Saturday, October 29, 2011

How to be in one place at one time

I was recently asked, "Annie, is it possible for these foreign students, who do not speak a word of the local language to live in this community and manage to communicate with people?" I honestly believe that half of communication is just being mentally and physically present. Anyone can do this, but few put conscious effort into it. Am I really here? Do the people around me really feel like I am 100% here? In an age of multi-tasking, we are used to stretching ourselves across different times, places or responsibilities. Sometimes the hardest part is to just be. You share a lot in common with someone when you are physically present, sitting with them, eye to eye, without saying anything. Maybe the words around you make no sense, but you are there, and this is half the battle.

I was at a birthday party. I love celebrations, but at this point in my life I dreaded the large gatherings because I had a hard time following a fast conversation. I kept turning my head right and left, trying to look at the ladies who were speaking, trying my best to piece together words in the hopes of understanding what they thought was so funny. While they were laughing, my eyebrows moved towards each other as if a scowl could help me comprehend this new language. One of the ladies noticed that I was the only one not laughing, patted my leg and said slowly and definitely, "Annie, you will soon understand. You are here. Listen and you will laugh with us soon." So, I continued to attend the birthday, wedding and baby parties, looking forward to the day when I would laugh at the jokes and chime in with my own. About six months later I was attending another birthday party and I had my "ah-ha" breakthrough moment. The ladies were laughing again and this time I understood.

"The other day I saw the funniest thing," the story began, "two cows were running down the street with their ropes broken. I knew the cows belonged to our neighbor..."

And then I understood where the story was going. The week before I was in the banya doing my laundry when my host-family's cows broke free from their ropes and ran out into the street. I immediately threw on my dress and ran out into the street without shoes or a headscarf over my hair. I was yelling at the cows in English, cursing under my breath as I realized that all the neighbors had come out to watch me try to herd the cattle.

"And instead of Rahat, guess who runs out onto the street? Annie! Annie was running around without shoes, up and down the street, yelling Masha, Dasha at the cows. Cows don't know their names!"

As the women around me started to giggle, I could feel my face turn hot and red. I understood the story, and now I was aware that everyone was laughing at me. What progress!

"But," the storyteller interjected. "She caught the two cows as they were eating Baygul's flowers and led them home. See, she understands our language, and she can catch our cows!"

The lady sitting next to me turned to me and said, "You are now Turkmen and you can never go home to America because you don't have cows there!" With that everyone, including me, laughed. They laughed at this new Turkmen Annie, and I laughed at the absurdity of thinking we don't have cows in Idaho!

If you take it a step at a time, focusing on where you are right now, at home or far, far away, your energy and presence speaks for itself. This aspect of communication is cross cultural and transcendent. Don't be too hard on yourself if you struggle in the present, because with time communication becomes easier and the bridges of cultural, linguistic and philosophical differences can be crossed, even if they think cows don't exist in America.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Baclayan Basket Project

This project is what has kept me busy for the last three months, and what will continue to bring me back to the Philippines for many more years to come. I wrote this article on the project's developments for Stairway Foundation, the sponsoring organization.

For years now, Stairway Foundation (SFI) has been reaching out to the local indigenous Iraya Mangyan in an effort to help uplift the community from poverty. In 2009, SFI purchased some land in one of the local Iraya communities called Baclayan. During the time of purchase, we observed a community that was struggling on many levels. Because of this, Stairway Foundation has since started several community development to partner with the community in creating positive and sustainable change, especially for the young generation, the children.

Stairway Foundation volunteers recently jumpstarted a long-term project in Baclayan that focuses on working with the local basket weavers. Basket weaving has been a part of Iraya Mangyan culture for many generations. Traditionally, girls learn to weave baskets when they are 7-8 years old, beginning with simple pieces and working their way up to complicated designs. Both men and women know how to weave baskets, but it is more common for women to use basket selling as a means of livelihood. For many years, Stairway Foundation has invited the women of Baclayan to come to SFI to sell their baskets every week. SFI has become one of the most consistent purchasers of baskets in the community, but the Foundation was looking for a more in depth way to work with the Iraya women to help them learn practical business and marketing skills in order to more successfully sell their baskets at large.

