Saturday, August 9, 2014
One of the nicest features of our apartment is that we have a really nice south-facing window with a spacious casement. It looks out over a courtyard with a small playground, not a road, so there aren't any exhaust fumes or loud traffic noises. The light is soft and indirect - perfect for an apartment in a subtropical city, but not great for growing plants. So we keep it simple: a few large plants that we inherited (I don't know what they're called), mint, a few orchids, a fern that took root in an old pot of soil gone to seed, and a big fat fuchsia bougainvillea.
On nice days, I like to open up the screens and occasionally stick my head out into the sunlit air and enjoy the leaves and flowers. I was doing that just the other day - head out, light streaming in, a slight breeze which rustled up the smell of the mint, and swirls and splatters of bright pink flowers. To maintain the "shades of blue" theme from the living room, we added (okay, I added) inexpensive blue glass candleholders and lanterns and had chiffon curtains in shades of green and blue tailor-made.
Side note: when I gave the fabric and design specs to the tailor, her reaction was "this fabric is too thin! You don't want everyone seeing in, don't you? Why not choose a thicker fabric that can keep out the sun, too? The sun will come right through this!"
"That's what we want, and anyway we don't mind if people can see into the living room, not that too many people can. And there are plants to hide the view inside," I bit back.
"You foreigners are so weird."
Convinced she had the right of it, she got to work on my curtains.
Anyway, looking out on those flowers, I became aware of something: it was a Thursday afternoon.
Life is pretty good. I make good money for Taiwan; we live downtown. How many people with apartments nice enough to enjoy the view and the air from their windows and live downtown can, in fact, look out their window to admire whorls of bougainvillea on a Thursday afternoon? Even in Taipei, most people were toiling away in offices. Night would be falling before they could leave.
So I was thinking.
One of the advantages of being an expat - especially if you're from a country with a wide-reaching, globally-influential pop culture (which, sorry other countries, I know that can be annoying), is that you get to watch your own culture evolve from a distance. You're totally fluent in the sociocultural language of your home country, but you're not there, which lends the whole thing a rarefied distance. Not unlike observing the terrain from a tiny airplane window far overhead.
I have a reasonably broad view for Taipei - more than just the street below (there is no street below) and the apartment across from you is considered a good view in the denser parts of this city, or any city, really. But I can see just one courtyard - a broad view of a small space. The view from that window, past those bougainvilleas and their thorns (did you know bougainvilleas had thorns? I didn't until I inherited one), out on a little slice of Taipei is narrower than my extreme wide-angle view of American goings-on - a broad view but from a tiny little window way up where jet planes fly.
And recently, that American pop culture terrain has been marked by the volcanic eruption that is Women. More specifically, Sheryl Sandberg. Her name is the most ubiquitous, it has the most cache abroad (most of the people I know in Taiwan have heard of her, too) and she, like a lava flow, has mostly succeeded in her concerted attempts to bring the discussion about how we treat working women to the forefront of cultural discourse.
I'm not sure if I'm 100% on board with what she says: I don't wish to contort myself into some pleasing, perfect aggressive-yet-feminine, strong-but-not-bitchy Gumby woman. I'd rather just be me, and if some boss who thinks he or she can either walk all over me or that I'm a "bitch" gives me problems, I'll walk away as soon as I'm able. And I'm not a mom, so her advice to working mothers doesn't really impact me much. If I wanted to devote lots of time to work, I could, with very few consequences. And I see what people mean when they say that she can take her own advice - she's a wealthy, established, distinguished woman at the top of the ladder. It's not exactly useful to single mothers trying to put food on the table with the pay from their job as a receptionist at, say, Southern Oconomowoc County Chiropractic Associates.
It's not only Sandberg, of course, I'm only picking the most famous name from among a few people participating in this conversation.
And what I hear again and again is how a lot of these women - not Sandberg, but others - who write about how being a working mom with a flexible job is a great choice, how it works for them, how more women should do it. Most of these women are writers. That's why they write about this, natch! Which is great, but those jobs tend not to have stable incomes (especially tough if you're single, whether or not you have kids), are often harder to pull of with kids at home than you'd think, and really not available as an option to the receptionist at - say - Southern Oconomowoc County Chiropractic Associates.
