Friday, June 30, 2017

Triple Threat Female Expats

The Cool Trailing Spouse

Last week, we ended the traipsing-about part of our massive summer adventure, rolling up at our friends' flat in Greater London for five days in the city. We started in Athens at the end of May, wound our way across Armenia and Georgia wandering in ancient churches, enjoying gorgeous vistas and drinking succulent wine, looking up at the monumental stone edifices of Yerevan and hustling up and down the steep hills of Tbilisi old city under carved wooden balconies. Then we hopped a Tbilisi-London flight to start the British leg of our trip.

My friends are what you might call traditional expatriates, though they are not traditional people in any pejorative sense. They're both arty types, young fun liberals, far more similar to me than to the businessmen and trailing wives of Tienmu who send their children to international schools. Who can even consider affording international schools.

We had a lovely time with lovely people, both them and my in-laws, at times comparing aspects of the expat experience. This is a life not at all new to me and Brendan, but still two-years new to them. I remember well that even two years in, my life still had that new expat smell and it was interesting to trade proverbial notes.

I couldn't help but notice, though, that despite being more like us in personality, values, predilections and life goals, that their expat situation was far more like those of the Tienmu international school crowd than ours. They could afford a decent-size flat near a tube station, something two teachers most likely could never do, even with salaries adjusted to reflect the British economy. They could afford for one of them to be the 'trailing spouse' (and as always seems to happen, the trailing spouse was the wife). They could afford this and to raise a child (to be fair, in the UK one needn't worry so much about where to send a child to school).

We both knew the new expat smell, but their model was far more luxurious. It had upgrades.

I wouldn't say I was jealous - I chose my circumstances. I don't mean to criticize either: this is the opportunity life handed them and it was fair to take it as-is. If anything, it served as a lesson to be avoid drawing such thick lines between 'Us' and 'Them'. People in Their situation may very well be people like Us who just found themselves there.

That said, I do find distinctions that are worth a quick exploration. A lot of people assume 'expat' means excellent relocation package (something my friends got and I didn't, because I moved without a clear job offer - and even had I had one, nobody was going to pay my relocation costs let alone cover them generously). They often assume it means serviced flats, possibly domestic help including a driver, very high pay, being able to send their children to international schools and attending events, clubs and associations designed for networking with other expats (and almost never locals - though that is likely more common in Asia than, say, the UK). They often assume it means a trailing spouse, usually the wife, and nobody ever seems to question why it always seems to be the wife supporting her husband's career, or why more women don't get these sorts of offers to move abroad from generous employers.

That's all fine - other than pointing out the gender gap in who gets the plum offer and who is the trailing spouse, it's not a criticism. However, it seems to be the predominant view Westerners have of expat life, which is why articles like this fistful of garbage are spawned. The writer of that thing only has a point if the only kind of expat is the well-paid kind who has a serviced flat and a driver, and the only kind of immigrant is the poor kind. If this is true, what am I? A well-off immigrant or a poor expat? What about those of us for whom neither term fits?

It means that all of the advice you see is geared toward a demographic of foreigners abroad I've never been in. It's all coffee mornings and no 'how to make it work as an independent woman abroad'.

Mercy in a new place

It was interesting, then, to read Janice Y.K. Lee's The Expatriates while on this trip. Yes, it deals with exactly the demographic of well-paid expats and their stay-at-home spouses that I just spent two and a half paragraphs saying I wasn't in, but it was a worthwhile read (and I recommend it) for two key reasons: one of the protagonists is more like me than the well-to-do women who make up the rest of the book, who are also portrayed very sympathetically.

Mercy, a young Korean-American Columbia graduate, moved to Hong Kong on her own, without a job in hand. She more or less makes it work, until it doesn't any more. I don't have her bad luck, but the feeling of moving to a new place with a small savings account and a suitcase and making one's way without a corporate helping hand - and working a job to make it all happen - that's my expat experience. I gather that is the experience a lot of us have, but few people seem to write about it. Its depiction of the Korean community in Hong Kong further reminds one that those who live abroad cannot be packaged up into tidy communities of (white) expats and (everyone else) immigrants. And, of course, the character of Olivia serves as a reminder that even the wealthiest expat cannot compete with a successful and well-connected local.

Swashbuckling tales of adventure and derring-do of handsome men aside, the focus on expat women, not men, in The Expatriates further reminds us that lives of women abroad are often just as interesting as those of men, if not more so.

However, it was also a reminder that, as much as we ought not to create divisions between us as expats, some cannot be ignored. I may do better than a typical cram school teacher, but I'm still an English teacher and have, despite my professional status in the field, resigned myself to forever introducing my work as "an English teacher...but a real one." That, as much as I might make more money and have a better lifestyle than the sort of fresh young blood I was in 2006 - no crappy rooftop apartments for me - I will never, as a teacher, be on the same financial level as the Tianmu set. Brendan and I will always have to do things ourselves, we won't have a company connection setting anything up for us, likely ever. I'm 36 and still a liberal artsy-fartsy night owl type, more like the fresh young blood than the greying businessmen; this is not likely to change either. Every piece of advice is geared toward them; none seems aimed at me. Most of them won't stay long. Most will never learn Chinese or integrate locally. There simply are not that many overlaps in the issues we face.

And I might not be a trailing spouse like so many expat women, but the majority of long-termers I've come to know here, who were birthed into expat life as I was, are male.

My first real arrival in Taiwan took place late at night. I dropped my bags in my cruddy-but-temporary Gongguan perch, collapsed into sleep, and woke up the next day to explore the city. I had a vague offer of a teaching job, a few thousand dollars and a backpack. I navigated work, language, finances, socializing, paperwork and visas and adjustment to a new country and culture on my own. I don't think it takes away from the experiences of more well-heeled foreigners to admit that I'm proud of this. I'm proud that I did it on my own, and that I was never a trailing spouse (I am also confident enough in myself now that, if a fantastic opportunity arose for Brendan, after all these years I finally wouldn't balk at the idea of being one for a temporary period).

Like Mercy, I had no help, and like my brand-new idol and also crush, Janet Montgomery McGovern, I had financial concerns. I had to generate an income to make it all work. I was a woman doing what most people associate with young men doing. Like them both, I'm not the typical 'Go East, Young Man', well, man. 


On our last day in Tbilisi, I turned the final page of my last book for the 'intensive travel' portion of my trip: Justine Hardy's Scoop-Wallah: Life on a Delhi Daily. Although I hadn't planned it this way, my reading tour across the Caucasus was also a reading detour from books about Taiwan or books about teaching, linguistics and education into a short list of books about women living abroad.

Hardy's story also resonated with me, not only because I used to live in India, but because she too chose to return to Asia, sought out work, found it and made things happen for herself. She, like Janet McGovern, had the sort of adventure most people associate with men. She, like both me and McGovern, had to make money to stay afloat. And she, like us, had no employer helping her. She, like us, was perhaps an expat who lived like an immigrant, or maybe an immigrant who knew she couldn't stay forever. I do wonder, however, what kind of visa she was on as it was clear that her employer wasn't helping her with it, but it is extremely hard to get a visa to work legally as a foreigner in India. You certainly aren't allowed to be offered a job in India and then transfer a tourist visa to a working one (I know, because I looked into it).

Hardy describes a hardcore hustling to make her daily bread, to make a name, to make life possible in a foreign land, that I can identify with. What I peddle is different, but we're both working the same street. She has McGovern's mettle, translated to the present day and proves yet again that the stories of women abroad are not limited to managing the help, choosing between Taipei American School and Taipei European School and going to coffee mornings. That we hustle too, that we have stories too, and we all make it work.

That Hardy might have been writing soft features, but under that she's a professional journalist who simply loves India and plies her trade well. That I may be 'teaching English', but I'm also a professional educator who is days away from starting Master's in the subject at a prestigious university.

That we don't always have help. That arguably the most interesting expat in twentieth-century Taiwan was not Indiana Jones, but his mother, and she too was an English teacher.

That even the trailing spouses, who may have never thought they'd be 'trailing'.

With that in mind, during a quiet moment on the outskirts of London, I wrote a short inscription in Scoop-Wallah and, when nobody was looking, popped it into a corner of my friends' book collection. Not the husband's, although I've known him longer and we are closer, but the wife's. He might be the expat with the cushy job, but she has a story too, and under it all we may have different situations but we're not all that different.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Updated post: why are there so few expat women in Asia?

With the publication of an article on Western women dating Asian men that included a large contribution from my friend Jocelyn Eikenburg came a very good point from another friend: one reason why there are fewer Western Woman-Asian man couples is that there are fewer Western women in Asia.

Why is that, I asked to no one in particular.

I returned to my original post from years ago about why there are so few expat women in Asia (I could just as easily said 'Western women' - what working-class foreign women, mostly from China and Southeast Asia,  in countries like Taiwan face is an entirely different topic that I will cover once I feel qualified to do so).

I felt that the piece could use some updating, so I've updated it to add a few more thoughts and clarify or expand some of the original points.

I am not at all sure that everyone will like what I have to say, but since when has that mattered to me?

What would really improve the piece would be more firsthand experiences from a variety of women on why they chose to stay or leave - in fact, after I finish off a few other blogging projects I'm working on as well as get through the first in-person component of my Master's program, I intend to seek those voices out. For now, your comments are welcome.

The bulk of the changes - though not every change - to the original article are as follows:

As for the reasons why [dating prospects aren't great for Western women in Asia], it's hard for me to say, and I'll have to stick to heterosexual couples for now. Someone more qualified than me can write about gay dating in Asia.

My college crush moved to Taiwan, we started dating, and now we're married. I don't really have firsthand experience with this issue to share. It seems to me, though, that the issue is not what most people assume: that Western women don't want to date Asian men, so they stay single. Only a small minority of Western women I've met in Asia feel that way - most are quite open to it, or have dated (or married) Asian men. However, I do think it's likely harder. The culture barrier to dating doesn't work in our favor, as Asian men are often less likely to be clear about their feelings and ask for concrete dates, or don't show interest in the ways we've come to expect. It's easier to be a very clear Western man asking a local woman out than it is for a Western woman to figure out if an Asian man likes her.

Of course, I'm the sort of woman who once asked men out. It doesn't shock me - I think more women should do it! Again, however, that's a contentious topic in the West, though I'm not sure why. In Asia it's even more rare and is more likely to put men off. Take that even further, and it means there are fewer local men who possess the feminist chops many Western women deem a dealbreaker: I wouldn't date a man who would be put off by my asking him out.

After that, the culture barrier vis-a-vis traditional families also tends not to work in Western women's favor. If you are dating the son of Asian parents, while it's not certain that they'll expect him to run his family the way they tell him to, live nearby or use your shared financial resources to support his parents, it is certainly more likely than in the West. The expectations of male and female roles in marriage are also more likely to be traditional (though, again, this is far from universal: feminist Asian men do exist. I count some among my friends). Some Western women might see this as a difficult adjustment. Others, like me, view it as a dealbreaker.

