Showing posts with label living_in_asia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label living_in_asia. Show all posts

Thursday, March 19, 2020

In Limbo: foreigners hoping to build lives in Taiwan face uncertainty with the new travel ban

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The Taiwan CECC (Central Epidemic Command Center) announcement on Wednesday that all non-resident foreigners would be barred from entering the country sent shockwaves across Taiwan’s international community due to the CCP Virus. Many who had hoped to enter Taiwan, or who are here legally on landing or tourist visas and had hoped to stay, were caught without many good options. 

On a positive note, the government’s explicit clarification that foreign residents would be allowed to enter was a relief. While it’s unlikely we would have been banned, policymakers have a tendency to forget that the foreign community exists, leaving us confused and anxious whenever a new policy doesn’t clearly state whether we are included or not. That they thought of this signals a welcome change.

However, many foreigners in Taiwan who do not have legal residency are now finding themselves difficult situations. While regular tourists can be expected to leave, not everyone fits that category. There are those who are here legally as job seekers, engaged to marry a resident, digital nomads, and others who wanted to fly in to be with family but now can't. 


I asked a few of these people if they'd mind sharing their stories, and they've agreed. From employment, to marriage, to pregnancy to keeping families together, there are so many ways that the new policy has impacted foreigners, in ways the government likely never considered.

Here are some of their stories. 

(More stories are coming in, so I'll update as that happens.)


Trying to marry as the window closes


D. is a resident in Taiwan, working in the tech sector. A Hungarian national born in Serbia, he is engaged to an American woman who has been staying here on landing visas. He can stay, but she can't, once her visa is up. It's highly unlikely that "we're planning to marry" would trigger an exemption, but of course it would be safer and better if they weathered this pandemic in place, together.

They've looked into speeding up the wedding, but the thorny issue of his nationality makes obtaining the necessary certificate of single status difficult for him to obtain, at a time when de facto embassies here are dealing with bigger matters. The TECO office in Hungary also serves Serbians (there is no office in Serbia for political reasons), but he has no contacts in Hungary who can send him the needed certificate. It is easier for his partner, who should be able to go to AIT if they're not completely overwhelmed.

They are currently planning to try to get the required document for him from the Hungarian embassy in Taiwan so they can register to marry before her visa expires, but it is still unclear if that will be possible.



A high-risk pregnancy and delivering alone

M. is single and carrying a high-risk pregnancy which is due in 4 weeks. Her mother was scheduled to fly to Taiwan for the delivery, was willing to do the mandatory quarantine and even moved her flight up. She was going to get here this Saturday - which was not soon enough before the travel ban took effect.

Due to coronavirus concerns, only one family member - and yes, they must be a family member - is allowed in the delivery room. M. has no family in Taiwan, so she will deliver alone. She also lives alone, and can't afford a post-partum hotel, so while she'd been looking forward to having her mother there during her recovery period, now she'll be living alone for that time.

She doesn't know when her mother will be able to get here. 



Family reunification


S. and S. are permanent residents in Taipei, but their daughter A. lives in London with her boyfriend, whom she met while attending international school in Taipei. They've been together 6 years. The daughter and her boyfriend want to return to Taiwan to stay with S. and S. (the boyfriend's parents currently live in China, and he is American by nationality). Because the option to get permanent residency for the children of permanent residents was only recently made available, A. missed that window and has no resident visa.

S. says that A. and her boyfriend attempted to get visas, giving the reason that they want to be with family (official or otherwise) but were turned away.

"I don’t know when I’ll see her. I wish they had ARCs. It doesn’t seem fair, because this is our home now - we both have APRCs. This is the only home she has, besides her apartment in London," S. says, and she clearly wants her daughter with her.



Newly-Hired Limbo


For those hoping to teach in Taiwan, a background check from their home country is necessary for their first job. For subsequent jobs, if they haven't been out of Taiwan for too long, a Taiwanese background check is sufficient. Of course, the home-country checks take forever because Western governments just can't get these things right. The Taiwanese check is cheap and takes a day or two.

C., an American, had had a home background check done for a previous job, but that was awhile ago, so it's no longer valid. He's now back in Taiwan and had been job hunting on a landing visa (which is not really encouraged, but is quite common). He has a job offer with all other paperwork complete, but the employer needs a background check from the US, as this will be his first stint here on a work permit. Background checks can take a very long time indeed, though there is an option to expedite. An expedited check under the best circumstances takes a week. With the West in the throes of a pandemic, who knows how long it will be?

C's landing visa runs out on March 29th. Work permit paperwork takes 5 days. So, he has until this Monday - that's two working days - to figure this out and get his paperwork submitted.  That won't be possible, clearly. Normally one would just take a weekender to a nearby country to restart the landing visa and pick up the work permit after returning, but with the borders closed to all non-residents, that's no longer an option for C. - which was announced just a few days before his hard deadline to get the paperwork through, or leave.

C. isn't sure what he's going to do, or if going to the immigration office, hat in hand, with a letter from his new employer and copies of his work permit application materials, will be enough to have an exception granted (this is easier for Canadians and British people but not as easy for Americans). He can try, but his future is uncertain.



Love, Interrupted

W. is from the Honduras, and his partner, D., is Taiwanese. Although same-sex marriage is legal in Taiwan, Taiwanese can only marry foreigners if it is legal in their partner's home country as well (due to reasons I truly do not comprehend). Honduras, of course, does not recognize marriage equality, so W. and D. cannot marry in Taiwan. This also means that D., a Taiwanese citizen, cannot access a right that should be guaranteed to him by the government.

For now, W. is a "visa runner", but would prefer not to be. He just wants to marry D. and stay in Taiwan, but due to a quirk of the same-sex marriage laws, that's impossible. He's in a position he never wanted to be in.

That's not grounds for an extension or exception as, on paper, W. has no 'reason' to stay as there is no permanent situation available to him.

His visa runs out in 15 days, and he will have to go back to Honduras. After that, he doesn't know when he'll be allowed back into Taiwan, or be reunited with D. to continue their lives together.



Trying to Contribute to Taiwan

A. had been working with an American non-profit and an existing organization in Taiwan to self-fund his teaching of English and Art courses to Indigenous children. When the CCP Virus broke out, both sides backed out, and then the borders closed after he arrived. A. now has 81 days to find a way to legally stay in Taiwan.



The Uncertainty, and the Happy Ending

H. moved to Taiwan with her husband and had been planning to do a visa run to Macau to get a proper visitor visa and get her spousal visa paperwork in order. Now, if she leaves for Macau she won't be allowed back in, and while she may qualify for a special exemption, she's not sure at all.

