Wednesday, February 14, 2018

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

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

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

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

Island of Women

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"I want much more than this provincial life!" 


I'm a little punchy after doing so much work for grad school and finishing my first teacher-training program (as the trainer, not trainee), so please forgive my flights of fancy, mostly dreamed up in the shower.

With that out of the way, I invite you to recall Beauty and the Beast, the animated classic that hasn't aged particularly well in terms of feminist themes. One thing that does strike me, though, is how Belle's worming away from Gaston without ever overtly telling him to just get bent - even though her disgust is palpable - flattering him even, when she shouldn't have to, as she removes him tidily from her home - is about as perfect a cinematic metaphor for the way Taiwan deals with China (at least when not under KMT rule) as any I can find. Faced with a bully and a cohort of villagers who aid rather than stop him from tormenting her, Belle (literally "beautiful woman") deals with him the only way she can, even though she deserves much, much more than some provincial life.

Consider this: when we watch that movie, we all like to think of ourselves as sympathetic viewers. At the very least, we want to think we'd be Belle's father or the kindly village bookseller. Nobody thinks they are just another villager helping a predator corner a woman who isn't interested.

Not to be too oblique about where I'm going with this, but if you replace Belle with Taiwan, Gaston with China and the villagers who abet his predatory behavior with literally the rest of the world - most of whom probably aren't even aware of the role they are playing - well...

Consider this as well: when we hear about real-life cases of men treating women badly, or of women simply being ignored or their concerns dismissed - their words not even really heard let alone considered - we like to think we're "the good guys" who are "better than that", who support women, listen to them and take them seriously. Sometimes we are. Often, though, we're just a bunch of casually sexist villagers who let perpetrators get away with cruelty.

Here's my point: we (by "we" I mean "other countries, including the West, and liberal thinkers around the world") want to think we're doing right by women, and we want to think we're doing right by Taiwan. In fact, we're failing both, and for similar reasons - the way the West dismisses women and the way it dismisses Taiwan have a lot in common. No, really. Hear me out.

Women have been historically treated badly in liberal circles (and in conservative ones too, but that's a different topic), from abolitionists who valued Black men's lives and rights over those of any (including Black) women's to the Civil Rights movement to the LGBT rights movement. (Even today, women's rights leaders' historical legacies are called out, and rightly so, for their white supremacy, but Black and abolitionist leaders' legacies are not called out for their sexism).  For a movement that exhorts women to join because their views are best aligned with feminist ideology, they just haven't been too great to the female gender.

Considering the issues facing women often requires a level of abstract thought that people don't seem to want to engage in. Not only are women not a small, homogenous group, it's also that the issues facing us express themselves differently depending on background and context, and connect in unexpected ways. Here's an example: to really understand what women face, you have to consider things like the relationship between the wage and achievement gap at work and sexual harassment in the workplace - two related issues that nobody seems to have put together until recently. Thinking in this way, connecting these kaleidoscopic and always-moving issues, is daunting and unappealing. It requires standing up for what is right, even if the "right" values are abstract with abstract benefits, whereas there are clear real-world incentives to stay in the good graces of the old boys' clubs.

Maybe, for a lot of people, it's just easier to be dismissive - to not listen, or pretend the problems we face don't exist.

Professional connections matter - money is money - and men's stories are told louder than women's. And it's easy not to hear voices that are not given space to speak out by dominant narratives.

Liberalism has been just as unkind to Taiwan. From valuing peace over justice (especially abroad) to creating false equivalencies between divergent value systems to not even realizing that there are gaps in Western education on Taiwan to believing narratives spun by non-experts in the media, we've created a belief system that excuses and apologizes for Chinese Communist brutality and dismisses - either by explaining away or not listening to - narratives from Taiwan. After all, they're all Chinese, right? We've insisted on diversity and respect in our own countries while flattening the other half of the world into the image the Chinese government wants to promote, and we don't even realize we're doing it.

In short, we (and I say "we" because I'm a Western liberal too) treat Taiwan the way we treat women. That is, like garbage.

Thinking about Taiwan requires a similar level of abstract thought - it necessitates understanding a complex history to the ins and outs of identity among people who, from 10,000 miles away, "all look the same" to the average Westerner (though most would never admit it). It requires not only understanding KMT and CCP history, but also understanding indigenous, local, Southeast Asian and Japanese history as well as the identity issues behind home rule and de jure independence movements. It requires looking beyond economic incentives and the dominant narratives peddled by China about culture, identity, history and what is rightfully theirs. It means acknowledging that, although there is some relativity between cultures and some things that cannot be compared and ought not to be judged from a Western cultural lens, that there is also a line between right and wrong, and winning doesn't always make one right. It requires deciding to stand up for what is right even when there are clear incentives to selling Taiwan out. Abstract notions such as self-determination, self-identification, freedom and democracy may not be as straightforward as the clear world of business and trade, but their absence will manifest in very real ways if Taiwan loses this fight.

But money is money, and China is very loud - it's easier for a lot of people to explain away Taiwan. To dismiss it, if one is listening at all. After all, it's easy not to hear voices that are not given space to speak out by dominant narratives. 

