Showing posts with label long_term_expat_life. Show all posts
Showing posts with label long_term_expat_life. Show all posts

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Updated post: English-speaking OB-GYN in Taipei

Just wanted you guys to know that I've updated my post on an English-speaking OB-GYN in Taipei, as my old clinic has closed and Dr. Wang seems to have stopped practicing (I suspect she retired). You can get information for Dr. Hsieh here - I've just edited the old post as the old information was no longer relevant.

If anyone else has other recommendations or experiences to share, feel free to comment or contact me personally (I'm pretty easy to find on Facebook). 

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Alliance for a Globally-Oriented Taiwan kicks off

If you're reading this at all, you're probably wondering what happened to me all month. Yeah, well, I'm wondering too. I've been doing a pre-Lunar New Year deep clean of our apartment as I'm not particularly busy with work. Also, the election's still got me down.

Not because my "team" "lost" (they didn't, really: the NPP is the closest thing I've got to a team I root for, and they performed better than anyone expected, including perhaps, quietly, the NPP themselves). People I don't like win elections all the time and I don't fret about it for two months.

No, what causes a sinking feeling in my heart every time I think about it is a far bigger problem: that, although it would be political suicide for the DPP to make a big deal out of it, interference from China was real, and terrifying. We can't prove how effective it was, but there sure seemed to be some effect, and if that's the case they will try it again. And again. And they very well may win. Yikes. I just...can't.

So, let's talk about something positive instead.

This past week, a group of 90-100 people, foreigners and Taiwanese, congregated in the Legislative Yuan to have a large-scale discussion meeting about how to implement the 'bilingual Taiwan' initiative (you might know it as 'English as a second official language', announced by former premier William Lai). Heading the meeting were legislators Karen Yu (余宛如) Rosalia Wu (吳思瑤)as well as National Development Council leadership, Professor Louis Chen of Global Brands Management Association, STARTBOARD and Crossroads.TW founder David Chang. The general attendees were a mix of teachers, school owners, recruiters, academics, NGO and nonprofit representatives, a few activists and some journalists.

One thing that was made clear was that the point is not to suddenly start forcing everyone to speak English, or spend their own money to go to cram school to study English, or to have all official documents in English and Mandarin (but not any other languages more native to or historically linked to Taiwan, such as indigenous languages or Taiwanese). The point is to develop Taiwan's international competitiveness by making it more accessible in English, and to increase the general public's familiarity with English, while potentially reforming the educational system to emphasize English proficiency. And over several decades, as that.

Put that way, it sounds quite reasonable.

The outcome of this meeting is the formation of the Alliance for a Globally-Oriented Taiwan, with more specific action items to be developed in the coming weeks. At minimum we're looking at advocacy, advisory status and policy proposals. While it has the potential to be another layer of talk, there's also the potential for it to be much more than that.

That two legislators and the NDC made sure the meeting took place, were there and paid attention to what foreigners were saying is already huge: I'm not sure it's ever happened before. For that reason alone it might have some real effect.

I won't spend too much time going over what was said by the leaders - that's been covered extensively in the Mandarin-language media and basically boiled down to "we're on your side", "we want to do this in a feasible way" and, of course, that the point isn't just to be bilingual, it's a push for greater internationalization.

Instead, I'll spend some time summarizing some of what came out of the contributors in the general audience.

Not everyone got a chance to speak (I did), but I was happy to hear that most opinions were dead-on (some I disagreed with mildly; there were just a few that I simply wasn't on board with). And yes, I do equate "dead on" with "I agreed with it", because in this particular field I will not hesitate to say that I know what I'm talking about.

There was a general agreement that we need to do a better job of teacher training in Taiwan, with ideas for this ranging from bringing in better-qualified teachers to building a teacher-training program in Taiwan from scratch. The latter is an idea I disagree with quite strongly: internationally-recognized and up-to-standard teaching certifications exist already, from teaching licenses/PGCE programs to CELTA/Trinity to Delta and various Master's programs. There's no need to build a program from scratch when...frankly, to mix metaphors, that wheel's already been invented.

The key is to make them more accessible in Taiwan. If you want to improve your teaching through formal training here, it's quite difficult: the government doesn't recognize programs like CELTA or Delta or any online programs; often for Master's programs (even reputable ones) there are residency requirements so a part-time student, even if they attend face-to-face, is going to have trouble. So we have to make these programs both available and recognized, potentially with a sponsorship program to make them affordable, too.

The owners of Reach To Teach, a reputable teacher recruiting company, pointed out that Taiwan has no program through which novice teachers can come here and work in schools (even as assistants), and the only way to work in a school in Taiwan is to come as a licensed teacher. Japan brings foreign teachers into public schools through JET by having them work as assistants as they are not qualified to actually teach; I'm not sure about Korea's EPIK program. What's more, in those countries novice teachers often earn more than trained teachers are offered in schools in Taiwan.

What everyone agreed on was that salaries in Taiwan being low for everyone, including locals, was going to make it hard to internationalize and attract foreign talent, and would not necessarily attract much local talent to English teaching, either. Before this can happen, pay prospects here simply have to get better.

Of course, as someone else pointed out, South Korea and Japan are not bilingual countries. Because, of course, countries where English is more widely spoken got that way through historical (typically colonial) means, but also because those countries routinely employ a large number of local teachers and don't rely on foreign ones.

That's really key, not only in terms of getting enough foreign teachers to do the job, but also cutting down a native speakerist view of English: that English is a White People thing, that White People go to Other Countries to teach Local People, who Learn It. But a country only becomes multilingual when locals are there making it happen. You can't import that kind of culture shift, nor should you.

(Obviously not every native speaker teacher is white, I'm talking about perceptions, not reality.)

There was a huge outpouring of angst, as well. That's not a criticism; I happen to agree with much of it. The notion that Taiwan needs to 'attract' more foreign talent bothered some, who pointed out quite rightly that many talented foreigners are already here, but can't get work outside of English teaching. Some stay and teach because it's all they can do; some leave because there's just no career future here and go to Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, back to their native countries or elsewhere.

