Seeing Taiwan from abroad

I lived in lovely Taiwan for almost 30 years. Now, aged 50, I am retired from a career as an academic, diplomat and marketer and work as an educator and consultant for blockchain and smart tech solutions. For family reasons I have returned to my ancestral home in Europe. Expat privileges (and the unavoidable white privilege) goodbye.

I am having, to put it mildly, a culture shock. I miss nature, the food, the people, and my friends. I miss the privilege of an expat life and the quirky idiosyncrasies of the island nation. I miss the fresh fruit and gregarious gatherings over hot pot. I barely recognize my home.

But the most surprising thing is that Taiwan – seen here from the heart of Europe and European politics – really doesn’t exist in the minds of the people. Looking at Taiwan from abroad is turning out an exercise in frustration.

I have documents to renew, bank accounts to open, insurance policies to sign and a tax number to obtain. I have introduced myself to magazines and journals and contacted old acquaintances. The beautiful island of Formosa pops up everywhere in my CV.

Yet every step of the way, I encountered confusion and ignorance.

“Where? Oh, we were in Koh Sami”

“You mean China!”

“Taiwan? So you speak Japanese?”

And so on. Every foreign soul is familiar with this.

Taiwan, even as it is building an even stronger national and independent identity, has only itself to blame.

Decades of invisibility, in the shadow of China, dominated by the KMT, are hard to overcome. The use of China/Chinese in institutions and corporations is confusing and further muddles the waters. How hard can it be to rename the damn airline so people stop confusing it with Air China. Or take the China out of the countless associations, banks, and other businesses.

Taiwan is a vibrant democracy and enjoys full freedom of speech. It’s a beacon of light for marginalized constituents. Malaysia and Singapore imprisonments gays and Indonesia flogs them. Taiwan on the other hand has the best pride events ever.

And yet the only visible sign in the streets of Vienna is a tourism poster with the sun moon lake, which is special to Taiwan but sorry to say, compared to Austrian alpine a scenery, a joke. There are a million more things to advertise about Taiwan than a little mountain lake with overpriced hotels.

What Taiwan should advertise is bustling night markets, beef noodle soup, and indigenous cultures. Ever took a trip in an Amis canoe or worn a Paiwan head dress? Ever tasted their wonderful cuisine or joined in the flying fish or harvest festivals, combine that with a tour of one of the impressive massive chip fabs in Hsinchu and a trip on the HSR. That’s the real Taiwan.

But sadly, no one in Europe here has the slightest idea what the wonderful island has to offer besides Taipei 101 and Taroko Gorge.

Foreigners seeing Taiwan through a prism of expat experiences are doing a better job advertising the nations virtues than the Taiwan government. Winning medals at these curious COVID Olympics increases visibility too. And hats off to the journos who chose to settle in Taiwan after being thrown out of China.

During the COVID crisis, Taiwan did an excellent job on social media but when I asked around no one here in Europe was aware of the island’s success. Chinese diplomats are spreading infuriating lies on Twitter, promoting tweets and gaining thousands of followers. In comparison, digital marketing of Taiwan‘s achievements is a dismal example of an insular mind and misplaced modesty. Splash those posters of Raohe market, Jiufen, and the Rift Valley rice paddies over every gangway and airport waiting area!

Alas, there are none, even in Vienna, somewhat of a hub because both Taiwanese carriers fly here. Instead they should chose one and have daily flights instead of random 3 days a week.

When I was a diplomat I tried to help and say as much at meetings with the Tourism Bureau. But it wasn’t in my remit and my influence was limited. Now as an independent consultant retained by the powers that be, I can: update the tourism bureau, retire most of its bureaucrats and replace them with social media talent from every corner in the world. Have a proper Instagram feed, talks on Twitter and Clubhouse and proper outdoor advertisement.

Taiwan is so creative. It could do so much more to build a great image. The time to act is now!

Published by Dr Martin Hiesboeck

Futurist, Marketer, Policy Advisor for Companies and Government Head of Blockchain and Crypto Research at Uphold and CEO of Alpine Blockchain Consultants Zurich - London - New York - Taipei

One thought on “Seeing Taiwan from abroad

  1. Martin – As a foreigner who has visited Taiwan and China (PRC) i see the strengths and virtue of the country. But part of the issue has been Taiwan’s own believes in giving the western’s world objective (until recently) that the “One China” and economic engagement will be beneficial for Taiwan. Now is the time for Taiwan (and its citizen) to help promote the virtue and value of its land more aggressively (Culturally, Economically, Intellectually in both virtual and real-world). Let Hong Kong be a lesson for Taiwan


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