Saturday, December 31, 2011

My New Year

This Christmas tree has about one day left before we pack it up again.


I'm not really one for retrospectives, looking back, "best of" posts - I enjoy others' musings in that regard but it's not something that comes naturally for me to do.

So I'm not going to do it.

What I am going to do is apologize for being a lazy blogger this week - my only excuse is that having an apartment worth decorating for the first time since 2006, and the money to actually do it (unlike the last time I had a place worth making nice), and I've been spending my time, energy and money making that happen.          



I'm hoping to kick off 2012 with a few posts I have up my sleeve - there's no plan to get hideously drunk, or even buzzed, tonight, so I'm hoping to get on the ball with that as early as tomorrow. I might even blog from my tea room (above)!


I am posting these two vintage poster shots because we found them - in their frames - wedged between the dryer and the wall in our back room. For serious. I couldn't bear to let them molder there, so I took them out, cleaned them up and hung them.


So anyway, I'm really not one for retrospectives but I do like to look forward.

With that, happy new year to you all. My 2011 was pretty good (other than having all my small electronics stolen on a bus in Turkey) - I got to visit my "homeland", my mom got a clean bill of health after a scary battle with cancer (WOOOOO!), I saw friends and family, I made some new friends, I got a new apartment, and I've managed to steer my social circle towards a group of great people who not only I want to see, but who want to see me. They, along with my excellent husband, have made Taipei more than a pit stop or fun "for a few years" diversion, but a real home. For me I hope for more of the same, because I really can't complain about how the year turned out.

I know a lot of people, though, who had a terrible 2011 and can't wait for the ball to drop. Friends with money, social or even mental troubles, family issues, family illnesses, unemployment, hating their job, even death. For them, I hope 2012 brings better tidings.

For the world as a whole I hope that things change. It's a slow process and nothing magical will ameliorate the political, social and economic inequity and injustice that currently corrupts the world - but wouldn't it be nice to hope for something better? A world without super right wing Republicans perhaps? (Moderate conservatives are OK - I disagree with them but I can respect their views to some extent - but the virulent type of superconservatives...no, I revile those guys).

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Christmas With Baby


Or Happy Holidays or whatever it is you prefer.

I haven't posted a lot this week because it's been super busy for me, getting ready for Christmas and our small gathering tonight, attending parties, baking cookies and getting our new apartment in order for the rounds of friends coming by to see our new digs. Hoping to get back into it next week. January is a super slow month for work so I might even be posting every day.

Observation about observations on cultural differences:

I've remarked before that throwing parties in Taiwan is quite different from home, unless the attendees are mostly foreigners. It's just one of the things that makes friendship and socializing in Taiwan different from what I'm used to.

I do believe it's mostly true: back home the host doesn't have to play "host" so much to get people who don't know each other to talk, people are more likely to socialize in pairs and small groups that are open to change and mingling, there's more alcohol, no games, lots of people don't know each other and things tend to end later.

好可愛喔!

Here, if you have local friends over who don't know each other you really do have to take on extra hosting duties, socializing tends to happen in big circles that may not move much, not that much drinking (well...this one also depends on age but I mean very generally, noted because I buy a lot less for my parties here than I would need to back home). I never do this but people I know have remarked that card games or mahjongg gets broken out fairly often, and events seem to include a group that mostly knows each other already.

And yet, as I observe this and as I maintain that it's still generally true, I can say that last night I went to a party where we were the only non-ABC foreigners (or, more bluntly, the only white folks - but there were foreigners of Taiwanese heritage there). There were no games, people socialized with others they didn't know (I made a few potential new friends), drinking happened, music played - it was basically like a party back home. Sure, it ended a bit earlier (winding down around midnight) and nobody got wasted...but otherwise it was more or less what I am used to.





So, you know, as much as an observation about a cultural trend may be correct in a general sense, there will always be circumstances in which it's just not true.




Which is awesome.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Home Sweet Home

Our teal living room wall and Stupidface


Yesterday we had "Company" for the first time since the move - well, Joseph and my sister had been over, but we know Joseph so well and my sister's my sister so that almost doesn't feel like company - we baked Christmas cookies, or at least started to. I should have kept it to one or two kinds and had the icing pre-made so we could complete an entire batch before people had to go. They all turned out great - some of the sugar cookies burned but we got a decent batch of decorated sugar cookies anyway, a phenomenal batch of gingerbread, some double chocolate candy cane chip, and I will probably make almond jam cookies tonight so we'll have a big Christmas batch.
Updated! Our living room, still lacking curtains.

I figured that after beginning so many posts with faffing about my new apartment, that you all deserved some pictures (especially those who know us personally but who  can't make it over to see due to being thousands of miles away and all). It's not totally done, no curtains yet, not everything is hung up, but the living room is 99% there.

