Showing posts with label racism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label racism. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Bad reporting, Han Kuo-yu, and racism against Filipinos in Taiwanese society

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This meme - not established Taiwanese media -  is the most accurate translation of Han's actual remarks that I've found. 

So, I'm sure you've all heard by now that Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu is a racist crapsack, but you might not be entirely clear on exactly how much of a racist crapsack he actually is, because it's impossible to figure out what his exact words were from print media. 

In looking for Han's direct quote, I found three different versions in United Daily News, Liberty Times and Storm Media, and decided none of them could be fully trusted. So, I found a video. Here's exactly what he said, with video evidence:


我想高雄市民跟台灣人民的心理狀態一定很大衝擊,怎麼瑪麗亞一下變成我們老師了?

My translation:


I think the hearts of Kaohsiung residents and Taiwanese would be greatly shocked, how can a Maria become our teacher?

'Maria' is a pejorative for a Filipina woman, connoting a woman of humble means who performs domestic labor. It's equivalent to calling them maids - referring to every woman in the Philippines as 'the help'. This particular insult is well-known in Taiwan, where many workers from the Philippines perform blue-collar labor in Taiwan. It's not just a racist word, it's a sexist one too as it specifically denigrates the domestic labor done by foreign women.

That word, "shock" (衝擊) can also mean an assault or lashing - it could just as easily be translated as "would assault the hearts of Kaohsiungers and Taiwanese".

The "...because how can a 'Maria' become our English teacher" is also important to understanding Han's meaning, it implies unlikeliness, impossibility, or mockery. How could The Help possibly teach us?

This is what he means and an accurate translation of his remark makes that clear.

Han goes on to say (from the video linked above, translation mine):


往菲律賓取才我覺得這個在一個克服的過程。... 如果我們從菲律賓引進教英文的師資,高雄的家長能不能接受? 所以我才會用瑪麗亞三個字,來做一個表述,所以我用瑪麗亞三個字不是有其他的意思在。...你為什麼不找美國,澳大利亞,英國的,你為什麼找隔壁菲律賓的?我的意思是說,家長心裡會有一個障礙。可是呢?菲律賓外語人才的輸出,已經很成熟,這個兩個這間,怎麼樣說服高雄的家長? 
Filipino talent, I think this is a process of overcoming....if we introduce qualified English teachers from the Philippines, would Kaohsiung patriarchs/heads of household/old-timers be able to accept it [with the implication that they would not]. So, I can only say 'Maria' it's just an expression, so when I say 'Maria', there's no other meaning....Why don't you find American, Australian, English ones, why do you find people from the nearby Philippines? My meaning is, that's a mental obstacle for these 'patriarchs'/old timers. But? The Philippines sending out foreign language speakers is already very common. Between these two [extremes], how can we convince those old-timers?

This sounds like a reasonable position to take, because it's surely true that there are many racist people in Kaohsiung and Taiwan who would be bothered by or opposed to having teachers from the Philippines in positions of authority and respect in Taiwan, because to them, they are just "Marias".

That doesn't absolve Han of his initial comments, though. First, to say "I didn't mean anything other than that by the word 'Maria'" is about as tired an excuse as "I only used the N-word because I heard it in a rap song, not because I meant something racist."

And it doesn't hold up to even the barest scrutiny as an explanation: he's not quoting anyone in particular when he calls Filipinas 'Marias'. The word came out of his own mouth. He used it offhandedly, like a normal word anyone would use. He didn't adequately signpost his remarks as a quote or description of an attitude, because that's not actually what they were despite his "clarifications" later.

If Han had really meant to describe what Taiwanese think, and make it clear that he disagrees, he wouldn't have said 'Maria' so casually in the first place. This marks him not as an ally, but a concern troll: defending his words as describing what the other side thinks, but showing through his unconsidered language choices that, on some level, he is a part of that 'other side'. Someone who truly wants to change racism against Southeast Asians in Taiwanese society would simply not say "...how can a Maria become our teacher?"

It boils down to his meaning being, "I don't hate Marias, I'm just worried about racism in Taiwan, what with everyone used to them being so poor and being maids and all, it's sad to me that nobody wants those Marias to be their English teachers. I'm just concerned!" 


He didn't say "many Taiwanese unfortunately have an obstacle in their thinking to accepting the idea that teachers from the Philippines could teach them, and that is wrong. We need to persuade them and overcome this obstacle, because there are many qualified professionals, including teachers, from the Philippines." He didn't even say "many Taiwanese think of workers from the Philippines as 'Marias' and that is a problem", which, while a bit gasp-worthy, is at least kind of an accurate description of what some Taiwanese people think.

He said, and I repeat, "how can a Maria become an English teacher?" as casually as an American racist might say "How'd a ________ like her get a nice car like that?" 

(And see how I made it quite clear that such horrid language describes views that exist in the world, but does not reflect my own views? It's not hard.)

At the very least it didn't occur to him that unthinkingly tossing off the 'Maria' epithet might be a problem. That only happens when someone already thinks of a group of people that way, not when they are signaling disagreement or condemnation of an opinion others hold.

And if a leader is caught in such a gaffe and tries to insist that they don't personally feel that way about a particular group, but they're just worried that everyone else does, that's simply unacceptable. Leaders should not inflame societal prejudices, even if they are common; they should be examples of a higher, more forward-thinking standard. 


Let's keep in mind as well that he tows the same 'concern troll' line with marriage equality, saying his real concern is "the next generation" (won't someone think of the children?), not that he is anti-gay, while fraternizing with anti-gay groups


And he didn't even bother to defend his remark until later in the meeting when directly asked about it, or show awareness that 'Maria' is more than 'just an expression'.

If you look at reporting of Han's comments, you get distortions of what he said all over the place (all translations are mine). Some make his wording look a lot worse - from UDN:


引進菲律賓人才,這恐怕對高雄人、台灣人心理衝擊大,因為瑪麗亞怎麼變老師了?
Introducing Filipino talent, I'm afraid (as in, scared - not regretful) that this will be a shock to Taiwanese and Kaohsiung residents, because how can a Maria become a teacher? 

From Liberty Times:


這恐怕對台灣人心理衝擊大,因為瑪麗亞怎麼變老師了?
I'm afraid that this would be a shock to the Taiwanese, because how can a Maria become a teacher?

And from Storm Media, inexplicably making him look better:


韓國瑜認為,確實能夠借重,但必須先克服市民及台灣人民的心理障礙,讓「瑪莉亞變老師」,很多人內心會有衝擊。 
...「我覺得我想高雄市民跟台灣人民,心理一定有很大衝擊,瑪莉亞變成我們老師了,這要克服的過程,這可能心理衝擊很大。」 
Han Kuo-yu believes it is indeed possible to take advantage of /get benefits from [talent from the Philippines], but the psychological barriers of the people of Taiwan must first be overcome - to let "'Marias' become teachers", a lot of people will be shocked.  
"I think / I think that Kaohsiung residents and Taiwanese will be very shocked, Marias become our English teachers, we need to overcome this, this can be a huge shock." 

Storm tried to soften the impact of his words by mashing two quotes together - "Marias become our English teachers" and "we need to overcome this", making it seem as though he said these two things at the same time, when he didn't (which the video makes clear by his different positioning). It also erases the "because how can a Maria become our teacher?" by selectively cutting his quote and replacing "because how can..." (怎麼) with "let" (讓) outside the quote marks. 

In English the reporting isn't much higher quality.

From Focus Taiwan, which offers the most accurate translation:


Responding to a proposal that Taiwan could hire bilingual Filipino white-collar workers at a conference on Wednesday, the mayor said employing "Marias" as teachers would be a psychological shock for Taiwanese.

There's also this from Taiwan News, which is far worse but just translates the garbage from Storm Media above but does so in a way that make Han's comments sound erudite in English, when they weren't particularly eloquent in Mandarin:


In response to this, the Kaohsiung Mayor admitted the Philippines’ abundance of skilled labor could benefit the city, but said its residents would first need to overcome some “internal conflicts.”
“I believe witnessing ‘Marias’ become teachers would cause a clash in the hearts of the people of Kaohsiung, and Taiwan’s population at large. This is something that needs to be overcome; likely a huge internal conflict,” Storm quotes Han.

