A tale of two attitudes: a few thoughts from the Taipei Marathon
In mid-December, I went to Taipei with over one hundred and thirty CityU staff members, students and alumni. Close to a hundred of us participated in the Taipei International Marathon held on 16 December. I ran the 9K race. During my Taipei visit, I encountered three incidents.
On the night before the event, I realised that I had forgotten to pack a pair of running shorts, I asked a staff member at the Health and Leisure section of the Far Eastern Hotel if there was a place nearby where I could buy a pair for use the next day. To my delight and surprise, the young staff member, upon learning that I needed the shorts as a stop-gap measure, offered to lend me a clean pair of sweatpants and suggested I not buy a new pair. I wondered if similar incident would even happen in Hong Kong!
Taking taxis in Taiwan, I found taxi fares are fairly reasonable and the drivers are usually quite amicable, and would chat with the passengers while driving. I soon discovered on several occasions, however, that the taxi drivers were also watching a Korean TV drama on a small screen by the side of the steering wheel. To think that a driver would allow himself to be distracted in this way is enough to wrack anyone's nerves.
On the day of the race, I witnessed a scene which could only be described as shocking. Along the route of the race were some local people who pushed their bicycles across the stream of marathon runners. Further down the route, I saw quite a few taxis waiting on the side of the road, ready to rev up their engines to cut across the road packed with runners. I tried to point out to the volunteer officers to pay attention to the traffic, only to be told that there was no need to worry and that I should just run my race, At that very instant, one of the taxis took off, wove its way through the crowd and drove away. But more hair-raising scenes are in stall for me. As we headed for the starting point about fifty-five minutes into the race and one-and-a-half kilometers away from the municipal government building, the traffic police stopped thousands of runners to give way to several cars. An international event like this indeed made one feel uneasy. I am sure such chaos will not be seen in the spring marathon in Hong Kong.
The three incidents above happen to tell us something about the present-day Taiwan: a peaceful, and politically democratic society, with a strong middle class that is rich in human touch. Public authority is unfortunately not thoroughly exercised and safety is a concern. Hong Kong, on the other hand, is totally different, with an orderly society run by the credible rule of law. The gap between the rich and the poor is, however, wide and class difference distinct. It is nevertheless blessed with strict enforcement of the law and a relatively safe workplace environment.
Comparing Taiwan and Hong Kong, one may draw an exaggerated conclusion: the former allows one to lead a happy life but exposes one to potentially more workplace dangers. One could die even without knowing the cause. (A number of odd traffic accidents that took place in Taiwan recently best illustrate the point.) The latter safeguards one's workplace safety. In this orderly society, where citizens live by the law, people are not necessarily better mannered. The rich are not necessarily happy and, according to Hong Kong's statistics in the last decade or so, the poor are getting poorer every day. It would seem Taiwan is a moderately affluent society shaped by the Confucian ideology while Hong Kong is like a society ruled by the legalists devoid of human warmth.
In his address on 16 December before the marathon, Lung-Bin Hau, Mayor of Taipei, gave a little display of his English. And in Hong Kong, many people are similarly proud in regarding English as their mother tongue and some even take special pride in speaking with pure Oxford accent, recalling the days of post-war Taiwan when some people saw it as a batch of honour to be able to speak Japanese.
Both Taiwan and Hong Kong promote internalisation and therefore put special emphasis on the use of English. Yet, language is just a tool of communication. For the purpose of international communication, there is no avoiding using English when necessary. Nevertheless, the importance of a language rests in the use it can be put to. When we talk about internationalisation, we should adopt best international practices in order to achieve higher standard. The various problems we find in Taiwan and Hong Kong today, such as the disparity of wealth, the failure of public authority to manifest itself, the half-hearted observance of workplace safety, and the unwillingness to address the real issues for what they are, have nothing to do with English. Set against the advanced international standard to which we like to measure ourselves, both Taiwan and Hong Kong still have some catching-up to do.
My visit to Taipei and my participation in the marathon have once again provided a footnote to the essence of "international standard".
Obsession with English in the promotion of internationalisation is comparable to focusing on details while being blind to the essential principles. Rather than pursuing wrong priorities, it is better to deal with the real issues, work more on regulating workplace safety and put more effort on developing the middle class. Let us talk less about lofty but vacuous principles and do more practical work in our life.
January 14, 2013