Taiwan: The Frog

This is the first installment in a series of essays by jet-setter Jordan Barber, who is currently studying Mandarin at Donghai University in Taichung, Taiwan. Recently arrived, he finds that foreign perception of culture can get lost in translation.

There are many things that make Taiwan attractive, but for 20-year-old American college students, the most obvious appeal is the 18+ drinking age. Silly, for sure, but we were all excited to buy and consume our first legal drinks. Of course that’s not really the reason—or even one I truly considered—for coming to Taichung. I just wanted to try something I’d never done before.

While in Taiwan, I willingly abdicate all my cultural entrapments as an American in order to fully participate in the culture of Taiwan. And that’s good enough for me.

I didn’t drink as soon as I got here. Rather, my classmates and I decided to go out on a Friday night for a friend’s birthday. Karaoke—called KTV here—seemed like a fitting celebration. KTV is an East Asian phenomena, and Taiwan is no exception. They’re easy to find, and are typically the favorite night spot for young and old alike. Just gather a band of friends and hop on your motuoche (scooter). You’re typically furnished with your own room, and both food and drinks are ready to order while you chang ge (sing) all night long. Just don’t go to a KTV that features xiaojie (young lady), or else you’ll have some sleazy girl join you and your friends.

To get to our KTV, we used the city’s bus system, which is fairly convenient. Taichung is roughly the size of Detroit, so its transportation system is extensive, and we had no problem getting to our destination. We also had a couple of native Taiwanese students leading us around, which simplified our trip.

I will say that walking around Taiwan with large groups of foreigners is a little embarrassing. On the bus we took up the back half, so when Taiwanese people got on the bus they gave a truly dumbfounded pause, as if they’d somehow transported to another world. Similarly, we walk in a long, clumsy line down the narrow streets with backpacks and hats in hand, holding up the scooters as they try to maneuver around us. And once we got to our location we took up the entire lobby, as if all Caucasians in the area conspired to meet at some insignificant KTV joint. Feeling awkward and having to wait in line, we decided to go somewhere else; many opted for a trendy nightclub just down the street, but the rest of us decided for a nice place to sit down and drink—our very first bar.

We landed at a place called The Frog. It was a combination restaurant and bar, but the main attraction was its weird attempt at a North American theme. Describing itself as Mexican-American, I think The Frog highlights what Taiwanese think of when they imagine an American bar. Outfitted with some characteristic cultural icons—foosball, HBO, the neon Heineken sign—there were pieces here and there that reminded me of home. But there are also many inescapable things that broke the illusion. Sitting outside, we couldn’t escape the incredible shidd (humidity), nor the huge, multicolored bugs that occasionally landed on our table. Even in the city, the sound of the chan (Cicadas) buzzing was unavoidable; in Donghai, where there are more trees, sometimes their drone is so loud that you have to shout to be heard. There were also dogs wandering the tables, which I feel is unusual.

Like the US, there are many dogs in Taiwan, though they are typically smaller and unusually well groomed. This is strange, because they are mostly stray dogs. In fact, I’ve never seen a dog on a leash. Sometimes they lay around, and other times they follow me from my room to class. Unlike the US, the dogs here appear to be a community feature, and, while ownerless, they appear to be well fed and healthy. It may sound sad to see stray dogs digging for scraps on a busy alley, but that’s just how it is here.

Back at The Frog, we considered ordering. Their food was pretty expensive, with most things ranging from $200 NT (about $6 US), which is outrageous considering most Taiwanese restaurants will serve a full meal for well under $100 NT. Still, we played along with their gimmicks and ordered food and drinks.

While waiting for our dinner, I noticed that their signature “frog” was just a soundbite. It croaked once precisely every 10 minutes, the sound emanating from a fake pond that some dogs were drinking out of.

Meanwhile the girls with us checked their watches constantly; they had a curfew and had to return soon to their fortress-like dormitory or else they’d be locked out for the night. Though I’m sure they appreciate the security, the amount of protection the female students are placed under is astonishing considering the overall low crime rate in Taiwan. By the look of their dorm, it could probably hold its own against anything short of Armageddon. Surrounding the entire women’s complex is a high wall, with multiple guarded entrances. The walls are essentially unscalable. Even if one managed to climb the wall, there are rings of barbed wire at the top, with long shards of glass laid underneath. Of course, men are never allowed in at any time, so I’ve never had the pleasure of peeking into this mini police state. But I have been told by a friend that each dorm room features a standard issue “beat-stick” for every room that fits snugly on a hanger on the back of their door.

Getting our food at The Frog was probably the most entertaining moment of the night. Most foreign foods are bent to Taiwanese culture (sticky rice buns instead of bread on hamburgers), so I was very curious to see what “Mexican” food really meant here. Like The Frog itself, when a concept is placed in the cultural funnel and transported from one location to another, only rarely does it emerge unchanged. Like the fake frog that croaks on a timer, some cultural phenomena remain because they are characteristic, but they can also be warped or missing entirely. What remains is a gimmicky, silly impression of a culture as it does not actually exist.

Like our nachos. They were Doritos.

At least they were “Nacho Cheesier.” I mean, c’mon, we’re striving for some authenticity. Although my plate consisted of nothing but a small cup of salsa and Doritos, this was what nachos meant in Taiwan. I’m sure even the chef found it silly when—with apron and chef hat on—he went to the pantry and opened a big bag of Doritos and dumped them on a plate.

Read more from Taiwan.

Jordan Barber is proud that the internet allows him to criticize, admonish, and irritate people from his own living room. And though this immense power only comes to the few, he promises to wield his hammer of judgment with a standoffish, thoughtful outlook.