Friday, December 16, 2011

So I'm Quiet...But I Want To Talk

Not long ago I was chatting with a student - we were sharing a taxi to the HSR, as he was returning to Tucheng while I returned to Taipei. He asked me what I thought of Taiwanese people, if I had any Taiwanese friends, what it was like to have a social life as a foreigner in Taiwan - all in all a more interesting conversation than the usual "you married yet? How long have you been in Taiwan? Can you eat our food?" taxi banter.

I told him basically what I said in the linked post above, albeit more succinctly. Basically that my Taiwanese friends were great, that generally we have friendships not unlike those in the West, but with two key differences that I have come to accept (because I have to - if I didn't I wouldn't have any local friends):

1.) Americans hang out with their friends far more often. It would be highly unusual to not see a friend for months on end unless they lived far away.  It would be a sign that the friendship was dying. In our free time our first thought, at least those of us who are extroverts, is what we can do socially. In Taiwan people seem to spend time with friends far less often, take the initiative to invite friends out less often (they do it, just not with the same frequency) They don't worry about not seeing friends for awhile, and don't really think of social options first when faced with free time.  Whereas doing something with friends would be my default weekend plan, staying home and resting is often the default in Taiwan.


2.) While there are introverts back home and extroverts in Taiwan who buck the trend (I count many of these among my friends), very generally speaking people are more outgoing in the USA. If you invite them to a party or group event, they'll take the initiative to talk to people they don't know - the default would be to socialize, not to be quiet until someone talked to you. When I host a party back home I don't have to play hostess too much - people will get on without my help. Here I feel like, for many of my local friends, I have to introduce them around and get things flowing far more.  People talk less and often reveal far less about themselves.

When I said that exactly - "people reach out less, they reveal less about themselves, they talk less" - my student nodded vigorously and added that when he was young, his parents and teachers actively taught him not to talk too much. He was taught that not only was being quiet and listening to others a virtue and talking too much a sign of arrogance, but that revealing too much or giving too many opinions was a bad idea, because "if the wrong person heard your idea, you could get in trouble in the past". Along the lines of the cryptic "a truck would come to your house" comment another student once made.

He added that it might seem to foreigners that many Taiwanese people are quieter, have less to say, have fewer opinions (unless you're an old lady or a taxi driver), or are generally happy to just be quiet - but that it's not really true, at least with many of them. "In fact we have a lot of ideas and opinions. Actually, sometimes I want to say something, but I don't. It's not easy to forget my teachers and my family telling me to be quiet. They told me it's dangerous to say too much, and that people - especially children - need to be quiet. So I am quiet. But I want to talk."

Basically he was saying that a lot of people in Taiwan are not naturally introverted or quiet - they are that way because it was drummed into them that they should be that way.

Which...hmm. First, it begs the question - if this is true and it's not an ingrained cultural trait but rather something that's drilled into children from a young age, due to traditional beliefs, political threat or more likely a vitriolic combination of both - is it even possible for an entire culture to force itself to be quiet? Is it possible to mold introverts from people who would otherwise be outgoing? I have my doubts: I'm a natural extrovert and I don't think any amount of childhood training could have repressed that. I was always a bit too talkative in class and teacher reprimands and even notes home never really curbed that tendency. Not to mention that there are enough openly outgoing people in Taiwan for me to wonder - if they never got rid of their talkative streak, how can anyone say that this kind of conditioning works?

It also makes me wonder - if this is something drilled into children the way American kids were forced to practice penmanship to perfection in my grandmother's generation, does its status as a cultural belief deeply held enough to be forced upon children with such vigor not count it by default as a cultural trait - especially considering that humility as a virtue really is a cultural trait here?

And finally, if this was exacerbated by the political climate of the 20th century - mainly the KMT and the White Terror but let's face it, the Japanese weren't angels either - I have to wonder if things were different for those who lived their lives before any of that. If I found a 110-year-old woman out in the countryside - not inconceivable, seeing as old folks in Taiwan seem to make it to 250 without much problem (just kidding...sort of. I am pretty sure some of my neighbors in Jingmei were born during the late Ming Dynasty) - would she have different notions?

Just something to wonder about. I really don't know, I found my student's comments interesting is all. "They told me it's dangerous to talk too I am quiet. But I want to talk" - it makes one think doesn't it?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Abortion and the Gender Gap in Taiwan

So apparently, along with having the lowest birthrate in the world, Taiwan also has one of the most serious gender disparities. I have to say that while I’d heard of this before, it never ceases to surprise and amaze me, considering how much better a place Taiwan is if youare a woman, compared to basically every other Asian country. The greater respect for women here, when you hold it up against other countries where I’ve lived (ahem CHINA, and in a somewhat different way, but still virulent and serious, India), is one of the reasons that I chose to stick around. That’s not even mentioning others that I’ve visited - including Japan and Korea.

I’ve been mulling over this article forawhile, trying to come up with some useful, non-obvious comments and observations. I think, though, that it was said best by two people in a Facebook status update (keeping it anonymous because I'd be annoyed if a status update meant for my friends ended up on a blog) when the topic came up: policing abortion clinics and trying to stop sex-selective abortion from happening at the clinic level is not the answer. Taking awaywomen’s freedom of reproductive choice – an important freedom, as much as anti-abortion activists would like to pretend it isn’t, or that it is not deserved – even for something as abhorrent as sex-selective abortion, does not really fix anything. All it does is use sexism in the name of battling sexism. All it does is try to control the result without trying to work on problems at the source.

The thing that needs to change is not the government meddling in women’s reproductive freedom - it needs to start far earlier and more comprehensively than that, through education and awareness programs aimed at ending ingrained sexism and anti-daughter sentiment in Taiwanese culture. While I still maintain that women enjoy better equality here than those in other Asian countries, not even I can deny the specter of deeply embedded sexism coming out in this most unfortunate of ways (and others – but this is the topic at hand).

