Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A Perfect Storm

Taiwan, a self-governed island which China claims as a part of its territory, has seen a sharp spike in diarrhea cases just as it is facing a toilet paper shortage.

This toilet paper shortage is the largest experienced in Taiwan since the Nationalists fled to the de facto autonomous territory in 1949.

China, which views Taiwan as a renegade province to be eventually reunited with the Mainland, has so far not commented, seemingly allowing local authorities on the island to handle the diarrhea outbreak and toilet paper shortages directly.

Taiwan's current leader, Tsai Ying-wen, has also refrained from comment. However, Premier William Lai has asked residents of the disputed region to remain calm, assuring all Chinese in Taiwan that toilet paper supplies are stable. Tsai and Lai hail from the Democratic Progressive Party, which has traditionally favored Taiwanese independence, a "red line" for Beijing that it warns Taiwan must not cross.

The Taiwanese local government - formally known as the Republic of China, and which has not renounced its claims on the Mainland since the end of the Chinese Civil War - has announced an investigation into whether major supermarket chains and paper manufacturers colluded to create a market rush, which may ratchet up tensions with the People's Republic of China. This is following the government's 2016 refusal to acknowledge the 1992 consensus in which both sides agreed there was "One China", but each with its own interpretation, a move which considerably increased tensions and was seen as a provocation of Beijing.

* * *

Dear International Media:



Lao Ren Cha

Talking about Taiwan's 'Chinese identity' begs the question


Interesting editorial piece in the Hong Kong Free Press, actually from 2017, but I've just come across it today. In it, Hong Kong resident Charlotte Chang eloquently describes her feelings of identifying on a deep level as Chinese, which she says is made difficult by China's attempts at intertwining Chinese cultural and ethnic identity with political identity:

Like them, I feel overwhelmingly defined by Chinese culture and history. But this pride is apparently not enough, compared with what the mainland expects from me as a new member of its monolithic nation state. Now that Hong Kong is a part of the People’s Republic, “patriotism” should be felt for China as nation and political unit; a love of China as heritage is not enough....

As it stands now, the narrow definition of “Chinese-ness” we are asked to internalize leaves no room for a differentiation between culture and politics. Reconciling this conflict—if it is at all possible—will continue to weigh on my conception of what it means to be Chinese and a Hong Kong citizen in the years to come.

This also has relevance to Taiwan. What strikes me about this is how, in a world where one can identify culturally or ethnically as Chinese without necessarily identifying with the PRC or desiring to be a part of China as a single political entity, it would be easier for Hong Kongers (and Taiwanese) who wish to do so. In Taiwan especially, they could say "I am Chinese" without the attendant political baggage that China now insists that must entail.

Few could argue with a more open, inclusive, downright liberal definition that one can affix to being Chinese. In Taiwan, it would allow those who don't want to let go of the cultural and literary traditions they value, which nevertheless come from China, to keep them without feeling pressure to desire Chinese citizenship. It would allow more breathing room for discussions on how and when Chinese and Taiwanese history have intersected, and allow for less defensiveness in discussions of uniquely Taiwanese history and culture. It allows Hong Kongers to talk about sovereignty without feeling as though they have to deny that they are Chinese (which is precisely why the PRC feels such an open definition cannot be allowed). It just gives people more options - it allows people to relate to being Chinese in a similar way to how I relate to being Armenian: there is a wealth of cultural heritage and history there, but I feel no pressure to desire citizenship in Armenia.

This is apparent in the way she relates to Taiwan, which most would appreciate:

When I visit, I can get around by speaking a language related to my native tongue, explore a history that I have a firm basis in understanding yet am not completely well-versed in, and eat food that tastes familiar yet differs from my everyday diet. In short, I can appreciate my affiliation with Taiwanese people and engage with them from a common cultural reference point while respecting our distance as separate political entities.

Yes! See how easy and drama-free this could all be, if not for the meddling of the People's Republic of China?

The PRC cannot permit this, because it suits their agenda to force Hong Kongers - and, in their mind, Taiwanese - to choose. It makes identifying as 'Chinese' a fraught business. If/when Taiwanese (and Hong Kongers) get fed up and say "fine, if being 'Chinese' means we must be a part of 'China', then I guess we aren't Chinese", they are called culture traitors or race traitors by the Chinese troll mob. Some might feel internal conflict, not wanting to give up a desired Chinese identity for political reasons. This also happens when Taiwanese who have never really felt Chinese to begin with say the same thing.

Nevertheless, I have an issue with the way Chang throws Chineseness on Taiwan, as though she gets to decide how Taiwan identifies:

Perhaps this explains why Taiwan is now so popular as a travel destination for Hong Kong visitors: as a Chinese society [emphasis mine], it does not pressure us to feel a political affinity for it, yet still offers a wealth of culturally intimate experiences.

She assumes, because Taiwan shares many cultural facets with China, most Taiwanese have ancestry in China (among other places), and their history has intersected at times, that Taiwanese de facto identify as Chinese, just as she does. This is implicit in her presumption that Taiwan is a "Chinese" society.

Frankly, I have no real problem with this particular piece or its author - generally, I like it (well, her historical claims about Chinese civilization are deeply questionable, but...whatever). But I hear this assumption about Taiwan parroted often, and it's time to challenge it.

In modern liberal thought, it is taken as a given that people can choose to identify how they like - and only the people involved can decide that. Nobody can force an identity on anybody else.

Well, the same is true for Taiwan. Only Taiwanese can decide, collectively, that they are Chinese. It cannot be decided by people in another country, no matter how similar they are ethnically or culturally (which is not as much as you'd think). It cannot be decided by a Hong Konger because "the food is familiar". It can only be decided by them.

Nobody else can force it on them. Not with appeals to ethnicity (which is a human construct - genetic markers are a real thing, but "ethnicity" is a combination of chosen identity, genetics and family history/culture that doesn't reside in our DNA), not with appeals to history (Taiwan has not been Chinese for the vast majority of its history), and not with appeals to culture (which is, again, a construct. Culture and borders often don't align and it has as much to do with identity as it does internal thinking). The only way in which any person can have an identity - whether that's Taiwanese, Chinese, American, Armenian, whatever - is if they choose it.

If, under a politically open construct, many Taiwanese decide they are Chinese, obviously they have that right. But if they don't - and I know many Taiwanese who don't, never have and never will, no matter how open the definition is - nobody can or should change that. How other people feel doesn't matter.

This is what irks me about the whole "you don't understand the relationship between Taiwan and China because you don't understand what it means to be Chinese!" line of thinking (which is not what Chang was doing in her generally good piece, I just hear it a lot). The rationalization for this is that 'being Chinese' is different, in terms of identity, from other sorts of identity (like, say, how I can identify as both Armenian and American, as well as someone whose home is Taiwan) - usually with the idea that it has some sort of stronger pull or that there are distinct ethnic or cultural boundaries to 'being Chinese' that cannot be violated. This of course is not true - not only are millions of PRC citizens 'not Chinese' under this definition, but a large chunk of Vietnam is Chinese - it's all a construct, created for political gain.

But that begs the question - forget the shaky rationale behind the assumption that 'being Chinese' is somehow different from being anything else. It's wrong, but that's not the point. The point is, when you apply it to Taiwan, you are begging the question. You are assuming from the outset that Taiwan is Chinese, and therefore all of these assumptions and suppositions you have about 'being Chinese' therefore must apply to Taiwan, and therefore one cannot argue that Taiwan is not Chinese, because of 'what it means to be Chinese', but you are the one who decided Taiwan was Chinese in the first place.

In this scenario, you are still deciding someone else's identity for them so that you can push your assumptions about that identity on them.

The reasoning is so circular, it literally hurts my head.

Why so many Westerners, in particular, buy this line of reasoning is beyond me, but I think it stems from a well-meaning, but in this particular case misguided, desire to seem respectful of other cultures. When of course it just means agreeing with Chinese political propaganda and not being respectful at all of Taiwanese culture and identity. When it comes from people who do identify as Chinese, it reeks of trying to force an identity on another group, just because you want them to be a certain way - without caring whether or not they agree. This may be well-meaning (I know a wonderful Chinese person who had to be convinced, after many conversations, that nobody but the Taiwanese can decide what the Taiwanese are) or it may be politically motivated - the only real difference is that the former group can often be convinced.

