Monday, March 13, 2023

Good reporting centers Taiwanese agency

Taking a bit of a risk with my weird graphic, but I like it. 

I don't think of the Economist as an accurate source of news on Taiwan. They report on Taiwan with some frequency, but in terms of relative merits to flaws, their articles are at best middle-of-the-road. At worst, they're unequivocally terrible. Occasionally, the magazine puts out something surprisingly good on Taiwan, but don't ask me for an example from the past right now as I can't think of one.

One of the chief problems with their Taiwan coverage hounds other publications as well: their disturbing tendency to deny Taiwan any agency in its own narrative. Stories ostensibly about Taiwan might barely reference what's actually going on there; to a reader who doesn't actively consider what they're reading, they might come away with the vague, unsettling impression that Taiwan is a barren rock that other countries fight over, just a piece of land to be won or lost. 

It would be easy from this sort of writing to assume Taiwan doesn't have any people living on it at all. 

Great powers fight over it, threats are levied against it, claims are made on its territory, but Taiwan might as well be Olive Oyl (thanks to a friend for that analogy) -- standing their whimpering in the general vicinity of the muscle men who want to possess her but with no apparent personality of her own. Whatever Taiwan itself wants is apparently not relevant to its own story or future. 

I don't know why reporters do this. I would imagine at least some of them have actually been to Taiwan, met and talked to Taiwanese people. They can't possibly think Taiwan is merely some trophy to be won or lost, a square on a chessboard that, if it could express itself, wouldn't have anything to say. They can't possibly believe that the views of Taiwanese people exist only as reflections of whatever China or the US want them to think.

And yet, this is how they write. It is simply bad reporting and in any other context, I daresay it would be more robustly called out as the racism that it is. 

With this in mind, two articles appeared recently in The Economist that show the effect better reporting can have on disseminating global understanding of Taiwan. I'd like to compare them, to elucidate what can be considered good writing on Taiwan, and differentiate it from the crap.

"America and China are preparing for a war over Taiwan", which appeared in the Storm Warning brief with no byline, is pretty bad, though not wholly irredeemable. "Taiwan is a vital island that is under serious threat" by Alice Su is far superior. 

You can tell by the titles: the former foregrounds the US and China, implying that they are making similar or parallel moves regarding Taiwan, although this is not the case. China is preparing to start a war in Taiwan. The US is preparing for the possibility of having to help Taiwan defend itself. Taiwan may as well be an inanimate pawn in this headline, a battered toy for two cats who've got the zoomies to tussle over. 

The latter references Taiwan in the first word rather than the last, and immediately references something about it. The US and China don't even appear in it. "Vital" can mean something like vibrant, or lively -- but it can also mean crucial or (strategically) important. Both are true, and I'd argue the more human definition is just as meaningful as the geostrategic one.

Of course, writers don't typically get final say over the titles of published articles. The Storm Warning article might have been mauled by some squash-brained editor who didn't know better, but have solid content. 

This was not the case. The article is just as bad as the headline implies. Here's how it starts: 

Their faces smeared in green and black, some with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles on their packs, the men of “Darkside”—the 3rd battalion of America’s 4th marine regiment—boarded a pair of Sea Stallion helicopters and clattered away into the nearby jungle. Their commanders followed in more choppers carrying ultralight vehicles and communications gear. Anything superfluous was left behind. No big screens for video links of the sort used in Iraq and Afghanistan: to avoid detection, the marines must make sure their communications blend into the background just as surely as their camouflage blends into the tropical greenery. The goal of the exercise: to disperse around an unnamed island, link up with friendly “green” allies and repel an amphibious invasion by “red” forces. 

All I can say is woof. I can't fault the writing style, as the delayed lede allows for creative scene-setting that draws the reader in. But come on! We've got all this big macho US army energy, references to Iraq and Afghanistan, Taiwan as an "unnamed" island. I understand why all these narrative choices were made, but the cumulative effect is not one of a real island full of real people whose choices are at the center of it all, but two massive military industrial complexes itching to go at it.

I hate defending the US and will do so as rarely as possible, but just by the facts, the US is not planning to invade Taiwan as they did Iraq or Afghanistan. That would be China's intention. 

I know the opening doesn't say this, and does not really criticize US military involvement in Taiwan -- in fact, I get the sense the author supports it -- but it does draw an implicit connection, and I fear this is what readers will take away.

Compare that to the opening of Su's piece:

When Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, announced the extension of military conscription in December 2022, she called it an “incomparably difficult decision”. Taiwan’s young were previously subject to only four months of conscription. Starting from 2024, they will serve a year each, with improved training. “No one wants war,” she said. “But peace will not fall from the sky.” Taiwan must prepare for war, she added, to prevent it.

Without hesitation, the article dips into the situation in Taiwan, providing crucial context about the decisions Taiwan is making and why. Readers get the immediate sense that Taiwan is defined not just by its land but its people, and they have a government and thoughts and feelings and choices and lives. The reader is invited to consider Taiwan for its own sake, and what it might feel like to be in Taiwan with this huge threat looming over you. 

The following paragraphs follow up on this, and the focus does not shift from Taiwan until the third paragraph. 

To be clear, I don't agree with everything Su says here. She calls Taiwan "numb to China's threat" (which is not true) and asks "whether" Taiwan is willing to defend itself. People aren't numb, they're tired and worried and don't want to fret themselves into migraines and insomnia every day, so they compartmentalize it in order to live normally. It's exhausting to spend each day wondering at what point in the future your neighbor's going to press the button on those missiles he's got pointed at you.

I don't think Taiwan has "no consensus on who they are", either. Most Taiwanese identify as solely Taiwanese; the vast majority who identify as both Taiwanese and Chinese prioritize Taiwanese identity. Most say they are willing to defend their country, and most consider Taiwan's current status to be sufficient qualification to be considered independent. There is virtually no support for immediate unification and not very much for eventual unification, either. Most don't want a war, which is probably the main reason why they say they prefer "the status quo". Of course, I can't be sure, this is just a feeling based on anecdotal observation.  Frozen Garlic discusses this in his redux of the relevant poll; I suggest you read it.

Anyway, that sure sounds like a string of consensuses to me! Exactly what kind of country Taiwan is, and how it will defend itself against China, are still relevant questions and ongoing debates. Whether it is a country and whether it should unify with China, however? Though there will always be dissenters, those questions seem fairly settled.

That said, for the purposes of comparing two journalistic approaches to Taiwan, these are the nitpicks of a crotchety old git who has the diabeetus and puts ice cubes in her tea. I shake my cane at you! But truly, Su's article is pretty good. It takes every opportunity to foreground Taiwan and Taiwanese agency, and thus implies to the reader that this is a place that matters, these are people not too different from you, and they matter. It shows the reader that Taiwan has its own internal workings, can make its own decisions, and has its own views on China's aggression. 

This implies that the possibility of war is not because two superpowers are bored and feel like duking it out over some rock. It's because China wants to annex Taiwan, and the Taiwanese do not want this. 

Taiwan has agency, and that agency not only matters but is at the core of the conflict: Taiwan is unwilling to do what China demands, and China wants to take their agency away. How would you feel if someone wanted to annex your land, murder your kid for attending a protest, tell you that you don't get a say?

Without it being made explicit, this sort of story asks the reader to consider these questions, perhaps subconsciously. This rings clear throughout Su's piece, even as I may disagree on the details. 

In fact, after a few more paragraphs we get this gem, which I consider the nut graf but probably isn't:

As Chinese pressure on Taiwan grows, the Taiwanese look for the world’s support. Taiwan stands “at the vanguard of the global defence of democracy”, Ms Tsai has said. To let it go under would be a devastating step towards the might-is-right world that both Mr Xi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin seem to favour.

Instead of starting off with what's happening in the Taiwan/China/US Torment Nexus (protip: don't create the Torment Nexus) to Iraq and Afghanistan, two places where the US screwed up massively, it chiefly describes Taiwan's critical juncture to the resistance against Putin's war in Ukraine. This is the better analogy. 

To be fair, the Storm Warning piece does this too, and compares Xi's irredentism to Putin's. I support this, because it's true. But compare one of their typical paragraphs: 

America, meanwhile, is sending more military trainers to Taiwan. The Taiwanese government recently increased mandatory military service from four months to a year. Prominent congressmen have urged President Joe Biden to learn from Russia’s attack on Ukraine and give Taiwan all the weapons it may need before an invasion, not after one has started. Adding to the sense of impending crisis are America’s efforts to throttle China’s tech industry and Mr Xi’s growing friendliness with Russia.

