Thursday, May 25, 2017

First in Asia? I think so.

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I have a habit of always being connected to things, but never quite being there when the big events happen. So it is again with the absolutely huge ruling from Taiwan's highest court stating that not allowing same-sex couples to marry was unconstitutional. 

There are both good and problematic things about the ruling, but before we get into that, can we just take a minute to jump up and down and celebrate? This is HUGE. Let's just take a few minutes not to undercut that with doubts and rainclouds and just celebrate something good for a bit, 'k?

I mean it - I happen to not be in Taiwan right now, but before I could even get into the meat of this ruling, I immediately flicked off Airplane Mode upon landing at Heathrow (we have a connection to Athens that we're still waiting for), knowing the ruling would be out today, and went straight for the news. I was so happy to read those two three little words - "rules in favor" - that I started crying and jumping up and down on an escalator. Sometimes you've just got to be all holy crap holy crap oh my god holy crap congratulations Taiwan oh my god we did it we did it oh my god oh my god holy crap good job Taiwan wow wow wow wow WOW wow WOWWWW wowowowowowowowowow yayyyy!!! yayayayay yay yay yay YAY YAY YAY!!!!!

We've earned it. Celebrate, and don't feel bad about that. I am so proud to call Taiwan my home today. Good job.

I haven't been able to read the whole ruling yet - walking across an airport in tears will make that hard - but let's start with the good, because we deserve some good.

The good is that the court ruled that the civil code laws barring same-sex couples from marrying, and I quote, "are in violation of both the people’s freedom of marriage as protected by Article 22 and the people’s right to equality as guaranteed by Article 7 of the Constitution", and gave two years for the Legislative Yuan to amend the law accordingly. The mood across the country appears to be one of celebration, and yes, this ruling is historic as it is the first high court in Asia (as far as I am aware) to hand down such a ruling. Taiwan looks set to be the first country in Asia to realize marriage equality.

It is enough to make one cry, and I did.

More of the good: I do think this means that same-sex couples will get equal rights. To pass an additional civil code regulation allowing "civil unions" but not giving those civil unions the full equal rights of opposite-sex married couples would violate the spirit of the ruling and be open to challenge, and I'm sure the legislature knows that.

So, while it would not be optimal to call same-sex unions 'civil partnerships' and categorize them separately, if equality is the goal, then we need to stay focused on that. The court said clearly that the order of the day is equality, and if that means a bit more of a battle to change civil partnerships (which, by court order, must be equal, no? I'm no lawyer but this seems obvious to me?) to 'marriage', then that will still be a battle to end separate categorizing during which same-sex couples have equal rights. Again, that's not ideal, but it's a damn sight better than the alternative of no marriage equality at all.

I do also think this means Taiwan will be the first country in Asia to realize marriage equality. While I suppose it is possible for another country to get there sooner, I highly doubt this will happen. First, because no other country in Asia seems interested in beating Taiwan to this particular finish line, though activist groups in many certainly would like to see marriage equality become the norm in their respective countries (and if you don't think most Asian countries have activist groups because you stereotype Asia as uniformly conservative, you don't know Asia), the attitude I generally perceive is one of it either not being on the radar for any given country. I could also imagine other countries essentially waiting for someone else to take this step - perhaps more Asian nations will finally realize equality, but none seems as eager as Taiwan to be the first.

If the Legislative Yuan does nothing in these two years, after that time marriage equality will be de facto legal. I do not think any other country in Asia is within two years of this. Frankly, even if they were, isn't more equality for more people the true end goal, rather than the distinction of being "first"? Yes, it would be helpful for Taiwan's international image, but remember, the goal is not accolades but equality and the more of it the better. I just don't see the point in fretting too much about this.

Now for the potentially bad:

Just because anti-equality groups seem to be quiet today doesn't mean they're going away. They can't do much about this - which is why I'm happy it went through the court and not the legislature - but they'll probably push for delays, for 'civil partnerships', for whatever they can push for to oppress LGBT people for their own selfish reasons (yes, if you are anti-equality, your personal dislike of LGBT people driving your desire to keep them from attaining equal rights is selfish and it is bigoted). Two years is a long time, and it remains to be seen whether the DPP will get this over with soon or hem and haw and let it become an electoral issue. I really hope it's the former, because the goal is equality as soon as possible. Alternatively they could wait out the two years and just let marriage equality become de facto legal.

And, remember, despite what Facebook chatter is saying, this does not mean marriage equality is automatically legal right now - more needs to be done.

But this is huge, and we all deserve a good drink, a good dance, a good hug, a good cry, and a good party. 


I am so happy for you, Taiwan. So, so happy. 


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Ides of May

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Actually the amount of time I spend on that couch is probably not healthy. 



These days there are a lot of silences. I stare out the blue-rimmed window on dark days and bright ones, reclining on the couch facing the light so that my eyes arc toward the sky. I sit in a broken-in cafe, my favorite, in a dilapidated chair staring out the glass door or picture window, watching people wander down the lane outside. I come here so often that the staff labels the paper I use to order with my name rather than my table number. I shift positions on that couch, back to the door, head on an armrest, cat on the back of my knees, eyes closed or staring at a throw pillow printed with a comically inaccurate map of the world (no, really - Alaska is just south of India and the east coast of Persia looks quite nice). Occasionally I take a break from the torrent of thoughts and vexed emotions to scroll through social media. I do not do this mindlessly; my mind needs a break. 

Often, I sigh. It's a cliche, a damsel in a tower, a rainstorm conjured in jejune writing to symbolize inner turmoil. I sigh loudly; I can't even feign originality. They are not long, soft or sad sighs - they pass forcefully, like gusts of air escaping a cushion that's just been sat on. 

I'm happy. I have a strong, loving marriage. My work, while imperfect, suits me well for now. I have a lovely downtown apartment with a courtyard-facing, bougainvillea-etched window flanked by billowing chiffon curtains in various shades of the sea. I have friends I genuinely like and cats I genuinely love. I don't have children because I don't want any. 

