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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Ranting, Part 1 怒鳴り散らしている

In the world of blogging, one link leads to another, which is how I came across an article on cultural hybridization in Taiwan, and the following lines:

“Most short and long term visitors to Taiwan will comment on its unique characteristics, culture and style. Taiwan has an identity that makes it clearly different from all its neighbors…”

The writer and his blog shall remain nameless as I generally like and agree with the majority of his postings. The idea that Taiwan is somehow uniquely different from its neighbors, whom I take to mean the two Koreas and Japan, is what bothers me. Is the writer implying that the other countries of Northeast Asia are somehow difficult to distinguish from each other and Taiwan? Aren’t all cultures and societies unique in their own special ways, and if so, wouldn’t that then render the sentences above meaningless?

The article in question is mainly concerned with the external influences that have shaped modern Taiwanese society. While I’m not that familiar with Korean history, I do know that Japan’s “unique” and “different” culture is also the result of centuries of (Asian) continental and Western influences, framed by a long period of self-imposed isolation that allowed it to develop many of those things that we think of when we ponder what makes Japan so Japanese (a process which also occurred in Korea, but not here in Taiwan). So just what is it that makes Taiwan so “different from its neighbors”? Certainly Korea and Japan have been heavily influenced over the centuries by the behemoth next door, China (and Taiwan even more so, of course). Nonetheless, the Koreans and the Japanese have managed to take these initially foreign inputs and turn them into things that are now truly national. I’m not sure it can be argued that Taiwan has done the same. With the noticeable exception of the aborigines 台湾原住民, what aspects of present-day Taiwan can be held up as examples of products of a different or unique Northeast Asian culture? Many bloggers point to the lasting effects of 50 years of Japanese colonial rule, but the cultural influence of that period mostly exists on a surface level – the taking off of shoes indoors, the love of hot springs, the popularity of oden おでん (which ICRT last week, while admitting its Japanese origins, nevertheless insisted was a “unique part of Taiwanese cuisine”!) and so on. At its core, this is still a Han Chinese 漢民族 culture, with practices, traditions and, most importantly, the “Middle Kingdom” mindset not very dissimilar to those that exist in China.

Acknowledging that Taiwan is a Chinese culture is not the same as insisting that this island is a part of China, and must be “reunified” with the “Mainland”. Due to historical reasons (not to mention moral justifications), Taiwan has developed into a separate political entity, and this writer hopes it remains one. I would love nothing more than to see a Republic of Taiwan 台湾共和国 come into existence some day, recognized as a sovereign nation by countries around the world and welcomed into the UN and other important international organizations. I just don’t see the need to either trumpet a so-called “unique Taiwanese identity” that doesn’t exist in the first place, or to blow out of proportion the differences that are actually there today.

Perhaps it has to do with something I’ve noticed over the years I’ve spent living in Japan and Taiwan. There is a tendency among some Westerners who have resided in an Asian country like Taiwan or Japan (but not in both) to assume one of two things: a.) the country of residence is “unique” in relation to its Asian neighbors; or 2.) what is true in the Asian country of residence must be true in its neighbors as well. This can be manifested in the observation by my best friend Steve, a long-term ex-pat resident of Taichung (Taichū) 台中, of how a certain TV program featuring a panel of Mandarin-speaking foreigners is demonstrative of how Taiwanese view outsiders, when in fact the show in question is basically a copy (or rip-off) of an old Japanese program hosted by Beat Takeshi ビートたけし, aka Takeshi Kitano 北野武 (the only thing being unique about Taiwanese TV, in fact, is how imitative it is of Japanese programming). It can also be seen in the surprise expressed by the British owner of the school I managed in Yokkaichi 四日市, Japan when I told him that him that, no, Taiwanese kids did not sit cross-legged on floors like our Japanese students, but used desks and chairs. It seems that living for too long in one Asian nation while spending very little time in its neighbors can turn your host country into a very deep well, and you into a very large frog. It’s no wonder some people are able to convince themselves that Taiwan Beer 台湾ビール is great to drink. :-)

So, is Taiwan “unique” and “different”? Yes, but no more so than any of its neighbors. Taiwan in definitely not like Japan, for example, but at the time same time, Japan does not much resemble Taiwan. To say otherwise demonstrates naivety at best or a sense of cultural myopia at worst. Apples and oranges, anyone?

Besides, when it comes to plain-out weirdness, no society in Northeast Asia can top North Korea.

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