I do think this ties into what I said before about how it’s more common to cave to one’s in-laws’ desires in Taiwan, whereas back home generally that wouldn’t happen, or at least not to such a degree.  I have mentioned a student of mine a few times now who is trying to get pregnant despite not really knowing if she wants a child (and leaning towards not), because her mother-in-law expects it. She hopes that first baby is a boy – despite personally feeling that any gender is fine and maybe even leaning slightly towards having a girl – because if she has a daughter, her mother-in-law will expect her to try again, for a boy. And she will. Which I really can’t wrap my head around – she truly believes that if this is the case, her only option is to just do it, because it’s preferable to the misery of an unhappy mother-in-law.

Can I just say that this has made me even more grateful to have awesome in-laws who don’t pull this crap?

If a strong, successful woman like my student can find herself making decisions based on somebody else’s expectations for a grandson, it’s not such a leap to come to the conclusion that some of these sex-selective abortions are done under family pressure to have a son: maybe the pressure isn’t always direct, but rather than listen to whining in-laws or being expected to try again, a couple decides it’s the best choice (which, I’m sorry to get all objectivist and moral hard-ass, but it’s not. It’s just not. No. Wrong). And, of course, there are certainly cases of direct pressure.

As things change – as the younger generation starts to become parents and their children start marrying – I do think that this will become less of an issue. My experience in Taiwan has been that the older folks still seem to hold to tired, clichéd and dated ideas about gender preference (at least some of them do – by no means do all of them hold such beliefs) but those who are raising kids now and might eventually be grandparents don’t feel the same way. My impression is that this generation isa pivotal one, rather like my parents’ generation shook the ground and toppled many gender-based assumptions in the USA.

Of course, parental and in-law meddling is just one of the issues – I chose to highlight it because I brought it up in a recent post, so it was worth touching on again. Obviously, plenty of women and couples choose abortion for gender selection without their parents’ or in-laws’ input.

What really needs to happen is that society as a whole will have to start realizing that a daughter is as good as a son, can succeed as well as a son, is as valuable and lovable as a son, and that a son is not necessary – that those dated beliefs have no place and no use in the modern world, where there aren’t such strict gender roles and a daughter can do everything a son can do. Education is the only way this can happen – that or just plain suffering from the result of a million bad decisions by a million individuals, and a sudden dearth of available women. I know that typically, foreign brides (often from Vietnam or China) are thought to fill this gap, but  if the gap becomes too big, that won’t be a workable solution for everyone – and yes, I have my own opinions on this type of foreign brides (the mail-order, “I don’t even know you but I want a wife” type), but that’s for another post. Maybe then, and with the next generation thinking differently, things will start to change.

And not soon enough.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Old Hakka Lady Speaks!

I just thought I’d share a few choice quotes from our conversation with an old mountain-climbin’ Hakka lady, who we ran into while hiking to Yuantong Temple (圓通寺) in Zhonghe a few weeks ago.  She was praying at a pretty interesting shrine  as we approached and stopped to chat with us after we tried to figure out the meaning of some graffiti nearby. I'll post a picture when my camera stops being annoying.

Joseph originally thought it meant “The  KMT and the Communists should  get together and take over Taiwan”, but she said no, some “bad DPP people” wrote it and it says “The KMT and Communists are going to get together and take over Taiwan” (implying that this is a bad thing). She went on to ask us about ourselves and have what I can only describe as a transcendently funny chat with us – all in Chinese, of course.

Some of her more interesting quotes:

“Are you married? Yes? Have kids? No? Oh, good! Don’t have any. I have three and they were a big waste of my time and money. I gave up my life to raise them and they don’t take care of me. They’re not filial! Just don’t have kids. It’s better. I wish I hadn’t had them.”

“Taiwanese kids don’t study hard enough.” (I disagreed, saying that compared to American kids, Taiwanese students were total bookworms). “No! They don’t! They are not hardworking like we were. Every day I had to walk up and down the mountain with a basket of fruit on my back. Every day! I had to study, too, even though I was tired from carrying so much fruit. Try to get a Taiwanese kid to do that now. They can’t! They’re lazy.”

She was delighted that we could speak a few snippets of Hakka, especially Joseph: “Oh, your girlfriend is Hakka from Miaoli? You should definitely marry her. Hakka girls from Miaoli are the prettiest and the most hardworking. She will work very hard and be a good wife.”

“ You know, Taiwanese girls, they like white men. That’s because they want to have beautiful babies, so they want to have babies with foreigners. Usually they like the white ones, but some of them like the black ones, too. I don’t know why. They are so dark and their teeth are so white!” (She said it, not me!)

“Oh, your eyes are so pretty!” (to me). “They look just like Chiang Ching-kuo’s…” (me: “Um, I don’t think my eyes resemble Chiang Ching Kuo’s”). “…wife!” “Huh?” “Your eyes look like Chiang Fangliang’s eyes!”

For those who don’t know, Chiang Fangliang, Chiang Ching-kuo’s wife, was Belorussian. It is true that being Polish and Armenian, I basically look very Eastern European and Chiang Fangliang’s facial structure does somewhat resemble mine. That said, I Googled pictures of her – her eyes are quite clearly brown and mine are blue. I just don’t see the resemblance.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Pressure On My Uterus Is Astounding

I hope you enjoy the title!

Sorry for not posting much - at all? - this week. I did an incredible amount of work and pulled off the move to the new apartment, and have had exactly zero free time to do much of anything other than work, pack and then unpack.  Things should start getting back to normal around Christmas, when I hope to get back to my normal blogging volume.

