Friday, January 27, 2023

The Fissure

                       taroko


When I first moved to Taiwan, I didn't have a lot of free time. Like most buxibans, my first workplace expected six-day work weeks. A coworker rightly described this sort of job as "not really being teachers, it's the education industry equivalent of working at The Gap." He wasn't wrong.

The only real upside was public holidays: on those preposterous work/school "make up days", we didn't have Saturday classes. Feeling a bit trapped in Taipei -- you can't really do much when you work six days a week -- I decided to use one of these to check out Taroko Gorge. 

I did this with the wisdom and forethought of a turnip. I used none of my intelligence in applying my experiences in China to my expectations for Taiwan. Namely, that one can turn up close to a destination and pay someone a small amount of money to just take you there. So, instead of getting off the train at Hualien and taking the bus through the gorge like any other young person on a budget, I hopped off at Xincheng because it's geographically much closer to Taroko. 

I found no transport and walked -- walked! -- the several kilometers to the park entrance. I even walked most of the Shakadang Trail. Realizing my mistake, I then grabbed the bus to Hualien and got a bed in a hostel, having seen almost none of the actual gorge. I did get a very nice view of Asia Cement's, um, cement garden. Local children laughed at me. I deserved it. 

Years later, I told students what I’d done. They laughed at me too. I still deserved it. 

“Never do this!” I said. 

“We never would,” one of them shot back. 

On my next trip, we hired a taxi. I wanted to go to the Qingshui cliffs in addition to Taroko, but he wouldn't take us. My Mandarin wasn't good enough yet to really communicate much. It rained, and I had a headache. On the third trip, I rented a car with friends and for whatever reason we ended up driving over the North Cross-Island Highway first (don't ask). It was gorgeous, but we were too tired the next day to truly appreciate the beauty of our actual destination. We picked out a random local hotel with terrible beds and thin walls; someone was having a great time spanking their boyfriend in the next room. Good for them, but not fun for us.

We drove back, in the rain, over the cliffs but it was getting late and we didn't really get to appreciate those, either. 

Years later, despite all that bad luck, I wanted to take my in-laws. They'd been to Taiwan a few times but never really gotten to see the country's natural beauty. So we bought tickets -- to Hualien this time -- on the Puyuma Express and I hired a private driver through KKDay who promised to include the cliffs. I asked local friends for a hotel recommendation, and booked Just Sleep. We had a marvelous time, and I was able to manage the family trip in Mandarin with no issue. I was able to replicate this travel itinerary with my sister years later. This time, our KKDay-booked driver was named Bread. Not Brad (I asked). He wanted the universe to fill his life with bread, he explained. 

This little walk through time is metaphorically related to what I want to say, but I'll let you decide on exactly how.

But here is where it begins: while my sister and I gazed up at those impossibly steep marble walls, I reflected on all the criticism I’ve heard recently about Taiwan.

The traffic is horrible. Raising a family in Taiwan’s drudgery-heavy work culture is so impossible that many people either aren’t doing it, or have moved abroad. Salaries are too low. The banking system has long been the subject of mockery. There is no real path to citizenship for most of us permanent folks

Friends complain (quite rightly) that “make-up days” for extra days off are ridiculous; Taiwanese people already have some of the longest working hours in the world — just give them the day off! Even my sister, who used to live here, said that she left initially because she felt she’d “outgrown” Taipei. What she seems to have meant was that there were no useful career opportunities, and that meant it was time to go.

Worst of all, I remember watching coverage of abuses against migrant workers in Qatar preceding the World Cup and couldn't help but think, the system we're all pointing fingers at there doesn't sound much different from what goes on in Taiwan. It's a glaring issue, and the main systematic problem that makes it impossible to say that Taiwan is a wholly wonderful country.

I considered all of the upcoming critical posts that I haven’t written yet. They’re pretty diverse — one discusses the new and absolutely hellish system for sending packages abroad. Another is more personal, about health issues I’ve been facing that are somewhat related to my reduced blogging output. 

Is Taiwan really that bad? I thought. Is it so horrible that people are pushing to get out, and nothing works as it should?