This is not meant to be a blanket statement on the state of Western woman-Asian man dating in Asia, of course. Differing stories and successful and happy couples abound. It's just an issue worth considering. However, if the obstacles to that sort of partnership are greater, fewer women are likely to meet, date, marry and set up a home with a local man. This means fewer have that particular pull to stay (though, again, there are many success stories).

And, of course, there aren't that many Western men to date and the ones that are here might - see below - be oddly hostile to Western women. 

Does it really keep Western women away from life abroad, though, or is the correlation entirely spurious?

A little of both. For women who want to travel, the dating issue (which has no easy answer) is not likely to keep them away, though it may cause them to choose shorter-term trips: a one-year stint as a student or one year abroad teaching instead of staying long-term, for example.

* * * 

It is tiring to work for a sexist boss, have to address sexist beliefs even among friends, go out and meet people only to find that you are again being judged through the lens of gender, asked yet again about marriage and family, having children, having your appearance commented on and treated as the most important part of who you are. Always wondering if you are being paid less, and if so, because you happen to have a vagina. Always wondering if you are offered the fluffier classes (e.g. "Baking in English!") and work teaching children rather than the more challenging work (e.g. "Presenting in English") because you are female. Always questioning why, exactly, most of your colleagues are male, especially if you teach corporate English, IELTS or other adult classes.

Sexism is also a problem in the West - the hate and vitriol I see from some American men is astounding - but coming up against older-school forms of it in Asia is tiring. 

* * * 

I want to add a few more points here to expand this piece. I focused mainly on expats like me above: women who came here on their own as students or independently in search of work. However, there is a whole class of expat that I don't interact with much - nothing personal, we just inhabit different worlds - the corporate expat here on a fancy package. In Taiwan this means the ones who have luxury apartments rented for them, drivers and live-in help, who send their children to international schools we couldn't hope to afford. That sort of money would be nice, though I'm not sure I'd like the life very much. In any case, corporate sexism is a huge issue, and as a result most of the employees being offered these stellar packages are male. They might bring their wives, but they are the ones drawing the salaries. When women are offered something like this, they may find they're in a tiny minority and that when they arrive, the non-Western corporate world is even more hostile and sexist than what they left behind. Professional Taiwanese women have more advantages than almost all of their counterparts in the rest of Asia, but corporate sexism here is no better, and likely worse, than what you'll find in the West.

And, finally, I'm going to add something that may anger a few people, but here we go. It is my personal opinion from observation that women tend to be less tolerant of mediocrity. What I mean by that is, those of us who don't come as students or well-paid, cosseted expatriates often start out teaching English. Few of us are qualified, and we are given a title ("teacher") that we don't exactly deserve. I don't exempt myself from this: I was once this sort of so-called "teacher". Most "English teachers" in Taiwan know this (though some don't seem to have figured it out). Some, like me, decide the work is meaningful and fulfilling and eventually become professional educators. Most don't. Some leave after awhile, others decide that teaching without any real qualification is good enough and stay. Guess which group I have noticed is more likely to not be content being an unqualified "teacher"? If you guessed women, then you get where I'm going. And guess which group I've noticed is more likely to decide that what they're doing is fine?

Neither marriage equality nor Taiwanese independence are strange or scary - stop making them seem that way for clicks

As we all know, and the reasonable among us have celebrated, marriage equality is finally set to come to Taiwan. I personally do not think any of the worst fears of retaliation by anti-equality groups will come to pass, because the ruling was clear. Inequality is unconstitutional, therefore, there must be equality. Unequal laws passed off as "marriage equality" will not suffice and it seems to me will be open to immediate challenge in court.

You wouldn't know that from reading Taiwanese English-language media though.

Have a read through these articles, or even just check their headlines:

Same-sex marriage age to be set at 18

Cabinet mulls introducing marriage age of 18 for same-sex couples

What's your first impression upon skimming the headlines? Was it that the marriage age for same-sex couples seems like it will be different (and older) than that currently set for opposite-sex ones?

Look again at the first paragraphs (or first few paragraphs) of each:

The Executive Yuan yesterday said that its proposal to legalize same-sex marriage would set the legal age for such unions at 18 and engagement at 17, while prohibiting those within the sixth degree of consanguinity from getting married.
The Cabinet held a second ad hoc meeting to establish the goals that it is to work toward in the legislative process to legalize same-sex unions.
After reviewing the chapter in the Civil Code governing marriage, the Executive Yuan said that homosexual couples would have to be at least 18 to get married and at least 17 to become engaged, Executive Yuan Secretary-General Chen Mei-ling (陳美伶) told a news conference in Taipei.
The Civil Code stipulates that heterosexual couples must be at least 18 to be legally united and at least 16 to be engaged.
* * * 
Taipei, June 14 (CNA) The Executive Yuan is considering making the minimum age at which same-sex couples can get engaged and marry 17 and 18 respectively, irrespective of gender, a Cabinet official said on Wednesday.

In fact, in the middle or at the bottom - not in the headline, not at the top - of both articles, it is clarified that the marriage age for heterosexual couples is proposed to change too, so that the age regulations will be the same no matter the sex(es) of the couple:

Chen said that the Cabinet would recommend that the legal age at which heterosexual couples can be engaged be changed to 17 so that the rules would be consistent.

* * *
Although Taiwan's Civil Code currently has a different minimum age requirement for men and women in heterosexual unions, the Executive Yuan's proposed legal amendment would make the minimum engagement and marriage age the same for homosexual and heterosexual unions, Cabinet secretary general Chen Mei-ling (陳美伶) said during a meeting.

I understand why Taipei Times and Focus Taiwan did this: marriage equality is a hot issue, and articles about it get clicks. Articles on changing the marriage age are less likely to be read - marriage age changes, especially fairly small ones, are just not that interesting. You can basically get what you need to know from the headline.

It's the same rationale behind why China seems to be horned into every single article (even headline) in the international media about Taiwan, even when it isn't in any way relevant. So we end up with stupid headlines like Tsai Ying-wen elected president of Taiwan, China angry or China likely to be upset about marriage equality in Taiwan? (I made those up, but they're pretty close to the truth). China gets clicks, Taiwan doesn't, so editors complicit in mutilating Taiwan's story in the international press shove China in there like an unlubed butt plug.

And I know this is why they do it because more than one journalist friend has told me so. They *shrug* and say "it's better that the article be published at all than it be spiked because nobody's going to read about just Taiwan." Quite literally if you want to be in the news at all you have to bend over and take it. 

So it is with marriage equality, except it doesn't even come with the excuse of "if you want this news out there at all you have to accept the butt plug" that the China-shoving does. It's just put in there to be sensationalistic and get clicks over what is a relatively minor news item, which deserves to be published but maybe wasn't going to get all that many clicks anyhow...and that's okay for something that, again, is just not that interesting. It's not serving any greater purpose.

It's just as damaging domestically, however, as the China butt-plugging is internationally, if it's also happening in the Chinese-language media (it probably is, but I'm traveling right now and don't have the time to properly check. Some back-up on this would be greatly appreciated).

What articles like these do is make marriage equality seem riskier, stranger, scarier, more sensational and more 'exotic' than it really is by highlighting what the rules are likely to be for same-sex unions while downplaying that the proposals would make these rules the same for opposite-sex couples. It damages the idea of marriage equality as a step forward in human rights, in a greater application of equality for all, and, frankly, as something normal, even mundane - which it more or less has become in much of the developed world. The ruling was a big deal. Marriage equality coming to Taiwan is a big deal. Setting the marriage age and proposing to change the heterosexual marriage age to be consistent is not. Continuing to treat marriage between people of the same sex as somehow different from marriage between people of the opposite sex encourages readers to think that way, and confirms the biases of those who already do. It's not neutral and it's barely accurate.

It's not that much different from the international (and sometimes domestic) press playing up every single tremor of disapproval from China, presenting their statements without context, making everything seem more terrifying or unprecedented than it really is, instead of accurately reporting the truth on the ground, which is rather mundane: Taiwan is independent, China doesn't like that, but China can fuck right off and so far not much has really changed. It is not neutral, barely accurate (or not accurate at all), creates sensationalism and otherness where none need exist, encourages a certain thought process, and plays to biases for those who already have them. It hurts Taiwan in the same way that writing about marriage equality this way is detrimental to a broader acceptance of equality.

Going back to marriage equality, what's worse is that there does seem to be at least one problematic proposal on the table that, from the reporting, would seem to affect opposite-sex couples but not same-sex ones. From the Taipei Times article:

Same-sex couples younger than 20 who want to get married must obtain the approval of their legal guardians, or the marriage could be voided should their legal representatives file an objection, she [Chen Mei-ling] said.

This is buried about halfway down one article and not mentioned in another, and yet to me it appears to be the real news item here - unless this proposal would cover all couples equally, it is a sign that the Executive Yuan is mulling a rule that would create unequal marriage laws, which, as I've said several times, will be open to all sorts of challenges as the ruling is unambiguous in calling for equality. 

But neither Focus Taiwan nor Taipei Times can seem to get their heads out of 'what'll get the most clicks' land and report actual news.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

I should not even have to say that Singapore is not more liberal than Taiwan

Just one example of the things you can say in Taiwan because this country recognizes basic human rights

I'm hoping to keep this short because I've had a lot of wine (well hello Georgia, how are you? Like wine, do ya? I like wine too!) and really, this should be obvious.

That said, please enjoy my half-addled rant after more than a few rants, I mean, wines.

But I've heard this sentiment expressed twice in my trip so far, once in Athens as we were waiting to board the flight to Yerevan, and once over dinner outside the small town of Alaverdi in northern Armenia, the day before we crossed the border to Georgia.

Both times, otherwise intelligent and worldly people put forward a belief system in which human rights are 'Western', rather than global. That's not what I'm going to address today, though I will if it ever becomes necessary. It seems is sufficiently clear that human rights are global, hence the word 'human'. I'm not that much of an absolutist (nor am I a total relativist), but I do believe that, absent the existence of any god(s), civilization benefits from greater equality - a classically liberal view. As such, fundamental human rights are based on the freedoms necessary to realize that equality to the greatest extent possible. And as such, they are global. Exhibit B: plenty of non-Western countries respect, or try to respect, these basic human rights. Therefore they are clearly not simply "Western". Taiwan is one such country. This doesn't mean I think Westerners are so much more clever than everyone else for having come up with what we refer to when we talk about basic human rights - one good idea does not make a certain model of society 'better', and in any case, they are obviously adaptable to other cultures (Exhibit C is also Taiwan) and therefore not intrinsic to Western culture. Every culture that has adopted them has benefited (Exhibit D - you guessed it - Taiwan). Similar cultures (Exhibit E: China) that have not done so have avoided such a framework to their detriment.

Why do I say all this, when it's not my main point?

