Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Do people actually leave the United States because they're angry about politics?


One cold morning in 2004, I walked into work to find my colleagues congratulating each other. We're talking clinking coffee mugs, back pats, louder greetings ("HEY!"). I was crestfallen, but alone. In a financial services office, most employees voted Republican. Of course, the back-patters were the managers, the people with offices; as a twenty-something administrative assistant in a cubicle who took the bus to work and struggled to make rent, I most certainly had not. 

It wasn't just that the much-touted tax cuts hadn't helped me at all, or that the excellent Afghan restaurant in Georgetown closed despite hanging a huge American flag over the door; the new rah-rah-America-stop-the-Muslims ensured few customers. Of course it wasn't just about that one Afghan restaurant; it was a whole culture of bullying and distrustfulness that I could not stomach.

Having lived abroad before and already starting to feel that America being the richest country in the world did not necessarily equate to it being the best. There were other places I might live. Perhaps not China, where I'd recently lived. India didn't seem to have any job openings for me. Taiwan, however, looked intriguing.

I was frustrated with my coworkers but held my tongue. It seemed unprofessional, and besides, the one time I had implied I didn't agree with them my supervisor asked me not to talk about politics at work. 

"But they talk about politics," I pointed out.
"Yes but..."
"I mean, but the office is...most people are...there's no disagreement."
"So, it's okay to talk about politics here if you are a conservative because enough people in power agree with you, but if you are a liberal you shouldn't? That's blatantly unfair. Either it's okay for everyone, or no one. So maybe go talk to them."
"But they're senior managers."

She just sighed. It didn't matter. I was on my way out anyway.

Then the election came around and I lost my head all the back-patting. I snarked that I was gonna leave the US and go live somewhere else as soon as I could, because I was done with a country that would re-elect George W. Bush.

A manager laughed at me, and said I probably wouldn't. I wonder if he thought I simply couldn't afford it, or that I was young and naïve but soon I'd see that the US was the greatest country in the world, or something. A few months later, the same guy said "I thought you were planning to leave?"

"Yeah, it takes some time to plan these things." 

He walked away. I guess he didn't know what to say.

So I got a second job, started saving my cash, found a job at some cram school in Taipei, quit my job and left. 

* * * 

This story is true, but contains a massive lie of omission. 

I did indeed snark at a manager. I did leave after the 2004 election, though it took me until 2006 to make it happen. I was broke, after all. Bush-era American culture -- the culture that had helped close my favorite restaurant and "cancelled the Dixie Chicks" -- was one reason for that. But the truth is, I was kind of trolling my coworkers. I was annoyed with them, and if they thought I left only because I didn't like W (and they did), then that suited me just fine.

The whole truth is that I was coming to realize that I'd preferred being abroad, though I wasn't sure why (there was certainly a huge amount of unexamined white privilege in there. I apologize. It was 2004 and I wasn't even 25.) I was figuratively sick of exhaustingly inefficient public transit. I was literally sick from not seeing doctors when I should have about chronic back pain, because even with a good company insurance plan I still couldn't afford the co-pays. Even then, I was sick of people trying to expand rights for guns but reduce them for women, expand savings for the rich but reduce social welfare for those who needed it, and sick of how much the United States tolerated that -- encouraged it, even. I was sick of people pretending centrist (or generously, center-left) Democrats were "on the left" when that's never been true. 

There were also positives, too: I wanted to explore and understand a new culture, try living abroad for longer, practice Mandarin in a country where it's a lingua franca. 

So, do people actually leave the United States because they are angry about politics? 

Sometimes, yes. Or at least, that's one of the reasons more often than I think Americans in general want to accept. 

I had a list of reasons, but politics was definitely on it. I've met people for whom it played an even bigger role. Couldn't afford health care, one expat told me in those early years. It was actually cheaper to pack up my life and move to Taiwan than to pay what they wanted to charge me. Another cited fear of mass shootings, but also fear that the people Americans elect don't do a thing about it. She was sick of the thoughts and prayers. These issues aren't directly about Republicans or Democrats -- except when they are -- but they are indirectly political.

Often, people move for similar reasons to mine: politics is part of it, but a combination of not having any strong feeling about (or actively disliking) the USA, coupled with a desire to learn more about another culture or study a foreign language bring a bit of weight to the desire. Frankly, if someone isn't interested in learning a new language or living in a different culture, they probably won't move -- "politics" or not. 

For others, politics might give a nudge to all the other reasons they were interested in living abroad in the first place. 

Of course, let's not forget that these stories come from people with some mobility: they're native English speakers, they have whatever degree or job prospects they need to move abroad. They have the ability to save enough money to leave, and enough freedom from whatever other constraints might keep people in place to do it. Fundamentally, we're talking about a privileged group. Myself included, despite being broke as a joke when I actually left. 

Regardless, my experience picking up 16 years ago -- in part because of politics -- has me scratching my head at some current social media discourse. 

"What's stopping Americans from picking up and moving to Europe?" one massive Twitter thread asked recently, in the wake of Roe v. Wade.

The answers people gave for not leaving straight-up scrambled my brain. Seriously guys, some of them were bonkers.

Apparently, in the wake of many American women losing not just abortion rights but basic bodily autonomy, some big reasons for staying included "bigger cars", "big lawns", "better coffee" and "monolingualism" (America isn't actually monolingual, but alrighty). All of these, to me, are downsides of America -- yes, even the big lawns, because they create communities that necessitate driving and exclude anyone who won't drive, or can't for whatever reason -- and it only got more bizarre from there. Someone complained about beans on toast being bad. 

First of all, my grad school experience is screaming that beans on toast are not bad, if you add some nasty cheese slices and a squirt of hot sauce. But secondly, I will gladly eat beans on toast in a country where I can get a fucking abortion, Chadston. 

When you live in a place with a variety of food available, you can cook whatever you want in your own kitchen. It's not like you move to the UK and suddenly the Beans On Toast Police come to your house and ask why you are not making the legally required beans on toast. 

The same goes for coffee. Maybe you don't like tiny European coffees. Fine. Buy an American drip coffeemaker, a French press, a goddamn Turkish ibrik. Nobody cares. It's your house. You're not on tour. You aren't restricted to six overpriced cafes near the Eiffel Tower. When you actually live in a place you can make your own coffee any goddamn way you want, but crucially, you do not have to do your own abortion. Which is kind of the point. 

My final shock regarding these threads was how so few people brought up the obvious reason why many don't leave: work and visas. We were lucky that we wanted to live in a country that made it fairly easy to come here, and as teachers, we wanted to do the jobs that were available to us. Mostly, it's quite difficult getting a work or residency visa. It might be easier if you're privileged, but it's not just something you can do. You can't just move to Paris, get any old job and legally work at that job with no issues. Do people assume that you can? Is "I don't like the coffee" too big a barrier but "I literally cannot get a work visa approved" not?

Just as bad, however, were all the people saying it was silly to think about moving, or just dismissing it all with "eh, you won't move and you know it! Don't be childish!"

As someone who did move, I can say that this is also wrong. America isn't some unique paradise in comparison to a world where everyone walks around caked in mud with their thumb up their ass, or heaven forbid, drinks coffee you don't like.

Sixteen years in Taiwan and I do not feel like I've lost anything significant by moving here except for time with my family. People cite "freedom" as a reason to stay, but that's not a uniquely American thing. Taiwan is a free society, too. Or they cite "quality of life", but in this advanced Asian democracy, quality of life seems pretty similar to me, if not somewhat better thanks to the great healthcare. And that's not just me: though Taiwanese do leave (some percentage of any population is going to), my friends generally say they stay because they want to. 

Sure, I don't have a lawn in Taipei (though if I moved to the countryside, I might). But I can afford to see the doctor and even get an abortion if I need one. Taiwan has freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and a free press -- though that doesn't always equate to a high-quality press. Taiwan also has democratic government, good public transportation and offers a reasonably normal life in a reasonably safe country. I can walk down the street as a woman alone at any time of night and not worry about my safety. I've learned a language and built a career and community of good friends. It's not a lonely life. Finding food I like is not difficult; it helps that I enjoy local cuisine, but there are options if I'm feeling international, though that wasn't always the case. 

