Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Are there false churches, too? A review of The Man With The Compound Eyes (複眼人)

The Man With The Compound Eyes (復眼人)
Wu Ming-yi
(available at eslite)

As I plow through books on Taiwan before my leaving date (about a month from now), I've been intentionally alternating between fiction and non-fiction. After finishing Accidental State (and breezing through The Mapping of Taiwan), I came upon this small volume with a gorgeous cover. After hearing high praise for the quality of the translation, I decided it would be the fiction filling to my Accidental State / Taiwan's Imagined Geography sandwich.

And it's true, the translation is wonderful. If I hadn't known it hadn't been written originally in English, I wouldn't have guessed as much. It's engaging and eminently readable, in fact, I'd say it is a pleasure to read on nearly a conscious level.

The characters, especially, are well-drawn, their backstories draw you in, although I had to smile at the trope of the novelist making the main character of their novel an English professor who is also a writer - write what you know, I guess. I appreciated that, for a novel set in Taiwan, most of the characters were in fact not ethnically "Chinese": the novel was heavily, and purposely, aboriginal and yet not exclusively that.

I'm not quite sure what to make of the story, so I'll start with this: it was engaging. I only actually give books perhaps 50 pages to draw me in; if I'm not hooked by then, I usually don't finish. I have better things to do than read a book I'm not that interested in. The Man with the Compound Eyes had me from page one.

But what was it about exactly? I'm still not sure. The clearest theme seemed to be that of god as nature, and different people's relationship to it - the god of this novel is one that not only does not live up in the sky and have a beard and rain down hellfire, but rather who lives in the mountains, the jungles and the oceans, but also one that is not an active creator or intervener. Somewhat simplistically, those with the strongest relationship to nature/god seem to be the Taiwan indigenous and fictional island characters (I'm not saying this is necessarily wrong, although I don't believe in god, it's just something of a well-worn trope), with Westerners and ethnically "Chinese" Taiwanese being furthest from.

Caution: ahead there be spoilers

I'm also not sure, other than another "untouched natives living simply with nature and no knowledge of the outside world" narrative what the journey of Atil'ei was really supposed to mean for the larger story: did his meeting with Alice, at which point he as a fleshed-out character nearly disappears from the narrative, serve to bring her to some deeper understanding of nature? If so, perhaps that could have been explored a bit more. I am generally a fan of subtlety but rather than picking up subtle cues about the point of the story, I ended up feeling mostly confused, as though a missing, hidden chapter I was supposed to have read, but didn't. A lot of ancillary characters seem to do a lot without really adding much to the narrative if you don't make big metaphorical leaps in trying to consider what it all means. I felt in one case it really could be boiled down to "engineer who helped build the Xueshan Tunnel heard a weird sound back then, returned to Taiwan, and decided he should not try to find out what that sound was". Okay, I guess?

Overall, I felt the backstory leading up to the arrival of the trash vortex on Taiwan to be the most satisfying, and the most engaging in terms of reading about how another person views and sees certain aspects of life in Taiwan, most notably, I felt a lot of my own sentiments reflected in the description of the east coast town, the shantytown by the river in Taipei, and what it means to have a "homestay". The characterization was likewise enjoyable - the friends-or-more relationship between Dahu and Hafay was handled with subtlety and grace. Backstory was well-handed: engaging, thoughtful (each person has their own 'island'), not overly cumbersome but deep enough to count.

I was less satisfied with the story of Atil'ei's island love, Rasula. Her story felt like it hit a big random dead-end and served no real narrative purpose other than to keep her in the story a bit longer. I had expected they'd either meet again or she'd encounter some sort of worthwhile adventure, or that we'd find out what happened to Atil'ei as he left Taiwan and began sailing back to an island that (spoiler!) will no longer exist by the time he gets there, if he ever does. Neither comes to pass. It just ends. It doesn't feel like that story thread ever fully gels with the rest of what's going on in any satisfying, conclusive way. I especially feel that we're forced out of Alice's headspace - even in a first-person narrative told by her! - for that part of the novel, and never really get a sense of the impact Atil'ei has had on her.

Yes, this story comes with a twist - but I'm writing about it at the very end because it probably had the least impact on me in any deeper emotional sense. It could have worked in a longer novel, but here it felt unearned, like Wu felt he needed something like that to happen, so *poof*, it did. Alice's experiences after finding the cliff where her husband died felt rushed through, the realizations not supported much by the narrative that had come before.

All in all, The Man With The Compound Eyes is worth reading (and honestly, it won't take you long. It is not a tome by any means). It feels very Taiwanese, and very connected to this country and the experience of living here, and specifically very 21st-century Taiwanese, with its focus on local, non-Chinese culture, environmentalism, small towns and everything that sort of embodies a post-industrial Taiwan that is so very over Taipei, choosing instead a smaller city or one's hometown.

It also feels very Taiwanese in its narrative subtlety. It is entirely possible that I didn't feel I fully understood the integration of the storylines because so much was left purposely unsaid, and I was meant to connect the dots in a way that someone of this culture might perhaps be able to do, but which eludes this straight-to-the-point, no-stone-unturned New Yorker.

By all means, read it, and if you figure out What It All Means on a deeper level than I've tried to express here, let me know.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Taiwan doesn't value professional educators, or, why I'm still pissed at the government


Yes, I know that sounds like a giant duh headline, something we all know. But bear with me, please. 

