Showing posts with label musings. Show all posts
Showing posts with label musings. Show all posts

Monday, February 12, 2018

Lurid Pink Pomegranates

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My haul from the 2018 Taipei International Book Exhibition


Just so you know, this story has very little to do with Taiwan, though it comes around in the end. 


I started taking a greater interest in my parents' bookshelves in high school. They were voracious readers and book collectors, and had some fine and rare editions, but also quite a collection of paperbacks from the 70s that browned by half a shade every year. You could have measured my age by their wear and coloring.

Bored with homework - I never really did it, it just didn't seem necessary - I idly picked up a dusty copy of Madame Bovary one afternoon and slid right into a world of century-old female dissolution.

Two things were true then. The first was that I was a broad-shouldered, wide-hipped teenage girl: not fat (then), but certainly not lissome. You could tell I was either going to grow up to be strong and intimidating, or soft and...not. (I like to think I ended up being soft and intimidating, personally). I wasn't pretty, but I was outspoken, nerdy and weird. Sort of like now, but less refined in how I channeled that energy.

The second was that I obviously knew what sex was. I'd read quite a few dime-a-dozen romance novels just for fun. The ones from the library one town over, of a slightly higher caliber (better sex) than the ones that cost $1.99 at the supermarket. But, especially as you'll be shocked to hear that I didn't exactly have a parade of boyfriends in high school, I knew nothing of sexual politics - who and what society calls degenerate and why, gender-based power and subjugation, all of it - or sex and the human condition.

What I mean is, big girls from small towns tend not to know a lot about the world.

As you can imagine, I drank the sweet, sexy French corruption of Madame Bovary as I emerged from the worst trials of the gauntlet of puberty the way a small-town athlete slugs Coke after a match.

Soon after I began reading, at school we were tasked with an open book report: find a book we'd like to read - any book - and write about our impressions of it. I was already reading Madame Bovary, so I decided I may as well write about it. My English teacher didn't object, but he did call my parents. A small high school in a small, almost entirely Catholic town? She wants to read a book that doesn't exactly scream Family Values? Best to check.

I was in the room when Mom took the call. "Yes, we know. She's already reading it. Yes, of course she can. She can! She got it from us!... Hah! Thanks for checking, but what kind of people do you think we are? Do you think we're..hmph...parochial?"

And that's how, as my classmates stole their dads' racy magazines (this was in the nascent years of the Internet, before we all looked for porn online), I ended up writing an ear-reddening book report about 19th century French smut.

Except it wasn't really smut.

More obtuse readers might mistake Madame Bovary for a morality play, in which Flaubert sits in judgment of the spiraling depravity of a convent-educated beauty who could not accept a simple, clean country life. If that were true, it would have been read and tossed by a bored big-hipped girl from a small town without a second thought. But no - Flaubert was well aware of the limitations women faced in his day, and how that could lead to a woman venting frustrations she couldn't even communicate to herself let alone to those around her by making a series of escalating bad choices. It was quite possibly my first encounter with a man who understood this, and was sympathetic. Of course, it took years to really sink in.

It struck me how it was never made clear whether Emma Bovary was highly intelligent or just an average person who fancied herself high-minded: as it was with all women, her intelligence was just that irrelevant to her life, her marriage and her social environment. It also struck me that the issue was never that she couldn't accept her lot, but that she was never able to seek a life that suited her.

As I grew up and moved away, I had more opportunities than Emma Bovary and took them - and yes, privilege played a role in that. I am an educated middle class white girl after all. In any case, I refused to apologize for my more libertine tendencies - why should I? After all, cheese is available - and when I encountered a person or force trying to limit me, remembered Ani DiFranco's old nugget o' wisdom, which Emma herself might have expressed if she'd been better equipped to do so: you may be able to keep me from ever being happy, but you're not going to stop me from having fun. (Hey, it was the late '90s).

And that is how a work of 19th century French smut which wasn't really smut likely influenced my decision to eventually move to Taiwan. The alternate-universe girl who didn't see a future version of herself in Madame Bovary if she didn't insist on something better is probably not very happy.

And that is how I found myself buying an expensive hardcover edition at the Taipei International Book Exhibition, which ended this past weekend. I took one look at those lurid pink pomegranates on the binding and thought, "hey, I have lurid pink pomegranates on my binding, too!"

What I mean is, that book is a part of my formative years. And I ought to own nice editions of the books that have influenced me.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Let's Get Physical

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That guy in Tainan? He gets me. 

Every once in awhile a constellation of events helps throw an issue one has been mulling over in foggier terms into sharp relief.

On Wednesday, a friend says to me in a message: "You can occupy Donald Trump's office" when discussing occupations in Taiwan.

Something about that bothers me, but I can't put my finger on what. I am not afraid of physical protest or confrontation. I am not naturally an occupier, but it is not outside the realm of possibility. It also strikes me that in the US such an occupation would be unlikely, and not only for security reasons.

On Saturday morning, I get into a taxi in Tainan and as the HSR station employee, or the taxi company employee - it's hard to tell - shuts the door for me after a brief chat, he says "You're the New Taiwanese" (his actual words are "妳是台灣的第二代").

I am touched.
On Monday, I am out looking for a book I'd seen for sale in Tainan but didn't want to cart back to Taipei. I am chatting with someone who asks me "when are you moving back to America?"

I normally don't think too hard about such micro-aggressions - I have better things to do with my time - but it is such a stark contrast to what the person in Tainan said that it bothers me. Why would she assume I am ever moving back?

I live here. My body is here. Why would my mind and heart be elsewhere?

On Wednesday, I am having lunch with a friend (not the same friend I was chatting with on the previous Wednesday). She asks me if China were to invade, would America send planes to evacuate citizens, and would I be able to escape? (Don't ask me how we got onto that topic).

I am reminded of Facebook conversations about how people like me who claim to love Taiwan so much are just full of so much wind, because if everything really went to hell, we wouldn't stay and fight. We'd get the hell out, like plenty of Taiwanese would be trying to do.

And it is like jumping into an ice cold pool.

Would I stay and fight, or would I get on that plane?

My friend's comment about occupying the White House bothers me because I don't feel any loyalty to the US. It's almost like a foreign affair, something foreigners do, those weird Americans with their big lawns and houses with white siding. Why would I occupy a government office of a country I no longer call home? If I am going to occupy something - though I am not likely to - it will be in Taiwan, because Taiwan is my home. Why would he assume the change I want to fight for is in America, where I do not live?

The man in Tainan seems to accept my reality, though he has missed a crucial point: I can't be New Taiwanese because I am not a citizen and may never be. However, he shows more willingness to take at face value the idea that Taiwan is my home. In contrast, the woman in Taipei sees my face and makes an assumption about where I belong. She does not accept my reality. She sees me as a temporary fixture, a visitor who will eventually go "home". Taiwan cannot be my home, or the thing I call home. I don't look the part.

In fact, she goes on to ask me where my home is.
"Taiwan."
But where is your family?
"Taiwan." (This is true: both my husband and sister live here).
But where are you from?
The USA, but why does it matter?

Is Taiwan my home? Would I stay and fight? Is it okay if I say no, because I know many Taiwanese won't either (and those that do will have to - those that don't have to are more likely to run)? Does their turning tail not take away their Taiwaneseness (obviously, it does not, that's a rhetorical question), but mine does? Is there anything wrong with choosing to survive?

