When I first arrived in Taiwan I was living in Taipei. It was the former provincial capital, the 3rd commercial center of Taiwan and ultimately the capital of taiwan which is a de facto nation. I took taxis almost anywhere since they were very reasonably priced compared to what I was used to in New York and much more so that the expensive taxis in Tucson, Arizona. They also offered air conditioning which was quite a benefit to me since Taipei is a fairly muggy climate.

 

The cab drivers were usually quite curious about me as a foreigner that could speak Chinese even though it was quite wretched. I guess wretched Chinese trumps non-existent English. Taiwanese people are all generally friendly and tend to make a little extra effort for guests to their country. So I got a lot of great Chinese practice for the price of a cab ride and the cabbies got an opportunity to pick the mind of a foreign resident filtered through rough Mandarin.

 

Subjects would range from politics, Taipei traffic-horrible because they were building the now wonderful and expansive Taipei Mass Rapid Transit system, and quite often-Chinese people. One of the cabbies started our conversation with, “Excuse me sir…by the way where are you from? Oh US? Anyway-I’m sorry to tell you that Chinese people are the worst people on earth…” Of course this made me feel bad for several reasons: 1) the guy telling me this was Chinese, 2) I have  special love and admiration for Chinese history and culture, 3) practically all races have good and bad people and more and less appealing aspects. The driver continued on with his meme about the nature of Chinese people that troubled him the most. He said that he traveled to the US once. He was there with non-existent English skills and not many compatriot contacts. Somehow he hooked up with some overseas Chinese guy living there that claimed he could help him with his need at the time(I forget the details on that point) and the guy screwed him over taking a few thousand US$ from him and providing nothing.

 

I immediately became an apologist for Chinese people (how ironic) not because I’m naive to the point of not believing Chinese people are incapable of bad behavior or scheming but knowing that the math is not right in that kind of claim. My point being that it is impossible for a whole ethnic group of people, especially such a large one can all be bad. That being said I will posit that the Chinese have the most scoundrels (aggregate, not per capita) out of any ethnic group because Chinese are the largest single ethnic group on earth. Therefore by extension they have the most smart people,stupid people, gay people, non-gay people,etc.

 

The fact that Chinese society has always been so populous and dense means that there has always been a lot of pressure and competition. That coupled with feudal/imperial system up until the 20th century produced an environment where conditions didn’t bode well for most and survival was achieved by the fittest (not always the nicest). So my cabbie’s plea has been repeated to me many times by different people. I know that Chinese people tend to be suspicious of others. They tend to trust fellow Chinese more than other ethnic groups. Unfortunately the Chinese treat their own worse than they treat others and history shows that Chinese have been way busier warring amongst themselves and than with foreigners. The Chinese have many restaurants that offer 1 fish served 3 ways. I often joke that is how they are to fellow Chinese. Dense population and limited resources will really spike that competitive nature.

 

I’ll never forget the first time I was sitting in a friend’s Taipei apartment and all of a sudden the room started shaking and the chair I was sitting in was rocking sideways and on an up and down funky angle. It totally freaked me out but they were laughing. I asked them how they could possibly laugh and they replied, “We grew up here in Taiwan and we get earthquakes often. What you experienced was a little one so no need for concern.” Well of course I still thought they were crazy… Some 12 years later I was on a business trip back in the US. I was visiting my cousin in Florida who I hadn’t seen for some years. On the way there was a hurricane warning which is very common in FL in the late summer early fall. Having lived in Taiwan for a while at that point hurricanes were not so shocking to me since Taiwan often gets typhoons which are very similar. Since I  live in Taichung, Taiwan we are pretty well isolated from the typhoons (the damaging winds especially) since they come in from the Pacific side of Taiwan and have difficulty getting over the Central Mountain range with Taichung sitting on the other side of them. Anyhow I arrived at my cousins house without event. We got all caught up and she informed me that because of the hurricane warning she was unsure if I’d show and some friends that lived on the coast were staying there and she had given them my bedroom. So I accepted the couch and we were all copacetic. All that day the local news was a continual hurricane alert theme. The next morning I was the first one awake and I went outside to have a look around. Clearly there had been a good bit of rain but no wind damage. So this hurricane was a dud-good news of course. When I came back inside to watch the news I was getting endless hurricane has been avoided reports so I decided to change to CNN for an international report. I was shocked when I saw the lead story: major earthquake in Taiwan(921). They were claiming the epicenter of the quake was in Nantou which is next door to where I live, but they were showing pictures of damage up in Taipei! This really alarmed me because Taipei is 2 hours from Taichung! So I was picture devastation of an apocalyptic proportion in Taichung and the surrounding area. I started calling my home frantically and was getting no answer for about an hour. Finally I got my own answering machine-so I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad or really what any of it meant??