Earlier today, I got a message from a student thanking me for helping bring his IELTS score to the level he'd need to go abroad, a fairly dramatic improvement for what was a short class (this is not typical; it usually happens when a student has the language level needed but needs guidance as to how the test works and how the productive skills sections are assessed). Another student let me know recently that she also got the score she needs, and will be attending a top school in the UK. These are young people who are Taiwan's brightest lights and future leaders - in the two examples above, they'll be going to some of the best schools in the world and studying in a science faculty.

It felt great, but it also hit me: this is why I'm angry about the new dual citizenship qualifications in Taiwan on such a personal level.

I have worked hard to be the sort of teacher who can bring about that kind of improvement, or at least identify where longer-term study needs to be focused. I've put myself through CELTA (not a big deal certification-wise but it was a huge commitment to leave Taiwan for a month to get it done, as no course is offered here), Delta (which is a much bigger deal and a real professional qualification), received other useful training - there is a reason why I can't be specific - and I'm about to start a Master's program in the field. After that, I might go on to a PhD, or I might get a teaching license if I want to work in an international school. I might do both. 

This is in addition to getting results in the classroom while still building rapport with students, and a decade of experience doing it.

Nobody can say that I haven't done my time professionally. I've neither over-relied on experience without a training foundation nor leaned too much on credentials. In any other field, including education focusing on any other subject, few would dare to imply that what I do is not professional.

And yet, this is exactly the message the government is sending with dual nationality regulations that seem designed to keep English teachers out, to differentiate them from everyone else as some sort of lesser labor.

I won't deny that a lot of English teaching jobs are like this. Many are just fancy daycare, where the purpose is to provide a place for kids to go after school so Mom and Dad can work insane amounts of overtime. A lot of teachers really are not qualified, either - and I don't just mean through lack of credentialing, I mean through lack of meaningful training or improvement. I would like to see this change, while still providing a place in the industry for new potential talent to find work (and I'd like to turn the majority of the industry into something worthwhile and respected enough that true talent is more likely to stick around).

The problem is that the new laws, essentially, say that we all work at fancy daycare. That none of the work many of us put into professional development - essentially what makes us real professionals - matters. That not only could we be replaced by 22-year-old Whiteguy McBackpacker, but that if we were, performance would be essentially the same. That working for a university teaching 65-person "conversational English classes" (if you're wondering how one teaches conversational English to 65 people at once, the answer is that one doesn't) is more valuable than working one-on-one or with small group classes to bring about real improvement that has real world effects. Effects like, oh, I don't know, ensuring a business presentation goes well enough that it plays a tiny part in keeping the economy humming. That one of Taiwan's potentially great future scientists gets to go to Oxford. In ensuring a speech delivered abroad makes Taiwan more visible to the world. 

They lay bare what Taiwan (the government, but also many people) think about English teachers: that we're useful but our job is not meaningful, that those of us with professional qualifications don't have serious qualifications, that it doesn't matter, any unqualified person could do our job, because all English teaching work is essentially unskilled, undifferentiated labor. That they think we don't do real work at a real professional level. They make it clear that the government, and many people, really do believe one native speaker is as good as another, and any native speaker is better than a local (this is, of course, not true).

This is why I've asked you to bear with me: most people make this argument in terms of wages or jobs. They say improving yourself through training and meaningful experience won't get you a raise, and most jobs aren't worth it. They're right that most jobs in Taiwan aren't worth the effort, but not all jobs are created equal. People saying this generally have not worked to get to a higher level themselves, and are thus not aware that there is a whole level of better jobs available if you just make an effort to be a professional. My argument is different: I might complain that wages are stagnant and there are deep issues in TEFL in Taiwan that need to be addressed, but I do essentially believe that if you work towards professionalism in ELT, the industry will reward you somewhat. You will find better-paid jobs with better employers. To some extent, ELT takes seriously those who take it seriously. My issue is with the government essentially turning a blind eye to this, paving the way for so many everyday citizens to do so, as well.

I find intrinsic meaning and professionalism in my work and don't need the Taiwanese government or people to take it seriously for me to do so. That's important; I need that if I'm even going to carry on. I do truly believe my work is meaningful. I won't even hedge that with a sentence header expressing a personal opinion. My work is meaningful.

It seems clear to me that Taiwan would be a stronger country if everyone who was committed to this nation - from blue-collar workers to the folks mopping up kids' pee at Hess to me to a tech worker somewhere - had a path to citizenship. I do not mean to imply that I deserve one but others don't. The purpose here is to point out a problematic attitude held by the government and many people here.

Of course, this issue is not limited to Taiwan, and finding intrinsic meaning in what I do is important.

But it still stings, y'know?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

My real beef with the new labor laws

I've been thinking a lot these days about what it is I don't like about the new labor regulations in Taiwan. I'm not sure why - they don't actually impact me as I don't have a single full-time job: I've been freelance since I got my APRC. Being generally interested in labor issues, however, might be a part of it. As is the fact that the new laws do impact many of my friends.

The most common complaints I hear from sources I care about are that work they want is being taken away from them, and that flexibility they want is being taken away (companies whining that now they have to compensate their employees more generously for the extremely long work hours expected of them do not draw my sympathy, I quite literally DGAF. You've been paying your people too little for crazy hours for awhile now, Taiwanese employers. Suck it.)

