Beyond our cultural differences, we find our human similarities.
Source: Snot-nosed Jack
Beyond our cultural differences, we find our human similarities.
Source: Snot-nosed Jack
Cross-culturalists talk about the distinctions between internal guilt cultures like the West and the public shame (face) cultures of Taiwan and the East. But I believe there is something that transcends and underlies both of these cultural distinctions – the sense of justice. I think this is hard-wired for the entire human race. Alas, it’s a part of us that is too often activated in the negative.
When I was ten years old, my family moved to Lesotho in Africa from 1975-77. The country only had a population of one million people back then. It is a sovereign country geographically surrounded by its much larger and more populous neighbor, South Africa. It is called “the Roof of Africa” because the entire nation is above 1000 meters. At those altitudes, the sun cuts razor sharp shadows through the dry air. There are winter frosts, and a sky full of stars. It’s an almost forestless country, and the many sheep and cattle grazing on the mountain slopes keep it that way. To make up for the lack of trees however, their dung can be combined with mud to build huts, and is a good fuel for cooking fires, although its smoke adds a tinge of pungency to the air.
Maseru, the capital city, had a whopping 30,000 inhabitants. The roads downtown were OK, and led you past a few fancy buildings like an art shop shaped like a gigantic Basuto hat, and some banks and government offices. There was one small truly posh neighborhood, a couple of nice ones, and then in declining order of poverty, plain-Jane concrete block homes, and then shanty towns. You could hear the summer rain coming at a distance by the sound it made on the tin rooves.
Out on the street, you could see who lived where: African in a brand new Mercedes-Benz with driver? Posh area! Anybody in a Land Rover, Volvo, or kombi? Nice area! Any Whites? Nice area! African walking on the street in decent white-collar garb? Cinder block homes. Tsotsi hat, blanket, or overalls? Shanty town. Little blond boy in safari shorts and sandals? That would be me, dear reader! I must have gotten that world-class African smile ten times a day, especially from older countryside women who would beam down at me, touch my hair and say “Heh heh! Such pretty hair! Heh heh heh!”
My father was a civil engineer on a Third World development project, building a small center of civilization in a remote mountain area. He was on site most of the week. I went to the international elementary school with the other expat kids and the local elites. We lived in a nice area in a lovely old brick house with grape vines, rose bushes and plum trees in the garden. We had a coal fireplace for winter, no TV, and a 4-digit phone number. We had maids who lived in the shanty town, chubby cheerful women.
We lived right across the street from the Maseru Club, the colonial era country club, with swimming pool, tennis courts, golf course, etc. There was a bar where white dudes would get florid on Saturdays. My band of ruffians and I wandered the grounds and beyond, playing kick-the-can, talking about Formula race cars, and shooting at pigeons with pellet guns. Once we killed a Black Mamba hiding in a rock crevice after shooting it about 20 times! Occasionally we had run-ins with a group of homeless African boys who caddied at the gold course. They waited around by the cars until a group of players came in, hoping to be hired. Those not actively caddying would open the car gas tanks, lower a piece of string with a rag at the end into the gas, and then sniff it to get high. After a few years of this their neurological and physical health was shot. When we cut through the car park sometimes they would shake us down for change. I was scared of them, because there were a couple of mean older ones who looked pretty f***ed up. There were also some scrawny younger kids. These poor guys had a pretty rough life. But my band of privileged young expats and I happily roamed far and wide. We were ninjas who could sneak into any part of the club undetected. God help us if we did get caught! We’d get a hoarse-voiced yelling at by “The Colonel”, an old British soldier who’d lost a lung in India in World War II. He’d come after us shaking his cane in the air, and kick us out for the rest of the day, if he found us up to no good.
On Sundays, families would gather for a curry buffet on the veranda. The women folk would come out, ladies with hats and make up, young girls in pretty dresses. After curry, all the kids would watch Sunday matinees like silly Dean Martin movies, or Tarzan. After that, us boys would hang around outside as parents gradually came out to collect their kids, get into their cars and drive away. That’s when I got into a fight with a local kid. It was my fault.
