Showing posts with label thoughts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label thoughts. Show all posts

Thursday, April 30, 2020



It feels like there's too much blood - or mucus, or something - rushing to one side of my head, so I turn over to see if my inner liquids right themselves. They don't. I lie there, trying to latch onto a daydream peaceful enough that it can become a night dream, and feel them drip right down to the other side. I'm thirsty - there won't be sleep without water. Not enough liquids? Then I have to pee - too many? Everything's off.

I know the night view of this apartment by heart, and in a story that romanticized artistic poverty, it would be a dump. It's not. Spacious for two people, with attractive floors and natural light, decorated with all of the beautiful things - no, items - we've collected on our travels around the world.

In that other “artistic poverty” life, I'm single or in a dramatic enactment of a relationship; in this one, I've been peacefully married so long I'm verging on matronly. We live in an upscale neighborhood, though in Taipei those divisions are not always evident. In Taipei I make a decent living as a teacher trainer of mostly local English teachers, and we like the life we can afford. I'm good at it, I enjoy it, and it's meaningful, useful work. 

I consider how, in the country of my birth, I'd be barely eking out a living, either as a teacher trainer or in some office job I'd never care about enough to excel at.

Padding across the living room, I slide open a screen on my living room window. The shunt it makes is the only sound in the courtyard, aside from some light rain. When I can't sleep, I like to look to the buildings across the treetops and see what lights are on. There are no signs of movement in the lit apartments; I recall that mine is dark.

Then I check on Spikey. I have no idea what kind of plant she is - it's a she, don't argue with me about this. Spikey has grown trunk-like woody stems with formidable thorns that resist all pruning. You can’t even really touch them. These twist around the bars of the iron grates so common to Taipei windows, even though ours are entirely unnecessary on the 7th floor. Each end of her prickly tentacles is capped with a crown of green leaves and a sprinkle of yellow flowers. They’re not much, but they’re hers.

I don't know how she got there. I'd tried growing rosemary, thyme, basil, mint, orchids, some kind of ivy, even succulents - and they all withered (well, one of the succulents was blown away in a typhoon). Only the plants the former tenant left behind survived my black thumb. I suppose one of these graveyard pots was left fallow with dirt and a little Spikey seed decided it would be a nice place to live. Unlike everything I tried to intentionally cultivate, she blossomed. So I let her stay. She seems to prefer neglect, so I throw her a bit of water now and then but otherwise leave her be.

Spikey isn’t a plant you’d want, and sitting up there wrapped around a 7th-story window grate, I doubt anyone in the silent courtyard below has ever noticed her. In a well-tended garden - say, in an immaculately-kept suburban lawn in the US - she’d have been dug out and left to rot on a pile of weeds. Rough, difficult and a bit uncompromising, she'd never be mistaken for a prize cultivar. It's not in her DNA. Certainly, she’d have never been given the time to put out those little yellow flowers.

Here, she may not belong exactly but I like to think she’s grateful that somewhere in the quirky, busy, and at times seemingly disorganized or charmingly dilapidated city of crumbling brick, corrugated iron and stained concrete, there’s a corner where she can grow, and nobody minds.

There are plenty of carefully cultivated green spaces in the city, with weeded grass and shaped hedges. But there are also cracks and crevices and mismatched sidewalks, old pots and patches of soil where plants like Spikey can grow.

I can't see them with the light off, but on one wall hangs a hand-painted vegetable-dye batik of Hindu gods, all facing the tree of life which grows lusciously between them, which I bought on a trip to India years ago. On the other, among other vintage treasures, a slice of rough natural wood with a bit of calligraphy: 閑庭百花發 - in a quiet courtyard, a hundred flowers bloom.

The lit apartments are still devoid of life, but I wonder who else is shuffling around in the dark ones. A bit of city night-light draws a weird rhombus on my ceiling, intercut with shadows from the window grate and leaves from my surviving plants. I set my water down on the coffee table. This causes one of my cats - the black one, invisible in this low light - to wake up and blink at me with glow-in-the-dark eyes. He trills a little “prrt” and settles back down. He doesn't care about my mismatched t-shirt and pajama bottoms, my greasy face or my fuzzy hair. A light breeze rustles Spikey’s leaves. I get up, down a sleeping pill, and attempt to go back to sleep.

Friday, October 18, 2019

No, Chinese don't "like their government" because of economic, historical and cultural reasons: a media analysis/rant


Some sort of "analysis" popped up recently on SupChina which I ardently disagree with. I normally wouldn't bother about writing a whole reaction post for something that's not entirely awful, in a media outlet that's not mainstream. But, I feel like addressing this time as doing so will hit on a few areas of China media literacy and criticality where we all need to stay sharp.

Let me first say that the piece, which talks about why so many Chinese seem to actually like, or even love, their absolutely awful government, isn't wrong per se (though some areas could use a bit more complexity). It's that it doesn't quite draw a clear cause-and-effect line the way it purports to.

In short, the reasons they give in the piece - "the economy! Chinese history! Cultural reasons!" - are all talking points for those who defend the CCP. There's nothing new - it's the same litany you'll hear from one of the more loquacious fifty-cent trolls. By repeating these excuses uncritically, SupChina is legitimizing them - but they are not legitimate.

Think about it this way: how do you get from "China is a country that has a literal gulag archipelago and comparisons to Nazism are not unwarranted" to "but many Chinese citizens like and will defend their government"? 

How could it be as simple as "the economy - and also, culture"? How could we possibly take such an answer on its face, either from SupChina or any given Chinese citizen spouting such excuses? I'll come back to these questions later.

Before I start in on how foolish it would be to do so - and I will start in at length, believe me - let me say two things. 

