A speech

While half a world away “thousands marched on Washington’ (according to CNN), it was my turn to give a speech.

The Taiwanese have a strong bustle ethic, which extends to my host Dr Ben Lin, so they’ve been working me pretty hard by American standards– start at 8:30, only 1/2 hr for lunch, which is catered in the room as the class, students asking questions all through lunch – (“So sorry, what’s the difference between Myofascial Release and Deep Tissue Massage?” They are so sincere; I must resist saying “A business card”).

So, no surprise that we rolled directly form class to the hospital where I am scheduled to give a speech.  I beg 10 minutes for a shower.  In the event, there is an orthopaedists’ meeting running late in the auditorium, so we sit drinking tea in the cafeteria, where I learn a little more about the Taiwanese character:

Earlier in the class, one of the students – a chiropractor and physiatrist – has bristled when I called him ‘Chinese’.  I though this was because of the political differences between mainland China and this smallish island across the small Formosa Strait.  But exploring this as we wait over delicious flowery tea I manage to spill everywhere, I learn that the diaspora of Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomintang nationalists as they lost to the communists in ’49 was but a drop in the Taiwanese bucket.  I had the idea (to the degree I had thought about it) that Taiwan / Formosa was sparsely populated when this huge glob of people arrived – a kind of Israeli idea: ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’, to which one responds, “Tell that to the Palestinians” – and in this case, ‘Tell that to the Taiwanese’.

Colonized by the Dutch, the Spanish, and the Japanese, and aboriginally populated by sweeps from the south, not from China to the north – the Phillipines, perhaps Australia even – the Taiwanese have, long before the remnants of the Nationalists arrived, sought independence from the Chinese empire.  So Chiang, far from being a welcome immigrant, was another interloping Chinese tyrant, according to the people here.  Chalk another one up to the American revisionist textbooks – I will not make this mistake again.

Paul Theroux – and he should know – says there’s nothing less inscrutable than the Oriental.  OK, Paul, impassive, then – or so the faces seem as I begin the lecture from the well of the auditorium stage.  The working hours in Taiwan are not really a problem for me – I work all the time anyway, but what makes this trip hard slogging is the absolute unresponsiveness of the audience.  I e-nun-ci-ate, I seek participation at every level I know, but I might as well be talking to a camera, a wall.  Most of the audience turns out to be physical therapy students, so I am trying my best to give them an understanding how important their work is in the larger picture, but jokes fall flat, and stern admonitions cause a felt – not seen – withdrawal.

My host is likewise frustrated (with me, not with them), but I can’t seem to find the key he wants me to sing in.  He grabs the mike and warbles on for a while – I know not what – but he is clearly popular with the students.  After an excruciating (for its silence) Q&A, I am met with an enthusiastic line of people who want me to sign their book (thank you, she-she, so sorry).

Shaking my head, I gather up my toys, take my gift – a bag full of ‘prosperity’ pineapple cookies – and drop into bed.  I am tired of being the bloody pioneer.  I will keep trying to find an opening, but I have no idea what impression I have made, or what is wanted.


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