Showing posts with label culture_shift. Show all posts
Showing posts with label culture_shift. Show all posts

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.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Two Ideas, One Humanity

I've been discussing two separate issues with various people in the past few days which, on the surface, seem unrelated. The first is the difference between judging a person as sexist vs. judging a place to have issues with sexism: "has marriage to a Chinese man changed your feminist views?" (short answer from the blogger: no), and the second: more Chinese tourists are visiting Taiwan as the popularity of Hong Kong fades (and the Taiwanese are not that happy about it). 

In the first, the main takeaway is that while there are issues with women's rights in China (and everywhere - the US is certainly not off the hook. Taiwan may have more issues with sexism than the USA but in Taiwan I don't think twice about walking anywhere, at any time, alone. In the USA I do), that the author's Chinese husband is himself a feminist and his family basically agrees with the idea of respect for both genders. My thoughts - it is, as ever, important to judge individuals based on who they are, not to measure them against a stereotype, even if (and this is important), there is truth to that stereotype. And there is truth - I doubt few rational people would argue that there are issues with sexism and women's rights in China, and those issues are more severe than many other countries. In China I heard such wonderful nuggets of anti-wisdom as "it's fine if a woman is clever but if she's more clever than her boyfriend or husband, he will lose face, so she should pretend to let him be smarter." (I feel like adding a Game of Thrones style "it is known" to the end of that line of bullshit), or "it's fine if a woman has a job, but if she earns more than her husband, that is bad for him and the marriage", or "a man never beats a good wife, so if a wife gets hit, it's her fault" (I REALLY heard that), or "it's the nature of men to play around, it's the job of women to forgive them".

It can really wear a person down. Goodness knows it's worn me down. At times it can feel like a barrage, a sexist tidal wave, an inescapable minefield in which, as you cross, you are also being shelled and mortared. And yet, despite that, it's important to judge people as individuals. It's difficult to keep in mind - and I will admit sometimes I've slipped - but everyone, from any culture, deserves the respect to their humanity of being judged independently of that.

And yet, I will make no concessions to "culture" or assume that those who have these sexist ideas - and there are many - think that way because of "culture". I feel, strongly, that gender equality vs. sexism is not a question of "culture", it's a universal issue, and any given culture is capable of not incorporating sexism while retaining its core. Western countries used to be a lot more sexist than they are now (and they still are, let's not forget), but some things did change, and yet we are still American or Canadian or Australian or whatever. Taiwan has made greater strides in gender equality than China (with some exceptions), and yet Taiwanese culture is still Taiwanese. You could even say that that difference is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Taiwanese culture. India also has deep issues with sexism, and yet an Indian feminist is no less in tune with Indian culture than some sexist douche lord who beats his wife because his "culture" says it's his "right as a husband" to do so. If sexism is tied to culture at all, it's a shallow tie, and something that can be excised without upending the entire culture.

So, I just reject that whole "it's a culture thing" line of reasoning. If anything, I feel that disrespects people's humanity. It's a fancy way of saying "poor things, they don't know any better". Nope, nope, nope. Grown-ass adult humans are capable of rationality, and gender equality is about rationality, not culture. I prefer to respect someone's humanity by believing they are capable of the rational thought that maybe it is bad to hit one's wife.

With the second issue, the debate centered around Chinese tourists coming to Taiwan in tour groups that litter, don't stop people from smoking indoors (seen it myself), create massive noise pollution, spit on the street, occasionally muss up bathrooms or 'do the needful' in public areas (I saw a tour group member pee against the outside wall of Eslite Dunhua a few months ago) and commandeer space (have you tried visiting Alishan, Sun Moon Lake, Taipei 101 or the National Palace Museum recently? Those places are basically ruined for locals or any other visitor who is not in a massive Chinese tour group).

One side of the debate initially made sense - it's not right to reduce Chinese to dirty, loud, littering walking wallets. They deserve more humanity than that. And that is very true. And it's also true that where they come from, it is fairly normal to, say, pee against a wall, litter with impunity, smoke indoors, spit anywhere you like and observe a very Darwinian model of public space (survival of the fittest - the largest group gets the space and puny individuals must always give way). I won't even deny that those are issues in China, because having spent a year in China, I know that they are. Some understanding of that can go a long way towards bridging resentment between the two sides, just as it would help a lot if Hong Kongers realized that the Chinese were buying all of their milk powder because they, like any other human being, want milk powder known to be safe for their babies. And of course one should be forgiving if a foreigner doesn't always know the local etiquette and makes a gaffe.

But that's where my agreement ends - after that it devolved into "where they come from it's normal to let your kids poop in the street, so they don't know that in Taiwan it's not done", or "if you lived through the outrage, oppression and poverty that they did, you might act the same way. If you hadn't been exposed to the outside world much you may not realize that in other places it's not okay to litter or spit."

