Vibrant Colors: The Indian Community in Taiwan

It was quite a contrast to return last week from multicultural Vancouver to Han-dominated Taiwan. But although there is less global variety here, there are still interesting groups like the Indian community that add new cultural colors – like food, yoga, henna, music and dance – to our everyday lives.

Holi

Holi Festival 2017

Speaking of color, I was miffed to find I’d missed out on the Holi festival in Yonghe on March 12th. I’ll definitely be at the next one! It sounds like a great time. Holi is an ancient Hindu springtime “festival of love” where young and old, man and woman, all throw multicolored powders higgledy-piggledy over each other!

It is fitting that Holi has become more global. India’s great diaspora continues. The country now has more people who were born there who are currently living overseas than any other country in the world, 30 million people!

indian-diaspora

According to Rajan Khera, former president of the Indians’ Association of Taipei (IAT), recently Holi in Taipei has become bigger and more inclusive. This year’s event saw a total of about 1000 participants. “We wanted to invite all the Indian groups,” said Khera. “We also had many non-Indians as well.”

The IAT – the oldest of the Indian groups – was started in the mid-1970s. Back then, Taiwan’s economic miracle attracted a number of Hindi-speaking traders who became exporters of Taiwan-made products to India and other parts of the world. Khera said that the group grew to include about 200 families. They celebrated Diwali and Holi together and other social and religious occasions at their own center in Tianmu.

But in the 90’s, exporting from Taiwan became less viable. Local prices went up, and profits went down. China beckoned with its own much larger economic miracle, so traders left to set up shop over there. At that time, Khera said, there were no direct flights and business links were very difficult. Hence, many families left for China, often settling in Guangzhou. The IAT shrunk to only about 41 families. But Khera says: “Over the last six or seven years, the number has been growing again. Now we are at about 57 families.”

Diwali IAT

                      Diwali with the IAT: Photo by Jefferey Wu

And this is only one group. According to community leader Priya Lalwani Purswaney, “There is a Punjabi group, a Malayali group, a Gujarati group, etc.” Purswaney also talks about the different occupations: “There are also the importers, who import precious stones to Taiwan. This has become the biggest group. Then there are those involved in academic work, doing graduate research, or bachelor’s degrees. Then there are global businesspeople working as managers for 3 or 4 years for multinational corporations like Unilever or Citibank.” There are also a lot of software engineers, she said. Altogether, the Indian community here now numbers about 3000 (numbers vary from year to year) of which 1600 are professionals. About 1400 are university students, attracted to scholarships and the good research components to Taiwanese tech training.

Purswaney knows these occupational groups well because of her direct experience. “My father was a visiting professor in mechanical engineering. I came to Taiwan in 1987 when I was 16. I was the first Indian university student in Taiwan.” She got her business BA from Tatung University, her MBA from NTU, and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in Translation and Interpretation from NTNU. With her top-notch language skills, she went on to work for various companies in marketing and translation, and also for India’s de facto embassy in Taiwan, the India-Taipei Association. Now she works as the only English – Mandarin simultaneous interpreter in Taiwan who is not Taiwanese, she says.

Priya

                                      Priya Lalwani Purswaney watching the cricket!

By all accounts, the Indian community here helps each other and hangs together in times of need. Purswaney says that she started the Facebook group Indians in Taiwan to help people get the information they need: good schools for their kids, where to buy Indian food, how to get visas etc. She hopes it will become part of an umbrella that includes all Indians, irrespective of age, occupation, religion, or state of origin.

Rajan Khera said, “Not too long ago a young male Indian student died. He was from a poor family, and his parents didn’t even have passports. But the community took care of it and sent the body back to India.” On a lighter note, one recent post on Indians in Taiwan said, “Is anyone flying from Delhi to Taipei on Flight XYZ on April 25? My old Auntie is flying here and she is traveling alone. If anyone could keep her company, that would be great!”

For many reasons, the Indian community here has also been growing and thriving. One reason is a good cultural fit with Taiwan. Many people I spoke with talked about the Buddhist connection. Buddhism originated in northern India around 500 BCE, and became important in China after 200 CE. According to Purswaney, a further similarity is that “both Taiwanese and Indians are very entrepreneurial. They like to start their own small businesses.“

Another is just that a lot of people love to live in Taiwan, and Indians are no exception. One is Mayur Srivastava. The well-known founder of Mayur Indian Kitchen has been offering great food to local diners, as well as jobs to local workers, since 2011. In addition, he has three children with his Taiwanese wife. Mayur loves Taiwan and is very happy here. Andy Singh Arya – the friendly owner of both Out of India and the Three Idiots Toast and Curry – also offers great food and is married to a Taiwanese woman. He too has nothing but good things to say about the friendliness, helpfulness, humility, and trustworthiness of Taiwanese. What better reason do you need than that?

Big Bums

                                          Andy Singh Arya and friends!

 

 

 

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Hongcouverstan: money and diversity have changed Pacific Canada forever

Just jumped the puddle for a long overdue family visit back in Vancouver. That city has always had the stunning backdrop of the North Shore Mountains, still capped with snow in early April. And it has always been Canada’s gateway to the Pacific. But socially of course it has moved with the times, the latest change being the continuing development of its exceptional degree of multiculturalism.

Van 1

Of the city’s population, 45% are immigrants, more than 52% of residents speak a language other than English at home, and only about 46% are ethnically European. Welcome to globalization!

It is a far cry from the Vancouver I first visited in 1984. Back then, only about 7% of the population was non-white, mainly from the long-standing Chinese and Japanese communities from before WW2. Other than that, you had a very Anglo-Celtic-Germanic-Slavic mix, with some Italian and Greek thrown in so it wouldn’t be too boring.

But since the late 1980’s, wave upon wave of immigrants have built up a very diverse population. More than 30% of the city’s current residents are ethnically Chinese. There are large populations of Filipinos, Punjabis, Thais, Cambodians, and Vietnamese, as well as Latinos, Poles, Russians, Pakistanis, Iranians, and more. The list goes on. This means a variety of faces and languages, and also of food. The best huaraches in town on Commercial Drive, man! And not just restaurants, but also little grocery shops. Go on in and get some sangak, baba ganoush, samosas, or gulab jamun!

