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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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“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.

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.

Through the Mountains

“You guys okay?” he asked, attempting to tie a miniature Taiwanese flag to a stick he’d picked up from the side of the road.
“Yeah, we’ll be fine.”

“Great, see you in Wushe!”, L walked away with his usual cheerful swagger. “Remember,” he called back at us. “Suns up, thumbs up.” That was his shortened way of telling us that cheerful hitchhikers were more likely to be picked up.

We stood on the side of the street leading from the mountains to Taroko Gorge for about five minutes before a red van pulled over. Clambering out of it and setting about moving various items around in the back, the driver asked us where we planned on going.

“Wushe,” I said.She turned around with a grin on her face, her moon earrings swinging to and fro.  “Well, I’m headed that way, so get in.”

We rode in the car with her for half the day. Conscious of the opportunity at hand, I chose to sit in the front so I could learn more about the person kind enough to pick up three strangers. Unfortunately for her, my sitting in front meant she would be subject to a near endless stream of questions.

Her parents were Presbyterian missionaries in Taiwan when she was born. She’s lived in Taiwan for years, though I can’t remember how many. I know she attended a British school and her father, a preacher, worked with different villages. The family left in ’76 shIMG_6390e told us. “We left when it started gettin’ real bad,” she said, referring to the White Terror or the twenty-some year period Taiwan was under martial law. Unfortunately, she didn’t clarify how they became worse. In fact, most think the situation in Taiwan improved following Chiang Kai-Shek’s death in 1975, though one might be inclined to think it could become worse after watching the beginnings of the suppression of the April 5th, 1976 student protests in China. Perhaps they thought the situation in Taiwan would deteriorate after the formation of the  World United Formosans for Independence, a group interested in the liberation of Taiwan and, who, in 1976 sent a letter bomb to then governor Shieh Tung-min[1].
Regardless, the family didn’t feel safe. Her father had been particularly outspoken in the past and now worried his frankness would lead to trouble.
“Y’know they always told my father he could say more because he was a foreigner and, boy, did he take advantage of that– everything they gave him he gave back twice as hard.” Being a rabble-rouser, as she called him, during martial law is not entirely safe, so the family settled in Bangladesh in 1976– this being only five years after Bangladeshi independence. Somehow they felt that would be safer, I guess. “How was that?” I asked her.

Establishing an independent country is difficult on its own, but in the last five years Bangladesh had also endured two cyclones that wiped out half the population. “In Bangladesh there was hardship everywhere,” she paused to lean over and grab an almond snickers from a small cavity on the dashboard. “The main occupation was chipping bricks for roads. The country wasn’t resource rich in stone, so they had to use bricks instead. They threw bricks through the American embassy– and the Russian one when they learned about Afghanistan– they couldn’t throw any stones– there were no stones.”  At this point her dog Snowy, who I had scooped into my lap, attempted to inspect the food his perch on my knees. Unsuccessful, he settled for me petting him instead. She smiled and I took that as a sign to continue asking questions about her life there. The people in Bangladesh were very poor, she told us. “They looked like the street dogs I saw in other countries”. She spent a few minutes describing starved people “in generally bad shape” to us before cutting herself off.

“Y’know, Bangladesh wasn’t always like that. My elementary teacher told me they were rich before the British came. They used to tile their roofs in gold.” She told us this all the while driving up winding mountain roads. Here and there she would pull off. “You gotta see this,” she’d say, pulling the brake of the old red van. We’d all jump out, Snowy included, and walk  around for a time. While we walked she’d tell us more about IMG_6434Taiwan’s geography and  ecology. “Here’s the IMG_6428hiking  trail five hundred meters up,” she said pointing across the ravine to a nearly hidden path between the green foilage growing on the side of vertigo mountain. “We played with knives up there once,” she said laughing.I asked if it had any safety features. “Sure, sure, but some people still fall off, you know.” I looked horrified and stepped back. Judging by the way Snowy was attempting to scramble his way back to the car, I wasn’t the only one in the party afraid of heights. We returned to the car and drove for a time, and we talked about Japanese control of Taiwan. “When Japan left to make way for the KMT, my teacher told me she had to get dressed up in her best clothes and go sing for them. She said she remembered the Japanese all lined up, looking clean cut in their uniforms. They thanked them for the performance and were so polite. They did the same thing for the KMT when they arrived and it was totally different. They had holes in their uniforms, they were dirty. Couldn’t even bothered to say hello or thank you, just where’s the food and get out of our way basically.”

