Sunday, September 19, 2021

A case study in ignorance about Asia

Years ago, I came across an anecdote on a popular forum for foreigners in Taiwan, about how someone's family members in their home countries would ask the oddest things about life here -- think "do you have peanuts in Taiwan? If you don't have any peanuts there, we can send you some!" My own dearly departed grandmother once asked why I livd there at all, because "it's not a democracy!" This was in late 2006 -- she'd apparently not heard the news that Taiwan had democratized a decade previously.

These little stories illustrating Western ignorance about Asia don't mean much individually. After all, they're just anecdotes. I make no assumptions about any larger trends they might illustrate. But such anecdotes pop up often enough that perhaps it's worth exploring. I'd like to do that with a short case study -- truly, just something I came across and want to talk about.

Today, I woke up to this: 

 


There's a lot to be said here, especially about the hinky economics of this tweet. That's not exactly breaking news, however, so I'll leave it until the end. First, take a look at some of the replies:









(You can read all these under the original link -- I didn't feel like embedding it all, as too much code makes Blogger weird. This is because Blogger is garbage). 

It's just astounding though: there are one or two replies, including my own, which point out that Taiwan, not China, is the semiconductor dominator. 

But for the most part, people who are against "globalization" and "dependence on other countries" seem to think this dependence is entirely in China, because Ms. von der Leyen said "Asia" and apparently Asia is only China, and maybe Japan. And maybe South Korea if you like K-pop. This assumption also conveniently forgets that the biggest competitors for dominance in that industry are the USA, South Korea and Japan...not China. 

Another writer might take this opportunity to say that fearmongering about China is misplaced, and the result is unfair Sinophobia like this. Obviously, I am against Asian hate and would never advocate for discrimination against Chinese people. That shouldn't even need to be said. But highlighting the threat from the Chinese government? That's pretty much right on target. The CCP is actually evil, they are indeed a real threat to the world, and yes, they do genocide. Any country dependent on a highly necessary export from China, or something like tuition from Chinese students should indeed be worried -- and looking for ways to reduce such dependencies.

This, however, is mostly the result of ignorance. Asia is far away, and China is of course massive and does produce a huge amount of the world's products. So, people will assume when someone like van der Leyen says "Asia", they mean "China". And since China is "bad" (which its government truly is), international economic cooperation is therefore "bad" and that lends credence to the belief that globalization is always "bad". 

This sort of ignorance also means that Taiwan gets ignored. Would these replies, and others who would agree with them, be so angry about international trade if they knew that the largest producers of the best semiconductors were Asian democracies? Why would someone even need to write about "smashing the free world" if you are in fact trading with the free world, and your trade with that free world helps keep much of Asia free?

The liberal democracies of Asia do need international links if they're to withstand the direct threat from China. Taiwan is at the front line of this, as China threatens literal invasion, but South Korea and Japan are well aware of the threat, too, even if it's more figurative for them: China isn't looking to take over those countries directly, they want the modern version of economic tribute from vassal states. 

If you want to support the values of human rights and self-determination, and countries which at least attempt to implement these ideals make the best of the cutting-edge technology that you need, wouldn't the wiser course be to support them?

Is it not simply smarter to buy from countries whose governments are friendly to you, which embody values you also embody, as a way of supporting those countries? 

In fact, it actually helps China to try and undercut its neighbors in Asia. You make subpar chips (sorry Europe, but mostly you do) so you lose a tech advantage. These neighbor countries -- again, friendly democratic states which share your values and stand against China's increasingly aggressive attempts at Asian and global hegemony -- lose your business, which hurts them, and their ability to help you stand against the Communist Party of China. 

How is this in any way a smart strategy?

Engaging in trade with countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Japan is economically more efficient. Militarily, the possibility that you might have to engage with China is reduced because you're supporting all these friendly countries which help contain it. You get the best chips, Xi Jinping gets mad, democratic Asia has a better chance at continued economic prosperity. 

Why the everloving hell would you want to undercut this?