What it made me realize - well, I already knew this, but what made me want to actually post it on my blog  - is that for years I kind of ignored, or willfully refused to acknowledge, how important your living space is in your overall happiness. I thought I was perfectly happy in my old apartment. Don't get me wrong, I was satisfied with life, and generally happy, and I do still miss that neighborhood, which was like a slice of living-outside-Taipei. It felt like a back alley neighborhood in Miaoli, Puli or some other small city. I miss Old Wu and my other obasan friends, and Little Gao will probably forget me.

Brendan, Hui and Sasha decorating Christmas cookies
at our new place
Showing our friends the new place, though, made me realize how much more pleasant, how much plain ol' nicer, life can be if you don't live in a sixth-floor walkup shack on the roof with a tin ceiling and a mouse problem and the worst "insulation" this side of a bunch of concrete blocks topped with metal. The dreary Taipei weather doesn't bother me as much as it used to - I was half convinced I had developed Seasonal Affective Disorder, when really I think it was the poor natural light and drafty everything (unless it was hot, then it was stifling) in the old place. I thought I had developed an inexplicable aversion to housework (beyond most people's usual dislike of it), and kind of explained it away by noting that generally speaking I work more grueling hours than Brendan, which is why I do less around the house. In actuality, I feel like the old place, because it looked a bit dingy no matter how well you cleaned it (especially the kitchen) made me averse to cleaning it, created my aversion. It felt like "why bother? It won't look any nicer". I thought I hated doing dishes for their own sake - no. I hated being in a kitchen that was either too hot, too cold, or leaking. I thought I hated laundry - not really. I hated having to go out into that gross old balcony where we once found a dead rat and hang clothes up. I hated that my clothes never felt any cleaner after being out there. I thought I was lazy because I would avoid trash detail and avoid going out after I'd come home unless I had to, or the event was too exciting to miss.

Vintage postcards in the hall
Now we have an elevator. I can run down for something without having to heave my big white butt up six flights of stairs. When it's cold out, it is somewhat warmer inside. We have to use the heater far less and have been assured that we won't need to air condition the crap out of the place, either.  It's well-seaked without dark corners and random holes, cracks and crumbly bits that tend to let in all manner of unsavory critters. The kitchen is welcoming and looks clean (if a bit crowded with all my cooking supplies) so I don't mind doing dishes. We have a dryer - a dryer! - and I don't mind laundry anymore.  I don't feel constantly too cold or too hot. When I clean, it actually looks clean.  Natural light flows in - if it's sunny you don't even need to turn on the living room lights. I drink more water because we have an in-sink water filter.

All in all it's made me realize that living somewhere nicer has truly improved not just my quality of life, but my general happiness. Quality of life improvement was to be expected, but I didn't think that moving would make me happier in such a fundamental way - because I was happy...but in a "fulfilled life" way, not in a "feel comfortable in my own home" way. Sunlight!  Chores that, when done, actually make your place look better! Furniture that doesn't look sad and decrepit!

And finally a nice place to display this fairly expensive batik door curtain!

And I no longer have to wear a sweater over my sweater just to not be freezing!

I've had fewer headaches,  been generally more upbeat, been more punctual, done more housework voluntarily and with something approaching happy acceptance (not joy - it's still not *fun*), more energetic, and less generally anxious and uncomfortable since we moved.

I had thought that these things were fine - I was punctual, so what if I took more taxis than strictly necessary to maintain that? I was upbeat, being that unusual combination of a cynic with a sunny disposition (it's true) - I didn't realize I could be that way on a deeper level. I did housework, I just thought reviling it was normal and that I was not past the point of a typical dislike. I was wrong. Life is better.

Our home office isn't that exciting, and it's not quite done yet, but I thought you'd all enjoy the Happy Beer.

Best rent increase we ever spent money on!

As one of the friends who came today said, "this is an apartment for a couple. The old one was for a poor guy or a student. This is like a real home."

I really do make tea this way.
I couldn't agree more. I don't know why we didn't do this sooner. All I can say is "priorities". We chose that 9-week trip to Turkey over a move. We chose a wedding over a move. I thought we were OK and a move didn't need to be prioritized. I was wrong.


It does make me feel bad - there are so many out there who can't afford something nicer than where they live, or who don't live anywhere at all. There are people without the means we have whose homes probably do make them less happy, less productive, less healthy - but who don't have the finances to  find something better. We're very lucky. Plenty of people in crappy homes can't make that jump. I don't believe that not having money should condemn one to a crappier existence - a simpler one, maybe, one lacking in luxuries, but not one that actually drags down your overall happiness. Maybe that makes me a socialist, but that's fine. Everyone deserves basic comfort, if you ask me.

Yet as the same friend said, when I said "we're not rich", she replied - "you are not rich but by Taiwan standards you are very upper middle class." I can live with that, but I am also acutely aware that this has made it possible for us to  live comfortably when others can't.


