Sunday, January 29, 2023

It's OK to not love China


     Flame me if you want, but I will never add an "I love China, but" to any of my opinions

I have to get something off my chest. A dark confession, the opposite of what I feel is expected of me. You see, as much as I feel expected to say otherwise, I don't love China. 

When favorably discussing Taiwanese independence, sovereignty or identity, or saying anything negative about the CCP, it seems as though so many people feel the need to insert a little "I love China, but..." or "I deeply love the people and culture of China, however..." Sometimes this is a single sentence header; sometimes it stretches out to cover an entire paragraph detailing some positive experience or perspective on China as a country, to emphasize the differentiation of the nation and people from the government. 

Here are just a few random examples from a quick search:

That's all fine, if you truly "love China" no one should stop you from saying so, but I don't love China. 

I certainly understand this, however. I've even engaged in it. One doesn't want to imply dislike or hatred of a group of people, or aim derision at an entire nation in all its complexities. Of course, engaging in "Screw China!" rhetoric is fundamentally racist, when China is a vast, complex nation full of everyday people who don't deserve to be lumped in with their genocidal government. 

Nobody actively insists this is a necessary addition to what one really wants to say, but I see it so often and feel compelled to include it. The consequence is often being labeled a "China-hater" (China as in the country, not the government) or worse, of perpetuating anti-Asian hate. Of course, tankies, aggressive Han supremacist trolls and CCP shills (both paid and unpaid) will accuse pro-Taiwan advocates and CCP critics of all of this anyway, but it feels like a necessary preliminary step to defend oneself.

But here's the thing. 

I truly don't love China. 

I've felt unspoken pressure to preface pro-Taiwan advocacy or criticism of the brutal, genocidal, authoritarian CCP with exhortations that are simply not sincere. And there's a strong likelihood that I'll attract criticism for simply being honest about this. 

Let's be clear: I don't hate China, either. I certainly don't hate Chinese citizens.  It's ridiculous to hate a whole nation -- no place, especially not one so large, complex and diverse in cultures, languages and history, could possibly deserve an opinion so simplistic and dismissive.

As someone who has lived in China and returned several times since, I simply have no specific affection for the country. Although I can never know what it's like to be Chinese or be a PRC citizen, I've experienced some version of life in China, and not in the big east coast cities (I've visited those, but my actual life there was in Guizhou). That experience resulted in mixed feelings.

Chinese histories -- the many histories of the regions now considered China -- are fascinating. The many cultures of China are, too. I've fallen out of love with the Mandarin language, but am enthusiastic about learning Taiwanese. Clearly Sinitic languages are of great interest to me. There are plenty of astounding things to see in China. I've seen them and been astounded. To touch on more everyday matters, the food is great (usually -- it's not always prepared well, as in any country) and the people are generally pretty nice. Daily life, at least for an expat, was fairly safe when I lived there.

But you know what else I experienced in China? Horrendous misogyny, aimed not at me but at Chinese women I knew. Their stories aren't really mine to tell, but I am pretty sure this attitude isn't anecdotal

I may have felt safe enough on the streets, .but I didn't feel the same way expressing any kind of opinion. That included fairly anodyne ones like "I think Taiwanese should get to decide if they want to be part of the PRC", which isn't even close to the pro-independence diehard that I am today. In contrast to Taiwan where one can freely discuss 228 or the White Terror, I never mentioned Tiananmen Square, because I knew I couldn't. Mail sometimes arrived pre-opened. People occasionally told me controversial opinions, such as "I was at Tiananmen Square so I know how fucked up things are", "We're not allowed to fully practice Uyghur culture, they are our oppressors" and "I'd like to protest the government but they'd just kill us." 

I kept those confessions to myself while in China -- what other choice was there?

That's not even getting into how sick the pollution made me, multiple times, nor the trouble of accessing actual international news. 

There were so many reasons why I chose to leave at the end of my year in China, but stuck around in Taiwan. My first six months in Taiwan were rough, but I felt a budding affection for the country which only grew. In China, that feeling never came.

In fact, the part of China I liked most was East Turkestan (known to some as Xinjiang), where people don't like the CCP, aren't Chinese and don't seem to really want to be part of China. I feel nothing but grief for what has happened there since my visit so many years ago. 