Which, I'm sorry, but no. I won't get into how the tragedy that is 20th, and now 21st, century Chinese history has shaped local customs and etiquette in China, because it doesn't matter to me what they do - it's their country after all. But outrage, oppression and poverty are not reasons to ignore the etiquette of a country you are visiting. It is best if a host is generous and forgiving, but it's on the guest to be as polite as possible, to attempt to understand local norms and, accepting that they'll screw up sometimes, attempt to follow them. It's on them to educate themselves in how to act if they visit Taiwan, and on them to respect Taiwan's civil society (civil as in 'civics', not as in 'more civilized'). I can understand why the Taiwanese are upset - the change is observable. I no longer recommend the National Palace Museum to visiting friends because it's overrun with tour groups who force everyone else to wait 15 minutes or more to see one exhibit. Taipei 101 used to be a fine destination for light shopping and a coffee, now it's a nightmare. Sun Moon Lake is notably less pleasant than it could be, and forget a quiet sunrise on Alishan. There is more litter, there are more bathroom issues (standing on Western toilets, pooping all around the toilet etc), there is more spitting, and there is more smoking where it should not be happening, noise pollution and blocking of thoroughfares (although blocking thoroughfares is also a problem in Taiwan generally), and previously nice shopping areas are being overrun with stores catering to Chinese tour groups that no local wants to shop at. And as I see it, it's up to the Chinese visitors to know that these things are not okay. It's not the responsibility of the Taiwanese to smile and take it, as they're always expected to do.

Any visitor from any country, if they have the money and ambition to travel, has it on their shoulders to do their best in terms of local etiquette and not assume that things work the same way in this new country as they do in their own. Chinese tour groups are not exempt from this.

And that, to me, respects their humanity more than "well they don't know, in their country it's normal". Of course it is not right to deride individuals - they are not "dirty", "irrational", "walking wallets" etc. - rather than certain behaviors and larger group dynamics that are causing problems (I consider the noise pollution and the space blocking to be group dynamic rather than individual issues, and I daresay they need to be addressed no matter what nationality the group tour is from). But it's also not right to say "they don't know any better!" - come on. They're grown-ass men and women. They are quite capable of knowing very obvious things like "don't litter while abroad" and "if there is a 'no smoking' sign, don't smoke. Better yet, check and see if smoking is legal in certain areas and if it's not, don't smoke in those areas".

I also don't think 'kids pooping in the street' and 'spitting and littering' are 'cultural'. It's not disrespecting someone's culture to say that these things cause issues with public health. When - not if, but when - kids' street poop, spitting and littering stop being common in China, China will still be China and Chinese culture will still be Chinese culture.

Like with sexism, this is an issue for rationality, not culture. And if you really want to respect someone's humanity, respect that they are smart and rational enough to either know these things, or learn them quickly.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The White Knight Rises

Just recently I got into a debate with someone online about women traveling in India. The guy said he "wouldn't advise any [woman] (he said "female", I prefer "woman")to travel in India", let alone advise them to go alone.

I felt that statement and its defense by someone else - "it's legitimate to warn women about these issues" - implied a minor case of White Knight Syndrome: the idea that it is necessary to protect, defend, rescue or help someone else, due to a belief that that person needs your protection, defense, rescue or help. It's an assumption that the person (or group - in this case women) is vulnerable, weaker or in distress and unable to handle the situation herself/himself/themselves. In that case, any woman planning to go to India would have almost certainly read the news for herself and be able to assess the dangers herself. She doesn't really need some random guy giving her "advice", well-intentioned though it may be.

Then I got to thinking - do I have White Knight Syndrome? Not towards women, but towards Taiwanese?

If you see it one way, it doesn't look good: I have a lot of opinions, and I like to talk about my ideas for making Taiwan a better country. I'm openly critical of things I don't like, be they political parties, domestic or foreign policy, work culture, sexism or traditional ideas about education. I really do feel I have some "right" ideas, even as I recognize that no one person can have an entirely correct/objective perspective on everything. Obviously, anyone who has an opinion thinks they are right. Otherwise why have one? I do feel it's important to speak out, even if it's just to real-life acquaintances or on this blog - I'm not much of an activist beyond that.

Looking at it that way, you could make a case that I and every other foreigner with strong opinions about Taiwan has this problem. We're not Taiwanese, so who are we to go around spouting off what we think needs to be done in Taiwan? Who are we to criticize certain cultural mores? I care a lot about Taiwan, but it's not really my job to "defend" or "protect" it. Taiwan doesn't need a white knight - a literally white knight - to speak up for it. This country is capable of speaking up for and defending itself. Taiwanese people are perfectly capable of carrying on and disseminating this discourse on their own. They don't need Whitey McWhitegirl to do it for them. "Foreigners Come In And Fix Taiwan" is no good, just as "White People Fixed Racism" and "Men Fixed Sexism" are no good.

