Taipei, Taiwan — OUR Taiwanese driver had one question foremost in his thinking. ``Do you,'' he burst out, ``know Mr. T.?''
I am sure our admission that we did not know the TV actor of ``A-Team'' fame lost us a lot of face.
But the exchange underlined much about Taiwan's addiction to American television, American culture, American-style capitalism, and Americans in general.
In Taiwan, where a TV antenna is atop even the most humble dwelling, such programs as the ``A-Team'' and ``Dynasty'' top the viewing charts. At the crowded movies there are ``Rambo III'' and ``Crocodile Dundee II.'' In downtown Taipei, Ronald McDonald woos customers for McDonald's hamburgers. Young Chinese in blue jeans flock to Pizza Hut.
By Asian standards, Taiwan is rich, because of its industry and ingenuity in generating a huge export business, often accumulating large trade imbalances in the process (about $19 billion a year with the United States, which Taiwan is struggling to reduce to $11 billion). That means it has the wherewithal to import whatever it wants - goods, culture, ideas - from wherever it wants. Until now there has been one exception - the Chinese mainland, from which the Chinese Nationalists who govern Taiwan had to flee in the face of communist conquest in 1949.
In their 40 years in ``exile,'' the Chinese Nationalists have taken a tough stance toward Peking. The policy, says Shaw Yu-ming, director general of the Government Information Office, has been ``no contact, no negotiation, no compromise.''
But though suspicion of communism remains rife, curiosity about, and even unofficial contact with, the mainland is burgeoning. For example, ``The Last Emperor,'' a movie with dramatic footage of Peking's Forbidden City, is playing to packed houses.
The government has relaxed - for ``family reasons'' - the ban on travel to the mainland. In six months, about 100,000 people from Taiwan have flocked there. Little danger exists of their being wooed by communism's embrace. Many have returned early, shocked by what they see as the mainland's lack of amenities. One tailor returned wearing only shirt and pants; he had given everything else away to relatives he considered in need. A lot of his time, he said, had been spent accommodating friends and relatives seeking to take a shower in his hotel room.
The free-enterprise economy of Taiwan has been so successful that the government now seems confident about letting it stand comparison with that of the Chinese mainland.
This, coupled with significant political reform in Taiwan and a changing mood on the mainland, has opened the door to new - albeit unofficial - contact between the two diverse societies. Two-way indirect trade (mainly through Hong Kong) is now more than $1.5 billion a year. Taiwanese businessmen have just been authorized to invest in the mainland. Mail is being exchanged through the Red Cross. Some mainland Chinese will be permitted to visit Taiwan.
Confident of its economic strength, and with political reform under way at home, Taiwan seems ready to move into a more adventurous foreign policy. ``We are now an economic power and we want some international recognition commensurate with that power,'' Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan's new and first Taiwanese-born President, told me. Realistically, this probably means seeking influence without reversing the world trend toward diplomatic recognition of Peking.
Both Peking and Taiwan are officially for reunification, but of course under their own systems of government. While there is no thought in Taiwan of succumbing to communism, there is clearly willingness to explore a cautiously pragmatic new relationship with the mainland.