Since I was on the east coast at the crack of dawn I refrained from calling my mom in Arizona not wanting to frighten her with a sensitive call in the middle of the night. A couple of hours later I finally called her only to find out that she knew about this because my wife had called her the night before. All of my pent up adrenaline spiked and I read her the riot act wanting to know why she hadn’t called me ASAP since she knew I was going to be at my cousin’s house… Not long after that my wife called to let me know they were ok albeit quite freaked out by the large quake and it’s recurring aftershocks. She said everyone was sleeping in cars or outside in tents or at the parks. She even mentioned that maybe I wanted to bring a tent or 2 home because there was a shortage on them in Taiwan. I wasn’t sure if she was being serious or just expressing some gallows humor with me.

Fast forward to yesterday. 10:03 in the morning and I felt it first-a couple of minor shakes up and down then more violent shakes up and down with shaking sideways following that up. I wasn’t scared scared but concerned. I moved over to my guitar on the stand to secure it-since that is my most fragile possession in the room and can topple easily under that kind of rocking. My wife was at the front of our condo ready to bail and telling me maybe I should prepare to do likewise. She had lived through the 921 quake so much more sensitive to big quakes than me. It all ended not long after it began and we checked our place for new cracks which there were a few. The only damage we sustained was my favorite porcelain mug which had it’s handle destroyed by a scissors falling out of my pen holder on top of the computer. Pretty mild and I’m quite thankful for that 😀

When I first arrived in Taiwan I spent my first night at the classic Chinese-style Grand Hotel. I truly had the sense of being in China with all the billboards leading into town on the freeway being in Chinese, and the people of course looking very Chinese too. The next morning after my short sleep I walked outside and observed a group of elderly people doing something really Chinese-they were having some Tai Chi exercises in the hotel garden(which is really the size of a small park). After a few weeks of living here and traveling around Taipei it dawned on me that other than the hotel, the former CKS Memorial (now Freedom Square), Sun Yat Sen Memorial, and the National Palace Museum there was very little other Chinese style architecture about. This realization was a hard one for me to get my head around. Why in such an obviously Chinese place not only wasn’t there much Chinese style architecture but why was it so non-descript too. It wasn’t even clearly western. In other words it didn’t really look like anywhere-it was almost character-less. I surmised that if you blindfolded someone and put them on a plane, brought them here and before  letting them loose removed all the people and signage on the streets and buildings they’d be hard-pressed to tell you where they were exactly since it was pretty non-descript to the point of being faceless.

 

I later learned the probable reason for my feelings. Under the initial KMT CKS-led government there presence on Taiwan was the result of a handy defeat by their former mainland Chinese allies (against the Japanese occupation) and later rivals-the CCP. So Chiang’s whole position was to recoup and gather supplies and devise his re-taking of mainland China strategy. Hence, there was no long term development or infrastructure building plan for Taiwan since Taiwan was meant to be a staging ground for retaking the much bigger and prestigious mainland. This was also a big point of pride for the fiercely proud Generalissimo-Chiang Kai Shek.

So there was no push by the government to improve life here in Taiwan or spend any of the Chinese gold on doing so since they had much bigger fish to fry in mainland China and even had activities and a KMT army presence in the Golden Triangle with the hope of going back into China through Yunnan from Burma. This all started to change under CKS’ son Chiang Ching Kuo’s leadership. Now Taiwan is quite different with much modern and well designed architecture and fairly state-of-the-art infrastructure. Today you can clearly see especially in the home of Taipei 101 and other modern structures in Taipei’s HsinYi District that Taipei has quite it’s own flavor and style.

