Saturday, December 31, 2016

BREAKING: Taiwanese artists desperately trying to convince China that their political positions are not "vague"

from here

INDEPENDENT FUCKING TAIWAN, YOU FUCKERS (31 Dec 2016): Following the announcement of the banning of several international artists from performing in China, including creatives from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, a number of Taiwanese artists rumored to be on the list are protesting the circumstances of their inclusion in the strongest possible terms.

Taiwanese black metal group Chthonic and political activist rapper Dwagie both lodged harsh criticisms of the as-yet-unconfirmed list circulating online, which is said to attribute their being banned from China to having "vague political positions".

"What the actual fuck," noted Dwagie. "There is nothing 'vague' about anything I write. How the hell do a bunch of Zhongnanhai asshats take lyrics like We are beaten by the batons of history / Although our heads are bleeding, we never lower them / We climb the barbed wire and barricades / To light up the darkest corner with a sunflower and call them 'vague'? Seriously, what the hell? They have heard of the Sunflowers, right? Aren't they banned from China too? Are their political positions also 'vague'?"

"I mean, definitely the goal of every talented artist in Taiwan is to get banned China," Dwagie continued. "That's obvious - you're nobody until China hates you. So I guess I should thank China? But still, fuck them for thinking there is anything at all 'vague' about my politics!"

"For real," added members of Chthonic. "What do we even have to do to convince the Chinese government that we do not in any way consider Taiwan to ever have been, to be, or to have any possibility of ever being a part of China? How is this not crystal freakin' clear?"

When reached for comment, a Chinese government official declined to say much on the record, but did note that the "complex" and "questionable" political ideologies of the groups was "under serious consideration", but no decision has yet been made.

"Do I just need to write a song called "TAIWAN IS INDEPENDENT AND CHINA CAN EAT OUR BALLS?" added Dwagie. "Is that what it takes? I wrote an entire song eulogizing Taiwanese political hero Nylon Cheng and they, what, aren't sure? I mean it's an honor to be banned - maybe I could write a song called It's An Honor To Be Banned From China, would that be vague? But come on, the actual hell, China?"

"So, like, screaming Let me stand up like a Taiwanese / only justice will bring you peace into a mic with a stage background of intensely Taiwanese imagery is somehow vague? The rest of the song is about killing tyrants!" interjected Chthonic frontman Freddy Lim while other band members rolled their eyes. "Are they trolling us? Is this on purpose? Did they even listen to our songs? There is literally nothing, not one thing, in our discography that isn't either explicitly or implicitly about Taiwanese history, identity or sovereignty!"

"Seriously! You try to get to the heart of Taiwanese identity and the Taiwanese experience and sing about the country you love - COUNTRY, NOT PROVINCE, FUCKERS - and maybe even actively try to piss of China a bit in the process, but who even cares about them because they are a totally different country from beautiful, independent Taiwan, and this is what you get?" added Dwagie, exasperated.

Both members of Chthonic and Dwagie expressed surprise that they were not, in fact, already banned from China. "Was the list just, like, making it official? How did this not happen years ago?" quipped Chthonic member Doris Yeh.

"Hey, what about us? Are we already banned, or did they just forget? We wrote that 'Island Sunrise' song you hated over in China, and you as well as your buddies in Singapore even refused to show the segment of an awards show where it won an award for best song," added members of the Taiwanese rock group Fire Extinguisher. "What are we, nothing? Seriously? We work really fucking hard to have the honor of being banned from China!"

"Yo, us too," added Taiwanese indie hip hip group Kou Chou Ching. "FUck China man, we can't even get on the list?"

After hearing of the musicians' reactions, a Zhongnanhai official noted, "although our operatives have released these rumors on the Internet as per our instructions, we would like to remind everyone that the list has not yet been confirmed by any government official. These vague and unclear political positions will be weighed carefully, however," before smirking and getting into a black Mercedes.

Just covering my ass here: if it wasn't obvious that this is a work of satire and none of the artists named actually said any of those things, I really don't know how to help you be smarter, but this was a work of satire and none of the artists named actually said any of these things.

...though I like to think they would. 

Friday, December 30, 2016

Post-Truth, Taiwan Style

It has come to my attention recently that the tentacles of post-truth America, at least on the issue of marriage equality, are beginning their slimy coiling around the debate in Taiwan.

Earlier this week, I was discussing marriage equality with a pro-equality student (I wouldn't have brought it up otherwise), who indicated that "it may be some time, because there are more people against marriage equality now". I asked him why he felt that way as, in fact, most polls pretty consistently show a majority of Taiwanese are in favor of it. He said that he'd seen the two rallies on December 26th on the news and the anti-equality side seemed a lot bigger.

I told him that most journalists I know believe that not to be the case - police estimates have the pro-equality rally at 5,000 and the anti- at 4,000: better, more accurate estimates have the pros at 30,000 and the antis at between 10,000 and 20,000. He knew nothing of the less civil, more hot-headed actions of the anti-equality crowd, and had been led to think that maybe the pro-equality side was pushing too hard (in fact, that side was widely reported to have been civil, welcoming, friendly, well-behaved and safe).

It felt not only like the news was trying to gin up disagreement where there is little, or make the two sides seem more equal in number than they are or have more similar levels of support than they do, but to actively make it seem as though Taiwanese are, by and large, opposed to marriage equality when this is simply not the case. The disagreement is not nearly on the level of a 'culture war', and society is not nearly as 'divided' as reports suggest (though it is true that support is not universal).

I have tried to find examples of what my student spoke of, but was unable to - and I personally do not own a television. I was unable to find relevant clips online, but I do believe my student: why would he lie about his impressions?

It echoes an online conversation I was briefly involved in, but left, that included two expats who insisted that marriage equality was being "forced" on Taiwan by "the West" when we shouldn't do that because they "have a different culture and values" (sure, but if they did in that way, then there wouldn't be support for marriage equality). One admonished us pro-equality supporters not to "push something on the Taiwanese that they don't want" (again, because I can't say it enough times, marriage equality has majority public support).

That's not all, of course. Don't even start me on this bullshit. They actively twist the truth to make it sound as though the people swiftly condemned marriage equality: nothing could be further from the truth. The pro-equality rallies, despite not having well-organized church networks behind them, consistently draw larger crowds. This is straight-up American-style 'fake news' (not a fan of the term but I'll stick with it for now) coming to Taiwan on the backs of bigots.

Another report I've heard of from a few sources is that rumors are being spread that the proposed changes to the civil code would also make sexual intercourse between an adult and a minor (so, basically statutory rape) legal. This is a straight-up lie - the proposed changes would do no such thing - but it is beginning to gain traction.

There's also this poll, which I have my doubts about. The change is far too quick, and doesn't at all square with the turnout we've seen at pro-equality rallies. The question about "pushing legislation through" (rather than simply supporting marriage equality or not) seems oddly worded, at least in English. The sample size is not great, but acceptable, however, I am not sure at all that they adequately got a sample of a variety of ages over 20 if they used land lines: do younger people even know what land lines are? They are almost certainly guaranteed a skewed sample of older folks who are more likely to waver, or not support, equality. The younger people they claimed to have included wouldn't have a land line phone to be reached on! (I don't know much more about this poll - here's a link in Chinese to the guy whose foundation ran it. I don't know who he is, and I have never heard of this particular organization. Have fun.)

Of course, I shouldn't be surprised. Being generally anti-journalist - because accurate reporting on their beliefs and methods would make them look bad, so they have to spread lies - and knowing quite well that the tide of opinion is not swinging their way and likely never will again, the easiest recourse is to lie. Not only that, but to distort, appeal to emotion over logic, insist on respect and an equal platform for unequally-sourced and evidenced views, to insist on respect and ears lent to their religious ranting, to try to equate intolerance of their bigotry with their intolerance of basic equal human rights. In a word, to troll (because I do think purposely making the pro-equality side angry is a part of this). When your views are not supported by logic, evidence, scientific findings or rational debate, but you have decided you must believe them, you basically have to become an ignorant comment thread come to life. Your only choice is to spread 'fake news' through outright lies or carefully-edited media, and appeal to a post-truth world.

In short, it's easy to make it seem as though your side has the most support, when you decline to mention that the other side has almost twice as much: that's what both that MassResistance steaming turd of an article and the video linked above are doing.

Don't believe them. Be smarter than that.

What bothers me is how little I can do about it. I can write about it here, but it would take a level of language ability I don't have to write something in Chinese, and I would gather most Taiwanese not only don't read Lao Ren Cha (hahaha) but don't often read English-language media in general. Even if I did pursue this in Chinese, would the people who need to read it do so? Most likely not. Would it be an effective counter to the barrage of 'fake news' coming from the bigots? Again, most likely not.

