Friday, July 20, 2018

Paint the town red!

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I don't have access to the actual photo so I made my own with this Wikimedia Commons photo.
Feels nice, let me tell you. You should make one too! 


Another day, another lob of red paint thrown at a Chiang Kai-shek statue - this time the Big Kahuna, the huge bronze atrocity that graces Dead Dictator Memorial Hall in downtown Taipei (link in Chinese).

A bunch of people are going to post this with some (maybe self-righteous - it's hard to avoid sounding that way) screed about how they "support the goals" of the people who did this "but not the actions" because they "turn off" the other side, are "uncivilized", or make it "impossible to engage in dialogue" with those who disagree, or who might think such actions inappropriate.

And yeah, that's not entirely wrong, but you know what? I don't care. So let me pre-emptively say:

If you are "turned off" from dialogue with those who have a political belief you are not naturally inclined to follow because of some red paint, but not put off by actual blood Chiang Kai-shek spilled, I just don't think you can be reasoned with, nor should people waste their time trying. If his being a brutal, murderous dictator doesn't bother you more than an act of civil protest in which no one was injured pointing this out, I don't see how dialogue is possible.

Let alone "respectful" dialogue, as though one should feel the need to be "respectful" when talking about support for a mass-murdering dictator. 

This is in stark contrast to a woman in China who disappeared after throwing ink on an image of dictator Xi Jin-ping. These paint-throwers will probably face charges, but they won't disappear. They won't be executed. They won't be tortured. And other acts of civil disobedience might well go unpunished, as it is now something of a core tenet of Taiwanese democracy. The reason why Taiwan is more tolerant of this sort of protest? Well, because of the past pro-democracy protest actions of the sort of people who would throw red paint at a statue of a dictator to begin with. You have their ideological predecessors to thank for the fact that you have the right to speak out at all in Taiwan. Remember that next time someone is afraid a little red paint will "offend" people.

There are those who will also say "if we can act like this, the other side can deface statues too" - sure, they can. They did, to Yoichi Hatta's statue in southern Taiwan. But honestly, these actions don't happen in a vacuum: they are justified (or not) by historical facts. Those who would deface Chiang have recorded history on their side. Those who would deface Hatta do not, and their actions make them look like idiots. There is no moral equivalency between the two actions.

In fact, this isn't a matter of "opinion" - we have the facts. We know what he did. It's been public for some time, and new facts come to light all the time. There's no shading this - it's not "you see a 6 and I see a 9" - the records are there and there's no glossing over what he did. Those people are still dead, or their livelihoods (or mental health, in some cases) destroyed. We know he was a dictator because that word has a meaning, and he embodied it through actions that provably happened. That money is still in KMT coffers, we already know how most of it got there, and we can now finally count it.

This is all true whether or not you like, or would engage in, or "approve" of, this kind of civil disobedience. It's true whether or not you think civil disobedience is an important component of healthy democracy (it is, and if you don't think so, I think you're wrong, but at least one can have an opinion on that. It's an idea, not a fact.) Your "feelings" about some red paint don't really matter.

That's not an "opinion". That's not a "side". That's not "well we just see this issue differently". That's not "let's have a dialogue". It happened, we know it happened, and if you still think "dialogue" is necessary because you don't want to face facts, and you might be too "offended" by some paint (again - but not murder?) to engage in that "dialogue", or you want "respect" for the "perspective" that maybe Chiang was not a dictator or mass murderer because you don't think words mean things or past actions can be proven, then all I have for you is a big fat ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

...and a big ol' ball of red paint.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Like a Zen koan: a review of The Stolen Bicycle

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Qing-era map of Taiwan, coastal view. From Jerome Keating's The Mapping of Taiwan
(I literally just took a photo of the page)


I'm not sure what to make of The Stolen Bicycle, and I suspect that's exactly how Wu Ming-yi intended it.

I mean, I'm not even sure if the story follows linear time or not. The basic plot - the unnamed youngest son of a family whose father disappeared thinks he might be able to find his father if he can find the bicycle that went missing with him - does have something of a timeline. Nothing else does, nor is it meant to: because memories both individual and collective simply don't do that. That's what they are - scattered memories of scattered people, sometimes sharing with each other. To call them flashbacks would be reductive.

The thing is, not only does he find the bicycle fairly early on in the narrative - meaning that the story put forward in the synopsis is not the story at all, but the bicycle hadn't been stolen. His father had taken it when he left. And he had known that when he set out. Of course, that's the point. There are other stories: break-ups that lovers never quite get over, the story of elephants at the old Japanese zoo near Yuanshan and their march from Burma, a war photographer's ride down the Malayan peninsula on an old Japanese military bike. Past stories of stolen bicycles, at least one of which returned. Some stories conclude, some don't. People die or are damaged, some beyond repair. Others can be refurbished. The characters trudge on.

So what is the point? I don't think Wu intends to tell us: we are meant to meditate on this almost scrap-book like collection of memories, like journal entries, interspersed with notes on the history of bicycling and zoo animals and World War II in Taiwan, along with the occasional diagram. Like Shizuko's three-dimensional side-perspective map of the Taipei Zoo, you're not meant to see it as a treasure map to X or as a plot from a bird's eye view, but as though you are flying past it on a helicopter (or maybe approaching it from the Maokong gondola, which is explicitly referenced as not having been built yet when the map in question was drawn).

Or like those old maps of the Taiwan coast, that show the shore from the perspective they'd have approached it, from the beach back to the mountains which create the spiky horizon past which nothing can be seen.

I don't mean to imply that the book has no themes - although I've just spent several paragraphs waffling about without saying what they are. There is discussion of how lives, just like bicycles (or elephants) wear out with use: and those bicycles are like our beasts of burden. Some parts get rusty, others jammed, others fall apart, some parts need replacing. Some bicycles - like lives - completely crap out and are scrapped. Others, with tender care, can be refurbished. In Taiwan, the local bicycle industry started out by importing from Japan, then imitating it, then creating its own models.

There are butterflies - a fictionalized memory within a memory - linked to Taiwan's handicraft history (though I have never seen a "butterfly wing collage" myself). The more butterfly lives that are sacrificed, the more beautiful the result.

And there is World War II: a lot of lives were sacrificed in that. Was the result, when it comes to Taiwan, beautiful?



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I don't know how else to describe The Stolen Bicycle except in these scraps of thought, and I'm leaving a lot out (I still don't understand the scene that was either in a flooded basement or the bottom of a river, nor the relationship between fine craftsmanship and wild jungle animals - though I am sure there is one). I can't imagine it was meant to be any other way.

So if this review is a bit weird, forgive me. The book is a bit weird too.

I liked it, though. It rattles around in your head after reading, like a very long Zen koan. It's not meant to make perfect logical sense, I guess. It's Taiwan from a littoral view. It seems intent on pushing you to think in paradoxes, to reach a point where you can intuitively grasp an answer that is logically impossible.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Improve English education in Taiwan with this ONE WEIRD TRICK!

My work in Taiwan is dominated by adult students who ask for help with accent training. They need to do business with Koreans, Japanese, various speakers of Southeast Asian languages, Australians, Latinx people, Indians or various Europeans.

You see, all their teachers have been from an "Inner Circle" country (UK, Ireland, US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand). They are therefore most used to those accents, North American ones in particular. They might meet people with those accents, but for business, there is a real need to better understand other Englishes.

My life in Taiwan is unfortunately punctuated by people bloviating about how racism in the English learning industry is somehow acceptable because of "choice" or "the market" or something (their arguments don't make much sense, because they are constructed mostly to avoid confronting uncomfortable issues rather than as stand-alone opinions).

They might try to say that this is acceptable because of some sort of subjective "clarity" of certain accents, although of course how clear an accent is depends in great part on how exposed you are to it compared to other accents (these people are not exactly experts in second language acquisition).