G., who is British, and his Taiwanese wife had been living in Europe. His job ended, they had no desire to live in the UK especially after Brexit, and have ties in Taiwan, so it made sense to come back now. G. came in on a landing visa, and had planned to get another one after Christmas, giving them time to get the spousal visa paperwork through.

Then coronavirus hit, and their options began to narrow, as flights kept getting canceled to potential destinations. Travel clearly wasn't going to work. At that point, about a week ago, they went to the immigration office to ask for an extension, given the circumstances. Then the travel ban hit, and without an answer they were obviously quite nervous. If his extension were rejected, he'd have to go to the UK to wait out the pandemic, where he hadn't lived in some time.

Fortunately for G., he got word today that his extension was approved and he will be able to stay in Taiwan.

All I can say is,
 don’t assume an extension won't be granted - come up with a good reason and ask. Make sure you have enough time so that they can consider your case. Bring evidence. Get back-up. Fight for your right to not die. 

A lot of people are going to get screwed by this travel ban, but I hope that despite its tough talk, the government will be lenient with granting exceptions to those who have extenuating circumstances. These foreigners are already here, so they are not a risk. They want to build a life here and have the means to do so.

The CECC surely did not mean to tear apart families when it formed this policy; they were trying to do what was best for the country. However, we must ask that they consider the impact this has on foreigners in Taiwan, and re-evaluate their visa extension and exception rules. 

Good luck to everyone. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Confucius is as relevant to Taiwan's COVID19 response as Aristotle is to the US's

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We're in our house keeping our stuff in order because nobody else is going to help. 


Some outside Asia (and, honestly, some people here) seem to think Taiwan's success in dealing with COVID19 is due to "Confucian" ideals of collectivism and respect for authority which allowed the government to adopt measures that people in Western countries might find uncomfortably strict.

I don't want to search for too many examples because the entire line of thought makes me want to barf, but here's one:


In South Korea, as in Japan and Taiwan, the lingering cultural imprint of Confucianism gives a paternalistic state a freer hand to intrude in people’s lives during an emergency, says Lee Sung-yoon, an international-relations professor at Tufts University. 
“Most people willingly submit themselves to authority and few complain,” Mr. Lee said. “The Confucian emphasis on respect for authority, social stability and the good of the nation above individualism is an ameliorating factor in a time of national crisis.”

Such thinking is difficult to refute, because it comes from an Asian source (dominant narratives that don't actually describe the experiences of many, but appear to come from the "same" cultural sources, are a challenge for this reason). But I'm going to invite the furor of the Whole Internet and say that Lee is wrong. 

A cultural difference indeed exists, but at least for Taiwan, it was hard-won in living memory. First, seeing firsthand what SARS was capable of, people realized the need for immediate action and recognized government initiatives as wise (and they were). There's also the living memory of a police state in Taiwan, which helps draw a stark contrast between "a strong centrally-planned response" and "authoritarianism", because most Taiwanese remember the latter and can tell the difference.

Perhaps there is some additional "collectivism" baked into these cultures but I wouldn't go overboard with this: there's a point at which it becomes a stereotype. I see most "collectivist" action here as merely "not being stupid", and I'm an "individualistic" American.


In fact, if Taiwan had been in the WHO to begin with - or if the WHO didn't generally faff about with their thumbs up their butts - the world could potentially have been warned about this long before China officially recognized it, and "mitigation" strategies similar to the UK's might have had some effect. In fact, the UK's strategy, which was just announced to be a failure, sounds a lot like what Taiwan was doing as early as January 1. And it worked. Life is mostly normal here as a result.

That said, I can't help but quote this wonderful tweet:


And, of course, threatened by China and ignored by the WHO, there is a recognized need to "deal with this ourselves" because Dr. Tedros sure ain't coming to save us (or anyone, but especially not Taiwan). So people do as asked by a government that appears competent, which they've just re-elected by historic margins, and a Central Epidemic Command Center that is doing a better job than the WHO. The results are visible, so people trust them. That's not "Confucian", that's "not being stupid". 

Do I swan about writing editorial bullshit about how "the Western failure to contain with COVID19 is due to the cultural imprint of Aristotelianism"? No. Because that's dumb. Stop being dumb.

In fact, Confucius is about as relevant to the average Taiwanese person as Aristotle is to you.

Think the comparison doesn't work? I assure you that it does. Ancient Philosopher Guy from a foreign land (because Taiwan is not China, and South Korea isn't China either) does some philosophy which is considered impactful enough to still be studied today?

Yup, checks out. Except only one is touted as the foundation of several distinct cultures, rather than what he really was: an important thinker, sure, but not the Father of All Things.


Also, let's talk "respect for authority" and people who "don't complain". Let's talk about things that would make dear old Confucius turn over in his grave.

Not too long ago, Taiwan looked a dictatorship in the face and said "get fucked". And it actually worked! South Korea did the same thing.

And they did it without an army - against an army, in fact. They did it with few resources and no firepower. They had only themselves and the power of their words and unarmed bodies.


Did your parents and grandparents do that?

No?

Then sit down, Billy McFreedomfries.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The case for why Taiwan is the best of the 'Asian Tigers'

I needed a cover photo that screamed 'Taiwan' so...here you go. 


As we enter the 2020 election season in Taiwan, I've been hearing a common sentiment from people I've talked to  - not just friends but students and random people I chat with in my daily life. Anecdotally, support for Tsai's re-election is strong, but there's a general sense that the economy is 'bad', and Tsai hasn't done that much about it. I've also picked up on a sentiment that Taiwan continues to lag behind the other 'Asian Tigers' - while nobody is jealous of Hong Kong these days, there is some envy of its status as an 'international city', and I hear jealous yearnings to be as well-off and nice as South Korea and Singapore.

It's easy to see why, on the surface. Let's be honest - South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong all look so much...shinier. The public spaces and roads look better-maintained. It just feels like there's more money floating around. 


This is reflective of two pieces from 2018 and one from 2016). So while I can't measure the strength of this sentiment, I can say with confidence that it's a thing. 

But you know what? I just don't think it's true.


It's not that the data are wrong. Salaries are in fact low. Business do take conservative investment approaches (and I personally feel that they do not invest nearly enough in talent, nor do business owners trust the talent they hire to innovate.) I'm not sure that Taiwan's GDP per capita is lower than the other Asian Tigers as CommonWealth claims - at least in this data, it beats South Korea. And none of this from the Today link above is wrong, per se:


But Taiwan did not woo multinational companies to set up facilities, as Singapore did. It did not develop a financial centre like Hong Kong’s; or establish large conglomerates or Chaebols, the way South Korea did. 
Instead, Taiwan is home to many small and medium enterprises, known as original equipment manufacturers (OEM), making devices at low cost for brand-name companies. The island became a high-tech powerhouse in the 1980s on the backs of these OEM manufacturers.... 
Today, young Taiwanese face dim job prospects. They have been dubbed the “22k” generation — a reference to their minimum monthly salary of NT$22,000, which works out to just over S$1,000. Youth unemployment is more than 12 per cent [I checked that number, and this website confirms it as does Taiwan Today and the government], and many young Taiwanese are disillusioned.