With the exception of good bagels and voting rights (for me specifically, as I'm not a citizen), I can't think of a single positive thing the US offers that Taiwan does not. There are negatives to life in Taiwan, but I doubt they'd be much different elsewhere.

In other words, the bad things about the USA seem uniquely bad by developed-economy standards. But the good things about it -- and there is some good! -- aren't particularly unique to it. 

There are indeed plenty of reasons to stay. Aside from the obvious barriers to leaving (not enough money, can't get a visa), people may have family obligations, jobs they actually want to keep, or their own personal reasons. Some may not think voting, donating and contacting one's representatives is sufficient activism, and want to stay and fight. I respect that a lot, though honestly I think it's unfair to insist that any woman worried about being affected by an abortion ban who can leave should actually stay and have her rights stripped away as she fights back. It's admirable to stay and fight, but it's wrong to demand of anyone.

I'm sure someone will read this and think, if someone can pick up and move to another country, surely they can afford to get an abortion in another state?

That is true. But with right-wingers talking about finding ways to ban that -- I'm not sure how it would be possible, but that doesn't seem to stop them -- it's honestly unclear if a year from now a woman will be prohibited from crossing state lines if it's suspected she's trying to get reproductive healthcare. If you're worried about being treated like a trussed-up incubator, you may want to get out now.

And yes, I do believe anyone who gets stroppy enough to imply women shouldn't leave even as they're being accorded fewer human rights than corpses in some states probably just hates women. The guys going off about how "oh but the coffee is bad" perhaps don't realize that this question isn't about coffee but basic humanity; they don't have a uterus so it's easy to forget. Those that think anyone who can get pregnant should sit tight and wait to be told to what degree they are considered mere egg sacks -- that leaving is "silly" -- are simply misogynists.

For me, the overturning of Roe v. Wade has tainted my impression of the United States, possibly irrevocably. Now, leaving in part because I didn't like George W. Bush feels almost quaint. How young, how naïve. I could still think of things to like or even love about the US, even as I chose to build a home in Taiwan. 

Now, thinking about the US is like mistaking salt for sugar when making cookie dough. It doesn't matter if the chocolate chips are still fine; the whole thing is ruined. Maybe some of the other ingredients are right, but the wrongness is pervasive and the result is inedible.

If you are thinking of leaving and able to do so, don't let the naysayers get you down. Don't let them convince you that nobody actually leaves for these reasons. People kind of do, and not just to Europe. Some of us have been gone for the better part of two decades, and aren't moving back. 

I don't have a statistical breakdown or a study to show you. I'm not sure anyone has actually researched expat populations to see how many left for political reasons. All I can say is I've met such people. To some degree, perhaps I am one (though again, I'm overstating the degree to which it was politics compared to all the other reasons.)

If you join us abroad, I promise you can make your coffee any way you want. 

And if you're a woman afraid for the security of her basic bodily autonomy and are thinking about moving to Taiwan, feel free to ask me for any advice. 

I'm also curious about foreigners in Taiwan reading this. Did you leave because of "politics"? Why did you leave the countries of your birth?

Monday, July 4, 2022

The Light Generation


Here are the things that swirl around my house and my head: it's the middle of the night, and I've taken the upper amount of anxiety and sleeping medication indicated by my doctor. My body is asking for more if it's to sleep, which I cannot give. Ambient light from outside provides just enough to navigate by, but no more than that.

Laptop in my lap, because I touched the black mound on my coffee table and it answered me with an annoyed prrrt. He's not supposed to be on the coffee table. Oh well. 

I am still angry to my core; I didn't know I had an aquifer of rage so voluminous. It's not that I was unaware that horrific injustices worse than the loss of Roe v. Wade happen around the world frequently; of course I knew that people in the US and beyond have been fighting them for longer than I've been alive. I thought, especially for Taiwan, that I had been regularly tapping into that cold, clear fury. I, too, am surprised it runs deeper. I suppose this is the difference between being an ally and being a person directly affected. (Even though I'm safe as a Taiwan resident, I'm still a US citizen with a uterus that is probably capable of bearing children.) 

This is affecting not just my sleep, but my work and life. It's a vise of anger during all hours, productive and not, that the infuriating debate over which human rights I get to have, and which I don't because I was born with complicated innards -- as decided mostly by people with different, simpler innards -- has even more real consequences.

It clarifies a lot, realizing that the people out there who thought they had an honest argument for why you are more of an egg sack than a human actually won something. But then the whole room fills with smoke.

While trying to manage my ire from Taiwan -- where I'm not of much help, but have been hunting for and donating to various sources -- I've been confronted with a more troubling self-truth. So many of the dark thoughts I know I should be managing, as I did during my first anxiety outbreak in 2020, aren't going away. What's worse, that's very clearly because I do not want them to. I won't detail every violent event I've imagined celebrating (most of them circle back to Molotovs; it's actually rather boring and repetitive -- Molotov this, Molotov that, you know, the usual). 

It is hard to focus beyond this shrieking wall of inchoate rage, to try and envision a world I don't want to burn to the ground. Yes, a single court ruling taking away my basic humanity in the country of my citizenship turned a boring center-left normie lib into a flaming anarchist.

But I don't want to talk about that. Too much, anyway.

Instead I'll focus on a deeper intransigence -- family. 

Friends and social media connections are easier to deal with -- if one supports the hijacking of a uterus for any reason, in ways we don't even violate corpses, then it's blammo for you. Get out of my life; we are not on speaking terms.

Family, though?

I love them very much. Many of them, I know, understand the importance not just of a woman's right to privacy and choice. Many understand that even if you support your loved ones, if you vote for people who will hurt them -- officials who have made it their life's work to do just that -- your support is shallow and hypocritical. 

Others, however, are less clear. People who have always been good to me, but drop hints that they voted for Trump, don't think I deserve full humanity as a woman, people who love me because we're related but genuinely wish that someday I will understand that God is real, and he prefers that women have subhuman status, not equal rights. 

Of course, I will never understand that because it is not true. 

I do not know who believes what exactly, because I'm afraid to ask. I have made it clear that I do not wish to be on speaking terms with anyone who thinks it is acceptable, should the circumstance arise, to force me to give birth to a child I do not want. But I'd prefer not to directly tell family members I care about that I cannot speak to them -- not until the federal law changes, or their opinions do. It would be fairly easy from Taiwan; I don't visit the US much anyway, and these are all extended family. It's hard to pull that plug, though. I both comfort and torture myself with the realization that they probably know exactly how I feel. 

There is nothing in the modern world that offers respite, let alone answers. The drugs don't make me worse, but they certainly don't work, either. So, of course, I turned to a book I cannot read. 

Last month, my immediate family and I spent a week cleaning out a packed storage unit. Inside were a stack of my great grandfather's books, mostly in Armenian. I asked an Armenian genealogy group to help translate the titles, and most turned out to be somewhat bland ecclesiastical reference materials. A plain brown tome simply called "Sermons" by a man surnamed Papazian. "The Radiance of the Bible" had a straightforward image of a Bible surrounded by light rays on the cover. These stirred no feeling, and I set them aside. A few I kept, even though I don't read or speak Armenian: most were cultural histories, one had stunning illustrations. 

The only religious title I kept was The Light Generation. It's a history of the Armenian Evangelical Movement, bound in dark leather decorated with swooping floral patterns. 

I wasn't attracted to it just for the cover: I'd already started playing with the words. The Light Generation. The Generation of Light. The Lightweight Generation, floating away like spent dandelion puffs as the diaspora spreads. A Generation of Lightweights, unable to fight as their descendants would for what is right, instead clinging to batty old conservatism. Or maybe we're the lighter generation; after all, they survived a genocide. 

The Generation of Light -- the light we make. Things are dark now, but we can generate light. Our generation can bring it forth. Or theirs did: maybe they were the Light Generation -- the light needed for their times, not ours -- and we have the Sisyphean task of finding our own light.