With one from Su's piece: 

Taiwan has not made up its mind how or even whether to defend itself. It is at once the “most dangerous place in the world” yet numb to China’s threat. Only since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has serious debate about a possible Chinese invasion become normal. That is in part because China’s Communist Party is engaged in an information war designed to sow confusion. It also reflects Taiwan’s tortuous history and politics.
One frames the Ukraine conflict mostly in terms of what the US and China think about it. The other uses it to help the reader understand Taiwan's internal workings.

When it can finally turn its gaze from the US and its Big Tank Energy, it talks about what China claims and how it acts vis-à-vis Taiwan: 

China’s Communist leaders have claimed Taiwan since Nationalist forces fled to it after losing a civil war in 1949. America has long pledged to help the island defend itself. But in recent years, on both sides, rhetoric and preparations have grown more fevered. China’s forces often practise island landings. Its warships and fighter jets routinely cross the “median line” (in effect Taiwan’s maritime boundary) and harass military ships and planes of America and its allies. After Nancy Pelosi, at the time the Speaker of America’s House of Representatives, visited Taiwan last year, China fired missiles towards it.

These are all important details, but shifting focus from the US, everything is now centered around China. The two countries' preparations are "fevered", there are warships and fighter jets and and rhetoric and missiles and some other kind of ships and Nancy Pelosi. 

What there isn't? Anything Taiwan might think or want or even an acknowledgement that 23.5 million people maybe have a role to play and a lot at stake. 

It gets worse. Later on, if you're still reading this Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire-sized article (Brendan's joke about that book: "it takes as long to read as it took to happen"), you get this: 

Given the appalling consequences, would America and China really go to war? Chinese officials say their preferred option is still peaceful unification, and deny there is any timetable for an attack.

OKAY, but Taiwan is never going to accept or choose peaceful unification because they see how badly the Chinese government treats its own citizens, including but not limited to Hong Kong, Tibet and East Turkestan! That "peaceful unification" is not possible, that Taiwan has an opinion on this, that the world has to lie to China to prevent invasion (for now) isn't mentioned -- only that China claims it wants peace. That China knows Taiwan will never choose unification, and yet has not renounced the use of force, should tell you everything about what China wants: war. If they didn't, they'd commit to no war, because it is very easy to not invade your neighbor. 

What's more, this paragraph not only never explores how Taiwan feels about the "appalling cost of war" even though they'd be the most affected, it also implies that China might choose to back off from invasion because it would be bad for Taiwan, some of their troops, and the global economy. LOL. Do you think China cares? I don't.

Worse yet, the wording outright states that all this horror would be caused by "the US and China [going] to war", not China starting a war

It continues like this; I read and read, and everything was US, China, US, China, war, war, invasion, imminent war. In many paragraphs Taiwan wasn't even mentioned even though this is where the war would take place! You don't get any meaningful engagement with Taiwan's potential actions until a paragraph somewhere in the potbellied middle of this extremely long piece.

Is it a counter to China's claims, which appear near the top? Perhaps some insight into what is happening in Taiwan right now as they face this threat? Nope. It's more guns and bombs and artillery and rockets:  

Taiwan’s strategy, meanwhile, is to thwart China’s initial landing or prevent it from bringing enough troops. Taiwanese forces would block ports and beaches with sea mines, submerged ships and other obstacles. Backed by surviving aircraft and naval vessels, they would strike China’s approaching force with missiles and pound disembarking Chinese troops with artillery and rockets. Some PLA texts suggest that Taiwan has underwater pipelines off its beaches that could release flammable liquid. Some of its outlying islands are protected by remote-controlled guns.

The fact that Taiwan's extremely justified refusal to be annexed by China (and China's inability to accept this) is at the core of this conflict is simply not worth mentioning, apparently. It's just Anger McRagersons chucking rockets at each other thousands of miles away. The visuals here imply little islands out in the ocean whose primary feature is guns. The implication? This war is stupid, everyone sucks, and the US should stay out of it. If Taiwan falls, so what? It's some random island in the middle of nowhere, it can't be of any importance. I don't want another Iraq or Afghanistan! 

Nevermind that US assistance to Taiwan could be one of the most crucial obstacles standing between Taiwan's subjugation by China, much as the world's support of Ukraine helps Ukraine stave off Russia each day. 

Surely readers know Taiwan has people; some might even realize that the population of Taiwan rivals Australia (and how would you feel if Australia were invaded by a hostile foreign dictatorship?). To the writers, however, it may as well be a fortress stuffed with incendiaries and nothing more. 

I do understand the point of all this -- it's not meant to be a human story, it's intended to be focused on  military tactics. I don't think the article is totally without merit. The various war scenarios provide useful information regarding what a war in Taiwan might actually look like, for readers who don't know. There are worthwhile details about military readiness sprinkled throughout. However, the overall effect is one of BAM BOOM BOOM BANG KAPOW by two big armies over some pile of rocks.

Perhaps we need these sorts of stories. People should be able to learn about what the US is doing abroad, and what it's facing. Isn't there a way to tell that story without ignoring Taiwan almost completely, though? 

Su takes a more holistic approach. She continues with the Ukraine analogies and makes the case for Taiwan both from a global economic and internal perspective: 

Taiwan also has outsize importance in the world economy. A conflict over Taiwan would do a lot more damage even than Russia’s war on Ukraine. Taiwan makes more than 60% of the world’s semiconductors, which power everything from mobile phones to guided missiles, and 90% of the most advanced sort. Rhodium Group, a research outfit, estimates that a Chinese blockade of Taiwan could cost the world economy more than $2trn.

Taiwan’s leaders know that neither strong democracy nor economic importance is enough. The Ukraine war has taught them that a small country bullied by a bigger neighbour must demonstrate that it has the will to resist. Fight back, and there is more chance that the world will come to your aid. But Taiwan is not ready to fight.

The Storm Warning piece also references the global economy in a very similar paragraph, but never ties it in or brings it back to Taiwan. The best you ever get is this: 

A war game by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, another American think-tank, found that under its “base scenario” Taiwanese, American and Japanese forces typically severed PLA supply lines after about ten days, stranding some 30,000 Chinese troops on the island. Taiwan survived as an autonomous entity, but was left with no electricity or basic services. America and Japan suffered, too, losing 382 aircraft and 43 ships, including two American aircraft-carriers. China lost 155 planes and 138 ships.

Even in a paragraph about the aftermath and cost of war, Taiwan gets one sentence. Then it's back to what America and China lose. 

While the Storm Warning piece ostensibly about Taiwan never gets any better about actually including Taiwan in the narrative, it's in the warp and weft of Su's work. 

This is what we need more of. Even the military-focused stories should spend more time considering Taiwan's own perspective and role, and what Taiwan has to lose. This is how we get readers to actually see what war would mean, and consider that it wouldn't happen to a place, but to people. 

Of course, one can argue that the Economist published both because the angles are so different: one focuses on Taiwan, the other on the US and China. Three players in one drawn-out story. I can understand that, but taken on its own, the Storm Warning piece is almost comical in how actively it ignores Taiwan. The Economist has a paywall, not everyone reads every article (many can't), and there's no way to make a social media post with two fully-displayed link headers. Good intentions or not, the Storm Warning piece on its own erases Taiwan.

Do we really need these US-China Go Boom-Boom pieces? Arguably yes, but they lack crucial context. Could the useful military and war scenario information be included in something a little less dismissive of Taiwan itself? Perhaps stories like tome in this Storm Watch might at least attempt to include the Taiwanese perspective, or even question whether China is right to claim Taiwan, or their "peaceful unification" talk is possible or meaningful?

Then, beyond how many different types of Big Guns and Ships and Rockets the US and China can chuck at each other, readers might understand that this is a country full of people and they play a crucial role in their own story. 

In other words, in a story theoretically about Taiwan, at least some of the focus should actually be on Taiwan.

Friday, March 10, 2023

The Day After


I don't have a good cover photo, so here's a relaxing picture I took of a beach in the Maldives. 

A pretty strong content warning on this. I'll be talking about hate speech by transphobes on the right and left. Suicide comes up. If that's not something you want to be around right now, I will never know and never care if you choose to skip this post. In fact, I'll respect you for your choices regarding your own wellbeing.

I also want to clarify that I know I'm not saying anything new. Trans activists have been talking about these issues for ages; it's just that I still see transphobia popping up around me, so maybe someone will read this and re-think. All I can really do is speak from a cis woman's perspective, so I try to keep to that. If you want to hear trans perspectives, I thoroughly enjoy the podcast Cancel Me, Daddy.

* * *

International Women's Day was this past Wednesday, and I really want to have cared.

I remember a time when Lao Ren Cha was specifically aimed at foreign women -- especially, but not exclusively, Western women in Taiwan. The experiences of that demographic most closely matched my own; it was an easy and frankly needed angle to take. At that time I would have written up something from that angle for something like International Women's Day without hesitation. 

