Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Domestic Hobbies

One of my  DIY projects - I wear it constantly!




I had a day off on Monday. Brendan and I went to Dihua Street to look at fabric for sheer curtains - we also ate lunch, I stopped to chat with my tailor and  got a massage, too. To be honest, I'm the one who cares about curtain colors - Brendan came along to keep me company, give a few opinions, eat delicious shrimp roll rice and make funny commentary (me: "I actually like the idea of this deep taupe color with an intense eggplant purple, but I can't wrap my head around actually using such a Grandma color." Brendan: "I didn't even know 'taupe' was a color until you just said so. This is why you're taking charge of this. If it were me, I'd be all 'Oh, that's not gray? OK, I'll just keep my mouth shut.'")


Generally speaking I've been thinking about home furnishings, paint colors, curtains and other arguably "stereotypically feminine" stuff since we signed the lease on the new apartment. I'm tickled to have a great new space to work with.


After our fabric scouting (Brendan: "I like light colors but let's stay away from anything that screams 'cupcake frosting', 'preschool' or 'retirement home') we stopped for coffee at the outdoor cafe attached to Yongle Market. Brendan was making general social commentary as he read the Taipei Times and later correcting student homework. I was happy to sip my coffee and think about color schemes:  ruby and plum! Persian green and peacock! Cranberry and cerulean!


At first glance this might make us look like the latest thing to step out of Stepford: a silly woman thinking about nothing of substance beyond what color to paint her living room, and a man reading the paper. I realized this, turned to Brendan, and said: "You know, I don't think it's so bad that I'm enjoying one of Taipei's rare sunny days by sitting outside contemplating color schemes. I mean, I have a good job, I can support myself, I'm educated, I'm reasonably politically tuned in and interested in being civically active and have traveled on my own dime around the world. I don't think it's a degradation to my female empowerment that I'm sitting here trying to decide whether to paint a wall of the living room Persian green or peacock blue, or that you are not thinking about it."


Of course I know Brendan realizes this: he married me - clearly he knows me. I just tend to say lot of things like this in a stream-of-consciousness way. It's how I think. Yes, I do tend to keep up a verbal, mumbled, running commentary at home (I can curb it in public) and I'm sure it's annoying as hell!


Which brings me to this piece in The Washington Post - which, by the way, I love the slightly retro hipster art depicting the hipster girl (you can tell because she's wearing Hipster Glasses, has a hipster 'bird' tattoo and totally hipster haircut).   The writer asks:


But in an era when women still do the majority of the housework and earn far less of the money, “reclaiming” domesticity is about more than homemade holiday treats. Could this “new domesticity” start to look like old-fashioned obligation?


I don't earn "far less money" in my field, but the point is taken. And:

Women like me are enjoying domestic projects again in large part because they’re no longer a duty but a choice. But how many moral and environmental claims can we assign to domestic work before it starts to feel, once more, like an obligation? If history is any lesson, my just-for-fun jar of jam could turn into my daughter’s chore, and eventually into my granddaughter’s “liberating” lobster strudel (from the bakery). And as . . . delicious as that sounds, it’s not really what I want on my holiday table in 2050.



Although, to be honest, the societal expectation waaaay back in the day that women would can jam, make clothes and blankets and generally tend the house didn't start because newly settled communities in early  civilizations didn't have legions of just-post-Neolithic women who thought it was "fun", and from there it turned into an obligation such that refusing to do it (or  simply not being inclined to) became a punishable offense. Nobody's really sure why it happened - I don't  entirely buy the evolutionary psychology thing - but I doubt it was because women 11,000 years ago enjoyed housework. 


Women - both in Taiwan, much of Asia and the West - still sometimes suffer these expectations. Women become a target for it when planning weddings and having children especially: it's like everything that people are keeping inside or don't want to admit they actually think comes out.  One person I  knew from Offbeat Bride's planning community was told "learn how to make swan-shaped pastries. Your husband will love that. Men like it when women know how to do these kinds of things."      


Uhhh...really? Because I think Brendan would be all "cool" and then eat the pastry, and he's one of the most in-touch, feminist men I know (which is why I married him, natch)! 


It's true though: I feel that my desire to  decorate, or my love of jewelry-making, or my skill with cooking and baking, don't threaten or contradict my being an empowered woman - but that's because I have the freedom to choose to do these things or not, as I wish. For what it's worth,  men have the same choice. Who chooses to exercise it is really not my concern, although I'd like to see a socialization process from childhood that encouraged boys who are so inclined to pursue these hobbies without fear of being seen as 'effeminate' or 'unmanly'.


Frankly, I'd like to see gender assignment be stricken entirely from the various hobbies one might have. I'd like to see cooking, knitting, quilting, painting, canning, hiking, computer geekery, doing various sports, enjoying good whiskey, wine or beer, stamp collecting, insect collecting etc. lose their 'feminine' and 'masculine' labels entirely.


I would not, however, want my generation's desire to knit, bake and can to become our daughter's expectation that she should enjoy these things, to become her daughter's obligation to do them, to become her daughter's renewed fight for liberation from expectations that she do them. It is all too easy to see she likes to sew and cook become women like to sew and cook, then women like to sew and cook, so they should do those things, then, women aren't predisposed to working outside the home, after all they are naturally better at sewing and cooking, then woman, fix my shirt and cook my dinner!, then you're a woman and you don't like to sew and cook? What's wrong with you? You must be a morally bankrupt harlot! Send her to Dr. Englebert for shock therapy!


I say this, even though it's a bit repetitive, because I've seen a very similar thought process in individuals (usually men, but some women too). I think it's relevant to this blog because, while Taiwan is a much better place for women to live than other Asian countries, I have seen similar thought processes here - again, mostly among men, but you hear it from women too.


Which begs the question - at what point would expectations that a woman should enjoy things that can genuinely be "fun", like sewing and cooking, become an expectation that she should also do things like, oh, say, all that other housework that falls under virtually nobody's definition of "fun"? It's all well and good when one does things that many see as pleasurable, but what about all that domestic stuff - like scrubbing and sweeping - that nobody really enjoys? When does that include giving up gains in the workplace to stay home and do that work, because women "enjoy it more" or "are better at it"? And does that lead to discussions of "nurterers" or "providers"? As the article says:

Many champions of the DIY movement explicitly say that domestic work shouldn’t be about gender. But I’ve also noticed a resurgence of old-fashioned gender essentialism from some surprising sources. I’ve lately been hearing things like “There’s just something natural about women taking on the nurturing role in the home” coming out of the mouths of women’s studies grads and Ivy League PhDs.


This bothers me, because I do think that this tendency is far more 'nurture' and not nearly as much 'nature' as people think. Millenia of social 'nurturing' towards these roles can, in fact, create what seems like a natural tendency. Even if some of it is biological, not all of it is.