But I'm just not buying that this makes Taiwan 'the worst' of the Asian Tigers or somehow 'left behind'. Here's why.

First, the same things have been said about Hong Konger, South Korean and Singaporean youth - 'bleak prospects', 'disillusioned', 'low salaries', 'can't afford to buy a home', 'no future'. Salaries for young workers are low around the world - Millenials everywhere can't afford to buy property at the rate their parents and grandparents did, and Taiwan (and Hong Kong, and Singapore) is no exception. Taiwan's economy is slower than it once was, but that's true everywhere

Yes, a crude comparison of salaries shows higher pay in the other Asian Tiger countries, but Hong Kong and Singapore suffer from such high living costs that I doubt youth - or people of any age - who get jobs there actually enjoy a higher living standard.


Poverty and Inequality

In some metrics, Taiwan actually wins out over every other Asian Tiger. Looking at wealth inequality, Taiwan's GINI coefficient is 33.6 (the lower the number, the better). South Korea's is 35.7, Singapore's is 45.9, and Hong Kong's is a whopping 53.9. Although the numbers are getting a bit dated, Taiwan's poverty rate is stunningly low, at 1.5% (though I wonder how much of that is massaged by people of meager means living with family). In contrast, South Korea's is 14.4% and Hong Kong's is 19.9%.

Singapore doesn't provide data (seriously, check that link above). Thanks to journalist and Twitter buddy Roy Ngerng, however, I was able to find a few reliable sources that estimate poverty rates in Singapore to be a whopping 20-35%. 



Yup. 

So hands down, Taiwan wins on equality - despite lower salaries, you've got a much lower chance of ending up indigent. Given the lower cost of rent in Taiwan than Hong Kong and Singapore, even if you do end up struggling financially in Taiwan, you can live a little better. There is no way, as a teacher, that I could afford the three-bedroom downtown flat I have in Taipei if I lived in any other Asian Tiger nation.

Although there's some contradictory info on purchasing power coming up, I'd also argue that the overall lifestyle in Taiwan is simply better. Coffin homes are not a thing, nor are cage homes. All of these countries have inexpensive food if you eat like a local,  but I've found that you can get more value for money in Taiwan (with South Korea as a close second). Overall, those little things that make life easier when you're broke are just a bit easier to come by here.

Is that not worth the trade-off of a few unsightly buildings? Would you not give up your glass skyscraper dreams to have more flexibility in your lifestyle? Just because a city looks a little ganky around the edges doesn't mean it's not wealthy.



Healthcare

I also want to take a look at healthcare - a lot of my data comes from here. Hong Kong's public hospitals have preposterously long wait times for procedures you can get done quickly and cheaply in Taiwan. The only way around them is expensive private hospitals, which not everyone can afford. South Korea's benefit package is quite narrow; a great deal of medical services are simply not covered. Singapore went through a process of privatizing hospitals, with mostly negative consequences, including increased cost to patients. Out-of-pocket expenses in Taiwan are similar to Hong Kong's (for better service) - they're higher in South Korea (due to so many uncovered services) and far higher in Singapore (due to privatization of hospitals, I suppose). While Taiwan does have a fairly high rate of private insurance, mostly purchased by wealthier people to supplement NHI, this doesn't make up for differences in out-of-pocket expenses.

After putting all that together, I'm gonna call it: Taiwan's got the best cost-to-benefit ratio of health coverage among the Asian Tigers. You won't be worrying about uncovered services like South Koreans, waiting years for basic tests like Hong Kongers or paying out-of-pocket like Singaporeans, and t
his is all despite having fewer doctors per 10,000 people than any of the other three countries. 


A free society

There are also personal freedoms to consider. Although I can only speak anecdotally, living in a society as free as Taiwan's counts for a lot. Again, South Korea is the closest comparison here. Hong Kong, on the other hand, is simply neither democratic nor free. Aside from the recent protests, the government is ultimately beholden to Beijing, and activists, publishers and journalists disappear (or are attacked or murdered) on the regular. In Taiwan, activists are mostly free to agitate for change. In Hong Kong, you're brought to trial and found guilty. Attend a protest - exercising your basic right to free speech and assembly - could get you fired. Singapore isn't wracked by protests (at the moment) but is absolutely an illiberal state where peaceful assembly and freedom of speech are so strictly controlled as to not exist.

If you're not a political activist, you may not think this is particularly important, but just try having a dissenting viewpoint one day, and realizing you can never voice it without potentially dire consequences. What if you want to be a journalist, political analyst, writer, artist or even academic, and find that your ability to speak truth to power is limited or outright censored? It does matter. 


South Korea offers similar freedoms - public demonstrations are popular there, as they are in Taiwan.


Work culture

When I first visited Seoul in 2003, I stayed with my now-husband in his (paid-for) flat in a nondescript building, in a nondescript part of the city. The buildings stretched on and on, and they all looked basically the same. They had huge numbers painted on them so you could differentiate your building from the others at a glance. It was all a bit sterile. These days, I'm given to understand that many companies provide identikit housing for their employees. When we returned in 2014 for a visit and had to catch an early shuttle to the airport, I noted as the bus snaked through downtown Seoul that the streets were full of Korean men in identical black suits (with the occasional navy-clad rebel), carrying similar briefcases, with similar haircuts, going to similar jobs in similar cubicles in similar office buildings for similar companies, and they were all made out of ticky-tacky and they all looked just the same


In other respects, I love visiting South Korea. I have to admit that Seoul went from a city that looked a little, shall we say, crumbly around the edges (sort of the way Taipei looks now) to something more similar to Tokyo between my two visits. People certainly revert to expressing individuality outside of work hours. But I think this samey-samey work culture would just destroy me.

Looking at numbers, Hong Kongers work about 50.1 hours/week on average, or 2,296/year according to a UBS study. Singaporeans clock in at 2,334 hours/year, or 45.6 hours/week. The results here don't quite add up as some say Hong Kongers work longer hours, and others say Singaporeans do (and neither yearly average matches 52 weeks of work at the weekly average). In any case, both are higher than Taiwan.

I can't find weekly averages for South Korea, but they appear to be at the top as well, at 2,069/year. Taiwanese are right to complain about their long working hours, but they're actually lower than the other Asian Tigers (2,035.2/year). 


