Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A-Cai's Restaurant (阿才的店): 黨外國人!

This past weekend I put together a group outing to A-Cai's, a historic restaurant that is scheduled to be shuttered (and possibly, but not assuredly, relocated) when the building it's located in is torn down as a part of Taipei's ongoing, and controversial, urban renewal projects.

Mao Po Tofu - spicy, too!

Fish Scented Eggplant (Yuxiang Qiezi) 

 You can read about the history of the place above, and a review here - the place is hardly off the beaten track, as much as it looks like it.

I put this dinner together now because A-Cai's the window of opportunity to go is potentially so short: I asked upon leaving if the tear-down was still in the works and was told that yes, it would happen, but "not that soon". I hope they're fighting it, I really do, but the Taipei City Government is run by such buffoons that I don't hold out much hope.

All I can do is throw in my word as another recommendation for this place. Dirty walls, old Taiwanese knickknacks and memorabilia, old-skool wait staff and good food with strong flavors that practically begs you to drink large quantities of Taiwan Beer - what could be better?

Plus, despite not being a Sichuanese restaurant, the Sichuan-style dishes we ordered were genuinely spicy. Not as fierce as Tianfu, but they put on a pretty good show of chili.

I also loved the service. None of this cutesy Japanese-style welcoming or overly-attentive waiters. We came in and they knew who we were ('cause I sound like a foreigner on the phone, natch), said "over there". We sat, got a menu, and a few minutes later - "你要什麼?" No extra pleasantries or "我可以介紹一下喔", just, "Whaddya want?" I let them know that despite a reservation for 9, that actually 11 would be coming (two friends wanted to bring guests) - no muss, no fuss, just "好" and a few more sets of chopsticks dumped on the table. LOVE IT.


So...go. Lend your support. Give 'em business. Throw a 加油 in at the end. Fight the power! Write about it. Enjoy good food. Drink beer. Beg them to re-open in a new location. Don't let this piece of Taiwanese history disappear.


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Reason #26 to Love Taiwan

I think I'm at 26, anyway.

Getting clothes made or copied.

In college, I walked into a Goodwill once (as one does when one is in college and something of a nascent hipster, although I never quite made it to actual hipsterdom...I think) and saw this used faux leather jacket for sale for $6:

(This picture is at least 5 years old).

I wore it through the rest of college, to China, for a few years after I got back from China, and brought it to Taiwan where I wore it until the faux leather had deteriorated to the point where I could not possibly wear it any longer. As in, big tears under the armpits and patches where the netted lining, but not the "leather", was still there. I'd worn that already used jacket for at least 8 years since I bought it. For years it languished in a bag in my closet until I finally got my act together and took it to a tailor on Dihua Street. She made the copy and then sent it off to a specialist for the dragon embroidery. They couldn't do it by machine so she did it by hand. It cost me a pretty penny (far more than $6!) but what I got back was amazing:


Yes, it's a 5-clawed golden dragon, which a.) is a male symbol and b.) was once reserved for the emperor, but whatevs. I wanted a dragon, not a phoenix and Chinese symbolism can stuff it. I've always been more interested in male symbols (tigers, dragons, yang rather than yin) than female ones (plum blossoms, yin, phoenixes) anyway.

I couldn't have had this done - I couldn't have afforded the hand-embroidery, certainly (which came to NT$2700 alone, which I obviously can afford) - in the USA.

I still wonder, other than for family reasons, what the point of going "home" would ever be.

Watching Zhubei

Sheraton Zhubei

In this somewhat meaningless post, I shall admit something:

I am weirdly fascinated with Zhubei (竹北), the small but increasingly shiny city in Xinzhu (新竹) county.

I'm not sure if it's because I know so many people who live there - a lot of my students, that is - or because it's just interesting to see a city go through a noticeable physical transformation over the course of just a few years, or because I have to drive through it so often, or what. I don't know, it's just a place that has caught my attention.

You might know it as the city where the Xinzhu (or Hsinchu, but I like Pinyin) HSR station is located. I know it as the city I have to pass through at least once a week, often more, on my way to the Hsinchu Science Park or, more rarely, Hukou Industrial Park. Occasionally, I teach seminars in Zhubei itself and at one point was hanging out there, at loose ends, for the better part of a day because I had a morning seminar in a building near the Sheraton, a set of late afternoon classes at the Science Park and nothing to do in between.

In the years I've done this job and commuted fairly regularly to Hsinchu, Taiwan's tech industry powerhouse, I've seen Zhubei go from being a dull, slightly weedy, city-in-between that boasted the HSR station, a few office buildings, a cluster of old traditional farmhouses and the Sheraton, and that's about it, to being a city that one might actually want to live in (as opposed to "choose to live in", which is what a lot of people in the science park do - it's not so much that they want to live there as they choose to live there, because it's convenient enough and got enough transportation links, and raising a family there wouldn't be quite as boring as being single there).

Every few months I'll cruise through in yet another taxi - some of the drivers actually know me at this point, which is impressive considering how many taxis line up regularly at the HSR station - and see another weedy lot gone, another building going up, another at completion that had been a weedy lot just a few years back.

