R.O.C. On!

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We were nearly out of money.

Taiwan, a small country, controls its foreign exchange. Not for nefarious purposes (think Venezuela and Zimbabwe), but because — when it comes to monetary policy — size has consequences. Though fiscally and economically sound, Taiwan is vulnerable to currency manipulation from a multitude of sources.

Our guidebooks recommended changing money at the airport kiosks. But George, our Taiwanese contact in Taipei, told us not to fret — ATMs were everywhere and banks exchanged currency at will without a commission. Since we’d arrived at midnight, were thoroughly jet-lagged, and still faced an hour’s ride into Taipei, we followed George’s advice.

The following day, with George translating and easing the procedure at his bank, we changed only a portion of our funds — mostly because of my innate conservatism and the ease of the transaction. However, we weren’t run-of-the-mill tourists or business visitors to Formosa, as the Taiwanese still proudly, and often, refer to their country.

Tina, my wife, and I were planning to bicycle Taiwan’s perimeter — about 850 miles — eating at street stalls and night markets, and sleeping in modest lodgings such as B&Bs. But what we hadn’t foreseen caught up with us. Taiwan’s banks stick to the big cities and, while ATMs are everywhere, they rejected our US cards like an organ transplant gone bad. Moreover, only big hotels and fancy restaurants accepted credit cards.

Riding through Neipu, two-thirds through the trip, I spotted a bank and yelled to Tina to pull over. We carved out a parking space between the road and the wall-to-wall buildings, among the throng of cars, scooters, bikes, pedestrians, and dogs milling about or settled. It was the kind of place that in the US usually contains official parking spaces, a sidewalk, driveways, and front set-backs in the form of lawns, patios, porches, or business foyers, but in Taiwan is a chaotic jumble of all of the above, along a narrow strip — with the addition of street vendors and wall-less, brick-and-mortar businesses fully exposed to the hubbub. It was 3:30 in the afternoon, the bank closed at 4:00, and we were still 20 kilometers from Pingtung, our day’s destination. So we had plenty of time.

The bank’s door guard welcomed me and asked my business.

Now, Mandarin is so radically different from the Indo-European languages that the Taiwanese compensate for the difficulties with acutely tuned inferential antennae and artfully adept sign language. It’s not that Chinese has a difficult grammar (like German); it has none that seems like grammar to us. Simply string words together and you can make sense. It’s the tones, four in most instances, that to someone who is tone-deaf are impossible. And the pronunciation of some of the consonants. The differences betweent’s and d’s; b’s and p’s; ch’s, zh’s, q’s, s’s, ts’s, x’s,and jh’s, plus others — in Roman pronunciation transcriptions — are so subtle that it was like trying to speak French with a mouthful of pebbles.

On the island, Chinese culture continued uninterruptedly — more or less — while on the mainland, much of it was brutally obliterated by Mao’s insistence on reconfiguring human nature.

If I want to ask a question in an unfamiliar language when traveling abroad, I’ll enunciate the key word with a rising tone to indicate a question. That’s nearly impossible in China. Once the tone of a word is fiddled with, the meaning changes unpredictably. In China, one must use a complete phrase so that, if one’s tone isn’t just right, the listener can infer the gist of one’s query from its context.

I hesitate to try to explain written Chinese with its 8,000 or so characters. Memorizing the key characters in important words such as “men” and “women” — for going #1 and #2 — or “hotel” on a sign — for going #3 — was a distraction that we turned into a game. It’s a very unpretentious language, almost prosaic, with — mostly — descriptions instead of actual names. “China” in Chinese literally means “Middle Country”, a reference to its central location between India and Japan, and Russia and the Malay Archipelago. The character for “middle” is a rectangle with a vertical line through its middle. Months don’t have “names”; their “names” are “First Month”, “Second Month”, etc.

So I asked George how my name, Bob Miller, would be rendered in script. “Bob”becomes bo, or ‘knowledgeable’; “Mi”is ‘rice’; and “ller” becomes lo, meaning ‘joy’ — a propitious rendering, according to my friends.

Everyone in the bank turned to look at the westerner with the biking helmet. In response to the door guard’s inquiry, I pulled out a US $100 bill to indicate I wanted to change currency. The entire staff rolled their eyes and threw up their arms — not in an off-putting manner, but rather in an inclusive “we’re-all-going-to-share-a-root-canal-at-closing-time-and-we’re-going-to-pull-together-and-actually-have-fun.”

A teller ushered me to a seat, placed a cup of tea in my hands, and indicated that I should wait. Two minutes later the manager brought me a snack and tried to engage me. Placing my fists close to each other, I rotated them to duplicate the motion of pedaling a bike, uttered “Taiwan”, and signed an oval in the air to say that I was biking around Taiwan. The staff erupted in smiles, hung haos(very good), and thumbs up. More tea, more snacks, more encouraging glances, more waiting.

Twenty minutes later, only the foreign exchange teller was engaged — with what looked like an Indonesian lady. When she stood up, he motioned me over. I handed him my passport and counted out $400 US in $50 and $100 bills. He scrutinized the passport, including the tourist visa stamped in the back, and then the US money, first separating the denominations, then collating the bills. He rejected three $50 bills: two that were well-worn and one that was brand new, saying in English, “too old.” So I gave him one more $100 bill, which he accepted. He counted the money — twice — wrote down the amount, and asked for my confirmation. Then he stood up and approached the vault.

