Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Monkey at the End of the World


Philosopher Monkey Likes To Philosophize

All photos below - not in order - were taken either on the train between Kandy and Ella, in Ella itself, or on our hike a few hours away from Ella at World's End and Horton Plains National Park. The monkey above is enjoying the view at World's End.

I"m kind of going backwards in my chronicle of our Sri Lanka vacation, but that's just how the desire to write struck.

We left Kandy by train - the Kandy-Ella train being extremely popular among foreigners for its scenic backdrop, and being a nicer train than most in Sri Lanka (we saw some other trains in various stations), most likely because it is so heavily used by foreign tourists. And the views are stunning:









But the train is also the beginning of Foreign Tourist Saturation (which I realize I'm a part of, I don't deny my own culpability). The train has a few locals on it, but the vast majority of passengers are foreigners transiting from Kandy to Ella on this famous rail route. They take so many pictures - as I did - that they're practically taking pictures of each other:


Ella town...well, let's just say I could take or leave the place. I really enjoyed our stay in the mountains but not because of the town. That said, I chose it specifically because if the weather was bad, a tourist-filled mountain town would probably provide other diversions, even if those diversions were drinking tea and souvenir shopping. And the weather was often pretty bad - it rained for a portion of every single day, so it wasn't entirely a poor decision. However:


Go ahead and enlarge that menu and enjoy the "Spagatti Bololesis" and "Frid Rice", and reflect upon a restaurant named, ostensible, for a director of weird and violent movies, printed in a Haunted House font, on a tiki hit painted reggae colors.

We did not try the "Spagatti Bololesis", and I found the local food in Ella - we didn't go all the way to Sri Lanka to eat pasta - to be...meh. There were no good views from the town itself, the weather was crap, and the stores and restaurants were weak-tea backpacker joints. I was not terribly impressed. It reminded me yet again of a reason to love Taiwan (let's say this one is #30):

Not too many tourists. It's getting to be a problem, and to some extent I do wish the rest of the world would cultivate a better appreciation for the charms of Taiwan - its night markets, its seafood, it's stinky tofu, its mountains, its coastline. It feels like the last undiscovered gem in Asia. On the other hand, I wouldn't want Taiwan to be dotted with little Ellas, or little Mirissas (that wouldn't happen: Taiwan doesn't have the beaches. I was not impressed with the beaches at Kending, and that's among the best Taiwan has. You have to go to Penghu to even come close to what's on offer in Sri Lanka, Indonesia or the Philippines).


I wouldn't want the festivals - both temple fairs and aboriginal festivals - to become performances for tourists. I like 'em authentic. I don't mind battling a crowd of local would-be photographers but I would mind battling an even larger crowd of people with no emotional investment in the performance itself. I can accept Old Streets and towns like Lugang cashing in on their heritage by appealing to domestic tourists and the occasional Japanese who wander through, because they are popular with locals. I wouldn't want them to become backpacker hovels where every other old shophouse sells banana pancakes, and the stinky tofu, oyster omelets and brown sugar cake aren't as good because the proprietors figure that foreigners don't know any better.

I like that there is no Khao San Road in Taipei. I want it to stay that way. I like that mountain towns in Taiwan, such as Lishan (my favorite), aren't overrun with tourists and what infrastructure you find there is for locals.

The two things that made Ella wonderful were our hotel, and our hike in Horton Plains National Park. The hotel was outside of town, about a kilometer along what is basically a hiking trail, and built so that most of it was a sheltered outdoor cafe setup with stunning views through Ella Gap:




We'd go out, do some hiking or walking, get stuck in the rain, and come back cold and muddy. Then we'd change into comfortable, dry clothing and sit in the cafe area - the rooms open directly onto it so it's like an extension of one's room - to drink tea and eat coconut sambal sandwiches. It was truly a gem. I could have spent a couple of days just relaxing there and not going out.

We then hired a car and driver to take us to Horton Plains. Hiring a car with driver is not difficult in Sri Lanka, and not terribly expensive. It'll cost slightly less than chartering a taxi in Taiwan (something I've done when I've wanted to visit areas without good public transportation, but as usual was not willing to drive. I do not drive and will not drive in urban Taiwan, which is one reason why I live in Taipei. You might get me behind the wheel in the countryside, though). We shared the car hire with a German couple to cut costs, and they were very pleasant hiking companions.


The trail is at about 2300 meters above sea level - not so high that you'll get sick, but high enough that hiking uphill causes you to become slightly more winded than you might normally feel. Only slightly, though. The land is classic moorland - chilly, foggy, scrubby grassland reminiscent of northern England and parts of Scotland.


It's a circular trail that's approximately 9 kilometers in total, maybe ten. You walk four or five to World's End, where the moorlands just...stop. They go from being rolling plains of grass to being a steep cliff quite literally immediately, with no warning that the landscape is about to change.


The view is stunning if it's not foggy - as you can see, we got something of a view, but we didn't get the full deal. So...instead, enjoy the cute monkey. The "Philosopher Monkey" at the top of the post is also looking out over the cliff, called "World's End", to give you a better idea of the view.

On a clear day you can see straight to the coast. We weren't so lucky.

We were so cold, so wet (it rained pretty hard on our hike back), so muddy and so achy when we got back that I changed into soft, warm pajamas immediately and refused to make the trek into town. We spent the rest of the day in the cafe area of our hotel drinking tea and resting our tired muscles.

Ella had a few other good things, too: a few hikes and walks to temples and scenic spots:


And a couple of good photo opportunities:


I don't regret going, not for a minute.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Of Shoelaces, or Reason #29 (?) to Love Taiwan


 It's almost impossible to see in this photo, but at the very end under the white boat in the distance, there's a solitary woman sitting on the beach in a little bikini.

During our last few days in Sri Lanka, we stayed in the southern beach town of Mirissa. While not nearly as touristy or over-developed as places like Bali, Phuket, Ko Samui or Boracay (or Goa, which doesn't even have great beaches), and not even as developed as Sri Lanka's own Hikkaduwa or Unawatuna, it still had tourist infrastructure and that vague beach-bum-rich-Westerner "a dash of reggae with a hint of banana pancake" cultural undercurrent, which I don't particularly care for. That meant a lot of Westerners - especially Europeans - prancing around in tiny swimsuits.

On a slight tangent, can I just say this? Mirissa is a pretty place, but it looks as if it used to be stunning. What was once a soft beach of golden sand and blue topaz waters has become a thin strip of beach in which, on the main tourist drag, all the palm trees have been razed and in their stead you can find guesthouses, tiki-hut restaurants and bars blasting reggae (?) music, and line-of-sight sea views from hotels across the road. Down the road is at least one "surf club" that I swear had a sign saying "foreigners only". Ugh. It's really sad. You can't keep people from the beach, and to some extent you'll get local backlash over the lack of development if you try, I wish there was a way to preserve at least some beautiful beaches from the tanned hordes, the sunburned locusts, from descending and totally fucking up the place. Can't they all just go to Bali and Phuket and leave the rest of the world's beaches to people who don't want to tear it all down to build tiki bars?

Our hotel is behind me, but you can't see it behind the palm trees, which is why I liked it.