Because the opposite belief - that human rights are a Western construct - it underpins what I really want to go after: the idea that Singapore is somehow a model for modern Asia, that it is the system to look up to when we consider a progressive Asian country. That when we consider the best of Asia, that Singapore is at or near the top, along with Hong Kong, and possibly Japan and South Korea. Singapore seems to get the most mentions because unlike Hong Kong, it is independent. Unlike Japan, it is more open to foreign investment, business and residency. Unlike South Korea it hasn't been mired in a series of political scandals and economically seems to many to be the most successful of the old Asian Tigers. (I'm not sure how true that final point is, but a lot of people sure seem to think so).

I've mentioned twice on this trip that if you want a model for progressivism and liberalism in Asia, you must look at Taiwan. Not only that, but Taiwan is the best possible model.

Both times, the rejoinder has been "But - Singapore!"

Both times, I suspect the person talking was thinking about economics, as though promoting free markets and a global economic outlook were the same as promoting classical social liberalism. For some they do go hand-in-hand, but one is not a substitute for the other. It's easy to look at shiny-skyscraper Singapore, with its streets you (mostly) could eat off of, with its (mostly) glossy, Western sheen, and think "a model for liberal, modern Asia!" It sure looks nice, and yes, I've been there. I like Singapore quite a bit for a visit, in fact, and spend a lot of my time slurping sambar with masala dosa in Little India.

Let me be clear: Singapore is not free. Singapore (more or less) has free markets, but it is not free. It was the poster child for the stale and risible "Asian style democracy?!?!?" debate of the turn of the millenium. It was, perhaps, a model for Asia when developing East Asia was considered key and the idea that some cultures do well with less freedom (that is, less access to human rights) still had currency. The idea took as a given that the people in East Asian societies not only wanted but would choose less freedom and fewer human rights because, I dunno, "their culture" or something. As though human rights are not adaptable to any culture. As though Western societies, once lacking rights for non-white or non-male people, did not evolve to include them while maintaining their culture. As though human rights and a greater sense of collectivism were mutually exclusive (SPOILER: they are not).

I won't get too far into how Taiwan's economy is also fairly open - the reasons why it is stagnating are not related to a lack of free markets. Some of the issues are domestic: corruption, brain drain, poor allocation of resources, slow reactions to problems, ineffective ideas, a focus on cutting labor costs and manufacturing when those are two areas where Taiwan will never be - and should never be - competitive again. Some of it is China being a giant flaming asshole.

My point is, if you want to look for a model for Asia in terms of classical liberalism and modernity, look to Taiwan. Taiwan is not perfect, but it is, more or less, free.

In Singapore, making a few YouTube videos criticizing the government merits enough punishment that the kid who did it was granted asylum in the US (the US apparently has kept him detained, but that's another story). Singapore does not have freedom of expression. In Taiwan, marching down the street with a banner that says "Fuck The President" (something I actually saw once) is a protected right (of course, if you say that about a private citizen, you could be sued for 'defamation' and you might well lose - Taiwan's not perfect). There are more erudite ways to make one's case, but freedom of expression doesn't only cover nuanced arguments. Though imperfect, Taiwan is a model for freedom of expression in Asia.

In Singapore, sexual acts between men are still illegal, and marriage equality is not even on the government's radar as a possibility. The annual pro-equality Pink Dot in Singapore is allowed despite not having government support, but international participation is not. Singapore, then, does not have equal rights. In Taiwan we will - we must, as per the Ministry of Justice - have marriage equality soon, and its Pride parade is the biggest in Asia. Taiwan is a model for equal rights in Asia.

Singapore is not a democracy - at least not in the thick sense of the word, which I believe to be the real sense of the word. Taiwan is. Singapore is not a model for modern democracy. Taiwan, warts and all, is. This infographic gives it a lower democracy ranking than Japan or South Korea, but I feel, with more time and less wine (or perhaps more wine), that could be refuted well - for example, Taiwan is consistently ranked as having a freer press, has shaken off the party that used to dominate politics whereas Japan has not, has not had a major presidential scandal on par with South Korea's, and while all three countries enjoy freedom of assembly, Taiwan's actually seems to result in a reasonable amount of change. These, to me, are all important aspects of a full, thick democracy, and in most cases, Taiwan wins. Singapore, of course, doesn't come close.

Singapore does not have a free press. Taiwan has a crappy press that publishes nonsense 'news' while ignoring or mutilating real stories, but it is free. The freest in Asia. Facts can be found, and are hard to suppress, in Taiwan. In Singapore the government acts as though it has the right to withhold the truth from its citizens and use the main newspaper in the country (the Straits Times) as a pro-government mouthpiece.

One area where both countries falter is women's equality. Both have equal rights enshrined in law, but neither has done a great job of turning that into real equality in daily life. In both countries despite equal rights, pay gaps persist, families prefer sons and women are expected to prioritize caregiving more than men (and more than their careers).

In short, although Taiwan's economy needs a jump start, if you are looking for a country that serves as a model for the rest of Asia in terms of how human rights and freedoms can be adapted to suit a non-Western culture, look no further than Taiwan. Taiwan remains a more collectivist culture than any Western culture I know. That cliched old "mix of traditional and modern" stereotype, a favored flourish to many writings on Taiwan by people who don't know the country very well, has some truth to it. And yet, because human rights needn't be a Western construct, Taiwan has managed to adopt them. You may be surprised to learn that their culture has not imploded as a result, just as giving women the right to vote didn't cause Western countries to sink into apocalyptic hellscapes. It's doing just fine. The culture adapted and evolved, as culture does.

OK that was pretty long, and now I need more wine.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

An untitled mess

Editor's note:

Although I'm on vacation, for some reason this seems to be the week for long, difficult reads on Lao Ren Cha. This isn't as long as my last post, but it was far harder to write and will probably be far more difficult to read. I don't even have a title for it. 

One week before Brendan and I left for a trip that would have me out of Taiwan for over two months, a friend and I sat in the basement-level clinic of the psychiatric ward of National Taiwan University Hospital. Yvonne (not her real name) had been struggling with mental health issues for years, but they had recently gotten worse: she'd been in and out of the ward as a resident several times over the past six months. She hadn't shown up for a planned coffee date, canceled on a small group dinner, was calling or chatting online with a small group of friends, including me but failing consistently to show up in person. I wasn't angry, I was worried about her.

Yvonne was a good friend - health issues aside, she was intelligent (she completed her undergraduate degree at prestigious American liberal arts college and gone on to do a Master’s in Linguistics in Taiwan), loyal and caring. I considered her a good friend - I listened to her, and she to me. When she had an English teaching job and struggled with classroom management, I sat down and gave her a crash course in it, with the idea that as she picked up the basics, more would follow. She pushed me to look seriously into doing a Master’s degree, pointing out that I was full of excuses when the only things really holding me back were nervousness (I'm terrified of people I respect thinking I'm stupid) and money. She was right. We’d met as coworkers at an absolutely horrid “management consulting” company, and spent many an hour excising our bad memories together, stopping when we felt it was starting to get unhealthy. We supported each other and had fun together.

When a mutual friend tipped me off that she had also been skipping her doctor's appointments, I was worried. I feared she'd also been skipping her medication because it interfered with drinking, and I knew she wasn't getting the support she needed. What was scarier was that I wasn't sure what kind of support could reach her.

She was happy to accept my offer to accompany her to her next appointment, which was on a rainy Tuesday morning. I got there first, shook out my umbrella and waited in the old NTU hospital building, the beautiful Japanese-era one. I'd taught a few seminars here once. I'd figured she was less likely to skip an appointment if she knew I'd be there too, and the first step towards some sort of normal that could hold was ensuring she was in regular contact with professionals and taking her medication.

The psychiatry department at NTU is labyrinthine, as are many departments in many hospitals across Taiwan. You go to one window and register, take your registration to the doctor, take something from the doctor's assistant back upstairs, get a number and then wait. There are more papers, trips up-and-down, numbers and queues for payment and medication. I'm not sure how a very ill person - mentally or physically - would be able to manage it alone: most would have to have family, friends or a domestic worker/health aide accompany them. The system is simply not built well for people who are on their own.

I recalled the time when my mother, after having seemingly recovered from the cancer in her lungs, found out that it had spread to her lymphatic system and now she had "months". I was gutted, made plans to return to the US, and thought it would be smart to talk to a grief counselor, or any counselor. I couldn't go to the Community Services Center in Tianmu, because they're only open during weekday business hours and I am simply not able to go to Tianmu during those hours on a regular basis. I found another center closer to home that offered services in English, but they wouldn't let me make an appointment until I chose someone from the list of counselors on their website. Even that was too much of a hurdle, I wasn't in a good state to attempt it. I read through the biographies several times, but kept getting flustered, tired and more depressed. I never called back, and worked through the grief on my own.

If that small stone in the tracks could derail my search for fairly-straightforward counseling when I wasn't even battling a mental illness, just deep grief, imagine the sort of obstacle the back-and-forth of visiting a doctor in a psychiatry ward at a hospital could present to someone in a much more unstable condition.

While we got this upstairs-downstairs workout, we chatted. Yvonne mentioned that she was only able to see a doctor perhaps once a month or for prescription refills, and that today was actually her physician's day to meet new patients. He'd agreed to see her because she'd skipped her last appointment and didn't seem well. She mentioned that she'd tried therapy, but it didn't seem to be yielding fast enough results, and she couldn't afford to keep it up: it's several thousand NT dollars per session, and she was unable to work.

She agreed when I asked her if I could write about her situation, without using her real name, in a post about why mental health services in Taiwan are so deeply lacking. Something needed to be said, but I didn't want to write it while excising the story that caused me to see the problem, and I didn't want to include the story without her consent.

Due to the events that have transpired since then, there is so much more to say. 

On one of our trips back down the stairs, I mentioned that her doctor seemed to be a good professional to have in her corner, as he'd agreed to see her on a day when he did not normally see existing patients. She agreed, but pointed out that during one of her stays in the ward, they'd assigned her a junior doctor who only wanted to talk about her alcoholism. She'd requested a change and the ward had refused - so she drank detergent.

I gasped.

"Well I wanted to make a point. Anyway, I knew it wouldn't kill me," she replied.

A bell should have gone off in my mind then, but didn't. I gathered my composure enough to point out gently that, in fact, drinking detergent could well kill a person.

Back downstairs, waiting for her number to be called, we talked again about therapy. It seemed to be simple common sense that regular contact with professionals - both doctors and counselors, at more frequent intervals than hospital visits could provide - would be a good idea. I didn't have the professional credentials to support Yvonne in the way she needed it, but I hoped I could be supportive in getting her in regular contact with people who did.

She revealed that her boyfriend, who chiefly supported them, was on a leave of absence from work and had his own issues. Although she could not work and was legally classified as 'disabled' and as a result received a small monthly sum from the government, this was just about enough to cover the cost of food and doctor's visits under National Health Insurance. It would not cover therapy, nor a place for her to live when things were not going well with her boyfriend, with whom she'd broken up and gotten back together with several times.

