Dispatch, Taiwan: A question of identity


Destinations editor Eric Moya visited Taipei as the Grand Hyatt in the Taiwanese capital put the finishing touches on a $100 million renovation. Click to read Eric's first dispatch.

About a decade ago, when I was teaching English to high school and college students in Fuzhou, China, I frequently attended "English Corner": gatherings where English learners could practice in an informal setting.

As one might expect, native speakers who made an appearance at English Corner seldom lacked for conversation partners; after all, opportunities to see whether one's English passed muster with the laowai (literally "old foreigner" but used more-or-less affectionately to describe foreigners of all ages) were relatively rare in Fuzhou then.

Subject matter was generally breezy -- with some exceptions. During a night of English Corner, three questions were nearly inevitable:

"Do you think Chinese girls are very beautiful?"
"What are your favorite Chinese foods?"
"Do you think Taiwan is part of China?"

Guess which of these I wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole? (Hint: Women of all nationalities are beautiful, of course, and once when I visited Beijing, I ate roast duck every day.)

As a political question, it was a landmine. But taken as a way to explore the complex relationship between China and Taiwan, perhaps it's a question worth addressing.

Whereas Hong Kong and Macau were reunified with China in the '90s, Taiwan continues to be a land apart, with no colonial ties to sever. To be sure, throughout its history Taiwan has seen its share of colonization: by the Portuguese (who, inspired by its lush vegetation, dubbed it Ilha Formosa, or "beautiful island"), Dutch, Spanish and Japanese. The island's aboriginal populations, in fact, would have witnessed the first major influx of Chinese settlers in the 17th century, around the time the Dutch and Spanish were staking their claims.

This history has left Taiwan with a kind of lived-in international influence generally lacking in China. So as the latter continues to enjoy the newfound spoils of a rapidly growing economy -- the luxury goods, leisure travel and even pop culture its citizens were long denied -- the former embraces its Western and Asian influences more like a long-term relationship than a new fling.

It can be seen in the European- and Japanese-influenced architecture, such as the National Taiwan Museum, built in the early 20th century during the Japanese occupation but, with its columns and stained-glass ceiling, in a decidedly Western style:

It's also evident in its citizens' multilingualism: Many elderly Taiwanese can speak Japanese, another legacy of Japan's occupation, which World War II brought to an end. And houses of worship can be seen all around Taipei, for devotees of Taoism, Buddhism, Catholicism and Protestant faiths.

Of course, the fact remains that China is Taiwan's greatest cultural influence. The vast majority of its citizens speak Mandarin or a Chinese dialect as a first language and trace their ancestry just across the Taiwan Straits to China's Fujian province (of which Fuzhou is the capital). Temples dedicated to Confucius can be found throughout Taiwan, popular attractions here even when the philosopher's teachings fell out of favor in China during Chairman Mao's so-called Cultural Revolution.

Perhaps no place embodies the cultural ties between Taiwan and China better than the National Palace Museum, repository for hundreds of thousands of artworks and artifacts spanning thousands of years of Chinese history ... and located in Taipei. (The pieces made their way to Taiwan in the late 1940s, along with Chiang Kai-shek's ousted Chinese Nationalist Party.)

So is Taiwan part of China? Still not touching it. But during my time in Taiwan, it's become clear that, like all of the civilizations that have left their mark on Ilha Formosa, and despite divergent paths wrought by decades of social, economic and political upheaval, China is forever part of Taiwan.

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