Or, in a sentence: if Taiwanese decide they are not Chinese - and generally, most identify as Taiwanese - then "what it means to be Chinese" is not relevant to Taiwan,  because Taiwan isn't Chinese.

Even if Taiwanese decide they are Chinese, they still get to define what that means to them. No outside entity can force their own definitions on Taiwan. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Taiwan is the canary in the coal mine, and it's getting hard to breathe

Emperor Xi Jinping of the Pooh Dynasty

Lots going on in the news this past week or two on China, its strategy abroad, the West's reaction to it, the rise of Emperor Xi, and what this could all mean for Taiwan.

I noticed, as international media outlets began reporting on Xi Jinping crowning himself Emperor Winnie of the Pooh Dynasty, that a number of them - most, in fact - curiously left out Taiwan, like the BBC, The Guardian, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the NPR News broadcast I listened to while making dinner yesterday. Only a brief mention of how he has "toughened China's stance" on Taiwan in this other Washington Post article (I can't read the New York Times coverage as I've used all my articles for the month and it's not one of the two papers I subscribe to). Even though that last one is about how Xi might use his throne - despite there being at least a fair chance, if not a likely one, that he will eventually use it to make a move on Taiwan - it doesn't factor in at all.

This is unsettling for anyone who cares about Taiwan - not just that this changes the game vis-a-vis a potential Chinese threat, but that the West doesn't seem terribly concerned about it. If you don't believe me about that threat, by the way, Donovan pointed out clearly why Taiwan is right to be terrified of Emperor Xi in The News Lens:

Most analysts (including myself) have thought the only way China would risk an invasion of Taiwan in the short to medium term would be if the China faced enough of an internal crisis that the power of the Chinese Communist Party was threatened, who would then use an invasion as a distraction and nationalist rallying cry....

This is where the terrifying part lies. Xi may consider actions purely for glory that his more institutional predecessors wouldn’t or couldn’t have.

This should make China’s neighbors very nervous. An absolute ruler of a massively powerful nation with ambitions to enter history is potentially very dangerous and unpredictable. China wants the Senkaku Islands from Japan, several border areas from India and to consolidate power over the South China Sea. But the obvious big prize to achieve glorious “reunification” of China and finally end the “century of humiliation” would be to take Taiwan.

That would be hugely risky and destructive course to take, potentially igniting a massive war involving many countries. But we can no longer assume that only a Chinese Communist Party facing an existential internal crisis is the only likely scenario whereby China would consider an attack.

Xi might just consider it for himself.

He is absolutely correct and I could not say it better myself.

I have no idea what Xi might do - there's a lot to consider. He wouldn't have made this power play if he hadn't been quite sure it could be accomplished fairly easily, meaning that there would be no need to 'distract' angry Chinese citizens by manufacturing a pretext to attack Taiwan. That said, China has underestimated resistance before (I genuinely believe they didn't see the Umbrella Movement coming, for example, and note how they only worked to send its leaders to jail once it became apparent they could actually get elected to LegCo in Hong Kong. I don't think they'd planned for that at all), and might be doing so now. I don't know. Within the CCP, there might still be a number of people who had thought, until this past Sunday, that they might be potential heirs to the Chinese presidency, and might be less than happy about this change in plan, but not necessarily saying so outright, given what Xi does to his rivals. That does mean, however, that it is not guaranteed that he is as surrounded by syncophants and True Believers as he might think he is, and there might be a crisis they truly don't see coming, for which they need to manufacture a distraction in the Taiwan Strait.

Yes, the CCP claims to value stability above all else - but what they claim and what they actually believe are not necessarily the same. They value what suits them, and nothing more (they're very Trumpian in this way, although perhaps less venal). They value "peace and stability" when it suits them, and are also quite willing to manufacture instability and crisis when that suits them instead (and keep that door open by continually rattling their saber at Taiwan). So I would not base a belief that Taiwan is basically safe on any CCP talk about "stability".

And yes, I do believe the CCP as a whole - as Donovan wrote so well - is as keen on actually taking Taiwan as they say they are. They want to keep up the claim, sure, but they know perfectly well we're more trouble than we're worth. Xi, though? I think he wants this just for him - for his historical legacy He's not doing this for the power. He could step down in 2023 and still have that. He's doing this because he wants to be a big name in the history books. Whether or not he actually believes his blah-blah-blah about the Chinese Dream, the Rejuvenation of the Great Chinese Nation, Reunification of the Motherland and Xi Jinping Thought (barf, barf, barf and barf, by the way) - that I don't know. But that's the kind of stuff that makes it into textbooks, not the more tepid reigns of people like Hu Jintao.

Sure, this takes off the pressure of him accomplishing "Reunification of the Motherland" (BARF) by the original end of his term, but it also means we have a president-for-life who is an ideological hardliner, especially on Taiwan. 

So, we have every reason to believe he plans to make a move on Taiwan in his lifetime. 

And this is terrifying. For Taiwan, and also for the world.

All of this "Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation" (which includes annexing Taiwan) talk stems from China's "century of humiliation" victimhood mentality - they talk about it as though it's an internal confidence-building and great-nation-building exercise, but it's really about vengeance for being the one-time top dog who was laid low by the (admittedly crappy and colonialist) ascendant Western powers. They don't just want to be "a confident nation at ease with itself", they want to be on top again. They want global hegemony. They want to take the US's place.

Taiwan? We'll just be the first domino to fall. We've seen this coming for awhile - because China already claims us, they'll go for us first. In this scenario, Taiwan's beautiful, imperfect but vibrant and fierce democracy will fall. Assuming the country is not completely pulverized, for awhile, a sham democracy will take its place in which we are able to choose among "candidates" pre-selected by China in "elections". Eventually that might be scrapped too. Not immediately - the attrition must be slow, similar to their strategy in Hong Kong. This not only wears down resistance but also makes it easier for Western nations to pretend they don't see it happening. After all, they grow tired of most stories in the news after awhile. They might be mad at first, but nobody will want to upset the new global economic order - that could mean instability (oh no!) - so they won't actually do anything. And after awhile they'll forget that they were mad at all.

The world will have 23.5 million fewer free people, 23.5 million fewer people who lack basic human rights...and the rest of the world will hardly notice.

The US - well, our superpower status has kind of sucked. We're not great. A lot of Westerners angry at the abuse of our position as we supported the toppling of governments we didn't like and propped up regimes friendly to us, regardless of what was best for the countries involved, at our failed attempts at "spreading democracy" one bombing at a time, and our take on the global economy that reeks of modern mercantilism would be happy to see us fall and to see a non-Western (and non-white, because they're sick of white people taking the whole pie, as they have every right to be) power take our place. Triumph of the people of color, that sort of thing. The rise of the oppressed, toppling the oppressors.

It all sounds really wonderful if you blur your eyes. But, if you think about it, China is just an Asian version of Killmonger in Black Panther - his idea to funnel resources to the oppressed to they can overthrow the oppressors sounds great on its face ("it's a good idea!", some people said), but in the end he just wanted to institute another kind of oppression, a different sort of hegemonic rule.

But, it's easy to get people on board when the new bully in town isn't white. It looks a lot like liberation. It's not.

So why isn't the rest of the world worried yet? When (almost) every piece of news from Taiwan includes a reference to China no matter how unrelated, how is it that when something China does really is a threat to Taiwan, nobody seems to even realize it?

Brian over at New Bloom says this is because Westerners lack a conceptual framework in which to consider Chinese neo-colonialism (phrasing from Michael Turton) and he has a point - Westerners don't seem to have the necessary lexicon to really talk about China's global ambitions. They sure get tongue-tied if they try!

But, I don't think that's because they "lack the vocabulary" or even a "conceptual framework". The framework and vocabulary exist - neo-colonialism. Expansionism. Neo-imperialism (or, in the case of Taiwan, just 'imperialism'). Hegemony. Global domination. Economic subjugation. Checkbook diplomacy. Economic imperialism. The spread of authoritarianism. We have all of these words and frameworks.

It's just that Westerners are afraid of using them to describe China (or really any non-Western/non-white nation) for fear of seeming - or being labeled - racist. They're afraid someone will say they don't understand how the historic injustice of white privilege means that anything non-white people do can't be considered the same, or as bad, as anything white people do. (A worldview which has its uses, and which I am often sympathetic to, but which doesn't apply here.)

