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

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for gender-based violence here, generally along the same refrain of “it’s Taiwan’s traditional culture” or an appeal to outdated views of gender which are common across both Asia and the world (one need only look at many American conservative views to see how such sexism plays out in the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?

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Some American Things Are Good (...but only some)

Awhile ago, I wrote a draft blog post about reasons why I'd never move back to the USA. It had stuff on it like "the pervasive gun culture makes me feel unsafe, as much as gun owners yammer on about how it's perfectly safe. Sorry, it's not" and "I LIKE HEALTH INSURANCE and America still sucks for that".

I never published it, having an inkling that something was up with my mom's health and that I may in fact have to move back for awhile - - and lo and behold (and unfortunately), I was right. I didn't want to look at my indefinite move home in a negative light: I wanted, and still want, to think of it in the most positive terms possible even though deep down I don't really want to leave Taipei for that long, at least not for the Hudson Valley (leaving Taipei for a year for an exciting destination like London or Hong Kong would be different) and without Brendan.

Please don't mistake this as not wanting to go home. I am thrilled that I can do this for my mom, and I truly want to be there. But let's be clear: that's for her. The region I'm moving to? Eh. Away from my husband for a year? WAAH.

That said, in wanting to think of this positively, I've compiled a list of reasons why moving back to the USA won't be so bad. Maybe someday I'll publish my more negative list, but not now.

1.) It will be a break from work and something new

I've never lived in the Hudson Valley as an adult, so that will be an experience. And there are college towns and antiquing days (I know, I'm a New York yuppie without the money or the address) and vineyards and hikes and such. And everyone needs a break from work, even when you love your work. That said, I'll be continuing many of my private lessons online. So it won't be so much a break from work as "something new".

2.) Seasons!

I'm not excited about the return of the Polar Vortex (I'm psychologically allergic to cold, which is one reason I moved away), but I am excited about things we don't get in Taipei, like fall foliage (if I'm there long enough), big fluffy sweaters, snow and distinct seasonal changes.

3.) Food

I can get almost everything I want in Taipei, but it will be nice go to back to affordable good cheese, a variety of olives, well-cooked Western food that I didn't make myself or get at Whalen's or Zoca, and a full-size oven. It will be nice to take trips to New York City and DC for food I can't get in Taipei, like South Indian (which I actually can get, but only at one place) and Ethiopian. I'm definitely not complaining about that.

4.) Access to friends

I do miss my friends back in the USA - I have maintained those relationships by visiting once a year, but it will be good to have the chance to hop on a bus or train to go see them a little more frequently (I have just one friend in the Hudson Valley, but I have many more in New York, Boston and DC).

5.) Crappy TV

Taiwan definitely has this, but it's a different sort of TV. One of my darkest secrets (okay not really) is that I have a morbid fascination with shit-tacular television. Think pap-smeared "and today Ellie Goldilocks will be teaching us how to use paper clips - yes, paper clips! - to make perfect Christmas bows. And then, Crumbles the Chimp will talk about his upcoming memoir, 'A Chimp's Life'" - morning shows, horrible reality shows in which eating-disordered women fight to marry a guy they don't even know, local news...you can't get this crap in Taiwan and yet I find it so deeply, well, "entertaining" isn't the word, maybe masochistic schadenfreude-sort-of-entertaining?

6.) Clothes that fit!

Even when I go to plus size stores in Taipei (something I don't actually have to do in the USA, but here I'm like a giantess), nothing fits. It's all made for women less curvy and shorter than me: think older Taiwanese women. Forget underclothes. Just forget them. At least in the US I can shop in regular stores and buy things that fit in more flattering styles, patterns and fabrics.

7.) Being able to deal with things without time zones or international charges

You know who is not very friendly to expats? Student loan organizations. Just try paying them back from abroad: it's almost impossible to get ahold of mine internationally (it can be done but I am usually on hold so long that I give up), and they won't accept payments from foreign bank accounts so I have to send money home frequently. It's a pain in the butt, and other institutions are not much different (just try getting something that needs to be notarized by an American notary to the USA, or getting people to send your mail to the right place, or dealing with anything where they ask you to fax something, which still happens, surprisingly). It will be nice to be able to take care of that stuff from within the USA and without the pressure of time.

8.) Having at least some not-outdated knowledge of American pop culture. 