In short, more regular contact with professionals was not something she could afford. National Health Insurance didn't cover it and she had no other means to pay for it. That she desperately needed it - that it might have saved her life - didn't change the cold hard reality of her empty wallet.

The next day, I would speak with a friend who is a psychiatrist, but in an entirely different sub-specialty. She pointed out that, in fact, National Health Insurance does cover therapy in cases like Yvonne's, but the government rate paid to therapists who accept the insurance is something like NT500/hour. This for a professional with graduate-level training. So, clearly, few if any therapists wanted to go through the insurance system. Offering private, non-insured care only, they could charge exponentially more. Unfortunately, this sort of rationalization means that important mental health support is only available to those with means.

As a result, people who need help but can’t afford it like Yvonne have no access. In that way, it’s not that different from the USA, where people do die from lack of access to health care. Praise for Taiwan’s healthcare system is common, especially when compared to the near-total lack of a consistent system in the US, but in this particular way, Taiwan has failed. Family and friends can, in most cases, help someone connect to the right professionals, but consistent access to those professionals is key. If it is not affordable, it is not accessible.

My friend went on to say that, as a result, a lot of psychiatrists whose job would ordinarily be to see a patient in order to determine what sort of medication to prescribe and nothing more - certainly they weren’t paid for more - kept tabs on their patients the way Yvonne’s doctor seemed to be keeping tabs on her. That’s noble, and is one bright light in an otherwise dark landscape, but it really shouldn’t have to come down to that. The care Yvonne and those like her needed shouldn’t have been sparingly provided, at the discretion of a doctor who decides whether or not they’re willing to devote the extra time. That Yvonne had a doctor who did step up is an individual compliment but not praise of Taiwanese healthcare: it speaks to a breakdown of the system that he felt he had to do so in the absence of any other option.

I considered what sort of financial outlay would have been required to band together as friends and just pay for it, but it quickly became clear that it would be too much to ask of mutual friends, with costs approaching what many of them pay for rent each month, for something Yvonne wasn’t very motivated to do. I could give her money (I don’t loan money to friends: I give it, and if I get it back that’s fine. If not, that’s fine too) but not enough to supplant a needed income. 

While waiting for Yvonne’s appointment, I tried to say as gently as I could that the junior doctor who’d wanted to talk about her alcoholism seemed to certainly have had a bad ‘bedside manner’, and I could understand that anyone would be put off by that and by the idea of stopping drinking, but he wasn’t wrong. She did struggle with alcoholism, and it was affecting her medication. Without the medication, however, her mental health would not improve.

Although I’m not a doctor, it did seem clear that, while figuring out her relationship, living and financial situation were important, none of it would hold if she didn’t consistently manage her health.

Yvonne took this well, to my relief. I wondered why the doctor who brought up the subject with her to begin with could not have also broached the topic in a way that she’d have been more likely to be receptive to.

This is not unique to Taiwan: around the world you will find doctors who are empathetic, caring and understanding and can reach patients, and those who don’t make those connections as easily. In Taiwan, that means for every doctor like the one who’d agreed to see Yvonne on an atypical day, and who took care to keep tabs on her situation knowing she had no other professional support, there is likely one whose manner does not meet a patients’ needs.

Yvonne was living with her boyfriend, but it was clear from the instability of that relationship that she would at least need an alternative open to her if it ever did end. Again, Taiwan failed her. She could have stayed with me - and I offered, with Brendan’s support, and gave her a key that she could use anytime - but we both knew it wouldn’t be a good idea to make that permanent. Her disability payments were not enough to cover housing, and her family, who lived in central Taiwan, had long since rejected her (I will not go into their relationship here - I had Yvonne’s consent to write about her situation, but I never asked if I could include her family history, so I won’t).

The disability payments seem designed for people who cannot work but have a place to stay - generally, it is assumed, with family. Although homeless shelters exist, and there are welfare organizations such as Harmony Home for people with specific illnesses (in Harmony Home’s case, HIV/AIDS), a long-term sponsored or subsidized living option does not appear to be available (or widely available - while options may exist, even after several searches I was unable to locate any) to people in Yvonne’s situation. A mutual friend and I discussed whether group living options were available, perhaps with flexible work opportunities for those who might not be able to be reliable as traditional employees, but neither of us could find such a place.

In short, when you have no family to take you in, but no ability to earn enough income to live on your own, there are few if any options available to you in Taiwan. It almost feels as though the healthcare system is designed with the assumption that everyone has family to support them, or with the unconscious belief that if your family has disowned or rejected you, it must somehow be your fault. From simply finding the right care to navigating the hospital system to living day-to-day to paying for services that NHI doesn’t cover, it is assumed you have a support network.

If you don’t…

Yvonne seemed to be in a good mood, or at least a clear mood. We talked about things other than her illness: her cats, her boyfriend, her family, our mutual former employer and how awful they were (they were a part of the reason she was in such a bad financial situation). Music she liked. When we’d meet next, perhaps for dinner or coffee. I pointed out that I was leaving in a week, and it’s likely we wouldn’t be able to meet before then, but if she really needed someone she could always come over, or if she couldn’t manage that, I’d send a taxi to pick her up.

She repeated that she agreed with me that she was going to have to stop drinking and start taking her medication. I knew it wouldn’t be as cut-and-dried as that - wrangling alcoholism and medication rarely are - but as we started to say goodbye, I hoped that at least it was a path she was ready to start down. 

“I really think I’ll be OK, y’know,” she said jus before we parted ways. “Maybe I don’t even need therapy. It’s not like I have suicidal ideation or anything like that.”

At the time I’d been happy to hear a clear indication that she was not considering taking her life. Of course, looking back, that statement was the reddest of flags.

We chatted online a few more times before I left, mostly about nothing terribly important. She said she was feeling up, and other friends agreed she seemed to be doing a bit better. I didn’t reply immediately to her chatty messages, but I did reply. She asked if she was bothering me with ‘chatter’. I said no, I was just working is all, but I’d always respond when I was free. It was true. 

Mutual friends talked about how to support her while I was away, and we thought it’d be okay, at least for the summer. The system was failing her, her family was failing her, her relationship was rocky, but she had us and while we couldn’t replace the full support system she needed, we could do our best to create a basic safety net.

The next week, Brendan and I left for the airport early in the morning. It was May 24th - I would not be back in Taiwan until August 9th. We flew first to Greece, where we enjoyed ourselves as well as seeking out an important piece of my family history.

On our second day there, we were sitting in the cafe near our Airbnb drinking Greek coffee and reading. I was working out how we were going to get to the Athens suburbs the next day. We’d gone to the Acropolis that morning and were sunburned, got lost trying to find a post office, and were planning to go to the Acropolis museum that evening.

Then, I got a message from one of those mutual friends - Yvonne had committed suicide on either May 22nd or 23rd. It would later be determined that she’d taken a number of pills with alcohol.

I sat there, shocked, not knowing how to even begin to process it. For those of you who know me on Facebook, if I sounded unemotional or as though I were unaffected in my upbeat travel posts, it was because my brain went into overtime compartmentalizing, unsure of how to react let alone handle what had happened. 

I’m still not sure how to process it. It feels unreal, as though it didn’t really happen. As I’m not in Taiwan right now, it feels as though I’ll return in August and Yvonne will still be around. I suspect when I return is when the real processing will begin.

I’ve been circling this for a week, unsure of how to write about it, although I knew I wanted to, and know Yvonne had wanted me to write about the system that had so profoundly failed her. I’ve probably painted myself to be an angel in this story, but honestly, I don’t feel I was. I’m neither looking for, nor do I want, sympathy for the pain of losing a friend nor the guilt of feeling like I could have done more. It’s just the truth and ought to be said. I had laid down a boundary that I did not want phone calls after midnight or before 8am (Yvonne had a habit of calling at odd hours and talking for a very long time) - would things have been different if I’d just taken those calls? Or if I’d responded to those final messages more promptly? If I’d searched just a little bit harder for affordable therapy, group living options or anything else that could have helped Yvonne? If I’d been more insistent that I wanted her to stay with us? If I’d given her a bit more money so her financial situation didn’t seem so hopeless? (I’d given her some, not more than I could afford to lose).

Intellectually I know none of these things would have changed much - she needed more help than a few chat messages could have provided - but emotions are slow to follow what the intellect knows.

Or - and this is the key - would it have changed anything if I’d not been so blind to the obvious red flags? Someone seeming like they’re doing a bit better is not a sign that they’re not about to take their life. In fact, it could be a sign that they are. Mentioning twice, unbidden, in one conversation that one is not contemplating suicide is also a clear sign something is wrong. If I’d stopped for half a second to think about it I might have seen that for what it was.

The painful fact remains, however, that the health care system we praise so much - praise which is often, but not always, deserved - failed Yvonne, and it cost her her life. In Taiwan if you don’t have the means to pay for needed treatment that NHI either doesn’t cover or doesn’t cover adequately, and don’t have family to support you, it is a difficult road indeed getting the level of care you need. This is true in terms of physical illnesses - in Taiwan, the hospital staff doesn’t care for you the way they would in other countries (of course, in the US you might not be able to afford a hospital bill). What do you do if you’re in the hospital and have nobody to take care of you, but can’t pay a nurse to care for you either?

It is also true, if not doubly true, for mental illnesses. What do you do if you are so physically or mentally ill that you cannot navigate the maze of windows, queues and numbers at the hospital and have nobody to go with you? What do you do if you need consistent psychological or psychiatric support but cannot afford specific therapies that might be beneficial? What do you do if you can’t work, but have no family to live with? To some extent, these are questions one might face in other countries, especially the USA. The difference is that, unlike the US, Taiwan has a healthcare system that is consistently praised and looked at as a source of national pride.

Looking back, I can see how hopeless Yvonne must have felt. No family, nowhere to live permanently, no way to make money, no way to be independent, insufficient help from the system. Friends who tried to do their best but were ultimately not able to make up for these gaps in the social fabric.

The base assumption really does seem to be that either you are financially independent and can afford what you need on your own, or (more likely) you have family who can do it for you. At the very least, it seems to be assumed that you can live with relatives.

This is not the basis for a modern healthcare system or social welfare system. I’ll always remember Yvonne, but I can’t help but think the system couldn’t have cared less about her. As a result, Taiwan lost one of its smartest, kindest, most loyal citizens, and I lost a good friend. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

I seek a meadow

Turkey, 1910

At the end of the 19th century, a string of eight Armenian villages dotted the slopes of Musa Dagh - the Mountain of Moses - on the southern tip of Turkey near the ancient city of Antioch. Musa Dagh is so close to Syria that you can see it from the upper slopes, and wealthier residents used to take short trips to Aleppo just as often as they would head to Antioch. Of course, what was Syria, what was Turkey and what was Hatay (another word for Antioch, also called Antakya) was not a clear boundary. Reflecting on what life must have been like there a century ago, I can't be sure that a trip to Aleppo from Musa Dagh or Antioch was even considered an international trip. Now, it certainly is one: one you are not allowed, or not advised, to make. 