Is it a mid-life crisis? I'm 36 - hardly what we now think of as middle-aged, but then this age was past the halfway mark for my mother. Is that what I'm worried about? Maybe, yes. I don't feel old: friends and students consistently and sincerely remark that I give the clear impression of being about 30. I think they're lying, but they're not. I say it's because we have cats, not children, and children (not marriage, not age, not work and not money) are what really turn you into the sort of Old Person that teenagers make fun of and twentysomethings fear becoming, but that's only part of the story. Six years out of sync, I'm still concerned with the things a twentysomething might care about - which cool cafe to hang out in, which social issue to fret fruitlessly over, which political issue to talk about with friends, which country to visit next. My friends are buying houses. This isn't a criticism - I wish I could buy a house. Part of me kind of wants to be an Old Person in that way. I can't, so I don't, so I seem young. That, and I'm fat so I have no wrinkles. 

I do like having money though. I actually have a savings account! I don't want to be 29 again. I want to be 36 and act 29. And I do. Okay, so it's not a mid-life crisis. 

Is my marriage too "strong and loving"? By that I do not mean "is the passion gone?" It's not. We can't be the only couple in Taiwan who have figured out the joys of typhoon sex (no really, try it: when the storm is about to bear down on the city, go out and buy ingredients to make the most elaborate, delicious mean you are capable of making well, some wine and chocolate or whatever it is you prefer. If you don't live with your lover invite them over. As the typhoon thrashes outside, read a book all morning, cook a fabulous midday meal, go at it all afternoon and after you've had your fill of lying in bed together, spend the evening drinking and eating sweets and leftovers. It is truly a day of living like gods). 

What I mean instead is that we are so secure that we no longer need to say much about it. I don't wonder if he still loves me; he does, deeply. I don't wonder if he finds me funny, or smart, or beautiful, or engaging. He does, all of them. And I him. He never says so, and yet I have no doubt. (I say so to him all the time because that’s just how I am). So no, it’s not this. 

Is it that I am as torn as ever between thinking of Taiwan as home and yet being angry that Taiwan does not think of itself as a place that should be such a home? That I am not even a second-class citizen here, because I'm not a citizen at all, and yet I can feel the contours of this nation mapped into my thoughts with more clarity than I could ever imagine America? Is it that I could nearly taste the possibility of dual nationality, only to be told by the government that I, and any positive contribution I may have made in Taiwan, is worth about as much to them as a piece of trash that's washed up on the beach in Yilan?

Yes, it's probably a small dose of that. 

Or is it this: over ten years ago, when I was 26, I was months away from leaving the US for good. My then-boyfriend and I broke up right around this time a decade ago, and as the summer passed and I awaited my flight to Taipei, a friend remarked that I was handling the breakup well. I thought I wasn't, but now I see that I was fine: an outer crust of sadness, no more meaningful than a film of sea-grit on a sail about to be unfurled. 

And yet in those months I would lay in bed on top of my lime-green duvet and stare out the window (it looked out over a parking lot in our small townhouse complex, but I would angle myself so my eyes would hit the tops of the trees). I would sigh, forcefully. Gusts of wind would expel themselves and I could not control them; I even got a talking-to about doing it at work. 

I was - to borrow a phrase I have become fond of recently - in a liminal stage then. A sail tied up on a ship that was already at sea. There was a shambolic quality to my life, though in fact it was not a disorderly state but a re-ordering. Newly single, I had planned to stay in Taiwan for perhaps two or three years and felt myself unlikely to date. It wasn't that I didn't like Asian men. In fact, I had already subconsciously accepted that long before it was appropriate to express it even to myself, I was deeply and unremittingly in love with my best friend and the only remedy would either be to uproot myself to such an extreme degree as to shake him from my mind, or to marry him (I married him. We have excellent typhoon sex). 

I sighed then because I knew the change was coming, though I did not know it would take this form. I did not expect to stay in Taiwan for a decade, to decide that teaching was my life's work, or to become so enmeshed in life here that I would come to think of this country in the sort of gushing patriotic terms I would likely smirk at if applied to any other country - though, to be fair, this country is so beautiful that that is its name. I would not say that I didn't expect to marry Brendan. I didn't necessarily think I would, but on some elemental level I did know. 

To be even sappier, I would say that I sighed not because something in me required an expression of sadness or exasperation, but because the wind was blowing, it was time to go, but I had not yet opened the sail. The gale needed to go somewhere, so it rushed through me and I exhaled it, right up until I caught a taxi to the airport.

Life was disordered then - the shared townhouse was nice but I knew it was impermanent. I was lucky to hold on to the job I hated, but needed, until I left. I was single, nearly broke and adrift. I didn't recognize the wind for what it was, and being somewhat alone and confused, I had to figure out how to raise that sail on my own. 

I began to feel this way again this past March. It was eleven years to the month from when I bought that plane ticket and decided to move to Taiwan. Ten years later, to the month, from when that best friend became my boyfriend of the excellent typhoon afternoons. Seven years from when we decided to get married, again around March.

Because I am a pseudo-intellectual lightweight, I once looked up the Ides of March online because this time of year seems to bring me so many impending life changes that I had to know if there was any historical inference I could make to describe it. My intuition was not far off: before it was famous for the assassination of Caesar, it was a feast day that concluded the festivities used to mark the new year. There was no stench of bad luck about it. I don't believe in God, gods or mythology, but ushering in the new year right about now seems to fit the rhythms of my life. Why not raise a glass to Anna Perenna, then? I've worshipped stranger gods that I've also not believed in. 

March has passed. It's now May, and tomorrow, I am not moving abroad permanently in the way I did in 2006, but the wind is blowing again. Things are changing - it's not as drastic, not only because I have a co-captain this time, but also because I have a home (though we don't own it) and my own tiny half-feline family, a profession and perhaps just the tiniest sense of purpose. I am on my way - tomorrow! - to begin the process of achieving one of my biggest goals: a postgraduate degree. I held off this long not only because I hadn't been able to afford it previously, but also because I can still hear my mother's voice telling me not to go to grad school until I was sure of what I wanted to do. You can't be sure of what you want to do until you go out into the world, and sometimes not even then. 

And yet, it's coming. We’ll travel a bit first, heading to Greece, Armenia and Georgia, and then in June I am "moving", however temporarily, to the UK, to begin my hard-won achievement of this dream. Other things are changing too - I'm not sure what they are yet, but the sudden surfacing of a desire to gain dual nationality in a small Pacific island nation that most of the world refuses to recognize doesn't just happen for no reason.

