Cartoon from NatalieDee.com

I’ve been out of the loop in terms of American pop culture for the past two weeks, so I didn’t see the video where Miss Teen South Carolina talks an awesome salad of nonsense and thrown-together words after being asked why she thinks one-fifth of Americans can’t locate the U.S. on a map.

That made me wonder how many Americans can locate Taiwan (台灣) on a map. When I told people where I was going, more often than not their response was “Taiwan? Where’s that?” or “Taiwan? Is that in China?” I bet there were also a few who silently wondered why I was going to study Mandarin in Thailand.

To be fair, it might not be that surprising that people don’t know much about Taiwan because the country is often overshadowed by China and Hong Kong. The island itself is only 35,801 square kilometers large. You can spot it on a map if you look below and to the left of Japan–it is the leetle, yam-shaped island. Taiwan is home to about 22.9 million people, which is pretty small when you consider that the New York metropolitan area (New York, Northern New Jersey and Long Island), from whence I just escaped, has about the same amount of people. As for the question “is Taiwan in China?” no, it isn’t–it is separated by the 180-kilometer wide Taiwan Strait. And whether or not someone believes Taiwan is part of China depends in part on their political background, among many, many other factors (I happen to firmly believe it is a country, not a renegade province).

Other fun facts about Taiwan:

–Its literacy rate is above 95%.
–According to Globalization and World Cities inventory of world cities, Taipei (台北市) is a gamma city whose peer group includes Boston, Amsterdam and Washington D.C.
–Only 86,000 American tourists visited Taiwan in 2006
–The 509 meter tall Taipei 101 is currently the world’s tallest building
–There are 422,738 foreign residents in the country

Two of the dumbest things I heard before I left was “is Ron going to get plastic surgery to fit in?” and “Do they call white people ’round-eye’ in Taiwan?” The person who said the first thing meant it as a joke, but I thought both statements were in rather poor taste because they suggest that people in Taiwan are so backward and narrow minded that a white person would be the cause of much comment. Granted, there are backward and narrow minded people in Taiwan, but no more than there are in New York City or any other part of the United States. Asian people make up the majority in Taiwan, of course, but there are people of all races from all continents (except Antartica, duh) studying, working and living in the country. My neighborhood is particularly diverse, since there are a lot of expats like me studying Mandarin at National Taiwan Normal University or National Taiwan University, which is nearby. Taiwanese people, for the most part, do not gawk when they see a white, black or Hispanic person. And if they do, that is probably because they are under five years old.