Saturday, March 31, 2012

Aphrodite Europe Flea Market

Aphrodite Antiques and Europe Flea Market
Monday-Sunday 11am-9pm
#16-1-3 Section 6 Minquan East Road, Neihu Dist.
Taipei 114 Taiwan

Directions: Take a bus heading over Minquan Bridge (民權大橋) and get off at the first stop in Neihu (the stop is called "Minquan Bridge", in Chinese "Minquan Da Qiao").  You'll see Aphrodite on the right as you come off the bridge. After alighting, walk back to the bridge entrance and Aphrodite is on the left after the store selling chi-chi glass decorations and the expensive Chinese furniture store. 

Side note, across the street from that bus stop is Miro Furniture - expensive, but great if you want good-quality wooden furniture with a sort of Indian, Middle Eastern, Silk Road flair.

I teach once a week in this part of Neihu, between Minquan Bridge and the Costco and giant RT Mart. It's fantastic, because although the area has very little - I couldn't even find a pharmacy once when I had a headache, and it was impossible to find food anywhere other than the Barista Coffee when the 7-11 was under renovation - it's perfect if I need to stop at B&Q or RT Mart after class.

That's how I found Aphrodite. I'd passed it on the bus hundreds of times, and seen the sign for the "Europe Flea Market" [sic], and the interesting, thrift-store style stuff outside. One day, looking for apartment decoration, I decided to pop in after class. I've also explored the other furniture stores in the area - there's some good stuff for those who don't mind looking for hours on end and who have budgets that can stretch beyond IKEA.

This place is a secondhand store in the truest sense of the word: only the brightly colored crystal drink and wine glasses appeared to be "new", everything else is genuinely aged or used, some of it genuine antique or vintage, some of it thrift-store-tacular. It's not as cheap as an American Goodwill, but not as expensive as the Treasure Hunt Flea Market near MRT Guting, from where we also obtained some of the items decorating our home.

The main difference is that Aphrodite really does mostly import its treasures from abroad, mostly Europe. At Treasure Hunt, you'll find old Taiwanese and Chinese antiques and vintage items, including old boxes, baskets, wood carvings, teacups, sake sets and more "Asian" stuff. At Aphrodite, you'll find European glassware (much of it the kind of thing you'd find on Great Aunt Crappadocia's credenza, which you used to think was lame but now think is totally cool and retro), espresso sets, vases, copper and brass items, plateware and other random  stuff that comes more from the West than the East. This isn't the place to go if you want to make your apartment look like the Formosa Vintage Museum Cafe (which, come on, I not-so-secretly do want to do) - it's the place to go for the kind of cool secondhand stuff you'd decorate with back home.

The part of the store near the main entrance sells mostly small items at prices under NT$1000 - this is where I picked up my blue glass vase, liqueur glasses and wooden coasters, above. The vase was NT95, the glasses NT60 each and the coasters, genuinely antique and worth "something", were NT195 each.

There are copper vases and pots that run a few thousand kuai, furniture that is really expensive, and tons of funky, retro European inexpensive ceramicware that looks like the stuff at your grandma's place, which she got from her mother who was an immigrant from Germany. There are some true finds - old copper pitchers, real crystal - and lots of cheaper, funky stuff if you just want to pick up something fun.

Prices are a bit unpredictable - a seemingly modest little copper creamer pot can be several hundred kuai, whereas those adorable liqueur glasses I scored were really dirt cheap. You just never know.

When I first popped in to Aphrodite, it was nearly empty, and again the time after that. I thought I'd found a truly undiscovered gem. The past few times I've been here, however, there have been many more people - almost all of them locals (not expats). The best stuff is selling more quickly - I'd actually wanted far more ornate wooden coasters but by the time I returned, they were gone. On the "SOLD" shelf was an impossibly beautiful copper watering pitcher with a brass lion's head and decorated with red, blue and aqua-green stones or resin dots (I couldn't tell which from a distance). I would give my left nut for that pitcher, but it's gone. I'm in love with the colorful crystal chunky French wine glasses (I would get a set in hot pink, bright tangerine and lime) but can't justify spending NT$485 each on them when I already have plenty of wine glasses.

So get yourself over there, and if you see something you like, buy, don't dally.

Divorce and Family Dynamics in Taiwanese News

This has nothing to do with the post. I just like the photo.
I know this China-style forced-eviction-and-demolition in Shilin is the big news across Taiwan, or at least Taipei, this weekend (for the record, I'm all in favor of kicking out Hau Lung-bin, just as much because he's an idiot generally as because of this), but another article caught my eye.

This is a perfect example of why no-fault divorce should be legal everywhere in the world. I'm not entirely familiar with Taiwan's divorce laws. I know they used to be ridiculously sexist (a man could leave his wife if she refused to move with him for his work, but a wife couldn't leave her husband over his refusal to move for her work, the idea being that a wife should move for her husband's career but not the other way around) and have since been somewhat reformed, but I'm not sure to what extent. Clearly no-fault divorce with only one spouse consenting to divorce is not permissible, or else this woman would have gotten one.

What bothers me is that the court didn't think that the mother-in-law unlocking the couple's bedroom door at all hours of the night to "check on them" was sufficiently emotionally distressing or a violation of privacy. That says a lot about the power of mothers-in-law (especially the husband's mother) in Taiwan, and yes, while a case could be made that a court might have said the same to a man whose wife's mother was doing the same thing, it's hard not to see this ruling as a sexist one. It makes it quite clear that in the court's eyes, a wife needs to just deal with nosy mothers-in-law, and not listening to objections and having a spouse who does nothing to stop his own mother is not enough reason to terminate a marriage.   

I feel that, well, how could any court possibly be the final decision maker regarding what is and is not intolerable stress or privacy violation? What court has the right to tell you that you must or must not stick it out in a bad marriage based on your circumstances? No court - that's a very personal decision and I don't believe it's something a third party can rule on.   

That said, the wife sort of made her own bed: her husband did offer to send his mother back down south to live, and the wife apparently refused, thinking that others would judge her poorly.

I just wonder why they didn't change the bedroom door lock and not give the mother-in-law a key. I also wonder what the mother-in-law hoped to accomplish. If it was the propagation of grandchildren, barging in on them at random times was obviously not the way to go about it!

It's surprisingly common not just for couples to live with one set of parents (usually the husband's) or near them, or to feel pressured into visiting them every single weekend, or to even give in to in-law pressure to procreate - which, from a cultural standpoint, horrifies me, but it's not my culture. Plenty of Taiwanese people I know seem horrified that my sister lives in Taiwan, I have a spare room, and yet she does not live with me and my husband. Of course, to us, it's perfectly natural that a 25-year-old single woman living abroad with her own set of friends and her own life would want the independence of her own place or roommates her age - to them, it's how can you make your sister live alone like that, all by herself like she's in prison, and paying so much for rent?! Ha. Haha. Well.         

It's also fairly common for the in-laws to have a set of keys to your apartment and to visit unannounced whenever they please, and objecting is not allowed or socially condoned. I love my parents and in-laws, but no. Just no.

And all this ruling says is that:

 a.) A woman's unhappiness in her marriage is not her own decision. She can basically be told that her feelings are "wrong". (A man could be told this too, but somehow I suspect that a lack of initiated-by-one-spouse no-fault divorce means the law is in favor of men, and that husbands would be more likely to be granted the divorce;

b.) A woman has no right to the final decision of what is unbearable in a marriage if it can't be proven to be abuse, adultery or something else that could instigate divorce with fault;

c.) Mothers-in-law have the right to make their childrens' spouses miserable (especially wives);

d.) Taiwanese society doesn't seem to expect the husband to stand up against his mother for his wife.