On the other hand, I live here too. I'm a permanent resident and I've thrown my lot in with Taiwan. When something happens here, it affects me too. Work culture affects me and racism and sexism certainly affect me. When 天龍 (Hao Lung-bin) makes another stupid decision or fails to take on a vital initiative (or tries and bungles it), it affects me, too. Integration with China, freedom of speech and the press, urban renewal, the nuclear debate, education policy and tradition: they all affect me.

And although I am not Taiwanese, do I not have the right to speak up about things that affect me too, that I care about? I may not fully understand and only be semi-integrated into society (I suspect there is a "sense of distance" - 有距離感 - that I will never overcome). Although my opinion doesn't carry the same weight as someone who was born and raised here - literally doesn't, as I can't vote - that doesn't mean I shouldn't get any say in what goes on in the place where I live.

The conclusion that I've come to is that I probably do have a tendency to be overprotective or defensive regarding Taiwan, and that I should be mindful of my opinions and how I express them. That does not, however, mean I can never express an opinion again. There are ways to be an ally and stand up for what you believe in, especially if you live somewhere and are affected just as much as others by something, without being a White Knight. The same goes for male feminists and straight LGBT allies, to name a few.

This makes it easy when it comes to debates on the economy, China policy, nuclear weapons and laws pertaining to foreigners. It gets murky when you start talking about things like education and women's issues. On one hand, as a woman and educator, these issues do affect me. How children are educated in Taiwan absolutely has some bearing on the thought processes and attitudes of the adults I work with. As a woman, I really believe that "but [this sexist belief] is a part of our traditional culture! You can't criticize OUR CULTURE!" is a load of crap. It is possible to maintain one's culture and also promote equality. It is possible to respect the past and also progress. You don't have to oppress women or any other group just to retain your culture. And yet, a foreigner speaking out about cultural issues pertaining to women could be seen as a White Knight. It's a fine line.

It's murkier still when you start talking about cultural habits (which are not universal, but generally observable) and norms. Am I being a White Knight when I say, for example, "Despite his low popularity and criticisms of his presidency, Ma Ying-jiu was re-elected because people in Taiwan tend to favor stability and pragmatism, and saw him as the 'stable' candidate with the 'pragmatic' view...and that sucks, because he's a terrible president with terrible ideas. I'd really like to see more people in Taiwan stand up for what they really believe in, and what they hold in their hearts, as opposed to sacrificing it for 'stability' and 'pragmatism'"? You might say that I am. I'm not sure I'd disagree with you. And yet, the outcome of elections here also affects me, even though I can't vote in them (which you could argue is unfair...but...). It's one of those things I have to think more deeply about.

Think about it like Zhuangzi and the fish - which someone else in that discussion brought up. How can you know how a fish feels if you are not a fish? How can I know how a Taiwanese person feels if I am not Taiwanese? (I once had a Taiwanese friend say this to me, by the way, a check on my opinions that I appreciated).

I am not Taiwanese, so how can I really know how a Taiwanese person feels? I can't.

And yet, I live here and have a pile of Taiwanese friends and acquaintances who have told me how they feel or what they think is best for their country or culture. So it's not as though I completely lack insight.

It comes down to - sure, if I live in Taiwan and have a blog that discusses issues in Taiwan, I have enough contact with locals to have some idea of how locals feel. This is my blog, and therefore of course, unless there's a guest post (and I'd welcome some, especially from Taiwanese women wanting to talk about women's issues in Taiwan) it has to come from me. But when the discussion includes both me and Taiwanese people, the best individuals to speak out on how Taiwanese people feel are...Taiwanese people themselves. Not me. They're the fish - they know better than I do how a fish feels. They know better than I do what's best for fish.

That doesn't mean I can't say anything. Just that I need to be mindful: I am not a fish.

There are no clear answers - but it is an issue worth discussing and exploring, and definitely worth keeping in mind, especially among foreign expats who opine on their adopted homes.

Saturday, June 9, 2012


This isn't really Taiwan-related, but it is women and feminism related, so I figure I'll post it anyway.

I absolutely love this article, for it's super fun BS as well as how uncannily accurate that BS is. It sounds like something my Stoner Friend(tm) would come up with. And seem like she might be right about.

I'm going to go ahead and add to the BS - please don't take anything I write in this post too seriously.

Basically, the idea is that we're all derived from muppet archetypes - some of us are Chaos Muppets (think Animal, Grover, The Cookie Monster) and some are Order Muppets (think Kermit, Bert). Some of us go around sowing disorder, and some keep the show running smoothly. Some dole out cookies, others organize for greatest efficiency. In any workplace, you need just the right ratio of Chaos Muppets and Order Muppets in the organization - and in relationships, two of the same kind shouldn't be together: Chaos ought to marry Order, and Order, Chaos.

