Category Archives: Journal

Sporadic update: Healthcare

Healthcare has been on my mind a lot lately. Over the last couple of months, I’ve had to get surgery. I will likely need another in the next year (then, hopefully, I will be cured knock on wood).  If it weren’t for Obamacare, I wouldn’t have been able to get that surgery. Right now I’d still be in so much pain I can’t walk. In fact, I’d probably need to move back to Taiwan just to have treatment. It would actually be cheaper for me to do that. Wild.

On the metro today, I went through my usual list of podcasts to entertain myself on the hour long commute to DC.  In between the news and the pop science, an interview with Naomi Klein came up. She’d be invited by W.  Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu to appear on their show “Politically Re-Active” which blends comedy, news and cultural analysis. Klein, who gained acclaim for her book “The Shock Doctrine” (though perhaps that’s disingenuous as I believe she was well known before), joined to speak about her new book:  No is Not Enough.

During the interview, she spoke at length about the new shocks we might endure, about how they signal systemic failings and about how we must respond. In the coming days, weeks, months even, god forbid, years we will need to mobilize and respond a lot. We will be saying “No” a lot, but “no” has less motivational power than “yes”, Klein says. No can exhaust you, especially when the red of Nos are drowned out by the stacks of green Yeses. Moreover, Klein says ‘No’ is not enough. We need to identify Yes policies; we need to prepare for them.

The Healthcare bill, which spread like a noxious gas through Capitol Hill, has inspired in me more than dread.  It’s made me curious about what a solution could look like. I feel inspired to better explore my own Yes, and others.

For the duration of my time in DC, I am being housed by a friend’s family.  This morning I heard his father, a doctor, lament what he referred to as changes in the medical system. When I asked him how he might design the ideal healthcare system he did not bring up single-payer or privatization or any of the typical words.  Instead, he said “Education”.

He had noticed a shift in culture within the medical world of his thirty years of practice. “I was trained to believe my duty was to the patient,” he said. “Younger people are trained to worship at the altar” of reducing costs regardless of how it affects the person they are helping. That means prescribing the cheapest medication, regardless of side effect. That means not questioning a CEO “pocketing 22 million” at the expense of broad healthcare coverage.

Not just that, but the average adult lacks basic knowledge of healthcare systems, according to the doctor. They cannot identify what constitutes an injury needing urgent care; they put off visiting and a problem which might have been inexpensive to treat weeks before now incurs high costs to the system and, more importantly, the patient.

After thirty years, this shift has been wearing him down. He’s considering a career change. “Do you know I have to give out dozens of denials a week?” he asked me. “It’s tiring.” Saying No to people who need care, but cannot access it so a wealthier tier can purchase another car, another watch, another thing weighs heavy on his mind.

He’s not sure what Yes looks like for him personally now, but he believes it starts with education and a fundamental shift in the culture. They’re good people, these new doctors, he added at the end. They’ve just been trained wrong.

Yes feels good when it’s identified, but can also be daunting. Klein spoke of how daunting, and a little scary, it was to speak aloud what she’d, and a group of other women, been formulating in their minds. Yes can be risky– not least because you can’t know the effects of a hypothetical completely, but also others might circumscribe your ideas or punish you for having them.

Klein has spent years thinking about and developing her Yeses, and I think she’s worth listening to. As for me, like the doctor, my Yes is guided by my ethics. I can identify pieces of a system which includes intersectionality,  but as for the specifics? Well, I have some work to do. Let’s hope some day I’m brave enough to articulate them aloud with the force of Naomi Klein.

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All by my shelf: Book Goals for 2017

Back in high school I had a pretty sweet gig  reading books. Publishers used to send them to me in exchange for a review. I know. I was pretty psyched about it too. As I got older, I dropped it. I won’t bore you with the reasons, but I will say I have been reflecting on my teen-self. I loved reading in a way I think has faded. I switched passion out for responsibilities and anxieties.

Oh, I never stopped reading. I will always love reading, but for the past several years, every time I picked up a book for me I felt a prick of guilt.The last several months I’ve been rekindling my love of reading– reading not for academic or intellectual advancement, but for personal enjoyment. If I learn something along the way, then great. If I don’t, well then it’s been great stress relief.
Still, just because it’s relaxing doesn’t mean I can’t use a challenge, so here are the challenges I’ll be participating in this year:

1. Flights of Fantasy Challenge: Ah, Fantasy, my first love. I’ve set a goal of 15 fantasy books this year, mainly because I’m planning on doing two other challenges, and I want to make sure I read a bit more diversely this year.