The first goal of the project is to create a community of empowered women who possess self-esteem and a desire to change their community. Volunteers conducted several life-skills sessions in the hopes of identifying local women leaders, who can become future life-skills trainers. There was a noticeable change in the women, a “sparkle,” as one person described it. They became more outspoken, gregarious and assertive. They displayed a keen desire to learn more about smart marketing practices, and to use their creativity to create new products to give them an edge in the market. They took great pride in the new knowledge and skills that they were acquiring, and have expressed an interest in teaching more local women what they have learned.

The second goal of the project is to have a community of women who have the capacity to successfully market their baskets. A volunteer facilitated sessions on product diversification, organizational skills, and marketing strategy, with the long-term goal of capacitating the women with the ability to market and sell their baskets domestically and internationally by themselves.

One very exciting development that happened was the creation of new product—hand-woven earrings. By using their creativity and innovation, the women designed several styles of earrings, from hoops to circular spirals. The women attended a short training on attaching the metal earring hooks and rings, and soon were producing large quantities of beautiful earrings. All of the earrings were quickly bought by customers, amazed by the craftsmanship and detailing.

In order to start labeling their products, the women learned how to create tags for the baskets. They first attended a training to learn how to make hand-made paper from banana stem fibers and indigenous cogon grass. While perfecting their paper-making skills, they participated in the design stage of a tag, creating a label that features a photograph of an Iraya woman and the story behind the basket.

Although this project is very long-term, and will hopefully develop for many years to come, it is off to a successful start and has already generated positive feedback from the women. Stairway Foundation is dedicated to working closely with these talented artisans, capacitating them with valuable skills and knowledge, thereby putting them in a more empowered position to stand up for their rights as women and as Indigenous Peoples.

My Summer Months

I was so busy in the Philippines with work and playing at the beach, that I did not have time to update my blog. What began as a two-month committment extended to a six-month period of volunteer work at Stairway Foundation, Inc. Despite not writing on my blog, I was busy writing several pieces for the Stairway Foundation website.

Stairway Foundation has a residential program for former street kids from Manila. I had the opportunity to care for one of the Stairway boys after jaw surgery. Having gone through jaw surgery myself, I was eager to help him in any way I could post-operation. The following is the story that I wrote about this incredible little boy:

"A New Smile, a New Voice, a New Taste"

A big part of my summer was working with Stairway Foundation's local scholarship students. Click here for a description of the program that I wrote for the website. I was in charge of preparing a curriculum of tutorial sessions for students struggling in English and Math. I taught several groups of students in different municipalities. At the end of the summer, we invited 25 of the most motivated and active scholarship students to attend a leadership camp entitled, "My Right to be a Leader." The following is the article that I wrote about the summer camp experience:

"We Should Not Judge Other People, and Discriminate Them." -Stairway Scholar

Stairway Foundation is located in Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro. The property faces the ocean and backs up against the mountains that rise straight from the sea. It is a place of not only beauty, but serenity and acceptance. Life sometimes takes you exactly where you need to go, even if you don't know it yourself. I learned this lesson when I stumbled upon Stairway completely by chance, not knowing what I was getting myself into, and found a truly magical place where I could connect with people, learn a lot about myself and dive into work that is extremely meaningful to me. I hope that everyone has the opportunity to stumble upon their own oasis.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Year of the Rabbit

In my opinion, the monkey, ox, rooster or rat can't beat the rabbit in cuteness or cuddliness! After the ferocious year of the Tiger, 2011 will be more quiet, reflective and possibly more tame. I personally could use an uneventful year. In Chinese mythology the rabbit represents longevity and is thought to derive its power from the moon. The rabbit symbolizes graciousness, kindness, good manners and a sensitivity to beauty. Although the rabbit may seem timid and overly deliberate at times, the rabbit is very self-assured and occasionally conceited. But this rabbit doesn't look so narcissistic...

