Thursday, March 6, 2014

Bagan in Photos

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Bagan was our second stop on our Burmese vacation after Rangoon - it was once a long-standing capital, pockmarked with hundreds of temples, before (as all Burmese capitals seem to do) being abandoned and falling into disrepair, with only the temples still standing to mark the plain. Wherever the houses, public buildings, markets etc. once were, they're now gone, or at least effectively vanished from anyone who isn't an archaeologist.

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We arrived in Bagan at 4am on the night bus (almost all buses are night buses in Burma - the locals seem to prefer it as it "saves time" but I hate it, simply because I can't fall asleep! I often get insomnia even in my own warm bed!) and promptly began shivering - it's cold on the plain - and arguing with taxi drivers who wanted to charge us a small fortune to go from the bus stop in Nyaung-U to our hotel in Old Bagan (in the archaeological zone). We finally agreed on a preposterous $7 US dollars for a ride of a few kilometers. It was just a bit too far to walk with our backpacks.

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Because it was 4am, we were able to put our bags down, check in (but not get a room) and then rent cycles to go see the sunrise over the plain. It's also popular to take a balloon ride - shown here - but so expensive that we didn't bother. Sunrise in Bagan is a touristy affair, but thoroughly worth it.

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On the first day we explored on our own - our feet got thoroughly caked in grime, as you have to remove your shoes to enter any temple, even one that is basically an archaeological site.

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We enjoyed some great local food at Golden Myanmar - where you can get an assortment of curries and side dishes (the curries are usually meat, mildly spiced, a bit sour and very oily, and the side dishes are usually vegetables, fried chili flakes and chili-fish paste, with fresh greens and vegetables you can dip in a paste of chili and fermented beans).

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You can enter some temples, but not others (and some you can enter, but they're so overgrown that you wouldn't want to with bare feet). Overall I expected a tropical jungle climate - you know, huge flowers, giant ferns and palms, I dunno, tigers or something - but during the dry season at least, Bagan is more like northern India - dry, dun-colored, dusty.

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Applying gold leaf to Buddha images is popular with locals and tourists alike, After awhile the gilded Buddhas get a bit lumpy - and at some point they turn into golden lumpen snowmen. These guys are pretty early on in the process.

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Slightly drunk Buddha photo 1799906_10152271910931202_141325775_o.jpg

This post is full of temples&Buddhas&more temples, but every temple and Buddha looks slightly different - and some look a bit tipsy.

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A friendly monk we met while wandering around Bagan photo 1658134_10152271911491202_1164278603_o.jpg

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One thing I did appreciate was how knowledgeable and informed people were about the state of their country and government - with the opening up of the government and the influx of tourists, locals are more open to talking about their true beliefs and ideas (this used to be punishable by imprisonment or even death).

Usually in China, although most people are aware of the problems with their government - it's basically a plutocracy - you can still find some meatheads and brainwashed types happy to defend the Communist Party or the state of affairs in China. You can still find people who toe the party line, and some of them are even sincere about it!

You won't find that in Burma: either you're in the government, or you hate the government. The few people not in government who felt otherwise instead pointed to recent reforms and were of the opinion that they hoped things would continue to improve, pointedly not saying they were already satisfactory.

While in Burma we both read Emma Larkin's Finding George Orwell in Burma (which I traded to a Burmese kid for a copy of Cryptonomicon after I'd finished it so I'd have something new to read) and it painted a very different picture from what we found: nobody laughed and pretended to not hear political comments (not that we made many) or openly avoided the topic: if anything, our horse cart driver in Bagan and the hotel "boy" (the owner's son, we think) among others were very open about what they thought of the state of their nation.

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*wink wink* photo 1618339_10152271914431202_1884175731_o.jpg

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This kid basically threatened my life with a plastic gun. photo 1796867_10152271914651202_881492072_o.jpg

Kicked to the Curb: Moving House in Taipei When You Don't Want To

One ordinary Monday night, I came home from work, turned the key, opened the door and thought the same thing I think every night: I'm happy to be home. I love my home. My husband and I are so lucky to be able to live here! I may just be renting, but wow. What real estate heaven is this? Downtown Taipei! A tatami tea nook! An elevator in a city full of walk-ups! We were allowed to paint our walls! Natural light! Friendly neighbors - great for practicing Chinese! Three bedrooms - we had an office and a guest room! When I walked in the door I'd sometimes let out an audible "aaah" - this is home.

