot, a colonial-style mansion turned theater that shows indie and art-house films. The charming café next door is the perfect place for afternoon tea.
While Wang’s description is accurate, it’s somewhat incomplete. The building us much more than just “a colonial-style mansion.” It’s the former US embassy.
Built in the 1920s by the occupying Japanese, the building housed ambassadors until being closed in 1979, when the US severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Then, after being abandoned for nearly 20 years, the renovated structure reopened in 2002. Now the ambassador’s garage has become an 88-seat movie theater; the coat room is a gift shop; and the reception room is the C25 Coffee Shop.
The embassy in Taiwan is not the only one that has been given a new identity. Many structures around the globe have shed their diplomatic functions and have taken on new roles.
Here are seven:
The US embassy in Tehran
The site of the hostage crisis that began in 1979. The building is now an anti-US-themed museum.
The French Embassy in Tokyo
Scheduled for demolition in 2010, the former French embassy to Japan opened its doors to nearly 100 French and Japanese artists for a giant art exhibit, entitled “No Man’s Land.” Arstcape Japan reports that the installations included one room with every surface covered in clay, “manga-inspired paintings that juxtapose Japanese ultranationalist and grotesque horrorshow motifs,” and “surreal photos of hermit crabs.”
The Iraqi Embassy in Berlin
Abandoned since 1990 when East Germany became no more, the “Ghost Embassy” is open for anyone to wander through. The United Arab Emirates’ newspaper The National, reports that the rooms of the crumbling building are littered with broken glass and abandoned files. Owned by Germany but leased perpetually to Iraq, the property seems to belong to no one. Desolate and available, the embassy became the setting for a music video made by Irish composer Eutechnik (Brian Smith).
The Somali Embassy in Rome
In 2011, the dilapidated building was home to over 100 Somali refugees waiting to receive asylum status. The compound has been abandoned since the Somali government collapsed in the 1990s. “Rats are our neighbors,” Mohammed, one of the refugees, tells Radio Netherlands Worldwide. “No, our friend,” says Ibrahim.
The Italian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
The Neo-Renaissance building is going to get an 8-story addition and will hold over 100 upscale condos. The Washington Post quotes the zoning commission as calling the finished product “a modernist ‘hyphen’ connecting the old with the new.” It will include six residences set aside at “affordable” rates for people who earn 80% or less of D.C.’s median income.
The Canadian High Commission in London
In 1961 the Canadian diplomatic mission moved into the former US embassy on Grosvenor Square, in London, naming it MacDonald House. The Canadians have since left, and last year, the Indian Lodha Group bought the seven-storey building for over half a billion dollars. Of the location, Abhishek Lodha, the group’s managing director, tells The Guardian, “1 Grosvenor Square is the best address in the world and we will create a world-class development which befits the status of this address.” The newspaper calls the planned residential project “another super-luxe enclave for the world’s super-rich.”
When we first moved to Taipei, we lived across the street from a park. One day, I was approached by three college-age students who asked me in English, “Do you know Jesus?”
“Yes,” I said.
“OK,” they replied. “But do you really know him?” This was a logical question, because while English has the one word for knowing someone, Chinese has two. The first would be the one in “I know who he is,” while the second means “I know him personally.”
I had the perfect response. Not only was I a Christian, but I was a missionary . . . and I’d been studying Chinese, too. So, I told them, somewhat smugly, in their language, “Yes, I know him. I’m a . . . bicycle.”
I wish I could say that the Chinese words for missionary and bicycle sound just alike, but they don’t. The first is chuan jiao shi, and the second is jiao ta che. I think I must have learned them on the same day, because they are forever confused in my mind. The young people in the park laughed with me and let me correct myself. “Chinese is hard,” they said. I didn’t argue.
Over the years, that encounter became a symbol to me for the good and bad times in Taiwan: Some days I was a missionary. Some days I was just a bicycle.
