I remember from my childhood in Cuba a tree I discovered at an abandoned homestead that produced mangoes such as I had never seen before.
The fruits were broader than long and had a uniquely delicious flavor. By clipping a bud from that tree and grafting it onto a seedling on our small farm, I arranged for us to someday have such fruit of our own.
However, before that “someday” ever came, the communist revolution happened. We lost our little farm to a Cuban government functionary and left behind a property peppered with mango saplings of a great many interesting and unique varieties.
Thirty-five years later I returned on a brief trip to find that the communists had bulldozed flat the once beautiful hilly farm so that now it looked like anyplace, anywhere. Everything that had mattered to me about the place was gone, including all the big mango trees, which — according to an old lady now living next door — had all been knocked down to make way for the grapefruit groves the government decided to plant there.
Mangoes grew well on that land. It turned out that grapefruit did not. The mangoes we had planted were special and rare varieties that offered promise to the island. The grapefruit the communists failed to grow were commonplace and commercial. There is a blindness built into communism that does not see such things.
I never encountered that kind of mango again in my life and sometimes wonder whether that tree of ours might have been the last one and if now the variety is gone forever. If so, it would be such a loss. The fruits were so uniquely delicious and un-mango-like.
When I told this story to an apple farmer I met many years later from upstate New York, he told me that so many of the most uniquely delicious apple varieties in his region were similarly vanishing, replaced by the few kinds that had gotten commercially developed, but were not as tasty.
This past week I was reminded of these old concerns. We passed the week in the remote interior part of Taiwan where my wife spent her childhood. In that town, every street is a market. No one has to go shopping to buy things. No matter where you go, it is next to impossible to come home empty-handed.
Various different kinds of mangoes ended up on our table that neither she nor I had ever tasted before — mangoes unprepossessing in appearance, but with flavors uniquely inviting and delicious; flavors you do not get in any of the developed commercial varieties sold in supermarkets and fruit stands.
I hoped that none of those mangoes were the produce of some last-remaining tree of its kind.
I hoped that agriculturists in Taiwan might be intelligent enough to search out these unique mangoes before they are gone and develop them into cash crops for farmers to export. There is a big market for unique and superior varieties of mangoes. There is money in this for someone.
Taiwan’s strength, and its eternal advantage over that other much larger China, the so-called People’s Republic, is that it lucked out in getting raped, robbed and pillaged by the adversaries of the communists rather than by the communists themselves. This nation thus, to some measure, escaped the brute standardization that has so impoverished China.
It is not just that here some of the most special varieties of mangoes still survive, and hold out a rich promise for development and commercialization, but that Taiwan still has what was once most special about China itself.
Exchange students of mine from China have told me they see this.
There is a flavor to the life here, a taste found among the people, no longer encountered over there. Over there it is gone. They do not have it and cannot bring it back.
However, Taiwan still has it, and should preserve and develop it, like the mangoes.
Taiwan today is modern and successful, but it needs to consider its real advantage and the danger of losing even a little of what is most special about it.
It is not just with some of the vanishing mango varieties, though they offer such rich and immediate proof, it is with everything about the people here and their uniquely Chinese culture.
Taiwan must cultivate this and not let it die out.
William Stimson is an adjunct professor at Tunghai University and National Chi Nan University.
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