I had wanted to do a post on a hike we did in Zhonghe (中和) of all places, up to Yuantong Temple (圓桶寺 - not sure I got the wrong "tong" there), but my camera's acting up and I can't seem to upload the photos. I don't have Internet at the new place yet so I can't do it whenever, so if they don't upload now, I can't just do it from home. I'll get that up soon, though.

I also wanted to pass along this link on Taiwan's gender ratio worsening, which I'll write a post about when I have more regular Internet access and time: hopefully in the coming week.

For now, I wanted to  comment a bit on what it's like to be childfree by choice, and how people react to that,  as an expat woman living in Taiwan. It's something I got to thinking about after reading this article on women on American prime time TV and how few of them are child-free (basically one sitcom - How I Met Your Mother) has a child-free by choice woman and deals with the topic with some degree of sensitivity. I agree with the article's redux of that plot line).

Because, you know, back home there was pressure to find a nice boy, get married, buy a house and pop out a few sprogs. It was clearly something my family wanted for me - which is fine, I mean it's something most people do, and happily do by choice, and it is at least true that my marriage has been a fantastic, vital thing in my life. It's something people just kind of figure you'll do, and look askance at you if you verbalize that you don't want to.  For the record, I may be child-free by choice but I have never said that I did not want to marry or did not intend to marry.  I'm actually pretty pro-marriage as long as it's a modern, feminism-friendly marriage of equals rather than being a patriarchal tool of stifling gender roles.

When I say there was "some" pressure, though, I really mean it as "some", not "a lot".  Sure, the media is wedding and baby crazy - something that apparently tends to happen in tough economic times (a friend was telling me about a sociological study to that effect - people are less likely to go it alone and more likely to pair up, less likely to have kids or just have fewer kids, but are more attentive to the idea of procreation as a society - possibly because having a baby when times are tough is subconsciously seen as a status symbol: "Look, we can afford to have a baby even when the economy's in the crapper!"). And yes, one still gets comments that are based in assumptions - that you both want to get married and will do so, that you want kids and will have them. If you openly acknowledge wanting such things, it's fine. If you are faced with such a comment and are honest about not wanting one or both of them, though, it creates a frission of social awkwardness, to the point if you wonder if it's a faux pas to admit you don't want children or don't intend to marry. People are generally too polite to say anything about it, but you just know you're being judged. A tiny bit, maybe, but judged nonetheless.

This isn't true among my friends - all of whom know that I'm not into having kids - but when I lived in DC it was certainly true among colleagues and acquaintances. That's why my friends are my friends. I'm not going to waste time with anyone who'd judge me and find me lacking for personal choices.

It's a different story in Taiwan, though.

For a country with such a low birthrate, I have to wonder why everyone assumes that everyone else wants and will have babies. Clearly, with so few babies being born, plenty of women and couples are choosing not to do so - how can it be assumed that they will, or that they want to? (I realize the answer is "cultural norms and tradition", at least in part, but even those who are affected that much by cultural expectations of bygone days must realize that having the lowest birthrate in the world is clearly a sign that those days are over).      

I'm regularly asked if I'm married and, when I respond in the positive, if I have kids (sometimes I'm asked how many kids I have, as though I must have gotten my babymaking on already!). I don't mind that these are socially acceptable topics in Taiwan: I'm not inhibited about talking about such things. I'm at peace with our decision on kids - in fact, I'd say it's brought me that peace, I didn't have to make peace with it - and not afraid to talk about it confidently.

The reactions I get range from wonderment to polite questioning to outright criticism, although the latter is usually delivered in a friendly "motherly advice" sort of way rather than stone-cold mean-spirited criticism. Occasionally someone has the social acuity to realize that we crazy Westerners generally don't question or openly wonder at others' life choices and will leave it at that or express support.  Occasionally someone genuinely agrees.

Sometimes I get advice: not only am I wrong, apparently, and should definitely have kids, but I'll be told that at least one should be a boy, or the first one should be, and given other specifics like how many I should have and how I should raise them (the consensus seems to be that I should have two, at least one should be a boy, you know because I can control that of course, they should be schooled in a Western style but made to study as hard as Taiwanese kids - ugh! - and be raised bilingually. It's OK if I work and we get a nanny, though, or I could make my mother move here to help raise them. Ha...).

Mostly, though, I get the open wonderment of the "why on Earth wouldn't you want to have kids?" variety - and not just from old folks. From people my age, even! Talk about social pressure - for a society that procreates so little, Taiwan is certainly big on expectations to procreate.

It really is an assumption - I remember one group of students, for men, all engineers, who took me out for dinner at the end of our course. We went around and gave toasts (I'd taught them to do that) and one of them toasted me, knowing I would get married soon, saying he "wished for me to have a happy marriage and have many sons". I am often asked, after saying I don't have kids, when I will have them (not "if"). I am asked how old I am, next: sometimes the reply to my age is along the lines of "it's OK, you still have time, 31 is young" to "oh my god GET ON IT GIRLFRIIIIIIEEEEND those eggs aren't gonna stay good forever!".

I do feel very much in the minority, and I do feel that more women (or Taiwanese people in general) would come out and openly concur with the choice to be child-free if there were less overall expectations that probably keep their mouths firmly shut. I have a blog post coming up on this, but it does seem to be the case that when people make a life choice back home they're fairly open about it, whereas in Taiwan I've gotten the impression that a lot of people, realizing that their life choices go against expectations - even if they don't go against the "norm", such as not having kids  - decide to say nothing for the sake of social harmony.

Again, for a society with such a low birthrate, it seems to be really short on people, especially women, who are out of the child-free closet and willing to openly embrace their decision not to have kids.

