Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The Newest Taiwanese


A long and unclear path

As the November elections neared, the social media posts piled up. Things like "Can't wait to vote for the first time in Taiwan!" and "Voting in my first Taiwanese election!"

A few years ago, I didn't know many dual citizens who were not born Taiwanese, and of them not a single one who could vote. As the shadows grew long on 2022, however, it became clear that something had shifted. Changes to the laws surrounding dual nationality enacted in 2017 were starting to bear some modest fruit: a small but significant minority of people I know were posting last month about how excited they were to vote in a Taiwanese election for the first time.

I was genuinely happy for them, in that friendly envious way that bears no ill will. To me, they represented small dots of light: these friends, for example, don't all come from the same background. Some work in business, some are academics, some in tech, and some do work for the government. Most have indeed acquired dual nationality, although one chose to renounce their original citizenship. Before 2017, there was essentially no path to dual nationality if one had no Taiwanese heritage. Post-naturalization, one could petition to regain their original citizenship, but not all countries grant it (the United States certainly doesn't). Or, finding Jesus and building a life as a missionary was always an option: perhaps as a nonagenarian the government might bestow the honor.

Now, anyone deemed a "foreign senior professional" -- a classification that differs from Gold Card-eligible "foreign special professionals" -- has a pathway to becoming Taiwanese. The eligibility requirements remain restrictive -- perhaps unfairly so -- but at least there is a path.

I thought, with the election well behind us, that it would be interesting to talk to some of these newest citizens about what it was like to acquire citizenship, what challenges they faced and how it felt to vote. Some agreed to have their real names published; others asked to remain anonymous.

Participating in Democracy

The first thing that jumped out from everyone I talked to was a passion for participating in the democratic process. Ben Homnick, formerly a vice president at a technology company in Taiwan, summarized it well: "I think it finally hit home," he said, "when I was walking back from the voting booth, and I realized that I finally have the ability to participate in the political process of the place that I’ve been calling home for more than ten years. Whether or not I agree with the outcome of the election, at least I have some measurable amount of responsibility for what those outcomes are."

Kerim Friedman, a professor at National Donghwa University, said he found personal meaning in voting for the first time. "For me, voting is kind of an important civic ritual," he said. "I’ve watched Taiwan, I came here for the first time in 1991 right after it had just democratized, so watching Taiwan’s transition to democracy has been a major part of my life intellectually and personally, having been here observing it."

"I was in tears," said Uma, who gave up her original nationality. (Uma is a pseudonym; she preferred to remain anonymous.) "I left [my native country] when I was a kid, I've never actually been back during elections." Uma's country of origin doesn't allow absentee voting. "I've always wanted to be part of the democratic process."

Jerome Keating, voting for his first time in Taiwan put it this way, "If you believe in democracy, and care for the place where you live, you want to be part of the process." 

Some voting experiences were more neutral. Another friend, "Ted" (a pseudonym), works in the tech industry. He said he expected voting to "feel like a triumphant rite of passage." But when actually going through with it, he described the process as "largely confusing and empty. Despite spending many hours preparing, there was much that was novel. There were a lot of assumptions they didn't explain -- I didn't realize you couldn't take anything into the booth with you and I didn't realize the city council was FTPT [first past the post] with a multi-member district. The ballot doesn't list party affiliation...even though I prepared, I didn't know the numbers of my candidates, and was a bit lost without the parties [as there was no guide allowed in the voting booth]."

Uma agreed. Although she speaks Mandarin, she believes that "Taiwan needs to have more information for people who don’t speak Chinese. People didn’t know how many council people to vote for, and I wasn’t the only one. I asked how many people to vote for, and they said just one. And I was glad I asked that question."

Friedman described the process as "remarkably quick." He said, "You take all these papers and stamp them and put them in the boxes. I was surprised, I’ve voted in the states. It’s also often in schools in New York City, but I’ve always had to wait on line. There was no line at all, it was just in and out." 

Friedman had no issue as a foreigner voting for the first time. "I twas all very cute and they stamped me, as I was at the counter and they were stamping me, the two women were speaking Chinese and I heard something about foreigners but they were all nice and polite and it was very quick."

Homnick and Uma also described the process as very fast. Uma added that with more and more foreigners gaining the right to vote, election workers didn't appear to be very surprised by her presence. There are guides -- Uma mentioned that there's a guide outside the booths that describes what is a valid or invalid vote, and the boxes where you place the various ballots are all color-coded, and there are people around to tell you what to do. Before the election, all eligible voters receive a newspaper-like bundle describing the candidates, with a picture, party affiliation and space for each to extol their platforms. The same paper is also displayed at the polling place.

However, that doesn't necessarily mean the process will be clear to dual nationals. "One Taiwanese guy tore his up, he was on the news. Two new immigrants form Hong Kong they brought theirs out. They were brought to the police station," Uma said.

Despite some of these issues, the overall feeling was jubilant. "In the US we’re so used to doing this. But inTaiwan [if you can't vote], you feel like you’re a passenger. You’re watching the election with your friends on election night, you’re kind of passive about it. Actually having some skin in the game, it feels different," Homnick observed. 

"I was definitely elated to put my vote in," Keating added.

Becoming 'The Newest Taiwanese'

The actual process of getting Taiwanese citizenship and emotions around acquiring it seemed to influence how these new citizens felt about participating in the 2022 election. 

Ted said he "didn't expect citizenship would change" how he felt or how his life worked. "I just wanted to belong. Boy, was I wrong. I feel like a totally different person. The US has fully become 'the old country'," he said. 

One example is his attitude toward US policies. "I noticed that it made me way more ambivalent," he continued. "I wouldn't say my US politics have changed. I like Millenial socialism in theory, but find actual Millenial socialists a bit much. But it just takes up way less headspace than it used to."

For Ted, the most important change has been his ability to open businesses and protect his partner. "We are unable to marry as his home country doesn't recognize same-sex marriage, so instead of having a marriage, I have a business that sponsors his ARC."

Uma, who gave up her original nationality, said she felt like she was "betraying" her native land, and wished she'd perhaps waited longer to see if she qualified under the new regulations. "We did it because my daughter was graduating from school, and she was going to go to the Netherlands for college. She had a logical argument, she wanted to get Taiwanese nationality so she could travel around Europe freely, and didn’t want to go through the visa process," she said. (Uma's original nationality doesn't usually qualify for visas on arrival). "[My daughter] was under 20, and in Taiwan that’s considered not an adult, so one parent needed to do it with her. So I did it."

Homnick described the process as "bittersweet", pointing out that it feels like only a small step in the right direction.

"In some ways it’s the culmination of 13 years in Taiwan and calling this country my own," he observed. "On the other hand, it’s often a publicity stunt. There's always a press release, and they make the giant ID card. It's like, 'hey look how international we are', without always being super international. And I think it’s great personally, obviously there are benefits to having an ID. But does it really serve the purpose of paving the way for more acceptance of dual citizenship? I think it probably does — any sort of cracks in the long-time policies of excluding most immigrants from citizenship are probably a good thing, even if it’s just getting visibility to starting a conversation."

Ted did not experience the publicity 'circus', however. There was no press release and after some thought, he declined to be interviewed by the media.

Friedman also pointed out the narrowness of the path to dual nationality, but added that there is a logical explanation for it. 

