Showing posts with label american_culture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label american_culture. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Neither and Both: proposing an end to the "Taiwan: liberal or conservative?" debates

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Piggybacking on my last post about abortion, I began to think about the old dichotomy that seems to keep popping up. Given Taiwan’s democratic success and free press, recent legalization of same-sex marriage (note: not marriage equality), the more-or-less progressive-ish track record of the Tsai administration can we call this country a “liberal” one? 

Or is the ongoing human rights crisis regarding foreign blue-collar labor, often conservative attitudes of the general public, the ridiculous treatment of female public figures, the continued existence of the death penalty and the criminalization of adultery (now decriminalized!) and the continued lack of options for unilateral no-fault divorce enough to swing it the other way — is Taiwan still a “conservative” country?


Of course, as with most of these “is it A or B?” debates, it mostly seems to be people looking for something to debate. In the end, Taiwan is neither liberal nor conservative, or both liberal and conservative. Honestly, it depends on how you define it. 


I do take the liberal viewpoint as the sometimes imperfect but overall superior one; a core tenet of liberalism is to let other people live their lives non-judgmentally and not discriminate against them in any sort of transactional or legal sense. 


Early on, I realized the different ways of looking at this needed to be investigated separately.  So let's investigate! Why is it reductive to declare Taiwan "liberal" or "conservative" like it's a true-or-false question with one clear answer?



It depends on what you’re comparing it to


If your frame of reference is, say, Europe, it’s fairly easy to proclaim Taiwan “still very conservative”, dust off your hands and be done with it. In Europe, adultery isn’t criminalized, marriage equality is broadly (though not universally) recognized, there is no death penalty, in most places abortion can be obtained on request or very easily, gender equality is generally quite good, and —speaking anecdotally — I often find that moderate to center-liberal Europeans tend to equate to so-called “left-wing” Americans (who are not actually left-wing at all: most are pretty moderate.) Most of Europe also allows unilateral no-fault divorce, although the UK and a few Catholic-majority countries don’t.

I don't know as much about the internal social workings of various European nations, so I'll leave it at that.


If, however, you compare Taiwan to its neighbor states in Asia, you will likely come to a very different conclusion. 


In most of Asia, divorce is similarly restricted. No-fault mutual divorce is generally obtainable in other industrialized Asian nations, but mostly banned in the Philippines and very difficult to obtain in some other developing parts of Asia. However, rather like Taiwan, unilateral divorce generally requires proving some sort of fault. Most Asian nations retain the death penalty, even if they don’t exercise it. I can’t find information on some countries, but in Japan and South Korea, spousal consent is still required to obtain an abortion. Along with this, gender equality metrics in most other Asian countries show Taiwan in a favorable light, comparable to Hong Kong and Singapore and ahead of just about everywhere else in Asia


With changes to adultery laws, the legalization of same-sex marriage and hoped-for changes to abortion access, who can reasonably look at Taiwan compared to the rest of Asia and say it’s “not that liberal”? 


Why, if one is inclined to insist that Taiwan remains a conservative nation, does one have to look to the West to validate that view? 



But - does it even depend on what you compare it to? 


Hold up, though. Let’s look at a few examples from the West. Is it really that much more liberal? 


Divorce laws in the UK are broadly similar to Taiwan’s. They don’t have unilateral no-fault divorce either. Spousal consent for abortion is not required, but giving a ‘reason’ is — acceptable reasons are very broadly defined, as in Taiwan. Ending the criminalization of adultery and (probably) making abortion more accessible to married women will still render Taiwanese laws a bit more conservative than their British counterparts, but not by much. The UK will still be ahead due to abolishing the death penalty, which remains popular for some reason in Taiwan. But in what other ways can the UK be said to be “more liberal”? 


In some ways, one could say the tie-breaker here are social mores. Public opinion, you might say, is more liberal in the UK. Certainly you would not find a public opinion poll that showed popular support for the criminalization of adultery, legalizing capital punishment and disallowing same-sex marriage. You might point to British society and say that it’s so much more diverse, and that diversity begets a sort of liberal strength. 


Sure. I’ll buy that. (Taiwan is also multicultural and multilingual but that diversity is less immediately apparent.) 


But I’ll also point out that while it’s nearly impossible to get dual nationality in Taiwan if you don't have the right ancestry, it’s fairly easy to immigrate here, at least for foreign professionals. Even the salary and qualification requirements to do something other than teach English (2 years’ relevant experience or a Master’s degree in anything) are fairly permissive. If you come to Taiwan to study and can get a job offer upon graduation, it’s fairly easy to stay. 


Once in the UK, there is a path for most to citizenship. However, it’s extremely hard to actually immigrate to the UK to get that process started. Once there, you might still be kicked out, possibly for deeply unfair reasons. For all that diversity, it seems as though the United Kingdom doesn’t actually want non-British people to settle there. 


I would call that a distinctly illiberal view. (In fact, in general, I find my fellow liberals tend to have oddly regressive, even reactionary views on immigration. In non-pandemic times, I consider being pro-immigration to be a fundamentally liberal value.)


Of course, it’s not fair as an American to sit here wagging my finger at the UK. 


The US seems to be unable to reconcile the fact that most Americans support abortion rights with the legions of conservative clownwaffles who keep trying to take those rights away. Abolishing the death penalty in the US feels like a faraway dream. Supposedly one of those “more liberal” countries, we (sort of) elected Donald Trump in the same year that Taiwan chose the comparatively liberal and pragmatic Tsai Ing-wen. We only legalized marriage equality a few years ago — look how fast Taiwan moved in comparison. As with the UK, it’s very hard to immigrate to the US. In fact, it’s difficult to immigrate to most Western countries.


