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
Uploaded by nocommenttv. - Up-to-the minute news videos.

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

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cultural Differences: Part Two

Last week I went to a cupcake shop called “Ginjer” and I enjoyed a carrot cake cupcake complete with a little icing carrot on top. Across the street in this back alley was a number of restaurants, each one offering a different type of cuisine. There was Japanese, Korean, Italian and Cantonese food. Tucked into the tiniest crevices were Taiwanese street food stands—noodles, soup, dumplings and rice balls.

Taiwanese love food, and they like to enjoy different kinds of culinary delights. I am used to living in a place where there is limited availability of international foods. It is so exciting to be living in a place with restaurants every ten feet offering a broad selection of cuisine. There is fast food and traditional food. There is fancy dining and plastic bag carrying night market food. There is 7-11 on every corner for all of your snacking needs. There are chain style ubiquitous restaurants and cute vintage themed coffee shops and stylish modern cafes. Taiwanese are relatively adventurous when it comes to trying new food; otherwise, the abundance of international cuisine restaurants would not be in business. I have experienced plenty of places where people turn up their noses at anything unfamiliar. I find Taiwanese quite tolerant of new tastes, and willing to try anything once.

In Turkmenistan there were about five national dishes that were made of the same ingredients—meat, carrots, potatoes, rice and pumpkin. There was little left to the imagination. I taught my students how to make pizza and pumpkin pie. I taught my closest Turkmen friend how to make Thai peanut noodles and rich chocolate brownies. Some Turkmen I met loved to learn how to cook new dishes, but most sided with familiarity. In Taiwan I recently cooked spicy Mexican tacos complete with tortilla chips and salsa. Taiwanese love spicy foods, so this dish went over well.

Being new to the country, I need the same outlook as my Taiwanese counterparts—try anything once! In a country where the smell of stinky tofu wafts on countless street corners, there are many adventurous dishes to be sampled.

One of the most famous dishes in Taiwan is the aforementioned stinky tofu. I have heard many colorful descriptions of the smell of this dish. It has acquired the name stinky tofu because it is exactly that—very, very stinky. It used to be a staple for soldiers patrolling China’s borders, and as wars ended and Taiwan’s night market culture expanded so did the availability of stinky tofu on the street. It is made by marinating tofu in a brine made from fermented vegetables, shrimp or fish stock. The fermentation process of the vegetables or fish can take up to 5 months, but marinating requires only 6 hours. Taiwan has a famous stinky tofu eatery, Dai’s House of Stinky Tofu, which is famous for its vegetarian version. Once the tofu is marinated, it is cut into bite-size pieces and most commonly deep-fried. This is a dish that either intrigues you or repulses you. Taiwanese will admit that it doesn’t smell good, but they will try to convince you to sit down and take a bite. And you should try it!

I have tried stinky tofu a few times, but it does not make my favorites list. As for me, I love bubble milk tea, and specifically bubble tea from the “50 Lan” shop. I enjoy a large cup...half sugar...less ice...big go...phew! A lot of details for one cup of tea. I had to learn lots of vocabulary just to get the right cup of bubbly, chewy satisfaction. The teashop attendants pile soft, sweetened tapioca bubbles into the bottom of the cup and shake up milky tea and ice in a cocktail mixer. They pour the milk tea over the bubbles and drop in a little ice. The cup is dropped in a machine that seals a thin plastic top onto the cup. They give you a fat straw wide enough for the tapioca, and you have to poke the straw through the plastic top to enjoy that first sip of sweet tea and chewy tapioca. Bubble tea has become so popular that the fad spread all the way to America where a popular Taiwanese teashop started a branch in California. There are many bubble teashops to chose from here, but I am very loyal to “50 Lan.” The bubbles are always soaked and cooked perfectly, and they use rich milk that makes the taste of the tea really stand out. Maybe I end up over analyzing my cup of bubble tea, but when it comes down to it, the idea of mixing chewy tapioca into a traditional cup of tea is an example of the quirky and adventurous taste buds that Taiwanese have. They combine tastes and aren’t scared to incorporate different textures, which is what makes Taiwanese street food so interesting for me.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cultural Differences: Part One