One of the most exciting aspects of my Taiwan experience was arriving pretty much at the birth of Taiwan democracy. Several months before I arrived martial law was repealed after having been in effect from 1949 until 1987, and opposition political parties became legal. That didn’t factor into my decision to come to Taiwan but I consider it a great bonus and am honored to have been here from then until now. I remember very clearly how it was like a democratic dawn and have a great example to illustrate that.

I had a friend whose family moved to Taiwan from South Korea. Many repatriated Chinese coming to Taiwan got certain benefits-in his case he got a free ride at National Taiwan University, the top school in Taiwan. I met his family through their food shop across from where I lived. One time we were talking and I asked him a question about something governmental or political. It wasn’t anything major but he got really quiet and then whispered to me, “Mark some things are ok to know about but you don’t need to speak them out publicly, because you never know who is listening.” I was a bit creeped out by this. I never had anyone react so paranoidly in all my life. In fact I always knew him to be very natural and humorous, so this stark behavior contrasted sharply with what I knew of his standard personality. His reference was to the White Terror, which had caused many people to disappear never to reappear.

At the same time I would encounter Taiwanese men letting of steam after work at the corner food stand eating and drinking beer and openly speaking critically of the government or life in Taiwan and not in a whisper-very naturally with no concern about who might overhear. So the repeal of martial law and all the ramifications was indeed still something new and exciting. The beer drinking smack talking expressions were something very familiar to me coming from NYC, the fearful self-censoring not so much.

Chiang Ching Kuo paved the way for these freedom’s as well as providing better infrastructure and economic development. He was the son of Chiang Kai Shek the totalitarian ruler and generalissimo that brought the KMT government, army, gold and art treasures of China to Taiwan after the Communist Party took control of China. In essence, the father was very feared and secretly loathed by most but the son was actually quite respected and loved since he truly took an interest in the common people and benefited their lives significantly through massive governmental infrastructure projects.

I remember the day CCK died-I was attending a morning Chinese class and one of the young teachers was standing in front of the school crying. I asked her what had happened and she informed me that Chiang Ching Kuo had passed away. This was no great shock because he was elderly and had been quite sick-but I was kind of surprised to see such an emotional response especially from a young CHinese person. The Chinese are very stoic and guard their emotions. In fact CCK had passed away a few hundred meters from where I was living. He was at the Veteran’s General Hospital and my house was in a lane behind there. I often quipped about my address being longer than my letter since it was something like: Mark Forman, Shih Pai Rd. Sec. 2, Lane 427. Alley 15, #25. Since the Taiwan address system didn’t give names to alleys and roads but referenced them to the main road the result was quite cumbersome. Now in the day of texting and e-mail this is not such an issue as it was then.

I was taking my morning photowalk the other morning and bumped into a Chinese tourist couple-literally and the woman after bumping into stayed pressed against my side not breaking stride until I said-hey lady give me a break. She nonchalantly moved over slightly. This reminded me of an early experience I had when I first came here. She wasn’t being rude or intentionally aggressive-Chinese cities are so crowded that people don’t have the same concept of personal space as we do in the west. This was a real culture shock when I first encountered it walking around Taipei.

I should mention I’m a good sized guy- 6’ and quite solid (well that was the case then, even more solid now). It amazed me how I ended up bobbing and weaving to avoid the city of Taipei on the sidewalks. Let me explain Taiwanese sidewalks to you. One one side you have a solid row of scooters parked like sardines in a can. If you need to get to the street, unless there is a doorway that someone has placed barricades to keep access open to the street, you’re out of luck. So you might have to walk all the way down to the end of the block to be able to get to the street. The other factor is Chinese people think nothing of stopping wherever they are and chatting oblivious to the fact that they are blocking the flow of traffic and they seem to naturally gravitate towards the center of the space that they’re blocking. You know China in Mandarin is 中國 literally the Middle Kingdom. Hence Chinese people seem to like to be in the middle…

Well after a year of this cumbersome body dodgeball existence I was getting tired of this. You might think well why bother at all? Well again my body size at at least 2 -3:1 and my conscience dictated to me I don’t want to hurt anyone. Still I was getting worn down so I adjusted my filter-now I’d only avoid women and children but men would have to deal with the consequences of carelessly colliding with me. It’s funny, this is so long ago and having moved to the smaller Taichung I haven’t had to deal with this on a daily basis like I did then. Just remembering this gives me some faint cringes from the anxiety this situation caused me.

