Miles from Home

China Commentary– Youthful Musings on the Environment, Culture & Development

Archive for October 2006

On the Lighter Side of Things

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HAPPY HALLOWEEN! I wanted to say that I really appreciate those of you who commented on my blog or e-mailed me comments. I held no plans in hand when I started punching this thing up. I am trying to keep balance between my more serious cultural/political ramblings and the more humorous blunders of my day-to-day experiences. So here is an example of the latter.

Universal healthcare is spectacular! It costs me $3.03 to visit the doctor or the dentist. Show the card. Swipe. See the doc.

Twice now I have needed to see a doctor. Once when I flip-flopped my big toe underneath my scooter’s main kickstand and once this past week for a common cold (surely caused by the unimaginable beating I put on this body). The problem for me stems from a complete ignorance of Chinese characters. Though I can speak a fair deal of Chinese, I can count the characters I know on one hand. This handicap can usually be overcome with a little common sense.

My routine follows a logical path: I scooter on down to the main district of town, to the main drag ($$$), and look for clinics. All clinics that fall under the universal healthcare system have a little green and blue H formed by two people holding hands for a sign. The problem is that there is only one sign for every imaginable kind of medical profession. So I pace up and down the block, peeking in the windows like a creep, looking for clues.

Posters, patients, layout. These things usually narrow it down. Occasionally there are no clues. Hence, my last visit… to the gynecologist.

Everything seemed well. The outer waiting room area was nice. Good sign. There was a man sitting on the sofa, waiting. Good sign. No posters, though. And no vantage point into the back to analyze the operating rooms.

I still don’t understand why the nurse accepted me. I made it clear I had a cough and a head cold. She mumbled something in Chinese to the man on the couch, who didn’t even look up and barked something back. Turns out, he is the doctor. The door opened to the back, which turned out to be nothing more than a large office with a real sketchy looking chair shoved in the back. He had the lower four spinal vertebrae and a model of a vagina on his desk. That is pretty much when, where, and how I clued in.

Common cold, the doctor said. Signature, signature, handed some pills, and I was on my way!


Written by Miles

October 31, 2006 at 10:35 am

A Follow-up on the Philippines

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I am sure the whole concept of sex-tourism is pretty far fetched for those of you who read this back in the States.  But I live pretty far out here.  This industry is gigantic in Southeast Asia, way bigger than I could have ever imagined.  After my trip to the Philippines, it has stuck with me.  There were four main bars in the town near my resort.  All of them were whorehouses.  It is illegal, but it is registered and real.  For young girls (younger than my little sisters) in these countries the chances of escaping prostitution are slim.

I spoke with some of my male friends who have lived in Taiwan and travelled frequently in the region.  They agree that it wears on you.  It is baffling.  It just shouldn’t be this way.  Prostitution is one thing.  But systematic manipulation, exploitation, coercion and corruption are a bit much for me to stomach.

Everyone should know a little bit more about this.  It took me two minutes to find this essay, but it is well written.  Take 10 minutes and read this essay.  It was written in 1994, and the problem has only been exacerbated.  We are talking big dollars, big interests, major sociopolitical implications, and death.  Read it.

Written by Miles

October 31, 2006 at 9:20 am

According to my Bones…

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I visited a traditional Chinese healer last night.

The pseudo-clinic did not look very traditional. A barren glass display case and a small television warmed the white-on-white aesthetic of the waiting room. I could hear people moaning and yelping, grunting and gurgling in pain. Soothing, I thought.

I came with a two friends, my roommate and his girlfriend who served as our Chinese translator. She told me not to make a sound. If I did, the healer would not work on me as long as he could. So, after a brief massage by a nurse, I found my way into the back room ready to tough it out.

A skeleton mold of the human spine adorned his operating room. Reassuring, I thought. He began pressing on my back. My neck. My shoulder blades. Not so bad, I thought. He took out a short, thick, pointed wooden pestle and began prodding me. Chiseling.  Hammering.  Drilling. Wood-to-bone. No massage here, I thought.

Through translation, he told me:

“You have two bones in your neck of unequal size. Thus, you are a very impulsive person.” Impressive analysis straight off the bat.