And how can we educate Europeans who assume all of this is about fighting China for dominance, when China does not dominate in semiconductors? How can it be made clearer that Europe's trading partners in Asia, in this particular industry, are not the bad guys? How can awareness of Taiwan be raised -- not only regarding the admirable way it's managed to blast the competition despite being a smaller country, ignored politically by much of the world, but also for its fight for recognition, and the ways in which this fight actually align with Europe's values and interests?

I don't know, but that entire reply section sure was disheartening. Please wake up, drink a nice cup of coffee, and read a damn book.

So, now let's talk janky economics.

Is this the best use of European resources -- to try to build up a 'home industry' in a sector where they lag so far behind? Do they stand any chance of catching up to, let alone surpassing, Asia's semiconductor dominance in a way that makes any economic sense at all? Or would this be a huge resource dump with very little result except perhaps some subpar, behind-the-times chips? Because honestly, when it comes to this sort of tech, countries like Taiwan are 2022 and I'm sorry but Europe is twenty-twenty who?

(That was a bad joke, but forgive me, for I am old.)

And sure, some people would scream that I'm a filthy neoliberal for even saying that. I don't really care, because I don't consider it a libertarian position so much as one that just makes sense. I'm not against building up domestic industry in any given country per se, but this is not exactly like saying "we import all our zippers from China and we should make zippers here so China can't cut off our zipper supply, also they do genocide". One can also make an argument that making zippers domestically isn't efficient, but I'd rather tolerate some inefficiency than support a genocide, so okay.

But these chips we're talking about -- look, I've actually spent time around the people who run these businesses, and I am literally not allowed to say much about that (and won't), so all I'll say is these chips ain't zippers. You need the absolute best on the market to be competitive, and the definition of "the best" is always changing. The chances of Europe actually producing cutting-edge chips fast enough to make all that money worth it is...honestly, I hate to be mean, but it's like Turkmenistan announcing they're going to spend their whole GDP on becoming the industry leader in augmented reality. 

Perhaps that's a bit unfair -- this isn't exactly breaking news, and Europe isn't Turkmenistan. But the overall point remains. From the Financial Times back in July:
 

The question facing the EU as it prepares to embark on this undertaking, however, is whether it ends up squandering large amounts of public money chasing geopolitical ambitions that may not be supported by industrial and market logic. While Europe has world-beating strengths in corners of the semiconductor supply chain, it lags far behind Asia in particular when it comes to making the highest-end chips.

Changing that picture, executives warn, will take years of effort and vast quantities of public money — at a time when governments in Asia and the US are also pouring tens of billions of dollars of subsidies into the sector.


One could argue that the fear here is that China will take over Taiwan, but it still makes more sense to simply support Taiwan, rather than make it easier for China by insisting on building your own mediocre crap, when Taiwan is capable of producing the best of the best. You could help support Taiwan by buying the best from them and recognizing all of the good that comes from doing so. 

Then your constituents, or reply guys, or whomever, might not have such preposterous ideas about how this is all a big fight with China, when it simply isn't.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Every argument in favor of keeping Chiang's statue in Dead Dictator Memorial Hall is disingenuous

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The Transitional Justice Commission has recently unveiled a plan to remove the statue of mass murderer Chiang Kai-shek from his personality cult "memorial hall". The main reason given for this is simple: it's not simply a memorial statue, rather, the entire complex acts more like a temple which directs you to worship the former dictator and architect of Taiwan's brutal White Terror. You can read all about it here

Honestly speaking, there should be little debate about this. The only nuanced critique I've heard so far has been Michael Turton's, pointing out that yes, the statue will go but the place names will probably remain, and the perpetrators will go unpunished.

I'm not saying debate or dissent should be banned, just that there is no good or sincere counter-argument -- the statue has to go. 

The square and park still have public utility as a large, open meeting space with gardens providing greenery and the square itself popular for concerts, protests or simply dance troupe rehearsals. I don't even think the blue-and-white color scheme is ugly. (I do think the National Concert Hall and Theater are less attractive, but are worth keeping as an architectural reminder of the time that the KMT forced foreign aesthetics on Taiwan).