Sure, just as the quote far above points out, Taiwan did not turn itself into a financial center or international business center like Hong Kong and Singapore  - but its wealth inequality is lower, which is quite possibly a direct consequence. It did not set up chaebols (massive conglomerates) the way South Korea did. But I've spent a lot of time in corporate offices in Taiwan and I can assure you that, while there is a standard 'corporate' mode of dress, that the level of conformity expected among office workers is nowhere near the level of what I saw in Seoul. I would not wish that identikit lifestyle on Taiwan; while some people might be willing to slog through such a work culture for a better paycheck, I suspect a huge proportion would chafe against it. Taiwan's small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) may not have brought in the big bucks the way Samsung and Lotte did for South Korea, but what they contributed to Taiwan's cultural landscape is a net positive, I think, and should not be underestimated. 

Brendan's oft-repeated comment about his long-ago move from South Korea to Taiwan is that "Taiwan has long work hours, maybe as long as South Korea. Wages are lower. But people just seem more chilled-out. You don't pass drunk salarymen passed out on the sidewalk who will get up and go to work the next day. Everyone seemed so stressed in Korea. People here just seem...more relaxed." And it's true - on my brief visits to Seoul, even I saw those passed-out businessmen. I've never seen that in Taiwan, though I routinely pass groups of friends enjoying dinner and drinks - beer or Kaoliang - on folding tables on the sidewalk, keeping the local gossip machines going and looking, well, just more relaxed.

I wonder how much the chaebol vs. SME culture divide plays into that. No idea, but it's a thought. 



Gender parity

It also seems to me - and Brendan concurs after living there - that South Korea has a much bigger problem with sexism than Taiwan. Every culture in the world struggles with sexism (yes, all of them), but Taiwan arguably has the best gender equality in Asia. For some hard numbers, the gender wage gap in South Korea is the biggest of all OECD countries (34.6%), and Brendan recalls seeing job advertisements that blatantly offered more to male candidates for the same work. Taiwan's gender wage gap is 14.6% - on par with a lot of Western countries and not great, but also a huge improvement.

Hong Kong's gender pay gap is 22.2% as of 2017. Singapore's is a bit lower than Taiwan.

There's more that I might include about gender equality in the four Tigers, but the wage gap really says it all. 



The bad news

I don't want to wax rhapsodical about how Taiwan is better than the other Asian Tigers in every way, implying that there's no data to suggest it's not true. So, let's take a look at what's not going well for Taiwan.

Just looking at unemployment, Taiwan looks a little less lustrous. In South Korea and Taiwan unemployment rates are similar, at 4.4% (a rise from 3.8% in December 2018) and 3.7% (average 2018) respectively. Rates are lower in Hong Kong and Singapore, at closer to 2-3%. Youth unemployment in South Korea is around 10.4%, for Hong Kong it's about 9.4% and Singapore is lowest at 5.2%. As above, Taiwan's is in the vicinity of 12%. There's no getting around it - Taiwan's unemployment looks low by European standards, but it's not as robust as its Asian Tiger peers. 

Purchasing power doesn't look to be much better, with Taiwan ranking high globally - 19th in the world according to the IMF, 28th according to the World Factbook -  but behind both Singapore and Hong Kong on both scales (remembering, of course, that that's still higher than Canada, Australia and a huge chunk of Europe). South Korea was quite a bit further down in both cases. I'm not sure why this is, and don't have the requisite knowledge of economics to analyze it, but I love making myself look stupid publicly so here goes.

First, a lot of Singaporean and Hong Kong relative 'wealth' by purchasing power can be explained by how this purchasing power is calculated. Their large foreign labor populations, who have much lower incomes and purchasing power, are not counted in these metrics as they are not citizens or permanent residents (Taiwan News makes a similar point). Taiwan also has a large foreign labor population, but while I can't find reliable data on this, I'd wager that the ratio of foreign labor to local population in Taiwan is lower than in those two city-states.

Second, Singapore gets around the one thing that might sap a large chunk of their citizens' purchasing power: housing. Most housing in Singapore consists of public housing projects, which builds accommodation at a variety of budgets. Roughly 80% of Singaporeans live in these flats. That might explain how Singapore can have such a high Gini coefficient and estimated high levels of poverty, but still come out blazing on purchasing power.

Why Hong Kong ranks well in terms of purchasing power, I have no idea. I'd think real estate alone - which Hong Kongers are less able to afford than Taiwanese even with higher salaries - would knock it down.

I suspect in both cases that all that purchasing power on the part of Singapore and Hong Kong, given their relatively high poverty and inequality, is concentrated in the hands of the wealthy. If you're just a regular person with a regular job, however, you can make your comparatively lower salary go a lot further in Taiwan (or perhaps South Korea, with its similar inequality rate despite its higher poverty rate). If that's true, all Singapore and Hong Kong really have on Taiwan in terms of purchasing power are more rich people who can do more purchasing. Most people will never be rich, so that doesn't mean much.



Taiwan #1! 

To bring this back to the original point, despite some troubling economic data, I still think Taiwan is the best Asian Tiger in which to build a life. Salaries are low, but so is inequality and poverty (and the rent is pretty good, too). You won't do better for health care, and you have fairly strong human rights protections - better than Hong Kong or Singapore. You're quite likely a lot better off as a woman, especially compared to Hong Kong and South Korea.

The whole world is struggling now, and if anything, I think Taiwan's made the best of this. It's not being 'left behind'. Don't listen to the haters telling you that not only is Taiwan dwarfed by China - when, in fact, China scores well below Taiwan on most of the metrics above - but also the other Asian Tigers. Nope - Taiwan has built something less flashy, less shiny and a little-slower paced, but there are good arguments out there for why it has actually done the best. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Why Chinese government spying is the scariest sort: an explainer

I'm in the US for the holidays, and a segment came on some silly morning show (they're all silly) about how China is "revolutionizing" shopping and payment through cell phone payment apps at a far higher rate than the US. Or, as the silly hosts of this silly program described it, "China is decades ahead of the US in shopping technology".

And I made a remark about how that's actually terrifying, because the Chinese government watches essentially everything you do on your cell phone in China, and can and will use it against you. They don't even try to hide it. That everyone I know who is knowledgeable about cybersecurity in any way uses a second dummy cell in China for all of the apps there that come packaged with nasty spyware.

The person I was watching the program with looked duly horrified - after all, the silly segment by that silly host on that silly TV show was making China out to be this amazing technological wonderland of the future (the tone was similar the one taken in this article, but if anything less critical). What I was saying was totally at odds with that.

She came back with "you know, I'm sure the US government does that too, we just don't know about it."

