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

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.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Taiwanese nationalism is not your grandfather's nationalism

The other day a classmate on my graduate program, after asking me about Taiwan and hearing my response that the opinion of a strong majority of Taiwanese leans towards considering Taiwan already independent, or at least certainly not Chinese, referred to the idea of 'nationalism' with a strongly negative connotation. He wasn't necessarily critiquing Taiwan specifically, but rather the general idea that a group wanting to form their own nation is a concept riddled with problems.

He was surprised when I replied that Taiwanese nationalism is not ethnic nationalism, and the two can't be conflated in such a reductionist way.

I certainly understood what he meant - he even brought up the old-timey concept of 'nationalism' that arose in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where every 'group' or ethnicity has their own little country and therefore what it means to be a country is based primarily on ethnic ties, leaving aside of course the idea that ethnicity itself is an odd and problematic construct. Basically, that often "nationalism" is considered to be inextricably linked with ethnocentrism.

I, too, have an instinctive reaction against this worldview because this view of nation-hood (and what it means to be a nation, and who should be within the borders of one or a citizen of one) are so deeply linked to my family history. The Armenians and other non-Turks were massacred not primarily because of religion (although it played a part), but because the old construct of the Ottoman Empire as a multi-ethnic, multi-territorial "empire" was washed away by the Young Turks in favor of what was then a more "modern" view of nationhood, where one nation ought to equal one ethnicity. The Armenians were not Turks, and therefore, according to this view, they had to go.

Over a million Armenians died, and I exist as a result of this sort of ethnocentric nationalism sweeping Turkey in 1915. Although I am happy I exist - not that I would know if I didn't - I am all too aware of how far off the rails this idea can go.

China takes this a step further and promotes an unrealistic view of what it means to be 'Chinese', trying to force not just the same national identity but also the same ethnic identity on, essentially, whomever it wishes. It  also tries to discredit Taiwan's case for de jure nationhood by playing to liberal perceptions of the problems of nationalism. It's no accident that they call Taiwanese nationalism 'splittism' and try to tap into the negative connotations associated with, say, voting for Brexit, ethnic regions splitting off from a larger nation and civil war. China also tries to promote the positive connotations that we associate with being stronger or 'better together' than apart. China tries to have it both ways - any desire to not be a part of China is 'splittism', and Xinjiang and Tibet are a part of China despite their people not being 'Chinese', however, Taiwan is a part of China because 'we're the same'. So people who are not Chinese are Chinese because China controls them and that's okay, but China should control Taiwan specifically because Taiwanese are, they say, Chinese and not some other kind of people.

If that's not clear or seems like it doesn't make sense, that's because it isn't and doesn't. Nothing about China's argument makes a lick of sense, in fact, but it seems to have been accepted by huge swaths of the educated world.

(Side note: although I don't generally believe in ethnic nationalism, I don't necessarily always think it's wrong for an ethnic group to want to break off a piece of territory to form its own nation, especially if mistreatment of that group is involved. Each situation is highly unique, and I can't really say one blanket solution is applicable, not being intimately familiar with the various examples of this).

So why is the lumping of Taiwanese nationalism in with the sort of nationalism popular in our grandparents' generation so inaccurate?

Simple - it's not based on ethnicity. Not really, anyway.

Some Taiwan independence activists do try to make an ethnicity-based argument for their cause, pointing, for example, to evidence that Taiwan is primarily ethnically Austronesian rather than Chinese (note: the writer of that post doesn't necessarily agree - I don't know and it doesn't matter - but the post itself is pertinent).

I think most, though, know that this is a losing proposition. Not because they're necessarily wrong about who the Taiwanese are at the DNA level, but because even if they convince the world that Taiwan is "not Chinese", they'll face the argument that ethnic nationalism has its own problems and therefore isn't necessarily something to support. It opens up a messy argument on what it means to be "ethnically Taiwanese", which opens us up to having to defend that position.

And, frankly, they know it wouldn't matter: China didn't take ethnicity into account when taking over Tibet and Xinjiang. If not the same old "we are all Chinese" blather, they'll find another argument because their goal, to them, will always justify the means by which they attain it.

It just doesn't matter much and won't work.

