Saturday, January 19, 2013

This Country For Old Men

I would say you'd have to be living in a cave not to have heard some inklings of the gun control debate currently raging - quite rightly - in the USA. But then if you lived in a cave in America, you would probably own a few guns (that's not to say that all gun owners live in caves). Even non-Americans would have gotten some news of this debate: I know my students certainly have.

Brendan has an interesting view of things that is worth a read - someone really needs to hire him as an advisor to something - but I want to go in a different direction as I explore the merits of gun control here, from an expat in Taiwan perspective.

The Setting

Most of my friends are hippie liberal East Coast Ivory Tower elitist feminist godless socialists, but I have a few Facebook friends who are not: people I knew in high school, mostly. And a few friends-of-friends or people on subscribed feeds with different views. Their perspectives come from being Americans who value the Second Amendment and feel that the right granted to them in this amendment to bear arms is of the utmost importance - right up there with freedom of speech, religion, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (personally, I think universal health care, including paid sick days and maternity leave, falls in with "the pursuit of happiness", but that's a different debate). That this right should be considered before any other discussion of gun control legislation or restriction. Most, if not all, of these people are "responsible gun owners": the ones who own a few guns for hunting or marksmanship, who keep them locked up, have learned how to operate them safely, and who treat them with care. Even as a liberal hippie leftist East Coast Ivory Tower elitist feminist godless socialist Communist, I actually think that's, well, it's OK. I am not entirely against their right to own those guns.

Responsible Ownership: The Other Side of the Story

My own father owns a few guns - for hunting and for skeet shooting. He rarely engages in those activities now, but he used to. I remember as a child that he'd go hunting with his best friend from his hometown, and while I am generally not interested in hunting and have strongly considered going vegetarian, I never had any strong feelings of opposition to this. He knows how to operate a gun, knows how to own them safely (they were always locked away when we were children, disabled, with the ammunition and some other essential part - I'm no expert - locked away in different places).

I never looked for the keys, never tried to break into the gun cabinet. But then I was generally a good kid, although a bit rebellious and mouthy. I was never systematically bad. I was also terrified of those guns, and Dad was very careful to make sure we never knew where the key was (I still don't know). I can imagine a scenario in which  a kid not terrified but fascinated, with a parent less detailed in his efforts to make them unobtainable, successfully tries to get their hands on "locked away" guns.

That's where my very small sympathetic bent comes from, anyway.

But It Really Is Safer!

Now, I live in Taiwan - a country where guns are illegal for all but certain authorities (think government security, law enforcement, the military). I have to say that, as much as I understand the mindset of "responsible gun owners", I feel so much safer in a country where guns are banned. Just plain, outright, done-and-done banned. I do prefer it. I do not feel as though I have lost an essential right. I do not feel that my American right to bear arms compares with my rights to freedom of speech and religion. I feel that peoples' right to "life and liberty" - the "liberty" being something I have not had to obtain at gunpoint, and probably never will - supercede the rights of others to own guns. Guns are a machine designed to take away life, and an area with a lot of guns is not one that I feel at liberty to walk freely in. Just ask how many times I went to the worst parts of Washington DC (answer: I used to do literacy tutoring in Shaw, and on U Street before it gentrified, and while I've skirted worse areas, I have never felt I had the liberty to walk in them). In Taiwan I feel this right to life and liberty has been reasonably granted me.

I simply prefer things this way - because for as much as people say "guns don't kill people, people kill people", the fact is that with far fewer guns on the street, far fewer people are killed. This can't just be a cultural difference, and it can't be that countries who enjoy microscopically low rates of gun violence, who have banned guns, would continue to enjoy that if they allowed guns and "taught people to use them responsibly". Any quick survey of common sense would show that to be ludicrous: if Taiwan had more guns, including legal guns, gun violence would go up. It's not just a matter of culture, it's also a matter of, well...guns.

I Don't Fear Imaginary Hitler

And, I dunno 'bout you, but I prefer that it stay down. I am willing to give up my right to own a gun in order to keep it down. I do not fear that I will have to arm myself against a fascist government (another argument used). Honestly, if such a government were to arise, people would find ways of fighting back. Taiwan managed to go from dictatorship to democracy without an armed populace - in fact, many countries have made the transition to democracy without a bullets-to-bullets war. The ones that have done so the most successfully are the ones where the people faced the guns of their oppressors and, yes, some of them died, but rather than shoot back, they refused to stand down. I'll take a Gandhian overthrow of a government, or the slightly messier but otherwise successful democratic reforms in Taiwan over a messy revolution (from 18th and 19th century France to the Civil War to the failed Tamil Tigers to Syria today) that leads to, well, chaos and a continued bloody aftermath.


Besides, banning guns does not mean that all the Bad Guys will just get them illegally, either (another thing I heard on Facebook, and have come across elsewhere). My experience in Asia is that some bad guys obtain guns illegally - certainly illegal firearms exist in Taiwan - but those bad guys seem mostly to be Really Big Boss types, and aren't generally concerned with mowing down civilians (instead they mow down each other).

