Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Nov 18 2022

Mixed messages

I had an interesting conversation with a construction site manager yesterday. At least it went better than some of the previous interactions I’ve had with them.

It was a nice, warm, sunny day, and I was wandering along Zhongxiao West Road after a pleasant lunch near Camera Street and then hanging around the North Gate watching a wedding photographer chase the retreating light around the square. “Pretend like you’re running!” he called to the prospective groom, while his bride fiddled with makeup in a tiny tent.

“Like this?” the groom lifted a leg up hesitantly. Clearly he hadn’t been expecting this, especially after putting on a fancy white-and-purple suit.

“No, you look like a dog peeing!” the photographer said, but in a nice way. “Run like a bus is about to hit you!”  This was helpful advice, as buses were indeed zooming by inches behind him.

I walked east and got yelled at by a crazy Chinese monk for taking a photo of the Mitsukoshi Building. “Don’t fuck with me! I am long exiled from Foshan!” he shouted.

I kept walking, ending up on the famous pedestrian bridge at the intersection of Zhongxiao and Zhongshan. A busy construction site where the old round City Council building used to be caught my eye, and I took a few shots from the bridge before heading down to see if the light was nicer from street level.

“You can’t take photographs here,” a site manager walked over to tell me.

“Why’s that?”

“Company rules.” I sighed. This again.

“I don’t work for your company. Your site in is public view from the public road I’m standing on, and I’m not violating any safety rules here.” The manager considered this.

“All true, but we could get in trouble if you post these photos and our boss sees them, especially if he sees our company logo.”

“Why would your boss be unhappy at that? It seems like a well-run site. This project has even been shown in the media before.”

“He might yell at us for allowing someone to take photos.”

It was a pleasant, cordial exchange, and while I did not envy this man’s conundrum, I had to tell him: “You might not have noticed, but your site is bathed in reflected light from all these glass buildings next door in the afternoon. That’s going to attract photographers. Also, you’re not only right by a pedestrian bridge that is a famous photography spot, you’re also near hotels, the Executive Yuan and the train station. That means curious tourists walking by. Photography is going to happen. If you make a big deal about hiding the site from them, there’s a chance some of them will be IG influencers, journalists or even members of foreign diplomatic groups.” Someone might even blog about it, I added mentally.

He seemed amenable to this point of view, but he was still in manager mode. “Ok, I’ll let you keep the photos you’ve already taken, including the ones from the pedestrian bridge, but please don’t take any more.”

“There’s nothing you can do about the photos I’ve already taken,” I reminded him, noting that they’d tracked me all the way from the bridge. “But I appreciate your point of view and thanks for being courteous about it.”

As I walked on, I couldn’t help but wonder why people automatically go to some imagined worst-case scenario when they see they are being photographed. Is everyone afraid that their nefarious behavior will get them in trouble? But that can’t be the case, as being recorded by the government and corporations 24/7 has become a matter of course; nobody ever even thinks about it. Then again, government and corporate surveillance is expressly put in place to catch wrongdoing, so is it that far a stretch to imagine that, as such recording becomes more ubiquitous and ever present, the general population just assumes that any kind of photography is accusatory and predatory in nature? People crave attention, but just the safe kind of attention, I suppose. Whatever that is.

To wit: I recently got back in touch with a street photographer I used to chat with back in the early days of Flickr, Joe Wigfall. He no longer even takes photos; he says it had become too much of a hassle, so he paints and writes instead. It’s a shame; he made some very good work when he was active. He noted that when he was out shooting, Black people would give him more shit for photographing them than people from other groups would, and he noticed the same for white and Asian photographers he’d go shooting with. We can give them a pass, but you’re one of us; you should know better seems to be the message they were sending.

I took the subway over to Taipei 101 and walked across Wuxing Street towards the mountains, noticing the imprints of old military villages amid the empty fields as well as the occasional illegal villas with partially demolished balconies. Brightly colored election trucks, cars, motorcycles and bicycles crisscrossed the streets with their various candidates promising various things from mounted loudspeakers. But the sun was setting, so I walked back over to the Tonghua Night Market to meet up with Chenbl for a delicious meal of noodles at a wood-paneled restaurant where the competent young staff played old and pseudo-old jazz. They knew about the Ramblers, and put on some of our music.

posted by Poagao at 12:07 pm  
Sep 29 2011

US trip, part IV

I didn’t sleep well the night before my flight out of San Francisco; I’d programed both of my phone’s alarm clocks for 6:30am, but I wasn’t entirely sure they’d work, so I kept waking up and checking the time all night. When morning finally came, I grabbed my bags and headed downstairs to the lobby, where the woman at the desk informed me that the airport shuttle would be by at 7:15, and they guaranteed I’d be at the airport by 8. My flight was at 9:10. We chatted about the hotel’s long history, well back into the 1800’s, meaning it survived the great earthquake and fire of 1905. Impressive. The place really does have a nice old feel to it, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it for those who are looking for a simple, centrally located room in the city, but who don’t need an in-room bath.

The shuttle van showed up around 7:30. The driver was a middle-aged Latino man, and a middle-aged couple from upstate New York were rhapsodizing about their love of cold weather from the middle seat. The driver was speaking in Spanish as we hurtled up and down the sloped streets, the tops of the old wooden houses glowing with the beginnings of the day’s sunlight, and I was in momentary awe of the New York woman’s Spanish until I realized there was another passenger, a short Mexican woman in the front seat.

