Taiwan Adventures – Going “Home” Part 2

 Recap of What I Expected to Find in Taiwan:
(see Taiwan Adventures – Going Home 1 for the full intro)

-Familiar but unfamiliar: being too-rusty in language skills, feeling a stranger in a friendly city
-Pollution galore

What did I find?


Aah, that southern Chinese accent! Familiar, just …familiar.
I walked off the plane to find the Taiwan scents and accents floating around only familiar. It’s this kind of lush, humid smell with a subtle industrious undercurrent. Not as plastic as Hong Kong, with a strong hint of tropics. Delightfully homey.

Sometimes when I hear another language, it sounds like something on the edge of my hearing, where I can’t quite understand but if I listen a little more in a different way, it’ll make sense. It’s like a whisper of misty rain, sifting by and gone before you know it. It also didn’t feel like I was drowning in a foreign language.
In Taiwan, like a tranquil pool, I was happy to sit in it and let the words float by in a sea of general comprehension. Some waters were in other unknown dialects, like Hakka and Taiwanese, but those friendly waters floated by harmlessly.

I only found myself translating ideas from English to Chinese in my head about 25% of the time, the rest was a direct feed into my brain. As I practiced switching off the try-to-translate-from-thinking-in-English step, everything came out clearer from me. Even signage, if I just sat with it a while and let my head work it out -provided I was not interrupted by traveling companions- more words would come to me. Mandarin may not be my current primary language of use, but it’s my first mother tongue. Hot diggity!

So, I expected a friendly, strange city where I stuck out as usual. Instead, I got a friendly, familiar-feeling city where I could generally blend in and easily get around. I even got to skip the question from traveling in Europe of “no really, where are you from.” I could order food and get what I wanted, I could ask questions and receive reasonable answers. I may even have been asked for directions at some point.

Readers, you can all thank Renee for nudging me into this post, as she told me the last installment on Taiwan felt so suspenseful. This next bit will be for her too, as she asked in response to the Kaohsiung video:

Is it smoggy?

I accidentally wrote something like a research paper below, so unless you are interested in the quality of air you are breathing, you can skip below.


According to my mama, even when she was a kid in Taipei, a person could blow their nose at the end of a day and it wouldn’t come out clean. There was a lot of coal burning back then. I do remember that nose-blowing experience as a kid but can’t recall if it included Taiwan or was just Hong Kong.

Arriving in Taipei, I caught the scenic route of the MRT from the airport to Taipei’s main station and found the landscape on the city outskirts much greener and full of the lush forest than I expected. Walking around, the humid, 70-80F degree air felt muggy like the American Midwest, but not especially polluted. I didn’t have any extra coughing problems, unlike when I breathed the sulfur-infused air at Hawaii’s Volcano National Park.*

In the southern port city of Kaohsiung, as I rode the rail with my mama, I spied cisterns and lush greenery on rooftops with every effort to grow more plants. The sunrise there was still poetically pinkish, hinting at smog. My mama, and my uncle friend showing us around the city both waxed poetic about how the air in Kaohsiung was more comfortable, fresher, and less humid. My fragile American Midwest/Pacific Northwest skin only felt that everything was extra humid, but perhaps folks who grew up in tropical climates had more finely tuned sensibilities.

As a human with blunt sensory tools, mugginess and smog might get confused.** Either way, let’s focus on air quality.

Kaohsiung’s reliance on heavy industry led the city to become home to some of Taiwan’s worst air quality. […] As of 2005, Kaohsiung emitted over 4x as much CO2 per person than Taipei, and over twice the Taiwan national average. Kaohsiung’s air quality has shown marked improvement in recent years. [In 2011,] Kaohsiung was the first Taiwanese city to initiate a trial run of the EPA’s air pollution quota control system. Kaohsiung City’s latest Pollution Standard Index (PSI) hit a record low, more than three times less than its figure when measurements first began in 1994.

“Kaohsiung: Taiwan’s eco-city leader?” Benjamin Fox, former energy analyst for the U.S. Department of Energy

Let’s define “smog” as fog or haze combined with smoke and other atmospheric pollutants. We can take a look at air quality index as an objective measure for smog. My journalist friend Mr.Matt Stiles, Special Correspondent for the Los Angeles Times referred me to this nifty real-time map of air quality index in Taiwan.

Taipei air quality index around 9PM May 23, 2017.
Taiwan AQI around 1:30PM on June 5, 2017.

Kaohsiung is near that little red flag on the southwest side of the island. Taipei is the cluster in the north. Note that these are semi-random snapshots, and the second one is much different.  For comparison, go to the AQI link and select your continent and location. The green-to-red color coding comes in handy here. If you take the Ameri-centric example of living in North America to compare, only parts of Mexico and Esterhazy, Saskatchewan have worse air quality. The Philippines and Europe also appear to have better air (at a random check done while I was writing this).

In March 2014, Taiwanese legislators and the Taiwan Healthy Air Action Alliance claimed, based on reports by the World Health Organization, that the air quality in Taiwan is generally the worst of all of the Four Asian Tigers.*** …the annual average of PM10 (fine particles in the air smaller than 10 micrometers in size) concentration in Taiwan was as high as 54 micrograms per cubic meter.

“Air Quality Worst Among Tigers,” Taipei Times

I was curious if this ignominious award still lingered to this day. This 2015 Brooking Institution Op-Ed said the situation was worse before since no one could agree on doing anything about it, and better now in collaboration, but with plenty still to do. I found the World Health Organization’s handy air quality lookup with easy city search published Fall of 2016. If you want to get morbid, you can take a look at the figures there for pollution-related deaths and diseases too.

  • Taipei air: annual average of 22 µg/m3 of PM2.5 particles. That’s 2.2 times the WHO safe level.
  • Kaohsiung air: 30 µg/m3 of PM2.5 particles. That’s 3 times the WHO safe level.
  • Geocentric reference point: Seattle air: 6 µg/m3 of PM2.5 particles. That’s 40% below the WHO safe level.

Question Recap: Is it smoggy?
Answer Summary: yes, worse than many many other places, but better than mainland China. Sadly, Kaohsiung still appears to lead in pollution on the island, even while (if I’m reading the metrics right) Taiwan appears to have improved from 54 micrograms per cubic meter to around 30 or lower. Also, I’m told this Love River in Kaohsiung used to smell like a sewer, and you couldn’t catch a single whiff of trash when I was there.

Love River in Kaohsiung, Taiwan 2017. Cleaner than 40 years ago, and now a tourist destination.

Further Reading:

  • Awesome data visualizations and discussion of air quality in Seoul at The Daily Viz by Matt Stiles, who has been living in East Asia, which may serve as a helpful reference point on metrics and pollution in Asia: Air Quality in Seoul, China, U.S.  Check out the rest of the Daily Viz for other neat data stories.

Likelihood of Smog Repeat: 100%

Novelty Rating: 50% It just feels muggy, but is secretly different, and long-term deadly.

Lesson Learned: some of those scooters I adore in Taipei might be contributing to the smog.

Scooters on the streets of Taipei, Taiwan. <3

See the next Taiwan post: Kaohsiung, Taiwan in the Morning (video) >


*[Place drop.] The air warning at the volcano was for elderly folks, which apparently also meant me. Haw.

**A cursory internet search on humidity in Taipei v. Kaohsiung will show you that in general, Kaohsiung has more humid days throughout the year than Taipei. Here is a side-by-side comparison. Just sayin’.

Kaohsiung on average experiences more humidity than Taipei across the year.

***In my undergrad global history textbooks, the powerful economic powerhouses of Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea were dubbed “the four tigers,” and similar word combos around tigers.

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