Monday, June 27, 2016

Brexit Barfing: Both Taiwan and the UK need to stop fearing immigrants

Though I haven't read of anyone quite doing this yet, I imagine in the days to come someone will publish some thinkpiece drawing comparisons between Brexit and Taiwan's fight for de jure sovereignty. Certainly people commented that China watched the Scottish independence vote very closely, so I imagine they will also have watched the Brexit vote not only for economic reasons but political ones, too. Frankly, I'm surprised that China's state media wank-factory hasn't excreted some steaming turd of churlish nonsense that reads, in short, "see, Brits voted for Brexit and look at the turmoil that is causing! Imagine what would happen if we let Taiwan be recognized for what it already is! That can't happen! DOOM! GLOOM! ZOMBIES! Also you can never understand our 5,000,000,000,000,000 years of culture and that hurts the feelings of the Chinese people".

(I'd like to say my narrative above is outdated, but unfortunately, it's not. Or rather, fortunately it’s not - it's so simple to tear apart. China makes my hobby easy).

So, I just want to beat that hypothetical pundit to the punch and say that while there are philosophical relationships between Taiwan and Brexit, they actually have nothing to do with voting to break from a larger political bloc.

First, why they are different:

The people of Taiwan are currently fighting for international recognition of what almost every Taiwanese person already takes as fact: that Taiwan is inalienably sovereign and independent. This question has been so settled in Taiwanese society, to rip off Michael Turton, that the populace has already moved beyond existential questions of national identity and toward making the nation they have a better place. Nobody thinks that the UK isn't sovereign, nobody refuses to recognize it as the nation (or group of nations, whatever) that it is. The EU isn’t a big authoritarian regime across the English channel that openly strategizes how to force the UK to join its fold.

The UK agreed to enter the European Union. Taiwan never agreed to be ruled by China (or any other colonial power, including the ROC). When British people say they "took back Britain" I have to ask - from whom? Nobody invaded you, nobody claimed you as their territory. The EU didn't insist you must be annexed because you have been a part of their territory 'since antiquity' as China ridiculously does. You agreed to something and now you don't, so you voted on it. That's all. "We fought for our sovereignty" - no, you didn't, because you never lost it. In order to have the vote in the first place you had to have had sovereignty. They are simply not the same.

What Taiwan is fighting for is recognition of their entire nation from a horrid dictatorship that has clear, acknowledged designs on annexation. The UK seems to be pissed off about a few regulations, the downsides of which I have not heard articulated well, or at all, and an inchoate fear of “immigrants”.

Not the same. Do not compare them. Don't give in to the false narrative that Britain won back 'sovereignty' that it had never lost.

Instead, compare them in terms of how the people view their national identity, and the lessons that may be learned from putting too much stock in national identity along ethnic lines, and in terms of understanding how foreign workers impact a nation's economy.

All the talk about “we don’t want foreign bodies we didn’t elect setting laws and regulations in our country”...fine, sure. I may wonder what laws they have set or what regulations they have imposed that are so terrible that the UK no longer has faith in its own agreement to join the EU, but I can understand the sentiment at least.

But the talk about immigrants? That’s nonsense, and it has parallels in Taiwan. By the logic of Brexit voters, immigrants are a problem – they are taking away jobs and tanking the economy. They are a threat, somehow, to cohesive British culture.

Nevermind that there is little proof that immigrants – workers or students – hurt economies in deep, far-reaching or permanent ways (there is bound to be a little turmoil but nothing that outweighs the benefits of attracting diverse foreign talent), and plenty of proof that they do not have a net negative impact. All of the “Eastern Europeans” Brexiters are clamoring against are not the reason why their economy is in the tank, just as Latino immigrants are not the reason why the American economy hasn’t truly recovered from 2008.

Of course, the real problems are the wealthy business owners who continue to pay poverty wages and exploit workers, thinking of their own wealth only (which I can understand, but why are they given free reign when they don’t care about contributing to the economy and country that helped them get rich in the first place? What good are they doing that they should be allowed to continue?), and the relentless attacks on social assistance programs that could actually help the unemployed and poor get on their feet – and in Taiwan, a complete disregard for the idea of personal property by developers and politicians who are in their pocket.

As I’ve written before, it was never immigrants – we are fighting for the samecrumbs of one cookie with locals, while corporate interests have taken the restof the batch. Go after them, not us. We are not the problem.

You can see the same sort of anti-foreign-labor sentiment that drove much of the Brexit vote in Taiwan as well. It is apparent in mistreatment and prejudice against foreign workers – both domestic helpers and factory workers but also, at times, of professionals and English teachers.

By the logic of Brexiters who think, among other things, that “immigrants” are the problem, an immigrant like me in Taiwan could contribute nothing positive to this country. According to that train of thought, the best I could hope for would be to not leech too much off of another country, and I could never hope to be a part of it, do something good for it, be an overall advantage rather than disadvantage to have around, or even fully assimilate. Note that a lot of Brexiters say immigrants ‘don’t assimilate’ into British society, but when that is proven wrong with examples that they do in fact assimilate, those same immigrants are the target of harassment and insult. The same can be true in Taiwan – if foreigners don’t assimilate, they are held up as examples of why “IMMIGRANTS BAD, THIS IS OUR CULTURE”. When they do, they may be told they are not and can never be Taiwanese, or simply not treated as locals, ever, despite their best efforts.

It can be seen in the lack of enforcement of labor laws in the English teaching industry, fishing industry, many factories, many households that employ domestic laborers, and the brokers who bring all but the English teachers here.

And lest you retort with “but English teachers have it good here” – no, not really. Many don’t get enrolled in the labor insurance they are legally supposed to have. Most don’t get paid Chinese New Year even though it’s the law, even for hourly workers. Employer control of visas is a real problem, and plenty of complaints to the labor bureau go unresolved. 

It can be seen in the harassment faced by legislators who try to make things better for blue-collar workers, who receive actual death threats for their efforts because it would mean less money for shady labor exploiters brokers.

It can be seen in attempts to amend the law for professional workers (the class English teachers fall under), which would end the requirement that hires in fields other than teaching have 2 years’ experience or a Master’s degree (technically a relevant one but in practice this is often ignored), which then get resistance from groups I otherwise generally support, such as labor groups and the New Power Party with the excuse that it could “hurt local labor”.

Again, there is no evidence that this is, or would be, the case, and plenty of evidence that attracting foreign talent has more net advantages than disadvantages. Remember, most local companies prefer to hire locally because they feel more comfortable culturally and linguistically with other locals. If they want to hire a foreigner they probably have a specific reason for doing so, and should be allowed to.

By that logic, someone like R. (a person I know of tremendous intelligence and potential) who loves Taiwan and wants to stay, and has 1.5 (not 2) years’ media experience and no Master’s, can’t legally get a job outside of English teaching. R. doesn’t want to teach English, but her intelligence and interest in Taiwan could help her contribute a great deal both locally and internationally in the form of soft power. By the “immigrants hurt local workers” logic, someone like R. would be a hindrance, not a help, to Taiwan if she were allowed to do something other than teach – a job she doesn’t really want. If she can’t get something else, she will leave. Is that really good for Taiwan? How does it help in any way to ‘ghetto-ize’ R. and people like her in an industry they don’t want to be in?

If the problem is a fear that companies would hire foreigners at lower rates, rest assured that Taiwanese are among the worst-paid professionals in the developed world and most professionals, even from less-developed countries, want better salaries than are generally on offer here. If you are still worried about exploitation, then deal with salary stagnation and exploitation, don’t cut off foreign talent from potential jobs out of a misguided attempt to “protect” locals.

I know I’ve said it before, and repeated it, but I will keep repeating it until more people listen. For the same reasons Bernie Sanders’ outdated immigration policy is not right, this is not right either. I like the New Power Party, but they got this one way wrong.

Just as the UK seeks to cut itself off from open borders with 27 other countries, and thereby threatens depriving itself of foreign talent all out of fear of “immigrants” who “hurt local labor” (except they don’t) and “threaten our culture” (except they don’t), Taiwan has a real problem with its love-hate relationship with foreign talent. They say they want to attract more, then do everything possible to make it difficult to accomplish. Otherwise good parties like New Power take on straight-up terrible anti-foreigner policies despite calls for social modernization and progressivism.

