Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Touristy Side of Taiwan

Greetings from Sun Moon Lake! I am amused and not-really-embarrassed to admit I managed to spend 7 years in Taiwan without having come here, until now. I've also never been to Alishan, believe it or not. I guess at some point I'll have to drink the tourist Kool-Aid and go there, too.

We're here just because we had a weekend free together, which these days is rare. I also feel like it's a sort of celebration, although we didn't plan it this way, of my quitting my job. I'm free, I'm free, I no longer need formal employment to maintain a visa and have basically sufficient freelance income and opportunities - at last I'm free! I finish at the end of August, but I'll finish off all of my continuing contracts and be open to freelancing with them in the future.

So far, not bad. I mean, it's exactly what I expected. Doesn't even look terribly different from my mind's eye picture before I arrived. Beautiful lake, smaller than I imagined, no idea why people think it looks like a sun and a moon (it really doesn't, not at all, I just don't see it, sounds like something someone made up to justify giving it a tourist-friendly name). Really very scenic and lovely, I can see why people want to come here.

Too bad the development in Shuishe (where we are now and where we'll stay tonight) kind of ruins it, and all the big fancy hotels that I'd never pay to stay in hog the best views.

But at least we have everything we need, from ATMs to coffee to wifi to shopping. It's an easy and enjoyable weekend destination, but I can't imagine spending more than a weekend here.

We've just arrived so that's about it, chilling in a coffeeshop for a bit as we didn't get much sleep last night. The typhoon screwed up Brendan's work schedule and instead of being off at 5pm as planned, he didn't get off until 10 and didn't reach Taichung until 2am, as he had to wait for a bus that wasn't full from Taipei.

But I fully expect to write a post on visiting a huge tourist destination in a country I've lived in for many years, but only now just visited. It promises to be an interesting experience, to see this side of "touristy" Taiwan. Especially when my usual experiences here have been anything but touristy (I don't generally go to the places swamped by Chinese and other Asian tourists, and Western/non-Asian tourists don't seem to have discovered Taiwan...yet).

Monday, July 15, 2013

Of Verdicts and Public Opinion

Here is what's hard.

Two cases, famous in their respective countries.

Case 1, in Taiwan, a foreign man is accused of driving drunk after a night of karaoke, hitting and killing someone (a local). Nobody really knows what happened, but everyone in the expat community agrees his trial was a sham. He's found guilty - chances are just as good that the police and the owners of the KTV, along with the judge, agreed it would just be better if the foreigner took the blame for the Taiwanese man's death as they are that he actually did it. Taiwanese public opinion very much supports his "guilt". The media treat him as guilty even before the trial. Not only is he a foreigner, but  he's dark skinned (doesn't matter that he's British).

Most foreigners believe that the verdict was wrong, and that it was probably also reached in part as a result of the pressure of public opinion on the judge, pushing him to convict. The argument is that a fair judge wouldn't be swayed that way (nor would a fair judge collude with police and the KTV owners to agree to blame the foreigner).

Case 2, in the USA, a young black man is killed for what appears to be no reason whatsoever. The killer is found not guilty (which, by Florida law, is as far as I know technically true, but that's a point against Florida law, nit a point in favor of the killer. Public opinion is almost entirely one of great fury at the crime and verdict. He was found guilty by the public long before he was tried. Nobody believes justice is served. Many seem willing to ignore the findings of the jury in favor of that public opinion, which says he should fry (or be locked away if you're not into the death penalty).

Case 1is that of Zain Dean. Case 2 is that of George Zimmerman.

In Case 1, I'm inclined to agree that public opinion among Taiwanese should not have played a role in Zain Dean's conviction. I don't know what happened, but no matter what it was, the trial itself was almost certainly a joke. I believe that the judge should have followed due process and ignored the Taiwanese media and public clamoring for Dean's head. (From what I've heard, even from students who just assumed he was guilty until I pointed out that it wasn't nearly so assured that he was, judges in Taiwan are influenced by public opinion to convict or aquit far more than they should be).

In case 2, however, I'm inclined to agree with the public opinion. Justice was not served. George Zimmerman is a murderer and America is still a very racist society. I can say that I think due process should be followed, even as Obama speaks out and says that in a land of laws, we must respect the findings of a jury if we want that due process. But...deep down, I think it was just the wrong verdict.

The commonality here is that I do feel the verdicts reached were both the wrong ones, but for very different reasons. And in one, I'm inclined to dismiss public opinion because I happen to not agree with it (or at least, I just don't know anything beyond the fact that the trial was a joke). In the other, I can't bring myself to dismiss public opinion that quickly...because I agree with it.

