Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Why the Earth God Is My Favorite God

Image from here

The best god ever.

As you may remember, recently we'd found out we'd have to move. I was stricken - although of all the things I value, the least horrible to lose is our greatly-cherished living space, I still felt sick at the thought of having to leave it when I didn't want to.

Well, things have changed. Although I don't believe in God, or any gods, at least one of these supernatural nonexistent beings is awesome.

One thing I love about folk religion in Taiwan is that you can participate in it without necessarily believing in it. It's hard to wrap one's head around this from a Western mindset, but there is nothing about Chinese folk religion that has a problem with atheists praying at temples. I suppose it is preferable if you believe in the god, but if your question or problem is sincere and visiting a temple gives you some unnameable comfort, or is done out of family or traditional obligation, the act itself is good enough and the mind does not have to be behind it. If you're in Taiwan, ask your friends or students - some really believe, but you'd be surprised how many are agnostic or atheist or "vaguely spiritual" without any clear convictions, who see no problem in participating in temple rituals.

I know in a lot of Western cultures, worshipping when you don't believe is somewhat taboo. I have heard, however, that in some Jewish circles it's fine: you can be an atheist and still participate in the culturally prescribed rituals, but feel free to correct me if I'm wrong there. It seems to be fairly common among cultures where the dominant religion and the culture itself are so deeply intermingled that there is no clear line where secular "culture" ends and "religion" begins.

As I wrote in my last post on the topic:

Side note: one thing I like about Chinese folk gods like Tu Di Gong is that they don't care if you're an atheist. They care that your issue or question is sincere, and that you show up to pray. Even if you don't pray, they may help you. If you do, they may or may not, it depends on their mood or whatever heavenly politics they're involved in at the moment. The idea that an atheist could go to an Earth God shrine in Taipei and pray, despite not believing, is not irreconcilable in this culture. To me this is realistic (either a god will help you or he won't, and praying may help your case, or you may get lucky), echoing how things work in the real world (either you get lucky or you don't). It's a way to make myself feel better, and feel more connected to life in Taiwan. I can do that, and be an atheist. Thanks, Earth God. You're cool.

I also quite like that religion in Taiwan is not a closed-off thing. There's no conversion process. You don't have to attend meetings or go through a ceremony in order to be considered a true believer or "congregation member" of Chinese folk religion. The gods are there, according to local tradition, and you can believe in them or not, pray to them or not (but if your family is traditional you'd better pray to them no matter what, just in case). You don't have to be a believer at all!

And while it's uncommon, and perhaps surprising, when a foreigner goes to a Chinese temple to pray, it's not forbidden, nor is it particularly taboo.

So, when I found out I'd have to move, my Chinese teacher and I went off to the nearest Earth God (土地公) temple, which we were directed to by my doorwoman (who thought it was cute, but wasn't entirely shocked, that I wanted to go). The Earth God isn't a one-off god, every area has its own shrine which oversees property, moving, farming, business and other issues for that area and you have to go to the shrine in your area, so I figured it'd be best to go to the one my doorwoman goes to.

And, lo and behold, that weekend our landlady's sister gave us up to a year to move rather than the original two to three months. Thanks Earth God!

Over the next few weeks, we looked at 5-10 apartments, and liked only one of them. It was in our lane, so the neighborhood was the same. It had a different - not better, not worse, just different - layout. I liked the better-designed kitchen, separate living and dining areas, two large bedrooms (one could be both a guest room and an office), and two recently renovated bathrooms, one of which had a Japanese fancy magic toilet.  The downsides were refrigerator and washer/dryer spaces that didn't quite fit our appliances and some traffic noise, no outdoor casement for my bougainvillea, orchids and mint, and no window looking out on a courtyard.

We wanted to take it, but the agent's fee was one full month paid by us, and we had to move in almost immediately. Yeeeaahhh that's a big ol' sack of NOPE. We told him we were interested, but the highest agent fee we'd ever seen was half a month paid by tenants, and we couldn't move until April. He said he'd "let us know" and then we didn't hear from him for two weeks, so we figured the answer was "no".

About two weeks later I was doing my morning tutoring in Zhonghe (I don't do it for the money). My bus sideswiped a car soon after I boarded, and rather than wait for the next one after traffic cleared, I walked to Burma Street (華新街) for lunch. Then I grabbed a bus to Ximen, figuring I needed to pick up some more Imigran and it would be fun to wander around Red House and the arts&crafts market. I passed a few people bearing huge flags that said "Normalize the Recognition of Formosa State" and took some photos. At some point on my jaunt, my phone battery died.

I didn't buy anything at the market, figuring I needed to watch my cash flow if I was going to have to move at some point in the near future, and grabbed another bus home. This one stopped very close to the Earth God shrine, so I decided it was time to go back and say hello, thank him for his help so far and ask for his continued support. You know, like ya do. 

But this time I was alone, no Chinese teacher. It was a stuffy afternoon, with a pale yellow sun whose light felt blunted by the haze. The sky was that hot Taipei white that is neither cloudy nor fully sunny. I felt a bit weird - being a weekend, there were more people at the temple and I felt watched. Why would she need to pray? I sat at a bench at the far end of the temple enclosure. Is she just tired? Do foreigners go to temples? Hmm. 

Nobody said that - but I could feel it. Or I was making it all up in my head. I don't know. I still have a lot of baggage from growing up in a culture where it's odd both be an atheist and go to a place of worship. Plus, I still wasn't entirely sure a foreigner would be welcome to take part in this cultural ritual, although all of my experiences have pointed to the contrary. 