Either way, a lot of people - a lot of women especially - seem to covet the semi-freelance flex-time lifestyle. Some make it work, some are trying, some have it but only because they can afford to with a high-earning breadwinner partner, some feel like it's a windmill they're better off not tilting at.
Because, let's face it: it's hard to have that lifestyle in the USA unless you've got the backing of a stable breadwinner. Possible, but hard. I don't know about you, but "I'm freelance (because my husband works long hours in an office so we never have to worry about money)" wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I decided to strike out on my own, work-wise. Of course people do make it work, it's just a lot harder. In Taiwan - especially Taipei - it's much easier. I know a lot of people who are making it work without the burdens of living in the USA. I don't know if any of us would be as successful or self-sustaining in the USA. I've met quite a few independent artsy locals (artists, designers, writers) who manage to live independently on that salary in a way that few Americans would be able to. In some ways, Taipei is a city of independent shopfronts, of indie jewelry crafters, of writers, translators, journalists and editors striking out on their own. I don't see a lot of this in the USA except perhaps in Brooklyn, and I can guarantee we all have better standards of living than the indie and freelance folks there.
Which makes me think from my perch at 30,000 feet above my own culture, that it's really a damn shame that there aren't more expat women in Taiwan. If more expat women lived in Taiwan, more of them would realize that if they want, they can have that kind of life here more easily than in the USA.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that while some people can do it in the USA, I never would have been able to.
You can't get around to meet people, promote yourself and meet clients without a car, so there's a whole bunch of expenses. The only city where you can both live near public transportation and not have a car is New York, other cities don't have a good enough network for you to be able to rove about town making money. Sorry, DC, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago, but it's true. I strongly dislike driving - it would be a major change in lifestyle for me to have to do it, and a major expense I probably wouldn't be able to shoulder to buy and maintain a car with all of its associated costs. People without a lot of money buy cars all the time, sure, but imagine doing it on the freelancer money I'd be making. Yeah, not so much.
If your clients tend not to drive you'll also want to live near public transportation if it's available. Or, if you just want to avoid driving as much as possible, you'll want that too, without having to schlep a mile to the nearest MRT station. So, that'll be a much higher rent or mortgage payment for you. We could conceivably live near-ish a subway station on the American equivalent of my freelance career plus whatever Brendan would do, but it wouldn't be downtown. Forget it. I could not do what I do here and live where I do in the USA. Anywhere in the USA.
Living expenses are astronomical, too. At least, compared to Taiwan, they feel that way. In Taiwan, in months where I earn less, we can squeeze by surprisingly cheaply. We managed it for months without significant problems while doing Delta Module One, when for all intents and purposes I was working part time. You can budget and squeeze in the USA, too, but just not quite to the same degree. In Taiwan it was a matter of "maybe we don't need fancy Belgian beer this weekend". In the USA it would be "maybe ramen is a fine dinner idea every night this week".
In short, I could do it, but my lifestyle would suffer so much that it wouldn't really be the same. I could either have the lifestyle I do now, but work all week and miss out on those sunny Thursday afternoons enjoying the flowers of my labor, or I could have the work schedule I do now but live in a dank little view-less apartment far from downtown and a schlep to everywhere. Other people make it work, but I know that I likely wouldn't be one of them. For everyone who can shout out their windows to the bright, wide world that it's "fine for them! Try it out!", I bet there are ten more people who just wish their windows faced something other than a wall.
Until recently, I wouldn't have been able to pull it off because of this little thing called health care. I'm healthy, but not robustly so. I have had back problems (seem to be fine now) and occasionally get bronchial infections. I get migraines. My family history is riddled with heart problems, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's and a few other fun things, too. I need, need, need health insurance. Taiwan makes that happen for me. The USA...well, we have Obamacare now, and I'm curious about whether that would work for me. But when I left, I couldn't have gone freelance, or entrepreneur, or even worked for a company that didn't have a health insurance benfit, because quite simply I could not afford the health insurance.
It wasn't a matter of budgeting: in the USA I budgeted myself into rice and lentils, rice&beans, cheap bread and pasta, frozen veggies and carrot sticks with apple slices because carrots and apples were cheap. And I still wouldn't have been able to afford my own health insurance: on an entry-level salary I could barely afford one of the cheaper company plans. Obviously working in companies one would either get promoted or look for something better (not that I thought about such things much back then, within a year I was plotting my return to Asia having decided that the cube monkey life was not for me), but how does one strike out on one's own when one can't afford basic health care?
