Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Expat men don't hold other expat men accountable.


I had a dream last night that I was allowed to run for office in Taiwan.

My district was an amusement park which seemed to be swathed in eternal night. I ran on a pro-marriage-equality, pro-immigration, pro-womens-rights platform (to get the NHI to cover birth control mostly).

My opposition published a "scientific" graph titled "How obnoxious Jenna Lynn Cody is" where the x-axis was time and the y-axis was "obnoxiousness quotient". It had several lines on it including "loves gays", "hates traditional Chinese culture" and one mysteriously called "Jenna Lynn Cody is such a fucking bitch who hates men". Of course, all the lines showed an upward trajectory.

Below it was a low-quality meme with words on it that said "Jenna Lynn Cody's obnoxiousness has grown by #13.5!" (with the hashtag).

So I'm standing in this dark amusement park with all of these 老兵 (retired soldiers) looking at this glossy leaflet with this graph on it, and everyone is looking at me, and I say "if these are the people calling me names, I take it as a compliment."

And the 老兵 went "boo!" and some people on the ferris wheel went "yay!" and I woke up.

It struck me as I struggled awake that it no longer seems totally bonkers for a political faction to publish "data" like that with a straight face.

I'll let you draw your own conclusions regarding connections between my dream above and my point below.

* * * 

It's been a couple of weeks since someone was a garbage can to me online - that is, a man insulting me as a woman in ways that men specifically insult women - but I see it happening to my friends too.

And it's being done to them by friends-of-friends. That is, other expat* women in Taiwan being treated like crap by expat men in Taiwan that we might not like, and certainly don't spend time with in real life, but with whom we share many mutual friends - most of them male. I don't see it all the time, as I've blocked the worst offenders. This is itself a problem, as I can't support other women being treated like dirt if I can't see it happening.

So I get ridiculous insults thrown at me, or other women get insults thrown at them (often out of the blue, completely unrelated to whatever was posted/said, or often diving straight to a set of unfair assumptions without thinking). It goes without saying that the woman being treated this way is absolutely capable of handling herself, and doesn't need a man to "step in" and "defend" her like a victim or wilting flower. None of these women are shrinking lilies in need of protection.

And yet, when nobody comes in to voice their support and hold the men accountable, women get ganged up on, and to some people, that starts to look like proof that the harassers are right and the woman is wrong. It doesn't help that, as capable of defending herself as every one of these women is, it doesn't mean much when the men in question simply don't respect anything that woman - or often, any woman - says.

It's happened to me for sure, so I know how that dynamic works.

So far, it's only been verbal in my case, but sometimes real physical assault is involved. 

When the women have often blocked these men, and the other men stay silent, that's how it always seems to go down.

Days later (or even sometimes on the same day), I see those same men who are being total garbage cans to women engaging with my male friends online - good men, all - and being treated normally. Complimented, joked with, thanked for offers of help, being engaged in plans to meet, treated as though nothing just happened, or has been happening. They quite literally get a free pass after being asshats to these guys' female friends.

I have, at times, brought this up to more than one male friend - this is by no means an isolated phenomenon - and gotten replies like "Really....him?" "But he's actually a really nice guy." "Yeah, that's how he is, but if I step in..." "It's not for me to say..."

Nothing ever changes. There are no real consequences. The expat men who treat women - mostly expat women, they seem to be nicer to Taiwanese women - like garbage get to continue, with no loss of friends, no diminishment of their reputation, no falling in standing in the expat community.

I want to add here that this doesn't describe all of my male friends, and it doesn't describe anybody all of the time. Some of them will hold men they don't know in person accountable, but not ones they do - perhaps it's a bridge too far to jeopardize a chummy in-person relationship. Some don't fall into this category at all, and really try their best to be great allies.

I don't want to insist that the expat men of Taiwan have to treat other expat men exactly as I would like them to, or that they are immediately beholden to cutting out of their lives anyone who has pissed me or another woman off. That's not reasonable, in the same way that it's never okay to ask your friends to choose between you and someone you hate.

It's especially difficult to ask for in such a small community - everybody knows everybody, or has mutual friends. Frankly, if I meet an expat and we share no mutual friends at all, it sets off a red flag. Even if you live a mostly local life, if you're an expat, you're an expat - there is a real social cost to holding shitty people accountable when those same shitty people may be at the bar that weekend, or the event next weekend, or the party the weekend after that, or your future coworker, or whatever. It's a tough situation because in such a village-like atmosphere there's no real escape (and I'm not a fan of villagers-with-torches-and-pitchforks style justice, anyway).

This is also why it's more noticeable here. It happens where I come from too, all the time, but it's easier to avoid - if I can't deal with a toxic man in one friend group in the US, I could always take some time away and spend more time with another friend group who wouldn't know him at all. Here, everyone knows everyone, and there is no "I don't know that guy" group.

But I would like to see some accountability. Maybe a bit more "dude we're friends so I'm going to be honest - you just treated ______ like crap and that's not okay. Do better." Or not saying "you're so great / you're so cool / you're the best" while a bunch of us are sitting here thinking "no, he's not that great, he literally just went off on ___________ for no reason."