"I’d like to see Taiwan become more multicultural," he said. "The vast majority of foreigners in Taiwan are Southeast Asian workers. So if Taiwan did open [dual nationality to more people], they would be the main beneficiaries. If Taiwan were to shift to becoming more of a Southeast Asian country, and more of an immigrant country the way the US and Europe are more immigrant countries....wherever that’s happened, it’s sparked anti-immigrant backlash mostly sparked by false information and false ideas about who immigrants are and their impact on the economy. Most studies show that immigrants are actually good for the economy and don’t cause rises in crime. But you know Taiwan’s media landscape...and you can imagine how that’s going to be spun by the media."

He went on to emphasize that much of this backlash is sparked by political and media disinformation. "Fearmongering from some politicians and the media are going to be a challenge. So I don’t blame the government for being a little cautious."

In terms of the difficulty of actually acquiring dual nationality, experiences varied quite a bit. All encountered challenges, though some, such as Friedman, found the process smoother than others. Some found the challenges, including significant ones, to be less than expected. Others encountered more difficulties than they'd anticipated. The only universal was that no one's journey was entirely without obstacles.

For Homnick, the whole process took about a year and included an initial rejection. "I applied thinking that I had been a vice president with a tech company for awhile, I’d done some open source projects that had to do with TW as well.  I figure that would be enough...the first time I actually got rejected. They were pretty good about giving feedback, they said, 'we felt you didn’t have enough contributions to Taiwan.' It was good of the committee to give me the feedback, even though I think the standards are ridiculous. So I went back, got a bunch more recommendation letters, and really focused my application on contributions to Taiwan." 

He added that some fields seem to provide easier paths to dual nationality than others. Academia in particular, he said, "seems to be one of the reliable ways to get through the committee. You have to be an associate professor, and if you have that you are pretty much greenlit." 

Ted had a more difficult time of it than either Homnick or Friedman, calling the process an "unparalleled chore." He applied through the Ministry of Science and Technology, and submitted his tech portfolio as proof of contributions to Taiwan. He also noted that one has to have Mandarin language proficiency. 

"[For] the second phase review, my local HRO (Household Registration Office) demanded 39 separate documents, including an FBI background check translated into Chinese, verified by TECRO, and then again by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then notarized, then translated, then notarized again," Ted recounted.  The local office rejected the translation twice...after giving them all that, they said that I wasn't qualified. It took the intervention of my new employer, lawyers, the Ministry of Science and Technology and the National Development Council to convince the HRO to forward the application." 

However, he states that he's not resentful about the process. "I actually thought it would be worse," he quipped. 

Uma also faced challenges as a new citizen. Receiving citizenship doesn't necessarily grant all the rights of citizenship immediately, as she found out to her detriment. 

She said, "There’s a lot of paperwork you need to give up your own nationality. After that, it’s better if you don’t travel for a period, maybe a year. You just have a passport but it does not show your ID card [because] you don’t have a household registration. So you don’t have the visa-free entry to anywhere in that year. If you have to travel, you have to wait two years to get your household registration. So we didn’t travel for that year, and I lost a lot of job opportunities by staying. After one year we got the national ID the household registration and everything, the works. [Since then] it's just been like a Taiwanese citizen [for me]."

While Homnick noted that gathering paperwork was the most time-consuming part of the process, Friedman emphasized that it comes in two steps, and one is smoother than the other. 

"The first step is to get approved as a special foreign professional," he said. "Once that comes through you are allowed to apply for citizenship without having to give up your passport. That’s fairly simple and straightforward. The first part is occupation specific, and each occupation has their own procedures.

As a professor, I go through the Ministry of Education....The fact that you’ve already been given tenure is proof that you’re a special foreign professional. For a filmmaker, unless you’ve won an Academy Award or something. Some of these professions are made for it, like basketball players, or if you have a Plum Blossom APRC [which] is already proof that you are a special foreign professional. There are certain disciplines where it’s much easier to do it than others."

"It’s a little arbitrary," he continued. "But if you happen to be lucky enough to fit into one of these slots — priest, basketball player…then it’s not that hard. Usually if people have problems, it’s because their institutions weren’t supportive of them. I think as time goes on, more and more institutions [will be] willing to do the process."

Uma agreed, saying that "I used to think you have to be 90 years old and build 90 churches to get citizenship, and that’s too hard. Even now they’re not very realistic. Even now, people who’ve really contributed and who really deserve it are falling through the cracks. It’s getting better, Taiwan is like that." 

Homnick added that it seemed as though someone who didn't have specific institutional backing would need to "win a Nobel Prize" to qualify.

Who's a Foreigner? Who Isn't?

Everyone had something to say about how Taiwan regarded them in the context of being newly, officially local, both in general and in the context of last month's election. Most didn't cite ongoing discrimination, however, it bears mentioning that of the people I interviewed, only one was a person of color. 

Friedman said that when he went to vote, "the two women were speaking Chinese and I heard something about foreigners but they were all nice and polite," and that more than voting itself, talking to others about becoming a citizen might have some kind of impact. "But it's hard to know," he admitted. He also noted that he talks about how perceptions of him as an "American Taiwanese" are likely to be quite different than Taiwanese who gain US citizenship and become "Taiwanese Americans". 

In line with Friedman's earlier point that it would benefit Taiwan to be more multicultural, Homnick noted that while he does have neighbors who will sometimes complain or assume the "foreigner" is at fault, the doormen of this building will stand up for him, especially now that he is a citizen. "They'll stand up when people say 'waiguoren'," he said, "they'll say 'he's not a foreigner!'" 

"It's going to take awhile to get over that stuff. Having people who break conceptions of what a Taiwanese person looks like are probably good in the long run. And I think that’s really in the benefit of Taiwan in the long run as well. You look at China which has tried so hard to become this ethnonationalist state, anything Taiwan can do to set themselves apart from that is a good thing." 

Uma described her experience when voting: "I think there are more and more foreign faces with ID cards now, so they’re not that surprised. First they said, 'do you have an ID?' I said yes. I had my ID in hand so they understood I was a citizen."

"I no longer care if people mislabel me as a foreigner, or try to speak English when Chinese would be easier...I have nothing more to prove, but seeing my partner face so much discrimination is heartbreaking. As a foreigner, I always felt like citizens had so much untapped power, but now as a citizen I feel this kind of surreal helplessness. I'm safe, but I cannot extend that safety to others," Ted added.

Homnick also noted discrimination against Southeast Asian immigrants in Taiwan, citing a bulletin in his building requiring families to sequester any domestic workers in their apartments during the pandemic, and not let them leave. "That's definitely illegal," he clarified. "I said, 'if you don't take this down I'm calling the police." (The notice was taken down.) 

While voting and being part of the political process is the most meaningful benefit Homnick says he's derived, the one he feels on a daily basis is having a regular Taiwan identity card. "The biggest quality of life improvement is having the number that works on websites, he said. "Which is funny because they said they were going to solve this issue by standardizing the ID numbers, but their solution didn't fix anything!"

Homnick also noted that access to government subsidies and other services is a major benefit, but that he's never tried to get something like a mortgage. "Some things haven’t changed," he added. "I still get called laowai, waiguoren, people still ask for an ARC. I went to Chunghwa Telecom to renew a contract and they still wanted to see an ARC, and I needed to explain that I don’t have [one]. There’s still some discrimination by banks. It’s more about being born outside of Taiwan."

The November Election

One thing struck me as I talked to this group of new Taiwanese with many divergent experiences: the extent to which they agreed on the November election. 

"Politically, I have way less patience for the KMT than I used to. I was never a tankie, but I was educated by them and felt they had good points on some issues [such as nuclear power]. But I'm not willing to entertain them because I don't trust them to handle China, and if they don't get that through their heads, the party and country will suffer. The Communists might not allow me to leave the way a foreigner could," Ted observed.