I can't read a single word of this book, much as I never had the chance to meet the man who owned it, and was too young to appreciate growing up with his widow, my great-grandmother. It's on my bookshelf all the same.

In the past year, I've been working through some heavy mental stuff by finding connections to past and family through amateur genealogical research. It would be a lie to say I haven't begun to write about it as well, but I'm unprepared to discuss the type and extent of that writing just yet. 

I can say this: people from the past are so much easier to work with. Most likely, I disagreed with almost all of them on social issues, perhaps even more strongly than I'd disagree with my conservative relatives now. 

But they are gone, and they did things I will never do. Surviving a genocide, watching your father led off to die, engaging in vigilante justice against criminals in your village, leading a church, raising three children, emigrating as refugees to the United States, rebuilding a family separated for months by arbitrary quota systems. Bringing their lives and images back into a living person's memory means I can accept that they (likely) believed things I wound find abhorrent, but I don't have to have a conversation with them, and considering their historical legacies in their own right is worthwhile regardless. It's a route back to family when I am not sure what extended family I can actually talk to right now. 

Certainly my mind could use the generation of some light. Rather like the dark living room, made moodier from the cool blue screen of a computer that should not be open, I don't know where to go from here. I've donated to all the resources, rage-posted for days straight. I don't know that any of it generates a speck of light. Maybe I'm a lightweight. I feel like I generate nothing; my generation has nothing.

Another book on my shelf (A Latter Day Odyssey by M.M. Koeroghlian) describes the ecumenical questions that beset the Armenian Evangelical Church in Athens, during the time that my great-grandfather worked there. The seminary and church community was plagued by dissent for a time, between conservative "mainline" types who believed in "simple" faith. That is, dogmatic faith in which a religious teaching is true because it was revealed to be true through miracles and scripture by in some way by an interventionist God. Believe in that God and his "miracles" and your path is correct. Do not ask questions.

These mainliners were worried that the School of Religion was teaching more "modernist" scripture: deist views eschewing 'revealed truth' and associated miracles, pointing instead to an innate knowledge of right and wrong in everyone, through which an understanding of God could be found through reason and observation of the natural world. Not religious strictures handed down by an angry God who blesses and smites, but moral guidance woven into the natural way of things.

Theoretically, according to this philosophy, even non-Christians could be good people worthy of Heaven if they understood and followed these natural laws. (I suppose these pastors felt it would be better, however, if the non-Christians converted.) 

Despite my own atheism, given what I know of my great-grandfather's personality, I have every reason to believe he was more of a modernist, not someone who put much stock in miracles or dogmatism.

As an atheist, I don't really believe in any of this, but there is some room in my thoughts for natural law and ethics. Of the schools of Christian theory, this is one of the least offensive. For what it was at the time, I can say it generated light.

Of course then, the question is: which ethics are natural? Would these enlightened Christian modernists of the early 20th century now accept that women's bodily autonomy is a fundamental human right, to be protected at any cost? 

I doubt it. 

But they probably would have believed that, even if a woman terminating a pregnancy ought to feel sorry for her "sin", that God would not smite or strike her or anyone over it. No cataclysms. No disasters. Just a choice she made, for which only God could judge her.

I don't believe this either, as it is quite plainly not ethically wrong to terminate a pregnancy. It is ethically wrong to deny a woman her humanity, even for a moment. There is no special case that changes this natural logic.

They likely wouldn't have agreed with me. But t
heir light generation has passed, and mine is alive. If they believed an appeal to reason and natural law would return sufficiently consistent ethics across vast swaths of generational and cultural shift, they were mistaken.

This story is a difficult one. The road to the past is complicated, and in parts I have to fill in what I think happened. It's not so simple as saying I'm mentally sinking, but seeking solace in the stories of the past. I don't agree with everything those from the past would say. I'm not yet uplifted. I do not float.

But maybe the modernists of the past would be able to grasp that cultural norms do, indeed, change over time. That if nature reveals truths to us through reason, that our interpretation of that reason would certainly change as our society does. That what was seen as  "good" or "right" in the past may not be now. And perhaps that the god (and the good) they believe in simply would not want women to suffer and die. 

I don't know what The Light Generation says about any given generation in the history of Armenian Protestantism. Even if I were religious, I can't read or speak Armenian, so I doubt I'll ever read it. I don't even know if the title, in its original language, allows for such wordplay: Armenian is an Indo-European language, but it sits on a lonely branch. I do not know if generation can have two meanings in it, just as I don't know if those who once read it would think I'm improperly using their stories, or updating them for a new era.

But I have decided that every generation has the opportunity to be the Light Generation. Generating light isn't hard; some moral questions are complex, but some are quite clear. 

In this case, uphold women's unquestioned equal access to human rights at all times -- in fact, anyone's equal access regardless of their reproductive organs -- with no exceptions.

Maybe it's just a thread to hold onto -- long-dead ancestors who can't talk back, when I'm not sure who I can speak with alive. I can't even say it will be a useful road to get my own mind out of the dark pit of unmitigated fury, to a place of light generation. Perhaps it will. 

Or perhaps not.


Sunday, July 3, 2022

No, the US did not create, fund or support "Taiwanese separatism"


Past support for these jerks is not the same as support for "Taiwan independence"

More often than seems reasonable, in political discussions I see some variation of this take far too frequently. Recently, a version of it came from someone who claims to teach “East Asian History” — that is, someone who should know what they’re talking about. To paraphrase: 

Taiwan is a part of China. The idea of Taiwanese identity or nationalism is a farce created by the United States in order to drive a wedge between themselves and China, for their own interests in keeping tensions high. They backed the KMT, who were corrupt narco-running gangsters at best, and set up that whole “Nationalist” idea on Taiwan as a thorn in China’s side. 

Maybe there was some blah blah forever war blah blah Raytheon stuff in there, or perhaps some junk about the US funding Taiwan’s “color revolution” splittists; I don’t care to remember. Most of this subtype seems to think the US "gives" Taiwan weapons (it doesn't -- Taiwan buys them) or that the US sends aid to Taiwan (wrong again -- the aid ended in the 1960s). 

Crucially, both of these strains of thought assume that “Taiwanese independence” or “Taiwanese [ethno] nationalism” was either created, supported or funded by the United States of America. 

Although regular readers will already know why this view of Taiwanese national identity is wrong, someone needs to talk about it in English in a clear way and historical perspective, as these takes love to reference history: usually something about how the horrible Nationalists were backed by the US and that’s the seat of everything. 

So, let’s go backward in time, stopping at scenic historical overlooks to discuss why this view is simply, plainly, clearly not true. 

I'm not going to go chronologically here; let's start with the era such people reference most frequently: the KMT occupation of Taiwan and subsequent rivalry with the CCP.

The 1949 Question

A shallow reading of history might lead a dilettante type to think that both the KMT and CCP wanted Taiwan, that they'd both historically believed Taiwan was an inalienable part of China, and that with US assistance the KMT was able to retreat to Taiwan where the US-led Western order supported them simply because they hated and feared communism and wanted to keep Taiwan out of the hands of the CCP for their own selfish reasons.

After all, the Allies said yes to Chiang Kai-shek's desire to take Taiwan in Cairo, and allowed the KMT to occupy Taiwan in 1945. In the early 1950s, they agreed to financial and military support of Taiwan (or at least, to Taiwan as a site for US military bases). If you just ignore a few years in the middle (say,  approximately 1947 to 1952) and assume that support was unwavering, it might look a bit damning, and certainly the US has historically acted in its own self-interest, as all nations do. 

But it's just not true that the US unequivocally supported the KMT. That period of history is complex and can't be covered in one section of a blog post -- entire books have been written about it. It's well-known that Truman didn't care for Chiang Kai-shek, and while he disliked Mao and the CCP, he wasn't much of a fan of the KMT, either. Some of his advisors advocated for defending Taiwan, but plenty also said that the KMT were not worth funding. For several years, the US seemed just as willing to let the PRC take Taiwan as help the KMT hold it. Talk of some sort of international trusteeship for Taiwan was probably destined to go nowhere, but there was indeed talk. The US knew of at least one coup plotted against Chiang and did nothing.

