Wednesday, May 28, 2008

TV images

The Osmonds are coming to Taiwan! This is one of those curious happenings that one encounters living in an American colony like Taiwan. The other image is of the inauguration of the new president, Ma Yingjiu, a week ago. I thought it was interesting the new leaders saluted and bowed to the father of the republic, Sun Yat-Sen, rather than to the people.

in the hospital

My wife was in the hospital the past week. The top and bottom pics are of her having her hair washed very ingeniously; the middle pic is of me with a charming, jovial Sichuanese woman of 88 years, with her son and her Indonesian aide. Because of her and her laughter and stories the stay was not so bad. She came to Taiwan with the nationalist armies in 1949.

broken grave stone

The top picture is of a little girl pouting next to a pillar in a large temple in Chingshui, Taiwan. The other picture is of a grave whose bones were removed for reburial in a more auspicious location. The stone is broken in pieces and left just like that. A sobering sight.

still lifes

The top photo is of the floor of my mother in law's kitchen. The second photo is of a group of chairs and sofas under a bridge at night. The bottom photo is of a rare urban tree, perched between two buildings.

family in Taiwan

The top picture is of my wife with her maternal grandfather, a very rambunctious, lively man.
The next picture is of her with her parents, my in-laws, at a wetland not far from their home in Yuanli, Miaoli, Taiwan.
The bottom picture is of them and my wife's younger sister and her boyfriend atop a hill overlooking the town of Tonghsiao, where she grew up. The hilltop was marked with monuments by the Japanese because it was from this hilltop that observers spied the Russian Baltic Fleet sailing north toward Japan in 1905. This intelligence was credited with helping Japan defeat Russia in the war of that year. Interestingly, all the Japanese shrines and monuments were defaced after the "restoration" (guangfu) in 1945. But recently they have been restored from their former neglect, as historical monuments and draws for local tourists. A beautiful hilltop.

visit to Rachel

In March my wife and I visited my niece, serving as a Mormon missionary in Hualian, Taiwan. It was a bit awkward, as she was shocked, but I am glad I bent her rules and went and saw her.


There are angels on the two front pillars of the Guandi Temple in Hsinchu, Taiwan. I suppose they were copied from Christianity when the temple was built sometime in the 19th century. This kind of borrowing shows something I like about Taiwanese religion: its organic, flexible, local character. It is not that they believe in angels, per se, but that someone in charge of the temple building thought they would go well on the pillars, and did not have a black and white view of the world.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