Despite roaming the city’s hotels in search of more fares, the driver did manage to get us to the airport by 8-ish. He spent so much time chatting with the New York couple before taking me to the United terminal that I considered not tipping him, but I did anyway. The ways of tipping, they elude me.

Inside the airport, which was obviously no longer San Francisco, I waited in line until I found myself facing an empty counter. I stood there for a few minutes waiting for someone to appear before realizing that I had to actually key my information into a small screen in front of me, upon which I was issued two boarding passes. I then proceeded to the beginning of the security line, only to be told that one of my carry ons had to be checked, as every little thing in the US counts as a carry-on, in contrast with the rest of the world. I went back to check in one of my bags and came back to wait in the TSA line.

I waited for quite a bit. It was really my first encounter with the TSA, and the whole thing seems tacked clumsily onto the rest of the airport; it doesn’t fit at all, sort of like a Jehovah’s Witness camped in the middle of a Gap store. The personel wore uniforms, but that was the extent of their professionalism. They strutted around, ordering scared passengers around and deigning to see the next person in line when it damn well suited them.

I followed the other passengers’ lead, taking off my shoes for some reason, separating my bags, removing my computer, etc. My bags had to be X-rayed twice, and the attendant said this in an ominous voice, glaring around as she took the examination-defiant tray back.

Eventually I cleared the TSA zone and made my way to the gate, where a crowd of people surrounded the gate. Again I was assigned a middle seat. I wonder how one obtains anything but a middle seat here. Apparently they just do it at random at the gate itself, which seems prehistoric.

The planes seem stuck in a time warp as well; every plane I’ve been on has been old, with CRT screens and none of the modern equipment I’ve become used to overseas. The staff had trouble airing the safety video as well as the other videos that followed, and they now sell food instead of offering it as part of the service.

We arrived in Chicago a bit late, and I followed the signs to the terminal for my flight to Lexington. And followed. And followed. It seemed to be at the other end of the facility, but I made it in time to board a tiny little jet with tiny little seats and one short, pudgy flight attendent who was very nice. The clouds dropped below as we took off, very smoothly and quietly for such a small plane, I thought, though the prop job from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, Laos, was also nice and smooth. This time we passed huge cloud formations that resembled the star destroyers from Star Wars, and I imagined we were in a shuttle, flying casual.

Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Kentucky, was almost empty except for large pictures of impressive horses and signs saying things like, “Buy a few horse farms today!” My brother Kevin was waiting for me downstairs, and we proceeded in his Jetta station wagon to his house in the tiny, quaint town of Midway. I hadn’t seen Kevin in over ten years, so it was really good to see him again, as well as his wife Ann, and I met their two kids, Jack and Avery, that night. They seem like good kids, inquisitive and friendly. They asked me to say various thing in Chinese, and Avery actually almost tripped me up with “chandelier”.

Kevin and Ann are both architects, and their house is very nicely done, with warm colors, and so clean that…it’s just very, very clean. I’m staying in the guest room.

This morning Kevin and I drove to Lexington to join Ann at a motivational speakers’ seminar. I had my doubts about attending such a thing, but the list of speakers included such names as Steve Forbes, Colin Powell, Laura Bush and Rudi Guliani, so I thought it might be interesting.


Ok, so Colin Powell was interesting. Kind of jokey, as if he didn’t really take these things seriously. Laura Bush sounded like she was Reading Every Word From A Script, though her speech was in itself interesting, and the few words I caught of Steve Forbes’ pleas for a flat 17% tax seemed reasonable. Ann said that Guliani was good for the short time he spoke. But the rest of the thing was filled with shysters and shillers propping themselves up and trying to badger people into taking their courses and programs, late-nite TV Ronco ad-style. A huge US flag was waving on the screen behing the logo, and outside the auditorm, surrounding the doors, were many tables staffed by dozens of young black men, all with forms ready to sign in front of them. The shysters on the stage were vulgar, insulting, and plainly ignorant individuals playing the audience like a carpetbagger inpersonating a Baptist preacher. Perhaps it was the modern-day equivalent of the old medicine shows, but I’d have to say the Taiwanese shows selling fake Chinese medicine in between dancing Thai transvestites had considerably more class.

And yet the audience (I’m still not sure if their considerable average girth was representative of the general population or not) was eating it up; that was the biggest disappointment. They would answer the speakers, shouting YES! and clapping at any mention of being married for any length of time or anything military. A man came up and sang a rendition of God Bless America, and most of the audience stood up, their hands on their hearts, as if it were the national anthem. They called on all the members of military to stand up. Single mothers were brought up on stage, seemingly picked randomly out of the crowd, and given prizes, while one speaker told people he was going to heaven, while we were going to hell, and he hoped we would be hit by a bus. Then he preached compassion. Then he called us peckerwoods. There was an almost insane fervor and need to boast their own stupidity as if it were a credit. And it worked.

We left after Colin Powell’s speech and had lunch at a local restaurant. It began to rain, and most of the diners left the open patio, leaving a group of large blonde women holding umbrellas. “Are you making fun of us?” they challenged.

“No, I just think it’s an interesting situation,” I said, but they still seemed suspicious. A while earlier they had been asking if a girl who had tripped on the sidewalk was ok.

We walked back to the car, which was parked in what Kevin said others called “a really bad part of town”, but although it was obviously not well to do, it seemed pleasant enough, small ramshackle houses with porches. That morning, as we had walked through Transylvania College, which is apparently one of the oldest colleges in the US, we asked a student how old it was. “17th oldest college in the US, founded in 1780!” he said.

