By: Chao Chou of The Georgia Weekly Post
When the Portuguese first discovered the Island of Taiwan in the 16th century, they named it “Formosa,” which literally means “beautiful island.” The wonderful subtropical landscape still stands by the name today. Sitting one hundred miles off the coast of China, between Japan and the Philippines, the center of the island is much covered by high mountains. From 17 to 19 century, the island was occupied by the Dutch, Spanish, and Chinese. In 1885, Taiwan was made a province under the emperor of China. Besides the Japanese rule from 1896 to 1945 during Sino-Japanese Wars, it remains under the Chinese control ever since.
If you ever met a Taiwanese, the conversation goes like: “Hi, I’m from Taiwan.” “Oh yea, Thailand! What a wonderful country!” “No, Taiwan, the Republic of China.” “Oh, I get it, China! You’re Chinese!” Then a brief moment of awkwardness may last from seconds to minutes with the face of the Taiwanese turning pink, if not red. Most Americans and Europeans like other people around the globe would not have a slightest idea of what just went wrong in the conversation.
Historical Taiwan suffered from recognition crisis. For more than half a century, Taiwan, an island country a quarter the size of Georgia has suffered international recognition after the nationalists lost the Chinese Civil war facing the communists.
▲ Spanish Fort Santo Domingo. Although the Portuguese discovered the island and had commercial relationship with its people, it never colonized the place. There's no portuguese historical architecture in Taiwan...
According to the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei, Taiwan holds the sixth largest global source of foreign students in United States. Taiwan remains the 10th biggest trading partner of the United States. The United States is still Taiwan’s biggest overseas investor. Without a formal diplomatic post, the United States maintains unofficial relation with the island through the American Institute in Taiwan, a private non-profit corporation. Taiwan retains the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington D.C. In the state of Georgia, It retains an office in Dekalb County. There are two places in Georgia where you will see the flag of Taiwan flying. The Meng House of Dunwoody and The Taipei culture Center in Chamblee. Both are located in Dekalb County.
▲ Fort Zeelandia
Most of the fertile plains are situated on the west coast of the island, and are currently the most developed parts of the country. It is also where all international travelers will be landing today. Heading straight for the capital Taipei, visitors will find a skyline similar to any other industrialized cities—towering buildings cover most part of the city. Multiple public transportations are available for people to go about the city in extremely cheap prices. Subway train system, buses, and even bikes all cost around 1 dollar per ride. While public transportation is the most common choice for visitors to travel in the city, guests will find most Taiwanese choosing scooters and motorbikes in the densely populated island. Streets are filled with these two-wheel automobiles. The first culture shock might be the amount of scooters there is, if not first shocked by how people don’t always follow traffic roles. Taiwanese loves the scooters for their convenience, and convenience sure is a principle they live by. There’s a convenient store literally on every block of the street. People can always find something to eat throughout the day. Taipei alone has twenty streets dedicated to snacking. A variety of food stands are there to satisfy every taste bud.
Although each city has its own urban escape, if visitors are truly looking forward to get away from the hot, crowded and polluted city, leaving the downtown districts would be the solution. Head south or head east, there exist landscapes similar to what the Portuguese discovered 4 centuries ago. When clouds and rain often hover over Taipei like they do in London, other parts of Taiwan enjoys sunshine all year long, except monsoon and summer taiphoon season. With plentiful rainfall of over 100 inches per year, the climate is much like that of Hawaii—besides the melting heat in summer. It’s a place to leave winter coats behind and take pleasure in warm climate weather all year round. In this soothing climate, travelers will find amazing mountain ranges, rural farm scenery, sea coasts and beaches as they leave Taipei for other parts of Taiwan.
One of the problems visitors have when distinguishing Taiwanese from Chinese is that the two cultures have way too much in common. According to the World Population Review, 98% of Taiwanese population are Han Chinese, including 12 % of those who fled to Taiwan with the nationalist after Chinese Civil War. The remaining 2% are Taiwanese aborigines of the Austronesian origin. Nevertheless, most of the aborigines living on the plain have been assimilated into Han Chinese culture. Only few mountain tribes are able to maintain parts of their culture, and even theirs are fading quickly with the younger generation’s preference toward metropolitan living over tribal lives.
Having such a high percentage of Chinese population, and the official and most commonly spoken language being mandarin Chinese, little is left for average global citizens to distinguish Taiwanese culture from Chinese culture. One of the major differences which can be easily recognized is perhaps the writing. Taiwan is one of the only places in the world where Traditional Chinese writing is still strong in practice. Other Chinese speaking countries use Simplified Chinese. Even Hong Kong and Macao, where the use of traditional writing has been the major practice are also showing signs of changes. Although mandarin is the official spoken language, many other languages are used by the Taiwanese. The languages are a blend of indigenous dialects, Hakka and Hokkien, which originated from Fujian Province just cross-strait Taiwan. Since 86% of Han Chinese are of the origin, when average Taiwanese say they speak Taiwanese, it generally refers to the Hokkien dialect. Many people from southern Taiwan are more attached to the dialect, and prefer to speak Taiwanese instead of mandarin.
Other than languages, the island celebrates various forms of art and music. Traditional wooden carvings, pottery and ceramics have kept their popularity under the strong influence of western culture. Comparing with the arts in Europe, which is more refined under the influence of the Renaissance, traditional art in Taiwan honors the primordial style of craftsmanship, seeking to keep materials in their most natural qualities. The younger generation, however, have come to appreciate sheek and sleek modern design like North European interior design. The tiny island now has five IKEA along west coast Taiwan.
