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Forbidden Love?!?!: How dating someone made question how I defined rights and culture

Dating in a city where dating is taboo is not thrilling. It’s not romantic.We don’t steal embraces and chaste kisses in alleyways. We don’t even hold hands.  Sure, we often go out together — which has greatly improved our neighbors’ gossip fortunes (you’re welcome)– but the traditionally romantic parts of our relationship were held in one of two rooms, until recently.

Perhaps I should break a rule here by rewinding and dumping some info. (sorry Stephen King, guess I’ll never be a great writer). For the past several months, I have unexpectedly found myself living in Nablus, a city in the West Bank.  When I’m not engaging in socially frowned upon behavior with my boyfriend, I’m studying Arabic at the University in the same city. I knew when I moved here that dating was a complicated social topic, but I had hoped to establish my home and his as a sort of private space–  one where we could be comfortable in who we are.

I spent most of my time at his place, mainly because I could sleep over at his. Occasionally, I would invite him to mine when I had work to do in the evening, or an early class the next day. This also meant I could spend more time socializing with my roommates, whom I really enjoyed, without sacrificing too much time with my boyfriend.

Roughly two months ago, however, the dynamic shifted when a new Palestinian roommate join us. During the consideration period she insisted she felt comfortable with having men over, but another roommate, also Palestinian, though quite liberal, sensed discomfort. We let her move-in anyway; we needed the money and we believed her. Everything continued as normal at first.

My boyfriend visited maybe once a week. Each time I would check with each roommate before he came. Mostly I would take him into my room, out of the common area, so as not to bother the other roommates. The second month the new roommate started shutting herself in her room the moment he walked in. I knocked on her door and asked her if she was certain she was okay with having him there. I told her I didn’t want her to hate being in her own living space. She assured me everything was fine.

One day I walked out of my room to find the landlord sitting in the living room. Not just the landlord, but a girl from next door, whom the roommate had befriended. I had received no call, no warning. He asked me if I’d known that boys were forbidden in the apartment. I calmly informed him that he had not stipulated this when we had moved in. A number of foreigners lived in mixed apartments here, so I assumed it’d be the same in this one.

“Don’t you know about our traditions?” he sputtered. I spent the next five minutes, face burning, listening to him berate me for my choices.I told him I’d never do it again, rushed back into my room, packed up and left.

After the meeting I was enraged, humiliated and filled with self-doubt. I felt violated, like my privacy had been invaded. This was meant to be one of my safe spaces. I felt angry with the societal implication that women needed to be protected and, by extension, that they were incapable of making decisions about their own safety and well-being.  I questioned if this meant I couldn’t ‘cut it’ in the field of work I was most interested in. I struggled to discern where the line was between preserving what you believed to be your own rights and not infringing on others’. I wondered about how to be a good ally to feminists here and whether my own outrage was justified.

While we walked down the street to his house, my boyfriend listened to me puff my frustration into the cold air, before constructing a scenario which ended in this question: “Let’s say you lived here and you saw a boy entering the building. Could you stay silent?”

I snapped my mouth shut. In truth, I didn’t know. If I had been raised to believe boys and girls mingling in their living spaces was inappropriate; if  I felt that seeing a strange boy in my apartment building infringed upon my safety, would I be justified in making sure he left? Even if it affected others? Did my right to privacy supersede theirs? What is privacy and how do different cultures interpret it? Is a right innate?

As we continued walking down the empty streets, I descended deeper and deeper into this question: What makes a right? When do I choose to defend one and let it go? I realized more clearly then what I had known in some small part of my brain. A right is decided by the will of the majority. If others do not define what you believe to be a right as such, you must fight against them, often at great cost.  This becomes even more complex when considering an individual’s right in a country they aren’t a citizen or native of. Add on to this the concept of allyship and the long history of well-intentioned people interfering in the progress of another country and bungling it up.

