Showing posts with label travel_in_asia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label travel_in_asia. Show all posts

Monday, April 8, 2019

When a "Taiwan separatist" goes to China...

The temples here remind me of the ones in South Korea, and one of them (not this one) is a Matsu temple, of all things!  

I'm going to say something that should seem sort-of obvious but might shock a few people anyway.

I like China.

I still hate the CCP, though.

Some of you are probably thinking "why wouldn't you? The people are friendly, the food is great, the history, literature, architecture and culture are fascinating, the scenery is often stunning. There's a lot to like in China!"

And some of you are surely thinking "but they're our mortal enemies! And all the pollution! And the government! It's so oppressive!"

Both of these groups are right.

I've spent a week here running a training course, and was also in Shanghai recently. And I have to say that although I felt a little nervous beforehand for reasons I'll explain below, I would overall say that I had good experiences here. The people - the managers I've worked with, the trainees - have been so friendly and hospitable. Of course, I knew already that people in China are usually very welcoming to foreign visitors. The managers worked hard to ensure that I was comfortable, happy and well-fed while here; I ate like a king. The trainees worked their butts off, were an exceptional class and just all around great to work with, as well as being friendly and willing to learn. It was an honor to work with them, and more importantly, I genuinely like them.

Of course, the food is as spectacular as I remember it. I haven't had much time to go out and actually do anything, however, as these are purely work trips.

And I've found that if two conditions are met, this proud Taiwan "separatist" does like visiting China: the first is that it's only enjoyable on days when pollution isn't bad. The day a pollution and dust storm blew through was awful. The days the air has been breathable have been fine.

The second is that I have fast, consistent access to the open Internet. Without that, I can't even talk to my husband as neither of us uses any social media or chat apps that are allowed in China. I can't do much of anything: the majority of things I enjoy doing online consistently are banned in China, and in 2019 it's just not acceptable to me that my access be restricted.

VPNs don't work well - if you can get them to connect (which they won't always do), they can be slow and the connection can be lost. The only way to travel, I've found, is through one of those Wifi hotspots you can get at the airport in Taiwan. They bounce you right over the Great Firewall quickly and consistently, and cost a little under NT$200/day (my company paid for it).

This might seem like a dumb thing to say to some of you - white girl realizes China's not so bad after all! would be an uncharitable but possible way to characterize it - but remember I've spent the better part of the last decade devoting my time to writing about politics in Taiwan and Asia from a pro-independence standpoint. After awhile you start to think of China as 'the enemy' rather than a beautiful country full of lovely people.

The CCP is the enemy. China's just a country. How can one hate a country?

I'll only say one thing on the other side of that perspective: being here with unrestricted Internet access takes away the most obvious way that China's police state makes itself known. Everything else is normal: great bars with great music (though nothing with particularly thoughtful lyrics), great cafes, great shopping, great food. People living their lives. Fear doesn't lurk around every corner. Xinjiang and Tibet are far away. A great deal of literature is still banned, but they don't always check carefully.

Without the daily annoyance of wondering whether or not you'll be able to get online, you'd be forgiven for forgetting that you're living in a place run by authoritarians who want to annex a neighboring democracy and are perpetrating both cultural and literal genocides in their western provinces. The CCP seems to have figured out - after, uh, some trial and error - that if you force people to give up all cultural touchstones and push them into a gray Communist hellscape, they aren't going to like you very much. But if they can eat, drink, wear, listen to and buy whatever they like and you give them a home-grown social network, that's enough for huge swaths of the population. They might just leave you be.

If you're from China and are used to the Internet issue, you're used to getting state-approved news, you've never seen a banned book, you've been raised to think Taiwan is yours by right and Xinjiang and Tibet seem far away indeed, it must be easy to otherwise forget exactly who is running things. You might even support them: China's gotten a lot nicer in the past 20 years, after all.

I'm not the first to say it, but so much for the idea that economic growth inevitably brings political liberalization.

