Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Anatomy of a Good Taiwan Article

This isn't new, but you've surely noticed that I've been busy. I don't need to comment on the main points of the article - I have no complaints and it's not current enough. That said, it seems like every time a terrible (or even "okay") piece on Taiwan comes out, it's easy to jump on it and say why it's terrible. 

I thought, why not flip the script and use this very good New York Times article by Edward Wong and break down why it's well-done, as a sort of how-to for people who perhaps don't 'get' Taiwan, but want to. It's not perfect, but the sub-optimal parts can be discussed reasonably. 

Let's start with the title: 

So many great things here: 

1.) The main headline is entirely about Taiwan and the US, prioritizing that relationship over any sort of clown-dancing China is doing on the side

2.) It's positive: there's no fearmongering. One democratic country with a lot of problems but also a lot of power trying to do something positive for a friendly fellow democracy. 

3.) It uses the correct verb: recognize. Taiwan is already sovereign; it is absolutely correct to write about whether other countries recognize that fact or not. The fact itself should not be in question. 

4.) It doesn't mention China in the main headline, and where it does do so, it correctly uses the 'authoritarian' epithet. This is accurate.

5.) There is no language that obfuscates China's choices: no tensions mysteriously raise themselves, China is not passively "angered" by any "moves"

Write more headlines like this when talking about the sovereign democratic nation of Taiwan, please. Write about Taiwan's other key relationships without headlining China or making China look like the victim of others' actions. It's not "a move likely to anger China", China is choosing to be angered by the completely reasonable actions of independent nations. 

Then there's the draw: 

WASHINGTON — A visit to Taiwan by an American cabinet secretary. A sale of advanced torpedoes. Talk of starting negotiations over a potential trade agreement.

All of these are positive things (some may not be a fan of the torpedoes but I implore you to consider the enemy we're fighting - fists alone won't stop them). All of them interesting to readers. There's no need to invoke China in the first sentence to get people to read about Taiwan. 

The Trump administration has taken action in recent weeks to strengthen United States relations with the democratic island of Taiwan and bolster its international standing. The efforts are aimed at highlighting a thriving democracy in Asia and countering China’s attempts to weaken the global diplomatic status of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory.

China does make it into the second paragraph, but is properly contextualized: the attempts to harm Taiwan are things China does, they are not actions by Taiwan or the US which cause China to be upset. China's "attempts to weaken the global diplomatic status of Taiwan" (a completely accurate assessment of their actions) compared in the same paragraph agains "highlighting a thriving democracy". This is wonderful - it does away with the charade of 'neutral' reporting in which there are no bad guys, even when there certainly are ("In A Move Likely To Anger The Wolf, Red Riding Hood Arrives At Grandmother's House") and goes with accurate reporting, which at its best is a clear-eyed depiction of a world that certainly has gray areas, but also mostly-bad guys and mostly-good guys, too. 

Wong then points out that Beijing claims Taiwan, which is true. It does away with all the old bombast of "renegade province" which is "to be reunited with the Mainland by force if necessary", wording which is fearmongering -- by force!!! -- and inaccurate (if you call Taiwan a "renegade province" often enough, even if you leave it open to questioning, people will start to think it is in fact a renegade province. It is not.) 

In fact, here's another great thing about this article: 

Check out how many times the word "Mainland" is used - zero! It is entirely possible to write an article all about Taiwan without once implying that Taiwan has some sort of Mainland area which is part of its sense of national identity (it does not). 

I'm not a fan of calling Taiwan an "island" rather than a "country" -- the Sri Lanka rule applies here -- but I'm willing to let it go. 

It gets a little problematic after this: 

That feeds into a bigger campaign by national security officials: to set the United States on a long-term course of competition and confrontation with China that any American president, Democratic or Republican, will find difficult to veer away from in the future.

“Taiwan is the most important thing from a military and credibility point of view,” said Elbridge A. Colby, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development. Mr. Colby wrote the Trump administration’s national defense strategy, which emphasizes competition with China and Russia.

You're not going to win over many New York liberals with this, New York Times. It's fine to talk about Trump's approach, though it's quite hard to say that Trump wants only to confront China (the next paragraph talks about how pro-China so much of Trump's narrative is so this feels a bit contradictory) and I don't particularly like the contextualizing of Taiwan as a chess piece dropped into that game of checkers. This piece sings when it talks about Taiwan as itself, and flounders when it tries to turn the whole thing into a "Taiwan as pawn" narrative. Taiwan is so much more than that, and the people in Taiwan certainly have a lot to say about the two big powers duking it out while they sit in the middle just trying to live peacefully with missiles pointed at them. 

It's so off-kilter with the rest of the piece that I wonder if some zealous BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MOVES LIKELY TO ANGER CHINA AMID RISING TENSIONS editor hurked it in there without Wong's consent. 

This paragraph splits the difference uncomfortably: 

Taiwan has been a fraught issue between Washington and Beijing for seven decades, and it is re-emerging as a potential focal point of tensions, as United States national security officials press their campaign against China. The officials also see bolstering Taiwan in a more urgent light given the crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong by Xi Jinping, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party.

There are those mysterious tensions again! Where do they come from? (They come from China. China creates the tensions.) Taiwan again is treated like a barren rock devoid of people with ideas, opinions and desires of their own, being fought over by two foreign bloviators. But it does get better: highlighting Taiwan does indeed help to remind people of what the CCP is doing in China, most visibly in Hong Kong but elsewhere (East Turkestan, Tibet, Inner Mongolia) as well.

It also leaves the reader unclear as to whether Taiwan is a pawn to the US, or a friend. Perhaps by noting this, you can see how unhelpful such "two big guys fighting over a rock in the sea" rhetoric is. It's just not appropriate to the actual situation, and it stands out here among so much other excellent prose. 

I do particularly like this bit: 

President Trump himself admires Mr. Xi and is “particularly dyspeptic about Taiwan,” once comparing it to the tip of a Sharpie marker and China to the Resolute desk, John R. Bolton, the former national security adviser, wrote in his new book. And the president is willing to sacrifice U.S. support for the democratic government for trade relations with China, he added. But campaign strategists have told Mr. Trump that he needs to appear tough on China for re-election purposes, giving pro-Taiwan U.S. officials an opening.

