Looking back at America from Taiwan….

This is a guest post from William Stimson, and it deals with a topic I (and I suspect many of you) can relate to, i.e., feeling increasingly estranged from the US as we live out our lives here in Asia.

A ceramic pig in front of an American-style restaurant in Taiwan. (Photo by William R. Stimson.)

America’s Weakness
by William R. Stimson

I couldn’t say why the happy little ceramic figure of a pig sequestered amongst the plantings in front of an American-style restaurant here in Taiwan caught my attention the other day as I walked down the street; or why I snapped a photo of it. Only when I got home and transferred the image to the computer did I notice all the dollars in the pig’s lap. Strange I had missed this. I looked closer now at the face and discerned a vulgar stupidity in the happy features. A bunch of money was all it took to satisfy the beady eyes and fat jowls. The figurine depicted greed. How appropriate it suddenly seemed that the hand was a hoof, the nose a snout, and the attire – spotted tie and all – that of an American executive. Since coming to Taiwan I’ve felt increasingly estranged from the United States and the role it has assumed in the world. Many Taiwanese, who historically feel grateful to America and have a real love for its ideals, have privately expressed to me misgivings similar to my own.

Like the images that populate dreams at night, so many spontaneous gestures during waking hours reveal startling unconscious insight. That the owner of this American-style restaurant would choose this particular figure to display out front in the flower bed and that an American expatriate walking by with a camera would out of the blue snap a photo of it – could there be a meaning in such coincidences? Could some truth be slipping out here from the depths of the unconscious mind? Might some hint possibly surface from such insignificant happenstances as to what’s gone wrong with America, that great nation that gave the world Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau? Now it produces corporate and government executives whose selfish and short-sighted actions offend simple hard-working people everywhere and incur the wrath of fanatic Islamic extremists. America sees itself as being on a mission to sanitize the world of evil. But it seems to many people that in so many instances by imposing its simplistic and self-serving notions on other countries and cultures America itself creates the conditions for evil to arise. Why would the world’s only superpower, so privileged already, feel compelled to twist every little thing to its own narrow advantage? How can it continue to elect leaders that even its closest allies find offensive and stupid? What’s gone wrong with its mainstream electorate, the touted American middle class? One look at the photo I snapped of this restaurant figurine answers so many of these questions. Itss a shame that the great United States of America, once the hope of the free world, and of broken, impoverished peoples everywhere, should come to such a pass. What use is there in being the richest and most powerful country in the world if it’s only a nation of pigs?

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William R. Stimson is an American writer living in Taiwan. More of his writing can be found at www.billstimson.com

The Discussion: 17 Comments

I gotta step out in a moment, but for now, here’s a brief answer to your final sentence:

1. America is no longer the word’s richest country, and it stopped being a “superpower” a long time ago. But such news tends to travel very slowly, given the head-up-ass habits of professional journalists and pundits who tend to be around 15 years behind the times.

2. It seems a overly America-centric to me, to dwell on America as the main body politic symbolised by pigs. The first thing I thought of when I saw that photo was, of course, Animal Farm and the Communist Party. Go to any CCP banquet and you’ll see who the real pigs are.

3. With all due respect, Bill, I find a paradox in how this very self-critical essay of yours (well a very critical view of your own country) is symptomatic of how you share one of America’s essential problems: Being so America-centric.
I mean, Bill, maybe you (and America) should stop contemplating America’s collective navel so much….

October 26, 2006 @ 2:09 pm | Comment

Comparing Americans to a nation of pigs – is indeed an insult to pigs.

But in defense of American-navel contemplation, my dear friend Ivan, I would comment that it’s the embodiment of the American spirit of the desire to be just and to do good that the citizens of the world have looked up to for many moons. It’s unfortunate that mass media and political spin doctors have allowed that altruism to have become so twisted around 180ร‚ยบ. I feel sad for ‘my’ America and wonder who would who could take her place. Them’s mighty big shoes to fill…

October 26, 2006 @ 3:09 pm | Comment

I live in costal California, and we may be pretentious, but we are lean and fighting trim!

