Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The White Knight Rises

Just recently I got into a debate with someone online about women traveling in India. The guy said he "wouldn't advise any [woman] (he said "female", I prefer "woman")to travel in India", let alone advise them to go alone.

I felt that statement and its defense by someone else - "it's legitimate to warn women about these issues" - implied a minor case of White Knight Syndrome: the idea that it is necessary to protect, defend, rescue or help someone else, due to a belief that that person needs your protection, defense, rescue or help. It's an assumption that the person (or group - in this case women) is vulnerable, weaker or in distress and unable to handle the situation herself/himself/themselves. In that case, any woman planning to go to India would have almost certainly read the news for herself and be able to assess the dangers herself. She doesn't really need some random guy giving her "advice", well-intentioned though it may be.

Then I got to thinking - do I have White Knight Syndrome? Not towards women, but towards Taiwanese?

If you see it one way, it doesn't look good: I have a lot of opinions, and I like to talk about my ideas for making Taiwan a better country. I'm openly critical of things I don't like, be they political parties, domestic or foreign policy, work culture, sexism or traditional ideas about education. I really do feel I have some "right" ideas, even as I recognize that no one person can have an entirely correct/objective perspective on everything. Obviously, anyone who has an opinion thinks they are right. Otherwise why have one? I do feel it's important to speak out, even if it's just to real-life acquaintances or on this blog - I'm not much of an activist beyond that.

Looking at it that way, you could make a case that I and every other foreigner with strong opinions about Taiwan has this problem. We're not Taiwanese, so who are we to go around spouting off what we think needs to be done in Taiwan? Who are we to criticize certain cultural mores? I care a lot about Taiwan, but it's not really my job to "defend" or "protect" it. Taiwan doesn't need a white knight - a literally white knight - to speak up for it. This country is capable of speaking up for and defending itself. Taiwanese people are perfectly capable of carrying on and disseminating this discourse on their own. They don't need Whitey McWhitegirl to do it for them. "Foreigners Come In And Fix Taiwan" is no good, just as "White People Fixed Racism" and "Men Fixed Sexism" are no good.

On the other hand, I live here too. I'm a permanent resident and I've thrown my lot in with Taiwan. When something happens here, it affects me too. Work culture affects me and racism and sexism certainly affect me. When 天龍 (Hao Lung-bin) makes another stupid decision or fails to take on a vital initiative (or tries and bungles it), it affects me, too. Integration with China, freedom of speech and the press, urban renewal, the nuclear debate, education policy and tradition: they all affect me.

And although I am not Taiwanese, do I not have the right to speak up about things that affect me too, that I care about? I may not fully understand and only be semi-integrated into society (I suspect there is a "sense of distance" - 有距離感 - that I will never overcome). Although my opinion doesn't carry the same weight as someone who was born and raised here - literally doesn't, as I can't vote - that doesn't mean I shouldn't get any say in what goes on in the place where I live.

The conclusion that I've come to is that I probably do have a tendency to be overprotective or defensive regarding Taiwan, and that I should be mindful of my opinions and how I express them. That does not, however, mean I can never express an opinion again. There are ways to be an ally and stand up for what you believe in, especially if you live somewhere and are affected just as much as others by something, without being a White Knight. The same goes for male feminists and straight LGBT allies, to name a few.

This makes it easy when it comes to debates on the economy, China policy, nuclear weapons and laws pertaining to foreigners. It gets murky when you start talking about things like education and women's issues. On one hand, as a woman and educator, these issues do affect me. How children are educated in Taiwan absolutely has some bearing on the thought processes and attitudes of the adults I work with. As a woman, I really believe that "but [this sexist belief] is a part of our traditional culture! You can't criticize OUR CULTURE!" is a load of crap. It is possible to maintain one's culture and also promote equality. It is possible to respect the past and also progress. You don't have to oppress women or any other group just to retain your culture. And yet, a foreigner speaking out about cultural issues pertaining to women could be seen as a White Knight. It's a fine line.

It's murkier still when you start talking about cultural habits (which are not universal, but generally observable) and norms. Am I being a White Knight when I say, for example, "Despite his low popularity and criticisms of his presidency, Ma Ying-jiu was re-elected because people in Taiwan tend to favor stability and pragmatism, and saw him as the 'stable' candidate with the 'pragmatic' view...and that sucks, because he's a terrible president with terrible ideas. I'd really like to see more people in Taiwan stand up for what they really believe in, and what they hold in their hearts, as opposed to sacrificing it for 'stability' and 'pragmatism'"? You might say that I am. I'm not sure I'd disagree with you. And yet, the outcome of elections here also affects me, even though I can't vote in them (which you could argue is unfair...but...). It's one of those things I have to think more deeply about.

Think about it like Zhuangzi and the fish - which someone else in that discussion brought up. How can you know how a fish feels if you are not a fish? How can I know how a Taiwanese person feels if I am not Taiwanese? (I once had a Taiwanese friend say this to me, by the way, a check on my opinions that I appreciated).

I am not Taiwanese, so how can I really know how a Taiwanese person feels? I can't.

And yet, I live here and have a pile of Taiwanese friends and acquaintances who have told me how they feel or what they think is best for their country or culture. So it's not as though I completely lack insight.

It comes down to - sure, if I live in Taiwan and have a blog that discusses issues in Taiwan, I have enough contact with locals to have some idea of how locals feel. This is my blog, and therefore of course, unless there's a guest post (and I'd welcome some, especially from Taiwanese women wanting to talk about women's issues in Taiwan) it has to come from me. But when the discussion includes both me and Taiwanese people, the best individuals to speak out on how Taiwanese people feel are...Taiwanese people themselves. Not me. They're the fish - they know better than I do how a fish feels. They know better than I do what's best for fish.