Lately I have been thinking about cultural differences. I am not talking about cultural differences between America and Taiwan, but cultural differences between Turkmenistan and Taiwan. And I have been thinking about how living in one country can greatly affect your experience in the next. I am more prone to notice and appreciate certain things about Taiwanese culture that I may have overlooked before. Living in Turkmenistan for almost two years in an extremely isolated and politically rigid environment left me hyper sensitive to the lack of restrictions and autonomy that Taiwanese (and I) have here.

On November 27th was a special municipality election for mayors and city councilors in Taiwan. Five cities in Taiwan voted for mayors and local representatives. The streets of Taipei were lined with flags from all the different candidates and huge banners covered bridges and buildings. In the last few weeks leading up to the election, it was commonplace to see a candidate riding around in an open-air car waving to everyone on the street. There was a last minute break in social order when the son of former vice-president, a supporter of a Taipei councilor candidate, was shot while on stage at a rally the evening before the election. Political parties pointed fingers at each other, but there was little conclusive evidence compiled in the few hours before the voting booths opened.

There are two main parties in Taiwan, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), the more conservative, pro-China party, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the pro-independence party. There is a Green Party as well that is a much more serious contender in the elections than the Green Party in America. Taiwanese do not need to register to vote, but are eligible to vote at the location closest to their address on their national identification card. Voters need to bring their national identification card and their personal stamp that has their name carved into it. I peered into a voting booth that was situated in a tiny Japanese style building in a narrow alley at the base of the mountains in Nangang. Voters had their identification verified and were handed the ballots. They took the ballots into the voting box and stamped what looks like a peace sign missing one of the downward pointing lines next to the candidate they are voting for. Voters dropped the ballots into color-coded boxes and exited out of a different door. The weather was bright and warm, and less voters stopped their sunny day activities to go to the voting booth than if the weather had been rainy. Yet, despite the lower turnout of voters than previously recorded, about 70% of the residents in these five special municipalities voted. The KMT won three of the city's mayoral election, but overall majority of the votes went to the DPP.

Geographical political differences are common in many countries, and the “blue north and green south” still rings true in Taiwan. The KMT, or “blue party” held onto the capital, Taipei and two other municipalities in the north, while the DPP, or “green party” clung to the South. Watching the blue and green flashing election results on the television reminded me of a tiny reversed version of America where the conservatives rule the north and the liberals rule the south. It is common for a country’s capital to be the melting pot of the nation, full of people from all over the world with different ideologies and political expectations. In Taiwan, the DPP has only won a majority of votes in the capital with one candidate, former president Chen Shui-Bian. He was elected as mayor in 1994 and used his defeat four years later to run for president in 2000. Taipei has the largest concentration of Mainlanders, those Chinese who moved to Taiwan with the separatist government in 1949, and their descendants. Many Mainlanders hold allegiance to Mainland China, despite having fled with the ROC national government, and will pick a Mainlander candidate over a Taiwanese who considers himself/herself a local. An example of a "local" candidate is Chen Shui-Bian, who was born to illiterate farmers in the south of Taiwan and used education as his tool to getting out of poverty. The stronghold of KMT voters consists of the older generation, a group of people who was possibly born in China, lived through the Japanese occupation, and still has family in China. The younger generation seems to be more pro-independence and there was recently a campaign with the slogan “Taiwan is my country!”

Despite an obvious split in party ideology, there is a general consensus among Taiwanese about the importance of their democratic system. From what I saw, there is a genuine appreciation and respect for freedom of speech in Taiwan. After living in Turkmenistan, where elections take place for show, and nobody has the freedom to express dissatisfaction with the government, the respect for civil rights in Taiwan has bolstered my appreciation for this tiny nation, and the sovereign government they have built without the full recognition or acceptance of the international community.