Wednesday, April 30, 2014

So, how *does* one dress to buy dragonfruit?

 photo DragonfruitFrontCover.jpg

We have a cover!

Although it's just one story in an anthology, I'm mighty excited to actually be published (I mean, I've been published before in journalism - nothing fancy - but never in a book). It's not a full-on book by me, but hey, maybe someday...

It's not that often that one of these travel writing anthologies includes a story from Taiwan, but thanks to my own story, Gods Rushing In, that isn't a problem this time around. It's even rarer that the stories in question are written by women - a lot of the modern "Taiwan expat experience" books out there seem to be written by men with a strong male perspective, which, you know, is great, it's one angle - but there aren't that many female expat voices speaking up on the Beautiful Island.

I have a memory of reading a review for Stranger in Taiwan (a book I never read, because the way the subject matter was tackled, in a typical brobro expat guy way, did not interest me) with the line "Anyone who has been here any length of time will have had the same experiences and will instantly be able to relate to them: the hospital. The Girl. The Family. The Job. Touring with The Girl" and thinking, "wait...what? No. I've been here quite a length of time and of those, only two are something I can relate to - the hospital and the job. We don't all have the same Asian Girlfriend and Her Family experience." Not that there's anything inherently wrong with that experience, but these days it seems to be the only one that gets a lot of airtime.

Mostly it's my own laziness that has kept me from starting a project like that already, one told from a different perspective with a different voice. I always say I'll find the time, and then I don't. I would probably also structure it as a series of stories, but attempt to achieve narrative flow. But...laziness, I guess. That and a fear that although I have a lot to say, that nobody's going to be that interested in hearing it. Perhaps it's the Confidence Gap. Hell, maybe the confidence gap is the reason why there are so many "guy stories" in expat literature and so few female ones, and maybe I'm underselling myself and I ought to change that. At the very least I know I am not an awful writer.

Yep, maybe someday.

Anyway, I love the background design - colorful and bright, clearly a dragonfruit, but also artistic - and it's really nice to see what the finished anthology will look like.

How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia goes on sale on June 10th, but you can follow their Facebook page here and see a list of contributors here. Once the electronic copies are ready to be distributed, keep your eyes out for reviews!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Why the Earth God Is My Favorite God

Image from here

The best god ever.

As you may remember, recently we'd found out we'd have to move. I was stricken - although of all the things I value, the least horrible to lose is our greatly-cherished living space, I still felt sick at the thought of having to leave it when I didn't want to.

Well, things have changed. Although I don't believe in God, or any gods, at least one of these supernatural nonexistent beings is awesome.

One thing I love about folk religion in Taiwan is that you can participate in it without necessarily believing in it. It's hard to wrap one's head around this from a Western mindset, but there is nothing about Chinese folk religion that has a problem with atheists praying at temples. I suppose it is preferable if you believe in the god, but if your question or problem is sincere and visiting a temple gives you some unnameable comfort, or is done out of family or traditional obligation, the act itself is good enough and the mind does not have to be behind it. If you're in Taiwan, ask your friends or students - some really believe, but you'd be surprised how many are agnostic or atheist or "vaguely spiritual" without any clear convictions, who see no problem in participating in temple rituals.

I know in a lot of Western cultures, worshipping when you don't believe is somewhat taboo. I have heard, however, that in some Jewish circles it's fine: you can be an atheist and still participate in the culturally prescribed rituals, but feel free to correct me if I'm wrong there. It seems to be fairly common among cultures where the dominant religion and the culture itself are so deeply intermingled that there is no clear line where secular "culture" ends and "religion" begins.

As I wrote in my last post on the topic:

Side note: one thing I like about Chinese folk gods like Tu Di Gong is that they don't care if you're an atheist. They care that your issue or question is sincere, and that you show up to pray. Even if you don't pray, they may help you. If you do, they may or may not, it depends on their mood or whatever heavenly politics they're involved in at the moment. The idea that an atheist could go to an Earth God shrine in Taipei and pray, despite not believing, is not irreconcilable in this culture. To me this is realistic (either a god will help you or he won't, and praying may help your case, or you may get lucky), echoing how things work in the real world (either you get lucky or you don't). It's a way to make myself feel better, and feel more connected to life in Taiwan. I can do that, and be an atheist. Thanks, Earth God. You're cool.