In all my previous apartments - even the nicer ones - I'd never quite felt that way. In those places I'd always known I'd be moving on, and I hadn't had the money to decorate the way I really wanted to (think rural Taiwan meets vintage Japan meets cool minimalist Turkish Mediterranean meets colorful India). With this apartment, I could afford to do what I wanted - my tastes are not expensive, but they are specific.

The next day I came home, turned the key, opened the door and my heart sank.

I had gotten a phone call from our landlady - a Buddhist nun who lives in a monastery in southern Taiwan - earlier that evening. A pit had formed in my stomach as she told me that we would have to find a new place to live. Her sister wanted to move into our place. I didn't ask for details because I already understood: apartments in Taiwan may be in one person's name, but they're often not really considered to be owned by that person alone. They're family-owned in spirit, and who lives there is often a family decision. That apartment was as much her sister's as hers. I wanted to yell and cry - let her know that I felt like she'd just sucker-punched me. But one does not yell and cry at a nun who hasn't done anything wrong. I couldn't make my problem her problem. I couldn't even be angry with her - her voice cracked, too, when she told me. She said she was so sorry, and she wanted us to find an apartment we'd really be happy with so we could take two, three months if necessary.

But it didn't make me feel better.

I had to get back to work, but I managed to croak out the bad news to Brendan and somehow face down the last hour and a half before I could go home. He looked like he was going to cry; this was really something, he rarely displays emotions as openly as I do.

My heart cracked. A knot formed in my gut. My eyes smarted and my head swam. I describe it in physical terms because that's how bad it hit me: it physically hurt.

So I looked around at our custom blue ombre curtains, our aqua blue wall, our high-quality faux-wood floor (restaurant grade, very durable), our antique milk glass pendant lamp that perfectly fit the tatami-floored nook it was hanging in. Some children were still playing, at that late hour, in the little courtyard that our window overlooked. Oh yes - no traffic noise. And I thought - I'm going to have to give all of this up. I don't want to! No! I refuse! I'd planned to spend several years, or more, in this apartment! I...I won't! I...have to. It's not my decision.

I'd given up fantastic apartments before - the one with the full view from my bedroom picture window over the Potomac River and National Mall in Washington, DC. The sweet little townhouse with wood floors and generous kitchen. But I'd chosen to give them up - I wasn't pushed. I'd regretted leaving them behind but I was moving on to other things - to other countries. This was different.

Then, as we began the search for a new place - still ongoing - I started beating myself up over my feelings. There were refugees fleeing their homes in other parts of the world with the clothes on their back and not much else, in the direst of circumstances. Through history people have been taken from their homes against their will, to be kicked out of the country, beaten and interrogated, imprisoned or killed. Millions, if not billions, of people around the world live in sub-par conditions, many in slums that would turn your stomach. What a First World Problem! I have no right to be feeling this way! I got a slice of real estate heaven and now I was being made to trade it in for what would probably be a not-so-tasty slice of real estate mediocrity. Boo fuckin' hoo. Wah wah wah, poor little white girl can't keep her dream apartment because she doesn't own it. I felt like crud and I didn't even have sympathy for myself.

Some folks told me to be optimistic - maybe we'd find a place that was even better, minimizing the flaws of the old place. Not likely - it had so few flaws. Maybe we'd find a place with other great features that would make up for the features we might have to compromise on. Hah - except I'm not willing to compromise on features like natural light and floors that aren't hideous, not to mention not freezing in the winter and having the apartment be hotter than the outside in summer (a major problem with one apartment we'd had). I was told point blank that I had better "find my gratitude" that I got to live in a great place at all, even if I had to move on.

None of that advice was bad, but it didn't work.

Considering the situations of those far less fortunate than myself did put things into perspective and was a reminder not to get too dramatic about the whole thing, but it didn't spackle over the hole in my gut. I still felt like crap. "Find your gratitude", while it came from the right body of advice, sounded more condescending than helpful. "You'll find something as good or better" - but I don't want an unknown quantity of 'as good or better', I want what I already have.

For the next two days I walked around with my stomach in a knot and my head a ball of fuzz. Occasionally - over reminders even tangentially related to how much I loved my apartment - an incorporeal spear would fly out of the ether and run me through, right in the belly. I would get into a taxi and think of how easy it was to catch a cab right outside my front door - schwam! I'd see sunlight through a window and think of how great the natural light is in our living room - stab! I'd look at a teal blue pen and think of the brilliant color we were able to paint one livingroom wall - fwoosh!