The gunfights that do occur in Taiwan tend to be personal or gang feuds, and these days don't really seem to be something that affects unrelated people (the occasional politician being the exception). I did do some Googling to see if I could find any news of non-gang related shootings in Taiwan, and can't find much at all - nothing dating from after 2004.  (I also found this, but the data is old, and it's not clear who these "unintentionally shot" people were).

What this seems to breed, then, is a country were gangsters have illegally obtained guns, but people not involved in that world are unlikely to be unaffected by it. You are about as likely to get hit by a stray bullet anywhere in Taiwan as you are to, I dunno, catch malaria here (I know, I really should actually do the math on that before I say it...lazy, lazy blogger - all I can say is the last case of locally contracted malaria that I can find in search results dates from 2003). You, as a non-gangster, are almost certain not to be the victim of or involved in gun violence. Home robbery does happen - I can't find much online in terms of statistics of home robbery in involving guns and home robbery without guns in Taiwan - but anecdotal evidence from asking around seems to be that robbers generally carry knives, but your chances of getting killed by a robber with a knife are less than that of a robber with a gun.

It's the guys who might otherwise participate in drive-bys, or try to take out a post office or elementary school, or mug or rob you, who can obtain guns legally in America, can't in Taiwan, and probably won't obtain them illegally here. Those are the guys I'm afraid of - those are the ones most likely to affect me. Restricting gun access keeps guns out of their hands in the way that it doesn't in the USA, and I'm all for that.

In short, "but bad guys will just get guns illegally" is not really a valid argument. Some will, but not the ones likely to kill you, unless you owe Boss Huang a particularly large gambling debt. If you do, good luck t'ya.

(Don't get me wrong, I'd like to see gang violence decrease, too, but I'm more concerned about innocent civilian deaths).

Finally, the lunatics who shoot up schools and kill children?  In countries where guns are banned, they tend not to attack with guns. There are still assaults in schools, but the body counts are much lower.  Contrary to the pro-gun "but they'll just get guns anyway" line, well, no, they won't. That's something.

Put all this together, and I feel safer in Taiwan. I am happier not having the right to own a gun here, and in return feeling safer. I can walk through "dodgy" neighborhoods: I don't fear for my life in down-at-heel Wanlong, or scruffy, gangster-infested Sanchong, or even olde-tyme gangster haven Wanhua/Longshan Temple. Even late at night, those places do not scare me. I would never walk through similar areas at night in major American cities. I would not feel safe.

"But Hitler and Stalin Took Away Guns! And Look What Happened!"

Yes, they did. China has done the same, and China's certainly not free.

But you know who else took away guns? Modern, safe, democratic Germany, not to mention Japan, the UK (in fact, most of Europe), Australia...and those are the safest countries in the world. "They took our guns!" does NOT automatically equal "They're the next Hitler!"

Quite the opposite, in fact. Those countries tend to be free, democratic, developed and safe. Countries I would be proud and happy to live in. Countries where I would feel free, not like my sacred rights are being taken away.

No Really, Guns Help People Kill People

And you know, countries with fairly liberal gun policies, such as most of Central America (but not all - you can do a search by country here. I've set it to Honduras, where firearms are fairly easy to obtain, because it's consistently ranked as one of the more dangerous countries in terms of gun violence)...tend to be the most dangerous.

I have never felt anything other than safe in Japan, Taiwan and Europe. When we went to Central America, we saw lots of guns (like, really lots of guns, guys, as in, armed guards outside ice cream parlors) and didn't feel particularly safe. In fact, we took great care. In the Philippines, where gun ownership is supposedly restrictive, but in fact are quite common. I didn't feel entirely unsafe, but I didn't feel entirely safe, either. The pistol packed by the kindly old man at the front desk of our hotel in Cebu didn't really assuage my anxiety.

As a good friend has said, guns are designed to kill, or at least to injure or instill fear. They are "fine pieces of machinery" too, but the purpose of that machinery really is to kill. Sure, you can use them for marksmanship, but you can also use blanks, BB guns and do archery for that. So I would just re-name them "killing machines", because that's what they are. That's what they're designed for. That's why you can't compare a lunatic with a gun to a drunk driver and say "should we just take away everyone's cars, too?" - a car is not designed to kill. A gun is. Not comparable.

Then, instead of saying "you're just unreasonably afraid" as a response to "I fear guns", nobody would have much to say to "I fear killing machines". Because who wouldn't?

In Summary...

As someone who lives abroad in a country where it is illegal for civilians to possess firearms, I don't feel as though my rights have been taken away. In fact, I look at my home country, and I am sad for them. I wish the USA could find a way to be as safe, as generally peaceful in day-to-day life, as Taiwan. Where kids really can go to school without fear, where I can walk wherever I like at any time,  where even the majority of bad guys don't have guns, and those who do aren't interested in me. I have no emotional attachment to my Second Amendment rights as an American. I don't put it on the same level as my right to certain freedoms, and I think most people in the world would agree: you'd get a lot of people defending the right to free speech and religion (and some detractors, but there are always people like that), and very few outside the USA defending the right to own a gun as equal to those rights above. And I'm with them.