What happens, though, is that there are no real consequences for these men, who then think their behavior is acceptable (again, making it look quite unfairly as though it is the women's fault, not theirs), and everyone but the women gets to go on enjoying a smooth and happy social life. Whereas the women might think, "ugh, do I really want to go out tonight? He might be there, and nobody will have my back. I might even be pressured to be nice to him." So there's no social downside to being a crap dude who's crap to women, but plenty of social downsides for being a woman who doesn't want to deal with being treated that way.

It creates a whole host of social tripwires, a whole chessboard of thinking "____ is a friend but he doesn't really have my back and do I really want to deal with that right now" - so that the only consequences are borne by the women. 

I'm not sure what else to say, or how to meaningfully address this problem. I can't force people to act the way I want them to. All I can do is point out that there absolutely is a problem.

*I'm using "expat" loosely here. Some of us are expats, others immigrants, but I don't know what everyone's end game is: whether they'll stay in Taiwan forever or eventually move away. I am referring to the community that includes foreign professionals and some students, and their circles.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Mr. Xi's Soft Prong

This sort-of-okay thing that veered into a steaming pile of garbage from the Economist, uh, exists. So that's...there.

Please draw your attention to this paragraph particular line towards the end:

Lin Chong-pin, a Taiwanese scholar and former senior official, calls this Mr Xi’s “soft prong”. 


Now we know why Xi Jin-ping is so obsessed with taking Taiwan.

Now, I really hope Lin formulated this thought on purpose, as a big, fat, hard jab at Xi Jin-ping, perhaps hoping we would understand the encoded message in his long, straight, pointed finger.

But even if he didn't, this says a lot. All those powerful cylindrical metal planes circling Taiwan and it's huge rocky mountains, standing tall and erect right there across the strait. He has to take a stab (well, maybe not a stab, more like a flaccid wriggle) at Taiwan to prove to us - and more importantly, to himself - that he's packing heat (well, maybe not heat, more like those squishy hand warmers you can rub. They get warm but they never get stiff). All those big, powerful missiles pointed right at Taiwan, ready to launch.

Because I don't want to linger too long on, uh, Mr. Xi's Soft Prong, let's take a look at the flaming heap of crap that makes up the final two paragraphs of this utter head-scratcher of a piece.

Now I will say, it starts out okay. It could take more time to discuss the perspective of Taiwan, but as it stands it is a pretty clear laying out of China's coercion tactics against Taiwan, which are important for Westerners to know about.

But then....whhaaaaa?

All this is out of the old playbook. Mr Xi’s innovation is to single out young Taiwanese and to pile on the blandishments.

In terms of pay, yes, but if he thinks he's actually going to win them over politically...he's not.

Colleges offer Taiwanese teachers better pay than they could get in Taiwan. Chinese provinces are opening research centres aimed at young Taiwanese. In the southern city of Dongguan, Taiwanese tech entrepreneurs can get free startup-money and subsidised flats.

Yeah, that's the strategy. Want to talk about why it's a problem?

Over 400,000 Taiwanese now work in China. The young in particular are crossing the strait in droves.

I guess not. Well, okay.

You do realize they're not moving to China because they want to, yes? You do realize they are doing it because the economy at home isn't offering them fair wages for fair work, and because they feel it's their best opportunity to make money - but not because they actually want to live in China, yes? Why are you implying that there is anything other than economic rationalization for this? Nobody - literally nobody - thinks China is overall a better country to live in than Taiwan.

Lin Chong-pin, a Taiwanese scholar and former senior official, calls this Mr Xi’s “soft prong”.


In some respects it seems to be reshaping attitudes towards China.

No, it isn't. Identification with China, liking China, thinking China is anything other than a terrifying enemy who must be dealt with for economic reasons, is not actually changing. This is simply factually wrong. 

It does not help Ms Tsai that she has failed to make much progress on her promise to create more opportunities for the young.

Duh, but what does that have to do with China? That's a domestic issue. Her administration is simply not doing a good job with this. 

Taiwan’s economy remains sluggish.

So does the rest of the world's. Want to put what you're saying into perspective a lil' bit maybe?

The young think older generations get the better deal.

This is true but it is not related to China. 

But she gets the blame for tricky cross-strait relations more than Mr Xi does.

Does she? I mean, personally, I think the one thing she is doing right is her cross-strait policy. What's your source on this? 

A recent poll even shows Taiwanese feeling more warmly towards Mr Xi than to Ms Tsai.

Oh, I see, a poll that you don't link to. Hmmm. I'd like to see this poll. How is it worded? What questions are asked? Where is this coming from? Where is your source? Why aren't you comparing Tsai's approval ratings to pro-China Ma Ying-jiu's (man, talk about a soft prong...ahem) to show what it means in a Taiwanese context? 

They do not admire China’s political culture.

No shit. So why don't you say more about this? And if they don't admire China's political culture, why do they admire Xi so much?

But Mr Xi may be nurturing a reluctance among young Taiwanese to bite the hand that feeds them.

They know perfectly well that they are not being fed so much as slowly poisoned. They also know - they're not stupid after all - that slow-acting poison food is better than no food. But if you think for even one second that this is going to change how they feel about China, or Taiwan, or Xi Jin-ping in a way that will get them to accept unification...

...well, then do I have a soft prong for you! 