The last time this happened, I thought I was depressed. Why else would someone loll about staring out windows and sighing uncontrollably? This time, after seven years of comfortably ambling along with only minor life changes, I see it for what it is - the wind is blowing, and it's time to start raising the sail. 


It’s now well past midnight and I leave today.

Catch you on the flip side. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

I have a crush on Indiana Jones's mom



My first sighting of Taiwan was years before I actually moved here.

I was 19 years old, on my way to a study abroad program in India, and our plane from Los Angeles had a brief scheduled stop at Taoyuan Airport. As we cruised in, I saw rugged green mountain peaks jutting out from swirling white clouds and mist.

It was lovely, like coming across slabs of rough green and white quartz while hiking, but more vivid. Yet it was my first glimpse of Asia and second time to travel to another continent; it intrigued me.

Even Taoyuan Airport was of more interest then than it is now: a glass wall installation of Chinese calligraphy, a few shops, a new smell - my first whiff of the many scents of Asia which, while all different, are all entirely unlike those of North America. Perhaps now I find all this somewhat unimpressive - after all, who is impressed by Taoyuan International Airport? - but at the time I was taken.

One of my fellow India-bound students commented: oh, hey, we're in the Republic of China, cool! 

Cool!

I knew that the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China were different entities, but I did not fully grasp all I did not know. I did, I admit, think of Taiwan as the place where Chinese culture had been "saved and preserved". Worry not, I grew out of that absurd notion. I thought to myself that, although this time we would not leave the airport, I would very much like to explore the Republic of China someday. The thought was, to quote my nascent inamorata, inchoate. But it was there.

I didn't go immediately - we stopped in Kuala Lumpur and explored the city for the day, went on to Chennai, then Mahabalipuram, then Madurai, India, where my entire worldview was turned on its head. I returned to the US and finished my degree, fighting what I thought might have been a touch of depression but was actually a compound case of senioritis and the travel bug. I went to China - the People's Republic of China, the other one - traveled around Southeast Asia, returned to India, then the US, then worked a stultifying office job for a few years.

And then, it was time. The opportunity was there in that I finally had the freedom and savings to explore this Republic of China, and I was fast realizing that what I thought was a temporary, curable travel bug was actually a chronic illness whose only cure was to leave and basically not come back.

Only then did I realize I wasn't going to the Republic of China at all; I was moving to Taiwan, or perhaps Formosa. But this was no China. 

I am now an English teacher by profession, but I like to think (pretend?) that I am also much more than that.  

* * *

Why am I telling you this? 

Because almost exactly 100 years ago, the object of my affection boarded a boat in Manila bound for Nagasaki, passed Taiwan and noted how beautiful the cliffs plunging into the sea appeared:

Formosa, that little-known island in the typhoon-infested South China Sea, so well called by its early Portuguese discoverers - as its name implies - "the beautiful". Indeed, it was the beauty of Formosa that first attracted me....I shall never forget the first glimpse that I caught of the island as I passed it...there it lay, in the light of the tropical sunrise, glowing and shimmering like a great emerald, with an apparent vividness of green that I had never seen before, even in the tropics. During the greater part of the day it remained in sight, apparently floating slowly past - an emerald on a turquoise bed....

My desire to learn at first-hand something of the aborigines of Formosa remained, therefore, more or less an inchoate inclination on my part, and I turned my attention to other things. Then, curiously enough, as coincidences always seem curious when they affect themselves, a few months later...came an offer from a Japanese official to go to Formosa as a teacher of English in the Japanese Government School in Taihoku [ed: present-day Taipei], the capital of the island. 

Girl, I already want you.

You floated by, I floated over, but we both had the same thought - there is a reason why they call this the Beautiful Island, and I would like to explore it. We both set that thought aside for years, and then, for both of us, the right circumstances presented themselves. 

You even came as an English teacher, but you were so much more than that. 

Let this be a lesson to those who would disparage all English teachers as losers, wash-ups, backpackers and weirdos: the single most awesome foreign woman to ever alight in Taiwan and write the classic but oft-forgotten Among the Head-Hunters of Formosa, merely because she was inclined to do so and found the place beautiful as she passed by once, was also an English teacher.

You were not wealthy (in fact, it appears you often published for general interest of of necessity, which may have affected your reputation enough to keep you from publishing in more scholarly circles). You were absolutely a wanderer, absolutely fearless, and absolutely unapologetic. 

Brendan pointed out that you were the mother of William Montgomery McGovern, the possible inspiration for Indiana Jones. Although he did what a lot of adventurous male scholars were able to do at that time, whereas you bucked all sorts of expectations of women, let alone female scholars, and wrote a classic book on Taiwan, he has a Wikipedia bio, but you do not (guuuurl, I am gonna fix that for you, because you are my person.) 

I am not concerned with your son, nor am I concerned with Indiana Jones. It's easy to have a crush on Indiana Jones. I have a crush on his mother who, by dint of what she did despite the sexist time and society in which she was born, was so much more of a bad-ass. 

I can only lament that we were born a century apart. And that I like men, but that hardly matters: I'll make an exception for you, my star-cross'd love. If you weren't dead, that is. 

I am not going to recount the entire book for those of you reading this. It is available online, on Amazon, and can occasionally be found in Taipei (try The Taiwan Store). You will learn quite a bit about the indigenous people of Formosa: for a time, it is likely that nobody in the world knew more about them than Janet B. Montgomery McGovern. I especially enjoyed the marriage customs wherein a lovelorn "swain" (and yes, I adore the old-timey English usages) would play a small mouth harp or create a twenty-bundle monument of firewood for a woman's cooking pot in order to win her hand - and that she still had absolute right of acceptance or refusal.

Brendan and I decided to get married by basically saying to each other:
"We should get married, yeah?"
"Sure, that sounds cool."


So, this was nice. 

But why am I so enamored with Janet McGovern?

She came to Taiwan as a single woman in a time when that was fairly rare - and when it was done, it was usually by missionaries. I love that she had no interest in being a missionary. She never seems to have become fluent in any one Formosan language, but picked up some of many different, rare tongues: more than wealthier expats with more resources today often manage to do for just one language, which is far more well-known, with more learning resources created for it, yet isn't even the native tongue of this country. 