Flights of Fantasy Reading Challenge 2016 banner Alexa Loves Books Hello Chelly

2. Around the World Challenge: In Arabic there is a saying “Language is the bowl of culture”. To look for the lessons different people value, it is useful to read the popular literature in the region they grew up in. Bonus: Often times, people whose second language is English think about differently. That means there might be fewer cliches or more refreshing choices in diction and syntax. This also applies to insightful translations.

3. The TBR or the #beatthebacklist challenge: Like so many of us, I have lists of books I haven’t read yet. I have a stack in the corner that, for some reason or another, is unopened. Time to remedy that. If you’d like to see some of my TBR’s, you can check out my Goodreads account. I think I have about 20 or so books on my TBR, and I’d like to get through all of them this year.

4. Finally, I’m participating in a challenge of my own making. That challenge is the non-fiction or Learn Something! challenge. Despite what I said above, I’d still like to learn something about our own world that isn’t nestled in fiction.

As a whole, I’d like to shoot for 52 books this year. Let’s see if I can pull it off!

There you have it. My 2017 reading challenge.

Is anyone else participating in a reading challenge this year?

Eight Year Old Fears of Cliffsides

“I stare at this ceaseless, rushing crowd and imagine a time a hundred years from now. In a hundred years everybody here– me included — will have disappeared from the face of the earth and turned into ashes or dust…I spread my hands out in front of me and take a good hard look at them. What am I always so tense about? Why this desperate struggle just to survive? I shake my head, turn from the window, clear my mind of thoughts a hundred years away. I’ll just think about now.”- Kafka  on the shore, Haruki Murakami (56)

I was sitting  on the deep raspberry seats of our Lumina looking back at the decorative knit balls that hung neatly in a row along the edge of the rear-window when I decided to ask my dad what he was most afraid of. I can’t remember what he said; I just remember him turning to look at those little ornaments and the crunching sound as the tires spun against the pebbles in our driveway. Or actually maybe he wasn’t looking back, maybe we had just arrived and he had just parked the car.

The sun washed everything in light, bleaching the green grass and the paint on our garage door, which was actually just created from a variety of abandoned doors from rooms in houses long since renovated. I seem to recall it being summer because of the way the heat permeated from the faux velvet seats. I must have been 7, maybe 8, because we sold the gold Lumina before I enrolled in the Catholic school near my house.  I remember him laughing out of surprise, the strange “hyuk” sound emanating from his throat only manifested when he was either dumbfounded or derisive.

“What are you afraid of Leah?” he asked, grinning at me with red apple cheeks.

Again, I can’t quite recall my exact phrasing, but I can recollect– more than recollect, feel–my fear. This fear had been metastasizing since I’d first really understood death, since I’d learned to question Heaven and Hell. What I said was: Nothing. I’m afraid of nothing or, rather, nothingness. I am terrified that when I die there will be no me, no consciousness. No memories of bleached doors or dangling ornaments or pebbles pulled from my rock collection and thrown in a driveway.

My father laughed and said “Well, don’t worry, if you don’t exist then you won’t be there to know it.”

As I’ve aged, though I’m still quite young, I’ve wrestled with this question, and my father’s response, many times. I can never quite figure out if his response is comforting or disturbing. When he said it, I felt this strange twist in my gut, as if he had confirmed everything I felt afraid of. I didn’t sleep well that night because sleep without remembered dreams seemed a lot like death. Not even convincing myself I was the Red King, who created entire worlds as he gave up his own, could persuade me to turn off my light and sleep willingly.

Later, in high school, I truly confronted what the consequences of my fear’s solution would be. In class we read a short story on the types of people in an immortal world. There were two types, the story asserted: those who did everything because they had all the time in the world, and those who did nothing for the same reason. I wonder what eternity as the same soul would be like. How many decades, centuries, millennia would I enjoy everything or nothing? If life is eternity, and we can do everything or nothing,  will it be what I know now?
Should I give up my life for immortality?

At the end of the story, the author reveals a third group, which siphons off the population of doers and non-doers, who leaves for a mysterious cliff-side. Not much is explained, but the implication could be that they choose to die.