Could I even stay and fight - should I - when I am not a citizen? Is it not completely insane to dig in and put my physical body, rather than just the amorphous feelings of my mind and heart, on the line, for a country that won't even give me citizenship under reasonable conditions? Do I need to show loyalty for a country whose own government assumes I will eventually go "home", not that I am already home?

I come from fighters. Despite being generally a lazy, unpatriotic, establishment-loathing couch-hogger who hates fighting and is terrified of death, it is not inconceivable that, if everything truly went down the tubes, that something would break inside me and I'd dig in to do the right thing and put my physical self on the line for Taiwan (that said, it is not entirely conceivable that I would do this either).
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I was going to share a bad-ass picture of my great grandfather posing with an Ottoman moustache and a gun, but instead you can look at how deeply I have always loved couches. 
I can't say either way whether I would stay and fight or swoosh away on an evacuation plane, but it feels somehow important to ask myself this rhetorical question of a country I have invested in, which won't invest in me. I like to think that if I were a citizen, I'd stay. In 1915 my great grandfather saw what was happening to his people - the Armenians in Turkey - grabbed his gun and fought. I would hope, anyway, that a tiny spark of that exists in me, somewhere, under my personal agenda and general enjoyment of not dying (for what it's worth, he didn't die fighting).

In any case, that leads me straight back to last Wednesday. My lack of loyalty to the US, or the fact that White House security would never allow an occupation, is not what strikes me as I consider how much of my physical self I am willing to put on the line for the country I call home, as compared to the country that is no longer my home.

I think at first that Americans aren't very physical in their resistance. Then I consider that I may be wrong, and the truth is that Americans in my demographic (white, well-off on a global scale if not on every scale) are the ones who are not very physical. I consider Wisconsin's Capitol occupation in 2011, Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock (agree or disagree, it is a physical resistance). However, I can't shake the feeling that we Americans just don't throw ourselves into civic action very much, or at least not anymore.

You would think we would be more physically resistant, what with our guns and our bar fights and the general lack of safety of women on the street, but we're not. We didn't occupy Wall Street, we occupied a park near it. We have a few marches - I went to a tepid one against the World Bank when I was in college (wasn't that into it, wouldn't you know), and marched with a bunch of other idealistic but otherwise dishwater demonstrators against the 2nd Iraq War in New York. They were about as effective as those DPP or Citizen 1984-organized protests in the Ma era.

I have a great deal of respect for the exceptions, but they feel like exceptions: good, but not enough to stem the general impression in my lifetime that we like to write thinkpieces and generally grouse about the state of things, but we don't seem to show up physically all that often. Those that do have more to lose, the rest of us can go back to our little boxes on the hillside made of ticky-tacky. We join Facebook groups, act supportive, use it as a place to vent or post motivational memes or share our personal stories - not really useful themselves, either, I've come to think - and then watch those groups get monetized. We focus on no concrete action, no policy change, no taking down the patriarchy. We do not take to the streets, or at least not often and not angrily enough. We do not effectively occupy. We could, perhaps, learn a lot from how the Taiwanese do it.

I don't think the White House will ever be occupied, because I don't think Americans are necessarily occupiers at this moment in our history. I have to hope a robust civil movement will grow to counter the tragedy that is a Trump "Presidency", but I haven't really seen it yet.

In my time in Taiwan, though, and looking back through Taiwanese history, it feels as though there is more of a tradition of physical resistance. From fighting the incoming Japanese to 228 to the Kaohsiung Incident to Nylon Cheng, the White Lilies and up through the Sunflowers and now marriage equality, people have had specific things to fight for, and have gone out and done it. With their bodies, not just angry words. Perhaps it's because it was the only option in a brutal dictatorship, perhaps it is a part of the national character. I am, however, continually impressed by the willingness of Taiwanese to physically show up and sit their bodies in the street or in a building to fight for something. There seems to be a physicality about social movements that, at least in my lifetime, feels sorely lacking in much of the US.

I love this. I don't want to share stories in lieu of action, although I realize that I began this post by doing exactly that. There is only so much action I can take in Taiwan (I'm not a citizen, I can't organize, and I speak Chinese but not perfectly enough to be as involved as I'd like to be). At least, I want to be a part of a country where the citizens take action rather than, I dunno, post pictures of flowers with insipid feel-good self-improvement quotes or whatever, or turn everything into a PR stunt.

It's what gives me hope for Taiwan, though I am not quite sure why.

It also may be a part of why, against all logic, despite the fact that I am stronger with words than physical actions, I have so much respect for being willing to fight for what one believes in with more than just words, but with deeds and with one's own body.

What does that have to do with Taiwan being my home, other than the fact that I am physically here? It means - and this is where the icy water comes in - a good hard think about the possibility of the unthinkable happening, and about what that means for me.

In any case, today someone asks me if I am going home for Christmas.

"I am already home for Christmas," I reply.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Dissecting Flowers: Rainy Day Musings

It's pouring today. This is a good thing in that we need rain thanks to the legislators tasked with keeping water management infrastructure up to date have done such a shitty job of it, but also a bad thing in that it's my only day off this week.

On the way to a cafe, I passed a familiar face - the woman on the corner who sells those fragrant flower blossoms wired onto little hooks that you hang around the house to give it a fresh, natural scent. I know her - she's a Taroko aborigine, a wife and mother, in her early 60s, a devout Christian (she gives me Christian literature sometimes that I don't read, not because it's in Chinese but because as an atheist it's just not my bag). A few health problems that you'd expect a 60-year-old woman who stands outside all day to have. Obviously she doesn't have a lot of money, if she did she wouldn't sell flowers on the sidewalk.

Today (or tomorrow?) is Mother's Day, by the way. It makes no difference to the story, except to highlight how crappy it must be to be 60, a mother on Mother's Day, when it's pouring out, selling flowers on the sidewalk.

So, I often buy flowers, but not always, as I am not always headed home when I pass her. Today I pass her and honestly, I didn't really want flowers. I already had some hanging up around the house that I bought from another guy who sells them on the sidewalk near one of my workplaces. I was heading to a cafe with a cat that is likely to try to eat the flowers (I'm pretty sure they're non-toxic but the owners don't really like it when he does that). I felt like as a consumer it's my right to decide if I want to buy something or not, I shouldn't be forced into it by a guilt trip, a sob story or a hard sell. My money, my choice (for my private money, obviously when it comes to taxes and contributing to the running of a society that's different).

But, I did get the hard sell: it's Mother's Day, it's raining, I want to go home, maybe buy some on your way back?

I don't have the heart to tell her that I already have flowers hanging up, and I don't know when I'm coming back.

I still don't really want the flowers.

Yet, reader, here I am in the cafe with a little plastic bag full of flowers on wire hooks.

On one hand, I'm not wrong about feeling I have the right to spend my money as I choose. On the other, what a privilege it is for me to not have to sell flowers on the street just to make ends meet. Even if it's raining. Even if I'm tired. Even if it's Mother's Day (if I were a mother - I don't think being a Cat Lady counts). Even if it's raining, I'm tired, and it's Mother's Day. What a privilege to have enough money to not have to, to have enough, even, to go to a pricey cafe and get a Bailey's latte and sandwich. What a privilege to have the discretionary income that I could drop NT$100 on some flowers I don't need and hadn't intended to buy and not have to worry about it. I haven't always had that luxury (see: Jenna ages 23-25, and briefly after first arriving in Taiwan). As a foreigner here I am relatively well-paid, though I lack a lot of the securities enjoyed by citizens despite their lower salaries - jobs with paid leave, bonuses, pension plans, access to credit in Taiwan. Does that status of being paid well above the average for a teacher - more like the average for someone of my age and experience in finance - confer a responsibility? If so, a responsibility to do what?

