China's slow-motion thaw of relations with Taiwan
and that the two nations remain technically at war.
These figures represent not simply commodities traveling back and forth but a transformation of ordinary lives. Girls who once lined up by the millions in identical Mao suits to shout Communist Party slogans now wear the trendiest fashions and sing the latest pop tunes from Taipei while walking down streets full of restaurants and clubs. Perhaps as important as this resumption of trade was Taiwan's partial lifting of a travel ban to China upon the death of Chiang Kai-shek's son, Chiang Ching-kuo. This led to an informal cultural exchange as families, divided for decades, reunited and shared a tide of cultural influences. Those Taiwanese driven into exile by the Civil War of the 1940s and their children now became agents of new consumer lifestyles as they traveled back and forth between the two countries, taking new customs and tastes with them.
When the father of one of my former Taiwanese students traveled to see his relatives in rural Henan province, he didn't arrive empty-handed. Like tens of thousands of other Taiwanese visitors, he returned to China with lavish presents. He had intended to give his relatives a color television, one of the most coveted products in China at the time -- but they begged him not to. Not only would it elicit envy, they feared, it would force his relatives to host TV parties for family, friends and hangerson. Many others, of course, were less cautious and eagerly accepted not only TVs but washing machines, motorcycles and cash. Such gift-giving became so common that enterprising Taiwanese stores streamlined the process by allowing travelers to buy the gifts in Taiwan and then pick them up in China.