This year is my first Chinese New Year in Taiwan. I love holidays, and I love learning about holiday customs in new countries. I believe that one can learn so much about a culture from paying close attention to holiday traditions.

The Chinese New Year preparations began well ahead of time, as people shopped in Di-Hua Street, a narrow side street converted into the central lunar new year shopping area.

All of the specialty foods enjoyed during the New Year are sold in jam packed stalls below fluttering lanterns and lights. In the days leading up to the New Year, Di-Hua Street is so crowded that one cannot fight the crowd, but must be pulled along in all directions up the road. It is a frantic mix of smells, sounds, hip-hop dancing vendors, samples in tiny cups, and excited people. Bags of snacks, fruit and gifts are brought home, distributed among friends and family and enjoyed over the holiday.

Being a neophyte, I was anxiously waiting around on New Year's Eve for something 'holiday like' to happen. As the sun set, food was prepared and set in front of the Buddhist alter as an offering to the ancestors. For our own dinner, we enjoyed various dishes eaten in the traditional communal way, when everyone takes some from one plate. After our meal, more dishes were prepared and set out on a table near the window. This offering of food, fruit, flowers, desserts and money was set out for the Gods.

Incense were lit at 11:15pm when the New Year begins according to the Lunar Calendar. When the incense were half way burnt, we went down onto the street to burn the paper money as an offering to the Gods.

In a metal container, we folded the money and set it on fire piece by piece.

When we were back inside, the bang and crack of fireworks had already begun. According to a Chinese myth, the New Year Monster does not like the color red or the sound of fireworks. In order to scare off the monster, people hang bright red decorations on their houses and light off fireworks during the week of celebration. For the last four days there has been a constant bang of fireworks as everyone plays their part in scaring away the monster.

Because everyone is enjoying a week of vacation, shops, restaurants and businesses are closed, and there is a general feeling of relaxation. People are at home with their families, enjoying this rare time together. On Tuesday everything will open again, and the quiet streets of Taipei will transform back into the thriving metropolis that it was before the New Year holiday.

New Year Blessings

On doors...

In elevators...

At 7-11...

From Amnesty International...

Monday, December 27, 2010

Running With Chihuahuas

Going running for the first time in a new country is always an unpredictable experience. I love heading out the door not knowing where I am going or where I am going to end up, but often a tall Caucasian girl running by herself attracts the wrong kind of attention or invasive curiosity from everyone passing by. Because it is so common for women to run in America, we tend to take the relative anonymity we have while exercising for granted. Despite the obesity problem in America, and the attention that it placed on our expanding girth, many Americans enjoy exercising and playing sports in their free time. There is a growing importance placed on staying fit and eating healthy, and this is reflected in the increasing amount of Americans who are exercising. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 35% of adults engage regularly in leisure-time physical activity, according to a nationwide survey done in 2009. This statistic was higher than the 2008 estimate of 32%. Yet obesity continues to plague America because exercise can only burn so many calories. Maintaining an all around healthy lifestyle is what Americans need to work on; eating better is crucial. I have always lived in areas in America where I could easily exercise, and in particular run. I took up running regularly because it seemed like the most convenient sport for someone who constantly moves around the world. When the stress of a new environment is wearing me down, I can always lace up my shoes and get lost in the hypnotic rhythm of my sneakers hitting the ground. But often running in a new place isn’t as straight-forward as running along a familiar trail back home.

When I lived in Costa Rica and tried to run along the jungle-enclosed street where my house was, I was stopped by one of the local drug gangs and prohibited from continuing along their road. In Russia I couldn’t stand all of the snide comments and soon resorted to working out in a local gym. In Turkmenistan I ran in a skirt and carried rocks to throw at the overly aggressive dogs in my town. The last three countries in which I lived all offered different challenges when it came to stepping out the door for a run.