So I started really thinking about it - why did I feel this way? Over an apartment? Why was I so crushed over what was the very definition of a First World Problem? Why couldn't I "find my gratitude" or at least be optimistic about things? Why did I want to be so dramatic when the situation really didn't call for it?

Then it hit me like another knife in the gut: this is exactly how I've felt during bad breakups. This lint-brained, disemboweled, harpooned-by-the-universe, even-the-sunshine-makes-me-sad feeling is identical in every way to heartbreak. I was going through a breakup: I'd been dumped by my apartment! In the world of real estate, my true love! I'd been hoping for a proposal (I was working out a strategy for saving up the necessary deposit to buy the place - the equivalent of looking at wedding magazines before you're engaged!) and instead I got told 'it's over'. I was mooning over an apartment the way I might moon over an ex with whom I hadn't wanted things to end!

At least when you break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, you have the option of being single for awhile as you heal, not looking for anyone else as you get over those "I don't want anyone else, not even anyone better, I want him/her!" feelings. You can become open to a relationship on your own time. This felt like being dumped, and then pushed into a new relationship you weren't ready for, while you were still thinking "but I don't want anyone else!" We looked at other places but none excited us - even ones that would have been fine before we found our dream apartment were not satisfactory after we'd been to paradise. "Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all"? No, we'd have been much better off if we'd never fallen in love with that apartment, never found a place that we could truly turn into a 'home' without owning it.

Over the next few days details emerged: we offered to pay more rent (sometimes landlords in Taiwan, rather than raising your rent, will ask you to move out on false pretenses so they can charge more to another renter - I don't get the logic of this at all, as much as I try to be culturally openminded) but that had not been her intention. Her sister visited us and explained things - nearly in tears herself. She was losing her own home, which she'd owned and lived in for decades, through what I feel was no fault of her own. I won't tell her story here - those details belong to her narrative and aren't for me to blast all over the Internet - but the reason for her sudden need to live in what I thought of as our apartment (it wasn't ours, but I thought of it that way) became clear. She said not to worry about the painted walls - she wouldn't make us return them to their original white, and reiterated that we could have all the time we needed - six months, ten, whatever, more than the original two or three - to find a place we were really happy with. We offered to find her a place and pay the rent deducted from our own as the sister would lose that income stream anyway, but she didn't want to deal with a landlord (something she had never done before in her life). What could we say? Her anxiety about landlords was odd - at least she could speak to them in her native language, I had to do so in a language I'd learned with little formal instruction! - but it was her right. This was a very generous offer and quite fair.

I'm only now starting to feel better - just realizing that what I was going through was a breakup, a hellacious "this is nobody's fault, I still love you but we have to end it" dumping, helped me get a grip on things. It led me to these ideas, which lifted me out of the gutter more effectively than the advice I'd been given.

1.) It's okay to feel this way. It seems silly, but breakup heartache seems unjustified to those not going through it, too. You have a right to feel this way. Just feel it for awhile. Like with a breakup, it'll help.

2.) Everybody bounces back from breakups. It takes time, but you do eventually feel better, even if in the beginning all you can do is remind yourself that at some unknown point in the future you will be okay. You will bounce back from this. Just let it happen.

3.) It's okay to not want to "find your gratitude" or be optimistic when you don't really feel that way. You can have a different mindset: looking for diamonds in the turd sandwich may help some, but it's also perfectly acceptable to be a pessimist and call a turd sandwich a turd sandwich because it is one. You do not need to announce that it is actually a very stinky diamond mine. If it helps you more to say "My, this appears to be a big pile of bullshit" when a big pile of bullshit lands on your head, then go with it. Worked for me!

4.) Just remember - the sister who is moving in has lost basically everything. You have not. It's the more personal version of "remember that so many people have it a lot worse than you do", and fulfills a similar purpose. You don't have to automatically feel better upon considering the issues facing others (it really is OK to feel your honest feelings about your own situation while at the same time being aware of how your situation compares to that of others), but it can put your own issues into perspective.

5.) Don't regret making your rented space your "home". It's probably "easier" to not home-ify your rental, so if you ever have to leave you can do so without too much heartache, but you live here and now, and not at some probably-undefinable point in the future when you own your own place and can home-ify it as much as you want. Don't spend these years living in a house that's not a home. 'Tis better to have loved and lost...yadda yadda yadda.