Put in a situation where I could say "no", keep my NT100 (about $3 US), meaning she'd have to stand in the rain that much longer until someone else bought them, leaving my right to only buy things I want intact, or spend the $3 for something I really don't want or need so she could go home that much earlier, I chose to spend the money. (I would have just given her the money and turned down the flowers, but that probably - and rightly - would have offended her. She wasn't a beggar).

This brings with it all sorts of tough questions of privilege and right - exercise my right not to buy an unnecessary item and feel like (and, honestly, be) kind of a jerk? Or be a nice person - a softie even - but give up my ability to resist a hard sell? What would you think of the sort of person who said no? The sort who said yesWould it have been better if she'd not given me the hard sell and I'd chosen, without any push, to buy the flowers? Then it would be me owning the fact that I didn't really want them.

What is to be done about the fact that there are people who need to make money to survive, or need money to accomplish certain worthy things (like feeding their children or going to school), and people with the money to make sure everyone is fed and can get a level of education that suits them, but that we can't force that money to be more equitably distributed? (While I'm in favor of using tax dollars to redistribute wealth - make sure everyone has access to the necessities of life, health care and an appropriate level of schooling - not even I would agree that it's okay to force people to spend their non-tax dollars in this way).

I thought about this especially as Stephen Colbert made headlines recently by funding every single teacher grant request in his home state. He chose to do this - nobody asked him, nobody told him he should, nobody gave him the hard sell. He got to own that decision. I do think it's a shame that our children's education is now in part funded not by communal tax dollars, which are inadequately allocated ([s]I guess we gotta feed the military industrial complex somehow because that's soooo important[/s]) but at the whims of the wealthy, but what he did was fundamentally good.

Would it still have been so good if he'd been pressured by teachers to do so, and relented?

I can only dream of having the kind of money that would allow me to do something like that. I like to think that I would. But even then, would it be the same if I'd been pressured into it?

People calling on a random rich person to fund something - however important - when that person would not have been inclined to fund it otherwise - has the whiff of "moocher" to it, and would probably be whipped to death by the media, especially in the USA (I can't say for Taiwan).  A flower seller calling on a random relatively-rich person to buy some flowers out of pure empathy, not so much. Then the person who does so feels like she had her agency taken away, but the person who doesn't comes away feeling like a bit of a selfish prat.

And how is it that the intertwining narratives of consumer discretion and relative (lack of) privilege turned a fairly simple exchange into something so complex?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Big Diamond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New as it is, it seems to be surging.

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

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

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

My Feminist Rant - Wooooooohooooo!

I've been struggling for awhile with a way to get this from my mind to written word without coming up with something totally nonsensical, or writing with the wrong tone, and I am sorry to say that I'm not sure I can do it -  so I'm just going to jump in anyway.

Of course I'm still procrastinating - every time I get the chance I jump away to do something on Facebook or on a forum I like, purposely and not-so-subconsciously slowing down my writing of this post. I'm only still trying because I feel it needs to be said.

A former friend of mine on Facebook linked awhile back to two blog posts: I can't find one, but the other is here. Normally I wouldn't bother linking to such crapulent tripe, but it makes a fine example of what I'm going to talk about. Be warned, though: I'm not exaggerating when I say that it's crapulent tripe.

The one I couldn't find was all about how "Western women have lost their femininity" - but it made no clear points, it refused to even define femininity, it assumed we would all know what it was (like porn: "I know it when I see it") and then, after dipping her toe into what that might be, backpedals and includes a bunch of traits that could be both masculine or feminine, and a few that are generally associated with masculinity. At no point does she make clear what she's actually talking about, which is strange considering that she's claiming we Western women have "lost" it.

Now, I wrote an entire blog post about femininity and didn't define it, but then I was talking about a general feeling I had, not going on about what it was and who did or did not have it. I could have been more rigorous in my definition, but I do feel that my attempt to discuss my general mental state is quite different from pointing at a specific set of traits that an entire group of women has apparently "lost".

Back to the main topic.

What bothers me about this whole thing - "Men like Asian women because they are more feminine" or "cute" - is not that lots of men believe it, or that lots of them feel that way. Clearly, they do. Whatever - they can like what they want. It's fine: I have a certain set of traits that I find attractive, so does my husband, so does everyone. All it means for me is that if I were single, that men who feel that way aren't men who would be right for me, and that's OK.

It's more that it's racist, sexist (but not in the way that you think I might go off on) and overgeneralizing.

I don't feel it's sexist insofar as men should like Trait X but they actually like Trait Y. As I said, I don't care what they like - we all like what we like and it's fine. It's sexist in that it groups women into categories: cute and not cute, feminine and not feminine, Western and Asian. It makes blanket statements about women as though we are one amoeba-like mass of people who are all more or less the same in that we can be generalized about: Cute Women GOOD, Uncute Women BAD. Asian Women GOOD, American Women BAD.

I don't know about you, but last I checked most of us exist in more than two dimensions. I can be difficult, tough, even bitchy with people who piss me off, give me a hard time, say stupid things or make my life difficult. I can also be sweet as pie to good people. My friends, and Brendan, might describe me as "tough" or "stubborn", but not difficult - because I'm not. To them. I'm nice to them. I'm nice to people I don't know who give me no reason to be anything other than nice. I'm not so nice only if I need to be. It's the same for "cute" - while I wouldn't say I am cute, I have had people tell me I'm cute (apparently a foreign woman swearing in Taiwanese - 殺小! - is absolutely freakin' adorable). We - men, women, Americans, Asians, Westerners, Taiwanese - are not flat-screen displays of archetypes or stereotypes of the groups we belong to.

And yet, men who say they like "Asian" women because they are more "feminine" (or the one in the comment thread in the link above who said I was a "typical American woman") are assuming just that: where do they get off thinking that being female Asian or American, or that there even is a typical Asian or American woman, is enough information by which to judge a woman? Do they not know enough women to know that we are, in fact, individuals? Have they never met a cute, shy, quiet or sweet American woman EVER? Do they truly believe that 51% of a population of over three million would all share the same character traits in the same relative quantities and display them in the same ways?  Do they feel the same about this amorphous - and even bigger - group called "Asian women"?

Yes, there are ways in which one can generalize that contain a kernel of truth, but those generalizations about women - or anyone - break down so much at the individual level when you dare to look at someone in 3D that they are basically irrelevant. I mean, is it true that from a cultural standpoint, women in Asia face more pressure and social education to act a certain way that could be seen as "sweeter", "cuter", "more feminine" or whatever, and that many of them do follow those prescriptions? Is it also true that Western culture has a different view of what is and is not expected of women? Yes, and yes. But then I look at my Taiwanese female friends - one who swears openly and talks about sex happily, another who is strong, clear, independent and direct, another who is loud, talkative, opinionated and not even remotely meek, another who expects and demands equal and respectful treatment, another who can hold her liquor and isn't worried about being seen as stronger, louder or more stubborn than the men around her, and still more beyond that - and think, wait a minute. They're all Asian women. They're all very different people and not one of them fits generalizations about Asian women. Looking more broadly, I don't think I've ever met an "Asian woman" in real life who actually fits all the stereotypes about Asian women (some meet a few, to varying degrees). This is called being human and being an individual.

These women are not exceptions, is what I'm saying. There is nothing abnormal about them. They're examples of millions of other women who don't fit this generalization that's been built up about Asian women. You can say the same for American women, Western women or Whatever women.