Homnick is similarly worried. "I am a lot more wary of China," he said. "I don’t think I’ll ever go back to China. I think the national security law probably applies to me now. Even if it doesn’t, it’s not worth taking the risk. What if they start arbitrarily detaining Taiwan citizens? What happens to citizens if there is some kind of conflict?"

"I didn't have a lot invested in who was elected to the city council," Friedman said. "but I really cared a lot about the referendum [to lower the voting age to 18], and I’m very upset about that. I didn’t expect it to win. I was for it [but] I was shocked by now disinterested and now unmotivated people were to make sure that it passed...for me, it seemed an important measure in terms of Taiwanese democracy. And it’s again something I’ve talked about with my students. I have had students who said they thought they weren’t mature enough to vote. I showed them a map of how in other countries, 16 or 17 year olds might [have voting rights].  'Do you really think you’re less mature?'"

He continued, "Then they started thinking, maybe you have a point. Even young people seem to buy into [the attitude that they shouldn't be voting.] I found that very depressing, I think it’s important for young people to become civically engaged and start participating in the process. Politics shouldn’t be left to just old people either."

Homnick agreed, saying he was "disappointed but not surprised" regarding the election results. "I feel like I don’t have a good understanding of why people vote the way they do. I’m not sure I have a good understanding in the US either. I don’t see why anyone with Chiang in their name is still relevant these days. [My girlfriend said] her friends said they voted for him because he's handsome, or their parents told them to. [But] if you want to pick the most handsome candidate, you have the right to. No matter how I feel about it, it’s your choice. I was disappointed about the referendum on voting age. A lot of the justifications for people voting against that: '18 year olds are not mature enough to make decisions like that.' Well they’re not going to be if you treat them like children!"

Friedman tended to agree regarding the election of Chiang Wan-an as Taipei mayor. "It's hard for me to know how much of a factor it played, it's obvious that Wan-an is cashing in on the Chiang name, which is weird that that would have resonance for people. One argument is 'well, they didn't really vote for him for that reason', [but] the fact that he chose that name didn't hurt him either. It's like in the Philippines with the Marcos family getting re-elected. The parallels are interesting."

"I’m really sad the referendum thing didn’t go through," Uma concurred. "The voting age should be 18. They’re saying there wasn’t proper education about it. There might have been some misinformation as well. People were saying that older people thought that people aged 18-20 could also run for elections as a candidate, and older people didn’t like that, so they voted against it."

Not everyone expressed a specific opinion on candidates, but Uma offered one perspective: "Chen had a town hall for foreigners, when he started [campaigning], when he first announced, and I got to go. And I interacted with him and…I watched him for 900 days. I was very excited to have the possibility of being mayor. So that was quite sad." 

In the end, Friedman and Uma offered up perspectives that perhaps summarized the feeling of participating in a democratic process as citizens rather than foreign residents. 

Although Friedman described voting as "a little anticlimactic", he didn't mean it in a negative way. "For democracy to be kind of boring is a good thing," he said. 

In fact, Friedman pointed to social movements as another vital part of civic engagement and the democratic process. "When the Sunflower movement happened, the students we had comment to university were very politicized. Since [then], that faded into the background, young people seemed less politically involved. It’s interesting, because my general feeling is that the quality of education is improving in Taiwan, and the quality of college students is improving, [but they seem] less politicized...Wage justice, environmental justice -- there are some, but broadly speaking people tend to be more focused on their personal career. Social movements invigorate people and get people involved in politics."

"Because when we say Taiwan is a beacon for democracy in Asia, it’s like the front line against an autocratic country," Uma concluded. "I feel like I’m part of it. And I’m not sure whether it excites me or scares me. Family back home, [ask] 'aren’t you scared of living in Taiwan?" Because the media really hypes up the whole China thing, [such as] when Pelosi came and [China's military drills]. I said’s just like part of our daily lives. It’s something we’re used to...Taiwan is upholding this light of democracy,  and Taiwan is dealing with that on a daily basis. Being part of the voting processes [and] making sure they don’t sell Taiwan out to China is an important part of that." 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Notes on that Big Kylo Energy in Taipei

I absolutely borrowed the idea for using this movie still from someone else, but my sentiments are exactly the same. Very little about yesterday was a surprise to me, but it still hurts when the city you call home decides that the least qualified candidate, who worships his Mass Murder Grandpa and Even Mass Murderier Great Grandpa, should be mayor. 

I respect the democratic process and all, the people have spoken. I happen to disagree with their choice -- I'm really not a fan of Mass Murder Grandpa -- but hey, that's democracy. The losers lost with grace, lowering the voting age should have passed but didn't, and I'm not feeling great about it today.

You won't get any super original takes here: I don't comment as much on elections anymore because there are people out there (like Courtney Donovan Smith and Nathan Batto) who do a better job. All I have are some notes.

First, more people voted to lower the voting age than voted against it, but it still didn't have enough overall "yes" votes to pass. I happen to think that this isn't just the KMT perfunctorily 'agreeing' with the DPP to take the wind out of their electoral issue sails. It's very difficult to change things when voting is already skewed in favor of older people, and those older people very much have an unjustified "kids these days!" view. Plus, they know perfectly well that those "kids" mostly won't vote for the conservative hucksters they want in office. Progressives have shown they can sweep individual elections, but systemic change is far more difficult to implement. 

On the reasons why the vote broke down as it did, the best take I've found is Wen-ti Sung's on Twitter. Here's a long snippet, organized into paragraphs:

DPP main progressive agenda this electoral cycle is lowering voting age to 18, hoping to use it to paint rival KMT as conservative boomers.

But this got neutralized politically, 'coz this time KMT actually agrees, ('coz KMT didn't want to make it a political cleavage issue & lose young voters for nothing). DPP then defaults back to its TW nationalism card. But it faces diminishing utility, as it's been DPP's main weapon in 2014, 2016, and 2020. Fourth time is not the charm. DPP then tries intense negative campaigning against the opposition (to be sure KMT does a lot of negative campaigning, too). This includes DPP's repeat questioning of 2 opposition mayor candidates' past records, e.g. alleged misuse of government research grants, misappropriation of parliamentary assistants' overtime pay, etc.

The logic is simple: If you can't win on your own merits, then try to disqualify/discredit your opponents, so you win by default. That playbook backfired -- it's never a good look to see ruling party (Establishment) to play the tired mudslinging game.

It heightens voter fatigue. For weeks on end that's all the voters hear about. That dilutes DPP's  agenda, and it became unclear what the DPP stands for beyond non-stop dirt, day in and day out, and a chaotic status quo of petty politics.

Again, DPP and KMT are both at fault for non-stop negative campaigning this year. But voters rightfully judge the ruling party DPP by higher standards, because of what Spiderman said: "with greater power comes greater responsibility."

Frustrated voters are not going to be pro status-quo, pro-incumbent voters. This means low voter turnout on DPP's side, whereas the hungry KMT voters, after 6 years in the wilderness, couldn't wait to show up on voting day to win one back.

Election results in many cities suggest KMT votes turn out in slightly above average levels, while DPP significantly underperforms its baseline in many cities. (still awaiting final official data of course)

This is not about China, however. If it's about Chinese economic coercion, then since 1) a lot of it is targeted at Taiwanese agricultural produce, and 2) Southern Taiwan is the agricultural hub, one would expect the South to swing the hardest against the DPP, no? But that is not the case. Southern Taiwan is the DPP's only stronghold left this weekend. So DPP's crushing defeat is not about China, but about DPP's own failure to set a positive agenda and maintain party unity.  Self-inflicted wound.