That's really all it is - it's a race thing. All they need to do is take their old frameworks, dust 'em off and apply 'em to a regime that happens to be Asian. There's nothing new or uncharted about it. Just stop being afraid of criticizing China because someone might think you're racist if you criticize shitty things non-Western powers do, and call China's actions what they are using words you already have.

What I'm saying is, the thing Westerners lack isn't vocabulary or conceptualization, it's balls.

Feeding into my idea that this is actually a race thing: the Western world seems content to ignore China's increasing reach - including its attempts at controlling or even abducting foreign citizens - when its levers of control are used to oppress other Asians (not just Chinese - this affects Taiwanese too, and the majority of Taiwanese identify as Taiwanese, not Chinese). Their increasing control over Australian citizens is ignored by the rest of the world - though kudos to the Sydney Morning Herald for continuing to report on the story - because most Australians affected have Chinese ancestry (but, remember, are not Chinese citizens). The world ignores Lee Ming-che - a Taiwanese citizen - because he looks Chinese. They ignore Gui Minhai - a Swedish citizen - because he looks Chinese. They ignore Hong Kong because they are Chinese, regardless of what Hong Kongers want or feel they were promised.

Yes, reports are filed, articles occasionally appear, but most of the West just doesn't care much. I suppose it's too bad that these problems are happening, they might think, but deep down, they don't think too much about it, because the victims don't look Western, and it's easy to ignore a bunch of Asians. Just an internal matter. It sucks, but, well, that's in China. No matter how much the people being threatened, persecuted and prosecuted might align themselves ideologically more with Western thought than "Xi Jinping Thought", and no matter how much it is not just in China - it's happening in their own countries - and not just Chinese citizens. That they look Chinese seems to be enough to get the West to turn the other way.

So what does this have to do with Emperor Xi, Taiwan and the coal mine?

Well, we are the bellwether. The new Emperor has his eyes on Taiwan. Don't think Taiwan is in that much trouble? I do. I don't see a good outcome here - either there's a massive crisis in China, in which case we're invaded as a distraction as the CCP tries to hold onto power. Or there's no crisis in China, and the slow march of their invasion plans continues forward without much resistance from the rest of the world (although I am heartened to see a little pushback). Or, there's a massive world war because Trumpo was bored with porn stars and Big Macs and couldn't keep his finger off the trigger, and China takes advantage of the chaos. No matter how this shakes out, good potential outcomes for Taiwan are few, and the possibilities leading to catastrophe are massive.

And what happens in Taiwan - perhaps an invasion, perhaps the slow erosion of our democracy under Chinese pressure, perhaps we get pulverized by missiles and then pushed into a sham 'democracy' where 'candidates' selected by China run for 'election', perhaps we spiral into economic ruin - is a sign of things to come under Chinese global hegemony over the rest of the world. Not in terms of outright invasion (of countries other than Taiwan), but in terms of the ways in which China will seek to influence what happens within those countries - who gets elected and what they do in office. Putting pressure on foreign governments to bring their own citizens in line regarding what they can and can't say vis-a-vis China (and perhaps anything else the Chinese government doesn't want us discussing, as well), through diplomatic and economic influence. If that doesn't work, threatening them directly.

In other words, to dust off some old vocabulary that we absolutely have, we'll all be tributary states.

Don't think China would care to reach that far into the affairs of other countries? They're already doing it, to citizens of those countries. Australia (and to some extent New Zealand) seem almost like test cases for how they'd do this - want to know what they'd like to do in the US and Europe? Watch Australia.

You just haven't noticed, because your fellow citizens being threatened by China don't look like you. Taiwan is getting the brunt of China's wrath, but they're already branching out, and there's a point at which they'll no longer care if criticism comes from someone who looks Chinese or someone who doesn't.

By then, you might care, but it will be too late. The canary is suffocating, and the time to pay attention is now.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

A review of Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream: Tales of Taipei Characters


Every Saturday I tutor the younger daughter in a family I've known for many years. We get along well and I mostly facilitate extensive reading and writing, so not a lot of traditional grammar exercises (though in her own time she works through a huge grammar book and I'll check her work - her idea, not mine.) But, I noticed one day that she was struggling with use of various passive and past perfect forms, so I said I was going to check her knowledge of Taiwanese history using passive-heavy questions.

I wrote down a few questions along these lines, for her to render correctly before answering. Things like this:

Who __________ (live) in Taiwan when it ____________ (colonize) by the Dutch?
Who had been living in Taiwan when it was colonized by the Dutch?

She looked at them and back and me and said, "Can we change the topic to the history of China?"

"Why?" I asked. "Is that what you're learning in school?"

"Yes! So I know that! I don't know Taiwan's history so well!"

" No we can't. That's another country - "

"Mm!" she agreed.

" - and while it's useful to know about the history of other countries, especially ones with some relationship to your country, it's also important to know your own history. So we're doing Taiwan."

Despite her protests, she basically got the questions right. Even the one about how 鄭成功 managed to sneak past the Dutch patrols and fortifications.

* * *

I took the bus home - it takes longer but it's direct. I realized I'd never listened to Timeless Sentence, Chthonic's acoustic album in its entirety, and it has occurred to me after meeting Chthonic frontman and super-cute legislator Freddy Lim recently that I should, so I thought that'd be a good way to pass the time riding through the streets of Xinbei and Taipei.

Super Cute Legislator Freddy Lim and *me*

Every song on that album - culled from their black metal work and arranged acoustically - explores some aspect of Taiwanese history. Freddy, and the band as a whole, are unapologetic Taiwan independence advocates. Some of the historical issues they sing (well, scream) about are obvious ("Republic born of PAIN!") and some are less so ("Who now stands before me like a ghost within a dream? When did come the day when things became not what they seem?")

As these songs played, the bus crossed Fuhe bridge into Taipei. The sun was out; I leaned against the window and watched as the green median spokes were overtaken - some half-eclipsed, some fully - by the shadow of the bus. I was sitting at the back, so just as the darkened green pillars reached me, sunlight broke out again and drove out the dark.

As I watched this, I thought to myself that when I got home, before I started work on a paper that was coming due, I should read one more story in Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream. I'd been reading one a day as a break from academic work, and figured I could finish the whole collection fairly quickly.

I wasn't sure how I felt about it, though.

My main issue with Timeless Sentence is that Freddy is at heart a black metal singer. He is clearly going to some effort to re-modulate his 'voice' and 'style', and the layouts of the songs themselves, to fit an acoustic format. Sometimes it translates beautifully, sometimes less so.

I too felt I was having to reconfigure my mentality to read Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream. I am used to reading about Taiwanese history from a Taiwanese perspective. I had to reformulate and remodulate in order to read without judgement stories of fictional members of the Nationalist diaspora in the 1940s.

* * *

The foreword makes it clear: although the original title of this anthology of character studies was Taipei People (台北人), the people in it are not from Taipei. They live there, but every last one was a refugee from China in the Nationalist diaspora of the 1940s. Most of them didn't seem to really consider Taipei home and every last one identified with China, not Taiwan. The newer translation, then, is perhaps more accurate: Taipei Characters. 

Each of them confronts - or refuses to confront - memories of their life in China and squares them with their new lives in Taiwan. Some do better (Verdancy Chu in "A Touch of Green"), some worse (Yu Chin-lei in "Winter Night"). Some describe the pleasant, idyllic, even luxurious lives these characters led in China (Yin Hsue-yen in "The Eternal Snow Beauty"), others discuss the horrors they encountered in the Chinese Civil War (Lai Ming-sheng in New Year's Eve ). Each one is searching for their own version of peace. Although it is not directly stated, few find it.

The foreword also makes clear that these character studies are meant to do just that: study characters. Think of it as the ROC version of Dubliners (which I haven't read - I struggle a bit with Joyce). Not draw conclusions about the good or evil of the Republic of China or its effect on Taiwan. It makes these refugees human and shows them trying to rebuild some semblance of a normal life in their new home.

