When I meet new Taiwanese friends, the question they invariably ask me is: “Why did you choose Taiwan instead of Mainland China?” Sometimes I tell them the truth, sometimes I just say that I am interested in Taiwan. I thought for a few days whether I should publish this post on my blog and tell strangers about my private matters. At last, I decided to share my experiences with you guys.
I’ve always been interested in East Asia. Not for rational reasons, such as future career prospects. My interest was born out of a feeling, which I cannot explain. I think every country has its own aesthetics. When you see the image of a city or a landscape, sometimes you feel fascination, you want to go there. The way people look like, behave and get dressed, the architecture, the nature – there are many reasons why a place might attract you.
As far as I can remember, my interest in East Asia dates back to my teenage years. At that time I had no internet at home, and my access to knowledge about and from other countries was limited. When I look back on those days, I am really thankful that someone invented the internet. The only source of information I had were newspapers and television. In Italy – my home country – the quality of TV programmes is really poor. When I was young, we had 6 big channels and several minor ones. The minor ones were local TV stations with a very boring content, mostly cheap B-movies, strange cartoons, advertising programmes and odd talk shows. So, basically 99% of Italians used to watch the 6 big channels. 3 of them are state-owned and often party-controlled. The remaining 3 belong to Silvio Berlusconi, the richest man in Italy, a media magnate who became Italy’s Prime Minister and controlled all of the 6 channels for more than a decade. Still, Italian TV had a lot of great programmes and shows, especially comedy. However, great journalism and documentaries were a rarity.
Whenever there was a documentary about East Asian countries, I was always fascinated and I wished I could watch more and more of them. Unfortunately, most of these documentaries were very superficial – a journalist went to another country and talked about his/her first impressions, food and things considered “strange” in Italy. I remember very few good programmes. One of them was about Hong Kong.
It was a short documentary, I guess about thirty minutes long. I watched it avidly and when it finished I really wanted to buy a plane ticket and go there. There was something exciting, enthralling about that throbbing, ultra-modern cosmopolitan city.
As a teenager I was, like many other people of my age, fascinated by Japan. When I was a kid, Japan was still experiencing its amazing economic rise and it was admired and feared by the whole world. From the point of view of its global impact, the 80’s were probably Japan’s golden age. Not only its brands and products had already established themselves on the world markets and become the desired objects of all of us kids – everywhere on the planet, included in my small Italian home town – , but Japanese cartoons, as well, were conquering the TV schedule. Italy developed a large anime fan base, with some anime series becoming cult. However, many of us didn’t even know these cartoons came from Japan.
I wasn’t one of those Westerners who suffer from yellow fever. When I was young, I rather suffered from blonde fever. I was obsessed with Northern European countries and I thought German or English girls were the most beautiful of all. I was about 15-18 back then. I travelled to England when I was 15 and lived with a host family. I loved the country and the atmosphere. In the English school I went to there was a group of students from Hong Kong. I made some friends among them.
Strangely enough, although I was interested in Asia I was biased about Asian people. I am willing to admit it, because ever since then my opinion has changed completely. For some strange reason, there are Western people – I am sorry to say that – who have a lot of prejudices about Asians. For example, I’ve heard from Westerners that Asians are stupid, stink or are liars. Before making Asian friends, I thought that Asians were stupid, too. (Remember, I was about 15 years old, so please if you are an Asian don’t be angry!) In Italy, a country where there is a huge Chinese community, the bias against Chinese might be stronger than in other countries. Some Italians call Chinese people “cinesini”, which literally means “small Chinese” – a pejorative term that I asked my parents not to use.
The reason why I thought so lay probably the fact that the Asian people I happened to meet in real life or see on TV didn’t look cool. They were too 乖: well-behaved, sweet, gentle, I don’t know how to describe it. They were not the type of cool, aggressive person I admired when I was young. Now let me say one thing: ever since those days I met a lot of cool, nice and interesting Asian people and made a lot of great Asian friends. That early bias vanished long, long ago.
Anyway, the fact is that I was not particularly interested in making Asian friends until the age of 23, when I met a girl who was to become my girlfriend. A pretty, lovely Korean girl who introduced me to many aspects of Asia’s culture and life. I tried to study Korean, but failed. To be honest, I didn’t like the language very much. Besides, it is such a difficult language that if you’re not highly-motivated you can hardly go past the basics.
I will not talk in detail about my relationship. I will only say that it lasted for about four years. During the last of these years, among many problems, my girlfriend noticed I was getting more and more interested in China but was still not very interested in Korea. She didn’t like it at all. I began reading books about East Asia and China in particular, and after a whole year of reading books about history, society as well as novels, and after watching a lot of films, my fascination kept growing day by day. I felt the time was coming for me to begin to study Chinese. I went to a bookstore, bought a Chinese language course ( a great one!) and began learning by myself. After the first two lessons I knew I’d fallen in love with this language.
