richard 2 Aug 31 2012 · 0 comments · Uncategorized ·

A Wanderous Phenomenon

wan•der•lust (wŏn’dər-lŭst’)

n. A very strong or irresistible impulse to travel.”

I have this. My friends do too.

But how many Taiwanese share it?

The urge to travel, see new places, experience a little adventure and expose yourself to just a dash of risk.

Give yourself some war stories to regale your grandkids with. Improve your chances of chatting up the girls back home.

And, of course, that all-important freedom.

Being able to leave everything behind and reflect, get some objectivity and decide what it is you want to do with your life.

The initial reaction from a number of Taiwanese was, “What’s the point?” There was seen to be no concrete goal, no tangible results that could help in gaining a better career.

It was a waste of time, something that was somehow decadent and would involve shirking familial responsibilities.

The expectation of most parents was that the children would immediately work upon graduation and begin to either contribute to the family pot or save for their future home and marriage.

There is no romantic notion of leaving the nest to become lost in the world’s wide embrace. Your neighbours don’t do it, nor your cousins, nor any of your classmates. Why should you?

The other response, however, was far more encouraging. Despite it being something that was new and largely unknown, the mixed bag of people I asked largely found it an attractive idea.

I’d copied seven reasons why you should go backpacking from an experienced traveller’s blog and put it to them. There was no disagreement or surprise; more curiosity and, on the part of one, real longing to do the same.

She stated that she would, she saw herself as a touch too shy and dependent for the modern world and thought an expedition like the one described would increase her ability to deal with the unfamiliar.

She was, however, unable to because of the Chinese tradition of protecting women and parents seeing their children as exactly that – children – until well into their adult life.

As a woman, she would be unlikely to gain the permission of her father to undertake such a foolhardy trip and would therefore have to defy him in order to do it. There are few who would go to such lengths to explore the world.

It must take a particularly strong personality to break with the entire direction of their upbringing in order to branch out alone in search of an undefinable end.

However, it is an integral aspect of modern Western culture.

I read The Beach when I was backpacking around Europe and it captured my imagination and longing for the unknown.

There was a goal. There are a multitude in fact.

To learn about foreign cultures, hopefully leading to broader horizons and a better understanding of the subjectivity of one’s own upbringing.

To become a stronger person, someone who doesn’t panic in the face of unforeseen obstacles, even revels in the challenge of it all.

To meet more interesting people than those who have never ventured further than Majorca or Benedorm.

The strongest for me personally, and for many of my home clique, is something that jars with those of a more traditional mindset.

One of the main aims of being “out there” in the world with no particular destination in mind but the drive to keep trying to get there is the very idea of having no specific aim in the first place.

It’s coupled with the realisation that there is only one life to lead and that there is so much more to it than a job, car and 2.4 children.

Yes, there is something selfish in it, but seen to be a necessary selfishness borne of this very realisation itself.

The world we inhabit is diverse, colourful and vast and the only way to really become acquainted with the oddity of it all is to go out in person and meet it.

The Western world has moved beyond the wonder of having the world brought to it via the television screen.

The wonder is now found in the wandering itself.

Wikipedia cites the phenomenon of backpacking as originating in low cost air travel opening the way for many young westerners to “follow the hippie trail into India and Southeast Asia”, a trail that is still largely followed to this day.

The more adventurous might branch out to South America and Africa tends to remain a black hole overlooked at the centre of every map. This is followed up with the statement that, “backpacking has become something of a rite of passage in the popular culture of some countries”.

Which countries? Essentially, North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, Israel – what you might think are the usual suspects – and Japan.

This is the only asian country that has a significant number who roam the trails. It struck me as unusual and worth pursuing, especially as it is normally asian culture that prevents the young from travelling alone.

What is it that separates Japan from the pack?

I found it to be a combination of affluence and the breakdown of tradition ideas of a career.

The first aspect of this is no surprise. A person must be able to afford to travel, be able to take the time off without worrying too much about earning a crust afterwards, and be safe in the knowledge that their family back home will live comfortably enough while they’re away.

The second factor must be seen as a part of a wider trend. Japan is changing.

A BBC article entitely “Japan’s Free Spirits” dates back to September 2004 and reports on how the economic situation there has led to a weakening idea of a lifelong job. Urban kids are now faced with a freedom that was previously unknown.