But the statue? No. It's got to go. It should have happened years ago. There is no question now that Chiang was a brutal dictator more interested in using Taiwan -- and eating up its resources -- to "re-take the Mainland" than in any actual care for Taiwan itself. Statues are meant to honor people; they are not neutral conveyances of historical memory. Chiang deserves no honor, therefore, he deserves no statue.

Despite this, the proposal has infuriated a lot of people looking for reasons to be angry, with all the same arguments that always pop up when these sorts of things are discussed: that's cancelling history! (The comment thread on this is deeply entertaining and troubling.) We need the statue to remind us of the past! You can't prove that Chiang was a man with no merit! The government is acting like dictators themselves in trying to remove this statue of a dictator that everyone agrees was a dictator! You're offending all the people who fought for him and retreated to Taiwan!  This causes disunity when we should be united, we shouldn't demonize people who still respect a former dictator!



By now, this "debate" has played out so much that I shouldn't even have to cover the very obvious responses to it all. 

I am pretty sure people will remember Chiang Kai-shek without a statue in one of the most prominent parts of the city. He'll still be in history books and museum exhibits. There's a whole park dedicated to retired statues of him that you can go look at (or mock) if you really need a piece of bronze to help you remember. 

Statues have never been about "preserving history". Again, statues honor people. One does not need to prove he "has no merit" to prove he doesn't deserve a statue. Hitler was a pretty good painter, but there aren't any statues of him. Young Stalin was a stone-cold hottie, but his statues are mostly gone (I think one or two might still exist as museum pieces). Perhaps someone can argue Chiang did a single good thing for Taiwan, of his own volition -- that is, not pressured by outside forces -- because of some sincere care for Taiwan rather than his own selfish scheme to "re-take the Mainland", a plan in which Taiwan were never asked if they wanted to participate (mostly, they don't). I can't think of a single thing, but even if one could, on the scale of horrors to good deeds, the horrors clearly win. 

Why is the "erasing history" argument disingenuous? Because honestly, the people saying these things already know how such debates have played out elsewhere. They already know that people remember horrible dictators even after their statues are removed. They already know that, say, Stalin has not been "forgotten". And they already know that statues don't neutrally mark historical events: nobody thinks that we erect statues of famous people, good and bad, and then keep them there no matter what. Statues are honors, and they know this.

They are perfectly aware that such arguments hold no water, yet they make them anyway. The goal is not to make a good point, it's to manufacture anger. Or they've chosen a side that they think will elevate their political careers, and that side requires them to make obviously ridiculous arguments, knowing some percentage of people inclined to vote for their party will buy them.

When it is sincere, it's still disingenuous. Such people either think the brutalization of Taiwan was justified: that either Chiang still deserves praise for "keeping Taiwan from the Communists", or that the White Terror wasn't so bad, and perhaps even necessary. They know, however, that they can't win on actually praising Chiang, because the history on both of these counts is clear: the ROC did indeed win in Kinmen with a combination of luck and strategy, but nobody seriously -- or should I say nobody serious -- thinks that the PLA wouldn't have eventually taken Taiwan if the KMT hadn't convinced the US to stand by them in the 1950s. As for the "necessity" of the White Terror, we now know thanks to declassified documents and memoirs from the era that most of the people who suffered under it had either committed no crime, or guilty of actions that should never have been crimes in the first place. 

They know they won't win by admitting their tongues are raw from licking the memory of Chiang's boots, so instead they choose "historical preservation" instead, because it sounds like a legitimate point. But they also know that it's difficult to win an argument against a person who isn't sincere, because you spend time arguing that their points are wrong. But they already know that.

The KMT as mentioned initiatives such as land reform to show that Chiang is not a man with "no merit". Some praise land reform as a clear positive. It's far from clear, however, that that is actually true.

But it doesn't matter. Again, having some merit is not enough to get you a massive statue in a prominent downtown park, but the point is that it's just not a sincere argument. Even if land reform had been an unproblematic good, nobody erects a massive memorial hall for the guy who did land reform, especially if he also engaged in brutal killing sprees. Nobody also names entire districts, roads and other parks after him. 