Side note: this is one reason I will basically never vote for Republicans. Also the "weak track record on women's rights and their party platforms are bigoted against LGBT people", but a big part of it is that they talk big about entrepreneurial spirit, but don't do anything to help would-be entrepreneurs like me. I didn't need lower taxes - I needed health insurance I could afford.
Back to the main topic.
So, while I realize my experience is not the only experience, and my view is not the only view, it's unbearably clear to me that there's no way I could both maintain the lifestyle I have (those gorgeous bougainvilleas in that spacious, sunny, convenient downtown apartment) and have the time to enjoy it (those random weekday afternoons free), as a freelancer in the USA.
I have what a lot of people, especially (but not only) women, want. The freedom to do the job I love on my terms, with flexible time and good pay. I can both have my bougainvilleas and enjoy them, too.
I have this because Taiwan has made it possible. I could not have this in the USA. Even when I needed a visa to stay in Taiwan, I was able to have my own side interests and private classes and more-or-less have flex-time work. It would be remarkably easy for a lot of American women, sick of dealing with sexist workplaces, sick of being told to "lean in" or contort themselves, sick of having someone else dictate when they worked and for how much pay (less than men's), to grab a job that provided an ARC in Taiwan for a few hours a week of English teaching or whatever, and use their extra time to pursue their freelance side work, until they could get permanent residency and chase their dream full-time, or full-ish time - whatever time could be scheduled around not "leaning in", but leaning out of their sunny windows and enjoying a spray of bougainvillea, orchids and mint on a weekday afternoon.
But they're not here, and something tells me they're not coming.
It's too bad. I'd like to share my bougainvilleas.
Saturday, August 2, 2014
Sean Lien may as well have propped up a few of these in the corners of his
"chat with foreigners", for all the talking the women present did.
This is what he was going for, anyway.
But, since when have I ever written something because I needed to?
First, I admit I could not watch the whole video - that weird Weather Channel background music was so jarring and distracting that I gave up halfway through and read summaries of it online to see what I missed (not much, it seems).
Second, why did he have a room full of, oh, about 10-15 foreigners, when only a very few asked questions?
Third, note the inherent sexism in how the only questions taken and shown in the video were questions from men. The women looked more like background props - they could have been cardboard cutouts for all it mattered in this video. And let's not even get into the "token black" racism or the complete lack of Southeast Asian domestic or factory workers present (because other people already have).
Fourth, how is it that the only questions that made it into the video are either KMT Big Business propaganda bullshit points, or superficial "fluff" matters that it's easy to talk fluff about? I won't even bother complaining that the campaign stunt (I can't really call it a "talk with foreigners" in any sincere sense) was scripted, and seemed to be filled mostly with good-looking white men (and a few good-looking women) who may not even be residents of Taipei.
So, all of that aside, I have two things to say.
First, HEY FOREIGNERS. If you are really residents of Taipei - and I sincerely doubt that you are, although you could surprise me - what the fuck are you doing providing a whitewashed backdrop to Prince Sean the Lame here? Really? Did they pay you? How much was in the hong bao? Was it worth it, selling your dignity for whatever bit of cash they threw your way and a free lunch (although knowing the KMT you probably had to pay for the lunch if you're poor - only to have your lunch expropriated by a wealthy lunch magnate with gang and political connections - and got it for free if you're rich).
I mean, I suppose there's a chance that you actually support Sean Lien and...
...oh nevermind. That's too ridiculous to contemplate.
So, really? You're willing to be dancing foreign monkeys for this guy? You're willing to make us all look bad by being a prop for some sad little princeling's political dreams? You're willing to push forward tired stereotypes about foreigners in Taiwan, and make us all look bad (and stupid - because your questions were stupid - YES THEY WERE - although I can forgive that, as they were obviously handed to you by the Lien campaign)? You're okay with being reduced to this? Why don't you go dance around in a ridiculous stock video in the background of some American song from the '80s played illegally in a KTV? That would be slightly less humiliating than what you've done here.
Seriously, have some goddamn self-respect.