As is now normal fare in the West, the new Japanese must face uncertainty and move towards self-reliance or failure in the human marketplace.

Their parents may not necessarily expect them to follow in their footsteps. Younger people are choosing for themselves now, and many are choosing to go out and see the world.

Is Taiwan moving in the same direction? There is no doubt that with the wealth that Taiwan now enjoys comes a degree of internationalisation that was previously unheard of.

Will we see the next generation baffling their grandparents as they set off into the big, wide, transnational world?

The family remains strong, this is true, but for how long?

- by Nathan Haslewood, Taiwanease magazine, 2007

feathered_bars Aug 30 2012 · 0 comments · Uncategorized ·

Feathered Bars

“I had to pack up my things and leave secretly in the middle of the night. I drove my sister’s car alone to my new apartment. I had to sneak out. My father wouldn’t let me leave.”

While it may sound somewhat surprising, this is exactly what a young Taiwanese woman had felt she was forced to do. But, Kim, at 24 years old, is very far from being your typical Taiwanese woman. This year, she made the decision to move out of her family’s home to live independently, something that was met with a huge amount of resistance.

“My father’s a very traditional Taiwanese man,” she says, “He wouldn’t let me leave and didn’t understand why I wanted to go. He thought I was going because I had a boyfriend and I wanted to live with him, but it wasn’t about that. It was about getting my independence; about getting control over my own life.”

This, to me, and most others of my generation from the West sounds like a perfectly legitimate reason for wanting to leave home, as it also does to our families who, beyond a certain point, would begin to question our desire to remain living at home.

The eastern experience is entirely at odds with our own. Even though Kim’s parents eventually came to grudgingly accept the new situation, more distant relatives, as well as neighbours and family friends cast her as the “bad” daughter who had abandoned her family and its corresponding duties.

Why is it, though, that Taiwanese and asian people in general are expected to stay at home until they are married while our culture so encourages us to “launch”, as the recent movie put it?

The first reason sounds strange to the western ear. Parents here see their children as an investment in their own future to an extent that seems quite foreign to most of us. One of a group of university students even mentioned the word “property” when discussing how parents view their children.

When asked why they didn’t see themselves leaving the nest after graduating they reported that it’s something that can’t be discussed in isolation; it’s endemic of a far wider issue. Parents in Taiwan spend a great deal of money on their children’s education and training and therefore expect a good “return” on that investment.

That is why so many Taiwanese are pushed to become doctors or professors or, at the very least, to get a good, steady job and stick at it. In a country where “the cradle to the grave” would require an explanation almost every time, it’s perhaps not so hard to imagine the importance this can take on for worried parents who feel themselves aging and must rely on the next generation to keep them in the style to which they have become accustomed.

A Westerner used to being encouraged to determine a large part of their own destiny might resent this attempt at control but the idea was one the students didn’t generally share. “We are never taught to think like this; to think for ourselves,” one said, “Our parents choose everything for us.

Because we’re never told that one day we will be independent, we never learn to think about it.” It appears that parents direct their children’s lives to such an extent and it is so much the norm that neither party ever really envisions the children choosing for themselves. Parents direct, children obey; also something that is apparently to be expected in the classroom.

This, I think, is what makes Kim so different. She was, by her own admission, “exposed” to Western culture during her three and half years of study at a top US university. She described how she returned to Taiwan a “woman” who was used to, and moreover now demanded, her independence.

To the subsequent question of, “Does this mean that you see other Taiwanese people your age as more similar to children?” she smiled and guiltily agreed.

However, how does the picture look when the microscope is turned back on ourselves? What is the price we pay for the personal space and independence we enjoy? It is perhaps interesting to hear that Taiwanese people see Westerners as “cold” when it comes to the family.

Just as we find it difficult to understand how asian people can live with the restraints we are free of, they come off baffled when they hear of our practice of sending young children away to boarding school or elderly family members off to “homes”. It appears that, at the very point where asian culture sees the family as having the responsibility to care for its own, we too readily hand ours over to a third party.

Be it the state, a school or a home for the aged, we often give up those who, by nature’s own hand, are closest to us. That any member of the family could be a stranger is something very unnatural to many Taiwanese, as would be growing up without a father at home.

