Living in NYC, I am all about taking advantage of the cultural institutions and opportunities around me. Being Taiwanese-American, I’m more than generally supportive of Taiwan’s new fledging efforts at cultural diplomacy rather than dollar diplomacy. I believe that the future is in investing in soft power, to build up Taiwan as a brand and identity with recognition the way French, Italian, Japanese, and and now South Korean culture have been successfully exported the world over. All the ingredients are there, it’s all in the investing resources and execution at this point.
All this is why I was delighted to go to several Tea Ceremony events this weekend in NYC by Taipei Cultural Center, one of which is springboarding these thoughts here. I’m also just a aficionado of tea and tea cultures and art（茶藝 for you Chinese reading folks) in general.
I went to the Tenri Culture Center, “a non-profit organization with a mission to promote the study of Japanese language and the appreciation of international art forms,” where they showcased a traditional Japanese and Taiwanese Tea Ceremonies.
This is me realizing I’m terribly underdressed, sweaty, and out-of-place.
My life being a consistent crash into different worlds and identities would of course this weekend involved me walking into this place after hanging out earlier in the West Village buying The Fire This Time and then walking in neon adidas with my hipster backpack in a crowd of impeccably dressed Japanese people and Upper East Side types. Out-of-place as usual, but dgaf as usual, sat on them tatami mats to participate in the Japanese ceremony. I’d seen the Taiwanese tea ceremony and have done it myself many times, but it was cool to see Lin Ceramics Studio out, true craftsman brand that Taiwan is rightfully proud of.
Taiwanese Tea Set from Lin Ceramics
They did a demo of both, the Japanese in full beautiful kimono regalia and explaining the symbolism. The Taiwanese representatives did something similarly except we have no long-standing agreed upon national dress for such things, so we basically are just minimalist craftsman hipsters everywhere forever now. The Taiwanese speaker, Rita, explained that Taiwanese tea ceremony is about being chill and enjoying the company of others more informally after the relativeness formality of the Japanese one, which totally vibed with me.
It seemed like the event it was a huge hit to a relatively diverse crowd, good amount of Japanese, Taiwanese, and the kind of white people in dresses and hats who come to these events “oh look at this exotic eastern delicacy” to which I made sarcastic remarks to because I got no chill like that. There’s one thing to appreciate another culture, it’s another to cross into creepy orientalism.
(Man, I should totally just film videos of myself in Europe or something acting like the way ignorant White people do with Asian culture or being an Anthony Bourdian type archetype, who is not ignorant and snarky as a fuck about it, that would be a hoot, except I’d be both angry woman of color and ugly fat American at the same time.)
Group photo between Japanese and Taiwanese representatives and tea masters.
Of course, I couldn’t help but think of the strange relationship now between Japan and Taiwan. Former colonial master, now political ally, and strange bedfellows all around. I won’t get into this so much here, there are much better writers who’ve articulated this issue. Taiwan and China problems aren’t going way. I’m more reflecting on my own thoughts about the contemporary relationship and the complexity it took to get to this cultural moment.
Taiwan has largely crossed the tensions of the Japanese colonial era to post-WW2 martial law into years of a vibrant multi-party liberal democracy, but it is still in the early chapters of defining its modern self now, with much difference between the generations and demographics. One of these fault lines of course is the relationship to Japan. First, it’s really hard to deny the continuing relationship and closeness of that relationship as time has gone on. Many of Taiwan’s modernization efforts, like many Asian countries, followed the line of Japan’s, down to the shopping experience department stores and industrial operational procedures. There’s general genuine affection and understanding. It’s complex.
Do we have to have forgiveness and how to we articulate questions of power?
It’s hard and weird thing. I personally see no contradiction in support efforts for proper apologies and reparation for World War II crimes (eg. I’m really supportive of the film The Apology), not forgetting, and not letting go of that fact that Japan tries to whitewash its history. At the same time, I don’t see it as a part of my identity to hate Japanese people, especially people born in our time period. Don’t get me wrong though, while they while not directly responsible for their ancestors crimes, they have the responsibility to remember. The contrast to modern day Germany’s reckoning with its past is astounding. For the record though, I feel similarly both about the United States lack of reparative justice for slavery and for crimes commited by the KMT.