In short, what we can learn from Brexit as it relates to Taiwan is not the oversimplified story of a country seeking ‘freedom’ or ‘sovereignty’ against a larger power, but that if you fear and push away your foreign talent, it will come back to bite you in the ass. In the UK and in Taiwan, we foreigners can and do contribute positively and we can and do assimilate. 

Unmarried women can't receive fertility treatment in Taiwan, and that is stupid.

As I've written before, living in Taiwan as a woman can often feel like having a split personality (skip to #11 here). On one hand, I feel safe walking around at night and don't get cat called on the street (though honestly as a 35 year old frumpy lady I rarely get cat called in the US either, which is a welcome relief from my twenties - the myth that you miss it once it stops happening to you is false, at least for me). It is the most progressive country in Asia for women, women are highly participatory in politics and can expect a measure of equality in their lives, most of the time. When they don't receive it, they usually have some access to potential recourse. It's not perfect - neither is the USA or any country really - but it's not bad, as things go.

On the other hand, every once in awhile you learn something that makes you sit up in horror. A short history of things that have caused this reaction in me:

- Learning that a host of important women's rights initiatives weren't passed or modernized until 1998 or 2000 (right around the time the KMT lost power for the first time). That is a shockingly short time ago.

- Finding out that abortion, while legal, must be accompanied by the consent of the husband if the woman is married, and must come with one of four "acceptable" explanations if she is not  

- Knowing that the lack of no-fault one-sided divorce was originally aimed at protecting women from husbands who might abandon them, but now keeps women equally trapped in marriages they don't want to be in, can't get consent from their spouses to leave, but can't prove any fault to push for a unilateral divorce.

- Knowing that, as adultery is still (somehow) a crime, it is rare but not unheard-of for a woman to refuse to grant a divorce to a philandering husband while at the same time pursuing criminal charges against his mistress

- Pointing out that while birth control is available over the counter (apparently - I have been told this but I have never seen it sold), higher-end birth control not generally found in pharmacies but gotten from an OB-GYN is not covered by National Health Insurance. This means that women who can't tolerate over-the-counter pills, can't afford the prescription stuff and can't for whatever reason use condoms (see: controlling/abusive partner, latex allergies) are SOL just because of a misguided idea that covering birth control under NHI would hinder attempts to increase the fertility rate (which I am not all that sure needs to be increased - the population is already too dense and the money spent on promoting child-bearing should be used to help this generation of senior citizens manage their affairs as we reset to a lower overall population).

- Reading about how certain issues, like the China Airlines strike, are often dismissed (or the opposition attempts to dismiss them) if the protesters and activists happen to be young, often attractive, women. 

- Watching (awesome) women protest and ultimately win against sexist rules at university dormitories (the part that causes me to despair is that the rules existed in the first place)

- Reading ridiculous coverage of the fact that our new president wore pants at her inauguration as though that is important in any way at all 

- The lack of acknowledgement of the most important issue in the discussion of Taiwan's low marriage and birth rate: that sexist family expectations are keeping a lot of women from marrying or having children because they don't want to get stuck on that road - it seems like everything BUT this key central issue is trotted out as a reason

It can lead one to have wildly disparate feelings, on a day-to-day basis, about the state of women's rights in Taiwan. That's true of course for any country but I happen to live here, and I would argue the two sides of this issue are more polarized than in many other countries.

And then there's this: unmarried women in Taiwan may adopt, but they may not receive fertility treatment. 

I would take a stab at explaining why but I really can't. I can't even go the "some people feel children need to be raised by a couple" route (not that I agree with it, but a lot of people feel that way) because it's OK to adopt!

This makes no sense whatsoever. This, like forcing women to justify their reproductive decisions vis-a-vis a non-sentient ball of goo in their uterus, has no place in a modern society. Taiwan, with its newly-elected progressive female president, can, should and must do better. It has a unique opportunity in Asia as a free and - for the region - progressive society to lead the way in a whole host of social issues, from LGBT rights to historical preservation to women's rights. This is a stone-age law, not fit for a modern society and frankly, the Taiwanese government should be embarrassed and ashamed that it is still on the books at all.

At least this time there is something you can do - sign the petition! Get it in front of President Tsai. Help make this happen, so that one small thing in a whole host of issues Taiwan is still facing might be re-examined and hopefully changed.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The China Airlines strike and outdated expat narratives: Confucian values are REALLY not the problem

Something I've learned: I often have thoughts kicking around in my head for awhile, and I try to write blog posts about them, only to find that they come out ponderous, aimless and full of questionable or dull tangents. An important element of focusing my thoughts is to have some sort of catalyst, some it's-happening-now event to bring it all together into what I really want to say.

That bit of navel-gazing aside, for the past month or so a pushback against the conventional expat narrative of Taiwan being bogged down by "Confucian values" has been kicking around in my head - ever since I wrote about how, while bad management is a problem in Taiwan, "Confucian values" aren't what's keeping Taiwanese workers from taking the initiative at work rather than saving their best ideas for their own start-up small businesses. Long work hours and low salaries are because only a fool would share their best ideas with someone who exploits them through overwork and substandard pay. Taiwanese are no more fools than anyone else, so it makes sense that they wouldn't give their best work to bosses who are effectively narcissistic, self-serving nitwits at best and figurative slave masters at worst. (Obviously #notallbosses blah blah blah).

Well, it's taken the China Airlines zeitgeist to prod me into finally posting about it.

If you think "Confucian values" are Taiwan's biggest problem, you haven't been paying attention and your narrative is outdated. The same old story of "Taiwanese workers are passive, they endure long working hours for low pay and don't complain because Confucius or something" simply isn't the case anymore, and if you've been watching the country change, you'd know it hasn't been the case for awhile (if it ever was, though I'd argue the Ma years were notably turgid).

First and foremost, strikes like the China Airlines one in terms of rhetoric and scale don't just pop up out of a society that is passive, supplicant to authority or not actively looking to improve their own and their country's lot. They don't spring fully formed from a "poor exploited Taiwanese who don't even know they're exploited or if they do, they don't fight back" pile of bullshit. They spring from a long-running activist movement that has bracingly modern values at its core (as I have argued), modern enough that we Westerners, who often think we've got the market on progressivism cornered, ought to sit up and pay attention.

This isn't just a big deal because of one strike, this is a big deal because it's been coming for awhile, reveals Taiwanese society to not be some caricature of a cliched 2500-year-old philosophical system, and because it has implications across every industry where laborers are exploited (which is basically every industry, including English teaching. Yes, that too).

By the way, if you read any one thing on the strike, make it the link above.

This has been brewing for awhile - if you stop and talk to any given group of Taiwanese labor, you'll find that they are well aware that they have been exploited for awhile, and society has been collectively, often tacitly, but perceptibly, working on a solution-cum-backlash. You can see it in the increased rhetoric around worker-led (as opposed to "official") unions, in the New Power Party's pro-labor platforms (well, pro-labor for citizens, apparently we foreign workers don't rate and I'm still pissed about that), in the annual demonstrations on Labor Day, in the economic concerns of the student movement, in the very common desire to quit one's exploitative job and strike out on one's own.

Where out-of-touch pontificating expats come up with these tableaux of beaten-down workers who don't know what's best for them, kowtowing to boss, family and religion, I see a country full of people dreaming of something better and knowing full well, in 21st century terms, what that means.

Simply put, people who gather at midnight to announce a pre-meditated strike that almost reminds one of siege warfare (or maybe I've just been watching too much Game of Thrones) and who talk of improving the condition of labor across Taiwan, freeing workers from onerous hours and unacceptably low pay are not only not victims of "Confucian values", they prove that "Confucian values" never were the problem (or never were enough of a problem to put up much of a barrier to the new tide of activism). People who dream of quitting and opening their own businesses, whether they are smaller versions of the businesses they already work for or a total departure down a culinary or artistic road, but are toughing it out for now, are not victims of "Confucian values".