I prefer living in Taiwan for sure; it's my home. One of my requirements in a place to live is that it be free, and Taiwan is: I feel safe expressing myself openly there, and my friends enjoy democratic norms I feel are crucial. I do not, and will never, consider Taiwan to be a part of China, and I don't intend to live in China. I will still criticize the Chinese Communist Party until I draw my last breath. I'll stay in the fight against their aggressively expansionist policies. In that sense, I'm still in the trenches. You will never see me become one of those Westerners who apologizes for Beijing's brutal authoritarianism and aggressive expansionism. I stand for universal human rights, self-determination, and freedom and that will never change. The CCP will always be an enemy.

In other words, all the shiny things brought about by economic growth shouldn't be enough to tempt Taiwan toward China; Taiwan's sovereignty is about more than that. It's not enough to tempt me, either. My true freedom is worth more. 

But on a clear day, if you have a good portable hotspot, it's pretty good to visit - and I wouldn't mind coming back.

So what made me nervous? Well, being here for work, I couldn't just say what I thought about Taiwan because agreeing to come at all basically means I've agreed that I'm a representative of the company and not here in a personal capacity. That (Taiwanese) company treats me well; I want them to do well and this is good business for them. In any case, nobody asked.

To be honest, I don't know what I would have done if someone had.
On a street of Hui (Chinese Muslim) restaurants in Shenyang

It's usually not that hard to keep my political views to myself at work, but when you know you can't say anything because it's your job to make your employer's Chinese client happy, being hyper-aware of it makes it more likely to slip out because what you can't say is always on your mind. Like how telling a kid she can't do something just makes her want to do that thing more, know what I mean? Though some managers here figured out, of course I never told any trainees, nor would I.

Because of this, I did feel a bit 'closed': advocating for Taiwan isn't the only thing in my life, but it's a big part of it. Ensuring that none of my trainees was aware of that part of my life, and that they knew me in a professional capacity rather than a personal and political one did entail pretending that part of myself didn't exist for a week, and not just during work hours. We all stayed in the same hotel; I saw them at every meal. In that sense, being only about 3/4 of who I actually am was like cutting off my left arm. I could function, but it wasn't the whole me.

That said, I never compromised. I stood for the national anthem because it's required, but I did not put my hand on my heart (I couldn't have sung it even if asked). I always referred to "Taiwan" and China": no "Mainland", "province" or anything like that passed my lips. Because it was relevant to a class discussion, I mentioned that NTU was founded "when Taiwan was Japanese". I didn't pretend or lie. I walked a thin line between holding to my principles in my language use, but also not offering that information about myself.

But I'll tell you, while the trainees never found out about my political views, the two managers who helped run the course did. One is Taiwanese so I just told him. The other is Chinese but figured it out through my language use and hearing me talk with the Taiwanese manager. She was surprisingly cool with it. If you are open, you will find people who can accept the whole you - the problem is, you won't find out who those people are until you say something, by which time it might be too late.

When she did find out and we could finally just talk openly about these things, the whole feeling just changed. We went from friendly work acquaintances who shared our meals with small talk punctuated with quiet periods to people who could actually have discussions.

And to be frank, that's what made me decide that I did, in fact, enjoy this trip to China. The air's been okay (which I'm told is unusual), the hotspot works, fine. But really, it's the ability to be not just myself, but my whole self, around at least a few other people.

So I'll end with this: pro-Beijing types love to talk about how Chinese and Taiwanese have some sort of special relationship or understanding due to cultural, ethnic and historical ties. A relationship they often claim no-one else can understand, a special affinity. I've heard it both hinted and said obliquely that this creates a special affinity between individuals as well in which they understand each other as ultimately culturally Chinese.

I'm here to tell you that it's not true.

Until that breakthrough toward the end of my trip, I found that when I was out with a mixed group of Taiwanese and Chinese, they were amicable. You might think there was some special cultural affinity or set of tacit understandings that we clunky interlopers could never comprehend which transcended politics.

And yet, I could see the ways in which my Taiwanese colleagues and acquaintances held back whenever it was a mixed group. It was very subtle, like buttoning a bit closer to the collar than one ordinarily buttons. Zipping up a jacket just a little higher than usual. You'd have to be watching for it to see it, but it was there.

The second the company changed and it was all Taiwanese, it was like a collective unconscious breath was let out. The belt loosened. The words loosened.