In any case, who are the Taiwanese? DNA testing shows a large correlation with Austronesian/SE Asian populations. But what about those who aren't - whose grandparents really did come from China and whose families haven't intermarried much with locals? Are they not Taiwanese? How about those who might have Japanese blood, or one non-Taiwanese parent? How about those who were born and raised here, whose parents aren't Taiwanese at all? If you make this argument, you leave all of them out, not to mention those of us who would like dual nationality, all to argue a point that China doesn't actually care about, and will hurt Taiwan's case to the world rather than help it, by making Taiwan independence seem like another iteration of 'ethnic nationalism'.

So if Taiwanese nationalism is not that - and I don't think it is - what is it?

You could say it's a nationalism based on Taiwan's unique history, and there is truth to that, but I don't know about you, but I'm not interested in getting into a pointless history debate with an anti-Taiwan detractor and I don't think it's a very strong argument either. Although history is on our side, who owned what in the past just isn't the way to make the case for Taiwan. It actually weakens what I think is the best argument, in fact.

Instead, Taiwanese nationalism is based on the idea that Taiwan is a nation based on two things: self-determination and shared values.

It is hard to imagine a reasonable person disagreeing with the idea that people have the right to self-determination, although we can reasonably disagree with the level at which that right manifests itself (e.g. that the citizens of a nation have that right, but that a group wishing to secede their territory from that nation may perhaps not always have it). I'd say there's a case to be made that any self-ruled territory that has an independently functioning government gains that right, and Taiwan certainly falls well within that boundary. It's even a democracy so you can't argue that a territory has been wrested away by some strongman dictator!

Therefore, as a self-governing autonomous territory that has a highly functional and democratic government, Taiwan does have the right to determine its own future. Period. This would be true even if history weren't on our side.

As for shared values, this is trickier. As much as different segments of Taiwanese society might disagree on a variety of issues, pretty much all of them except for a few ancient blowhards can agree on a few basic principles: human rights including certain freedoms, democracy and egalitarianism (okay, maybe not everyone agrees with egalitarianism in practice, but that's a global problem). However you define "shared values", though, it's clear that the values that are important in Taiwanese society are vastly different from those allowed in Chinese society. They also differ to some extent from the values even of other Asian democracies, despite greater similarities with those nations.

The good news is that this means Taiwanese nationalism doesn't suffer from having a weak or outdated argument. We're not 'splittists', 'separatists' (wanting to separate from what? When was Taiwan ever a part of the People's Republic of China that we'd be wanting to now 'split off'?) or people causing 'ethnic tensions'. Taiwan is instead a sovereign state that simply wants to access a right to globally recognized self-determination, and build their democratic nation based on shared values.

We have an optics problem, not an argument problem. There is nothing wrong with our case. I would like to think that optics problems are easier to solve.

Basically, this updated, 21st century view of nationalism - as nation-building based on shared values and the right to self-determination rather than ethnicity - is much easier for the global literati to swallow. It's an argument that humanizes Taiwan, and presents it in a modern light appropriate to its situation and values, rather than making it sound like an outdated and even dangerous throwback to the ethnocentrism and 'small European nation state' model of a few generations ago. It sounds more like something an EU supporter would say, and less like something a nutbar UKIP or Trump voter would come out with.

It's just as good news that this weakens China's "argument", such as it is. When you view Taiwanese as not ethnic nationalists, which they are indeed not in any great majority, China's case that Taiwan is a part of China because 'we are all Chinese' makes even less sense, and forces them to defend ethnic nationalism. Better yet, it forces them to defend it alongside claiming territories like Xinjiang and Tibet despite not having this connection.

It's also good news in that this view of nationalism allows - and please allow me to be selfish here - for people like me to be a part of these shared values. I can never be, and don't want to be, 'Asian' or 'Chinese' simply because I think it's weird to want to change one's race (and creepy and appropriative for a white person in any case). However, viewing Taiwan as a nation of people of shared values rather than a nation of people who were born ethnically Taiwanese with no 'outsiders' allowed makes room for people like me. Under such a model, I could be Taiwanese. Under an ethnic model, I could not.

The bad news is that many supporters of Taiwan don't seem to have made this connection. I don't mean that they don't support foreigners naturalizing (though some don't), but that they just don't think it's a big issue or something that needs to be prioritized or even necessarily changed. Some, perhaps, have not quite come to the conclusion that if Taiwan is not a country based on ethnicity but one of shared values and self-determination, that that means you kinda sorta have to let in immigrants because if you don't, you're right back at ethnic nationalism and all the problems it entails.