The electorate's increasing willingness to listen to the youth - a concept somewhat (but not entirely) non-Confucian, and the newly-elected political elite's willingness to do the same, even dropping charges against the Executive Yuan occupiers saying that the "values of the Sunflowers have become widely accepted across the country", are further proof. It's such a deep and long-coming sea change that even the newly-minted opposition are trying to co-opt these values in the weirdest, most discordant and least appealing ways. KMT gonna KMT I guess.

The citizenry's increasing willingness to occupy, to demand, to escalate, to take the fight to social media - none of this screams "Confucian values"...the key being that that's not only the case right now, but it proves that it hasn't been the case for awhile, because these sorts of sea changes don't sweep in like tsunamis. They slowly build like earthquake pressure. The only difference is you can't predict earthquakes, but this could be seen coming since the run-up to the Sunflower occupation.

In sort, this is 2016 AD, not 500 BC (and it's kind of insulting to imply that a culture has not sufficiently evolved in those two and a half millenia). The Taiwanese aren't getting their modern values by looking to the West, but by looking within themselves. And they're not chained to a 2500 year-old-philosophy because they are so clearly willing to fight back. I know I'm repeating myself here, but I want to drive that message home.

To go back even further, I'd like to add that if the main problems in Taiwan could really be traced back to "Confucian values", you not only wouldn't have China Airlines workers striking now, the Sunflowers in 2016, and employees who dream of quitting and starting their own companies, you also wouldn't have had several of the pro-democracy and national identity incidents that have defined modern Taiwanese history. There was nothing Confucian about the uprising that led to 228, the Kaohsiung Incident, Nylon Cheng's self-immolation, the dangwai or the White Lilies, either. The willingness to think, talk, plan and finally fight back in spectacular fashion - non-Confucian but wonderfully modern things all - is truly not new to Taiwan.

Because I like to ramble, two more things before I release your eyeballs, if you are still reading.

The first is that if you think Confucianism is all about the big boss beating down the little guy and hierarchical systems of tyranny, whether it's civil or private, you have a cliched and inaccurate view of Confucian thought. I'm no fan of Confucius, I'm more of a "hey guys just chill" Daoist type myself even though I am personally not very chill, but this is absolutely not what Confucius espoused.

He was all about those in power exercising restraint, openmindedness and responsibility. In not just being leaders because they felt entitled to be leaders, but actually leading. Not beating down their underlings because they could, but nurturing them and getting their best work from them. I suspect if he were alive today he'd be a policymaker at best, a self-proclaimed management guru at worst (I strongly dislike management gurus and business cliches).

I mean, take a look at some of his actual "Confucius Says" proverbs. "A tyrannical government is worse than a tiger" (課徵猛於虎) - that could apply not only to an actual government but a figurative management structure. "Bend down thine ear" (Chinese coming when I have access to my hilariously outdated book of Chinese idioms again) - he affirmed the right of leaders to exercise authority, but admonished them to listen to their underlings. His whole philosophy boiled down not to kings beating up subjects or managers beating up workers, but to society moving together in harmony, as if dancing in sync to music (I think he actually said something like that at one point).

I'm still not a fan, but that Confucianism - *actual* Confucianism - is not necessarily a problem in society, if understood and applied correctly. The West doesn't actually have all the answers.

The second is that I just want to say I am blown away by the maturity and adroitness of the activist movement (all of it, from the workers to the students). They remind me not of hippies - though there's a touch of Bob Dylan in them for sure - and not of union strikes or populists but of Gandhi-style nonviolent resistance (and as Gandhi said, there is nothing passive about nonviolent resistance - in that way too they are not held back by "Confucian values" in the more cliched, or even the true, sense. Even in true Confucianism it's on the leaders to do the right thing, there isn't much room for subjects to resist, even nonviolently). Someone has read up on the Indian independence movement, the Civil Rights movement, the LGBT rights movement, the women's suffrage movement, even as the impetus comes from within the strikers and activists themselves.

They are facing their problems with the only route available to them - the only route that has ever actually worked (look at history - it's rare that violence settles things well, though I can think of a few exceptions. Usually, the only way to get something done and build after you tear down the old order is nonviolent resistance). And they know it. I truly admire them for it.

There is absolutely nothing at all Confucian about that.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

In Defense of the 90-minute lunchtime nap and the convenience store sleepers

Greetings from Kaohsiung! I taught a workshop down here today and, seeing as that meant my HSR tickets were free, I've decided to spend the weekend (Brendan will be joining me soon). I'll be doing something similar in Tainan next week.

Anyway, I have a quick little thing to say, a dispatch from the field I guess you could call it.

When I walked in to the office with my co-teacher, it was just at the end of the 90-minute lunch break (12-1:30) which, as many of you know, is a pretty normal thing in Taiwan. Generally you have a half-hour or one-hour lunch, and then lights are turned down in the office and people often rest or even take naps for the rest of the time (I suppose if you wanted to go out to a restaurant you could also do that).

I used to, if not laugh at this, at least smile. My baseline assumption was that people often don't get enough sleep in Taiwan due to crazy working hours and impossible school expectations, therefore they have to nap in the middle of the day. I viewed it as a symptom of a problem.

A lot of expats do this - and I'm not pretending I'm better than they are, because I did it too in this case. They see something different from their own culture and immediately think of ways that it's worse than how things are done where they came from. Perhaps only later, after an initial period of rejection (even mildly so), do many come around to, if not a better way of doing things, a way that works considering how things work in this other country.

And you know what? It is true, working hours in this country are crazy - when you consider yourself as getting home 'early' at 7 or 8pm, that's crazy. And education expectations ARE nuts - children should not be studying at buxibans after school 5 days a week and on Saturday until 10pm or later, and still have homework to do on top of that. It is likely that this does have something to do with the 'lunchtime nap' culture at so many Taiwanese offices.

I have to say, though, that despite all of the above being a real problem, I've come around to the nap time idea. I have a non-traditional work schedule myself, but I sometimes come home from a lunchtime class, carve out a half an hour or an hour to nap, drink a cup of coffee and then continue with my work day.

First of all, napping is not necessarily something people do just because they are under-rested - even when I got a full night's sleep, sometimes after a busy morning and knowing I have a busy evening coming up, I do want more than a one-hour break before I have to be up at bat again for the rest of the day. Sometimes, that extra half hour isn't necessarily needed to sleep per se, but because a 90-minute break is more restorative than a one-hour break. I feel like I really got to give my mind enough time to rest, and I imagine locals feel the same. I don't always sleep - sometimes I veg out on the couch or just order a pot of tea and sit in an armchair in a cafe. I might read a book or pet my cats. I try my best not to surf the Internet, because that's not restful (it is pleasantly distracting, though).

Even if you work a more normal day - let's say you can leave at 6 - I do feel like a longer, 90-minute break is likely to make you more productive in the afternoon, just because you feel like you got a real rest. I know when I have my afternoons free, I feel more effective in my evening classes than when I don't (and I don't always).

Secondly, you've probably noticed this isn't just an office thing. Laborers and workers lay out on the floor in shops under construction or in the shade on sidewalks. I once - and I am not joking - saw one sleeping half in a manhole, with his upper half on the sidewalk, near the Youth Park. People crowd 7-11s and Family Marts to sleep at the tables. Drivers park their taxis or trucks and lean back for naps. I've joked that every coffee shop has to have at least one businessman sleeping at a table with a half-finished cup of coffee for feng shui purposes, rather like the fish tanks you often see near the doors of businesses. He should be oriented to the West or facing the cash register to bring maximum profit to the business.

I have come to kind of admire folks who can just lay out like this, snooze away on a sidewalk or at a convenience store and not give two craps about how they look, whether they are snoring or drooling, who sees them or what sort of germs might be currently invading the skin on their faces. I aspire to have such a "give zero fucks" attitude. I mean, I'm getting there, I already give very few fucks indeed, but they give ZERO, if not a negative number of fucks, and that is really the best goal in life. Before I leave Taiwan I WILL take a nap on a shady sidewalk just to show I've made it, and I am a better person for it.