It doesn't make the Taiwan squad look bad -- everyone with an agenda does this, it's normal. What it does, however, is swiftly pop the balloon of inflated ideas that people have about Trump as a friend to Taiwan. He is not. Stop thinking of him as one; he is not our way out of this. He never could be. And he's not nearly as anti-China as some people think. 

President Richard M. Nixon began a process of diplomatic opening in 1971 with Communist-ruled China to get Mao Zedong’s help in countering the Soviet Union. The United States established diplomatic ties with China in 1979 and broke off formal relations with Taiwan, which had been a sanctuary for the Kuomintang, or Nationalists, since their loss in the Chinese civil war 30 years earlier. Every U.S. administration has tried to maintain an ambiguous position on Taiwan based on the “One China” policy.

I don't love this paragraph because it glosses over how brutal and basically just murderous the KMT was during those years. Plus, it says the US broke off ties with "Taiwan". No. It broke off ties with "The Republic of China", represented by the KMT, not Taiwan (Taiwan was not a democracy then so the people didn't get a say in how the KMT portrayed them abroad). There would never have been any need to break off ties with "Taiwan" because "Taiwan" does not claim "China". The Republic of China does, but that framework sucks, yet we can only really get rid of it when China backs down. The US could help with that by...perhaps recognizing or strengthening ties with Taiwan, which it has never done. 

The ambiguity has helped maintain stability across the Taiwan Strait, one of the most militarized areas in the world. But as China has grown stronger and more assertive, and as Mr. Trump has begun dismantling international commitments under his “America First” foreign policy, some U.S. officials and Washington policy experts say the United States’s traditional approach to Taiwan helps hard-liners in Beijing and increases China’s threat to the island’s 24 million people.

This is fine -- I don't love strategic ambiguity, but I accept that this is how it works right now. What is great about this paragraph is that it again points out the many ways in which Trumpism fails Taiwan. Trump is not good for Taiwan, the people working to bolster Taiwan are doing the work. It helps dismantle the narrative that the only good vote for Taiwan is a vote for Trump, when that is clearly not true. Trump's America is incapable of governing itself, let alone assisting Taiwan. We can't have that. The Democrats may have been cooler on Taiwan all these years, but to start to change that you need a firmer foundation of governance in the US, and Trump can never provide that. Otherwise you are literally building a castle on a sand dune. 

Also, while this is the first mention that Taiwan has people on it -- real people with real thoughts about their own country that the world should listen to -- and it comes rather late in the piece for my liking, it is there. That's more than you can say for most articles. 

Those officials, as well as Republican and Democratic lawmakers, aim to do as much as possible to show explicit U.S. support for Taiwan.

I won't paste the whole paragraph because at some point the New York Times might get salty that I'm basically just commenting word-for-word on their content. I figure I have to leave some out in good faith. But this sentence is fantastic: it highlights that Taiwan is a bipartisan issue, and there are Democrats who support it that we can reach out to. 

For those shrieking that Taiwan should never deign to talk to the right, I'm sorry, but no. 'Bipartisan' is not a dirty word in this context. Think about it: do you really want US support for Taiwan to swing like a pendulum every time a new party gets in power? For all that pro-Taiwan legislation that has passed unanimously to suddenly be a point of contention, with fights to get it through? We know what that's like when Republicans support Taiwan but not Democrats, and it would be utter stupidity to insist that only Democrats are acceptable, not Republicans (not even absolutely shitty Republicans whose domestic policies are horrifying, which pretty much all of them are). For those who think neither is acceptable and only "the left" will do...um, okay, I like the left too (mostly - not all of 'em). But the left doesn't have nearly as much popular support as you think and at some point Taiwan is going to need real assistance. Call me when "the left" is capable of providing essential military aid to Taiwan in the event of an invasion. Until then, bye

There are a few paragraphs after this about things the US has done for Taiwan recently or the ways it's stood up to China, which are all good reading. It points out that some of these efforts have failed, which again shows you that as much as you may want a pro-Taiwan savior, Trump is not your guy. 

A core element of U.S.-Taiwan ties is the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which obligates Washington to provide weapons of a “defensive character” to Taiwan.... 
But some administration officials argue the arms sales, and increased transit by U.S. warships through the Taiwan Strait, fall short of what Washington needs to do. They say Washington must make clear to Beijing and Taipei that it would defend Taiwan if the People’s Liberation Army tried an invasion or a blockade. The Taiwan Relations Act does not address that, and past administrations have left the matter vague.

These snippets are solid -- I would have liked a clarification of what the US's One China Policy actually is in there (it doesn't mean the US believes that Taiwan is certainly part of China, it means the US acknowledges the various claims of the two sides and that the matter should be solved peacefully - that's it). But this does good work: it reminds people that the US's stance has never been close to "Taiwan is a part of China".

No matter the policy options, the United States should “make clear its support for Taiwan,” said Shelley Rigger, a political scientist at Davidson College.

But she cautioned that U.S. officials should formulate Taiwan policy based on strengthening the island rather than striking at China.

“It doesn’t seem to get said enough: There’s a certain sense of conflation or confusion of what it means to be helpful to or supportive of or affirming Taiwan versus taking a position that is more challenging to the P.R.C.,” she said, referring to the People’s Republic of China. “How willing are U.S. officials to pull Taiwan into that deteriorating picture, and how willing are they to be attentive to voices that say, ‘Be careful’? Beijing won’t punish Washington, but it can punish Taipei.”

Many articles like this quote some pro-China think-tank dip (like Evan Medeiros) or some CCP-affiliated "expert" in Beijing. I don't always agree with Shelley Rigger -- I am explicitly pro-independence and pro-US support, and take a fundamentally anti-ROC editorial line, and think most US support for Taiwan is valid and affirmative rather than just anti-China challenges. Also, I do think we should be challenging China, what with them being actual literal 21st century fascists, including all the genocide. But maybe an article about Taiwan is not the place for that. 

However, she is a fundamentally pro-Taiwan voice, which is better than quoting some tankie they could have dredged up from the sewer. And she's not wrong here, or at least not entirely. Some actions do indeed challenge China and use Taiwan as a pawn without actually helping them. Voices from Taiwan itself should certainly be listened to. Beijing can more easily punish Taipei than Washington. 