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Taiwan's Top 5 Listicles: #8 in Listicle #3 will BLOW your MIND

Blah blah blah Taiwan blah blah blah blah. Blah blah China blah blah the Republic of China blah bla blah island blah blah Chinese culture hot springs blah. Blah blah blah oh yeah Japan too blah blah beef noodles blah blah blah blah blah blah blah semiconductors and milk tea. Milk tea with Semiconductor balls. Blah blah blah Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall blah blah blah food "vibrant" blah blah blah. Alishan Chinese food night markets temples toilet restaurant bubble milk tea toilet restaurant.

1.) Taiwan has steaks and cover songs

Blah blah blah I noticed a lot of cover songs blah blah blah steak is popular blah blah blah did you know about milk tea blah blah blah blah blah but our listicle is better than the other listicles because we point out overtly that there is more to Taiwan than "beef noodles". Now read our listicle.

2.) Something something Ralph Jennings something something

Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah forbes will literally publish any fucking garbage blah blah blah

3.) "It has a green and lush valley"

Just that one valley though but it's really lush and also food we had to make food the focus of #3, #4, and #6 and some of these are really random things to include in a listicle blah blah blah blah Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Balls brand bubble milk tea blah blah blah yes i just made that up blah blah blah but you can visit that one monastery and that one valley maybe on the high speed rail and it kinda mentions the history which is cool but doesn't even remotely do it justice blah blah blah blah here's a picture of food blah blah blah.

Also toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant toilet restaurant

4.) This one says the weather is good?

Blah blah blah blah food weather night markets hiking (okay the hiking really is good) blah blah blah "the weather is perfect"? Seriously what are you talking about. It's better in the south when you're not trying to make sure your intestines don't boil in your body (so like 4 months out of the year) but it's also so polluted that it hardly matters, and the weather kinda blows in the north especially in winter. But blah blah blah FOOD! And also instead of talking about Taiwan's actual interesting architectural heritage let's mention the glass shoe or something blah blah blah.

5.) Blah blah blah food blah blah blah blah

Blah blah blah blah blah blah the only thing westerners need to know about taiwan is about the food and also that maybe it's china but maybe not but they definitely don't need to read in-depth reporting on current taiwanese issues that point to the way taiwan's post-industrial democratic society is threatened by china which is kind of a bellwether for the way right-wing authoritarianism and post-industrial recession is threatening the world and maybe china is even trying to interfere in taiwanese democracy in a way that is mirroring the west so we really need to pay attention because the entire world order could change and taiwan is literally the canary in the coal mine and also labor disputes which show what happens when a nation continuously ignores wage stagnation as a rising problem seriously guys if you care about the future liberal progressivism you should be watching taiwan closely but you're not in fact really just read about the food that's all that fucking matters just the food because we have to present it as a place for backpackers to go rather than a country with a culture and history and people of its own trying to determine its future in a world that cares more about pragmatism than doing what is right and has made no space for it despite it being a friendly democratic ally of the west in an increasingly turbulent world but like whatever haha china lol right blah blah blah.

6.) THIS one isn't a LISTICLE but it's just as STUPID

Did you KNOW about CHINA'S SECRET PLAN to invade TAIWAN or maybe it's THAILAND by 2020!!!!!!! According to this BOOK I, someone who claims to be a JOURNALIST, really just SKIMMED, China has a SECRET plan to INVADE. You should BELIEVE me BECAUSE THIS IS PROBABLY THE ONLY THING ABOUT TAIWAN THAT YOU HAVE READ OR HAS APPEARED IN A HEADLINE YOU'VE SEEN IN AT LEAST A YEAR SO YOU HAVE NO OTHER NEWS TO COMPARE IT TO and anyway you don't know anything about TAIWAN because the international press has decided they don't CARE unless it's about FOOD or it can be linked to CHINA.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

My latest for Ketagalan Media: an interview with artist Lin Ching Che

Moving in the Space Between Light and Rain
Lin Ching Che, 2017

(used with permission of the artist for this piece)

I know it seems like I'm writing more for other people than for Lao Ren Cha, but rest assured, that's because I'm balancing writing with grad school, and I only have time for some writing. When my papers are done, you'll see more content here again. I'm not someone who'd start a blog, run it for awhile and then use it only as a vehicle to link my work elsewhere.

With that said, I am super excited about this interview with talented watercolorist Lin Ching Che, who paints beautiful rainy night scenes of Taipei - the soft and the gritty alike. I tell a personal story (which I've touched on before), we learn what Taipei looks like from someone who grew up there and loved it enough to paint it, we talk about neglected alleys, the meaning of the rain, 7-11 and "cha bu duo".

I tried purposefully to weave together ideas concerning light and dark, inner and outer life, smoothness and imperfection, detail and abstractness, being at home and being a foreigner, belonging and loneliness, city and country and beauty and ugliness, all through the back-and-forth of a conversation about painting that focuses on the comparison and contrast of two different personal experiences: one of the local painter, and the other of the foreign viewer. But, I have no idea if any or all of those ideas came through.

In any case, don't miss it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

My first for MyTaiwanTour: traveling in Taiwan as a woman and a person

A piece of mine is featured in the MyTaiwanTour blog this week - hopefully the first of many - on traveling the world as a woman (it's not possible to unhook gender from experience especially when traveling abroad, among different cultures and people) and also as a person, pointing to the (mostly) good and (some) bad of being a foreign woman in Taiwan.

I hope you'll check it out!