“Ha! We beat you: 1749!” I said, drawing a dirty look from the student. “That was probably a stupid thing to say,” I added to Kevin, who was probably trying to look like he didn’t know me as we walked on.

After watching Kevin’s two dogs, the typical pairing you see in cartoons of the big dumb one and the small smart one, tearing around the saltwater pool in the backyard, dinner was had in downtown Midway, two rows of interesting old buildings, many containing restaurants, separated by train tracks. I had mini corn dogs, which were delicious AND cute, and a chicken sandwich. We were afraid it was going to rain as the sky darkened, but the walk back was pleasant. Very quiet, very empty, with only one of two people in view at one time. The only sounds were the church bells and the occasional train. We picked up the kids from Ann’s parent’s house, just across the street and designed and built by Kevin, and returned to watch “The Player”, starring Hollywood and very stylized while also being almost completely random. Interesting film; Tim Robbins was, as usual, very tall.

posted by Poagao at 12:01 pm  
Jun 02 2009

Tainan trip

I took the high-speed rail down to Tainan on Friday after meeting Chenbl at the Taipei station. The Tainan station is far away from the city, of course; all of the HSR stations, apart from those in Kaohsiung and Taipei, are seemingly out in the middle of nowhere. Street grids have been laid out, and in some cases neighborhoods have developed around the stations, but getting people to move out there requires more intertia than the simple attraction of a train station can provide, it seems. Although I’m sure that shady dealings had their effect on the location choices, I’m also positive that the main reasons they couldn’t get the stations closer to the metropolitan areas they supposedly serve are prevailing NIMBY attitudes and confusing conflaguration of zoning near the cities.

We took a free shuttle bus into town, passing forlorn parks with propped-up trees, huge empty malls, unused gas stations and rows of new housing plastered with For Sale or Rent signs. It’s the American suburbian boom without the boom. Go ahead and build it, and maybe, someday, they will come. Such a plan might have worked in the north, but people down south are more entrenched in their ways. When the MRT opened in Taipei, it was an instant hit and cut down on pollution as well as traffic congestion, basically remaking the city into a much nicer, cleaner and more convenient place to live, while the Kaohsiung MRT is still hardly used, most people there preferring to stay with their trusty scooters and cars.

There were no scooters to be had at the rental places by the train station in downtown Tainan, however, so we took a cab out to the Anping area, the site of the old fort and trading houses by the sea, and borrowed some bicycles from the local police station. The massive harbor was silted in and built over long ago, but many of the old buildings remain. We got a gruding tour of an old Japanese-era house that was being restored by an ancestor of the original owners; sliding paper doors, tatami mats and high wooden ceilings. The tree house was interesting, if full of mosquitos and annoying kids trying to pull the hanging branches off. We walked around the neighborhoods I had only seen at night before, when they were ghostily empty. Possibly due to the holiday, however, they were bustling in the afternoon. We talked with one old woman sitting outside of an ancient two-sided house, which was cheaper and more space-efficient than the traditional three- or four-sided enclosures. It turned out that she and her son lived next door in a similarly old dwelling. Ancient portraits of their ancestors hung on the incense-stained walls, relatives who had been made officials, making these people a kind of royalty on the rocks. My Taiwanese was getting a workout; although everyone under 70 can speak Mandarin (and many young people speak only Mandarin, even in Tainan, which surprised me), Taiwanese feels more intimate and affectionate, especially when chatting with older people.

We rode down to the harbor to take pictures of the sunset. I’d brought Thumper’s huge-ass lens with me, just in case, but I found that I actually miss having a telephoto in my collection. Time to start saving up for another purchase, I suppose. I don’t know if I’d get such a huge, glaringly white lens, though; something like the 135mm f2 or the 200mm might be more portable.

The flat areas around the harbor are host to new developments of attractive, affordable housing. We ventured into a shipmaking factory, picking our way through the nails and broken fiberglass to the water’s edge, where a fishingboat had just pulled up to unload its traps in the twilight. Then it was over to the old street, chatting with people sitting outside their houses along dark alleys about which god they had on display just inside their doorways while I tried to get clear shots in the night of former beauty queens in wheelchairs. We were walking down the night market when I heard a woman’s voice calling, in English, “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!” Of course I suspected that this was directed at me, but I kept walking, hoping it wasn’t. The young woman persisted, running up and asking me to take pictures of her soap. When I asked her why, she said her camera was broken, and she apparently didn’t know anyone else with a camera. It was a little strange, and I declined politely.

We had dinner at a place by the riverside with very ordinary food that people lined up for hours to eat for some reason, followed by some pudding and lemon tea. This was a mistake; the resulting fight for dominance of my stomach was not pleasant.

The streets were rather empty by that point, and we returned the bicycles and caught a cab to the cheesy hotel Chenbl had found in a coupon pamplet. It was a run-down place, but it had (rock-hard) beds and what could be described as air conditioning, so it was a welcome enough ending for the day.

posted by Poagao at 11:29 am  
Oct 16 2008

Town meeting

Last week I attended an open meeting concerning future renovation plans for the Bitan area, where I live, at the culture center near the city government building. A few dozen people attended, including a few familiar faces such as the short-shorts guy who runs the restaurant near the bridge and some other residents and vendors, as well as some county and city government representatives.

A hefty, bespectacled engineer with long hair gave a presentation on the plan, which mainly entails repaving the streets and painting a few walls. There were a couple of good ideas mentioned, such as simplifying the intersection of Guangming Street and Beixin Road, and adding more trees to barren areas. On the whole, however, it was generally useless additions to the streets, such as “portable trees” and replacing the old ugly signs with new ugly signs.