The arrangement of the stories is important: it starts with young (or young-seeming) beauties, one of whom seems hardly to age, who is associated with the color white (a white sun on a blue field perhaps?). As the tales continue, the characters grow older, grayer. They get weaker. They grasp at what they've lost, making the same noodles except "not as good", coloring their hair or losing everything trying to bring back loved ones (the proprietress and Mr. Lu in "Glory's by Blossom Bridge"). They start dying, some sooner than others. The first three and last three stories drive it home: starting with imagery of fresh bright snow and then spring green, followed by tales of great battles fought by people who are now older and weaker, and ending with autumnal scenes of faded glory propped up by wealth, the onset of a cold, cruel winter and finally, a funeral, they echo both the rise and fall of the Republic of China and the creeping realization that the Nationalists' current, dilapidated state is permanent and will only further decay. This also echoes Dubliners, or so I am told.

I have a deep well of empathy for such situations: my own family was driven out of Turkey and then Greece - refugees twice over. For most of my life, these experiences were recounted by ancestors who held them living memory. Everyone has the right to leave dangerous, even life-threatening conditions and seek a safe existence elsewhere, to prosper and, if they wish, come to identify with their new home, as my grandfather came to identify as American. Similarly, although these characters are not real, their pain very much is.

And yet, I note that almost every time these characters interact with someone Taiwanese, they are snobbish and dismissive. Everything about Taiwan is inferior - the silks are coarser, the people more provincial, the weather worse, the food never quite as good. They treat Taiwan like a pigsty that they, high and low-class both, are forced to live in. They don't seem to realize that the people who are already here are people too, no less worthy of respect, and this island (this country) is their home, and it is beautiful if you'll just look. They don't see it, and they don't seem to be aware of exactly how their beloved Nationalist government treats the locals (as well as some of their own, although this is not mentioned in the book).

For every shadow cast on their lives, some of these "Taipei characters" cast shadows on the lives of others, and they don't even realize it. They keep to their own communities, denigrating Taiwan and yet acting as if they own the place - I can't help but wonder, if you hate this beautiful island so much, why do you insist it's a part of your country? - and as someone who loves Taiwan, it is hard to read.

This snotty condescension, this dismissiveness of Taiwan - I have trouble with this. My empathy shrivels a little, although not entirely. If the Nationalist diaspora wonders why it is not always fully welcomed in Taiwan, perhaps this attitude - which I have no doubt was very much real - is a part of why.

There are exceptions: the narrator in "Love's Lone Flower", who spends much of her time with two Taiwanese characters, Peach Blossom (with whom it is implied she has a relationship) and Third-son Lin, and does not appear to judge them in this way. In fact, the most empathetic of the Taipei characters are the lower-class ones: the taxi dancers (although Taipan Chin in "The Last Night of Taipan Chin" is dismissive of Taiwanese taxi dancer Phoenix, in the end she helps her as best she can), the winehouse girls. They seem to make local connections that the former high-and-mighty do not. I can't expect they would have necessarily known about the white terror their white sun government was inflicting on Taiwan. They're just doing the best they can, and they too have scars. My empathy grows.

The army veterans, the generals, though, perhaps the wives of those generals - they must have known. Some of them, if they were real people, would have been a part of it. My empathy shrivels. Let them break down and die. They consider themselves Chinese, so why should we let them have governance of Taiwan? Why should the Taiwanese have to live under a foreign government they never consented to? Don't we call that "colonialism"?

That said, every last one came to Taiwan's shores and built a life here, some more successfully than others. Although my circumstances were different - I'm no refugee - I did this as well. How can I - someone who would like to be the newest of the New Taiwanese - make any sort of judgements about who is and is not Taiwanese? This beautiful country has made it possible for me to call it home, and Taiwan is a settler state - who am I to say which settlers get to call themselves local? As far as I'm concerned, if you live here and identify with Taiwan, you are Taiwanese. These Taipei characters did not consider themselves Taiwanese, but many if not most of their descendants would. Maybe their grandparents weren't really "Taipei People", but they are.

That said, how many of the real-life people these characters are inspired by turned away when they knew what was happening? How many reported a neighbor or disavowed a friend? How many to this day remain pro-authoritarian, stalling Taiwan's reckoning with its history?

But then, how many might themselves have been victims of that same regime's purges of "Communists" in their own ranks? How many would have grandchildren who grew up supporting movements like the Wild Strawberries and the Sunflowers?

The key difference between my ancestors and the "Taipei characters" is that the latter dream about their lives in China lost, and are often disdainful of the island they now call home. My ancestors missed the home they lost, but never used that as an excuse to denigrate their new country.

* * *
I say all this, but I haven't even gotten into the historical and literary allusions strewn liberally throughout these stories. I have avoided writing about this, because I don't understand every reference. I write this review as a layperson.

In order to give this book the best review I could, I read as much about the book as I could find (unfortunately, the best source is incomplete - and the complete book is obscenely expensive). There is a lot to say about the title story, Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream, in which the narrator, after literally wandering in a garden, watches her old acquaintances enjoy a party in a mansion decorated with luxuries old and new, some having aged and faded and some seeming young and growing more vivacious, but still clinging, like a dream, to their lives in China. The narrator, a widowed general's wife whose stage name as an opera singer had been Bluefield Jade, is as faded as her dark jade-green qipao. The host's little sister, who helps trigger a drunken memory to her own younger sister, is more vigorous than ever. There are young lovers torn asunder by beautiful younger sisters, a snow-cave like dining room trimmed with vermilion table decorations (the ice-box where the KMT's dreams lie frozen in time, splashed with blood?) and allusions to three separate operas: The Nymph of the River Luo, The Drunken Concubine and Peony Pavilion (especially Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream from that story).

I don't know if I can even begin to break all of this down, and am not sure I should in what is meant to be a book review, so here are three quick takes:

The Nymph of the River Luo alludes to a young man's tryst not just with a goddess, but, by extension, the wife of the Emperor of China. There is also a strong implication that Madame Qian, the narrator and general's wife, either had an affair with one of her husband's subordinates, or wanted to (personally, I think they did), until her younger sister stole him away. Something similar also happens at the party taking place in the story's present.

The Drunken Concubine is about how favored concubine Yang Guifei prepared a feast for the emperor, only to find he'd visited another concubine instead. In jealousy she drinks herself into a stupor. Madame Qian, jealous, is also drunk - but feels it is her younger sister in the past (and her party friends in the present) who are responsible.

Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream involves a young woman falling asleep in a beautiful garden and dreaming of a sexual romantic encounter with a young imperial examination candidate. Waking up suddenly, she is so overcome with sadness that it was a dream that she dies (but is later resurrected...well, there's a lot going on here regarding old traditions and new thinking and the sadness of realizing the evanescence of life that I won't get into). Madame Qian literally wanders in a garden before being put in a dreamlike drunken state that invokes her own dream lover, and then "waking" to the reality of life wasted and happiness lost. The dream in the original opera takes place in spring - and Madame Qian's affair took place when she was young - but the party where she remembers it is in autumn, when she is much older. Her awakening echoes the awakening of the old Republic of China guard to their new, and rapidly declining, situation.

All of this is quite fascinating, and I read this particular story several times.

But what really struck me was what Andrew Stuckley, in the link above, said about a story earlier in the collection, The Dirge of Liang Fu. 

The two couplets in the study of General Pu seem innocuous enough, but call to mind an ancient story in which a leader needed to dispose of three great warriors who posed a threat to him. To do that, he offered two peaches, to be taken by the two best of them (there is an allusion there to the peaches of immortality). Of course, to take a peace was to show impertinence, but to not take a peach was also a great shame. All three killed themselves and the scheme worked.

In The Dirge of Liang Fu, the "peaches" are - according to Stuckley - communism (in China) and Westernization (from America). Each promises immortality, but each ends up killing you. To not take a peach is to fade into irrelevance, as General Pu has done.

"Hm," I thought as I read this. "I hadn't known that and I hadn't paid that much attention to the story the first time around. I definitely need to deepen my knowledge of Chinese history and literature."

I live in Taiwan, not China. I spend my free time learning about Taiwan - Taiwanese history, Taiwanese literature. China is a different country. And yet, Taipei Characters is a work of Taiwanese literature.

I considered the Taiwanese students who regularly protest the "Sinicization" of history classes in Taiwan, prioritizing Chinese history - and implying that Taiwanese and Chinese history are the same - and demanding that more of Taiwan's own local history be included...