Of course, if Taiwan is the feminine that we dismiss, ignore, ask to supplicate because it's easier than angering a large, powerful country, then of course China is masculine. And it is - it controls the narrative, it has the voice (and it just will not shut up), the muscle and the money. Not to get too Daoist because I'm not into religion, but if Taiwan is yin, China is very, very yang.

This idea of China as masculine (and dominant) and Taiwan as feminine (and ignored or unimportant) isn't a new concept. In Taiwan's Imagined Geography, Emma Teng devotes a whole chapter to conceptualizing Chinese thought (in the time period she covers, although it's just as true today) as "masculine" - Confucian, patriarchal, and often consciously so - and perceptions of Taiwan as "feminine". That is, an "Island of Women" where many indigenous tribes had matriarchal, matrilineal, uxorilocal practices and often had female chiefs. This was also a common conceptual device to link Chinese culture to being morally upright, powerful, and civilized, and Taiwan to being barbaric and - although Teng doesn't say this directly - weak.

Despite a brief interlude in the worst years of the 20th century, China has more or less upheld this domineering patriarchy, this masculine hermeneutic (can I use that word that way?) as its driving national narrative, affecting business and politics.

Taiwan, on the other hand, seems to have leaned into feminine self-representation. I don't have any decisive links for you right now, but consider how China talks about itself: 5000 years, Confucian values, strong country desiring global hegemony. Now consider how Taiwan talks about itself: the beautiful island. In one of my favorite comics, China is male, the ROC is androgynous, and Formosa is a voluptuous woman. I will also point out something that struck me recently as I thought about the subtler themes in Shawna Yang Ryan's Green Island. While the protagonist's father (representing Taiwanese political ideology, including notions of freedom and sovereignty) was absent for a portion of the novel and never really recovered from his incarceration, her mother (representing the land of Taiwan, including home and family) was always there. It's not offhandedly that, as a young woman, that same mother quotes Du Fu, saying "國破山河在" - the country is broken, but the mountains and rivers remain.

It is not a great leap to see that, despite China's talk of two sides of one family "reuniting" (huge barf on that link, by the way), in fact, it wants to be the domineering patriarch, forcing Taiwan into the role of feminine supplicant. It wants to be the controlling husband to Taiwan's obedient wife.

It doesn't take much to further leap to the realization that, if China is masculine and Taiwan is feminine, the West is treating them exactly as we treat the genders. We listen to China. We give them space. We try not to upset them, and respect their feelings even when they are disingenuously upset or being blatantly unfair. We try to explain away their worst behavior. We treat them the way we treat men.

And Taiwan? We treat her as we do women: we ask her to take up less space (by literally giving her less diplomatic space). We ask her to keep China calm, to bend and contort herself - whatever it takes to keep that man happy. His happiness is key - her discomfort is not important. Whether or not it's fair doesn't matter, and the more abstract problems beneath this remain unexamined. When Taiwan tries to speak up, we get annoyed, because what she says might anger Big Man China. It's much easier if she pipes down - after all, why does she have to be such a bitch anyway? So shrill. Doesn't she see this would all be easier if she just stopped making trouble?

China just likes you, Taiwan. He just thinks you're cute. It's a compliment, jeez, can't you take a compliment? You should smile more, Taiwan. He doesn't mean to be sexist, that's just how China is. I know, I know, but just be nice. You catch more flies with honey, Taiwan. God, Taiwan, why do you have to be so difficult? So many countries have it worse than you. Why not just give him a chance?

(American) Conservatives are just as bad about this as liberals, by the way. They are often, though not always, more pro-Taiwan than their liberal counterparts, but it has more to do with Masculine America challenging Masculine China for dominance in Asia. It's two chest-thumping men fighting over a beautiful island woman as a projection of their influence and power. Or, considered another way, their support of Taiwan is almost always translated as support of the Republic of China - just another masculine, militaristic power structure. Buddies protecting buddies. Bros before hoes. (In this metaphor, the US and the KMT are bros, local Taiwanese independence movements are the...you get the point).

It's not about Taiwan - the feminine Formosa - at all.

We quite literally dismiss and ignore Taiwan the same way we ask women to keep quiet and push them aside.

In other words...

And for once it might be grand
To have someone understand

I want so much more than they've got planned...

Monday, February 12, 2018

Lurid Pink Pomegranates

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My haul from the 2018 Taipei International Book Exhibition


Just so you know, this story has very little to do with Taiwan, though it comes around in the end. 


I started taking a greater interest in my parents' bookshelves in high school. They were voracious readers and book collectors, and had some fine and rare editions, but also quite a collection of paperbacks from the 70s that browned by half a shade every year. You could have measured my age by their wear and coloring.

Bored with homework - I never really did it, it just didn't seem necessary - I idly picked up a dusty copy of Madame Bovary one afternoon and slid right into a world of century-old female dissolution.

Two things were true then. The first was that I was a broad-shouldered, wide-hipped teenage girl: not fat (then), but certainly not lissome. You could tell I was either going to grow up to be strong and intimidating, or soft and...not. (I like to think I ended up being soft and intimidating, personally). I wasn't pretty, but I was outspoken, nerdy and weird. Sort of like now, but less refined in how I channeled that energy.

