Showing posts with label culture_differences. Show all posts
Showing posts with label culture_differences. Show all posts

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Immigration and racism in Taiwan: it's not about who you are when you come, but who you become after you arrive

IMG_9736 2
Silhouettes of a visitor and a foreign resident in Taiwan

Perhaps an explosive title, but hear me out. I'm going to talk mostly about Taiwan in this post, but the ideas I want to express can be applied to more or less any country (there may be a few exceptions that I'm not aware of  - but by and large this is a global problem). Otherwise, let's just jump right in.

In Taiwan, it's fairly easy for professionals to immigrate and gain permanent residency, at least compared to much of the rest of the world. If you are a professional with at least two years' experience in your field or a Master's degree in any field (which has to be a face-to-face program and in some cases, excludes part-time programs) and someone will hire you, you can come to Taiwan with few problems. If you stay for five years, you can get permanent residency. That's actually not bad by global standards. It's much harder to get a visa to work in most Western countries, and permanent residency (e.g. a green card) can take ages. Of course, some are easier than others.

But it is discriminatory - if you're from a family that is middle class or wealthy, you're more likely to have access to the education you need to get hired. You're more likely to speak an international language (such as English, though for Taiwan, Mandarin is a huge help), because you had access to that same education which probably included it. You probably also come from a worldlier 'family culture' that would have encouraged knowing such a language: families where parents and relatives speak a foreign language are more likely to have offspring who also grow up to speak that language.

So, off the bat, any sort of points-based or 'professional' based visa system is automatically classist, because mostly people born into certain social classes have the access to the education and training they need to get hired and obtain a visa in a country like Taiwan (or Australia, or the US, or...etc.)

If you come from a 'developed' country, many (or most) of which are majority-white for historical reasons that are deeply unfair, you are far more likely to be born into such a family. What is the likelihood of, say, a European being born into circumstances that would allow them these advantages, compared to, say, someone from Southeast Asia outside Singapore? A lot greater. So what are your chances of meeting visa requirements calibrated to attract 'professionals' if you already come from a developed (and therefore more likely - though not necessarily - majority white) country? Comparatively speaking, how likely are you to be able to meet those same requirements if you come from a developing country that is almost certainly not white? Anecdotal evidence does not count. "I'm white but my life was tough" does not count - that's not statistical likelihood. "I'm from Vietnam but my family was rich" is also not statistical likelihood. On average, what are your chances?

Since race intersects with class - the color line is the power line is the poverty line - and you are simply more likely to be from a privileged background if you are white - such a system also gives an unfair advantage to people who are white. There are exceptions for sure, but again, we're talking averages here.

In Taiwan's case, I simply don't care if the goal is to attract certain kinds of professionals, in part because doing so is simply inherently classist (and therefore racist) - and that is exactly how Taiwan's immigration system works, both in terms of getting visas to come here, getting permanent residency, and getting citizenship. If you qualify for a professional visa, permanent residency is fairly easy, but if you come here to study - say, you are one of the Southeast Asian students that Taiwan hopes to attract - that doesn't count, and it can be difficult to transition. If you are a blue-collar worker, there's no path at all. To be a citizen, you have to be even more 'qualified', which probably means coming from an even wealthier background, or have 'Chinese ancestry' (which is a law that's obliquely about race).

You can come here and seek a better life, but probably only if your previous life was comparatively privileged, and you can stay forever, but you're probably already really privileged if qualify just isn't a good look.

I also believe that it doesn't actually achieve Taiwan's goals. The birthrate is falling, and while I don't necessarily think "we must unceasingly increase our population so the young can support the old" is a good long-term plan - Taiwan's easily habitable areas are already densely populated and there is finite space and resources - the best way to ensure population stability is to loosen immigration requirements. A lot of these immigrants will marry and have children locally, which is a huge bonus for Taiwan. Not just  professionals: everyone.

In addition, I'm not at all convinced that the visa requirements and citizenship, plum blossom and gold card requirements actually meet Taiwan's needs. Taiwanese media routinely talks about the need to train more vocational workers, there is an oversupply of local workers for white-collar jobs (which is one reason wages are low, though not the only one), and with a low birthrate, Taiwan's labor force depends on immigration. Yes, this is true even despite the brain drain due to low wages and stressful, borderline-tyrannical office culture. And yet, it's especially true for blue-collar workers, because local vocational training is not particularly good and not highly-respected.

It would simply be smarter and truly meet Taiwan's needs, then, to relax rules for blue-collar immigrants, not just white-collar ones. So why have white collar workers been specifically prioritized? (That's a rhetorical question. The answers are racism and classism.)

And, of course, that's not even getting into what white collar workers Taiwan actually needs compared to whom it is trying to attract. With an initiative to become "bilingual by 2030", you'd think they'd want more qualified teachers and teacher trainers who can train up newly-hired local and foreign teachers, and yet for the education sector, only "associate professors", not regular teachers, qualify for dual nationality. That makes no sense at all.

And finally, it's simply the right thing to do. A place - whether that's a country, region or city - prospers when it is open to everyone seeking a better life, and the drawbacks are few. Yes, an influx of labor may cause short-term drops in wages, but those tend to recover. Yes, increased multiculturalism can cause friction, but it doesn't have to be that way, and the advantages of being exposed to people whose backgrounds and worldviews are unlike your own outweigh the drawbacks. Plus, it's a super great way to not be racist! They bring talent and creativity as well as hard work. They open businesses, get married, start families. They fill needs and niches in society. They matter, even if they don't come with a pre-fab education or specific work experience.

In other words, it's not about who you are when you come. Or it shouldn't be. It's who you become after you arrive. 

I want to insert a little story about how I came here and taught English with very few qualifications (some teaching experience in a variety of settings, from children to adults, from monolingual to multilingual, in the US and outside of it, both English and native-speaker literacy, but no formal training.) I want to talk about how the only way I got to where I am now - the person who trains people like my former self - is because of the opportunities I could only access after I got to Taiwan. I want to talk about how I could never have afforded my subsequent training and education with the low purchasing power my American existence felt like it was dooming me to. But I won't (I mean, other than the fact that I just did). I grew up with English as my first language, and standard American English at that. I'm white. I was privileged enough to be born into a family that, with some difficulty, sent me to university. I'm already privileged, so my story isn't the point.

