Tuesday, September 16, 2014

BARF

Everyone go ahead and read these remarks from Emperor President Ma:

The KMT is a party local to Taiwan, it is progressive and forward-looking, practical and responsible, and it is a diverse party that is willing to embrace changing times.
…people spread across Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu might have come from different places and have different histories, but the acceptance of multicultural society is what makes Taiwan precious.
The Aborigines may believe in ancestral spirits and rainbow bridges, the earlier Han immigrants remember the sadness inherent in their relocation to Taiwan, the people following the Nationalist government to Taiwan in 1949 remembered having to leave their homes and families behind, while the newer immigrants — such as foreign spouses — have the hope that over time this land will become their home. No matter who came first, no matter where we had come from, we are now all Taiwanese.
On this land, people of any culture and ethnicity are welcome to work side by side, to sweat and toil over the common goal of making Taiwan better; the embracing of multiple diverse cultures is the cornerstone of democracy.
We are the most localized of all political parties. Any supporter of the KMT would be able to walk tall and say: ‘I’m Taiwanese, I support the KMT.'
Now, remember that the KMT is in fact a party from China, and not only that, an invading force from China (although I don't hold that against the everyday folks who came over from China in the '40s, who were just looking to get out of China and stay alive, I do hold it against the political arm of the KMT - and if you don't think the KMT has any other arms, you aren't looking very hard). Remember that the KMT has annexation sorry "reunification" dreams for Taiwan and as such, does not respect Taiwanese sovereignty or identity. Remember that while they do tend to win the Hakka and aboriginal vote, as the DPP's early "we are the party of Hoklo people" strategy alienated those groups and, despite doing more for them overall, still hasn't managed to win them back, that they identify as Chinese and tend to get upset when others don't agree, and that those who actually have power in the KMT are generally not anything other than Han Chinese, who identify as Chinese over Taiwanese. Remember that they only make gestures towards being "Taiwanese" come election time. Remember that they are not progressive: you can say you're progressive all you like, but if your policies don't speak to that, it's all farty sounds as far as I can tell. They are reactionary, they are Old Order, they are the party of rich men (note as well that there are no powerful women in the KMT).
Remember the gang affiliations, even from way back in Chiang Kai-shek's time, of the KMT make them no better than a crime syndicate with really good PR.
And repeat after me:
BARF
BAAAAAAAAARRFFFF
BARF BARF BARF BARF BARF BARF BARF
BAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!RRRRFFFFFFF
B A R F B A R F B A R F B A R F B A R F B A R F 
barfybarfybarfybarfybarfybarfbarf
B. A. R. F.
BBBBBBBBBBBB
AAAAAAAAAAAA
RRRRRRRRRRR
FFFFFFFFFFFFF
barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf barf 
BARF.
*ahem*
...and there ya go.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Why I Like The Singing Garbage Trucks

Taiwan's nation-wide method of garbage collection is the singing garbage truck, which drives through your neighborhood once or twice a day and which most people must meet and personally deliver their garbage to. Some apartment buildings and communities have a garbage service that obviates the need to meet the truck, but most of us are not that lucky (I live in a community, and have a doorwoman, but there's no trash service).

This method, differing as it does from the "leave your stinky trash on the side of the road until the truck can come by" method popular in much of the USA, is often attacked or ridiculed by locals and expats alike, most recently in a Ketagalan Media article. I generally like KM, and I agree with the second half of this article (which is actually about throwing toilet paper into a can rather than flushing it). But I just can't agree with the author on this:

Taipei is the most developed city in Taiwan, yet despite its free Ubikes and newly revived artsy cultural parks, it is still plagued with junky private buildings covered with rusty metal sheets, messy electrical wiring and piping, stinky side streets, an eyesore of public buildings, and a primitive trash removal system (you would think that they would have come up with something better than having to chase after the classical music butchering garbage truck every evening at the same hour by now).

I agree about the junky buildings, although the KMT-and-gangster-spearheaded urban renewal projects are not the way to deal with that. I agree about the messy wiring and to some extent piping and the often ugly public buildings.

But I do not and cannot agree on the trash. 

The USA's system works fine in small towns and suburbs, where the trash in the bins is mostly spread out, because the houses are spread out. I have been told it emphatically does not work in large cities, though, where the only choices seem to be "smelly dumpsters out back that make the whole area reek, reached through trash chutes that lead to stinky rooms that have roach problems", and leaving your trash on the curb, where the buildings are packed so closely together that it turns the street, for that night, into a leaky, stinky, rat-infested obstacle course.

