Too often, a female traveler cannot experience a place in the same way as a male counterpart. There are always added dangers, prohibitions, assumptions, expectations and just those extra things women notice because experience and necessity have trained us to do so. If an exception exists, it might well be Taiwan.
During an eye-opening semester in India, for example, I found myself not only experiencing it as another culture, but also as a country where I found myself sexually harassed multiple times.
“What a lot of people don’t get,” I typed furiously to a friend after one such occurrence, “is how a woman traveling can’t see a place the same way as a man. It’s different in a certain way, though, it’s a not only, but also kind of different.”
Later, I took the lead in arranging travel in Cairo, I enjoyed it not only as a vibrant city where locals went about their lives with little concern for the stream of tourists passing through, but also as a city where people assumed my husband was ‘in charge’ (despite travel plans being my responsibility).
As we wandered the streets of Sanliurfa in eastern Turkey, I took in the beauty of the city not only as a foreign traveler whose Armenian family had left Turkey in 1922, but also as the only woman in town with uncovered hair, a woman desperately wanting to stop for a tulip-shaped glass of tea at one of the many street-side cafes populated entirely by men.
During a tumultuous year in rural China, I dove into life in Asia not only as someone keen to learn Mandarin, but also as someone who immediately observed that the true director of the school introduced her boyfriend as ‘the director’ to parents, who expected that role to be held by a man. My male colleagues had not noticed.
It was only on coming to Taiwan that I felt that I was able to experience the country not only as a woman, but also as a person.
I was alone when I first came here eleven years ago. One of the first things I noticed was that I could go out safely at all times, leading me to take frequent late-night walks to escape the searing Taipei days. I would walk alone through night markets late into the evening, never fearing bodily harm. I would stay at a cafe until 1 or 2am and walk home without so much as a quiver of nervousness. I observed large protests alone – and continued to do so after getting married, when my husband couldn’t be there – without worrying about personal safety in any way specific to my gender.
I once sloshed into a taxi at 4am after a drunken night out with insta-friends whose names I can no longer remember. Being in Taiwan meant that I never needed to worry that a safe journey home was a certainty.
While attending the opening ceremonies of King Boat Festival in Donggang, I noted that many of the spirit mediums were women. “The gods decide who they possess,” someone told me. “We don’t get to decide if the medium is male or female.”
While arranging travel on Kinmen, nobody stubbornly addressed my husband instead of me after I had said something. While traveling in Tainan, chats with locals revealed a feminist mindset far more often than a patriarchal one. When doing corporate training in Taipei, I noticed that every general manager of every finance company where I had a class was a woman, and many of the senior managers and C-level executives were, too. Even though such things rarely affect travelers directly, as a woman I notice them more. The more respect a culture accords women in general, the safer and friendlier it is likely to be for female travelers.
Matsu is Taiwan’s most remote outer island chain, and while renting a car there you’re as likely to find yourself borrowing the spare car of the hotel proprietor’s friend as you are to rent one through an agency. This is exactly what happened during a visit to Jinsha, a small town on Matsu’s Nangan island. The proprietor walked us out to the town parking area, where her friend was waiting by a car that had a sun-and-sea-burnished patina (which is a nice way of saying that the paint job was so worn out that we couldn’t tell what color it was supposed to be). She held out the keys and I took them while my husband smiled. She didn’t seem at all surprised that I – not the man I was with – was going to drive.
“Have fun,” she said in Chinese.
“Don’t you want to see my driver’s license?”
“No, I trust you. Women are better drivers.”
“Do you want to know our names?”
“It’s not like you’re going to steal it – this island is tiny. Where would you go?”
I have never felt out of place anywhere in Taiwan simply because I was a woman. I don’t have to be overly mindful of what I wear. I don’t feel pressured to wear makeup or spend hours on my hair, although some Taiwanese women do. When I take the bus I can do just that – take the bus. I don’t have to be constantly on guard for that day’s groper. Friends in other countries have stories to share about the backbreaking sexism that local women face, from being kept at home by their families to being pressured by their bosses to quit their jobs after marrying or having children. I have a few such stories as well, but honestly, not many.
These seem like small things, but I have been to many countries where such egalitarian treatment would have been quite out of the ordinary. Unlike other countries, in Taiwan I generally feel as though I am only traveling. It is rare that I run up against a but also, causing me to see the experience as a woman traveler, rather than just as a traveler.
Of course, if you stay long enough, cracks start to show. The streets may be generally safe, but that doesn’t mean harassment never happens – a few of my friends have experienced it. Stores rarely sell clothing in sizes that are not ‘tiny’, ‘very small’ and ‘slightly less small’. Many women seem to have prestigious careers, but there is a wage gap. The same festival in Donggang where women are often spirit mediums also has a prohibition on women touching offerings to the god being celebrated. I don’t feel pressured to wear makeup, but I notice my Taiwanese female friends burdened by expectations of looking ‘cute’ and staying impossibly slim, still valued more as ornamentation than intellectual equals.
No country is perfect – Taiwan is a fantastic place for women to visit and live, but good and bad people exist everywhere. Many of the difficult experiences I’ve had or heard about here have also happened in the US, where I’m from, and more often at that. If I had to place a value on a woman’s experience here, I’d say it’s the best country in Asia for women to visit and live in. With only rare exceptions, I can live, travel in and experience Taiwan not only as a woman, but also simply as a person.