I'd rather feel safe than have that right, and I live in a country where I feel safe. That country is not the USA. I live in a country that is free, that is democratic, that gives its citizens liberty and a voice in government like the USA, but one that is markedly less violent. That's not just a cultural difference, it's a difference in how many guns there are. There are gangs in Taiwan, there are violent people. The two cultures are very different but in this way, not so much. The difference here truly does lie in guns. Not education, not people, not media (between Hong Kong action films, bloody adult anime and Apple Daily gory cartoon depictions of murder scenes, that's just plainly not true), and it's not exactly a God-fearing country in the way Americans would think of one. Also, mental health care isn't that great (there are good doctors but a lot of social stigma and a dearth of treatment facilities, so a lot of people with mental illnesses go untreated). Guns. Not other things. Guns. Fewer guns =  fewer deaths, and you can dispute that 'till your ass turns blue (because that's where those arguments come from), but it's just plain true.

Living here has allowed me to observe, to watch the news more carefully and with more personal interest, of what goes on around the world vis-a-vis guns vs. what goes on in the USA (or Central America). It has allowed me to see firsthand how a lot of the myths gun proponents tell themselves are simply not true. It has allowed me to see just how right Jon Stewart is (watch the whole show, I say. It's worth it).

Would I vote "yes" on a repeal of the 2nd Amendment? Yes, I probably would. My desire for fewer guns is greater than my respect for the Second Amendment (another amendment was repealed when it was found not to be working - it's not taboo, in my book, to consider it). Is that likely to ever happen? No. Gun owners need not fear that. Would I be also OK with stricter licensing, broader powers for the ATF (including a true national database) and a ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons so that responsible gun owners could keep their guns, and crazies could be kept from the bazookas, and gangsters as away as possible from the sawed-offs? Yes. I'd prefer fewer guns overall. It is not my strongest opinion - those are reserved for civil, gay and women's rights - but I won't fight for another's right to own a gun, as much as they feel they have that right. I won't stand behind them.

So, for this and other reasons, Taiwan is where I'm staying. America can't seem to grow the fuck up on this issue, and I feel sorry for them.


And Now For Something Completely Different: Dihua Street Gets Fresh Lease On Life

I wanted to share it because it's a lovely article, and exhort everyone to spend some time on Dihua Street. I go there often (all my tailoring is done and DIY supplies are bought there, and the food is great) - it's worth the trip to the west end of Taipei.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Protest Time!


The sign says "We're too poor to get married - we're furious!" (liberally translated from "[Our] fire is huge!").

Breathtaking in its simplicity

When I said "let's burn things", I wasn't being entirely serious, but clearly I was not the only one with this mindset.

Photos below - it's late and I have a headache (I blame the airhorns) so more commentary to come tomorrow.

Some basic thoughts though -

- Besides the "A-bian no crime!" people, not a lot of weirdos out. Only a few strange outfits (catalogued below) and only one weird pet (a duck). It was pretty friendly, low-key, Occupy-style. I coulda done without the airhorns though.

- This was the first protest I have attended in Taiwan where I felt I was really participating rather than just hanging out and taking photos - regardless of whether I've agreed with protesters in the past (and I usually have - I've only ever been to one where I truly didn't, the "A-bian step down!" one six years ago, but back then I was too dumb to even know I disagreed). But this time, perhaps because it was an amalgamation of different groups, I felt right at home, and like I wanted to be a part of it beyond just taking photos.

- ...and it really was a conglomeration of groups: the No Nukes guys, the environmentalists, the DPP and TSU, several other associations (Including the Taiwan Professors Association), a Hakka group, an aboriginal group, the anti-Want Want media deal folks, various candidates, and those who just feel a general anger at Ma Ying-jiu, the KMT, the economy, the threat from China, or all of the above. More diverse than your usual protest.

- The whole thing was peaceful and well-organized: police presence was there but minimal and non-threatening. The route was planned carefully and seemed to be predicated on maximizing traffic disruption around Zhongxiao Dunhua and other busy intersections. The organizers had red plastic chairs for people when they got to the Presidential Office. Protesting in comfort!

- This was the largest protest I think I've seen yet in Taiwan - at least it seemed larger to me. I walked the whole thing - Sun Yat Sen to the Presidential Office - and there were people a mile behind me and people a mile ahead, I swear. I stopped at Starbucks for a latte and the bathroom and it was still going by in force after waiting in line for both.

- I appreciate the simplicity of many of the signs. You can have one that details a manifesto of everything wrong with the government, or you can just say "FUCK MA". I like the latter. Brevity being the soul of wit and all. Because hey...fuck Ma.

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Saturday, January 12, 2013

On Family Pressure and Female Expats

Now that I'm married, there is less expectation that I'll move back to the USA, but I still get asked...a lot.

Something I have noticed after years in Taiwan -

While there are fewer women than men living abroad long-term, especially single women (by "single" I mean "unmarried/not in a very long-term marriage-like partnership"), among those I know there seems to be a trend that isn't visible among men.

That trend is the pressure of family - specifically, the pressure expat women feel (you could call it "pull" for a less negative connotation) toward their families back home, or that is put on expat women by those families. This is not a personal post - although I admit that my family is more vocal about pressuring me to move home than my in-laws are, I think that has just as much to do with family culture (mine being vocal and opinionated with a tendency to overstep a few boundaries when expressing themselves, though I love 'em anyway and I readily admit I do it too - nurture over nature methinks) as it does with me being female. This is an observation of a trend.