One day when we hanging around a bunch of the caddies came to beg for change. There was one skinny little guy who had mucus constantly running out of his nose, maybe from sniffing gas. He had his hand out, and I pretended to give him some change, but then pulled it back and put it into my pocket – an obnoxious boyish prank. Oh, that pissed him off! He yelled at me, and then took off his belt and tried to whip me with it. This wasn’t very effective because he had to hold his pants up with his other hand! He was a scrawny little guy, probably as least as old as me but physically no match due to general poor health and nutrition.
All the other caddies and local elite or expat boys knew at once without speaking that no one else should get involved. The fight was on! “Get him, John!” “Go for it man!” He kept whipping at me with the belt and hauling up his pants with the other hand, his eyes glaring at me, snot running down his face. I got bolder and rushed him, chasing him around a parked car, and then closed on him, grabbed the back of his head with my left hand and went to punch him in the face with my right. He grabbed my punching hand with both of his, stopping my fist about 10 centimeters from his mouth. He had dropped his belt and probably his pants too, but I didn’t notice! I made a big effort and got in a pretty good punch right on his grimacing mouth. Bop! He whimpered and blood suddenly formed clear red lines in the cracks between his teeth. My whole feeling changed at once. I suddenly lost all desire to fight, so I let him go. He ran a short distance away, and threw rocks at me until a big Canadian boy – a silent friend – came up and clobbered him one. The kid, bloodied and beaten, ran down the road sobbing, clutching his pants, back to the golf course he called home. I had won the fight. Later we named him “Snot-nosed Jack”.
A few weeks later, I was completely alone, walking across the polo field toward the Maseru Café to score some chappies chewing gum or perhaps a Stoney’s ginger beer when I suddenly saw – to my shock – Snot-nosed Jack. He was alone on the road right by the polo field, only about 100 meters away. He shouted, then climbed through the four-strand barbed wired fence and came at me. I was scared! He came right up, full of angry words, and started to take off his belt. I told him no, it’s OK. I don’t want to fight. I offered him a small amount of change. He could see that I was scared. His face totally changed. He beamed at me, very happy, and refused the money. This was a point of honor. He walked away happily, waving goodbye. There was no sneer, no attempt at retribution. We were good.
That brings us back, dear reader, to my starting point. The “standard” cross-cultural analysis is that Africa is more of a shame culture, which involves public space. But the boy hadn’t “shamed me back” in front of my crew or his. There were no witnesses. I think his happiness was about warrior culture, something ingrained in boys in Africa. He had stood up again and prevailed against this strange “rich” White boy who had insulted and beaten him. He had proven his courage, and hence his value as a man, hence as a human being.
I don’t think this kind of thing would have happened in Taiwan. I think here he would have got some friends and jumped me, or just stayed away. But I think anybody reading this story from Taiwan, Canada, Lesotho or whatever country would feel that somehow justice had been done.
EPILOGUE: I don’t think this incident is a metaphor for race relations, but feel free to interpret it any way you want. Lesotho is in terrible shape now, ravaged by AIDS. We can thank both Western and African superstitions for that. The Thaba Tseka Project my dad worked on is now considered a textbook case in Third World development failures, of how simply throwing money at a problem doesn’t work. South Africa – also AIDS blighted – has transitioned from competent apartheid to incompetent freedom, for now. Let’s hope for the best! And Snot-nosed Jack? Here’s where I’d like to have a rosy conclusion and say that maybe somehow he’d remember me as a friend.
But the truth is he’s probably dead. Where’s the justice in that?
Are you an expat or a foreign student doing an overseas stint? A globile (globally mobile) entrepreneur on a start-up quest? Or did you meet your significant other abroad and follow them back? Those are some very practical reasons to live in a foreign land like Taiwan. But there’s another kind of traveler, a global nomad, someone for whom travel itself is a natural condition of their life. Some are born into it, while others are stricken with the wanderlust, and roam the Earth at will. I am one of them, dear reader. How about you? Where do you fit into the growing tribe of global migrants?