Sure. I mean...kinda. But it's not at all the same thing. I don't blame her for her reaction, by the way - when your exposure to current affairs in China comes entirely from Western media, and mostly Western media that is uncritical about China but highly critical of domestic affairs, interspersed with ads for Shen Yun (with no context whatsoever pointing out that a.) the Chinese government hates them, which is great but also b.) that they are owned by a wealthy cult-like religious organization which is not great), then this would be your natural reaction.

But there is a world of difference, and it's important to know why.

I'm going to come at this from a non-expert, non-academic, non-technical point of view. If you want detailed, professional analysis go somewhere else. I've noticed, however, that the average non-expert finds these issues too dense and daunting and typically doesn't read or fully understand them. Hell, I can't claim to fully understand them (this, for example, is barely readable to me despite being highly important). Instead, I'm hoping to tackle this in a way that helps the average reader comprehend what is so terrifying about China's government surveillance, in particular.


"But the US government does the same thing!" 

This is an issue in that the US government does have some unsettling rights to surveillance and data under the Patriot Act. I don't like it either, and I've had it and other surveillance programs affect me three times that I know of, including having to sign something that allowed the US government to monitor one of my bank accounts in Taiwan, and being unable to open a new IRA in the US.

So, yes, it's creepy and horrible. Please don't categorize me as a defender of the actions of the US government.

But. But! This is really not on the same level as what the Chinese government does.

For reasons explained below, it's doubtful that the US government is directly intervening in what private businesses do, forcing them to put spyware into their devices or app/online offerings. They're not using what data they do collect in the same way as China, and while maddeningly opaque and bureaucratic, the very fact that the US is a democracy with certain freedoms of expression and information means it is still more transparent than China.

Oh yeah, and say what you will about who is watching what you do online, but the US government isn't going to disappear you because you said something online that they don't like. Even if you make suspicious purchases or phone calls, or visit certain sites, you might find yourself detained or questioned, but you won't be disappeared in an unmarked van.

No, you won't. Don't give me any conspiracy theory nonsense. But in China this is a real thing



"The US government could just be putting spyware in our phones too!" 

Maybe. Somehow, though, I doubt it.

As far as I'm aware, the US government doesn't "own" (or have some sort of control over) the various tech companies that make our stuff. The US government can't tell Apple, Google, Paypal, Venmo etc. what to do the way the CCP can tell Huawei, Xiaomi, ZTE, Baidu and Alipay what to do. It's an open secret - if it's a secret at all - that Communist Party members and officials have a controlling stake in those Chinese companies and they almost certainly do have those companies install spyware and other backdoor access to data in their products.

It is not clear at all that the US has the same thing, and I doubt they do.

The US media, for all we deservedly criticize it, is pretty good at rooting out this stuff, investigating it and exposing it in detail. We know that Donald Trump committed tax fraud thanks to an in-depth investigation by the the New York Times, to give just one example.

If the US government were ordering Apple to install spyware into their phones, or ordering Google to have government spyware installed on everyone's phone with every download of the Chrome app, while those companies would certainly not be transparent about it (seeing as they're not transparent about much), it would still likely break in the media eventually. Criticize it all you want - I do! Push the media to be better. But it's a lot better and a lot freer than in many places, including China.

If anything, you should be scared that the Chinese government, not the American government, is putting some scary things into products by non-Chinese companies. Though it's perhaps less likely as they don't actually control these companies, most of the production takes place in China and some of the components of these products are designed/produced by Chinese companies, so it's still a real possibility.


"But the US monitors our financial transactions and punishes us too, through credit scores!" 

I don't care for credit score companies either. I understand why some institutions would want a heads-up as to how well or poorly you are likely to be able to pay your bills from them, but the way scores are calculated is not nearly as transparent as it needs to be, and in some ways is unfair.

However, most developed countries have some form of credit score system, and the effects are not as far-reaching.

In China, the social credit system being developed will operate on such a greater scale than any credit scoring system that the two can't be seriously compared. A bad credit score might make it hard to get a credit card or loan (or, if it's bad enough, a bank account), and you may be denied a visa to go abroad by that country's embassy, but it won't stop you from buying flight or train tickets or from getting a passport. China eventually willEven articles trying to downplay the threat are unconvincing. It is very real, and it's the outcomes, not the details, that matter.

Even if the US government is spying on us in the same way and to the same degree that the Chinese government spies on their citizens (and, possibly, us) - which they almost certainly are not -  a system designed to force you to be a "good citizen" is not the outcome and nobody is talking seriously about building one.

If that were to change (and in the Trump era, who knows?) we still have ways of fighting back that Chinese citizens do not. We can still speak openly about it. Journalists can investigate and publish stories. If nobody will publish your story you can publish it yourself (and who knows, you might go viral or at least show up in search results). We can file lawsuits against the government. We can vote the bastards out of office. We can push for better legislation. We can take to the streets. We can fundraise for a series of legal moves, lobbying and awareness campaigns that aim to change the way things are. It's hard to do, but it is possible and, most importantly, all of this is legal.

In China, none of it is. In China, you have no recourse. You can't protest, you can't sue, you can't raise money for these causes, you can't easily investigate (nothing is transparent enough for you to be able to do so - there is no Freedom of Information Act), and you can't vote in any meaningful way.

Also, in the US, it is still possible to exist (though with difficulty) without giving the government access to a lot of your data. You don't need to use any apps that you don't want to, and you can still (mostly) pay in cash for things. In China, I hear time and time again that it is impossible to keep in touch with people without WeChat (a social media app that definitely funnels information to the government, and every expert I know says likely comes packaged with all sorts of spyware quietly downloaded on your phone) or Weibo (same). You can't hail a taxi without a WeChat-related app, and may not even be able to buy anything at department stores or go out to eat.

It's becoming impossible to pay for things in China without some sort of phone payment app like WeChat Pay or Alipay. Taxis will upcharge you to an insane degree, and some places won't take cash at all. You can't function in China without signing up for these payment apps, meaning you cannot exist somewhat anonymously in even the simplest ways. In the US, you still can.


"But Facebook and Google collect our data too!" 


They do, and that sucks. And the data seems to be mostly used for selling ads. Even though, if I have to see ads, I'd rather see ones that might interest me, I don't really want companies to refine how well they can target me to convince me to spend my money through psychological means that I often find deceptive. That said, I can and do ignore them. It is possible to not buy. You can not pay attention to ads or fake news targeted at you (another way that our data was problematically used). You can ignore memes (I do), check sources (I do), and think critically about what you are reading and seeing, where it comes from and why it appeared on your news feed or in your search results. I do.

