Friday, December 31, 2021

A Pomegranate for New Year's Eve

A Majolica tile from a long-gone Taiwanese farmhouse with pomegranate-themed jewelry and ornaments from Armenia (the beaded necklace is my own work, featuring an Armenian glass pomegranate)

Pomegranates are an unofficial but potent symbol of Armenian culture. As with Chinese culture, this has to do with fertility and abundance -- the fruit's pres
ence on everything from fine porcelain to the vintage Majolica tiles on Taiwanese farmhouses carry a similar meaning. Although it's easy enough to buy pomegranates in Taiwan each winter, they seem to carry less symbolic weight than kumquats, peaches, pineapples and oranges here. That said, if you're on the hunt for those aforementioned old tiles, you'll certainly come across the pomegranate, peach and citron pattern. It's one of the most common.

In Armenia, the pomegranate also symbolizes resurrection (many arils mean many lives) and the "unity of many under one authority". As an atheist and anti-authoritarian, I'm not particularly interested in the Christian flavor of all this, but as a country, Taiwan seems to have done well as a collective of many individuals working together to beat the pandemic, under the sound guidance of the CECC.

This was not an abundant year. It was not particularly prosperous or fertile. But it was a lot: in addition to all the pandemic-wrought difficulties, many small, tart arils did come together to form a semi-coherent whole.  In the bevy of little things from 2021, I managed to unearth ancestral connections I'd thought were lost forever and carve out some new understandings of my own heritage.

Metaphorically speaking, 2021 handed me pomegranates. That's far from the worst thing, though they take a lot of work. From that bevy of tart little arils, I made a pomegranate-themed meal.

First, the writing. Interested readers can find my piece on Bilingual by 2030 and the possible benefits of an Intercultural Communicative Competence model in Taiwan Insight, my piece on Taipei's Railway Department Park in the winter issue of Taipei Quarterly (as well as a piece on Japanese heritage sites in their autumn issue). I'm working on something for Ketagalan Media on the use of technology to bridge the urban-rural education divide, but it's not ready yet. 

I was happy to learn that, at least for British and Irish spouses of Taiwanese citizens, the bureaucratic snafu making it impossible for them to enter Taiwan on spouse visas has been resolved after I wrote about the issue (though I don't think there's a direct relationship between my article and the resolution of the problem). I finally tackled one of my long-time bugbears in Ketagalan Media as well, dispelling myths about the supposed "Confucian" nature of Taiwanese education.

Then, the photos. To say that a lot of my attention has been diverted from Lao Ren Cha over the past year would be an understatement. I spent most of the 'soft lockdown' during the Taiwan outbreak cataloguing and identifying a large cache of family photographs that fell into my hands after my mother passed away in 2014, which I've kept in a 'dry box' (a dehumidifying cabinet) to preserve them from the ravages of Taiwan's humidity. Most of these are from the 1920s and 30s, from the Armenian refugee settlement of Kokkinia in Athens, Greece. Kokkinia is now a typical urban neighborhood where some Armenian families still live, with both Armenian Apostolic and Protestant churches. Some, however, are far older. 

I realized as I did this work that the photographs themselves hold historical value: not many photographs from survivors of the Armenian Genocide made it across the Atlantic. So, I collaborated with a historical society to donate and preserve high-quality digital copies of these images. You can see the results here. 

Here are a few examples. I don't know who this couple is, but I suspect they're my great-great-grandmother's parents:

And this is my grandfather as a child in Athens:


In identifying these photos, I came across the work of Vahram Shemmassian, the only person who seems to have conducted serious academic research on the Armenians of Musa Dagh. Let me just say, it's a strange feeling to come across images of one's direct ancestors, as well as historical accounts that mention them directly, in academic work. This reading, in addition to other genealogical research, reminded me of something once said to a friend, when showing him a picture of my great grandfather in his fedayi (freedom fighter) outfit, during his time with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, or the Dashnaks if you're knowledgeable about this sort of thing). Other unexpected sources have surfaced as well. 

I told him that while certainly Taiwan's history is not my history -- my family isn't from here, I just happen to be here -- when I read and hear about the way the KMT treated Taiwan during 228 and the White Terror, and the rhetoric China uses to dehumanize Taiwan as it threatens subjugation and massacre, I do see parallels in what my own ancestors lived through. They're not the same thing -- nothing is ever exactly the same -- but the same dynamic of one group illegitimately claiming control of another group's heritage, culture, territory and yes, wealth while either threatening or conducting a massacre? Yes, I know that story. Watching the rest of the world dandy about "analyzing" these issues while debating "the Armenian Question" or the "Taiwan Question" as though these are abstract debates and not real people? I know that too.

Anyone with a shred of human empathy is able to understand this, of course, but knowing through my own history that the same playbook has been used before has had me thinking. Where that thinking will lead, I don't yet know. Writing on Lao Ren Cha increasingly feels like adding to a palimpsest: writing about Taiwan now, which evince the cultural memories of what came before. 

I made some decisions about education, too. In 2020, I realized my long-held dream of going to graduate school. In 2021, I decided I would most likely not pursue a PhD. I found academia supportive and welcoming, and I certainly did well. Issues of geography can be overcome. Funding is more difficult, but theoretically possible if I chase it. I certainly would not pay for a PhD program -- either it's fully funded or I don't go.

But the fact is, there's not much waiting for me on the other side of that gauntlet: I'm not willing to leave Taiwan, and there are essentially no good academic jobs in Taiwan for a language acquisition specialist -- the adjunct and annual contract work that does exist would entail a pay cut without putting me on the road to qualifying for dual nationality. That means I'd be doing a PhD quite literally for fun, because it wouldn't change my career trajectory. 

Besides, it looks like Brendan's likely to be starting his own Master's program soon. I needed his support to get through mine, keep a household running and work. He'll certainly need mine.

All that to say, 2021 wasn't a wash for us. The summer was hard, but we made it through, and having an "okay" year seems to be a win by global standards right now. And that's what it was -- okay. 

You can tell a pomegranate is ripe not by its smell at the base as with a pineapple or melon, nor by how hollow it sounds when you knock it, as with a pumpkin. Rather, look for firm, flat sides -- a rounded pomegranate isn't ready. The color doesn't matter much, but weight does; the heavier it is, the better. All that work into family history, decisions about higher education, writing, reading? I'm not sure it all adds up to anything -- a bunch of arils, or one ripe fruit? Who knows. But I do feel weightier, more angular, perhaps ready for new things.

What new things? I don't quite know. Perhaps not academia, but there are other options. 

How did we end 2021? With a feast that honored what defined my 2021: connections to a cultural heritage that I always knew about and even grew up within (well, the Americanized version of it). An Armenian Christmas dinner, created from scratch by the two of us working together. We fed fifteen people, old friends and some new; we filled up the maximum space available in our Taipei apartment for a true sit-down meal. 

Did everything include pomegranate? Of course not. But this is Armenian food -- it's safe to say most of it did.