It’s a huge group, actually! Currently, there are almost 250,000,000 people living in a country they weren’t born in. That’s a 40% increase since the year 2000, and more than a 300% increase since the year 1960, a growth rate higher than the world’s population. Every year around another 4 million become migrants. If we were a nation, we’d be the fourth most populous in the world. If we all held hands we could circle the Earth once, a 40,000 km human chain.
And it would be a diverse group too! Blue-collar guest workers, white-collar tech workers, conventional immigrants, twenty million refugees. But one less well-known category is of children who were dragged around the world by their parents during their developmental years, the kids of soldiers, diplomats, missionaries, international school teachers, expat business-people, etc. It’s not so much that these kids exist that is not well known, but rather how it affects their long-term development.
Third Culture Kids – TCKs – are kids who grow up outside their native culture. Their native (or parental) culture is the first culture, the culture(s) they grow up in is the second culture, and their own hybridization is the third culture. They tend to have a few distinctive characteristics: higher levels of education and creativity, multilingual proficiency, and better social and cultural intelligence. But there are also some distinctive challenges: TCK’s tend to have confused national loyalties and a hard time fitting in back home. In fact, the question, “Where is home?” is often a hard one to answer, sometimes for the rest of their life. One summary of these cultural chameleons says, “TCK’s are particularly adept at building relationships with other cultures while not possessing a cultural identity of their own.” This can lead to angst and delayed development.
One TCK told me: “Well, I was born in Hong Kong, stayed there for the first 18 months of my life, then my parents returned to the UK. We later also lived in Kuwait. My father was in the British military, so even back in the UK I did not have one ‘home town’ – moving house with each redeployment, every three years or so.” After that he said, the pattern was set and he just kept moving around: India, Germany, and now back in Asia. He tried living in the UK, but he just didn’t like it.
Jenny, another TCK told me “My grandparents were from China, and they moved to the Philippines. I went to the local schools there. My family always identified as Chinese….But my father doesn’t like to use chopsticks! ….They wanted me to live in Taiwan: ‘Chinese countries are safe’, my dad said.” When Jenny got here, she worked really hard on her Mandarin in an effort to fit in. “But I found there were some things about Taiwanese culture I couldn’t agree with. Like the “face” culture, where people do or don’t do things for face. I also couldn’t get into the superstitions.” Jenny says she mainly identifies with American culture now, because it is global, and many of her friends are from the USA.
Some TCKs eventually settle down and adapt to either their native culture or an adopted one. Some stay in a slightly blue limbo. But others embrace their situation.
One example of this is TED-talker Taiye Selasi, a novelist of Nigerian and Ghanaian descent, born in the UK, who grew up in Massachusetts and studied International Relations at Oxford. Where is she from? Selasi talks about being ‘multilocal’: “History is real,” she says, “Culture is real. But the sovereign state is only 400 years old. How can a person come from an idea?” She says people come from the places they are local to. It’s an idea that might be of solace and utility to identity-crisis prone TCKs.
Another TED-talker, global author Pico Iyer says: “The typical person I meet today will be, let’s say, a half-Korean, half-German young woman living in Paris. And as soon as she meets a half-Thai, half-Canadian young guy from Edinburgh, she recognizes him as kin. She realizes that she probably has much more in common with him than with anybody entirely of Korea or entirely of Germany.”
Multilocal works for me! I’m a first generation Anglo-Canadian. That makes me technically a TCK, but I think Brits in Canada are not really going to a different culture; it’s more like going to live with your cousins! Later, ‘traveler dad’ took us to Lesotho for a few years. It was my first real cross-cultural experience, very intense and eye-opening. When we came back, we lived in Ottawa. I could have reattached to Canadian-ness and become normal, but the wanderlust in our family erupted again. I moved to Montreal, which is a cross-cultural experience for an Anglo. Then my sister moved to Venezuela, and my parents to India. And after visiting each place, I got reinfected with the travel virus, what the Germans call “farsickness”.