What makes it sexist is that I am not sure these guys actually look at women in 3D. When I hear "Asian women are cute", I see a guy with a cardboard cut-out "Asian woman" in his head. I see a guy who doesn't think of women as actual individual people but rather as these strange, inexplicable Other being who can all be lumped together as "Asian" and "Western" in order to help him make sense of the world.

It's also sexist towards men, assuming that all or even most of them want the same things, but I'll cover that under "over-generalizing".

Finally, the post linked above is specifically sexist for the implication that if Western women want to "compete" that they should pay attention to this. Really - I was pretty sure that this whole "modern times" and "egalitarianism" thing meant that women were free to develop our personalities based on what our personalities naturally are, not on what one subset of men would prefer that they be. Why is it incumbent on us to change who we are to please a certain type of man, but not incumbent on men to accept that not all women need to be what they prefer - and that it's best for any given woman to just be herself rather than try to fit into some mold of what he wants? Why the implication that we should alter our personalities to get a man that we probably don't even want, who wouldn't want us if he knew what we were really like? That sounds like hell to me - did it ever occur to that writer that pretending to have a personality that is nothing like who you really are might make a woman unhappy, and that (gasp!) some women might just not want men who prefer personality traits that they don't possess - and that that's OK?

What makes it racist is, well, basically the same, just shift the emphasis from the gender to the ethnicity. "Asian" women are X, "Western" women are Y - what's not racist about that? There's nothing wrong with liking a specific woman from whatever ethnic or cultural background, or having a set of traits you prefer in a woman - it's thinking that all or even most women of that ethnicity share those traits that's racist. Again - have these men talked to so few women that they've never met a fair number of quiet American women or opinionated Asian women, or "cute" American women and "tough" Asian women? I mean, I'm a straight woman and I know enough of both to know that generalizations based on race hold no water at the individual level. Even if there's some truth to them, when it comes to dating any specific woman (or man), they are irrelevant.

It's the same reason why I avoid people who say things like "oh, I'm done with Western women. They're so ________" - so, you wouldn't even consider the possibility that some Western women aren't _________? Or even if you met one who wasn't, you would still avoid her because you're "done" with them as an entire group? Yeah...no thanks. I don't even want you as an acquaintance if you think that way, let alone a friend. I mean, change the sentence just slightly to "I'm done with black people / Jews / gays. They're so ____________." Then you see how offensive that really is. But somehow because it's about women, it's OK? (Which brings it back to "sexist").

It's over-generalizing not just because it over-generalizes about entire (MASSIVE AND GINORMOUS) groups of women, but because it does the same to men. It assumes that all, or even most, men want the same things. How is that not disrespectful to men? Plenty of men don't want those things. Just as not all women want a "provider" (I sure don't), not all men want a "cute" woman ("feminine" is harder to pin down), a "sweet" woman or a "submissive" woman. I have said (anonymously) that I am who I am, and my husband chose to marry me because he loves me for me - not gorgeous, really stubborn, quite loud, foulmouthed (sorry, moms, but I am), tough-when-I-need-to-be but also kind, loving, thoughtful, sincere, honest, hardworking and intelligent me. Often I get pushback - that I bullied him, or that he's just an exception, or he's with me because he can't do better, or that deep down he *wishes* I were more [insert trait they think women should be here] and will eventually tire of me and my troublesome opinions and outspokenness.

Yeah, uh, how is that not disrespectful to him?  Just because he chose a woman who doesn't fit some mold of what they'd prefer in a woman, that means he is either lacking in some way, or he settled, or he was bullied, or he doesn't really know what he wants? Yeah...uh, no. This is where overgeneralizing comes in - what's with assuming that all men want the same things? Are men not individuals who exist in 3D, too? Should we not also accord them the respect of knowing what they want even if it might be different from what you'd want, and trusting them to make those decisions?

Is it really so threatening to these guys that a man would choose a different sort of woman that they must assume he was cowed into it? Gee, I wonder why. What's so terrifying about the idea that someone might like something different from what you like?

What is so wrong with saying "*I* prefer [this type of woman]" instead of "*Men* prefer [this type of woman]"? If you did that, you'd earn a lot of respect from me!

I mean, sure, it's fun to pretend that I have a whip and a leash and I bend men to my will, but actually, I don't.

As for "cute" and "feminine", in Brendan's own words: "Well, if you ask me what attracts me, then yes, I can give you a list of traits I'd consider 'feminine' or that I like in a woman. But otherwise it's such a social and culturally specific thing and so subject to individual tastes and preferences that no, if you want to say these things are definite, then that's nonsense."

I say this because I know Brendan is merely an exception, and neither am I. We might seem to be in the minority but in truth, there are so many people like us - so many men who love assertive women, so many women who are not looking for certain types of men, so many people who do not fit the stereotype of what they "should" be. We're only an exception in that we prove that the rule is ridiculous. A mathematical proof along these lines would not stand, so I fail to see why a sociological one should.

And, again, you can say that there are general trends, but they're so irrelevant when it comes to individuals that I don't see why it should matter. Which is what bothers me about "this is what men like" - no, this is what YOU like. Don't pretend to speak for all men or even most men. That's sexist, too. Even if it's true that many men like these traits, it is meaningless when you look at what this man or that man likes.

I admit that this is, in part, why I am not that active in the expat community. While I realize that all expats are individuals (and am happy to befriend them as such), I run up against this attitude often enough that it's kept me away. I don't want to be around it, I don't want to hear it, and I don't want to be friends with people who spew it. Since I'm all on about "don't generalize", I will say that this hasn't kept me entirely cut off. Why? Because people are individuals and not all expat men are like this. Brendan's not. My friend J is not. My friends' husbands are not.

So, you know, wouldn't the world be a better place if we all just admitted that our tastes are unique to us, and that regardless of general truths about culture, people are individuals, and that two individuals deserve the respect of being seen as whole people who are influenced by, but not entirely defined by, their culture? And that some people like "cute" and some don't, and that people have varying definitions about what "cute" or "feminine" (or "masculine") even are? And then, can we banish the generalizations to the far corner of the conversation where they belong? Is this not a happier world, a world with greater respect for all?

In the end, I said something along these lines - but shorter - on the Facebook status update where the two links appeared. I figured, if someone is going to post something that controversial, then they clearly are fine with strongly opinionated replies. If they weren't, they wouldn't post it. I got defriended, probably not just because my reply contained an opinion, but also because I suspect the original poster disagreed.
               
I told a friend (Taiwanese, male - if that matters) about this. His reply sums it up: "Well, that is not any big loss."






Tuesday, February 14, 2012

My Taiwan Valentine

awwwwwwww
"My Taiwan Valentine" being different from "My Taiwanese Valentine", of course. If I had a Taiwanese valentine I think Brendan might be a leeeeeeettle upset.

First, enjoy this. Watch the video, too.

And enjoy this. I think next year Brendan is getting Easter candy and a bag of hammers.

So generally we're not big V-day celebrators. Not because I'm anti-Valentine's day, but rather that I'm anti-crappy chocolate (and most of what's sold on V-day is crap). I'm also, while not the sort who says "I don't want to feel pressured to express my feelings by marketing behemoths for their profit" (although there's some truth to that), I am the sort who has come to realize how unimportant the day really is when you're in a good relationship. I have found that stuff like this takes on outsized proportion when things are bad - like you need that planned expression of affection on the corporate-mandated day to prove to yourself that things really are OK. When things are good, you don't care as much about meeting these expectations.

