Sunday, March 8, 2015

"This is Taiwan", except it isn't, just no, it's total BS

This post about how the common-ish "this is Taiwan" and the helplessness it expresses is a dangerous notion, and how Taiwan is a country "without hope", in comparison to the USA, a country of relentless optimism.

People are passing it around with the tag "what do you think?" but nobody except Facebook commenters (including me in the Facebook commenter group) is attaching any sort of opinion on the post.

Well, I'm never one to just pass on a link without an opinion, so here's my opinion: it's bullshit.

Not only bullshit, but a dangerous generalization. It's easy to say "Taiwanese are defeatist, that's why they don't work to make things better as individuals". It's pat. It's a ridiculous stereotype, the sort of thing bandied about among groups of buzzed and drunk expats in Carnegie's and the Brass Monkey as a way of explaining away their culture shock (that is, as all Taiwan's fault, never their own for not understanding or never a simple difference in worldviews). It comes close to insinuating that Taiwanese are lazy or mediocre. At the very least it makes two ridiculously vast generalizations that have so little application at the individual level that I question their value and their truth. It borders on, nay, it is, a caricature of two cultures, and is an accurate portrayal of neither.

It's easy to revert to these cliches, these "things I've talked about with foreign friends at Carnegie's and they all agree so I'll blog it because it must be true if a bunch of white guys all agree on it after a few beers", these pat statements, these stereotypes.

It's also a bad idea.

First, the idea that America is a hopeful, optimistic country where it's instilled in us from a young age that things will get better, must get better, and the world is ours if we will only seize it. That may have been true a generation or two ago, maybe three, but honestly, I'm an American and I think our whole country is right fucked (with apologies to my in-laws as usual for my language). Between institutional discrimination, wage stagnation, a stifling corporate culture, the horrors of libertarianism, religious fundamentalism (and religious conservatism), science denialism, rampant bigotry disguised as 'freedom', the military industrial complex and the goddamn patriarchy, I don't feel a lot of optimism about my own country, and I certainly don't think we would be wise to have boundless hope for the future.

I'm so skeptical of how good the future of America will be that I left it! I couldn't do what I wanted to do with my life there, and I certainly couldn't have started my own little freelance business between not having a car (nor the money for it) and not being able to afford private health insurance (which is a little better with Obamacare but still not quite satisfactory). I could seize my future abroad, not at home, so why on earth would I think that the US is so great and the world is ours?

And that's not just me, that's how a lot of my friends feel too. Asked to come up with some fatalistic nihilist skeptical cynics I could go on for hours. Asked to come up with an unbridled optimist, I don't know if I could name even one.

Secondly, the idea that Taiwan "lacks hope", the people think that there is no future so "why bother", and this is why so many people say "cha bu duo" (close enough), "this is Taiwan", "this is how things are, they can't change" etc. Also bullshit.

Things Taiwan has done historically that belie a national outlook of hope: declaring independence in 1895, the 228 riots, the Kaohsiung Incident, the Wild Lilies.

Things that have happened in Taiwan recently that belie a national outlook of hope: holding out against an aggressively expansionist China, refusing against global and regional pressure to look toward a One China solution, and to insist on its self-determination, the Sunflower movement, the 3/30 protests, the November elections, especially the election of anti-establishment Mayor Ko in Taipei against the uber-establishment KMT candidate and consummate jerk Sean Lien.

A country doesn't see a group of students occupy their own nation's legislature because they feel it no longer reflects the will of the people if they lack hope that things can be better. 400,000 or so people (government estimates of 100,000 are pure bollocks) don't then show up to support them. Those same students don't end up somewhat successful - bringing the KMT's antics to public light, most likely influencing the elections later that year, and hey, has Fu Mao passed yet? Who knows what the future holds, but for now, the Sunflowers could be called successful.

This does not sound to me like a country that has no hope, that thinks "this is Taiwan".

For every "this is Taiwan" nihilist, for every cha-bu-duo person doing a mediocre job, honestly, I've seen someone with a goal, with a vision, with a willingness to take a risk or hope for something better. Among my students is one who could have emigrated to the USA (his brother did), but chose not to because "life in Taiwan is pretty good, why do I need to go there?", is one who says he hopes in his life to take part in something as momentous as the Kaohsiung Incident, is one who truly believes in doing a good job as a civil servant, is one who thinks that the academic reputation of Taiwan needs to be rehabilitated after the self-"peer"-review scandal and is actively working toward that goal, is one who puts in long hours of preparation and post-class feedback at the Mandarin Training Center even when their other teachers can and do get away with shoddy teaching.

That, to me, is not a country without hope. It can't be.

Now, that whole "this is Taiwan, what can we do" business is a real thing. I've heard it too. It's heartbreaking to hear, but two things:

1.) I've heard that sort of defeatism in the US too

2.) Remember that Taiwan is a collectivist culture (a generalization with a strong grain of truth in it, to mix my metaphors a bit). In the US we seem to revere lone mavericks who dare to challenge The Man and change the world. In Taiwan, for the most part, there's not a lot of credence given to that view, and solutions have to be collective, by consensus, not just One Man Against Them All. That man would be dismissed, because that's just not how society works here. There's nothing wrong with that.