We drove more, the sky darkened and clouds settled over the roads.IMG_6481“I think that’s where my mother got her PTSD,” C had told me earlier about Bangladesh in passing. For a while I let that statement go and we talked about other things– how she found her dog, Snowy; how strange she felt living in Kentucky in middle school; her studies of high elevation animals in Taiwan. Eventually I asked her about it. “My experience was very different from my mother’s experience,” she began, “and my brothers were very different from mine. My mother has nightmares– wakes up thinking people are watching her. Y’know, we had to go to a therapist after getting back from Bangladesh, the church wanted to make sure we were mentally sound and all that, and she told him about how people looked at her. I mean, people look everywhere. People look in Taiwan, too– not positively, not negatively– they just do. But there, there it was hostile.” Her mother, she seemed to believe, bore the brunt of the hostility. Sure, she startled when balloons popped, but her mother had once been swarmed by angry men when her father left her alone in the van to check on a ferry. “They didn’t like women being out alone,” she’d explained to us.Meanwhile, she disguised herself as a boy. “That was the only way I could have the run of the town,” she told us.

By the time we’d reached the apex of the mountain we’d talked about education, history and family. She’d shared favorite memories and I’d shared some of mine. Not long after we’d started our descent she pulled over again– we’d done so twice before to walk across suspension bridges and look for the stars, but she seemed particularly excited this time. She’d hoped to see the milky way at some point in the drive and occasionally, after several loud exclamations and some laughing, she’d pull over and tell us to get out. She’d sidle out as fast as she could, untangling Snowy’s leash and bringing him along with us. This time the car, perhaps indignant with the frequent stops, refused to brake. One of my companions pointed it out uncertainly, causing C to glance at it then decisively pull the car into reverse before adopting a carefree smile, laughing and walking to the side of the road. “That oughta stop it,” she’d said to my companion, who was doing his best to look reassured.

Now I know memory has a way of fooling you, and I’m not sure if it was the company, or the experience, or the knowing that I had pushed myself beyond my boundaries, but I remember that sky containing most brilliant collection of stars I’ve ever seen. On the highest peak in Taiwan, above the trees we stared greedily at the planets, and constellations that nested themselves in innumerable stars and breathing in the cold, crisp air, I suddenly felt completely reinvigorated.

My Family is Cursed or Lessons in Getting Lost

Every year my family has a reunion in a small town in Pennsylvania where the “core” of the family lives. One year, when I was about fourteen, we decided to go. My mother has recently begun researching our heritage and felt it would be good to become reacquainted with that side of the family– “that side” being the family of my grandmother. We ended up  terribly lost and arrived three hours late.

Fortunately, nearly everyone else was late as well because none of us could find our way to the park. It was during that trip I invented the “Wireback curse” to explain our lateness. The Wireback Curse, like most other fairytale curses, was placed upon the family when one of us angered the ‘wrong sort of folk’.  Perhaps s/he failed a test set up by a witch in disguise or s/he angered some sorcerer by refusing to marry him. Who knows what that person did, but every descendant of theirs has been cursed to wander for the rest of their days with no sense of direction. In fact, we will always wander in the opposite direction of our intended destination. Basically, if we are the navigator on your road trip and our instinct is to go left then you should probably go right.