I have to say, I wouldn't be here, in Taiwan, nor would I have stayed so long if I didn't feel comfortable as a person here - not just as a gendered person, but as a whole one. It's not perfect - no place is - but I do not feel nearly as constrained by my gender here as I have in other parts of the world.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Yes, we DO love Hakka

As a child, when I'd go to large family get-togethers, my older relatives would take over a part of the living room, sitting on older chairs, to talk about the old days, in the Old Country. They spoke an extremely old language, the last to survive on its branch of Indo-European.

I didn't understand Western Armenian then, and I don't now. To me, it sounded like a series of guttural scrapes and growls strung together with something that was not quite Russian but also not quite Turkish (I later learned that it was on a completely different branch from Russian, and not related at all to Turkish - it just had a lot of Turkish borrowings given our family's Anatolian history).

One by one, those messengers from the Old Country died, including the last person from the generation that survived the genocide. Only my grandfather and great aunt (whom I haven't seen since 2000) were left. And then my grandfather recently passed away as well.

Grandpa didn't just not teach his children Armenian, he actively refused to do so. We were close and I loved him dearly, but that is the truth. When he moved to America he made himself as American as he could possibly be, and that included speaking English and having children who spoke it too. He didn't even like talking about his early years in Athens. He did such a good job that you wouldn't have known English wasn't his first - or even his second - language unless he told you, which he wasn't likely to do.

I never understood what it was I'd lost by not learning Armenian until I went to Turkey (and later to Armenia), passing through the ancestral hometowns of both my great grandfather and grandmother in the deep south, around Tarsus and Hatay. I lost a connection to the Armenians still there, only some of whom spoke English. I lost all of the details of the stories I'd learned as a child - about the genocide, the resistance on Musa Dagh, all the personal bits. Not just the cultural stories, but the personal details that involved my actual relatives. My grandpa didn't like talking about it, and my great grandmother died before I cultivated an interest (and there was a language barrier, as well). The stone engravings on the Armenian church in Vakifli. The old songs, which I could understand translations of but not really understand.

I come back to this thought periodically as I have experiences in Taiwan. The friend who couldn't really converse with her grandmother, because she'd never learned Hakka. The students who all spoke Taiwanese natively, but who were not actively teaching it to their children (and, as a result, the children were not learning it). Reading Rose Rose I Love You, and not getting all the jokes because I was reading it in a language other than the one it was written in. The translator did an excellent job explaining all of the wordplay, referencing and language-based jokes, but it wasn't the same as natively just "getting it". I imagine that if I see Tshiong in theaters, which I am planning to do, I'll feel similarly.

This mirrors my entire relationship to Taiwan. I have lived here for some time, but a lot of the references and in-jokes have to be explained to me. I don't speak Taiwanese natively and never will (even if I come to speak it well, which frankly is also unlikely), so I'll never just get it on a molecular level.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when I read this, um, questionable editorial in the News Lens about "letting Hakka go". Perhaps Eryk Smith is a "member of the tribe" by marriage - sure, fine - although I did wonder why, then, he'd reference lei cha as something Hakka. Every Hakka I know points to it as an invention for tourists. In any case, I'm not sure being married to a Hakka quite gives one enough credentials to speak for all Hakka people.

Anyway, that doesn't matter much. What does matter is that every point he makes goes against everything I know as a child of the Armenian diaspora and also as a kinda-sorta off-brand linguist.

There are some arguments in favor of cutting off the funding allocated to preserving Hakka - as a friend pointed out on Facebook:

The Hakka community gets a disproportionate amount of budget because they are traditionally “Blue” and a swing vote in many areas of Taiwan, which is why there’s budget for “we love Hakka” on ICRT, but not something actually useful to the foreign community like “we love Hoklo”. 
“Let it die” is too strong. Change it to “lose the pork” and I’m on board.

I agree - it doesn't need all the pork it gets (for the wrong reasons). But that doesn't mean we shouldn't preserve it. Do you know what doesn't cost a lot of money? Early childhood immersion programs and, later on, CLIL (content and language integrated learning). The curricula for these already exist - it's the courses students already take. They'd just be taught in Hakka. And what does that produce? Native speakers of Hakka who also have other native languages such as Mandarin, Taiwanese or even English.

In any case, saying it's fine not to pass on language as cultural heritage hurts to read - down to the cells, it hurts - because I am a product of that "who cares, it's a bad investment, let it die" attitude to language learning, and it was to my detriment.

First of all, any sociolinguist or even TESOL specialist (I can call myself the latter, perhaps not the former) will tell you that culture and language are linked, though not always inextricably so. If you lose a language, you lose something intangible but real and irretrievable about its culture. As Kumaravadivelu notes of Wierzbicka in Cultural Globalization and Language Education, "Culture-specific words...are conceptual tools that reflect a society's past experience of doing and thinking about things in certain ways; and they may help to perpetuate these ways."

While Wierzbicka goes on to say that these tools may be "modified or discarded" and do not make up the sum of a cultural or social outlook, there is a clear connection.

While this ability to adapt and discard may be true of Taiwanese society as a whole, by losing these words, we lose a sense of conception and culture unique to Hakka society, just as my family has lost its ability to relate to certain Armenian cultural concepts - and just as I was never given the chance to gain it.