And second, I have some questions of my own for Seanie boy. I know I'd never get invited to one of these lunches, nor would I go if invited, because I'm not interested in being some KMT teat-sucker's campaign prop. And if I were, my real questions would be edited out.
So, I'll go ahead and write them here.
I'll try to stay away from the snarky ones.
Dear Sean Lien,
Urban renewal is not necessarily a bad policy for a city with degrading or unattractive architecture (although I would disagree that it is entirely unattractive). So how is it that the KMT leadership in Taipei has screwed it up so much by making it a gold rush for developers, rather than an actual boon to the city? Why isn't it a boon to the city, benefiting not citizens but rather companies like Farglory? How will you make urban renewal work for the people and not vested corporate interests? How closely tied is your family, and how closely tied is the KMT, to these development companies?
How is it that with all of this urban renewal, actual systemic problems in Taipei's infrastructure have not been addressed, such as the sewage system that regularly causes noxious odors to waft up from sewer grates and makes it impossible to flush toilet paper (which leads to some very disgusting trash bins next to public toilets)?
Or uneven, difficult-to-walk sidewalks that are an ankle-breaking hazard for the able-bodied among us and totally unnavigable for the disabled?
What's up with the continued difficulties that residents of Taipei who hail from other cities have in registering to vote in Taipei? I know that technically they can do so, but if they rent, landlords often make it difficult or outright refuse (they fear being charged higher taxes for having a tenant that they had previously not reported) and the government has done nothing about this.
Mayor Hau, despite also still suckling his own father's milk, did one good thing in Taipei by making it possible for any impoverished person to get a free lunch box at any convenience store, so long as they had a special card (the stores get reimbursed by the government). However, one must apply for the card in order to be eligible, and it seems clear that this policy has not been widely publicized or made easily available to Taipei's poor and homeless. What do you intend to do about that?
We all love UBikes, but what's up with the half-assed "bike lanes" that no sane person would actually bike in? We all bike on the sidewalks because we have to. How will you fix that and create real bike lanes, and enforce their safety from encroachment by cars, buses and parked vehicles, and educate the public about proper bike lane use and safety?
More frequent trains on the Xiangshan line please. After 8 years in Taipei it is no longer in my blood to regularly wait 7 minutes for a train. And can we improve train etiquette (line-cutting, entering a train and then stopping, entering a train before passengers have had a chance to exit, not leaving space for people walking in the other direction) while we're at it? A small issue but one close to my heart.
Domestic violence crisis center workers are horribly underpaid and caring, competent people often leave the job due to the high stress and low compensation. As a result, domestic abuse survivors have diminished access to competent social workers. I know at least one such worker who quit and decided to learn to cut hair instead, as she'd make more money that way. How will you increase resources to help with this and other women's issues so we can offer a full range of necessary services and adequately compensate these workers in Taipei City?
Four major issues impacting Taipei real estate are:
- Rising prices overall
- Taipei County residents buying tiny properties in Taipei (which are often cut out of units meant to be larger and sold for this purpose, which make un-ideal living quarters and diminish the housing available, as well as its quality, to people who actually intend to live in Taipei) in order to be able to register their children to study at a good school in Taipei
- The influx of agents in the rental market who charge high rates to renters they place and even more to foreigners that they take for rubes (a local may be charge half a month's rent or less, a foreigner is often told they must pay a full month), for providing very little in the way of services and making it impossible to contact landlords directly about rentals
- A speculative market in which most buyers don't intend to live in their units (see above)
...how do you plan to fix this mess?
So, how do you intend to get anything done for the people when politicians, gangsters and businessmen are either good friends, or the same people?
Why should the people believe that the KMT is working for them when they have demonstrated time and time again that they mostly have big business interests, and Chinese interests, at heart? Why should we have faith in a word you say?
What do you plan to do about wage stagnation in the face of rising living costs in Taipei, which is arguably more severe than elsewhere in Taiwan due to the effects of the real estate market?
What do you plan to do about routine overwork, companies cheating on overtime pay, companies pushing women not to take their full allotment of maternity leave and general worker abuse in Taipei?
Why can't foreigners unionize? As a mayor, not a national official you may not be able to do much, but...why not?