It also bothers me because I'm sorry, I just don't feel that way. I like my DIY projects but I am not, not, not a nurturer in the home (this is not a "the lady doth protest too much", this is my reaction to years of hearing people say that "women" are like this, implying that I, as a woman, should also be like this). I'm not a caregiver, really - I'm a natural provider. I'm pretty good at winnin' the bread, bringin' home a large chunk of the bacon. I can be  nurturing but it is not a role I take to long-term. I can provide short-term care but long-term nurturing would drive me up a wall. It's one reason why I'm not inclined to have kids. I'm good at certain types of DIY but not a dynamo in the domestic sphere: I'm terrible at housework, both at remembering to do it and at executing it. 



I have the freedom to enjoy my various DIY hobbies because I can do them without fear that it will lead to an expectation that I would prefer doing them to working, or that I can't or shouldn't be a breadwinner because I'm "just a silly woman" who likes to bake, decorate and make jewelry. I am sure there are still people out there who believe that staying home might be an option that I choose someday (it won't - I guess you never can say but if either of us stayed home it would just as likely be Brendan), but generally speaking they don't say so (thanks!) and most people wouldn't question the coexistence of my career with my hobbies. My mother does  a lot of  DIY and my mother-in-law is an expert quilter, and nobody would question that they are empowered women. 


I also mention this with relation to Taiwan because while back home, the idea of a "house husband", while rare, is basically accepted. At least it's conceived of. I mention the word "house husband" or "stay at home dad" in Taiwan and I get laughs - oh! What a cute word! Haha! - in a tone that clearly indicates that it's a hilarious idea from the West but of course no family in Taiwan would include something so preposterous as a house husband. It's unheard of, and not considered seriously - when it should be.  You still hear stories like that of one of my students:  she once told me she spent the weekend cleaning her apartment, because her mother-in-law was visiting, and expected his (ie her son's) apartment to be clean and would criticize her (the daughter-in-law) if it wasn't spotless. 


I say this believing that these days, for most women in Taiwan and the West (but not necessarily the rest of Asia), staying home is done out of choice, not expectation. In the West, men have the same choice. In Taiwan, they really don't.


Taiwanese women don't seem to be pushed to pursue 'feminine' hobbies, but I do see them steered away from 'masculine' ones. Most people wouldn't necessarily expect a Taiwanese woman to enjoy cooking, scrapbooking or sewing but they would definitely not expect her to enjoy, say, whiskey tasting, woodworking, computer geeking or certain sports - and they might judge her negatively for those things, far more harshly than I would get judged back home (which is not that harshly at all: women can pick up "masculine" hobbies with little problem - it's men picking up "feminine" ones that stirs derision). 


I will say that I have noticed that Taiwanese women are not expected to enjoy cooking - or even to do it regardless of enjoyment - nearly as much as women in other Asian countries.  There are still some old-school mothers in law who do the cooking because they think they should, or are happy to, or have convinced themselves that they're happy to. There are others who expect that their daughter-in-law will do it. Other than them and possibly a few misogynist men, it's far more acceptable for a Taiwanese woman - at least in Taipei -  to say "yeah, I don't cook" or "we eat out a lot because I'm a terrible cook" or "our domestic helper cooks because I can't" or "sometimes I make fried rice or fish, but that's it" than it is  for a Japanese, Chinese or Korean woman to be so  honest.


I can, however, imagine an American man picking up, say, making jam more easily than I could see a Taiwanese man doing it - and I see neither picking up knitting or quilting. Yet you hear so many expats saying that Taiwanese men are 'effeminate' or 'not manly' (I don't agree, though - well, I almost always don't agree. When I see a man walking by holding his girlfriend's glittery pink heart purse, I have to admit...). That brings up a whole new discussion of gender dynamics in Taiwan that I might explore in a later post.


It's also worth pointing out this section: 


"...writer Erin Bried recalls serving her dinner party guests a homemade “rhubarb” pie accidentally made with look-alike Swiss chard. One might chalk this up as a simple goof (hey, they’ve both got red stems!), but Bried sees her mistake as something much more serious: “When did I lose my ability to take care of myself? . . . What is simultaneously comforting and alarming about my domestic incompetence is that I am hardly alone. I’m joined by millions of women, Gen Xers and Gen Yers, who either have consciously rejected household endeavors in favor of career or, even more likely, were simply raised in the ultimate age of convenience and consumerism.”

This vision of what it means for a woman to take care of herself is either radically new or incredibly retro. Bried is a senior staff writer at a major national magazine, yet she’s framing her ability to take care of herself around her ability to bake a pie.
Exactly - this is why I am posting this at all. I frame my ability to take care of myself around my ability to be self-sufficient, to create and  nurture good relationships, to set and achieve goals and have enough time and money to do things I enjoy. This includes being able to take care of a home, but by that I mean "cook myself a decent, edible meal, not give anyone food poisoning, and keep the place relatively clean without ruining my stuff".  You know, not that much more than one normally expects of bachelors. Being able to bake a pie, is really, honestly a bonus. It would  genuinely scare me to see a new generation of women framing their abilities around only what they can do in the home, and not just a part of what they're capable of, and things like pie baking and knitting are placed where they belong: nice skills to have, but not strictly necessary. Not necessary the way being able to earn a living wage (even if you, with your partner, choose not to do so in lieu of equally valuable contributions at home) is, or being able to clean without destroying your floor, cook a basic meal without killing yourself, handle your own finances or have satisfying relationships are.


I guess I don't have a clear point, other than to provide my thoughts on the article above and tie it in a few ways to my own life and  what I've observed in Asia.


It does lead me to a final point, though, that a resurgence of domestic hobbies isn't what we, the new generation of feminists, need to be fighting for - in the West or in Taiwan. We still have a lot of other things to tackle:

Equal Pay for Equal Work: this gets better all the time, but those who say that women's salaries are lower only because of the kind of work they do or amount of work they put in vis-a-vis family time miss the point. The first point is that no, studies clearly show lower paychecks for the same job done at the same level of dedication. Secondly, jobs that typically are done by women (teaching, nursing etc) are generally speaking underpaid - they deserve far more than they get. Especially teachers, who are professionals just like doctors or lawyers, although in a different way.



Equal Dedication to Family: a lot of women drop off in the workforce because the societal expectation is still on them to be the 'nurterers' and 'caregivers' - so  they're expected to cut back at work far more than men.  Flextime for family should be something that both parents can take advantage of without stigma. Making the business world family-friendly is not just something that working mothers need, working fathers need it too. The lack of childcare support, which keeps a lot of women who are not so well off that they can afford a nanny or private day care at home, is also a big problem (less so in Taiwan where many people have family to fill this role, but still a problem).


