Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Book Review: My Enemy’s Cherry Tree


My Enemy's Cherry Tree
By Wang Ting-kuo

I’m still not sure if I liked My Enemy's Cherry Tree or not. Taiwanese literature, rather like some Taiwanese cultural norms, is very good at making a point so subtly and in a way that is so open to interpretation that you can never be sure if you’ve quite got it. I suppose that’s true of a great deal of ‘great literature’, but it feels especially true of writing from this country. 

My Enemy’s Cherry Tree is a little less abstruse than some other Taiwanese writing I’ve read (see: The Stolen Bicycle, which I’m still not sure I really understand). The plot itself is fairly straightforward: a young, struggling couple in love are trying to make a go at life despite having very little material wealth. The unnamed protagonist comes from poverty and Qiuzi, his wife, comes from a farming village famous for bamboo (the name of which I believe is 孟宗竹 in Chinese, 孟宗 sounding a little bit like 夢中, meaning 'in the middle of a dream'). 

They build a life together until she suddenly disappears and he opens a coffeeshop in the spot she said she'd wait for him "every day" if he ever left her. The circumstances around her disappearance are made clear(-ish) in the following pages, as Baixiu, the  daughter of Luo Yi-ming, the wealthy old man implicated in her disappearance. visits the coffeeshop over successive days. She's a reminder, a ghost, a foil. 

The key to the story, or its underlying point, can be found in The Old Man and the Sea, a work which is explicitly referenced midway through the novel. This novel has an old man, and it has a young man who lives near the sea. The old man is wealthy and respected. He has a station in life, and a rich inheritance. The young man is energetic and persistent. He has nothing and comes from nothing, but will fight for everything he has or wants, including a better life, a place to call home, and the wife he loves (or, as I took it, is lustfully obsessed with). They lock in battle as adversaries - not so much knight and dragon, or man and great fish, but yin and yang. 

Neither is defeated; both are destroyed. Of course, you only know for sure that’s happening to the old man when you learn what happens to the gorgeous cherry tree in the backyard of his Japanese-style mansion.

What bothered me about this book, however, is that it’s perfectly clear what destroys the protagonist. But it’s not at all clear what destroys the old man except whatever demons are in his own head. These potential demons are not defined or examined in any depth.

In fact, it’s not even made clear that Mr. Luo did what everyone, including the protagonist, believes he did; it’s all based on extremely circumstantial evidence. There’s an implied comparison between Mr. Luo’s cherry tree and a lonely pine tree struggling to survive on a cliff (another allegory for our protagonist, I suppose), a scene at a bank, a few scenes with Mr. Luo's daughter, Baixiu, and that’s it. We’re just supposed to know that what he says happened, happened (to be fair, Mr. Luo acts as though it did). 

This isn’t just a story of adversaries going (symbolically) head-to-head over a woman who has disappeared. There is a lot being said here about wealth and social class, the ongoing duel between a young generation struggling to put a roof over their heads, while the old is awash in privilege. You might also read it less as a generational struggle and more as a wealth gap between the landed rich and toiling laborers - whom our character dupes into buying overpriced homes, selling that piece of a dream - or urban-rural one. So many old men you might name to one category. So many seas that could stand in for the other. 

Perhaps the battle also takes place between the aging Mr. Luo and his desire to sexually possess a younger woman, and metaphorically regain lost youth and vigor himself. It's not clear, and not meant to be.

Mr. Luo seems to have inherited everything refined, cultured and moneyed about Taiwan’s history, dating back to the Japanese era. Even his given name (Yi-ming) calls to mind the notion that he’s a top name, at the top of the list, the elite. The protagonist was born into all of Taiwan’s struggles - the constant fight for survival of a working-class father supporting an ill wife and young son. Growing loofahs and cooking sweet potatoes in a hand-built brick kiln in a scraggly yard are powerful, ekphrastic visuals of ‘country life’ in Taiwan. Reading this novel, I know exactly what cultural ‘space’ I’m in within Taiwan. The rough-hewn, betel-nut-chewing rich-bumpkin boss with delusions of grandeur is also described perfectly. If you've spent any time in Taiwan, you know exactly what kind of person he is.

You might think from this review that I overall liked the book. In fact, I have a few complaints.