And it both, race and racism played a huge part in public opinion before and after the verdicts, and probably in the trials themselves.

I'm not sure what conclusions to draw from this, but I can't help but see the parallels here and contemplate my own ideas about when the public is right, and when they're not...and when to respect the verdict of a jury or judge, and when not to.

And once again, I'm reminded of my own privilege. As a white person, I may face prejudice, but I am not nearly as likely to be assumed guilty in Taiwan as Zain Dean (of South Asian descent, I believe) was - damning evidence of racism deeply rooted in Taiwan. In America, I probably wouldn't be seen as "suspicious" enough to shoot without cause, and the system works in my favor. It's amazing how many people are blind to that.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

So, do I have a Taiwan State of Mind, or am I the weirdo here?

This seems to be making it big across the blogz and Facebook.

I'll admit, I liked it. Especially the first half. It was cute, well-done, fun, didn't take itself too seriously, and didn't shy away from political truths.

"You should know I bleed green, but I ain't that D-double-P though...Chinese Taipei? Fuck that, you got it all wrong. Taiwan Independence, yo, I'm from Taichung!"

Down with it!

But they lost me at the second half, which was basically a verse and a chorus all about Taiwanese women. 

I'm down with appreciating Taiwanese women. Nothing wrong with liking them. Nothing wrong with including them in a song. But did it have to be half the song? Half a verse would have been better. And of that, all of it was about their appearance (long legs, "city of skin", fake eyelashes). The parts that weren't were about them shopping and using smartphones out in public (I liked the part about the betelnut girls - they're such a part of the culture here that I don't have it in me to get a stick up my butt about them). Seems to me there's more to Taiwanese women than their appearance.

And anyway, what about Taiwanese men? I appreciate them in an "I'm married, so even though they can be good looking I'm not interested" way (I blog about 'em a lot because they don't seem to get enough positive press). You couldn't have half a verse about them?

And finally, they couldn't find anything else to say about Taiwan that could have taken up a bit more song space, so you had to devote half the song to Taiwanese women, their looks and their phones?

I guess, as a woman whose Taiwanese female friends are mostly very smart, independent, fun women whose whole selves total far more than their looks, and who didn't come here for the women (I'm straight), devoting half the song to dating Taiwanese girls (and how good Taiwanese girls look) just lost me. I don't relate. The first half of the verse was fun, but by the end I felt it was a bit objectifying. And I do feel at times the (mostly male) expat community tends to objectify Taiwanese women. Not everyone does this, and certainly not every expat man with a Taiwanese girlfriend or wife does it (I'd never imply that), but it happens enough that this made me a bit uncomfortable.

In some ways I guess my Taiwan experience hasn't mirrored the typical bullet list - if you asked me to write a song about it, first I'd laugh at you, but once I stopped laughing it would include little shout outs to festivals, more about food, Hakka culture, men's Japanese hairdos, weird-ass t-shirts, aboriginal culture and hanging out in mountain towns like Lishan with old people. This is a country in which some people get possessed by deities and beat themselves with spiked clubs, and they couldn't find anything else to rap about for the second half of the song?

It's not totally related to the topic, but close enough that I'll say it here: I do feel like a bit of an outlier in the "international" scene in Taiwan (I don't just mean expats, plenty of locals are in it too, for a variety of reasons). It does feel like it's kind of city-centric and party-centric - hopping between the major west coast points and occasionally visiting the touristy rural areas, without venturing far into the non-touristy ones. Where the main events in life are Ladies' Night, Friday nights out, partying in Kending in the summer, a couple of well-known bars, dating Taiwanese women, restaurants and clubs aaaand...that's about it. It's all "yeah, tonight it's On Tap, maybe I'll see you tomorrow. Girlfriend wants to go to Barcode, maybe before that we can grab some tai-pis at 7-11...naw bro, next week I'm in Taichung, you know how it is, then it's Kending, that'll be awesome, my girlfriend's calling, talk to you later bro". In the interest of not sounding like a total loser, I won't dwell on how "I'm not anti-party! I go out too!" and stick with "...that's fun to a point, but it doesn't do it for me as a lifestyle". And the video, while fun and well-done, did sort of portray Taiwan through "international culture" rather than local eyes.

So maybe that's why I was all in toward the first half of the video and toward the second half my  usual feeling of not fitting in with that culture came back.

Dunno. Maybe I'm just boring.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

They Push And They Pull

From here:

This post is about something that's been on my mind these past few days - how hard it is to accurately depict your feelings on expat life in Taiwan in a conversation. I feel like either I end up sounding too negative, or too positive, when really I'm moderate-trending-toward-positive.