A lot of worker abuse against foreigners affects us in two ways:
1.) Domestic helper abuse - there is little a badly-treated or abused foreign domestic worker can do to remedy her situation under current law. What do you plan to do about that?
2.) Contract worker abuse - most Western foreigners are English teachers, and we are routinely subject to illegal policies at work. For instance:
- did you know that we are legally entitled to lao bao (labor insurance)? Many schools openly refuse to provide it.
- did you know that we are legally entitled to paid leave, including on national holidays? Just TRY to get that as an English teacher on an hourly salary!
- did you know we are entitled to paid sick leave? Really! Including maternity leave! How many of us get that?
- did you know that many English teachers are made to work public holidays and even typhoon days?
- did you know that many employers still charge deposits that they keep if you want to quit before your contract is up (no compensation for you if they are the ones terminating the contract, though) or illegally withhold salary if you wish to terminate a contract (again, you get no such consideration if the termination is from them)?
- did you know that many employers use ARC/visa status as a method of control, blackmailing teachers (often insisting on unpaid work) who know they can't afford to have to deal with a canceled visa?
- did you know that many teacher complaints never make it to a Council of Labor Affairs hearing because most bosses have "someone on the inside"?
...what do you plan to do about all of that?
Do you have any idea how many buildings in Taiwan are not earthquake or typhoon safe? Forget that they are ugly, what do you plan to do about that?
Did you know that foreigners in Taipei who want the simplest things, like:
- a local credit card
- a Chunghwa Telecom cell phone contract
- a mortgage
...are often denied, although they are legally entitled to all three? Just because they are foreigners? What do you intend to do about that? While this is a nationwide problem, certainly something can be done to remedy the situation in Taipei city specifically.
I strongly oppose the recent curriculum changes to school textbooks that seek to "Sinicize" Taiwanese history (for example, by calling the Japanese period the Japanese Occupation, implying that they were not a legitimate colonial power). How do you intend to keep such changes from affecting textbooks in Taipei?
Many schools in Taipei operate throughout the summer, but the public schools often either lack air conditioning or won't turn it on unless the students all pay. This is a dangerous situation that can lead to heat exhaustion or heatstroke. What do you plan to do about it?
(I have more questions and issues regarding public schools, but they are better addressed at a national level.)
How would electric taxis and buses really help? Why aren't we pushing for electric scooter subsidies to reduce pollution?
What can we do to improve traffic safety, especially concerning pedestrians and scooter accidents?
Many local residents have been complaining that the large number of Chinese tour groups have ruined many previously pleasant attractions in Taipei, such as the National Palace Museum and Taipei 101. I would like to note that this isn't about being anti Chinese people but rather the behavior and overly large number of tour groups. For example, the museum is basically controlled by tour groups now: they come in and out and see the most famous artifacts, but there are so many that those not in a tour group often have to wait 15, 20, even 30 minutes to see one item. What do you plan to do about this?
Wage discrimination is a major issue in Taiwan, with women often earning notably less or having less desirable contracts than men for the same work. Surely this is something that can also be tackled at the city level. What do you plan to do about it?
Women are sorely underrepresented in the Taipei City Government, and women's interests are often not represented at all (let's not even get into LGBT or minority interests). How do you plan to remedy this?
How is it that technically-illegal-but-desirable urban issues are often the subject of sting operations (such as illegal night market vendors - which people actually want), whereas illegal and undesirable issues - such as loudspeaker trucks, unsafe plumbing and wiring, often with wires hanging dangerously from staples on the side of buildings and blatant tax evasion - are not?
Why did the KMT powers-that-be allow Shi-da to be ruined? What cronies do you folks have that made it possible to destroy a vibrant neighborhood that way? How can you assure other vibrant neighborhoods that it is okay to do business there and they won't suddenly be forced to shut down, even if they've been promoted by the city government in the past?
What's up with making it difficult for religious festivals to do their thing, but routinely allowing political campaigns to wreak havoc across the city in the most annoying ways?
What are your plans for Taipei's historic architecture, including Dihua Street? How do you plan to develop it in such a way that it is not another Ningxia-Chongqing-Nanjing traffic circle disaster, and not another kitschy old street? I like kitschy old streets, but I want Dihua Street to be something better.
(not your biggest fan)
If you all have any questions you'd like to ask Prince Sean, please feel free to leave them in the comments below.