Luckily our curse isn’t the sort that requires us to learn our lesson, but one that requires us to accept it. Once we accept it we will be free of it, sort of. I don’t know; I’m not a fairy-tale teller. My point is getting lost all the time isn’t always such a terrible inconvenience.  Granted I did spend a week taking a twenty minute walk to the train station instead of the eight minutes it should be, but at least I got to see the river. I’ve learned to budget extra time for nearly every activity I plan because I know I’ll likely get lost. For this reason, it’s always something of a triumph for me when I am able to find my destination quickly. This also means I have a tendency to show up early to nearly everything. I guess I’ll just never be the cool kid who rolls up to the party late.

A few days ago I took the train to Taipei, hoping to meet up with a friend there.  I learned when I arrived that he needed to spend the night working and felt he didn’t have the time to go out. We’ve all been there. Being the cool guy that he is, he offered me a few suggestions on where I should go while there. “You should check out the night market in Songshan,” he said. “Oh, and while you’re there, you should go see the Rainbow Bridge, too. There’s a map in the Songshan MRT station.”  I had a couple of hours before the last train home and I didn’t want to waste the trip up there, so I took his suggestion. I’m in a foreign country, I told myself. I should be taking advantage of every moment. I should be intrepid and move forward. Carpe Diem! And other upbeat, positive sayings you write in a travel blog.

IMG_6274
A terrible picture of the Raohe Street Night market entrance in Songshan.

I should note here that I don’t have a phone with a data plan. This means  I need to rely on a) my terrible sense of direction b) pixelated pictures of google maps I take on my phone before leaving my apartment and c) the kindness of strangers to find my way. Getting to Songshan was easy enough. Take the red line to CKS then hop on the green line and ride it all the way to one end. Once there you’ll find a map that conveniently lists (in English) the nearest night markets and any landmarks a tourist might want to see. Both the market and the bridge were fairly close to the station, which was good for me as it meant I would have more time to, well, get lost before finding my way back to the train/MRT station. Before leaving the MRT station I snapped a picture of the map, knowing better than to rely on my memory*.

I found the night market within minutes.  I was ecstatic. I could spend forty-minutes wandering around, looking at stands, eating food and taking terrible pictures no one will ever see before I needed to leave to find the bridge. Perhaps my navigational skills were improving! Then I started getting a little over-confident: The curse wasn’t real. I understand directions, I just wasn’t confident enough before.

I whipped out my phone, and examined my map to find the street I needed to find was unlabeled. Okay, okay, no problem. I’m relatively resourceful, I can find another way. Well, the street I needed to go down ran perpendicular to the market. I mentally rotated the map in my head to make sure I knew which direction to turn. I just needed to go left! Perfect. Great. I looked left to see a giant temple where I thought the street should have been. Not so great. Why wasn’t this temple on the map, anyway? The temple had a plaque. A plaque! It IMG_6282was historical. Tourists love that stuff. Maybe my map reading skills weren’t so great.I looked at the map again, was I just confused about where the exit I had taken actually came out of the train station? Do I have my scale wrong?

Whatever, I was used to this. Sometimes it takes me rather a long time to find my destination and  sometimes I don’t find my intended destination at all.  Here’s where the lesson part of my post comes in, the part where I spit out some zen nonsense about the ‘secret’ to staying calm while lost– something about your “perspective” being the problem. It’s not the problem that’s the problem, it’s your perspective on the problem that’s the problem. Just kidding. Anyway, I had been wandering around for twenty minutes when it occurred to me I might not have time to see the bridge. I needed to head back. I felt a little disappointed, but if there’s anything I’ve learned about getting lost it’s to appreciate the experiences you do have, even if they aren’t the ones you intended. Sure, I didn’t get to see some Rainbow bridge, but I did find another park. I got to pet some dogs. I ate some great food. Today was a good day.