You might look at the US and again point to the nation’s visible diversity. Well, I grew up in the US and in most of the country, diversity doesn’t mean mixing. I don’t want to speak for people of color when I haven’t experienced the same things, so all I can say is that many White people I know in the US live in almost exclusively White areas, and for many, there doesn’t appear to be a single non-White person in their circles. I have heard the same sort of conservative or right-wing rhetoric — the same old racist, sexist, anti-LGBT rhetorical trash — in the US as I have in Taiwan. In fact, as I’ve noted before, it seems to be one of the US’s major cultural exports here


So although adultery is not an offense and unilateral no-fault divorce is possible. But in what other ways can I say the country of my citizenship is more liberal than Taiwan? It’s hard to think of much. 


Placing a high importance on making sure all of its citizens have what they need is a core tenet of liberalism for me. In that way the US again fails, with not just high rates of inequality but a total breakdown in the accessibility of quality health care to all but the upper classes. Few in Taiwan would disagree that everyone deserves access to affordable basic health care. In wealth equality generally, Taiwan is comparable to many Western nations. 



And of course, the people


Now that I’ve made the country of my birth sound like a terrifying hellscape — which these days, from a distance, it seems to be — remember that there are plenty of liberals, lefties, progressives, radicals, socialists, whatever you want to call them and all of them are slightly different. On both sides, I've met people who challenge assumptions. They could be anyone, from carceral feminists to liberal/leftist activists with misogynist views to people who are pro-healthcare but anti-immigration, to conservatives in every other sense who are finally embracing marriage equality or no longer trying to dictate whether mothers should stay home or return to paid work.

The youth tend liberal, but Young Republicans are a thing. For every BLM activist, there’s surely a Brocktaniel Craigstopher Broseph Dorpington III who is certain he’ll be a senator someday and can't wait to turn his opinions on women's bodies into legislation. My grandparents, when they were alive, always seemed surprised to hear that liberals were a real thing and it wasn’t just me.


My liberal friends always knew that the other side existed — they didn’t live in quite as much of a bubble — but often underestimated exactly how many people really felt that way. That is, after all, part of how we got Trump.


Taiwan is similar. How can you say a whole country is conservative when the youth tend to overwhelmingly support liberal causes (except, for some reason the death penalty, which seems odd...though perhaps not that odd) and then are surprised when those causes meet strong resistance. But how can you say it is liberal when their aunties and grandpas are more likely to vote, though perhaps less overwhelmingly than in the past?


Of course, the aunties and grandpas assume the youth to be a minority of loud kids, perhaps not even realizing that their younger relatives agree with those “other kids”, but have decided it’s easier not to bring it up. Many are traditionally conservative, but some of their views -- such as understanding the fundamental need for universal health care -- would look liberal to your average American. 


In other words, for every young urbanite who was shocked to see marriage equality referenda slapped down in 2018, there is someone like the Bread of Life lady in my building who keeps putting up anti-gay brochures and seems surprised when they are taken down. 


Both groups are loud, and both can mobilize. One is older and on their way out, but will be engaged voters for several years more. The other has shown they can defeat an attempted pro-China “populist” wave. 


It’s very hard for me to say the US is ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ when different Americans are, well, so different


So it is with Taiwan. 



What does it mean to be ‘liberal’? 


The notion that Western-style liberal/conservative dichotomies have dominated these conversations is not new. When looking at non-Western societies, it’s quite common for someone to point out that notions of ‘freedom’, ‘choice’ and ‘equality’ can look very different through different cultural lenses. 


I don’t mean this in the old ‘individualist vs. collectivist’ debate, another binary that I find a bit overstated. People who proclaim some societies ‘individualist’ and others ‘collectivist’ forget that nothing is that polar, gloss over the interplay of personal and collective choices at the individual, small-group and larger social levels. They further tend to blur the very different definitions of ‘individualism’ with ‘individuality’. Just as an ‘individualistic’ European or Brit (sorry, Brits, you’re separate now) can insist that national health care and affordable education are common goods, so can a ‘collectivist’ Taiwanese find their own path and express their individual spirit while caring about society and family.


Instead, let me illustrate this through a series of anecdotes. Although this is now considered a somewhat traditional or even out-dated practice, some men still hand their salary over to their wives, who run the entire household budget and give their husbands ‘allowances’. (This also happens in Japan and the practice might originate there; I’m not sure.) This has led to society as a whole believing that women are good with money. As a result, accounting tends to be a more female-dominated profession, and ask any family business who keeps the books. I bet you a beer it’s likely a woman. 


And to think, I grew up in the “more liberal” United States hearing dumb jokes about how women just spend money shopping and a husband might have to cut up his wife’s credit cards because she bought too many purses! 


And yet, a 老闆 (laoban) is assumed to be a man, whereas 老闆娘 (laobanniang) can be translated as "female boss" (as though it needs to be a gendered term) or...the boss's wife, even if she's really the boss.


Here’s another one: the Taiwanese government, despite all of its recent progressive leaps, still seems to think that more babies and bigger families are always a good thing, despite the country being already fairly densely populated. And yet, they now seem willing to look at the country’s current abortion laws and realize that they need to be liberalized, without compromising their view that families should have more babies. 


I believe (and hope) they see that abortion isn’t what’s stopping people from procreating; that a person who wants to have a child will try to have one, and abortion being more accessible won’t make them change their mind. That encouraging people to have more kids means ensuring a better standard of living, that families have enough time, money and housing to raise children. Do that, and most people will choose to have children. Abortion is a separate issue entirely. 


Oh, how I wish I could get anti-abortion politicians and reactionary voters in the US to realize the same thing! 


In fact, here's a quick aside: let's jump back to my assertion in the last post that making abortion accessible to unmarried women had nothing to do with giving women choice while valuing the partnership of marriage. We know it's more about which babies are "desirable" to society than about rights, because single people and same-sex married couples who do want children aren't allowed to access fertility treatments

The government is finally starting to act on improving abortion access, but nobody seems interested in fixing this problem despite it being a protested issue since at least 2016, and probably earlier. So is it acting in a liberal manner, or not? It's hard to say.


I could add more cultural anecdotes from other parts of the world — for example, the fairly liberal stance of Islam on family planning compared to much of the West through history — but they would be cultures I haven’t spent as much time with, and thus would be less informed. However, such examples exist. 