I also quite like that religion in Taiwan is not a closed-off thing. There's no conversion process. You don't have to attend meetings or go through a ceremony in order to be considered a true believer or "congregation member" of Chinese folk religion. The gods are there, according to local tradition, and you can believe in them or not, pray to them or not (but if your family is traditional you'd better pray to them no matter what, just in case). You don't have to be a believer at all!

And while it's uncommon, and perhaps surprising, when a foreigner goes to a Chinese temple to pray, it's not forbidden, nor is it particularly taboo.

So, when I found out I'd have to move, my Chinese teacher and I went off to the nearest Earth God (土地公) temple, which we were directed to by my doorwoman (who thought it was cute, but wasn't entirely shocked, that I wanted to go). The Earth God isn't a one-off god, every area has its own shrine which oversees property, moving, farming, business and other issues for that area and you have to go to the shrine in your area, so I figured it'd be best to go to the one my doorwoman goes to.

And, lo and behold, that weekend our landlady's sister gave us up to a year to move rather than the original two to three months. Thanks Earth God!

Over the next few weeks, we looked at 5-10 apartments, and liked only one of them. It was in our lane, so the neighborhood was the same. It had a different - not better, not worse, just different - layout. I liked the better-designed kitchen, separate living and dining areas, two large bedrooms (one could be both a guest room and an office), and two recently renovated bathrooms, one of which had a Japanese fancy magic toilet.  The downsides were refrigerator and washer/dryer spaces that didn't quite fit our appliances and some traffic noise, no outdoor casement for my bougainvillea, orchids and mint, and no window looking out on a courtyard.

We wanted to take it, but the agent's fee was one full month paid by us, and we had to move in almost immediately. Yeeeaahhh that's a big ol' sack of NOPE. We told him we were interested, but the highest agent fee we'd ever seen was half a month paid by tenants, and we couldn't move until April. He said he'd "let us know" and then we didn't hear from him for two weeks, so we figured the answer was "no".

About two weeks later I was doing my morning tutoring in Zhonghe (I don't do it for the money). My bus sideswiped a car soon after I boarded, and rather than wait for the next one after traffic cleared, I walked to Burma Street (華新街) for lunch. Then I grabbed a bus to Ximen, figuring I needed to pick up some more Imigran and it would be fun to wander around Red House and the arts&crafts market. I passed a few people bearing huge flags that said "Normalize the Recognition of Formosa State" and took some photos. At some point on my jaunt, my phone battery died.

I didn't buy anything at the market, figuring I needed to watch my cash flow if I was going to have to move at some point in the near future, and grabbed another bus home. This one stopped very close to the Earth God shrine, so I decided it was time to go back and say hello, thank him for his help so far and ask for his continued support. You know, like ya do. 

But this time I was alone, no Chinese teacher. It was a stuffy afternoon, with a pale yellow sun whose light felt blunted by the haze. The sky was that hot Taipei white that is neither cloudy nor fully sunny. I felt a bit weird - being a weekend, there were more people at the temple and I felt watched. Why would she need to pray? I sat at a bench at the far end of the temple enclosure. Is she just tired? Do foreigners go to temples? Hmm. 

Nobody said that - but I could feel it. Or I was making it all up in my head. I don't know. I still have a lot of baggage from growing up in a culture where it's odd both be an atheist and go to a place of worship. Plus, I still wasn't entirely sure a foreigner would be welcome to take part in this cultural ritual, although all of my experiences have pointed to the contrary. 

What's more, I really, really did not want to get involved in cultural appropriation - real or seeming. And I wasn't sure if this counted.

And yet by doing this, I did feel more connected to Taiwan. I live here, my "property" (well, my rental property) is here, and the god looks out over that property, and there's no set of rules on who can pray to him and who can't. I was looking at this as someone who wants to be more connected to the place where she lives and learn about it by living it, not someone who wants to take on the elements from another culture so she can feel cool or special. But I wasn't sure if that would come across to others. So.