Just a little side-note before we continue: solid, rational thinking like this from a Taiwanese and Taiwan-based expert should be more prevalent in international media. Perhaps y'all can stop interviewing just the same three white folks and start including voices like these? The ideas are more original, analysis better, and it's a fully-informed Taiwanese perspective. All those US-based folks seem to get issues like Taiwan/China exactly backwards, constantly, without taking into account, let alone respecting, the choices Taiwan is making for itself with the same information about China.

More people like Sung and less...whomever, please.

What disappoints me the most isn't that popular incumbents won re-election (Hou in New Taipei and Lu in Taichung). We knew that would happen. I'm not sure how good of a job Lu's done, but she doesn't seem to have performed terribly, either. Hou is extremely popular in New Taipei, and Lin Chia-long isn't even that popular within the DPP (I'm not a huge fan -- he's not the worst, but he's not the best). But I do wonder exactly what Hou has done for New Taipei, because I leave Taipei proper often and haven't really seen any improvements in the big donut. Am I wrong here, or is he mostly popular as a personality? Because I don't see that he's a particularly good mayor. 

Pan-greens like to talk about Hou as the guy responsible for the death of Nylon Deng. And I do indeed think he has some culpability: he was "just following orders", sure, but he had the capacity even then to know right from wrong, surely he had the ability to know that Deng was a 'you'll never take me alive' type of person, and he chose to do the wrong thing. I don't think he should be expelled from society or anything like that, but I also don't think he should be mayor of a major city. 

I also agree with Sung -- this is about not just local issues but the DPP's poor campaigning, and definitively not about China  -- because the DPP incumbent who came closest to losing was Tainan's Huang, and he's not everyone's favorite within the DPP. Re-electing him on a slim margin (for Tainan) is much more likely to be dissatisfaction with the DPP generally, because if there is any city in Taiwan that doesn't f***k with the KMT or pro-China rhetoric, it's Tainan.

I'd like to move there, actually. Or Kaohsiung. I get along well with southerners, and am not looking forward to four years of whatever the Chiang machine is bringing to Taipei.

That brings me back to the newly-elected Kylo Re---I mean Chiang Wan-an. People say voting, especially in mid-terms, is based more on identity and family tradition than whether the candidate is actually good. (In national elections this also plays a role but I think young people sick of Grandpa's bullshit opinions might be a bit more serious about not voting for the Appease China party).

I know more than one person who received multiple messages from their deep blue family about how they must vote KMT. Because they're my friends and I happen to get along with people who lean green well (again, not a fan of Mass Murder Grandpa, but very much a fan of Taiwan), I know they didn't necessarily listen. But surely, some adult offspring did.

And Donovan (linked above) is correct that Chiang had a much bigger get-out-the-vote machine. I heard rumors among local friends that the DPP had "sacrificed" Chen when it became clear he was unlikely to win. I'm not sure about that, but certainly all the noise trucks and hype men annoying me across Taipei were KMT. The DPP left me blissfully in peace. You'd think that would count for something -- Mayor No-Trucks seems like a fantastic pick, and that's not sarcasm -- but apparently not. 

What truly, deeply bothers me, however, is that none of this seems to have much at all to do with competence or qualifications. I don't think Hou is the worst mayor, but he's not the best. Chiang has legislative experience, but he's easily the least qualified candidate. Or as Nathan Batto put it: 

Chen did briefly make an argument that I think he should have hammered more throughout the campaign. Chiang Wan-an, he said, looks new, shiny, and different, but the people behind him are the same old KMT party hacks who have disappointed you again and again.

When I switched over to Chiang’s rally, he was enthusiastically making Chen’s point. The lineup of speakers included former mayor Hau Lung-pin, former deputy mayor Ou Chin-teh, former New Taipei and Kaohsiung deputy mayor Lee Si-chuan, former Taipei Education Bureau chief (and current legislator) Lin I-hua, the head of the KMT legislative caucus Tseng Ming-tsung, Chiang himself, Chiang’s wife, and KMT party chair Eric Chu. That’s a whole slew of old KMT warhorses who don’t exactly exude new ideas.

I know that I can't say much about what the people chose. I don't even get to vote! But I can't help but think they chose something that seemed like a statement, seemed like something new, a young, fresh guy. What they really chose is same-old-same-old, with the same (literally) old hacks informing the same-old "good for the Boss Class" ideas. Plus, an idolized Mass Murder Grandpa. The KMT tends to win not just because they might have a real edge in local elections, but because they've never truly been held accountable in Taiwan for the horrors they perpetrated. And that's in part because again, voting is skewed in favor of old folks, and some of those old folks either weren't affected by those horrors, purposely ignored them, or are actively culpable for decades of oppression.

And again, changing that requires systemic shifts, which are difficult to pull off because it's not one party campaigning for and the other against, but a whole system of people who don't want the "wrong" guy elected -- and who want to control their grandkids and are increasingly pushing against their own irrelevance. 

Some grandkids push against this, some don't, but ultimately the system is skewed and it fights to remain so.

Let's end on a hopeful note. I'll soon be writing about one other thing I noticed this year: multiple friends who have no Taiwanese ancestry but became Taiwanese, who voted, mostly for the first time, in this election. The number of people I know personally who've managed this is fewer than ten, but this is the first year that it's not zero, or perhaps one. 

That's a tiny change. Miniscule. Makes no difference to the current environment. But I'm choosing to see a single rivulet as evidence of a coming shift. Not "foreigners en masse becoming Taiwanese and voting", but the Taiwanese electorate continuing to move away from the past and toward a more open and more diverse future. 

It's not much, but it's all I've got and I will cling to it. 

Sunday, November 13, 2022

I don't want to care about Chiang Wan-an's ancestry (and a Hakka-sponsored KMT rally)

I hadn't planned on attending a Chiang Wan-an rally today. In fact, I wore my Chthonic t-shirt that has a stylized 獨 (independence) under the band name, which immediately gave away that I'm certainly no supporter.

Sadly, I was fated to be there. For weeks I'd planned on attending the Da'an Forest Park free market to give away an IKEA bag full of stuff we no longer need. The Hakka Support Association (客家後援會) just happened to be hosting a Chiang rally at the amphitheater at the same time. I had no choice but to listen to utter bollocks for an hour and a half. 

As you can see, while cropped photos can make it look like the rally was packed, it wasn't really. 

Most of what I listened to was some guy -- I didn't catch who it was -- going on a spittle-flecked rager about how horrible President Tsai, Chen Shih-chung and Huang Shan-shan were. They're all horrible, apparently, because of reasons. (I couldn't make out what the reasons were, and while that could be a fault with my Mandarin, I don't think that's why.) 

Then some flag bearers and lion dancers welcomed Chiang onstage. Apparently Eric Chu was there as well, which I failed to notice from a distance, but he's not exactly Mr. Remarkable so that's fine. 

Chiang mostly talked about how important Hakka culture was to him and that Hakka language and history should be preserved, which is fine. Hakka culture is great! He said he supported it as legislator by encouraging "relevant laws", though I didn't catch what those laws were. 

His specific opinions, proposals and ideas were, well, lacking. He mentioned the new MRT line to Xizhi, which anyone elected would be trying to accomplish, and how northern Taiwan is now too expensive for the youth, which everyone already knows. That's more or less it.

That's not surprising: there isn't a lot of substance to his campaign. Even posters with actual promises on them are frustrating to read: 

Edited: I've had a longer look at this poster (it's very context-specific) and the three promises aren't as vague as I'd initially thought. The first says the rule for urban renewal will switch from 100% resident approval rate to 80%, the second that the amount of required public space in new developments will change (I'm not clear how) and the third -- well, I had to ask a friend about that as it's not clearly worded. But apparently the idea is they can 'force' or 'require' people in places slated for development or urban renewal to accept these new policies.