It’s difficult to accept this, even when the various criticisms are either correct, or debatable but not wrong per se. Traffic problems really don’t compare well to, say, Japan. The banking system is indeed archaic; I’m unlikely to ever be a homeowner because I’m seen as more of a flight risk than some rich Taiwanese asshole who actually would flee the country to avoid debt. Like I could do that! I’ll probably never be a citizen and am not satisfied with “change is slow” explanations. Salaries are low. Work culture is unacceptable. People do leave. Career opportunities are not particularly robust. Even as a teacher — the easiest career path for an English L1 user — I could make more in many other countries in Asia. I stay in Taiwan because I want to be in Taiwan. 

But then I look up again at all that beauty and have a hard time accepting that it really is that bad. Of course, I’m not Taiwanese and I’ll never know what it’s like to live here as a local. The closest I’ll ever get is an approximation as a person with a middle-class income (and no local support beyond the friends I’ve made). 

Despite issues surrounding citizenship and securing the basics of a normal middle class life — like, say, a mortgage — it’s hard to argue that Taiwan has been bad. I can’t imagine I ever would have become a teacher, let alone a teacher trainer, in the US. In Taiwan I’ve built a career I’m happy with, enjoyed a wonderful marriage, made good friends both local and foreign, and had the opportunity to travel extensively. 

Of course, as a foreigner, I can never say that’s the whole story. There’s surely some selection bias, but local friends and students have also expressed a love for Taiwan that’s impervious to criticism. Life is more affordable here than Singapore or Japan, they say. Some have lived in China for a stint, or spent extensive time there for business. It sucks, they say. Taiwan is so much better. No one harasses you for being Taiwanese or not wanting to be part of China. They ask how Americans cope with our garbage “health care system”. 

“We mostly don’t,” I say. “Basically either you’re lucky or you die too soon.”

They ask how we cope with Gun Culture. 

“We mostly don’t,” I repeat. “If you’re white you’re probably fine. Otherwise every day, every traffic stop, every public festival, is a gamble.” 

“Yikes,” they reply. They’re right. 

Compared to China’s authoritarianism, Japan’s sexism, Singapore’s cost of living, and America’s various dangers, unruly traffic just…doesn’t seem that bad? The banking system is annoying but not life-destroying. I don’t know what to say about low pay and horrendous work culture. But it’s not like other countries are problem-free. Most say they have no real desire to leave Taiwan. It’s not perfect but it’s a pretty good place to live, they insist. They don’t think it’s puzzling that I’d leave the US and decide to live here. 

That said, it’s not as though the criticisms are incorrect. Every last one makes a salient point. 

And yet, despite all this plus my own personal criticisms, I just can’t bring myself to spend all day slamming Taiwan. I visit other countries, including the country of my birth, and in most ways, Taiwan compares favorably. Occasionally I land in other cities that, in another life, I might have considered home. Istanbul was glorious (but as an Armenian, I’m just not sure how I’d feel about it long-term). I’m writing this from Mexico City. I could live here, but ultimately I know I won’t leave Taiwan. 

Why? Seriously, why, despite all the valid criticism? Well, I often get asked why I came to Taiwan, and I can’t answer that. I was curious, and not planning to live there forever. That changed, and I can answer why I chose to stay. 

My ideal home would have a few key points in its favor: it has to be a democracy with basic human rights enshrined in law (I understand that no country on earth makes these rights perfectly accessible). I tried living in a country that lacked this -- China -- and it turned out to be untenable.  Taiwan isn’t perfect in this regard (no country in the world is), but it's on a trajectory of progress.

I also want to feel comfortable as a woman. All countries struggle with endemic sexism, but compared to the rest of Asia, Taiwan offers pretty solid women's equality.

Health care is important too; I left the US in part because I didn't want to wake up one day and find out The Machine decided I was too poor and deserved to die.

I want to live in what might typically be called an advanced or developed country (I don’t think a politically correct way of expressing this exists). Maybe I’m a bit of a princess, but I do want to live somewhere where things generally work. 

And, of course, I want to live in a country that is at least making progress toward liberal ideals. I don't think any country has actually gotten there yet, but again, compared to the rest of Asia, Taiwan is doing alright.