I know this because, although I am not Taiwanese, I was treated as one in these situations. I felt it too. I even mentioned it explicitly, and the others readily agreed. It wasn't dislike, they pointed out. They liked their Chinese counterparts - you just had to be careful what you said. Among other Taiwanese and the Honorary (that's me), you could speak more freely.

And that same feeling came back the second the Chinese manager indicated that she was fine with my beliefs. Jackets unzipped, collars loosened, guts unsucked.

It has nothing to do with ethnicity, history cultural 'affinity', or even being Taiwanese. If you understand Taiwan's situation and what it stands for, you're in.

If not, you could be as genetically similar as anything, but you're out.

While many of my trainees are likely openminded about Taiwan, it breaks my heart a little to realize that some of them might think less of me if they knew what my real views on Taiwan were - that I stand for everything they were taught to stand against. 

That's one of the great tragedies of Beijing's warmongering over Taiwan: if they'd just accept that Taiwan is already independent and wants to stay that way - if they'd just respect that Taiwan has the right to determine its own future - a lot more Taiwanese and Chinese would likely be truly open with each other on a personal level, and there would be a lot more closeness between them. More friendships would form, and the world would be a better place.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

My first for MyTaiwanTour: traveling in Taiwan as a woman and a person

A piece of mine is featured in the MyTaiwanTour blog this week - hopefully the first of many - on traveling the world as a woman (it's not possible to unhook gender from experience especially when traveling abroad, among different cultures and people) and also as a person, pointing to the (mostly) good and (some) bad of being a foreign woman in Taiwan.

I hope you'll check it out!

I have to say, I wouldn't be here, in Taiwan, nor would I have stayed so long if I didn't feel comfortable as a person here - not just as a gendered person, but as a whole one. It's not perfect - no place is - but I do not feel nearly as constrained by my gender here as I have in other parts of the world.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Indonesia: Baluran National Park


I actually rather want to finish these Indonesia posts so I can get into some traveling I've done in Taiwan recently (two trips to Tainan, one to Kaohsiung and one to Yunlin) as well as put up a few photos from our weekend in Hong Kong, so here's the last one!

After hiring a driver to take us to the airport in Solo, we flew to Banyuwangi, which is not exactly the most hopping town, but the only way to get from Solo to Baluran is to do it this way (other options include train with transfer in Surabaya, or a very slow train service that takes a more direct route but is so exceedingly slow that it will take you a good day and a half to get there with a transfer in some no-name town about halfway. There is no bus that I know of). We wanted to get away from the usual "temple, temple, temple, shopping" tempo of the rest of our trip and thought a stop in a little-visited national park, especially one known for having a beach overrun with monkeys, would be just about right.

When we got to Banyuwangi's Blimbingsari airport, we realized two unfortunate things: first, that there is no public transit from the airport to anywhere; and second, that the airport is 9km south of town while the bus station with buses heading to the park is several km north of town. There was literally no other choice but to take a taxi, as expensive as that was (and it was - it came to over IDR400,000 which is quite a bit for Indonesia, though not that expensive by other standards).

So we took a taxi to the bus station, bus (which tried to cheat us) to the national park entrance, and scooters from the entrance 12km to the coast, past some gorgeous scenery. We started at 7am and got to the beach just after sunset.

We didn't do much at the beach - the weather was grim so we didn't even really swim (we did go wading). I have a thing about not liking to swim on very overcast days unless I'm indoors. We rented the wooden bungalow farther from the hotel and canteen and immediately wished we'd rented one of the concrete cabins just because the very first thing that happened was a mouse scurrying about. We saw two mice in total and scared them off, and got the park rangers to seal off the mouseholes and spray something to repel them...we didn't see them again but also didn't sleep particularly well. This was also the only accommodation we had with a mandi (local-style bathroom), but we knew that going in so it wasn't a big deal. I prefer Western bathrooms when I can get them but I'm not averse to using something like a mandi.