First, I really appreciate is the emphasis on the lack of political data for China. A lot of "Chinese people think...." analyses lack this crucial detail, making it sound like the writer actually knows what common sentiments are. Even if polling existed, it's doubtful that the people polled would feel comfortable being honest.

Second, I'm going to talk a lot about Chinese people often believing certain things because they're educated to do so, and that education is reinforced by Chinese media. I want to say now that this is not a simple "they're brainwashed!" or racist "they just can't think critically!" diatribe. People in China, as anywhere, are just as capable of critical thought as anyone else and many can and do form the ability. My point is only that institutional barriers to doing so are both intentional, and higher than in many other places.

It's not the economy, stupid - it's what people are primed to think about the economy

The piece expends a huge percentage of its word count on how improving the Chinese economy caused a lot of people in China to look favorably on their government, and almost none on education and media censorship. 

But those who have been positively affected by the economy - which I admit is a massive number - are taught at school that this miracle which has helped them and so much is entirely thanks to their government, whether or not that's true. This message is reinforced by the media. Sure, they can look around them and see that things have gotten a lot better economically (and they have, even since I lived there in the early 2000s). But when no competing stories are allowed regarding why that is, and no stories about those still living in poverty make it into the news, the real point here is that the economy improved stupendously and the CCP gets sole credit for it by taking that sole credit - by force. 

Does the Chinese government really deserve such kudos? I'm no economist, but one thing I've noticed in my adult life is that while economic policies have an impact, generally speaking economic ups and downs can be bolstered or mitigated with such policies but the actual waves can't be changed much. And when an economy has all the factors in place and the market is open enough to give it the necessary space to happen, it's going to happen no matter who's in charge.

It doesn't matter though, because that's not the story. I can't repeat this enough: many Chinese citizens will say "but the CCP lifted millions out of poverty!" not because the CCP itself necessarily did so, but because that's the only narrative they render possible in China.

There's also an implication here that all of the awful things the CCP have done - the genocides, the mass famine, the cultural destruction, the near-total lack of freedom - are not only justified by "the economy", but are necessary components to bolstering it. And that's just nonsense. 

But if you're not taught about all of the atrocities and so are only vaguely aware of them if at all, you don't hear about massive wealth inequality outside of your east coast Chinese bubble, you grow up with a lack of freedom being normal, and you're consistently fed the line that only the CCP could engineer such stunning growth and anything you hear about the horrors they've inflicted on the country are either justified, necessary or simply non-existent, and you are encouraged by both school and society not to think too deeply about it, only then could you ever use "it's the economy!" as a reason for supporting the CCP.

What about the people the economy left behind?

Oh yes, and the fact that you can only use this "but the economic growth! They lifted so many people out of poverty!" story if you are talking about (or to) the people that actually got lifted out of poverty. Of course they'll defend the current system - they benefit from it! And, to quote Upton Sinclair but with less sexism, it's difficult to get someone to understand something when their salary depends on their not understanding it. 

Ask any one of the millions of people in towns and villages that are not on the east coast, which benefited less (if at all) from the economic boom. Rather like Trump voters who really believe that their man is gonna make everything "great" "again" but just needs more time, you might meet a few who think they are temporarily displaced middle class that the CCP is coming to help any day now, but I wonder how many would just look at you like "whatever dude". Ask a Tibetan. Ask an Uighur. Ask a person of Hmong (Miao) or Dong or Li heritage.

But you didn't ask them, did you? You asked some rando on the street in Shanghai with a fashionable bag (real or not). The students who could afford to take your English class. Maybe you talked to Chinese wealthy enough to travel abroad. Or you didn't ask anyone personally and just read the online opinions of Han Chinese wealthy enough to have an Internet connection. 

You asked privileged voices, and so of course you'll get privileged answers.

Wanna know how I know? Here's how:

In the 1990s, the word for tourism (旅游 lǚyóu) was novel for most of China’s population; today, there’s not a single country in the world that Chinese tourists do not visit.

Great, but what you mean is that there's not a single country in the world that Han Chinese tourists do not visit - because good luck getting a passport if you're Uighur.

Again, the article itself isn't wrong per se, a lot of people of this class and background do support the government because they have benefited from the economic gains China has made. But I'm really curious what people who haven't benefited think, and there are still huge numbers of those thanks to that wealth inequality problem (though I concede that we don't really know what the true statistics are, they're probably worse than imagined.)

Can we please leave Confucius out of this?

This is where I think the article in question, and most commentary on China (and Taiwan, and most of East Asia...) goes off the rails and right into a ditch:

Confucian thought is of course an important part of China’s cultural fabric, and if there’s one thing that Confucius was very clear about, it was the need to respect authority.  
Many Chinese people argue that theirs is a more collectivist society, which means that they’re willing to give up some individual rights in exchange for prosperity and the greater good. This argument suits the Chinese government just fine.

No. I have no time for the excuse that "Chinese culture" provides less fertile soil for democracy to take root.

The article name-checks Taiwan, which is also "more collectivist" than the West, and which has Confucius temples and a few people who will tell you the old guy matters (though most people don't think about it much in their daily lives), and yet still has a pretty successful democracy. But Hong Kong is an important example too - it's quite clear that "Chinese culture" is not holding them back. Tiananmen Square happened, and "culture" didn't hold the demonstrators back - tanks and bullets did. So why do people keep saying this?

Again, it's not exactly wrong: the writers were quite right to point out that this line of thinking benefits the CCP and it's not as though Confucius is entirely unimportant. It's not that Chinese society isn't collective at all.