It's already had an effect - people are starting to say "well it looks like society really is divided" (it's not, not really), and the government is giving the anti-equality crowd a bigger platform, and more political influence, than they deserve. Remember, the anti-equality fight is mostly led by Christians and Christians make up less than 5% of the Taiwanese population, although they wield considerable influence in both major parties (and the influential ones tend to be wealthy).

I do feel like action needs to be taken, but I'm at a loss as to how.

Another worrying point? Amid all of this post-truth nonsense carried out by people with troubling agendas, right now in Taiwan we're witnessing a generally popular, though with predictably faltering approval ratings, generally 'progressive' DPP administration falter a bit as it tries to wield power, coming across alternately as weak and indecisive or frosty and technocratic. They're grasping for the center and finding it's not holding very well (though that's my own personal impression). Although the liberal/conservative divide, such as it exists at all in a context easily understood in Western terms (which is to say, not really), is not along party lines in Taiwan, certainl elements of the DPP come across as overly conservative, causing more progressive elements to consider dropping support or to drop it altogether in favor of one of the many parties to the left of the DPP, such as the NPP (or any of the others). I've already heard cries of "if the DPP doesn't pass marriage equality, I'm not voting for Tsai in 4 years!" which, to my Bernie Babe ears is alternately appealing and worrying.

On the other side we have a party that looks like it's falling apart, with weird infighting, internal decisions on how party voting will be carried out and apologies for whatever-the-hell from Chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu, people calling for her to step down or whatever and all sorts of things that I barely pay attention to, with a group of ultra-ROC-nationalist pro-China zealots and their deep blue supporters on one hand and a more Taiwanized KMT (which I still hate, by the way, the KMT is gonna KMT no matter what and I'm not interested) on the other, and Jason Hsu in there screaming that they all should be better than they are, or ever will be.

KMT Chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu

At the center of it all we have crazy-ass Hung, and a potential presidential run by Rich Boss Man Terry Gou. OK, sure. Not so appealing, right? They don't look like they're poised for success anytime soon.

But...does that sound familiar to anyone else?

I know it seems unrelated, but in an environment where one party is a bit weak and unable to convey its basic message while the other one is wracked with infighting, and no third parties are strong enough to really shake up the system, where both major parties either are bleeding support (in the case of the KMT) or might well do so if they don't get their progressive act together (that is, the DPP), all I see is well-fertilized ground for all sorts of insidious post-truth rumor-mongering to take hold and propel Taiwan to the same electoral clusterfuck the US just experienced, because nobody knows what to believe anymore, and will simultaneously denounce professional journalism while eating up lies.

Anyone? Y'all have seen this before, right?

Am I the only one who's worried?

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

I am really sick of those Nazi re-enactment kids

There is a reason this was OK but the high school students' Nazi re-enactment was not
From here

...and yet here I am writing about them. 

Make no mistake, however, I am sick of them. I just don't want to hear about it anymore, and I won't write about them again.

I'm not going to get into the "but their freedom of speech!" retort because it's intellectually shallow. These kids have freedom of speech - they have not faced and will not face criminal charges for this. Freedom of speech never gave anyone the right to freedom from criticism or backlash from the public regarding what they've expressed.

I'm also not going to get into "why is it so taboo?" It's not taboo. Movies and even war re-enactors re-enact painful scenes from history, including the horrors of Nazism, fairly frequently. If the subject matter is handled sensitively then there's generally not a problem with it. The issue here is that it did not meet that standard. This is true for historical re-enactments of all sorts for a variety of purposes.

Remember how we all watched a re-enactment of executions under the White Terror during President Tsai's inauguration? Remember how, while people remarked on it, there wasn't this kind of critical backlash? Because the re-enactment had value: learning value, historical value, emotional value. Nobody (well, nobody with any sense) thinks that such re-enactments should be forbidden or are all in bad taste, no matter what. It's how the events are handled when acted out, and why the re-enactment is staged in the first place, that matters. (Edited to add: not everyone thinks that the re-enactments in the inaugural play were handled well - I too have some criticism of them, but overall do feel they had historical value if, perhaps, it was not portrayed as accurately as it could be).

Also on the trash heap: "well they don't know that much about WWII. The evils of Nazism haven't been ingrained in them the way they have in us". Sure, but there's no excuse for that. Just as we Westerners could stand a more comprehensive approach to Asian history - from the horrors of Mao to the White Terror to Pol Pot, Japanese imperialism and beyond - this should be better taught in Asian schools. In fact, even in Asia these subjects don't always seem to be fully understood: why is it that Chiang Kai-shek and Chairman Mao bobblehead toys can be purchased in half the gift shops of Taiwan? What is the purpose of making two brutal dictators adorable?

And yet another one for the dumptruck: "people do lots of worse things, Americans can be just as insensitive!" Yup. Thinking of all the idealistic young Westerners a generation ago who wore Mao suits to be "cool" (or worse, because they actually bought what Mao was selling) or make tasteless jokes about some of the more awful events and people of Asian history also makes me shake my head. But "they do it too" is not an excuse.

What bothers me, really, then, is the complete lack of value - historical, pedagogical, emotional - in this particular re-enactment.

The dramatically staged executions during the inauguration performance had historical value and emotional weight. Through them, we can be reminded of the horrors of the past - it pushes us to remember the history of agonies Taiwan has battled through and in some way pushes Taiwan to come to terms with its own history (something that is avoided more than it should be). Through the re-enactment, the horror of what took place in that era is laid bare, and it provides a useful lens through which to examine Taiwan's progress, current status and future. It was not a perfect dramatic performance, and there are reasons to criticize it - and the depiction of Han settlers driving out the original aboriginal inhabitants of the land - but nobody would say that no re-actment should have taken place. If it made you upset, good. It should.

There is similar value in films dealing with history, whether fictional, semi-fictional and documentary, and value in historical societies re-enacting battles and other scenes from potent events from the past: through them we can understand what it was like for the people involved, in some small way, and hopefully learn from it.

This, though? This was a group of teenagers choosing a decidedly un-fun subject and having, well, fun with it. It was not handled sensitively and, as a teacher, I fail to see what learning outcomes this might better bring about. What exactly did these students learn about Nazism by putting on snazzy uniforms and marching around? What of the weight and pain of history did this impart? What greater understanding did they gain? How did they learn to examine the issue critically, look at various sources and discuss the ideas within, or apply the lessons to the timeline of history, the world as it is today and the future?

There are certainly ways to teach Nazism in schools in Taiwan and elsewhere. The subject is not taboo - or should not be - and there may even be room for historical re-enactments if they serve a purpose.

However, one of the first things I learned in my teacher training is that every activity included in one's lesson should be carefully and critically evaluated for how well it will enable the class to meet its aims: how it will enable the learners to learn what you want them to come away with. Not only are we asked to look at each activity and decide if it is the best possible choice to propel the class toward successful learning, or if another choice might be more targeted, more efficient, more engaging or more relevant, but also if each activity is properly scaffolded and ordered to bring the class, in stages, through to a greater understanding of the subject (whatever level of understanding you have specified in your aims).

I am not a perfect teacher. Sometimes I get lazy - I try not to do it often - and perhaps I grab an activity because I'm short on time when another, more involved one might have been more fruitful. Sometimes I reflect on a class and think "that wasn't scaffolded as well as it could have been, I shouldn't have had to give such a long explanation of this or that issue". Sometimes I think "well, we met our aims, but I'm not sure that the level of understanding is as deep as I'd like it to be." I think all responsible, professional teachers think this way.

Certainly, syllabuses and curriculums are littered with pointless school projects that amount to wheel-spinning or extra whiz-bang showiness but do little, or nothing, to actually promote absorption of and understanding of the subject matter. Certainly - and not only in Taiwan - is critical thinking training often sacrificed for these surface-level school projects that are usually money and time sucks (or they are sacrificed at the altar of 'this is on the big exam so memorize what's in your book, we don't have time to think too deeply about it, you just need to answer some questions').

I can honestly say if I were tasked with teaching Nazism to a history class, this sort of re-enactment would have no place in it. Not because it is tasteless, though it is that, but because it lacks value. If, however, in some lesson a re-enactment, handled appropriately, did have value I would incorporate it.