Predictably, some of the government officials got up and stumped for votes by appealing to the lowest common denominator. “We can’t ask the illegal chicken abattoir to become a coffee shop!” they said, in effect. “That would be a waste of money!”

When it came time for public opinion, there were various rants and complaints that all the tourists went to Danshui instead of Bitan, and those that did simply walked across the bridge and then came back without visiting anything. One idiot of a woman even took issue with the utterly bewildering “Please don’t linger on the bridge (which is the main attraction and the entire reason anyone would come down to Bitan in the first place)” signs. “Those signs aren’t enough; people are still lingering on the bridge!” she cried, oblivious to the contradiction in her words.

When it was my turn, I took the microphone, walked up on the stage and pointed to a photograph from the presentation on the screen, a shot of the stairs leading to the suspension bridge with some computer-generated bushes. “The composition of this shot is interesting,” I said, “in that just out of frame on the right side is a giant trash dump.”

“More signs, repaving the streets, none of this means anything,” I told them. “The reason people go to Danshui is because the government up there has the guts to tear down illegal decrepit buildings and make it a neat, interesting place people want to go. If you want visitors, you’ve got to do the same thing. If you don’t have the balls to clean up the mess, don’t go around crying that nobody wants to come visit.”

“Why do people stop and turn around on the other side of the bridge? Are you blind?” I asked, hoping that there weren’t any actual blind people in the audience. “On one side, where there should be a beautiful mountainside, is a row of buildings of which only the front three feet are legal, but the government can’t do anything but put up a metal wall inside and call it fixed. On the other, where a park is supposed to be, are a bunch of rundown squatter’s buildings inhabited by people who have twice taken compensation money and simply refuse to leave, dragging down the property values and attractiveness of the entire area. Who, besides the squatters, wants to see that?”

There was a scattering of polite clapping as I took my seat, probably more of the “oh my god it can talk” variety than from people who actually agreed with me. As some of the squatters themselves were in the audience, I was half expecting some kind of outcry, but they probably didn’t take me seriously.

Afterwards was a presentation on the development plans for the Hemei Mountain paths, which was much more promising, as it involves improving the hiking paths on the hill and the inclusion of viewing platforms along the way, LED lights at night, and non-slip wooden stairs.

After the meeting several people came up to me and said they agreed with what I’d said on stage. Surprisingly, some of the vendors were among them. We gathered outside and vented about the situation for a while. “So who’s going to run for office so they can do something about this mess?” I asked them.

They pointed at me. Ha, right, I thought. Things must be even more desperate than I thought. In the end nothing much will happen; the plan will go ahead, money will be spent on stupid things that don’t work, and another stupid plan will follow in order to “fix” all the things that were wrong with the previous plan. Wash, rinse, recycle.

But Bitan still has its charm, despite all of this. At least that shouldn’t change (too much).

posted by Poagao at 2:22 am  
Jul 26 2008

The Two Worlds

A while ago I wrote about how the Internet could eventually be combined with our physical reality in some fashion, overlaid so that our surroundings would basically gain all of the features of the Internet, including searchability and physical context-related information. At that point, a few mobile devices had GPS, but now that the new iPhone 3G is out and apparently selling like hotcakes, there are a slew of applications being made available these days that take advantage of the phone’s GPS to bring the virtual world of the Internet closer to our physical world. Basically, these devices know where you are (yes, I know it’s a scary thought, but I wonder if people might not be as frightened of this as it becomes more common), so information about everything around you is available through the device, a real-world Wikipedia: That interesting building across the street was built in 1903 and was the scene of a political assassination. There’s a tea house up this alley, but people say the Oolong is bit dodgy. Some got a really good picture of this empty house. There’s a squall moving in, we’d better get inside. That kind of thing.

Another aspect of this is that your phone not only knows about the physical world around you and your place in it, it will, through such (still rather sub-par) programs as Fire Eagle, Buddy Beacon, MyLoki, Britekite and the like, know where other people are, where they’ve been, even where they’re headed. This is a cool application, but I’m pretty sure I would lose a few friends when they see how I turn off my location beacon or hop on a bus as soon as they approach. Another strike against this will be not being able to send a text message I often send to people I’ve got appointments saying, “I’m almost there, just a few minutes!” when they can plainly see I’m still at home, in the bathtub, and I haven’t even scrubbed behind my ears.

Those little pixelated badges I’ve seen in the corners of a few websites recently confused me for a while. It turns out that they’re scannable QR codes that point your mobile device to a certain place on the Internet. Apparently they’re often used in Japan, and you can even make a badge to wear with such codes on it. If this kind of technology takes off, and it seems that businesses are designing these things into graphics, it will be another way the physical world is connected to the virtual.

Most of this interaction, so far, has been one-way, of the physical world being described and adjusted to by the virtual, but with the advent of 3D scanners, touch screens, interactive displays and even shape-shifting buildings, I wonder when and if the balance will tilt the other way, making the physical world “programmable” to a certain extent.