Some pontificate on how it is preferable to be taught by a "native speaker", usually with a very poor understanding of second language acquisition or what being a "native" or "non-native" speaker might actually mean. There is even less recognition that many people in India, Singapore, Nigeria, the Philippines (and more) are, in fact, native speakers, let alone questioning why they aren't recognized as such.

(The answer is racism, by the way. But that's hard for Johnny McBackpacker to admit when it casts doubt on his strongly-held opinion that "the market" is the Fairest Arbiter Of Them All.)

My life in England is characterized by mostly non-native speaking classmates, all of whom are fluent in English, and all of whom know more about the pedagogy of how to teach English than the average Johnny McBackpacker.

Sure, they have accents. But many of them have the accents that my adult students say they need to better understand for their work. Every last one of them is qualified to teach in Taiwan, but many if not most would struggle to get hired here.

We talk about all sorts of things, not least of which is the idea of English as a lingua franca (ELF) or English as an international language (EIL). Most English learners speak regularly with other non-native speakers, some perhaps almost entirely so, especially if they are using English in business or academia.

Back in Taiwan, the consequences are not surprising - all that learning of English from Canadians, Brits and Americans (the so-called 'preferable' native speakers) has actually put those students who tell me they need help with accents at a disadvantage. They get to work and realize, oh, all that time I spent with Teacher Becky listening to dialogues between Tim and Karen, but I actually have to communicate with people who don't speak like Becky, Tim or Karen. I have to do business with Sandeep and Cheng and Fumiko and Nnedi and Abdurrahman and Lupa. 

Of course, most people making hiring decisions are not educators. Even if they realize that they are actually disadvantaging their learners by not providing the English education many instrumentally-motivated Taiwanese learners are likely to need, they don't care. "It's the market." And the market wants white - even Inner Circle "native speaker" teachers who aren't white struggle to get hired.

And I just can't help but think, if y'all hired fluent English-speaking teachers from around the world, ensuring that most learners through their time studying English were exposed to a variety of Englishes, maybe not so many adult learners would come to me asking for help, which I have trouble giving with my Standard American accent. Maybe if we hired more English teachers whose usage represented the speakers and Englishes our learners would actually be communicating with, we wouldn't have this problem.

I mean, I don't want to say "duh", but...duh?

Saturday, July 14, 2018

My latest for Ketagalan Media: an interview with Lord of Formosa author Joyce Bergvelt

When I do interviews, I don't just decide which items to include and edit responses for length. I don't even just shift topics around, although doing so is important to bring out something 'more' than just questions and answers. I also sit back and think about the responses and, in whole or at least in great part, what story they come together to tell.

This was relatively easy to do in my recent interview with Lord of Formosa author Joyce Bergvelt for Ketagalan Media.

In this case, they tell an entwined tale of the dangers of not knowing the history of one's own country and those who would seek to use that history to further their own political ends: in the case of the Dutch, a history of colonization (important now more than ever as right-wing nationalism creeps further into European politics, if it ever really left). In Taiwan, a history that includes invading forces from China.

So, while it might seem out-of-place to start with a narrative about the KMT's 12-point sun at the gate of Tainan's Koxinga shrine in an interview that has nothing to do with the KMT, if you read to the end, you'll see why it makes sense.

Friday, July 6, 2018

It is really hard to support Taiwan (Part 2)

So, I've tried to write before about certain issues I see in who Taiwan's 'friends' are in the US government, and why that's a problem. I didn't do a very good job, and I won't bother to link it. I do still think it's an issue though, so consider this my attempt at refining and re-articulating what I want to express.

Overall, it does seem clear that Taiwan has more bipartisan support in the US than you'd think at first glance. I've written about this before; more recently, you can see evidence of this in the fact that the Taiwan Travel Act was passed unanimously by the Foreign Affairs Committee and both houses. The situation is not as dire as it seems.

But, despite this, we do still seem to get the most vocal support predominantly (though not entirely) from conservatives, some of whom are otherwise just...dire people. The Taiwan Travel Act was Marco Rubio's bill. Ted Cruz likes us...so, uh, okay. Dana Rohrabacher has submitted a resolution for formal US-Taiwan ties, which of course I heartily support.

Note above that I said "conservatives", not "Republicans" (though they are that too) - that's intentional. I'm sure what I'll say below will be dismissed as "tribalist" or "partisan", so I want to make it very clear that this isn't about parties or tribes: it's about values. If a dodgy Democrat (and they do exist - I'm not a huge fan of Andrew Cuomo for example) or an upstanding Republican (I don't have many problems with, say, Susan Collins although we don't agree on everything) were to show support for Taiwan, I'd judge them on their values and history of elected service, not their party.

I also understand the importance of taking help where we can get it: I may not like it, but in Taiwan's position I can't get behind abandoning the few people who have actually spoken up for us, while those I'd like to see in our court have, frankly, failed to live up to the universal values they claim to support.

With that in mind, I don't think I have to list the many ways in which people like Rubio, Cruz and Rohrabacher are, in almost every other respect, horrible. (I say "almost" very intentionally. Cruz occasionally stands up for what he thinks is right, Rubio is a big supporter of Hong Kong's political freedom, and Rohrabacher is pro-weed, which has all sorts of race implications that people don't always think about: people of color are far more likely to be incarcerated over a marijuana-related drug violation than white people, with the discrepancy not explained by rates of use).

From being anti-choice (and comfortable, therefore, with condemning more women to death as anti-choice policies only lead to fewer safe abortions) to climate change skeptics, to not supporting marriage equality, our allies on Taiwan are not good people. Period. The sort of world they want to build is one in which a huge swath of Taiwan ends up underwater, and on other issues such as marriage equality, a woman's right to bodily autonomy and health care access (and more - this is just a shortlist), I worry that the sort of Taiwan they would like to see would not be the one that other independence advocates like myself (and many others, including most young Taiwanese) hope to build.

That shouldn't matter - after all, they don't have any say over Taiwan's internal governance, but it still makes it difficult to support Taiwan for a few reasons. I find it unfair, then, to dismiss these concerns as mere partisanism or tribalism.

The biggest one is that liberal pro-Taiwan American citizens don't have many choices in terms of voting for pro-Taiwan candidates (this is why I haven't mentioned people like John Bolton, and am sticking to people one might actually see on a ballot). It's not a huge problem for me as a New Yorker (Chuck Schumer signed the letter summarized in the first link in this post; Kirsten Gillibrand studied in China and Taiwan so while I worry that she might be too forgiving of China, at least she doesn't lack basic knowledge of the issue, and nobody who runs for Congress in my district seems to have anything to do with Taiwan regardless of party), but it is a problem for many others. What do you do if you're a pro-Taiwan liberal, for example, and your choices are pro-Taiwan Ted Cruz or a not-so-pro-Taiwan challenger who is better than Cruz in every other way? Or your choice is between pro-Taiwan Dana Rohrabacher and his not-as-pro-Taiwan challenger, who again is better than Rohrabacher on every other platform?

Another problem is that it is starting to feel as though any critique of this issue among pro-Taiwan advocates initiates an immediate, reflexive and frankly unfair pushback of "that's PARTISAN!", which - while I know this isn't the case for many (most!) people on our side, kind of lends the whole endeavor of fighting for Taiwan a veneer of being far too closely tied with the conservative agenda in the US.

I know, for example, that FAPA is not "overly" focused on Republican lawmakers; they'll talk to whoever is in power. I have no issue with them. However, they are widely seen* as being in bed with the American Right, and have done little to dispel that notion. I would imagine that Taiwan independence advocates do - and are willing, even happy - to talk to the left, but the public perception seems to be that they don't make an effort (rather than that the left has failed Taiwan), and that is a problem. Of optics, but a problem nonetheless. That concerns me.

And, of course, the issue I so inarticulately brought up in the past: that it's easier to compartmentalize when talking to odious people in government as a man. The people you are discussing Taiwan with aren't trying to take away your ability to access important health care (forget even the abortion issue: they want to shut down Planned Parenthood which does a lot more than perform abortions. For some women it's the only way they have access to regular pap smears, STD tests and birth control.) They aren't trying to oppress you. You have the privilege of compartmentalization. I don't. I can't talk to them, and therefore I cannot be more deeply involved in the Taiwan independence movement in that way.