In these I received a huge amount of attention from people around me and I tried my best to run in places and at times when I hopefully wouldn’t see anyone. My initial mistakes cautioned me, and taught me what was appropriate in the local culture. I would run in the dark, or run out of town, away from everyone. This didn’t ever completely stop the harassment I received, but it minimized it down to a point when I could get back to focusing on the rhythm of my feet and the sound of my breathing. I believe that the level of harassment I receive while running is in direct correlation to the level of women’s rights in the country. In countries where women are not allowed to exercise in public, or where it is highly frowned upon by the men, I have received the highest level of negative attention. In Turkmenistan there were a few women I saw who defied the social norm and ran in public. This was more common in the city, and in the countryside where I lived, a few women in my town started running in the mornings along the same path I took. When I first saw this young woman out jogging in her pale blue tracksuit, I broke into the biggest smile because I finally had another companion out on the road. Running in Turkmenistan was a lonely business, and when I moved to Taiwan I was excited to lace up my shoes and see what I ran into in Taipei.

If one wakes up early enough in Taiwan one can see groups of people in parks practicing Tai Chi, or speed walking around the local track. As the sun sets, another round of people will go out and exercise at dusk. There are lots of people, young and old, who enjoy walking outside. I see grandparents running up and down the track with toddlers, couples wheeling an elderly grandparent along the bike path, marathoners running in sweat soaked shirts. According to the National Council on Physical Fitness and Sport, “scientific research testifies that proper sport activities are beneficial to physical fitness…and contribute to a higher living standard, social harmony…” and there is a general understanding in Taiwan that physical activity is beneficial to overall health and lifestyle.

In rain or shine people are out and about. When it rains I see people jogging around the track holding an umbrella above them, an answer to my rain predicament question I had not yet considered. When it is sunny I put on less clothing in order to soak up the sun, and the locals wear long sleeve shirts to protect against tanning of any degree.

When I run in Taiwan I still get stared at, but the attention holds much less hostility than in other countries. It is not unheard of to see a woman running, and so I will often receive a glance but not much attention after that. I am and will remain the only Caucasian girl running in the neighborhood where I live, but there are other women who exercise and this is welcome company for me after my negative experience in Turkmenistan. I still feel a little silly in my running outfit and Ipod as I make my way to where I begin running because I stand out so much, but once I get to the running track or the bike path then there seems to be a general understanding of “this space is for exercising, so even that white girl running is normal.”

The bike path runs along the Keelung river embankment as it winds its way from the ocean down toward Taipei. I like to glance down at the water to find the dense schools of fish along the banks, hiding in the deepest parts of the river. There are two cows that are always happily chewing grass along the banks below me, and I occasionally meet the farmer along the bike path as he leads them to graze. Because of being wary of an animal’s reaction to a running human, I tend to slow down around the cows and this always causes the farmer to erupt in laughter and ask me questions I don’t understand.

Sometimes I am more entertained by the parade of dogs, than by the people I see along the way. Taiwanese women are always out walking their miniature dogs. Often the dogs don’t get much of a walk themselves because they are being pushed in a doggie stroller, leaning out the side with their tails wagging and tongues hanging out. I wonder if the women pushing the stroller realize that they have a dog in there and not a child. The other day a woman was weeding some flowers along the path, and her little Chihuahua decided to race over to me and try biting my ankles. I resorted to hopping around in order not to kick the little thing in the face, but the worst part about it was that the dog was wearing a bumblebee costume. And again, the owner responded to my reaction with a shrill of laughter and a slur of Chinese words. The most I could do was shoot the Chihuahua in its bumblebee costume a dirty look, and run away faster than its little legs could carry it.

Now I have a set route that I take when I run, but occasions like the Chihuahua attack still catch me by surprise and prevent my runs from ever being boring. I don’t want to carry around rocks to throw at the dogs like in Turkmenistan, because it is only the tiny ones who consider my ankles nice enough to bite, but I will never again underestimate a four-pound dog in a plush insect costume.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Human Rights Day: LGBT Rights in Taiwan

December 10th was the 60th Anniversary of Human Rights Day. The theme for this year is “human rights defenders who act to end discrimination.” Human rights defenders speak out against human rights abuses and violations, often taking risks themselves in order to raise awareness and create change. I recently had a Taiwanese acquaintance tell me that he thought Taiwanese did not care about human rights. I have to disagree with him.