[T]he reason why I have Yeshua, my de-familiarized Christ, saying, “Far more can be mended than you know,” which I think is actually true to the New Testament, is that I want mending. Not flying free, not transformation, but humble, ordinary, everyday, get-you-back-on-your-feet mending, to be at the center of the Christian story.
When the book was being translated into Dutch, the translator sent me an email: “This word mend, I’ve looked it up in the dictionary, and it seems to be the same word you use for repairing bicycles. You must mean something else.”
I wrote back, “No. No. No. I want the bicycle-repair word.” What I absolutely want is to suggest that before it’s anything else, redemption is God mending the bicycle of our souls; God bringing out the puncture repair kit, re-inflating the tires, taking off the rust, making us roadworthy once more. Not so that we can take flight into ecstasy, but so that we can do the next needful mile of our lives.
We all need that kind of mending from God. I guess being a bicycle isn’t so far from being a Christian—and a missionary—after all.
While living in Taipei, we got many opportunities to try new and (to us) strange foods, especially at the night markets. I was game for tasting most things at least once. But sometimes it took me a little while to work up my nerve—like when I waited a few years before trying “stinky tofu.” (Ends up it’s not as bad as it sounds, or smells.)
For a long time, I’d seen mounds of small black spiral shells sold as a snack at night markets, and I wondered what they tasted like. Actually, I also wondered how you’d eat them. I figured a snail, or some sort of other creature, was cooked inside, so maybe you sucked the meat out, or maybe the shell was cooked to the point where it was soft and you were supposed to eat the whole thing. I didn’t know, but I saw the locals walking around with plastic bags full of them, so I assumed they tasted good.
One evening I finally gave in to my curiosity and confidently walked over to the lady selling the black shells. It’s the custom for vendors at the markets to provide a small bowl of samples for potential customers to try. This lady was no exception, as she had a paper bowl holding a few shells sitting on the front of the table. I grabbed one of the samples, put it in my mouth, and sucked on it as I walked away. While the shells looked spicy piled up on display—with a few peppers mixed in—I tasted nothing. Flavorless. And I was disappointed to find no meat inside.
The next night, I was at the same market, and I wanted to try one more time. So I grabbed another sample from the shell lady. Again, no matter how much I worked it around in my mouth, no meat, no flavor, just a shell. Come on. Why do people buy those things? I walked back to my family and told them how I’d wasted my time and was glad I hadn’t wasted my money.
That’s when my son looked back at the table . . . and said, “Dad, that’s not the bowl for samples. That’s where people put the shell after they’ve tried one and need to throw it away.”
Last week’s post on adoption got me rethinking some of my family’s experiences. Here’s a story we put in a newsletter three years ago. One of our sons is Taiwanese and had been in our Taipei home for a couple years, long enough to become a part of the culture within our walls.
Our youngest son has recently started preschool in the mornings. The main goal is to help him understand and speak more Chinese. After his first day, the teacher told my wife that he was hugging the other children—and they didn’t know how to respond. The teacher said that she explained to them, “It’s OK, he’s a foreigner. They hug a lot at his house.”
As he learns more about himself and the world around him, we have more opportunities to talk with him about “who he is.” While we were out one day last month, he saw a sign showing Chinese chess pieces. He asked why they had letters on them. I told him that they weren’t letters, they were Chinese characters. Seeing an opportunity, I asked him, “Are you Chinese?”
You already know that McDonald’s is the global king of fast-food success, but do you know which US chains are next in line outside of America’s borders?
Well, the answer depends on how you define success. If overall non-US sales is important to you, then number two is KFC, followed by Burger King (according to figures from 2011).
But if you’re more of a How-many-international-restaurants-do-they-have? kind of person, then Subway comes after the Golden Arches and KFC.
Or maybe you care about who’s expanding the most. In that measurement, McDonald’s isn’t in the top five. The three American companies that opened the most non-US units—from 2009 to 2010—are Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts, and KFC.
All this information comes from QSR‘s “Global 30,” a sortable list ranking the top American “quick-service” restaurants outside the US.