We started out the meal with mezze. Hummus, beloved by Armenians. Babaghanoush and caçik, beloved by Turks and Armenians alike. Tabbouleh, more Syrian in origin but something my ancestors certainly ate. Muhammara, also Syrian, consisting of roasted red bell peppers flavored with Aleppo pepper (smoked paprika or cayenne will do) and pomegranate molasses, garnished with sumac, chopped walnuts and pomegranate arils Badrijani nigvziani, which is more of a Georgian thing but has a related flavor profile -- it's walnut paste with garlic and lemon rolled in roasted eggplant and topped with pomegranate arils. No Armenian mezze table would be complete without a big bowl of mixed olives. We served green (probably cerignola), kalamata and thasos. 

Then the main courses: lamb with plums and honey, a dish I ate at Kchuch, a restaurant hidden in a wooded grove in Dilijan, Armenia, washed down with pomegranate wine. Pomegranate molasses chicken garnished with slivered almonds. Dolma, which are vegetables stuffed with spiced and herbed bulgur and ground lamb (we call stuffed grape leaves sarma, not dolma). Rice pilaf, made just the way my grandmother used to, with a whole stick of butter. Ghapama, a pumpkin stuffed with rice, honey, butter, cinnamon, nuts and dried fruits and baked until tender. It's so good that there's a whole song, complete with trippy 1980s video, about how if you cook it everyone will come to your house.

And of course dessert: I went a little off-course here and made a British-style Christmas cake, but supplemented that with spiced walnut-stuffed cookies, made only by my Aunt Rose (Vartouhi). She would cut herringbone patterns in the top and call them "fish cookies" for the way they looked. Hers looked perfect, but they tended to be a little dry and hard. Mine looked like severed fingers but were tender and delicious. 

Instead of posting a string of photos, here's a collage I stole from my friend June. It doesn't have every dish (the pilaf, muhammara and lamb with plums and honey are missing), but it'll do:

I was unable to procure what I needed to make Armenian string cheese or the mahleb (the ground pit of the St. Lucia cherry) necessary to make cheoreg, but I did serve goat cheese garnished with nigella, parsley and pomegranate arils. Close enough. 

Everything you need to cook like this can be procured in Taiwan, by the way. Here's a quick key to some of the more difficult ingredients: I got the fine bulgur on Shopee. Parsley, fresh mint and dill can be found at Binjiang Market (though ultimately we went to City Super and certainly paid more as a result). Although my pomegranate molasses comes from the US, you can get it on Shopee, too. If it's unavailable, unsweetened pure pomegranate juice is an acceptable substitute in muhammara -- City Super at the Far Eastern Hotel sells small bottles of the juice. Chimeidiy (Chimei DIY) sells the correct tahini, though you can make it yourself with sesame seeds, and the local sesame paste is an acceptable substitute.  They also sell walnuts in bulk. Trinity Indian Market has any spices you can't procure at Jason's, the Eslite market or Carrefour. You'll need some hard-to-find ones like allspice, celery seed, nigella (kalonji), dill weed, dried mint, cumin, coriander seed and both hot and mild smoked paprika. Levant Taiwan Halal Meat has cubed lamb and can arrange ground lamb (the Braai Guy helped me out this time, but he doesn't usually carry it). 
Costco has Greek yoghurt, pita and goat cheese. 

The next morning, I noticed we still had half a pomegranate, its arils tucked neatly into a firm red shell. I cracked and peeled until the bounty fell out, and ate them straight from the bowl. 

Yesterday, I bought another particularly nice-looking pomegranate at the supermarket. Angular and heavy, it was ready to be cracked open. 

Monday, December 20, 2021

Were the four referendum issues small, or just boring and rank with hypocrisy?

(Yes, I know I'm translating it oddly, that's the point)

I haven't said anything about the referendum vote yesterday because the straight-up fact is this: I just haven't cared enough.

Now that all four have gone down in flames -- neither reaching the vote threshold nor garnering more 'yes' votes than 'no' -- I figure maybe it's time to offer up an opinion, such as it is.

Frozen Garlic has pretty much said most of what's worth saying about why voters stayed home, and why those who came out voted as they did. Notably, the fact that the DPP made it easier to get referendums going, the KMT managed to use this against the DPP once already, and despite these issues not being linked to the KMT's unpopular stances vis-a-vis China and Taiwanese identity, they still couldn't eke out anything close to a win. As Frozen Garlic points out, they did this to themselves

I also agree that very little of the result had to do with detailed policy arguments, but quite possibly a lot to do with widespread distrust of the KMT. To wit:
One possibility is that when these issues became associated with the KMT, they became a lot less popular. That is, perhaps people were willing to support the LNG/reef policy, but they weren’t willing to support the KMT LNG/reef policy. The KMT was a dead weight that not even a popular issue could save.

Perhaps I like this because it's a great analysis of why the liquefied natural gas/reef referendum failed. Perhaps it's because I too, regardless of policy, simply do not trust the KMT to run the country. I don't think the DPP is perfect by any means, but Tsai mostly seems to do a solid job. I trust her, and she's given me reasons to trust her. 

In other words: 

Maybe this referendum will be a message to the KMT that it can’t paper over its unpopular identity and China positions by distracting voters with shiny objects. Maybe they will be motivated to finally start thinking about altering those unpopular stances on the most critical issues.

Probably not though. Eric Chu has already signaled that he is more comfortable finding excuses than reflecting on the causes of defeats. I keep waiting for the KMT to reform itself, and it keeps disappointing me.

I get the feeling that Eric Chu spends a lot of time not realizing how disappointing he is, which is perhaps why he's a spot-on choice to chair the party that always disappoints and doesn't even seem to realize it.

But there's one area where I differ just a bit. Frozen Garlic says:

In their ungracious remarks tonight, Johnny Chiang and Eric Chu put the blame for the defeats on the DPP. Chiang said that the DPP had unfairly twisted these narrow issues by claiming they were about broader things, like international trade, relations with the United States, overall economic development, and what China wants. Apparently, when the KMT tries to deal the DPP government a serious policy setback, he doesn’t expect the DPP government to fight back to defend its agenda.

Yes, all correct. The thing is, I think the DPP is right about that. These referendums did tie in to broader, more important things like international trade, economic development and energy security. Does ractopork matter? No, not really.  But in terms of international trade and relations with the US, it does matter. 

Does the Gongliao nuclear power plant matter? Not really. Ma Ying-jeou himself mothballed it, and it's unlikely that it'd ever actually get restarted. But public sentiment on what role nuclear power should play in Taiwan's energy policy does matter.

Does the LNG plant matter? Now that there are revised plans to move it further out to sea, I don't think so. But the DPP asking the public to trust them that the LNG plans were both environmentally safe and necessary to Taiwan's energy policy and security? Yes, those things matter. Taiwan's energy security and ending dependence on coal? Yes, that matters very much indeed.

And the referendum timing? I'm honestly not sure it matters, though I think Donovan is right that the initial decoupling from elections was a blatant strategic move by the DPP, though I'm not sure about the weather angle. However, whether the public thinks the DPP can be trusted to make such decisions -- or whether they care at all -- does matter. 