In that moment, I realized how difficult everything really is.

How many of these Taipei characters - if they were real and you could ask them - would think Taiwanese history is Chinese history and would insist that the dichotomy my student and I perceive is false? How many would listen to Chthonic's Takao or Broken Jade, songs about the Takasago Volunteers (one small aspect of Taiwan's Japanese history which is not at all Chinese), and insist that it was the same history as that of a Republic that fought Japan as a mortal enemy? A Republic that still insists that it fought with the Allies to defeat Japan while governing an island that, right or wrong, fought on the other side? Who among them would insist that everything Chthonic sings about is both Chinese history and not as important as Chinese history, all in one ignorant breath?

* * *

Then, I thought back to one of the lyrics crooned in English on Timeless Sentence:

Let me stand up like a Taiwanese, only justice will bring you peace.

The Taipei characters were not at peace in part because there was no justice, in the end, for the wrongs done to them. But they seem blind to the injustices, like shadows, that their own government inflicted on the Taiwanese, as well.

I then recalled a minor sub-plot in Green Island, where the protagonist's father, after ten years' of brutal incarceration at the hands of the KMT for something that wasn't a crime in even the pettiest sense, can't help but suspect that his older daughter's husband - an ROC veteran from China - was reporting on him to the government. He wasn't - the spy in his home was his own son, and Dr. Tsai's son-in-law from China has suffered his own injustices and was just trying to do the best he could.

I know this story in my history too: the person who reported on my great grandfather to the Turkish government was another Armenian. The leader of the group sent to apprehend him saw who he was ordered to take into custody, recognized my great grandfather as his old schoolmate and they embraced as friends. He was never arrested - the captain was Turkish. Things are not always so cut-and-dried, the good or evil of a group is not so easily transferred to individuals.

Of course, Pai Hsien-yung understood all of this - and he was not uncritical of the "dreaming backwards" of his Taipei characters, their ignorance of Taiwan and their slow decay under a veneer of wealth. I mean, the collection ends with a winter night passed by two threadbare academics, and then a funeral. He took his own stabs at the white sun on a blue field. He knew that they not only were dreaming, but that it was time to wake up. I can't believe he wasn't also aware of the way their isolated, dream-like state affected the island they had fled to.

I didn't feel entirely comfortable reading Wandering in a Garden, Waking from a Dream, but I will say this: it is excellent, a masterpiece, and I am happy I read it.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Love and Cheap Sushi - my Valentine's Day meditation on dating for MyTaiwanTour

My second piece, just in time for Valentine's Day (not a holiday we actually celebrate, by the way, even when we were young and dating) for MyTaiwanTour.

It's the story of my date at Sushi Express - a restaurant I picked because I was new in Taiwan and didn't know better - with a friend who could have been something more, but wasn't. Eric Lin was not his real name, of course, but a dozen years on it hardly matters.

Plus, some thoughts on observing the dating scene from afar in Taiwan, as a boring old married lady!

Island of Women

"I want much more than this provincial life!" 

I'm a little punchy after doing so much work for grad school and finishing my first teacher-training program (as the trainer, not trainee), so please forgive my flights of fancy, mostly dreamed up in the shower.

With that out of the way, I invite you to recall Beauty and the Beast, the animated classic that hasn't aged particularly well in terms of feminist themes. One thing that does strike me, though, is how Belle's worming away from Gaston without ever overtly telling him to just get bent - even though her disgust is palpable - flattering him even, when she shouldn't have to, as she removes him tidily from her home - is about as perfect a cinematic metaphor for the way Taiwan deals with China (at least when not under KMT rule) as any I can find. Faced with a bully and a cohort of villagers who aid rather than stop him from tormenting her, Belle (literally "beautiful woman") deals with him the only way she can, even though she deserves much, much more than some provincial life.

Consider this: when we watch that movie, we all like to think of ourselves as sympathetic viewers. At the very least, we want to think we'd be Belle's father or the kindly village bookseller. Nobody thinks they are just another villager helping a predator corner a woman who isn't interested.

Not to be too oblique about where I'm going with this, but if you replace Belle with Taiwan, Gaston with China and the villagers who abet his predatory behavior with literally the rest of the world - most of whom probably aren't even aware of the role they are playing - well...

Consider this as well: when we hear about real-life cases of men treating women badly, or of women simply being ignored or their concerns dismissed - their words not even really heard let alone considered - we like to think we're "the good guys" who are "better than that", who support women, listen to them and take them seriously. Sometimes we are. Often, though, we're just a bunch of casually sexist villagers who let perpetrators get away with cruelty.

Here's my point: we (by "we" I mean "other countries, including the West, and liberal thinkers around the world") want to think we're doing right by women, and we want to think we're doing right by Taiwan. In fact, we're failing both, and for similar reasons - the way the West dismisses women and the way it dismisses Taiwan have a lot in common. No, really. Hear me out.

Women have been historically treated badly in liberal circles (and in conservative ones too, but that's a different topic), from abolitionists who valued Black men's lives and rights over those of any (including Black) women's to the Civil Rights movement to the LGBT rights movement. (Even today, women's rights leaders' historical legacies are called out, and rightly so, for their white supremacy, but Black and abolitionist leaders' legacies are not called out for their sexism).  For a movement that exhorts women to join because their views are best aligned with feminist ideology, they just haven't been too great to the female gender.

Considering the issues facing women often requires a level of abstract thought that people don't seem to want to engage in. Not only are women not a small, homogenous group, it's also that the issues facing us express themselves differently depending on background and context, and connect in unexpected ways. Here's an example: to really understand what women face, you have to consider things like the relationship between the wage and achievement gap at work and sexual harassment in the workplace - two related issues that nobody seems to have put together until recently. Thinking in this way, connecting these kaleidoscopic issues, is daunting and unappealing. It requires standing up for what is right, even if the "right" values are abstract with abstract benefits, whereas there are clear real-world incentives to stay in the good graces of the old boys' clubs.

Maybe, for a lot of people, it's just easier to be dismissive - to not listen, or pretend the problems we face don't exist.

Professional connections matter - money is money - and men's stories are told louder than women's. And it's easy not to hear voices that are not given space to speak out by dominant narratives.

Liberalism has been just as unkind to Taiwan. From valuing peace over justice (especially abroad) to creating false equivalencies between divergent value systems to not even realizing that there are gaps in Western education on Taiwan to believing narratives spun by non-experts in the media, we've created a belief system that excuses and apologizes for Chinese Communist brutality and dismisses - either by explaining away or not listening to - narratives from Taiwan. After all, they're all Chinese, right? We've insisted on diversity and respect in our own countries while flattening the other half of the world into the image the Chinese government wants to promote, and we don't even realize we're doing it.

In short, we treat Taiwan the way we treat women. That is, like garbage.

Thinking about Taiwan requires a similar level of abstract thought - it necessitates understanding a complex history to the ins and outs of identity among people who, from 10,000 miles away, "all look the same" to the average Westerner (though most would never admit it). It requires not only understanding KMT and CCP history, but also understanding indigenous, local, Southeast Asian and Japanese history as well as the identity issues behind home rule and de jure independence movements. It requires looking beyond economic incentives and the dominant narratives peddled by China about culture, identity, history and what is rightfully theirs. It means acknowledging that, although there is some relativity between cultures and some things that cannot be compared and ought not to be judged from a Western cultural lens, that there is also a line between right and wrong, and winning doesn't always make one right. It requires deciding to stand up for what is right even when there are clear incentives to selling Taiwan out. Abstract notions such as self-determination, self-identification, freedom and democracy may not be as straightforward as the clear world of business and trade, but their absence will manifest in very real ways if Taiwan loses this fight.

But money is money, and China is very loud - it's easier for a lot of people to explain away Taiwan. To dismiss it, if one is listening at all. After all, it's easy not to hear voices that are not given space to speak out by dominant narratives. 

Of course, if Taiwan is the feminine that we dismiss, ignore, ask to supplicate because it's easier than angering a large, powerful country, then of course China is masculine. And it is - it controls the narrative, it has the voice (and it just will not shut up), the muscle and the money. Not to get too Daoist because I'm not into religion, but if Taiwan is yin, China is very, very yang.