Oh yes, and the canteen was closed the day we were there, so the rangers were nice enough to pick us up some food when they went to the other cabins further inland with the mountain view (where there is a general store and small restaurant more likely to be open). So we got gado-gado with rice for breakfast and ramen and local potato-chip-like snacks for the rest of the day. We'd also brought some cookies, coffee and tea. It was not fun at all keeping the food where we didn't think mice would come after it.

Also, we couldn't eat outside even though we had a lovely little patio overlooking the beach, because the place really was overrun with monkeys (and you do not want a troupe of monkeys to see you eat). They were literally more of a herd, a force of nature, than a group. Locals who day-tripped to the beach and weren't prepared found motorcycle helmets stolen, bags grabbed, unzipped and rifled through, snacks seized and gobbled down. They would try to come on our porch when we were reading and we'd have to wave a broom around and talk to them sternly the way we'd talk to our cats. Once, one of them figured out we were eating inside and got up on the porch, perched himself in the window and watched us eat, his little macaque face pressed against the glass as we slurped instant noodles.

This is not to say we didn't like our very rustic stay. I loved hanging out on the porch reading books as the weather changed above us, walking to the mangrove estuary, walking in the other direction to a string of more secluded beaches where we found interesting seashells (which we did not keep) and played in the water, or just sat on the beach and talked, watching the monkeys play.

The next morning we got up, had a leisurely meal of nasi goreng and coffee, arranged scooter rides back to the main road and caught the bus to Surabaya. We had to change buses once to one that was decidedly worse, and we got caught in traffic and had to navigate the dodgiest bus terminal in perhaps the entire country, but on the bright side, I had a nice long friendly chat with a local guy who could speak English and had a refreshingly feminist worldview (and knew a lot about Taiwan as his job was gathering edible seaweed, and he sold it to a Taiwanese guy).

Unlike life in Taiwan, or my study abroad in India, or to some extent life in China, when you take these short excursions, you don't get the same chances to interact with locals and understand, a little more deeply (if not terribly deeply) the lives, experiences and perspectives of people with experiences very different from your own. So, when the chance does present itself I'm always pleasantly surprised.

Anyway, we landed up in Surabaya later than we'd have liked, had dinner at a fancy shopping mall and a few drinks at the Hotel Majapahit with our Hungarian friend in Surabaya, and flew out the next morning. We had half a day and an overnight in Singapore on the way back which I thought was great, because I'm always happy for a chance to enjoy some time there, and then it was back to Taipei and the daily grind. (Perhaps in a future post I'll throw up a few Singapore snaps).

As usual, here are the links to the other posts about this trip:

Solo (Surakarta)
Baluran National Park



















Saturday, July 23, 2016

Indonesia: Solo (Surakarta)

Well hello there Mister Mister

So, I have to admit, we didn't see much in Solo proper. We arrived in the evening and stayed at the wonderful Roemakhoe Heritage Hotel, a hotel situated in an Art Deco house with close attention paid to decoration and detail and tons of original elements. Also we got a room for something like $45 US/night, because Indonesia is a country where you can get great deals on accommodation (our hotel in Borobudur was even cheaper and it came with a full bathtub and was also very nice). Included at Roemakhoe is afternoon tea, and one of the best things to do on a monsoon-pouring afternoon in the whole city is to just hang out in their Indonesian Art Deco (basically Dutch colonial) restaurant and drink tea and eat the free banana-based sweets that come with it while reading novels.

The next morning we arranged a car to take us to two temples on a nearby hillside, through gorgeous tea fields and up winding mountain roads; Candi Sukuh and Candi Cetho. These two temples are more indicative of a native Indonesian style rather than having the flavor of Indian or other Southeast Asian imports (though both are of Javanese Hindu origin from the 15th century). Other temples have stronger Buddhist or Hindu influences, these were devoid of such callbacks, having more of a Pacific Islander/Oceanic feel. Also, way more penises. WAY more. In the pictures below, Candi Cetho is the one that looks like a crazy alien dimensional portal, and Candi Sukuh is the one that looks like a pyramid imported from Mayan ruins. I don't know much more about these temples so I'll leave it there rather than try to disingenuously play the expert on Indonesian temple architecture and religion.