Two conversations:

In the first one, I was the only foreign woman on a boat carrying approximately 100 people. Otherwise all the men were foreigners, and all the women were Taiwanese. I don't know how many "ABCs" - or to be more nuanced about it, Westerners of Asian heritage - there were. There was at least one. It turned out later that I was one of two foreign women. I noticed that and commented on it, and although I didn't mean for it to come out particularly negative - negative in terms of the skewed ratios of the expat population, certainly, but not negative in terms of life in Taiwan - it probably did. I probably came across as more bitter than I actually am (which is not very). In another, I was not the only foreign woman there - there were several women, ABC and foreign, and several men of different backgrounds. I was attempting to say how happy I was to see that, that so often it's "Asian women and Western - usually white - men", but again, I probably came off more bitter about it than I actually am.

In the other, I was chatting with a colleague who hates it here. I'm not sure why he's stayed for so long, - the only positive thing I've ever heard him say about Taiwan is a compliment on Taipei's public transportation network (which, let's be honest, is awesome. Poor Taichung. You just don't even know). This coworker is a funny guy and a generally nice person and I don't dislike him. However, whenever he gets on his Taiwan Hate Spree, I feel like I'm put in the position of pointing out all the good things about this country. If he points out the hideous bathroom-tile buildings, I point out the lovely brick Japanese baroque architecture ("but they tore all that down!" "Not all of it, and they're now finally trying to preserve what's left"). If he points out that every taxi driver tries to screw him, I point out that that almost never happens to me, so perhaps he's seeing malice where none is intended (I don't point out that if you can show you speak solid Chinese, beyond knowing your destination, that people are far less likely to try and pull that crap on you). If he points out that "this would never happen in Canada", I point out that his country is far from perfect (although I'll admit it has some strong advantages over the USA) and certainly crazy and annoying stuff happens in Canada, too. All in all, I probably come off as far more starry-eyed about Taiwan than I actually am. I quite possibly sound like someone who thinks this country is perfect.

And...neither are true! I will admit I feel the positives of Taiwan outweigh the negatives by a pretty significant amount. If they didn't, I wouldn't have stayed. Goodness knows I left DC and China after 3 years (not counting college) and 1 year, respectively. They both had their good points, but their negatives outweighed them.

I just feel that, especially in shorter conversations or conversations where you don't know people well, that the natural wending of the discussion will lead many people to come off as too positive, sounding like we think Taiwan is absolutely perfect! In! Every! Way!!, or too negative, in that it! sucks! giant! snakeballs!

If everyone around you is talking about how great Taiwan is and you join in, the one guy who is miserable will assume you're all just brainwashed or full of over-optimism. If everyone around you is having a bit of a whinge (hey, it happens, even for those of us who love it here) and you add your own bad experiences, the one person who loves it here will assume you're all just narrowminded, possibly racist, definitely embittered cultural imperialists.

And yet, if everyone around you is talking about how great Taiwan is and you feel compelled to point out that it's not perfect, everyone else may assume you're, well, narrowminded and bitter (I don't think that happened in my example above, but I've definitely seen it happen - the person who points out a fault is jumped on for being "too negative" when they aren't feeling negative at all, just pointing out one little issue). If everyone is whinging about Taiwan and you feel it's gone a bit 太over啦 (overboard), and start pointing out the positives - as I do with my coworker who will not stop complaining - they may assume you have a head full of stardust (that coworker probably thinks just this about me).

It also happens online - someone who sees one post of yours in a thread either praising or complaining about Taiwan quite possibly assumes that's the sum total, or at least an accurate portrayal, of your entire opinion, and gets a very wrong idea about you.

And, of course, it's also influenced by your mood that day - you may come off as miserable in your life in general if you meet another expat when you happen to be having a bad day or week, or you may come off as Happy Fairy Expat because you happened to have a great day or week. It seems, in the expat world, there isn't much accounting for how you may feel more generally. Either you love or hate it here, and that decision will be made for you by bystanders based on the exact circumstances of that moment, and only those circumstances. I feel people really are more forgiving in their home countries, where most people are culturally integrated. There is more room back home for "she's just having a bad day" or "he's happy with his life, but if you talk to him longer you'll realize he's aware of the negative aspects of his own country, too".

I guess this is because so many expat conversations, especially among people who don't know each other, tend to start out with talking about our lives in Taiwan and what we like or don't like, and snap judgments are made. Not too many conversations in America, unless you're at a Tea Party BBQ I suppose, focus on our lives in America and what we do/don't like about them.

There's no easy answer to this, I just felt like writing about it.

In the end I hope I come off as too positive more often than I do too negative. Frankly, I'd rather have a head full of stardust about where I live. It is where I live after all. May as well try and like it, even on the bad days.