In Taiwan the Last of a Series

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By Steve Thomas (Note to readers: I left the Federation on Friday, Oct. 3, at the invitation of the Government of Taiwan to visit their nation during its week leading up to Oct. 10, which is National Day. The style of these stories does not fit the regular style of reporting in the hope that readers will have a feel for what it’s like to travel to a country that is a major ally and supporter of the Federation ” Steve Thomas) 11 Oct. 2008 5 a.m. Room 1037 Sheraton Taipei Hotel (Taipei, Taiwan) – The city of Taipei is still dark. I”ll begin my journey out of here in about eight hours. Just eight hours. The last week has been like being shot out of a cannon. The Taiwanese Government Information Office kept us going. We saw a lot and did a lot. Government, politics and culture ” we got a taste of it. What we did not get much of was time on our own, which I must conclude was their intention. It makes sense; why would any thinking government agency turn a bunch of journalists loose if they can prevent it? We all expressed our desire to meet new people, check out bars and restaurants and otherwise explore the nightlife, but if we had got out and done that, the chances of someone getting hurt or busted would have soared ” and that story would have been all over the local press. The Taiwan guys would report it with relish. It’s a lead-pipe cinch the GIO doesn’t pop for meals for the local reporters, much less take them to banquets. Scribes would find such an embarrassing incident too good to pass up. I know I would. This has been one of the great learning experiences of my life. This is, in a way that’s different from covering a trial or a campaign or government, what everybody who works in the business dreams about: the freedom to see and learn and write stories you could never see on your own. “A ticket to ride,” indeed. I”ve got soft music on the Internet radio, an cold drink and some questions about how to spend the morning. I have four things I really want to do: go the lobby at 9 and say good-bye to the GIO folks; say hello to the girl who runs the little book store in the lobby; get my laundry done; and settle the bill. I get in a car at 1:45 and the dream ends.” 7:45 Most of the packing is done. Ordered one more breakfast from room service. I want to enjoy the cooking of this place again. It’s much better than mine. I”ve got Sinatra on the Internet radio ” the song is “Chicago” ” “They had the time, the time of their life/I saw a man he danced with his wife/ In Chicago.” And now, “Luck Be A Lady Tonight” ” but I”m not sure who the singer is, though it’s a deliberate knockoff of the arrangements used by Sinatra. I have to smile as I look out the window. This is a strange arrangement. Here I am, a U.S. citizen writing for The Observer of the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis of the Eastern Caribbean, covering the independence celebration of the Republic of China. From what I know of the history of journalism, this is not a unique situation. People of all nationalities working for press organizations of all nationalities covering everybody, everywhere, is nothing new. It is just very, very cool to be even a little part of it for a little while. That’s my ego talking. Now it’s time to get to work. Some highlights of the week: – A lunch reception at the Foreign Ministry and the chance to meet the foreign minister and hear a little speech from him. The message is simple: Taiwan has prospered, she wants to help others prosper, she is a free nation and wishes all other nations well and desires peace. Part of this, I think is for consumption of the readers of all the papers back home. I also think the message of peace and free trade is aimed at the People’s Republic of China through as many channels as possible. There’s no better vessel than the free press. The PRC has as extensive an intelligence operation as any other nation in the world and they almost certainly scan every news outlet they can for any mention of their own government. If a newspaper in Malaysia, Israel or the Caribbean mentions Beijing in passing, they want to know about it. Since Taiwan is a particular sore spot with them, any mention of the PRC and Taiwan will surely bring extra notice because such stories help shape the international image of the PRC, which craves respect very, very badly. The PRC has no desire to be perceived as a bully in any part of the world in relation to Taiwan. This begs the question: When do we get invitations to Beijing? – We get to spend a couple of hours at the National Museum. It is a nice, old-fashioned museum, with lots of amazing artifacts in static displays. No attempt to make this place into an interactive Disney-style museum like so many places in the states. We get a guide and little radio receivers to wear as she shows us all kinds of items, from fine furniture of the Chinese Imperial Palaces to tiny religious carvings thousands of years old. In the West, something a few hundred years old is quite the historic piece. Here, a carving from 2,000 B.C. is described without fanfare. Maybe there’s an underlying message from our hosts: “Our traditions and cultures reach back to the dawn of recorded time. We”ve been there, done that. We were on our backs for a while, but we”re standing tall now, so remember that before you try to lecture us.” Maybe I”m overstating it. I don’t think so. Due to an error in pushing elevator keys, I get separated from the group for the last 20 minutes or so and I find a bench near our starting point, which will also be our gathering point for departure. Tina of the GIO sees me and joins me for a brief