I walked back to the station and checked the time of the last train. Twenty minutes. Suddenly I became very daring. I’m not sure why, but I turned around and walked briskly back through the tunnels of the train station and found myself back at the night market. I wandered up and down streets before accepting I should probably give up. Instead I walked back to the night market again. Hoo-boy, was I being reckless tonight. I liked to li  ve on the edge now, apparently. Who knows, maybe I’d even arrive at a party ten minutes late next time someone invited me.

I peered at the temple on last time, as if a path would suddenly appear. At this point, some of the food stands that hIMG_6311ad crowded the temple were packing up and one rolled away to reveal a small alleyway. I swear I heard chimes in that moment. I checked my watch. I still had fifteen minutes, maybe I should go through that shady alleyway.  There it was: a set of stairs with the best color combination in nature—ROY G. BIV. Breathlessly I bounded up the stairs and across a walk way before finally setting foot on what I felt, in that moment, was surely the greatest bridge in existence. Look at how the walkway curved! This, this was worth missing a train for. This felt like a testament to the notion that determination leads to success. It was exhilarating.IMG_6285

If you are wondering how the story ends,** I did make it back home. I ran through the MRT station to the train station, collecting the stares of strangers as I jumped through the train’s closing doors.  Out of breath and laughing, I sat down and grinned the whole ride back.

** I totally know how to get there now if you’d like to go

*Wow, you actually made it this far? No, really? It’s like 1,400 words.

Who’s this “Leah Jane” chick anyway? I mean, what’s her deal?

Who’s this Leah Jane chick anyway? 10352953_10152936008674630_714139088800537851_n

A couple of my friends have recently awarded me the nickname Carmen Sandiego, not because I’m a spy and/or thief but because they can never seem to keep track of where I am. Lately I’ve been traveling a lot.

I confess that I always envisioned myself as a spy when I was younger– but as, like ,a fantasy spy where morality and immorality had clear, set definitions. Much of my childhood ‘spying’ involved running and tumbling through my backyard to defeat my arch-nemesis*, Sally. So, structuring my blog name after the famous game from my childhood seemed appropriate.

Today I am very much not a spy. I am a twenty-two year old recent graduate who studied political science and international affairs. I’m interested in learning about other cultures, international relations, human rights and, well, nurturing my curiosity. Lately I’ve especially been interested how technology is affecting social structures, tradition and societies. By the way, if you want to read a great book on the great technology debate (is it good for us? is it bad for us), I’d recommend Smarter than you think by Clive Thompson**.

I also like: books, photography, dance, and adventures***.

*spies always have arch-nemeses
**I’d also recommend it if you just want a book to read

***What does that even mean, you dork?

Okay, but what’s your deal? 

My blog description lists me as a twenty-something ‘adult’. Adult suspiciously in quotation mark.

After reading my description you may have though “God, not another angsty early-adult blog about ‘finding yourself’ ” Worry not, most blog posts won’t be saturated with lamentations on my uncertain future or my enormous debt (thank you American education system). I often joke that with my friends that your twenties are for ‘not knowing’. You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know what you want to do. You suddenly have to deal with loans and taxes and finding a job that you like….well, just finding a job usually.

I initially started this blog to help my mother keep in touch while I traveled. I wanted to make posts on my daily life, on what I found in new countries and on what I was thinking about. Now this blog is intended to help me explore my interests. It’s a place for me to write down my hypotheses, my ideas, my opinions, my thoughts and my questions. It’s a place for me to organize my thoughts.
Most of all I want to write stories. For me, the most interesting part of traveling is learning about other people. People are really interesting. So, when I write about a topic– any topic– you can probably expect some dialogue and some character development thrown in.

What do you want from us? 

I decided to make it public  because I’m hoping the audience effect will help me continue writing. I’ve tried the whole journal ‘thing’ and I have a shelf of partially filled journals as evidence of my repeated failure. Writing somehow becomes less fun if no one reads it. I like writing to be a conversation. 
I want to hear your thoughts and your ideas.
If you have a blog you think I’ll be interested in– tell me!
If you have something to add to what I’ve written– tell me!
If you want to confess your undying love– te– well, actually maybe don’t tell me that. That might be a little awkward for both of us.

