Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Smile for the big picture

Despite spending most of the last 3 years in Taiwan, I'm new to Taiwan's foreigner blogs. Over the last couple of days I've started looking through a range of them. From the light and banal to the political and incisive; from the wonderfully self deceptive to the cynically self perceptive. Although I've only skimmed through a fraction of it, I've found Michael Turton's site especially rewarding. An Encyclopedic wealth of information on Taiwanese politics and current affairs strained through a strong, intelligent (generally) DPP outlook.

What I find disconcerting about most of the geo-political and economic opinion I've so far found on foreigner-in-Taiwan blogs is how bloody pessimistic it seems to be. Ever since I arrived in Taiwan I've been struck by how pessimistic most Taiwanese are if you get them on to these subjects. I've always argued the bright, happy case with them but they usually just shake their heads and give me a look that says "you just don't get it". I thought that as my Chinese improved, I might gain a better insight into what it was that I didn't get. Instead I've become even more perplexed and frustrated by this stoic, stubborn, fatalistic pessimism. I thought I might find some perky, sanguine views from my fellow foreigners but no - just more of the same half-emptiness.

What the fuck is wrong with everyone?

Taiwan has gone from poor to rich in a very impressive time. It has a globally integrated economy with an educated, intelligent, industrious work force that is willing to learn and adapt. It has a harmonious society where the old are cared for by their family, where streets are safe everywhere, where teenagers eat with and talk to their parents rather than take drugs with their friends. There is low unemployment. There is an efficient, sustainable health system. There is an admirably low poverty rate and yet no bloated welfare system. Infrastructure is good and improving. Taiwanese companies and people are better placed than any others to make money hand over fist on the back of the rising dragon.
Taiwan will never sit at the UN but China's army will never invade. The 21st century will see the nation state become less and less important as globalisation integrates us. Taiwan's differences will become less marked and less important. Taiwan will always be Taiwanese.

If this piece were read by the foreigner-in-Taiwan keyboard community, I'd get lots of erudite, all brains and no intelligence replies hammering my woolly naivety. Enough about the trees and more on the forest. Taiwan is a handsome teenager with no confidence and everyone goes on about the greasy spots without mentioning the beautiful face.

Am I wrong?


Maoman said...

As a paid-up member of Taiwan's foreigner-in-Taiwan keyboard community, I'd like to say that the diversity of thought and perspective of foreigners here is greater than you give them credit for. There's a lot of bitching and moaning on the internet, but that doesn't mean that that's all there is, or that it defines the people who do the bitching and moaning. I know people who spend half an hour a day bitching and moaning on the internet, and the other 23 and a half hours doing happy, productive things.

Daniel said...

I sort of notice that too now that you mention it. Everytime my parents watch the news and it mentions something political, or something on the future of Taiwan, they just sigh. (and repeat the sigh a couple more times)

=) But... its been years since we've been back.

Good blog =) Came here from a mention on Michael Turton's blog.

Mark said...

"If this piece were read by the foreigner-in-Taiwan keyboard community, I'd get lots of patronizing, erudite, all brains and no intelligence replies hammering my woolly naivety.(sic)

Wow. That almost makes me afraid to reply. I've noticed the pessimism, too. The strange thing, though, is that when I came here for a couple of weeks in 1997 (long before I could speak Chinese), people seemed really upbeat to me. It was only when I actually moved here at the end of 2002 that I noticed all the pessimism.

Maybe it's just that everyone sees China and India growing quicker. I don't know. But Taiwan's economy sure is doing alright for itself. According to PPP measures, Taiwan has surpassed Australia economically. There are still tons of Taiwanese who would love to get the heck out of here and go to places like Australia, though.

Daniel said...

Tell me more about the self-deceptive blogs :)


I think there are a lot of things going on in the topics you've talked about.

Expats around the world seem down on their host country, perhaps as a way of maintaining self-importance.

Taiwanese people express a "pessimistic" view of life based on the difficulties of having a good working experience in Taiwan, the difficulties of saving money, of buying a house and because they have to accept parents' tyrannical demands. To many, life does not seem like it's going to get better financially or careerwise, and also many believe that Taiwan's economy has stopped growing. The view is also based, I think, on the more traditional belief that the world isn't progressing, that our ancestors will return as our descendants, that there is only so much love in the world, and you can improve things only slightly, if at all.

I find the pessimism tough to hear as well, and I also give the "lighten up, guys" speech. Is it not possible that our Western upbringing has saddled us with an equally dubious optimistic outlook? Perhaps you don't need to see the trees because you can always leave Taiwan.

Robo said...


I've tried to stress to the people back home reading my blog and the articles I've written for a newspaper there that Taiwan isn't all missiles, superconductors, and florescent pigs. There's a lot more nuance, both good and bad.

Oh, and there's people here too. A considerable amount of 'em.