That data is not being handed to an autocratic government (the US has many flaws, but it is not an authoritarian state. China is) to build a massive social credit system that you can't opt out of and that you can't ignore the way you can a shitty ad or lizard-brain meme. You can choose not to use any apps you don't trust in the US, and you can choose not to believe or pay attention to dodgy things targeted at you.

And we know that data is not being handed over for the same purposes, and we know the US government doesn't control these companies, because if it were, there would be no reason for Google or Facebook executives to testify before Congress.

You don't have any of those options in China, and there is no need (from the government's perspective) for either testimony or transparency. You know why.


"If you have nothing to hide, then you have no reason to fear!" 

Yeah okay um...who determines whether you have nothing to hide? You, or the horrible government that is monitoring you? Who decides if you've done nothing wrong - them or you?

Do you really trust them to agree with you that you have done nothing wrong? All the time?

What happens when you do have a complaint with the government? A legitimate complaint that is nonetheless not allowed? What if your complaint is that they disappeared your daughter, forced you to have an abortion, or expropriated your house without compensation? What if you took a trip to Taiwan and realized that the situation there was completely different from what you'd always been told, and simply wanted to say that honestly? What if you had an 'undesirable' friend who was not a model citizen like you, but you'd known them since childhood, cared about them and knew them to be a good person? What if the only way to boost your own social credit score was to disavow this friend? What if that person wasn't your friend but your brother, or mother? What if merely calling that person from your compromised phone put them in danger?

Even if you'd been a model citizen up to that point, what happens when suddenly you are faced with this choice?

Don't even get me started with "I have nothing to hide."

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

It's like air: Tiananmen in Taipei, 2018

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Honestly, I feel the need to write about the Tiananmen Square memorial event held yesterday, June 4th not because I think I have anything unique to say about it that others couldn't, but because this year it felt so lightweight that if we don't note it down for the collective Internet memory, the event as a whole will just float away, as though it never happened. Which is, of course, exactly what the Communist Part of China wants. Nobody likes the world remembering massacres they perpetrated.

The event was mostly in Chinese, with a few speakers addressing the crowd in English. I would like to suggest here that the entire event should be bilingual, and next year's 30th anniversary event might actually make the news, so it would be smart to have translators ensuring all talks are available in English and Chinese. I can follow the Chinese, but I can imagine many foreigners in Taipei who'd be otherwise interested in attending might not, because it's not very exciting to hear speeches in a language you don't understand.

As usual, the event featured a number of speakers from a variety of activist groups across Asia, including recorded talks from Uighur activists, two speakers from Reporters Without Borders (based in Taipei) and a particularly electrifying speech by Vietnamese activist and Taipei resident Trinh Huu Long. Yu Mei-nu, Yibee Huang and Zheng Xiu-juan (Lee Ming-che's boss, although that sounds odd to say in English) were some of the Taiwanese speakers.

Zheng likened China's human rights abuses to its intractable pollution problem, saying that "human rights are like air" - when you're breathing comfortably you don't notice them, but when the pollution ratchets up to PM 2.5, you realize how vital clean air to breathe is, and suddenly you're suffocating. (I'm translating roughly from memory here).


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Zheng Xiu-juan (鄭秀娟) and Yibee Huang (黃怡碧)


There were also performances, including a memorable entrance by Taiwanese rapper Chang Jui-chuan (張睿銓), who sang one of his newer songs, Gin-a. The lyrics (in Taiwanese) discuss Taiwanese democracy movements and freedom fighters post-1949:

Killing after killing, jail after jail...
Hey kid, you must remember

Their blood and sweat, torment and sacrifice
Gave you the air you're breathing



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Empty chairs at empty tables



And that's just it - the 6/4 event, held every year, feels like a part of the air here in Taiwan. It just happens, everyone knows it happens, and they assume others will attend so they take it for granted. It's there, it's always there, maybe next year, someone will show up. I don't need to worry about it. Ugh, Monday night.

What you get, then, is an attendance rate that looks like it might have been less than 100 (but damn it, Ketagalan Media made the effort. We showed up.) Which, again, is exactly what the CCP wants - for us to forget.

In 2014 this event was huge, with camera lights stretching back into the distance and prominent Taiwanese activists showed up - including Sunflowers fresh off the high of electrifying society and about to watch the tsunami they started wash across the 2014 elections. We thought we could change Asia. We thought it was within our grasp...and now there are empty chairs stretching back, and nobody seems to notice the air they're breathing.

Some say it doesn't matter, or is odd to hold in Taiwan, as China is a different country. It's true that China and Taiwan are two different nations. What happens in China affects Taiwan, though, and hosting memorial events so close to China and in venues where a number of Chinese are likely to walk by does make a difference, if a small one. We're on the front lines in the fight against China's encroaching territorial and authoritarian expansionism, so it means something to take a stand - even a small one - here.

In 2016 an entire group of Chinese tourists walked right past the event - this year, someone seems to have ensured that wouldn't happen again. For once, Dead Dictator Memorial Hall was completely devoid of Chinese tour groups and I doubt that was a coincidence. What I'm saying is, somebody noticed.

It also serves as a reminder that Taiwan is not China - we can and do hold these events here, and we do so freely and without fear. We talk about our history, as Chang does in Gin-A. We discuss our common cause, as democracy activists from across Asia did last night. What we do - let's not forget human rights abuses that happen in Taiwan - may not perfectly align with what we stand for, but we talk about it, and we have the space and air we need to work toward something better. In China you can't breathe at all.

But the people who died at Tiananmen 29 years ago are among those whose sacrifice may eventually give China the air it needs to breathe - though I grow less sure that it might happen in my lifetime. Fighters like Lee Ming-che, thrust into the national spotlight and just as quickly forgotten even in Taiwan, give Taiwan the air it needs to breathe. We give ourselves air and beat back the oppressive particulates trying to suffocate us, by standing up for what's right and refusing to forget the massacres of the past.

We must remember. We can't let this event float away on the air, as though it doesn't matter, or it doesn't matter for Taiwan. It absolutely does.

I mean, I get it - I'd like to feel totally safe knowing my freedom and guaranteed access to human rights was not in question. I'd like to sit on the couch and eat Doritos and not even worry about it, because I don't have to. It's tiring to keep showing up. Unfortunately, Taiwan really is on the front line, and we can't do that - we can't pretend it doesn't (or shouldn't) matter.

Next year is the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Mark your calendar now, make sure you're free, and show up.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Reason and reasonability

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

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

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

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

I didn't go.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Half the world is flat: Western liberals and conceptions of Asia

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Caffeine Cafe in Dilijan, Armenia


We hadn't had a lot to say over breakfast to the Danish couple sharing our homestay - I am notoriously antisocial in the mornings - but the golden evenings of the Armenian summer gave way to local wine, local vodka, homecooked food and talk of global affairs.

