From Á La Carte to Salad to Soup

The Á La Carte era

When I first came to Taiwan more than 30 years ago I was a little kid, trailing my father’s job like a thread of poop dangling along a goldfish. Although my family was located in Kaoshiung, a lovely Southern Taiwan city, I studied in a Japanese school, ate Japanese food, spoke Japanese, and played with Japanese kids. I lived inside a secluded micro-universe prepared for expatriate foreigners, occasionally feeling the sight, sound, and smell of the local society (the “other” universe) through  tiny cracks in the outer shells of the expatriate glass house. Foreigners and Taiwanese lived in separate worlds.

Salad comes along

I came back to Taiwan 8 years ago, still as an expatriate but by my own will. Taiwan no longer had a segregated expatriate community. Instead, it offered “local” and “foreign” layers in its society, creating a cultural sandwich, or a salad. You walk down the street and see a fancy “Western” restaurant, then a traditional dumpling stool, followed by a Japanese comic book store, which stands next to a Taiwanese temple adoring Guan Yu (關公).

Taiwan’s charm existed in its offering of cultural buffet, where you get to choose a variety of local/foreign flavors all piled up in a small strip of land. I lived inside a permanent international exhibition, discovering a new pavilion every day. That was the cultural salad era (pun intended). My initial 12-month residence plan got extended multiple times until I surrendered and decided to just live, not stay.

And here comes soup

Fast forward to the present day, and I have been noticing that Taiwan started to offer something unseen: uncategorized. I see new buildings, restaurants, communities, coffee shops popping up like bamboo shoots after the rain (雨後の筍, as in a Japanese proverb) but I cannot put them into my previous “local” or “foreign” mental boxes. They all go into “the rest” category squarely and now that third category has become the largest segment, I cannot ignore it anymore.

Take my visit to the wonderful “Italian” restaurant, the Trattoria, the other day. The restaurant as well as the food rejected any attempt of categorization, mixing local and foreign ingredients in perfect combinations. The same goes for other new cultural spots. I see a new store that is not “Western” because it offers too many ethnic flavors but not “Taiwanese” because it is modern and minimalistic, and of course not “Japanese” because it is not that weird.

If there is a common element among the new spots that would probably be the “Whatever Works” attitude. The new wave of creative people, foreigners and Taiwanese alike, do not care if what they do fits into an existing path. They try to offer the best experience utilizing whatever is available around them. Labeling their works as “Taiwanese” or “Western” is the job of marketers and scholars, not of the creators.

Five years from now, those marketers will start to shout loud about what is currently going on, naming it the “Taiwanese cultural movement” to merchandise whatever they can. The Monocle magazine and Discovery Channel will assemble feature stories focusing on this latest blow of Asian trend, calling it a true hybrid of the East and the West, maybe still missing the “Whatever Works” point.

But let’s keep in mind that the movement has already arrived. It is just that it does not have a name yet (fortunately). The creators are blossoming their passions, being free from an invisible guideline that will inevitable be formed after a name is given. Let’s enjoy this uncontrollable expressions which do not give a fxxk on categorizing themselves. And that is probably how the world’s notable cultural movements all started in their original phases.

Whatever Works. That is how we create something truly original—by freely borrowing elements from existing materials and throwing them all into a big bowl of hot pot, just like we do in the ubiquitous all-you-can-eat hotpot places in Taiwan. No one can predict how it turns out, but I assure you, it will be tasty.