Brown Steering Committee Peace Project

Brown University Steering Committee Peace Project

In April 2010, the 2010 Brown University steering committee organized a panel in order to extend discussion regarding the cross-strait issue into our spring semester, beyond our annual fall symposium. While organizing this event, we emphasized equal representation between different perspectives, safe space for discussion which required a neutral facilitator, and rigor of the discussion which was ensured by panelists who were credible stakeholders in the issue. The theme of this panel was to explore how interaction with persons from another background (in this case, the opposite side of the Strait) has the potential to change previous conceptions and attitudes of “the other” through this new, humanizing context of social interaction.
We have compiled the following tips on hosting a cross-strait perspectives panel in the hopes that some of our tips, recommendations, and experience may be useful and relevant to other persons hosting similar events. Many of these tips may or may not apply to your specific case – often, certain traits are desirable but not essential (the essential points we’ve highlighted in bold above). Good luck with your event!

2010 Brown University Steering Committee,

Brown University Strait Talk hosts Cross-Strait Perspectives Panel

by Andrew Cook

PROVIDENCE, RI Apr. 12 2010 – In keeping with its focus on dialogue and forging personal connections, Strait Talk held its “Here Together: Cross Strait Perspectives” panel to bring together Brown professors from both sides of the Strait to share their personal reflections on how cross-strait perceptions have shaped their lives before and after coming to the US.  Facilitator James McClain (Brown Professor of History and History Department Chair) drew on his experience fostering dialogue on the contentious history of Japan-Korea relations to moderate the exchange between Professors Lunghua Hu (Senior Lecturer in Chinese, Brown East Asian Studies), Hsin-I Tseng (Lecturer in Chinese, Brown East Asian Studies), Yang Wang (Lecturer in Chinese, Brown East Asian Studies), and Jing Shi (Research Professor, visiting Brown Physics Department from Wuhan University).  With Professors Hu and Tseng representing a Taiwanese perspective and Professors Wang and Shi representing a mainland perspective, the discussion explored how the panelists have dealt with issues of identity and cross-strait cultural relations both at home and in the United States and how their thinking has evolved throughout their lives thus far.  Hearing the stories and reflections a small group of panelists who have worked together for years grounded the discussion in lived experience, something that can be hard to find in discussions of cross-strait issues.

The panel started off looking at the significance of functional everyday differences, particularly in language.  From the teachers’ discussion of their own native accents and the accents they encounter and use in their professional careers, it became clear that even something as seemingly inconsequential as the stress of a syllable can cause a listener to make powerful and often unconscious assumptions about the speaker’s values and attitudes.  Furthermore, the panelists all pointed out that they ways that they think about and relate to different accents and ways of speaking are not simple or static.  From their comments, we saw that everything from TV programs to academic norms can influence perceptions of and uses of language.  For Professor Hu, for example, explained that her choice of a very standard and official accent was her way of teaching her students a neutral and widely applicable way of speaking, while for Professor Tseng a strong Taiwanese accent was her way of subtly making it clear that she considered herself Taiwanese.  Professor Shi’s comments on the differences between scientific terms showed that outside of the social implications of language use, such small everyday differences can have practical impacts on cross-strait communication and cooperation. This discussion of everyday differences was not without its irony and humor, with Professors Wang and Hu, for example, each describing how when they were young the other side of the Strait’s accent was seen as “cool” and “modern.”

After looking at linguistic differences and attitudes, the discussion moved on to the teachers’ encounters with broader cross-strait perceptions and stereotypes.   An interesting duality emerged from the panelists’ conversation, with all agreeing that mainlanders are often perceived as pushier, more blunt, and more aggressive while Taiwanese people are in contrast often considered milder and more polite.  Though they do not completely buy into these images, the experiences that the panelists shared illuminated the complexity of navigating such spoken and unspoken characterizations and the close relations between perceptions of the other and the self.  For example, Professor Tseng’s anecdote about being told when visiting Beijing that she was “too polite” and “too indirect” dovetailed with Professor Wang’s comment that many mainlanders she knows complain about Taiwanese people seeming more disingenuous and insincere than mainlanders.  The teachers also pointed out that generalized cross-strait perceptions and characterizations are powerfully influenced by the context of discussion, and that there are multiple and seemingly contradictory images of the other side of the strait.  Professor Jing, for example, pointed out that some mainlanders who have been Taiwan on more social visits see their shared cultural heritage fondly, even lauding the Taiwanese for maintaining certain Confucian norms and codes of behavior better than the mainland.   Professor Wang, however, told us that her mainland friends and relatives who do multinational business find this shared cultural heritage to be a nuisance, making the Taiwanese frustrating and difficult negotiators precisely because they are able see through all the mainlanders’ negotiating strategies. For all the teachers, the personal experience of traveling to the other parts of the world and working closely with people from the other side allowed them to move beyond stereotypes and see how a certain action or idea can mean one thing in one context and something very different in another.

The panel’s final section expanded on the importance of going beyond one’s homeland and coming to work in the United States, exploring how life in a foreign country can influence perceptions of identity and cross-strait relations.  The panelists’ experiences showed how effects of coming to the United States can manifest quite differently according to the individual.  Professor Tseng, for example, described herself as feeling more Taiwanese than ever in the United States, while Professor Hu found herself becoming more sympathetic to the mainland and the idea of a cross-strait pan-Chinese cultural identity.  The two Taiwanese panelists also pointed out that even after living in the US for years, they would answer questions like “Where are you from?” or “What is your nationality” differently depending on the person asking and the circumstances, sometimes saying “Chinese,” sometimes “Taiwanese,” and sometimes “Taiwanese politically, Chinese culturally.”  The panelists’ experiences also showed that professionalism and dedication to helping their students develop their own linguistic and analytical faculties was a powerful unifier, helping them to move past simply “Mainland” or “Taiwanese” perspectives to give their students the ability to communicate and explore for themselves.

In the questions asked by the audience at the end of the panel, one of the recurring issues was the complex difficulty of simultaneously having a shared culture and great political tension.  While all the panelists agreed that the ambiguous status quo was preferable to an attempt to forcibly give Taiwan a certain status, they each felt differently about the effects of Taiwan’s current ambiguity.  For Professor Tseng, for example, it was frustrating for Taiwan to be unable to obtain international recognition for its achievements under its own name, while Professors Wang and Hu felt that the political ambiguity allowed for cultural and economic links to grow.  This individual variance highlights one of the important themes that emerged from the discussion, that issues of identity and political and cultural affiliation are at heart issues that individuals negotiate personally. The fact that our panelists were willing to come forward and discuss a topic that is at best awkward and at worst polarizing shows both individual courage as well as an underlying belief that these issues can talked about respectfully and productively when individual experience is used as an anchor.

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