Thursday, March 31, 2011

Reasons #15 and #16 to Love Taiwan



#15: lots of fun Asian candy!

OK, fine, a lot of Asian candy - especially Chinese candy - is crap. At my friend Karen's New Year's party they set out some local weird white rectangle candy that a student had given her and it was quite literally one of the most disgusting things I've ever put in my mouth (and I've eaten raw stinky tofu fermented for 14 days in rotting vegetable goo at Dai's House of Unique Stink)

But so much of it is actually good.

For example, Taiwanese milk caramels in matcha tea, English black tea, plain, brown sugar and chestnut. All of them super yummy. These caramels are among the best packaged local products made in Taiwan. I have a strong preference for soft candy over hard, so the milk caramels really suit me.

Of course, not all of the great candy available in Taiwan is actually from Taiwan. Above is a melange of candy that we gathered to offer in lieu of favors at our wedding (we mixed it all up in a huge red fake lacquer bowl so people could take what they liked). Most of the above is from Japan: mango hard candy with gooey centers, rose candy which is actually rose-shaped and has a bit of a lemony-rose taste, and Japanese soft matcha candies covered in slightly bitter matcha powder (the brown package is of the Taiwanese brown sugar milk caramels).

Other good choices are Kopiko Indonesian coffee candies (I like the coffee+milk kind) and Ting Ting Jahe Indonesian ginger candy, available at the Indonesian grocery in Taipei City Mall.

Less appealing but always fun for bringing back your culture shock:

Some of the offerings here include durian candy (stink-tacular!), yoghurt candy, taro candy, sour plum candy, vinegar candy and a few others that are downright weird. Note the one that claims it is flavored like "Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee". Heh. Yeah, right. Like that canned coffee in convenience stores that calls itself "Blue Mountain Mandheling". Suuuuure. You aren't fooling anyone. Health food stores sell pink Himalayan salt candy. Yeah, not so much to my taste...but interesting!

#16 - Affordable, accessible massage.

About twenty meters from my apartment - and probably yours as well - there is a massage parlor, and no, not the sketchy kind. I just came back from a really good one hour deep tissue massage, for which I paid NT $700 (about $25 US). You can't get that for less than $50 back home, and you have to travel to and from a spa - not that I've ever gotten a massage in the USA. Here, if I want a ten minute foot or back rub, it's a hundred kuai ($3) and easy to find.

Considering my chronic neck, back and headaches, plus tired feet from being up in front of a class on most work days, having so many options is a godsend. I've never really taken "qi" seriously, or feng shui or what have you, but I have to say when a masseuse pounds on the muscle deep in my shoulder or pelvis and says "your qi is stuck here", honestly, whatever was bothering me enough to go in and get a massage disappears when (s)he's done.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Space Confucius!


I was writing another post - I have a few on the back burner right now - but have come down with an irritating headache on the right side of my face: I blame the constantly changing weather.

So instead, enjoy this photo I took at Dragon Boat last year.

I think it is especially appropriate that I picked a beer-in-yer-pocket photo because 7-11 is now stocking Sam Adams again. Yay! I still tend to go down the street to the specialty store for Erdinger or Duvel, but hey, I'll take a Sam Adams any day.

Almost related but not quite: I've learned recently that mixing local energy drink (that stuff in the brown glass bottles with white labels that looks totally foul) with canned Mr. Brown coffee is a big thing among the blue collar and laboring class.

So...nasty viscous energy drink and canned coffee?

Really there's just one word to describe that.

And that word is "Ew".

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Women in the Tech Sector

The Lack of Women in Technology and Startups and its soul-sister post, Horror Stories from Women in Tech: two Jezebel articles covering women in the tech sector.

Living in Taiwan, where tech companies, science parks, engineering and IT jobs, IT and the semiconductor industry is king, I do feel that it's worthwhile to reflect on why so few women enter this industry. I don't have an answer for that, but do not believe that it's because Taiwanese female students are discouraged from pursuing math and science related fields (I've met more women in scientific fields in Taiwan than in the USA, though I am not sure of the overall numbers). Certainly it is not implied to young Taiwanese women that "women are bad at math", if anything, from a culture-and-education perspective, female students are expected to be just as good at math as men. Back in the USA you can see the ripple effect of this in that a significant portion of the women you encounter in math or science related fields are Asian.

So why do so few of them enter the tech industry? I'm saying this from experience: in four and a half years of teaching classes at several tech companies, I've encountered a grand total of three - three - female engineers (I have taught women in tech companies who work in marketing, HR and other office-job, female-friendly fields, and am focusing on engineering here for a reason: it requires a different sort of training altogether from an HR professional, marketing specialist or event planner). It is not unusual to have classes made up entirely of men in those companies, or to have ten men and one woman.

I can't help but think that while women are expected to be good at hard science fields as students, that if they test into college majors that involve math or science, parents tend to push them more towards accounting or medicine, while pushing their sons into engineering. This is good for nobody: it takes away a female voice from an innovative field, it pushes women into less innovative fields (not talking about medicine here so much as accounting - one of the least innovative fields out there) which stifles female creativity, it creates a gender divide that can translate into prejudice - "there aren't many women in the tech sector" can so easily and scarily become "women aren't good in tech fields so they shouldn't take those jobs" to "As a boss, I prefer to hire men because women aren't suited to the tech sector" and suddenly, BOOM. Full-on discrimination.

And no, we are not saving Taiwan's women from famously long and arduous working hours - make no mistake, you'd feel a lot less ethically good about owning so many smart gadgets if you knew what the workers at some of these companies had to put up with in terms of work hours and expectations of workload and productivity. Accountants, especially young auditors, work just as long if not longer. I had a student once - a young auditor for a Big Four firm - fall asleep on break and snooze for a good 45 minutes because she'd been working 7am-2am every day, and sleeping three to four hours a night - it was tax season and that's what they have to do.

The Low Marriage Rate in Taiwan: Part II

There was an article recently in the China Post that I thought I'd address here, all about low marriage and birthrates in Taiwan.

I'll cover it in two sections - first revisiting the idea of marriage in Taiwan, and then I'll put up a new post above discussing the issue of the low birthrate. I'm very much anti short-form blogging (it has its uses but if you want to really get at the meat of something and consider every angle, it doesn't work and it promotes short attention spans) but it would probably behoove me to shorten my posts just an eensy bit!

I've already covered my thoughts on why Taiwanese women aren't marrying at anywhere near traditional rates but with the publication of this article, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the topic. I won't cover my reasoning and thoughts again - but I stand by what I said back then: the expectations of traditional gender roles in marriage and a rising consciousness and awareness that they don't have to stand for such treatment is probably what's keeping Taiwanese women from choosing to marry, along with feeling that Taiwanese men haven't kept up with the times and changing values brought about by modernity - the fact that hey, it's no shame to share an equal part in handling home, child and elder care duties and hey, it's OK if your wife out-earns or out-reputations you - yes, I made that nouny verb up - and hey, women ARE in fact equal to men. Different, but equal, and there is no shame in that so get over yourselves already.

To be fair, not all Taiwanese men feel that way. I am happy to be able to cite many men among my students whose wives are equally successful and of whom they are proud, not ashamed. I am happy that I can tell anecdotes of male students who, when asked what they did on the weekend, say things like "I took care of my baby" or "I visited my in-laws because my wife is on a business trip" or "I cleaned the house with my wife". Good for you. The world needs more of you.

To put it simply, encouraging the government to "instead of being pro-natalist, be pro-marriage" is just not good enough. The government, if it is to be pro-marriage, needs to do so in a modern, equality-minded way and maybe look into the reasons why women are choosing not to marry (again, covered in my last post, linked above). They need to take into account that marriage and children (mostly children) generally don't present a problem to men climbing the career ladder, but that they do present a problem to many women. They need to encourage men to accept more egalitarian household and child-rearing roles. Then we might see more marriages.