Every square foot of this planet has a history, whether people figure into it or not. Choose any street corner in your city and try to imagine all of the things that happened to all of the people standing in that very spot over the years. Now that we’re in a position to actually record these things and make them known, sooner or later a filter will be needed to deal with all of the massive amount of information that piles up. A good example of this is Panoramio on Google Earth: Eventually maps will be so covered in blue dots that you won’t be able to see the actual places unless you turn them off. Who will become the arbiter of such information? Who will decide what gets seen and what doesn’t? Now that’s the scary part, especially given the frightening, ongoing crackdown on personal photography in places like the US and UK, even as more and more CCTV cameras are put in place for the “official” version of the world. Give it 20 years, and the virtual world people have come to rely on overlaid onto and even able to change the physical world will be completely manipulable by those in control of the resources to do it. When that point comes, which reality will you believe?

posted by Poagao at 6:40 am  
Jun 20 2008

The Uncanny Chinese Valley

You’ve probably heard about the Uncanny Valley phenomenon, which describes how people are comfortable with obvious robots and fine with obvious people, but are seriously creeped out by robots who are almost indistinguishable from humans. As I was watching some foreigners interacting with Taiwanese people the other day, I began to wonder if there is a corresponding phenomenon with spoken Chinese (as well as other languages). That is to say, many native Chinese speakers seem to go into a kind of “foreigner mode” when speaking with non-native speakers, dumbing down their grammar and slowing their speed, taking pains to put things as plainly as possible. They may even not realize that they are doing this, or see it as the obvious thing to do in such a situation. When speaking with other native Chinese speakers, a greater fluency occurs, of course. What I’m wondering is if there is a point in between these two states, something neither-here-nor-there, that causes confusion and even discomfort for native Chinese speakers, i.e. an Uncanny Chinese Valley?

PhotobucketFrom the Wiki page: “If the entity is ‘almost human’, then the non-human characteristics will be the ones that stand out, leading to a feeling of “strangeness” in the human viewer. In other words, a robot stuck inside the uncanny valley is no longer being judged by the standards of a robot doing a good job at pretending to be human, but is instead being judged by the standards of a human doing a terrible job at acting like a normal person.”

In the Chinese Uncanny Valley, then, at least according to the above theory, the confusion would arise from the native Chinese speaker seeing the other person as either a foreigner doing a good job at pretending to be Chinese (“Oh, your Chinese is so good!”), as opposed to seeing them as a really slow, difficult Chinese person.

I think relatively homogeneous societies where language and ethnicity are closely associated, like many in Asia, are where such a phenomenon would be the most easily spotted. When I’m chatting online or talking on the phone with a native Chinese speaker, there is no hesitation or discomfort, although eventually if we talk long enough it’s likely that I will make a mistake that lets them know I’m not a native speaker, but sometimes while talking face-to-face, I occasionally sense a certain amount of confusion in the other person. Most of my Taiwanese friends don’t have this problem with me, but when I meet someone new, they usually start out in the default “foreigner mode” and then move into this zone of discomfort, and are either so freaked out they can’t deal with me, or they overcome it and things smooth over (my sparkling personality doesn’t really help in this regard either, I admit).

I’m not sure how much of this has to do with reconciling an obviously non-ethnically Chinese person speaking the language, and how much it has to do with the level of Chinese that is being used, but it seems to me that, for many native Chinese speakers, dealing with a foreigner who speaks basic or intermediate Chinese comes across as an easier task than dealing with someone who speaks well enough to almost (but not quite) be taken as a native speaker. Perhaps it has something to do with the way people like to have things (and people) neatly and simply categorized in their minds, which, added to a longstanding association between ethnicity and language, interferes with such categorizations and causes this phenomenon. I’m neither a psychologist nor a language expert, so I really have no idea. It’s an interesting concept, though.

posted by Poagao at 12:15 am  
Feb 07 2008

Asakusa and the river cruise

Lovely weather out today. The people at the reception desk downstairs call me by my name with its Japanese pronunciation: Hayashi Mijiyaki-san! Hai!

It being such a nice day, I decided to go to Asakusa, but when I got to the subway station I accidentally ended up on the wrong platform. I told the guy at the window, and he issued me an “I am an idiot who cannot read plain signs” tag to take around to the correct platform. There I boarded a train and sat next to two heavy (in that entitled-due-to-excessive mass kind of way) Korean girls with identical Olympus mini DSLRs.

At Asakusa, once I managed to find my way out of the warren of shops and stores surrounding the station underground, I headed for the bridge over the Sumida River for a look. A mass of surprisingly unkempt old junks lined one bank, and on top of a tall glass building on the other side was to all appearances a gigantic, golden turd. I’m guessing Godzilla’s been drinking late at night again.

bowI turned around and made my way to the Shoji shrine/shopping complex, avoiding the main thoroughfare and taking side alleys to the shrine itself, which was swamped with tourists from all nations, though only the Japanese dared take the rickshaws for rental rides. The urn in the center of the square was surrounded by tourists trying to wave the smoke in their direction for good luck. I found this amusing because, whenever I am near smoke, it naturally blows my way, and so it was today: wherever I walked, the smoke followed me. I think the more devoted of the tourists were a bit jealous.

I walked around the rather neglected bell tower, which looked like a nice place to live, and then around to the rear of the temple, where workers were carting leftover snow and spreading it around to melt. Otherwise the area was deserted, but I felt that the shadows of the trees and the puddles left by the melting snow, mined by pigeons, were far more photogenic than anything in the busy front end.

basketcaseI left the complex and walked around the neighborhood. Once, when I was taking a picture of some colorful garbage left in front of a shop, a man walked by chuckling at, I can only assume, my choice of subject matter. So I took a picture of him. I am finding the hot packets quite useful for gloveless shooting in the cold, by the way.

Later, I came across a shop displaying shiny suits of all colors and velvet lapels. “Too small for you!” the owner told me. Probably a good thing, as I was eying the maroon number.

