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I am an ABC (American Born Chinese) born in California. I grew up and was educated in California, lived in various parts of the US for the past 30 years or so, and acquired a Juris Doctorate at Georgetown University. Over the past few years, I have been living in Taiwan. The question I get asked most, whether by strangers, family, or acquaintances, when I indicate that I hope to stay long term, is why do I want to stay in Taiwan? In a sense, I can understand why they ask this question, and my answer can be perplexing without context.
I do want to stay in Taiwan long term. I also understand that what we are most familiar with becomes our baseline for evaluating other things. (The grass is greener on the other side of the fence, meaning that in terms of our desires, we always want more what we do not have.) So what is it that Taiwan has that America does not?
Up until relatively recently, travel from America had been more convenient and affordable. Indeed, it was much more a part of the national identity and expected norm for young Americans to travel abroad. Even I, who took no great pains to do so, have spent a week in Paris, a summer job and living in Tokyo, a week in Beijing, short trips to Hong Kong and many summers in Taiwan. Even within the US, I have lived in northern and southern California, on the west coast and the east coast in Virginia, Washington D.C. and Cambridge. I have been to Hawai’i, Seattle, Las Vegas, Reno, Manhattan, New Jersey, Kentucky, Arizona and Utah.
I don’t consider myself to be very well travelled, not compared to my contemporaries who have been to Egypt, Bosnia, Tibet, Mongolia, Rome and even Antarctica. But when I speak to my students and peers here in Taiwan, I appreciate how spoiled I was with travel opportunities. I mention all this to show that I do have some background and perspective on living in various places, particularly those we might consider “safe” or “easy” travel options, as well as various parts of America itself that my peers here might not have.
As I said, I was born and raised in America. I went through the American education system at all stages, from pre-school to post graduate doctorate. As a young child I was taught (One might say “indoctrinated,” but this is true of nearly any system and the regional government it falls under.) the superiority of our way of life, the “American way.” I grew up believing in a meritocracy of hard work, in a political system of democracy, in “liberty” (whatever that may mean) and “justice for all” (an even vaguer statement).
My adult experiences haven’t matched up with my young, idealist education.
People are quick to point out that things are far from perfect here in Taiwan. This is true. The former president was under house arrest for rampant embezzling by himself and members of his family, mismanagement and under the table dealing have cost Taiwan lucrative opportunities and infrastructure that could be much more convenient (or logical), the Legislative branch is a laughingstock internationally for its boxing-politics, corrupt politicians are engineering scandals to divert attention, and a well known bakery was guilty of falsely advertising its goods as all-natural. These are all serious problems (maybe not the bread).
But for all those problems, Taiwan still has an important advantage – Taiwan is not America. Nor should it strive to be. The same flaws we see in Taiwan exist on a grander scale and magnitude in the US, often go unnoticed or else are quickly forgotten, and nearly all go unpunished by a citizenry so disenfranchised and powerless as to be irrelevant in a government by the people, of the people, and for the people. America does not learn from its own mistakes, and so they are repeated, growing worse with each iteration. This is not a path to success as a nation, nor progress as a people. There is no reason for Taiwan to commit the same mistakes as America, no reason why Taiwan should not learn from the mistakes of others and guard against them in its own future.
Consider the latest shutdown of the US Government, estimated to cost the US national economy US$24 billion. At the state and city level, some local economies were hurt so badly that state governments had to contemplate breaking federal law or else paying for federal services – services which are already paid for by tax payer money, and would be paid for (again) at the state and city level through tax income. Some 500,000 federal employees were forced to work on the assurance that they would be paid for their work after the shutdown ended; 1.3 million were simply expected to work. 800,000 will simply have to go without two weeks pay altogether (a situation later remedied). Welfare and assistance programs for the needy were also shutdown; two weeks is a long time to go hungry. Important research in climate change was canceled, in effect postponed for a year (overlooking the fact that more importantly, previously unbroken year-to-year data will now have a gap). These were all deemed “unnecessary expenditures.” This does not include the effects outside the U.S. – many were unable to get passports or visas or renewals; President Obama even canceled a diplomatic visit to Asia.
At the same time, many of the congressmen who actively worked to bring the US government to this sorry state kept their pay; indeed, they even kept their private gym as “essential services” until the public was made aware. For what? Many of the same congressmen who refused to pass the funding bill under pretense of federal over spending did so previously under the republican president Bush Jr; clearly this cannot be the true underlying reason. Even after the shutdown, nearly two dozen congressmen announced that they would cross party lines for the greater good and end the shutdown, but no proposal was presented for vote. A very small handful of individuals pursuing personal agendas unrelated to governance and public welfare engineered and maintained the shutdown, later admitting to doing so in order to “build campaign funding lists.” Presumably this was done by showing one’s willingness and ability to forsake one’s duty to nation and government, flexing political muscle in pursuit of private goals. Of course, the ability to overthrow the design of balance in a government, to take it hostage to get one’s way, is quite powerful and valuable.
Disturbingly, this last shutdown is a part of a trend in American politics. The US government has faced 12 shutdowns, most lasting between one and three days. More recently, shutdowns lasted five days, a modest increase, but still important at a cost of billions of dollars per day. And then a sudden jump to twenty-one and sixteen days, both in stubborn pursuit of private goals tied to funding and funding groups.
This is quite simply no way to run a government, and fortunately Taiwan has yet to be subjected to such political nonsense. But that is no reason to rely on luck. Taiwan can learn from America’s mistakes. I want to stay in Taiwan, because Taiwan is not America. Taiwan still has hope.
(This article was originally published on The News Lens Taiwan Edition on 11/02/2013.)
Edited by Olivia Yang