There was also an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the lack of readable English information on Taiwanese websites, including government websites. If Taiwan is truly going to become an English-friendly country, at the bare minimum all government websites need to be translated completely into (good) English.

Quite a bit of dissatisfaction was expressed over Taiwan's horrifying national examination system (including from me). I pointed out that research consistently shows that elementary-school language teachers in Taiwan are happy to incorporate more modern teaching methods into their practice, but  junior and senior high school teachers aren't, and the big difference is that older learners need to be prepared for the massive battery of mostly-useless and actively harmful exams that they have to take. The teachers themselves have said this quite clearly. There is simply no way for a language education program that actually results in English language proficiency to exist side-by-side with those exams.

The issue, of course, is that parents and some teachers fight viciously against any attempt to change the system. The parents think that more accurate assessment is somehow 'less objective' (not realizing that the tests their children are taking now aren't even accurate or related to real-world language use, and take away so much learning time as to actually harm their overall achievement) and some teachers are afraid they'll lose their jobs if schools suddenly start doing things differently. We need to work with both groups to advocate for change and convince them that there's nothing to be afraid of.

And, as usual, immigration is a massive issue. Those of us who want to stay forever - the well-secured roots of an international Taiwan - are concerned with how difficult it still is to obtain dual nationality or even an employment Gold Card. As a friend of mine pointed out, his employer (Academia Sinica) interprets the dual nationality requirements as stated to mean "we'll do what we need to do to get your application through when you get tenure". Imagine having to be a tenured professor at Academia Sinica before you can even approach dual nationality as an educator! Making it easier to move here and work is important for new immigrants; dual nationality is a core concern of us long-termers. Without it, internationalization can't happen, as we'll always be outsiders.

The downside of the meeting is that a lot of the issues discussed - low pay, lack of career opportunities for foreigners etc - are not easily solvable by the government. Even if they were, there's an entire legislature to convince. Two progressive legislators and the NDC are a good start, but it's not the end. There's a lot to be done and simply "this doesn't work! We can't get good jobs!" isn't something that can be specifically targeted, especially when locals are also struggling in a slow-growth economy.

The upside is that, again, it's huge that the meeting happened at all. People in government are interested, and listening, and that's more than I could say even three years ago. (And for us foreigners, is a big reason to support the Tsai administration). That's something, and we need to turn it into something real.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

A new hair stylist recommendation in Taipei

In part because Lao Ren Cha's initial goal was to write about life as a female foreign resident in Taiwan, and in part because I just can't face another political post right now (it really hurts, you guys), I'd like to update my recommendations for where foreign women can get their hair done in Taipei.

I recently decided to switch stylists - my old stylist did a good job with my haircuts (at least once he stopped giving me short bangs), but I wanted to go in a new color direction and, frankly, a change in price points. Around NT$6000 seems reasonable to me for a cut and all-over permanent color with Olaplex, and that's usually about what I pay in US dollars or British pounds when I get it done abroad, if not slightly less (my last cut and color in the US was $170, in the UK I paid £125), so that was what I was looking to start paying.

So after gathering recommendations from friends, I went with Yves Yu Tsui (find her on Facebook as StarletLaDiva - she's very responsive to Facebook messages), who gave me this lovely, current style in my preferred length:



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I'd been looking for a color specifically that was bright, but not the very deep violet-toned red I'd been using. It had started to look fake in a bad way (I'd previously liked it because it was bright, and looked fake but in a cool, hip way, like I wasn't trying for natural hair). I wanted a more natural red with coppery, fiery undertones, but which also covered my encroaching gray. 

Yves gave me that - a red that hewed toward flame without being orangey - with a bit of base color to ensure the grays got covered. She also put Olaplex into the dye which lessened the time I had to spend in the chair and lowered the price point.

In the past, I'd often have to have my hair gone over twice with dye, because it wasn't left in long enough so it streaked, or was very obviously different on my roots (which I tend to let grow long, though that will have to stop now that I'm really graying because I'm ancient) than my pre-dyed hair. I knew that leaving it in longer helped create a more even color on my difficult hair, and wanted that to consistently be how it was done.

Yves was super great about it, and left the color in my hair almost up to the upper recommendation on the product. The result was that I only had to go through the dye process once, which was like a revelation!

Although it came out slightly darker than I'd wanted, I know hair color is not a perfect science. In any case, I appreciated that Yves warned me in advance that before the first wash it would be on the darker side because of the base color used to cover my gray, but it would turn into the color I wanted shortly. And it did!

I also appreciated that she did the whole thing herself. Generally I find stylists do listen to clients (I don't have a horror story to tell) but I have to say I felt especially listened to by Yves.

The whole thing took less than three hours (I was used to being at the salon longer, but had chalked it up to my difficult-to-dye hair; it turns out that it didn't have to be that way) and cost right around my price point - slightly less, if I remember correctly, which made me amenable to tipping. And the prices are set - there's no awkwardness around being charged more for "extremely long hair" (my hair is merely long, but I'd been charged for "extremely long hair" before) or what hair lengths mean exactly. The price is the price. I like that.

Yves also doesn't try to sell product at the end of the visit. I don't particularly mind being offered a product at the end as sometimes I do want or need them and saying 'no' doesn't make me uncomfortable, but I know a lot of people don't like it when stylists do that, so I figured I'd mention it.

Anyway, go to Yves. You won't regret it!

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

American voters in Taiwan (or anywhere overseas): be vigilant about your absentee ballots

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How is this undeliverable to the address on the label they themselves provided? 


There are a few good things to being American (y'know...a couple. One or two.) One of them is the ability to vote from overseas, so you don't have to fly back to your designated polling place or skip the election. Although there are good reasons why Taiwan doesn't have absentee voting (mostly that it would be a huge security risk in terms of China tampering with the votes of Taiwanese residing there through any number of means, but it's hard to make an argument to allow absentee voting for everyone but those residing in China), that means voting in Taiwanese elections means flying back. That, or don't vote.

I've realized in this past election, however, that one's absentee ballot is not nearly as guaranteed as it might seem. I had trouble myself, which is how I became aware that this was an issue.

