Category Archives: travel

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.


“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.


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.

Ancitipation [a post from my diary 08/31/14]

Two weeks ago I wasn’t sure where I would be today. Earlier this summer, shortly before the kidnapping of three Israeli teenswhich followed the torture of a young Palestinian by settlers, I accepted a position with a non-profit dedicated to teaching English to young Palestinians in Nablus. For those who may be unaware, the city of Nablus is located near the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank: Balata.

The directors of the program still seemed confident that we would be able to get through, until a number of volunteers from our sister school were denied entry into the country, and consequently into Palestine. “Just wait,” they told me. “S [one of the directors] will be trying to  get in soon. If she cannot get in, the program will not run unfortunately. So, for now, just wait.” I waited. I waited and read. Over the summer, I had watched several truces take hold and fall through. I had read about airstrikes, rockets and protests. When my parents asked me if they thought I would be able to go all I could do was shake my head. “Maybe,” I said. Shortly after the deaths of three Hamas military leaders and the following reported retributive execution of eighteen accused informants/collaborators within Gaza. I wondered if the end wasn’t too far off. Netanyahu was paying a political price for the continued conflict and I wondered if Hamas was losing moral or resources.

Two days before my flight I learned she had made it through, though with some trouble. The trouble I expected. It is not easy to get into the West Bank. In fact, for some it is near impossible and the conflict certainly made it more difficult. As I threw my suitcase together after work, only twenty four hours before my plane, the only reality I felt was the tacit recognition that I still might not get in. I might fly for fourteen hours and immediately turn back and fly for another fourteen.

I didn’t really sleep the night before,partially because my dogs are horrible bed hogs, but also partially because of the writhing nervousness that had settled in my stomach (by the way, I learned on the plane that this is partly because we have neurons in our stomachs. Bless free documentaries). As I boarded the first plane to New Jersey I felt some of that nervousness settle. As you’ve probably guessed by my last post, I’m a bit apprehensive about telling strangers where I’m going because they don’t show concern in a manner that I find helpful. In fact, I find it rather stressful because they often resort to talking at me rather than with me. Yet, as I was waiting to for the plane to arrive a man next to me provided the exact opposite of what I expected. He talked to me. He talked and really listened. He showed concern in the right way. He wished for my safety and the conversation ended with him also wishing luck and success. “It seems like you’re on the way to accomplishin1544950_10152683854839630_4313782899919649797_ng what you want, and you have a good head on your shoulders. Safe travels.” I smiled gratefully and thanked him.

My experience was later repeated in Newark, with a lady who dutifully answered my question about the extra security I had just passed  through. Moments before, I approached C-138 and found a sign indicating a “secure boarding area” (pictured to the left). Immediately, I wondered what it could mean, or if this secured area might have been the result of a threat or the more general conflict in the region. “Actually, it’s been going on for the past few years,” she explained as I sat down after dutifully having handed over my bags for a search. I rummaged through my returned backpack and pulled out 10653597_10152683854829630_3084078336879842266_nmy phone to text my Mom I had made it safely. “Why?” I paused to look at her. “Why did they add it?”

 “I don’t know, but I’m glad.” She said this last part resolutely, and repeated it several times later in our conversation. She had already explained why she made trip to Israel in the past, and why she was now (her sister had completed Aliyah, immigration, and was no living in Israel). When she asked me what I planned doing there, I confessed I would be teaching but chose not to divulge where, knowing that her reaction may not be positive and not wanting to begin my trip with an argument. Quickly I followed up  by telling her I planned to establish a story telling group and, hopefully, broadcast the stories in the US. The infrastructure was already there and a bar in Tel Aviv had been trying to host story slams for a while. After discussing issues like translation, and set up I ended by saying I felt sure I’d find excellent stories in the region. She nodded enthusiastically. “There’s great diversity in Israel because so many Jews lived in diaspora for most of their lives.” At this moment I felt comfortable enough to mention the tensions in the region and intimated that I wanted to ask about them in a tactful manner.

She waved her hand dismissively. “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that. Jews are very forthright, they won’t get offended. Maybe some will yell at you, or ignore you, or turn away but then you can just move on to the next person…but, Jews are very forthright.” Actually, though I had been treading somewhat carefully with her I found that to be great advice. There are always stories to find, so if you’re denied one you’ll certainly find another. As I got up to board the plane, I thanked her for the conversation and for her, well, forthrightness.

She ended our conversation with more reassurance. “You’ll love it there. A curious mind like you? You’ll definitely succeed there.”

I smiled and waved and boarded the plane. Fast forward nine hours of parks and rec and documentaries later, I got of the plane and stood nervously in “foreign passport” line at customs. As I watched the girl in front of me speak with the officer, likely telling her about how excited she was to return for college, I felt the nerves settle comfortably back into my stomach.

“Your first time?” An older man ventured knowingly, shifting a violin case to another shoulder. I nodded. “What are you doing?”

“Teaching English.”

“That’s great,” he reassured me adjusting his cap over white hair.”Just great.”

“What about you?” I asked.

“I’m playing in a temple coming up, actually. I’m a violinist”

“Have you played before?”

“Oh yes, I usually play in an American Folk festival. It’s really popular over here.”

Here I got excited. I love folk festivals, having grown up attending so many.

“Really? When is it?”

“Spring sometime,” he responded to my disappointment. “It’s called Jacob’s Ladder.”

Just then, the lady in the small windowed box called me forward. I thanked the man for talking with me, wished him luck and smiled because even if I didn’t get in I had already met and spoken with so many interesting people.