So here I am in Taiwan. I am local to Taipei, especially Tamsui, but many other places as well on this island that is more than just an idea. I’m still Canadian, but one part – something else. I live in a cross-cultural interzone made up of my fellow locals. And it suits me just fine!
Originally from New Mexico and Oregon, Hall studied film and theater studies at St. Edward’s University in Austin. “I did West Side Story in the community while I was still in high school when I was 14,” he recounts. His parents encouraged his interest in the arts. “There were a lot of creative people hanging around my house, it was at the end of the hippy period.” While other boys were playing electric guitar and football, he was doing dance, singing and community theater. Through university he was involved in many entertainment projects, including summer theater in Birmingham, Alabama. Just before graduation in 1998, he did honors school in flamenco in Spain. This lust for travel was a premonition of his eventual journey to Taiwan. “I’d always thought of joining the Peace Corps,” Hall said. But now it was time to dance on down to big street, the Big Apple!
New York City! An incredibly exciting and challenging place for a young man in love with dance and theater. Hall found loads of work there, although often it was in shows traveling around the country. “I’d audition for shows, get a gig, and then it’s on the road for three months: Iowa, Denver, Florida, or Montana. Or you’d get onto a national show and do maybe 200 shows around the whole country.” When he came back, he’d start looking for work again. And also see lots of shows! “There was so much going on, so many little theaters and artistic scenes, acting classes, dancing, everything you could imagine.” There were also the big shows like Miss Saigon, the Blue Man Group, De La Guarda etc. “I’d be given free tickets at the TKTS booth in Times Squares – the crossroads of the universe – where I was working as on on-site promoter for shows – from gambling addict scalpers who couldn’t sell them by showtime.”
Then the travel bug bit him again. “I had a buddy from college that had settled in Taiwan. He was doing some theater stuff in southern Taiwan, so on July 4th, 2001, I came out to see him.” This led him to a big community carnival type production in an abandoned sugar factory in Ciaotou, a district of Kaohsiung. There were about 100 people, half of them Taiwanese, half from all over the world, including Brazil and Europe. “We did a parade through the small town, with stilt walkers, jugglers and clowns! It was great!”
Following the footsteps of his friend, Hall moved to Taichung, where he found firm footing as a dancer. “I taught tap dancing, did company shows, press conferences, and also taught flamenco and salsa. I met some old guys who were the godfathers of tap in Taiwan!” he said. He also began to notice some cultural differences. “Compared to the USA, people here have a tendency to just wing it when it comes to small shows. I remember one time we showed up for a tap performance and they showed us a grassy area and told us that’s where we were supposed to work! Tap dancing on grass?” He also found that people were kind of casual about wiring, fire in performance, and other safety issues. Furthermore, despite his many skills, he was always known in Taichung as the “dance guy” because he did a lot of tap and flamenco shows, and that’s the culture here. “You stick to one thing and do it as well as possible; you’re known for that one thing.”
“Later on I became the ‘musical guy’,” said Hall, “working with Greenray Theater, Lancreators Theatre, and Paper Windmill Theater doing their touring children’s theater.” Then his career started to blossom. From 2007 to 2014, some productions he worked on as either producer, consultant, director or choreographer at major venues – including the National Theater – were Smokey Joe’s Café, Let’s Broadway, Daylight, and Anything Goes.
One interesting show he co-produced and directed was Hedwig and the Angry Inch in Mandarin, a glam rock musical about a transgendered woman who experiences a lot of pain, frustration and tragedy because of her conflicted gender identity. “Split down the middle, I thought it would be interesting for Taiwanese because it is similar to the country’s own identity issues.”
Another was a Taiwanese play that he directed and choreographed at Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall and the National Theatre called “Golden Banana History” (Hedwig might have giggled at the title) about a revolt of banana farmers in southern Taiwan during the early years of KMT rule. It was politicized during Chen Shui-bian’s presidency, then became a cash cow as DPP organizations around the island paid for shows to inspire voters. The writer and producer feuded over the money, which meant the show was eventually cancelled, the producer went into hiding, and the performers and designers sued for compensation!
