Taiwan - the Israel of the Far East

There are countless differences between Taiwan and Israel, yet, I found myself marveling at the numerous similarities between the two countries.

A BUSTLING intersection in downtown Taipei.  (photo credit: URIEL STURM)
A BUSTLING intersection in downtown Taipei.
(photo credit: URIEL STURM)
There are countless differences between Taiwan and Israel, yet, on my recent first-time visit to the island 180 kilometers off the coast of mainland China, I found myself marveling at the numerous similarities between the two countries.
Both are small countries – Taiwan is roughly one-and-a-half times the size of Israel, albeit with more than three times the population – with a wide diversity in topography chock-full of natural beauty. Both face the perpetual existential threat of being attacked at any instant by much larger neighbors, and both tackle diplomatic isolation from dozens of countries that refuse to recognize their existence. (China views Taiwan as a wayward province to be brought under Beijing’s control, by force, if necessary, and has swayed much of the world to accept such an approach.)
Beyond that, both Taiwan and Israel have highly developed economies that are inconsistent with the countries’ tiny geographical footprints and are world leaders in hi-tech and innovation – Taiwan has been recognized as a “super innovator” by the World Economic Forum for two years running and is one of only four economies – alongside Germany, the US and Switzerland – to receive a score more than 80 out of 100 in innovation capability.
If Israel is the Start-Up Nation, then Taiwan is the “Start-Up Station” – the country encourages and financially incentivizes start-ups from around the world to set up their operational headquarters in the urban centers around Taipei. One of the places I was most impressed with was the Start-Up Terrace, which houses 99 new businesses from 10 countries and combines domestic and international accelerators and start-ups to spearhead innovation and collaboration for both local and global initiatives. The presentation there referenced multiple Israeli start-up successes, such as Waze and Mobileye, as models in the industry.
Taiwan also ranks as the world’s 18th-largest trading nation, has the world’s 13th-busiest port (Kaohsiung) and boasts a massive $474 billion in foreign reserves – No. 6 in the world after China, Japan, Switzerland, Russia and Saudi Arabia. By comparison, Israel is No. 23 on the list, with $122b.
Israel and Taiwan are both among the global leaders in medical advancements – Israel is first in the world for medical device patents per capita, and second in Europe for biopharma, while Taiwan’s China Medical University Hospital just last month was recognized with two international awards for excellence in patient-centered outstanding holistic care.
Like Israel, Taiwanese society is centered on the value of family and cultural (if not religious) identity. That emphasis extends to the food scene in both places, where everyone hails their grandmother’s favorite recipes – whether challa or kubbeh, dumplings or ramen – as the “best ever.” The ubiquity of falafel stands on Israeli streets is more than matched by the noodle carts peppered throughout the metropolitan hubs of Taiwan. And the bustling night markets in Taipei were definitely reminiscent of Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda or Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market.
THE TRIP I was on was sponsored by the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was a program for an international press group focused on Taiwan’s political, economic and cultural development.
The delegation consisted of 22 journalists from 17 countries around the world – the United States, Canada, Australia, the Czech Republic, Kuwait, the Philippines, Turkey, the Netherlands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, India, Oman, Italy, Sweden, Chile and Israel. Quite the eclectic group, you could say, but we all got along fabulously, and part of the joy of the trip was getting to know fellow journalists from around the globe.
The trip was scheduled for six days, although I was able to participate only in five days so as not to land back in Israel on Shabbat. My religious observance also inhibited me from enjoying all of the culinary delights that the country has to offer – pork is Taiwan’s No. 1 protein – but I was not the only vegetarian in the group, and the organizers were more than accommodating of all of the dietary restrictions.
I flew from Israel on Saturday night, taking a two-hour flight to Istanbul and then a 10-hour flight to Taiwan. It was my first trip to the Far East, and I really didn’t know what to expect. Landing in Taoyuan International Airport, I was met by a government representative and was driven to the Okura Prestige Taipei, a five-star hotel in the downtown of the capital.
The 40-minute drive along a modern network of highways was eye-opening, and upon entering the city I was somewhat surprised to see all of the international corporate trappings that are part and parcel of any large Western city – a Starbucks on every corner, McDonald’s, KFC, Dominoes and a plethora of 7-Elevens (though, sadly, none of them had Slurpees on tap).
The hotel itself is a beautiful 17-story structure, on par with any top accommodations that Israel has to offer. I had googled the pricing for the hotel just to get a sense of where I was staying, and was amazed that the cost of such a gorgeous luxury hotel was only about $150, or NIS 550 a night, whereas similar accommodations in Israel would have cost at least double, if not triple or quadruple, that. The country’s currency is the New Taiwan dollar, which is exchanged at a rate of around 30 per US dollar, so prices for everything (except for real estate) are relatively low.
The official language of Taiwan is Mandarin, and while all the locals speak Taiwanese, it is a language that is only spoken, not written, and generally used only in the home setting and not in public.
In the large cities, most of the people speak English. However, they are reluctant to use it, and universal hand motions transcend any language barriers and go a long way in helping to communicate.
The ministry runs up to 10 such trips every year, with the goal of showing international journalists various aspects of Taiwan for them to write stories promoting the country to their readers back home. While this may seem like a big investment, in the big picture it is money well spent, as such trips subtly help shape the narrative and improve relations globally by providing a window into a life and country that are not typically understood from afar.
We had two ministry employees organizing the trip and acting as our tour guides, so to speak, on our “Birthright-style” bus adventure throughout the country. Sherry Chen and Trent Tseng were both wonderful people and were full of information, helpful tips and general insight about Taiwan.
Our itinerary was jam-packed, mixing in visits to various ministries and meetings with different directors-general of the government departments along with sightseeing excursions to some of the country’s most beautiful locations.
Among the many highlights were the magnificent views from the top of Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest buildings, traveling on the high-speed train (300 kph) to Taichung, the cable car ride through the mountains at the Formosan Aboriginal Village, the serene splendor of Sun Moon Lake, picking tea leaves at Hugosum, the unparalleled Asian hospitality and, of course, the guilty pleasure of the ever-present Japanese toilets, with their heated seats and built-in bidets.
I was particularly struck by the genuine warmth of the Taiwanese, who all went out of their way to make us feel comfortable.
My biggest takeaway from the trip was that most people – no matter their background, cultural and religious upbringing, sex, race, nationality or political affiliation – all want the same basic things out of life: happiness, health for themselves and their families, a little more money, safety and security. Despite our vast differences, we are all quite similar and have much to bond over, given the chance.
The most impactful meeting we had was with the Taiwanese Minister without Portfolio Audrey Tang, the world’s first transgender cabinet minister, recently named among the Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine and tapped by Bloomberg Businessweek as a prime contender for next year’s Bloomberg 50 Influential world leaders.
The 38-year-old was perhaps the most eloquent and compelling speaker I have ever heard, enrapturing our group with her spellbinding message of social innovation, open government and youth engagement.
Tang concluded her remarks with a prayer, which she expressed as her job description.
“When we see the Internet of things, let’s make it an Internet of beings. When we see virtual reality, let’s make it a shared reality. When we see machine learning, let’s make it collaborative learning. When we see user experience, let’s make it about human experience. And whenever we hear that a singularity is near, let us always remember the plurality is here.”
King Solomon in Ecclesiastes famously wrote that “there is nothing new under the sun.” While true, sometimes it takes a trip to the other side of the world to drive that point home. As such, Taiwan should be high on any list of global travel destinations and is an opportunity not to be missed.

The writer was a guest of the Taiwanese government.