The policies themselves benefit mostly wealthy property owners.

He then went on to pull a strategy straight out of the skanky Republican playbook by pre-emptively accusing the other candidates of intending to "reverse the election", saying he was in a critical moment (true of all candidates), and "on thin ice" (which isn't true -- it's a tight race but again, it's tight for everyone.)

Oh yes, and he did the one thing I wish he really wouldn't do. The one weird trick that has caused my opinion on him to shift from apathy -- just another unqualified vacuous KMT hack who doesn't deserve the office he's likely to win -- he started leveraging his (purported) ancestral connection to the Chiang dictators, Chiang Ching-kuo in particular. (Chiang Kai-shek's name is political poison, as it should be). 

I missed this part because I was petting a cute dog, which was frankly more engaging than Chiang's speech, but according to the Liberty Times, he said he'd "uphold the spirit of Chiang Ching-kuo, diligently loving the people and serving residents step by step". 

Of course, Chiang Ching-kuo didn't love the people of Taiwan. He instigated major infrastructure projects, but he was also the head of secret police and absolutely knew that many of the people his own government sent to prison weren't getting fair trials. He actively helped to carry out the White Terror. According to the News Lens:

Jay Taylor, author of the Chiang the younger’s most well-known English language biography, “The Generalissimo’s Son,” notes that his subject was, according to those around him, an empathetic man who genuinely cared for the common people....However, the author confesses that this side of his personality was at odds with the reign of terror he inflicted upon the Taiwanese population as head of the National Security Bureau (NSB) after the KMT reforms of the early 1950s. His seemingly gentle and pliable nature also does not negate, in the minds of many who fought for Taiwanese democracy, his role in crushing dissent, both at home and abroad, throughout the period of martial law.

It's unclear what role Chiang Ching-kuo might have played in 228, but there's evidence that he did indeed have a role:

Defense Minister Bai Chongxi (白崇禧) arrived in Taiwan with the generalissimo's son, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), and wired a message to Chiang Kai-shek that "order is mostly restored, and we are in pursuit of the last remaining rebels that joined forces with armed thugs.”
Does that sound like a guy who "loved the people and cared for residents step by step"?  Because to me, he sounds like a butcher, and Chiang Wan-an is calling on him as a model of public officialdom. 

Let me be blunt: that's fucked up.

This isn't the first time he's talked up the family, either. Here's just one example. From the Taipei Times:

Former presidents Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his son Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) protected the Republic of China and contributed greatly to the development of Taiwan during the Cold War era, an achievement that should be the goal of any political party in Taiwan, Chiang Wan-an said.

The article cites Chiang's suggestion regarding the name of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall as "forward thinking", but this sounds pretty backward to me.

He also actively leverages the connection

In January, he said that his name “Wan-an” was given to him by his grandfather — former president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) — as a reminder of his ancestral roots. On more than one occasion, he stated that he has always been proud of being a Chiang, and that he would follow in his ancestors’ — Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and Chiang Ching-kuo — footsteps to make Taiwan a better place. He further underscored this lineage by placing an artistic image of himself with Chiang Ching-kuo, side-by-side, on his mayoral campaign flags.

I know people who know Chiang Wan-an, and hear that is a nice guy in person. I don't doubt that's true. But he's not qualified to be mayor, and even if he were, calling on Chiang Ching-kuo as the sort of leader he'd want to emulate is absolutely not on. 

To be clear, I would feel this way even if he weren't legally recognized as the former dictator's grandson. If you care about all that, here's a great Twitter thread by Taiwan resident David Demes. 

But I don't really, because you can't help who your ancestors are. You can, however, control how you react to and discuss their legacy. On both fronts, Chiang has mostly failed: he's tied himself to brutal dictators. Butchers. Some of the worst criminals of history. Not just by taking the name, but in the way he talks about Chiang Ching-kuo's "loving" nature and treating him like an idol, when the man was absolutely a mass murderer. 

I don't care that public perception of the younger dictator is somewhat better than his murderous father. He was still a butcher. He was an awful man. No infrastructure project can fix that. 

I'm a little ambivalent about the whole Chiang Wan-an family saga though, because every time I say "he could just take a DNA test to prove the connection if he really wanted to", I feel a twinge of discomfort. It has 'birther' vibes, except with even less bodily privacy: as a human being, Chiang has every right to decide what he does or doesn't want to do with his genetic material. 

The callbacks to Chiang Ching-kuo would be offensive and disgusting regardless of his parentage, so arguably, it doesn't matter. But Chiang himself makes it matter by bringing it up all the goddamn time. That's a choice

He doesn't have to definitively confirm the connection, but he could choose to stop leveraging it, or could admit that his legally-recognized ancestors were bad people. "You can't choose your ancestors," he might say. 

He didn't do that, today or any other day. He makes the connection. He asks his supporters to care. He pushes people to care, and he does so in the worst possible way. The most offensive way. That -- and not whomever his grandfather was -- is the problem.

I do want to take this a step further: his choice to take the Chiang name was a choice. There are some pretty weird rumors flying around that the family name was changed when Chiang was a minor, that he had no say in it, that it wasn't intended to be used for any political gain. That's not true: he found out about the purported family connection as a teenager, but the change happened in or around 2005, when Chiang would have been roughly 27.

As Focus Taiwan doesn't archive, here's the relevant bit:

Chiang is the son of former KMT Vice Chairman John Chiang (蔣孝嚴), and purported great-grandson of former President Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石). In 2005, John Chiang changed his surname from Chang (章) to Chiang, and his family, including Chiang Wan-an, later followed suit.

This was around the time his father briefly contended for the Taipei mayorship (2006), which he announced at Chiang Ching-kuo's mausoleum. To say that the name change decision wasn't politically motivated is patently ridiculous. Chiang Wan-an's choice to follow suit is less clear, but he got into politics soon after, so it's hard to believe that his motives were meaningfully different.

I don't want to care, but I feel like Chiang is forcing me to care. He didn't have to do it this way. He chose it.

And my conclusion, from Chiang Wan-an shoving his family history in everyone's face, is this: whether or not he's genetically related to Chiang Ching-kuo, he talks about that murderous piece of shit as though he's some sort of heroic example, a person whose values as a government official are noble and worth emulating.

That is wrong, no matter who you are, or who your ancestors are.

I truly did not want to care, but I was made to care, and my opinion of Chiang Wan-an is much worse for it. He had so many choices available when coming to terms with his ancestry. He could have done right by it. He could have recognized the Chiang name for what it really means for Taiwan. 
He might even have won some goodwill from me (as though that matters).

Instead, he picked all the wrong paths, made all the wrong choices. 

He's been described to me in personal terms, by people who know him in a personal capacity, as a friendly guy -- a decent person. He could have looked at his ancestry and decided to handle it in the way a decent person would. I would have respected that a lot. 

He did the opposite.

That's not because of who his grandfather might have been. That's on him.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Untold Herstory: The brutal film that you must see

Imagine a Taiwanese crowdfunded film about female prisoners on Green Island making it into Vieshow Cinemas. So central was crowdfunding that donor were thanked at the end (though some had simple nicknames and others cheeky handles like "1450"). 

Although it was reviewed by the Taipei Times, I hadn't heard of Untold Herstory until a very close friend with a connection to the film sent seven free-ticket vouchers.