This story was linked to by Michael Turton, and I have to say that one comment on that post disturbed be a bit:

Dismissing marriage as simply a bad institution is a cop-out. There have been serious structural changes to Taiwanese society, economic in particular, that are not necessarily desirable. No, no marriage for marriage's sake, but we should think about what's changed rather than be so politically correctly dismissive. The decline of marriage, I think many will find, is a reflection of harsh realities for the generation coming of age and in its early adulthood. And the 1 year+ military draft on males just makes things worse (in a more traditional society, military draft didn't make as big of an impact, but today, that means women make more than men, at least early in their careers).

I would really, really like to know what "Anonymous" means by that. "there have been serious structural changes, economic in particular, that are not necessarily desireable...today, it means women make more than men, at least early in their careers."

Um...I can't help but read this to imply that the pro-female changes that have taken place in Taiwanese society are, according to Anonymous, "undesireable", and most undesireable of all is the idea that Taiwanese women often make more than men.

Really? Like, for serious? Why is this a problem, and while I admit that for some, it is a problem, why should it be? What is so bad about a wife out-earning her husband? Is this so shameful that it is causing women to choose not to marry, or that - even worse - it's causing Taiwanese men not to marry Taiwanese women (and if it is, why are we focusing on the women - the problem in that case is with the outdated attitudes of the men).

I did have a few problems with the article: namely, why is it that when we discuss marriage in Taiwan, we always focus on women? Why isn't any one discussing how men feel about this? If the marriage rate of women is down, wouldn't it also be so for men? There are two possible issues at play:

1.) That the marriage rate isn't really down for men, as many of them take foreign brides, something Taiwanese women don't often have as an option.

If anyone has a statistic that can prove or disprove this, I'd love to hear it. Yes, I am a lazy blogger who doesn't want to hunt for her own statistics, which is why I'm a blogger and not a journalist.

Yes, many more Taiwanese women marry Western men than Taiwanese men marrying Western women (though I can point to at least one real-life example of a Taiwanese man-Western woman marriage, so it definitely can happen). I'm not entirely sure why this is, but I think the answer is both obvious and multi-faceted. Taiwan is more progressive than other Asian countries, but I have found it to be absolutely true that there are still traditional gender role expectations among many (not all!) Taiwanese men that Western women just can't accept. If there's a language barrier, I've found that a Western woman is less likely to accept this in her relationship - here are two anecdotes that don't prove anything but do make a point:

When I first arrived in Taiwan, I posted on a popular travel forum that I was here and happy to meet up with anyone in town for drinks or a coffee (a fairly popular way for travelers to meet up in the age of the Internet). I ended up having lunch and tea with a Canadian in town for a week visiting friends, on her way to the Philippines to go diving. She told me about her last boyfriend, who was French Canadian - English was not his first language and she didn't speak French fluently. She clearly remembered a conversation they had in which she just couldn't make the nuances of her point clear to him in a way he understood. She said that she knew right there that that the relationship would not end in marriage - she couldn't be with someone that she couldn't express her thoughts to and couldn't communicate with fluidly in a common language.

After I'd been here for awhile, I changed jobs and had a coworker (who still kind of works for us, but in a limited capacity) - in order to make a point clear in a seminar we were co-teaching, he told the class about his wife, who is Taiwanese. He talked about how sometimes, she would try to say something and end up speaking pidgin, children's English because she knew what she wanted to express but just didn't have the words to get it out - so they ended up communicating in simplified language (there is a similar anecdote in the Amitav Ghosh book, In an Antique Land, which I thoroughly recommend, about his research into an individual who lived during the Indian Ocean trading decades in the 1100s. He was from somewhere in the Arab world, and his wife was south Indian - Ghosh surmised that they must have communicated in a type of pidgin language). He thought this was perfectly OK, but I remember thinking "Wow. Well, good for him, but I could never do that. I need someone I can have long, winding, tangled-up conversations with." I don't mean this as a slam against him - he's a great guy. Just...different strokes for different folks.

There's also the fact that, let's face it, there is still a prejudice towards couples where the man is bigger and the woman is smaller, and we Western women tend to be taller and curvier and so many Asian men are shorter and thinner. This is, once again, not always true, and I know many men in Taiwan who are taller and burlier than I am, but it probably is a factor. Is this fair? Well, no, but it's probably true to some degree.

And finally, there's the fact that Taiwanese men are - honestly - a bit more shy about asking women out and there is still a bias towards men asking women on dates (I've never felt that this should be an issue, but apparently it is).

2.) The more sexist reason - it's not seen as "important" or "an issue" if a man chooses to remain a bachelor, but heaven forfend that a woman might choose the same.

I would really like to think that this is not true. If it is, it's so deeply sexist that I don't even know where to begin. I mean, seriously [redacted] that [redacted]! (My in-laws read this thing - you can fill in the expletives).

Unfortunately, it probably is true, at least to some degree. Take these two paragraphs:

The largely single status of Taiwan's most popular female entertainers is also worth noting; if their chosen predicament is not a direct reflection of society, then it certainly serves as either affirmation or a consolation for the unhitched woman. Lin Chi-ling, top supermodel and considered one of the most beautiful women in Taiwan, turns 37 this year without an engagement announcement in sight. Pop Princess Jolin Tsai, despite her youthful appearance, is also pushing 30 and single. The same status goes for famed artists like A-mei (38), Vivian Hsu (36), Elva Hsiao (31) and many others.

On the other end of the public spectrum, both Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen and former vice president Annette Lu are single. Both women voiced their desire to run for 2012 presidential elections, although Lu publicly dropped out of the DPP primaries Tuesday, citing her concern for the environment outweighing her need to win in an election. Chen Chu, the incumbent mayor of Kaohsiung, is entering her 60s and has never married.

The first paragraph - "then it certainly serves as either affirmation or a consolation for the unhitched woman" - the writer makes it sound as though being an unhitched woman is some sort of disease that deserves neither consolation nor affirmation. Really? Seriously?

Then the writer goes on to name several high-profile single women - never once mentioning high-profile single men. Jay Chou is single - why not mention him? There must be a few unmarried male politicians and captains of industry in Taiwan, and I have met more than a few unmarried engineers working for Taiwan's major tech/IT firms.

So why is this only a problem vis-a-vis the women - particularly the successful women - of Taiwan? Why all the hullabaloo about the low marriage rate regarding women? Why this assumption that it's fine to be a single successful man, but worthy of a mention in the newspaper if you are a single successful woman?

Feeling generally annoyed with this double standard - that the low marriage rate is somehow a woman's problem and not a man's (AAAAAARRRGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!1111!!!!!111!!!!one! NOOOOOO!!!) - I've been asking Taiwanese men since I wrote my last post what their thoughts are on this issue.

I don't have a huge sample size, but I've gotten a few answers:

- Women aren't interested in traditional gender roles

- We (the men) who would have married in an earlier era are not doing so, because we work so hard that they have no time to date (notably, engineers)

- A lot of the women who would have married in an earlier era are not doing so because they also work so hard that they have no time to date (notably, accountants)

- Taiwanese women are more interested in studying or living abroad or advancing their careers (maybe in the cities, but the countryside? And even in the cities, I already addressed how most "office jobs" in Taiwan are so uninspiring and require putting up with difficult bosses and long hours that I can't imagine that that's why women aren't marrying - we aren't talking about a new generation of women who are passionate about their work)...and Taiwanese men want women who are more interested in family and children.

