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?


Paul Voss said...

So who is the guy that runs that site anyway? I mean other than he sounds rather like the typical dirty Taichung foreigner, the suburban white guy with an asian fetish who can't make it back in the States and thinks his opinion counts for something. Shame he doesn't have anything to back it up. I mean that with no offense to my longtime expat friends. I haven't lived in Taiwan in a few years, though I still try to go back regularly, and sometimes I desperately wished I lived there again.
It is just I thought I was familiar with most of the more important Taiwan blogs and well this was the first (and hopefully last) time I seen his.

Jenna Cody said...

Hah, well, I try not to call people 'dirty" (I will call them all manner of other things only if they deserve it, but "dirty" is just too vague an insult in my opinion to be able to accurately describe any given terrible person). And I didn't read the rest of his site. And that subset of foreigners (which obviously does not include all white guys in Taiwan or even Taichung) is not relegated to Taichung.

But yeah, I see your point. Obviously, as I think this sounds like the sort of crap you hear expats drink beer and talk about like they're Wise in the Ways of the Exotic Orient. And that's what it is, crap.

Which is why I'm so sad to see it passed around, especially without comment.

Jenna Cody said...

Having not read his blog before I took a quick scroll. it's mostly harmless recipes and travel info, and then the occasional howler. The "this is our culture" post is one such howler...he never stops to think that the sentiment beyond "all cultures have their good and bad points, they're not any better or worse, just different" is not "my culture is better than yours" but is more like "we know our country has problems too and don't need Whitey here judging us when bro-bro has specks in his own goddamn eye".

I see it as more accepting that Taiwan has problems but, as it is a collectivist culture, there's not a lot one person can do about them so it's best not to get judgy. And I have definitely heard the same thing said about other countries - eg. "Chinese spit on the sidewalk". Taiwanese person: "I think that's gross, but that's their culture."

So...I just don't buy his argument. It's yet another "I was at the pub with my mates and we all agreed" bullshit screed.

Paul Voss said...

L. Paul Voss said...


I feel I should introduce myself (and therefor there is no real reason to post this comment). Since I have sporadically visiting your blog for years I have at least an idea of where you are coming from, I feel weirdly anonymous just piping up. So, Hello, I have a quiet blog where I mostly focus on food. My wife is an Anthropologist who's research site(s) is/are in Taiwan. That and my own background in Anthro. is why I found the cultural chauvinism of the original article (and a handful of others I came across on his site) and the gender issues in the other post important enough to comment on.

That and being from a poor and rural background I really felt that there was as much of a cultural divide between me and the other expats I met in Taiwan as there was between me and the Taiwanese (though I do have expat friends in Taiwan and spending much of my time in Taiwan in Taitung, where we still spit on the sidewalks I to am probably considered a little dirty by Taipei standards).

Anyway I was going write this little introduction last night (your morning), but I was busy watching 有愛1家人 on Hulu. Don't judge me.



Mike Fagan said...

"...where hierarchy is prioritized over ability or innovation... That's capitalism."

That is fucking priceless.

Jenna Cody said...

And if you don't think there's truth to it, you have an overly idealistic view of what capitalism is.