This is obvious. The land reform touters do know how fatuous it sounds, but they make the argument anyway. 

Neither is the Tsai administration "acting like dictators". They were democratically elected by a population which, polls consistently show, does not identify as Chinese and does not want to fulfill Chiang's dearest with of "re-taking" any sort of "Mainland". One poll from 2017 exists saying that most disapprove of DPP actions on memorial Chiang junk, but that poll was sponsored by the KMT. That's hardly reliable. Transitional justice is a well-known global mechanism, widely accepted as part of a post-authoritarian democratic progression. Engaging in it is not "dictatorship".

People who decry any form of transitional justice as some new form of dictatorship are, yet again, perfectly aware that it is a democratic mechanism for dealing with past atrocities. They're not ignorant. This is intentional. 

As for "offending" those who fought for the ROC and retreated to Taiwan, I suppose there is some sincere belief here: when you've upended your entire life because you decided to fight for a certain government, to learn later that the very same government you were willing to give your life for in fact ran a brutal terror campaign for decades -- which you barely thought about because perhaps you were not affected -- well, I suppose it must hurt. 

It certainly is hard to tell Old Grandpa Ouyang that the guy he believed in, the guy he left China for, turned out to be a mass murderer. It probably hurts to truly believe for most of your life that pushing Chinese culture on a Taiwan you've "liberated" from Japanese imperialism was the right thing to do, only to hear  that the government you supported was so horrible that people think of the Japanese era fondly in comparison. (And yes, you do have to be pretty horrible to make the Japanese colonial era look good). 

However, I posit that where such reckoning is sincerely and personally difficult, it is also necessary. Grandpa Ouyang won't be around much longer, but his children and grandchildren will, and it helps neither them nor Taiwan to keep up the fiction that Chiang was a great man. At some point many of us have to reckon with the actions of our ancestors, but it doesn't mean we're defined by them. Only be recognizing this can one do better. It also doesn't mean every KMT refugee engaged in the horrors of the White Terror, even if quite a few helped enable it.

Besides, how is it okay to tiptoe around the feelings of a few old soldiers, when so many Taiwanese whose families were torn apart by Chiang and his minions have to put up with him in a big ol' worship-park downtown, with a hagiographic museum to boot? Do the painful memories of the actual victims not count, because it might offend the perpetrators or their enablers?

There's an element of obtuseness here too: the point these veterans and their descendants are trying to make isn't quite "Chiang was good enough to merit a statue", but rather, "removing him forces us to think about our and our ancestors' past actions, and that's painful so we don't want to do it." They are not quite the same thing.

That said, I think some of this 'offense' is performative as well: it's not hard to understand that one's ancestors might have behaved in sub-optimal ways (some more egregiously than others) while realizing that isn't a personal slight against you, now, unless you continue to perpetuate or defend their actions. Either they already know this, or they're choosing not to see it. 

In some cases, it's clear perpetuation: the KMT's position doesn't align with the majority of voters, and the DPP has already taken on the 'pro-Taiwan' mantle. They can't claim to be the great saviors of Taiwan, because now we know they weren't. So all they've really got left is identity: Chinese identity. To really dig one's heels into that, at some point, they have to start defending authoritarian symbols because those icons also symbolize the pro-Sinicization mindset they want to retain.

But you can't very well go around defending dictators, so you have to make up arguments like "he did one thing which some argue had some limited benefits, and that's good enough for a massive blue-and-white temple!" or "removing him is erasing history, all statues are merely history and don't have any other meaning!" or "you made Grandpa cry!" or "any movement on this topic amounts to its own authoritarianism!"

Calls that this is divisive at a time when Taiwan should be united are disingenuous as well. Yes, Taiwanese society should be united against the threat from China, which is very real. But the general public consensus on Taiwanese identity and its authoritarian past are fairly clear, and from what I've seen from the KMT, they're the ones being "divisive", which harms "unity". Perhaps they should stop demonizing the DPP to score political points by defending the placement of a statue that venerates a mass murderer. 

