The French, the Taiwanese and the Chinese

The following is a guest post from William Stimson in Taiwan. While the title focuses on the French, the essay is really more about China and Taiwan.
“Can There Be A Future For The French?”
by William R. Stimson

The French are up in arms again to protect their language and culture. The perceived threat this time is books — 15 million volumes from elite libraries, which Google aims to put on-line. The clamor in France to counter this “crushing domination by America” looks so curious from over here on the other side of the world in Taiwan.

It comes as little surprise that the French should take on Google. When I arrived in Taiwan from New York City a couple of years back, the French were taking to the streets over McDonald’s. What a contrast I found in Taiwan. The Golden Arches were everywhere but the Taiwanese didn’t seem the least bit concerned. The street food scene here is unbelievably diverse. The Nationalists invaders from the mainland brought with them cuisines from all over China. Into the rich mix McDonald’s folded, like an egg into batter. No big deal.

Carrefour, the French hypermarket, is also everywhere here, with French cheeses and wines. The food court features the same tasty food served in the stalls and mom-and-pop stands all up and down the streets outside. While the French marched against the American hamburger, the Taiwanese busied themselves mastering the art of franchising their own many native and imported Chinese cuisines. They’ve done a marvelous job of it. The food is healthier than anything at McDonalds and cheaper. One day soon America may find itself invaded by franchised Taiwanese dumpling stands, noodle places, rice shops or tea houses. On New York’s Fifth Avenue or San Francisco’s Mission Street, anybody will one day be able to sit in peace with a steaming bowl in one hand, a pair of chopsticks in the other — to relish Taiwanese variety.

A threat to America? Hardly. Nothing from the outside can threaten a culture as vitally and creatively alive from within as America’s or Taiwan’s. Like America, Taiwan absorbs whatever comes its way, assimilates it right into the core of its rich mix, and then goes it one better — by an act of creative transformation it issues forth with something novel, a new thing never before seen. The innovation leaps out across cultural and linguistic boundaries, and spreads everywhere at once.

Coming from New York City, I didn’t expect to find Taiwan so creatively alive. Increasingly, it makes me feel right at home here. This wonderful creativity was something I started out in life associating with France. “I want to go live in Paris and write a novel,” I was actually fool enough to confess in all seriousness to someone when I was in my 20s. I was reading Henry Miller then and it seemed to me at that time that to go and do anything really exciting, daring and creative, one had to get to Paris, like so many American writers had. France, to me, was Europe. Indeed, to me France was the world.

That things had changed I discovered in my usual fool way. In my 30s I booked a cheap Virgin Airlines flight from New York City to Amsterdam. Finally I’d made it to Europe. On the train from Brussels to Paris, I found a seat next to an attractive French blonde. She’d come over on the same flight. I told her how excited I was to finally be getting to Paris and asked her if she was a Parisian coming home from a trip to America. “I am Parisian,” she said, “But I’m just visiting family. Home for me is New York City. My husband is an artist and his loft is in SoHo.”

“He’s American?”

“No. French.”

“Why would a French artist live in New York City?” I asked stupidly.

“New York City is where French art is happening right now,” she informed me. “All the best young French artists are over there.”

At a little restaurant I found that evening on the Left Bank, a Parisian, overhearing that I was from New York City came excitedly over to my table. “I just came back from New York,” he poured out. “What a place! I stayed in a friend’s apartment in Alphabet City on the Lower East Side. One night I came home late. A Puerto Rican guy was lounging against the lamppost right out front. I tried my keys but found I was locked out. There were so many keys to all the locks. I’d left that morning without taking with me the one for the front door. I could see the Puerto Rican was watching me struggle with the door. He walked over and pulled out a huge knife. In a second he’d jimmied the lock open for me with the tip of the blade.” The Parisian beamed with a big smile, before going back to join his friends at his own table. “Only in New York!”