I knew I shouldn’t extend the conflict by speaking with my landlord. It wasn’t worth the price of making others uneasy– even if they wouldn’t admit they were, even if it meant I was humiliated in front of a stranger, even if I disagreed with the method of communication. My grievance was a relatively small one compared to what others’ had to live with. I might be the subject of gossip for the year. I might be shamed or humiliated for five minutes. But I didn’t have to spend my life here. I didn’t have to conform long-term with a society I didn’t agree with, or be punished for diverging. No bravery is required of me.

Perhaps even the landlord, whose attitude I had found so disagreeable, was  struggling with society in some small way. Perhaps he faced loss of face because of my actions. In order to defend his reputation, he had to make a public show of berating me. Perhaps. Or perhaps I’m being too nice. Who knows. It’is hard to tell when you’ve spent so little time in a new culture. It’s hard to know when to push and where.

Probably the best choice I could make is to throw my support behind a group in Palestine whom I believe in, but even that carries friction.  One on hand, to be an ally I must support someone. On the other hand, how much of my own cultural upbringing informs who I decide to support? It reminds me of the divide I see within feminist groups about things like the hijaab. Some feminists, even  Muslims in Muslim majority countries, view it as a symbol of oppression; others view it as a symbol of expression. Both can be correct, both believe the choice should be up to the woman, but who do you support? And why? And how do you support them? Is there room for nuance and how do you separate cultural influence from individual choice?

Being an ally, and choosing whom to ally with, is a difficult decision. Knowing when to stand up for your individual rights against the greater society can be difficult, too. I’m not sure if I have the right answers, but in some strange way I’m glad I’ve been forced to ask the questions.

*I should note that this should not be taken as a blanket statement on Palestinian culture, and shouldn’t be a comment on daily life here. This is intended to be interpreted largely as a personal experience which made me question my belief system.

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The suddenness of religiosity

There’s something to be said about the theory that we become more religious as we near death, or as a friend nears death, or death becomes a greater statistical probability (even if that probability is still very small).
Suddenly, you’re grappling with the metaphysical and philosophical questions you try to avoid in your daily life because you know very well that you don’t have the answers to any of them and hope that you’ll some how absorb them over the course of trying to live.

It starts when you start focusing on them– on those questions– that religion slips in. “Is he okay?” is one of those questions. Inevitably, especially if you’re imaginative (and aren’t all of us really when we are anxious), you come up with scenario. What so many portrayals of this process don’t get is it’s never linear. It’s never bad to worse. It’s bad, better, worse, worst, okay. At some points you focus on just keeping it level at “okay”, even while your heart clenches and burns.

Periodically, as your heart oscillates between hammering and painful twisting, you start making deals.  You don’t even have to name a deity or a creator. You just hope for some temporary influence over the world. You give up things; you sacrifice the hypothetical.

I don’t need my dream job, you say to the universe. I don’t need him to be with me.
I can give up this plan I had for myself, or this treat. I promise I’ll do something to return the price to you.

This is when you are less than okay. When you’re okay, you can tell yourself he must be too.
He must be okay because he’d make the safe choice, because he’d get lucky, because it couldn’t possibly be as bad as you imagine. Then a small voice in the back of your head says “What if he’s not?”

And you say, he is. He probably just doesn’t want to talk to you.

“That’s highly irregular,” the voice retorts.

Then you begin to wonder: What could he do that would lead to radio silence?

Drink too much and fall asleep? Decide that, actually, he wanted to break up with you? Cheat on you?

That’s when you realize, you’d rather he just cheated. That’s when you deals start taking on another form. You say to yourself, I can take that. I can take him cheating as long as he’s alive. I can take him breaking up with me. I can take never seeing him again, as long as he’s alive.

You keep checking your phone. It’s obsessive. Your heart leaps and sinks like a sine graph every time you do, and every time you do you pray that this otherworldly force has taken your deal, no matter which one.

 

Restless nights full of restive thoughts

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

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

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

So where’s the sweet spot in the middle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.