The Nitty-Gritty

Long time coming, apologies, but here’s the post on the actual content of the conference (aka the reason why I was actually in Taiwan in the first place).  Less pictures on this one, just a lot of text, and for that I am sorry as well.  No judgement if you need to take a couple sittings to get through it.  The conference was split up over four days and struck a nice balance between panels and breakout groups, although I would have preferred more of the latter.  It was put on by Fulbright Taiwan to whom I’m incredibly grateful.  Their motto, “A world with a little less conflict and a little more knowledge,”  is something we can all strive for.

I’ll start with the panels I suppose.  My one complaint was that they were a bit homogenous vocationally (i.e. there were only three speakers out of like seventeen who weren’t from academia), but were incredibly informative nonetheless.

The panels, of which there were five, dealt with regional engagement, gender and diversity, the political situation, social issues, and finally creativity, culture and media, but  somehow all managed to mention Taiwan’s low birth rate.  Man, did we hear a lot about the birth rate.

One of my biggest takeaways was that Taiwan needs to engage more with the outside world.  Admittedly, this does tie into the low birth rate.  Among the many problems that an abnormally low birth rate and an aging population bring is a dearth of students.  It’s getting to the point where academics outnumber undergrads, and some universities are having to close from lack of applicants. Regional engagement fixes not only this one, but a range of others as well.  Due to Beijing still claiming Taiwan as a part of the P.R.C., no country can have formal diplomatic relations with the two of them at the same time.  This means that Taiwan’s diplomatic allies are limited to a small number of Latin American and African countries, as I mentioned.  This doesn’t stop countries like the U.S. or China from trading with Taiwan, but it does make the process more difficult (i.e. we don’t have an embassy in Taipei, we have an “American Institute in Taiwan”.  Linguistic hoops abound when dealing with this issue).

Right now Taiwan’s two biggest trading partners are mainland China and the U.S.A., which obviously puts it in a pretty precarious position should one of those relationships go sour.  As a result, the need to build ties with other countries is clear.  Engaging regionally would also attract more immigrants to Taiwan (assuming reform to immigration policy), who will then hopefully stay and do something about that low birth rate.

Besides lower college enrollment rates, Taiwanese students that do graduate feel ripped off when their degree doesn’t guarantee them a job, and so then leave for other countries with brighter prospects.  This reflects a downturn in patriotism that also means Taiwan’s army is going to be less and less feasible as time goes on.  There is still a draft for Taiwanese men, but the term of service has been decreased from two years to one, and then to eight months, with talk of making it even shorter.   Loss of military reliability means they need more diplomatic allies, hence the regional engagement.

All of the panels were really focused on Taiwan, and mainly neglected cross-strait relations besides painting a pretty bleak future for Taiwan with relation to the mainland. No end to censorship, increased authoritarianism,etc.  Fulbright Taiwan did a huge 90 minute presentation on Taiwan for those of us from the mainland (much needed), but there’s was nothing for the Taiwan scholars (who haven’t necessarily been to the mainland), either because they deemed it unneccessary or didn’t want to.  Who knows, I feel it would have evened things out a bit.

This then leads me to the keynote speaker, Audrey Tang, who’s talk was on the role of technology in civil service, but touched on the future of greater China too.  Lemme take a minute to tell you about Audrey. She a badass.  She started learning programming at 12, dropped out of school at 15, worked in Silicon Valley until the age of 31, then retired and joined the Taiwanese government as a “minister without portfolio” meaning she’s not tied to one particular department.  Oh, and she’s purported to have an IQ of 180.  From what I gathered, she mainly works on increasing the transparency of the government, posting at least a transcript if not a full video of every meeting she’s involved in, and makes legislation open to public debate online.  She also made the hour talk pretty freeform, having us send in questions to an online platform she had projected, and answering the ones with the most likes.  My main takeaways from the talk were a much more insidious view of Chinese censorship, and the very true fact that the internet was not designed to be anonymous in the first place.  In her words, striving for privacy is a bit silly, the only way to protect privacy is to not let the data be collected in the first place, which is nigh impossible if you use the internet at all.  She also pointed out that social platforms unique to mainland China, made possible by the great firewall and domestic laws, have contributed greatly to the split in mainland-Taiwanese identities.  She also touched briefly on free speech, saying that she and everyone else over the age of 35 still remember martial law, and as a result will give just about anything to protect freedom of expression.