I was 26 years old. I was living in Berlin, Germany, where I studied at Humboldt University. One day I went to a friend’s birthday party. There I met a nice Belgian girl. While we were talking she gave a very good advice: “Why don’t you look for a language exchange partner?” she asked. I was skeptical. I am not a German native speaker and I was certain I wouldn’t find anyone who wanted to learn Italian. But she encouraged me, saying that my German was good enough. I gave it a try. I posted an ad on a university website, TU Sprach- und Kulturbörse. And I had luck.
A girl from Hong Kong replied to my ad. She said she was working in Berlin and needed someone to practice her German. I was very happy about receiving her e-mail. I knew nothing about her, though. I didn’t have her picture, didn’t know her age or what kind of job she had. Since she said she wasn’t a student and mentioned she worked, I assumed she must be older than me. How much older – I couldn’t guess. But it was just language exchange, so there was no pint in asking her.
We made an appointment. I waited for her at Friedrichstrasse U-Bahn station. I was very nervous. There are many Asians in Berlin. I saw a lot of Asian women of all ages go by while I was waiting, and every time I stared at them, wondering if one of them was my language partner. Then I spotted a girl who was wearing a beige coat and jeans. I didn’t see her face, only her back. She didn’t turn around. After a few minutes I decided to go and ask her if she was waiting for someone. It was the first time I met a stranger online, so I felt quite embarrassed and uneasy. I said “hello” to her. She looked at me in surprise. Then she gave me a slightly embarrassed smile and introduced herself.
My language partner became my first close Chinese friend. She is a very nice and funny person, and I really had a wonderful time with her. Until now, I remember with happiness the days we spent together in Berlin. It was May, I think, and the weather was nice, often warm and sunny. I was impressed by her. She was two years younger than me, was travelling alone and seemed to have a very strong and independent character. She’d found a flat and a job in a restaurant, all by herself, without speaking German. She was so smart and brave, I truly admired her. And I still do. Unfortunately, she left Berlin after only two months.
From the moment I met her, I became addicted to language exchange. After she left Berlin I wanted to meet more people like her. Of course, it makes more fun to learn a language if you have nice friends you can talk to. Well, I could never “replace” her. Nevertheless, I met a lot of new great Chinese friends, smart, interesting people that I will never forget. I can say most of my best friends in Berlin were Chinese.
I also made a couple of Taiwanese friends. But I was far from thinking of going to Taiwan. My plan was to finish my master thesis and go to Mainland China to do a PhD, or just to spend a few weeks there and study Chinese first and then decide whether to stay there or not. Shortly before I completed my thesis, however, something happened which changed everything. If you don’t like romance, please skip this part, because I’m going to be a little sentimental.
In the summer I met a Taiwanese girl and I fell in love with her at first sight. She was so beautiful I couldn’t believe my eyes. Her body, her face, her style – everything about her was amazing. But it wasn’t all about her looks. During our first meeting we spent around six hours together, talking as though we had endless things to say to each other. I was really happy. We met at least once every week. I had the greatest summer of my whole life. I showed her a lot of places in Berlin. It was the first time she travelled abroad. She was so enthusiastic about everything – the food, the people, the culture. Her stay in Europe was an adventure to her, an adventure that made her feel happy. And I could see her happiness in her bright smile and in her eyes. I loved to look at her while joy shone on her face. As Haruki Murakami says in one of his novels: when she was with me I was happy and when she left, all of a sudden my world became empty. And that’s exactly how I felt. The only thing I wanted was to be with her. Does it sound mad? Well, it was.
I didn’t want her to think of me as one of those guys who believe Asian girls are easy. But she was going to go back to Taiwan soon, so I had to be honest with her about my feelings before it was too late. When I finally told her, her reaction was a huge disappointment. She said that she already had a boyfriend. A boyfriend she’d never mentioned before. I’d considered the possibility of a rejection, of course. But the thought there might be a guy waiting for her back home had never crossed my mind. It really hurt me.
I spent a sleepless night, tried to prepare myself to say good-bye to her forever. And then, unexpectedly, she told me that she and her boyfriend had a lot a problems. She showed in a very obvious way that she liked me. We went travelling together and had a wonderful time. On her last day in Europe I went with her to Frankfurt and saw her off. She wouldn’t stop crying. My shirt got wet from her tears. At that moment, in my heart I already knew that I would follow her. I just couldn’t think of being without her. I felt that girl was the best thing that could ever happen to me. It sounds kitchy, I know. But that is how it feels like to love someone. I told her I would go to Taiwan. I said it, and I meant it.
She entered the security area of the airport. I saw her figure become smaller and smaller. From time to time she turned around and waved at me, still crying. Until she disappeared from my view. I wasn’t too sad, though. I knew that I would seen her again soon.