Of course, it also makes sense given the climate here. Half the country is tropical year-round. In the summer it's straight up tropical in the entire country. In the winter the weather is absolutely depressing in Taipei - all dark clouds and rain and humid chilliness without central heating. I can understand the need for something like a siesta to either restore oneself in the face of yet another day of black clouds and cold rain, or to be still and cool during the hottest part of the day.

So, I acknowledge there are some issues with overwork, both in employment and in school, in Taiwan. I have to say, though, that I've come around to the 90-minute lunches and after-lunch naps. That change not only in how I see these naps but also the fact that I now engage in them when I get a chance has been a good reminder not to look first at why the way a different culture does something is ultimately worse than the way mine (or yours) does, but first to look for how and why it works in a local context. That doesn't mean every practice is ultimately better or just different - my personal pet peeve, scooters that speed on the right past buses that are stopped and letting passengers on and off, which is a risk to the lives of the passengers as well as the scooter driver, for instance, is unequivocally worse - but it's worth considering positively first.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Officially Unofficial: A Review

I thought I was a little late to this party, but a quick look online shows that no, the only other person I can find who has actually reviewed Officially Unofficial (and not on Amazon) is my husband. Seems odd, I would have expected it to have been widely read and commented on in expat circles though not necessarily much outside Taiwan, but okay.

Brief recap - this is a memoir about moving to Taiwan, working one's way to national and international recognition as a journalist, coming to care deeply about Taiwan, and about Cole's time at the Taipei Times and his not-so-amicable split from them, as well as his own observations of the political and military goings-on from the perspective of a journalist with access to the key players.

First, what I liked about it. I can't find the specific reference but it seems that Cole arrived in Taiwan about one year before I did, and is older than me, but not by a huge amount. Which is to say, we experienced Taiwan at about the same time and at not terribly disparate ages, so it was fascinating to look back at the experiences someone else with a very different trajectory had during a time I was also in Taiwan and also learning how things worked. At many points, reading this filled in the gaps of news events and other important issues I was either too new to know much about or too busy with my own life trajectory to pay sufficient attention to (I wasn't that interested in Taiwanese politics until I had already been here several years - my interest bloomed just as I was starting to realize this could be a long-term home for me).  I appreciated this quite a bit.

A few examples: I had been in Taiwan one month when the Red Shirts marched. I went and observed but didn't participate and didn't know much about it (nevertheless, being more knowledgeable now, I am glad to have seen it with my own eyes), so reading about how businesses at times paid employees to participate or donate was of some interest - especially as I went from a green organization (a large chain of language schools) to a blue one (a singularly awful 'management consulting firm' with great clients and terrible management) back to an apolitical-but-greenish-leaning one. I did notice that the blue one was a far worse place to work than the green or greenish ones, though.

I was also a Taipei Times reader when the quality started to suffer and I have to say, that one line in the book about how "readers noticed"...yes, we did. I did. I was one of them. I used to contribute the occasional reader editorial, but don't now.

Huaguang, Losheng sanatorium, Dapu, Want Want's Next Media acquisition? I was there for all of that too although, again, too busy with my own career path to pay as much attention as I should have. Reading this book filled in a lot of very useful blanks.

My mother was a journalist, so it was equally fascinating to me to read about how other journalists got to where they were and how they worked, as well. Although I have a lot of respect for (most) (good) journalists, the kind who really live up to the industry's standards of professionalism, it cemented my choice way back in the day not to pursue that career path. That is not meant as a jab at Cole, the profession, or any other journalists - it's just not for me. The low pay, long hours, poor treatment and lack of freedom and free time to pursue other interests? As a young arrival to Taiwan I was only willing to put up with perhaps one of the above, and now that I'm older I'm not willing to put up with any for any appreciable amount of time. The idea of only having 7 days off per year indefinitely, for example? Not acceptable.

In Cole's shoes I would have flamed out at the Times far earlier than he did simply because I'm not willing to do work towards an item for publication that will make someone else money on my day off, and not willing to put up with much bullshit. I also probably have a shorter temper. If that's what you have to do to break into journalism, then it's not for me and I'm quite happy I realized that early on (when I considered, and ultimately rejected, the idea of double majoring in journalism back in college).

It also helped me better articulate, oddly enough, how and why I chose teaching as an actual career and not something one does for a few years before moving on. It is a career - a profession. One would never call a math, science, history or literature teacher someone who "does it for a few years then moves on" (though some do) - they train to become professionals, and they are. So, when Cole subtly disparaged the teaching profession a few times in this book, as though it were somehow beneath him, it caused me to realize that no - I worked hard for my degree and my job is no less respectable than that of a journalist. It reminded me that I chose this and I trained for it in lieu of pursuing other careers (I used to work in finance, and have been offered non-teaching jobs which I have turned down) and no detractor can take that away. It is not 'beneath' anyone unless they don't know what being a professional educator actually means.

It reminded me, while reading about events that happened while I was busting my butt doing a Delta that, hey, it's okay that maybe I let my political observation slide a bit - I was busting my butt doing a Delta! It is absolutely fine that rather than go down and see the Huaguang protests for myself, that I was reading a book on discourse analysis. That rather than read every article on the Next Media acquisition that I was improving my knowledge of language systems. That it was perfectly logical for me to have been honing my knowledge of training practice and theory, language testing and assessment and various pedagogical approaches as well as doing data gathering on a group of real students rather than watching political events during the lead-up to the Sunflower occupation. I did it for my career, and now it's time to go back and fill in what I missed (you may have noticed that there were a few quiet years on this blog as well - now you know why.)

It was engaging, informative reading providing angles and backgrounds to things I either didn't know much about or missed due to my own studies.

In short, there was quite a lot to like.

Let's talk about the things I didn't like.

I noted there were a few inaccuracies in his portrayal of the ELT industry. Most importantly, that in his time drafting articles for an English teaching magazine, rather than realize that the reason it wasn't fulfilling was because he didn't know what he was doing, he just immediately reverted to the idea that it was "beneath him". Sure, it's easy to think that way if you have no background in second language acquisition, materials or curriculum development, scaffolding, early childhood education (for the articles aimed at kindergarteners), text-based language extraction pedagogy etc., it's easy to think any idiot could do a perfectly good job and smirk at such work. That's why so many such publications (and schools) in Taiwan are sub-par. For a real professional, such work would present a chance to grow and develop text-creation and other curriculum development and pedagogical skills. Simply put, he thought the job was beneath him because he was a hack at that particular job, and the crappy company he worked for doesn't do the profession any favors, either.

Moral of the story? Get your facts right before you write about a profession you know nothing about.

And finally, okay, look. This author didn't care for the book being in the third person, which creates not only wonky referencing but a sense of pomposity that just doesn't need to be there. It was a poor narrative choice that detracted - and distracted - from the otherwise very interesting story, she said. But, beyond does she say this?

When a fairly large section, and several passages interspersed later through the narrative, reference how much one has  read in such a way as to come off as bragging about how well-read one is rather than telling a good story about a journalist's life in Taiwan which is all I really want to read about, one comes off as...well...also a bit pompous if not outright sybaritic. I didn't think those paragraphs added much to the overall story. He's a good journalist and well-read, we get it. If he had interwoven observations and references based on his wide and diverse reading it may have come off a little better. As it was I was not terribly interested in paragraphs about all the stuff he's read. Great. I've read a lot of it too. Do you want a gold star?

That, and his disparaging of English teachers (discussed above) and bloggers (discussed below) were the book's greatest weaknesses. I would not go so far as to say it caused me to dislike Cole. I have respected and will continue to respect his excellent work, and having never met him, it is not fair for me to make any such judgments. But, you could say it put me off a bit. I can see why Ben Goren called him "alienating", although I have no such personal story to corroborate that. That said, we have a rather large number of mutual friends, people I respect immensely, so perhaps he is more likable than he at times comes across in this book.