I sat on that bench for a good 40 minutes, both gathering the courage to talk to a god I didn't believe in, and waiting until there were fewer people around so I could do so in relative privacy. After swinging back and forth on it, and feeling really out of place in a way I hadn't since I'd first moved to Taiwan 8 years ago, I decided to go for it. 

The way to pray is this: you check the number of incense sticks that go in each burner, and what order they go in. You light the appropriate number (it's usually posted on a sign near the incense). First you stand facing away from the shrine, toward the large burner in front - that usually gets a few sticks, this one got three. You should repeat your prayer. Then you face the temple and pray again. You can murmur but don't speak out. Add a stick to that burner. Then go inside, on the right (the side with the dragon) and pray to the gods inside and put a stick in that burner. Then there's a small tiger god under the Earth God - only at Earth God shrines - he gets a stick too. People looking to succeed in business will put their business cards around the burner down there. Then you exit via the tiger door. When you pray, you should give your name and address so "the god knows where to find you".

I lit the incense, walked to the burners and started the familiar murmur (in Chinese, although one would think the gods could understand any language): My name is Jenna, I live at Fuxing South Road Section....number...I want to thank you for...and I hope you can...

My phone had been out of batteries for about 2 hours at this point. When I got home and plugged it in, within minutes it lit up with a message from the agent of the one apartment we'd liked. The call was time-stamped at about the time I'd been at the temple.

I called him back - we could have the apartment on our terms! Yay!

I punched Brendan's name - he agreed. Let's do this.

I called the landlady's sister. And...

Oh, I was going to tell you. 

You were?

I found another place to live. You don't have to move. I'm OK in this new place.


I confirmed three times: so we can stay? So do we have to look for another apartment? So you won't move in?

Then I confirmed with the landlady, who didn't really know but confirmed later that her sister was telling it true. We didn't have to move.

We don't have to move!

It was probably a coincidence, but the idea that I'd find out right after I'd been to the Earth God temple to ask for his continued help (and to admit I still did not, in fact, want to move although I'd accepted that I'd have to), with the catalyst being a phone call that came at just about the moment when I was praying...that's odd.

A week after that, I got together some Ghirardelli dark chocolate sea salt squares, a box of brown sugar mochi (I hear the Earth God likes sweets, especially mochi) and three tasty ripe oranges. You're supposed to bring three or five things, and if one of them (say, a piece of fruit) is small, you should bring three pieces to make up that one part of your odd-numbered offering.

And the fact that the landlady's sister wouldn't think to tell us we didn't have to move until right after I'd been to the temple, in a way that seems kind of weird (you'd think she'd have called us once she'd made that decision - the whole thing seemed rather sudden) - that's odd too. Odd and wonderful, like offerings numbered one, three, five or seven.

This time the sky was a roiling gray, spraying rain down at random intervals like someone spastically turning a showerhead on and off. It was a Friday - the temple was almost empty. I unpacked my offerings - this time I didn't feel weird about it. The Earth God (who isn't real) did us a real solid (which was very real), he deserved this offering and I was going to give it to him.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Expat women! In Asia! In an anthology! With dragonfruit! And me!

   You totally want to read about this guy.

I've mentioned a few times before on this blog that one of my stories - based on this blog post - is going to be published in an upcoming anthology of stories by expat women in Asia (woohoo!). That was all very informal, but now things are being finalized and I'm proud to announce that the book - titled How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia - will be on the market this June!


You can, and should, follow the Facebook page here. A list of contributors and more information can be found on the editor's blog here. And I am going to be totally shameless in saying that you should buy a copy (don't worry, Moms & Dads, you're getting free copies. But the rest of you should buy it). You'll (hopefully) see a few reviews on some Taiwan-centric blogs, including mine, because duh.

It's pretty rare that a story from Taiwan makes it into these travel writing anthologies, and rarer still that that story is written by a female expat. I can really only think of one other that I've read - and I buy these sorts of books all the time, so I would know. They're great to bring on vacation because you can read them one story at a time. In the story I try to address the female expat experience and progressive women's issues in Taiwan, along with thoughts on being an atheist in a country that mostly practices folk religion, and what happens when those three things collide at a temple festival in Donggang.

