Book review: Transcending the nation state

Buried beneath the dense academic verbiage and theoretical framework is a well-researched, timely introduction to transnationalism and the myriad ways it manifests in Taiwan’s past, present and future

  • By Han Cheung / Staff reporter

It’s difficult to tell who Transnational Taiwan is targeted to, although it is well-researched and brings up some interesting points. Content-wise, it’s structured as an introductory primer to the concepts relating to transnationalism and the myriad ways they manifest in the nation’s past and present, but the dense academic language, much of it theoretical and unrelated directly to Taiwan, makes it difficult for the average reader to slog through.

Such writing may be enjoyable to more scholarly-minded folks, but this reviewer cannot speak for them. The formatting doesn’t help. The page-long paragraphs filled with minor quotations, parentheses and in-text citations make some passages nearly impossible to get through. More paraphrasing and leaving citations for the end of the chapter would greatly help.

Between the difficult parts, however, are bits that are quite conversational, including author David Pendery’s personal musings and experiences as a foreigner in Taiwan, insightful editorial-style analysis and interviews with locals who speak to the transnational experience in different ways.

In any event, the transnationalism of Taiwan is an important and relevant topic to highlight, especially as it continues to find ways to connect with the world despite its international political isolation. Pendery asks whether Taiwan can be considered transnational within international conceptions and contexts (despite what China wants the world to think) in the introduction.

The answer is clear: “This ‘nation,’ with all of its rich history, linguistic diversity and peoples (not least indigenous), varied cultures and interlopers of all kinds within its borders, unique geography, interaction in world trade, its own laws , customs, norms, identity and a functioning government – is in more than a sturdy position to be seen as very much, very opulently, very amply, ‘transnational.’ “

As an American journalist and scholar who has lived in Taiwan for 20 years, Pendery is a transnational himself. Despite his self-professed language barriers, he’s well-attuned to the social and political fabric in Taiwan as he teaches local students and started a family here. Pendery has written much about the topic in the past, particularly in Taipei Times op-eds as well as his previous book, A Light in the East: A Personal and Analytical Taiwan Study (reviewed on Jan. 14, 2021).

It’s still a valuable exercise to take a comprehensive look at all the ways transnationalism manifests in Taiwan, not just through actual movement but also the daily lives, identities and worldviews of its people. It trickles down to areas we don’t usually think of as transnational, as Pendery highlights, including the fact that most politicians are multilingual, and how indigenous people still remember their ancestors’ ocean-going ways in their rituals.

Only a small portion of Taiwan’s transnationalism is policy-oriented, such as the government’s emphasis on building informal ties with Southeast Asia; much of it is organically driven by the people, who seem to always find themselves in the crossroads of history and geopolitics. This spans from indigenous people expanding into the Austronesian world, to locals studying, doing business and settling abroad, to foreigners moving here – whether it be migrants, expats or international organizations – and beyond.

As Pendery states, transnationalism is nothing new as people, goods and information have been moving across borders since antiquity: take the Silk Road, for example. It’s hard to be a non-transnational country these days with the ease of transportation and communication. One really doesn’t need to overload on complicated theory to grasp the essence of the matter.

More space could have instead been used to expound on how these ideas directly apply to Taiwan and why the concept is especially vital to the nation’s survival. While the connections are apparent, it still feels a bit understated, especially regarding Beijing’s pervasive oppression (not just of Taiwan, but the region) that both directly and indirectly drives many of these forces and movements.

For example, international press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders chose to set up its Asia bureau in Taiwan due to China’s oppression of freedom of speech, while the government launched the New Southbound Policy to work around its political barriers and to reduce its economic reliance on China .

It also feels that not enough discussion is given to the Southeast Asian students and “new immigrants” who aren’t migrant workers, and the value and potential that they can bring to Taiwan, especially with its brain drain and low birth rate.

The crux of Pendery’s argument lies in Chapter 8, “Taiwan and Transnational Governance,” where, in light of Taiwan’s international isolation, it could still function as a transnational entity “that does not even need the recognition of others.”

Furthermore, he hopes that this could evolve into “something of the stateless world, populated by ‘world citizens’ who have abandoned those often labored, synthetic attachments to home nations, an idea that has created endless conflict in the world.”

It’s an encouraging sentiment, but as Pendery notes, with the rise of a distinct Taiwanese identity, Taiwanese have become increasingly attached to the idea of ​​a “nation.” How this affects Taiwan’s transnational development remains an interesting point to observe.

Transnational Taiwan: Crossing Borders into the 21st Century

By David Pendery 149 pages Palgrave Macmillan Softback: UK

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