Follow by Email

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Foreign Formosan follies?

I went on a bike ride to the other side of the Neris River this afternoon

The Trump team is starting to take shape, and it's makeup is depressingly unsurprising, including a borderline white supremacist as his senior counselor and chief strategist. In a year in which the British (or to be fair, the English and the Welsh) opted to leave the European Union, at least Americans aren't alone in voting against their best interests. Our Canadian friends have only just recently emerged from nine years of Stephen Harper, while the city of Toronto, of course, had their own Trump-like leader in Rob Ford. Australians, too, have had a run of bad luck in recent years when it comes to prime ministers.

Russian Orthodox church

Taiwan, on the other hand, seems to be doing things right these days. The Kuomintang 國民黨, with its long history of authoritarianism, brutality and corruption, lost both the presidency and its majority in the legislature at the beginning of 2016 as the country selected its first female leader. Many of the Western expats there seem to enjoy life in their adopted homeland, content in the knowledge that a Trump-like figure emerging as a serious presidential candidate would be highly unlikely. But contentment has a way of turning into hubris, and hubris inevitably leads to bitter disappointment and disillusion. Taiwanese voters are not immune when it comes to shooting themselves in the foot, electorally-speaking - they did it in 2008 and 2012, and given the unpredictability of what could happen on the domestic and international fronts in the next four years, who's to say another KMT candidate couldn't convince enough voters to return the party to power in 2020 (or 2024)?

Some neighborhoods in Vilnius appear to have been left behind

But there are facets of life in Taiwan other than politics that could prove disillusioning to the satisfied expat. The health care system is a great value, delivering quality care at low cost. But in an age of declining birth rates and and an aging population, how long can the system continue to function in its present form before cracks start to appear? Already there are surprised gasps coming out of the Taiwanese blogosphere at the images of 10,000 anti-gay rights protesters on the streets of Taipei just as the country is on the verge of becoming the first Asian nation to legalize gay marriage. A mass stabbing spree on the Taipei MRT in 2014 and the beheading of a four year-old girl outside a subway station earlier this year are two incomprehensible acts of violence that sadly remind us that Taiwan is not immune from these kinds of tragedies, yet some people find it difficult to reconcile this reality with the preconceptions that underlie their lives in their homes away from home. A friend wrote on his blog at his relief that Taiwan has strict gun control laws, but isn't that an admission that such restrictions are needed, because of what would be result without them? Another blogger I follow writes often of her admiration for all things Taiwanese and her desire to get Republic of China citizenship, yet bemoans the family-based discriminatory naturalization regulations that make it almost impossible for her to do so, which begs the question: why would anyone want to be a citizen of a country that clearly doesn't want people like him or her to become compatriots instead of remaining as long-term expats?

My bike parked outside a shopping mall

The vast majority of contented Westerners in Taiwan live in Taipei, or at least close to the capital city. Taipei would be a fine place to live, I'm sure - great restaurants and nightlife, a relatively cosmopolitan populace and ever-increasing recreational opportunities. But what is true for Taipei is quite often not the case for the rest of the country. And just as Americans in San Francisco and New York were left dumbfounded by what their fellow citizens in between the two coasts voted for in this last election, it certainly could happen that Taiwanese voters in the rest of the island may make choices that leave Taipei-based expats wondering what these people could be thinking.

Another old church (St. Raphael)

Western expats sometimes forget how relatively easy it is to get set up in Taiwan - English-teaching jobs are still plentiful, and while wages have stagnated, teachers are still better-paid than the average Taiwanese worker (though the latter does have some significant economic advantages). People are also generally friendly towards visitors from overseas, which often manifests itself in the delusion among some in the expat community that Taiwanese are somehow uniquely kinder than people in other countries. But this friendliness shown to foreigners masks the very real social tensions that exist in Taiwanese society, while at the same time serving as a reminder to the visitor (even if they don't get it) that they are just that, a temporary guest who can never be a fully-accepted member of the community, no matter how many years they have lived in the country, or whether they have married a local, settled down and started a family.

Stalinism on the other side of the Neris

And then there is the Orientalist factor. After all, would expat life be just as satisfying if the natives were considered to be no different than the folks back in the home country, with the same dreams, frustrations and outlook on life? It's doubtful. What makes living in Taiwan endlessly fascinating is the idea that one has become accepted (albeit to a limited degree) by the locals, while still able to stand back and observe the fascinating goings on. And what's the point of being in Taiwan if you can't explain it to those who couldn't otherwise possibly understand this mysterious, exotic isle? So the expat Facebook user or blogger will zero in on some aspect or another of the local society, be it politics, architecture, food or what have you, and then fend off those whose interpretations of the same subject are somewhat different. But posting dozens and dozens of photos of the same aboriginal festival in a single day on Facebook, for example,  feels uncomfortably voyeuristically creepy, an exaggerated attempt to remind readers and followers that the expat is in a strange land with strange people performing their strange customs, and how fortunate it is for all of us that he or she is there to share it with the rest of the world.

Playing around a bit with the filters

So what's the point of this rant? None, really, other than to remind anyone bothering to read this far that they might be setting themselves up for a disillusioning day of reckoning with reality at some point down the line. Being the jaded cynic that I am, I've managed to avoid that particular pitfall, at least when it comes to my two previous lands of exile, Japan and Taiwan. But what happened in the U.S. was uncomfortably jarring, and reading the at times wishful thinking of friends, acquaintances and almost-complete strangers back in Taiwan makes we wonder if they're only setting themselves up for a bitter fall one of these days.

How the other half lives


  1. I have been enjoying your time and travels in Lithuania. Last evening I was reading your posting and thinking this is pretty thoughtful and I'm not sure it qualifies as a rant. I live in Zhushan, Nantou and agree with most of your comments on Taiwan. As foreigners we will always remain Asia's Guest. Some people want to push through that but it's common for foreigners in the U.S. to also remain outsiders but I digress. I do think you are making a mistake to think that all of those people voted for Trump. Many voted against Mrs Clinton and many more were/are just sick and tired of the government and some just stayed at home thinking Mrs Clinton had it in the bag. Unsettling is how many people want to go back to when "life was good."
    Thanks for sharing and thanks for listening.