The other bad news is that China's been bombarding the world with a skewed perspective on what Taiwanese nationalism is, promoting whatever definition of 'nationalism' is convenient to them, and it's very hard to re-orient the perspectives of those who've bought that particular brand of snake oil.

All I can say is that we need to keep trying, and we absolutely need to stop engaging China on the points it's tempting us with, e.g. trying to argue ethnicity or history. Even if we're right - and we are - we absolutely need to not only re-shape the internal debate of Taiwanese nationalism being one of values rather than blood, which many astute friends of Taiwan are already doing, but also to point out to the international community that Taiwanese nationalism does not share the deeply problematic worldview and chauvinism of our grandparents' ethnic nationalism.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Feminists have no sense of humor

A humorless bloodsucking feminist
By the way, to get this photo I had to google "ugly succubus", because just googling "succubus" turned up a ream of sexy, big-titted succubi. You can't even be a hellish she-demon without the world expecting you to be sexy. 

Haha, trolled you. This isn't true at all.

But I can promise you that this post is not exactly going to offer proof that feminists can be funny. In fact I fully expect the bros and bro-allied to get all het up over this post, to which I say COME AT ME BROS.

Anyway, just like everyone else on the planet with an Internet connection, I too watched Robert Kelly's BBC interview and laughed at the family antics going on in the background. Anyone with even the slightest sense of humor can see that, from a comedic perspective, it's a masterpiece, with a visibly freaked out Kelly as the perfect straight man.

Then - because I'm a heartless unfunny succubus feminist - it started to bother me. At first I wasn't sure why. It took repeated links from friends: basically this clip got more airtime on my Facebook feed than the Malaysian Airlines plane or the Trump-Tsai phone call - for me to figure it out.

I want to say straight up that I don't know this family, and nothing I'm going to say is a criticism of them. Everyone has their own unique family circumstances. The personal doesn't always have to be political - some people choose and prefer for their lives to be a certain way which I would not necessarily choose.

I also won't criticize the specifics of what happened: Kelly is getting a lot of flak for pushing his daughter away, when a more engaged dad might put her in his lap and keep talking. So what. He was freaked out, probably didn't know what to do and reacted in the moment. Not an ideal reaction but nothing to blast him over. I do not imagine he is someone who typically pushes his kids away (I wouldn't know and I won't speculate). I won't discuss how Kelly's wife looks mortified - it's a natural reaction in the moment and not necessarily indicative of anything more than that.

What I want to say is more general. It's not about this family at all.

First - and what I think bothers me the most - is that had that been a woman in front of the camera, people wouldn't be laughing along like "oh how cute." Maybe some would, but she'd also be raked over the coals for prioritizing her career over her children (even for that one minute), and she'd definitely be crucified online for pushing her daughter away so she could continue to talk about democracy in South Korea (or whatever it was Kelly was talking about - was anyone actually listening to him?) That's not, according to the screamiest parts of the Internet, what good mothers do! But when dad does it, it's so funny and cute!

That led me to another thought: how common is it that it is, in fact, a woman in front of the camera? Husband doing high-profile work for his career while wife watches the kids seems to usually be the way it goes. We wouldn't even have this video because it's so much less common for an influential woman to be interviewed, and if one were, she'd probably want to go into a studio because, unlike with a man, there's a fair chance that interviewing from her home would undermine her credibility with audiences as a serious professional.

In any case, it's just so common that it's the man in front of the camera doing visible public work related to his high-powered career, and so common that his wife is out of sight taking care of the children. A friend of mine pointed out that maybe he watches the kids while she does interviews, too, but then conceded that it was unlikely. Power couples exist, but it seems so much more common that things go this way.

In the expat world, at least in Asia, it seems to be even more common. White guy lives in Asia and has stellar professional career and builds a family, wife is behind the scenes. I don't know how many of those wives had imagined a stellar professional career for themselves, only to find that they had fewer opportunities and choices in life. Not all of them, but certainly some. Any other match-up that involves a woman building a family and strong career seems to be that much more rare - not just for the (relatively few) female expats in Asia, but also for Asian women. As an expat woman, I have personal experience with the former. The latter is equally worth exploring but perhaps by someone with more insight and experience than me. I don't mean to shy away from discussing Asian women's experiences, and there is quite a bit to explore from an intersectional perspective, but I'm just not at all qualified to do that.