The cat approves of the new place, too.
                                                         

Friday, December 16, 2011

So I'm Quiet...But I Want To Talk

Not long ago I was chatting with a student - we were sharing a taxi to the HSR, as he was returning to Tucheng while I returned to Taipei. He asked me what I thought of Taiwanese people, if I had any Taiwanese friends, what it was like to have a social life as a foreigner in Taiwan - all in all a more interesting conversation than the usual "you married yet? How long have you been in Taiwan? Can you eat our food?" taxi banter.

I told him basically what I said in the linked post above, albeit more succinctly. Basically that my Taiwanese friends were great, that generally we have friendships not unlike those in the West, but with two key differences that I have come to accept (because I have to - if I didn't I wouldn't have any local friends):

1.) Americans hang out with their friends far more often. It would be highly unusual to not see a friend for months on end unless they lived far away.  It would be a sign that the friendship was dying. In our free time our first thought, at least those of us who are extroverts, is what we can do socially. In Taiwan people seem to spend time with friends far less often, take the initiative to invite friends out less often (they do it, just not with the same frequency) They don't worry about not seeing friends for awhile, and don't really think of social options first when faced with free time.  Whereas doing something with friends would be my default weekend plan, staying home and resting is often the default in Taiwan.

and

2.) While there are introverts back home and extroverts in Taiwan who buck the trend (I count many of these among my friends), very generally speaking people are more outgoing in the USA. If you invite them to a party or group event, they'll take the initiative to talk to people they don't know - the default would be to socialize, not to be quiet until someone talked to you. When I host a party back home I don't have to play hostess too much - people will get on without my help. Here I feel like, for many of my local friends, I have to introduce them around and get things flowing far more.  People talk less and often reveal far less about themselves.

When I said that exactly - "people reach out less, they reveal less about themselves, they talk less" - my student nodded vigorously and added that when he was young, his parents and teachers actively taught him not to talk too much. He was taught that not only was being quiet and listening to others a virtue and talking too much a sign of arrogance, but that revealing too much or giving too many opinions was a bad idea, because "if the wrong person heard your idea, you could get in trouble in the past". Along the lines of the cryptic "a truck would come to your house" comment another student once made.

He added that it might seem to foreigners that many Taiwanese people are quieter, have less to say, have fewer opinions (unless you're an old lady or a taxi driver), or are generally happy to just be quiet - but that it's not really true, at least with many of them. "In fact we have a lot of ideas and opinions. Actually, sometimes I want to say something, but I don't. It's not easy to forget my teachers and my family telling me to be quiet. They told me it's dangerous to say too much, and that people - especially children - need to be quiet. So I am quiet. But I want to talk."

Basically he was saying that a lot of people in Taiwan are not naturally introverted or quiet - they are that way because it was drummed into them that they should be that way.

Which...hmm. First, it begs the question - if this is true and it's not an ingrained cultural trait but rather something that's drilled into children from a young age, due to traditional beliefs, political threat or more likely a vitriolic combination of both - is it even possible for an entire culture to force itself to be quiet? Is it possible to mold introverts from people who would otherwise be outgoing? I have my doubts: I'm a natural extrovert and I don't think any amount of childhood training could have repressed that. I was always a bit too talkative in class and teacher reprimands and even notes home never really curbed that tendency. Not to mention that there are enough openly outgoing people in Taiwan for me to wonder - if they never got rid of their talkative streak, how can anyone say that this kind of conditioning works?

It also makes me wonder - if this is something drilled into children the way American kids were forced to practice penmanship to perfection in my grandmother's generation, does its status as a cultural belief deeply held enough to be forced upon children with such vigor not count it by default as a cultural trait - especially considering that humility as a virtue really is a cultural trait here?

And finally, if this was exacerbated by the political climate of the 20th century - mainly the KMT and the White Terror but let's face it, the Japanese weren't angels either - I have to wonder if things were different for those who lived their lives before any of that. If I found a 110-year-old woman out in the countryside - not inconceivable, seeing as old folks in Taiwan seem to make it to 250 without much problem (just kidding...sort of. I am pretty sure some of my neighbors in Jingmei were born during the late Ming Dynasty) - would she have different notions?

Just something to wonder about. I really don't know, I found my student's comments interesting is all. "They told me it's dangerous to talk too much...so I am quiet. But I want to talk" - it makes one think doesn't it?


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Abortion and the Gender Gap in Taiwan


So apparently, along with having the lowest birthrate in the world, Taiwan also has one of the most serious gender disparities. I have to say that while I’d heard of this before, it never ceases to surprise and amaze me, considering how much better a place Taiwan is if youare a woman, compared to basically every other Asian country. The greater respect for women here, when you hold it up against other countries where I’ve lived (ahem CHINA, and in a somewhat different way, but still virulent and serious, India), is one of the reasons that I chose to stick around. That’s not even mentioning others that I’ve visited - including Japan and Korea.

