Monday, March 29, 2010

On Tn̂g-ām-lo̍k*

If you had a giraffe
and he stretched another half…
you would have a giraffe and a half
Shel Silverstein

It’s all about stretching another half, isn’t it?


* Tn̂g-ām-lo̍k is the Min Nan (or Bân-lâm-gú) word for giraffe. I bet most of you haven’t heard of the Min Nan language (at least I hadn’t). From what Wikipedia can tell me, it’s actually a family of Chinese languages and dialects spoken in Fujian and neighbouring areas. I didn’t know where that was, but once again Wikipedia was helpful. Fujian is a province on the Southeast coast of China, right across the Taiwan strait from, exactly, Taiwan. Min Nan usually refers to the Hokkien, which is a dialect, and in particular the Amoy and Taiwanese. The language spoken by 70% of Taiwanese population is a dialect of Min Nan. I think…

I find myself writing this, pretending that I understand it, but in reality, the only parts of the above sentences that broke through my dumb shield were the words “China” and “Taiwan”.

The university I went to in Japan prided itself with the word “International” in its name. There really were a lot of international students attending (though mostly from the privileged part of the world, but that is another story). We represented different countries with different cultures and it was fascinating to have such a unique opportunity to hang out with people from around the globe. I loved being able to tell my friends at home that I had just had lunch with a Japanese, a Singaporean, a Mongolian, a German, a Swede and a couple of Americans. That one semester in Japan made me very aware of the opportunities we have, living in a global world. Trade, commerce and business is one thing, but much more interesting to me is cooperation, exchange of ideas and knowledge, respect and admiration for foreign cultures. I took a class about Korea, but I think I learned almost as much from having lunch one day with one of the (South) Korean boys who told me about everyday life in his home country.

Unfortunately, the international stage isn’t all about peace and understanding. Sadly, our own mini-international stage reflected this. While I was there, we had eight Taiwanese girls, and three Chinese students. The Taiwanese girls were all very social, their English was near-perfect (as was their Japanese, I was told), they were friendly and eager to get to know new people. The three Chinese students kept to themselves, they spoke very little English (which is interesting, seeing as English was the language all classes were taught in), and they did not seem all that interested in participating in any social activities.

Two months into the semester, the school festival was scheduled. The entire university was given a polish to present a perfect façade. Among the many decorations put up were flags representing all the international students’ countries. This included the People’s Republic of China’s red flag with the yellow stars, and it included the flag of the Republic of China, Taiwan.

It doesn’t take a historian to know that this is slightly complicated, but in case your Chinese history is a little rusty, let me elaborate. In 1927 there was a civil war in China, fought between Nationalists and Communists. The war was interrupted by the Japanese invasion in 1937, but resumed once World War Two was over. The Communists eventually controlled the entire mainland China, and they established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. The PRC considers itself as the successor state to the Republic of China (ROC), but the ROC continues to exist on the island of Taiwan. Seeing as this happened during the Cold War, it was not politically acceptable to the Western nations to recognize PRC. Thus, for a long time ROC remained the China officially recognized by most of the world. The small island even had a permanent place in the United Nations Security Council until 1971. After this PRC (or “Red China” as it is referred to in the sources for my thesis; a term I – wisely, I think – avoid in my actual thesis) gradually was recognized by more and more countries, and it is what we today know as China.

You all probably knew this… Sorry, I had a “historian moment”…

Anyway. China (PRC) still claims Taiwan as part of its territory (and until recently, Taiwan also claimed mainland China as part of their territory, but this seems slightly less realistic, somehow…). The world community is not exactly condoning this, but there aren’t any attempts to solidify Taiwan’s status either. There exists a sort of tacit agreement to unofficially treat Taiwan as an independent state, but very few states have actual diplomatic relations with Taiwan (which is the measuring cup for whether a state is recognized or not, which in turn is what determined whether it is a state. Which in essence is my bachelor degree, slightly simplified).