As for the bloggers, because I seem determined to make this review as long and messy as possible, I find a lot to disagree with. There are plenty of idiots, but there are also plenty of excellent Taiwan bloggers. I won't go so far as to group myself in with them - at the end of the day I'm a loud woman with opinions and a platform and that's about all, and I write Lao Ren Cha for personal pleasure rather than to try and get readers - but it is quite unfair to imply that excellent personal blogs that comment on politics, such as The View from Taiwan, Letters from Taiwan and Frozen Garlic are amateurish or beneath Cole's own work (I do not imagine that my blog was in any way considered as an instigator of those comments, simply because I assume Cole doesn't read it, nor, given my proclivity for sailor-mouthed vulgarity, should he necessarily do so!) What really bothered me was his assertion that such people, who don't have the access he does, "shouldn't" have a voice. To quote my ever-oratorically-appropriate cousin, you can fuck right off with that.

Nobody gets to decide who "should" and "shouldn't" have a voice. That's for a bygone era. Now, everyone with a computer and rudimentary writing skills has a platform, but that does not necessarily mean they have a voice. You can get a free blog and write what you want, but if what you write is crap, nobody is going to read you (or at least not anyone in any great enough numbers to matter). The readers decide who has a voice or not with their clicks and eyeballs. The downside of that is not that unqualified people comment, but that qualified people feel reduced to creating clickbait headlines and going after angles that will hook readers rather than the story people actually need to know. That's why Taiwan is so often shoehorned into stories about China. In the end, though, good people do tend to stand out and get readers, and incompetent ones don't get read and don't get link-backs. The readership tends to sort the wheat from the chaff pretty accurately I'd say.

I'd also like to note that towards the end of the book he writes about how mainstream media is failing and alternative media is increasingly becoming the place to turn to. Wouldn't that also include personal blogs?

Such comments, again, only serve to put readers off Cole's larger narrative by dint of making him seem like a less likable, more priggish person than perhaps he is.

I'm also curious who these bloggers who "revile" him and other journalists are. Seems to me most decent bloggers are big fans of Cole's work, myself included. He seems to group them in with the "white wise men" he so often references, but I honestly don't have a clue, blogger-wise, who he is talking about unless there are a ton of blogs I haven't noticed. For now, though, I feel like he's describing a world at odds with my observations.

A few quibbles before I finish this.

I was happy to see in the Afterword that he changes his previous "the KMT is not so bad, they are a modernized political party functioning in a democracy" into something more realistic. I may strongly dislike the KMT as a whole, but I do realize that individuals within it are not all necessarily evil, corrupt, chauvinistic or incompetent. I also appreciate that not everything reported as done by the "evil underhanded KMT" went off exactly as it was reported by pan-green publications and that not all pan-green politicians are great people or good leaders.

However, the idea that the past is the past and now they're a perfectly normal political party? No, again, you can fuck right off with that. A normal political party doesn't withhold transitional justice or try to ignore-away its past the way the KMT has. They don't keep records from the Martial Law era sealed to a large degree and hold the line that victims and their families - many of whom still don't know what happened to their ancestors - should just forget it and move on. As the descendant of genocide survivors who are also being told to "just forget it" by the Turkish government, in my gut I feel that that is simply not acceptable and is proof that the KMT is not, and likely never will be, a normal and modernized political party.

Furthermore, this idea that these "white wise men" Cole references parroted the DPP party line for years, which was both self-serving and self-defeating, and that they called the youth and their critics "brainwashed" by the KMT. Certainly a few did do that, but what I saw during the Ma years was those "white wise men" (who all seem to think they're freakin' Confucius) towing the KMT, not the DPP, party line! It was all about how ECFA was good (it wasn't), the economy was bad under Chen but good under Ma (not true), that closer ties with China was invariably and in every situation a good thing (wrong again), the DPP were "troublemakers" (nope) and pro-independence "agitators" were the "brainwashed" ones, and the students impetuous and naive. All that nonsense. Maybe it was because I stopped reading the Taipei Times soon after its quality dropped, but unless I'm living on a different planet, the commentary he heard and the commentary I heard was quite different indeed. Any given Economist article on Taiwan from that time period will show you what I mean.

I have a few things to say about noting that a journalist was "female" without that adjective being necessary, the ridiculous Taiwan/Israel comparison (don't get me started on that) and the unnamed-but-we-know-who-it-is reference to Ralph Jennings (the short of it is that my reasons for disliking Jennings have nothing to do with his wife, whom I hadn't known and don't care is Chinese). I'll save all that for another time, maybe.

I'll end with this: despite its flaws, it was an engaging book and quite fascinating to read about someone else's experiences in Taiwan just as I was having my own, very different, experiences. I enjoyed some but not all of the autobiographical elements, overall wanting to know more about Taiwan. So, in the end, I have to say it has whet my appetite for Cole's next book, Black Island, which I have the feeling I will enjoy even more.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Of false flags and outdated self-congratulations

Okay. So. That crazypants video of a woman (Hung Su-Chu, not to be confused for my non-Taiwan readers with Hung Hsiu-chu, the KMT Chairperson mentioned below) who seems to be allied with fringe groups in the pan-green camp berating an elderly KMT veteran. Ugh. I don't think I need to say that such behavior is disgusting and unbecoming, and that people with these beliefs represent an infinitesimally small minority of Taiwanese, the vast majority of whom are, like most people, better than this.

There has been a lot of discussion on a.) what this says about the fringe elements of the generally green side and the bigotry many of them display (which is a provably true phenomenon - they aren't off the hook because they're on generally the same side I am, and it's one major reason why I've started having a lot more faith in youth activists and the New Power Party of late) and b.) whether this is a 'false flag' fake scandal manufactured by pro-unification fringe elements on the other (blue) side, as evidenced by an old online post by Hung talking about how pro-independence people are seeking to divide and lie to the Taiwanese  (at least that's the best I could get from that incoherent mess of a post - she does not seem to support at all the petition linked to) and talk that the woman's parents were also a part of the KMT diaspora. The idea would be to make the pan-greens, currently in power, look bad both to the Taiwanese and as fodder for Chinese media - though as I mention below, I'm less concerned about that latter point.

On the other hand a friend of mine pointed out that this woman has been involved in deep green fringe groups for awhile - although the group she is said to belong to, the Taiwan Civil Government, claims she is not a member (also check this link for good discussions of positive identity). I would also note that gossip is gossip, and images of status updates can be photoshopped (though I am not sure this one is - she sounds genuinely nuts, to the point that all I can tell is  So, what of it?

I don't know - but I do think the truth is important. I've heard a few calls for taking this at face value first because the evidence isn't quite enough to say it's definitely an opposition attempt to discredit the entire green camp by manufacturing a scandal involving one of its crazier outlier groups, and second because redirecting conversation to whether it's a 'false flag' operation or not takes away from the conversation about bigotry on the pan-green side, as fringe as it may (or may not) be.

I'd say that the evidence isn't enough for me to believe it's a fake-out, but there is just enough for me to not wholeheartedly believe it is genuine. Assuming that this was a genuine ideology-motivated attack and refusing to consider that it might not be is just as jejune as a knee-jerk reaction among those of us who ally with the 'greener' end of the political spectrum that it MUST be a manufactured scandal just because the bad guys are green and so are you. It's deciding what you believe based on what you want to say, and how you want to appear, rather than actually considering what may have happened.

This is especially true if one is intent on avoiding looking like a pan-green apologist or knee-jerk defender who will cry foul at any criticism of that side, and so decides it must be genuine. Pointing out that it might be a fake-out might make you seem like just that sort of apologist!

Which, of course, is not true at all. Pointing out that one incident of green bigotry may be a false flag operation is not the same at all as saying that pan-greens are never bigoted (just as pointing out that Republican attacks on Hillary are unfair does not make one a Hillary apologist, or equate to thinking Hillary is 100% great. The two are not the same, not even remotely, and it's facile and stupid - perhaps even weirdly dogmatic but to a wholly different ideology - to conflate them when they are so clearly not identical worldviews).

Of course, we can all agree on one thing: that Taiwanese on both sides, or shall I say all sides, of the political playing field, by a vast majority, find this sort of behavior disgusting, and whether or not the woman in question is the real deal doesn't change that either way, she is a terrible person who did a terrible, shitty thing. That's true even if she's a faker.
So why does it matter? Because:

1.) This particular incident does not need to be genuinely motivated by political ideology for people to have that conversation about pan-green bigotry against the KMT diaspora and its descendants, because this one incident possibly being fake doesn't mean there is no bigotry in the pan-green camp

2.) Assuming the actions and sentiments behind them are genuine just because you'd rather have the above conversation about pan-green bigotry, as I've said, is facile and self-serving.