I know a lot of people like to pretend that America is a Shining City on a Hill, where everything is modern and we do everything right (hahahahahahahaaaaaaaaaahahahahahahahahhaahhahahaaaahaha
hhahaaaaaa HAAAAAAA ha ah hhahaha haha...ahem. Sorry.) But, as well as the typical trash removal systems in the US work, or don't work, they would never work in a densely populated subtropical city like Taipei.

Considering how many people are packed into almost every square inch of much of the city - and even then, it has more breathing room and open spaces than many of its immediate suburbs - could you imagine what garbage night would look like? The sidewalks themselves would faint. And to have a dumpster out back? In the subtropical heat and humidity, it would putrefy and reek far more heinously than anything you could imagine in, say, New York (where it still putrefies and reeks). Can you imagine the shiny brown hordes of cockroaches that would attract, not to mention the rats? Taipei already has a cockroach problem!

Could every building start its own trash removal program? Not really - imagine the chaos that would befall apartments without doormen/women. Residents would have to do it themselves, which opens up all sorts of new doors for resentments and neighbor feuds. And it would be decentralized, making it stunningly less efficient than the well-planned, well-oiled (sometimes literally, heh) system we have now. It has its inconveniences - if your building lacks trash service and you just can't be home at the time the truck comes due to work commitments, you're basically screwed - but overall I think it's yet another feat of urban planning that Taipei has gotten right whereas other cities, including in more "developed" countries, have gotten dead wrong.

I know the Libertarian or "anti-government" types will hate this, but the carefully-planned, centralized system really does work better. I'm sorry to destroy your dreams of a capitalist utopia, but it is possible - even likely - that greater efficiency comes with centralization. Maybe not for everything: certainly planning centralized agriculture was a massive failure (although with better planning it perhaps didn't have to be, the fact remains that it was). But for trash collection? This works.

Plus, it allows sanitation officials to:

- Immediately spot and notify people not using city-issued trash bags, which are issued for a reason;
- Have a mass-food waste collection program in which people can dump food waste into bins rather than throw it out, and that can in turn be used for something other than piling up in a landfill (does anyone know what it is in fact used for?)
- Keep an eye on who is obeying recycling laws and who isn't

And you get the added benefit - at least I think it is - of getting a chance to meet your neighbors. You've all got to do it, so you may as well chat while you wait.

It's the smartest, fastest, most efficient system you could ask for in a dense area like Greater Taipei. I can't speak for the countryside, but it works here.

So, although I once had six bags of glass bottles because the independent recyclers (most of whom need the income that collecting recycling provides) wouldn't take them and I was not able to meet the truck on "glass recycling days" for a few months, I still think that it's straight-up wrong to call it a "primitive" system or imply that the stinky mess that is an American city on garbage night or apartment building trash chute and dumpster is somehow superior. It isn't.

I, for one, look forward to the tuneless crooning of Fur Elise twice a night, every night.



Thursday, September 4, 2014

Here is some "Taiwanese see themselves as ethnically Chinese" bullshit for you.

So there's this new poll out: "53% of Taiwanese view themselves as Chinese", according to the Taiwan Competitiveness Forum. And 87% think of themselves as part of the "ethnic Chinese community".

That's nice, except it's total bullshit. And the parts that aren't bullshit don't mean anything.

I mean, it's not bullshit in that such people exist, and the vast majority of Taiwanese would agree that in terms of ethnic origin, they are "Chinese", because they are not stupid and they know how DNA works. If you asked me if I saw myself as "ethnically Armenian, Polish and Western European", I'd answer "yes", because what? Could I answer "no"?

So?

Looking at this in more detail, first of all, the body that conducted this poll is pro-unification (or, more accurately, pro-annexation, as that's what it would be). It's pretty easy to skew a questionnaire or survey to suit one's political ends - people do it all the time. You don't need a degree in statistics or social research methods to know that. Do you trust a pro-unification group to bring you news on what the Taiwanese people think? I don't. You want to put out a survey that I'll put some stock in? Then have it be done by a truly neutral body.

Focus Taiwan, who is reporting this, is the government news agency. A government that's been KMT-controlled for awhile, to the point of thinking that people don't like their policies, not because their policies are bad (although they are), but because they "haven't been properly explained", who have tried to change textbooks to promote a pro-China, pro-Chinese identity viewpoint, and actually use phrases like "establish correct values". Since the Sunflower movement, the CNA/Focus Taiwan have gone from being a reasonably neutral news source to being a pro-government mouthpiece. I used to pay some attention to them. Now I wouldn't believe them if I stuck my hand out the window and it came back wet, and they told me it was raining.