The thing is, the very fact that each of these items ties into a broader discussion about Taiwan's present and future seemed to matter less than the fact that each individual issue was boring. I can't vote in Taiwan, but when I vote in the US I choose people to represent me whom I trust to deal with these fairly small things in a general direction I support -- the big things these issues all tie into -- even if I don't agree with every little thing. 

It's possible that many Taiwanese voters ultimately decided they felt the same way: we elect people to figure these things out. If we don't like the general direction, we vote for someone else. Please don't ask me to vote on everything from algal reefs to ractopamine, when I am an expert in none of it! 

What's interesting, though, is that the KMT couldn't seem to win whether we're talking big or small. Whether you think ractopork was just about ractopork or the grand theatre of international trade, either the KMT picks bad issues, or they have bad policies, or the public doesn't trust them regardless. 

Beyond that, it's amusing just how weirdly hypocritical the KMT is on just about every single issue.

On nuclear power, as noted above, the fourth plant was mothballed by President Ma. Now Ma seems to be the strongest voice in favor of restarting it, to the point that I think he's been giving both Johnny Chiang and Eric Chu his warm package for awhile now.

On the LNG terminal, this source states that it's been an active project since 2016, which means it must have been drafted and proposed before that. Who was in power before 2016? The KMT. Despite some media making the whole thing about the DPP's energy goals, this feels like yet another KMT turnaround.

On ractopork, remember that once again, the KMT allowed ractopamine beef imports and tried to allow in pork, but withdrew from that position amid public backlash. It's true that the DPP opposed it then, but the fact is that we now have some idea of what standards for ractopamine levels should be, which we didn't back then (interestingly, the safety data came out right around the time Taiwan was fighting about this in 2012, so it's not like the KMT doesn't know about it). So on that, too, the KMT come out looking like the bigger hypocrites. 

Ma Ying-jeou, Mr. Ractobeef and Wannabe Mr. Ractopork, out there fighting ractopork if the DPP is doing it? Come on. 

In fact, I suspect both parties know that these imports are important to US-Taiwan relations and are perfectly aware that if they're in power, pushing for their approval is a no-brainer, but they'll resolutely oppose the other party doing so. I'm curious to see whether 2026 will be the year of the DPP opposing KMT President Hou's approval of American racto-lamb. Will 2035 be the year of the KMT opposing DPP racto-venison? I hope we live through the climate wars to find out! 

On referendums, Donovan's already pointed out that the KMT has found itself in the very weird position of defending the DPP's old stance. Once again, I have to wonder what the KMT even stands for other than thinking Taiwan is Chinese and they Taiwan's superior Chinese leaders, and opposing the DPP. That's it, really. It's not like they can be trusted with the economy, or the environment, or China, or fighting corruption, or even defending Taiwan. Even on infrastructure, they seem to favor bloat over utility.

I'd love to see real opposition that one could reasonably vote for to keep the DPP accountable, but I fail to see the point of the KMT at all, except as opposition for the mere, shrieking, hypocritical sake of it. 

If you're wondering how I would have voted if I'd been able, I would have given the LNG/reef and election/referendum items serious consideration. The first for environmental reasons, and the second because holding elections and referendums at the same time doesn't seem like an obviously bad idea on its face (and was also how things worked in Taiwan until recently). But in the end, I probably would have gone no on both. 

The first because energy security matters a lot, and while I don't know who's right on the environmental angle, I certainly don't trust the KMT as stewards of Taiwan's fragile algal reefs. The second, because after the 2018 disaster I'm just not huge on referendums in general. They're an important democratic tool but I don't necessarily want every single issue to be up for a majoritarian vote. It may seem more democratic, but I'm not at all sure it actually is.

On the other two, I'd be a clear no: if both parties intend to allow ractomeat imports when they're in power, then I'm not voting for some ridiculous cudgel. On the nuclear plant, even if they've resolved the 'garbage in the cooling tanks' issue from a decade ago and had a safe way to store waste, I don't think Taiwan's plants could withstand a Fukushima-like event.

I'm not actually anti-nuclear per se, I just don't think it's right for Taiwan. And as long as there's still nuclear waste non-consensually present on Indigenous lands, there are ethical issues to consider as well.

Could Taiwan make nuclear safely and ethically? Certainly, if the government really wanted to. Would they? Doubt it. So that's a no.

In other words, the KMT picked four boring issues to be hypocritical about, all of which should be the purview of the leaders the people have elected to deal with rather than a big annoying resource suck. I'm not feelin' it.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

So was that a Christmas Market or a Holiday Murder Dungeon?

I think Krampus was the brains behind the German Christmas Market

One week ago I was all set to write a post about how events in Taiwan had finally learned how to be good, which has not historically been the case. 

In 2016 the taco festival was such a disaster that I left to grab potstickers because I could not get a single goddamn taco at an actual, literal taco festival where tacos were presumably being sold in exchange for money. Hot tip: if all your guests can get at a taco festival is a place in line where they're told "no more tacos", you are not running a taco festival, you are running a 'stand in line and cry hangrily' festival. 

Later that year Santa died thanks to the fake "Strasbourg" Christmas Fair where they played Green Day (?) and pushed you to buy vouchers that couldn't buy much -- I ended up with a random assortment of food items that I didn't want and mulled wine that wasn't good. The church running it suggested donating unused vouchers back to them, which felt like a scam. 

This year, I walked through the European Christmas Fair in Hsinyi. It was crowded but not overly so, and I didn't begrudge the fact that the many food stalls had mostly run out of food as it was near the end of the final day. It was fairly easy to buy other items including gingerbread cookies and Polish ceramics. I had skipped the taco festival, but friends said that the implementation of ticketing, crowd control and better ordering and space planning made it more of a success. In 2020 I happened across a small Christmas market outside the old Taichung train station, and it was lovely. 

Events like these in Taiwan seemed to be turning a corner, and I was happy to see it. It'd always confused me how night markets can run fairly smoothly, but events just couldn't. Night markets might be crowded (a side effect of living in a densely populated country) and there might be a few lines, but you could always get food. Perhaps people had taken advantage of this obvious local logistical knowledge to, y'know, plan less shitty events?


Such high hopes

With this in mind, I enthusiastically headed over to the German Christmas Market held near Maji Square on Saturday night, as visions of bratwurst danced in my head. This could be good, I thought. I'd heard last year it was good.

Alas. Whatever the German Christmas Market was this year, it was the exact opposite of good.

I could forgive the long line to get in, as contact tracing was required, and the slow trickle of entries meant it was never so crowded that you couldn't walk around. We managed to get gluhwein and order bratwurst after waiting in a second, shorter line. Okay. 


The line to get in

It was strange that someone pushed in front of us to demand a refund on her bratwurst, but perhaps she just wasn't hungry. 

Then we trekked to the other end of the fair to wait in the hour-long line to actually get our food. 

While waiting, we took turns as scouts hunting for other food. After getting jostled so that hot wine spilled all over his hand, Brendan stood in the bacon raclette sandwich line only to get one person from the front before they announced they were sold out. I checked out the Christstollen (lowest price NT$800, more like a gift than a Christmas fair snack. I didn't buy any.) Another friend stood in line for an hour to get some chicken thing with peppers and a few slices of bread. 


Empty spaces cut through with lines of people waiting an hour for food

The line for Dutch sweets was just as long as the line for bratwurst. Almost halfway through our (hourlong) wait, the bratwurst sold out. We'd be served because we'd paid, but newcomers were out of luck. They'd just waited an hour to get into the market only to have just about every single actual food item unavailable.

I bought a beer out of spite. Also, I needed carbs. This made me drunker. 

Seriously, how does one go to an outdoor event in Taiwan and not get food? I am pretty sure that's against the law here. If a Taiwanese sausage vendor had set up just outside they would have made a fortune.

I will say, the food I was able to get was very good. The alcohol was all top-notch. They just needed several thousand more bratwursts and more stands to sell them. 


Me after I was physically unable to put anything in my stomach but alcohol until I left the market

Determined to find more food, I wandered the emptier section of the market, where there were lots of stalls but very few people. 

The music was holiday appropriate, or at least mostly Christmas-adjacent (I'm not sure what the guys in matching suits dancing in sync like K-pop stars were doing, but whatever). 

What else was there? Occupying prime real estate was the China Airlines booth. Though they had a raffle going for free tickets to Frankfurt (during a pandemic? Perhaps they don't have an expiration date), there was nothing else happening there. Next to them, a booth selling appliances. 

Who goes to a Christmas market to buy an oven?

There was a Mercedes Benz parked by the Christmas tree. I am pretty sure everyone in Taiwan who afford a Benz has either already bought one or is aware of the brand. Nobody is getting their brand awareness raised at a Christmas market. 


More empty space that could be used not to sell chains or padlocks or something to clean up with, but rather big fat wieners to stuff in my face

The stalls on the far end had an array of presumably German brands. You could buy some of this stuff -- but who goes to a Christmas market to buy cleaning products or padlocks?

The padlock stall seemed to just be...padlocks. At least the cleaning product stall was decorated with Christmas things.

"There's no fucking food," a friend remarked, "but you can buy everything you need for your murder dungeon. And a getaway car too!" 

I don't think I saw any chains or handcuffs for sale (essential components of a Holiday Murder Dungeon). That's a shame, as it might have made the whole thing a bizarrely fun experience. But no. It's almost worse that they half-assed the whole Murder Dungeon angle. On Christmas and Murder Dungeons both, go big or go home.


Me looking for some goddamn food at the German Christmas Market

I had gotten a shot of rum in my gluhwein, so I was in a freewheelin', brainstormin' mood. 

"Maybe because people do buy cleaning products at Lunar New Year, they thought they'd buy them at Christmas?" I said to no one in particular. 

A Taiwanese friend scoffed. "Nobody's silly enough to think that. Maybe because it got rave reviews last year it became this business sponsored thing and that killed it?"

"German Christmas Markets are supposed to be 90% food. FOOD!" added the person in our group who'd lived in Germany for over a decade. "Not padlocks. I just wanted some burnt almonds. I cannot eat a fucking padlock!"

After the obligatory hour in line at Oma's, our other friend returned with his tasty-looking chicken thing. We'd finally gotten our bratwurst but it hit too late to absorb the rummed-up gluhwein. I mean, I know I say this a lot but I really needed more hot sausage, a lot faster than I freakin' got it. What is a German Christmas Market even good for if I can't get absolutely stuffed with wieners?

"So I'd actually just wanted some cookies," he said, putting small bags of speculoos, sugar cookies and candied almonds on the little table we'd cornered to form a Bitching Circle. "Turns out, you could walk right up and buy the cookies. The line was for hot food. But nobody makes that clear."

We ate most of his cookies.

It didn't matter that we weren't full. By 7pm every stall was sold out of food, at a market that would traditionally be mostly food. Imagine turning up to a night market and there are 3 food stands and they all sell out by 7. But you can buy a washing machine! Would you return? 

We headed to Maji Square. I teetered, one friend anxiety smoked and the person who hadn't gotten anything at all hunger-marched. We found a bar that served exactly one type of panini and wasn't packed, so we stuffed ourselves with ham and Emmenthal paninis until we felt better. It was run by a French guy who could understand my drunk ordering (it helped that he only had the one food item). Clearly the French know how to feed people better than the Germans.

Honestly, I thought Germans were supposed to be good at this Christmas Market thing. But I, a boorish American, have some advice for the German Office on how to make next year's market less like a Holiday Murder Dungeon Superstore and more like, well, a Christmas market. 

First, by all means have sponsors. But make sure that you have more than a half-dozen stands selling actual food. One bratwurst stand? One raclette stand? One place in the whole market to buy Christmas cookies and they don't even tell you that you don't have to wait in the hot food line for them? 

Certainly, this fair needed far more hot meat injection opportunities. They needed to quintuple -- no, octuple -- the number of places selling snacks and food for immediate consumption, so no one line gets too long. The only things sold in multiples in the whole market were beer and wine, which is of course why I got trashed. Of course that moves faster because it's easier to serve, but multiple food stalls cut down waiting time.

And order enough food. No Christmas market should sell out hours before it closes.

The only explanation for why this seems to keep happening at events like Christmas markets and taco festivals is that foreigners planning for them don't seem to take into account the crowds generated by the classic Taiwan combination: high anticipation and dense population. Night market stalls know what it means to be crowded in a Taiwan sense, and plan appropriately. It's time foreign-run events figure it out, too (or just collaborate with locals to work this stuff out). 

Have a meeting with all the sponsors. Tell them to make it Christmassy or GTFO. had the right idea with this, selling hot wine under a sign with their name on it. Now I remember as the cool kids at the Christmas party. Not Mercedes Benz.

Here, I'll even give them some free ideas, although they are probably not genius ideas because I did indeed have them while hopped up on Gluhwein.

Padlock Guys: You know that thing where people put love locks on a bridge or fence to show they'll be together forever? Riff on that with Holiday Love Locks, which are lightweight locks you can write or paint your name on (painting service costs extra for those who don't want to DIY). They come in an array of holiday shapes and colors, including hearts, and are lightweight so you can hang them as ornaments on a Christmas tree, string of lights, holiday lantern etc. You can set aside part of your display for actual padlocks, and put the fake ornament ones into branded pouches.

Cleaning Product Guys: Have you not heard of holiday-scented cleaning products? Maybe you don't want to put out a whole new line of stuff, but sell some scented candles, sachets, potpourri or room sprays to your lineup. Do raffles where buying something will enter you to win one of your products.

Mercedes Benz: I'm not really into cars but someone who is would definitely buy Benz-logo or car-shaped iced Christmas cookies. Snowglobes and mini snowglobe ornaments with little Benzes inside! There are people who will totally buy that as a cute gift for a loved one dreaming of owning a real Benz someday. Soft pretzels shaped like the Benz logo! I'd buy that, because I like soft pretzels. 

Bosch and other white goods sellers: Cookies and other baked goods are the obvious choice here. Team up with Mr. Mark or Oma's for these things, with free samples of pastries and breads. Soft pretzels and cinnamon rolls in branded paper pouches (or bags or boxes for takeaway) under a big sign that says "It bakes better in a Bosch!" Put business cards for your actual stores in the bags maybe. Whatever. Or team up with the Polish office to sell Polish ceramicware, with advertising about how well it survives your awesome dishwashers. 

China Airlines: I mean there are the obvious airline-themed stocking stuffers, ornaments and iced cookies, but they fly to Frankfurt. Frankfurter wurst! Anything for more of the hot wieners you know we all crave.

Everyone else: Baby Jesus cried because of this fair, you guys. Have your sign and whatnot, but make sure you actually do Christmas things at a Christmas fair. Sell little bags of holiday nuts, chocolates, snacks or dried fruits in branded bags. Get some sponsors who actually do food and drink and have a whiskey stall, a hot toddy stall, a stall with chocolates (eat now or take home), a stall with mini cinnamon rolls. 

Get places that make actual gift-y items to sponsor. Like little jars of jam and chili sauce or earrings that look like sleigh bells. Get all the wine sellers that seemed to do well in Hsinyi last week to mop up again handing out samples and selling bottles for a second weekend in a row.

I mean I don't even care if some of it's tacky -- that makes it better. You had booth babes in Sexy Santa gear, which is totally fine but it also means that anything goes.

Keep some of the music, but you couldn't get like a band in lederhosen up there doing a tuba thing? I associate that with a stereotype, and therefore it's a good idea! 

But really, just have more food and stuff one might actually buy at a Christmas market. You were on the right track with the alcohol but it's better if you don't make it so that the only thing people can reasonably do at your market is get trashed.

Otherwise, do better next year because this was a middle finger to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Overall rating? 2/10 (extra star for the good and plentiful alcohol). Needs more wiener.

I just innocently wanted to scarf down a pile of wieners, but the German Christmas Market was hiding around the corner waiting to ruin my dreams and also physically assault me with hunger

Monday, December 6, 2021

From all sides, the treatment of Kao Chia-yu has been deplorable


I don't have an appropriate cover photo so here's a picture.

"I was married before," she told me once. 

What followed was one of the most horrible stories to cross anyone's lips. I try not to tell too much of anyone else's story here, but this past week an old account hit the memory stratosphere, burning on re-entry.

Her boyfriend had been abusive while they were still dating, and threatened to kill her if she wouldn't agree to marry him. She didn't want to, and went to her father for advice. 

"Then you should marry him," he said, "because that must mean he really loves you."

She did. 

Of course it escalated. One day she simply had to leave. They divorced, and the whole town gave her the cold shoulder. She couldn't get a job or rent an apartment because she was a divorcée. Her family barely helped -- they didn't like the stigma, either. Even people who didn't know her would find out soon enough, she said, and it was usually the same:

"A man doesn't beat a good woman. What did you do to make him so violent?"

She didn't have the connections to legally change her household registration and set up a new life in a new town, and didn't want to try her luck as a domestic migrant worker without many legal rights.

Looking for any way out of her situation, she married my coworker, a foreigner who didn't care about her past. Or much of anything at all, it turns out: he'd crow proudly that she'd never leave him no matter how often he cheated on her (which was often -- he was well-known at the teahouses and barbershops). He'd announce his intentions to do just that and wander off while we (the only other foreigners in town, and we barely filled a four-top) stayed put at the riverside bar like respectable drunks. 

I told his wife what was up. She sighed and said she knew.

This happened in China -- a different country -- twenty years ago. I shouldn't have expected similar details to pop up in a story from the past week: Taiwan is a more progressive country than the one where this took place, and it is 2021. We know better. 

Why did I remember this story from so long ago?

Last week, legislator and former city councilor Kao Chia-yu 高嘉瑜 told the public her (presumably ex) boyfriend, public figure Raphael Lin 林秉樞, had subjected her to unconscionable abuse.

I won't recap Kao's account in this post. You can read about it here and here. There are a few things the English-language media mostly missed, however -- only the Taipei Times seems to have picked up some of it. First, that Lin made a concerted effort to silence Kao, saying "you know, I know and God knows, doesn't exist" and threatening to derail her political career, using his network of business and political giants willing to "vouch for him". 

When it became clear she would not be silenced, he called up one of the political talk show hosts who frequently had him on the air, saying that people will forgive a person who apologizes and shows contrition, but won't forgive a "scumbag". Kao is not the first woman Lin has threatened.

That's not the only reason I remember this story, however. Another public figure in Taiwan had the audacity to say this:

The person saying it? KMT Central Committee member Huang Jinwei 黃覲偉. His more complete remarks can be found here (in Mandarin). Here's a screenshot from FTV:

My translation: "a woman who makes a man so angry he physically beats her really is such an ignorant person [this is also slang for a deliberate troll, troublemaker or drama-stirrer, especially online]. Especially her cheeks [slang for an irritating person]. But a woman named Tsai [that's President Tsai] who has never been hit by a man, isn't qualified to support her. A woman that no man wants is disgusting enough."

Of course, Huang was roundly criticized for his remarks. No emotionally healthy person could think they were anything other than deeply unacceptable as well as a sign that Huang is, bluntly, a misogynist.

How did he respond? By saying that she "deserved to be beaten".

This all happened about a week ago. Lin has been taken into custody. The KMT has come out to denounce Huang's remarks and insist that disciplinary action will take place. Huang himself has "apologized", saying his remarks were inappropriate and fully his responsibility and not in keeping with "the current state of gender relations" in Taiwan. He neither mentioned his misogynist treatment of Kao or Tsai specifically nor clarify what was unacceptable in his remarks. Nor did he express any sort of deeper understanding of why he was wrong. Essentially, it was an apology only in the most literal sense of the term (in which he issued a statement that contained vague language of regret and took personal responsibility, likely because he'd been ordered to do so). 

I couldn't help but think back to that time in the early 2000s when I met another woman who was told by an entire town that women get beaten only if they "deserve it". It was inappropriate then as now, and in the decades before. People knew that. 

This isn't a recent social revolution or some great change. It's not a culture difference either. In the mid-20th century, domestic abuse wasn't considered a crime so much as a "family matter" or even "therapeutic" (not joking) in the US, and presumably in Taiwan and China as well. The women it happened to generally knew it was wrong. 

Most people know it is wrong, and they have for awhile. There's nothing "current' about these fundamental social evolutions, in all countries. (I also note that Huang mentioned that "the two genders" should get along, but I don't exactly expect this sort of person to have a more enlightened view of gender identity). 

If the person I knew who suffered similar backlash from a less progressive society twenty years ago knew it was wrong then, then Huang should have known before he opened his big jerk mouth that it's wrong in Taiwan now. And it always was.

There is no apology that can erase that. There's nothing that makes it okay. It shows a fundamental problem with how he sees the world and specifically his attitudes towards women.

The only possible outcome is that Huang be dismissed. There's no forgiveness here: his remarks reveal a belief system totally out of sync with Taiwanese society and certainly not in tune with what his party needs to even begin to rehabilitate their image. I've been keeping my eye on the local news, and so far I've seen no evidence that any disciplinary actions have taken place. Promises, yes. Sent to the disciplinary committee? Sure. Action? Nothing yet. That man should not be on the central committee of any political party. I know one must be patient, but that man should already be gone.

What's worse, it seems the KMT's promise that such remarks do not reflect the party's own stance and are wholly Huang's responsibility don't mean much to other members of the KMT. 

As reported by FTV, KMT Youth League director and member of the Central Standing Committee of the KMT Tian Fang-lun 田方倫 asked "whether the case could be considered domestic violence if the couple is not married" and implied that a cohabiting intimate relationship was somehow different in terms of what and was not abuse.

Tian Fang-lun brands himself on Facebook as a "different kind of youth", which I guess is true in a sense.

City Councilor and all-around superwoman Miao Po-ya 苗博雅 shot back with something to the effect of "if you don't know what you're talking about maybe just shut up" (she said it a bit more diplomatically), and that these sort of "sloppy" comments actually target the victim even more, which perpetrates verbal abuse. 

I am extremely happy that Miao is one of the councilors from my district.

What I want to know, however, is why both Huang and Tian still appear to have jobs. It's unlikely that Huang will face any serious repercussions, as the KMT central committee is sending the case to the party's examination committee.

It's heartening that their comments have been met with near-universal condemnation. Taiwan is not a country where the social consensus is that domestic abuse is acceptable or a mere 'family matter' (although it does happen, at a rate higher than you'd likely expect from a country that seems so otherwise safe). 

But the fact that they could make those comments and -- despite promised disciplinary action -- drop out of the news cycle while perhaps getting a finger-wag from some buddy in their own party, shows there's a lot more progress to be made. 

I'm also somewhat pleased -- and a little surprised -- to see that most of the local media I've read on Kao's ordeal has reported it fairly straight, by local media standards. Including commentary that points out the way people like Huang and Tian engaged in victim-blaming and further harm to Kao is frankly kinder than I've seen the media be to her in some time, although I certainly won't be calling for any journalism awards.

The Internet commentariat, on the other hand, has been an entirely different beast. Yes, the worst offenders such as Huang were slapped down, but there's an entire board on PTT dedicated to treating Kao like garbage. I don't know whether that falls under 'free speech' or not, but despite most Taiwanese believing domestic violence is a problem in their country, that such ideas still fester in its underbelly (much as they do in the US) is its own problem.

In the past, they spent a lot of time dallying on really unimportant aspects of her political career, which Donovan Smith of Taiwan Report covers in more detail here (it starts after the pig innard extravaganza, about 2/3 of the way through) and here. She's also been one of the people targeted with deepfake porn. I'd like to say more about media and personal representation of Taiwanese women in politics here, but I think that's fodder for another post.

This past week has been perhaps a little better in terms of responsible media coverage, but that's quite a low bar to hop over. Nobody is vaulting.

Kao deserves better, the voters deserve better, the media can do better, and Taiwan knows better. 

Sunday, November 28, 2021

What interpretations of "status quo" polls get wrong


Peer under the clouds and the valley is clear

I'm sure others will write on this in the coming days, but something's been on my mind and I have to unload it in long form. 

You know those polls asking Taiwanese citizens what they think about maintaining the status quo, independence or unification? A couple of them have come out recently, one from NCCU, commissioned by the Mainland Affairs Council and one from the World United Formosans for Independence (WUFI)

And I am here to tell you that while the data may be fine, interpretations of that data are almost always wrong. 

Interestingly, reporting of the MAC/NCCU poll doesn't seem to distinguish between maintaining the status quo and moving toward independence, deciding at a later date, or moving towards unification. The poll itself does so (look at Question 4). So what's up with the media? The MAC itself, the Taipei Times and Focus Taiwan all report "84.9%" of Taiwanese "support maintaining the status quo" with no further details offered. MOFA bumped that number up to "nearly 90%". I'm honestly not sure why, but my guess is that that's the line MAC wanted to put out there and the media reporting on it just followed their press release.

Previous NCCU polls differentiate as well. As of June this year, if you combine everyone who wants to maintain the status quo: indefinitely, with a decision at a later time, moving toward independence and moving toward unification, you get 83%, just slightly below this poll's results.

Those are very disparate views however: someone who wants to maintain the status quo but move toward independence (25.8% in the June poll) might agree on the "status quo" but their beliefs differ significantly in most other ways from someone who wants to move toward unification (an unimpressive 5.7%). "Move toward independence" is highly competitive with "maintain indefinitely" and "decide later", whereas "move toward unification" is down in the sewer. 

You simply cannot credibly combine those into the same set of beliefs, unless your bias and your goal are to push for maintaining the status quo and to mask what Taiwanese really think beyond that.

Despite not clarifying this, media reports do shed some light on the fact that for most Taiwanese, "the status quo" is a stand-in for we want peace, not war, and to maintain the sovereignty we already have. You can see this in the high agreement with Tsai's statements -- not perfect stand-ins for what Taiwanese actually, ideally want for their country but better than a lumpen status quo potato salad.

Most (77.1%) agree that neither China nor Taiwan have a claim on the others' territory, Taiwanese alone should get to decide Taiwan's future, Chinese annexation should be resisted, Taiwan's democracy maintained and Beijing's attitude toward Taipei was unfriendly. 85.6% don't support "one country two systems". 

Combined with the fact that most Taiwanese identify as solely Taiwanese, and those who identify as both Taiwanese and Chinese prioritize Taiwanese identity, does this sound like a country that is actively choosing the status quo because it doesn't know what it wants, or a country that does know what it wants, but is deferring discussions on formal independence because de facto independence is sufficient given the threat from Beijing?

If this is a country that does know what it wants -- and it does -- why is there a continued insistence on forcing very disparate beliefs into one lumpen mess and claiming it as the "center" position? 

The actual center position is that Taiwan is already sovereign. In other words, unification (that is, annexation) is an extreme or fringe position, but trying to both-sides Taiwanese independence is straight-up wrong.

Taiwanese independence is a mainstream position. It is not remotely extreme. 

That's not my opinion. That's what the numbers say if you read them without blinders.

At first glance, the WUFI poll had somewhat different numbers. Moving toward independence and indefinite maintenance of the status quo were both near 40%. Independence as soon as possible was more popular than fast unification, at 7% and 1.8% respectively, and only 7% want to move towards unification. Most support using Taiwan as the name of the country despite threats from China, and most are in favor of diplomatic relations with the US. The only number that indicates much disagreement is the question of "just Taiwan" or "Taiwan and the Republic of China", which came in at about 40.5% and 30.9% respectively. It's not close, but the latter isn't swimming in the gutter alongside support for unification. 

What that means is that Tsai's re-imagining of what independence means is indeed the center position: that Taiwan doesn't need to declare independence because it's already independent, and its name is the Republic of China (the last bit of that being a current statement of fact, used to bridge the two perspectives). It certainly shows her "consensuses" in line with what Taiwanese actually think than the fabricated 1992 Consensus.

Back to the status quo: if you do the irresponsible thing and combine the numbers that all indicate some maintenance of the status quo -- despite their deeper ideological differences which should not be papered over -- you get approximately 87%, which isn't far off from the MAC/NCCU poll.

So okay, blah blah blah, lots of numbers. What's wrong with that?

Nothing, on the surface. The numbers are real. The desire to keep things as they are is real. However, they are often used to advance a line of thinking that simply doesn't match up with what all the other data tell us. 

I'm thinking not only of all those other questions that indicate a strong preference for maintaining sovereignty and resisting Chinese annexation, a general feeling that Beijing is unfriendly to Taiwan (which it is), a strong lean towards Taiwanese identity and using the name 'Taiwan' internationally.

It's also a question of what "the status quo" means, and under what conditions those questions are answered. 

An argument could be made that the questions themselves were constructed to push people toward answering "I prefer [some form of] the status quo" and then encourage the media to report that line. I know others will make that argument, so I won't as they can do it better. Besides, while it would be fairly easy to say that the Mainland Affairs Council is perhaps questionable, I doubt WUFI would intentionally construct questions that push for a specific kind of answer. And NCCU? As an institution they may lean blue but they've dutifully reported on the ascendance of Taiwanese identity for decades; I can't say they are intentionally engaging in academic chicanery.

In other words, I used to think the polls perhaps lacked basic construct validity. Maybe they do, but I'm going to back off that for now.

I feel quite comfortable, however, in calling out all the extraordinarily wrong interpretations of the data.  

There's the obvious question of what the status quo means to Taiwanese: as a friend pointed out, who could possibly look at the current situation -- the status quo -- and not consider it to be de facto independence? It's an answer that says "yes, I would like to maintain Taiwan's democratic government, institutions, borders, currency, military and society." In other words, a form of independence. As Tsai herself says: Taiwan doesn't need to declare independence because it is already independent.

The real news here is Taiwan wants to keep the sovereignty it already has. Does that not make for a sexy enough headline or something? Why is it always reported as "Taiwanese don't know", when that sort of data massage could get you a job in a Wanhua teahouse?

That should be clear from which "status quo" sub-sets have more respondents: almost nobody thinks the current situation is a holding pattern for possible unification. That's not my opinion, that's most Taiwanese saying -- in these numbers -- they don't want to move toward unification, now or ever. It's not an "undecided" and arguably, since democratization, it never was.

So why do people keep writing about it as though it's a big question mark, as though Taiwan is less decided on its desired outcome than it actually is? Even if the data are solid, why this off-the-wall interpretation of it?

I keep asking because I genuinely want to know why. 

We must also consider the conditions under which the questions are answered. With China insisting it will start a war if any move is made toward independence, and most people understandably not wanting a war, some version of "the status quo" makes sense, when the status quo offers both peace (of a sort -- our lives go on as usual but I'm not liking those warplanes either) and independence. It's an answer given under duress. Not by the pollsters, but the general atmosphere of Beijing's credible threats. 

It tells you a great deal about what Taiwanese want with a gun to their head, but nothing at all about what they ideally want for their country, if they could choose it without war clouds looming.

So why do people interpret it as some sort of freely-made final decision, not influenced by the threat of violent subjugation?

As one person commented, if you're asked whether you want to stay in jail or go free, most people will choose to go free. If told, "well, okay, but if you walk out the guard will take his best aim and probably kill you", your answer might differ considerably. The prisoner is no longer being asked what they want in an ideal situation.

One might say it doesn't matter: the Beijing war drums aren't slowing down, so there's no point in asking what Taiwanese would ideally want if they didn't have to contend with that. I disagree: it may be a hypothetical question, but it would get a lot closer to answering what Taiwan really wants for itself -- not just how the people react to a real external threat. 

Right now, people are interpreting the current results as exactly that -- what Taiwan really wants for itself -- when that is simply not what they indicate. It's just not. So stop showing your whole ass on this, please. All of you.

It's interesting, at least, that nobody seems to have asked this question that I know of, though the polls cited by Michael Turton comes pretty close. Like NCCU, the pollsters have their own ideological bias.

However, it does matter that when offered an ideal situation, most Taiwanese choose peaceful independence.

The closest we seem to get everywhere else are answers about how Taiwanese identify, how they want to participate in the international community, what they see as the name of the country, what they think of Chinese annexationism, and the differential between those who want to move towards independence vs. unification. None of these are a perfect stand-in, but they at least approach the question: is there a consensus on an ideal outcome for Taiwan?

And looking at those numbers, the answer is yes. And that ideal outcome is peace, with eventual independence. 

Repeat after me: 

Taiwan independence is a mainstream position.

Interpretations that say Taiwanese just don't know are harmful, unserious, ignorant and miss the point. 
Some intentionally so: there's a lot of institutional support for toeing the line at we want to maintain the status quo, please do not ask further questions thank you and good night. Some of it is well-meaning, an attempt to seem "nuanced" -- not in the good way, but in the both-sidesy fake-neutral way that the most pusillanimous analysts seem to adopt as a standard.

Consistently ignoring the contextual factors around these 'status quo' polls, applying odd assumptions to the questions actually asked and lumping together data that say far more when separated out is problematic.

It not only allows one to misconstrue what Taiwanese are accepting under duress as they actually want, it allows one to believe two very untrue things: that the KMT's position on China might be popular again given enough time, and that any talk of de jure sovereignty "angers" and "raises tensions" with Beijing, when Beijing is the antagonist -- not Taiwan. 

Neither of these things will ever be true, but if you believe Taiwanese don't know what they want and the only credible "center" position is an "undecided" despite all available data indicating otherwise, then believing those falsehoods becomes possible.

The dartboard is right there in the pub, most people in the pub are telling them exactly where the bullseye is, but their darts keep landing in the road outside.

I still want to know why.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Taiwan’s COVID response: let’s stop assuming “imperfect” is the same as “terrible”

Just a warning: I wrote this after an extremely busy work week and after taking the anxiety meds that help me sleep. If that shows in the writing style or other weirdnesses, I’ll go back and improve on the post later.

“This is probably going to be my last year in Taiwan,” someone told me recently. This was partly for personal reasons, but partly because “I’m just not very happy with Taiwan’s COVID response.” Not enough vaccines, not rolling them out fast enough, the interminable quarantine — they simply weren’t impressed. 

“It’s really shocking how the government hasn’t made any effort to import more vaccines,” said another friend, though they admitted that view mostly came from their parents and the pan-blue news they watched. 

Still other friends are upset about the lack of information about what quarantine rules apply to foreigners — do we get subsidies? Do we qualify for the 7+7 program? Is it legal to charge foreign residents more than citizens for quarantine? There’s also a lack of consideration for foreign residents who want to reunite with family members, and extremely unclear guidelines regarding how to sign up for first or second shots.

I don’t agree with the negativity of most of these takes, but they’ve come from people I respect. They pushed me to think about the ways we all decide what evidence we choose to consider when forming an opinion, especially if you’re looking to justify what you’ve already decided you want to believe. Nobody is safe from confirmation bias.

My own perspective: Taiwan’s COVID response remains fantastic, and the evidence for this is simple. It’s one of the only COVID-free countries in the world. As far as I know, the only one with a comparable population and density. Despite considerable odds — Beijing’s attempts to block vaccines from reaching Taiwan, exclusion from the WHO and proximity and connectedness with China — Taiwan has crushed each COVID surge. What other country went from an extensive outbreak to zero COVID in 7 months, without (in my view) unduly impinging on guaranteed rights and freedoms. The vaccine rollout indeed began slowly, but it’s scaled up impressively since. I meet very few Taiwanese anti-vaxxers or anti-maskers: the vast majority of those jackasses seem to be foreign residents -- with some exceptions, of course.

(If you are one of those, I want nothing to do with you. I am not interested in your “opinion.”)

I empathize with the frustration, however. I support keeping the mandatory quarantine as long as experts deem it necessary, but the fact is, it’s made it impossible for us to visit family. At the same time, I’ve watched those family members travel while I am effectively stuck in Taiwan. I don’t miss leisure travel as much as I thought I would, but I do miss my family. I accepted that I’d miss Christmas 2020 and two weddings — the last family wedding before these two was my own 11 years ago, so they mattered to me — but I never imagined I’d have to give up Christmas 2021, too. 

Of any country to get stuck in, however, I am indeed grateful that it is Taiwan, with its zero domestic cases.

I watch friends and family in the US getting boosters, while my friends in Taiwan are still getting their second shots. I wonder how long it will be before I can get an mRNA booster, especially as both of my doses are AZ. I’m grateful that I was able to get the vaccine at all, but that booster? It’ll probably be awhile. Until then, international travel is indeed a bit more dangerous for me.

Even dismissing the exaggerations and truth-twisting of Taiwanese TV news (especially pan-blue news), it’s easy to see COVID-era Taiwan two ways: 

The half-empty glass: the delay in ordering vaccines caused the delays in receiving them. The quarantine is keeping Taiwan closed off while the rest of the world opens. The vaccines many of us were able to get aren’t the best, and aren’t necessarily going to make it easier to travel in the future. Guidelines have been vague and unclear, and foreign residents have been ignored entirely, treated as though we don’t exist. The government grew complacent in learning about the latest treatments and approaches because the country was COVID-free for so long, which led to higher mortality when an outbreak did occur. A surprising number of pilots (though still a tiny minority) didn’t follow the quarantine rules tailor-made for them. Businesses, especially those which typically served tourists, have closed. Taiwan is being left behind, and it’s starting to show.

The half-full glass: dude. We’re living in a COVID-free country. How many people can say that? How can you say a response that resulted in zero COVID isn’t working or isn’t impressive? This is despite having to fight just to be recognized on the international stage. Nobody has turned the wisdom of masking or vaccinating into a major political battle, even when they criticize the government. Taiwanese are masking and vaccinating and that’s more than you can say for a lot of belligerent ultracrepidarians in the US.

Perhaps the government could have jumped on orders faster, but the fact is that Beijing’s attempted (and somewhat successful) sabotage was real, and is not Taiwan’s fault. There have been outbreaks, and we’ve crushed them. There has been confusion and poor communication, and certainly missteps as well. What country can’t say that though? What government has handled the pandemic perfectly? What government has handled it better than Taiwan’s? The only real contender is New Zealand, and I’m not even sure that case is strong. We’ve all made sacrifices, and compared to what people in other countries have lived through, they’re mostly bearable (my heart goes out to anyone still waiting to bring a spouse to Taiwan with no timeline as to when it might be possible. That’s cruel.) 

My family in the US spent upwards of a year mostly locked indoors, away from others. I’m (de facto) being asked to wait about a year longer than I’d like to make that long-desired trip to see my family.

At the end of the day, however, we are living in a COVID-free country. What more do you really need in your glass?

To come to that more positive outlook, I pushed myself to think through the glass-half-empty view of Taiwan’s COVID response. Indeed, I found a lot to criticize: their views didn’t entirely lack logic or a point. Every day I don’t book a plane ticket to the US, that becomes clear. Every day I wonder when I’ll be able to get better protection than AZ for the Delta variant, I get it. 

The lesson: every country has made mistakes. Some more than others — the US’s strategy seemed to be ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, followed by a pretty decent effort, followed by a bunch of bellicose Dr. YouTube graduates who act like they’ve swallowed not-smart drugs ruining everything. No mistake Taiwan has made was worse than that of any other government, let alone so much worse that they deserve to be singled out for a poor response.

I’ve noticed a tendency of some — especially foreigners in Taiwan who’ve had a rough day — to assume every good strategy is simply obvious and doesn’t merit any praise for the Taiwanese COVID response, but every bad strategy is an indictment of the country.

That is, if it’s not absolutely perfect, they say it’s terrible. And they call it terrible with a level of dismissiveness and frankly condescension that they would most likely not aim at any other countries. COVID cases are surging in Europe, but do you see them going after that? No — Taiwan is a disaster to them because a few mistakes were made, but Europe? “Oh that’s worrisome”. That’s it. Oh, in Rotterdam they’re rioting against masks — that’s fine. But a pilot didn’t follow the rules in Taiwan? The problem must be the rules, not the individual pilot!

This leads to polarized viewpoints where Taiwan’s excellent-but-imperfect response is viewed as either unassailably amazing, or unforgivably terrible. 

The “unassailably amazing” people are in fact willing to be assailed, if you offer good evidence. 

The “anything less than a perfect response is a disaster!” people— a standard they would be unlikely to apply to any other country — are harder to reach. It’s hard to change someone’s mind if they want to dwell in negativity.

Fortunately, the middle ground is not devoid of people. There are also reasonable voices who posit that a generally excellent response was marred by a few missteps, but that the bad odds Taiwan has faced thanks to China merit quite a bit of grace towards Taiwan. Some of those missteps, however, do need to be addressed. 

This would best describe my viewpoint. But I had to come to it from an excessively positive one, genuinely consider the negative takes and incorporate what made sense while sloughing off everything that didn’t make sense when compared against the bigger picture (that is, the response of the rest of the world). 

If I can beg everyone reading this to one thing, it’s this: reconsider. Go through your baseline opinion on Taiwan’s COVID response and examine each of your assumptions, beliefs and areas of especially strong pride, anger or defensiveness. By all means, ignore the anti-science junk which is truly not worth your time.

Then, check them against your previous opinion. If this process causes your bright & sunny views to moderate a bit, then that’s a new level of nuance. It doesn’t mean your overall perspective is not a positive one.

If it causes you to question your previous negativity, great. 

If not, that’s your right, but we’re not going to agree. 

Perhaps consider that process for any opinion. Are you dumping on Taiwan because it doesn’t meet impossible standards of perfection that you wouldn’t apply to your home country? Stop, maybe. 

Are you looking at Taiwan through rose-colored glasses that you haven’t tried to remove? Your issue is the less severe one, but there might still be something to be learned here.