- We (the men) want women who are more traditional, and Taiwanese women aren't fulfilling that (if true - and I am not sure it is - that makes me really sad)

- Taiwanese women insist that any man she marries has sizeable savings and can afford to buy an apartment and a car (not sure how true this is, but someone did say that so it's worth mentioning)

- Taiwanese women are sick of putting up with the traditional expectations of in-laws and don't want to deal with the pressure to have a baby that they may not want, so they just have boyfriends, they don't marry

- We (the men) aren't changing our outlook fast enough and the women aren't going to tie themselves to someone who can't bring himself to do the dishes (this from one of my more progressive male students)

- We (the men) can get a foreign bride so we don't necessarily care why Taiwanese women don't want to marry

- We (the men) are so scared off by the white men that Taiwanese women date that we are too shy to ask the girls we like on dates (I smell BS on this one, personally).

And of course, the Internet, which is full of all sorts of horrible comments, has dredged up some other ideas, notably that Taiwanese women aren't keeping themselves as pretty as they used to - more body fat, less makeup, hair that's not done up - and so men are losing interest. I call BS on this one because I've met plenty of average-looking married Taiwanese women (and as an average-looking American woman I can say that not being "hot" is not much of an issue of you are looking to marry a man who isn't superficial).

In short, when looking at low marriage rates in Taiwan, why is everyone watching the women, and why isn't anyone looking at the men? Aren't they half the equation?



Monday, March 28, 2011

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Travel and Vegetarianism

A few years ago, my husband received an e-mail from some friends of ours. These particular friends were heading to Nepal for a trekking vacation (they're both quite athletic) and had an overnight in Seoul, Korea. Brendan had lived in Seoul for two and a half years, and they wanted restaurant recommendations, specifically for trying Korean food that they could eat.

They were (and are) both vegetarians, of the religious variety - Hindu, in fact.

Brendan mulled it over, and mulled it some more. He racked his brain and even asked me for advice - I'd visited him for four days in 2003, so while I've been to Seoul, one can hardly say I know the city. My culinary memories of Seoul, beyond regular Korean food, were a.) that I dragged the poor man to Starbucks on the first floor of Jongno Tower - I was living in Guizhou, visiting from China and had neither seen an espresso nor a Western-style sweet in months - even Starbucks was acceptable at that point; and b.) eating a tentacle pancake (haemul pajeon I think) with sochu in a brown-carpeted dive bar near a complex of 30 identical white apartment buildings.

Oh yes, and c.) those little cornbread nuggets filled with custard cream sold in boxes at subway stations. You can buy them at MRT Jiantan now, next to Sushi Take-Out. Just so you know.

One thing I definitely did not remember was eating anything that was even remotely vegetarian. Even kimchi has seafood-based ingredients, and as everyone knows, kimchi is the lifeblood of Korean food.

Brendan sent back a carefully considered reply, noting that while Korean vegetarian food does exist, it's extremely hard to come by and not to trust things that look vegetarian: there's a good chance there's meat-based seasoning or oil in there somewhere - so no kimchi. He recommended several places where one could eat vegetarian food. The kicker? Not one of them served Korean food, because he couldn't think of a single place in Seoul where it was available.

So to a pair of Indian/Indian-Americans wanting to try Korean food in Korea, he recommended mostly south Indian vegetarian restaurants and similar places, because he wasn't sure where else one could eat with their dietary requirements!

Yes, it does exist, by the way: you can eat vegetarian Korean meals in some temples, and I am sure a vegetarian who lived in Korea for as long as Brendan did would have sourced a few places that Brendan never thought to look for, being a meat-eater. On the whole, though, going veg in Korea is as difficult as eating doing so China - if not more so. With one night in the country, getting to such a place would be near impossible.

That's kind of the central issue I've been debating since I began traveling: I've wanted to become vegetarian for years, and it's quite easy to do in Taiwan (although giving up 肉圓 might prove to be impossible - so delicious!). While not necessarily healthier generally, vegetarianism would be healthier for me: I'm not one of those goody-goodies who eats baked chicken breast and lean pork. I like my aboriginal fatty mountain boar, my bright pink pork slices with ginger, my bacon, my sausages of all kinds (from Asian to German to Polish), my Taiwanese fried chicken, my Thai red curry beef, my lamb kebab and mutton curry, my butter chicken and pork vindaloo, and my super calorie-tastic 排骨 (basically a giant hunk of fried or otherwise unhealthy pork attached to a bit of rib). I don't do lean breast, I do scrumptious leg. Vegetarianism would certainly improve my overall health, even though some theoretical person who prefers healthily-cooked meat (I don't know who this person is, because everyone knows that the best tasting meat is usually the least healthy) wouldn't necessarily be any healthier for giving it up.

It's not really about health, though - it's more about ethics. It is possible to eat meat ethically, and I am not against continuing to eat meat that was raised well and in an environmentally sound way - let's face it, the conditions at most chicken batteries, cattle and pig farms would be considered animal abuse if not for the influence of the meat industry - and killed with ethically sound principles. In the USA, I could have found a co-op, farmer's market or direct meat delivery that would have satisfied my desire for ethically sourced meat. Unfortunately, especially in Asia, one can't be sure of that. I'm generally happy to eat mountain boar (山豬肉) because I've been to aboriginal communities where I've seen it raised and it looks ethically sound, but there's no way to find out where the mutton in my mutton curry came from, where the pork in my 肉圓 came from, and I've really decreased how often I eat chicken because you can be sure that no chicken in any meat you eat in Taiwan was treated well: even the woman down the street with a chicken coop - honestly, those poor things are cooped up (pardon the pun) in stacked cages, and if she's the neighborhood chicken lady, then I shudder to think how chickens in bigger farms are treated. I do have an "all things pig" butcher in Jingmei day market who raises his pigs in Bali, near Danshui, and says they're treated well. I can't be sure of this unless I actually go visit, but one can hope.

There's also an environmental factor, and for that reason as well I've been trying to decrease how much meat I eat, even though I haven't given it up entirely. At home I more or less cook entirely vegetarian, although I've been known to very occasionally break that rule and make Indian or Thai curry, beer cooked sausage, Ethiopian doro wot, baked pork loin or satay at home.

That said, it is possible to raise animals for meat in an environmentally friendly way: Michael Pollan's outlined it, it's been discussed on TED and it's generally known that while it's possible to make meat an environmentally friendly choice, it's generally not being done now. In the USA you can source meat raised this way, but abroad it's basically impossible.

Which brings me to the central conundrum: it's easy enough to go veg in Taiwan as well as India, where religious traditions have made it a culturally accepted and accommodated practice, but when one travels as often as we do, how does one go veg while traveling in so many other places? Of course one can do it - I've met vegetarians in China (not sure how that worked out for them, but OK) and I'm sure that more than one vegetarian has taught English in Korea. I know a vegetarian who studied in Prague. I've been to Prague and I can promise you that your only realistic choices if you don't eat meat and want to eat out are bread, deep fried cheese and potatoes. How does one go veg in Mongolia - I've never been there, but I've taught Mongolian students who cooked the real deal for me (ie not Tony Chen's Mongolian Grill but actual Mongolian food) and it's mostly meat, starch, onions, potatoes and fermented milk. I never tried the fermented milk - I've heard it's rather horrid - but the other stuff was good. How can a patty of ground meat covered in hashed potatoes possibly be bad?

How does one travel in countries where one doesn't speak the language and can't easily request vegetarian food? Those vegetarians I knew in China told stories of how they'd say "我不要 ______" (pointing to their phrasebook) and ended up with an extra portion of it on their plate. I've heard that old "probably an urban legend" story about the vegetarian in western China who got into an argument with a local restaurant cook over whether chicken was a vegetable. I've heard stories of foreigners in Korea requesting no meat and having the waiter smile and nod - then their meal comes with meat - as Brendan puts it, "from the waiter's point of view, that person was being rude. The waiter, very appropriately in his mind, did not draw attention to this by not pointing out that it is impolite to ask for a change to the order". In Taiwan, I took a vegetarian to a Thai restaurant thinking that they had plenty of veggie food, only to find that all of it - even the vegetables - was cooked with some sort of meat product or topped with ground meat or oyster/shrimp sauce.