Update: Thinking Taiwan thinks along the same lines, because unlike the Taiwan Competitiveness Forum, "Everyone's Favorite Jerkface" Tsai Eng-Meng, and Focus Taiwan, they don't buy into total dog-crap.

Secondly, I don't see how it matters. Considering oneself "ethnically Chinese" doesn't mean you see yourself as culturally Chinese, nor does it mean you see yourself as a part of China, or your country as one that should be annexed by China. If you asked a bunch of Singaporean Chinese if they identified as ethnically Chinese, they'd say yes, too.

In fact, that is emphatically not the case. Young adults are not interested in watching their country be annexed by China.

Thirdly, the numbers are not all that promising. According to the link above, which I'll put here again, they reported that "90.4% of Taiwanese said they identified as Chinese".

So either the survey terms were different, or the number has actually dropped considerably in the past year (it's not clear, as the exact wording of the two surveys is not made available. I would quite like to see them).

And finally, identifying as "ethnically Chinese" doesn't mean people don't identify as Taiwanese. In fact, over 95% of Taiwanese citizens do identify as Taiwanese. That is a higher number than those who report identifying with the "ethnic Chinese community". As both numbers are well over 50%, many people choose to identify as both. Just as I choose to identify as American, and also Armenian, and also Polish...

...so?

In short, whatever the results of this survey are reported as, the truth is there for anyone who wants to see it. Even this guy, who wrote a stinking pile of bullshit calling for Taiwanese to be "taught" the correct idea that they are Chinese, "making unification possible" (I hope he suffers in some painful but non-fatal way as death is too good for him) admitted that the real numbers don't lie: Taiwanese see themselves as increasingly Taiwanese, even as they admit they are ethnically Chinese. Support for independence is growing, and support for pro-China ideas is shrinking. Taiwanese identity is on the rise. Just click through the links above and you'll see.

And ignore the slanted reporting of yet another pustule of pro-China chicanery.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

China rules out democracy in Hong Kong, and how it would be an honor to be on the CCP watchlist

So, China (well, the Chinese government) has just gone and proven once again that they're a bunch of big fat jerkfaces. After years of promising Hong Kong that democracy was on the horizon, they've now yanked that away and offered a pathetic booby prize: a committee can select nominees that have Beijing approval! Whee! Free at last, free at last!

I'm not sure if China is surprised or not that Hong Kong has correctly figured out that this is not actually democracy, but I do know that this doesn't change my very low opinion of China. In fact, it's only made it stronger:


 photo ScreenShot2014-09-03at50510PM.png

Seriously, if saying openly (which I am now) that I hope the CCP is overthrown and that they are an incompetent government that lacks a proper mandate to lead will get me on their watchlist, then it is an honor to be on that list. (I'm not sure if I am, but if I am, or it ever happens, it only confirms that I was right to say that the CCP is that bad. They stifle freedom. If they don't like me, it is an honor not to be liked. Toeing their line means accepting the unacceptable.)

In short, fuck you, Communist Party of China! 凸益凸 ~~ I hope you die a hard political death.

As noted by Michael Turton, the general punditry have "just figured out" that there is a connection between what happens in Hong Kong and what could happen in Taiwan if Taiwan accepts the idea of becoming a Chinese buttmonkey I mean SAR.

I guess I shouldn't be shocked that a group of people - most folks who are not in the Taiwan blogosphere or not  Thinking Taiwan (which is excellent), basically - have been caught with their heads up their asses yet again. They are uniformly terrible at writing on Taiwan - even the major news outlets. The New York times publishes foofy hot-springs-and-food pieces and could stand to publish more hard news, the WSJ has long since sold its soul if it ever had one, the Reuters editors insert all sorts of wrong bullshit into articles about Taiwan (e.g. calling Taiwan "an island that split from China over six decades ago after a civil war" which is simply historically false - during and before that war Taiwan was Japanese and before that, it was briefly independent after 200 years as a part of imperial China - a government that no longer exists - in name only. China declined to defend or effectively govern it in any sort of centralized way even in the 19th century which is why Japan was able to take it in the first place). And don't even get me started on The Economist, where everyone who reports on Taiwan should be fired via defenestration from the highest possible floor for their idiocy and lack of journalistic integrity in reporting objectively.

