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.

So, we broke up: Strategies used in getting over my ex

Break up is a little bit like war.  I can hear you all groan. I know, it sounds a lot like a platitude. “Love is a battlefield”  and even if you put your heart back together it’s never the same and all that nonsense. Just hear me out.

It’s something a lot of political science majors learn in introductory classes. In each war strategists begin fighting using tactics learned from previous wars– sometimes with little regard for how ill-suited they are to the current one.

Stage One:  The bad analogies, similes and metaphors stage

I remember the day we broke up; I cut my toe in the shower.  It bled way more than it had any right to, given it was such a tiny little thing. The whole thing was made worse by the fact that previous to the shower I am pretty sure we were going to–well, anyway, a couple of days later it formed a scab because that’s the body’s response  to being attacked in that way.

I remember looking down at it and thinking “am like that scab. am like this clumsy shower cut. Sure it hurts now, but I’ll heal and soon I’ll barely be able to see the scar at all.” You see, it’s all a healing process.

Looking back I question those thoughts. Did I find them reassuring or did I think this in some sort of mopey-haze? Really Leah, really. You’re like a cut? You can do better.

You see  that’s why I needed a makeover. I wasn’t just cutting my hair, I was transforming myself. I was becoming a new person. The post-breakup makeover is classic. Everyone’s done it because we believe we can fool ourselves into thinking we’re a new, better version of ourselves with a swishy dress and a dramatic haircut.  This way you can look in the mirror and avoid your sad, sleep-deprived eyes and remember that change is coming. It might take a little longer and it’ll probably be more painful than a haircut, but it’s possible. It’s possible to feel whole without this person.

Stage Two:  Do everything (which is really the culmination of stage one)

I hate moping. I hate it. I feel pathetic and the day just seems to lengthen into a dully, pixelated infinity. The day after we broke up a friend came from Taipei and we did all the conventional emergency-recovery things: ate pizza, watched movies, painted nails, re-hashed the break-up too many times at too many different angles.

Then, after I spent my moping-allowance, I threw myself into every activity I could think of. Rock climbing? Sure. Try this new food? Absolutely. Hike a mountain? I’d love to. Attend art events, write a play in 24 hours– all while working– yes to all of these things.
If you wanted a study buddy or someone to be scarily enthusiastic about your idea to visit a cat cafe, I was your girl. No idea was too silly, too scary or too intensive for me. I need to make up for lost time, after all! Time I spent at home or time I spent thinking about a boy who could just toss me to the side. It was my time now– time for the cliched independent woman speeches, time for the indignant dismissals of my ex, time for dreams and ideas and way too many energy drinks.  Oh yes, I was motivated, fierce and exhausted. 

Oh man was I tired– no number of “you can do this” playlists could remedy the exhaustion. Of course this stage of the break up I was also gifted with super endurance and super focus, something I’d be thankful to have now, so I didn’t seem to notice the exhaustion until stage three.

Stage 3: Reality

The first two stages are great coping mechanisms, but eventually you have to contend with, well, reality. Sure you cut your hair and, sure, you climbed to the top of the rockclimbing wall despite being terrified but those things only temporarily alleviate the pain.

I found myself desperately scrabbling for something to keep my mind off of it and I discovered that some of the coping strategies I used just didn’t fit. I listened to strong songs about recovering from a cheating ex– but, while they helped immeasurably during my first break up, they felt strangely hollow this time. This break up wasn’t the result of cheating. I didn’t feel the same righteous anger. I inspected our relationship and I couldn’t find the flaws I found in the first relationship. I was fighting using my old strategies and this, well, this was a different war.

No matter how hard I tried to maintain my anger (much of it borrowed from friends), my enthusiasm (also borrowed) or my rallying calls for change, the reality is change doesn’t happen that quickly.  There isn’t a panacea for break-ups.  There are no shortcuts; the only way is through.

So don’t criticize yourself for not getting over it fast enough. Don’t worry if your last break-up routine just doesn’t seem to help.  Maybe last time you went out every night, but this time you don’t have the energy. Maybe last time you met one-hundred thousand people, but this time you don’t really feel the need to socialize. That’s OK.

Ultimately, what helped the most was taking everything at my own pace and acknowledging that the break-up activities that helped last time might not be as helpful this time. In the end, it wasn’t the haircut or the thousands of hobbies or the angry soapbox speeches that helped so much as freeing myself to just feel sad for a while.  So, I did it. I changed my strategy and I moped. I moped, I moped, I moped. I wallowed in my own pathetic feelings. Then when I got tired of moping, I stopped. I stopped and reflected.

I’m not going to lie and say that I discovered everything in my life was perfect without him. I’m not going to claim I felt instantly healed, but since then I’ve slowly started engaging again. I’ve dedicated myself to a few activities I feel passionate about. I’ve made a small circle of friends  I can rely on.  Most of all I reminded myself that everything was truly going to be ok– and that is one way break ups are nothing at all like war.

“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.

WTNLOT: China gives aid to Nepal while Taiwan is rejected

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

 

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

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

….

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

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

Who am I? Who will I be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who am I?

Who will I be?

A Family Dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeling lost? The story starts here.