3.) Opposition attempts to discredit the other side, no matter where they are coming from, are a real problem and they do happen. Deciding to pretend they don't exist for your own rhetorical purposes just makes it easier for them to continue. There is a precedent for this sort of thing - I was present when gangsters tried to stir up arguments, setting off firecrackers and bothering Sunflower supporters outside of the Legislative Yuan in 2014. I'm not a reporter and I'm not a part of the movement - more of an observer, supporter and interested party - so I got the hell out of there and joined supporters on another section of road because I know I have a bit of a temper and there was no reason to stick around only to fly off the handle and possibly get deported. But, I was there, I saw it happen, I heard the information coming from the crowd on who these people were and what they were trying to do, so I know this is a thing that fringe groups on the other side *do* engage in.

That is also a conversation worth having, and an important one, as many in Asia (and not just Taiwanese - foreigners too) don't recognize these deliberate actions when they take place. They too take the news at face value and then wrinkle their faces in disgust at those 'racist DPP' (nevermind that the DPP had nothing to do with this attack, Hung is said to be involved with the Taiwan Civil Government, who are true nutters). Hell this sort of thing happens in the US (can we say "Benghazi"? I suppose it's a blessing that that has died down and the scandal that has taken its place at least has a real issue at its center). People - all people - need to learn to recognize it and consider the news accordingly.

Frankly, I find the former more interesting than the 'bigotry within the green camp' discussion, simply because I feel like it's already been had, and it's starting to sound repetitive and self-congratulatory.

Are there racists and bigots and awful people who align with the pan-green camp? Of course.

Is this a problem? Yup, but increasingly less so as these folks become more and more fringe. The mainstream has changed course for the better.

Should we do something about it? Yup.

Like what? Well, push for more progressive values and inclusivity on both sides.

Arguably that is something happening more quickly on the green side, as evidenced by rhetoric from the DPP on transitional justice and better inclusion of minority groups, the undeniably socially progressive views of the New Power Party (come on guys, drop the resistance to changing laws regarding working in Taiwan for foreign professionals already and you'd have my unqualified support!), the generally (though not entirely) green support of marriage equality, which was dead in the water under a KMT-controlled legislature, and the unified-yet-pluralistic and inclusive student movement which has true progressivism at its center. The folks running the show now are not the same Hoklo nationalist "KMT go home" bigots who had perhaps more power than they should have during the Chen years. I see it, that conversation has basically moved on. The things we need to do to improve our own side are already clear, and are already being acted upon. If anything they've been known by the student activists for quite some time and we older, often foreign commentators are behind the times.

Unless anyone has anything else to add.

What are we not doing that we should be to eradicate bigotry among those on our side of the political spectrum?

How can we better educate people to recognize manufactured scandals and false flag operations so we don't sit, politically neutered, as otherwise bad people pretend to be saviors and angels (I'm not that worried about Chinese news - if they didn't have a manufactured scandal they'd fabricate one that was never actually implemented. They're going to suck no matter what)?

Why can't we have BOTH conversations? Are we really so dumb and single-minded that we have to pick one?

And isn't this why the truth matters?

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Has Taiwan made me more feminine?

Before you start thinking of Betteridge's Law here, I actually think the answer to this one might be a qualified 'yes', or I wouldn't be writing it. It is a bit navel-gazey, so if you're not into that sort of thing you might want to sit this one out. I even post lots of pictures of myself like the narcissist I not-so-secretly am!

Some of you know me in real life. You know I am not, and have never been, particularly feminine. Although I identify and present as a straight cisgender woman, I have gone through periods of questioning not my gender identity so much, but how much I wanted to have anything to do with the whole concept: there are people who don't desire to be either or any gender, and I briefly considered whether that, rather than 'not very feminine but otherwise female', was a better fit for who I was. The Jenna who landed in Taipei 10 years ago wouldn't have started a blog that, at times, focuses on women's issues - it was only several years later that I did so, after what I now feel was a fairly major personality upheaval, though I can't point to what exactly changed.

That Jenna also didn't cut, style or wear her hair down, and mostly wore jeans, khakis, cargo pants, Tevas or sneakers and plain solid-color t-shirts. She certainly didn't wear makeup and she rarely wore accessories. When she did they were small, often single charms on leather chains. Her favorite clothing color appeared to be some variation on brown. She tended to just look at the camera and smile without worrying too much if she looked good.

Does the person I describe - the person I very much was - resemble this?

2016 photo newjenna.jpg

Other than the no-makeup thing of course. I still don't wear makeup because, as a wise woman once said, "ain't nobody got time for that".*

Because that's what I look like as of this month, at least when my hair is cooperating, which it does more often now that I put effort into it. Effort pre-Taiwan Jenna would not have even considered putting into it long enough to reject the notion. She also would not have worn that necklace, nor would she have taken a selfie let alone posed in quite that way for it. She was a bit thinner (when you get married and hit your thirties you gain some weight, I refuse to feel bad about it although I am working to live a healthier lifestyle overall) but overall 2016 Jenna tries harder, looks a bit more feminine, and it shows. (This photo was cleaned up for color, and I removed a zit, but is otherwise accurate - Other Jenna would not have bothered to clean up the photo at all).

That other Jenna? She looked more like this:

2003 photo beijing.jpg
Brendan and I weren't dating yet in this photo from our trip to Beijing, but you wouldn't know it

Or this:

2004 photo 286c.jpg
That's not blush or rouge - I'm just sunburned

Or, if she wore her hair down, this, which I'm mostly showing you for the amusement factor:

 photo 10917429_10153053322301202_7077735315079429719_n.jpg
This is not the outfit or pose of someone who gives a damn about how she looks - also, cheese
(I swear I am not stoned in this photo, but I would forgive you for thinking otherwise)

Note that it's not just the clothing, accessories and hair that have changed, it's the manner of how I relate to the camera, smile and pose. This is not reflected in every character trait I have: some things have not changed - I'm still not ashamed of burping in public if I have to, I've started drinking stronger alcohol (Other Jenna probably would have gone for wine or a sweet cocktail, whereas Jenna Today keeps a bottle of Laphroaig in her home office), I still swear like a particularly surly sea captain, I'm still a bit loud and I laugh like the megaviral Chewbacca mask woman (to the point where a friend pointed out that our laughs are eerily similar and I can't disagree). I still don't wear high heels.

But some things, honestly, have. I own more than two hair products, a round brush and a hair dryer which I actually use sometimes. Other Jenna seriously did not have a hair dryer - what's wrong with regular air? Air works. Those hair products come from Aveda, where Other Jenna would never have shopped. I have a bottle of Chanel No. 5 (it was my mom's, she would have wanted me to use it - waste not want not and all) that I actually wear, I have a bag of high-end makeup that I still don't wear, but break out for special occasions (Other Jenna didn't even wear makeup to weddings or job interviews). I've switched to big jewelry, lots of scarves and bright colors, and actually wear skirts. I own a sundress! Other Jenna never owned a sundress. I do not own a pair of khakis or a pair of cargo pants, which Other Jenna would have found incomprehensible. I used to wear men's jeans but don't anymore. I even buy women's sneakers in more typically feminine colors (not pink - ugh no - but purple, fuchsia and teal are fine. Other Jenna wore gray, navy or black sneakers). I own a pair of heels! They are not very high, and they're boring and black and from Clark's, but I can hear other Jenna screaming. Heels!

There's no proof that this has anything to do with living in Taiwan - people change naturally all the time, but I can't help but think that Taiwan has had some sort of influence.

As much as I write about how Taiwan is a pretty good place for women, how, despite it not being a gender-equal paradise by any means it's the best you'll find in Asia and many of the problems found here are also found in Western countries, I have to say that there is a greater societal expectation of women looking and acting more feminine, and my "Get Out of Jail Free" card because I'm a foreigner doesn't work very well to let me out of it. I've never quite been asked the question I was once asked in China - excuse me, would you mind telling me if you're male or female? in the most polite Chinese the person could muster - but I did have a student once blurt out, after I pointed out that they were teaching me Taiwanese swear words that they admitted they wouldn't say in front of a woman, "you are a man!"