The second was that I obviously knew what sex was. I'd read quite a few dime-a-dozen romance novels just for fun. The ones from the library one town over, of a slightly higher caliber (better sex) than the ones that cost $1.99 at the supermarket. But, especially as you'll be shocked to hear that I didn't exactly have a parade of boyfriends in high school, I knew nothing of sexual politics - who and what society calls degenerate and why, gender-based power and subjugation, all of it - or sex and the human condition.

What I mean is, big girls from small towns tend not to know a lot about the world.

As you can imagine, I drank the sweet, sexy French corruption of Madame Bovary as I emerged from the worst trials of the gauntlet of puberty the way a small-town athlete slugs Coke after a match.

Soon after I began reading, at school we were tasked with an open book report: find a book we'd like to read - any book - and write about our impressions of it. I was already reading Madame Bovary, so I decided I may as well write about it. My English teacher didn't object, but he did call my parents. A small high school in a small, almost entirely Catholic town? She wants to read a book that doesn't exactly scream Family Values? Best to check.

I was in the room when Mom took the call. "Yes, we know. She's already reading it. Yes, of course she can. She can! She got it from us!... Hah! Thanks for checking, but what kind of people do you think we are? Do you think we're..hmph...parochial?"

And that's how, as my classmates stole their dads' racy magazines (this was in the nascent years of the Internet, before we all looked for porn online), I ended up writing an ear-reddening book report about 19th century French smut.

Except it wasn't really smut.

More obtuse readers might mistake Madame Bovary for a morality play, in which Flaubert sits in judgment of the spiraling depravity of a convent-educated beauty who could not accept a simple, clean country life. If that were true, it would have been read and tossed by a bored big-hipped girl from a small town without a second thought. But no - Flaubert was well aware of the limitations women faced in his day, and how that could lead to a woman venting frustrations she couldn't even communicate to herself let alone to those around her by making a series of escalating bad choices. It was quite possibly my first encounter with a man who understood this, and was sympathetic. Of course, it took years to really sink in.

It struck me how it was never made clear whether Emma Bovary was highly intelligent or just an average person who fancied herself high-minded: as it was with all women, her intelligence was just that irrelevant to her life, her marriage and her social environment. It also struck me that the issue was never that she couldn't accept her lot, but that she was never able to seek a life that suited her.

As I grew up and moved away, I had more opportunities than Emma Bovary and took them - and yes, privilege played a role in that. I am an educated middle class white girl after all. In any case, I refused to apologize for my more libertine tendencies - why should I? After all, cheese is available - and when I encountered a person or force trying to limit me, remembered Ani DiFranco's old nugget o' wisdom, which Emma herself might have expressed if she'd been better equipped to do so: you may be able to keep me from ever being happy, but you're not going to stop me from having fun. (Hey, it was the late '90s).

And that is how a work of 19th century French smut which wasn't really smut likely influenced my decision to eventually move to Taiwan. The alternate-universe girl who didn't see a future version of herself in Madame Bovary if she didn't insist on something better is probably not very happy.

And that is how I found myself buying an expensive hardcover edition at the Taipei International Book Exhibition, which ended this past weekend. I took one look at those lurid pink pomegranates on the binding and thought, "hey, I have lurid pink pomegranates on my binding, too!"

What I mean is, that book is a part of my formative years. And I ought to own nice editions of the books that have influenced me.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Re-learning Taiwan

IMG_0283When you think of tourism in Taiwan - domestic and, to some degree perhaps, international - you probably think of at least a few of these:

- Night markets
- Old streets
- Local crafts (e.g. woodcarving or porcelain)
- Regional foods (e.g. 肉圓 in Zhanghua and mochi in Hualien)
- "Taiwanese" culinary cultural icons (think the toilet restaurant and bubble tea)
- Shopping and eating in Taipei, including the massive ATT4Fun and eslite
- Hiking, cycling etc.
- "Cultural creative parks" like Songshan Tobacco Factory and Huashan
- The National Palace Museum
- Tourist destinations like Jiufen, Alishan, Sun Moon Lake, Tainan, Kenting and Taroko Gorge
- (Maybe) Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall
- Indigenous festivals and dances
- Temple festivals

Some of these are great - Tainan is unimpeachably fantastic, though perhaps growing a bit gentrified or at least on the cusp of it happening - and the outdoor sports are bar-none amazing.

For the rest, though, slowly and steadily most of the pleasure I might have once been able to derive from them has been chipped away over the years as I seek to learn more about Taiwan.

Night markets are still kinda great, but a lot of the "famous" foods are made famous by savvy promotion rather than actual deliciousness, and with the piling on of food scandals over the years, I can never be quite sure that the snacks I'm getting are safe to ingest.

I appreciate the attempt to preserve the architecture of Taiwan's old streets - and some still do a reasonably good job of this (Hukou, Xiluo and Xinpu are still quite nice, and Dihua Street is still on the right side of fun, although I worry the scales will tip). Yet, a number of them have been turned into shopping drags selling touted "local delicacies" and shop after shop of "traditional items" (think old-fashioned kids' toys and wooden massage implements). They're basically all the same, nothing local or special about them.

