Midyear Research Conference: Reflections on Taiwan vs. China

A few weeks ago, Fulbright Taiwan hosted a conference for all of the researchers in the greater China area: the Fulbright Research Workshop (傅爾布萊特年度研討會) with attendees from Taiwan, China, Macau and Hong Kong. The conference was packed with activities, which only makes sense given the effort of bringing together such 70+ people in the same spot. Somewhat to my surprise, the focus of most discussions was Taiwan.  Taiwan history, politics, society. Taiwan music. Taiwan energy. Taiwan human rights movements. The only mentions of mainland China and the US were how they were related to Taiwan.

At first, I was a little confused: why was everyone getting a crash course on Taiwan? I began to see the logic in it probably about halfway through. During my time in Taiwan, I have forgotten what China is actually like. Whereas the rule of “anything goes” and “case by case basis” maintains sovereignty in China, Taiwan generally functions via systems and rules (eg. take a number and wait, sort your trash, line up). And where China is ruled by the somewhat mysterious and ruthless Communist Party, Taiwan’s government system is a highly vocal, transparent, divided democracy (“demo-crazy” as one speaker called it). But to understand the US relations with China, you must understand some things about Taiwan. Furthermore, as one considers whether or not there is hope for China as a freer society, it would be amiss to ignore how Taiwan transitioned from single party martial law to the functioning democracy that it is now.

This was pretty much what the conference looked like. Unfortunately, it was very beautiful weather in Taipei and we sat inside the whole day. But the venues were well-chosen: day one was in 中山堂, which as been an important meeting place since it was constructed by the Japanese in 1928 http://english.zsh.taipei.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=143661&ctNode=11029&mp=119062. Day two was held at Cheng Chi University, which was one of the many institutions relocated with the ROC. On the third day, we spent time at a satellite branch of NTU and the Mayor's Salon, which was the residence constructed for the mayor of Taipei before the Japanese left. http://www.mayorsalon.tw/en-guide.aspx President Ma remarked that he was mayor of Taipei, but did not get to live there when he was speaking.
This was pretty much what the conference looked like. Unfortunately, it was very beautiful weather in Taipei and we sat inside for three whole days. But the venues were well-chosen: day one was in 中山堂, which as been an important meeting place since it was constructed by the Japanese in 1928 . Day two was held at Cheng Chi University, which was one of the many institutions relocated with the ROC. On the third day, we spent time at a satellite branch of NTU and the Mayor’s Salon, which was the residence constructed for the mayor of Taipei before the Japanese left.  President Ma remarked that he was mayor of Taipei, but did not get to live there when he was speaking.

Perhaps the overall point of the conference was to give everyone greater perspective before they returned home from their Fulbright experience. It was a sobering to talk to people who are attempting to research in the stricter hierarchical systems of Chinese universities, where they are not welcomed and told that their topics are too politically sensitive. Where they are researching the best numbers to describe the environmental poisons that they themselves are ingesting. Where they are more often greeted with suspicion or disinterest instead of enthusiasm. For those of us in Taiwan, it was a reminder that other places are still struggling for access to rights that seem relatively guaranteed in the US and Taiwan. For those in mainland China, I am glad that they got to see a little bit more of flawed, yet functional society on this side of the strait.

It is impossible to understand the both Taiwan and China if you know only one. They are simply too different. Furthermore it is important to hold them next to each other for comparison and understanding. This conference allowed for just that.

I also enjoyed realizing how much I knew about Taiwan… but also realizing how much more there is to know. It was a great opportunity to hear from and talk to experts in a variety of fields: healthcare, education, politics to name just a few. I learned that the Taiwanese economy is best described as being composed of Small to Medium Enterprises (SME). I learned that Taiwan is relatively advanced when it comes to women’s equality metrics due to mandated quotas of women in government and serving on boards. I learned about Teresa Teng, the wildly famous pop singer from Taiwan who is apparently known throughout all of East Asia (I particularly liked the phrase ”老鄧不如小鄧”, or “Old Deng isn’t as good as Little Deng”, referring to Deng XiaoPing not as influential as Teresa Teng). My understanding of this complex place called “Taiwan” grew a little more.

Clearly the highlight of excitement focused on the final day and our meeting with President Ma. There was understandable fretting about timeliness and behavior and logistics from the Fulbright staff, and plenty of media and security around as well adding to the excitement. Although I haven’t met an American president, I assume that the security would be more intense. Some of the other Fulbrighters and I were speculating that it didn’t even look like some of the guards were carrying guns – despite the fuss that some of the Taiwanese were making, the President’s entourage actually did not seem all that large.

My overall impression of President Ma was that he was fairly articulate (even in a second language,) and managed to dexterously walk political lines while talking about a variety of topics. He described the US-Taiwan Relations act as a “masterpiece of ambiguity”, and his own words managed to follow suit.