All of these point to a sore spot of continued sexism in Taiwan that could be easily fixed with single-spouse initiated no-fault divorce. No need to prove anything, no need to obtain consent, if you want out, you can get out. I would trust those who exercise that option to do it wisely and with much forethought and attempted reconciliation, but in the end I'd respect their decision based on their experience in that marriage. I don't feel anyone has the right to rule on that for them. Male or female, but women are especially hurt by a lack of such a divorce provision.

But, ah, the power of mothers-in-law...

I'm reminded of an incident a few weeks ago when we were running to catch a train to Ruifang to take my in-laws to Jiufen - the next train wasn't for another hour and, due to an issue with my EasyCard, we were about to miss this one. It was far down on the track from where we entered - local trains don't take up the entire platform - and my mother-in-law couldn't possibly have run that far that quickly due to health issues. I went flying up the platform to the attendant, who tried to usher me on-board, and with fake tears in my eyes (I'm a very good actress, apparently) I bawled that we needed to be on this train because I was taking care of my mother-in-law who was visiting Taiwan, oh please sir, would you please help me make sure we get on this train?! *sniff*.

And you know what? He held the train. He kept it on the platform for at least 1-2 minutes longer than it should have been just so we could all make it onboard and not have to wait for the next one. 

I highly doubt he would have done that for two young people (although two whippersnappers such as Brendan and myself could have just made it at a sprint). But for a (foreign) mother-in-law, hold that train!!

Similarly, while they were here our water heater crapped out. I called a plumber on Saturday morning. He said he'd be there "in an hour or so".
"Oh no, but my mother-in-law is here!"
"Oh. In that case, I'll come immediately!"

Updated Post: The Best Coffee in Taipei

I've updated my post on the best coffee in Taipei to include a better review of Rufous (get their espresso or cold brew coffee, not the siphon brew) and include Cafe Booday and a gem of a find in the middle of Nowhere Street, Random Part of Zhonghe called Gold Diamond which has surprisingly good stuff.


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Of Facebook, Loneliness and Suicide

Still contemplating a blogging break, but this is news I feel I should link to:

31-year old Taiwanese woman kills herself while chatting on Facebook

This is really just awful. The whole thing: the suicide, the "friends" who didn't call the police, the fact that they might not have even been good enough friends to know her phone number or where she lived, the fact that the catalyst seemed to be an inattentive boyfriend on her birthday, the fact that the problems she must have had surely went far beyond not only one bad episode with the boyfriend, or even one bad relationship. The fact that she got no help for whatever personal demons led her to do this. 

It highlights a lot of issues that deserve thought and discussion: how Facebook can be isolating, the nature of friendship in Taiwan, a lack of awareness about depression or other similar issues that could lead to suicide*, questions about the suicide rate among women in Taiwan (I know that in China it's higher for women than men, which is the opposite of the rest of the world - I don't know about Taiwan). There's also the nature of relationships in Taiwan and how living with parents before marriage, working late and a culture that discourages men from expressing themselves and seems to drive a wedge rather than build a bridge between men and women, families who don't know what's going on with each other, despite much touted "closer family ties" in Taiwan.

I hear that last one a lot: "family is so much more important in Asia". Yes, but I get the distinct impression that for all the family obligations, the length of time adult children often live at home, the more frequent family socializing and everyone-up-in-yo'-business family culture, relatives aren't generally close. Siblings and cousins in the same generation might be, but children - especially adult children - don't seem to be as close to their parents as I am to my parents or Brendan is to his. I feel that for all the time they spend together, they actually communicate less.

As for the boyfriend - I am reminded of that old "不要走!不要走!殺很大!" computer game commercial. I have to wonder how common that sort of "silently ignoring each other but not breaking up" thing happens among Taiwanese couples. In the end, though, to go so far as to kill herself, I would say that one can't blame the boyfriend: she clearly had problems of her own well beyond his inattentiveness. Blame a lack of adequate awareness, intervention at warning signs when someone is troubled to the point of suicidal, though. That's a huge problem.

*I'm only conjecturing here, but it seems fair to speculate that she was suffering from some issues deserving of mental health treatment

Monday, March 26, 2012

Can't even think of a title, something about women or something

Here's where I honestly say that I'm thinking of taking a blogging break of a few weeks - not sure if I'll do it yet, we'll see. I've been working so hard that I got sick, even though the hours I work are still far less insane than - well, than most Taiwanese with office jobs. Blogging has fallen by the wayside, which you might have noticed as I've been opening almost every post with "sorry" or "need to blog more often" or "so much to say, no time" or "I'm really tired / have a headache".

And then this comes along, including an editorial here and some stats here in the China Post which I normally never read (can't stand the thing), complete with comments on "leftover women" and the resulting hate from both sides, and I know I should be blogging on it, but all I can summon over the whole thing is a resounding "WTF". And while occasionally "WTF" makes a perfectly acceptable blog post, I would normally want to do more with this story than leave it there.

That's when I realize I'm dropping a ball that, maybe, I have no business for the time being of carrying. I've got, to put it in the filthiest terms possible, enough balls it seems.

So, we'll see. I may or may not blog again for the rest of this week and next and see how I feel, and if I need more time off.

For what it's worth, I'll do my halfhearted best here.

As for the person who originally made the "leftover women" comments, Zhang Xiaofeng (張曉風, or Chang Show-foong or however you want to spell it) - she just makes me sad. We hear enough of this bullshit from men - it's really not OK for a woman to be attacking other women in this way. I'm used to hearing sexist crap from guys. I mean, I'm from the USA after all, and while we may seem to lead the world in progressivism, the vicious bile spewed by so many American men - hate speech really - and the recent contraception debate have really put that into question. It's sad when an American woman, who ostensibly comes from one of the most egalitarian countries on Earth, feels that she hears more of this crap from her own country than from less progressive and egalitarian places.

But when a woman makes comments that make it clear that being married is the only measure of value for adult women...that's just insane. Aren't we supposed to be in this together? Married or not? Rich or poor? Whatever our race or background? Can't we women all just please get together and agree that being married is not only not the sole measure of value of a woman, but not any measure of value whatsoever? Please, can all of womankind - and preferably all of humankind - please agree on this one simple thing, that it's OK to be female and not to marry?

What's sad in Taiwan is that I hear the opposite - that a woman's only worth is as a wife and mother - from women more than I do from men (although I am sure plenty of men secretly believe it). I hear it from this idiot Chang lady, from grandmas obasans and moms and aunties and frenemies. I don't hear it from men, although maybe they're just quiet around me. Back home, I hear it from men (and I tune them out as best I can).

As for the rest of it, I generally agree with the editorial linked above. First, she's just wrong about "leftover women" - the stats prove it. Second, the writer is absolutely right: even if some of the Taiwanese men who've married foreign women (and by "foreign" I mean "Chinese, Southeast Asian", not "white" - that still seems to be not very common) hadn't done so, that doesn't mean Taiwanese women would choose to marry them.

Of course, my problem is not with interracial marriage. I have no issue with that, and obviously this is regardless of where the two people come from. I am sure plenty of Taiwanese guy/SE Asian woman matches are actually marriages based on love and partnership.

I *do* have an issue with mail-order marriage: the problem isn't marrying foreigners per se. It's more the idea of picking a woman out of a catalogue and having her shipped over. It's sad to say that these marriages are almost always Taiwanese man/SE Asian or Chinese woman, but there you have it.

Since I, at a glance, can't necessarily tell the two apart, I generally try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I have my views, but in the end someone else's marriage is not my business.

