Nick Kembel, author of Taiwan In The Eyes of A Foreigner, is a Canadian writer/photographer who blogs about Taiwan at nickkembel.com. He lives in New Taipei City, and was interviewed in June 2016.
Life of Taiwan: You first arrived in Taiwan in 2008. Did you have any particular expectations about the island?
Nick Kembel: A lot of my expectations were based on where I lived before coming to Taiwan, which was an ugly industrial city in Guangdong, China. I feared Taiwan would also be heavily polluted because it developed that reputation after it went through rapid industrialization. However, I arrived to find clear, blue skies and a world-class public transportation system.
Life of Taiwan: You’ve been to 45 countries, so you’ve seen a lot. Is there anything truly unique to Taiwan?
NK: I don’t think there is anywhere else in the world where you can see girls in mini-skirts selling betel nut from glass booths beside highways, buy a bottle of plum wine from a convenience store at 2,170 m (7,119 ft) above sea level, join thousands of people willingly getting shot at by bottle rockets, or drink green craft beer while tiny fish nibble the dead skin off your feet.
Life of Taiwan: Where exactly can you experience those things?
NK: Betel nut beauties, as those girls are called, can be seen all over, but there seem to be more of them down south than up north, and there’s always a few near freeway on-ramps. Taiwan’s highest convenience stores are at Alishan, an extremely famous mountain resort. The bottle rockets are at the annual Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival. And if you want to enjoy a beer while fish nibble your feet, this can be done at the Tangweigou Hot Springs Park in Jiaoxi in Yilan County.
Life of Taiwan: Your wife Emily is Taiwanese, and together you’ve two preschool children. Is Taiwan a good place for travelling with such young kids?
NK: Taiwan has its ups and downs when it comes to traveling with young children. Unpredictable weather and scorching summer heat can be obstacles. On the plus side, Taiwan is a compact country and transport is extremely convenient. In summer, we love having barbeques and frolicking by the river in Wulai or going to cold springs in Yilan. In spring and fall we frequently visit Taipei Zoo and various leisure farms, all of which have kid-friendly activities. In winter, we love taking the kids to hot springs. One surprising but good thing you’ll notice when traveling with kids in Taiwan: It really brings out the best of the locals. Taiwanese are incredibly friendly to begin with, but even more so when you’re traveling with kids.
Life of Taiwan: Recently you’ve written a lot about Taiwanese teas. How did you get interested in them?
NK: The last time my parents visited, my father picked up some Oriental Beauty for a tea snob friend of his back home. The guy said it was the best thing he’d ever had and wanted me to send more as soon as possible. It was then that I realized I was missing out. Around the same time, I was asked to write a magazine article introducing Pinglin, a tea mecca near Taipei, and it reminded me of how beautiful tea producing areas can be. When I started up my new Taiwan blog early this year, I decided to make my first post a comprehensive introduction to tea culture in Taiwan. I got a lot of feedback on the article, and came to realize there’s a sizable network of expat tea people in Taiwan, from merchants and distributors to tea fanatics, and even a Zen sect dedicated to it. Another reason why tea works for me right now as a hobby and a specialization is that I spend most of my time at home. Our kids are still very young, and my wife and I both work, so we take turns staying at home with them. Something else that I’ve gotten more into in the last couple years – and for the same reason – is cooking. I love strolling with the kids through local street markets, trying out new ingredients and learning how to cook them Taiwanese style.