I can’t let this review go without mentioning that the protagonist is, to be honest, kind of a sexist ugh-burger. All the reasons he lists for why he loves Qiuzi come down to some sort of weird fetish for adorable, sweet, youthful naïveté. He likes her frankness, but doesn’t seem to care if she possesses any passion, or talent, or ambition, or even intelligence (though she’s not stupid). For this reason, he’s the exact kind of guy I would avoid, even socially.

I have no idea if the author intended for his character to have this flaw, or if he thinks it’s quite a normal personality trait for a man and didn’t even notice that he’d written a kind of gross character. Even the age difference made me raise my eyebrows - the story has the couple meeting soon after he finishes military service - that should put him in his early-to-mid twenties. She's a waitress in a French restaurant. And yet, later on it says they're ten years apart. Either the author wasn't thinking, or that restaurant employs child labor and the protagonist is a pedophile.

There are scenes later on where he exhibits some rapey tendencies, too - in one scene they’re making love and she tries to climb on top, and he overpowers her with strength he hadn't known he'd possessed. YIKES. The exact words aren't "baby, I don't know my own strength", but they're close enough. The last night they are together, he sexually assaults her. 

And yet he’s surprised and saddened that she left? He doesn’t know why? When he says earlier in the book that she left "for no reason", are we supposed to buy that?

Come on dude. You came *thisclose* to raping your wife. She’s probably better off without you.  

The only question is whether Wang Ting-kuo purposely wrote the character that way, or whether he actually finds his own hero's actions acceptable. Perhaps we're meant to see that he's spinning off insane theories about what his wife did in his own head, when in fact the only reason she left was that she realized her husband was abusive.

Personally, I can't imagine writing a character like that and thinking his actions were normal or acceptable. But so many people take men acting as he did as 'normal male behavior' that I really can't be sure.

The Asia Review of Books says Wang's book has echoes of Murakami. Yes, and Murakami is terrible at creating realistic, grounded women and men who treat women well. Every male Murakami character is a bit of a douche, and every woman a mere foil for the be-penised hero. Do I see echoes of that here? You betcha.

Overall, I enjoyed the meandering, somewhat removed style of writing - some might call it sterile, I call it dream-like. But it is a bit too short, a bit too unclear, and the protagonist a bit too much of a jerk.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

You don't read every history book for history: a review of Su Beng's "Taiwan's 400-Year History"


I bought the anniversary edition of Taiwan's 400-Year History at Su Beng's 100th birthday celebration on Ketagalan Boulevard a few years ago, but having already read up on Taiwanese history, I hadn't actually read it. I knew Su Beng's life story - the whole Taiwan-Japan-China-Taiwan-Japan-Taiwan saga of it. I knew that he was not only beloved almost universally among active supporters of Taiwanese independence, but that he'd been much 'redder' in his youth (that is, Marxist/leftist, not pro-CCP).

So, of course I knew the story of the writing of this book: penning it after work in his Tokyo noodle shop, with the sense that Taiwanese should know their history. They should have access to a historical narrative that the KMT was trying to eradicate in Taiwan itself.  I was aware copies were banned in Taiwan itself, and it had to be smuggled in (I had not known, however, that Nylon Deng had been the one to do the smuggling, according to one of the prefaces of the book).

When he died earlier this year, I regretted not reading it earlier, and picked it up as a tribute to one of the greats. The English edition is heavily abridged from the Chinese - one slim volume instead of several fat ones - so it didn't take long.

Having finished it, I'm not sure what to say exactly. I guess I'd say this: this may be a history book, but these days, you don't read it to learn history. You read it to understand Su Beng's perspective on Taiwan's history.

That wasn't always true: when the text first became available to Taiwanese, it was so different from the China-centric narratives peddled by the KMT that it must have felt like after years of gaslighting, Taiwan was finally charged with electricity.

For those who felt no connection to China and had been bored in school learning about "other provinces", learning about their national history as one of colonialism - including calling the current regime "colonizers" - I cannot imagine how empowering and enlightening it must have been. Even though 'Taiwanese history' is more broadly accessible now and covered from a range of perspectives, we still read it now to understand more deeply what that initial rush of Aha! This is who we are! would have been like. 

A few things stand out in this book: the first is that Su Beng structures his narrative not strictly linearly (though the sections are ordered in a broadly linear way), but rather telling history as a way to make points about class warfare: the KMT and other colonial oppressors such as Japan, the Qing, the Zhengs and the Dutch and the wealthy Taiwanese who backed them, and the oppressed. That is, the proletariat, or working Taiwanese, with a focus on Hoklo Taiwanese. Although indigenous people are mentioned and, to put it charitably, Hakka people are not 'excluded' so much as not differentiated from Hoklo. Hey, I told you he'd been more Marxist in his youth. 