She trusted head-hunters that full-grown men, both foreign and local, were terrified of, and was in turn offered trust, kindness and hospitality. She had such a no-nonsense, take-neither-shit-nor-prisoners writing style (I like to think I also have that style, updated for a new century?) that you could see, emanating off the page like waves of hot steam, that she was also a take-neither-shit-nor-prisoners woman. She totally DGAF before it was cool for women to NGAF. 

Homegirl even said this to a Japanese official, in 1917: 

I explained that obviously I was not a Japanese, also that I was not at all certain that I was a lady, and that if the distinction between coolie-woman and lady lay in the fact that one walked and the other did not, I much preferred being classed in the former category. 

...Suddenly the light of a great idea seemed to dawn upon him. "Ah," he exclaimed exultantly..."but they will say you are immoral, and Christian ladies do not like to be thought immoral."

This struck me as being amusing - for several reasons.
"Yes," I said, "and who is likely to think me immoral?"
"Oh, everybody," he answered impressively. "And they will publish it in the papers - all the Japanese papers in the city, and in the island," he emphasized, "that you are immoral."

...."I am afraid I must continue to go on my wicked way without the protection of your companionship," I said; "and if 'they' - whoever 'they'  may be - annoy you with questions as to the object of my excursions into the mountains....tell them 'Yes' to anything they ask about me," I said, "if that will set their minds at rest."

GIRL. 

All I can say is this: Among the Head-Hunters of Formosa is an interesting book for its time-capsule like quality of describing Taiwan as it was in 1917, and is interesting for what one learns about the indigenous of Formosa, from a qualified anthropologist, although I would imagine much of the information is out-of-date.

But, I am a woman who once saw the beauty of Taiwan in passing and was inspired by that alone to make it my home, who DGAF or at least tries not to. I have some private but very few public role models of highly competent, fierce women  of knowledge and training - remember, I am trained at the graduate level in Education, though I do not claim the same level of ferocity that Ms. McGovern clearly possessed - who have called Taiwan home among a sea of Western men, some exceptional but most mediocre. I loved this book, then, for reasons entirely separate from its ethnographic riches.

I also love it because I'm not alone. Janet B. Montgomery McGovern walked this path a century ago, and although she ended up at a different destination, so many of her landmarks are familiar to me even now. I have a deep sense of sympathy, although the experience does not mirror mine, of being the woman who should have run the whole show and had movies made starring characters inspired by her, only for that prize to go to her son.

My inamorata is not perfect. She consistently refers to non-aboriginal cultures as "more civilized", although she points out later in the book that the indigenous people she visited themselves viewed other cultures who don't keep promises as 'savages' and themselves as the farthest thing from. I won't excuse this by pointing out that it was a common line of thinking a hundred years ago. I will simply apologize as I like to think she would apologize now, were she still alive. Formosa may still be "little-known", almost as much now as then, but things have changed.

McGovern herself seems to grasp this toward the end, where she questions whether the "civilized" world would be better off, or how different it would be, if they followed the moral and social mores of the people she routinely refers to as "savages", and opines that, at least, it might not be worse: you might lose your head, but your community would provide for you, and everyone would say what they meant and keep their word. She also considers the idea of a matrilocal, matri-potestal "gynocracy" and what an evolution within such a system might have meant for Europe - in this part, you can see a glimmer of first-wave feminism shining through, and I love it.

Perhaps she goes too far in the other direction, making indigenous communities out to be more perfect - more "simple" in their "primitive" ways - than I think any society can actually be, but at least she considers it, which is more than I suspect many of her white male contemporaries were ever able to wrap their minds around.

And I have to admit, as I have said above, I have a bit of a crush on her, and this is my paean - no, my love letter. 

What even is this nonsense from Reuters again

Seriously, Reuters, what is your problem? 

This fistful of garbage was linked to by a friend for some reason, and I feel like it's worth taking ten minutes to conduct a quick review of how to spot anti-Taiwan bias (or "who cares about Taiwan" bias), something that pervades huge swaths of the media. 

Let's take a look, and laugh together.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen is signaling she needs more give and take from China to rein in hardliners on an island China considers its own, officials say, but Beijing is unlikely to budge months before its five-yearly Communist Party Congress.


"Hardliners"?



Wanting your country which is already independent to continue to be that way without the threat of war is not a hard-line stance. Not that many of us want a formal declaration of independence right now (well, I do, but I know I can't have it and I've made my peace with that). We know it's impossible for the time being, but are working toward it happening, peacefully, someday. How does this equate to being a 'hardliner'?

But Beijing is "unlikely to budge" - they are not "hardliners" though, because...

...why?

As she marks one year in office on Saturday, Tsai, leader of the ruling independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is facing a surge in anti-China sentiment amid pressure from Beijing on the proudly democratic island to bow to its "one China" policy.

1.) It's not "anti-China" sentiment, it's "pro-Taiwan" sentiment. Not wanting your country to be annexed by an aggressive neighbor doesn't make you "anti" that country, or rather, doesn't make you that any more than is reasonable. If the US up and decided that it was just going to take over Canada tomorrow, the Canadians who didn't want that to happen would not be "anti-US". This entire way of writing makes Taiwanese who simply love their country - in an engaged and informed way, not a jingoistic one - seem like the bad guys, and annexation seem like the reasonable move. As though wanting to keep a reasonably successful and mature democracy with the human rights and freedoms that entails rather than be subsumed against one's will by a dictatorship that regularly tortures, terrorizes and deprives its citizens makes one, well, a "hardliner". What? Seriously...what? 

2.) Not even a twinge of criticism or even a deeper look into what it means for China to pressure another country to bow to it? I thought we left behind the idea of tributary states in the colonial era, but I guess not



It is becoming more difficult to hold the line against independence-minded constituents and even tougher for Tsai to offer concessions to Beijing, one senior government official told Reuters on the condition of anonymity.



Why should Tsai have to offer 'concessions' to a country that IS TRYING TO TAKE OVER HER COUNTRY AND ISN'T EVEN HIDING THAT FACT??

JESUS. 



"President Tsai's attitude is that she is very determined to maintain the status quo of democracy and cross-Strait relations," the official said, referring to the body of water separating the two sides.


Wait, did JR Wu just mansplain to us what the Taiwan Strait is? Or what 'strait' means? Really? 



