About 35 years ago I started to get in touch with Chinese culture. After graduating from a bilingual German-Spanish school at the tender age of 18, I decided against attending a hotel management college. I listened to my father’s advice and began to study at Free University of Berlin. He had been interested in China for a long time, but due to his handicap, was aware that travelling to the Middle Kingdom wasn’t a realistic option for him. So he encouraged his youngest son to become more familiar with East Asia. That was a visionary suggestion that changed my life forever.
I chose a subject that for decades had been rather exotic, but not anymore: Sinology. In 1985, the world was euphoric about China’s opening to the West after Mao Tse-tung’s death in 1976. The United Kingdom and the People’s Republic had just reached an agreement about Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, the Joint Declaration signed in late 1984. At the time, few knew that Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had threatened British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during her State visit in 1982 with retaking the vanished Empire’s last Crown Colony by force. Anyway, the China hype lasted until students’ protests for more reforms were violently repressed at Peking’s Tiananmen Square on June 4th, 1989. This tragic incident happened while I was improving my Mandarin skills at National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei.
It was Sunday morning and I wanted to have breakfast with my Flemish roommate in the kitchen of our apartment, when we heard the bad news that spoiled our appetite. Unfortunately, they didn’t really surprise me. One of the reasons why I had given Taiwan preference over China while picking the place to spend a year in a Chinese-speaking environment was my strong aversion against Communism since I was a child. My extended family suffered greatly under the German version of it after World War II. I had had the pleasure of visiting the Soviet Union as an individual tourist and travelled around its Eastern European satellite states. So the territory ruled by the red Mandarins wasn’t an option for me.
On the other hand, 38 years of martial law had finally ended in Taiwan in July 1987. Chiang Kai-shek’s son Chiang Ching-kuo, who in his later years became a reformer, had passed away in January 1988. Politically the island also began to open up. It wasn’t a democracy yet, though new President Lee Teng-hui, the first Taiwanese to hold that position, quickly embarked on a localization policy which definitely abandoned the silly idea of reconquering the mainland and concentrated on local issues.
The other two were also closely related to the political system in China. Back in the 1980s, foreigners weren’t allowed to live together with locals. Looking back at the living conditions of the vast majority of Chinese citizens at the time, that probably was a reasonable regulation. I just didn’t feel like living in a special dormitory with guards who checked every single visitor. The prospect of speaking English with Westerners and bad Chinese with Asians most of the time didn’t attract me.
In contrast, in Taiwan you were free to live wherever you liked it if the landlord accepted “big noses”. As Americans enjoyed a good reputation and all Whites were considered to be from the US, it wasn’t really hard to find a nice apartment. I first lived with a Taiwanese/Korean family and then moved to a flat with five other roommates, both Asian and Western.
During their attempt to create a “New China”, the Chinese Communists tried very hard to destroy its ancient culture. Under the pretext of pushing alphabetization, the language became one of their first victims. Since the early 1950s, traditional Chinese characters were step by step replaced by simplified versions, which are not only extremely ugly, but also illogical. At my dear East Asian Institute in Berlin, of course we only learned those in use in China. As I knew from the beginning of my studies that I wanted to go to Taiwan, I learned the real ones at home for myself. That surely helped me a lot when I first arrived on the island in August 1988. Fellow students couldn’t even read the country’s name and were struggling with all those unfamiliar symbols.
Therefore, not even for a moment I thought about going to China for my year-long studies abroad, which were strongly suggested by our teachers. Although my first stay in Taiwan included a foreseeable cultural shock, I never regretted spending eleven months in what back then was still called Free China, as opposed to Red China. I met very interesting locals and people from around the globe. With some of them I still keep in touch. It was also the start of a slowly ongoing, unstoppable personal acculturation process.