Taipeians are obsessed with time. Like someone with a fatal disease who knows their time on this planet is finite, people in this city seem focussed on getting the most out of every second, and see futility in idle moments being wasted. A few examples that jump out after just a few hours in the city:
- The pedestrian traffic lights count down the seconds until the light changes to the other colour, and running this race against the clock is an animated 'walking man', who gradually speeds up as he reaches the finishing line of his own marathon. Clearly a static green man was inadequate to convey the intended message.
- The ultra-modern MRT (Metropolitan Rapid Transport) train network with glides across the sky and under the ground gives rapid amounts of information in mind-boggling detail. Clocks countdown to the arrival of the next train in five-second increments, and do so with alarming accuracy. One wonders just how useful it is to know that your next train arrives in 3 minutes and 50 seconds, but it's there for those who need to know.
- Also on the trains, the speed of the escalator is quoted (generally, 39 metres per minute), but who really needs to know?
The pace of life is hectic, but it would be painfully wrong to think that this meant the people were cold and industrious. People walk the streets with a quietly confident air, with the streets streaming with men and women who dress as immaculate professionals - the Italians of Asia, if you will. All the modern conveniences are available at your fingertips, often very literally given the proliferation of 24-hour convenience stores selling the kind of junk you'd only want at 3 in the morning.
As to the politics of this ambitious nation (a phrase like that is the sort of thing that seems to spark something close to war if said by a person with enough importance), there'll be more from me on that in the next couple of days. One initial thought that struck me after reading a couple of the English-language Chinese papers - the only news from Taiwan that we hear in the west is to do with the diplomatic war with China. And strangely, that's what makes up most of the news within Taiwan, as well. Page after page of the most miniscule detail in the diplomatic relations between the two countries. Even the tsunami issue has been seen through the prism of the Taiwan-China conflict: Taiwan have requested a seat at the aid conference in Jakarta tomorrow, but have been denied it on the basis that the UN recognises Taiwan only as a provence of China.
After the boring slog that was Hanoi, it's great to be in Taipei. Indeed, it's great to be anywhere.