Monthly Archives: April 2015

Taiwan over a bowl of food

I usually go straight home on Saturdays. Twelve hours in any place is more than enough time and caffeine can only impede exhaustion’s seductive call to sleep for so long. I walked briskly through the hall and past the office, throwing goodbyes at people in each room. As I approached the exit I slowed, then stopped and looked into the back office. There sat my boss and co-worker, eating silently over bowls of food.

“Need anything else?” I asked in a clipped, tired way.

“Come. Try this. You want?” My boss gestured to a bag of food sitting on the table– tofu and seaweed and cabbage all mixed together and stained a deep brown.

“I, uh, what is it?” I lumbered in hesitantly, shouldering the backpack I carried everyday to work. Something about bejeweled flats and a hiking bag don’t mix well, but I will always opt unashamedly for comfort.

“It’s Liu shi,” J spoke, precisely and slowly.  I repeated in my nasally Midwestern accent, erasing some of the nuances from the two syllables, I’m sure. Even now, I’m not sure if I remember the word correctly.

She smiled. C, my boss, smiled too and said something in Chinese. My boss knows English, of course, though she often sends J to speak with me. For her, English is something to be labored through. She didn’t approach it with the same wry, amused attitude as J.

J, on the other hand, had mastered English sarcasm and used it frequently. She almost always speaks in English, pushing herself to improve. So, when I sat down, she began speaking.

We talked at some length about my attitude toward rich international students in the United States. I answered honestly, trying my best to explain the divide between wealthy college students and middle class students. I explained how for the wealthy students, including international ones, often didn’t understand obstacles some of their less affluent peers needed to work through. While they focused on studying, other students focused on studying and simply surviving. For those students, getting  year long internships and working for free wasn’t always an option. Getting experience they needed for great jobs was difficult enough without needing to worry about having enough money to buy food. Wealthy students didn’t understand that because they’d never needed to consider the cost of living, or the cost of anything really.

J nodded. C spoke, but only in Chinese. I’m still not sure what she said. For all I know she could have been telling J I was spouting nonsense.

“We don’t like rich here. They go to. America. They study and they don’t want. do anything. Students here aren’t like America. Not like students in America. Who want to work. But can’t. They’re lazy. They don’t want to work.” J sometimes spoke in a staccato, breaking off sentences and abruptly starting new ones, ending each word with harsh, precise sounds.

C nodded.

“Students here like lazy jobs.  Here everyone can get a job, but they don’t want to. No internships like US. Us is very different. They don’t want to work here. They want it easy. Only easy jobs, I think. .”

“Like McDonald’s,” C interjected. “So easy.” She laughed.

“Yes! You just like clean their tables. Or something. Maybe someone wants to order or something so. you take their order. It’s very easy.”

“Well…” I started uncomfortably, wondering if I should better explain American society.

“Then they go to US. They come back. What do they do? They don’t know. They don’t know!” J became emphatic. “So they become English teachers. Why? Why? They take jobs from people who want them.”

Immediately I understood she was talking about herself. When she first picked me up in the airport, she asked me how old I was.

“Twenty-two.”

Wow!” She said, genuinely surprised. “So young.”

Here I was, born speaking English and, without much work, I’d managed to secure a job she’d studied and toiled for. Meanwhile others, by virtue of their birth, were able to study abroad and hone the necessary English skills to succeed. Yet, they’d wasted their opportunities– opportunities she’d never had. They didn’t pursue any of the jobs they were qualified to do; instead, they taught English because it was easy for them to get the job.

I understood her vituperative attitude toward those students, but as she spoke more it seemed to expand beyond them. I wondered, given her criticisms, what was her opinion of the Sunflower movement?

Oh. You know about that?” Again, surprise. “You know what about that?”

“Yes, I’ve read some things.”

“It’s stupid. Students are lazy here,” she repeated. “They are scared China will take their jobs. They don’t want to work. But China is powerful! Too powerful. Why don’t you want to work with them?”

I picked up on her last thought. “Well, some people think that China will use that power to take over Taiwan. Maybe they will buy all the businesses and if they control all of those then they basically control Taiwan. I heard the students wanted Taiwan to be a separate country. That the KMT tried to sneak the deal through.”

“Well, yes. They are powerful. Very powerful, but the students are still lazy. In China people have to work hard because there are too many [people]. It’s not like that here.”

“So you think they’re just worried about competition or losing their jobs, not about Taiwan’s independence.”