When talking to female expats I know, especially those who have been here for over a year, I hear similar lines again and again - "my parents are bugging me to move home as usual", or "they're supportive of my travel but they'd really prefer I live closer to home" or even "my folks sure lay on the guilt trip about me living so far away, I think they want me to come home, marry a nice local boy and live less than an hour away for the rest of my days". They get asked more when (not if) they're moving back, they get more admonitions, or hear more worrying chatter, about how "dangerous" it is to live abroad - don't even try explaining to most of these worrywarts that Taiwan is not only extremely safe, but safer than the USA and possibly/probably safer than their native country, all they envision are white slavery markets, "Not Without My Daughter", "Brokedown Palace", rapists and robbers, or at least kung-fu movie-style Triad gangsters, passport thieves, drug mules and pickpockets.

I know many will say "but this is normal, all parents worry", and they do. I am sure the parents of all those male expats worry too. The difference is that they either don't worry as much or don't express it as much. They may not worry as much (even as they think they worry plenty) because there's an implicit narrative in most cultures that grown men move away, build lives, start their own homestead, go independent, and that that may take them to faraway lands - and that's OK, because they're Grown Men and they can Handle It. Early explorers were men. Early settlers were mostly men (women did come along, at least eventually, but almost always as the relatives or spouses of male colonists and settlers). Until very recently men held the jobs, bought (or built) the homes, earned the money, built the family. It's expected in our culture to foster this independence, to expect it, and when that independence takes a Grown Man Far Away, it's...OK.

Or they may worry, but not express it - a parent or grandparent worrying over a daughter far away will get lots of cooing sympathy noises. A parent or grandparent worrying over a son far away will get some sympathy, but there's an implicit cultural expectation that they have to Let Go because their son is a Grown Man and has his own life. The worry is reflected upon and then set aside, rather than repeated to friends, other relatives or the grown son himself.

Women, on the other hand, until very recently lived at home until they married and moved away only when their husband's job required it - of course, exceptions exist, but we're talking general social trends here - and lived as a helpmeet to the person who made it all happen. There might be talk of "building a life together" but it was quite well understood who did the building and who made it pretty. While single women did move away, it was more rare, and it was generally not quite so far away. Women explorers? Ha - can you name one? (If you can, please say so in the comments, I'd love to hear it). Women colonists? Look at this roster of people on the Mayflower. There were women, but they were all companions/relatives, wives and children of men. I see plenty of men coming independently on that list, and not one woman. Women expats? There are plenty, but not as many as there are male expats (see linked article at the top). Stories of women going abroad in the age of colonialism and sea travel are rife with wives, mothers and sisters accompanying or visiting their male relatives/spouses abroad. I can only think of one - fictional - account of a woman going abroad by herself without any male companion at the outset or destination (whether or not she found one later - well, I won't spoil it). Compendia of travel writing by women, or fictional stories about women abroad without men, tend to be modern.

You may disagree, but I see this as pretty compelling evidence that women just aren't expected to go that far from home by themselves, and so their families back home are granted more leeway by society to bray for their return. There's even a saying: "a son's a son until he takes a wife, a daughter's a daughter all her life". That's about marriage, but I'd argue that it opens a window into how society expects men to flee the family nest, possibly to remote locations, and for women to stick as close to home as possible. It's not difficult to see how this would impact female expats, especially single ones.

Usually this is couched in the very real language of "we miss you", and parents of children of both genders certainly do. It's quite rare that parents come right out and say "a single woman shouldn't be so far away" or "you should be home, you should get married, that's what good young ladies do" in their entreaties, but you know what? I've heard this too. The parents in question were extremely religious living-out-West-in-pure-evangelical-Republican territory and had Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum-like views of the world, but still. It's not unheard of.

The pressure gets pretty intense, too. I have heard female expats talk about family who wants them to return to help care for ailing relatives in a way I've never heard male expats talk - although I suppose the "anecdata", such as it is, may be skewed by the fact that fewer male expats may wish to share such confidences about family. Female expats, from my observation, tend to spend more time on Skype or on the phone with family back home, and the conversations tend to be more emotional in the "we miss you!" department. My husband is an exception, he e-mails his parents more often than I do mine, but my e-mails are longer.

I can say from firsthand experience that this changes once a female expat marries. I still get asked when (not if) I'm coming home, but less often now, and with more acceptance that I may stay. Now that I'm married, the expectation seems to be that I'll "settle in", and it's more acceptable for me to do that abroad, as long as the settling happens. It gets better - but not that much better.

All of this, plus other issues (see again the link at the top) create more pressure on women to return home, and so it's no surprise that they often do, often more quickly than men. If I had not ended up in a relationship I might've returned home, too.

So what to do if you're a female expat and you're feeling pressured by family to come home?

First, validate. Their feelings are important, and they deserve acknowledgement. "I know you miss me, and I miss you too" goes a long way. They want you home because they love you - don't brush that aside.

Second, be conscious. Understand that this is going on - if you know what's happening, and if you seen the attempt at a slow attrition of your desire to live abroad by people back home, the best way to prevent guilt from getting the better of you is simply to realize it is happening, and keep your stores of inner confidence well-stocked. In fact, being conscious - seeing clearly the areas where your gender affects how society views you and what society expects of you - is the most basic and in some ways most effective weapon in any feminist's arsenal. Use it.

