Turning Eastward

12:04 AM May 23, 2017

A week after I landed here in Taipei, I spent an hour and a half getting lost. I took the wrong bus, and there was no one who spoke English that I could ask as to where exactly it was heading. I decided to settle in my seat, enjoy the view and wait it out till the sights became familiar and I could make out where I was. I ended up in what looked like a rural village. It was the end of the line.

I talked to the driver and handed him an MRT map, pointing out where I wanted to go. He could not understand my English, and I could not speak Chinese. He gave me a bus number, but I was not sure where exactly it was going. There was no MRT station in sight, no convenience store where I usually could find someone to talk to. In the heart of the city, 7-11 and Family Mart stores dot the landscape—our equivalent of the ubiquitous sari-sari store. But here, just at the outskirts of the city, it dawned on me that I am in a self-contained, self-enclosed culture that sees no need to translate itself to stupid foreigners.


I have been made aware, after cross-cultural experience in more than 40 countries, that much of it had been mostly Westward, or in continents where English is at least a second language, or a lingua franca that ties together various linguistic communities. In short, I am in a culture where I am experiencing a reversal of the Pax Americana, or what is possibly a rehearsal for the future: what it is like to get overrun by China through what a sociologist calls “coerced diffusion”—the spread of its language, ideas and cultural practices once its Belt and Road Initiative gets going.

Taiwan, like the Philippines, had been through various influences. The Chinese first came in the sixth century. Then a large number of immigrants came in the 13th century under the Mongols. The Europeans came in the 1500s. A Portuguese ship was blown off course and “discovered” an island so beautiful that the captain exclaimed, “Ihla Formosa (Beautiful isle)!” The name “Formosa” stuck, at least among Europeans. It was renamed “Taiwan” (Terraced Bay) in 1612 under the Ming Dynasty. Then the Dutch came in 1624, mostly interested in trading than in governing. Two years later, the Spaniards came to the northern tip of the island. Unnerved by the competition, the Dutch attacked the Spaniards in 1641 and ended the Spaniards’ 15-year stay.


Like us, the Taiwanese waged wars of independence, notably that led by the champion warrior of the Ming Dynasty, Koxinga, who drove out the Dutch. He gave his soldiers plots of land, encouraged foreign trade, and more than 500 scholars came from the mainland to give assistance. But his reign was short-lived. He died in 1662 at the age of 36, and in 1683 the Manchus took the island back and made it a part of the province of Fukien.

The Chinese ruled for 233 years, ending only when Taiwan was ceded to Japan at the end of the Sino-Japanese War in 1895. The Japanese ruled for 50 years, and much like the American colonization of the Philippines, brought in infrastructure and technical skills and similarly instituted a “cultural assimilation policy.” The Allied Nations demanded Taiwan’s return to China after World War II. Chinese governance initially was corrupt and oppressive. It consolidated when Chiang Kai Shek’s forces fled to Taiwan in 1949, bringing in their wake about 2 million refugees, made up mostly by the army and the Kuomintang political and economic elite, whose elderly remnants still look to the mainland as “home.”

But like our own Chinoys, the younger generation source their identity in being “Taiwanese,” even if ethnically Chinese. This sentiment fueled much of the victory of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party in last year’s elections, and the defeat of the China-leaning KMT, which for the first time lost its majority in the legislature.

However, some see China eventually annexing Taiwan. “Maybe in 10, 20 years,” sighed an informant, resigned to its inevitability.

The Chinese, unlike the West, go softly. But like Taiwan or Africa, we are likely to wake up one morning squirming in its giant pocket.

Dr. Melba Padilla Maggay is a social anthropologist currently doing research on the cross-cultural dimensions of the China-Philippines conflict in the South China Sea.

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