A few other notes on this topic:

First, Taiwan is a rare gem in Asia and, frankly, the world in that there are high-profile Taiwanese women who have eschewed marriage and children (although it is unclear to what extent that was a choice):  the two that come to mind are Chen Chu and Tsai Ying-wen. It has not been said openly that Tsai and Chen can and should be role models for young Taiwanese women (especially Chen among women in southern Taiwan), but it deserves some thought. If anything, Taiwan could use some more female role models who have achieved both great success and have happy marriages and children: the one high profile woman I can think of who is also married is Cher Wang - I don't know if she has kids. I say this because I believe that successful role models should be balanced - to show women that you can marry and have kids and be phenomenally successful, or you can not marry and not have kids and still be successful.

Second, that I know this pressure in Taiwan is not directed at me just because I'm foreign or just because I'm a woman, although I am sure I do get more pressure because I'm female. My Taiwanese female friends, and even some of my Taiwanese male friends, have felt the same pressure. I can confirm this firsthand: I've seen Facebook status updates from friends who I know don't want children, because they've told me so, with replies along the lines of "that'll change when you have babies!" or "oh, such good practice for when you're a  parent". The friend whose feed items got these replies is Taiwanese and male.

Third, rather like back home, it seems to be assumed that because I don't want kids, that I don't like kids. Actually, I do. They can be great fun and I tend to be good with them. They generally like me. I love playing with my little cousins or friends' kids. I teach two girls in a private class once a week and I like them a lot. I just don't want to devote my life to raising them. It's assumed both in Taiwan and back home that I must have massive professional ambitions and that's why I don't want kids. I have some, but I'd say that my main ambition is to have a successful, satisfying and fulfilling life with enough money to be comfortable. I don't need to be a professional phenom even though my career is important to me - I aim for success, but I won't work myself  into an early grave. My main work ambitions are to be phenomenal at what I do and be in high demand, to enjoy it, but not to let it consume me. It's assumed that I am not "feminine" - which is kind of true, but not entirely. It's true that I lack a lot of characteristics typically associated with "femininity", but that doesn't mean I lack all of them (people have wondered how I can be so good at crafty things and DIY and yet not be sufficiently feminine to want babies). Before I married, it was sometimes assumed that choosing to be childfree meant that I was anti-marriage: nothing could be further from the truth. It's assumed that I have that quality so often described as "selfish": it's true that I don't want to make the sacrifices  that would be necessary if I were to have children, such as giving up free time and traveling less, if at all. I wouldn't call that "selfish", though. Feeling that way and having kids anyway, now that you could make a case for. I feel the weight of these assumptions more in Taiwan back home, but they exist in both countries.

Finally, I plan to write an entire other blog post about this - probably the next one I put up - but the main difference between me and a lot of Taiwanese people, especially women when it comes to pressure to procreate is that in many cases they feel the need to actually consider or even give into some of that social pressure. It is not uncommon for a woman to agree to have kids she doesn't really want, or isn't sure she wants, because her mother-in-law or her own family expects it. I've written before about a student in this situation who is preparing to have a kid she has admitted she isn't sure she wants - but her mother-in-law is adamant so she just finds it easier to go ahead and do it. To be fair, she isn't certain she doesn't want kids, either.

I listen to my two families, but I feel no need to actually do what they would prefer. Note: neither side is giving me a problem or anything like that! When I talk about Western in-laws vs. what I observe in Taiwan, I am speaking more generally. I haven't had any problems personally but I do have American friends who have faced such issues.

I know both sets of parents would be delighted if we had kids, but I feel no obligation to pop 'em out. In fact, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of "we're trying for a baby because my parents/in-laws want a grandchild"...yet it does happen.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

More Fearsome Than Tigers

Once every few months I hear some FOTD* kid braying about how "democracy won't work in China!" and all sorts of meh meh meh. No doubt because one of his professors in some lecture on politics and culture he attended two years ago brought it up as a question - I should know, because my professors did that all the time - and that's the position he took.

On the surface it seems PC: it seems like the person saying it is trying to incorporate China's current domestic issues and cultural background into the mix, which makes that person sound really in touch or with it or thoughtful. Which is great, except half the time the people saying it have never been to China (and if you've been to Taiwan, no, you've never been to China so don't even) or have been there, and have turned into that special brand of expat who is brainwashed into believing ridiculous things (they're the ones you can hear on the streets of Beijing faffing on about how great China is, how we're too hard on their undemocratic but very efficient government - but you have to admit, they get stuff done! - defending the One China fallacy, taking untenable positions regarding China's environmental problems (but it's the West that buys all the goods that China produces in those factories!), its sexism (that's just the culture! Accept it or go home) and human rights (you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet).*

Yeah yeah, different people have different opinions and maybe I shouldn't come down on them so hard, but as I see it, they're wrong. End of. They can believe what they like, and I can think they're ridiculous and blog about it, and they can leave comments which I can either refute or not publish (if the comments are rude and attack-y rather than thoughtful), and everyone's happy and exercising their freedoms in civic debate.

The "China can't be a democracy" blather is a popular one, and here I am (yay! you can all relax now, haha) to give you a point-by-point rundown of why it's bullshit.

"China can't be a democracy because democracy won't work with Chinese culture the way it does with Western culture."

Wrong. First, while Taiwan is not China, Taiwan does have a strong Chinese cultural influence - and what's important is that that influence stems from pre-Communist days and still carries a lot of traditional Chinese beliefs that were eradicated or greatly cut back during the Cultural Revolution. Taiwan is a democracy. A strong, functioning democracy that, well, yeah OK, sometimes they hit each other or spit on one another and there's vote buying and such but generally the system works and is fair. If Taiwan, while not actually China, provides an acceptable stand-in for how democracy would work in the context of Chinese culture....and it works just fine, thanks. Hong Kong actually is a part of China, although you could argue cultural distinction there, too, and while not a full-fledged democracy there's no reason to believe that democracy wouldn't work there.