After lunch at a counter-style curry place, I walked back to the river and bought a round-trip ticket on the river cruise to Hinode Pier and back. With me on the flat, glass-ceilinged boat were dozens of schoolchildren who were doing some kind of school project that apparently involved shrieking and jumping up and down. It wasn’t terribly relaxing.

boat viewBut the view was nice, and I could rest my legs as I watched the city slide by. We went under bridge after bridge, but the woman describing them on the microphone at the front of the boat stood no chance against the students’ noise.

Eventually we arrived at the Tokyo Port. I had no idea where I was, so I asked when the last boat back to Asakusa was. “5pm,” the guy at the counter said. I had an hour and a half, so I walked across the road, under the highway, over a bridge and up a street until I reached a downtown-like area. A sign for an observation deck caught my eye, so I followed it to the Hamamatsucho World Trade Center. A ticket to the 40th-floor observatory costs 630 yen, so I thought I’d go up take a look.

observatoryI practically had the place to myself. Yet the view was wonderful, even better than the city government building, I thought, though it could have been the light. The sun was inching towards the horizon, and the whole area was spectacularly lit. I would have liked to have stayed until the city below lit up, but I would have missed the last boat back to Asakusa, and I was meeting Arnd later in Ueno. I guessed, however, that they would keep the lights on inside, spoiling any chance at good night shots.

Back at the dock, I noted a genuine vintage Airstream trailer made into a food stand sitting unattended on the dock as I boarded the ferry. This time there were only a few people on board, and the city was slowly lighting up as the sun went down. Navigating back up the river proved very relaxing and much more enjoyable than the trip down had been. I wondered if the people sitting behind me were inserting English words in their conversation for my benefit, as people in Taiwan often do. Japanese, however, has so many English words in it that I really couldn’t tell.

Back in Asakusa, I started walking in a roughly westward direction towards Ueno, somehow ending up on a street full of motorcycle shops. There is the perfect amount of motorcycles in Tokyo; they are common enough that people know how to drive around them, but they aren’t nearly as crushingly ubiquitous as they are in Taiwan. I saw some really sweet, low-slung models, too.

I thought as I walked how much effort people here have put into making life more convenient. From the little restaurants everywhere to the pictures of food, the vending machines, the ticket-based economy to the public restrooms and useful maps; everything seems taken care of. It’s a little frightening, but then again, I’m used to living in what amounts to a working anarchy, where things are left to solve themselves most of the time. Some would frame the contrast in terms of Buddhist vs. Taoist philosophies, but I’m sure there’s more to it than that. I’m still getting used to standing on the left side of the escalator.

A road sign read: “If the parks or schools in your neighborhood are not safe, please take refuse in the area indicated on the map.” The indicated area, shown below on the sign, was Ueno Park.

I reached Ueno Station early, so I sat down next to the escalator by the Hard Rock Cafe to wait. Unbeknownst to me, Arnd arrived about the same time, waiting just behind a column around the corner. We both sat in our spots for roughly 20 minutes, each wondering where the other was. Eventually I stood up, walked a few steps and saw Arnd and his friends, many from Flickr.

flickritesWe crossed the road and walked to Za Watami, a third-floor restaurant near the train tracks, the kind where you take off your shoes, put them in a little wooden box and sit with your legs in a depression around a table, and ordered beer and snacks. As soon as we sat down, out came the cameras, with everyone snapping away at each other while we waited for the food to arrive. Besides me and Arnd, flickrites Hiromy, Jimmy, Grumpy Old Man and Un Gato Nipon were there.

Over the course of the next few hours we talked about Japan, Taiwan, travel, photography, technology, and many other interesting things. It was good to meet up with the group; I had a lot of fun. I’ve now filled up my 4gb card on my big camera and have just 6 minutes of video left on my little camera.

Tomorrow I am going to visit the Ghibli Museum. I have no idea where it is or how to get there, but I’m sure I can figure it out. Much of this trip has involved figuring things out as I go, and it’s worked so far.

posted by Poagao at 12:09 pm  
Dec 19 2007

Being Another

Jorees has written an interesting post about life in Taiwan as a minority: Being an ‘other’ in Chinese culture


As you can imagine the pressure of dealing with everything regarding my current schedule has been a lot to deal with. One particular factor has also been getting to me. Being an ‘other’ in Chinese culture. When you are an ‘other’ you are different than the dominant socioeconomic majority. This can be defined through race, class, sex, or gender.In Taiwan I am ‘othered’ through language, culture, class, and race. My white skin is different. My nationality is different. My language is different. In addition, my job is high paying which many Chinese understandably resent. This ‘otherness’ is not always present. However, it has been adding to my stress level recently. As an ‘other’ my mistakes are more noted. More is expected to produce a success. I feel ‘othered’ in certain schools where I’ve worked and in a few graduate level classes. I am “othered” in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. Most commonly ignored during a social interaction. Or spoken to in Chinese when it is known that I will not understand. If I do try to speak Chinese what I say is not understood or mocked. Assignments or group work will not be explained to me in class as I am not part of the social ‘group’. My name will be miss pronounced or I will be referred to by another name on purpose.Part of this ‘othering’ has to do with the competitive attitude of graduate school and I was put through the same social duals during my M.A. at McGill. Social combat and competition are part of being a graduate student. Leaning to deal with high powered people is one of the unspoken lessons learned during a graduate degree. As the only English student in a Chinese program I also should not expect to have others look after me and should expect to be ‘othered’ due to cultural difference. But it still takes a lot out of me.It is also present in the workforce at certain language schools. Here I am not perceived as a person but as an ‘other’. This petty attitude of ‘othering’ usually comes down to simple economics. I make more money and come from another culture therefor my social worth is less. Often an authority figure at the school will not acknowledge my contribution to a class and small mistakes are constantly picked at. Some days, I find people can have a hot or cold attitude when it comes to dealing with me regardless of my behavior. Again this is because when you are an ‘other’ your actions or personality have little impact to the dominant majority culture. The culture does not see your actions but instead views your skin color. Your personality does not have value in comparison to your minority culture or language. As an ‘other’ you produce no impact accept for the purpose of being ‘othered’. Taiwan has given me many gifts and I feel very thankful for the professional opportunities here and my life in Asia. However, their is a dark underside to being a minority in Asia. Today I feel like making that small darkness heard.