At times I think about going back to that narrower focus. But, over the last decade-plus, as life in Taiwan has become simply life, not some exciting new immigrant or expat journey, what I have to say isn't always categorizable by gender. I'm also no longer sure that my experiences are similar enough to the average foreign female newcomer.

Of course I remain an ardent feminist even as my blogging focus has shifted: there isn't much about my personality that is reducible to my gender, and I believe as any reasonable person does that everyone should be considered as individuals, not an agglomeration of stereotypes about how "men" or "women" should think or act. 

When I came here as a starry-eyed twentysomething who believed that women, who bear so much sexism from society, could all come together in solidarity to end it. I believed then that valuable and meaningful discussions are possible with those I don't always agree with or like.

I still want to believe that's true. To some extent, I do: the idea that everyone is set in every belief is too simplistic. People can and do say things in the moment that, on further reflection, they realize are problematic, don't reflect their core values, or that they don't truly believe. I've certainly done it! Some people aren't open to new ideas, but many are.

And yet, there I sat two days ago -- a feminist blogger simply unable to write a single thing on International Women's Day. I don't generally attach great importance to specific days, but at the very least I believe that day should be one of raising each other up, not woman-on-woman conflict.

That does feel like women's rights discourse has become, however. We've always had to deal with reactionaries shouting down the concept of women having full human rights (like, say, the right to all forms of health care, including abortion), or treating women like human beings rather than some gaggle of mysterious sirens whose primary role is ornamental.

Now, however, it's clearer than ever that some of the misogyny has always come from inside the house. It feels impossible to simply engage with other feminists without having to listen to some trash talk about who is and isn't a woman (according to them), portraying some women as enemies or worse, predators, based on zero evidence -- simply because they were not assigned 'female' at birth. 

In short, I'm sick of transphobes shouting about how feminism is necessarily transphobic. This is a perspective I thoroughly reject. In fact, I find that ideology embarrassing in its hatefulness, and I hope everyone clinging to it is thoroughly abashed just like so many anti-gay folks who sure panicked a few years ago, but now realize they sounded like particularly bigoted turnips. (Not all of them have repented, but there has been a change in the overall discourse.) 

On International Women's Day, I seethed about it. I can really only speak from a cis perspective, but I felt genuine anger at the idea of women celebrating that day, but including only the women they deem "acceptable". I tweeted, but I didn't really write. The day after that, I started to question whether I could still truly justify that lofty ideal of solidarity. 

The day after, I decided that perhaps it was time to be clear about the fact that Taiwan, at least among Western women, has a TERF problem. 

I don't just mean transphobia, but specifically women who think of themselves as feminists, but exclude trans women from any discussion of women. To me, that's not feminist at all. It's not empowering; it's just exclusionary. The problem isn't limited to Taiwan expat communities: if you've listened to any of the rhetoric coming out of the West, it's everywhere. But it exists here too, and I live here, and I do not like it one bit. 

Certainly, transphobia also exists in local society as well. I don't think one post can really address that, nor do I think I'm the best person to do so. Perhaps it's because my primary language of communication is English, but when I go online most of the Taiwan-based anti-trans vitriol I see being spewed is from other Westerners. There are more of them than I would have guessed, and they're difficult to avoid if one wants to participate in feminist spaces.

Transphobic cis women will insist that women's spaces should segregate on the basis of...I'm not sure really. Genitals? Chromosomes? All sorts of things that are not always clear at birth? Something. They seem to truly believe that cis women are in general consensus on this, and "women's spaces" should therefore be for cis women only. 

I reject this. As a cis woman, let me be clear: there is no such consensus.

I as a cis woman refuse to be a part of any "women's space" that excludes trans women. If a group, event, meeting, club, activity, discussion or anything else is meant for only cis women, the creators might think it's for women like me, but it's not. I will not dignify the existence of spaces that claim to be for all women, but exclude some women regardless.

At that point, you don't have a "women's space" or a "feminist space", you have a transphobe space. Cis women like me who believe in inclusion for all women want nothing to do with you, so it's really just the TERFs who remain. 

And why would I want to be a part of any space that claims it must exist as it does to keep women "safe", as though trans women are inherently dangerous? (They are not.) Why would I want to be around people who talk big about that safety, but don't care at all about the safety of an entire demographic of women -- the ones they seek to exclude?

I won't awkwardly smile and try to make the best of it. I won't check my disgust at the door. I won't legitimize it with my presence. I won't pretend that these are just "differences of opinion" when the TERFs sound indistinguishable from the right-wingers and their ideology does real harm. 

It positions trans people as criminals when they're more likely to be the victims of crimes. It results in bullying, harassment and assaults on trans people. That, in turn, drives attempted suicide among trans people. It allows for the dissemination of disinformation targeted as "they're trying to trans your kids!", which can lead to the restriction of age-appropriate affirming care due to incorrect beliefs about such care. It allows essential care for women to deny access to some women.

All of it is in service to exactly one belief: that the problem is the penis and women with vaginas are therefore justified in excluding women with penises. 

Although penises are hilarious (have you seen them? What the hell?) I just don't think a body part is the problem. Patriarchal systems are the problem, and patriarchal systems are inherently anti-trans. They are cruel to trans people, as they are cruel to cis women. Perhaps the details differ, but the cruelty remains the point. So, hey, if you want to support the patriarchy, by all means continue to be a transphobe! 

That's not a difference of opinion. These are human lives. Trans people are more likely to die because of the way society treats them. I think beliefs that perpetuate this treatment are, in a word, sick.

I won't pretend that harm is acceptable in any feminist space I participate in. I will never agree that to be safe for me, a "women's space" must include only cis women. No, I don't feel unsafe in restrooms, because I have no reason to. In fact, being committed to inclusive women's spaces, I'm more interested in keeping them transphobe-free. At least then, we're telling people they're not welcome based on their ideology, not their fundamental personhood. 

I'm a liberal because I care about all people, even those who aren't like me. I'm a feminist because I care about equal opportunity for all women. I'm not interested in so-called liberal or feminist ideas that sound exactly like the right-wing reactionaries with whom I so profoundly disagree. 

Are you really a feminist if you sound just like the guy at CPAC who called for transgender people to be "eradicated from public life entirely"? Because the end goals are the same: restrict gender-affirming care, make it unacceptable to be publicly trans (especially a trans woman), make it very acceptable to demonize and bully trans people.

You can tell because the same "they're trying to steal our kids!" panic is prevalent in both the conservative and "feminist" forms of this ideology. And you can tell because even when the reactionaries say something that even the TERFs know is truly ridiculous ("trans people have no hobbies") or post memes alluding to trans suicide, the "feminists" never call it out. They're too busy screaming at trans people to stop for a moment and say "hey that meme is shitty and cruel". 

Why would I want to be included in "feminist" discourse or spaces where they sound exactly like Michael Fucking Knowles talking to Republicans?

And where does that leave me, a cis woman in Taiwan?

Well, it's hard to know where to find that coveted solidarity. I want no solidarity with bullies. I can't just assume something billed as "for women" will necessarily include and support all women; it's important carefully check every women's group, meetup or event to confirm. I've lost "friends" over it; that's fine, I broker no peace with disinformation-spewing transphobes posting cherry-picked predator memes. It's extremely hard to know when a transphobe-y comment is some thoughtless crap that can be challenged with some hope of success, or indicative of a deeper worldview that legitimizes exclusion and promotes bullying.

I also watch out for transphobes welcomed into otherwise inclusive spaces. I understand the impulse to welcome everyone, and I do think it's possible to change some minds with interaction. However, they are part of an effort to push transphobia into feminist spaces in Taiwan, and I just can't countenance that. I only participate if I think my presence as a cis woman trying to be a trans ally will turn that tide. 

It's important as well to keep an eye on the guys. Every once in awhile I hear a well-meaning dude in the Taiwan foreignersphere say or retweet some anti-trans garbage thinking he's being supportive of "women" because transphobic women he respects have told him so. The only way to counter that is to push back and be clear that not every cis woman agrees; some of us believe that respecting women means respecting all women.

As the moderator of an inclusive Facebook women's group, I have had no issues with trans women causing problems, but I must always keep an eye out for transphobes spewing hate against our very welcome trans members.

And finally, as the author of a long-running blog that once focused on women in Taiwan and now focuses on whatever I please, I feel that there is not enough trans-affirming discourse among Western residents of Taiwan. 