But it's a bit like arguing that "Aristotelian thought is of course an important part of Europe's cultural fabric, and if there's one thing Aristotle was very clear about, it was that a wise monarch would be better than a democracy. That's why European nations often still have royalty."

Besides, it also ignores the similar importance of Lao Tzu and other thinkers to Chinese cultural fabric, and (to oversimplify by a lot), that dude was all about how we should all do what you feel and just chill, okay? Of course, you don't hear as much about him because it benefits the CCP to elevate Confucius.

And, of course, it oversimplifies Confucius. Confucius was all about the need to respect competent authority, but he was just as critical of tyrannical authority. Didn't he say that a tyrannical government was worse than a ferocious tiger (苛政猛於虎)? That was my buddy C-dog, right? I don't have my Chinese proverbs mixed up?

Plus, he was very much a proponent of critical thinking, if you read him right. Confucian education was more than memorization - it was about applying everything you'd learned to real situations. Honestly - do you think some people (not me though) think Koxinga was a legendary general because of how much stuff he memorized? No - it was how well he applied what he'd learned to real battle situations.

So where's all this "Confucian thought is so important" and "we are a collectivist society" and "Confucius said respect authority" coming from? From the very last line quoted above.

These things are oft-quoted as "important" because the CCP has engineered them to be so. It's in the education system, the media, everywhere.

Todd, who lives in China: "But Chinese education is based on Confucianism! So if Confucianism encourages critical thinking, doesn't that mean that Chinese education teaches it?"

Nope. Chinese education isn't Confucian, it's authoritarian. They are very different things. Confucian education did involve a lot of memorization and strong respect for authority, but authoritarian education specifically seeks to instill in you exactly what the people in charge want you to believe. Confucian education was only available to a select wealthy few who could afford it. Authoritarian education seeks to be more universal - not for the noble reasons you might concoct (though good reasons for universal public education exist, and I support it more generally), but to make sure the Party's values are inculcated into as many minds as possible. They even build whole camps where they force it on you! And it definitely does not promote critical thought.

Of course, the CCP wants you to believe this is "Confucian". It sounds better, it comes across as culturally respectful, and provides a handy excuse for why it is so memorization-and-testing-heavy that doesn't sound so...well, authoritarian.

Todd: "But Taiwan's education is like that too!"

Me: "Yes, because Taiwan is in the unfortunate position of being a democracy with a holdover authoritarian education system created by the Japanese and continued by the KMT, which desperately needs to be updated to reflect contemporary Taiwanese society if its democracy is going to weather the coming storms."

If you still want to believe that the reason here is "culture", not "education and media working together as engineered by the CCP", I can't help you, but I also can't stop a Hong Kong protester from jump-kicking your wrong assumptions in the face.

Actual Hong Kong protester who has no time for your bullshit

No, it's not about history either

I mean, everything SupChina said about Chinese history is true. The century of humiliation was a thing - for centuries, Western countries were all about being absolute titclowns to everyone else in the world, including that 1850-1950-or-so century. Of course they were jerks to China too.
This is what the Chinese call the century of humiliation (百年国耻 bǎinián guóchǐ), and every child learns about it at school [emphasis mine]. The Qing dynasty began in 1644. At the height of its powers, it expanded China’s territory to include Taiwan, Tibet, and what is now called Xinjiang. 

But what Chinese schoolchildren don't learn about is how incompetent or outright colonial their own governments used to be in imperial times. I'm sure Chinese history textbooks spend lots of time on the imperialism of Western powers, but very little (if any?) on how the Qing weren't considered Chinese at the time and were also therefore a kind of colonial power in China as well. They probably don't learn as much about how badly Qing forces obliterated the countryside during their conquest and how much poverty this wrought. (If you're curious about some of the cultural products spurred by this devastation, read up on the history of the green lion.)

Let's not forget straight-up racism!
Han chauvinism - that is, supremacist and racist sentiment against non-Han people by Han people in China - is a real thing. In part, it's just a tendency you see across humanity; the racism you see by Han Chinese against, say, Tibetans or Uighurs isn't that different in terms of attitude than what you see in other countries against marginalized groups there. But in part, it's encouraged by the CCP,  because it fits into their narrative of a 'superior Chinese race' and 'all Chinese people owe loyalty to China' to promote Han chauvinism. Plus, it's a handy excuse for the (almost entirely Han) elite to ignore the atrocities happening out west, if they hear about them. "But they're Uighurs. They're terrorists!" is an easy go-to if you want to pretend concentration camps aren't a problem. Same for "but China helped develop Tibet so much. It's good for those backward Tibetans that so many charitable Han Chinese have moved there."

Some of this is implicit in CCP messaging, both in school and the media - portraying ethnic minorities as just Chinese in different colorful costumes and funny hats, which makes it easy to accuse members of those groups that don't want to be "Chinese" of being "separatists". Some of it is more explicit (ever hear that song about being 'the same blood'?) All of it still goes right back to CCP social engineering.

But it's a lot harder to write honestly about the explicit use of racism in China by the CCP as a tool to stay in power than to just throw your hands up and say "Confucius! Century of humiliation! Wealthy east coast!"

What you're told, and what you need to tell yourself

So, of course, this all comes down to the same thing in the end: it's not about "the economy" or "Confucius" or "culture" or "history". It comes down to the CCP engineering what you learn, what you see on TV and online, what you read, what people are willing to say to you, and what you should be afraid of saying.

Why, then, does SupChina spend so much time on tangential issues but just 9½ lines (I counted) on education and the media, when that is literally the entire story and should be the main focus? Everything else branches off of that core, like spokes on a wheel, but this story is written as though the spokes make the wheel. 