Otherwise, if you say you support immigration to Taiwan but you only mean immigration for the already-privileged, you don't really support immigration. You support classist, and therefore racist, immigration policy. You support people who look and sound like me, but not anyone really different from you. I mean that for Taiwanese as well: yes, we are different, from different backgrounds. Yes, this might lead to some differences in worldview. But, educated Taiwanese readers who can read this in English, you and I have more in common because of our class background than either of us have in common with someone from a truly marginalized community. Especially if you are Han Taiwanese - Han privilege is absolutely a thing, and you know it.

If those other people like us are Asian - say, Hong Kongers, Singaporeans or Japanese - then they are just that much more similar to you, coming from the same region, though not the same culture and society.

Do you really want to support only people who don't seem so different - people like me - or do you really want to support Taiwan being an international society where everyone can seek a better life?

Taiwan is already a multicultural society - though the rate fluctuates, the number of Taiwanese children with a foreign parent has always been higher than a lot of people realize. After all, most of the time, those foreign parents are Asian, so it's hard to tell. For the past few centuries, this country has had foreign travelers, residents, colonizers and spouses interwoven into its cultural and historical fabric. Although there's a 'majority' culture, it's only a monoculture if you want to believe it is (and if you think 'monoculture' includes other foreigners if those foreigners happen to be Asian).

I see no reason why that can't be reflected in a better, more egalitarian, more welcoming and less racist immigration policy. 

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Another kind of missionary

A very "Chinese" Last Supper at the Catholic church in Yanshui, Tainan

Something that's been kind of in the back of my head for awhile, brought to the fore by my friend Donovan's interview with a missionary, and then the editorial some guy wrote about it. Now I'm writing about the editorial. Perhaps someone will write a piece about my blog post, and someone will tweet about that, and someone will write an editorial about that incendiary tweet, and then someone will Snapchat it or Tinder it or Grindr it or Blendr it or whatever the kids are doing these days, right up until Donovan covers the whole thing on ICRT again. The circle of life.

Anyway, friends and regular readers will know that I don't care for missionary work. I understand that many missionaries do other good things for communities, but I can't condone the 'I claim to respect your culture but I actually think this part of my culture is better and you should trash what you did before' attitude, or the idea that one does good works toward the ultimate goal of converting people. I say this even as I acknowledge that I can like and even respect individual people of good character who are missionaries.

In any case, what struck me about Mr. Angrypants here wasn't his views on missionary work which I largely agree with, but this:

Academic institutions must focus on the enhancement of logical, critical and independent thinking. Unfortunately, core values of the local culture here are not amenable, often even inimical to such essential educational goals.

The prevailing culture here is authoritarian and honors blind obedience, its education awards rote learning without understanding, it discourages young people from thinking for themselves and it punishes inquisitive minds.

The disingenuous educational paradigms are implemented in so many classrooms here on a daily basis. Therefore, there is no need in Taiwan of an additional input of uncritical thinking by religious groups that aim to hijack the minds of young people through the indoctrination of dubious contents.

I don't entirely disagree with this, though I don't necessarily think my education was that much better. But, it can't be denied that this is a large component of the educational system in Taiwan. Every time I start thinking "oh it's not that bad", I recall a story an adult student (and legit genius and overall cool person) once told me. As a student, he'd had to write three essays, each on one of Sun Yat-sen's Three Buzzwords Principles of the People. For the first two, he just restated what was in the textbook, and got perfect scores. For the third, he decided to offer his own insights as well (I've forgotten what they were, but I remember being impressed with his incisiveness), and got a C.

I don't even blame Taiwan for it too much: it's a holdover from authoritarian rule (dictators want populations that can read, write and do math, but not think too much) that sticks because it claims on the surface to have cultural legitimacy (I'll come back to this). Changing it would take a complex organized effort that considered parents, professional curriculum development, exams, administration and long-term teacher development. I understand why it's so slow to happen.

In short, he's got his tenses wrong. The prevailing culture in Taiwan was authoritarian, but is now democratic with a strong penchant for social movements and activism. The education system just hasn't gotten with the program.

I also suspect quite a few Westerners fundamentally misunderstand the historic role of education in many Asian cultures. Yes, it involves a great deal of memorization, especially of the "classics" (or math equations, or grammar patterns, or whatever). If you do this, you will pass. But historically there has also been a belief that to be truly 'educated' - to be a scholar - it's not enough to simply memorize. You have to take what you've learned and glean insights from it that you can apply to real-world situations. You have to be able to use it, extrapolate on it, consider it, do something with it. Otherwise, you might pass, but you're not a scholar.

Or as we call it in the West, critical thinking.

I'm not an advocate of this particular method of leading learners to criticality and inquisitiveness - it's outdated and just doesn't seem to work that well - but it's simply not true to say that educational traditions in Asia sought to suppress such traits.

But that's not where the real problem lies. This is:

There is another reason for concern. It is obvious that so many young people in Taiwan are literally clueless about major issues that move the world. Their life experience is minimal, their minds are soft and malleable, underdeveloped, easy to bend....

Often, young people are emotionally and intellectually insecure; they have never developed their own ideas about topics of general concern. They are lost when having to move within competitive networks of opinions, assertions and claims — the stuff the modern world is made of.

Therefore, they can be easily manipulated and “guided” by those who do have opinions, no matter whether they are good or bad.
Asian Mary, Jesus and Joseph
(Frankly I'll take this over white supremacist blue-eyed blonde-haired Jesus)

I'm guessing he doesn't spend a lot of time around Taiwanese student activists. If you think they are easily manipulated or their opinions can be changed or bent, just ask Ma Ying-jiu how that worked out for him.

Seriously, this is one of the most offensive things I've ever read about Taiwan.

Mr. Dude turns a somewhat-valid criticism of the educational system in Taiwan into a narrative of ‘these poor dumb mindless Taiwanese are at the mercy of these missionaries’ as though they are hapless victims too stupid and thoughtless to run their own society.

You know, that society that I just noted above has a strong tradition of activism (nevermind that it used to be called 'rebellion')? The one with arguably the most successful democracy in Asia, some of the freest press in Asia if not the world, with a developed economy that they (not the dictatorship) built?

That society, apparently. According to him, it's full of morons who don't even know how to have opinions.

