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Saturday, July 30, 2011

It's OK, no one will read this anyway

It has to be the heat and humidity. Or a case of the post-Okinawa 沖縄 trip blues. After all, when I left Naha 那覇, the sky was a beautiful shade of azure which lasted all the way until the island of T’aiwan 台灣 was in sight, when it suddenly faded to a paler hue tinged with yellow, and the ground below looked to be a dull green. Or perhaps it’s that fact the Seattle Mariners have forgotten how to win a baseball game. Then again it could be the result of the insomnia I’ve been suffering from for several months now, which in itself is probably due to stress.

It certainly doesn’t help that Live Journal has been having internal server issues that have made posting an extremely frustrating experience. Whatever the cause, I’ve been feeling cranky recently. And when that happens, it’s time to vent. Consider yourself warned.

Recently a website affiliated with CNN International called CNN Go published a list it called the “World's 50 most delicious foods” (www.cnngo.com/explorations/eat/worlds-50-most-delicious-foods-067535). Such pointless subjective listings are usually a waste of time, and this one is no exception. Not surprisingly, it has the Taiwanese blogosphere up in arms due to the fact there is only one dish among the 50 with any connection to T’aiwan, the notorious stinky tofu 臭豆腐 (at #41), and here it is identified with Southeast Asia and not Formosa. It would be nice to see the netizens of this island getting worked up over something that actually mattered, but what’s revealing is the cultural myopia on display here. A quick look at stinky tofu’s Wikipedia entry (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stinky_tofu) reveals, among other things, the following:

“It is a popular snack in East and Southeast Asia…in Hong Kong, stinky tofu is a trademark street food…”

If Wikipedia is correct (admittedly, a big “if”), then stinky tofu isn’t quite the “Taiwanese” dish we so often think of it as being. Would your average Hong Konger associate stinky tofu with T’aiwan? Come to think of it, would anyone outside of East and Southeast Asia even know what stinky tofu is, let alone make a connection between it and T'aiwan? Taiwanese bloggers need to take a break from this island periodically and try some authentic non-Chinese/Taiwanese dishes before they start getting themselves all worked up over perceived “slights”.

Another inevitable result of these listings is the equally predictable reaction from certain resident Westerners here. When a chance arrives to show off one’s knowledge of Taiwanese-related minutiae, these folks waste no time in doing so before the window of opportunity closes. On a certain well-known and (deservedly) popular local blog reporting on the above story, you can find several comments made by people listing plenty of “worthwhile” local dishes. In several of the cases, the Mandarin (or preferably Taiwanese) names are employed, but few descriptions are given for those of us unenlightened souls who might not have a clue as to what is being promoted, in an attempt to demonstrate to their fellow ex-pats just how acclimatized they have become to the local culture (bonus points are earned for including the Chinese characters for said dishes). Just how much (or how often) the posters actually enjoy these foods is questionable; after all, some of these poor souls have been known to sing the praises of Taiwan Beer 台灣啤酒, which immediately earns them a couple of minutes in the penalty box for violating the rules of good taste. My favorite recommendation was this one:

“(S)ea urchin ウニ sashimi 刺身 (which I know is Japanese but you can get it here, fresh and local)”

 As least he/she knows the origin of the dish. However, what they fail to point out is that sashimi in T’aiwan is often served half-frozen, and with at least three times as much wasabi ワサビ as you would get in Japan, thus wiping out any hint of the subtle flavorings that Japanese cuisine is known for. If sashimi was brought out to the table in Japan the way it’s presented in many establishments here, the server would be charged with a felony and would likely do a spell in prison. But I digress...

I honestly can’t think of any local dishes that would belong on a World’s Top 50 food list. For one thing, I’ve only been to a small number of countries, so no doubt there are an untold number of amazingly delicious foods out there that I haven’t tried yet (right, Taiwanese bloggers?), making it difficult for me to assemble any sort of reasonable compilation. But mainly I find most things here to be bland variations on the same old noodle/rice/fried food themes. Comparing Fengyuan 豐原 with Yokkaichi 四日市 in Japan, for example (two ordinary cities where I am living and have lived, respectively), the former certainly has more places to eat, but the latter by far had a much greater variety of foods to choose from. Not only did Yokkaichi offer an extensive range of Japanese cuisine, it also had a much greater choice of non-Japanese dining establishments, running the gamut from the French café where Pamela and I once celebrated our anniversary to the local branch of Denny’s デニーズ. To paraphrase an old saying, Taiwanese will eat anything…as long as it’s Taiwanese.