Those local crafts? Well...I can't say I'll be buying any Taiwanese wood products or returning to Sanyi anytime soon. And Yingge sells some lovely ceramics, but historically was more known for making bricks, not fine vases.


Regional foods? Michael Turton has already covered that minefield:

All over Taiwan, if you say a city name, like Changhua or Hsinchu, people associate a food with it automatically (ba wan and mi fen). Even foreigners know many of these associations. This attitude is common in Taiwan, but it is rare in the rest of the world....

Why? It’s political, of course. In most countries tourism consists of local history and nature. I grew up in Michigan, where we visited the Upper Peninsula and state parks for nature, and local battlefields and forts for history. No one ever suggested that the state’s prodigious cherry production should be its key association. But in Taiwan, the food association functions to keep locals from associating places with their history, and thus, developing associations with local history that in turn would support and build local identities… Hence, in Taiwan, local domestic tourism is not historical tourism, but food tourism.

I'll add to that some ethical issues: I love bluefin tuna, but...well...hmm. Okay maybe not.
All I gotta say about the toilet restaurant is UGH not the toilet restaurant again, and I do like bubble tea but the aforementioned food safety scandals make me a bit wary of it. Also, it's way too easy to weirdly exoticize it as some Mystical Eastern Thing that Asian People do that Civilized Countries Have Just Discovered.

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Hehuan Mountain is gorgeous - and not on the list of "famous tourist sites" in Taiwan
(sorry for the low-res photo, I took it years ago and had to gank a low-quality copy from a previous post)

Let's machine-gun through the rest of that list quickly.

Shopping in Taipei? Eslite is a huge international company, not a plucky local chain (and frankly their selection of English-language books tends towards the pedestrian, and they have a weirdly tiny selection of English-language books about Taiwan). Those Xinyi malls? I've been complaining for years that good local street-side restaurants that give Taipei its atmosphere are being gobbled up into one massive East District food court, and I do not like it one bit. For example, Opa Greek Taverna was great. Then it moved to ATT4Fun, and it's kind of terrible. We never go anymore. The Diner was a lovely place in a lane of Dunhua Road with some outdoor seating (there is still one on Rui'an Street but little-to-no outdoor seats). Now it's a big restaurant in a mall. Blech.

Those "cultural and creative parks" are pretty corporatized and rarely house the most innovative artists in Taiwan. Songshan, for example, has a Liuligongfang (or at least it used to - I haven't been in awhile and it may have closed) and is bordered by yet another eslite.

ALL THE STUFF IN THE NATIONAL PALACE MUSEUM COMES FROM CHINA IT'S NOT EVEN TAIWANESE UGH. 

(I mean it's fine to visit if you are interested in Chinese history but don't go there thinking you are going to learn about Taiwan. I generally don't recommend it to visitors who are interested in Taiwan, only those who are primarily interested in China.)

And I don't even think I need to tell you what the problem is with Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

Temple festivals? Watch out, it's not always what you think.

And are you really sure you want to go to an indigenous festival where you might not be welcome, to see performances by tribes who have been unfairly historically stereotyped as good at three things: singing, dancing and drinking?

And almost all of the famous tourist destinations listed above have been disfigured by tourist infrastructure, with Sun Moon ****ing Lake being among the most degraded. From one side you can't even see the lake from most parts of the town unless you stay in one of the expensive - and often not very good - hotels ringing it (the good ones are very expensive). Taroko is still beautiful, but marred by controversy and a very ugly cement factory with its management that has very ugly morals. Jiufen has lovely views but is so blighted with tourists that it can be difficult to enjoy these days. 

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* * *

So where did that leave me, once I came to these realizations? That everything I liked about Taiwan was a sham? That Taiwan has nothing of interest for tourists? That everything good about Taiwan was invented to keep the country from discovering its real roots?

No.

I was depressed for a time, once it really hit home that so little of what is commonly touted about Taiwan actually embodies Taiwan's strengths, and much of it has been co-opted by forces I'd rather not encourage (like the encroaching uniformity of the old streets and the ghastly tourist infrastructure in scenic spots. I figure themed restaurants aren't hurting anyone). It can be hard to take, learning that things you thought you liked had all of these layers of complexity and undercurrents of problems that make them difficult to keep loving.

I had to tear it all down to build something better - because this country has so much more to offer than sun cakes and Sun Moon Lake. I had to quite literally re-learn Taiwan so I could talk about it for what really makes it great, not just the tourist hype that is so often riddled with problems.

I won't tell people not to go to Taroko or even Alishan (I will generally advise against Sun Moon Lake but if a tourist chooses to go, they might not have an awful time), but I will recommend they go not just to Tainan - god I love that city - but to direct their attention to the national parks, the East Rift Valley, relatively quiet areas of natural beauty like Hehuanshan, Lishan, the Taoyuan grassland/Wangkengtou/Caoling Old Trail part of Yilan, and of course Taiwan's stunning outlying islands. I haven't been to Green Island yet but Matsu, Kinmen, Lanyu Island, Penghu - I love them all. I'll send them to the eastern coast of Pingdong and down to Cape Eluanbi, but have them avoid Kenting itself (there are better beaches anyhow). I'll send them to Lukang, which still has something of a small-town feel, or to explore the smaller towns of Hsinchu county by car. I'll only bring them to Jiufen on a weekday, and if we go I'll insist we hike up to the Japanese shrine above Jinguashi ("yeah you thought Taiwan was Chinese but this ain't Chinese at all"), or approach the town from the Xiaotzukeng Old Trail.

