I am an American, a native of Michigan, who has, since childhood, been drawn, transfixed, perhaps, to cultures very different from my own. It was most likely simply the contrasts presented by ancient Egypt, India and other cultures that tickled a deep curiosity. In relatively rural Michigan, a long way from either seacoast and comfortable in its Midwestern ways, the sheer distance of the outside world simply added to the allure.
I came upon the "Mysterious East" through a variety of routes, one of the most oft related being philately. True to form, I'd always left stamps garnished with pretty butterflies, bright colors and Marilyn Monroe in the box in favor of mono-colored, but much more interesting, selections from German Kiautschou, French Indochine and strange places like Boheme et Moravie, Manchukuo and Tannu Tuva. The latter fascinated me in particular, but information was scarce and my attentions drifted eastward toward China, the nation to which Tannu Tuva had been appended on and off since the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty. China in the early 1980s was at a crossroads between the train wreck that was the Cultural Revolution and the reworking of relationships with former adversaries in the West. Marilyn Monroe and bright colors had yet to make their impact felt on China's sober landscape, but the door was opening on a mono-colored world that had been off limits to much of the outside for decades.
Sure for years that I would study Chinese in Beijing, ... I arrived in 1986 as a college junior in Taipei, Taiwan … a one-way ticket (used) from Tokyo and admissions letter from the Taiwan Normal University Mandarin Training Center firmly in hand (two boxes of clothes and "stuff" would arrive by sea another month later). Beijing - my University of Michigan language exchange partner confided - was a city still largely unsure of how to handle foreigners in its midst. He assured me that Taipei, his hometown, would be a much better place to study Chinese.
I stayed in Taipei (at the International House [國際學社] – a 1960s-era dormitory later sacrificed when a full square city block between Xinyi and Heping Roads was reclaimed as urban green space) for a year, during which full-time studies improved my Chinese tremendously. I met the girl of my dreams, came back for another year of study in 1989 and chose in 1993 to move to Taiwan for a few years after finishing graduate school to get some practical business experience in Asia. We planned on a 7-year stay and the clock is now nearing the 14-year mark. I hear that we are not the first to find Taiwan a difficult (more or less in the pleasant sense of the word) place to depart.
Over these 14 years, I've found a comfortable groove in "cultural bridging". "West" and "East" continue to be puzzled by one another, not so much by the big issues anymore, but by the myriad little things that can stymie, impede and even end a relationship. Standing at the interface between Greater China and "western culture", I've found a positive role to play in bringing very different perspectives closer together, resolving misunderstandings and presenting sometimes difficult realities in ways more likely to be accepted by the recipient. Thus, I see my varied professional roles at the American Institute in Taiwan (the U.S. representative office on the island), Andersen Consulting, Unisys and a cool little start-up company called Productivity Asia (now Pacific GeoPro) as sharing a common "cultural bridging" denominator.
Living today in the outskirts of Keelung, with fern-cloaked hills pleasantly interspersed between high rise condominium communities predictably faced in uninspired pink or white tile (what was that about mono-color?), I enjoy hiking and biking whenever possible. Scratch the drab surface of this port city along the Northeast Coast (about 25km from Taipei) and there is significant charm and beauty to be found. Keelung was a Treaty Port from the 1860s until almost the turn of the century; French Legionnaires and Bat D'Af soldiers occupied the harbor for nearly a year during the Sino-French War (1883~1885); it is home to the first transportation tunnel built in the Chinese Empire (in the late 1880s), through which China's first commercial railway passed (linking Keelung to Hsinchu); and it was ringed by modern artillery batteries in the first decade of the 20th century to fend off, of all things, a potential attack from Imperial Russia.
While I enjoy sharing findings with fellow foreign (i.e., non-Taiwanese) friends, I enjoy sharing such even more with Taiwanese – who are nearly always taken unawares by the history and natural beauty to be found not far from their apartment. There seems to remain a lamentable lack of appreciation here for what lies beyond the living room TV set or favorite department store haunt.
At the encouragement of good friends, I've set up this blog where some of my accumulated findings, thoughts and insights on this corner of Taiwan and Greater China can be organized and posted. With my enjoyment of the outdoors, I will look forward to finally putting into some organized fashion recommended hiking trails and historical pointers. I intend to keep political commentary down to a minimum, not so much out of tact, but out of relative disappointment at the deafening silence heard from both/all sides of the spectrum on the "bread and butter" issues (education, infrastructure, clean governance, etc.) certain to make or break Taiwan's viability as an economy and as a voice worth listening to in the region and beyond. Taiwan's future still remains in its own hands ... and, while so, politicians here should be even more tightly bound by duty and mutual honor to steer this island forward to the best possible future for all of its people.
I intend to make this a bilingual blog, and will draft Chinese translations (not word for word, mind you) at another site, probably on Lifespaces. For those of you who are bilingual as well, don't judge the Chinese text too harshly, as I won't have an editor to streamline the presentation. I just hope to share my information and experiences with two major online language communities.
Now, on to a personal plug ...
I am now a full time freelancer and SOHO type (having ended out a 7-year position in mid-June working for the USDA at the American Institute in Taiwan). I have significant experience providing market and cultural consulting; cross-cultural content development, design and layout services; and Chinese-to-English translation. Other tailored services to bridge East and West can be provided as well ... I will be glad to quote prices (reasonable), provide references and send along a colorful PowerPoint presentation of previous work experience and results to those interested.
Thus ends my first blog entry …