I think it's pretty clear that I'm a Chaos Muppet. In fact, those of you who have met me might be a bit freaked out by how accurately this parodies not only my cooking style, but also my entire life. I'm pretty much a living, breathing Swedish Chef - I'd probably try this if firearms were legal in Taiwan. I once had a friend remark that she loved my chocolate truffle cake, but how on Earth did I get chocolate on the ceiling?

Also, I am growing some of this, just because. If you run your hands through the leaves and touch the peppers a bit, and then touch your face, it'll make your skin tingle. Cool, huh? Soon I'm going to try to cook with it.

I also go around humming things like "doo-dee-doo-dee-doo bork bork bork" on a fairly regular basis. That's not a joke.

Brendan is, without a doubt, a Order Muppet. Not Ernie, but Bert. He's not a compulsive organizer, but he freaks out if he's going to be anything less than 15 minutes early to anything, catches the earlier bus or train rather than the one that will get him there just in time, and actually plans classes the day before he teaches them (I only do that if I absolutely must). He's great at spontaneous travel - it's when there's a plan in place that this comes out.

Bert and The Swedish Chef. Someday, our love will be legal in every state in America!

I note this because I've noticed a social trend - not just in Taiwan but around the world - where, despite generations of people expecting that men should run the world while women stay home - where wives are expected to be the Order Muppets and husbands, Chaos Muppets. You know, like this. From "men can't be expected to remember to write thank-you notes" to "if I don't do it, it never gets done *sigh*" to "he just doesn't notice the mess, so he doesn't think to clean it", a lot of women end up stuck maintaining order while men are seen, at least at home, of creating chaos (and considering what the global economy and international politics is looking like, there's a lot of chaos out in the world, too).

Which makes things difficult if you are a woman and an unabashed Chaos Muppet. Your best bet is to hook up with a Order Muppet - bonus points if he's super sweet and handsome like my Order Muppet - who is open to and accepting of a very different household paradigm from the one society expects. Also he'll remember to vacuum and pay the bills. But it's not all bad for the Order Muppet: he gets chocolate truffle cake and Chaos Muppets tend to be more creative decorators and fun travel planners. Be good to your Order Muppet: if you see him vacuuming because he thought to do so (and you, uh, didn't, or you waited until you had 5 minutes before you had to go...not that I'd know anything about that *ahem*), grab a dustcloth or start putting things away, too.

I know, there's another, parallel trope to this one: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (think various media starring Jennifer Aniston and Zooey Deschanel), but I get the distinct impression that this trope is meant to be fantasy, whereas Doofy Husbands and women as Order Muppets, the expected reality. I do feel as a staunch "bring down the old order" feminist, that women with that chaotic streak in them are chastised by others, and society as whole, more than men, who, well, "that's how men are". Unless you're cute - then you're a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Otherwise, you're just immature.

Most societies seem to praise Order Muppetry as the ideal set of traits and values in a good citizen: the USA does (at least that's the distinct impression I got from my schooling), every country in Asia that I have had experience in does (although India is an interesting case: a culture that birthed a Sanskrit grammar manual so detailed and prescriptive that it filled 8 volumes, but also a country rife with chaos and people who joke about it in a way that betrays the idea that it's not all bad), Europe does (although you could make a case that southern Europe is different).

The USA has gotten better at valuing its Chaos Muppets - there was that guy on The Daily Show yesterday who said that "Steve Jobs wouldn't have been able to do what he did in Europe or Japan" - I don't necessarily agree with him - I think a lot of our best innovation has come because Chaos Muppets from other countries have come to the USA and helped us lead innovation, and anyway, I see a lot of cool things coming out of design, science and technology in Asia and a lot of places where the US is stodgy, saggy and getting left behind like the regular trains that the Shinkansen sweeps past. I do, think, however, that he's right in that we're doing a better job creating an environment in which our weirdos can be weird and do great things (as long as they can afford health insurance - argh).

The original article mentions that the Supreme Court is all screwed up because it's been overrun with Order Muppets - I'd say that America's biggest problem right now is that the Order Muppets and Chaos Muppets can't see the value in the other's worldview, and can't figure out how to make the two synthesize into an efficient whole. Also, the Order Muppets seem to be obsessed with legislating my hoo-hah and telling us all what religion we should be, and they really ought to knock it out. At least in Taiwan, as divisive as politics can be, the majority of people I've met can respect the views of the other side (KMT are the Order Muppets and DPP the Chaos Muppets, in case that wasn't clear) even if they don't agree.