There is so much to see and do in Taiwan - take it from me, someone who's done a lot here, and yet has never actually been to Alishan - that you can have a fantastic time even if you don't go to Sun Moon Lake or buy mochi in Hualien. (Feel free to buy taro cakes in Dajia, just make sure you go to the smaller shops and get them fresh from the oven, stay away from the prepackaged ones which are...fine.)

And it's enjoy the food - just enjoy it for its own sake, eat good stuff where you find it, without buying too much into the "local food as local identity" hype. Some foods really are local - you aren't going to get better milkfish congee than in Kaohsiung, and you can't beat eel noodles or shrimp roll rice in Tainan. You just can't.

I'm still not sure how to promote this Taiwan - the Taiwan I re-learned - to the world. International tourists are more into things like the National Palace Museum than, say, an architectural history of Taipei or learning about Taiwan's vibrant civic engagement, not to mention what Taiwanese history and current political issues have to teach (and warn) the rest of the world. It took years of ripping away beliefs instilled by tourism promotion to see what makes Taiwan worthwhile, a dedication visitors generally don't have (though the number of visitors who come for awhile and end up staying is surprising. We all know that person who'd planned to come for a month and backpack and now lives here full-time, or the one who came to "teach English" [heh] for a year or two and move on who is still here a dozen years later...ahem.)

But now that I know what I've re-learned, I can certainly try.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Taiwan made a hawk of me

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I want to be a peacenik.

I used to be one, in fact. There's a hippie-dippy inside me who is all about flowers not bombs, non-violent resistance, refusing to keep the cycle of control, war and poverty going. The military industrial complex has no place in my heart.

There's a part of me that is tugged by the very persuasive argument that getting involved in the affairs of other countries the way we do - in Libya, in Syria, in Iraq - does not work and cannot work. We keep trying to get involved, we say it's for the greater good (well, that's the message sold to us), and we keep mucking it up.

I'm a big fan of liberal thought in general, and modern American liberalism is all about avoiding military intervention - peace at all costs. It's all about assuming there is always a diplomatic solution.

And yet, I just can't do it anymore. I live in Taiwan, a nation whose existence is under the very real threat of a growing, aggressive and unfriendly expansionist China, whose values as a nation do not at all match those of Taiwan. I won't go so far as to say "Taiwan can't defend itself", because I don't know Taiwan's true military capability. But, given that we might be able to ward off an initial attack, still it seems unlikely we could win that war alone. We'd need help. We'd need big friends in high places, who understand the value of keeping a successful liberal democracy and ally intact, at that ally's own request. Because if China wins, it is Game Over for Taiwan. We can't let it happen.

This isn't Syria or Afghanistan - we're not trying to bring down a government. It's not Iraq II, where we not only brought down the government, but did so uninvited. This isn't the same as screwing over Latin America time and time again by supporting juntas and regimes friendly to our interests rather than their own people's. It's a friendly, developed, democratic nation asking for assistance should its spoiled neighbor turn its temper tantrums into real action.

To be clear, I don't mean there ought to be military intervention now, and I hope that just the threat of it will keep China's expansionist garbage in check. I don't want a war - nobody does. But the only way for that to be effective is for it to be very clear: if a war is what China wants, the promise of US military intervention is sincere.

So, I have to be pro-military to some degree. I have to be pro-US intervention abroad. I have to be pro-US arms sales (although we can debate about which weapons we need, we do need weapons). I have to accept that war is a possibility - and it is, because the only possible outcomes here are formal independence or war, given that Taiwan is not going to choose to unify peacefully (and it's not - why would it?). I have to be okay with that so we can get on with the business of figuring out how to defend ourselves.

And yes, it has to be the US - nobody else can even come close to being a real check on Chinese expansionism.

Peace at all costs assumes no cost is too high, but the cost of losing Taiwan is not acceptable. Forcing 23 million people to give up the freedom they fought for because the angry dictatorship next door decided it wanted their land is not acceptable. Encouraging Taiwan to move towards unification (or to peacefully accept annexation) because "the alternative is war" is not acceptable. It might result in peace - China would mightily like it for that reason - but it will not result in justice. And peace without justice is cruel.

We have peace now, but it is an unjust peace. It is quite literally asking the victim - the bullied person - to accept being victimized and bullied for the sake of "keeping the peace". It's goes beyond "can't you two just work together", with its stupidly racialized - or ethnicized or whatever - idea that because people in both countries are "Chinese", that this should be easy, we should desire it and joining the two nations is a desired outcome...because why again? I'm not really clear on the underlying assumptions here unless it's the Western liberals who are  really shilling ethnic stereoty----oh.