beach on a passed-by frontier

Beach on a Passed-over Frontier

Thoreau wrote the beauty of swamps. I write here of another desolate beauty – one more marked by humans. To call it a “beach” is to domesticate it, however, to masticate its roughness into a proper vision of loveliness made just for us. It is not made for us, nor we for it. This place of which I write is a sand-whipped and wave raked waste.
It frightens me a little, for many reasons. Each time I go there to run the sand has been reshaped; each bar is a bar newly made; each rippled depression will be gone in the next tide; each stream of stranded tidewater cuts a different gash back to the sea from the ones cut yesterday. I run close to the waves. Thin sheets of water glaze the sand soundlessly, a silent beginning to brutal tons of noise falling for now just yards out. Facing into the wind as I run north my ears holler with it, my eyes are buffeted with it. I see the six smoke stacks of the Tonghsiao power plant standing stolid to the north, against the wind. But the sight does not steady me. Only a few kilometers away, the stacks blur in the blue wind and the surf, they blink like lighthouses or ships wallowing.
When I turn back south my ears go quiet. I run with a ghostly current of blowing sand. As I near the southern end of the beach a cement wharf and sea wall cuts my vision of that horizon. It is fortress-massive, buttressed by giant jacks of poured cement. But even as these 8 foot high weights brunt the force of the waves, they also draw the water under them, the way one’s feet sink slowly the longer one stands in waves. A subterranean string of pools has collected under these piled behemoths. And I notice too that the cement surfaces below the high tide mark are blooming, encrusting, eroding, even as they settle. When will the wall itself list? Sucked down? Pulled in?
Running across the shifted, scalloped face of the sand I have a miniature feeling of the Lewis and Clark party’s wonder and fear. My eyes graze the pitted, stream-cut surface of the sand for crossing points, out to the smooth swelling sands next to the waves. Circling back to the south it is all completely foreign; I zig-zag baffled through the thousand tiny ponds and rivers, feet sinking in unexpected soft spots, until I happen across my footsteps from earlier. With this microscopic mapping, like a bush pilot looking down at a vexingly Byzantine tundra, I am disoriented. Then I glance up at the size of the thing rolling across the horizon, and this mapping, picking and choosing, loses meaning. My tiny tracings will count for nothing next time I come. I imagine the thrill of the party moving ant-like across the back of the slumbering continental animal, the horror of being always lost (even when they knew their coordinates), always on the outside, in an ever-shifting landscape that did not know them. I imagine too those moments when wonder swept across those nagging fears, when they would lift their eyes from worried reading of the land’s treacherous Braille and have their eyes blown open, helpless, pinned back by the magnitude of the world swelling up around them. I feel it.
But why do I imagine these men and not others? Why do I not imagine Sacagewea? Because they were at the head of the white north American empire of which I am heir, and whose farthest western point during the Cold War was Taiwan, this beach where I stand. Now it is a faded frontier. American capital has since swept beyond Taiwan like a tide, into China, but the empire is much more troubled for all its increasing size. I am programmed by the ideology of my youth to identify with them and their exploration, even if I know it now as reconnaissance for conquest and butchery, just as I still recall the picture of Sam Houston creeping off to read Homer’s Odyssey by himself as a boy, flat on his belly in the woods (which I copied once, in the woods behind my house, reading of Erik the Red and the landing at Iceland). These heroic, post-World-War II fantasies I imbibed greedily as a lonely boy. I have grown past these men and rejected their roles as servants and symbols of an empire, but the feeling those cherished scenes provoked will never die in me. I feel it, the wonder and terror and utter loneliness, in miniature, here on the port side of this old American battleship off the coast of China.
Armies of men no longer matter. That age is past. Heroism of individuals in conquest is superseded. Beyond the sand dunes stands a fortified guard tower, abandoned. Its gun slits are partly bricked up; fleshy plants grow out of its crevices; its top is piled with stones. Men no longer matter. China no longer threatens amphibious landings. They are a relic of World War II. Its missiles and economic power are the new invader, to be countered by computers, technicians, finance capital, networks, cameras, robots.
Most times when I come here there are couples, shoeless, slogging across the sand for wedding photos. They have parked with the photographer and his assistant just behind the heaping dunes and struggled up and over to the sandy waste. They jump stoically at the same time, hands, clasped, smiling, backs to the waves. They stand ankle-deep in water, beaming, maybe the last time they will ever do anything so foolish as to get their clothes wet with sea water. They recline, embracing, next to a heart drawn by the assistant in the sand. They run through the poses like calisthenics under the direction of their baseball-capped trainers. Knowing how wild this place is their cute acts seem absurdly out of place to me, like a child tittering and climbing on a bear’s knee and tweaking its glistening nose. The beaches they invoke are the beaches of movies, humanized places tamed enough that love can placidly bloom, uninterrupted by a looming earth. They are not this fierce place, this unsentimental, wracked fringe. But the photos clip and crop this volatile power, tucking it into the background of the little human romance of agency and will.
Today the wind is so strong it overwhelms its place in the background, and the photographers are not here. The barge just offshore near the harbor to the north is quiet as well, no smoke of dredging smudging the sky. They are building another cement port there, for fishermen to scour the sea for disappearing fish. A lone man with a dog works at a partly buried net on a bar. As I near, the dog watches me, and I him, keeping a good distance and piece of water between us. Finally the man gives up and gets up off his knees. The net, like all the others, is caught for good. The local government is also trying to make the new harbor a tourist spot, and there are basketball courts and a bathroom on the barren paved space behind the port. The shrubs are pitiful counterweights to the sun.