The short of it? I don’t think it’s fair to measure Taiwan by a liberal/conservative spectrum informed by Western assumptions, when the way people make sense of the world through a Taiwanese cultural lens is just...different. Sometimes, I think better. In some ways, perhaps not. 

This was apparent watching so many otherwise liberal Taiwanese go pro-Trump, who is about as right-wing as it gets (though it's hard to tell how much of this was straight-up malicious trolling, as people seemed more reasonable in real life). I don't agree at all with their reasons -- nobody who thinks Trump's pandemic response is an acceptable price to pay for anything is welcome in my life -- but the reasons did exist. They mostly don't care about our political binaries, so it's not fair to measure Taiwan based on those same binaries.

I’m also not a total cultural relativist; I too have my lines and I too make personal and individual judgement calls. But I am open to conceiving of liberalism in different lights and will criticize or praise individual ideas, not entire belief systems, including my own.


There are people who insist that any and all conservative ideas they don’t like which exist in non-Western societies were put there by colonialism, and decolonization will therefore liberate those societies from such beliefs. I don’t fully believe that; although I occasionally come across examples of this (say, certain aspects of Taiwanese society that seem to have been shaped more by the outside influence of Christianity on ROC politics than on any local cultural norm), it’s far too ‘noble savage’ or Orientalist. In other words, I’m not impressed by ‘every Western idea is bad, every non-Western one is good’. The West has had some pretty good ideas and some atrocious ones. Every society is capable of both, and a whole lot in between. Every society is going to have some ideas we might see as ‘conservative’, and others that could be called ‘liberal’. Taiwan is no different.


What matters is that we recognize that there is no objective yardstick by which to measure any of this, and perhaps it’s wise not to make any sort of proclamations about it. 


Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Sexual assault: Taiwan's great under-reported problem - my latest for Ketagalan Media

My latest piece for Ketagalan Media takes this previous post of mine as a starting point, and investigates an important issue in Taiwanese politics further. In short, it seems as though the reason why there are so few sexual assault scandals in Taiwanese politics is not because they just don't happen, but because if they do, they are likely not reported. On the other hand, in the US, women are beginning to speak out more, but the powers that be just don't care. We're not taken seriously - not even to the point of meriting a real, serious - not a joke of a circus show - investigation. 

Some numbers for you, from the piece: 


The US population in 2015 was 321 million, and reports of sexual assault in the US in 2015 totaled 431,837 (male and female). That indicates a per capita reported assault rate of 0.00134. Taiwan’s population in 2015 was 23,485,755, with 10,454 reports of sexual assault in Taiwan 2015 (gender not specified), for a per capita rate of 0.00044.

This is a massive disparity: even considering differences in population, the US still has a far higher report rate of sexual assault than Taiwan, by a factor of three.

Does it make sense that people in Taiwan are three times less likely to be sexually assaulted than in the US? It is unlikely that there is simply less sexual assault in Taiwan overall (although crime in general is on a down swing and Taiwan remains a very safe country). The picture for comparison is clearer when we look at the gap between estimated sexual assaults and the number reported for the two countries: in the US it’s estimated that about 2/3 of sexual assaults are not reported, or around 70 percent. In Taiwan, it is estimated that the number of actual sexual assaults compared to those reported is seven to ten times higher.

Estimating the actual number of cases, Taiwan’s number of actual assaults per capita is somewhere between 78% to 111% of America’s.


Sources for these numbers are linked to in the piece itself. 

And there's this, a point that cannot be made often enough: 


Having spent twelve years in Taiwan, I have encountered “cultural” excuses for gender-based violence here, generally along the same refrain of “it’s Taiwan’s traditional culture” or an appeal to outdated views of gender which are common across both Asia and the world (one need only look at many American conservative views to see how such sexism plays out in the West). There is no truth to these “cultural” excuses: Taiwan has undergone a seismic shift in how society views gender for several generations, yet culture and traditions in Taiwan, regardless of changing attitudes towards gender and sexual power relations, remains robust. The United States has been evolving in its views on gender since the 19th century, and yet I would argue culture in America remains identifiably “American.”  Cultures can embrace gender egalitarianism and still retain their essence.



Anyway, enjoy! 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Reason and reasonability

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This past weekend, I went to Hong Kong and Macau - Hong Kong simply because we like visiting, and Macau for the wedding of one of my graduate school classmates. Because we traveled internationally, we were invited to the 'wedding games' and tea ceremony (where the couples serves tea to their elder relatives and generally receives gifts - mostly in the form of gold jewelry - in return. This is common in Taiwan too, though the games are not as common these days). I was very honored to be invited, as such ceremonies are typically only reserved for close family and perhaps best friends (close enough to be bridesmaids or groomsmen). As someone who doesn't have a Taiwanese family, I of course had never attended such a ceremony. I do have close Taiwanese friends, but not having grown up here means I don't have the sort of 'besties-since-childhood' sorts of relationships that, if they last, tend to lead to one being attendants at each others' weddings.

It occurred to me as I took photos to share - while no professional, I like to think I'm a pretty okay amateur photographer - so that her friends and family as well as our classmates could see, it occurred to me that someone who doesn't know me might think I was taking and posting pictures of a traditional Cantonese wedding (the morning, especially, was done pretty traditionally) to make myself look cool or interesting. You know, look at me, I'm not a boring white lady, I live abroad and have cool international friends and I was invited to this wedding in Macau because I'm so interesting! 

Of course, I know that's all bollocks - the bride is a true friend. She's Good People. But that it even entered my mind that someone who didn't know me but came across my pictures might rush to conclusions...well...

The next day we took the ferry back to Hong Kong. It was New Year's Day, when there is typically a pro-democracy march. This year, apparently over 10,000 people attended, although that number had dwindled by the time I was able to check it out later in the afternoon.

I didn't go.