It goes straight to asking a successful, developed, liberal democracy to give all of that up and just accept being oppressed under a brutal authoritarian regime because, oh yeah, doing that would be peaceful and peace is the most important thing, more important than preserving the freedom millions of people already have.

Or, it goes straight to something more cowardly: voicing weak support for Taiwan's cause and affirmation that their values are shared by Western nations, while not actually doing anything to shore up an ally's defenses. It's the ~*~thoughts and prayers~*~ of foreign policy. "Oh, it would be terrible if China invaded, so sorry we can't help but good luck!" (Yeah, you thought "thoughts and prayers" were only things insincere conservatives offered. Nope!)

I can't help but draw a mental connection with asking women and people of color in Western countries to accept an atmosphere of harassment, bullying and discriminatory treatment because to confront the bullies and victimizers disrupts "the peace". Keep quiet and suck it up because "keeping the peace" is more important than doing the right thing. "I'm so sorry Cousin Jack called you the n-word, but if I confront him it would ruin Thanksgiving!"

In fact, I really feel like a lot of the talking points defending this worldview come down to this:

"C'mon Taiwan, can't you just peacefully play China's long game, even though you know what they're up to? We have to keep the peace....

...Justice? What's that?

Oh, you want justice. Oh, aherm...yeah...justice is good...ahem..uh...oh my iPhone 8 is ringing. Excuse me."

And if you push back: "No, I don't support authoritarianism abroad, it's just that we can't always get involved, and it sucks that China's so terrible, so sorry."

I just don't have much respect for a worldview that boils down to "dictatorship is bad, mmmkay? And dictatorships shouldn't take over unwilling smaller nations just because they want to. Unless, like, a really big and strong dictatorship that we do a lot of trade with. It's still bad, but, well...we need to keep the trade peace."

This worldview either assumes that freedom, democracy and human rights are only things one need to have for oneself (but are not necessary for others), or that only nations with big militaries - or those not under threat - get to be liberal democracies. Everyone else can suck it.

Or, even worse, it assumes that the liberal democracies of Western nations deserve to be defended, but Asians..."well, they all look the same so whatev Asia is far away and they have to handle their own affairs."

Because come on, you know that if, say, Australia's democracy was threatened, we'd be far more likely to step in. There would certainly be more public support from it, among both liberals and conservatives.

(Yeah, maybe you also thought racism was confined to conservative circles. It's not.)

How on Earth can I say I am against US military intervention abroad when I live in a country that wants the help, deserves the help, is friendly to the West and upholds as essential civic values - freedom, democracy, human rights* - everything Western countries say they believe in and want to promote and defend?

I have to support selling arms to Taiwan. I don't want to support selling arms to anyone, but how can I not? We don't want a war, but if war is brought to us we have to be able to defend ourselves.

I have to support the idea of US military intervention abroad, because while I'd like Taiwan to be able to defend itself without help, I'm not at all sure this is realistic (I hear varying reports on this).

I can't be a localist, because doing so will quite literally choke Taiwan to death. I want to be anti-war, but I just can't if I am going to be pro-Taiwan.

This is especially difficult as, of course, most Taiwanese don't want a war either. This makes sense - war wound devastate Taiwan far more than the US regardless of any intervention it launches on our behalf. It's entirely sensible to try to maintain peace at a bearable-enough cost for as long as possible in the hope that something will shift and movement will be possible.

But I can't rule war out - I can't insist there has to be another way - when I know perfectly well that there might not be.

I could cling, unflinching, to my liberal hippie-dippy core and say "if it comes to that, then we go full Gandhi. We non-violently resist. We refuse to cooperate, but also refuse to fight."

I love that idea, and it worked in another context, but not even the British Empire is as bad as China. Forget non-violent resistance, China will quite literally just kill us - millions of us, should it come to that - before the international outcry would even begin to make a difference, if it ever did. By the time we realized we needed to do more than protest...

...look, what I'm saying is they'd just kill us all, millions if they have to, and not even think twice about doing so. Non-violent resistance works when there is a line your opponent would not cross, and I can say honestly the Chinese government has no such line.

Remember, Taiwan may prefer peace, but so does China.

Everyone wants peace. It's just that some people prefer real peace, and others are just fine with a cruel peace, which is no peace at all.

And if that's how it is, I can't be a dove.

Against my instincts, I have to be a hawk.

Frankly I wish I could convince more liberals to join me. I mean not quite to the point of telling them to stop worrying and love that bomb already, but if they believe in the fundamental concepts of freedom and democracy, then it makes sense to support Taiwan. If it makes sense to support Taiwan, then it makes sense to support defending Taiwan. And if it makes sense to support defending Taiwan, then it makes sense to re-consider the advantages of being a bit of a hawk.



*I have to say I grow less sure of this one as I read more stories of the treatment of foreign workers (and Taiwanese workers to a lesser degree), though.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Expat men don't hold other expat men accountable.

