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.

1 comment:

Pommygirl said...

I like this post, and seeing the struggle to balance opinions against entitlement to have them is one I'm familiar with. But may I say something in your favour?

In my previous job, I had students that lacked incredibly basic skills, such as keeping work in a folder, writing something down for later review, or even just bringing a pencil to class. Some of these things I had to explicitly teach, others were picked up when new students observed current ones.

In my current job, I am faced with incredibly sheltered (yet privileged) students. They are incredibly unaware of how sheltered they are. As they find out more about me, they are surprised at what I've managed to do in my life.

In both cases, things could (or hopefully will) only change when exposed to something different, new or inconceivable. Being neither in nor out of the circle, you can be an part of the discussion, in bringing new models of how to live to the table. And having such a lot of experience with Taiwan, it's easier to pinpoint what's culture and what's habit, what's easily changeable, and what's more ingrained. Obviously there needs to be a balance between what Taiwanese people want for themselves and changing things to suit globalization, but it's a good thing that both cultural and outsider opinions are available to them.