Seriously, you should read it. I think I did pretty good. At least I tried my best to capture the atmosphere of one of these festivals outside Taipei. I haven't read the anthology yet - eventually I'll get a copy - but I'm sure the other writers wrote brilliantly as well.

Anyway, so yeah. Buy the book that has my story in June. :-P

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Really Freakin' Angry (well, not really)

Given the swift emotion that runs through most of my posts, you may be surprised to learn that it actually takes a lot to make me really angry. Even when I do feel some anger, it's often offset, or satirically blown-up, by using hyperbolic language because I just happen to enjoy speaking colorfully.

Even with this CSSTA/服貿 agreement, while I am angry at the Legislative Yuan and Ma Ying-jiu*, it's really not an issue for me if other people feel differently. Everyone gets to have their opinion, although I do also kind of feel that if you can't defend your opinion, perhaps your opinion sucks - but you still get to have it. And I'm entitled to think it sucks. But I won't say "you're not allowed to think that way". See? Fair. I might debate with them until we're both hoarse or our fingers are cramping up from all the typing, but then I only debate when I find it engaging to do so. It's not a sign that I think others don't deserve to have opinions.

But there are a few things I've heard over the past few weeks that have made me really freakin' angry.

If you think the student occupation is "illegal", well, okay. If you think it's "undemocratic", I'll roll my eyes, but okay. You're wrong, but okay.

If you think CSSTA is "good for Taiwan", I'll think you don't understand the economics involved, but okay, most people don't understand economics, even economists. It's not exactly a predictable science. So fine.

If you think this is purely an economic issue, not a political one, you're damn wrong, but okay. You still have the right to that belief. I won't argue that here: Ben Goren's already made that argument, and he's right. You can click the link

So when do I get really freakin' angry?

"You shouldn't be protesting, you're not a citizen of the Republic of China".

Perhaps not, but I do live here, and as such I have the right (the legal right) to protest. Issues that affect Taiwan do affect me. In fact, as a foreigner in Taiwan I can't vote and therefore have no political power or representation beyond my presence at protests...which makes it more important for me to protest when something is important!

And don't forget that I can't become a citizen because the government has purposely made the requirements to do so prohibitive. They know that few people will give up their original citizenships before they even apply (and face rejection, rendering them stateless). But a Taiwanese person can get a dual citizenship from another country, no problem. And an American (or other) citizen born to Taiwanese parents can keep their American (or other) citizenship and also obtain Taiwanese citizenship, too. The law only targets foreigners. They probably don't care much about white folks coming in and wanting citizenship, but they don't want the SE Asian laborers to get the vote and use their new political power to demand better working conditions and fair wages, among other things. Even though most of them plan to live out their lives here. Sooooooo, it's racist.

And it is exactly why I should be protesting.

Don't like it? 有種出來幹阿!

"You foreigners can't understand Taiwan's issues"

I live here, my life is affected by Taiwan's issues - quite directly, in fact! My income is directly affected by wage increases or stagnation: if my students (most of whom pay on their own) can't afford to pay more, I can't raise my rates and my income stagnates, too. I live, breath, walk in, swim in Taiwan's issues because as far as my daily life goes, they are my issues too. Maybe not the "Taiwanese identity" issue, but anything economic or having to do with social welfare definitely is.

So what makes you think I can't understand? Do you really think foreigners are so dumb that they can't comprehend issues that directly affect their lives? Do you think that even though we live here, we all live in some hermetically sealed expat paradise bubble so that most of your struggles are not ours to some degree, as well? Do you think that your issues are all so uniquely "Chinese" that anyone not Chinese can't understand such intrinsically Chinese concepts as "the economy"?

This one infuriated me - I only calmed down after thinking that the old guy who said it to me was super old and would probably die soon.

I'm terrible, I know.

"If you don't like it, you can go back to America!"

Going to address this answer to the douche lord who said it, although she's probably not reading this.

