I get a lot of emails from people asking me, if you had to choose one place to live, China or Taiwan, which one would it be?
As we all know, China claims Taiwan to be its own, while Taiwanese people are a bit mixed on the issue. I can safely say I never met a Taiwanese person that supports re-unification under the Communist government of China, but most Taiwanese support the status-quo, and choose to remain in limbo between full independence and total re-unification.
This, I must say, says a lot about the people on both sides of the strait. Having lived in both places, I can dissect some of the traits I have noticed in the lifestyle, behavior, dreams, aspirations, and cultural differences between the two.
Now before you cry out, “Unfair! Racist! You can’t group these people together! Everyone is their own person!”
Ok, I agree with you for the most part. I can’t stand when people make generalizations about certain groups of people. Unfortunately, Chinese people group themselves in terms of many ideas, and everyday opinions. One might blame the tethers of a Confucian based society, or the brainwashing of a suffocating government’s tyrannical rule over free speech and ideas, but the point remains. Individualism is something of a new phenomenon in China, and even in Taiwan, remains to really catch on to the level of that of a western nation.
A subjective question begs a subjective answer, so let’s break it down into lists.
Imagine you are a high school student, walking away from a championship game, knowing that despite your team’s best efforts, you still lost. You didn’t get that scholarship, and it’s time to face the facts.
You hang your head low, and gather your things in silence. Your days of competition are over, and you slink back home to begin your life as an adult.
You finish college, and disappear into obscurity.
Although you are pretty successful now, when someone brings up that game, you get defensive, depressed, and take it out on the people around on you.
You gain the reputation of an angry and controlling person, and eventually you lose everything that you tried to hold on to.
Put this in terms of the way Taiwan has been run over the last 50 years, and you will see traits and characteristics of a people, defeated, lost, and ready to silently move on.
When the nationalist party of China lost to the communists in 1949, the losing party tucked its tail between its legs, and buggered off to the little island of Taiwan.
Upon arrival, the dictatorship that once ruled the main land was now condensed, and an island of fear was constructed in a hurry. People lived under fear of a leader with a mean streak, and were silenced and forcibly beaten whenever the officials felt like cracking down on supposed communists. The government wasn’t going to lose what it had control of before, especially on a tiny island.
People shut their mouths, took the beating, and let nature take its course. Eventually, the maniac was replaced by a modern democracy, and people got on with their lives, made some money, and carried on under a pseudo-culture of capitalism, mixed Asian characteristics, and an indirect, timid society.
There was never a revolution, of sorts, that propelled the society into fiery reform.
Taiwan is a really simple place. No one is very outspoken, things get done fairly slowly, society bumbles along with a lowered head, and a very confused identity about what it actually is.
Living in Taiwan, I have never really had a feeling that I was anywhere special. Sure, it’s nice, and there are a lot of pretty cool things here, but no one has ever made me feel excited about their country. There is nationalism, but you never feel it’s really genuine. There are so many people here that have no idea what true independence means, because for so long, they wanted to be free from the Japanese occupation, then the nationalist Chinese occupation, and now they want to be free from the Communist threat from the People’s Republic across the strait.
People turn a blind eye to things in a different way than in China. Here, it’s pretty rude to be direct about anything, so conversations, asking for things, and general life in the workplace can be frustrating at best. There is a real sense of apathy toward everything.
In other words, a smooth transition in government isn’t always the most exciting kind.
Imagine being left in a room with a TV, and being hooked up to a brain wave machine with an electric shock machine attached to your fingertips. The TV only played messages from the government that told you that materialism, money, and everything that could be considered decadent is bad. If you thought otherwise, or disagreed, you would receive a shock. After time, you would begin to absorb the ideas, willing or not, and being cut off from everything else, you wouldn’t have anyone swaying your opinion otherwise.
Now imagine leaving that room after 50 years, and all of the sudden, you are flooded with bright lights, billboards, different food, cars, money… How do you think you would feel? Confused? Yes. Irritated? Maybe? Excited? Definitely.
This is modern day China. There is money flying around the air so fast, that people pay little attention to the ones being trampled under the cavalry of capitalism. The religious mantra of Mao has been replaced with the jingles from products lining the walls of millions of shops around a nation that was, until very recently, covered with small plots of farm land, and the odd iron smelt.
This fervor and everyday passion for being alive is something that I never grew tired of in China. The Chinese are barraging through anything that once held them back, and they aren’t bothering to question or oppose the government that once held them back. After all, they are getting what they want now. All thanks to the government as well!
In fact, I never met a Chinese person that said they disliked China, or it’s government. The government has done a fantastic job of censoring negativity, and stoking the fire of nationalism. Living in China, you can’t help but getting caught up in all of the positivity, and you start thinking that, despite all of this supposed freedom we have in the west, maybe turning a blind eye to the sadness and despair of the world is a much happier way to go about the day.
In China, there is a potent mix of blind capitalism, despicable corruption, horrendous poverty, riches that could only be imagined, gross human rights abuses, crime out the ears, selfishness beyond extreme, and a real sense that you know the sun will come out the next day (if you can see it through the pollution).
While the older generation gets washed away in obscurity, grievances of past leadership forgotten (forcefully), and emotion bursting at the seams of society, you really get a sense that this energetic, fast-paced, tarnished, and emerging country is striding into the new world with a big smile on it’s face.
Bottle all of these feelings and emotions into a person, and you have one fiery, fierce, and fantastically interesting individual.
About the author: Matthew Tye is originally from New York and taught in China. He now lives in Taiwan and maintains a blog about his life and travels http://matthewttye.blogspot.com/