And yes, I realize the irony in that sentiment, and yes, I did try to pick a hotel that blends more naturally with its environment -  one that didn't raze all the palm trees for a direct line to the beach.

While there, I was reading Pankaj Mishra's Butter Chicken in Ludhiana. Mary Roy's (mother of Arundhati Roy of The God of Small Things fame) line in that book popped out at me as I read it at an outdoor cafe: "I think white people are a curse on mankind. Wherever you look, they are busy causing destruction to something or the other. And they think themselves so superior to everyone else! They are really awful!"

I could find some things to debate about that line, but sitting in Mirissa as reggae (!) thumped in the background and I looked over where palm trees should be, and couldn't help but think she was right, and then blame myself for being part of the problem.

This all used to be palm trees.

Anyway, back to the main point.

At one point, we were preparing to snorkel off a far quieter beach beyond the one in the photo here (the boat beach here being far quieter itself than Mirissa's main beach), and two young foreign women were taking sexy pictures of each other playing in the surf or laying in the sand. Neither was wearing very much, especially the one in the little black bikini that I am pretty sure was made entirely of shoelaces. And not very many shoelaces.

My first thought was "She shouldn't be wearing that...not a good idea."

Now, here's the thing. I don't personally care what she wears. I don't think it reflects on her character (except to show she's perhaps a bit clueless about her surroundings, but then, in that case every other foreigner in Mirissa is just as bad). It doesn't make her a "bad girl" or someone who deserves scorn or ridicule. I support her right to wear whatever she wants - as much or as little as she wants. In the West I'd say her even wearing that little doesn't give anyone the right to victim-blame ("Well look at what she was wearing, she was asking for it!") if she's harassed or assaulted. It doesn't really bother me that she wants sexy pictures of herself on a tropical beach.

(I did think it was funny that to get to our snorkeling spot we had to walk behind her, so some of her photos will include a pair of t-shirt wearing pasty-dough white dweebs with snorkels - is there anything dorkier than a snorkel? Even the word is dorky - waddling by, but that's because if I got sexy pictures uploaded to my computer only to find a pair of tummy-fatted nerds shuffling behind me I'd find that hilarious. She might not find it so funny).


My second thought was "Why would you think that? You have no right to judge her based on what she's wearing."

What bothers me is that, even in a touristy area like Mirissa, in Sri Lanka what she - and pretty much every other woman, possibly including myself (I like to think a boy-short suit and a t-shirt over it with a sarong when not in the water is enough, though) - was wearing, well, was inappropriate in the local cultural context. Especially her; at least other women had a bit of fabric covering up the T&A (I can't say I was too fond of the European men's banana hammocks, either). She had...shoelaces. I hate victim-blaming but if she were ogled, catcalled or harassed by local men, it probably would be in part due to what she was wearing - not that that absolves the men.


My third thought: "But what she's wearing is very inappropriate in Sinhalese culture."

And while I support the right of everyone to wear what they want and not be overly judged for it - especially women, who have spent most of history judged more harshly than men for what they were wearing - I do feel that when you travel, there has to be some allowance for cultural standards. I support the fight for all women, worldwide, to have greater freedom of dress (Sri Lankan men are pretty free in what they wear, I'm not too worried about them).

My fourth thought: "But Sinhalese culture still as a ways to go in terms of women's equality."

Perhaps that fight, in countries such as Sri Lanka, is a fight that needs to start with local women. Perhaps a white woman, or any foreign woman, in an itsy bitsy teenie weenie black thong shoelace bikini isn't going to help matters much. Certainly it's not fair to say "this group of women needs to do it for themselves and we're not going to help them" - by all means, get involved in feminism on a global scale, but be aware of the racial issues that your background and ethnicity bring to the table, and be aware that not every strike is an effective one.

My fifth thought: "Yes, but a foreign woman in a tiny bikini isn't going to change that."

Not that I think this woman was trying to agitate for freedom of women's dress in Sri Lanka. She almost certainly just wanted some sexy pictures and wasn't even thinking of the racial and gender implications of her near-nudity.


My final thought: "This is one reason I like living in Taiwan. There's still a ways to go in terms of gender equality - there is everywhere - but at least we have far greater freedom of dress."

I appreciate that I can wear a bikini or a t-shirt and shorts on the beach and not be judged too much. I appreciate that I can wear a sleeveless or low v-neck shirt and not be immediately judged as a bad girl, harlot or outright prostitute. I appreciate that I can choose not to wear those things. People, especially women, are still judged harshly by their dress, but at least I am living in Asia without having to worry too much about overly strict rules of dress imposed on women, with the wrongheaded assumption that the problem is not men's inability to control themselves, but those trollopy women and what they wear which beckons ALL TEH SEXXX.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

Of Leftovers

An interesting comic strip for you to peruse as it unfurls:

Super Leftover Girl!

It's Simplified but readable enough - the basic idea being challenging the idea that "leftover women" (剩女) are to be pitied because they are single at the ripe old age of 30 (so ancient!!!11!!!!1), that they are unfortunate, unwanted, too demanding, too picky, too "modern", and should be ashamed of the fact that they're not yet married. As if marriage is the only important accomplishment in a woman's life. Sigh.

It's becoming less of an issue in Taiwan - yes, there are a lot of awesome single thirtysomething women, but you'd be surprised how many of them want to be single, or are at least at peace with their singleness. For every thirtysomething Taiwanese female friend of mine who wishes she was married, I can name about three who are either OK with being single, are in a relationship that's as strong as a marriage or who have actively sought to stay that way.

I think this is great - it means more women are realizing that while marriage may be fine (I happen to be quite pro-marriage, as it's been pretty great for us), it's not the only good thing a woman can accomplish in life - a husband and children are not deigned by her fate as a woman to be the best thing she'll ever achieve or have, nor are they they only things she should want. And it means more men might wake up and smell the feminism, and start accepting things like equal partnership in housework and child-rearing, and an equal say in family decisions. It's happening slowly, but it is happening. There's been a change I've noticed even in the last five years, and I'll write about it later.

But really, what I feel about "leftover women" is this: if I were one, I'd be proud to be one. I wouldn't feel any less than I do as a married woman. I'd think of it like Thanksgiving. There's the big meal, the turkey, all the pomp and tradition, people doing what's expected of them regardless of what they actually want, and lots of family issues and generational change issues being forced into the forefront over dinner's invariably cacophonous conversation (well, at least in my family). You don't really get to decide what you want - tradition decides it for you. You're basically a trussed-up turkey, especially if you're a woman (at least men, historically, have had more choice in terms of career and travel, even if they haven't had total choice).

But if you're a leftover, that means you're the turkey sandwich. You're absolutely tasty, you're very satisfying, and you're what's chosen because it is what's wanted. You are food that's desired, not food that has been predetermined by a set menu. You are ultimately more personal, more content, and more satiating. There's no friction, no collective social trauma, over a Black Friday turkey-and-cranberry-sauce sandwich. You make what you want and you get what you want. You choose. You are chosen.

And I'd much rather be the turkey sandwich than the trussed-up turkey!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A Woman Alone


  Jezebel writes about women traveling alone reaction to the reactions to the murder of Sarai Sierra, a female tourist traveling alone in Istanbul.