To put it another way, if my career had gone in such a way that I was giving BBC interviews from my home office in Taipei while my husband took care of domestic work in the background, it would be notable for how rarely such a thing happens. (I should point out that similar things have happened to me. I've done important work from home - at least, I felt it was important but it wasn't on the level of a BBC interview - while my husband cleaned, took out the trash and cooked dinner in the background. This is notable because, again, it is fairly rare).

This writer pretty much pointed out what was annoying me:

Then, somehow, Kelly hears the siren song of Asia and takes an associate professorship at Pusan National University in Busan, Korea....You know what though? Being Professor Kelly seems like a pretty good gig: a nice house, a nice look, an irrepressible daughter, a shockingly mobile baby, and a wife that will do anything to help him succeed.

Yeah, he does have a pretty good gig. And it's pretty damn easy for a white guy in Asia to get that gig (I am going to get a lot of hate mail for saying that, but I'm not even remotely sorry). It's fairly standard for a man to want a wife that "will do anything to help him succeed" - I'm not saying it's a bad thing, even.

It is quite difficult, however, as a woman, to forge a similar path, no matter where you are. Both men and women face challenges in life, family and career but simply put, the deck is stacked more firmly against women.

Many people don't even believe it is reasonable for a woman to want, or expect, a husband who "will do anything to help [her] succeed". It's she who must support her husband and help his career shine. If she gets anything more than that, she ought to count herself lucky, or something?

And then people wonder why it's so much more likely in this world that it's usually husband who's "on BBC", metaphorically speaking, and not the wife. It's the wife who's chasing kids around so her husband can "shine", and not the other way around. So often. So very, painfully, often.

Again, I do not mean to criticize this particular family. I don't know what choices they made or what preferences they have. I have no idea what Kelly's wife's goals and desires are, and it's not my business. It's not about them.

I'm pointing to a greater issue of inequality in the world and how it is revealed in this clip, simply because it is so much less likely that we'd see something similar with Mom talking to the BBC. If it were just as likely or common, I wouldn't be writing this post.

People will likely accuse me of being bitter for writing this. Sure, whatever, have fun. It's not really about me, though: I actually have the awesome, supportive marriage with a husband who would do anything to help me shine if I so chose, or my life took that direction. I'm not bitter about my life, I'm bitter about global inequality, a world where it is always more likely that the Robert Kellys of the world (again, nothing against the actual Robert Kelly, I'm sure he's great and if he's not I don't care) will be on BBC, and their wives, most likely, won't.

Yet, I am inserting my own views and sensitivities into this: if I were the wife in that video, I'd be asking myself how my life got to be such that I was corralling children while my husband was giving BBC interviews. It's not that watching children is less valuable work, it's just that it always seems to be the woman doing it, whether she wanted it to be that way or not. Plenty of women do want just that, but plenty don't, and many had always envisioned something a bit more equal only to wake up one day and realize they didn't get it, and aren't likely to. I don't have children but even if I did, I have still always imagined that if my life took a turn such that someone in my family was notable enough to be on BBC, it would most likely be me. (In fact, Brendan is highly intelligent and deeply insightful, but as the more outgoing, career-oriented, politics-and-activism-involved partner, it likely would be me).

And that's all fine - what bothers me is how rare it would be for it to actually be me, simply because I'm female. How much easier it is for a man to achieve professional notability and have a family than for a woman, even if she never envisioned anything less than an equal partnership.

For all of these reasons - how it usually goes this way, how in 2017 we still don't have equality, how unlikely it would be for Mom to be a viral sensation the way Dad is here, and how she would be criticized far more if she were, I have trouble sustaining a good belly laugh over the video.

I'm sure - because I'm a woman on the Internet with an opinion - that I'll be raked over the coals for this, and lots of people will assume I'm attacking this family despite my saying twice (three times now!) that I'm not. Because, again, we still don't have equality.

Yet, before I finish, I have one more point to make. A huge number of people seem to have assumed that Kelly's wife was, in fact, the children's nanny. I can't help but think many of them came to this conclusion because she's Asian. All I have to say is that that's super racist, what the hell, don't be racist. Seriously.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Some Thoughts on News Surrounding 228

There is a lot to say about the commemoration of this year's 228 Massacre - as can be expected given that it's the 70th anniversary of the tragedy - that I feel ought to be more broadly disseminated. So, while it's rare for me to do this, I've put together a summary of various 228-related news and thoughts.