Awk-waaaard.

There's also the issue of knowing whether an ingredient contains meat in a paste, gelatin, stock or oil form, because you often just can't find that information out - you can check beforehand to see what common ingredients in that culture's cuisine contain meat, but you can never be entirely sure: another reason why Brendan stressed a bit over the e-mail to our friends. If I were to go vegetarian, I'd basically have to accept as an avid traveler that I would be ingesting meat-based products even if I wasn't ingesting the flesh itself, and there's basically nothing I can do about that. (A public service announcement to vegetarians in China or Korea - unless you are super strict about it and only eat at home or in temples/dedicated vegetarian restaurants, you probably have ingested a meat product of some kind. Sorry, but it's true). Most Thai and Indonesian dishes contain fish or squid oil. Most kimchi contains shrimp or fish paste (or both). Most Japanese food contains some sort of seafood-based flavoring, although it is easier to eat vegetarian in Japan than many other parts of Asia: you end up consuming a lot of udon, soba, egg and rice balls, basically.

Other parts of the world are not so challenging: although it might be a bit monotonous you can get by on cheese, eggs, beans and rice in much of Latin America. I don't have much experience with Africa - Egypt may count technically but...well...not so much culturally - but in Egypt and much of the Levant you can get your fill of hummus, pita, babaghanoush, tabbouleh, falafel, lebneh and foulle (not sure of the spelling). Ethiopia has a fine vegetarian cuisine. Western Europe is fine, but start heading east and you'll run into problems.

Never mind that as an avid traveler, I like to experience the best cuisine that my chosen destination has to offer. Yes, I can go to Sichuan and not try hot pot, ma po doufu, kung pao chicken, shui zhu niu, or pork-stuffed peppers. I can go to Guizhou and not try the famous flat rice "skin" noodles (topped with ground pork or lamb) or lamb noodle soup. I can go to Egypt and never allow shwarma or roast pigeon to pass my lips (pigeon is really good, by the way). I can go to Donggang and not try the world-class seafood, and go to an aboriginal area and not get the mountain boar or flying fish. I can go to Ethiopia and never touch doro wot or yebeg alecha. I can go to India and never touch a vindaloo, tandoori chicken or Hyderabadi biriyani. I can go to Panama and avoid bistek picado or pollo asado as I am forcing yet another helping of rice and beans down my gullet.

I can - but do I really want to? Am I not missing out on a key cultural experience by not trying the local food, which so often is made with meat? On the "do good" scale, does the importance of eating ethically outweigh the satisfaction - not to mention tastiness - of experiencing the culinary aspect of regional culture? Do I want to be like our Indian friends - whom I admire greatly for their commitment to vegetarianism, by the way - who stopped in Korea and probably didn't eat one bite of Korean food, because they couldn't? I love Korean food.

It also brings up some sticky comparative moral points: if I were go to vegetarian (and I'm not saying I will), would my refusal to try local meat-based cuisine be some sort of judgment call on locals who do eat it? Is that anywhere near fair? (Simple answer: no). If they are morally just fine eating meat - and I believe they are - then am I really any better for not eating it? And yet, can I reconcile that to the way most animals slaughtered for meat are treated?

The good news: if you're traveling in the countryside of a developing country (but not an urban area), there's a much better chance that the animal that died to make your meal lived a better life than the animal in a farm or battery in the USA.

I already know I can't possibly make sure that all the meat I try abroad is ethically sourced, so if I became vegetarian, it would leave me with the difficult choices of:

1.) Travel less, and limit it to countries where I can procure food with minimum difficulty;
2.) Travel to those other countries and reconcile myself to lots of crackers and dried fruit in the hotel, and sadness over missing out on trying the local cuisine;
3.) Be "vegetarian" with the knowledge that I probably am ingesting meat of some kind in ingredient form, and pretend I don't notice. I can accept that sometimes even if I ask for a vegetarian dish, it may end up containing meat, and that it's OK to not make a scene by refusing to eat it - I do believe that offending locals with such scenes is worse than eating meat. OR to quote the Dandy Warhols: you get what you got and you learn how to like it.

None of these are really viable except #3, which would basically make me not a vegetarian.

What it's come down to is this: I'm not a vegetarian and while I'm still traveling I probably won't be. That doesn't mean I can't do better: I have started to cook vegetarian at home because that's an easy change (although I still stock fish oil and will continue to do so). I will still occasionally enjoy a local delicacy or indulge my taste for Taiwanese meatballs or Tainan-style dry noodles, while eating mostly vegetarian. I can accept that in some countries, within some regional cuisines, it is OK to eat meat. I can (and do) avoid styrofoam-wrapped cuts of antiseptic meat from the supermarket and buy it at the day market, from the guy who raises the pigs himself. When possible I can seek out humanely-raised and slaughtered meat or even halal meat, which doesn't necessarily guarantee it was raised well, but does mean that it was at least killed humanely.

In short, I can accept that I'm not a vegetarian, but that doesn't mean I can't do better when it comes to health, the environment and meat-based ethics.

I wish I had good advice for how to deal with this if you are vegetarian and want to travel, but honestly, I don't. It is restrictive and unfair, and there's no easy answer, just like there's no good riposte (or re-post, ha ha) to the "it's harder for women to date in Asia than men" problem. It would boil down to things you can read in a guidebook:

1.) If in Asia, seek out meals in temples
2.) Stock up on food you can eat in your hotel or cook in the hostel kitchen
3.) Do your research on ingredients before you go
4.) Accept that vegetarian versions of many famous local dishes won't be available
5.) Prioritize countries with ample vegetarian options, such as Taiwan, Mediterranean countries and India
6.) Figure out how to say "I am a vegetarian, I don't eat meat or meat products" in the local language of any country you visit, and if possible, cite religious reasons (whether or not it's true - which is also morally ambiguous but if you are vegetarian for ethical reasons, it is probably the lesser of two evils) - saying "I'm a Buddhist vegetarian" in China will get you farther than "I'm a vegetarian" - they'll understand what the former means, and will either ignore the latter or look at you like you just grew a foot on your head.
7.) This is going to sound awful, and I don't mean it to be, but it's cold hard truth: if possible, consider not being vegan if you are leaning that way and it's not for religious or allergy reasons. You might be able to avoid meat, but you can forget avoiding meat, dairy and eggs in most countries (Taiwan and India are still good options for travel, though).

How about you? Any vegetarian world travelers out there have better advice or stories to tell about how they got by without eating meat in countries where vegetarianism is not generally known or accepted? Any success stories of living veg in Korea, Mongolia or China? Did you get to enjoy local cuisine at all or did you have to be hyper-vigilant and picky? Who knows - you might (maybe - probably not, but maybe) just convert me!

Dreary Day DIY



The purple and silver necklace I made on this chilling, gray Saturday

Every time I've complained about the weather this past winter, I've thought that "well, I'm complaining now, but it's not that bad - I mean it couldn't get any worse than this, so it can only get better from here."

(I'm like that because, as I've said before, I'm an Obasan-in-Training. At barely 30 years old, I am doing a superb job of being ornery and opinionated and - dare I say it? - crotchety. I like to think it's endearing).

Right. So, I was wrong. I didn't realize it was possible for the weather to grow more dismal and dreary but somehow, it did. Clearly the God of Gray Skies (I like to think it's Chiang Kai-Shek) has decided to shed his "favor" upon us with more gloomy vigor.

And when it gets this nasty out, what else is there to do but drink good coffee and do some DIY? You can't go to a museum, because those'll be too crowded on a cold, rainy Saturday. You can go out to eat but how long can you faff about in a restaurant (quite a bit, actually, but only if you don't mind servers "subtly" swiping the broom under your feet at the point where you're staying just long enough to make it awkward).