You know when I found out 'basic' was a thing? Like two weeks ago, after it was brought back into cultural consciousness. Not that I am a better person for knowing what it is, but I find out about everything like six months after it's passe. Which is OK, I don't need to be on-trend, but I at least like to know what trends I'm ignoring!

And yes, I am kind of basic, except not. I do like crap TV and flavored lattes after all.

* * *

Well, that's about it.

Only 8 things.

Better than none, right?

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Reverse Culture Shock

I'm going to try, for the first and perhaps only time, to write a full blog post on my iPad. Lets see how it goes, and let me know if there are any egregious or hilarious autocorrect disasters in there. Also, about halfway through the whole thing clogged up and I'll have to finish on a regular computer.

Reverse culture shock is a common topic. Most people mention longer distances, different food and weather, quieter streets, less pollution, too many consumer options, tipping, high prices, eating at home more, unhealthier food and more directness as well as sarcasm as common reverse culture shock options. I've felt that too - go ahead and ask me how my digestive system is doing - but I've had some other issues too, good and bad.

Among the good (which generally needs little explanation): more variety of food, more diversity, not having to think of how to explain or ask for something in a second language, central heat, clothes that fit and don't look ridiculous on Westerners, Christmas for real, more options, road rules I understand, cooking in a good size kitchen.

But among the bad -

Saying "bless you" - People don't do this in Taiwan, and frankly, it makes sense that they don't. Despite being aware of the origin of this cultural tic, I'm not sure why Westerners still do it. I've stopped, even as I tell students it's something to remember to do when visiting the USA, and I am sure my fellow Americans think I'm quite rude for my utter silence in response to their sneezes.

Dry air, dry nose - I am used to central heat, and we've set up our lovely apartment with heaters in such a way that the effects are not so different from having central heating. What I did not expect was returning to a chronically dry nose and throat, to the point that I frequently wake up with nosebleeds.


Health care battles - My mom is sick, as regular readers know. In Taiwan she'd see her doctors, get chemo and other treatments, and not generally have to worry about how it would be paid for. In the USA, every new treatment, test or drug must be considered along with the question of whether insurance will pay, whether they are close to their annual cap and must wait critical weeks, in terms of health as well as money, for January, and how much will be paid out and when. Even with coverage, which they came close to not getting, their medical bills are in the "mortgage/med school" range, not the car payment range. And this is with "good" insurance! Which they pay for! Which they pay more than I pay for! It's ridiculous! It's inhumane! It's sickening, literally! Why do Americans put up with this bullshit? Why do they fight for their god-given right to keep such a bullshit system? Premiums that take a quarter of your pay, and you're not even guaranteed that sort of coverage, only to not even be sure that you'll be able to get a test - in time or at all - that could save your life, and the only other options if the company you are paying decides not to cover you are death or bankruptcy? Fuck this shit. I'm never coming home if this is what I'd face.

Ridiculous morning shows - The Onion's Today Now, a spoof of typically vapid morning shows, is more accurate than I remember. And yer I can't stop watching, especially when I wake early due to jet lag.

How do people, y'know, do anything? - Let's say you want to go out for a few drinks. Unless you live in a reasonably rural area, you can't go alone. Buses are rare if they exist, taxis cost a mint, and if you drink and can't drive home, and do take a taxi or get a ride, how do you get your car the next day? I don't get at all how this would work. If you go out with a significant other, only one of you can drink. That's no fun. So you go in a group or not at all? Ok, but what if you don't want to? I suppose the answer is "you don't need drinking to have fun", which I guess is true, but even a few glasses of wine at your anniversary dinner? How? Even in cities where public transit networks close early and you don't live close to nightlife hotspots and taxis are so expensive, how do people afford to go out? If your car needs work, how do you get around? How do you even get to the mechanic, or DMV, or driving school if you need your license, when none of it is accesssible by public transit? Does not compute.

Being unable to find what you want in a sea of options - Usually people complain about the opposite bit of reverse culture shock - too many options, too much stuff. But no, the other day we went to Walmart (ugggghhh) to get photos printed, and I thought it wouldn't be contributing too much to poverty-level wages and manipulating hiring hours to avoid paying benefits to buy some super balls for our cat (hard to find in Taiwan). We searched toys, party favors and pet care...no super balls in the whole football stadium of a store. Walking between sections was like going to the gym (other than the gym and Walmart, how do people get exercise when there are no sidewalks?) and there were hundreds of other kinds of balls. There was an entire aisle of party favors, and an entire shelving system of piggy banks, along with a hundred different deodorants and a thousand soaps. But NO SUPERBALLS. Again, does not compute.