For me anyway. Some folks are in great relationships and still place importance on days like this, and that's fine too.

But, Brendan and I still like to spend time together, and figure there's no harm in having some of that time be around Valentine's Day. This year, however, we're both working in the evening. In a few short hours I'll be back on the HSR to Hsinchu to teach in the Science Park. Since the day itself is not that important, we had our Valentine's Day Love Fest on Sunday - and took advantage of the gorgeous weather.

We took the Maokong Gondola   - I know a lot of people worry about its safety but I personally think it's fine. I've been on it many times and do not fear that something will go wrong. They should change the name, though. "Gondola" is a dumb name for a cable car, and it's doubly annoying to have to teach students what a "gondola" is and then shrug my shoulders when they ask why that was the name chosen for the cable car.

As you can see, we shared a car with a group of women from SE Asia. At first I thought they were Filipina (I thought they were speaking Tagalog) but now I'm not sure - they didn't say much. They could have been Thai. I know they weren't Vietnamese by the language spoken. They spent most of the time taking glamour shots of themselves, though, not chatting - so it's hard to say.

This is a tough time of year to take the Gondola - with the cherry blossoms on Maokong in bloom, if the weather is even remotely decent and it's a weekend, the thing is packed. We were blessed with a lovely, clear day on Sunday, so we had to wait about an hour to board. They were handing out required "reservation" tickets with boarding times. We arrived at 1:37pm and were handed a ticket for 2:30-2:45. We expected this, though.

There aren't as many cherry blossoms on Maokong as on Yangming Mountain, but enough that the easier task of taking the gondola - vs. driving or taking a bus up Yangmingshan - is a good alternative. They also bloom much earlier in Taiwan than elsewhere (esp. Japan) due to the warmer weather.




It's fairly common in every country where Valentine's Day has made some inroads - it's certainly known in Taiwan - for people to celebrate it when they're young and in love and forget about it when they're old fuddy-duddy marrieds (like me!). I kind of understand that: as I said, if your relationship is good, then Valentine's Day, birthdays, other holidays etc. stop becoming a barometer of your relationship status or "goodness", because you don't need them.

What I've noticed in Taiwan, though, is a different sort of not celebrating Valentine's - in the US you'll get the V-day haters, and the ones who are romantic but not on that day, or the ones who are fine without romance but don't really announce that. You get those who say "oh, we don't bother" but they rarely explain it with "because we've been married for so long". Usually there's an implication that there's romance elsewhere or at other times.

I think this couple had a similar idea
for how to spend the day
In Taiwan, you get the older married folks who not only admit to not celebrating Valentine's, but  say that it really is because they're older and married, and, you know, everyone knows that old married folks don't have romance (that last part isn't actually spoken, but it's implied heavily in the tone), that's for crazy young kids. Not that I ask, but I get the strong sense that there is an acceptance of less romance in these relationships overall. Not so much that they don't bother with Valentine's Day, but that they don't bother with that kind of romantic expression at all.


I can't be sure of this, of course - many American couples wouldn't necessarily cop to having a romance-free marriage, and I could be reading the tone wrong in Taiwan, and be adding an implication that wasn't intended: perhaps the tone used merely conveys a deeper sense of privacy about such  things.

But, you know, while divorce - at least in Taipei - is reaching numbers that rival the US's divorce rate, the whole concept of divorce being acceptable, or no-fault divorce, or even "wow, it's not the woman's fault, we can't automatically blame the wife for not being pliant or dutiful enough" divorce, is fairly new in Taiwan. The idea of remaining single by choice or because you  have high standards is new, too - especially for women. It's a more recent change, which means that old feelings of "you marry because it's socially expected, you have kids because you should and you stay in that marriage even if you're not happy, and even if that can't be fixed, even if your husband as a mistress" still linger. I could see how that would bring about a feeling of "eh, people who have been married for awhile don't have, don't need and shouldn't expect romance or love" which might be echoed in the comments I hear.




But enough dreariness. The weather was so balmy and rejuvenating that, between soft pink sakura and bright blue sky, who can help but feel that love is a beautiful thing?



After walking around - and dodging traffic - we settled in at Mountain Tea House, a short walk from the gondola station but beyond most of the crowds. We go there often, because the view is good and the food is tasty. I especially recommend the Lemon Diced Chicken (檸檬雞丁).

As per my blog's namesake, I brewed lao ren cha and we talked, chatted, ate snacks, and quietly read or studied Chinese. I don't consider retreating behind a book to be unromantic (retreating behind a computer or iPod is more unromantic to me, not sure why) - part of what makes our relationship so great is that we can both be quiet and doing our own thing, and still feel a vibrant connection. That's important - because who can talk all day and all night to one person? Even if you have that early chemistry that makes you want to just spill your guts and talk for hours, it eventually fades (not completely, but it does) and something needs to be there to replace it. A connection that transcends conversation.


We also spent a little time taking glamour shots of ourselves.  Here's my frank admission: while I'm fine with being curvy and average looking in real life, there are two things I know are true about my looks:

1.) I am really not photogenic. At all. Even if I look fine in real life, I look terrible in most photos. I'm OK with that, too, until I actually see the photos, which I quickly delete or de-tag.

2.) I have one really great feature. One thing that, when I look in the mirror, I think "wow, that's just great. That looks good". One thing that helps me be totally OK with being otherwise completely average-looking. I won't tell you what it is. I think I've mentioned it before, and anyway it should be pretty clear. 

So, when good photos of me come along - which happens about once a year, if that - I milk those babies for all they're worth, because it'll be awhile before more good ones are taken.


But first, some glamour shots of my super handsome, I mean really handsome, I mean "da-yum how did I land me such a hottie" husband.


I *heart* the green eyes
I mean I love him regardless, I'd love him even if his face got all messed up or he gained 200 pounds. I'd love him if he was not so good-looking...but you gotta admit, I lucked out in the Hot Husband department.

Then, Brendan took some shots of me, when the sun was providing good light:




We stuck around past sunset, because I love the night view from Maokong. I also have a camera now that has a timer, so I can set it on a flat rail and take decently focused night shots, as though I had a tripod.


Then we ventured down to Nanjing E. Road for dinner at Ali Baba's Indian Kitchen, but that's not terribly exciting - just tasty!


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Mightiest of Signs

Just a quick observation.

A trawl through Western Zodiac signs, meanings and personalities doesn't really seem to reveal any ranking. Libras are balanced, Virgos are  smart, perfectionistic and a bit cold, Pisces are sensitive and easygoing, Gemini are creative and indecisive, Scorpio are distrustful, a bit dark and passionate, Aquarians and Sagittariuses (Sagittarii?) are independent and a bit emotionless, mean and aloof. Etc. etc. all the way through the signs.  Every sign has negative qualities as well as positive ones.

Then you go look at Chinese Zodiac animals and while most of them are similarly structured - having good qualities as well as bad ones with a reasonably flat hierarchy, when you get to a few of them, you do see some sort of rank.

Dragons are the "mightiest" of the signs and while they're not first in order, they seem to be first in preference. Rats, despite how people feel about them in the West, seem to be similarly prominent, and while tiger-born women are supposed to be bad luck at weddings, generally it seems to be considered a powerful sign. Meanwhile other signs are considered less desireable, sometimes even along gender lines (ie a tiger boy is OK, but a tiger girl is not desired). My point is, faint as it is, there's a bit of a ranking system. You don't hear people in the USA saying "We're going to try for a Gemini baby!" the way you hear "we're going to try for a dragon baby!" in Taiwan (of course one is based on a month and the other a year, so the former is quite a bit harder to "plan" for than the latter - but you don't hear preferences stated regardless).                                                               

I don't actually believe in any of this stuff, mind you, but it is an interesting bit of culture. So I'm not writing this due to any inherent truth in astrology but rather what the astrological organization and belief systems mean regarding culture.