China has claimed Taiwan as its own since defeated Nationalists fled to the island in 1949 after losing a civil war with the Communists. Only a handful of countries recognize Taiwan as a country, making it ineligible, for instance, for membership of UN organizations.


While this is an improvement over the old-school nonsense "China and Taiwan separated in 1949" phrasing, it still makes it sound as though Taiwan had been Chinese before the KMT fled there. Which, if you read like even one freakin' book on Taiwan - just one, really - you will know is not the case. 



In recent weeks, Tsai has given a series of interviews after a half-year break and taken to Twitter to talk about Taiwan being shut out of a UN health meeting and made her first extensive comments on the detention of a Taiwan activist in China.


OK, so Confucius McDoorknob here can't even bring himself to call Lee Ming-che a Taiwanese activist. He has to be a Taiwan activist. Being Taiwanese is not a thing, apparently? 



At least 70 percent of Taiwanese do not accept the "one China" policy, with 58.4 percent blaming Beijing as being the more provocative of the two since Tsai took office on May 20 last year, according to a poll by the Cross-Strait Policy Association, which is comprised of prominent academics and bipartisan figures.


It's hard to pinpoint the exact problem in wording here, but the implication one gets from the paragraph taken as a whole is that it is somehow a problem or a negative thing that the Taiwanese do not "accept" a policy that aims to annex their country, that their own government doesn't sincerely espouse, that is being forced on them by a foreign entity. It would, again, be like saying "at least 70% of Canadians do not accept the US's One-America policy" without critiquing that statement, thereby implying that this number is somehow worryingly high rather than showing a majority of people are reasonable and prescient. If anything, this number is lower than I'd like to see.

I would have to look into this, but you can't be more specific than "at least 70%"? Why not?

Maybe my uneasiness at this paragraph is enhanced by what directly follows it: 





"My concern right now is that on some level of cross-Strait relations, a collision is about to begin," said Fan Shih-ping, an association member and a political science professor at National Taiwan Normal University.

Oh, there will be a collision most likely. All we can hope for is that it doesn't result in all-out war. But putting this here draws a direct line in the reader's mind from that "at least 70%" of Taiwanese who won't accept that big ol' dickful of annexationist nonsense that China is trying to cram in their mouth to this "collision", implying it is their fault for not wanting to be annexed and therefore being, to quote Wu again, "anti-China". No attempt at all to explore who the real antagonist here is (SPOILER ALERT IT'S CHINA). 




A spokesman for China's Taiwan Affairs Office said last week everything wrong with the current relations could be blamed on the DPP and its refusal to accept "one China".
"No matter what new flowery language the DPP comes up with, it can't shift its responsibility for this reality," spokesman An Fengshan said.

No attempt to critique this? None? Not even a few words to deconstruct what An Fengshan is saying? Tearing apart pro-Taiwan sentiment but silently accepting Chinese annexationism?


It was 10 days before Beijing confirmed Li had been detained for security reasons, but so far it has not disclosed Li's whereabouts and last month canceled his wife's visa to stop her from going to China to look for him.


Not even one word on the very clear truth that these "security reasons" are likely bogus, or even an implication that they may be? 
Tsai has said both sides should look for a "new model" for ties but has not defined it, a senior DPP official said, mainly to show Beijing she is open to ideas.
"I hope Chairman Xi Jinping, as a leader of a large country and who sees himself as a leader, can show a pattern and flexibility, use a different angle to look at cross-Strait relations, and allow the future of cross-Strait ties to have a different kind of pattern," Tsai told Reuters in an interview last month.
China's biggest fear is that Tsai does something rash, like call an independence referendum, said a Beijing-based Western diplomat. That would give the hardliners in the Chinese military an upper hand for a forceful response, he added.


AAAAAHHHHH Tsai CAN'T "define" this new model because no matter what she says China will insist the problem is that Taiwan is being recalcitrant. It doesn't matter. China will always blame Taiwan for China's own aggression. She has to keep it vague, China is forcing her to. 

And not even one bit of inquiry into the unlikelihood of Tsai - who is the least 'rash' leader I've ever seen, she's a brick, not a typhoon - doing something 'rash'? Implying that she very well may?

China has never ruled out the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control.


So you're just going to report that without questioning it, without investigating it, without critiquing it? It's not that it's untrue, it's that the media takes it at face value without reporting to the public all that it implies, e.g. that China is quite literally threatening to violently annex another sovereign state, and that nobody seems to be calling them on that. In fact, they are a country that wants to be seen as a major global power - if not the major global power - and yet they think this sort of behavior and rhetoric is acceptable. This portends a massive shift in what we consider the values of developed/leading countries, and what it means to be a superpower and steward on a global scale. This quite literally means that an ascendant China shifts our entire moral compass, on a worldwide scale, away from democracy, freedom, human rights, peace through diplomacy and respect for territorial sovereignty. HOW IS THIS NOT FUCKING TERRIFYING and yet you are not even asking the question let alone attempting to answer it. It's just taken as normal and that is even more terrifying. 



Tsai and the DPP understand that before China's party congress in the autumn, Chinese President Xi won't be able to offer breakthroughs in ties even if he wanted to, Taiwan sources say.



Not a peep about how Xi's "inability" to "offer" breakthroughs is indicative of a horrifying level of dysfunctionality at the highest levels of government in China? Again, to remind you, a country that wants to set the standard for what it means to be a world leader? Do you not even want to engage with what this means?

Did you take two seconds to compare the picture you painted of Tsai and the Taiwanese majority - "hardliners", "might do something rash", "anti-China sentiment" - who are quite peaceful, not rash, and not trying to take over another country or start a war, with how you painted Xi Jinping and the CCP, who are trying to take over another country and very well may start a war? If Xi "can't offer a breakthrough", then he is dealing with hardliners, and not ruling out the use of force means they might do something rash, and they are absolutely anti-Taiwan, but you never say that. You give them a pass, while Taiwan over here is just trying to keep the peace and not get a thousand missiles launched right up its ass while maintaining its territorial integrity like any other country, and you make them sound like complete nutjobs.

A journalist's job is not only to report the facts, but to consider carefully the implications of those facts and report situations as accurately as possible, even if this does not mean two sides get equal airing of their views. You are not only not doing this, you are doing the opposite of this.