And the Taipei Times, with what I think is the most inaccurate translation:


Han on Wednesday told a meeting of the Chinese National Association of Industry and Commerce in Taipei that he feared that hiring educated employees from the Philippines as English teachers “would cause a psychological shock for Taiwanese, as people might wonder: How has our Maria become a teacher?” 


Focus Taiwan accurately placed the 'Maria' comment within the attitude of Han, which is the context in which he made it, and not as a description of what he thinks other Taiwanese think. The other two make him sound much better than he actually did, and situate the 'Maria' quip not as Han's own word (which it is) but as a description of something he disagrees with (which is not what he said until pushed - which outs him as a concern troll.) Some translations (like Taipei Times' work) add connotations to the translation - e.g. "wondering" - that are simply not there in his actual words. 

All of these seem so odd to me, because the video of his remarks is publicly available. I'm not even a native Mandarin speaker or a perfectly fluent one, and yet I found and translated it with little problem.

So why do some quotes - like Liberty Times and UDN - make Han's remark seem more shocking than it was (and to be clear, it was quite shocking on its own and did not need to be sexed up)? And why do others - like Storm Media - make it sound like not much at all? How is this unclear and inaccurate media reporting of Han's remarks affecting how Taiwanese think about the incident, and is it distorting public discourse?

In English at least, it is having a distorting effect. Several posts on social media have pointed out that Han's remarks should not be considered offensive, because that's what some Taiwanese really think, based on the Taipei Times and Taiwan News translations.

This makes me wonder how can we even have a real conversation about Han's remarks and racism in Taiwanese society if what we read isn't quoting him correctly.

I'm not sure why Storm Media - which I've found to be typically more reliable - made Han look better than he deserved, and why a pan-green and pan-blue rag each made him look worse. But because the inaccuracies are present across the entire media-political spectrum, it doesn't point to an attempt to polarize the Taiwanese political cleavage.

Rather, I think it's just plain old bad reporting.

I'll finish off with something bad, then something good.

Something bad:


Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) on Saturday apologized for a recent remark in which he referred to Filipinos as "Marias," saying the term, considered by many to be a racial slur, was a slip of the tongue.
Han was sorry for the misunderstanding caused by his misuse of the term and said he looks forward to future cooperation with the Philippines, it added. 

No, Focus Taiwan. NO NO NO NO NO.

"Maria" is not "considered by many" to be a racial slur. Jesus F. Christ. It is a racial slur. Period. Han Kuo-yu said it, and only tried to insist it was a description of what other people think after he was called to task for it, without ever explaining why he'd throw it out so casually (because there is no explanation that absolves him).

It was not a "misunderstanding". We all understood him perfectly. People in the Philippines understood him quite accurately. And he didn't misuse the term - he used it exactly as it's meant to be used in racist speech.

Just as when my (dearly departed) grandpa referred to "those people" and then insisted, when I pressed him, that he hadn't meant it as an insult but "they're just a different community", I knew perfectly well that that's not what he'd meant. 


But then there's the good thing: when I moved to Taiwan 12 years ago, I don't know that a comment like this would have caused this kind of uproar in Taiwan. I passed more than one "Foreign Labor Go Home" protest, with old men carrying signs. I don't even know if such language was common then, because my Mandarin was crap, and I never heard of anyone raising a fuss about it.

But in 2019, despite some attempts to justify Han's language, the overwhelming response of Taiwanese public discourse is that it is not acceptable to talk this way, and racist speech and actions should not be tolerated.

If Han is correct about how many Taiwanese might think of English teachers from the Philippines - and he is, for some people - the fact that the backlash has been so swift and damning proves that not all Taiwanese think this way.

That said, it doesn't seem to be hurting his approval ratings, although I have long suspected something is really weird about whatever force underlies those ratings which is propping up Han. 


Taiwan has a long way to go - we need to treat immigrants from Southeast Asia better, end discrimination and give them the same opportunities for permanent residency and citizenship that white collar workers (who are largely Western) have - but this is real progress. 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Improve English education in Taiwan with this ONE WEIRD TRICK!

My work in Taiwan is dominated by adult students who ask for help with accent training. They need to do business with Koreans, Japanese, various speakers of Southeast Asian languages, Australians, Latinx people, Indians or various Europeans.

You see, all their teachers have been from an "Inner Circle" country (UK, Ireland, US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand). They are therefore most used to those accents, North American ones in particular. They might meet people with those accents, but for business, there is a real need to better understand other Englishes.

My life in Taiwan is unfortunately punctuated by people bloviating about how racism in the English learning industry is somehow acceptable because of "choice" or "the market" or something (their arguments don't make much sense, because they are constructed mostly to avoid confronting uncomfortable issues rather than as stand-alone opinions).

They might try to say that this is acceptable because of some sort of subjective "clarity" of certain accents, although of course how clear an accent is depends in great part on how exposed you are to it compared to other accents (these people are not exactly experts in second language acquisition).

Some pontificate on how it is preferable to be taught by a "native speaker", usually with a very poor understanding of second language acquisition or what being a "native" or "non-native" speaker might actually mean. There is even less recognition that many people in India, Singapore, Nigeria, the Philippines (and more) are, in fact, native speakers, let alone questioning why they aren't recognized as such.

(The answer is racism, by the way. But that's hard for Johnny McBackpacker to admit when it casts doubt on his strongly-held opinion that "the market" is the Fairest Arbiter Of Them All.)

My life in England is characterized by mostly non-native speaking classmates, all of whom are fluent in English, and all of whom know more about the pedagogy of how to teach English than the average Johnny McBackpacker.

Sure, they have accents. But many of them have the accents that my adult students say they need to better understand for their work. Every last one of them is qualified to teach in Taiwan, but many if not most would struggle to get hired here.

We talk about all sorts of things, not least of which is the idea of English as a lingua franca (ELF) or English as an international language (EIL). Most English learners speak regularly with other non-native speakers, some perhaps almost entirely so, especially if they are using English in business or academia.

Back in Taiwan, the consequences are not surprising - all that learning of English from Canadians, Brits and Americans (the so-called 'preferable' native speakers) has actually put those students who tell me they need help with accents at a disadvantage. They get to work and realize, oh, all that time I spent with Teacher Becky listening to dialogues between Tim and Karen, but I actually have to communicate with people who don't speak like Becky, Tim or Karen. I have to do business with Sandeep and Cheng and Fumiko and Nnedi and Abdurrahman and Lupa. 

Of course, most people making hiring decisions are not educators. Even if they realize that they are actually disadvantaging their learners by not providing the English education many instrumentally-motivated Taiwanese learners are likely to need, they don't care. "It's the market." And the market wants white - even Inner Circle "native speaker" teachers who aren't white struggle to get hired.

And I just can't help but think, if y'all hired fluent English-speaking teachers from around the world, ensuring that most learners through their time studying English were exposed to a variety of Englishes, maybe not so many adult learners would come to me asking for help, which I have trouble giving with my Standard American accent. Maybe if we hired more English teachers whose usage represented the speakers and Englishes our learners would actually be communicating with, we wouldn't have this problem.

I mean, I don't want to say "duh", but...duh?

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Racism in teacher hiring provokes outrage, but sexism doesn't

I'm sure you're all familiar with Facebook Post Seen 'Round Taiwan, in which a kindergarten teacher at Kangchiao (a famous and extremely expensive international school in Taiwan) seeks substitutes, apologizing as they admit that the school won't consider any "black or dark-skinned" applicants.


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Outrage followed. Outrage. Fury. I admit, I also shared the post. With good reason - it's not only blatantly racist, but such discriminatory hiring practices are also illegal in Taiwan.  (Notably, so is working at a kindergarten as a foreigner at all - chances are the teacher isn't aware of this, but the school is and hires foreigners anyway.)

I wonder if any reputable news outlet has asked Kangchiao not just for a comment, not "do you discriminate?" but "what exactly was that teacher told?" and "how many non-white teachers do you currently have?"