My friends and I had planned to spend the morning at the Nylon Deng Liberty Museum near MRT Zhongshan Junior High School. I had wanted to go on April 7th, which will be the 28th anniversary of Nylon's self-immolation, but others were not available. 228 is also a suitable day, as much of Nylon's work revolved around appropriately recognizing and commemorating the 228 Massacre. Deng is almost a mythical figure and hero among activists and the socially and politically engaged, but remains somewhat unknown in mainstream society - I have many students who have never heard of him, and I had been in Taiwan for several years before I learned of his work and sacrifice.

It's a quieter sort of reflection, away from the speeches, music and even protests. I strongly recommend going - it's a small museum but a very emotional experience - I'll post a few photos later. The office where he set the fire, preserved in its charred state, is hard to look at straight on, to be honest. I also recommend watching the longer, 50-minute film (English subtitles available on request, and you can buy a DVD of the film for a reasonable price). Be warned: you will cry, especially if you care about Taiwan, but even if you are not so attached to this country.

Downtown, participants in the Gongsheng music festival (a 228 commemorative event) and members of one of the most conservative - and geriatric - factions of the KMT clashed before the two sides were separated by the police. A full piece will be out later on this (here it is!), but I'll go out on a limb and say the old folks started it.

I may be wrong, but it seems like these sort of scuffles are more common this year than in the past (perhaps in the past I didn't notice as much, but it really feels like an escalation). Skirmishes not only took place between the pro-KMT folks out waving their ROC flags - a few days ago pro-unificationists attacked a 228-related book signing.

If my impression is correct, all I can say is this: when a privileged minority with outdated views starts losing their privileged position in a society and with it their ability to dominate the cultural narrative of that society, they tend to react angrily. Finding that your views are not only no longer mainstream but that people are not letting you manipulate what your collective society stands for tends to cause people to lash out. Nobody likes having their power taken away, and nobody likes being faced with the cognitive dissonance of realizing society now believes that the party or ideology they've supported is not only outmoded but in fact morally wrong, or even requiring justice to rectify wrongs that you never thought were actually wrong. We've seen it recently in other countries - I mean, look at where I'm from - so it's no surprise that the Huang Fu-xing (a far-right chapter of the KMT consisting mostly of Nationalist veterans of advanced age) would be acting this way.

As we continue to strip them of their privilege and cultural power both in general society and through specific acts of transitional justice, expect them to lash out more. Be vigilant, as well: we know they are in the minority, and we know they are behind the times and reacting out of anger that they are no longer in control. However, if recent events in the country of my birth prove anything, it's that you can never be sure that they won't strike back hard enough to actually win even as it seems that their beliefs are (literally) dying out.

On the other side of the ideological divide, Chiang Kai-shek Dead Dictator Memorial Hall was closed for the day, which is the first year I remember that happening. The reason given by the Ministry of Culture was that it was out of respect and to 'memorialize the dead'. What many socially aware people are saying, however, is that it was closed to preemptively stop vandalism of the hall or the statue within it. Other statues have apparently been vandalized, and there has been renewed call to remove the statue altogether and repurpose the hall into something other than, well, a memorial to a brutal dictator and murderer.

Regardless of the reason, I would say that closing the hall even for a day is the right thing to do. It is an insult to the dead to have a large memorial complex celebrating the man who is ultimately responsible for their deaths. However, it doesn't go far enough. That statue ought to have been removed years ago (as I once said in a TV interview back when it was renamed Freedom Square, only to have my words purposely mistranslated into "everyone has their opinion, I think we should all be able to hold different views", which I never said). The entire place ought to be repurposed (I find it visually appealing enough, but really can't stand that it memorializes a deeply evil man). The memorial hall has said that they will stop selling CKS-related merchandise and other things that show him in a positive light, but until it is truly Freedom Square - or perhaps the new building for the Legislative Yuan - it still doesn't go far enough.

Honestly speaking, beyond 228 - for which Chiang was, in fact, responsible - when I look at Taiwanese history post-1945, at every turn (every fucking turn!) the person most responsible, almost singlehandedly responsible, for fucking over Taiwan. He completely fucked the whole country (fuck!), and yet there's a creepy-ass personality cult monument to him taking up prime real estate downtown. Fuck him - it's time for that to change.

Of course, not everyone understands the role that Chiang did play in 228.