This is an excellent time to bring up the way that the United States also has a string of concentration camps, many of which house families and children seeking a better life, or to escape near-certain death, and how many Trumpists will either ignore or defend this, despite having access to a freer media environment and better education than in China.

Yup, because they benefit from the system staying the way it is and are hostile to any changes that endanger their position, if not economic, then race-wise (and often both). They were always pre-disposed to turning a blind eye or making excuses. This hostility and reactionary fear has been harnessed intentionally under Trumpism. You see some of the undercurrents of it in China regarding 'fear' of Uighurs and general Han chauvinism.

In both cases, there's an element of Stockholm syndrome, too. If you see no way to speak out, and no way to escape the system, you find ways to live within the system. You rationalize. It's what human brains do to cope. You were handed all these excuses in school, after all, and it's easy to use them (I mean this for both the United States and China - after all, I grew up learning about so-called "American exceptionalism". Yikes.) You might not even be fully aware of the government's worst atrocities (again, I mean this for both countries, though it's a more intentional ignorance in the US).

The key differences are, first, that in China it's centrally-planned and intentional - most US educational policies vary by state. And, of course, that in the US we can talk about these issues freely. That alone causes so many of those barriers I mentioned in the beginning to come crashing down.

To end with the key question I posed in the beginning - how do you you rationalize or ignore literal gulags and mass murder and defend the regime perpetrating them?

Because it either benefits you to do so, you are taught to do so, or you've created a coping mechanism because you know you can't change it. Or - as I suppose is often true - some combination of the three. It's never actually because "the economy improved" or "it's our culture" or "the century of humiliation" (which ended almost a century ago). Never, ever, not ever.

So why, oh why, would you take the litany of Chinese excuses on their stupid, CCP-engineered faces, as SupChina wants to do?

Look instead at where every one of these excuses originated, and therein lies the answer. 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Battle for the Story of Taiwan: De-centering Oppressive Narratives


Spend any time around nerdy academic/historian types (or just socially aware people) and you'll eventually end up in a discussion about dominant narratives. A dominant narrative is basically the I-sound-like-smart-people way of describing the old "history is written by the winners" trope; the stories of those whose experiences don't align with the dominant narrative are "counter-narratives", as they're marginalized from the dominant narrative. (If you're already familiar with what this means, you can skip/skim the next few paragraphs).

These people may, in fact, be a majority of people spread across a variety of groups who aren't "the winners" in history. Considering, for example, that women's experiences are often not accounted for by the dominant narrative of most cultures, nor are those of people of color (or not in the ethnic majority), LGBT+ people and more, it's hard to argue that the "dominant narrative" is the one experienced by the most people; rather, it's the one experienced by the most privileged people.

Or, to give a real life example, in school in the US I learned the dominant narrative of American history. That history was dotted with august men who did brave things and propelled mind-blowing scientific and social advancements. Then, we evolved as a society and began talking about all the women whose contributions had been left out of this story: for instance, if you listen to the dominant narrative on the history of computer science, you'd think the whole field was developed by men, with the first technological advancements in the field by men, and the first coding done by men. That is far from true, however.

Then women's history became a thing, but it was mostly white women's history, so there was a lot of discussion about women not having access to work opportunities or even being "allowed" to work for pay. Of course, that left out women of color and working-class women, who had consistently earned money through labor...and it goes on.

And of course, it's not that the dominant narrative is totally wrong; it's just told as the whole story, when in fact it's simply one facet of the story. It's a cut in the diamond; not the whole damn stone.

I'm probably already losing a few readers here, and that's fine. If you're all "ugh but LOBSTERS" or some nonsense at this point, then do yourselves a favor and go. I won't notice. I'm not aiming this at you.

So, what does this have to do with China and Taiwan? Quick-thinking readers surely see where I'm going with this.

Liberal thinkers in many countries have done a fantastic job of pointing out and attempting to rectify the grip on historical interpretation that the old dominant narratives had. They'll readily point out that this or that telling of our collective cultural tale isn't including enough marginalized narratives.

But then they look across to the ocean at Asia and it's like all of that complex critical thinking just goes out the window; where we were discussing a beautifully-cut diamond with near-countless facets in our own culture, we're back to "it's a rock!" when discussing the other side of the world.

It's the result of a good-faith effort not to look at the world through a white/Western lens, and elevate narratives that are not white or Western, but it does exactly the thing that these same people warn against doing in their own cultures: it centers only the dominant narrative in this part of Asia, and marginalizes every other one. In other words, when de-centering Whiteness and choosing a different narrative, they again reach for the most dominant non-white narrative and there's a battle fought anew to argue for the inclusion of everything that is marginalized as a result of that choice.

And because it's big and populous and powerful (by powerful I mean "it has a lot of money"), that dominant narrative is China's.

Or rather, not even China's - it's the Communist Party of China (CCP) narrative. It's the wealthy straight cis male Chinese narrative. It's the Han narrative (oh, you thought only white people could be ethno-cultural chauvinists who try to erase the counter-narratives of others or pound them into submission as 'colorful' but ultimately obedient 'minority' 'ethnic' groups? You're wrong.)

Don't believe me? Okay, why is it that China relaxing its One Child Policy made the international news but nobody's talking about how the CCP still treats women's bodies as property of the state? Why does Taiwan's path to marriage equality make the international news, but no major Western media outlets seem to link it explicitly to Taiwan's cultural distinctness from China (which is nowhere near any sort of same-sex partnership)? Why do so many Westerners seem to think Chinese culture is so "traditionally" anti-gay when that's just not the whole story? I could go on.