What's more, I really, really did not want to get involved in cultural appropriation - real or seeming. And I wasn't sure if this counted.

And yet by doing this, I did feel more connected to Taiwan. I live here, my "property" (well, my rental property) is here, and the god looks out over that property, and there's no set of rules on who can pray to him and who can't. I was looking at this as someone who wants to be more connected to the place where she lives and learn about it by living it, not someone who wants to take on the elements from another culture so she can feel cool or special. But I wasn't sure if that would come across to others. So.

I sat on that bench for a good 40 minutes, both gathering the courage to talk to a god I didn't believe in, and waiting until there were fewer people around so I could do so in relative privacy. After swinging back and forth on it, and feeling really out of place in a way I hadn't since I'd first moved to Taiwan 8 years ago, I decided to go for it. 

The way to pray is this: you check the number of incense sticks that go in each burner, and what order they go in. You light the appropriate number (it's usually posted on a sign near the incense). First you stand facing away from the shrine, toward the large burner in front - that usually gets a few sticks, this one got three. You should repeat your prayer. Then you face the temple and pray again. You can murmur but don't speak out. Add a stick to that burner. Then go inside, on the right (the side with the dragon) and pray to the gods inside and put a stick in that burner. Then there's a small tiger god under the Earth God - only at Earth God shrines - he gets a stick too. People looking to succeed in business will put their business cards around the burner down there. Then you exit via the tiger door. When you pray, you should give your name and address so "the god knows where to find you".

I lit the incense, walked to the burners and started the familiar murmur (in Chinese, although one would think the gods could understand any language): My name is Jenna, I live at Fuxing South Road Section....number...I want to thank you for...and I hope you can...

My phone had been out of batteries for about 2 hours at this point. When I got home and plugged it in, within minutes it lit up with a message from the agent of the one apartment we'd liked. The call was time-stamped at about the time I'd been at the temple.

I called him back - we could have the apartment on our terms! Yay!

I punched Brendan's name - he agreed. Let's do this.

I called the landlady's sister. And...

Oh, I was going to tell you. 

You were?

I found another place to live. You don't have to move. I'm OK in this new place.


I confirmed three times: so we can stay? So do we have to look for another apartment? So you won't move in?

Then I confirmed with the landlady, who didn't really know but confirmed later that her sister was telling it true. We didn't have to move.

We don't have to move!

It was probably a coincidence, but the idea that I'd find out right after I'd been to the Earth God temple to ask for his continued help (and to admit I still did not, in fact, want to move although I'd accepted that I'd have to), with the catalyst being a phone call that came at just about the moment when I was praying...that's odd.

A week after that, I got together some Ghirardelli dark chocolate sea salt squares, a box of brown sugar mochi (I hear the Earth God likes sweets, especially mochi) and three tasty ripe oranges. You're supposed to bring three or five things, and if one of them (say, a piece of fruit) is small, you should bring three pieces to make up that one part of your odd-numbered offering.

And the fact that the landlady's sister wouldn't think to tell us we didn't have to move until right after I'd been to the temple, in a way that seems kind of weird (you'd think she'd have called us once she'd made that decision - the whole thing seemed rather sudden) - that's odd too. Odd and wonderful, like offerings numbered one, three, five or seven.

This time the sky was a roiling gray, spraying rain down at random intervals like someone spastically turning a showerhead on and off. It was a Friday - the temple was almost empty. I unpacked my offerings - this time I didn't feel weird about it. The Earth God (who isn't real) did us a real solid (which was very real), he deserved this offering and I was going to give it to him.

Monday, April 14, 2014


Photobucket Pictures, Images and Photos
The view from our window

One of the nicest features of our apartment is that we have a really nice south-facing window with a spacious casement. It looks out over a courtyard with a small playground, not a road, so there aren't any exhaust fumes or loud traffic noises. The light is soft and indirect - perfect for an apartment in a subtropical city, but not great for growing plants. So we keep it simple: a few large plants that we inherited (I don't know what they're called), mint, a few orchids, a fern that took root in an old pot of soil gone to seed, and a big fat fuchsia bougainvillea.

On nice days, I like to open up the screens and occasionally stick my head out into the sunlit air and enjoy the leaves and flowers. I was doing that just the other day - head out, light streaming in, a slight breeze which rustled up the smell of the mint, and swirls and splatters of bright pink flowers. To maintain the "shades of blue" theme from the living room, we added (okay, I added) inexpensive blue glass candleholders and lanterns and had chiffon curtains in shades of green and blue tailor-made.

Side note: when I gave the fabric and design specs to the tailor, her reaction was "this fabric is too thin! You don't want everyone seeing in, don't you? Why not choose a thicker fabric that can keep out the sun, too? The sun will come right through this!"

"That's what we want, and anyway we don't mind if people can see into the living room, not that too many people can. And there are plants to hide the view inside," I bit back.

"You foreigners are so weird."

Convinced she had the right of it, she got to work on my curtains.

Anyway, looking out on those flowers, I became aware of something: it was a Thursday afternoon.

Life is pretty good. I make good money for Taiwan; we live downtown. How many people with apartments nice enough to enjoy the view and the air from their windows and live downtown can, in fact, look out their window to admire whorls of bougainvillea on a Thursday afternoon? Even in Taipei, most people were toiling away in offices. Night would be falling before they could leave.

So I was thinking.

One of the advantages of being an expat - especially if you're from a country with a wide-reaching, globally-influential pop culture (which, sorry other countries, I know that can be annoying), is that you get to watch your own culture evolve from a distance. You're totally fluent in the sociocultural language of your home country, but you're not there, which lends the whole thing a rarefied distance. Not unlike observing the terrain from a tiny airplane window far overhead.

