Intrigued by Taiwan’s growing reputation for being overlooked and underrated, Zack Cahill sets out to see it for himself and finds this island-nation full of surprises – it’s East Asia, but not as he knows it.
The 1998 film Sliding Doors follows a young Gwyneth Paltrow through two separate parallel timelines. In one version of reality, Gwyneth boards her train on time and arrives home to catch her boyfriend cheating. She has a minor breakdown, chops her hair daringly short and dyes it blond, falls in love with a new man and (spoiler alert) eventually gets run over by a van. In the other timeline, she never catches the train, stays the same mousey-brown wallflower and never discovers her boyfriend’s infidelity.
It’s a premise that opens up all sorts of questions. Is there such a thing as fate? Can we ever find true love? How were Barbie Girl-band Aqua ever a viable pop sensation? But chief among them is the question of parallel worlds: do they really exist?
I believe so, because I’ve visited one; it’s called Taiwan. Taiwan is a China where the Communist Revolution never occurred. Where they never boarded that particular train and, instead of a blond bob, they got capitalism.
Taiwan is a mere 110 miles from China. The two were, in fact, connected during the glacial age and the skeletons of gigantic mammoths lurk in the shallows between the two countries. In 1949, after the Communists gained control of the mainland, the Republic of China government, under Chiang Kai-shek, settled here, along with two million refugees. As a result, many Taiwanese consider themselves the ‘real’ Chinese. The US, always happy to see Communism get one in the eye, provided huge military and financial support during the 1940s and 50s, so that in time Taiwan outgrew its perception as a manufacturer of cheap goods and became an economic monster. I think I’ve got that right, anyway.
My guide, Lily, is giving me this historical rundown in a van at about 90mph. That’s her word rate, not the vehicle’s speed. After a sleepless 14-hour flight, I’m not best prepared to absorb it. A tiny, garrulous woman somewhere in her forties, Lily is not shy of injecting her opinions into the flow of dry statistical information. Some brief highlights include:
People in Taiwan are too free. They don’t wear sunscreen because it pollutes the sea. They prefer pets to kids because you don’t have to pay for your pets’ education. And then a lengthy rant about gay marriage, including the line ‘why give up a forest for a tree?’
It’s all pretty amusing, but too fast-paced for my weary, jet-lagged brain and I ask for a little respite. The silence lasts for all of 30 seconds before Lily launches into another anecdote. This will be a regular thing. There will be a lot of driving on this trip.
A dreamless sleep in a lavish Taipei hotel and several litres of intravenous coffee later, we’re back in the van and on our way to Kaohsiung.
The Fo Guang Shan monastery, in the south of the island, is the largest Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. Built on uneven, unloved ground by Master Hsing Yun, who relied on contributions from friends and benefactors, the place is now a sprawling private enterprise where hundreds at a time come to study and attend events. All around us, monks glide about on golf carts, sit quietly in tranquil lotus gardens and do tai chi on the manicured lawns.
Lily introduces me to Yi Jih Shih, a Buddhist nun with the title of ‘the Venerable’. They have a warm relationship; Lily brings her some ice-cream as a gift. We pile into a golf cart and head off on a tour.
“Master Hsing Yun was self-taught,” says ‘the Venerable’. “He educated himself from books he found in the rubble after the war.”
Hsing Yun used calligraphy to spread his teachings, writing hundreds of books by hand. We have a go at calligraphy in a quiet classroom. It’s a bit touristy, but sets the right, calm ambience.
You’ll be unsurprised to hear that monks who have dedicated their lives to ascetic servitude and the achievement of inner peace tend to come off as pretty chilled individuals. ‘The Venerable’ seems like she’s on rails, wafting around corners with her robes swishing gently, speaking softly, smiling at all who pass. She jokes around a lot. Buddhist humour is pretty subdued, as you can imagine, but she certainly cracks herself up. I’ll admit to a bit of cynicism about spirituality or at least the patronising veneration of ‘Eastern wisdom’. But ‘the Venerable’ is an undeniably calming presence and often speaks in genuine, lucid prose. Of this temple, she says:
“The lotus flower grows in dirt. Don’t run away from problems; they can be our nutrition. This monastery was made on terrible land. Nobody wanted to come. Hsing Yun was suicidal, but people helped him and it worked. We have so much potential, but people keep looking outside. In our inner world, we have everything we need. You are rich in spirit. You are your own master.”
As we leave, she tells us, “Be a vehicle – help others to the other shore on a big ferry, not a bicycle”.
Sadly, the ferry we take the next day to Penghu Island does not bring enlightenment, only extreme nausea.