Taiwan Rolls Out the Welcome Mat

Though our blog is centered on things Taiwan I’ll be starting this post on another island, one which I called home only briefly. I’ll wind it back to Taiwan, I promise.

In the summer of 2001, I found myself living in Newfoundland. I was following Lao Tzu’s maxim on travel, the one about a good traveler having no fixed plans and not being intent on arriving, and spent a month or so just hitchhiking around before finally settling for a spell in the city of St. John’s. I wound up sticking around longer than intended, partially because the place was so beautiful, and partially because I found the people of Newfoundland so overwhelmingly friendly.

Newfoundlanders have a unique charm, and as a Come From Away (which is what Newfoundlanders call visitors), I was treated quite well. Strangers bought me dinner (fish and chips, and a few more exotic dishes like seal flipper pie and deep fried cod tongue), and during my travels more than one Newfoundlander went many miles out of their way rather than leave me stranded.

I stuck around through the autumn, and as fate would have it I was in St. John’s on the morning of September 11th, 2001, the day when…well, I don’t need to get into what happened on 9/11 here, except in as it relates to Newfoundland.

With American airspace closed, most of the airplanes in flight over the Atlantic needed a place to land, and a good portion of these wound up re-routed to Newfoundland. By the afternoon, Newfoundland was hosting thousands of visitors left stranded by the event, many of them in various states of uneasy panic as news of the events in NYC trickled in.

Over the days that followed, the people of Newfoundland opened their hearts and homes to these come from aways. Though the circumstances that brought them there were truly terrible, the awfulness of the situation was mitigated mightily by the innate goodness of the people of Newfoundland. I remember little from those days outside of greeting fellow New Yorkers on the streets of St John’s. I suspect I must have been in a state of shock. But I do remember feeling a general sense of pride in the goodness of humanity as I watched the people of Newfoundland welcome these stranded strangers from afar. It was a feeling I’d not felt much before, and sadly, not often since.

But over the last two weeks I’ve been feeling something similar, a pride in the goodness and kindness being exhibited by my host country, Taiwan, as it struggles under the logistic challenge of hosting around ten thousand (give or take) of our own Come From Aways, visitors from all corners of the globe including athletes, spectators, sporting officials, entourages and families here to take part in the 2017 Taipei Summer Universiade.

Last Wednesday I headed up to the Athlete’s Village in Linkou, and was greeted by thousands of flags, not just the Taiwan flag (itself a controversial issue in some corners) but those from the 170 (give or take) nations competing in the games. Nearly all of the restaurants, convenience stores and coffee shops I passed had posted signs in a multitude of languages expressing sentiments of great welcome to visiting athletes and dignitaries. People waved at me as I walked down the street, and cars were giving pedestrians (domestic and international) an unusually wide berth. A little boy ran up to me shouting “Welcome to Taiwan” and high-fived me.

I’d gone to Linkou to interview athletes, and while everyone had their own story to tell, nearly everyone I spoke with mentioned the kindness of the Taiwanese people pretty early on. It’s something I’ve always told people about, but it was genuinely heartwarming to hear other people mentioning it. I stopped at the local Carrefour for lunch, and while watching various visiting athletes posing for selfies with products from their homelands (Carrefour has a pretty decent international selection), people kept coming up to me and asking me (with varying levels of English proficiency) if I needed help finding anything. These were not Carrefour employees, mind you…they were fellow shoppers.

It didn’t occur to me until later that these folk assumed I was a Universiade visitor, and were looking to steer me in the right direction. I’ve lived in Taiwan long enough that I can usually “blend in” despite being obviously not native born, so this generally doesn’t happen to me much anymore. (When I first came to Taiwan it happened to me often. I still advise visitors needing directions in Taipei to simply hang out by a MRT map and look lost for a few minutes.)

So it’s safe to say that with the Universiade in full effect, Taiwan was being especially welcoming to visitors. But though the event is over now, it isn’t as if the welcome mats have been put into storage. They’ve been out for decades, and though the Taiwanese definitely do not refer to visitors from afar as Come From Aways, just like in Newfoundland, kindness to visitors is a deeply ingrained part of Taiwan culture.

Until Next Week,

Joshua Samuel Brown

Coming to Taiwan? From Newfoundland? Leave a comment below.

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