In fact, it is a privilege to be able to do so. It is a privilege to have the ability to treat every cog in the American power machine as a neutral actor who might help your cause, because your bodily autonomy is not on the line. For me, it's like knowing there are some men in power who would very much like to be Commanders and turn women like me into Handmaids, and being told to be nice to them, to approach them (or their office - same difference), to engage with them, maybe to even hope they are re-elected, because they might help you on another issue. To be told that if you support Taiwan, you can vote for people like them who will fight for recognition of Taiwan in the US government (something I have been told) - oh, but they want to turn you into a Handmaid.

And the answer there is a strong non-negotiable no to all of that. In fact, it is a privilege to be able to say yes, or even maybe.

This worries me, because it is not a great leap from "but that's PARTISAN!" to "if you can't be involved, that's your fault", when, frankly, it isn't. There is not a moral equivalency between their wish to oppress me and my insistence that I will not hold my tongue against people who both wield power and wish to oppress women. It's the fault of the men who hold these views.

Nobody has said this as of yet, and I know most wouldn't, but to be honest, some days I feel like it's inevitable that someone will. I suspect that if it comes down to just a few votes between turning American women into Handmaids (or not), and the deciding votes are held by conservative pro-Taiwan candidates, that some (many?) who lobby for Taiwan will stay silent for the sake of Taiwan, because Taiwan allies winning seats is more important to them than women's rights.

And as a woman, I just can't support that. I love Taiwan, but I also have a vagina, and I cannot work with the same people who want to oppress me. I can't stay silent, and I do hope many friends of Taiwan lose their seats.

In other words, it's not "tribalist" or "partisan" when my actual bodily autonomy is at stake. It's about my bodily fucking autonomy, not a tribe or party.

This leads me to a final issue: with this tug-of-war between liberal values (which often leave women in the cold regardless) and fighting for Taiwan, and calls of "partisan!" and "tribal!" on one side and calls of "you're all sellout imperialists!" (or whatever) on the other, it is very hard to support Taiwan when everybody else who supports Taiwan seems to hate each other, the whole thing is a fishbowl, and when you bring up concerns about our 'friends' who are manifestly anti-woman as a woman, it's your turn to be the center of that fishbowl and everyone hating each other and whatever.

(For the record, I don't hate anybody, and those in Taiwan whom I dislike are not Taiwan advocates although some are pro-independence.)

I'm not suggesting we change anything per se - I don't see how we could reasonably and realistically keep up this fight if we ditch our allies, odious as they are (I've heard a few proposals and am sympathetic to some, but none that are actually workable). But, I am concerned that the privilege of treating everyone as a neutral potential ally is not fully understood, and that attempts to point this out are met with reflexive and unfair critiques of "partisanship" rather than a true attempt to understand that one only has the privilege of advocating in this way if one does not stand to lose as much from some of these people staying in power (and if you are a woman who stands to lose, that it can be extremely stressful to join the fight anyway, or to decide not to do so because you simply can't abide your would-be oppressors.)

OOH! OOH! BONUS PROBLEMS
That Taiwan advocates don't seem to make much of an attempt to reach out to the general electorate at all is another problem - publishing only in outlets that people who are already knowledgeable about Taiwan read (like the Taipei Times), or niche publications that the average Western liberal wouldn't read regularly. I know it's difficult to get published more widely - I'll admit that I've tried and failed - but we have to. We're not reaching the voters. One can find non-Palestinians who care about Palestine, and non-Tibetans who care about Tibet among the electorate of any Western democracy, but it is rare indeed to meet a pro-Taiwan person who has no personal connection to Taiwan.

We need to change that, and we aren't trying.

Finally, I worry. What happens if a "friend of Taiwan" then slips into his speeches some sort of appeal to ensure marriage equality never becomes a reality, or supports people like Katy Faust returning and meddling in our business? What happens if links between some pro-Taiwan conservatives and the  American Christian right groups that are trying to influence the future of marriage equality in Taiwan are found to exist? (Sounds crazy, but they are on the same side in the anti-equality fight.)

This whole constellation of issues which are interrelated (although their relationships might not seem initially clear) are why, yet again, it is really, really, very hard to support Taiwan.


*I'm using past tense here because it's important to me to protect the identities of the people I know who have said exactly this. I won't name them and as this is a blog, not a journalistic endeavor, I don't have to. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

It is really hard to support Taiwan (Part 1)

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Greetings from England!

You probably won't be hearing as much from me as I start the 2nd semester of my Master's program, but I'll pop in from time to time. Don't expect me to be on top of the news cycle - but then, I had always intended for Lao Ren Cha to be about commentary, not original reporting, so I'm not sure it matters.

Anyway, despite having a few postcard reminders of Taiwan on the bulletin board in my less-than-stellar dorm room, I have to say, domestic news over the past few months has not been making it easy to love the country.

I could cite many stories to make my case, but I'll stick with two. The first is reminder we seem to periodically need that the Taiwanese fishing industry goes beyond deeply unethical and straight into 'human rights abuses' and 'slavery'. Yes, slavery. To the point that I don't each much seafood in Taiwan anymore. I am sure there are other ways I consume that uphold exploitative systems which I'd be horrified to know more about, but I am now so hyper-aware of how fishing companies operate in Taiwan that I've lost my taste for seafood in particular.

The other one is the more recent news that Taiwan is essentially complicit in Australian human rights abuses, by agreeing to give medical care to refugees in detention on Nauru so as to ensure they never set foot on the Australian mainland. Of course those refugees need care, and they will be well cared-for in Taiwan, but the purpose is to make it impossible for them to access the Australian court system as refugees who do have the right to apply for asylum. This is unacceptable on the part of Australia, and Taiwan is facilitating this flagrant flouting of human rights.

And, of course, Taiwan itself talks big about caring about refugees, but in fact doesn't really accept them (there is no provision for the granting of asylum or refugee status according to that Taiwan Sentinel link, corroborated here). There are people who have refugee-like status in Taiwan, but...well, it's complicated. Although Taiwan provides some assistance to refugees abroad, this still means that President Tsai's claim that Taiwanese are 'empathetic to refugees' reads like an Asian version of "thoughts and prayers".

So not only are we not taking in refugees ourselves, we're also helping other countries avoid their obligations to consider applications for asylum by ensuring those refugees never have a chance to apply. Taiwan's actual treatment of refugees is like turd sauce on a turd burger, with the aid we do offer being a pretty okay pickle that nevertheless does not improve the giant turd entree we plop down at the international table.

The thing about advocating for Taiwanese de jure, recognized independence as Taiwan (not the Republic of China) is that a huge part of my most convincing arguments rest on what an exemplary country Taiwan is. I talk of people I know who were sent to Taiwan for work, and later found the country so much to their liking that they chose to return as retirees. I speak of a vibrant history of social movements. I speak of how Taiwan insisted on democracy for itself, and won. I speak of friendly - no, not just friendly, but kind - people I know who have become local friends, in a world where many foreign residents struggle to forge truly local connections. I speak of how, although there is room to improve, Taiwan has had, and continues to have, some of the most robust LGBT and women's rights movements in Asia. How in many ways, in the way its government is modeled, it looks to the liberal democratic West and is on the forefront of the fight against totalitarianism. I speak of how, in contrast to China, Taiwan does recognize human rights and there are mechanisms in place to ensure people can access them.

All of that is true, but I have trouble maintaining with a straight face that Taiwan is such an exemplary place, a society of kind people with profound respect for human rights within the framework of a successful democracy when, to be frank, they pull shit like this.

It is really, really, really hard to fight for Taiwan when I know what the seedy underbelly of Taiwan looks like, and when it comes to fishing boat slaves and human rights abuses (and let's not forget abuse of domestic workers, sexual and otherwise).