But, I still feel sad that I have to file this under "No shit, Sherlock" and marvel yet again that the lackluster punditry and joke academics who claim to "know" Taiwan hadn't picked up on this before. What can we learn from this? Don't trust the lackluster punditry and joke academics.

However, what bothers me more is what this says about China's attitude towards Taiwan.

Someone, somewhere, in the CCP, must have woken from the chemical party long enough to stop and think "hey, if we tell Hong Kong it can only have Fake Democracy, that'll piss off Taiwan because more people will figure out that when we forcibly annex our Chinese Brothers Across The Strait, that the first thing we'll do is slowly dismantle their democracy and put Fake Democracy in its place. There are still some people who don't fully realize this yet, and it's better for our plans to take Taiwan that a few people be delusional about what Chinese rule means. So, how do we handle this?"

I mean, they must have known that the bait-and-switch they just pulled in Hong Kong, which hasn't been working so well in Macau, either, would wake people up to what Taiwan's future could look like as a Forcibly Annexed Peacefully United "province of China".

The fact that they did it anyway is really scary, if you think about it.

It means that they don't think Taiwan is enough of a flight risk that they have to carefully tailor their lies message to appease the Taiwanese into continuing to believe that being a Chinese SAR would be "that bad". It means they think they've got this one in the bag, that Taiwan will soon enough be theirs for the taking. It means they can do whatever bullshit they want to Hong Kong, and that the reaction of Taiwan isn't important enough to cause China to change its strategy so as to "court" its neighbor. Read one way, it seems they no longer think that Taiwan needs to be convinced that it would be okay to be an SAR - they think they'll get Taiwan no matter what.

And that is horrifying.

Seriously, fuck the CCP.

I can only hope that either my interpretation is wrong, or that their hubris will be their downfall.


Monday, September 1, 2014

Taipei - City of the Future, and the Great Walls of China

I found this article on China's urban planning mess courtesy of Alexander Synaptic's Facebook page, and felt that there was some relevance to Taiwan in here that I felt like writing about.

So while I have a couple of women's issues and hiking posts on the back burner, I'll tackle this first.

One reason I love living in Taipei (Taipei specifically, although the rest of Taiwan is not bad in this regard either) is that they have largely avoided the urban planning mistakes of much of the USA, which China is now falling prey to. It's the same reason why, when I was a resident of the country of my citizenship, I enjoyed living in Arlington, Virginia.

It's also a reason why I am not that interested in living in the major urban centers of China.

Basically, I have seen with my own eyes how Beijing was transformed, in a generation, from a city of interconnected, pedestrian-and-bike friendly hutongs connected by roads with bike lanes and dotted with historical sites and squares into a smoggy hellscape of massive ring roads, six-lane highways (downtown, even!) with unpleasant sidewalks if they existed at all and no more bike lanes. The old hutongs were either torn town for glass-and-steel monstrosities that soared into the gray-brown smog above, leaving little space for street-level development, or turned into ersatz up-market "hutongs" dotted with tourist shops replacing the erstwhile real deal.

Why would I want to live in that?

As one of my former coworkers put it, in Taipei, as ugly as some of the architecture is (and I don't think it's all ugly - only some of it - but there is charm to be found if you look closely), as you walk down the street there's a lot to see. Old stores jostling for space with new ones. Chefs from Hong Kong style restaurants smoking outside, backed by with ducks hanging behind glass. Red lanterns and carts full of barbecue, tempura, tofu, dumplings, buns, onion pancakes and more. Basically, you can walk down most streets and they practically shove the food in your face. But walk down a street in Beijing and you're likely to have four lanes of exhaust-spewing cars on one side, and on the other...a wall. Maybe they thought the one great wall was so damn great they needed to fill the whole city with them. Or maybe some horrible glass box - no shops, no lanterns, no food, not much street life at all really.

Why would I want to live in that?

And as this happens, more and more people are fleeing to the suburbs. Can you blame them? With a city center so uninviting to life-after-work, surrounded by not-so-great walls, it makes sense to flee.

But that's just what happened in the USA, and I don't want to live in the vast majority of places in the USA either, so why would I want to live in that?