People around me actually understanding what I'm saying - "maybe you shouldn't say that in public, people can in fact understand you". Oh.

People around me actually caring about my religious views - what's with the sad looks when I say that no, I did not go to church on Sunday, no I neither wish to nor know how to say grace? How about the liquor laws that allow for no alcohol to be purchased in a store on Sunday, or after midnight and before 9am? Imagine if 7-11 in Taiwan did that - what would it even accomplish? And all that because Sunday is the "day of rest", the day you go to church and pretend you're a better person than you actually are - except not all of us believe that Sunday is a holy day, or that there are any holy days at all. In Taiwan nobody cares, and what I think is irrelevant because it's not an issue. Here, my views are still arguably irrelevant as I don't live in this country (but I do vote, so there's that), but people actually care that I'm a non-believer, and an outspoken one at that.






Sunday, September 23, 2012

Mountain Rescue in Yilan: Our Scary Hiking Story and why Taiwan's National Health Insurance Rules (and America Sucks)

Near that waterfall is the water hole that Brendan fell into - this is us swimming before it happened
So, last Sunday (just about one week ago), my husband, a friend and I took a hike/river tracing excursion to Yuemeikeng waterfall: we wanted to show our friend the falls and I was eager to return with a better camera and take more photos. Plus, I wanted to try the hike in something better than sports sandals, and bought river tracing shoes for this trip as well as future ones.

We set off alright, following the directions I remembered, and made it a good ways up the river. Then we came to a deep swimming hole carved out by a powerful waterfall of moderate height. We took a swim, and then tried to figure out how to get over it. We weren't going to make ti by climbing, that was for sure. I remembered their being a side trail over this fall from our last hike, and started up it - but the ropes that had been there were gone and the ground was steep and slippery. This was almost certainly a result of the typhoon that had blown through recently. I was almost certain to fall into the gorge below - and not necessarily in deep water - if I continued. Other river tracers made it over the waterfall or had their own climbing equipment for that section of trail.

We searched for alternate trails and found none on the same side - I found what I thought was an alternate, in an area I vaguely remember walking around in on the last trip, and started up it, with the understanding that if this didn't work out, we'd either turn back or take the high trail, which might give us a view of the waterfall but probably no safe way down.

The trail seemed overgrown and in places not really a trail - but I saw some footprints, which made me believe that it was a good route up and over the falls, and we continued far past where we really should have.

Our friend said she was starting to believe this path wasn't safe - I wanted to look ahead to confirm that but was also within a few minutes of agreeing to turn back. We were maybe 20 meters above the gorge at this point.

Before that could happen, Brendan - who was hiking between us, shouted as a large section of ground gave out beneath him. I had just climbed the same bit of ground, but clearly two people clamoring over it was more stress than it could take. We heard his interminable fall down, grunting and yelping as he was hitting trees and underbrush on the way down in a manner not dissimilar from this (after Homer starts falling).

Twenty meters of that - later on we learned that he'd lost his glasses and his wedding ring in the fall - and twenty meters of us gasping in terror has he took the worst fall of his life, as well as the worst fall any of us have ever personally seen anyone take.

Then, silence. It was about ten meters after that straight down into the water, with nothing but a slick rock face in between.

And then, a loud splash.

We heard shouts, and then nothing. I was terrified and started shrieking - but I was also stuck. I had just climbed over the ground that had given out under Brendan. How would I get around that safely and back down? Could I get up to the trail at the top safely? Probably not and almost certainly not.

I told our friend, who was behind me, to go see about Brendan first while I figured myself out - I figured I could stay up there almost indefinitely (provided the ground didn't give beneath me too) whereas Brendan almost certainly needed immediate aid.  I still didn't know what had happened - I didn't know where in the river he'd fallen. I didn't know if he had a lot of cuts, some broken bones, a concussion, or worse. He might have been dead. The thought of that final possibility terrified me - imagine not knowing if your best friend, your beloved spouse, a person who is so good that they're like gold to their core, a person who, if they leave this world while young, then the world is not fair and any god that may exist is uncaring, and knowing it was your idea to take the trail up - and not knowing how you are going to get down to find out. Feeling like you, for deciding to check a little further ahead, should have been the one to go down with that chunk of dirt. For feeling like there might be a hole that just got ripped out of your heart and soul, and a person you are pretty much of the other half of, gone - and you don't even know yet if that's true.