Fighting for Taiwan isn't just about fighting for independence. What does independence even mean if the country we are trying to build is so deeply troubled? It starts to feel like empty, jingoistic nationalism. Taiwan for what exactly? Taiwan for slavers and rapists? Independence for the sake of independence, nevermind anything else? I can't accept that. We must discuss as well how to create a better Taiwan, so that an independent Taiwan will be one to continue to support.

And yet, here I am, still advocating for Taiwan in whatever way I can. I still talk to my classmates, who have no reason to care, about why Taiwan matters. And it does matter, although it can be hard to see that sometimes.

While we have to talk about building a better country at home, I am reminded that every country has flaws. I do what I can to fight for American democracy in the face of powers that would like to see it disappear (including China), despite knowing full well that the US is a deeply problematic place - from the streets not being safe for women and people of color all the way to the selfishness of our foreign policy and all the nutters and religious freaks and sexists and racists and exploitative rich business jerks in between. I'll still stand up for making the US a better place, and I won't say it's not worthwhile. I'll help friends in trouble and refrain from judgement, even if I know their own flaws helped create the situation in which they needed a hand, because we're all imperfect.

I suppose I hope they judge Taiwan fairly, as they would their own country. Americans don't generally read about, say, how communities of color are afraid of the police because their men and women are disproportionately killed and then say "oh well we should just let China and Russia turn us into a dictatorship captained by a stupid orange puppet because nothing is worth anything", so I would ask them to apply the same level of complexity to thoughts on Taiwan, because it's easy to make sweeping generalizations and form poor judgments from them when you don't really know a place.

Taiwan is imperfect too - that doesn't mean it's not worth fighting for. But we might sometimes have to incorporate this plea for complex judgments into the arguments we put forward.

But, damn, it's sure hard to make the case sometimes, when you're discussing the country you call home with people, and not knowing if you should be frank that it is indeed rife with problems just like everywhere else, or hope they never come across the relevant reading material and in light of that information, dismiss everything you've said (I've seen it happen). Or, if they do, that they weigh it against the case you made and understand that every country is flawed.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Every single woman has feared for their life around a man - in Taiwan, or anywhere.

Hold up while I relate two personal stories in service of a larger point.

Years ago, before I married, I went out on a date. I didn't know the guy very well, but felt relatively safe meeting him in public. As I often did, I planned a later meet-up with friends so there'd be a clear end-time to the date, no matter how well we got along.

Conversation flowed, there was maybe a small spark - but I hadn't liked the somewhat insistent way he'd asked for the date (yet was too young to know that really ought to mean an immediate rejection). Despite myself, I kind of liked him and thought I'd see him again, even though I knew straightaway our life goals were not compatible (I was going to be returning to Asia at some point in the middle future; he was Asian, but had no interest in this.)

I was young and stupid enough to think it would be safe to take him up on the offer to drive me to my meet-up with friends rather than taking the Metro and being a little late.

He drove a little too fast through DC. I was about to say something when he started asking me which streets we were passing and where he should stop, and I couldn't answer him because he was going so fast I couldn't read the street signs. I said as much and he snapped at me: I don't remember what he said, because I was so taken aback with how suddenly his personality had turned, and how inappropriate it was to snap at someone for that reason. He asked me again which street we'd passed, I said again that I didn't know because he was driving too fast for me to read. He sped up and snapped at me again for 'telling him how to drive', at which point I finally found my voice again, and said "stop here", even though we weren't there yet.

He didn't. He went even faster. I said, 'if you don't stop now I'm getting out at the next red light'. I almost added '...and calling the cops', though I knew it wouldn't have done any good. He came to an abrupt halt and waved me out of the car without a word.

I was still several blocks from my destination, but I felt like my life depended on my not being in that car anymore. Later he sent me a text message calling me a 'psycho bitch', and of course I never contacted or saw him again.

It wouldn't be the last time I was attacked for criticizing, disagreeing or rejecting a man, however. Not long after that I met a guy at a bar. He was visiting from a city a few hours away, but after a few effervescent chat sessions, he said he'd be back in town one weekend. Two days before, I was about to buy us tickets to something and told him so, when he said in fact he'd decided he wasn't coming, because he should attend a job fair in his own city. When I decided I just didn't want to deal with that kind of distance dating - the kind where you don't even know the person well and never know if travel plans will be scuppered at the last minute - I said as much, that it wasn't about him, and maybe the next time one of us happened to be in the other's city we could meet as friends but we would not be dating.

Cue a long tirade about how I was a stupid fat slut psycho bitch (oh, there's those words again! I know this song!) who obviously has serious mental issues and will always be alone because I'm such a slutty fat bitch psycho (I guess his vocabulary wasn't as impressive as I was looking for in a partner anyway). Blah blah blah, bitch slut psycho fat, yadda yadda, mental problems slutty bitch fat psycho, fat mental psycho problems bitch...you know, like magnetic poetry for assholes.

I wonder if men have figured out that these words literally do not mean anything to women anymore, because their illocutionary force is merely men wanting us to know that we should never disagree, criticize or reject them for any reason. "Fat" doesn't mean "a doctor would say you are overweight". "Psycho" doesn't mean "I am genuinely concerned about your mental health". "Bitch" doesn't mean anything at all. They all mean "you criticized me and I don't like that waah."

That second guy was nothing: just words on a screen. I didn't even read most of them. The first one, though? He could have refused to stop the car. He could have grabbed my phone if I'd tried to call 911. He could have killed me. He'd probably be infuriated to hear me say that, but from my perspective, he could have. 

What's the difference between him and a guy who actually kills a woman for rejecting him?

Not as much as you'd like to think.

And what turns the man who is just words on a screen into the man who won't let a woman out of his speeding car? Not a lot.

What turns other exes (not just dates) of mine, who probably wouldn't even admit their sexism was a part of what broke us up, from casually sexist remarks into the kind of guy who does either of those things? Again, not much. 

So, when I read about a wave of murders in Taiwan by men against women (more now than when this story came out) - many of which are over women rejecting men - I do agree wholeheartedly that the issue is the normalization of violence in Taiwanese (and frankly, every) society. However, I don't immediately jump to "it's the media" or even that there are dissectable, removable, examinable 'causes' or 'roots' in society that can be excised while keeping society otherwise intact.

It's a whole system of beliefs that starts with very mild behavior - men talking over women, interrupting them, attacking them for speaking out, trying to tear them down when they stand publicly for a privilege and sense of entitlement many men don't realize they have. This escalates to acting as though they have primary decision-making powers in a relationship and can "allow" a woman to do or not do something, to that same sentiment in a family (that a male family member can "allow" a female one to do something or not), to controlling/manipulative behavior, to violence right up to murder.

Violence, then, isn't normalized in Taiwanese - and every - society. The whole spectrum of this type of men's behavior is. In this way, I agree with New Bloom: it's intrinsic to toxic masculinity. Not all masculinity is toxic - my husband and male friends are plenty masculine without ever acting like this, and it is possible to raise boys into men who don't act this way - but it is normalized as male behavior for a vast swath, if not the majority, of men. The vast majority of men are not murderers, but this behavior is on one end of a spectrum with a very deadly other end. And it's so normal that women who want something better spend ages dating man after man who displays some of the milder behavior, often to simply compromise and stick with a guy who is only kind of mansplainy or kind of talks over her, or is nice to her but kind of an asshole to other women.

And every man who lets other men get away with it, or holds women to far higher standards than he does other men, is a part of the problem. 

(I am sure some dipclown is going to distort this argument into "mansplaining = murder!", but that is of course not what I mean. Let me make that clear now, although it won't matter to the trolls.)

What I'm trying to say is, the media in Taiwan is sexist, but their so-called 'reporting' and other commentary isn't what drives this. Sexism in society drives sexist media. It's the other way around. People watch because it's that combination of unacceptable yet already normalized - they don't normalize it because of what they watch.