Anyway, that’s me! Who are you?

What’s the news like over there?

Whenever I travel everyone always asks me about the news in the country I travel to. Okay, okay, that’s a lie. What they do ask is “What’s it like over there?”. I use that as an excuse to tell them about my view on different issues and to thrust different news articles upon them.
So, to give my dear relatives a break, I’ve decided to introduce a new feature on my blog. In every “What’s the news like over there?” post I will, at the very least, post an excerpt from an article I find on the political, social or pop culture issues in the country I’m currently residing in. I will always hyperlink the title of the article to the original post.

Enough chit-chat. Here’s the article.

Taiwan Spy Affair Shines Light on Military Morale

“The indictment of a former Chinese army captain and four Taiwanese military men on spy charges this month comes amid cuts in military spending and planned reductions in the size of the armed forces…Analysts and some military experts in Taiwan say the latest indictment rekindles concerns that the growing trade ties between the two historical foes has made Taiwanese officers softer targets for China’s espionage efforts. The debate around the military’s role in Taiwan and the recurring spy scandals have implications beyond the Taiwan Strait, with analysts and experts saying it potentially puts in question the willingness of the U.S. to entrust Taiwan with military technology and knowledge…According to Tsai Huang-liang, a Democratic Progressive Party lawmaker who sits on the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee, from 2013 to early March last year, Taiwan has unearthed 15 cases of Chinese espionage; of those, 90% involved active or retired members of the military…“As part of your military training, you are told that the enemy is China and that’s who you are preparing to fight against.

Yet at the same time, the ranking government leaders are becoming friendlier with the so-called enemy. This creates confusion for the military of their place in the society,” said Arthur Hong, an adjunct professor at Taiwan’s National Defense University.…Beijing still views Taiwan as a renegade province to be taken back, by force if needed. A desire for reunification with China, rather than independence, plays a role in the motivation of some member of Taiwan’s military to go on China’s payroll, some analysts say.”

Water, Internet and MacGyver in Nablus

“Everybody hacks here,” C (the assistant director) leaned against the kitchen counter, drinking tea. His casual response to my asking if I should install a VPN. Overall he felt it would be a waste as governmental organizations can gain access easily regardless of such technology and hacking is incredibly popular in Nablus. “In fact,” he continued. “There have been times I haven’t been able to use my computer because someone has taken over it.”

Later that evening the electricity went out. In the few days I’ve been here, we’ve faced two electricity outages and three days of water shortage. Today I took a shower using one and a half containers of bottled water. Yet, though citizens may have trouble accessing electricity for their lights and water for their showers, you’ll also find many are equipped with iPhones, laptops and all manner of technology. There’s a strange sort of duality here between technology and underdevelopment. On one hand, most of my students will likely be very tech savvy, on the other hand electricity outages and water depletion is not uncommon here.

Last night, as I sat on the balcony drinking tea and eating a fresh Falafel made by a sociable stand owner down the street, I noticed a young woman sitting on top of her roof on her laptop. She laughs at something and leans back to rest on a black cylinder which squats on her building. The next day I met a taxi driver, who I would come to know affectionately as “Super driver” who had wi-fi in his cab. He would often pick up his cellphone while driving and, removing his ever-present cigarette from his mouth, answer “Yes habibi”. Of course, despite all of their tech. savviness, so much hinges on having electricity or, if you’re wealthy, a generator. While staying there I sometimes found myself unable to finish lesson plans due to an unexpected electricity outage.