That's why you read it, to be honest. Using words like "vile" and "evil" to describe the oppressors (and I agree, they were oppressors and in many cases still are), and "hardworking" and "from their blood and sweat" to describe the indigenous and working-class Taiwanese farmers, you aren't reading straight history so much as an extended editorial on Su Beng's particular perspective on it.

Is that such a bad thing, though? While it's perhaps not ideal for the first 'history of Taiwan' that Taiwanese might read to 'know their own history' to be so ideological, is anything non-ideological? Would a straight history, without emotionality and strongly connotative adjectives, have been as engaging as Su Beng's editorial style? Would a text that aimed to be more objective have simply hidden its ideological bias better? At least Su Beng didn't pretend to believe anything other than what he truly believed in order to seem 'neutral'. That sort of honest critical perspective is actually kind of refreshing. 

The second, to me, is a bigger problem: the English edition is so abridged as to make you wonder what was left out. This is exacerbated by the fact that several parts are highly repetitive. Thanks to the semi-non-linear structure, sometimes that repetition occurs across chapters. I understand that this is a stylistic feature of Mandarin and was surely present in the Mandarin edition (I think the Japanese edition, however, was the original), but for an abridged English edition, it might have been smart to cut it in favor of more content.

Here's an example. Towards the beginning, the chapter on Dutch colonialism in Taiwan includes several paragraphs that state, in different ways, that the wealth the Dutch extracted from Taiwan was created by the hard work of Taiwanese laborers. That theme is repeated - with the same wording - in the chapter on Qing colonialism, when discussing how it was hard-working Taiwanese farmers who opened the land to agriculture. Then, later in the book, there's a throwaway line about how Lin Shaomao "gave his life for his nation", with absolutely no backstory. Now, I know who Lin Shaomao was, but someone who didn't wouldn't learn his story from this book.

In several places, this or that specific person, or group, is accused of being evil, thieving, bourgeois...whatever. Some names were familiar to me; others I had to look up. They probably were, and I love that Su Beng pointed fingers and named names, but no background is provided. No buttressing of the argument. No support. They're evil, these other people are good, and that's it. I don't know if those details are present in the longer original, but the academic in me wants to scream at its absence in English.

Of course, early Taiwanese readers would probably already know who those people were, and reading the names of people who had probably been portrayed as wealthy community leaders and scions of industry being called thieving  compradore collaborators and oppressors must have felt like the surge of a new zeitgeist.

This makes me wonder - why was it cut down so much? Was the original so repetitive that you basically get the point from the abridged English edition, or do they think foreigners don't care and don't need the details? I'm not sure. It doesn't help that the English has several typos and at least one wrong fact (saying Magellan died in Manila, when in fact he died in Cebu) that I hope are corrected in a future edition.

This leads to the deepest problem of all: sometimes Su Beng's ideology gets in the way of good history. I'm sorry, you old hero, but it's true (and I think Su Beng as an older man who was more pink than red might actually have agreed).

Towards the beginning, though the theme also echoes later in the book, Su Beng characterizes the class struggle as indigenous Taiwanese and Hoklo (and Hakka) farmers and laborers as 'the oppressed', who struggled against consecutive foreign governments and wealthy local 'oppressors'. Without using these words explicitly, he implied strongly that these oppressed groups made common cause in fighting against their aristocratic and bourgeois oppressors.

And I'm sorry, Su Beng, I don't care how 'Marxist' or 'revolutionary' such a reading of history sounds. It's just not true. Hoklo farmers and laborers treated indigenous Taiwanese just as badly as the wealthy ruling classes and landlords. They were just as oppressive and, frankly, racist. What those wealthy oppressors said about indigenous people, laboring Hoklo bought and upheld. They weren't very kind to the Hakka either.

It does no favors to anyone to pretend that wasn't the case.