Along those lines, a "revelation" (it wasn't really) of great interest was also made public this month: some scholars have long suspected that Chiang Kai-shek was ultimately responsible for the 228 Massacre, despite one of the accepted narratives being that he was in China at the time and could not have been responsible for the actions of Chen Yi. Now, we have proof that he was, in fact, responsible. Correspondence between Chen and Chiang in which the former asks for troops (which were granted) has been found and published, giving clear proof that Chiang was aware of the situation in Taiwan and authorized troops to be sent. It isn't hard, if you understand how the wheels of history work, to figure out that he must have known how those troops were going to be used.

In any case, an excellent run-down of the document and its significance (and a strong case for why it shows that Chiang is ultimately responsible for the massacre) can be found here. I won't repeat what has already been said so well.

Moving on from that into shallower waters, apparently there's some dumb kerfuffle over Pizza Hut offering promotions over the long weekend, because other countries commemorate tragedies in an appropriately solemn atmosphere. The example given is September 11 in the United States.

First, I do need to say that what Pizza Hut did was insensitive and stupid. My issue is not that the ad was fine; it wasn't. (I did not realize at first that they changed it from "Killer Deals!" to something less horrifying. "Killer deals!" is never okay.) I just think focusing on this takes up time and discourse over things of greater importance.

That said, regarding September 11, I can't speak for every public holiday surrounding a tragedy worldwide, but September 11 in the US is not a public holiday, whereas 228 in Taiwan is. The only closely analogous holidays that are actually days off (well, for some people) in the US are perhaps Veteran's Day and Memorial Day. And, let's be honest, in terms of how those are actually celebrated, we may as well rename them Mattress Discounters Day or Raymour & Flanagan Super Blowout Sale Day or whatever. Come on. Are people taking trips or visiting relatives rather than attending commemorative events? Some are, but given how little free time and how few holidays Taiwanese get, can you really blame them? I have no patience for this line of criticism.

Let me be clear - I do not think it is appropriate for Pizza Hut to offer promotions on 228, especially if they reference the massacre in particular. I just want to point out that plenty of public holidays are commodified or commercialized around the world, even the ostensibly solemn ones. This isn't some isolated incident of corporate apathy (Big Business is always apathetic, this is nothing new. That's why I don't get my moral code from Pizza Hut. Or my pizza...)

Finally, being the 70th anniversary of the massacre, and also a politically charged year as the "opposition" (they're not anymore) has control of both the legislature and the presidency for the first time in Taiwan's history, it is understandable that there are more media offerings on the legacy of the tragedy of 228. The Duty of 228 is a touching video, which feels more like flipping through an interactive scrapbook than a traditional 'video' and is worth a watch. The New York Times has a pretty solid article on the massacre, although I take exception to the assertion that, when the Nationalists arrived in Taiwan, that Taiwanese as a whole were overjoyed or particularly welcomed them.

That is, of course, the prevailing narrative and it is true that the streets were lined with "supporters" as the soldiers arrived. However, I question the degree to which they were really happy to be "liberated" from Japanese colonial rule (Japanese rule itself being a complex topic that I will not tackle here). Everything I've read on the topic - which admittedly isn't much - points out that many Taiwanese were disappointed to see how small and ragged these 'liberators' really were. One credible acquaintance points out that many of the "supporters" on the street were children who were told by their teachers to be there - if you're told to go outside and cheer, you don't count as a "supporter". I have also read that the crowd of "supporters" (scare quotes included) when Chiang and his wife appeared in the Presidential Office was, well, there - but it wasn't clear how much they really "supported" the KMT's taking over.

What's more, as much as anti-Taiwan, pro-China voices claim otherwise, there was in fact a Taiwanese autonomy/independence movement in existence at that time, and George Kerr even makes reference to Taiwanese who want autonomy. (I also have trouble believing that the ideologies and thought processes behind the formation of the Formosa League for Re-Emancipation, which was founded in 1948, were birthed in their entirety by the events of 228. I find it very hard to believe that there were no smaller groups around before that talking about Taiwanese independence. Furthermore, he and others were quite clear that plenty of political elites in China worried about how the ROC was going to approach the governance of an island full of people so different from the rest of China - in great part because most of them grew up under the Japanese. It is inconceivable to me that Taiwanese did not, to some extent, share similar worries.

In any case, the article is pretty good, the video is lovely, and although I haven't read it yet, I am sure Tsai's speech will be of interest (almost the least interesting thing to have happened surrounding 228 this year, although I would also like to hear what the first DPP president since Chen Shui-bian has to say).