Friday, February 24, 2017

The Archaeology of a Protester


I was born in autumn, at a liminal time between more distinct seasons. My birthday was technically in the summer but not quite summer. In New York it would be cool at night, and the school year would have started, but not really started - I had hardly had time to get to know my new classmates when my birthday rolled around.

Not to wax too poetic on this point, but that "what season is my birthday even really in?" feeling seems to have transposed from general childhood anxiety about who would come to my parties (when I had them, they were lightly attended because my old classmates were making new friends and my new ones didn't know me. Also, I was a huge dweeb but let's not talk about that) to generally feeling more comfortable in liminal spaces. I get a little nutty if the space I inhabit is defined too clearly.

People deride expats for going abroad because they like feeling like they don't belong, which seems to be taken as a symptom of being generally socially incompetent or a failure in your native country. This is especially assumed of the ones who went abroad by themselves and have never enjoyed a cushy expat corporate or government package. I see where that stereotype comes from but I'm OK with it. I get it. Charitably, it might describe me, though I was doing fine in the US and have had a thriving social life ever since society decided dweebs were okay.

Ten years later, here I am. I've been trying, sincerely, to get more involved in activism aimed at the US: Indivisible, protesting the direction the Republicans are taking America in (I do pin blame on Trump, but jellyfish Republicans are letting him do it and I harbor no sympathy), generally raising a ruckus. I've been feeling slightly 'meh' about it, though, despite being deeply against the new administration and horrified and upset about pretty much every news alert on my phone. Something isn't clicking. I have that familiar old grade school feeling of wanting to do something, seeing the goal, but for no clear reason, lacking the motivation to get started.

One could assume that my ambivalence was due to distance: there's not that much that a long-term expat in Taiwan can even do vis-a-vis issues in the US. Letters, I suppose, to newspapers. Calling one's elected representatives at hours when one really ought to be sleeping. Gaining political awareness through reading. I like that last part, but have been immersed recently in books on Taiwan, having realized that I am poorly-read, practically unlettered, in a subject I ostensibly know quite a bit about. It's the Taiwan books that are holding my interest. But all in all, the work that can be done from Taiwan doesn't seem like particularly effective work (it doesn't help that the biggest group doing the same thing meets in the evening, exactly when I am rarely free). Perhaps as I push ahead, I'll gain a different perspective and be heartened. I'm not sure though. Deep down I don't think it's the distance, or at least not only that.

So what is it, then?

Just yesterday, I unearthed - I mean, from my closet - my box full of all the flags, headbands, stickers and other paraphernalia I've been given at every protest, rally and parade or march over the past 8 years. It's all there: Furious, UN for Taiwan, Pride, marriage equality, the Sunflowers (I was there for the Hong Zhongqiu outcry too, but gave my headband to a student who wanted it) and more. It's like a time capsule of 8 years of showing up. More importantly, of caring enough to show up.

This excavation also churned around some fertile brain matter. I have cared enough to walk for hours, plop my ass down at Jingfu Gate with 200,000-400,000 other people to stand (or sit) for what I believe in, wave a flag in the air, tie ribbons to my head, arm and purse straps. I have been willing to physically be there for all sorts of issues in Taiwan (and I did attend rallies and protests in the US before I moved there, but more rarely). I tend to prefer non-party-affiliated single-issue protests - I am aching to get back out on the street for marriage equality, but was ambivalent about Furious. Yet clearly, I care about something.

Archaeology of a protester

But that something seems to increasingly be Taiwan - or rather it has been for awhile, but I'm just really noticing it now. It's not that I don't care about the US. I do. I'm horrified and disgusted. I'm somewhat ashamed to have a passport from there (and ashamed of the privilege that entails, and the privilege to even feel ashamed). At the end of the day that is the country I have spent 24.5 of my 36 years in, the country I was born in, the country of my citizenship.

I have to admit, though, that the visceral sincerity just isn't there. It's a shame, because being a citizen of the US, I have more standing to be active. In Taiwan, I do show up (boy do I show up), but I never get too close. I never get too involved. I don't organize. I keep my distance because I'm aware that this is not the country of my birth, I am not a citizen, and Taiwanese history and culture is not my history and culture. To do more than show up would feel inappropriate - my voice isn't the voice that should be elevated. I don't mean to bring in identity politics - I don't think it's wrong for me to speak up. I wouldn't have a blog about Taiwan if I didn't think that. I live here, things that happen here affect me, and I have the right to talk about that. Familiarity and impact on daily life do breed loyalty even when the passport doesn't match.

However, it's important when joining the struggle of another group to be aware of one's privilege and perhaps listen before one speaks. By dint of being born white and American, I have the privilege of having the voice that, in the past, as not only taken precedence (that is, the white Western voice) but drowned out other voices (anyone who was not white). I do feel it's crucial to understand that, and I feel more comfortable simply being supportive than trying to take any sort of organizational or leadership position. I'll have my voice, but I won't allow it to drown out people who could more appropriately lead.

Except not really. Yet I took the picture anyway (forgive me). 

This is perhaps the source of my annoyance when a friend said, not long ago, that I could "occupy Trump's office". Sure, I could try. I could fly back and get arrested or shot attempting it. I am a citizen of that country after all. The annoyance came from the assumption that, being originally American, that I would primarily care about American issues, or that my loyalties would be to the US.

That, right there, is what I mean about being in a liminal space, belonging where I don't belong. I am not Taiwanese, Taiwanese history is not my history. I'm not even a citizen. Yet I am loyal to Taiwan, at least, more so than to the US. I feel I belong here, even as I know I don't fully belong. There are limits on the appropriacy of my activism, perhaps, but ultimately this is my home, and I feel that full-throttle sincerity when advocating for Taiwanese issues that I don't feel when advocating for American ones, even though that is the country of my citizenship.

I have no clear answers to any of this, I just thought I'd put it out there. If other people feel this way too, comments or thoughts would be most welcome.


Fearchar said...

We are all just passing through, wherever we are. Transitions are part of that.

Eileen said...

To be fair, I would've taken that picture as well. I lived in Taiwan on and off since 2009. I actually lived next door to you in Da'an District at one point. 😂 I also am in the same boat about privilege and whiteness. It is good to a knowledge that and while we all have voices, we must not drown other people with those voices.

You're very cute. I like your hair anand eyes, sorry for sounding shape. 😳