First, no I can't. I mean, I can, but not really. My work is here, my income. My husband. My apartment. My cat. My social life. All my stuff. I can't pick up and leave much more easily than anyone else - the only difference is that I don't need a visa.

And just because I can doesn't mean I will (see "my life is here", above). Are you trying to say that despite everything you've said before about how foreigners are welcome in Taiwan, that we are actually not welcome? Or only welcome as long as we smile as things that affect us are fucked up left and right, and say nothing? That we're only welcome as long as we don't have political power of any sort? Because that's what I'm getting.

And I don't want it to lead me to think "This whole 'Taiwan is friendly and welcoming' thing isn't true at all!" because I know that's not the case (for white foreigners at least: it actually isn't that welcoming for foreigners of any other color except maybe the Japanese). I know people who say things like "if you don't like it, go back to America" are in the vast minority, but damn it makes me angry.

Second, unless you missed those 500,000 people in front of the Presidential Office, I'm not the only one who feels this way, hon. Those 500,000 people also don't like it, but you're not telling them to go "back" to wherever. There are millions - perhaps a majority - of Taiwanese who agree with me. This isn't the one angry foreigner and a bunch of Taiwanese who know better. This is you pissed off because another person who lives in the same country as you has a different idea about what's best for it, but who can't even vote accordingly. I have no power. I don't know why you think I'm a threat.

"You don't understand the Chinese idea of government or what a Chinese nation is"

First, what does that even mean?

Second, I'm pretty sure you guys have a government set up in a model commonly referred to as "Western",

And third, it doesn't matter if I do or don't understand what "a Chinese nation is" (heh), a majority of Taiwanese are not interested in being a part of China, and I dare say that most think of Taiwan as a 'nation' or as their 'country'. My view on what Taiwan is (a great little country!) and what China is (a bigger but generally terrible different country!) has nothing to do with "Chinese ideas" and everything to do with, well, my own opinion plus the opinions of - in case you didn't hear me the first time - a majority of Taiwanese.

"You foreigners always want to push your ideas about Taiwan on us"

Yes, that does happen with foreign governments (hint: one of them is China). Yes, historically that has been a problem vis-a-vis colonialism, and I won't minimize that.

But actually, I don't want to push my ideas about Taiwan on anybody. I've long since learned (saving this for another longer post someday) that my opinion and my hope for Taiwan need not be the same thing.

My hope for Taiwan: that y'all get self-determination. Truly, the ability to figure out together the future of your country without any threat or fear. Without China breathing down your necks threatening war or economic suffocation. If you choose "unification", well, that would be your decision. If you choose the status quo, that would also be your decision, as would independence.

That's divorced from my personal opinion: I support eventual independence. But that doesn't mean I want to force independence on Taiwan - it's just what I personally support. What I want for Taiwan is true self-determination (it's not "true" if there's a lurking threat from Big Brother if you choose the 'wrong' path).

Basically the person who asked me this doesn't even know me, but despite our lack of personal acquaintance, that person can kiss my ass.

In conclusion...

So you'll see, most of the things that get me really freakin' angry aren't the opinions of others, they're potshots thrown at me because I'm a foreigner, or assumptions made about me, or a total lack of regard for how much my life is also affected by what happens in Taiwan (and, to that end, this is, to some degree, my fight). It's when race politics enters the conversation and I'm told that as a foreigner I don't get to have any opinion - or any opinion, at least, that the person I'm talking to disagrees with or that is anything other than smiles and happiness.

On the bright side, this is only a small minority of people, most of them very old and used to being bossy obasans and ojisans whom younger folks wouldn't dare talk back to (I'm not very Taiwanese at all, perhaps: if they get all up my butt about race, I will talk back. Oh yeah, I went there). The majority of people respect my right to an opinion and expression of that opinion, even when they disagree, and don't question whether or not I, as an expat, get to have an opinion at all.

So, I don't have to get really freakin' angry too often. That's a good thing. :)

*disclaimer: I have a strong bias against the KMT as a whole, so of course I'm going to automatically list toward whatever side is against them. I don't claim to be fully objective.