It was only one of the times that Hall was frustrated by the way things work in Taiwan. Government regulations were also a problem. “You can only get a work permit for as long as your project was running. If that was less than 6 months, they wouldn’t give you an ARC,” said Hall. He’d had his APRC clock zeroed due to bad paperwork, and getting permits was often a nightmare. This gave him a creative inspiration. In Golden Banana History, “There was a court scene. I made it into a kind of madcap affair with circus music and papers flying around everywhere, my interpretation of the craziness of the bureaucracy here!”
Eventually Hall decided that he had enough of relying on other people. “A contract means absolutely nothing here!” He’d been lied to and ripped off enough. What’s more, he had wide experience, a long list of talented creative and technical people to work with, and a mature understanding about what could work in Taiwan. And as Anton Chekhov would say, “Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.”
And so, in 2014, the Lab Space was born and has been rocking on to this day. “We’ve done Tuesdays with Morrie, Wait Until Dark, Santaland Diaries, Ives’ Shorts, the God of Carnage, I, Claudia, and two 24-hour theatre festivals. What we do is special. It’s different when your audience is just 2 meters away from the actors.”
Hall’s excitement is clear when he talks about this theater he loves. But as the Immortal Bard said, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Making the bottom line work is a challenge. “We pay our talent, and we manage to break even on the productions,” in part due to the kindness of the Taipei City Department of Cultural Affairs. But what makes it tough are the operational costs, keeping the LAB Space running between shows. “We’ve applied for money from the national government’s Ministry of Culture for operational costs, but we keep getting rejected.”
This is frustrating, because Hall knows he can be a real asset to Taiwan. He pauses at this point, torn between humility and the need to make a point: “With my skillset I’ve made an impact here over 15 years. Maybe a hundred people I’ve helped shape have become key performers in current major Taiwanese shows. I’ve helped hundreds more by showing them that even if they are a big fish in a small pond, there’s a bigger pond. And when they see that, they step up….I’ve helped funnel several performers directly from Taiwan to New York, writing recommendations for universities, acting programs, etc. The Taiwanese tourism and economic offices promote Taiwan in NYC with some of that same talent, showing off their singing and dancing. So it has come full circle.” Hall is generous in his praise for the people at the Lab Space. “All the people I’ve worked with there have been amazing, every single one of them. But if I had to mention two, it would be Emma Liu, my past administrator, who left this year. She helped get the whole thing going. And her replacement Derek Kwan.” Kwan is also an actor for the LAB’s productions, someone Hall calls “a true renaissance man”.
“I am excited about the future. I’m looking forward to doing The Diary of Anne Frank. We also want to do some New York style cabaret. I’m also planning to bring in some guest directors from here and Europe, maybe New York.”
“We are doing stuff no one else is, and for a cheaper price. We do surveys after each show, and we have a 99% very satisfied rating.” How many shows per year would Hall like supporters of his theater to see in order to help it stay afloat? “Just come to one show. One. After that, I’m confident people will come back.”
Break a leg, bro!
What’s friendly, cheap, and doesn’t pay taxes in Taiwan? Me? Nope.The future? I hope not. But you’re schmart if you guessed the Uber ride-hailing service. It’s a super popular app: freedom from betel nut, 100NT cheaper, and schmartphone friendly. The future will be good because of innovations like Uber! Too bad it got kiboshed for being totally illegal, say betel-nut-phobes and technophiles alike, hoping that it returns to the streets of Taipei,
But Uber ain’t blowing up my skirt, if you know what I mean. And it’s not just because I have a fondness for Taiwanese cabbies. It’s also because I’ve come to the conclusion that technology is not always our friend, dear reader. Not when one is on the wrong end of the better weapon, for example, or on the wrong side of history, and not when corporate profits and shareholder value mean getting rid of your job. Case in point: Uber. “First, they came for the taxi drivers!”