Not really how I want to spend my Saturday, though. So we headed to George Coffee, where I've done my DIY beading before and they don't mind - I'd feel weird doing it at a lot of the places we otherwise frequent, and many of them have cats. It's fine when my cat bats a bead off the table and I can retrieve it, but a cat in a cafe flinging beads onto the floor is a new level of annoying. The folks at George as so cool about it that the bring me a spare table light so I can see what I'm doing more clearly.

As you may know if you read this blog somewhat regularly, I am totally into DIY, mostly beading and jewelrymaking (I draw, too, but that's different). I made my own wedding necklace:


Photos above and below by Keira Lemonis


...and for our musician (a good friend) and female attendants:


...including the feather-leaf corsage.

And what a good use of the day, too! In weather that would otherwise render me thoroughly unproductive (but I'm also 3/4 of the way through a longer post on vegetarianism and travel, so there's that) I managed to finish off the necklace above. I made a similar one for my friend Emily - in black, green and silver - as part of a "Pay It Forward for Creative People" Facebook challenge, and I wanted my own. So I hunkered down and made it.

The best DIY shops, by the way, are all in the vicinity of (but not necessarily on) Dihua Street. I'm planning to head back to that neighborhood soon, and when I do I'll get the true addresses of my two favorite spots for DIY beading and jewelry supplies and post them here as an update. One of them gives out a discount VIP card (a small keychain you show them) that gives you a 20% discount on most merchandise, and they have some good stuff: from truly expensive pearls and semiprecious stones to crystal to shell to glass to plastic.

The beads in the necklace above are mostly crystal and glass, but the larger ones are all real amethysts (not an expensive stone, so fairly affordable to buy real). The fixtures and findings are, of course, not real silver, but who cares.

Which actually brings me to Reason #14 to love Taiwan: cheap, accessible, generally high-quality DIY materials, especially for jewelrymaking! I bought every one of these supplies in Taiwan, from around Dihua Street, from Yongle Market (the feathers), from the Jianguo Weekend Flower Market (dried leaf skeletons), from Taipei City Mall (a few places that sell semiprecious beads) - all for a lot less than they charge for that stuff back home.

I'm curious to hear how you spend your dreary days in Taipei: we get an awful lot of them and ideas on what to do - what you do - through these depressingly gray months would surely be of help to other bored, gloomy expats in Taipei on days like this.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Uh...Space Confucius.


Yes, I did totally just head off my post with a snapshot of an adorable kitten to get your attention. Who can resist an adorable kitten? Nobody, that's who! And yes, I took the picture myself - that kitten, along with a more mature cat, are residents at Cafe La Boheme, one of our favorite haunts on Wenzhou Street.

Anyway, the weather's been crap all week - all cold and gloomy and not uplifting at all - and my posts of late have been similarly gloom-and-doom, and I feel like posting a pick-me-up because I'm fairly sure the steely skies over Taipei aren't clearing anytime soon (and when they do, it'll be so they can pour plum rains on us).

So, enjoy a few photos I've taken over the past few months but haven't posted that should give everyone a nice cheer-up, like a good Maker's sour.

This is the creepiest Santa Claus I've ever seen, made of recycled bottles, fairy lights and, uh, I'm not sure what else. Either way, ACK.

He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awaaaake...

One of the lovely two girls I have English playtime-class with on the weekend - we finished up our time by building a giant blocks/stool/cards/Japanese cartoon figurine castle.

Last weekend gave us brighter, though polluted, weather. For the last time the sun was seen in Taipei, we went to Da'an Park and saw all sorts of animals, including the big fellow above and the tiny guys below.

Just look at the sun hitting the grass and trees. Oh sun. How I miss you. I wish you'd come back!

The La Boheme kitten is fascinated by the Taiwan Pen Twirl (you know what I mean - that twirly thing that Taiwanese people do with their pens when they're daydreaming).

Yeah, uh, I don't even know what to say to this. We've seen a lot of great store names recently - there's this one, "Croissant de Louvre", "Versace Home Art", "Ho Mart"...but this store? It's for man!

"I guess I'm sleeping on the couch tonight."
On one of those warm-ish sunny weekend days we didn't know were numbered, we headed up to Wenhua University and had coffee at TBRC before watching the sunset by the university.

But now we're back to being freezing and glum, and all we want to do is this:


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Reason #13 to Love Taiwan

Healthy Street Food!

At the corner of Heping and Fuxing Roads, near MRT Technology Bldg, there is a woman who sells the most delicious vegetarian lumpia (倫餅 - I think. Please correct my Chinese if not). No disgusting rou song (pork floss - ick) here: crushed peanut, alfalfa, some leafy green goodness, a few slices of apple, raisins, carrot slices and red lettuce all stuffed into a healthy wrap of deliciousness. Next to her, or sometimes down the road, is an old guy who sells super tasty red guavas when in season. Across the street, a woman sells dried fruit and nuts - including Taiwanese Irwin mango, which I love to eat dried.

A little bit west of MRT Minquan W. Road, there is a tiny stand inserted neatly into a little alcove with stairs leading up to...somewhere. Just steps from three different places to buy fried chicken, they sell vegetarian fantuan with that mottled purple sweetish rice, or sticky purple rice, full of more peanut powder, something pickled and a few other tasty things. They also sell a bulghur and chick pea salad, marinated tofu, a selection of vegetables, salads and veggie rice and bottled health drinks.

Near MRT Jingmei Exit 2, in the mornings there's a guy who sells vegetarian sticky rice (素油飯) from a large wooden rice bucket. He and his wife are retired, and they make a batch each day (I estimate about NT$1500 worth) to sell: I haven't asked directly but I think it's something between a hobby and a bit of extra money to pad out a pension and savings. It's really good sticky rice and it doesn't get more mom-and-pop than a retired couple making it and selling it from a big wooden bucket every morning. Near him is a woman whose family owns a farm in Zhanghua County - she sells the best baked sweet potatoes (starchy, but a great source of nutrients so you get a lot of bang for your carb-tastic buck) I've ever had.

These folks are scattered across Taipei - I've just named a few of my favorites, for whom I am a regular customer (in my neverending quest to just put down the sweet potato fries already and eat something good for me) and I love what they sell.

I love them because they're small businesses and I enjoy supporting that kind of entrepreneurialism. I love them because what they sell is actually good for you. I love them because what they sell is tasty, too. I love them because I have a good network of food vendors from whom I can grab a meal on the go - as someone who runs around Taipei to various offices all day often has to do - and know that I'm being good to myself, to the mom-and-pop economy, and I don't have to force down yet another 7-11 or Take-Out Sushi seaweed triangle (though I admit it: I like those too).

Finally, I love that Taiwan's economy and culture is such that they can do this, be successful and make a reasonable wage at it here. I'm not sure those Falls Church pupusa guys can say the same, and that's too bad.

All around goodness. The USA could use folks like these (not that I begrudge the pupusa guys in the DC Metro area...pupusas are great, just not healthy).

The Language Loop


"But it seems like we don't improve as quickly as before," a student said once to me, upon noting that his level was not increasing as quickly as it used to. "It makes me feel stressful."

"When we started learning English, we got better so quickly and now...I think I have to fight to remember every word and I forget the things in class so quickly."

Quotes from students, and I know it's not me - my students have a good time, they do improve (just not as quickly as they did when they were beginners), they renew and the dedicated ones push on towards more advanced levels.

I've noticed something about language learning, though - it came first with these expressions of frustration, as well as my own observation, of my students and later, I began to recognize it in myself. At the moment, I'm at the bottom of a nasty little valley when it comes to Chinese learning, the same sort of pit that English learners across Taiwan and language learners worldwide, I suspect, find themselves in. I've started calling it the Learning Loop.