I could give you a very long list of things that might be better included: from debates to class experiments (such as the brown eye/blue eye experiment) to readings (not only textbook readings but books such as The Wave, The Book Thief and perhaps even Stargirl which is seemingly unrelated but in fact carries that us-against-them mentality so intrinsic to the Nazis into the modern world in a different way). I am not afraid to face slightly unnerving lesson plans - if you are not unnerved by Nazism then you didn't learn it properly - and would not even be opposed to a class experiment where some children had to hide, others had to find them, and the hiders were punished if they were found whereas the finders were greatly rewarded - and to see if the finders were willing to capture the hiders for their reward, knowing the hiders would be punished. Then to bring them all back and talk about how that felt and why, and how it might manifest in the world today.

I might include something like the lesson told in a Facebook post that's going around:

When I was in 7th grade, our teacher put on a video and told us to take notes. Ten minutes in, she threw the lights on and shouted at Steven [Lastname], telling him he wasn't taking notes and he should have been. But the thing was, Steve was taking notes. I saw it. We all saw it. The teacher asked if anyone wanted to stand up for Steve. A few of us choked out some words of defense but were immediately squashed. Quickly, we were all very silent. Steve was sent to the principal's office. The teacher came back in the room and said something like "See how easy that was?" We were reading "Anne Frank."

But this? What does marching around really teach? Does mere imitation really have any value? Thea answer is no, and that goes for any re-enactment. Was the Wushe Incident re-enactment of any greater pedagogical value? I'd say no. Had the students chosen to re-enact events in a different way, with teacher guidance leading them to better understand those events through the resulting play, would that have been more valuable? Certainly.

It's tasteless, yes. It shows a deep and painful lack of understanding of important events in world history, yes. It also shows a lack of understanding of why the backlash was what it was - last I heard, the principle of the school was resigning but the students themselves did not really seem to understand what they'd done wrong or why they were being criticized so heavily.

All of that is true, but it's the complete lack of educational utility of the whole thing that really gets me.

All that said, I really am sick of this story and I'm going to stop talking about it now, or writing about it in the future.

Monday, December 26, 2016

One step forward for marriage equality and thoughts on the nature of disobedience

To my great regret, I was unable to make it to the marriage equality rally today, to support the referral of the bill that would amend the civil code to the Legislative Yuan from committee. I had a class at exactly the wrong time - although I could have shown up on the early side if I had known the meeting was likely to end that quickly - and by the time I was able to go downtown, everything was over. I'm not unwilling to sacrifice work time for this cause - I consider it a donation to the fight for justice. I have very understanding employers who know this issue is important to Taiwan and to me, so I'm able to do so from time to time (I am not unaware that this is a great blessing for someone who is civically active - a lot of employers would not be so flexible). But, I've already done a great deal of that already and at some point I actually do have to show up and do my job.

In any case, there seems to be good news and bad news (and if I've got any of this wrong, please do correct me in the comments. I have never claimed to be an expert in Taiwan's legislative process, and frankly I'm a bit confused by their being three or four bills, which ones are progressing, or all of them, and why).

The good news is that the bill has left committee, which is a small step forward.

The bad news is that it won't go straight to the full legislature, it will go through caucus consultations first. If I understand how that works, it means each party will consult on the bill (I had thought it was with all of their legislators, but apparently not, and the consultations are cross-party). Whether or not there is enough support for the bill to continue might be determined, and at this point either side might introduce changes to the draft.

The good news is that these caucus consultations are live streamed now, so we can pay attention to who's being a jerk and hold them accountable. This makes it less likely legislators will jerk around, I hope.

The bad news is that people who know these things predict that the KMT is likely to "butcher" the bill in caucus consultations. If a change is agreed on, it goes to the legislature as such, if not, that deliberation happens in the full legislature.

Another touch of bad news (if you can read the Chinese, I got this info here) is that this is perhaps not the great bill that activists had hoped for - it amends the code, but waters down the language and basically adds another category of marriage rather than changing the language referring to gender in the original law.

On the good side, however, the legislature finally seems to be aware (I hope?) that support for marriage equality is strong and more than superficial (if it were surface-level support for a 'trendy' cause, 250,000 people would not have shown up on December 10th, and 30,000 or so people would not have shown up today), and the Ministry of Justice will not be drafting its own bill for civil partnerships (which would likely not confer equal rights, would be akin to segregation - separate is not equal after all, and civil partnerships are not considered 'marriage' - and would not result in a change in the civil code).

I note all of this because there seems to be a lot of confusion as to when this is finally going to be voted on, if it ever is, and what today stood for. People are celebrating, which I can understand to some degree - the bill being finally out of committee is undoubtedly a step forward and we ought to recognize that. I, however, will be saving my celebration for when the path forward is clearer than it is now. I am not at all confident that it will get through caucus consultations unscathed.

On the other side of the debate, there are a lot of images circulating on Facebook noting that the pro-equality demonstrators are peaceful and friendly, whereas the anti-equality ones, perhaps knowing they're on the losing side, perhaps just being judgmental tight-asses in general, have gotten angry and rowdy. There were reports of smoke bombs going off, and several were arrested.

On one hand, it is a credit to the pro-equality side that they present a better image and are advocating peacefully and intelligently for their goals. On the other, how peaceful demonstrations are is not necessarily an indicator of how 'right' the goal of the demonstrators is. Remember scenes of the student movement participants that became the Sunflowers shouting at police, being dragged down the street and - at least as it was reported by J. Michael Cole - egging and spray painting a government building. They occasionally got rowdy, they blocked access, they climbed walls. They were, however, absolutely correct in their convictions. I appreciate that the pro-equality crowd is peaceful but let's not make this distinction too simplistic, shall we? It could come back to bite us later.

Along those lines, the anti-equality crowd, when they were arrested for trying to climb the walls surrounding the Legislative Yuan and many of them were promptly handcuffed with zipper ties, were said to shout "how come the Sunflowers did this and were not restrained?" (not an exact quote).

Honestly, if they think the reason why they were handcuffed and the Sunflowers were not had anything to do with ideology, they have not been paying attention. I happen to think they know this is not a valid comparison, and are being disingenuous, but I digress.

The police were not on the side of the Sunflowers, they didn't "let" them get away with it because of the ideology driving the students. They got away with it because nobody - including I would gather many of the Sunflowers themselves - saw it coming (at least that's how I've heard it told). Nobody expected the occupation would happen that quickly, it caught everyone off-guard.

Now, there's a precedent, and police are ready. Should a group of strong-willed students try to occupy the Legislative Yuan again, you can be sure they would be similarly arrested, if not had worse things done to them. You can also be sure the students are aware of this.

It just so happens that the Sunflowers were right and the anti-equality demonstrators are wrong, but that has nothing to do with who was arrested and who wasn't. Remember as well that, while the Executive Yuan case against the Sunflowers was dropped, as far as I am aware, prosecution for the Legislative Yuan occupation is ongoing. (Please correct me if I am wrong or have missed something).

It's a bit of a logical fallacy, and also painfully reductive its, to equate either 'passionate civil disobedience' with being right, or 'we were peaceful, so we must be the good guys' with being right. The rightness or wrongness of your stance is not determined by whether you demonstrate peacefully or make a scene, and it could come back to bite those who pretend it is. The Sunflowers were right, but not because they happened to occupy. The anti-equality crowd is wrong, but not because they grew rowdy. The pro-equality demonstrators are right, but not because they are peaceful (though it does make them look good). As long as your tactics don't result in the injury or death of innocent parties (I take a more liberal approach to property destruction but it probably doesn't help anyone's cause to engage in it), how laudable your goals are should not be tied to how you fight for them.

This seems to be another fundamental misunderstanding of the legacy of the Sunflowers - like the KMT who still can't understand that such civic actions are not necessarily orchestrated by an opposing party and who try to pull off unsuccessful imitations, the anti-equality demonstrators do not seem to understand that their legacy is not "if you are right, you must occupy". It was, and always has been to fight for what you believe in through non-violent but also non-passive means, physically if you must, and ethics, logic and the progress of society will determine whether you are right or wrong.

On a more personal note, I've noticed recently that I have kind of been hankering to be a part of something like this, well, for awhile. At least since my own country went to hell and I vowed to engage more in the civic realm, but in Taiwan which is my home, rather than America, which is not. My absence today was not a problem, I surely was not missed. Enough people showed  up that that one extra body did not matter. However, I personally wanted to be there to physically support a cause I care about, and regret that I missed the chance. I understand that today was not entirely safe, and there was the chance of an altercation, however, if anything such a risk just makes me more committed. I don't want to start anything or get involved in such a confrontation, but I am not afraid of one, and will not be intimidated.