Then they’ll come for your job. According to a 2013 Oxford University study, as many as 47% of American jobs could eventually be replaced by automation. Other sources estimate up to 50% unemployment in 30 years. Factory workers, replaced by industrial robots, you think? Yes, of course. That’s been happening for decades. But also drivers of all sorts.Uber’s real plan isn’t to provide a new system where more presentable human drivers in shiny app-summoned-cars replace grumpy old men in beat up cabs. It’s going to use self-driving cars to replace human drivers altogether. Within 20 years, most commercial fleet drivers will also be replaced. (That’s a 10-4 good buddy!) Airline pilots will be next. But wait – computers can’t do that! Wrong verb tense English teachers! They couldn’t do that. Now they can. And a lot of your jobs will soon have been replaced, in the future imperfect. Not only will live video technology and 5G VoIP upgrades mean that you will soon be competing online with all the great unwashed native speakers of the West, but AI enhanced learning will diminish the value of the human teacher to that of a bright-eyed greeter. We may always need human doctors, but we may not need them as surgeons or diagnosticians. Robots can perform delicate surgical procedures more precisely and safely than human hands. Intelligent agents sifting through terabytes of “big” medical data can cross-reference your symptoms better than any human brain.
Robots and AI aren’t just becoming more efficient, they also don’t need unions, good working conditions, vacations, salaries, pensions, or health insurance. And they are getting cheaper and better every year.
The “end of employment” will set us free, we are told, to do higher things. Like write poetry and debate the soul in neo-renaissance communes in the forest? Or to get drunk under the bridge along with the taxi drivers, speechwriters, economists, historians, reporters, technical writers, copy writers, translators, models, cooks, construction workers, accountants, and models, to name but a few? Whatever makes the boss more money, I expect.
But who is going to buy all the products and services if we don’t have jobs? Don’t worry buddy! There will be lots of cheap stuff for oompa loompas like us. If a slum dweller in Manila can afford a cell phone, don’t worry, you can too! Some techno-utopians argue that things will get so cheap that you won’t need much money. But while wages have been stagnant for 15 years due to automation and offshoring, food prices and real estate prices have been going up for decades for the most basic of reasons: increasing demand, especially for things like meat. Futurists create wondrous visions of remote work from cheap 3D-printed homes, as well as super-efficient food production in vertical farms. Ant burgers in the trailer park? Or syntho-steak under the pine trees? Same answer as above.
Other futurists tout a “basic human income”. (It’s already happening in Finland!) We won’t need jobs because we’ll get super welfare. Party at my place! But that’s hard for me to get my head around too. Let’s assume 50% unemployment in the year 2050. First, that’s a huge hit to the tax base. But anyway, for the USA, let’s assume that 50% of the population – workers and their dependents – needs an annual basic human income of 12,000 USD (2017 adjusted) per person. 200 million (2050 estimate) people X 12k = equals 2.4 trillion USD per year, about four times America’s current military spending and 2/3 of the overall budget. Good luck getting that one through Congress!
But perhaps you think I am paranoid, dear reader. Even in this age of weakening democracy and rising inequality, there’s no way the uber rich would ever throw us decent middle-class hobbits under the bus! We’ll all be taken care of by our corporate overlords. There will be a bright new techno-world waiting for us. It’s the magic of the markets. So get into your shiny Uber and enjoy your ride to the future.
Why is it that right-wing douchebags like Trump have the nerve to stand up to asshole communist regimes like China, but supposedly decent, principled guys like Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau don’t?
As a Canadian living in Taiwan for the last fifteen years, I was gratified by the news of Trump’s phone call with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, just as I have been appalled at most else he’s done or said. I’m very from being on the right wing – even in strictly Canadian terms – and I’m sick of hearing Trump’s name, but l welcomed his pre-inauguration call to Taiwanese president Tsai Yingwen, which angered China. The reason is simple: what Taiwan needs most is recognition from the world. Its invisibility makes marginalization and coercion by China much more likely. And since Taiwan is a free, democratic country with a lot in common with Canada, that would be a huge shame.
