Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hanging on to Confucius



The other week I blogged about being quoted in the Liberty Times and United Daily, more out of the pride of being able to deliver a decent quote in Chinese and have it printed accurately (meaning that people can actually understand me! Wow!).

What I didn't write about until later was that when I went to buy a copy of the Liberty Times containing my quote, that I had a little run in with a dying breed, a species I hope is slowly going extinct, an ancient throwback. I live in the heart of Da'an (be jealous, mofos), an area that is super-duper deep blue. Most of my neighbors are veterans. Some even fought Communists. As I'm buying my paper at 7-11, which I don't normally do as I read Taipei Times online and practice Chinese with free papers I pick up, some old dude says to me in English, "don't buy that paper. It's lies!" and "We are Chinese! We have 5,000 years of history. You foreigners can't understand."

Edited for clarification: the veterans aren't the "ancient throwbacks" I hope will go extinct. I mean the rude guy and his ilk. Most of my neighbors are very nice people with whom I happen to disagree politically, which is not a big deal - I'd rather have good relationships with them and not talk politics. Few if any of them would say the sorts of things this guy did.

This recent memory was yet again thrust to the forefront of my poor embattled cerebral cortex when someone else I know said that it wasn't that she didn't want Taiwanese independence - she did, someday, not now ("it's not safe now", which I'd agree with even if it makes me angry, because it's the work of Chinese bully politicians), but that she didn't want Taiwan to be called "Taiwan" beyond it being the name of the island. She wasn't interested in a Republic of Taiwan - she wanted independence as The Republic of China.

I should note that this person, while she did vote for Ma Ying-jiu, is not particularly blue and has voted green in the past. She'd said that she actually prefers Tsai to Ma, but that she doesn't like the people Tsai has surrounded herself with. While I'd say that the greater good comes from kicking the KMT out of power and elevating the basic ideals of the modern DPP, I can still see and understand her views. She also feels more disappointed in the DPP - saying they help themselves at the Buffet o' Corruption shamelessly, when they were supposed to have done better (which is true, but sadly not surprising), whereas the KMT has always been known to be corrupt so it's to be expected, even though in the end they've stolen way more over time from Taiwan.

I get that, too, but then I feel that if faced with two corrupt parties, you've just got to go with the one whose policies you agree with.

Why, then, does this name matter so much to her and to many others, in much the same way that "Taiwan" matters so deeply to the other side (the side I'm unabashedly on, if that wasn't clear)?

Her rationale is a common one - despite not wanting to be a part of the PRC, she still felt a cultural connection to China. "I love Confucius and Lao Tzu" - it's part of her heritage, she said, and she didn't want to give that up. She saw no reason why the name "China" should belong to the PRC when it's her heritage, too. She doesn't want to give up the Analects and the Tao Te Ching, the art and the music.

OK, I see that.

I also feel, though, that we "foreigners who can't understand China's 5,000 years of history" (BLLEECCCHHHH) do have something worth contributing to that conversation. Most of us come from immigrant stock. I will only speak for Americans here, but I do think it is more universally valid, to say that this isn't just true for minorities: some or all of us "in the majority" white people are also immigrants from hundreds of years back ("all" if you're talking American, "some" if you're talking British, it gets complicated). In the case of America, it's been a comparable amount of time between when some of our families first settled here - and totally screwed over the Native Americans, something that history loves to repeat on every continent - and when the Hoklo were settling Taiwan from Fujian.

I'm American. I am not British, Armenian, Polish or Swiss by citizenship. My passport says "United States of America" on it. Does that mean I can't still feel a connection to the cultural heritage of the places my ancestors came from? Do I have to be "British" to appreciate Britain's cultural contributions, and recognize that part of my family is from there? Do I have to be "Armenian" to appreciate the strong culinary traditions that still run in my family from that side? Can I not appreciate those things and still be "American"?