This idea of China as masculine (and dominant) and Taiwan as feminine (and ignored or unimportant) isn't a new concept. In Taiwan's Imagined Geography, Emma Teng devotes a whole chapter to conceptualizing Chinese thought (in the time period she covers, although it's just as true today) as "masculine" - Confucian, patriarchal, and often consciously so - and perceptions of Taiwan as "feminine". That is, an "Island of Women" where many indigenous tribes had matriarchal, matrilineal, uxorilocal practices and often had female chiefs. This was also a common conceptual device to link Chinese culture to being morally upright, powerful, and civilized, and Taiwan to being barbaric and - although Teng doesn't say this directly - weak.

Despite a brief interlude in the worst years of the 20th century, China has more or less upheld this domineering patriarchy, this masculine hermeneutic (can I use that word that way?) as its driving national narrative, affecting business and politics.

Images from Moga (魔魔嘎嘎) used with permission of the creator -

Go check them out, they do great work!

Taiwan, on the other hand, seems to have leaned into feminine self-representation. I don't have any decisive links for you right now, but consider how China talks about itself: 5000 years, Confucian values, strong country desiring global hegemony. Now consider how Taiwan talks about itself: the beautiful island. In one of my favorite comics, China is male, the ROC is androgynous, and Formosa is a voluptuous woman. I will also point out something that struck me recently as I thought about the subtler themes in Shawna Yang Ryan's Green Island. While the protagonist's father (representing Taiwanese political ideology, including notions of freedom and sovereignty) was absent for a portion of the novel and never really recovered from his incarceration, her mother (representing the land of Taiwan, including home and family) was always there. It's not offhandedly that, as a young woman, that same mother quotes Du Fu, saying "國破山河在" - the country is broken, but the mountains and rivers remain.

It is not a great leap to see that, despite China's talk of two sides of one family "reuniting" (huge barf on that link, by the way), in fact, it wants to be the domineering patriarch, forcing Taiwan into the role of feminine supplicant. It wants to be the controlling husband to Taiwan's obedient wife.

It doesn't take much to further leap to the realization that, if China is masculine and Taiwan is feminine, the West is treating them exactly as we treat the genders. We listen to China. We give them space. We try not to upset them, and respect their feelings even when they are disingenuously upset or being blatantly unfair. We try to explain away their worst behavior. We treat them the way we treat men.

And Taiwan? We treat her as we do women: we ask her to take up less space (by literally giving her less diplomatic space). We ask her to keep China calm, to bend and contort herself - whatever it takes to keep that man happy. His happiness is key - her discomfort is not important. Whether or not it's fair doesn't matter, and the more abstract problems beneath this remain unexamined. When Taiwan tries to speak up, we get annoyed, because what she says might anger Big Man China. It's much easier if she pipes down - after all, why does she have to be such a bitch anyway? So shrill. Doesn't she see this would all be easier if she just stopped making trouble?

China just likes you, Taiwan. He just thinks you're cute. It's a compliment, jeez, can't you take a compliment? You should smile more, Taiwan. He doesn't mean to be sexist, that's just how China is. I know, I know, but just be nice. You catch more flies with honey, Taiwan. God, Taiwan, why do you have to be so difficult? So many countries have it worse than you. Why not just give him a chance?

(American) Conservatives are just as bad about this as liberals, by the way. They are often, though not always, more pro-Taiwan than their liberal counterparts, but it has more to do with Masculine America challenging Masculine China for dominance in Asia. It's two chest-thumping men fighting over a beautiful island woman as a projection of their influence and power. Or, considered another way, their support of Taiwan is almost always translated as support of the Republic of China - just another masculine, militaristic power structure. Buddies protecting buddies. Bros before hoes. (In this metaphor, the US and the KMT are bros, local Taiwanese independence movements are get the point).

It's not about Taiwan - the feminine Formosa - at all.

We quite literally dismiss and ignore Taiwan the same way we ask women to keep quiet and push them aside.

In other words...

And for once it might be grand
To have someone understand

I want so much more than they've got planned...

Monday, February 12, 2018

Lurid Pink Pomegranates

My haul from the 2018 Taipei International Book Exhibition

Just so you know, this story has very little to do with Taiwan, though it comes around in the end. 

I started taking a greater interest in my parents' bookshelves in high school. They were voracious readers and book collectors, and had some fine and rare editions, but also quite a collection of paperbacks from the 70s that browned by half a shade every year. You could have measured my age by their wear and coloring.

Bored with homework - I never really did it, it just didn't seem necessary - I idly picked up a dusty copy of Madame Bovary one afternoon and slid right into a world of century-old female dissolution.

Two things were true then. The first was that I was a broad-shouldered, wide-hipped teenage girl: not fat (then), but certainly not lissome. You could tell I was either going to grow up to be strong and intimidating, or soft and...not. (I like to think I ended up being soft and intimidating, personally). I wasn't pretty, but I was outspoken, nerdy and weird. Sort of like now, but less refined in how I channeled that energy.

The second was that I obviously knew what sex was. I'd read quite a few dime-a-dozen romance novels just for fun. The ones from the library one town over, of a slightly higher caliber (better sex) than the ones that cost $1.99 at the supermarket. But, especially as you'll be shocked to hear that I didn't exactly have a parade of boyfriends in high school, I knew nothing of sexual politics - who and what society calls degenerate and why, gender-based power and subjugation, all of it - or sex and the human condition.

What I mean is, big girls from small towns tend not to know a lot about the world.

As you can imagine, I drank the sweet, sexy French corruption of Madame Bovary as I emerged from the worst trials of the gauntlet of puberty the way a small-town athlete slugs Coke after a match.

Soon after I began reading, at school we were tasked with an open book report: find a book we'd like to read - any book - and write about our impressions of it. I was already reading Madame Bovary, so I decided I may as well write about it. My English teacher didn't object, but he did call my parents. A small high school in a small, almost entirely Catholic town? She wants to read a book that doesn't exactly scream Family Values? Best to check.

I was in the room when Mom took the call. "Yes, we know. She's already reading it. Yes, of course she can. She can! She got it from us!... Hah! Thanks for checking, but what kind of people do you think we are? Do you think we're..hmph...parochial?"

And that's how, as my classmates stole their dads' racy magazines (this was in the nascent years of the Internet, before we all looked for porn online), I ended up writing an ear-reddening book report about 19th century French smut.

Except it wasn't really smut.

More obtuse readers might mistake Madame Bovary for a morality play, in which Flaubert sits in judgment of the spiraling depravity of a convent-educated beauty who could not accept a simple, clean country life. If that were true, it would have been read and tossed by a bored big-hipped girl from a small town without a second thought. But no - Flaubert was well aware of the limitations women faced in his day, and how that could lead to a woman venting frustrations she couldn't even communicate to herself let alone to those around her by making a series of escalating bad choices. It was quite possibly my first encounter with a man who understood this, and was sympathetic. Of course, it took years to really sink in.

It struck me how it was never made clear whether Emma Bovary was highly intelligent or just an average person who fancied herself high-minded: as it was with all women, her intelligence was just that irrelevant to her life, her marriage and her social environment. It also struck me that the issue was never that she couldn't accept her lot, but that she was never able to seek a life that suited her.

As I grew up and moved away, I had more opportunities than Emma Bovary and took them - and yes, privilege played a role in that. I am an educated middle class white girl after all. In any case, I refused to apologize for my more libertine tendencies - why should I? After all, cheese is available - and when I encountered a person or force trying to limit me, remembered Ani DiFranco's old nugget o' wisdom, which Emma herself might have expressed if she'd been better equipped to do so: you may be able to keep me from ever being happy, but you're not going to stop me from having fun. (Hey, it was the late '90s).

And that is how a work of 19th century French smut which wasn't really smut likely influenced my decision to eventually move to Taiwan. The alternate-universe girl who didn't see a future version of herself in Madame Bovary if she didn't insist on something better is probably not very happy.

And that is how I found myself buying an expensive hardcover edition at the Taipei International Book Exhibition, which ended this past weekend. I took one look at those lurid pink pomegranates on the binding and thought, "hey, I have lurid pink pomegranates on my binding, too!"