Imagine, then, that this friend had offered similar vouchers to other people she knew and was rebuffed. "Let the past be the past," they said. Of course, this attitude only protects the villains of history: the same people who call Untold Herstory "the past" which we should "move beyond" probably lose their minds when removing Chiang Kai-shek's statue from Dead Dictator Memorial Hall is discussed. They so often only want to let some history stay in the past. 

The group I went with included people whose families either were touched by the White Terror, or came close to it. They of course have a rather different take on whether The events of Untold Herstory can be considered history at all, seeing as it hasn't even been a century and the party that committed all those atrocities still exists and runs in elections. Chiang Ching-kuo makes an appearance in the film, though they don't show his face presumably because they couldn't find any actor ugly enough to play him. 

His so-called grandson who is Maury Poviching the hell out of that purported family connection might be the mayor of Taipei in a few weeks. 

Is that really ancient history, or is it relevant right now?


That's the background. On to the movie. 

The Taipei Times covers the way Untold Herstory pays meticulous detail to language use: people speak in various dialects of Mandarin (you can tell which characters don't speak it natively), Taiwanese, Atayal and Japanese. The guards all spoke Cantonese. As such, the film has both Mandarin and English subtitles, which also make it more accessible to an international audience. If your Mandarin subtitle-reading isn't so hot, catch this movie now: it's one of the rare films of this genre to offer English.

I'm not sure that the prisoners of Green Island would have been allowed to speak that much Taiwanese and Japanese without more severe punishment, but then they also said at the beginning that the inmates were all now numbers, not names. Then they continued to use names, because clearly some rules matter more than others, even back in authoritarian Taiwan.

The plotting and general mood is very Taiwanese. I appreciated the nonlinear scenes which set a certain mood of tension, depression, tragedy and chaos. The opening scenes are slightly disorienting, which does a good job portraying what it likely felt to have your world torn asunder as you land on Green Island for a stint in prison.

The overall effect is one of an agglomeration of memories that come together to tell a whole story, but are experienced somewhat out of order, they way you might encounter it in nightmares and PTSD flashbacks. 

Other details lend authenticity: the fact that some of the inmates were indeed refugees from China themselves -- not everyone was from Taiwan, and not everyone was a leftist or home-rule advocate. The authorities running the prison slept with whatever female inmates took their fancy. That the guards were usually but not always cruel. Most people executed were chosen for political reasons, none got a fair trial, and many were hand-picked by Chiang Kai-shek to die.

Upside-down shots from the viewpoint of characters strung up by their legs also imply how justice was absolutely turned on its head: some (though not all) of the characters are actually guilty of the "crimes" they've been sent to Green Island for. The problem is, in any free country they would not be crimes at all. These "crimes" include being a member of a socialist organization, passing newspaper clippings to one another, and merely thinking Taiwan might be better off as an independent state. That they were crimes as defined by a monstrous government only means that justice had been turned asunder. Those that recognized this and suffered mental breakdowns over it were called "crazy". But of course, they were right.

Untold Herstory isn't exactly subtle on the imagery, but I didn't mind that. Every time some KMT officer was unusually cruel or hypocritical, an ROC flag, a picture of Sun Yat-sen or Chiang Kai-shek was prominently displayed in the frame. The music drove home the point. Sone lines -- "I'm not a Communist bandit, I'm just a Taiwanese ox!", "You are a spy if the Commander says you are a spy!" and the double-edged "how can a flag be just a rag?" were heartbreaking. 

And speaking of smiling in the photograph taken of you just before your execution as a form of rebellion? Well, that just broke me. It broke me. This did, too.

The scene at the end is all the more heartbreaking for being out of context and highly metaphorical: I won't spoil it, but someone in our group recognized scenes like these as a trope borrowed from Japanese films.

It was difficult to make Untold Herstory, and friends pointed out that it probably wouldn't have been made at all even 20 years ago. This was not just because society was perhaps not ready for it, but because the real women who lived these experiences did not want to talk about them, with reasonable justification. It's never easy to talk about that kind of pain.

This is why films like Untold Herstory and the book it's based on do need to be discussed in the present. They exist in living memory. They still affect society. And, after all, only those who want to protect the truly guilty -- the people who committed the White Terror which saw these women and so many others tortured and killed -- seem to think it should be "left in the past". 

They are wrong, so prove them wrong. Go see Untold Herstory. Learn about exactly what the KMT did in Taiwan, and why justice was never served, as those criminals were never truly punished for what they did to the people they imprisoned, both Taiwanese and Chinese. That those perpetrators of crimes against humanity -- and now their sons and grandsons, or "grandsons" -- are even still a political party disgusts me. The DPP needs meaningful opposition, but it shouldn't be a gaggle of mass murderers and their descendents.

Then get a drink afterward, because I promise you will not want to go directly home and stew in your thoughts. 

Saturday, November 5, 2022

The anti-war position, and what I no longer hear


I'm not here to start a war with China. This should be obvious. My anti-war position ought not to be considered unconventional, and yet it so often is.

What do I mean? Well, to me, the only sensible anti-war position for Taiwan is to porcupine itself into an undesirable conquest for China -- call it "avoiding war by preparing for war" if you want, but I consider it to be "making the attack that China has fixated on seem as untenable and costly as possible".

This is especially vital when it's become apparent that there is no diplomatic solution acceptable to both China and Taiwan. China will only accept complete authority over Taiwan. Taiwan will never accept any Chinese authority over its sovereignty. There's no middle ground; one side isn't going to get what they want and if we care at all about democratic norms and human rights, that side must be China.

It also means engaging with the international community through any channels that present themselves. This means engagement with the much-reviled United States and normalizing visits from high-level officials. 

It means noticing the difference in China's tone when it's an official visitor they assume the world won't care about, vs. Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi's visit didn't antagonize China: China chose to act aggrievèd when they could have simply...not. If China got poked in the eye, then they picked up the stick and did it to themselves.

It means doing these things even as China whorls and wails and fustigates in anguish that the world would dare to disagree with them that Taiwan is not, indeed, their territory.

If anything deters China from an attempt at brutal annexation, it will be these steps. Preparation, international solidarity, normalization of Taiwan's status (including through unofficial channels), standing firm as the shills and quislings crackle and wail in despair. 

Don't back down, do prepare yourselves, don't let China decide the shape of the fight because they will certainly red-line you into a corner: this is the anti-war position. 

What's the pro-war position -- the support for a series of events that will certainly lead to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan? Appeasing the CPC. Respecting every red line it throws down as sacrosanct. Moving away from international engagement because it's always a "move likely to anger China", not challenging China's attempt to dominate the discourse and lexis of how the world talks about Taiwan ("split in 1949" and "reunification" reporters, I am indeed looking right at you.) Taiwan not preparing itself because that "raises tensions". Insisting that Taiwan's current sovereignty does not constitute independence, when it absolutely does.

This is often cloaked in the language of "engaging China" or "diplomatic solutions" It's called the "anti-war" position, but it's the opposite. It's really just appeasement -- letting China draw its lines wherever it wants like a sugared-up kid with an Etch-a-Sketch and a bad attitude. Telling Taiwan to make itself metaphorically smaller as the lines cut closer, because keeping what it already has also "raises tensions". And somehow, someway, that's read as Taiwan's fault. 

You want a bloody subjugation of Taiwan? Because all that appeasement is exactly how you get it.

All that said, imagine my utter lack of surprise when people -- and this has happened more than once -- shoot back that people like me, with the true anti-war position, are encouraging the war machine over a conflict we won't be fighting, in a nation we won't be defending. 

There's an easy parry for me, personally: it's wrong. I fully intend to stay and defend Taiwan. I'm not sure how, as I'm not much of a fighter, but surely volunteers will be needed to grow sweet potatoes, make Molotovs and do basic nursing. 