Van 3

Why so many immigrants? One reason is that having a family member in Canada makes it much easier to immigrate. An example of this is in the Filipino population. A lot of the Filipinos came over as maids and nannies for well-to-do families in the 1980’s and 90’s. Many eventually became citizens, and slowly saved up enough money to bring over their families: usually kids they had not lived with for over a decade. These poorer immigrants often have an inspiring work ethic and purity of purpose that makes them natural contributors to the country.

In addition, Canada has gained doctors, professors, scientists, business managers, and investors from other countries’ elites, not to mention computer industry skills from globally mobile migrant workers.

But is there a downside to all this?

The “Rain City”  has lost a certain laid-back folksy charm. Back in the day, it was a one of the friendliest cities in Canada, if not Planet Earth. You’d get a really nice “Hello!” from almost anyone you stumbled across, and lots of “please” and “thank you” to boot. If you stood at the curb looking to cross the street, drivers (there were far fewer cars on the road) would stop for you even if there was no crosswalk. But not anymore. In fact, my globe-trotting Iranian brother-in-law once drove through a crosswalk and didn’t notice someone who had just walked up to it – not onto it – at the last second. The guy yelled at him and gave him the finger! How dare you not stop immediately the instant I show up!

Courtesy has become a bit strained, as I saw for myself. On the last day of my visit, in order to walk off some of the amazing food my sister had been shoveling into my pie-hole., I did a 9k walk around Stanley Park’s outer seawall. It was a lovely sunny spring day, with fine salt air, in a beautiful location. There were groups of all cultures out enjoying it. Taking a photo, I inadvertently stepped into the bicycle lane. A woman on a bike hurtled toward me and said in a loud and unfriendly tone of voice, “You are on the bicycle path! Please get off!” She had a point of course. But couldn’t she have said it a bit more nicely? About 20 minutes later, a gruff guy on a bike yelled at a whole bunch of walkers: “Get out of the way! Get out of the way!”

It seems like that old-school Vancouver courtesy has now sometimes been replaced by rude outbursts at people – many of them originating from elsewhere – who don’t follow the rules!

Beyond that, cultural experts talk about the gradual erosion of interpersonal trust and civic spirit in “hyper diverse” cities like Vancouver. Rather than fuse harmoniously or have open conflicts, diverse communities tend to “hunker down”.

One thing immigration has undoubtedly done to Raincouver, one of the most livable cities in the world, is to drive property prices way way up. A decent home in a nice neighborhood can easily go for around two million Canadian dollars. If you are a long-term resident and homeowner, that’s a great thing! But if you are typical couple like a school teacher and an engineer, looking to buy a house, fuggedaboutit! In Vancouver, economic inequality, just like the police and the gangs, has transcended ethnicity.

Van 4 (2)

But change is a constant. One longtime Vancouverite, Dave, chatted with me as we caught some sun on a bench by the seawall in Stanley Park. “Canada needs populating! Our population is too small, and we don’t breed fast enough. We need more people,” he said. “We get all kinds of people coming in here. As long as they aren’t crazy or don’t blow stuff up, they’re welcome!”

I caught the little ferry over to Granville Island, famous for its covered market under the Granville Bridge. There were tourists from all over, eating, relaxing, and enjoying the view. I sat outside, sipping BC wine and listening to a folk singer playing songs by Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. In the warm sunshine, I basked in music-conjured emotion, the sadly happy feelings from songs I heard in my youth. Gone they were, never to return, just like the Vancouver of yesterday. It’s a big grown-up world city now.

Later that night I flew back to Taipei, where I am the perpetual newcomer hoping for greater status and security, the shoe on the other foot, the coin neatly flipped. Except for the massive difference in attitudes toward immigrants.

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Snot-nosed Jack

Beyond our cultural differences, we find our human similarities.

Source: Snot-nosed Jack

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Snot-nosed Jack

boy-2

Cross-culturalists talk about the distinctions between internal guilt cultures like the West and the public shame (face) cultures of Taiwan and the East. But I believe there is something that transcends and underlies both of these cultural distinctions – the sense of justice. I think this is hard-wired for the entire human race. Alas, it’s a part of us that is too often activated in the negative.

matsoaing_village_eastern_lesotho

When I was ten years old, my family moved to Lesotho in Africa from 1975-77. The country only had a population of one million people back then. It is a sovereign country geographically surrounded by its much larger and more populous neighbor, South Africa. It is called “the Roof of Africa” because the entire nation is above 1000 meters. At those altitudes, the sun cuts razor sharp shadows through the dry air. There are winter frosts, and a sky full of stars. It’s an almost forestless country, and the many sheep and cattle grazing on the mountain slopes keep it that way. To make up for the lack of trees however, their dung can be combined with mud to build huts, and is a good fuel for cooking fires, although its smoke adds a tinge of pungency to the air.

lesotho-052_8

Maseru, the capital city, had a whopping 30,000 inhabitants. The roads downtown were OK, and led you past a few fancy buildings like an art shop shaped like a gigantic Basuto hat, and some banks and government offices. There was one small truly posh neighborhood, a couple of nice ones, and then in declining order of poverty, plain-Jane concrete block homes, and then shanty towns. You could hear the summer rain coming at a distance by the sound it made on the tin rooves.