This literally makes me want to spit. While I don't pretend Taiwan is perfect - there are many issues here that deserve strong, if not vicious, criticism - in this particular way, I have to wonder if we're living in the same country. I mean, sure, I meet idiots here. Every country in the world has its thinkers, its average people and its, um, dimmer bulbs. Every country has its leaders, its normal people and its blind followers. But to just not see all the creativity and insight around him? What's up with that?

For every thicker-skulled person I meet, I also meet people like my student above, who risked a failing grade just to write what he really thought. I see students occupying...all sorts of things, or trying to. I see the student I had who envisioned his presentation as a series of interconnected three-dimensional cubes, in a really insightful way that I hadn't even considered as a potential mind map. I see all the great Taiwanese fiction I've read recently, the beautiful films, the students I tutored who came up with a way to safely and more easily carry water over long distances while using the movement of that water to charge a battery that could be used for electricity, the creatively-decorated cafes, the young people with ideas that they'll launch once they get the money.

I see that while the authoritarian-holdover educational system in Taiwan is accepted, it is not particularly well-liked. Most Taiwanese are well aware of the flaws, and it's entirely understandable that fixing them seems like an impossible effort (if you want to criticize this, fine, but go look at American public schools in underprivileged areas and come back and tell me you still think Western countries are 'better').

I see a country where the education system doesn't teach critical thinking, but plenty of people learned to think critically anyway.

So this guy thinks he has all the answers for how to make Taiwan better and if we’d just do what he says those poor, poor, POOR widdle Taiwanese wouldn’t be taken in by those evil big bad missionaries. Just listen to him, he’ll fix what’s wrong with Taiwan.

He knows how to make this foreign culture better, more thoughtful in ways he can relate to, more like his vision of what it should be like. Of course, without his brilliant insight Taiwan will be lost. Barbaric. Stuck in the past. Or something.

In other words, he's just another kind of missionary.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Talking about Taiwan's 'Chinese identity' begs the question


Interesting editorial piece in the Hong Kong Free Press, actually from 2017, but I've just come across it today. In it, Hong Kong resident Charlotte Chang eloquently describes her feelings of identifying on a deep level as Chinese, which she says is made difficult by China's attempts at intertwining Chinese cultural and ethnic identity with political identity:

Like them, I feel overwhelmingly defined by Chinese culture and history. But this pride is apparently not enough, compared with what the mainland expects from me as a new member of its monolithic nation state. Now that Hong Kong is a part of the People’s Republic, “patriotism” should be felt for China as nation and political unit; a love of China as heritage is not enough....

As it stands now, the narrow definition of “Chinese-ness” we are asked to internalize leaves no room for a differentiation between culture and politics. Reconciling this conflict—if it is at all possible—will continue to weigh on my conception of what it means to be Chinese and a Hong Kong citizen in the years to come.

This also has relevance to Taiwan. What strikes me about this is how, in a world where one can identify culturally or ethnically as Chinese without necessarily identifying with the PRC or desiring to be a part of China as a single political entity, it would be easier for Hong Kongers (and Taiwanese) who wish to do so. In Taiwan especially, they could say "I am Chinese" without the attendant political baggage that China now insists that must entail.

Few could argue with a more open, inclusive, downright liberal definition that one can affix to being Chinese. In Taiwan, it would allow those who don't want to let go of the cultural and literary traditions they value, which nevertheless come from China, to keep them without feeling pressure to desire Chinese citizenship. It would allow more breathing room for discussions on how and when Chinese and Taiwanese history have intersected, and allow for less defensiveness in discussions of uniquely Taiwanese history and culture. It allows Hong Kongers to talk about sovereignty without feeling as though they have to deny that they are Chinese (which is precisely why the PRC feels such an open definition cannot be allowed). It just gives people more options - it allows people to relate to being Chinese in a similar way to how I relate to being Armenian: there is a wealth of cultural heritage and history there, but I feel no pressure to desire citizenship in Armenia.

This is apparent in the way she relates to Taiwan, which most would appreciate:

When I visit, I can get around by speaking a language related to my native tongue, explore a history that I have a firm basis in understanding yet am not completely well-versed in, and eat food that tastes familiar yet differs from my everyday diet. In short, I can appreciate my affiliation with Taiwanese people and engage with them from a common cultural reference point while respecting our distance as separate political entities.

Yes! See how easy and drama-free this could all be, if not for the meddling of the People's Republic of China?

The PRC cannot permit this, because it suits their agenda to force Hong Kongers - and, in their mind, Taiwanese - to choose. It makes identifying as 'Chinese' a fraught business. If/when Taiwanese (and Hong Kongers) get fed up and say "fine, if being 'Chinese' means we must be a part of 'China', then I guess we aren't Chinese", they are called culture traitors or race traitors by the Chinese troll mob. Some might feel internal conflict, not wanting to give up a desired Chinese identity for political reasons. This also happens when Taiwanese who have never really felt Chinese to begin with say the same thing.

Nevertheless, I have an issue with the way Chang throws Chineseness on Taiwan, as though she gets to decide how Taiwan identifies:

Perhaps this explains why Taiwan is now so popular as a travel destination for Hong Kong visitors: as a Chinese society [emphasis mine], it does not pressure us to feel a political affinity for it, yet still offers a wealth of culturally intimate experiences.

She assumes, because Taiwan shares many cultural facets with China, most Taiwanese have ancestry in China (among other places), and their history has intersected at times, that Taiwanese de facto identify as Chinese, just as she does. This is implicit in her presumption that Taiwan is a "Chinese" society.

Frankly, I have no real problem with this particular piece or its author - generally, I like it (well, her historical claims about Chinese civilization are deeply questionable, but...whatever). But I hear this assumption about Taiwan parroted often, and it's time to challenge it.

In modern liberal thought, it is taken as a given that people can choose to identify how they like - and only the people involved can decide that. Nobody can force an identity on anybody else.

Well, the same is true for Taiwan. Only Taiwanese can decide, collectively, that they are Chinese. It cannot be decided by people in another country, no matter how similar they are ethnically or culturally (which is not as much as you'd think). It cannot be decided by a Hong Konger because "the food is familiar". It can only be decided by them.