Audrey also provides a nice segway to my next topic with the fact that she’s trans.  Based off her presentation though, I don’t think she views it as a huge part of her identity.  She doesn’t pass terribly well, but my feeling is that as brilliant and accomplished as she is, she’s smart enough to not let other people’s opinions bother her.  Fuck that noise, you go Audrey.  Unfortunately her appearance did lead to a lot of the Fulbrighters accidentally misgendering her.  She didn’t speak much on the campaign for marriage equality, but did say that she was involved.

Marriage equality is super big in Taiwan right now, and there’s been legislation to legalize it on the block for a while, driven by the feminism movement apparently, but it’s still meeting opposition.  According to one of the speakers on the gender and diversity panel, the line for support/opposition is about 40 years old, since anyone above that line grew up with a very strong Confucian education in public school where a healthy family was defined as one man and one woman.  The majority of the public support it, but from my understanding something in the wording of the most recent bill would have legalized same-sex marriage by changing the term “couple” to “family”, but allegedly went too far and it could have been used to justify polygamy, polyandry etc.   The new government is working on it though.    It’s one of the biggest differences between the mainland and Taiwan actually.  It’s really nice to see same sex couples in the open and not gawked at.  There’s a lot of things that are a lot nicer there, like the fact that people stand in line (here you have to throw elbows sometimes), cars yield to pedestrians (this is my biggest pet peeve here), and no smog.  That’s not to say Taiwan is just a better version of the mainland, they’re practically impossible to compare, and I definitely missed the ability to jaywalk, but in the words of my fellow Fulbrighter, “I am not at all bashing on China, because I do love it. But I see Taiwan and it reflects on China.”

This then brings me to the breakaway groups, where we were allowed to propose freeform discussion topics and then go to the groups that attracted our interest.  I personally attended the ones on renewable energy, LGBTQ/gender equality in greater China, and one that turned into race in greater China.

Biggest takeaway from those was the reminder that we as Westerners don’t have all the answers, and that we often assume we do when dealing with China.  When you hear a Chinese person say some racist shit like “Tibetans smell funny,” or “so black people are really dangerous in America, right?”  The instinct is to go and lecture them. However, it’s important to understand why they think that way and examine your own assumptions before starting the talk .  I’m not condoning the behavior in any way, but we have to remember that we as Americans don’t have all the answers when it comes to race, if we did we wouldn’t be in the situation we are now.  That mentality needs to expand to every aspect of your interactions with China, or any foreign culture.  I got sent this great Ted Talk today, which I recommend if you’ve got the time.  I don’t agree with everything he says, but the overall thesis of the talk is pretty damn on point.

The race in America conversation can be an exhausting one to have though, and many in the group echoed my sentiment that when it comes to explaining race or the LGBTQ community, or something else to Chinese people, it’s a matter of mental fortitude.  I’ve got the vocab, I’ve got the knowledge, but some days I just let a teaching moment slide if I’m tired or I don’t deem it fruitful.  Because at the end of the day we as westerners are held to completely different standards, and no matter how well you explain why marriage equality matters or why it’s bad to say racist shit, to most Chinese people your answer only applies to America and won’t change their perceptions of the Chinese LGBTQ community or their opinions towards Uighurs.  China is China.

Lastly, my own research.  The breakaway sessions divided by research discipline were phenomenal, and I wish we had more of them.  I basically got validation for one of my side ideas, got help zeroing in on a feasible, interesting question for my research. Namely: “Under what circumstances can uranium fuel production be included in the SCO energy club?”  I’ll keep you updated on that as it progresses, but bouncing ideas off of people who are at least tangentially related to your field is fantastic, and a rare opportunity to get in person.  I also met a guy who I had actually met two years ago in D.C. and forgotten who was doing pretty related research in Taipei, so I’ll be keeping in contact with him specifically as the year progresses.  Look for a Harbin update this weekend with some pictures and other interesting things.  I’ll leave you with this which I find incredibly entertaining.

(╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ FLIP THAT TABLE.
┻━┻ ︵ ヽ(°□°ヽ) FLIP THIS TABLE.
┻━┻ ︵ \\(‘0’)// ︵ ┻━┻ FLIP ALL THE TABLES!
ಠ_ಠ bob…
ಠ_ಠ Put.
ಠ__ಠ The tables.
ಠ___ಠ Back.
(╮°-°)╮┳━┳ (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ NEVER!

 

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