Out on the street, you could see who lived where: African in a brand new Mercedes-Benz with driver? Posh area! Anybody in a Land Rover, Volvo, or kombi? Nice area! Any Whites? Nice area! African walking on the street in decent white-collar garb? Cinder block homes. Tsotsi hat, blanket, or overalls? Shanty town. Little blond boy in safari shorts and sandals? That would be me, dear reader! I must have gotten that world-class African smile ten times a day, especially from older countryside women who would beam down at me, touch my hair and say “Heh heh! Such pretty hair! Heh heh heh!”

football

My father was a civil engineer on a Third World development project, building a small center of civilization in a remote mountain area. He was on site most of the week. I went to the international elementary school with the other expat kids and the local elites. We lived in a nice area in a lovely old brick house with grape vines, rose bushes and plum trees in the garden. We had a coal fireplace for winter, no TV, and a 4-digit phone number. We had maids who lived in the shanty town, chubby cheerful women.

young-lesotho-shepherds

We lived right across the street from the Maseru Club, the colonial era country club, with swimming pool, tennis courts, golf course, etc. There was a bar where white dudes would get florid on Saturdays. My band of ruffians and I wandered the grounds and beyond, playing kick-the-can, talking about Formula race cars, and shooting at pigeons with pellet guns. Once we killed a Black Mamba hiding in a rock crevice after shooting it about 20 times! Occasionally we had run-ins with a group of homeless African boys who caddied at the gold course. They waited around by the cars until a group of players came in, hoping to be hired. Those not actively caddying would open the car gas tanks, lower a piece of string with a rag at the end into the gas, and then sniff it to get high. After a few years of this their neurological and physical health was shot. When we cut through the car park sometimes they would shake us down for change. I was scared of them, because there were a couple of mean older ones who looked pretty f***ed up. There were also some scrawny younger kids. These poor guys had a pretty rough life. But my band of privileged young expats and I happily roamed far and wide. We were ninjas who could sneak into any part of the club undetected. God help us if we did get caught! We’d get a hoarse-voiced yelling at by “The Colonel”, an old British soldier who’d lost a lung in India in World War II. He’d come after us shaking his cane in the air, and kick us out for the rest of the day, if he found us up to no good.

shanty-town

On Sundays, families would gather for a curry buffet on the veranda. The women folk would come out, ladies with hats and make up, young girls in pretty dresses. After curry, all the kids would watch Sunday matinees like silly Dean Martin movies, or Tarzan. After that, us boys would hang around outside as parents gradually came out to collect their kids, get into their cars and drive away. That’s when I got into a fight with a local kid. It was my fault.

One day when we hanging around a bunch of the caddies came to beg for change. There was one skinny little guy who had mucus constantly running out of his nose, maybe from sniffing gas. He had his hand out, and I pretended to give him some change, but then pulled it back and put it into my pocket – an obnoxious boyish prank. Oh, that pissed him off! He yelled at me, and then took off his belt and tried to whip me with it. This wasn’t very effective because he had to hold his pants up with his other hand! He was a scrawny little guy, probably as least as old as me but physically no match due to general poor health and nutrition.

All the other caddies and local elite or expat boys knew at once without speaking that no one else should get involved. The fight was on! “Get him, John!” “Go for it man!” He kept whipping at me with the belt and hauling up his pants with the other hand, his eyes glaring at me, snot running down his face. I got bolder and rushed him, chasing him around a parked car, and then closed on him, grabbed the back of his head with my left hand and went to punch him in the face with my right. He grabbed my punching hand with both of his, stopping my fist about 10 centimeters from his mouth. He had dropped his belt and probably his pants too, but I didn’t notice! I made a big effort and got in a pretty good punch right on his grimacing mouth. Bop! He whimpered and blood suddenly formed clear red lines in the cracks between his teeth. My whole feeling changed at once. I suddenly lost all desire to fight, so I let him go. He ran a short distance away, and threw rocks at me until a big Canadian boy – a silent friend – came up and clobbered him one. The kid, bloodied and beaten, ran down the road sobbing, clutching his pants, back to the golf course he called home. I had won the fight. Later we named him “Snot-nosed Jack”.

A few weeks later, I was completely alone, walking across the polo field toward the Maseru Café to score some chappies chewing gum or perhaps a Stoney’s ginger beer when I suddenly saw – to my shock – Snot-nosed Jack. He was alone on the road right by the polo field, only about 100 meters away. He shouted, then climbed through the four-strand barbed wired fence and came at me. I was scared! He came right up, full of angry words, and started to take off his belt. I told him no, it’s OK. I don’t want to fight. I offered him a small amount of change. He could see that I was scared. His face totally changed. He beamed at me, very happy, and refused the money. This was a point of honor. He walked away happily, waving goodbye. There was no sneer, no attempt at retribution. We were good.

That brings us back, dear reader, to my starting point. The “standard” cross-cultural analysis is that Africa is more of a shame culture, which involves public space. But the boy hadn’t “shamed me back” in front of my crew or his. There were no witnesses. I think his happiness was about warrior culture, something ingrained in boys in Africa. He had stood up again and prevailed against this strange “rich” White boy who had insulted and beaten him. He had proven his courage, and hence his value as a man, hence as a human being.

I don’t think this kind of thing would have happened in Taiwan. I think here he would have got some friends and jumped me, or just stayed away. But I think anybody reading this story from Taiwan, Canada, Lesotho or whatever country would feel that somehow justice had been done.

painEPILOGUE: I don’t think this incident is a metaphor for race relations, but feel free to interpret it any way you want. Lesotho is in terrible shape now, ravaged by AIDS. We can thank both Western and African superstitions for that. The Thaba Tseka Project my dad worked on is now considered a textbook case in Third World development failures, of how simply throwing money at a problem doesn’t work. South Africa – also AIDS blighted – has transitioned from competent apartheid to incompetent freedom, for now. Let’s hope for the best! And Snot-nosed Jack? Here’s where I’d like to have a rosy conclusion and say that maybe somehow he’d remember me as a friend.

But the truth is he’s probably dead. Where’s the justice in that?

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Third Culture Kids and Other Global Nomads

 

Are you an expat or a foreign student doing an overseas stint? A globile (globally mobile) entrepreneur on a start-up quest? Or did you meet your significant other abroad and follow them back? Those are some very practical reasons to live in a foreign land like Taiwan. But there’s another kind of traveler, a global nomad, someone for whom travel itself is a natural condition of their life. Some are born into it, while others are stricken with the wanderlust, and roam the Earth at will. I am one of them, dear reader. How about you? Where do you fit into the growing tribe of global migrants?