Zhubei used to have a few of those weird-looking apartment building showcase buildings: I couldn't find a photo of one online, but anyone who lives in urban or semi-urban Taiwan knows what I'm talking about: weird one-story buildings with asymmetrical construction, funky roofs, odd lighting elements, ultramodern finishes and lines, occasionally weird globular or angular elements, that you look at and wonder "what's that for?" - too small to be a place to live, too small to be a wedding venue, too big for most stores (and too fancy to be one of the larger stores). Before I figured out what they were I thought Zhubei just had an overabundance of semi-talented, half-baked architects who kept designing weird buildings. Turns out they're places you can go to look at showcase apartments you can buy in the building that will eventually go up on that site. Or so I'm told.

Right now Zhubei seems to have more of them than they have cockroaches. This fascinates me - Taipei is built up enough that we don't get many of them, and when I ride through Zhubei I can't help but compare them.

I can't write this post without mentioning Titty Tea - when I first started working in the science park I'd pass this place in a taxi and for the longest time I thought it was run by locals who had no idea what the name meant. Once I rented a car with friends, and we were headed through on the way to the Pasta'ai festival, and I got my friend to stop so I could take a photo. Only later, when I had some free time in Zhubei and I actually went there, did I realize it was either foreigner-run or foreigner-staffed, and the name was chosen entirely on purpose. Also, wifi, good brownies, decent food and Belgian beer. You should check it out. If I lived in Zhubei I'd probably hang out here a lot...partly because they've got some good stuff, and partly because there doesn't seem to be anything else to do in Zhubei except possibly get a drink at the Sheraton bar (I assume there's a bar, since the hotel clearly exists for science and technology business types in town to visit TSMC or something, rather like the Holiday Inn Shenkeng exists for Chinese tourists whose tour packages have them staying out of town) or check out those old houses.

I'm also interested to see Zhubei continue to grow from weedy lots and a few weird buildings to a place crawling with science park types, and the associated high-end living spaces that go along with having a relatively well-paid professional population. What I haven't seen yet, and am waiting for, are obvious the next wave for Zhubei: restaurants, cafes, a few restaurant-bars, shops. There are a few, but certainly not enough to make it a terribly interesting place to live. Most people I know who live there - and working in the science park as much as I do, I know quite a few people who do live there - spend their weekends driving somewhere else: Hsinchu city (apparently there's this re-opened huge department store called Big City down there), Taipei, some rural area conducive to day trips or wherever their parents live.

As of now, the Zhubei living experience can be summed up by one of my students:

Him: "Last weekend we decided to find a good place to eat in Zhubei. We didn't want to go all the way to Hsinchu or Taipei."

Other student: "Did you find one?"

Him: "No."

Me: "So what did you do?"

Him: "Well, on Saturday night we decided that Wang Steak was too crowded, so we went to a Japanese seafood restaurant. It was terrible. We wanted to try again on Sunday so we found another place, but it was also not very good."

Other student: "Is Wang Steak the only good place to eat in Zhubei?"

Him: "I think so, yes."

He might not be completely correct, but he's got a point: there are a lot of people with a fair amount of money kicking around Zhubei, and more than a few are either single and well-paid, DINKS, or dual-income families with kids that they can afford to spoil a little bit, and not a lot of them to do in the city where they live. More has got to be coming to cater to these people, because that's how economics works.

And I'll be excited to see it happen. I don't think I'll ever live in Zhubei - most of my work is still in Taipei, I get paid well to go down there so there's no need to relocate, and I still enjoy all that Taipei has to offer. I wouldn't want to live without lots of cool coffeehouses to choose from, the hidden old buildings and streets in the western part of the city, public transportation, various amenities that I don't always take advantage of but enjoy having around (like City Super's cheese selection), museums (which I do visit regularly enough to make this an important thing) and accessibility of hikes and the coast by bus.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hanging on to Confucius

The other week I blogged about being quoted in the Liberty Times and United Daily, more out of the pride of being able to deliver a decent quote in Chinese and have it printed accurately (meaning that people can actually understand me! Wow!).

What I didn't write about until later was that when I went to buy a copy of the Liberty Times containing my quote, that I had a little run in with a dying breed, a species I hope is slowly going extinct, an ancient throwback. I live in the heart of Da'an (be jealous, mofos), an area that is super-duper deep blue. Most of my neighbors are veterans. Some even fought Communists. As I'm buying my paper at 7-11, which I don't normally do as I read Taipei Times online and practice Chinese with free papers I pick up, some old dude says to me in English, "don't buy that paper. It's lies!" and "We are Chinese! We have 5,000 years of history. You foreigners can't understand."

Edited for clarification: the veterans aren't the "ancient throwbacks" I hope will go extinct. I mean the rude guy and his ilk. Most of my neighbors are very nice people with whom I happen to disagree politically, which is not a big deal - I'd rather have good relationships with them and not talk politics. Few if any of them would say the sorts of things this guy did.

This recent memory was yet again thrust to the forefront of my poor embattled cerebral cortex when someone else I know said that it wasn't that she didn't want Taiwanese independence - she did, someday, not now ("it's not safe now", which I'd agree with even if it makes me angry, because it's the work of Chinese bully politicians), but that she didn't want Taiwan to be called "Taiwan" beyond it being the name of the island. She wasn't interested in a Republic of Taiwan - she wanted independence as The Republic of China.