I see Taiwan heading this way, as well - from a similarly growing value placed on creativity, handmade items, cool design and innovative R&D (I spend more time around R&D types than I do around designers, and feel they deserve a mention) all the way down to the two girls I have English Fun Time with on Saturday afternoons, whose parents encourage them to talk, play, create and build, even if they build things out of cardboard that are total failures (ie the ferris wheel we attempted that fell apart). Sometimes, they build something pretty cool:

I see this model of encouraging a bit of Chaos gaining currency against the old Confucian style model of Listen to Your Elders and Teachers and DO WHAT YOU'RE TOLD, and that just delights me. We need a little more Lao Tzu, and a little less Confucius (although he has his role, too).

I'd like to see more of this - and less regimented, buxiban-propped-up schooling - in Taiwan, and I take heart that I am seeing it grow.

Aight, I'm gonna get back to my hot peppers. Too bad my Stoner Friend(tm) is in another country. Have a good weekend, and remember to sow some Chaos.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hanging on to Confucius

The other week I blogged about being quoted in the Liberty Times and United Daily, more out of the pride of being able to deliver a decent quote in Chinese and have it printed accurately (meaning that people can actually understand me! Wow!).

What I didn't write about until later was that when I went to buy a copy of the Liberty Times containing my quote, that I had a little run in with a dying breed, a species I hope is slowly going extinct, an ancient throwback. I live in the heart of Da'an (be jealous, mofos), an area that is super-duper deep blue. Most of my neighbors are veterans. Some even fought Communists. As I'm buying my paper at 7-11, which I don't normally do as I read Taipei Times online and practice Chinese with free papers I pick up, some old dude says to me in English, "don't buy that paper. It's lies!" and "We are Chinese! We have 5,000 years of history. You foreigners can't understand."

Edited for clarification: the veterans aren't the "ancient throwbacks" I hope will go extinct. I mean the rude guy and his ilk. Most of my neighbors are very nice people with whom I happen to disagree politically, which is not a big deal - I'd rather have good relationships with them and not talk politics. Few if any of them would say the sorts of things this guy did.

This recent memory was yet again thrust to the forefront of my poor embattled cerebral cortex when someone else I know said that it wasn't that she didn't want Taiwanese independence - she did, someday, not now ("it's not safe now", which I'd agree with even if it makes me angry, because it's the work of Chinese bully politicians), but that she didn't want Taiwan to be called "Taiwan" beyond it being the name of the island. She wasn't interested in a Republic of Taiwan - she wanted independence as The Republic of China.

I should note that this person, while she did vote for Ma Ying-jiu, is not particularly blue and has voted green in the past. She'd said that she actually prefers Tsai to Ma, but that she doesn't like the people Tsai has surrounded herself with. While I'd say that the greater good comes from kicking the KMT out of power and elevating the basic ideals of the modern DPP, I can still see and understand her views. She also feels more disappointed in the DPP - saying they help themselves at the Buffet o' Corruption shamelessly, when they were supposed to have done better (which is true, but sadly not surprising), whereas the KMT has always been known to be corrupt so it's to be expected, even though in the end they've stolen way more over time from Taiwan.

I get that, too, but then I feel that if faced with two corrupt parties, you've just got to go with the one whose policies you agree with.

Why, then, does this name matter so much to her and to many others, in much the same way that "Taiwan" matters so deeply to the other side (the side I'm unabashedly on, if that wasn't clear)?

Her rationale is a common one - despite not wanting to be a part of the PRC, she still felt a cultural connection to China. "I love Confucius and Lao Tzu" - it's part of her heritage, she said, and she didn't want to give that up. She saw no reason why the name "China" should belong to the PRC when it's her heritage, too. She doesn't want to give up the Analects and the Tao Te Ching, the art and the music.

OK, I see that.

I also feel, though, that we "foreigners who can't understand China's 5,000 years of history" (BLLEECCCHHHH) do have something worth contributing to that conversation. Most of us come from immigrant stock. I will only speak for Americans here, but I do think it is more universally valid, to say that this isn't just true for minorities: some or all of us "in the majority" white people are also immigrants from hundreds of years back ("all" if you're talking American, "some" if you're talking British, it gets complicated). In the case of America, it's been a comparable amount of time between when some of our families first settled here - and totally screwed over the Native Americans, something that history loves to repeat on every continent - and when the Hoklo were settling Taiwan from Fujian.

I'm American. I am not British, Armenian, Polish or Swiss by citizenship. My passport says "United States of America" on it. Does that mean I can't still feel a connection to the cultural heritage of the places my ancestors came from? Do I have to be "British" to appreciate Britain's cultural contributions, and recognize that part of my family is from there? Do I have to be "Armenian" to appreciate the strong culinary traditions that still run in my family from that side? Can I not appreciate those things and still be "American"?

I'm not going to say that these things aren't important - they are. Knowing and appreciating where you came from, even if that place is not the country you live in now and doesn't bear the same name, is vital to most of us. I'm not going to say "eh, who cares, let 'em have Confucius", although I have heard people say similar things. Armenians are pretty intense about their heritage, and yet I don't feel shut out just because I don't look Armenian, have an Armenian name or citizenship in a country with the word "Armenia" in its official title.