For example, my friend (and Fulbright Taiwan Fellow), Katherine Alexander, posed the question of “What does being Taiwanese mean to you?”  I commend it as an interesting, yet not confrontational, question on the how Taiwan is a unique place. President Ma’s answer was very careful, and did not address the question the way that I was expecting. I was thinking that he would share some anecdotes about the culture, history, shared personality of Taiwan. At first I found his answer to be an awkward sidestep of the question. Yet, having had more time to think about it, I now think it was at least a good aversion. He essentially said that “Taiwan” and “Republic of China” need not be distinguished. They are two words for the same thing. While there still remain some people who uphold the ROC’s claim to sovereignty of the entire territory in the mainland China, in general, most people don’t think that the ROC is anything other than the island of Taiwan and its scattered claimed islands. In that way, the ROC and Taiwan are the same thing, and there’s nothing out of the ordinary about a difference between political and common names: Ma provided the example of “the Netherlands” and “Holland”, but there’s also even the “USA” and “America” (no one ever says “America” to refer to Mexico).

No, he didn’t say what he thought it meant to be Taiwanese, but he did subtly indicate his position on maintaining status quo and not rocking boats unnecessarily. The country name as Republic of China instead of perhaps Republic of Taiwan need not get anyone’s goat. Obviously to change the name would be a big snaffoo – resulting in a lot of yelling – but is not actually going to change anything the way the government is actually running.

Sketches of some of the speakers. Which one is President Ma?
Sketches of some of the speakers. Which one is President Ma?

Finally, meeting and interacting with all the China 2012-2013 Fulbrighters was refreshing. They are a diverse, yet clearly remarkable collection of people. There were comedians, writers, sociologists, and so many more mixed in. I look forward to seeing the results of the work that they are doing out in the world.

Fresh off the plane

It’s the end of my second day in Taiwan, but so much has happened that it feels like I’ve been here for much longer. Yet there’s also still so much that I don’t know, and that I need to sort out, so it also feels like I’ve hardly managed to get my feet wet. Overall, I’m not even sure where to begin.

My first impressions are that this was an excellent decision and such a great opportunity. I’ve had some minor snaffoos but also feel like I am well on my way to having a good and productive time here. I’ve met a lot of people, applied for a resident visa, found an apartment to live in for at least the next month, read a bunch of papers and have an exciting direction to start on research.

Still much to figure out – everything from where to buy toilet paper and what to do with trash and also actually making friends – but definitely getting started! I have found everyone here really is nice and accommodating: for example, the taxi driver who helped me take my luggage from my hotel to the apartment was really sweet and undercharged me. I only wish I had made him take the extra money, but it still feels like my reactions to everything that is going on are a little bit slow. I’ll just have to look for some opportunities to pay the kindness forward, I suppose.

Tomorrow and the day after are meetings with the rest of the Fulbrighters. I’m looking forward to it, but also looking forward to next week when I can actually get down to work.

First Post!

Here’s to my first post of what will hopefully be a collection (although my previous experience in writing blogs has proven that I am not the most reliable). I’m starting this to record some of the experiences of my ten month stay in Taiwan starting tomorrow (sort of – with the time difference and traveling, I actually won’t arrive in Taipei until what will be September 5).

What will I be doing during that time? To be honest, I actually don’t have a solid answer for that. I can tell you what I would like to be doing: I received a Fulbright student grant to do research on the environmental impact of organic and regular high mountain tea farming. I wrote the proposal because I think I’d like to be doing just that. I imagine it would be like this: plenty of days out hiking around beautiful, misty tea farms, learning about tea agriculture, taking breaks to sample and discuss tea culture and spending some time in labs learning cool new lab techniques. But I am also approaching this experience openly, considering that I have a lot to learn about Taiwan, tea farming and analytical lab techniques, it’s entirely possible that the three don’t mix well, or that there will be other reasons why this idea doesn’t pan out. In fact, I find it highly unlikely that reality will be anything like the above scenario, but there is only one way to find out.

So instead, I am going with broader goals to learn as much about Taiwan and environmental science research that is going on there (and elsewhere) as I can. If it turns out that I can swing this to include tea farming – great. If not, I hope that I can find other projects that are fruitful instead. I’ve been talking to biogeochemistry researchers at Academia Sinica and National Taiwan Normal University and I plan to explore the projects that they are working on as well as the feasibility of the tea plantation research that I want to do.

On top of that, I hope to learn a lot about Taiwan, make friends with Taiwanese people, take my mandarin to a whole new level of fluency and usefulness, and travel around the country to see the beautiful things that I’ve heard about it.

I’m really excited, but also nervous because there are still so many unknowns. I spent a lot of time stressing out about what I will be doing and how I will do it and where I will do it and when and… getting very worried while trying to plan for things that I don’t really have a feel for.

However, I have also been assured countless times that Taiwanese people are friendly, and that the food is good. How, then, can I go wrong?