It just made me think - I feel this is an era when "flat hierarchy" is a buzzword back home, and we revere people who made it big on their own rather than via social rank, where everyone dresses similarly (I don't know about you but these days I can't figure out who has money and who doesn't on the streets of New York) and we pretend to be all the same - even though we're not. Does our culturally inherited sense of astrology - different but checked and balanced, varied but mostly equal - point to a cultural tendency to evolve toward flat hierarchies? Can I blow some more smoke into it and say that representative government (including democracy) is a Western invention and did not come to Asia on its own, and that says something too? And does the Chinese system, which has faintly stated but still present ideas about rank and preference, say something about the importance of rank in Chinese culture and the influence of Confucianism?

Which, by the way, I'm no fan of Confucian philosophy. Just to be clear.

Anyway. I swear I'm not high. I don't even smoke pot, even though it sounds like I do from this post. Just an idle thought in my head that I figured I should explore a bit and see what the world has to say. Feel free to shoot me down!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

So Far Adrift



迢遞三巴路, 羈危萬里身。 

亂山殘雪夜, 孤獨異鄉春。 

漸與骨肉遠, 轉於僮僕親。 

那堪正飄泊, 明日歲華新。


Farther and farther from the three Ba Roads, 
I have come three thousand miles, anxious and watchful, 
Through pale snow-patches in the jagged nightmountains -- 
A stranger with a lonely lantern shaken in the wind. 
...Separation from my kin 
Binds me closer to my servants -- 
Yet how I dread, so far adrift, 
New Year's Day, tomorrow morning!



I've written before about how I tend to get a bit brooding and maudlin around the holidays - especially leading up to Christmas. I do consider this a good thing, or a sign of a good thing: I wouldn't feel this way if holidays with family were not not happy memories for me. I don't feel this as strongly around Chinese New Year, because it's not my holiday, but there is something to be said for being in a country celebrating  a major family holiday, when everything is closed, and you don't have many ways to celebrate (although I try to find a few). I have my husband, who is my most immediate family now, and my sister also lives in Taiwan. She's younger, though, and has her own friends and while we hang out often,  she's definitely in a younger expat contingent than her fuddy-duddy boring old married sister. This doesn't bother me: it's normal. I was that age, too. Once. Years ago! I don't have a big family dinner to attend. As I said, this doesn't bother me as much as it does on Christmas, but it does cause me to brood a bit.


Here's the thing. I've written about how the common misconception that expats move abroad because they can't make it back home is not true. People often believe that there's something wrong with folks that run off to Asia or wherever, there's something about those people that makes it hard for them to fit in back home, that they're too weird for their own countries. This is not true for me: I have a lot of close friends back home and I make an effort to see them at last once a year. One has visited me (two if you count Brendan, who subsequently moved here and became my husband) and two others have indicated their intention to. We keep in fairly close touch even as our lives take different paths. I left an active and happy social life. I left a crap job that nevertheless had the potential to be an, ahem, "real" career (whatever that means). I left a large, loving family and a brilliant townhouse rental in a pretty cool city. I left dating prospects, all to be abroad just because I wanted to study Chinese and I wanted an adventure. I'd never intended to stay, or to get married and continue staying, abroad - but stay I did.


Well. All of that is still true. And yet, while I can say that I did fit in well enough back home, that I never quite fit in - but then who among us has not felt that way at some point, especially the more adventurous, intellectual or creative types?


Despite having a large and diverse group of friends, and making new friends fairly easily and quickly wherever I am, I've always felt as though I exist in a liminal space. I was not quite of mainstream life back home and I am clearly not quite of mainstream life in Taiwan - as evidenced by the fact that I'm not celebrating Chinese New Year the way most people do here. I recently said on Facebook that I have this loneliness: I never felt that I fully fit into American culture -  I'm not interested in living a life that requires car ownership or extensive driving, for one, but there are other things, too. I don't fully fit into Taiwanese or expat culture either, so who am I?  Then I attended a company year-end banquet at the invitation of a student and as I was watching the craziness go down, I thought to myself: I have my friends, I have my family, and I may not really be able to settle into any group or culture but I'm me and that's OK.


I'm not sure which came first - did I start to feel like I existed on edges and thresholds before I started living abroad, all the way back in 2000 when I went to India for a semester, or  did I start living abroad because I fundamentally feel this way? I have to admit it is a lot easier to give leeway to this part of myself while abroad, because people generally expect that you won't quite fit in. It's easy to "not fit in" when you're not living in your native culture or ethnicity (and are not married into it, either). It's very different indeed to "not fit in" when you live where you came from.


These two ideas might seem to be contradictory, but I don't think they are. Neil Stephenson said something in The Diamond Age (brilliant book right up until the end, when it got all "what the hell" and had a thoroughly unsatisfying and  not-thought-through ending) that resonated with me. In my own words to summarize Stephenson: there are some people who will fully embrace a system and refuse to see fault in it, who will rationalize away contradictions and problems. There are those who will see the faults inherent in a system - any given system, including a cultural structure in which they are born or raised - and use those to tear down the entire thing, rebel, run away, renounce everything about that system. Finally, there are those who will see shades of color in a monochrome, who can accept seeming contradictions, who can understand how one thing and its opposite can both be true, who can accept subtlety and and complexity.  These are truly intelligent people.


I don't want to go off and be all "haha, I am one of the intelligent people!" because that's not my point.


My point is that this issue, for me, falls into the last category. Having a great social and family life back home and fitting in insofar as living well, loving and being loved by many can co-exist with a feeling of liminality, a feeling of not quite "matching" what's around you, a feeling of constant weirdness or eccentricity. One can feel comfortable and settled in a new country, have friends, participate in events, sometimes stumble and sometimes swim like a sleek fish in that context - and still feel like they live life on the sidelines of that culture. One can have and be both.


Never is this contradiction more clear to me than around the holidays.






雲母屏風燭影深, 長河漸落曉星沈。 

嫦娥應悔偷靈藥, 碧海青天夜夜心。



Now that a candle-shadow stands on the screen of carven marble 
And the River of Heaven slants and the morning stars are low, 
Are you sorry for having stolen the potion that has set you 
Over purple seas and blue skies, to brood through the long nights?





This poem is supposed to be about regret at doing something one was not supposed to do -  such as Chang-yi, who was left to be lonely after stealing an immortality potion not meant for her and subsequently floating up to the moon and ending up trapped there for eternity.

To me, it reads as what happens to a person when they live for a period abroad, especially if they like and allow themselves to be affected by their new surroundings (to be true, plenty of expats, especially the corporate types, are sent abroad, preserve as much of life at home as they can, and return happily unaffected). As a friend of mine once said, once you live abroad, you can't really say you belong to any one place. You don't feel the same way about where you came from and probably never will again, because you've changed. You've become bigger and you no longer fit the mold you were raised in. And yet, you don't really feel totally at home in any new place. You feel like just you - the way I felt during that annual party - and a little bit apart from wherever you are, even if you are home. 