Not that you’d likely have heard much about Taiwan’s unique society before Trump’s call, or his subsequent remarks doubling down on the “one China” policy.
Recognition of Taiwan has been constantly blocked by communist-controlled China, which has territorial claims on the prosperous island, considering it a renegade province that has never re-unified with the mainland after losing the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Taiwan has to compete in the Olympics as “Chinese Taipei”. (Imagine how Canadians would feel about competing as “British Ottawa!”) China wants the flag of Taiwan to be invisible to the public, even outside Taiwan’s “officially unofficial” embassy in Washington DC. Taiwan cannot participate in the WHO, thanks to China, except as “Chinese Taipei” with only observer status. Even Switzerland’s ISO considers Taiwan to be “Taiwan, province of China.”
Yet despite a supposed tradition of standing up for democracy, Canada has done little since Harper’s early years to stand up to China on anything, let alone Taiwan. Current PM Justin Trudeau has cozied up to China, with plans to negotiate a mutual extradition treaty, despite the growing superpower’s recent vicious crackdown on human rights lawyers. At a recent IATA air-safety meeting in Montreal, Taiwan was shut out at China’s request. What “Mr. Wonderful” Trudeau say about this on his home turf? Nothing.
In addition, the CBC’s coverage of Taiwan has been very light on anything positive, even about the massive December 10 rally in Taipei that saw 250,000 people support same-sex marriage, an change endorsed by Taiwan’s female president. Taiwan may very well become the first nation in Asia to support marriage equality, a fact reported by news outlets around the world. Yet a Google search for “Taiwan marriage equality CBC” comes up blank. However, the numerous CBC articles about Trump’s recent statements about Taiwan have focused on China’s angry response, or the risks Trump is taking. References to Taiwan’s democracy are often couched in terms of how Trump should not “recognize Taiwan as an independent democratic country.”
Well, I’ve got news for you CBC: Taiwan is an independent democratic country. What’s more, it has a humane political culture, the rule of law, and a free press, unlike China. Also unlike China, it doesn’t illegally detain and torture human rights activists. Heck, it even has good public healthcare! It’s a friendly, peaceful, hardworking nation, the kind of place Canadians would instantly connect with.
It’s also a real success story as a self-made country. Taiwan was one of the original Asian tigers, and although times are tougher now (as they are all over) it still has a decent standard of living, low unemployment, and a dynamic electronics industry. In terms of overall quality of life, people in Canada are a bit better off. But we did that with a huge trove of natural resources, and the benefit of having the world’s greatest superpower as our friend and neighbor. Taiwan achieved almost the same thing with a growing hostile giant as their neighbor, and with comparatively few natural resources, except human resources that is.
Taiwan is one of the good guys, and it could use a shout out from our government. It could use a bit more sunlight in the international arena, and it could use the occasional word of overt verbal support by leaders with more class than Donald Trump.
But don’t expect that from young Trudeau. He’s high on oil pipe dreams of trade with China, and for him principles seem to be just words used for locking in voter base, not for standing up for human rights worldwide. It’s a damn shame.
Music pumps, alcohol is consumed, hormones are released, bodies gyrate! It’s another Ladies’ Night at the Brass Monkey pub in downtown Taipei, for many folks a great way to release their mid-week tension. But could this cross-cultural revelry also be part of the answer to making Taiwan more internationally competitive?
Maybe! Because tearing up the dance floor are a group from the “Foreign Students in Taiwan” club at their weekly “International Mingle”. FSIT’s ranks have continued to swell in recent years – their FB page now has almost 15,000 members – part of a steady increase in the number of foreign students that many hope will make Taiwan wiser in the ways of the world.
Taiwan needs more foreign talent! Every year, up to 30,000 ambitious local professionals leave to work in China, the USA, or other places where salaries are higher and opportunities more diverse. In addition, about 56,000 Taiwanese annually go abroad to study in the USA, the UK, Japan, China or Korea – among other countries. After graduation, many of these find jobs in China, Europe or the USA.