Let me repeat: there's nothing wrong with that. It's not wrong. It's just different. Different doesn't mean hopeless or defeatist. It just means different. Solutions may come slower than we Westerners would like, but they also tend to enjoy broader support and therefore more complete implementation (see: national health care).

So of course one man or woman would say "this is Taiwan, what can I do?" because in that cultural framework, just one man or woman can't do much.

And you know there's a lot to recommend that view. Usually, one person can't change much. That's not defeatism, that's just the world. There are exceptions - but generally speaking, it takes a society, not One Maverick Standing Up To The Man, to really change something. I don't think it's hopeless to admit that, it's just pragmatic. Far more realistic.

Secondly, I don't think this is really related to cha-bu-duoism. There are people who strive to excel, and there are lazy people, or people who feel like it's not worth it. But you know what, those do actually exist in other countries, even the US, too! Why are we not ascribing the millions of lazy Americans to a national epidemic of hopelessness? (I know, some Republicans do, but mostly, we know better). Secondly, a lot of times that's an individual thing, and probably has to do more with individual personality, as well as (as my friend noted, and I agree) a reaction to a stifling corporate culture where hierarchy is prioritized over ability or innovation, where the way to survive is not to disagree or speak out too much, where being better at your job than your boss is at his or hers won't necessarily get you promoted, and where getting too much done just means more work and not necessarily any more reward.

But that's the corporate world. That's capitalism. That has nothing to do with the political future of the nation, and just because it's easier to keep your job now with no troubles so you put your head down and don't always do your best, doesn't mean that is your entire worldview.

I mean good lord, if my worldview were based on all the things I've done just to get by in my jobs (I mean, I waitressed at a Friday's in an airport and it was terrible, and I've declined to tell bosses in corporate jobs what I thought of the running of the organization because I needed to keep the job for awhile longer), how horrible would that be?

It's what I have done to get by, but not a final say on how I see the world.

And if I can feel that way, how can I possibly say that "cha-bu-duo" workers don't?

Mayor Ko and the "importing" of foreign brides

Link in Chinese

Apparently when speaking at a women's equality forum, Mayor Ko, to use the words of other commentators, "gaffed" by pontificating on how there can be more unmarried Taiwanese men than women when Taiwan "imports" foreign brides, using the word for "import" that is used for objects rather than people (is there a word in Chinese for importing people?).

I tend to agree - this was a gaffe, one of many for a mayor whom I generally support, but still have reservations about regarding his views on women. I know, people say dumb things, people speak poorly, or they get in a fit of pique and say things they don't really mean or that don't reflect the entirety of their worldviews (or just aren't accurate in light of their entire worldviews).

But he's done this more than once: in the past saying he - a doctor - couldn't have been a gynecologist because he didn't want to spend his career "with his head between a woman's legs". I've thought for awhile these "gaffes" are more than poor choices of words, and veers into the "when people tell you who they are, believe them". In terms of his views on women, I can't help but think Ko is telling us who he is, and perhaps we should listen. Especially in light of his more eloquent handling of almost every other matter - why does he keep getting this one wrong if his statements don't belie some deeper belief that he doesn't dare acknowledge in public, in a country that despite being deeply traditional is also one of the most, if not the most, progressive in Asia, and possibly the best country in Asia for women.

What makes it tough is that, well, I like the guy. I cheered when Ko won the mayoralty (then again, who wouldn't given the opposition?). I like a solid progressive anti-establishment maverick, and it's no secret that I despise the KMT and support the goals of the DPP, even though I find it hard to support the DPP itself (Ko is not DPP, he's an independent with DPP-leaning views). It's easy to shout down or mock someone you don't like having views you find abhorrent - to give American examples, for me it wasn't hard to laugh at Mitt Romney, and it's quite easy to roll one's eyes at say, Chris Christie or dismiss Bush II for the idiot he is. It's a lot harder to, say, come to terms with the fact that Hillary Clinton is a terrible person, or that Obama has foreign policy goals that horrify me.

Such as it is with Ko - how do I square his statements about women, telling us who he really is, with the fact that I support and even like him?

I don't know. Watch this space.

Friday, March 6, 2015

American Sexist

This is a post for everyone who thinks that a lot of commentary about women's issues and everyday sexism in Taiwan (as this is, after all, a Taiwan-focused blog) are somehow unique to Taiwan or unique to Asia. "Taiwanese culture infantilizes women", they might say, or "In Taiwan women are expected to be very feminine, and they really don't like masculine things - that's why all the clothing and other items they buy are so girly".

Which, there's a speck of truth to that. I wouldn't go so far as to say women are "infantilized" in Taiwan (I know enough women who are, say, the general managers of investment company offices, who are senior executives or who basically run their family businesses, enough tomboys and women who simply aren't that feminine, enough rebels, athletes and artistic types to know that that is something of an exaggeration) but there does seem to be a cultural tendency to expect greater "femininity". Most stereotypes, after all, build bullshit around a kernel of truth.