It seems, therefore, that the cost of our freedom could be a substantial amount of stress and indeed pain, particularly for young children who will always fail to understand why their parents don’t speak and for whom granny is but a distant figure who sends pressies in the post and gives overly sloppy kisses.

Asian people are often seen as rather innocent and naïve by their western counterparts. The average Taiwanese woman must be home before 12am until well into her twenties. The general consesnsus is that women need to be perenially protected; that it isn’t safe for a woman to live alone or stay out too late.

There was also agreement from both men and women that women are generally more “home oriented” and therefore, by dint of deductive logic, require less independence. This would jar heavily on the ears on the same generation of Western raised women who often do not want any predictions as to inherent feminine traits to be made at all. It is quite clearly an issue of gender here.

Every single person I talked to agreed that it was very different for sons and daughters. Sons, as they get older, get a far greater degree of freedom and are far less likely to have a curfew imposed. Women, such as Kim, face the misunderstanding and stigmatism of their family and society at large and potentially broken relationships if they choose to flee the nest.

But where can we go from here? Is it possible to say that one culture is better than another, or must we simply stop at saying they are different? Does it even make sense to ask which society makes people happier than the other? Perhaps we are only able to say that there are good and bad points to both the eastern and western traditions of raising children that we could all learn from.

For example, a good aspect of western culture might be that we are taught from an early age to think for ourselves and make decisions about our own lives that almost certainly aid us when we come to look after ourselves, while a bad side is surely that our families are overly atomistic, almost to the point of being uncaring towards more distant family.

A bad side of eastern culture is that those who feel the need to take control of their own lives, and especially women, are either unable to do so or will inevitably suffer a great deal, while a good side has to be the caring, supportive foundation in life that so many of us, with our weekend Dads and overheard squabbles about maintenance payments, so sadly lack.

To me at least, while I have found there are bars on the windows of the central family nest in Taiwan, I now suspect that they are warm, loving and softly feathered ones, even ones I sometimes wish I had myself.

- by Nathan Haslewood, Taiwanease magazine, 2007

lack_of_numbers Aug 29 2012 · 0 comments · Uncategorized ·

Finding Strength In Lack of Numbers

They say you should travel at some point in your life. It broadens horizons. This is true. You can learn another language. True. You come to understand your own cultural background better. True again. But know what the most valuable thing for me is? Being on the receiving end of prejudice.

I think the usefulness of being a member of a minority is too often ignored. You’re never quite able to guess what those around you might be saying in private, no matter how they act in your presence. You come to see the extent of the ignorance, the effect of assumptions made before you’ve even opened your mouth.

You, moreover, experience the stark reality of being “other”. You are not one of us. You do not fit in, you never will.

A depressing notion? One you’ve considered before? It was something I’d thought of but never truly felt before coming here. Now I’m convinced it’s going to be one of the most important things I’ll take with me when I leave.


This is defined quite simply as “understanding and entering into another’s feelings”.

Think about how people grow up and the views they inherit. Most members of majorities are not particularly well endowed with feelings of empathy.

They either invest little time in understanding what minorities in their countries have to endure or find themselves unable to do so. Like it or not, many find a bridge between themselves and people of a different background or race.

Empathy is necessary because we all hold assumptions about others. Even the word itself has dangerous connotations.


Whether Taiwanese, African, Western – or whatever – remember some of the things you may have said about others or heard said about you.

“Taiwanese have no imagination!”

“My god, Westerners love to drink! And they’re so loud!”

“Jeez, don’t Asians have a lame sense of humour?”

“All foreigners have one night stands…”

When many Westerners come to this country they are utterly unprepared for what awaits them. Most have rarely left their own cultures and soon find that they had been one hundred percent encased by it.

Perhaps there were variations marked by spells of travel to other Western nations, but they were variations on a single monocultural theme. Many have always been “normal”, easily able to find acceptance in society.

Here, when you sit on the transport system there’s not a single other person like you and you couldn’t even begin to imagine what thoughts are passing through the minds of those around you.

Maybe you can hear Japanese somewhere behind you, nearly as incomprehensible to modern Taiwanese as it is to you, but before that person opens their mouth they remain able to disappear in the crowd.

Most of the readership of this magazine will understand this and, like me, find it difficult and at times annoying or depressing. However, consider an alternative perspective.