But what bugs me just as much as all of that is this:

Over the years, I have taken to task many posters, recruitment agencies and schools for sexist job ads: you know, female teachers wanted, that sort of thing. I've pointed out how many 'better' schools have all male teaching staff. I've been personally attacked for this. I've been threatened ("I'm going to find out who you work for and tell them you're a feminazi", "I'm going to report you to immigration/the tax office because [insert bullshit reason here].") I've been kicked out of and banned from job groups for merely pointing out that an ad is illegal and standing my ground when challenged on that. I've had people try to make the case that sexism in English teaching is okay for whatever (stupid) reasons - usually some tired fugue involving women being more "nurturing" or more professional jobs going to men because there are more "qualified" men, so diversity shouldn't be one facet of the hiring process.

At no point has an ad requesting a certain gender of teacher caused this much anger or made the news in any real way, despite it usually being more blatant than racism in hiring. Of course many if not most schools have racist hiring practices, but they will almost never advertise it openly. But they will advertise sexist hiring practices openly.

That's not to say the blatant racism in this ad shouldn't spark a furor, but that the sexism in other ads should. It's also illegal, it's also discriminatory, there's also no good reason for it, and it's also wrong.

There is no reason why, in a classroom or school situation, that gender should be a factor in hiring a teacher. Some of the most 'nurturing' teachers I know - the best with kids - are actually mostly male. The most dedicated Montessori teacher I have ever met is a man. I can rattle off half a dozen highly-qualified women who could easily teach higher-level classes (Business English, IELTS and the 'prestigious' buxibans) - and those are only the ones I know personally. There are obviously more. There is no reason for the teaching staff at these places to be almost entirely male.

Pretty much the only time I can justify considering gender in teacher hiring is if it is for one-on-one classes which will take place at either the teacher's or student's home. I can understand a female student feeling uncomfortable having a male teacher alone in her home or vice versa.

And yet, nothing - despite the fact that sexism in hiring is not only illegal, but also perpetuates harmful stereotypes (yo if you say I'm 'more nurturing' because I'm female, you'd better get yourself a good strong protective codpiece, buddy. I don't even like kids). It makes it harder for women who want to work with adults - say teaching Business English - to be taken seriously. It makes it harder for nurturing men who want to work with kids to earn parents' trust.

It perpetuates wage inequality as well: those 'nurturing' jobs working with children tend to pay a lot less, too. Surrogate-Mommy-Tracking women into them based on ludicrous notions that they're better suited for those lower-paid roles because they're female, and not bothering about better-paid teaching work being almost entirely done  by men leads to long-term wage gaps.

But nobody seems to be mad about that, and I'm stumped as to why. It's just as much a violation of the law. Every case made for violating the law comes down to "that's what paying customers want", but if what the students (or their parents) want is actually illegal and has nothing to do with who is actually best-suited and qualified to educating them or their children, it doesn't - or shouldn't - matter.

You know, though, about that ad. It doesn't matter either. It won't lead to any real change.

There's a lot swirling around about who said what and why which I won't get into, only to say that I have it on good authority that the problem here is not with the teacher who posted the ad.

The school, as reported in Taiwan News, claims it does not discriminate - but of course they have to say that. They seem to think the teacher "misunderstood" (according to another source) - though (and this is my interpretation here), anyone who has been in Taiwan long enough knows that "you misunderstood" is another way of saying "you embarrassed me/the organization by accurately reporting what I said or otherwise made clear, so now we have to pretend it was a 'misunderstanding' when we both know it wasn't."

And that's just it - nothing will change because if Kangchiao is in fact racist (I don't know for a fact that they are), they'll just try to be quieter or more subtle about it, to ensure that it never gets stated openly again. Even if Kangchiao is not racist, every other school that is (and there are a lot of them) will try to avoid this not by - duh - not being racist - but by trying to ensure that nobody outs them as racist.

The big outrage here as far as the racist buxiban industry is concerned isn't that there is racism in teacher hiring in Taiwan. It's that someone dared to say so openly.

I guess when it comes to sexism they're safe, as nobody seems willing to be outraged about that. And I'll continue to point it out, tell people it's illegal, and be threatened, shouted at and kicked out of groups for simply stating again and again that it's both illegal and wrong.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Book Review: Lord of Formosa

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It is a pleasure for a work of historical fiction to come out on an area of history I am particularly interested in (Taiwan, obviously). It is an even greater pleasure when that work of historical fiction is not only engaging, but generally accurate. Joyce Bergvelt's Lord of Formosa has earned both of these adjectives.

Lord of Formosa is essentially a biography of Koxinga (國姓爺 or 鄭成功), the 17th-century scholar/pirate/businessman/military leader/talented crazy dude, from his early life on the Japanese island of Hirado (off Nagasaki) with his Japanese mother, Tagawa Matsu to his upbringing at his father Zheng Zhilong's (鄭芝龍) estate in Fujian, followed by his rise as one of the most talented loyalist military leaders resisting the encroaching Manchu (Qing) conquerers to his conquest of the Dutch colony on Taiwan. It's interspersed with viewpoint chapters from the Dutch colonial officers as well as Koxinga's parents.

It tells the story, in short, of a man given the Imperial Surname (國姓爺) by a dying empire, a man given the title 'Success' (成功) who was, in the end, not all that successful.

The story itself is somewhat tragic: Koxinga fulfills what the novel depicts as his 'destiny' but pays for it dearly. He has to choose between remaining loyal to the collapsing Ming dynasty or to his father, and watches the devastation of his family at the hands of the Qing.

"He literally died of a broken heart," an acquaintance of mine noted.

But no, to hear historians tell it, he probably died of syphilis.

In this way, the thick novel is cinematic in scope, at times reading like a biopic. It would make an excellent film, and I can only hope someone will pick up the rights and do just that (as long as it's not a Chinese company hoping to use it as a propaganda vehicle for their government's aggressive territorial expansionism).

From the beginning, I was interested in how accurate Lord of Formosa really was. So, just after reading it, I picked up Tonio Andrade's Lost Colony, figuring it would be a good nonfiction counterpoint. I'm partway through that book now, and am surprised more by how much is accurate than the small details which are spun with more artistic license.

However, this isn't even the highlight of the book: the best part is simply how much fun it is to read. Despite being extremely busy, I read Lord of Formosa in three days, staying up late one evening to finish it. You know a book is good when it's 3am and you know you aren't going to get enough rest that night, but you just keep going because sleep won't happen anyway.

I also appreciated how forthright Bergvelt is with her characters' flaws. Zheng Zhilong is, to be frank, a total douchehole both in terms of his defection to the Qing and his treatment of his first wife. If his son Koxinga was any kind of hero, he was a deeply flawed one: often cruel and despotic, suffering from fits of uncontrollable rage which might have been brought about by the aforementioned syphilis. Of course, the syphilis would have been brought about by all the mostly-nonconsensual sex he was having.

What I'm trying to say is that Koxinga might have been brilliant, but he was also super rapey.

His regretting it later (in the novel's telling) doesn't change that. Oh, and like father, like son.

In fact, that Bergvelt successfully created a story that includes a variety of relevant, realistic female voices - not all of them kind, pure-hearted heroic martyrs - in a story and era that is so deeply, unrepentantly penis-driven (my masts are bigger than your masts - let us do naval warfare!) is a literary feat. While she could have done more with the housekeeper, Lady Yan and Koxinga's wife Cuiying, she does enough to show that behind every story of dueling dicks, there are women who also drive the plot. And yet, she doesn't shy away from exactly how those women are treated.

The Dutch, who are portrayed not entirely unsympathetically, still come across as stupid - not really understanding Asia or the goings-on in the colonies they ruled - as well as greedy and racist. This was historically accurate: they did consider Chinese men to be 'effeminate', not a fighting force that could vanquish their (smaller) military might. That's racist. They didn't care nearly as much about the welfare of the people on Formosa, be they indigenous or Hoklo, as they did their profits. This is not only historically accurate, but also racist. 

On the other hand, Koxinga was kind of racist too - believing he had the right to take Taiwan because most residents by that time were Chinese (mostly brought over as laborers by the Dutch, who worked them like serfs) and therefore Taiwan ought to be a part of China, is just a different way to be racist. He didn't 'liberate' Taiwan from colonizers - he was just another kind of colonizer.

If I have any criticism of Lord of Formosa, it's that that point could have been made more forcefully.