But - as China is determined to see every action that supports or affirms Taiwan as "challenging to China", making it literally impossible to take a pro-Taiwan position that does not "challenge China". That really needs to be said - there's no way forward to support Taiwan that magically won't piss off a country that's decided it will be pissed off by absolutely everything that doesn't go its way. But, it is good to differentiate between challenges to China which China gets angry about, and support for Taiwan...which China gets angry about. 

More good stuff here: 

Some analysts have criticized Mr. Trump for his apparent lack of knowledge of the nuances in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. In December 2016, before taking office, he and Ms. Tsai talked by telephone — the first time an American president or president-elect had spoken to a Taiwanese leader since 1979. Though pro-Taiwan policy experts in Washington welcomed it as an overdue move, the action created tensions with Beijing that Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, scrambled to defuse. It was clear Mr. Trump had no idea of the import of the call.

I truly cannot stress enough that Donald Trump Is Not Your Friend. He's not a strategic genius who will come bounding in with a sword to defend Taiwan, which he solemnly supports. He gives exactly zero shits about Taiwan, he's not smart enough to be much help, and...he just ain't it. I will say this as many times as Edward Wong's prose allows me to, because he deconstructs the Trump-for-Taiwan mythos so damn well. 

Also great: 

The administration took a restrained approach with Mr. Azar’s visit. Mr. Azar stuck to a carefully calibrated message throughout his three-day trip, referring to Taiwan as a “jurisdiction” and limiting his criticism of the Chinese Communist Party mainly to health-related issues.

U.S. officials said the visit was aimed at highlighting Taiwan’s success in containing the coronavirus outbreak.

China expressed its displeasure by sending two fighter jets across the median line of the Taiwan Strait. On Thursday, China’s military said it had conducted several live combat drills near Taiwan “to safeguard national sovereignty” and implied the exercises were connected to Mr. Azar’s visit.

This sets up Azar's visit for what it was: a totally normal thing for two normal countries to do, that absolutely no reasonable person has any right to be mad about, and China choosing to get mad about it and actively creating tensions over it. 

Ah, so now we know where the tensions come from. 

Let us also now take a moment to close our eyes, breathe in the humid Taipei air - aaaahhh - and note that the phrase "split in 1949" did not appear once in this article. Apparently, you can write an article about Taiwan without it. Wow!

All you have to do is just...not write that. Put your fingers on the keyboard and type literally anything but that, because the ROC and PRC may have split in 1949, but the PRC has never ruled Taiwan, so Taiwan could never have "split" from the China that exists today. (And that's not even getting into how such language obfuscates Taiwan's Japanese colonial past, which didn't officially end until 1952, and which never ended with Japan ceding Taiwan to the ROC. You may have thought that had happened, but I tell you, legit, it did not.)

Who'd have thought it would be so easy?

But something is missing - an actual Taiwanese voice. Most articles like this ignore such voices completely. It's all about what China or the US wants, and nobody who is actually from Taiwan seems to get asked for their thoughts. Fortunately, Wong closes with a powerful one: 

Wang Ting-yu, a legislator from Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party who is on the foreign affairs and national defense committee, said in an interview that Mr. Azar’s trip was “a break for the Taiwan people.” 
He batted away concerns about Taiwan inadvertently getting caught in the crossfire of U.S.-China relations, emphasizing that the island had its own diplomatic and defense strategies. 
“If they want to give us a hand, then we appreciate it,” Mr. Wang said. “But Taiwan won’t be any country’s bargaining chip.”

I wish a Taiwanese voice had been quoted sooner, but it's also a strong choice to end with this, and sums up Taiwan's complicated views on the matter well. Taiwan needs support, Taiwan needs to be heard. Taiwan is capable of governing itself -- and does so fairly well, actually -- and defending itself. Taiwan needs back-up, not a savior. 

Sunday, September 6, 2020

The Basin and the Hill


Flights here arrive at ridiculous hours. We buzzed into town 3am as the hotel driver played a trumpety old song aptly named Yerevan, so we'd know where we were, I guess. It featured the the kind of vocals you'd belt out from a mountaintop. We rounded the main sights at the base of the town - Ararat, which is a brandy distillery, and Noy, which is also a brandy distillery. Then we started to climb.

All of Yerevan is built on a hill. There's a north, south, east and west, but also a top and a bottom. At the top, you'll find the Cascade, a massive limestone staircase and gallery space which echoes Art Deco but is actually Soviet '70s. Above that, where central Yerevan ends, the sword-wielding Mother Armenia. At the bottom is the Ararat distillery, and beyond that, across the border in Turkey, is the actual Mount Ararat. A mountain sacred to Armenians, sitting just opposite a man-made line that is completely open, yet impossible to cross.


In other words, from the top of Yerevan, you can see clear across to another country. 

It was 2017, and I was just about to start graduate school at the University of Exeter. We arrived a month early in this far eastern corner of Europe, because I had always been curious about the country that lays claim to the culture I grew up around.

Although my ancestors were Anatolian Armenians from another mountain down on the Syrian border, and passed on cultural touchstones more reminiscent of the Mediterranean than the Caucasus, my cultural memory threads not only through Antioch, but also Yerevan. They were both places my mother had wanted to visit; she never made it to either. My grandfather's siblings had visited Armenia, but nobody from my mother's generation had. As of now, I'm the only one from mine to have made the trip.

Three years before, I had visited the US to attend the 'leaving ceremony' from the proton therapy center that had obliterated the tumor in my mother's lung. I remember her recovered laugh, renewed energy, refreshed skin, regrown hair. A few months after that, we enjoyed a laughter-filled phone call on my birthday. 

One month after that, she called again. The disease had been driven out of her endometrium, then her lung. Now, it was in her lymphatic system. And that, she didn't say, would be that. But we knew. We never had a real conversation again; she lacked the energy.

I took a bath that night - filled a basin with scalding water and wallowed in it. I put my hands over my face until my vision went watery, so I wouldn't be able to tell which part of that liquid was coming from within, and which from without. The ceiling, painted white, was bubbling up with corrosions called "wall cancer" in Taiwan; spots of warped paint that needed to be scraped away and re-painted regularly. But they always came back.

