Friday, March 08, 2013

Bring them over, let them experience Taiwan

President Ma at the workshop
It’s easy to ignore Taiwan or to regard it as a mere extension of China. Visit the place, experience its people, however, and it leaves an impression that stays with you forever 

I had arrived about half an hour early on Tuesday morning before I, along with professors Alexander Huang (黃介正) of Tamkang University and Lin Cheng-yi (林正義) of Academia Sinica, were to address the about 75 students who were taking part in this year’s Fulbright Research Workshop at the beautiful Zhongshan Hall in Taipei.

Flipping through the program booklet and short bios of the participants, I was struck by how few of the students came from sponsoring universities in Taiwan. The great majority of them, more than 80 percent, were affiliated with universities in China, with only a handful from Hong Kong and Macau (as this is a Fulbright program for students studying abroad, all must have US citizenship). My first reaction was to think to myself that, once again, academic and government institutions were putting too much emphasis on China at the expense of other countries, Taiwan included.

I shelved that thought, expecting that my presentation, Taiwan-centric as it was, would, if I was lucky, be met with cold stares or, if I ruffled too many feathers, shaking fists. (It went very well, and I think both Mr Huang and I succeeded in highlighting the many reasons why Taiwan is not China, starting with its freedoms, mores, and values system.)

Just before we began the 75-minute panel, one of the staffers told the students that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who they were scheduled to meet for a full hour on Thursday, was interested in knowing how many of them had been to Taiwan before. A quick show of hands settled the matter: about one third had done so; for the rest, this was their first time on the island.

Chatting with some of the organizers after the panel, I realized that the overrepresentation of Chinese universities wasn’t, as some would be quick to conclude, a shadowy plot by agencies to saturate Taiwan with Chinese students, but rather something much more subtle. What point would there be in having large numbers of Fulbright students from Taiwanese universities attend a workshop in Taiwan? one asked. Instead, the plan was to bring as many students as possible from Chinese universities for them to experience Taiwan first-hand and to see just how different it is from China. I later was told that while the workshop spanned three days, Fulbright provided accommodation for five nights and encouraged students to spend the weekend before or after the program traveling round the country and interacting with the people. Not a bad idea at all.

From my discussions with some of the students during lunch — the dining room was about 30 meters from the balcony from which president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) used to address (one can press a button to hear recordings of his tinny voice) the crowd down below — it became evident that many of them, including a fellow Canadian from Montreal (with dual US citizenship) who now studies in Beijing, were quite taken with the place. The friendliness, politeness and orderliness of Taiwanese, the much better air quality in the cities, the absence of this indescribable sense of oppressiveness that weighs upon the individual in China, all were clear signs that they were in a very different place — perhaps a very different country, in fact, even if some were unwilling yet to articulate their first impressions to such an extent.

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