So, when the question turns to Taiwan, that same prioritizing of the CCP/Han dominant narrative gets repeated by well-meaning Western liberals.

The results are devastating.  That same quicksilver liberal who could tear apart the way you looked at the world by pointing out every marginalized narrative in her own culture devolves into insisting - often loudly, even stupidly - on pre-fab garbage like "but Taiwan is China because their official name is the Republic of China!" or "but the Taiwanese are Chinese because historically they come from the same culture and heritage and they have the same history!" or "I don't think Taiwanese independence is a good idea because we need more unity in the world and less nationalism!" or "how can Taiwan be a country when it's not in the UN?"

Or - and this is the most insidious one of all in my opinion, a real rabbit hole - "but China has such a different culture and they conceive of these things so differently, we can't push our Western conception of what it means to be culturally Chinese on them!"

Except that's the CCP's line - we're not Western, your Western morals and ethics and concepts don't work here. It only works for everyone in Asia if the general consensus in Asia is that it's true - but that's not the case. Most Taiwanese don't; having as a population forced their own government to democratize and adopt (albeit imperfectly enforce) the basic tenets of universal human rights, they'd argue for the same freedoms and similar political values to the ones your typical Western liberal espouses (family and social values may differ, however).

So if you adopt that dominant narrative as the only narrative that counts in (ugh) "Greater China", you're just telling people in this part of Asia how to think based on your White conception of how people here should think, which is informed by what the dominant (and authoritarian) narrative in these parts is telling you. That dominant narrative will further imply that in order to "respect Asian values", you need to agree. Or, as a friend put it, the CCP picks apart the Western dominant narrative  - which, to be fair, deserves to be picked apart - but their goal is to supplant it with their own.

It is helpful to that dominant narrative if you - the well-meaning Westerner who wants to "respect different cultures" - don't notice that there is more than one narrative in Asia, and that there are all sorts of marginalized Asian narratives you could also be listening to.

In short, by adopting the CCP/China narrative when talking about Taiwan, you are doing to Taiwan exactly what you'd argue against in your own culture. You are telling people who are trying to express a marginalized narrative - of Taiwanese identity, Taiwanese shared history and its many cultural facets - that their stories don't matter and should not be included, that only what China thinks counts. And you're doing it while believing yourself enlightened; believing that by swallowing the CCP's Story of China and Taiwan, that you are "respecting Asian values and other cultures", when you are doing the opposite.

The KMT/Republic of China narrative functions similarly. If you buy into the "Taiwan's official name is the Republic of China, so they too claim to be 'China'", you're centering the dominant narrative of what a former military dictatorship forced on Taiwan, and ignoring the marginalized narrative of the vast majority of Taiwanese who simply don't believe that to be the case, but feel powerless to change what the government must continue to claim under threat of war. 

I've thought a lot about why this is. Part of it boils down to Asia just being far away and unfamiliar. When you don't have much direct experience of a place or its cultures - maybe one or two trips, maybe reading the news - when you hear a narrative from that unfamiliar part of the world, it's natural to seize on it as the narrative, something you didn't know before, yippee! It's human nature to think of something you've learned to be the last thing you need to learn, or to be as deep as you need to go.

People also have limited time; a Westerner without ties to this part of Asia simply doesn't have room in their daily life to learn more about how things work here, just as I simply don't have the time to delve into the intricacies of North African politics, let alone the narratives within any single North African country, and what marginalized narratives may lie beneath that.

And, of course, learning is a scaffolded process: when the average Westerner may not even be aware that Taiwan and China have two different, sovereign systems of government, it's quite difficult to then make the leap to specialized historical discussions about what was and was not historically considered "China" and why it matters, for instance.

Much easier for the average person to hear a new perspective and decide that it simply and succinctly covers what they need to know. The human tendency to seize on a dominant narrative and accept it because it simply and understandably helps them file away a difficult topic is both natural and global. If you recognize that bias for what it is, it's not even anything to be ashamed of.

The CCP has figured this out: they know people in other countries have limited time and brain space to devote to the full story here. So they expend massive resources to ensure that their narrative is the one everyone hears.

How to overcome it? After years of thinking about this, I'm still not sure, but I have a few pallid suggestions. Like tarps in a cyclone, they are certainly insufficient, and I make no promises as to their efficacy.

Once made aware of the tendency to abandon criticality when faced with a new narrative, most well-meaning people are able to work that muscle in their brain until it's instinctive: meet new narrative, absorb information, ask oneself: is this all there is to the story? There must be more. There's always more.

It's not always necessary to dive in and learn it all; simply being aware that there's a lot more going on underneath any narrative you hear, and that everything you hear may carry with it bias or intent, is often enough to maintain adequate criticality. When discussing Taiwan with people abroad who may be willing to listen, we need to get that muscle working first, but approach our request that one think critically about the narrative they've heard in a way that will be heeded. Keep it brief, and don't be afraid to break out the metalanguage. "De-centering" and "marginalized narratives" are terms that are used so often that they're practically cliché, but they make sense and accurately describe the situation. They're powerful tools when discussing Taiwan with those who are sympathetic to looking at the world through these lenses.

There are so many thoughtful experts, scholars and activists who are knowledgeable about Taiwan, who will pointedly argue for the inclusion of marginalized narratives here. Any contemporary telling of Taiwanese history to such an audience is likely to be met with a barrage of discussions about whether it adequately includes indigenous history, or women's history, or the history of lower-income or rural people. This is fantastic; the battle for the Story of Taiwan as more than the Story of Hoklo Han Taiwan is one we must fight.