It's just as though you, like Chang-yi, were handed a potion when you got on that plane. You drank it, and now you have floated off to some other place and can't go back again. You're left to brood. You, to steal a cliched Matrix analogy, swallowed the red pill. I will not go so far as to say that you ate the forbidden apple, but you get the point. 

Expat Women: Confessions deals with this feeling, answering a question from an adult who had a childhood that included moves to foreign countries. The question  poser asks where and how to live - she doesn't feel at home in her "native country", the country of her passport, but neither is she fully of any other country. The book wisely dubs this the "international citizen" condition, and people who feel this way often feel most at home among others like them - other long-term expats or adults with a lot of life experience abroad - no matter what country they find themselves in. Find other "international citizens" and you'll be most at home.

And yes, I did drink the potion. I'm left to brood beyond purple seas and blue skies. I can go home but I'm still off somewhere - I can't really go home ever again. I also can't really be Taiwanese or be of any other country where I choose to live. I am most at home among others like me, and let other aspects of my personality out through local friends or friends back home. Home is where Brendan and I live, wherever that might be, and that's really true for us because it can't be any other way. I can form attachments but I can't be of any given place. Not anymore.

I am still working my way through this realization, but I think it's OK. The poem says that Chang-yi must regret her choice, but do I regret mine? If I had known that this would happen, would I have done what I have done with my life? Would I have drunk that potion?

Yes.

I would have.

I never felt quite 'in place' anyway, so why not? I'm me, and that's OK.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Double Triple Culture Shock

I've written before about reverse culture shock, something Kath at [insert suitably snappy title here] has described as feeling like "something has grown and it no longer fits like it used to, like a favourite t-shirt you used to wear all the time that accidentally got shrunk in the wash".

I could swear I wrote another post on the topic more recently, where I talked about how going home felt like watching all sorts of once familiar things that I once interacted with, but seeing them through a pane of glass, or Bubble Boy. You're there, you can see, hear and talk to people, but you're somehow separate.

I can't find that post now, but if I do I'll link back to it.

Well, since I've been back in Taiwan from our extended stay in Turkey, I can say that something along the lines of a double reverse culture shock has started to sink in. I'm sure it'll dissipate soon enough; it also only seems to have affected me to the point of me, myself noticing it. Nobody else seems to have.

It doesn't seem like this feeling is terribly common - seems it would be rather rare for someone to move abroad to one country, go through the usual culture shock, and then leave to spend long enough time in another, third country that they'd come back to their second country and culture shock about it all over again, from an entirely different angle. In this way, I'm probably writing about this more for myself and  the perspective that chronicling and describing this brings, but who knows, maybe someone out there in Internetland feels the same way and will stumble across this post.

I also kind of felt that this was strange about my experience in Turkey. I didn't feel  culture shock regarding Turkish ways of life vs. American; I felt it regarding Turkish ways of life vs. Taiwanese.

So of course when I then returned to the USA for a visit I had no fundamental frame of reference for anything at all, and was very confused indeed!

It would be great to be able to articulate exactly why I feel this way, but I can't really. What I can do is give some examples.

 First, I feel that same odd "looking at everything through the skin of a soap bubble" feeling I often get in the US, where I can see just fine, and interact and all that, but there's some barrier there that wasn't there before. I feel I've been relating to my friends differently, but I can't describe exactly how. My values have changed a bit, from being fine with living in a crummy apartment with crummy things but traveling fantastically, to being willing to scale back the travel a little bit and compromise on a nicer apartment and nicer things. I've also become more productive and in some ways, I think more cheerful, even when I'm in one of my fairly common cynical, curmudgeonly, critical moods. The  strict, unending and rapidly-approaching deadlines of our course were such that I've now trained myself - hopefully permanently - to be better with deadlines. I've proven that I can do so, if they're truly important. That's why I always had my class prep done on time but rarely had my reports done on time in the past.

Weather in Taipei is more miserable than I remember it; this is probably due to a month of sunny Turkish skies raising my expectations. Things that either didn't bother me or only nominally annoyed me before - people walking too slowly, especially if they're hogging the sidewalk or dawdling just inside MRT train doors (so nobody can get on quickly behind them! Argh!) or just outside turnstiles or doorways. The habit of pretending to understand something said in English when really, that person doesn't understand. The habit of not just asking when you don't understand - which Turkish students had no problem doing. The tendency to over-adhere to process over usefulness, feeling that keeping with a strict process is enough to feel like one is accomplishing something. I don't see this all the time in Taiwan, but just enough - especially at work - to annoy me. Listening to one's boss as though his or her words are the words of God.  Over-devotion to work: when someone in Turkey says "I have to leave class for a meeting, after that I'll have to go back to the office to finish up a few things", you can assume that once he's done with the meeting he's probably just going to cut out of there and head home if he can. In Taiwan, you can assume that he really is going to go to the meeting then do some work afterwards. Which is fine, doesn't affect me, but it's not how I roll.

I'm not nearly as interested in nightlife, and I don't think that's a function of age. Istanbul reeked of stuff to do at night. Entire neighborhoods were given over to nightlife. The tackiest, but arguably most "lose yourself in the crowd and have fun" of them all was Taksim, walking distance from our apartment. It was as big or bigger than the Xinyi Shopping District and packed bottom floor to top, building-against-building with bars, clubs, restaurants, live music, cafes, lounges, shops and pubs. You quite literally had all the choice in the world, from hippie lounging on beanbags outside among curls of incense with raki and hookahs to hip, red-lit booty-short-tacular dance clubs to fancy dinner at a bistro to coffee with friends in a bookshop. Taipei has most of that, but it's spread out and sometimes hard to find and no one neighborhood has enough of it to have a nightlife vibe.  As a result, I just haven't been going out much: one late night, total, since I've been back (late for me means "out past 2am").

This really isn't hitting the heart of it, though, which shows you that I don't really know where the heart of it is. Taipei is the same; I'm different. I went to Turkey with Brendan, so it feels like we're both just different enough after the trip that we've maintained the same dynamic. I feel different around everyone else, though.

It could be because going to my ancestral homeland of Musa Dagh was an inwardly emotional experience for me, even if it was a relatively quiet trip and quiet day. The full impact of the trip I'd made, the first in my family to do so since the Armenians were killed or forced out of Turkey, has been hitting me in stages. It may well have made me both more sanguine and more maudlin, possibly a bit more phlegmatic than before. I'm more irritated by things I'd previously gotten used to in Taiwan, but my temper flares over it less.

The new apartment could also have something to do with it - I've written before about how it's impacted my life and even my habits and personality a bit. I don't know though; our return from Turkey and our move happened so close together that in terms of emotion, the entirety of November and December is one big, murky pool.

In sum, I just don't know.

Something's shifted. Something's different. I'm definitely feeling that ineffable separation from my surroundings that I get when I culture shock. I can't articulate why in any clear way. I can't even clearly tell if anyone else has noticed the change. All I can say is that it's there and I'm hoping I figure it out or work through it soon.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Of Balls

Sure, it only costs NT$250, but for that price it's a pretty decent wine.
While finishing off a bottle of inexpensive but good wine with Brendan last night, I got to thinking about all the usual stuff: you know, how great married life has been for the past year and a half, how lucky we really are to have such a strong relationship, and my doesn't this apartment look awesome, I could actually stay in most nights and not feel bored and hmm, if Tsai wins the election, will she be the sort of women's rights advocate in office that could really benefit Taiwanese women? and I should really read Shantaram, it's been on the shelf for a year and it's too bad that I love my career, really get on with my students, and yet am not happy with my company and it'll be a few months yet before I can make a change.


