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My Love-Hate Relationship With Taiwan's Convenience Stores

Some Taiwanese friends of mine make fun of me because I spend too much time in convenience stores. I have a favourite one near my home. Late at night, I am often the last customer sitting there. It is quiet, there is Wi-Fi, I can read books or surf the internet or do some work while drinking a beer, or coffee, or eating some snacks. Sometimes I also have dinner there.

And yet I don't like convenience stores. They don't have the relaxed, individual atmosphere of coffee shops; their packaged food - which must be heated in the microwave - is full of preservatives; Wi-Fi isn't free; they are more expensive than supermarkets. 

Nevertheless, there is hardly a day when I don't go to a convenience store to buy a drink, to top up my phone, to withdraw money from an ATM, etc.


Inside a Family Mart store

Taiwan is the country with the highest density of convenience stores in the world, and perhaps it is also the country where they have reached their highest stage of evolution so far. They have all sorts of food and snacks: rice dishes with meat and vegetables, cold noodles, noodle soups, fruit boxes, tofu snacks, vegetable snacks, tiramisu, cakes, soy milk, yoghurt, sushi, salads, rice and fish snacks - the list is simply endless. Apart from food, you can buy plenty of other merchandise; from disposable raincoats to umbrellas, from surgical masks to underwear, from deodorant to shampoo. You can also order drinks, withdraw money, buy train tickets, receive mail – well, you can do so many things there that I would need a whole catalogue to list them all off.     

A recent article on the WSJ shows how fond Taiwanese are of their convenience stores. Many people go to convenience stores several times a day. They buy coffee, have a meal, meet colleagues, hold meetings, or take away food. Convenience stores have become a part of many people's lives, most especially of single workers who have no time to cook. Besides, more and more convenience stores (like my favourite one) have tables, so that many people go there to eat food, read newspapers, study, surf the internet etc.

Many Taiwanese I met in Berlin complained about the fact that Europe has no convenience stores. “Where can I buy things at night?” they asked me. “Where can I buy things on weekends?” “It is so inconvenient!”



Divas and Open Chan, the 'cute' 7-11 mascot


Most of us foreigners tend to be even fonder of convenience stores than Taiwanese. I guess the majority of us resorted to convenience stores during our first days or weeks in Taiwan. There are so many restaurants and food stalls in Taiwan, but we don't know which one to choose, how and what to order. We see the menus full of Chinese characters we can't read, and only pictures can save us – but most menus have none. Little by little, we start to experiment, go to different restaurants, compare them, make some mistakes, but gradually we learn. At the beginning, however, convenience stores are by far the easiest option. 

I am not a very talkative person and I don't like crowded places. So I still go to convenience stores from time to time to have dinner. On weekends, when restaurants are teeming with people, who even form long queues in front of entrance doors, I choose not to eat in the rush hour; I just wait patiently, with empty stomach, until the crowds have dissolved. Then the atmosphere becomes more relaxed and quiet. But restaurants have already stopped serving food or are about to close (the rhythm of Taiwan's dinner rush hour is something I'll never understand). I have no choice but to go to a convenience store, eating a sad prepackaged meal. But better than sitting next to tens of people in an overfilled place, with customers walking around, searching for a seat, wishing you got up and freed a table, and while waiters look at me as if I was eating too slowly, and as if reading a book or watching a video during dinner was inconsiderate. 

In such cases convenience stores become my refuge. They have air-conditioning, are open 24-hours, I can sit there and take my time. 

When I first came to Taiwan, I actually loved convenience stores. But after some time I began to perceive them as symbols of what is not so good about Taiwan's lifestyle. Many Taiwanese people are restlessly busy; busy with dealing with their family, busy with making money, busy with getting by. There is not much time to relax at home, to cultivate hobbies and interests, to stop and breathe in and just enjoy life. Convenience stores reflect this rhythm, this restlessness, this desire to consume quickly. At some point I got tired of eating microwave-heated food, of seeing the frustrated faces of underpaid store staff, especially of those who do night shifts. Convenience has its downsides.


A long 7-Eleven advertisement video


Comments

  1. There are many foreigners who study or work or live in our vicinity. Almost every time I go out for a meal, I can see them in the street or restaurants. I've never seen them appear alone, they always with their friends, who can be foreigners or the locals. I can tell how uncomfortable being alone in public if you are an obvious foreigner. So, if you have plan to visit and live in Taiwan again, all you need is a company who can go out with you regularly.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for your comment, and indeed, you're right. But finding company is easier said than done. I think in Taiwan it's not so easy to make good friends I can hang out regularly with. I think most Taiwanese are way too busy with their work, family, etc., so they don't really have much time for meeting new friends on a regular basis.

      Delete
  2. It is crazy the amount of convenience stores in Taiwan. And like you said, they serve so many purposes!

    Believe it or not, even though I live in Taiwan, I only go to convenience stores about 20 times a year (if that) and it is usually to use the bathroom when traveling. My house is located near a supermarket and it closer than any convenience store and cheaper too; so if I need something, I usually go there. However, when I lived in Taipei, I went at least once, sometimes several times a day.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Taiwan convenient stores are just ok and just a pale imitation of the Japanese convenient stores (bigger, more choice, more services, more quality). Personally I love them because I like the 24/7 philosophy. Even if I don't use them frequently I've found myself going in a "combini" anytime during day or night for junk food or just because i'm being lazy.

    ReplyDelete
  4. @Constance: I have to say that it's good to avoid convenience stores when it comes to food. It's just too unhealthy, except for some things like salads or fruits. However, what will always make me a loyal customer are drinks and ATMs. Especially in the summer, I drink a lot when I walk around.

    @Michele: I would like to travel to Japan and compare convenience stores in the two countries with my own eyes! And after you praised Japanese convenience stores so much, I have very high expectations : )

    ReplyDelete

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