Later in the book, he goes so far as to say that wealthy Taiwanese 'compradore' families could not be considered 'Taiwanese', as they were in the pockets of the wealthy KMT diaspora. While the latter is true, the accusation of not being Taiwanese reeks of a 'No True Scotsman' fallacy. If you decide that Taiwanese bad guys aren't Taiwanese, implying that all Taiwanese are noble-hearted and support a certain vision of Taiwanese identity, you take away the chance for Taiwan to reckon with the fact that as a nation and society, it has assholes just like everywhere else. And if you don't reckon with it, you can't do anything about it.

That's not to say that the book is a total failure. I appreciated that unlike Ong Iok-tek in Taiwan: A History of Agonies, Su Beng never uses derogatory language to describe indigenous people. Understanding the mid-life thinking of one of the greatest Taiwan independence activists is a worthwhile activity, and it does help one understand how Taiwanese identity has such a strong leftist/Marxist component (when you'd think those who support a free and independent Taiwan would be wary of anything that had even a whiff of Communism about it). The prefaces and postscripts are interesting as well.

In other words, do read it. But don't think you're reading it to "learn history" - anyone who has a general concept of Taiwanese history already isn't going to learn anything new from it, and in any case it's not so much a history as a very long op-ed. As a narrative of the past 400 years, it leaves a lot to be desired, and yet it was a powerful touchstone at the time - a piece of literature more than an academic work. As a cultural artifact, it's fascinating.

Read it so you can get a sense, even if it's hard to recapture in 2019, that sense of the first lamps of Taiwanese consciousness being lit. 

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Book Review: The Astonishing Color of After


The Astonishing Color of After
Emily X.R. Pan

I like to situate my book reviews in the real world - whatever is going on in my life, I try if possible to relate it to what I've read. I do this because I'm not a professional book reviewer, and I want to offer something more unique than a bog-standard review you might read in a newspaper.

As it so happens, I read The Astonishing Color of After - which deals with depression and suicide - during a time when I was (am?) coping with anxiety, mostly related to graduate school. I don't have depression - anxiety is not the same thing - but what drew me in was a line towards the beginning of the novel - the colors around me were all wrong. I was lucky, if only because I was able to see that something was wrong in time to seek professional advice (it turns out that my case is mild and I don't really need anti-anxiety medication if I make a few lifestyle changes - breathing exercises, no social media before bed, that sort of thing). But what really helped me connect with this novel was realizing that while I'd always known intellectually that sometimes brains just don't work the way they're supposed to, I hadn't really understood personally - viscerally - what that could be like, even mildly. Now I do.

The Astonishing Color of After is, theoretically, YA (Young Adult) literature. The writing style is fairly straightforward, the first-person viewpoint character is a teenager dealing with teenage issues and it fits nicely alongside other YA classics. Because of this - and despite it being quite fat - it's a quick read for adults. I didn't realize that when I picked it up, but I'm happy things shook out that way - I'd just finished my dissertation proposal and needed some mental rest with easier prose. It surprises me that it doesn't seem as though this novel has gotten a lot of press among English-speaking Taiwan bibliophiles. I knew when Green Island, Lord of Formosa, My Enemy's Cherry Tree and Wedding in Autumn all came out, but hadn't heard of this book until I came across a copy at eslite. It's a shame, too - YA literature about Taiwan that can be enjoyed by anyone, even if they have no connection to Taiwan, is a niche that needs filling. That kind of soft power helps.

That said, because the narrator is a 15-year-old girl, the prose is written a bit too...muchly. There's explicitness where something might be implied, melodrama where subtlety and implication would suffice. It works, though - the story is told as a 15-year-old might tell it. You can almost envision what the journal entries of the narrator would be like.

Without spoiling too much, the story follows Leigh Chen Sanders, 15-year-old American-raised daughter of Dory Chen and Brian Sanders. When her mother, Dory, commits suicide, Leigh is convinced she's turned into a huge red bird, and eventually seeks answers to her mother's family history in Taiwan. Leigh not only grapples with her mother's death, family secrets and feeling lost in an unfamiliar country, but a father who can barely cope himself as well as a very common teen issue: wanting to do something creative with your life as one of your parents pushes you down a practical path that you are entirely unsuited for.

This struck home for me too. I'm not a teenager anymore, and I'm not in a 'creative' profession (writing is a hobby, not a consistent income source). But along with my dissertation, I've been grappling with exactly why I chose to become a teacher when I don't feel the money I earn really justifies my choice (and don't always feel appreciated in a professional capacity either). I know people think foreign teachers out-earn other professions here, but that's really only true early on. When you hit your thirties, gain experience and professional development and credentials, you start to notice that if you'd gone to work for some corporate machine you'd be earning more by now. But, as with art or music, there are other reasons to choose teaching.