Apparently some anti-equality protesters shouted to a 'foreign' journalist to 'go back to his country'. I would have responded in that situation that I am in my country, that Taiwan is my home.

Next time, then, I will be there.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

One of those stupid year-in-review posts (#8 will shock you!)

I mean, I generally don't like these and I am not sure I have ever done one. But I feel like doing one for 2016 because the general consensus seems to be that it was a shit year and we're thankful it's over. And on a societal level, that's true.

However, there's something I really can't deny - in fact, on a personal level, I had a pretty good 2016. I did! My shit year was Dec 2014-Dec 2015, for reasons you know if you know me.

So, this isn't to gloat, it's to point out that a bad year on a sociocultural level doesn't necessarily equate to a bad year in total. I am sure good and bad things happened to us all despite the fact that the world is in a political shambles and we're probably all going to die.

A look back:

1.) Taiwan elected its first female president and, for the first time in its history, is not controlled by the (awful) KMT (not that I particularly love the DPP) - I know this isn't personal but it's worth mentioning. A few of these are not personal, but I think good enough to include

2.) My cousin spent several months in Taiwan

3.) I published my first ever journal article

4.) I passed the final module for, and received the full diploma for, the Cambridge Delta

5.) I was accepted into grad school

6.) I visited the US twice

7.) American women had the chance to vote for the first ever female presidential candidate (no, she was not a perfect candidate, and yeah, that turned out kinda bad, but I refuse to give up on that milestone in political history)

8.) I accomplished what I feel is my greatest achievement to date

9.) The Taiwanese legislature got the wheels rolling on marriage equality

10.) Hong Kong elected a slate of pro-democracy, pro-localization candidates (that, again, didn't turn out well thanks to Stupid China, but it still meant something)

11.) I made a fair number of interesting new friends

12.) I went to the Grand Pasta'ai

13.) I went to Vietnam for the first time (post forthcoming) and Indonesia for the second

14.) I traveled a fair bit around Taiwan, visiting Tainan three times, Kaohsiung, Yunlin, Xinpu (again, post forthcoming), and probably more that I can't recall exactly as I try to leave Taipei frequently to keep in touch with the rest of the country

15.) My closest and oldest friend in Taiwan got married

16.) I went to Hong Kong for the first time in five years (again, post forthcoming)

17.) Taiwan actually made the international news (kind of a mixed blessing though)

18.) I was invited to observe a session of the Legislative Yuan - watch my video here!

I would call that a pretty good 2016, wouldn't you? At least, it offers a chance to see the good parts, or find a few gems among the burnt rubble of the political and social sphere. Don't get me wrong, things were bad. The whole world with the possible exception of Taiwan is trending towards reactionary politics and fascism. The climate is, well, getting worse and it will probably be a massive problem very soon. A horrific mass murder and total destruction of a once-great city took place very close to my ancestral home, and the West did nothing. We elected quite literally the worst person in the world to be the leader of the "free world", a thing (I don't mean the event, I mean the "person") I can never accept as my president. As a result, I no longer consider myself American in anything but name and have no loyalty whatsoever to the USA. There is no forgiveness for this.

So yeah, things are bad globally. But personally, I have a few gems.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Let's Get Physical

That guy in Tainan? He gets me. 

Every once in awhile a constellation of events helps throw an issue one has been mulling over in foggier terms into sharp relief.

On Wednesday, a friend says to me in a message: "You can occupy Donald Trump's office" when discussing occupations in Taiwan.

Something about that bothers me, but I can't put my finger on what. I am not afraid of physical protest or confrontation. I am not naturally an occupier, but it is not outside the realm of possibility. It also strikes me that in the US such an occupation would be unlikely, and not only for security reasons.

On Saturday morning, I get into a taxi in Tainan and as the HSR station employee, or the taxi company employee - it's hard to tell - shuts the door for me after a brief chat, he says "You're the New Taiwanese" (his actual words are "妳是台灣的第二代").

I am touched.
On Monday, I am out looking for a book I'd seen for sale in Tainan but didn't want to cart back to Taipei. I am chatting with someone who asks me "when are you moving back to America?"

I normally don't think too hard about such micro-aggressions - I have better things to do with my time - but it is such a stark contrast to what the person in Tainan said that it bothers me. Why would she assume I am ever moving back?

I live here. My body is here. Why would my mind and heart be elsewhere?

On Wednesday, I am having lunch with a friend (not the same friend I was chatting with on the previous Wednesday). She asks me if China were to invade, would America send planes to evacuate citizens, and would I be able to escape? (Don't ask me how we got onto that topic).

I am reminded of Facebook conversations about how people like me who claim to love Taiwan so much are just full of so much wind, because if everything really went to hell, we wouldn't stay and fight. We'd get the hell out, like plenty of Taiwanese would be trying to do.

And it is like jumping into an ice cold pool.

Would I stay and fight, or would I get on that plane?

My friend's comment about occupying the White House bothers me because I don't feel any loyalty to the US. It's almost like a foreign affair, something foreigners do, those weird Americans with their big lawns and houses with white siding. Why would I occupy a government office of a country I no longer call home? If I am going to occupy something - though I am not likely to - it will be in Taiwan, because Taiwan is my home. Why would he assume the change I want to fight for is in America, where I do not live?

The man in Tainan seems to accept my reality, though he has missed a crucial point: I can't be New Taiwanese because I am not a citizen and may never be. However, he shows more willingness to take at face value the idea that Taiwan is my home. In contrast, the woman in Taipei sees my face and makes an assumption about where I belong. She does not accept my reality. She sees me as a temporary fixture, a visitor who will eventually go "home". Taiwan cannot be my home, or the thing I call home. I don't look the part.

In fact, she goes on to ask me where my home is.
But where is your family?
"Taiwan." (This is true: both my husband and sister live here).
But where are you from?
The USA, but why does it matter?

Is Taiwan my home? Would I stay and fight? Is it okay if I say no, because I know many Taiwanese won't either (and those that do will have to - those that don't have to are more likely to run)? Does their turning tail not take away their Taiwaneseness (obviously, it does not, that's a rhetorical question), but mine does? Is there anything wrong with choosing to survive?

Could I even stay and fight - should I - when I am not a citizen? Is it not completely insane to dig in and put my physical body, rather than just the amorphous feelings of my mind and heart, on the line, for a country that won't even give me citizenship under reasonable conditions? Do I need to show loyalty for a country whose own government assumes I will eventually go "home", not that I am already home?

I come from fighters. Despite being generally a lazy, unpatriotic, establishment-loathing couch-hogger who hates fighting and is terrified of death, it is not inconceivable that, if everything truly went down the tubes, that something would break inside me and I'd dig in to do the right thing and put my physical self on the line for Taiwan (that said, it is not entirely conceivable that I would do this either).
I was going to share a bad-ass picture of my great grandfather posing with an Ottoman moustache and a gun, but instead you can look at how deeply I have always loved couches. 
I can't say either way whether I would stay and fight or swoosh away on an evacuation plane, but it feels somehow important to ask myself this rhetorical question of a country I have invested in, which won't invest in me. I like to think that if I were a citizen, I'd stay. In 1915 my great grandfather saw what was happening to his people - the Armenians in Turkey - grabbed his gun and fought. I would hope, anyway, that a tiny spark of that exists in me, somewhere, under my personal agenda and general enjoyment of not dying (for what it's worth, he didn't die fighting).

In any case, that leads me straight back to last Wednesday. My lack of loyalty to the US, or the fact that White House security would never allow an occupation, is not what strikes me as I consider how much of my physical self I am willing to put on the line for the country I call home, as compared to the country that is no longer my home.

I think at first that Americans aren't very physical in their resistance. Then I consider that I may be wrong, and the truth is that Americans in my demographic (white, well-off on a global scale if not on every scale) are the ones who are not very physical. I consider Wisconsin's Capitol occupation in 2011, Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock (agree or disagree, it is a physical resistance). However, I can't shake the feeling that we Americans just don't throw ourselves into civic action very much, or at least not anymore.

You would think we would be more physically resistant, what with our guns and our bar fights and the general lack of safety of women on the street, but we're not. We didn't occupy Wall Street, we occupied a park near it. We have a few marches - I went to a tepid one against the World Bank when I was in college (wasn't that into it, wouldn't you know), and marched with a bunch of other idealistic but otherwise dishwater demonstrators against the 2nd Iraq War in New York. They were about as effective as those DPP or Citizen 1984-organized protests in the Ma era.

