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On stinky tofu, casual racism, and the big question of China
TAIPEI, Taiwan — Shen Sian-wun already admired America's democracy. Since Barack Obama was elected in November, he looks up to it even more.
"For a black person to become president — that's not easy," said Mr. Shen, standing beside fragrant vats of two classic Taiwanese street dishes he serves at his Taipei restaurant — "stinky" tofu and oyster noodles.
"America's democracy is better than Taiwan's," he continued. "There, you have immigrants from all over the world and anyone can become president. Here, in Taiwan, we're almost all ethnic Chinese."
Many Americans may not even know where Taiwan is (100 miles off China's southeast coast). They often confuse it with Thailand ("Oh yes, I've been to Bangkok," I've heard several times, after telling other Americans where I live).
But Taiwan's 23 million residents – crowded on an island not much larger than Maryland – are watching America.
Walk down Taipei's crowded streets and chat with shop-owners, and you'll hear Shen's thoughts repeated, almost word for word. Taiwan's admiration for the U.S. sometimes seems total. And after Obama's victory, the view from Taiwan got even rosier.
This young democracy unabashedly looks to the U.S. as a land of opportunity, a political model and protector.
For the U.S., Taiwan has been a strong political ally since World War II, and is today a key trading partner, with annual bilateral trade topping $50 billion. But it also presents one of the greatest potential flashpoints for the new Obama administration.
Beijing sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory, to be reunified by military force, if need be. The U.S., meanwhile, is bound by law to "help defend" Taiwan against Chinese attack.
That gives this small island outsized importance. In the game of global politics, it's one of the few possible triggers for military conflict between the U.S. and China, which is the rising power of the 21st century.
At his shop across town, Dou Chen-ying, a masseur, waves me inside for tea and a chat — typical of the courtesy shown to an American reporter here.
"The U.S. doesn't care very much about Taiwan," Mr. Dou said, sitting in slippers in a massage chair. "The U.S. cares more about the mainland [China]."
Dou says Taiwanese are concerned that U.S. Democratic lawmakers aren't as committed to Taiwan's democracy as Republicans. The U.S. says it will help defend the island, but the promise is vague. If it's ever put to the test, Dou and others wonder if the Democrats will measure up.
"We're a little worried," says Dou. "We need the U.S. in order to support our independence. If the U.S. doesn't help us, who will? Nobody."
Then the talk returns to Obama himself, and in particular, his race — comments that can be shocking to American ears.
"He can raise black people's position," said Dou, enthusiastically. "Black people don't have as many opportunities to compete in America, so they're best at sports, but their I.Q. isn't as high."
Such casual racism is also typical of Taiwanese, who usually bear no ill-will and are often puzzled by American sensitivities. This, after all, is the island where one of the top-selling toothpastes is "Hei Ren" (black person), with the logo of a smiling black man in top hat and bowtie. (The English name was changed years ago from "Darkie" to "Darlie").
Down the street at the An Dong market, Ko Chih-long chops up chicken for a customer, and offers some perspective. "That's just an ad, it's not meant to look down on black people," he said. He noted with a chuckle that now "Bai Ren” (white person) toothpaste is also sold in Taiwan.
To hear Ko tell it, Obama has been over-hyped. "People's expectations are too high," he said. "It's just like here, with Ma Ying-jeou."
He's referring to Taiwan's current president, who was elected in March after promising to "immediately" improve the economy. Needless to say, that didn't happen. With the global economic crisis, Ma's approval ratings have nose-dived along with Taiwan's stock market, as this export-dependent economy gets hammered.
Ko also doubts Obama would go to bat for Taiwan. "What can the U.S. do? China buys so many U.S. Treasuries now," he said, standing over strewn raw chicken parts as a television beside him displays falling stock prices.
Elsewhere, though, Obama's star power is undimmed. On Yongkang Street, Yang Jun-ying and her mother are on the sidewalk selling peanuts and "lingjiao" — a root that's eaten here as a snack. Both are from Hunan province in mainland China. Both have married Taiwanese men and immigrated here.
Asked about Obama, the daughter said: "He gives so many people hope who didn't have faith before." She continued, saying, "They can think, no matter how messed up my own background or life has been, I can also become something."
Such is the power of Obama's story that it echoes halfway around the globe, at a humble street stand. Now, Taiwan will be watching this young, charismatic new U.S. president — and waiting to see if they have a friend.