The idea has been around forever - I certainly didn't discover it myself, I've simply started observing it. You simply don't improve in language learning at the intermediate levels as quickly as you do at the beginning levels. At the beginning, everything is new, and you don't have so many words or grammar points of that language crowding your head - it's easy to remember "I'd like coffee with cream, no sugar", "Where are you from? I'm from Taiwan", "My name is Sandy and I I'm an engineer at Intellitron" or "There is a post office in my neighborhood" when those are the only things you know how to say.

It's not so easy to remember words you use far less frequently - when you get to the point where you're learning phrases like "off the top of my head", "feel overwhelmed" and "be taken aback", you are far less likely to remember them, well, off the top of your head - especially if you, like my students, do not live in an immersion environment. You not only have far more "stuff" to remember regarding sentence structure, grammar, common errors, vocabulary, pronunciation etc., but you're also learning words that you use far less frequently so it's harder to ingrain them into your memory.

It's perfectly natural, and yet so discouraging.

So what happens? Students of foreign language notice the dip in the speed of their learning, and notice that it's stopped being fairly easy and started being a slow, fingernail-scraping crawl uphill with lots of fits and starts, lots of sliding back and very few footholds. As you claw your way up, words like chunks of soil and bits of rock become dislodged and tumble down into the abyss of forgotten vocabulary, and you make simple mistakes in grammar that you thought you'd conquered long ago (you did - you just need to keep using it so you won't forget it).

There's also the fact that students at that level, unless they've all taken the same class with the same people since they began, will know different things, and need to work on different things - this is where differences in skills and abilities becomes clear, and ever harder to fix. There are a lot of tiny, easily forgotten little "things" to learn at the intermediate level, and I can see why a student would be frustrated by a seeming inability to remember and use them. I would know - when it comes to Chinese I am that student!

At that point, I'd say, is when most students get discouraged and quit. I take it as a testament to my enthusiasm for teaching that my students do seem to press on more than average students might - though of course I haven't done a rigorous scientific study to prove this!

Or, almost as bad, they quit for awhile and then come back to learning, only to feel a quick bit of gratification when forgotten nibs and knobs of language come back to the forefront of their mind and then get discouraged again - they're still facing the valley of slow progress and still haven't figured out how to deal with it without getting discouraged. The best students press on. Others quit again. And come back. And feel good for awhile before getting discouraged...and find themselves in a never-ending loop, at the intermediate to high intermediate level, never getting any better.

It looks something like this, except Excel was being a pain and I couldn't get the graph to look all fancy with arrows pointing out the motion of the loop:

The x-axis is clearly level, the y-axis is my own approximation of learning speed (so not scientific). The red indicates where students get deflated and quit, rejoin, get deflated again, quit again, and rejoin...

...and never make it beyond the intermediate to high intermediate level. Then, they wonder why.

I wouldn't be writing about this issue as in-depth as I am on my personal blog, except I'm starting to notice it in myself. I'm at a level in Chinese where I'm learning some more esoteric words - it was easy back in the day to recall how to say "transfer money" (something I do every month) or "lemonade" or whatever it is I wanted. Now that I'm on things like "五十步笑百步" (basically, "the pot's calling the kettle black" though it doesn't translate directly), it's simply harder to remember right when I need to say it. It's more complex, there's a lot of other stuff crowding up my head and I don't use it anywhere nearly as frequently as I'd need to in order to really cement it in there.

And y'know, yes. It is discouraging. I've written before about my feelings on Shi-da, and how I never quite took to the methods used to teach Chinese in most schools - that's related, to a degree, but I'd probably feel similarly discouraged anywhere. It's fairly well-known among friends that I'm on "break" from Chinese - still learning passively (I'd be doing that anyway, living in Taiwan and all; I am and always will be a "languages person" so I can't help but learn what's all around me) but not taking classes at the moment.

Previously, I thought that was mostly due to my issues with the Mandarin Training Center as well as trying to save money first for our wedding and now for our trip to Turkey later this year.

Now...I'm starting to think that somewhere, deep down in that place where I hide things I don't like to admit, that it may be because I'm subconsciously frustrated by the slow pace of improvement at my level - in terms of reading and writing more than speaking. Regarding speaking, I'm fairly advanced on a good day, high intermediate on a bad day (and we all have our bad days - which would be a great topic for another post). Reading and writing-wise, however, I'm at least a full level lower. I can type a decent e-mail, chat on MSN, Gchat or Facebook in Chinese, write basic notes and even simple letters, and read normal stuff I come across in my daily life. I cannot scour websites in-depth or read books, and the "newsy" Chinese of news articles utterly defeats me.

It's here where I think my discouragement lies - as much as I practice I feel like I never improve in writing. I know that this is natural, even more so when it relates to Chinese: it's easy for an English learner to have a reading and writing level on par with her speaking level. If you're learning Chinese, that is absolutely not guaranteed. That said, I can't help but wonder if my mind, when it comes to writing Chinese well, has decided it'd rather be an immovable brick rather than a lovely, porous sponge.

I know, I know. Perhaps if I blogged less and studied more, I'd see more improvement. :) And I would, just as intermediate students of English who persevere do improve. It's the speed of improvement at my level - just as it is for those students - that is so aggravating.

Ah well. Press on, press on.



There is a light at the end of the tunnel to make me smile, though. Clearly some of my mannerisms are rubbing off on students. On noting that every election cycle, Lee Teng-hui makes noises as though he's considering a run for the presidency again, one of my students replied "But...he's like 200 years old!"

Exactly. And exactly as I would say it!

How about you - did you encounter this slow-down? Did it discourage you? Did you quit? Did you come back? Are you currently stuck in the vicious cycle of quitting, restarting and never improving? Did you get out of it? What's your story?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Cultural Appropriation, Part I: Little White Bindi Girl


I know I've been talking about this post for awhile. I've decided that this topic is far too massive to talk about in one post, so I'm going to do it in a series. Enjoy!

Ganesh, Sarasvati and Lakshmi sit there, backs to the view, looking benevolent with subcontinental eyes. Little tubes of incense ash litter the ledge and there's a slant of sunlight coming in, hitting the laptop that sits before them. There's a half-finished cup of coffee somewhere off to the right.

Ganesh is brightly colored and encased in plastic, his elephantine body painted in lurid shades of peach and pink. Sarasvati is carved in "camel bone" which is almost certainly cheap resin. Lakshmi is a tiny stamp of tin. A picture window with a deep ledge in a northern Virginia apartment complex - it has an impossibly good view of a cluster of monuments across a bend in the Potomac - decorated with Hindu idols and fronted by a handpainted desk, all put there by a girl who isn't the least bit Indian...or Hindu, though I dabbled with the idea (I didn't dabble very long - if my central issue with being religious is that I simply do not have and don't feel I need to have the faith that there must be a higher power, then believing in Hindu gods doesn't really work for me either).

In my closet hung saris, all in a row like a gold-embroidered rainbow. I burned jasmine and regular incense most days and learned how to do mehndi (something I still enjoy). I attended Indian Student Association events with alacrity and picked up the nickname "Channa Masala" (which I still have - I joke that it's because "I'm like a chick pea - pale and round" but it's really because nobody in southern India could pronounce my name and I ended up being called "Channa"). I cooked - and ate - Indian food and started stocking the kitchen with spices that made the place reek (in a good way).



Me, sometime between 2004-2005 after a study abroad stint in India and a year in China (I know because I bought those earrings in China). Wearing a sari and bindi for fun: cultural appropriation?

All this because I'd just spent a semester-and-then-some in India as a young, relatively inexperienced and not terribly well traveled 20-year-old. I landed, ready to begin my first experience in the developing world (although India occupies an interesting position that in many ways can't be called "developing world" and can't be called "developed" either - what we called "Fourth World" in university seminars - a world which also includes China, Egypt, Nigeria and Brazil - I've also heard arguments for including Malaysia). From the moment I landed, I was transfixed.