He meant "you don't come across as particularly feminine so I am comfortable treating you like one of the guys", but...heh.

For every makeup-free fortysomething on the MRT and every obasan who will cut you if she doesn't get her way, I sometimes feel bombarded with far more oblique references to expectations that I, and every other woman, should make certain efforts to look and act like stereotypical women. From the office workers at my old job pointedly complimenting me the one day I did wear makeup, to much more open comments about my looks - I know I'm no stunner and I'm not sure I ever cared, but thanks for that - and what I am, vs. what I should be, wearing to students and acquaintances openly discussing how women liked to shop and look pretty, and being genuinely surprised when I said I wasn't a huge fan of either, it's just more out in the open here. All your ideas that Asia is a place where people don't say what they mean and communication is indirect, between-the-lines, high-context culture etc. etc.? Yeah, no. Not when it comes to commenting on looks or gender roles. Not at all.

In terms of looks, it seemed to start fairly soon after arriving. About a year or so in, I went to a wedding back in the US and wore makeup for the first time in years, and a dress which is just nuts:

2007 photo bethwedding.jpg

Then I started to cut and even sort of style my hair, though I didn't keep up with dying it:

2010 photo 251222_10150274731231202_209815_n.jpg
It's Margarita O'Clock at the long-closed Yuma!

Then I started paying more attention to my overall dress, hair and looks:

 photo 425070_10150622533521202_286080076_n.jpg

...and then one day I woke up and I was using premium hair products, wearing skirts and statement necklaces and thinking about how I smelled beyond "not like anything which is better than how humid Taiwan weather makes a lot of people smell". And then I took the picture at the top of this post.

Would I have changed as much without the influence of Taiwan - that is, does Taiwan have nothing to do with what would have been a natural evolution of my personality regardless of where I lived? Maybe. But somehow, I don't think so. I just don't see how I would have started to give a shit without the fairly common, open comments on how I and other women look and the constant, always-there, sometimes-tacit-sometimes-not expectations here how how women present themselves. Granted, the US has those too, but I do feel they're not shoved in your face quite as much. People don't openly comment on your skin, eyes, lack of makeup etc. there, at least not as often.

I can honestly say, as well, that I care far less how I look when I go back to the US for a visit. When I moved to Taiwan I couldn't imagine bringing the one fancy pair of shoes I owned - knee high black leather boots, which I still have 'cause they're quality - I couldn't imagine needing or wanting to wear them. Fancy shoes were for the US, I thought. Now I have them here and wouldn't dream of packing them for a trip to the US, because sneakers are fine, who cares? Naw, it's fine, I know I'm in PJ bottoms but I'll run to the store, it doesn't matter, nobody cares, it's just upstate New York.

(To be fair one time when I really don't give a damn in Taiwan is when I'm going to Wellcome or 7-11, because no matter how shabbily I'm dressed someone is always wearing something more jacked up than me and the clerks couldn't give any less of a damn).

It could be that I've gone from a twentysomething cube monkey in a crap office job in the US and no disposable income to a thirtysomething professional with a reasonable amount of disposable income. It could be that I take my job and therefore how I present myself for it more seriously.

And I can say that while I've started putting more effort into my appearance, my core personality hasn't changed much. If anything, I swear more than I used to and am far more frank and, at times, caustic than I used to be (I'm still learning when to shut my trap). I just don't care as much what people think of who I am inside - if they don't like Meanie McSwearalot that's their fuckin' problem - as much as perhaps I do care how I present myself on the surface. So some things haven't changed, or at least, some parts of me have not become more feminine.

But some, most certainly, have. Even personality wise - Other Jenna wouldn't have cared that she doesn't really have a 'BFF' nearby (and it's true, I don't have a bestie in Taiwan, lots of friends, even very close friends, but not another woman I can talk about periods&vaginas&boys&hair-in-weird-places&stuff with). That's not a bad thing, but I do wonder sometimes what is up with the statement necklaces.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Update on the Fu Jen University Protests

So, thinking there would just be an "update - agreement reached, strike worked!" type post, I read up on the "resolution" to the Fu Jen Catholic University's protest and hunger strike to remove the unfair - and I say that unequivocally - curfew on the women's dorm when no such curfew applied to the men's.

I was wrong. There is a lot to say about this. First, a question - it doesn't seem like the curfews are abolished effective immediately but will be abolished at some point in the future. Is that true, or did I misunderstand the (somewhat poorly-organized) article?

First and foremost, while I maintain that this is not completely attributable to "Asian conservatism" but is also in large part a symptom of "religious conservatism" (I am not a big fan of mainstream Catholic or any religious conservatism, if you hadn't noticed, and would never tolerate it being imposed on me) there are positive and negative things about the fact that the women had to protest, but also that they won.

The good: well, that they won. That civic activism actually means something and gets something done in Taiwan, and it shows that the "passive/listens to authority/Confucian values" nonsense so many people ascribe to the Taiwanese are false. They are willing to fight! How do we know? They keep doing it! From The Republic of Formosa to 228 to the Kaohsiung Incident to the farmers to the White Lilies to the Sunflowers (the aptly-named Red Shirts didn't seem to have that much of an impact, though I admit bias in not caring for their agenda), if you say the Taiwanese are not willing to fight, you need to read a goddamn history book.

That the youth have not lost hope, that they're willing to fight and they are not the strawberries their condescending parents make them out to be. How many of those older folks calling the young generation 'strawberries' would have fought to end an aspect of gender discrimination in their schools? Their own parents were the ones doing most of the fighting for democracy - what did they fight for? That this sort of activism, which seems to be dead or ineffective in the US - still has power here. I hope that never goes away.

The bad: that they had to protest at all. Their position was reasonable, their goals logical. They should have been able to talk it out with the administration without having to make a massive fuss about it. It reminds me of my own occasional skirmishes at work. While I am always quick to say that my current employers - both of them - are generally very good, and I am in a much better position than the vast majority of English teachers in Taiwan now that I work at a truly professional level (yes, I welcome your hate for saying that in the comments), I have to say this: in the past, at one employer, when I've had to fight for something I deserved, be that enrollment in Laobao (labor insurance) or a well-earned raise, I have felt like attempts at talking about it reasonably are met with resistance, or at the very most no action. It has left me, on a few rare occasions, with the feeling that if I want something I deserve, I must fight for it more strongly than I should have to. I should be able to sit down and talk it out and reach a reasonable solution without having to, I dunno, threaten to quit (a real threat, not a bluff - I was ready to quit over getting a real raise). But, nothing happens until I pull out the big guns, at which point I get what I want but am told I didn't have to pull out those guns. Except I DID, because if I hadn't I wouldn't have gotten anywhere! And I know this from having tried that route and not having gotten anywhere!

Anyway. Ahem. I shouldn't have had to take the nuclear option, and FJU Cinderella shouldn't have had to either. A hunger strike should never have necessary, and it says something rather damning about FJU and Taiwan in general that they did, even as it says something good about the students being willing to organize and fight in the first place. When will we get to the point when reasonable goals don't have to be fought for with hunger strikes and occupations?

Second, I've spent the past week or so asking around to see on an anecdotal basis what the dorm rules are like across Taiwan. I asked people who attended and stayed in dorms at NTU, NCCU, Kaohsiung Medical College, Zhongxing, Yangming University and noticed a comment on my blog from someone who stayed at the dorms at Wenhua. According to these people, Wenhua also has discriminatory curfew policies, and NCCU has no curfews of any kind but makes men sign in and wear ugly orange vests - a perfect deterrent to getting laid? A "don't fuck me" vest? - when visiting women's dorms, but women can visit men's dorms freely. The others either have equal curfew policies or none at all.

This seems to corroborate the data in the article above where well less than half of Taiwanese universities have discriminatory dorm policies.

All I can say is that it does point to Fu Jen being a special case, perhaps due to religious conservatism, but it's also far too many. Even 26% is too many to have discriminatory policies.