I've done my best to show as much as I can about the island, to show that we don't just sit here every day huddled in corners worrying about an attack by the PRC.

...about being negative though, most of the time when I talk about my time living in France (lived there for about 2 years before I came to Taiwan), people think I hated the place. Quotidian strikes, horrible education system, near universal distaste for globalization.

My badmouthing inspired many of my red-state (I'm from one of the reddest), France-hating interlocutors to chime in. Afterword, they would be surprised by my indignation.

Them: I thought you hated France?"

Me: Having problems with a place, doesn't mean I hate it. That doesn't mean I hate the French, or that I hate France. I have problems, with the country, but there's a lot I love about the place.

It just came naturally for me to tell people the bad things about living in Paris, because, well, everybody already knows what's great about the most touristed city in the world.

Moreover, though, I didn't care that these people were poopooing France. I had a problem with the fact that they had never been there! They didn't know anyone from France, even.

It's like you saying something bad about your mother and then your friend saying, "Yeah, I think she's a bitch too."

That goes for natives and expats alike.

As an expat, critizing the country you live is a sign of pride. It's to show that, in a way, it's your country. It's something very special to you, something you know better than a lot of people (most Americans reading my site, I'm sure, think I'm in Thailand), and you want things to be better.

God knows my criticism of the US (which is ample) is only because I love the place.

That's my two cents....

Patrick said...

"Taiwan will never again sit at the UN" is one of the most pessimistic comments I have read on a blog in a long time. Do you mean that even if China continues to grow in wealth and modernity, it will always have the type of government that bullies its neighbors? Do you mean that even if China someday has a more open (and even, gasp, democratic government), it will still try to annex its neighbors based on a imagined/constructed ethnic similarity?

Don't you see it? Your post is a prolonged "bitch and complaint". That's okay though - if we're in love with everything we see, are optimistic all the damn time, how on earth will we get things changed?

Robo said...

Also, I know that some of the older guys in the south are jaded, but I'm sure that the only reason they're not paralyzed by crushing depression is that they have beautiful weather. I guarantee you that if there were ever more than three consequtive days of sunshine in Taipei, you'd see a lot of the pessimism in the capital city evaporate.

Geof said...

FWIW, there's also often a distinction to be made here, which is between short-term and long-term pessimism. Personally, I'm pessimistic about Taiwan in the short-term; as long as it's the same people in power, the same people running the country and the companies, we're going to see the same stupid shit keep happening. But I'm optimistic about the place in the long term. I really believe that in a generation or two there'll be a massive change for the better in this place, and things will really start to kick into high gear. But that doesn't mean I can't bitch and moan about the idiocy and ignorance that I encounter nigh daily.

It's a lot of what Robo said: it's almost a kind of tough love thing. Granted, a lot of foreigners here bitch because they're idiots, but there are just as many who bitch because we believe Taiwan, as a single entity and as a group of 23 million individuals, could be so much better than it already is.

Geof said...

Robo: "I guarantee you that if there were ever more than three consequtive days of sunshine in Taipei, you'd see a lot of the pessimism in the capital city evaporate."
And I guarantee you that if there were ever more than three consecutive days of sunshine in Taipei, you'd see half the city hospitalized by a combination of sunstroke and plain old surprise.

CJB said...

I think some of the pessimism comes from the fact that expat communities--esp. in some of the 'smaller' cities on the island like Tainan--quickly grow small and are made up almost primarily of English teachers, a majority of whom don't take the time to learn the language seriously and don't make the effort to integrate into Taiwanese culture.

For those expats that really go out of their way to learn guo-yu or even Taiwanese, the ceiling for what they can accomplish is nearly limitless like you point out. However, when the vast majority of the expat community--even those who have been living in taiwan for 3-10 years--can scarcely piece together full sentences in chinese and forms its own sort of insular scene hanging out at the same 6 or 7 establishments while working at a buxiban, it can feel very claustrophobic and I can see that leading to pessimism and doldrums.

Not having lived in Taipei but having lived in Tokyo, my feeling is that bigger cities have communities of expats who do other things besides teach english, hence making them more interesting and dynamic....

thanks for considering this.

Walter said...

Thank you all for your excellent comments.

Mark said...

"Do you mean that even if China someday has a more open (and even, gasp, democratic government), it will still try to annex its neighbors based on a imagined/constructed ethnic similarity?"

Hold on, Patrick. Are you saying that people in Taiwan aren't nearly all descended from Chinese immigrants who have come here over the past few centuries and that they've just "imagined" that's what their ethnic ancestry was?

That would be a pretty extraordinary claim and would require some extraordinary evidence to back it up.

Ben Findlay said...

I have changed my profile name from "Walter" since I posted a thank you for the comments. So let me just say it again under my new and real name.

Thanks very much. As I left for China (a blogger-free zone) shortly after receiving most of them and was busy, I couldn't make timely replies. Re-reading the comments now, I have very little of substance to add. Valid points made all round.