This is a serious loss, as the native labor force is shrinking due to age, and comes at a time when Taiwan needs its best and brightest to compete in a global economy increasingly driven by innovation.
However, while government measures to attract foreign professionals to Taiwan to fill this gap have been limp, the number of foreign students in Taiwan has been growing impressively. From 2006 to 2014, the total number of foreign students – whether for degree, diploma, short course, exchange program, or Mandarin language training – went from 27,000 to almost 93,000, an increase of 66,000. Of this 93,000, 33,000 were from Mainland China, and 20,000 were “overseas compatriots” i.e. ethnic Chinese not from the PRC without a Taiwan ID card, often from Hong Kong or Malaysia. That’s a lot of Han bodies, but still leaves 40,000 students per year from other cultures, an increase of about 23,000 from 2006.
Out of a total of 1.3 million college students overall, that’s not much – only 3%. But it’s still much higher than the overall percentage of Westerners in the workforce. And on campuses with international MBA programs and Mandarin training centers (NTU, NTNU, NCCU, to name a few), it’s even more noticeable.
This leads to all kinds of cultural exchanges: local students and staff have a chance to interact with students from around the globe: Russia, India, Turkey, Italy, Latin America, as well as North America and Western Europe; foreign students get to experience the Taiwanese. Everybody gets lucky!
That is something the FSIT and its co-founder Daniel Tarpy are best at. Tarpy was born into a multicultural world. His dad was a US navy sailor in the Vietnam War, and Tarpy himself was born in ‘the PI’, the Philippines. His parents took a position as missionaries in Taiwan, which is why Tarpy lives here. In 2011, he was involved with TedX at Ming Chuan University, where he is now doing his master’s in global affairs, and in the same year he and some classmates started the FSIT. The vision was, he says, “to integrate the world, to have less violence, more understanding.” The group has held arts and games events, big parties – as well as their weekly “mingle” at the Brass Monkey. Naturally, with university students, there is a lot – ahem – ‘going on’. Romance between foreigners and locals is nothing new to Taiwan, and Tarpy says that about half of foreign students date each other and the other half date locals. He says that the biggest cross-cultural pattern here is Caucasian on Taiwanese, but notes that there is a shift toward increasing numbers of Taiwanese men with Caucasian women. That’s one indicator of cross-cultural influence. Another is the growing number of Taiwanese students who seem totally at home around foreigners. “Some students just seem more comfortable with an international crowd. Others don’t. You can really tell the difference.”
But while this spike of foreign students is helping future professionals to be more open minded and comfortable working in close-quarters with a multicultural crowd, can it really make up for the brain drain?
Thanks to recent changes in government policy, foreign students can now get part-time open work permits. Many of them give language classes (privates) or work as servers. Also, after graduation, they can get a 6-month visa extension to look for jobs, and don’t need to meet the normal requirement of two years of work experience before they can be hired by Taiwanese companies. Many stay on as teachers or do sales and marketing jobs for local companies exporting to their own countries, and a lot of ethnic Chinese from Southeast Asia work in the ICT industry.
But not only are their numbers far fewer, they also lack the experience of those heading abroad. In fact, many argue that the brain drain cannot be stopped unless its underlying cause is addressed – low salaries. Why would top talent come here if they are seduced by better paying rivals like China? And why wouldn’t an adventurous young Taiwanese engineer, facing the grim realities of local salary levels, want to get some experience in Silicon Valley?
It’s a hard one: in the age of offshoring, automation and AI, salaries are not likely to rise significantly. And in terms of this recent bulge in foreign students eventually fulfilling Taiwan’s needs, no one knows how long it’s really going to be!
The FSIT Students in Taiwan is a lovely group of bright young people who were very kind to me and I hold them in high esteem. If you are bored and want to blow off some steam, go to the Brass Monkey’s Ladies’ Night on Thursdays, dear reader, and say “Hi!” to Daniel Tarpy and friends. You’ll have a blast!