Once you’ve been a member of a minority it’s a little easier to transpose yourself into the shoes of the immigrants arriving in your home country.

The same utter foreigness and difficulties with the language. The same ignorance, often with a good dash of racist hostility. I’m not saying it’s really possible to imagine the plight of a Chinese or African immigrant to the West.

Their struggle always was and will be manifestly greater than people like myself will ever experience. Not only migration but often poverty and having to begin from a much lower position in the new society. People like myself find themselves on the positive side of prejudice in Taiwan.

I hope, though, at least those like me who came here with literally nothing and knowing no one are able to better empathise with the loneliness and struggle of building an entirely new life from the bottom up.

Migration is a trend that is universally on the increase. Especially as the 21st century gets more fully into its stride and the scales of global power and wealth tip in favour of the East, we may come to see the next generations of Westerners moving eastward on a more permanent basis than is now the case.

Most Western foreigners now only move east in search of a way to quickly save money before returning home or a chance to open their eyes more fully to the world around them. It is a luxury that we are not forced to look abroad for the best means to secure the futures of our children.

However, might our children or children’s children be forced to do this to secure ours?

Being a member of a minority is entirely contextual, anyone on earth can join this group by simply moving abroad. Those who do can more easily reflect on the difficulties of peoples anywhere who find themselves unfairly judged or treated.

It’s worth spending some portion of the time spent in this country to reflect and attempt to develop empathy for the struggles of minorities worldwide.

It’s time well spent.

- by Nathan Haslewood, Taiwanease magazine, 2007

pill-article Aug 28 2012 · 2 comments · Uncategorized ·

Pill Popping Practics

Taiwan’s National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme, despite having been widely celebrated since its conception just over ten years ago, faced financial bankruptcy last year and had to be subsidized by $11bn NT of public money in order to remain operational.

Some light investigation soon revealed that one of the lead architects of the system, William Hsiao (蕭慶倫), a professor of economics at Harvard University, believed that, “Taiwan NHI’s financial problems stem from two factors: people’s mindset and politicians’ intervention.”

The political problems were the result of consistent refusals by politicians to consider even modest rate hikes in a bid to win favour at the polls. As Taiwan’s population ages and health care becomes more expensive, the relative cost of health care must sensibly rise with it.

This is, of course, no different from any other nation in the world with a fairly comprehensive health care system. Taiwan’s problem is precisely the same as other countries’ in this regard. It was the mindset that was by far the most intriguing aspect of this problem.

Who is creating problems for Taiwan’s NHI, and why?

It didn’t take long to find out that there are marked differences in the patterns of medicinal use here. In discussions it was invariably reported that it was only those in their 40’s, 50’s or above (and especially above) who were often to be seen trundling off to the docs for a quick checkup.

I was told that the older generation went to the doctors so frequently because they had so much free time in which to do it.

However, it’s highly doubtful that pensioners in Taiwan have any more time on their hands than those of the same age in the West.

And yet Department of Health Director-General Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) has said that each person in the country makes an average of 14.5 hospital outpatient visits per year, whereas the average in the US and major European countries is only seven or eight.

Furthermore, the consumption of medicine, especially in oral form, is far more frequent and widespread here than in the West. Why in the world are pensioners so particular about popping pills?

The first aspect is that Taiwan’s health care system is actually very good. Nearly every citizen throughout the country is covered and everyone contributes automatically as insurance payments are taken directly from wages.

There are single payments to be made for each doctor’s consultation or hospital visit but these are a relatively low one or two hundred at a smaller practice, rising to perhaps a few hundred at a more expensive hospital. Overall, however, the system is highly affordable, excluding virtually none who want to use it. If you feel like seeing a doc, you can.

The second factor affecting the system is that, “The profitability of performing routine visits motivates the medical centers to continuously expand their outpatient clinics for primary care … Taiwan’s fee-for-service payment method encourages more visits and rehabilitation services and overuse of drugs.”

Judging from personal experience that many agree to be quite common, doctor’s examinations are very quick, resulting in the prescribing of a standard concoction of drugs that will include various non-specific medicines, with an extra dose of pills to protect your stomach from the rest you’ve just forced upon it.

My own visit less than a year ago left me feeling suspect of the diagnosis I’d been given and I opted not to take the surprisingly heavy packets of medicine the doctor had dumped on me.