“Yes. I think so. Yes. People just don’t like China.”

“Do you think most people would agree with you? Should Taiwan be concerned about China?” I asked. “Do you think this agreement is good?”

She explained  that she didn’t love the government in Taiwan or China. Still, an agreement with China could help Taiwan. It could bring jobs to Taiwanese people. To her, the students wrongly judged the geopolitical ramifications of working with China. This misjudgment was aided by Taiwanese distaste for China. This distaste, she felt, was firmly nested in something more sinister.

“Everyone says white people are so racist. They always talk about, “Oh White people are the most racist” but really we are the worst. Yes. We are the worst. We are.” She observed my doubtful expression. “We are. Every country thinks it’s the best. Taiwanese think they’re better than Chinese. Japanese think they’re better than both of us. Korea, Korea is like a tiger. They want everything. They think they are much better than everyone else. They want to take the region.”

I reflected again on earlier conversations. All of her friends moved to Korea to work. They talked about the opportunities they found there, about how amazing Korea was. J disagreed. “They pay us less than we do them. They think they can cheat us.” To her, the agreements between the Korean and Taiwanese government underestimated the value Taiwanese people had to offer. I wondered why she highlighted Taiwan’s virtue in that case, but Taiwan’s faults in the case of China.

“Still, back to the agreement with China. Do you think Taiwan and China should be closer?”

She told me Taiwan needed to be careful, and there was cause for concern with China.

“In this case though,” I pressed. “Do you think the agreement is good?”

“Yes. I do. Yes. It will help us. People just don’t want to because they don’t like China or something. But we need them to come here.”

Again, J had given me something to think about. Most would argue that people of her generation viewed China with greater hostility. To them, the line between being Chinese and Taiwanese was more distinct than that of the older generation. Above all, they wanted to demonstrate Taiwan was independent, culturally and politically. In fact, many articles highlight Taiwan’s suspicion of China and the Cross-Strait agreement. Yet, J appeared to think otherwise. How common was her view? I wondered.

“I could never say that to other Taiwanese though.” She said, answering my unasked question. She couldn’t tell them she felt the protests were based in ignorance and racism without being lambasted by others her age. I wanted to ask further about her opinion about the Taiwanese government’s decision to indict the students, but noticing the lateness of the hour  I decided not to. Instead, I decided it would be better to address my own culture.

” I don’t know about the racism thing.” I commented.

” I understand what you’re saying though, especially in terms of racism against indigenous people. Still, I think white people probably have that covered.”

“White people can be a**holes,” I said.  “I mean, we did try to control entire countries. We basically just took them over and didn’t listen to the people living there. Not to mention we just kinda thought we knew everything and didn’t bother to try to understand everyone. Sometimes we even pretended to help them. We’re real jerks.” I  attempted to simplify issues related to colonialism and imperialism. I’m not sure if I succeeded.

She laughed uproariously, maybe out of shock. “Oh really?” she said in her usual vaguely wry tone.

“Oh yeah. White people are jerks.” I said, laughing. “Anyway, this jerk needs to go home. Thank you for sharing with me.”

She nodded, still smiling and watched me heft my green bag from the floor and walk out the door.

WTNLOT: China gives aid to Nepal while Taiwan is rejected

A Chinese medical team arrives in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Image found on Xanhua news)

 

“Though dozens of Taiwanese were still missing in Nepal, and Taiwan has strong capabilities in disaster recovery and relief, the island was not asked to participate, Vice Foreign Minister Andrew Kao said Monday. (Taiwan NGOs and religious groups do plan to go and Taiwan people have already raised a large sum of money to support the recovery effort.)

It’s still uncertain whether Taiwan’s exclusion is an oversight or a (very poorly timed) slight. But it is clear that a mere two days after the quake, as Nepalis dig barehanded for their loved ones, and families sleep outside in the pouring rain, geopolitical questions loom large. Chief among them is how China’s involvement in the recovery effort could further change the balance of power in the region, challenging India and potentially putting Nepal’s Tibetan exile community at risk.

….