Musa Dagh is dry and pleasant, its roads shaded by orange and pomegranate trees. To one side there is a view of the Mediterranean. Its stone houses are picturesque, and life there was once quiet, as it is now. The area around Antioch and the mountain is dotted with Greek and Roman ruins, in fact, today Antioch has a fine sculpture and mosaic museum archiving this heritage. 

In one of the more distant villages, one well-to-do family made their money raising silkworms. They were Armenians, and therefore Christian, but in other ways they were not that culturally different from their Turkish or Syrian neighbors. They drank the same tea, they played the same endless games of backgammon, they wore similar clothing, they ate similar food, and they could all communicate. The Armenians were not necessarily treated well under the Ottomans; regardless, the family of silk-growers prospered. 

A few hours away in Tarsus, another well-to-do family was raising a small brood of children, including a strong-willed, handsome young girl named Verdjin. 

Verdjin was born right at the turn of the century. Around 1910, when she was 10 years old, a strong-jawed young student named Mihran, who was a family friend, asked her father Hagop for permission to marry her when she came of age. Looking back in time, this seems so odd as to be scandalous, but in Turkey in 1910 it would have been quite normal. What was strange, in fact, was that rather than grant his daughter's hand, Hagop insisted that the marriage could only happen if Verdjin herself acquiesced when she was older. 

Of course, Mihran was one of the sons of that silkworm-raising family on Musa Dagh. Having no interest in the family business, he went to Tarsus, finished school and joined the military. 

Throughout this time, the government of Turkey was doing its best to ignore the "Armenian Question" - that is, what to do about the promised reforms of their treatment of the Armenian minority that they had no intention of implementing, and how best to connect the Turkic-speaking peoples across Central Asia - a connection they felt was blocked by the existence of non-Turkic Armenia. 

Five years later, with the Ottoman Empire on its way out and the Young Turks on their way in, both Verdjin and Mihran's lives were upended. The Young Turks, led by Enver, Djemal and Talaat Pasha, instituted a policy of 'Turkification' whose main aim was to solve the 'Armenian question' by ridding Turkey of its Armenian population. In short, a genocide. It seems clear that their hatred for minorities was primarily ethnic, and they were working from a mindset influenced by Western Europe of what it means to be a modern nation rather than an empire: one nation, one people, no room for minorities. Of course, in 2017 this is clearly problematic, a recipe for genocide. At the time, it was a modern way of thinking. 

It's not clear to what extent religious hatred fueled the three pashas' thirst for Armenian blood, but it seems likely that they endeavored to promote religious animosity in order to get as many people to agree with their plans for 'ethnic cleansing' as possible. Remember that the killing continued under Kemal Ataturk - and Djemal, Talaat and Enver Pasha's death sentences for their perpetration of the genocide overturned - and it is often observed that Ataturk's religious beliefs were unclear, and he may well have been quietly atheist. On the local level, Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks had lived as neighbors for centuries - it's hard to turn someone against people of another ethnicity when you know people of that group. It's easier to turn people against their neighbors by engineering a campaign of religious fanaticism. 

When the Young Turks came to power, Armenians celebrated the ideal of the new republic with their Turkish friends. Soon after, they were told that they had to leave their ancestral homes 'for their own safety'. They were marched into the desert and, if they did not die along the way from starvation, fatigue, disease or raids that were not only ignored by their Turkish guards but were actively encouraged by them, were put in disease-ridden refugee camps in the most inhospitable parts of the desert with no food or water supply: these camps were designed to result in as many deaths as possible. 

Verdjin's parents decided it was no longer safe in Tarsus. Their first choice was Cyprus, but refugees were no longer being admitted there. They left instead for Izmir, once known as Smyrna, just as ancient as Tarsus, Antioch or Aleppo. 

Mihran, on hearing that Armenians were being systematically massacred and the children of his village being taken and sold to Turkish and Kurdish families, left his post in the military. He traveled around the countryside and, using the influence of his position in the military - and likely the fear that his uniform engendered in the families he visited - negotiated the return of every single child. While his neighbors and family (including, possibly, his father) were on Musa Dagh fighting in the 53-day resistance, he was off the mountain, doing his best to continue the fight. 

He had been hiding in a metal-lined barrel meant for olives, and survived. 

In Izmir, around the time of the great fire of 1922, Verdjin's family decided that Turkey was no longer safe for them, and decided to leave for Greece. They could have left immediately, but it was a Sunday, and Hagop refused to 'travel on the Sabbath'. His wife, Anna, could not persuade him. That night, on the eve of their departure, Turkish officers forced the hotel to turn over the name of every Armenian on the guest registry. As the women and children hid, terrified, all of the men, including Hagop, were rounded up and taken away. Typically at this time this would mean they were shot, and their bodies dumped in a mass grave. There was no way for Verdjin or her family to know if this had been the family patriarch's fate, however, he was never seen or heard from again. It is clear enough. 

The next day, the surviving members of Verdjin's family left for Athens, where they became refugees. 

Mihran was still at large. The children whose return he'd secured had been taken with the help of an Armenian family that had betrayed their neighbors and friends, and they were now out for him. At one point they came through a village where Mihran was hiding, emptying rounds of ammunition into every structure they could find, with the intent of killing him. Satisfied that he could not have survived such an onslaught, they left. 

This Armenian family called on the local military to find and arrest Mihran, most likely sending him to his death in one of the desert marches. The Turkish officer who found him walked up and, instead of shooting him or placing him under arrest, embraced him. They had gone to school together. Mihran was free to go. 

Soon after this, he decided it was time to leave Turkey. He sought to find the woman he'd asked to marry so many years ago, when both knew only prosperous and comfortable circumstances. She would have been in her early twenties then, certainly old enough to decide for herself if she wanted to tie her life to his.

* * *

Athens, 1924

Verdjin was living in Kokkinia, an area in Piraeus that, at that time, was sparsely populated and well outside of Athens. She lived in the refugee camp with her family, working in the refugee hospital for extra rations for the family. Around this time, a group of European missionaries donated the money and material to build a small church and missionary school - it was erected in 1924 and became the Armenian Evangelical Church. At the time, Kokkinia had over 100,000 Armenians - some attending the Evangelical Church, others attending the Orthodox Church just across the street. 

There were many refugee camps in the area - the Greek government took in the refugees but purposely separated them so that they would not form an 'Armenian ghetto'. 

Mihran searched for over a year before he located Verdjin. When he finally found her, instead of coming to her directly, he took a long and likely thoughtful stroll in the meadow above the refugee camp where she was living. He picked a bouquet of violets, went to the newly-built missionary school, and convinced the students there to find and bring Verdjin. It was April Fool's Day.

"Come meet our new friend!" the students said as they ran to Verdjin, who was working at the hospital.

Verdjin, quick and rational, initially refused to go with them. She was too busy; she had work to do, and her family needed the rations. They persisted. Perhaps this seemed odd enough to be worth investigating - what "new friend" is worth bothering someone this much to come meet? Perhaps she was nearly done with her work after all. Perhaps she figured this would be a quick trip and she could return soon. In any case, she relented. 

When she got to the school and climbed the stairs, the "new friend" her student friends had brought her to meet was, of course, Mihran, holding a bouquet of violets. 

I like to think he said "April Fool's!" before he asked her to marry him, but I don't think I'll ever know for sure. 

They married in Athens. Verdjin left the refugee camp and Mihran left his room at the church parsonage. They set up a small household and had three children: Ann, Armen (originally Musa Armen, for Musa Dagh and Armenia) and Hagop (James). Verdjin nursed her mother in her final years. Mihran's father returned to Musa Dagh, which by that time had become a part of the French Mandate of Syria, then the independent state of Hatay. It eventually reverted to Turkey, but he would have likely died before that happened. 

In those pre-war years, these Armenian refugees quite likely looked to their future and saw Greece. Verdjin cared for the home and Mihran worked at the Evangelical Church as the assistant to the pastor, who was blind. The pastor often said that Mihran 'served as his eyes'. Verdjin and Mihran and their three children were not Greek, but they could live here in peace. Their children could live a nearly typical Greek childhood in this slowly growing Athens suburb.

World War II changed that. Many Armenians left: the population decreased from over 100,000 to around 20,000. While Greece had accommodated these refugees, they likely didn't complain when the Armenians emptied out of the neighborhoods that had sprung up in the intervening decades. Verdjin and Mihran knew that they too must go - with Mihran's military past and reputation for having resisted valorously in the years of the genocide, it was quite unlikely that he would have escaped the notice of the approaching Nazis. 

There was a quota system for immigration to the US then - it was not necessarily easier than it is now. Mihran left first, bringing Ann and Armen. Verdjin and Hagop waited in Athens for their 'number' to come up. There is a family story that Verdjin's brother, also in Athens, 'arranged' for papers of potentially dubious legality. I don't know how true this is, but in any case, Verdjin and Hagop eventually joined Mihran and the older children in the USA. 

Ann, Armen and Hagop were refugees; Verdjin and Mihran were refugees twice over. They lost everything, twice. Nevertheless, they made a home for themselves in America. Mihran was ordained and was the founding pastor of an Armenian church in upstate New York. 

Armen, the middle child, went on to earn a Master's in microbiology, married a beautiful woman with Mayflower blood and had five children. The oldest was my mother.

* * *

New York State, 1993

I was twelve years old when Nana died. Her real name was Verdjin, but I didn’t even know that until a few years before - we’d always just called her Nana. I knew her as the tiny old woman who spoke thickly-accented English, whom I couldn’t talk to easily. But she clearly loved me, and she had a certain gravitas about her that made me just the tiniest bit afraid. I knew, before then, that I would likely regret not getting to know her better, but my child’s brain didn’t know how to process that feeling let alone express it.

I grew up eating her food, and my grandmother’s: the only non-Armenian that the church ladies said could cook better Armenian food than any of them. I ate lahmacun, hummus, tabbouleh, sarma and dolma long before I knew what they were actually called. On Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, we’d have turkey, roast or ham - and hummus and dolma. We’d visit her little house - Mihran had died in the 1960s - and sit in her kitchen redolent with Armenian spices, or her white lace curtained, doily-covered living room. I didn’t even know how typically Caucasian those white lace curtains were, nor did I know how closely the doilies resembled Turkish ones.

I didn’t really know what to say when she died: I was sad because she was my Nana, but I had never really known her. As a pre-teen, I didn’t know how to relate to this ancient ‘ethnic’ person. I didn’t know how to ask her questions, or what questions I wanted to ask. We barely spoke a common language, which I didn’t know how to overcome. Everyone cried - I wanted to, but didn’t. I was twelve: I understood death but didn’t really understand. After all, I had hardly known her.

We couldn't even relate to each other as an older and a younger woman: she was a good woman, no, a great woman. Intelligent, with the steel will of someone who grew up in the midst of one tragedy and raised a family in another. An excellent cook. Her morality, however, was Old World. Homemaker, helpmeet, Christian. "Boys and girls are like fire and cotton - they shouldn't be in the same room together." I loved her, but my budding feminist self simply did not share those values.