“You do not sleep well. You wake up sweating.” Eh, not so much.

“You are very emotional. Constantly, you waver up and down.” Generic, but viable.

Then he offered to change my personality. He offered me stability and a calmer disposition, yet warned me that this means parting with my known personality for a while. This was a pretty peculiar conundrum. Did, do I really believe this man can change my personality by hammering on my bones with a wooden pestle? Do I really want to alter my personality? Am I that emotionally unstable?

Fuck it, I did it. What can I say? I am impulsive.

Written by Miles

October 24, 2006 at 10:38 am

News and Notes

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I am fresh off of two vacations in three weeks, the second being an extensive scuba diving trip in the Philippines. I feel like I have painted a rather negative portrait of Taiwan on my first few posts, and this has not been my intention at all. My trip to the Penghu Islands in the Taiwan Strait was epic. As in all of life, the beautiful aspects, while abundant, can be contained in the common chaos of daily living. So Taiwan’s props are forthcoming. I love this country. I couldn’t be happier, so please always keep that in mind.

PUERTO GALERA, MINDORO ISLAND- The Philippines are incredible, spectacularly beautiful and ravaged by inequalities of all sorts. This mixture fascinates me. My initial impression of Manila brought me back to Cape Town, South Africa. Color. Life. Skin. Heat. There is a realness. There are people living, surviving– living. The people are open and friendly. I was treated excellently. The scuba diving was indescribable… wrecks, holes in walls, down currents, and the constant reminder that this planet is 75 percent covered by this wet power.

Manila and Puerto Galera are full of life. U.S. citizens like myself, Dutch, English, Australians, and others are a two-sided coin for the Philippines, the problem and the solution. We bring money and with it instill a desire for it at unimaginable price. I cannot help feeling very negatively about the symptoms of Southeast Asian developing societies.I was brought back to a theory outlined by Tiziano Terzani in A Fortune-Teller Told Me.  He is one of many voices on this issue, but I recently finished his book and found it moving in a much more human rather than academic way.  Paraphrasing Terzani’s much more rounded theory, the infection begins when governments liberalize an economy.  Masses are put out of work, and social turmoil ensues in the following years as the system stablilizes. In this time tourism offers an immediate opportunity to exploit an unalienable resource: women. Prostitution was the likely the third largest “industry” in this town I stayed in, behind scuba shops and guest houses. It was in Tiziano’s time and is in my time a major facet of society in Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, and even China.– I recommend Terzani’s book for anyone with an interest in travel writing, journalism, politics, mysticism, faith, and globalization.

NORTH KOREA- There is some pretty potent sentiment in my neck of the woods on this as there surely is in the States. My dive guide in the Philippines was from Seoul. The only words he could really use (in English) to describe the situation were: “I hate Kim.” Diplomacy, anyone?

DARFUR- I am curious, asking my friends back home in the States, if this “Rock for Darfur” concert gained any mainstream attention.

FORD- Ford Motor Company recorded a $5.8billion dollar loss. Hello??? Maybe it is time for Ford, in all of its restructuring to fundamentally change its omnipresent philosophy. One day soon the notion of Bigger-is-Better is going to fall hard, as giants do. Ford should take this as a wake up call and an early bird special on jump starting an entirely new era of automotive transportation– one less dependent on oil and more dependent on common sense.

Thank you all for your concern about Virginia. She is healed up and smiling. The situation is evolving. I received some fantastic advice from my friend in an email, and I am going to ask her for her permission to post it.

Written by Miles

October 23, 2006 at 5:26 pm

Child Abuse in Taiwan

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I wanted to add the positive attributes of Taiwan to this blog before I wrote anything else. However, fate intervened, as it does.

I will tell this story as it happened:

I walked into my second class of the morning, yesterday. I began my normal routine of hopping around the class and getting the kids excited, awake, and speaking. I noticed that one of my favorite students, Virginia, arguably the smartest little girl in the entire kindergarten, sitting down. Normally she would be chasing me around like all the other little hulligans. I approached her and could immediately see marks on her legs, what looked to me like faux tiger stripes.