Behind the port highway 61, raised above the rice fields and block houses on cement pillars, makes a sharp curve inland. Its lights blink on as evening falls. Some of the pillars have drawn grafitti artists, who have painted demonic faces or illegible, exploding names. A proper artist has painted lotuses and carp. Brief ads are spray-painted: “heavy work, rock breaking 092893820,” “divorce 067833490.” Standing atop the dunes and looking back toward the highway, temples’ curving eaves and riotous colored dragons rise above the houses. One stands unfinished, naked cement, reinforcing rods poking out everywhere. Its name is already in place though, four large lit yellow signs hung across the top, a red character in each. It is vulgar in its mass, height, and craven maximalization of size, bloating a traditional form with reinforced cement.
The highwater mark at the front of the dunes is a litter of relics human and natural. Worn bleached tree trunks, thick braided ropes, Styrofoam floats, buoys, flip-flops cracked with exposure, nets in tangled masses. And across the water-worn plain the clean obliteration is broken here and there by a rustling plastic bag, or snack wrapper half-buried, crinkling spookily in the wind. Most days tiny crabs have created spokes of sand balls radiating from their holes, an aerial view of forests and Hobbitt’s glades as I run across it.
As the world system headed by the United States creaks and snaps, I feel it all keenly in this volatile margin where man’s brutal industry and nature’s relentless forces meet. This helps explain why this beach makes me uneasy: its savagery metaphorizes and foretells the savagery of the system in turmoil. The wind blowing my mouth and eyes open are the winds of rising food prices and inflation. The sand whipping around my ankles are the rootless peregrinations of the world’s poor, selling years of life and youth for a few dollars a day in faraway places (I see the Indonesian and Thai laborers here, ignored, clustered around their little stores on Sundays). The scavengers recovering buried nets or digging up crabs or picking plastic bottles from the flotsam are the other armies of poor folk who stay home, living off the detritus of the system. In these times, Taiwan, a bobbing boat of 23 restless millions, foretells the unsettled world better than most places. And this beach feels more like today’s world than anywhere else in Taiwan: a future of violence and want broods in the clouds offshore, even as a silver plane or two carries the rich high above, and on land, the accumulative system can never stop tearing up and tearing down, cementing, incinerating, wiring, demolishing and laying waste. Food prices shoot up, yet farming is still held in contempt, and fertile fields are cemented into houses, temples, warehouses, and factories, growing crops of money far faster than farmers can. After all, there is no contest between the meager wages of the hungry poor and the pools of luminous liquidity in which the rich loll, bathing.
On the landward side of the dunes lies a cemetery I like to linger by before I turn the key in my scooter’s ignition to go home. There is the scent of spirit money burning in the temples’ furnaces. There is the odor of burning plastic and trash out back of someone’s house. There is a yelp of a dog chained somewhere, on a chain always too short. The graves are mounds, artificial hills making good feng shui for the deceased. Colorful little columns and mythical animals anchor the corners of the tiled space at the front of the mounds, which make a neat floor for worshippers laying incense or food offerings. At the left side of most tombs are sentry houses containing small statues of a white-bearded god, cheerily dressed, protecting the place. And at the front center of the mound is the tablet, inscribed with the names of the dead in gold. Atop the mounds bits of paper flutter in the wind, weighted down by stones. After Tomb Sweeping Day in early spring people pick up the old papers and put down new ones, some pink and blue, some pale yellow. All year they weather there, tattering, brittling, shredding, crinkling, fading.
While the tombs of the wealthy are rich with a carpet of grass, others are patchily vegetated. Wedged in among the better-off tombs in poached space are dirt mounds, unmarked even by stone tablets, with only an anonymous stone and memory anchoring the spot. Others were originally well-appointed but have since been abandoned and overgrown with brush, victims of a family feud, or the death of all of those who knew the buried. Here and there too are visible tombs whose families have dug up the bones for reburial elsewhere, in search of peaceable placement for angry old spirits and a new start for the living. These sites lay as they were left the day of the raid, holes gaping atop the mounds, blasted open like savage Caesarian births, empty, forlorn, forgotten but not erased, stone slabs broken in pieces on the tile floors.
In the evening air a pig shrieks, and I recall the stench of pig shit as I had arrived earlier. It makes sense to raise pigs here. In a waste land there will be fewer complaints of pollution, of blood and stink, of the polluting screams of the dying.
As I ride home, scooter echoing through the narrow lanes of the villages, I dream of Chinese attack, a dream spun out by these residents and chewed over and discussed for decades. I recall seeing a front page of the Apple Daily a few years ago, with a striking computer-touched photograph showing Taipei 101 being hit by missiles. An attack would release the tension of eternal indecision and replace it with terror and chaos, choice and absolute randomness. The world of stock markets, forever bobbing up and down on eddies of chance in little boats but never getting anywhere new, never reaching any commanding heights or conclusions, any peaceable ending nirvana or awful hell, nor any secular rupture of revolution or overthrow, no deshouke nor intifada, never getting anywhere but a repetition of the last election or playoff game, a hamster wheel of numbers undisrupted even by the carnivalic revelry of a symbolic human agency, deadens. Even devotees and initiates of the market cult worldwide hate its oppressive forever-ness, and drown it out with endless distractions. Hollywood churns out a steady supply of Armageddon fare, annual festivals of the Statue of Liberty obliterated or the White House beamed up, anti-valentines to the system. These longings for closure and renewal are always sold in censored form, captioned with heroic comebacks by the system’s heroes tacked on at the end.
On this beach I see the end is already here, and has been here a long time; I open my arms to it in despair and longing for rebirth. No matter how attached I am to life and familiar routine I cannot help imagining Chinese attack. It would only be a faster and more honest version of the self-cannibalization that industrialization and money breeding is. It would bring markets to a dead halt. It would bring blessed, frightful end, a breath, reflection. . . and dying. I imagine it here, in this fortune-telling moor, one of the awful edges of market civilization. Having been surpassed, it is sapped of the frightening vitality that now whips Shanghai and Bangalore, and lolls, bobbing, listless -- but still pounded by currents.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