I should note that this person, while she did vote for Ma Ying-jiu, is not particularly blue and has voted green in the past. She'd said that she actually prefers Tsai to Ma, but that she doesn't like the people Tsai has surrounded herself with. While I'd say that the greater good comes from kicking the KMT out of power and elevating the basic ideals of the modern DPP, I can still see and understand her views. She also feels more disappointed in the DPP - saying they help themselves at the Buffet o' Corruption shamelessly, when they were supposed to have done better (which is true, but sadly not surprising), whereas the KMT has always been known to be corrupt so it's to be expected, even though in the end they've stolen way more over time from Taiwan.

I get that, too, but then I feel that if faced with two corrupt parties, you've just got to go with the one whose policies you agree with.

Why, then, does this name matter so much to her and to many others, in much the same way that "Taiwan" matters so deeply to the other side (the side I'm unabashedly on, if that wasn't clear)?

Her rationale is a common one - despite not wanting to be a part of the PRC, she still felt a cultural connection to China. "I love Confucius and Lao Tzu" - it's part of her heritage, she said, and she didn't want to give that up. She saw no reason why the name "China" should belong to the PRC when it's her heritage, too. She doesn't want to give up the Analects and the Tao Te Ching, the art and the music.

OK, I see that.

I also feel, though, that we "foreigners who can't understand China's 5,000 years of history" (BLLEECCCHHHH) do have something worth contributing to that conversation. Most of us come from immigrant stock. I will only speak for Americans here, but I do think it is more universally valid, to say that this isn't just true for minorities: some or all of us "in the majority" white people are also immigrants from hundreds of years back ("all" if you're talking American, "some" if you're talking British, it gets complicated). In the case of America, it's been a comparable amount of time between when some of our families first settled here - and totally screwed over the Native Americans, something that history loves to repeat on every continent - and when the Hoklo were settling Taiwan from Fujian.

I'm American. I am not British, Armenian, Polish or Swiss by citizenship. My passport says "United States of America" on it. Does that mean I can't still feel a connection to the cultural heritage of the places my ancestors came from? Do I have to be "British" to appreciate Britain's cultural contributions, and recognize that part of my family is from there? Do I have to be "Armenian" to appreciate the strong culinary traditions that still run in my family from that side? Can I not appreciate those things and still be "American"?

I'm not going to say that these things aren't important - they are. Knowing and appreciating where you came from, even if that place is not the country you live in now and doesn't bear the same name, is vital to most of us. I'm not going to say "eh, who cares, let 'em have Confucius", although I have heard people say similar things. Armenians are pretty intense about their heritage, and yet I don't feel shut out just because I don't look Armenian, have an Armenian name or citizenship in a country with the word "Armenia" in its official title.

But then, she was pretty clear that part of her attachment was to the name "China" alone (why let them have it? being part of her reaction), and my resolution to culture vs. citizenship wouldn't satisfy her. Edit: as J said so wisely in the comments, identity is a feeling, and you can't argue that away.

That's why I fall on the side of "this is Taiwan", not "this is the Republic of China". It's true that I have no specific attachment to Chinese culture beyond my expat experience, but it's not impossible to understand that attachment. And yet, as an American, I'm able to get past my own tangled ancestry and appreciate what it's given me without insisting that I need, absolutely need, to hold on to those names. Heck, I feel just as strong an attachment to my Armenian side as my Polish one, and yet I grew up with a Polish surname, not an Armenian one. It is clearly not impossible.

Or maybe I'm just a blundering big nose who "can't understand" "5,000 years" of Chinese history and culture. Who knows.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Some More Thoughts on Being an Unfeminine Female in Taiwan

I wrote a longish post on this awhile back, but thought the matter deserved a bit more.

A friend recently put up a post for her own circle about identity issues - dressing in a more feminine way and then being angry at the idea that if she did so, people would notice and comment, and how it forced her to think about her own reactions to women who dress in a feminine way. That's her post and not public so I won't go into it more.

But it got me thinking.

I only rarely wear makeup and the most feminine I get is the occasional long skirt (long so I won't have to wear tights or hose). You will NEVER see me in heels. One time when I did wear makeup for a work function, one of the women from the office (Taiwanese) said it looked good and implied heavily that I should wear it more often. I smiled, thanked her, but said quite firmly that I would not be wearing it more often - I didn't find it necessary and in Taipei's humid weather, it was really quite uncomfortable (and I use a light hand and wear expensive mineral makeup). I just don't like how makeup feels and won't subject myself to it unless I want to, at my discretion. I certainly won't wear it because other people think I should.

The thing is, my coworker's comment really bothered me. I had tried to reply nicely but firmly, and I wondered a bit at why, after she said it, it chafed at me so much. Why did it matter to me that this woman, whom I don't even like, mind you, thought I should wear makeup more often? I'd already decided not to, so who cares?

After my friend's post, I realized why it mattered: because we live in a world where women are expected to go to such lengths, to look certain ways, to do certain things. Her comment was an endorsement of these expectations. It was a signal that she bought into this set of ideals and that, by saying it to me, that I should, too. Which implies that these expectations, to her, are right - when I happen to think they are wrong. It signals that, whether or not she realized it, she had felt something was lacking with the old me, enough so that she felt it was OK to imply as much. That I was not quite "right" for refusing to follow the rules. That I should conform more. That I wasn't fine before.

We are judged on our appearance, more so than men. Nobody will say anything, usually, if a woman doesn't wear skirts, heels or makeup. I don't blow-dry my hair - really, I air-dry it! Even in Taipei! - and nobody says anything.  A woman who does do those things (especially the shiny hair, heels and makeup) will get advantages that I won't. She just will.