I'm not sure at all that these are the root problems that are causing me to view the new law with so much cynicism, though. That said, they're worth exploring.

I have a friend who poured a lot of passion and effort into a particular class, notably in developing a syllabus for that class within a larger curriculum. She had it taken away, because it was (apparently) the only way for her employer to ensure she did not work overtime that she'd have to be paid extra for (because goodness gracious, they couldn't just pay a valuable teacher more, could they? Oh no!). She genuinely wanted that work, and it was snatched from her. I have another friend who didn't necessarily want to work 6 days a week, but appreciated the financial boost she got from the longer hours. That was taken away, because the thought of just paying her more was apparently unconscionable? Or something? I have students who have subordinates who used to arrange their work schedules to work 6-day weeks for much of the month, but then take at least one extended weekend in that month so the hours worked out over a longer period, and they got a longer rest. That is no longer permissible under the new law. I'm not sure why not, but my students assure me it is not. I am not an expert.

I'm sympathetic to all of these complaints - especially the last one - but it seems increasingly obvious to me that they're symptoms of deeper problems the new labor law ignores rather than the root problems themselves.

What's being ignored here, and what the new law does nothing to fix, is the power imbalance between employer and employee. The "Boss Class" doesn't like the new law for obvious reasons: it's not so easy to squeeze their peons for more work for as little compensation as they can get away with giving. Good. But why don't labor activists like it? Because it does nothing to improve employee bargaining power or choice. It does nothing to address the basic truth of modern capitalism: the employee always, always - even in a labor-scarce market - has less power than a company. I could go into why I feel this is, but suffice it to say that labor does not gain sufficient power vis-a-vis employers in a world where shortages do not appear to be creating better remuneration and working conditions for teachers, or one in which jobs are not so interchangeable, and there might not be a similarly good job to jump to if the one you have (or the other one on offer) doesn't offer enough incentives to get you in the door, not because there is a job scarcity but because what you'd be doing would be somewhat unique. I mean, I'm a teacher, just ask me how teacher shortages in the US haven't led to better working conditions for American teachers. Even when the market favored labor in the years before the 2008 crash, lots of job openings didn't mean lots of offers in a world where one job opening would attract hundreds of applicants simply because the Internet made it easier to advertise jobs on massive websites and for applicants to send out heaps of resumes. A person can't necessarily live without a job, but a company can live with a position unfilled, and can get by with less-than-ideal employees until they find the right person, because the company will almost by definition have more resources than an individual.

As a result, I can't even think of a time in my adult life when the market has truly helped working conditions and pay improve. I'm not young anymore, that's actually quite a long time to see - in my observation at least, I don't claim to be an economist - essentially no progress.

In a better system, employer and employee would be on more even footing to negotiate not only pay and benefits, but preferred working hours and conditions. The employer could lay out their needs, and the employee could lay out what they hope to achieve, or get, out of the job. Employees who want to work longer hours and make more money could choose to do so, and those who wanted to work less, or be more flexible, but also potentially earn less, could choose that, too. Solutions might not be perfect, but they'd be workable for all involved because everyone was on a somewhat level playing field (and of course this is most obviously true in positions with hourly pay or clear paid overtime) when negotiating the terms of work. Of course, that's not how it works: your employer tells you if you're going to be working more or less, and how much money you want vis-a-vis free time is not considered. Often, keeping the laws relaxed so working hours can be quite variable don't necessarily lead to the employee getting more say - for every person who chooses longer hours, there are a few who are forced to work them. For every employee who chooses fewer, there are a few who are put on reduced schedules (but still told to be available for hours they will never work, so they can't even seek other employment) because that benefits the company.

So what you have are new laws that still allow the employer, without your input, to decide how much you work - those who want to work more can't if the company doesn't want to pay them the new overtime amounts, and those who want to work less might still be called in when they'd rather be off, or not get to choose when they are off. My friend who had a class she wanted taken from her was not given a choice to keep that class and lose another one. My friend who appreciates the money but not necessarily the exhaustion of a 6-day week wasn't given a choice as to whether she worked one or not - not before when she had to work 6 days, and not after when that was reduced to 5. In both cases her preference mattered little, and with any new job it would be the same. My students' subordinates were not given the choice to have a flexible schedule (it's mere circumstance that my particular students happen to be flexible and generous with their employees; not all employers are.)

It also does little to change the problem of every job essentially being a terrible deal - low pay, long hours, little in the way of additional benefits - in a world where you can't just not choose any job, you likely need to pick one. I have a student with this issue: she doesn't like her job, nor does she like any of the jobs on offer. But she has to take one, she can't just be unemployed. It's not possible to insist you deserve more than $22,000NT per month  (which I think everyone does - you can't live independently on $22k. It does not cover basic cost of living and therefore is inadequate) when there are no jobs offering more. English teachers can't insist on a job where they get paid Lunar New Year (which we ought to get under the law, but don't) if no job offers paid Lunar New Year (you might get compensation after you leave, if you complain, but that means little if what you actually want is a paid holiday without having to quit and threaten to call the government to eventually get that money). You can't change much where you actually work if speaking up means you could get "laid off", and the next job won't be any better.