This is your job. It shouldn't be, but for now it is.

Do your job better. 





One foreign representative based in Taipei said the party congress and how ties develop between China and the United States, Taiwan's most important political ally, were variables Tsai could not control.
"She's got to map out all the pressure points and try to mitigate them," he said.

So, like, we're not criticizing Xi for being "unable" to do anything for Taiwan when China is the aggressor in the first place, but we are talking about how this is all on Tsai, when Taiwan is the country under threat?

Did anyone - anyone at all - from the writer to the editor to the copyeditor to the guy who pressed the key to publish this trash heap stop to think for one second what this sounds like?

Christ, Reuters.

You suck and I hate you.

And you folks reading at home, this is what I mean when I say the media is biased against Taiwan and terrified of China. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Who gets an 'Ideal Mother' award?

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A door goddess on the Five Concbines' Temple in Tainan.
I like to think that women are seen as good for more than just sex, good looks and motherhood. 

Mother's Day was yesterday, but I am only getting around to writing this now. I don't do a lot on Mother's Day - although I have a grandmother and mother-in-law, it's still hard to do more than maybe offer a quiet tribute of some kind to my own mother, who passed away in 2014.

Anyway, I don't I'm not meaning to make any deep social commentary here, I just wanted to point out a common practice in Taiwan that I've never heard of being done where I'm from.

Perhaps you've heard of the "Ideal Mother Awards" (or "Exemplary Mother Awards", or however you'd translate it).

Basically, every Mother's Day, local communities, including my own, vote on which mothers in their communities are "Exemplary Mothers". There's a little ceremony and an award of some kind, often but not always presented by the neighborhood chief (里長). I can't imagine it's much. You might have your name published in the community newsletter if there is one. I only know about the one in my area because of that newsletter - I tried to read it once for Chinese practice, found it horribly boring, and haven't tried again.

I'm not sure who decides who is an "Exemplary Mother", to be honest, although I know there are a lot more community organizations than I am aware of as a foreigner, even as one who speaks Chinese and gets along more-or-less well with her neighbors (except, ahem, in 2014. You know why). I'd kind of forgotten about it as I no longer read my (again, horribly boring) community newsletter. I was only reminded of the practice again when a student told me that her mother-in-law would receive such an award.

Great! I thought. Here's a chance to ask a few questions about this particular...uh, tradition? Is it even one? 

Ugh, my student seemed to think. It's such a silly old-fashioned thing. I hope nobody ever foists one of those awards on ME. 

I have to admit, I had conceived of the "Exemplary Mother" awards as a sort of patriarchal pat-on-the-back, a carrot of reinforcement of outdated gender norms. Convincing women to think of their "place" as mothers and wives in the family so the whole Confucian train can keep rollin'. Though this is not limited to Asia, in Asia it's often associated with Confucianism, however, we are not innocent in the West, where I suppose it's just associated with being misogynist. Same difference?

And I write that even as someone who strongly dislikes the tendency of foreigners writing about Asia to revert straight to "Confucian!!!" to explain everything, even when that thing can be explained by saying "this is a thing that sucks." But maybe it can be used accurately in this particular case?

Back when I read that article in my community newsletter, I recall at least one-third to one-half of all of the "exemplary mothers" having dual surnames (e.g. Chen Zhuang Mei-ling or what have you), signifying that the mothers in question had taken their husbands' surnames in addition to their own: a practice that is considered by most to be very traditional and old-fashioned, and something of a social signal showing that you, too, are something of a traditionalist.

So, I imagined this whole shebang as a way to reward housewives, perhaps conservative ones, perhaps ones in very traditional family structures who not only upheld those structures, but believed in them and maybe even felt everyone else should too. I certainly imagined them picking mothers who defined themselves by their family, deferred to their husbands, and embodied a certain middle-to-upper-middle-class ROC - can we call it waisheng? - aesthetic, whether they were actually from that community or not (I've long felt that the aesthetic is the thing that seems to count. Whether or not you are actually descended from the KMT diaspora doesn't always make a difference when it comes to this kind of patriarchal elitism. You just have to act like them.)

However, I was pleasantly surprised. A quick rundown of the questions I asked and the answers I got:

So these awards - what do you have to do to get one?

Well, you have to have at least a few kids. Maybe three is enough - a lot of kids anyway, probably more than two. And you have to have sacrificed a lot for your family.

What do you mean by 'sacrificed a lot'? 

Like, spend a lot of time raising your kids, and they should be successful, good students or high-level workers if they are older. Always cooking nutritious food, that sort of thing. And usually you are not rich, I guess they think it's easy to raise kids if you are rich.

So, housewives?

No, sometimes the mothers have careers. You don't have to be a housewife to get this award.

Do they have to be particularly traditional?

No, I mean, I guess if you're divorced you won't get the award. But you don't have to be very traditional. Like I said, you could work or have a career too. Actually if you just do everything you are told you probably won't get it. You have to be a leader in the family.

Anything else? 

You should take care of other family members, like your husband's parents. If you take care of kids and the older generation, that's really good. And you should have a...'harmonious family'.

What about your own parents? 

I don't know, but I think if you take care of your own parents and raise kids, that's actually okay. It doesn't have to be so traditional.

So, are there "Exemplary Father" awards? 

Yes! We have those on Father's Day. But honestly, people don't pay as much attention to them. And you also have to sacrifice a lot for your family to get that.

Sacrifice how?


Like do a lot for them, raise your children well, and have a lot of kids, spend time with them, and the kids should be model citizens too. Just like with the mothers.

So it's not about earning money for the family. 


No! Anyone can do that. An 'Exemplary Father' has to do more than that.

It seems like the main thing here is rewarding people who have a lot of kids. 


Yup. Well you know our population is low, people are not having a lot of kids these days. So maybe the government wants to encourage that by rewarding the parents who do that even though they are not rich, and who raise their kids well.

Other than being good students or successful adults, what does it mean to be a 'model citizen'? 


Well, like a good person. Maybe you do something for the community.

So it's about more than obeying your parents, or growing up to earn a lot of money? 


Yeah.

What do you think it means to have a 'harmonious family'?

Like, you get along, the neighbors don't think of you as fighting all the time, maybe you seem happy as a family. Not divorced. But also, not arguing all the time.

