Winter cycle break: Learning Chinese in Taiwan

Posted: March 1, 2015 in Sustainability
Tags: ,

When I was a teenager, everything was ‘Made in Taiwan’. I could find Taiwan on the map, and that was all. My winter break from cycling is drawing to a close, and I leave Taiwan with fond memories of a friendly, staunchly patriotic people, of visionary city planning and public policy, and an extremely obedient, orderly society. Where else in the world do you throw out your rubbish at 9:10 pm into a rubbish truck to a backdrop of ice-cream van music?

The view down the street near my apartment in Taipei

The view down the street near my apartment in Taipei


Public infrastructure
I am absolutely amazed at the speed a modern public transport system has been created out of nothing in Taipei. Twenty years ago there was traffic gridlock. Rather than building more new roads, like the new policy of the Australian government, the Taiwanese government has implemented an amazing public transportation network that reduces traffic, increases accessibility, and improves health.

Twenty years ago, there was no metro. Now there is a brand spanking new one, spanning the metropolitan area. In the last year they have rolled out a massive public bicycle system – YouBike – similar to that in Paris, London and other European cities. The result is a huge reduction in traffic, a better, less polluted environment, and a healthier, more active population.

Metro etiquette
‘You can’t eat that!’ said the little boy, scolding the grandma.
‘There are video cameras watching you,’ I have been warned by multiple people. ‘If you’re chewing gum, just stop chewing. They may not see you, and you should be ok.’
The metro trains run every two minutes or so, and while waiting for a train, you can watch a video of metro etiquette.

No eating, drinking, chewing gum. People religiously wait in lines marked out on the platform. No-one sits in the seats for the elderly and handicapped (except the elderly and handicapped). Everyone – but absolutely everyone – leaves the left side of the escalators free for people walking up. Each station has a spotless, free toilet. I could go on and on. Part of the overarching public transport strategy, the metro has been coupled to societal education to make it a big success.

Rubbish and recycling
‘A dearth of rubbish bins,’ I have heard it described as. Indeed, there is hardly a rubbish bin to be seen. You just have to keep your rubbish until you shout with joy – ‘there is one!’ and you can unload your stuff.

Household rubbish? Well, everyone knows that has to be thrown out personally at 9.10pm. At that fateful hour the rubbish truck passes my house playing a simple tune that will stay in my mind forever. People congregate, throwing out the rest waste in expensive rubbish bags from the council in the first truck, the recyclables in the second truck, and the biodegradables in the third truck. Paper is only collected on Mondays and Fridays. It was the government’s goal to raise awareness on the amount of rubbish we produce. As a result, a lot less rubbish is produced.

Rubbish collection

The big place
China is called 大陸 (Dalu – or ‘big place’). Taiwan lies in China’s shadow across the sea. In Taiwan (different to the mainland) they use the traditional Chinese script. In Taiwan there are many words that are different to mainland Chinese. I have decided to no-longer use the mainland China words – I have caused enough irritation already. I know how they feel. Coming from the antipodes, I spell colour with a u, I drink from a tap, I used to wear nappies when I was a baby, and my parents took me for walks in a pram.

Chinese New Year in front of the television
I was lucky enough to be invited to a traditional family Chinese New Year celebration. I was warmly welcomed by my hosts, but I then realised how foreign I am in Taiwan. The celebrations involved a spread of traditional Chinese food.
‘Its chicken,’ he said.
I looked at the alien soup – black flesh floating in a clear broth next to a tangle of ginseng.
‘Really! Its chicken.’
It was black chicken. A new-year’s tradition.
My Chinese new year
Then there was a bright orange soup with floaty white bits. And another soup with some unrecognizable things. I pride myself on my adventurous appetite. Here, I just ate some fried chicken and rice. In Holland I have welcomed Korean cyclist guests. All they wanted was a Korean supermarket where they could buy noodles. At the New Year’s Eve dinner, all I craved was a piece of chocolate.

After the dinner, the new year’s eve continued on the sofa in front of the television. The odd fire-cracker was let off outside at random intervals. As the evening continued, I didn’t hear any crescendo in the fire-cracker activity, and was asleep by midnight.