One other experience in my early days also really tested me. I was at a convenience store waiting to pay for my purchase and some young guy reached across with his item to give to the clerk within millimeters of my face. This absolutely freaked me out and my self-protection warning system went into DefCon 4. I took this very personally and responded by me reaching my hand forward and intentionally brushing against his face ever so slightly. He didn’t even flinch. I’m not advocating aggressive behavior, this was more like a reflex. The problem here again was a perception and awareness of personal space or lack thereof. Perhaps if I moved directly from my native NYC to Taipei it wouldn’t have been so abrupt and jarring. I moved from the smaller, spacier and mellower Tucson, Arizona though. I had already adapted to much more space, slower pace and friendlier more relaxed people.

I asked my 2 new airplane friends about places to stay that were reasonably priced. They were just used to staying in a handful of places businessmen stayed in which all seemed a bit out of my budget. Finally the came up with the suggestion Grand Hotel which they seemed to think was not too expensive even though it still sounded kind of expensive to me. Not knowing any alternatives and being alone in my new home country that was totally foreign to me (pun intended) I found a taxi and headed there. It was quite an interesting cab ride. Being in a strange land at night with signs in Chinese that I still didn’t recognize via my 8 year old limited character vocabulary. It was thrilling in the sense of watching some strange movie that you never heard about, in a foreign language and you seem to intue the important parts of it even though you have no real clue what’s going on.

This makes me recall a dream I had in college-I walked out on a theater stage with some play going on. I remember being extremely anxious because everyone seemed to know me quite well and acted like I totally belonged there. The only thing was I didn’t have a clue who they were or what the play was or what my lines were. The craziest thing was that whatever I said or did they responded to like it was correct and completely normal.

When we arrived at the Grand Hotel in Taipei it  was absolutely glorious. It was like a dream coming true-well one I never had but somehow it resonated subconsciously with impressions and feelings I had about Chinese architecture and experiencing China in all of her uniquely beautiful Chineseness. You climb a hill along a winding road and voila-You arrive at this impressive classic Chinese structure all red and gold and lit up with that beautiful Chinese roof curving at the ends. This was truly the culmination of my Chinese studies cultural fantasy being realized.

I ended up taking an interior room which had a window out onto the hallway but not outside?? I never knew that rooms like that existed but I figured what the heck if it saved me 15 or twenty something dollars why not. The bed was like a tombstone. I guessed that Chinese people must like really firm beds. Maybe because they tended to be smaller and lighter it wasn’t as aggressive of an assault on the senses to them. It was still a bed and I managed to sleep a few hours but before doing that I had some more pressing business to attend to-trying to reach Crack my friend. I called the first number which was for Sam’s Pub. I finally got Sam on the phone and explained who I was and how I was told that I could reach Crack here. How I just got here from the States after traveling for 13 or 14 hours and was Crack’s friend from the University of Arizona,etc. etc Sam responded, “So you want to see Crack right?” I said, “Yes.” he then said,”You should probably go to his house then.” At which point the phone went,”click.” I was shocked?? I couldn’t believe that anyone would be so cold especially after me having explained my predicament. Remembering my New York roots and DNA I quickly shrugged it off and proceeded to call contact # 2 -some lady named Pearl. She managed yet another pub Crack frequented. I was greeted by a friendly voice that told me that Pearl was on her day off but would I like to leave a message? I did.

While this post has nothing to do with Chinese culture or the Han people it does have very much to do with Taiwan culture and history via it’s indigenous people. A friend living in Hawaii pointed me to this excellent documentary film: Made in Taiwan. It is the journey of 2 New Zealanders: 1) Maori/UK mixed blooded and 2) a Samoan. They trace the steps back through their DNA charts seeing that the Maori stopped at the Cook Islands after stopping in Samoa which was after stopping in Vanuatu before leaving from Taiwan. Quite interesting and poignant.

Here is the link for the podcast mp3 file. I talk about the decision and reasons for making the journey from US to Taiwan back in 1987. Let me know what you think and what questions you have.