I considered it, but in the end I stayed away (although I did wear my "FUCK THE GOVERNMENT 自己的國家自己救" t-shirt around the city, just to show some form of solidarity). If it had happened while there was a large crowd I could have gone as an observer, but when clashes with police started breaking out, it would be hard to stand by merely to watch. I'm not a Hong Kong resident and I don't blend into a crowd in Asia - plus, there is a line I try not to cross: while others may disagree, I actually don't think it's a good idea for non-residents to participate in such actions. Leaving aside that allowing this would open the door for hostile countries to send in 'fake protesters' on tourist visas to obfuscate the goals of civil society (as China is very much trying to do in Taiwan), I don't care for the idea of wannabe-do-gooder trustafarians jetting around the world to take part in social movements they might only have a surface understanding of (although of course plenty of people who don't have residence in a given country may be much better informed). I feel this way even about actions I otherwise agree with. 


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So, I stayed away in Hong Kong even though I am quite happy to get involved in Taiwan. Why? Because I'm a resident here. It's my home. After 11 years and a great effort undertaken to stay informed, I think I've earned the right to be active, within the confines of the law, in the goings-on of my home even if I am not a citizen.

And yet it occurred to me again as I sat eating my bhel puri at a Chungking Mansions stand called "Chaat Corner", that someone who didn't know me could well come to the conclusion that I was wearing my "FUCK THE GOVERNMENT" t-shirt, or getting involved in protests in Taiwan (which, as a resident, I am legally allowed to do), as a way of making myself seem more cool and interesting than being just another foreigner who lives abroad and isn't anything special - which is exactly what I am.

That got me thinking even more - why do I feel the need to have ironclad defenses for the things I take part in? Why is it important that the wedding I attended was for a true friend, and why does it matter that I am very nominally involved in social movements (no, like, very nominally) in Taiwan because I care about the country I live in, and not any other reason? Why do I feel the need to explain myself - and my life - at all? 

And I realized - because there seems to be only a very narrow range of "acceptable" reasons for a foreigner - and most especially a white, Western foreigner - to:

- Live in Asia (or abroad in a non-Western country)
- Learn a non-Western language (such as Mandarin)
- Study/learn about a non-Western culture or country, including its politics or even get involved
- Volunteer in a foreign country
- Attend events and functions by and for people of color, including abroad
- Adopt cultural practices of a foreign country, especially a non-Western one

It's not okay, according to this line of thinking, to move abroad just because you are curious or looking for something new. It's not okay to attend a festival just because it seems interesting, and you need to travel, volunteer or learn a language or about a culture for a reason. And that reason has to fall within a subset of "okay" reasons, or you are just another white kid trying to make themselves seem cooler or more interesting at best, or at worst, doing real harm by volunteering when locals could and arguably should do the job better, tokenizing someone else's cultural practices or getting involved politically for the wrong reasons.

You can't move abroad just to move abroad, you need a reason for wanting to go, and it has to be a good one. No "I wanted a little adventure" and certainly no "I wanted to find myself" (barf). "I spent a semester in India and wanted to explore Asia further" is okay. "I wanted to embark on a lifelong career as a teacher and had already started learning Mandarin so it made sense to move to Taiwan" is better.

You can't be interested in Taiwanese politics (as, say, I am) just because it is interesting: you have to have a reason ("This is my home so I care about what goes on here").

I get why that is. There are issues with affluent, usually white kids going abroad to party on a beach, treating every foreign setting as the backdrop of Brad Finds Himself. 

There are certainly issues with these same sorts of people moving abroad for 1-3 years to 'teach English' without actually caring about the country or the teaching profession, or doing the same to 'volunteer' (i.e. taking cute pictures of themselves with photogenic local children and making themselves feel good, but not actually helping). There are issues with privileged Westerners  inviting themselves to events that are not for them, rather than being invited. There are certainly issues with collecting token friends of color to make oneself look 'woke' or 'international'. There are absolutely issues with appropriation: taking a cultural practice that is not natively yours and adopting it simply because it looks or seems 'cool', not because of any deeper understanding or appreciation of it.

So, the good thing about the narrowing of what is an acceptable reason for being involved in a foreign culture is that it forces us privileged whiteys to reflect on why we do what we are doing, what effects it might have and what harm it might be causing that would otherwise be unseen to us. We aren't allowed to be ignorant any longer - we can't crash the party and ignore the stares. We can't stumble hungover up a hill in Thailand and take pictures of "quaint" villages, ignoring the locals muttering about how annoying we are. We can't turn entire towns and coastlines into backpacker holes and pretend that there are only positive impacts to doing so. We can't pretend we are 'different' from any other Westerner abroad simply because we want to be. We can't use other people's homes and cultures to make ourselves seem more interesting without repercussion.

We actually have to think about what we do - and that's a good thing. If you don't have a good reason for doing something, why are you doing it at all?

It also opens the door for something more meaningful. If you are conscious of the consequences your actions may have, you are more likely to form real friendships, be welcomed when you want to get involved, do some actual good when you turn up, and get invited to the party because you are genuinely cool and people genuinely like you.

I know that having to thread this needle - having to have a reason when people asked me why I came to Taiwan, why I stayed, why I'm interested in the things I am - has forced me to reflect on my own past. I don't have a perfect reason for coming to Taiwan. I didn't know then that I wanted to be a career teacher - I was just another buxiban clown with no qualifications or experience other than my native language and skin color, which aren't qualifications at all. I didn't know that I would stay - my plan was 2-3 years. I didn't know that I'd come to genuinely care about Taiwan and make real friends here - that just happened. I really was just a stupid twentysomething privileged white kid who wanted to live abroad for...no good reason at all, other than that I wanted it (although wanting the experience and challenge of living in another culture longer-term and coming to understand it in some depth is not the worst reason, and I did want that, too). Taiwan was my backdrop, and I can't blame any locals who might have found that annoying.

Things changed, but that's who I was. Plain and unvarnished.

I can admit that now, because I was forced to reflect. I'm a better person for it, and I like to think my presence here is more worthwhile - that I am contributing more to Taiwan - for having done so.