I coped well, I thought. I did my job. I worked out when I would fly home before that. I called up a counseling service in Taipei, but they wanted me to choose someone from the list of counselors on their website, and there was no mental energy to spare. I had just enough energy for that, and not a drop more, so I never followed through. Because nobody can put that on a calendar, I ended up flying out well before my planned departure date, three hours after a desperate text from my sister. 

In Yerevan, on the verge of postgraduate study, some of the old shadows blew away. Stiff breezes swept from top to bottom and back again through wide streets, lined with trees and the more attractive type of monumental Soviet stone architecture.  Mom would have been delighted - not only visiting a country she'd always hoped she'd get to see herself, but starting down an academic path that she had always believed I would not just take, but excel in.

She had started a PhD program with high hopes, met and married my father, and found herself unexpectedly pregnant with me soon after. She quit, citing flagging interest in her dissertation topic. I've always wondered how true that was -- it's a lot of work and money to raise a baby, and I was colicky and difficult.

Looking out over that effulgent hilltop view, it was easy to get one's bearings. You can see well beyond a full day's journey. Eternity of a sort can be glimpsed, if you believe that Ararat is the home of the Armenian gods. You're a day's drive away from Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia, all in different directions. Because Yerevan is far from other population centers, one can see deeply into the world, but it's rather hard to get to you. 

From that distance, the snowy peak of Ararat looks like a chunk of rough white quartz fixed in the middle-distant sky, like the kind I used to find in the yard of our Hudson Valley farmhouse as a child. On hazy days it appears to float above the city, and you can inspect is folds and enscarpments.


I wanted to tell her about the language, which was familiar to me even though neither of us had learned to speak it. About the informal singing in an ancient church which made me cry even though I'm an atheist. The beauty of flowerpots and jewelry decorated with pomegranates, the rugs, the gusting mineral-scented winds past Soviet-style stone buildings. The round theater, the Fuck Azerbaijan graffiti, and how there's one metro stop at the bottom - Republic Square, which is also round - and another at the top, near the Cascade. I wanted to tell her not just about Tavern Yerevan with its massive portions of lamb-heavy dishes we could not possibly finish, but also the lahmacun shack near the top, all of which reminded me of Nana. Armenia is a stony land; they say that's what makes the brandy so good, and Yerevan is built almost entirely from that stone.


Mom and I shared the same blue eyes; I wanted to tell her that while I had to explain my Armenian heritage in great detail as I don't look the part, that the person who sold me apricot brandy finally conceded that blue-eyed Armenians were possible.

"Blue eyes on an Armenian? I suppose it is possible."

Instead, I wrote postcards to all my relatives.

The truth is, though, that I didn't choose to live on a hill. I chose a basin. It's printed a Taiwanese English textbook somewhere - even adults can recite it to me as though they've memorized it for a test.

It's laid-back - you can wear sneakers to decent restaurants. But it's also dense, a node in a tightly interconnected web not only within the country, but across the region. Almost every walk is a flat and humid one. Sometimes you feel like you're pushing the hot damp air away as you plod along. Tropical plants grope across damp old bricks, pavement tiles don't always match, and the buildings are an eclectic muddle of styles. It smells like urban and jungle, but not quite urban jungle. I love the place.


When I moved here in 2006, I hadn't expected that my mom would only be alive for eight more years. I visited once a year or so, but the truth is, I spent those eight years a continent away. I ask myself - if I had known that...? 

Of course, being able to move abroad at all is a privilege, but that doesn't negate the cost I hadn't even realized I was incurring.

I did well over the next few years. Work and school kept me busy, and my professors were pleased with my work. By 2019, I was nearing the end of the program; only the dissertation remained. I couldn't work on it. Whatever dark peeling bits were scraped away by the winds and views of Yerevan had peeled afresh. I tried walking and just walked aimlessly. I tried working out and cried on the machine. 

I asked a Taiwanese doctor friend for a recommendation so I wouldn't have to navigate the impossible corridors of help alone. The diagnosis was General Anxiety Disorder (but not depression, to my surprise). I told my doctor I'd had migraines and mild insomnia all my life - which is true - and he intimated that I might have had it all this time, with the dissertation merely exacerbating something I'd handled fairly well before.


Perhaps that's true. Certainly, I have always had the associated insecurities. But I know when the peeling started, and the dark began to creep in. 

Back in late 2014, the hospital called the morning after I arrived in the US. "Come right now," they said. 

When it had become clear earlier that she would not make it, someone asked mom what she really wanted. It was to have her family around her. So when the complications from the cancer - too many to name - finally reached her heart, they gave her a high dose of something that would keep her alive long enough for us to get there, but not much longer than that.

We surrounded her, and told her that we loved her. I know she could hear it, because the very last thing she ever did was raise up her arm and make a gesture asking for a hug. So I leaned in over the tubes and bed rails and machines and simply hugged my mother. 

I closed my eyes; it was black. And that was that.

The next morning I stayed entirely under the covers - head and all - for hours longer than necessary. I dozed but didn't dream. It was December, and cloudy. I didn't open my eyes, so I wouldn't be able to tell how much of the darkness came from without, and how much from within.

In 2019, my paralysis in the face of a dissertation seemed to stem from classic perfectionism. You know - the fear that hard work will still produce an imperfect product. This is of course a lifetime indictment on your whole being, so the best way to avoid it is not to work at all. Makes sense.

But if anything, Lao Ren Cha has proven that I'm quite willing to create and publish imperfect work that might be praised, shared, slammed, or ignored. I'm fine with that. So that's not it.

It's that the only thing I want in the world is for Mom to be here for it. There are a lot of complicated feelings wrapped up in completing a thing the vagaries of life prevented your late mother from accomplishing herself, and that she so badly wanted for you.

I want her to know that while we might never have seen eye-to-eye on religion (she was Christian; I was forced for a time but it never really stuck), I try to keep our Armenian cultural connections strong despite being three generations removed. I don't just cook dolma like Nana and pilaf like Grandma, I actually went to Yerevan. I looked across a ridiculous border and saw Mount Ararat with my own eyes. I bought her favorite brandy (Ararat) at the actual distillery and enjoyed every drop.

If I were Christian, I could end on a maudlin note about how our loved ones look down on us from heaven. But I don't believe that. That's not a border I believe anyone can cross. 


