On a November day in 1996 Dan Bloom disembarked on a lush subtropical island and penetrated deep into its sparsely populated hinterlands. He arrived as an adventurer and observer.
After almost five years of living among the natives and observing their behaviors, eating habits and social structures, he wrote a book proclaiming his love for his adopted land and its lifestyle. Theirs is a peaceful society, he writes, that exhibits the brightest possibilities of human nature.
In fact, Bloom is not a modern-day Margaret Mead wearing a palm frond skirt on Borneo. The place he traveled to is nowhere other than Chiayi, Taiwan. And his book, which he wrote in English and had printed in Chinese with a title that can be translated as "That's how I fell in love with Taiwan" (
GRAPHIC COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR
He's fully aware that his book is academically shallow and has no pretensions about exposing deep truths about this nation as a long string of foreign observers are often tempted to try. "I'm not attempting to say anything meaningful in this book," he says.
But judging from readers' reactions, his book seems to have held up a mirror to Taiwanese people and displayed an image of the culture that, to its own inhabitants, is at times exotic-sounding and shockingly different from the one they had imagined.
Here is an American from cozy Boston, living in a town that most Taiwanese agree is a relative backwater. But he loves it, and most importantly he seems to really mean it.
Bloom's earnest enthusiasm and gushing praise for virtually all things Taiwanese obviously has struck a chord. He says he has received hundreds of e-mails from Taiwanese readers touched at times to tears over what he writes about their country.
"I can't hardly imagine why there's people who don't like American or British cities. Now I think I know the reason why ? confidence in yourself and your native country ? I'll cherish Taiwan more from now on," wrote one 26-year-old from Taipei.
Some go even further. One woman wrote that after reading his book she felt "just like a dream ? I still couldn't believe that there's someone who loves Taiwan very much." On Tuesday, Bloom was at the Taipei International Book Exhibition hawking his book by walking up and down the aisles between the stalls (he doesn't have a permit to sell there). It was a hard sell because the visitors were mostly publishing agents looking to sign contracts not buy new books, but he still managed to unload several copies. Several people pointed in his direction, recognizing him from the recent sizeable write-ups in the United Daily News and Next magazine, among others.
One man from Taitung, surnamed Chang, walked up to introduce himself and say he had read the book and "gained a totally fresh perspective on Taiwan." "There's nothing new in the book, so I don't really understand why people feel they've learned so much from it," Bloom says. "I think people like to hear these things from a foreigner because it's somehow comforting." Bloom apparently is a hit because his book provides a reassuring contradiction to the self-loathing that is so rampant in Taiwan. It also helps that he connects directly with his readers by selling the book from a paper lantern-festooned pushcart at the Chiayi night market, where people can see who wrote the book and get a signed copy for NT$100.
"It's a novelty and interest will probably fade, but its fun, so whatever. It's certainly not a money maker," he said. Actually store sales have been miserable and his NT$100 price at the night market is NT$14 less then his cost to buy the books at the author's discount from the publisher. So far he's sold about 5,000 copies.
Now Bloom is looking to expand the book into a series. He's not quite certain what the next topic will be, but it will surely be about something quintessentially Taiwanese, like night markets, which he knows a lot about. It will no doubt also be full of ebullient praise to soothe delicate spirits.
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