Intern discovers tiny Taiwan packs a lot in

Tim Marshall describes getting to know Taiwan and its unique culture while interning at the Taiwan USA Industrial Cooperation Office (TUSA). Tim spent three months in Taiwan from November 2019.
Tim taking a selfie at a restaurant with three friends

After initially resorting to an unlikely confidant, Tim eventually found a good circle of friends and colleagues to hang out with

“Morning boss”, I found myself saying to a king crab. The crustacean in question, for its participation in the dialogue, blinked at me with a blank expression. I suppose that was fair enough. “I’ll call you Greg”, I continued to the poor shellfish.

An odd way to start a morning, but there were few “normal” mornings to be experienced during my first few weeks in Taipei.

A mixture of curiosity, jetlag and lack of contact with anyone speaking English for a few hours led to my 9.30am conversation with Greg.

I think my morning ended better than his, as a few minutes later Greg was plucked from the fish-tank outside the restaurant and taken away to the fryers. I was lucky enough to be on the consumption end of this culinary transaction a few days later with my colleagues – seafood is a huge staple of Taiwan, and it’s pretty damn good too.

Thankfully, in the weeks following, I had more exposure to human conversation – in both English and my terrible Mandarin – which was generally more insightful and meaningful than that of my chat with Greg.

From my role with the Taiwan-USA Industrial Cooperation Promotion Office (TUSA), to my weekend travels around the stunning island three-quarters the size of Canterbury, which 23 million people call home, the sights I saw were only matched by the characters I collided with. From the fantastic folks steering the New Zealand ship from NZ Commerce and Trade Industry Office, to my colleague who once worked with BTS, or even just the sprightly lady who sold dumplings near my flat whose only use of English was to welcome me with “Tall!” 

Tim standing with a colleague in front of a large sign promoting a business forum

Taiwan is New Zealand’s eighth largest export market, among several other surprisingly significant economic statistics one can observe on MFAT’s Taiwan page. I use the term surprising, as the whole island is barely bigger than Otago.

While the local fruit here is as vibrant as the atmosphere surrounding it, I’ve had the fortune of trying candied fruit kebabs featuring Taiwanese sugar apple and New Zealand kiwifruit – Multiculturalism at its most delectable. Eighty percent of kiwifruit sold here flies the Zespri flag.

Having previously spent some time in Beijing, I’d settled into a comfortable mental rut on how this area of the world works.

However, trying to use my mainland-learnt Mandarin on day one of my Taipei travels promptly uprooted and binned these preconceptions – a simple thing as my pronunciation of “New Zealand” was enough for locals to laugh and ask if I learned Chinese on the mainland (Note: New Zealand is said Niǔ xī lán in Taiwan and Xīnxīlán in China).

Work life was equally as intriguing. I set foot in some of the most advanced hardware labs in the world where researchers work on everything from haptic feedback vests for drone pilots, to autonomous busses. I regularly looked up from my desk to see an American senator or governor setting foot in the office, which was a little surreal.

Tim sitting on a concrete wall of a ruined building

Tim managed to travel extensively during his three-months in Taiwan

The final weeks of my time with TUSA grew ever more varied as I prepared reporting for an autonomous manufacturing conference and spent even more time out of the office visiting companies around Taipei and Hsinchu.

I was lucky to travel most of the island by the time I left, including a fantastic company retreat with ANZCO Foods to an onsen in Miaoli – huge shoutout to Tommy and the ANZCO team!

As in New Zealand, there’s a stunning diversity of landscape and culture around the different regions of the island, from the legendary foods of Tainan to the spectacular mountains and curious Formosan indigenous history of Taichung. Taipei is a wonderful city, but without exploring the other nooks and crannies of Taiwan I would have had an incomplete appreciation of this incredible place.

My time there was every positive adjective available in the English language, and it’s given me reason to hope that Kiwis will be able to continue to go and experience Taiwan for themselves, and build positive connections between our two economies.