"How can you be so connected to Armenian culture, where religion is such an important part of life, and not share the Christian faith?" an uncle once asked. Well, like being a blue-eyed Armenian, it is possible.

With time, I've come to remember that Taipei may be a basin, but I chose to live here. I want to live here, even though in 2006 I didn't know how dear a price I would pay for that.

Yerevan might have views across sealed-off countries and the food of my ancestors, but it's also distant, rarefied, a place I visited - it's not where I live. Taipei, to me, is every little thing we do each day which, added together, make a life. You make your choices and pay your prices without knowing what they'll be in advance. It's a place that says you're free to relax, but where you might find ways to give more than you take, if you're willing to do that work.

I remind myself that this basin also has hills; one of them is a volcano. You can climb them, if you want. They have been painted and mapped beautifully by generations of people who have called this city home. Taipei may be a basin, but it is a geographically stunning one, with more complexity than the label implies. 

I'm still overwhelmed - glomming through life in that basin so humid you have to practically swim through the air. But it's hard and meaningful work. It may come to nothing; then again, it propel me to a situation where I can be of more practical use.

And I've been able, after some time, to excise the rough black stone that settled inside in 2014. It's heavy, but I can hold it in my hands now and examine its facets, its spikes and valleys and worn crevices. In my mind, this rumination takes place at the top of Gold Face Mountain (金面山), one of the peaks above the Taipei basin, although in reality I'm usually at home. 


I've learned that that thing - more like volcanic glass than jet - when turned in the right way, in the sun, there is a hint of fleeting translucence. I can't set it down - I have to carry it with me, probably forever - but at least I can interrogate it, know it, perhaps have a drink with it now and again.

A piece of art on The Cascade which looks a little bit like my drinking buddy,
which is a craggy black rock of bound-up anxieties and griefs

There is news, however. I handed in my dissertation today. I dedicated it to my mother. She's been gone for 5 years now. She would have turned 67 on the day I started writing this. 

It's a weight of a sort off my shoulders, although the stone is still embedded somewhere inside. 

Once I hit the button, I suggested we go to my favorite Japanese restaurant. We ate lushly: duck liver sushi, a scallop stuffed with crab and sea urchin, topped with caviar and wrapped up like a seaweed bao, more than that even. I drank a small bottle of sake on my own, and we teetered into Jason's across the street to buy fancy chocolate for dessert. 

Walking home down a tree-lined street, I recalled what a privilege it was, and is, to live in this city. It's been so good to me -- living here is a part of why I was able to do this degree in the first place. As much as I will try, I don't know how I can ever properly repay that in kind. It's not fair to describe it merely as a basin; that feeling came from me. When one can't get one's head together, it's hard to know sometimes what is inside, and what is out. 

There is, however, a maudlin ending: I know that she would indeed be proud. I do know she would - the Mom who lives in my memories tells me so. 

But the Mom who is on the other side of a border that doesn't have an other side? Well, nobody can know that. 

One might visualize finishing a degree or working through grief as a mountain to climb, with perhaps a view at the top. There's a clear up and down. But it hasn't been that way for me -- it's more like wading through a basin. I'm in a different place now, but at the same altitude. A different point across the same circle. I'm reminded of Vikram Seth's An Equal Music - the narrator's life doesn't have a clear forward trajectory so much as it resembles a fugue, with motifs surfacing and sinking, disappearing for awhile only to resurface; sometimes played in this line of music, sometimes that. Sometimes high, sometimes low. If there's a climax, it's all those motifs coming together, perhaps playing a little louder. It's not some new summit, it's not uncharted territory. It's up and down but ultimately swings around to come back again.

I key up Yerevan on my playlist and try not to think about it too much. 

Monday, August 10, 2020

US Official Visits Friendly Democratic Nation, China Escalates Tensions All Alone in Corner By Itself


I'm still on hiatus but this will be quick. 

And in fact, the bigger story today is the raid of the Next Media/Apple Daily offices and arrest of Jimmy Lai, but I have no specific comment on that, except to say that one way you can show support for freedom of the press in Hong Kong is to subscribe or donate to Next Media and Hong Kong Free Press. They are going to need all the help they can get and we can prove that the CCP's tactics are not supported by the rest of the world. Click on the "About" section on the right on HKFP's Facebook page for an easy link to donate or subscribe. Subscribe to Next Media here -- there is an English edition.

Although the free press is secure in Taiwan and it's not directly related, let me take this opportunity to plug Taiwan Report's Patreon, too. Taiwan Report is a project by a couple of people who just care about Taiwan and are creating content in English on Taiwan simply because they want to, and they deserve your support. I feel this, because I also create content simply because I want to -- but I don't need financial support, all it really takes is my time because Blogger's terrible platform is free -- and because as I've been holed up writing this dissertation, I've had to cut down on my news consumption. Taiwan Report condenses the relevant news into short podcasts that I actually have time to listen to, enabling me to keep up during a very busy time in my life. I am grateful for that. 

These outlets are not just worth supporting because they are some of the last bastions of a free press in Hong Kong, or run by individual people, not companies. They're also worth supporting because the actual global media is doing a pretty terrible job of reporting on things like Alex Azar's visit to Taiwan. 

I don't even mean that they aren't critiquing the fact that he's visiting a country that succeeded in part because it has universal health insurance, without showing any support for the concept in the US even though it works. I mean the headlines themselves are absolutely ridiculous. And I mean that despite respecting some of the people who wrote the articles (I doubt they got to choose the headlines, it's their editors I want to beat with the stupid stick). 

At least the Washington Post did a decent job. This is good work:

Screen Shot 2020-08-10 at 1.49.40 PM

Everyone else, you should be ashamed. But because I don't have a stupid stick to beat you with, I made the bad headlines better. Here you are. Happy holidays. 

Now, back to my dissertation. Because I am ALL IN on corny dissertation titles, I am calling it Voices from a Forbidden Nation, just in case you were wondering if I was going to get political. I look forward to finding out all the universities I now can't apply to for a PhD (if I choose to do one) because the case I build from my research is implicitly critical of China. Yes, even in education.








Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Yuguang Beach, Nancheng Books, and I'm still technically on hiatus


The good news: I submitted a draft of my dissertation last week, so I'm close to the finish line.

