Saturday, April 24, 2010

Slowly Breaking Through the Daylight

In a place like Taipei city, it can sometimes be hard to remember that Taiwan as a whole is still a developing country. The center of the city, with its crown jewel of Taipei 101 surrounded by several convention halls (Taiwan's World Trade Centers), the high speed rail-line running north to south, an efficient and modern subway system, McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Starbucks surrounding every corner. Western movies and music, Taiwan has the commericalism, consumerism and capitalism of a modern State.

But sometimes you have to read a little deeper into the story to see that as a whole, even Taipei city is far from a modern State.

Every city has its own flavor. I realized that in February when I was up in the Northeast United States visiting DC, Philly and Boston. Some cities flavors are their sports teams (Redskins for DC, Phillies for Philly and the Red Sox for Bostonians). Other cities have a long history (think London, Charleston, Boston, Berlin...) while others have the flavor of a metropolitian-financial city, that incorporates many flavors (think New York city).

I have had a really tough time trying to place Taipei city into a category. It's almost like the city has no uniquely modern culture of its own (everything that is "culture" is imported from somewhere else it seems). The people who do follow sports here don't follow teams, they follow players (Chien-Ming Wang). Taiwanese sports - in particular baseball - doesn't have much of a following because of game-fixing scandals (and financial reasons have reduced the baseball league to just 4 teams). Ironically, there are several MLB Shops, a lot of people wearing Yankees hats, and a true sense of appreciation for baseball - just not THEIR baseball.

Leaving Taipei city and going to where I live, Shenkeng (which is only about 20 minutes away), you leave all that is (or isn't) modern Taiwanese culture and you see something more truely reflective of what Taiwan is: a developing state with still a long way to go.

One of the first things I noticed when I got here was the large amount of dogs that roam the streets. It kind of reminded me of the video game Call of Duty 2 (I think) where you play a mission in Russia but you got to avoid the dogs. A lot of these dogs are obviously owned by people, but some aren't. Some only have 3 legs, some haven't been washed...ever. Other's wear clothes (I'll get a picture of that soon!). Health laws for restraunts don't limit (or the restraunts don't seem to enforce here in Shenkeng) people bringing their dogs into the restraunts with them.

Another thing I noticed in Shenkeng is that people seem to keep their own gardens (or maybe it's where they live at too.) If you've ever seen a Vietnam-based movie, you've seen the dwellings made of sticks, and on the way up the hill to my apartment, I pass one of these places.

Luxuries in the area where I live are much fewer than in Taipei city. Most people just drive mopeds or have a small car. Even the people who clean the streets use a broom made of sticks and drag behind them a plastic crate, like those 2-liter bottles are warehoused in. Just 20 minutes out of Taipei city and it's almost like being in a different part of the world.

The GDP per capita (based on Purchasing Power Parity) fell signicantly last year. In 2009, the GDP per capita was $29,800 - down from $32,100 in 2008. 5% of the population still works in agriculture, while over 50% work in service related jobs. According to the CIA factbook, Taiwan's industries include electronics, communications and information technology products, petroleum refining, armaments, chemicals, textiles, iron and steel, machinery, cement, food processing, vehicles, consumer products, pharmaceuticals. No doubt, an export based economy trying its best to become a developed nation.

Will it get there though? I have to visit other parts of Taiwan to grasp how the country as a whole is developing (think the Northeast United States against the mid-West or most of the Southeast: completely different economies). I do think that Taiwan is developing, but have doubts. Taiwan is still very young in its quest to liberalize its markets and society, and with the current fiasco Western capitialist societies are going through and the strong (current) showing of the Chinese economy, could it be just a matter of time before Taiwan elects to model their policies more after China than that of the US, UK and Western Europe?

No comments: