Monday, March 19, 2018

Carry On, My Wayward Sun

Took me awhile to realize this: the choice of a light sea green for many pieces of pro-Taiwan merchandise wasn't made for merely aesthetic reasons. It was chosen because the color is associated with the old window and door frames as well as Datong electric fans that were once common in Taiwan and can still be seen occasionally today. The color has a deeper association with Taiwan than many people realize. 

The other day, I walked to the nearby general store to replace my dying external battery. I didn't know external batteries could just stop working like that - turns out, much like American democracy, they can. Many of the choices were already decorated, but I noticed the only ones with Taiwan-themed covers were slathered in the Republic of China flag. This of course means they all prominently featured the KMT 'white sun on a blue field'. Many also had "I love Taiwan!" or "Taiwan" printed on them.

There was no option to buy a Taiwan-themed battery that had any other design on it. It was the ROC flag or nothing. I bought a plain battery.

As I thought more about this, it didn't bug me that as a consumer, I couldn't get a pro-Taiwan design that I liked, or made sense to me, or was even pro-Taiwan to begin with (there is nothing pro-Taiwan about the KMT's history, and nothing pro-Taiwan about allowing one party's symbol to dominate the national flag of a country whose official name doesn't even contain the word 'Taiwan'.) It bugged me that the ROC flag, in many instances, is still the default symbol of Taiwanese identity.

When we complain that Taiwan can't even show its national flag at certain events, we are not complaining about the "Taiwanese" flag. That doesn't officially exist, although concepts abound. We are complaining about not being able to wave the Republic of China flag, which I have already written about. When a pop star is abused by Chinese trolls for waving her country's flag, they're not mad about a Taiwanese flag, they're mad about a Chinese flag that they don't like.

The problem here is that when waving the ROC flag is the default show of support, it pushes the idea of waving any other, more pro-Taiwan flag (really any one of the designs will do) into the realm of what some would call "extremism". When it's "sensitive", causes a kerfuffle or is an open act of protest to wave that sun - although still within the bounds of moderate discourse - you suddenly become a crazy extremist nutbag for saying "hey that flag actually sucks", and are left to choose from an array of not-quite-national-symbol designs, which further cement your status as a nutbag. In this worldview, nutbags reject officially approved symbols of "protest" - the ROC flag - and design their own (more extreme) symbols instead.

When the international media writes about people like Chou Tzuyu getting in trouble for waving the ROC flag, imagine what they'd write if she'd been abused for waving a flag that was actually Taiwanese.

This annoys me to the point that I can't even make a good meme about it without feeling all sorts of angst over my choices. Do I go with what's clear to international audiences, or do I get rid of that damn glaring sun the way I want to?


Further to that, when international discourse mainly recognizes two narratives - the CCP one and the KMT one, as evidenced by the dueling flags - to say both of them are riddled with problems becomes an 'extreme' position. Perhaps not in Taiwan so much anymore, but certainly on an international scale. At Exeter last year, I felt that arguing a pro-Taiwan position as 'not a part of China' was taking something of a controversial stance, without even getting into the ROC compared to Taiwan. Going further and arguing that not only was Taiwan not a part of China, it was not in fact Chinese (that is, that not even the ROC was legitimate) felt like arguing an extreme view.

Like, oh, you support the ROC? Hold up there bucko, that's a sensitive issue! Okay, but just remember, it's a sensitive and complex situation...

...wait, what? You support the Republic of Taiwan? You don't even think Taiwan is fundamentally Chinese? You don't even want to wave the ROC flag - that's not enough for you? That doesn't fit in with the framework I've adopted, which was written for me by the CCP, the KMT and media reporting on the issue! Therefore it must be extreme! 

This is especially troubling, as being pro-ROC at least in the US is (usually) a conservative stance. Being sympathetic to China is generally a liberal one. Moving beyond the ROC to support Taiwan, then, must be an extreme conservative view - even though in Taiwan it is very much a view espoused by most (though not all) of the left. Not even the extreme left. These days, just the normal, albeit young, left.

Nevermind of course that these days being pro-ROC is at least being nominally pro-democracy if you don't really understand the history of the ROC, and being sympathetic to China is being pro-dictatorship, when in the West the right-wingers are the ones who have a more authoritarian bent. The left assuages its guilt for being sympathetic to a brutal dictatorship by reassuring itself that "well they do things differently in other countries and we have to respect that, so we can't hold it against them or criticize them for not giving their people the basic human rights we demand for ourselves. Democracy is great for us but they don't need or want it because they're...Asian or something."

This bothers me because arguing a pro-Taiwan stance is not an extreme position. It's actually quite moderate. It's reasonable.

It's the position that reflects a desire to recognize what is already true.

It is a stance that recognizes the full breadth of Taiwanese history, simply from having read it. It is the stance that respects the will of 23.5 million people who are already self-governing in a liberal democratic system. It is the stance that understands the nature of the ROC's coming to Taiwan, their past crimes here, and how the label of being "Chinese" has been externally imposed rather than organically grown. It is the stance that understands how little support the last, wheezing scions of the old ROC order have as they face the short march to their inevitable sunset. It is the stance that is pro-democracy and understands that the ROC is a formerly authoritarian government which is only now democratic because the people of Taiwan insisted on it. It is the stance of someone who actually believes in liberal democratic values and is willing to apply that to global situations. It is the stance of understanding that doing so is not cultural imperialism when the people you are applying it to agree with you.

In a post-Sunflower world, it is the stance that reflects reality.

I don't even think it's terribly extreme to say that Dead Dictator Memorial Hall should go. Certainly the grounds are pretty and we can preserve them (without the dead dictator), but it's not insane to want to burn the whole thing to the ground. After all, it rhapsodizes the murderous rule of a horrible foreign dictator, turning him into a personality cult icon. Why shouldn't it go? How does this not make sense?

"Masquerading as a man with a reason
My charade is the event of the season
And if I claim to be a wise man,
it surely means that I don't know"

In fact, I'd say being sympathetic to China is the extreme position, being pro-ROC is only slightly less extreme, and being pro-Taiwan is the normal choice. I can't even begin to assign 'right' or 'left' labels to this, though, because the original framework has been so skewed that it doesn't make sense in this dimension. It doesn't fit in with our laws of nature.

And yet the rest of the world only knows Taiwan's story through the media they consume. The vast majority have never been here and never will. The media reports the CCP and KMT narratives, and when they bother to include pro-Taiwan narratives, marginalize them so much that they're easily dismissed as the ramblings of a group of crazy ethno-nationalists who won't face the reality that Taiwan is fundamentally Chinese, or that it "shouldn't matter". Why "shouldn't it matter"? Because the left especially has grown so anti-nationalist/separatist that any attempt to assert sovereignty, even sovereignty a group already has, is seen as "extreme". The media isn't reflecting reality, it is helping to create reality. What scares me is I'm not even sure they realize it.

I'll leave you with this: when I was at Exeter, if the topic came up, I would argue a pro-Taiwan stance. I do not suffer the foolishness of the ROC. People listened, certainly they were too thoughtful to dismiss it out of hand. And yet more than once, a comment slipped out among my professors and cohort that made it clear that they still saw Taiwan as fundamentally Chinese (e.g. "Taiwan and the rest of China", or "we have a few Chinese students" when in fact we had only one, from Macau. The other identifies as Taiwanese.)

If that was their default, what did they make of my pro-Taiwan views?

Do they take for 'extreme' what I see as - what I know to be - merely normal?

In other words, get out of here, wayward sun.
There will be peace when you are done

Saturday, March 17, 2018

In defense of Taiwanese food

Braised meat rice with shredded chicken, tender bamboo and tea egg with pickled radish. It was very good, and doesn't get more Taiwanese than this.  

Look, I know a lot is going on and I could write all about it now. Warmongering jerk and friend of Taiwan (guh) John Bolton is about to be promoted to National Security Advisor and...guh. Maybe I'll say something about it later. The Taiwan Travel Act is now law. Yay! The Daybreak Project is cool (although I have a low-key pet peeve about using the word 'project' to describe these sorts of things and I don't even know why, it's still cool and I won't hold that against it and you should check it out). I have been growing more annoyed in recent weeks with equating displaying the ROC flag with 'supporting Taiwan' and would like to say something about that.

I can and will write about some of these things, but I'm TIRED. My last paper of the term is due soon and I really need a montage. So, instead I want to write about food.

The Michelin guide for Taiwan came out

I'm not even going to bother writing much about what made it in and what didn't, because maybe I'm too Anthony Bourdainy about this but...what is considered when awarding a star - what those guys think makes food great - is not what I think goes into food that is actually great. I never intentionally eat anywhere with a star, and am more than likely to avoid starred restaurants because they'll be pricey and crowded and frankly, I think the food is probably better in some local stall or market. Sorry, but between some Fancy Thing for NT$1500 from a restaurant that's been around for maybe a decade, or A-ma who has made onion pastries or gua bao for 50 years out of the same little stall...A-ma probably does a damn good job, quite possibly a better one, for a tiny fraction of the cost.

But I will say this - some people are upset that Taiwanese food didn't get more recognition from Michelin. The top-rated restaurants seemed to be in hotels, and tended to be either Chinese (not Taiwanese), Japanese or Western/innovative (I think there was one Taiwanese restaurant on there). And I get it - loving Taiwan means maybe hoping its food gets some international fine dining recognition. Some people reading this might even be thinking "why does Taiwanese food need to be defended?"

It has certainly been said before that there's a sad history in Taiwan of elevating cuisines from China to 'gourmet' status while treating Taiwanese food as a poor, not-as-good provincial cousin.

It's also been said that despite Taiwanese loving to rhapsodize about their excellent food, that it's actually...not that great. Basically, that maybe more Taiwanese restaurants didn't get Michelin stars because they didn't deserve them.

I'm going to take a middle road here.

I think Taiwanese food is great, and I also acknowledge it lacks the complexity and rarefied quality of some other cuisines (such as certain cuisines of China, most Southeast Asian food). And I'm fine with that.

When I say that I'd rather eat A-ma's onion cake or at some random market stall or just a good bowl of braised meat rice, and I think that food is fantastic, what I mean is that to me great food doesn't always come from a delicate kitchen genie spinning rare and expensive ingredients into improbably complicated food sculptures that melt in your mouth. While it's true that some expensive ingredients require expertise to work with - don't cast your fig balsamic or fleur de sel or even workaday lemon zest before swine because a thoughtless chef will destroy what is wonderful about these things - it's also true that okay chefs can make better food with better ingredients.

What really warms me inside is everyday ingredients made into something really tasty and satisfying. That takes a great chef. That takes A-ma who's been at it for half a century. Anyone can learn to make a good quality steak taste great.

But only real talent coupled with many years of practice can take gross old pork scraps and some soy sauce and whatever and make a freaking delicious braised meat rice. That is talent I admire.

It's also not the talent that bags Michelin stars (it might bag a Bib Gourmand note, but that's not the same thing) and I am totally okay with that.

And yet, I admit that Taiwanese cuisine lacks the vivacity of other foods - it doesn't have that deep, delicious tastes that Indian gravies are known for, or the marriage of tart, sweet, spicy and salty (and creamy, from the coconut milk) found in, say, Thai food.

I'm still okay with that - to me, Taiwanese food is what it is because of Taiwanese history. This is a country that was once described as having a "history of agonies". Even if you won't sign off on that description, it's a history of cohesive identity denied or actively suppressed, a history of being treated like a backwater or second-class colonial holding, of (until recently) poverty and agriculture and immigrants and refugees trying to carve out a better life - while, it should be said - making life harder for those already here, on this "ball of mud beyond the pale of civilization".

That - and not a great history as a self-ruled kingdom with all of the trappings of king and court like Thailand or Vietnam, or following the same imperial-dynasty based cultural and political evolution of China - is what made Taiwanese food what it is. We have taro rice vermicelli and sweet potato balls and a variety of single-bowl rice and noodle dishes because that's the food of Taiwan's past. We didn't have a royal palace where great chefs could practice their craft for state banquets. We didn't have the same number of rich or noble families eating rare and expensive delicacies from fine porcelain plates. We just...didn't (or we had much less of it).

When your recorded history is entirely made up of an interplay between indigenous groups, farmers and foreign colonizers (yes, this includes China, which has absolutely been a foreign colonizer twice over) living on "the edge of civilization", what you get as a "national cuisine" is down-home farmer food, gross pig scraps and soy sauce made tasty by talented grandmas, the same onion cakes for 50 years. That is just what you get.

And that's fine. Every time I eat a good braised meat rice or something like it, I don't think "well, this tastes good but it's cheap and uses boring or mediocre-quality ingredients and is a bit blander than other cuisines". I think - if I am inclined to think rather than just stuff my face - that this is the food that speaks to the history of an island nation I care about, and you can all pipe down already because I like it quite a bit.

If it doesn't pull down Michelin stars, then the Michelin folks just don't get what makes some food great, and frankly I'm fine to have more of it to myself.

Yes, it's farmer food. But you know what? Farmer food is good. 

In fact, as a friend noted after I posted this on Facebook:

I actually think you don't go far enough... I'd say Taiwanese food may lack the complex flavors of South or Southeast Asian food, but instead emphasizes less flashy virtues like appreciating fresh ingredients' unadorned flavor. Sichuanese food is poor farmer food- you need the spiciness to cover possible rot. Taiwanese food is rich farmer's food.

And as another friend said:

Much of Taiwanese food is hearty and rustic, almost reminiscent of southern US cuisine.

Yup. I'll raise my chopsticks to that.

If Michelin doesn't think this merits stars, I'm going to offer up the opinion that the problem in terms of knowing good food is not Taiwan, but Michelin.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Strap in kids, we're headed to Jurassic Park

In gratitude to our valued guests for choosing Jurassic Park as your premier vacation destination, please enjoy these select quotes -  with my commentary -  from some sack of fossils which originally published a big ol' heap of garbage in the Liberty Times.

(I actually don't know who wrote it, I don't see a byline. But it just screams "old rich dude" so I'm going with that because I live dangerously.)

Nearly 50 percent of the respondents said that the Labor Standards Act (勞基法) is still not flexible enough, and about 90 percent agreed that the terms of the act should be relaxed to allow managers and professionals to work under a responsibility system instead of being restricted by rigid clauses regarding working hours.

Hmm, OK. I am sure that if we implement this guy's idea for "no real labor regulations at all", that things will work perfectly because bosses will totally respect their employees' needs, limits and personal time so that everyone will happily work a reasonable number of hours in a day and be paid generous overtime out of the kindness of the bosses' hearts. If any employee feels they are being required to work overly long hours, are paid insufficiently, are not paid overtime, are pressured not to take vacations, or all three, they will be able to have a civil and forthright discussion with their boss and have the situation resolved to their satisfaction immediately.

That's how it works, right?

Nearly 60 percent said that the government does not pay sufficient attention to the needs of business when setting relevant policies.

Oh, I see. Obviously, when looking at Taiwan's policies, laws and regulations, you can see how heavily skewed they are in favor of labor. I mean it's a regular old Sweden up in here! That's why workers are so highly paid and enjoy generous leave and benefits with a high level of job security and never worry that they are being exploited, overworked or underpaid.

Asked about taxation issues, 56 percent of respondents said that the individual income tax rate is too high, which they say is not favorable to doing business in Taiwan

Oh definitely! A tax rate that is generally lower than most European countries and the United States (with a maximum individual tax rate that is the same or lower than most Western countries) is just too high. I guess to make it lower so Taiwan will be better for business we can spend less on something. Certainly Taiwan doesn't need defense (what threats do we face anyway?) or, like, health care. Countries without national health care systems do JUST GREAT. What's important is that companies make more money. Corporations are people, my friend!

and more than 70 percent said that tax deductions are more important than government subsidies.

I am sure it is a mere coincidence that tax deductions tend to favor the wealthy (data for the US but pertinent to Taiwan), who have things to deduct, whereas subsidies seem better poised to actually help the needy. Certainly that couldn't have anything to do with it, oh no. I just could not imagine that the person who wrote this is rich and wants more for themselves, it couldn't be that, that would be unconscionable and we know the rich are always good. They are the best people with no exceptions.

AmCham’s annual reports nearly always raise questions about Taiwan’s investment environment. Last year’s report drew much attention for its strong criticism of the Labor Standards Act. This year’s report is still critical of the act, but the criticisms are a little milder.

Well I am sure AmCham, which represents business interests and not labor interests, is unbiased and politically neutral and would not promote a conservative, pro-wealth, pro-boss, neoliberal ideology. That would never happen, no sir. So we can totally believe what they say and take their reports at face value.

Of concern are the main reasons for Taiwan’s economic stagnation in recent years: insufficient investment and a lack of confidence, along with a pervasive sentiment that is not supportive of businesses.

This is definitely true, especially as labor doesn't have any needs. Workers in Taiwan sip champagne after swimming in pools of gold coins and any laws pertaining to them (not that there need to be any for these veritable Lord Fauntleroys of the workforce who have been raised up so highly by their good fortune of being employed by overly generous Taiwanese bosses) are swiftly enforced, but those poor companies...

...well, I guess economic stagnation is not related in any way to all those people who say that they are worried about the future because they don't make enough, that the most talented are leaving Taiwan because the salaries here are so low or that they aren't spending because they simply can't afford to. They must be just hoarding their NT$22,000 or whatever garbage scraps you throw at them for their 10-hour workdays rather than spending it on the goods and services they work all the time - literally all the time with no free time at all - to produce like good capitalists the way you want them to.

Other problems include excessively strict environmental protection laws

Oh I see. THAT'S why Taiwan's air is crystal clear and perfectly clean every day and the rivers are so sparkling and clean you can drink from them. I didn't know before. But now I do, thanks to you. Let's celebrate Taiwan's excessively strict environmental protection laws with a brisk dip in the Keelung River! You go first.

and overcautious tax reforms

Hmm, if the tax reforms are overcautious there can't possibly be a problem with wealthy people dodging their tax obligations to the country that helped them become rich, can there?

while a lot of legal regulations do not meet the needs of start-ups

Oh that's too bad, I guess when the Global Entrepreneurship Development Institute ranked Taiwan 18th in the world in 2017 (the top ten slots going to Western countries, and Taiwan ranking first in Asia), that's just another way of saying "Taiwan is crap for start-ups"...or something.

It certainly doesn't translate to "I am rich but I want more money so I'm going to decorate my greed with some sort of fake concern for "startups". NoooooOOOooOoOooo.

There was a time when Taiwan enjoyed double-digit annual growth rates and was No. 1 among the “four Asian Tigers,” but in recent years maintaining just 2 percent growth has become a cause for celebration and a political achievement worth boasting about.

There couldn't possibly be any reasons for this OTHER than the fact that companies and bosses are systematically mistreated by the government whilst workers are carried around on gold palanquins by their bosses, enjoying the perfect, unspoilt air and fresh green vistas of Taiwan's landscape due to its excessive environmental regulations. Certainly there are no other political issues and threats both external and internal or global trends that contribute to this in any way. Certainly outdated reliance on certain types of industry or active attempts at interference by some mythical hostile foreign power couldn't POSSIBLY have anything to do with it.

Also, double digit economic growth must continue unabated without stopping or slowing for any reason, forever and in perpetuity, otherwise WE WILL ALL EXPLODE AND DIE. There can be no other considerations at all. Not the environment, not health, not human rights, not any sort of global issues which don't exist anyway because I say so, certainly not the needs of those dirty, dirty (but overpaid and spoiled) workers.

If we don't expand like marshmallows in a microwave, we will perish.

Compared with the flourishing economies of other countries in the region

There are definitely no downsides at all to the economic successes of other countries in Asia. None whatsoever. Not one. None. If you say there is one, you are wrong, because there are none.

Also, it is clearly a sign of Armageddon that a country ranked 23rd in population in Asia has the 7th largest Asian economy (and 15th largest world economy), far outranks its size by global standards in GDP and PPP and is considered a high-income country. 

Taiwan’s economy, regrettably, is declining with each passing day.

I guess "expanding" is a synonym for "declining" now, because some old Brachiosaur wants more fucking money. And I guess "fastest expansion in three years" is now another way of saying "regrettably" and "not flourishing".

When comparing nations, China is no doubt the one that makes Taiwan feel most threatened. Some years ago, China started making counterfeit goods and stealing intellectual property and a lot of those dubious goods were made by little factories scattered nationwide. A good example would be Geely Auto, which, when it started, was widely mocked for copying Mercedes-Benz and Toyota vehicle models.

However, Geely has now grown and developed to the point of acquiring Sweden’s Volvo Cars and has become the biggest shareholder in Mercedes-Benz’s parent company, Daimler AG. 

There could not possibly be any downsides to that at all and there are no reasons whatsoever why China would have other factors going on that Taiwan does not or could not. Certainly they are not pursuing an active strategy of taking advantage of Taiwan's low wages to lure away our talent. They wouldn't do thaaaaaat.

China has formed a “national semiconductor team,” which, backed by state funding, has been hunting the world for companies to take over. Its voracious appetite has caused anxiety in Europe, North America and Japan, which have established strict investment review mechanisms to keep China in check.

...and you are telling us this why? You want Taiwan to emulate that? It sounds terrifying and horrible, much like you.  You don't think having the highest-ranked semiconductor foundry in the industry, with a business ethos set on expansion and continued competitiveness, is good enough for a country a fraction of China's size?

Nonetheless, China is still scoring gains with its strategy of using its market as a lure in exchange for technological know-how.

Again, there are no downsides to this whatsoever. After all, you can't eat democracy.

Aside from China, the economies of Southeast Asia are also on the rise. Singapore joined the ranks of the world’s developed economies long ago. Thailand and Malaysia are catching up with Taiwan. The Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia all have fast-growing economies and could potentially be the stars of tomorrow. Even poor and backward nations such as Cambodia and Myanmar have opened their doors and are working hard to attract foreign investment.

Sooooooo....Taiwan is in such dire straits that we should be afraid of "backward" (your word not mine, racist bro) countries like Myanmar? Ring the bells of terror! If you aren't scared, this dude might make less money!!

Ahem. Anyway. I suppose you haven't heard of the New Southbound Policy. It's fine if you want to critique it but I am reasonably sure you have truly never heard of it. After all, it was conceptualized sometime after the Triassic Era.

These are Taiwan’s strengths, which can help its economy to rise again, so there is no need to put then nation down, but government officials must not allow themselves to be restricted by minority populist voices.

Minority who now?

Who won the election?

You do know how elections work, don't you?

The government needs to thoroughly improve the investment environment

People will invest more if they earn more, but you don't seem to think that's an issue. Or do you mean rich Chinese investors who will then try to make politically-charged demands of the businesses they buy into?

boost public confidence

Making enough money to make it worthwhile to stay in Taiwan would be a damn start.

take the interests of the majority as the foundation of its policies


Translated by Julian Clegg

I am really sorry you had to translate this steaming pile of crap, Mr. Clegg. It makes us all dumber. If I ever meet you I will buy you a beer for having to do this horrible work. Unless you actually agree with this in which case no beer for you.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Amma's Kitchen and other Indian food updates

Over the past few weeks, I've been slowly chipping away at the list of Indian restaurants I have or had not been to so as to keep my Indian food in Taipei list as personally vetted as possible. With that in mind, I went out of my way to eat at Amma's KitchenJai Ho (Tianmu - by the owners of the erstwhile Fusion Asia) and Masala Art (Maji Maji in Yuanshan).

I've also added Moksha and Azeez Indian to the master list, although I haven't been to either.

Masala dosa from Amma's Kitchen

I especially want to plug Amma's Kitchen, so here's my review copied from my main review page fro your convenience:

Amma's Kitchen

#2 Lane 357 Heping East Road Sec. 2, Da'an District Taipei 106
MRT Technology Building 

Update: Amma's has moved! 

Amma's new address is above, in a small lane off Heping East Road, a short walk from MRT Technology Building (the closest bus stops would be National Taipei University of Education or Wolong Street). 

The new Amma's is larger, and no longer a single long room in a decrepit building but a street-level restaurant. It's all-around nicer, with more tables and is already popular. 

Amma still excels at South Indian tiffin and indeed is one of the few places in Taiwan where it is available. It might be the only place in Taiwan where you can get pongal (a ghee, curry leaf, pepper and ginger flavored mound of cooked moong daal and rice) - if you call ahead. The Thali (below) has dosa but I honestly don't think even they would do pongal.

Their dosas are delicious and their podi idli is still one of my favorite items. It's still South Indian-run and still has the look, smell and flavor of a restaurant in Tamil Nadu. I love that the coffee is served in South Indian-style tumblers with bowls, a style of coffee drinking I came to love while living in Madurai. 

There is a 'but', however. 

Amma used to also serve excellent curries, including the only good (perhaps the only) Chettinad chicken and Chicken 65 available in Taiwan. Having recently been to Chettinad and having lived in Tamil Nadu before, I know Chettinad chicken when I eat it. It's a distinctively pungent, spicy chicken curry. 

Now, sadly, the spice and distinctiveness of the non-tiffin curries (North Indian staples like aloo gobi) are gone. We visited twice shortly after they opened in their new location, once for tiffin - which again, was excellent - and once for more regular curries. While the lemon rice was still amazing, it seemed as though every curry had the same sauce. Granted, the sauce was delicious (though not very spicy), but it was the same sauce on everything, including the aloo gobi, which is supposed to be more of a dry fried curry, not sitting in a gravy. That exact same sauce appeared with the Chettinad chicken, which simply wasn't Chettinad chicken. The coconut chutney, too, lacked flavor - it was really just wet coconut, no curry leaf, mustard seed or anything else you'd put in a proper South Indian coconut chutney. The masala vadai were similarly less flavorful, though the texture was perfect. 

We were told that Taiwanese apparently prefer the less spicy curry - okay, but the same sauce, delicious as it is, on everything? - and that if we wanted real Chettinad chicken we would have to ask in advance or ask for "spicy". 

Okay, but honestly, I shouldn't have to ask. It would be much better to make it properly as a default and ask customers if they want it dumbed down. Don't make the dumbed-down kind and act surprised when people expected something authentic. In any case, unless I call ahead, it's not possible to change a bog-standard gravy into Chettinad chicken. By the time I've sat down and ordered, the damage is already done and adding chili powder won't fix it.

I want these guys to succeed, so I do encourage everyone to patronize their restaurant. I love the idea of idli and dosa just a short walk from my home! Just stick to tiffin or call in advance to let them know you want the real deal. 

* * *

That aside, recently I've been struggling with the Indian food writers' dilemma of late - namely, do I tell them the level of heat I want in my food or do I see what they bring me without special instructions, to find out how they envision their own food? 

The old Amma's Kitchen

As you know - and if you don't know stop reading my blog right now and go jump in a well - different Indian dishes have different levels of spice that are appropriate for the gravy and whatever's been cooked in it. A vindaloo should be so hot it gets you high, with a nice vinegary kick. Channa masala has an afterburn created by a mash of hot green chilis at its base. Butter chicken should be warming but not too hot, balanced with creamy sweetness and tomatoey..ness. Almost like you caramelized the tomatoes before adding the cream. Any sort of methi-based curry (methi paneer, aloo methi) should have appropriate heat to balance out the strong flavor of methi leaves. Actually anything with potato must be good and hot - a good aloo gobi is a bit dry, just a nice coating with the potatoes just giving you a mouth-gasm because they've been fried in ghee, and the cauliflower not too crunchy, but cooked and maybe a bit charred hear and there. Just enough spicy gravy to have something to sop up with rice or naan. A good shahi paneer or malai kofta is warm and creamy and nutty, not too hot. My personal favorite home curry - a Bengali concoction of coconut milk, mustard seed, mustard oil, fried green chilis and heaps of coriander - heats you up from several sources of spice.

Every curry is different, but you should always leave an Indian meal with the feeling that you've been warmed to your bones. 

So, the question remains - do I ask for that, or do I see what they bring me? Do they understand? Do they have The Knowledge? I used to go with the latter - seeing what came - because I want to know what the chef is thinking when she or he creates. It's a great window into how seriously they take their craft. But recently I've been going with the former and being explicit about what I want, because I feel I ought to give any place I review the chance to do as well as possible. Bias for best and all that. If a place can deliver based on instructions you give them, that's good enough. Anyway, I simply must accept that I live in a country where - whether true or just a long-standing urban legend - people simply do not like their Indian food spicy.

Restaurants can and will tone it down for the local market, so I have to be extremely clear that I am not the local market, don't feed me that. That won't warm you. That's just normal food with like a few extra flavors in it. It won't make you understand.

The (very good) samosas at Masala Art

With that in mind, I have to say that while both Jai Ho and Masala Art are fine...the food was well-made, they have great stuff on the menu like paan kulfi and homemade gulab jamun (at Jai Ho) and falooda (at Masala Art - which is good because they don't have beer) - the food is just not spicy enough.

I'm sorry, it's just not. The flavors are balanced. The ingredients are quality. Whoever is back there knows what he or she is doing. But it's not spicy enough. 

I wouldn't be bothered about this, except I specifically asked them to make it good and hot for me. Told them I used to live in India (I studied abroad there - close enough). Told them everyone at the table could handle real heat. We'd all been to India and liked it at that spice level (which won't burn your tongue off, contrary to popular myth. As above - every gravy is different.) Told them not to hold back.

In both just didn't get there.

I don't know about Masala Art - if anything, the butter chicken was hotter than the channa masala, which is odd, and the butter chicken was great. The samosas were too. Big fan of the falooda. The channa masala was the only thing lacking (well - and the garlic naan was made with garlic powder, not fresh garlic, but I liked that it was thin). But at Jai Ho I said something about it, and the waitress admitted she'd just put in our orders for "medium spicy" (which by Taiwan standards means "not freakin' spicy at all"). Which would have been an excusable mistake, except I'd very clearly specified that that was not what I wanted.

I think the chefs at both restaurants know how to make a good curry. I just...

...well, I hope they listen to me next time. And yes, there will be a next time.

If you're reading this, Jai Ho and Masala Art - when we say hot, we mean it. You probably didn't know this when I ate at your establishments, but I can quite likely match your own chefs curry for curry from my own kitchen. I don't mean "oh I can make a daal", I mean I see your butter chicken and raise you a Hyderabadi mutton biryani. I see your aloo gobi and raise you pumpkin in tamarind-sambar gravy. I see your channa masala and raise you a Bengali shorshe murgi. I only go out for Indian so I can keep that master list updated - think of it as a community service - and so I don't have to do it myself if I'm feeling lazy. If I say hot, I mean hot.

Paan kulfi at Jai Ho

Make it appropriately hot for the dish - that's how you get to the top of the list. (Mayur is at the top because he and his chefs do a good job with this.)

(But seriously I really liked the desserts at both places. Keep it up.)

Onion uthappam at Amma's Kitchen

Friday, March 9, 2018

From The Island of Women to #MeToo: my latest for MyTaiwanTour

Years ago, I was an administrative assistant at a perfectly okay company. Every year our perfectly okay branch president gave us generous gifts - usually fairly hefty gift certificates - for "Administrative Professionals' Day", which is the rebranded way of saying Secretary's Day without it coming off as quite so demeaning. Because I was not well-paid - I could barely pay my rent and couldn't save at all until I got a second job - I couldn't afford a quality professional wardrobe, so I always used my gift certificate on that.

It was nice enough to receive recognition for the okay job I did (I was no all-star, mostly because I just didn't like the work very much, but that's on me) at this okay company. I was grateful for the gift itself.

But on some level, regarding the holiday, it felt like a consolation. Sorry you're doing a job you don't want for low pay. Sorry that most corporate jobs are just "okay". Sorry that, while there is room for growth, none of the  jobs you might get promoted to are great either. Sorry that to even get those better jobs you still don't want, you have to not only do amazing work at a job you are not suited for, but you also have to pretend you love it. Sorry you can't save anything so you can't afford to do us and yourself a favor and quit so we can find someone who wants the job and you can find work you care about. Sorry that what you actually want to do, despite being more meaningful, doesn't offer the same route to financial security. Sorry. Here's a gift certificate. 
I didn't want to be recognized for Administrative Professionals' Day. I didn't want the day to apply to me at all, because I didn't want to be an "administrative professional".

Yes, this sounds whiny, but I was in my early twenties. Life is better now.

I'm telling you this because I often get the same feeling about Women's Day, which was yesterday.

So, I didn't write anything about it here yesterday because, to be honest, I just wasn't feelin' it. I know all the arguments for the existence of the day, I don't disagree, and I even went to last year's march.

But this year it feels like a consolation prize - like, "we can't stop the world from being so horribly sexist, so here's a holiday for you? Sorry? Now let's talk about some inspirational women who were also crushed under the eternal wheel of patriarchy."

Eh. I don't want a holiday. I don't want a radio program about inspirational women who were never recognized by a sexist society, because I want such cases to cease to happen in the future.  I want there to be no need for one on the first place.

With that in mind, but trying to be a bit more upbeat - lol - I did write something for MyTaiwanTour's Taiwan Scene. I like the final product more than I thought I would - It's not overly optimistic but tries to find the gold amid the rubble, which just about reflects how I'm feeling these days.

"The Island of Women" was once meant to be an insult, a backhanded way to call a place uncivilized or savage (as compared to the "civilized" repressive patriarchy of China, especially from the late Han dynasty onward). Now, I hope Taiwan can take that heritage, passed down from indigenous women who had more autonomy and routes to leadership than their Chinese counterparts have historically had, and use it to its advantage to lead Asia in the fight for women's equality.

I have my doubts at times, though - the old democracy movements were heavily influenced by women, but I don't see the same number or visibility of female luminaries in contemporary social movements and activist circles.

So...#metoo? We'll see.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

If you're a foreign working woman in Taiwan planning to have kids, you're probably going to get screwed

I'll be expanding this more in the coming weeks, but I feel like I need to say something now, however short and underdeveloped.

If you are a foreign woman working in Taiwan, and you are intending to have children here, there is a very high possibility that you're not only going to get screwed by your employer, but that it's already happening.

A huge percentage of foreign workers here - even the "foreign professionals" - work jobs that pay an hourly rate. The vast majority of these jobs are cram school/buxiban jobs (some of which pay a salary, but many/most don't.) (Most of these jobs are not remotely professional, even though they ought to be, and are poorly paid by real professional standards, but that's a different discussion.)

We're already getting screwed out of benefits we're meant to have, such as paid typhoon days and national holidays. Employers - private language schools, mostly - just don't provide them, and good luck leaving and finding another job that does.

Well, here's another benefit workers - even foreign workers on hourly pay - are meant to have: paid maternity leave. Your employer is meant to calculate your estimated hourly pay during your absence and, well, pay you that.

But how much you get paid for maternity leave depends partly on how long you've been employed there, and partly on labor insurance, or 勞保. To get the paid maternity leave benefit, you must be signed up for labor insurance.

And most private language schools that employ foreign teachers never do this.

I have heard varying accounts of whether labor insurance is required by law for foreign employees. Notably, however, it is absolutely not true that an employer can choose not to offer it. An employer telling you "we don't offer labor insurance", and then insisting they don't have to, even if you want it, is lying to you. They typically try to evade the issue by simply not telling you it's an option, hoping you'll never find out that if you ask for it, by law they have to register you.

If you do ask...well, results vary. I typically say good things about my various employers, save one really bad experience I had. They've been, for the most part, a cut above the typical clown academy here in Taiwan. But I'm going to go ahead and say a few critical words now:

At one school where I taught exam prep classes (I've since left for unrelated reasons), I was first ignored when I asked about labor insurance, then told they "don't offer it". I replied that they had no choice, they ignored me again. I said that if I was not signed up for it, I would report this issue to the government. I didn't particularly want to report anything to anyone, but I kept getting stonewalled when trying to access my rights. Then they acted as though this made me the "problem" or "high-maintenance" employee (it didn't - I just wanted what I was legally entitled to and kinder, more private entreaties were ignored.) I got my labor insurance. Others are not so lucky - I can handle being unfairly thought of as "difficult", because at least I won, but not everyone wins.

The problem is, most foreigners either don't know they are entitled to this, think it's something the company can "offer" rather than something that cannot be denied them, or don't realize that it matters. So most working foreign women here have a safety net they don't necessarily even realize they ought to have.

So if you're a foreign woman here, and you decide to pop out a screamer, whether or not you get paid maternity leave - which you are entitled to by law even if you are on an hourly wage - depends entirely on whether or not you signed up for labor insurance. If you didn't sign up, no paid vagina-healin', baby-wranglin' time for you. If you let the issue slide when your employer refused to sign you up, same deal. You just got screwed.

What's worse is that even if you are signed up for labor insurance, a huge number of schools underreport income (my former exam prep institute employer sure did). You might think this isn't a big deal, that "that's how it is here", but your labor insurance is based on your reported income, so if you get pregnant and take maternity leave, the pay you are entitled to matches the craptastic income that's been reported for you, not what you actually earned.

I have also heard stories of schools being reluctant to grant maternity leave even if their employees have labor insurance, although that hurdle can often be gotten over if you are willing to call (or threaten to call) some relevant authorities. They might try to screw you in other ways, though (e.g. extending your probation for vague reasons that don't quite make sense to justify paying you less).

Of course, Taiwanese women face massive issues accessing maternity leave too, something that seems to be rarely written about. Most of what I see in English consists of lavish praise of Taiwan's maternity leave policies - and at least compared to the USA (which is a legitimate horror show in this regard) - which rarely includes the uncomfortable truth that, while employers can't exactly deny their employees this leave, they can and do pressure them to take as little of it as possible and find other passive-aggressive ways to punish female employees who don't comply. Plenty of Taiwanese women don't feel they can access their full legally-entitled maternity leave either.

There is a difference, though: Taiwanese women know this is a problem. They are at least aware of what they are supposed to be getting. There is a foundation there for fighting back.

Foreign women in Taiwan? They may not even realize they're getting screwed. But chances are, they are.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Opening China to Taiwanese films: it's a trap


Or, please consider this your daily reminder to never, ever trust the Chinese government, ever. They never do anything 'benevolently', at least when it comes to Taiwan. There is always an underlying motive. The CCP is evil, not stupid.

So what could the motive be for lifting restrictions on the Chinese market for Taiwanese films?

Frankly, it's the same reason why they allow so many Chinese students into Taiwan, and have made Taiwanese universities sign "memoranda of understanding" that certain topics the CCP doesn't like won't be discussed. It didn't seem like much was happening as a result, and the topics were not actually banished from Taiwanese university classrooms, but the point was, China could have started insisting on enforcement whenever it wanted, and if this or that university refused, no more revenue stream from Chinese students' tuition for them! Good idea to get them good and dependent on it, first, of course.

The article itself, despite its laughable breakdown of history (the same old risible "since 1949" nonsense), contains this answer within it:

An Fengshan, spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said: “Taiwanese compatriots can share in the opportunities arising from China’s economic development.”

Yo, An Fengshan can cho - - - oh yeah, I'm trying to be less vulgar about serious topics.

Ahem. Anyway.

The translation of An's foetid garbage talk is this: when Taiwanese movies become more popular thanks to wider distribution in China and Taiwanese film production companies start to feel more dependent on Chinese revenue, the Chinese government will start placing demands - enforcing harsher censorship rules, trying to control which stars can appear in which movies, that sort of thing. Shutting down productions they don't like by suddenly having a problem with the Taiwanese crew they were allowed to come in with.

It's just another way to try and control Taiwan's media output. 

Not wanting to spend the time/money/resources to make two versions of the same film or lose potential sales by casting "unwelcome" stars who do not parrot Beijing's propaganda, companies will just start self-censoring from the get-go to stay in the Chinese market. So we in Taiwan will end up watching Taiwanese movies with more of a CCP-approved Chinese twist.

Then there's this:

Similarly, reducing the numerical limits on Taiwanese talent, is unlikely to mean complete derestriction. China has actively excluded Taiwanese performers who it considers politically undesirable. In 2016, producers of “No Other Love” were ordered to remove veteran Taiwanese actor Leon Dai from the film which was in post-production at the time. Dai fell foul of mainland authorities by not being clear enough over his stance on Taiwanese independence.

Pro-Taiwan actors and other film industry workers will find themselves short of roles. Stars that want to stay bankable will start touting CCP-approved trash. Some might try to "stay out of politics" to avoid threatening their livelihoods, but the Chinese troll mob will crow that this is not good enough, and they will feel public pressure to actively speak out in Beijing-friendly ways. This already happens with stars who aren't trying to be political (even Chinese ones) so don't think it won't start happening on an even larger scale. 
And then we will have a whole crop of Taiwanese stars who are publicly pro-China and anti-Taiwan no matter how they actually feel. This will certainly affect public morale in Taiwan, exactly as it is meant to.

Again. Never trust the Chinese government. Ever. Not ever. Especially when it comes to Taiwan, they can never, ever be taken at face value. Everything they do is in service to their greater goal of annexation.

Oh and seriously An Fengshan can choke on a fat one. 

Sorry, couldn't help myself. 


Thursday, March 1, 2018

I'm in this month's Centered on Taipei!

The March 2018 issue of Centered on Taipei is the "women's issue" - I wrote a piece about shuttling between multiple identities as a foreign woman in Taiwan - likening it to being a human version of a Newton's Cradle which you can read on page 32.

To read the magazine, click on the cover photo in the link.