black person toothpaste?

Getting on a crowded train for Yuanli from Hsinchu, Taiwan, with my wife, we squeezed into a spot near a rambunctious boy, his big sister, and grandmother. The kid immediately began staring at me. And then when I smiled he began saying, "Black person toothpaste! Black person toothpaste!" Apparently my teeth and foreignness reminded him of nothing closer to home than Heiren Yagao, or Black Person Toothpaste. The kid was so outrageously rude but yet so squirmingly uncomfortable in my presence, I could not help laughing. He would stare at me, but if I looked back, he would hide. My wife was totally annoyed and uncomfortable, so she left.

The toothpaste used to be called, in English, Darkie. I saw it in Hong Kong in 1985. When I saw it again in Taiwan in 1999, I realized the black man had been "cleaned up" and made less of a caricature. Also, one letter had been changed in the English name: it was now "Darlie," a nonsequitur to those not knowing its history.

curious words

hape: this word was used by an Indonesian woman, Sukini, who is caring for my wife's grandmother. i asked her, "what is hape?" she replied -- "hand phone." so "hape" is the abbreviation of the english words, made into an Indonesian word. When I was in Indonesia, there was no such thing as cell phones.

jianghuwei: this Chinese word translates literally as "river-lake-flavor," and means something like "jaded" or "world-weary." in classical literature, "river-lakes" was a stand in for the human world, or society. so to say someone has a "river-lake flavor" (or air) is to say someone is jaded. interesting word.

diam diam


past cat: this is a rough translation of "guingiao" (taiwanese) or "guomao" (chinese), the name for a fern-like vegetable my mother-in-law has been cooking recently. it is delicious. and has a curious name.

Monday, May 5, 2008


just behind the beach where i go running is a graveyard. this is a typical grave. there are poorer ones, as well, small dirt mounds with a simple stone marking it. in the little booth on the left, stands a small statue of a deity. on the right, there is a receptacle for burning "spirit money" on holidays such as the tomb-sweeping day, Qingming Jie. notice bits of paper atop the tomb mounds. they are held there by stones, and are replaced by new pieces of paper each Qingming Jie. i do not know what these papers weighted by stones signify. they weather over the course of the year.


these are some of the stamp designs carved by the husband of my wife's friend, living in Banqiao, Taiwan. stamps of people's names are used to "sign" any important or official document, and are prominent on paintings -- they are the artist's "signature." amazingly, some of these antiquely-styled names take on an ultra-modern, spare look. . .click to enlarge.

