And so concludes my writing about my month in Taiwan for a Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar. I took the photo above–taken during a coordinated drone light show on the opening night of the Taiwan International Balloon Festival near the Taiwanese east coast city of Taitung–after the seminar was over, and was off on my own.
“See you tomorrow!” I could think of much to say about that alone, even without Hello Kitty! Meanwhile, just a couple of more photos. First, a group shot!
Next, one of me, taken at the Kavalan Whisky Bar in Taipei by a fellow grantee, then one more from Taipei. And that’ll do.
One more, I thought–I need one more blog entry to do my trip to Taiwan for a Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar justice. I was there with a group of faculty for a month, and spent three days there on my own. Then I snap photos almost daily while at home, so you know I had a zillion shots from Taiwan. Why not share more?
Here goes, then. I thought in this entry I would focus more on typical Taiwan scenes, with ones not only from Taipei but from around its territory. After all, we made stops in small towns in the mountains, larger western cities, including the onetime colonial capital of Tainan, the sprawling southwestern city of Kaohsiung, and eastern cities, including Taitung and Hualien.
Among the things we did and saw along the way included:
Hearing from high school students in Kaohsiung about virtual international exchange studies, the level of study required in Taiwan (intense, dramatic), college prep, and the like. Some of the same students led us, in separate groups, on tours around an art park and redeveloped commercial and tourist district near downtown (Pier-2 Art Center).
Toured an architectural dig near an old Dutch colonial site in Tainan, after hearing from a panel of archeologists about their work and how it refects or involves the island’s complex history.
Took a brief Chinese drumming class, toured, and played around at a one-time Japanese colonial sugar mill turned into a theme park of sorts (Ten Drum Culture Village).
Spent a couple of hours at a tea farm near Alishan, where we were treated to a tea tasting and learned about the economics and social aspects of the high mountain tea business.
Spent an afternoon at an indigenous house and farm near Taitung, learning about traditional foodways, as well as typical means of building or construction.
Stopped at many a temple, learned about (mostly Chinese folk religion and Buddhist-oriented) religious and cultural life in the cities and countryside, and the like, with an especially heavy dose of this in the Zuoying District of Kaohsiung.
We were presented with mounds of delicious food (most Chinese or Taiwan-Chineese, but some indigenous food, along with Thai-inspired dishes, Japanese, and American and Taiwanese-American hybrids) along the way, usually delivered to and pushed around on lazy susan-type tables.
Along with other faculty grantees, meanwhile, I visited night markets, shrines tiny and vast, huge bookstores with elaborate stationery and writing utensil sections, roadside tourist villages, convenience stores with stationery sections and emergency business apparel, and on and on and on. But I also visited a few places on my own or with one or two other faculty, including an outstanding photography museum in Taiepei (whose exhibits, housed in an old colonial Japanese building, often reflected the country’s dialogues about its history and identity).
Almost every other faculty member went home a few days after our return to Taipei, where we worked on our curriculum projects and made presentations about them. But I opted to spend three days on Taiwan on my own. The reason? I was allowed that option at my own expense. In that time, I went to the giant, Sanrio-sponsored Taiwan International Balloon Festival near the tiny Luye Township. Then I took a ferry from Taitung to Green Island, where I took a scooter around the island and stayed at a mod-looking backpackers hostel.
Logically, after that, I spent a night and most of the next day being pampered and eating exceedingly fine Chinese and Asian food at the luxury Shangri-La Hotel. I was feeling exhausted and stuffy by then, so that was a fine end to the most eventful trip I have ever taken.
Now, a few shots, then even more. Hopefully, they show what I saw: A modern, dynamic place with so much color, good humor, and joy–so much life. It has little crime, friendly people, a highly educated population, and it is organized, but not to a stifling degree. I hope the island gets the future it clearly deserves.
Formosa: It’s a name I previously often associated with termites after hearing about problems with wood frame homes in Southeast Louisiana. NOT GOOD. But in old American encyclopedias, you can see what is now called “Taiwan” listed as “Formosa.”
These are words used to describe the same place, in effect, with “Formosa” described in-country as its “popular name.” Formosa meant “beautiful island” and was given by Portuguese sailors who passed near the beginning of Taroko Gorge, near the city of Hualien on Taiwan’s east coast. There, they saw two mountain ranges meeting near the Philippine Sea, with tall mountain peaks stretching to the horizon.