I have a great deal of respect for the exceptions, but they feel like exceptions: good, but not enough to stem the general impression in my lifetime that we like to write thinkpieces and generally grouse about the state of things, but we don't seem to show up physically all that often. Those that do have more to lose, the rest of us can go back to our little boxes on the hillside made of ticky-tacky. We join Facebook groups, act supportive, use it as a place to vent or post motivational memes or share our personal stories - not really useful themselves, either, I've come to think - and then watch those groups get monetized. We focus on no concrete action, no policy change, no taking down the patriarchy. We do not take to the streets, or at least not often and not angrily enough. We do not effectively occupy. We could, perhaps, learn a lot from how the Taiwanese do it.

I don't think the White House will ever be occupied, because I don't think Americans are necessarily occupiers at this moment in our history. I have to hope a robust civil movement will grow to counter the tragedy that is a Trump "Presidency", but I haven't really seen it yet.

In my time in Taiwan, though, and looking back through Taiwanese history, it feels as though there is more of a tradition of physical resistance. From fighting the incoming Japanese to 228 to the Kaohsiung Incident to Nylon Cheng, the White Lilies and up through the Sunflowers and now marriage equality, people have had specific things to fight for, and have gone out and done it. With their bodies, not just angry words. Perhaps it's because it was the only option in a brutal dictatorship, perhaps it is a part of the national character. I am, however, continually impressed by the willingness of Taiwanese to physically show up and sit their bodies in the street or in a building to fight for something. There seems to be a physicality about social movements that, at least in my lifetime, feels sorely lacking in much of the US.

I love this. I don't want to share stories in lieu of action, although I realize that I began this post by doing exactly that. There is only so much action I can take in Taiwan (I'm not a citizen, I can't organize, and I speak Chinese but not perfectly enough to be as involved as I'd like to be). At least, I want to be a part of a country where the citizens take action rather than, I dunno, post pictures of flowers with insipid feel-good self-improvement quotes or whatever, or turn everything into a PR stunt.

It's what gives me hope for Taiwan, though I am not quite sure why.

It also may be a part of why, against all logic, despite the fact that I am stronger with words than physical actions, I have so much respect for being willing to fight for what one believes in with more than just words, but with deeds and with one's own body.

What does that have to do with Taiwan being my home, other than the fact that I am physically here? It means - and this is where the icy water comes in - a good hard think about the possibility of the unthinkable happening, and about what that means for me.

In any case, today someone asks me if I am going home for Christmas.

"I am already home for Christmas," I reply.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Why isn't the labor movement drawing the crowds it should?

There was an interesting piece in Taiwan News recently about why marriage equality, not the labor movement, is attracting demonstrators and catching the public eye. I would especially like to learn more about traditionally Taiwanese representations of gayness as I know basically nothing about it.

I don't agree with every conclusion - in fact, although marriage equality impacts a small segment of the population, it affects that segment in a huge way, and is something of a social litmus test for the kind of country Taiwan wants to be.

I do not think allowing bigots to score a point by allowing civil partnerships is the answer: first, because I don't believe in giving in to bigots (could you imagine telling, say, African Americans to compromise with racists during the Civil Rights Movement and accept less than full equal rights? This suggestion doesn't feel different), especially when they are a small minority with outsize influence that it's time we cut down, and secondly because it's a straight-up human rights issue.

So, I cannot accept the conclusion that we need to let marriage equality go and focus on labor: in fact, I think we should ramp up marriage equality, get it passed quickly, and then focus on labor. I am not a fan at all of the argument that we should delay conferring full civil rights on a group because they happen to be a small group and because some bigots don't like it. I do not think a new law - rather than amending the civil code - will bring about the realization that marriage equality is okay, leading to later change in the code. It'll get stuck there. We'll try to push for the civil code to be changed, only to be told "but we HAVE marriage equality, can't you just accept that and move on?" The bigots will not stop being bigots, they'll bring out the same old fight. It'll be a bureaucratic nightmare, a postponement of the real battle. I'm not into that, sorry.

My views, however, mean little - I can't vote and I can't organize. It's what the Taiwanese are inspired by that counts. I have a few anecdotal thoughts for why labor is not attracting crowds but marriage equality is:

The marriage equality crowd is a young crowd, many of whom do not intend to accept jobs with poor working conditions when they graduate. 

This is the generation that gets involved in public life, that goes abroad, that starts their own business, that goes freelance, that moves back to their hometown to open a cafe or run their family business. Some of them are surely on the naive side, thinking they have an escape route from the hell that is a typical job in Taiwan, and some will likely come to regret their idealistic assumptions. For many, however, that is a fuzzy eventuality, a gray cloud on the horizon. They have gay friends now, this means more to them.

Turton is right about one thing, though: marriage equality is cool and trendy and progressive, but labor movements often call to mind the sad reality that most of us eventually end up working for The Man. They're not young, hip or cool (and, as the article also got right, they don't tap into an identity one can display through consumption). When you either don't want to think about your eventual working life, or don't think it will happen to you because you'll never be stuck in some interminable cube monkey job, your heart is just not going to be in a labor protest.

I just don't happen to think all of that identity-broadcasting done by demonstrating for marriage equality is necessarily a bad thing. We all do things to display our identity. I do it, Turton does it, we all do it. For some, it really is a representation of who they are (if you're gayer than a Christmas tree and act like it, then is that not authentic rather than an identity you have chosen to display through consumption? If you really are someone whose fire gets lit by human rights causes, as I am, are you not being authentic in displaying that identity even if through consumerist means?

This is about more than just being fashionable, or a way to display an identity

A friend pointed this out, and I agree. Yes, there is consumption, identity display and some amount of being attached to a fashionable cause when it comes to marriage equality, but 250,000 people don't turn out on a Saturday for that reason alone. It is far more than the core LGBT+ fighting for equal rights and other activists passionate about the cause, and shows a deeper engagement than just being trendy or hip. You might get a few of those, but you don't get 250,000, especially when they were not brought out by tight, cohesive church networks the way the anti-equality folks were with their far smaller numbers, if it's just people showing off how cool and progressive they are. People do care, there is real support, and it does go deeper than strutting around in order to cement an identity for oneself.

Honestly, the labor movement doesn't get the word out effectively. 

I don't know about you guys, but I always hear about marriage equality events well in advance, and can plan to attend them. Labor protests? I read about them the next day from Brian Hioe, or see them happening when I am already in my pajamas. I don't know until it's too late that I could have been there. I don't know how they hope to attract more people if people don't even know something is going on.

Marriage equality seems solvable, labor issues do not

I think a lot of activists know they have society and even much of the government on their side in the marriage equality debate. They know this is winnable. They know it's winnable soon - a big victory in a short time over an opponent that is outmatched. The fight against the Boss Class will be a long, grueling, interminable one with a huge amount of media, money, crony capitalists, corrupt politicians and straight-up asshats bearing down on them. It will be another Sunflower Movement, if we let it get that far (and I do think labor has the potential to be that, but few seem to agree) - an angry group of activists up against insane odds. Perhaps the nation is still a bit hungover from the last big movement, and wants a break, to achieve something that can actually be done.

Hell, the New Power Party has a pretty strong labor platform (though as always I do not agree with their past resistance to relaxing the laws governing foreign workers), and they can't seem to get anywhere. If they can't bring the crowds, or effectively stand up to the Boss Class, how can anyone?

Marriage equality, though? Dude, we can do that.

It's not really clear, due to deliberate muddling, what the labor movement really means or stands for

Which labor movement are we even talking about? The one opposed to pension reform? The tour guide protest? The fakey-fake "Sunflower imitation" protests the KMT organizes because it just does not get civil society at all? Or the real labor protests? It's easy to be confused. I often have to think hard about a demonstration - if I even know it's going to happen - to see if this is a group I actually agree with, or just more civil servants unhappy about pension reform when most workers in the private sector don't even have pensions, or only nominally do. The labor movement needs to clarify who they are, what they want and who they are not, or they're just not going to bring the crowds.

Workers themselves seem to vacillate between grumbling about the situation - and I agree that it is dire - and talking about how "this is just the way things are", not complaining, not talking to their bosses, not going to the company to air grievances. If workers won't even tell their bosses what they don't like, how can we expect them to get riled up enough to protest? And how can we expect others to come out on behalf of them when they won't stand up for themselves at work?

The fight for more vacation days was, to be honest, uninspiring

I'm sorry, I just can't work up a lot of screaming, placard-waving enthusiasm over keeping Chiang Kai Stupid Shek's Stupid Birthday. I know a vacation day is a vacation day and I shouldn't fret so much, but...I just can't get over that. I don't know about the rest of the Taiwanese public, but it's not a galvanizing message.