My first thought on reading this was simply a snarky “Welcome to life as a minority,” something I got used to long ago, but then it got me to wondering if the situation in Taiwan today as a person of non-Chinese ethnicity is much different in this respect than it was 20 years ago. In other respects it has changed a lot, of course, in that it is much easier for such people to live here without integrating into the local society now than it was then. By this I mean mainly having access to the Internet as well as a wide range of Western and other non-Chinese media, entertainment, food, styles, and even languages than before.

In the late 1980’s, there was one MacDonald’s in Taipei, and virtually no other foreign cuisine options outside of Tienmu, where I never went. The MRT hadn’t even been thought of, and all transportation was via motorcycle or bus. It was all well before the Internet, of course, and letters from abroad would come once every few weeks. Exposure to Western stuff came in the form of a very limited selection of books from Caves and the occasional Hollywood movie from whence most Taiwanese people formed (and still seem to form) their views of what life outside Taiwan in American and European countries was like. Most foreigners that I knew at the time hung out with other foreigners for the most part, their only contact being their Taiwanese girlfriends (often resulting in hilariously feminine accents in their Chinese) but I don’t claim to have any authoritative knowledge on the subject because, as Prince Roy can attest, I pretty much avoided foreigners in a fairly religious fashion. This was a combination of insecurity on my part, a desire to learn more about and become more a part of the local society, and just plain stubbornness on my part.

Today, all of these things have changed drastically, and not just in the capital city. Over the last couple of decades, I’ve also become more secure in my own identity and place in this society. I wonder, however, if the current ease of access to attributes of their original culture causes people within the non-Chinese minorities here to feel more isolated from the people around them in daily life, which seems to be the case here (though I can’t be sure as this is pure assumption on my part). In fact, do such people even see themselves as minorities? It seems to me that some foreigners, especially white foreigners from white countries, still can’t bring themselves to realize that fact, even though they have lived here for a substantial period of time.

From the start, I never expected local people to take pains to adapt to what they thought were my limitations in this respect, but the fact that it bothered me when some people did so sounds similar to what Jorees is talking about here. However, it seems to me that most of this “othering” that Jorees mentions occurs in situations where non-Chinese are likely to be found, e.g. in an English-language teaching environment or at an international business. Outside of these environments, I’ve found it far easier to “just be a person” and a normal part of society. But I don’t expect people to mispronounce my name, and they hardly ever do as it is a fairly common Chinese name (though some Japanese people say it is also a normal Japanese name), and when they speak Chinese to me, I place all of the responsibility for understanding on myself. Occasionally I will encounter people who insist on treating me in that bizarre fashion that somehow combines a sense of fascination and revulsion with my very existence, but, as with any other unpleasant person, I can choose to stop associating with them and move on with my life.

Jorees’ difficulties aside, there is always going to be a natural pressure to conform to the society you live in, and there are always going to be people within a society who try to take advantage of perceived weaknesses in others. But all in all, this phenomenon is another reason to persist in integrating with the society we live in, at least to a certain degree that doesn’t result in the nagging personal discomfort that Jorees and many foreigners seem to be vulnerable to. Of course this is an oversimplification of the situation, as I am not a social studies expert or even actually social. But I still think that, just as the reason Taiwanese deal with foreigners the sometimes-odd ways they do today is the result of decades of imported entertainment sources combined with social exclusion on the part of foreign businessmen and soldiers with no interest in learning the language or culture, the way we deal with these issues will influence the way the average Taiwanese person deals with immigrants in the future.

posted by Poagao at 12:45 am  
Aug 29 2007

Niggar King

Niggar KingSome Einstein in Zhongli decided to name his store “Nigger King” not long ago. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before some westerner saw it and reported it to the authorities, who called the Zhongli police and suggested they pay the guy a visit. The owner was apparently quite apologetic and promised to change the offensive sign immediately. Oh Happy Day. But what did he change it to?

“Niggar King”

Wow, he spent all that money to change a letter. Legally speaking, there’s not much the police can do, as there simply aren’t many laws here dealing with such issues. That’s why we get stores here with English names like this, “Motherfucker” (a clothing shop in an alley off Dunhua South Road) “Darkie toothpaste” “Hitler Cafe” etc. In general it’s not malicious behavior; they simply don’t see what the big deal is. For most shop owners it’s enough to have any English, even garbled nonsense, just to the majority of their customers see them as hip and trendy even though they don’t care what the English actually says, and they tend to be baffled when they’re told the signs are offensive. Though Western “offensensitivity” seems to have no bounds in some cases, it would be disingenuous to suggest that the Taiwanese cannot be racist, however. Just ask a worker from any Southeast Asian nation.