Certainly, the wider media landscape seems to be pushing an anti-trans narrative: you hear a lot about controversy over what transphobes say -- they seem to love interviewing transphobes all het up that kids are being dipped in hormone tanks without counseling, or whatever moral panic tropes they're buying into this week -- but not much at all on what it's like to just be a normal trans person living one's life. The exposure to the idea of trans individuals just being seems so rare. You hear a lot of "ARE THEY SALIVATING OVER MY KIDS???" talk, presented as Just Asking Questions but clearly seeking to terrify, and not nearly enough "oh hey I met her at a party, she was cool". 

I'm small potatoes media. Lao Ren Cha is literally just my blog that I do for free and for fun, on Blogspot of all godforsaken places because I'm too lazy to move to a better platform. So sure, this is like a warm, friendly piss in an ocean of ice-cold hate. 

But I can try, so here it is: as a cis woman, I reject anti-trans bigotry and discrimination. I reject right-wing talking points presented as somehow revolutionary and left-wing. They are not. I reject transphobe-welcoming spaces. This may mean I reject solidarity. This is unfortunate, but acceptable: I may not know how to bridge the divide, but I do know what my feminism stands for, and it stands for inclusion.

One final plug: if you are a woman or nonbinary (basically, not a man) and want to be part of an inclusive women's group that leans explicitly feminist and trans-welcoming, check out Super Awesome Taiwan Women. There is also the Feminist Study Group Meetup (I'm not in this, but I have it on good authority that they are inclusive). 

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Chiang Wan-an, Chiang Ching-kuo and 228

Let me be upfront: this is an off-the-cuff post that I honestly need to research more. When I have the time, I'll try to update it accordingly. Please understand, I have a huge writing assignment coming due and have just been diagnosed with diabetes resulting from post-COVID complications, so I'm not as focused as I should be. 

With that said, I want to talk about Taipei Mayor Wayne Wan-an Chiang, his grandfather Chiang Ching-kuo, and the 228 Massacre. While speaking at a 228 memorial event today, Chiang was heckled by protesters waving white banners and demanding he "kneel and apologize" for the crimes of his ancestors. Other protesters -- legislators Lin Liang-chun, Wu Pei-yi and Miao Po-ya -- held signs in the audience saying "Stop Idolizing Dictators", "Return Records to the State" and "Remove Authoritarian Symbols" (my translation). 

Miao, on point as usual, said that authoritarian symbols (such as Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall) have no place in a democracy, that Mayor Chiang's speech was full of well-worded rhetoric but "beautiful words don't matter as much as what the words actually do", that many families were not participating in commemorative activities due to deep sadness, and that truth, justice and reconciliation in that order are vital for transitional justice. 

One might say that it's unfair to demand that Chiang, grandson of one dictator and great-grandson of another, apologize for the crimes of his ancestors. He is not the same person as his ancestors, and he was on stage acknowledging the fact of the 228 Massacre.

No, not the 228 "Incident". Massacre.

There is an alternate universe somewhere in which I agree with this: it's the one where Chiang is still surnamed Chang despite legal agreement that he is the grandson of Chiang Ching-kuo, but chose not to change his name because he understood the implications. It's the one where he ran for mayor without tying his legacy to the memory of Chiang Ching-kuo who was, again, a dictator. It's the one where he acknowledged the crimes against humanity committed by both of his legally-recognized ancestors, and promised that truth, justice and reconciliation without idolizing one of them or attempting to draw on his name.

That's not the universe we live in. We live in the one where he puts Mass Murder Grandpa on his campaign flags.

Still, you might say, the Chiang whose reputation he called upon to bolster his own campaign wasn't the perpetrator of 228. Chiang Ching-kuo wasn't the same as his father.

That, I must say, is a distinction without a difference. First of all, although it's true that even Mayor Chiang understands that Chiang Kai-shek's image should not be on his campaign flags, he absolutely stands for the continued existence of his great-grandfather's memorial hall with its statue in situ -- a memorial hall built to make him seem like a great man, not the butcher he was. That is, a memorial hall that continues to enshrine the worst of the KMT dictatorship and obscure, not confront, the worst of its horrors. 

That should be enough, but wait -- there's more! Chiang Ching-kuo, the ancestor that Chiang Wan-an idolized so much that he put the guy on his campaign flags, might not have been the chief perpetrator of 228, but it's wrong to say he wasn't involved at all. 

After the slaughter had begun, he arrived in Taiwan on March 17, 1947: 

By the 17th, the Army were declaring victory. Defense Minister Bai Chongxi (白崇禧) arrived in Taiwan with the generalissimo's son, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), and wired a message to Chiang Kai-shek that "order is mostly restored, and we are in pursuit of the last remaining rebels that joined forces with armed thugs.”

It's more likely than not that Chiang agreed with this depiction of events -- one in which the victims ("thugs" and "rebels") were at fault and the government was "restoring order". 

NewTalk describes his work around March 17th as "telegraphing the arrest list", after which further crackdowns were carried out. Is NewTalk the definitive source on this? Not necessarily, but Chiang was with Bai and others in Taiwan to deal with 228. The arrests and executions -- both organized against dissidents and indiscriminate -- continued. Chiang's hands are not clean.

After their arrival, Bai and Chiang toured the island, visiting Keelung, Chiayi and Kaohsiung among other places. I mention these cities specifically because they're known for being places where the KMT committed especially egregious massacres. Chiang and Bai visited Chiayi the midst of mass executions taking place in that city. Did he personally order the executions? Probably not, as some occurred before his arrival. Many, however, occurred after, including the execution of 70 individuals in Chiayi. 

Did he know about them and approve? Surely.

Some of those executed were tortured as well. Thinking Taiwan describes the treatment of Dr. Pan Mu-chi, who had his nails pierced with iron and was doused in gasoline.

If the son of the dictator visits a city with the Defense Minister in the midst of mass executions, broadcasts a message following the wishes of his father, allegedly telegraphs an arrest list, and then that many people are executed if not heinously tortured, how can one possibly say that that dictator's son holds no culpability?

Let's move to Kaohsiung. Here's Chiang shoulder-to-shoulder with Peng Meng-chi, known as the "Butcher of Kaohsiung". I took it from Taiwan Gazette, but it's also available on Imgur: 

CCK and the Butcher of Kaohsiung

Best Buddies

Here's what Peng did

The narration describes Taiwan governor Chen Yi as the main culprit, along with Peng Meng-chi (彭孟緝), the garrison commander, who gave the order to the military to attack the train station, the Kaohsiung Middle School, the Kaohsiung Municipal Government and to shoot all the city councilors, who were in the process of negotiating a settlement for the 228 Massacre.

Here's more

In Kaohsiung, where protests had also broken out, fortress commander Peng Meng-chi (彭孟緝) was losing patience. On the 6th, Peng gave orders to move on protesters that had gathered at the train station, city hall and Kaohsiung Senior High school. Three of Kaohsiung’s most prominent community members were arrested and later executed, including Tu Kuang-ming (涂光明), Fan Tsang-jung (范滄榕) and Tseng Fengmin (曾豐明).

Peng's Kaohsiung massacre happened on March 6th, Chiang Ching-kuo arrived on the 17th, after it had taken place. They seem extremely friendly. What are the chances that Chiang either didn't know or didn't approve of Peng's actions?

Chiang would go on to become the head of secret police, helping his father carry out the White Terror. For decades before he was said to usher in democracy (an honor he does not deserve), he wrote consistently of his disdain for democratic elections and Taiwanese identity, calling them useless, tools of the "Communist bandits" and others who seek to divide the state. He stated that the opposition should never be allowed to form a political party, and that Taiwan independence activists were "reactionaries" supported by those same "Communist bandits" who "sought to turn small issues into big ones" (you know, such as recognition of the mass murder of their loved ones) with "insidious and vicious scheming". 

His bestie, The Butcher of Kaohsiung, would become the head of the Taiwan Garrison Command among other high-ranking or honorable political placements

These words and actions may not be directly related to 228, but they spring from the uncaring, trigger-happy attitude to Taiwan that both helped cause 228, and became that event's legacy for decades to come. There is no evidence that Chiang Ching-kuo was ever remorseful for what his government had done, or his role in it. That role may be dwarfed by the actions of Chiang Kai-shek or Chen Yi, but he did play a role, and that matters.

Where does that leave us with his grandson, the mayor? 

Well, when you take a man like Chiang Ching-kuo and make him one of the main thrusts of your campaign for political office, you best be willing to acknowledge and atone for his sins, as well. Some still hold residual goodwill towards Chiang Ching-kuo for his infrastructure projects, perceived role in the Taiwan Miracle and the notion that he helped usher in democratization (he did not). Chiang Wan-an very obviously wanted to capitalize on this, to stir nostalgia for the "good old days" in oldsters, at least the ones who never had a family member dragged off and shot.