Bergvelt takes a few artistic liberties. There was a fortune-teller in Japan who was more of a plot device than real character. I'm not sure how many of the Hoklo characters on Formosa were real people (though at least two - Guo Huai-yi and He [Ting]-bin certainly are). It is not clear how Tagawa Matsu died, although Bergvelt's telling of it is plausible, or even likely. Koxinga is depicted as growing less rapey over time (but still, again, super rapey) due to the effect his mother's death has on him. I'm not sure this would have played out in quite that way in real life - more likely, he was incapable of comprehending that the sex he unilaterally decided to have with women who didn't resist per se but also didn't consent is just as rapey as what Qing soldiers were doing. In other words, he didn't stop being rapey - he was just another kind of rapist.

That said, Bergvelt is a talented writer, understanding seemingly innately where to hew to historical accuracy and where to apply a bit of soft focus or streamlining. The story moves forward when it needs to (although I would have liked to have seen more of Koxinga's childhood in China) and lingers where it needs to.

Whether you are into historical fiction, want an engaging read of a period of Taiwanese history in particular, or just like a good novel, I strongly recommend it.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Taiwan is the canary in the coal mine, and it's getting hard to breathe

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Emperor Xi Jinping of the Pooh Dynasty



Lots going on in the news this past week or two on China, its strategy abroad, the West's reaction to it, the rise of Emperor Xi, and what this could all mean for Taiwan.

I noticed, as international media outlets began reporting on Xi Jinping crowning himself Emperor Winnie of the Pooh Dynasty, that a number of them - most, in fact - curiously left out Taiwan, like the BBC, The Guardian, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the NPR News broadcast I listened to while making dinner yesterday. Only a brief mention of how he has "toughened China's stance" on Taiwan in this other Washington Post article (I can't read the New York Times coverage as I've used all my articles for the month and it's not one of the two papers I subscribe to). Even though that last one is about how Xi might use his throne - despite there being at least a fair chance, if not a likely one, that he will eventually use it to make a move on Taiwan - it doesn't factor in at all.

This is unsettling for anyone who cares about Taiwan - not just that this changes the game vis-a-vis a potential Chinese threat, but that the West doesn't seem terribly concerned about it. If you don't believe me about that threat, by the way, Donovan pointed out clearly why Taiwan is right to be terrified of Emperor Xi in The News Lens:


Most analysts (including myself) have thought the only way China would risk an invasion of Taiwan in the short to medium term would be if the China faced enough of an internal crisis that the power of the Chinese Communist Party was threatened, who would then use an invasion as a distraction and nationalist rallying cry....

This is where the terrifying part lies. Xi may consider actions purely for glory that his more institutional predecessors wouldn’t or couldn’t have.

This should make China’s neighbors very nervous. An absolute ruler of a massively powerful nation with ambitions to enter history is potentially very dangerous and unpredictable. China wants the Senkaku Islands from Japan, several border areas from India and to consolidate power over the South China Sea. But the obvious big prize to achieve glorious “reunification” of China and finally end the “century of humiliation” would be to take Taiwan.

That would be hugely risky and destructive course to take, potentially igniting a massive war involving many countries. But we can no longer assume that only a Chinese Communist Party facing an existential internal crisis is the only likely scenario whereby China would consider an attack.

Xi might just consider it for himself.

He is absolutely correct and I could not say it better myself.

I have no idea what Xi might do - there's a lot to consider. He wouldn't have made this power play if he hadn't been quite sure it could be accomplished fairly easily, meaning that there would be no need to 'distract' angry Chinese citizens by manufacturing a pretext to attack Taiwan. That said, China has underestimated resistance before (I genuinely believe they didn't see the Umbrella Movement coming, for example, and note how they only worked to send its leaders to jail once it became apparent they could actually get elected to LegCo in Hong Kong. I don't think they'd planned for that at all), and might be doing so now. I don't know. Within the CCP, there might still be a number of people who had thought, until this past Sunday, that they might be potential heirs to the Chinese presidency, and might be less than happy about this change in plan, but not necessarily saying so outright, given what Xi does to his rivals. That does mean, however, that it is not guaranteed that he is as surrounded by syncophants and True Believers as he might think he is, and there might be a crisis they truly don't see coming, for which they need to manufacture a distraction in the Taiwan Strait.

Yes, the CCP claims to value stability above all else - but what they claim and what they actually believe are not necessarily the same. They value what suits them, and nothing more (they're very Trumpian in this way, although perhaps less venal). They value "peace and stability" when it suits them, and are also quite willing to manufacture instability and crisis when that suits them instead (and keep that door open by continually rattling their saber at Taiwan). So I would not base a belief that Taiwan is basically safe on any CCP talk about "stability".

And yes, I do believe the CCP as a whole - as Donovan wrote so well - is as keen on actually taking Taiwan as they say they are. They want to keep up the claim, sure, but they know perfectly well we're more trouble than we're worth. Xi, though? I think he wants this just for him - for his historical legacy He's not doing this for the power. He could step down in 2023 and still have that. He's doing this because he wants to be a big name in the history books. Whether or not he actually believes his blah-blah-blah about the Chinese Dream, the Rejuvenation of the Great Chinese Nation, Reunification of the Motherland and Xi Jinping Thought (barf, barf, barf and barf, by the way) - that I don't know. But that's the kind of stuff that makes it into textbooks, not the more tepid reigns of people like Hu Jintao.

Sure, this takes off the pressure of him accomplishing "Reunification of the Motherland" (BARF) by the original end of his term, but it also means we have a president-for-life who is an ideological hardliner, especially on Taiwan. 


So, we have every reason to believe he plans to make a move on Taiwan in his lifetime. 

And this is terrifying. For Taiwan, and also for the world.

All of this "Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation" (which includes annexing Taiwan) talk stems from China's "century of humiliation" victimhood mentality - they talk about it as though it's an internal confidence-building and great-nation-building exercise, but it's really about vengeance for being the one-time top dog who was laid low by the (admittedly crappy and colonialist) ascendant Western powers. They don't just want to be "a confident nation at ease with itself", they want to be on top again. They want global hegemony. They want to take the US's place.

Taiwan? We'll just be the first domino to fall. We've seen this coming for awhile - because China already claims us, they'll go for us first. In this scenario, Taiwan's beautiful, imperfect but vibrant and fierce democracy will fall. Assuming the country is not completely pulverized, for awhile, a sham democracy will take its place in which we are able to choose among "candidates" pre-selected by China in "elections". Eventually that might be scrapped too. Not immediately - the attrition must be slow, similar to their strategy in Hong Kong. This not only wears down resistance but also makes it easier for Western nations to pretend they don't see it happening. After all, they grow tired of most stories in the news after awhile. They might be mad at first, but nobody will want to upset the new global economic order - that could mean instability (oh no!) - so they won't actually do anything. And after awhile they'll forget that they were mad at all.

The world will have 23.5 million fewer free people, 23.5 million fewer people who lack basic human rights...and the rest of the world will hardly notice.

The US - well, our superpower status has kind of sucked. We're not great. A lot of Westerners angry at the abuse of our position as we supported the toppling of governments we didn't like and propped up regimes friendly to us, regardless of what was best for the countries involved, at our failed attempts at "spreading democracy" one bombing at a time, and our take on the global economy that reeks of modern mercantilism would be happy to see us fall and to see a non-Western (and non-white, because they're sick of white people taking the whole pie, as they have every right to be) power take our place. Triumph of the people of color, that sort of thing. The rise of the oppressed, toppling the oppressors.

It all sounds really wonderful if you blur your eyes. But, if you think about it, China is just an Asian version of Killmonger in Black Panther - his idea to funnel resources to the oppressed to they can overthrow the oppressors sounds great on its face ("it's a good idea!", some people said), but in the end he just wanted to institute another kind of oppression, a different sort of hegemonic rule.

But, it's easy to get people on board when the new bully in town isn't white. It looks a lot like liberation. It's not.

So why isn't the rest of the world worried yet? When (almost) every piece of news from Taiwan includes a reference to China no matter how unrelated, how is it that when something China does really is a threat to Taiwan, nobody seems to even realize it?

Brian over at New Bloom says this is because Westerners lack a conceptual framework in which to consider Chinese neo-colonialism (phrasing from Michael Turton) and he has a point - Westerners don't seem to have the necessary lexicon to really talk about China's global ambitions. They sure get tongue-tied if they try!