I’ve been mulling over this article forawhile, trying to come up with some useful, non-obvious comments and observations. I think, though, that it was said best by two people in a Facebook status update (keeping it anonymous because I'd be annoyed if a status update meant for my friends ended up on a blog) when the topic came up: policing abortion clinics and trying to stop sex-selective abortion from happening at the clinic level is not the answer. Taking awaywomen’s freedom of reproductive choice – an important freedom, as much as anti-abortion activists would like to pretend it isn’t, or that it is not deserved – even for something as abhorrent as sex-selective abortion, does not really fix anything. All it does is use sexism in the name of battling sexism. All it does is try to control the result without trying to work on problems at the source.

The thing that needs to change is not the government meddling in women’s reproductive freedom - it needs to start far earlier and more comprehensively than that, through education and awareness programs aimed at ending ingrained sexism and anti-daughter sentiment in Taiwanese culture. While I still maintain that women enjoy better equality here than those in other Asian countries, not even I can deny the specter of deeply embedded sexism coming out in this most unfortunate of ways (and others – but this is the topic at hand).

I do think this ties into what I said before about how it’s more common to cave to one’s in-laws’ desires in Taiwan, whereas back home generally that wouldn’t happen, or at least not to such a degree.  I have mentioned a student of mine a few times now who is trying to get pregnant despite not really knowing if she wants a child (and leaning towards not), because her mother-in-law expects it. She hopes that first baby is a boy – despite personally feeling that any gender is fine and maybe even leaning slightly towards having a girl – because if she has a daughter, her mother-in-law will expect her to try again, for a boy. And she will. Which I really can’t wrap my head around – she truly believes that if this is the case, her only option is to just do it, because it’s preferable to the misery of an unhappy mother-in-law.

Can I just say that this has made me even more grateful to have awesome in-laws who don’t pull this crap?

If a strong, successful woman like my student can find herself making decisions based on somebody else’s expectations for a grandson, it’s not such a leap to come to the conclusion that some of these sex-selective abortions are done under family pressure to have a son: maybe the pressure isn’t always direct, but rather than listen to whining in-laws or being expected to try again, a couple decides it’s the best choice (which, I’m sorry to get all objectivist and moral hard-ass, but it’s not. It’s just not. No. Wrong). And, of course, there are certainly cases of direct pressure.

As things change – as the younger generation starts to become parents and their children start marrying – I do think that this will become less of an issue. My experience in Taiwan has been that the older folks still seem to hold to tired, clichéd and dated ideas about gender preference (at least some of them do – by no means do all of them hold such beliefs) but those who are raising kids now and might eventually be grandparents don’t feel the same way. My impression is that this generation isa pivotal one, rather like my parents’ generation shook the ground and toppled many gender-based assumptions in the USA.

Of course, parental and in-law meddling is just one of the issues – I chose to highlight it because I brought it up in a recent post, so it was worth touching on again. Obviously, plenty of women and couples choose abortion for gender selection without their parents’ or in-laws’ input.

What really needs to happen is that society as a whole will have to start realizing that a daughter is as good as a son, can succeed as well as a son, is as valuable and lovable as a son, and that a son is not necessary – that those dated beliefs have no place and no use in the modern world, where there aren’t such strict gender roles and a daughter can do everything a son can do. Education is the only way this can happen – that or just plain suffering from the result of a million bad decisions by a million individuals, and a sudden dearth of available women. I know that typically, foreign brides (often from Vietnam or China) are thought to fill this gap, but  if the gap becomes too big, that won’t be a workable solution for everyone – and yes, I have my own opinions on this type of foreign brides (the mail-order, “I don’t even know you but I want a wife” type), but that’s for another post. Maybe then, and with the next generation thinking differently, things will start to change.

And not soon enough.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Old Hakka Lady Speaks!


I just thought I’d share a few choice quotes from our conversation with an old mountain-climbin’ Hakka lady, who we ran into while hiking to Yuantong Temple (圓通寺) in Zhonghe a few weeks ago.  She was praying at a pretty interesting shrine  as we approached and stopped to chat with us after we tried to figure out the meaning of some graffiti nearby. I'll post a picture when my camera stops being annoying.

Joseph originally thought it meant “The  KMT and the Communists should  get together and take over Taiwan”, but she said no, some “bad DPP people” wrote it and it says “The KMT and Communists are going to get together and take over Taiwan” (implying that this is a bad thing). She went on to ask us about ourselves and have what I can only describe as a transcendently funny chat with us – all in Chinese, of course.

Some of her more interesting quotes:

“Are you married? Yes? Have kids? No? Oh, good! Don’t have any. I have three and they were a big waste of my time and money. I gave up my life to raise them and they don’t take care of me. They’re not filial! Just don’t have kids. It’s better. I wish I hadn’t had them.”

“Taiwanese kids don’t study hard enough.” (I disagreed, saying that compared to American kids, Taiwanese students were total bookworms). “No! They don’t! They are not hardworking like we were. Every day I had to walk up and down the mountain with a basket of fruit on my back. Every day! I had to study, too, even though I was tired from carrying so much fruit. Try to get a Taiwanese kid to do that now. They can’t! They’re lazy.”