Studying Chinese
People ask me, aren’t I missing cycling? Don’t I have itchy feet to jump on the bike and continue. While in Taiwan, I was studying Chinese. I love learning languages – another one of my passions, and didn’t notice the time fly by. I was proud and happy as I felt my Chinese improve every day. In the last few days I have been having regular long conversations in Mandarin, proudly using the latest grammatical structures I have learnt.

Chinese language grades
My time in Taiwan is now coming to an end, and my feet are becoming itchy. The next leg of the cycle trip can begin!!


  1. Victor Talbot says:

    Hi, I was wondering if you have cycled from near Murmansk (Russia) westward to the East of Norway and then south through Norway, Finland and Sweden. I am going to do that trip next year and would like to ask you a few questions about that areas.

    The photo below was taken at mile zero (St Johns Newfoundland) after cylcling the TransCanada Hwy from Mile Zero in Vancouver BC. It was a cold day.


    Victor Talbot Perth Australia


  2. ronald says:

    Hello Matthew
    what a way to start up again after your long winterbrake
    impressive storytelling about the ways of Taiwan
    hardly can’t waite for more
    greetings and have a safe trip on your bike !

  3. ronald says:

    Congrats on your outstanding results at TLI !

  4. Ellen de Vries says:

    Hey Matthew, congratulations with your latest language achievement! Great to read about your experience in Taiwan. Look forward to following your new adventures. Seems you are ready to go again.

  5. valerievolk says:

    Great fun to catch up with your experiences again. It sounds a terrific (and a very successful) month. Congrats on your excellent results. We’ll take you to a Chinese restaurant when you get back to Adelaide so that you can impress us with your language skills. All the best for the next stage of the Big Adventure.

  6. Alessandro says:

    Hello Matthew. Good to hear from you again. And we are ready to be taken as “virtual passengers” of your exciting bike ride. When will you start that again?
    Ciao from Trento.

    • Hi Alessandro! Not long now. I’m planning to leave on March 5 or March 6. I will be posting an entry every 3rd day or so until I get a lag of a month or more.. Still, there will be daily entries! 🙂
      Greetings from Istanbul!

  7. Paul says:

    Great update Matt. Thanks. Fascinating to hear how different cultures grapple with the same sorts of problems that most cities are facing and how they blend their response somewhat with the strengths of their people in that response. There is much to learn. For instance, imagine a chewing gum restriction here (UK) would be met with civil liberties arguments! I am very impressed, and more that a bit jealous of your Chinese language course! Congratulations!

    • Hey Paul. Yes. I don’t know if their policies would work in countries where people are less obedient.. 🙂 Still, they are extremely effective in Taiwan. I am impressed!

  8. Trudi says:

    Hoi Matthew je heb je winterstop goed benut zeg! Tjonge weer een taal erbij, ben daar wel jaloers op hoor, heerlijk lijkt het me om zoveel talen te kennen. wat geweldig om te lezen hoe het bij/in de metro aan toe gaat en dan het Chinesche nieuwjaar geweldig. Je bent een bevoorrecht mens! geniet er van, ik kijk uit naar het vervolg van je reis!!

  9. dvanderzwaan says:

    Hey Matthew, jij heb je winterstop goed benut! Wow leert er zo even een nieuwe taal bij, knap hoor! Lijkt me geweldig om zoveel talen te kennen. Wat een verhalen weer zo fijn om te lezen hoe geordend het er in de metro aan toe gaat of bij het ophalen van vuilnis. Wat geweldig om het nieuwjaar op zo’n manier in te luiden hahaha met zwarte kip! Fijn dat je weer gaat fietsen ik kijk uit naar het vervolg. groetjes Trudi

    • Hey Trudi. Leuk om van je te horen. Ik ben nu in Istanbul bij mijn zeer gastvrije warmshowers host. Echt leuk. Binnenkort gaat het weer beginnen (waarschijnlijk op 5 maart)..

  10. […] Winter cycle break: Learning Chinese in Taiwan […]

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