Third, be firm and be clear. You can prevaricate if you want - sometimes that is the better solution if a direct "no" or an answer that the person doesn't want to hear is going to cause an argument and not get the guilt-tripping to stop. That said, in most cases it's better to just get right to it, even if you feel the question is starting to push boundaries. Let the tone of your voice and the sparse words you choose close the conversation for you. A simple "No, this is where I live now" or "I have no plans to move home" or "I feel settled here" or even "This is my home now" will go a long way towards getting people off your back. Also, stay on message. You are your own one-woman PR campaign for why your life does not require the intervention or worrywart meddling of others (and I say this with love - again, they wouldn't worry if they didn't love you, unless your family is totes dysfunctional).

Fourth, don't let the exchange go on forever. As with all debates (and this is a form of debate, if the discussion goes on and on), saying more than you need to get your point across either buries the point too deep, or provides too many openings for people to jump on and discuss/argue over (whether it's a discussion or an argument depends on your family, and in some families the line isn't very clear). "Taiwan is very safe, Nana, there is very little crime compared to the USA" is a far better reply than a list of statistics on low mugging, gun violence, murder and other crime rates compared to the USA. "National Health Insurance is fantastic, Mom, don't worry" is better than "I won't get sick, jeez! First of all..." followed by a long list of reasons why it's easier to care for your health in Taiwan. It's a discussion, not a blog post.

Be honest but keep it positive. That doesn't mean feign happiness or say everything's "fine" when it's not - it means, be honest about your life, but speak about it using positive words and a tone of voice. If your tone isn't positive, and you can't think of anything upbeat or optimistic to say, maybe you should be questioning why you live where you do. That goes for anywhere, not just Taiwan or abroad. I wonder all the time why expats I hear whining about how much everything in Taiwan sucks, constantly, don't consider leaving...or just leave (it's one thing to have the occasional rant or acknowledge the occasional sucky thing - that's normal. It's another to always have something to complain about and very few good things to say).

Bring photos and think of cool stories - this won't convince the most hardcore conservative "ladies should live at home!" families, but it has really helped with my somewhat more accepting one. Create a 30, 60 or 90 (after 90 it gets boring) photo slideshow, depending on how long you've been abroad and how good a photographer you are, load it onto your device of choice, and offer to show it, with some very short comments you can make as it plays. Throw some music in there. Go for wild, wacky, won't-see-this-at-home photos. In Taiwan, think temple festivals and moutain and coastal scenery. Have a few stories on hand to tell - think them through beforehand so they actually go somewhere - about the amazing experiences you've had. And if you can't think of any? Expand your horizons, brah. Make it happen.

Find ways to keep in touch more - they may just get off your back a bit more if you take more time to stay in touch. Write a few extra letters or e-mails (Grandmas love letters, don't you ever forget it). Skype more. E-mail photos, or for the technologically challenged ("I can't open photos embedded in e-mails" "You have a Mac, just drag them to your desktop" "I don't have a desktop!" was a real conversation I had with a relative over Christmas) have them printed and mail them. Make it feel like you are closer than you are, and they may relax a bit. After all, what they really want is to see more of you.

If you can afford it, try to visit home once a year - I know some people can't, but making that annual trek home makes it feel as though maybe you just live on the opposite coast, not on another continent. A daughter in California would probably only visit her New England hometown once a year, so a daughter in Taiwan won't feel that different if that's what you do, right? I know this is not always feasible, and a post on how male expats are often more able to do things like this as they're more likely to be over here on business, not teaching kiddie English or studying (and how freakin' unfair it is) is in the offing.

Anyway, that's all I've got for ya.

Have more, better or different advice, or an experience with family pressuring you to move home? Leave it in the comments, I'd love to hear from you!

Thursday, January 10, 2013


The wine-prepared crab at Jesse will change your life

I have some heavier topics to write about, but I'm just not feelin' it today. So, what I will say is that while I was away from Taiwan, I spent those weeks eating and drinking very well. Although this post isn't Taiwan related, as a foodie I feel like sharing some of the deliciousness I found abroad.

Jesse - First stop, Shanghai. Our flight was with China Eastern, which is not exactly a fantastic airline to take transpacific flights with - they don't give you individual TVs, the food is mostly OK, somewhat "eh" and a few items were downright inedible (that said, the hot bread rolls were great) and the movie selections on the overhead TVs are terrible. Otherwise it's fine, about the same as flying with any other airline. Because we had to transfer in Shanghai, we decided to plan our trip so as to spend a full day there (if you don't do this, China Eastern gives you a free hotel room, which we got on the way back. If you do, you have to book your own accommodation). I lived in China for a year but never went to Shanghai, so this was a chance to rectify that.

Taro in chive oil

We didn't eat much in the daytime, as our sightseeing made it difficult to get to restaurants during mealtime/opening hours. Our breakfast was Cafe 85, our lunch a snack at Starbucks (I don't really care for Starbucks but it was there and we needed the caffeine). For dinner, someone on Lonely Planet's erstwhile Thorn Tree helped me get reservations at Jesse, one of the best, and most famous, purveyors of Shanghainese cuisine in the city.

