Considering that we would be in Taiwan for 24 hours total, my travel buddy and I didn’t worry too much about finding kosher food. We’d arrive on a plane in the morning and leave on another plane the following morning. We’d bring our usual picnic bag with challah rolls and other sorts of Jewish foods we always take with us when we fly abroad. Still, I wanted to make sure we’d easily find something vegan to eat in case of need.
The advice of my Lonely Planet travel guide, which I borrowed from the library a few days prior to the trip, was clear: it said to look for the swastikas.
I nearly fell off my seat. We were on the plane, flying somewhere over the Arctic. I had to look for… what?!
A more careful read of the guide revealed that vegetarian restaurants in Taiwan are indeed marked with a backwards swastika, a Buddhist symbol. Buddhist cuisine, which is quite popular in the country, follows the concept of ahimsa, which translates into non-violence; it avoids meat, certain “stinking” impure vegetables (namely garlic), and sometimes eggs, too.
There are several other Mandarin ideograms indicating veganism and vegetarianism, but the backwards swastika is definitely the easiest to memorize.
While I thought it was just a funny coincidence, as soon as we arrived to Taipei, I found myself—a Jew from Turin, Italy, where the only place you can see a swastika is possibly a history textbook—looking out for swastikas on billboards and shop signs. It took less time than I’d imagined: as we walked out of the Lungshan Temple of Manka, in the old district of Wanhua, we saw one.
I laughed to myself. The same symbol whose sight would make me feel uncomfortable, even unsafe, back home, sparked in me some sort of relief and sympathy on this distant island. Of course, a symbol is nothing but the meaning that a culture and a society attribute to it. Yet, Nazi symbolism and East Asian countries have a much more complicated history than just a funny, food-related coincidence.
Last year, a group of high school students held a mock Nazi rally at a private school in the north of Taiwan. They wore Nazi uniforms and held cardboards displaying swastikas. (I doubt those swastikas were pointing to the closest vegetarian restaurants.) After German and Israeli officials in Taipei protested and the country’s president condemned the incident, the principal of the school offered to quit.
It’s quite common to run into Nazi symbols in East Asia. Whether it’s a teenage girl wearing a Nazi Chich-inspired outfit or a night market vendor selling red pillows with swastikas on them, it’s more likely that these acts are the result of ignorance rather than malice. A local blogger, who photographed some blatant examples of Nazi symbolism in Taiwanese streets, wrote: “Consider this: would you even recognize any symbols of Imperial Japan? Do you know anything at all about the 228 Massacre?” (The blogger later removed the post from his website.)
Taiwan was a Japanese colony for decades until World War II. Now it’s an independent state, but China claims the island to be part of its territory; due to this dispute, few countries recognize Taiwan’s independence.
We can’t expect others to learn about us if we don’t learn about them, too. I agree that knowledge, in an ideal world, should be universal. Yet, dismissing this Nazi symbolism issue as ignorance is surprising if we consider that Taiwan has one of the most educated populations in the world.
I left the street of Wanhua with a smile on my face. As I thought of how stimulating it was to be in a place with no familiar symbols or signs whatsoever, and how cool it had been to wander in search for swastikas, I ran into a Starbucks.
Simone Somekh is a New York-based author and journalist. He’s lived and worked in Italy, Israel, and the United States.