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I had a dream last night that I was allowed to run for office in Taiwan.
My district was an amusement park where there seemed to be eternal night. I ran on a pro-marriage-equality, pro-immigration, pro-womens-rights platform (to get the NHI to cover birth control mostly).
My opposition published a "scientific" graph titled "How obnoxious Jenna Lynn Cody is" where the x-axis was time and the y-axis was "obnoxiousness quotient". It had several lines on it including "loves gays", "hates traditional Chinese culture" and one mysteriously called "Jenna Lynn Cody is such a fucking bitch who hates men". Of course, all the lines showed an upward trajectory.


Below it was a low-quality meme with words on it that said "Jenna Lynn Cody's obnoxiousness has grown by #13.5!" (with the hashtag).

So I'm standing in this dark amusement park with all of these 老兵 (retired soldiers) looking at this glossy leaflet with this graph on it, and everyone is looking at me, and I say "if these are the people calling me names, I take it as a compliment."

And the 老兵 went "boo!" and some people on the ferris wheel went "yay!" and I woke up.

It struck me as I struggled awake that it no longer seems totally bonkers for a political faction to publish "data" like that with a straight face.


* * *


I'll let you draw your own conclusions regarding connections between my dream above and my point below.


Well, it's been a couple of weeks since someone was a garbage can to me online - that is, a man insulting me as a woman in ways that men specifically insult women - but I see it happening to my friends too.


By friends of friends. That is, other expat* women in Taiwan being treated like crap by expat men in Taiwan that we might not like, and certainly don't spend time with in real life, but with whom we share many mutual friends - most of them male. I don't see it all the time, as I've blocked the worst offenders. This is itself a problem, as I can't support other women being treated like dirt if I can't see it happening.


So I get ridiculous insults thrown at me, or other women get insults thrown at them (often out of the blue, completely unrelated to whatever was posted/said, or often diving straight to a set of unfair assumptions without thinking). It goes without saying that the woman being treated this way is absolutely capable of handling herself, and doesn't need a man to "step in" and "defend" her like a victim or wilting flower. None of these women are shrinking lilies in need of protection.


And yet, when nobody comes in to voice their support and hold the men accountable, women get ganged up on, and to some people, that starts to look like proof that the harassers are right and the woman is wrong. It doesn't help that, as capable of defending herself as every one of these women is, it doesn't mean much when the men in question simply don't respect anything that woman - or often, any woman - says.


It's happened to me for sure, so I know how that dynamic works.

So far, it's only been verbal in my case, but sometimes real physical assault is involved. 


When the women have often blocked these men, and the other men stay silent, that's how it always seems to go down.


Days later (or even sometimes on the same day), I see those same men who are being total garbage cans to women engaging with my male friends online - good men, all - and being treated normally. Complimented, joked with, thanked for offers of help, being engaged in plans to meet, treated as though nothing just happened, or has been happening. They quite literally get a free pass after being asshats to these guys' female friends.


I have, at times, brought this up to more than one male friend - this is by no means an isolated phenomenon - and gotten replies like "Really....him?" "But he's actually a really nice guy." "Yeah, that's how he is, but if I step in..." "It's not for me to say..."


Nothing ever changes. There are no real consequences. The expat men who treat women - mostly expat women, they seem to be nicer to Taiwanese women - like garbage get to continue, with no loss of friends, no diminishment of their reputation, no falling in standing in the expat community.


I want to add here that this doesn't describe all of my male friends, and it doesn't describe anybody all of the time. Some of them will hold men they don't know in person accountable, but not ones they do - perhaps it's a bridge too far to jeopardize a chummy in-person relationship. Some don't fall into this category at all, and really try their best to be great allies.


I don't want to insist that the expat men of Taiwan have to treat other expat men exactly as I would like them to, or that they are immediately beholden to cutting out of their lives anyone who has pissed me or another woman off. That's not reasonable, in the same way that it's never okay to ask your friends to choose between you and someone you hate.


It's especially difficult to ask for in such a small community - everybody knows everybody, or has mutual friends. Frankly, if I meet an expat and we share no mutual friends at all, it sets off a red flag. Even if you live a mostly local life, if you're an expat you're an expat - there is a real social cost to holding shitty people accountable when those same shitty people may be at the bar that weekend, or the event next weekend, or the party the weekend after that, or your future coworker, or whatever. It's a tough situation because in such a village-like atmosphere there's no real escape (and I'm not a fan of villagers-with-torches-and-pitchforks style justice, anyway).


This is also why it's more noticeable here. It happens where I come from too, all the time, but it's easier to avoid - if I can't deal with a toxic man in one friend group in the US, I could always take some time away and spend more time with another friend group who wouldn't know him at all. Here, everyone knows everyone, and there is no "I don't know that guy" group.


But I would like to see some accountability. Maybe a bit more "dude we're friends so I'm going to be honest - you just treated ______ like crap and that's not okay. Do better." Or not saying "you're so great / you're so cool / you're the best" while a bunch of us are sitting here thinking "no, he's not that great, he literally just went off on ___________ for no reason."


What happens, though, is that there are no real consequences for these men, who then think their behavior is acceptable (again, making it look quite unfairly as though it is the women's fault, not theirs), and everyone but the women gets to go on enjoying a smooth and happy social life. Whereas the women might think, "ugh, do I really want to go out tonight? He might be there, and nobody will have my back. I might even be pressured to be nice to him." So there's no social downside to being a crap dude who's crap to women, but plenty of social downsides for being a woman who doesn't want to deal with being treated that way (and has no intention of  pretending there's nothing wrong or not causing a fuss). 