Like that. I couldn't even cry, but I couldn't stop crying - it was that much of a shock. Obviously, it was a bigger shock from him, but I can only write knowingly about my perspective.

So as Brendan lay below - possibly OK, possibly not - and Emily tried to get to him, I spent the next few minutes figuring out how to get back down, or back up, or decide to wait for help, or somewhere or something. After several minutes of what seemed like careful deliberation but was really my adrenalin-fueled lizard brain making decisions for me, I swung carefully over the crumbled ground, hanging on by roots and prayers to a god I don't believe in to make it down to my husband at the bottom of the gorge.

Two-thirds of the way down, Emily came back and said two words: "He's alive". She also said "his leg's pretty bad and he's bleeding from the head, but he's talking and conscious and he's alive".

All I really heard was "he's alive" - I didn't remember the rest until later. I took Bigfoot steps through the bit of shallow river to where he was - some river tracers had seen him fall and gotten him out of the deep water.

Fortunately, he'd fallen in that one section of river carved out by the waterfall that was so deep that we, when diving down, couldn't reach the bottom. Ten meters straight down, and all I can say is that he was extremely lucky that that's where he landed. Ten meters into any other portion of that river and it could have been much worse. He was sitting on a rock, blood running down the back of his head (he patted it to show me that there was no brain coming out), back cut up pretty bad, huge gash in his knee.

We had no cell reception - nobody, not those with Da Ge Da, Fareastone or China Telecom, had any signal. Emily knows First Aid, so she watched for signs of shock, broken bones, trauma etc. as she used her teeth to cut apart the cheap towels we'd brought and tie them to his bleeding. We got him food and water, and I took off with just some money, my phone and sandals down the river to get to an area with reception and call for help.

Truth be told, I wanted to be there with my husband in his time of need, but this made sense: I speak Chinese and know the trails and river better, having hiked a few times in this area before. Emily knows First Aid. It was smarter to send me for help and leave her with Brendan. A group of river tracers helped us to the best of their abilities, but went back to their activity when they saw he was basically OK, and probably going to be OK. Emily tore apart towels with her teeth (her teeth!) and tied them to his head and leg with shoelaces to staunch the bleeding, and looked for signs of shock, broken bones, head trauma, hypothermia and other injuries.

I got to a juncture where I still had no reception but had to take off my river tracing shoes and put on sandals. As I was doing so, a Taiwanese couple came by and I asked them if they had reception - I didn't, but they had China Telecom and did. They helped me call 119 - I thanked them and said I wouldn't mind if they went on their way, but they stayed with me. I had forgotten to bring food and water, and was starving and thirsty - they asked me if I was hungry and thirsty and gave me a sarsparilla soda and raisin bread, which I wolfed down like a thieving Labrador who'd just stolen it.

Sitting, wet and covered in mud and silt, by the bridge, waiting for the EMTs to arrive, while still racing on panic, guilt, worry and adrenalin felt like someone had trapped me in aspic - I couldn't leave, I had to wait for the EMTs - but I couldn't sit still. Brendan was probably fine, but I still had a curdling stomach (which didn't stop me from shoving an entire loaf of bread down my gullet, mind you) and a sense of urgency. No....URGENCY.

Five guys showed up - a local lookin' dude in blue and white plastic shoes and faded clothes, a guy in a black EMT shirt with some ropes and a walky-talky, and two men in burgundy shirts with something wilderness-y embroidered on the pockets.  One had a pallet and huge Emergency First Aid bag. One wore dress shoes. At first I was really worried - this was mountain rescue in Taiwan? A dude in sandals and another in dress shoes?

I led them to the river, put on my tracing shoes and was all "OK, LETS GO NOW" but they stood around for what felt like the same amount of time it took for the Roman Empire to fall, discussing amongst themselves in Taiwanese.

I tried to implore them to just go through the damn river already, my husband is hurt and you need to go NOW. I was perhaps a little more hysterical sounding than I should have been. The younger of the two burgundy shirts said he understood my worry, but Sandal Guy was an experienced mountain guide in these parts, and carrying my husband back through the river was more dangerous than a trail. If a trail could be cut, they'd try that instead.

"But there are no trails! We were just there! He fell because I thought it was a trail but it wasn't a trail and WE NEED TO GO NOW!!11!!1".

One of them said (in Chinese) "I know, this is your husband and you are really worried, but trust us, we know what we are doing and we'll get him out." That calmed me down, because even I could see that he was right.