It meant that it probably took me slightly longer to recover from my ailment but the fact that I was supposed to take an extra something to protect my stomach from the very medicine that was supposed to help me seemed somehow wrong. And it appears that my instincts may have served me well.

In a report published several years after the NHI’s inception, it was found that, “The top 5 most commonly dispensed drug categories were antacids and anti-ulcer drugs, anti-cough and anti-cold preparations, vitamins, simple analgesics and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, accounting for 48.8% of total prescriptions.

In view of the frequency of relevant diagnoses, the overuse of antacids, vitamins, intravenous nutrient and electrolyte solutions, anti-cold preparations and antibiotics was apparent, as was that of drugs of questionable pharmacological value.”

There are financial pressures placed upon doctors with private practices, meaning that they need to see a relatively large number of patients in relative short spaces of time and, perhaps more tellingly, also need to keep their “customers” happy.

And like customers they are. One very great difference between Taiwan’s system and that of, say, Britain’s is that there is a near complete lack of family doctors in this country.

This results in several difficulties. The first is that doctors must compete to survive, having a client base that can very rapidly disband if word gets around that you aren’t giving the treatment that is wanted. There is no “first line” of consultation here and referrals are very few and far between.

When a complication arises, the patient will go directly to whichever practitioner they feel best fits their troubles. The doctor will try their best but, if they are unable to help, will simply be unable to help, leaving the patient to decide for themselves who to try next.

This results in a kind of “doctor shopping” whereby people will immediately present themselves at specialists’ waiting rooms and will not rest until they feel they have been satisfactorily seen to. Finding the right doctor is a mixture of luck and contacts.

If a specific problem occurs, people will more often ask friends and relatives who they should consult rather a professional who would quickly and efficiently send them off to the right place or simply tell them to go home and rest, perhaps even leaving them empty-handed.

The final and most important factor, however, lies in that old culprit, “culture”. The main problem is that Taiwanese, especially of the older generation, feel that they simply must get something for their money.

They are paying money into a pot from which one must actively reach into in order to receive anything at all. Traditional Chinese culture demands that paying into a system which gives nothing back is a waste of money. It just won’t do.

When pensioners visit the doctor it is not enough to be seen. They must have something concrete to show for the money they must pay.

This is a major difference from in the UK, for example, where the system was founded during the post-war consensus of payment according to means and care in accordance with need.

Such a view of insurance isn’t prevalent here, as can also been seen in many families opting out of house insurance – as an unnecessary waste – and choosing to have their cars repainted on their auto insurance once they’ve been making payments for a few years and feel they are “due” something.

Paying money only to have security in case of disaster appears to be quite a new idea. Thankfully, it does seem that things are beginning to change and the problems are being recognised.

However, I have to say that I’d rather not be the one to convince grandma that going to see doc just for reassurance or a handful of pills is actually not a very fraternal thing to do. Entire generations have been doing this for longer than I can remember and naturally form the most stubborn demograph.

I wish the best of luck to the campaign leaders.

- by Nathan Haslewood, Taiwanease magazine, 2007

upturned_car Aug 27 2012 · 0 comments · Uncategorized ·

Just How Bad Is It?

While it now appears that Shaw Hsiao-ling (邵曉鈴), wife of Taichung Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強), is going to survive the crash that nearly took her life, she has reportedly only recovered 70% of her brain functions. She able to talk, but using only single words, and now recognises her family. However, she is not able to fully comprehend the loss of her arm and is almost certain to never walk again.

It would be nice to say that the cause of this accident was not human error. It might be nice to say that the human error wasn’t typical of driving in Taiwan. However, while the incident sounds shocking – it is shocking after all – this kind of driving is all too typical.

The accident was caused by a driver illegally undertaking a truck on the hard shoulder, only to misjudge the distances and bounce off the barrier to go careering across the road, smashing straight into the mayor’s vehicle.

While this may not be such a common sight, it’s hard not to notice the daily floutings of the law that will have people driving the wrong way down one way streets, running red lights, pulling over or stopping without any thought to those behind, or teenagers racing each other as the evenings wear on.

Everyone sees it. Everyone knows it happens. Pretty much every foreigner to ever come to Taiwan thinks it’s simply awful. But is it really as bad as we think it is?