This also includes equivalent/fair childrearing time done by both spouses -  even if one stays home - and equivalent time doing housework or other domestic tasks. If the family decides they're going to make their own cheese or  jam or grow their own vegetables, then I want to see men getting in on that action, too. 


Insidious Beliefs about (against) Reproductive Freedom: 'nuff said. It just doesn't go away. That's sad.


Virulent Misogynist Beliefs: far worse than "oh she's a woman and she likes making jam" are  people who genuinely believe that submissive women are "better" than assertive ones, who believe that beauty is truly more important for a woman than brains, who believe - openly! - that women are the gatekeepers of sexuality and chastity and that men can never be expected to be responsible, and who place ridiculous expectations on women - that we can't be too smart, that we always need to be just a bit thinner or more buxom, that we should be super skinny and yet still cook amazing brownies and not be afraid to eat them, that we should make less than our spouses or not be quite as successful. This group includes anyone who likes "Asian women" for being "more beautiful, slender, submissive, gentle" or whatever tripe, and especially those who say that openly. (It does not include men who are dating an Asian woman just because he happens to like her for her - I want to be very specific about that).                                          


It's one thing to have a personal preference for certain personality types, and there is nothing wrong with women who are quieter, not as naturally assertive, not as take-charge - and nothing wrong with men who tend to like those women. There's nothing wrong with two people who agree that they want a more traditional home life. 


It becomes wrong when someone decides that submissiveness, quietness and other qualities traditionally pegged to women are "better" than women who are talkative, take-charge, assertive and maybe a little brash. It becomes a problem when you believe that being a woman means you should be a doormat. It becomes a problem when they criticize any other personality type in a woman as 'unfeminine' or 'undesireable', or imply that all women 'should' be a certain way by virtue of them being women.


I will add that those guys are wrong, simply by virtue of the fact that women like me exist. They're just wrong. If they were right I'd be a miserable spinster (not that all unmarried women are miserable or could be called spinsters - I'm using a term they'd use). I wouldn't have a happy life and wonderful husband who prefers me to all the "slender, beautiful, quiet, submissive" women out there.


Equal Representation: those who say "you've won the battle, what are you still crowing about?" clearly haven't looked at the numbers for female representation in politics, the vitriol of attack ads aimed at female candidates that sometimes border on sexist (and sometimes blatantly are sexist). They haven't looked at the numbers at the higher echelons of business or wealth distribution. Oprah is famous for being an extremely wealthy black woman because she's the exception, not the norm. Cher Wang, again - exception, not the norm. We are underrepresented and attacked when we try to represent. This needs to change.


Societal Treatment of Abuse, Rape and Harassment: again, 'nuff said.


Basically, yes, there are issues raised by this resurgence of domestic 'hobbies' among young women, but that's not nearly our biggest issue. Let's tackle the above first, just as our mothers and grandmothers did, and not really worry about who likes knitting and who doesn't.



Sunday, November 27, 2011

I'll Not Be Home For Christmas


...in which I admit I'm a total sucker for the holidays. Including the cheesy music and glittery decorations.

I love Taiwan, but it can get a little depressing around here between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the weather is almost uniformly crap and the only places that decorate or really do anything for the holidays are the department stores, Starbucks and IKEA - and the Holiday Inn Shenkeng, as I've recently discovered. I've been known to peruse IKEA just for the holiday music and goods, and go to Starbucks even though I don't particularly like their coffee, just to get an infusion of holiday spirit.

Yes, of course, it's clear that Christmas is not a local holiday and I can't expect it to really be celebrated in Taiwan, but well-decked halls are a part of not only my culture but also my life, since childhood. It's hard to go without them. It's hard to watch the streets go by from a bus window, with overcast skies - no snow, of course - and no decorations in sight. Going out into Taipei City at this time of year is like preparing for a sad little Holiday of One (now Two).

Joseph, Becca and Alex at Thanksgiving
I'm all about the cheesy music, plastic garlands and shiny ornaments and lights hanging from everything in sight. I don't even mind that half the time it's done in an attempt to get you in the spirit to buy more stuff - maybe it's the result of being totally in love with Christmas but having a very secular moral code. To me, Christmas is about family - which includes shopping carefully to find them gifts that will bring them joy* (or spending time making them, which I have also done). It also involves baking cookies with my mom and sister, going out to the fire department's Christmas Tree sale in a shopping center parking lot to pick out a tree, always a real tree, the livingroom redolent of evergreen as the cats sized it up as a climbing post, visiting Grandma and burning wrapping paper in the fireplace, watching the flames catch the dye and change color.

In Taiwan I don't have the chance to do any of this. No real tree, no fireplace, and this year is the first one in which baking cookies is a real option. Sometimes I feel like I drink Toffee Nut Lattes - which I'm not even all that fond of, if I'm going to drink a gussied up holiday beverage I'd go for gingerbread latte or peppermint mocha or good ol' egg nog, but those aren't things you can get in Taipei - just to pretend it's good enough to make up for what I don't have.

And that's just it - most of the time, living abroad is great, but this is the one time of year when it's not quite so great. Christmas in Taipei is not the same as Christmas in a city that actually celebrates, and definitely not the same as going home for Christmas. All of the traditions Brendan and I have adopted for Christmas are great, and I love that we have our own little family unit with our own way of doing things on the holidays, but my childhood always included larger family gatherings on Christmas and Thanksgiving and it's hard not to have that every year. The party is great, but it doesn't quite adequately substitute what the holidays are back home: in part because it's not family, in part because the weather is all wrong, in part because the run-up to the holiday is so devoid of holiday cheer everywhere except in my own apartment and at Starbucks.

There is something really missing in that lack of a feeling of communal celebration. Something about the holidays is made richer by knowing that your friends, neighbors and extended acquaintances are celebrating too. I guess I have an inkling now of how it might feel to celebrate Channukah in a community that isn't very Jewish, or Chinese New Year in a community where you might be the only Chinese (or Taiwanese, or Singaporean) family celebrating. It's true for both Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Of course, we do have some holiday traditions that we've built up in Taipei. It's not a complete wash. We put up a plastic tabletop tree - pretending, again, that it's good enough - and put gifts for each other under it. We stuff stockings because - why not? I play Christmas music on iTunes and buy foods that remind me of the holidays at City Super and IKEA (Glogg!). This year I'll invite people over to bake cookies. Every year we throw a Christmas party on Christmas Day for other expats at loose ends - some years big, some years smaller. I never take pictures because I'm generally enjoying myself too much to remember my camera, and anyway, what happens at the Christmas Party stays at the Christmas Party.

Thanksgiving Beijing Duck with Cathy and Alex
I love that Brendan and I have our own way of celebrating Christmas now that we're a family unit. I love that this year we get to celebrate in our new apartment, which I'm hoping to have painted and decorated by the time the holiday comes around. It's not quite the same, though, as being near family - everything I associate Christmas with includes family gatherings, big or small (more often than not "big").