Our Fulbright-Hays faculty group did not get as good of a view as the Portuguese sailors on the day we toured and hiked at Toroko National Park. Even so, we saw plenty to evoke awe and wonder in us there, and throughout the island. Then I saw even more beauty in Taiwan when visiting Green Island, a small island off the east coast.
But I had already seen enough stunning natural wonders to make a banner trip by the trip’s halfway point, starting with Yangmingshan National Park near Taipei. I went with a group of seven other faculty to this park, known for its geothermal activity, lush green hills, water buffalo, agricultural tourism spots nearby, hiking trails, and much else. I lucked out on my first day in a national park in Taiwan by getting a shot of the water buffalo, who were busy wallowing in mud, as they are wont to do.
Taiwan is unusual, however, in that most of its landmass is dominated by mountains, including some of the highest peaks in the Pacific Asia region, the highest outside of the Himalayas, and other far interior ranges of the Asian continent. Then, the main island is still crossed by the Tropic of Cancer, making for high natural drama.
Among the places we saw near the tropical line were vastly cooler places, temperature-wise, than Taipei. These included the sparklingly gorgeous Sun Moon Lake and Alishan National Scenic Area, located after a high point where tropical greenery on winding, steep roads fully gives way to increasing conifers.
Photos of both places are shown below, along with shots from Taroko Gorge, Hualien, and Green Island. The map at right shows all photo locations.
One interesting fact I learned in lectures: Japanese government people thought that, in taking over the island as a colony in the late 19th Century, they would claim a tropical island. They found mountains with snowy peaks in winter instead. It was not a sugar or pineapple plantation-intensive kind of place (although pineapples are still grown in Taiwan and exported to Japan), particularly.
However, if I start writing about that sort of history again, I would have to include some shots of cities and cultural life. That will come in one final post. Or maybe final? Probably final.
Within a month of returning to the United States from a month-long visit to Taiwan, I was feeling discombobulated and a bit gloomy.
Back in Jackson, MS, where I live and teach political science, I found myself having to keep from doomscrolling, what with my worrying about the depressing political state of things in the United States. The mass shootings, the book bans, internecine party wars over who would be Speaker of the House, the ongoing culture wars, and, of course, the 90-odd Trump indictments in two states and the District of Columbia–all of it was a bit much.
Along with finding myself stuck in the muck of reading about American dysfunction came a bit of a creative block. I stopped and started on videos and blog or newsletter entries about my experience and travels, but thought they lacked something. I would redo a video and spot more pronunciation and minor factual errors. Eventually, I indefinitely delayed putting a video together since my priority was to finish trip reflections and a higher education curriculum project required by the trip’s sponsor.
Several months later, Taiwan was not in the news the way it had been before I took my day-long journey to the Asia Pacific island, from Jackson, MS to Taipei. Coverage of tensions between China and Taiwan had been eclipsed, like so much else, by the Hamas militant group’s October 2023 attacks in southern Israel and the ensuing Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.
Even today, though, Taiwan’s recent history has much to show the world, given how anti-democratic currents are still being felt in the developed world. These were felt in Israel before October 7. As I type, the situation for democracy in the United States still seems iffy as well, going into another federal election year.
Before going further into why Taiwan’s experience has some relevance to the world now, however, I should explain how I came to visit the island.
Application, Pandemic Delays, and … We’re Set
My Taiwan story starts in what can seem like another epoch now, the pre-COVID-19 pandemic era of late 2019. It was then that the political science department chair at Jackson State University, where I was then a visiting faculty member (read: contingent faculty) in the department, told me about the opportunity to apply for participation the Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar in Taiwan. For those not in the know, Fulbright-Hays, although associated with and funded through the U.S. State Department’s Fulbright international scholarship program, is administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Its purpose is increasing international understanding, as with the State Dept. program, but it has more of an education focus, particularly with its summer seminars. Those sent educators at the elementary and secondary level, as well as faculty in higher ed, and have them develop curriculum projects to encourage the internationalizing of what those faculty teach back at home.
I was chosen as an alternate before COVID hit. Flash forward three years, three delayed seminars in a row, regular messages from the Education Dept., and I was asked if I wanted to go to Taiwan. A few months later, me and fellow grantees took part in weekly virtual orientation sessions, full of info about Taiwanese culture, identity, politics, international engagement, and the like, hosted by an Asian Studies center at George Washington University. In June, we were off.
Weeks of Scurrying, Learning. Then, Seeing Lessons.
