In the twelve years between my first and second trips to Taiwan I have learned more
and more about it, and yet, in that time, Taiwan has become an increasingly abstract
notion to me. My parents were diligent and also vehement that I have some understanding of
things there relations with China, internal political dynamics, Taiwan's varied
history, and so on. With each new piece of information, however, Taiwan became more a
place in my mind, some purely intellectual construct of which I had no real intuition, for
which I had no visceral emotion. It was something like a seventh subject at school - I had
calculus, biology, English, woodshop, Taiwan, wrestling, etc.
In college, though, I started to hear the hollowness of my arguments; I started to feel
inauthentic, almost a fraud. Even if I could fool people in my political science classes,
I was completely transparent to my four year old cousin, who can speak Taiwanese,
Mandarin, and English. It may sound exaggerated but it really isn't : I used to burn with
envy watching him - just sitting there playing with his toys or asking his mom for more
food, he was more Taiwanese than I could ever be. He knew it, too. I could see it even in
his four-year-old eyes.
So, after four years of summers and winters, eight vacations where something always came
up, some internship or summer school class that was somehow extremely important at that
time, I finally decided that what was most important for me was Taiwan. It was with all of
this baggage, all of these ideas and feeling that I went to Taiwan this past winter.
12/20 LAX, International Terminal
It's about 10:30 pm and most of us are here already. A couple of things are striking about
Taiwanese people. For one, they are so homogenous. Some of the dads show up in sweat
pants, and some are in khakis and polo shirts. Some are more talkative than others. Some
are engineers and some are doctors. All of the parents, however, are really short, and
they all walk in front of their children. I have a strong suspicion that a couple of the
mothers in the corner are saying bad things about me. Yes, I'm pretty sure they are. They
are speaking Taiwanese and saying that I don't speak any Taiwanese. They're basically
right, but they don't realize that I do in fact know enough to understand what they are
12/23 Hualien/Taroko National Gorge
It's the third day of the tour and we are taking a long drive down the
east coast of Taiwan. In Hualien, we drive down into the surprising Taroko Gorge. People
on the bus are saying things like, "I didn't know Taiwan looked like this" and
"I didn't realize Taiwan was so beautiful". Some of these people have been here
a dozen times, but only in the major cities. We learn from the tour guide the island
actually has over 220 mountains 10,000 feet or taller. A small realization, but a
significant one. Taiwan really is not only and island of huge cities and overcrowding.
Much of Taiwan looks like it did thirty, forty years ago. And this rugged area probably
hasn't changed much in the last hundred and fifty years. So much ocean, the vastness of
it. It really looks different from the coast in the U.S. I can almost feel how small the
island is. I remember, somewhere in the back of my mind, and in the pit of my stomach, how
close China is. I really can almost feel China from here.
12/26 Tainan, Night Market
I just watched a man calmly and methodically dismantle a snake. Surprisingly, he did
not start by cutting its head off, as I would have expected, being a naive American. My
brother and I are still disgusted, and we are not easily disgusted people. The head of the
snake, in fact, never came off, and actually continued moving throughout the whole ordeal.
The snake killer first pulls all of the snake's left side off, the flesh ripping off the
spinal cord like cloth. My cousins, who have taken us out for a night on the town, delight
in my sissiness and revulsion. Truly amazing.
One thing I have noticed in Taiwan : technology and old country culture exist side by
side, often resulting in striking juxtapositions. A woman might be talking on a cellular
phone small enough to fit into her palm while her children wash themselves outside with
buckets of well water. A pair of merchants set up shops less than ten yards away from each
other, one of them selling pig and chicken parts, the other one selling DVD equipment that
even rich class Americans won't be able to buy for six months. Making high technology for
lower costs has brought bankers, engineers, entrepreneurial talent, and lots of money to
Taiwan, in rapid fashion. The front pages of the Wall Street Journal, Barron's, and other
financial news sources regularly tout the vitality and stunning growth of the Taiwanese
economy. What is hard to see from the states, however, is easy to see on the island -
although a factory can be set up almost overnight, and the big cosmopolitan cities are
filled with the newly rich, an improvement in the general quality of life takes decades of
social and environmental reform. There are thousands and thousands of rich people in the
big cities. Improvements in the general quality of life and socio-cultural institutions,
however, have not kept pace with the progress of hi-tech industry. I think this sort of
bothers me, and worries me. Am I being a little presumptious, thinking I know best?
12/31 Taipei - The Big Lembu
This is going to sound awful, but I have to say it : all big cities are alike. Taipei and
Kaoshiung have more in common with New York City or Tokyo than with I-Lan or Taitung.
Cars, pollution, high fashion, money, and lots of traffic. Really a lot of traffic.
Literally the first thing I thought when I got off the train in Kaoshiung was that
the whole place looked like a Coke commercial. Or some Benetton ad on MTV Asia.
International, capitalist, bustling. Being in Taipei has a feel like no place I have been
to in America. I think it might be the feel of a country on its way up, a developing
country instead of a developed, stagnating country. The energy is really almost tangible.
This, of course, is not the only thing I have gotten out of Taipei. But there are too many
other things to say, so I will just write this down for now.
1/3/98 China Air 0006, Taipei to LAX
Postscript. I am extremely sad to be leaving. I think I will probably cry before the plane
lands. This is especially strange, since I didn't feel anything like this during the trip.
After years of talking and thinking about Taiwan, now I have something to really think
about, a real place to miss, to long for. Taiwan might be a very important place
economically and a turbulent place politically, and a colorful place historically, but it
is also in its details. Taiwan, for me, is in the details. The way street vendors deal
with me, the way to cross the streets without being killed (not a trivial task), how the
college students are dressing, what it sounds like at night in Hong-Oan. Taiwan was this
for me : sleeping on the floor with my brother, at the foot of the bed where my father is
asleep, two floors above twelve of my relatives eating breakfast, twenty yards away from
where my father was born almost sixty years ago, on a piece of land that my
great-grandfather parceled out to his sons almost a hundred years ago. I'm going to take
Taiwanese at school when I get back, and I will definitely be back here again before
another twelve years have passed.