|"I always tell my friends in Taiwan: “You’re the luckiest people in the world. How did you get so lucky? You have no oil, no iron ore, no forests..." Say WHAT?!|
I posted earlier today with a link to Thomas Friedman's piece on "Taiwan" - of course, it wasn't about Taiwan at all, which I'll address in a minute - and now that I'm done with that thing I had to do today, I'm free to write about it.
I'm not an economist, so I'll just be a 揚聲蟲 (that first character might be wrong, I'm trying to recall the phrase from something someone told me and I did not write down. If I am wrong, please correct me. I can learn from that). I'll echo Michael Turton's assessment that Taiwan's human capital is a great resource that has been used to great benefit and effect, which is about the only thing the article got right (well, it is also correct that Taiwan has few "deposits" - gas, oil or otherwise - and what it did have has long since been dug out by the Japanese during the colonial period).
Turton is absolutely right that Friedman is absolutely wrong - and downright insulting (well, those words are mine) - in characterizing Taiwan as a "barren rock in a typhoon-laden sea with no natural resources to live off": Taiwan has agricultural potential, an abundance of water (although most of it seems to wash out to sea: I always laugh when I see one of those "Water Shortage - Please Conserve Water" signs above a sink as I'm washing my hands while it's pouring outside) and plenty more to recommend it. I do wonder who these "friends in Taiwan" of Friedman's are, and if they're happy to hear that he thinks they're so lucky to live on a "barren rock" with "no natural resources to live off".
I want to add before I get into the crux of what I want to say that I take issue with both Turton and Friedman's posts regarding education in Taiwan. Yes, students score well. Yes, the populace is highly educated, yes, Turton's right that a lot of that has to do with the private cram school system.
But...I don't have much respect and in fact hold much contempt for both the Taiwanese public school system and the cram school system.
In the former, yes, they train students very well in math and science and in taking tests well, and in learning under pressure. They still don't train in critical thinking or creativity and generally speaking, arts, history, social studies and language education in Taiwanese schools is severely lacking, if not pathetic or even non-existent (one of my students claims there is no such thing as "social studies" - something I had to take for all of junior and high school in the New York State system). Students learn to read and to some extent write English, but not to speak it and rarely do they come out of it with any language other than English. French, German, Spanish and other language "majors" from universities rarely graduate at a level of fluency in their language "major" that I'd find acceptable. I've met people with degrees in French whose French is worse than the best French I ever spoke (much of which I've forgotten), and I didn't major in it. And I studied abroad in India, not a French-speaking country. I find the buxiban system sad - some schools teach well, some teach poorly, all overcharge, work the kids too hard when what they need is time to play, and most English cram schools exploit foreign teachers and pay them very little while milking the parents. The only positive thing I can say about it is that yes, those kids do come out of English cram school speaking better English than most Americans could hope to speak Chinese - because there is, as yet, no Chinese cram school system in the USA. I can't speak for cram schools in other subjects.
I do feel that the teachers in these systems (English schools aside) are too focused on outdated and teacher-centered methodologies and do not teach Taiwanese students to engage critically or creatively with topics or knowledge. Some end up doing so anyway, but many become worker drones who are very good at taking tests, being quiet, saying Yes Sir and doing what they're told. While I do find the average Taiwanese person to be more worldly than the average American, that is not because of the education system. Those poor kids are overworked, under-rested and have no time to figure out who they are or how to be creative or thoughtful. Those who naturally are those things will still be, but they are not traits that are prized.
So why all this praise for Taiwanese schools?
As one Taiwanese friend with a teenage daughter put it to me, "you got to go to school in America and then live in Taiwan and get paid more because you are a foreigner. You are truly lucky." So, I'm lucky because I didn't go through the "study 28 hours a day? What do you mean there aren't 28 hours in a day - study that long anyway! NO FREE TIME FOR YOU!" Taiwanese system, and we're sitting here praising it?
That was a longer aside than I intended, so...
|What a barren rock! With no forests! And no resources to live off!|
"Friedman," says Brendan, my ever-brilliant husband who really should be a professor of something, "has an astounding knack for taking taxi cabs with drivers who have strong opinions and are particularly well-spoken that he can reference in his column to give his words blue-collar credibility. I do not believe these drivers are entirely fictional, but I do believe that he borrows heavily on his own experience and weaves it into the things he hears and references in his writing."
I felt bad when I heard that, because I reference a lot of what I hear in Taiwan and talk about with Taiwanese people - but then, I do try to quote directly and then speak from my experience rather than weaving so much into the narrative of another person, and I do have an extensive network of local friends, students and acquaintances so I don't feel I'm going down the "this half-made-up taxi driver who is totally blue collar said this thing that I want to talk about because I'm so smart" route. Though maybe I am. I'm sure I'd get more nasty comments if I were, though.
He also pointed out, quite astutely, that "Friedman's specialty, if he can be said to have one, is the Middle East although he seems to have interests in every region of the world. Nothing in his career or writing, past or present, has gave any indication that Taiwan is his favorite country. He was using it as an example to make a point about economics, not because it is actually his favorite country." He could have led with any country that is resource poor but doing well because it's rich in well-honed human capital - it didn't have to be Taiwan.
I agree - I'm not even sure Friedman has been to Taiwan, and if he has, he certainly didn't explore it in any depth. From his description, if he's been here at all, he might have seen Taipei and possibly some of the uglier parts of the west coast plain. I'm thinking that industrial bit in Taoyuan County, the one out past Guanyin where the main TECO plant is.