But come on, the people saying that transitional justice "demonizes" some people know what they are doing. They know perfectly well that crimes against humanity were indeed committed in Taiwan, and they know that those who actually carried them out will likely die before they ever face any consequences. They're aware that the orchestrator of these crimes was Chiang himself, and they know the KMT are the demonizers, not the demonized, and the one sowing disunity.

If they really wanted unity, they'd support efforts at transitional justice. They don't.

If they don't -- if they sincerely believe that the KMT attacks are justified but the DPP's are not, I wonder how it is they logic their way into thinking "unity" always comes at the cost of victims forgiving perpetrators, so the perpetrators' feelings aren't hurt.


Or the most laughable argument I've heard: it's popular with tourists so taking it down is the same as 'cancel culture' which will ruin the tourism industry! 

Who are these tourists? The Chinese tourists who are only allowed to come at the CCP's whim, using tour companies mostly owned by Chinese, who made Taiwan a noticeably worse place to live and travel as they'd buy up all the seats and crowd all the sites with all the ugly hotels and shopping malls built for them, and who only ever contributed a tiny percentage to Taiwan's economy, easily made up with tourists from elsewhere once the pandemic eases.

The use of "cancel" in a lot of these crocodile-tear performances is telling, however. Either disingenuous people are hearing this as some sort of online buzzword and applying it to anything they don't like ("disagreeing with me is cancel culture!"), or they're being directed to do so in a deliberate troll operation. It sounds too much like exactly what Western conservatives say to be a coincidence.

Regardless, it's all fake.

Yes, all of it. People know these arguments are bollocks, but they make them anyway to deliberately waste time and sow division. 

And if you've read all this and still think "no but taking away that giant statue really is erasing history!" you're being either obtuse or insincere.

You can decide which it is. I don't really care.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Does Taiwan already have the English teachers it needs? Yes and no.

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As a result of an online petition to allow foreign English teachers to enter Taiwan, some have said that Taiwan already has the teachers it needs -- basically, that there are plenty of locals with high enough English proficiency to teach, as well as immigrants from Southeast Asia who are often not ignored as potential teachers, stuck in lower-wage jobs despite potentially having strong English proficiency.





And a comment in response to this article (quick pull quote because eventually Focus Taiwan will archive it): 

The cram schools and the Foreign Teachers Coalition are appealing for inclusion in the categories of foreign nationals who recently received special permission to enter Taiwan, following those of international students, professors, and scholars, coalition member Oliver Ward told CNA Thursday.






I didn't black out the name because it's a public comment and doesn't say anything scandalous or wrong.

It's worth noting that other versions of this story say that most of the teachers who are waiting to enter are qualified teachers, and many have contracts to work in Taiwanese schools. They don't appear to be random foreigners, or at least not all of them are.

There's truth to the negative reactions, however, and ideologically I agree as well. Taiwan already has plenty of teachers who, from a language proficiency perspective, could potentially be English teachers. And yet, they're ignored in favor of hiring mostly white foreigners.

Native speakerism -- the idea, unsupported by research, that a "native speaker" teacher is preferable or better than a non-native speaker -- is a massive problem. First, it's difficult to even define "native speaker" with any sort of specificity or academic rigor. Someone who has been using English since childhood might not be proficient enough in it to teach it, and someone who learned it well after learning their first language(s) might be indistinguishable from a native speaker (including accent, though this is fairly rare, although I know two real life examples). There are so many accents and dialects as well that the mental picture that the term "native speaker" conjures up is, for most people, not in line with reality. 

Most professionals instead use the term "L1 user", but that doesn't change the core problem: when people say "native speaker" they often just mean a white person, or perhaps a white person who also happens to be from an English-speaking country. That's obviously racist, so employers obscure what they really mean. In some cases this racism affects what salary is offered, both to L1 users and non-native speaker teachers who are not white. Not all native speakerists are racists, but the latter use the same excuses of as the former to hide their racism.

If the industry could get over this and end racism and native speakerism in the profession, then yes, it would be easier to find and appropriately pay potential English teachers who are already here. Taiwan doesn't "need" to import a bunch of foreigners at higher pay than locals receive.