Which, you know, is how expats have been doing it ever since the dawn of expats. I'm not the first to feel like I'm celebrating alone, to spend the day with friends rather than family. I'm not the first to get a little misty-eyed when I'll Be Home For Christmas plays, not the first to throw a big party in a land far, far away in lieu of a family gathering at home, and definitely not the first to put up a plastic tree and proclaim it "good enough".

On Thanksgiving we get whatever size group we can together, not always on Thanksgiving, though, and go out for Beijing Duck. This is actually great, because duck is clearly the superior bird to tasteless turkey. It may not include Grandma L teetering around with a Manhattan in hand, green bean casserole, pumpkin and cherry pies, uncles passed out on the couch, or cousins arguing over which Thanksgiving special to watch on TV, but it's got a big dinner, a group of friends and a convivial atmosphere.

In all the ways Christmas comes up short in Taipei, Thanksgiving has the potential to be just as good - if not, in some ways, better. This year I think it lived up to that, although everyone was a bit tired (I have bronchitis, too, so there's that). I've written about previous Thanksgivings in Taipei in 2009 and talked briefly about it in 2008. This year we went to Tian Chu (天廚) near MRT Zhongshan. Better service, we got two ducks instead of Song Chu's paltry one (I still call that place 北宋廚 - which utilizes some slightly rude Taiwanese slang), and really good duck.

Next year, for Christmas, I think we're going to try to go home. No idea which family we'll spend the holiday with, but it's high time we had a real American Christmas, with family and shopping malls and tinsel and all that fun stuff.






*before y'all judge me for being all about the shopping and the gift-giving and less about the religion, I just want to say this. Last year my mother was coughing terribly at our wedding. The family ganged up on her to see another doctor. She did, and by Thanksgiving was diagnosed with lung cancer. Serious lung cancer. By Christmas she was starting chemo. I bought her an iPad to watch movies or whatever else she wanted while she recovered from the chemo sessions as a Christmas gift. I couldn't be there in person - we were still recovering financially from the wedding - which was totally worth the cost, I might add. She'd already started losing her hair when we did our annual Christmas Skype session. She got through chemo and despite being given a prognosis of "you've got two years at most", she's made a full recovery since. Complete remission! Her words: "I spent days on the couch after the chemo sessions, especially the later ones. That iPad got me through it. Thank you." So I don't want to hear any "you're so materialistic!" BS in the comments, 'k?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Spicy Food in Taipei


Beef slices in spicy sauce at Tian Fu (天府川菜)


It's really hard to get good spicy food in Taipei if you don't know where to look - the local cuisine is based on light, clear flavors (think seafood, mushroom, tofu, vinegar) and, as much as they pretend that 大辣 (super spicy) is a real thing here, let's face it, not many of them have the tolerance for true fire.

Here's my short list of good places to go for prolonged burn!

Tian Fu Sichuanese Restaurant
天府川菜
#5 Ren'ai Road, Yonghe (MRT Dingxi)
新北市永和區仁愛路5號(捷運頂溪站)

A long-standing favorite of mine - seriously, if you haven't gone there, go! - this place serves up food so hot that at least one person we brought there had to go out and buy yoghurt to calm her mouth down. They don't skimp on the 花椒 (flower pepper - the kind that makes your mouth tingle), either. Try the 水煮牛 (also available in fish, which is tasty), and the other Sichuan staples are good too.

Aladdin Indian and Pakistani Cuisine
Raohe Night Market, near the end where you pick up the 306 and 518 buses (not the end with the temple and Songshan Station)

With most Indian food in Taipei - even the good stuff - you have to be very circumspect about asking for it to be cooked "spicy" or "really Indian style" - otherwise you'll get milder dishes more suited to Taiwanese tastes. Aladdin (or Alla-Din) is one of the few places that don't skimp on the spice, and if you ask for it spicy, you'll get it spicy.  Try the mutton curry and the raitha, although honestly, everything is good.

The Noodle House
重慶炒手麵食

台北市大安區信義路3段103號1樓
1st floor #103 Xinyi Road Section 3, Taipei

Come here for the signature 紅油抄手 for a good dose of heat. Other dishes are spicy but this dish is what I always get when I need a little fire in my belly.


#1 Recommended: Han Chi Tiger Noodle
203 Jinhua St, Taipei City (台北市金華街203號)


The super hot lamb soup with rice puff squares at Tiger Noodle - Yum! Fire in Mah Belly!


This place does a fiery Sichuan-style noodle soup, and does it well. I like the rice puff squares and lamb with no blood, but you can get it with noodles, different meat, and with blood. The best thing on the menu is this signature noodle dish, which is at the top of the menu and comes with all sorts of things to check off. If you order the 大辣, beware: the broth will be so laced with different kinds of spice that it will practically glow red, and there will be a coat of slick red chili oil on top. I like Tiger Noodle because, as Brendan said, "this is spicy food prepared by someone who knows how to make spicy food" - they don't just lace the dish with boring chili sauce or oil. They layer the spice: black pepper, dried chili, chili oil, flower pepper. The spiciness is complex and deep. It'll warm you up on a cold day.


Best of all, you can buy their signature chili, either regular or with pickled turnip.


Little Thailand
台北市汀州路糝段號
#219 Dingzhou Street Sec 3, Taipei
(02)2367-0739
While I'm going to have to take back my recommendation of Dako in the linked post (they stopped doing fantastic Japanese small eats and started doing boring ol' fried pork, which you can get anywhere), Little Thailand still stands out as the place to go for fiery Thai food. Hotter than its neighbors - and this neighborhood has a lot of Thai restaurants, most of them passable but not memorable - this is run by Thai people for Thai people. There's a little market for Thai foodstuffs on the first floor, and the whole thing just reeks of the real deal (literally - the predominant smells are coconut, citrus, seafood and fish/squid oil).

Honorable Mentions:


Places where you can find spicy food, but perhaps not quite as complex and satisfyingly spicy as the options above.

Buffalo Wings at China White
Anhe Road, Dunnan Tower 2nd floor, entrance from the side of Dunnan Tower (fronted on Dunhua South Road), same corner as Carnegie's and The Diner.


China White itself is a passably posh bar that I like when I don't want to go downmarket but don't want to cram into a bar full of boorish people. I also like it for being locally popular: on one visit we were the only foreigners there. The drinks are good but expensive, you can usually get a table if you don't show up too late, and the food is mostly mediocre as you'd expect. The buffalo wings stand out for being pretty good, and pretty spicy.

The downside? No bleu cheese sauce.