What I mean is, that book is a part of my formative years. And I ought to own nice editions of the books that have influenced me.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Re-learning Taiwan

IMG_0283When you think of tourism in Taiwan - domestic and, to some degree perhaps, international - you probably think of at least a few of these:

- Night markets
- Old streets
- Local crafts (e.g. woodcarving or porcelain)
- Regional foods (e.g. 肉圓 in Zhanghua and mochi in Hualien)
- "Taiwanese" culinary cultural icons (think the toilet restaurant and bubble tea)
- Shopping and eating in Taipei, including the massive ATT4Fun and eslite
- Hiking, cycling etc.
- "Cultural creative parks" like Songshan Tobacco Factory and Huashan
- The National Palace Museum
- Tourist destinations like Jiufen, Alishan, Sun Moon Lake, Tainan, Kenting and Taroko Gorge
- (Maybe) Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall
- Indigenous festivals and dances
- Temple festivals

Some of these are great - Tainan is unimpeachably fantastic, though perhaps growing a bit gentrified or at least on the cusp of it happening - and the outdoor sports are bar-none amazing.

For the rest, though, slowly and steadily most of the pleasure I might have once been able to derive from them has been chipped away over the years as I seek to learn more about Taiwan.

Night markets are still kinda great, but a lot of the "famous" foods are made famous by savvy promotion rather than actual deliciousness, and with the piling on of food scandals over the years, I can never be quite sure that the snacks I'm getting are safe to ingest.

I appreciate the attempt to preserve the architecture of Taiwan's old streets - and some still do a reasonably good job of this (Hukou, Xiluo and Xinpu are still quite nice, and Dihua Street is still on the right side of fun, although I worry the scales will tip). Yet, a number of them have been turned into shopping drags selling touted "local delicacies" and shop after shop of "traditional items" (think old-fashioned kids' toys and wooden massage implements). They're basically all the same, nothing local or special about them.

Those local crafts? Well...I can't say I'll be buying any Taiwanese wood products or returning to Sanyi anytime soon. And Yingge sells some lovely ceramics, but historically was more known for making bricks, not fine vases.

Regional foods? Michael Turton has already covered that minefield:

All over Taiwan, if you say a city name, like Changhua or Hsinchu, people associate a food with it automatically (ba wan and mi fen). Even foreigners know many of these associations. This attitude is common in Taiwan, but it is rare in the rest of the world....

Why? It’s political, of course. In most countries tourism consists of local history and nature. I grew up in Michigan, where we visited the Upper Peninsula and state parks for nature, and local battlefields and forts for history. No one ever suggested that the state’s prodigious cherry production should be its key association. But in Taiwan, the food association functions to keep locals from associating places with their history, and thus, developing associations with local history that in turn would support and build local identities… Hence, in Taiwan, local domestic tourism is not historical tourism, but food tourism.

I'll add to that some ethical issues: I love bluefin tuna, but...well...hmm. Okay maybe not.
All I gotta say about the toilet restaurant is UGH not the toilet restaurant again, and I do like bubble tea but the aforementioned food safety scandals make me a bit wary of it. Also, it's way too easy to weirdly exoticize it as some Mystical Eastern Thing that Asian People do that Civilized Countries Have Just Discovered.

Hehuan Mountain is gorgeous - and not on the list of "famous tourist sites" in Taiwan
(sorry for the low-res photo, I took it years ago and had to gank a low-quality copy from a previous post)

Let's machine-gun through the rest of that list quickly.

Shopping in Taipei? Eslite is a huge international company, not a plucky local chain (and frankly their selection of English-language books tends towards the pedestrian, and they have a weirdly tiny selection of English-language books about Taiwan). Those Xinyi malls? I've been complaining for years that good local street-side restaurants that give Taipei its atmosphere are being gobbled up into one massive East District food court, and I do not like it one bit. For example, Opa Greek Taverna was great. Then it moved to ATT4Fun, and it's kind of terrible. We never go anymore. The Diner was a lovely place in a lane of Dunhua Road with some outdoor seating (there is still one on Rui'an Street but little-to-no outdoor seats). Now it's a big restaurant in a mall. Blech.

Those "cultural and creative parks" are pretty corporatized and rarely house the most innovative artists in Taiwan. Songshan, for example, has a Liuligongfang (or at least it used to - I haven't been in awhile and it may have closed) and is bordered by yet another eslite.


(I mean it's fine to visit if you are interested in Chinese history but don't go there thinking you are going to learn about Taiwan. I generally don't recommend it to visitors who are interested in Taiwan, only those who are primarily interested in China.)

And I don't even think I need to tell you what the problem is with Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

Temple festivals? Watch out, it's not always what you think.

And are you really sure you want to go to an indigenous festival where you might not be welcome, to see performances by tribes who have been unfairly historically stereotyped as good at three things: singing, dancing and drinking?

And almost all of the famous tourist destinations listed above have been disfigured by tourist infrastructure, with Sun Moon ****ing Lake being among the most degraded. From one side you can't even see the lake from most parts of the town unless you stay in one of the expensive - and often not very good - hotels ringing it (the good ones are very expensive). Taroko is still beautiful, but marred by controversy and a very ugly cement factory with its management that has very ugly morals. Jiufen has lovely views but is so blighted with tourists that it can be difficult to enjoy these days. 


* * *

So where did that leave me, once I came to these realizations? That everything I liked about Taiwan was a sham? That Taiwan has nothing of interest for tourists? That everything good about Taiwan was invented to keep the country from discovering its real roots?


I was depressed for a time, once it really hit home that so little of what is commonly touted about Taiwan actually embodies Taiwan's strengths, and much of it has been co-opted by forces I'd rather not encourage (like the encroaching uniformity of the old streets and the ghastly tourist infrastructure in scenic spots. I figure themed restaurants aren't hurting anyone). It can be hard to take, learning that things you thought you liked had all of these layers of complexity and undercurrents of problems that make them difficult to keep loving.

I had to tear it all down to build something better - because this country has so much more to offer than sun cakes and Sun Moon Lake. I had to quite literally re-learn Taiwan so I could talk about it for what really makes it great, not just the tourist hype that is so often riddled with problems.

I won't tell people not to go to Taroko or even Alishan (I will generally advise against Sun Moon Lake but if a tourist chooses to go, they might not have an awful time), but I will recommend they go not just to Tainan - god I love that city - but to direct their attention to the national parks, the East Rift Valley, relatively quiet areas of natural beauty like Hehuanshan, Lishan, the Taoyuan grassland/Wangkengtou/Caoling Old Trail part of Yilan, and of course Taiwan's stunning outlying islands. I haven't been to Green Island yet but Matsu, Kinmen, Lanyu Island, Penghu - I love them all. I'll send them to the eastern coast of Pingdong and down to Cape Eluanbi, but have them avoid Kenting itself (there are better beaches anyhow). I'll send them to Lukang, which still has something of a small-town feel, or to explore the smaller towns of Hsinchu county by car. I'll only bring them to Jiufen on a weekday, and if we go I'll insist we hike up to the Japanese shrine above Jinguashi ("yeah you thought Taiwan was Chinese but this ain't Chinese at all"), or approach the town from the Xiaotzukeng Old Trail.

There is so much to see and do in Taiwan - take it from me, someone who's done a lot here, and yet has never actually been to Alishan - that you can have a fantastic time even if you don't go to Sun Moon Lake or buy mochi in Hualien. (Feel free to buy taro cakes in Dajia, just make sure you go to the smaller shops and get them fresh from the oven, stay away from the prepackaged ones which are...fine.)

And it's enjoy the food - just enjoy it for its own sake, eat good stuff where you find it, without buying too much into the "local food as local identity" hype. Some foods really are local - you aren't going to get better milkfish congee than in Kaohsiung, and you can't beat eel noodles or shrimp roll rice in Tainan. You just can't.

I'm still not sure how to promote this Taiwan - the Taiwan I re-learned - to the world. International tourists are more into things like the National Palace Museum than, say, an architectural history of Taipei or learning about Taiwan's vibrant civic engagement, not to mention what Taiwanese history and current political issues have to teach (and warn) the rest of the world. It took years of ripping away beliefs instilled by tourism promotion to see what makes Taiwan worthwhile, a dedication visitors generally don't have (though the number of visitors who come for awhile and end up staying is surprising. We all know that person who'd planned to come for a month and backpack and now lives here full-time, or the one who came to "teach English" [heh] for a year or two and move on who is still here a dozen years later...ahem.)