But there's a more difficult moral divide here that I'm not sure gets explored enough: the whole insult -- you want to plunge Taiwan into war when you won't be around to fight that war -- begs the question. It assumes that people like me (pro-Taiwan long-term foreigners) generally advocate for war.

But we don't. 

Appeasement is far more likely to lead to that conflict than deterrence. Appeasement is quite literally easing China's way toward invasion. We know this because China, not the US or Taiwan, will start that war when they feel that victory is achievable. Why make it easier for the CPC?

I might not feel this way if a diplomatic solution existed, but none does. So either China is deterred, or there is a war. I prefer that China be deterred: the anti-war position.

There's a third problem, too: deciding to stay and fight or escape is morally fraught. Less so for me -- I don't have children I'd need to get to safety, and my loved ones in the US are well cared-for. But I do worry about how I would be able to afford to live in a war-torn land where I am not a citizen, presumably when my job's just been blown up. I don't have local relatives to help out. I do have friends, but they'll have their own stresses. And it is a rather larger commitment than most people realize: pledging to defend a country that doesn't offer most long-termers dual nationality, which it readily extends to ROC citizens.

And yet, I've said I'll fight, and I stick by that. Perhaps it's wise to stop judging others, though: they have their own moral compasses, and you don't know their circumstances. 

It doesn't do anyone any good to get finger-waggy at long-termers in Taiwan as though it's assumed we'll all run. You don't know what life circumstances are guiding everyone's decisions.

Finally, when long-termers in Taiwan say they believe in international engagement (yes, including with some dodgy people), a strong defense and an understanding that the only way to win the CCP's "red line temper tantrum" games is not to play them, they are echoing the Taiwanese government line. 

I hope you believe that Taiwan can govern itself competently and has the intelligence on the Chinese government that it needs to make these kinds of decisions. So, when foreigners in Taiwan say that China is the aggressor, scoffs at diplomacy, and cannot be trusted, there's a reason for it. We've been living through what that attitude looks like.

We may not be echoing analysts in other countries who have some blinkered ideas about the power of diplomacy with a genocidal dictatorship, but we are echoing stance of the Tsai administration, and the majority of Taiwanese who do say they'll fight. This may not be a reliable indicator of who would actually be on the front lines, but it is a decent gauge of the extent to which Taiwanese people do not want to simply hand their country to China or compromise on their sovereignty.

With all this in mind, I've decided that I simply do not hear this any longer. You want to say I wouldn't fight for Taiwan? Or that any long-termer wouldn't, and thus forfeits the right to an opinion you don't like (but which happens to be in line with the Taiwanese government stance)? 

I think that's stupid, but I won't tell you what you can and can't say.

Yet I'm not interested in hearing it. I expect writing this won't stop people from holding silly opinions, but they're gonna 左耳進右耳出, and that's that. 

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Pill popping nation? Yes, but also Overworked Nation


I've been taking time off blogging for a bit, because there's just too much going on in my life and I don't have energy to deal with it all and keep a blog. What's more, most of what I have to say is a big fat downer guaranteed to not help me win friends or influence anyone, so I'm waiting until I can say it more neutrally. 

Then I read Pill Popping Nation in the Taipei Times this morning, and felt like popping in -- pun very much intended -- with a quick reaction.

Even here, it's going to take me awhile to get to the point. Please bear with me; I'm writing this on the fly when I don't really have the time.

I'm a chronic insomniac, and have been for as long as I can remember. Some of my childhood memories include staring at red-blaring numbers (remember those clunky fake-wood alarm clocks from the '80s?) as they ticked past midnight on a school night, feeling my cat hop onto my bed as Mom's snores in the next room grew deeper, falling half asleep until I dreamed up black snakes under my pillow and jolted me awake, or lying there as the same six bars of some song I didn't even like played over and over in my head. 

Once, I wandered into the kitchen for some water and found Dad awake as well, typing away. I think we were still using real typewriters back then. Turns out staying up late to write runs in the family. 

I struggled through adolescence and early adulthood. I rarely excelled at office jobs because flextime wasn't popular in the early 2000s, and the usual 9am start time was deeply incompatible with my rebellious brain chemicals. The anxiety diagnosis came in my late 30s as I was wrapping up graduate school, the ADD diagnosis on its heels. It made sense; my solid academic work was churned out despite my study habits, not because of them.

Sleeping pills worked, and they were available in Taiwan. They were prescribed by a highly-recommended psychiatrist who did take the time to talk to me, so it didn't feel like I was reaching for an easy answer. Then pandemic travel eased slightly and I visited the US in May. Turns out my Dad and I are not the only ones in the family with these issues, and I was introduced to the magic of edibles and CBD tea.

Nothing has ever worked so well as those plant-based solutions. I was anxiety-free for a month. I took no pills. I slept like a child who'd snuck a few too many sips of her parents' drinks. I even wondered if it was New York City easing all my issues. But no -- the solution was herbal all along. And no, I do not mean Chinese medicine (which I've tried to no avail.)

What does any of this have to do with Han Cheung's excellent article?

Well, I know a thing or two about being up all night, most nights, to the point that it affects your concentration and work. I know about hanging out on the couch waiting for the Lendormin to kick in, because if I try to lie in bed all I'll get is a repetitive and unwanted brain concert, six bars for each song.

Frankly, I was surprised to learn that one in five Taiwanese people share the same issues. That number does indeed seem high.

Because I take sleeping pills, I know that the fundamental point of the piece is correct: Taiwan's National Health Insurance is fantastic -- I pay next to nothing for my tiny white solutions -- but it doesn't promote holistic care. My anxiety and insomnia are probably baked in, but if I wanted to figure out what else was going on, if anything, I'd probably have to take two weeks off to see a long list of doctors to have a look at everything from my heart to my ****. There would be no general practitioner guiding me or facilitating any of it.

Not that I'm complaining -- at least it would be affordable. In the US, I'd probably just suffer and get fired a lot because I can't sleep the way a 9-5 job demands, and probably still wouldn't be able to afford adequate medical care. Now, people actually think I'm good at work!

But there's more to the story of a nation of insomniacs than "you need holistic care, not pills". 

You know what this country is? Wonderful, but also overworked. Managers tend not to be particularly flexible; 9am is 9am even if they know you were working on that project until midnight, because they assigned it.

I've had accountants fall asleep in their English class because they were working 9am-2am for months straight. I know people who've gotten emails at three in the morning, and woken up to someone angry that they hadn't responded yet. Kids go to school at 7am and return from after-school school at 10pm. On the weekends they have expensive weekend school. How could one not expect those kids to grow up with severe sleep issues?

Regular business hours appear to be 9-8, or 8-10, or 7-11, or simply It Never Stops. Calling a meeting at 6pm, or handing someone an urgent assignment on Friday night (due Monday!) is so mundane that I can't even give you a specific example. They all glom together like a big goopy ball of exhaustion. 

I don't think office workers take 1pm naps because of some cultural thing. Although daytime naps can mess up a sleep cycle, I think they're common in Taiwan because everyone is overworked all the time. The napping starts in school because the kids are overworked, too.

You'd think exhaustion would help one sleep better, but it does the opposite. 

As for me, well, I'm freelance. I bring it on myself. I'm not tormented by bad managers. I like my work and I like money, so I say yes to everything and work out the scheduling later. But I can't deny what I see in everyone else: they signed up for a regular job and a salary, not to be tormented by garbage management after years of being tormented by taskmaster teachers handing out pointless busywork. 

Truly, I love Taiwan. And yes, holistic treatment matters in reducing dependency on sleeping pills. 