I did an informal poll of American friends here in Taiwan, most of whom had no problems with their ballots in the last election, but those that did all had similar stories to tell. They were also far higher in number than I am comfortable with: about a quarter of the people I asked had trouble. That number should be in the single digits, or approaching zero.

So, what can go wrong with your absentee ballot?

My husband and another friend encountered a suspicious issue: Brendan's ballot mysteriously disappeared (he did something about that and emailed a new ballot, which was accepted, in time for the election). Just today he received his original posted ballot back, marked as "undeliverable", even though - and I cannot stress this enough - he used a label with the address that his own board of elections had provided. It was their envelope - how could it be undeliverable to their address? And the address on it was clear.

My friend also had a ballot returned as "undeliverable" despite, again, using the envelope that was provided by the very organization he was sending it to. There is just no good reason for this to be happening. He had a family member bring it in person to the election office, but that should have never been necessary.

My own ballot took far too long to arrive: I mailed it three weeks before the election, on October 17 (my state allows you to download and print your ballot, but not to email or fax it back) and only realized on election night that I could actually check the status online. I was dismayed to find that there was no record of it having been received. Mail from Taiwan is generally reliable and takes about a week, so I was understandably nervous.

I called the elections board that should have received my email, only to have it confirmed: there was no record of my ballot being received. As another rule my state has is that absentee votes need to be postmarked the day before the election, it was too late by then to send another ballot. I had no idea where it ended up, and no way to track it as it hadn't been sent by registered mail (because I truly didn't think it would get lost). Another Facebook friend had the same thing happen to him - same congressional district, coincidentally. Same Board of Elections.

The bigger issue for me wasn't that my vote in this election might not have counted - my choices for Congress and Senate won - but that I had never before thought to check the status of previous ballots. I had just assumed they'd been counted. I had to wonder: was my entire adult voting life a lie? Have I been a non-voter this whole time when I thought I was casting ballots?

My story has a happy ending too: the day after the election the system finally marked my ballot as received. However, that was not a foregone conclusion.

Even more worrisome? I was able to check the status of my absentee ballot as an overseas voter. Another friend who is absentee but domestic (same state, different district) had no way to check that her vote was received. She'll literally never know.

Of course there are also the issues with absentee votes simply not being counted - as we're seeing with the absolute fuckshittery (Brendan's word, credit where credit is due) going on in a few states, signature matching issues and voter roll purging (at least as an absentee voter you'll find out early if Republicans are trying to suppress your vote because you won't vote for their racist, sexist rich-people bullshit. And yes, I am saying one party is entirely responsible.) These issues are in addition to everything else going on.

It's quite worrisome that it's hard to know if one's vote is going to be counted. It's not something to be dismissed. People died for the right to vote; it's worth taking seriously. Civic engagement matters. A lot of the bullshit that gets passed goes through because otherwise good people don't vote. Because the youth - who frankly, tend to end up being right on classic liberal issues like marriage equality - don't turn out to vote in the same numbers. A lot of things could change if more people voted (including better candidates so we'd feel more empowered to vote for people we actually want in office).

So, what can you do about it?

1. Vote early. That gives you weeks or possibly even months to ensure that your vote is in and counted.

2. Drop off your ballot if possible. That might mean sending it (in a third envelope that holds the two required ones) to friends or family who can take it in personally, or bringing it to your embassy if that's possible (I know that's possible in the UK but don't know if it is in Taiwan. I'll check. Does anyone know?)

3.) Keep tabs on your vote. Don't do what I do and blindly assume it will be received because the mail is reliable. Wait a week then check the status every few days. If the election is getting close and your vote still has not been received, send another through more secure means.

4.) Spend some money. By this I mean, send it registered mail (which I've been told doesn't actually do anything, but so far everything I've ever sent this way has been received) or, if you want to be really sure, send it by Fed Ex or some other guaranteed service where someone must sign for it. I hate this, because it amounts to a poll tax for ensuring that your vote is received, with no other way to be absolutely sure that something you send will get there. But, it is a way to make sure you do vote.

5.) Don't vote for dagweeds! Seriously, don't vote for authoritarian dipclowns who want to do things like cut important government funding ("we want less government" often translates into cutting funding for things like making sure elections run smoothly, updating voting machines/procedures/etc. and hiring enough poll workers.) Don't vote for buttparrots who say we shouldn't count every vote because "they're probably fake anyway". Don't vote for turdburglars who try to close polling locations, purge voter rolls in suspicious ways and don't seem to think it's important that voting machines run out of batteries, aren't set up (as in, they're found locked in a closet later, never having been used) or have confusing user interfaces that cause people to mess up their votes, or which may be insecure. Don't vote for people who try to convince you that voter fraud is a prevalent issue, when it's actually extremely rare. SERIOUSLY STOP VOTING FOR THESE PEOPLE. JESUS H.Q. CHRIST. IF YOU DO THINGS WILL ONLY GET WORSE. And I would say that even if the people doing it were on "my" side - though, to my knowledge, no one on "my" side is engaging in this crap.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

A short post about sad tidings

As anyone who reads about Taiwan knows by now, The View From Taiwan is done. As Donovan Smith noted, the loss is huge. I didn't always agree with the View's views, but more often than not I did, or at least respected the arguments behind them. As official news sources failed to consistently report well on what goes on in Taiwan, The View From Taiwan had become one of the smartest things to read in English to keep up on current affairs. I learned a lot about Taiwan from that blog, including the three most important lessons on advocating for Taiwan that I needed:

First, that the way Taiwanese history and current affairs are narrated, both from the international press and local sources (whether they are KMT Chinese chauvinists or Hoklo ethnic chauvinists), leaves a lot to be desired and almost never, ever tells the whole, accurate story. Don't look at what they say; look at the language they use to say it. Point it out. Especially if it has anything to do with "tensions".

