Friday, April 7, 2017
Pass the sausage: a crazy theory about why there aren't many female Taiwan experts
First, let's take a moment to acknowledge Freedom of Speech day in Taiwan, although it is not an official holiday (but should be). Today was the day 28 years ago when activist and writer Nylon Deng self-immolated before his imminent arrest by police after a period of barricading himself in his office. Nylon s best remembered by the activist community in Taiwan for insisting on "100% freedom of speech", and for openly supporting Taiwan independence when it was not quite safe to do so. Today also happens to be the day that Reporters Without Borders announced that they'd open their Asia bureau in Taipei rather than Hong Kong, and I am choosing to believe that this is not a coincidence, even though it probably is.
As it is around the world, activism and feminism tend to go hand-in-hand, although through history many liberals have been supportive of liberal causes yet dismissive of feminist ones, or of women's equality. I remember, when watching the tear-jerking documentary on Nylon in the museum dedicated to him on the site of his self-immolation, an offhand comment that he was "cruel" to his wife and daughter. The moment went by quickly and I haven't re-watched the film, though I will soon as I do own it, but it caused me to reflect on that point.
But that was the 1980s and this is 2017, a time when being a liberal, progressive or activist but not being feminist will cause one serious problems. I do think, then, it is worthwhile to reflect on the presence of women in Taiwan Studies and advocacy around the world, as tenuous as that link may be.
This generally excellent piece came out recently on the Trump-Xi meeting (which I am not commenting on much because I don't have much to say), and it was pointed out that nine Taiwan experts were included, and not one of them was female. "Yup, bit of a sausage fest", it was acknowledged (and I do appreciate the acknowledgement). Of course, that's not to say there aren't any Taiwan experts. Some of my favorite books on Taiwan were written by women (reading this now and loving it), and of course there's the well-known Shelley Rigger (though I have to say I'm not a huge fan of her work for the reasons Michael Turton outlined here). Edit: a few more names I have in fact come across have been pointed out: Bonnie Glaser and Gwyneth Wang, to name a few. In any case, pickings sure do seem to remain slim.
But if you could ask me to name other prominent female Taiwan experts or advocates, I don't think I could. I know the community, so I'm not shooting in the dark here, yet, it really does seem to be something of a sausage fest.
Why is that?
Of course I have a theory.
Keep in mind it's just a theory, concocted within the confines of my own weird brain, as far as I know really only explains the dearth of notable female Taiwan supporters in the US, and is quite open to constructive feedback. It's not meant to be a definitive statement on the matter.
Yet, as far as the US is concerned, I can't help but notice that most Taiwan experts also happen to be Taiwan advocates. It's quite common, even the norm, to be both an expert and a part of the Taiwan independence movement. In the US, who are the 'friends of Taiwan' in the government that Taiwan independence supporters tend to turn to, or at least receive the greatest support from?
Republicans. And in some cases, some of the worst Republicans in office. In every other sense, beyond their support of Taiwan (which usually seems to stem from a hatred of China rather than a genuine caring for Taiwan), just really terrible people. People like Marco Rubio, who supports both Hong Kong's localist movement and Taiwan, but who is a total shitlord when it comes to women's issues. People like Tom Cotton, who also supports both Taiwan and Hong Kong, who is also a total douchestick on women's issues. Even Bob Dole, that ol' 90s throwback who honestly was more moderate than these other losers on women's issues for his day (emphasis: for his day), isn't great.
No, I'm not going to be nicer about that because they're friends of Taiwan. They're also turdburglars and they deserve the criticism.
And to be fair, not every friend of Taiwan is like this. I don't have any particular criticisms of unelected supporters of Taiwan in government (think Bolton, Yates), but they tend to be Republicans, and Republicans are at this moment in history actively working against women's rights.
I'm not even going to talk about Trump because he doesn't have a clear Taiwan policy (the one thing that is clear is that he cares about nobody but himself, his family and sweet sweet money, and possibly power as well, and he'll sacrifice anything and everything for those things). But Taiwan's association with Trump, I can tell you honestly, has hurt Taiwan's standing among liberal voters, if they cared about Taiwan to begin with, which most don't. I'll stop there, because "liberal voters" are not the same as "Taiwan experts" or "Taiwan advocates", and I'm talking about the latter. The former is a different issue that I may or may not tackle at a later time.
It is also important to differentiate between advocates for Taiwan, and the people they lobby and talk to. Advocates for Taiwan outside of government tend to be very good people. I am friends with many of them (and yes, they are almost entirely male). The people they talk to are the problem. There are also some powerful female voices for Taiwan in other areas, such as Linda Arrigo and Shawna Yang Ryan, but I'm trying to be specific in terms of Taiwan experts who also advocate (and in many cases actively lobby) for Taiwan in Washington.