Simply put, you cannot teach "cultural history" and "stories" in any language you like - or rather, you can, but you inevitably lose something. By teaching Hakka stories in Taiwanese, Mandarin or English, you lose some ways of thinking about these stories unique to Hakka. You lose what makes them whole. What you have is just a story on paper, from a culture you no longer know natively. You lose the textures, the cadences, the topography of cultural heritage - the things that make old stories alive, relevant and linked to who you are. Lin Shao-mao is a character in a story in Mandarin, Taiwanese or English. He's typed up. Flat on a page. Black-on-white, maybe with some pictures. He's a part of who you are as a people in Hakka.

In English, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh - a part of my cultural heritage - is a book I can read. It means something, but it lacks psychological topography. This hymn in Armenian (this is a video I took earlier this year in a monastery outside Yerevan) is beautiful, but because I can't understand it in any way, it lacks certain textures that I might have otherwise understood. Natively.

As language preservationists will also point out, the value of preserving a language is not in how "useful" it is, or the return on investment it provides, but in retaining that connection, those ideas from the past that cannot be fully rendered in another language. You don't save a language based on how many people speak it, you save it for the unique knowledge it contains. Not everybody has a capitalist view of language learning, in which only the languages with the highest ROI are learned - some people are after something a little more thoughtful and a little less cold.

I mean, I didn't marry Brendan because he was "a good investment" (although I could argue that he was, depending on how you define "investment"). I married him because I love him. I don't try to pick up Taiwanese because it's a good investment. I do it because I love Taiwan. Sometimes you do things simply because you love them.

In any case, is it not a good investment to understand the cultural connections inherent in the language of your ancestors, that no other language can fully convey? Someday, I'd like to learn Western Armenian. It's a terrible "investment" in terms of usefulness, compared to Chinese, Arabic, Spanish or even Turkish - but it's a great investment if I want to fully understand some of the intangibles of my heritage.

And, as language teachers will point out, there is a way to ensure that Hakka continues to exist without putting older children and young adults through pointless language classes: learning it natively. Although there is a lot to be criticized about the "critical period hypothesis", as Lightbown and Spada point out in How Languages Are Learned, they and others do acknowledge that research has not yet found a limit to the number of languages one can learn natively. If that government budget were spent ensuring that very young children learned Hakka as a first language, alongside Mandarin and perhaps Taiwanese (and perhaps even English), it wouldn't be a drain on young people's time. It would just come naturally.

There is truly no need to argue about this - although leave it to the Taiwanese government to screw up language education - language teaching theory has more or less settled it. It is no longer one of the Great Questions.

Finally, as I hope Eryk Smith surely knows, if some people pick up "a working knowledge" of Hakka from their grandparents, but then do not teach it to their children, Hakka won't continue to be a minority language. Nobody is trying to make Hakka the primary language of Taiwan - that will never happen. It won't exist at all, however, if nobody teaches it to their children.

And then we'll have lost something indeed. I wonder how many great-grandchildren who never learned Hakka will make the trip back to Miaoli or Meinong or Beipu or even Yangmei, just as I did on Musa Dagh, and sigh not only at what they'd lost, but what their short-sighted ancestors never allowed them to gain. 

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Don't trick people into civil disobedience


I want to keep this short, because I have a grad school paper to write and, while I'm doing OK with that, I am in real danger of getting behind.

But, ever since the labor protest on 12/23, something's been bugging me and I feel like I have to say something, because it's just not been reported to my satisfaction.

I touched before on a particular moment in that protest in which the demonstrators marched up to a row of police blocking the Zhongshan/Zhongxiao intersection, forcing them to turn towards Taipei Main Station.

The march stopped - it did not continue towards Taipei Main as directed, and announcements were made that the police had blocked the route they'd been approved to march, changing the route without notice and declaring the intended march from DPP headquarters to the Legislative Yuan as an "illegal" protest. It was made quite clear at the time - well, as clear as it can be in such a mob - that we had been approved to march through that intersection and now the police were stopping us in order to cause problems or to choke the march - and therefore that the police were in the wrong.

I didn't buy that - why would the police want to create conflicts with protesters? I've covered the reasons why in my other post on this demonstration.

It also makes sense not to approve marching in that intersection, rather than to approve it and later refuse entry. The Executive Yuan is on that intersection, and it was heavily protected with barricades and barbed wire. It makes a lot more sense that the government knew perfectly well that demonstrators would try to occupy it if they were allowed into the square, and try to head that off before it ever became a potential outcome (though I would hope Taiwanese protesters have learned by now that, right or wrong, that won't be allowed again).

So we get to that line of police, who are standing in tight formation but not instigating anything (though I'm no fan of the riot shields), and people start to push back, shouting "police give way!" and starting scuffles and short fights.

It is important to remember that the demonstrators confronting the police almost certainly believed that the police were denying the protesters the right to enter a space they were supposed to be officially allowed to enter, not that they were trying to push past police to occupy a space they had been told they could not enter.
I don't believe that protests and marches must or should always stick to "approved" routes, or that they must "apply" to be allowed to protest. Protesting with government approval undermines the whole point of demonstrating in many cases. Civil disobedience has a role to play in a healthy democracy, and I am not opposed to breaking unjust rules, regulations or laws.

I do not believe it was wrong to try and enter that intersection in principle.


Remember that as I continue the story.