Add to that the fact that we've only had these extra seven days for one year: in the past ten years in Taiwan I never had those days off, and suddenly I do. It's very confusing, and I don't feel passionately about keeping them because they sort of randomly appeared this year rather than being something I'm used to that fits into the rhythm of the year.

So, it just doesn't seem like a smart route to go in terms of igniting a fire in people to come out and fight.

It is uninspiring to fight for better labor laws when the ones we have are not enforced. 

A friend brought up this point (and the point above about workers who don't complain) and I agree enough to include it. Sure, we need better laws, but what good is it if the ones we already have are more or less never enforced? Who cares if a new law limits overtime if you can't get your boss to abide by the current laws regulating overtime? What are we fighting for, exactly?

That young marriage equality crowd has free time, workers just have stress

...and workers generally do not.

Those that do face family pressure - always a big deal here - to keep their shitty job and not rock the boat, or to 'take what you can get'. It's a society that is very accepting of market trends in terms of how workers are treated - in the US the left screams and howls, rightfully so, when capitalists say that a fair wage is the lowest wage someone is willing to work for, but Taiwan is far more accepting of this explanation. Something about that "this is the best we can do, this is the market, we have to accept it" attitude has to change.

Workers are also less idealistic. They've done jobs, they know how the world is and how most of us eventually get sucked in (for the record, I'm in my 30s and have still managed to not get sucked in, but I may well die old and poor). They are often focused on themselves and their families - by then, most have them - and improving their own lot rather than fighting for the betterment of all. This is another attitude we have to change.

In the meantime, though?

Honestly, you'll find me in the street, rainbow flag in hand.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Fighting Native Speakerism in Taiwan

I don't blog much here about English teaching, because to be honest, it's my job. I happen to love it, and I happen to be a professional, and I want to talk about it,'s my job. I may start a specifically ELT-related blog someday, but otherwise I generally tend to keep my hobbies (like snarking on Taiwanese politics, activism - to the degree I am able - writing and travel/exploration) separate from my profession. It's funny, though, because I'm actually qualified to comment on ELT matters, whereas despite my related degree (International Affairs), I'm basically a hobbyist with a snarky streak when it comes to politics.

However, something about this really ought to be said. First, a primer in what 'native speakerism' is.

None of this is new - there is a whole organization dedicated to fighting native speakerism. But, to get into why it's difficult to fight in Taiwan, I feel the groundwork needs to be laid.

Native speakerism is a global issue - preconceived notions about what makes a 'teacher' due to a lack of general training in ELT issues (which is fair - not everyone is going to have a basic knowledge of education theory) causes learners to believe that native speaker teachers are superior and schools advertising the usually (but not always) white, Western faces of the teachers with correspondingly high tuition preys on notions of 'prestige' in teaching. Learners then request native speaker teachers, leading schools to then discriminate against non-native speaker teachers in hiring, and blame it on "the market" - a market which they helped create. It doesn't help that a horrifying lack of professional standards makes it possible to get a teaching job with no qualifications or experience to speak of other than being a native speaker, and that the owners of language schools are often local businesspeople, not educators, and do not know themselves what to look for in a quality teacher - they too boil it down to "native speaker, looks the part, cheaper than a trained teacher, you're hired."

One can add to that a big fat dollop of outdated assumptions of what it means to be a "non-native speaker". People who don't know better will insist that "non-native speakers can't possibly know all of the idiomatic language, rare collocations and modern usages of English, they'll teach a more textbook English", but that assumes quite a bit about a native speaker. An Egyptian woman who spent the first ten years of her life in Cairo, but then moved to England and had lived there ever since, for example, would speak at a level so close to native that you would not know she wasn't a native speaker, and would have more knowledge of British idiomatic language than I do. How is she less of a 'native speaker' than I am? A Taiwanese student who went through an entire school curriculum at TES or TAS, who might speak flawlessly - you might mistake her for an Asian woman from the West - is she a native speaker? My own grandfather grew up in Greece and moved to the US in elementary school. His native languages were Western Armenian - there are a genocide and two escapes in that story - and Greek. To hear him talk now you would never think of him as anything other than a native speaker of English. Is he? Why do you assume all native speakers speak an imperfect, textbook-y or even 'foreign accented' (again, whatever that means) English?

And that's not even getting into issues of cultural or linguistic imperialism and the notion that only "native speaker English" (whatever that means) is "good enough", or that there is something wrong with local varieties of English!

What really goes into teaching well is, of course, a high level or native-like level of English: something many non-native speakers attain, as well as sound training (whether it confers a credential or not - the piece of paper is not the point, though it's hard to gauge the quality of non-credentialed training) and increasing levels of responsibility through experience. Some level of basic talent or affinity for teaching helps. Research agrees: if the level of English is sufficient and the teaching is pedagogically sound, the first language of the teacher makes no difference.

I find this a very convincing set of arguments for doing away with discrimination based on first language in language teaching, and yet the problem persists in Taiwan. Why?

The law is outdated 

There are conflicting accounts of what the laws actually say. Most non-native speaker teachers in Taiwan are Taiwanese themselves, students on a student visa that allows work, or other foreign residents married to locals. A few have Master's degrees and therefore can be hired for any job. It is unclear whether, legally, visas for non-native speaker teachers who come to Taiwan simply to teach can be procured by schools however. I have been told "no", I have been sent unclear links with confusing language, I have been told such visas have been successfully issued, although every example seems to be of a white European. I have been told English must be the 'official language' of the country of origin, but the US has no official language, and plenty of countries people don't think of as English-speaking, such as Nigeria and India, do have English as an 'official language'.

However, I have also heard firsthand accounts of non-native speaker, non-Taiwanese foreigners trying and failing to get a visa to teach English because they held the "wrong" passport (not from Canada, the US, Ireland, the UK, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand). So, let's just say that the law is unclear but if you are not a native speaker, and do not have another pathway to a job that doesn't require a school-sponsored visa, and lack a Master's degree, that it is likely to be difficult for you to procure a visa to work in Taiwan.

This is in direct contradiction to research on effective teaching, and yet it remains a problem. When it is difficult to get a school to even offer a job to someone they know they may not be able to get a visa for, it makes sense that schools would go for candidates for whom visas would be promptly issued.

So what can we do? 
Honestly, I have no idea. You can lobby the government - good luck with that. You can write an editorial - nobody will read it. You can try to raise awareness among locals inclined to do something about it, but so few are even if they agree with you. If you ever do find yourself with the right kind of guanxi in the government, this would be a great place to use it to bend someone's ear. For now, however, I'm at a loss.

It's hard to know which schools would not discriminate, given the choice

It's very difficult to know what a school would do if it didn't have this potential legal hurdle to hiring non-native speakers and very difficult to fight, as it requires a change in the law.

My various employers, for example, are all good people. They're sensible and they have some foundational knowledge of the qualities needed in a good teacher. I do not want to think that, given the chance to hire a non-native speaker teacher who would need a visa, that they would discriminate. However, due to the confusion and difficulty inherent in the law, it is hard to be sure. How can I talk to my employer about a problem if I don't even know if it exists, or if it only exists hypothetically?

In my school I noticed an advertising sign-listicle sort of things ("10 reasons to study with us!" but at least it didn't have something like "#8 will shock you!") where one of the items was "Canadian, British and American teachers: the world of IELTS comes to you!" - what does that mean exactly? Is that pro-native-speakerism? Would they discriminate against a talented, native-like and qualified non-native speaker if given the chance to hire one? It's hard to say. It's just an item on a list tacked to the wall, and there's no way to test the sincerity of it. How does one even bring that up?

This makes it difficult to have these conversations with employers - note conversations, not confrontations or arguments - when you can't really know where they stand. When perhaps they themselves don't know where they stand. It's hard to push the issue further or raise awareness.

So what can we do?

One of the core messages of TEFL Equality Advocates is for native speaker teachers to use their privilege to help change the system: not applying to work at schools that discriminate, withdrawing one's application from a school that indicates that it discriminates later in the process, and writing to such schools to tell them why (in gentler words, of course).

It's difficult to do that when you can't know if a school would discriminate if they didn't have to by (very confusing) law. What you can do, though, is bring it up if the opportunity arises and try to gauge your school's attitude towards native speakerism, and take it from there.

The 'native speaker' model is still seen as the best, or only, choice

This is a massive problem in a world where ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) is the English that most English speakers - most of whom are non-native - use. Native-speaker models with little attention paid to communication in the real world the learners will face is not optimal. A native-speaker model that ignores the Taiwanese businessman going to Korea, the young student planning to travel in Central Europe, the tech guy who talks to co-workers in India or young person who might not encounter native speakers often puts them at a disadvantage and is often the reason why good students in class, or even chatting with native speakers informally, hits a brick wall with other non-native speakers. This attitude, to be short, must change.

