Taiwan From the Eyes of a Foreigner
Web exclusive content by Courtney Donovan Smith
Book: Taiwan From the Eyes of a Foreigner
Languages: English and Chinese on facing pages
334 pages, NT$366
Publisher: Tsai's Idea Co., Ltd.
Available online at: http://www.nickkembel.com
We rarely feature books on TaiwanFun.com. They rarely fit the bill of being both interesting to our readers and bilingual. This book is an exception.
Taiwan From the Eyes of a Foreigner is ambitious in attempting to reach both foreign and local audiences with the same book. It's not a travel guide (for that I'd recommend the excellent Bradt Guide to Taiwan by our ex-Kaohsiung and Tainan editor Steven Crook) and it's not exactly a travelogue either--though it has elements of both.
Essentially, it is a look at the experience of living and travelling around Taiwan viewed through the prism of a young English teacher who has lived here for a few years and loves this country. It is organized as a series of essays clustered into thematic chapters, and covers quite a bit of territory--both literally and in scope. Geographically it covers everything from his own neighbourhood in Banqiao and riding the MRT to the most majestic tourist destinations--and a fair bit in between. Culturally its reach extends from the smallest details ( from cosplay encounters to wondering why Taiwanese love tiny dogs) to bigger themes like history and religion. Very little about life in Taiwan is not touched upon at some point. Interspersed throughout the book are quite a few pictures, many attractive and others illustrative. As an added quirk, the author enlisted his sister to draw a series of whimsical cartoon-style illustrations--many quite humorous.
The perspective is clearly foreign, and Canadian traveller and author Nick Kembel's curiosity and passion shine through. The book is filled with entertaining and often humorous anecdotes about the people he meets and the experiences he has, mostly with Taiwanese but also sometimes with other foreigners. His degree in Anthropology and Religious Studies shows through in his keen interest in local Aboriginal culture and Chinese religion, with both topics being covered in an entertaining and engaging way. His punk attire and mohawk hairstyle also enlivens the book with some funny encounters and reactions.
For Taiwanese readers who are curious about how foreigners perceive Taiwan, they will find what attracts his attention an interesting (and perhaps sometimes startling) mirror, and the mental journeys he takes to interpret, understand and describe what he finds enlightening as to how the western mind reacts to Taiwan (whether the reader agrees with the conclusions or not). His many observations and interactions with Taiwanese will no doubt be part most entertaining parts of the book for most Taiwanese readers, and they will generally be pleased by what he feels about the people, culture and society here.
The parts of the book Taiwanese readers will find the least interesting (the price of the ambitious nature of the book) are the carefully researched and laid out descriptions of some very basic aspects of the culture, geography and society. While those passages may be a bit too obvious to local readers, they are a boon to another target reader: foreigners either planning to come to Taiwan, or those who have been here for a short time. It is this group that will get the most utility out of the book, and this book should almost be required reading for those foreigners. The breadth and depth of the book gives a good overview of life as a foreigner here on many levels, and what challenges and delights one can expect to experience here. Nick Kembel's native curiosity and adventurous spirit also provide a wealth of ideas on things to experience, places to go and a wonderful sense of what's possible. Plus, he usefully dispels many myths and misconceptions along the way. Bushiban owners who recruit overseas should be sure to have many copies on hand to give the best prospects--if a young foreign reader isn't filled with excitement at the prospect of coming after reading this book, then that foreigner doesn't belong here. Those who do come, and want to share what that experience is like with their friends and family back home would do well to send them a copy.
Foreign residents who have lived here for ten years or more will find the book a nostalgic look back rather than useful, especially for those who arrived under similar circumstances (indeed, I first arrived a similarly flamboyant young punk rock Canadian at age 19 to teach English). The stories and anecdotes, though of the 'been-there-done-that' variety, bring back quite a few memories.