Do you need to have a son?
Not as far as I know, no. But I guess most people who win this award have at least one son, because they always have many kids.

* * *

Anyway, this is one person's answers, and narrators can be unreliable. I don't know how true her statements are regarding the entire practice. Perhaps in her neighborhood they are more progressive, but you never know, perhaps they are less so, or perhaps her views of what it takes to be an "Exemplary Mother" are not as in line with the committee members' ideas as she thinks they are. There's no way to know (well, there is a way to know, but I'm not an academic with a research budget, so there's no way for me to know).

There are things I could nitpick, though many could be nitpicked in any country: the idea that one needs to have many kids to be an "Exemplary Mother" (or father), the idea that fathers get less attention paid to their awards (though fathers being thought of as less involved with family is an issue hardly unique to Taiwan). I wonder to what extent female obeisance is required to maintain a 'harmonious family', and what behavior at home might be known about but ignored by neighbors. I wonder to what extent wives and mothers might not speak out lest their neighbors think of them as less than 'exemplary' (again, not a problem unique to Taiwan).

The award also only seems to be open to same-sex couples, as we don't yet have marriage equality in Taiwan, and the idea that one can't be an "Exemplary Mother" if one is divorced. It reinforces gender norms and gender identity, and provides a frighteningly pre-fab idea about what 'sacrifice' and 'harmony' mean. I also wonder how often it really happens that a woman who receives such an award really does have a high-powered career on par with her husband's. Perhaps it is possible, but is it common?

I could also nitpick what this means for the kids. Sure, what my student said above is all well and good. It sounds wonderful on paper, but what does it really mean? Does it mean pushing kids to study all day for pointless tests, so they get good grades and thus are "good students"? How narrow is the definition for "model citizens"? I mean, that last one sounds like something Ma Ying-jiu would have been called as a kid, and something Hung Hsiu-chu would blather on about now, and I wouldn't call either of them model citizens. Do they really not define 'successful' as 'high-status and earning a lot of money' or is that just something one says because it sounds like the right sort of sound bite? And is the fact that the winners generally have sons really because they tend to have more than two kids in general, or because sons really are considered more important by the committee that hands these awards out?

I don't know, and I can't know, but I have to admit the whole thing is a lot better than I'd imagined it to be.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Review of Taiwan's Imagined Geography



Taiwan's Imagined Geography: Chinese Colonial Travel Writing and Pictures, 1683-1895
Emma Jinhua Teng
Available at Bookstore 1920s on Dihua Street, Amazon and Book Depository UK (with free shipping!)

This is likely to be a short review, by my standards, not because I did not like this book, but because I liked it too much. It's easy to write reams about a flawed tome; a far more difficult task is writing about something one has no substantive quibbles with.

I was immediately impressed by this book for two key reasons: the first was its thickness compared to the chunk of time it covers and the narrowness of its focus on that time: the book provides historical narrative, but its purpose is to support the main point: a cut-through of travel writing on Taiwan by Chinese colonial visitors. Teng begins and ends her investigation in Qing-era Taiwan, exploring only briefly the accounts of earlier visitors if they add to that narrative, for example, discussing what Shi Lang, who captured Taiwan (from the Zhengs of Koxinga fame), said about the place before it was ever really incorporated into Qing holdings, and what a Chinese visitor in Japanese-era Taiwan had to say about losing a part of what he called "my China".

The second thing that impressed me was how engagingly it was written, for a book that has real scholarly heft (in fact, in some parts where she begins quoting other academics, it differs little from textbooks you absolutely would not read for pleasure, and yet it remains pleasurable). If I had to compare it to anything, I'd say it's Taiwan's version of A Distant Mirror (name drop: hands in the air if you've read it!)

Unless you are already an expert in the field, you will learn quite a bit from this book, almost all of it relevant to what makes Taiwan what it is today. You can see the roots of many issues of identity and politics taking shape, from indigenous issues to questions of nationalism and the historical roots of, as well as a well-deserved challenge to the legitimacy of, China's claims to Taiwan as Chinese "since antiquity."

Spoiler alert: not only did China have no claim on Taiwan whatsoever until the Qing dynasty came and kicked out the Ming loyalists, but for most of the ancient history of China they were either unaware of its existence, or barely-aware, not not really caring. There are various historical reasons for this, including the conception of what was included in "China". Even when the Qing did hold Taiwan, they only controlled its Western plain, considering the mountains a 'hedgerow' or 'screen' protecting China proper, until the late 19th century when they realized that other powers might be interested in taking it. For much of the time before that, they considered it barely worth their time, a drain on coffers rather than a treasure adding to them. And, finally, there is a case to be made that the Qing treated Taiwan more as a colonial holding than an integral part of its territory.

You can read about all of this in the book, and I was aware of all of these points well before I read it. I mostly added the above paragraph so that the next time some pro-China troll comes along I can link or copy-paste rather than repeat myself.

The part that interested me, and will presumably interest you, is the various ways in which the colonial travel writings and associated maps Teng includes reflect the changing attitudes of China towards Taiwan during this time, from a 'ball of mud beyond the pale of civilization' to a 'treasure island', spending quite a bit of time on how Taiwan and its indigenous tribes were perceived as 'other', and what exactly it means to consider Taiwan more a colonial holding of the Qing than a frontier territory.

If I could come up with any one criticism of this book, it's that at times I would have actually liked to dive a little deeper into a straight accounting of history. I don't hold that against Teng: it's made clear at the outset that Taiwan's Imagined Geography is not meant to be that, and I won't criticize the book for something it was never meant to be. I would have also liked if she'd spent just a bit more time deconstructing the veracity of the claims of the various writers: she makes it clear that as narrators they are often unreliable, but does not make it her business to analyze exactly how.

Now, I did say above that despite being a scholarly work, Taiwan's Imagined Geography is eminently readable. However, I am a person with something of a scholarly bent. I'm no professor, but I can and do read this sort of stuff for fun (and in my defense my husband is a much bigger nerd than I am), and I am more than happy to learn, in great detail, about various aspects of Taiwan past and present. If you are not this sort of person and prefer more general reading, or are interested in Taiwan more in passing, you might find it more of a slog than I did. But if you liked A Distant Mirror - despite it being on an entirely different topic - you will love this book.