The next day, to get away from all the tourist buses clogging the narrow streets, I took refuge in a pretty little park I found. I settled on a bench and noticed how beautiful the sky was. I lay down on my back to gaze up at it. A gendarme appeared. “It is prohibited to lie on the park benches.” I took a long walk and came to a playground. I went over to sway on a swing under the trees. A uniformed park attendant came over. “It is not allowed for grownups to use the children’s playground.” Later that afternoon, I bought a sandwich to go. After walking around, I came to a nice place, sat on the curb, and took out my sandwich. I took a bite and marveled at the architecture all around and the Parisians parading back and forth. A gendarme walked up. “It is forbidden to sit on the sidewalk.” In the end I felt stifled by Paris and wanted to leave. When my Virgin Airlines flight landed back at Newark Airport, some young Americans ambled down the gangplank in front of me. When one of them set his feet on the tarmac he bent down and made a motion of kissing the ground. “Freedom! Freedom at last!” he cried out melodramatically. The others all laughed. It must have been some private joke of theirs. But the guy had actually expressed my own feeling. Back home again in New York City I could do anything I wanted. I felt free.

I find that same kind of freedom now in Taiwan. I don’t know if they’re still doing it, but for a long time the French government poured money into an effort to start up a French substitute for all the British and American rock music they felt threatened their language and culture. Something like this would be unheard of in Taiwan. I was invited to a performance of Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre. Lin Hwai-min, the genius behind this amazing dance company, had gone to the West and studied ballet, modern dance, and assimilate everything the West had to teach him. Then — instead of trying to fend off the foreign influences — he assimilated them all, melted them down, and alchemically transformed them into a production authentically Taiwanese. It was world-class. It was Taiwanese culture. Genius always takes whatever it finds, whatever moves it deeply. Always, what it comes up with in response is original. This is real culture and to real culture there can be no threat. It’s the same with language. Real language knows no enemy. The other day I came across a new Mandarin word here in Taiwan, one I could actually pronounce — “chalah-bah.” It means “salad bar.” To protect their culture and language, the French feel obliged to make up new French words to replace every single English one that slips into their language. The Taiwanese couldn’t be bothered with something like that. If there’s a word, or a product, or a concept from Japan, from America or from France for that matter, that they don’t have — they just soak it right up as their own. The language here, in that respect, is like English. Much of English derives from French. “No problema” friends of mine joke back in New York, in bad Spanish slipped into English. Linguistic purity isn’t what a language is about — not one that is still alive and growing, vital and creative. Languages exchange words like viruses do genes.

What, then, is wrong with the French? Why have they thrown themselves into policing something fundamentally creative like language or culture that doesn’t need to be policed? I guess I could just as well ask, “Why wouldn’t they let me lie on a park bench and gaze up at the sky?” “Why couldn’t I swing on a swing in a playground and watch little children all around me playing in French?” “Why not sit on the curb and see all Paris go by as I eat my sandwich?” And I guess, then, if I asked those questions, I would have to admit — I don’t know why the French are like they are. Here, on the other side of the world, I see the Taiwanese reaching out across the world, making contact with anything real that’s happening anywhere and, like explorers have done since the beginning of time, bringing back home anything new or exciting they find.

My own hunch is that the French have fallen prey to an idea they have of themselves. It’s a false idea which they’re at pains to protect, by any means possible. McDonald’s, British and American rock music, English worlds, and Google Print are no threat to French language or culture, but they are a very direct threat to the French misperception of themselves, their culture and their language. It seems to me that what the French see as “their” culture has less to do with the French language or the nation of France than it has with a wonderful creativity that surged up in that language and in that country when Paris was the global center of high learning and art. Even Taiwanese artists lived and painted in Paris and contributed to its art and culture. Their works may not be seen in museums there, but they’re on proud display in the ones here. The greatest geniuses from around the globe made their way to Paris, by hook or crook — even such unlikely sorts as Henry Miller. What these individuals went to France to find, they actually took with them and put there. All that is world-class about the French language and culture, in fact, comes from and belongs to the whole world. The French, for so long the principle beneficiaries of the whole world’s genius, take that linguistic and cultural advantage that is the residue of it to be their very own national trait and possession. They would cloak themselves, that is, in a self-aggrandizing way, with what properly belongs to all the world.