I already talked about this in a previous post, but just felt it was worth it to share the link above.

The comments on the Jezebel article are worthwhile if you're a woman traveling or living alone outside your home country - or even in your home country, or hometown.

Some that I particularly liked:

If women can't travel alone, a lot of women will end up never traveling. For a lot of people, there are only a few sweet spots between the "poor young person" and the "busy working person" stages when they have the chance to take long vacations. If they hit that sweet spot and none of their friends have the money or the time, what are they supposed to do?
I do know some women who will assume that they'll be able to travel when they have serious boyfriends or husbands. Most of them never end up going anywhere. You're not guaranteed you'll find that perfect relationship, or that it will be with someone who likes traveling, or that money and time still won't interfere.
I say if you want to go somewhere, you should do it when you can.


"A single woman traveling alone is risky. In a foreign country, it is downright foolish."
Yes, all those risks of traveling in Japan and Germany.
I know traveling as a woman isn't the same as as a man, but my God Americans live in such constant fear of low-risk situations.
You know what you're more likely to get hurt doing? Driving to work as a single woman. Better stop going to work, ladies!
"No way I would even let my beautiful wife out the door to travel to any country alone."
Good thing she isn't your goddamn thrall, King Shithead.

(I agree with her on that one: the whole "letting" your wife do this or that - - ha ha, it's no secret how I'd react if Brendan ever talked that way to me...or I to him)


Okay, I do not mean to sound controversial at all and I absolutely think women can and should travel alone, *but* you, as a woman, should definitely take more precautions, safety wise. I am a woman who has traveled extensively alone. I've done several cross country trips alone, traveled in Brazil and Argentina alone, camped in rural Montana alone and traveled through much of Europe (including backpacking in remote areas) alone. I have also been followed to my hotel room by a strange man, followed in my car until I had to head to a police station, and accosted in the middle of wilderness by a farmer who attempted to sexually assault me. I got out of all of those situations okay, but (not to pat myself on the back) this was due to having considered these things happening in advance and knowing what my best options were. (And also good luck.) Again, I'm not saying not to travel alone as woman, but it is crucially important to be prepared.
Bad things can and do befall travelers of both genders, but women can be targeted much more frequently for things like sexual assault, so it is helpful if you have some kind of basic training in self defense or at least read up on it. It's good to know, for example, that it's generally not smart to carry a knife or a weapon that can be taken from you and used against you, that it's generally better to have something to disable an attacker like pepper spray or mace. Study up on the your destination extensively. Try to acquaint yourself with the layout of the city before going or on the plane, so you can avoid being lost with a map in your hands. Find out about your communication (cell service, internet connection, etc.) options and the local police and hospital situation (including the possibility that you may want to *avoid* the local police!) In some places (more conservative places) you will attract a LOT of unwanted attention if you wear something as simple as a tank top. Also, be especially, especially cautious when drinking.
That said, traveling alone is a special kind of magic. There are few things more precious to me than my memories of solitary travel. Particularly if you can find yourself alone in untouched nature, it is the only thing I've ever encountered that I could describe as a transcendent experience. I would love for more women to travel alone in all corners of the world, I just think it's important to realize that to do so safely often requires a bit of extra work on our part. Not fair, necessarily, but neither are periods and such is life. ;) Anyway, just please, prepare and then prepare some more. I read about adventurers fairly often (both modern and old timey) and though they may seem reckless in their ambitions, most of them are actually overly cautious and have researched and prepared for every eventuality they can think of.
Anyway, safe and happy travels, all! :)

My comment on Jezebel sums it up for me:

I've been around the world with my husband and alone. On my own I went to China (rural and urban - Guizhou, Beijing, Hong Kong, Shandong and more), India, Nepal, Bangladesh (Bangladesh!!), Japan (although I met a female friend there), Korea (although I met a male friend there, but had to spend a lot of time out and about on my own), the Czech Republic, England, Laos, Thailand, Ireland and the Philippines. That solo trip to India was *two months long* and I spent **a year** on my own in China.
With my husband (i.e., a man) I've been to India, the Philippines, Singapore, China (I returned to some countries!), Indonesia, Egypt, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala and Turkey. In Turkey I had to go out by myself a bit because he got sick twice.
With a group, family or female friends I've been to India (again! this time six months), France, England, Malaysia, China (Xi'an, Yunnan, Sichuan, Chongqing, Xinjiang) and Canada (oooh).
Oh yeah, and I live, full time, in Taipei, Taiwan. At first on my own, now with my husband.
And tomorrow we leave for ten days in Sri Lanka.
So. SO. Sooooo.
I'm not saying all this to brag. (OK, maybe a little to brag. But you'll forgive me for that, right?) I'm saying this to show that hey, I've got experience. I know what I'm talking about.
I can say honestly that traveling alone was not worse in most of those countries, just different. For example, in India, if you are a woman traveling alone, the ticket agent will put you on trains with groups of women or families. It's a normal courtesy. The families or women "adopt" you and look out for you. You have to be careful of dodgy hotels and keep your wits about you, but it can be done. In Turkey, I went all over the country, not just Istanbul, and felt like I blended in and was basically ignored if I put on a headscarf once we went out east. In Bangladesh, there are so few tourists that yeah, you stick out (and I did get some sexual harassment), but people are so hospitable that they'll look out for you, because a foreign visitor is rare, and they want their country to leave a good impression. I took a bus from the border to Dhaka, and the women on the bus basically took me in as one of their own and shared their iftar snacks with me (it was Ramadan). It's not like India where easily scammed hippies (sorry) are a dime a dozen.
That said, as a woman there were places I could go that men couldn't - places with women - but places that as a woman I couldn't go (certain teahouses in eastern Turkey, for example).
With my husband, I got stared at less, and left alone more, but the downside of that was that nobody looked out for us. They just assumed that was his job (sexist! I totally plan the trips! But change is coming more slowly to some countries), and so we got less help, less "adoption" by locals...which meant less harassment, but also less interaction. Places that didn't really welcome women (few places will explicitly bar women, but you'll get the Death Stare if you enter) were off-limits, as were places where women congregated. So we lost out on both ends.
In a group you barely talk to any locals at all. It's kind of sad, really, and so I try not to travel in groups.
I'm not saying I'd rather take some harassment to get my local interaction. Obviously, harassment sucks. I'm just saying the two things are different, but it is still possible to travel alone.

And yes, I'd go back to Turkey alone. Even the conservative eastern side where I saw few women out and about, I only felt comfortable with covered hair, and more than half of the teahouses were men-only.
* * *
A long comment, but I wanted to fully express myself as this topic is important to me.
Another tip: if you do want to travel alone and the country/countries you want to visit aren't super safe ones like Germany or Japan, do a Google search on the country you're planning to visit and the words "woman alone" or "woman traveling alone"...or something along those lines. See what people say. The Internet is littered with forums full of advice threads on almost all countries for women who want to head out on their own. Read those first and be informed.
I do feel it's important for women to be able to travel alone, and I know there are two sides to the argument. On one end you get "you shouldn't sequester women at home, blaming them for the actions of a few bad people - that's victim blaming and it's unacceptable", and on the other you get "well, it shouldn't be that way, but it is, and you have to be realistic about what is and isn't safe".
There's also the side that thinks it's fine to victim-blame women and keep them at home, but I don't really want to give that side any credence, so I'm not going to cover it. I'm gonna call bullshit when I see bullshit.