Every time I go back to the USA, I end up being picked up at the airport. There's no other convenient way to do it. There are buses (and you have to make connections) but no Airport Express trains. It takes forever to get between cities because either you have to "beat the traffic" or take the (usually delayed) train. No bullet trains (the Acela emphatically does not count). Visiting either set of parents, we can't go anywhere without driving, and one has to drive to the nearest urban center. That's fine, if you're in the country - you have to do that in Taiwan, too - but once in that urban center, you also have to drive! There is no worse driving than that of a multi-lane open highway that empties out into a series of shopping centers interconnected in the most mind-bending ways.

Not a thought to building more public transit - there are buses, but you wouldn't want to rely on them. There aren't any subways or trams. The only subway system worth a damn is in New York, and that one is in desperate need of upgrades and maybe a nice bath. In DC, we'd head down to the Metro and find we had to wait 14 minutes - this in the early evening on a weekday, when it's fairly busy - for a train to go three stops, but the trip wasn't walkable. 14 minutes! To catch a train to go three stops! That's only like a 5 minute trip! In Taipei if you have to wait 6 minutes (which only happens at night or on the Xinyi Line, which I hope they fix soon) you're groaning. I couldn't possibly have been a freelancer in DC the way I am in Taipei - I'd need to own a car I couldn't have afforded. There would be no other way to get between my various jobs in any decent amount of time. Everything was so spread out.

It's a reason why I can't attend grad school in the USA: not only can I not afford it (I would seriously never be able to pay off that loan), but a lot of schools are in areas where you need a car to get around.

I can't stand American urban planning in America - it's one reason why I left (also: healthcare, and fear for my safety in a country of people packing heat where the streets are not always safe for women. Guns make me feel less safe, not safer) - so obviously I wouldn't want to deal with it in China.

Taipei, on the other hand, is like the city of the future.

In DC, when I arrived in 1998, they had been talking about the "silver line" to the airport for years already. This was when Taipei's metro was first getting started (that's the year the yellow line opened). In that time, the silver line hadn't even begun construction (no ground was broken while I was in college, nor did it begin when I lived there again from 2004-2006) whereas Taipei's metro grew from an infant into a fiercely competent adult.

To recap: Taipei built an entire metro system in the time it took for DC to argue about the silver line for years, and not do jack about it. Taipei's metro is still growing, whereas the silver line, after they finally broke ground, is only about halfway complete. You still can't ride it out to the airport. It took DC to build half a Metro line in the time it took Taipei to build, basically, an entire metro system.

(This is, incidentally, why I would consider living in Kaohsiung but I hate Taichung).

Living in a city where a new metro line opens every few years and changes the face of public transit for the better (I can now take the MRT to Taipei 101 directly!) feels like a city in progress. A city that's growing. Living in a city where I felt constricted in where I could go and how fast I could get there, if at all, felt like living in a city that was slowly crumbling. The Decline and Fall of the American Empire.

Taipei residents understand the importance of an interesting, multi-use, well-connected, safe urban core that is good for something other than financial centers in horrible glass boxes surrounded by houses and shopping complexes you have to drive to. There's a reason why, despite the pushiness of various real estate developers, that nobody really wants to live in Linkou despite all the new, cheap apartments being built out there. It's the choice you make if you want to buy, not rent, but can't afford Taipei. It's not like the USA where people chose to live far from the city in boring little subdivisions where sidewalks weren't even guaranteed to exist.

I like that people here understand the life-enhancing importance of convenience, and how sometimes it's worth it to trade space for that convenience. Between having a yard and needing a car to drive to Buy 'N Large, or being able to walk less than a minute to the nearest supermarket and convenience store and restaurant and massage parlor and hardware store, I'll take the latter, and for the most part Taipei residents agree with me. In terms of urban planning, I've found My People.

Although we could have better sidewalks, urban thoroughfares netted together with quiet lanes, many planted with trees, parks dotting the landscape, street-level commerce of all types, a comprehensive public transit system and the ease of the new bike sharing program (which has been a stunning success, although we could sure use more real bike lanes with bike lane rules enforced), Taipei residents just get it. This was the urban planning of the past - the type of planning that makes towns like downtown Bangor, ME and New Paltz, NY so pleasant to walk around - and it is the urban planning of the future.

Why wouldn't I want to live here?

Another note on Taipei as City of the Future: I've become so accustomed to convenience here that the idea that I'd have to spend more than five minutes to get any given basic thing I needed has become alien to me. The idea that I'd have to hop in a car to do anything other than go hiking (and in Taipei you don't even have to do that - you can take the bus to most good hikes, and the MRT to some, too) is just ludicrous to me. I now feel that if I can't get breakfast in one minute, that city sucks. I liked Shanghai alright (wouldn't live there, though), but I had to walk 7 minutes just to find a Cafe 85 to get some coffee and baked goods for breakfast. No other options. This on Nanjing Road. That city sucks. It doesn't get a second chance. One minute to breakfast, or you're out.