Society expects these things of women and there is a downside to not following those rules. I've felt it myself. I do feel I have more to prove than a "pretty" teacher - I have to be good because my looks won't save me (not that a pretty teacher is necessarily a bad one). Of two women of average or roughly equal attractiveness, the one wearing makeup with her hair looking nice and in feminine clothing is going to get more attention - more so in Taiwan, I think, than back home where there is a subset of guys who prefer ungirly women. The woman in a pretty skirt suit is more likely to be taken to a sales meeting than the one in comfortable "office pants" and a regular top, possibly even if the latter woman is more capable. The neighborhood obasans will pay compliments to the polished girl and cluck their tongues at the one who flouts the rules, regardless of how accomplished the latter is - again, more so in Taiwan I think.

This seems especially true in Taiwan. Interestingly, I've noticed a greater polarization here - women who wear no makeup and dress plainly, if not outright unflatteringly, vs. women who are down to there and up to here in bling 'n fake lashes and heels with fringe (which to me is just asking for a broken ankle, but hey). Back home I see more of a continuum.

As much as I love Taiwan, I can't lie: despite all the makeup-less women in flats and weirdly constructed shirts I see on the MRT, there are greater expectations of women's grooming and beauty. There are stronger social cues as to how women should present themselves. There is a social reward for looking more "feminine"...and yet even stronger drawbacks. As with the USA, I feel that in Taiwan there's a societal expectation of feminine grooming and beauty, and you get a cookie, a "sit! sit!" Good girl!" treat -for adhering to it, while at the same time, people don't take things that are feminine, or women who act very feminine, seriously. All the high-level women I know - the directors, the CFOs, the general managers, the BU heads - are remarkably not feminine save for one notable example. All the office girls - the xiaojies who get male attention - are. Nobody takes the office girls that seriously, and yet, if they all stopped wearing makeup and put on pants and flats, they'd be castigated socially for it.

It's like a big ol' trap: you have to look feminine, if you don't we won't pay attention to you socially. But if you do, we won't take you seriously. So have fun looking pretty and not being taken seriously, ladies!

What bothered me about this coworker's comment, then, is the implication that she's OK with this total fucked-upedness. And, by extension, that there are women who are still OK with it, who support it and will defend it.

Which is their right, but it bothers me.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Plum Rain and Communication Breakdown

I don't know what I like about you, but I like it a lot.

Anyway, it's rare that I feel anything greater than a low-level, temporary frustration in Taiwan. When I do, it's rarely ever greater than the frustration I sometimes feel back home, where nothing is convenient, everything's too quiet and boxed off, doing even one simple thing is expensive and you have to drive everywhere (plus having to share the country with people who make me feel ashamed of America - though I don't have to deal with them much, seeng as I'm an east coast liberal progressive feminist socialist elitist snob - although not, to reference Woody Allen, a pornographer, Communist, homosexual or Jew).

The past two days, however, have imparted onto me a low hum of frustration that has not receded. It seems to be mostly stemming from one source: communicating really, really badly. Everything I've said to somebody who is not a native English speaker (that is, to a Taiwanese person) seems to just not be understood in the way I intended it, or more likely, I screwed up in what I was trying to say in the first place, and the language and culture barrier just invited my poorly articulated words to be misinterpreted.

It got to the point where someone thought I wanted them to have the front seat of his car removed to check for a piece of jewelry of mine that fell somewhere in the car (admittedly it was of great sentimental importance and not insignificant cost). Obviously, that's not what I wanted at all - who would ask for such a thing? I was trying to say that since the only way to find it after having the dealership search thoroughly with flashlights and coming up empty-handed was to remove the seat, but as that was ridiculous, to forget about it and just accept that these things happen.

That's just one example of the mayhem I feel my mouth has unleashed these past few days.

So, clearly, an orangutan signing in Swahili is apparently a better communicator than I am.

I think part of it is cultural: the slightest whiff of mentioning you want something or you are considering something is misinterpreted as a request for that other person to do it for you. I mentioned the car seat, and it was heard as a request to remove it. Or you mention wanting to go somewhere and the person who hears it thinks you want them to be your guide. Or you mention replacing an item lost in their house or car  (because you are intending to replace it yourself) and the person thinks you are hinting that they should replace it. Where we hear idle talking, or thinking out loud, a lot of people here seem to hear subtly-worded requests.

I know these things can happen even years into an expat life in some other country - you think you've basically got it figured out, the bumps are minimal, life is going smoothly (or as smoothly as possible with a family illness to deal with) and fulfillingly, and then BAM! You find your muscles knotting up, you can't seem to say anything clearly, everyone misinterprets you, or they say things you just don't want to or care to hear. To wit, the old guy at 7-11 who, when he saw me buy a Liberty Times, said "That paper is LIES! We are all Chinese and we have 5,000 years of history. You foreigners can't understand. Don't buy that paper of lies!" He said this in English, no less. And me with no good response to such nonsense beyond "大家有他們自己的想法, 大部分的台灣人不同意你的意見" and, after he wouldn't let up "你好傲慢喔" before walking away.

And now, the plum rains are turning Taipei gray. Rain is supposed to wash things away, turn things green, refresh everyone. Instead, it feels like a downpour of more of the same and matches my mood eerily well.