While I believe it is important to be realistic, I don't think that a lot of people who believe the second line of reasoning are actually all that realistic. Many haven't done that much traveling, and many either are not women or are women who haven't done a lot of traveling alone. Women who have done that traveling will tend to go with the first belief - that they can handle themselves and shouldn't be the ones blamed for the existence of crime against women. 
Because, honestly, while some violence or crime is directed at women alone because they appear weaker and easier to target, a lot of it is violence that would also be targeted at a man alone. There's also the 'false correlation' issue: just like with sexual assault, it's just not true that a woman gets sexually assaulted based on what she's wearing or where she goes - covering up more or not going out alone won't reduce her risk of sexual assault to zero, or even all that much: most sexual assault happens at the hands of someone the victim knows or has allowed into their space, and it has nothing to do with what clothing is worn. 
The same for traveling alone - honestly, you're in just as much danger in your own area as you are in a foreign country (depending on the country). I felt no safer in DC than I did in Turkey or India, to be honest. And what could have happened to me in Beijing that couldn't also have happened in New York? Some countries pose unique risks, but preparedness and smarts can help you reduce those risks to a level not much higher than you'd find in your own country.
As a woman who has traveled extensively alone, as well as coupled and with a group - and did some of that solo travel in countries seen as dangerous, such as India, Bangladesh and the Philippines - I can say that "realistic" doesn't mean "stay home". It means "be smart". Don't wear revealing clothes, don't make a lot of eye contact, don't advertise yourself as being alone, do be clear and firm, and feel free to lie about a fake husband nearby, or stick to families and groups of women. In most of these countries, a group of women will almost always immediately understand why you are hanging out around them and fold you into their group. You might even be invited home for dinner.  Whatever you think of head coverings, if you're in an area where that's done, just do it. It's not about you - it's about fitting in. 
- Do take a self-defense course. I didn't and while I was never assaulted, I wish I had. I will, when I get the chance (anyone know of any good self-defense classes in Taiwan? Is that even a thing here?)
- Do carry pepper spray or mace, not a knife
- Do wear a money belt
- Do look around and pick out 'safe spots' - open businesses, other women - that you can run to if you sense danger
- be assertive - scream loudly if you are being harassed or feel threatened. Don't be afraid to slap a guy doing this, even with your shoe if you can get it off quickly. In most countries, even India (despite the horrific recent bus rape), the crowd will come to your defense
- If you feel threatened and see a foreign man nearby, running up to him and saying "look, someone's bothering me, can you pretend to be my partner for a few minutes" will probably be enough to get him to help you. Look for other women, first, but if you see none, this is another good bet. If one's around. 
- trust your spidey sense - if something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't.
- I know this feels like unfair sequestering, but don't go out at night by yourself in most developing countries. It's not worth the risk. 
- try to hook up with others or groups for portions of your trip, even if you don't want to stick with them for your entire trip.
- know when not to freak out. There is no reason to feel unsafe in Taiwan at night, for example. Trust your gut, but learn to recognize and ignore irrational fear. 
* * *
So ladies - don't listen to the haters. Be smart, be safe, be careful, but don't be afraid. Don't think that the world is not open to you. How is it even possible that the world and all its delights (and terrors) is open only to the half of the population that has the right genitals? 
You are half the population and nobody has any right to sequester you at home like precious jewels. This is your world too. Go out and take it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Type of Guy You'd Bring Home to Mama

I'm not usually one to watch the Super Bowl (Didn't the Lakers beat the Yankees this year?), not even for the commercials. This one came to my attention, though, and I wanted to give it a shout-out from both feminist and pro-diversity perspectives:

First, I love Amy Poehler. I love her humor, I love her smarts. Like Tina Fey, I love her attractive-but-normal non-megawatt glam. I don't love Best Buy, generally (just ask me what they did with Brendan's computer that one time...go ahead, ask), but I love that they chose her as a brand representative and not, say, Busty LaRoux or whatever Hollywood's sexy new ingenue is named. If I met Amy Poehler in real life, after every woman part in my body exploded with happiness, I'd probably just really like her and want to hang out with her, to the point where that might almost be creepy.

I also love that the Best Buy guy is a cute Asian dude who is clearly being flirted with. It's starting to erode - finally - but there are still too many stereotypes of Asian guys being, well, nerds, geeks, scrawny dudes, Mama's Boys, funny or comical even when doing martial arts, and they never, ever get the girl. As Slate notes, in an action movie with a male and female lead, in which the man is white (it doesn't matter what ethnicity the woman is as long as she's super hot), the hero always gets the girl. Not so with the Asian hero: since when has Jacky Chan gotten any? And there's "Romeo Must Die", in which Jet Li doesn't get Aliyah.

So, it's a small thing, but this commercial, seen by millions and garnering critical acclaim (I haven't heard a bad thing about it yet beyond "but...Best Buy sucks!") in which a pretty woman shamelessly flirts with an Asian guy - an attractive Asian guy, not a super-thin dweeb or klutzy kung fu guy, but the kind of guy you'd bring home to Mama - is a step in the right direction. A conscious, but not self-conscious, step.

And it makes me love Amy Poehler even more.

And maybe hate Best Buy a tiny bit less.

Opposite Day: Pseudo-Philosophical Thoughts on Annual Parties


I even made a video this year...

Every year, I have the pleasure of attending the annual party (尾牙 or "wei ya") of one of my clients. They're a small, local semiconductor company located out in Taipei County (I still haven't gotten used to this whole "Xinbei" thing) and, unlike a lot of companies, their annual party is an absolute blast. Some combination of being staffed by geeky, overworked engineers, the outside-Taipei mindset and the local flavor of the firm means lots more alcohol, lots more craziness, an insane talent show, and really exciting lucky draws.


 Last year I just wrote generally about the culture of annual parties in Taiwan - the short of it being that in a country where working hours are so long, and opportunities to socialize fewer due to family obligations, more structured social circles and those aforementioned working hours, the annual party is often a blowout party where otherwise mild-mannered geeks (and I don't say this to stereotype - the folks at this particular firm really are best described as "mild mannered geeks") go hog-wild and wake up with a raging hangover the next day. It's one of the few times when drinking in Taiwan finally reaches levels of craziness and obligation seen in other parts of Asia: the CEO and GM, you see, must get drunk; it is, for all intents and purposes, a rule.


 This year I observed a bit more of what was going on, and had a few other thoughts.

The annual party is ostensibly an event held by a company in appreciation of its staff (and often key clients, customers or vendors - I got to go because I'm a "vendor"), but certain aspects of it reminded me a bit of older traditions - Saturnalia, Opposite Day and the Lord of Misrule - the offering of one fun party, like a piece of fruit covered in silver tinsel, in exchange for something of far greater value: the continued loyalty of overworked and underpaid employees. This isn't to say the annual party I personally attended was full of overworked and underpaid employees: I'm talking in generalities here, not pointing fingers at individuals, but it is an issue that's been on my mind a lot.