I'm so used to being able to go to 7-11 for everything: buying books I've ordered, picking up a spare pair of socks, lunch, coffee (and pretty good coffee at that, at least as far as convenience stores go), copies, printing, bill paying, rental contracts, high speed rail tickets, concert tickets and more - and having two of those within sight of my building - it's like The Future, but the future is here.

No great walls. No faceless glass boxes. No six-lane highways downtown. No open-access highways to South Maple Falls Shopping Center far from your home, where it takes 30 minutes to drive to the store, get what you need and come home. None of that.

Even traffic isn't that bad: I mean, it's bad, but it's not like...it's not like 66 in the DC area where you are basically parked at rush hour. You can hop in a cab at rush hour and still get to where you need to go in the city without banging your head on the back of the seat in frustration. You can catch a bus at 6pm and buses are frequent enough that you might even get a seat, and you'll get home in a reasonable amount of time. And you live near where you work - Taipei residents understand the importance of a short commute. A commute of over 30 minutes is basically a human rights violation to most of us.

And yes, we have to give up a little space, but there's something to be said for owning less stuff and inhabiting less space - good for the environment too. Surprisingly, dense urban cores that lack massive sprawl are also more environmentally friendly than over-manicured suburbs and snaking, gridlocked highways - and being home soon after you finish work. And for thinking "I want...whatever" and being able to walk or bike to whatever it is you want.

Is that guest bedroom and extra half bath really worth the hour-long commute and the 20 minute drive along the worst kind of road to the nearest supermarket? Not to me. I've found my people, and we are the future.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Dear National Geographic...

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Dear National Geographic,

Screw you. You suck. (Screenshot from the linked website).

First, Tainan City is not in China. Second, it is not in Taipei. Taipei is also not in China, because it is in Taiwan, which is not a part of China. "Chinese Taipei" doesn't exist.

Second, now that you've shown you have a very "creative" grasp of geography, I thought of some new captions you could put on your photos. Please let me know if you like them.

Havana, the USA: children playing in antique cars in the street in Havana, Tampa.

New York, England: after a hot day, children cool off around open fire hydrants. Summer 2014 has been one of the hottest on record, leading these children in New York, London to find new ways to cool off.

Bodejovice, Germany: Jews attend shul at one of Eastern Europe's most beautifully preserved historic synagogues in downtown Bodejovice, Prague. 

Kiev, Russia: repairs on the Maidan are slowed by continued fighting and threats of all-out national war in Kiev, Moscow.

Bombay, Japan: waiting at a crowded bus stop for an even more crowded bus, used electronics vendors consider the days earnings in this busy section of Bombay, New Delhi.

I mean, if we're going to fuck with Taiwan's geography, why have geography at all?

Sincerely,

Jenna Cody

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Bougainvillea


One of the nicest features of our apartment is that we have a really nice south-facing window with a spacious casement. It looks out over a courtyard with a small playground, not a road, so there aren't any exhaust fumes or loud traffic noises. The light is soft and indirect - perfect for an apartment in a subtropical city, but not great for growing plants. So we keep it simple: a few large plants that we inherited (I don't know what they're called), mint, a few orchids, a fern that took root in an old pot of soil gone to seed, and a big fat fuchsia bougainvillea.

On nice days, I like to open up the screens and occasionally stick my head out into the sunlit air and enjoy the leaves and flowers. I was doing that just the other day - head out, light streaming in, a slight breeze which rustled up the smell of the mint, and swirls and splatters of bright pink flowers. To maintain the "shades of blue" theme from the living room, we added (okay, I added) inexpensive blue glass candleholders and lanterns and had chiffon curtains in shades of green and blue tailor-made.

Side note: when I gave the fabric and design specs to the tailor, her reaction was "this fabric is too thin! You don't want everyone seeing in, don't you? Why not choose a thicker fabric that can keep out the sun, too? The sun will come right through this!"

"That's what we want, and anyway we don't mind if people can see into the living room, not that too many people can. And there are plants to hide the view inside," I bit back.

"You foreigners are so weird."

Convinced she had the right of it, she got to work on my curtains.

Anyway, looking out on those flowers, I became aware of something: it was a Thursday afternoon.

