Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cultural Differences: Part One

Lately I have been thinking about cultural differences. I am not talking about cultural differences between America and Taiwan, but cultural differences between Turkmenistan and Taiwan. And I have been thinking about how living in one country can greatly affect your experience in the next. I am more prone to notice and appreciate certain things about Taiwanese culture that I may have overlooked before. Living in Turkmenistan for almost two years in an extremely isolated and politically rigid environment left me hyper sensitive to the lack of restrictions and autonomy that Taiwanese (and I) have here.

On November 27th was a special municipality election for mayors and city councilors in Taiwan. Five cities in Taiwan voted for mayors and local representatives. The streets of Taipei were lined with flags from all the different candidates and huge banners covered bridges and buildings. In the last few weeks leading up to the election, it was commonplace to see a candidate riding around in an open-air car waving to everyone on the street. There was a last minute break in social order when the son of former vice-president, a supporter of a Taipei councilor candidate, was shot while on stage at a rally the evening before the election. Political parties pointed fingers at each other, but there was little conclusive evidence compiled in the few hours before the voting booths opened.

There are two main parties in Taiwan, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), the more conservative, pro-China party, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the pro-independence party. There is a Green Party as well that is a much more serious contender in the elections than the Green Party in America. Taiwanese do not need to register to vote, but are eligible to vote at the location closest to their address on their national identification card. Voters need to bring their national identification card and their personal stamp that has their name carved into it. I peered into a voting booth that was situated in a tiny Japanese style building in a narrow alley at the base of the mountains in Nangang. Voters had their identification verified and were handed the ballots. They took the ballots into the voting box and stamped what looks like a peace sign missing one of the downward pointing lines next to the candidate they are voting for. Voters dropped the ballots into color-coded boxes and exited out of a different door. The weather was bright and warm, and less voters stopped their sunny day activities to go to the voting booth than if the weather had been rainy. Yet, despite the lower turnout of voters than previously recorded, about 70% of the residents in these five special municipalities voted. The KMT won three of the city's mayoral election, but overall majority of the votes went to the DPP.

Geographical political differences are common in many countries, and the “blue north and green south” still rings true in Taiwan. The KMT, or “blue party” held onto the capital, Taipei and two other municipalities in the north, while the DPP, or “green party” clung to the South. Watching the blue and green flashing election results on the television reminded me of a tiny reversed version of America where the conservatives rule the north and the liberals rule the south. It is common for a country’s capital to be the melting pot of the nation, full of people from all over the world with different ideologies and political expectations. In Taiwan, the DPP has only won a majority of votes in the capital with one candidate, former president Chen Shui-Bian. He was elected as mayor in 1994 and used his defeat four years later to run for president in 2000. Taipei has the largest concentration of Mainlanders, those Chinese who moved to Taiwan with the separatist government in 1949, and their descendants. Many Mainlanders hold allegiance to Mainland China, despite having fled with the ROC national government, and will pick a Mainlander candidate over a Taiwanese who considers himself/herself a local. An example of a "local" candidate is Chen Shui-Bian, who was born to illiterate farmers in the south of Taiwan and used education as his tool to getting out of poverty. The stronghold of KMT voters consists of the older generation, a group of people who was possibly born in China, lived through the Japanese occupation, and still has family in China. The younger generation seems to be more pro-independence and there was recently a campaign with the slogan “Taiwan is my country!”

Despite an obvious split in party ideology, there is a general consensus among Taiwanese about the importance of their democratic system. From what I saw, there is a genuine appreciation and respect for freedom of speech in Taiwan. After living in Turkmenistan, where elections take place for show, and nobody has the freedom to express dissatisfaction with the government, the respect for civil rights in Taiwan has bolstered my appreciation for this tiny nation, and the sovereign government they have built without the full recognition or acceptance of the international community.

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