Macho Tacos
延吉街126巷3號
Yanji St, Lane 126, #3 and other locations


My predominant memories from eating here are not of the "wow this is spicy!" variety, more of the "I like this - I like this more than Yuma. This is the Mexican food I generally go for, and Yuma is more "Tex-Mex" or "Southwestern". They'll definitely load you up with jalapenos, and you can get your food goin' good and hot here, though. Much hotter than my experiences at Yuma - which I still like, but for different reasons.

NT$11 "Stuff on Sticks" at Jingmei Night Market
Jingmei Night Market, entrance across the street from Cafe 85 (MRT Jingmei Exit #1), across the lane from the famous "上海水簡包" place. 


Ask for "大辣" here and you'll get it - your stuff on sticks will be practically crusted over with fiery chili powder.

That said, it didn't make the main list because it's just chili powder - no depth, no complexity, no skill in preparation. It's just hot. That's still an improvement over other places, where "super spicy" means two unenthusiastic taps of the chili shaker.

Kunming Islamic Food

#26 Lane 81 Fuxing N. Road Taipei Taiwan
台北市復興北路81巷26號
MRT Nanjing E. Road (捷運南京東路站)

Spicy chicken curry, a hearty lingering spicy feeling from the samosas - this place can hit that chili sweet spot. The only reason it's not on the main list is because Alla-Din is even spicier. You can find things here that friends who don't want to burn their tongues off can enjoy, so it's a good place for a spice-lover to arrange a group dinner or meal with friends. Also, the owner is a super friendly Burmese guy.


Anyone else? Know a good, hot spot for good, hot food and want to share? I can't possibly know every place and am always open to hearing about more places to try!


Friday, November 25, 2011

Goodwill Hunting

Since we've been packing and cleaning out for our imminent move, something that I've known for awhile has recently recaptured my attention - something obvious to everyone but I'd only really thought to blog about it now. It's that donating or selling secondhand goods is difficult to near-impossible, but that there's a much higher level of recycling.

Back home when I prepared for a move, almost everything I no longer wished to keep would get thrown into a huge bag, or possibly multiple bags, and dropped off at Goodwill.

Now, most of what I don't want that I can't give to friends is given to recyclers. That's almost too bad, because plenty of it is still useable. I never imagined that so much could be broken down for recycling until I started to clean out an apartment crammed with 4 years' worth of two people's stuff. Old Fang downstairs will take everything from old umbrellas to ancient pots and pans to worn-out shoes to broken microwaves. This is stuff that would likely just end up in the trash back home, if it wasn't good enough for Goodwill.

In fact, Americans talk a lot about the importance of recycling, but they either need to start sortin' or shut up: it's extremely difficult to recycle in the USA. There are no random folks roaming the back lanes ready to snatch an old wok out of your hands to sell for scrap metal, a lot of places make you bring in your recycling yourself instead of picking it up and what you bring in is fairly restricted compared to what Old Fang will take (which is just about anything). Americans don't recycle enough because no matter how much we talk about it, it's just not made easy for us to do. It's not a good default option. You can say "well then people need to be more dedicated", but, well, go try real life for awhile. Come back and tell me what you think then. It just doesn't work that way.

So, back to secondhand items. I was no stranger to shopping at Goodwill myself - like many Westerners, I have no qualms about picking up perfectly good secondhand items if I have a use for them. I got my flour sifter there (since redonated, but I wish I still had it). At our wedding we served different types of tea: the bowls that held the tea mostly came from there. I used to have mismatched mid-century plateware and glassware all courtesy of Goodwill, and one can never forget my crystal beer stein (which I still have, although I'm not sure where it is) that says "Happy Birthday, Uncle Frank" which came from there, too.

I'd shop there now if a credible alternative existed in Taiwan. There are some secondhand stores, but they're either "vintage/antique", books, jewelry or clothing based. There's nothing I know of like Goodwill where I can go buy weird, mismatched juice glasses or plates. I've never been one for matchy-matchy kitchen items and I prefer both the Earth-friendliness of secondhand items as well as their oft-quirky nature.

A friend and I were musing about why there's nothing like Goodwill in Taiwan, even though a few places to buy secondhand handbags, clothing, jewelry and vintage items do exist.

His idea is the most obvious one, which means it's probably the right one: that there just isn't a culture of pride in getting more use out of an item that wasn't yours to begin with. Taiwan - well, Asia generally - is more recently developed* and so there's a greater emphasis on ~*~shiny~*~ things. One shows that one's wealthy by buying new things, not by thrifting old ones. You can also show that you're wealthy by buying expensive, even priceless antiques, but not by buying secondhand plates. There's no subgroup of people who assume that others won't judge them - or will judge them positively - for having money, but also being fine with secondhand items. There's only a tiny subgroup of "poor little rich kids": you know, back home, the children of middle and upper middle class families who have highbrow tastes and the socioeconomic street cred to back it up, but who make $25,000 a year as baristas, organic food shop and vintage store clerks and entry-level nonprofit workers and who have no problem whatsoever with furnishing their apartments from Goodwill. (I would know, I spent time in that group of people). Simply put, if you're doing well in Asia, your stuff has to be new. You only take mundane secondhand items if you don't have money.

It's disappointing, though, that it's hard to even locate charities that take secondhand items. We managed to find a home for a lot of our stuff through a friend, who knows women who've left abusive marriages and who need help furnishing their apartments as they put their lives back together, and who took more of it to help a charity that works with the mentally disabled, but we haven't found any others (I plan to look into Tzu Chi though).

I also have to wonder if the Taiwanese aversion to secondhand goods has to do with superstition - remember, this is a country where many people believe that if you leave your laundry hanging outside at night during ghost month that ghosts might wear it, and that will be bad luck for you. Where the position of your house can bring you such bad luck that you might have to hang up a curved ba gua mirror to deflect it. Where it's common to see a fortune teller, especially when it's time to name your children. It would not surprise me to learn that some people - not everyone, certainly - believe that bad luck or bad associations can come attached to secondhand "daily use" items (I should point out that "antiques" tend not to be "daily use" items).

And, of course, there's the fact that stuff is cheaper here. I bought a lot of my home items at Goodwill because, while I could afford to shop in modest quantities for new items at stores like Bed, Bath and Beyond (there was no easily-reached Target or Walmart near me, and I try to avoid Walmart anyway), I felt that the stuff was just overpriced. I could afford to spend $10 on a set of four coasters, but why would I want to? In Taiwan this really isn't an issue - home goods and consumer items are much more affordable.

All of this points to "alright, Jenna, just recycle that stuff" ("that stuff" includes a hula hoop - don't ask - a panda that rides a bicycle, a plastic pitcher, two plastic plates, several plastic cups/glasses and more) - but the Goodwill donatin' American in me hates to see a perfectly good pitcher or toy get chucked in the trash, when someone could use it.