Yes, the US stance eventually changed, but that it had to change means there had been a different stance to change from; they had not always been strong supporters of the Nationalists on Taiwan. 

I can hear my own readers screaming, so here's the bigger problem with this line of thinking: support for the KMT is not the same as support for Taiwan independence.

I honestly can't believe I have to clarify that, but it seems necessary. 

It's easy for someone who has spent zero time actually watching Taiwanese politics think the KMT opposes the CCP, Taiwan opposes China, and the KMT founded the government on Taiwan. The US helped them, and therefore "Taiwan independence" must be the same as that KMT-CCP rivalry in which the US clearly supports the KMT "independence" side. 

Let me tell you, from inside Taiwan, that sounds absolutely bonkers. 

The KMT has believed since around 1943 that Taiwan is a part of China; on this, the KMT and CCP actually agree. The KMT rejiggered an entire educational system to drive home this point and push Chinese identity on Taiwanese people. Not Taiwanese identity, Chinese. They refused to compete in the Olympics as Taiwan (rather than the Republic of China). Although the US tried to propose a seat for Taiwan as Taiwan -- not the ROC -- at the United Nations, Chiang Kai-shek would not have accepted it. (This is a shame, as the UN resolution that allowed the PRC to join as "China" did not explicitly block Taiwan; theoretically, there is nothing save China's recalcitrance barring Taiwan from joining as itself.) 

The KMT attempted to render the Taiwanese language extinct, banned just about any media that might cause Taiwanese to think their cultural homeland might be Taiwan, not China, and continues to push One China narratives on Taiwan regardless of how outdated they are. Their vision is consistent only in the respect that they are oriented towards China, not Taiwan.

Time and time again, when given the opportunity for formal recognition as Taiwan, the KMT rejected it under the belief that they were the sole legitimate government of China.

Even when they talk about fighting for democracy, they point to events that happened in China, not Taiwan: 

Decades of KMT dictatorship saw Taiwanese independence activists surveilled, jailed, tortured and murdered. Anyone who so much as called for a recognition of Taiwanese identity or pushed for democratization on Taiwan was subjected to this; for two generations, the biggest opposition to Taiwanese self-rule was the KMT. From 1947 until the early 1990s (when the imprisonment of political dissidents ended), the KMT systematically hunted and brutalized anyone who even breathed the idea of Taiwanese independence. 

You know, that party the US supported during many of those same decades. 

How does it make any sense at all that the US "support of the KMT" had anything to do with them creating a "Taiwan independence" movement? They quite literally supported the oppressors of that same movement! They bankrolled the guys who murdered pro-Taiwan activists! 

And yet, I still hear it. Occasionally, the person spouting this nonsense seems to think ardent supporters of Taiwanese sovereignty -- myself included -- must therefore support the KMT. Some think it's imperative to tell us how awful the KMT actually are. 

Do they not think we already know? Insulting those corrupt gangster colonizers isn't a searing indictment of the Taiwan independence movement. It's quite literally the opposite. 

This dynamic hasn't changed much since democratization.

The US and Democratic Taiwan

Remember in the early 2000s, when an unabashedly pro-Taiwan president was elected, the first from the "opposition" DPP, and the US political establishment didn't seem especially enthused? Then, do you remember when they seemed to be more generally supportive of the election of pro-China KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou eight years later? 

Does a distant relationship with pro-Taiwan Chen and tacit endorsement of pro-China Ma sound like the tactic of a country trying to foment a 'color revolution' of furious 'splittists'? (No.) 

I'd like to take a little side road here: it's unclear exactly how much balking Chen actually engendered. It was once a widely-spread rumor (in some circles) that US officials had labeled him a 'troublemaker', but I can't find much evidence that this actually happened. President Bush was said to have used the term, but apparently that's wholly apocryphal. Those who say it did point to 'some' officials, but never state who those officials are or the circumstances of it happening. No details, just 'some people said'. That's hardly concrete.

China sure seemed invested in touting Chen as a 'troublemaker' and seemed all too happy to get the US in on this, but it doesn't seem to me that they took the bait. Ma Ying-jeou himself said he wouldn't be a 'troublemaker' like Chen, but then Ma was always influenced by whatever the CCP wanted from him -- of course he'd repeat a rumor like that. So, I have some ideas about the origins and truthfulness of this "Chen is a troublemaker" story.

It's true that the US seemed to warm up to Tsai quite a bit -- the spate of pro-Taiwan legislation and visits to Taiwan by high-level US officials during the Tsai administration at least indicate as much. 

That said, the shiny new AIT complex in Neihu broke ground under the Ma administration in 2009, meaning it was probably planned in the waning Chen years, and opened under Tsai. To me, that shows a US commitment not to any given vision of Taiwan's future -- independence included -- but to the US-Taiwan relationship.

Now that we're back on the main highway, let's kick it forward a bit. It's true that there's been an uptick in supportive rhetoric on Taiwan by the US, with President Biden calling the US's commitment to Taiwan "rock solid" (among other things). 

However, as with the Bush debacle in the early 2000s, these kind words for Taiwan always seem to come with a chaser: "the US doesn't support Taiwan independence". 

What they mean by this is that they don't support Taiwan unilaterally declaring independence, as the Taiwan Relations Act (and the bevy of assurances and communiqués accompanying it) clearly state US support for a peaceful, bilateral resolution. It does not mean that Taiwan independence can never happen, or that the US believes Taiwan is not currently autonomous (they clearly do, if they're selling Taiwan weapons, upgrading unofficial relations and calling their commitment "rock solid"). 

I may not personally be the biggest fan of this particular bilateralism -- I think Taiwan has every right to tell the CCP to eat dirt -- but that's what the policy says, and the US has been consistent in that regard. Even when it sounds like Joe Biden is going "off-script", everything he says can indeed be interpreted within that framework

Again, does this sound like a country that is arming rebel militias in Taiwan with the purpose of stoking separatist sentiment? (No.) 

Frankly, it sounds like a country that is warm toward the current administration and Taiwan in general, but historically has supported stances oriented towards Taiwan being part of China, not separate from it.

I've even heard the absurd claim that the US is "funding" Taiwan independence through all the weapons they "give" and foreign aid they "send" to Taiwan. 

Let me repeat: the US does not give Taiwan offensive weapons. They sell defensive weapons meant for the military of the Republic of China, not roving bands of guerillas. I don't buy into the idea that the Republic of China still claims "all of China" (it doesn't), but the ROC government is simply not the same as Taiwan independence activists, or "color revolutionists", or "separatists", or whatever you want to call them. 

And once again, Taiwan does not receive foreign aid from the US, and has not done so since 1965. The US isn't funding "Taiwan independence" because it's not funding anything in Taiwan. I am sure plenty of people will insist it must all be very covert, but if that's the case I know a lot of activists who'd love more information about all this money they're supposedly making, because if that's happening, nobody on the Taiwan side has heard about it! 

The origins of Taiwanese Identity

A lot of people also make the fundamental mistake of believing that the Taiwan independence movement is only as old as the Republic of China on Taiwan. Therefore, the two must be linked somehow. Memorably, I've even seen reference to 228 as the "birth" of Taiwanese identity. 

Certainly, the 228 Massacre was a pivotal moment. In terms of the modern movement, it could be seen as a birthday of sorts -- perhaps a milestone one rather than an origin point, however. 

And if we're talking about US creation or support of Taiwanese independence, those origins matter.

In Transitions to Modernity in Taiwan, Niki Alsford points out that not much research has been done on the generation preceding the pro-Taiwan generation of the 1920s. Kerr’s Licensed Revolution and the Home Rule Movement speaks in broad strokes about Taiwanese identity and the lack of desire for either Qing or Japanese rule from afar, especially among Indigenous Taiwanese. (And why shouldn’t they have been uninterested in the claims of these colonial powers? By all rights, they were in Taiwan first.)  However, he crucially notes that the average person -- of Chinese descent or not -- preferred both empires to just leave Taiwan alone. The main thing they seemed to want was good governance. 