Nobody else can force it on them. Not with appeals to ethnicity (which is a human construct - genetic markers are a real thing, but "ethnicity" is a combination of chosen identity, genetics and family history/culture that doesn't reside in our DNA), not with appeals to history (Taiwan has not been Chinese for the vast majority of its history), and not with appeals to culture (which is, again, a construct. Culture and borders often don't align and it has as much to do with identity as it does internal thinking). The only way in which any person can have an identity - whether that's Taiwanese, Chinese, American, Armenian, whatever - is if they choose it.

If, under a politically open construct, many Taiwanese decide they are Chinese, obviously they have that right. But if they don't - and I know many Taiwanese who don't, never have and never will, no matter how open the definition is - nobody can or should change that. How other people feel doesn't matter.

This is what irks me about the whole "you don't understand the relationship between Taiwan and China because you don't understand what it means to be Chinese!" line of thinking (which is not what Chang was doing in her generally good piece, I just hear it a lot). The rationalization for this is that 'being Chinese' is different, in terms of identity, from other sorts of identity (like, say, how I can identify as both Armenian and American, as well as someone whose home is Taiwan) - usually with the idea that it has some sort of stronger pull or that there are distinct ethnic or cultural boundaries to 'being Chinese' that cannot be violated. This of course is not true - not only are millions of PRC citizens 'not Chinese' under this definition, but a large chunk of Vietnam is Chinese - it's all a construct, created for political gain.

But that begs the question - forget the shaky rationale behind the assumption that 'being Chinese' is somehow different from being anything else. It's wrong, but that's not the point. The point is, when you apply it to Taiwan, you are begging the question. You are assuming from the outset that Taiwan is Chinese, and therefore all of these assumptions and suppositions you have about 'being Chinese' therefore must apply to Taiwan, and therefore one cannot argue that Taiwan is not Chinese, because of 'what it means to be Chinese', but you are the one who decided Taiwan was Chinese in the first place.

In this scenario, you are still deciding someone else's identity for them so that you can push your assumptions about that identity on them.

The reasoning is so circular, it literally hurts my head.

Why so many Westerners, in particular, buy this line of reasoning is beyond me, but I think it stems from a well-meaning, but in this particular case misguided, desire to seem respectful of other cultures. When of course it just means agreeing with Chinese political propaganda and not being respectful at all of Taiwanese culture and identity. When it comes from people who do identify as Chinese, it reeks of trying to force an identity on another group, just because you want them to be a certain way - without caring whether or not they agree. This may be well-meaning (I know a wonderful Chinese person who had to be convinced, after many conversations, that nobody but the Taiwanese can decide what the Taiwanese are) or it may be politically motivated - the only real difference is that the former group can often be convinced.

Or, in a sentence: if Taiwanese decide they are not Chinese - and generally, most identify as Taiwanese - then "what it means to be Chinese" is not relevant to Taiwan,  because Taiwan isn't Chinese.

Even if Taiwanese decide they are Chinese, they still get to define what that means to them. No outside entity can force their own definitions on Taiwan. 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Reason and reasonability


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. 


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 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.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

I should not even have to say that Singapore is not more liberal than Taiwan

Just one example of the things you can say in Taiwan because this country recognizes basic human rights

I'm hoping to keep this short because I've had a lot of wine (well hello Georgia, how are you? Like wine, do ya? I like wine too!) and really, this should be obvious.

That said, please enjoy my half-addled rant after more than a few rants, I mean, wines.

But I've heard this sentiment expressed twice in my trip so far, once in Athens as we were waiting to board the flight to Yerevan, and once over dinner outside the small town of Alaverdi in northern Armenia, the day before we crossed the border to Georgia.

Both times, otherwise intelligent and worldly people put forward a belief system in which human rights are 'Western', rather than global. That's not what I'm going to address today, though I will if it ever becomes necessary. It seems is sufficiently clear that human rights are global, hence the word 'human'. I'm not that much of an absolutist (nor am I a total relativist), but I do believe that, absent the existence of any god(s), civilization benefits from greater equality - a classically liberal view. As such, fundamental human rights are based on the freedoms necessary to realize that equality to the greatest extent possible. And as such, they are global. Exhibit B: plenty of non-Western countries respect, or try to respect, these basic human rights. Therefore they are clearly not simply "Western". Taiwan is one such country. This doesn't mean I think Westerners are so much more clever than everyone else for having come up with what we refer to when we talk about basic human rights - one good idea does not make a certain model of society 'better', and in any case, they are obviously adaptable to other cultures (Exhibit C is also Taiwan) and therefore not intrinsic to Western culture. Every culture that has adopted them has benefited (Exhibit D - you guessed it - Taiwan). Similar cultures (Exhibit E: China) that have not done so have avoided such a framework to their detriment.

Why do I say all this, when it's not my main point?

Because the opposite belief - that human rights are a Western construct - it underpins what I really want to go after: the idea that Singapore is somehow a model for modern Asia, that it is the system to look up to when we consider a progressive Asian country. That when we consider the best of Asia, that Singapore is at or near the top, along with Hong Kong, and possibly Japan and South Korea. Singapore seems to get the most mentions because unlike Hong Kong, it is independent. Unlike Japan, it is more open to foreign investment, business and residency. Unlike South Korea it hasn't been mired in a series of political scandals and economically seems to many to be the most successful of the old Asian Tigers. (I'm not sure how true that final point is, but a lot of people sure seem to think so).

I've mentioned twice on this trip that if you want a model for progressivism and liberalism in Asia, you must look at Taiwan. Not only that, but Taiwan is the best possible model.

Both times, the rejoinder has been "But - Singapore!"

Both times, I suspect the person talking was thinking about economics, as though promoting free markets and a global economic outlook were the same as promoting classical social liberalism. For some they do go hand-in-hand, but one is not a substitute for the other. It's easy to look at shiny-skyscraper Singapore, with its streets you (mostly) could eat off of, with its (mostly) glossy, Western sheen, and think "a model for liberal, modern Asia!" It sure looks nice, and yes, I've been there. I like Singapore quite a bit for a visit, in fact, and spend a lot of my time slurping sambar with masala dosa in Little India.