Braised pork

It was amazing. We tried gluten-stuffed Chinese red dates, cold salted chicken, braised pork (the fatty kind in the sweet, sticky sauce), eggplant in the same sauce, taro stewed in chive oil, cold-cooked crab (raw crab prepared ceviche-style in shaoxing wine) and the famous braised fish head in fried spring onions with cold Qingdao beer.

Delicious gluten-stuffed red dates in a flavorful glaze

Words cannot express how delicious the food was. The crab was breathtaking - the portion small and meat hard to get to (crab is like that) but the succulent meat you did get was so packed with memorable flavor, it'll make you salivate forevermore every time you think of it after you try it. In fact, I'm drooling right now. They tried to take it away as I was scraping the last of the roe and fat from the shell and my face briefly turned hideous and Gollum-like: you cannot take away MY PRECIOUS. Hiss. The braised pork (紅燒肉) had an undertow of complex flavor beneath the heavy sweet-savory flavor of the red sauce, and the meat was delectably tender. The gluten-stuffed dates were little red gems of delight. Imagine if pearls and rubies had flavors, each flavor delicious in its own way, and someone served you pearl-stuffed rubies for dinner. Like that. The taro was served in small half-rounds and was cooked to perfection: not too hard, not too sticky. It was velvety smooth in a buttery sauce redolent with chive, so rich it was like eating, well, liquefied velvet.

The codfish head in fried spring onions might be the most delicious thing in all of Shanghai

Glamour Bar - Later that evening we decided to have a drink, what with nightlife being the best part of Shanghai, despite our exhaustion and it being a Monday night. Glamour Bar is on the Bund - usually not my style, I'm not a Big Famous Nightspot In A Big Famous Place sort of gal, but rather a quiet pub, cafe or bistro with good drinks and food person - but despite its too-fancy address, it was accessible, well-known and walkable from our hotel. We only had one drink each - we were genuinely too tired for more and had already decided to take a taxi back to our hotel - but what I had was truly memorable: a cardamom mojito. Basically, a mojito with cardamom syrup. It sounds like it wouldn't work, it shouldn't work, it can't work, no way! - but it does. It was sublime. If you're ever in Shanghai I recommend stopping in just to sample that drink.

Also, for the Art Deco decor, including a huge round beveled mirror, the wine bar (which I want to check out someday), and drinks, snacks and water served in Art Deco etched glass.

The Art Deco fun of Glamour Bar

Cafe Gulluoglu New York - Gulluoglu is the famous baklava maker from the baklava and pistachio (fistik) capital of Turkey, Gaziantep. We stayed in their hotel while there and ate their divine baklava several times, and pounced on it when we saw it elsewhere in Turkey. Forget the sweet, sticky, hard-to eat stuff that just tastes of sugar. This manages to be sweet and soft but also flaky, with perfectly turned phyllo dough, pliant and flavorful pistachios (also, try the sour cherry visneli baklava, and grab a can of sour cherry juice. The stuff is addictive). I nearly wept tears of joy when we came upon Gulluoglu's Manhattan branch, not far from Rockefeller Center. We just had to go in, despite not being terrible hungry after lunch. You can get other food at Gulluoglu New York, but I recommend just filling up on baklava and getting a Turkish coffee, or two, or three.

By the way, anyone know where I can get good baklava in Taiwan? I have never been able to find it.

Veselka Bowery - (They have their own website but I can't get it to load) - this well-known Ukrainian establishment has expanded, and they now have branches beyond the original East Village location. The decor in the one on Bowery is simple and modern, with big windows and long, wooden tables. The pierogi are spectacular, with flavors you wouldn't imagine when cooking up the frozen cheese-and-potato basics in most supermarkets. Potato and cheese is there, but so is short rib and beet with goat cheese. We got a sampler, as well as some deviled eggs (two caramelized onion and bacon, two smoked salmon and caviar) and I got borscht. Another friend got potato-leek soup and truffle fries, because she clearly loves a well-done potato. This differs a bit from the menu online, but it was what was available when we were there.

I highly recommend the place - if you want something unique but don't want to go too weirdly ethnic, or have dining mates who aren't into things like tentacles, raw meat and hot sauce, but want a stellar meal, this is a great choice. Also, really nice to get good pierogies and borscht, two more hard-to-find things in Taiwan.

Nocturnem Drafthaus - Belgian beer is all over the place in Taipei, but we still enjoy drinking it and trying brands not as common or not imported to Taiwan. We found this place on New Year's Eve in Bangor and sidled up to the bar for some St. Feuillen Noel and Green Flash Double Stout  (Brendan had cider as he was driving later that evening). Always nice to find good beer places in smaller towns.

Dysart's and Governor's - I include these two because they're Maine culinary staples (we also went to Tim Horton's and got whoopie pies at a gas station, by the way). Dysart's is a truck stop outside Bangor that has turned into a popular restaurant in its own right, with preservative-free breads and desserts and the best corned beef hash, well...ever. Also, don't miss the cinnamon rolls. You can substitute them for toast with your meal, if you want to be super healthy! Governor's has solid, standard American fare - the thing that really recommends it is their desserts. They make a scrumptious graham cracker crust pie, and their mint chocolate chip pie has a similar crust...but in chocolate. Also, the gingerbread looks unforgettable.

