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A Journalist’s Journey: Unraveling Taipei’s Complexities and Charms (TAIPEI Quarterly 2023 Autumn Vol.33)

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Post date:2023-09-11

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TAIPEI #33 (2023 Autumn)

A Journalist’s Journey: Unraveling Taipei’s Complexities and Charms

Author Chieh-Li Yen
Photographer Alice Herait, Kerstin Hsu, Chieh-Li Yen

fs_1▲Alice Herait chose her favorite quiet spot, Ecole Cafe, to chat with us. (Photo・Kerstin Hsu)

In September 2022, CNN expanded its operations to Taipei by inaugurating a new bureau to spearhead their coverage in the region. This move highlights the evolving landscape of globalization, with Taiwan assuming a crucial role for the news platform.

Taipei, known for its elevated standards of news freedom, and bolstered by its distinctive geographical location, has not only enticed CNN to establish a base here, but has also attracted numerous other international journalists in recent years. Their presence reflects a collective aspiration to capture firsthand information within Asia’s dynamic and ever-changing political environment. In this edition, we feature an insightful conversation with Alice Herait, a French freelance journalist who has called Taipei home for the past four years.

From Chinese Studies to International Relations

Alice’s academic background in International Relations paved the way for her journey as a journalist, specializing in politics across Asia with a keen focus on Taiwan, China, and the broader region. As a freelance journalist, Alice contributes to different media such as FRANCE 24, LE FIGARO, and HKFP (Hong Kong Free Press). She sometimes works as a fixer for TV programs as well, where she mediates between the programs and journalists. When asked about the genesis of her interest in Asian politics, she recounts a moment during her high school days when she decided to take up Chinese classes out of her interest in learning a new language — “It began as a simple desire to learn a new language, yet it gradually propelled me onto an unforeseen journey into the realm of journalism.”

In 2012, Alice ventured to Beijing, China, immersing herself in a two-month Chinese studies program. It was her first solo journey to Asia, a place far away from her home in Paris. Reflecting on that transformative experience, she candidly shares, “I was just 19 years old at the time; the cultural shock overwhelmed me, to say the least.”

Her unwavering passion for Chinese studies and language remained undiminished, serving as the catalyst that ultimately kindled her interest in exploring Taiwan. In 2019, Alice’s aspirations came to fruition when she arrived in Taipei as an exchange student, enrolling in the Chinese Literature program at National Taiwan University. Coincidentally, it was during this time that she had encounters with professional journalists, sparking a shift in her academic journey, prompting her to switch her major to International Relations.

Taiwan’s Unique “Codes” and Security

Reflecting on her experience in Taipei, Alice remarks, “I didn’t encounter as many cultural shocks compared to my time in Beijing.” However, she astutely observed that there were differences in communication styles between Taiwanese and French people. She explains, “While interacting with my Taiwanese classmates, I struggled at times due to both the language barrier and differing approaches to handling disagreements.”

“In Taiwan, there’s a cultural tendency to avoid conflicts or express dissent openly,” Alice further elaborates. “Taiwanese people have other ways of saying things that we as Westerners don’t necessarily understand.” This inclination also extended to Alice’s work experience in Taiwan. She observes, “In France, people are generally outspoken and unafraid to express their opinions, even with strangers. Thus, it was quite challenging for me to gauge their true opinions when faced with disagreements.” 

However, after residing in Taipei for four years, she gained a deeper comprehension of the cultural codes and assimilated some of these traits. As a result, she now finds herself adopting a more relaxed and less defensive approach when engaging in conversations back in Paris.

Another thing that shocked Alice about Taipei was the exceptional level of security. “The security measures in Taiwan are truly unparalleled,” she says. She recounts an incident where she forgot her phone at a bank, only to return an hour later and discover her phone exactly where she had left it. She emphasizes that such incidents were not isolated occurrences, but rather a common phenomenon in Taiwan. 

A Journalist’s Perspective and Discovery of Taipei

Having done numerous interviews and reports, ranging from Taiwan’s military service to her travel experiences, Alice shares that most media are willing to report on the political situation and it is the subject that most French media are interested in regarding Taiwan. From her perspective, she believes a lot of other aspects, and in particular things that are related to Taiwan’s identity, are worthier to report. “I am writing an article for the French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique on the narrative war between those who still believe in the ROC, and those who dream of a country named Taiwan.” She emphasizes that when it comes to talking about the history of Taiwan, the two sides have totally different versions of facts. When asked about her thoughts on Taiwan being labeled as “The most dangerous place on Earth” by The Economist, Alice says that “I think the goal was to convey a message to the world that a major conflict could rise here; not to say that Taiwan is a dangerous place to live,” she pauses. “On the other hand, Taipei always gives me a vibe that we live in probably one of the safest places in the world.”
 
Alice has moved through various areas over the past four years. Her first home was by Linsen North Road (林森北路), an area known for its numerous bars and bustling nightlife. Later, she lived in the vicinity of Zhongshan Elementary School (中山國小). Currently, she resides near Guting (古亭), which has become her favorite area in Taipei.

Living in one of Taipei’s most diverse areas, Alice has developed an appreciation for Guting’s greenery, antique stores, and cozy coffee shops. As a freelancer, she often chooses to work at cafés in her area, with RoastTing Coffee (烘焙者咖啡) being one of her favorites, thanks to its delightful patio space. Ecole Cafe (學校咖啡館) is another coffee shop she enjoys, and in fact is where she chooses to conduct our interview.

fs_2▲Alice likes to roam around Showa-cho Antique Market. (Photo・Kerstin Hsu & Chieh-Li Yen)

Apart from coffee shops, Alice likes to roam around Showa-cho Antique Market (昭和町市集) in the area. She candidly admits, “I never buy anything, but I just like looking at them.” Yet, when it comes to shopping, Alice’s preferences shift towards the traditional wet market, where she indulges her passion for cooking Taiwanese cuisine from scratch.

fs_3▲Alice likes to roam around Showa-cho Antique Market. (Photo・Kerstin Hsu & Chieh-Li Yen)

Outside of work, Alice engages in outdoor activities such as hiking, practicing yoga in Daan park, and leisurely walks. When asked about her favorite spot in Taipei, she recommends Jinmianshan (金面山, Mt. Jinmian) located in Neihu. “It’s a hidden gem,” Alice shares with a smile, “less crowded with tourists, yet it offers a challenging hike with well-maintained trails and safety ropes alongside,” she adds. “Taiwan is the best place to hike.” Alice also relishes the experience of hiking around Maokong (貓空) and Wulai (烏來), each offering its own unique charm and natural beauty.

fs_4▲Alice’s favorite hiking spot in Taipei — Mt. Jinmian. (Photo・Alice Herait)

Among the local culinary delights, Alice recommends Baxian Grill (八仙炭烤), which has been a popular spot among foreigners in Taipei, herself included, as she enjoys the vibrant atmosphere at Taiwanese rè chǎo (熱炒) establishments. Moreover, her personal favorite is Jinjiang Tea House (晉江茶堂) — a Hakka restaurant. “It’s definitely the spot I would take my friends and family to when they visit Taipei,” she says. This includes her parents who are soon to be visiting her in Taipei. Alice’s profound appreciation for Taipei’s natural beauty, cultural treasures, and delightful culinary scene reflects the genuine love she has developed for this alluring city she now calls home.

fs_5▲Alice’s favorite hiking spot in Taipei — Mt. Jinmian. (Photo・Alice Herait)

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