I should have shut my mouth, or shoveled in some more raisin bread - the EMTs clearly knew what they were doing and the mountain guide got them down through a trail they cut themselves. I waited at the top - I'd be more trouble than I was worth at this point, and I finally realized this and stayed out of the way - while they descended to the river below with ropes, pullies, the pallet and the aid kid. Ages later, they carried, dragged and prodded my husband up the "trail" from where he was sitting in the river.

At first I was horrified that they'd make him walk in that condition - we called 119 in the first place because he couldn't walk and was feeling faint - but also contrite, so I waited to ask Emily why they'd decided to pull him up - at times making him walk by basically forcing him along and shouting at him in Taiwanese - rather than put him on a stretcher.

Apparently they'd examined him, bandaged him, and saw injuries that would require stitches but no head trauma and likely no broken bones, and decided it would be smarter to get him up partly on his own two feet (well, his own one foot) and put him on a stretcher on the trail rather than have men haul him up on something not designed to be hauled in that way. Brendan had been sitting in the river - cold, flowing water - for almost an hour by then and was shivering. The cold water certainly helped keep swelling down, but there was a risk of infection that the emergency room doctor later warned us about. His shirt was ruined, and his spare soaked, so Emily put him in my spare t-shirt, which obviously looked ridiculous on him, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

A strange omen of things to come?


A few things amazed me about this part of the ordeal.

First, what a strong person Brendan is. I mean, I knew that, but Emily remarked later how amazed she was that Brendan sat there bleeding profusely for almost an hour and didn't complain or freak out. That, while in obvious pain, he made it up the mountain with those guys shouting at him in Taiwanese. He didn't understand them, but when it was clear he needed to move, pain or no pain, he moved. He stayed in good humor even as they got him to the main trail and put him on a stretcher.

Second, that mountain rescue came quickly and was free of charge - we paid the emergency room fees later on, but the actual rescue and ambulance didn't incur extra expense. It was as good as I'd imagine mountain rescue to be in any Western country. I would absolutely, if I were caught in an emergency in the mountains, trust these guys with my life. Dress shoes or no. I don't really know how it works - whether they're on call and in uniform at certain times or just always on call, but they got there in 20 minutes - on a trail that's not that well-known yet (many people in Jiaoxi have never heard of it).

Third, the disparity between the locals who helped me so much, and the group of river tracers later on (the group that was there when Brendan fell did their best to help us out). As they were trying to figure out how to get to Brendan, a group of them was returning down the trail with all sorts of equipment. The mountain rescue guys asked if they'd stick around and help if necessary, and they said no. They were within their rights to do that, but I was surprised. I guess I would have stuck around. I have noticed when enjoying Taiwan's great outdoors (and how great it is!) that other individuals and small groups or families totally have your back. They'll chat with you, help you out, share snacks with you (and I do share with them), even give you a ride. The large, organized groups, however, never do. They'll make sure you don't die but that's about it. Again, within their rights, but being within your rights is not always synonymous with being kind. I remember a story told by a friend who climbed Jade Mountain and hiked from the bus stop to the first cabin (back when that was a 14km hike with no public transport). It was dark and raining and they were being followed by dogs, but nobody with a vehicle would give them a ride - all organized hiking groups. Contrast that to when a friend and I got stuck at the Laomei waterfall trailhead - a 2km, no streetlight walk back to any main road through farms where dogs lived. We quite easily scored a ride to the nearest bus stop from another leisurely day hiking couple. In this situation, the most helpful non-professionals were the couple who lent me their phone and fed me their soda and raisin bread, and stuck with us until Brendan was in the ambulance. I never learned their name (but I did thank them), and they'll have my eternal gratitude for taking care of me when I needed someone to help me help Brendan.

Fourth, I have not yet figured out how our band of three, plus the couple that helped me and the rescuers (fewer than ten) turned into a parade of approximately 30 people as we got to the end of the trail. I honestly have no idea where most of these people came from - two guys on scooters, a guy with blue hair, a few other day hikers, and about twenty other completely random people. My best guess is that word got out among people at wherever mountain rescue hangs out and the base of the trail that "some dumb foreigners had an accident in the mountains, why don't we go see what's up?" "OK, I've got nothin' else going on, let's check it out".