There are several manifest problems in answering this question. The first and most important is the apparent lack of reliable data regarding Taiwan. The World Health Organisation, for example, does not recognise Taiwan as an independent country and therefore data is conspicuously lacking in its road accident reports.

The data provided on the governmental sites is patchy at best. Most importantly, of course, is the fact that so few of Taiwan’s collisions are reported. Particularly if nobody has been maimed or killed, the perpetrators of the incident will be readily seen dusting themselves off and getting on their merry way again.

No point in calling the cops if no real damage has been done. So we must forever bear in mind that there are, “lies, damned lies and … ”. You know the drill.

Even so, the scraps that are to be had are both shocking and frightening in equal measure. The first figure I’ll throw at you is that there were 2,718 traffic deaths and 152,080 injuries in 2003 . At first it simply sounds like just another number but it’s actually worth sitting back and thinking about for a second.

Roughly 155,000 reported accidents in one year. Of a population of 23m. That works out at a rate of one accident resulting in an injury serious enough to report – or death – for every 148 people. In 2003 alone. Even more worrying is that that figure is now rising year-on-year.

Believe it or not, it’s actually getting worse even though almost every single person in the whole of Taiwan will personally know or know of someone who is involved in a serious crash every single year of their lives.

And here’s a figure that will produce a wry smile on the face of any foreigner who’s lived here for a while. Statistics complied by the National Police Agency (NPA) reported that 96.7 percent of road accident deaths were caused by human errors. The reasons? “Drink driving, negligent driving and driving above the speed limit”.

It’s worse in rural areas, where road traffic rules are invariably ignored as much as they are adhered to. Hualien provides the perfect example of this. 2006 saw a total of 85 reported accidents leading to a total of 89 deaths. It is true that these figures were 30% down on the 2005 figures, when 111 accidents led to 122 killed, but the more interesting aspect of this is the cause.

A full 50% of all accidents were caused by drunk driving. Half of all accidents were people drunk at the wheel. This quite simply would not occur abroad and comes, in fact, as quite a shock to someone like me.

The other causes quoted were precisely the same as mentioned above, essentially the most basic principles of driving anywhere – don’t run red lights and don’t stray too far from the speed limit. These are far too often ignored.

Despite urban areas having vast numbers of vehicles on the roads, most deaths occur out of town.

Why? People essentially don’t think about their safety. Don’t wear seat belts. Don’t wear helmets.

It’s almost as if the event of a crash simply isn’t anticipated or planned for in the same way a Westerner might have been brought up to.

This is surely most horrifying in the case of children. Kids hanging on to the wing mirrors of Dad’s scooter on the way to school in a daily sight but it’s again quite saddening to consider the other end of this, the consequences of the negligence.

A survey released this month showed that, “80 percent of children seeking medical treatment for traffic accident injuries were not wearing a helmet, not wearing a seat belt, or not seated in a child safety seat at the time when their injuries occurred”.

Isn’t it ironic that Taiwanese invest so much in their children’s future, and yet are so seemingly irresponsible when it comes to road safety? It comes across as baffling to many Western folk, so I thought it worthwhile spending some time asking why road safety is so often ignored here.

The answer was even more ironic. The lesser aspect of it is that the law prescribing the universal use of helmets on scooters and motorbikes and belts in cars was only introduced on June 1st, 1997, meaning that there are two entire generations still on the roads who were previously quite unused to these things.

Before the law was passed, there was barely a helmet to be seen (only 20% as compared to the current 95%). Older generations, apparently, largely wear helmets because they must, but do not in fact see them as being necessary items. You might be mistaken for thinking that perhaps this doesn’t extend to children, and that’s why there are so many unprotected children to be seen.

However, it is a mistake. The law demands protection be worn by all. So the problem doesn’t lie there. Somewhat surprisingly, the greater part of it stems from the traditional Taiwanese aversion to thinking about or discussing death or injury.

Taiwanese simply don’t like to think about the nastier sides of what could happen when driving. “Taiwanese people are positive in their outlook. They don’t like to think about such depressing things as that…” as an astute Taiwanese friend put it.

This means that the ugly consequences of not equipping junior with the cheap and readily available helmets that line many a store front are generally not dealt with on a day-to-day basis.