After decades, centuries, millennia of looking at the same hands, they chose dust.

Maybe, at some point, we’ll all want to choose dust; but, since dust comes a little sooner than we’d all like, maybe it’d be better to try doing  what we like, if we can, now.
That way, even if we disappear into a great nothing with no hot summer air or surprised laughs, our great life will have made going to the cliffs a little less terrifying.

 

 

Getting personal

I’ve always been an anxious person; I think it might stem from my sensitivity. I take failure really hard. So hard that sometimes the thought of it stops me from even trying.
So, when I spend hours convincing myself to complete a task and the response is negative?  I often surrender too much of my time to obsessive thoughts on how my failure reflects qualities of my character, my intelligence, my likeability, continue ad nauseum.

The more I think about these things, the less I do. They less I do, the more I feel like I am all of these things and they just fester and form a big, self-hating pile of sludge.

As you may have gathered, this is not a pleasant process. My heart clenches and burns and the nervous ticks I sustained throughout my childhood resurface. In elementary, after years of social exclusion and bullying, I started to make small sounds or rub my hands together when I became nervous or stressed. I was embarrassed by this, but I couldn’t stop myself. My throat felt constricted and ticklish at the same time and I felt compelled to make the sounds to stop it. It gave me a small illusion of control.

My family would always tell me to “stop that!” whenever they noticed it. They didn’t know what else to do, or how to help. It didn’t have the intended effect. Instead, the thought of making the noises made me so stressed out that I began picking at my eyelashes. I’d pull at them, twist them and tug them and, for a little while, that’d help. Even so, I knew it wasn’t healthy and soon my new habit began causing stress.

I won’t go into all the reasons I felt stress and anxiety throughout my childhood, that would take too long and I’ve become sick of rehashing all the things that are wrong with me. I really want to make it through this anxiety, and I think I’m at a point where  I can admit I need help.

To this day I feel like a fraud. If something goes successfully it’s because I got lucky or because no one scrutinized my work enough. Any moment, they’ll discover what I really am. I’m not afraid of social situations, at least not initially, because it’s easy to pretend you’re confident when the other person has no way to verify the veracity of your claims, having never seen you react to stress or hardship. It’s later that makes me concerned, because I fear they’ll discover I’m an impostor. I’m not as creative or kind or  interesting as I pretend to be during that first few days, and when they compliment me for being any of those three I feel my heart sink because I’ve mislead them.

Sometimes I manage my anxiety really well and all those self-hating thoughts sink deeper and I forget about them for a time, but they inevitably come back. Today they’ve been really hard to manage and I can’t seem to bite back the vicious idea that I’m a failure.
For now, the simplest thing I can do is take a walk and remind myself that I have a right to happiness and a right to mistakes as a human being.
And like so many out there like me, I’ll work on managing my worries step by step.

A little bit of humanity

“I called the bank recently” is not a thrilling beginning to any story, but it provides a useful framework for what follows. I called my bank not from my home state but from Area A of the West Bank.
Now if you are like the poor, bewildered customer service agent on the other end, then you’re probably asking yourself “What the f*ck is Area A?”. Or perhaps if you are a more respectful sort you might apologize then ask without the profanity. I don’t know. I don’t know you.

Area A is part of three Areas (the other two being B and C) delineated by the Oslo Accords in the 1990s. These Accords lead to the creation of the Palestinian Authority and allowed it varying degrees of power over certain areas.

The area meant to allow for independent control by the Palestinian Authority, also the smallest area, is Area A. It contains cities such as Nablus, Bethelehem and, the West Bank’s  capital, Ramallah.

The other Areas aren’t terribly important to this story, but if you’re interested Wikipedia is usually a good place for the basics.

This is the first piece of background information you need. The second is the West Bank has a number of “checkpoints”, some permanently ‘house’ soldiers, others only in times of heightened conflict, which monitor the flow of traffic within the West Bank and between the Israel-West Bank border.

All right, back to the poor bank lady. You see, I was calling from Nablus with a dilemma: I needed to get on a plane in Tel Aviv and I didn’t know the rules for missing a flight due to military blockade. Just a day earlier, two days before my flight, a PA officer opened fire on Israeli soldiers stationed around Ramallah. Following the attack, Israel placed a blockade around the city,  allowing only Palestinians to enter or exit. Unfortunately, I needed to go through Ramallah to get to Tel Aviv.