Looking at other countries in East Asia, culturally they're not as similar to China, but there are a lot of shared traits (especially when you look at the influence of Confucian thought in Korea). They're all functioning democracies. They all have problems, but there's no government on Earth with the possible exception of Bhutan that doesn't.

Looking at some aspects of Confucian thought, by the way, it does make room for democracy. The Mandate of Heaven is something that can be taken away by unruly, unhappy masses. It was considered acceptable for dynasties to fall - this to me sounds like a cultural tic that would allow for democracy. Confucius also once said "惡政猛於虎", or "a tyrannical government is more fearsome than tigers". This does not sound like a philosophy that is 100% opposed to democracy. I don't even think I need to go into why Daoism and democracy work just fine.

"But those countries are small. China's too big to be a democracy!"

Yes, it has a big population, but so does India - and India, while a bit crazy, has a democracy that could generally be described as functioning. In ways I don't quite understand, and more than a little corrupt, but functioning. In its way. Yes, it covers huge tracts of land, but so do Canada, the USA and Brazil - and they're all democracies. Indonesia, too.

OK, there's one other obvious country that bears mentioning. It's true that Russia is mostly a democracy in name only, in that narrow definition of democracy in which - to quote Brendan - "there's an election and whoever gets the most votes wins".

Taiwan's got a relatively small population but it's extremely dense, which puts it in the running. And let's not forget Bangladesh. Poor, densely packed...and a democracy.

"But China is too diverse. You can't govern that different a population with democracy. You need stronger central rule."

Let's leave aside my strong belief that Tibet and Xinjiang (Uighur territory) should be granted either true autonomy (what the CCP offers now is not real autonomy) or independence.

I'd argue the opposite - that the only way to govern a large, diverse country is  through democracy, so different groups can have their say and, one hopes anyway, through the process of  inclusion feel less marginalized. I realize this is quite the utopian viewpoint but hey, seems to work in Canada. The USA is a more contentious issue. It is possible to demarginalize minorities and historically oppressed groups through democracy. It seems possible to do that with autocracy, but it never seems to actually work out that way.

I'd also say "let's look back at that list above". America is huge and diverse, both racially and culturally.   Brazil's pretty diverse, with all sorts of  native populations. India is the poster child for linguistic and cultural diversity - we may think of them all as "Indians" but come on. Go to India for awhile and tell me what you think then. Singapore, while small, is extraordinarily diverse. Indonesia's got some diversity going on - any island nation that huge would. Every single one of these countries have made democracy work.

"But China is still developing and democratic reform can only come with economic gains!"

This is the first statement I do give some credence to - it's true that moving from the Third World to the first does tend to have a democratizing effect on nations and one can't discount the effect of economics on politics.

That said, China is approaching, development-wise, the spot Taiwan was in when it underwent its transition to democracy. You could say the same for South Korea (although they might have been farther along - I'm not an economist and I am estimating here). As above, Bangladesh is massively poor, and yet a democracy.  India is lagging behind China - although doing very well in its own right - and it's a democracy.

"But the people don't want democracy. If they did, they'd demand it."

Ask the people who were at Tiananmen Square - if they're still alive - what they think of that one.

Hell, go to China and ask almost anyone, provided you're friends enough that they'll speak honestly with you and they're not one of the rapidly decreasing number of Chinese brainwashed in schools to believe their government is infallible (this belief tends to deflate the minute you get to know someone well enough to learn what they really think). You'll hear a different story. A democratic revolution against a party so ensconced in and obsessed with power as the CCP is not an easy fight to win. It wasn't easy for the Arab Spring countries, and it will be even harder in China. One shouldn't have to die for democracy: it's a human right to have a say in how you are governed. I can understand why someone might not want to actually die for it, even if they sincerely wish they had it.

"But a Chinese democracy would be so much less efficient than the current government. That's why India hasn't caught up to China."

Again, interesting belief, worth exploring, but ultimately wrong.

Well, not 100% wrong, it's true that democracy tends to be inefficient and that the CCP can get what it wants done more quickly (and bloodily). That tends to happen when you have a blatant disregard for citizens' rights, the health of your populace or, well, basically anything other than the path you've decided is the way forward.

First, considering that they built a dam on an earthquake fault, that roads fall apart, government-built factories fall apart, pollutants are sprayed into the countryside, the food supply is basically horrific, the water is undrinkable, you can't even be guaranteed you'll be able to keep land you own and you definitely won't be paid fairly if the government takes it, people suffer so much in Gansu that it's rendered a huge percentage of the population mentally disabled, and the horrible concrete tile-covered boxes that get built are very dodgy indeed - I don't even want to know how lacking the safety standards are - I wouldn't call the government that efficient. If it were, it would have done something about its constant environmental degradation and the air wouldn't be gray and sooty even in the countryside (I lived in semi-rural China and I got bronchial pneumonia twice in one year. The mountains in the distance were obscured by an unmoving haze of horrible smoky blech, even on sunny days).

Awhile back you'll remember that a section of road on the way to Keelung in Taiwan was buried under a landslide, and a few people died. I remember in that article reading that it was a surprise, as all manner of testing had been done on the hillside to ensure that it was a safe place to build a road. In China, the government would have sent an official, who'd point at a random hillside and say "build it there". "But..." "I said build it there." "OK."

I also question this deep need for better efficiency when it comes at the cost of human  and civil rights. Would you really trade freedom of speech for getting giant skyscrapers built a little faster?  Would you trade land rights for a superhighway built more quickly? Does a government that feels the need to restrict the rights and actions of its people deserve the adjective "efficient", or just "cruel"? I'd say that if the grease that oils your gears to make things go faster is actually blood, then it's not a good trade at all.