And then this: it's been five years. I'm applying for permanent residency after Chinese New Year. Would I have stayed this long if I'd been single.


No, probably not. 


Why is that?


Of course, I covered this in Why Are There So Few Expat Women in Asia?, but it kind of got buried deep in the (admittedly long) post, and wasn't very personal. This post is my attempt to personalize that a bit.

I'd said there that a lot of expat women leave after a few years if they're single, because it's just plain harder to date (whereas in some regards it's easier for expat men), even if you like the local guys - which, for the record, I would if I were single.  Married or enrelationshipped women - yes, I made that word up - seem more likely to stick around in the foreign country they've chosen - especially in Asia. It's been my experience in Taiwan that the long-term expat women I know here are all married or in relationships.  In Turkey I noticed that it was quite a different tale: plenty of expat women stuck around, and more than a few married Turkish men, not unlike a lot of the expat men in east Asia.

Clearly, when the dating market opens up to reveal more opportunities, the women tend to stay just as long as the men. I'd like to think that a choice to move abroad or move home is one made individually, for reasons other than romantic prospects but rather for reasons ranging from desire to see the world, to learn a new language, to engage in another culture, for other academic pursuits or because you genuinely enjoy English teaching and the best opportunities for that happen to be in non-English speaking countries.

And it's true that I moved abroad without worrying about romantic prospects, and I happened to get lucky (heh heh). I wasn't here to date - I was here to see more of the world and learn Chinese. I didn't even know yet that I wanted to be a career teacher/trainer/whatever it is that I do because on any given day my job description feels different.

Yet these noble ideas - that one should make these choices without thought to dating - just isn't the case, and it wouldn't have been for me, either.

If Brendan hadn't existed, or we'd never met, or our relationship never worked out, here's what would have likely happened:

Brendan moved to Taiwan about halfway through my first year in Taiwan. I was not planning to leave at the end of that year; at the time my plans were to stay for 2-3 years depending, see if teaching was a good career fit (I'd started to love my evening teaching job back in the USA and hate my corporate desk job, which clued me into the idea that I would do better in a career such as teaching) and then either move home or move to another country.  I knew before Brendan came that I would not stay at Kojen past my initial contract, so I would have still changed jobs. I might not have ended up at the company I did - although who knows? They were looking at just about the right time.

I probably would have stayed in my tiny, slightly crummy room in an otherwise nice apartment in Liuzhangli for awhile longer, until I got a new job and could afford a small studio or at least a better room in a shared apartment.

I probably would have dated a couple of guys, be they expat or local. Those relationships, as most tend to do, probably would not have worked out. Although I'm sociable, I'm not exactly an "every weekend at a different social hangout" girl, so there probably wouldn't have been more than one or two. I think that estimate is accurate because that's about half the number of guys I typically dated in a few years in the DC area.

My social circle wouldn't have been appreciably different, except it would lack some people, including one whom I consider to be a very good friend, because those friends came through opportunities brought about by Brendan.

So I probably would have a social life that involved seeing friends for one outing a weekend, occasionally going out on a weekend night if invited (I love making plans for meals or outings for friends, I make drink plans far less often and mostly go when invited). I would otherwise work, take pictures, go hiking occasionally, hang out at cafes and then come home and be alone. My expat male friends, few as they are, would be dating local women at either a far greater frequency or intensity than any dating opportunities I would have had.

Not too unlike my single life in DC, except I had more dating opportunities and, within my own cultural context, it was easier to make friends. I saw those friends more, because in the USA we seem to place a greater emphasis on time spent with friends vs. at home, with family or working than in Taiwan, where people seem to see friends less.

I would have looked at the expat scene in Taipei - nightlife that I'm mostly not interested in (with some exceptions! Going out occasionally is fun), maybe a few clubs I could have joined, but generally just as I see it now: something I dip my toe into and can enjoy, but never really felt I fit into (although I feel a bit more fitting-inny now that I am friends with a small group of younger married women like myself who also defy the young-guys-here-teaching-at-Hess-for-a-year and the older-family-types-with-kids-at-the-American-school, and I know a few student types - I tend to get on well with the grad school crowd). I would have concluded that, in part, I felt a bit out of it with the expat crowd. Not unwelcome, but a bit like "young single foreign women who aren't particularly pretty have a tougher time socially here than back home".

I'd have looked at local life in Taipei and probably dipped my toes into that more, as well, but likewise still not felt like I fit in: turns out people don't invite you out much when you don't fit into a circle of coworkers, classmates or family.

Then I would have looked back at my social life in DC, and then my dating life. I might not have chosen to move back to DC in particular, but I might have concluded that as a single woman, if I wanted a better shot at having good relationships and having one of those turn permanent, and if I wanted lots of friends to have good times with both in the interim and beyond, that my chances of that were far better back home, or in another country.

Perhaps I would have done the CELTA as I did in Istanbul, had the great fun that I did, made friends on the course, and decided that for a good social life, Istanbul would have been a great bet. And I might well have stayed, despite the fact that it would have left me a bit emotionally torn. Or I might have picked another Mediterranean country.

All through this I'd be a bit angry at myself, thinking what, are you not the nomad and adventurer you thought you were?  Are you really going to go home now because poor widdle Jenna doesn't have enough widdle fwiends and nobody wants to be her boyfwiend? Awww. I thought you were made of stronger stuff, and I thought you knew that traveling the world would come with its share of loneliness. Are you just another Typical Girl, who needs people around her instead of fortifying herself? Are you weak? Do you not have the balls you thought you did?


(I admit I have a mortal fear of being seen as weak. That's a good post for another time, if I ever feel like revealing that much about myself).

And of course the final few sentences of the above are ridiculous, and in their own way, sexist, but it's only honest of me to say I would have thought them.

And I would have felt conflicted and angry and a bit sad, but I probably would have also felt lonely and  lacking social and dating opportunities - even though they exist in Taipei, I would have found them, as a single foreign woman, insufficient - but in the end I probably would have moved on in my predicted 2-3 years.  The fact that I didn't, that I instead married and nested a bit and started to feel a bit settled (and happy about that, which I never thought would happen) and like Taipei was home. But a big part of that is that I do have a family here. I have a husband - and a cat and (for the time being) a sister. I might have never felt that way if the whole marriage thing hadn't happened, or if I had not at least found myself in a serious relationship.

I'll leave it at this: in 2003 I celebrated my birthday in Pakse, Laos. I was in my early twenties and in Laos by myself (not long before I'd seen off Brendan in Beijing, from where he returned to Korea). I spent my birthday alone,  hiking up the crumbled, rocky ruins of a temple carved into a bluff outside of town. It was humid and buggy and I'm sure I looked like hell. I'm also sure as hell that I didn't care. I got to the top and sat at the edge of the bluff, the craggy black building blocks of the temple tumbled down below me, mostly in a scraggy pile, but a few were strewn further out into the verdant landscape.

Nobody had yet sent me birthday wishes in e-mail and this was long before Facebook. My only birthday wish before the time difference made it my birthday on the East Coast was from myself. I was young and I didn't mind being alone. I looked out over the tops of palm trees to lush rice fields dotted with beasts of burden and I thought to myself: this is great - how often can one say that one climbed a ruined temple in Laos on their birthday?


But several years later when I hit Taipei,  this was what my "birthday alone" was like. It was not good. It was not adventurous. It was not ballsy. It was just sad.  I still wanted - and still want - to travel the world and have adventures, but what I realized was that I didn't necessarily want to do it alone.