On the other hand, taken too far, this attitude could well drive people away, when their minds might have otherwise been opened.

If you hear "god I hate it when people learn Mandarin just to seem more cool or interesting", and you'd previously been considering learning Mandarin, are you going to sign up for that class or not? Especially if you don't have a good reason yet, other than pure curiosity? But if you don't sign up, you are one more whitey who never learned Mandarin.

If you hear complaints about Westerners treating the rest of the world like their vacation playground - which I admit is absolutely a problem - but rarely anything positive about going abroad to learn about the world, are you more likely to get on that plane and go learn about the world, or stay home, afraid your travel isn't ethical enough, because you haven't got a good reason? How do you then get out of your bubble and see what the rest of the world is like?

If you had the idea to try living abroad for awhile, but were told you could never be of any use or make any contribution, that doing so would be for personal gain while harming the country you lived in, would you do it? What if you were told you could move abroad, but only for a specific set of right "reasons" - and if you didn't have one, too bad so sad, but you had to stay in your bubble (and then be criticized for not knowing more about the rest of the world)?

How would you develop an interest in anything beyond what's in the bubble of what you already know?

If you are constantly told that every use of a cultural practice not natively yours is "appropriation" (which is definitely not true, but there are people who believe it), are you ever going to come to understand another culture if you stay away from it all? Even if you move abroad, how will you ever pop your foreigner bubble if you avoid any habit that is just common and natural in the country where you live because you are afraid it's "appropriation" to use chopsticks or take your shoes off inside, or do anything you didn't grow up doing?

At some point, I do wonder how reasonable it all is. We Westerners are privileged as a class, yes, but we are also imperfect as individuals. We can be better, but we'll always be flawed.

It is reasonable to expect I had a good reason for coming to Taiwan, but unreasonable to expect me to conjure one up retroactively. Dishonest, even. I didn't have a good reason, and the best I can do is admit that now. I suppose that could cause some to think I shouldn't be here at all, but this strikes me as unreasonable as well: despite my early blunders, I do have a life here. Friends - which make up my local roots - cats, work, marriage, a home.

I suppose you could expect everyone to craft a finely-wrought reason for their interest in a foreign language, culture or country. At what point, though, does that too become dishonest? Constructing a reason that sounds right - no matter how accurate - rather than just speaking plainly?

I guess what I'm trying to say is, I appreciate the modern emphasis on considering why we do the things we do, pushing us to think beyond the personal satisfaction our actions bring, but also the consequences they might have. It forces us to consider our role in the world, and what good or harm we might be doing where these issues of race, class, privilege, culture and politics intersect. It makes us come to terms with the fact that the rest of the world is not an exotic backdrop to our personal journeys, and other cultures don't exist for us to pick and choose from to make ourselves more interesting.

And yet, good reasons sometimes come later. I have good reasons for staying in Taiwan now, but I didn't have a good reason to come here. I have good reasons to work on my Mandarin and my Taiwanese now, but I didn't have a good reason to start learning it. I can say I was not simply interested in seeming cooler or more interesting, but you're free not to believe me. I have good reasons to be involved in Taiwanese civil society now, or at least write about it, but I didn't have a good reason to start.

Because I am not unblemished, I'm not going to judge anyone too harshly for not having a good reason for learning Mandarin - it is better, I think, that they learn it for whatever reason than that they don't learn it at all (if they learn just a little bit to seem like a Cool White Guy, chances are they have other character flaws too and I'll likely stay away. But I wish them well on their language-learning journey).

I won't come down too hard on folks who don't have a good reason beyond bumbling youthful curiosity for why they ended up in Taiwan. That was me once. Maybe they'll make something better of themselves. If they never do, again, that's probably indicative of other character flaws anyway.

If I meet someone who seems to be in Asia for the sole purpose of seeming more interesting than he or she actually is, chances are I won't find them that interesting so what I think of their 'journey' is a moot point. Maybe their eyes will eventually clear - I hope so.

And if not, well, that will become apparent in time. If Brad can't quit it with dressing like a cross between Confucius and a Thai fisherman and talks about 'the East' as though there are gong sounds constantly in the background, that'll make itself clear soon enough. There may well be natural consequences - being excluded, not being made to feel welcome, wondering why one has put down few if any local roots. If these don't work, and the situation is clear, maybe then it's worth speaking up.

In short, you don't need to be perfect. You don't always need a perfect reason - your reason might come later. But you absolutely do need to reflect.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Let's talk about sex education in Taiwan

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It's a popular expat pastime to point out ways that Taiwan is different from one's home country - you know, the typical "back home we have churches but here we have temples" type of narrative. I do it myself sometimes. There's nothing wrong with that type of story - vive la difference and all - but it's interesting sometimes to look at ways in which countries on two different ends of the world are more alike than they are different - for better or worse. And sometimes both.

This is one of those "both" times - an interesting article appeared on NPR pointing out Taiwan's forward thinking sex education curriculum (although implementation is far from perfect, as teachers incorporate it into other subjects as they see fit) as well as opposition to it. Both good (the modern, pragmatic curriculum content) and bad (anti-gay groups saying the same-sex relationship education is 'improper') are quite similar to the debate over this issue that goes on in my own country.

I've long been critical of sex education in the USA - as the article points out, what is taught (if anything) is state rather than federally mandated, so American children in different states might graduate with wildly different knowledge about sex and reproduction. More age-appropriate knowledge is always better in this regard (with "age appropriate" meaning "a strong knowledge base before a young person becomes sexually active, and whatever knowledge they are curious about regardless of age"), so it is never a good thing for a student in one state to have less knowledge than a student in another. When sex ed is taught, as it was in my school, I wonder about the content. I learned about sexually transmitted diseases and reproduction, but did not learn much about female anatomy - I had to inquire on my own to learn that one can pee with a tampon in, for example, and that's just unfortunate as it should have been taught - and nothing at all about physically and emotionally healthy sexual relationships (with the emotional part especially ignored). I learned that from a combination of talking with my mother, reading a book she'd given me, and honestly, learning on my own.