Well, maybe not quite right away. First I caught a nasty bug that was basically a mild dysentery and then I had my "weekend of crying", which everyone has even if they don't actually cry. I watched BBC even though I'm not British and burst into tears when the weather report for the continental USA came on.

But after that? Totally hypnotized. They say of India that you either love it or hate it, and it is possible to both love it and hate it, but never in-between. This is not entirely true, but it was true for me. I loved it (my parents thought - and hoped - I'd hate it and give up this crazy "travel" thing once and for all). I was one of those people who find themselves thrust into a totally new culture and jumped in the deep end, without thinking to keep a pinky above water and attached to the culture I grew up with.

The reason the counselors advised keeping that "pinky above water" - in just those words? So that you don't come up sputtering, terrified, out of air - and so that when you arrive home you don't freak out.

I didn't think I'd freaked out when I got home. I thought I'd handled it quite well. I arrived with my giant bag of saris and tiny resin idols and packs of bindis and rolls of incense and thought I'd be fine. I was fine, after a fashion, but I was also living out the sad caricature of a white girl getting a little too into a culture not remotely her own.

In a way, I was freaking out: feeling detached from my home culture, feeling a bit angry at the United States for all that we have and don't need, feeling like so much was wrong with the way things were at home that clearly the Indian way was "right".

It wasn't and isn't. I know this now, but bear with me. I was twenty and only slightly more well-traveled than I'd been before I left.

So started the slightly embarrassing and probably irritating spiral of cultural appropriation: white girl in sari? Check. White girl pretending to know more than she actually did about Indian culture? Check (allow me a moment of self-defense: having been there, I still knew a lot more than your average person who's never gone). White girl insisting that everything was better in India and we should do it like they do? Check. White girl pretending, basically, to be Indian without assuming even one iota of the less-desireable cultural baggage that this actually entails, especially for a woman? Big, fat, cheek-reddening CHECK.

Edward Said said that Westerners, since we first started exploring the world, have been obsessed to the point of fetishization with the, ahem, Mystical East. That there's this ingrained idea that Asian cultures and the people who hail from those cultures are "unknowable", full of "mystical essences" and all sorts of other pre-globalization crap. Basically, the people of the East were either magical and mystifying, or they were savages who needed to be assimilated into the culture of colonizers in order to be fully human.

I don't deny that that was once generally true, especially (but not entirely) of colonials and very especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries. If you search, you'll surely find people who go against that norm, but I'm speaking in generalities here for a reason.

The question - as it is for us and as it should have been for twenty-year-old me - is whether or not this is still true.

In my newfound fanaticism for all things Indian, was I showing genuine enthusiasm and curiosity leading to a deeper understanding of the world such as bridges cultures, or was I fetishizing India and everything I thought it stood for? (Note to self: if tempted to use the phrase "very large, culturally diverse place stands for X" or any variant of it, stop, slap self and change subject. India does not "stand for" anything that could possibly be distilled from a six-month visit by a foreigner). Did I jump, cannonball-style, into Indian culture because, as a part of the Unknowable, Mystical East it had somehow convinced me that it was inherently full of deep philosophical ideas that were simply better, because of course they had to be deep and awesome because it was the East?

I still don't have the answer to that, although ten years on and many travels later I am inclined to think that I simply swung too far on a pendulum that had been set in motion by the force of impact of culture shock; that perhaps I was a bit young and naive, but that pendulum is rather big and moves rather fast and nobody could have expected me to know how to steady it back then - that maybe, yes, I was fetishizing a bit because I didn't know any better, but after awhile I caught on to how I was acting and turned it into a springboard for genuine learning, exploration and experience.

With an outcome such as that, could anyone really say it was a bad thing? Would it have been better if I'd not jumped in the deep end at all, and remained safely at home, uninterested in India? I wouldn't have been "fetishizing" but I also wouldn't have learned a damn thing. The pendulum would have never swung at all, and is it really better to spend your entire life standing still for fear of going too far?

I do see several manifestations of Orientalism as I travel in Asia - older white men with young Asian girlfriends (hey, some of these might be genuine love - who am I to judge people I don't know? - but I think we all know that many of these couples are either creepy or just a few shades shy of it). Backpackers and Hippie Trailers, male and female, heading off to Asia to "find themselves" (did they think they left themselves in Asia to begin with? What does this even mean?) or acting as though their entire lives have been changed dramatically because they attended a two-week meditation retreat. Coming back in fishermen's pants and white tunics, festooned with prayer beads. The philosophy is so deep. I think I'm truly at one with the Buddha now. Academically inclined writers and speakers who will defend an oppressive, abusive regime like China's down to the last drop of beer polished off during the argument, because they've spent just a little too much time in China, fallen in love with the place and now think that China can do no wrong. Da Shan and his pervasive Da Shan-ness.



Me in a qipao at a friend's wedding: cultural appropriation?
Yes, I just wanted to post this picture because I think it's flattering!

This is where it gets tricky: there is a lot of genuine interest in foreign cultures out there (it goes both ways - I don't just mean "white people think Asian stuff is cool", because come on, plenty of Asians think "white people stuff is cool" too) - some of it is that shallow "I went to China for a month and found myself" tripe, and some of it is real enthusiasm and lasting interest. There is no way to draw a clear line, and impossible to judge these shades of gray - although clearly I try. :)

It's also hard to differentiate what is simple over-indulgence or enthusiasm and what is cultural appropriation. Was my fascination with Hinduism, to the point of putting little idols on my window ledge, an over-indulged interest or was I, by using those idols as decoration from a religion I didn't practice, appropriating them? Is Da Shan's whole schtick simply a slightly creepy white guy speaking great Chinese, or is he appropriating Chinese culture to his own ends, and what does it mean that the Chinese people love it and have made him a celebrity (to the point where, as a foreigner in China in 2002-3 I was asked more than once if I knew him...'cause all we foreigners know each other)?

How about the couple that incorporates a tea ceremony or mehndi into their wedding despite having no connection to Chinese or Indian culture (or in this example - in the comments - of wanting to use a huppah in a non-Jewish wedding ceremony), or who decorates their house with paper lanterns, sari fabric and those little stone pagodas? How about the person who quotes Lao Tzu but isn't Daoist, or walks around wearing a sari, a qipao, a kimono, fishermen's pants or what-have-you, or generally adorning oneself with the aesthetic trappings of another culture - including in tattoo form?

What is appropriate and what isn't, what's offensive and what isn't, who gets to be the judge (the answer to that is easy: nobody, or everybody, but no one person), when does the pendulum swing from enthusiasm to using meaningful symbols in ignorance, when is it a compliment and when is it creepy?

As always, I don't have answers to those questions, but I do have a lot of thought and inquiry. In this and some future posts, I'll explore this in more depth.

For now, some thoughts.

Religion - Now that I'm more thoughtful about these things, I do believe one should generally avoid religious symbols if you are not a serious practitioner of that religion: I agree with the this discussion that using a huppah in a non-Jewish wedding ceremony, for example, is quite offensive (but using a more general, less religiously iconic arch would be fine). Decorating with icons of gods you don't believe in is dodgy business. If you don't know what an icon represents or how one interacts with that icon with respect (for example - a Ganesh t-shirt is generally fine but a Ganesh ankle tattoo is not), then it's best to leave it alone.

That said, there is some leeway.

It gets even more complex when you consider that many non-Western religions are remarkably open (especially ones that sprouted from folk beliefs and not from a single founder - Hinduism and "Chinese Folk Religion" are included in this). I don't feel too ashamed of my Ganesh and Sarasvati icons because Hinduism is sort of like Linux to Western religions' Windows: it's an interesting form of open-source. Most Hindus would be quite fine with, say, placing a small Ganesh on the table by your main door for good luck on any journeys even if you're not Hindu yourself. I'm speaking in generalities, of course, but this is my experience. I am sure there are more conservative types who might object but that's certainly not the overarching view in the culture.

