Will the socioeconomic and political situation further depress the “next” Taiwan, or will it regain hope and resurge as a paradigmatic island?
A multifaceted “Taiwan of despair” has replaced a once exemplary Formosa shaped by a decades-old economic miracle. Globalization, affluence and waste now reign among an impoverishment, marginalization and isolation that natives struggle to explain, while foreigners are excluded from any meaningful commentary.
One source of despair for outsiders is the literal incomprehension of a country where nature and human environment are beyond tangible singularity. A recent case was the assault on a foreigner in Taipei (Letters, Dec. 21 and Dec. 25, page 8; “Clashes of cultures and personalities,” Dec. 30, page 8).
The kind of assault that happened in Taipei may not necessarily occur elsewhere in Taiwan. “Aliens” may become the victims of offenders who have themselves been traumatized by hostile encounters. Taiwan has produced a society split into individualistic groups, in which consensus and national solidarity have been replaced by an underworld that is best not compared to that of Sicily. The infringement of group norms (as defined by behaviorist Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt) easily leads to unpredictable violence.
Taiwan’s natural environment, already wasted by “civilization” is replete with danger — a biosphere with poisonous life; landslides tearing off mountain slopes, roads and villages; torrential floods devastating valuable land — pushing ever more people to the verge of despair. With this in mind the author condones some of his own unhappy experiences: such as an unintentional involvement with a gravel truck and the ensuing humiliating treatment at the hands of the authorities, who just couldn’t communicate with an adoga (big nose). Or one unprovoked physical attack, which reminded a Taiwanese friend of his own experience on a tour of Europe, where he said he had encountered genuine racist xenophobia.
At the time Europeans were establishing a foothold in the New World and their cultures transforming the Americas into modern Western nation states, Han migrants arrived in Taiwan and extended China’s cultural space into the Pacific. Although Western politics and alliances have preserved the Ilha Formosa in the 20th century as a display window of an intangible China, they have as much failed to create a nation state as they have fallen short of comprehending the Sinicized country or in introducing Western values as an antithesis to the ancient awe-inspiring beliefs that thrive in people’s souls and untold temples, along with popular superstitions and unfathomable fears.
Among the fears that foreigners will probably never understand is demonophobia — a fear of the “undead;” which in stress situations may trigger violence in a society polarized and haunted by angst and unrest. On the other hand, Taiwanese have long since proven that bravery is fostered by universal philanthropy and the harmonious coexistence of different ethical systems, languages, cultures, opinions and ideas. This makes the kind of xenophobia known by foreigners obsolete, although an essential fear (from the Greek, phobos) of what is different (xenos, for the unknown person) remains. It may also be this fear which, ironically, gives people a blind admiration for the strange.