And yet, there's also a larger battle we must attend to concurrently; the battle for the Story of Taiwan to be included in the narrative of East Asia, and we've got to keep our eyes on that fight, too. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Strap in kids, we're headed to Jurassic Park

In gratitude to our valued guests for choosing Jurassic Park as your premier vacation destination, please enjoy these select quotes -  with my commentary -  from some sack of fossils which originally published a big ol' heap of garbage in the Liberty Times.

(I actually don't know who wrote it, I don't see a byline. But it just screams "old rich dude" so I'm going with that because I live dangerously.)

Nearly 50 percent of the respondents said that the Labor Standards Act (勞基法) is still not flexible enough, and about 90 percent agreed that the terms of the act should be relaxed to allow managers and professionals to work under a responsibility system instead of being restricted by rigid clauses regarding working hours.

Hmm, OK. I am sure that if we implement this guy's idea for "no real labor regulations at all", that things will work perfectly because bosses will totally respect their employees' needs, limits and personal time so that everyone will happily work a reasonable number of hours in a day and be paid generous overtime out of the kindness of the bosses' hearts. If any employee feels they are being required to work overly long hours, are paid insufficiently, are not paid overtime, are pressured not to take vacations, or all three, they will be able to have a civil and forthright discussion with their boss and have the situation resolved to their satisfaction immediately.

That's how it works, right?

Nearly 60 percent said that the government does not pay sufficient attention to the needs of business when setting relevant policies.

Oh, I see. Obviously, when looking at Taiwan's policies, laws and regulations, you can see how heavily skewed they are in favor of labor. I mean it's a regular old Sweden up in here! That's why workers are so highly paid and enjoy generous leave and benefits with a high level of job security and never worry that they are being exploited, overworked or underpaid.

Asked about taxation issues, 56 percent of respondents said that the individual income tax rate is too high, which they say is not favorable to doing business in Taiwan

Oh definitely! A tax rate that is generally lower than most European countries and the United States (with a maximum individual tax rate that is the same or lower than most Western countries) is just too high. I guess to make it lower so Taiwan will be better for business we can spend less on something. Certainly Taiwan doesn't need defense (what threats do we face anyway?) or, like, health care. Countries without national health care systems do JUST GREAT. What's important is that companies make more money. Corporations are people, my friend!

and more than 70 percent said that tax deductions are more important than government subsidies.

I am sure it is a mere coincidence that tax deductions tend to favor the wealthy (data for the US but pertinent to Taiwan), who have things to deduct, whereas subsidies seem better poised to actually help the needy. Certainly that couldn't have anything to do with it, oh no. I just could not imagine that the person who wrote this is rich and wants more for themselves, it couldn't be that, that would be unconscionable and we know the rich are always good. They are the best people with no exceptions.

AmCham’s annual reports nearly always raise questions about Taiwan’s investment environment. Last year’s report drew much attention for its strong criticism of the Labor Standards Act. This year’s report is still critical of the act, but the criticisms are a little milder.

Well I am sure AmCham, which represents business interests and not labor interests, is unbiased and politically neutral and would not promote a conservative, pro-wealth, pro-boss, neoliberal ideology. That would never happen, no sir. So we can totally believe what they say and take their reports at face value.

Of concern are the main reasons for Taiwan’s economic stagnation in recent years: insufficient investment and a lack of confidence, along with a pervasive sentiment that is not supportive of businesses.

This is definitely true, especially as labor doesn't have any needs. Workers in Taiwan sip champagne after swimming in pools of gold coins and any laws pertaining to them (not that there need to be any for these veritable Lord Fauntleroys of the workforce who have been raised up so highly by their good fortune of being employed by overly generous Taiwanese bosses) are swiftly enforced, but those poor companies...

...well, I guess economic stagnation is not related in any way to all those people who say that they are worried about the future because they don't make enough, that the most talented are leaving Taiwan because the salaries here are so low or that they aren't spending because they simply can't afford to. They must be just hoarding their NT$22,000 or whatever garbage scraps you throw at them for their 10-hour workdays rather than spending it on the goods and services they work all the time - literally all the time with no free time at all - to produce like good capitalists the way you want them to.

Other problems include excessively strict environmental protection laws

Oh I see. THAT'S why Taiwan's air is crystal clear and perfectly clean every day and the rivers are so sparkling and clean you can drink from them. I didn't know before. But now I do, thanks to you. Let's celebrate Taiwan's excessively strict environmental protection laws with a brisk dip in the Keelung River! You go first.

and overcautious tax reforms

Hmm, if the tax reforms are overcautious there can't possibly be a problem with wealthy people dodging their tax obligations to the country that helped them become rich, can there?

while a lot of legal regulations do not meet the needs of start-ups

Oh that's too bad, I guess when the Global Entrepreneurship Development Institute ranked Taiwan 18th in the world in 2017 (the top ten slots going to Western countries, and Taiwan ranking first in Asia), that's just another way of saying "Taiwan is crap for start-ups"...or something.

It certainly doesn't translate to "I am rich but I want more money so I'm going to decorate my greed with some sort of fake concern for "startups". NoooooOOOooOoOooo.

There was a time when Taiwan enjoyed double-digit annual growth rates and was No. 1 among the “four Asian Tigers,” but in recent years maintaining just 2 percent growth has become a cause for celebration and a political achievement worth boasting about.

There couldn't possibly be any reasons for this OTHER than the fact that companies and bosses are systematically mistreated by the government whilst workers are carried around on gold palanquins by their bosses, enjoying the perfect, unspoilt air and fresh green vistas of Taiwan's landscape due to its excessive environmental regulations. Certainly there are no other political issues and threats both external and internal or global trends that contribute to this in any way. Certainly outdated reliance on certain types of industry or active attempts at interference by some mythical hostile foreign power couldn't POSSIBLY have anything to do with it.

