The future we’d hardly hoped for: All about… Taiwan {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

Wan-Jiun (Paul) Chiou is a professor of finance at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. He specializes in portfolio management, international finance, financial institution management, and the impact of law environment on financial markets. He used to teach in several colleges in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Taiwan. Paul always enjoys being with young people and sharing ideas. He also likes to play games with his family. 

When some people first meet me and learn that I originally come from Taiwan, their first response is “I love Thai food!”

Oh, thanks. I love Thai food too. But you’re thinking of the wrong country!

Taiwan is located in southeastern Asia and is a group of islands off the southeastern coast of China bordering the East China Sea, the Philippine Sea, the South China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait. (Thailand, where Thai food is from, is a small country on the Indochina peninsula, bordered by Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia.) Her size is about that of Maryland and Delaware combined.  Though the weather is mostly tropical, two-thirds of the country is mountainous, making Taiwan vary in its ecological environment. The highest mountain, Mount Jade (Yu Shan), is more than 13,000 feet high and is the highest mountain in East Asia.

Ken-ting National Park
Ken-ting National Park

Another question that I get often is “Is Taiwan part of China?”

The fact is: NO. If you want to visit Taiwan, the visa from China’s embassy will NOT work.  You need to go to a Taipei Cultural and Economic Office (TECO) for the visa.

What?  Why go to the “Taipei” office, but not the “Taiwan” one?  In addition, why is there no Taiwanese embassy in the United States?

This is a very complicated issue caused by powers like China, United States, Japan, and the rest of the world.  In the past, Taiwan was like a small leaf in large waters, pushed by waves from different directions. Now more and more Taiwanese people realize they need to fight for the better future that their ancestors hardly hoped was possible.

Currently the population of Taiwan is more than 23 million, similar to the size of California. The majority of Taiwanese (84%), mainly Holos and Hakkas,* are of mixed decedent, including aboriginals, Chinese immigrants, Europeans (primarily Dutch and Spanish), and Japanese. About 14% of them, including my family, are mainland Chinese who fled China after the Nationalist’s defeat in the Chinese Civil War in 1949. The 13 indigenous tribes—like the Native Indians in the U.S.— represent the remaining 2%.  In recent years, due to work and marriage, more and more new immigrants from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and the other countries are coming to join this big family.

Ang Lee (director of film “Life of Pi”)
Familiar Taiwanese-American Faces: Ang Lee (director of film “Life of Pi”)
Jeremy Lin (NBA Linsanity!)
Familiar Taiwanese-American Faces: Jeremy Lin (NBA Linsanity!)
Familiar Taiwanese Faces: Jerry Yang (co-founder and former CEO of Yahoo!)
Familiar Taiwanese-American Faces: Jerry Yang (co-founder and former CEO of Yahoo!)

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Taiwan, also known as Ilha Formosa (meaning “beautiful island in Spanish”), was the stepping stone for pirate groups and merchandisers from sailing from Japan, China, the Netherlands, Spain, and others. This island had been an independent kingdom until some troops from the Ming Empire occupied Taiwan for 30 years. After about 200 years of ineffective and corrupt ruling under the Qing Empire, Taiwan and surrounding islands were ceded in full sovereignty to the Empire of Japan in 1895. After the end of WWII in 1945, the US Navy ferried troops from the Republic of China (ROC) to Taiwan in order to accept the formal surrender of the Japanese military forces, but there was not an international treaty signed to settle the future of Taiwan. After being defeated in China’s civil war in 1949, the Chinese Nationalist Party ruled that the ROC would occupy Taiwan as a “base” to fight against the communists in mainland China. Therefore, believe or not, the official name of Taiwan is the Republic of China. Do not feel guilty; you are not the only one getting confused by the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (China).

After more than 38 years of being ruled under martial law and the dictatorship of the nationalists, the people of Taiwan started to fight for basic rights in mid 1980s.  In 1996, Taiwan held the first direct presidential election under the military threat of China. Now more and more people believe that Taiwan and China should be two different countries due to their differences in lifestyle, democracy, and freedom.

“Mr. Democracy,” Dr. Lee Teng-Hui, President of Taiwan 1988-2000
“Mr. Democracy,” Dr. Lee Teng-Hui, President of Taiwan 1988-2000

As China becomes more powerful, Taiwan is often pushed aside, occupying the place of an “international orphan.” She lost her seat in international organizations (including the UN) in 1970s, is being cut diplomatic relations with other countries (including the U.S.), etc. Today, there are only five countries in the world without diplomatic relations with the United States.  Does America want to continue to treat Taiwan like she treats other hostile countries like Iran, Cuba, or North Korea, just because of her relationship with China?

But visiting Taiwan is wonderful. I should add that you do not need to spend much money to easily enjoy Taiwan’s scenery and delicious cuisine.

Travel in Taiwan is generally convenient and safe. You only need to pay less than $35 to take a train or bus 200 miles from Taipei, the capital, to Kaohsiung, the second largest city in south. The old capital, Tainan, has much history, or you could visit the famous Ken-ting National Park in Pingtung. The eastern coast of Taiwan, Taidong and Hualien, also showcases the power and beauty of the gorgeous Pacific Ocean.  In Taipei, the National Palace Museum is a must for visitors. The exhibits there represent the finest artworks of China’s history.

The first official academy of Taiwan in Tainan
The first official academy of Taiwan in Tainan
Taiwan’s high speed train travels 200 miles per hour between the south and the north.
Taiwan’s high speed train travels 200 miles per hour between the south and the north.
The National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium in Ken-Ting National Park, Pingtung
The National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium in Ken-Ting National Park, Pingtung

One of the best reasons to visit Taiwan is to experience the core of Chinese culture that is preserved there.  Language is the best example. Though people in Taiwan and China share the same official spoken languages, the Taiwanese use traditional characters while the Chinese use simplified ones that were created during its Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s. In addition, the Taiwanese are also open to western culture and are always ready to embrace new ideas. In Taiwan, you certainly will not feel that you are a stranger!

Ma-chi (rice cakes) ready to eat!
Ma-chi (rice cakes) ready to eat!

No matter where you want to visit, you certainly need to visit the local night markets and try turkey rice bowls in Chai-Yi, Tainan dan zai noodles, Changhua ba-wan (meat sphere), oyster omelets, and other yummy yummies.

It’s not Thai food, but it will not disappoint!

Night markets are the best (but inexpensive) place to explore the delicious Taiwan!
Night markets are the best and most inexpensive place to explore the delicious cuisine of Taiwan!

* Holos are people who speak a dialect in southern Fujian in China. The language spoken by the Holos also is regarded as the Taiwanese language. The Hakkas were primarily from Guangdong in China and immigrated to Taiwan 200 years ago. Hakka means “guests” in Chinese and have a situation similar to that of the Jews in Europe. In 1990s, the leaders of the three Chinese countries — China (Deng Xiaopin), Taiwan (Lee Teng-Huie), and Singapore (Lee Kuan Yew) — were all Hokkaese.


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