Since arriving in Taiwan, I have been introduced to a unique and dedicated group of human rights defenders. They do the work of hundreds by mobilizing the general population, organizing volunteers and putting together large events and human rights demonstrations. From what I have seen, these Taiwanese do care about human rights. More than just caring, they are fervently passionate about human rights.

During my first weekend in Taiwan, I was invited to march in the annual Taiwan Pride Parade. I have been to several pride parades in America, including New York’s epic parade, and I was not sure what to expect in Taipei. The first parade was held in 2003, and it was the first of its kind in the Chinese-speaking community. It was a small event, but it drew big attention from the local and international media. Taipei’s Mayor, and current president, Ma Ying-jeou, gave a speech at the end of the parade, saying that major cities around the world have large gay communities, and that the support and respect of these communities is important to the city. Since 2003, the number of participants and support for the event has grown each year.

Taiwan is the most progressive Asian country in terms of anti-discrimination laws protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights. In 2007 the Legislative Yuan passed a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in the work place. The Gender Equity Education Act prohibits discrimination in education, and beginning in 2011, school textbooks are required to include topics on LGBT human rights and non-discrimination. Taiwan’s Ministry of Education is hoping to promote an environment of tolerance and respect. A poll done by the National Union of Taiwan Women’s Association/Constitutional Reform Alliance in 2006 found that 75% of the 6,439 adults interviewed believed that homosexual relations are acceptable.

Despite having some legislation in place to stop discrimination, there is little written in law to give the country’s LGBT citizens the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts. “The concept of ‘partner’ does not exist in Taiwan,” Lu Hsin-chieh, convener-in-chief of the march, and director of policy advocacy at Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association said. “Taiwan’s Civil Code defines a couple as ‘a husband and a wife.” The Basic Human Rights Law, which approved same-sex marriage, was drafted during former president Chen Shui-bian’s term, but has never been voted on due to opposition from cabinet members and legislators. This year three openly gay candidates ran in Taipei City’s legislative elections, and this new presence in local politics coincided with this year’s parade theme.

Taiwan Gay Pride - no comment
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On October 30th, the pride parade theme was “Out and Vote,” an attempt to focus on getting concrete legislation passed by the government in order to protect LGBT rights in Taiwan. Everyone congregated in front of the President’s Office, filling up the large square and spilling over into the nearby streets. Clusters of brightly clad men and women met at the closest metro stations to walk together, and drag queens paraded around striking poses and blowing kisses. Participating groups were split up into colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. As the parade snaked around the city, sharing the streets with cars, buses and motor scooters, at times it was hard to distinguish between the parade participants, spectators and people passing by. Every person along the sidewalk was filming the parade on a camera phone, either out of support or sheer curiosity about what was marching down the street. When people in our group waved to passing cars and buses, we received blank stares or big smiles in return. The weather could not decide to rain or stop, and this left us continually putting up our umbrellas and pulling them down as we walked. Because we were sharing the road with the usual traffic, we had to stop at red lights and then make a run for it when they turned green in order to catch up to the group in front of us. I heard one guy behind me say, “I didn’t know this was the gay marathon,” as we sprinted through an intersection. At the end of the march, all of the color sections lined up in a pseudo rainbow to get a panorama shot of the entire group from atop a nearby building. Looking at the picture later on the Taiwan LGBT Parade website, I could feel the enormity of over 30,000 people and the giant voice of a group of people united by one cause.

Despite only having one day out of the year designated the official Human Rights Day, in many peoples’ lives human rights is a constant priority. LGBT rights is a relatively new fight in Asia, and I believe that Taipei is going to continue to be the leader in this struggle against discrimination.

External Links:
Taiwan Pride Parade Slideshow

United Nations Human Rights Day Website