I got the impression that this bank branch had little experience with US money and had never seen a US $50 bill. While waiting for his return, various tellers brought more tea, more snacks, and more friendly attempts to communicate. One snack consisted of dry, pickled prunes, the pits of which I needed to spit out. The attractive teller who’d offered them to me was well aware that she might be pushing the limits of a westerner’s tastes, and so was expectantly attentive to my reaction. She pulled a handkerchief from her purse, put it on her palm and indicated that I should spit the pit onto it. Apprehensive that spitting into her hand might cross some sort of intimacy line, I hesitated. She understood perfectly well and reassured me by repeating “is OK, OK.”

The foreign exchange teller’s cubicle had a small poster touting remittances to Vietnam and Indonesia, thus serving two populations — along with Filipinos — that regularly seek work in Taiwan. Another laminated, placemat-sized poster portrayed various denominations of Renmimbi, the currency of the mainland (People’s Republic of China, or PRC; as opposed to ROC, Republic of China, or Taiwan), with highlights and closeups showcasing what to look for in counterfeit Yuan (Renmimbi notes).

In 2008 President Ma Ying-jeou (reelected in 2012) negotiated a liberalized trade deal with the PRC that included an easing of travel restrictions for mainlanders, the first time since the Communist victory that they would be allowed to travel to Taiwan. The island was seeking an economic boost, while China was hoping that contact between travelers and locals would help lead to eventual political unification with Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province. Mainlanders refer to Taiwan as “Treasure Island”: for its fabled beauty (as did the Portuguese: Formosa means “beautiful”); its trove of historical treasures brought over by Chiang Kai-shek in 1949; its democracy; and, most importantly, its shopping.

Anti-Communist demonstrations, often spear-headed by the Falun Gong, nearly always greet the mainlander tour buses at their scheduled stops.

The demand is overwhelming. If every mainlander who wanted to visit Taiwan were allowed in, the island would sink. So the numbers are strictly controlled and relegated to organized tour groups. In many respects Taiwan is considered more Chinese than China. On the island, Chinese culture continued uninterruptedly — more or less — while on the mainland, much of it was brutally obliterated by Mao’s insistence on reconfiguring human nature.

And there are other restrictions, lately further liberalized in 2011 (such as allowing a small number of mainlanders to travel by themselves). Though the mainlanders are indeed an economic boost, the social disruption they cause would be catastrophic, were they given free range. We were advised to visit popular tourist sites early in the morning, before mainlanders’ tour buses arrived. Taiwanese scuttlebutt is that they’re uncouth slobs who litter, spit and urinate willy-nilly; foul the bathrooms; are rude and unwilling to queue; and dress inappropriately — either like hillbillies or like ne’er-do-wells. So they’re limited to two-week visits. Roadside rest stops for their tour buses have temporary, purpose-placed bathrooms (Taiwanese bathrooms, both public and private, are spotless). Anti-Communist demonstrations, often spear-headed by the Falun Gong (a religious sect outlawed on the mainland), nearly always greet the tour buses at their scheduled stops. Most Taiwanese doubt the efficacy of the placard exhibits and displays in making conversions; but the mainlanders never fail to gaze in wonder at the mere fact that such demonstrations occur at all.

At 4 PM the door guard closed the bank. No one got up to leave. My teller returned with my passport, two photocopies of it, and a form to fill out. He was stumped by my name. In Chinese, the first name is the family name; the following two, hyphenated, names are given names. So I wrote out “Chiang Kai-shek” and “Miller Robert Howard” and drew arrows between the equivalents. He smiled, and then asked for my phone number by pointing to his cell phone. I responded bushi dianhua (no phone).

The whole staff turned to look at me, amazed and incredulous. Taiwan is the Silicon Valley of Asia. The Taiwanese can no more conceive of an individual without a cell phone than they can imagine a meal without rice. My teller grimaced and looked lost. I started to sense that the lack of a phone could be a dealbreaker. Then I remembered that Tina had one, loaned to us by Jorie, George’s wife. It had proved useless, however, because all the displays were in Chinese script. I motioned the teller to wait and went to fetch Tina outside where she’d been babysitting the bikes.

Her wait hadn’t been boring. The next-door juice stand had refused payment for the smoothie she’d ordered. A nearby resident had let his house-broken pet piglet out for a pee, after which the pig nuzzled the man’s ankle with overwhelming affection, which the man returned with scratches to its head as they both ambled back inside. Passers-by stopped to ask her about us and our trip. Tina dug out the cell phone, brought it inside, and handed it to the teller, who quickly retrieved its number. Another teller brought her a cup of tea and snacks while the door guard indicated that he’d keep an eye on the bikes.

Passing the snake restaurant, where delicacies included snake semen and blood dishes, Tina and I demurred.

My teller then began writing the serial numbers from each of the US bills on the form. When he was finished, he asked me to check his work and initial it. I did, and he wrote down the exchange rate for me: NT$28.60=$1.00 US (later confirmed independently). My 2011 Lonely Planet guidebook reported an exchange rate of NT$32.20 to the US dollar and stated that rates were very stable, because of Taiwan’s fiscal probity. Nonetheless, this was either an 11% devaluation of the US dollar or an equivalent appreciation of the Taiwan dollar, in one year. Guess which one.

He went back to the vault and came back quickly with my New Taiwan Dollars (NT$), placed them in a bill counter, and then hand counted them twice. Finally, he wrote their serial numbers on the form and placed the wad in front of me without counting it, along with a copy of the completed form. He looked at me, awaiting my counter-count of the NT$s. It was 4:30 PM.

I picked up the wad, waved my other palm in front of me, and said in English, “I trust you.” The whole staff broke out laughing; my teller smiled — broadly. The reasons for the laughter were both ironic and post-ironic.

