There are many things about Taiwan that might stick out in a new arrivals mind. One of the most mundane, and therefore most interesting to me, is the surfeit of convenience stores throughout the nation. In Taipei there seems to be at least one, usually more, convenience store on most blocks. Though these convenience stores may share the same name as their Western counterparts they are different. Most convenience stores in Taiwan are part restaurant, coffee shop, grocery store, snack bar, pub, bank, ticket vendor, pharmacy and post office—not just places to get pepperoni sticks and a gallon of gas.
There are four main convenience store chains in Taiwan; 7-Eleven, Family Mart, OK-Mart, and Hi-Life. There’s a correlation between convenience store choice and the expat’s level of integration into Taiwan. This is all very scientific, using only the most up-to-date social research methodology [natch], as you’d expect from TheSaltyEgg’s journalistic endeavors.
7-Eleven is the granddaddy of convenience chain stores. It’s run by Uni-President, and is ubiquitous throughout the island. For many foreigners they just seem “to have what you need while the others don’t”. Logical considering it’s a giant multinational administered by one of Taiwan’s biggest food companies. Their supply chain connects to America in a way that outstrips the others. 7-Eleven is the most likely to have the Western snack you desire, including—for one glorious and still remarked upon summer—salt and vinegar chips. FOB and not yet comfortable with salted duck egg flavored goodies? This is the place for you. I lived out of a 7-Eleven my first two years. It’s great when you just want cheezies and a tampon without having a “cultural experience”.
Family Mart is the next largest chain in Taiwan. It is a Japanese based company and more likely to have products from around Asia. Family Mart appeals more to the longer in the tooth expat who’s developed a taste for Asian snacks. They have a wide range of Japanese snacks like dried wasabi green peas, Hokkaido ice cream, and Japanese salty mixed rice crackers. They also have items from around Asia. This is where you go to assuage that 2:17 am craving for Singaporean fish skin crisps [actually pretty awesome] or Korean roasted seaweed snacks.
Things begin getting a little more Taiwanesey with OK Mart. It is part of the Canadian-based Circle K group of stores, still OK Mart has less international selection. For salty snacks you have the omnipresent Cheetos and Kyushu Seaweed Lay’s potato chips, or other Asian flavors. If you’re craving dried instant noodle snacks, they have a wide selection of this Taiwanese answer to the potato chip. If OK Mart is your bodega of choice, you’re on the road to acclimatization, next stop…
Hi-Life, a Taiwanese-run convenience store chain, with less international feel than the others. My local Hi-Life doesn’t even stock Coke products, but they have a pretty solid selection of grass jelly teas, red bean and taro ice cream bars, and 乖乖 (a tasteless puffed corn treat, like Cheez Doodles without the cheez). If Hi-Life can assuage your cravings—congratulations you’re Taiwanese.
However, the journey is not complete until you find yourself shuffling down the alley to the local mom-and-pop corner store in your betel nut stained wife-beater, nylon shorts, and blue rubber flip-flops, carrying an armload of empty 米酒 (Taiwanese rice cooking wine) bottles to exchange for a fresh bottle and some Longlife cigarettes. Then, and only then, will you be a 台客 (Taiwanese good ol’ boy), my son.