The still good but not as great news: while it seems I've done a good job, there are still quite a few revisions I need to make, which means Lao Ren Cha's hiatus will continue for now. I'm hoping for more guest posts in the interim (and beyond).

Because I couldn't do anything with the dissertation last week, we took a much-needed break and headed to Tainan. Of course we ended up there during a severe heatwave that even southerners were calling unprecedented, and ended up spending the bulk of the middle of our days seeking indoor refuge.

I don't have much to say about central Tainan as I was there to relax, not to 'be a traveler' per se. But we did do two new things that are worth writing about: we went to the beach on Yuguang Island (魚光島) and visited a massive secondhand bookstore with funky vintage section.

Compared to the paradise beaches scattered across Southeast Asia, Yuguang doesn't particularly stand out. But it has a lot going for it, as Taiwanese beaches go. The greenery backing it isn't particularly beautiful and the sand is dun-colored, not golden, white or any of the more interesting colors. There is no shade whatsoever and the sand gets very hot, so consider bringing a beach umbrella.


First, it's fairly undeveloped: there's a parking lot which includes a restroom, faucets for rinsing off and a changing room, but the beach itself is backed by green scrub, not buildings, and it's set back from the road. The only thing on the beach is a small campsite to one side. There's a small local food stand along the road with a hose that customers can use to rinse off which has basic food (think barbecued Taiwanese sausages) and cold drinks, and a few tables.

Second, it's within a short drive of central Tainan. The only downside is that you do have to drive -- there's no bus out here. We went with a friend who had a car. That said, it's close enough to town that a taxi there wouldn't be prohibitively expensive and one could probably be called to pick you up.

Third, it's clean and safe. There's relatively little litter on the beach given how close it is to the city, the water is clear (you can usually see your feet) and the waves are pleasant but not dangerous. It as a gradual slope so you can go out quite far. Further out, parasailing and surfing are possible. Be aware that there are no lifeguards, though there are some flotation devices.

Finally - and most importantly - there are no insane rules on where and when you can swim. Such regulations are easily the worst thing about Taiwanese beaches. Baishawan is so boxed in, it's like taking a bath with 500 other people. Fulong is backed by ugly buildings and an uglier bridge. Wai'ao has interesting black sand but is backed by a road, parking lot and ugly food court, and the lifeguards make you get out at 5pm for no good reason. Kenting is packed and dirty (though there's a beach further along, past Eluanbi, which is better at low tide). At Yuguang, you can swim where you like, for as long as you like, without feeling like you're being herded through a large and crowded bath rather than trying to have a nice swim in the ocean.


Because we had a car, when it got too hot around lunchtime, we left the beach and headed for Chou Family Shrimp Rolls (周氏蝦捲) in Anping (there's a branch in downtown Tainan but it doesn't have the same feel). It's hard to get shrimp rolls this good anywhere else - even my favorite spot in Taipei doesn't make them crispy like Chou's. There is a bus out here, so a car isn't strictly necessary.

Nancheng Books

#68 Qingzhong Street, West Central District, Tainan
(near the Five Concubines Temple / 五妃廟)


The next day, needing a respite from the heat, I found a secondhand bookstore while trawling Google Maps looking for interesting local things to do. Nancheng Books (城南舊肆) is massive, and includes an eclectic, if poorly organized, English section. There's also a small vintage/antiques area, though some of the items are a bit pricey. Nancheng is in a modern glass building with lots of natural light -- the only thing it needs is a few chairs scattered here and there for readers who want to peruse books they might buy. They only take cash.

It's near the Five Concubines Temple, so if you're walking that way from the Confucius Temple, it's a good break for what is otherwise a long and generally unrewarding walk.

We did other things too, but nothing you've never heard of before. So, enjoy this totally weird tapestry in a shop on the pedestrian street across from the Confucius Temple (the one that starts at the stone archway). 


Saturday, July 25, 2020

Ted Yoho, AOC and Taiwan’s Bipartisan Dilemma

This week, Republican congressional representative and rotted meat carcass Ted Yoho did two things.

First, he announced the introduction of a package that would explicitly allow the US to use military force if China invades Taiwan. We should all support this: while obviously starting a war in Taiwan’s name is a terrible idea, a stronger commitment to defensive assistance if China were to invade is crucial. Taiwan wants it, defense is not the same as offense, and Taiwan can already govern and defend itself - it needs backup, not a savior. 

Second, he accosted Democrat and peer Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, calling her “out of [her] freaking mind”, “disgusting” and “a fucking bitch”. Why? Because he’s a flaming garbage heap, but also because AOC attributed the spike in crime in New York to corresponding spikes in unemployment and homelessness due to the CCP virus, which the US has responded to so badly that not focusing on the fact that the CCP is to blame for the pandemic is actually a reasonable argument now. 

This disconnect provides yet another reminder that many of our “allies” on Taiwan and Hong Kong issues are not necessarily good people, and that we should not excuse their being terrible people just because we agree with them on a few issues. 

This is a deceptively difficult minefield to navigate. Taiwan and Hong Kong should be bipartisan issues, one of the few things we can actually work with conservatives on. Taiwan has historically been supported more by Republicans than Democrats, and although that is finally changing, the fact remains that we still need to work with Republicans to get important legislation passed.

But the flipside of bipartisanship on Taiwan is that we have to plaster on a smile and work with utter jackbuckets like Ted Yoho. Frankly, they’re all pretty terrible, it’s just Teddy’s week to shine. I know there are those who would rather ignore the fact that pretty much every Republican supporter of Taiwan and Hong Kong who holds elected office is a horrible person — they’d choose Taiwan every time. That doesn’t exactly work; it excuses their otherwise awful behavior and puts voters like me in a bind when we want to vote for the most pro-Taiwan and Hong Kong candidates, but can’t because they’re unacceptable in every other way. It puts advocates in tough positions because it means pretending to be nice to these human dumpsters. It tarnishes the images of activists — how much flak have Joshua Wong and Nathan Law caught for posing for smiley photos, invariably filled with men, rarely a woman in sight, with walking trash kraken?

