A Baseball Journey we call Taiwan

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What is Taiwanese? Who is Taiwanese? 

Simple questions, but ones that have been debated by generations of people in Taiwan. Inhibited by indigenous people since over 8000 years ago, nations have come to Taiwan to take advantage of this bountiful island. From the Dutch and Spanish colonies, to the mass Han immigration, to the Japanese rule, and to the current Republic of China occupation, Taiwanese have not been able to simply call this beautiful mother island as our own. Many are hesitant to call Taiwan as is: a sovereign country that is under massive pressure internally and externally against its self determination. 

I am not a historian or political scientist. With this photo essay, all I am trying to do is answer the questions for myself. What is the Taiwanese spirit? To me, baseball sums it up. As a boy growing up in Taiwan in the 80’s and 90’s, the international success of Taiwanese Little League baseball teams is part of the collective memory I share with many others. During a time when Taiwan was being increasingly isolated by the international community, with growing pressure from China, baseball was one thing we could hold on to and call it as our own. 

I had the fortune to spend time with the Taiwanese national baseball team when they visited Canada for the World Baseball Challenge in July 2010. I was able to travel with the team for a big part of the tournament. The experience gave me an opportunity to see just how closely baseball is intertwined with what Taiwanese spirit is. It is reflected on and off the baseball field. From the mannerism the players carry off the field with their teammates, to the resourcefulness of the training staff with their limited supply, to the respect they pay to the opponents, and finally to their style of play on the field, I felt like I was seeing the history of Taiwan summed up in the game of baseball.

Taiwan picked up baseball when it was a Japanese colony from the late 1800’s to the 1940‘s. Today, Taiwanese baseball is a delicate blend of Japanese influences with Taiwan’s own characteristics. The Japanese concept of Senpai - a reciprocal seniority based mentoring relationship - is a guiding principle for the team. The older players are dedicated to passing on their skills and the knowledge of the game to the younger players, through their interactions on and off the field. The harmony of the team is valued above anything else. Acts like throwing helmets and breaking bats never happen in the dugout. They players have too much respect for their teammates to potentially affect them. 

On the field, Taiwan plays quite an aggressive style of speed and power. To me it always seems the players play with the ambition and energy as if their backs were against the wall, very much like the underdog small island Taiwan is. Gritty and gutsy plays, strong work ethics, and the never say die attitude, are big reasons why the team still has international success when the players are often physically disadvantaged and have little support for their baseball careers. In many ways, it is a reflection of the hard working attitude most Taiwanese people I know have. Despite of the challenges, we eventually always find a way to survive.

Perhaps I am too sentimental about baseball and Taiwan, but in writing this piece just days away from the upcoming Taiwanese presidential election, I can’t help but feeling inspired by what the future may hold for Taiwan. In a way, baseball and Taiwan have come full circle together. Baseball is the neutering mother island. On this team, we have the aborigines, the ethnic Hans, the US and Japanese expats - all different groups of True Taiwanese - working together towards a common goal. We have the upmost respect for each other, even though there are many differences among us. Much bigger and stronger opponents are out there, but as long as we stay with each other as a team, we can always figure out a way to break through and survive. Just like Taiwan always has.

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