At this point I had a few options:

Option #1: Attempt to take a settler bus. This would mean finding a taxi willing to take me near a settlement, then walking over to the station with armed guards and convincing them that I belonged there. I’d done it before, but it wasn’t my favorite experience.

Option #2: Try to go around Ramallah. Another thing I’d rather avoid for the sake of my wallet  and my legs.

Option #3 : Call the bank reservation center and see what would happen if I missed my flight.

As the beginning of the story reveals, I opted for #3. Unsurprisingly, the representative had never received a call quite like mine. Uncertain of the protocol, she called her advisers. Well, she called them after I attempted for the fifth time to explain that it wasn’t a connecting flight I was worried about, but getting to the initial flight. To her, the separation between the West Bank and Israel was a nebulous thing, something she’d spent five minutes in history class learning about when she was 17, if she’d learned about it at all.

The conflict in the region is a divisive one. For those of us not living in the region, our position depends largely not just the information given but how it is framed. Was that PA officer a distraught, mentally ill anomaly? The PA might have you believe so. Was the shooting the inevitable result of decades of oppression and unequal treatment? Some Palestinians, even some Israelis, might assert it was. Or was it part of a decades long siege, tinged with anti-semitism, that Israel, the democracy, must unflaggingly defend itself from? Certainly the Israeli government would prefer to frame it that way. Or perhaps attacks like these are a result of a cultural lesion on Palestinian society that is tacitly supported by the government? I’ve spoken to some  Palestinians and Israelis who would claim this, too.

This conflict is often summarized in a few sentences, but it grows more complex as it accumulates history. When we subject Israel to censure, the oft heard response is that we are speaking about Israel as a single entity. In doing so, we categorize it as a “Jewish” state and, that is anti-semitic. While I disagree with the notion that criticizing the government of Israel is equivalent to criticizing all Jews (in fact I find the implication that the Israeli government somehow represents all Jews troublesome), I can see how continued focus on Israel might lead to unconscious anti-semitism in other areas of life.

The trouble is , and this is often given less attention, we  speak of  Palestinians as a monolithic entity with the same views, feelings, opinions just as often. There are two tropes: the helpless innocent, the aggressive terrorist.

When I return home I’m often asked: “What are Palestinians like?” The tone of the question depends entirely on which trope the person most subscribes to. For some reason, they are frequently disappointed when I inform them that mostly they are just people trying to live their lives, same as anyone else. Those who concern themselves with politics have vastly different opinions. I often illustrate this by telling people that  I heard a wide-reaching spectrum of opinions on President Obama in the same day.

So often people who have never visited the West Bank or Israel find it difficult to grasp this notion. I can’t say I blame them.  The number of people, and therefore opinions, in the world is incomprehensible. We must simplify to understand.

Palestinians, much like other people, have these problems with simplification too.

“People eat bugs in Taiwan,” One such Palestinian, whom the others call ‘nerd’ proclaimed. Then, as if expecting me to confirm it threw in a “Don’t they?”

“Er, not really,” I said. “It’s not usual.”

“There you have it. People eat insects.”

“No. They really don’t.”

“Do they eat frogs?” another inquired.

I then found myself relaying the same information to them :Taiwanese people are mostly just trying to live their lives and aren’t really that strange.

This proclivity for stereotyping that which we don’t understand is typical. The inquisitiveness is normal.  While such stereotypes are annoying,  Taiwan does not face ones as often which lead people in regions far from their own to suggest wiping them out. It leads to otherwise empathetic people to dehumanizing an entire nations and ethnicities.

Am I suggesting that every one learn the difference between Area A or Area B? No.
Instead I only hope that we cling to the small inkling in the back of our head which informs us of the humanity in others. If we can cling to that then a little knowledge could  help us to strengthen it.

Restless nights full of restive thoughts

It’s four a.m. I’m wrapped in soft green sheets and attempting to lull myself to sleep under the muted light leaking through my curtains.
My mind isn’t so much racing as it is attempting to work out several tough knots and snarls I’ve somehow managed  to create through either a lack of concentration or an abundance (also termed obsession). My mental acrobatics leave me sore and frustrated, like the soft pad of my fingers feel after my nails have stabbed them too much in an attempt to make a once straight string straight again. Focusing on one task like that tends to make me impatient and frustrated. I being to wonder if the knot will ever disappear or if I should just give up.