Oh well. Communication breakdown, it's always the same. Communication breakdown, a-drive me insane.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Yes, I Can Use Chopsticks: A Rebuttal

It's been a long weekend and I'm still recovering from a party last night (oh, Kaoliang, you evil temptress!) but I've been turning this article around in my head since I read it nearly one week ago, and thought I'd share my delayed reaction.

Before I go further, I should note that it's written by a famous - and to some extent, infamous - expat-cum-immigrant in Japan. Asia expats might have heard of Debito: he has settled permanently in Japan and regularly makes the news for his social activism. Some agree with him, some disagree, some agree but don't care for his abrasive manner. The last I'd heard of him was from something he wrote about being excluded from "Japanese only" hot springs along with his child who looks more foreign, while his child who looks more Japanese was allowed to enter. Another Taiwan blogger linked to this most recent article saying we'd "recognize our Taiwan experience" in it.

Here are my husband's thoughts, too. He articulates a lot of things more clearly than I have. His two best thoughts, in my opinion, are 1.) that a lot of expats in Asia expect that Asian countries should approach race in a way that mirrors their own culture's idea of political correctness, and get all bent out of shape when they find out that their own country's way of dealing with it isn't universal, and that not everyone in the world agrees that it's "rude" to bring up race; and 2.) a lot of expats see insult or aggression where there is none, because they're not used to not having the privilege of being one of the majority.

On one hand, yes, there are some things I do recognize. The constant wonderment at the fact that I speak halfway decent Chinese. Friends who know I understand Chinese and yet still ask me if I can "read this menu" or if I need an English menu when we've gone out to eat. People amazed that I can use chopsticks. I've been asked "when" I'm moving home. I suppose, in the right frame of mind, you could consider these, as Debito puts it, "microagressions", whether consciously or not by the employer of them, a means to keep me in a subordinate position, to remind me that I am "other", and to imply that I am not of their country. I can't honestly say that I don't recognize some of my Taiwan experience - some - in these incidents. And yes, at times they can be draining - times when I feel like having a real conversation, for instance.

On the other, no, I just don't buy that they are "microagressions". Something can only be used as a subordinating tool if either the speaker and the listener feels that it is. If the Taiwanese person asking me how I learned to speak Chinese, or expresses amazement that I can use chopsticks, but is asking out of a genuine desire to converse with me and not out of a desire to remind me of my "otherness", and I take it at face value: this person is chatting with me in the way that we might bring up the weather, traffic or something around us to a stranger back home as a means of striking up a conversation. That's all. Are they doing it in a somewhat awkward and occasionally annoying way? Yes. I'd go so far as to say that they probably want to talk to me specifically because I am foreign, and they choose these irritating topics because they just don't know what else to say. I mean, think about it - with a new person in your own country, you start with boring, even annoying topics. Who really cares about the weather? If you don't know someone, you have to start somewhere, and there doesn't seem to be much of a cultural equivalent in Taiwan to chatting with a stranger about how rainy or sunny it is.

Could their amazement at my level of assimilation (which is not 100%, not by a long shot) be construed as an assumption that I am "other", with a whole set of prejudices to go along with it? Yes.

That doesn't mean that such talk is designed - consciously or not - to put me in my place, any more than chatting about the weather is. If they don't intend it that way, and I don't take it that way, then how can it actually be that way? It's not a tree falling in the woods - if nobody is there to scream "racism and microaggression!" - then no, it did not make a sound.

Next, I find that once those "yes I can use chopsticks" topics are exhausted - which is pretty quickly - that if you have chemistry as potential friends, most people do want to keep talking to you, and the conversation becomes more interesting. If they lost interest after all their curiosities were satisfied - OK, she can use chopsticks and has lived here for five years, I know everything I need to know, time to move on - then that would be upsetting. More often than not, though, it's simply not the case.

This may well be one of the reasons why foreigners in Taiwan seem to have so few Taiwanese friends - although I have noticed a greater proportion of local friends among expats here than in China, and we seem to have more Taiwanese friends than our friends in Tokyo have Japanese friends. If you're nobody's classmate, few peoples' coworker and nobody's family, and you rebuff locals' efforts to chat with you when you're out and about, then of course you're not going to make many local friends. DUH 101.

Next, I really feel you can't quite equate foreigners in Asia with immigrants and expats in the USA or any very diverse country: in the USA an Asian person or person of Asian heritage (or whatever, I don't want to twist myself into linguistic pretzels) is not a rarity, at least not in the part of the country I'm from. There's no reason to think any differently of that person than anyone else you'd see on the street. In Asia, I'm sorry but if you're a foreigner, you are a rarity, even in major cities (although to a much lesser extent). That is never going to change. Not even if you stay here forever. Not even if you marry local. The people who live around you and see you everyday will get used to seeing you around, but most people aren't your daily crew. The questions might be old to you, but they are new - or rare - to the person asking them. The dynamics are just different: you can't compare a mostly monocultural/monoethnic society with a diverse one and expect the same prevailing attitudes. This is also why I don't think it's a big deal when Taiwanese people relate to race and relate to foreigners differently than, say, Americans, British or Australians might. They come from and are in a country where most people look like them and, more or less, share their culture. We are not from such a country. You can't expect the same attitudes (although I'd like to see more diversity generally. That would help ameliorate such issues).

