Why Taiwan? (Part 2: A Cultural Perspective)

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” -David Foster Wallace, This is Water

At the end of World War II, many world leaders realized that they needed to take steps to prevent another great war from ever happening again. One of these people, Senator J. William Fulbright, set an ambitious goal: he believed that if potential leaders could learn about one another’s cultures and build strong relationships with people abroad, they would be less likely to support future wars against those countries.

To achieve this end, Senator Fulbright introduced a bill in 1945 that called for the “use of surplus war property to fund the promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture, and science.” On August 1, 1946, President Harry S. Truman signed the bill into law, and officially created the Fulbright Program, the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Government.

While I have long considered applying to the Fulbright Program, teaching a diverse population of students in an urban public school for the last several years has truly piqued my interest in learning about different cultures. Having previously had the opportunity to travel abroad, I have come to realize that my interest in visiting different countries centered on much more than tourism: I wanted to meet the people of other countries and come to genuinely understand their customs and way of life.

In the course of traveling, I have come to realize that you never really know where life will take you. I remember the friendliness of Patagonia’s indigenous people on my journey throughout South America and can recall the great conversations I had over dinner with locals while in Portugal two summers ago. When traveling through Havana last year, I listened to dozens of Cubans share their affection for the American people while at the same time respectfully disagreeing with U.S. government policy, particularly the failed embargo. I also have fond memories of my last night in Madrid, when six people from six different countries communicated using their newly acquired Spanish.

It is through these experiences that I have come to appreciate more fully the power of diversity. I also believe that traveling is one of the best ways to get to know the world, and perhaps more importantly, to get to know yourself. There is something about the serenity of traveling alone and the personal growth that comes about because of it that helps you look at life through a completely different lens.

Although I have been incredibly privileged my entire life, and have had multiple opportunities to travel throughout the America’s and Europe, I have never visited Asia before this trip. In applying for a Fulbright, I looked to study in a country whose customs are completely different from those with which I was familiar, a place that I ordinarily would not have thought to visit. I wanted to get to know the culture of a place to which few Americans have traveled to and come to appreciate the subtle nuances that make eastern culture so special.

As such, I was excited to see Taiwan, the Republic of China, on the list of Participating Territories for the 2017-2018 Fulbright ‘Distinguished Awards in Teaching’ Program. I was equally thrilled last April, when I received an e-mail letting me know that I will officially be spending 2018 abroad in Kaohsiung City, Taiwan. Once abroad, I will be hosted as a visiting scholar at National Kaohsiung Normal University in Kaohsiung City, the third largest city in Taiwan.

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Kaohsiung City at night

I am looking forward to conducting research and living in Taiwan, a country with a fascinating history. An island nation of 23.4 million people, its sovereignty has been hotly contested for over 500 years. After claiming Taiwan in 1895, the Japanese granted the land back to the Republic of China after being defeated in World War II. However, when Mao Zedong assumed power over the Chinese mainland in 1949 and renamed it the People’s Republic of China, the deposed government established a new seat of power in Taiwan. Currently, the mainland People’s Republic of China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, while Taiwan claims sovereignty over the entire mainland as the original Republic of China. Most international organizations, including the United States, do not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state.

Although a founding member, Taiwan is currently the most populous state and largest economy that is not a member of the United Nations. Taiwan’s government represented the entirety of China until 1971, when the People’s Republic of China assumed China’s seat. Geographically, Taiwan is a few hundred miles to the east of Hong Kong, and is roughly twice the size of New Jersey (and with 23 million people, has almost triple NJ’s population).

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New Jersey overlaid on top of Taiwan for comparison

I also look forward to experiencing Taiwan’s universal healthcare system first-hand after having read so much about it over the course of the last several years. Other interesting facts about Taiwan: the country competes in international competitions as Chinese Taipei, was the first democratic country in Asia, and was nicknamed Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island) by Portuguese explorers passing by the island en route to Macau as early as the 16th century.

As we move forward in a world that is increasingly changing and globally connected, the essential role each of us must play in fostering cross-cultural exchange becomes more apparent. For how else will we achieve a better tomorrow? If we can learn to listen attentively to one another, appreciate the wealth to be found in diverse cultures, and develop a stronger sense of the many different lenses through which one can view life—what Senator Fulbright referred to as “mutual understanding”—we might just start to care for one another in unprecedented ways. My only hope is that I can help contribute to Fulbright’s vision of creating a world with a little more knowledge and a little less conflict.

Perhaps David Foster Wallace said it best: “It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: This is water, this is water.” Maybe in Taiwan, I will actually be able to see the water once and for all.

 

This post is the second in a two-part series that attempts to answer the question, “Why Taiwan?” The first essay, focused on an educational perspective, can be found here.

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