I’ve never been a racer. I’m an endurance runner. I slog through things and re-hash them over, and over and over. Like a five mile runner making a lap around a track I’ve found myself back where I started again, and again, and again.
That’s why I quit track; I tired of the view. I wanted to go somewhere.
Track seems easy to replace in the literal sense. I’ve never had a shortage of potential paths or hobbies. It’s dedicating yourself to one that’s the difficult part.

The metaphorical track in my mind has proven similarly  difficult. Certainly I have a number of options. Some are appealing, but ultimately empty. Like binge watching a Netflix show and convincing yourself it’s some sort of social research, they offer only an education in how to rationalize questionable decisions. Others are rewarding but seem impossible, like running a marathon they require a daily dedication you’re not sure you’re ready to commit to. Then there’s the issue of becoming “the marathon runner”. Aren’t you more than that?! Dedicating yourself single-mindedly to a single goal means you’re defining yourself, perhaps too narrowly.

So where’s the sweet spot in the middle?

If only I knew.  I guess I’ll keep picking at the knot.

“We’ll be ready”: Chinese New Year Part III

Feeling lost? This is part three of a series on my experience hitchhiking through Taiwan over the Chinese New Year.

We continued on our intrepid hitchhiking journey from Taipei through Wushe and finally to Puting. Arriving in a nearby city the night before the music festival we set up camp in a nearby field. The next morning we arose and debated on how we would reach the music festival which, according to L, began later that night. All of us felt renewed by the proximity of the music festival and by visions of open fields with music that wafted from the stage on the wind. Equipped with our optimistic energy and desire for adventure, which had only been fed by other parts of the trip, we decided to walk. In the morning five kilometers didn’t seem so bad and L was a pretty great navigator after all.

We walked down busy main roads for sometime, passing honking cars and businesses. A man stopped us at a crossroads and fed us a mysterious, sweet green plant before offering us– all eight of us– a ride on his motorbike. We respectfully declined and then decided to follow in the footsteps of Robert Frost and take the road less traveled. Past rice paddies, past a river, past trees we walked on a narrow dirt road. It was invigorating, it did not seem to matter that time passed quickly. We didn’t feel tired. As the oft quoted saying: It’s not about the destination, but about the journey. A good portion of the group lived that way. Now that I reflect on it, we were an odd group comprised of  a copywriters aspiring to be yoga instructors, a wayward wanderer and future lawyer, a restless dry humored English teacher,  a imperturbable history buff, a geneticist turned holistic sales person and spiritualist, a driven policy expert and, me, the confused graduate. Who really knows how we found each other, but we were together now. Suddenly, after hundreds of meters of silence we passed a small tea house.

“Shin ni guai la!” Happy new year– the tea drinkers raised their cups and shouted at us as we passed. We didn’t walk much further before deciding to go back to the tea house and sit on the lacquered tree stumps arranged around a small table outside. Thankful to remove our heavy packs, we relaxed under the umbrella and listened to the river gurgling behind us. A man came out carrying a kettle of tea and several glasses. Words were exchanged. He disappeared and returned with whisky, which he insisted we all share. 11043389_10153148903744630_2710500805244973210_oAnother group approached our table, two boys around my age, laughing and shy. One waved his phone at us hesitantly in between giggles. Two minutes later another picture of random foreigners on a facebook page popped into existence.

We tried to pay for the tea, for the whisky. He insisted we not. We debated which would be more culturally appropriate: leaving money on the table or respecting his wishes and not paying at all. Honestly, I’m still not sure which I should do when, but in this instance we settled on leaving a token few hundred. Securing the bills under glasses we continued our journey which lead us through a hiking trail where we met a large family of Taiwanese tourists. We took a small detour with them to visit a paper house but left them later when we saw the daylight weakening. By this time all of us were growing tired, hungry and anxious.

We left, walking back the way we came– past a small noodles shop with the black dog, past the family restaurant and past the police station where we turned left and walked up a hill into the rain forest. The road was eerily quiet and empty save for some abandoned
pieces of metal, wires and furniture.  Finally we came upon a seemingly abandoned shack surrounded by a collection of forgotten things. This wasn’t the open field I’d imagined and I began to wonder if we’d managed to get lost. L, on the other hand, seemed certain.Just then the universe, as if to chide me for my doubt, conjured up a woman  from who approached, grinning from behind the orange car sitting at the apex of the hill.