The new laws really don't do anything to address that basic problem. I'm not sure what could, frankly, in a world where the company will always be bigger, and have more money and resources, than an employee or job seeker, no matter how "good" the market supposedly is.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

About that letter to the Wall Street Journal, and its awful title...

Remember back when I wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal because some China expert got his head all mucked up thinking his profession somehow qualified him to comment on an entirely different country? And how I thought they decided not to publish it because it was set to print right before a bunch of craziness happened in the US (not the least of which was the Michael Flynn scandal) and Taiwan was probably not at the top of their priorities list?

I was fine with that, and had sort of forgotten about it until I came across an article referencing my letter in CNA, translating much of the content into Chinese.

Apparently it had been published after all, just some time after I'd stopped looking for it, and under a title so hilariously off that, had I come across it, I would not have thought it had been written by me. I'm happy it actually made it in, but I really am not sure what to say about the headline.

You're probably thinking "whatever, it was some short letter you wrote in February and really isn't that big a deal", and you're right, it's not. But remember I'm not a professional writer (admonishing certain ministers in Tsai's cabinet to consume some of the more protruding portions of male anatomy on a blog I keep for fun doesn't count as 'professional writing') and do not typically see my name in print in major media outlets. So it's a big deal for me *sniff*!

Anyway, about that title. All I can say is...LOL. In a very technical sense it's not "wrong", it just completely misses the point of my argument. Most people skimming headlines would assume I was talking about US policy on Taiwan in terms of their misconceptions of it, e.g. that we don't need to recognize Taiwan, that we recognize Taiwan as Chinese, that Taiwan is fine or unimportant etc.. Of course I say nothing of the sort - my point is that the current framework between China and Taiwan is neither "successful" nor "peaceful", and in fact there is room in US foreign policy even as it stands now for Taiwanese de jure independence. Oh, and Thomas Metzger is wrong and perhaps should stick to talking about China, the country he ostensibly knows, rather than Taiwan, the country he so clearly doesn't.

The headline is also not interesting. I can't imagine many people seeing a headline so stodgy it's the semantic equivalent of wall plaster and thinking there is worthwhile content inside.

And there's a big fat typo in the last paragraph, which I'm not pointing out to be mean - I'm thrilled it was published at all - but because I wouldn't want anyone to think I am that sloppy a writer.

Because the Wall Street Journal is behind a paywall, and I wrote this so I feel justified doing what I want with it, here is what I wrote:

U.S. Need Not Change Taiwan/China Policy
(ed: *audible groan*)

We simply need to acknowledge what is already true

Regarding the recent opinions of John Bolton “Revisit the ‘One-China Policy’” (op-ed, Jan. 17) and Thomas Metzger (Letters, Feb. 7): Contrary to Mr. Metzger’s claims, the current framework between Beijing and Taipei is far from successful. The Taiwanese wake up every morning to the estimated 1,000 or more missiles aimed at them, knowing that Beijing has been clear that, absent Taiwanese capitulation, it is planning an eventual invasion. This isn’t peace; this is a threat.
Most Taiwanese don’t identify primarily as Chinese and will likely never accept unification. However, the claim to sole governance of China by the Republic of China cannot be formally retracted. From Beijing’s perspective, doing so constitutes a formal declaration of independence, which would precipitate an immediate war. To insist that the existence of the Republic of China renders Taiwan as Chinese regardless of the people’s wishes, and yet to scold Taiwan for provoking China in any way, is to create a Catch-22 for Taiwan. At best, setting such impossible standards for Taiwan makes one a “useful idiot” of China.
Few in Taiwan agree that Taiwan is “one part of China.” Both international law and U.S. policy on Taiwan support the possibility of sovereignty, de jure independence, formal and permanent autonomy.Both international law and U.S. policy on Taiwan support this. [sic] Different interpretations of international law label Taiwan’s status as “sovereign” or “undetermined,” and Mr. Bolton is entirely correct that U.S. policy merely acknowledges Beijing’s claim to Taiwan, nothing more. The U.S. Taiwan policy, at its heart, calls for peaceful resolution of the issue. There doesn’t need to be a change in U.S. policy on Taiwan. We simply need to acknowledge what is already true.
Jenna Cody
Taipei, Taiwan

Monday, April 17, 2017

A girl is just as good as a boy


This photo was taken by Richard Saunders (of Taipei Day Trips, Taiwan 101, The Islands of Taiwan and Yangmingshan: The Guide fame) on a train from Hualien to Taitung. A few characters are a bit too blurry for me to give an exact translation, but it basically says that a female baby is as good as a male one - a son is as worthwhile as a daughter.

My first thought was not "why is this necessary in Taiwan in 2017?" - like medieval anti-gambling laws, it exists because it is necessary. It was more "we should be asking ourselves why this is necessary in Taiwan in 2017."

Michael Turton of course immediately sourced some stats: although women slightly outnumber men in Taiwan, there is a regional disparity that favors Taipei. If you remember your biology class lectures, you'll know that it's normal for slightly more male babies to be born than female ones, but for women to outnumber men in the general population, especially at older ages as the male children were historically more likely to die. If you remember your Social Studies classes, you'll also know that despite this, men do outnumber women in many countries (and very slightly on a global scale) as a result of gender-selective abortion and gendercide.