But then, she was pretty clear that part of her attachment was to the name "China" alone (why let them have it? being part of her reaction), and my resolution to culture vs. citizenship wouldn't satisfy her. Edit: as J said so wisely in the comments, identity is a feeling, and you can't argue that away.

That's why I fall on the side of "this is Taiwan", not "this is the Republic of China". It's true that I have no specific attachment to Chinese culture beyond my expat experience, but it's not impossible to understand that attachment. And yet, as an American, I'm able to get past my own tangled ancestry and appreciate what it's given me without insisting that I need, absolutely need, to hold on to those names. Heck, I feel just as strong an attachment to my Armenian side as my Polish one, and yet I grew up with a Polish surname, not an Armenian one. It is clearly not impossible.

Or maybe I'm just a blundering big nose who "can't understand" "5,000 years" of Chinese history and culture. Who knows.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Breadwinning The Future

A few months ago I taught a unit to a group of students, all of whom happened to be female. The unit focused on idioms dealing with careers, work and ambition: things like “bring home the bacon”, “burn the candle at both ends”, “hit the glass ceiling” and “be a breadwinner”.

I did a survey in that class – eight idioms in total, one question per idiom that a student had to ask all of her classmates. One of these questions was “Is it OK for a wife to be the primary breadwinner?”

I was really surprised by the results – 4 in favor and 4 against. The “against” responders later clarified that they meant that they personally did not want to be breadwinners, but that it would be fine with them if another woman was one. A personal choice, not a view on what society should be. Those four women all expanded on their ideas, with responses along the lines of “I feel it’s not fulfilling to have to work hard and be responsible for earning most of the money” to “I like to feel that my husband can take care of me” to “honestly speaking, I don’t like my job and when I get married I hope I can quit” to “most Taiwanese men can’t accept a wife who makes more than he does, so it is easier if I don’t”.

OK, fair enough in that these are personal choices, and earning the bulk of the family income doesn’t have to be a life goal, nor is it necessarily fulfilling, so I can respect that as a choice. The final answer, though, that it’s “just easier” because “Taiwanese men can’t accept a wife who is a breadwinner” really irked me. Yet another example women giving in to pander to the egos of men, because it’s easier than standing up, fighting back, and telling a guy like that to **** off, and slowly, one by one, pushing the culture in a more progressive direction. It sucks when you feel you’re the only one doing it, but a culmination of women who do is the only way to change things.

Of course, in class I have to be careful not to ever show even the appearance of passing judgment on a student’s opinion, so my response was more measured.

I was planning to do the same unit in another class, and the other day that finally happened. Interestingly, this time, in a class of 4 women and 4 men, all 8 (plus me, for a total of 9) said it was fine for a wife to be a breadwinner.

Hooray! I thought! Progress! Taiwan can haz it!

People’s elaboration was more along the lines of “well why wouldn’t that be OK? Of course it’s OK”.

Again, yay, progress!

Then one of the female students said “I wonder if these 4 guys would be OK if their wives earned more.”

And, sadly, all four said something along the lines of “No way!” “No, I’m not comfortable with that!” or “I’m not a – how do you say – 小白臉! 我不吃軟飯!

That translates literally into “I’m not a little white face”, but it’s more like “I’m not a little b****!”, although perhaps slightly less profane. The second phrase translates into “I don’t eat soft rice”, which is idiomatic.

Face, meet palm. Progress? Progress? Where did you go, O Progress? But not in class. Inwardly, I was all HULK ANGRY! HULK SMASH! but I had to present a professional face. 

All I could do was point out the logic problem: “so it’s OK for other women to be breadwinners, but not for your wives?”

“Yes, I know, it is wrong, but we are old guys!” one said. “I think the young generation won’t have this opinion.”

Well, at least he knows it’s wrong. It’s about as sexist as “I don’t mind gay people but my son better not be gay” (also a common refrain in Taiwan) is homophobic. That is, very. 

This isn’t exactly news in Taiwan, but it’s worth noting even as I blog about all the awesome, successful women I work with: general managers, regional CEOs, executives, vice presidents. I earn good money, but these women could trample me salary-wise. It’s worth noting again even as we move on from the aftermath of an election that came very close to giving Taiwan its first female president.

As usual, the problem isn’t that women aren’t capable, willing or ambitious. It isn’t the law holding them back – although the laws are not perfect. The system is stacked against them, still, but not nearly as much as in other Asian countries.

The problem, as it always seems to, boils down to men with idiotic, outdated, sexist and egotistical attitudes. Not all men, obviously, but enough that this is really the main issue (as it is in the USA, where other than our reproductive rights and access being eroded frighteningly quickly, legally we’ve reached a place better than previously achieved in history – and yet those attitudes linger on).