Seriously, after years of despair about how horrible things have gotten here and how deeply flawed our culture is, I’m rediscovering some of the good things about this country, at least my own corner of it, about our open-mindedness, democratic principles and spirit of adventure. I sure hope that this positive strain of our culture will prevail.

Just the other day I was up in San Franciso visiting my sister. Both the candidates for Supervisor where she lives are Chinese American. The incumbent I would guess from his surname – Jew – is from an older Cantonese family. The challenger – Zheng – I’m guessing is from more recent mainland immigrants.

When my sister and I took the Muni into downtown, we saw a Zheng campaigner holding a signboard on a median park. He had that recent immigrant vibe. When we returned a few hours later, he was still there, a Chinese American man, middle-aged, wearing an Uncle Sam red white and blue top-hat, holding two American flags, twirling them and dancing, doing tai qi moves.

It was the furthest thing from an over-stuffed pig you can imagine, a beautiful moment, and one of the first times in about six years that I thought, god bless America, in my non-religious, secular way…

October 26, 2006 @ 4:58 pm | Comment

I think calling the US a nation of pigs and seeing a figurine of a greedy pig as some sort of avatar of the US says a lot more about the left than the US. Some people are capable of incredible nuance and sophistication when they examine Chinese society or Taiwanese society (or any non-US society) that quickly evaporates when the US is mentioned; then we get black-and-white declamations (ironic?) and simplistic, tired slogans about the “working people” and “greedy corporations.” Why is that?

Bush and greedy corporate overlords aren’t the US — anymore than Hu Jintao is China — less so, in fact, considering the diversity of American society and opinion. Some people think the US is the world’s benefactor (the right) and some people think the US should be the world’s benefactor (the left). Both stem from American exceptionalism (which is what Ivan was really getting at, I think). One wants to sing “Cum Ba Ya” while waving the American flag. One wants to sing “We are the World” while waving…what? The UN flag? Both positions seem untenable and idiotic to me.

The US should do what is in its national interest — the same thing that every other country on earth does and should do — and something the US hasn’t been doing for the past six years. And neither its people nor its culture should be held to a different standard than anyone else.

October 26, 2006 @ 10:46 pm | Comment

I’m sure few people have heard as much American bashing as I have over the course of my years… hell, I’m Canadian – it’s what we do best. That and hockey.

Stereotypes aside though, I think the worst thing that the current administration has done to American is to make the worst of its people proud to wave their flag, and the best of its people ashamed to do the very same thing.

America is a fan-frigin-tastic country (I’ve just lost the ability to return home). A history fuller of innovation, excitement and remarkable feets than any other that comes to mind. A patriotism based on real values and principles. Relatively successful integration of diverse cultures. The list goes on.

I agree with 88, 21st Century American Altruist = an Egoist no one likes.

October 27, 2006 @ 12:07 am | Comment

88, I will put myself in the category of “the Left” (though I’m constitutionally a middle-of-the-road sort of person) and I think it’s a mistake to generalize about how we feel as well – see my comment above.

I read a lot of different progressive, to the left blogs, and one of the things that makes a lot of lefties REALLY angry is that the whole idea of being a patriot has been co-opted by right wing rhetoric. A lot of us happen to think that standing up for the Constitution and for real American values (such as, “we don’t torture people. Really”) is patriotic.

I agree there is a subset of “the Left” that acts in more the manner you describe.

October 27, 2006 @ 1:39 am | Comment

I think I was reading newsweek a year ago, an article about how although America is still the biggest economy in the world, and still holds clout in producing innovations for the world to enjoy, it is being slowly caught up to by countries around the world. What I liked about the author is that he said this trend is something Americans should be proud of and happy to see.