At an annual party, the people at the top serve - not literally, but in terms of paying for it (often out of their own pockets) - those at the bottom, like an inversion of masters and servants. While new employees are often conscripted into entertaining on stage, the guys at the top also have an obligation to get up there, wear crazy outfits (I know one guy at another company who dressed up like Lady Gaga and did a whole routine) and get drunk for the entertainment of the rank-and-file employees.


 The biggest deal of all is the lucky draw, or lottery: prizes depend on the company budget as well as donations from executives and higher-level managers, but it's common to have many small prizes and one or two top prizes of NT$60,000, or something similarly nice, like an iPad Mini or iPhone 5. At Foxconn, I've heard the prizes go into the millions, but for the top prizes the lucky draw boxes are only full of the names of those deemed to be "excellent employees".

If the lucky draw were put together just on a company budget, that'd be one thing - but it's not. Company budgets for these things can be surprisingly stingy (not the one I attended - as a smaller and very local company, they take the lucky draw quite seriously and budget lavishly for it) - what happens is that managers and directors get up on stage to draw the winners, but when they're doing so, they're expected to generously "donate" to the prize about to be drawn. It's not uncommon for a manager to get up on stage and announce that he or she will double or even triple the coming prize out of his or her own pocket. One guy I know at another company donated two iPad Minis, one black and one white. Another got onstage, announced he'd double the prize, and then drew his own name - culture dictates, apparently, that he then had to triple or even quadruple the amount. He did, and ended up being out over NT$100,000. If one manager draws a prize and gets the name of another manager, the winning manager is still expected to donate the prize for another draw as well as add to it (I've heard of that happening too).


 Technically, these donations are voluntary: nobody will tell higher-ups that they have to donate to the lucky draw. It's just expected. It's part of the culture. I've heard of just once instance in which the guy in charge didn't beef up the lucky draw prizes out of his own pocket. Nobody told him he had to, nobody forced him to do it, but let's just say that things in his department didn't go as smoothly as he would have liked the next year.

I also see it as a bit of a social equalizer, albeit a very minor, inconsequential one. Pretty much the only people who earn even close to what they're worth in skilled labor are higher-level managers, perhaps some (but not all) doctors, and unqualified English teachers (the qualified ones are generally underpaid). It makes sense, then, that on this Taiwanese iteration of Opposite Day, of the leaders putting on a show to entertain the workers, that there'd be a tiny bit of wealth redistribution. That the person who makes more than enough to buy a nice apartment in Taipei and raise a family on one income (still usually male) would be out tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars (one chairman of one company I know has a personal, not company, but personal, lucky draw budget of NT$10million per year), while the family making do on two incomes and living too far from the MRT out in Taipei County would get a windfall.


 To me, a lucky draw is a form of gambling - some would disagree as you don't put any money in unless you're the person in charge, but prizes are distributed unevenly and in bursts of good luck. How is that not like gambling? That, to me, makes it something of a cultural thing. When I see or hear of people playing the lottery or gambling in the USA, it tends to be something done rarely, but meant to inject a little fun into life, like occasionally deciding to play a game of pool for money or picking up a lottery ticket on a lark. Here, it seems to go on at a constant low level, from the receipt lottery (I don't play because even though it's free, it's time consuming) to mahjong being far more common at get-togethers than card games in the US, and more often played for money.

Or maybe I'm wrong and I just didn't hang out with gambling types in the USA, but I don't think so. Considering the stronger belief in luck - luck coming in, luck going out - this makes sense. There's even a saying in Taiwanese (not sure if it also exists in Chinese): 娶妻前,生子後 (in my crude understanding of Taiwanese phonetics I'd pronounce that as something like tsua-mbo jian, xi-gya ao). Meaning that you're prone to good luck "before marrying, and after having a child". Students will insist that this is true: "the only time I ever won a big prize was just after I had my son", or "yes, that really seems to happen? Why? I don't know. 財神 (the god of wealth) maybe." When someone at the weiya I attended won - a woman about to get married (even though "娶妻前" is meant to be "before taking a wife, in the modern world it can be translated more equitably as "getting married"). At my table someone muttered "of course she won. She's getting married soon." "Uh huh," her friend replied. "When you get married it's easy to win".


 I'm not really a believer in luck: coincidence, yes, random windfalls or tragedy, sure, but not "luck" insofar as its a force in the universe beyond statistically possible windfalls or tragedies. I personally suspect more of those lotteries are fixed than people would like to admit, or even consider. I've mentioned this to a few people, just to see their reactions, and oh my! You should see the horrified look on their faces. Eyes widen. Mouths drop. "NO! Absolutely NOT! The lucky draws are NEVER FIXED!" they say.

Maybe not. Or maybe so: I could very easily see, in Taiwan, many bosses who decide that the "lucky" draw should be appropriately "lucky" for the right people, and seeing to it that it happens, while everyone else pretends that no, it's "luck". I don't even think this is a bad thing. I simply suspect it happens. Perhaps not every time, but from time to time.


 And as for lucky draws, I'd rather see everyone get a slightly nicer bonus than see one guy win big. That could be a cultural difference, or it could be just me.



Sunday, February 3, 2013

So...why are so many expat women "trailing spouses"?

Before I begin, a quick link:

Call for submissions - stories from expat women in Asia - deadline is coming up. I just found this, or else I would have posted it earlier. I may submit - it depends on what I can write and be happy with between now and February 28th, with a trip to Sri Lanka in between.

Awhile back I was asked to review a book put out by Expat Women, a site for...well, for expat women. I did so, giving it mostly a positive review, with a few things I had concerns about - mainly that while it was a good resource for one demographic of expat women, which didn't happen to be my demographic. That this was fine by me because hey, that's how any media item has to be marketed. That's true for TV, music, movies, books and more.

The demographic the book was targeted to seemed to be expat women who are "trailing spouses": the wives of men sent abroad for work. They tend to not work - often they can't - are more likely to have children (and obviously be married), and be more concerned about things like finding friends when you're not in your party-smarty youth, raising children abroad, keeping marriages together, dealing with culture shock when you're not hear as per your own life plan, leaving work behind and sacrificing for your spouse's career. There is other advice in the book beyond that, of course (it truly is a good book), but this was clearly the demographic of women it is aimed at.

That got me thinking - why? Why are there so many "trailing spouse" wives, and not more "trailing spouse" husbands or women who come over independently? I know quite a few, but there aren't many (any?) resources directed at us: the scale seems to be tipped in favor of the non-working trailing expat wife. There is nothing wrong with being that, mind you - I just wonder...why is it the norm? Why when these employees are sent abroad, is it assumed that the man was the one sent over, and his wife is the one coming along? Why does it happen that it's so often men, and not women? Where are the trailing husbands? (I've already asked where the independent women are - although I've met more since I wrote that post). Where is the advice for the working woman abroad, the female breadwinner expat, the woman trying to make it on her own, or as someone who makes a equal or greater economic contribution to her family? Where is the advice for the woman who decided to go abroad on her own and met someone there, or who was the driver of that decision in a family or couple? Where is the advice for working couples abroad where the challenges of expat life (especially the kind I live, without company-paid drivers and maids) commingle with the challenges of both spouses working?