I turned to the Chinese teacher, asking her if she had noticed these marks. She gave a very common Taiwanese look of pure cluelessness. Virginia, by this time, was starting to get really self-conscious, pulling her little school uniform shorts over her knees. A useless effort, since these lash marks striped her legs to the ankle. I held her hand and brought her downstairs to the main Chinese-English teacher, the only real bilingual person in the school, and the principal. I asked them if they had noticed, since they welcome all the students in the morning. No. Of course not.

They convinced shy little Virginia to pull up her shorts a little bit, and the marks were placed about every two inches from her ankles to her thighs. They were brownish-purple on her yellow-tan skin. They were shocked, but seemed ready to drop the issue. Luckily, this caught the attention of our rather butch female gym teacher, who came over and pulled Virginia’s shorts way up.

What I saw next is one of the most fucking disturbing things I have ever seen. On the very top insides of her thighs were more bruises, larger, bigger bruises. These bruises were passed purple, passed yellow and green. She had been hit so many times here and so hard, that the stick or cane had broken her skin. This type of wound could only be inflicted if someone held one of her legs in the air and repeatedly struck her uppermost inner thigh.

They asked her in Chinese, who did this? She said her mom. Where? In her house. Why? Because she was shaking her legs at the dinner table.

I am angry. Even now, a full day later, I am burning. This little girl is incredible, super intelligent, well-behaved… just all I can ask for as a teacher. She is friendly. She is confident. And I care for my students, especially those few who I can really communicate with even that much more, students like Virginia. In many ways, these are my children.

In Taiwan, parents drop their kids off at school for 12 hours or longer each day. Sometimes it isn’t even the parents, it is the grandparents who pull this duty. Parents “work” which generally means sitting in front of a 16″ TV in one of their All-the-Exact-Same-Shops that line All-the-Exact-Same-Streets. In most cases this is their excuse, in this culture (allegedly) based on the extended family unit, to shun their children. Education is a prviate industry and is expected to care for children from 7a.m. until 9p.m. six days a week. These are my students. These are my children.
Beat my kid and I get pretty fucking heated. I asked the teachers what they were going to do. The response was sheepish. The best answer was that they would take pictures and if it happens again, call the police. This raises a slew of tough questions. Child abuse is prevalent in this country; it permeates to the core.

I have personally witnessed teachers hitting, smacking, even using large rulers on children in the classroom– almost all of which occurred in my former school. It was borderline behavior, but I was told it is the accepted norm here. I heard one story of a foreign teacher being fired from his job because he attacked a father after seeing the father drag a student down the street with a rope tied around her hands.

I have heard it. I have seen it. The evil exists. As it does everywhere. The answer I hear the most on what to do: Be the best you can be when with the student, for them, because getting the police involved tends to make the situation even worse. From the student’s standpoint it can lead to more abuse (anger induced and projected upon the student by the abusive parent for being humiliated when this comes to light), abuse to other family members, a complete disruption of the home (sending the child to live elsewhere)… and it begs the question, how can one make it better without making it worse? And where do you draw that line?

From a teaching standpoint, it is different. I wrote a letter home to the parent voicing my blunt opinion of the matter. Who knows if it will make it to the intended reader. “Face” is big in this culture; it is basically synonymous with egotism. If I make a big scene the parent will be humiliated and pull its child out of school. The student will be dropped in a new school, and the problem will be hidden away. Generally, most bosses will likely be upset from a strictly business standpoint, since most of these schools are set up for no other reason than to turn a profit. My boss, luckily, is not that kind of man.

Still, I am stuck in this situation. I don’t know what to do. I am tempted to wait around school until Virginia is picked up and put some hands on her parents. Let the bodies hit the floor. Go John J. Rambo on the situation, law in my own hands. But then what does that make of me?

I don’t know. All I know is this anger I have now and the guilt I will carry if I fail to act.

Written by Miles

October 14, 2006 at 10:39 am

(Non) Acceptance of Normative Behavior

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For months, I have tried to think of the best way to portray Taiwan to my friends and family, those of you reading this, with a bit of its unique day-to-day flavor. I was in the process of compiling one of those trendy “Only in…” lists. This type of list is laughs, always a happy reminder when one looks back on matching observations or memories. This just is not what I am going for, here.

