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Some travel notes on the 1997 Tsunah Tour
Charlie Yu


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 saying.

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.

12/28 Taichung
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? Probably.

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.


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Last updated: 06/30/1999