She was delighted that we could speak a few snippets of Hakka, especially Joseph: “Oh, your girlfriend is Hakka from Miaoli? You should definitely marry her. Hakka girls from Miaoli are the prettiest and the most hardworking. She will work very hard and be a good wife.”

“ You know, Taiwanese girls, they like white men. That’s because they want to have beautiful babies, so they want to have babies with foreigners. Usually they like the white ones, but some of them like the black ones, too. I don’t know why. They are so dark and their teeth are so white!” (She said it, not me!)

“Oh, your eyes are so pretty!” (to me). “They look just like Chiang Ching-kuo’s…” (me: “Um, I don’t think my eyes resemble Chiang Ching Kuo’s”). “…wife!” “Huh?” “Your eyes look like Chiang Fangliang’s eyes!”

For those who don’t know, Chiang Fangliang, Chiang Ching-kuo’s wife, was Belorussian. It is true that being Polish and Armenian, I basically look very Eastern European and Chiang Fangliang’s facial structure does somewhat resemble mine. That said, I Googled pictures of her – her eyes are quite clearly brown and mine are blue. I just don’t see the resemblance.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Pressure On My Uterus Is Astounding

I hope you enjoy the title!

Sorry for not posting much - at all? - this week. I did an incredible amount of work and pulled off the move to the new apartment, and have had exactly zero free time to do much of anything other than work, pack and then unpack.  Things should start getting back to normal around Christmas, when I hope to get back to my normal blogging volume.

I had wanted to do a post on a hike we did in Zhonghe (中和) of all places, up to Yuantong Temple (圓桶寺 - not sure I got the wrong "tong" there), but my camera's acting up and I can't seem to upload the photos. I don't have Internet at the new place yet so I can't do it whenever, so if they don't upload now, I can't just do it from home. I'll get that up soon, though.

I also wanted to pass along this link on Taiwan's gender ratio worsening, which I'll write a post about when I have more regular Internet access and time: hopefully in the coming week.

For now, I wanted to  comment a bit on what it's like to be childfree by choice, and how people react to that,  as an expat woman living in Taiwan. It's something I got to thinking about after reading this article on women on American prime time TV and how few of them are child-free (basically one sitcom - How I Met Your Mother) has a child-free by choice woman and deals with the topic with some degree of sensitivity. I agree with the article's redux of that plot line).

Because, you know, back home there was pressure to find a nice boy, get married, buy a house and pop out a few sprogs. It was clearly something my family wanted for me - which is fine, I mean it's something most people do, and happily do by choice, and it is at least true that my marriage has been a fantastic, vital thing in my life. It's something people just kind of figure you'll do, and look askance at you if you verbalize that you don't want to.  For the record, I may be child-free by choice but I have never said that I did not want to marry or did not intend to marry.  I'm actually pretty pro-marriage as long as it's a modern, feminism-friendly marriage of equals rather than being a patriarchal tool of stifling gender roles.

When I say there was "some" pressure, though, I really mean it as "some", not "a lot".  Sure, the media is wedding and baby crazy - something that apparently tends to happen in tough economic times (a friend was telling me about a sociological study to that effect - people are less likely to go it alone and more likely to pair up, less likely to have kids or just have fewer kids, but are more attentive to the idea of procreation as a society - possibly because having a baby when times are tough is subconsciously seen as a status symbol: "Look, we can afford to have a baby even when the economy's in the crapper!"). And yes, one still gets comments that are based in assumptions - that you both want to get married and will do so, that you want kids and will have them. If you openly acknowledge wanting such things, it's fine. If you are faced with such a comment and are honest about not wanting one or both of them, though, it creates a frission of social awkwardness, to the point if you wonder if it's a faux pas to admit you don't want children or don't intend to marry. People are generally too polite to say anything about it, but you just know you're being judged. A tiny bit, maybe, but judged nonetheless.

This isn't true among my friends - all of whom know that I'm not into having kids - but when I lived in DC it was certainly true among colleagues and acquaintances. That's why my friends are my friends. I'm not going to waste time with anyone who'd judge me and find me lacking for personal choices.

It's a different story in Taiwan, though.

For a country with such a low birthrate, I have to wonder why everyone assumes that everyone else wants and will have babies. Clearly, with so few babies being born, plenty of women and couples are choosing not to do so - how can it be assumed that they will, or that they want to? (I realize the answer is "cultural norms and tradition", at least in part, but even those who are affected that much by cultural expectations of bygone days must realize that having the lowest birthrate in the world is clearly a sign that those days are over).      

I'm regularly asked if I'm married and, when I respond in the positive, if I have kids (sometimes I'm asked how many kids I have, as though I must have gotten my babymaking on already!). I don't mind that these are socially acceptable topics in Taiwan: I'm not inhibited about talking about such things. I'm at peace with our decision on kids - in fact, I'd say it's brought me that peace, I didn't have to make peace with it - and not afraid to talk about it confidently.