Taipei is rendered as accurately - if generically - as post-smartphone suburban America, and the story is deeply engaging. Pan does a great job of narrating the difficulties Leigh has with Mandarin - a language she is familiar with but doesn't really speak and can't read at all - and Taiwanese, which is incomprehensible to her. The flourish of her Taiwanese mother not really wanting to return to Asia despite her American father being keen do to so - and that same American father speaking and writing fluent Mandarin as his Taiwanese wife avoids her native language - presents a flourish to the story that upends stereotypes readers may have. Frankly speaking, it's a circumstance I've seen play out in real life, and it was interesting seeing it depicted in fiction. It reminded me of how my own grandfather, himself not a native speaker of English, purposefully never taught any of his children Western Armenian. As a result, I never learned it either.

I'm of two minds about Pan's depiction of Taipei. Everything was accurate - the alleys, the doors, the weather, the parks, the house slippers, the apartment shrines, the shops and temples. The depiction of supernatural events fits fairly well within Taiwanese religious beliefs, and the touch that Leigh's mother would visit both a Taoist and a Buddhist temple and not see any problem with that sort of syncretic belief (a fairly common thing to do in Taiwan) was a thoughtful flourish. Leigh's grandparents could be any number of older couples in Taipei city.

But...but. I wish she'd been more specific. Which street with brick arches did she reference? Was it Dihua Street? If so, the temple she described looks nothing like the most famous temple on that street. Was it Longshan Temple? It could have been. But if so, what street? What neighborhood did the Chens live in? Which spot on the North Coast did they actually go to? (Jiufen is referenced but then not much more is said about it or what the scenery is like.) One thing I love when reading novels that take place partly or entirely in Taipei is reading about the author's description of very specific places that I can go visit, if I like. When Pai Hsien-yung talks about Longjiang Road and a park which is obviously 228, I have specific mental images I can conjure up to give life to the story. There's something to be said for referencing a generic residential lane, a generic neighborhood park - the Chens could be anyone and there's literary merit to that - but I like my fictional Taipei to be grounded in a reality that I can personally reference.

I was intrigued by the very common Taiwanese family story of the Chens - a grandmother born in Taiwan and growing up in poverty, and a grandfather who came with the ROC military from China. Leigh's grandmother speaks Mandarin and Taiwanese (her grandfather's linguistic background is less clear). When we start to see flashbacks of Leigh's mother's life in Taiwan, one reference concerns her marrying someone "Chinese" (me: not Taiwanese?) but later that's references as "Chinese or Taiwanese". Which...huh.

There's a lot of digging that could be done into family political dynamics there, a lot of engagement in that particular issue that Pan - and by extension Leigh - could have pursued. But it's left there; there's no further discussion of issues of Taiwanese linguistic, historical or cultural identity. I suppose that'd be a bit much for a YA novel not necessarily marketed only to readers familiar with Taiwan, but it would have been interesting to explore.

Where the novel does a little better is discussing Taiwanese religious beliefs and superstitions, especially regarding ghosts and the afterlife, and Ghost Month in particular. Although I wish the novel had actually gone to Keelung for Ghost Month after explicitly referencing it, beliefs about ghosts roaming the earth and burning items for them to use in the afterlife, I think foreign readers will find these descriptions interesting.

All in all I'm happy I read The Astonishing Color of After, especially when I did. Its ideas and plot threads came through at a time when they could resonate especially strongly for me, and its clear prose was an inviting fictional place for my mind to escape to when it very much needed an escape.

Even better? I think you can still buy it at eslite!

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Rambling around Ximen, afternoon tea, flowers: what I've been up to for Taiwan Scene

So, I've got a few things out at Taiwan Scene that I thought I'd share.

First, a guide to afternoon tea in unlikely places. I ventured beyond central Taipei (where you can get a decent afternoon tea at any number of establishments) to find places for a mid-afternoon repast where you wouldn't expect it. Say goodbye to 7-11 if you missed the lunch hours of regular restaurants!

Then there's "A Day In Historic Ximen" - yes, I reviewed a bunch of places, but I also added my knowledge of historical sights in the area. Some famous, some recently-restored, some a bit less well-known.