*fresh outta the dorms

Quote in Forbes!! (11!!11!!)!1

Here I am!

I mean, I'm not entirely a "food blogger" but I blog enough about food that...hey, sure. Sounds good to me.

This isn't really the entirety of what I said, but it's a good enough quote taken from a much lengthier opinion on Din Tai Fung.

For the record, I do think their dumplings are excellent, but I don't eat there often - I've been once - because while they're really good, there's only so much you can do with a dumpling and I find their prices high. I believe the price has more to do with being able to get away with charging Japanese tourists that much than it does with how much it actually costs to run the restaurant and make a profit.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Domestic Hobbies

One of my  DIY projects - I wear it constantly!

I had a day off on Monday. Brendan and I went to Dihua Street to look at fabric for sheer curtains - we also ate lunch, I stopped to chat with my tailor and  got a massage, too. To be honest, I'm the one who cares about curtain colors - Brendan came along to keep me company, give a few opinions, eat delicious shrimp roll rice and make funny commentary (me: "I actually like the idea of this deep taupe color with an intense eggplant purple, but I can't wrap my head around actually using such a Grandma color." Brendan: "I didn't even know 'taupe' was a color until you just said so. This is why you're taking charge of this. If it were me, I'd be all 'Oh, that's not gray? OK, I'll just keep my mouth shut.'")

Generally speaking I've been thinking about home furnishings, paint colors, curtains and other arguably "stereotypically feminine" stuff since we signed the lease on the new apartment. I'm tickled to have a great new space to work with.

After our fabric scouting (Brendan: "I like light colors but let's stay away from anything that screams 'cupcake frosting', 'preschool' or 'retirement home') we stopped for coffee at the outdoor cafe attached to Yongle Market. Brendan was making general social commentary as he read the Taipei Times and later correcting student homework. I was happy to sip my coffee and think about color schemes:  ruby and plum! Persian green and peacock! Cranberry and cerulean!

At first glance this might make us look like the latest thing to step out of Stepford: a silly woman thinking about nothing of substance beyond what color to paint her living room, and a man reading the paper. I realized this, turned to Brendan, and said: "You know, I don't think it's so bad that I'm enjoying one of Taipei's rare sunny days by sitting outside contemplating color schemes. I mean, I have a good job, I can support myself, I'm educated, I'm reasonably politically tuned in and interested in being civically active and have traveled on my own dime around the world. I don't think it's a degradation to my female empowerment that I'm sitting here trying to decide whether to paint a wall of the living room Persian green or peacock blue, or that you are not thinking about it."

Of course I know Brendan realizes this: he married me - clearly he knows me. I just tend to say lot of things like this in a stream-of-consciousness way. It's how I think. Yes, I do tend to keep up a verbal, mumbled, running commentary at home (I can curb it in public) and I'm sure it's annoying as hell!

Which brings me to this piece in The Washington Post - which, by the way, I love the slightly retro hipster art depicting the hipster girl (you can tell because she's wearing Hipster Glasses, has a hipster 'bird' tattoo and totally hipster haircut).   The writer asks:

But in an era when women still do the majority of the housework and earn far less of the money, “reclaiming” domesticity is about more than homemade holiday treats. Could this “new domesticity” start to look like old-fashioned obligation?

I don't earn "far less money" in my field, but the point is taken. And:

Women like me are enjoying domestic projects again in large part because they’re no longer a duty but a choice. But how many moral and environmental claims can we assign to domestic work before it starts to feel, once more, like an obligation? If history is any lesson, my just-for-fun jar of jam could turn into my daughter’s chore, and eventually into my granddaughter’s “liberating” lobster strudel (from the bakery). And as . . . delicious as that sounds, it’s not really what I want on my holiday table in 2050.

Although, to be honest, the societal expectation waaaay back in the day that women would can jam, make clothes and blankets and generally tend the house didn't start because newly settled communities in early  civilizations didn't have legions of just-post-Neolithic women who thought it was "fun", and from there it turned into an obligation such that refusing to do it (or  simply not being inclined to) became a punishable offense. Nobody's really sure why it happened - I don't  entirely buy the evolutionary psychology thing - but I doubt it was because women 11,000 years ago enjoyed housework. 

Women - both in Taiwan, much of Asia and the West - still sometimes suffer these expectations. Women become a target for it when planning weddings and having children especially: it's like everything that people are keeping inside or don't want to admit they actually think comes out.  One person I  knew from Offbeat Bride's planning community was told "learn how to make swan-shaped pastries. Your husband will love that. Men like it when women know how to do these kinds of things."      

Uhhh...really? Because I think Brendan would be all "cool" and then eat the pastry, and he's one of the most in-touch, feminist men I know (which is why I married him, natch)! 

It's true though: I feel that my desire to  decorate, or my love of jewelry-making, or my skill with cooking and baking, don't threaten or contradict my being an empowered woman - but that's because I have the freedom to choose to do these things or not, as I wish. For what it's worth,  men have the same choice. Who chooses to exercise it is really not my concern, although I'd like to see a socialization process from childhood that encouraged boys who are so inclined to pursue these hobbies without fear of being seen as 'effeminate' or 'unmanly'.

Frankly, I'd like to see gender assignment be stricken entirely from the various hobbies one might have. I'd like to see cooking, knitting, quilting, painting, canning, hiking, computer geekery, doing various sports, enjoying good whiskey, wine or beer, stamp collecting, insect collecting etc. lose their 'feminine' and 'masculine' labels entirely.