And the 'wave' of murders...I'm not even sure it's really a wave. Men murdering women seems to have been a pretty regular thing in Taiwan in the past: the only difference I really see now is that people are talking about it more, and the stories get a little more airtime. (In this way it reminds me of India: everyone seems to think India is dangerous "now". But frankly, the crimes which make international news now don't seem to point to an actual uptick in violence against women, though I wouldn't be surprised, with the sweep of male entitlement that seems to always ride along with voting in a religious fundamentalist/nationalist government like the BJP - or Republicans in the US - if there actually was one. It just seems like problems that have always been there in India are finally getting more media time, and more discussion.)

Although Taiwanese media has many, many (many) problems and faults, and media coverage in Taiwan is without a doubt sexist, that society is discussing these types of murders more - and they are getting more media time - in Taiwan isn't one of them.

And we can't just 'find the root causes' of male-on-female violence in Taiwanese society and reflect on them, as though they can be destroyed as something separate from the whole. They are the whole, and trying to cut a surgical incision that takes out only the violence won't work.

That will still leave all the men who shut women out, who talk over them, who are so sensitive that they can neither bear to be criticized by a woman nor criticized in any way that implies, despite being otherwise good men, that they, too, carry some of these traits. It leaves all the ones who write mental fat psycho problems bitch slut slutty bitch problems fat slut bitch psycho mental (or whatever) to women who reject them, who won't let them out of cars, who follow them home and wait outside their apartments for them (as happened to a friend of mine in Taiwan).

In short, it requires upheaval of an entire social order.

I could go in here about patriarchal blah-blah Confucian society blah-blah Asian Beliefs blah-blah-whatever, but I won't. It wasn't that long ago that Western nations had just as much patriarchy, if not more so, and in many cases they haven't actually improved far beyond Taiwan. In my mother's own lifetime birth control was difficult to get in the US, let alone an abortion. Hell, a bank account in a woman's own name was hard to get, let alone a credit line! Marital rape was legal in the US until frighteningly recently. It wasn't that long ago that domestic violence was not necessarily grounds for divorce. Let's not pretend we are somehow perfect or untainted.

So I don't mean to dump only on Taiwan - this is a global problem, and the night I feared for my life was in the US (I have feared for my life on other occasions - notably, once, in India - but they weren't the result of a date gone wrong or my 'rejecting' a man). And I don't mean to say that all of Taiwanese culture must change to fit my Feminazi SJW Penis-Mutilating Manhater Agenda. A pretty awesome Taiwanese society - or any society - can be re-imagined and move forward on more egalitarian foundations.

But first, we have to admit to ourselves that the current foundations are rotten, and always have been.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Light News Petiscos and Wine

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Greetings from Coimbra! Their university is great except they have a Confucius Institute. But the building is well-marked and I kind of spat at it, so...that accomplished nothing but felt good. 



Hello from Portugal, where we are traveling for a bit before I take up my 2nd semester at Exeter. Because I’m on the road, I won’t be keeping up much of a regular blogging schedule. But, here are a few takes for you - perhaps a bit behind the news cycle but whatever - I’ll try to keep them quick. I have wine to drink and lots of it. Also, port.

We’re not really getting beyond the tourist hotspots, which a few years ago I’d say was a shame. And, in fact, I’d love to have the time to explore the lesser-known gems of the country. But, as I grow older and travel more, I grow more at peace with staying on something like a tourist circuit while abroad, unless I have good reason to depart from it. I don’t have a special connection to the countries I visit other than (I hope) helping their economies with my well-spent tourist dollars, zero dollars of which go to buying cheap trinkets in souvenir shops, so what connection would I have to a regular neighborhood of no particular interest to travelers? Trying to pretend the local cafe or restaurant, the local park, the local place of worship has any meaning for me as an outsider feels cheap, like a debased way of seeming like I’m better than a regular tourist, which of course I am not. You build connection by returning to places frequently over time, which as a traveler I cannot do.

That’s not to say I never have a reason to go out of my way: in Greece we traveled far beyond the tourist center of Athens, to seek out the church where my great grandfather had worked, and which my grandfather had attended as a child. We had coffee from the local shop and walked around the local streets, and had good reason to: my ancestors had lived in that neighborhood for many years. It goes without saying that a good restaurant recommendation will get me to go anywhere.

And, of course, Taiwan is no longer ‘abroad’, it’s home. That’s different. I have connections there. 

All that to say, yes I’m just going to Lisbon, Sintra, Coimbra and Porto, but I’m okay with that. 

Anyway, there’s a hot take for you. Here’s another - let's talk AIT. 

I don’t know what to say about the new AIT opening - some people say it’s a sign of ‘upgraded relations’. Others write ludicrous headlines (“angering China”? I'd say "eat me" but CNN is clearly chowing down on something way meatier) Still others say it doesn’t mean much, which seems like it could be the case given that the US sent no-one important to attend. Personally? I think it’s just as confused and schizophrenic as US policy on Taiwan has always seemed - even if, officially, it is clearer (and more pro-Taiwan) than people think. We want to build a big office in Taiwan! But we don’t want to draw attention to it! We care about Taiwan relations! But we don’t want to talk about that! It’s the same old dance - he loves me, he loves me not. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Though if you really want to know, at the end of the day, what those who matter in the US think of Taiwan, skip the new AIT opening and look at who makes decisions about arms sales to Taiwan. 

Moving on. Korea. 

The Facebooks are ablaze with WHAT IT ALL MEANS!!! re: the Xi Jinping Marionette Spectacular I mean Trump-Xi oops Trump-Kim meeting. You already know what I think it means. Few, however, seem worried that China would surely seek to fill that void of regional influence - after all, better that the regional power in Asia be Asian, yes? Plenty of people are talking about how anything that gets US and US imperialism out of Asia must be a good thing.

I don’t know if those people like Chinese imperialism, or just aren’t aware it’s a thing (though I would guess it’s the latter). It’s an easy thing to overlook: it’s not fully realized yet and the CCP is trying hard to make sure it stays under everyone’s radar, whereas US imperialism - and all those bombs we drop to advance an agenda mostly beneficial to us - is well-known and more than fully-realized. It’s easy to criticize.

It’s even easier to criticize knowing that you can do so and you won’t get shot. Try criticizing Chinese expansionism in China and see how long you are not ‘disappeared’. That’s the key difference of course - both China and the US are primarily interested in what’s best for them, and despite what they say the US doesn’t really stand for either global democracy or human rights - but at least under a US-led system you can say so.

What worries me is that in the wake of WHAT IT ALL MEANS!!! is that until perhaps just today, not many people seemed to be talking about China at all. Even those otherwise criticizing Trump's performance. I am certain - and anyone else who is watching ought to be as well - that this was all manipulated to benefit China (before you accuse me of ‘anti-China hysteria’, remember that I live in Taiwan, a country China has said obliquely it will annex by force.) Not to sound like a tired cliche-ridden “China expert”, but isn’t the Art of War all about conquering through manipulation or a clever strategem, so that your opponent doesn’t even realize they’re losing, and only if that is impossible to use force? Well…

So who realizes that we’re losing? Not The Atlantic, who mentioned China 7 times in this piece (I counted) but didn't seem to be able to pinpoint who was both manipulating the show and who benefitted from it. Not the BBC, which I had on most of yesterday evening in Sintra. The National Post gets it, but nobody I know reads it. My preferred outlets continue to not understand Asia. South China Morning Post, for the first time since they became a CCP propaganda tool, seems to get it right. But nobody I know in the US regularly reads SCMP.

But, because the average US liberal or moderate doesn't read these outlets, this particular observation seems lost on them. Not a peep. You’d think China wasn't even a player. A lot of my smarter friends hadn’t even seemed to consider that they were (“Why a [fake] Chinese proverb for a Korea summit?” one friend asked. “Because Xi Jinping is running the show,” I replied, to their surprise - they’d been expecting I’d agree that this summit had nothing to do with China, because none of the media they read have mentioned it.)