And with those men - the ones who think "a wife is a cleaner and bed-warmer that I can pay to have sent here" - yeah, no, who would want to marry someone like that? The problem isn't foreigners, interracial marriage or whatever: it's sexism. It's the mail order bride industry, but more than that, it's the attitudes of the men who obtain such wives that make the mail-order bride industry viable. "I need a wife so I'm going to pay an agent to ship a woman over from Vietnam" is very, very different from "I love and want to marry this person who happens to be a foreigner". It is sexism, and it is an attitude problem, and I daresay it's with the men.

"Leftover women" remarks aside, Taiwan is still a place where, if you can avoid the occasional barb, you can choose not to marry (in that regard, it's not all that different from the USA) without too much of a problem. My impression, gained from observations from friends and students, is that Taiwanese women who don't marry either:

a.) Have actively chosen not to, because they prefer being single; or
b.) Would like to marry, but really do want to meet someone they can love and be a partner with and haven't met that person yet.
c.) Would like to marry, but, something like (b), have been disappointed time and time again by what prospective marriage partners would expect out of a marriage (doing the bulk of the housework if not all of it, kowtowing to mom-in-law, doing most if not all of the child-rearing) and have decided that being single is better than that.

Because as much as I like to say that Taiwan is pretty good in terms of women's status when compared to the rest of Asia, it's still got some serious problems.

I have never met a woman in Taiwan who is old enough to marry but is single because:

c.) The good, available guys don't want her; or
d.) Her standards are impossibly high, including demands on income and home ownership

...of course, women who do have these issues or standards aren't likely to admit to them, or even necessarily be conscious of them. I am sure there are women out there who feel this way, and I've just done a good job of avoiding them.

I know my friends pretty well, though, and they're super cool people (not the type to have insane standards and insist on diamonds or owning a nice apartment before marriage) and lovely ladies, and my students seem similarly down-to-earth. I think if (c) or (d) were issues, I'd be able to intuit that.

And yet, so many people seem to point to those reasons, and blame the women, for not marrying. Not long ago I was at a gathering of expats where the general consensus was that Taiwanese women were impossible, clingy and materialistic. I had to ask myself - do they actually know any Taiwanese women that they didn't pick up in a bar or in English class? Because that certainly doesn't describe my female friends.

I've even heard them blamed for men marrying foreign brides ("if you weren't so opinionated and didn't  overachieve so much, you'd get a man but instead they're marrying Chinese girls because the Chinese girl will let him be the head of the household! Shame on you!") - to which I'd say, if the prize is a guy who'd marry a woman he barely knows because he wants a warm body that happens to include a vagina, then that's not a competition worth entering (sort of like when a Western guy says "well if Western women want to compete with Asian women, they'd better..." - compete? For what prize again? No thanks). (Just making clear again that my issue isn't with marrying foreigners: it's with the mail-order bride industry).

I've heard them blamed for insisting on men who earn as much as or more than they do (which I admit is a problematic social belief, and I have met women who have admitted to this) or otherwise being their professional and social equals. Other than the whole income thing - because money shouldn't really matter that much when it comes to love - I don't see why wanting to marry someone who is on roughly equal footing with you in those areas is deserving of such scorn.

I also don't think it's really all that true: my observation has been that many Taiwanese women are holding out for an egalitarian partnership, not a relationship with a guy who always feels he has to be "in charge". They're holding out for love, for a guy who isn't as likely to cheat or see cheating as his birthright, for a guy who won't try to order them around and who will do his share at home and not always prioritize work. I think that's a good thing, and honestly, if there were a dearth of men who fit that description, even if the country was full of single men, I'd stay single too. Better single than hitched to someone I don't respect, love or trust or who tries to exert control based on sexist values.

But then I've covered all this before. More than once. 

I'm not going to cover the Westerner angle too much - it's been done, and anyway, as a foreign woman married to another foreign guy, I have very little to say on the subject. The best I can come up with are that plenty of Taiwanese woman/foreign guy couples are legit: they genuinely like each other, they're a good match, and it's not skeezy or weird.

Then there are also plenty that, well, do carry a whiff of "undesireable white guy picking up anything Asian in a skirt at a bar that'll have him" ickiness. Since I don't hang around the latter, all I'll say on that is that a.) if you get to know a person or a couple, you can usually tell which it is and b.) even if you can tell which it is, it's generally speaking not your business who a person chooses to couple up with and why, so does it really matter if it's a bit creepy? I mean, it's not like you'd want that guy (I know I wouldn't), and the girl must know what she's getting into - her choice, after all - so whatever.

And I have to admit, I find guys anywhere who'll hook up with any ol' warm body - including a Taiwanese (or Western) man marrying one that's just arrived from Southeast Asia whom he barely knows - to be icky. They're free to do what they like, but that's not who I want to spend my time with.


So, how was that for halfhearted?

Now I'm going to go curl up somewhere.

Friday, March 23, 2012

463 People Like This

Look at this picture of a flower I took! Like like like like like like like like
I don't have time for a full-on post tonight, even though I have more to say on the last post's defense of Taiwanese men.

So, a quick observation.

I have quite a few Taiwanese friends on Facebook, as can be expected after five years, and I've noticed that as Facebook has gotten less popular with my friends back home, it's gotten far more popular in Taiwan. Most, but not all, of my friends in the US have Facebook profiles, but not that many actually use it. Of all of my Washington, DC friends, maybe three use it regularly: two if you don't count the friend who always "Likes" the status updates of people, groups and pages she's subscribed to but never comments on what her friends say or posts her own updates. Other American friends use it more, but I've noticed a gaping chasm between how much content they generate vs. my Taiwanese friends.

I mean, if I post a picture of a pretty flower, even a picture that isn't as good as this one ("here is a pedestrian, plain photo of a very common flower!") or a picture of something extremely common, like a Taiwanese onion pancake or an update like "I'm at Eslite!", my Taiwanese friends will like it and my American friends will ignore it. Posts I make in Chinese, in both languages or in "accessible" English always, regardless of how interesting even I think they are, will always get more action than posts in more complex English, and most (but not all) of it comes from my Taiwanese friends.

If my Taiwanese friends, with their 90-99% Taiwanese networks, post a picture of a boring flower, an onion pancake or say "I'm at Eslite!!", I swear within a half hour "28 people like this" and "18 comments" will already be up.  I think some of them have friends who like just about everything (and all of my friends who like basically everything I post are Taiwanese, although not all do this).

I guess I just feel that overall they're much more active - I'd probably have to post "hey, I just got a raise" or "I just got published" to get that many "Likes". It feels like how Facebook must have felt five years ago in the USA*, when people were more gung-ho and not as "over it". I wouldn't say the USA is totally over Facebook, just that we use it in more moderation, which is probably saner. I think the "I'm sitting in a chair!" "87 people like this" phenomenon will also die down in Taiwan as people start treating it more as a normal, more passive part of life rather than something one does to be 'cool'. Of course, since I believe about  80% of all Facebook updates in Taiwan are made during work hours, quite possibly as a form of rebellion-by-dawdling against the insane hours people are asked to work** in this country, it may not die down quite as much.

Being in the middle is interesting - I post a lot less than many of my Taiwanese friends, but a lot more than most of my American friends, who probably think I'm crazy, like I've got Facebook microchips in my blood or something. I don't - I'm just posting at a rate more in line with my local friends - in fact, even less than that. My Taiwanese friends are generally not that young (32-45 or so), so I can't say it's youth, either.

*I wasn't on Facebook quite 5 years ago, although I'm nearing that anniversary

**Seriously, my Taiwanese coworker said that she's "on call 24/7", seriously, they can call her anytime, and she HAS to pick up or give a good reason why she didn't do so. She'll get flak for not calling back quickly (no allowances for being, say, in the shower or at the gym or uncomfortable on the toilet). I told her, "OK, what I'd do, honestly, is tell them the truth regarding why I didn't pick up. 'Why didn't you answer that call? You didn't call back for a half hour!' 'Yeah, sorry, I was having sex.' or 'I was taking a dump and it took awhile, sorry.' They will NEVER ask you again."