6.) Remember your priorities: of all the bad things that could have happened in life - including the dangers that might befall my husband, my cat, my parents, sister and in-laws, my closest friends, my life abroad, my freelance career, a health crisis, an accident or worse, this is really the least "bad" thing of all the bad things. I have my husband and my kitty: together we three will be okay. If I had to choose another thing that is important to me to sacrifice so I could keep my apartment, I can't imagine what I'd choose. I'd probably say "okay, evil god, then go ahead and take the apartment".

We still haven't found a new place yet - although we trawl the online rental listings daily - and have the luxury of time. I still don't feel fully better, and I'm still not sure I have fully accepted the situation: my head has accepted that my home (effectively my "ex") won't be available for a "getting back together", but my heart still has this vacuum-like sucking feeling at the center. But, like moving on from an ex, I know eventually it will be okay.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


Everybody should go read this right now:

It's titled "Mearsheimer, Taiwan and the Future" but I think the provisional title of "Taiwan's problem isn't China, it's America's foreign policy commentariat" is more accurate.

I have a lot to say on this - not only because I agree with Michael but because my degree is in International Affairs with a focus on Asian Studies (fat lot of good that did me), so I'm used to hearing this sophomoric garbage. I spent four years immersed in it. Spent four years in the George Washington University Elliott School of Talking About Foreign Affairs Only Insofar As They Can Be Manipulated to The US's Advantage. Probably came out a little stinky myself. Four years in DC around these people was enough to put me off a career in the foreign service forever (plus I don't think I could be sent on a tour of service and be able to "support" American foreign policy in that country - almost doesn't matter which country)!

It lays out exactly what I - and many others - think of a lot of the "educated" views on "foreign affairs" that I hear spewed about Taiwan. Even people I've met who otherwise seem intelligent and well-studied pull this crap: not long ago, after meeting someone once, my main reaction was "don't dislike him, seems like an okay guy, but in terms of foreign affairs he's wrong about everything".

What's worse is that they apply the same logic to a lot of crap that goes on in Taiwan and China - they adopt KMT word-puke about how they're a "reformed" party (who still works to inhibit press freedom, curtail the will of the people, hoard wealth and work to get their sons elected), or how 228 and the White Terror are best "forgiven and forgotten" because they are "not relevant" to politics today (yeah, tell that to the families who still don't know for sure what happened to their relatives who disappeared, and the memories of the deceased found in mass graves still being discovered), or how the KMT has "changed" so it doesn't matter that they do not fully acknowledge their part in the genocide.

They apply it to the failure of ECFA: "Ma Ying-jiu played his hand the best he could, although it's not perfect it's been better for Taiwan than if it had not been implemented" - horseshit! China has such a boner for Taiwan's skilled labor force and high-tech R&D/industrial capacity that they'd have struck a much better deal if the Ma administration had bothered to fight for one - the deal that came out was an obvious plan for economic integration, not the best interests of the majority of middle-income Taiwanese. It's so clearly a two-pronged plan to enrich the wealthy and keep the stock market up (so supporters can say "it worked! Look at the stock market! That's proof!" while ignoring the stagnation across the rest of Taiwan) and to pull down Taiwan's economy such that the people will be pushed closer to believing that the only way out is further integration that I can't believe how few people see it.

They apply it to "the Taiwanese people support keeping the status quo, not independence" - technically true but also kind of horseshit: they support the status quo because they have to, not because they want to, and it is ridiculous and misleading to imply that they'd choose their current ambiguous political status vis-a-vis China if they could determine the future of Taiwan without threat or fear from China.

They apply it to history - actually believing that "the Asian view of what it means to be a nation" matters (no, what the Taiwanese want for their country matters, and they don't, just going by the data, generally support your 'Asian view of being a nation' crap), or "Taiwan was a part of China in antiquity" (no, it wasn't - do I really need to get into this?), or "the Taiwanese still view themselves as Chinese" (only sort of - and I still view myself as "Armenian, British, Swiss and Polish", so I should draw and quarter myself and have the four pieces of me sent to those countries? Yeah, no) or "Taiwan was ceded to China/the KMT when the Japanese left" (patently not true and provably so).

They apply it to domestic politics: "more and more Taiwanese are adopting ROC (meaning KMT, really) symbols as their own (which implies that the KMT, currently in power, has the moral authority to speak for the people). Yep, no, not when the government's approval rating is so low - 9.2% last I checked - that people who still support them are actually called "9-point-2-ers" in Chinese!