The Taiwanese are honest to a degree that beggars credulity. Bikes are parked outside without locks; street vendors leave their stalls out overnight, fully stocked, with only a blue tarp to keep rain off. We saw two separate instances of million (US) dollar jewelry displayed in regular glass cases without added security or guards; one instance of a lost Malaysian’s wallet full of cash returned whole; and two instances of returned tips, one from a woman who was both cook and waitress. She was so proud of her dish and our appreciation of it that she insistently pressed the gratuity back into my hands. In Beipu, Tina got into a gesture argument with a street vendor, which soon drew a crowd of adjacent vendors. Apparently, she’d inadvertently paid too much for her purchase and the vendor was attempting to return her overpayment. Tina adamantly refused. The vendor won. To top it off, we saw no beggars or homeless people; no graffiti or evidence of vandalism; and we were never warned away from any neighborhood, anywhere on the island.

After 20 days of uniformly guileless and transparent interactions and transactions, I instinctively trusted the teller. The irony is that his superiors took a formalprecautionary approach — doubtless necessary to the banking business — that required an assumption of no trust. My teller had to perform tasks associated with my transaction that — other than running a grease pen across a bill — we usually find unnecessary in the US. I understood why they laughed.

It was nearly 4:45 PM when we mounted our bikes and headed for Pingtung. The bank’s staff wrapped things up, gathered at the door to wish us a good trip, waved us goodbye, and headed home.

Taiwhat?!

The Taiwan Tourism Board’s ad in The Economist had caught my eye because ittouted the island’s biking opportunities. Biking in Taiwan? That overcrowded and industrial corner of Asia that not long ago inherited Japan’s post-war reputation for mass-producing cheap and tacky stuff? I read on: “gorgeous scenery . . . dense forests . . . 22 National Parks & Scenic Areas . . . hundreds of kilometers of bike trails . . . more than 500 species of birds . . . a food-lover’s paradise . . .” Further research revealed that the heaviest population density is concentrated along the flat plains of the west coast, with the rest of the country resembling Vancouver Island, but with even taller peaks.

As to biking, with Taiwan manufacturing the world’s share of decent-end bicycles — Giant, Merida, Surly, Schwinn, Cannondale, et alia — a biking craze had grabbed the country about seven years ago and never let go. In cities, bike rental and loaner kiosks are ubiquitous. Nearly every road hosts a bike lane, and politicians run on campaigns to build even more bike paths. Some sections of the highway along the precipitous east coast offer more bike paths than car lanes. On days off, entire families from two-year-olds to grannies in coolie hats, take to their bikes. Police stations provide bikers with air, water, tools, flat-repair kits, and free camping (an indication that Taiwan is as crime-free as it gets). There are even plans to build a dedicated, circum-Taiwan bike trail.

I’d always wanted to visit Asia, where the real 99% live. However, Japan is too expensive, mainland China is a health hazard, the Philippines are crime-ridden, and Indochina is too third world. Taiwan, fully first world yet affordable, seemed perfect, especially for the sort of adventure tourism my wife and I have become addicted to: crossing or circling a country by human power alone, either biking, walking or paddling a boat. These methods provide for an intensive immersion into the country, people, and culture. Still, communication in a strange, tonal language with an ideographic written form seemed an insuperable obstacle. Until I remembered George Yen.

Our acquaintance replied that anyone could camp out anywhere and wouldn’t be troubled. Hard to imagine the “Don’t Tread on Me” bumper sticker resonating in Taiwan.

George, one of my dormmates in college, was Taiwanese. Though he’d only been an acquaintance and at that, 45 years ago, I decided to look him up in a not-so-old alumni directory. There he was with a Taipei address and a “.tw” email postfix. I wrote him hoping he remembered me, and asked for his thoughts on biking around Taiwan.

Not only did he answer that, yes, he remembered me, but that he was an avid biker, would put us up, lend us a cellphone for on-the-spot translation, and even ride a few days with us to ease our transition into the Taiwanese milieu.

In the 45 years since I’d seen him last, George had done well. He is President of Toastmasters International — what he calls his real passion — and has done the “Taiwanese Big Four”: climbed Mt. Yushan, at 12,966 ft, Taiwan’s highest peak; circled the island on a bike; swum across Sun Moon Lake; and climbed Taipei 101, the world’s third tallest building. But his day job is Chairman of the Board of Great Sequoia Corporation, an international trading company based in Taipei, and he’s managed three international joint ventures. He speaks four languages and holds an MA ininternational relationsfrom the Wharton School, along with having spent a night in a Texas jail during the ’70s (but that’s another story).

George and his wife Jorie threw out the plushest red carpet I’d ever curled my toes in. He owns the nine-story building where he lives, in one of Taipei’s nicest districts. Two stories are underground parking, accessed by a rotating car elevator. The first ground floor is his mother’s home (at 91, she still works); the second floor he rents out; the third floor is their Filipino housemaid’s digs; and he and Jorie inhabit the fifth and sixth floors (there is no fourth floor for reasons similar to Americans’ not having a thirteenth floor). The seventh floor is the family shrine and the family pug’s hangout. The eighth is a patio. Tina and I got the fifth floor.