Otherwise, as a friend put it, Wan-an wants all the advantages of being a Chiang, with none of the downsides. That's not how these things should work. It is ethically wrong to grasp for one while refusing to acknowledge the other. If he wants to connect his political career to his grandfather's legacy, that must include the entirety of said legacy; there's no ethical way to pick and choose.

If Chiang doesn't want to be held accountable for this, he should take his Mass Murder Grandpa's face off all his damn flags. If you want the face of the man to be one of the faces of your campaign, you should indeed "kneel and apologize" for all of the horrible things he did. If that sounds unappealing, well, there's a reason why.

Chiang Wan-an is not only not "clearing authoritarian symbols" as Miao Po-ya demanded and any reasonable person would want. He is quite literally using them to climb the political ladder. That is disgusting and Chiang should be ashamed of himself. Kneel and apologize. 

Until then, others should follow the Taiwan 228 Care Association's example and make him persona non grata at 228 events. I don't care if he's the mayor.

As that's not likely, just imagine there's a sign on his forehead that says "heckle me harder", because that's what Chiang Wan-an deserves.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Blood Sugar Hex Magic


Yes, it's a punny title, but I won't change it. 

It felt like magic when I began losing weight without trying. Several months out from COVID recovery, I'd changed exactly one habit: I was drinking an average of two liters of water per day. Before COVID I had a small water bottle for going out; by the time I'd sipped it dry I could usually find a place ot refill it. Now, I could down that thing in three gulps, and was instead bringing a full liter everywhere I went. I'd have to refill that as well. I assumed that my wholesome new drinking habit was the driver of the weight loss. 

I had to have pants taken in and shirts re-tailored. I bought a belt. Even my shoes fit a little looser. From July to November, I lost a dress size. By January, it was a size and a half. As of now, it might be two.

I won't lie: it felt great. I didn't have any other issues or symptoms, so I just kept on assuming it was all that water. It's no secret that I'm -- what are we calling it these days? Curvy? -- and it was thrilling to be dropping pounds. Who wouldn't want that, especially with very little effort? 

Most cultures these days seem to be weight-conscious. People will say it's about health but it's really not. It's straight-up "NO FATTIES" judgmentalism. If you're fat and healthy that's still insufficient. If you're thin and sick, you should handle that, but it's ultimately better than being fat. There are people who will argue with the idea that this is totally fucked up, and that's fucked up too. 

Taiwan is no different. Taiwanese society's obsession with weight isn't even unique: you'll find pills and horrible diets and people -- mostly women -- taking on unhealthy habits and getting surgery in every other Asian country and many, if not most, places beyond. Although the country of my birth is somewhat fatter on average, all of these things exist there too. If you needed any evidence that none of it works, there it is: the United States has the juice cleanses, the disgusting powders, the gross teas and the weird contraptions too, and Americans aren't getting any thinner. 

The main difference I've found is that Taiwanese standards for being thin are far stricter: you have to be a stick to even fit into the clothing sizes available. Large-size stores exist, but they don't work for me as I'm too tall for the hemlines and the cuts don't take curves into account.

People (usually women) who are average or even slender have told me that they're regularly called fat. One told me a guy walked away because he believed he should be able to wrap his hands around her waist and have his fingers touch, which is some eating-disorder level bullshit.  I've heard far too many people commenting on weight as though it's a moral failing in an infuriatingly matter-of-fact way, and include people who are simply not fat in that definition (not that it would be any more acceptable if they didn't). 

If you're a foreign woman, it's unlikely that you'll meet these size standards. Even thin Western women I know have said they feel like giants here. Trust me, it's even harder when you're a Big Foreign Sasquatch. In addition to local messaging, there's a big community of misogynist Western dudes who have the "no fatties!" mindset. Fortunately, they mostly ignore expat women they deem overweight. They don't seem to realize they're handing us a gift.

It's to the point that seeing a doctor can be an exercise in stress, when medical professionals ought to focus on treatment. It felt like being cursed, or hexed: presenting for care, being told to lose weight and possibly receiving substandard care from a doctor who assumed weight loss was the only possible treatment, feeling like trash about it, and avoiding seeking further care. People say being overweight can lead to lower life expectancy, but I wonder if seeking medical treatment less often, and receiving insufficient treatment when one does, might lead to medical conditions spinning out of control that didn't need to be life-threatening in the first place.

Although I don't really want to speak Mandarin when there's a contraption that looks like a wine key stuck up my vagina, I quit one English-speaking OB-GYN and sought out another, because her only suggestion for treating my cystic ovaries was to lose weight. Of course, the cystic ovaries probably contribute to the weight in the first place. 

When I got COVID, I asked for Paxlovid as I was feeling weird in the general heart area, which is generally not considered to be a good thing. I have a family history of heart problems (though as far as I know, I'm fine), but that wasn't enough. The telemedicine doctor said it didn't qualify. So I said "oh, but I'm fat!" and got the drugs: having a likely predisposition to vascular issues was insufficient, but weight was. The doctor also said that heart problems were associated with obesity, and I didn't have it in me to reply my family members with heart issues were not fat, with no exceptions. 

I don't want to single out Taiwan, though. Fat people are treated like crap by society and medical professionals around the world. A doctor in the US whom I saw because I tested positive for tuberculosis exposure (I never developed the disease) exhorted me to lose weight, in college, when I wasn't fat. The main difference is that in the US people will talk about "fatties" (or "fat chicks", because this is mostly aimed at women) in derogatory ways to no-one in particular. In Taiwan they'll be more straightforward about it, but are more likely to say it to your face. 

In Taiwan, my tailor and one doctor congratulated me on my weight loss. Foreign friends said I should get checked out as my water consumption was atypical, others didn't see a concern: drinking that much of a calorie-free substance is a common weight-loss tactic!

Here's the truly unhealthy part: I didn't want this to be a problem. Of course no one does, but specifically I was quite happy to continue slimming down. A tiny voice in the back of my head kept prodding me -- you know they're right. Water or not, my rate of weight loss wasn't normal or healthy. And yet, as much work as I've done to simply love myself and focus on being a person rather than a number on a scale, I wanted to keep losing it. Going to the gym hadn't worked. Eating better never worked either. Why not take this gift being handed to me?

It gets worse: walking around in my slimmer body, I didn't just feel better about myself, I felt healthy. After all, losing weight is healthy, right? Slimmer people are healthier, no?

This was in fact extremely dangerous. I was not healthy. But when society tells you that dropping a size or two is good for you, it's extremely hard to break away and say no, something's wrong.

I visited the US recently, and it took an old college friend to really hammer it home: I needed to see a doctor. Excessive water consumption and unexplained weight loss were the most common symptoms of high blood sugar and diabetes. Even then, thinking back on years in Taiwan being matter-of-factly told I was fat, with insane diets and life-consuming exercise regimes suggested as a "cure", I secretly hoped that I would be able to "keep" the weight loss.

And yes, I did find the anti-fat messaging in Taiwan more damaging. That could just be me: it's easy to ignore Internet chuds in the US screeching about "fat chicks", usually with some assumption that said fat chicks would be single forever. Who cares? I'm not single!

It's harder to not let oneself be affected by a straight-up proclamation that you are fat and that is bad. The advertising affected me more too. It's harmful enough that the US has re-vamped all its weight-loss marketing as "wellness" or "health" (I'm sorry but nasty drinks and no food are not healthy, period). In Taiwan, well, you are fat and that is bad.

For someone who's worked hard to break free of mindsets like these, it really shows how deeply this societal messaging runs, and how damaging it can be. I came very close to not seeking care because I thought of weight loss as an unequivocal good! 

I should have known better. You know who else lost a lot of weight because she was sick? My mother, just before the cancer came back. She's no longer with us.

I did make an appointment with an endocrinologist after returning to Taiwan. You know what it took to do that? A friend treating my new body as a warning sign rather than something to be congratulated. I should not have needed that hard a push. I also massively cut down my sugar intake and reduced my carbohydrate intake, although it's hard to sustain that with no clear diagnosis. It was especially hard as my first week doing this was in Mexico, where the chocolate and the churros are delicious. 

You know what? Even then, I fretted about it the day before and morning of, simply because I wasn't in a good mental place to be told yet again that I am fat and that is bad, with the implied message that I'm a moral failure, or lazy, or a bad person because I am fat, which is what I suspect a lot of people truly believe. 

Nobody should have to feel that way when doing something as normal as going to the doctor. Everybody, in every country, should feel empowered to present for care without judgment. 

This story has no ending, as I'm still waiting for my blood sugar results. I can't imagine I'll be told I'm fine. 