Second, that half the fight for Taiwan on the international stage is about representing Taiwan well. International spectators aren't very good at paying attention to the details of local embroilments and messes, and when they do notice, they aren't very good at incorporating them into an overall arc of right vs. wrong. Don't air our dirty laundry for the world to see when it isn't necessary, when all the rest of the world really cares about is good guys vs. bad guys. Make the case that we are the good guys, not that we can't get our act together (even if, here in Taiwan, we're frustrated that we seemingly can't.) We're David (as in vs. Goliath), not Cletus (as in the slack-jawed yokel). The View From Taiwan has probably been the biggest influencer in what turned me from a Taiwan advocate who was uncompromising even if it made Taiwan look bad abroad, to a Taiwan advocate who understood that our top priority is to get the world on our side.

And third, if you're going to make a hard statement on something, know your facts first. You might still get it wrong - it happens - but make an honest effort to do your research. If you are not intimately aware of the inner workings of something, don't write about it as if you are. Thanks to seeing the background that went into posts on The View From Taiwan, I probably do an hour or so of research for every hard statement I make here. I don't always get it right regardless, but it was that blog that made this blog less a "shouty lady with opinions bloviating in a corner" (though I am that) and more a "shouty lady with opinions who did her homework before bloviating in a corner".

Oh yeah, and blog under your own name. No hiding. Put your own skin in the game, even if just a little.

All in all, it is not an exaggeration to say that without The View From Taiwan, Lao Ren Cha would not exist in the form it does today.

So, you know, thank you for that. *sniff*

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Of peanuts and monkeys

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This is perhaps the third time I've written about this in a week, but I just have more to say.

I've been thinking about a few issues I'd like to [try to] tie together: reactions to my post about how long-termers in Taiwan aren't here for the money but are aware they're being undervalued, the general state of English-language media in Taiwan, and English as a second official language in Taiwan.

When I wrote about long-termers and low pay here, most reactions were supportive. The negative ones landed into two groups: those who think NT$66,000/month is fair, or even good, pay for a job that requires several years' experience, high level skills and (unfairly) a Master's from abroad, and those who said the pay wasn't important because the job would be good for someone who would be in Taiwan for a few years and would likely just want to beef up their resume.

So, let me toss some word salad about why both groups are wrong before I move on.

In terms of fair pay, the fact that pay is too low in pretty much every other sector doesn't make $66k for this sort of job acceptable. If you can make just as much money (or more) as a Dancing English Clown at a cram school, a job that requires no qualifications, experience, education, training, professional development, skills, talent, work ethic or consistent sobriety, why would you seek to improve yourself so that you might qualify for a higher-level job, especially one that states right in the ad that you'll be doing consistent overtime in a stressful environment?

And why would you want to take all of that education, experience and skill to make just about enough money to drink at Bar 7 and live in a shared flat or rooftop cesspit with paper walls, if you have any hope of saving meaningfully? Because after you pay your student loans on that foreign Master's degree and save NT$30k each month, that's about what you can afford, if you have no dependents. If you've gotten a postgraduate degree, learned Mandarin and acquired translation skills and experience, you are probably not 24 anymore, and would rather live like an adult.

Others say that this job is aimed at young Taiwanese Americans spending some time here but not planning to stay, or for those looking for a springboard to gain experience. This also misses the point: first, this isn't a newbie job. This could have been an excellent post for an early-mid-career bilingual professional writer, editor or translator, who might well have stayed on for years improving not only their own work, but elevating the English-language output of MoFA as a whole. It could have been a boon to both some lucky long-termer and to MoFA, who would get excellent work in turn.

That is, if it had been positioned that way: as a good but demanding job with a great salary, rather than as a short-term lark for an ABC kid with a Master's who's in Taiwan.

This whole idea of getting some experience in Taiwan and then leaving actually bothers me quite a bit: there are those of us who wish to stay, and as I've written three times now, we try to contribute and give back to Taiwan in gratitude for what Taiwan has given us. Although I won't spend paragraphs bashing them, I have less respect for those who come, take what they can get from Taiwan, and then leave. It strikes me as a little selfish. I have a more profound appreciation for those who want a fair shake from Taiwan, but also want to give back to this country in a sustained way. And yet, one of those grab-and-go types will probably get this job. MoFA will have a revolving door of people who never really develop themselves and get merely passable work, and Taiwan won't benefit.

Which leads to my next point - if the national government is serious about sweeping initiatives like making English a second official language in Taiwan, it's going to have to shake up its whole attitude toward a lot of things. It can't have a MoFA attitude towards English education, asking for everything and offering nothing.

The government needs to think about employing the right people (which it can attract with the right offers), taking seriously the idea that teaching, writing, editing and translating in English are professional careers that people do over a lifetime and seeking out those people, and basically getting quality by paying for quality in terms of remuneration, benefits and work environment. There are those of us who want to stay, who can do good work, but who aren't going to be attracted by what's currently on offer. We're here and we don't want to go anywhere - if the government is serious about bilingualism, internationalism and multiculturalism, it needs to provide more enticing reasons to stay, and stop creating jobs aimed at grab-and-goers.

And it needs to take those people seriously when they point out the flaws in the status quo vis-a-vis English education in Taiwan: from a poorly-regulated cram school industry to, as a friend pointed out, the fact that students who only learn English in public schools generally don't come out having learned any English, to the way the exam system, through extreme negative washback, hinders the whole process. It needs to hire people who can then develop something better, and that's where long-termers looking to contribute to Taiwan come in. We - not just me, I'm nobody, but we - can actually do this alongside and in support roles to talented, passionate and qualified locals, but only if the will is there. We can't take a grab-and-go attitude.

This isn't true only for the government, but for the education system as a whole: from buxibans to universities, if you want talented educators who can actually help Taiwan achieve English as a second language, you need to not only give those who are already working toward this end a better environment in which to succeed, but to offer jobs that entice talented professionals, not a revolving door of Chads and Braydens who aren't implementing even so-so curricula well, and will go back to Idaho in a few years anyway without seriously considering whether they actually contributed to Taiwan.

Oh yeah, and if you are serious about multiculturalism, how about treating the many Southeast Asians who come here for work with a little more kindness and respect? Even just better working conditions and pay, not being all racist towards them, and not raping or enslaving them would be a good start.