*yes, I realize that a good argument could be made for China and India having "developed" thousands of years before the West did, and long before modern European/Western history took flight, they were at different times the center of world civilization. That's not what I mean and you know it - we're talking about modern industrial and post-industrial development.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Success and Teaching English


I once read a post on a well-known travel forum from someone who wanted to not just travel but live abroad, and wanted to know how people actually went about doing that. Someone commented that there are many different ways – some go to travel, find an opportunity and stay. Others are able to find jobs on their own due to their skills – often IT professionals, doctors of some sort, teachers or people with various other qualifying jobs. Still others join the foreign service or are sent abroad with their companies. They finished with “for those with talent, there will always be opportunities”.

This was a long time ago – possibly several years – but that memory, combined with my recent trip back to the USA and catching up with friends there, got me thinking about “success” as it exists within the expat life.

Let’s be honest: most young folks from English-speaking countries who go abroad do so by teaching English. It’s pretty much the only language teaching field where one can get a job without a certification or experience, which has (somewhat deservedly) earned it a dodgy reputation as a job type and even dodgier as a career move. Who would move abroad to teach English if they had any other talents or skills? Who would do it as a career other than the sketchiest of guys (and yes, this reputation by and large attaches itself to men. I’m not saying it’s fair, I’m saying it happens)? How could anyone do that and actually be considered successful? With low salaries, few worker rights, few worker perks – how many of you English teachers in Taiwan have ever gotten a paid vacation, an annual bonus, extra pay for overtime work or any of the other perks one would otherwise expect from any other job? – is it a field that anyone who actually desires professional success would ever go into?

On the surface, no. All of my friends back home have gone into more typical “information economy” jobs: office work, professional work, business, graphic design, public health, one lawyer who is having a tough go of it. And yet, I desire professional success, and I went into English teaching. I suppose I could have become a right proper “teacher”, the kind who need Master’s degrees and have unions representing them, but while I love teaching (and am good at it!), I don’t particularly relish or dream of spending my entire working day with children. I like them, but not enough to make them central to my career.

It is true among travellers that “English teaching” has a bad rap – and often for good reason. In many cases it’s the ultimate minimum wage job abroad (in many others, English teachers earn well above local salaries, but rarely do they earn anything approaching traditional expat salaries), akin to immigrating to the USA and working as a takeout delivery guy. In many ways it’s more challenging than that, but let’s be honest, if you don’t need experience or training to do a passable job at something, it’s not that hard a job. And I say this as someone who’s done it. So when talking to people who know a few things about international living and travel, you can almost hear the disdain in their voices: “Oh, you’re an English teacher? Well, I guess that’s one way to do it.” Foreign service officers, journalists, students, expat business owners and company-based expats don’t get the same sneering tone – even if the traveller herself couldn’t hope to land such a job, nor might she want to: I know I wouldn’t want to go abroad only to work long hours in an office doing managerial work, nor would I want to work towards upholding US foreign policy in the foreigner service. I respect people who do it, but it’s not for me.

That tone says: “you chose the easiest possible route to living abroad”. It’s a hard thing to fight back against. Note as well that it generally comes from other expats and travellers, rarely if ever do you hear it on the lips of locals.

Now, I’m coming at this from the perspective of someone who has since become a career teacher, or “corporate trainer” if I want to be pretentious about it. There are plenty of young, upwardly mobile types who go abroad, teach for a year or two and then go home to pursue other fabulous careers (or they just start the slow slog into the morass of middle management), just as it’s popular to go abroad and work as an au pair for a few years, do Peace Corps or study abroad. They only prove my point: that ambitious people mostly leave English teaching for other pursuits.

And yet I say all this not to dump on English teachers abroad – heck, it’s my own job, and it’s one I’ve chosen purposefully. I was once a newbie with no experience, too.

I used to work in finance. Granted I was in my early 20s so I wasn’t exactly scaling the corporate heights, but the heights were there to scale and I had the potential to make it happen, but I left that more lucrative field to do this. I’m good at it in a way I was never good at office work, or at least the sort of office work I did in my previous incarnation. Clearly I believe there is merit to it, and while I’m not too worried about the salaries of inexperienced young kids who show up and are shoved in a classroom, I do feel that people who are trained, experienced, know the language in and out and kick ass at teaching English deserve to be compensated fairly. More fairly than many of them are. I can name more than one trained, talented and competent teacher who was willing to work for less than NT$700 an hour. It sounds arrogant but it’s true: I wouldn’t get out of bed for that, and they shouldn’t have either. I won’t say what my bottom line is because I don’t wish to discuss salary, but let’s just say that it’s more than NT$700. Both of them worked for Kojen, both regularly worked 6-day weeks and both felt they were getting a fair deal. They weren’t.

I realize I’ve just made a case for “English teaching” not being a job that offers professional success, but honestly, I do consider myself successful. My husband and I have a pretty comfortable lifestyle, comparable to what reasonably successful early-thirtysomethings in the USA might enjoy. We’ve swung some sweet vacations, and we don’t travel “on a budget” (no hostels, no self-catering with the exception of our month in Istanbul). We’re about to move to a very comfortable and well-appointed apartment that is well within our means. I work with businesspeople and my salary could compete well against theirs – from what I know of average salaries in Taiwan. I teach and earn the respect of CEOs, vice presidents, executives and senior managers and I’ve brought in business on more than one occasion, from companies you’ve heard of. I’m looking at starting a Master’s program next year. I do all this while working a job I genuinely love, that I do well. Note that I love my line of work and the students I work with – my actual company is hot and cold at best. I recently negotiated a very good raise. I took it upon myself to get certified once I decided that this was the right path, and I’ll certainly go on to higher qualifications in the future. What I do now is related to what I did when I was a newbie, but comes with challenges I hadn’t imagined facing, and that I couldn’t have overcome five years ago. Who wouldn’t call that successful?

I don’t mean to imply that I, self-satisfied as I might sound, am the only one to accomplish this. I’m not as far as I’d like to be, and I have plenty of peers who have also gone far in the field.

So here’s where I confess. I do hold prejudices. Well, duh, Jenna, we all do. Yes, yes we do. Here’s one of mine: I do have less respect for the long-termers at the lower end of the market – the ones who showed up with no experience or training (nothing wrong with that  - I was there once too, and I do feel ) and have stuck around for years, if not decades, working for peanuts at a lackluster buxiban for lack of another clear path, and have made no attempt to either find another path or work to become better teachers who demand better treatment and better pay. I confess that some of them rub me the wrong way. I try not to take the few bad eggs and judge the whole lot of ‘em, but I can’t help but wonder: if you’re still working at the ghetto end of the market after however many years, maybe it’s because that’s what you’re worth?