 It’s a huge group, actually! Currently, there are almost 250,000,000 people living in a country they weren’t born in. That’s a 40% increase since the year 2000, and more than a 300% increase since the year 1960, a growth rate higher than the world’s population. Every year around another 4 million become migrants. If we were a nation, we’d be the fourth most populous in the world. If we all held hands we could circle the Earth once, a 40,000 km human chain.

 And it would be a diverse group too! Blue-collar guest workers, white-collar tech workers, conventional immigrants, twenty million refugees. But one less well-known category is of children who were dragged around the world by their parents during their developmental years, the kids of soldiers, diplomats, missionaries, international school teachers, expat business-people, etc. It’s not so much that these kids exist that is not well known, but rather how it affects their long-term development.

 Third Culture Kids – TCKs – are kids who grow up outside their native culture. Their native (or parental) culture is the first culture, the culture(s) they grow up in is the second culture, and their own hybridization is the third culture. They tend to have a few distinctive characteristics: higher levels of education and creativity, multilingual proficiency, and better social and cultural intelligence. But there are also some distinctive challenges: TCK’s tend to have confused national loyalties and a hard time fitting in back home. In fact, the question, “Where is home?” is often a hard one to answer, sometimes for the rest of their life. One summary of these cultural chameleons says, “TCK’s are particularly adept at building relationships with other cultures while not possessing a cultural identity of their own.” This can lead to angst and delayed development.

 

One TCK told me: “Well, I was born in Hong Kong, stayed there for the first 18 months of my life, then my parents returned to the UK. We later also lived in Kuwait. My father was in the British military, so even back in the UK I did not have one ‘home town’ – moving house with each redeployment, every three years or so.” After that he said, the pattern was set and he just kept moving around: India, Germany, and now back in Asia. He tried living in the UK, but he just didn’t like it.

 Jenny, another TCK told me “My grandparents were from China, and they moved to the Philippines. I went to the local schools there. My family always identified as Chinese….But my father doesn’t like to use chopsticks! ….They wanted me to live in Taiwan: ‘Chinese countries are safe’, my dad said.” When Jenny got here, she worked really hard on her Mandarin in an effort to fit in. “But I found there were some things about Taiwanese culture I couldn’t agree with. Like the “face” culture, where people do or don’t do things for face. I also couldn’t get into the superstitions.” Jenny says she mainly identifies with American culture now, because it is global, and many of her friends are from the USA.

 Some TCKs eventually settle down and adapt to either their native culture or an adopted one. Some stay in a slightly blue limbo. But others embrace their situation.

 One example of this is TED-talker Taiye Selasi, a novelist of Nigerian and Ghanaian descent, born in the UK, who grew up in Massachusetts and studied International Relations at Oxford. Where is she from? Selasi talks about being ‘multilocal’: “History is real,” she says, “Culture is real. But the sovereign state is only 400 years old. How can a person come from an idea?” She says people come from the places they are local to. It’s an idea that might be of solace and utility to identity-crisis prone TCKs.

 Another TED-talker, global author Pico Iyer says: “The typical person I meet today will be, let’s say, a half-Korean, half-German young woman living in Paris. And as soon as she meets a half-Thai, half-Canadian young guy from Edinburgh, she recognizes him as kin. She realizes that she probably has much more in common with him than with anybody entirely of Korea or entirely of Germany.”

 Multilocal works for me! I’m a first generation Anglo-Canadian. That makes me technically a TCK, but I think Brits in Canada are not really going to a different culture; it’s more like going to live with your cousins! Later, ‘traveler dad’ took us to Lesotho for a few years. It was my first real cross-cultural experience, very intense and eye-opening. When we came back, we lived in Ottawa. I could have reattached to Canadian-ness and become normal, but the wanderlust in our family erupted again. I moved to Montreal, which is a cross-cultural experience for an Anglo. Then my sister moved to Venezuela, and my parents to India. And after visiting each place, I got reinfected with the travel virus, what the Germans call “farsickness”.

 So here I am in Taiwan. I am local to Taipei, especially Tamsui, but many other places as well on this island that is more than just an idea. I’m still Canadian, but one part – something else. I live in a cross-cultural interzone made up of my fellow locals. And it suits me just fine!

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Playing his part: American Brook Hall brings Broadway to Taiwan

Originally from New Mexico and Oregon, Hall studied film and theater studies at St. Edward’s University in Austin. “I did West Side Story in the community while I was still in high school when I was 14,” he recounts. His parents encouraged his interest in the arts. “There were a lot of creative people hanging around my house, it was at the end of the hippy period.” While other boys were playing electric guitar and football, he was doing dance, singing and community theater. Through university he was involved in many entertainment projects, including summer theater in Birmingham, Alabama. Just before graduation in 1998, he did honors school in flamenco in Spain. This lust for travel was a premonition of his eventual journey to Taiwan. “I’d always thought of joining the Peace Corps,” Hall said. But now it was time to dance on down to big street, the Big Apple!

 New York City! An incredibly exciting and challenging place for a young man in love with dance and theater. Hall found loads of work there, although often it was in shows traveling around the country. “I’d audition for shows, get a gig, and then it’s on the road for three months: Iowa, Denver, Florida, or Montana. Or you’d get onto a national show and do maybe 200 shows around the whole country.” When he came back, he’d start looking for work again. And also see lots of shows! “There was so much going on, so many little theaters and artistic scenes, acting classes, dancing, everything you could imagine.” There were also the big shows like Miss Saigon, the Blue Man Group, De La Guarda etc. “I’d be given free tickets at the TKTS booth in Times Squares – the crossroads of the universe – where I was working as on on-site promoter for shows – from gambling addict scalpers who couldn’t sell them by showtime.”