Our first day of biking was a warmup along the Tamsui River and its tributaries’ (and distributaries’) many bike paths through Taipei to its old downtown. To rephrase the old saw, we were hippies in a head shop. Our first rest stop was next to an imposing standing stone inscribed with careful red calligraphy in a small manicured garden. When we asked its meaning, George took a Platonic approach, giving us hints about the characters in hopes we’d infer the full meaning. We could recognize the script for “two,” and he pointed out the script for “water”. While Tina and I were thinking along profound and contemplative lines, George smiled and said it was the sign for the Taipei Water District’s second water pump. We all had a good laugh.

The next stop was Taipei’s night market — not quite as bustling during the day. We were looking for lunch. Passing the snake restaurant, where delicacies included snake semen and blood dishes, Tina and I demurred, opting instead for fresh coconut water and deep-fried, ground pork dumplings at another stall.

On the way back we stopped at a large Taoist temple, the first of many temples and shrines we would pass, whose contrast with Christian churches in the west was almost too much to absorb, much less digest on a first encounter. While the baroque architectural elaboration — including gargoyles — riot of color, intricate carving and painting, main and subsidiary altars, candles and incense, icons and statues of cathedrals all had analogues — albeit radically different — it was the gestalt of the place that was striking.

There was no overarching atmosphere of awe and human insignificance, no hushed solemnity. Real or ritualized forms of abasement such as silence, a dress code, the donning or removing of head coverings or shoes, or “donations” were not required, and cameras were not prohibited. Functionaries such as monks or nuns — when present — didn’t stand out; nor did they exude an air of authority or officious sanctimoniousness so much as recede into the background like lowly maintenance staff. Individualism ruled: while some visitors performed obeisance, knelt quietly in prayer, left offerings on tables, or threw divining blocks, others conducted business, visited with acquaintances, ambled aimlessly, photographed, or just hung out. Some laughed, some sobbed, and some were inscrutable.

Taiwanese temples are not only spiritual centers; they’re community centers, marketplaces, recreation centers, parks, and museums. There are over 15,000 registered temples in Taiwan, or about one for every 1,500 people, not counting unregistered temples and roadside shrines. And the number is growing. Mosques, synagogues, and Christian churches, on the other hand, serve less than 5% of the population, with the latter catering mostly to aboriginal tribes along the east coast and up in the mountains.

Cash My-check

We headed out on our rideabout on a clear, warm day along the Tansui River bike path toward the northwest coast. George had arranged to have his cousin, Dr. Yang, a family practice M.D. and an avid biker, accompany us on the first day. Dr. Yang gave us a map of Taiwan labeled in English and Chinese script: in case we needed to ask directions, it would be legible to a local. In Tansui town we lunched on tuna hot dogs, BBQ’d squid, and sugar cane juice. An hour later George stopped at a convenience store, saying this was the last likely bathroom stop for a stretch, since we’d be heading into a more rural area. Recalling the American custom of declaring that “restrooms are for customers only,” I asked him if it was alright to use a business’s facilities without patronizing it. He answered that Taiwanese can’t conceive of refusing a bathroom to someone who needs it; in fact, we later experienced that all businesses’ bathrooms are hospitably available to anyone.

The Taiwanese are strong free marketers and proponents of private property, but they’re neither defensive nor insecure about it. In a recent poll by The Economist, people from various countries were asked whether they agreed with the statement, “Capitalism is a system that works well and should be preserved”. Only 13% of French respondents agreed, and only 52% of Americans. While 65% of mainland Chinese agreed, no separate figures for Taiwan were reported. Given the mainlanders’ responses, Taiwanese figures were doubtlessly much higher.

We saw no “No Trespassing” signs. When we were asked whether we were camping out during our ride, we answered no, because there were few campgrounds on the island, and decent lodging, in many cases, was actually cheaper than Canadian campgrounds. Our acquaintance replied — rather glibly, I thought, but echoing attitudes about bathrooms — that anyone could camp out anywhere and wouldn’t be troubled. Hard to imagine the “Don’t Tread on Me” bumper sticker resonating in Taiwan.

Our first night’s lodging was at the Chinshan Youth Activity Center, an over-the-top, towering, Fascist-architecture edifice built on splendid grounds in 1960. The accommodations were Japanese style: impeccable and tasteful, with shoji screens demarcating space, an elevated bedroom floor supplied with tatami mats, hard pillows and a comforter. Not accustomed to sleeping on the floor, Tina piled as many mats as the cupboard supplied to make us a bed.

Taiwan was ruled by the Japanese from 1895 to 1945 as an integral part of Japan. Though forcibly imposed, the occupation wasn’t brutal, except towards those who resisted — in particular the aboriginal tribes, who held out against the Imperial Army for seven years to retain their independence. The Japanese built roads and railways, modernized the bureaucracy, developed an industrial base, and treated the rest of the population as fellow citizens. Though many Taiwanese were drafted into a losing cause during WWII, today perceptions of the occupation remain mixed, with many Japanese customs surviving.

The Youth Activity Center was built by Chiang Ching-kuo (brother of Chiang Wei-kuo, and Chiang Kai-shek’s elder son) when he ran the Youth Activity Corps, long before he followed his father as president of Taiwan. Chiang pere had a yin-yang relationship with his two sons: Ching-kuo was to be taught; Wei-kuo — the adopted one — was to be loved. The Chiangs were Machiavellian, stubborn but practical, misunderstood and polarizing — while being polarized among themselves — and, ultimately, survivors all at the same time: a bit like China itself.

Until 1911, China had endured centuries of more-or-less stable, dynastic Imperial rule, the preceding 40 years or so under the Empress Dowager Cixi, a vain but cultivated woman. She was an obstinate reactionary and murderous despot who amassed a fortune in Swiss banks. History had dealt her a bad hand, which she tried to make the best of; but in the end, her malfeasance provoked insurrection.

