Thursday, July 25, 2013

Comparing Present Experience in Taiwan to Past Experiences in China

Before I came to Taiwan, I had a lot of expectations for the country that I think were heavily influenced by my experiences in China.  After spending several weeks here, I have to say there are some stark differences between Taiwan and China.

For one, public transportation in Taiwan is incredibly efficient.  I was impressed with China's public transportation, but after getting stuck on a standing-room-only slow train from Suzhou to Shanghai for two hours--a trip that should normally take about 30 minutes-- I realized that there was plenty of room for improvement.  On the other hand, I really can't imagine how Taiwan could improve on its public transportation.  A couple weeks ago, I traveled to Kaohsiung  and Kenting in southern Taiwan.  I arrived at Taipei Main Station at 3:00 pm, decided to wait in the ticket line (although, I could have purchased a ticket from a ticket vending machine straight away), waited in line for about five minutes, and then purchased a ticket for the 3:30 train.  I arrived in Kaohsiung, which is roughly 200 kilometers south of Taipei, two hours later.  The return trip was even easier since I used the ticket vending machine and bought an "anytime ticket" that allowed me to hang around the train station until I felt like boarding a train.

Language is another area where I have noticed major differences between Taiwan and China.  Of course, I knew beforehand that Taiwanese use traditional Chinese characters instead of the simplified characters used in China.  However, I didn't know that many words commonly used in China are rarely if ever used in Taiwan.  For instance, Mandarin Chinese is called "Putonghua" in China, but the Taiwanese use the older word "Guoyu."  Likewise, in China the word for subway is "ditie," but in Taiwan it's "jieyun."  For a while, I thought "lese" the Taiwanese word for garbage was completely different from the Chinese word "laji," until I found out that the characters for the two words are the same it's just a difference of pronunciation.  Apparently, Taiwanese understand most of the alternative Chinese Mandarin words, but every once in a while, I come across a word or phrase that that locals do not understand.  Case in point, I once used the word "yao" which is an alternative way to say "one" in Chinese Mandarin, and my Taiwanese Chinese instructor didn't have a clue why I had mispronounced such an easy word like "yi."

Perhaps the biggest difference I have noticed between Taiwan and China is that Taiwan, as a whole, seems very cosmopolitan.  In China, aside from major cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen, I got the impression that the vast majority of Chinese had little if any significant connection to the outside world.  In contrast, many Taiwanese including those in far-flung places like the small east coast city of Yilan and Kenting on the southern tip of the island, seem to have strong personal ties to other countries.  Some have studied in Australia, others have worked in Japan, many have family members living abroad.  The simple fact that so many service workers are at least conversant in English (and more than few in Japanese) adds to this sense of cosmopolitanism.

I'm sure that I will continue to make comparisons between China and Taiwan for a long time to come.  I guess that's natural considering the years I spent in China where the relationship between China and Taiwan was a popular topic of discussion

I plan to travel to Alishan this weekend.  I am a big tea drinker and Alishan oolong tea has long been a favorite of mine, so I'm really looking forward to this trip.  I'll post some pics when I get back.

Kristian McGuire, M.A. International Affairs 2014,
Sigur Center 2013 Chinese Language Fellow,
National Taiwan Normal University, Taiwan.

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