Life is pretty good. I make good money for Taiwan; we live downtown. How many people with apartments nice enough to enjoy the view and the air from their windows and live downtown can, in fact, look out their window to admire whorls of bougainvillea on a Thursday afternoon? Even in Taipei, most people were toiling away in offices. Night would be falling before they could leave.

So I was thinking.

One of the advantages of being an expat - especially if you're from a country with a wide-reaching, globally-influential pop culture (which, sorry other countries, I know that can be annoying), is that you get to watch your own culture evolve from a distance. You're totally fluent in the sociocultural language of your home country, but you're not there, which lends the whole thing a rarefied distance. Not unlike observing the terrain from a tiny airplane window far overhead.

I have a reasonably broad view for Taipei - more than just the street below (there is no street below) and the apartment across from you is considered a good view in the denser parts of this city, or any city, really. But I can see just one courtyard - a broad view of a small space. The view from that window, past those bougainvilleas and their thorns (did you know bougainvilleas had thorns? I didn't until I inherited one), out on a little slice of Taipei is narrower than my extreme wide-angle view of American goings-on - a broad view but from a tiny little window way up where jet planes fly.

And recently, that American pop culture terrain has been marked by the volcanic eruption that is Women. More specifically, Sheryl Sandberg. Her name is the most ubiquitous, it has the most cache abroad (most of the people I know in Taiwan have heard of her, too) and she, like a lava flow, has mostly succeeded in her concerted attempts to bring the discussion about how we treat working women to the forefront of cultural discourse.

I'm not sure if I'm 100% on board with what she says: I don't wish to contort myself into some pleasing, perfect aggressive-yet-feminine, strong-but-not-bitchy Gumby woman. I'd rather just be me, and if some boss who thinks he or she can either walk all over me or that I'm a "bitch" gives me problems, I'll walk away as soon as I'm able. And I'm not a mom, so her advice to working mothers doesn't really impact me much. If I wanted to devote lots of time to work, I could, with very few consequences. And I see what people mean when they say that she can take her own advice - she's a wealthy, established, distinguished woman at the top of the ladder. It's not exactly useful to single mothers trying to put food on the table with the pay from their job as a receptionist at, say, Southern Oconomowoc County Chiropractic Associates.

It's not only Sandberg, of course, I'm only picking the most famous name from among a few people participating in this conversation.

And what I hear again and again is how a lot of these women - not Sandberg, but others - who write about how being a working mom with a flexible job is a great choice, how it works for them, how more women should do it. Most of these women are writers. That's why they write about this, natch! Which is great, but those jobs tend not to have stable incomes (especially tough if you're single, whether or not you have kids), are often harder to pull of with kids at home than you'd think, and really not available as an option to the receptionist at - say - Southern Oconomowoc County Chiropractic Associates.

Either way, a lot of people - a lot of women especially - seem to covet the semi-freelance flex-time lifestyle. Some make it work, some are trying, some have it but only because they can afford to with a high-earning breadwinner partner, some feel like it's a windmill they're better off not tilting at.

Because, let's face it: it's hard to have that lifestyle in the USA unless you've got the backing of a stable breadwinner. Possible, but hard. I don't know about you, but "I'm freelance (because my husband works long hours in an office so we never have to worry about money)" wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I decided to strike out on my own, work-wise. Of course people do make it work, it's just a lot harder. In Taiwan - especially Taipei - it's much easier. I know a lot of people who are making it work without the burdens of living in the USA. I don't know if any of us would be as successful or self-sustaining in the USA. I've met quite a few independent artsy locals (artists, designers, writers) who manage to live independently on that salary in a way that few Americans would be able to. In some ways, Taipei is a city of independent shopfronts, of indie jewelry crafters, of writers, translators, journalists and editors striking out on their own. I don't see a lot of this in the USA except perhaps in Brooklyn, and I can guarantee we all have better standards of living than the indie and freelance folks there.

Which makes me think from my perch at 30,000 feet above my own culture, that it's really a damn shame that there aren't more expat women in Taiwan. If more expat women lived in Taiwan, more of them would realize that if they want, they can have that kind of life here more easily than in the USA.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that while some people can do it in the USA, I never would have been able to.