So what can we do?

Get training in how to teach ELF, and teach it if it fits your context (which it probably does). And let your students know why. Let them know that, in fact, as a native speaker you are not always an optimal model, and that learning by working with the English of non-native speakers is in many ways just as helpful or more helpful to them than only dealing with you.

School owners are often dismissive of foreign teacher concerns

This, I would like to emphasize, is not a problem with my employers. We are listened to and our opinions respected and considered and, often, acted on. I appreciate that a lot. It's why I continue to work for them. However, I can't say that's true for most, or even many, schools in Taiwan. Whether locally run or not - though most are run locally - there seems to be an unspoken but clear lack of respect for the sentiments of teachers, however correct or convincing they may be. (That's not to say such sentiments are always correct or convincing). Six-day workweeks, crazy hours and a lack of communication - or outright lying - driving high turnover, while the boss complains about high turnover? Low pay making it hard to hire good people? Textbooks that are required but not very good leading to poorer teaching?

All of these are valid concerns that are often dismissed by school administration, even at the "better" schools.

So, trying to bring up native speakerism is likely to get you about as far, if even that far, when opening such conversations. If they don't care that you're warning them that systemic problems in how they treat employees is the direct cause of high turnover, then they won't care about this.

So what can we do?

Change jobs. I feel like if the opportunity arose, I could bring this up at either of my workplaces without consequences, and be listened to. Try to find that kind of work. If your school is one where teachers and staff share resources and interesting articles, passing around an article on the issue may also have some awareness-raising effect, as well.

Other teachers will defend native speakerism

This is honestly the most aggravating to me, and I am sure that if this post makes the rounds among other expats that there will be blowback along exactly these lines. Whatever. I'll say it anyway.

I've heard it all - the same tired excuses that 'non-native speakers just don't know the language as well', 'this is the market, this is what the students want', 'you can't tell people whom they must hire, they can discriminate if they want and if someone doesn't like it they can find a different job', do you really want non-native speakers from India or the Philippines competing for your job, driving down wages?' and finally 'this is discrimination against native speakers, you think we're all know-nothings!'

Let's break all of these down:

Native speakers just don't know the language as well: covered it above

This is the market, this is what students want/employers can discriminate if they want: Due to lack of awareness and advertising for schools that preys on this. We can do better. In fact, research also shows the 'preference' among potential students is not as high as you would think. In any case, would you say "this is what the customer wants" as an excuse to discriminate based on gender, race, age or sexual orientation/gender identity? (If so, then you are pro-discrimination and I really don't know what to say except that there's a reason why such discrimination is illegal in most developed countries. It hurts members of those groups more than you realize, for very little reason. Customers, at times, have to be told when their requests are not reasonable.)

If someone doesn't like it they can find a different job: not if every single employer discriminates! Is it really okay to restrict the jobs available, or make no job at all available, to someone based on characteristics they can't change - and what your native language is happens to be such a characteristic, like age, race and orientation - for no reason other than to feed the prejudices of an uninformed clientele?

Do you really want "non-native" speakers from India or the Philippines competing for jobs and driving down wages? Well, I am a fan of government-mandated minimum wages at fair levels so the latter won't happen. As for competition, I welcome it. Competition makes for better product if it is fair. I am qualified. I have a decade of experience and a Delta, and will soon have a Master's in TESOL from a good school. The people who hire me - knowing what I cost - are not going to ditch me for someone who does not have such a background, and I would not want to work for anyone who would, or who thought that background was not necessary and just wanted to hire the cheapest taker. If those speakers - many of whom are actually native speakers or close enough to it - have similar credentials, then it is fair that we should compete. But it is fairly rare to have them at all, so I'm not that worried.

This is discrimination against native speakers, you think we're all know-nothings: This is the "what about WHITE HISTORY MONTH?!" of excuses used to defend native speakerism. I'm sorry, but it is. Many native speakers are not qualified to teach English. That does not mean those of us fighting native speakerism think none of them are. I'm a native speaker and I'm perfectly qualified to teach (but not because I'm a native speaker - in addition to it). I know that losing privilege feels like oppression, but I would beg those who think along these lines to really go back and consider what they are saying.

I have to say that I find these concerns worrying - in terms of advocating employment discrimination! - and unprofessional. If you don't have confidence in your ability to succeed in a wider employment pool, then why are you doing this job? Are you so afraid for your security that you want to shut others out to keep it? Is this even ethical? Is there not a whiff of wanting to cling to privilege about it?

So what can we do?
In terms of working on this attitude among other expats, simply making your points when the discussion comes up and sticking to them, doggedly raising awareness and not letting the privilege-clinging dominate the discussion, is all you can do until people start to listen.

I'm lucky, I can afford to have this attitude. Want to be lucky too? Upgrade yourself so you are not competing for low wages, but have the chance to work for people that recognize what you have to offer. Treat your profession like a profession, stop devaluing yourself. That's another thing you can do.

Trust me, if you actually take the time to, say, get a Delta or Master's, you won't want to work for people who would pay the lowest bidder $450/hour.

Employment laws are not enforced and there is no real union

This is tough too - in theory, Taiwan prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, gender, creed, sexual orientation etc.: basically the same way all other developed countries do. In theory, if you are fired (or not hired) for being (or not being) a certain race, you can sue, and you are supposed to win.

In practice, these laws are not enforced very well, if at all. There is no union of English teachers able to take action regarding this, and it's difficult for individuals to act without union representation. The three main issues facing unionization are that it is not popular in Taiwan (the workers' associations, which are unions in a way, don't quite act in the same way as we might imagine a union would), which also means that Taiwanese local teachers in private academies are not likely to join; it is hard to convince people scattered across many schools and employment types, many of whom are not planning to stay long-term or teach professionally to join; and that I have heard - correct me if I'm wrong - that only foreign workers with APRC or JFRV open work permits are allowed to unionize at all. If true, that means almost no English teachers in Taiwan are even eligible to legally unionize. Those that are are often so embedded in doing their own thing that it's hard to organize them (I admit to being somewhat guilty of this).

What that means is that if it's hard to get the government to act on discrimination based on race or gender, it will be even harder to get them to act based on native speakerism. Even if we get the employment laws for foreign teachers changed, there is no guarantee the new laws would be enforced.

So what can we do?

Unionize, or at least support the effort. Good luck with that. I told you this would be hard to fight. Set a precedent by fighting discrimination in other forms, such as that based on race, gender or age, so when you are ready and able to fight native speakerism, pushing back against discrimination and actually winning won't be a novel concept. Getting a more diverse teaching staff in schools will also speed up the acceptance that not all "good" English teachers look a certain way - a prejudice that is tied to native speakerism.

It's hard to advocate for "good teachers with credentials and experience regardless of native language" when credentials and experience aren't necessary in the first place, and learners are often unaware of this

This is another thing that aggravates me in Taiwan, although I do love this country with a ferocity I didn't think possible (and I am not a naturally patriotic person). There is a stunning lack of professionalism in many fields - my other bugbear is the journalistic standards of local media - English teaching not least among them.

I have said that I do think there is a place for inexperienced, even unqualified, new teachers in the industry. I can't be too hard on them, I used to be one. However, I do feel it ought to involve gradually increasing responsibility at an employer that provides good quality training along the way, with an internationally recognized certification eventually required.

That is not what happens in Taiwan, by a long shot.

If it is already considered acceptable to hire a fresh college grad with no relevant experience or credential, give him some materials (if you do even that), maybe let him observe a few classes and then have him go for it, with no attention paid to further training (or further quality training), then it will be quite difficult to convince schools, learners and teachers that in fact quality matters. It will be a battle just to dismantle the notion that teaching is an inborn talent - it is only in very rare circumstances - and to persuade people that experience without training isn't worth a fraction of what the two in tandem are worth.

So, convincing employers that, yes, a non-native speaker must have a very high level of English, but also that there are other qualities that also matter that make it possible for a non-native speaker teacher to teach just as well as a native speaker, is an uphill battle when they don't think those qualities are important even in native speakers.

So what can we do?
Raise awareness among your learners about what goes into teaching well. When they ask you for advice, tell them that they shouldn't be looking to continue their education with "a native speaker" per se, but a qualified, experienced teacher with good training. Tell them straight up that being a native speaker does not make one an automatically qualified language teacher, and advise them to aim higher.