Taiwan checks all those boxes. It’s not perfect, but it’s not the screaming shithole many portray it to be. And over the years, as my local competencies have improved, and my understanding of Taiwan increased, I feel far more affection for the country than dislike. That’s true even when I have sincere criticisms. 

Back in the early 20th century, my problematic fave described her first view of Taiwan: 

Formosa, that little-known island in the typhoon-infested South China Sea, so well called by its early Portuguese discoverers - as its name implies - "the beautiful". Indeed, it was the beauty of Formosa that first attracted me....I shall never forget the first glimpse that I caught of the island as I passed it...there it lay, in the light of the tropical sunrise, glowing and shimmering like a great emerald, with an apparent vividness of green that I had never seen before, even in the tropics. During the greater part of the day it remained in sight, apparently floating slowly past - an emerald on a turquoise bed…


Most likely, she was off the coast not far from the gorge I was standing in when I began to think about all of this. After all, is there a more beautiful sight of the Taiwanese coast than the Qingshui cliffs?

It’s preposterous to dismiss valid criticisms of a country because, hey, there are some beautiful views! At the same time, it’s exactly those views that can make one feel ever so small compared to the ebb and flow of history.

Considering the ways Taiwan rose from inheriting mostly disadvantages, told one authoritarian government to get bent, is now refusing to bend to another, and still managed to (more or less) get rich with (again, more or less) low wealth inequality, it's hard to declare that it's really so awful. 

I want to except human rights abuses against migrant workers here, as there is simply no excusing that. Everything else is as terrible as it is valid, but I have a hard time thinking of a country that doesn't have problems that are equally horrifying, or worse. Like any other country, Taiwan isn't perfect or terrible; it's messy and complicated and difficult to put into words. 

Of course I'd say all this: I chose Taiwan, and choose it every day I wake up in Taipei. I wasn't born here, and a big chunk of my life is steeped in white privilege. Theoretically, I could leave.

But then my local friends run businesses, cultivate interests, fall in love, get married and have children here. Plenty of people I know have left for a time to study or work, but I rarely meet people who want to build a whole new permanent life abroad. They seem more proud of Taiwan's success than they are interested in bashing it.

That doesn't mean there's no need to address the problems that do exist, just that Taiwan simply isn't an intractable garbage heap. 

In other words, maybe Taiwan isn't always great, but it isn't all bad, either. 


Thursday, January 19, 2023

Book Review: The Membranes


I cracked open the slim 2021 translation of Chi Ta-wei’s The Membranes on a transpacific flight, after a fairly rough but ultimately successful check-in experience. The flight itself was fine; other than the unuseable headphones, it was if anything an above-average experience. I was excited to see family and take a fun side-trip to Mexico. But, after two leg-aching hours of standing in various lines, some of which could have been avoided if Asiana Airlines had merely redeployed their human staff to check passengers in rather than forcing them through a robotic self check-in, I had to wonder — did I love travel, or hate it? 


There’s no actual duality here. The experiences, good and bad, don’t really matter. How I feel about them. Quite literally, what the experience ultimately means is all in my head.


Protected or trapped by a membrane of lightweight material as we arc across continents, I abandoned the movie and turned to the book. Originally written in the 1990s but only recently translated, The Membranes seemed like both a glimpse into the past — almost like historical science fiction — as well as a semi-dystopian glimpse into an imagined future for humanity.


The Membranes reads more like a novella than a novel, and takes just a few hours to read. It’s a very “quiet” novel: not much dialogue, mostly taking place inside the head of the main character, Momo. It uses the conflicted relationship between Momo and her mother on the even of Momo’s thirtieth birthday to explore an imagined society in the year 2100 in which climate change has ruined the surface and humans live under domes in the sea — one of many ‘membrane’ themes in the book, emphasizing its internality. 


How Momo, an introverted woman running a skincare salon (well, there’s more to that but I won’t spoil it) interacts with the world — or doesn’t — shows readers what life under the sea is like. Real animal pets are rare, as are plants and animals that humans didn’t deem useful. Skincare specialists are practically celebrities in an appearance-obsessed society and cyborgs who may or may not have human-like intelligence fight wars for humans on the surface. Mega-corporations with friendly faces but ultimately monopolistic goals matter more than people. The role of those corporations in perpetuating human-created “-isms” is explored as well. The ultimate membrane, in a move that surprised me, turns out not to be a hollow capitalist skincare thing, but something far more insidious. 