We had come up to Debed Canyon, our last stop in Armenia before heading across the Georgian border less than an hour to the north, from Yerevan via Dilijan, where we had spent a glorious few days doing very little except reading books on a wide wooden balcony overlooking a verdant hillscape. Caffeine Cafe was near our hotel in Dilijan and provided for all of our cafe needs. I remember thinking as we hung out there, The Black Keys on the sound system and single-origin coffee in the pot, young hipsters on their laptops with hair that screamed "Yes, I drink that single origin", that as much as world travelers like to think they're going to places where everything is different, and even the people think differently, in fact Caffeine was a place that would have been just as at home in Brooklyn...or Tainan. And I bet if I'd had a political conversation with any of these young Armenians, we would have agreed on quite a bit.

In contrast, Debed was taxing physically and bracing mentally. During the day we hiked from a monastery perched on one end of the canyon all the way down to the river at the base, crossed it and crawled up the vertiginous wall on the other, over a meadow and to its sister monastery on the opposite side.

Afterwards, stuffed with home-cooked Armenian food chased with entirely too much alcohol, we climbed vertiginous walls of conversation with the Danes. 

"But these ideas - human rights, democratic government - they were all created by Western cultures, and they serve Western cultures," he said. "They work there, because Westerners are individualists. But to insist that these ideas must be applied globally, that's cultural imperialism!"

I liked him. He was eloquent. He was also wrong.

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Debed Canyon: Vertiginous walls

"The whole point is that they're not Western rights, they're human rights. They are meant to apply to all humans. Perhaps the idea of spelling out these particular rights came from the West, but there's a reason why the United Nations - not the United Western Nations, but the United Nations - has a human rights commission. And the whole idea of the right of self-determination - a democracy, I suppose - is that everyone has it. Otherwise, you are essentially saying Westerners deserve rights that others don't."

"It's Westerners who conceived of these rights, so yes, they apply to Westerners. It's Westerners who conceived of democracy, so we can assume it works best there. Asia is more collectivist, those cultures are not individualist the way we are. So these ideas just don't work the same way in those cultures, if they work at all. We can't impose our idea of how people should live on the rest of the world!"

"Well, I can agree that telling other people how to live is generally a bad idea," I replied, "but how can you say that we created human rights for us, and other people don't need the right to express their opinion, or to not be arrested or tortured without cause, or not be enslaved, or choose what kind of government they want. Maybe that government wouldn't be what we want, but there is no good argument for not caring if they get to choose at all. And I'm not saying we should go into any given country and just tell them they're going to reform into democracies at gunpoint. We tried that, and look what happened. But that doesn't mean we should just abandon people who want something better."

He had lived in Asia for years, in Indonesia. He'd spent quite a bit of time in Southeast Asia, been around the continent, certainly visited China. I asked; he had not been to Taiwan. 

"We're not abandoning them, we're leaving them alone. They are able to come up with a system of government and way of doing things that suits them, and it's not for us to say."

"I certainly agree that people should come up with their own systems of government without being told by an outside force what to believe, but what you are essentially saying is that some cultures would be okay with arrest and torture without cause, enslavement, or being jailed or even killed simply for speaking one's mind. In a lot of countries that is the reality, but I have a hard time believing, having been to those countries, that most people prefer it that way."

"No, what I'm saying is, by insisting that everyone adopt the same norms we have, we are forcing something from individualist cultures onto collectivist ones, and it's just not going to work the way we'd hoped. In any case, given Western global hegemony and the history we have of colonization and destruction of other cultures, it's also imperialistic. It's forcing our values on the rest of the world. There is no such thing as universal values."

"So...slavery is sometimes okay?"

"What you conceive of as slavery might be considered differently in another culture, and not seen as slavery at all."

"I highly doubt that. It's a basic concept. I live in one of these 'other cultures' you speak of. They fucking know what slavery is, and their idea of it is not that different from mine, or yours. They're Asian, not stupid. They're not Exotic Orientals from the Mystical East who think up is down and circles are triangles. They're people. Normal people with a normal conception of things like slavery. You lived in one of these cultures too. Don't tell me Indonesians have a 'different conceptualization' of slavery because they come from a 'collectivist' culture. Nobody, regardless of where they come from, wants to be a slave...unless they're into that in, like, a sex way."

"Uh..."

(Hey, I actually said that. I'm just being honest. I've cleaned up the conversation in other ways, but that last bit is absolutely real.)

"But," he said, recovering, "look at what happens in non-Western countries that adopt Western models."

"Well, let me give you a positive example. I live in Taiwan. One of those 'collectivist' cultures you like to talk about. You know what Taiwanese think are very important? Human rights and democracy. This is a country that is actively resisting being annexed by a dictatorship, because they want to keep their democracy. Their human rights record isn't perfect but it's a damn sight better than China's. This is a country where people care so much about their democracy that they take to the streets because they want marriage equality and the government is being too slow about making it happen, where 200,000 people march downtown because a young man doing his military service died from overly harsh punishment. 200,000! This is a country where students occupied the legislature for nearly a month because they didn't like the way a trade bill was being forced through undemocratically, and 400,000 or so people showed up to support them. In a country of 23 million! That's more than one in every sixty people! They absolutely want these things, and while they come from a different culture, they're just people who want human rights. There's nothing wrong or culturally imperialist about that.

Many if not most of them think of free nations - including Western ones - as natural allies, not enemies. They want our support. Perhaps their culture is more 'collectivist', although that seems like a very broad term and we'd have to break down what you mean by it. And yet they have a thriving, successful democracy, welcome Western allies, want more American support than they are getting, and this in no way interferes with their culture. Japan and Korea are democracies too, and they work. Hong Kong wants democracy. When they didn't get full rights, they voted in a bunch of pro-democracy legislators.

In fact, you say we're 'leaving them be', but what you're really suggesting we do to Taiwan by saying China's actions are not our business because it's 'a different culture' is abandoning an ally who wants our support.

So when you say these ideas are Western - maybe they came from the West, but in my life I meet Asians every day who believe in these things just like I do. Nobody forced it on them. America didn't come in and say 'you have to be a democracy now!' The people of Taiwan fought for it and won it themselves. So how can you say these ideas only work in the West or are inherently and inseparably Western or 'individualist' when I live my life in a non-Western, 'collectivist' culture that shares such values and they work?

In fact, if you tried to tell the average Taiwanese person that democracy and human rights are inherently Western ideas brought to them via cultural imperialism, in effect that by believing in them they are tools of Western neocolonialism, I suspect they'd be pretty offended that you think they don't deserve these values or rights that they want and hold dear, or these things are somehow not for them. As though you get to decide which values are appropriate for them - which is just another form of imperialism. Or, they'd just laugh at you."