However, that oppositional identity has been part of a nation building project and even a distraction to field away domestic problems, one that politicians from both the east and west would no doubt pull the strings on its people like puppets for depending on the situation. There are plenty who still talk of an inevitable war again with Japan. Unlike many (and perhaps like many Taiwanese of my generation), I don’t feel any level of bloodlust towards modern Japanese people and find it appalling and dangerous that so many do. I will admit I do have more of a psychological distance from it as someone who spent most of her life in the West.
There’s also the awkward question of how you feel about Japan depending on what section of Taiwanese society you come from but also the practical concerns of now. 49er Taiwanese fought suffered dramatic losses against the Japanese. There is still crazy deep blue talk radio in Taiwan lamenting about Japan’s influence on Taiwanese people. Then there are those who remember the Japanese era fondly as an era of relative refinements compared the brutal suppression by the KMT that followed. Then again, I’ve met indigenous people in Taiwan who have pointed out footbridges to me in the valleys and gorges in central Taiwan, saying that the Japanese forced them, “our Taiwanese ancestors” to build them, but really it was the indigenous people that paid the great cost in deaths. Then there are the years that followed, where Taiwan modernized together, with Japan being the modern Asian that all Asian countries followed the model of to some degree, especially when you speak of the four Asian tigers.
When I think of my own family, who fought tooth and nail with the Japanese. The 49er Taiwanese members of my family suffered greatly at the hands of the Japanese. Dead and tortured broken bodies. In Taiwan, they worked closely with Japanese people in efforts to modernize Taiwan. Our family homes are full of Japanese finery. My mother would talk about tea sets and wrappings at an Isetan department store as ones she recognized from her childhood when my grandparent’s Japanese friends would come to visit. I spent a lot of time playing as a child in LA’s Little Tokyo because of the familiarity with that culture. We still go to certain stores we know there to buy certain things. Yet there’s also a distrust and subtle hatred. It’s also no secret that some Japanese tourists and Japanese people still have an attitude of colonial superiority to Taiwan and vis a vis a Taiwanese inferiority complex some have to Japan. My mother said once when we were on a trip in Japan “we look at each other with complicated feelings.” The interpretation of Japan and our history is deeply complex.
I grow up admiring beautiful Japanese finery like this.
All that aside to give some color again, China is growing in power in Asia to the fear of all of its neighbors and against a Taiwanese identity that continues to grow stronger.
I’ll say this now, I maybe a waishengren/”49er Taiwanese”, but I’m probably basically the last of my kind. Being Taiwanese in a modern sense – identifying with values, customs, and history – overrides my Americaness or not being able to speak Taiwanese.
Common enmity can make strange bedfollows. China and South Korea’s articulations of modern identity and even levers pulled for social cohesion have to do with its struggle and crimes against the Japanese. Others also suffered horribly, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, numerous pacific islands in Oceania, and on and on, but their identities ultimately were more defined in their postcolonial struggles. I have wonder if Taiwan’s identity would have been very different and the Japanese regarded less favorably if the KMT had not be so violently repressive or simply if they weren’t the last conquerers.
The characters mean “giving tea” as a manner of communicating hospitality. You’ll find pots of tea on the side of the road in the Taiwanese countryside for people passing by with these characters.
I find that as we forward now as friends, we can’t deny these complex relationships of power and history. If we don’t talk about them in a thoughtful if not totally imperfect and critical way, there is no real way to move on and have transformative justice and a better future for all of us.
In the meantime though, I’m happy to break bread and drink tea with our former enemies as friends moving forward, as long we we move forward together more as equals with mutual interest and respect. I’d pull up a chair for China too should they decide to be peaceful about it, but maybe that’s why Japan and Taiwan are at the table together at all.