I have a reasonably broad view for Taipei - more than just the street below (there is no street below) and the apartment across from you is considered a good view in the denser parts of this city, or any city, really. But I can see just one courtyard - a broad view of a small space. The view from that window, past those bougainvilleas and their thorns (did you know bougainvilleas had thorns? I didn't until I inherited one), out on a little slice of Taipei is narrower than my extreme wide-angle view of American goings-on - a broad view but from a tiny little window way up where jet planes fly.

And recently, that American pop culture terrain has been marked by the volcanic eruption that is Women. More specifically, Sheryl Sandberg. Her name is the most ubiquitous, it has the most cache abroad (most of the people I know in Taiwan have heard of her, too) and she, like a lava flow, has mostly succeeded in her concerted attempts to bring the discussion about how we treat working women to the forefront of cultural discourse.

I'm not sure if I'm 100% on board with what she says: I don't wish to contort myself into some pleasing, perfect aggressive-yet-feminine, strong-but-not-bitchy Gumby woman. I'd rather just be me, and if some boss who thinks he or she can either walk all over me or that I'm a "bitch" gives me problems, I'll walk away as soon as I'm able. And I'm not a mom, so her advice to working mothers doesn't really impact me much. If I wanted to devote lots of time to work, I could, with very few consequences. And I see what people mean when they say that she can take her own advice - she's a wealthy, established, distinguished woman at the top of the ladder. It's not exactly useful to single mothers trying to put food on the table with the pay from their job as a receptionist at, say, Southern Oconomowoc County Chiropractic Associates.

It's not only Sandberg, of course, I'm only picking the most famous name from among a few people participating in this conversation.

And what I hear again and again is how a lot of these women - not Sandberg, but others - who write about how being a working mom with a flexible job is a great choice, how it works for them, how more women should do it. Most of these women are writers. That's why they write about this, natch! Which is great, but those jobs tend not to have stable incomes (especially tough if you're single, whether or not you have kids), are often harder to pull of with kids at home than you'd think, and really not available as an option to the receptionist at - say - Southern Oconomowoc County Chiropractic Associates.

Either way, a lot of people - a lot of women especially - seem to covet the semi-freelance flex-time lifestyle. Some make it work, some are trying, some have it but only because they can afford to with a high-earning breadwinner partner, some feel like it's a windmill they're better off not tilting at.

Because, let's face it: it's hard to have that lifestyle in the USA unless you've got the backing of a stable breadwinner. Possible, but hard. I don't know about you, but "I'm freelance (because my husband works long hours in an office so we never have to worry about money)" wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I decided to strike out on my own, work-wise. Of course people do make it work, it's just a lot harder. In Taiwan - especially Taipei - it's much easier. I know a lot of people who are making it work without the burdens of living in the USA. I don't know if any of us would be as successful or self-sustaining in the USA. I've met quite a few independent artsy locals (artists, designers, writers) who manage to live independently on that salary in a way that few Americans would be able to. In some ways, Taipei is a city of independent shopfronts, of indie jewelry crafters, of writers, translators, journalists and editors striking out on their own. I don't see a lot of this in the USA except perhaps in Brooklyn, and I can guarantee we all have better standards of living than the indie and freelance folks there.

Which makes me think from my perch at 30,000 feet above my own culture, that it's really a damn shame that there aren't more expat women in Taiwan. If more expat women lived in Taiwan, more of them would realize that if they want, they can have that kind of life here more easily than in the USA.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that while some people can do it in the USA, I never would have been able to.

You can't get around to meet people, promote yourself and meet clients without a car, so there's a whole bunch of expenses. The only city where you can both live near public transportation and not have a car is New York, other cities don't have a good enough network for you to be able to rove about town making money. Sorry, DC, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago, but it's true. I strongly dislike driving - it would be a major change in lifestyle for me to have to do it, and a major expense I probably wouldn't be able to shoulder to buy and maintain a car with all of its associated costs. People without a lot of money buy cars all the time, sure, but imagine doing it on the freelancer money I'd be making. Yeah, not so much.

If your clients tend not to drive you'll also want to live near public transportation if it's available. Or, if you just want to avoid driving as much as possible, you'll want that too, without having to schlep a mile to the nearest MRT station. So, that'll be a much higher rent or mortgage payment for you. We could conceivably live near-ish a subway station on the American equivalent of my freelance career plus whatever Brendan would do, but it wouldn't be downtown. Forget it. I could not do what I do here and live where I do in the USA. Anywhere in the USA.

Living expenses are astronomical, too. At least, compared to Taiwan, they feel that way. In Taiwan, in months where I earn less, we can squeeze by surprisingly cheaply. We managed it for months without significant problems while doing Delta Module One, when for all intents and purposes I was working part time. You can budget and squeeze in the USA, too, but just not quite to the same degree. In Taiwan it was a matter of "maybe we don't need fancy Belgian beer this weekend". In the USA it would be "maybe ramen is a fine dinner idea every night this week".

In short, I could do it, but my lifestyle would suffer so much that it wouldn't really be the same. I could either have the lifestyle I do now, but work all week and miss out on those sunny Thursday afternoons enjoying the flowers of my labor, or I could have the work schedule I do now but live in a dank little view-less apartment far from downtown and a schlep to everywhere. Other people make it work, but I know that I likely wouldn't be one of them. For everyone who can shout out their windows to the bright, wide world that it's "fine for them! Try it out!", I bet there are ten more people who just wish their windows faced something other than a wall.