When it comes to the 'native speakers' who arrive in Taiwan with little or no experience and no training but still get hired, there's no reason why a suitably English-proficient person who is already in Taiwan -- local or foreign -- couldn't do the job just as well.

There is another aspect to consider, however. The ability to teach a foreign language goes beyond the ability to speak it. Teaching is itself a skill, a professional one. There's a reason why public school teachers need to go through fairly rigorous training before they can work.

The best teachers tend to have a combination of experience and training. If the experience is extremely valuable, and they learned from well-trained colleagues, in some cases these can be one and the same. I'd hesitate to say that's typical, but it is possible. 

If the base assumption is that any old English speaker (L1 user or not) can and should be hired to do these jobs, then I don't agree. From a personal perspective, I came here with experience but without training, and realized pretty quickly that this wasn't good enough. It took a few years to save up the money to get that training, and I improved based on good advice from coworkers before that, but the fact is, I would not hire the version of myself that arrived in Taiwan to teach. I certainly wouldn't hire her to do the job I do now. 

I do think there can be a role and an entry point for untrained and even inexperienced teachers that doesn't involve expensive coursework at the outset, before you've even decided you like the job enough to stay in it. There was an entry point for me, and I wouldn't want to deny that to potentially talented future teachers. However, let's assume that when we say "Taiwan needs teachers", we do mean experienced, trained, qualified teachers.

By that metric, honestly speaking, Taiwan probably does not already have the teachers it needs.

I can't offer much data, but I am a teacher trainer and most of my trainees are local. Fairly frequently, they return to our old Line groups to ask if anyone can refer a qualified candidate to their workplaces. If that's happening often -- and in my experience, it is -- then Taiwan needs more trained teachers. I also deliver CPD (continuing professional development) courses to Taiwanese public school teachers and occasionally university professors.

The employment rate of both seems to be fairly high, though I have to admit the hourly (and even annual) contracts most universities offer are substandard compared to other countries, especially in terms of pay and research opportunities compared to the qualifications required. This is a topic all on its own, though, and usually when we talk about "teachers needed", we mean in schools and buxibans.

If you are a licensed local English teacher looking for a public school job, you are probably not going to be looking for long. And yet schools are still hiring. Therefore, there likely are not enough local teachers, and the better argument to make is that the government should be encouraging more locals to get the training to become teachers (a process which would take years but pay real dividends), rather than saying Taiwan already has them. 

The training locals get to become English teachers is pretty good. It's not perfect, but training never is. However, in my CPD courses I've found them to be enthusiastic, knowledgeable, thoughtful and creative. If you're asking yourself why so many Taiwanese students graduate unable to speak English despite having highly-proficient and well-trained teachers, the answer is simple: the test is the tumor

The curriculum and testing requirements are preposterously out of date and extraordinarily onerous, to the point that teachers can't implement modern or cutting-edge pedagogy the way they'd like. The tests don't even really test language proficiency! It's a classic case of negative washback. It's a credit to teachers in Taiwan that they are already aware of this, although they may not have the power to change it (in fact, this is a common complaint I hear from them).

Changing this, too, might inspire more people to become teachers and improve language learning outcomes.

That leaves foreigners. There are plenty of good English speakers already in Taiwan, but not many who are experienced and trained teachers. Again, by that metric, Taiwan does not "already have" the English teachers it needs.

I doubt many foreigners already in Taiwan, whatever their background, are licensed English teachers who are just not working in schools. There may be a few, but almost certainly not enough to meet demand. Most are not going to enter local public school licensing programs, which take years. That leaves the international certification programs such as CELTA, CertTESOL and TYLEC, as well as local programs. These programs take a few months to complete, and can produce teachers with basic classroom competency, though most will need further guidance in their new jobs (that's how they were designed; it's not a curriculum flaw -- almost nobody can learn to be an amazing teacher in a few months). 

The good news is that most of these courses are now available in Taiwan, which wasn't the case when I moved here. I work with the people who got these courses started and am able to deliver sessions on them, so I like to think I play a very small part in making them possible.

