There’s something to be said for taking the time to really get to know one country well, for deciding to stay in one spot and exploring all its nooks and crannies. But when you’re already halfway across the globe, it sounds crazy not to take advantage of the cheaper, shorter flights to surrounding countries for a weekend every once in a while.
Is it worth it to try to get to know a whole new country in just 72 hours or less? Or is your time better spent exploring the culture you’re already immersed in to the fullest extent?
This weekend, I jetted off to Taiwan. I left midday Friday and got back on Monday morning, so I had three nights in Taiwan, and I learned so much in those 72 hours. I’m ashamed to admit I barely knew where Taiwan was on a map before I left. When my friend asked if I wanted to go, I didn’t think too much about it. I asked about the flight price and then said yes.
In Taipei, my Tokyo friends and I met up with a friend, a native Taiwanese citizen bilingual in English and Mandarin Chinese. He was our guide for the weekend, and a terrific one at that. He knew the best restaurants, happy hours, museums, markets and hiking spots. I’ve been living in Tokyo for a month and a half, and I was doubting if Asia even had tater tots. But we found them in Taiwan in a restaurant hidden in a converted garage, which we never would have found without help from a local.
Our friend wanted us to discover Taiwan, so he was happy to answer our questions. In a gondola ride, he taught me about the Taiwanese media industry, which produces some of the biggest stars in Asia. I asked about the healthcare system, which has really low copayments and rates, while we were in line for the restaurant.
While scrolling through my Instagram feed, we talked about the typical marriage age in Taiwan; people try to spend their twenties traveling, and put off marriage. On the train he explained the public education system to me, which provides high quality education to the whole country. He was a genuinely good sport about all of my stupid questions, and I learned so much from talking to him.
If I had no clue where Taiwan was geographically, I had even fewer expectations for what Taipei would be like as a city. In Tokyo, people are efficient and reserved. They have excellent service in restaurants and shops, even when I ask for help in the subway, but they rarely smile.
In Taipei, however, people are warm, friendly and casual. Waitresses are attentive and cheery, and cashiers are not afraid to talk to you. Everyone is taught English in school and people actually talk to each other on the train. While Tokyo street style is great fashion inspiration, the casual dress in Taipei feels more like home. And I know Tokyo prides itself on cleanliness, but public trash cans and water fountains in Taipei feel so much more practical.
If I had spent that 72 hours in Tokyo, I’m sure I would have found an unexplored corner. But then I would have missed out on the significant learning experience I had in Taiwan. If I’d never left Japan, I’d have no point of comparison for other Asian cultures—I’d be left thinking there aren’t any tater tots in all of Asia.
There is enormous value in going to a new place for only a few days when the cultural learning curve is so steep. And, much as I love living in Tokyo, I never expected to find a city on this side of the globe that felt so much like home—the Taiwanese smile almost as much as us Americans.
Morgan Wood is a third-year economics and art history major studying at Temple University Japan in Tokyo during the Fall of 2017. She is working to become mildly proficient in Asian geography.