  Then the travel bug bit him again. “I had a buddy from college that had settled in Taiwan. He was doing some theater stuff in southern Taiwan, so on July 4th, 2001, I came out to see him.” This led him to a big community carnival type production in an abandoned sugar factory in Ciaotou, a district of Kaohsiung. There were about 100 people, half of them Taiwanese, half from all over the world, including Brazil and Europe. “We did a parade through the small town, with stilt walkers, jugglers and clowns! It was great!”

 Following the footsteps of his friend, Hall moved to Taichung, where he found firm footing as a dancer. “I taught tap dancing, did company shows, press conferences, and also taught flamenco and salsa. I met some old guys who were the godfathers of tap in Taiwan!” he said. He also began to notice some cultural differences. “Compared to the USA, people here have a tendency to just wing it when it comes to small shows. I remember one time we showed up for a tap performance and they showed us a grassy area and told us that’s where we were supposed to work! Tap dancing on grass?” He also found that people were kind of casual about wiring, fire in performance, and other safety issues. Furthermore, despite his many skills, he was always known in Taichung as the “dance guy” because he did a lot of tap and flamenco shows, and that’s the culture here. “You stick to one thing and do it as well as possible; you’re known for that one thing.”

 “Later on I became the ‘musical guy’,” said Hall, “working with Greenray Theater, Lancreators Theatre, and Paper Windmill Theater doing their touring children’s theater.” Then his career started to blossom. From 2007 to 2014, some productions he worked on as either producer, consultant, director or choreographer at major venues – including the National Theater – were Smokey Joe’s Café, Let’s Broadway, Daylight, and Anything Goes.

 One interesting show he co-produced and directed was Hedwig and the Angry Inch in Mandarin, a glam rock musical about a transgendered woman who experiences a lot of pain, frustration and tragedy because of her conflicted gender identity. “Split down the middle, I thought it would be interesting for Taiwanese because it is similar to the country’s own identity issues.”

 Another was a Taiwanese play that he directed and choreographed at Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall and the National Theatre called “Golden Banana History” (Hedwig might have giggled at the title) about a revolt of banana farmers in southern Taiwan during the early years of KMT rule. It was politicized during Chen Shui-bian’s presidency, then became a cash cow as DPP organizations around the island paid for shows to inspire voters. The writer and producer feuded over the money, which meant the show was eventually cancelled, the producer went into hiding, and the performers and designers sued for compensation!

Bananaland

 It was only one of the times that Hall was frustrated by the way things work in Taiwan. Government regulations were also a problem. “You can only get a work permit for as long as your project was running. If that was less than 6 months, they wouldn’t give you an ARC,” said Hall. He’d had his APRC clock zeroed due to bad paperwork, and getting permits was often a nightmare. This gave him a creative inspiration. In Golden Banana History, “There was a court scene. I made it into a kind of madcap affair with circus music and papers flying around everywhere, my interpretation of the craziness of the bureaucracy here!”

 Eventually Hall decided that he had enough of relying on other people. “A contract means absolutely nothing here!” He’d been lied to and ripped off enough. What’s more, he had wide experience, a long list of talented creative and technical people to work with, and a mature understanding about what could work in Taiwan. And as Anton Chekhov would say, “Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.”

 And so, in 2014, the Lab Space was born and has been rocking on to this day. “We’ve done Tuesdays with Morrie, Wait Until Dark, Santaland Diaries, Ives’ Shorts, the God of Carnage, I, Claudia, and two 24-hour theatre festivals. What we do is special. It’s different when your audience is just 2 meters away from the actors.”

Tuesdays with Morrie – D.C. Rapier and Victor Stevenson – Photo by Topie Openshaw

 Hall’s excitement is clear when he talks about this theater he loves. But as the Immortal Bard said, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Making the bottom line work is a challenge. “We pay our talent, and we manage to break even on the productions,” in part due to the kindness of the Taipei City Department of Cultural Affairs. But what makes it tough are the operational costs, keeping the LAB Space running between shows. “We’ve applied for money from the national government’s Ministry of Culture for operational costs, but we keep getting rejected.”

 This is frustrating, because Hall knows he can be a real asset to Taiwan. He pauses at this point, torn between humility and the need to make a point: “With my skillset I’ve made an impact here over 15 years. Maybe a hundred people I’ve helped shape have become key performers in current major Taiwanese shows. I’ve helped hundreds more by showing them that even if they are a big fish in a small pond, there’s a bigger pond. And when they see that, they step up….I’ve helped funnel several performers directly from Taiwan to New York, writing recommendations for universities, acting programs, etc. The Taiwanese tourism and economic offices promote Taiwan in NYC with some of that same talent, showing off their singing and dancing. So it has come full circle.” Hall is generous in his praise for the people at the Lab Space. “All the people I’ve worked with there have been amazing, every single one of them. But if I had to mention two, it would be Emma Liu, my past administrator, who left this year. She helped get the whole thing going. And her replacement Derek Kwan.” Kwan is also an actor for the LAB’s productions, someone Hall calls “a true renaissance man”.

 “I am excited about the future. I’m looking forward to doing The Diary of Anne Frank. We also want to do some New York style cabaret. I’m also planning to bring in some guest directors from here and Europe, maybe New York.”

 “We are doing stuff no one else is, and for a cheaper price. We do surveys after each show, and we have a 99% very satisfied rating.” How many shows per year would Hall like supporters of his theater to see in order to help it stay afloat? “Just come to one show. One. After that, I’m confident people will come back.”

 Break a leg, bro!

Words! Words! Words! – Charlie Storrar, James Lo, Angela Collenberg – Photo by Cheng Yi Lee

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Ubtopia

techtopia

What’s friendly, cheap, and doesn’t pay taxes in Taiwan? Me? Nope.The future? I hope not. But you’re schmart if you guessed the Uber ride-hailing service. It’s a super popular app: freedom from betel nut, 100NT cheaper, and schmartphone friendly. The future will be good because of innovations like Uber! Too bad it got kiboshed for being totally illegal, say betel-nut-phobes and technophiles alike, hoping that it returns to the streets of Taipei,  

 But Uber ain’t blowing up my skirt, if you know what I mean. And it’s not just because I have a fondness for Taiwanese cabbies. It’s also because I’ve come to the conclusion that technology is not always our friend, dear reader. Not when one is on the wrong end of the better weapon, for example, or on the wrong side of history, and not when corporate profits and shareholder value mean getting rid of your job. Case in point: Uber. “First, they came for the taxi drivers!”