While sometimes valid points are made, and sometimes ideas - even if I disagree with them, are intelligently formed or have merit - the vast majority of stuff I hear along these lines is pure, unadulterated, Blue Sky horseshit.

I haven't been able, so far, to articulate my thoughts on this crap commetary as well as Michael's post (he managed to say his piece without once using the term 'horseshit', and I am genetically unable to), which is a shame because I've run into more than a few of those bumbling "the only thing worth putting your money on is realpolitik" foreigners who have adopted Beijing thought-vomit into their own commentary, and then acted like they're impartial, objective observers of the situation.

Turton calls out the "ruddy-faced foreigners" who regurgitate this crap in expat bars - and he's right. There's a reason I don't spend a lot of time talking to these folks - you can't debate with them, you can't argue with them, and yes, I do feel they can be horribly condescending at times to a young-looking woman who disagrees with them (yes, I'm calling sexism, and yes, I'll probably be eviscerated for that, but I don't care) - and a reason why you don't often meet people with more nuanced views in expat bars: those of us who are on the same side as Turton in this debate tend not to go to expat bars! We just can't take the reek of the bullshit! But there are more of us on the "annexation is not inevitable, spouting unfounded 'realpolitik' as a stand-in for actual views is preposterous" side than you think: we just tend to keep to ourselves.

And it kind of horrifies me that while Beijing is decidedly losing the charm offensive, the soft-power push, to win over the Taiwanese people (which honestly is simply not going to happen, now or ever), they seem to be winning the push to brainwash expat and "foreign policy expert" bloviators.

A final note after my little rant - for years I've tried to encourage people to stop using the phrase "reunification" and instead use the more accurate "unification" - "re-" implies something torn asunder that is being repaired, or something being returned to a previous state. That is simply not the case with China and Taiwan. I wonder what would happen if I went whole-hog and encouraged the use of "annexation" over any verb that implies "unity"? Probably a lot of annoyed expats who think they know better would talk down to me. Yet another reason not to circulate too much in those circles.

Next up: more happy pictures of Bagan, Myanmar. Stay tuned.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Rangoon In Photos

Had a lot going on in life lately - went to Myanmar (Burma), found out we have to move because the landlady will be letting her sister live here more or less permanently (I'm devastated and Brendan is upset too, although he doesn't show it as much), lots of post-Chinese-New-Year work.

So, in lieu of actually posting something, here are some photos from Rangoon, with more photos of other parts of Myanmar to follow.

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I really enjoyed Yangon (Rangoon) - it's quieter and more manageable than other capital cities in the developing world (I realize it's no longer the capital, but for all intents and purposes it may as well be), and a lot of quiet, faded, somewhat melancholic charm still exists (well, the melancholy has probably been settling over the city over time). In some ways, it's like a smaller, less European version of Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul. It lacks the decent public transportation of other cities but makes up for it with cheap, mostly honest cab drivers.

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And, beyond the temples and Raj-era architecture, it has a few of its own colorful, eccentric gems.

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It's got a night life and street food scene not too different from Taipei's: what it lacks in full night markets it makes up for roadside stands selling Burmese, Thai, Indian and Chinese treats and beer gardens, mostly serving noodles, hamburgers and Chinese-style ("Burmese Chinese") food.

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Rangoon is also incredibly diverse - it is not uncommon to see a guy who looks thoroughly Chinese chatting, in Burmese, with a guy who is obviously South Indian in ancestry, Burmese both being one of their native languages, while a Bamar guy nods in time with the conversation. In fact, we did see that.

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I did not enjoy the gauntlet-like sidewalks or dim, hazy air, but I did enjoy the vibrant street life, roadside tea shops with low stools (well, my back didn't really enjoy the stools), the temples plopped down in traffic circles and the general time-capsule-just-opened eccentricity of the place...although I do realize that urban character, partly a result of being shut off from the rest of the world for so long, comes at a steep price to the people and the economy they live in.

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Everywhere you go, you see Buddhas and stupas, Buddhas and stupas. While after awhile they all do start to look the same, if you don't let yourself get too dulled by the Buddhas-and-stupas you'll see that they're all quite different in style and design (well, the Buddhas are. The stupas really all do look about the same). Different sizes, details, clothing, colors, facial expressions, the lot.

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A dragon races an elephant at Shwedagon Paya photo 1557140_10152263641896202_1109002327_o.jpg

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