Heart more important than birthplace
Some folks may picture Taipei as a fishbowl of sorts for socalled foreigners. It is not unusual for local friends to assume that quite a few of us from outside the country are all but automatic acquaintances or actual friends of foreigners they happen to know of. Don’t we “lao wai” all know each another? Don’t we all move in the same circles? Ha ha.
I have heard of environmental activist Robin J. Winkler, but never met him. We’ve never spoken together. The same is true of Vietnamese-Taiwanese actress Helen Thanh Dao, star of the popular film “My Little Honey Moon.”
Neither of these two local celebrities was born in Taiwan. Both, however, are now active candidates for the legislative elections next year. Mr. Winkler wanted to run for election in 2009, but hadn’t at that time been a citizen of the Republic of China, Taiwan long enough to legally qualify as a can-
DANIEL J. BAUER
didate. That is no barrier now.
Helen Thanh Dao’s candidacy is not yet attached to a particular political party. Details will presumably come soon. Mr. Winkler is a member of the Green Party.
Not surprisingly, the film star is keen on immigrant-related issues. Born in Vietnam into a family of mixed heritage, reportedly she would like to spur changes in the constitution to make it more possible for people like her to run for election and serve society as legislators. “New immigrants” are rapidly becoming a sizeable corner of our Taiwan population, goes the idea, so why not allow a number of potential seats in the legislature to reflect the changing contours of our local society? She is also interested in a serious study of Taiwan life as it directly affects educational, cultural, and social realities for immigrants, or those perceived as immigrants, of all ages. Her candidacy for a post as legislator-at-large seems particularly important as we consider the growing number of children now born into Taiwanese families with a “foreign parent,” to use that less than delicate phrase.
Mr. Winkler’s credentials as an advocate for reasonable policies for development as it affects environmental concerns are well established. A successful attorney and part of the Taiwan story for nearly 40 years, he is known for resistance to government pressure for fast and seemingly shallow evaluations that play a key role in the planning and construction of projects for business and industry. Winkler is no shrinking violet (a cliche? as charming as it is useful, by the way). He has the backbone of a grizzly and, if he manages to get himself elected, hopes to beat the drums and blow the bugle for integrity and care in discourse and action on behalf of the environment. Winkler has legs to stand on here. He founded the Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association some 10 years back, and served on the Environmental Protection Administration committee from 2005-07.
Vietnamese- Taiwanese Helen Thanh Dao is said to “love Taiwan.” Media say she hopes to “pay back society” for what she’s re- ceived here. Call me Quixote if you will, but I believe her. She lacks the clearly defined intellectual and activist heft of Mr. Winkler, but may be able to cash in on that volatile thing we call ethnicity. Although “half” could be a negative for some voters, I suspect that her Taiwanese blood will only draw, not discourage, support. Her film resume won’t hurt her a bit.
How do we perceive “foreigners” in our midst? Many of us “lao wai” (a term that may smack of disrespect) can tell stories of not so long ago when encounters with Taiwanese (or Chinese, if you prefer) were often tinged with frustration or, at best, bittersweet humor. The assumption I often felt in the past from those around me was that my stay in Taiwan was but temporary, that I was keeping the bench warm until a more qualified local person could emerge (“qualified” indeed being a sensitive word), and that my primary asset to people here was the language I spoke and wrote by virtue of my place of birth. I blame no one for such attitudes in the past. Whatever the meaning of “the other” may be to us personally or in our cultures, we all tend to define ourselves (Taiwanese, Chinese or “foreign”) not only by what makes us simply human, but also by what apparently makes us different, too.
Let’s face it: at times local friends and “lao wai” alike resemble a speeding train approaching what may or may not be a “problem” on the rails ahead. Is that a mere mirage I see, thinks the pilot behind the wheel, or truly a boulder that spells danger, perhaps destruction?
Not only for me, but for all of us, the candidacies of Ms. Thanh Dao and Mr. Winkler are signs of hope. Their voices just could be voices different in good ways from the voices of their local legislative colleagues. In choosing leaders, values and hearts for Taiwan should count for more than place of birth or original passport. Father Daniel J. Bauer SVD is a priest and associate professor in the English Department at Fu Jen Catholic University.