Consider the Qing-era epithet that Taiwan “has a rebellion every three years and a revolt every five” — restive even by Chinese standards. Reflect as well that the Qing themselves viewed Taiwan as something ‘other’, an ‘Island of Women’, a defensive barrier to the ‘real’ China but otherwise a “ball of mud beyond civilization”, not any intrinsic part of China worth caring about. Emma Jinhua Teng lays this out beautifully in Taiwan’s Imagined Geography. Given those conditions, it makes sense that after a few generations, the families settling in Taiwan from China — who tended to be poor and seeking a better life — would cultivate a sense of distinct identity tied to the island. 

But to what extent? I don’t know. It was enough that when the Qing ceded Taiwan to Japan, those who fought back, and declared a (short-lived) Republic of Formosa, included language in their plans that referenced government coming from the people, not issued from far-away officials. Yes, that republic claimed fealty to the Qing, and the leaders mostly fled to China when defeat seemed inevitable (and sometimes before). The way they talked about it though? It’s not so simple to say they just wanted to be returned to the Qing. They were after some sort of home rule, too. 

Why am I telling you all this? Think about it: if this is an origin point of Taiwanese identity and the fight for Taiwanese sovereignty — unclear, problematic and fraught as it is — how on earth do you think the US funded it, let alone “created” it? 

And frankly, why would they care to? They were still dealing with the Qing and Taiwan was about to be handed to Japan. What would the rationale have been to stoke 'separatism' as a weapon against China? Notably, while a former US Secretary of State got involved in the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which handed Taiwan to Japan in 1895, notably the Tripartite Intervention that sought to influence the treaty in Western powers’ favor were Russia, France and Germany. 

If this era indeed provided the seeds that later blossomed into the pro-Taiwan, local identity, nativist, independence and democratization movements, it's simply inconceivable that the whole thing is simply a fever dream of the United States, not a real and long-lasting movement that has always been intrinsically Taiwanese.

In fact, to deny this history in favor of a jejune "everything I don't like is funded by the CIA" is to westsplain the hell out of Taiwanese history. Do these people think Taiwanese have no agency? Do they think only Westerners do? Do they think Taiwanese people are stupid, or easily manipulated, or incapable of forming their own ideas about history and identity without some evil Big Brother from across the sea tempting them with poison candy?

Come on. "It's the evil CIA! The US is funding Taiwan separatism to destabilize China!" may seem on the surface like a social-justice oriented take in which the West is bad and China can do no wrong, but at the end of the day it's just racism.

The Home Rule Movement in Japanese-Era Taiwan

Skip ahead to the 1920s, with Taiwan now an established colony of Japan. A complex web of cultural and home rule associations sprung up, many of them started by Taiwanese students in Japan inspired by modern political ideas they were exposed to there (in fact, some circumvented the Taiwanese colonial government completely and went straight to the Japanese national government). 

I could write an entire blog post just on the New Culture Association (inspired by China’s May Fourth Movement but promoting Taiwanese cultural and identity-related arts and literature), the annual petition to the parliament, the Home Rule Association, the Taiwan People’s Party, Formosa Youth Magazine, and thinkers like Lin Hsieh-tang, Chiang Wei-shui, Tsai Pei-huo and (noted communist) Hsieh Hsueh-hung. 

But the short of it is that, within the strictures of the colonial government — which tolerated their activities at times, but surveilled and arrested them at others — these early thinkers promoted not just home rule (see Kerr again for a firsthand account of their work) but Taiwanese culture through the arts. Lien Heng — interestingly enough, the grandfather of Chinese ultranationalist Lien Chan — wrote the General History of Taiwan and was also involved in promoting Taiwan as a unique cultural entity with a distinctive history worth understanding in its own right, separate from China. 

We can argue about 1895 all day, but these Japanese-era movements for greater home rule and recognition of local culture are essentially indisputable. Sometimes their supporters got tangled up in KMT politics (often to their regret), but at the end, it’s clear what they stood for. 

This link is made explicit in the music and literary history: the magazines these groups produced are held up as a historical reminder that Taiwanese were talking about Taiwaneseness when Japan was trying to make Taiwan more Japanese — well before the KMT came to town. The music, too. A lot of that era’s music was banned under Martial Law, sometimes just because it was in Taiwanese even if the lyrics were not remotely subversive. 

What’s the best way to turn something into a symbolic anthem for pro-democracy fighters? Get the authoritarian regime they’re fighting to ban it! 

Now, dig deep. Do you really, honestly think that when Japan ruled Taiwan, the US was skulking nefariously behind the scenes, training and paying the prominent figures of the era to promote “Taiwanese nationalism” stoke a rivalry with China? In an era when China didn’t even consider Taiwan to be Chinese, and it was assumed it would be Japanese in perpetuity? (And they did -- Sun Yat-sen visited Taiwan twice and at no point mentioned any sort of belief that it was part of China. The early CCP, as well, considered Taiwan a separate entity.)

How does that make even a lick of sense? Even if the US were capable of hurting China in this way in the 1920s -- which they were not, because Taiwan was part of Japan! -- why would they want to?

I'm skipping the Indigenous uprisings against the Japanese here because frankly, I think events like the Musha incident do tend to get swiped and used for every narrative other than the ones Indigenous people want to tell. The independence activists want to paint it as Indigenous solidarity. The KMTers want to make it look like they had similar sentiments to brave ROC soldiers. I don't love that, and don't want to join the grabby-grabs, so I'll just point out that Taiwanese of all kinds fought for home rule as they saw fit, and these causes have origins that far pre-date any KMT or US presence on Taiwan. 

In Conclusion, You Don't Make Sense

I mean, I get it. I get the desire to blame everything on the US. It kinda, sorta, if you look at it through a kaleidoscope, seems like you're standing up for the rest of the world by doing so. I get the hatred of the Nationalists -- I hate them too. What I don't understand is the distorted interpretation of history in which all Taiwanese would want to be Chinese if not for the Big Bad United States. 

It just doesn't make sense. There wasn't that much enthusiasm for the Qing, uprisings continued well into the Japanese era, and the KMT were absolutely not supporters of "Taiwan independence", to the point that it's offensive to imply they were. If the US funded or aided anyone in all these centuries of Taiwanese history, it was the KMT -- the brutalizers of those who fought for Taiwan in the 20th century and continue to crap on Taiwanese independence.

Regardless, the idea of a distinct Taiwanese identity and the notion of 'home rule' all pre-date any era in which US involvement in stoking Taiwan "independence sentiment" or some sort of invented rivalry with China would have made a lick of sense. 

Today, this belief that "everything I don't like is the CIA's fault" just looks bad. If you assume that this is a sort of splittist/color revolution thing, you have to assume as well that it's a view held by bands of violent, passionate "separatists" willing to, I dunno, Molotov their own government to get what they want.

But that's not the case. Most Taiwanese identify as solely Taiwanese, most don't want Taiwan to be a part of China in any sense, and most view the current status quo as sufficient qualification to consider Taiwan independent. I don't think there's enough money in the world to control public opinion that tightly, after decades of KMT-dictated schooling in which Taiwanese were instructed to accept that they were Chinese.

Even if it were possible, it's simply a racist take to assume it's true. People have agency. Not just the US or China, or the groups you do like, but even the ones you don't support. Taiwanese people are not jarheads just walking around with their thumbs up their asses waiting for someone else to tell them who they are. Quite the opposite, a point which has been proven over and over and over again with every iteration of the long battle for identity and recognition.

So maybe, just maybe, all you "it's the CIA!" folks could sit down, shut up, and examine how unrelentingly racist your take sounds. 

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Throw Eggs At SCOTUS


I was writing this whole other thing, but you know what? Fuck it. I'm infuriated. Enraged. Engorged with burning hatred. 

And as an American woman living in Taiwan, I feel both uniquely lucky and uniquely helpless. 