Let me be clear: Singapore is not free. Singapore (more or less) has free markets, but it is not free. It was the poster child for the stale and risible "Asian style democracy?!?!?" debate of the turn of the millenium. It was, perhaps, a model for Asia when developing East Asia was considered key and the idea that some cultures do well with less freedom (that is, less access to human rights) still had currency. The idea took as a given that the people in East Asian societies not only wanted but would choose less freedom and fewer human rights because, I dunno, "their culture" or something. As though human rights are not adaptable to any culture. As though Western societies, once lacking rights for non-white or non-male people, did not evolve to include them while maintaining their culture. As though human rights and a greater sense of collectivism were mutually exclusive (SPOILER: they are not).

I won't get too far into how Taiwan's economy is also fairly open - the reasons why it is stagnating are not related to a lack of free markets. Some of the issues are domestic: corruption, brain drain, poor allocation of resources, slow reactions to problems, ineffective ideas, a focus on cutting labor costs and manufacturing when those are two areas where Taiwan will never be - and should never be - competitive again. Some of it is China being a giant flaming asshole.

My point is, if you want to look for a model for Asia in terms of classical liberalism and modernity, look to Taiwan. Taiwan is not perfect, but it is, more or less, free.

In Singapore, making a few YouTube videos criticizing the government merits enough punishment that the kid who did it was granted asylum in the US (the US apparently has kept him detained, but that's another story). Singapore does not have freedom of expression. In Taiwan, marching down the street with a banner that says "Fuck The President" (something I actually saw once) is a protected right (of course, if you say that about a private citizen, you could be sued for 'defamation' and you might well lose - Taiwan's not perfect). There are more erudite ways to make one's case, but freedom of expression doesn't only cover nuanced arguments. Though imperfect, Taiwan is a model for freedom of expression in Asia.

In Singapore, sexual acts between men are still illegal, and marriage equality is not even on the government's radar as a possibility. The annual pro-equality Pink Dot in Singapore is allowed despite not having government support, but international participation is not. Singapore, then, does not have equal rights. In Taiwan we will - we must, as per the Ministry of Justice - have marriage equality soon, and its Pride parade is the biggest in Asia. Taiwan is a model for equal rights in Asia.

Singapore is not a democracy - at least not in the thick sense of the word, which I believe to be the real sense of the word. Taiwan is. Singapore is not a model for modern democracy. Taiwan, warts and all, is. This infographic gives it a lower democracy ranking than Japan or South Korea, but I feel, with more time and less wine (or perhaps more wine), that could be refuted well - for example, Taiwan is consistently ranked as having a freer press, has shaken off the party that used to dominate politics whereas Japan has not, has not had a major presidential scandal on par with South Korea's, and while all three countries enjoy freedom of assembly, Taiwan's actually seems to result in a reasonable amount of change. These, to me, are all important aspects of a full, thick democracy, and in most cases, Taiwan wins. Singapore, of course, doesn't come close.

Singapore does not have a free press. Taiwan has a crappy press that publishes nonsense 'news' while ignoring or mutilating real stories, but it is free. The freest in Asia. Facts can be found, and are hard to suppress, in Taiwan. In Singapore the government acts as though it has the right to withhold the truth from its citizens and use the main newspaper in the country (the Straits Times) as a pro-government mouthpiece.

One area where both countries falter is women's equality. Both have equal rights enshrined in law, but neither has done a great job of turning that into real equality in daily life. In both countries despite equal rights, pay gaps persist, families prefer sons and women are expected to prioritize caregiving more than men (and more than their careers).

In short, although Taiwan's economy needs a jump start, if you are looking for a country that serves as a model for the rest of Asia in terms of how human rights and freedoms can be adapted to suit a non-Western culture, look no further than Taiwan. Taiwan remains a more collectivist culture than any Western culture I know. That cliched old "mix of traditional and modern" stereotype, a favored flourish to many writings on Taiwan by people who don't know the country very well, has some truth to it. And yet, because human rights needn't be a Western construct, Taiwan has managed to adopt them. You may be surprised to learn that their culture has not imploded as a result, just as giving women the right to vote didn't cause Western countries to sink into apocalyptic hellscapes. It's doing just fine. The culture adapted and evolved, as culture does.

OK that was pretty long, and now I need more wine.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

In Defense of the 90-minute lunchtime nap and the convenience store sleepers

Greetings from Kaohsiung! I taught a workshop down here today and, seeing as that meant my HSR tickets were free, I've decided to spend the weekend (Brendan will be joining me soon). I'll be doing something similar in Tainan next week.

Anyway, I have a quick little thing to say, a dispatch from the field I guess you could call it.

When I walked in to the office with my co-teacher, it was just at the end of the 90-minute lunch break (12-1:30) which, as many of you know, is a pretty normal thing in Taiwan. Generally you have a half-hour or one-hour lunch, and then lights are turned down in the office and people often rest or even take naps for the rest of the time (I suppose if you wanted to go out to a restaurant you could also do that).

I used to, if not laugh at this, at least smile. My baseline assumption was that people often don't get enough sleep in Taiwan due to crazy working hours and impossible school expectations, therefore they have to nap in the middle of the day. I viewed it as a symptom of a problem.

A lot of expats do this - and I'm not pretending I'm better than they are, because I did it too in this case. They see something different from their own culture and immediately think of ways that it's worse than how things are done where they came from. Perhaps only later, after an initial period of rejection (even mildly so), do many come around to, if not a better way of doing things, a way that works considering how things work in this other country.

And you know what? It is true, working hours in this country are crazy - when you consider yourself as getting home 'early' at 7 or 8pm, that's crazy. And education expectations ARE nuts - children should not be studying at buxibans after school 5 days a week and on Saturday until 10pm or later, and still have homework to do on top of that. It is likely that this does have something to do with the 'lunchtime nap' culture at so many Taiwanese offices.

I have to say, though, that despite all of the above being a real problem, I've come around to the nap time idea. I have a non-traditional work schedule myself, but I sometimes come home from a lunchtime class, carve out a half an hour or an hour to nap, drink a cup of coffee and then continue with my work day.

First of all, napping is not necessarily something people do just because they are under-rested - even when I got a full night's sleep, sometimes after a busy morning and knowing I have a busy evening coming up, I do want more than a one-hour break before I have to be up at bat again for the rest of the day. Sometimes, that extra half hour isn't necessarily needed to sleep per se, but because a 90-minute break is more restorative than a one-hour break. I feel like I really got to give my mind enough time to rest, and I imagine locals feel the same. I don't always sleep - sometimes I veg out on the couch or just order a pot of tea and sit in an armchair in a cafe. I might read a book or pet my cats. I try my best not to surf the Internet, because that's not restful (it is pleasantly distracting, though).