Living in the Taipei bubble, it's easy to think that the country as a whole has progressed beyond preferring boys to girls, or that the country as a whole is more liberal than it actually is (and yet I would argue that it still is the most liberal and progressive country in Asia and that tendency is baked into its national character - just with, y'know, some nuance).

Notably women outnumber men very slightly - as is natural - mostly along the western plains and in more developed areas, with men taking over the population majority in other areas. That is to say, there's a reason why this was posted on a train on the east coast and not on the Taipei or Kaohsiung MRT, or on a west coast train or the HSR.

Knowing this, I can say that even in my Taipei bubble, I've heard rumblings of continued preference for male babies. A student once told me she didn't really want to have children, but her in-laws did, so she would have one. She admitted she would prefer a girl just because she wanted to raise a daughter. We had a conversation about children being individuals not necessarily constrained by traditional notions of gender, and it went very well: I shared my experience growing up with a supportive family that never (okay, rarely) made me feel like I had to 'act like a girl', so I never felt ashamed of my natural personality traits that are more often associated with maleness (I don't agree with this association; I'm pointing out merely that it exists). However, she went on to say that regardless, she hoped she'd have a boy, because if she had a girl, her in-laws would expect her to have a second child and 'try for a boy'. (In the end she had a girl and declined to have another child. I don't know how her in-laws took it).

I also have more than one student whose parents 'tried for a boy', resulting in the once very typical family structure of a number of older female siblings with one very young boy (or just a large number of daughters before the parents gave up), and more than one who has a small number of adopted 'aunts' (daughters who as early as two generations ago were given to another family who didn't have many children to raise, being 'extra' and, yes, 'unwanted' in their birth family). It is still somewhat common to give your friends sticky rice with meat if you have a son, but (far less expensive and filling) cake if you have a girl, though many people I know are challenging that tradition.

My point is, we might think gender preference is no longer an issue, but this is still very much a thing and we need to ask ourselves not if it is necessary to have such posters, but why it is necessary, and what else we can do about the underlying problem.

One non-starter is 'outlawing' gender-selective abortion. I understand why that may be a problematic but necessary step in some places where misogyny is so entrenched that people will make their intentions to abort female fetuses clear (those same regions tend to have very high male:female sex ratios as well). In Taiwan, however, even if a woman were going for a sex-selective abortion - and to have such a high rate of males to females in the general population in some parts of the country, it must be happening to some degree - I cannot imagine that she would admit it. Taiwan allows abortion but has somewhat restrictive laws surrounding it, although the data is either confusing or non-existent on how this actually works. I still haven't figured out to what extent the 'four criteria' matter or even if they still exist.

In any case, a gender-selective abortion is not allowed for in the outline of the law (confusingly) linked to above, but any woman in Taiwan seeking one would almost certainly come up with some other reason for terminating her pregnancy.

So, to 'stop' gender-selective abortions by refusing to give them in the first place puts doctors, and basically ethics, into a big fat quandary: they would have to deduce intent and then decide if their unproven conclusions about a woman's reasons for ending her pregnancy merited agreeing to perform the procedure or not.

I would love to live in a world where I didn't have to explain why this is a huge problem vis-a-vis women's rights, but I don't live in that world so here we go (sigh): when anyone, however well-meaning, tries to deduce a woman's intent rather than listen to what she is actually saying, especially given the blind spot we have to our own pre-conceived notions and worldviews, they are in essence saying that woman cannot be trusted to say what she means, and therefore certain assumptions must be made about her and subsequently acted on, and decisions must be made on her behalf for her own good - she cannot be trusted to make them herself because the assumer's conclusions trump the woman's actual words or actions. It reduces a woman to less-than-adult-human status, to the status of a childlike figure, with decisions about her and her future being made by parent-like figures.

As much as I am (obviously) against sex-selective abortion, in Taiwan this is not a solution.

I also understand why some doctors in some countries will not reveal the gender of a fetus to a family, but I do not fundamentally agree that withholding information from anyone - especially, in such a gender-unequal world, a woman - in order to keep them from making decisions about their bodies is a good idea (and yet, because the world is difficult but nuanced, I would not argue to stop that practice in, say, India or China right now despite disagreeing with it on the most basic level).

This, too, is not a solution that would work for Taiwan. Fortunately, this doesn't seem to be an issue here as far as I'm aware - please do correct me if I'm wrong.

Neither is it reasonable to target sex-selective abortions but provide no public service campaigns or funding to ensure that daughters who may have been 'unwanted' grow up in a loving, stable environment where their needs are met. If you prevent a woman who doesn't want a daughter from aborting that daughter, but then leave the new parents to their lives, that daughter may well grow up abused or neglected, or perhaps even abandoned.

In fact, I think this sign is just about right, and in fact the intent of it could be further extended. Every country, of course, has the potential to progress socially, but I have long felt that Taiwan is somewhat exceptional in this regard. People say change here is slow. I say it doesn't have to be, and isn't always - if it were, how is Taiwan the most forward-thinking country in Asia? How is it, 20 years after democratization, that the party of the former dictatorship is being peacefully held accountable for its crimes (despite the process of democratization itself being far less peaceful than many people believe)? How is it that Taiwan is the first country in Asia to have a female president who came to power on her own merits rather than through family ties - who has never had a father, brother or husband whose leadership paved the way for her?

