For many Taiwanese people, the United States is the Mysterious Land they see in Hollywood movies. They occasionally hear something about the United States or read something in the newspaper or hear a story from an acquaintance. Music from the United States is also common. They remember some things they learned about the United States in school. That’s it.
At least almost everyone in Taiwan is aware of the United States’ existence. The same cannot be said of many people in United States regarding Taiwan’s existence.
Taiwanese people who have visited the United States are sometimes more knowledgeable – though not always. If they only went to major tourist attractions, the United States may still just be the Mysterious Land of Hollywood movies. I have lost count of how many Taiwanese people I’m met who say they have visited California, but they are not sure whether they went to San Francisco or Los Angeles. This is in spite of the fact that San Francisco is more than TWICE as far away from Los Angeles as Taipei is from Kaohsiung. And as a Californian, I find it incredible that anybody who has been on Californian soil could get San Francisco and Los Angeles mixed up.
Taiwanese people who went to the United States for work, or who have a particular interest in the United States, or who engaged with United States society without the psychological shields used by most travellers, tend to be much better informed.
Surrounded by people for whom the United States is a distant, fantastical land, it rubs off on me. I am starting to think of the United States in a bit of the same way. It sometimes feel unreal that I was ever there, let alone that I spent most of my life there.
For me, East Asia was once the fantastical land across the ocean. Of course, I was very interested in East Asia and did my share of research (there is a reason why I moved here instead of, say, Africa, Europe, or South America) – however, comics, history books, and studying languages increased rather than extinguished the mystique. During my first few months in Taiwan, I often said to myself ‘Holy shit, THIS IS ASIA!!!! FOR REAL!!!’
Taiwan now feels just as everyday as a sweet potato (Note: Taiwan is often described as a sweet potato in the South China sea; hot sweet potatos are a common snack in Taiwan). Even though my travels have been restricted to Taiwan, Taiwan is at the crossroads of Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Korea, and Japan, so living here has made me think of all of those places as places of day-to-day life rather than mysterious lands.
And finally, I find the real Taiwan is more fascinating than the Taiwan I imagined. Fantasyland Taiwan, of course, is limited by my imagination – the real Taiwan has no such limitation. And I would say that the real United States is more fascinating than Fantasyland United States.