In 2004, upon hearing about my summer plans in Taiwan, a classmate responded with, “Oh great! I have always wanted to visit a developing country.”
I was utterly flabbergasted that anyone would consider Taiwan, the land of soymilk and honey, to be a developing country. Fast forward 10 years, after having visited countries like Honduras, Peru, France, Germany and Japan, I returned to Taiwan with a renewed perspective and pondered, where does Taiwan stand on the global development scale?
The United Nations publishes the Human Development Report annually to measure global dynamics and progress in the developing world. However, Since the United Nations does not recognize Taiwan as a country (nor an inhabited island of any sort, nor an existing entity), it did not calculate the Human Development Index (HDI), a measurement of standard of living, education and health, for Taiwan. Using the UN methodology, the Directorate of Budget, Accounting and Statistics in Taiwan calculated her own HDI and ranked herself at 23 (if she may say so herself) globally in 2013, a spot given to Spain by the United Nations. Is Taiwan as developed as Spain? The former shows visibly nascent modernization despite its easily perceivable rough past, while the latter reflects its glorious yesteryears as the world’s once strongest nation, yet displays little signs of recent development. This calls into question, how should we define development beyond the United Nation’s parameters?
Anyone who has ever visited Taipei will quickly notice that the city is characterized by an extensive network of fast, affordable, clean MRT, streets full of status symbol cars such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW, beautifully groomed make-up counter ladies bowing politely in Japanese department stores blasting arctic strength AC (also known as an “oasis” in the scorching hell of a Taiwanese summer that could kill a camel), and delicious, freshly made food around every corner. Facilities are generally modern and service is polite. People seem to have money, and street crimes are nearly nonexistent. In terms of education and health care, Taiwan is home to some of the pushiest, success-oriented parents who will stay around forever due to its excellent universal health insurance and abundance of healthcare providers. However, at a closer look, Taipei is also a repulsively hideous city. You almost want to say, Taiwan, whoever built you didn’t love you.
Taipei is the most developed city in Taiwan, yet despite its free Ubikes and newly revived artsy cultural parks, it is still plagued with junky private buildings covered with rusty metal sheets, messy electrical wiring and piping, stinky side streets, an eyesore of public buildings, and a primitive trash removal system (you would think that they would have come up with something better than having to chase after the classical music butchering garbage truck every evening at the same hour by now). Moreover, sanitation practices are not exactly top-notch. Traditional eateries don’t replace furniture or repaint walls even after its commercial success, probably because people tend to have low standards for beauty and cleanliness—hence the oil stained walls and sticky old chairs don’t quite gross out the locals. Considering that the food being served is actually a lot cleaner than one would expect, the “interior design” in these traditional eateries is a non-issue. A real pet peeve of mine, and of the large cross-national sample of two or three foreign friends that I have surveyed, revealed the consensus that the most repulsive sanitation practice in Taiwan, actually, is the act of throwing used toilet paper in a trash can. I have never been to worse smelling public bathrooms than the ones in Taiwan, where trash cans are provided to allow a large sum of poo, pee, and period blood stained toilet paper to marinate collectively in the sweltering heat until the cleaning crew comes around to empty it hours later. My eyes literally watered up as I squatted over the squat toilet, holding my breath, while fixating my vision on the flies resting against the dirty wall to avoid coming into direct eye contact with Medusa, also known as stranger’s waste smeared on crisp white toilet paper in a bucket. One may think that this is simply the result of the confusion of individuals who mistakenly used the trash cans designated for tampons and pads for toilet paper, until you notice the sign posted in almost every public bathroom: “Please do not clog the toilet by disposing toilet paper in the toilet bowl. Thank you.”
This calls for an investigation.
“Mom, why do Taiwanese people throw toilet paper in the trash can instead of flushing it down the toilet like they do in every other country?”
Mom had an easy, straight-forward answer. “Taiwanese pipes are not the same as pipes in other countries.”
“So, are you saying that the alternative solution, instead of updating the pipes, changing the toilets, or reformulating the toilet paper, is to continue this barbaric practice of leaving smelly paper in a can for eternity?”
Mom had no answer to that. She came back with a better response days later, after having consulted with a friend. “Not all homes in Taiwan are directly connected to the sewage system. Therefore, although it’s true that you can in fact flush toilet paper in Taipei City, you can’t do so in any other parts of Taiwan.”
This opens another can of worms. A quick glance at the Ministry of the Interior in Taiwan website reveals that although 100 percent of the population in Taipei is served by waste water treatment plants, only a pitiful 13.8 percent of Taitung residents and 19.2 of Chiayi residents receive the same service as of July 2014. That is to say, infrastructure outside of Taipei has been largely ignored and almost not developed at all in some aspects. This makes Taipei a primate city, which consists of a core that far outranks its periphery. It is something that needs to be considered in discussions of the evenness of progression and growth of the country as a whole. Back to the toilet problem, even areas with no direct connection to a central sewage treatment plant should be able to handle toilet paper, if it disintegrates in water. So I made it a point to read the labels on different brands of toilet paper to check if they are designed to be flushed. The truth is, most toilet paper specifically notes on its label that it is completely flushable and breaks down in water. What actually clogs toilets is tissue paper, which is not designed to be flushed down a toilet anywhere. So, why aren’t people using and flushing the very flushable toilet paper? Like many things we don’t do, because it has never been done before so there must be a reason. Challenge me. I dare you.
So where does that leave Taiwan’s state of development? Many wonderful things have happened to the country in the recent years but three major issues remain. First, development has been way too heavily concentrated in Taipei, while the rest of the country receives little attention and few important renewal projects. In light of the gas explosions in Kaohsiung this year which killed 30 and injured over 300 people, investigations exposed gaps in information and limited measures to ensure public safety in the city. Underground pipes have been said to be old and in need of replacement. This calls attention to the second issue: no politician wants to do ugly but important ground work. As each mayor or government official want to have their names attached to an attractive project or an iconic building, no one ever wanted to be the sewage treatment or the gas pipe guy. These projects would have been costly and thankless, and frankly no Taiwanese I’ve ever spoken to thought that it was weird that they couldn’t flush their toilet paper. Lastly, Taiwan’s history as a serial colonized territory means that the people who came did not necessarily have her best interests in mind. The Japanese lost World War II and Taiwan amidst its many plans to further develop the island, and then came the Chinese Nationalists who were not particularly known for their appreciation of beauty (the destruction and restoration of historical buildings under different regimes will be discussed in a future article), and their original intention was not to stay in Taiwan for very long anyway.The meaning of development extends beyond having five star hotels and luxury high-rise apartments; they generate large amount of profit for corporations yet benefit few but the elite. Projects aimed at enhancing the quality of life for the masses, such as clean air, fresh water, proper waste treatment, and public safety, should bear priority. One of the most basic elements of a city is that it should be pedestrian and cyclist friendly. Ubike is great but it should be facilitated by an extensive network of bike lanes to ensure both pedestrian and cyclist safety. Alishan is gorgeous but people also need to be able to walk safely in Chiayi city, not alongside the chaotic traffic of cars and motorcycles.
So is Taiwan as developed as Spain? In terms of cleanliness and order, no. However, Taiwan has a lot going for it in terms of innovation and efficiency. Changes can happen rather quickly when there is a strong demand from the people. Most importantly, the key lies in the hands of a considerate government that is willing to act in the interest of establishing Taipei as a world class city with majority benefits in mind, and the desire to see Taiwan as its long term home.