This bleeds over into English-language media as well. Why is Taiwan News, which is essentially a gossip rag peddling the same sensationalist articles translated over from Chinese-language gossip rags, now the most recognized English "news" source in Taiwan? How'd we hit the bottom of that barrel?

Because there aren't very many jobs for talented journalists in Taiwan, either. By all accounts, the Taipei Times made a go of it once, but are now so under-resourced that even if there were talk of updating its website and media strategy for the 2010s and beyond, the resources just aren't there to make it happen. It was (is?) the English-language paper that both the expats and the Taiwan advocate Beltway crowd read, and probably never would have been a huge money-maker given its smallish target audience, but it could have sopped up the market that Taiwan News is currently engaging.

Great people have worked at the Taipei Times - and some have even worked at the China Post (believe it or not) - but they all leave. Few people build a career and stick with it, because the jobs on offer just aren't that great. We all know about the one guy who wrote a whole book on it (though you'll need a nacho bowl for all the shoulder-chips it comes with), but I've heard this from many sources. Low pay, long hours, hardly any time off (typical Taiwanese annual leave, which means not much at all), difficult environment. No wonder the best journalists they hire, if they can attract them, cut their teeth and then leave. The state of English-language news reporting suffers for it.

A friend pointed out that this has real-world consequences: she was talking about racism in Taiwanese society specifically towards Black foreigners (which is absolutely a thing), but it also has international consequences. If Taiwan News is the best we can are willing to do, and Taipei Times is offering peanuts and putting out thin content, what news about Taiwan from local sources is reaching the pro-Taiwan influencers abroad? What effect does this have on Taiwan advocacy internationally? What effect does it have on reporting on Taiwan from outside sources? Would that improve - because the state of it is pretty damn bad - if local news put out better, thicker, more compelling stories in English (and Chinese, but this post is about the foreign community)?

Could they perhaps accomplish that if they offered better jobs to committed long-termers looking to make a difference?

The long-termers will stick around - most of us, anyway.  We'll continue to fight for Taiwan in whatever way we can, and carve out niches for ourselves. I do the work I do (I have no single employer, by design) because I can get some satisfaction that way, and make sufficient money. If Taiwan wants us to come out of our little self-carved niches and join the fight for real, there have to be opportunities for us to build real careers in important and useful places, which offer adult remuneration and conditions for real skills.

If Taiwan engages the long-termers who are looking to contribute more meaningfully (and the locals too), the country will be better for it. Media, education, the government.

But if this work continues to toss peanuts our way, we aren't going to pick them up.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

And everyone who knows us knows...we didn't come for money

I promised I'd eventually pick up where I left off here, so...

Last month I came across this job posting with MoFA (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) through the Facebook group of Nihao's It Going (and for those wondering why there is no Lao Ren Cha Facebook group, the answer is that I am old and lazy.)



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No link because the ad is no longer online. That probably means someone took the job, or they'd have extended the posting dates. It's too much to hope for that MoFA realized how embarrassing that salary offer was and immediately, contritely took the ad down until they could come up with a better offer.

My mouth was agape at the requirement of a Master's obtained outside Taiwan (the hell?), so let's briefly take a look at that. What the hell is going on that the Taiwanese government is announcing openly that Master's degrees obtained in Taiwan are substandard? (I suspect for some subjects, at some universities, they are - but even so, for the government to be openly acknowledging this is horrifying).

Then, look at the salary: NT$66,000/month. And look at what they want for that.


That's...about US$2200/month - enough to live comfortably in Taiwan if you are single or a dual-income couple, but not enough to raise a family. Enough to get by and save a little for some nice vacations, but not enough to save meaningfully for any long-term goals. In 2006, if Kojen (a large buxiban chain) put you - probably a teacher lacking most of this list of qualifications - on a salaried rather than hourly rate, it was NT$60k - not a lot less than this offer, and 12 years ago at that.

Even sadder is that they seem to have enough applications to justify taking the post down from people willing to accept that pay. 

In short, it's a joke. So between bouts of laughter, I've been thinking a lot about why I stay - why any foreign talent stays, when the pay is just this damn bad. More importantly, I've been thinking about that means in terms of the greater conversation about brain drain and attracting (and retaining) foreign talent in Taiwan. Or, for that matter, local talent.

Why some people stay anyway is an easy question to answer: for me, it's a combination. My social life is very much here now. I love my friends back in the US, but there is no denying we've grown apart somewhat (this is less of a problem with friends in the UK). Not only do I find it hard to explain what my life is actually like in Taiwan to friends who have never visited.

Beyond that, I simply care about the country. Assuming I wouldn't move back to the US (and I wouldn't, unless I felt I had to), and assuming learning a new language isn't a problem (and it probably wouldn't be - I'm good at that), I find it hard to imagine coming to care about another place as much as I do Taiwan. Korea, Japan and Hong Kong are interesting - as are many places farther afield and outside Asia - but am I really going to start passionately fighting for the concept of Korean identity, or Japanese democracy or discussing Argentinian history in the detail I do about Taiwan? Am I going to start collecting and reading books about Jordan? Probably not.

Leaving aside the mostly-hideous architecture and other endemic, intractable problems here, there's something special about the place. A spark that caught my eye. A streak of rebelliousness that chimes a matching tone to something within me. A real fight, for freedom against oppression, for democracy against dictatorship, for right (if flawed) against absolutely wrong.

I've also come to learn about myself that even if I cannot vote, I must live in a free society, and one where women's issues have at least reached the level of discourse they have in Taiwan. That cuts out more than half the world, including much of the rest of Asia. China is a no-go, so is Vietnam. Hong Kong isn't quite free. Japan and South Korea have bigger issues with sexism than Taiwan.

And it's convenient - I think there's a law somewhere requiring that I say that. Sure. And I really do prefer living in the developed world, and in a place with a first-rate public transit network.

Oh yeah and all my stuff's here and my cats and all that. Sure.

Point is, if all I cared about was money, there are a lot of places I could go, and make lots more of it. Obviously, other priorities keep me here. 


Other people have other reasons - perhaps their job is more tied to Taiwan, whereas I could find better work if I were willing to leave. Perhaps they've married locally, or are a specialist in local politics or history (things I am personally interested in, but am not a credentialed expert in), or have invested their whole lives in learning Mandarin or Taiwanese.

