Sunday, March 11, 2012

Thomas Friedman Thinks Taiwan is "a barren rock"...

"I always tell my friends in Taiwan: “You’re the luckiest people in the world. How did you get so lucky? You have no oil, no iron ore, no forests..." Say WHAT?!

I posted earlier today with a link to Thomas Friedman's piece on "Taiwan" - of course, it wasn't about Taiwan at all, which I'll address in a minute - and now that I'm done with that thing I had to do today, I'm free to write about it.

I'm not an economist, so I'll just be a 揚聲蟲 (that first character might be wrong, I'm trying to recall the phrase from something someone told me and I did not write down. If I am wrong, please correct me. I can learn from that). I'll echo Michael Turton's assessment that Taiwan's human capital is a great resource that has been used to great benefit and effect, which is about the only thing the article got right (well, it is also correct that Taiwan has few "deposits" - gas, oil or otherwise - and what it did have has long since been dug out by the Japanese during the colonial period).

Turton is absolutely right that Friedman is absolutely wrong - and downright insulting (well, those words are mine) - in characterizing Taiwan as a "barren rock in a typhoon-laden sea with no natural resources to live off": Taiwan has agricultural potential, an abundance of water (although most of it seems to wash out to sea: I always laugh when I see one of those "Water Shortage - Please Conserve Water" signs above a sink as I'm washing my hands while it's pouring outside) and plenty more to recommend it. I do wonder who these "friends in Taiwan" of Friedman's are, and if they're happy to hear that he thinks they're so lucky to live on a "barren rock" with "no natural resources to live off". 

I want to add before I get into the crux of what I want to say that I take issue with both Turton and Friedman's posts regarding education in Taiwan. Yes, students score well. Yes, the populace is highly educated, yes, Turton's right that a lot of that has to do with the private cram school system.

But...I don't have much respect and in fact hold much contempt for both the Taiwanese public school system and the cram school system.

In the former, yes,  they train students very well in math and science and in taking tests well, and in learning under pressure. They  still don't train in critical thinking or creativity and generally speaking, arts, history, social studies and language education in Taiwanese schools is severely lacking, if not pathetic or even non-existent (one of my students claims there is no such thing as "social studies" - something I had to take for all of junior and high school in the New York State system). Students learn to read and to some extent write English, but not to speak it and rarely do they come out of it with any language other than English. French, German, Spanish and other language "majors" from universities rarely graduate at a level of fluency in their language "major" that I'd find acceptable. I've met people with degrees in French whose French is worse than the best French I ever spoke (much of which I've forgotten), and I didn't major in it. And I studied abroad in India, not a French-speaking country. I find the buxiban system sad - some schools teach well, some teach poorly, all overcharge, work the kids too hard when what they need is time to play, and most English cram schools exploit foreign teachers and pay them very little while milking the parents. The only positive thing I can say about it is that yes, those kids do come out of English cram school speaking better English than most Americans could hope to speak Chinese - because there is, as yet, no Chinese cram school system in the USA. I can't speak for cram schools in other subjects.

I do feel that the teachers in these systems (English schools aside) are too focused on outdated and teacher-centered methodologies and do not teach Taiwanese students to engage critically or creatively with topics or knowledge. Some end up doing so anyway, but many become worker drones who are very good at taking tests, being quiet, saying Yes Sir and doing what they're told. While I do find the average Taiwanese person to be more worldly than the average American, that is not because of the education system. Those poor kids are overworked, under-rested and have no time to figure out who they are or how to be creative or thoughtful. Those who naturally are those things will still be, but they are not traits that are prized.

So why all this praise for Taiwanese schools?

As one Taiwanese friend with a teenage daughter put it to me, "you got to go to school in America and then live in Taiwan and get paid more because you are a foreigner. You are truly lucky." So, I'm lucky because I didn't go through the "study 28 hours a day? What do you mean there aren't 28 hours in a day - study that long anyway! NO FREE TIME FOR YOU!" Taiwanese system, and we're sitting here praising it?

No, thanks.

That was a longer aside than I intended, so...

What a barren rock! With no forests! And no resources to live off!
I am sure others will do a fine job of engaging with Friedman's piece in economic terms, so I'll engage with it in social and cultural terms. Before I do, however, I want to share some quotes from my husband to put my own criticisms into perspective.