At the end, I thanked everyone including the Taiwanese couple and the EMTs got Brendan into an ambulance and sent us to National Yangming University Hospital in Yilan (I told them "the best nearby hospital" and that's the one they chose). It was my first and hopefully only ambulance ride not only in Taiwan, but ever. And yes, I Facebooked the whole way there, once it was clear that Brendan would be fine (obviously I would not have done that had he not been OK). It's not often that you get to be tagged in a photo like this:



Don't worry, Brendan's the sort of person who sees humor in such photos, assuming the person is not in any danger.

At the emergency room, he got a CAT scan and an X-ray, care for his less serious wounds, stitches and a dry hospital gown.

The X-rays and CAT scan confirmed that he managed to slide 20 meters and fall straight down for another 10 or so without breaking any bones or suffering any head trauma. Not even a mild concussion.

Which means that the fifth thing to amaze is that I am apparently married to Clark Kent. I think he may fly around saving lives and stopping criminals while I sleep. If a fall like that doesn't break a bone, I am not sure anything will (knock on wood).

Then they gave him an IV to make sure he didn't dehydrate, gave him some painkillers and observed  him for a few hours to make sure he didn't have some trauma they'd missed (nobody wants this), and a chance to rest. The care he received was as good as any you'd get in an American emergency room - no, better. He didn't have to wait. The ER was a little busy, but not understaffed. He got the attention he needed immediately - something you may not get in an ER in the West. I remember cutting my knee badly enough that I needed stitches one year at summer camp, and waiting two hours in the ER before a doctor was free to see me.

Emily and I went to a nearby hotel that has a deal with the hospital to provide discounts to patients and their family - we got a room for three hours (NT$500) and took showers and a rest. I frequently walked back to the hospital to check on Brendan, and 7-11 to buy him some sort of shirt. He had no clean, dry, non-ripped and non-bloody shirts to wear. He ended up with undershirts, but they'd do. He felt faint, but probably from exhaustion and shock more than anything, and I helped him hobble very slowly to our hotel room. Once there, he said he didn't think he'd make it back to Taipei that night, so we sent Emily home, paid a bit more for a full night, put a towel down on the pillow and slept in Yilan. We both canceled work the next day. Him because he was in no condition to teach, me because I needed to get him back to Taipei and then help him at home.

Some things I learned from the whole ordeal:

- I do realize just how lucky Brendan is. I do attribute it to luck: if anything, the fact that some people are not so lucky at all, and people do die hiking, mountain climbing and river tracing just because they didn't manage to fall into deep water, has made me feel that no, this is not the result of a higher power watching out for us. If it were, people just as deserving of a happy ending as Brendan would get it. So this hasn't caused any sort of religious epiphany.

- I will never, ever, EVER again make fun of people who take what seem like too many safety precautions when hiking or river tracing. I do understand the need for climbing gear, a wetsuit and a helmet for serious, challenging river tracing, but I felt that the Yuemeikeng trail was so easy - I mean, even I have done it, and I'm hardly Olga Outdoors - that a helmet was really not necessary. Well, no. Brendan was fine, but he might not have been, and had he fallen a few meters to the left, a helmet might have saved his life. In this case, a helmet would have meant no stitches in his head. So kids, listen to Auntie Jenna: wear a helmet when river tracing.

- Just because something has footprints and looks like a trail does not mean it is a trail you should be taking, or a real trail at all. I don't care how those footprints got there, if you feel like it's not a good trail, don't take it. Just don't. Even if you have to turn back. I have learned my lesson.

- I am really not interested in hiking or river tracing right now. I will surely hike again in the future, but for the forseeable future I am going to stick to safe trails. I had the jeebus scared out of me and I'm not interested in it happening again.

- I do realize how lucky we are that this happened in Taiwan and not, say, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, or Indonesia...or even China. Yilan County had the facilities to come to our aid quickly. I don't want to think about how much longer Brendan might have sat in that cold water, bleeding had this happened in a less developed country, or one in which we didn't have a cell phone (we generally don't travel with one), or I didn't speak the language, or had subpar hospitals. I am not too interested in seeing how good Nicaragua Mountain Rescue is, or how good their hospitals are. Lesson: don't do risky hikes in places where you don't have access to emergency services. Get a guide or don't go. It sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised.

- Take a First Aid course. I will. Again, it seems obvious, but it hadn't really occurred to me. Emily did a lot to keep Brendan safe while I went to find help, and I'd like to have the knowledge to be able to do something similar should I ever need to.

This was our final destination - I'd been there before. We never did make it. I'm not sure I'll go back. Too many bad memories now.