In Defense of Taiwanese Men, Part I: or, Did I Really Move to Taiwan to Escape Sexism?

Tonight a perfect storm of headache and a long seminar for a third straight week (at least this one doesn't carry over to Saturday) has made it hard to make good on my promise to myself to blog at least three times this week. My job is not quite the work-and-stress factory that most jobs in Taiwan are - you might think I'm killing myself, but actually I only taught for 2 hours on Tuesday and 3.5 on Wednesday: I was just still recovering from all the seminars so I didn't do much (and on Wednesday I got locked out of my apartment for a few hours).

Anyway, personal asides aside, here is where I humbly present the first part of my defense of Taiwanese men (more to follow), along with another observation on why living in Taiwan is probably the best a woman could hope for in Asia.

Unless you, to quote the great Ani DiFranco, have "put a bucket over [your] head, and a marshmallow in each ear", you've been following (or heard about and blocked out by sticking your ears in your fingers and going 'LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOOOOO!!!!!') the "contraception debate" (as though there's anything to debate) and resulting slut shaming by not only undifferentiated meat sacks* who were, for some reason, given their own radio show but also, scarily, by a lot of people who, despite the generally negative reaction of much of the nation, actually agreed with him. You've heard the slightly less inflammatory but still sexist rhetoric ("those weren't the words I would have used", birth control is "not OK", and a lovely quote about how hogs have to carry stillborn fetuses to term so why not women) from other public figures. You've heard about how birth control somehow doesn't count, in people's minds, as a facet of health care important to women (regardless of their sex lives: I'm not going to hide behind the "it's also used for other therapeutic purposes, too!" argument because I do not believe that sex, premarital or just for fun, not for makin' babies, is bad or wrong and won't kowtow to anyone else's morality) and therefore doesn't deserve the same coverage as other medications that are to some degree elective*.

And you've known, deep in your heart of hearts, that this isn't some big scary new thing that's happened. You've known that this sick virus has lived in America's almost-but-not-quite mainstream culture for, well, for as long as we've had true women's rights, and even before that.

It manifests itself in its most virulent form on the Internet: I can't even scroll the comment sections in The Washington Post or Slate, both of which I read near daily, on any article having to do with women without coming across comments that range from "thar be a whiff of sexism" to "seriously? The Washington Post allows this sort of hate speech?". I hear denigrations of curvy or fat women, I hear denigrations of average-looking women, average-intelligence women, unattractive women, as well as slender, pretty women who, because they aren't interested in whatever guy is posting his bilious tripe, are, well, b-bombs, or some equivalent. I hear ridiculous defenses of why it's OK for men not to help with housework, why whatever thing is bothering women or plaguing women's rights progress is either a figment of our imaginations, the result of our constant whining or not being attractive or trying hard enough to get a man (or liking the men who post this crap), denigrations of jobs mostly held by women (teachers, nurses, secretaries), and hilarious caterwauling that we "won the fight for equal rights!" - which, of course, we haven't. Not while accessible and affordable contraception and abortion are still being discussed, not while the vast majority of our political representation is male, not while a female presidential candidate is subject to the insults that Hillary and Sarah Palin endured (to be clear: I can't stand Sarah Palin, but I will admit she was on the receiving end of a lot of sexism, too), not while we don't earn equal pay for equal work (and no, it's not because we generally work jobs that offer lower salaries, and even if it were, how is it fair that typically female industries offer such low salaries in the first place?).  

And not while our society is still one that allows, even condones, such hate speech directed at women. To be clear, I'm not saying we should restrict freedom of speech, more that I'd like for the US to be a society that condemns the attitudes and hate spewed out against women - and others, but my focus here is women - to such a degree that it's just not thought of, let alone said. I'd like us to be a society that better educates people in a way that discourages such thinking.

You could say "yes, but most of that stuff is being said on the Internet, and there are CRAZIES on the Internet." Yes, yes there are. But those crazies aren't bots, and they aren't aliens, and only a few are trolls. Many of these posters are real live humans, humans that other people presumably interact with, and actually believe this crap. And they're people who exist, in your country, probably around you. You almost certainly personally know one or two of these crazies. You might not know it, though, because generally speaking it only comes out online, in some degree of anonymity. Plus, you know what? I do see it subtly and not so subtly acted upon in every day life: from politicians who think we're livestock to some douchebags sitting around making "fat jokes" in a bar to quietly being treated as though you're invisible if you don't meet some unspoken criteria of female attractiveness (and I'm not talking about  being invisible romantically, I mean literally, people don't look at you, smile at you or extend courtesies to you that you've seen them extend to attractive women).

Of course there are good guys out there - it's not all a wasteland of these jokers - I'm just pointing to one particularly vicious undercurrent that I see in American society.

And to all of that I'd say, well, I haven't seen it in Taiwan. Maybe it's because I don't read enough blogs or comment on enough forums, or haven't seen enough examples - but for now, my impression of how Taiwanese men view women is that, however imperfect, at least they're not so hateful. They're not full of vicious remarks and spitting out of sexist, unfounded "facts". They're just not so goddamned mean. As far as I can tell, they don't sit around on online forums saying the terrible things I see on American forums. They don't sit around with their buddies and denigrate women for sport. They don't subtly or openly act out their prejudices. I don't see the open ogling of attractive women and the complete ignoring - including basic courtesy - of average or unattractive women. I don't hear the crass jokes. I don't hear the "friend zone" comments. I've never come across the Taiwanese version of the "ladder theory", because, honestly, I doubt it exists. I don't hear the backlash, the "quit yer whinin', you won the fight for equality!" or "you have nobody to blame but yourselves, you dumb cows", or the other comments from men that certainly stem from a lifetime of pretty girls not liking them.

I just. don't. hear. it.

And then I venture into online American life - because that's the only way I really participate in it beyond yearly visits home - and I'm saddened and more deeply affected, because I don't have to live with it every day. Imperfect as gender relations are in Taiwan - and trust me, they are imperfect - I have never felt as disrespected as a woman in Taiwan than I did in the USA.

I have to conclude that, while there's a lot of progress that needs to be made in terms of women's rights and equality acceptance in Taiwan, that Taiwanese men just don't have the anger, the bile, the vitriol, lurking in them, just waiting to hurl it at the women who so threaten them.

In that way, the American boors (not all men, to be sure) could really learn from Taiwanese men.

So, when I hear some doofus online going on about how America's such a great place for women, and we should feel lucky that we're in America with our equal rights and the respect we get, these days, I can't help but laugh. Because we don't really get respect at all.

Not to say that Taiwan is some women's equality utopia: it's not. It's just that in this one area, I have to say that it's the American men who come up short.

*totally stole this from someone's comment on Jezebel

*to which I'd say, if we're not arguing about allergy pills, Viagra or Imigran: all important medicines that are the result of the modern health care we'd like to enjoy, but JUST contraception, then it clearly is about controlling women's bodies, as much as people would like to pretend it isn't.

Monday, March 19, 2012

My In-Laws' Culinary Tour of Taipei

The in-laws try Tiger Noodle (韓記老虎麵) on Jinhua Street 
I haven't had a lot of time to write about my in-laws visit or other things that have been on my mind recently - a busy work schedule has kept me consistently behind on blogging.

I thought, though, that this might be of some use, or at least interest, for anyone with visiting friends or relatives looking for places to take them for dinner. I should say straight out that I'm not a coddler: I'll try my best to find food I think people will like and will be sensitive to "I absolutely will not eat that" or "I really hate X" preferences, but I am absolutely not the sort to just cop out and take folks to Kiki, Ding Tai Fung and Gordon Biersch to avoid the possibility of them not liking something. 