I've lived in four countries in my life -- the United States, China, India and Taiwan. I feel affection for India despite its flaws, and actually do love Taiwan. I chose to settle here, after all. My feelings about the US are more positive than about China, but I wouldn't say I "love" it. I can't say why China was my least favorite place to live, or why it didn't capture my affection in the same way as other places I've intentionally moved to. India is hardly perfect, and Taiwan has its negatives. But China just didn't do it for me.

Life there wasn't all all awful. There was good and bad, and those bad experiences above were balanced somewhat by positive ones. I made friends, began learning Mandarin, ate some amazing food, saw some stupendous scenic, cultural and historic sites. Very few experiences are all bad. And that's how I feel about China: good and bad.  

Honestly, regardless of what I think about any given government, I feel fairly neutral towards most countries. At best, I've enjoyed traveling in them and learning about them, but I wouldn't describe my emotions towards them as "love". I went to Sri Lanka and enjoyed it immensely, but that's about it. I went to Myanmar and had many positive experiences, but I wouldn't say I felt "love". Our honeymoon was a bus trip from Panama to Guatemala. It was amazing, and each country fascinating in its own way. But do I "love" Nicaragua? I wouldn't say so. I do care about people, but feel no clear need to love a country absent some specific yet ineffable catalyst.

Countries are countries -- they all have their good and bad points, some have more good than bad, and most have intractable problems but also things to like. People are also just people: most are good, many are nice, a few are rotten. That's true anywhere in the world you go. Even general safety is linked not to how "good" people are, but more to economic factors. 

So why, exactly, should I "love" China? What does it matter that I lived there? What does it matter that I live in Taiwan now? And what does it matter that I'm pro-Taiwan? I still don't have to "love" China in order to criticize it, and I'm sick of feeling tacit pressure to say I do. 

It feels like pre-emptive self-defense, as though one needs to justify supporting for Taiwan, Tibet or East Turkestan. As though one needs  a caveat in order to oppose the Uyghur genocide, or criticize the CCP. But I neither want nor need to prove myself, to add an insincere caveat, to speak the truth about other countries like Taiwan, and other cultures like Tibetan and Uyghur.

The case for Taiwan, among others, is just and right all on its own. It's time to stop falling over ourselves to proclaim "love" for China just because CCP shills will twist support for these causes into "anti-Asian hate" or "you're racist against Chinese people!" when that's simply not the case. 

I do hate the CCP: they certainly have no business running a country given all they've done to harm China (and then claim credit when they stop or reverse just some of the harm they themselves inflicted). They should be shunted out of existence. Xi Jinping should face charges before an international court for crimes against humanity and spend the rest of his life not as the dictator of the world's most populous country, but alone in a deep dark hole. I cannot describe the degree to which I loathe that government. 

But there are many governments I don't care for. Many run countries I like quite a bit, or feel neutrally toward! I appreciate Indian democracy but acknowledge the flaws of the Indian government (certainly I'm no fan of the BJP). The US government has some obvious problems. Taiwan has an admirable democracy but the government sometimes makes me feel like bashing my head against a wall. At least they're democracies, though. The CCP -- brutal, non-democratic but ultimately not the only factor in my feelings about China -- is an entirely different thing. 

But you know what? Whatever. I don't love China. I don't love China! It feels so freeing to just be honest about that. Living there had its upsides and drawbacks, but in the end the drawbacks outweigh the upsides, and I have no regrets about choosing never to return. I do miss things like 酸辣米皮 -- Guizhou-style hot and sour flat noodles. It's a shame I will probably never again see places I actually did love, such as East Turkestan, the Miao areas around Kaili, and Hong Kong. But I don't think China is a safe destination for public supporters of Taiwan. Oh well. 

I support Taiwan and Taiwanese independence. Taiwan is a country. Taiwan has a unique history and culture, and most Taiwanese do not identify as Chinese. China has no business claiming Taiwan and is absolutely in the wrong for threatening a bloody, violent war. Period. They are the provocateurs -- the only provocateurs. Not Taiwan, not the United States. 

That same government will tell you that this stance is akin to hating China as a country, which is essentially the same as anti-Asian racism. That is a lie, and I reject it. 

The CCP should fall, though nobody but the people of China can make that happen. I want only good things for Chinese citizens, but don't know how to support them. I wish I did. 

All of that is true, and also, I don't love China. 

Friday, January 27, 2023

The Fissure


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.