Monday, May 9, 2011

"The New Land of Smiles" is not a smaller version of China!

Thanks to The View from Taiwan, I went ahead and read this article: The New Land of Smiles.

The Land of Smiles is an old nickname given to Thailand based on the friendliness of its people - and while there are plenty of cheaters and scammers in Thailand, it is true that most Thai people are uncommonly friendly and welcoming. I mean, I believe that about 90% of people are good around the world, 9% are apathetic or indifferent and 1% are bad characters, and that the reason travelers run into so many of the 1% is simply that they're in the tourist sites where that 1% target their victims - makes it seem like there are many more bad sorts out there than good, but is fundamentally skewed.

While I wouldn't go as far as Michael and say it's the worst article written about traveling in Taiwan, I will say that it has some massive fundamental flaws.

That's a right shame, considering that this is one of the few articles where the writer actually leaves Taipei (most, like this one and a piece by the New York Times, just send someone to Taipei and call that "Taiwan") and attempts to find genuinely interesting and genuinely local things to do. It's the first non-guidebook travel piece that mentions places such as the arts center in Yilan, Nanyuan and Beipu. That is a step forward.

So what's so bad about it?

"Settled by talented, creative and industrious 1945"
(So there was nobody else here before that, and the Chinese who came over in '45 get all the complimentary adjectives while the people who had already been living here do not?)

"If you want to see all of China but don't have the time, Taiwan is a great alternative"
(So Taiwan is just an 'alternative' to China, and has no unique culture of its own? The reason to come here is that it's 'kind of like China'? Puh-LEASE.)

"So far off the beaten track is the remote Kinmen island that most Taiwanese have never visited it."
(That makes it sound like almost no Taiwanese go to Kinmen. While I am willing to believe that a small majority have never been, he makes it sound as though 95% of Taiwanese haven't. It's really not that remote.)

"The big surprise is that this tiny island is just a half kilometre off the mainland Chinese coast, so close that the two Chinas have fought several wars over control of its strategic location. In 1959 Mao’s forces bombarded Kinmen endlessly, forcing the fearful inhabitants to dig shelters and tunnels for survival. Today, with relationships between the two Chinas improving, several kilometres of tunnels have been opened as tourist attractions."
(Did he seriously just use the offensive phrase 'the two Chinas' twice in one paragraph? Really? Could he possibly sound more condescending towards Taiwanese identity? Could he make any bigger an assumption about Taiwan's cultural history and self-identity? How about treating Taiwan as it de facto is - its own country? Even if your editor tells you that have to call it an island, not a country, at least give it the respect of treating it individually and not just a floating appendage to China).

My main beef with the article - despite its presenting Taiwan in a generally positive light that may well attract tourists to this lovely country that is not China - is of course that the writer, while he differentiates Taiwan from China in some ways (which is why Brendan was not as irritated by the piece as I was), in most others he lumps them together as two parts of a whole that may be separate for now but are otherwise the same thing. That makes me a bit sick.

I posted this on Facebook to get some reactions and got two big ones: "it's condescending - he talks about 'most people don't know' a few times, like he's superior to his audience. That's bad writing" (I agree - it's not just condescending, it's cliche) and "this is just **** journalism, but then most travel writing is" (I agree there too - I'm no journalist but I've worked as a reporter and grown up around journalism, and I could have written a better piece).

I used to think that this sort of pandering tripe - the two Chinas indeed! - was politically motivated and even a bit sinister. I pictured hand-wringing editors afraid that if they post anything to upset the Chinese government that their site will be blocked in China, or worse, angry calls from the Chinese government to press outlets abroad (it is not outside the realm of possibility). That would be downright terrifying, because it would mean that the free press of the free world is starting to accept and adhere to Chinese-style censorship out of fear. I don't want to think about the kind of world that would lead to. We need to be stamping out Chinese censorship, not abiding by it.

Anyway - I used to think that, but now I'm not so sure. Now my conclusion is more along the lines of editors who feel that the piece will only be read if it's tied to something famous - Taiwan is not "famous" (many foreigners still believe that it's an industrial wasteland, like today's Shenzhen area, where all their cheap crap gets made, and not the gorgeous country that it is which hardly has a manufacturing base anymore, and what factories it does have are churning out wafer chips, not microwaves and plastic cups). The name "China" has travel cache, a place people want to visit, whereas they don't really consider Taiwan unless someone in the know suggests it.

This is what I think is really happening: not editors who feel they have to pander to China so their site will still be available there, or who truly are politically engaged in cross-strait relations or even East Asian affairs and genuinely believe in the Chinese party line of unification (let's face it, most Westerners who haven't been here - and I'd guess that most editors of these articles have not - do not hold very strong opinions on these issues). Rather, editors who figure the name "China" will bump readership in a way that the name "Taiwan" cannot.

I say this as someone who has not studied journalism but has worked in it (I've worked as a regional correspondent reporter and my mother has been a reporter or editor for most of my life. I very occasionally help out with copyediting at the publication that employs her) - I can very easily imagine an editor doing this. Yeah, write about Taiwan - that's sufficiently offbeat and unexpected, but make sure to pair it with China, because people have heard of China and think of it as a travel destination. More people will read it if you mention China.

And that's just sad, because Taiwan is not a part of China, and it deserves the respect of being treated as its own entity, taken on its own terms, and enjoyed for what it is - a Chinese-influenced, but not "Chinese", culture and nation.



Anonymous said...

Somebody (the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, or some entity with a similar name) is doing something about this. Before I left the United States, I started seeing a lot of ads for "Taiwan - Touch Your Heart", and I know someone who encountered the "Taiwan - Touch Your Heart" campaign in Wisconsin. And the only time the word "China" was every mentioned in any of the ads was in the phrase "China Airlines", which I believe is one of the sponsors of the campaign.

I never thought of it this way before, but the "Taiwan - Touch Your Heart" campaign is not only a good way to boost international tourism to Taiwan, but a way to indirectly encourage the notion that Taiwan is its own country.


黃愛玲 said...

Gah, what a crummy review on Taiwan.

"And that's just sad, because Taiwan is not a part of China, and it deserves the respect of being treated as its own entity, taken on its own terms, and enjoyed for what it is - a Chinese-influenced, but not "Chinese", culture and nation. "

My thoughts EXACTLY. There are times when I try my hardest to express these thoughts but my brain just turn to mush. Thank you.

My husband was born and raised in Taiwan. Right now he's trying to find a job and I'll be learning Mandarin in Shida. =o)

(pardon me for being nerdy). I've been reading your blog, lately.

Jenna said...

Yeah, the Taiwan bureau itself, while it has no idea what might interest non-Asian foreigners in Taiwan, at least puts out promotions that respect Taiwan's autonomy and sovereignty. It's the "journalists" sent to Taiwan to write about it who pander to China.

愛玲, I agree, and hey if you are OK with learning unnaturally formal Chinese Shida is not so horrid (actually my biggest issue is the teaching style or lack thereof though).

黃愛玲 said...

Go figure. My husband took English classes and it was basically like that: unnaturally formal English. My husband's mother is a teacher and she basically tried to teach me like that.

I think the best way to learn a language is to put yourself in the environment.