And you know I'm a food freak, regularly writing and updating on the best eats in Taipei, even though I'm not really a "food blogger" (even if Forbes thinks differently, haha). Note that, despite being quoted in that article, Ding Tai Fung is one place I notably did not take my in-laws. Not because it's not good (it is great), but because it's overhyped, overtouristed and, honestly, too expensive for no good reason other than that they can get away with charging Japanese tourists such high prices. For your foreign visitors, unless they insist, you can do better in Taipei food-wise.

Fortunately, my in-laws aren't the sort who would want cop-out meals, nor are they the sort to say "I've never tried that, but I'm not interested in doing so", which is good (I can accommodate that sort of attitude, I'm not interested in forcing anyone to try something they absolutely do not want to try, but I don't have much respect for such an outlook). Even things that weren't on their list of favorites - things made of tofu, various seafood dishes, things that were spicy or unrecognizable or just weird, were all things they were still generally willing to try. Hooray!

For example:

Ginger tofu pudding (薑汁豆花), with taro and sweet potato QQ balls and boiled peanuts. I like hot tofu pudding, but not iced, and I *love* hot ginger tofu pudding - especially from Sanxia - but I knew it would be something novel, without much reference point for any other food, for the in-laws. The one we got wasn't that great - the stuff available in Sanxia is so much better - but fortunately they were game. Dad seemed to like it, Mom not so much.

Tangyuan (湯圓), in a meal that also included sweet potato leaves (地瓜葉), rice sausage (米腸) that pink fried pork with slivered ginger that foreigners tend to like and tofu was another novelty that went over slightly less well.  I like it, although it's not my all-time favorite, but it's so commonplace in Taiwan that I felt it was a good thing for them to try. We got this in Daxi, not Taipei, but really you can get it anywhere. The rice sausage also got a lukewarm reception (I love the stuff - like many Taiwanese, I have a thing for gooey foods).

What they really loved? The sweet potato leaves. They were a hit.

Another must on their culinary tour was traditional tea. We had this twice - once on Maokong and once in Jiufen. I would have loved to have taken them to Wistaria House but we didn't have time. Either way, if your visitors are at all interested in or even like tea, making sure they have a chance to try tea brewed the traditional way is a great introduction to one facet of Taiwanese culture (even if not many people actually brew this anymore). I do know how to make it, but it was easier to just let the attendant do it.

Tea at A-mei

Besides Wistaria House, I would recommend Mountain Tea House (山茶館) on Maokong - 2nd floor up, best place to sit is 3rd floor - it's to the left and past the first clutch of development from Maokong Station. It's also a good place for dinner, with tasty Lemon Diced Chicken (檸檬雞丁), mountain pig (山豬肉) and other good food, and they have a good selection of tea snacks. The Taiwanese dried mango and walnut cakes were a hit, and I've always loved the slightly crumbly, melty green bean cakes - they remind me of the texture of very fresh maple candy.

In Jiufen I rather liked Amei Tea House (阿妹茶樓) down the stair street, although the 100NT per person water fee is quite high. Down the stairs even further is another similarly beautiful teahouse with a more open outdoor area that I've also been to and like. Try the fried taro - so good!

Fairly early on in their trip, they ended up at two of Taipei's best eateries: Celestial Kitchen and Hui Guan Ningxia Restaurant. I would have personally picked Rendezvous (Longdu) for Beijing Duck, but they could get in to Celestial without a reservation for lunch, and honestly, it's basically as good (I just like the dim sum available at Rendezvous and find the duck fattier, which I like). Celestial is fantastic, and the mustard/wasabi (it's something between those two things) covered Chinese celery from Celestial certainly left an impression!

If you don't have the time or Chinese ability to make reservations, but want to take people for Beijing Duck, Celestial for a weekday lunch is a strong bet.

While I do feel that Taiwan and China are absolutely not the same, I have to admit that there is a lot of good Beijing Duck on offer in Taipei, and it would be a shame for them to miss out. As long as there is also a variety of Taiwanese cuisine served up for the eatin' on your trip alongside the best of the mainland, I figure, if it's good food and in Taipei, it's worth it to go.

As for Hui Guan, well, you know it's one of my all-time favorites. They didn't have the spicy cold chicken or dong fen I usually like, but the sour vegetable and noodle salad, Central-Asian style bread with minced meat and lamb skewers were delicious as always. This is a kind of Chinese food that is not easily found in the US, especially in rural Maine, so being able to take them out to try the cuisine of oft-forgotten Ningxia, with its many Chinese Muslims and strong Central Asian influence, was a real treat for everyone. It's also a great place to try Chinese chili-pepper heat when it's mixed in a big cultural mortar and pestle with Middle Eastern spices.

Stinky Tofu Fried with Thousand Year Old Egg at Chia Chia
 I couldn't let my in-laws leave Taiwan for the second time without trying Hakka food, which is such a big part of food culture in this country. We weren't really able to go down to Hakka areas like Xinzhu or Miaoli just to eat (although with another free day we might have taken them to Beipu), so we just went for Chia Chia (家家客家), widely regarded as the best Hakka food in Taipei.

Unsurprisingly, the hearty pork dish we ordered was popular, as was Hakka stir fry (客家小抄). The cuttlefish cooked in vinegar was a hit with everyone but my mother-in-law, who just doesn't do seafood.  We avoided the ginger intestine because I figured we'd hit our limit of "try this new thing!" dishes with the famous stinky tofu deep fried with thousand year old egg above.

Surprisingly, it was a huge hit. I loved it, and so did my father-in-law. Mom...not so much. Definitely a good place to take people. You could even surreptitiously order the ginger intestine...mwahahahaha.

Medium-spicy lamb with puffed rice at Tiger Noodle
My mother-in-law was keen to try different kinds of spice, even though she's generally not an eater of spicy food. Little did she know that the wasabi celery at Celestial was just the beginning! We took them  for a Trial By Fire to Han Chi Tiger Noodle and got Dad the medium hot, which we usually get, and Mom the "xiao la" or "mild" it were. Tiger Noodle's "mild" is still pretty damn hot. This was their introduction to spice including hua jiao, or flower pepper - which tingles the lips and numbs the tongue. A great choice, but only take people there if you know they can basically handle it. Basically. Mostly.  Crying might happen. I love that place.

Taipei Snow King
Eager to  put out the fire in their mouths and bellies, they were happy to hop on the 235 bus and head for Taipei Snow King on Wuchang Street - an old Taipei institution near Zhongshan Hall (along they way they got to see a good chunk of Ximen and the more attractive parts of Wanhua, including my favorite building in basically the entire city of Taipei:

...all before hopping into a taxi to Dihua Street (the distance between these two points is not great, but the transportation is tricky and it was just easier to take a cab).

We got chocolate and chocolate chip (the two normal ones), rose wine, wasabi, basil, egg (which tastes like the custard in Macau egg tarts) and mint (my favorite) - we'd gotten the Kaoliang before and didn't think the in-laws would take it well (we didn't take it well!), but if we could have eaten more I would have gone for ginger, honey, cinnamon or chili pepper.

Kung Pao Chicken at Tian Fu
Back to "best of Taipei, even if some of it originated in China", that night we were not kind to their digestion. We met some friends and all went to Tian Fu in Yonghe - hands-down the best Sichuanese in Taipei, if not all of Taiwan. Don't even bother with Kiki ever again: this place has it goin' on. If you've got visitors who want good food, and care about that more than fancy ambience, this is the place for you. I can't hawk it enough. I don't even want a commission: leading people to such great food is my reward for all of this free advertising they get, because it's just that good.