I’m sure I’m going to get dumped on in comments for that, so I’ll admit it now: yes, it’s a prejudice and yes, it’s unfair, even if there’s a kernel of truth in it. People end up where they do thanks to a combination of personality traits, random circumstance and socioeconomic opportunity and yes, I know, if someone ends up at the lower end of career English teaching abroad, it would be better to look at the whole person. But I’d rather be forthright about my prejudices rather than pretending I don’t have them.

I occasionally hear complaints that restrictions for teaching English in various countries have become tighter: now you can’t hope to get much of a job in China without a certification (for awhile the government wouldn’t even give you a visa to work as a teacher without one, I’m not sure if that’s still in effect) and you can’t hope to get much of a decent job in other countries without one. My sister is one of those “no experience, got a job teaching kids” types – but she has talent and she’ll do well no matter where she ultimately ends up – and she’s in Taiwan working for less than I earned when I started. In Turkey, well-paid jobs abound for those with training and experience, but even in Istanbul you can’t hope to make much more than US$12 an hour without those things: even with a CELTA and no experience you might not start out much higher than that.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: yes, teaching English can be a low paid dead end job, and it attracts its fair share of dodgy people. That said, it can also be a real occupation and provide true professional paths, if you’ve got the drive and talent to make it happen.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Asiaworld. Asia...world.

We move in 3 weeks to a much splashier apartment in a more central location. Today I had no class - which didn't bother me too much because I have worked enough this month to earn a nice chunk o' change - so I schlepped up to Asiaworld Mall to peruse IKEA and Nitori to price items we might like to buy for the new place. I didn't buy much; it makes more sense to do that after the move, but I did buy a floor cushion from Nitori that I believe will soon be discontinued and some Glogg (it's that time of year!) from IKEA. Otherwise I spent my time wandering about and noting down prices of various items we may choose to buy.

After my wander, I stopped in the Asiaworld B1 restroom, and a memory came rushing back. Many of you know that recently, Asiaworld underwent a massive renovation and now no longer looks like the slightly ratty, dinged-at-the-edges department store from the '80s ('90s?) that it is. Now it's flash: maybe not as flashy as the new Tianmu Sogo, but plenty flash. The bathrooms used to be one step above MRT bathrooms - not that those are bad, but that in other department stores the bathrooms are all swanky with makeup areas and mirrors with vanity lights and cushioned pink chairs. Now, Asiaworld's ladies' room matches that aesthetic.

But not so long ago, it was just a restroom, and a kind of forgotten one at that. Way back in the day I was shopping at IKEA - I do that a lot, I'm totally addicted to home decor - and I went to use it.

There was an attendant. She doesn't appear to be there anymore, but I haven't forgotten her. She was 70 years old if she was a day, and looked like she'd had a tough life. I said 你好 and smiled, and thought that was it. While washing my hands she started talking to me. I couldn't place her accent, because she was clearly learning disabled or had some sort of disorder or intellectual challenge, and her speech was a bit slurred and lisped, but not in a way that reminded me of a stroke victim. More in the way of someone who's had a lifelong disability.

She told me, unprovoked and unasked, about how her family came to Taiwan around 1949, or rather half of them did. I couldn't understand her well enough to tell if she said she was from Jiangsu or Gansu, but either way she (the eldest daughter), her brother and her father came over while, for reasons that she didn't make clear, her mother and younger sister stayed behind, ostensibly to follow later.

"But they killed them, they just killed them!" she said. "Dead! I never saw them again! Or my uncles or aunts. Dead!"

She talked about how a lot of people who came over were able to get back on their feet and establish themselves and their families (those with closer ties to the KMT or who had government/military favor, mostly) and how they're mostly rich now, but not everyone was so lucky. I already knew this: I have a student whose father came over in '49 who worked as a bus driver. They didn't have much. His children are successful through hard work, not favor or socioeconomic inertia.

"We had nothing, and I couldn't go to school. I had to stay home. They thought I was stupid. And they killed my mother and sister," she repeated. "Dead!"

I have no idea why she told me all this, and more. Maybe, being a foreigner who indicated she could speak Chinese (although "你好" is hardly an indicator of that, plenty of locals think it means you're fluent), she felt she could unload on me, but not others. Plenty of foreign women, many of whom must speak Chinese or at least seem like they can, also must pass through that bathroom, though - after all, it's right next to IKEA. I have no idea if she told her life story to all of them, or singled me out. Or maybe she just told everyone and got fired for annoying the patrons (that would be sad - I was affected by her story but not annoyed). Old Fang - my ancient Hakka neighbor who was given away as a child because her family didn't want another girl - did the same thing, but foreigners are more rare my side of Jingmei. I stick out.

Or maybe it's just that she was old, and old people, like the bathroom attendant and Old Fang, like to tell their life stories.

Either way, it did affect me deeply, but I didn't tell anyone about it. What would I say? What would be the point? I filed the story away but never quite forgot it. I always remember her when I go to IKEA. I haven't seen her in years.

Taiwan has changed a lot since then. In another part of the city, glass and steel glitter above wide, clean streets. Department stores are full of wealthy and upper middle class Taiwanese shopping for Georg Jensen business card holders, Patek Philippe watches, Coach bags and Anna Sui accessories. Starbucks and high-end cafes and bars litter the city. It's not uncommon to get cut off, as a pedestrian, by a Mercedes or BMW. You can see the change right there in Asiaworld, where she used to work (maybe she still does and I've been missing her shift, who knows). Gone is the dingy basement bathroom and the old lady attendant, and here come the young xiaojie in short skirts, pink gloves and little hats shouting "WELCOME!" at you in shrill Chinese, imitating department store girls in Japan.

I can see the change even in the five years I've been here, and I arrived well after Taiwan had undergone its most aesthetically powerful changes.

It's easy to forget, as you wander ever more modern streets, that the pain in this country still runs deep, and a lot of the people you meet have suffered hardships you can't - you really can't - imagine (and I say this as someone whose family mostly escaped the Armenian genocide. I can't imagine that, either. Not with my comparatively privileged life). The wounds, in places and at times, are still raw. The younger generations have mostly forgotten or have reconciled, but memories linger. Like an earthquake fault line, it runs deep, and it's not going to go away soon. A hundred years, maybe, and maybe not even then. And the pain runs deep on all sides - not just the Hoklo, not just the Hakka or aborigines, not just the waishengren, who didn't all escape from Taiwan's not-too-distant past unscathed, either. Their kids shop at SOGO, but they remember. It's part of why I am so interested in the stories of the elderly in Taiwan, just as I know my own family stories from relatives who have since passed, and a few who are fortunately still with us.

It's also a powerful reminder that life is not fair and people, for better or worse, don't alway get their just desserts.

So.