Just as most Taiwanese either support or do not oppose marriage equality after only a few short years of the topic being in the public spotlight, and just as the KMT talking-points malaise hanging over Taiwanese society (that part of society made up of those who are not radical young activists and progressives) was wiped away in a few weeks in 2014 (though I am somewhat simplifying that narrative), I don't see Taiwan as a country bogged down by tradition it cannot escape: I see it as exceptionally able to hear a logical argument for equality and human rights, to understand the fundamental rightness of that argument and to subsequently adopt it in a short span of time.

Why are sons preferred over daughters in some areas? There are still gendered notions of who should be a breadwinner and who must be supported, who is a part of your family (your sons) and who will someday belong to another family (your daughters) and who carries on ancestral traditions and rites and the family name, and who cares for parents in their old age. Why, outside of a few industries (accounting comes to mind), do managers tend to be male and assistants female? Why in social groups do the leaders tend to be male and followers female?

It doesn't have to be this way, of course.

Therefore, it is quite possible to solve this problem through education, although it cannot be Taipei-centric. Discussion, public service campaigns and education can change this mindset into a more egalitarian one. Furthermore, it cannot be merely focused on child-bearing women: why might a woman choose a sex-selective abortion? There's a very good chance it is not because she personally would prefer a son. It's likely the result of the influence of her family, her in-laws, perhaps even her husband. Her decision was not made in a vacuum.

It's the older generation - the people who are the in-laws of the women currently having children, and who raised the male partners of those women - that we need to reach, so they stop pressuring their children to have boys rather than girls. It's also the men: how much less likely would it be for a woman who wants to have a baby to abort a female fetus if her 'traditional' husband weren't a part of the pressure for her to do so?

People might argue that a preference for male children is a cultural issue, and it's not right for foreigners - or for mostly Taipei-based social activists (though that too is changing) - to go to these more rural, traditional areas and try to essentially change the culture, or to force their ideologies onto people who do not necessarily agree and want to keep their traditional views. Such ideologues might argue that trying to push such people to change is akin to finding them 'inferior' or 'undeveloped' to begin with.

I'd say this is wrong: I see the appeal of the argument, but it doesn't hold up. Although I do not believe abortion is 'murder', a skewed male:female sex ratio does lead to societal problems that could be avoided, and the abuse, neglect or abandonment of unwanted daughters as a result of such views does have a human cost that may come not just in suffering, but also in lives. It is also important to abandon the forced dichotomy between 'tradition' and 'modernity'. The US had gender inequality written into its laws as late as the 1970s. That changed (though inequality did not disappear on a social level), and American culture is still American. Slavery and segregation ran deep in American culture until they didn't (though, again...) - and yet America remains. Taiwan has done an excellent job of retaining its traditional cultural elements while walking an essentially progressive and liberal path. To convince people that Taiwan is better off as a more gender-equal society will not make Taiwan any less Taiwanese.

Basically, we have to educate people not just through mandatory classes, but through activism and public service, in such a way that sends a clear message: supporting better human rights and equality for women, ending a preference for boys and ending gender-related ideas about what girls and boys can do and be in a family does not mean giving up one's culture. It is not an assault on values, it's a progression of human rights. I do think most people who remember Taiwan's struggle for democracy might find something to agree with in that.

In short, Taiwan, no longer focused simply on fighting for sovereignty from China, is in the process of figuring out what kind of country it wants to be. I think any reasonable person would agree that this means ending sex or gender preference on the part of parents. I'd like to extend that further and say it also includes a more egalitarian society where the forces that keep women from obtaining true equality are continually fought and eventually defeated - killing the root cause of the preference for male babies to begin with. It also includes adopting a rational method of doing so: not only by not solely focusing on women who are pregnant or seeking to be, but also on the people in their lives who might try to convince them that a boy is better than a girl. It means, of course, making feminism a human rights issue rather than a cultural values issue or a women's issue.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A short review: The Mapping of Taiwan

The Mapping of Taiwan
Jerome Keating
Available at eslite, Bookstore 1920s and elsewhere
(Photo coming soon)

I've had this book for awhile, but until recently had only really used it to peruse the gorgeous maps inside. That's really the main purpose of this slim, oversize book: to have large-size prints on hand of some of the most well-known maps of Taiwan through history. I'd go so far as to say that for that purpose, it is essentially a coffee table book.

And my, does it look good on a coffee table. The cover is gorgeous and the maps engaging. Years ago someone gave me a calendar of old maps of Taiwan (I saved the pages for later art projects), and was pleased to see many of the calendar reprints I'd lovingly découpaged to gift boxes, file folders and cards present in this book.

What this means is, if you're looking at this book as an academic resource, you will be disappointed. Will you learn something? Sure - I had not known, for example, that Koxinga was able to land his invasion thanks to a small inlet that would allow ships into the harbor near Tainan at high tide, for example. I had known that Taiwan was, at one point, portrayed on some maps as three islands but did not realize how common this was, or the plethora of other ways it was inaccurately drawn or placed. I had not been aware that cartographers used to regularly place Taiwan above or below, rather than directly situated on, the Tropic of Cancer where it belongs. All of this was engaging enough to keep me reading.

There isn't much to read though - which perhaps is appropriate for the The Mapping of Taiwan's ultimate purpose as a repository for, well, maps. The entire book, sans references, is perhaps 120 pages long. Of those, whole sections are devoted entirely to maps. You could read the text of the book in one ambitious morning. That's a good thing - the generous dimensions of the book make it an infeasible choice to bring to a cafe to read.