I was eager to take them here, not only for more hua jiao, but also as an example of what real Sichuanese food opposed to very-different-but-good-in-its-own-way "Szechwan Palace Garden Gate Panda Buffet" from the USA. No General Tso's Chicken* here! We got them shui zhu niu (水煮牛 -beef in spicy broth), kung pao chicken, chili chicken, mouthwatering chicken (口水雞) deep fried bread (銀絲捲), ma po tofu (媽婆豆腐), green beans (四季豆), fish-scented eggplant (魚香茄子) and pork with sweet potato cooked under sticky millet (I've forgotten the Chinese name but it has 排骨 in it) as the token not spicy thing.

Oh, the fear that must have shadowed their hearts as the giant bowl of angry red broth full of tender sliced beef came out!

If you've got visitors who are OK with some spice but might be overwhelmed by Tiger Noodle, the selection at Tian Fu is varied enough that it's still a good choice.

"niu bang" and peppered salty pork at Auntie Xie's

Back to typical Taiwanese food:  the place to take your guests is, without a doubt, Auntie Xie's (#122 or thereabouts on Bo'ai Road). Afterwards you can buy them some pineapple cakes at Olympia across the street (#3 Bo'ai Road) and show them Shanghai Dispensary on Hengyang Road, Taiwan's most famous gray market pharmacy, where I get my Imigran semi-legally. A national treasure, that is! 

Auntie Xie's has no menu, is closed on Sunday and is always packed, and the hair-netted old ladies who work there will totally talk about you in Taiwanese as you're eating: but it's totally worth it and they don't really mean any harm by their "hey, white people!" gossip. You show up, pay NT 300 per person for lunch (might be more for dinner), and they bring out whatever they're cooking that day. There's always taro congee and thin noodles in thick broth as well as white rice available. We got a delicious fish, the above fried "niu bang" plant (not potato but had a potato-ey taste and texture) with peppered salty pork, cold chicken in a sour oily sauce (油雞), a green vegetable, some appetizer plates (小菜) and young bamboo with tree mushroom.

Basically, it's food you'd get if someone's Taiwanese grandmother invited you over for dinner. Home food. Simple but delicious. 

A lot of foreigners in Taiwan are unimpressed by the food in Taiwan (read the comments - and this is just one example post. Laowiseass has said similar things, but I can't find the link). I happen to like it: the flavors are light and clean, and yes, they can be hard to discern if your palate is swamped with my much-beloved hua jiao and chili oil, but they are there if you taste carefully.

So, I was really happy when both my in-laws had a positive reaction to Auntie Xie's: along with Hui Guan, the most positive reaction I saw regarding any restaurant we tried. Taiwanese food is good if you are discerning and willing to suss out those delicate, clean flavors and willing to seek it out in places like this where it's made right, and it's a whole different experience from the more famous night market snacks and stinky tofu.

I, too, love pungent food but find Auntie Xie's cooks up something entirely different, but just as delicious. 
cold chicken with cilantro at Harbin Dumpling King
Last time they were here, we took the in-laws to Shilin Night Market - which is really not one of my favorites, but was convenient at the time. We did want to take them back to another market, but didn't really have any more space in our eatin' schedule for eating at one (and at this point even I was starting to get a woozy stomach from all the rich and luscious restaurant food we'd been enjoying. I don't eat out at actual restaurants quite so often as I did that week). But, a night market is a must-do, so we walked through Tonghua Night Market ("Linjiang Street Night Market") near our apartment and did some light shopping (I got a lobster claw lighter that, when you click to open the claw, it spits out flame from the middle. Awesome!).

On our final night we took them to Harbin Dumpling King - another kind of Chinese cuisine you're just not going to get in rural Maine, or basically most of the USA. The food isn't really "Harbin" food - it's pan-Chinese, from Xinjiang to Sichuan to the northeast - but has that distinctive flavor that northern Chinese, especially Beijing, food takes on, regardless of where the recipes originated. It is one of my favorites. I'd been hearing about it ever since I attended a house party in my first few months in Taiwan and a bunch of guys (one of them a formerly prominent Taiwan blogger) were talking about going. It was years before I actually went myself, but I'm sure glad I did.

Apparently it is also a favorite of Wu Bai (伍伯) - yes, that is him above my eyeball. Not joking. Not someone who looks like him - that's Wubai and he wouldn't take a picture with us. Which is fine; I'm not out to pester rock stars!

We got cold chicken with cilantro, slivered meat with onion, the delicious and famous spicy lamb skewers - another thing you can get across Taiwan in different restaurants - Hui Guan, Harbin Dumpling King, Xinjiang lamb skewer stalls in night markets, Shao Shao Ke - and each is delicious in its own amazing way. We got Q-bing, which comes with  plum sauce and cucumber and is wrapped not unlike Beijing Duck, two kinds of dumplings (green bean chicken and fennel beef - I highly recommend the fennel beef. Yum!), glass noodles with cucumber and pig's ear, more flower pepper chicken (辣子雞), some really good eggplant...and probably some other delicious things as well. I forget. I was so stuffed and excited to have spotted Wubai, who has very good taste in food!

(Of course my in-laws were all "Who's Wubai?")

This was a good place for some not-so-spicy dishes, but also to try more lamb seasoned with hot pepper powder and cumin, which provide a kind of earthy heat when mixed together, and to get a taste for real northern Chinese fare.


One thing about the restaurants I've been mentioning is that they're generally better with larger groups - because you can order more types of food. This was an excellent opportunity for my in-laws to get to know our friends in Taiwan, both local and foreign. This is me with two of my closest Taiwanese friends, Cathy and Sasha, at Harbin Dumpling King!

At Wendell's Tianmu

With all of our Chinese and Taiwanese food exploits, the in-laws also wanted to try some of what Taipei has on offer in terms of "ethnic food" (hey, in Taipei, "German" counts as "ethnic"). We took them to Wendell's - although Cafe Goethe is just as good for many dishes - and Calcutta Indian food, which is reliably delicious. At Wendell's, enjoy the great bread, and don't miss out on the exquisite beef tartare (ask for extra bread to eat it with, trust me). At Calcutta,  make sure to get lamb samosas and butter chicken, and the garlic naan is wonderful. This was another kind of spice to try - Indian spices, fried in ghee, and slow-cooked with a gravy and meat or vegetable to produce a much more rounded spice that settles in your gut and then seemingly spreads through your veins to create a sort of happy, ethereal, "high on spice" feeling (you can get a similar feeling by eating a massive amount of red chili peppers). These, along with Zoca Pizza and The Diner, are all reliable choices for non-Chinese/Taiwanese food in Taipei.


Shrimp Roll Rice on Dihua Street

Of course, there are places we didn't get to enjoy. We didn't eat my favorite shrimp roll rice on Dihua Street, even though we did go there for fabric shopping, because my mother -in-law just would not have been able to do the seafood. I don't think it would have appealed to them.

We didn't make it to Shao Shao Ke, with its Shaanxi food featuring a cross between the Central Asian influenced spices of northwest China and hua jia and chili spices of Sichuan, but next time they visit, we certainly will (and we'll call ahead to pre-order some of their specialties that they need notice to prepare).

They didn't get to try Zoca, because the restaurant was closed for an extended break while they were here. That was really sad, because it's literally a few minutes' walk from my apartment.

We didn't get to Nan Chuan, which has great noodles and an amazing cold chili sauce chicken xiao cai that you absolutely have to try.

*As for that General Tso's Chicken, there's a restaurant run by the son of one of Chiang Ching-kuo's chefs, known as the "inventor of General Tso's Chicken". I can't find a link now but will update with it when I do: I would have definitely taken them there, just for kicks, if we'd had time.