I've tried to do this for expat women in Taiwan - looking at rape, divorce and abortion legislation, socializing, dating and marriage, sexism in society, in the expat community and at work, working generally and resources for women, but I'm just one woman in one country with advice targeted at this one small island nation, and there truly are a dearth of other resources out there.

I'm asking these questions because that's who I am. I decided to come to Taiwan on my own. I didn't come with a company and get a sweet expat package (I wouldn't want to give my life over to a company to get that sort of package a few decades later, so that's fine). Brendan and I got together here, and I have generally been either an equal economic force in our relationship, or the breadwinner. I didn't sacrifice to come here: this is where I've built my career, because I want a career. I have no idea what it would feel like to be a trailing spouse, and so advice aimed at "expat women" that is actually aimed just at the trailing wives doesn't do much for me. I don't have the time for "coffee mornings", the issues associated with coming over for someone else's job, or access to play groups or various clubs aimed at wealthier expats.

Here are a few things I've come up with to investigate why this might be - why the 'expat woman' is so often reduced to an assumption of being here for her husband's job and not working herself, and why that assumption is so often correct:

Companies that send people abroad fear sending a female employee to countries with sexist work cultures (or just cultures full of sexism generally):

I do think this happens more often than people like to admit. They have an opening in, say, Tokyo or Korea, where drinking too much and going to "special KTV" or girlie bars are all a part of doing business. They figure "well, we could send this really qualified woman, but for that kind of networking people would be more comfortable with a man, so let's send this other really qualified man." It's not that someone less qualified gets the job, necessarily (although that may happen), it's that equally qualified women get passed over.

And that's just for East Asia - imagine what it's like for positions open in places like Riyadh.

Sexism in regional offices makes it harder for the head office to send a woman over:

This kind of ties in to the previous heading: sexism in the home office might be a part of what keeps women back, but sexism in the regional offices where they'd be working also likely has a lot to do with it. Just as the head office might think "she can't network with key people in that culture, because there, that's what men do", and the regional office might be thinking the same thing, and doing what they can to keep women from being transferred over.

I haven't heard of this being an issue in Taiwan - but that's just me, so I do welcome other observations - but I have heard of it being an issue in Korea, China, Japan and the Middle East.

Women just aren't going for these jobs...

1.) ...because they are less likely to decide to uproot their families for work

I see this a lot. More and more women are breadwinners and are dedicated to their careers, but the balance is still tipped in favor of men. A lot of women get to the point where they might be offered highly skilled and well-paid work abroad, or an overseas transfer through their company, but they decide not to do it. What will their husband do (I would say "this is the same question as "what will my wife do?", but we seem as a society to have a different answer for that, and that's not right)? What about kids' schooling, if that's an issue? What about extended family? What about our home? What about... ... ...?

That, at least, is one popular narrative, and one I'd argue is more expected from women by society than men, who are still more likely to see it as "I have this great new work opportunity, it could be amazing for my career, we'll make it work and the family will survive."

Something similar happened with a Taiwanese family I know: a husband and wife I know - the husband was looking at job opportunities abroad (with the idea that he'd bring his family, although it would not necessarily be ideal for them). The wife had had similar opportunities, but chose not to take them for the sake of her family - his "it wouldn't be ideal" was her "I'm not going to go". He put his career first, with the blessing of his wife. While his wife probably would have gotten her husband's blessing to take the opportunities she had, she didn't. I am sure that this was the right decision for her on an individual level, but it is an example of why there's a problem on a larger scale.

I don't think that's a difference in attitude inherent in male and female biology or instinct, or if there is some root in such things, I don't think it's the main reason. I blame nurture, not nature, for this gendered narrative. I blame socialization into gender roles and societal expectation of how a woman relates to family and career vs. how a man relates to them. The only way around it is to change - naturally, because you can't force these things - how we socialize our daughters vs. our sons. When a generation of women grows up both consciously and unconsciously confident that if she so desires, she can take those career plunges and her family will be OK, things will change. But only then.

2.) ...because they fear sexism in other countries

This is a real concern, because there is sexism in other countries. There is also sexism in America: I guess it's sort of "the beast you know" in your own culture, whereas in a new one it's big and scary and impenetrable, and seems impossible to fight. I can see how a woman who might have otherwise been open to moving abroad might get scared off by hearing about the sexism there. There are probably Western women avoiding parts of the Middle East for fear that she'll have to dress in a way she doesn't wish, or interact with men in ways that make her feel uncomfortable: sometimes, it makes you uncomfortable to be too modest - it makes you feel like you're being put in your place, shoved down, made lesser, by the culture forcing you to interact "modestly" with men, or not at all. After the gang rape on a Delhi bus made international news, a lot of women I know are concerned about life in not just Delhi, but India as a whole. Many are shocked that I've traveled there alone and been there so many times.

I can imagine it putting you off going for pleasure or study, or independent work - "why live in a country where there isn't even lip service to female equality, and I truly am considered lesser?" - or as an overseas transfer - "I'm not sure I want to go to Korea if I have to go toe to toe in drinking with colleagues and counterparts".

Yet another reason to battle sexism globally, not just locally.

3.) ...because they "simply don't want them"

I don't actually buy this, but I've heard it said (by men, and some older women), so I'll address it here. If you do hear this, it's more a function of the reasons above (#1 and #2) than any actual innate lack of desire to work abroad. There will always be individuals who do or don't want to live abroad, for whatever reason. That, however, is not determined by gender beyond that point that socialization attempts to make a distinction. Don't believe the evo psych whackjobs on this one.

There are too few women at positions high enough to be considered for overseas transfers:

Kind of similar to not uprooting family to an overseas location, but with a broader, deeper undercurrent. Women are more likely to sacrifice their careers for family - if they keep working, they're more likely to take fewer hours, be offered and take fewer promotions, get smaller raises, and just plain not make it to high enough positions in their companies to get themselves transferred abroad. Women who want to move abroad for their own reasons, who intend to find their own work there, tend to do better in this area, but for women in established positions in international firms, this is yet another thing the "you can't have it all"/"nobody asks a man how he balances a career and a family" glass ceiling has taken away from us.

A wife/family is more likely to acquiesce to her husband's overseas assignment than vice versa:

How often have I heard it said among friends back home - "I had some opportunities abroad, but I didn't take them because my husband didn't want to go. I didn't want to be long distance, so I stayed"? More than you'd think, and more than I'd like. One of my friends once talked of traveling the world and moving abroad for a time (yet another of our friends had taken the plunge and moved to Morocco). She didn't go because her boyfriend (now husband) was really not interested, and hates flying. I like the guy, he's great, and very supportive of her otherwise. He's solid. But it can't be denied that she didn't try the expat or world traveler thing, even for a time, as a sacrifice for her relationship. I am sure it was the right decision for her in a personal sense, but if the personal is in some way political, it is one example of why we don't see that many women abroad.

Women feel more social pressure to settle closer to "home":

I already wrote about this - but my point still stands. In a world where women are socialized to prioritize family and men are socialized to prioritize independence and breadwinning, many women find it more difficult to uproot and leave home for farflung locales (although many do).