I also wrote a few pieces on flower season in Taipei - this one focuses on day routes where you can find different flowers, and another for Taiwan Scene on flower etiquette. It's probably too late to actually do any of the flower viewing routes, but keep them in mind for next year!

Friday, October 12, 2018

Gods Rush In Again: My Latest for Taiwan Scene

You might remember that I had a short non-fiction story published in an anthology of stories by expat women in Asia, all the way back in 2014.

Well, with the King Boat Festival coming once again - it kicks off on October 28 this year and ends one week later - Taiwan Scene has excerpted my original story and published it here:

Gods Rush In at the King Boat Festival

Although a few sections are lost - an exploration of the cultural issues surrounding being a female spirit medium, a longer discussion of my own (continued) atheism despite the peculiar and perhaps somewhat chimerical events I experienced on the beach that day in 2012, the fact that my own wishing plaque on the King Boat was for Taiwanese independence - I'm excited that the story might now reach a wider audience.

Until now, it was impossible to read unless you bought the whole anthology (which you can still absolutely do, and which I recommend, but may be difficult for someone without a Kindle device or app in Taiwan), so having a section of it available to all Taiwanese readers is great news!

Sunday, September 9, 2018

A short post about sad tidings

As anyone who reads about Taiwan knows by now, The View From Taiwan is done. As Donovan Smith noted, the loss is huge. I didn't always agree with the View's views, but more often than not I did, or at least respected the arguments behind them. As official news sources failed to consistently report well on what goes on in Taiwan, The View From Taiwan had become one of the smartest things to read in English to keep up on current affairs. I learned a lot about Taiwan from that blog, including the three most important lessons on advocating for Taiwan that I needed:

First, that the way Taiwanese history and current affairs are narrated, both from the international press and local sources (whether they are KMT Chinese chauvinists or Hoklo ethnic chauvinists), leaves a lot to be desired and almost never, ever tells the whole, accurate story. Don't look at what they say; look at the language they use to say it. Point it out. Especially if it has anything to do with "tensions".

Second, that half the fight for Taiwan on the international stage is about representing Taiwan well. International spectators aren't very good at paying attention to the details of local embroilments and messes, and when they do notice, they aren't very good at incorporating them into an overall arc of right vs. wrong. Don't air our dirty laundry for the world to see when it isn't necessary, when all the rest of the world really cares about is good guys vs. bad guys. Make the case that we are the good guys, not that we can't get our act together (even if, here in Taiwan, we're frustrated that we seemingly can't.) We're David (as in vs. Goliath), not Cletus (as in the slack-jawed yokel). The View From Taiwan has probably been the biggest influencer in what turned me from a Taiwan advocate who was uncompromising even if it made Taiwan look bad abroad, to a Taiwan advocate who understood that our top priority is to get the world on our side.

And third, if you're going to make a hard statement on something, know your facts first. You might still get it wrong - it happens - but make an honest effort to do your research. If you are not intimately aware of the inner workings of something, don't write about it as if you are. Thanks to seeing the background that went into posts on The View From Taiwan, I probably do an hour or so of research for every hard statement I make here. I don't always get it right regardless, but it was that blog that made this blog less a "shouty lady with opinions bloviating in a corner" (though I am that) and more a "shouty lady with opinions who did her homework before bloviating in a corner".

Oh yeah, and blog under your own name. No hiding. Put your own skin in the game, even if just a little.

All in all, it is not an exaggeration to say that without The View From Taiwan, Lao Ren Cha would not exist in the form it does today.

So, you know, thank you for that. *sniff*

Saturday, July 14, 2018

My latest for Ketagalan Media: an interview with Lord of Formosa author Joyce Bergvelt

When I do interviews, I don't just decide which items to include and edit responses for length. I don't even just shift topics around, although doing so is important to bring out something 'more' than just questions and answers. I also sit back and think about the responses and, in whole or at least in great part, what story they come together to tell.

This was relatively easy to do in my recent interview with Lord of Formosa author Joyce Bergvelt for Ketagalan Media.

In this case, they tell an entwined tale of the dangers of not knowing the history of one's own country and those who would seek to use that history to further their own political ends: in the case of the Dutch, a history of colonization (important now more than ever as right-wing nationalism creeps further into European politics, if it ever really left). In Taiwan, a history that includes invading forces from China.

