Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Giving away a little love for Taiwan, and not a modern-day Margaret Mead venturing to Borneo

Dan Bloom's two books about how he came to love Taiwan has touched thousands around the island nation. The fact that he often sells the book at local night markets at a loss only adds to the sentiment, writes Max Woodworth

CHIAYI CITY -- On an overcast November day in 1996, Dan Bloom disembarked on a lush subtropical island and penetrated deep into its sparsely populated farmlands. He arrived as an adventurer and observer.
After almost 13 years of living among the local people and observing their behavior, eating habits and social structures, he wrote a book proclaiming his love for Taiwan and its people. Theirs is a peaceful society, he writes, that exhibits the brightest possibilities of human nature.

In fact, Bloom is not a modern-day Margaret Mead venturing to Borneo. The place he traveled to is nowhere other than Chiayi, in southern Taiwan. And his books, which he wrote in English and were printed in Chinese by commercial publishers in Taipei have titles that can be translated as "That's how I fell in love with Taiwan" (我就這樣哈 了台灣), part 1 and part 2.
And judging from readers' reactions, his book seems to have been well-received by the Taiwanese people since the books displayed an image of the culture that, to its own inhabitants, is at times exotic-sounding and shockingly different from the one they had imagined.

Here is an American boy from cozy Boston, living in a town that most Taiwanese agree is a relative backwater. But he loves it, and most importantly he seems to really mean it.

Bloom's enthusiasm and praise for Taiwan obviously has struck a chord. He says he has received hundreds of e-mails from young snd old Taiwanese readers touched at times to tears over what he writes about their country.

"I can't hardly imagine why there's people who don't like American or British cities. Now I think I know the reason why ? confidence in yourself and your native country ? I'll cherish Taiwan more from now on," wrote one 26-year-old from Taipei.

Some go even further. One woman wrote that after reading his book she felt "just like a dream ? I still couldn't believe that there's someone who loves Taiwan very much."

On Tuesday, Bloom was at the Taipei International Book Exhibition hawking his book by walking up and down the aisles between the stalls. It was a hard sell because the visitors were mostly publishing agents looking to sign contracts not buy new books, but he still managed to unload 100 copies. Several people pointed in his direction, recognizing him from the recent sizeable write-ups in the United Daily News and Next magazine, among others.

One man from Taitung, surnamed Chang, walked up to introduce himself and say he had read the book and "gained a totally fresh perspective on Taiwan."

"There's nothing new in the book, so I don't really understand why people feel they've learned so much from it," Bloom says. "I think people like to hear these things from a foreigner because it's somehow comforting."

Bloom apparently is a hit because  he connects directly with his readers by selling the book from a paper lantern-festooned pushcart at the Chiayi night market, where people can see who wrote the book and get a signed copy for NT$100.

"It's a novelty and its fun, so whatever," he said. Actually store sales have been low and his NT$100 price at the night market is NT$14 less then his cost to buy the books at the author's discount from the publisher. So far he's sold about 15,000 copies in 10 years.

Now Bloom is looking to expand the book into a series. He's not quite certain what the next topic will be, but it will surely be about something quintessentially Taiwanese, like night markets, which he knows a lot about. It will no doubt also be full of ebullient praise to soothe delicate spirits.

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