Towards the end, she forgot the English she did learn to speak, and we couldn’t really communicate. I knew she’d survived ‘The Genocide’ and that her father had been dragged off in front of her and was later killed. I knew her husband, Mihran, had been the pastor of the foreign-seeming church where my grandparents sometimes took me, where they sang hymns in a language I didn’t understand, written in a script I couldn’t read. Armen came to America and decided he wanted to be as American as possible - he hadn’t raised any of his children, including my mother, to speak Armenian.

I didn’t even realize until I put the pieces of his childhood together myself that he was not a native English speaker. You would never be able to tell. Grandpa is still alive, you can go ask him. Or just listen to him talk about how much he loves Donald Trump - I promise, you’d never have guessed he grew up speaking a language other than American English if I hadn’t just told you.

* * * 
Taiwan, 2006

I had been in Taiwan for two weeks when I celebrated my 26th birthday. I’d lived abroad before, but had either made a few real friends, or been friendly enough with the people around me that it didn’t matter that I lacked authentic friendships - my basic social needs could be met. This was the first time I found myself in a city full of people I could potentially be friends with, and yet I had no one to talk to. Most new foreigners to Taiwan make friends with their coworkers first. I didn’t dislike most of them, but I didn’t feel compelled to spend much time with them, either, and I didn’t know anyone else yet.

My roommate and I shared a birthday, but even if we had had friendly chemistry (we didn’t), he had been here awhile and so spent his 26th on a day trip with his girlfriend. I don’t know what the weather was like where they went, but it poured in Taipei - that gray-all-day pissing down that never lets up. My room smelled a bit of must, old apartment and cigarettes - the other roommates sometimes smoked on the balcony outside my room, and I didn’t want to be the bitch who asked them not to. It rained so hard that the old Coke can on the balcony that they’d filled with cigarette butts and ash overflowed, spilling its sooty contents across the tabletop and down the legs in dark gray rivulets. Someone had stuck a sticker to the sliding glass door that led out there from my room. It said “Super” on it. I looked at it and all the gray beyond. “Super,” I thought. Just super.

I took myself out for terrible Indian food, which I ate alone. The samosas deflated under my fork and the lamb rogan josh looked and tasted like it’d come out of a microwave packet. The decoration in the restaurant consisted mostly of old Christmas ornaments taped to the ceiling. Nevertheless, other diners ate with friends, or at least people they knew. I chewed my flabby samosas alone.

The nearest metro station was on the elevated train line, the one that ran down Fuxing Road. As I rode home, I looked out the rain-streaked windows at everyone below: people in cars, people strolling down the sidewalk under colorful umbrellas, and I thought, everyone here has somewhere to be, someone to talk to, or at least people to return to. I am completely and utterly foreign.

What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.

Now I know that’s not true - locals are just as able to feel as deeply alone as foreigners, and foreigners don't always stay so neatly foreign - but at the time this thought reduced me to an embarrassing crying jag on the brown line. 

* * * 
Musa Dagh, 2011

Nearly one hundred years after Verdjin and Mihran fled Turkey, my husband and I traveled there. I attempted to find the village where Mihran had grown up. We also stopped briefly in Tarsus, a well-established city.

I couldn’t find the village then, because I lacked the knowledge and resources to get there: we were on a tight budget that precluded hiring a driver, I didn’t know the ‘Turkified’ name of the village, now devoid of Armenians, and I had neither an international driving permit nor the confidence to drive in a country like Turkey. Of course, this small village was not serviced by any buses. We made it as far as Vakifli, the only remaining Armenian village not only on Musa Dagh but in all of Turkey, where the bus stopped. We tried to walk a bit further, but we knew it would have been too far off. 

I took in the meadows where a century before some of my ancestors and their neighbors successfully fought off Turkish troops for those 53 days, and were finally rescued when a passing French ship saw their flag - Christians in Distress - Rescue  - and sent another ship to collect the refugees. Right there, on the Mediterranean coast I was gazing down upon. The whole way down was covered in quiet meadows with blooming flowers. Vakifli was a prosperous little town with a number of well-to-do houses surrounded by tidy fruit orchards and yes, meadows. The sun shined on the line where the sky met the sea. We stopped at the teahouse in Vakifli, where the local Armenians and some ‘roots’ tourists like us played backgammon just like the Turks in other teahouses we’d visited and drank amber-brown tea in flowerbed-shaped glasses…just like the Turks in the other teahouses we visited.

I looked out over the vista, down the coastline where ‘my people’ had been Rescued because they were Christians in Distress, and I could see Syria. Aleppo was only about 50 kilometers away. An ambitious person could have driven there in an hour or two if not for the border and, of course, the war.

Someday, we will return. What seemed impossible in 2011 would now be possible (if not for, of course, the war). I’m more confident, I have more money. I know the current name of the village. We could hire a car and driver or, not necessarily wanting to clarify our mission to a driver, rent a car.

When the war is over, we will return.

Is the war ever really over? 

* * *
Taiwan, 2010
We were about to get married. Brendan and I were a few months away from flying to the US (home?) for the wedding. Our Australian friend in Taiwan had a visitor, and we decided to take a road trip to the mountains. We rented a car and drove up Hehuan Mountain, up past Puli, past Cingjing Farm, up almost to the top where the trees end because they can’t grow at that altitude. I’d been here before with a Taiwanese friend, which is why I thought to take this longer route to Lishan: so I could show my friends the view.

The road snakes through chilly meadows, the low grass allowing for expansive vistas. We stopped at the highest lookout point - I knew realistically that we couldn’t see all of Taiwan from here, but it felt like we could. Taiwan is a small country, but from here, at the top of the meadow, with clouds snaking between the mountains below, it felt endless. 

* * *

Taiwan, 2014

Those kids - maybe not kids, but kids to me, I was in my early thirties then - knew what effect they were having on the nation, but they had no idea what effect they were having on me. They peacefully occupied the legislature, a body created to represent the people which had failed to do so and had thus been taken over by those same people, and I was out there supporting them. It wasn’t not much: I was one body in a crowd of thousands (soon to be hundreds of thousands), and clearly a foreigner. When I picked up the microphone at one of the “public speech zones” set up around the legislature and said my piece, I carefully tailored it to show support for what they were doing, subtly positioning myself as a self-aware semi-outsider who was supportive but not involved. I said it in Chinese, but I don’t look Taiwanese, so I had to do this.

I didn’t say this, but I felt for the first time like I was actually participating in Taiwanese civil society. I didn’t consider myself Taiwanese then and don’t now, but it was a watershed: I was not out there observing, or reporting. I was acting: a supporting role is still a role.

Taiwanese history is not my history, and I would not seek to appropriate it. However, that moment laid a string in the syrup of my sweet life in Taiwan: I had long since built a happy home here. I began to think, for the first time, that although I don’t ‘look’ Taiwanese, and my ancestors were not Taiwanese, that I could live a more-or-less normal life there. I looked to the future, and I saw Taiwan. My job, my husband, my apartment, my cats, my friends, my life were all there. I felt as at home, despite some cultural differences, as I ever did in America. Perhaps more so. I have the wrong face but at least my religion is just fine: plenty of Taiwanese are atheists. It doesn’t matter. I had never felt comfortable as an atheist, either in my home country or my family.

And yet, as much as I felt as though I was participating through offering active support in 2014, I still stayed well away when things got rough and the water cannons came out. Why? Because I had the wrong face, and I had no other reason to be there. I stuck out too much, and I couldn’t change that.

I have never been a refugee - I grew up comfortably enough, because America more-or-less welcomed my ancestors, who were. I’ve never been poor: broke, yes. Not poor. I grew up in a house surrounded by meadows. I didn’t run from a genocide, nor did I leave the USA with a war nipping at my heels. I moved to Taiwan simply because I wanted to, and stayed not because I had to, but because I liked it. I was able to do this because of the generational wealth - not just in terms of money, because they started over with none, but in terms of having the right skin color, language and family religion - all because America allowed in these Christians in Distress, and they prospered.

* * *

Taiwan, 2016

Those kids from 2014 aren’t kids anymore. They have a political party now, and it’s just won five seats in the legislature. A seemingly progressive woman, the first in this country’s history, has just won the presidency, and her party - nominally friendly with those ‘kids’ - a legislative majority. The KMT - they of the former dictatorship and Chinese colonial legacy in Taiwan - are finally on the outs in every elected body of government for the first time.

We were excited, listening with ears almost physically turned to the radio in the taxi, as Dr. Tsai became President-Elect Tsai. We were on the way to the airport to pick up my cousin who, having finished high school early, was coming to spend an informal semester abroad in Taipei because why not? We’re a family borne of two incredible people who were refugees twice over, whom America allowed in and who prospered. Their grandchildren grew up well, well enough that they could now send their own children on excursions to other countries just for fun.

I have blue eyes - they are slightly almondine, a shape common in Turkey and the Caucasus, but not enough that you’d notice if I hadn’t told you - and light brown hair that I dye red. My coloring comes from my beautiful grandmother with the Mayflower blood, my face is a melding of her mother (who looked like my mother), and my grandmother on my dad’s side. My sister has similar coloring. My cousin has light brown curls and green eyes.

Again, you would never have guessed we were Armenian if I hadn’t told you.

In the taxi on the way to pick up my green-eyed cousin, I ruminate on this: that new political party, which surprised everyone by winning five seats? That new president? Our new president? This could represent a change. The KMT, now a sidelined bunch of sad snowflakes, was the party of implicit Han nationalism. They didn’t even dare to say We Taiwanese - it was always Chinese, Chinese, Chinese with them. Locals were allowed to join, but Taiwanese KMT elements were kept in their place within the party. On some level they didn’t think we permanent ‘foreigners’, the ones who don’t look the part of the roles we play, were worth their time. The old laws from the 1920s were never changed: anyone without Taiwanese ancestry had to renounce their original citizenship, but Taiwanese (Republic of China China China to them) could have dual nationality. You could be just as American as me, but have the right face and ancestors, and claim a Republic of China passport. You could have been born here but have the wrong face and ancestors, and be kicked out of the only country you’d ever known when you hit your twenties.

To them, Taiwan was China and China meant Han, or Han-associated. Han-assimilated. To them, it was the Republic of China. That meant one had to be Chinese to belong. I got the feeling that indigenous Austronesians were barely tolerated.

This could be different, I think. The Han chauvinists are out. Sure, Tsai’s party has had its share of Taiwanese Hoklo chauvinists, but the new government has made it clear that they do not see Taiwan as an ‘ethnic’ nation. First of all, that’s impossible - there hasn’t been a single ethnicity that has made up Taiwan in centuries. And secondly, by 2016 most rational people had realized that building nations around ethnicity was a recipe for disaster. When you do that, you might well end up not with a peaceful nation of all one kind of people, but with the death marches my ancestors barely escaped.