Meskerem - (warning - the site plays music) - another thing you can't get in Taiwan is Ethiopian food. Trust me, I looked. We have a little tradition of always going to this restaurant in Adams-Morgan after our friends pick us up at the airport, which they pretty much always do, for a delicious dinner we can't get in Taipei. I recommend the kitfo, and get it super rare, even go raw, tartare-style, if you dare. The Yedoro Wat and Yebeg Alecha are also great. I liked the shurro wat (milled chick peas in berbere sauce) although our friend was less impressed. I strongly recommend getting a bottle of tej - honey wine, like mead - with your meal, and trying to sit at the more traditional low tables on the righthand side of the restaurant.

Another good place for Ethiopian is Dama on Columbia Pike, near the Sheraton. Go in the morning for Ethiopian coffee and pastry, or their range of Ethiopian breakfasts (foulle - fava beans with spices,  onion and tomato - and baguette is my favorite, and there is also a spicy egg dish that's great) - enter in the side through the market, not the main door. Don't worry if you're the only non-Ethiopians there. I often was when I lived nearby and nobody ever made me feel weird or unwelcome. In the same complex is Dama's restaurant, which consistently serves up superb Ethiopian, the best in Arlington if you ask me, and patronized by the local Ethiopian community. It's definitely not on the tourist or yuppie urbanite maps: I found this place because I lived right down the street for a few years.

Tallula - fine southern-inspired cooking with a fantastic brunch in north Arlington (Metro Clarendon) - we had brunch here with relatives. Absolutely get the biscuits and gravy with poached eggs if it's available (the gravy is maple-sweet with a spicy, meaty undertow). They also have scrapple (for real), shrimp & grits, cheesy grits and more, and that's just their brunch menu. Very kid-friendly. Excellent Bloody Marys.

Me Jana - we had dinner with friends at this Lebanese place in Arlington (you can tell our DC life was and is kind of Arlington-centered), moving away from our usual get-together at Lebanese Taverna. The food was fantastic - I can't even recommend one thing. It was all so good! We got the family-style tasting menu: kibbeh, fattoush salad, tabbouleh, falafel, sujok, grape leaves, babaghanoush, hummus, cheese rolls, fassouleh, lebneh and a pile of delicious meats (the lamb chops were especially good) with pilaf, and a great baklava for dessert. I also recommend trying one of their Lebanese wines. This place is also very convenient to the Metro, has free parking and is very accommodating of groups and children (they have a children's menu). For large groups including children it's a great choice.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Thorn Tree: In Memoriam


I know it may come off as a little melodramatic to write an obituary for an online forum - especially one that still exists - but I feel, for whatever reason, that I have to say something.

In my younger days (OK, 4-10 years ago) I spent a lot of time on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree traveler's forum. I started an infamous thread on green anal leakage after a particularly ill-fated encounter with an oilfish - I hadn't bothered to Google "oilfish" before taking my grocery store find home, cooking it and eating it. I'd link to that thread for your viewing pleasure - it was paragraphs and paragraphs of descriptive prose and I am proud to say might be my greatest literary achievement to date or possibly ever - but I can't.

It was a freewheeling, lightly moderated (as in, they wouldn't censor your swearing but they would ban you if you were insulting others or blatantly trolling, unless the troll was funny and everyone was in on the joke) place that fit the spirit and attitude of most travelers, which is why it always seemed to attract a more interesting, talkative crowd than other places, like the fairly quiet and generally inoffensive BootsnAll or the stodgy "the shower curtain ring was broken in my room - worst hotel ever!" TripAdvisor. Some regional forums were a bit slow, others had tightly-knit communities of people who had met several times in person onboard who would dispense fantastic, dependable and current advice. The Indian Subcontinent and North-east Asia forums, in my experience, were particularly great sources of knowledge for travelers heading in those directions, other branches I didn't explore as much were equally useful. I was active in these branches, and met people, in person, from them as well as from the chattier forums.

There were quite a few chat-oriented forums - politics, women travelers (which I had started out posting in but in later years avoided because it had gone from a friendly place to a catty one), cooking, photography, biking and more, and the horrific-but-you-can't-look-away Your Choice, which was related to nothing else on the board, not even tangentially, and liked it that way.

"Were" being the correct verb tense here.

The regional branches would generally police themselves for content - regulars called out misinformation and shouted down offensive posts, and swearing was kept to a tasteful minimum (as far as any swearing can be tasteful). Your Choice was a preposterous free-for-all that was definitely, unarguably not child-friendly, nor was it usually work safe (see: Green Anal Leakage). It contained a lot of idiocy, a lot of trolling (some intentionally funny, some less so, some obnoxious, some genuinely dodgy), a lot of strong opinions and humor that would have shamed The Aristocrats. It was a place where very intelligent - well, mostly very intelligent - people went to act dumb together. Where, if the regional forum was too slow or wasn't giving you the answers you needed, you could post and get all the information you ever wanted and then some. "I'm going to be in Djibouti next week for a month - what can I do about [travel issue X, for all values of X] and where should I stay when I arrive?" might get crickets on the Africa branch, but get everything from "I had to deal with [X] when I was in Djibouti last year", "Actually my mother lives in Djibouti, you can stay with her", "Don't miss [amazing local thing you would have otherwise never heard about] in Djibouti" to "My love child is half-Djiboutian, here's what I've learned from my time there". Sure, those same people would go off-topic, would swear constantly and would make horrific jokes, but that's what traveler culture is like. The good with the bad, and the bad isn't always bad so much as not appealing to everyone. Without that, you got nothin'. Thorn Tree had it.'s got nothin'.

