Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Taiwan? That's my brother's name!

Average Joes and Janes on Taiwan: blank stares, knit brows

Global Post, July 5, 2009

TAIPEI — What does the average American know about Taiwan?

Not much — at least if my conversations on a recent trip back to the U.S. are anything to go by.

What I did get was lots of confusion, wrinkled brows and blank stares.

A sign of things to come came at a Starbucks in Washington, D.C., where I talked to the staff at 6:30 in the morning while working off jetlag.

"Taiwan?" said one employee, after I'd told him where I live. "They still spanking people over there?"

It took me a moment to realize he was talking about Singapore, where an American man famously received four lashes with a rattan cane for vandalism in 1994.

"Taiwan — is that in the Middle East?" the other employee said.

"No, Far East," I said.

"I had a friend who lived in the Middle East," he replied, undeterred. "Iran, I think. He had to leave, he said it was too hot."

Later, at an airport bookstore, a clerk was pushing a frequent buyer card on me. After several no's, I finally said, "Look, I can't use the card — I live in Taiwan."

"Taiwan?" she said with surprise. "That's my brother's name!"

"Really?" I said, surprised. Then, after a moment, "Did your parents realize that's also the name of a country?"

"I don't know," she said. "I don't think so."

Actually, it wasn't the first time I'd heard of Americans named Taiwan. California produced a star football player named "Taiwan Jones," and there are listings for the same name on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Apparently, it's a variant of similar names like "Taevion," "Travone," or "Tyronne" for black males.

But the best response had to come from a woman at Plimoth Plantation's "1627 English Village." She was an actress, firmly in character as a 17th century settler in one of the earliest American colonies.

She started chatting about the miserable wet weather, saying, "We haven't had a good drying day in a long time."

"I know what that's like, I live in Taiwan," I said. "It's so humid your clothes don't dry when you hang them out."

"I'm sorry sir?" she said with a blank look.

"Have you heard of Taiwan?"

"No sir."

"Well have you heard of the Chinese?"

"The Chinese? Why yes, sir."

"What have you heard about the Chinese?"

"To tell the truth sir, I don't really follow you, sir," she said, probably racking her actress brain trying to figure out if the Plymouth settlers would have been familiar with the Chinese or not.

She was stymied for a few moments, then recovered, in character.

"Well, I suppose whatever country you're from, you always need a good drying day."

Other, 21st century Americans knew more about Taiwan but were confused. They know there's some problem between China and Taiwan, but find the details baffling.

Not that I can much blame them. News stories about Taiwan have little relevance for most Americans.

Such stories don't often explain the basics, and when they do, frequently use misleading chestnuts like: "Taiwan split from China amid civil war in 1949."

So herewith, a few fast facts about the island-nation:

Basics: Taiwan is a potato-shaped island only a bit larger than Maryland. It lies 100 miles off the southeast coast of China, and has a population of 23 million (more than Australia!). Ninety-eight percent are ethnic Chinese; the remaining 2 percent are Austronesian Aborigines.

History: Portugese explorers named the island "Formosa." Later it was home to pirates and Dutch, French and Spanish colonizers, before being conquered by a Chinese navy in the 17th century.

The Japanese colonized Taiwan from 1895 to 1945, then surrendered it to the Chinese Nationalists (the United States' World War II ally). Those Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan after being defeated by Mao Zedong's communists.

Nationalist autocrats ruled Taiwan until democratization began in the late 1980s. The island's first direct presidential election was in 1996.

Current status: For all intents and purposes, Taiwan is an independent state, with its own democratic government, territory and population.

However, only 23 small countries (not including the U.S.) formally recognize it. That's a legacy of the Cold War era, when both the KMT in Taipei and communists in Beijing insisted they represented the real "China."

Now, Taiwan insists it’s a sovereign state, but Beijing says Taiwan is part of its territory, awaiting reunification. Most analysts agree that no Chinese leadership can politically afford to give up that claim.

Latest trends: Under the China-friendly Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, elected in 2008, cross-strait ties have warmed dramatically. Commercial ties have expanded, including direct flights and investment agreements.

Despite the economic progress, though, the two sides remain politically far apart. Most analysts expect that impasse to continue indefinitely.

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