Even if you work a more normal day - let's say you can leave at 6 - I do feel like a longer, 90-minute break is likely to make you more productive in the afternoon, just because you feel like you got a real rest. I know when I have my afternoons free, I feel more effective in my evening classes than when I don't (and I don't always).

Secondly, you've probably noticed this isn't just an office thing. Laborers and workers lay out on the floor in shops under construction or in the shade on sidewalks. I once - and I am not joking - saw one sleeping half in a manhole, with his upper half on the sidewalk, near the Youth Park. People crowd 7-11s and Family Marts to sleep at the tables. Drivers park their taxis or trucks and lean back for naps. I've joked that every coffee shop has to have at least one businessman sleeping at a table with a half-finished cup of coffee for feng shui purposes, rather like the fish tanks you often see near the doors of businesses. He should be oriented to the West or facing the cash register to bring maximum profit to the business.

I have come to kind of admire folks who can just lay out like this, snooze away on a sidewalk or at a convenience store and not give two craps about how they look, whether they are snoring or drooling, who sees them or what sort of germs might be currently invading the skin on their faces. I aspire to have such a "give zero fucks" attitude. I mean, I'm getting there, I already give very few fucks indeed, but they give ZERO, if not a negative number of fucks, and that is really the best goal in life. Before I leave Taiwan I WILL take a nap on a shady sidewalk just to show I've made it, and I am a better person for it.

Of course, it also makes sense given the climate here. Half the country is tropical year-round. In the summer it's straight up tropical in the entire country. In the winter the weather is absolutely depressing in Taipei - all dark clouds and rain and humid chilliness without central heating. I can understand the need for something like a siesta to either restore oneself in the face of yet another day of black clouds and cold rain, or to be still and cool during the hottest part of the day.

So, I acknowledge there are some issues with overwork, both in employment and in school, in Taiwan. I have to say, though, that I've come around to the 90-minute lunches and after-lunch naps. That change not only in how I see these naps but also the fact that I now engage in them when I get a chance has been a good reminder not to look first at why the way a different culture does something is ultimately worse than the way mine (or yours) does, but first to look for how and why it works in a local context. That doesn't mean every practice is ultimately better or just different - my personal pet peeve, scooters that speed on the right past buses that are stopped and letting passengers on and off, which is a risk to the lives of the passengers as well as the scooter driver, for instance, is unequivocally worse - but it's worth considering positively first.

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 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.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Culture Fatigue: "I get it but I don't like it"

I had a conversation earlier today (OK, a thread of Facebook comments, DON'T JUDGE ME) about "cultural fatigue" - vs. culture shock - with a friend. The context: the curriculum where she works in Japan requires that a certain article on the topic be assigned, but the article itself is outdated, and not in a "this is foundational" way.

"Culture fatigue" is a concept I came across awhile ago, when I did some searching (OK, Googling, DON'T JUDGE ME) to figure out what was bothering me on a near-daily level, like a low-grade chronic ache, about my life. It wasn't depression. It wasn't my marriage. It wasn't my job. It wasn't my apartment. It wasn't my social life. It wasn't living in another country per se, and I wasn't unhappy with Taiwan overall. But it was something.

After our conversation, I did another search to see if anything new had been written on the topic, and came across this. It more or less perfectly encapsulates what sometimes bothers me about life in Taiwan (or long-term life in any country). His examples are generally money related.

Although occasionally, very occasionally, I've felt nickeled-and-dimed in Taiwan (a taxi driver taking an obviously inferior route, a dry cleaner charging me a touch more than I thought dry cleaning usually cost, a guy showing me a price on a calculator for a scarf (299) and telling a local woman the price in Chinese for the same kind of scarf (250 - and I did call him on it and I got it for 225 - "you should knock off 25 more for giving me the foreign price" I said, and he did!), mostly money isn't a problem. Things cost what they cost and yes, friends and relatives get a discount, but you the foreigner generally get the price that an unfamiliar local would get. At least in Taipei.

So these aren't my issues. Taiwan is a very different place from Colombia (I think I just won the "duh" award with that statement), and the culture fatigue issues I face are, understandably, quite different.

My examples for Taiwan are below.

Before I get into them, please keep in mind: I really do love living here. I don't mean these as an ad hominem attack on Taiwan. I could write a similar post of similar length on great things about life here and aspects of the culture that I find positive or preferable. I do not mean to imply that these happen every day to me (they don't) or that I think they make people here crazy or "inscrutable" (they really don't). I don't think all of these are "wrong" per se, just a very different way of looking at the world. My point is that these are the cultural norms that give me trouble; they are the ones that cause culture fatigue. It doesn't mean they are "wrong", just that I find them difficult to deal with.

In fact, because this sort of post tends to get people angry, I've gone ahead and highlighted in pink the areas where I try to empathize with, or at least understand, the other side of the issue.

- - Never knowing if "sorry, I'm just so busy these days. I still want to hang out and see you, I'm just very busy", after you haven't seen a friend in months, is really "I'm busy" (it can be - considering working hours and family obligations in Taiwan), or if it's a polite brush-off. In the USA I'd know.

- - The concepts of respect for rank and giving "face" to people higher in rank than you (I naively thought face was something everyone got in equal measure. Boy was I wrong), meaning that if you have a dispute with someone higher-up than you, even if you are right and everybody knows you are right, they may well not support you. This can happen in the USA too, but it isn't as common. I do get it - face is a big deal, and if you are judicious in giving it and then trying to get what you want through other means, it's not that hard to be successful. It just wears me down to have to do things this way so often.