Furthermore, Debito might be fully Japanese and attempting to assimilate as an immigrant would, but most of us aren't. Most of us are expats. Sure, we can expect similar treatment to locals in terms of friendliness of service and generally not being subject to racism, but we can't expect to be related to as 100% locals, because we aren't locals. We're not at all. Most of us maintain - as my friend J put it - some sort of connection to an identity that's tied to our own culture and country. It is not wrong to recognize that (although I would draw the line at unfair treatment as a result of it, which does happen). I do think there is an acceptable balance between locals knowing I am a foreigner - because, duh, I am! - and yet treating me respectfully and kindly. To some extent, I am an other in the way that a minority in the USA isn't.

To add to this, I feel that a lot of the time, locals just don't expect that we're interested in assimilating into their culture. Let's be honest - most of us aren't (I am, but only to a certain extent and in certain ways). Most expats will stay as long as their assignment lasts, or will slum it in a cram school for a few years, or take some Chinese classes, and then go home. A very few will stay long-term and fewer still will assimilate fully. Even ones who marry locals might not assimilate, and might eventually return "home" with their spouses. Most locals figure, these folks come from countries we want to move to (allowing a broad definition of "we"). They come from countries that attract immigrants. Westerners already have it all: they wouldn't want to immigrate to this hot, crowded island that I want to escape! For the most part, the locals are right. Few of us are interested in full assimilation, and fewer still actually want to immigrate permanently and gain citizenship. I can't fault the Taiwanese for being right about this. Immigrants and minorities in the USA, while retaining their home culture to some degree, also tend to assimilate through generations. Expats who will eventually go home tend not to. Exceptions are few. We are Other.

The chopsticks thing is annoying - I have been asked this but my husband says that while it happened in Korea, it has happened to him exactly zero times in Taiwan. The other questions, though - well, most foreigners can speak some Chinese, but not always well (and so many can speak hardly any, if any). In fact, the people who seem most impressed by my Chinese ability are other foreigners who haven't learned it. Most do seem to hang out with other foreigners, which I can't entirely blame them for, and are not necessarily knowledgeable about local affairs. Locals express surprise that I know who 千里眼 and 順風耳 are, but let's be honest, while plenty of long-termers or enthusiasts would know, the majority of foreigners would not.

I also feel that a lot of foreigners in Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia are often "looking for a diss". If you're always on your tiptoes looking for something to bitch about, to hate about where you live, to be offended by, BY GOLLY YOU WILL FIND IT. Sometimes the complaints are valid - even I need to blow off steam sometimes. My pet peeve is slow walkers with no consideration for other pedestrians sharing the sidewalk, escalators or MRT platforms. Especially in the rain.

Sometimes, though, they're ridiculous.

"People never sit next to me on the MRT or bus. They're afraid to sit next to foreigners!" Yeah, no. I have found that to be completely untrue. Maybe you just look creepy, because I don't have that problem. I've heard this three times, once on a blog, once from someone whom I think heard it said at Brass Monkey or whatever and was just repeating it, and once from a guy with really bad breath (so with the last one, well, that's the reason, we're just all too polite to say so).

I'm sure this has happened - I'm sure that occasionally a foreigner will find themselves on a full train or bus and notice that the only empty seat is next to them. I just don't think it's a "phenomenon", I do think that sometimes (not all the time) this has to do with the actual foreigner in question, and that occasionally those who notice this might not notice the 1 or 2 other empty seats also on that bus or train car. Allowing for random chance, that brings the likelihood that this is some sort of anti-foreigner racist no-sitting conspiracy very low, if not nil.

Or in IKEA, between two foreigners in line behind me: "The Taiwanese don't understand foreigners speaking Chinese! Sometimes I think they don't want to understand us. They don't want us to learn their language, so they purposely misunderstand! Just a minute, I need to buy a bag and the 22 kuai ones aren't there." Then, to the clerk, "可以買二十二塊的包子嗎?"

And, y'know, maybe if you're constantly looking for a diss, looking for offense where none was meant, then maybe again that's why you're having trouble making local friends. Debito says some foreigners "cultivate a group of close friends, hopefully Japanese but probably not" in order to deal with this. I can't speak for Japan, but while I concur that it can be challenging to make local friends in Taiwan, it's not impossible (I did it, and I can be so socially awkward it's not funny, despite being outgoing). If you're a long-termer and your circle of good friends includes no Taiwanese other than maybe your girlfriend, then the problem is you.

Obviously, there are times when locals - especially in a work situation, or when members of the opposite sex are involved - do try to put foreigners "in their place". These instances are especially insidious, though, and have much more impact than a simple "oh, wow, you can use chopsticks!". While many locals might feel shy or a bit nervous around foreigners - something more diversity will help change, as will more cross-cultural friendships (not so much relationships, but friendships - I feel that when you take sex out of the equation the influence is actually stronger) - fairly few will feel the need to force you into a subordinate, "other" position. And they're usually your boss, or some local guy who wants the girl you're macking on.

Finally, a quibble with the article itself rather than its assertions. To quote:

Alas, my actions to stem or deter this just make me look alarmist, reactionary and paranoid in the eyes of the critics (especially the NJ ones, who seem to think I'm somehow "spoiling" Japan for them), either because they haven't experienced these microaggressions for themselves, or because they live in denial.

Well, if someone who lives abroad hasn't experienced these microaggressions for themselves, then maybe they're not as common as you think? DUH 201, which you can take after you pass DUH 101 as a prerequisite? I can understand how the constant sameness of the questions wears you down, but maybe, just maybe, the "invisible insults" you read into them aren't the microaggressions you are making them out to be? 