The police stand their ground, with some physical clashes taking place (nothing too serious - there were injuries later but not at this point). Eventually, they give way, and the demonstrators occupy the intersection. As expected, some try to enter the grounds of the Executive Yuan.

Later, I find out via the friend I was with that the demonstrators had never been approved to enter that intersection, and the police were trying to ensure we took the route we'd been approved to take.

In fact, as I found out much later - because I am a terrible journalist I suppose - the people perpetuating the false impression that the police were blocking our path were the labor union organizers, not the youth. The two groups don't overlap much, with the former being older and skewed somewhat politically differently (lots of pro-unification leftists, not necessarily green but also not Third Force)  and the latter being younger, pro-independence and classic Third Force. After getting us to break through police lines, the union contingent left, leaving the younger social activists encamped in the intersection and later playing a cat-and-mouse game with police as they engaged in civil disobedience (perhaps this time the more honest kind) from Taipei Main to Ximen to 228 Park and back again. After engineering a certain outcome, the labor union demonstrators went home.

To be honest, I feel tricked and abandoned.

Again, I don't think it's a problem to deviate from what has been "approved". I don't think we have to obey every command we're given. I don't believe in allowing the government to render protests toothless. I absolutely believe in civil disobedience.

But here's the thing - the organizers lied about the reason for the police line.  They led us to believe we were being denied a space we'd previously been promised. They led us to believe the government was trying to provoke us, that the police had no right to be there (even if you believe in civil disobedience, you have to admit - the police did have the right to be there. We also had the right to try and push past them).

To me, civil disobedience must be genuine. It must come from a social movement deciding it must follow certain ethical principles that clash with unjust laws, and working together to insist that legal frameworks accommodate just actions. It must happen honestly - it must come from the crowd based on real situations and perceptions that are as accurate as possible.

If we were going to push past that police line - and I do believe we had the right to do so - we ought to have done it as an act of civil disobedience, not because we believed that the police were barring us from a space we were "approved" to be in.

We might have done the right thing, but we did it for the wrong reasons. We did it because we were lied to. We did not do it based on accurate perceptions of the situation - what we believed was dishonestly manipulated to engineer a specific desired outcome on the part of the organizers. We were their pawns.

I do not like this. I do not like it one bit. I do not like being lied to. If I'm going to confront the police (which I generally won't do - I'm not a citizen after all and I can theoretically be deported), I want to do it knowing what the real situation is. I do not appreciate being lied to in order to steer me toward a particular action, and I bet a lot of people there that day felt the same way.

If that action was going to happen, it needed to occur honestly, sincerely, with demonstrators knowing what they were doing and why. We are not cannon fodder.

It discredits a social movement for the organizers to knowingly lie to participants to engineer their desired outcome. The government is opaque and often dishonest - the last thing we need is for those who organize to demand more transparency and accountability to the people to be opaque and dishonest as well. It discredits social movements as a whole if this becomes a regular tactic. We can't say we're the "good guys" if leaders can only get what we want by lying to us, if we allow them to keep doing it.

I'll be honest in a way the organizers were not - I'm deeply disappointed and disillusioned. I'll still turn up at protests and other civil actions to observe and report, but I'm not sure when I'll participate again.

All you do when you lie is lose our trust. We're not afraid of civil disobedience, but only if it's done honestly. Only if we really are the good guys, and we live up to higher ideals than the unjust systems and dishonest people we're fighting against.

Don't do it again, or you'll lose more than one unimportant white lady: you'll lose your supporters, the trust of the Taiwanese people, and any chance you might have had of getting the powers-that-be to take you seriously.

I am also worried that if the two main groups fighting the new labor laws can't get along and have divisions that run so deep that one would basically pull the rug out from under the other, and neither can seem to capture the public zeitgeist, Taiwanese labor is, well, screwed.

Don't be children. Grow up and do it right. Come on guys.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Reason and reasonability


This past weekend, I went to Hong Kong and Macau - Hong Kong simply because we like visiting, and Macau for the wedding of one of my graduate school classmates. Because we traveled internationally, we were invited to the 'wedding games' and tea ceremony (where the couples serves tea to their elder relatives and generally receives gifts - mostly in the form of gold jewelry - in return. This is common in Taiwan too, though the games are not as common these days). I was very honored to be invited, as such ceremonies are typically only reserved for close family and perhaps best friends (close enough to be bridesmaids or groomsmen). As someone who doesn't have a Taiwanese family, I of course had never attended such a ceremony. I do have close Taiwanese friends, but not having grown up here means I don't have the sort of 'besties-since-childhood' sorts of relationships that, if they last, tend to lead to one being attendants at each others' weddings.

It occurred to me as I took photos to share - while no professional, I like to think I'm a pretty okay amateur photographer - so that her friends and family as well as our classmates could see, it occurred to me that someone who doesn't know me might think I was taking and posting pictures of a traditional Cantonese wedding (the morning, especially, was done pretty traditionally) to make myself look cool or interesting. You know, look at me, I'm not a boring white lady, I live abroad and have cool international friends and I was invited to this wedding in Macau because I'm so interesting! 

Of course, I know that's all bollocks - the bride is a true friend. She's Good People. But that it even entered my mind that someone who didn't know me but came across my pictures might rush to conclusions...well...

The next day we took the ferry back to Hong Kong. It was New Year's Day, when there is typically a pro-democracy march. This year, apparently over 10,000 people attended, although that number had dwindled by the time I was able to check it out later in the afternoon.