That doesn't mean I can't say anything. Just that I need to be mindful: I am not a fish.

There are no clear answers - but it is an issue worth discussing and exploring, and definitely worth keeping in mind, especially among foreign expats who opine on their adopted homes.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sri Lanka: Kandy-land Adventure


I apologize for not posting for two weeks - I took on a crazypants teaching schedule, trying to save money before I make a change in August, and haven't had much time for blogging. I also worked my way through The Forty Days of Musa Dagh after reading a few other things on my list (Hiking Through History and The Oracle of Stamboul), and that took up a lot of my time.

What's more, I've been thinking more seriously of making jewelry to actually sell - although I haven't started yet, just planning what to make and what I'll need - if I decide to do it at all - is taking up time.

And sadly, blogging fell by the wayside.


I believe this is my last batch of Sri Lanka photos (I have to check and see if the Galle photos ever made it up, and later on I'll throw up a few Colombo shots), and I don't have too much to say beyond basic travelogue stuff. But I should note a few things about similarities between Sri Lanka and Taiwan.

I mean, there are the obvious things, like how they're both islands off a major landmass that is also one country, and both independent (although Taiwan is only de facto, Sri Lanka is de jure). They both have monkeys. They are both often overlooked in favor of their larger and more powerful neighbors.


But there's more.

Both have an ethnic minority of another race that has influence over the culture (Tamils in Sri Lanka, aborigines and Hakka here - some will argue that Hakka is not an ethnic minority. OK, you could say that, but they are a cultural and linguistic one).

They both are relatively small players in the world economy (Sri Lanka moreso than Taiwan) next to a major player, but both have higher per capita GDP statistics than their "big, rich" neighbor. Both are more prosperous when you consider individual standard of living than their neighbor. Both are easier to deal with as destinations than traveling in their neighbor (I love India, but Sri Lanka was an easier place to visit).


They both have some unfortunate politics worth discussing. I was not pleased that the LTTE lost the civil war - I was rooting for them to at least win concessions, autonomy or some sort of enforced legislation of equal treatment and opportunity. This is in part because I lived in Tamil Nadu in India and so have something of a connection to Tamil culture although I am not Tamil myself, and in part because they fought back against true discrimination. They didn't deserve to lose, and they're not doing much better now than they were when the war began.

And of course, Taiwan has to deal with all that China bullshit.


They both have monkeys!

But seriously, they both have cultural traditions that involve tiny shrines everywhere. Along the road in Sri Lanka, much like in Taiwan (but not China, in my observation), there are small Buddhist shrines (and a few Hindu ones too), that you can stop and pray at, or are there just to keep farms, fields or property safe and in god's grace. In Taiwan, of course, you'll see Earth God (土地公) shrines everywhere, and a few others (Matsu is popular) scattered around, too.


Their cultures are both too often considered the same or "close enough" to their larger, more well-known neighbors.


They are both influenced strongly not only by their Big Strong Neighbor, but also by other nearby islands - as is the case with island nations in proximity to other ones. Taiwan is deeply influenced by Japan by both proximity, cultural affinity (including post-WWII when Taiwan was one of the only - the only? - Asian nation to not despise or resent Japan) and colonization. Sri Lanka has flavors of Indonesia in its art, traditions, architecture and cooking - you see woodcarving that's more reminiscent of Bali, "tiki" style thatch roofs more commonly seen in Sumatra and Java, food that reminds me of Padang cuisine almost as much as it does Indian curry, greater use of coconut and an affinity for "sambol", which is basically spicy Indonesian sambal with coconut.

Even their art has lines - look at the legs of the carved dancer below - that remind me of Indonesian Hindu/Buddhist art more than Indian.

Some of their dances seem more Indonesian than Indian, but I am hardly an expert in Sri Lankan dance tradition.


Anyway, these photos were taken in Kandy, Sri Lanka's cultural capital (think of it as the Tainan of Sri Lanka, Galle as the Lugang of Sri Lanka, the southern beaches as the Kending of Sri Lanka, Ella/Nuwara Eliya as the Alishan of Sri Lanka...they could all almost be sister cities/sister destinations).


The afternoon we arrived, after a nauseating bus trip, we waited out a rainstorm (common in Kandy in the afternoon) and headed to the Temple of the Tooth (above), where it's said that they keep a tooth of the Buddha. I'm not sure if it's real - it's been absconded with, taken to India and brought back enough times that it could well be a fake - but the temple is lovely.


We went to a fun, but basic, tea museum the next day, taking a rickshaw up the mountain and walking down to enjoy the weather and scenery. And we saw this:



...and passed a Durga shrine. Durga, the embodiment of feminine creative energy and the Optimus Prime/Power Rangers Giant Robot of Hindu gods, carries weapons in her 18 arms and rides a tiger or lion. She killed the demon Mahisha when no other god could. Of course she is my favorite.



Jaya jaya hai, Mahishasura Mardhini!

We hired a rickshaw to take us to the three most well-known temples outside of Kandy (not a lot of public transit), which were all enjoyable, if firmly on the tourist circuit:












...and we saw a super touristy dance show, which was fun, but not as authentic as, say, a Taiwanese temple parade (I'd love to see such dances in an authentic setting, but all the cameras going off kind of ruined it. I'm not against taking photos - I take them, too - but it was downright rude, how people would stand in the audience or hold their cameras up high so those behind them not only couldn't see, but also could watch you take your terrible photos...because most tourists aren't good photographers).




Here's one of the shrines I mentioned:


And the beach we started out from, at Negombo (it was a less stressful option than staying in Colombo). Seems quiet - actually, it was stuffed with tourists.