resting spot

this pleasant central space lies in the old Fangli neighborhood, in Yuanli, Miaoli county, Taiwan. on the right lies a Mazu Goddess temple; on the left, an old tree and some benches (unseen).

picturesque truck

it is for sale, by the way.


this is where i go running, in yuanli, taiwan. it is a desolate beach, and beautiful, with ever-new patterns from the waves and tides. to the north i see 6 large smoke stacks, above a power plant. to the south i see a large sea wall of cement.

temple door

old hotel, hualian, Taiwan

we peered into the lobby of this time machine from the 70s as the owner napped on the sofa just inside the door. on the chalk board are listed all of hualian's movie theatres, for the titles to be written in. i am sure most of them are no longer in existence. the material of the front desk was widely used in the 70s for floors, counters, and staircases. there is also an old tourist map of the area.


coming up to the railway platform in the station in Yuanli, Taiwan.

70s style, taiwan

in Yuanli, Taiwan, where I am living with my parents-in-law while waiting for my wife's visa to come through, I have enjoyed finding gems of local architecture. these two houses were built in the mid-70's, which I guessed due to their use of a global architectural "vocabulary" that originated in the US and Europe (and in Japan?) in that time. the house whose interior is shown was designed by a taipei architect for a sum of 40,000 NT. interestingly, i have not seen such beautiful examples in the much larger city of Hsinchu; this may be because that city has developed so much faster and deeper than Yuanli, that such houses might have been torn down and replaced by wealthy people there. even today in Yuanli, this tradition of building beautiful homes by wealthy landowners continues.

sexual harassment in schools

i clipped interesting comments from the new york times' health and medicine blog, which ran a brief story on this topic. those comments which got to the heart of the matter as a phenomenon productive of social dominance made most sense to me. in schools, kids are socialized into the black arts of social power. to whit: "success" means being a bully. three comments follow.

We wore uniforms – long tunics- in the Catholic school I attended (1962-1970). It did not stop the boys /young men from sexually harassing the girls/young women. And this in a place – Halifax NS Canada – outside the overall media-inundation ‘mainstream’.

The harassment I and others experienced were ultimately about our gender, in the context of establishing hierarchy. “You are the school nerd / you are the school poor kid / You are not popular and ‘I am better/ have more power than you ‘were the primary messages. That and ‘You are your biology and don’t you forget it’.

In ‘Anne’s’ post, the terms ‘jail bird’ and ‘jail bait’ – revealing of the thinking underlying them, both blaming the victim, and one far more tellingly and sexually charged than the other, were dispiriting to say the least. That and Chester’s ‘Tune in Tokyo’ comment. I was, as a young teen, subjected to that one too.

It seems to me that over the past several decades, as women have made gains in so many spheres, there has been a relentless, covert backlash: a re-characterizing of girls and women as sexual and - in particular - sexualized units. From the objects of harassment and rape to the objects of the voyeuristic ‘Girls Gone Wild’ gaze that seeks to convince us that exposing our bodies, ourselves, on someone else’s terms, is equated to power, ultimately, we are relentlessly reduced to our biology. Nevermind the “Axe” ads…

Recently I attended a training session at my work where a young man (late teens) wore a T-shirt emblazoned “Girls Gone Wild Film Crew”. After I complained, he changed it. Then he came to me and apologized and asked me what was wrong. He was sincere. He honestly did not understand. He is a nice guy. I think that scared me most of all. Molly

Our nation-wide economic apartheid system (aka suburbs for the well-off, other suburbs for the rich, more suburbs for the really rich, and ghettos for everyone else), segregates children into school systems based on economic status. Therefore, we have a few high-class schools where all the kids go to college and none of the kids are grabbing each other’s crotches in the hallways, and we have loooots of low-class schools, which make the headlines with this kind of behavior.

The real solution is to undo our economic apartheid culture.

Get out of the suburbs and get back into life!

First, I think if the problem were as simple as an “occasional wedgie” or even being groped once, no one would be kicking up this much fuss. The problem is much worse and larger than that, and I find it very interesting when commenters try to reduce it to that and then claim we’re all overreacting. It seems they may have a little denial thing going. I understand, it’s uncomfortable. But that’s no excuse for refusing to face the truth our kids are facing every day.

