Friday, May 16, 2014

Two Ideas, One Humanity

I've been discussing two separate issues with various people in the past few days which, on the surface, seem unrelated. The first is the difference between judging a person as sexist vs. judging a place to have issues with sexism: "has marriage to a Chinese man changed your feminist views?" (short answer from the blogger: no), and the second: more Chinese tourists are visiting Taiwan as the popularity of Hong Kong fades (and the Taiwanese are not that happy about it). 

In the first, the main takeaway is that while there are issues with women's rights in China (and everywhere - the US is certainly not off the hook. Taiwan may have more issues with sexism than the USA but in Taiwan I don't think twice about walking anywhere, at any time, alone. In the USA I do), that the author's Chinese husband is himself a feminist and his family basically agrees with the idea of respect for both genders. My thoughts - it is, as ever, important to judge individuals based on who they are, not to measure them against a stereotype, even if (and this is important), there is truth to that stereotype. And there is truth - I doubt few rational people would argue that there are issues with sexism and women's rights in China, and those issues are more severe than many other countries. In China I heard such wonderful nuggets of anti-wisdom as "it's fine if a woman is clever but if she's more clever than her boyfriend or husband, he will lose face, so she should pretend to let him be smarter." (I feel like adding a Game of Thrones style "it is known" to the end of that line of bullshit), or "it's fine if a woman has a job, but if she earns more than her husband, that is bad for him and the marriage", or "a man never beats a good wife, so if a wife gets hit, it's her fault" (I REALLY heard that), or "it's the nature of men to play around, it's the job of women to forgive them".

It can really wear a person down. Goodness knows it's worn me down. At times it can feel like a barrage, a sexist tidal wave, an inescapable minefield in which, as you cross, you are also being shelled and mortared. And yet, despite that, it's important to judge people as individuals. It's difficult to keep in mind - and I will admit sometimes I've slipped - but everyone, from any culture, deserves the respect to their humanity of being judged independently of that.

And yet, I will make no concessions to "culture" or assume that those who have these sexist ideas - and there are many - think that way because of "culture". I feel, strongly, that gender equality vs. sexism is not a question of "culture", it's a universal issue, and any given culture is capable of not incorporating sexism while retaining its core. Western countries used to be a lot more sexist than they are now (and they still are, let's not forget), but some things did change, and yet we are still American or Canadian or Australian or whatever. Taiwan has made greater strides in gender equality than China (with some exceptions), and yet Taiwanese culture is still Taiwanese. You could even say that that difference is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Taiwanese culture. India also has deep issues with sexism, and yet an Indian feminist is no less in tune with Indian culture than some sexist douche lord who beats his wife because his "culture" says it's his "right as a husband" to do so. If sexism is tied to culture at all, it's a shallow tie, and something that can be excised without upending the entire culture.

So, I just reject that whole "it's a culture thing" line of reasoning. If anything, I feel that disrespects people's humanity. It's a fancy way of saying "poor things, they don't know any better". Nope, nope, nope. Grown-ass adult humans are capable of rationality, and gender equality is about rationality, not culture. I prefer to respect someone's humanity by believing they are capable of the rational thought that maybe it is bad to hit one's wife.

With the second issue, the debate centered around Chinese tourists coming to Taiwan in tour groups that litter, don't stop people from smoking indoors (seen it myself), create massive noise pollution, spit on the street, occasionally muss up bathrooms or 'do the needful' in public areas (I saw a tour group member pee against the outside wall of Eslite Dunhua a few months ago) and commandeer space (have you tried visiting Alishan, Sun Moon Lake, Taipei 101 or the National Palace Museum recently? Those places are basically ruined for locals or any other visitor who is not in a massive Chinese tour group).

One side of the debate initially made sense - it's not right to reduce Chinese to dirty, loud, littering walking wallets. They deserve more humanity than that. And that is very true. And it's also true that where they come from, it is fairly normal to, say, pee against a wall, litter with impunity, smoke indoors, spit anywhere you like and observe a very Darwinian model of public space (survival of the fittest - the largest group gets the space and puny individuals must always give way). I won't even deny that those are issues in China, because having spent a year in China, I know that they are. Some understanding of that can go a long way towards bridging resentment between the two sides, just as it would help a lot if Hong Kongers realized that the Chinese were buying all of their milk powder because they, like any other human being, want milk powder known to be safe for their babies. And of course one should be forgiving if a foreigner doesn't always know the local etiquette and makes a gaffe.

But that's where my agreement ends - after that it devolved into "where they come from it's normal to let your kids poop in the street, so they don't know that in Taiwan it's not done", or "if you lived through the outrage, oppression and poverty that they did, you might act the same way. If you hadn't been exposed to the outside world much you may not realize that in other places it's not okay to litter or spit."

Which, I'm sorry, but no. I won't get into how the tragedy that is 20th, and now 21st, century Chinese history has shaped local customs and etiquette in China, because it doesn't matter to me what they do - it's their country after all. But outrage, oppression and poverty are not reasons to ignore the etiquette of a country you are visiting. It is best if a host is generous and forgiving, but it's on the guest to be as polite as possible, to attempt to understand local norms and, accepting that they'll screw up sometimes, attempt to follow them. It's on them to educate themselves in how to act if they visit Taiwan, and on them to respect Taiwan's civil society (civil as in 'civics', not as in 'more civilized'). I can understand why the Taiwanese are upset - the change is observable. I no longer recommend the National Palace Museum to visiting friends because it's overrun with tour groups who force everyone else to wait 15 minutes or more to see one exhibit. Taipei 101 used to be a fine destination for light shopping and a coffee, now it's a nightmare. Sun Moon Lake is notably less pleasant than it could be, and forget a quiet sunrise on Alishan. There is more litter, there are more bathroom issues (standing on Western toilets, pooping all around the toilet etc), there is more spitting, and there is more smoking where it should not be happening, noise pollution and blocking of thoroughfares (although blocking thoroughfares is also a problem in Taiwan generally), and previously nice shopping areas are being overrun with stores catering to Chinese tour groups that no local wants to shop at. And as I see it, it's up to the Chinese visitors to know that these things are not okay. It's not the responsibility of the Taiwanese to smile and take it, as they're always expected to do.

Any visitor from any country, if they have the money and ambition to travel, has it on their shoulders to do their best in terms of local etiquette and not assume that things work the same way in this new country as they do in their own. Chinese tour groups are not exempt from this.

And that, to me, respects their humanity more than "well they don't know, in their country it's normal". Of course it is not right to deride individuals - they are not "dirty", "irrational", "walking wallets" etc. - rather than certain behaviors and larger group dynamics that are causing problems (I consider the noise pollution and the space blocking to be group dynamic rather than individual issues, and I daresay they need to be addressed no matter what nationality the group tour is from). But it's also not right to say "they don't know any better!" - come on. They're grown-ass men and women. They are quite capable of knowing very obvious things like "don't litter while abroad" and "if there is a 'no smoking' sign, don't smoke. Better yet, check and see if smoking is legal in certain areas and if it's not, don't smoke in those areas".

I also don't think 'kids pooping in the street' and 'spitting and littering' are 'cultural'. It's not disrespecting someone's culture to say that these things cause issues with public health. When - not if, but when - kids' street poop, spitting and littering stop being common in China, China will still be China and Chinese culture will still be Chinese culture.

Like with sexism, this is an issue for rationality, not culture. And if you really want to respect someone's humanity, respect that they are smart and rational enough to either know these things, or learn them quickly.

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