And Hau “Muppetface” Lung-pin went to China to talk about his hope for "unification" because he’s a massive jerk-off, being all kinds of Mean Girl to Taipei mayoral incumbent Ko "Reminds Me Of My Dad" Wen-je. As in he jerks Chinese authorities off. Fine. What bothers me isn’t this - Hau’s gonna Hau - but that it won’t matter. The vast majority of Taiwanese not only don’t agree with Hau’s far-right jerk-offery, they vehemently disagree with it.

But it doesn’t matter. Those who hate Hau (or even mildly dislike him, or think he looks like a Muppet but isn’t as smart as one - I don’t mean the Muppet characters, I mean the actual cloth Muppets are made of) are gonna find him odious anyway. Blue voters who watch blue media will either not know he said this - because the media they watch won’t report it - or assume he meant something milder, or defend it saying it’s his “personal views” which he is entitled to (and he is, but that doesn’t make him less of a jerk-off who’s dumber than a scrap of fake fur with google-eyes). Why would they assume this? Because if the media they watch does report it, this is the commentary they will offer, which people will swallow.

And nobody who has a message to get out to those who aren't listening is either trying, or able to get their attention, whether that's in Taiwan or the US. And the blue voters will vote blue and the Americans will talk about Korea as though it wasn't a massive back-door win for China, and we're all going to die.

And so it goes.

And if you’re feeling low,
Stuck in some bardo
Why, even I know the solution
Love, music, wine
And revolution!

It’s time for wine. 

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Brendan is happier than he looks in this, he just...does this for cameras? I dunno. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Racism in teacher hiring provokes outrage, but sexism doesn't

I'm sure you're all familiar with Facebook Post Seen 'Round Taiwan, in which a kindergarten teacher at Kangchiao (a famous and extremely expensive international school in Taiwan) seeks substitutes, apologizing as they admit that the school won't consider any "black or dark-skinned" applicants.


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Outrage followed. Outrage. Fury. I admit, I also shared the post. With good reason - it's not only blatantly racist, but such discriminatory hiring practices are also illegal in Taiwan.  (Notably, so is working at a kindergarten as a foreigner at all - chances are the teacher isn't aware of this, but the school is and hires foreigners anyway.)

I wonder if any reputable news outlet has asked Kangchiao not just for a comment, not "do you discriminate?" but "what exactly was that teacher told?" and "how many non-white teachers do you currently have?"

But what bugs me just as much as all of that is this:

Over the years, I have taken to task many posters, recruitment agencies and schools for sexist job ads: you know, female teachers wanted, that sort of thing. I've pointed out how many 'better' schools have all male teaching staff. I've been personally attacked for this. I've been threatened ("I'm going to find out who you work for and tell them you're a feminazi", "I'm going to report you to immigration/the tax office because [insert bullshit reason here].") I've been kicked out of and banned from job groups for merely pointing out that an ad is illegal and standing my ground when challenged on that. I've had people try to make the case that sexism in English teaching is okay for whatever (stupid) reasons - usually some tired fugue involving women being more "nurturing" or more professional jobs going to men because there are more "qualified" men, so diversity shouldn't be one facet of the hiring process.

At no point has an ad requesting a certain gender of teacher caused this much anger or made the news in any real way, despite it usually being more blatant than racism in hiring. Of course many if not most schools have racist hiring practices, but they will almost never advertise it openly. But they will advertise sexist hiring practices openly.

That's not to say the blatant racism in this ad shouldn't spark a furor, but that the sexism in other ads should. It's also illegal, it's also discriminatory, there's also no good reason for it, and it's also wrong.

There is no reason why, in a classroom or school situation, that gender should be a factor in hiring a teacher. Some of the most 'nurturing' teachers I know - the best with kids - are actually mostly male. The most dedicated Montessori teacher I have ever met is a man. I can rattle off half a dozen highly-qualified women who could easily teach higher-level classes (Business English, IELTS and the 'prestigious' buxibans) - and those are only the ones I know personally. There are obviously more. There is no reason for the teaching staff at these places to be almost entirely male.

Pretty much the only time I can justify considering gender in teacher hiring is if it is for one-on-one classes which will take place at either the teacher's or student's home. I can understand a female student feeling uncomfortable having a male teacher alone in her home or vice versa.

And yet, nothing - despite the fact that sexism in hiring is not only illegal, but also perpetuates harmful stereotypes (yo if you say I'm 'more nurturing' because I'm female, you'd better get yourself a good strong protective codpiece, buddy. I don't even like kids). It makes it harder for women who want to work with adults - say teaching Business English - to be taken seriously. It makes it harder for nurturing men who want to work with kids to earn parents' trust.

It perpetuates wage inequality as well: those 'nurturing' jobs working with children tend to pay a lot less, too. Surrogate-Mommy-Tracking women into them based on ludicrous notions that they're better suited for those lower-paid roles because they're female, and not bothering about better-paid teaching work being almost entirely done  by men leads to long-term wage gaps.

But nobody seems to be mad about that, and I'm stumped as to why. It's just as much a violation of the law. Every case made for violating the law comes down to "that's what paying customers want", but if what the students (or their parents) want is actually illegal and has nothing to do with who is actually best-suited and qualified to educating them or their children, it doesn't - or shouldn't - matter.

You know, though, about that ad. It doesn't matter either. It won't lead to any real change.

There's a lot swirling around about who said what and why which I won't get into, only to say that I have it on good authority that the problem here is not with the teacher who posted the ad.

The school, as reported in Taiwan News, claims it does not discriminate - but of course they have to say that. They seem to think the teacher "misunderstood" (according to another source) - though (and this is my interpretation here), anyone who has been in Taiwan long enough knows that "you misunderstood" is another way of saying "you embarrassed me/the organization by accurately reporting what I said or otherwise made clear, so now we have to pretend it was a 'misunderstanding' when we both know it wasn't."

And that's just it - nothing will change because if Kangchiao is in fact racist (I don't know for a fact that they are), they'll just try to be quieter or more subtle about it, to ensure that it never gets stated openly again. Even if Kangchiao is not racist, every other school that is (and there are a lot of them) will try to avoid this not by - duh - not being racist - but by trying to ensure that nobody outs them as racist.

The big outrage here as far as the racist buxiban industry is concerned isn't that there is racism in teacher hiring in Taiwan. It's that someone dared to say so openly.

I guess when it comes to sexism they're safe, as nobody seems willing to be outraged about that. And I'll continue to point it out, tell people it's illegal, and be threatened, shouted at and kicked out of groups for simply stating again and again that it's both illegal and wrong.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Lao Ren Cha on ICRT!

I was recently interviewed by ICRT about my work here at Lao Ren Cha and my views on, ideas for, and personal plans for my future in Taiwan. We talk about education, immigration, women’s movements, feminism, labor laws, international media coversge, being a Taiwan ally and more.

Have a listen here! 

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Firewalking For Beginners: my latest for Taiwan Scene

I'm back as a guest contributor to Taiwan Scene, this time writing about firewalking in Donggang...but not the way you think. It's actually about being a female traveler faced with sexist (yes, sexist) religious traditions, and having entirely the wrong response to them - something I can only admit now.

In any case, enjoy. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

It's like air: Tiananmen in Taipei, 2018

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Honestly, I feel the need to write about the Tiananmen Square memorial event held yesterday, June 4th not because I think I have anything unique to say about it that others couldn't, but because this year it felt so lightweight that if we don't note it down for the collective Internet memory, the event as a whole will just float away, as though it never happened. Which is, of course, exactly what the Communist Part of China wants. Nobody likes the world remembering massacres they perpetrated.

The event was mostly in Chinese, with a few speakers addressing the crowd in English. I would like to suggest here that the entire event should be bilingual, and next year's 30th anniversary event might actually make the news, so it would be smart to have translators ensuring all talks are available in English and Chinese. I can follow the Chinese, but I can imagine many foreigners in Taipei who'd be otherwise interested in attending might not, because it's not very exciting to hear speeches in a language you don't understand.