"Friedman," says Brendan, my ever-brilliant husband who really should be a professor of something, "has an astounding knack for taking taxi cabs with drivers who have strong opinions and are particularly well-spoken that he can reference in his column to give his words blue-collar credibility. I do not believe these drivers are entirely fictional, but I do believe that he borrows heavily on his own experience and weaves it into the things he hears and references in his writing."

I felt bad when I heard that, because I reference a lot of what I hear in Taiwan and talk about with Taiwanese people - but then, I  do try to quote directly and then speak from my experience rather than weaving so much into the narrative of another person, and I do have an extensive network of local friends, students and acquaintances so I don't feel I'm going down the "this half-made-up taxi driver who is totally blue collar said this thing that I want to talk about because I'm so smart" route. Though maybe I am. I'm sure I'd get more nasty comments if I were, though.

He also pointed out, quite astutely, that "Friedman's specialty, if he can be said to have one, is the Middle East although he seems to have interests in every region of the world. Nothing in his career or writing, past or present, has gave any indication that Taiwan is his favorite country. He was using it as an example to make a point about economics, not because it is actually his favorite country." He could have led with any country that is resource poor but doing well because it's rich in well-honed human capital - it didn't have to be Taiwan.

I agree - I'm not even sure Friedman has been to Taiwan, and if he has, he certainly didn't explore it in any depth. From his description, if he's been here at all, he might have seen Taipei and possibly some of the uglier parts of the west coast plain. I'm thinking that industrial bit in Taoyuan County, the one out past Guanyin where the main TECO plant is.

Finally, "you do realize, Jenna, that by 'Taiwan has no forests' he was actually saying 'Taiwan does not export lumber', right? He did not mean 'forests' in terms of 'has lots of trees'."

Right. But that still kind of bothers and even slightly offends me. I can't believe that anyone who has seen enough of Taiwan to call it their "favorite" country would use the adjective "barren" to describe it.

Poor, barren Taiwan. These must be Fake Plastic Trees because Taiwan has no forests.
I mean, I am sure that my in-laws, who visited very recently, did not think of Taiwan as a "barren rock in a typhoon-laden sea". I'm sure they saw it for what it was: a somewhat polluted country that is nevertheless beautiful and brimming with culture, life, agriculture, good food and friendly people.

Taiwan is one of the best countries in Asia in terms of national parks, protected areas and forest recreation areas for protecting its forests - oh yeah, it doesn't have forests - even though there are environmental issues that need to be addressed otherwise (the forests in the mountains are reasonably well protected, but I am concerned about environmental degradation in the plains) - how could anyone who claims Taiwan is their "favorite country" have not seen this?

Yes, I realize that different people like different things and a bookish economist with blue-collar-cred delusions might genuinely pick a "favorite country" based on economic indicators, not on the cultural framework and natural beauty of the country itself, but another part of me says - how sad is that?

It offends me as someone who genuinely, truly would say that Taiwan is her favorite country. I mean, I have some affection (more like tough love and "I love my difficult child but at times don't like her very much") for the country of my birth and I also love India and have an abiding affection for Bangladesh and an ancestral-ties sort of love for Armenia and Hatay (in Turkey), but if asked for just one country to name as my favorite I think I would pick Taiwan. I have stayed for over five years, after all. I don't particularly like some pompous teller of stories who thinks in commodities and not people, who trades in globalization and not beauty, coming in and saying "Taiwan is my favorite country" for the purposes of making a point in his widely read column, when many other countries could have filled that space. After all, he didn't give any heartfelt reasons for loving Taiwan. Does "very interesting economic paradigm" = love? I don't think so.

So, my advice is, go take a hike, Thomas. I mean that seriously. Not being sarcastic. Fly your statistics-spouting ass to Taiwan and take a hike. I'll be your guide.

I'll take you hiking around Lishan, I'll take you to Hehuan Mountain and I'll take you to Yilan. Maybe I'll hire a guide to haul your butt up Jade Mountain (which I haven't done yet, am supposed to climb in two weeks but probably won't be able to as Paiyun Lodge appears to be closed). We'll hike up to the Japanese temple ruins above Jinguashi and maybe do the easy walk around Bitou cape. I'll definitely take you to Yuemeikeng:

...and then you tell me if Taiwan is a "barren rock" with "no forests".