The Old Boys' Network of cushy expat assignments makes it difficult:

I think this also happens more often than you'd think - not a big issue with women like me who come over and find work independently - I wasn't interested in being tethered to a company that could send me or return me home on a whim, based on what was best for them, and not what was best for me (I'm doing more of my own freelance thing these days for that reason - I'm sick of career decisions that impact me being made by companies looking out for themselves, and not for their employees. I understand that that's just how business works, but I'm not interested in participating).

But with women who do go that route, they may find themselves shut out to some extent. Those jobs, where they still exist (and I am not convinced they should exist, with more and more qualified local talent able to take such positions), can be pretty sweet. It's not unusual (although it is becoming more so) to have the house provided for you - and the digs are nice, often downtown luxury apartments with hotel-like amenities or full-on houses with pools and views, company cars and drivers, maid service, a competitive salary by American, not local, standards (unless that place is Europe), home leave, paid-for airfare and relocation costs and more. I can see how those in charge - mostly men, still - would want to get their buddies into such positions.

The stereotypes about expat life cause women to internalize the idea that these jobs are not open to them:

Books by expat women for expat women tend to focus on women who stay abroad for a few years, not long term, who travel rather than work (although some stories involve women working), and advice tends to center, as I said above, on trailing spouses, not on breadwinning wives abroad. Conversation on these topics still assumes man-as-breadwinner is the norm, book clubs, craft clubs, children's play groups and coffee mornings are all for women (who are assumed to not be working), articles and news spots that involve expats tend to involve men, and media and resources tend to assume male-breadwinner-female-homemaker. When they're geared at women, they tend to be specifically for women, rather than being a resource for all that women can also enjoy.

What women do get are things like this (skim right past the idiotic, sexist and horrifying intro to the copy of the WSJ article) and this CNN piece, which just assumes that most female expats in Thailand are trailing wives. (Expat Ladies in Bangkok is a fairer and better resource, by the way. It acknowledges the many trailing wives who make up its readership, while also assuming that many readers are there on their own or are breadwinners in their families, the driving forces behind why those families are in Bangkok at all).

There's also this (yet it does acknowledge the need of things to change - it doesn't take the issue with a grain of salty acceptance), this (not a fan) and this, which does treat it as a two-gender issue, but the example in the lede is still a woman moving for a man and his job.

A cursory Google search for "trailing spouse" will turn up article after article in which lip service is paid to male trailing spouses, but the ledes, examples and basic assumptions still seem to be that of women taking such a role. One is actually called "Trailing Wife", and all firsthand accounts are written by women in that role.

When women see images of expat men that evoke bars, cars, offices and women, and then see images of expat women that evoke coffee mornings, play groups, book clubs and directing housekeepers, and when advice for expats aimed at men is all about work and travel, and advice aimed at trailing spouses is all aimed at women, it's not hard to internalize those images to the point where that's just what you picture when you picture an expat of either gender. And yes, it may well be a part of what keeps women from going after these jobs, or just making the jump.

Single women are more likely to not want to stay that long if the dating scene doesn't work in their favor:

Already covered this here and here.

Women are "not as adventurous as men":

I think this is straight-up bullshit. I'm only including it here because I've heard it said. From a friend of mine, no less (Taiwanese and male, if it matters). A friend I've lost touch with for unrelated reasons, but still.

It's just not true.

And so, now what?

I've become more aware of these issues recently, and thought to myself: OK, I can write about why this might be the case, but am I prepared to back it up, and to do a better and more thorough job of writing posts of interest to expat women, especially those in Taiwan, who are here independently or who are breadwinners? Women who are the driving force behind why they are here, rather than trailing behind (again, nothing intrinsically wrong with that)? Am I prepared to try harder to even things out a little bit?

Yes, I am. Although I'm not here on a cushy expat job, and have never lived that kind of lifestyle, I am here through my own maneuvering and I am a breadwinner. I may not be uniquely qualified, but I am a voice.

That's one of my resolutions for the new year: more articles for the expat women in Taiwan who are here of their own volition. Let's see if I can keep to that.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Throwdown: Taipei vs. Shanghai


So, last month we took advantage of the 48-hour transit visa allowance for foreigners transiting between countries via Shanghai. It was a great way to see the city without all the expense and trouble of getting a Chinese visa. Which, you know, is a lot of expense and trouble (I know, I'm American, I can't imagine how difficult it must be for a lot of Chinese to get visas to the USA - glass houses and all).

Before our trip had really begun, as we left Shanghai for New York, I was casually offered a job there while stretching my legs at the front of the plane and chatting with other passengers. Another friend said that during her visit to Shanghai, she had a job opportunity pop up too. Both would have been very well paid. For all the speculation on the Chinese economy, one thing is for certain: if you're talented and want to make it in Shanghai these days, you can.

And yet, this post is not my announcement that we're moving to Shanghai. I'm still here in Taipei. The thought though - the fact that it would be so easy to just make that happen, prompted me to consider the relative merits of the two cities. Why do I choose to stay in Taipei? What's the pull? What about Shanghai would be better? Let's take a look.

Because that's how my photos appeared, let's start with architecture/general environment:


That's a classic shot of The Bund, but people generally don't go to The Bund every day. That said, Shanghai is peppered, and not just in the French Concession, with gorgeous old buildings that have mostly been preserved:



These two are at the popular spots of Nanjing E. Road (above) and the heart of the French Concession (below). But there's more to it than that:


I love Taipei's older buildings and Japanese-built brick shophouses. I love the charm of the Western end of the city. And yet, I have to give this one to Shanghai: Taipei has its share of heritage buildings and charming architecture, but Shanghai has more of it, and it's more accessible throughout the city. Sorry Taipei.


The famous Yuyuan Gardens

Yuyuan Gardens' Starbucks gives you a good view of the tourist mayhem outside

Shanghai isn't the most tourism-site packed city in China. It's got a few great things (a fantastic museum, some shopping areas, People's Square, Yuyuan Gardens, Nanjing E. Road, The Bund, the river cruises) but it doesn't have, say, a great, I dunno, wall or anything like that. You could fill up a few days in Shanghai doing touristy stuff, but beyond that, it's a city to live in rather than visit.

That said...everyone seems to visit it anyway. I don't blame them - it really is a cool city. What this means, though, is hordes of tourists - more than you'll see at the National Palace Museum, Sun Moon Lake, Taroko Gorge or Taipei 101 - jammin' up Yuyuan Gardens and bringing out the touts. We got approached so many times by people who would just not leave us alone: "HEY LADY! Watch? You buy watch! WATCH WATCH WATCH WATCH WATCH! Watch!!!!" "Excuse me, can you take our picture?" (as a ruse to get you into a teahouse that will extort huge sums from you for a 'tea ceremony'), people approaching us with everything from fancy laser pointers to changepurses to in line skates (?) every minute or so. It got tiring. One thing I like about Taipei is that while there are tourists, I can enjoy the city unmolested. Point: Taipei.

Money Money Money $$$:


There are a quadjillion job opportunities in Shanghai, and with some of 'em you can make bank. Especially in recent years, a lot of my students who used to take business trips to Guangzhou now take them to the Shanghai area (more like Kunshan). It is, basically, the closest thing the world has to a Land of Opportunity right now. I don't know how long-termers deal with visas (can one even get permanent residency in China? Not Hong Kong - I know that's possible after 7 years - but China?) but if that's what you want - make it here, so you can make it anywhere - Shanghai's the place for you. I could quite possibly land my white butt up at the airport and get myself a corporate training or in-house position like...snap. That quick.