In any case, the Zhongli police apparently made another visited to the owner and suggested that “Niggar King” isn’t quite what they had in mind when they told him to change the sign. The Chinese name, by the way is “Hei ren wang” or “King of The Black People”. Looks like the owner’s going to have to shell out to change more than a letter this time.


Maybe “Nagger King”?

posted by Poagao at 10:19 pm  
Aug 14 2007

Police station removal protest

meetingI saw on a notice posted in the elevator of my building that a meeting was being held for area residents, government officials and police personnel to “explain” why the only police station in the area is scheduled to be removed. I have some amount of sympathy for this cause and had the morning free, so I hopped on the free shuttle bus along with 30 or so other residents and walked to the activity center off Ankang Road where the meeting was being held.

I was told to sign my name, and was issued a booklet containing the details of the situation, which I browsed through after sitting down to wait for the meeting to start. Apparently the police station has been around since 1973, when less than two thousand people lived in the area. Today we have over 11,000 residents, a number that will certainly rise when the new complex over the MRT opens. I know that there used to be a police station next to the old Xindian Train Station, located where the MRT terminal is today, but nowadays the nearest police station on that side of the river is way up Beixin Road.

I noticed that nobody was sitting in the front row of folding metal chairs, so I moved up and sat there, surrounded by three tables’ worth of various officials, including several country council people, city council people, borough chiefs and a couple of legislators. A glaringly empty seat in the center of it all was reserved for the police representative.

This absence was the subject of much scorn when the meeting was called to order. “I didn’t just tell the chief of police about this meeting yesterday, you know,” the County Councilman Tseng Cheng-ho said. “I told him about it on August 1st. He said he could come, and if he couldn’t come, he’d send his second-in-charge.”

One by one, the officials spoke out against the removal of the police office. Most of the complaints centered around public safety. Some people mentioned that Bitan is a major tourist attraction and that a police presence was necessary. The “Six-Star Healthy Community” plan from a couple of years ago was trotted out and quoted. Some of the speakers were boring, but a couple of guys really got into the protester spirit and whipped the audience’s indignation into a near frenzy.

Then it was time for comments from residents. Most of the people there were older residents who didn’t have day jobs, but they could still shout quite loudly. Many accusations of the police only caring about promotions at the expense of The People were hurled about. I wondered if anyone would ask me to speak, and mentally prepared a few points just in case, including the popularity of the Bitan Suspension Bridge for would-be suicide cases, and the opening of the new complex above the MRT terminus. I wondered how much Taiwanese I should use. Most of the speakers began in Mandarin and only switched to Taiwanese when they wanted to express a more emotional plea.

Luckily, nobody called on me. It was just as well, as the police representative had finally shown up, an older smiling man who seemed to be the assistant chief of police.

The police rep explained that the removal of the station was part of a greater plan that would supposedly increase general coverage and more police on the street. “Because when criminals see police officers,” he said helpfully, “they won’t engage in crime.” So nice that criminals only think about committing crimes when they see police officers, I thought. I suppose they don’t have a problem committing crimes in a neighborhood near a police station. The representative also mentioned a lack of manpower and funding, charges the legislators and council people said could be dealt with. Cries of “OBJECTION!” flew from the residents. The woman behind me was especially bent on having her say, starting in on a tirade about how the police were “keeping her down.” The police rep ignored them. He did go on to say that a station would be built inside the new complex over the MRT station, which would answer at least one of my own objections.

The meeting lasted until after 11am, with nothing really resolved. The legislators said they would take the “results” of the meeting back to the Legislature, and the council people said they would report back to the council. Hopefully someone will be able to do something concrete, but the police administration seems to have made up its mind on the matter.

As for me, I hope the station stays. If the city and county government really want to develop Bitan into a proper tourist destination (not necessarily a good thing, in actual fact, as that would only increase the number of mouth-breathers crowding the bridge every weekend) as they say they do, then you’d think they’d want to ensure its reputation as relatively crime-free. They’ve ordered the destruction of the riverside restaurants, including our beloved Rendezvous, in the name of this objective, after all. So why remove the police station? It just doesn’t make sense. Are they going to implement a “Come See Our Lovely Crime Scenes” tourist campaign? They could sell “Gangster of the Month” calendars and have a chart posted by the bridge where you can bet not only on the number of suicides that month, but also on the number that managed to take out a swanboat or two as well.

The problem might have something to do with the current budget issue. Originally, Taipei City and Kaohsiung City got about 40% of the budget subsidies, while the other cities and counties got the other 60%. Then a draft law was passed elevating Taipei County, due to its huge population, to roughly the status of the two largest cities, meaning that it would receive part of the 40% to make up for the difference in funding. Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin was not happy about this, of course, but it really pissed off Chen Chu, who, despite the fact that her election as mayor of Kaohsiung was annulled by a district court, is still apparently playing the part. She threatened to withdraw her support for the DPP candidates in the upcoming elections if Kaohsiung didn’t get a li’l sumtin extra, so the Cabinet dolled out several billion to its darling political powerbase o’ the south, reducing Taipei County’s budget to a couple of billion more than it had when it was just another county. Upon witnessing this act, both Hau and Taipei County Magistrate Chou Hsi-wei got up and walked out of the Cabinet meeting.

It’s possible that during the Legislature’s review of the budget subsidy allocation that someone will try to do something about the issue, but it seems most cities and counties are ambivalent about other cities and counties. All we can do is wait and see, and hope that someone farsighted enough to realize that more money will be lost due to lack of business due to a rise in the crime rate than would be saved by removing the police station. We might have a long time to wait.

posted by Poagao at 3:24 am  
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