Also, double digit economic growth must continue unabated without stopping or slowing for any reason, forever and in perpetuity, otherwise WE WILL ALL EXPLODE AND DIE. There can be no other considerations at all. Not the environment, not health, not human rights, not any sort of global issues which don't exist anyway because I say so, certainly not the needs of those dirty, dirty (but overpaid and spoiled) workers.

If we don't expand like marshmallows in a microwave, we will perish.

Compared with the flourishing economies of other countries in the region

There are definitely no downsides at all to the economic successes of other countries in Asia. None whatsoever. Not one. None. If you say there is one, you are wrong, because there are none.

Also, it is clearly a sign of Armageddon that a country ranked 23rd in population in Asia has the 7th largest Asian economy (and 15th largest world economy), far outranks its size by global standards in GDP and PPP and is considered a high-income country. 

Taiwan’s economy, regrettably, is declining with each passing day.

I guess "expanding" is a synonym for "declining" now, because some old Brachiosaur wants more fucking money. And I guess "fastest expansion in three years" is now another way of saying "regrettably" and "not flourishing".

When comparing nations, China is no doubt the one that makes Taiwan feel most threatened. Some years ago, China started making counterfeit goods and stealing intellectual property and a lot of those dubious goods were made by little factories scattered nationwide. A good example would be Geely Auto, which, when it started, was widely mocked for copying Mercedes-Benz and Toyota vehicle models.

However, Geely has now grown and developed to the point of acquiring Sweden’s Volvo Cars and has become the biggest shareholder in Mercedes-Benz’s parent company, Daimler AG. 

There could not possibly be any downsides to that at all and there are no reasons whatsoever why China would have other factors going on that Taiwan does not or could not. Certainly they are not pursuing an active strategy of taking advantage of Taiwan's low wages to lure away our talent. They wouldn't do thaaaaaat.

China has formed a “national semiconductor team,” which, backed by state funding, has been hunting the world for companies to take over. Its voracious appetite has caused anxiety in Europe, North America and Japan, which have established strict investment review mechanisms to keep China in check.

...and you are telling us this why? You want Taiwan to emulate that? It sounds terrifying and horrible, much like you.  You don't think having the highest-ranked semiconductor foundry in the industry, with a business ethos set on expansion and continued competitiveness, is good enough for a country a fraction of China's size?

Nonetheless, China is still scoring gains with its strategy of using its market as a lure in exchange for technological know-how.

Again, there are no downsides to this whatsoever. After all, you can't eat democracy.

Aside from China, the economies of Southeast Asia are also on the rise. Singapore joined the ranks of the world’s developed economies long ago. Thailand and Malaysia are catching up with Taiwan. The Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia all have fast-growing economies and could potentially be the stars of tomorrow. Even poor and backward nations such as Cambodia and Myanmar have opened their doors and are working hard to attract foreign investment.

Sooooooo....Taiwan is in such dire straits that we should be afraid of "backward" (your word not mine, racist bro) countries like Myanmar? Ring the bells of terror! If you aren't scared, this dude might make less money!!

Ahem. Anyway. I suppose you haven't heard of the New Southbound Policy. It's fine if you want to critique it but I am reasonably sure you have truly never heard of it. After all, it was conceptualized sometime after the Triassic Era.

These are Taiwan’s strengths, which can help its economy to rise again, so there is no need to put then nation down, but government officials must not allow themselves to be restricted by minority populist voices.

Minority who now?

Who won the election?

You do know how elections work, don't you?

The government needs to thoroughly improve the investment environment

People will invest more if they earn more, but you don't seem to think that's an issue. Or do you mean rich Chinese investors who will then try to make politically-charged demands of the businesses they buy into?

boost public confidence

Making enough money to make it worthwhile to stay in Taiwan would be a damn start.

take the interests of the majority as the foundation of its policies


Translated by Julian Clegg

I am really sorry you had to translate this steaming pile of crap, Mr. Clegg. It makes us all dumber. If I ever meet you I will buy you a beer for having to do this horrible work. Unless you actually agree with this in which case no beer for you.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Lurid Pink Pomegranates

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.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Reason and reasonability


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

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

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

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

I didn't go.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

...but he's right about the watermelon

I and I cannot lie

Cue the amusingly cheeky - although not terribly important - comments from Lin Fei-fan about how "the DPP could win the mayoral election [in Tainan] even if it runs a watermelon as its candidate."

And cue the horrified screams and gasps from the pan-green camp, who called these comments "contemptuous and humiliating".

Cue "netizens", whoever they are (aren't they just people on the Internet, that is to say, almost all Taiwanese people?) who then called Lin a "cucumber" (delicate and fragile).

Look, yo, whatever. This isn't important. After Brendan commented on Lin Chuan stepping down and Lai Ching-de apparently taking his place that "the real story here is the desperate search through Tainan's fruit markets trying to find a suitable watermelon to replace Lai", he also said "honestly, of all the things that were said even at that event alone the watermelon comment was maybe 47th down on the list of importance" and he's right.

But, for the record, Lin is right too.

Don't get me wrong: the comment was probably a bad idea. It's a jab at the establishment - always fun, I enjoy that myself on a regular basis but I'm not a public figure - which, while not wrong, offered very little pay-off for a lot of ire. It would have been better in terms of political 'face' not to have made it, or to have said it a different way. One doesn't always agitate for change by taking shots at the people in charge (although sometimes this is necessary). You also have to have your own message.

And, honestly, this is not a comment that will do him any favors politically.

But he's right.