Finally, "you do realize, Jenna, that by 'Taiwan has no forests' he was actually saying 'Taiwan does not export lumber', right? He did not mean 'forests' in terms of 'has lots of trees'."
Right. But that still kind of bothers and even slightly offends me. I can't believe that anyone who has seen enough of Taiwan to call it their "favorite" country would use the adjective "barren" to describe it.
|Poor, barren Taiwan. These must be Fake Plastic Trees because Taiwan has no forests.|
Taiwan is one of the best countries in Asia in terms of national parks, protected areas and forest recreation areas for protecting its forests - oh yeah, it doesn't have forests - even though there are environmental issues that need to be addressed otherwise (the forests in the mountains are reasonably well protected, but I am concerned about environmental degradation in the plains) - how could anyone who claims Taiwan is their "favorite country" have not seen this?
Yes, I realize that different people like different things and a bookish economist with blue-collar-cred delusions might genuinely pick a "favorite country" based on economic indicators, not on the cultural framework and natural beauty of the country itself, but another part of me says - how sad is that?
It offends me as someone who genuinely, truly would say that Taiwan is her favorite country. I mean, I have some affection (more like tough love and "I love my difficult child but at times don't like her very much") for the country of my birth and I also love India and have an abiding affection for Bangladesh and an ancestral-ties sort of love for Armenia and Hatay (in Turkey), but if asked for just one country to name as my favorite I think I would pick Taiwan. I have stayed for over five years, after all. I don't particularly like some pompous teller of stories who thinks in commodities and not people, who trades in globalization and not beauty, coming in and saying "Taiwan is my favorite country" for the purposes of making a point in his widely read column, when many other countries could have filled that space. After all, he didn't give any heartfelt reasons for loving Taiwan. Does "very interesting economic paradigm" = love? I don't think so.
So, my advice is, go take a hike, Thomas. I mean that seriously. Not being sarcastic. Fly your statistics-spouting ass to Taiwan and take a hike. I'll be your guide.
I'll take you hiking around Lishan, I'll take you to Hehuan Mountain and I'll take you to Yilan. Maybe I'll hire a guide to haul your butt up Jade Mountain (which I haven't done yet, am supposed to climb in two weeks but probably won't be able to as Paiyun Lodge appears to be closed). We'll hike up to the Japanese temple ruins above Jinguashi and maybe do the easy walk around Bitou cape. I'll definitely take you to Yuemeikeng:
...and then you tell me if Taiwan is a "barren rock" with "no forests".
Because Taiwan is my favorite country too, but I don't love it because it's a good economic example of resourcefulness and well-honed human capital. In fact, Friedman glosses over how many mind-numbing hours those well-educated folks have to work in Taiwan to earn a living. I'm not sure I'd paint such a rosy picture if I were him, because the Taiwanese workforce is a soul-killing thing, no matter how "innovative" it might look to Friedman. While I am happy to praise the high education and resourcefulness of the Taiwanese people generally, are we really praising a system in which "work yourself to death" is not the joke it is in America, but an idiom that describes a real problem?
I love it because:
- Well, the people. I've written before about friendship in Taiwan but underneath all that, I do find it easier to make genuine friends and true connections with locals than I did in China or than my friends report about Japan. Etiquette differs from back home and I do get annoyed on occasion, but more generally I find people friendly, easy to talk to, and easier to befriend than I believe I'd find elsewhere in Asia. I also find them to mostly be hospitable and kind (although there are jerks around the world) and more progressive than the rest of East Asia.
- The food. I know a lot of foreigners aren't impressed (both Michael Turton and Ralph Jennings have said as much) but I love it. The seafood, the deep fried snacks, the stinky tofu, the pickled bamboo, the preserved tofu, the mountain pig. You haven't lived until you've eaten your fill at Raohe or Miaokou Night Markets, Donggang Harbor or Auntie Xie's on Bo'ai Road or at one of the aboriginal restaurants in the mountains. My in-laws, after a week of eating the best Taipei has to offer (in my eyes - no Ding Tai Fung), praised the simple home-style Taiwanese meal at Auntie Xie's the most. Cold chicken in a sour oily sauce, a steamed red fish, some peppered pork and fried-potato like niu bang, taro congee and a few other simple but delicious dishes seemed to be one of the highlights of their culinary experience.
- The scenery. NO FORESTS MY BIG WHITE ASS. I love hiking and I love that generally I don't need to drive to get to many fantastic hikes.
- The convenience. The other day, I was thinking of going out for Sam Adams. I thought, "The 7-11 across the lane has it, oh, but that means I'd have to cross the street. I could also go to the Wellcome or the other 7-11 and not have to cross the street." Then I realized how freaking ridiculous I sounded. Also, National Health Insurance.
- The relatively clean environment - sure, there's pollution, but I've lived in India and China, so shut up.
...and other reasons, but I think I've made my point.
This is one thing that was missing from Friedman's piece, and sadly, also missing from Turton's analysis (though I don't want to criticize too much, otherwise I agree) - no actual, visceral caring for Taiwan. Nothing about the charms of the country that make it a place worth living and a country worth loving. Nothing to make you believe there's any real emotion or attachment there.
While I understand on some level that Thomas Friedman doesn't actually care about Taiwan all that much, I do hope someday he'll shut his blowhole, put down his textbooks, turn away from the charts and graphs, stop pretending he's a blue collar Everyman and come to Taiwan to see why it's worthy of being his favorite country for real.