Cultural impressions and reflections on Taiwan
By Kerry Shen
June 5, 2012, 11:40 am TWN
The summer of 2007 was an exceptionally warm one in the sub-arctic capital of Edmonton, Canada. I trod apprehensively on a particularly humid day through crowded pedestrian traffic — this was the big annual International Heritage Festival, after all — as my clammy flesh pressed against sweat-soaked T-shirts worn by people in front, behind, to the right and left of me. I stopped to catch a quick gasp of air, when a tiny hand holding a cup full of murky liquid reached over as a clear voice cut through the hot air: “Have a bubble tea, da ge (big brother)!” I looked over, still breathless and befuddled — it was a little boy with big, unblinking eyes. “Welcome to the Taiwan pavilion, we sing karaoke and drink bubble tea.”
I arrived in Taiwan years later, still mindful of the cultural synopsis and beverage lessons learnt from that exhibit. Much like the little boy who delivered a chilled beverage on a hot summer day, Taiwan exuded a characteristic comfort and respite, due largely to the distinct contrast and juxtaposition it offered. According to newspaper IBT, Taiwan boasted the third largest number of fastest growing companies in the world. Yet, a meander around the island yielded only views of scenic mountains, rolling hills, and lush subtropical forests. The capital, Taipei, is a financial hub in Asia teeming with trade and bustling commerce, yet its alleyways are galvanized with the aging, rustic hue of uncolored cement flats from the post-war boom era and sprinkled with alternating signs of logos above convenience stores and Chinese calligraphy atop betel nut stands. Even Taipei 101, an icon built to symbolize the crowning achievements of post-modern style, architecture, and technology, is by design an ancient sundial, an homage to deeply rooted tradition and antiquity.
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the nation though, aside from the dense ficus that hugs so much of the island's surface, arises from the Taiwanese people themselves and their cultural self-awareness. A convergence of Confucian Chinese, Japanese, European, American, Taiwanese aborigines, and just about any other conceivable influence has given rise to a Taiwanese identity so mosaic that it fosters a potpourri of subcultures, yet so fiercely seminal that it makes Taiwan the de facto epicenter of Chinese pop culture. Taiwan sits at the intersection of many opposing motifs: traditional and modern; East and West; local and global. It wasn't long before I realized that the little boy who stood at the karaoke screen handing out bubble tea, the Taike who impatiently masticated on deliciously disgusting (or is it disgustingly delicious?) betel nuts, and the ridiculously omnipresent 7-11 convenience stores all underlined an identity rested upon a unique, thriving heritage. It is impossible to overlook Taiwan from any perspective, but a sample of the culture tasted every bit as rich as the pearl milk tea for which Taiwan is famed for.