Just about any foreigner who has lived here for any length of time will tell you that Taiwan is a great place. The people are super friendly, the food is amazing, and it has a certain charm to it that you can't find anywhere else. I would venture to say that there is not, however, a single expat who bears any fondness at all for the bureaucracy here. And it's especially bad for foreigners, because it seems like the government tries to make life as difficult as it can for us. You have to leave the country to renew, change, or generally deal with your visa. The rules regarding employment and studying are bizarre, unenforced, and nearly incomprehensible. You need a visa to come here, but in order to stay here you need to spend even more money and apply for yet another piece of paper. And really, that's all it is. Just a $30 piece of paper.
Today it was my turn to pay $30 for a piece of paper. I've been here for 15 days now, and it was the last day for me to apply for my Alien Resident Certificate - kind of the equivalent of a Taiwanese green card. So I got up early, collected my passport and some cold hard cash, and followed the directions in my student handbook to the police headquarters, which is apparently where they do that kind of thing here. The directions led me to a metro station, and then abruptly and dramatically ended. Long story short, the police station was nowhere near the metro station, and I had to ask a myriad of people for directions and walk around for two hours before I finally found it.
Then I had to wait in line for two hours.
Then the guy who helped me was watching TV while he was filling out my paperwork. Or should I say, instead of filling out my paperwork. While I was waiting for him I looked up at the message board on the wall and saw...
Pacman. Pacman was chasing some little monsters across the marquis at the foreign affairs office of the police headquarters of Taipei county.
So I left home at 9 am this morning, and when I was done with everything I had half an hour to make it to my 2 pm class. Sure that I would never make it in time if I took the metro - assuming I could even find the station again - I hailed a cab. The cabbie was super friendly and loved to talk, but he kept repeating over and over how pitiable he thought Taiwan was, as though I could do something about it just because I'm white.
"Lots of people thing we should join the US and become a state," he said, and whether he was joking or not I couldn't quite tell. "What do you think?"
They should change the official name of the country, he said, from Republic of China, which is too close to the mainland's People's Republic of China, to Taiwan. Taiwan is losing face because it's not allowed to carry its own flag in international sports competitions. It sucks to be a cabby in Taipei because all the business owners in Taiwan are moving their factories to the much cheaper mainland, which is affecting the Taiwanese economy, and it's all interrelated you know. These are the things I learned from my afternoon cab ride.
The problem is that in a lot of ways it's true. I haven't even been here that long and I can already feel it; there's a huge gap between the ambitious, optimistic attitude in Shanghai and the downtrodden, hopeless attitude I feel in Taipei. These people are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Most of their money now comes from the mainland: if they do something to endanger those ties, it would bode ill for the economy here. And yet their identities are wrapped up in their independence from the mainland. Most of these people see themselves as being as Chinese as much as Americans might see themselves as being British. They share a history, but in the here and now they are very much their own people with their own way of doing things and their own extreme love for their democratic independence, an independence which they see threatened by the potential of mainland interference. The differences between the two countries, and yes I'm being assertive when I phrase it that way, are overwhelming. Their traditions, their personal interactions, their ways of viewing the world, at least from my outsider's point of view, are not only disparate; I personally can't even see how they could be compatible.