If neighborly sentiment means more aid for those still waiting in the ruble, few will complain. But Nepal has reason to wonder if this assistance will also bring a push for greater control.”- Found on Time Magazine

Taiwan, to my eyes, has been stepping up efforts to get involved with international affairs recently. The government is incredibly interested in raising Taiwan’s international profile. I have to wonder, how Taiwanese people are seeing Nepal’s rejection, especially given China’s growing influence in the region. How will this affect any future agreements the Taiwanese government may want to pursue with China? How do members of the Sunflower movement feel about this? How do those uninvolved in the movement, or even opposed to it, feel? For those who view China as a potential economic ally, or for those who are from Taiwan but work in China, does the knowledge that China’s influence in Nepal may have affected Nepal’s rejection sway their opinion. If one further considers the fact that Taiwanese people are currently missing in Nepal, does that further affect their opinion? How much?

Who am I? Who will I be?

As a child the future was a source of great wonder. Who will I be? I could be anything. I could travel. I could be charming  and well liked ,or incisive and well respected. I could be a recluse who lives with two dogs in the country, or a socialite who knows everyone in town. Future me was a veritable chameleon. Future me was impressive. Future me was someone I could be proud of.

As a I grew older I began to recognize that future me was, in part, a product of present me’s work. The question I asked myself as a child was coupled with another: Who am I now? Now “Who will I be?” is a source of great anxiety for me. At times I find myself laying awake at night, my current successes and failures tumbling around my head like clothes in an old, worn out washing machine. At some point the cycle stops and the water drains, easing the heaviness of my regrets and the concerns that even my successes might not lead me to a place where I feel proud of what I’m doing and who I am.

How exactly do I get to that place? Finding a place without a map, or landmarks, or a name, or the slightest idea of its geography is next to impossible. So what do I do? I often find myself cycling between phases of inspiration and despair. Sometimes I read motivational articles that encourage a if-you-put-your-mind-to-it-you-can-do-it work ethic. Other times I find myself reading an article on Forbes magazine about how many  college graduates are either under-employed or unemployed. If one is to believe those inspirational, happy articles– many of them failed because they didn’t have the motivation or drive to push themselves. Is that enough though? Is that really enough? Can we attribute some people’s overall success to work ethic alone? Of course, part of me finds the argument distasteful because accepting sole credit for failure can be a heavy blow to the ego; I sometimes convince myself that such a sentiment relies heavily on rhetoric and ignores reality. After all, anyone who has attempted to bring to fruition a new idea–whether that be through law or scientific experimentation or through some creative medium– knows that the finished product often deviates from the initial idea. In other words, confounding variables can be a bitch.

I mean, identifying all the variables is hard enough in a controlled environment, but when one considers all of the variables in the world that can affect an individual…well it’s a wonder that statisticians don’t descend into madness. After sinking into fatalism, I pull myself out and back to the beginning by accepting the notion that we must narrow our view to make sense of the utter chaos that surrounds us. We can’t spend forever concerning ourselves with millions of incalculable probabilities. We simply have to do. We have to pick something and do it. If we fail, we have to continue until we find a method that works. Even a failed experiment is valuable, right?

My childhood self resurfaces: I can be anything as long as I put my mind to it. With renewed focus,  I dedicate myself to a project. I look forward instead of back. I ignore the voice that tells me to look forward one must also look back, and focus solely on the future. I bend my head down and push away the voices that tell me I’m not good enough; that urge me to reconsider dedicating myself to this project because ,even after weeks of practice, I’m still not good enough. “Let yourself be a beginner,” one voice, perhaps the angel, on my shoulder, says.

“How long do can you allow yourself to be that way?” another voice rebuts. “At some point you have to cease being a beginner and achieve something worthwhile. Like your mother says ‘Following your bliss is great, but it doesn’t pay the bills.”  It’s not enough to be dedicated, you have to be good too.

I begin thinking of grad school. I envision myself going into public diplomacy; going into writing; into medicine. Which one should I choose, I wonder? Can I prepare myself for all of them? I know I need to choose a direction, but choosing one direction leaves out the others. I ask myself if narrowing my path will increase or decrease my chances of success. My adult side steps in again to remind me that it’s not enough to dream about the future, you need to do things to prepare now. What things are the right things and how do I involve myself in them?

Sometimes I successfully identify the right things– an internship or work with an NGO. I stare at the job posting for a few days, a week even, trying to convince myself I’m good enough to apply. I waver. I pause. I think of my past experiences. My head turns. I look back. I reconsider. I look forward again. Maybe I’m not good enough, I say silently, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try. Still, I’m afraid. I’m afraid of failing. I’m afraid of failing at something I so deeply want to do. So most times I avoid even trying. The sting of not applying and thinking you might have gotten it is much lighter than the feeling you’re being told you’re not good enough (“Rejection doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough, just that you aren’t the right fit.” The generic career counselor line never fully assuages self-doubt).