So Taiwan should know this: they themselves have had a ‘Chinese’ identity that they did not necessarily want forced on them. They elected a president from a party that has clearly signaled a move away from Taiwanese ethnocentrism and towards internationalization. Internationalization means welcoming foreigners, not just to visit, but to stay. It means building a nation based on shared values, not ethnicity or where your ancestors came from. It also means that people you might have once labeled as ‘foreign’ may not necessarily be anymore. It means that you can be Taiwanese, perhaps, and also have blue eyes and light brown hair that you dye red.

Certainly nobody has to accept that, but if you don’t, then it’s hypocritical to say that you want your country to be more international. 

Perhaps now, I thought, there might be a chance that the government will review the nationality laws and allow for dual nationality for foreign permanent residents. They must know that many of us cannot give up our original nationality - not out of any sense of loyalty, but because we have obligations in our home countries that we can’t sever. 

I looked like a foreigner, but I certainly didn’t feel like one. Would I ever see that reflected in my official status in Taiwan? As of now, my residency does accede permanence, but it also labels me an ‘alien’. 

* * *

New York, 2016

We were flying home for a family reunion. The election hadn’t happened yet. I hadn’t thought Donald Trump would win, but it didn’t matter. A more pressing concern was that my grandpa, whom I loved so dearly, was a staunch Trump supporter to the point where it was hard to have a conversation with him about anything else.

The fact that we had political differences wasn’t the issue. I have Communist friends and Libertarian friends, religious friends and militant atheist friends, somewhat traditional friends and hardcore punk/feminist/polyamorous/what-have-you friends. Friends who wear headscarves and friends who think headscarves are tools of oppression. Whatever.

The problem wasn’t even the casual dismissal of all of Trump’s fatal flaws: the virulent misogyny, the racism, the dehumanization of the poor and struggling. The fact that he had almost certainly sexually assaulted women. I’d met people who didn’t take any of it seriously before and, while I wouldn’t want them in my life socially, I could ignore them as hopeless cases. I could just as easily hug my grandpa and ignore it in him, too, for a few days.

What bothered me then, and bothers me still, is this: when your parents were refugees twice over, and you yourself were a refugee who made good because you were welcomed, how can you then turn around and say that these new refugees should be shut out, allowed to die in a war-torn country or drown in capsized boats? How can you say that it’s a tragedy that your family members died, but it’s not a tragedy that their dead toddlers are washing up on the beaches of Turkey?

Remember, you can see Syria from Musa Dagh.

We drink the same tea and eat the same food. The music is similar, so is the clothing.

Your family ran because a few powerful men in government stoked religious animosity in order to further their agenda of ethnic cleansing. Many Turks - Muslims - spoke out against this or refused to comply. Armenians betrayed your father. A Turk embraced him and let him go free.

Refugees today are running because a few powerful militants are stoking religious animosity in order to further their own agenda, and these people want no part of it.

Are you so special that you deserved better then than they do now?

Are you superior because your family were Christians in Distress, but they are Muslim? They are running too. Should we let them die?

Would we let them die, if they made a flag: Muslims in Distress - Rescue?

They eat the same food, drink the same tea, listen to similar music, wear similar clothing. They would probably love to play a game of backgammon with you. You don’t even really look different. I look more different from you than you do from them.

How would you feel if you heard a Syrian girl cowered with her mother and siblings in a hotel in Damascus as her father was dragged off and shot? Would you feel nothing?

I embrace my grandfather and let these feelings recede. For a few days, I turn them into distant things. I never really got to know Nana, but I’m not going to alienate myself from the grandfather I grew up with. However, I cannot wrap my head around this and I cannot truly let it go.

How can you support banning people who are so much like you from the country that gave you a chance? Do you really think you are the “good” kind of refugee? Are you somehow more deserving of the chance to be American? Is America a country that closes its doors to certain ethnicities? I had thought we were a country built on shared values.

I love you, grandpa, but I don’t think you’re more deserving than them.

I love you, but I hope your side loses. We need your side to lose. I actively work to thwart your agenda. I respect my family history, but I do not necessarily share my ancestors' values.

Can we really be said to be a nation of shared values when our differences go beyond rational disagreement?

* * *
Taipei, 2017

The Tsai administration has announced its new rules for dual nationality. 

We had done what we could to be heard in this country we called home, where we were welcome but always foreign, and where we lack political representation. I wrote in when the draft was open for public comment and had my Taiwanese friends do the same. I let friends in high places know what I and other ‘foreigners’ wanted to see. 

We excitedly awaited the publication of the new guidelines, hoping that perhaps our voices had been heard.

They had not.

Some foreigners - ‘high-level’ foreigners, whatever that means - were now eligible for dual nationality but most of us who had built lives here and done our best to contribute positively to Taiwan were told, essentially, that we were worthless and not welcome to share the same citizenship regulations that applied to native-born Taiwanese (those who looked the part) or those with the right ancestors.

In essence, we were told that some 'foreigners' were better than others, that some could be welcomed into the fold but others, while allowed to stay, must remain outsiders to a degree. Someone decided that a few of us are deserving, and the rest are not.

A few of my friends applied, but as of now, none have heard back.

Several missionaries, however, have been granted dual nationality. While I believe they deserve a path to citizenship just like anyone else and recognize that many of them are good people, I do not necessarily believe that their work merits special priority. Would they do those good deeds if they didn’t also have the chance to win new converts? Would they do them with no other agenda but to do good? Are they not supported by an institution that makes their work possible, in exchange for a hoped-for return on their investment in the form of new parishioners?

As of now, we are still ‘aliens’. 

I read the new regulations while sitting in the Japanese-style tatami alcove of my Taipei apartment. I’m drinking tea - lao ren cha, oolong to be precise. I live in the same sort of apartment, have the same friends, even drink the same tea and now speak the same language as almost every other resident in Taipei, and yet I’m an alien. 

* * *
Athens, 2017

I had been corresponding with the current pastor of the Armenian Evangelical Church in Piraeus Kokkinia for some time, and was interested to meet the person who had such a calming demeanor even through email.

We had spent the past few days in Athens being tourists - too jet lagged on our first day to embark on this kind of journey, and somewhat lost on the second after getting turned around trying to find an open post office, and then couldn’t figure out how to buy bus tickets. 

I kept wanting to say that I was not a tourist, not really. My great grandparents had lived here. My grandfather was born here. I had just as much right to Athens as anyone.

Did I, though? We stayed near the Acropolis and enjoyed the beautiful, old-fashioned urbann Mediterranean neighborhoods in the tourist districts. We used a guidebook to get around. We went to museums and ruins. I don’t speak a word of Greek. Two generations had turned a family of Athenians into complete foreigners.
The day we were thwarted by our inability to buy bus tickets, I emailed our Airbnb host asking him how it was done, and sharing some of my family history with him to explain why we needed to go to Piraeus and take a bus in the first place. Of course, we could have taken a taxi, but I insisted on this tiny bit of local life.

“Oh wow,” he responded. “My brother’s godfather was an Armenian refugee too!”

As the metro headed towards Piraeus, the scenery became rougher. Around the main tourist sites, you wouldn’t know that Greece was in the midst of an economic meltdown. Everything was comfortable and picturesque, as it usually is in such neighborhoods. Beyond Thisio, however, the ever-present graffiti further encrusted every flat space. Faded buildings in need of modern updates predominated. The streets looked older, the parks and medians poorly maintained, storefronts closed.

I had told the pastor that we’d arrive around 11am. We fumbled looking for the proper bus stop and finally found the church at 12:30; fortunately, Mediterranean time is flexible and he didn’t mind.

The old building from 1924 is still there and undergoing renovation. The old classrooms have been converted into offices, a guest room and a kitchen, but are still there. The parsonage where Mihran briefly lived still exists; the new pastor resides there, as the blind pastor Mihran worked for had done before him.

I know that Mihran waited with a bouquet of violets from the meadow in one of these classrooms, but I don’t know which one. In any case, I took a picture of each. Downstairs, the pastor gestured to a picture on the wall which included the blind minister and Mihran. Almost a hundred years later, and my great-grandfather’s face can still be seen in Greece.

We had coffee with the pastor in the courtyard and I take an instant liking to him, so much so that I decide not to mention that I’m an atheist. It doesn’t matter, anyway. He exudes calm, and I can see why someone with a spiritual bent would want to join his congregation.

We talked about those ‘kids’ in Taiwan in 2014, the ones who occupied the legislature. He mentions that in Greece, students will lock their school in protest and classes will cease until negotiations can take place - they do this over small things, like not thinking the lunches served in the cafeteria are good enough. “They have no respect for authority,” he says.

I smiled in a way that indicated that, while I agreed that it’s a bit silly to close a school down over substandard lunches, I didn’t really concede a need to respect authority so much.

“Well, a little disrespect for authority is good,” he continued, “but that’s just silly.”

Yup, I liked this guy.

He went on to describe how, when the Armenians arrived in Greece, they had nothing, The church and parsonage themselves were built entirely with donations from missionary groups. I didn’t know how to feel about this, but I accepted that one can have conflicting feelings about an issue such as missionary work, and that doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t know your own mind. 

I inquired then about the meadow where Mihran might have picked those violets. 

Some things are lost to time, however. There had been several refugee camps, and there are several hills around Piraeus. Any one of them would have served as a meadow above the nearest camp. It’s impossible to know for sure which one was theirs. I had seen a lot of places from my family’s past that day, but the meadow I sought was gone forever. 

* * * 
Armenia, 2017

Our next stop is Yerevan.

We arrive before dawn and get three hours of sleep before we’re picked up for an 11-hour day trip to Khor Virap and Noravank monasteries. We plan it this way because it’s $30 cheaper per person to go on that day rather than the next. We’re not sure why, but we roll with it and plan to sleep on the bus.

I don’t sleep much, though. I’m too captivated by the scenery of Armenia. The entire country seems to be covered in meadows; it grasps at my heart.

Armenia is a small country. However, as the bus makes its way over the grassy summits of hills that look out over still more hills, then mountains, then snow-covered massifs beyond, one gets a sense of infinite space. It’s as though Armenia goes on forever.

One of the main reasons I booked this trip was that Khor Virap monastery has the best possible view of Mount Ararat, with the best chance of seeing it even in poor weather conditions. As we leave Yerevan and head toward the monastery, Ararat comes into view. It, too, grasps at my heart. Ararat is said to be the mountain where Noah’s Ark came to rest, and is a cultural and historical touchstone to Armenians, whose country has been Christian since 301 AD. I may not be Christian, and I certainly don’t believe the story of the flood and the ark depict true events, but I am an Armenian and it was important for me to see this mountain.

Mount Ararat, however, is currently within the borders of Turkey, not Armenia.

The view from Khor Virap across the Turkish border to Ararat is almost entirely treeless, it is one meadow stretched across two countries. I suspect people on both sides of that line eat similar food, drink similar tea, and they probably all play backgammon. 

When I take a picture of myself with it in the background, I am wearing a t-shirt that says “Taiwan Soul” in Chinese.

