Studying in a foreign country can change one’s perspective of the world, and the unpredictable ways this shapes a person is an education that cannot be credentialed by any university. Taking classes abroad adds another layer to the adventure of getting a degree — the new culture and the foreign classroom experience build character and heighten the learning.
I expected all this when I came to Taiwan for my master’s degree in linguistics, as did many of the other foreign students at my university. However, the Chinese students on one-semester exchange programs had their experiences colored by politics and social division.
I began my studies in early 2016, shortly before Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was sworn in as president. Chinese students were abundant on campus before an inevitable erosion in cross-strait diplomacy nearly eliminated their numbers.
I became close with a tight group of Chinese friends who had come here to study together. They gradually became increasingly comfortable opening up to me, to the point that one night, after a few drinks in the privacy of my campus room, they talked about their “dark government.”
They hoped that Taiwan would succeed in becoming independent, thinking that it would trigger a revolution back home. They despised the constant surveillance and the forced obedience to Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), whom they called “Emperor Xi.”
When I asked them how many other people in China thought the same way, one guessed 25 percent. Perhaps an exaggerated figure, but still an interesting number to hear.
At dinner in a crowded restaurant one evening, one of them piped up in a booming voice: “Do you know that Taiwan is part of China?”
I changed the topic, but later asked why he did that. My friend said that Chinese spies were following foreign students in Taiwan, so he always made sure to say something to please them when out in public.
One of these friends regretted that he could not become close with Taiwanese. He wanted to tell them his true feelings about this country, but he never knew whom to trust, or who might repeat their thoughts to the wrong person. He trusted me as a complete outsider, and only in the privacy of my room. The whisky might have also helped.
These discussions were saddening in a respect. I can only imagine how offended other patrons were in the restaurant that night, hearing my friend spout boilerplate Beijing-approved propaganda that even he did not believe.
How many times has this scene been repeated, further amplifying acrimony between the two sides?
It reminded me of a group tour I took to the Great Wall of China in 2011. On the bus ride back to Beijing, the tour leader told us — all Westerners — that he was desperate to flee to the US, but he knew that his father would rather kill him than let him leave. Perhaps he was just buttering us up for tips, or maybe this was his unvarnished emotion.
I also thought about how many Chinese and Taiwanese in my home country of Canada are good friends with each other and move in the same social circles. I remember asking a couple of my Chinese friends, who had since become Canadian citizens, if “one China” politics ever interfered in their friendships. Their answers were along the lines of: “I’m in Canada now. That stuff doesn’t matter anymore.”
What intrigued me about my Chinese classmates, aside from the rebels who came to my room for secret conversations, was how much they enjoyed participating in classroom discussions, always being the first to ask questions and never shy to express themselves. The locals were much too timid at school, even in the English classes I taught. Their reluctance to participate would drive teachers up the wall.
If there was one thing I wanted Taiwanese to learn from the Chinese, it was the ability to speak up — highly ironic considering which group came from an empire of suppression and censorship.
I first noticed the Chinese tendency to be communicative when I briefly lived in Shanghai. If someone did not like me, they let me know. If they did, a friendship formed within seconds. This was how the aforementioned friendships began.
In a near-empty dumpling restaurant in Taiwan, a student sat himself at my table and just started chatting. I recognized the behavior. I had to ask: “Are you from China?”
My guess was correct, and soon after I was hanging out with him and his revolutionary friends.
There were things I wanted all Chinese students to learn from Taiwanese, but those matters went without saying. Even those loyal to their government were likely having their feelings and opinions influenced by Taiwan’s laid-back, politically diverse society.
Two semesters later, all Chinese students had disappeared from campus, and it became a less interesting place — although I do not think the Taiwanese student body noticed or cared much.
One of the areas studied in linguistics is the effect of politics on language.
Taiwan experienced this during the years of the punishing Mandarin language policy from 1945 to 1987. Taiwanese were forced to suppress their mother tongues, and the effects are prevalent today — Mandarin remains the national language.
Through my campus friendships with Chinese students, I learned a linguistics lesson that crossed lines of politics and culture. I witnessed them alter their speech in certain settings, and self-censor based on real and perceived political threats.
At the same time, I saw that something in their culture encourages blunt expression. Perhaps when you step on one end of the intellectual hose, different ideas burst out on the other end with greater force.
My hope is that one day soon, Chinese exchange students can return to Taiwan in great numbers. If they do, my one hope is that Taiwanese would take the opportunity to form friendships with them. If the occasional bit of forced propaganda can be ignored, some common ground might be found, in addition to letting some good traits rub off on each other.
Pete Starkey is a pseudonym to protect the author’s friends.
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