For a novel written in the 90s, The Membranes is visionary in its queer progressivism, as well. Beyond the usual critiques of unchecked capitalism, there isn’t a single straight couple among the handful of characters. Two women adopting a daughter is so normal that the narrative itself doesn’t remark on it. Rather like The Expanse, it shows a world where the petty shit we shouldn’t be fighting over now —  like who and how people choose to love — has mostly been resolved, but powerful government and corporate interests (with the corporate ones being ultimately more powerful). It turns racism on its head by showing a world where white people, seen as inferior as their melanin-reduced skin cannot afford sufficient protection against the sun, are excluded from major institutions. It includes technology that was rare or theoretical in the 90s, such as cloud computing, portable devices and micro-trackers, but which in 2023 are now seen as a normal part of life. 


Transgenderism is treated as normal and unremarkable as well; the novel lingers on it only slightly longer, ultimately deciding that gender goes beyond biology and gender binaries are restrictive rather than helpful.


Remember, again, that this was written in the 1990s. In 2023 it’s fairly normal to explore these topics. In the 90s, in Asia, this was radical stuff. If it reminds you of Chiu Miao-jin in length, style and referencing…it should. I suspect that’s intentional. Chi and Chiu were writing around the same time, and probably ran in many of the same circles. Unlike Chiu, Chi, fortunately, is still with us. 


And, of course, the novel is quietly, well, Taiwanese. Or rather, a dream of what Taiwan could be, or was hoped to be, by 2100 (if Taiwan existed in a dome under the sea, that is). In the early 1990s, just a few years out from the death of Nylon Deng, mentioning “huge” monuments such as plaques commemorating the 228 Incident was a bold, even radical statement. Showing Taiwan as the key financial hub of Southeast Asia while slyly referencing Taiwan’s complicated but ultimately special relationship with Japan, was an imaginative projection of hopes for the future. Some of these things came more or less true, some not — 228 Incident recognition is normalized now, but Taiwan never quite became a regional hub.


I’ve been avoiding the key point of The Membranes, because it’s so hard to talk about it without spoiling the big twist. The peaches Momo loves to eat, the method of Momo’s birth (referencing both Chinese and Japanese folk tales and idioms), the undersea domes — these are not the only membranes in the novel. Early in the narrative we learn that Momo had a devastating childhood illness that she barely survived. She had a custom-made android friend whose role is left obscure. Ultimately, we’re forced to ask ourselves first whether artificial intelligence should be considered human, and then whether a human brain in an android body is trapping the android in the human, or the human in the android.


Then, there’s a less predictable twist, which I won’t begin to spoil. I will say what it asks of you: to consider whether what your brain experiences is the real world, and whether it matters if it’s what you know. Are your emotions real and complex if they are in reaction to ultimately false events? Is it right to have your fate decided for you, and is it worth it to hand so much power to massive corporations in exchange for astounding technological advances? Do they make our lives better, or worse?


If there’s one criticism I have of the book, it’s that it was too short, and a little impersonal. Much of it read as a summary of a story, rather than a story itself. It could have been three times as long, or longer, as it explored Momo’s life and the lead-up to her thirtieth birthday in real time rather than a sort of gloss of what happened and is happening in the story. I understand why it was written this way — it all becomes clear when you hear the full story of what happened when Momo was ten, making a full, deep moment-by-moment story hard to tell from her perspective. But, hey, I just think it could have been longer and more richly developed: a novel, rather than a novella. 


That said, Taiwanese literature in general tends to be a little too meandering for me, more about scenes and impressions rather than a clear story or forward-moving plot. Chi avoids this, telling a quickly-driven narrative in a terse and succinct — perhaps overly succinct — way. 


Ultimately, however, you should read The Membranes. If you’re inclined to think that Taiwan is a wholly conservative culture, or that there’s not enough literary creativity or progressive politics, Chi Ta-wei’s novel should quickly disabuse you. It also tells us something else: we need more Taiwanese literature in translation — and to not call it Chinese, but Taiwanese — and not 30 years after it is originally published.