In this case, this alternative list serves as a compass through my own dealings with cross-cultural identification and acceptance. Honestly, even if I were to stay here for ten years would I ever consider myself Taiwanese? The answer, undoubtedly, is no. Taiwan will, however, leave a lasting impact on me right down to the most minute details of my experience here.

I will start with some of the more prominent, let’s call them not-so-great cultural observations (I will write many more positive ones later, and they will appear on top!). These aren’t criticisms, just oberservations. Just as the US has it’s po-dunk Southerner and its neo-liberal hippies (Boulder!) and its Hummer-driving suburbanites, so too does Taiwan own many genres of people– some brilliant, some frightening, and some repulsing!!! Without further ado…


1. THE ROLE OF WOMEN. This is an issue I will expand upon countless times. The primary obstacle of the discourse on women in Taiwan is the requirement to write great lengths for clarity. For the sake of brevity, I am basing this upon my own experiences– nine months of observations, discussions with female and male Taiwanese friends, my own experiences dating Taiwanese women, etc. My coarse abbreviation of history only illustrates the depth of misunderstanding between myself, from the culture I was raised in, and that of “traditional” Asian societies.

This concept of “traditional” and what I call more modern sexual relations is in flux at this moment in Taiwan. Many of Taiwan’s younger generation of women are fighting an uphill battle to break free from traditional constraints on their independence, sexuality, and importance in society. What most people call “traditional” here means: women are expected to do all household work, even if the woman is the breadwinner in the home; women are meant to be quiet, not to speak unless spoken to, and when they speak they are to have very soft, babyish (weak) voices; women should be pale-skinned and lack sexually identifiable features like breasts or hips; women shall live with their family until they are taken by a husband, and then shall live with his; women should be married and producing male children before the age of 25…. etc, etc…

Like I mentioned, most of this is in jeopardy at the current time. Women are becoming much more visible in society and much more aware of their sensuality. However, confronting the implicit psychology of this tradition will be a major undertaking. I believe there is a lot of change to come. There must be for Taiwan to keep pace with the rest of the world.

Again, I have to give props to what Michael Turton wrote about this issue. Well written and on-point, check out what he has to say here.

2. THE TEETH. Taiwanese people seem to believe that the treatment of baby teeth has no impact on the dental hygiene of a person into adulthood. Therefore, most of my students have these heads full of rotting, decaying, black and brown and yellow teeth. Uhhhh . It may have something to do with how unorganized the medical world seems here. Good doctors work in the hospitals. All the other knuckleheads start up their own practices anywhere they so choose. Any main road will have well over a dozen clinics, dentists, and traditional medicine specialists spilling out bogus prescriptions for thousands upon thousands of pills. This is medicine here. In a country with universal health care, it just means taking a universe worth of pills in lieu of actual medical treatment.

3. LACK OF SPORTS. Taiwanese people are generally afraid of anything to do with nature or the outdoors. For an island people surrounded by water, most all of them cannot swim. Well over half of my students have never been to the beach. When anyone does go to a Taiwanese beach, lifeguards buoy off the water at an ankle-deep depth. Pass that line, and you are bound to get a sharp whistle blow and a lot of insuing panic on the beach! For a sub-tropical island people, they are petrified of the sun. Women carry around umbrellas on most days to help maintain a pale complexion. For a sub-tropical island people, they are terrified of the rain. Rain here will rot your hair out, people say. This one I do sort of buy into, since Taipei’s pollution is awful and the rain sometimes feels acidic.

The shame, to me, lies in the absence of sports. Sun is bad. Thus, sports are bad. I recently noticed that all of the bigger, stronger, more coordinated boys in my kindergarten classes are ballerinas. Was I ever proud! These are the jocks! These would be the boys in Pop Warner football and little league baseball. These would be the goofy little dudes chasing around a soccer ball all day. But this is all they have. At least they are going for it! There is just not an opportunity for boys to play sports here, let alone girls.

This is the tip of the iceberg. Write me if you want to hear some good one-liners.

Written by Miles

October 3, 2006 at 3:41 pm