To make matters worse for the inflated Gauls, once Paris was Europe, once Paris was the world. People in love and people of genius needed to be there. Increasingly, Paris is just Paris. The wonderful creativity infusing French language and culture has since the time of Henry Miller moved on from Paris to New York City. It shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone that the Americans are repeating, in their own way, the French mistake.

America is free, yes; and it is big and rich. Consequently, it attracts the best and brightest from everywhere. The whole world flocks to its shores and pours through its veins. Creoles from the Caribbean, Taiwanese graduate students galore, Mexican cooks in Italian restaurants, Bangladeshi realtors, Arab grocers, Israeli entrepreneurs, you name it — the genius and the lovers, the artists and the scientists, the rogues and the scoundrels from everywhere — come looking for, but actually bring with them, the wonderful creativity that is America and that is pouring into and out of the American language and culture at this time. Like France before it, and England, and a long lineage of other cultural and economic capitals stretching back around the world to antique cities and civilizations we don’t even have names for anymore, America mistakes the greatness pouring through its veins for its own when it in fact belongs to the whole world. Because of its misperception of itself, America acts, at times, in selfish, narrow-minded ways that offend just about everybody else.

If it’s any comfort to the French, pundits predict the center will shift in this century from New York to Shanghai. Shanghai hasn’t even really begun to overtake New York yet. But already ordinary Chinese bloat themselves with a repulsively crude nationalism and — as we are painfully aware here in Taiwan — a brute expansionism. Hoping to make a fast buck, the whole world has rushed to build China’s economy. The whole world has made China start to happen. Little, free Taiwan played an oversized role. But see how arrogantly China puffs itself up now and plays the mean bully to its small neighbor. And look how China postures itself towards Japan, another major contributor to its prosperity. Quite evidently China has forgotten, already, so early in the game, to what an extent so much of the good that is happening within its own borders derives from the rest of the world.

In the past, way back into history, the entire world has again and again surged like this with freedom, prosperity, and culture, through one nation, one language, one people and made that people, and their nation and language, great. Always, it seems, that nation, and its people and culture, has grabbed for itself, in one way or another, what properly belonged to all. If China were to do this now with its brute, expansionist, and authoritarian tendencies — and, most scary of all, its psychopathic need to control information — it would be a tragedy not just for little democratic Taiwan, but for every single nation on earth.

There’s reason to hope, though, that this scenario will not materialize. It’s not just Google we have to thank, or the internet. Things were changing even before those appeared on the scene. Yes, they accentuate the trend, immeasurably; but at root they are results of it, as much as causes. The fact is that the world is tending towards a more creative form of organization where the center at any given moment might be anywhere, everywhere, several places at once, or even nowhere (that anybody can tell). The unprecedented might just become the norm. Vertical hierarchies may find themselves undermined, replaced or, in some cases, altered beyond recognition by powerful lateral networks. The future, even in the very short term, may just turn out to be remarkably complex, interesting, democratic, prosperous and peaceful. Any number of factors are likely to emerge from all this that could prove capable of altering beyond recognition the traditional power relationships between “center” and “periphery,” “large” and “small,” “powerful” and “weak” — or even “us” and “them.”

In an environment like this, Taiwan may yet stay free and keep doing what it does so well. And this new order of free interconnectivity would also stave off the global catastrophe of a big brute China, tone down an overweening America, and afford the French a world in which Paris will be as much the center as anywhere else. Then, if only the French can accord their language and culture the freedom which that delightful language and that wonderful culture so richly deserve, these won’t be threatened at all.