On the other side, my poor beloved Taipei. I *heart* you, Taipei, but your job market sucks. Unemployment is low, but underemployment is ridiculous (I'd emphasize that with a "ricockulous", but I'm pretty sure that went out of style 8-10 years ago. Young ones, what say you?). Almost everyone I know, including several of my colleagues and peers, and pretty much every Taiwanese person I know, is both underpaid and underemployed, with the bonus of being overworked. There's no end in sight: the government clearly doesn't give a damn. They think cut-rate skilled labor makes Taiwan "competitive". No, it just causes brain drain, stagnation and unrest. What I wouldn't give for a minute with Ma Ying-jiu to tell him exactly what I thought of his governance. I know I'm not the only one.

I mean, just don't even get me started on the job market for English training in Taipei. There are opportunities, but a lot of companies seem to think skilled corporate trainers should be happy with NT$60,000 or so a month (that's not my wage, if you're curious, but I'll stop there) or less than $1000 an hour depending on the contract offered. No, dude. I've worked my way up in this career and acquired mad skillz so I could get paid, not so I could be your butt monkey. I figure either freelance work or in-house training would be a better deal, so that's what I'm keeping an eye out for. I'm done with companies that would farm me out to different businesses and then pay me a (laughable) cut of the fee.

And why is all the skilled labor in Taiwan willing to work so hard for so little? Why? They think they have no choice. I hope it does erupt into real unrest. Maybe a rash of organizing, unionizing and strikes. Like "The Jungle" except without the mutilations and canned meat. Then maybe something will change.

In short: I love you Taipei, but no. Shanghai wins. Stay in Taipei if you love Taipei. I do. But if you want to really make it...go to Shanghai.


Shanghai has more and better Western and international options than Taipei, but the convenience store food can be downright gross (do NOT buy a sushi roll in a Shanghai Family Mart - and don't say you weren't warned. JESUS.) There aren't a lot of convenience stores, and there are very few street food choices. As a colleague once said to me: "in Taiwan it's like, if you want food, good food, just walk out on the street. It's practically on display - 'look at all our food! Come eat! Food!' In China it's like a mile of wall and then some dead buildings. Maybe a bank or some other shop. But no food. I was walking around and I was all like, ' the food?' Even searching for breakfast - near People's Square so we weren't sequestered off in the middle of nowhere or anything - I had to walk for several minutes longer than I would have in Taipei to pick up food and coffee, and even then I ended up at a Cafe 85.

We ate well in Shanghai - that dinner at Jesse was truly memorable, the crab changed my life - but otherwise, Taipei wins. Better food and more of it. You don't even have to look for it. And you can get that crab in Taipei if you want.

I mean, even when there is street food, they imitate Taiwan!





Both cities have their interesting characters - just see above - but I don't think anyone would argue that Shanghai has friendlier people, or even as friendly people - in Taipei. A friend of mine went to Shanghai for five days recently and said that people were not only brusque and unsmiling, they were downright rude - brushing her off even after asking something in Chinese. People warned us that service in restaurants was not exactly like what we've come to expect in Taipei. There are those ever-irritating "WATCH WATCH HEY LADY YOU BUY WATCH" people, too.

I didn't find Shanghai people quite that rude, however. Employees at restaurants and bars were mannered enough, although maybe not as inherently nice as those in Taipei (and let's be honest, there are some real jerks in Taipei). Nobody openly brushed me off. I did get the sense, however, that if I lived in Shanghai people would generally not be as friendly or welcoming as Taipei. It might well take me a lot longer to make local friends. I also get the feeling that there's a larger contingent of shady expats, just because there are more expats overall. I got the feeling there'd be more "I'll be polite to you, but we'll never be close because you foreigners can't understand our 5,000 years of Chinese culture" than in Taipei.

Winner: Taipei. Not even a contest.


Shanghai's subway is fine, but it closes far too early in a city with more expensive cabs. Some trains leave their origin station as early as 10:30. What the what? Taipei isn't much better, but the buses make some sense, the trains close at midnight, the MRT system is beautiful and clean, and taxis are cheap. Taipei wins.


Glamour Bar at M on the Bund

This is a tough one. Shanghai has cooler bars, a more international scene, more places to go, and a greater variety of choices. That said, those choices seem to be overrun with expats (not always a bad thing unless it's a meat market, which in Taipei it often is), are definitely too crowded and cover charges and drink prices are ridiculous. They rival New York. You have to wait awhile to get into some places. I've never had to wait in Taipei, and I rarely have to pay a cover charge. Drinks are not cheap, but not horribly expensive either. You can go out for a night in Taipei and not ruin yourself. The only time we went and got truly ripped at Saints & Sinners (a friend had just lost her job and was in a bad place) with a group, and got the insane bill, it was $8000NT ($260 US or so) for 5 people. That's not too bad, seeing as I collapsed on a pool table at one point.

But...but...cardamom mojitos! Try finding a regular mojito in Taipei! (you can, by the way: China White has them. But at that place you feel like you should be doing lines in the bathroom or the staff'll kick you out).

But..Taipei has a whiskey bar and I can actually afford to go to it!

Score: tie.


Don't even get me started. You can't see the end of the runway at the airport most days in Shanghai. It's not as bad as Beijing, but Taipei wins.


Well, I couldn't check Facebook or Blogger and had trouble with gmail (it worked on my iPhone app but not via regular Internet connections). You can see those sites, if you're willing to circunvent the law (and I was, because screw that, but with just one day it wasn't worth figuring out how). You can more or less say what you like in Shanghai, but you can't necessarily say it to a public audience and you certainly can't publish it consequence-free.

In Taipei I might be pissed at the current state of things, but at least I can say so. I can even protest. I can go online unfettered. Taipei wins.


Another tough one. Shanghai's got more Chinese-style stuff that foreigners like, and more options. Both cities have a varied and fascinating design scene. There are more choices in clothing for foreigners of different sizes in Shanghai, and more stores not available in Taiwan (Sephora, The Gap - not that I would go to The Gap). But everything is more expensive, and those super nice teapots and silk scarves can be found in Taipei if you hunt...and for less. Also, Taipei has night markets, but Shanghai has more "stuff from around China". While there's more variety and more to appeal to tourists in Shanghai, you can afford more in Taipei and still get some pretty cool, locally-made stuff. I think I'll give this one a tie.

One thing both cities have in common - people with tiny dogs:


In conclusion:

Shanghai gets points for nightlife, money, shopping and architecture. That's 4.
Taipei gets points for food, people, nightlife, shopping, transportation, freedom and pollution. That's 7, but I'm going to take away one point because wage stagnation and underemployment in Taiwan is so damn bad that it deserves to lose a point, because f*** you, government for not doing anything. Like, not even trying. Like, trying to keep it that way. So that's 6.

In sum: Shanghai's got a lot going for it, but I'll stick with Taipei. It wins 6-4. I do love it here. So friendly. So much cleaner. So much easier to get around.