Another striking thing is the inability of so many of us to distinguish between consensual and non-consensual situations. The first would qualify as sexuality, the second as abuse. It’s the failure to make this distinction that allows so many to claim that victims were asking for it or that this behavior is oversexed and extreme repression is the answer, and allows others to claim that this is simple sexual curiosity, or that to oppose harassment is to be prudish and anti-sex. This claim is often leveled at the old-time feminists, when nothing could be farther from the truth (though it’s a tacit admission of inability to imagine sex as anything other than the expression of power over others).

This isn’t about sexuality. This is about asserting dominance over others — just in a sexualized way. There are other ways to do it as well, but they all center on humiliation, and using sexual themes is a great way to do that, a powerful way. It will always be more effective on females and sexual minorities because the broader culture is still all about the dominance of straight (white) males. So the research mentioned in the post found that all students were harassed, but the girls and sexual minorities were more traumatized by it — because this was messaging about their role in society, their place in the world. It says, you can expect more of the same out there, the world backs me up — and frequently, sadly, there’s some truth to it. That’s what makes it hard to live with, when the perp isn’t just being a jerk, but is part of a broader repression of certain groups and plays that part with relish. There’s a lot more at stake for the victim.

I think America today is at a crossroads. Nominally we are based on the rule of law and the principles of equality and justice, but in reality much of our social system is a raw dominance hierarchy — male-centered, as raw dominance tends to be. This shadow social system is based entirely on might-makes-right — it even celebrates it and those who demonstrate it (who sucks? who wins?), using sexual themes or any other themes to do so. It’s utterly un-American in spirit and goes well with authoritarianism. And I can hear it in all the voices that say those who take these issues seriously are “whining.” (Get back in line!!) Or that this stuff is “normal” — statistically, it may be, but only to the extent that we’re a sick society.

I saw this after Columbine, when suddenly everyone realized that maybe that bullying thing could be an actual problem. And as a society, I watched us fail to come to terms with that problem, because that would involve admitting the covert dominance hierarchy we all live in and resisting it. Bullying is alive and well in schools today as a result, even though from time to time it still ends up in horrifying episodes of violence. It starts with our refusal to acknowledge that bullying itself is violence, because that would challenge the dominance system that the adults too are living in. Adult society is based on bullying, too, we love bullies! We just call them “winners.” Very few people have the courage to stand up to the actual issue here and stand against the system that is based on, and glorifies, the expression of dominance by whatever means are handy and available. But those are the only people worth spending any time with. Seek ‘em out!

— Posted by Chris

the horrific cute

the computer screen image at the net cafe i am using now is typical of a style trend noticeable in taiwan: the horrific cute. i assume this trend originates in japan. one sees images or toys of simple animal forms, with a bloody tear coming from its eye, or blood coming from the corner of its mouth, or stubble on its face and a cigarette hanging from its mouth, or fangs. think of hello kitty with any of the features mentioned. what does this style mean in the minds of its fans?

this image shows a white figure, with stitches on its head, and a heart hanging from an open chest cavity.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

reading and slavery

i read with interest Frederick Douglass' narration of his drive to learn to read as a slave in Baltimore. He was taught the alphabet by his female master until her husband warned her to stop it. Then he tenaciously added to this tiny store of information, tooth and nail, and this is how he did it: he befriended little white boys when he went out on errands, sometimes offering to share a piece of bread he had bought, sometimes challenging them. "I bet I can write --- better than you can."

Of course the boys always took up the challenge, teaching a slave to read in the process.

While slaver is now outlawed, the same logics pervade modern societies, locking certain groups outside mainstream thought, law, rules, and moralities. Here in Taiwan I see foreign contract laborers as a modern example.


Hillary Clinton claims, boasts, that she will "obliterate" Iran if it attacks Israel with nuclear weapons. And she will do it "totally." This is a contender for the presidency, promising genocide.

Who will you wipe out, Clinton? Children sleeping in their beds? Mothers buying vegetables in the market? Taxi drivers filling up their tanks? Young people listening to music on their computers?


And what will you not say to be the beloved of war-lovers? What will you not say to become president?

If you want to appear tough, why promise genocide? And why is genocide bad for Hitler and Saddam Hussein, but OK for Americans?