About a month and a half ago, a college student in Taiwan ran away from home because, as he told a reporter later, “There’s only negative news on TV, and I do not believe Taiwan is such a bad place.” He’d been watching television throughout his adolescence and all he ever saw on TV were footage of conflict and political upheaval. He was constantly told that Taiwan is a polarized society fighting for survival between the advocates of unification with China, which the opponents believed would be the end of Taiwan society as a self-contained, self-governing place with cultural, societal, and political integrity, and on the other hand the independence camp, which wants to tear Taiwan away from mainland China even at the risk of sparking a catastrophic war that would destroy both sides. This is the way his society was presented to him in the mass media.
In the last year or so, the big emphasis in the Taiwan media has been on suicides and murder-suicides that have been caused by economic misery. Of course, the economic misery is hypothesized as a consequence of this political polarization. So this kid said, this is not the country I think I live in. But I need to test this proposition, to test my knowledge. So he ran away from home, took only a small backpack, no money, and said “I want to circle the island relying totally on the kindness of strangers.” Nine days later he arrived back home having been transported, fed, housed, all the way around Taiwan from top to bottom, down one side and up the other. He concluded, “The most rewarding part of my trip was breaking down stereotypes and experiencing my nation’s pure and passionate heart.” I felt very akin to him, because I too have experienced Taiwan’s pure and passionate heart many times and find it in confusing juxtaposition to the superficial tension and polarization that I experience when I look directly at Taiwan politics. So I thought the experience of this young man was a good one for illustrating how even for Taiwanese, the way Taiwan looks on CNN and Taiwanese TV is really confusing and upsetting.
Another side of Taiwan is exemplified by Taipei 101, which is 101 stories tall. People argue about Taipei 101, as they always do about skyscrapers, is it a good idea, is it necessary, is it beautiful, does it look like a bunch of Chinese take-out containers? I personally think it’s a beautiful building. But what is really striking is its isolation. It’s twice as tall and then some as the next highest building in the city, which is a couple miles away. It towers over everything around it. Some of these buildings used to seem tall, like the WTC and the Fareast Plaza Hotel. Now they’re tiny compared to Taipei 101, which symbolizes a couple of things about Taiwan to me.
First, it symbolizes the incredible ambition of the Taiwanese economy and society. The fact that it could be built in Taiwan shows you that it’s not just ambition, that Taiwan really is capable of incredible feats of technological and economic performance. This is an expensive building to build, it’s an expensive building to lease out with tenants, it is a technological marvel because Taiwan is on the rim of fire, it’s in an earthquake zone. There are regular earthquakes in Taipei, you probably remember the one 11/21/99. This building has a huge sphere suspended at the top that is able to move to compensate for motion in an earthquake or high wind. So it’s a technological marvel, an economic amazement. But it’s also completely alone in the same way that Taiwan is isolated, not economically, but politically and increasingly in other ways from the things around it, from the nations and places that surround it. So this building too towers above, represents something wonderful but is ultimately disconnected from the city around it.
Taiwan was first mapped for Europeans by Portuguese explorers, who called it the Ila Formosa, the beautiful island. It is a beautiful island, with high mountain