But, I don't think that's because they "lack the vocabulary" or even a "conceptual framework". The framework and vocabulary exist - neo-colonialism. Expansionism. Neo-imperialism (or, in the case of Taiwan, just 'imperialism'). Hegemony. Global domination. Economic subjugation. Checkbook diplomacy. Economic imperialism. The spread of authoritarianism. We have all of these words and frameworks.

It's just that Westerners are afraid of using them to describe China (or really any non-Western/non-white nation) for fear of seeming - or being labeled - racist. They're afraid someone will say they don't understand how the historic injustice of white privilege means that anything non-white people do can't be considered the same, or as bad, as anything white people do. (A worldview which has its uses, and which I am often sympathetic to, but which doesn't apply here.)

That's really all it is - it's a race thing. All they need to do is take their old frameworks, dust 'em off and apply 'em to a regime that happens to be Asian. There's nothing new or uncharted about it. Just stop being afraid of criticizing China because someone might think you're racist if you criticize shitty things non-Western powers do, and call China's actions what they are using words you already have.

What I'm saying is, the thing Westerners lack isn't vocabulary or conceptualization, it's balls.

Feeding into my idea that this is actually a race thing: the Western world seems content to ignore China's increasing reach - including its attempts at controlling or even abducting foreign citizens - when its levers of control are used to oppress other Asians (not just Chinese - this affects Taiwanese too, and the majority of Taiwanese identify as Taiwanese, not Chinese). Their increasing control over Australian citizens is ignored by the rest of the world - though kudos to the Sydney Morning Herald for continuing to report on the story - because most Australians affected have Chinese ancestry (but, remember, are not Chinese citizens). The world ignores Lee Ming-che - a Taiwanese citizen - because he looks Chinese. They ignore Gui Minhai - a Swedish citizen - because he looks Chinese. They ignore Hong Kong because they are Chinese, regardless of what Hong Kongers want or feel they were promised.

Yes, reports are filed, articles occasionally appear, but most of the West just doesn't care much. I suppose it's too bad that these problems are happening, they might think, but deep down, they don't think too much about it, because the victims don't look Western, and it's easy to ignore a bunch of Asians. Just an internal matter. It sucks, but, well, that's in China. No matter how much the people being threatened, persecuted and prosecuted might align themselves ideologically more with Western thought than "Xi Jinping Thought", and no matter how much it is not just in China - it's happening in their own countries - and not just Chinese citizens. That they look Chinese seems to be enough to get the West to turn the other way.

So what does this have to do with Emperor Xi, Taiwan and the coal mine?

Well, we are the bellwether. The new Emperor has his eyes on Taiwan. Don't think Taiwan is in that much trouble? I do. I don't see a good outcome here - either there's a massive crisis in China, in which case we're invaded as a distraction as the CCP tries to hold onto power. Or there's no crisis in China, and the slow march of their invasion plans continues forward without much resistance from the rest of the world (although I am heartened to see a little pushback). Or, there's a massive world war because Trumpo was bored with porn stars and Big Macs and couldn't keep his finger off the trigger, and China takes advantage of the chaos. No matter how this shakes out, good potential outcomes for Taiwan are few, and the possibilities leading to catastrophe are massive.

And what happens in Taiwan - perhaps an invasion, perhaps the slow erosion of our democracy under Chinese pressure, perhaps we get pulverized by missiles and then pushed into a sham 'democracy' where 'candidates' selected by China run for 'election', perhaps we spiral into economic ruin - is a sign of things to come under Chinese global hegemony over the rest of the world. Not in terms of outright invasion (of countries other than Taiwan), but in terms of the ways in which China will seek to influence what happens within those countries - who gets elected and what they do in office. Putting pressure on foreign governments to bring their own citizens in line regarding what they can and can't say vis-a-vis China (and perhaps anything else the Chinese government doesn't want us discussing, as well), through diplomatic and economic influence. If that doesn't work, threatening them directly.

In other words, to dust off some old vocabulary that we absolutely have, we'll all be tributary states.

Don't think China would care to reach that far into the affairs of other countries? They're already doing it, to citizens of those countries. Australia (and to some extent New Zealand) seem almost like test cases for how they'd do this - want to know what they'd like to do in the US and Europe? Watch Australia.

You just haven't noticed, because your fellow citizens being threatened by China don't look like you. Taiwan is getting the brunt of China's wrath, but they're already branching out, and there's a point at which they'll no longer care if criticism comes from someone who looks Chinese or someone who doesn't.

By then, you might care, but it will be too late. The canary is suffocating, and the time to pay attention is now.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The color line is the power line: the new pro-Taiwan generation and attitudes toward foreign blue-collar labor

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From a foreign labor rights protest I attended before the Tsai administration took power


I want to start this post with a little story. Every Saturday morning I tutor one of two intelligent, thoughtful young women - sisters. Which one I teach changes periodically. They used to have a domestic worker from Indonesia, whom the whole family liked (she eventually returned). She would cook Indonesian dishes for them to try, bring them gifts from her visits home, and was generally a part of the family. I liked her a lot, too. The girls called her Auntie. They call me Jenna.

She seemed older. Her face was lightly lined, a few silver wires in her hair. I guessed that she was in her forties, both by her appearance and attitude.

One day, while the helper was in the next room, one of the girls let slip that she thought I was in my twenties. I laughed and encouraged them to guess my real age. We were sitting in the living room, and they guessed and guessed but just would not make it up to my actual age. It's not their fault: I really didn't look it. No wrinkles, no visible gray hairs, a youthful personality.

I finally spilled: I was 33.

They were both silent.

"33?" one of them finally said. "But that's Auntie's age!"

"It is?"

They called her over in Chinese and asked her age.

"33," she answered simply.

"Oh," I replied in Chinese.

"...I'm 33, too."

But the truth thumped gracelessly in the pause.

She smiled sadly. I don't know what my face did. The girls were merely surprised, and I can only think that someday in the future they will reflect on that moment.


* * *


I often hear that a sense of Hoklo nationalism (think "Taiwan for the Taiwanese") and anti-foreigner sentiment once marred past pro-Taiwan movements. And I've seen it: more than once, I've watched Southeast Asian laborers march in demonstrations demanding better worker protections, only to be ignored by the government and the Taiwanese population. I've watched demonstration, mostly by older people, holding signs saying things like "foreign workers (外勞) go home." I was worried they meant me, but was told (by way of "reassurance") that I was welcome, it was foreign blue collar (mostly Southeast Asian) labor they didn't want.

In one notorious case, the Liberty Times - that bastion of the older pan-green "left" - reported on the horrific traumas one foreign domestic worker had suffered as a rape victim who was repeatedly ignored by authorities, making it all about Taiwan's "loss of face" rather than the woman in question (link in Chinese).

I have had more than one conversation with older pro-Taiwan people who still say things like "Taiwan isn't racist, we treat you well" and "I don't think we should bar employers from holding foreign workers' passports, because those foreign workers can commit crimes in Taiwan and then just leave the country!"

In short, the Hoklo chauvinism that also deterred many non-Hoklo Taiwanese from supporting the DPP in the past, while writhing in what I can only hope are the throes of death, was a problematic attitude held by many which caused them to either view immigrants with suspicion, or only want 'certain kinds' of immigrants (i.e. Westerners).

While it's not fair to tarnish every pro-Taiwan supporter of past generations, or even most of them, the lack of regard for foreign labor was a real problem. This doesn't mean that Taiwanese activists shunned making international connections: they have worked hard to build networks around the world, lobby for support and garner high-profile allies. Rather, this attitude ran parallel to that sort of activism.

I'm here to tell you it is unfortunately still something of a problem.

Let's get a few things out of the way first: this is also a big issue in the pan-blue camp, too: the KMT not only doesn't care about foreigners, their chauvinism is Han chauvinism - just another type of prejudice. They are just as likely to welcome white Westerners but turn their noses up at Southeast Asians, and they are not off the hook.

What's more, the worst of the old-school chauvinism is on its way out. You will generally not hear young people trashing foreign workers in the same overtly racist ways that their predecessors may have: they'll speak out against communities that want them to leave simply because they are foreign, and they'll argue that they deserve fair treatment and a non-exploitative work environment in Taiwan. They won't take to the streets holding signs admonishing anyone to "go home". Certainly most would recoil at expressions of Hoklo chauvinism.