I'm not going to say that these things aren't important - they are. Knowing and appreciating where you came from, even if that place is not the country you live in now and doesn't bear the same name, is vital to most of us. I'm not going to say "eh, who cares, let 'em have Confucius", although I have heard people say similar things. Armenians are pretty intense about their heritage, and yet I don't feel shut out just because I don't look Armenian, have an Armenian name or citizenship in a country with the word "Armenia" in its official title.

But then, she was pretty clear that part of her attachment was to the name "China" alone (why let them have it? being part of her reaction), and my resolution to culture vs. citizenship wouldn't satisfy her. Edit: as J said so wisely in the comments, identity is a feeling, and you can't argue that away.

That's why I fall on the side of "this is Taiwan", not "this is the Republic of China". It's true that I have no specific attachment to Chinese culture beyond my expat experience, but it's not impossible to understand that attachment. And yet, as an American, I'm able to get past my own tangled ancestry and appreciate what it's given me without insisting that I need, absolutely need, to hold on to those names. Heck, I feel just as strong an attachment to my Armenian side as my Polish one, and yet I grew up with a Polish surname, not an Armenian one. It is clearly not impossible.


Or maybe I'm just a blundering big nose who "can't understand" "5,000 years" of Chinese history and culture. Who knows.

11 comments:

J said...

On a purely rational level, what she said makes no sense- your country doesn't have to be called China for Confucius or Laozi to be part of your heritage. Singapore has a strong Chinese heritage without being called China, and Korea and even Japan and Vietnam are heavily influenced by Confucianism. What matters is that Taiwan and China's past hundred years of history, which has radically altered society in both countries, have been very different.
The problem is she's probably talking on an emotional, not rational level, and her reasoning is just a (bad) justification for whatever she feels. Ultimately identity is an emotion, and you can't really argue someone out of it.

dashengliu said...

I hope you see the difference between a nation state ("China", whether it's the PRC or Republic of China) and a country entirely made up of immigrants, i.e. the USA.

These so called "native Taiwanese" (and I am not talking about the aboriginal population here), have a very strong cultural affiliation with China. You probably have also notices that the English language is not really precise with terms either: China for the average foreigner means PRC - for the average "native Taiwanese", when speaking in Chinese it does however not equate to PRC.

Even staunch DPP supporters have no problem with calling "China" the Mainland - at least not in Chinese. It's usually expats who create a division between Taiwan and China that for most Taiwanese does not exist - neither culturally nor as a nation.

Also, I find it quite pretentious of you how you describe veterans who liberated China from the Japanese - these old men you hope extinct soon fought along American soldiers against Imperalism and later Communism.

Now that the cold war is over for you it's obviously easy to lead an expat life, slurp another bubble tea, feel totally special and international while spitting on an entire generation and their concepts of what a nation and a state should be like.

And no - you as a foreigner do not have anything useful to add in this debate. Taiwan belongs to those with ROC ID cards, no matter we feel Chinese, Taiwanese or both - but it definitely does not belong to you. And in the event your beloved DPP ticks off China, you will be the first to leave the sinking ship anyways.

Jenna Cody said...

I would say that Taiwan, although not as culturally diverse as the USA or similar countries, does in many minds constitute a nation of "immigrants" (the Hoklo population, and the Hakka to some extent too, do carry some feeling of identification with China as I noted). While it's not quite the same, I don't think it's as different as you think.

While I won't disagree with you that those of Chinese cultural heritage don't necessarily view "China" as "the PRC", I completely disagree with you that most people, even those on the DPP side, don't make a national distinction. They absolutely do. One of the core values of that school of thought is Taiwanese nationalism and patriotism! Have you actually talked to anyone who feels that way? There are so many.

I also was not spitting on an entire class of people (ie the veterans who live around me) - I was quite purposely implicating this one guy who was kind of an asshole. Most of my neighbors (who are mostly veterans) are very nice people. We don't talk politics because I like them enough that I just don't want to go there with them. I don't think many of them would say "you foreigners would never understand our 5,000 years of history" because they're not as rude as this guy was. But that man? No, I won't defend him.