I also can't really get on board with "...or because they live in denial". I mean, that's just like saying "those of you who don't agree with me are stupid" or "if you don't see what I am talking about, you are an idiot" rather than forming a clear argument and strong case. It's a wimp's way out - although I am tempted to use it on certain types of conservatives.

I get asked these questions fairly frequently. It gets irritating sometimes, but I don't feel insulted or subordinated. I do draw a distinction between actual subordination based on racism and these silly conversation topics. I don't think this means I "live in denial" - just that I approach it differently.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Breadwinning The Future

A few months ago I taught a unit to a group of students, all of whom happened to be female. The unit focused on idioms dealing with careers, work and ambition: things like “bring home the bacon”, “burn the candle at both ends”, “hit the glass ceiling” and “be a breadwinner”.

I did a survey in that class – eight idioms in total, one question per idiom that a student had to ask all of her classmates. One of these questions was “Is it OK for a wife to be the primary breadwinner?”

I was really surprised by the results – 4 in favor and 4 against. The “against” responders later clarified that they meant that they personally did not want to be breadwinners, but that it would be fine with them if another woman was one. A personal choice, not a view on what society should be. Those four women all expanded on their ideas, with responses along the lines of “I feel it’s not fulfilling to have to work hard and be responsible for earning most of the money” to “I like to feel that my husband can take care of me” to “honestly speaking, I don’t like my job and when I get married I hope I can quit” to “most Taiwanese men can’t accept a wife who makes more than he does, so it is easier if I don’t”.

OK, fair enough in that these are personal choices, and earning the bulk of the family income doesn’t have to be a life goal, nor is it necessarily fulfilling, so I can respect that as a choice. The final answer, though, that it’s “just easier” because “Taiwanese men can’t accept a wife who is a breadwinner” really irked me. Yet another example women giving in to pander to the egos of men, because it’s easier than standing up, fighting back, and telling a guy like that to **** off, and slowly, one by one, pushing the culture in a more progressive direction. It sucks when you feel you’re the only one doing it, but a culmination of women who do is the only way to change things.

Of course, in class I have to be careful not to ever show even the appearance of passing judgment on a student’s opinion, so my response was more measured.

I was planning to do the same unit in another class, and the other day that finally happened. Interestingly, this time, in a class of 4 women and 4 men, all 8 (plus me, for a total of 9) said it was fine for a wife to be a breadwinner.

Hooray! I thought! Progress! Taiwan can haz it!

People’s elaboration was more along the lines of “well why wouldn’t that be OK? Of course it’s OK”.

Again, yay, progress!

Then one of the female students said “I wonder if these 4 guys would be OK if their wives earned more.”

And, sadly, all four said something along the lines of “No way!” “No, I’m not comfortable with that!” or “I’m not a – how do you say – 小白臉! 我不吃軟飯!

That translates literally into “I’m not a little white face”, but it’s more like “I’m not a little b****!”, although perhaps slightly less profane. The second phrase translates into “I don’t eat soft rice”, which is idiomatic.

Face, meet palm. Progress? Progress? Where did you go, O Progress? But not in class. Inwardly, I was all HULK ANGRY! HULK SMASH! but I had to present a professional face. 

All I could do was point out the logic problem: “so it’s OK for other women to be breadwinners, but not for your wives?”

“Yes, I know, it is wrong, but we are old guys!” one said. “I think the young generation won’t have this opinion.”

Well, at least he knows it’s wrong. It’s about as sexist as “I don’t mind gay people but my son better not be gay” (also a common refrain in Taiwan) is homophobic. That is, very. 

This isn’t exactly news in Taiwan, but it’s worth noting even as I blog about all the awesome, successful women I work with: general managers, regional CEOs, executives, vice presidents. I earn good money, but these women could trample me salary-wise. It’s worth noting again even as we move on from the aftermath of an election that came very close to giving Taiwan its first female president.

As usual, the problem isn’t that women aren’t capable, willing or ambitious. It isn’t the law holding them back – although the laws are not perfect. The system is stacked against them, still, but not nearly as much as in other Asian countries.

The problem, as it always seems to, boils down to men with idiotic, outdated, sexist and egotistical attitudes. Not all men, obviously, but enough that this is really the main issue (as it is in the USA, where other than our reproductive rights and access being eroded frighteningly quickly, legally we’ve reached a place better than previously achieved in history – and yet those attitudes linger on).

There are Taiwanese women who will agree with those men – the first example I gave had a few, but even they will be quick to note that theirs is a personal choice and not an edict for society. You won’t meet many Taiwanese women who will say that all women should earn less than their husbands, or that it’s a man’s right, pride and face to be a breadwinner. You will, however, meet men in Taiwan who will say that – even though the men in my second example did technically word their opinions as a personal choice, not a social ideal (in that sense it wasn’t a very good example).
But, that aside, you will hear men and women alike say that Taiwanese men generally prefer to out-earn their wives. Hell, you can meet American men who would say something similar.
This is what really needs to change – men’s attitudes generally toward breadwinning wives. I have no issue if a traditionally-minded man and a similarly traditional woman get together and do their traditional thing, but I do have an issue with this attitude as a social construct, and I’d like to, overall, see a steep decline in the number of people who adhere to it – consciously or not. I’d like to see high wage-earning women have more romantic options and not feel that their salaries pose an obstacle when it comes to finding a partner (if a partner is what they want). I’d like them to know, confidently, that there are men out there – enough men - who won’t be scared off by the idea of them being breadwinners.