Yet, it is to be noted that in a such a creative world as is now unfolding before our eyes — an equal world, a prosperous world, a democratic world — what’s needed is not so much freedom for our various contending traditions, nations, languages, and self-concepts (although this is necessary too and will come about), as freedom from these. To the extent they continue to define us in ways that separate us and turn us against one another, they are wrong, small, limited, fake. What we are really capable of, we are only now just beginning to discover. One thing we do already know is this — what unites is greater by far than what separates. Our power during the coming century will be a function of our ability to discover this and to come together in peace, harmony and good will — not for one, or another big nation, people, language or culture; but for the benefit of all nations, peoples, languages, and cultures.

The Discussion: 22 Comments

Beware Richard, your site could soon not only be populr as a China-bashing site but also as a France-bashing site. 😉

July 6, 2005 @ 4:50 pm | Comment

Thanks for the warning. As our feckless leader would say, “Bring ’em on!”

July 6, 2005 @ 4:58 pm | Comment

I don’t think that the French government went as far as to subsidise French pop music. They did introduce quotas for French language music on radio stations, which stimulated a revitalisation of the French pop scene and even encouraged some foreign artists to record songs in French.

July 6, 2005 @ 6:08 pm | Comment

Who is eating at MCD’S in France? Is it only Americans?The Chinese people always say that they hate “American rubbish” food too.All of those Asian faces I see must be Japanese tourists.

July 6, 2005 @ 7:14 pm | Comment

“France has neither winter nor summer nor morals. Apart from these drawbacks it is a fine country. France has usually been governed by prostitutes” Mark Twain

July 6, 2005 @ 7:46 pm | Comment

One thing about these foreigners living in Taiwan who support independence strikes me: Converts make the greatest zealots. Still, I guess the same thing could be said for many of us here on the mainland, myself included.

Actually, I was pleasantly surprised and impressed with this article. Some very good points made, and the China-demonising, Taiwan-idolising kept to a minimum. He’s revealed himself as a very passionate idealist with this one.

July 6, 2005 @ 8:26 pm | Comment

Good article in the 3 July Washington Post by Dana Priest, titled, if my memory is correct: “Help from France key in covert operations”. Bottom line, despite all the France bashing, the French have been cooperating closely with the U.S. intel services in the war on terror. On orders, no less, of Jacques Chirouac, who told the French intelligence services to treat their American counterparts as “one of your own”. Ah, but is does not reinforce the stereotype.

July 6, 2005 @ 8:36 pm | Comment

France does have a large terrorist problem too.Everyone watches out for their own best interests.

July 6, 2005 @ 8:41 pm | Comment

Lirelou, little makes me sicker than the bashing we Americans have given the French. They were absolutely right about Iraq and we owe them some major apologies. He also said, Today, we are all Americans.” And we ended up giving them the finger. Now, that’s not to say that the French aren’t assholes from time to time, ‘cuz no one can drive me crazier than an arrogant Frenchman….

Now excuse me while I go eat my cheeseburger and Freedom Fries.

July 6, 2005 @ 9:07 pm | Comment

UUUUM….FREEDOM FRIES…..fattening…..

July 6, 2005 @ 9:13 pm | Comment

As an ardent anti-separatist, I found the overall tone of the article tolerable enough. Too many subtle references of Taiwan as an independent cultural entity divorced from Chinese tradition, but what else is to be expected from “splittists”?

As much as he would like to play up Taiwan as being cosmopolitan, it seems to me the ready acceptance of exogenous cultural elements reflects a dearth of powerful nativist culture more than anything. It isn’t sophistication and liberalism that permeates Taiwan, but more accurately provincialism. The grasping of anything foreign to add a certain superficial cachet. I won’t spare my rhetorical barbs for Taiwan alone, as the mainland is similarly guilty of the same failings which is precisely how it can be so easily identified. Outside of the urban “mainlander” enclave of Taipei, the world according to Taiwan only really consists of Japan (the fount of tv gameshows and pop culture), the United States (the erstwhile knight in shining armor/visa dispenser), and mainland China (the looming communist overlord).