And I won't defend your use of the phrase "'so called' native Taiwanese" - if that's how they feel about themselves, who are you to call that into question? Not everyone agrees with your very blue view on things.

For what it's worth, I don't live as international a lifestyle as you might think. Sure, I travel a lot, but when in Taiwan (which is most of the time) I live more or less as much like a local as I can (there are some cultural limitations to this). Now that I am applying for permanent residency, I have given a lot of thought to whether I would stay or go if China attacked Taiwan. It's not fair to imply that the DPP would be to blame - the blame would fall squarely on China's shoulders: the DPP of today isn't interested in immediately declaring independence or cutting off ties with China - they want a dialogue, mostly, but also for China to respect Taiwan more than they do (which, at the moment, is not very much, and it is degrading to Taiwan to put up with that bullshit).

At the moment I admit that my impulse would be to go, because I am not Taiwanese. This isn't my war to fight. I think a lot of Taiwanese who don't want to be a part of China - that'd be over half of them, but you don't seem to know any of them - would happily be doing the same.

On the other hand, I might grow attached enough to Taiwan that I would stay and fight. Who knows. I'm a stubborn person who doesn't back down when provoked, and China attacking a country (yes, country!) I love would be a provocation were I to decide that my loyalties lie with Taiwan, not the USA. I haven't felt loyal to the USA for awhile, so this isn't an impossible scenario.

But go ahead, keep judging me. It's entertaining.

Jenna Cody said...

Another point you failed to note: if I did go home in such an unlikely event, it would be in part because plenty of Taiwanese would almost certainly urge me to do so. Some from the point of view that I am not Taiwanese, so I shouldn't stay. Some because they're pragmatic and would go themselves if they had that chance. Either way, as an expat who intends to stay indefinitely, in such an event you'd be damned if you do (people thinking you're abandoning ship) and damned if you don't (people thinking you shouldn't stay because you're a foreigner anyway, and they don't want you fighting their fight). You don't have to straddle that line. I do. And yet you see fit to judge me.

Also, where did I say that Taiwan belonged to me or any other foreigner?

John Scott said...

Some of the feedback you already got shows how much people dislike their racial and national identity being threatened ...or de-constructed. The problem you will always run into with people like that is that they have never been educated (or even intellectually challenged) to distinguish between nationality, race, ethnicity and culture. That's why it is a problem which prevents any further discussion of the real issues, because it is impervious to logic and reason.

There's another kind of thinking underlying this kind of "who owns Confucius?" dynamic which I think is hard for me to grasp, simply because I was raised to see the world in such a different way. It's the idea that the iconic elements that define your culture (and in this case also race and nationality) are all ancient artifacts, old relics and analects that you are taught to revere and cherish, but which almost nobody in modern times actually reads or even understands. They are static and forever unchanging (and thus non-threatening) and can be universally approved at the highest level.

In the same way, they see each culture as having a single, central point of authority and legitimacy. For people who think like this, culture is not a living, changing and adapting thing.

Ireland, Scotland, Australia, South Africa, etc. are all part of the "English Speaking World". Do they argue over who owns Shakespeare? Or who is the "real England"? No, because they each have their own unique cultural and artistic elements to take pride in and to define their identity.

What are the cultural developments/persons, cultural icons of the last several generations that Taiwanese can take pride in and integrate into their cultural identity? If they have to go all the way back to Confucius, they have a problem. I guess there is always Wang Jian-ming and Jeremy Lin.

Where I'm from, people can be proud of cultural icons who may have angered many, were certainly not approved at the highest levels, but who nonetheless changed their culture for the better: Dr. M.L. King, Jr., Maya Angelou, Woody Guthrie, etc. Perhaps it's the difference between seeing cultural development as something that should happen in a top-down way, as opposed to a bottom-up way.

Jenna Cody said...