talk. As always, she’s charming and informative. After she moves on, I find myself watching as thousands ” literally, thousands ” of Taiwanese school children troop past in their school uniforms. They range in age from about six to 16. Some just stare at me. Others smile and wave. I smile and wave back. What strikes me the most is how much these children are like children everywhere: Some look interested in the museum, some are busy chatting with friends, some seem a bit bewildered. The youngest ones are holding hands and laughing. They clearly like being anywhere but the classroom, and who can blame them? Of course, the joy on their faces is in direct contrast to the looks of concern on the faces of their adult supervisors, who ” like adults anywhere trapped in such duty ” can only hope that none of their charges will get lost, break anything or otherwise cause damage or embarrassment. In the U.S., these school outings are called “field trips.” For the first time in my life, I understood why my teachers were so worried when we had these outings. Knowing how much trouble my friends and I caused in the classroom, had I been a teacher, I wouldn’t have taken us anywhere, anytime, for a field trip, except for an visit to the neighborhood police station, where our teachers were convinced most of us would wind up, anyway. – At a banquet Friday night sponsored by the Government Information Office, I was honored with a seat at the main table. I didn’t get to speak to the minister very much; she was monopolized by an American sitting directly to her right. That was okay in a lot of ways. I didn’t have much to say, plus the American sitting next to me was displaying the worst, rudest manners I”ve ever seen in public. The servers were, for the most part, young and very courteous. The fellow next to me was abrupt and bullying with them. Were I younger or more impulsive, I would”ve invited the guy to get some fresh air in the parking lot and then punched him in the nose. He was every embarrassing thing every person should try not to be in public. One thing about the banquet, though: The food was excellent, the wine quite fine and the entertainment very surprising. When the powerful have a few drinks, what they like to do is sing, loudly and for the most part, badly. Luckily I was in too foul a mood to make a fool of myself with a microphone. – Friday, Oct. 10, was National Day. After breakfast, we were taken to the president’s building and put into a holding room where, of course, we were fed again. Then w
e were placed in a receiving line and got to shake the hand of President Ma of Taiwan, the head of state. It was pretty thrilling, at least for me. The guy was full of energy and stood smiling and shaking hands with total strangers and never losing his composure. But President Ma had it, that special energy that makes a leader effective, a kind of high-octane star power that makes a person want to listen to what he has to say, which is the first and perhaps most important step to acquiring political power. After the receiving line we headed out to watch the National Day Parade, an impressive display of marching, an air force flyover, drill teams, about 200 cheerleaders and lots of children. I”ve had to sit through lots of parades in two decades of journalism and this was one of the best. Although it was hot outside, there were bottles of water and hats to protect us from the sun. No rain, no awful music, just a fine procession. – The tallest building in the world open today is Taipei 101. We went there for lunch after the parade and then had about an hour on our own to travel to the top and otherwise kick back. I ate fast and got on the elevator, which shoots you from the fifth floor to the observation floor in 34 seconds, though you never feel it. It was an amazing site, the city stretching in all directions and the mountains in the distance. The observation floor had a number of snack bars and high-end shops, one more testament to the prosperity of Taiwan. With about a half-hour left, I rode the elevator down and found a stool at a restaurant on the fourth floor, which was a giant indoor shopping area, full of stores and people. I ordered a beer and started watching the scene. A group of cheerleaders were goofing around on one of the walkways ” really an indoor bridge – connecting two sides of the shopping area, taking pictures of each other and in groups. I knew they were cheerleaders from the parade because they were still in their uniforms. Just a group of happy kids, doing what kids ought to do ” having fun. Then there were families. Forget anything you”ve ever heard about reticence in Taiwan. Lots of couples, many pushing baby strollers, walked hand in hand. So did older couples. There were lots of smiles, lots of pauses, quite a bit of pointing. I didn’t have any idea what anyone was saying and there was no government-sponsored message. There was only a big, comfortable place filled with people who looked happy and prosperous, maybe even in love and no burden of sadness or desperation behind it. Then it hit me: The people of Taiwan looked free. I raised my glass of beer to them in an unspoken salute. Then it was time to head back to the bus. — 1 p.m. Saturday. The clock is ticking down. I”ve said my good-byes. My laundry has come back and my packing is done. It’s just a question of where to wait ” the lobby or my room. Then Andy Williams is on the Internet radio. He’s singing “Moon River,” a signature song of his. Part of it goes like this: I stand up, stretch, turn off the computer and put it in my backpack. I”ve heard my last song of the trip. The Taiwan Bureau is closed.

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