Finally, two points in the article:

The first is that refusing to support the protestors because as you "want to protect your daughter, not discriminate"? Screw you. Wanting to protect your daughter because she is female, but not your son in the same way, IS discriminatory. There is no way to separate the two. If you discriminate in whom you want to protect, you are discriminating. WORDS MEAN THINGS.

As a counterpoint, I loved how someone called out that whole "women are responsible for not being victims" line of thinking. Dangers to women in Taiwan are not women's responsibility to fight, they're society's responsibility to eradicate in men.

Along these lines, Taiwan's youth rhetoric on social issues is refreshingly modern. I'm a huge fan. Among the youth you don't hear any of the old "I heard this in Asia" tropes (e.g. "It's not racist because it's natural" or even worse, "there's no racism here because there are no black people here" or "of course we should have equality but women need to be extra careful") - they know racism when they see it, they are aware of intersectional issues and call out when something is race, class or gender-based (or, relevant for Taiwan, age-based), or some combination of same, or all three. They know sexism when they see it and are bracingly able to call out patriarchal ideas of blaming women for being the targets of men rather than blame the men for having targets in the first place. I am excited to see this generation grow into the new leaders of Taiwan. The folks in power may not get it yet, but they do.

And next, there's still a long way to go - the idea of implementing an electronic card system in place of the curfew so "parents can monitor their children's movements" is almost as problematic as an actual curfew! These aren't kids, they are legal adults. They're in COLLEGE. They shouldn't have to use a card that registers their comings and goings for their parents to check. I can't imagine accepting the idea of my parents monitoring where I was at all times of day and night when I started college at 16 (yes, 16. Yes, I'm bragging. Deal with it), even though I lived at home, let alone when I transferred and went away to university at 17. The idea of being monitored at 18, 19, 20? Not acceptable. What really needs to change is the idea that parents have such a right to control of their adult children. And that will be a much slower - but still possible - cultural change.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Indonesia: Borobudur

Borobudur is such a popular destination - one of the top in Indonesia and absolutely the top in Java - that I don't have much to say about it that hasn't already been said.

But, a few impressions:

We got there by train - even our friend in Surabaya didn't know you could buy tickets online which you then print and redeem for the actual tickets at the station. The 5-hour ride to the nearest town (pickups are easily arranged through your hotel) cost a pittance, for a fairly good railway experience, as these things go.

Somehow I'd gotten the impression that you could walk inside it like a temple (this may be from pictures of the walkways on it, which, with carved walls on either side, could be mistaken if you are just viewing a photo as halls inside a temple), but it's actually a massive stupa.

A word of advice: don't follow the exit signs as they are posted. They lead you to some side exit that forces you to walk practically the whole way around the temple again through a neverending souvenir market that is absolutely not worth your time. Just go back the way you came.

The town itself is not nearly as unpleasant as a backpacker town with one major draw would normally be. For example, I loved the ruins at Hampi but I could take or leave the little town, which seemed mostly set up for foreigners. Borobudur has some of that, but outside of the aforementioned souvenir market from hell, the town itself is pleasantly devoid of souvenir shops and backpacker cafes. Mostly local eateries, and to get a cup of coffee we had to go to one of the fancier hotels. The only downside of it not being as fully set up for travelers as it could be is that there are several smaller temples on the outskirts of town (one of which is walkable) that you can visit in the afternoon after a sunrise trip to Borobudur. But hotels will try to set you up with a 200,000 rupiah horse carriage ride to do that - that's about $12 US, but still far more than you ought to be paying. We had to go hang out on the street and pick up one of those cycle carts for a fraction of the cost.

As these sorts of destinations go, though, I would say it's worth it. I wouldn't recommend skipping it thinking it'll be a let-down. It absolutely wasn't - even the very cliched 'sunrise visit' was absolutely lovely and absolutely worth it. Hotels will arrange to take you there on a scooter, where you enter through the Hotel Manohar and get a little flashlight for the walk up. There is a little coffee-and-pastry set-up in the waiting area before you can ascend that opens at 4:30am. You can bring your coffee and pastry up to the top - I watched the sunrise while drinking mine! (Take your trash with you of course).

I'd say, though, that I enjoyed the dawn light over the misty tropical landscape just as much as the actual stupa - it's Buddhist, in an very Indian style, and doesn't feel particularly Indonesian at all (the temples on the mountains near Surakarta/Solo feel much more attuned to local history and indigenous cultural aesthetics). It at times felt like a repeat of the many, many, many similar temples and sites I saw in India, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.

A few more quick tips: you can buy postcards at the Manohar, and if you stay there you can get a discount on admission to the site. The Manohar also has a cafe where you can see Borobudur from a distance while drinking or eating - a great place to write those postcards. We didn't stay there though, because we're not rich (this was actually a 'we can't work anyway, so let's take a budget trip although technically we can't afford it right now' trip). An a smaller road off the main thoroughfare there is a guy who does satay on a long grill and it's excellent, and our hotel (Cempaka Villa) was great value for money with bathtub, hot water, Western toilet, wifi throughout and free breakfast, mostly Chinese-style food. In fact pretty much all of our Java accommodation with one exception was to a very high standard.


Check out my other posts on our Java trip here (coming soon):

Surakarta (Solo)
Baluran National Park























Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Indonesia: Surabaya

Over Chinese New Year, we decided to take a quick trip to Java with a side trip to Singapore, even though it was the rainy season.

Since Blogger is being a jerk, I'll put all the text here and all the pictures below. First up - and I'm splitting trip into several posts by destination within Java so I don't have to constantly copy-and-paste from Flickr - we flew into Surabaya, a sidewalk-free, mostly industrial but also somewhat interesting city on the eastern tip of Java. A friend of ours lives there, so we wandered the city with him until it was time to catch our evening train to Borobudur.

Even our Hungarian tour guide friend, who has lived in Indonesia for years, admits there's not a lot to do in Surabaya. We met up with him both coming and going - it was great having a local-living friend to take the lead in getting around, by the way - and went to the mosque in what Lonely Planet ambitiously calls "The Arab Quarter". Yes, it was worth the trip. Yes, that part of town is run-down and struggles with poverty. There is a wealth of heritage architecture, though, mostly art deco from the colonial period, the mosque is nice, and the market street leading to the mosque very atmospheric. We walked by Chinatown on the way - don't bother.

A few things worth noting: first, there are lots of cats in Surabaya. In fact this seems to be a thing not only in Indonesia but in basically every Muslim country I've visited. I know Muhammad preferred cats to dogs but I can't quite imagine that's the reason why Turkey, Egypt and Indonesia were so cat-fully nice (especially Turkey).

Second, Surabaya is really a city of drivers. People live in family homes in kampungs in the spread-out town, which has no clear town center (although one particular massive shopping mall, Tunjungan Plaza, serves as a central point). Most roads have no sidewalks and, with no clearly delineated 'downtown', it's not clear how one even would walk around the city. Buses are a non-starter, and there is no metro or light rail system of any kind. There are bemos, but you have to know where you're going. What this basically means is if you go to Surabaya, budget to take taxis everywhere. Fortunately, taxis are generally honest, cheap and - thankfully - air-conditioned.

Wouldn't live there though. If you've read this blog even occasionally you know I DO NOT drive in urban areas and believe strongly in urban public transit. I won't live in a city without it.

Third, towards the end of this group of photos, note the mosaic on one colonial building - Dutch woman on one side, Indonesian on the other, separated by some Art Deco deity. This is just one interesting bit of Dutch colonial-era Art Deco architecture, and serves to remind one that you can admire the buildings all you like, but remember the brutality, racism and inequality of the imperial powers that built it all. Worth it? I don't think so. The buildings are nice though.

Fourth, I don't have photos here as they didn't come out well, but the House of Sampoerna (and its attached cafe) as well as the Majapahit hotel bar are both worth a stop. Or you could eat at "Papa Ron's" pizza in Tunjungan Plaza. Your choice.

Finally, do check out the zoo - just to see the Komodo dragons if anything.

My other posts on Indonesia are here (coming soon):

Solo (Surakarta)
Baluran National Park