As usual, the event featured a number of speakers from a variety of activist groups across Asia, including recorded talks from Uighur activists, two speakers from Reporters Without Borders (based in Taipei) and a particularly electrifying speech by Vietnamese activist and Taipei resident Trinh Huu Long. Yu Mei-nu, Yibee Huang and Zheng Xiu-juan (Lee Ming-che's boss, although that sounds odd to say in English) were some of the Taiwanese speakers.

Zheng likened China's human rights abuses to its intractable pollution problem, saying that "human rights are like air" - when you're breathing comfortably you don't notice them, but when the pollution ratchets up to PM 2.5, you realize how vital clean air to breathe is, and suddenly you're suffocating. (I'm translating roughly from memory here).


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Zheng Xiu-juan (鄭秀娟) and Yibee Huang (黃怡碧)


There were also performances, including a memorable entrance by Taiwanese rapper Chang Jui-chuan (張睿銓), who sang one of his newer songs, Gin-a. The lyrics (in Taiwanese) discuss Taiwanese democracy movements and freedom fighters post-1949:

Killing after killing, jail after jail...
Hey kid, you must remember

Their blood and sweat, torment and sacrifice
Gave you the air you're breathing



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Empty chairs at empty tables



And that's just it - the 6/4 event, held every year, feels like a part of the air here in Taiwan. It just happens, everyone knows it happens, and they assume others will attend so they take it for granted. It's there, it's always there, maybe next year, someone will show up. I don't need to worry about it. Ugh, Monday night.

What you get, then, is an attendance rate that looks like it might have been less than 100 (but damn it, Ketagalan Media made the effort. We showed up.) Which, again, is exactly what the CCP wants - for us to forget.

In 2014 this event was huge, with camera lights stretching back into the distance and prominent Taiwanese activists showed up - including Sunflowers fresh off the high of electrifying society and about to watch the tsunami they started wash across the 2014 elections. We thought we could change Asia. We thought it was within our grasp...and now there are empty chairs stretching back, and nobody seems to notice the air they're breathing.

Some say it doesn't matter, or is odd to hold in Taiwan, as China is a different country. It's true that China and Taiwan are two different nations. What happens in China affects Taiwan, though, and hosting memorial events so close to China and in venues where a number of Chinese are likely to walk by does make a difference, if a small one. We're on the front lines in the fight against China's encroaching territorial and authoritarian expansionism, so it means something to take a stand - even a small one - here.

In 2016 an entire group of Chinese tourists walked right past the event - this year, someone seems to have ensured that wouldn't happen again. For once, Dead Dictator Memorial Hall was completely devoid of Chinese tour groups and I doubt that was a coincidence. What I'm saying is, somebody noticed.

It also serves as a reminder that Taiwan is not China - we can and do hold these events here, and we do so freely and without fear. We talk about our history, as Chang does in Gin-A. We discuss our common cause, as democracy activists from across Asia did last night. What we do - let's not forget human rights abuses that happen in Taiwan - may not perfectly align with what we stand for, but we talk about it, and we have the space and air we need to work toward something better. In China you can't breathe at all.

But the people who died at Tiananmen 29 years ago are among those whose sacrifice may eventually give China the air it needs to breathe - though I grow less sure that it might happen in my lifetime. Fighters like Lee Ming-che, thrust into the national spotlight and just as quickly forgotten even in Taiwan, give Taiwan the air it needs to breathe. We give ourselves air and beat back the oppressive particulates trying to suffocate us, by standing up for what's right and refusing to forget the massacres of the past.

We must remember. We can't let this event float away on the air, as though it doesn't matter, or it doesn't matter for Taiwan. It absolutely does.

I mean, I get it - I'd like to feel totally safe knowing my freedom and guaranteed access to human rights was not in question. I'd like to sit on the couch and eat Doritos and not even worry about it, because I don't have to. It's tiring to keep showing up. Unfortunately, Taiwan really is on the front line, and we can't do that - we can't pretend it doesn't (or shouldn't) matter.

Next year is the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Mark your calendar now, make sure you're free, and show up.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Another kind of missionary

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A very "Chinese" Last Supper at the Catholic church in Yanshui, Tainan


Something that's been kind of in the back of my head for awhile, brought to the fore by my friend Donovan's interview with a missionary, and then the editorial some guy wrote about it. Now I'm writing about the editorial. Perhaps someone will write a piece about my blog post, and someone will tweet about that, and someone will write an editorial about that incendiary tweet, and then someone will Snapchat it or Tinder it or Grindr it or Blendr it or whatever the kids are doing these days, right up until Donovan covers the whole thing on ICRT again. The circle of life.

Anyway, friends and regular readers will know that I don't care for missionary work. I understand that many missionaries do other good things for communities, but I can't condone the 'I claim to respect your culture but I actually think this part of my culture is better and you should trash what you did before' attitude, or the idea that one does good works toward the ultimate goal of converting people. I say this even as I acknowledge that I can like and even respect individual people of good character who are missionaries.

In any case, what struck me about Mr. Angrypants here wasn't his views on missionary work which I largely agree with, but this:


Academic institutions must focus on the enhancement of logical, critical and independent thinking. Unfortunately, core values of the local culture here are not amenable, often even inimical to such essential educational goals.

The prevailing culture here is authoritarian and honors blind obedience, its education awards rote learning without understanding, it discourages young people from thinking for themselves and it punishes inquisitive minds.


The disingenuous educational paradigms are implemented in so many classrooms here on a daily basis. Therefore, there is no need in Taiwan of an additional input of uncritical thinking by religious groups that aim to hijack the minds of young people through the indoctrination of dubious contents.



I don't entirely disagree with this, though I don't necessarily think my education was that much better. But, it can't be denied that this is a large component of the educational system in Taiwan. Every time I start thinking "oh it's not that bad", I recall a story an adult student (and legit genius and overall cool person) once told me. As a student, he'd had to write three essays, each on one of Sun Yat-sen's Three Buzzwords Principles of the People. For the first two, he just restated what was in the textbook, and got perfect scores. For the third, he decided to offer his own insights as well (I've forgotten what they were, but I remember being impressed with his incisiveness), and got a C.

I don't even blame Taiwan for it too much: it's a holdover from authoritarian rule (dictators want populations that can read, write and do math, but not think too much) that sticks because it claims on the surface to have cultural legitimacy (I'll come back to this). Changing it would take a complex organized effort that considered parents, professional curriculum development, exams, administration and long-term teacher development. I understand why it's so slow to happen.

In short, he's got his tenses wrong. The prevailing culture in Taiwan was authoritarian, but is now democratic with a strong penchant for social movements and activism. The education system just hasn't gotten with the program.

I also suspect quite a few Westerners fundamentally misunderstand the historic role of education in many Asian cultures. Yes, it involves a great deal of memorization, especially of the "classics" (or math equations, or grammar patterns, or whatever). If you do this, you will pass. But historically there has also been a belief that to be truly 'educated' - to be a scholar - it's not enough to simply memorize. You have to take what you've learned and glean insights from it that you can apply to real-world situations. You have to be able to use it, extrapolate on it, consider it, do something with it. Otherwise, you might pass, but you're not a scholar.

Or as we call it in the West, critical thinking.

I'm not an advocate of this particular method of leading learners to criticality and inquisitiveness - it's outdated and just doesn't seem to work that well - but it's simply not true to say that educational traditions in Asia sought to suppress such traits.

But that's not where the real problem lies. This is:


There is another reason for concern. It is obvious that so many young people in Taiwan are literally clueless about major issues that move the world. Their life experience is minimal, their minds are soft and malleable, underdeveloped, easy to bend....

Often, young people are emotionally and intellectually insecure; they have never developed their own ideas about topics of general concern. They are lost when having to move within competitive networks of opinions, assertions and claims — the stuff the modern world is made of.


Therefore, they can be easily manipulated and “guided” by those who do have opinions, no matter whether they are good or bad.
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Asian Mary, Jesus and Joseph
(Frankly I'll take this over white supremacist blue-eyed blonde-haired Jesus)


I'm guessing he doesn't spend a lot of time around Taiwanese student activists. If you think they are easily manipulated or their opinions can be changed or bent, just ask Ma Ying-jiu how that worked out for him.