I didn't go.

I considered it, but in the end I stayed away (although I did wear my "FUCK THE GOVERNMENT 自己的國家自己救" t-shirt around the city, just to show some form of solidarity). If it had happened while there was a large crowd I could have gone as an observer, but when clashes with police started breaking out, it would be hard to stand by merely to watch. I'm not a Hong Kong resident and I don't blend into a crowd in Asia - plus, there is a line I try not to cross: while others may disagree, I actually don't think it's a good idea for non-residents to participate in such actions. Leaving aside that allowing this would open the door for hostile countries to send in 'fake protesters' on tourist visas to obfuscate the goals of civil society (as China is very much trying to do in Taiwan), I don't care for the idea of wannabe-do-gooder trustafarians jetting around the world to take part in social movements they might only have a surface understanding of (although of course plenty of people who don't have residence in a given country may be much better informed). I feel this way even about actions I otherwise agree with. 


So, I stayed away in Hong Kong even though I am quite happy to get involved in Taiwan. Why? Because I'm a resident here. It's my home. After 11 years and a great effort undertaken to stay informed, I think I've earned the right to be active, within the confines of the law, in the goings-on of my home even if I am not a citizen.

And yet it occurred to me again as I sat eating my bhel puri at a Chungking Mansions stand called "Chaat Corner", that someone who didn't know me could well come to the conclusion that I was wearing my "FUCK THE GOVERNMENT" t-shirt, or getting involved in protests in Taiwan (which, as a resident, I am legally allowed to do), as a way of making myself seem more cool and interesting than being just another foreigner who lives abroad and isn't anything special - which is exactly what I am.

That got me thinking even more - why do I feel the need to have ironclad defenses for the things I take part in? Why is it important that the wedding I attended was for a true friend, and why does it matter that I am very nominally involved in social movements (no, like, very nominally) in Taiwan because I care about the country I live in, and not any other reason? Why do I feel the need to explain myself - and my life - at all? 

And I realized - because there seems to be only a very narrow range of "acceptable" reasons for a foreigner - and most especially a white, Western foreigner - to:

- Live in Asia (or abroad in a non-Western country)
- Learn a non-Western language (such as Mandarin)
- Study/learn about a non-Western culture or country, including its politics or even get involved
- Volunteer in a foreign country
- Attend events and functions by and for people of color, including abroad
- Adopt cultural practices of a foreign country, especially a non-Western one

It's not okay, according to this line of thinking, to move abroad just because you are curious or looking for something new. It's not okay to attend a festival just because it seems interesting, and you need to travel, volunteer or learn a language or about a culture for a reason. And that reason has to fall within a subset of "okay" reasons, or you are just another white kid trying to make themselves seem cooler or more interesting at best, or at worst, doing real harm by volunteering when locals could and arguably should do the job better, tokenizing someone else's cultural practices or getting involved politically for the wrong reasons.

You can't move abroad just to move abroad, you need a reason for wanting to go, and it has to be a good one. No "I wanted a little adventure" and certainly no "I wanted to find myself" (barf). "I spent a semester in India and wanted to explore Asia further" is okay. "I wanted to embark on a lifelong career as a teacher and had already started learning Mandarin so it made sense to move to Taiwan" is better.

You can't be interested in Taiwanese politics (as, say, I am) just because it is interesting: you have to have a reason ("This is my home so I care about what goes on here").

I get why that is. There are issues with affluent, usually white kids going abroad to party on a beach, treating every foreign setting as the backdrop of Brad Finds Himself. 

There are certainly issues with these same sorts of people moving abroad for 1-3 years to 'teach English' without actually caring about the country or the teaching profession, or doing the same to 'volunteer' (i.e. taking cute pictures of themselves with photogenic local children and making themselves feel good, but not actually helping). There are issues with privileged Westerners  inviting themselves to events that are not for them, rather than being invited. There are certainly issues with collecting token friends of color to make oneself look 'woke' or 'international'. There are absolutely issues with appropriation: taking a cultural practice that is not natively yours and adopting it simply because it looks or seems 'cool', not because of any deeper understanding or appreciation of it.

So, the good thing about the narrowing of what is an acceptable reason for being involved in a foreign culture is that it forces us privileged whiteys to reflect on why we do what we are doing, what effects it might have and what harm it might be causing that would otherwise be unseen to us. We aren't allowed to be ignorant any longer - we can't crash the party and ignore the stares. We can't stumble hungover up a hill in Thailand and take pictures of "quaint" villages, ignoring the locals muttering about how annoying we are. We can't turn entire towns and coastlines into backpacker holes and pretend that there are only positive impacts to doing so. We can't pretend we are 'different' from any other Westerner abroad simply because we want to be. We can't use other people's homes and cultures to make ourselves seem more interesting without repercussion.

We actually have to think about what we do - and that's a good thing. If you don't have a good reason for doing something, why are you doing it at all?

It also opens the door for something more meaningful. If you are conscious of the consequences your actions may have, you are more likely to form real friendships, be welcomed when you want to get involved, do some actual good when you turn up, and get invited to the party because you are genuinely cool and people genuinely like you.