The reactions I get range from wonderment to polite questioning to outright criticism, although the latter is usually delivered in a friendly "motherly advice" sort of way rather than stone-cold mean-spirited criticism. Occasionally someone has the social acuity to realize that we crazy Westerners generally don't question or openly wonder at others' life choices and will leave it at that or express support.  Occasionally someone genuinely agrees.

Sometimes I get advice: not only am I wrong, apparently, and should definitely have kids, but I'll be told that at least one should be a boy, or the first one should be, and given other specifics like how many I should have and how I should raise them (the consensus seems to be that I should have two, at least one should be a boy, you know because I can control that of course, they should be schooled in a Western style but made to study as hard as Taiwanese kids - ugh! - and be raised bilingually. It's OK if I work and we get a nanny, though, or I could make my mother move here to help raise them. Ha...).

Mostly, though, I get the open wonderment of the "why on Earth wouldn't you want to have kids?" variety - and not just from old folks. From people my age, even! Talk about social pressure - for a society that procreates so little, Taiwan is certainly big on expectations to procreate.

It really is an assumption - I remember one group of students, for men, all engineers, who took me out for dinner at the end of our course. We went around and gave toasts (I'd taught them to do that) and one of them toasted me, knowing I would get married soon, saying he "wished for me to have a happy marriage and have many sons". I am often asked, after saying I don't have kids, when I will have them (not "if"). I am asked how old I am, next: sometimes the reply to my age is along the lines of "it's OK, you still have time, 31 is young" to "oh my god GET ON IT GIRLFRIIIIIIEEEEND those eggs aren't gonna stay good forever!".

I do feel very much in the minority, and I do feel that more women (or Taiwanese people in general) would come out and openly concur with the choice to be child-free if there were less overall expectations that probably keep their mouths firmly shut. I have a blog post coming up on this, but it does seem to be the case that when people make a life choice back home they're fairly open about it, whereas in Taiwan I've gotten the impression that a lot of people, realizing that their life choices go against expectations - even if they don't go against the "norm", such as not having kids  - decide to say nothing for the sake of social harmony.

Again, for a society with such a low birthrate, it seems to be really short on people, especially women, who are out of the child-free closet and willing to openly embrace their decision not to have kids.

A few other notes on this topic:

First, Taiwan is a rare gem in Asia and, frankly, the world in that there are high-profile Taiwanese women who have eschewed marriage and children (although it is unclear to what extent that was a choice):  the two that come to mind are Chen Chu and Tsai Ying-wen. It has not been said openly that Tsai and Chen can and should be role models for young Taiwanese women (especially Chen among women in southern Taiwan), but it deserves some thought. If anything, Taiwan could use some more female role models who have achieved both great success and have happy marriages and children: the one high profile woman I can think of who is also married is Cher Wang - I don't know if she has kids. I say this because I believe that successful role models should be balanced - to show women that you can marry and have kids and be phenomenally successful, or you can not marry and not have kids and still be successful.

Second, that I know this pressure in Taiwan is not directed at me just because I'm foreign or just because I'm a woman, although I am sure I do get more pressure because I'm female. My Taiwanese female friends, and even some of my Taiwanese male friends, have felt the same pressure. I can confirm this firsthand: I've seen Facebook status updates from friends who I know don't want children, because they've told me so, with replies along the lines of "that'll change when you have babies!" or "oh, such good practice for when you're a  parent". The friend whose feed items got these replies is Taiwanese and male.

Third, rather like back home, it seems to be assumed that because I don't want kids, that I don't like kids. Actually, I do. They can be great fun and I tend to be good with them. They generally like me. I love playing with my little cousins or friends' kids. I teach two girls in a private class once a week and I like them a lot. I just don't want to devote my life to raising them. It's assumed both in Taiwan and back home that I must have massive professional ambitions and that's why I don't want kids. I have some, but I'd say that my main ambition is to have a successful, satisfying and fulfilling life with enough money to be comfortable. I don't need to be a professional phenom even though my career is important to me - I aim for success, but I won't work myself  into an early grave. My main work ambitions are to be phenomenal at what I do and be in high demand, to enjoy it, but not to let it consume me. It's assumed that I am not "feminine" - which is kind of true, but not entirely. It's true that I lack a lot of characteristics typically associated with "femininity", but that doesn't mean I lack all of them (people have wondered how I can be so good at crafty things and DIY and yet not be sufficiently feminine to want babies). Before I married, it was sometimes assumed that choosing to be childfree meant that I was anti-marriage: nothing could be further from the truth. It's assumed that I have that quality so often described as "selfish": it's true that I don't want to make the sacrifices  that would be necessary if I were to have children, such as giving up free time and traveling less, if at all. I wouldn't call that "selfish", though. Feeling that way and having kids anyway, now that you could make a case for. I feel the weight of these assumptions more in Taiwan back home, but they exist in both countries.