Right now I’m battling myself during one of the most pivotal moments of my life. Will I challenge myself to become someone I’m proud of being? Can I push myself past my fears? Can I choose one thing without allowing failure to dissuade me from the direction I’ve chosen?

Am I audacious or cautious? Am I determined or apathetic? Am I fearless or fearful?

Who am I?

Who will I be?

A Family Dinner

Reunited with the rest of the group, we set about pitching tents in the dirt parking lot at the edge of Wushe. That night we drank, talked and exchanged stories of out trips since meeting at Taroko Gorger earlier. L floated around, his usual gregarious self, frequently interjecting with an enthusiastic comment or embellishment. An hour or so passed this way, all of us content with sitting on the cardboard we’d carried around for our tents*

Later, I can’t remember what  I was doing, but I looked up to find the others gathering around a man. He stood in the middle of the curious gaggle, a great smile etched permanently on his face, his cheeks puffy and red. I stood at the fringe of the circle anThe house on the hill. d watched as he produced two Chinese apples from a blue bag. He thrust them into two unsuspecting hands, grinned even wider and said a word to L before pivoting on his heel and striding down the hill.

Our eyes followed the man until he disappeared into the building across the street. Then the group turned expectantly to our leader.

“He wants us to have dinner at his place,” L explained to those of us who didn’t understand. “He just needs to ask his wife.” Five minutes of debate on whether the invitation would lead to anything later, he returned and beckoned us over. Giddy, and somewhat amazed by our continued good fortune, we followed him. Inside we were greeted by industrial fluorescent lighting and a large table laden with a variety of food. The man, whose name I later learned was Taybo, produced a motley11020793_10153148646229630_3659414520185067150_o group of plastic stools, styrafoam bowls and a cup holder filled with chopsticks sealed individually in thin plastic.

Behind him sat his mother, looking authoritative but kind. She appraised the room from her wheel chair, clad in knit hat, gloves and jacket. One hand fiddled with the blanket in her lap, the other alternated between a bowl of  sunflower seeds and her mouth. She didn’t speak much but, like her son, laughed readily at our jokes. When she did speak, it was often to chide her son for some comment. Between her bare fingers she held a cigarette, which she’d point at her son whenever he’d ask an innocent, but to her, ignorant question.

The others talked, I listened and observed the room. The room itself was wide and rectangular, bearing only two windows. The front window, if one can call it that for it looked more like an opening attached to a counter where one might order food, bore no glass. Instead, a metal covering hung over it.  The heavy tables we sat at featured two small stoves. In the back corner sat two unused stoves and a small black and brown dachshund. To me the building had many of the trappings of a small restaurant– including an unfinished kitchen in the corner opposite the dachshund, where a woman stood next to a growing plume of steam. Removing a pan from the steam, she walked busily over to the table and added another large plate to it and scooped more food into each of our bowls. The plate quickly became a group favorite.

“What’s in it?” one of us asked through a mouthful. L translated and the woman, Aya, turned red before confessing her family felt bad for catching and cooking them, as there weren’t many in Taiwan. She couldn’t say what the animal was in English, and we couldn’t say in Chinese. One of us grabbed their phone from their pocket and set about trying to translate. After cycling through three potential animals on google images, we finally showed her a picture of a bat. The family, having become equally invested in the game of translation, excitedly bounced and pointed. That’s confirmation enough, I suppose.

Having had my fill, I walked over to the small dog curled up on a dirty, green apron. Plopping down on the rough concrete, I introduced myself before slowly scooping the pup into my lap. She quickly fell asleep. Reluctant to remove her, I attempted to get my groups attention from the floor.

“Is this a restaurant?” I asked, following a successful attempt.28486912

“No, I think it’s just their home– like I think this is their living room,” L steepled his fingers on the table and tapped it twice for emphasis. I looked around again at the exposed piping, and the unused stoves and the green apron and the collection of foreigners they’d  magnanimously invited into their home and wondered what this family’s story was.

*We’d decided early in the trip to carry cardboard boxes with us to line the bottom of our tents, in case of rain. Most tents in Taiwan don’t have the tarp covered bottoms I’d find at home. Naturally, I thought this was a very curious practice considering Taiwan does get quite a lot of rain. As it turns out, most people camp in build wooden structures– think a platform with a slanted roof– so don’t require any of the trappings you might find elsewhere.

Feeling lost? The story starts here.