While not equating the DPP with the KMT, entrenched political legacies where one party is consistently the "lesser of two evils" (or at least, the lesser of two evils that has a chance of being elected) or can always, without fail, count on the support of a given constituency is a legacy that is probably not doing as well as it could by the people.

When politicians are too comfortable, it's easy to grow conservative and 'safe'. It's easy not to agitate for change that has the potential to temporarily upset the gameboard, or even upend it. It's easy to start making comments that one "feels an affinity for China" (while supporting Taiwanese independence) because one, I dunno, hopes to be president someday, not out of any real sincerity (and I highly doubt those comments were sincere. He wants to be president, period.) It's easy to continue to reward patronage networks. It's harder to advocate for things Taiwan really needs, like a truer version of multiparty democracy and a stronger stance on marriage equality. It's easy to start talking about nonsense like "boss rights" and offer shitty meaningless little increases in a too-low minimum wage rather than fight for real changes that could improve working conditions in Taiwan, and to stall on matters of human rights like marriage equality until your problem is effectively solved for you when you aren't afraid that voters will hold you accountable for your doughiness.

It's easy to grow soft, complacent, conservative and oriented towards protecting one's fiefdom rather than fighting for what's right. It's easy to always take the safest route when inspiring voters isn't necessary, because they'll vote for you anyway. They don't even have to like you very much, so you don't have to work hard beyond protecting what's yours

I do fear that's exactly what the DPP is becoming.

This isn't to spit on their history. I have said and do maintain that, while I don't care for the DPP much these days, that at least they were on the right side of history. There may be a lot to criticize about them now, but they are the ones who fought for the democracy we now enjoy. In many cases, they are the very people who were beaten, tortured and went to jail. On the other side you have a party of the former dictatorship, who, while not exactly proud of having once been fascists, aren't too apologetic about it either and who unfairly take credit for benevolently bestowing democracy upon a populace they seem to (unfairly) disdain as simpletons. Of course, in that framework, one party comes out better than the other.

It would have been smarter, however, to acknowledge that whatever doughballs they are now, that the activists of today stand on their shoulders, and they in turn stand on the shoulders of everyone who fought and died between 1947 and 1996 (picking that somewhat arbitrarily as the date of full democratization). They too stand on the shoulders of fighters from earlier eras. I have no doubt that Lin understands this, and that voters are not stupid so much as choosing the less bad of two problematic options, but perhaps it doesn't come across in a throwaway quip about watermelons.

That they started out as firebrands doesn't mean, however, that they are forever immune to becoming an entrenched network of status quo pushers themselves.

It is entirely right, if they become this - and I fear they have - to criticize them for it.

It's not "contemptuous" to point out the real truth that Taiwanese voters tend to be conservative - not in the American sense, but in the "safe and non-threatening" sense, even if it means stalling real, needed, important change. It's just...true. I'm not even sure one could call it "contemptuous" to speak one's truth about one's own voting district. Lin is from Tainan - if he thinks the DPP is too entrenched and voters there too conservative, that's his right. He's not an outsider mockingly poking Tainan voters with a stick - he is a Tainan voter.

I mean, I absolutely loathe my congressman, John "face you just wanna punch" Faso. He even looks like a fake person, like a stock photo of generic white men plus a jar of mayonnaise in front of a cliched yearbook background of an American flag. I am not convinced he's not a bot. Trust me, his "politics" (by "politics" I mean "being the biggest ball of dripping mucus this side of the Hudson") are no better. If you voted for him, that doesn't mean you're a bad person but it does mean your vote was bad and you should feel bad.

I am a constituent, unfortunately, in this bum-bungler's district. The only good news is that I get to have whatever opinion of him I want, because he represents me.

Lin is less profane than I am, and probably is a little happier with the DPP than I am with the sack of crap invented by a third-rate AI spewing conservative dogwhistle garbage that pretends to be a real human person "representing" me in Congress, but the point is the same: you have every right to think whatever you want about the people who represent you and the electorate who put them there. If he's being "contemptuous", then he's also contemptuous of himself. If I think John Faso is the actual literal embodiment of The Machine, and therefore having elected it means we've voted for being subsumed by said Machine, that's my right. If I am contemptuous, it's also of myself.

This is where I'd also support Lin's remarks: how does it make one "fragile" to make such comments? He had to know that saying something like this would draw this kind of ire, and yet he did it anyway. Not for political benefit - if anything, to his political detriment - but simply because he believed his words. The fragile "cucumber" thing to do is to always say the safest things, to keep quiet when there is less benefit than drawback no matter how right you are, to never rock the boat, to allow "not quite right" to be good enough because it'd bring too much trouble down on your head to point out that something's not quite right.

That's the cucumber approach. Speaking out is what shows mettle.

I'm not saying that every politician should live in constant fear of losing their job. There's something to be said for having the full faith of the electorate to execute your vision without being terrified that any bold moves will see you kicked out of power.

But a little fear - for accountability's sake, so they can remember who gave them those jobs to begin with and who is really the boss when it comes to democracy - is maybe not such a bad thing. Ma Ying-jiu forgot who put him in office - he forgot whose employee he was (ours) - and he paid the price in popularity, legacy and the performance of his party in the next election. It's not such a bad thing to occasionally be reminded that if you don't serve the people who really run the country, from whom your power flows, that that could be you.

If you could quite literally run a watermelon and win (just as I am pretty sure John Faso is a composite photo that people voted for and not a real person, and yet he won), where's the accountability? Where's the reminder that you are the appointed steward, and not the CEO who can do whatever he likes because his job is assured?

And now I've spent entirely too much time on this completely unimportant thing, and I am going to go to bed.