Cultural icons that could be used (and I have heard used) as identification points for Taiwanese culture:

- betel nut girls (not joking)

- Taiwanese opera (I know it's related to forms of opera on the mainland but then musicals hearken back to a long-standing European music tradition, so what)

- temple festivals, including the "eight generals" (ba jia jiang) and "tall gods" as well as the spirit mediums (ji tong) - things that at one point might've been seen on the mainland, at least in the area from which most Taiwanese come from, but aren't seen now. Kind of how India has managed to preserve some of the interesting flourishes of English that the rest of the English speaking world has abandoned.

- aboriginal culture - millet wine, harvest festivals

- the very noticeable quirks of Taiwanese culture that are Japanese influenced: from the whole "I have to eat the best and freshest food at the right time of year from the one village that is famous for it at the restaurant most famous for making it" to the wooden houses to Japanese-Taiwanese food (like some of the dishes at 100 kuai seafood/beer places)

- politically, the Taiwanese fight for and victory in favor of democracy. We've got our founding fathers, they've got this.

There are even attitudes and certain aesthetic and thought elements I would describe as uniquely Taiwanese, but it would take a long time to type them up here.

Jenna Cody said...

But as for some people viewing culture as a static thing with non-changing iconic elements vs. viewing culture as changing and adaptable is a good point, and I agree.

Brendan said...

I'm a proponent of the idea that there can be a dual meaning to "China" in people's minds: China the country (the PRC), vs. China the cultural sphere. That's probably the best framework to understand why many Taiwanese people proudly self-identify as "Chinese" while at the same time they don't particularly relish the idea of Taiwan as a province of the People's Republic. Also why many Taiwanese people prefer the thought of living in the Republic of China to the Republic of Taiwan.

Not that it's really any of my business how other people culturally self-identify, but I wouldn't mind this if not for the fact that for most people in the world, "China" = "the PRC" (and that's not going to change for as long as the PRC exists), and pro-unification folks are sure to take advantage of the confused thinking caused by most people naturally taking "China" and "the PRC" to be synonyms in today's world: "See? Told ya Taiwan was a province of China!"

John Scott said...

Oh, I can think of so many Taiwanese cultural elements that I think I would be proud of —if I was from Taiwan!

My question was more of a rhetorical one, asked out of dismay at the thought that so many Taiwanese seem unable to appreciate the uniqueness of all of the 'could-only-happen-in-Taiwan' cultural elements around them.

For so many Taiwanese, the "my" in "my country", "my culture" is a such a complex equation. It is almost never equal with "the borders of the ROC."

It seems that whether or not a Taiwanese person is likely to find some pride or appreciation in cultural elements like the Japanese cultural influences, the pro-democracy movement, the diversity of the aboriginal cultures, the Taiwan-born writers, artists, etc.,.. still probably depends (unfortunately) on who their parents are, and how and when their family came to Taiwan, who did what to whom, etc..

How long until pride and appreciation can extend across "tribal" lines? How long until all people in Taiwan can claim ALL of those elements as part of their collective identity, even considering how 'messy' and complicated the history is?

I appreciate so many of these unique elements of this culture that is not even my own-- but I realize that the reason I can have that attitude is partly because I bring no ancestral/tribal associations to the place.

It might be the difference between how interesting a place (or people) might look from the outside (to outsiders) as opposed to how dull and insignificant the same place looks to people who grew up there.

I guess all diverse countries have this kind of identity crisis to some extent. How you define problems and who you blame for your troubles is a too often function of which ethnic group (or origin group) you identify with.

Jenna Cody said...

I'm hoping it'll happen once smart-asses stop using phrases like "'so-called' native Taiwanese" like our buddy above!

I still hear so much divisive language, and I feel like if both sides would stop using it (and employing the thought processes behind it), that a stronger sense of unity could grow.

And I do mean both sides, but honestly, I hear it more from one side than the other these days - although that could be because I live in such a blue area. Maybe I wouldn't be saying that if I lived in, say, Pingdong.

Bos said...

first time reader to your site. love your thoughts. will be following.

agree w/ your arguments here in this article and the parallels of being American vs. being Taiwanese i.e. being American does not mean loss of your cultural identity.