There is one happy conclusion, however: unlike so many doctors before her, the endocrinologist didn't say a word about my weight. I told her I'd had COVID about six months ago, and the symptoms began immediately after. I'd had my blood sugar checked before I got sick, and there was no issue. She pointed out that there is some evidence that COVID can actually cause diabetes in rare cases, so I was right to be spooked. She asked me if I had a family history of diabetes, which I do.

She did not exhort me to exercise or eat less. That's a good thing. There is no overweight person in the world who is unaware of it, who hasn't already been told this, who doesn't know. It's never new information. It's not helpful. 

She did her job: ordered the necessary blood tests and told me how to fast and eat before each one. We'll discuss the results next week. 

I only wish every other doctor in my life had approached it that way.

If I had to offer any general advice, it would be the same for Taiwan as for the US: stop. Just stop. Leave people alone. You don't know their lives, you don't know their health, and the "I'm just concerned about your health" concern trolling is actively harmful -- but you knew that. Treat health issues as health issues in and of themselves, and don't tie moral rectitude or assumptions about health to weight. Every single thing you want to say, everyone already knows, and it does not help. Listen to Maintenance Phase and just...stop. 

Sunday, January 29, 2023

It's OK to not love China


     Flame me if you want, but I will never add an "I love China, but" to any of my opinions

I have to get something off my chest. A dark confession, the opposite of what I feel is expected of me. You see, as much as I feel expected to say otherwise, I don't love China. 

When favorably discussing Taiwanese independence, sovereignty or identity, or saying anything negative about the CCP, it seems as though so many people feel the need to insert a little "I love China, but..." or "I deeply love the people and culture of China, however..." Sometimes this is a single sentence header; sometimes it stretches out to cover an entire paragraph detailing some positive experience or perspective on China as a country, to emphasize the differentiation of the nation and people from the government. 

Here are just a few random examples from a quick search:

That's all fine, if you truly "love China" no one should stop you from saying so, but I don't love China. 

I certainly understand this, however. I've even engaged in it. One doesn't want to imply dislike or hatred of a group of people, or aim derision at an entire nation in all its complexities. Of course, engaging in "Screw China!" rhetoric is fundamentally racist, when China is a vast, complex nation full of everyday people who don't deserve to be lumped in with their genocidal government. 

Nobody actively insists this is a necessary addition to what one really wants to say, but I see it so often and feel compelled to include it. The consequence is often being labeled a "China-hater" (China as in the country, not the government) or worse, of perpetuating anti-Asian hate. Of course, tankies, aggressive Han supremacist trolls and CCP shills (both paid and unpaid) will accuse pro-Taiwan advocates and CCP critics of all of this anyway, but it feels like a necessary preliminary step to defend oneself.

But here's the thing. 

I truly don't love China. 

I've felt unspoken pressure to preface pro-Taiwan advocacy or criticism of the brutal, genocidal, authoritarian CCP with exhortations that are simply not sincere. And there's a strong likelihood that I'll attract criticism for simply being honest about this. 

Let's be clear: I don't hate China, either. I certainly don't hate Chinese citizens.  It's ridiculous to hate a whole nation -- no place, especially not one so large, complex and diverse in cultures, languages and history, could possibly deserve an opinion so simplistic and dismissive.

As someone who has lived in China and returned several times since, I simply have no specific affection for the country. Although I can never know what it's like to be Chinese or be a PRC citizen, I've experienced some version of life in China, and not in the big east coast cities (I've visited those, but my actual life there was in Guizhou). That experience resulted in mixed feelings.

Chinese histories -- the many histories of the regions now considered China -- are fascinating. The many cultures of China are, too. I've fallen out of love with the Mandarin language, but am enthusiastic about learning Taiwanese. Clearly Sinitic languages are of great interest to me. There are plenty of astounding things to see in China. I've seen them and been astounded. To touch on more everyday matters, the food is great (usually -- it's not always prepared well, as in any country) and the people are generally pretty nice. Daily life, at least for an expat, was fairly safe when I lived there.

But you know what else I experienced in China? Horrendous misogyny, aimed not at me but at Chinese women I knew. Their stories aren't really mine to tell, but I am pretty sure this attitude isn't anecdotal

I may have felt safe enough on the streets, .but I didn't feel the same way expressing any kind of opinion. That included fairly anodyne ones like "I think Taiwanese should get to decide if they want to be part of the PRC", which isn't even close to the pro-independence diehard that I am today. In contrast to Taiwan where one can freely discuss 228 or the White Terror, I never mentioned Tiananmen Square, because I knew I couldn't. Mail sometimes arrived pre-opened. People occasionally told me controversial opinions, such as "I was at Tiananmen Square so I know how fucked up things are", "We're not allowed to fully practice Uyghur culture, they are our oppressors" and "I'd like to protest the government but they'd just kill us." 

I kept those confessions to myself while in China -- what other choice was there?

That's not even getting into how sick the pollution made me, multiple times, nor the trouble of accessing actual international news. 

There were so many reasons why I chose to leave at the end of my year in China, but stuck around in Taiwan. My first six months in Taiwan were rough, but I felt a budding affection for the country which only grew. In China, that feeling never came.

In fact, the part of China I liked most was East Turkestan (known to some as Xinjiang), where people don't like the CCP, aren't Chinese and don't seem to really want to be part of China. I feel nothing but grief for what has happened there since my visit so many years ago. 

I've lived in four countries in my life -- the United States, China, India and Taiwan. I feel affection for India despite its flaws, and actually do love Taiwan. I chose to settle here, after all. My feelings about the US are more positive than about China, but I wouldn't say I "love" it. I can't say why China was my least favorite place to live, or why it didn't capture my affection in the same way as other places I've intentionally moved to. India is hardly perfect, and Taiwan has its negatives. But China just didn't do it for me.

Life there wasn't all all awful. There was good and bad, and those bad experiences above were balanced somewhat by positive ones. I made friends, began learning Mandarin, ate some amazing food, saw some stupendous scenic, cultural and historic sites. Very few experiences are all bad. And that's how I feel about China: good and bad.  

Honestly, regardless of what I think about any given government, I feel fairly neutral towards most countries. At best, I've enjoyed traveling in them and learning about them, but I wouldn't describe my emotions towards them as "love". I went to Sri Lanka and enjoyed it immensely, but that's about it. I went to Myanmar and had many positive experiences, but I wouldn't say I felt "love". Our honeymoon was a bus trip from Panama to Guatemala. It was amazing, and each country fascinating in its own way. But do I "love" Nicaragua? I wouldn't say so. I do care about people, but feel no clear need to love a country absent some specific yet ineffable catalyst.

Countries are countries -- they all have their good and bad points, some have more good than bad, and most have intractable problems but also things to like. People are also just people: most are good, many are nice, a few are rotten. That's true anywhere in the world you go. Even general safety is linked not to how "good" people are, but more to economic factors. 

So why, exactly, should I "love" China? What does it matter that I lived there? What does it matter that I live in Taiwan now? And what does it matter that I'm pro-Taiwan? I still don't have to "love" China in order to criticize it, and I'm sick of feeling tacit pressure to say I do. 

It feels like pre-emptive self-defense, as though one needs to justify supporting for Taiwan, Tibet or East Turkestan. As though one needs  a caveat in order to oppose the Uyghur genocide, or criticize the CCP. But I neither want nor need to prove myself, to add an insincere caveat, to speak the truth about other countries like Taiwan, and other cultures like Tibetan and Uyghur.

The case for Taiwan, among others, is just and right all on its own. It's time to stop falling over ourselves to proclaim "love" for China just because CCP shills will twist support for these causes into "anti-Asian hate" or "you're racist against Chinese people!" when that's simply not the case. 

I do hate the CCP: they certainly have no business running a country given all they've done to harm China (and then claim credit when they stop or reverse just some of the harm they themselves inflicted). They should be shunted out of existence. Xi Jinping should face charges before an international court for crimes against humanity and spend the rest of his life not as the dictator of the world's most populous country, but alone in a deep dark hole. I cannot describe the degree to which I loathe that government. 

But there are many governments I don't care for. Many run countries I like quite a bit, or feel neutrally toward! I appreciate Indian democracy but acknowledge the flaws of the Indian government (certainly I'm no fan of the BJP). The US government has some obvious problems. Taiwan has an admirable democracy but the government sometimes makes me feel like bashing my head against a wall. At least they're democracies, though. The CCP -- brutal, non-democratic but ultimately not the only factor in my feelings about China -- is an entirely different thing. 