What bothers me is the idea that this is somehow Asia-specific, Taiwan-specific, or has already been done away with in the Western countries that people who say this often a.) hail from and b.) praise.

I've been in the US for family reasons since December (it is now March, for those who read this post down the line). That's the longest amount of time I've spend in the US since the mid-aughts - 2006 to be precise. I was 26 when I left, and I feel I've grown and changed a lot since then - become more articulate in my support for, and reasons for supporting, feminist causes, for example. Behavior I put up with in male friends and boyfriends back then I would not put up with now, and I would be better able to articulate why.

So, this is the first time I've been around American cultural norms for an extended period since before my sense of feminist self fully formed - at least I think it's fully-formed at this point.  And you know what? Gender-pigeonholing and expecting 'femininity' is a huge problem here, as well. And yes, it is somewhat media-propagated, it's also socially propagated.

There's the Fifty Shades of Grey crap going around - since I've been back I've had at least one friend spend quite some time rhapsodizing the 'beauty' of a relationship where a significantly younger woman goes against her egalitarian beliefs and lets herself be dominated, as per the wishes of her (barf) "inner goddess", a relationship I'd categorize as if not abusive, at least full of red flags and creepy behavior (this is not a commentary on dom-sub relationships, of which I know very little and have no firsthand experience - this is a commentary on the relationship in that book/movie/pile of trash).

Then there's shopping. As I shop for spring clothing, something I am happy to have the luxury of doing without a problem (that never happened in Taiwan), my sister and I have noted several times that the clothing and t-shirts available for men are much cooler and more unique than those available for women. Some examples from Target:

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Choices for women: yawn. They're cute, but boring. Totally fine as one aspect of a wardrobe, and would be fine if more fun choices were available - but the only fun choices are super feminine:

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So, the men get Game of Thrones sigils and Star Wars t-shirts, and we get "SINGLE"? Yuck.

There were t-shirts for sports teams - most of which seemed to include the word "Swag".

The men's t-shirts were much more interesting: 

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I personally would want "Omnomnomnivore" from that group.

So, we've been shopping in the men's section. I got fuzzy Batman pajama pants, Boba Fett pajama pants, a Sriracha t-shirt, and I almost bought a Star Trek t-shirt but decided against it as the last movie was so damn bad. You can get t-shirts for everything from Guiness to The Big Bang Theory to A Song of Ice and Fire. I'll have to get all the t-shirts altered.

I asked if any of these were available in the women's section. Nope. For women? Boooyyyss, we're single! 

Do they think women just don't like sci-fi, Game of Thrones or delicious, delicious Sriracha? I like all of those things. What makes them think that a woman wouldn't love a pair of fuzzy Batman pajama pants or a baby Iron Man t-shirt or a Darth Vader sugar skull t-shirt? All of which I would totally wear. I would not wear Snoopy sporting a pink bow or anything that says "swag", "cute", "kiss me" or whatever on it. Also, no sparkles please.

I've also been watching an inordinate amount of TV, simply because it's quite novel to have a lot of channels to choose from in my native language. I've become strangely obsessed with Ellen's Design Challenge (I just love cool furniture I suppose), but was put off by the judges saying repeatedly that "women" would not like one designer's items. Here's an example of an item that is "masculine" and that "every man" would want in their home but hardly any women would buy (very close to what was actually said.

Both my sister and I were put off by this - I freaking love this fan...thing (it's a credenza, right?). I would TOTALLY buy that. I would probably never buy the more 'feminine' designs thought up by other designers. I happened to love this guy's "masculine" work - I'm all about interesting metals, industrial details and thick natural woods*. 

I wouldn't go so far as to say I was pissed at how the show categorized these designs as "for men", but it, along with the "now we shop in the men's section at Target" experience, has really made me think about whether the US is really better at all in terms of socially-conditioned gender stereotyping than Taiwan.

Sure, women in the US, at least my part of the US, get less blowback for expressing our not-always-feminine preferences and sensibilities, and in Taiwan a lot of women complain that they do. But I'm from the People's Republic of New York where we are all Communists, pornographers, homosexuals and Jews - I would wager that in other parts of the country it's much worse. And you won't see as many instances of Hello Kitty figurine collection or anything like that.

But really, I'm not even particularly anti-feminine - if even I, not the least feminine person you will meet (although certainly not the most) feels pigeonholed, like "this is for girls, that is for boys" in the USA, if even I feel like I have to shop in the men's section of Target to get cool t-shirts and get irritated at a TV show for implying that women don't like things that women obviously do like, as I'm a woman and I like them, then maybe we are not as progressive as we think, maybe Taiwan isn't so much worse or so much more sexist than we think, and maybe we need to get off our high horses about what it's like 'back home'.

Women still get a raw deal here, too.

*shut up