But the solution isn't "acupuncture", "relaxation methods" or "traditional Chinese medicine". 

Those things might help, though I'm not an enthusiastic supporter of TCM

The solution is two simple things that Taiwan is not even close to prepared to do:

The first is a comprehensive overhaul of work culture in Taiwan. Most managers probably know that they are terrible (maybe this is why they have trouble sleeping, too!) Society needs to come together to pressure them to be less so.

The second is to legalize medical marijuana, especially edibles (because smoking is bad for you, period.) At the very least, CBD needs to be made more available. It's a healthier, non-addictive alternative to Xanax and Ambien, which seem to be what most people take. In other words, the most effective herbal remedies are specifically the ones that aren't legal in Taiwan, but should be.

There's no acupuncture or breathing technique strong enough to fix the problem until we address not just the internal factors causing Taiwan's insomnia issue, but the external ones as well.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Taiwan can govern itself, and this should be obvious


My eyes blurred when I saw the picture: Freddy Lim showing off a selfie he'd snapped with former Secretary of State and horror show of a human being, Mike Pompeo. The former advocates for LGBT+ equality, among other things. The latter spends an inordinate amount of time tweeting furiously about "wokeism" in the military, whatever that means. 

Is Pompeo aware of Lim's politics, beyond continuing to support Taiwan's ongoing independence? I have no idea.

Does Lim know about Pompeo's politics, beyond support of Taiwan? Almost certainly yes. I'm including the "almost" only because he hasn't said.

This was disappointing, of course, coming from Lim specifically. I expected it from most politicians, but Lim seems to actually stand for something, and that something is a society very much unlike the bigoted shitfest that Mike Pompeo fantasizes about. When I say they truly only agree on one thing -- Taiwan's sovereignty -- I mean it. 

I've struggled with this publicly in the past. Is it worth having absolute turds as allies when they otherwise promulgate horrifying right-wing values? My heart says no. My brain points out that Taiwan is losing diplomatic allies, not gaining them; official allies Taiwan has aren't exactly staunch supporters so much as checkbook friends; Taiwan has never been more in the world's eye and never enjoyed so much unofficial support; yet it's still not enough as long as Chinese invasion remains a real threat and potential assistance is only tepidly affirmed.

It's a lot to work through. My head aches with it. Yet I've never been able to fully embrace the idea that trash allies are worse than no allies at all. There are many reasons for this, but one sticks out: Taiwan is choosing this. 

Before, all this worry could be mapped along two axes: the degree to which Taiwan needs international support (quite a bit), and the degree to which its supporters have palatable politics in general (some do, many don't). Even this is no easy grid. It goes beyond lack of a clear notion of point at which Taiwan can be picky about its allies; I'm not even sure how to structure the question, or equation, or whatever it is. I think Mike Pompeo is a bigot and I'm tired of having to think about him, but what of the people who think even Nancy Pelosi shouldn't make the cut, because she's too far to the right or to the left for their liking? 

I'd answered that two-sided question with my own split take: you will never hear me praise someone like Mike Pompeo, but I won't stand in the way of what Taiwan needs to do -- and that includes courting support from influential people who can offer tangible help. To be blunt, it means playing nice with US empire because CCP empire is so much worse, and if Taiwan rejects all problematic support, CCP empire will win. Yes, it will.

And I can personally fume about that as much as I want, which changes nothing.

Of course, there was always a third axis to this: Taiwan's choice to accept that support. I do not believe for a single instant that, say, President Tsai is unaware of Mike Pompeo's, uh, portfolio. I know for a fact that at least some of the Taiwanese political figures who engage with him know what he's about. 

The other guys too. Taiwanese voters aren't stupid (or at least not any more so than other countries), and the government they elected isn't doing this blindly. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Marcia Blackburn, Abe Shinzo, et cetera ad nauseam: they know the deal with these people. And I'd make a real cash money bet that they have similar intelligence as the US, so they're aware of the magnitude and type of CCP threats at all times. 

In short, they don't need to be educated by preening Westerners eager to show off how much they know better. Frankly, it's a little offensive to assume Taiwan is ignorant of all this and needs to be told.

It's still difficult, though, because I remain strongly averse to even the whiff of right-wing bigotry. I criticized Freddy Lim for that photo too -- not because I think Taiwan should tell Mike Pompeo to get bent, but because he's Freddy Lim. I actually agree with everyone pointing out these supporters aren't top-notch. I personally wouldn't even shake their hands.

But, at the end of it, if we're going to talk about Taiwanese agency and self-determination, that the Taiwanese people can and should choose their own future, then we must also admit that they chose a government who is choosing to engage with these people. 

That government is far from perfect, but it has been consistently competent, and paid no political price I can see for that engagement. That's as close as we're going to get to proof of a consensus: Taiwan used its agency, decided it needed that support, and chose to engage. And not every Taiwanese person who makes up one speck of that overall national agency is going to be a leftist, or even a liberal. It's always going to be this way, and frankly whether one agrees or not is irrelevant.

Of course, Taiwan being a free society, one can criticize the government all they want. I share some of those criticisms! Criticize away! But the constant pile-on about whom Taiwan should and shouldn't engage with is not only tiring, it's ramped up to the point that it doesn't read like well-meaning criticism anymore. It comes across as I-know-betterism.  You know, hey Taiwan enjoy all that agency and self-determination but be sure to only use it in the ways I approve of! 

Clearly, I'm not a fan. Maybe I used to be, but not anymore.

I can hear the comments now: you wouldn't think this way if the KMT were in charge! 

You're right, I wouldn't. When they were in charge and did a terrible job, I stood with the activists and progressives who pushed for something very much like the Tsai administration. Now the people we supported are in charge, and generally -- some criticisms aside -- I think they're doing a fine job, especially regarding international relations. The people I supported won a bunch of elections and now are competently running the country, and I'm happy about that, and think the other guys wouldn't do as good a job? Yes! Obviously! 

Taiwan as Taiwan (not Chiang Kai-shek's personal ROC pleasure hole) has never been so noticed, so supported, so popular -- and that's thanks to the government everyone is now yelling at for engaging with international supporters they don't like. To be blunt, I don't care for it. In fact, it'd be suicidal for Taiwan. I don't know exactly at what point Taiwan can turn away support, but surely it is not when they still lack formal diplomatic recognition, and only one country in the world has said anything remotely concrete about assisting them if China invades. 

I have one more thing to say: some of us who've been here a long time do support the current government. When we're not fans of the side that got elected, we tend to stand with local opposition. Adhering to this stance even when Taiwan does things we don't personally like -- such as welcome Mike Pompeo or Marcia Blackburn -- doesn't make us right-wingers or closet Trumpers (as I've been called, but most certainly am not) or putting Taiwan in danger by supporting the "provocation" of China. 

If we're saying most of the analysts not in Taiwan are getting it wrong, and our stance is consistent with the very government we wanted to see as far back as 2014, then we're standing with Taiwan's choices. Not just that, but the choices Taiwan makes with the political intel it has, which we can only guess at. No, we don't want Taiwan to bend conservative. No, we don't want to taunt or "provoke" China. Taiwan is steering this ship, and we're supporting it. We believe Taiwan can govern itself. 

In other words, criticize all you want. But be cognizant of what you're saying and what it implies: are you supporting Taiwanese agency by meaningfully engaging and sincerely disagreeing on some points, or are you playing the Let Me Educate Taiwan Because I Know Better game? 

We should all learn where this line is, myself included. I'm not immune, and I'm sure I've crossed it before. But the line, though hard to see, is there. All you have to do is look.