There are a million reasons why we accept low pay and generally poor working conditions, from the grounded (say, married locally) or conceptual (caring about Taiwan as a cause worth fighting for).

I'm not trying to defend the offering of NT$66,000/month to someone who would earn three times that, or more, elsewhere. I'm not saying that Taiwan is attractive to foreign talent despite being a place where, in many cases, your career can only go so far. In my own life, I'm grateful for the career boost Taiwan has given me, but I also see the end of the road: the point where I could go further in life (and make a lot more money, and eventually earn citizenship) if I were willing to leave. That hasn't changed.

And if Taiwan really wants to attract foreign expertise, they are simply going to have to offer a better, and better-remunerated, work culture. Period. So who cares why we stay?

Mainly, it matters because it breaks down this myth that talent always, in every instance, follows money. It's one thing to say that Taiwan needs to be more attractive to foreign talent. It's quite another to imply the flip-side of that, as some do: that everyone who is talented therefore leaves, or goes elsewhere to begin with, and those who come and stay must therefore not be desirable talent.

Whether we're talking about locals or foreigners, this is simply not fair. If some of us have other reasons why we stay, it follows that at least some of those who remain will have the talent and expertise Taiwan needs, and we deserve better than to be dismissed as losers for sticking around. I know people among my friends and connections here who are: long-termers a deeply committed teacher of children; a generous friend who gives up heaps of personal time to volunteer in underprivileged communities; several formidable scholars and journalists who, in the face of a low-quality media environment, ensure that information about Taiwan is available in a variety of languages; talented teachers of adults who have the training and experience to remake what it means to learn; public figures who bring like-minded expats together; a migrant rights activist; several writers and artists; several LGBT rights activists and more. So many more. Forget me, I'm just a weirdo with opinions - look at the whole picture. 

And yes, there are losers too, and leeches, but we're not all LBHs (Losers Back Home) who can't leave because nowhere else will put up with our bullshit, just because we haven't chased the dollar signs to some other country. We all have our reasons for staying.

Again, so what?

Well, not all of these examples of the creativity, experience and expertise that we bring to Taiwan fit into the little pegs set out by the government. We have a lot to offer, but because we're not necessarily the kind of 'foreign experts' who do chase dollar signs, we don't always meet the qualifications to be considered a 'foreign expert'.

Becoming a 'foreign expert' costs money, especially if you have already built a life in Taiwan, and suddenly find you need to relocate abroad to gain the qualifications you need (hence my problem with the "Master's degree from a university not located in Taiwan" in that ad, although I am obtaining exactly that. Not sure how I'll afford the PhD though, with an entire life that I can't just give up in Taiwan.) Those of us who have other reasons for staying and don't just chase money...tend not to have huge amounts of it.

The way the discussion about immigration and dual nationality rights is going now, it seems most of the Taiwanese government thinks we're all worthless slobs when what they want to attract is "real" expertise, not the slothful degenerates they imagine us to be, showing up to 550/hour classes at Happy Eagle English Scholar's Acadamy still drunk on Taiwan Beer. 

It dismisses those of us who came to Taiwan as nothing and built something, even if we didn't quite build it to the exact specifications set out for 'special' foreign professionals. It completely ignores the ways in which we've looked to give back, and the ways we - the ones who stay despite the crap work culture and crappier pay - are the real soft power.

I know it's a bit odd to say "we're not here for the money" alongside "...but really, we need more money". It's true, though. We stay for other reasons, but things absolutely have to get better, or we may start losing the good people who stayed on regardless.  Those of us who have good but not 'special professional' situations won't move into these more prestigious jobs if the pay is so paltry. 


We deserve better pay and work conditions, just as locals do (and I acknowledge locals need it more). But those who have made something of ourselves here also deserve to be recognized as the people who stayed even when we could have gone elsewhere and earned a lot more, and what that means in terms of the value we add to Taiwan.

Monday, August 20, 2018

We are the soft power (Part 1)

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Awhile back, I attended one of the Urban Nomad Film Festival screenings of Metal Politics Taiwan (read my review of it here) - a documentary chronicling the first year in office of black metal frontman, super hunk and then-newly-elected legislator Freddy Lim. At the end of the screening, Lim graciously participated in a Q&A session, where I had the honor of asking the last question.

I didn't blog about this until now, because the recording wasn't available. Now it is - you can watch it here (Freddy's reply is in Chinese).

I...um, haven't watched it. Why? I absolutely hate the way I look and sound on video (though I tend not to mind photos of myself) and just don't really want to watch myself. Anyway, I know what was said, I know how Freddy replied, and I don't need to watch it again.

If you don't want to watch the video (and please feel free to skip footage of me, jeez), basically I asked a two-part question: first, I asked for his opinion on the notion that Taiwan's soft power initiatives have actually failed (considering that soft power had been discussed at length in the previous questions, in a more optimistic way). There are non-Palestinians who care about Palestine, and non-Tibetans who care about Tibet, but there are very few non-Taiwanese who care about Taiwan. We haven't been reaching the audiences we need to reach to bring the case for Taiwan to the international community.

Then, I asked about immigration (the question he answered first), noting that one of the key drivers of Taiwan's soft power are the foreigners who have made Taiwan their home, and most of them are not the "special professionals" who now qualify for dual nationality. They're the ones like me, who come as nobodies, maybe teach English for awhile, but the best of whom eventually find their groove and find ways to contribute to Taiwan as well as discuss Taiwan (and its message - that it is a vibrant democracy on the front line of the fight between freedom and authoritarianism) with loved ones in our places of origin. Yet we don't qualify to be dual nationals - we aren't special enough. That there are people who worked on Metal Politics Taiwan who are some of the key drivers of Taiwan's soft power abroad, who want to be Taiwanese citizens, who don't qualify. It's not the foreign engineers and the missionaries who are spreading Taiwan's message, it's the people like us, yet we're just...not special enough. So...what's up with that?