And finally, sadly, we missed out on aboriginal food, which I see as a mainstay of good Taiwanese cuisine.

Needless to say, there's still enough great uncharted food territory for my in-laws when they come back, and plenty of options for friends I'm hoping will visit...which are also options for your friends and relatives who visit, too!

Friday, March 16, 2012

All you've got is a butt in a chair...

Somebody please shout this from the rooftops of Taipei and Hsinchu (and the rest of the country) make every insane boss and manager in Taiwan read it. Twice if necessary.


Because if you think Americans are overworked (and they are), come have a look at Taiwan.

I am completely serious - if you teach adults, make 'em read it. If you're in corporate training and working with high-level people, make them read this. If your students are knowledge workers, make them read this.

I can't change the work culture of Taiwan by myself, but I can be the change I want to see in the world, live by example*,  and when the opportunity arises, promote thinking and discussion - and hopefully change - on attitudes like this when talking to others.


Me: **teaching class until 9:45pm, on break**
Office girl: **Hi, Jenna, [Company X] wants to see some changes to its midterm report. They want more info, and where it said 'improvements', they didn't mean 'what the students can improve on', they meant 'how the students have improved'."
Me: "OK, I'll do that as soon as I get the chance."
Office girl: "Can you do it after class tonight, please." (it was not a question)
Me: "No."
Office girl, clearly dumbfounded: ""
Me: "No."
Office girl: "Why not?"
Me: "Because I'll get home at 10pm if I'm lucky. I will then rest, because I need and deserve rest. I'm not going to do more work in that time, so late at night."
Office girl: "Oh. But [boss] wants it tonight."
Me: "Well that's too bad, isn't it?"
Office girl: "Uhhh..."

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What Men Want

Just a quick entry, because it's been a busy couple of days, but I came across a comment on an article in Jezebel and thought I'd share.

Why? Because in the Expat Echo Chamber in Taiwan, and often back home, one hears a lot of "What women want" and "what men want", and I think this deflates it beautifully:

This is the sort of thing that always goes through my mind when I hear the phrase, "what women want."
Yes, of course, you're a genius. You've found out what all women want. The straights, the lesbians, the pansexuals, the mothers, the women struggling to pay the rent, the Latina in a wheelchair, the Serbian-American woman who is cramming for her engineering final, the queer mixed-race geologist who plans to cook pasta tonight, the woman in a burqa who's just tired of all those assholes who won't get over her clothing and keeps reminding herself she needs to get around to changing the oil in her car, the Filipina who gets home from her job tutoring elementary school kids to toast to her mother, who died X# of years ago today. Yes, all these women, and all the women yet unmentioned, at every intersection of every walk of life ALL want the EXACT same thing, and YOU figured it out. Congratulations!!! 
(from the comment section)

It's particularly important to remember that this also applies to men. So the next time some dude in real life or on the Internet goes all "We men in Asia only date Asian women because MEN WANT [insert stereotype of Asian women here]", I am going to laugh at him. I mean, I already would have laughed at him inwardly, but from now on I might laugh at him openly. Right in his face. He'd deserve it, after all (even though he is entitled to his views, just as I'm entitled to laugh at those views).
Because, you know, clearly that guy who thinks all men - especially all foreign men in Asia - want the same kinds of things, is clearly right. The young guy passionately studying Chinese, the gay English teacher, the older married businessman with kids, the missionary who loves stinky tofu, the couple who moved here together, the Taiwanese guy married to a foreign woman (oh, wait, I forgot, the kinds of foreign men who talk this kind of crap don't acknowledge Taiwanese men as being actually men, or actually existing, sorry, my bad), the guy teaching at a cram school when what he really wants is to break into the music scene, the guy from who can't go home because he has nothing to go home to, the ABC who came back to discover his Hoklo roots, the quiet young man who was bullied in school and has a passion for traditionally brewed tea, the handsome, somewhat quiet, giving, intelligent and generous guy from Maine who married his best friend (yeah I know that one)...they all want exactly the same thing, and that's [insert stereotype about Asian women here].

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Thomas Friedman Thinks Taiwan is "a barren rock"...

"I always tell my friends in Taiwan: “You’re the luckiest people in the world. How did you get so lucky? You have no oil, no iron ore, no forests..." Say WHAT?!

I posted earlier today with a link to Thomas Friedman's piece on "Taiwan" - of course, it wasn't about Taiwan at all, which I'll address in a minute - and now that I'm done with that thing I had to do today, I'm free to write about it.

I'm not an economist, so I'll just be a 揚聲蟲 (that first character might be wrong, I'm trying to recall the phrase from something someone told me and I did not write down. If I am wrong, please correct me. I can learn from that). I'll echo Michael Turton's assessment that Taiwan's human capital is a great resource that has been used to great benefit and effect, which is about the only thing the article got right (well, it is also correct that Taiwan has few "deposits" - gas, oil or otherwise - and what it did have has long since been dug out by the Japanese during the colonial period).

Turton is absolutely right that Friedman is absolutely wrong - and downright insulting (well, those words are mine) - in characterizing Taiwan as a "barren rock in a typhoon-laden sea with no natural resources to live off": Taiwan has agricultural potential, an abundance of water (although most of it seems to wash out to sea: I always laugh when I see one of those "Water Shortage - Please Conserve Water" signs above a sink as I'm washing my hands while it's pouring outside) and plenty more to recommend it. I do wonder who these "friends in Taiwan" of Friedman's are, and if they're happy to hear that he thinks they're so lucky to live on a "barren rock" with "no natural resources to live off". 

I want to add before I get into the crux of what I want to say that I take issue with both Turton and Friedman's posts regarding education in Taiwan. Yes, students score well. Yes, the populace is highly educated, yes, Turton's right that a lot of that has to do with the private cram school system.

But...I don't have much respect and in fact hold much contempt for both the Taiwanese public school system and the cram school system.

In the former, yes,  they train students very well in math and science and in taking tests well, and in learning under pressure. They  still don't train in critical thinking or creativity and generally speaking, arts, history, social studies and language education in Taiwanese schools is severely lacking, if not pathetic or even non-existent (one of my students claims there is no such thing as "social studies" - something I had to take for all of junior and high school in the New York State system). Students learn to read and to some extent write English, but not to speak it and rarely do they come out of it with any language other than English. French, German, Spanish and other language "majors" from universities rarely graduate at a level of fluency in their language "major" that I'd find acceptable. I've met people with degrees in French whose French is worse than the best French I ever spoke (much of which I've forgotten), and I didn't major in it. And I studied abroad in India, not a French-speaking country. I find the buxiban system sad - some schools teach well, some teach poorly, all overcharge, work the kids too hard when what they need is time to play, and most English cram schools exploit foreign teachers and pay them very little while milking the parents. The only positive thing I can say about it is that yes, those kids do come out of English cram school speaking better English than most Americans could hope to speak Chinese - because there is, as yet, no Chinese cram school system in the USA. I can't speak for cram schools in other subjects.

I do feel that the teachers in these systems (English schools aside) are too focused on outdated and teacher-centered methodologies and do not teach Taiwanese students to engage critically or creatively with topics or knowledge. Some end up doing so anyway, but many become worker drones who are very good at taking tests, being quiet, saying Yes Sir and doing what they're told. While I do find the average Taiwanese person to be more worldly than the average American, that is not because of the education system. Those poor kids are overworked, under-rested and have no time to figure out who they are or how to be creative or thoughtful. Those who naturally are those things will still be, but they are not traits that are prized.

So why all this praise for Taiwanese schools?