One of the reasons I went into that area was because I felt that making teacher training more accessible locally would improve the overall quality of EFL teaching in Taiwan, and provide a route for people often discriminated against in the field to change perceptions about what it means to hire a good language teacher. And no, it's not fair that a local or non-Western foreigner might need to take a course to be seen as competitive against untrained Johnny Beer Money, but not having the courses available won't address that. Bringing more diversity to the profession might be a start.

The bad news is that they're very expensive, and in a time when people already in Taiwan are seeing their hours cut due to the pandemic, they might not be inclined or able to lay out that much money. For non-Western foreigners as well as Taiwanese who might be interested in these courses, the expense is likely an even greater barrier. 

The result is unfortunate: Taiwan has all the potential English teachers it needs already. But no, it doesn't quite have the end product: experienced, trained teachers.

There is an easy local solution if Taiwan needs qualified English teachers now: offer incentives and scholarships to locals and foreigners for professional training, or apprenticeship positions that lead to full-time teaching jobs, which would provide an alternative route to the classroom. Ensure that both locals who would like to teach English and foreigners who don't fit the "native speaker" so-called ideal still have job opportunities by encouraging employers to, well, not be racist and not hide behind "native speakerism" to avoid accountability for their actions. Start this change in public schools, because it's unlikely that buxiban owners will lead the way in making these changes.

And, of course, educate parents about what it really means to have a qualified language teacher for their children: a person with experience and training, who might even offer benefits over a white face -- such as a better ability to clarify grammar and lexis that they themselves had to learn -- and that a white foreigner at the head of a classroom isn't a very good guarantee of learning actually taking place.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Exciting Times and Bad Photography at the 2021 Bao'an Cultural Festival

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Every few years, I make an effort to attend one of the big temple festivals in Taipei: Qingshan Wang (which I was blogging about before it was cool and Freddy gave concerts at it), the Matsu parade out by Raohe Night Market, Baosheng Cultural Festival (and, when possible, its firewalking ceremony) the City God, to name a few. This year, Bao'an Temple's Baosheng Cultural Festival happened to fall on a day when I was free. 

This was in late April, before the outbreak in Taiwan, so it was safer to be in a crowd.

In the past, I tried to take beautiful photographs, the kind where it looks like it's just you and the performer (and maybe some spectators in the back), doing their thing. I'd nose my way around the other hobbyist (and some professional) photographers to try to get those shots, or find a spot along the parade route with better chances of success. 

This time, though, I just wanted to enjoy myself. In any case, I've noticed an uptick in interest in these events, which means more spectators -- though there was always a crowd -- and more photographers sticking their equipment right in front of everyone else. It was hot and muggy, I was tired, the mask requirement was necessary, but made it more stifling. I sweat a lot in masks. I just didn't have it in me.

I'm not complaining -- just about everyone there is a Taiwanese spectator enjoying their own cultural heritage and that's great. If it means my pictures aren't as well-composed, well...so be it. 

Looking through the photos now, however, I see something else. Something potentially better. There aren't many 'perfect shots', but there's a lot of local flavor, a lot of behind-the-scenes action, and a sense of what it's actually like to attend these festivals in the real world: hot, crowded, often hard to get a good view.  Some guy's head or lens jutting into your 'perfect shot'. Performers framed by crowds more than temple finery. A touch of chaos. The patina of old buildings. I realized I liked these photos: they captured the real experience better than a 'perfect shot' ever could. 

So I've decided to share them here as a kind of photo essay of what it's really like to attend a popular temple festival in Taiwan. Don't expect a VIP experience. Expect noise and crowds and jostling and some dude walking in front of you just as that performer executes a perfect jump. 

And that's great. 

(And yes, I do have a current affairs post coming up, it's just not ready yet). 

I won't bother captioning these; they mostly speak for themselves. My favorites include the young girl imitating the Eight Generals, the Eight Generals getting ready (and drinking sports drink), the interesting woodcarving shop we found along the route, the airplanes overhead, the smoking suona player...and the friendly soul who gave me that Matsu association baseball cap. 



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