This may be one of the reasons why so few foreign women seem to date Taiwanese men (although, generally, I’m seeing more dating in that direction which I think is great). There are progressive ones out there, but a lot of them are still pretty traditional. I wouldn’t date a guy who felt he had to make more than me, simply because he was the Big Manly Man, regardless of how our salaries actually matched up. It’s an issue of principle.

And I do feel that this change needs to come from the men: their desire to always be breadwinners is based on face, not reality or sensibility – and I’m sorry but this is just something that needs to stop being a “face” issue. I know, it’s rich of me to say that, when I don’t have a Taiwanese cultural background, but c’mon. Taiwanese culture has managed to make having a female boss not such a big issue of face. They managed to make having a working wife at all to be not an issue of face. Taiwan is a fairly progressive country when compared to the rest of Asia – I see no reason why this can’t be changed with time and perseverance as well.

Although, as usual, it’ll be women doing all the cultural heavy lifting and then the men who finally need to make the change in their attitudes. Ah, history. Don’t you love it when it repeats?

I’ll end with an anecdote I’m sure I’ve told before on this blog. Almost a year ago, just before we left for Turkey, we had dinner with some local friends of mine. My husband was facing visa issues – basically, our company was being a giant ass – and it had all gotten really bad just that day. Because we’re friends, we shared the Our Company is a Giant Ass and is Screwing With My Husband’s Visa story. At one point I said, “honey, if it’s that bad, and you really feel you need to do it for your own dignity, quit. Just quit. I make enough to support us. Do what you need to do and we’ll make it work.”

The guy friend looked shocked but said nothing. Later, he told me that it was really surprising to hear that – a lot of women would not just tell their husbands it was OK to quit and she’d support them in the meantime. I was worried he thought I was some sort of scary feminist ogre (not because I’d be ashamed to be that, but because I’d be disappointed in a friend who thought that), but no. He thought it was awesome, and that I was a “woman with guts”. Taiwan is a great country with fantastic people, but let’s be honest – you won’t get too many Taiwanese men thinking that.

This is what I hope for. This is what I want to see more of. It can be done.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Sanzhi Day Trip II: Li Tianlu Puppetry Museum

Continued from this post

The Li Tian-lu Taiwanese Puppetry Museum (李天祿布袋戲文物館) in Sanzhi is worth a visit for anyone interested in Taiwanese culture, history, Japanese occupation, film or puppetry. Li was a famous puppet master who was also a principal character in the well-known Taiwanese movie "The City of Sadness", was involved in Japanese propaganda, was an international puppeteering champion (so says his museum) and remains internationally famous for those in the know. 

We happened to be in the area and while I'm more enthusiastic about Taiwanese opera than puppetry, it's still an item of cultural importance and a visit is very worthwhile - if only to look at the many finely crafted puppets and costumes on display.

This is a puppet portrayal of Dr. Mackay - seems fairly accurate to me. But...

C'mon, is this a caricature of a wealthy late 19th/early 20th century white guy or what?

Apparently this is what the master of puppet-making who created this thought white women looked like.

A "mosquito god" puppet

Li Tian-lu himself

Admission to the museum is NT70 (no student discount) and they're closed by 5pm. Li's actual residence is across the street. The museum itself is in a lovely old building that I personally found architecturally interesting. There is a small souvenir shop including a place where kids can DIY their own puppet for NT$80-100- or you can buy one to take home and DIY - and both high and low end puppets are on sale, ranging from NT$300 (for a kid who will just destroy it) to NT$4900 (for the connoisseur). There's also a small coffeeshop area. If you're OK with going uphill it's walkable from the more urban part of Sanzhi, but I'd recommend, if you don't have your own transport - which I rarely do! - to grab a cab up here and walk back down. Not far down the hill I spotted a bus stop but didn't have the opportunity to note which buses stopped here, when the service ran and how often.

The area around the museum is a hillside village with a very artsy feel and many small restaurants and coffeeshops. A lot of the small houses and apartments are for rent - you could totally chuck it all and become an artist if you were of a mind!

We got pizza at a "Mediterranean style" place called Pizza Olmo. I wouldn't call it "great" - not the best pizza I've had - but it wasn't bad at all, for boondocks-of-Taiwan pizza. The cheese passed muster and there was no weird mayonnaise, and only nominal corn. I recommend the wild mushroom basil or garlic bacon if you eat here. There are some good views down to the ocean and it's a nice place to hang out with friends. Closer to the museum is a pottery shop and classy coffeeshop with "French desserts" that I would like to check out sometime called Cypress29.

Dude, don't ask questions you don't want answers to.

This area has an artsy feel and is a lovely place to hang out and walk around for awhile

I call this very unfriendly cat "Cuddlemuffins".
It tried to bite my sister.

View from Pizzeria Olmo
We caught a bus back to Danshui at about 7pm, and were home by 9. All in all, a not-too-taxing day trip after a stressful time that allowed us to get out of the city, breathe some fresh air, spend minimal cash and enjoy the sunshine while seeing something new. Worth it for the expat who wants to go up to the coast but has grown tired of the usual spots and isn't interested in bumming around Danshui yet again.