Until recently, I wouldn't have been able to pull it off because of this little thing called health care. I'm healthy, but not robustly so. I have had back problems (seem to be fine now) and occasionally get bronchial infections. I get migraines. My family history is riddled with heart problems, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's and a few other fun things, too. I need, need, need health insurance. Taiwan makes that happen for me. The USA...well, we have Obamacare now, and I'm curious about whether that would work for me. But when I left, I couldn't have gone freelance, or entrepreneur, or even worked for a company that didn't have a health insurance benfit, because quite simply I could not afford the health insurance. 

It wasn't a matter of budgeting: in the USA I budgeted myself into rice and lentils, rice&beans, cheap bread and pasta, frozen veggies and carrot sticks with apple slices because carrots and apples were cheap. And I still wouldn't have been able to afford my own health insurance: on an entry-level salary I could barely afford one of the cheaper company plans. Obviously working in companies one would either get promoted or look for something better (not that I thought about such things much back then, within a year I was plotting my return to Asia having decided that the cube monkey life was not for me), but how does one strike out on one's own when one can't afford basic health care?

Side note: this is one reason I will basically never vote for Republicans. Also the "weak track record on women's rights and their party platforms are bigoted against LGBT people", but a big part of it is that they talk big about entrepreneurial spirit, but don't do anything to help would-be entrepreneurs like me. I didn't need lower taxes - I needed health insurance I could afford.

Back to the main topic.

So, while I realize my experience is not the only experience, and my view is not the only view, it's unbearably clear to me that there's no way I could both maintain the lifestyle I have (those gorgeous bougainvilleas in that spacious, sunny, convenient downtown apartment) and have the time to enjoy it (those random weekday afternoons free), as a freelancer in the USA.

I have what a lot of people, especially (but not only) women, want. The freedom to do the job I love on my terms, with flexible time and good pay. I can both have my bougainvilleas and enjoy them, too.

I have this because Taiwan has made it possible. I could not have this in the USA. Even when I needed a visa to stay in Taiwan, I was able to have my own side interests and private classes and more-or-less have flex-time work. It would be remarkably easy for a lot of American women, sick of dealing with sexist workplaces, sick of being told to "lean in" or contort themselves, sick of having someone else dictate when they worked and for how much pay (less than men's), to grab a job that provided an ARC in Taiwan for a few hours a week of English teaching or whatever, and use their extra time to pursue their freelance side work, until they could get permanent residency and chase their dream full-time, or full-ish time - whatever time could be scheduled around not "leaning in", but leaning out of their sunny windows and enjoying a spray of bougainvillea, orchids and mint on a weekday afternoon.

But they're not here, and something tells me they're not coming.

It's too bad. I'd like to share my bougainvilleas.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Expat women! In Asia! In an anthology! With dragonfruit! And me!

   You totally want to read about this guy.

I've mentioned a few times before on this blog that one of my stories - based on this blog post - is going to be published in an upcoming anthology of stories by expat women in Asia (woohoo!). That was all very informal, but now things are being finalized and I'm proud to announce that the book - titled How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia - will be on the market this June!


You can, and should, follow the Facebook page here. A list of contributors and more information can be found on the editor's blog here. And I am going to be totally shameless in saying that you should buy a copy (don't worry, Moms & Dads, you're getting free copies. But the rest of you should buy it). You'll (hopefully) see a few reviews on some Taiwan-centric blogs, including mine, because duh.

It's pretty rare that a story from Taiwan makes it into these travel writing anthologies, and rarer still that that story is written by a female expat. I can really only think of one other that I've read - and I buy these sorts of books all the time, so I would know. They're great to bring on vacation because you can read them one story at a time. In the story I try to address the female expat experience and progressive women's issues in Taiwan, along with thoughts on being an atheist in a country that mostly practices folk religion, and what happens when those three things collide at a temple festival in Donggang.

Seriously, you should read it. I think I did pretty good. At least I tried my best to capture the atmosphere of one of these festivals outside Taipei. I haven't read the anthology yet - eventually I'll get a copy - but I'm sure the other writers wrote brilliantly as well.

Anyway, so yeah. Buy the book that has my story in June. :-P

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Really Freakin' Angry (well, not really)

Given the swift emotion that runs through most of my posts, you may be surprised to learn that it actually takes a lot to make me really angry. Even when I do feel some anger, it's often offset, or satirically blown-up, by using hyperbolic language because I just happen to enjoy speaking colorfully.

Even with this CSSTA/服貿 agreement, while I am angry at the Legislative Yuan and Ma Ying-jiu*, it's really not an issue for me if other people feel differently. Everyone gets to have their opinion, although I do also kind of feel that if you can't defend your opinion, perhaps your opinion sucks - but you still get to have it. And I'm entitled to think it sucks. But I won't say "you're not allowed to think that way". See? Fair. I might debate with them until we're both hoarse or our fingers are cramping up from all the typing, but then I only debate when I find it engaging to do so. It's not a sign that I think others don't deserve to have opinions.

But there are a few things I've heard over the past few weeks that have made me really freakin' angry.

If you think the student occupation is "illegal", well, okay. If you think it's "undemocratic", I'll roll my eyes, but okay. You're wrong, but okay.

If you think CSSTA is "good for Taiwan", I'll think you don't understand the economics involved, but okay, most people don't understand economics, even economists. It's not exactly a predictable science. So fine.

If you think this is purely an economic issue, not a political one, you're damn wrong, but okay. You still have the right to that belief. I won't argue that here: Ben Goren's already made that argument, and he's right. You can click the link

So when do I get really freakin' angry?