I left Asiaworld at about 4:30. The sun highlighted slate and peach clouds hanging over Taipei Arena. The warm colors that filtered through made even Nanjing E. Road look attractive, and let me tell you, that's an accomplishment. The air was warmish, the wind cool. I was wearing soft old jeans, a green jersey-knit top and super-soft shawl given to me by my mother-in-law. I clutched the cushion from Nitori to my chest as I walked to the bus stop in this weather - not quite winter, but Thanksgiving is coming - it all felt so soft. The soft heather clouds, the luminous late afternoon sun, the shawl, the cushion, a bit of cool breeze, also soft. I got on the bus. I felt conflicted. I feel so comfortable in Taiwan. Soft, even. I feel safe. I feel secure.

And yet, I remember the bathroom attendant.


Friday, November 18, 2011

Tsai Ying-wen Campaigns in Wanhua

Yeah, big surprise there, I know.

My friend Joseph, the man behind Taishun Street, shook her hand this week while he was there for the Qingshan Wang temple festival. He's got some pictures and commentary here.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggeringly Bad Satire

So as you've probably all heard if you follow politics in East Asia, Paul Kane has come out saying that his recent piece of stinky tripe was a "Swiftian satire", a piece meant not to be taken seriously but to provoke debate by playing a fierce devil's advocate.

Uh huh.

Thing is, I don't buy it.

We all know the tired cliche of someone who makes a big, stinking gaffe trying to cover his butt by saying "oh, it was just a joke! Can't you guys take a joke? I was MAKING FUN of it by pretending to support it, I didn't mean to be taken seriously!"

I mean, I can understand little comments here and there where one speaks hyperbolically (I've done that), but this was an entire op-ed piece, and if it was a satire, it wasn't a particularly funny one, nor was it particularly obvious. The secret of good satire is that it has to be clear to most people that it is, in fact, a satire, without having to tell them. Even if it sounds serious, even plausible. If this was a satire - and I don't believe it was, I'm in the "he's trying to cover his butt" contingent - it was remarkably ill-conceived and poorly executed.

As Jon Stewart said of an unrelated news item - I believe it was Herman Cain saying he'd build an electrified fence on the US-Mexican border, then saying it was a "joke", that he wasn't serious, and then saying that he wouldn't rule out the idea of a fence: "it's like a teenager hitting on a girl. 'You wanna make out? Hahaha, I was just kidding...unless you wanna make out.'"

I don't think Paul Kane's belated "oops" is really all that much different.

Qingshan Wang 2011



Every year around this time - based on the lunar calendar - 青山宮 (Qingshan Temple) on Guiyang Street holds its annual celebration. Other temples from around the area come to pay homage to Qingshan Wang (The Lord of Green Mountain), and Qingshan Wang himself makes a circuit of the other nearby temples. The festival usually spans three days, with the biggest processional taking place on the night of the final day. It typically ends between 11pm and 1am.

It's a favorite among campaigning politicians as many of Wanhua's residents turn out to see the festivities.

We try to go every year, which has not gone unnoticed. The day before yesterday our friend Joseph was there and managed to shake hands with a campaigning Tsai Ying-wen (蔡英文). I'm looking forward to his blog post with pictures on that. Some campaign assistant asked him "is this your first time to this festival?" and some local shot back "no, that guy comes every year". To be fair, Joseph kind of sticks out. The year previously, I was jockeying for a good position from which to see the parade and a guy stood in front of me. I complained and he said "we see you every few months at these temple parades. You always get the chance to take pictures, so I don't feel bad for you!"


This year was my favorite so far - we left at about midnight, and it was still going. The highlight of the night was the delegation from the Tiger Temple (虎爺宮) in Xinzhuang (新莊), which I now feel I must visit. People involved with the temple, male and female, wore tiger-striped jackets and yellow headbands, came in shouting "TIGER GRANDFATHER!" (虎爺), "ho ya" in Taiwanese. Apparently this deified tiger has the ability to control ghosts, demons and other celestial bad boys. They piled up firecrackers to about knee height, positioned the idol's palanquin over them and set off the pile. The palanquin looked quite worse for wear. So did the guys.




There were also techno-dancing "god children" (san tai zi), lion dancers, dragon dancers, idols, Eight Generals and the usual contingent of tall gods and short dancing gods (七爺八爺) who have their own story (they were two real-life generals from history who were such good friends that they were like brothers, so when they were trapped under a bridge during a flood, they stayed and drowned together rather than be separated).

I told the story of Qingshan Wang here, back in 2008, and have more posts on this particular festival here, here, and about Hao Lung-bin's appearance at the festival here.

Updated with photos!

















Me an' my HOMEBOYS


Now, we don't want no trouble, OK?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Birth Control and Freedom in Taiwan

A letter of mine has been published in the Taipei Times again, this time on the topic of National Health Insurance's lack of coverage for birth control.

It's copied below as well. Enjoy.


Birth control and freedom
In my five years in Taiwan, I’ve been consistently impressed with the healthcare system here.
That’s why I was surprised to learn, after using the system for so long, that birth control is not covered by the National Health Insurance (NHI) and the birth control options available to women in Taiwan are limited at best. The cheapest options are similar in price to one person’s NHI monthly premium after employer subsidization. This is an insult to women’s rights and choice. It needs to change immediately.
I realize there are two factors at play in the decision not to cover contraceptives: The first is that the Taiwanese government is preoccupied with raising the birthrate and covering birth control appears to contradict that goal. The second is that it’s “elective” and not a necessity for a healthy life (although I could argue that for many women, it is a necessity for a fulfilling life).
I accept neither of these excuses. As for increasing the birthrate, making birth control needlessly expensive is not the way to do it. Middle-class and wealthy women in Taiwan can afford the NT$450 to NT$650 a month that birth control costs, as well as the initial OB/GYN consultation fees, but poorer women cannot. Does the government really want to raise the birthrate only among women who are pregnant only because they can’t afford birth control? How about among women whose husbands force them to have sex and who won’t wear a condom? Are these the households in which we want children to be born?
Shouldn’t the government instead pursue a policy in which babies are born into stable families who planned for them, want them and will love them?
Birth control is more than an “elective” — access to it is a necessary component of women’s freedom and rights. For some women, it’s the only thing standing between them and poverty, as they — married or not — can’t afford to raise a child.
It’s not a complete solution to say: “Make him wear a condom.” Unfortunately, many men in Taiwan refuse to do this, including married men. For many women, especially those in abusive or controlling marriages, taking control of their own form of contraception is the only option — and it’s a pricey one. It is one of the most expensive long-term medications to take, because it is not covered as most long-term medications are.
For some women, birth control is a medical necessity brought on by various health issues, either to maintain chronic conditions or because pregnancy would be dangerous or life-threatening.
This creates an unacceptably sexist bent to Taiwan’s national health policy. With Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in the running to be Taiwan’s first female president, Taiwanese women can only hope that she, in fighting for greater women’s rights and equality, will take a hard look at the issue and decide that things need to change. Now.
Jenna Cody
Taipei