It’s easy to say “we have different values but we can come together on this”. It’s easy to ignore the time Yoho said “annyounghaseyo” to President Tsai because...reasons. It’s harder to justify “coming together” on Taiwan with a man who just called AOC a “fucking bitch”. I’m sorry, but at that point, are you not simply justifying ignoring blatant misogyny?

There are also those who think we shouldn’t work with them at all and find another way. That’d be lovely, but it’s also not currently possible if you actually take Taiwan’s defense seriously. Democrats look like they are set to potentially draft a China platform that keeps support of a cross-strait policy “consistent with the needs and best interests of the people of Taiwan”. It’s likely this will pass, as it was language used in 2008, 2012 and up through 2016. While it’s unclear how useful this is, seeing as the Obama administration wasn’t exactly Taiwan’s most helpful friend, this is still good news — it means they aren’t taking a “total opposition” stance to officials under Trump who have supported Taiwan more than their Obama-era forerunners. Their voting record of late — in solidarity with Republicans on Taiwan and Hong Kong — and some statements by Joe Biden, have reflected a trend in this direction. But honestly, we’re not there yet, and we can’t afford to end bipartisanship on Taiwan and Hong Kong.

To add to that, it’s not like the right has the market cornered on misogyny and racism (yes, Yoho’s comments, given the context of the spike in crime, are both sexist and racist). I’ve met plenty of centrists and even self-proclaimed lefties who honestly aren’t much better. From ‘our side’ I’ve heard everything from “BLM should take responsibility for the crime wave in Chicago” (what?) to wanting to protest in front of AIT for Taiwan while making deeply sexist comments about Hillary Clinton. The number of Democrats and self-proclaimed liberals in Taiwan and the US who are accused of being inappropriate with women honestly rivals the behavior of Republicans. Saying we shouldn’t work with the right for these reasons may be principled, to an extent, but it ignores how much of it comes from our own side. 

I’ve thought for awhile that there is no such thing as ‘natural allies’, because people on ‘our side’ are just as capable of being toxic jerks. The only way to continue bipartisan efforts on Taiwan is to think of allies on any given issue as people who agree with you on that particular issue and are not otherwise human dumpsters. 

Unfortunately, Ted Yoho, as with others, has shown that he is in fact a human dumpster. People have been burned by this before, thinking Trump could be good for Taiwan and Hong Kong only to find that his ‘challenge’ to China is more of an inconsistent mess.

Can we really consider a party that supports a president that called concentration camps a “good idea” an ally? Can we really smile and shake hands with Ted Yoho while he calls AOC a “fucking bitch” out the other side of his mouth?

If we don’t, how are we going to realistically make sure Taiwan has the backup it needs in the face of a potential invasion that is a very real threat? Raising fists and taking to the streets didn’t work for Hong Kong and it won’t stop an amphibious invasion of Taiwan — and letting China win is arguably worse than defending Taiwan for real. Of course, we should reach out to liberals and the left, though I’ve found that the far left is so thickly populated with tankies (“Taiwan is evil because they are run by the Nationalists, who are evil bad capitalists grr” - don’t even know where to start with this) that they’re hard to talk to about Taiwan. And honestly, even if and when we succeed, Taiwan is still better off with bipartisan support rather than having its assurance of defensive assistance tied to the whims of whomever is in office. 

I don’t have an answer to that, but I am personally not inclined to think of people like Ted Yoho as allies. As a woman, a congressional representative calling a female colleague a “fucking bitch” and then trying to justify it by saying he’s a family man affects me, because it affects the discourse of what’s acceptable to say about people of my gender. If you do think of him as an ally, please consider exactly what behavior you are excusing and whether or not that behavior affects you. 

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Guest Post: The aftermath of colonial education in Taiwan


The hiatus continues, but so does my experiment in guest posting. While I wrap up my dissertation, I've been trying to open up this platform to other voices - especially Taiwanese voices. This is re-posted with permission from Annie Lim, lightly edited from her Twitter thread. You can read the ThreadReader version here and on Twitter (where you can also follow Annie) here. I think this is an important story to share because while it's a personal family story on one level, on another it tells the story of the psychological scars of a generation, and how it affects their relationships with their descendants.

- Jenna

The aftermath of colonial education and decolonizing is really tough, especially for families. My parents grew up having the entirety of Japanese era ripped out from text book and only learnt about ROC and China. 228 is a huge taboo to them, talking about it means causing conflict. 

We took a family trip to Tainan and me being a history geek made everyone visit a bunch of museums. The thing about Tainan is that unlike Taipei, people really put their heart and money into saving history (in Taipei many evidence of the past were intentionally whipped out by KMT).

Bits and pieces of colonial past (including the White Terror) are EVERYWHERE in Tainan. And my parents can usually appreciate the beauty of the structures. However, I can see them visibly flinch when anything about the KMT's wrongdoing is mentioned. Even when we are in an art museum admiring Tan Ting-pho's painting...the exhibition has a timeline matching artworks with his life. And in the end it's just, "killed in front of Chiayi station in 228". My parents immediately turned and left the room with me standing there feeling heartbroken.

My parents love us deeply, and they feel a strong sense of regret on how they "failed" to protect their children from the influence of the evil DPP. They are not KMT supporters, but will always choose KMT over any other parties bc anything KMT does looked justified.

Yes, they know KMT massacred people. But they will also argue that its all in the past and DPP is obviously worse than KMT (when we aren't even talking about DPP at all). They don't wish to argue with me, so they choose to leave the scene even when we are just looking at art. 

And here's the thing - everything is politics. Art, history, language, food, music, buildings...everything. Just because Tainan isn't hiding it's past, doesn't mean they are "too political". But, even stating the truth (such as this person was wrongfully killed) is too much. When we are reading about something built in 1930, my mom commented: "Oh! It's from 民國29年" [Republic of China Year 29] and was visibly upset when my sister corrected her saying that 1930 was before "retrocession" so it shouldn't be read in ROC years.

Our family has been in TW for centuries, but here we are, restraining ourselves from latching into fights, because someone taught our parents that this is a land with no history, and killed off anyone who could have taught them otherwise. 

They do not understand why I am so fixated on figuring out WHAT it is that I have been missing.

