Contemplating Moonlight: Patricia Riggen Reflects on Under the Same Moon in Taiwan

Patricia Riggen

I imagined that Taipei would look much like mainland China. It doesn’t. It’s more colorful and crowded, with hundreds of motorbikes and signs in Chinese lining every lively street. Taiwan is interesting. It’s brimming with flavor.

The Taiwanese take great pride in their culture, particularly in their food. They greet you at the airport with an exquisite “black pearl tea” (black tea with milk and tapioca balls) which I discover is a Taiwanese specialty. They also make the best dumplings in the world. And they have a “night market” of traditional Taiwanese food, sold in little stores and carts along a bustling street.

The Taiwanese have a very unusual custom which I’ve repeatedly observed. Every time you meet someone new, you’re expected to hand that person your personal card. In return they present you with their own personal card. But formalities must be adhered to, when giving and receiving cards.

First, one must observe the card and pass polite comment on its contents before turning the card over to view its reverse. You must NOT, under any circumstances, give the card a cursory glance then stuff it into your pocket or purse. Everyone exchanges cards constantly, to the point where you’re basically carrying a pack of cards in your hand, primed and at the ready for any “meet and greet.”

I find it fascinating. In many ways this card exchange perfectly describes the Taiwanese people —they’re extraordinarily friendly and open and keen to make an immediate good impression, just like Westerners. But at the same time, they’re very formal and exquisitely polite. This East-West combination makes for wonderfully approachable people.

I notice differences between China and Taiwan from the moment we arrive at the airport. The weather is warmer. The people seem warmer too, particularly in the smaller towns we visit. They’re also noticeably more vocal. I’m reminded of the Tropics. In particular of an island… Cuba. (Taiwan is an island after all!)

China and Taiwan have a complicated relationship. Their political differences have created a mutual antagonism which goes back decades. Taiwan broke off from mainland China many years ago. The reigning National Government rejected the communist revolution and fled offshore. To make matters worse the Taiwanese “separatists” took with them most of the cultural and artistic treasures from Beijing’s Forbidden City (which are now displayed in the impressive National Palace Museum). China considers Taiwan a rebellious province. The Taiwanese, in turn, feel that they are the rightful rulers of China.

I have to admit that to my Western eyes I can see more similarities between the Chinese and the Taiwanese than differences. They are, after all, one people—but divided by the sea and political manifestos. I can’t help but be reminded of my beloved Cubans, who are also a nation divided: those who fled Castro and made a new home in Miami—and those that stayed in Cuba, loyal to their beloved Fidel.

The reason why Miami’s Cuban’s fled Cuba is not dissimilar to why the Taiwanese broke free from mainland China. The biggest difference however, is that the Cubans from Miami did not form a new country—although some might argue that they did! Miami’s Cuban populace long to return home to their motherland. Will such a thing happen in my lifetime? I doubt it. I suspect that Cuba will remain a nation divided.

I’m now in Taiwan screening my movie, Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna). We visit universities, cultural venues and commercial cineplexes. I notice that audiences in both China and Taiwan come up with the same reference day after day, after watching my film. They quote the famous Chinese poet Li Bai (after some research I realize he actually lived in early 700 AD!) The movie reminds them of one of his most famous poems, which school children everywhere learn by heart. They recite the poem for me. I finally find a decent translation.

A Quiet Night Thought (or Contemplating Moonlight)
Moonlight before my bed
Perhaps frost on the ground.
Lift my head and see the moon
Lower my head and pine for home.

The poem, they explain to me, is about missing home. About divided families. They ask me if the moon has this kind of meaning in my culture. No, I reply, this is not the case in Mexico. But I’m thrilled to discover that the metaphor of the moon resonates as much with the Chinese as it does in my Mexican-American movie. The poem’s significance makes me think of China and Taiwan once again. In Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna), a mother and son stare at the moon at night, and find a planetary connection between each other. I wonder if the Chinese and Taiwanese will use the moonlight to begin to one day solve their differences and finally reconnect.

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