“Dude, where are we going?” I ask the birthday girl, Betty. It’s Betty’s birthday and though we’ve been holding a party at a cafe on a tiny alley off of Art Street, the police have arrived and they do not appreciate the noise the 30-something of us are making.
Betty is being pulled ahead of me by two other girls. She turns around and says, “Family Mart!”
Okay, then! Family Mart it is. You might be asking yourself what Family Mart is, which, unless you live in Asia, you’ve probably never heard of. Family Mart is a brand of convenience stores, much like 7-11, both of which can be found on practically every block absolutely anywhere in Taiwan.
Now, this might sound a little strange (and okay, maybe a little trashy) but hear me out. There is no greater joy than going on an afternoon hike with your friends through the gorgeous mountains of Taiwan and then stopping at the local 7-11 to buy a cold one, sit down with your friends and laugh and drink and enjoy the day. And since they are everywhere, they come in handy for all situations. At a club, but the lines for drinks are too long? No problem. Just step outside, head to that 7-11 on the corner and choose your drink of choice; maybe grab a cigarette or two, then head on back to get your dance on. Do this throughout the night as needed (we all know drinks are expensive). Ran out of beer mid-way through your neighborhood barbecue? Hop on down two blocks to that nearby Family Mart and pick up some more; no problem! So while I once would have scoffed at the invitation to “grab a drink at the Family Mart,” after 3 years, I knew better, and that’s why I was happily following Betty and the others down the road. I’ve learned now that some of the best times are had enjoying a beer outside of the nearest 7, chilling with your friends and watching the very random street traffic of Taiwan.
I should say that Taiwan, above all else, is convenient. One of the things that makes Taiwan so incredibly convenient is its convenience store culture. 7-11’s and Family Marts are not only everywhere, but are nothing like the convenience stores in the States that boast a few overcooked hot dogs and a Big Gulp special. Here in Taiwan, convenience stores are a one-stop destination. The food selection is vast and surprisingly delicious, from hot dogs to dumplings to sandwiches and salads; they have toiletries and grocery items, red envelopes and raincoats. Furthermore, you can pay your bills, pay your parking tickets, buy train and concert tickets, mail things and pick up items you’ve ordered online.
On top of that, convenience stores here are clean, and almost always have a place to sit (inside or out) to enjoy your food and drinks, not to mention public bathrooms.
So, I’ve told you what makes Taiwan convenient and now I need to tell you one of the things that makes Taiwan awesome: there are no laws that prohibit public drinking here. In Taiwan, you can drink anywhere, anytime. You can also buy beer all day and all night, and on any street corner, even in the smallest of towns. And for some reason, one of the best places to drink those beers is right at the store you bought it. Street life in Taiwan is always interesting, for one thing. Another thing that makes that 7 down the street a great place to grab a drink? The selection of beverages is impressive. They have juices, teas, sodas, cold coffee, hot coffee, milk, wine, liquor, and of course, beer. And not just one or two choices-- even the smallest places will give you three or four beer and wine options, from the basic Taiwan Beer, to Mexican Coronas to Japanese Asahi, to the newly debuted fruit flavored beers (which I will be writing about in the near future, because come on, how could I not gush about a pineapple beer that tastes amazing?). And even if you’re low on cash, it’s no problem because a mere $39 NT dollars (roughly $1.30 US) will buy you a 40 of good old Taiwan beer, the best-selling beer on the island. At 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, you can enjoy yourself anytime.
If you’re not into the bright fluorescent lights of your average convenience store; that’s okay, too because you can drink anywhere, remember? My friends and I often made plans to have a picnic in the park-- but not before loading up on beer and snacks from the Family Mart on the corner. Occasionally I would get a phone call from my roommate: “It’s beautiful today! Do you want to grab beers at the 7 and go across and drink them in the park?” There’s nothing quite like the simple pleasure of enjoying a beer with your friends in the park as the warm golden sun slowly sets and the sky becomes night.
This trip to Family Mart ended a little differently, of course. Eventually, we had to abandon the can-and-bottled-covered tables and head to a local pub, as the police showed up again because one guy had the brilliant idea to go streaking. Nothing upsets the locals more than naked foreign white dudes, after all. Luckily, he took off before the police could nab him, but not before I got a picture of his naked white ass on his motorcycle. Ah, the memories!
You know, there are many great things that come with living abroad, as well as plenty of challenges. Taiwan is both a modern and smart country, as well as an illogical, chaotic mess. You can see this in their amazing transportation system-- various buses, trains, and even a high speed train, to take you anywhere in the country from top to bottom, at very affordable prices and always on time. Compare this, however, to the driving culture and one wonders how to two systems can exist in the same place! On the road, people do what they want-- red lights don’t mean you have to stop, and if you need to drive down the wrong side of the road or on the sidewalk to get somewhere, so be it.
That’s one of the things I love about Taiwan-- it’s so bipolar. The technology here is modern and sometimes two steps ahead of the west; you might see kids checking their iPhones right next to a shoeless old man wearing a rice hat, slowly pushing a cage of chickens down the street. The marked juxtaposition is one of the most charming, unique parts about this little island.
Some of us like to call Taiwan “The Land of Not-Quite Right.” It’s strange and random in ways I can barely begin to explain, but one of the most fun and random parts of Taiwan that makes it this incredibly unique and strangely wonderful place is the freedom to drink freely! I know I wouldn’t have made half the wonderful memories I have without it.