Of the women who are a part of this community, it is notable that of the 9 (9? Someone mentioned 9, I counted 8) people asked to comment for the article above, not one of them was female. How is it that they found 9 experts, all male, and ignored all of the women who do good work or are strong voices in this field? Is there perhaps a connection between being asked to comment on a piece like this and how often one is seen around government folks? Is there a connection between not doing that, and being female? If so, could that connection be in part because most of the people you would be talking to not only are not known generally for having much respect for women, but are actively working against women's rights?
I happen to think so, yes.
Or, perhaps they are overlooked because women simply tend to be overlooked in many fields.
I mean, to be a Taiwan expert - at least an American one - means making peace with the fact that the country you are most interested in and are likely to advocate for finds its greatest support among some of the worst people in Washington. On some level this is praiseworthy: it means setting aside differences to work on a common goal. I can see the value in that. I can see the value in not always giving in to identity politics, as well.
However, this is really easy to do if the people you are talking to and working with aren't actively trying to take away your rights, or subjugate your gender. It's much easier to "set differences aside" when the other side's differences aren't actual, literal and active attempts to make your life worse. It's easy when it's not aimed at you.
It is far more difficult to do when you can't even fathom being in the same room with some of them. I cannot imagine I would do anything to Marco Rubio other than spit in his stupid asshat face if I had to look at him, let alone talk to him. Perhaps I am more tempestuous, temperamental or I just care more about these things than others, but I know I'm not the only woman who would rather punch some of these Republican twatwads in the mouth than talk to them.
So how could someone like me - a woman, a lover of Taiwan, a supporter of Taiwan, someone who makes it her business and passion to keep up with Taiwan affairs despite not officially being any sort of expert - actually be an expert? When expertise tends to overlap so much with advocacy, and advocacy overlaps so much with talking to people I cannot bear to dignify with even basic manners, because they cannot bear to dignify my gender with basic rights, how is this even a possibility?
In fact, this is one of the direct causes behind why I went into education as a professional rather than Taiwan Studies. Perhaps 5 years ago - I don't remember exactly - I was in Hong Kong, sitting on the upstairs deck at the Fringe Club talking to friends there. We were discussing my next move, and I said I had three key interests: TEFL, the Chinese language and Taiwan Studies. I didn't know which I'd pursue, I said, but it would be one of those three, I would be going back to school at some point, and soon enough it would be come clear which I'd choose.
I chose education, because I actually kind of hated Chinese class though I love learning Chinese, and because Taiwan Studies to me is inextricably bound up in Taiwan advocacy, and that would mean lobbying or talking to all sorts of odious socially conservative Republican types, the sort who are actively trying to roll back my basic human rights. Even then, I knew I couldn't do it.
This is, as a side note, why I am eager to jump on any alternative at all. It sucks to love Taiwan but hate the friends of Taiwan in the US government. It sucks to know you might be able to go to school for Taiwan Studies, but you wouldn't be able to advocate with a straight face, nor would you be able to work with Taiwan supporters in the US government, because when their rollback of basic rights and dignity is aimed at your gender, it is impossible to "set differences aside" or look the other way. If someone presents even the most unlikely alternative model for advocating for Taiwan, it's like a flame for my inner moth.
I know I can't do it, and I don't think it's fair to ask any woman to do it. That's absolutely not to say that I think the men who do do it - who bite their lips and talk to assholes for Taiwan's sake - don't care about women's issues. I'm sure it's not easy talking to someone you disagree with on nearly every other thing (and most of the ones I know are good people, solid liberals, and women's rights supporters). Yet they do it - they do what I can't, and I won't pretend that gender is not one of the reasons why. It's simply easier when it's not your basic human rights on the chopping block, even if you have the best of intentions.
So that's my crazy theory. At least as far as Americans are concerned, there are not many female Taiwan experts because, while they might have common cause with some of the worst people in government over Taiwan, these same people are enemies of their gender. That's just too much to ask - and frankly, shouldn't have to be asked. It is 100% stone cold not okay, especially as Taiwan independence is, fundamentally, a liberal cause.
There are surely other reasons - Taiwan is a harder place to live long-term for foreign women being one of them and many foreign experts on Taiwan have spent significant time here. (As a side note, this is why most foreign commentators on Taiwan skew male - there are simply more male expats, and I do explore the reasons for that in the link above. Another reason might be that a lot of currently known Taiwan experts got into the field decades ago, when this sort of field was male dominated. When I was in school my International Affairs cohort was not particularly male, but several decades before that it likely would have been. Yet another may be "because the women are choosing China where the action is". Perhaps. I may explore these other possibilities in future posts.
I do hope for change going forward, and it would be interesting to see what the younger, perhaps less recognized cohort of Taiwan experts looks like gender-wise. However, I can say that when I was younger and looking at that path, the sorts of horrible people I'd have to talk to were a clear reason why I steered away from it, and made Taiwan affairs a hobby rather than a profession. I cannot imagine I am the only woman to have been put off. It does cause women to turn away, and I know that because it turned me away.
Constructive feedback is welcome. Hateful or misogynist comments will be deleted without being fully read.