Upon getting to my hotel around 9 p.m. in the busy Ximending area of Taiepi, a shopping and entertainment district, I spent at least two-and-a-half hours roaming around, ostensibly looking for a USB-A to USB-C converter (which was easily found–electronics and mobile phone-oriented purveyors abound in Tapei), checking out everything from high-end apparel stores to arcades, the offerings at the 7-11s, and selfie studios, outdoor martial arts and dance demos, and three-story, densely packed Japanese grocery store with a cute, video game-sounding theme song playing over its PA on repeat. The Japanese influence was obvious, with the cartoons everywhere. I was tired, and Ximending was hot and humid, but I was having a grand time.
Among the sorts of things I saw on my first night and full day Taipei, and throughout the my time there, are shown below.
What followed was day after day after day of discovery, curiosity, puzzlement, and awe, much of it experienced with a group of faculty members from across the U.S. (mainly social science people, with a few education specialists and an English professor who sent trip-and-lecture-oriented poems to our WhatsApp group-chat every day). We attended near-daily lectures about topics ranging from Taiwan’s domestic politics to the island’s indigenous peoples, Taiwan’s half a century spent as a Japanese colony, the country’s environment and native wildlife, and its economy. We toured museums galore and breathtaking national parks. We ate what seemed like entirely too much delicious and often-spicy food until I came home and realized after checking a few times that I weighed less than before. (I still think a good name for a photo book about the trip would be, “There’s Always a Fish,” referencing the whole fish that would come at the end of every multi-course Lazy Susan revolving table meal.)
After a time, three main themes or question areas started to emerge for me, among them:
The tangled issue of Taiwanese national identity, with influences from Dutch and Japanese colonial rule (50 years of it before the end of World War II), decades of significant Han Chinese immigration under the Qing Dynasty, and post-WWII authoritarian rule under Chiang Kai-Shek and Chinese nationalists there after they fled mainland China amid the Chinese Civil War, and ongoing tensions with the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile, Taiwan has a small indigenous population, but it is likely where the Austronesian peoples originated.
The strength of Taiwan’s liberal democracy and commitment to civil or human rights and liberties, with a higher ranking from the nonprofit, U.S.-based Freedom House organization for its Freedom of the World map than the United States. (Most intriguingly to many in our group, it has legalized same-sex marriage and more tolerance of LGBTQ persons than any other East Asian country.) It is still a young democracy, with its martial law era having ended only in the late 1980s, but it is a stable and vibrant one.
I have posted links below that get into Taiwan’s colonial history, identity, and relations with China. The Freedom House report on Taiwan is also listed below. Otherwise, I found its identity issues ridiculously tangled and full of contradictions. Here is a place, I thought, where more people than ever identify more as Taiwanese than anything else. Even so, Taipei’s major attractions include a museum full of Chinese treasures, art, and artifacts, and then a national memorial to Sat Yun-Sen, the founder of modern China.
I heard from panelists and locals alike about the debate over how to recognize and separate the country from its colonial past. In some cases, all these issues came up at the same time, as in a national photography museum in Taipei, with exhibits involving the Chinese Civil War, photos from rural China by a Taiwanese photographer, post-WWII street photography by a Taiwanese man raised in Japan during the colonial years, and the like. (As a person born and raised in the American South, I fully grasped the idea of living with a tangle of cultural contradictions.)
Meanwhile, I started wondering, after a time, what best explained Taiwan’s commitment to democracy. I examined scholarship on Taiwanese civil society and participation, considered comments I heard before and during the trip about how the situation with China shapes Taiwanese thought, and learned about its more communal culture. Ultimately, its relatively low level of inequality, combined with its high level of development (with its dominance of the semiconductor industry being a strong indicator there), helps explain Taiwan’s success. But its historical experience is significant there as well, as are its thorny relations with China.
And that brings up the third theme:
Constantly having a consistent, if low-level hum of anxiety about China in the background and central to its politics, but also something Taiwanese people would love to hear less about. American influence can also not be discounted. But Taiwan is its own place, with a distinct history (including a tragic early history and mass slaughter of dissidents under the Republic of China banner with the “white terror” era–on that’s the subject of a national human rights memorial and museum on Green Island, off the main island’s, aka Formosa’s, east coast).
I will leave the China topic at that. Otherwise, what I want to highlight with any further blog entries at Cosmic Ray’s is the country’s beauty, the color and feel of its densely populated cities, and its liveliness. What surprised me the most, however, was how much more gorgeous its countryside was than I ever expected, so that comes next. A sampling is shown below.