The text of The Mapping of Taiwan is ambitious and comprehensive in its breadth, covering the Dutch spice trade, the Spanish Asia-to-Acapulco route, Portuguese ambitions and even the colonization of the Philippines (in very broad strokes). The depth in these areas is perhaps lacking, but a deeper cut into such a wide swath of cartographic history would take volumes. Where I'd have liked to have seen more depth was in the portions of text devoted to Taiwan itself. For example, much of present-day Tainan is on reclaimed land: the littoral borders of the area have changed significantly since the Dutch colonial and Ming loyalist eras. Maps demonstrating this must exist, and would be a fascinating addition to this volume. The book is divided into sections by era: in one of the later sections, more in-depth text, with accompanying maps, of cities in Taiwan under the Japanese, or maps of indigenous areas by tribe would have also been worthy additions.

This, all in all, leads to my biggest criticism of the book: there are many, many maps of Taiwan as a whole, but very few of specific regions or cities. This makes sense in the early chapters when novbody who made maps knew enough about Taiwan to depict it in such detail (or even depict its overall shape correctly). Later, however, a great wealth of maps exist of growing Taiwanese cities and regions - several gorgeous maps of Taipei under the Japanese exist. I've seen them (one of my favorite bookshops, in a rambling shophouse near Longshan Temple, has a huge one framed in the main room). These ought to have been included and would have been more worthy additions than, say, a photograph of a Russian ship that is not related to the main narrative.

These might be more pointed criticisms for a more academic work, but, as a short narrative full of large illustrations with great aesthetic value, I would not say this is a fatal flaw. I would still recommend it as an engaging read, a personal collection of beautiful maps, a worthy addition to a tabletop, and certainly as a gift.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

On sacrifice, history and what we are 'owed'

I've received a fair amount of feedback, most of it positive, regarding the case I made recently for allowing dual nationality to all foreigners. But, there are a few points I'd like to clarify here, which I think merit further discussion.

On selfishness and sacrifice

The first is this idea that, impossible or not, to decline to renounce one's original citizenship is somehow inherently selfish - to want the best of both, or to be unwilling to make any sacrifices.

I understand this as an instinctive first reaction - it's one of those "makes sense on its face" arguments - but with even a bit of dissection falls apart.

First, I reject on its face the notion that a person should have to make massive sacrifices to be a part of the society of the country they call home. That's not the argument I want to make, but I want to put that core idea out there. Some people take this further, and try to justify giving missionaries dual nationality on the basis of their "sacrifices" for the good of the communities they live in, but that the rest of us don't because we live more comfortable lives.

First, let's be clear: missionaries are not selfless. The good works they do - and they do some good things, I admit, and I don't think they're bad people - are done with their own goals in mind: converting members of the community to their faith, which is a benefit to the churches that often fund their missions. I still think they deserve a path to citizenship despite fundamentally disagreeing with the notion of evangelizing, because I think anyone who has decided to make Taiwan their permanent home and contributes to it in some way deserves that path. However, this argument is then extended and ends up somewhere around "you have a nice apartment and a job and therefore you don't deserve citizenship", which I quite literally do not understand as a logical conclusion. Do we really judge who gets to be a member of society based on whether they have wood floors or not? "You live well so you don't deserve political representation"? Really?

I get it, I really do - the idea is that we already have good lives, so we shouldn't want more. However, wanting political representation and to live a normal life as a member of society is not the same at all as having a couch that is not from IKEA (though honestly, if we hadn't inherited the couch we do have from the former tenant, our couch would absolutely be an IKEA model). The logical conclusion of this is that you should not agitate politically if you are comfortable economically, but economics and politics are separate things. I don't want more money - I want to be a member of society.

That said, I really don't want to make it my main argument - I want to point out the ridiculousness of it and move on.

Here's the thing about assuming that renouncing one's original citizenship is a 'sacrifice' and to not want to do so is 'selfish'.

To take the only path to citizenship currently available to me, I would have to quite literally renounce my core values. As much as I complain about the US and insist on my own self-sufficiency and freedom, fundamentally I believe in caring for one's family when they need it. I have already written about why I must retain American citizenship if the need to care for my father arises, and won't repeat myself.

I will, however, point out that the selfish act here would be to abandon my family for my own desires vis-a-vis my life in Taiwan. It is, if anything, a sacrifice that I do not pursue this route, because family, should they need me, trumps what I want in this regard. I would also point out that this means that asking me to renounce American citizenship is tantamount to asking me to put my desires over the needs of said family, and to essentially change who I am as a person - to be willing to be the sort of cold-hearted individual who would choose her immediate satisfaction over possible future family caretaking.

I mean it - I will give Taiwan what they want in any other regard. They want money? I'll pay it. They want me to get my PhD and become a professor, even though I'm happier (and I think a more effective teacher and contributor to the field) outside the academic bureaucracy and would normally stop at a Master's? I'll do it. Mandate that 36-year-old women must also do military service? I'll do it. Pound of flesh? That can be arranged. Start a charity and work at it as my main cause? Already considering it, though kind of hard to do if I'm going to go the academic route until I'm finished shuttling back and forth between Taiwan and the UK for my degree(s).