Imagine if I hadn't had a good upbringing or open-minded mother. Imagine what I might not have known about healthy sexuality simply because I was born into a more conservative family or state. Imagine how much of a problem that might have been for me as an adult - even with a pretty good education in these matters from home, I still made (relatively minor) mistakes. What sorts of bigger mistakes might I have made without this healthy upbringing?

And, frankly, I think it's just stupid to pretend sex - and how to enjoy it in a healthy way - is somehow a shameful topic that we must avoid talking about to children or even in (some) polite company. Everyone is either doin' it, will do it, or wants to do it. It makes about as much sense to pretend it doesn't exist as not building public bathrooms (we all excrete, too) or not eating in public or even talking about eating or admitting we eat. I also think it's stupid to consider basic health education, including how to have healthy relationships in general, as inappropriate for children. If you're old enough to notice that you have sex organs, you are old enough to know what they're for. If you're old enough to know how and why you poop, you are old enough to know how babies are made. If you're old enough to know that your parents (hopefully) have sex, you're old enough to know the good things and dangers of doing it yourself.

And if you're old enough to ask, you're old enough to deserve an answer.

So, yeah, not too happy with my own country on this front. If we could stop being so terrified of a basic (and fun!) biological function, maybe we could have a happier and healthier population as a whole. If we could do that, maybe we could understand this biology in a more evidence-based way, which would lead to less misogyny and gender discrimination and less homophobia and anti-gay fearmongering.

As for Taiwan, frankly, I'm not sure what to make of sex ed here. I know a curriculum exists, and I have seen with my own eyes attempts at public service campaigns on the topic: I once had a culture shock moment in the MRT as I watched a safe sex commercial play on the televisions that announce the time of the next train. And yet, I'm  surprised by how often I come across straight-up head-scratcher beliefs. For example:

- That you cannot or should not use a tampon if you are a virgin
- That if you merely sleep in the same bed as a person of the opposite sex, you might get pregnant
- That if you drink cold drinks on your period, the menstrual lining will "harden" and stop flowing out (I know this one comes from older Chinese beliefs, but to me, hearing it is akin to hearing a Westerner talk about the healing properties of leeches)
- That homosexuality leads to AIDS epidemics
- That the percentage of LGBT people would decrease if we'd only raise children a certain way
- That it is "not normal" to be gay (often backed up with painfully flawed historical or demographic arguments)
- That criminalizing sex work will stop it
- That teaching abstinence or withholding education will stop young people from having sex
- That men "always" want to have sex but women "usually don't"
- That sex is a female "duty" to her husband


...so, basically, aside from the whole no-cold-drinks-on-yer-period thing it's more or less just like the US. As I don't think the US's sex education programs are particularly praiseworthy, I also have to wonder if Taiwan's national program is effective as so many of the same myths and misconceptions persist. It's even the same people - those anti-gay, usually religious types who are a few conspiracy theories shy of thinking the Earth is flat, who want to impose their ridiculous and frankly made-up morality on the rest of us - causing trouble and spreading lies.

A little slice of America in the Far East. In the worst possible way.

It's a shame, because unlike the US where a Puritanical past coupled with (pun intended) waves of immigrants who, while they bring diversity to the US, might not exactly bring a cutting-edge understanding of sexuality, this never had to be the outcome in Taiwan. Taiwanese culture is often dismissed as "conservative" and "repressed" by foreigners who don't know better, but the reality is a lot more complicated than that, and is not necessarily always conservative by Western standards. There is room in Taiwanese culture to be open about these things.


And then there's hilarity like this:


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This brochure is outdated now, but I still think it proves a point. I had originally thought of it as a good thing: an attempt to educate, albeit a flawed one. Now, I'm not so sure. Why is it in English? I don't remember seeing a similar on in Chinese (although one might exist). Do they think foreigners need to be educated to avoid "seductions in cities"? Are we seen as the problem? That's a problem in itself, but the childish presentation and straight-up hilarious English - why on Earth did they think that "工欲善其事,必先利其器" was a good idiom to use? This alone renders it useless and ineffective for even this misguided goal.

What's more, instead of all the useful information they could have put on the back, they chose "avoid seductions", "flowers with dazzling beauty can take your life" and...sharpening tools?

Despite all that talk of a progressive national sex education curriculum, is this really what it boils down to?

I don't know, as I don't work in a public school, I don't research this issue and although I've had friends tell me they had very little or no sex education in school, they are all old enough that their observations would not necessarily reflect today's reality.

So I'm not sure what to think, but I do know that Taiwan can, and should, improve in this area. It is entirely in keeping with local culture that it do so.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Out of Range

This week seems to be my week for reacting to the ideas of others...I don't do it particularly often so I don't feel bad about doing it twice in a row.

In this case it's a Taiwanese woman who moved to Europe and writes about feeling stifled in Taiwan and not wanting to return (a country that, despite my rant a few days ago, I do call home and have found to be a good place to live, though we'll see how long that remains true).

And here's the song that underscored this post.

I was locked into being my mother's daughter
I was just eating bread and water
Thinking 'nothing ever changes'
and I was shocked
To see how the mistakes of each generation
Will just fade like a radio station
You just gotta drive out of range.

My thoughts on this, already written up on the Facebook thread where I found the article (and edited a bit for clarity on a blog format with no context):


I do think she's over-romanticizing life in the West (I have spent very little time in Europe but everything she says could have been said about the USA, if someone were over-romanticizing life there), but I get her point. She is likely shielded from the worst of Western culture, which shares a lot of the same problems stemming from over-conservatism as Taiwanese culture, simply because she is not a part of that culture. Just as I find life in Taiwan somewhat freeing, exactly because I am not Taiwanese, so I'm not beholden to their cultural expectations of people, or women specifically. 