The inspiration and intellectual catalyst for the upheaval was Sun Yat Sen, an American-educated medical doctor. Dogged, but impractically idealistic and politically naïve, Dr. Sun failed a dozen times to ignite the spark of revolution before the blaze finally caught in 1911 — ironically while he was in exile.

Back in China, he tried to guide unfolding events by founding the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, in 1912. But he was thwarted by remnants of the old order, provincial sectarianism, and internal factionalism. He rolled with the punches. When he sought help from abroad but was rebuffed by the democracies’ noninterventionist policies, the newly established Soviet Union came to the rescue, sending money, advisors and materiel. This aid and Sun’s declared belief in “government ownership of the means of production” fired up his leftwing base, composed of students and peasants who, with some professional help, founded the Chinese Communist Party in 1923, but alienated landlords and business, who hadn’t yet organized themselves. Enter Chiang Kai-shek.

Chiang had studied military science in Japan — which he admired — and in the Soviet Union — which he didn’t, except for its strongarm methods. After once risking his neck to save Dr. Sun’s life, he first became the doctor’s right-hand man, then leader of the Kuomintang upon Sun’s death in 1925.

Chiang covered his cards well. Not only did he manage to raise funds from opposing interests (he would acquire the nickname “Cash My-check”) — internationally from Stalin, the US, and Hitler, and internally from the moneyed classes (including China’s mafias) — but he artfully turned up the heat on the Communist frog, boiling it out of the Kuomintang in two years’ time. Afterward he embarked on a 22-year effort to annihilate the Reds, preferring to muster his resources against Mao Zedong while appeasing Japanese aggression in the belief that the Japanese would overstretch themselves in the immensity of China and finally collapse. Moreover, to Chiang the “rebels were a disease of China’s vitals, the barbarians an affliction only of the limbs.”

Disenchanted with (or perhaps not understanding) his father’s policies, Chiang Ching-kuo, left revolutionary China in 1925 to study in Moscow, a move his father did not approve, but accepted. One of his classmates there was Deng Xiaoping, the future Chinese Communist Party leader. Both would, much later, reform each of their Chinas.

Chiang Ching-kuo had the unfortunate but transformative experience of becoming a Trotskyist just before Trotsky was purged, and being in Stalin’s grasp during his father’s purge of the Chinese Communists. Nonetheless, he was allowed to marry a Russian and remained in the USSR for 12 years. Some speculate that Stalin kept him as a hostage. However, Chiang Kai-shek had absolutely no intention of stopping the war against the Communists, declaring, "I would rather have no offspring than sacrifice our nation's interests."

Meanwhile, Chiang Kai-shek sent his other son, Chiang Wei-Kuo, to study at the Munich Military Academy. There he distinguished himself and rose to the rank of lieutenant in the Wehrmacht. He commanded a Panzer unit during the Austrian Anschluss in 1938 but was recalled to China just before Hitler’s invasion of Poland.

After WWII Taiwan was returned to China. On the mainland, the balance of the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists was tilting towards the Reds. The increasingly beleaguered Nationalist government, acting like a jealous husband, treated the island like a violated woman who had “enjoyed” the experience of Japan’s occupation, by unleashing a bloody crackdown that took at least 28,000 lives and initiated 40 years of martial law known as the “White Terror.” With massive aid from the Soviet Union, Mao finally defeated Chiang Kai-shek in 1949 and drove the remnants of the Kuomintang army and anti-Communist refugees — two million in all — across the Formosa Strait to refuge in Taiwan.

Years ago, a correspondent for The Economist traveled the countryside. His starkest observation was the conspicuous absence of bugs and birds — free food obviously.

In 1978, following Chiang Kai-shek’s death in 1975, Chiang Ching-kuo assumed the presidency of the ROC at the ripe age of 68. His character having been forged in a cauldron of extremes, Ching-kuo’s wisdom had reached Confucian and Taoist proportions. In power, he undertook a series of radical changes, including lifting martial law and tolerating opposition, reforming land tenure, and — most importantly — laying the groundwork for the Taiwan Miracle with free market policies. His hand-picked successor and vice-president, Lee Teng-hui, fully democratized Taiwan during his 1988-2000 tenure.

Chiang Wei-kuo, on the other hand, commanded a tank battalion against the Japanese and Chinese Communists during WWII and the Chinese Civil War. In Taiwan, he continued to hold senior positions in the R.O.C. Armed Forces. He was promoted to Major General in 1975, and served as president of the Armed Forces University. In 1980, he became joint logistics commander in chief; then in 1986, he retired from the army, and became National Security Council secretary-General.

Christmas in Kenting

We rose at 6 AM and breakfasted on a buffet of steamed buns, scrambled eggs with corn, pork and noodle soup, salad, hard tea-boiled eggs, cabbage with extra-fatty bacon, rice gruel, green beans, and fried rice — with sesame oil, vinegar, scallions, peanuts, chili paste, and dried pork shavings for toppings (no soy sauce). The Chinese don’t care for salty food: neither salt nor soy sauce was available as a condiment; this was a bit problematic during hard, sweat-inducing exercise. Rice is consumed at every meal, though the portions are tiny. Chicken and fish are seldom boned or skinned, while meats are served with their full complement of untrimmed fat and gristle.