In our cozy, little university, these world events took a dramatic turn. Because the Chinese students who had been taught their entire life about how Taiwan had been the “bad guy” in the civil war; who only knew Taiwan as a bogus state opposing their own country; who like their country’s official policy did not recognize Taiwan as a state at all – these students were provoked by the Taiwanese flag. I did not witness the incident, but rumours and gossip travels like fire in dry grass in a small community like that. Apparently some harsh words were exchanged, and the Taiwanese flag was ripped down from the wall. The mood was fairly sour for a while, but as far as I know it never came to any further confrontations.

The implication, however, of the fact that international affairs could have such a direct influence over how people treated each other on an individual level, struck me. I am something of an idealist in many ways, and I have always hoped and believed that many wars and conflicts could be avoided if people were given the chance of meeting face to face. That way, I reasoned, they would realize that they were only dealing with people, and not a faceless enemy. Instead, in this case, it was the other way around. Putting these people in a small community only personified the enemy.

Ironically (considering the international climate), the sympathy from the other students mostly went to the Taiwanese students. First of all, they had been the “victims”. Secondly, they were our friends, while we hardly knew the Chinese students. Since this did not become an actual problem, however, no one was forced to take a stand.

Early in this post I mentioned that I learned a lot about Korea from speaking to a Korean boy over lunch one day. What I didn’t mention was what he told me (I was saving it for dramatic effect). We touched upon many subjects, but one of the things we talked about was how he had been taught all life that the North Koreans were monsters. Growing up in South Korea before the “Sunshine Policy” of the 1990s (here I could give you another lecture, but let’s leave it at “google Kim Dae-jung if you’re interested”), this was the harsh reality. “No wonder there is war in the world!” I thought to myself.

He further elaborated, though, that once he grew older he met some real, live North Koreans. Then he discovered that the truth was much more complex. This is what I hoped would happen with the Chinese and Taiwanese students, and perhaps more generally between the Chinese students and the rest of us. Personally, I never got to know them that well. Language problems was an issue, but if there is something my two visits to Japan have taught me, it is that communication does not always depend on the ability of speaking the same language. I admit that I did not go the extra yard to try to get to know the Chinese students. In retrospect, I wish I had. I can only hope they warmed up a little to the other students (and vice versa) after I left.

While the China/Taiwan incident was something of a setback for my idealist philosophy, my Korean encounter was much more promising. I still believe that learning about other cultures, gaining new perspectives and befriending someone you thought was an enemy is the key to peaceful settlement of many conflicts. If anything, the China/Taiwan incident proved this, because they didn’t do any of those things – they were placed together without getting to know one another.

So my faith in cultural exchange and personal relationships as a means of reducing conflict is restored, but with one important restriction: make sure that the conditions are right. (Perhaps you’ll have to stretch another half)


Watery Tart said...

*giggles about LITTLE BITTY island claiming China as its territory* I love the chutzbah of that. And I appreciated the history lesson because in the United States history only exists in the western hemisphere. We don't learn anything about whatever is over on that other side.

I think mostly your philosophy holds, but that a lifetime of propaganda is really hard to get past. Think of the middle east, or the India/Pakistan conflicts. Anyplace where people are indoctrinated in an 'us/them' mindset, there is trouble SEEING the individuals.

Cruella Collett said...

The western hemisphere sadly is what dominates here as well. Which makes me appreciate all the more that I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Japan, where the perspectives are different.

A lifetime of propaganda clearly is tough to get past. The stone-set mind set that seems to dominate the Middle East makes me mad every single day (why are they still fighting over the same things as they did 60 years ago?!?) But I refuse to give up hope!

TreeX said...

The term 'Red China' is used in my Cold War textbook, so I think it's available for use as a synonym when you need it ;)

Cruella Collett said...

Who wrote your Cold War textbook? Geir Lundestad?

TreeX said...

Er... A guy called Cohen; it's part of the Cambridge series on US foreign policy... Hang on a tic, I'll go get it ;)

There you go:

The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations. Vol. IV: America in the Age of Soviet Power, 1945-1991 by Warren I. Cohen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993

And here's a review ;) (I'm sure you'll manage to get to the full article ;) )

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