In Yerevan, children stare at me. This is not new; children stare at me in Taiwan too. I’m more okay with it in Taiwan; as local as I may feel, I still look, to them, like a foreigner. I may want to share the national values of the Taiwanese, but I am simply not the same race.

Here, I want to tell every person who gives me a passing glance that I am, in fact, Armenian. I do tell some people. Everyone is surprised. I suspect some don’t believe me. I couldn’t look less Armenian if I tried.

“My grandfather is Armenian,” I say. “He’s even named Armen, for Armenia.”

I can sense their next question.

“But he’s not from Armenia,” I add. “We’re Armenians but we came from Turkey.”

One person kindly offers that ancient Armenians are said to have had blue eyes. I smile and say ‘maybe’, but I know it’s probably not true and even if it were, it wouldn’t matter.

This doesn’t feel very different from the other thing I keep telling people - that we live in Taiwan but were born in America, or that we’re “from the USA, but we live in Taiwan”. My grandfather earned the right to say he was American, but I have not (yet?) earned the right to say I am Taiwanese.

Of course, they wouldn’t know this if I hadn’t told them. It can’t be guessed.

I wonder if I can ever just be a person who is from a place and have it be simple. 

It’s not simple, though. If it were, I could shed all of the privilege I was born with, this generational wealth and the better treatment it often affords me. It’s not so simple at all as pretending these things don’t matter. They shouldn’t, but they do. On some level I too must agree with this - if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be so eager to play the Armenian card in Armenia, a country whose language I don’t speak, whose culture is not mine, and yet is so familiar to everything I grew up with. The food, especially. The language - I grew up around Grandpa Armen talking to Nana and other older family members in Western Armenian. Eastern Armenian is not quite the same, but it sounds more or less the same to me.

How can I say it should be easy to look beyond ethnicity and nationality when I have one of the best passports in the world, and when I, too, feel compelled to make a pilgrimage to the best possible view of Mount Ararat, because I happen to be of a people for whom Ararat is sacred? How can I say it when I live in Taiwan not because I have to, but because I chose to?

The next day we go to the Armenian genocide memorial. Mournful opera music is piped through speakers across the grounds. We sit in the enclosed circle looking at the eternal flame and I think back to Musa Dagh. Within sight of it another war rages on. This memorial is certainly important, but if all we do are mourn genocides after they happen, and then allowing the next one to happen anyway, then I have conflicting feelings about memorializing something intrinsic  to the fabric of my family - people who enjoy prosperity, no longer Christians in Distress - while letting the next atrocity happen literally next door.

What good is it, when you can see today’s genocide from the site of yesterday’s?

I look back past the election, and the callousness of Americans who once suffered towards the suffering of Syrians today, back past Taiwan and past Grandpa in 2016 in his Make America Great Again hat, all the way back to 1993 when Verdjin died before I ever really got to know her. 24 years later, I cry.

But I’m wearing sunglasses, and you wouldn’t know I was crying if I hadn’t told you. 

In the museum, I sit for a good long time looking at the small exhibit on the resistance on Musa Dagh. What they did was extraordinary, and I’m moved that it is still remembered in some small way a century later. There is a screen showing a slideshow of photos - I recognize the coastline where the refugees from Musa Dagh boarded the Jean D’Arc and were taken to safety in Port Said, Egypt. It was right there as I looked down the meadow to the sea, just north of the Syrian border. The Christians in Distress flag is not there, but the second flag, which was stitched with a red cross, is. It’s a replica, of course, but it almost doesn’t matter. 

If there is ever a memorial to the victims of the massacre at Aleppo, which is so close to Musa Dagh, will it matter if it’s erected while the next massacre is going on?

Towards the middle of the exhibitions is a room chronicling the treatment of Armenian women and children during the genocide. I notice one panel covered in text discussing the “rape of beautiful Armenian women” and “Armenian teenage virgins” (the first quote is exact, the second is a paraphrase). It feels cheap, to imply that the greatest quality of these victimized women is their beauty or virginity. It feels cheap to list Armenian intellectuals and see that almost all of them were men. I would prefer to face the horrible truth of genocide without a small side-dish of casual sexism. I generally identify recognition of the genocide as a liberal value, but liberalism has not always been kind to women or friendly towards gender equality. Who gets to decide at what point elevating public figures based on their merits turns into suppressing female voices because they were born into a system that doesn't support them? Who decided that liberals should support abolition but mock suffrage, support civil rights but mock feminism, support democracy and yet shun Taiwan, support learning the lessons of history and yet continue to treat the Armenian genocide as a "debate"? Who decided that all of this was acceptable in a framework for liberalism that espouses equality for all?

About two-thirds of the way through the museum there is an exhibit on a 1919 movie called Ravished Armenia: The Auction of Souls. I won’t go into the plot details, but it is based on a true story. There is one poster in particular showing Aurora Mardiganian, a pale-skinned, dark-haired beauty in a flowing white dress, being forcible grabbed at the waist and dragged off by a Turkish soldier who is depicted as monstrous, more inhuman than World War II propaganda against the Japanese. He has dark skin, squinted eyes, an inhuman expression on his face and he is, frankly, monstrously ugly.

I understand that this poster is from the late 1910s, but it’s presented without comment or context. By bringing to light the suffering of one group, it dehumanizes another.

I see this and remember that Mihran was betrayed by fellow Armenians, and embraced and set free by a Turkish friend. I remember that the Turks who participated in the genocide were whipped into a frenzy by the Young Turk leadership, and Donald Trump’s anti-foreigner, anti-refugee supporters are being whipped into something very similar. This poster is a historical artifact, I think, but it needs more context than it is given.

Throughout the museum are references to the missionaries who came to the aid of the Armenians: first those who survived the death marches, and later the orphans of those who didn't. I may not be a fan of the philosophy behind missionary work, but I can't deny that they were of great help to my ancestors. We have different values, but we can rationally disagree.

As I walk through, I think about an event from my youth: I referred to the genocide as "The Armenian Holocaust", because every Armenian I knew did so. The person retorted: "I'm sure it was terrible but can you not use the word 'Holocaust'? Can you just let the Jewish people have that word?"

I haven't used that term since, but years on, it caused me to wonder. Which genocides are genocides, and which get their own word? Who decides? If a special word were created for the Armenian genocide, would anyone use it? With the strong arm of the Turkish government clamping down on recognition, would people dare? Even those who claim to espouse liberal values?

At the end of the museum there is a simple quote:

“…who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
- Adolf Hitler

Of course, it is important to remember these things, to memorialize them, but it’s not enough. If the descendants of the survivors of Armenian genocide accept a massacre happening within sight of one of the bravest fights of the Armenian resistance, we haven't really remembered anything.

I think back to my time in Turkey and all of the friendly Turkish people I met, some of whom I consider real friends. They are all aware of my family history, and none has said a critical word about it. There is plenty of documentation proving the truth of the genocide, but beyond that, I have my great grandparents’ lived testimony. I like to believe that they understand that their government’s official stance that it never happened is false, and they’ve never given me any reason to think they don’t understand that. However, I am aware of how difficult it is to overcome one’s education, and I’m a bit afraid to ask.

In this way, I feel some sympathy with the Taiwanese. It is difficult to overcome one’s KMT-indoctrination-based education, and many Taiwanese who look at history with clearer eyes live alongside neighbors who still make excuses for the old dictatorship. Sometimes they know this, sometimes, perhaps, they dare not ask. 

They, too, fought a long battle for the recognition of the massacres following 228. The specific events were very different, but the essentials are similar.

Back in Yerevan, I feel oddly at home among the massive stone buildings, brandy distilleries and wide promenades. We eat food similar to the food I ate growing up, and at one Western Armenian restaurant, we follow it up with tea in tulip-shaped glasses, just like the ones everyone, Armenian and Turkish, drinks from in Turkey. Back home in Taipei we have Turkish and Chinese teacups as well as big American mugs.

I consider this: Taiwan and Armenia are different, but not that different. Both are small countries vying to be heard: one to be recognized for the country that it is, the other for its greatest national tragedy to be fully recognized by the world. Both are full of people with a fighting spirit, who never give up even when the odds are not in their favor. Both have a sense of great national pride and identity. Taiwan is full of old KMT-era military rah-rah: we can’t entirely rid ourselves of it, as we have a real military threat right across the strait. At the top of a hill, a statue of Mother Armenia wielding a sword looks across the city. If you climb up there you’ll see that she’s flanked by tanks, missiles and war materiel (I don’t know if it’s real or not). She is facing Mount Ararat, which happens to be in Turkey.

What’s more, to recognize the Armenian genocide is a liberal value. To recognize Taiwanese sovereignty, considering its democratic values, is also a liberal value. And yet both causes have been abandoned by liberals because stronger, angrier illiberal regimes have insisted on it.

Ethnocentrism dressed up with a fat dollop of manufactured religious fanaticism, served up on a hot spearhead of ethnic nationalism was the weapon used by a bloodthirsty government to annihilate millions of Armenians in 1915. Today, some people denigrate Taiwanese identity, equating it with that same sort of ethnic nationalism. It’s not, though. Taiwan is not seeking to purge itself of all foreign elements: there is a growing understanding that there are many ways to be Taiwanese. If anything, Taiwan is moving in the direction of modern liberalism: a country based not on ethnicity but on shared values. All it wants is for the world to recognize what is true. The independence Taiwan seeks is independence from being forced into provincial status under a country that does not share its values.

That’s not so different from what Armenia wants, although the recognition it seeks is different.

Many young, liberal Taiwanese have been engaging in a national conversation about what word to call Taiwan. The Republic of China is an obvious no, as it's not China. Taiwan is a Chinese word, but likely originates from an indigenous one. However, that's also the word China uses to claim it as a province. Formosa, perhaps?

Who decides which countries are deserving, and which aren't? Who deserves which countries are welcomed in, and which are left out? Can one bow to the wishes of illiberal regimes and yet still call oneself a liberal?

Considering the strong-arm power of China, if Taiwan came up with a new word for itself, would anyone dare to use it, even those who claim to espouse the right kind of liberal values? Who decides which countries get to choose their name and their fate, and which must give in to stronger, illiberal powers?

Essentially, both countries want those who claim to espouse liberal values to actually live up to them.

Some people say that we Westerners in Taiwan, with our fight for dual nationality and our support of liberalism, are pushing beliefs on the Taiwanese that they don't want or are not endemic to their culture. Someone might even note that, if this were true, it wouldn't be much different from the work missionaries engage in, which I oppose. I wouldn't say it's true though: those students didn't occupy the legislature because liberal values were pushed on them - they simply have liberal values. Taiwan did not take a step towards a more egalitarian dual nationality law because we pushed them: we have no political representation. We can't push anyone. Taiwan isn't a country where almost everyone believes in democracy and the majority believe in equality because we pushed them. Liberal values are global, not Western. We can share them without having to push.

I’m Armenian but my family is from Turkey. I was born in the USA, but Taiwan is my home. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be more simple than that.