When the Supreme Court Republicans of the United States (SCROTUS) decided that I, as an American citizen with a uterus, do not have a constitutional right to basic humanity and bodily autonomy by eviscerating Roe v. Wade, my first thought was that my greatest desire on earth is to visit the United States, buy a dozen eggs, leave them out in the hot sun for a day or two, and then chuck them at the people who think it's okay for me to be treated like an incubator rather than a fucking human being.

I am not sure those herpes sores on the taint of America understand that they deserve to get hit with eggs, but I assure you they do. 

I'm generally not a fan of the sort of violence that grievously harms people (though some people, I won't cry for). But protest violence -- non-lethal projectiles such as eggs? -- that's fair game. Apparently doing this can result in a charge of vandalism, which I don't have a problem with. I'm not the sort to aim for the face, and anyhow, rotten egg seems like it'd be a tough smell to get out of judge's robes. The only bigger stench is the foetid pit where their souls should be. It's hard to top that, but rotten eggs are a good start. 

To put it another way, I'm not going to put a lightbulb on a chair where Clarence Thomas is about to sit. I'm not about that. But if, say, he happened to sit on a lightbulb and get glass shards in his asshole, I wouldn't exactly feel bad about it. 

Both fortunately and unfortunately, however, I'm not in the United States. As an American, I do care about the fact that the country of my birth is going straight down the shitter, however. I care about all of the American women who might, depending on what state they live in and how much money they have, be treated as more chattel than human. I remember being young and broke in America; it's not easy to travel to another state for a medical procedure if you don't have any money. I never felt that particular hardship, but I could barely afford to see a doctor locally. The pain of being broke with an unwanted pregnancy, far from a facility to get the care you need, is surely horrific. 

I've done the math, however, and having just come back from the USA, I don't really have the resources to fly back immediately to go protest. This adds a good pour of gasoline to what is already an inferno of incandescent rage. There is so little I can do besides donate to appropriate organizations. Will there be a protest in Taipei? Probably. If there isn't, maybe I'll organize one. (Frankly the only reason I'm not doing so right now is that I'm not sure what good it would do. It'd get in the local news and maybe I'd earn a few pats on the back, but that's not very meaningful.) 

It just feels so...helpless. And hopeless. 

And yet, I keep wondering if I have a right to such despondency. I live in Taiwan where abortion access isn't perfect, but at least it exists. Though proposed changes to the law don't seem to be going anywhere, the trend is toward making it more accessible, not less.

I don't live in any state where I might lose my basic rights, because I don't live in any state at all. I care about the women in the US who are facing a terrifying future, but the fact is, I'm not one of them. I'm not there. Do I have the right to feel helpless and hopeless when ultimately I still have the privilege of abortion access, which so many other American women suddenly lost yesterday?

The whole issue has now pushed me to confront the ways I'm still tied to the United States -- my  family, my passport, my home culture (as much as it might disgust me) -- and the fact that I can't really choose not to be. I've spent time in the US for family reasons before, and as long as I have close blood ties there, I might have to again. Even if I were about to renounce my citizenship, which I'm not, I can't just not be from the place I am from. 

But I can promise you I have thought about it. 

If there were any chance of my moving back there, ever, that has now evaporated. I already wasn't planning to, but now I actively refuse to consider it. Perhaps it's where I'm from, and perhaps I'm a citizen. But Taiwan is my home. If I ever have to leave Taiwan -- say, if China successfully invades and kicks me out -- I certainly won't return to the USA. 

But I will probably visit, and I still think we should throw some fucking eggs at fucking SCOTUS.

I’m also not interested in any talk about bipartisanship on Taiwan right now. It’s not that I don’t think it matters; rather, now is not the fucking time. If you were unaware that advocating for Taiwan as an American is disproportionately hard on Americans with specific anatomy, I hope now you are. I don’t care if Republicans also support Taiwan. I want nothing to do with them. I don’t care if you (the reader) and I agree on Taiwan issues, if you are anti-abortion. As of now, if you are anti-abortion, we are enemies. Period. 

Oh yeah, and if you voted for the guy who packed the court with these fuckhags, not only do I advise you not to read Lao Ren Cha -- it's not for you, and I don't want it to be for you -- but if I know you in person we are no longer on speaking terms. Even if I don't know you, we are enemies. I don't want to hear about "unity or "not judging others" or "finding common ground". I quite literally do not care. You didn't respect my humanity enough to not vote for that shitstained hemorrhoid, so I owe you nothing. Not kindness, not civility, not a single fucking word.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

No, the DPP didn't "brainwash" Taiwan into "forgetting it is Chinese"


She couldn't have engineered a turn away from Chinese identity because she was elected after it happened!

I keep trying to write this post, and I keep failing. Or something happens in my life -- this week it was a migraine -- and I sort of wander away. Part of it might be that I keep trying to give it an "article-like" opening even though this is a blog, and then I get bogged down in trying to sound a certain way, and it comes out all weird. 

So, if I have any hope of saying what's on my mind, let's forget that and jump right in. 

Anyone who advocates for Taiwan online will eventually come across a particularly virulent strain of poor reasoning and straight-up falsehood: that Taiwanese identity is robust because the DPP made it so, and that Chinese identity in Taiwan is on the decline because, again, the DPP "brainwashed" Taiwanese into thinking it was true. This is often used to lament the 'letting go' of an understanding that Taiwan is part of some concept of China, or 'forgetting one's roots' because data show Taiwanese in general have moved away from the notion that having ancestral heritage in China means they are Chinese.

I've been seeing it more these days, which might be attributable to it becoming a CCP troll talking point, though many real people seem to hold it as a sincere opinion. Another possibility is that it's harder than ever to point to unclear or inconclusive data to claim that, at best, Taiwanese don't know what they want. We know most identify as solely Taiwanese, and we now know that although the infamous 'status quo' survey is often (ahem almost always) poorly analyzed, that most people see the status quo as sufficient to consider Taiwan an independent country -- no name change needed.

Or maybe people are just jerks, or acting out the fantasies their KMT parents taught them, and pinning it all on the opposition. I dunno. I'd rather look at the problems with the argument than speculate about this.

Chinese identity is not the default

The first issue is easily dispensed with: "Taiwanese forgot their true heritage, that they are Chinese" absolutely begs the question. It assumes that the default state of Taiwan is Chinese identity, that Chineseness is the baseline, the neutral state, and any change from that is the only thing that can be "political", and therefore the only thing that can be engineered or forced onto a population.

This is wrong. 

Remember when I said in a recent post that every KMT accusation is a confession? (Not originally my words, by the way). This is one, too. They accuse the DPP of using state power, including education, to force an identity on Taiwan. But that's what they did! The KMT implemented an education system that emphasized Chinese identity and either outright ignored Taiwanese history, or reduced it to a footnote within a greater Chinese framework. The KMT forced Mandarin on people who didn't speak it natively, actively banning other languages in school and government and highly discouraging their use in public (as in, speak Taiwanese or Japanese and we'll be watching you and maybe we'll send Officer Chang over to your house to check out your book collection, and if we can't find any "communist" literature we'll say we did anyway.) The KMT banned discussion of their own repressive acts in Taiwan. The KMT destroyed markers of Japanese culture in Taiwan, including not just language but modes of dress, temples and shrines. The KMT censored songs simply because the lyrics were Taiwanese, even if they held no inherent political meaning. In a twist that's going to matter later in this post, the KMT's own action to repress these songs is part of what led to them being used as acts of political symbolism! 

Arguably, the KMT engaged in this far more than the DPP ever has, which I'll get into further down.

Unless you take as a default that Taiwanese should think they are Chinese, and therefore it's okay for the KMT to force that identity on Taiwan but not acceptable for others to deconstruct it, this is inherently a political and non-neutral series of actions. I don't take it as a baseline that Taiwan is Chinese -- and why should I? Most Taiwanese don't either! Besides, historically China either didn't rule Taiwan, or ruled only part of the island. To that end, Taiwanese history overlaps with Chinese only to a degree, and I'd argue it's not a very great degree. Most of Chinese history is not relevant to Taiwan (just about anything up through the Ming Dynasty) unless you're talking about ancestral, not national, history as the island of Taiwan wasn't ruled by China in those centuries. And the few centuries where they do overlap, well, China not only didn't rule the whole island for the most part, they treated it as a backwater worth little attention and even fewer resources.