As for water, most, if not all buildings in Nablus, feature a flat top with a large black container positioned on them. Every night, these black containers are replenished with water. Some of you may wonder: where does this water come from? In fact, the water is effectively allocated to the West Bank by Israel, which controls the water supply between Gaza, Israel and the West Bank. Now, some readers may have read the Oslo II Accords and point out that Nablus is located in the small percentage of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority; therefore, the water should be controlled by the PA. Actually, there’s a small asterisk there which indicates they should be allowed to control the water insofar as it does not affect the Israeli settlements(page 103) (Also found here) So, in practical terms, Israel controls the water as any water available to the region reaches the settlements first. The settlements themselves are sprawled around near villages outside of Nablus, often surrounded by walls and the IDF.

I talked more with C about this and he highlighted Oslo II as one of the major reasons we, and other Nablusis living in our area, were dealing with water shortages. “There’s also just not good infrastructure here,” he told me.  “We only get water bills sporadically, so maybe we haven’t paid.” I nodded. Each building in our area was outfitted with a large black tank on top of the roof. Every night, new water filled the tank, but often very slowly and sometimes not at all.

“How does water even get up there?” I asked him. “Where does it come from?”

“You know,” he said, finally looking up from the computer screen. “I have no idea. That’s a good question. There’s probably an aquifer near here.”

Water in Palestine is a complex issue. The joint water committee or JWC, a partnership between Israel and Palestine’s Palestinian Water Authority (created after Oslo II) approves all new drill sites for water and, in practice, the amount of water allotted to Palestinians. According to the Israeli government, some of the approved drill sites have yet to be tapped; but, Palestine is guilty of illegally drilling elsewhere (here) (here). The PLO, the governing party of the Palestinian Authority maintains that the Oslo II Accords have not yet been fulfilled. According to an article written by a member of the Negotiations and Development unit, the water resources in the region continue to be divided disparately between Palestinians and Israelis (here). Some cite the codification of inequality in the Oslo Accords as the cause, others blame infrastructure and poor management by the Palestinian Authority.  A recent article on Bloomberg speaks to this disparity, highlighting poor infrastructure which has left many unconnected to the grid of water lines. “According to Water Authority statistics, Israel now supplies more than double the required amount to the Palestinian Authority, or 53 mcm, but even that does not meet the areas’ needs”. Unfortunately, around 30% of that is lost due to leaking pipelines.

Later in the article, Tamar Feldman, an attorney with a civil-rights company in Israel,  notes the following:

“The West Bank water problem is threefold. First comes the “outdated and dysfunctional” Oslo framework. Second are the more than 100 “unrecognized” Arab villages in West Bank areas under full Israeli control, which have no access to the national water grid. And third is Israel’s refusal to license new Palestinian wells. The military authority destroys wells drilled without a license as well as old water cisterns that have been repaired for use, she said.”

This, is perhaps a rather good summary of some of the main issues with something a simple as water. Of course, water isn’t solely a Palestinian-Israeli divide issue, it is also tied closely to the issue of poverty and wealth disparity. During my conversation with C, the assistant director,  he also noted at one point that water and electricity tend to “go out” more in places like the Balata refugee camp than in the region we lived in. After living for two weeks in a region near the Souk,  the other teachers and I moved to a wealthier section of Nablus. There the water almost never went out, even though more people resided in the apartment. Of course, that could also partially be due to the landlord of the other building; but, I wonder if it also may be that the wealthier get more governmental attention and, in general, have more access to resources.