Many, if not most, support better pathways to dual nationality, with some of our staunchest allies in this regard being people like Freddy Lim and Hsiao Bhi-khim. Note, again, though, that the dual nationality they support is aimed at foreign white-collar workers, not labor.

And, with the DPP in power, we are seeing more movement on foreign workers' rights, although this is still a hotly-contested issue when, frankly, it shouldn't be. Unless I missed something, I don't recall ever seeing so much talk from the government end about foreign labor in Taiwan under the KMT. For example, it wasn't until 2016 that exit rules requiring foreign labor to leave every three years (often at great expense, often funneled through corrupt brokerage agencies) were changed to lift this requirement. There are DPP legislators working to protect foreign worker rights.

There is plenty of evidence showing that working conditions in Taiwan for foreign labor are poor, and you will find plenty of support in the pro-Taiwan camp for changing this.

So, I want to make it clear that this is not a hit piece. I don't want to make anyone look bad, nor do I want to take a swipe at the new generation of pro-Taiwan advocates. I don't even want to imply they all share these views.

However, we still have a problem when it comes to how people, even in this otherwise progressive camp, view foreign blue-collar and mostly Southeast Asian labor.

It is still strikingly common for someone agreeing one minute that working conditions for foreign labor in Taiwan should be better, and then the next express opposition to giving such workers a path even to permanent residency. Foreign professionals such as myself can obtain permanent residency fairly easily, although some of the rules seem a bit arbitrary. Foreign blue collar workers, however, cannot. Even if the visa allowed for it - and I am fairly sure it doesn't - they wouldn't meet the income requirements. It's fine to let them come here to work, apparently, but giving them the same opportunities as white-collar workers is apparently too much.

There are new laws, but some of these don't strengthen worker protections enough, and none of them expand worker rights to include the same opportunities I enjoy in Taiwan. It's a line drawn between types of foreigners, as though one type is better than the other. For example, it is simply not acceptable that being convicted of sexually abusing a foreign worker would bar you from employing another one after just 2-5 years, rather than being barred for life. Nor are the protections to stop employers from holding workers' essential documents, including passports, strong enough. "Strong dissuasion from doing so without a good reason" is too weak.

So, essentially, the narrative seems to be that foreign labor deserves better working conditions, but not more rights.

I don't agree with the reasoning behind this. The first reason given seems to be that they will "swamp" Taiwan. I'm not sure about that. Of foreign workers already in Taiwan, it's like that only a fraction would be eligible for whatever sort of permanent residency requirements the government sets. Of those who are eligible, only a small fraction would ever obtain it. Perhaps they will do so at higher rates than professionals as there are more of them, but it wouldn't likely be a majority.

Most intend to only stay a few years, and the option is not on their radar. Although there are far more foreign laborers than professionals in Taiwan, it is safe to assume most do consider their native countries home and intend to make money for awhile, but eventually return.

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You can see from the photos of politicians at the back how old these pictures are, and yet the same issues remain


Remember, for many, they work here to earn money to send home. Home. They will stay as long as they need to earn that money, but they don't intend to live out their lives here. Just like us, they have family, friends and connections where they come from.

What's more, I'm not sure what "swamped" is supposed to mean here. Taiwan has a labor shortage, not a surplus (the fact that this has not translated into increased wages is all about fiddling at the top). The birthrate is going down, not up. The average age is going up, not down. The population is set to decline, not rise.

We talk about foreign talent being part of the solution to all of these problems, although I think the bigger solution is to stop the top-level cronyism that leads to artificially depressed wages for locals, and to improve working conditions (and pay) across the board so the brain drain gets plugged. But people seem to assume that including immigration as a solution to Taiwan's economic and labor woes means professional foreign labor - frankly, we also need foreign blue-collar labor. They are consumers too. They sometimes marry locally. Many have children locally. One in five marriages is to a foreigner.

This is good for an aging population, not bad. It's not swamping, it's replenishing. That is, unless you are worried about the racial makeup of your country changing. And why would you be worried about that if this wasn't about race?

In any case, the people who would be eligible are the people who are already here. Nothing would change, really.

I've heard the 'culture' argument too: as more Southeast Asians want to come here than people from other parts of the world, allowing that many (although I disagree it would be so many) of them in would change the cultural makeup of Taiwan. Would it, though? Let's take one cultural marker for example - Islam. Right now the Muslim population of Taiwan is about .03% of the population (Christians are about 4.5%, and I've also heard 5% as a figure). Even if that number grew exponentially, it's still a long way to even 1%. I honestly just don't think it would change that much, even taking into account the fact Taiwan is quite a bit smaller than the US.

Even if that were a legitimate fear, it strikes me as another form of discrimination based on national origin - ethnocentrism, perhaps. We learned in the 20th century that nation states based primarily on ethnicity were a bad idea (I'd double underscore that if I could), so I'm generally wary of this line of thinking.

Another reason seems to be that "more foreign labor hurts Taiwanese labor". I didn't believe this when Bernie Sanders said it about immigration in America (he eventually modulated his message to be anti-corporate exploitation, but his original platform was anti-foreign-labor as a defense of American workers) - and I don't believe it now.

Foreign labor has been coming to the US ever since we've had work for them, and it has never significantly slowed down the US economy. If anything, accepting scores of low-skill workers who eventually assimilate and move up so their children can do better and the whole country can grow more prosperous is what made us what we are.

What's more, we do need people to do that work. Anti-immigration Americans insist that Americans will do it, but I'm not so sure about that. I'm not so sure about it in Taiwan, either: there seems to be a real prejudice against 'black handed' work (that is, work that gets you dirty). As it stands now, in the US, foreign labor pretty much ensures that our agricultural and service sectors run. In Taiwan the industries are different (elder care and factory and fishing work) but the story is essentially the same.

I'm not happy with the exploitation I see in any of those industries, in either country, but the solution isn't to tell foreign labor to stay home, it's to improve the industries to be less exploitative. They want to come, and they do work we need done - don't punish them. Punish the people who victimize them.

Bernie still doesn't seem to have figured this out, and unfortunately Taiwanese who think similarly don't seem to, either.

The most persuasive argument is that foreign labor is so cheap that it undercuts Taiwanese wages.

As for domestic workers, however, I'm not sure this is persuasive enough. Salaries in Taiwan are stagnant, and the population is getting older. People can't afford to pay more to hire someone to care for their elderly family members, but it is difficult-to-impossible to hire a Taiwanese person to do this work at the same rate you would pay a foreign caretaker. If we had a shortage of domestic workers, the work would most likely fall to the women of the household: yet another family obligation that pushes women to scale back on their other goals and ambitions. I can't condone that.

Regarding factory and agriculture/fishing workers, research seems to indicate that the impact is small and short-term if it happens at all, but foreign blue-collar labor is overall a benefit. Remember, without them prices would go up, storefronts that now house shops and restaurants aimed at Southeast Asian immigrants would be empty, the population would drop, certain work would not get done and lower production, even in the short term, would harm the economy. It's not so simple as saying "they can just hire Taiwanese (and pay them more)".

And, frankly, wages in all of these sectors (and all other ones too) need to go up whether the workers are foreign or not. I don't want to see Taiwanese wages drop because of foreign labor. I want to see foreign labor wages increase to rival that of Taiwanese workers, so that industries hire the workers they need, not just the ones they can get at a cut-rate price.

I have tried to talk to friends about this issue, reminding them that I too am a foreign worker. The only thing that differentiates me from them is my skin color and, well, white Western privilege (and the education that comes with it). I remind them that by supporting expanded rights for me, but not for a class that is almost entirely Southeast Asian, that they are essentially rewarding born privilege. Rewarding me for being born Western, with means. At the same time, they are punishing other people for the less fortunate circumstances they were born into.

I know my friends and other pro-Taiwan advocates well enough to know that they aren't intending to be racist. They are just as happy to welcome foreign professionals of any race, including Southeast Asians, and are horrified to hear stories of racism in professional labor (which do exist - ask...well, any given one of my non-white foreign professional friends in Taiwan).