What I really wanted to add (in italics because I didn't say it) was that only supporting people who come to Taiwan fully formed in their careers and life paths to become dual nationals is not a good economic or soft power strategy for Taiwan. Salaries, opportunities and working conditions/culture in Taiwan are not appealing enough to attract enough of such people to have an impact on the country.

What's more, when they do come, they're more likely to have been sent here by employers (rather than actively choosing Taiwan). This means they're both more likely to leave within a few years, and live in an expat bubble rather than seek to get to know and contribute to Taiwan. They probably aren't going to spend their time spreading Taiwan's soft power message. We are - the real drivers here are those who may be searching for what they ultimately want to do, and choose to spend part of that search in Taiwan. The best among us come to love Taiwan, we learn about it, we seek to understand and contribute - and we do. We decide to go to back to school, to enter a profession, to open a business, to be activists. We grow and mature. Often, we stay - some permanently.

When we visit our countries of origin, we tell our stories. We're the ones who convince friends and family abroad that Taiwan matters. We became who we are in Taiwan, and we remember that and pay it back.

We - moreso than the "special professionals" - are the real soft power. So when the government supports them, but not us, they are ignoring the true contributors to Taiwan. The government seems to have identified which kinds of immigrants it wants - I say the government is wrong.


Freddy started out by answering my second question, saying that he was aware that there are a lot of foreigners in Taiwan who want more rights, but he had to be honest that this had been discussed in the Legislative Yuan, yet the debate had been quite conservative - that it's not that people hate the foreigners who are here, or hate Southeast Asians but think white people are OK - but that it's really hard to push Taiwan to change into this sort of society (where we might assimilate more) due to continued government conservatism. The government might still think some of us are drug traffickers, liars, criminals - whether we're white or Southeast Asian. He admitted that was a strange way of thinking, but that's what a lot of people still think. Yet, there's a chance things could change quickly. Five years ago, nobody expected LGBTQ rights would be the major social issue in Taiwan that it is now, and he has great hope for the young generation who don't think as conservatively as those in power now.

I had a little more trouble understanding his answer to the first query, and I'm not sure he fully remembered what I'd asked - he answered it as though I had talked about how other democratic countries would care about Taiwan because they support us as a fellow democracy, and that things didn't quite work that way. I didn't reference international students, doing business etc., so the answer also felt a bit canned. As I don't feel he really addressed the question about soft power that I did ask, I may try to parse his answer in a subsequent post, but I'll leave this here for now.

This ties into something I've been thinking for awhile - that while it is important to raise salaries and improve job opportunities for both locals and foreigners in Taiwan (though I'd say the local situation is quite a bit more severe and needs far more immediate action), that most of us foreigners who do stick around and try to contribute - those who come here young and dumb and perhaps study Mandarin or teach English in some third-rate buxiban for a time before finding our way to something better - aren't just here for money. If that's all we cared about, we'd be in some other country (more or less any other developed country).

But that's for the next post...

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Yes, it is weird when strangers randomly invite you to things.

This shouldn't be necessary, but I feel the need to put out a gentle reminder:

If some perfect stranger approaches you on the street and invites you to something without knowing you at all, yes, that is an unusual thing to do and you should treat it as such.

Every few months or years, reports of this or that organization (there's more than one, with more than one intention) trying to recruit people through random street approaches start cropping up. It's a problem around the world but seems to me to be particularly bad in Taiwan, especially in Taipei (but that could be because I don't know other cities as well.)

No, the rules are not different because you're in Taiwan - if you're new here, Taipei is a normal city full of normal people who don't approach total randos to see if they want to attend some event. They have their own lives and their own stuff going on, and don't live to just befriend totally new people they know nothing about. That's not a thing anywhere. You wouldn't do it in the country you come from, so don't do it here.

If you would do it in the country you come from, good luck to you, but I'd advise against it.

And no, this isn't a thing that happens because the Western community in Taiwan is small. There are friendly fellow foreign residents who, if they meet you under normal circumstances, will be happy to make a new friend and show you how things work here. But they do not approach you out of nowhere on the street and they don't just happen to have fliers for whatever it is they want you to attend. They carry those on purpose, to find people and get them in the door. It is intentional - they are not new friends you made because of some happy accident of timing. They aren't just super nice people who keep their eye out for Westerners who seem new to help them out. Of course they seem nice. Of course whatever they are inviting you to seems cool, or just a chance to make new friends. Of course they seem really empathetic, perhaps to the fact that you're new here and don't know many people yet. That's the point. It wouldn't work if it didn't seem like a great opportunity.

It could be some "direct marketing" scheme, it could be some religious or spiritual thing, it could be whatever. It doesn't matter. It's no less unusual to approach strangers here than anywhere else. Same for parties and other gatherings. Normal people get to know someone first: if the purpose of the interaction seems to specifically be to invite you somewhere or show you some new product, and not to get to know you as a person, that's a sign. Heed it.

If it's a marketing/sales thing, then no, it's not an amazing new product. No, the way people sell things isn't any different here than anywhere else.

If it's "free lessons" - guitar, English, Mandarin, whatever - but the person inviting you doesn't know you, no, that's not how you get music or yoga or Chinese lessons. They're probably at a church or temple.

If they are nice white guys on bicycles wearing ties, no, nice white people who want to be your friend won't stop you at a traffic light, that's weird. They want you to join their religion, not to be their friend with no strings attached.

And if it's a religious/spiritual thing, no, it's not because you're in the "East" or whatever and so people are, like, so totally more spiritual here and they want to share that which is why they are so nice.

That's not a thing and it never has been. If you're into Dao or Buddhist philosophy, good for you. Enjoy! Even so, people who share your interest in these things, yet are normal people with normal lives, still don't just randomly go around inviting strangers to things.

Please keep that in mind.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

I'm in this month's Centered on Taipei!

The March 2018 issue of Centered on Taipei is the "women's issue" - I wrote a piece about shuttling between multiple identities as a foreign woman in Taiwan - likening it to being a human version of a Newton's Cradle which you can read on page 32.

To read the magazine, click on the cover photo in the link.


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Expat men don't hold other expat men accountable.