- - Not imparting important, or even just pertinent, information if informing somebody of something too early (or at all) could make waves in the placid surface on the lake of social harmony. As in, the other day I was in the Eslite Dunhua cafe after a class, and I was hungry. It was about 2:30pm. I asked for the menu, saying "I'm quite hungry, so I want to order some food" in Chinese. They give me the menu. I pick out something healthy and light - the smoked salmon salad. They say "oh, I'm sorry, the kitchen is closed".
"OK, but I said I wanted to order food when I asked for the menu."
"You can have a cake!" (pointing to the cake display).
"If I wanted a cake I would not have asked for the menu because I can see the cakes."
"Oh, yes, that's true."
"So why did you give me the menu?"
"Excuse me, I don't understand."
"I asked for a menu saying I wanted to order food. If you knew the kitchen was closed, why did you give me the menu? Why didn't you just say the kitchen was closed in the beginning?"

I mean I guess it's possible that the server was either a.) not that smart or b.) not having a good day (we all have Stupid Days, it's OK), but this sort of thing has happened many times before. It's happened enough that I recognize it as a cultural tic and not just One Ditzy Waitress.

I get this one too: social harmony is more important than individual wants, and social harmony must be achieved and maintained (that's why we smile and shake hands after an argument at work when nothing's actually been resolved. OK). So you just go with it and assume the other person gets this on a cellular level too. The waitress probably figured, when it was clear I did not want a cake, that I would be all "oh, OK, well, thank you!" and not call her out on giving me a menu when I couldn't order anything. My calling her out disturbed social harmony. Her giving me the menu, however unthinking it seemed to me, was trying to maintain it. I get it, but it wears me down.

- - Related to the example above, the whole listening to your requests and suggestions, the person nods that he or she understands...then completely disregards them. Or, as you make a request or list a requirement, the person says that would be fine, and then proceeds to go against everything agreed on to try to get you to bend even after you've already said you can't or won't. Again, nodding and "understanding" uphold social harmony. Nobody can say directly that they don't agree or can't grant your request. So they don't say it. You are just expected to understand. And again, when this happens I know why it happens and I try to handle it with grace. But it wears me down.

Example: let's say you are asked to create material for and teach a series of workshops on some business skill. You agree, and you get to work. You say you will need a projector and screen in class. to show a short video in the workshop. "I understand." The morning of the workshop - no projector or screen. "Oh, we don't have that, sorry. You can teach without it." Yes, by changing my entire lesson plan with about ten minutes to spare, I can. ARGGGHHHHH. (One day I decided I was done. Done. I just flatly refused to do that when confronted with material changed without my knowledge ten minutes before class. "You can just teach this instead." "No." "But..." "NO. You get me the agreed-upon material or I won't teach. I am not joking. You have ten minutes." "But..." "Do it or this class doesn't happen." It felt so good.)

Or you tell someone you need a month's notice to clear time to do something on weekday nights, but weekends are generally fine. Then they call you up and ask when you are free in two weeks. You list weekends and one weekday night because it happens to be open. They call you and say "what other weekday nights are you free?"
"Oh, well, we want to do this on weekday nights. You said you could do that?"
"Yes, with a month's notice."
"Oh. I see. Well, could you try to free up those nights now for two weeks later? You have two weeks!"
"No, I'm sorry."
"Are you sure? We really want to do this on those nights."
"I already told you, to get those free I need a month's notice."
"Well, maybe you can try?"
"No, I'm sorry."

And then you are made to feel bad - well, if you let them make you feel bad - for declining to try, because you look like the uncooperative, inflexible one. The point is that they want to do something, and that means they'll try to bend every factor to fit in place to make it happen. That means asking you if you can also be flexible so they can make it happen (which often, but not always, may also benefit you). What you told them before...yeah, it means something, but if they need to ask for something you said you couldn't give to achieve what they want, they will anyway. It's not that they didn't understand, it's that this is a country in which almost everything is flexible if you know where to press, push, twist or bend, so they're hoping they can bend you. It's not personal. Again, I get it but I don't like it.

- - Lying, especially at work. Either employees lying to avoid being blamed for something, or bosses lying to try to manipulate employees into doing something they might otherwise resist (this covers 99% of "please finish this tonight, it's an urgent issue!"). Related: when you call someone out on that lie and the mood of the room turns against you, not the liar, because they lost face when you called them out for...blatantly lying. I do get that "lie" doesn't quite mean the same thing in Asia as it does in the West, but it doesn't blunt the force of the culture fatigue.

- - Not apologizing. I understand this one: apologizing puts an unnecessary spotlight on you in a situation where everybody already knows you screwed up. Not apologizing is a way to save face, but it's not like you're not accountable. People know. If you say it openly people don't let it go. Totally different from the US where apologizing is what you do to get people to let it go. I get it. I do. But I still get irritated when someone screws up royally and doesn't acknowledge it.

- - Very strange assumptions, to me, about what constitutes a "good relationship" or even "a marriage". Like, the idea that if you are moved to hire a private detective to spy on your spouse, that the problem isn't the marriage itself but his mistress (or her "mister"). Or that it's OK if a husband stands with his parents against his wife on some issue, and the wife is expected to cave (so happy that I don't have this problem: and it involves things like "my mother wants us to have a baby so we're going to do that", and if the wife makes a fuss she's the bad guy). Or that if he retreats emotionally and gives her, basically, The Fade, and she shows up crying on his doorstep, and he reluctantly goes back to her, but she has to sa jiao him to get him to do anything at all, that this is apparently a happy ending.

Let's be fair here - not all, not even most, relationships in Asia are like that. It's one subset of people, one cultural meme among many. And plenty of Taiwanese would find certain Western relationship norms odd: I mentioned to a class I've had for awhile that of course Brendan knows of my not-terribly-many ex-boyfriends. We were roommates twice as friends: he's met most of 'em. It's really not a big deal. I know his history too. NBD. It's normal. Your past is a part of you. It would be odd to withhold it (of course you don't give lots of details, but you know, the general outline).

Well, they were shocked. SHOCKED! Apparently none of them had told their wives about their ex-girlfriends (not even general details - nothing at all, as though they never existed). They knew nothing of their wives' ex-boyfriends. "It's better that you don't get into that," they said. "That can create bad feelings. So there is no reason to say it."

My thought: if it creates bad feelings, there is a problem in your current relationship. And if you don't know at least the general outline of someone's past, I feel that you don't really know them. But those Taiwanese guys don't see it that way at all. My way is culture shock to them (not so much culture fatigue: they don't live in my culture; I live in theirs).