However, it can't help but be about race. The race divide is too clear: most foreign labor in Taiwan is Southeast Asian, most professionals are Western, and most (but not all) of those are white. Although the intention is not to discriminate based on race or skin color, that is essentially what they are doing. It's playing into that same old socioeconomic game: they see it as a line between what helps Taiwan and what they think doesn't, but it is also a color line, whether we like it or not. That color line is a power line: I have the power to gain certain rights and privileges in Taiwan simply because of the circumstances of my birth: the country and family I was born into. There is no universe in which I think this is fair.

Not wanting to consider that the line drawn is, in effect, a color line as much as everyone would like it not to be is a real problem. It's still discrimination. It's still saying "some people deserve more rights than others". It's still saying I deserve something better than a woman from Indonesia because I happen to have been born with more money and in the right country. And if you group people by who is on the 'preferred' side of that color line, of course it's the people who are mostly white. Who, again, is kept down? Non-whites.

Whether you like it or not, that is what it is saying.

But that line is also a poverty line: these views advocate rewarding people who were born in the right place to the right people, and punishing those who weren't. People who want a better life, just like anyone else. People who just want to work hard and make money to better their circumstances. People who do contribute to the Taiwanese economy in invisible ways, whether one wants to admit that or not.

With these attitudes still in place, I'm not sure how the New Southbound Policy will remain on solid footing going forward: Taiwan already has a bad reputation in SE Asia as the worst of all the industrialized Asian countries to move to for work due to low wages, long hours and rampant exploitation. Are these same countries supposed to happily work more closely with Taiwan for mutual benefit in industry, tourism, trade and culture, when Taiwan still doesn't want to give immigrants from those countries in Taiwan more rights? This whole strategy can only work if both sides stand to benefit, not just Taiwan as it weans itself off reliance on China. That means extending rights and benefits to foreign labor from Southeast Asia in Taiwan, not more of the same.

No one is an island, whether you like it or not. 

It also bothers me that, as I've talked to so many friends recently about how to talk about Taiwan in a convincing way with American liberals, that I essentially have the same problem in Taiwan: I don't know how to talk to Taiwanese liberals about foreign labor, especially blue collar labor. They seem to have gotten the message regarding foreign professionals and dual nationality - not that that is moving any faster - but cross that color line and I feel like I hit a discursive brick wall. There is a lot of sympathy for ending abusive treatment, but none for giving foreign labor real opportunity in Taiwan.

It's also just a bad look: I know the intent isn't racial discrimination but as that's the practical effect, it's bad optics when it comes to getting foreign support. We are foreigners too. We are, essentially, foreign workers with more privilege and different skin. We do - especially the more liberal among us - feel solidarity with Southeast Asian workers. When a party isn't doing everything they can for some foreigners, all politically astute foreigners notice. If they want more 'New Taiwanese' to support them, loyalty is bred by treating all 'New Taiwanese' well, not just the comparatively privileged ones.

It is quite problematic, as well, that when these issues do finally get discussed, they feel filtered down through layers of acceptability. First, the NPP didn't support changes to regulations regarding foreign professionals. I'm not sure that ever changed, but they did start to support relaxing dual nationality requirements...again, for professionals. The DPP relaxed these requirements, but only for certain professionals. It might be extended to the rest of us plebes someday, but not laborers. Only once that happens does it feel like the conversation might open to include talk of increasing their rights, too. It's like ideas of inclusion in Taiwanese society have to drip down through a layer of white Westernness for them to finally be acceptable to think about also including people who are not as privileged.

The US also has a problem when it comes to how the majority of people view blue-collar immigrant labor, although the liberal landscape is changing enough that Sanders took some heat for his views. It was ultimately not enough for most to abandon him or even reconsider their support. For us, that labor tends to come from Mexico, Central and South America.

It's not much different in Taiwan, the only difference (beyond the origin of the majority of laborers) being that not even the liberal electorate is admonishing the progressives they support for their views on blue-collar immigrant labor.

In both countries there is a power and a poverty line, and in both it is difficult to get certain liberal thinkers to really consider how it is also a color line - but in Taiwan it feels so much harder these days.

I know the progressives of whom I speak, so I know the intention is not to keep certain people considered 'undesirable' based on their race. We cannot ignore that this is the practical effect, however, and if Taiwan doesn't provide better opportunities for Southeast Asians within its borders, then Southeast Asia has less incentive to grow the stronger links with Taiwan that this country needs to weaken China's grip. There are times when the effects of globalization are not positive, but this, I feel, is not one of them.

Let's end with this: not too long ago, one of the strains of Taiwanese public discourse was that it wasn't good enough to just seek independence. That Taiwan has two gauntlets before it - de jure recognition of the independence it already has, and deciding not that it is a country (it very obviously is) but what sort of country it wants to be. At the time this discussion was about marriage equality, and it later evolved to include aboriginal land rights.

I'd like to extend that and say that Taiwan also has to decide what sort of country it wants to be vis-a-vis how it treats its immigrants - all of its immigrants. Not the ones that most obviously benefit the country, but those who benefit the country in less visible ways. Not the ones it is easy to welcome, but the ones you may have to overcome prejudice to welcome. Not the ones who already have the benefits of privilege, but those who don't, so they have the opportunity to do better and, as they raise themselves up, help make your country better as well.

Does Taiwan want to be the sort of country that gives all immigrants rights, or does it want to be the sort that discriminates based on old prejudices about what sort of people are desirable, drawing a line that, as much as we wish it weren't, is a color line?

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The ethics of being a foreigner writing about Taiwan

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 Two posts within a few hours of each other caught my eye in an unexpected way, and caused a resurfacing of an old question I'd asked of myself before.

First, there was this excellent post by Tricky Taipei, which I highlighted in my previous post (really just a link - there is nothing I need to add). The friend who brought this post to my attention pointed out that, although he'd also noticed the issue of casual sexism in Taiwan, he hadn't written about it because, as a man (and a foreign one at that), he could never truly write from the same perspective of experience, whereas Kathy Cheng, coming from the group actually affected by this, could.

I tended to agree - and although I am female, I am not Taiwanese. I would like to acquire Taiwanese nationality someday, and do not believe that being Taiwanese must be linked to ethnicity or race, simply because it's not actually linked now (something like one in five Taiwanese children born these days has a foreign parent), my life is here and this is my home, and most Taiwanese already support dual nationality - the issue isn't a lack of support, it's lack of awareness that it is an issue. But, I will not deny that culturally, I am not Taiwanese. I'm just not - I look different, which matters insofar as I'm treated differently, and I come from a cultural background that is very different. I can't change this - it's just the truth and it's okay to admit it. I will always come at things from a different angle, because of how my race affects how I'm treated in Taiwan, and my cultural background. This doesn't mean I can't try to understand as much as possible, and it doesn't mean I can never, ever understand anything (that's just condescending - being a white person in Taiwan doesn't mean I'm stupid or incapable of grasping yet another iteration of the cultural differences one may discover around the world). It just means I'll always have a different experience.

For example, although I am aware of, and could have written about, these sorts of issues:


In Taiwan, women don’t get catcalls from creepy strangers on the sidewalk. Instead you’ll get unsolicited comments about your hairstyle from male colleagues the first week you start a new job.
Women don’t get honked at by cars or trucks either. Instead your uncle might decide to announce to everyone at the family reunion how you’re looking “thick”.
Is it still sexism if it comes from these benign, everyday voices? Is it still sexism if it’s so mainstream that young girls are groomed to ignore it, and grown men feel no embarrassment or shame when they’re called out on it?
...but I haven't. I have never gotten unsolicited comments about my hairstyle at work, or been told by an uncle that I'm looking "thick". I've never had to deal with the lack of embarrassment by men for acting this way (if a white woman calls you out on this behavior, I can assure you, the man is embarrassed. Yes, there is a racial element to who calls out whom). 

So, as a white woman, I have to say, I don't think I could have written on this topic as authoritatively or from real lived experience as Cheng was able to. This did need to come from a Taiwanese woman. I have not tried to tackle quite this subject for the same reason: no matter how much knowledge, experience or empathy I acquire, the impossibility of coming from that background and writing from that experience means I could never do a topic like this justice. I may know these things happen, but I haven't actually experienced them. Yes, there is a difference.

The second post was by Irish blogger Mossy on Nihao's It Going? about how he learned to stop worrying and love Taiwan.