We'll probably still go, but it creates a whole host of social tripwires, a whole chessboard of thinking "____ is a friend but he doesn't really have my back and do I really want to deal with that right now"...so that the only consequences are borne by the women. 


I'm not sure what else to say, or how to meaningfully address this problem. I can't force people to act the way I want them to. All I can do is point out that there absolutely is a problem.



*I'm using "expat" loosely here. Some of us are expats, others immigrants, but I don't know what everyone's end game is: whether they'll stay in Taiwan forever or eventually move away. I am referring to the community that includes foreign professionals and some students, and their circles.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Mr. Xi's Soft Prong

This sort-of-okay thing that veered into a steaming pile of garbage from the Economist, uh, exists. So that's...there.

Please draw your attention to this paragraph particular line towards the end:

Lin Chong-pin, a Taiwanese scholar and former senior official, calls this Mr Xi’s “soft prong”. 


Ah.

Now we know why Xi Jin-ping is so obsessed with taking Taiwan.

Now, I really hope Lin formulated this thought on purpose, as a big, fat, hard jab at Xi Jin-ping, perhaps hoping we would understand the encoded message in his long, straight, pointed finger.

But even if he didn't, this says a lot. All those powerful cylindrical metal planes circling Taiwan and it's huge rocky mountains, standing tall and erect right there across the strait. He has to take a stab (well, maybe not a stab, more like a flaccid wriggle) at Taiwan to prove to us - and more importantly, to himself - that he's packing heat (well, maybe not heat, more like those squishy hand warmers you can rub. They get warm but they never get stiff). All those big, powerful missiles pointed right at Taiwan, ready to launch.

Because I don't want to linger too long on, uh, Mr. Xi's Soft Prong, let's take a look at the flaming heap of crap that makes up the final two paragraphs of this utter head-scratcher of a piece.

Now I will say, it starts out okay. It could take more time to discuss the perspective of Taiwan, but as it stands it is a pretty clear laying out of China's coercion tactics against Taiwan, which are important for Westerners to know about.

But then....whhaaaaa?



All this is out of the old playbook. Mr Xi’s innovation is to single out young Taiwanese and to pile on the blandishments.

In terms of pay, yes, but if he thinks he's actually going to win them over politically...he's not.


Colleges offer Taiwanese teachers better pay than they could get in Taiwan. Chinese provinces are opening research centres aimed at young Taiwanese. In the southern city of Dongguan, Taiwanese tech entrepreneurs can get free startup-money and subsidised flats.


Yeah, that's the strategy. Want to talk about why it's a problem?


Over 400,000 Taiwanese now work in China. The young in particular are crossing the strait in droves.


I guess not. Well, okay.


You do realize they're not moving to China because they want to, yes? You do realize they are doing it because the economy at home isn't offering them fair wages for fair work, and because they feel it's their best opportunity to make money - but not because they actually want to live in China, yes? Why are you implying that there is anything other than economic rationalization for this? Nobody - literally nobody - thinks China is overall a better country to live in than Taiwan.


Lin Chong-pin, a Taiwanese scholar and former senior official, calls this Mr Xi’s “soft prong”.

Hahahahaha.


In some respects it seems to be reshaping attitudes towards China.


No, it isn't. Identification with China, liking China, thinking China is anything other than a terrifying enemy who must be dealt with for economic reasons, is not actually changing. This is simply factually wrong. 


It does not help Ms Tsai that she has failed to make much progress on her promise to create more opportunities for the young.


Duh, but what does that have to do with China? That's a domestic issue. Her administration is simply not doing a good job with this. 


Taiwan’s economy remains sluggish.


So does the rest of the world's. Want to put what you're saying into perspective a lil' bit maybe?


The young think older generations get the better deal.


This is true but it is not related to China. 


But she gets the blame for tricky cross-strait relations more than Mr Xi does.


Does she? I mean, personally, I think the one thing she is doing right is her cross-strait policy. What's your source on this? 


A recent poll even shows Taiwanese feeling more warmly towards Mr Xi than to Ms Tsai.


Oh, I see, a poll that you don't link to. Hmmm. I'd like to see this poll. How is it worded? What questions are asked? Where is this coming from? Where is your source? Why aren't you comparing Tsai's approval ratings to pro-China Ma Ying-jiu's (man, talk about a soft prong...ahem) to show what it means in a Taiwanese context? 


They do not admire China’s political culture.


No shit. So why don't you say more about this? And if they don't admire China's political culture, why do they admire Xi so much?


But Mr Xi may be nurturing a reluctance among young Taiwanese to bite the hand that feeds them.


They know perfectly well that they are not being fed so much as slowly poisoned. They also know - they're not stupid after all - that slow-acting poison food is better than no food. But if you think for even one second that this is going to change how they feel about China, or Taiwan, or Xi Jin-ping in a way that will get them to accept unification...


...well, then do I have a soft prong for you!