And I guess that wasn't a short review at all.



Friday, May 12, 2017

To be a woman anywhere

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Everywhere we go, we are less than: considered more from the back than the front
I have wanted to express something about the Lin Yi-han sexual assault and subsequent suicide case, but have refrained, being unsure of exactly how to put into words my thoughts on this (you may be surprised to learn that when I am more than a little unsure, or don't think I have much to add to a topic, I actually do stay silent). I did not know Lin, nor have I read her book - though I would like to - and I don't keep up with Chinese-language news as much as I should, which kind of implies a lack of reason to comment. This is one reason why I said little, if anything (I don't recall writing any posts on the topic) about the Fu-jen University rape case and subsequent cover-up.

But something struck me about the universality of women's experiences when it came to this case - not that every woman experiences such things, but that they are experienced by women around the world, of all ages, backgrounds and circumstances.

The English-language media I have read about these tragic events have been sympathetic, non-sensationalist and taking aim at not just the recounting of personal tragedy but at the larger social issues laid bare. If one were to read only the English-language reporting on this, one might think that Taiwan was, if anything, a more progressive and thoughtful place than the US when it came to such issues.

Of course, as New Bloom points out, this is not the case:



And so while it is important that this case be discussed by Taiwanese society, the sensationalist attitudes of the media in their treatment of female subjects are another issue which should be discussed. Indeed, much reporting on the matter in Taiwanese media has been disgraceful, seeing as while some media outlets has skirted around reporting Lin’s name for fear of legal punishment despite Lin’s parents having already released her name, this strikes as hypocritical when they otherwise have no compunction in sensationalizing similar cases—one suspects respect for the victim or concern with addressing the social issues which led to Lin’s death is the last thing on their minds. 


And with that, it just feels like I've seen this sort of media circus play out, time and time again, in the USA - and while I don't read news from every country, I can't imagine it is unique to any one place. Whether you report it or not at the time almost feels immaterial: if the news becomes public, it will be sensationalized, the victim will not be accorded any amount of privacy or respect, and some people will search for any angle or reason they can think of to find a way to blame the victim.

That's as true in Taiwan as it is anywhere, although Taiwan's notably unprofessional press (yes, I said it: Taiwan may have a free press but it does not have a well-trained one, nor across-the-board professional journalistic tradition) might perhaps dive deeper into that particular gutter.

Leaving aside questions of how individual victims and families react in such situations, more than one of my students has questioned to what extent we can call what the teacher allegedly did "rape".

Why?

"She wasn't underage."

"It seemed she went out with him, she liked him, that means she flirted with him or maybe wanted him, so how could it be rape?"

"Sometimes in Taiwan women who want to go further don't say so. You have to figure it out in other ways. They won't tell you 'yes'."

"It happens a lot that a young woman wants to sleep with a man, maybe an older man, but she doesn't want anyone to think she's a 'bad girl' so if it gets out she'll say he raped her or 'seduced' her."


Of course, I won't bother explaining the very obvious reasons why any or all of these could be true, and a sexual encounter could still be rape. In terms of the last one, I don't know the 'false accusation' rate in Taiwan (I don't think anyone does, and I'm not sure anyone really knows it anywhere, but there is strong evidence in the US that it is quite rare indeed), but that's an old rhetorical weapon common in the US used to dismiss or explain away sexual assault statistics as well as individual victims, often trying to portray the accused or potentially-accused (usually men) as suffering so much more under the weight of false accusations than the victims (usually women). It usually holds no water.

What I will say is that in many cases (at least the first two), this sounds quite a bit like, well, the sort of comments one hears or reads when a high-profile sexual assault case hits American public discourse. We will never know if Lin Yi-han would have been treated fairly in court had her family filed a police report and pressed charges - though I don't have much faith that she would have been - but rape victims and alleged rape victims are routinely dragged through hell, with very little chance that their charges will ever amount to substantive punishment for their rapists. Even when a rapist is caught, and found guilty, he may well receive a too-light sentence (which, by those who seek to preserve privilege by painting privileged groups as 'the real victims', will be painted as a massive life-destroyed burden...unlike, apparently according to them, being raped). 

So how is this different from the public reaction to a similar story anywhere? I don't think it is, at least not substantively. In some ways Taiwan is more sexist and patriarchal than the US or other Western countries. In other ways, it's less so. I did not particularly feel that the US was a better place to be a woman than Taiwan when I was living there - though I have friends who disagree - and if a bestselling author in the US had committed suicide as a result of depression stemming from a rape in her past, I am not sure at all that the public dialogue would be all that different, from the media coverage all the way down to the Internet trolls.

The same may be said for the difficulty in seeking treatment for depression and other issues stemming from the incident, and from potential (it's not clear in this case) issues with family. Although it is not at all clear that this is what happened in Lin's case, I could just as easily see a prominent family from any other country pressuring their daughter to not report, or cover up, a rape. I could just as easily see a woman from any other country dealing with mental health fallout from that. I could see the victim in any country feeling pressure to internalize her trauma.

I could see the patriarchy working against her, no matter where she is or where she's from.

Media frenzy aside, even the circumstances are not unique to Taiwan: pretty young woman, older male teacher (though this is not limited to that gender dynamic: older female authority figures groom young men, too). Young woman does or doesn't like the teacher - in either case, the teacher goes after her. No matter where this story goes from here, it starts with women being seen mainly as sex objects, and ends with society condemning women no matter what path they take: to say yes, to say no, to report, to internalize. And it might be this way in any country.

In sort, this is what it's like to be a woman anywhere. People of all genders are at risk of sexual assault, but women are particularly so. And if that happens, you face an unrepentant media, a potentially hostile or uncaring court, entire verbal landfills of hateful comments, thoughtful (though at times self-aggrandizing) thinkpieces, aspersions cast on your character and more.

I am not at all sure that the tragedy of Lin Yi-han sheds much light on the issues of rape, depression, suicide and patriarchy in Taiwan specifically (as New Bloom also noted, while cram schools face less regulation than other educational institutions, this sort of thing is not unique to them).

I don't mean to say that Lin Yi-han's particular story is not unique: all stories are unique, but that doesn't mean they can't add up in their similarities to a universality that affects all people and places.