“Yes, yes, come,” she said vigorously waving us toward her. ”
10854945_10153149302039630_9162752080650808356_oJust around the corner  rows upon rows of doors and windows,  secured by silver metal, shot up from the ground to form a tall rectangular building. A building containing, it seems, every thrown out piece of furniture,  and construction supplies.
“This is the festival?”
“No, ” she said as we continued to trod an uncertain path through the piles. “This is.”

We all stood in front of the large rectangular opening and our visions of giant field and relaxation melted away. This looked less like a music concert and more like an impro10996495_10153149302044630_7520110268691222067_omptu dump. I turned to look at the optimistic, yet stressed, organizer.
“We’re going to be ready by tomorrow,” she assured us. She attempted to delicately step over some wires, but eventually gave up and, in her giant galoshes, stomped over to some ladders. “You’ll be sleeping up there tonight,” she said. “You can help tomorrow?”

That night our exhaustion slunk back toward us and we feel asleep restless and weary. How could we have known that the next day would provide countless stories we’d all certainly remember for years?

50 Shades of Grey and defining the BDSM community in Taiwan

There’s a joke in Chinese about 50 Shades of Gray. The Joke apparently relies on the similarity between the phrase “shades of gray” and “vaginas”. Personally, after running the words through google translate I don’t hear it, but I’ve been told the joke exists. Regardless of how many vaginas there actually are in the film or the books, they have gained some popularity in Taiwan. When I arrived in Taiwan, the advertisements for the film were plastered on billboards and buses, and in the first two months I was asked several times if I had heard of or read the series. Despite this popularity, I wondered how controversial the content of the books were and how the BDSM community in Taiwan was receiving them. While at a munch last month, I spoke with one of the organizers about his feelings on the matter.

The rise in the popularity of 50 Shades in the states precipitated a debate in the BDSM community in Taiwan.  Many BDSMers viewed 50 Shades of Grey with some agitation and some righteous anger. On one hand, the series’ growth contributed to the popularity of BDSM in Taiwan and S said he’s seen evidence of that growth at his events. On the other hand, many in the BDSM community prefer to distance themselves from the series, and what they feel it promotes. Like BDSM communities elsewhere, they were concerned that people might misconstrue BDSM relationships that don’t value consent. Christian Grey, the dominant in the film, repeatedly violates his submissive’s trust and demonstrates varying levels of emotional instability. Not only does he coerce Ana into sexual acts she isn’t fully comfortable with, but it is evident that Ana isn’t confident enough to communicate fully when she is and isn’t uncomfortable. This bleeds into other parts of their lives, with Christian going so far as to track Ana’s cell phone to find her. The repeated lack of communication and violation of trust throughout the book lead many in the community to be disturbed that others could think this was what a healthy BDSM relationship looked like.

“There was a lot of backlash from BDSMers. Y’know, they say ‘this is not BDSM,'” S told me when I asked him to elaborate. While S agreed with their assessment, he didn’t share the same anxiety. For him, 50 Shades of Grey presented an opportunity to educate Taiwanese people on what BDSM meant to those involved in the community. It provided opportunities to educate them on the three pillars of BDSM: safe, sane and consensual. 50 Shades sparked the interest, but it provided little in the way of education.  Beyond this, S felt it forced those already involved in the community to inspect what BDSM was to them. To S, the community needed to do more than say what BDSM was not– namely 50 Shades of Grey– they also needed to examine why the differences mattered and, in doing so, define what BDSM meant to them. Which parts of 50 Shades, if any, were acceptable to the community and which weren’t? If Christian Grey, who is widely considered a terrible Dom in the community, conducted himself in an unacceptable manner, what manner would be more acceptable? The BDSM community in Taiwan has an opportunity now to demonstrate the difference between BDSM and abuse, between healthy kinky relation ships and unhealthy ones and S feels they should seize it.