I would not, however, want my generation's desire to knit, bake and can to become our daughter's expectation that she should enjoy these things, to become her daughter's obligation to do them, to become her daughter's renewed fight for liberation from expectations that she do them. It is all too easy to see she likes to sew and cook become women like to sew and cook, then women like to sew and cook, so they should do those things, then, women aren't predisposed to working outside the home, after all they are naturally better at sewing and cooking, then woman, fix my shirt and cook my dinner!, then you're a woman and you don't like to sew and cook? What's wrong with you? You must be a morally bankrupt harlot! Send her to Dr. Englebert for shock therapy!

I say this, even though it's a bit repetitive, because I've seen a very similar thought process in individuals (usually men, but some women too). I think it's relevant to this blog because, while Taiwan is a much better place for women to live than other Asian countries, I have seen similar thought processes here - again, mostly among men, but you hear it from women too.

Which begs the question - at what point would expectations that a woman should enjoy things that can genuinely be "fun", like sewing and cooking, become an expectation that she should also do things like, oh, say, all that other housework that falls under virtually nobody's definition of "fun"? It's all well and good when one does things that many see as pleasurable, but what about all that domestic stuff - like scrubbing and sweeping - that nobody really enjoys? When does that include giving up gains in the workplace to stay home and do that work, because women "enjoy it more" or "are better at it"? And does that lead to discussions of "nurterers" or "providers"? As the article says:

Many champions of the DIY movement explicitly say that domestic work shouldn’t be about gender. But I’ve also noticed a resurgence of old-fashioned gender essentialism from some surprising sources. I’ve lately been hearing things like “There’s just something natural about women taking on the nurturing role in the home” coming out of the mouths of women’s studies grads and Ivy League PhDs.

This bothers me, because I do think that this tendency is far more 'nurture' and not nearly as much 'nature' as people think. Millenia of social 'nurturing' towards these roles can, in fact, create what seems like a natural tendency. Even if some of it is biological, not all of it is.

It also bothers me because I'm sorry, I just don't feel that way. I like my DIY projects but I am not, not, not a nurturer in the home (this is not a "the lady doth protest too much", this is my reaction to years of hearing people say that "women" are like this, implying that I, as a woman, should also be like this). I'm not a caregiver, really - I'm a natural provider. I'm pretty good at winnin' the bread, bringin' home a large chunk of the bacon. I can be  nurturing but it is not a role I take to long-term. I can provide short-term care but long-term nurturing would drive me up a wall. It's one reason why I'm not inclined to have kids. I'm good at certain types of DIY but not a dynamo in the domestic sphere: I'm terrible at housework, both at remembering to do it and at executing it. 

I have the freedom to enjoy my various DIY hobbies because I can do them without fear that it will lead to an expectation that I would prefer doing them to working, or that I can't or shouldn't be a breadwinner because I'm "just a silly woman" who likes to bake, decorate and make jewelry. I am sure there are still people out there who believe that staying home might be an option that I choose someday (it won't - I guess you never can say but if either of us stayed home it would just as likely be Brendan), but generally speaking they don't say so (thanks!) and most people wouldn't question the coexistence of my career with my hobbies. My mother does  a lot of  DIY and my mother-in-law is an expert quilter, and nobody would question that they are empowered women. 

I also mention this with relation to Taiwan because while back home, the idea of a "house husband", while rare, is basically accepted. At least it's conceived of. I mention the word "house husband" or "stay at home dad" in Taiwan and I get laughs - oh! What a cute word! Haha! - in a tone that clearly indicates that it's a hilarious idea from the West but of course no family in Taiwan would include something so preposterous as a house husband. It's unheard of, and not considered seriously - when it should be.  You still hear stories like that of one of my students:  she once told me she spent the weekend cleaning her apartment, because her mother-in-law was visiting, and expected his (ie her son's) apartment to be clean and would criticize her (the daughter-in-law) if it wasn't spotless. 

I say this believing that these days, for most women in Taiwan and the West (but not necessarily the rest of Asia), staying home is done out of choice, not expectation. In the West, men have the same choice. In Taiwan, they really don't.

Taiwanese women don't seem to be pushed to pursue 'feminine' hobbies, but I do see them steered away from 'masculine' ones. Most people wouldn't necessarily expect a Taiwanese woman to enjoy cooking, scrapbooking or sewing but they would definitely not expect her to enjoy, say, whiskey tasting, woodworking, computer geeking or certain sports - and they might judge her negatively for those things, far more harshly than I would get judged back home (which is not that harshly at all: women can pick up "masculine" hobbies with little problem - it's men picking up "feminine" ones that stirs derision). 

I will say that I have noticed that Taiwanese women are not expected to enjoy cooking - or even to do it regardless of enjoyment - nearly as much as women in other Asian countries.  There are still some old-school mothers in law who do the cooking because they think they should, or are happy to, or have convinced themselves that they're happy to. There are others who expect that their daughter-in-law will do it. Other than them and possibly a few misogynist men, it's far more acceptable for a Taiwanese woman - at least in Taipei -  to say "yeah, I don't cook" or "we eat out a lot because I'm a terrible cook" or "our domestic helper cooks because I can't" or "sometimes I make fried rice or fish, but that's it" than it is  for a Japanese, Chinese or Korean woman to be so  honest.

I can, however, imagine an American man picking up, say, making jam more easily than I could see a Taiwanese man doing it - and I see neither picking up knitting or quilting. Yet you hear so many expats saying that Taiwanese men are 'effeminate' or 'not manly' (I don't agree, though - well, I almost always don't agree. When I see a man walking by holding his girlfriend's glittery pink heart purse, I have to admit...). That brings up a whole new discussion of gender dynamics in Taiwan that I might explore in a later post.