I agree with her that expectations placed on 'your place' in society, with so much emphasis on your background, and expectations specifically placed on women, are stricter and more difficult to navigate in Taiwan if you don't fit the mold. Certainly I've felt the 'man must approach the woman, who is preferred to be
溫柔, and must be the breadwinner while the woman looks good and bears children' is a thing here.

But I'm not sure she's right that the West is soooo different. 

It's true people tend to care a bit less what you do or who your family is, and it's true that they are less likely - though not entirely unlikely - to openly judge women's looks or men's earning power (or differentiate the two expectations by gender), honestly, Western men DO judge women, sometimes openly! And there IS a big expectation to conform to 'pretty girl culture' - I felt it in college too and as an eternal 'not so pretty girl', I can absolutely tell you it affects your social life. Perhaps in Taiwan the guy makes a comment about your weight. NOT COOL, whether or not you are actually fat, but in the USA the guy doesn't make any comment at all...he just doesn't call you if you don't fit a culturally-expected mold of 'pretty and slim'. Even if he would have otherwise been eager to continue going out with you if you were just that much more attractive. Is that really much better? 

In Taiwan your mother criticizes your looks - in the USA your mother thinks you're beautiful but if you want to go out to a bar or club with your friends and aren't pretty, the guy at the door finds any excuse not to let you in.

In Taiwan perhaps your friends comment on your skin, hair etc. but in the US if you have both a vagina and an openly expressed opinion, you are fairly likely to be the subject of online harassment and trolling, or, not quite as threatening but also annoying, having men comment, in a seemingly 'well-intentioned' way, 'helpfully' explaining basic concepts to you that you have already referenced and clearly understand (yes, we call this 'mansplaining', and yes, it has happened to me. I just don't publish those comments). Or - and this has also happened to me - having guys try to tell you what you should write about, as though they have some sort of say in what you choose to publish online.

And we DO have social expectations - I felt some members of my family didn't treat me like an adult until I married - it showed in little things like being included in Christmas cards to my parents even though I was in my late 20s and lived on another continent, which abruptly stopped being a problem after my wedding. So far people have been basically OK about our decision not to have kids (though I do occasionally hear a stray judgmental comment about people like us), but I can't even express the social pressure I feel in the US because I'm openly atheist. It's like I murdered everyone's children, just because my (lack of) religious beliefs differ! The snarky comments from family etc...they wouldn't make such comments about being from a single-parent family but they absolutely will if they don't like your belief system. 

It's true that US few will comment on a man's earning power (some will - I just don't talk to those people), but there is this weird expectation that you just always have money, and if you don't, it's somehow your fault...even when it's completely not your fault. You may meet a few retrograde thinkers who expect the man to be the breadwinner, but more often than not it's a simple blanket judgment that if you're scraping by, it can't possibly be the fault of a problematic system that now elevates the wealthy while pushing down the middle class and poor by denying them key opportunities. It's because something is somehow wrong with you. And if the profession you love pays well that's fine, but if it doesn't, that is also somehow your fault and you're a failure no matter how good you are at it, just because you don't earn enough money. And gods help you if you are in a job people are expected to do cheaply or for free because they 'love' it (like, oh, teaching, where "teachers aren't in it for the money" is a ridiculous excuse to not pay teachers enough money).

And it's true that while gender discrimination in the workplace is as illegal in Taiwan as it is in the US, it's much more common in Taiwan (at least that's what Taiwanese women tell me, and I believe them), even as women have made greater inroads here in industries such as finance than they have in the USA. I also seem to be on a roll this week in talking about my former employer, but I have to say sexism was something of a problem there, too, with inappropriate comments about personal relationships and teacher-student interaction made more than once by the owner to various coworkers of mine.

But...that doesn't mean there is no gender discrimination in the US. Although I know this was not intentionally orchestrated (yes, I do know, as well as anyone can), I couldn't help but notice at my employer in the US from 2004-2006, that all of the back-office 'support', secretarial and administrative work was done by women.
So, yeah, I absolutely get her point. And it does bother me that even the really good, nice, educated local guys I know in Taiwan occasionally come out with a sexist humdinger (but then in the USA that happens too). It does bother me that more than one of the more progressive guys I know in Taiwan say it would actually bother them if their wives earned more than they did. It bothers me that one declined to support his wife in her argument with his mother over the 'cry it out' vs. 'hold and nurture' styles of caring for babies, because "it's not my business, that's between them and for the women to figure out."

And yet...you also meet seemingly 'nice' guys with these views in the USA. I have real-world experience with loving, progressively-minded married men with children who, despite supporting equality, still let their wives do most of the housework (and not because the wives 'want to', though they'll claim that's the case). 

Considering all that, I'm not sure the author would feel that much different if she were actually from a Western country. The idea that people who move abroad and like it don't like it because the culture suits them better, but because their 'outsider'-ness allows them an element of freedom that being a part of neither culture would.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

"This is Taiwan", except it isn't, just no, it's total BS

This post about how the common-ish "this is Taiwan" and the helplessness it expresses is a dangerous notion, and how Taiwan is a country "without hope", in comparison to the USA, a country of relentless optimism.

People are passing it around with the tag "what do you think?" but nobody except Facebook commenters (including me in the Facebook commenter group) is attaching any sort of opinion on the post.

Well, I'm never one to just pass on a link without an opinion, so here's my opinion: it's bullshit.

Not only bullshit, but a dangerous generalization. It's easy to say "Taiwanese are defeatist, that's why they don't work to make things better as individuals". It's pat. It's a ridiculous stereotype, the sort of thing bandied about among groups of buzzed and drunk expats in Carnegie's and the Brass Monkey as a way of explaining away their culture shock (that is, as all Taiwan's fault, never their own for not understanding or never a simple difference in worldviews). It comes close to insinuating that Taiwanese are lazy or mediocre. At the very least it makes two ridiculously vast generalizations that have so little application at the individual level that I question their value and their truth. It borders on, nay, it is, a caricature of two cultures, and is an accurate portrayal of neither.