Because Taiwan is my favorite country too, but I don't love it because it's a good economic example of resourcefulness and well-honed human capital. In fact, Friedman glosses over how many mind-numbing hours those well-educated folks have to work in Taiwan to earn a living. I'm not sure I'd paint such a rosy picture if I were him, because the Taiwanese workforce is a soul-killing thing, no matter how "innovative" it might look to Friedman.  While I am happy to praise the high education and resourcefulness of the Taiwanese people generally, are we really praising a system in which "work yourself to death" is not the joke it is in America, but an idiom that describes a real problem?

I love it because:

- Well, the people. I've written before about friendship in Taiwan but underneath all that, I do find it easier to make genuine friends and true connections with locals than I did in China or than my friends report about Japan. Etiquette differs from back home and I do get annoyed on occasion, but more generally I find people friendly, easy to talk to, and easier to befriend than I believe I'd find elsewhere in Asia. I also find them to mostly be hospitable and kind (although there are jerks around the world) and more progressive than the rest of East Asia.

- The food. I know a lot of foreigners aren't impressed (both Michael Turton and Ralph Jennings have said as much) but I love it. The seafood, the deep fried snacks, the stinky tofu, the pickled bamboo, the preserved tofu, the mountain pig. You haven't lived until you've eaten your fill at Raohe or Miaokou Night Markets, Donggang Harbor or Auntie Xie's on Bo'ai Road or at one of the aboriginal restaurants in the mountains. My in-laws, after a week of eating the best Taipei has to offer (in my eyes - no Ding Tai Fung), praised the simple home-style Taiwanese meal at Auntie Xie's the most. Cold chicken in a sour oily sauce, a steamed red fish, some peppered pork and fried-potato like niu bang, taro congee and a few other simple but delicious dishes seemed to be one of the highlights of their culinary experience.

- The scenery. NO FORESTS MY BIG WHITE ASS. I love hiking and I love that generally I don't need to drive to get to many fantastic hikes.

- The convenience. The other day, I was thinking of going out for Sam Adams. I thought, "The 7-11 across the lane has it, oh, but that means I'd have to cross the street. I could also go to the Wellcome or the other 7-11 and not have to cross the street." Then I realized how freaking ridiculous I sounded. Also, National Health Insurance.

- The relatively clean environment - sure, there's pollution, but I've lived in India and China, so shut up.

...and other reasons, but I think I've made my point.

This is one thing that was missing from Friedman's piece, and sadly, also missing from Turton's analysis (though I don't want to criticize too much, otherwise I agree) - no actual, visceral caring for Taiwan. Nothing about the charms of the country that make it a place worth living and a country worth loving. Nothing to make you believe there's any real emotion or attachment there.

While I understand on some level that Thomas Friedman doesn't actually care about Taiwan all that much, I do hope someday he'll shut his blowhole, put down his textbooks, turn away from the charts and graphs, stop pretending he's a blue collar Everyman and come to Taiwan to see why it's worthy of being his favorite country for real.


Michael Turton said...

It's not he-man to write about "caring" but you are right to note its absence in my piece.

Jenna Cody said...

Taken that way, it makes "caring" sound like something only women do - and that's not true, either.

CJ said...

Bua hahaha.... I do love it when you work yourself into a righteous rage, Jenna. "NO FORESTS MY BIG WHITE ASS" - hahahaha.

On a nerdy note, I thought it peculiar how much Friedman's little love-blurb echoed Kangxi-era court commentary on Taiwan, that useless little "ball of mud out on the distant seas," hardly worth invading, much less occupying at high cost .... (Historically integral and indivisible part of China, my big not-so-white ass.)

J said...

Actually I would say he was wrong about lumber even in terms of economics. There may not be a huge lumber industry now, but it was a major export for the Japanese and a reason they built a lot of infrastructure (most obviously the Alishan and Neiwan rail lines) and started developing the island's economy. You can't ignore its historical role, or that of agriculture, even if it's less important now. Coal and gold may also have contributed, though I'm not sure if they were truly important. That said, if it weren't for coal there would be no Pingxi Line, or indeed any development in the Pingxi valley.
Glad you made that point about education. I agree the US needs a better education system, and there's a lot about US society that I'd like to change, but Taiwan is not the direction I want to move in. In fact, Taiwan's state-industrialist complex, which I think is the root cause of its workaholic culture, is in my mind a more extreme version of the corporatism that causes many of the US's problems. There are a lot of great things about Taiwan that the US could learn from, perhaps including some aspects of education, but certainly not the whole educational system.
I agree with Brendan about Friedman- he writes about places he doesn't understand, and uses random anecdotes to make preposterously overgeneralized conclusions about the world.