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I had a dream last night that I was allowed to run for office in Taiwan.
My district was an amusement park where there seemed to be eternal night. I ran on a pro-marriage-equality, pro-immigration, pro-womens-rights platform (to get the NHI to cover birth control mostly).
My opposition published a "scientific" graph titled "How obnoxious Jenna Lynn Cody is" where the x-axis was time and the y-axis was "obnoxiousness quotient". It had several lines on it including "loves gays", "hates traditional Chinese culture" and one mysteriously called "Jenna Lynn Cody is such a fucking bitch who hates men". Of course, all the lines showed an upward trajectory.


Below it was a low-quality meme with words on it that said "Jenna Lynn Cody's obnoxiousness has grown by #13.5!" (with the hashtag).

So I'm standing in this dark amusement park with all of these 老兵 (retired soldiers) looking at this glossy leaflet with this graph on it, and everyone is looking at me, and I say "if these are the people calling me names, I take it as a compliment."

And the 老兵 went "boo!" and some people on the ferris wheel went "yay!" and I woke up.

It struck me as I struggled awake that it no longer seems totally bonkers for a political faction to publish "data" like that with a straight face.


* * *


I'll let you draw your own conclusions regarding connections between my dream above and my point below.


Well, it's been a couple of weeks since someone was a garbage can to me online - that is, a man insulting me as a woman in ways that men specifically insult women - but I see it happening to my friends too.


By friends of friends. That is, other expat* women in Taiwan being treated like crap by expat men in Taiwan that we might not like, and certainly don't spend time with in real life, but with whom we share many mutual friends - most of them male. I don't see it all the time, as I've blocked the worst offenders. This is itself a problem, as I can't support other women being treated like dirt if I can't see it happening.


So I get ridiculous insults thrown at me, or other women get insults thrown at them (often out of the blue, completely unrelated to whatever was posted/said, or often diving straight to a set of unfair assumptions without thinking). It goes without saying that the woman being treated this way is absolutely capable of handling herself, and doesn't need a man to "step in" and "defend" her like a victim or wilting flower. None of these women are shrinking lilies in need of protection.


And yet, when nobody comes in to voice their support and hold the men accountable, women get ganged up on, and to some people, that starts to look like proof that the harassers are right and the woman is wrong. It doesn't help that, as capable of defending herself as every one of these women is, it doesn't mean much when the men in question simply don't respect anything that woman - or often, any woman - says.


It's happened to me for sure, so I know how that dynamic works.

So far, it's only been verbal in my case, but sometimes real physical assault is involved. 


When the women have often blocked these men, and the other men stay silent, that's how it always seems to go down.


Days later (or even sometimes on the same day), I see those same men who are being total garbage cans to women engaging with my male friends online - good men, all - and being treated normally. Complimented, joked with, thanked for offers of help, being engaged in plans to meet, treated as though nothing just happened, or has been happening. They quite literally get a free pass after being asshats to these guys' female friends.


I have, at times, brought this up to more than one male friend - this is by no means an isolated phenomenon - and gotten replies like "Really....him?" "But he's actually a really nice guy." "Yeah, that's how he is, but if I step in..." "It's not for me to say..."


Nothing ever changes. There are no real consequences. The expat men who treat women - mostly expat women, they seem to be nicer to Taiwanese women - like garbage get to continue, with no loss of friends, no diminishment of their reputation, no falling in standing in the expat community.


I want to add here that this doesn't describe all of my male friends, and it doesn't describe anybody all of the time. Some of them will hold men they don't know in person accountable, but not ones they do - perhaps it's a bridge too far to jeopardize a chummy in-person relationship. Some don't fall into this category at all, and really try their best to be great allies.


I don't want to insist that the expat men of Taiwan have to treat other expat men exactly as I would like them to, or that they are immediately beholden to cutting out of their lives anyone who has pissed me or another woman off. That's not reasonable, in the same way that it's never okay to ask your friends to choose between you and someone you hate.


It's especially difficult to ask for in such a small community - everybody knows everybody, or has mutual friends. Frankly, if I meet an expat and we share no mutual friends at all, it sets off a red flag. Even if you live a mostly local life, if you're an expat you're an expat - there is a real social cost to holding shitty people accountable when those same shitty people may be at the bar that weekend, or the event next weekend, or the party the weekend after that, or your future coworker, or whatever. It's a tough situation because in such a village-like atmosphere there's no real escape (and I'm not a fan of villagers-with-torches-and-pitchforks style justice, anyway).


This is also why it's more noticeable here. It happens where I come from too, all the time, but it's easier to avoid - if I can't deal with a toxic man in one friend group in the US, I could always take some time away and spend more time with another friend group who wouldn't know him at all. Here, everyone knows everyone, and there is no "I don't know that guy" group.


But I would like to see some accountability. Maybe a bit more "dude we're friends so I'm going to be honest - you just treated ______ like crap and that's not okay. Do better." Or not saying "you're so great / you're so cool / you're the best" while a bunch of us are sitting here thinking "no, he's not that great, he literally just went off on ___________ for no reason."


What happens, though, is that there are no real consequences for these men, who then think their behavior is acceptable (again, making it look quite unfairly as though it is the women's fault, not theirs), and everyone but the women gets to go on enjoying a smooth and happy social life. Whereas the women might think, "ugh, do I really want to go out tonight? He might be there, and nobody will have my back. I might even be pressured to be nice to him." So there's no social downside to being a crap dude who's crap to women, but plenty of social downsides for being a woman who doesn't want to deal with being treated that way (and has no intention of  pretending there's nothing wrong or not causing a fuss). 


We'll probably still go, but it creates a whole host of social tripwires, a whole chessboard of thinking "____ is a friend but he doesn't really have my back and do I really want to deal with that right now"...so that the only consequences are borne by the women. 


I'm not sure what else to say, or how to meaningfully address this problem. I can't force people to act the way I want them to. All I can do is point out that there absolutely is a problem.



*I'm using "expat" loosely here. Some of us are expats, others immigrants, but I don't know what everyone's end game is: whether they'll stay in Taiwan forever or eventually move away. I am referring to the community that includes foreign professionals and some students, and their circles.

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.