Remembering Taiwan

by Stefan Chiarantano, Jan 31, 2006 | Destinations: Taiwan / Taipei

I've enjoyed writing about my experiences in Japan and by doing so; it has sparked me to write about my year in Taiwan. Have you ever experienced here for there? I have had such moments. There have been times when aspects of Japan had reminded me of Taiwan. Rice paddies in both countries are laid out with a draughtsman's skill and accuracy to detail. Taipei and Tokyo both have overcrowded districts and subway trains crammed with masses of people. However, Taiwan presented a different order of things.

The Chinese arrived in 1430 to find the island already inhabited by indigenous peoples whose numbers have diminished over the centuries. Today, there remain eight distinct tribes that are found throughout the island. The island was fought over by the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Spanish, and the French. In 1895, following the Sino-Japanese war, it was ceded to Japan. Japan is credited with building Taiwan's infrastructure.

Following its repatriation to China after WWII, Taiwan went through a turbulent political period. Today, it faces new challenges under the one China policy put forward by Richard Nixon, the former President of the United States. Taiwan lost its seat on the U.N.

Following its return to the motherland and prior to Chiang Kai-Shek taking refuge on the island with his 2-million man army together with their families, the newly appointed Chinese governor and his apparatchiks brutalized the country. The repercussions are still felt to this day and are reflected in the two distinct political parties vying for political control of the island, the mainlanders (who came over with Chiang Kai-Shek) versus the Taiwanese, descendants of the earlier Chinese settlers. Between the years of 1945 to 1949, the island's local population was suppressed and there was indiscriminate killing of the Taiwanese intelligentsia. Taiwan remained a military dictatorship until the son of Chiang Kai-Shek the then ruler of Taiwan paved the way for democratic elections in the late 1980s.

Due to a twist of history, Taiwan offers much in the way of food, a major tourist draw to the island. Chen Kai-Shek's army was made up of recruits from all regions of China who brought to the island their cuisine. Today, all regional cuisines of China can be found on the island.

Despite its turbulent history, Taiwan has transformed itself into an economic superpower thanks to the efforts of the US educated Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (sister-in-law of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China) who spoke flawless English. She worked tirelessly on behalf of her husband the Generalissimo and because of her eloquence and lobbying, Taiwan became the recipient of US foreign aid. She recently died at the age of 104 having ended her days living in exile in New York City. In spite of her efforts, regrettably, many Taiwanese view her as a self-serving individual. There are no monuments to this remarkable woman. Mention her name and it is enough to send the Taiwanese into a fit of rage.

Taipei city has many beautiful modern buildings and filthy hovels, lovely parks and overcrowded districts teeming with tens of thousands of people. I cannot forget the littered streets populated with packs of feral dogs running amok and posing a danger.

When Taiwan was hit by a typhoon, it rained non-stop for several days. It was literally raining cats and dogs. I had never experienced a typhoon before. Classes were cancelled. No one seemed to be worried. No one was panicking. They had seen it all before. The Taiwanese would be inconvenienced for a few days and things would come to a halt. The island was regularly hit by typhoons because of it geographical location in the Pacific Ocean. So, I bunkered down like the rest of the populace and weathered it out. From my window, the downpour resembled a solid wall of water. A few days later the typhoon finally subsided. I was relieved and rushed outside to escape from the smallness of my tiny apartment. As soon as I got outside, I noticed immediately how wonderfully clean the air smelled. It was fresh and invigorating.

The heat, the pollution, the filth and stench from the open sewers and from the day and night markets made my experiences more vivid and pungent. Shihlin market had to be relocated to another part of the city due to health concerns relating to rat infestation. Yet, paradise was found nearby, in the spas of Yamingshan Mountain near Taipei city. Flowers and trees were everywhere in and around the spas. The spas were an oasis from the crowded districts, the heat and pollution of Taipei. In spite of its drawbacks, I loved Taipei's vibrancy. It is a city full of life and things to do.

Whenever I stepped out of my apartment, I would experience something new - the pleasure of living abroad.

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