"You shouldn't be protesting, you're not a citizen of the Republic of China".

Perhaps not, but I do live here, and as such I have the right (the legal right) to protest. Issues that affect Taiwan do affect me. In fact, as a foreigner in Taiwan I can't vote and therefore have no political power or representation beyond my presence at protests...which makes it more important for me to protest when something is important!

And don't forget that I can't become a citizen because the government has purposely made the requirements to do so prohibitive. They know that few people will give up their original citizenships before they even apply (and face rejection, rendering them stateless). But a Taiwanese person can get a dual citizenship from another country, no problem. And an American (or other) citizen born to Taiwanese parents can keep their American (or other) citizenship and also obtain Taiwanese citizenship, too. The law only targets foreigners. They probably don't care much about white folks coming in and wanting citizenship, but they don't want the SE Asian laborers to get the vote and use their new political power to demand better working conditions and fair wages, among other things. Even though most of them plan to live out their lives here. Sooooooo, it's racist.

And it is exactly why I should be protesting.

Don't like it? 有種出來幹阿!

"You foreigners can't understand Taiwan's issues"

I live here, my life is affected by Taiwan's issues - quite directly, in fact! My income is directly affected by wage increases or stagnation: if my students (most of whom pay on their own) can't afford to pay more, I can't raise my rates and my income stagnates, too. I live, breath, walk in, swim in Taiwan's issues because as far as my daily life goes, they are my issues too. Maybe not the "Taiwanese identity" issue, but anything economic or having to do with social welfare definitely is.

So what makes you think I can't understand? Do you really think foreigners are so dumb that they can't comprehend issues that directly affect their lives? Do you think that even though we live here, we all live in some hermetically sealed expat paradise bubble so that most of your struggles are not ours to some degree, as well? Do you think that your issues are all so uniquely "Chinese" that anyone not Chinese can't understand such intrinsically Chinese concepts as "the economy"?

This one infuriated me - I only calmed down after thinking that the old guy who said it to me was super old and would probably die soon.

I'm terrible, I know.

"If you don't like it, you can go back to America!"

Going to address this answer to the douche lord who said it, although she's probably not reading this.

First, no I can't. I mean, I can, but not really. My work is here, my income. My husband. My apartment. My cat. My social life. All my stuff. I can't pick up and leave much more easily than anyone else - the only difference is that I don't need a visa.

And just because I can doesn't mean I will (see "my life is here", above). Are you trying to say that despite everything you've said before about how foreigners are welcome in Taiwan, that we are actually not welcome? Or only welcome as long as we smile as things that affect us are fucked up left and right, and say nothing? That we're only welcome as long as we don't have political power of any sort? Because that's what I'm getting.

And I don't want it to lead me to think "This whole 'Taiwan is friendly and welcoming' thing isn't true at all!" because I know that's not the case (for white foreigners at least: it actually isn't that welcoming for foreigners of any other color except maybe the Japanese). I know people who say things like "if you don't like it, go back to America" are in the vast minority, but damn it makes me angry.

Second, unless you missed those 500,000 people in front of the Presidential Office, I'm not the only one who feels this way, hon. Those 500,000 people also don't like it, but you're not telling them to go "back" to wherever. There are millions - perhaps a majority - of Taiwanese who agree with me. This isn't the one angry foreigner and a bunch of Taiwanese who know better. This is you pissed off because another person who lives in the same country as you has a different idea about what's best for it, but who can't even vote accordingly. I have no power. I don't know why you think I'm a threat.

"You don't understand the Chinese idea of government or what a Chinese nation is"

First, what does that even mean?

Second, I'm pretty sure you guys have a government set up in a model commonly referred to as "Western",

And third, it doesn't matter if I do or don't understand what "a Chinese nation is" (heh), a majority of Taiwanese are not interested in being a part of China, and I dare say that most think of Taiwan as a 'nation' or as their 'country'. My view on what Taiwan is (a great little country!) and what China is (a bigger but generally terrible different country!) has nothing to do with "Chinese ideas" and everything to do with, well, my own opinion plus the opinions of - in case you didn't hear me the first time - a majority of Taiwanese.

"You foreigners always want to push your ideas about Taiwan on us"

Yes, that does happen with foreign governments (hint: one of them is China). Yes, historically that has been a problem vis-a-vis colonialism, and I won't minimize that.

But actually, I don't want to push my ideas about Taiwan on anybody. I've long since learned (saving this for another longer post someday) that my opinion and my hope for Taiwan need not be the same thing.

My hope for Taiwan: that y'all get self-determination. Truly, the ability to figure out together the future of your country without any threat or fear. Without China breathing down your necks threatening war or economic suffocation. If you choose "unification", well, that would be your decision. If you choose the status quo, that would also be your decision, as would independence.

That's divorced from my personal opinion: I support eventual independence. But that doesn't mean I want to force independence on Taiwan - it's just what I personally support. What I want for Taiwan is true self-determination (it's not "true" if there's a lurking threat from Big Brother if you choose the 'wrong' path).

Basically the person who asked me this doesn't even know me, but despite our lack of personal acquaintance, that person can kiss my ass.

In conclusion...

So you'll see, most of the things that get me really freakin' angry aren't the opinions of others, they're potshots thrown at me because I'm a foreigner, or assumptions made about me, or a total lack of regard for how much my life is also affected by what happens in Taiwan (and, to that end, this is, to some degree, my fight). It's when race politics enters the conversation and I'm told that as a foreigner I don't get to have any opinion - or any opinion, at least, that the person I'm talking to disagrees with or that is anything other than smiles and happiness.