* * *

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Hiking between monasteries in Debed Canyon

This is what it's like to argue with me. Vertiginous walls of response. At least, this is how I remember the conversation - there's always a chance that, recalled from deep memory, my mind has created a narrative in which I look way smarter and more 'victorious' than I actually was. I'm actually kind of a dope, to be honest, so take all of this with a healthy suspension of disbelief.

In any case, I've thought a lot about this conversation in the intervening months, and always circle back to two main problems with this very typical Western liberal narrative on Asia.

First is the notion that all of Asia can be lumped together in this idea of 'collectivist' culture, and that because of this (and a few other cliches, such as 'Confucianism' and 'face'), they are so different from us that there is no set of universal, fundamental values that apply to all of us. Therefore, according to this line of thinking, we can't say anything or even be upset when Asian countries turn authoritarian: it's "their culture" after all, and our concepts of "human rights" and "democracy", being inherently Western, can't be applied.

Of course, this assumes that Asia is a continent of flat, continent-wide, immutable values that are diametrically opposed to our own. It distills every difference and uniqueness across cultures, regions and even people down to "well they're Asian", which is just another form of the old reactionary rhetoric on Asia where everyone is a stingy liar in a conical hat. It's just cloaked in a thin film of being 'woke' by using words like 'collectivist' instead of, I dunno, 'sideways vagina'. If 'they're Asian', they can't be like us, and so all of those great things we want like rights and freedom clearly don't apply to them.

Take this further, and one can even justify China's expansionist rhetoric: "well, we wouldn't stand for that in the West but they're Asian and you know, they have a different concept of what it means to be Chinese, so it's not for us to say." Little or no thought given to the idea that China's annexation-happy dictatorship is just espousing yet another form of the old-timey ethnic nationalism that we already know doesn't work, and which is already in the process of being actively rejected by Taiwan in favor of civic nationalism and Taiwanese identity. Same bullshit, different continent. It's not special just because this time it's happening in Asia.

When you get to the end of that rabbit hole, what you end up doing is arguing for China's authoritarian rule and threatening rhetoric on Taiwan, or at best being a useful idiot for CCP propaganda. You end up arguing in favor of an expansionist threat taking over a friendly democracy, simply because you've applied a surface-level knowledge of the cultures of Asia to your understanding of a specific political situation. You've effectively argued that freedom, self-determination and human rights are non-negotiables for you, but not for other human beings.

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Three days of reading books in Dilijan

I understand the impulse to come at it from this direction: a lot of these ideas did originate in the West, so applying them globally feels like yet another iteration of forcing Western culture on non-Western contexts. It feels wrong to argue that something from your culture is inherently superior to the way things are done in other cultures, and there is a fear among many Western liberals of criticizing other cultures in any way - doing so might be construed as racism, as though the person arguing this has a problem with an entire culture or group of people rather than with a specific idea. It's just easier to be a relativist. But, I'd argue, it's also somewhat cowardly to not stand up for what's right, or even the concept that some values are universal, out of fear of looking like yet another whitey criticizing the way "foreigners" do things.

This sometimes morphs into an even stronger argument: that Western values simply don't belong in Asia, and any instance of them being espoused there must be the result of Western meddling because they don't suit a "collectivist" context. I don't even know where to begin refuting this - it's that nonsensical. It's about as nuts as thinking that slavery is not a fundamental concept that all people understand because of "different cultures".

However, this stems from a misconception that we are irreconcilably different from them. That our half of the world is round and varied - it has ethical topography - but theirs is flat: "Well...but...collectivism. Confucius! Face! That's all there is! It explains everything!" It was a part of what fueled the entire discredited 90s debate about "Asian-style democracy" - an invention of authoritarian governments (often ones in Asia) to justify remaining in power, not a legitimate interpretation of values. It also stems from a weird holdover of ethnic nationalism in the West: it's not so bad if China annexes Taiwan because after all they are all Chinese, aren't they? 

We wouldn't make that argument about our own countries, so how can we make it with a straight face about countries in Asia? By deciding what values are and are not appropriate in Asian contexts, are we not just performing yet another form of cultural imperialism, big brothering and white man's burden? Who are we to decide what people can and cannot think in Asia?

What's more, if someone argues that we cannot criticize what certain groups and governments do because we're Western and they're Asian, how is it that they can then talk about what the Taiwanese should and should not accept vis-a-vis China, or which values - "Western" or "Eastern" - they should espouse?

Asia is not flat: it is varied and complex. Within Taiwan, there are yet more layers of complexity. Between groups and people, yet more. Many more than you would think not only buy into these "Western" values, but came to believe in them of their own accord. It was not forced on them by us (if anything, we are to blame for supporting the dictatorship that the Taiwanese people overthrew).

Taiwan's destiny ought not to be determined by biology, but by what the Taiwanese want, no different from anyone in the West who strives for a representative government and basic human rights. They don't deserve these things any less than we do simply because we've decided to view "Asian" cultures in the same flat, monochromatic way.

Not only can we criticize authoritarianism in Asia without being racist or culturally imperialist, but I would argue that we must, based on certain universal values that can work just as well in Asia as they do in the West, because people there are no less deserving. It's the only way to firmly support a friend an ally like Taiwan. We don't need to go in and force people to change - that's ridiculous - but we do need to stand up for what is right.

Yes, there is a sense of "collectivism" in Asia that sets cultures there somewhat apart from our own, and yes, Confucianism has had an influence on cultures here. But you know what other things have had an influence? Daoism (or as I call it, the "yo guys just chill and be yo'selves" philosophy), political activism, political intellectualism, international travel, protests, education in both the Asian and Western traditions, occupations, marches, coffeeshop culture (which lends itself well to political discourse) and progressivism. Don't shunt those to the side in order to make Asia seem flatter and more 'exotic' than it really is. Don't turn it into one of those Star Trek or Star Wars planets where the entire planet is just one way - the Volcano Planet, the Desert Planet, the Planet of Half-Black-Half-White-People, whatever - with no variation. Engage with it as it is, and see exactly how many people have come to embrace the universal values of freedom, self-determination and human rights - on this "far away" continent. Support them.

I thought about all of this and more as we ate our last, quiet breakfast in Armenia before taking off in a shared car across the Georgian border. I am Armenian by heritage, and there are many in Armenia who, despite wanting Armenia to be considered a Western nation, hold "Old World" views. There are many other young Armenians who want something more modern and progressive and, to my mind, better. Taiwan is no different - despite being a non-Western country, there are values they hold that can be considered not only Western, but universal. It's time Western liberal embraced that, rather than pushing it away in favor of a "Confucian" othering and flattening of Asia.