Despite these discussions, the BDSM community in Taiwan remains fairly small. S contributes its size in part to the lack of openness in Taiwan, but is hopeful that is changing. It would be interesting, in the future, to conduct some research on the perceived impact of 50 Shades in Taiwan. One way to measure that may lie in researching the  rise in prevalence of sex toy related injuries, as the Washington Post did which it claims is indicative of the popularity of 50 shades in the United States. If such a study is conducted in Taiwan, perhaps the BDSM community in Taiwan can use that knowledge as a means publicize its existence and educate those interested on proper sex toy use. Another way to measure it might be to measure the increase in users on BDSM websites globally prior to the release of 50 Shades and after it. As of now, it is unclear what sort of impact 50 Shades of Grey has had on the growth of the BDSM community in Taiwan or how the community will use it to educate people who found the book titillating, one can only hope the S’s positive outlook on the potential effects of the film prove true.

Kink in a foreign country: An Introduction

I arrived at the cafe a little out of breath, a little dizzy and a little thirsty from the heat. Tucked into one of Taipei’s branchlike back alleys, the cafe hardly announced itself as the location for a BDSM munch. A munch, for those not involved in the BDSM community, is a  social gathering of people interested in BDSM. Most of the time all people do is talk– and much of that talk isn’t really about kink. While some might envision dark red rooms and people in leather , the cafe featured an open patio, a small bookshelf and a menu written in pastel colored chalk. Inside people sidled past each other and congregated and small, tight circles. I walked around uncertainly, hesitant to approach anyone not least because it can be uncomfortable approaching someone and inquiring if they’re here to meet other people who enjoy bondage or face slapping, but attempting to  break into one of the tightly knit circles without having any idea if they were discussing lint, politics or cross-dressing– that is to say you have no understanding of the language– seemed an insurmountable obstacle.

So, I crept through the circles until I reached the front where  I decided to order something from the cafe’s indecipherable menu. Perhaps if I could brave ordering tea, I could brave introductions. Not to mention, asking the owner of the venue about his knowledge of a kink event seemed much less intimidating than asking one of the strangers sipping tea and laughing at jokes I couldn’t understand. As the nice barista served me some Oolong tea, which he disclosed was his personal favorite, I worked up the courage to ask about the munch.

“Yah,” he said, picking up the money I’d slid onto the counter. “This whole thing is the munch.” He circled the folded paper around.

“Uh. Cool. Thanks.” I  stood awkwardly by the bar for a while, sipping the tea and complimenting the barista on his recommendation before shaming myself in leaving the safety of the serving area. I looked around trying to spot the organizer of the munch, but his profile picture only featured a silhouette which, though flattering, didn’t do much in the way of helping me identify him. As I opened the door I heard the familiar sounds of English. Wonderful! Then I watched them all leave together. Not so wonderful. I forced myself to sit down.  I was here to learn more about BDSM practices in Taiwan, I reminded myself. I just need to be more sociable.

“That’s an interesting camera,” is not the most fascinating conversation starter, but at least it wasn’t “You come here often?”.

“It’s very old,” the man said simply and looked down at the rectangular wooden-paneled contraption hanging around his neck.

We talked for a little while in a stunted, one-sided way. I asked questions, he answered, I asked myself why he hadn’t left yet. He took my picture with the small box, looking down into it from the top and adjusting several knobs on the front. He revealed he was a filmmaker and his ex left him to become a food stylist in New York. I’d been here twenty minutes and all I’d discovered was that some people dream of styling food for commercials.

“So, is this your first, uh, I don’t know what’s the word in English…” “Munch?”

“Yes! Munch. Did you go here before?”

I shook my head. “This is my first one.”

“Oh, so,” he pushed a long strand of hair out of his face. “How did you find out about that?” “Fetlife,” I said simply. “What’s that?” I explained that Fetlife was considered a facebook for Kinky people. It was a way for those interested in BDSM to connect and discuss a variety of topics. He confessed he’d never heard of it and he found out from the organizer of the group, whom he’d known for ten years. Minutes later, the organizer appeared, carrying a Heineken in one hand and wearing a welcoming smile. “Here he is,” my new acquaintance announced.

“She says she knows you.”  Two sets of expectant eyes turned to me as I mumbled an answer. All I’d done was ask him to extend the munch time on Saturdays so I could attend. All he’d done was tell me there was another munch on Sundays. I’d hardly say I knew him.

We spoke for some time, exchanging the usual introductions, before I confessed I’d come here to learn more about how kink developed in Taiwan. Last year I’d met a foreign exchange student from Taiwan who seemed convinced, despite having not attended any kink events in America, that kink in “Asia” was incredibly different from kink in “the West”.