We had then planned on seeing some sights in Solo proper (we decided to head for the mountain first as the monsoon rains tend to hit in the afternoon - rather like in Taiwan - and it's easier to get around a city than a mountainside in a downpour). But, well, by the time we got to the kraton (local ruler's palace), it was closed for the day due to low tourist turnout, probably thanks to the rain. We went to the other kraton, the smaller but more beautifully decorated Mangkunegaran Palace, to find it had been closed for days in preparation for the wedding of some younger son of the family. So, we were driven in driving rain to the Danar Hadi batik museum to find that the museum itself was closed: the rains had caused part of the roof to fall in. But the store was open, so we just went shopping! Kind of a shame, I know, but frankly it was all OK. We did our shopping then returned to Roemakhoe for tea and to read away the afternoon, and left the next morning.

Hanging out at Roemakhoe

Note: we actually saw Candi Kalasan and Candi Sari, mentioned in the Prambanan post, on the way to the airport at some ridiculous time like 7am. They're right on the way, and we'd missed them due to rain on the way to Solo. So, our driver gamely stopped at both. I included them in the Prambanan post for ease of reading as they are geographically better categorized there, not in Solo.

Check out my other posts on Indonesia:

Surakarta (Solo)
Baluran National Park

Anyway, enjoy some photos!




















Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Indonesia: Surabaya

Over Chinese New Year, we decided to take a quick trip to Java with a side trip to Singapore, even though it was the rainy season.

Since Blogger is being a jerk, I'll put all the text here and all the pictures below. First up - and I'm splitting trip into several posts by destination within Java so I don't have to constantly copy-and-paste from Flickr - we flew into Surabaya, a sidewalk-free, mostly industrial but also somewhat interesting city on the eastern tip of Java. A friend of ours lives there, so we wandered the city with him until it was time to catch our evening train to Borobudur.

Even our Hungarian tour guide friend, who has lived in Indonesia for years, admits there's not a lot to do in Surabaya. We met up with him both coming and going - it was great having a local-living friend to take the lead in getting around, by the way - and went to the mosque in what Lonely Planet ambitiously calls "The Arab Quarter". Yes, it was worth the trip. Yes, that part of town is run-down and struggles with poverty. There is a wealth of heritage architecture, though, mostly art deco from the colonial period, the mosque is nice, and the market street leading to the mosque very atmospheric. We walked by Chinatown on the way - don't bother.

A few things worth noting: first, there are lots of cats in Surabaya. In fact this seems to be a thing not only in Indonesia but in basically every Muslim country I've visited. I know Muhammad preferred cats to dogs but I can't quite imagine that's the reason why Turkey, Egypt and Indonesia were so cat-fully nice (especially Turkey).

Second, Surabaya is really a city of drivers. People live in family homes in kampungs in the spread-out town, which has no clear town center (although one particular massive shopping mall, Tunjungan Plaza, serves as a central point). Most roads have no sidewalks and, with no clearly delineated 'downtown', it's not clear how one even would walk around the city. Buses are a non-starter, and there is no metro or light rail system of any kind. There are bemos, but you have to know where you're going. What this basically means is if you go to Surabaya, budget to take taxis everywhere. Fortunately, taxis are generally honest, cheap and - thankfully - air-conditioned.

Wouldn't live there though. If you've read this blog even occasionally you know I DO NOT drive in urban areas and believe strongly in urban public transit. I won't live in a city without it.

Third, towards the end of this group of photos, note the mosaic on one colonial building - Dutch woman on one side, Indonesian on the other, separated by some Art Deco deity. This is just one interesting bit of Dutch colonial-era Art Deco architecture, and serves to remind one that you can admire the buildings all you like, but remember the brutality, racism and inequality of the imperial powers that built it all. Worth it? I don't think so. The buildings are nice though.

Fourth, I don't have photos here as they didn't come out well, but the House of Sampoerna (and its attached cafe) as well as the Majapahit hotel bar are both worth a stop. Or you could eat at "Papa Ron's" pizza in Tunjungan Plaza. Your choice.

Finally, do check out the zoo - just to see the Komodo dragons if anything.

My other posts on Indonesia are here (coming soon):

Solo (Surakarta)
Baluran National Park