Perhaps the settlers' ancestors came from China, but from a political perspective, that ceases to matter after a few generations. The 1949 diaspora came more recently, but they were always a minority and their grandchildren have closer ties to Taiwan for the most part. It's fundamentally a flawed assumption to believe Chinese identity in this circumstance is immutable.

So, what is the default identity for Taiwan? 

The default identity for any group of people is what they want it to be. Not in an "I'm 1/16th Cree so I have decided I'm First Nations even though I don't participate in the culture and have always been treated as white" way. I mean in a "we live this identity and bear the full weight of it, so we get to decide what it means" way. 

Whether it's Chinese people furious that Taiwanese don't see themselves as Chinese, or white wannabe anti-imperialists who talk big about accepting different identities unless that identity is Taiwanese, in which case suddenly 23 million people don't get a say, it astounds me how people can be so two-faced. That is, talk one minute about how nobody else can tell others who they are or dictate their history to them, and the next about how Chinese say Taiwanese can't be Taiwanese, so we can't recognize Taiwanese identity out of respect for China. 

How is it not just important but imperative to respect every identity, but then whip around and call Taiwanese identity separatist, ethno-nationalist or even Sinophobic/anti-Chinese? 

How can you insist, if you are Chinese, that nobody else can explain your heritage and culture to you (which is true) -- and then feel comfortable explaining your version of Taiwan's heritage and culture to them? 

If you're not Chinese, how can you go around insisting everyone respect gender and sexual identity, heritage identity and neurodivergence (all great things to respect, and I agree) and then dismiss Taiwan as the one identity you don't have to respect? 

If you're an Asian American, how can you consistently leave Taiwan out of identity debates, and in some cases simp for the Chinese government, totally disrespecting your fellow Asian Americans who happen to be Taiwanese? 

Finally, if you're Taiwanese American (including the descendants of the KMT diaspora), how cam you tell Taiwanese in Taiwan that your grandparents' vision of an island they only briefly inhabited is the only correct one, and they better fall in line? How can you insist that your legitimate and valid view of yourself as Chinese must therefore apply to all Taiwanese? 

It boggles the mind! If Taiwanese say they are Taiwanese, fucking listen to them

(If the majority said they weren't Taiwanese, you should listen to that too. But they don't.

This is especially true as the tenor of pro-Taiwan discourse has trended increasingly towards accepting that some portion of the population will disagree. This is fine, as people have a right to their own views and identities. It is imperative, however, for the pro-China side to offer that same respect. Currently, I don't see that this is the case.

Seriously, I'm starting to think the fastest way to tell a real anti-imperialist for a straight-up fraud -- or a truly socially-conscious person from a self-righteous jerk -- is to bring up Taiwan. If you're not interested in respecting Taiwanese identity, I now assume you are a hypocrite who doesn't respect identity unless you personally approve, and therefore not worth my time.

Get your timelines right!

The final issue takes longer to talk about. It's a straight-up reverse cause fallacy in which time, for people who believe the DPP "forced" Taiwanese into "forgetting they are Chinese", apparently moves backwards. Or at best, it might be considered a cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy in which one historical trend is falsely fingered as the cause of another roughly concurrent trend.

For the DPP to credibly be the evil masterminds engineering Taiwanese identity, they'd need to be in a position of sufficient power or influence before the movement away from Chinese identity and toward Taiwanese. Otherwise, how could they have effected the change? With what exactly would they have forced their nefarious plan through, protest signs and...frequently getting arrested? 

Seriously, just look at the timelines. In what years did Taiwanese identity spike? First, starting around 1995, when it overtook solely Chinese identity, and climbed steadily until 2000. That's significant, and I'll talk about it in a moment.

It overtook "Taiwanese and Chinese" identity between 2006-2008. At that time, the DPP's star was falling thanks to the rumors swirling around Chen Shui-bian, reaching what might be described as a nadir with the election of Ma Ying-jeou.

A lot of people seem to think Chen was some sort of ogre forcing Taiwanese identity through schools and society, but during his presidency, Taiwanese identity rose far more slowly than in the preceding years, with a few dips. If he was trying to evil-villain Taiwanese identity to greater prominence, he didn't do a very good job. How could he have, when the legislature was still KMT-controlled?

The next significant spike hit around the Sunflower Movement, with the increase leading up to it following the descent of President Ma into deep unpopularity. "Aha!" you might shout. "It does follow the rise and fall of political party influence!"

Not so fast. Ma was still in power, and the legislature majority KMT. People often reference education as a site of struggle where these sorts of so-called "brainwashings" are engineered, but Ma's big education policy was to make the curriculum emphasize links with China, not Taiwanese identity! If anything other than the Sunflowers led to a spike in Taiwanese identity (and there was one), it was the electorate's reaction against policies like this, not the government's evil plotting.

Besides, if the DPP were able to control local identity so much before Ma, then how did Ma get elected in the first place?

The Sunflowers themselves wielded a great deal of cultural capital but not much institutional power, so while they certainly impacted the national conversation and societal beliefs, they could not have engineered or masterminded any sort of authoritarian changes intended to "brainwash" anybody. They occupied the legislature but weren't elected to it. They protested lawmakers, they weren't lawmakers themselves. 

Some will still claim that perhaps it wasn't Lee, or Chen, or the Sunflowers responsible for this "brainwashing", but Tsai. If that's so, explain how Taiwanese identity actually dropped a bit in the years following her election -- that is, when she began to actually wield power?

It's true that the most recent spike occurred around the 2020 election, gathering momentum from its 2018 "nadir" (well, compared to the years surrounding it. Overall it was no nadir at all.) But Tsai was already in power then and had not managed to elevate Taiwanese identity in the previous two years. It's unlikely that her knockout defeat of Han Kuo-yu and re-election caused this spike. Rather, they were probably the result of it. Fears about China and the overall incompetence of the KMT candidate are more likely possible causes.

Think about it: in what universe does "you elected me, therefore I will brainwash you" make any sense? Just in terms of, y'know, linear time?

To put it succinctly, if the "evil DPP" was "brainwashing" Taiwanese into thinking they were Taiwanese, how is it that Taiwanese identity hit milestones around the time KMT presidents (and legislatures) were elected, and leveled off or dipped a bit after DPP ones were? 

It's not even post hoc reasoning. It's just backward.

More likely, these changes occurred naturally, and the DPP was the beneficiary of changing public sentiment regarding identity, not its architect. Just as likely, they were a reaction against the newly-elected KMT turning back towards China once again -- so if anything caused a shift toward Taiwanese identity, it was probably (and unwittingly) the KMT!

Let's rewind. What happened in 1995, when that first spike happened? Well, Lee Teng-hui offered imminent democratization, and the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. Who got elected in 1996? Lee, who despite ushering in a more nativist approach, was KMT, not DPP. Who controlled the legislature and most mayoral posts? The KMT, though the DPP had a loud minority and the coveted Taipei mayoralty. A voice, but a minority or subordinate one in terms of power structures.

If it could not have been the DPP -- again, they lacked the actual power -- and the KMT was, if anything, reacting to a broader social change, the only reasonable explanation for the shift towards Taiwanese identity is probably best explained not by the machinations of political parties, but democratization in general. Democracy: that amazing thing where either party can be elected!  

No, education is not the cause -- it's the effect

"But the education system was changed to emphasize Taiwan in the 1990s," some might shriek. "The evil DPP pushed for that, it's their fault!"

Not really, though. Yes, textbooks were slowly deregulated and curricula decentralized. Local history and "getting to know Taiwan" were introduced. The 228 Massacre could finally be discussed, and the role of local languages in education debated (the preeminence of Mandarin still remained, however). But the authorities allowing these changes on their preferred timeline were the KMT, not the DPP, though you could say they were forced to make concessions to the opposition and even adopt some of their nativizing rhetoric into their own platforms as a result. Do not forget, however: the KMT retained most of the actual power. What's more, these changes merely allowed Taiwanese history, society and geography to be discussed in an expanded version of a "local curriculum" where Taiwan was still ultimately treated as part of a larger China, or as the site of the ROC on Taiwan, not a nation in its own right. 