Finally, for all of you out there who still think America's craptacular private health insurance "system" is superior to a nationalized system like Taiwan's, I can assure you that National Health Insurance saved our butts. I am a big fan of Taiwan's nationalized insurance, which covers everyone but allows private hospitals and clinics to open alongside government-run hospitals. It means everyone is covered, but you don't have to wait for care because the private clinics help ensure that everyone gets quick attention. It's expensive, but not any more expensive than what you lose in productivity when you have a population that can't afford to seek medical treatment before it becomes dangerous/unavoidable. It's not perfect - people complain of perfunctory visits and ridiculous regulations on what can be prescribed when, and what is and isn't covered - but it's a hell of a lot better than America's horror.

Here's a breakdown for you:

Mountain rescue
Taiwan: free
USA: Usually free, but not always (It's hard to say if we'd have been found "negligent" and possibly charged for the cost on the USA: in retrospect we shouldn't have been on that "trail", but at the time, seeing those footprints, it seemed like, if not a great idea, that at least it wouldn't end as it did). Had we been hiking in Maine, Brendan's home state, the government would have been legally allowed to bill us for the cost of the rescue.

I'd say the level of training and competence evident in Yilan is comparable to what I'd expect in the rest of the developed world.

EMTs and Ambulance
Taiwan: free
USA: It depends - but usually not free
It may be ree if it is publicly funded, but it's not always. Private or fee-based ambulance services can be quite expensive (I know, Yahoo! Answers is not a good source, but in this case I believe it is accurate). Private insurers may or may not cover it: if they deem it wasn't medically necessary (Brendan technically could have been transported by car, but we didn't know that at the time), or are out-of-network, or take you to a hospital that the insurer won't improve. The ambulance may be covered but take you to an out-of-network hospital. Or your insurance may only cover you in your region. Let's say $500 as many sources agree this is the typical fee, and with all the weird rules and ways to reject a claim, there's a fair chance we'd have been stuck with that fee. However, let's assume everything goes according to plan and you pay a $50 co-pay for the ambulance ride.

Emergency Room
Taiwan: NT$500 (US $20 or so)
USA: OH GOOD FREAKING GOD
My old insurance plan paid for ER visits with a $50 deductible, some charge up to $250. I think the mean is about $100 so let's say $100 (this coverage plan confirms that). Without insurance or if insurance deemed that his visit was not medically necessary (it was, but private insurers seem to work on a plane of logic devised from their own sense of whimsy coupled with sadism) it could have been several thousand. Brendan needed more care than the child in this article's first anecdote, but like the child, got stitches for a deep wound. Let's say without insurance it would have been a similar amount - about $5500. I'll be generous and assume that includes X-rays.

CAT scan
Taiwan: Free with ER visit
USA: $300-$1500 (confirmed here - could even be more)
I'll go with $1500 here as he had CAT scans with contrast dye of his head, pelvis, leg, foot and possibly other parts - he may have gotten a shoulder and abdominal ones as well. I'm really not sure. It could have been much more than that, up to $3000 or even higher. Insurance usually asks for a 20% deductible for such tests, which would be $300 for a $1500 scan, or $600 for a $3000 scan.

X-rays
Taiwan: free with ER visit, very cheap (like maybe $10 USD) otherwise
USA: $200-$500 (check the comments)
Let's be generous, though, and assume in our range that the huge ER bill included the X-rays, stitches, doctor check and pain medication - I'll include this cost in a range, but it may not be a separate charge.

Follow-Up Visits
With stitches in wounds as deep as Brendan's, he'd need at least one follow-up to remove them, or more than one to make sure everything was healing alright. He'll probably have to see an orthopedist soon to check for soft tissue damage.

Taiwan: NT$200 (US$6), typically, no waiting - we paid more for one visit but it wasn't strictly necessary to go back to the hospital in Yilan before returning to Taipei
USA: US$50 with insurance, typically (it varies), or $200 or so (again, it varies) without insurance - that'd be for a doctor to check/remove the stitches and again to see the orthopedist (a specialist - plans in the USA vary).

Total: 4 visits so far in Taiwan (NT$800 or about $25 USD), we'd probably go to the doctor less were we in the USA. 2 visits at $50 copays is US $100, or without insurance $400 USD.