So, while it might seem out-of-place to start with a narrative about the KMT's 12-point sun at the gate of Tainan's Koxinga shrine in an interview that has nothing to do with the KMT, if you read to the end, you'll see why it makes sense.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Firewalking For Beginners: my latest for Taiwan Scene

I'm back as a guest contributor to Taiwan Scene, this time writing about firewalking in Donggang...but not the way you think. It's actually about being a female traveler faced with sexist (yes, sexist) religious traditions, and having entirely the wrong response to them - something I can only admit now.

In any case, enjoy. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Feasting, Fasting: my latest for Ketagalan Media

Yeah, I know it's a bit jolting to compare the way the world treats Taiwan to a smart, capable, good-hearted young woman who is burned alive by her in-laws because her family won't support her leaving, but to be frank, I see a point in the metaphor.

If you've ever read Anita Desai's Fasting, Feasting, you know what I mean. 

Thursday, March 1, 2018

I'm in this month's Centered on Taipei!

The March 2018 issue of Centered on Taipei is the "women's issue" - I wrote a piece about shuttling between multiple identities as a foreign woman in Taiwan - likening it to being a human version of a Newton's Cradle which you can read on page 32.

To read the magazine, click on the cover photo in the link.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Love and Cheap Sushi - my Valentine's Day meditation on dating for MyTaiwanTour

My second piece, just in time for Valentine's Day (not a holiday we actually celebrate, by the way, even when we were young and dating) for MyTaiwanTour.

It's the story of my date at Sushi Express - a restaurant I picked because I was new in Taiwan and didn't know better - with a friend who could have been something more, but wasn't. Eric Lin was not his real name, of course, but a dozen years on it hardly matters.

Plus, some thoughts on observing the dating scene from afar in Taiwan, as a boring old married lady!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

My latest for Ketagalan Media: the KMT is a virus and the ROC is a compromised system

That's not the actual title, of course, and it covers more ground than that.

I'm just happy that the fine folks at Ketagalan let me publish this behemoth, include a swear word and call the KMT a "virus".

Be warned, it really is long. But it's well-organized and I'd like to think thoughtful as well.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The ethics of being a foreigner writing about Taiwan

Screen Shot 2017-08-23 at 12.57.20 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's where I am going to disagree.

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

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

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

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

...and I agree with that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

"How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Strories of Expat Women in Asia" launches today!

Guess what!

I'm currently in Seoul - not permanently, just for a short vacation - on the way to the USA to attend my friend's wedding. After our tour of the DMZ, we took refuge from the afternoon rain in a traditional hanok (think like an old-school courtyard house of the similar type found in many East Asian countries, but this one is Korean)-turned-coffeeshop. I'd post photos, but blogging on an iPad is not easy, and I'll have to skip that for now.

And guess what else!

"How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia" launches today! It's available on Amazon as an e-book and paperback, through Barnes&Noble, Apple and several other outlets (check the editor's blog for more information) and coming soon to select bookstores in Hong Kong.

If you're interested in knowing more about the anthology, and my contribution to it, check out Taiwanxifu's review of the anthology focusing on my contribution, titled "Gods Rushing In". 

It's not available in paperback in Taiwan unless you want to pay preposterous shipping charges, so if any Taiwan based folks want a copy in paperback - if e-books just don't do it for you or you want to show off to your friends by having it on your bookshelf - let me know (you can leave a comment with your e-mail address here. I won't publish it, because I bet you wouldn't want your e-mail address broadcast to the world as a spammable or hackable account, but I will get back to you and can arrange a paperback copy).

I'm really excited about this - I'd known it was coming for awhile but it's something different for it to be real, for the book to be available. Even one story in an anthology is something, especially as it is the first thing - other than job reporting on local issues in a regional newspaper in high school - I'd ever really submitted for publication. I saw the call to submissions on a lark, I thought about writing something and put it off for weeks...then on the day submissions were due I sat down in a coffeeshop and hammered mine out. I didn't even proofread it - I gave it to Brendan to read, made a few adjustments as per his recommendations and sent it a first draft. What the hell, right? May as well see what happens.

One always imagines writing as a career - or a side hobby, or freelance gig - as something that you have to toil at for years, submitting manuscripts, stories or pitching ideas, and facing rejection after rejection before you get one fateful acceptance. And I know that while I can write, I'm not the most talented writer ever to walk the earth - I can write, but so can millions of other people. There is nothing particularly unique about my writing ability. So, given all this, I certainly did not expect that my first draft "what the hell" submission would be accepted. I was, frankly, surprised to be proven wrong. What the hell indeed!