What caught my eye was not the topic of the post so much as this part at the end:
A few months back I tweeted one of the Sad Asians girls. They were two women who started a group that railed against the stereotypes and labels of Asian women. They were an interesting group and I liked their stuff for a while. They tweeted back that as a white person, I shouldn’t be writing about Taiwan. I was blocked and couldn’t defend myself. It was a bit of a shocker if I being honest.


I understand where the Sad Asian Girls were coming from. Why does it so often have to be foreigners - mostly white people - writing about Taiwan in English? Even in the realm of books, why is it that so many of the non-fiction books on my shelf about Taiwan were written by white men? I just did a survey - 18 foreigners, all but three of them male (and I am pretty sure all of those male foreigners are white). 9 Taiwanese, all but two of them male. Wouldn't locals come at the topic with more expertise and a more nuanced understanding from having grown up in the culture? (That was a rhetorical question - of course they would). Shouldn't we be promoting writing by Taiwanese, especially in English (content written in Chinese, as far as I am aware, is not a problem)? Yes, of course. I get it - it feels kind of sucky to read about your country in English and see that it's mostly non-Taiwanese doing the talking, and maybe our voices are not the most important ones.

But, are they right that we shouldn't be writing about Taiwan at all?

That's where I am going to disagree.

There seem to be two camps of people these days who have very different ideas about who gets to speak about and advocate for what. On one side, you have those who'd agree that some people should not write on a given topic, ever: white voices have overridden local voices for so long and in so many parts of the world that it's almost a cliche: white guy goes to foreign country, writes about it, everybody reads it and nods at his presumed sagacity and unique interactions with this exotic foreign culture. Ugh. Gross. Local voices, especially in the past, might have had far less agency to get their work out there. Not because they're not white necessarily, or at a surface level, but because systemically, those who get published in English have ties to influential organizations in Western countries: universities, think tanks, government and more, that locals often don't, or have overcome more hurdles to attain.

So I completely understand why people would be sick and tired of this, and have a blanket view that Taiwanese issues are best discussed by Taiwanese, rather than a bunch of whiteys sitting around circle-jerking about their experiences in the Far East. Nobody likes it when someone else tries to speak for them, and it is far too easy to fall into the trap that Mossy rightly calls a "jaded, infantilizing, orientalist tone". Although I have not gone back to read my early posts, it is entirely possible that a younger, dumber me did fall into that trap and older, more experienced me would cringe at my well-meaning but more naive past self.

The other camp thinks this entire system of thought boils down to identity politics: e.g. Taiwanese people fight for Taiwanese rights and talk about Taiwanese issues, and only people with the right credentials (i.e. being Taiwanese) are allowed to comment. 
They point out that if this belief were put into practice at its logical conclusion, people would be banned from commenting on certain things, which is a gross violation of free speech. 

Certainly, that's a bit of a straw man: I don't think anybody on the other side wants to actually ban people from speaking. They are likely content with the natural consequences of speaking out when they feel you shouldn't: being called out on it, being criticized for it, being ignored. Most would likely agree with this sentiment:




...and I agree with that.

However, I don't think criticism of this sentiment is overblown: even without taking the "only Taiwanese can write about Taiwan" perspective as far as it will go, you run into problems. You are essentially saying that no matter how long one lives in Taiwan and actively strives to understand the country and live there as a normal person among other people, they will never, ever have anything valuable to say. Not just that there will always be topics that they will be less able or qualified to write about because they didn't grow up in this culture, but that they truly have nothing at all to add. Not even the ways they experience Taiwan differently as foreigners.

It also creates a vicious cycle of trying to decide who is "Taiwanese" enough to be qualified to comment. I have had Taiwanese American activist friends tell me that, while most of the activist community in Taiwan is welcoming, there are those who think Taiwanese Americans are not "Taiwanese" enough to really be a part of a local movement. This strikes me as ridiculous and self-destructive.

But who decides, really, on a macro level, who is "Taiwanese" enough? (Again, a rhetorical question).

Would these same people say that my other friend, who is white, born to Western parents, but born in Taiwan and grew up in the context of Taiwanese culture is "not Taiwanese enough"? If I acquire citizenship and live here for the rest of my life, am I still, always and forever, a foreigner no matter what?

Doesn't that tie a little too closely to ethnocentrism (you know, Taiwan is for Taiwanese only, foreigners need not apply), when most people agree the "ethnic state" argument is not a good fit for the country? Does that mean that the 'internationalization' that many young activists are calling for, so that Taiwan can participate on equal footing and market itself well internationally is no longer desirable? You can't have both: internationalization won't happen if you view every foreigner as a detriment to Taiwan and every experience they might share as worthless.

In the end, I cannot fully agree with the idea that white people should never write about Asia (even if they live there, even long term - perhaps even if they were born there), although I support their work. They not only told Mossy he shouldn't write on Taiwan, they blocked him, giving him no recourse. That's not the "we aren't saying shut up, we're saying listen" that I agree with wholeheartedly. That's a final "shut up". They are free to do that - free speech doesn't mean people must listen. But, they are perhaps cutting off that nose a bit, ensuring that an ally who might otherwise share their work now cannot.

These tactics also feel a little tribalistic and are at odds with the general goal of Taiwan to be more international and move away from ethnocentric or Hoklo (or Chinese) chauvinistic arguments. I don't know if the Sad Asian Girls think that being Taiwanese is about race, but if they do, what race do they mean? If they name one, which groups - and Taiwan has many, including indigenous - are they leaving out?

Perhaps that's a little self-serving: there is not much I can do but admit that this might be the case, and strive to render it untrue.

Like many other foreign bloggers in Taiwan, I try to engage in English-language discussion of Taiwanese issues with sensitivity, understanding that we come from a different perspective and cannot fully inhabit the range of experiences people who have grown up in this culture or come from heritage based in this culture have had. I can't speak for every Westerner who blogs on Taiwan, but I do try to "stay in my lane" and blog knowingly from the angle of a foreigner's life here (although I hope to not be "a foreigner" someday), rather than pretending that I can speak authoritatively on the Taiwanese experience as a Taiwanese person. I do try - and will try - to elevate voices, especially local ones, when they write about experiences and issues that I cannot do justice to. If I have not always done so in the past (perhaps I ought to go back and read the archives to see) it is something I am constantly trying to improve upon.

No, I do not believe that choosing to 'stay in my lane' means I am censoring myself or agreeing with the loss of my own freedom of speech. There is nothing wrong with deciding to write about things one feels one is qualified to write about, and leaving other things alone, for more appropriate voices to tackle. Nobody can tell me what I should or should not write about - or at least, nobody can realistically enforce it in a free country. My choice to pick and choose my topics is mine alone. So while I acknowledge the current and historical problem of white people writing about non-white countries (often as the sole voices), which is just so painfully neo-colonialist (or just colonialist), in the end the only realistic path is to let the quality of what someone says speak for itself, regardless of who they are. I can choose not to write about topics when I don't adequately know what I'm talking about, and really, more people should. If I say something dumb, I'll be criticized for it. If people decide they'd rather hear more local voices, I'll be ignored. Both of these are fine - natural consequences.

But saying one "should" and "should not" write about something is going too far - even as I understand that the balance of power and who has a 'voice' has for too long favored whites.

This is because I do think I have something to offer, and something valuable to contribute, in certain areas. That can be done while still "staying in my lane" and doing my best not to 'center' myself in issues where I am not - and could not be - the most authoritative or qualified voice. It is possible to approach blogging about Taiwan in the same way I've approached supporting activist and pro-Taiwan movements here: I have had opportunities to help and be of service, and taken them (whether or not it will make a difference, I don't know). But I cannot imagine that I would ever want to take the spotlight. It doesn't belong to me, nor should it. The same in blogging: I don't want to be the voice of Taiwan in English, I want to be a voice, and not even the most visible one. I want to render my perspective, leaving plenty of room and spotlight for others - and you can read or not, it's all fine. If you eschew my blog because you think I suck for even attempting to write on Taiwan, well, sorry to hear that. If you eschew it because you are spending your time reading English-language blogs by local voices, I think that's great. Please do that more.

Or, in the words of that brilliant tweeter above, I don't feel I have to "shut up". But I do - and will - try to listen.