There are Taiwanese women who will agree with those men – the first example I gave had a few, but even they will be quick to note that theirs is a personal choice and not an edict for society. You won’t meet many Taiwanese women who will say that all women should earn less than their husbands, or that it’s a man’s right, pride and face to be a breadwinner. You will, however, meet men in Taiwan who will say that – even though the men in my second example did technically word their opinions as a personal choice, not a social ideal (in that sense it wasn’t a very good example).
But, that aside, you will hear men and women alike say that Taiwanese men generally prefer to out-earn their wives. Hell, you can meet American men who would say something similar.
This is what really needs to change – men’s attitudes generally toward breadwinning wives. I have no issue if a traditionally-minded man and a similarly traditional woman get together and do their traditional thing, but I do have an issue with this attitude as a social construct, and I’d like to, overall, see a steep decline in the number of people who adhere to it – consciously or not. I’d like to see high wage-earning women have more romantic options and not feel that their salaries pose an obstacle when it comes to finding a partner (if a partner is what they want). I’d like them to know, confidently, that there are men out there – enough men - who won’t be scared off by the idea of them being breadwinners.

This may be one of the reasons why so few foreign women seem to date Taiwanese men (although, generally, I’m seeing more dating in that direction which I think is great). There are progressive ones out there, but a lot of them are still pretty traditional. I wouldn’t date a guy who felt he had to make more than me, simply because he was the Big Manly Man, regardless of how our salaries actually matched up. It’s an issue of principle.

And I do feel that this change needs to come from the men: their desire to always be breadwinners is based on face, not reality or sensibility – and I’m sorry but this is just something that needs to stop being a “face” issue. I know, it’s rich of me to say that, when I don’t have a Taiwanese cultural background, but c’mon. Taiwanese culture has managed to make having a female boss not such a big issue of face. They managed to make having a working wife at all to be not an issue of face. Taiwan is a fairly progressive country when compared to the rest of Asia – I see no reason why this can’t be changed with time and perseverance as well.

Although, as usual, it’ll be women doing all the cultural heavy lifting and then the men who finally need to make the change in their attitudes. Ah, history. Don’t you love it when it repeats?

I’ll end with an anecdote I’m sure I’ve told before on this blog. Almost a year ago, just before we left for Turkey, we had dinner with some local friends of mine. My husband was facing visa issues – basically, our company was being a giant ass – and it had all gotten really bad just that day. Because we’re friends, we shared the Our Company is a Giant Ass and is Screwing With My Husband’s Visa story. At one point I said, “honey, if it’s that bad, and you really feel you need to do it for your own dignity, quit. Just quit. I make enough to support us. Do what you need to do and we’ll make it work.”

The guy friend looked shocked but said nothing. Later, he told me that it was really surprising to hear that – a lot of women would not just tell their husbands it was OK to quit and she’d support them in the meantime. I was worried he thought I was some sort of scary feminist ogre (not because I’d be ashamed to be that, but because I’d be disappointed in a friend who thought that), but no. He thought it was awesome, and that I was a “woman with guts”. Taiwan is a great country with fantastic people, but let’s be honest – you won’t get too many Taiwanese men thinking that.

This is what I hope for. This is what I want to see more of. It can be done.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

On "Going Native"

A highly fluent student of mine used this phrase, not necessarily something I'd teach, to describe me after I mentioned in one class that I am an avid user of 白花油,萬金油 and various other aromatic, camphored oils, that one room of my apartment is decorated with Hakka flower fabric, that I go to temple parades regularly and actually try to keep track of where and when they will take place, and that I regularly brew lao ren cha at home. 

I thought about it, and realized that no, he was not quite correct. "Going native" implies that you're acting and thinking more or less like everyone around you instead of knowingly sticking out and staying somewhat separate.  But how many Taiwanese people do you know who use White Flower Oil, decorate their apartment with Asian textiles (not just the Hakka fabric - I've collected textiles from around the world - mostly Asia though - for years), make tea that way and actually follow those temple parades as a hobby? Some might do many of those things, but at the very least, I don't know many people who would decorate that way: it may look Asian, but deep down, it's super-duper-foreign-tastic to do that. Well, not the oils. Using them is totally common.

I joked that if I wanted to "go native" for real, my apartment would have white walls and a tile floor, bare walls save for one red-and-gold calendar with a fat Buddha on it, a round table with metal legs and some chairs, one of those wicker stools that's lacquered heavily, to the point where it's orange-yellow, a blue or black vinyl couch with lace doilies on the back, a flat screen TV attached to one wall, and a yellow wood over-lacquered side table topped with thick plastic that's a bit old and discolored, topped with one of those purple orchid plants (fake would be OK). I'm joking, know. Not really joking.