Seriously, this is one of the most offensive things I've ever read about Taiwan.

Mr. Dude turns a somewhat-valid criticism of the educational system in Taiwan into a narrative of ‘these poor dumb mindless Taiwanese are at the mercy of these missionaries’ as though they are hapless victims too stupid and thoughtless to run their own society.

You know, that society that I just noted above has a strong tradition of activism (nevermind that it used to be called 'rebellion')? The one with arguably the most successful democracy in Asia, some of the freest press in Asia if not the world, with a developed economy that they (not the dictatorship) built?

That society, apparently. According to him, it's full of morons who don't even know how to have opinions.

This literally makes me want to spit. While I don't pretend Taiwan is perfect - there are many issues here that deserve strong, if not vicious, criticism - in this particular way, I have to wonder if we're living in the same country. I mean, sure, I meet idiots here. Every country in the world has its thinkers, its average people and its, um, dimmer bulbs. Every country has its leaders, its normal people and its blind followers. But to just not see all the creativity and insight around him? What's up with that?

For every thicker-skulled person I meet, I also meet people like my student above, who risked a failing grade just to write what he really thought. I see students occupying...all sorts of things, or trying to. I see the student I had who envisioned his presentation as a series of interconnected three-dimensional cubes, in a really insightful way that I hadn't even considered as a potential mind map. I see all the great Taiwanese fiction I've read recently, the beautiful films, the students I tutored who came up with a way to safely and more easily carry water over long distances while using the movement of that water to charge a battery that could be used for electricity, the creatively-decorated cafes, the young people with ideas that they'll launch once they get the money.

I see that while the authoritarian-holdover educational system in Taiwan is accepted, it is not particularly well-liked. Most Taiwanese are well aware of the flaws, and it's entirely understandable that fixing them seems like an impossible effort (if you want to criticize this, fine, but go look at American public schools in underprivileged areas and come back and tell me you still think Western countries are 'better').

I see a country where the education system doesn't teach critical thinking, but plenty of people learned to think critically anyway.

So this guy thinks he has all the answers for how to make Taiwan better and if we’d just do what he says those poor, poor, POOR widdle Taiwanese wouldn’t be taken in by those evil big bad missionaries. Just listen to him, he’ll fix what’s wrong with Taiwan.

He knows how to make this foreign culture better, more thoughtful in ways he can relate to, more like his vision of what it should be like. Of course, without his brilliant insight Taiwan will be lost. Barbaric. Stuck in the past. Or something.

In other words, he's just another kind of missionary.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Book Review: Lord of Formosa

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It is a pleasure for a work of historical fiction to come out on an area of history I am particularly interested in (Taiwan, obviously). It is an even greater pleasure when that work of historical fiction is not only engaging, but generally accurate. Joyce Bergvelt's Lord of Formosa has earned both of these adjectives.

Lord of Formosa is essentially a biography of Koxinga (國姓爺 or 鄭成功), the 17th-century scholar/pirate/businessman/military leader/talented crazy dude, from his early life on the Japanese island of Hirado (off Nagasaki) with his Japanese mother, Tagawa Matsu to his upbringing at his father Zheng Zhilong's (鄭芝龍) estate in Fujian, followed by his rise as one of the most talented loyalist military leaders resisting the encroaching Manchu (Qing) conquerers to his conquest of the Dutch colony on Taiwan. It's interspersed with viewpoint chapters from the Dutch colonial officers as well as Koxinga's parents.

It tells the story, in short, of a man given the Imperial Surname (國姓爺) by a dying empire, a man given the title 'Success' (成功) who was, in the end, not all that successful.

The story itself is somewhat tragic: Koxinga fulfills what the novel depicts as his 'destiny' but pays for it dearly. He has to choose between remaining loyal to the collapsing Ming dynasty or to his father, and watches the devastation of his family at the hands of the Qing.

"He literally died of a broken heart," an acquaintance of mine noted.

But no, to hear historians tell it, he probably died of syphilis.

In this way, the thick novel is cinematic in scope, at times reading like a biopic. It would make an excellent film, and I can only hope someone will pick up the rights and do just that (as long as it's not a Chinese company hoping to use it as a propaganda vehicle for their government's aggressive territorial expansionism).

From the beginning, I was interested in how accurate Lord of Formosa really was. So, just after reading it, I picked up Tonio Andrade's Lost Colony, figuring it would be a good nonfiction counterpoint. I'm partway through that book now, and am surprised more by how much is accurate than the small details which are spun with more artistic license.

However, this isn't even the highlight of the book: the best part is simply how much fun it is to read. Despite being extremely busy, I read Lord of Formosa in three days, staying up late one evening to finish it. You know a book is good when it's 3am and you know you aren't going to get enough rest that night, but you just keep going because sleep won't happen anyway.

I also appreciated how forthright Bergvelt is with her characters' flaws. Zheng Zhilong is, to be frank, a total douchehole both in terms of his defection to the Qing and his treatment of his first wife. If his son Koxinga was any kind of hero, he was a deeply flawed one: often cruel and despotic, suffering from fits of uncontrollable rage which might have been brought about by the aforementioned syphilis. Of course, the syphilis would have been brought about by all the mostly-nonconsensual sex he was having.

What I'm trying to say is that Koxinga might have been brilliant, but he was also super rapey.

His regretting it later (in the novel's telling) doesn't change that. Oh, and like father, like son.

In fact, that Bergvelt successfully created a story that includes a variety of relevant, realistic female voices - not all of them kind, pure-hearted heroic martyrs - in a story and era that is so deeply, unrepentantly penis-driven (my masts are bigger than your masts - let us do naval warfare!) is a literary feat. While she could have done more with the housekeeper, Lady Yan and Koxinga's wife Cuiying, she does enough to show that behind every story of dueling dicks, there are women who also drive the plot. And yet, she doesn't shy away from exactly how those women are treated.

The Dutch, who are portrayed not entirely unsympathetically, still come across as stupid - not really understanding Asia or the goings-on in the colonies they ruled - as well as greedy and racist. This was historically accurate: they did consider Chinese men to be 'effeminate', not a fighting force that could vanquish their (smaller) military might. That's racist. They didn't care nearly as much about the welfare of the people on Formosa, be they indigenous or Hoklo, as they did their profits. This is not only historically accurate, but also racist. 

On the other hand, Koxinga was kind of racist too - believing he had the right to take Taiwan because most residents by that time were Chinese (mostly brought over as laborers by the Dutch, who worked them like serfs) and therefore Taiwan ought to be a part of China, is just a different way to be racist. He didn't 'liberate' Taiwan from colonizers - he was just another kind of colonizer.

If I have any criticism of Lord of Formosa, it's that that point could have been made more forcefully.

Bergvelt takes a few artistic liberties. There was a fortune-teller in Japan who was more of a plot device than real character. I'm not sure how many of the Hoklo characters on Formosa were real people (though at least two - Guo Huai-yi and He [Ting]-bin certainly are). It is not clear how Tagawa Matsu died, although Bergvelt's telling of it is plausible, or even likely. Koxinga is depicted as growing less rapey over time (but still, again, super rapey) due to the effect his mother's death has on him. I'm not sure this would have played out in quite that way in real life - more likely, he was incapable of comprehending that the sex he unilaterally decided to have with women who didn't resist per se but also didn't consent is just as rapey as what Qing soldiers were doing. In other words, he didn't stop being rapey - he was just another kind of rapist.

That said, Bergvelt is a talented writer, understanding seemingly innately where to hew to historical accuracy and where to apply a bit of soft focus or streamlining. The story moves forward when it needs to (although I would have liked to have seen more of Koxinga's childhood in China) and lingers where it needs to.

Whether you are into historical fiction, want an engaging read of a period of Taiwanese history in particular, or just like a good novel, I strongly recommend it.