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Friday, September 2, 2016

Much ado about...? Weighing in from the Baltics

A hot-air balloon flies by St. Catherine's Church - the view from our living room

The Taiwan blogosphere is restless tonight...

Homework finished, an after-dinner scooter ride

Those who know me know that during the years I lived and worked in Taiwan I remained largely immune to the spell that Taiwan mysteriously manages to weave over many of its Western expat residents. True, there were a lot of good times that were had and interesting places that were visited, but on the other hand, my neighbors weren't always so friendly (think gangsters with violent tempers), and living above a noisy label-making factory in a mixed agricultural/industrial district left a lot to be desired. Each time I hear or read a Westerner describe with tears in their eyes how kindly they've been treated by the Taiwanese, I can't help but recall the woman who attempted to sue me after she rode through a red light and collided with my scooter, or the anonymous asshole who broke into my motorbike and made off with an expensive jacket while I was hiking in the Dakeng 大坑 mountains, or the girl at the tea stand who thought my attempts to order a drink in Mandarin were so hilarious that she was literally on the floor laughing. Plus, I'd previously lived in Japan, so Taiwan was already at a disadvantage when I first moved there in 19-something.

The reason why we don't drive in Vilnius' Old Town. That, and the fact we live within walking distance...

One of these days I'm going to write a long blog post on how living too long in Taiwan can warp an outsider's perception of reality, but today's isn't that day. Instead, I'm going to join in the chorus of ridicule aimed at a certain Ralph Jennings over an article he wrote for Forbes, "Three Advantages China Has Over Taiwan" (I hope for his sake it was an inept attempt at satire). Having lived in both countries, I admit to enjoying my two years in Shanghai 上海 a lot more than I did the X number of years I spent on Formosa. But a lot of that had to do with the circumstances of those two periods - working at the U.S. Consulate-General in Shanghai vs. struggling to support a wife and child by teaching English in Fengyuan 豐原. It's an unfair comparison to make, and all things being equal, I wouldn't hesitate to choose Taiwan over the so-called "motherland" every time. I won't list the reasons for doing so here (another post for another day), but I will briefly point out why Jennings' so-called "advantages" are ridiculous.

A Free Concert for Families to Celebrate the First Day of School was held this evening in Simono Daukanto Square in front of the Presidential Palace. Coming from the U.S., I still can't get over how accessible is Lithuania's seat of executive power. Imagine a concert on the South Lawn of the White House, free and open to the public, no security clearances required? I can't.

Point #1 is the so-called superiority of the Hanyu Pinyin 汉语拼音 system. This is probably Jennings' strongest argument, and I admit Romanization makes a lot more sense in China that it does in Taiwan. But so what? I recall the ridiculousness of the Hanyu vs. Tongyong Pinyin 通用拼音 debate that took place in Western expat circles during the Chen Shui-bian 陳水扁 years, and how I couldn't have cared less which system was adopted, as long as it was consistently applied (and the Pinyin vs. Wade-Giles debates have started up again in Facebook comments - 夠了 already!). The arguments in favor of Hanyu Pinyin were revealing of the attitudes of some Westerners in Taiwan, the idea that the Taiwanese government needed to cater to their needs by making street signs easier to read for the character-illiterate - I remember one blogger in particular whom I'll call Mark (because that was his name, and still is, I assume) in all seriousness proposing that tone marks should be included on signs so that foreigners such as himself could improve their Mandarin skills. But I digress - I've always liked the Taiwanese people's mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up attempts at Romanizing their place names and street signs, and the lack of consistency never negatively affected my life on the island (other people and things were responsible for that).  Learn some of the characters, Ralph, they're fascinating.

Amber at the concert, still on her scooter

Point #2, that Chinese culture is more "Chinese" in China than in Taiwan, is baffling in its obviousness. I thought the whole point of living and/or traveling in Taiwan was to experience the culture there (I hesitate to say "unique" because every culture is different in its own special way). Jennings apparently still believes the hoary Kuomintang 中國國民黨 propaganda line that the Republic of China (aka "Free China") preserved traditional Chinese culture while the Red Guards were tearing it to pieces on the mainland. Yes, the sources of mainstream Taiwanese culture do share the same roots as those in the southern areas of China, but then there's also the influence of fifty years of Japanese rule, as well as the rediscovery in the past several decades that there are indigenous cultures that have existed on the island since long before the first Han Chinese settlers arrived. Do people still visit Taiwan thinking they're going to experience the "real China"? I wouldn't have thought so in the year 2016, but that was before I read Ralph Jennings.

The show goes on...

And then there's Point #3, that China is "neater and less-crowded" thanks to the diligent enforcement efforts of the chengguan , those uniformed thugs who patrol the streets of Chinese cities, and are despised by many Chinese urban residents (see here for some reasons why). Yes, Taiwan's cities are cluttered and their buildings ugly, but then the same can also be said for most Chinese metropolitan areas. No, Ralph, the solution to Taiwan's urban woes isn't the (re-)imposition of Chinese-style authoritarianism. The answer is to ignore the lack of sidewalk space (unless you're trying to push a baby in a stroller, about which I used to vent in some of my earliest blog posts) and celebrate Taiwan for what it is - a chaotic, sometimes messy but always vibrant society, growing increasingly distant (not to mention distinct) from its neighbor across the Taiwan Strait - and not to belittle it for what you seemingly wish it should be - a "breakaway province", perhaps?

...but it's a school night tonight, so we had to get home

Oh, and Ralph, if you so admire "real" Chinese culture, shouldn't you be celebrating Taiwan's continued usage of traditional characters? Oh, that's right, I forgot, you need Hanyu Pinyin...

UPDATE: None other than noted dissident Wu'er Kaixi ئۆركەش دۆلەت has weighed in on Jennings' article, calling him out for his "sloppy reporting" and describing his conclusions as "dismal failures". However, some in the Taiwan blogosphere are criticizing Wu'er Kaixi for writing that "Taiwan has done a much better job of preserving Chinese culture than the mainland has". Which just illustrates one of the pitfalls of living for too long in Taiwan - the inability to see the forest because of all the trees that are in your way.

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