It's easy to revert to these cliches, these "things I've talked about with foreign friends at Carnegie's and they all agree so I'll blog it because it must be true if a bunch of white guys all agree on it after a few beers", these pat statements, these stereotypes.

It's also a bad idea.

First, the idea that America is a hopeful, optimistic country where it's instilled in us from a young age that things will get better, must get better, and the world is ours if we will only seize it. That may have been true a generation or two ago, maybe three, but honestly, I'm an American and I think our whole country is right fucked (with apologies to my in-laws as usual for my language). Between institutional discrimination, wage stagnation, a stifling corporate culture, the horrors of libertarianism, religious fundamentalism (and religious conservatism), science denialism, rampant bigotry disguised as 'freedom', the military industrial complex and the goddamn patriarchy, I don't feel a lot of optimism about my own country, and I certainly don't think we would be wise to have boundless hope for the future.

I'm so skeptical of how good the future of America will be that I left it! I couldn't do what I wanted to do with my life there, and I certainly couldn't have started my own little freelance business between not having a car (nor the money for it) and not being able to afford private health insurance (which is a little better with Obamacare but still not quite satisfactory). I could seize my future abroad, not at home, so why on earth would I think that the US is so great and the world is ours?

And that's not just me, that's how a lot of my friends feel too. Asked to come up with some fatalistic nihilist skeptical cynics I could go on for hours. Asked to come up with an unbridled optimist, I don't know if I could name even one.

Secondly, the idea that Taiwan "lacks hope", the people think that there is no future so "why bother", and this is why so many people say "cha bu duo" (close enough), "this is Taiwan", "this is how things are, they can't change" etc. Also bullshit.

Things Taiwan has done historically that belie a national outlook of hope: declaring independence in 1895, the 228 riots, the Kaohsiung Incident, the Wild Lilies.

Things that have happened in Taiwan recently that belie a national outlook of hope: holding out against an aggressively expansionist China, refusing against global and regional pressure to look toward a One China solution, and to insist on its self-determination, the Sunflower movement, the 3/30 protests, the November elections, especially the election of anti-establishment Mayor Ko in Taipei against the uber-establishment KMT candidate and consummate jerk Sean Lien.

A country doesn't see a group of students occupy their own nation's legislature because they feel it no longer reflects the will of the people if they lack hope that things can be better. 400,000 or so people (government estimates of 100,000 are pure bollocks) don't then show up to support them. Those same students don't end up somewhat successful - bringing the KMT's antics to public light, most likely influencing the elections later that year, and hey, has Fu Mao passed yet? Who knows what the future holds, but for now, the Sunflowers could be called successful.

This does not sound to me like a country that has no hope, that thinks "this is Taiwan".

For every "this is Taiwan" nihilist, for every cha-bu-duo person doing a mediocre job, honestly, I've seen someone with a goal, with a vision, with a willingness to take a risk or hope for something better. Among my students is one who could have emigrated to the USA (his brother did), but chose not to because "life in Taiwan is pretty good, why do I need to go there?", is one who says he hopes in his life to take part in something as momentous as the Kaohsiung Incident, is one who truly believes in doing a good job as a civil servant, is one who thinks that the academic reputation of Taiwan needs to be rehabilitated after the self-"peer"-review scandal and is actively working toward that goal, is one who puts in long hours of preparation and post-class feedback at the Mandarin Training Center even when their other teachers can and do get away with shoddy teaching.

That, to me, is not a country without hope. It can't be.

Now, that whole "this is Taiwan, what can we do" business is a real thing. I've heard it too. It's heartbreaking to hear, but two things:

1.) I've heard that sort of defeatism in the US too

2.) Remember that Taiwan is a collectivist culture (a generalization with a strong grain of truth in it, to mix my metaphors a bit). In the US we seem to revere lone mavericks who dare to challenge The Man and change the world. In Taiwan, for the most part, there's not a lot of credence given to that view, and solutions have to be collective, by consensus, not just One Man Against Them All. That man would be dismissed, because that's just not how society works here. There's nothing wrong with that.

Let me repeat: there's nothing wrong with that. It's not wrong. It's just different. Different doesn't mean hopeless or defeatist. It just means different. Solutions may come slower than we Westerners would like, but they also tend to enjoy broader support and therefore more complete implementation (see: national health care).

So of course one man or woman would say "this is Taiwan, what can I do?" because in that cultural framework, just one man or woman can't do much.

And you know there's a lot to recommend that view. Usually, one person can't change much. That's not defeatism, that's just the world. There are exceptions - but generally speaking, it takes a society, not One Maverick Standing Up To The Man, to really change something. I don't think it's hopeless to admit that, it's just pragmatic. Far more realistic.

Secondly, I don't think this is really related to cha-bu-duoism. There are people who strive to excel, and there are lazy people, or people who feel like it's not worth it. But you know what, those do actually exist in other countries, even the US, too! Why are we not ascribing the millions of lazy Americans to a national epidemic of hopelessness? (I know, some Republicans do, but mostly, we know better). Secondly, a lot of times that's an individual thing, and probably has to do more with individual personality, as well as (as my friend noted, and I agree) a reaction to a stifling corporate culture where hierarchy is prioritized over ability or innovation, where the way to survive is not to disagree or speak out too much, where being better at your job than your boss is at his or hers won't necessarily get you promoted, and where getting too much done just means more work and not necessarily any more reward.

But that's the corporate world. That's capitalism. That has nothing to do with the political future of the nation, and just because it's easier to keep your job now with no troubles so you put your head down and don't always do your best, doesn't mean that is your entire worldview.

I mean good lord, if my worldview were based on all the things I've done just to get by in my jobs (I mean, I waitressed at a Friday's in an airport and it was terrible, and I've declined to tell bosses in corporate jobs what I thought of the running of the organization because I needed to keep the job for awhile longer), how horrible would that be?

It's what I have done to get by, but not a final say on how I see the world.

And if I can feel that way, how can I possibly say that "cha-bu-duo" workers don't?