“Yes, it is different,” he spoke impeccably and with the grace only the host of an event can manage. Here kink was much less open, he explained. Later on, when I inquired about how globalization affected kink in Taiwan he explained that the munch I attended was started by the first public BDSM group in Taiwan.

I interrupted the chorus of agreement to clarify that the person I’d met felt less that it had to do with openness and more with mentality. He’d claimed that kink in “Asia” was focused on the mental aspects of kink than in the “West”. The “West”, he felt, was too physical. I asked the group that had gathered around if they’d observed any differences. S tapped his silver ring against the beer can and bounced on his heels.

“No, I don’t think so.” He expounded on different interpretations of kink, deeming individual relationships to  vary more greatly than regional practices.  In short, the “West” was no more physical and “Asia” was no more mental than any other region. I considered that for a moment. For me it’d always been interesting how people had used websites like Fetlife to connect with others interested in kink around the world. On Fetlife they could join forums on specific topics, discussing anything from balloon popping to current events. What was more interesting to me, however, was how even with the mixing, many people felt different cities, different regions practiced kink in unique ways.

I remember once attending a munch in D.C. and talking to someone about this very subject. To them, D.C. has a unique kink identity or culture– one different from, say, Baltimore, San Francisco or Detroit. They were very adamant about maintaining that culture and took pride in D.C.’s uniqueness. I asked S what he thought about that. I mentioned I’d read Taiwan’s BDSMwebsite which claimed that kink had changed a lot thanks to the introduction of foreign terminology and, possibly, the internet. How, I said, has the internet, or globalization, changed kink in Taiwan? How has Taiwan established a unique identity in the global setting of BDSM? Would he argue Taiwan is unique? Is there a sense that it varies from region to region? That is to say, do people in different cities find their practices and BDSM culture unique from others?

He told me that most of the time people communicated via bulletin boards before the internet, putting up posters for various meet ups. Understandably, it it difficult to measure the difference between pre-internet Taiwan to Taiwan now. It’s hard to even say whether the internet had any sort of significant effect at all,  though Taiwan’s BDSM website writers may feel differently. Only recently was a public Taiwan BDSM group established, the first in Taipei. Since then new BDSM groups and gatherings have been organized in Kaohsiung and Tainan.

“We’ve been trying, to have groups in Kaohsiung, but it’s been a little difficult. They are young there and so they are disorganized.” He disclosed that groups in the South seemed to think the BDSM community was better there. To them, it was more friendly, more welcoming and less conservative. “You know,” he said. “The difference between the South and the North.” So, the biases between different BDSM communities stemmed from already established ideas about the Taiwanese North and South and, even though the Southern BDSM community was still in its nascent stages, already people in Kaohsiung had claimed the BDSM culture there was a singular one. To them, the difference between BDSM Taipei and BDSM Kaohsiung was, perhaps, indisputable.

How much do our preconceived notions about culture in our own area and culture in others color our understanding of the individuality of our community? How does our participation in different communities affect our unique identity? If you were to go online now and examine these people’s Fetlife profiles would it be evident that one person was from Kaohsiung and the other from Taipei? Could you predict it from that alone? How much emphasis does our environment deserve in affecting how we practice even those things that are on the margins of our society?

All of these questions are difficult enough to analyze on a regional level, much less a community or individual one. Identity is such a complex ideas– or perhaps, if one considers that many variables that affect it– a near infinite set of interconnected ideas.Even when I try to isolate one aspect of someone’s identity and study it, I find the the ideas I must consider to properly frame it growing ever larger. At the end of the munch, S told me about several other events in Taipei and I expressed my interest in attending. One of these events was an academic conference which was meant to discuss the place of kink in democracy– the advertisement for it mentioned the presence of BDSM practitioners in the Sunflower protests among other topics. Now I wonder, is it possible to connect someone’s motivation to protest the attempted ratification of an economic agreement with China to their interest in kink? If there is a significant correlation there then why does that correlation exist? It is interesting to me that the researchers chose to connect those parts of  certain Taiwanese people’s identities. I can only suppose I will learn more when I attend the conference at the end of May.

Next up: I ask about 50 Shades of Grey in Taiwan and whether 50 Shades is ‘good’ for the community or ‘bad’ for it.

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.