With its fish heads, chicken feet, whole miniature crabs, snake semen, scorpions, and countless other gag-inducing (to a westerner) ingredients, Chinese cuisine is a consequence of centuries of poverty and famine. During times of want everything remotely edible was tried and consumed. Years ago, after the People’s Republic cracked open the door to foreigners, a correspondent for The Economist traveled the countryside. His starkest observation was the conspicuous absence of bugs and birds — free food obviously. But like the trend in utilitarian clothing fashions, survival food moved upmarket, becoming — like bird’s nest soup and hundred-year-old eggs — expensive delicacies of the elite. It is all, however, impeccably prepared.

We rounded the top of the island in two days, once stopping to visit the preserved Kinkaseki forced-labor prisoner-of-war camp, where British and American servicemen mined copper for the Japanese. Before us lay the wild and precipitous east coast, home to Taiwan’s 14 aboriginal tribes, and traversed by a narrow and tunnel-studded road subject to landslides. One of them had occurred just a few days previously, closing a 15 km section. Luckily, it had not affected the railroad, which at that point ran through a long tunnel. Before leaving us, George gave instruction on using the train, and a pep talk reassuring us that we’d be all right without him. It didn’t bode well that winter’s winds and rains had returned in force and that we got lost on our first day without him.

On our fifth day we reached Taroko National Park, Taiwan’s crowning natural beauty and most visited park. In the Taroko Gorge the Liwu River has cut an extremely deep, narrow fissure through the limestone bedrock. Most of the road that traverses it has been bored through sheer rock faces like a tunnel but with one side missing, making for a spectacular ride. Picturesque shrines, waterfalls, and hanging gardens dot the wide spots and tributaries. High up in the mountains, the Taroko aboriginal tribe runs top-notch lodgings modeled on its traditional villages and serves traditional Taroko food. No way were we going to pass that up.

The ranger at the National Park information desk referred us to another ranger whose English was better. After answering our questions, she befriended us, engaging us in discussing just about everything imaginable. After an hour of conversation, she gave us gifts — DVDs, books, and souvenirs — finally hugging us and thanking us for visiting and letting her be of service to us. She was about to invite us to lunch but hesitated — I sensed — so as not to make us feel obliged.

She wasn’t unique. The rangers at Kenting National Park and the Maolin National Recreation Area were cut from the same mold, with the ranger at Maolin even bidding us goodbye with a kiss — all this from a people otherwise reputed to be shy in the display of physical affection. Can you imagine that at Yosemite?

Taiwan, as its branding logo says, had already “touched our heart.” We found somewhat wanting the otherwise misanthropic WWII US Military Attaché “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell’s description of the Chinese as “the smartest, in many ways the most civilized, in general the most charming, and certainly on the average, the best looking people in the world,” and his assistant David Barnett’s dittos to their “innate dignity and self-respect, humor, stamina, quickness of mind, and lovely women with exquisite figures.” To that list we’d add ”generosity, forbearance, patience, tolerance, hospitality, and industriousness.”

These traits are not limited to the adult population. Teenagers, sometimes edgy in the best of places, are not just polite in Taiwan; they’re warm and deferential, as well as industrious. We were mobbed by high schoolers on a field trip who wanted to practice their English. Convenience store staff — all teens and twenty-somethings — greet customers, microwave purchases, constantly scrub the floors and the use-surfaces, provide free cups, and bend over backwards to ensure a pleasant experience. In one instance they even requested a photo with us. One attendant, who’d worked at a hotel in Canada, praised his Canadian coworkers’ personalities but bemoaned their slacker work ethic.

The run down to Kenting at the southern tip of the island was relaxed, lightly populated, and brushed by Pacific winds. Near the end we were again blocked by a landslide. But this time, an alternate and very comely single-lane road, crossing over Taiwan’s central mountains through aboriginal villages, provided a welcome change of pace.

Halfway through the trip and with Christmas the following day, we took three days off to rest and see the sights in Kenting. No problem finding lodging: an enterprising B&B owner on a scooter led us to her nicely apportioned digs — only $20 per night. On Christmas day we toured the National Park with Beatriz, a 29-year-old soccer and swimming coach from Galicia. With Spanish unemployment at record levels, she’d moved to Shanghai, where wages were adequate, to work as a teacher. She was on a short holiday break, had had a bellyful of the mainland, and was hungry to speak Spanish.

Up the backside

Our strategy for the return ride up the west side of the island was to avoid the densely populated and industrial western plains by hugging the foothills of the central massif. Though the riding would be a tiring, up-and-down, rollercoaster ride across high ridges and deep river valleys, it would meander through quiet villages, medium-sized towns, tidy agricultural areas, and forest preserves — and minimize traffic.

Not that traffic was much of a problem. Stilwell’s observations applied equally to Taiwanese drivers. On the face of it, Taiwan traffic is congested and anarchic — a bicyclist’s nightmare — with vehicles sometimes going up on sidewalks or even going against the designated flow. But look deeper, and another pattern emerges. Traffic conventions are followed as rules-of-thumb, not immutable laws. In general, only speeding and turning-on-red-light violations are enforced. Accidents are usually negotiated on-the-spot, without police. Traffic is aggressive yet polite and very sensitive, giving way once you nose or step out into it. Drivers don’t honk petulantly but gently, often adding a thumbs up and a hen hao (very good). Most amazing of all was that bicyclists are not only respected but actually liked!

Weddings and funeral services — for those who can’t afford to rent a purpose-built venue — appropriate a portion of the road under elaborately tented blue tarps. In consideration of traffic, most are held on weekends. But it was the garbage collection system that really touched our hearts. Garbage trucks make their rounds in the evening, announcing their approach with a distinctive ice cream van tune. Folks hand over their bags to the collector, exchanging a few pleasantries; or he picks them up off the curb.

