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Monday, July 4, 2011

Taiwan travails

Four years ago, not long before moving to China, I had a brief conversation with a fellow AIDS activist from Kansas.

“Don’t call me ‘Chinese!’” she barked suddenly. “I’m TAIWANESE.”

Unfamiliar as I was in the semantic delicacies of the anti-mainland Taiwanese diaspora, I apologized immediately. It reminded me of the tongue-twisted embarrassment I felt talking to a classmate after I’d just arrived in America, and was still acclimatizing to its racial complexity.

“Is that common amongst Black…I mean, Afro-American…I mean, African-American…” I stammered.

“Just say ‘Black’, man!” my friend interjected, mercifully.

Having finally made it out to Taiwan, I found myself trying to remain sensitive to wording in conversations with locals. Cross-strait relations are an obvious point of discussion, and thankfully, I was able to use the term “mainland” to distinguish between the two groupings. But in contrast to my Taiwanese-American Kansan friend, locals displayed no anger or militancy towards mainland China. Snobbishness is standard—mainlanders are commonly referred to as ‘uncultured’ or ‘barbaric’—though such sentiments are carefully tempered by a more open-minded younger generation. Curiosity is widespread. But by far the most common sentiment I’ve noticed is one of pragmatism.

“I heard Citi just opened up a hundred new positions in the mainland,” Tobias, a local Taiwanese who works for the German insurance firm Allianz, told me. He studied in Germany and speaks the language fluently. “But they hardly have any openings in Taipei.” This exemplified, he told me, the trend amongst multinationals to ignore Taiwan in their obsessive rush to get a piece of the mainland market. I asked if he was frustrated by the situation.

“Of course,” he said, with deep resignation. “We don’t have the English colonial influence of Singapore and Hong Kong, so we can’t compete with them. Basically, it’s hard to get a job with a foreign company here.” He said he was open to moving to Beijing or Shanghai in the future. When I asked if his parents would have any political reservation, he shook his head.

“Before, when China was still ‘communist’, they probably wouldn’t like me to go. But now that it’s opened up, they’d be fine with it.”

It was all so far removed from the narrative of my university international relations courses, where American classmates would go on Cold War-era diatribes about America’s role in protecting freedom and democracy in Taiwan. One classmate, who was in the armed services, talked of how she “just can’t understand how the world can accept Communist rule over China.” At the time, although I’d never been to the region, I had bristled with abstracted Chinese indignation—although my parents were born in Malaysia, I’d been raised to believe that China remained the country of my family’s roots. The brash arrogance of my classmate back then—pre-financial crisis, extended wars and long-term recession—now feels like a distant memory, drawn from those final days of cavalier American invincibility.

Starting from June 28th this year, Mainland Chinese tourists are being allowed to visit Taiwan independently (previously they could only come with tour groups). Local newspapers run stories on night market vendors and holiday spot hotels that are busily negotiating special deals to lure mainland tourist business. According to a friend, the Taiwan government issued a helpful set of guidelines for mainland visitors to Taiwan.’ Top of the list was: “Do not shout ‘Long Live Chairman Mao!’ in public.”

I think a far more appropriate point would have been: “line up” or “stop at red lights.” Such concepts, while they exist on the mainland, are still not regularly followed. For example, in Beijing, subway riders look upon transport etiquette guidelines the way that many motorists regard speed limits: while technically you’re supposed to line up and allow others to get off before boarding a subway train, common practice holds that one must rugby scrum for a seat as soon as the doors open. I’ve seen riders attempting to disembark from the train get literally thrown back into the carriage by a tidal wave of ferocious seat chasers. For all the government’s efforts to promote civility, such behavior exemplifies how much still hasn’t changed in China: intense competition over scarce resources, a tribal take-care-of-your-own mentality, the constant need to budge as far forward as one can go (metaphorically and literally).

Taiwan is different. Like Hong Kong, people line up. They stop at red lights. They say “sorry” in public. One friend described Taiwan as somewhere in between China and Japan in terms of culture, and though I’ve never been to the latter, the analogy seems accurate (Taiwan was ruled by the Japanese from 1895 to 1945.) Coming from the intense struggle that daily life in Beijing evokes, this past week in Taiwan felt refreshingly easy. Services are plentiful and convenient. There are less people to compete with, and going through one’s day is smoother, cleaner and, in many ways, far more pleasant than in the mainland. People even speak more English.

Coming to Taiwan after four years spent on the mainland has given me the chance to see the country from the other side of the fence. It leads one to wonder, as many must do, what the mainland would have been like if the Nationalists had won. Would they have been able to perform the same economic ‘miracle’ with a population some seventy times larger than Taiwans? Would its sovereignty have been undermined by excessive Western influence, as the CPC claims? How well would these well-established tech and manufacturing companies, like Acer, HTC and Giant bicycles, do at the mainland’s national scale?

Such questions are, of course, in this age of growing Chinese power, merely academic. But I can easily see how Beijing and Shanghai may in the future come to more closely resemble Taipei, in terms of civility and the efficient, urbane culture of its citizens. As economic and tourist ties grow between China and Taiwan, Taiwan’s already heavy cultural influence over the mainland’s younger generation will only grow.

But in the mean time, I enjoyed the friendliness of local Taiwanese and their island’s myriad pleasures. Known as a foodie’s paradise, their xiao chi offerings lived up to my judicious expectations, and then some. Snacking my way through town on local delicacies ranging from crunchy, salty xian doujiang - a typical breakfast broth, to fresh oyster pancakes in the coastal city of Tainan and night market rice sausages, I would have gained another belt inch, but for all of the walking I did in between. And to counteract the humid heat, their ‘snow flake’ ice dessert stands—think Italian ice but served in powder soft layers with flavors like mocha, peanut and passionfruit—are the closest thing to dessert heaven that I have ever come.

In Taipei, I discussed philosophy with a local TED talk discussion group, courtesy of my couchsurfing host, and traversed its national palace museum and Taipei 101. And in Taroko Gorge National Park, I zipped through winding tunnels, carved into the mountainside, opening up into stunning vistas of towering white marble walls and crystal azure water. For such a small, politically complex island, Taiwan offered a stimulating mixture of current affairs relevancy, sensory delight and natural beauty that makes for a well-rounded holiday, and a population that is savvy, capable and deeply accommodating to visitors. I hope it never loses that charm.

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