But you know what? Whatever. I don't love China. I don't love China! It feels so freeing to just be honest about that. Living there had its upsides and drawbacks, but in the end the drawbacks outweigh the upsides, and I have no regrets about choosing never to return. I do miss things like 酸辣米皮 -- Guizhou-style hot and sour flat noodles. It's a shame I will probably never again see places I actually did love, such as East Turkestan, the Miao areas around Kaili, and Hong Kong. But I don't think China is a safe destination for public supporters of Taiwan. Oh well. 

I support Taiwan and Taiwanese independence. Taiwan is a country. Taiwan has a unique history and culture, and most Taiwanese do not identify as Chinese. China has no business claiming Taiwan and is absolutely in the wrong for threatening a bloody, violent war. Period. They are the provocateurs -- the only provocateurs. Not Taiwan, not the United States. 

That same government will tell you that this stance is akin to hating China as a country, which is essentially the same as anti-Asian racism. That is a lie, and I reject it. 

The CCP should fall, though nobody but the people of China can make that happen. I want only good things for Chinese citizens, but don't know how to support them. I wish I did. 

All of that is true, and also, I don't love China. 

Friday, January 27, 2023

The Fissure


When I first moved to Taiwan, I didn't have a lot of free time. Like most buxibans, my first workplace expected six-day work weeks. A coworker rightly described this sort of job as "not really being teachers, it's the education industry equivalent of working at The Gap." He wasn't wrong.

The only real upside was public holidays: on those preposterous work/school "make up days", we didn't have Saturday classes. Feeling a bit trapped in Taipei -- you can't really do much when you work six days a week -- I decided to use one of these to check out Taroko Gorge. 

I did this with the wisdom and forethought of a turnip. I used none of my intelligence in applying my experiences in China to my expectations for Taiwan. Namely, that one can turn up close to a destination and pay someone a small amount of money to just take you there. So, instead of getting off the train at Hualien and taking the bus through the gorge like any other young person on a budget, I hopped off at Xincheng because it's geographically much closer to Taroko. 

I found no transport and walked -- walked! -- the several kilometers to the park entrance. I even walked most of the Shakadang Trail. Realizing my mistake, I then grabbed the bus to Hualien and got a bed in a hostel, having seen almost none of the actual gorge. I did get a very nice view of Asia Cement's, um, cement garden. Local children laughed at me. I deserved it. 

Years later, I told students what I’d done. They laughed at me too. I still deserved it. 

“Never do this!” I said. 

“We never would,” one of them shot back. 

On my next trip, we hired a taxi. I wanted to go to the Qingshui cliffs in addition to Taroko, but he wouldn't take us. My Mandarin wasn't good enough yet to really communicate much. It rained, and I had a headache. On the third trip, I rented a car with friends and for whatever reason we ended up driving over the North Cross-Island Highway first (don't ask). It was gorgeous, but we were too tired the next day to truly appreciate the beauty of our actual destination. We picked out a random local hotel with terrible beds and thin walls; someone was having a great time spanking their boyfriend in the next room. Good for them, but not fun for us.

We drove back, in the rain, over the cliffs but it was getting late and we didn't really get to appreciate those, either. 

Years later, despite all that bad luck, I wanted to take my in-laws. They'd been to Taiwan a few times but never really gotten to see the country's natural beauty. So we bought tickets -- to Hualien this time -- on the Puyuma Express and I hired a private driver through KKDay who promised to include the cliffs. I asked local friends for a hotel recommendation, and booked Just Sleep. We had a marvelous time, and I was able to manage the family trip in Mandarin with no issue. I was able to replicate this travel itinerary with my sister years later. This time, our KKDay-booked driver was named Bread. Not Brad (I asked). He wanted the universe to fill his life with bread, he explained. 

This little walk through time is metaphorically related to what I want to say, but I'll let you decide on exactly how.

But here is where it begins: while my sister and I gazed up at those impossibly steep marble walls, I reflected on all the criticism I’ve heard recently about Taiwan.

The traffic is horrible. Raising a family in Taiwan’s drudgery-heavy work culture is so impossible that many people either aren’t doing it, or have moved abroad. Salaries are too low. The banking system has long been the subject of mockery. There is no real path to citizenship for most of us permanent folks

Friends complain (quite rightly) that “make-up days” for extra days off are ridiculous; Taiwanese people already have some of the longest working hours in the world — just give them the day off! Even my sister, who used to live here, said that she left initially because she felt she’d “outgrown” Taipei. What she seems to have meant was that there were no useful career opportunities, and that meant it was time to go.

Worst of all, I remember watching coverage of abuses against migrant workers in Qatar preceding the World Cup and couldn't help but think, the system we're all pointing fingers at there doesn't sound much different from what goes on in Taiwan. It's a glaring issue, and the main systematic problem that makes it impossible to say that Taiwan is a wholly wonderful country.

I considered all of the upcoming critical posts that I haven’t written yet. They’re pretty diverse — one discusses the new and absolutely hellish system for sending packages abroad. Another is more personal, about health issues I’ve been facing that are somewhat related to my reduced blogging output. 

Is Taiwan really that bad? I thought. Is it so horrible that people are pushing to get out, and nothing works as it should?

It’s difficult to accept this, even when the various criticisms are either correct, or debatable but not wrong per se. Traffic problems really don’t compare well to, say, Japan. The banking system is indeed archaic; I’m unlikely to ever be a homeowner because I’m seen as more of a flight risk than some rich Taiwanese asshole who actually would flee the country to avoid debt. Like I could do that! I’ll probably never be a citizen and am not satisfied with “change is slow” explanations. Salaries are low. Work culture is unacceptable. People do leave. Career opportunities are not particularly robust. Even as a teacher — the easiest career path for an English L1 user — I could make more in many other countries in Asia. I stay in Taiwan because I want to be in Taiwan. 

But then I look up again at all that beauty and have a hard time accepting that it really is that bad. Of course, I’m not Taiwanese and I’ll never know what it’s like to live here as a local. The closest I’ll ever get is an approximation as a person with a middle-class income (and no local support beyond the friends I’ve made). 

Despite issues surrounding citizenship and securing the basics of a normal middle class life — like, say, a mortgage — it’s hard to argue that Taiwan has been bad. I can’t imagine I ever would have become a teacher, let alone a teacher trainer, in the US. In Taiwan I’ve built a career I’m happy with, enjoyed a wonderful marriage, made good friends both local and foreign, and had the opportunity to travel extensively. 

Of course, as a foreigner, I can never say that’s the whole story. There’s surely some selection bias, but local friends and students have also expressed a love for Taiwan that’s impervious to criticism. Life is more affordable here than Singapore or Japan, they say. Some have lived in China for a stint, or spent extensive time there for business. It sucks, they say. Taiwan is so much better. No one harasses you for being Taiwanese or not wanting to be part of China. They ask how Americans cope with our garbage “health care system”. 

“We mostly don’t,” I say. “Basically either you’re lucky or you die too soon.”

They ask how we cope with Gun Culture. 

“We mostly don’t,” I repeat. “If you’re white you’re probably fine. Otherwise every day, every traffic stop, every public festival, is a gamble.” 

“Yikes,” they reply. They’re right. 

Compared to China’s authoritarianism, Japan’s sexism, Singapore’s cost of living, and America’s various dangers, unruly traffic just…doesn’t seem that bad? The banking system is annoying but not life-destroying. I don’t know what to say about low pay and horrendous work culture. But it’s not like other countries are problem-free. Most say they have no real desire to leave Taiwan. It’s not perfect but it’s a pretty good place to live, they insist. They don’t think it’s puzzling that I’d leave the US and decide to live here. 

That said, it’s not as though the criticisms are incorrect. Every last one makes a salient point. 

And yet, despite all this plus my own personal criticisms, I just can’t bring myself to spend all day slamming Taiwan. I visit other countries, including the country of my birth, and in most ways, Taiwan compares favorably. Occasionally I land in other cities that, in another life, I might have considered home. Istanbul was glorious (but as an Armenian, I’m just not sure how I’d feel about it long-term). I’m writing this from Mexico City. I could live here, but ultimately I know I won’t leave Taiwan. 

Why? Seriously, why, despite all the valid criticism? Well, I often get asked why I came to Taiwan, and I can’t answer that. I was curious, and not planning to live there forever. That changed, and I can answer why I chose to stay. 

My ideal home would have a few key points in its favor: it has to be a democracy with basic human rights enshrined in law (I understand that no country on earth makes these rights perfectly accessible). I tried living in a country that lacked this -- China -- and it turned out to be untenable.  Taiwan isn’t perfect in this regard (no country in the world is), but it's on a trajectory of progress.

I also want to feel comfortable as a woman. All countries struggle with endemic sexism, but compared to the rest of Asia, Taiwan offers pretty solid women's equality.

Health care is important too; I left the US in part because I didn't want to wake up one day and find out The Machine decided I was too poor and deserved to die.