 Then they’ll come for your job. According to a 2013 Oxford University study, as many as 47% of American jobs could eventually be replaced by automation. Other sources estimate up to 50% unemployment in 30 years. Factory workers, replaced by industrial robots, you think? Yes, of course. That’s been happening for decades. But also drivers of all sorts.Uber’s real plan isn’t to provide a new system where more presentable human drivers in shiny app-summoned-cars replace grumpy old men in beat up cabs. It’s going to use self-driving cars to replace human drivers altogether. Within 20 years, most commercial fleet drivers will also be replaced. (That’s a 10-4 good buddy!) Airline pilots will be next. But wait – computers can’t do that! Wrong verb tense English teachers! They couldn’t do that. Now they can. And a lot of your jobs will soon have been replaced, in the future imperfect. Not only will live video technology and 5G VoIP upgrades mean that you will soon be competing online with all the great unwashed native speakers of the West, but AI enhanced learning will diminish the value of the human teacher to that of a bright-eyed greeter. We may always need human doctors, but we may not need them as surgeons or diagnosticians. Robots can perform delicate surgical procedures more precisely and safely than human hands. Intelligent agents sifting through terabytes of “big” medical data can cross-reference your symptoms better than any human brain.

Robots and AI aren’t just becoming more efficient, they also don’t need unions, good working conditions, vacations, salaries, pensions, or health insurance. And they are getting cheaper and better every year.

The “end of employment” will set us free, we are told, to do higher things. Like write poetry and debate the soul in neo-renaissance communes in the forest? Or to get drunk under the bridge along with the taxi drivers, speechwriters, economists, historians, reporters, technical writers, copy writers, translators, models, cooks, construction workers, accountants, and models, to name but a few? Whatever makes the boss more money, I expect.

But who is going to buy all the products and services if we don’t have jobs? Don’t worry buddy! There will be lots of cheap stuff for oompa loompas like us. If a slum dweller in Manila can afford a cell phone, don’t worry, you can too! Some techno-utopians argue that things will get so cheap that you won’t need much money. But while wages have been stagnant for 15 years due to automation and offshoring, food prices and real estate prices have been going up for decades for the most basic of reasons: increasing demand, especially for things like meat. Futurists create wondrous visions of remote work from cheap 3D-printed homes, as well as super-efficient food production in vertical farms. Ant burgers in the trailer park? Or syntho-steak under the pine trees? Same answer as above.

Other futurists tout a “basic human income”. (It’s already happening in Finland!) We won’t need jobs because we’ll get super welfare. Party at my place! But that’s hard for me to get my head around too. Let’s assume 50% unemployment in the year 2050. First, that’s a huge hit to the tax base. But anyway, for the USA, let’s assume that 50% of the population – workers and their dependents – needs an annual basic human income of 12,000 USD (2017 adjusted) per person. 200 million (2050 estimate) people X 12k = equals 2.4 trillion USD per year, about four times America’s current military spending and 2/3 of the overall budget. Good luck getting that one through Congress!

But perhaps you think I am paranoid, dear reader. Even in this age of weakening democracy and rising inequality, there’s no way the uber rich would ever throw us decent middle-class hobbits under the bus! We’ll all be taken care of by our corporate overlords. There will be a bright new techno-world waiting for us. It’s the magic of the markets. So get into your shiny Uber and enjoy your ride to the future.

 Ubtopia? You-hopia!

robots-2

Hey punk! Do you feel lucky?

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Yo! Mr. Trudeau sir! Have you got a pair?

justin-tsai-2

Why is it that right-wing douchebags like Trump have the nerve to stand up to asshole communist regimes like China, but supposedly decent, principled guys like Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau don’t?

As a Canadian living in Taiwan for the last fifteen years, I was gratified by the news of Trump’s phone call with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, just as I have been appalled at most else he’s done or said. I’m very from being on the right wing – even in strictly Canadian terms – and I’m sick of hearing Trump’s name, but l welcomed his pre-inauguration call to Taiwanese president Tsai Yingwen, which angered China. The reason is simple: what Taiwan needs most is recognition from the world. Its invisibility makes marginalization and coercion by China much more likely. And since Taiwan is a free, democratic country with a lot in common with Canada, that would be a huge shame.

Not that you’d likely have heard much about Taiwan’s unique society before Trump’s call, or his subsequent remarks doubling down on the “one China” policy.

Recognition of Taiwan has been constantly blocked by communist-controlled China, which has territorial claims on the prosperous island, considering it a renegade province that has never re-unified with the mainland after losing the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Taiwan has to compete in the Olympics as “Chinese Taipei”. (Imagine how Canadians would feel about competing as “British Ottawa!”) China wants the flag of Taiwan to be invisible to the public, even outside Taiwan’s “officially unofficial” embassy in Washington DC. Taiwan cannot participate in the WHO, thanks to China, except as “Chinese Taipei” with only observer status. Even Switzerland’s ISO considers Taiwan to be “Taiwan, province of China.”

chitai

Yet despite a supposed tradition of standing up for democracy, Canada has done little since Harper’s early years to stand up to China on anything, let alone Taiwan. Current PM Justin Trudeau has cozied up to China, with plans to negotiate a mutual extradition treaty, despite the growing superpower’s recent vicious crackdown on human rights lawyers. At a recent IATA air-safety meeting in Montreal, Taiwan was shut out at China’s request. What “Mr. Wonderful” Trudeau say about this on his home turf? Nothing.