Jenna Cody said...

I don't think Friedman cares if Taiwan exported lumber in the past, he cares if Taiwan exports lumber now...but then he thinks Taiwan has "no forests" so what does he know anyway?

He also dismissed Taiwanese agriculture with such a swift kick to the turnips that I really doubt he's ever even been to Taiwan.

Coal and gold were big commodities for the Japanese, but mostly for mining and export to Japan, not really globally.

I do think the USA could learn something about the teaching of math and science in Asia...but obviously, we absolutely should not be going in the direction of adopting the whole system. It's just as screwed up as ours, but in different ways. As with most things, the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle. Their kids need time to think, play and be creative and critical, and ours need to work just a teensy bit harder and stop being so whiny and entitled (not that all American kids are...)

Colin Wen said...

Hi there,
I love your article.
I am a Taiwanese and live oversea for my degree.

Just for your informaiton.
The echo warm is 應聲蟲
Should be pronounce something like
"yìng shēng chóng" (I copy-paste from some website).

Enjoy you life in Taiwan, because of living oversea.
I really feel like Taiwan is a good place to live.


Colin Wen said...

some how I deleted my previous post...
Anyway..just like to help you there about the echo warm
應聲蟲 yìng shēng chóng

I love your post and I love Taiwan too!!


Unknown said...

Thank you for wonderful summary of the goodies Taiwan has to offer, which I share. The point I wish to make is that when Friedman said there being no forests in Taiwan, he was probably speaking of industrial output and not from the point of view of a tourist or tourism. To many foreigners, Taiwan simply isn't a popular tourist destination. So, while Taiwan has plenty of natural beauty to offer, tourism hasn't been a really significant "industry." Also, Taiwan's forests are much more difficult to harvest given the steep slopes and high altitudes of the mountain terrains.

Jenna Cody said...

Oh, I did address that - I quoted my husband saying the same thing.

Except...well, first it's not a clear point then, because regardless of what Taiwan does with those forests, they still exist, so "you have no forests" is false even if it's a semantic device.

Second, I'd argue it's a heartless, numbers-only approach to a country that can hardly be reconciled with calling it "his favorite" (although it's clearly not, not really).

Third, I'd say that what Taiwan does do with its forests - mostly protect them (with some unfortunate exceptions), is the best thing it can do. It's a far wiser long-term national investment than harvesting them for lumber. Taiwans national park and forest recreation area system is stellar, I'd say the best in Asia.

Fourth, Taiwan is popular with tourists, just not Western tourists. The place is overrun with Chinese, Japanese and to a lesser extent Koreans.

Readin said...

Nice criticism of Friedman. Usually my complaints about him relate to what I perceive as his liberal outlook (my understanding is that such is typical of a NYT columnist). But with you a Michael Turton both hitting him on other things - perhaps he's not liberal so much as just really shallow.

Jenna Cody said...

Well, I *am* liberal (and proudly so), so I wouldn't necessarily hit him on that...

B.Y. said...

"Fourth, Taiwan is popular with tourists, just not Western tourists. The place is overrun with Chinese, Japanese and to a lesser extent Koreans."

You can't take away the western tourists from the picture and justify popularity. Taiwan achieved its status of newly industrialized countries (NICS) twenty years ago - it should be one of the top in Asia-excluding Japan given its relatively early economic success. As to the tourists from China, it's obvious with an ulterior motive of the Beijing government to court the affection of Taiwanese. Japanese might have a genuine historical or cultural interest in Taiwan, although it's partially tarnished by the so-called sex tourism. Of course, Taiwan's natural beauty is beyond any dispute and whether tourists come in great numbers does not change the way I see it.

Catherine Shu said...

For a "barren rock," Taiwan sure supports a lot of mosquitoes.

Steven Crook said...

Re Taiwan having lots of water. According to this page:

Taiwan's annual per capita rainfall is just one-eighth of the global average. A lot of that runs off very quickly because the rivers are so short, so water conservation is important.