Or, if I had money, I'd decorate it in a Hola Casa (ever been in that store? Furniture sets for the jet set) purely Western, white-leather-and-dark-wood style, not a trace of anything "Asian" anywhere.

And I'd pay little attention to temple parades, but a lot of attention to TV, although watching a lot of TV is hardly relegated to Taiwan.

And I wouldn't drink traditionally brewed tea, I'd drink lattes (I drink those, too, for what it's worth).

And, in the end, the very things that might cause one to believe that a foreigner has "gone native" are in fact the things that have caused me to stick out.

Or, as one friend put it, "Even if I didn't know you, if I saw this apartment I would say 'foreigners live here'."

Me: "Why?"

"Because it's too Chinese!"

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Big Diamond

Photo from here, not that I think you want to buy an engagement ring, but to
give credit for the photo

Not long ago, I was standing in a crowded MRT car as the train hurtled towards Zhongxiao Fuxing. I looked down at the guy in the seat directly in front of me. He was  quiet, self-contained, a bit nerdy, had the look of an engineer or first-year market analyst. Those ubiquitous black thick-framed glasses sat on his nose. I noticed that he was pallid, hunched forward a bit, and his hands were shaking.

I was about to ask if he was OK - mostly out of self-interest, because if he was as close to hurling as he looked, my shoes were right in the line of fire - until I looked again and noticed the handles of a small bag wound through his blood-drained, earthquake fingers.

A small, bright blue bag. From Tiffany. Inside was a ring box. And then I thought: awwwwwww. Even though I'm not the kind of girl who melts over diamonds, it was still sweet. I mean, he could have been buying his mother diamond earrings - this is the country where Listen To Your Mom (聽媽媽的話) became a hit song - but judging from his apparent need for a sick bag, my guess is that he was about to propose.

I wanted to then say "加油!" (good luck / you go!)  but didn't - didn't want to freak him out any more than he clearly already was.      

What got me thinking, though, was that diamond engagement rings are only a fairly recent thing in Taiwan and are still not all that common. Someone else commented on this story - saying ask your non-Westernized local friends if they bought or received a diamond engagement ring. They probably didn't, because it's not the "done thing" here the way it is in the USA.

But, you know, I was surprised. I did do just that even though I don't have a lot of married, non-Westernized local friends (I do have a few). The majority of those under age 40 said that yes, they did in fact buy their fiancee a diamond engagement ring. I mostly asked the men - I don't have that many married, non-Westernized Taiwanese female friends. They're generally single or at least unmarried. I do plan to ask a few, though.

One student I was chatting with said that his wife wouldn't marry him until he bought her a Cartier diamond ring (he's an executive at a well-known company, so don't feel too bad. He didn't scrimp and save and go without to do this). Two more admitted that they bought their wives or fiancees rings - both still from Cartier. So Cartier seems to be the default place to buy a ring if you're an under-40 upper middle class Taiwanese man about to get engaged.

My own engagement ring - I think I've posted it before. Check out the AWESOME DRAGON

The one person who said no, he did not buy his wife a diamond ring, was the student over 40. I didn't ask a friend of mine who is 40 because he married at about 20 - too long ago (back when it wasn't a "thing") and far too young and just starting out to be buying diamonds.

I was just surprised at how many "yes"s I got - I expected at least an equal number of "yes" and "no" answers, since there's no history of diamond marketing in Taiwan. All those LED-covered shiny "Bridal Diamond" stores you see - especially around Zhongxiao Dunhua, where Hearts on Fire's sign will make you go blind if you look at it directly - seem to be a new thing, not something that started gaining momentum in the early-to-mid 20th century as it did in the USA.

New as it is, it seems to be surging.

I can't say I'm happy about it: the diamond-is-the-only-acceptable-engagement-ring cult in the USA makes me a bit ill. People can like what they like and spend what they want on whatever they want and yes, diamonds are puuuuurty, but the marketing practices, the prices forced up as high as they are and the whole conflict diamond thing stirs great acrimony and sadness in me. I don't really want to see it come to Taiwan.

One thing that was great about living in Taiwan during my engagement was that nobody questioned the fact that I did not get - and did not choose, and would not have chosen - a diamond. In the US during our brief visit it wasn't a big deal, either, because I surround myself with awesome, loving people who wouldn't make shallow "but it's not a DIIIAAAMMMOOONNNDDD" remarks, but if I'd lived there for the entire engagement, someone who wasn't a friend or beloved relative probably would have said something like that - you can't be just around your loved ones 24/7. Sometimes you have to deal with others. Sometimes those others are great, sometimes they're, for lack of a better word, nincompoops.

But in Taiwan, it was totally cool. I didn't even really need a ring to be accepted as "engaged". No judgment, no problem. I would hate to see that eroded by Big Diamond.