In addition, the CBC’s coverage of Taiwan has been very light on anything positive, even about the massive December 10 rally in Taipei that saw 250,000 people support same-sex marriage, an change endorsed by Taiwan’s female president. Taiwan may very well become the first nation in Asia to support marriage equality, a fact reported by news outlets around the world. Yet a Google search for “Taiwan marriage equality CBC” comes up blank. However, the numerous CBC articles about Trump’s recent statements about Taiwan have focused on China’s angry response, or the risks Trump is taking. References to Taiwan’s democracy are often couched in terms of how Trump should not “recognize Taiwan as an independent democratic country.”

Well, I’ve got news for you CBC: Taiwan is an independent democratic country. What’s more, it has a humane political culture, the rule of law, and a free press, unlike China. Also unlike China, it doesn’t illegally detain and torture human rights activists. Heck, it even has good public healthcare! It’s a friendly, peaceful, hardworking nation, the kind of place Canadians would instantly connect with.

taiwan-flag

It’s also a real success story as a self-made country. Taiwan was one of the original Asian tigers, and although times are tougher now (as they are all over) it still has a decent standard of living, low unemployment, and a dynamic electronics industry. In terms of overall quality of life, people in Canada are a bit better off. But we did that with a huge trove of natural resources, and the benefit of having the world’s greatest superpower as our friend and neighbor. Taiwan achieved almost the same thing with a growing hostile giant as their neighbor, and with comparatively few natural resources, except human resources that is.

Taiwan is one of the good guys, and it could use a shout out from our government. It could use a bit more sunlight in the international arena, and it could use the occasional word of overt verbal support by leaders with more class than Donald Trump.

But don’t expect that from young Trudeau. He’s high on oil pipe dreams of trade with China, and for him principles seem to be just words used for locking in voter base, not for standing up for human rights worldwide. It’s a damn shame.

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Will Taiwan get lucky with the surge in foreign students?

 Music pumps, alcohol is consumed, hormones are released, bodies gyrate! It’s another Ladies’ Night at the Brass Monkey pub in downtown Taipei, for many folks a great way to release their mid-week tension. But could this cross-cultural revelry also be part of the answer to making Taiwan more internationally competitive?

 Maybe! Because tearing up the dance floor are a group from the “Foreign Students in Taiwan” club at their weekly “International Mingle”. FSIT’s ranks have continued to swell in recent years – their FB page now has almost 15,000 members – part of a steady increase in the number of foreign students that many hope will make Taiwan wiser in the ways of the world.

 Taiwan needs more foreign talent! Every year, up to 30,000 ambitious local professionals leave to work in China, the USA, or other places where salaries are higher and opportunities more diverse. In addition, about 56,000 Taiwanese annually go abroad to study in the USA, the UK, Japan, China or Korea – among other countries. After graduation, many of these find jobs in China, Europe or the USA.

 This is a serious loss, as the native labor force is shrinking due to age, and comes at a time when Taiwan needs its best and brightest to compete in a global economy increasingly driven by innovation.

  However, while government measures to attract foreign professionals to Taiwan to fill this gap have been limp, the number of foreign students in Taiwan has been growing impressively. From 2006 to 2014, the total number of foreign students – whether for degree, diploma, short course, exchange program, or Mandarin language training – went from 27,000 to almost 93,000, an increase of 66,000. Of this 93,000, 33,000 were from Mainland China, and 20,000 were “overseas compatriots” i.e. ethnic Chinese not from the PRC without a Taiwan ID card, often from Hong Kong or Malaysia. That’s a lot of Han bodies, but still leaves 40,000 students per year from other cultures, an increase of about 23,000 from 2006.

 Out of a total of 1.3 million college students overall, that’s not much – only 3%. But it’s still much higher than the overall percentage of Westerners in the workforce. And on campuses with international MBA programs and Mandarin training centers (NTU, NTNU, NCCU, to name a few), it’s even more noticeable.

 This leads to all kinds of cultural exchanges: local students and staff have a chance to interact with students from around the globe: Russia, India, Turkey, Italy, Latin America, as well as North America and Western Europe; foreign students get to experience the Taiwanese. Everybody gets lucky!

 That is something the FSIT and its co-founder Daniel Tarpy are best at. Tarpy was born into a multicultural world. His dad was a US navy sailor in the Vietnam War, and Tarpy himself was born in ‘the PI’, the Philippines. His parents took a position as missionaries in Taiwan, which is why Tarpy lives here. In 2011, he was involved with TedX at Ming Chuan University, where he is now doing his master’s in global affairs, and in the same year he and some classmates started the FSIT. The vision was, he says, “to integrate the world, to have less violence, more understanding.” The group has held arts and games events, big parties – as well as their weekly “mingle” at the Brass Monkey. Naturally, with university students, there is a lot – ahem – ‘going on’. Romance between foreigners and locals is nothing new to Taiwan, and Tarpy says that about half of foreign students date each other and the other half date locals. He says that the biggest cross-cultural pattern here is Caucasian on Taiwanese, but notes that there is a shift toward increasing numbers of Taiwanese men with Caucasian women. That’s one indicator of cross-cultural influence. Another is the growing number of Taiwanese students who seem totally at home around foreigners. “Some students just seem more comfortable with an international crowd. Others don’t. You can really tell the difference.”

 But while this spike of foreign students is helping future professionals to be more open minded and comfortable working in close-quarters with a multicultural crowd, can it really make up for the brain drain?

 Thanks to recent changes in government policy, foreign students can now get part-time open work permits. Many of them give language classes (privates) or work as servers. Also, after graduation, they can get a 6-month visa extension to look for jobs, and don’t need to meet the normal requirement of two years of work experience before they can be hired by Taiwanese companies. Many stay on as teachers or do sales and marketing jobs for local companies exporting to their own countries, and a lot of ethnic Chinese from Southeast Asia work in the ICT industry.

 But not only are their numbers far fewer, they also lack the experience of those heading abroad. In fact, many argue that the brain drain cannot be stopped unless its underlying cause is addressed – low salaries. Why would top talent come here if they are seduced by better paying rivals like China? And why wouldn’t an adventurous young Taiwanese engineer, facing the grim realities of local salary levels, want to get some experience in Silicon Valley?