This kind of behavior can be seen in many people growing up under heavy censorship. Knowledge like this could have brought them physical harm so they will actively stay away from anything that could've make them feel "rebellious". Staying silent and obeying is how they stayed safe. This is the scary part about censorship: the danger isn't always exterior. In order to stay alive, people will actively build the "safe narrative" into their system and stay away from anything that tells otherwise.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Guest Post: The Left has been wrong on China since the Trump-Tsai phone call


I'm still on hiatus -- my advisor's forthcoming feedback on my draft will determine how much longer that will last. But, in my absence, I thought it would be interesting to open up Lao Ren Cha to other voices, especially Taiwanese voices, with a possible series of guest posts.

This is my first experiment in guest posting, from Eric, a Taiwanese Canadian, written as a reaction to this article on the left's silence on genocide in China. It generally fits with the editorial line here at Lao Ren Cha ("editorial line" being fancy talk for "my opinions") while introducing a new style and perspective into the mix. Enjoy! 

- Jenna

With the recent change in mainstream media narrative on the Chinese regime, accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, one would not expect too much of a political cost for raising objections to its actions. Threats and attacks on neighbors, technology theft, fentanyl exports, loan shark diplomacy, concentration camps, genocide, live organ harvesting, systematic societal control — anyone who has been paying attention should have long recognized the threat to liberal values posed by this regime, yet the headlining leaders of the Liberal Left have been derelict for some time on this file. Sadly, this is not a surprise to those of us who have been watching this space for a while and have long lamented this problem.

For anyone who has generally progressive views and supports Taiwan and its continuing existence as a free and democratic country this contradiction is particularly painful, as many writers in Taiwan have noted. I have always been and continue to be a supporter of most of the values espoused by the moderate Liberal Left: social justice, environmental protection, universal human rights, yet I have little faith in international institutions and believe in healthy defense, training and advanced weaponry--peace through strength. Realizing that you have loved ones, friends, places and things that you value under constant threat of annihilation enforces pragmatism.

Personally, becoming deeply skeptical of the capital-L Liberal Left (as an ideological brand or label defined by its leading voices rather than a fuzzy set of held values) was a long time in the making, as I watched liberal papers such as the Guardian give voice to awful regime apologists, saw socially progressive celebrities and politicians look down in meek silence or even take pro-Beijing stances, or journalists unthinkingly regurgitating official narratives, making it easier for Beijing to calculate in its own favor as it continued to trample over every value they purported to hold dear. 

For me, the last straw was the response when President Donald Trump accepted a phone-call from Tsai Ing-Wen shortly after winning her 2016 election as President of Taiwan, and the cacaphony of supposedly progressive voices from that corner screaming bloody murder, warning of apocalypse and doom should anyone cross Beijing, heaven forbid the leader of the United States, for all of his faults, should take a symbolic phone call from the democratically elected, female President of one of the most free, liberal and progressive democracies in the world and risk angering a brutal regime that enslaves its own citizens and threatens others. 

That so many failed to even see this hypocrisy or consider that even a broken clock might be right twice a day made me lose much of my faith in peoples' ability to think critically, on both sides of the political spectrum. The biggest heartbreak came from the disappointment of seeing well-known people who I liked and admired unthinkingly retweeting such Chicken-Littlism and the false narratives that go with it or adding to the chorus.

Before anyone can accuse me of naiveté for thinking Trump did this out of the goodness of his heart, of course political and national interests are always considered, and I am OK with that. The minor symbolism of taking the call was enough.

So here we are, more than 4 years later and yet it seems for many, none the wiser. Just a few months ago, those same commentators were defending the WHO despite clear evidence that they had actively and knowingly caused the COVID19 epidemic to get worse, all in deference to China. While Trump was wrong to pull out of the WHO (how can the USA advocate for Taiwan’s inclusion if it’s not even there?), holding a benefit concert that made the WHO look like the victim in all this was laughable. 

Liberals often pride themselves on their critical thinking skills, and yet swallow CCP narratives that a phone call to a democratic leader friendly to the US is a diplomatic crisis. They pride themselves on logic and facts, yet threw a concert to support an organization that was proven to spread lies that harmed global health. They pride themselves on standing for access to human rights…unless the people fighting for those rights are far away. The right thinks masks are mind control devices, poverty will go away if you ignore it, and that it’s acceptable to put children in cages. How are they right about China while we writhe in indecisiveness? How are we losing the moral high ground on this?

The world did not end in war over a phone call. Universities still compromised their values for unsustainable profits, financiers continued to try to reap profits from the Chinese market, cadre money still got laundered in real-estate and commodities still got sold. On the other hand, the pandering obsequiousness with which the UN, governments, corporates and media treated the CCP regime, abetted by the silence of the Liberal Left, resulted in a pandemic that killed thousands, wrecked countless lives and made the world more dangerous and unstable.

And still, the biggest call to action on the left seems not to be the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang, standing with Hong Kong, or supporting Taiwan, but fear that standing up to the CCP is simply too scary to contemplate. A lot of this stems from thinking everything the right says must be wrong, so they must be wrong about China. 

Honestly, they are indeed wrong about almost everything, and Trump is not a reliable ally. Nobody who calls Xi Jinping a “good friend” and doesn’t seem fazed by concentration camps could ever be. But, when it comes to the CCP, the Liberal Left is the one the wrong. Trump is terrible, but when he criticizes China, he’s not wrong just because he’s Trump. 

At this time, I wonder if it would be too small-minded of me to contact those who unknowingly supported the stance of the CCP regime in admonishing the US President for taking Tsai's call four years ago, and see if their view had changed in hindsight. I fear, however, that I would be disappointed.  

Fortunately, critical voices are starting to come out on the Left, surprisingly from parts of Europe, of all places, with the German Green Party or Czech Pirate Party, for example. In the US Congress, important legislation regarding Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang passed unanimously — meaning Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives alike, supported it. There is still time to push Joe Biden away from Obama-era China doves and towards policy advisors who are more realistic about the CCP, and to embrace bipartisan efforts in congress.

We still don't know if even this pandemic is enough to overcome inertia and make people realize that they are affected by what happens in Asia (the last Federal election in Canada was a hold-your-nose-and-vote affair), but hopefully change will come. Regardless, the left-right dichotomy, with its simplifications and polarizing power, has shown that it is no longer useful for the messy, chaotic world we live in.