While many of the locals may be (blissfully?) ignorant of the world at large, what excuse do some of our erstwhile happy foreign residents have? I often get the impression that for a few ex-pats here, T’aiwan is the only place in East Asia where they have lived. Sure, they may have visited Hong Kong, Japan or South Korea, but they have never experienced normal life in those places to the extent that they are doing here in T'aiwan. As a result, some of them tend to assume either that T'aiwan is somehow “uniquely” unique compared to its neighbors, or that what must be true in T’aiwan is also the case in the rest of the region. Examples of the former are more numerous, though cases of the latter are often manifested in political discussions. How often have we read in blog postings or comments entries that refer to “Taiwan’s unique history”? So Hong Kong, which was transformed during the period of 155 years of British rule from a small fishing village into a dynamic city and economic powerhouse, isn’t special? And Korea, which saw itself divided by the forces of the Cold War into two states which are almost completely different from each other in terms of political and economic systems, isn’t remarkably different? What about Japan, which for nearly two thousand years has taken first Chinese, and then Western, influences, and turned them into cultural forms which are distinctly Japanese? Apparently, these places just don’t have what it takes, culturally or historically, to set themselves apart from that most special of dynamos, T’aiwan.

A recent review of the Taiwanese film Night Market Hero by a Western writer started off by stating that night markets are “(u)nique to Taiwanese culture”. Is that so? Then why does the Wikipedia article (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_markets) on the topic remark that “they also exist in other areas inhabited by ethnic Chinese such as Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Thailand, Philippines and Chinatowns worldwide.”? The review also states the following:

“Italy is Italy, the Greek island are the Greek islands, but there is nothing quite like Taiwan's famous -- and infamous -- night markets.”

You certainly can’t argue with that assertion – the antiquities of Western culture to be seen in Rome or Athens can’t hold a candle to the fried, greasy food and tacky, cheaply priced (and made) clothing that you find in a typical 夜市 (oops, there I go showing off). I do hope our humble scribe was just trying to be humorous.

Work your way through the T’aiwan-centered English-language blogosphere, and you’ll find endless references to the friendliness of the Taiwanese people, the beauty of the natural landscape, the opportunities to engage in fun activities and so on. All of which are true, of course, but not exclusive to this island, either. Take the “friendly” locals, for example. I have had the pleasure of meeting a lot of genuinely kind and helpful people in T’aiwan, but I have also encountered my fair share of rude, boorish and inconsiderate jerks (and I don’t just mean operators of motor vehicles, either). Some of this so-called “kindness” strikes me as a (not too) subtle reminder that we are, and will always be, guests here, no matter how long we have stayed in T’aiwan, or how much of the language we’ve mastered or even when taking into account the families we have started here. I’d rather be treated indifferently, or even ignored, by the locals, because at least it would mean I would be getting the same treatment as anyone else. Besides, the optimist (deep) inside me likes to think that people all over the people are naturally kind to visitors to their land. Hospitality goes hand-in-hand with xenophobia.

At least those of you who can’t get enough of all that “kindness” from the Taiwanese have reciprocated in kind on many occasions, right?

I’ll admit to that it isn’t for nothing that the Portuguese named T’aiwan Ilha Formosa. However, while I also love the mountains here (to take but one example), many have been the time when it was hard to make out all that beautiful scenery through the smog…um, pardon me, I mean “haze”. Having spent time in Hokkaidō 北海道 and the Japan Alps 日本アルプス, not to mention just recently returning from a visit to Okinawa, I’m not prepared to attach any superlative endings to descriptions of scenery in this country (and I’ve been told that South Korea has some pretty stunning natural attractions of its own). I had to laugh a while back when some bloggers were campaigning to have Yushan 玉山 named as one of the new “7 Wonders of the World”. Yushan? Just because it may be the highest mountain in northeast Asia doesn’t make it a “wonder”. In terms of aestheticism, for example, how can Yushan even begin to compare with Mt. Fuji 富士山, especially the latter’s almost perfect symmetry and the numerous references to it that have been found in art and literature throughout the centuries? Size doesn’t always matter.

In short, there’s nothing wrong with getting enthused about things Taiwanese, but don’t forget to put your observations into some kind of proper perspective. Get out and spend some time in the rest of East Asia so that you’ll have a better understanding of this country’s pluses and minuses, especially in relation to its neighbors.

And for god’s sake, stop waxing lyrically about Taiwan Beer – there are actually decent local microbrews out there if you would just make the effort to find them.

Peace out…

P.S. If you moved to T’aiwan after having lived and worked in China, you are largely excused from the above rant.

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