Just before the holidays I posted a few times as I planned for our day in Shanghai, and upcoming trip to Sri Lanka. I hadn't been on much in the previous two years - life took over, and the questions on the Taiwan subforum of the North-East Asia branch all sounded the same after awhile. Sun Moon Lake, Alishan, renting a car, I have three days in Taiwan and want to visit Taroko Gorge, Tainan, Sun Moon Lake and Taipei, how can I do that, etc.. I admit that I grew tired of answering them. While posting questions about Shanghai, some friendly soul offered to help me make restaurant reservations at Jesse (wait for the upcoming post), one of the most deservedly famous local Shanghainese restaurants in the city. I got my reservation, through Thorn Tree, courtesy of someone I have never met. Before the takedown of the forum, I might have met him sometime in the future, the next time we were in the same city. After the takedown, with no off-topic posts allowed, I probably never will. So I can kiss that potential friendship goodbye.

In the interim, the whole shebang went down. I'm not clear on why - apparently someone reported some, let's say, less than ideal content...which turned out be false, but did reveal all of those off-topic posts. Apparently this "whistleblower" was actually a troll - and not one of the funny ones - intent on destroying the place. BBC, which owns Lonely Planet and therefore Thorn Tree, shut it down and has since reopened the destination forums only. Some forums, such as Your Choice, will remain permanently shut down. The forums still up are tightly moderated: no more swearing, new threads and replies must be moderated approved before they are posted, and off-topic chat is strictly forbidden.

BBC, via Huffington Post, have made this out to be a positive change, as though they cleared out a den of skeezy perverts and weirdos. But we weren't perverts and weirdos - we were just mostly travelers with potty mouths having some fun before we shared our knowledge.

I took a poke around before writing this post, trying to keep an open mind. Maybe it would still be OK. Maybe it wasn't as bad as everyone was saying.

But no...the place is neutered. Dead. It lacks the spark needed to keep a forum - a community - alive. It no longer reflects actual traveler culture. All the hardcore travelers - the ones with the dirtiest mouths and the best advice - are gone, having nowhere to post and no desire to say anything in a censored, desert-like environment. There are practically tumbleweeds blowing through the place. I tried posting a few times, just basic replies to questions about Taiwan. I was annoyed to find that it was true: each post had to be approved by a moderator before posting. This is a fine policy for a blog - I do the same to my own comments - but not to a major forum and online community. At that point it turns from moderation to censorship, and I abhor censorship. It also sucks all the vitality out of the place. Why post when I know that every word I write has to be churned through the censors before it goes up? It castrates advice-givers, makes us feel impotent. Like children. Not even rebellious teenagers - think bibs and sippy cups. It makes us not want to be there, because adults won't accept being treated like children in daycare. We're travelers - we want to hang out online in a place that mimics, in some way, traveler hangouts in real life. We want a bar with Daniel Craig downing a shot before a scorpion can sting him,  not Disneyland with its "Do Not Walk On The Grass" cordons and wholesome, boring, moderated "fun".

This is how I felt as a long-time regular coming back in to see what had happened. I imagine that a newbie just finding the place or just starting out would simply find it underwhelming. Lacking spark, lacking life, lacking community. That newbie might ask and answer a few questions, but then go on their way. There would be nothing to keep them there.

When the best people, the scions of the community, depart because the place is so dusty and boring, there's no one left to give good advice, and it's not much fun to hang out on. And everyone knows this - an online community will falter, even crumble, if people don't hang out there, so posts are replied to quickly, and questions are answered promptly. Especially when it's a travel forum and responses need to be timely.

To use some more imagery, Thorn Tree is like badly designed public space - there's nowhere to hang out, nor would you want to. It went from being a buzzing cafe to a concrete embankment - a place both useful and alive with human activity to simply a dead mass that has utility but no humanity.

Am I being melodramatic? Yes. But that forum was a sizeable part of my life for the better part of a decade. It saw me through a move to China, a move home, a terrible office job, a string of disappointing boyfriends, an emotional rough patch, a trip to Europe and then a move to Taiwan, all while being a conduit for meeting interesting people in different cities and getting the best advice, once I learned how to filter for it. And now it's dead. Some googly-eyed young twentysomething in 2013, just setting out on the road, won't have such a community to discover as I did when I was a googly-eyed twentysomething a decade before. And I, a decade wiser now, won't be around to advise her. in peace, Thorn Tree. I'm done with ya. As both a traveler and an expat, I'm exactly the sort of person a forum like Thorn Tree would want to keep as a regular, green anal leakage not withstanding. I don't like being told to keep off the grass. I don't like being handed a sippy cup. So I won't be going back. I'll miss you, Thorn Tree. But what you are now is just horrid.