Walking Cane
Taiwan: free - the ER gave us one, but if we'd had to pay, maybe NT$300 (US $9)
USA: let's say US $20, although that is a generously low estimate

Medication
Taiwan: Free
USA: assuming ER medication was free but medication given later on prescription had to be paid for: my estimate (I have no way of verifying this accurately, but I can make a good guess) would be $20 with insurance, up to $60 or more without. Let's be charitable and stick with $60 for some basic Neosporin-type stuff and some antibiotic cream.

I won't even get into the cost of acquiring a hotel room ($30 US in Taiwan, probably $100 US in the USA), food while in a different city (negligible in Taiwan, probably $50 or so in the USA with three people eating a few meals, even if we ate cheaply), transport back to Taipei (we would have paid that anyway), and taxi to the bus station and then apartment (total $300NT or $9 US, would have been more like $40 in the USA), and getting Brendan shirts (about US $5 here, probably would have cost me more in the USA).

Total cost in Taiwan:

Mountain Rescue - Free
Ambulance - Free
$20 ER
CAT scan - Free
X-rays - Free
$25 follow-up visits
Cane - free
Medication - free
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$45 USD for the entire thing

Total cost in the USA if you are lucky and have insurance

Mountain rescue - free
Ambulance - $50 co-pay
Emergency room - $100 with insurance
CAT Scan - $300-$600 with insurance
X-rays - charitably, let's assume this is covered by the emergency room fee. If not, maybe $100
Follow-up visits: $50 for two follow-ups and $50 to see an orthopedist = $150
Walking Cane $20
Medication $20

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$640 - my minimum estimate with insurance, $1040 as a maximum total cost even if you are lucky and insured!

Total cost in the USA if you are one unlucky bastard

Mountain rescue - free (you're not that unlucky)
Ambulance - $500
Emergency room - $5500
CAT scan - $1500-$3000
X-rays - let's say this isn't covered by the ER bill and estimate it at $200 (which is being generous!)
Follow-up visits - $600 for two follow-ups and one orthopedist appointment (note that in Taiwan you'd have had four visits)
Walking cane - $20
Medication - $60

-------------------

= may as well file for bankruptcy now

Or, $8,380 if you are only a little unlucky
and $9,880 if your CAT scan was on the more expensive end of things

Just in case you're not furious yet, here's the cost in Taiwan even if you don't have insurance:

Mountain rescue: free
Ambulance: not sure, but the EMT told me it was actually free no matter what (will double-check or someone can correct me in the comments if I'm wrong)
Emergency room: from my sister's visit, NT$800 or about $25
CAT scan - no idea - can anyone help? I'll ask some doctor friends soon
X-rays - NT$300 (from my own experience) or $9 USD
Follow-up visits - NT$400 each for 4 visits = NT$1600 or about $48 USD
Orthopedist without insurance - NT$1000 (estimated from what it's cost me to see a chiropractor and an OB/GYN that didn't take national health insurance) or US $30
Walking cane - NT$300 maybe (US $9)
Medication - let's estimate a total of NT $500 (US $20), which is overstating it

---------------------

= USD $141 (not including CAT scan)

IN CONCLUSION

Poor Americans shouldn't go hiking. If you're poor, and American, or even not poor but lack insurance, don't just stop hiking - stop EVERYTHING. Just go live in a bubble. If you're in an accident, and live, your life is still over. If you can afford the bubble. Which you probably can't. You're fucked, because a bunch of "meh meh meh let's spend all our money on wars we don't need to be fighting and tax cuts for people who don't need them and then balance the budget on the backs of the poor and elderly and tell those poor and elderly that they're the moochers who won't take personal responsibility"folks.

And, also, clearly nationalized health insurance works, and clearly even setting the insurance issue aside, medical care costs too much in the USA and I have to ask why. Costs in Taiwan are about 1/2 to 2/3 that of the USA, so why is the difference more like several orders of magnitude just in the case of medical care? When medical care in Taiwan is comparable to that in the USA (in the case of emergency rooms, it's better)?

Note that the expenses listed in Taiwan are generally one line each - because it's all very simple. There's about a paragraph per expense under the US section, because it's complicated, and easy to get screwed (out of network, ambulance brings you to the wrong place, insurance says something was not necessary even though doctor said it was etc.). That right there says a lot about how screwed up the American system is. It shouldn't be that way. It should cost $X, at all times, for everyone, under every insurance plan.

And also, note that I put "in Taiwan with no insurance" at the end - because while it's possible to go through this in Taiwan with no insurance, almost everyone is insured. Youd've been insured, almost certainly. The exceptions are few and far between. In the USA, it is absolutely not a guarantee that you'd be insured.