  It’s a hard one: in the age of offshoring, automation and AI, salaries are not likely to rise significantly. And in terms of this recent bulge in foreign students eventually fulfilling Taiwan’s needs, no one knows how long it’s really going to be!

 The FSIT Students in Taiwan is a lovely group of bright young people who were very kind to me and I hold them in high esteem. If you are bored and want to blow off some steam, go to the Brass Monkey’s Ladies’ Night on Thursdays, dear reader, and say “Hi!” to Daniel Tarpy and friends. You’ll have a blast!

 

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A History of Pessimism in Taiwan

beer-question

Over time , I have decided that that many Taiwanese have a tendency toward pessimism – or at least an aversion to optimism – about change and “making their own luck”. For right now specifically, this pessimism is about the economic future of Taiwan, and what the prospects are for the younger generation. So how did we get to this gloomy situation? It is quite likely that normal fears at ever-changing challenges have been reinforced by historical experience.

The morale of those living in post-war Taiwan was grim. In 1950, the Nationalists lost the Chinese Civil War, although they clung to the forlorn hope that they would someday “Retake the Mainland!” The best they could do though was to hang on to Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu. Even that was touch and go: the specter of a major war with Mao’s People’s Republic of China (PRC) loomed large throughout the 1950’s, as the PRC gobbled up some ROC-held islands off the mainland coast, and engaged in artillery battles with Republic of China (ROC) forces in the Kinmen and Matsu islands.

guningtou

Military tension legitimized martial law, and the Taiwan Garrison Command had the power to detain, torture and execute almost anyone they wanted to, whether an alleged communist agent or Taiwan independence activist. To boot, Taiwan’s economy was in recession. For the average Taiwanese, life was tough.

But things got better. From 1959, there was a cease-fire, the beginning of today’s status quo. Moreover, the economy stabilized, and started to improve. And improve. And improve! And then a miracle happened: the Taiwan Economic Miracle. From cane rat to Asian tiger in just 20 years!

Taiwan’s economy had long been agricultural, sugar being the main export. But to help with the war, Japan had started industrialization. Under the KMT, this continued, first as import substitution, then as manufacturing for product export. Expansion was facilitated by infrastructure development, such as government-built ports, highways, railways etc. The 1970’s and 80’s also saw the beginnings of offshoring for the burgeoning US electronics industry, for which Taiwan was an early partner. Investment capital and expert advice were not in short supply; nor were native work ethic or business savvy.

The results rocked: In 1960, Taiwan’s per capita GDP was the same as Swaziland’s. By 1980, it almost equaled that of Portugal.

Per Wikipedia: “Between 1952 and 1982, economic growth was on average 8.7%, and between 1983 and 1986 at 6.9%. The gross national product grew by 360% between 1965 and 1986. The percentage of global exports was over 2% in 1986 … industrial production output grew a further 680% between 1965 and 1986.”

acer_building

Healthcare and education improved, and a new middle class emerged, the grandparents and parents of today’s students and young working people.

With wealth came a stronger military. But the security situation was in constant flux. The United Nations recognized the PRC as “China” in 1971, triggering Chiang Kai-shek to quit the UN. The US broke off formal diplomatic relations with the ROC in 1979, and most American soldiers left. However, the US Congress also passed the Taiwan Relations Act, promising welcome (if vaguely worded) military support.

Although martial law was relaxed somewhat after CKS’ death in 1975, police busted up a pro-democracy march in Kaohsiung in 1979. The following year saw a series of arrests and murders of underground activists, and many others fled police, often with the help of the Presbyterian Church.

In 1987, President Chiang Ching-kuo – CKS’ son – ended martial law and further democratized the country. The pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, founded in 1986, became legal and gained greater influence. In 1988, native son Lee Tung-hui became the KMT president of Taiwan, pivoting the government toward independence and localization.

This situation was far from ideal for the old-guard Nationalists, who longed for (re)unification with China. Also, the country as a whole faced some challenges. Economic growth was slowing and rival China was increasing in power, both as a business competitor and as a military threat. But overall things weren’t too bad! Taiwan had a free democracy; the children of the Taiwan Miracle workers enjoyed a standard of living far exceeding their predecessors. And America was there in case of trouble with China.

So, as opposed to Taiwan’s history leading inevitably to pessimism, these years provided a significant basis for optimism. Does this then unravel my thesis? Not so fast, dear reader! Our despair wouldn’t be properly gloomy if we didn’t first crush false hope!

Since the 90s, China has been expanding like a huge and dangerous red star just a few hundred kilometers away from Taiwan, the power of its gravity pulling on the entire world. Financially, militarily, and diplomatically far outmatched, the Taiwanese must feel sometimes like the heirs of Koxinga, waiting for China to come in force to capture – one way or another – their Kingdom of Taiwan.

Democracy – always more attractive in the abstract – has proven somewhat farcical to many Taiwanese, what with former president Chen Shui-bian being jailed for corruption, badly failed economic promises by the last president Ma Ying-jeou, and legislators regularly performing stunts or throwing chairs at each other – when they aren’t being overrun by student activists!

In the economy, wages have stagnated for almost 15 years, causing a brain drain of the best and brightest to China, America and Europe. Plans to be a “center of value-added innovation for the global ICT supply chain” or “the new southbound policy” sound suspiciously like old wine in new bottles.

Hence, it’s no surprise that the Taiwanese can seem a bit resigned and gloomy about the future sometimes. It’s hard to feel that your glass is half full when the level is falling and the bartender is always busy with other customers!

On the bright side though, many observers feel there is still a path back to tiger-hood for Taiwan, if it has the guts to embrace it. They say Taiwan needs to shake off the ghosts of the past and become truly innovative – in effect, to pour a really new wine into the glass. I hope so. And on that note, dear reader, I’m off to the pub myself!

Pouring red wine into glass

Keep it coming!

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