On She Goes

A Guide to Taiwanese Convenience Stores

These microcosms of local culture are a must-see.

Charline Jao
Charline Jao
May 15, 2017
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In Taiwan, a 7-Eleven isn’t just a shop where you drop in for a quick Slurpee fix. From finding refuge from the humid and unforgiving summers as a kid to interning at an office where the only nearby eatery was a fake KFC called KLC, the Taiwanese convenience store has served as my shelter, cafeteria, and legit hangout spot. You can catch students chatting away after school in their uniforms, families collecting shopping points to redeem for special trinkets and collectibles, and me slurping some delicious instant noodles paired with a grapefruit tea. Shopping in Taiwan’s convenience stores is a unique way to experience the country’s culture. I’m not saying you should bring your dates there and offer them all the precooked food their heart desires, but I’m not not saying that either.

The density of convenience stores in Taiwan is one of the world’s highest, surpassing that of even Japan. Around every corner, you’ll spot the lights of a 7-Eleven, FamilyMart, OK Mart, or Hi-Life. It’s not unusual to see two or even three on the same block in the major cities. These stores aren’t just, well, convenient—they’re a part of everyday life. You can pay bills, buy train tickets, or make photocopies. If you need skincare, underwear, or sanitary items, they’ve got you covered. For my parents’ wedding anniversary, my family purchased tickets at our neighborhood 7-Eleven for Phantom of the Opera. Paying your utility bills and buying video games might not be on a tourist itinerary, but these convenience stores are a microcosm of local culture—and they’re open 24/7.

photo by Charline Jao

When you enter, you’ll immediately be welcomed by an employee or an automated recorded greeting. Since many have restrooms, seating, and even Wi-Fi, I’ve spent many occasions chatting away, wrapping up a long night, or reading a book. It’s still a convenience store though, so maybe don’t camp out with your laptop and write the next great novel like you would at a Starbucks.

Whenever I meet a fellow Taiwanese American, we almost always share our love of convenience-store food. In America, 7-Eleven conjures up images of old, wrinkled hot dogs, slimy nacho cheese on stale tortilla chips, and what the New York Post calls some of the grossest coffee in the city. But in Taiwan, convenience stores serve delicious oden, rice balls, and bento that will satisfy all your cravings, especially when you don’t feel like playing the dangerous game of “Will this street food make me sick?”

photo by Charline Jao

That’s not to say you should ignore the many street stalls and local stores. Shilin Night Market has an entire underground floor of restaurants, Yong Kang Street serves all kinds of unique fusion, and Taipei is full of Din Tai Fungs (a global Taiwanese restaurant chain) for soup dumplings. Taiwan highlights its culinary fare at the core of their tourism outreach by promoting bustling markets and national dishes everyone should try, like beef noodle soup, stinky tofu, and mango shaved ice. However, visitors should exercise caution as random stalls can be dodgy and pose health risks—something my very Taiwanese mother will eagerly tell you in order to scare you out of eating that cheap street sashimi.

7-Eleven can’t replace those other experiences, but they are the perfect spot when you need something easy, quick, and safe.

The two biggest treasures at the National Palace Museum are the Jadeite Cabbage and the Meat-shaped Stone, to give you an idea of how seriously we take our food. 7-Eleven can’t replace those other experiences, but they are the perfect spot when you need something easy, quick, and safe. For just $3–US$5—you can get yourself a small meal, try teas with fruits you’ve never heard of, or scarf down rice balls with fillings you’ve never had! And of course, the fridges are stocked with Taiwanese beer that you can enjoy so long as you’re at least 18 years old. My favorites are the sweeter mango and pineapple beers. If you’re rushed to buy a souvenir, some of the convenience stores have cute key chains, confectionery, and vending-capsule machines (known as gachapon in Japanese) that will bring out the inner child in anyone.

photos by Charline Jao

It sounds weird to say, but some of my favorite memories are in these convenience stores: sharing a late-night drink with my cousins, feeling the cool blast of the air conditioning after a hot summer run as I chug a Super Supau, and stopping there for a rice ball and gigantic Yakult right after my mom picks me up from Taoyuan Airport. There’s this misguided notion in traveling that finding something “authentic” means finding something untouched and untranslatable hidden behind a waterfall along some remote mountain path. Spotting a convenience store is like seeing a reliable friend or family member prepared to comfort, feed, and help you out. There used to be a 7-Eleven TV commercial that aired when I was a kid that featured the cartoonish jingle, “7-Eleven zui hao,” meaning “7-Eleven is the best!” Every time I see a 7-Eleven, the jingle rings in my head, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.