It's also worth pointing out this section: 

"...writer Erin Bried recalls serving her dinner party guests a homemade “rhubarb” pie accidentally made with look-alike Swiss chard. One might chalk this up as a simple goof (hey, they’ve both got red stems!), but Bried sees her mistake as something much more serious: “When did I lose my ability to take care of myself? . . . What is simultaneously comforting and alarming about my domestic incompetence is that I am hardly alone. I’m joined by millions of women, Gen Xers and Gen Yers, who either have consciously rejected household endeavors in favor of career or, even more likely, were simply raised in the ultimate age of convenience and consumerism.”

This vision of what it means for a woman to take care of herself is either radically new or incredibly retro. Bried is a senior staff writer at a major national magazine, yet she’s framing her ability to take care of herself around her ability to bake a pie.
Exactly - this is why I am posting this at all. I frame my ability to take care of myself around my ability to be self-sufficient, to create and  nurture good relationships, to set and achieve goals and have enough time and money to do things I enjoy. This includes being able to take care of a home, but by that I mean "cook myself a decent, edible meal, not give anyone food poisoning, and keep the place relatively clean without ruining my stuff".  You know, not that much more than one normally expects of bachelors. Being able to bake a pie, is really, honestly a bonus. It would  genuinely scare me to see a new generation of women framing their abilities around only what they can do in the home, and not just a part of what they're capable of, and things like pie baking and knitting are placed where they belong: nice skills to have, but not strictly necessary. Not necessary the way being able to earn a living wage (even if you, with your partner, choose not to do so in lieu of equally valuable contributions at home) is, or being able to clean without destroying your floor, cook a basic meal without killing yourself, handle your own finances or have satisfying relationships are.

I guess I don't have a clear point, other than to provide my thoughts on the article above and tie it in a few ways to my own life and  what I've observed in Asia.

It does lead me to a final point, though, that a resurgence of domestic hobbies isn't what we, the new generation of feminists, need to be fighting for - in the West or in Taiwan. We still have a lot of other things to tackle:

Equal Pay for Equal Work: this gets better all the time, but those who say that women's salaries are lower only because of the kind of work they do or amount of work they put in vis-a-vis family time miss the point. The first point is that no, studies clearly show lower paychecks for the same job done at the same level of dedication. Secondly, jobs that typically are done by women (teaching, nursing etc) are generally speaking underpaid - they deserve far more than they get. Especially teachers, who are professionals just like doctors or lawyers, although in a different way.

Equal Dedication to Family: a lot of women drop off in the workforce because the societal expectation is still on them to be the 'nurterers' and 'caregivers' - so  they're expected to cut back at work far more than men.  Flextime for family should be something that both parents can take advantage of without stigma. Making the business world family-friendly is not just something that working mothers need, working fathers need it too. The lack of childcare support, which keeps a lot of women who are not so well off that they can afford a nanny or private day care at home, is also a big problem (less so in Taiwan where many people have family to fill this role, but still a problem).

This also includes equivalent/fair childrearing time done by both spouses -  even if one stays home - and equivalent time doing housework or other domestic tasks. If the family decides they're going to make their own cheese or  jam or grow their own vegetables, then I want to see men getting in on that action, too. 

Insidious Beliefs about (against) Reproductive Freedom: 'nuff said. It just doesn't go away. That's sad.

Virulent Misogynist Beliefs: far worse than "oh she's a woman and she likes making jam" are  people who genuinely believe that submissive women are "better" than assertive ones, who believe that beauty is truly more important for a woman than brains, who believe - openly! - that women are the gatekeepers of sexuality and chastity and that men can never be expected to be responsible, and who place ridiculous expectations on women - that we can't be too smart, that we always need to be just a bit thinner or more buxom, that we should be super skinny and yet still cook amazing brownies and not be afraid to eat them, that we should make less than our spouses or not be quite as successful. This group includes anyone who likes "Asian women" for being "more beautiful, slender, submissive, gentle" or whatever tripe, and especially those who say that openly. (It does not include men who are dating an Asian woman just because he happens to like her for her - I want to be very specific about that).                                          

It's one thing to have a personal preference for certain personality types, and there is nothing wrong with women who are quieter, not as naturally assertive, not as take-charge - and nothing wrong with men who tend to like those women. There's nothing wrong with two people who agree that they want a more traditional home life. 

It becomes wrong when someone decides that submissiveness, quietness and other qualities traditionally pegged to women are "better" than women who are talkative, take-charge, assertive and maybe a little brash. It becomes a problem when you believe that being a woman means you should be a doormat. It becomes a problem when they criticize any other personality type in a woman as 'unfeminine' or 'undesireable', or imply that all women 'should' be a certain way by virtue of them being women.

I will add that those guys are wrong, simply by virtue of the fact that women like me exist. They're just wrong. If they were right I'd be a miserable spinster (not that all unmarried women are miserable or could be called spinsters - I'm using a term they'd use). I wouldn't have a happy life and wonderful husband who prefers me to all the "slender, beautiful, quiet, submissive" women out there.

Equal Representation: those who say "you've won the battle, what are you still crowing about?" clearly haven't looked at the numbers for female representation in politics, the vitriol of attack ads aimed at female candidates that sometimes border on sexist (and sometimes blatantly are sexist). They haven't looked at the numbers at the higher echelons of business or wealth distribution. Oprah is famous for being an extremely wealthy black woman because she's the exception, not the norm. Cher Wang, again - exception, not the norm. We are underrepresented and attacked when we try to represent. This needs to change.

Societal Treatment of Abuse, Rape and Harassment: again, 'nuff said.

Basically, yes, there are issues raised by this resurgence of domestic 'hobbies' among young women, but that's not nearly our biggest issue. Let's tackle the above first, just as our mothers and grandmothers did, and not really worry about who likes knitting and who doesn't.