As one Taiwanese friend with a teenage daughter put it to me, "you got to go to school in America and then live in Taiwan and get paid more because you are a foreigner. You are truly lucky." So, I'm lucky because I didn't go through the "study 28 hours a day? What do you mean there aren't 28 hours in a day - study that long anyway! NO FREE TIME FOR YOU!" Taiwanese system, and we're sitting here praising it?

No, thanks.

That was a longer aside than I intended, so...

What a barren rock! With no forests! And no resources to live off!
I am sure others will do a fine job of engaging with Friedman's piece in economic terms, so I'll engage with it in social and cultural terms. Before I do, however, I want to share some quotes from my husband to put my own criticisms into perspective.

"Friedman," says Brendan, my ever-brilliant husband who really should be a professor of something, "has an astounding knack for taking taxi cabs with drivers who have strong opinions and are particularly well-spoken that he can reference in his column to give his words blue-collar credibility. I do not believe these drivers are entirely fictional, but I do believe that he borrows heavily on his own experience and weaves it into the things he hears and references in his writing."

I felt bad when I heard that, because I reference a lot of what I hear in Taiwan and talk about with Taiwanese people - but then, I  do try to quote directly and then speak from my experience rather than weaving so much into the narrative of another person, and I do have an extensive network of local friends, students and acquaintances so I don't feel I'm going down the "this half-made-up taxi driver who is totally blue collar said this thing that I want to talk about because I'm so smart" route. Though maybe I am. I'm sure I'd get more nasty comments if I were, though.

He also pointed out, quite astutely, that "Friedman's specialty, if he can be said to have one, is the Middle East although he seems to have interests in every region of the world. Nothing in his career or writing, past or present, has gave any indication that Taiwan is his favorite country. He was using it as an example to make a point about economics, not because it is actually his favorite country." He could have led with any country that is resource poor but doing well because it's rich in well-honed human capital - it didn't have to be Taiwan.

I agree - I'm not even sure Friedman has been to Taiwan, and if he has, he certainly didn't explore it in any depth. From his description, if he's been here at all, he might have seen Taipei and possibly some of the uglier parts of the west coast plain. I'm thinking that industrial bit in Taoyuan County, the one out past Guanyin where the main TECO plant is.

Finally, "you do realize, Jenna, that by 'Taiwan has no forests' he was actually saying 'Taiwan does not export lumber', right? He did not mean 'forests' in terms of 'has lots of trees'."

Right. But that still kind of bothers and even slightly offends me. I can't believe that anyone who has seen enough of Taiwan to call it their "favorite" country would use the adjective "barren" to describe it.

Poor, barren Taiwan. These must be Fake Plastic Trees because Taiwan has no forests.
I mean, I am sure that my in-laws, who visited very recently, did not think of Taiwan as a "barren rock in a typhoon-laden sea". I'm sure they saw it for what it was: a somewhat polluted country that is nevertheless beautiful and brimming with culture, life, agriculture, good food and friendly people.

Taiwan is one of the best countries in Asia in terms of national parks, protected areas and forest recreation areas for protecting its forests - oh yeah, it doesn't have forests - even though there are environmental issues that need to be addressed otherwise (the forests in the mountains are reasonably well protected, but I am concerned about environmental degradation in the plains) - how could anyone who claims Taiwan is their "favorite country" have not seen this?

Yes, I realize that different people like different things and a bookish economist with blue-collar-cred delusions might genuinely pick a "favorite country" based on economic indicators, not on the cultural framework and natural beauty of the country itself, but another part of me says - how sad is that?

It offends me as someone who genuinely, truly would say that Taiwan is her favorite country. I mean, I have some affection (more like tough love and "I love my difficult child but at times don't like her very much") for the country of my birth and I also love India and have an abiding affection for Bangladesh and an ancestral-ties sort of love for Armenia and Hatay (in Turkey), but if asked for just one country to name as my favorite I think I would pick Taiwan. I have stayed for over five years, after all. I don't particularly like some pompous teller of stories who thinks in commodities and not people, who trades in globalization and not beauty, coming in and saying "Taiwan is my favorite country" for the purposes of making a point in his widely read column, when many other countries could have filled that space. After all, he didn't give any heartfelt reasons for loving Taiwan. Does "very interesting economic paradigm" = love? I don't think so.

So, my advice is, go take a hike, Thomas. I mean that seriously. Not being sarcastic. Fly your statistics-spouting ass to Taiwan and take a hike. I'll be your guide.

I'll take you hiking around Lishan, I'll take you to Hehuan Mountain and I'll take you to Yilan. Maybe I'll hire a guide to haul your butt up Jade Mountain (which I haven't done yet, am supposed to climb in two weeks but probably won't be able to as Paiyun Lodge appears to be closed). We'll hike up to the Japanese temple ruins above Jinguashi and maybe do the easy walk around Bitou cape. I'll definitely take you to Yuemeikeng:

...and then you tell me if Taiwan is a "barren rock" with "no forests".

Because Taiwan is my favorite country too, but I don't love it because it's a good economic example of resourcefulness and well-honed human capital. In fact, Friedman glosses over how many mind-numbing hours those well-educated folks have to work in Taiwan to earn a living. I'm not sure I'd paint such a rosy picture if I were him, because the Taiwanese workforce is a soul-killing thing, no matter how "innovative" it might look to Friedman.  While I am happy to praise the high education and resourcefulness of the Taiwanese people generally, are we really praising a system in which "work yourself to death" is not the joke it is in America, but an idiom that describes a real problem?

I love it because:

- Well, the people. I've written before about friendship in Taiwan but underneath all that, I do find it easier to make genuine friends and true connections with locals than I did in China or than my friends report about Japan. Etiquette differs from back home and I do get annoyed on occasion, but more generally I find people friendly, easy to talk to, and easier to befriend than I believe I'd find elsewhere in Asia. I also find them to mostly be hospitable and kind (although there are jerks around the world) and more progressive than the rest of East Asia.

- The food. I know a lot of foreigners aren't impressed (both Michael Turton and Ralph Jennings have said as much) but I love it. The seafood, the deep fried snacks, the stinky tofu, the pickled bamboo, the preserved tofu, the mountain pig. You haven't lived until you've eaten your fill at Raohe or Miaokou Night Markets, Donggang Harbor or Auntie Xie's on Bo'ai Road or at one of the aboriginal restaurants in the mountains. My in-laws, after a week of eating the best Taipei has to offer (in my eyes - no Ding Tai Fung), praised the simple home-style Taiwanese meal at Auntie Xie's the most. Cold chicken in a sour oily sauce, a steamed red fish, some peppered pork and fried-potato like niu bang, taro congee and a few other simple but delicious dishes seemed to be one of the highlights of their culinary experience.

- The scenery. NO FORESTS MY BIG WHITE ASS. I love hiking and I love that generally I don't need to drive to get to many fantastic hikes.

- The convenience. The other day, I was thinking of going out for Sam Adams. I thought, "The 7-11 across the lane has it, oh, but that means I'd have to cross the street. I could also go to the Wellcome or the other 7-11 and not have to cross the street." Then I realized how freaking ridiculous I sounded. Also, National Health Insurance.

- The relatively clean environment - sure, there's pollution, but I've lived in India and China, so shut up.

...and other reasons, but I think I've made my point.

This is one thing that was missing from Friedman's piece, and sadly, also missing from Turton's analysis (though I don't want to criticize too much, otherwise I agree) - no actual, visceral caring for Taiwan. Nothing about the charms of the country that make it a place worth living and a country worth loving. Nothing to make you believe there's any real emotion or attachment there.

While I understand on some level that Thomas Friedman doesn't actually care about Taiwan all that much, I do hope someday he'll shut his blowhole, put down his textbooks, turn away from the charts and graphs, stop pretending he's a blue collar Everyman and come to Taiwan to see why it's worthy of being his favorite country for real.