Finally, I plan to write an entire other blog post about this - probably the next one I put up - but the main difference between me and a lot of Taiwanese people, especially women when it comes to pressure to procreate is that in many cases they feel the need to actually consider or even give into some of that social pressure. It is not uncommon for a woman to agree to have kids she doesn't really want, or isn't sure she wants, because her mother-in-law or her own family expects it. I've written before about a student in this situation who is preparing to have a kid she has admitted she isn't sure she wants - but her mother-in-law is adamant so she just finds it easier to go ahead and do it. To be fair, she isn't certain she doesn't want kids, either.

I listen to my two families, but I feel no need to actually do what they would prefer. Note: neither side is giving me a problem or anything like that! When I talk about Western in-laws vs. what I observe in Taiwan, I am speaking more generally. I haven't had any problems personally but I do have American friends who have faced such issues.

I know both sets of parents would be delighted if we had kids, but I feel no obligation to pop 'em out. In fact, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of "we're trying for a baby because my parents/in-laws want a grandchild"...yet it does happen.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

More Fearsome Than Tigers

Once every few months I hear some FOTD* kid braying about how "democracy won't work in China!" and all sorts of meh meh meh. No doubt because one of his professors in some lecture on politics and culture he attended two years ago brought it up as a question - I should know, because my professors did that all the time - and that's the position he took.

On the surface it seems PC: it seems like the person saying it is trying to incorporate China's current domestic issues and cultural background into the mix, which makes that person sound really in touch or with it or thoughtful. Which is great, except half the time the people saying it have never been to China (and if you've been to Taiwan, no, you've never been to China so don't even) or have been there, and have turned into that special brand of expat who is brainwashed into believing ridiculous things (they're the ones you can hear on the streets of Beijing faffing on about how great China is, how we're too hard on their undemocratic but very efficient government - but you have to admit, they get stuff done! - defending the One China fallacy, taking untenable positions regarding China's environmental problems (but it's the West that buys all the goods that China produces in those factories!), its sexism (that's just the culture! Accept it or go home) and human rights (you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet).*

Yeah yeah, different people have different opinions and maybe I shouldn't come down on them so hard, but as I see it, they're wrong. End of. They can believe what they like, and I can think they're ridiculous and blog about it, and they can leave comments which I can either refute or not publish (if the comments are rude and attack-y rather than thoughtful), and everyone's happy and exercising their freedoms in civic debate.

The "China can't be a democracy" blather is a popular one, and here I am (yay! you can all relax now, haha) to give you a point-by-point rundown of why it's bullshit.

"China can't be a democracy because democracy won't work with Chinese culture the way it does with Western culture."


Wrong. First, while Taiwan is not China, Taiwan does have a strong Chinese cultural influence - and what's important is that that influence stems from pre-Communist days and still carries a lot of traditional Chinese beliefs that were eradicated or greatly cut back during the Cultural Revolution. Taiwan is a democracy. A strong, functioning democracy that, well, yeah OK, sometimes they hit each other or spit on one another and there's vote buying and such but generally the system works and is fair. If Taiwan, while not actually China, provides an acceptable stand-in for how democracy would work in the context of Chinese culture....and it works just fine, thanks. Hong Kong actually is a part of China, although you could argue cultural distinction there, too, and while not a full-fledged democracy there's no reason to believe that democracy wouldn't work there.

Looking at other countries in East Asia, culturally they're not as similar to China, but there are a lot of shared traits (especially when you look at the influence of Confucian thought in Korea). They're all functioning democracies. They all have problems, but there's no government on Earth with the possible exception of Bhutan that doesn't.

Looking at some aspects of Confucian thought, by the way, it does make room for democracy. The Mandate of Heaven is something that can be taken away by unruly, unhappy masses. It was considered acceptable for dynasties to fall - this to me sounds like a cultural tic that would allow for democracy. Confucius also once said "惡政猛於虎", or "a tyrannical government is more fearsome than tigers". This does not sound like a philosophy that is 100% opposed to democracy. I don't even think I need to go into why Daoism and democracy work just fine.

"But those countries are small. China's too big to be a democracy!"


Yes, it has a big population, but so does India - and India, while a bit crazy, has a democracy that could generally be described as functioning. In ways I don't quite understand, and more than a little corrupt, but functioning. In its way. Yes, it covers huge tracts of land, but so do Canada, the USA and Brazil - and they're all democracies. Indonesia, too.

OK, there's one other obvious country that bears mentioning. It's true that Russia is mostly a democracy in name only, in that narrow definition of democracy in which - to quote Brendan - "there's an election and whoever gets the most votes wins".

Taiwan's got a relatively small population but it's extremely dense, which puts it in the running. And let's not forget Bangladesh. Poor, densely packed...and a democracy.

