Taiwan: A small country with its arms open to embrace the world (Travelogue)

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Taipei, May 9 (IANS) “A section of the intelligentsia and even the common people in Mainland China look up to Taiwan as an ideal and a future reference point for their country,” a highly placed official in Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry opined over a dinner he hosted for us at a fancy restaurant.

“I mean, they are not in favour of a merger of the Republic of China (Taiwan) with mainland China because they see Taiwan as a model that they can emulate. That is my personal reading,” he added.

It was the last day of our five-day trip and all of us — a group of eight journalists from various South East Asian countries — were scheduled to fly back home the next morning.

As I sipped the braised yellow croaker noodle soup garnished with preserved kale, my mind rummaged through the happenings and events of the last five days to make sense of the diplomat’s words.

Taipei has shared a “special relationship” with Beijing, to quote former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou. However, China (the locals always call it “Mainland China”) has been wary of any assertion, or even hint of such an assertion, of independence by Taiwan.

And that is the source of strain in the cross-strait relations, although the trade exchanges between the two countries are increasing. The Taiwanese market is as much flooded with “Made in China” products as, say, India.

In the political realm, however, the relations have not been at their best since 2016, when President Tsai Ing-wen came to power in Taiwan. Nevertheless, the view in the Taiwanese government is clear: It wants cordial relations with all countries, including Mainland China, particularly the South and South East Asian countries.

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The island nation has evolved a “New Southbound Policy” to this effect which aims at increasing and deepening the economic, cultural, academic and diplomatic exchanges with the nations in South East Asia and beyond.

Back to the diplomat’s words. I tried to assess whether it was merely an expression of an exaggerated sense of self-importance; a constricted perception of a situation from the prism of patriotism; self-assurance in the face of looming threat from a mighty unequal; a lofty academic hypothesis or a candid admission based on reliable inputs?

Let me admit, based on my personal experience of the past few days, I did not find the official’s words without substance, even if they might somewhat be inspired by an unabated love for his country, for its independence and autonomy. We can call it “nationalism”, but since the word has acquired a negative connotation, I deliberately desist from using it in a Taiwanese national’s context.

For the word nationalism has come to acquire the meaning of imposition and forced acceptance of uniformity — of language, culture, religion, diet and perhaps everything that defines human lifestyle — and rejection of all sorts of diversity.

But Taiwanese society celebrates diversity and is not only receptive but welcoming of other cultures, religions, languages, culinary tastes. It is not only accommodating of its minorities, it respects them as well.

Its New Southbound Policy is an evidence of the tiny nation’s willingness to open up to the rest of the world, particularly its neighbourhood.

This is in contrast to the Chinese expression of “nationalism” that discourages any diversity of languages or culture. The national identity is mostly defined by a single ethnicity (that is, Han) and a single language (standardised Mandarin).

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Yet, it is also true that the view that China must not be afraid of embracing a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societal model has been gaining much currency among Chinese scholars and intellectuals.

Noted scholar and writer Ramchandra Guha, in his book “Democrats and Dissenters”, relates his experience of a seminar he attended in China a few years back.

Based on the papers read and views expressed in the seminar by various intellectuals, as also his personal interactions with the Chinese scholars, Guha writes: “So far as I could tell, there are three competing perspectives among Chinese intellectuals on how the state should treat minority cultures.

“One view is that minorities must approximate to the Han… the second perspective I call ‘Han Big Brotherliness’ in the more benign sense of the Hindustani phrase ‘bade bhaiya’. The third perspective is one of a deeper cultural pluralism.”

Perhaps the Taiwanese official’s assumption was not far-fetched because it not only betrayed a sense of dissatisfaction among a section of the Chinese scholars with the state’s policies but also a desire to make their society more tolerant, accommodating and respecting of the “other”. Probably they may rightly see Taiwan as the closest example of what they envisage for their country.

Of my personal experience, I recalled the pleasant surprise I received as soon as I entered my room in the Palais de Chine hotel. In the partially-lit room with warm white light, the first thing that caught my attention was a copy of the Quran placed carefully over a prayer mat on the table.

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Whether I read Quran or not, or whether I would need the prayer mat make for secondary discussion. What touched me was the hotel’s sensitivity towards, and respect for, a Muslim guest’s needs as many people do need a prayer mat in their hotel room as they are very particular about the salah. To be honest, I had not expected it in a hotel in Taiwan.

As I pulled the drawer out, there was a sticker pasted inside which showed the Kaaba ‘s direction. Muslims have to face the Kaaba (which is in Mecca, Saudi Arabia) while offering the salah.

The surprises did not end there. As we gathered for dinner in the hotel’s dining room, the staff handed me over a different menu card.

“This is the halal menu card. All the food in this menu is prepared in separate utensils as we also serve pork,” the person attending our table told me. I gladly smiled and ordered roasted chicken for myself.

Even while serving food, the waiters would tell us which dish contained pork so that those who do not consume the meat may avoid it.

I wondered if I would receive the same hospitality at a hotel in China, the country that sees observing Ramzan fasts as an assertion of an identity different from the standarised national identity and has thus officially banned all forms of fasting.

The food was good albeit somewhat bland to the Indian taste buds.

(Asim Khan can be contacted at [email protected])

–IANS

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