October 27, 2006 @ 3:16 am | Comment

Also, it strikes me that the pig may not mean what you think it means, given the animal’s connotations in Chinese culture – the horoscope, symbol of wealth (look at the character for “home”), etc.

October 27, 2006 @ 10:13 am | Comment

Major thanks to Lisa for her last two comments.

October 27, 2006 @ 10:20 am | Comment

You know, when I write about China on this site, I get a lot of really crude jabs, apparently from inside China. But this frivolous little mood piece I penned has drawn some exceedingly intelligent and thought-provoking commentary, much of it superior to the piece itself. I’m so happy to read the things you all are saying. I even found myself agreeing to some extent with Ivan about the americacentric bit. I mean, there’s no denying it.

This is one comment that really hit home: “I think the worst thing that the current administration has done to American is to make the worst of its people proud to wave their flag, and the best of its people ashamed to do the very same thing.”

Also, Lisa telling us what it was like living in northern California. Yes, I had that feeling when I lived in the U.S., that it’s a great place. That’s the feeling I miss now, these last years, with all that’s been going on.

Every one of your comments really touched and enlightened me. I guess this piece, about the U.S., didn’t attract the usual mainland trolls. It really touches me to see balanced and intelligent appraisals my country when I have let myself get so disappointed in it. I wrote this piece back in April, six months ago. Back then I’m not sure it was so evident to everybody what a disaster the current adminstration has been. But by now I believe it’s common knowledge.

Thank you all for your brilliant commentary.


October 27, 2006 @ 12:38 pm | Comment


I don’t disagree with you in the way you think I do.

>I think it’s a mistake to generalize about how we feel as well

It is probably a mistake to generalize about how any group feels, but it is unavoidable.

>the whole idea of being a patriot has been co-opted by [a subset of ?] right wing rhetoric.

I really don’t care who is patriotic and who isn’t or who is more patriotic or who has the pure and true Power-of-Grayskull brand of patriotism and who doesn’t. To me that is like arguing over who is the bigger simp.

When I criticize “the left” for holding the US to unrealistic and naive (i.e., exceptional) standards or for calling 300 million people a “nation of pigs,” it has nothing to do with patriotism or my politics (per se) and has everything to do with simply being reasonable.
And, yes, yes, a subset of the left, some guy in his basement, etc. We all know which quarters certain opinions tend to come from — like “Abortion is murder” or “You have no civil rights if you are dead” or “No blood for oil.” I obviously wasn’t saying everybody on the left thinks x.

If anyone said to me, “China is a nation of pigs,” along with other simplistic formulations, I would call them on it, because what kind of analysis is that? Same goes for the US — a country I know infinitely better, as do the people making these comments, since we are all Americans. And, yes, despite Bush, despite Brittany Spears and the WWF or whatever else — because it has nothing to do with any of that.

October 27, 2006 @ 1:42 pm | Comment

Britney Spears?

Actually, if Bill had done some splicing and stuck Britney Spears’ head on top of that pig’s body, it would have made a lot more sense.

October 27, 2006 @ 2:01 pm | Comment

88, you object to “leftists” making generalizations about 300 million Americans but think that making generalizations about “leftists” is inevitable?

Okay, my head hurts, and I’m going to sleep now. ๐Ÿ™‚

October 27, 2006 @ 4:48 pm | Comment

>been co-opted by right wing rhetoric.

Didn’t you just generalize about the “right wing?” Surely only a subset of the right thinks that they are more patriotic than the left and doesn’t use or support the rhetoric you are referring to. I don’t happen to think this generalization is unreasonable, but it is still a generalization. You can’t avoid it completely. Anyway, you are illustrating the point I was trying to make: some people display all kinds of nuance regarding their own “side” but none regarding the other. And some people do this with entire countries.

And I never used the loaded term “leftists.”

October 27, 2006 @ 10:40 pm | Comment

My last attempt:

I said this:

“I think calling the US a nation of pigs and seeing a figurine of a greedy pig as some sort of avatar of the US says a lot more about the left than the US.”