On the bright side, this is only a small minority of people, most of them very old and used to being bossy obasans and ojisans whom younger folks wouldn't dare talk back to (I'm not very Taiwanese at all, perhaps: if they get all up my butt about race, I will talk back. Oh yeah, I went there). The majority of people respect my right to an opinion and expression of that opinion, even when they disagree, and don't question whether or not I, as an expat, get to have an opinion at all.

So, I don't have to get really freakin' angry too often. That's a good thing. :)

*disclaimer: I have a strong bias against the KMT as a whole, so of course I'm going to automatically list toward whatever side is against them. I don't claim to be fully objective. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

My Continued Support

After the sad events of last night, I did a lot of thinking regarding whether I still supported the student movement or not, or whether I supported it strongly enough to express that openly. 

And after a lot of though, I decided that I do. I do still support them.

For a few reasons:

1.) I don't think breaking into the Executive Yuan was a good idea tactically or PR-wise, or at all really. Escalating was not the right move and it only served the most tenuous of symbolic purposes.


Just because one student faction or some KMT agent provocateur thugs (this is a popular theory now) did something stupid, it doesn't discredit the whole movement. I still believe in what they stand for.

2.) Even if it was the student activists themselves (and not some gangsters sent to discredit them), I have sympathy. They occupied the legislature for a symbolic purpose that was highly effective. When the executive branch either ignored their demands or talked down to them, I could see how they would think "you think you can ignore us? We'll show you that you can't. You WILL respect the system of democracy or the people WILL literally break in and screw your stuff up."

3.) Perhaps, in order to push for real change, it had to eventually come to this sort of civil disobedience. I would hope not, but I can see how when it got to the point that the government was simply not listening to the people anymore, that there had to be a bigger push. I can live with that.

So I still support them, and I hope the Sunflower movement will blossom (pun intended) into real political change.

A few other thoughts:

- The Taiwanese people have really shown that while they can "take" a lot and stay peaceful, that there is a line, and if you push them over that line, they WILL push back. Hard. They've made it quite clear where that line is, and the government would be wise to heed it. It also roundly discredits expats who whine about how "passive" and "chicken" the Taiwanese are. If history hadn't already debunked this, recent events surely have.

- This really goes to show how dearly most Taiwanese treasure their democracy. That they will be herded like sheep into non-democratic annexation by China is an insult that has now been thoroughly debunked.

- Let's welcome the new generation of political luminaries, forged in the fires of civil disobedience. May they be less of a disappointment than the last batch of sad-sacks and tinpot mafiosos with huge China boners.

- The PR war here seems not to have been entirely lost, which I was worried would happen. I don't know about you all but my Facebook feed is darkened with black squares and pictures of sunflowers in support of the activists. The only people who seem to have been taken in by biased media reports are some of the old folks around my neighborhood.

- No matter what happens, at least the entire country is now fully aware of Fu Mao and the undemocratic way it was passed.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Something Beautiful

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Two high school students take the open mic at the front gate of Taiwan's Legislative Yuan on Friday.

I couldn't make it to the protests today, because after two days of spending all my free time down there, I'd developed something of a migraine and gotten really beaten down health-wise (and I didn't even overnight it as many people did!). I needed a break - nothing is worse than a protest when you have a migraine.

I do hope to return tomorrow. Which, it being after midnight here, is technically today.

Anyway, two things in this post. First, something beautiful was happening inside the front gate of the Legislative Yuan last night. And second, this whole "Jenna gave a speech in Chinese at a protest in Taiwan" thing seems to be...a thing. I mentioned it personally on a few forums, and it's hit my comment thread, and I am sure at least a few people are wondering about it. So in this post I'll include a transcript, as well as I remembered what I said, anyway.

Anyway, this beautiful thing is just what is pictured in the photo above: organized by I-don't-know-who - I don't think it was the DPP although all the usual green-and-white tents were out, I think it might have been the Christian priest who was in attendance, who I think might be a pretty famous guy in Taiwan - the main entrance to the Legislative Yuan became, basically, an open mic podium for people wanting to express their thoughts, tell stories or relate their ideas to a crowd last night. The mic sat atop a black box (labeled "黑" for "black" and everything) intended to symbolize the "black box" of Fu Mao (the cross-strait trade services pact in question) - how very little is known about it, and how it was rammed through the legislature without being fully reviewed, like a "Surprise!" box that could contain a million dollars (but probably doesn't) or could contain a hungry velociraptor (maybe). This Black Box, or 黑箱, has become something of a symbol of those protesting the way Fu Mao was "passed".

There were a few hundred to a thousand people there, and more outside who could hear the speeches. Inside, a wide parabola of open space allowed the speakers to be seen as well as feel comfortable, without being hemmed in be a crowd. They were encouraging, friendly, giving out "you can do it! You go!" (加油!) cheers to those who expressed nervousness, quiet when someone was talking and cheers when appropriate. The cameraderie, support, and common cause of these people was really something.

The only time I felt it broke down was early in the evening, when someone referred to Chiang Kai-shek as "Jiang Zhong-zheng" (蔣中正) - his "honorary" name, and was told to "get off the stage" for calling him by an honorary that he, in their view (and mine) doesn't deserve (but I won't stop someone for using it, I just won't use it personally). But even then, the audience got upset and told the person keeping things running that she should get to speak, and she did. As far as I could see - and I spent several hours there - such an interruption of someone who wanted to take the microphone didn't happen again.