- - The acceptance of sexism as "that which we cannot change", even as someone espouses generally feminist ideals. It's fine for a woman to be President of Taiwan, or for a woman to be powerful (Cher Wang, Chen Chu, various General Managers and politicians), wealthy, successful. It's fine if other people's wives are breadwinners (among the younger generation, it's apparently more acceptable for their own wives to be breadwinners). If I mention that I am a breadwinner, nobody gasps. And yet, it's just accepted as "that's the way things are" when asked how they feel about how Taiwanese women are so harshly judged on their appearance and age, how divided-by-gender some industries are, how a wife is expected to submit in small but significant ways to her husband's family, that her husband's family is always the one given priority on holiday visits (nobody thinks to question how patriarchal it is to always give Chinese New Year's Day to the husband's side, and the less important day after to the wife's), that the husband's family has a lot of say in when they start trying for a baby, that a man can have support for women's rights and yet still feel that his son should grow up to be a provider, but that his daughter need only find a good husband.

Related: "women do X, men do Y". Men can say bad words; women shouldn't. Men are strong, women are not. Men prefer pretty women, women prefer rich and powerful men. Women love babies, men like 'em well enough. Women don't drink as much. When they do, they prefer light drinks, sweet cocktails, low-alcohol fruit beers, and fizzy, white or pink, light wine. Men drink whiskey and Kaoliang. Men shake hands with men, they don't extend their hands to women. Women may extend their hand to men. I am sorry, I just don't like this. I can try to empathize but this is a hot button for me I just want to scream "講三小!"

(That's Taiwanese for "WTF are you saying?")

Same with racism by the way. Seems everybody has egalitarian views on race, and yet everyone considers racism against non-white foreigners including Southeast Asians to be something that can't be changed.

This one? Well, if you come from a culture that values harmony, conformity, stability and tradition, it's understandable that you might throw up your hands at a difficult situation and say "it's our culture, it's always been this way, we can't change it". I can't come up with an "I get it" beyond that, though. I really can't. It just sucks.

- - "I have to" - when someone who doesn't actually have authority to tell you what to do...tells you what to do. "I have to diet this much, people will think I'm fat if I gain weight". "I have to have a baby, my mother-in-law wants us to". "I have to stay late at work, my coworkers will think I am not loyal to the company." "I have to make my kid go to buxiban for 200 hours a week, everybody else does so I have to, too". "I have to have a big wedding and invite 500 people I don't know." "I have to invest in my brother's idea for a milk tea stand even though I don't want to because my parents say I should." 'I have to buy an apartment near my parents even though I don't want to live in that neighborhood." The boundary god. My boundaries are such that they're practically guarded by an electric dog fence (and all of y'all except Brendan are wearing special collars - sorry). I want to scream "You don't HAVE to. You are CHOOSING to! And that's OK! You have decided that you'd rather go along with this social expectation than fight it. You think that's preferable for you. FINE! That's great! You do you! But YOU DO NOT HAVE TO!"

But, I've come to realize that what "I have to" really means is "I choose to, because going with the flow is preferable to me, but I want to express that the expectation is very strong and that maintaining social harmony is still more important to me than getting my own way, while also expressing that I am not really happy about it." So...okay.

This happens in the USA too: "I HAVE TO wear white on my wedding day because it'll upset my mom if I don't!" 

But I do kind of wish that people generally (not just in Taiwan) would be more cognizant of the differences between what they actually have to do, and what they choose to do, albeit under pressure.

- * - * -

If you've gotten this far and are fuming angrily about how much I hate Taiwan, how whiny I am, how I "just don't get it", well, mosey on back and read the stuff in pink, thanks.

I do feel, though, that this is difficult to talk about for a few reasons. One is that I do feel as an expat, that either I'm supposed to happily embrace my the culture of the country where I live, and if I really love it in that country, I can't show any irritation or criticism of that culture: either you love it or you don't, goes that binary thinking, and if you complain at all, you don't love it. It's not true, and people surely know that on some level (I get annoyed with constant complainers, but will defend anyone's right to vent a bit or complain for awhile even if they love a place).

Another is that I feel that as openminded, 21st century folk, that we're supposed to approach culture differences at all times with "it's not bad, it's just different" or even "their culture is BETTER than ours", and no criticism shall pass our lips lest we be labeled 'narrowminded', 'ethnocentric', 'culturally imperialist' or just 'racist'. Believe me, there are ways in which I do feel Taiwanese culture is superior, but there are times when I really want to say this: there are other ways in which I do feel American (narrowed down to my home country for simplicity's sake) culture has one up on Taiwanese ways of doing things. I don't think that makes me narrowminded or racist. Examples: I think that in Taiwanese companies, when you want to get rid of someone, strongly encouraging them to quit rather than firing them is better. People screw up, people are sometimes just not good fits. That's no reason to poison someone's chances, in a small country with a very interconnected culture, of getting another job and making something of themselves by firing them publicly.  But then the American way of insisting on accountability and prizing efficiency and "it's not personal, just fix your mistakes and get it done, don't waffle, don't get defensive, don't hide behind 'face' to avoid accountability" is probably better than the Taiwanese way of often getting defensive (due to loss of face) when publicly or even privately-but-directly called out on a mistake. Not that everyone in either culture always conforms to these norms, just that they are common.

Finally, the idea that "under our skin, we're all the same" applies to all people in all ways. It does not. Sure, under our different races we are all born with similar ranges of intelligence and stupidity, aptitudes and idiosyncracies, good and bad people. There's no gene that makes "Asians smarter at math", or "Jews better with money" or whatever. That's ridiculous and we all know it. But we actually aren't all the same under our skin. Not for genetic or racial reasons, but that our cultures make our outlooks and fundamental worldviews, well, fundamentally different. We're the same in so many ways, but different in others, and it's time we acknowledged that more openly. I don't think it's un-PC to say so.

What are your "culture fatigue" issues in Taiwan (or elsewhere)? Got anything to add? As long as you don't just dump on Taiwan (and even if you do, although I'd hope my lovely, intelligent commenters would be the sort to attempt understanding and empathy), I'd be glad to add to this list. I am sure someone else out there in Taiwan in the throes of cultural fatigue will come across this post and be able to see the source of their anger and frustration more easily. Maybe it'll keep an expat from exploding somewhere, or giving up and flying home in a fit of rage. And that would be all worth it.