After restocking our wallets in Neipu we headed up into the mountains. Riding through the Maolin National Recreation Area and aboriginal preserve on a particularly long, cold, hard, rainy day we decided to rest the following day in Jia-xian. A picturesque provincial village nestled in a high river valley, Jia-xian proclaims itself the taro capital of Taiwan. Taro is a root starch one eats sautéed, fried, and even as ice cream.

We got in late, shivering and wet, and approached a group of ladies. Tina performed her where-can-we-sleep pantomime by joining her hands as if in prayer at the side of her head and angling both. One old lady motioned us to follow her. Two blocks and one turn later we arrived at a nondescript building. Tina checked out the $18 rooms but — never picking the first option — decided to look for others. The old lady who’d led us there suddenly looked disappointed and agitated. Thinking, we soon realized, that an $18 room was too expensive for us, she invited us to stay at her home — a kind offer we turned down, unable to explain.

Word soon got around of our presence at the other hotel, and we were joined for breakfast by our innkeeper’s niece, Ma Jo-shan, a local artist married to Josh, an American. They’d moved to Jia-xian to live with her elderly parents above the small grocery store they owned and ran, so her parents could share the joy of raising their grandkids. Jo invited us to tour the temples and mountaintops with her.

Mazu is my beacon, I shall not shipwreck . . .

Jia-xian’s old temple is dedicated to Mazu, Taiwan’s patroness, saint, or deity, depending on one’s outlook. While Christianity has traditionally been organized from the top down, with an authority (such as the pope) declaring who is beatified, sanctified or deified (from a non-believer’s point of view), most Eastern religions are ground-up, based on “ancestor worship,” animist traditions, and the teachings of Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Confucius (the three sages dating from about 500 BC). With no central planning, many strains of thought evolved, and are still evolving, ranging from the highly superstitious (non-empirical) to the merely respectful; and from schools of “pure tradition” to custom-built, individualized beliefs.

Eastern spiritual thought is hard to grasp from Western reports. Having first been described to the west by Christians, in often patronizing — even derogatory — terms that ignore translation difficulties and missed the depths and subtleties and the complex relationships between philosophy and religion; dogma and opinion; or worship and reverence, it’s understandable. It helps, as Lao Tzu in the Tao advised (and I paraphrase), “to have no dog in the fight.” Unlike Middle Eastern religions, which are often intolerant of one another, Eastern believers are not only tolerant of others; they also respect and even admire them, resulting in much syncretism. China has fought many wars, but they have very seldom had a religious tendency.

The garbage collection system really touched our hearts. Garbage trucks make their rounds in the evening, announcing their approach with a distinctive ice cream van tune.

Even the term “ancestor worship” is too glibly bestowed as it is not a religion but rather a practice, one that is a part of nearly all religious traditions. A better term is “ancestor veneration,” a more accurate description of what practitioners actually do, which is to cultivate kinship values such as filial piety, family loyalty, and family continuity, with rituals such as visiting graves, offering flowers and grave decorations, burning candles or incense, reciting genealogies, or simply displaying photographs in special locations. Prayer, actual worship, belief in the transformation of dead relatives into deities, or communication with them may or may not be present.

Likewise, animism is commonly misunderstood. The word literally refers to a belief thateverything — living or inanimate — has an essence: a soul, or anima, if you will; that soul need not be a spirit or ghost-like being with a potentially independent existence. Animism usually regards human beings as on a roughly equal footing with other animals, plants, natural forces and even objects — all deserving respect. Humans are considered a part of nature, not superior or separate from it. However, it is not a type of religion in itself but rather a constituent belief or virtue — analogous to polytheism, monotheism, or even filial piety — that is found in many belief systems.It is Aristotle’s elaborated version of animism that according to some scholars was appropriated by the early Christian church into the modern “soul” most of us are familiar with.

Taoism and Confucianism are often mentioned in the same breath as if they were complementary beliefs, while in reality their philosophical differences are as marked as Plato’s and Aristotle’s. Living at a time in China when Neolithic egalitarian tribes were evolving into hierarchical kingdoms, Lao Tzu and Confucius were exposed to dynamic change, the pace of which varied considerably geographically. Lao Tzu (the older of the two) came from a rural, conservative area. Confucius, on the other hand, was swept up in the new order. While Lao Tzu’s philosophy centered on preserving the old ways, Confucius embraced change. His philosophy stressed acceptance and adaptation to changing times through universal education in science and the classics. Lao Tzu advocated passivity; Confucius advocated wise action — Lao Tzu’s Ned Ludd to Confucius’ John Dewey.

Of the two, Lao Tzu was the more esoteric and metaphysical. In contrast, Confucius, fearing he might be deified after his death, ordered his disciples to burn his writings. They reluctantly did so, but then compiled what they remembered in The Analects. Today Taoism in Taiwan is a very big tent, incorporating many sages, saints, gods; beliefs, practices and ceremonies. On the other hand, Taipei’s Confucian Temple is a memorial to a man and his thought, with ceremonies held to commemorate him, not worship him or anyone.

Taiwanese Buddhism is not as ascetic, martial, or world rejecting as its Indian, Tibetan and Mongolian antecedents. It is personified by the “Happy Buddha”, a fat, smiling and goodie-laden effigy popular on vehicle dashboards and family shrines. Known as Tzu Chi or Renjian Fojiao (this-worldly) Buddhism, it encourages socially active involvement, stress reduction, and even fun. With its de-emphasis on ritual and superstition, the strain took off in the 1960’s and is now the religion of choice for middle-class urbanites and professionals. Taiwan's Buddhist population grew from 800,000 in 1983 to 4.9 million in 1995, a 600 percent increase and still growing.