Below are the ten American chains with the most restaurants outside the US. That’s the list I’m most interested in, since that gauges your chance of running into one of them overseas. Most are in Taiwan, so I’m adding embellishments from my experiences during my time in Taipei. We had more than our fair share of American fast-food outlets in the capital city, but there were still some gaps. I mean, how can a city of 6 million be Taco Bell-less?
McDonald’s – 18,710 units When we first arrived, we didn’t have the vocabulary to order individual items, so we just ordered meals by number. This meant a soda for even our smallest child, and we had four children. One day I walked up three flights of stairs (most McDonald’s in Taiwan are vertical) balancing 6 Cokes on a tray. I was pretty proud that I’d made it and pretended to stumble when I got to our table . . . and spilled the whole tray. . . . On another day we went to our local McD’s to find out that they’d run out of hamburger. I didn’t know that was possible.
KFC – 11,798 The extra crispy chicken at Taiwan’s KFCs is spicy hot, which we grew to like more than its American counterpart. And because the Taiwanese like dark meat better than white meat, when we ordered a bucket of chicken, we could substitute white for dark at no extra cost. One negative is that their KFCs don’t have slaw. I love KFC’s slaw.
Subway – 10,109 You could almost replace your vegetable-vocabulary unit in language learning with several trips to Subway. If you want the right toppings on your sandwich, you simply have to learn the words. Pointing at “that green thing” won’t do. Building a sandwich at Subway is like a chapter test. . . . By the way, a Subway near us in Taipei also ran out of meat. For a few days it was a salad shop.
Pizza Hut – 5,890 We had a Pizza Hut around the corner from our last apartment in Taiwan. Loved their pepperoni pizza. Not so crazy about toppings with peas or corn . . . or squid . . . or tuna.
Starbucks – 5,727 Most of what I have to say about Starbucks I’ve already said here. The chain has made a big enough impact on the tea-drinking island of Taiwan that several coffee shops have sprung up with circular green logos and/or copycat names (ecoffee, for example). My favorite was the shop that had a sign that said, in a small font, something like, “We’re Not,” over the very large, “STARBUCKS.”
Burger King – 4,998 For a while, my absolute favorite sandwich was a bacon cheeseburger from the Burger King in Keelung next to the train station, eaten on the train as I and a teammate rode back to Taipei after our evening Bible studies with students at the National Taiwan Oceanic University. My second favorite sandwich near the station was a da chang bao xiao chang, or “big sausage wrapped around a small sausage” (the outer “sausage” was made from sticky rice).
Domino’s – 4,422 After serving for two years as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan, Scott Oelkers returned to Minnesota and double majored in Chinese and economics. Following his graduation, he got a job as a buyer for Domino’s Pizza International and worked his way up to vice president. He sold franchise rights in Taiwan to a private equity firm, and the firm asked him to run the business for them. He did, and in the process became a minor celebrity in Taiwan with his humorous TV commercials. Now Oelkers is president and CEO of Domino’s in Japan. He’s still making commercials, like the one below that just came out last month. Betsy Isaacson of the Huffington Post calls it “the most awkward ad in the universe.” I guess one man’s awkward is another man’s profitable.
Dunkin’ Donuts – 3,005 When the first Mister Donut opened in Taipei in 2004, the lines were so long that there was a sign a ways back on the sidewalk that read, “240 minutes from this point.” Dunkin’ Donuts came not long after, and we were glad to see one open in our neighborhood. We held our team meetings there for a while because we usually had the upstairs mostly to ourselves. Not a good sign. It closed.
Dairy Queen – 802 There’s no DQ in Taiwan that I know of (and we usually heard about those kind of things). I do see from an article in Taiwan Today that one was slated for opening in 1986 “located near Church’s Texas Fried Chicken and Lotteria in Taipei.” Someone else with a longer history in Taiwan would have to say whether it ever opened its doors.
Papa John’s – 755 We’re getting farther down on the list, and neither is there a Papa John’s in Taiwan. But that doesn’t mean there’s not room for another pizza franchise, or room for some other kind of fast-food chain. The question is, which one should it be? . . .