If I had said this:

“I think calling the US a Christian nation and seeing Christ as some sort of avatar of the US says a lot more about the right than the US.”

…I don’t think anyone here would have complained about the form of the statement (generalizing the right, etc.) I happen to think that both of the above statements are valid.

October 27, 2006 @ 11:10 pm | Comment

Methinks thou missed my smiley, 88…

October 28, 2006 @ 1:19 am | Comment

For the bulk of my life I lived and worked in New York City. I came to see it was true of the partners of the corporation where I worked, as it was of the office staff, the secretaries, even the janitors — what they were all about was how much they could get for themselves. These were individuals who lead privileged lives and enjoyed a great abundance of wealth compared with most of the people in the world. I was often shocked at how little they concerned themselves with those who had less than them. This has nothing to do with “left” or “right,” with “liberal” or “conservative,” although people who think only in those categories may try to formulate it that way. To my mind it’s about level of consciousness. I really feel the American culture functions by keeping Americans fixated on a child-like “Let me get more for myself” mentality. This may be good for business, it may get people to buy the burgers, and invest in the stocks. But it doesn’t make better people, and in the end it erodes the fabric of the nation so that the electorate, so lucky to have the freedom and democracy they do, misuse it to elect leaders who are badly damaging America and violating the ideals around which the country was founded.

Yes, I loved living in America when I was there. Yes, I love its freedom and diversity, as Lisa points out. But I grew up in Cuba, I have seen what America does abroad. Now, with Iraq, everybody can see it. The greed, the corruption, the inefficiency, the waste — for want of a better word, “the imperialism.” (I never thought I’d use that word). It’s a crime, this attempt of America to control the world beyond it’s borders for its own benefit only. What hurts most is that I’ve received mail from soldiers fighting in Iraq, who have read my writing on the web, and they have poured out their heart to me about realling believing in what they were doing, fighting for a true and just cause, democracy, freedom, etc. And I believe the American fighting men there, many of them are like this. And I feel their leaders in the White House have betrayed them, and betrayed America as well. Speak to this Lisa and you guys, and leave that drivel about the “left” and the “right” out of the equation for a change, if you can.

America is a nation of pigs because it has so very much more than everybody else, and still tries to take so much more, when instead it might engage the world in a much more enlightened fashion, that would better serve its interests and the interests of the world at large, would better respect the environment, other species, and other cultures that have different beliefs, and that need to go their own different way. America thinks everybody is a pig like it, and that everybody only wants what it has. I don’t feel this is true. I feel Islam doesn’t feel this is true and in this respect I feel Islam is right and America is wrong. People have spiritual needs. We need to belong to community, to a community of nations and peoples, we need to do good and help others. That’s innate in the human genetic makeup. I feel that other countries, maybe Taiwan, might have a chance to find a better way than America has found. I think America, also, had best spend its time searching for this better way, than trying to “save” the world. It should learn from the many ways Taiwan does things better. Instead it seems to assume every other country needs to become like it.

I am fully aware these are egregious generalizations. And yet they speak to an aspect of the total situation, the larger truth, that is often absolutely ignored — especially by Americans. I feel America, once lean and true, has grown fat and greedy, at least some sectors of it. The corporate executives who became multi-millionaires at the expense of bankrupting common employees, and emptying out pension funds, etc. Those at the top of government functioning to market the access to leaders. I know all that goes on in other countries. I know it’s part of the human landscape. I don’t mean to generalize overly much, but I do feel that in America, of late, it has gotten out of hand. America needs to return to its true roots. It needs a good leader for a change, and it needs something to believe in stronger than homophobia, or idiotic fundamentalist ideas about women’s reproductive systems, etc. Things have gotten out of hand with these prosperity mega-religions, these pig religions, all about getting richer, acquiring more. Yes, I think in many ways the pig comparison is apt and needs to be said by someone. So I wrote the piece and said it.

October 31, 2006 @ 6:49 am | Comment

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