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My time in Taiwan - A Review

Evangelia Wichmann


Source: Evangelia Wichmann

"Why do you want to go to Taiwan? Isn't it dangerous?" These were the questions repeatedly thrown my way when I made the decision to move to Taiwan for the first six months of 2023. Concerns about potential conflicts, wars, and China's influence cast a shadow over any excitement surrounding my departure to Taiwan.

In January 2023, equipped with a Bachelor of Arts in Politics/International Relations and a Diploma in Chinese studies, I was feeling a slight case of burnout after three years of academic pursuits and lockdowns. Amidst this weariness, my initial plans for Taiwan were modest. My sole goal was to learn the language and fully immerse myself in Taiwanese culture, stepping foot in a country I had never visited before. Little did I know that these six months would unfold into an unforgettable journey, shaped by travels through breathtaking landscapes, forging meaningful friendships with locals, participating in a rigorous three-month language intensive, and working as an English teacher.

As my personal journey unfolded against the backdrop of global affairs, my time in Taiwan provided me with more than just language proficiency and cultural immersion. It offered invaluable insights into the complexities of Taiwan's unique blend of history, politics, and diverse perspectives that defied simplistic categorisations. Taiwan, often overshadowed by its intricate relationship with China, revealed itself to be a resilient society, bustling with well-educated and hardworking individuals who yearn for peace, stability, and economic prosperity. In engaging conversations with locals and fellow expatriates, I discovered that the threat of conflict and the delicate balance of power in the region remained pressing concerns, albeit discussions confined to certain circles.

Through this reflective piece, I aim to share my experiences and observations from both personal and professional perspectives, bridging the gap between the realm of international relations and the lived realities on the ground. Taiwan, with its rich history, indigenous stories, revolutionary technology, and gastronomic wonders, beckons exploration beyond its political significance in the ongoing dialogue between China and the United States.

Upon arrival, my first impression of Taiwan was the vivid greenery, the efficiency of public transport, and the locals' preference for dressing warm even on seemingly sunny 15-degree Celsius days. I soon learned that these temperatures, considered cold by Taiwanese standards, offered a stark contrast to the scorching heat experienced during the summers.

At first glance, especially for tourists, Taiwan may appear similar to other places in Asia, such as Singapore or mainland China. However, the longer one stays, the more one realises the uniqueness and allure of Taiwan as a country. From its vibrant street food scene to its hospitality and warmth towards tourists, Taiwan embodies kindness, a love for coffee, and a passion for exceptional cuisine.

While there is room for improvement in areas like English proficiency and infrastructure, which seem to have peaked about three decades ago, I found Taiwan to be a nation teeming with well-educated and industrious citizens. However, it was hard not to notice the emphasis on work and the blurred boundaries between personal and professional life. An example of this was the practice of "catching up" on missed working days by working on Saturdays before or after public holidays, leaving one to ponder the purpose of such holidays in the first place.

As for concerns about war and China, they gradually faded into insignificance during my time in Taiwan. Contrary to my expectations, I found no military presence or intense discussions on threats and conflicts. The only sign being the sound of jets when travelling to places like Hualien that have military training bases. When the topic of China or war arose, many Taiwanese responded with a sense of amusement and expressed their disdain for China. They noted that Taiwan has faced threats from China throughout its existence, and the current situation was nothing new. Conversations on this subject with other foreigners and myself often garnered little engagement from the Taiwanese around us. It became evident that there was a prevailing sentiment of not desiring war and a general disinterest in engaging in one.

The complexity of the Taiwan-China relationship is further complicated by the fact that Taiwan identifies itself as the Republic of China. Several generations ago, Taiwan served as a temporary home for Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang Party before they planned to reclaim mainland China. However, this dream and past ideology has faded, and most Taiwanese now consider Taiwan their true home, with little connection to China. While this historical background adds depth to the differentiation between Taiwan and China, conversations with locals revealed occasional confusion due to shared ancestry and occasional slips when describing Taiwanese culture as Chinese. Nevertheless, none of the Taiwanese I encountered during my time there viewed China as the desired future for Taiwan.

During one notable conversation with a friend, we discussed the potential invasion of China and how it might compare to the situation in Ukraine. Her response offered a fresh perspective. She believed that it would likely not manifest as a physical war. China could leverage less aggressive and cheaper means, such as cutting off internet access, to compel compliance and silence dissent. When I inquired about the potential for Taiwanese people to react and fight for their democracy, she posited that Taiwanese culture prioritises peace and the pursuit of economic well-being. The prospect of risking it all for a war they couldn't win seemed inconceivable.

Others I spoke with expressed their faith in the United States and its promise to defend Taiwan, asserting that China would think twice before acting with the US standing by Taiwan's side. Nervous giggles and reassurances abounded when I raised the possibility of the US not intervening. It seemed clear that for some, the belief in US involvement was based on pragmatic considerations rather than unwavering certainty.

Regardless of the existence or absence of war, Taiwan's future remains a complex matter. Questions persist: How does one assert their identity as a country when competing with a superpower like China? Can stability be ensured when relying on the support of the US? Moreover, who will be fighting this hypothetical war? Throughout my time in Taiwan, I encountered no individuals who favoured or showed interest in war. There was no overwhelming sense of nationalistic fervour akin to what we witnessed in Ukraine. The topic itself was not widely discussed in Taiwanese society; rather, it was actively avoided. It seems as though the rest of the world is talking about a subject to which the Taiwanese are not invited to and perhaps wish not to be invited to.


I should note here that this avoidance of the subject was less the case for my friends who attended universities in Taiwan before and during my stay. Most of my friends were on exchange for 6-12 months, studying politics and languages prior to coming to Taiwan, and they delved into subjects that covered Taiwan's relations with China, the country's history, and regional diplomacy. They mentioned finding ample public and academic discourse on Taiwan-China relations and the prospects of war within the university, specifically in those sorts of units. However, these discussions were primarily limited to academic circles and not part of public discourse.

Personally, my time in Taiwan was peaceful, and the topics of war and China were embarrassingly rarely discussed, considering my background in political studies. Perusing articles and discussion papers on the subject, I noted a distinct lack of Taiwanese involvement. Taiwanese view their country as more than a potential battleground in a war with China. The Taiwan I experienced yearns to share its love for food and natural beauty with the world, rather than seeking the political spotlight for a war it does not desire. History has repeatedly shown us that war is the worst possible scenario, benefiting only those selling weapons. So, who will gain from this? The US?

In conclusion, my time in Taiwan allowed me to discover a nation shaped by its people, peace, rich history, and, of course, exceptional cuisine. The time also provided me with a profound understanding of the intersection between personal encounters and global dynamics. It offered a unique perspective on international relations, where the lived experiences of individuals do and do not merge with geopolitical forces, shaping a narrative that extends beyond boundaries. Taiwan's story goes beyond its political significance. The country invites exploration of its rich heritage, technological innovation, and the indomitable spirit of its people. It invites peace not war.



 

Evangelia Wichmann is currently completing a Bachelor of Arts in International relations/politics and French at the University of Melbourne as well as a Diploma in Chinese Studies. Fluent in German, French, and Italian, Evangelia hopes to work in developing countries in humanitarian aid next year before continuing to study international relations and how to best address female rights and climate change within foreign aid.

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