As Taiwan’s patroness, Mazu is the closest thing to a pan-Taiwanese deity and gets the lioness’ share of festivals and celebrations. She is loosely lumped into the Taoist or Folk Religion pantheons, and is widely worshiped on the mainland and in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and the Chinese diaspora. It’s interesting to compare and contrast her life and legend with one of the west’s preeminent deities, Jesus Christ.

Born Lin Mo-niang in 960 in Fujian province, she died at the young age of 28 (JC at 33) — in one version — while attempting to save fishermen, including her father and brothers, from shipwreck after a typhoon (JC died attempting to save mankind from original sin — an alleged transgression by our legendary ancestors). Many stories, and later miracles, of seafaring rescues are attributed to her. Of exceptional intelligence, she was a sponge for knowledge, mastering Taoist and Buddhist texts at an early age and gaining repute as a female priest (though little is known about Jesus’ education, he sought what I would summarize as enlightenment through fasting and isolation in the desert for 40 days — a transcendent approach — in contrast to Mazu’s world-immersion education). She never claimed to be divine, as Jesus did. Nonetheless, she is — mostly — worshiped as the Goddess of the Sea and Empress of Heaven; in addition to being the patroness of childbirth, because she didn’t cry at birth (Jesus was, reputedly, virginally conceived).

Today she’s even become a political soccer ball, with the PRC getting her inscribed on UNESCO’s intangible heritage list in order to win hearts in the ROC.

Closing the circle

North of Jia-xian we passed through soursop and wax apple orchards; coconut groves, pineapple fields, and rice paddies; shrimp farms, and kowtowed papaya trees bent short to ease picking and to allow the entire grove to be covered by protective netting. A couple of days from Taipei a young biker caught up to us. Taking a break between high school and college, she was on the first day of a solo ride around the island, and was bursting at the seams with enthusiasm tinged with just a touch of apprehension. Feeding the former, we allayed the latter.

Taiwan’s school system is hard to fathom, and I still haven’t quite worked out its incentives. Generally, the better performing kids go to public schools, while the remainder attend private ones. Huh? Yes, public schools are free, but there’s a catch — they have high admission and retention standards. Private schools accept all comers, but they charge. Individual tutors — outside the formal education system — are ubiquitous, affordable or not.

Riding into Taipei, we were again joined by a lone biker, this time a fit elderly gentleman, who, spotting our kit, assumed we were circumnavigating the island. We confirmed his suspicion. To celebrate, he invited us out to dinner, an invitation that took us by surprise but that Tina immediately accepted. He was 73, just retired (opining that Asians work too much), and had just graduated his youngest from college. Free at last from parental obligations, he was ready to bike the world and wanted to plumb our experience. Kung Gung-ho, besides his good English, spoke French: he had his eyes on the Atlantic coast of France. He’d already rounded Taiwan. His dream was to do one big bike trip a year for the next five years.

Over dessert, it was my turn to pick his brain. I asked him about Taiwan’s health care system. Surprised at my interest in something so mundane, he accommodatingly switched gears.

Taiwan has a compulsory, government-run, single-payer National Health Insurance scheme established in 1995, modeled — according to Dr. Michael Chen, CFO of the NHI — on America’s Medicare system. Public and private providers coexist, and the system covers traditional Chinese medicine. At 2%, the NHI has the lowest administrative costs in the world. Private insurance is available alongside the NHI for greater freedom of choice. There is a 70% patient satisfaction rate. Nevertheless, the NHI is unsustainable and going broke.

The government is not taking in enough money to cover the services it provides, so it is borrowing money from banks. Because the revenue base is capped, the plan does not keep pace with the increase in national income, or increased costs. Premiums are regulated by politicianswho are afraid to raise premiums because of the voters. Price controls are beginning to rear their ugly heads.

Office visits are as low as $5 US. Gung-ho (literally, work together) blamed his own age group for abusing the system. Believing they’ve paid up front for a service, the elderly set out with a vengeance to get their money’s worth by visiting doctors regularly and often, and getting prescriptions they didn’t intend to use.

Gung-ho ordered a round of green tea ice cream, paid the bill, and parted with this “ancestor worship” blessing:

Around me I wear an invisible coat of many colors, fabrics and texture. It is made of friends and family, here and no longer here, far and not so far. They are all part of my coat which keeps me warm wherever I go. It is a coat that is always in style and never wears out. You are now part of my coat.

George and Jorie welcomed us back in typical Taiwanese fashion: by taking us out to a traditional banquet. Over one too many sakes, Tina and I embarrassed ourselves with superlatives: about the dinner, the trip, our hosts, the country, the people, their religious and philosophical views, the infrastructure, even EVA Airlines our carrier — you name it.

So I asked them what the overall Taiwanese tax burden was. After a little reflection, doubtlessly influenced by the conviviality, George answered, “25%”, adding a rant about the cost and red tape of doing business in New York. If true, a light bulb flashed in my head.

Reflecting back to countless times when my leftwing friends had threatened to emigrate to Canada (or France, or wherever) if such-or-such rightwing politician got elected president of the United States, I realized that my rightwing friends had no such prospective refuge. Well, I can now offer them one: Taiwan — a destination that ought to be equally attractive to my other friends as well.




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Johnimo

What a fantastic adventure you had. I'm jealous. Thanks for sharing the story of your journey, and for the history lesson you included therein.

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