Photo from our wedding by Keira Lemonis

"Your religious icon is my fun logo graphic?" Most Indians would disagree seeing as they use the same images as fun graphics.


I have more to write about this - in another post.

Orientalism - Edward Said made some good points regarding this, but I can't help but think that he went a little too far. He implies that any sort of interest or enthusiasm for "Eastern" culture (it could be applied to more than that, but we'll stick with Asia and the Middle East here) on the part of a Westerner is automatically Orientalist and that, basically, we Westerners can't possibly truly understand the East because we all fetishize it. All of us. Every last one. That's just as racist as the Western attitudes that spawned his original critique - you white folks can never understand. Don't even try. Gimme a break.

I also have more to say about this...again, in a future post. I'm going to have a lot of fun tearing into the academic study of the "subaltern". Psheh.

Inspiration - All Creative Work is Derivative: this piece was created by Nina Paley to stick a fork in current copyright laws, but I think it applies to cultural appropriation as well. If you look at her choice of icons and statues, you'll see Hindu, Buddhist, Coptic, Greek, Egyptian, Medieval, Byzantine, Roman, African and other examples of art throughout. It would have been cool if she'd made it all chronological so you could see how inter-cultural art inspired other works in an accurate timeline, but I do understand that for the purposes of the visual movement that wouldn't have worked. The point is: you can't pinpoint ideas. Ideas are shared. They are at their best when they are collective. They flit between cultures. We all inspire one another. It is OK to borrow aesthetically...we as a race have been doing it for thousands of years if not longer.

Very few things can be said to belong to one culture and one culture only. I'll write more about this later, but if you want a good example now, take a look at the history of henna tattooing.

Meaning - Borrowing aesthetically and philosophically is one thing. Borrowing items of deeper cultural meaning (especially if those items have a history of appropriation with the purposeful intent of robbing them of their original meaning for an oppressed culture) are another: tread carefully.

Ownership - There are no "rules" as to who has access to what, although some basic guidelines of respect apply. I have a lot to say about this, and will save it for another post. Nobody gets to decide who is allowed to find which things meaningful.

Creepiness - If you take this to an extreme, however, you're opening yourself up to raised eyebrows the accusation that "their meaningful icon is her fun logo graphic" (modified from a post in the Practical Wedding comments, above). If you go overboard, you do risk coming across as a bit...well, creepy. You do invite judgement, although I'd argue that judging someone you don't know is almost never fair.

Occidentalism - It goes both ways, you know: I have even more to say about this and will save it for another post, but when you see the borrowing of Western culture in Asia (or elsewhere) it is no less a candidate for the label of "cultural appropriation" as borrowings from Asia appearing in the West. And yet on one side it's acceptable to cry "Orientalism!", but on the other, well, have you ever heard anyone shout "That's Occidentalism!"? Probably not. It's the same thing - you can try to justify it by saying "yes but we were the oppressors and they were the oppressed" or "but Western culture is universal now": both of these ideas are worth examining (in another post) and both have some things in their favor, but in the end I find them both to be so much flatulence.

The Mystical, Unknowable Essences of the East - this attitude still exists to a degree, but I see it fading, measurably, in our generation. I think that if we can wipe it out entirely, as well as its corollary of the "perfect, everything's-better-than-we-have-it West" that I see in Asia, and see each other as people - just people with different backgrounds, aesthetics, traditions, beliefs and practices, but still just people and not things to fetishize, that the idea of cultural borrowing and inspiration will be much less fraught with accusations and problems of political correctness.


As I said, there's a lot to this topic, and I can't possibly talk about it all in one post. Stay tuned for more.

Re-defining Rape in Taiwan?

It's worth taking a moment to read Chen Yi-chien's editorial in the Taipei Times today: Rape law needs to be reformed.

I wasn't sure I got her point, exactly, in the beginning: it sounded as though the current law on the books is comprehensive and not anti-women's rights. This is a big change from how things used to be - a "crime against public decency" that valued chastity, and not the sexual autonomy of women. It's sad that the women of Taiwan had to wait until 1999 for that to happen - really? For serious? 1999? The old law sounds like something from the 19th century. It just goes to show that the advent of women's rights in Taiwan, which now make it one of the best - if not the best - country in Asia for women is a relatively recent reform in both culture and law. So recent that at times it still seems tenuous.

The reason for her writing of the editorial was that, after a bit of public debate and outrage last year due to "a number of" accused rapists being aquitted when they allegedly shouldn't have been, there was a proposed change:

...the Ministry of Justice and the Executive Yuan have seen fit to act in the wrong way, so wrong that I am very angry. They came up with a proposal to reform the rape law. One of the major revisions was the removal of a phrase that an offense was committed “against the will of the victim” (違反意願).

I completely agree with Chen that while this may seem to be a solution on the surface - that the prosecution would no longer need to prove that the act was against the victim's will, theoretically making it easier to reach a conviction - that what it in fact does is remove the idea of sexual autonomy from the law and make it again about chastity. If rape isn't about consent or will, then what is it about? As Chen says, "so are we heading back to the good old days of 'presence of force?'" Can we trust the proposed change or are they trying, as in the USA, to re-define rape and make it so that a woman has to fight nearly to the death - to the point where further resistance is impossible - in order for the crime to count as "rape"?

Being cynical as I am, I fall on the side of "can't trust 'em", especially in a KMT-led government.

Although I'm just as cynical about the DPP, the KMT has a lousy track record on promoting women's rights (and female politicians - ahem). It is true that a significant chunk of current laws aimed at women's rights were passed in 1998 and 1999 - just before the DPP took the presidency, which you think would speak well of the KMT: but I can't help but wonder if it was done in an attempt to court the female vote in 2000 and not necessarily out of a genuine caring for the rights of women (if it had been, why didn't they pass those laws earlier, when their tenure was not in danger)?

As a result, I am leaning towards interpreting the proposed change negatively, as Chen is. It reminds me of the recent debacle in the USA in which the Republicans sought to re-define rape, insinuating through language that there is a difference between rape and "forcible rape" (and, with clever use of language, making it so that an abortion will only be a procedure eligible for government funding if the rape is "forcible"). It sounds so similar that it kind of gives me shivers.

And yet, I was still wondering from where her desire for reform stemmed. Towards the end of the piece it became clear:

Through the so-called democratic process, the rape law can easily be changed; a phrase dropped here, or a few more years to a prison term added there. The legal culture will never change until we come forward and change the perception that just because a female does not scream herself to death or fight for her chastity until death, she has agreed to engage in a sexual act.

She is absolutely right - the law as it is now protects a woman's sexual autonomy and defines rape as a sexual act with a "lack of consent" - but it is all to easy to change that, and all too easy to do that without raising public ire if done quickly and quietly enough. The reform needs to be in the acceptance that rape is a sexual act with a lack of consent, is a violation of sexual autonomy (not chastity), is not so much an issue of "public decency" but is a crime against a person's body and has nothing to do with how much force was used and how much the woman tried to resist it. This needs to be immutable - this needs to be so obvious as to be a tautology. That's where true reform lies.

The scary parallel here isn't just the outdated and frankly misogynist attitudes behind attempts to change the law, but that we (both American and Taiwanese women) live in cultures where this could even be considered - in the USA the push to de-fund abortions in most cases was made by the conservatives and we all know that they're not exactly pro-women's rights (as much as Sarah Palin may disagree, she can go...well...you can fill in the rest). Here in Taiwan, the push to "re-define rape" ostensibly stems from a push to help women and further the cause of justice in the realm of women's rights. The fact that that is where this proposal would come from is far scarier, indeed.