If simply talking about Taiwanese history and not hitting or fining children for speaking their native languages in school is enough to turn people from Chinese identity to Taiwanese, then Chinese identity in Taiwan must have been resting on pretty weak legs to begin with, eh? Maybe that alone could topple a popsicle-stick house, but not a monolith. So either it wasn't the cause, or Chinese identity was a stick house. Regardless, the final authority that approved these changes was the KMT, not the DPP -- a KMT reacting to this social change to retain power, not engineering it. 

In other words, democratization, national educational curriculum changes and the move toward Taiwanese identity all happened around the same time. They probably didn't cause each other (although if any one of them is a root cause of the others, it's probably democratization -- don't quote me on that, though). The common cause of all of these effects was a reaction against decades of brutal, repressive KMT rule and enforced institution of Chinese identity, not some sort of evil DPP plan. Not only is there nothing wrong with wanting to learn about one's local history,  but a push to do exactly that -- and decouple that history from some larger story of a larger civilization as well as talk about the parts of that history that don't overlap with it -- usually follows a change in identity. It doesn't cause it.

That's the case, at least, when the push to do just that comes from a newly democratized society, or a minority voice in the government who can't change the rules at will. Chinese identity through education was a top-down project, fed to schoolchildren through the education system by the KMT. Taiwanese identity entered the education system from the bottom-up, when the DPP didn't have institutional power. 

A quick summary for the tl;dr crowd

The DPP certainly played an important role in pushing for democratization and being that minority voice once the KMT stopped arresting and torturing them (though remember, the last political prisoners were still in jail in the early 1990s!). They pushed for changes to the education system, but ultimately needed KMT acquiescence to realize them. The KMT caused a backlash thanks to its own repressive rule, and stands guilty themselves of forcing Chinese identity on Taiwan, which was not a neutral act as Chinese identity was not the default state in Taiwan any more than Mandarin was always the lingua franca (it wasn't). Even if you try to argue it by timeline, it doesn't match up and if anything is backwards reasoning. 

Whatever you want to name as the cause or origin of Taiwanese identity, it was not the DPP. If anything, they were an effect of that change, and to some extent, you can say the KMT did this to themselves. 

But really, if you absolutely need a "cause" (do you?) -- look no further than democratization. Do you hate democracy? I sure hope not. 

Friday, June 10, 2022

Book Review: Bestiary

I have a flaw: while I’m fine with innovative storylines and narrative choices, I prefer novels that follow a conventional plot structure. I don’t like meandering. I like strong characterization and clear narrative flow, choosing it every time over highly metaphorical or poetic prose. 

This makes it somewhat difficult to read Taiwanese literature, which is far more tolerant of that ‘meandering’ and heavily-applied metaphor, but I accept it, because I want to read Taiwanese literature. Perhaps one could say that this pushes a reader out of their West-centric literary comfort zone, opens the mind. And perhaps it does. Certainly, it’s offered more chances for surprise, revelation or unexpected fondness. Yet I still prefer the comfort food of a conventional page-turner. 

All this is to say, I ended up enjoying K-Ming Chang’s Bestiary — a modern, fabulist novel that features Taiwan but takes place mostly in the United States — more than I thought I would. 

Especially as it took me nearly three months to finish. 

I want to start with what I didn’t like about Bestiary, so I can end with what I absolutely did. 

Chang’s prose is distinctive and singular; these are reasons to love it, and also to struggle with it. It’s loaded with simile, to the point of overload until you realize the choice is conscious. Everything is like something else. Nothing is ever just what it is. Nothing is ever described in a straightforward way: you get the impression that the family, Taiwanese living in Arkansas, are very poor, and you get some idea of how they’re connected to missionaries. It’s unclear whose father is whose, which generation moved to the US, whether the mother or daughter is narrating or exactly where they are when things happen. 

There is a lot of effluent: snot, blood, sweat, urine, and other human juices practically soak the pages. This leads to an extended metaphor about holes: in the body, in the ground, things that birth and excrete, as well as ingest. It takes awhile to get to the central plot: the daughter in the story starts turning into a tiger, which is related to an old story from Taiwan (or is it China?). Aunts have snakes in their bellies, a brother tries to fly. It’s an extremely human-body centric series of fables set in something like the modern day. In fact, I wasn’t exactly sure when it was set, but my brain kept defaulting to the late 20th century. Why? No idea. 

The starting point of the novel is the fable or children’s tale of Hu Gu Po (虎姑婆), though the actual story is never told directly in Bestiary. According to the fable, Hu Gu Po eats children to become or stay human. The only way to avoid this is to lock the door and sleep when you should. A child who isn’t sleeping lets her into the house because she’s disguised as her aunt. Hu Gu Po then eats her brothers ears and toes, and is going to eat the girl until she’s tricked into boiling herself.

This is obviously a terrifying story to tell children (aren’t most fairy tales?) but aren't Western ones similarly horrid?

Other fables play out in Bestiary, exploring the difficult ties of family and history, tying in Taiwanese Indigenous fables with the 1949 diaspora and what the protagonist’s grandmother lived through, being fed stories (and more than stories) that didn’t come from her land or people.

Of course, something has to happen among all this simile-and-metaphor laden fabulism, and indeed, the protagonist has to use her powers as Hu Gu Po in a dramatic confrontation with her grandmother. I’ll leave the actual plot there partly to avoid spoilers, but partly because the plot arc, so intent on its similes and metaphors, was not entirely clear — at least to me. 

In other words, I felt character development and straightforward plot points were sacrificed for fabulism to the point that I’m not entirely clear on why the climactic moment played out exactly as it did, and it sure took awhile to get there. That is, it made sense within the story of Hu Gu Po but felt a little unearned in Bestiary.

Only in retrospect did I see the attempt to escalate the story’s tension to that moment, I didn’t feel very much for the characters as individuals: they felt more like stand-ins or human symbols. Nor did I feel much for the letters from Ama that kept popping out of the holes in the backyard (if this sentence is not clear, honestly, you have to read the book). They were clearly intended to be stream-of-consciousness, but that style often reads to me as simply not making a lot of sense. 

It’s probably me, though. I’m too bricklike. Square, literal. 

You might think from all this that I’m forcing myself to say I enjoyed Bestiary  — like a tasting menu at one of those fabulously expensive restaurants that turns steak into frozen bubbles or some such, when all I wanted was a bagel. That’s not the case! 

The prose also contained moments of pure beauty, both in terms of wordsmithing and cutting to the heart of history, society and family:

I told myself that it wasn’t stealing if the thing had only been stolen once. Two acts of thievery canceled out, became something more like salvaging. 

Her fist flying into the door like a dumb bird. 

It’s summer and the sky is vomiting.

We met inside our mouths. I found the seam under her tongue and undid it. 

We have no history, only stories. 

She asked if I knew the story of Hu Gu Po, a story about the cost of having a body. The cost was butchery. She said there were no tigers on her island and there had never been. The story had been born somewhere else, brought over by men and stuffed into the bellies of women who didn’t want it. The women gave birth anyway, to daughters that did not resemble them. 

It’s just gorgeous writing, isn’t it? I’d say good enough to struggle through a story that meanders a bit too much, plot points that don’t always feel earned, and a too-heavy dose of metaphor. Not every simile works as well as these; some gargle awkwardly. I got a little tired of all the bodily fluids. But the lines that sing are downright hypnotic. 

I’m not being quite fair when I say it took me three months to read Bestiary. It took me three months to get through the first half or so. I finished the second half in two days. After a certain point, it pulls you along, if you let it. 

I’m not sure how much a reader who hasn’t spent time in Taiwan would get from the layered meaning, but as someone who lives here, the story does speak volumes — again, if you let it.