Picking up where I left off. I used to posit that Taiwanese people maybe had a rebellious or independent streak. That somehow following your request or instructions to the letter or pretty close would somehow offended their deep rooted pride in doing it their way. While there might be some of that in the mix I’ve come to realize through deeper cultural contact and experience that it is far more likely that that the result I got is that of well intentioned people who come from a culture that doesn’t place the same emphasis on logic or precision in people relations that we do. A culture that any reasonable response is appreciated and encouraged. In fact there are 2 different words used to describe the efforts of others: Gong Lao功勞and Ku Lao苦勞. The former being an acknowledgement on “an accomplished.” The latter being the equivalent of “an attempt.” So my point here is in western society we generally only give praise for a suitable performance while the Chinese are more “face giving” and gracious and will acknowledge effort made.

I was still very much ignorant of this cultural dynamic and wasn’t complimentary of the stewardesses efforts with the warm water that was “better for me.” I did thank her when I got my ice cold ice water a few minutes later and thereafter. This was all small potatoes compared to my second lesson when I got to the airport in Taipei.

After flying for what seemed like forever we finally arrived at the CKS Airport. I didn’t sleep a wink on the plane. Too excited about my new adventure and also had 2 new business friends that ended up introducing me to my first job in Taiwan (we’ll get to that later). First thing I needed to do after getting my luggage was to change some greenbacks into New Taiwan Dollars(NT$). I don’t think that was even possible to due stateside since NT$ not a market currency. I got in line at the bank counter and all of a sudden this older Chinese man nonchalantly walks up and tries to cut in front of me. I had been living in Tucson, AZ for about 11 years so I was a little bit mellower than I was in my straight from Brooklyn days. I did tap him on the back and with a stern look and my thumb rocking backwards I got my point across. My Chinese was still far too rusty and my temper was going a bit so I opted not to try and voice my idea in Mandarin. He caught on and gave a look of feigned surprise while quickly moving to the back of the line. So here it was I learned of the Chinese custom of ignoring rules but not ignoring the enforcement thereof.

Wait until I get going on the traffic… To be continued…

I decided to move to Taiwan back in 1987. I had one friend living in Taiwan that I met in college who was a childhood buddy of one of my college buddies. His name was Crack!  This coincided with the time period when crack cocaine was becoming an epidemic of major proportion.so whenever I mentioned his name it was sure to get a very animated response from the listener.
So without having first contacted Crack-this was in the pre-email, pre-SMS dark ages, and only having 2 contact phone numbers numbers for him (neither of them his) I made my decision to move to Taiwan figuring I’d be able to get a hold of him and probably be able to live with him for awhile at least. Why move and why Taiwan?

I had been wanting to go to Taiwan or China for a long time after finishing my studies. My reason was to gain fluency in Mandarin Chinese which both interested me personally and also offered some potential benefit as a business tool since China has been gradually opening up to the west since the late 70’s and Taiwan at least a  decade or more before that. At that time there were not many non-Chinese American born Mandarin speakers around too. I had a number of University of AZ classmates that had studied and /or taught English in Taiwan. They all reported favorable experiences and encouraged me to consider living in Taiwan for a while. I decided to go to Taiwan as opposed to China because in my mind Taiwan was somewhat further ahead of China at that time in modernization and with martial law having just been lifted back in 1987 it appeared they were further ahead democratically as well.

I pooled my savings and got a one way ticket to Taiwan with the plan to live there for at least 2 years, figuring that I’d need at least that much time to reach a basic level of linguistic proficiency. I’d re-evaluate at the 2 year point and see if I’d stay or what I’d do then. My first cultural conflict experience occurred early on in the flight. I asked the friendly stewardess to please get me a glass of ice water and even added, “with ice in it please.” She smiled and said she’d be right back. Well I was very surprised and a bit miffed when not only didn’t the cup of water not have the requested ice cubes but the water itself was far from ice cold and in fact was warm. I then reminded her of my request and asked her why she didn’t fulfill it. She replied, “In Taiwan we drink warm or hot water because cold water is not good for you.” I quickly responded that while that might be the case in Taiwan or even a correct but unknown medical or health fact to American or other westerner people, Americans are in the habit of drinking cold water often even in the winter months. This was my first contact with a well-intentioned disregard of my request or modifying the execution because the other party thought they were doing something better for me. I came to realize the Chinese were a people of many good intentions but sadly not that good about following instructions.

To be continued…