You can't get around to meet people, promote yourself and meet clients without a car, so there's a whole bunch of expenses. The only city where you can both live near public transportation and not have a car is New York, other cities don't have a good enough network for you to be able to rove about town making money. Sorry, DC, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago, but it's true. I strongly dislike driving - it would be a major change in lifestyle for me to have to do it, and a major expense I probably wouldn't be able to shoulder to buy and maintain a car with all of its associated costs. People without a lot of money buy cars all the time, sure, but imagine doing it on the freelancer money I'd be making. Yeah, not so much.

If your clients tend not to drive you'll also want to live near public transportation if it's available. Or, if you just want to avoid driving as much as possible, you'll want that too, without having to schlep a mile to the nearest MRT station. So, that'll be a much higher rent or mortgage payment for you. We could conceivably live near-ish a subway station on the American equivalent of my freelance career plus whatever Brendan would do, but it wouldn't be downtown. Forget it. I could not do what I do here and live where I do in the USA. Anywhere in the USA.

Living expenses are astronomical, too. At least, compared to Taiwan, they feel that way. In Taiwan, in months where I earn less, we can squeeze by surprisingly cheaply. We managed it for months without significant problems while doing Delta Module One, when for all intents and purposes I was working part time. You can budget and squeeze in the USA, too, but just not quite to the same degree. In Taiwan it was a matter of "maybe we don't need fancy Belgian beer this weekend". In the USA it would be "maybe ramen is a fine dinner idea every night this week".

In short, I could do it, but my lifestyle would suffer so much that it wouldn't really be the same. I could either have the lifestyle I do now, but work all week and miss out on those sunny Thursday afternoons enjoying the flowers of my labor, or I could have the work schedule I do now but live in a dank little view-less apartment far from downtown and a schlep to everywhere. Other people make it work, but I know that I likely wouldn't be one of them. For everyone who can shout out their windows to the bright, wide world that it's "fine for them! Try it out!", I bet there are ten more people who just wish their windows faced something other than a wall.

Until recently, I wouldn't have been able to pull it off because of this little thing called health care. I'm healthy, but not robustly so. I have had back problems (seem to be fine now) and occasionally get bronchial infections. I get migraines. My family history is riddled with heart problems, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's and a few other fun things, too. I need, need, need health insurance. Taiwan makes that happen for me. The USA...well, we have Obamacare now, and I'm curious about whether that would work for me. But when I left, I couldn't have gone freelance, or entrepreneur, or even worked for a company that didn't have a health insurance benfit, because quite simply I could not afford the health insurance. 

It wasn't a matter of budgeting: in the USA I budgeted myself into rice and lentils, rice&beans, cheap bread and pasta, frozen veggies and carrot sticks with apple slices because carrots and apples were cheap. And I still wouldn't have been able to afford my own health insurance: on an entry-level salary I could barely afford one of the cheaper company plans. Obviously working in companies one would either get promoted or look for something better (not that I thought about such things much back then, within a year I was plotting my return to Asia having decided that the cube monkey life was not for me), but how does one strike out on one's own when one can't afford basic health care?

Side note: this is one reason I will basically never vote for Republicans. Also the "weak track record on women's rights and their party platforms are bigoted against LGBT people", but a big part of it is that they talk big about entrepreneurial spirit, but don't do anything to help would-be entrepreneurs like me. I didn't need lower taxes - I needed health insurance I could afford.

Back to the main topic.

So, while I realize my experience is not the only experience, and my view is not the only view, it's unbearably clear to me that there's no way I could both maintain the lifestyle I have (those gorgeous bougainvilleas in that spacious, sunny, convenient downtown apartment) and have the time to enjoy it (those random weekday afternoons free), as a freelancer in the USA.

I have what a lot of people, especially (but not only) women, want. The freedom to do the job I love on my terms, with flexible time and good pay. I can both have my bougainvilleas and enjoy them, too.

I have this because Taiwan has made it possible. I could not have this in the USA. Even when I needed a visa to stay in Taiwan, I was able to have my own side interests and private classes and more-or-less have flex-time work. It would be remarkably easy for a lot of American women, sick of dealing with sexist workplaces, sick of being told to "lean in" or contort themselves, sick of having someone else dictate when they worked and for how much pay (less than men's), to grab a job that provided an ARC in Taiwan for a few hours a week of English teaching or whatever, and use their extra time to pursue their freelance side work, until they could get permanent residency and chase their dream full-time, or full-ish time - whatever time could be scheduled around not "leaning in", but leaning out of their sunny windows and enjoying a spray of bougainvillea, orchids and mint on a weekday afternoon.

But they're not here, and something tells me they're not coming.

It's too bad. I'd like to share my bougainvilleas.