Aside from the nauseatingly sacharrine interpretation of history and culture, I have to reject the notion of the future being idyllic.

July 6, 2005 @ 9:26 pm | Comment

according to jing: “the world according to Taiwan only really consists of Japan (the fount of tv gameshows and pop culture), the United States (the erstwhile knight in shining armor/visa dispenser), and mainland China (the looming communist overlord).”
haha, a funny simplified point of view from an ‘anti-secessionist.’ i don’t think things are quite that simple in Taiwan. although i would say things are relatively simple here in China:
Japan (the ‘imperialists’ whose success we are secretly jealous of), the US (a ‘bad country’ that picks on China, and of course the Chinese people, all that talk about human rights is an insult to the Chinese people), and Taiwan (a ‘fake democracy’ that should be ‘liberated’ by its so-called motherland). then there is china, the land of reform and happiness, where everything just keeps getting better and better.
if you watch the news reports here, that is how everything is laid out. it borders on retardation. i have had a lot of chinese people tell me that i don’t understand china, but let me tell you, i have never met a group of people with such a poor understanding of the entire world, including their own country, as the mainland Chinese.
so yes, i would characterize interactions with taiwanese as quite refreshing in fact.

July 6, 2005 @ 9:42 pm | Comment

Kevin, I am with you. Well said. It borders on retardation…. I like that.

July 6, 2005 @ 9:45 pm | Comment

Hey,I’m a retard and I take offense to being compared to the Chinese.

July 6, 2005 @ 9:51 pm | Comment

whoa, looking back on that, that was a little harsh, but….

July 6, 2005 @ 9:54 pm | Comment

It’s not the Chinese who are retarded — just the Chinese media, or at least those who control it.

July 6, 2005 @ 9:57 pm | Comment

It looks like a duck, It spits like a duck, it smells like a duck….maybe it’s a………………

July 6, 2005 @ 9:58 pm | Comment

It walks its young ON the highway like a duck…………………..So many.Just not enough time.

July 6, 2005 @ 10:02 pm | Comment

Can we return to French bashing?I’m feeling patriotic today.

July 6, 2005 @ 10:05 pm | Comment

Why not bash Canada instead? They also regulate the amount of “Canadian content” broadcast on the radio.

Or what about Germany? To this day, you can’t shop on Sunday there, and in many other areas the German mania for rules and regulations makes the French seem positively laid-back.

And if you’re looking for examples of “cultural” ultra-nationalism, you need look no further than Flanders.

I could go on and on…

July 7, 2005 @ 1:07 am | Comment

Heh, d’you think that “freedom fries” thing offended any of us French ? We tasted the yelow things you serve at Mc Donalds (I think France is the eureopean country with the most McDonalds restaurants ^-^), we’re *glad* you disassociate our name from them. Come to the North of France or Belgium if you want to taste the real stuff ! Fries and Mussels, hmm …

Pretty good article 🙂 Though I don’t relate to those “gendarme” experiences, I wonder how long ago that was ? I never had a gendarme tell me this or that was forbidden … sounds more like Germany to me.

I don’t know of any government funded french rock’n’roll (apart from the radio language quotas), though we *do* get quite anal about our language – well, the government does, a lot of people find it ridiculous. For example, the fench language academy tried to push for an alternative word for “email” – first “mel”, which nobody used except ironically, then courriel, which I know a few people use, but most people still say email. They did the same thing for “blog” (“carnet web”) with even less success.

Oh and I’m in Beijing now and dreaming of going live in New York in the future ^-^

(And no, French people generally are not worried about terrorism, at least, not to the point where it’d shape our foreign policy, that’s a myth that can only be propagated among people who don’t know much about France. We do have problems with muslim immigrants, but it has very little to do with terrorism)

July 7, 2005 @ 1:48 am | Comment

I second (or, ah, third) Kevin’s remarks.

July 7, 2005 @ 1:53 am | Comment

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