So many people took that mic - students from junior high (really!) to graduate school, teachers ("my students apologized to me for skipping class to come here. I told them 'don't be sorry, if you want to speak out but don't know what to say I'll help you'"), farmers, office workers, grandmas, retired soldiers (truly!), entrepreneurs, new graduates, those doing military service, family business owners, doctors and lawyers. No politicians as far as I could tell.

They all said their piece - stories from their lives, the ways they've felt the current administration has failed them, or democracy in Taiwan has failed them, the wages they earn vs. the cost of living compared to how those two matched up a decade or two ago, how "better" ties with China have in fact made their lives worse, or made their lives better economically but worse in terms of quality. Nobody cut anybody off (except for that one time, which I don't think happened again because the crowd disapproved), and everybody was encouraged to speak their mind. I can't tell if anyone said anything others disagreed with, but if so, there were no jeers.

These weren't silly "kids", which a lot of people are characterizing the students as being. They were knowledgeable and eloquent. They were of all ages and backgrounds. They understood what was at stake. One thing that really angers me is how many people characterize these protesters as "not understanding what's at stake". That is not correct. I also think it's kind of racist, or elitist: either 'these crazy Asians can't get their act together and they don't understand what's really at stake", or "these silly students and working class people don't really understand how the economy works" - either way, it's offensive. "These people don't know what's good for them" - yeah, call me at 1-800-GO-FUCK-YOURSELF.

(hee hee)

Also stop being condescending/racist.

They understand quite well, both in terms of the future of Taiwan's democracy and its economy. Just listening to these speakers you could tell that.

And it's not like they were rebelling because they wanted to, or they just wanted to avoid playing by the rules (if anyone wanted to avoid playing by the rules, it was the legislators who forced this pact through without proper scrutiny).

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Here's the sign my friend made - "forced to rebel". Does that sound like a slogan decided upon by someone who wants to ignore the rules?

All in all, it was beautiful. The legislature is a representative body of the people, and the chance to stand inside its gates, take a microphone and speak out is a gorgeous thing. It's fundamental democracy, even if it's only symbolic. That legislature belongs to the people, but is now full of "representatives" who have grown deaf to the people. But if only for a short time, the people took it back.

And those people! Or rather, what they said! Some of the themes that the various speakers came back to:

"This isn't about green (DPP) or blue (KMT), this is about the Taiwanese people united."

"My issue isn't with Fu Mao (the trade/services pact in question), it's the undemocratic way we Taiwanese people are being told we must accept a black box without knowing what's inside."

"I don't want to be here, occupying my own government, but I feel I must speak out."

"I don't want to argue about politics. I just want a democratic process that works."

"I want to thank the police" (standing at the gate - see the picture) "for protecting our students / their trouble in working 24/7 to be here / for protecting the Taiwanese people - you are just like us" (way to guilt trip the police into not doing anything to hurt the students inside).

I love that so much, I would kiss it if it weren't an abstract concept.

The police, for their part, seemed to be listening. Some were smiling. I don't think they want to hurt anyone. People may be forced out, or arrested (the latter is unlikely - it would look bad for the government in the face of a public that seems, broadly, to support the students in the face of a media out to smear them) but I doubt anybody will be hurt. That would look so bad for the Ma administration that I doubt they'd allow it to happen if at all preventable (notice how I don't say "the Ma administration doesn't want to hurt the students - I don't actually think they care that much beyond how it'll harm their own image).

Every protest should be like that. Not angry slogans or empty rhetoric, but just a microphone sitting on a box on a stage, and people - any people, every person, if they wish - allowed to go up there and take it. Inside the gates of the representative democratic body that claims to govern the country as per the people's will.

Symbolic, but powerful. This is the people's will.

After some time, people began to encourage me to go up there. I have no idea why (OK, maybe it was because I was the only noticeable foreigner there, being in the very front at the edge of the open space and all). I did have that little sign, which translates as "You go! The expatriate community in Taiwan supports you" which people liked quite a lot. I was chatting with others in Chinese.

And so I was encouraged to go on stage. Egged on, really. Kind of pulled on. I said I was willing to, perhaps, but that I felt nervous and hesitant because I may live here, but I'm not a citizen and never will be. I also felt acutely that maybe, after all my deriding of "educated white guys" monopolizing international public discourse on Taiwanese issues, that maybe another white person commandeering the spotlight wouldn't be a good idea. That microphone was doing its job by being available for Taiwanese people to talk about the issues facing their own country. People that didn't already have an international voice.

But in the end someone told the priest/organizer that I should speak (huh?) and the organizer himself kept encouraging me to go for it. I was all "But I'm a guest here...this is your country" and he was all "there are no guests here, we're all brothers and sisters together" which I admit was very Christian of him, in terms of how that's something Jesus would have definitely said. I may not be Christian but that's the kind of clergyman I can respect.

So suddenly I was onstage.

I hadn't really prepared anything to say, and Chinese is not my native language. But I'm not one to refuse to speak just because I'm being asked to speak, off the cuff, to a thousand people in a language that is neither my mother tongue nor something I've studied much formally. And who, when at a protest like that in a country they're not a citizen of, would even think they'd be pulled onstage and asked to say something to so many people?

So I tried to keep it brief - after all, I do still believe that that microphone does its job when it's relaying the stories of people talking about their own country's issues, who don't otherwise have a voice, and that doesn't really include me. I was trying to be there in a supporting role.