I know that having to thread this needle - having to have a reason when people asked me why I came to Taiwan, why I stayed, why I'm interested in the things I am - has forced me to reflect on my own past. I don't have a perfect reason for coming to Taiwan. I didn't know then that I wanted to be a career teacher - I was just another buxiban clown with no qualifications or experience other than my native language and skin color, which aren't qualifications at all. I didn't know that I would stay - my plan was 2-3 years. I didn't know that I'd come to genuinely care about Taiwan and make real friends here - that just happened. I really was just a stupid twentysomething privileged white kid who wanted to live abroad good reason at all, other than that I wanted it (although wanting the experience and challenge of living in another culture longer-term and coming to understand it in some depth is not the worst reason, and I did want that, too). Taiwan was my backdrop, and I can't blame any locals who might have found that annoying.

Things changed, but that's who I was. Plain and unvarnished.

I can admit that now, because I was forced to reflect. I'm a better person for it, and I like to think my presence here is more worthwhile - that I am contributing more to Taiwan - for having done so.

On the other hand, taken too far, this attitude could well drive people away, when their minds might have otherwise been opened.

If you hear "god I hate it when people learn Mandarin just to seem more cool or interesting", and you'd previously been considering learning Mandarin, are you going to sign up for that class or not? Especially if you don't have a good reason yet, other than pure curiosity? But if you don't sign up, you are one more whitey who never learned Mandarin.

If you hear complaints about Westerners treating the rest of the world like their vacation playground - which I admit is absolutely a problem - but rarely anything positive about going abroad to learn about the world, are you more likely to get on that plane and go learn about the world, or stay home, afraid your travel isn't ethical enough, because you haven't got a good reason? How do you then get out of your bubble and see what the rest of the world is like?

If you had the idea to try living abroad for awhile, but were told you could never be of any use or make any contribution, that doing so would be for personal gain while harming the country you lived in, would you do it? What if you were told you could move abroad, but only for a specific set of right "reasons" - and if you didn't have one, too bad so sad, but you had to stay in your bubble (and then be criticized for not knowing more about the rest of the world)?

How would you develop an interest in anything beyond what's in the bubble of what you already know?

If you are constantly told that every use of a cultural practice not natively yours is "appropriation" (which is definitely not true, but there are people who believe it), are you ever going to come to understand another culture if you stay away from it all? Even if you move abroad, how will you ever pop your foreigner bubble if you avoid any habit that is just common and natural in the country where you live because you are afraid it's "appropriation" to use chopsticks or take your shoes off inside, or do anything you didn't grow up doing?

At some point, I do wonder how reasonable it all is. We Westerners are privileged as a class, yes, but we are also imperfect as individuals. We can be better, but we'll always be flawed.

It is reasonable to expect I had a good reason for coming to Taiwan, but unreasonable to expect me to conjure one up retroactively. Dishonest, even. I didn't have a good reason, and the best I can do is admit that now. I suppose that could cause some to think I shouldn't be here at all, but this strikes me as unreasonable as well: despite my early blunders, I do have a life here. Friends - which make up my local roots - cats, work, marriage, a home.

I suppose you could expect everyone to craft a finely-wrought reason for their interest in a foreign language, culture or country. At what point, though, does that too become dishonest? Constructing a reason that sounds right - no matter how accurate - rather than just speaking plainly?

I guess what I'm trying to say is, I appreciate the modern emphasis on considering why we do the things we do, pushing us to think beyond the personal satisfaction our actions bring, but also the consequences they might have. It forces us to consider our role in the world, and what good or harm we might be doing where these issues of race, class, privilege, culture and politics intersect. It makes us come to terms with the fact that the rest of the world is not an exotic backdrop to our personal journeys, and other cultures don't exist for us to pick and choose from to make ourselves more interesting.

And yet, good reasons sometimes come later. I have good reasons for staying in Taiwan now, but I didn't have a good reason to come here. I have good reasons to work on my Mandarin and my Taiwanese now, but I didn't have a good reason to start learning it. I can say I was not simply interested in seeming cooler or more interesting, but you're free not to believe me. I have good reasons to be involved in Taiwanese civil society now, or at least write about it, but I didn't have a good reason to start.

Because I am not unblemished, I'm not going to judge anyone too harshly for not having a good reason for learning Mandarin - it is better, I think, that they learn it for whatever reason than that they don't learn it at all (if they learn just a little bit to seem like a Cool White Guy, chances are they have other character flaws too and I'll likely stay away. But I wish them well on their language-learning journey).

I won't come down too hard on folks who don't have a good reason beyond bumbling youthful curiosity for why they ended up in Taiwan. That was me once. Maybe they'll make something better of themselves. If they never do, again, that's probably indicative of other character flaws anyway.

If I meet someone who seems to be in Asia for the sole purpose of seeming more interesting than he or she actually is, chances are I won't find them that interesting so what I think of their 'journey' is a moot point. Maybe their eyes will eventually clear - I hope so.

And if not, well, that will become apparent in time. If Brad can't quit it with dressing like a cross between Confucius and a Thai fisherman and talks about 'the East' as though there are gong sounds constantly in the background, that'll make itself clear soon enough. There may well be natural consequences - being excluded, not being made to feel welcome, wondering why one has put down few if any local roots. If these don't work, and the situation is clear, maybe then it's worth speaking up.

In short, you don't need to be perfect. You don't always need a perfect reason - your reason might come later. But you absolutely do need to reflect.