"But China is too diverse. You can't govern that different a population with democracy. You need stronger central rule."


Let's leave aside my strong belief that Tibet and Xinjiang (Uighur territory) should be granted either true autonomy (what the CCP offers now is not real autonomy) or independence.

I'd argue the opposite - that the only way to govern a large, diverse country is  through democracy, so different groups can have their say and, one hopes anyway, through the process of  inclusion feel less marginalized. I realize this is quite the utopian viewpoint but hey, seems to work in Canada. The USA is a more contentious issue. It is possible to demarginalize minorities and historically oppressed groups through democracy. It seems possible to do that with autocracy, but it never seems to actually work out that way.

I'd also say "let's look back at that list above". America is huge and diverse, both racially and culturally.   Brazil's pretty diverse, with all sorts of  native populations. India is the poster child for linguistic and cultural diversity - we may think of them all as "Indians" but come on. Go to India for awhile and tell me what you think then. Singapore, while small, is extraordinarily diverse. Indonesia's got some diversity going on - any island nation that huge would. Every single one of these countries have made democracy work.

"But China is still developing and democratic reform can only come with economic gains!"


This is the first statement I do give some credence to - it's true that moving from the Third World to the first does tend to have a democratizing effect on nations and one can't discount the effect of economics on politics.

That said, China is approaching, development-wise, the spot Taiwan was in when it underwent its transition to democracy. You could say the same for South Korea (although they might have been farther along - I'm not an economist and I am estimating here). As above, Bangladesh is massively poor, and yet a democracy.  India is lagging behind China - although doing very well in its own right - and it's a democracy.

"But the people don't want democracy. If they did, they'd demand it."


Ask the people who were at Tiananmen Square - if they're still alive - what they think of that one.

Hell, go to China and ask almost anyone, provided you're friends enough that they'll speak honestly with you and they're not one of the rapidly decreasing number of Chinese brainwashed in schools to believe their government is infallible (this belief tends to deflate the minute you get to know someone well enough to learn what they really think). You'll hear a different story. A democratic revolution against a party so ensconced in and obsessed with power as the CCP is not an easy fight to win. It wasn't easy for the Arab Spring countries, and it will be even harder in China. One shouldn't have to die for democracy: it's a human right to have a say in how you are governed. I can understand why someone might not want to actually die for it, even if they sincerely wish they had it.

"But a Chinese democracy would be so much less efficient than the current government. That's why India hasn't caught up to China."


Again, interesting belief, worth exploring, but ultimately wrong.

Well, not 100% wrong, it's true that democracy tends to be inefficient and that the CCP can get what it wants done more quickly (and bloodily). That tends to happen when you have a blatant disregard for citizens' rights, the health of your populace or, well, basically anything other than the path you've decided is the way forward.

First, considering that they built a dam on an earthquake fault, that roads fall apart, government-built factories fall apart, pollutants are sprayed into the countryside, the food supply is basically horrific, the water is undrinkable, you can't even be guaranteed you'll be able to keep land you own and you definitely won't be paid fairly if the government takes it, people suffer so much in Gansu that it's rendered a huge percentage of the population mentally disabled, and the horrible concrete tile-covered boxes that get built are very dodgy indeed - I don't even want to know how lacking the safety standards are - I wouldn't call the government that efficient. If it were, it would have done something about its constant environmental degradation and the air wouldn't be gray and sooty even in the countryside (I lived in semi-rural China and I got bronchial pneumonia twice in one year. The mountains in the distance were obscured by an unmoving haze of horrible smoky blech, even on sunny days).

Awhile back you'll remember that a section of road on the way to Keelung in Taiwan was buried under a landslide, and a few people died. I remember in that article reading that it was a surprise, as all manner of testing had been done on the hillside to ensure that it was a safe place to build a road. In China, the government would have sent an official, who'd point at a random hillside and say "build it there". "But..." "I said build it there." "OK."

I also question this deep need for better efficiency when it comes at the cost of human  and civil rights. Would you really trade freedom of speech for getting giant skyscrapers built a little faster?  Would you trade land rights for a superhighway built more quickly? Does a government that feels the need to restrict the rights and actions of its people deserve the adjective "efficient", or just "cruel"? I'd say that if the grease that oils your gears to make things go faster is actually blood, then it's not a good trade at all.


*fresh outta the dorms


Quote in Forbes!! (11!!11!!)!1

Here I am!

I mean, I'm not entirely a "food blogger" but I blog enough about food that...hey, sure. Sounds good to me.

This isn't really the entirety of what I said, but it's a good enough quote taken from a much lengthier opinion on Din Tai Fung.

For the record, I do think their dumplings are excellent, but I don't eat there often - I've been once - because while they're really good, there's only so much you can do with a dumpling and I find their prices high. I believe the price has more to do with being able to get away with charging Japanese tourists that much than it does with how much it actually costs to run the restaurant and make a profit.