I may have written all of that in a post before - I can't remember - but it's what I'm thinking now.

So, I hope you'll check it out. Everyone who contributed to "How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit" put a lot of work and a lot of heart into their contribution, and I do believe - after having read it myself - that it is worth your time.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

So, how *does* one dress to buy dragonfruit?

 photo DragonfruitFrontCover.jpg

We have a cover!

Although it's just one story in an anthology, I'm mighty excited to actually be published (I mean, I've been published before in journalism - nothing fancy - but never in a book). It's not a full-on book by me, but hey, maybe someday...

It's not that often that one of these travel writing anthologies includes a story from Taiwan, but thanks to my own story, Gods Rushing In, that isn't a problem this time around. It's even rarer that the stories in question are written by women - a lot of the modern "Taiwan expat experience" books out there seem to be written by men with a strong male perspective, which, you know, is great, it's one angle - but there aren't that many female expat voices speaking up on the Beautiful Island.

I have a memory of reading a review for Stranger in Taiwan (a book I never read, because the way the subject matter was tackled, in a typical brobro expat guy way, did not interest me) with the line "Anyone who has been here any length of time will have had the same experiences and will instantly be able to relate to them: the hospital. The Girl. The Family. The Job. Touring with The Girl" and thinking, "wait...what? No. I've been here quite a length of time and of those, only two are something I can relate to - the hospital and the job. We don't all have the same Asian Girlfriend and Her Family experience." Not that there's anything inherently wrong with that experience, but these days it seems to be the only one that gets a lot of airtime.

Mostly it's my own laziness that has kept me from starting a project like that already, one told from a different perspective with a different voice. I always say I'll find the time, and then I don't. I would probably also structure it as a series of stories, but attempt to achieve narrative flow. But...laziness, I guess. That and a fear that although I have a lot to say, that nobody's going to be that interested in hearing it. Perhaps it's the Confidence Gap. Hell, maybe the confidence gap is the reason why there are so many "guy stories" in expat literature and so few female ones, and maybe I'm underselling myself and I ought to change that. At the very least I know I am not an awful writer.

Yep, maybe someday.

Anyway, I love the background design - colorful and bright, clearly a dragonfruit, but also artistic - and it's really nice to see what the finished anthology will look like.

How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia goes on sale on June 10th, but you can follow their Facebook page here and see a list of contributors here. Once the electronic copies are ready to be distributed, keep your eyes out for reviews!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Expat women! In Asia! In an anthology! With dragonfruit! And me!

   You totally want to read about this guy.

I've mentioned a few times before on this blog that one of my stories - based on this blog post - is going to be published in an upcoming anthology of stories by expat women in Asia (woohoo!). That was all very informal, but now things are being finalized and I'm proud to announce that the book - titled How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia - will be on the market this June!


You can, and should, follow the Facebook page here. A list of contributors and more information can be found on the editor's blog here. And I am going to be totally shameless in saying that you should buy a copy (don't worry, Moms & Dads, you're getting free copies. But the rest of you should buy it). You'll (hopefully) see a few reviews on some Taiwan-centric blogs, including mine, because duh.

It's pretty rare that a story from Taiwan makes it into these travel writing anthologies, and rarer still that that story is written by a female expat. I can really only think of one other that I've read - and I buy these sorts of books all the time, so I would know. They're great to bring on vacation because you can read them one story at a time. In the story I try to address the female expat experience and progressive women's issues in Taiwan, along with thoughts on being an atheist in a country that mostly practices folk religion, and what happens when those three things collide at a temple festival in Donggang.

Seriously, you should read it. I think I did pretty good. At least I tried my best to capture the atmosphere of one of these festivals outside Taipei. I haven't read the anthology yet - eventually I'll get a copy - but I'm sure the other writers wrote brilliantly as well.

Anyway, so yeah. Buy the book that has my story in June. :-P

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Go Read Me

I did a little writing for Expat Arrivals recently - go check it out. Tell me what you think. Think I'm wrong about something? Tell me so!

Meeting People and Making Friends in Taipei

Working in Taipei

Pros and Cons of Moving to Taipei

Cost of Living in Taipei

I also contributed to Safety in Taiwan - although I didn't write all of it, and I do feel that Taiwan is safer than this page makes it out to be.