And I said:


It translates roughly into:

Hello everyone. [which I said in Taiwanese, not Chinese] I moved here in 2006 - although on the outside I look foreign, but in my heart I'm Taiwanese*. 7 or 8 years ago when I came here I thought Taiwan was such a free country with a great democracy, and the standard of living was pretty good. But these 8 years later after Ma Ying-jiu took office, now I'm seeing that the government is taking away your democracy, the government is taking away your freedom, and your salaries are getting lower while the cost of living is rising. I really can't stand it, and if I can't stand it, you guys definitely can't! So I hope that the Taiwanese will fight for their democracy, fight for their freedom, and force the government to care about the problems of everyday people. We foreigners who live in Taiwan support you**. Thank you!

*if I'd had time to prepare something to say I probably would have worded that as "my heart is in Taiwan". I did not at all mean it to be all cultural appropriation-y but I could see how someone would take it that way.

**I realize not every foreigner in Taiwan supports them, but enough do (seems to be an obvious majority) that I feel OK in saying this. However, given time to prepare I probably would have said "many" or "most foreigners in Taiwan support you". That said, as a generalization I think it is true enough that I'm not sorry that that's how it came out (considering what my little sign translates into, I can hardly backtrack on this, so I won't bother).

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Some thoughts on why people oppose the storming of the legislature, and why such opposition is wrong

I've heard a lot of talk on both sides about the protests currently going on - which, if you hadn't noticed, I wholeheartedly support to the point of going down there 2 days in a row, with a sign, and even giving a speech.

If people are going to oppose these protests, I do hope they'll do so on their own merits and not on grounds that are simply not true.

With that, here are the main reasons why those opposed to the protests feel as they do, and why they're wrong.

1.) "these protests are anti-free trade, which shows that they don't know what they're talking about"

The protests are not anti-free trade or even anti Fu Mao (although it is true that most of the protesters have serious reservations about Fu Mao). The protests are about the way it was forced through the legislature. At this stage it doesn't actually matter what's in Fu Mao, because the people don't know (the KMT has not seen fit to tell us - hmmm....I wonder why. Perhaps because they know it'll be good for them and their cronies but bad for Taiwan?) - what matters is that it was passed in a despicable, underhanded, dictatorial, autocratic way that is simply not acceptable in a democracy.

The fact that the protesters don't know the details of Fu Mao is precisely the point - the KMT hasn't told the public. The public need to know. It is their right. How can they be expected to support this black box?

That is what's being protested - the way Fu Mao was rammed through. Nothing more, nothing less. What's in Fu Mao can be discussed and protested or supported later.

If you're going to oppose the protests, oppose it based on what is actually being protested, not some "they hate free trade" bogeyman.

2.) "the students are silly, they don't know"

Well, again, **that's the whole point**. They don't know because the KMT has purposely kept the Taiwanese in the dark about what's in the pact.

And if you go talk to those students and their supporters, you'll find that they aren't silly at all. They're knowledgeable, politically astute, and they want to discuss issues in calm, rational ways. Spontaneous discussion groups have formed on the street during these peaceful protests - I've been in some of them - and what's being said is quite knowledgeable and fluent in the issues facing Taiwan. The speakers at the open mic in front of the Legislative Yuan - which is just beautiful, an open mic for the public to speak in front of the office of a governing body that is meant to follow through on their voices, not quash them - were eloquent and knowledgeable as well.

If you're going to oppose these protests, don't pretend it's because the protesters are idiots. They are not. It's not just insulting and rude to say so, it's also ignorant.

3.) "they're egged on by the DPP"

NOT TRUE. They're alienated by both parties and keeping the DPP at arm's length. The DPP supports them, but did not instigate these protests and they're self-sustaining, not being egged on by outside political forces. (In fact the protesters are not really happy with the way the DPP seems to be taking over some of the protesting - this isn't a green or blue thing - this is a citizens' concern thing).

How insulting, to suggest that anyone with the will to protest must be the pawn of some political party. As though intelligent, concerned citizens - including students - can't have minds and voices of their own to speak out. In this case it is simply not true, and that's one of the most important and significant things about this protest. In fact, the speakers who took the open mic in front of the Legislative Yuan (it must take a lot of anger, or at least a lot of concern, to get people to come up and speak as they have - it's not like Taiwanese culture is known for speaking out when you are upset!) many said openly that "this isn't about green or blue, and I'm not loyal to any political party."

If you're going to oppose these protests, don't pretend it's because they were "organized" by the political party you don't like.

They weren't.

4.) Sure, protest if you want but don't take over the Legislative Yuan! That's selfish/crazy/embarrassing/whatever.


The legislature serves the people, not the other way around. A democracy is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people (to borrow an American cliche). That building belongs to the people, and those who work in it serve the people. The people have every right to it.

Under normal circumstances it would have been better to go through more directly democratic means to make your voice heard, but come on. This was a bill that was shoved through the legislature in a despicable way. It's easy to ignore street protests - which I think is precisely why opponents say "you can protest in the street, but don't take over the Legislature". Yeah, you can protest in the street, but nobody in power is going to pay one whit of attention. And those who support this view know that. They don't actually want anyone to pay attention to the concerns of the people, because they want this bill to pass so that they and all their rich friends can start making ca$h money as soon as possible.

Protesting in the street would never have forced Fu Mao out of passage and back into a clause-by-clause review. The students did what they did because they had to - there was no other way to insist that democratic process be followed in this particular case.

5.) These protests are undemocratic.


Protesting is a democratic right. Civil disobedience is what forces reform on a government that has ceased to hear the will of the people. It's what turns dictatorships into democracies and brings about civil rights reforms for minorities and the oppressed. There is a place for it in any healthy democracy.

Or would you prefer dictatorships never be overthrown, civil rights never be passed, and have apartheid still in existence?

If you want to point your finger at something undemocratic, point it straight at the legislators who pushed this bill through.