But now that I know what I've re-learned, I can certainly try.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Taiwan made a hawk of me


I want to be a peacenik.

I used to be one, in fact. There's a hippie-dippy inside me who is all about flowers not bombs, non-violent resistance, refusing to keep the cycle of control, war and poverty going. The military industrial complex has no place in my heart.

There's a part of me that is tugged by the very persuasive argument that getting involved in the affairs of other countries the way we do - in Libya, in Syria, in Iraq - does not work and cannot work. We keep trying to get involved, we say it's for the greater good (well, that's the message sold to us), and we keep mucking it up.

I'm a big fan of liberal thought in general, and modern American liberalism is all about avoiding military intervention - peace at all costs. It's all about assuming there is always a diplomatic solution.

And yet, I just can't do it anymore. I live in Taiwan, a nation whose existence is under the very real threat of a growing, aggressive and unfriendly expansionist China, whose values as a nation do not at all match those of Taiwan. I won't go so far as to say "Taiwan can't defend itself", because I don't know Taiwan's true military capability. But, given that we might be able to ward off an initial attack, still it seems unlikely we could win that war alone. We'd need help. We'd need big friends in high places, who understand the value of keeping a successful liberal democracy and ally intact, at that ally's own request. Because if China wins, it is Game Over for Taiwan. We can't let it happen.

This isn't Syria or Afghanistan - we're not trying to bring down a government. It's not Iraq II, where we not only brought down the government, but did so uninvited. This isn't the same as screwing over Latin America time and time again by supporting juntas and regimes friendly to our interests rather than their own people's. It's a friendly, developed, democratic nation asking for assistance should its spoiled neighbor turn its temper tantrums into real action.

To be clear, I don't mean there ought to be military intervention now, and I hope that just the threat of it will keep China's expansionist garbage in check. I don't want a war - nobody does. But the only way for that to be effective is for it to be very clear: if a war is what China wants, the promise of US military intervention is sincere.

So, I have to be pro-military to some degree. I have to be pro-US intervention abroad. I have to be pro-US arms sales (although we can debate about which weapons we need, we do need weapons). I have to accept that war is a possibility - and it is, because the only possible outcomes here are formal independence or war, given that Taiwan is not going to choose to unify peacefully (and it's not - why would it?). I have to be okay with that so we can get on with the business of figuring out how to defend ourselves.

And yes, it has to be the US - nobody else can even come close to being a real check on Chinese expansionism.

Peace at all costs assumes no cost is too high, but the cost of losing Taiwan is not acceptable. Forcing 23 million people to give up the freedom they fought for because the angry dictatorship next door decided it wanted their land is not acceptable. Encouraging Taiwan to move towards unification (or to peacefully accept annexation) because "the alternative is war" is not acceptable. It might result in peace - China would mightily like it for that reason - but it will not result in justice. And peace without justice is cruel.

We have peace now, but it is an unjust peace. It is quite literally asking the victim - the bullied person - to accept being victimized and bullied for the sake of "keeping the peace". It's goes beyond "can't you two just work together", with its stupidly racialized - or ethnicized or whatever - idea that because people in both countries are "Chinese", that this should be easy, we should desire it and joining the two nations is a desired outcome...because why again? I'm not really clear on the underlying assumptions here unless it's the Western liberals who are  really shilling ethnic stereoty----oh.

It goes straight to asking a successful, developed, liberal democracy to give all of that up and just accept being oppressed under a brutal authoritarian regime because, oh yeah, doing that would be peaceful and peace is the most important thing, more important than preserving the freedom millions of people already have.

Or, it goes straight to something more cowardly: voicing weak support for Taiwan's cause and affirmation that their values are shared by Western nations, while not actually doing anything to shore up an ally's defenses. It's the ~*~thoughts and prayers~*~ of foreign policy. "Oh, it would be terrible if China invaded, so sorry we can't help but good luck!" (Yeah, you thought "thoughts and prayers" were only things insincere conservatives offered. Nope!)

I can't help but draw a mental connection with asking women and people of color in Western countries to accept an atmosphere of harassment, bullying and discriminatory treatment because to confront the bullies and victimizers disrupts "the peace". Keep quiet and suck it up because "keeping the peace" is more important than doing the right thing. "I'm so sorry Cousin Jack called you the n-word, but if I confront him it would ruin Thanksgiving!"

In fact, I really feel like a lot of the talking points defending this worldview come down to this:

"C'mon Taiwan, can't you just peacefully play China's long game, even though you know what they're up to? We have to keep the peace....

...Justice? What's that?

Oh, you want justice. Oh, aherm...yeah...justice is good...ahem..uh...oh my iPhone 8 is ringing. Excuse me."

And if you push back: "No, I don't support authoritarianism abroad, it's just that we can't always get involved, and it sucks that China's so terrible, so sorry."

I just don't have much respect for a worldview that boils down to "dictatorship is bad, mmmkay? And dictatorships shouldn't take over unwilling smaller nations just because they want to. Unless, like, a really big and strong dictatorship that we do a lot of trade with. It's still bad, but, well...we need to keep the trade peace."

This worldview either assumes that freedom, democracy and human rights are only things one need to have for oneself (but are not necessary for others), or that only nations with big militaries - or those not under threat - get to be liberal democracies. Everyone else can suck it.

Or, even worse, it assumes that the liberal democracies of Western nations deserve to be defended, but Asians..."well, they all look the same so whatev Asia is far away and they have to handle their own affairs."

Because come on, you know that if, say, Australia's democracy was threatened, we'd be far more likely to step in. There would certainly be more public support from it, among both liberals and conservatives.

(Yeah, maybe you also thought racism was confined to conservative circles. It's not.)

How on Earth can I say I am against US military intervention abroad when I live in a country that wants the help, deserves the help, is friendly to the West and upholds as essential civic values - freedom, democracy, human rights* - everything Western countries say they believe in and want to promote and defend?

I have to support selling arms to Taiwan. I don't want to support selling arms to anyone, but how can I not? We don't want a war, but if war is brought to us we have to be able to defend ourselves.

I have to support the idea of US military intervention abroad, because while I'd like Taiwan to be able to defend itself without help, I'm not at all sure this is realistic (I hear varying reports on this).

I can't be a localist, because doing so will quite literally choke Taiwan to death. I want to be anti-war, but I just can't if I am going to be pro-Taiwan.

This is especially difficult as, of course, most Taiwanese don't want a war either. This makes sense - war wound devastate Taiwan far more than the US regardless of any intervention it launches on our behalf. It's entirely sensible to try to maintain peace at a bearable-enough cost for as long as possible in the hope that something will shift and movement will be possible.

But I can't rule war out - I can't insist there has to be another way - when I know perfectly well that there might not be.

I could cling, unflinching, to my liberal hippie-dippy core and say "if it comes to that, then we go full Gandhi. We non-violently resist. We refuse to cooperate, but also refuse to fight."

I love that idea, and it worked in another context, but not even the British Empire is as bad as China. Forget non-violent resistance, China will quite literally just kill us - millions of us, should it come to that - before the international outcry would even begin to make a difference, if it ever did. By the time we realized we needed to do more than protest...

...look, what I'm saying is they'd just kill us all, millions if they have to, and not even think twice about doing so. Non-violent resistance works when there is a line your opponent would not cross, and I can say honestly the Chinese government has no such line.

Remember, Taiwan may prefer peace, but so does China.

Everyone wants peace. It's just that some people prefer real peace, and others are just fine with a cruel peace, which is no peace at all.

And if that's how it is, I can't be a dove.

Against my instincts, I have to be a hawk.

Frankly I wish I could convince more liberals to join me. I mean not quite to the point of telling them to stop worrying and love that bomb already, but if they believe in the fundamental concepts of freedom and democracy, then it makes sense to support Taiwan. If it makes sense to support Taiwan, then it makes sense to support defending Taiwan. And if it makes sense to support defending Taiwan, then it makes sense to re-consider the advantages of being a bit of a hawk.

*I have to say I grow less sure of this one as I read more stories of the treatment of foreign workers (and Taiwanese workers to a lesser degree), though.