I want to live in what might typically be called an advanced or developed country (I don’t think a politically correct way of expressing this exists). Maybe I’m a bit of a princess, but I do want to live somewhere where things generally work. 

And, of course, I want to live in a country that is at least making progress toward liberal ideals. I don't think any country has actually gotten there yet, but again, compared to the rest of Asia, Taiwan is doing alright.

Taiwan checks all those boxes. It’s not perfect, but it’s not the screaming shithole many portray it to be. And over the years, as my local competencies have improved, and my understanding of Taiwan increased, I feel far more affection for the country than dislike. That’s true even when I have sincere criticisms. 

Back in the early 20th century, my problematic fave described her first view of Taiwan: 

Formosa, that little-known island in the typhoon-infested South China Sea, so well called by its early Portuguese discoverers - as its name implies - "the beautiful". Indeed, it was the beauty of Formosa that first attracted me....I shall never forget the first glimpse that I caught of the island as I passed it...there it lay, in the light of the tropical sunrise, glowing and shimmering like a great emerald, with an apparent vividness of green that I had never seen before, even in the tropics. During the greater part of the day it remained in sight, apparently floating slowly past - an emerald on a turquoise bed…

Most likely, she was off the coast not far from the gorge I was standing in when I began to think about all of this. After all, is there a more beautiful sight of the Taiwanese coast than the Qingshui cliffs?

It’s preposterous to dismiss valid criticisms of a country because, hey, there are some beautiful views! At the same time, it’s exactly those views that can make one feel ever so small compared to the ebb and flow of history.

Considering the ways Taiwan rose from inheriting mostly disadvantages, told one authoritarian government to get bent, is now refusing to bend to another, and still managed to (more or less) get rich with (again, more or less) low wealth inequality, it's hard to declare that it's really so awful. 

I want to except human rights abuses against migrant workers here, as there is simply no excusing that. Everything else is as terrible as it is valid, but I have a hard time thinking of a country that doesn't have problems that are equally horrifying, or worse. Like any other country, Taiwan isn't perfect or terrible; it's messy and complicated and difficult to put into words. 

Of course I'd say all this: I chose Taiwan, and choose it every day I wake up in Taipei. I wasn't born here, and a big chunk of my life is steeped in white privilege. Theoretically, I could leave.

But then my local friends run businesses, cultivate interests, fall in love, get married and have children here. Plenty of people I know have left for a time to study or work, but I rarely meet people who want to build a whole new permanent life abroad. They seem more proud of Taiwan's success than they are interested in bashing it.

That doesn't mean there's no need to address the problems that do exist, just that Taiwan simply isn't an intractable garbage heap. 

In other words, maybe Taiwan isn't always great, but it isn't all bad, either. 

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Book Review: The Membranes

I cracked open the slim 2021 translation of Chi Ta-wei’s The Membranes on a transpacific flight, after a fairly rough but ultimately successful check-in experience. The flight itself was fine; other than the unuseable headphones, it was if anything an above-average experience. I was excited to see family and take a fun side-trip to Mexico. But, after two leg-aching hours of standing in various lines, some of which could have been avoided if Asiana Airlines had merely redeployed their human staff to check passengers in rather than forcing them through a robotic self check-in, I had to wonder — did I love travel, or hate it? 

There’s no actual duality here. The experiences, good and bad, don’t really matter. How I feel about them. Quite literally, what the experience ultimately means is all in my head.

Protected or trapped by a membrane of lightweight material as we arc across continents, I abandoned the movie and turned to the book. Originally written in the 1990s but only recently translated, The Membranes seemed like both a glimpse into the past — almost like historical science fiction — as well as a semi-dystopian glimpse into an imagined future for humanity.

The Membranes reads more like a novella than a novel, and takes just a few hours to read. It’s a very “quiet” novel: not much dialogue, mostly taking place inside the head of the main character, Momo. It uses the conflicted relationship between Momo and her mother on the even of Momo’s thirtieth birthday to explore an imagined society in the year 2100 in which climate change has ruined the surface and humans live under domes in the sea — one of many ‘membrane’ themes in the book, emphasizing its internality. 

How Momo, an introverted woman running a skincare salon (well, there’s more to that but I won’t spoil it) interacts with the world — or doesn’t — shows readers what life under the sea is like. Real animal pets are rare, as are plants and animals that humans didn’t deem useful. Skincare specialists are practically celebrities in an appearance-obsessed society and cyborgs who may or may not have human-like intelligence fight wars for humans on the surface. Mega-corporations with friendly faces but ultimately monopolistic goals matter more than people. The role of those corporations in perpetuating human-created “-isms” is explored as well. The ultimate membrane, in a move that surprised me, turns out not to be a hollow capitalist skincare thing, but something far more insidious. 

For a novel written in the 90s, The Membranes is visionary in its queer progressivism, as well. Beyond the usual critiques of unchecked capitalism, there isn’t a single straight couple among the handful of characters. Two women adopting a daughter is so normal that the narrative itself doesn’t remark on it. Rather like The Expanse, it shows a world where the petty shit we shouldn’t be fighting over now —  like who and how people choose to love — has mostly been resolved, but powerful government and corporate interests (with the corporate ones being ultimately more powerful). It turns racism on its head by showing a world where white people, seen as inferior as their melanin-reduced skin cannot afford sufficient protection against the sun, are excluded from major institutions. It includes technology that was rare or theoretical in the 90s, such as cloud computing, portable devices and micro-trackers, but which in 2023 are now seen as a normal part of life. 

Transgenderism is treated as normal and unremarkable as well; the novel lingers on it only slightly longer, ultimately deciding that gender goes beyond biology and gender binaries are restrictive rather than helpful.

Remember, again, that this was written in the 1990s. In 2023 it’s fairly normal to explore these topics. In the 90s, in Asia, this was radical stuff. If it reminds you of Chiu Miao-jin in length, style and referencing…it should. I suspect that’s intentional. Chi and Chiu were writing around the same time, and probably ran in many of the same circles. Unlike Chiu, Chi, fortunately, is still with us. 

And, of course, the novel is quietly, well, Taiwanese. Or rather, a dream of what Taiwan could be, or was hoped to be, by 2100 (if Taiwan existed in a dome under the sea, that is). In the early 1990s, just a few years out from the death of Nylon Deng, mentioning “huge” monuments such as plaques commemorating the 228 Incident was a bold, even radical statement. Showing Taiwan as the key financial hub of Southeast Asia while slyly referencing Taiwan’s complicated but ultimately special relationship with Japan, was an imaginative projection of hopes for the future. Some of these things came more or less true, some not — 228 Incident recognition is normalized now, but Taiwan never quite became a regional hub.

I’ve been avoiding the key point of The Membranes, because it’s so hard to talk about it without spoiling the big twist. The peaches Momo loves to eat, the method of Momo’s birth (referencing both Chinese and Japanese folk tales and idioms), the undersea domes — these are not the only membranes in the novel. Early in the narrative we learn that Momo had a devastating childhood illness that she barely survived. She had a custom-made android friend whose role is left obscure. Ultimately, we’re forced to ask ourselves first whether artificial intelligence should be considered human, and then whether a human brain in an android body is trapping the android in the human, or the human in the android.

Then, there’s a less predictable twist, which I won’t begin to spoil. I will say what it asks of you: to consider whether what your brain experiences is the real world, and whether it matters if it’s what you know. Are your emotions real and complex if they are in reaction to ultimately false events? Is it right to have your fate decided for you, and is it worth it to hand so much power to massive corporations in exchange for astounding technological advances? Do they make our lives better, or worse?

If there’s one criticism I have of the book, it’s that it was too short, and a little impersonal. Much of it read as a summary of a story, rather than a story itself. It could have been three times as long, or longer, as it explored Momo’s life and the lead-up to her thirtieth birthday in real time rather than a sort of gloss of what happened and is happening in the story. I understand why it was written this way — it all becomes clear when you hear the full story of what happened when Momo was ten, making a full, deep moment-by-moment story hard to tell from her perspective. But, hey, I just think it could have been longer and more richly developed: a novel, rather than a novella. 

That said, Taiwanese literature in general tends to be a little too meandering for me, more about scenes and impressions rather than a clear story or forward-moving plot. Chi avoids this, telling a quickly-driven narrative in a terse and succinct — perhaps overly succinct — way. 

Ultimately, however, you should read The Membranes. If you’re inclined to think that Taiwan is a wholly conservative culture, or that there’s not enough literary creativity or progressive politics, Chi Ta-wei’s novel should quickly disabuse you. It also tells us something else: we need more Taiwanese literature in translation — and to not call it Chinese, but Taiwanese — and not 30 years after it is originally published.