My inclination is to say that developing grid works for water and distributing should be simpler and more accessible than, say, the internet or the phones that many of my students were equipped with. Even so, technology is not as accessible as this article may make it seem. For one, it tends to be more difficult due to sanctions and the reality of being an unrecognized country to obtain something as simple as a charger. I learned this when mine broke one day. Somehow, I had managed to hit it on the desk just so and one of the metal prongs that connected the battery box to the detachable cord broke off and slid into the box. As I shook the plastic box, listening to the sound of metal knocking around, I felt certain this was a death sentence for it. R.I.P. charger.  In the U.S. I would normally order one off of Amazon for a few dollars, but here I needed to find a store that could recognize it and attempt to repair it or order a new one at a high price. To my surprise, they managed to fix it! This involved them breaking apart the protective box that surrounded the main section of the charger, removing part of the cord and replacing it with another one and finish by gluing or soldering it firmly in place. To me, this was some unthought-of MacGyver level stuff. If you’re impressed by that, which I was, you’d probably be interested to learn more about the innovative tech start-ups developing in Palestine which may not only help the economy, but also influence the culture (as things like this tend to do everywhere)! Overall,  as we develop a sense of what technology can do and we discover more disparities between what we’d expect of old technology (like water grids) and new technology (like the internet, computers, etc.). Then, Maybe as we refine the old technologies, maybe even using the new ones with the help of our MacGyver friends, we’ll be more ready to solve problems that now seem insolvable. Who knows?

Here, Askar

“This Askar,” he says jabbing a finger at the lit screen. We are sitting in the darkness at a round multi-colored elementary school table. He is slouched halfway into a plastic lawn chair, staring at a screen covered in Arabic.

His finger touches a picture of a boy, or maybe a man, I’m never sure of the distinction. He stands, unsmiling, holding a sign in front of his chest. Behind him is Askar, narrow streets and tall, worn buildings. Almost no  one, except  maybe some white justice crusader describes Askar as beautiful. It isn’t, but it is home to some thousands of refugees.  Some of them, like the boy in the picture, were born in the camp.
So there he stands, staring into a lens, holding a sign featuring two rockets and red, green and black writing which reads:

“نحن قوم نعشق الموت كما يعشق اعدائنا الحياه “. ‘We adore death as our enemies adore life’.

A, the volunteer at the center I work at and the person currently slouched down next to me watches me mouth the words silently to myself.
I look at him confused. “Shoo yani?” I ask. ‘What does it mean?’
He struggles for a while, his hands clawing in front of him as he attempts to remember his English . Like all Palestinians he studied English through school, but English and Arabic are very different languages and there aren’t many language learning opportunities after.
Eventually he types it into google, google completes it before he hits the second word. Later I go home and search for it. I type the first three words and hit enter; hundreds of thousands results appear, the first of them linking me to videos and facebook pages. Some pages feature a Hamas flag, others militants dressed in all black.
He translates the phrase for me, I stare at him still uncertain. What do you mean adore death? How is this being used? Why the juxtaposition between death and life; us and enemies?

His arms move from his pockets to his chest, in front of him and back again as he explains. He speaks little English and my Arabic leaves something to be desired, so it takes several revisions of his explanation before I think I understand. Israel took, and is taking, Palestine. Without Palestine we are dead. This is what he tells me, but still I wonder how the phrase became so common. Later I find a sound cloud of a man speaking these words, over a microphone in front of what I imagine to be a crowd at a rally.

Back in the room, I look at the picture which had been pasted next to a picture of a smiling military boy, kneeling on the ground in his camo, showing off his gun.

I wonder, if we had compared their lives what would they look like? What led each of them to that moment? I ask A why he thinks the boy did this. Why did the boy cross the border illegally? Why did he stab a soldier in Tel Aviv station? Did the soldier shoot at him? Did he aggravate him? Ahmed shook his head.
“It’s because of Al-Aqsa,” he said simply.

True, the closing of Al-Aqsa could be seen as a catalyst for recent events but perhaps,more than that, it’s the daily reminder of where you cannot go. It’s hearing the stories of grandparents who lived maybe a hundred miles west before ‘48. It’s growing older and realizing more and more that you may never really see more than this refugee camp or the small bit of land you’re allowed to walk on; that no matter how hard you work it will be difficult to get out of Askar or Nablus. It’s knowing that seeing another country is practically impossible. It’s being denied freedom of movement, economic rights, freedom of expression for an ever growing, changing list of reasons.

Not everyone reacts with the same sort of anger. Some withdraw themselves into apathy; but the anger, the exhaustion is almost, if not completely, universal.