For those of you living outside the US, are there any restaurants that you long for? For you American expats, what tastes do you miss, and what do you think would go over well among the locals?
Wendy’s? It comes in at number 11. Taipei used to have at least one. I’ve heard stories from my former coworkers, and a Taipei Wendy’s is even the setting for a short scene in Ang Lee’s 1994 movie, Eat Drink Man Woman.
Or how about Long John Silver’s? It didn’t make the Global 30. One came to Taipei for a short time. We ate there a couple times just to try it out. As I recall, it didn’t last more than a year.
Oh, yeah. There’s Taco Bell (#19). Why can’t you find more Taco Bell’s overseas? I can’t count how many times I heard American expats say that when they get back home the first thing they want to do is eat at a Taco Bell.
I asked a good Taiwanese friend—who had studied at a US university—if he thought Taco Bell would do well in Taiwan. He wasn’t sure that it would, as Mexican flavors don’t always fit the Asian palate. Then I asked him about Arby’s (#21). It seems to me that roast-beef sandwiches could fit in in a lot of cultures, and I like them a lot, too. He said, no, that he didn’t think that there would be enough room for parking. That seemed strange since most fast-food restaurants in Taiwan don’t have any dedicated parking at all. When I questioned that, he said that Arby’s are just too big for Taiwanese. I was confused. Were we talking about the same thing? They’re too big, he said again. Who in Taipei would have room to park an RV?
Hmmmm. Maybe our miscommunication has birthed an idea. How about setting up a fleet of mobile Arby’s in RVs around the globe. I wonder. . . .
Last week, after a particularly long day, I bought a bag of Chips Ahoy! chocolate-chip cookies and had myself some cookies and milk. Nabisco is an American company, and chocolate-chip cookies are an American original, but eating them made me feel as if I were . . . back in Taiwan. That’s because one evening in Taipei, after a particularly long day, I needed some comfort food. So I grabbed a (very small) box of Chips Ahoy! cookies from the supermarket. It wasn’t that they were a staple of mine in the States. In fact, I don’t remember eating them before moving overseas. That’s why, now that I’m back in Missouri, Chips Ahoy! reminds me of Taiwan. Funny how the mind works.
Something else that reminds me of Taiwan is Starbucks. I’d never been inside one before moving to Taipei, but when we moved to Yong He (now part of New Taipei City), the cafe in our neighborhood became the default location for our weekly team meetings. So now, whenever I see a Starbucks, I think of some I’ve visited in Taiwan: the one underneath Taipei Main Station, the one with the huge second story in downtown Taipei, the one overlooking the harbor in Keelung, the one in the Xi Men Ding night market, and, of course, the one on the corner of an extremely busy intersection in Yong He, just a few blocks from our apartment.
I like Starbucks. I know their drinks are too expensive. And I don’t fit in with the true Starbucks aficionados. But it feels good to me. It feels international to me.
Since its humble origins in Seattle in 1971, Starbucks truly has become an international chain. The Starbuck’s company, which already has over 7,000 cafes outside the US, is making a move to beef up its international presence and plans to open 1,200 stores in the current fiscal year, which started this month. More than half of these openings will be outside the US, with about 500 in Asia. Over half of these 500 will be in China.
Wherever Starbucks opens a cafe, they alter their interiors and menus to fit the country. Take for instance in India, where the country’s first Starbucks just opened in Mumbai this month, serving Indian-grown coffee, murg tikka panini, and tandoori paneer rolls in a cafe that features furniture made from Indian teakwood. And then there’s Taiwan, where the Asian-inspired creations on the menu have given the world green-tea lattes and Frappuccinos.
Take a look at the following video to see how the company’s store designers work to connect each store to its community. Sounds like a cool job to have.
Click here to see a map from The Seattle Times showing Starbucks’ expansion around the world. Or go here for an interactive map from Loxcel that gives statistics for each country and store markers that show addresses and hours of operation. Load the Loxcel map on your smartphone and you can even search for stores that are currently open and click the phone icon to call them directly.