But I will not abandon my family.

For a culture that places so much emphasis on being filial, you would think the Taiwanese government would understand this.

All that aside, I fundamentally find the idea that wanting to be closer to - rather than maintaining and enforced distance from - the society of the country one calls home is inherently selfish in some way. That wanting to participate civically is selfish - I thought civic duty was meant to be an act of giving? I truly don't understand the logic here, that it is somehow a problem or indicative of bad character that I'd want these things.

On history

I also got a very interesting comment on my assertion that "Taiwanese history is not my history". The point that was made was that if we expect the descendants of the 1945-1949 KMT diaspora, as well as those who took part in it who are still alive, to consider their history to be intertwined with "Taiwanese" history rather than Chinese history, how can we decline to do the same?

However, I'm not saying I won't do the same. I gladly will.

In fact, the ten years of Taiwanese history that have occurred while I've lived here are my history - I live here too. If we stay permanently and do get citizenship, when I am old I will look back on my life and perhaps then think of myself as Taiwanese, and Taiwanese history being my history.

What I meant by that comment was, the agonies and successes of Taiwanese history that happened to the ancestors of the Taiwanese alive today did not happen to my ancestors. I don't want to appropriate or seem like I am appropriating that legacy. The sum of history and cultural legacy that made me who I am, compared to that of my Taiwanese friends, is different, and I feel it's OK to admit that while still hoping to assimilate more. The idea is to avoid "you owe me your history, culture and legacy!" and instead aim for "I would like to be a part of your society if you'll have me, and as I do want it badly, I would like to make a case for that."

On being "owed" something

There is a popular meme going around that shows a blank piece of paper with a title along the lines of "a comprehensive list of everything you are entitled to and the world owes you".

It's cute, and I get the instinctive reaction to agree. However, I actually don't fully believe that - if you live in the forest as hermit who doesn't pay taxes or contribute to a society in any way, the world owes you nothing, that's true. But if you are expected to pay taxes, obey laws, support yourself, contribute to the economy and civic life of a society, in fact, I do believe that society owes you something in return. This is the basic argument for why societies that can do so owe their citizens a social safety net, and I happen to agree with it. Like dedication to family, it is a core value.

That, again, is not the argument I want to make however. I just want to point out that that line of thinking is inherently flawed.

What I want to say is this: I didn't come to Taiwan already knowing citizenship was almost impossible to obtain, and thinking I'd just complain about it whenever I decided I happened to want it. It was a much more organic process. I came here thinking I'd stay for two or three years, but Taiwan, being like Hotel California (as someone once put it to me), has made it so I can check out any time I like, but it seems I can never (don't want to) leave. Only then did I decide to advocate for the chance to participate more fully - after I'd already been here for a decade, contributed in the same way citizens who were born here have done, and tried to be a net benefit to this country rather than a drain on it. I was already here contributing when my thoughts on this topic became defined, not standing on the outside banging on the door.

Do I think, for all of this, that I am "owed" citizenship? Well, no, not in the sense that every country gets to decide for itself what foreigners can and cannot have. I think I've earned it, but I don't think I'm 'owed' it, at least not in the world we live in.

Taiwan, however, is a country that has increasingly insisted it is based on shared cultural values rather than ethnocentric nationalism. They themselves insist that one does not need to be from a particular ethnicity, culture or group to be 'Taiwanese'. Their history museum in Tainan even has a plaque saying so!

If they truly believe this, and this is the kind of country they want to build, it is hypocritical to then make it difficult for those who lack blood ties to Taiwan who are not the lords and ladies of the 1% (or missionaries) to be a part of that society. If they really believe it, they need to stop setting up impossible barriers (and, as I've explained, the need to renounce is an impossible barrier for many of us) and allowing double standards for naturalized vs. born citizens. If they want to keep up that rhetoric, they do owe the people they're talking about a shot at actually being 'Taiwanese'. Forcing us to be perpetual outsiders who can't even have a mortgage or vote for the leaders whose governance affects us is the opposite of this sentiment. It's having your cake and eating it too.

On radical social change

I've also heard the argument that changing the law so completely cannot be done quickly because Taiwan progresses slowly, and to do otherwise would constitute 'radical social change' that would somehow cause problems for society.

This is wrong.

Just as marriage equality is not 'radical social change' but rather a logical expansion of human rights and recognizing what, for many couples, is already true, allowing immigrants in Taiwan to naturalize as dual citizens is not radical. We're already here and already contributing - not much will change as a result. All it is doing is expanding the scope of the rights of people who live in Taiwan, and acknowledging what is already true about our lives here.

Most Taiwanese, when made aware of the double standards that currently exist, voice support for creating a more possible and reasonable path to citizenship for foreign residents. They too are done with ethnocentrism, whether it's Hoklo or Han chauvinism. It is not scandalous or radical to then make the necessary political changes reflecting this.

I don't believe a change like this would result in an influx of people hoping to get citizenship - at least not among white collar workers (I don't believe in dividing who can have dual nationality and who can't based on social class, I'm just pointing out a reality.) Most would come, and eventually leave. Those who stay long enough - seems like it would have to be about ten years to get an APRC and then citizenship - would have demonstrated enough of a commitment to Taiwan to merit naturalization. Most importantly, they'd already be here. It would be a mere formalization of the status they already possess.