Music, on the other hand, is a salad bowl of indigenous music, Han Chinese traditional music, western, Korean, and Japanese pop culture. The only form of art and music which has maintained its unique presentation is perhaps the glove puppetry. These delicate wooden puppets dressed in Chinese traditional costumes were the primary forms of entertainment in Taiwan for centuries. The shows are all performed in Taiwanese dialect, with themes leaning toward patriotism or filial piety. This form of theater performance stay popular especially in southern Taiwan today.
Besides languages and art, Chinese culture influence is clearly revealed in the island’s most well-known historical monument— The National Palace Museum. Built in 1965 to resemble the Forbidden City in Beijing, the museum houses the world’s best collection of Chinese art treasure. The immense stock of art and artifacts can only be display 1% at any given time due to the massive amount of accumulation. The museum regularly rotates the display to unveil the range of historical items.
Remnants of other cultures from the earlier colonial history can still be observed on the island. Historical sights such as the Dutch Fort Zeelandia is in southern Taiwan, and the Spanish Fort Santo Domingo locates in the north suburb of Taipei. Both of these monuments remain popular attractions for local and international travelers. Modern daily living in Taiwan however, have a much heavier American and western impact. Western food such as McDonald’s, TGI Fridays, and Krispy Kreme are just as well embraced as the local cuisines. And western fashion and brands from high end fashion such as Louis Vuitton to H&M, and Forever 21 all have extensive fans and followers in Taiwan.
While the wave of globalization clashes the island, it grabs on tight to its pride in all Taiwanese celebrities around the globe. Famous Taiwanese celebrities in the U.S. includes director Ang Lee, actress Shu Qi, golf player Yani Tseng, designer Jason Wu, and baseball player Chien-Ming Wang. When Linsanity swooped America 3 years ago, many of his fans on the island also took hold of his Taiwanese ancestry, and called him Taiwanese. As the US Representative Eni Faleomavaega visited Taiwan in 2012, he even specifically clarified with President Ma that “Jeremy Lin is a true-blooded born American who happens to be of Taiwanese ancestry.”
Taiwan has always tried to squeeze it way to distinguish itself on international stages. It continues to keep as much meaningful culture and economic participation in international organizations when official recognition is not yet possible. And yet, the people seem to be showing signs of weariness towards the fights between large political parties. In 2014, the citizens of Taipei elected Ko Wen-je, a doctor who ran as an independent to be its mayor. The hot and crowded island is surely hoping for changes. This January, CNN reported an internet frenzy when the mayor was spotted on the subway train alone. The people clearly seem to be looking for a down-to-earth leader and someone who stands for their daily living, such as housing and minimum salary. While its GDP appears to be $43,600 US dollar per capita in 2014, the minimum salary for university graduates on the island remained low at $680. From 2008 to 2014, housing prices in Taipei leapt 91.6%, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Owning a home is a fantasy for average household. And the younger generation are now bidding for changes.
▲ Night Markets.. Not in the city of New York.
For first timers in Taiwan, Taipei is a good place to start with. Many of its historical sights will give visitors a general idea of the island’s rich culture and history. Besides historical expeditions, take time for snacking. If visitors missed the food stands by the street corners throughout the day, there’s always the night markets. Shilin Night Market is Taipei’s largest and most famous night market. A variety of food is available there. But be careful when the locals try to lure you in trying bizarre food like stinky tofu, which they may call Chinese cheese. It is NOT cheese. For those who are not a fan of bizarre food, give a second thought. Other than that, guests will find some of the best Chinese snacks and cuisine in the world. Credit cards don’t work in these markets, so be sure to bring enough cash along with empty stomach.
For people who’ve had enough of the city, head east to the Taroko National Park, which is two hours away by train. There visitors can enjoy hiking along the marble-walled gorge, which has been a popular destination since the 1930s. Besides hiking, it’s become trendy to travel the east coast by bike. For Georgia's bike lovers, a bike can be rent in stores near the train station at $4 to10 US dollar/per day, depending on the level of the bike. Liyu Lake is another attraction especially in the summer. Rowing on the lake takes summer heat away. On cool autumn and winter days, a hot spring is the perfect destination to end the day. It will ease the soar muscle of all travelers.
For those who are seeking more adventures on the culture aspect of the island, don’t miss the holidays and festivals Taiwanese passionately and devotedly celebrate. Chinese New Year is around January to Feburary, Mid-Autumn Festival around September to October and Ghost Festival is around August depeding on the lunar calendar. These are the major festivals on the island. If weather is the major concern, autumn through spring would be the best time to travel to Taiwan. When summer is too hot for most westerners, other times of the year are relatively warm and dry.
Taiwanese people are often remarked for their hospitality. Most Taiwanese are welling to help a lost traveler even when it means taking a detour from their original plans. Although the majority of them don’t speak fluent English, they engage all kinds of hand gesture and body language to give directions.
When visitors try to speak any extent of Chinese or Taiwanese, the locals will be thrilled with joy. Visitors will be rewarded with large smiles and compliments on their “good Chinese”, even when the truth is quite the opposite. And yet, every culture has its taboo. Besides avoiding expressions like “Taiwan is part of China,” try not to criticize the food. The people take pride in their food over their global celebrities at times. They will lose all their sense of humor when people trifle with the above two matters. Other than that, travelers would find some of the friendliest people on earth and enjoy a remarkable tour.