Along with this, advocate for more training available in Taiwan. I did an entire Delta from Taiwan, but as it stands now there are no other strong, internationally-recognized pre-service or basic credentials available here. You have to leave the country for any such face-to-face credential (and, in fact, such credentials are worth little if they do not include practical experience). The more people who have training there are in the market, the more awareness about the importance of training there will be. Fun side effect: higher wages (at least one would hope) if starting a job with some training were the norm.

Foreigners don't teach "differently" and aren't "more fun" because of "culture"

This seems like an unrelated point, but bear with me.

Another excuse I often hear from learners about why they want native speakers isn't about being a native speaker at all - they think foreigners, Westerners specifically, are more "fun" and our classes are more "exciting". Often, they think that this is because our educational system and culture are "different". In some cases they mean "better", in others they mean "fine for after-school English class but in Real School Confucius-like stone-faced teachers who teach to the test as they give you more tests is still the way to go, and we are merely after-class entertainment.

Some may even think the 'fun' comes with a lack of training, as though training teaches a teacher to be boring.

Often this is pegged on the West just being fundamentally different. It is, in some ways (but hey I took boring classes and had tests too).

The truth is, though, that an untrained teacher is usually the more boring one, relying on old tropes of what a teacher does rather than more updated, modern pedagogical principles. The untrained teacher is more likely to fall back on drills, repetition, quizzes, worksheets, lecture-mode teaching, arduous and torturous (and not very useful) top-heavy presentations of grammar or other concepts, and maybe a few games here and there. When they are not boring, they rely on personality to get by (I was once guilty of this and perhaps from time to time still am when I get lazy - I do have the personality for it).

This is true no matter your cultural or national origin, let alone your native language. And yet it's used as the reason why a learner wants - or a school thinks a learner wants - a 'foreign English teacher' which really means a 'Western English teacher' which equates, generally, to a native speaker. It may be a way of asking for a native speaker without saying so directly.

So what can we do?
When you hear a learner talk about wanting a 'fun' class taught by a foreigner - or any other variation of the "foreigners are fun!" sentiment, counter it gently. A well-trained Taiwanese teacher can be just as 'fun' and an average native speaker teacher can be quite boring - it's experience and training that make a class better.

This introduces the concept of professional background, rather than national origin, being the key factor in a good teacher, which paves the way for acceptance of non-native teachers as just as able to teach a 'fun' or interesting class as native-speaking ones.

Language teacher training in Asia is not what it could be

Of course, going along with all of this is the need to better train local non-native speaker teachers in Taiwan. This is, in fact, a region-wide problem if not larger. It seems that non-native speaker local teachers are trained based on outdated or unsound principles, as friends of mine who have been through language teaching Master's programs say the pedagogical side often is neglected in favor of the Applied Linguistics side. If we want learners to accept that non-native speaker teachers can be just as qualified to lead a class as native-speaker ones, we need to do something about this, so that local non-native speaker teachers have more modern, principled teacher training.

So what can we do?

Very little, unless you yourself are a PhD, join the academic faculty at a school that offers a Master's in TESOL or other language teaching field (Applied Linguistics, Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, Applied Foreign Languages etc.) and push the school to modernize, which in Taiwan I know often is a losing battle. We can all stand to go out and get more training to raise the overall level of quality of English teaching, and we can push for an internationally-recognized teaching certification program (I don't want to say CELTA or Trinity, but if not them, at least something like them) to be offered in Taiwan so more non-native speaker teachers have a chance to attend. You can work to become the sort of person who would be qualified to be a tutor in such a course.

Those fighting native speakerism globally often have a blind spot

The final issue isn't so much what Taiwan can do, but a criticism of a lot of the dialogue internationally on how to fight native speakerism. These articles often have massive blind spots when it comes to Asia: they assume non-native speaker teachers can get visas: this is often not the case in Asia - if not Taiwan, then China and South Korea do have these restrictions, meaning that calling out discrimination where you see it and writing to schools with discriminatory ads is not a workable strategy.

They also tend to take as the default employers that are either within the formal education system (such as working in a public school) or are under the auspices of a government (such as British Council or IELTS), which are bound by certain professional and ethical standards that you can call upon when fighting native speakerism. That doesn't work when most employers are buxibans (private language academies) run by businesspeople, not educators, who run businesses, not schools, and who aren't, honestly, beholden to any professional or ethical standards at all, if they are even aware such standards exist in English teaching.

They often cite a "four week intensive course" as "the minimum qualification" to teach (and note that it is not sufficient in the long term, which is true). In Asia, however, this is generally not the case. In fact, in Taiwan if you have taken that course - they mean CELTA by the way - you are actually ahead of the game. The minimum qualification to teach is nothing at all. So advice that takes having something like CELTA as the minimum requirement to work is not helpful.

This needs to change - I don't mean to divide teachers, but it is dishonest to pretend these differences do not exist.

I wish I had better suggestions for how to deal with the situation we have, rather than the situation most common advice addresses. Unfortunately, in the ELT industry as we experience it in Taiwan, there is little we can do except push back gently when the issue comes up, raise the issue when it is pertinent, raise awareness when the opportunity arises, and improve ourselves via quality training and experience to bring the industry overall to a higher standard, which will hopefully bring with it more up-to-date ethical standards on the non-native speaker teacher issue.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Greatest Hits from Brendan and Jenna Get Together: Live in Tainan 2007


So, thanks to work obligations, we found ourselves back in Tainan for the third time this year.

What I found sentimental about that, moreoso than over the summer, was that Brendan and I are nearing our 10th anniversary as a couple. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we got together in Tainan, and our very first picture together as a bona fide couple (rather than two very frustrated best friends who clearly liked each other) was taken at the Confucius Temple there.

That was on March 1st (or thereabouts) 2007, and as it is highly unlikely we'll be in Tainan on March 1st 2017 - though you never know, we could be sent back for work - this is about as close as we are likely to get to return to the city where we got together close to a major anniversary date.

So, of course we went back to the Confucius Temple and took the same picture again (above). I won't comment on how we've changed and how we haven't, I will note that ten years on, six of them as a married couple, we still have that undefinable spark. It may be a more comfortable warmth rather than, say, what happened last time which I am pretty sure entailed making out in the Confucius Temple - Confucius was surely not pleased - but it's there. Like the perfect teaming of a chaos and an order muppet. (I'm the Swedish Chef, if you must know). 


So, I don't have much about Tainan to say in this post - you can read that in my posts from earlier this year (one is linked above, here's the other). What I do feel like talking about is how we went back and did a lot of the same things we did ten years ago - without really thinking about it. A few things have changed: we didn't know about the life-changing food combination that is ice cream served in half a melon available at Taicheng Fruit Store (泰成水果店) nor about Narrow Door Cafe (窄門咖啡) and I am fairly sure our favorite bar, Taikoo (太古), was not open yet.

But coffee at Chihkan Towers just for the atmosphere? Confucius Temple? God of Hell Temple? Famous glutinous meat dumplings? Running into a temple parade? All the greatest hits from 2007 got played, and it was in fact very sentimental and lovely to re-live it like that, as Old Married People rather than Young Love. It's like dancing to the song you first danced to, if we danced, which we don't really.

Perhaps I was also feeling sentimental because it's the holidays - my mom loved the holidays and also passed away around this time of year (actually almost two years ago exactly). I have been thinking, as I put together an album of her photos, how much she also liked old man's tea (老人茶 or laorencha - the title of this blog, though that's not the reason), and how sad I am that we never got to drink it together in Taiwan. So, I think a lot about family, relationships and life at this time of year.

My mom in the early 1980s - I would have likely been a baby when this was taken.

Anyway, enjoy some photos. This first one is one of the common areas in our hotel this time, called Goin Old House Bed and Breakfast (and also bar, on the first floor). The rooms are simple, clean and a little old-timey/traditional, with very modern bathrooms, which I appreciate. And it's extremely central.


Track 1 on Greatest Hits from Brendan and Jenna Get Together: Live in Tainan 2007, coffee at Chihkan Tower:



Track 2: Temple Parade (this happened in Anping in 2007 but at the God of War temple this time):





Track 3: Let's eat some meatballs (肉圓 - the famous ones by the God of War Temple):


Track 4: Wandering the Backstreets







Track 5: The God of Hell Temple (東嶽殿), but the murals weren't as visible this time:

Track 6: Backstreets, Refrain


Bonus Tracks: Narrow Door Cafe:


Bonus Track 2: Taicheng Fruit Store:


Bonus Track 3: Taikoo Bar