Because Taiwanese find it distasteful to consider the horrible, horrible things that can come as a result of laxness on the road, they are untold times more likely to be involved in precisely those same horrible consequences that so scare them.

Such an enormous number of accidents in Taiwan could be so very easily avoided. So many injuries on the part of children perched so precariously on their parents’ scooters quite simply do not have to happen.

Despite this now being an aspect of Taiwanese culture that I have looked into and now understand, I have to admit that it’s a part of the local psyche that I can safely say will forever be beyond me.

Seeing a child acting as a potential air bag will make my heart sink every single time.

- by Nathan Haslewood, Taiwanease magazine (republished in Highway 11 magazine), 2008

spreading wings 2 Aug 26 2012 · 0 comments · Uncategorized ·

A Time to Spread Wings

Only two issues ago I investigated the unfortunate hoops through which Taiwanese students must jump before attaining the haloed goal of a place at university. As mentioned in that article, upon gaining acceptance life then becomes a relative walk on easy street. Study is not particularly demanding and examinations not especially difficult.

Students are granted four years of an easy life before beginning decades of unpaid overtime and financial responsibilities to parents who invested so much in their children’s education.

It’s an attractive aim and a well deserved period of rest. And yet an increasing number are opting out, opting to go abroad to study either after or in place of their Taiwanese bachelor’s degree.

Precisely 30,728 chose to study in one of the eight major nations that include the US, UK, Japan, Australia and Canada in 2004, not a small number by any means.

This was up a full 6,000 on the 24,599 in 2003 and continues to be on the rise, aided by a government goal of a 3% increase year on year and a plethora of incentives designed to get young Taiwanese out and away, independent and in a foreign land, almost certainly for the first time.

They range from low interest loans arranged with the government directly or through the banks, to full scholarships for the lucky few and having universities select suitable candidates from amongst their own stock. Talk to virtually any bright, ambitious young 20-something and they’ll tell you they either dream of studying abroad or already have plans underway to do so.

As we found in my last article, few tend to go roaming, so why such an eagerness to leave?

It appears that things have changed. I talked to an engineer working at one of Taiwan’s top computer processor producers who spent four years studying in Australia in the early 90s. Back in those days studying abroad was something special and was appreciated as such by employers who would pay higher wages to those better versed in the ways of the world.

The examinations used to be far harder than they are now, he reported, and as few as 7% of those taking the tests passed, as few as 5% were able to study their chosen majors.

Even as recently as 20 years ago there were only around 20 universities nationwide and from the 700 available points to be had in national examinations, approximately three times as many points were required as are nowadays.

As such, therefore, studying abroad meant not only easier entry and the option of easy transfer between subjects after a year, but also the respect attached to having passed a far harder degree that would subsequently stand you in good stead for years to come.

The rough cost was 700,000NT per annum all those years ago, a fair sum once average income and inflation have been factored in, yet there is no doubt in his mind that it was worth it.

Looking through the governmental sites on educational exchange there were, of course, various rants regarding maintaining standards of excellence in Taiwanese universities and promoting international friendship. One point, however, truly struck home.

Dr. Chang Qin-sheng of the Bureau of International Cultural and Educational Relations, Ministry of Education, stated in a paper on globalization last year that, “Movement of individuals is not limited by national boundaries. In the face of global competition, the key to obtaining the edge lies in creativity and quality.”

A brief glance at trends in the global economy only reinforces the argument. Take Ikea, for example: “Designed in Sweden. Made in China.”

Or virtually any of the major PC producers, most of whom now entirely outsource the physical creation of their goods to subcontracted no namers. An increasing number of global players now deal exclusively in promotion, design and quality management. The all too mundane production is simply left to third parties.

So where does this leave our ambitious young Taiwanese? In a nutshell, experience abroad is becoming less of a luxury and more a plain necessity.

English, like it or not, is the language of the early 21st century world and speaking it is no longer an advantage, it’s a prerequisite. While it’s true that the standard of Taiwan’s universities is arguably approaching an international level of competitiveness, the cost of studying at a good private college is now not much less than sending the kids abroad.

It then becomes not a case of why they should study overseas, rather than why not.

There are some in Taiwan who predict pure doom and gloom at the rise of the hulking beast across the straight. However, with Japanese companies preferring to use Taiwanese to represent them in China and China’s own acceptance of Taiwanese living and working on its soil, the anticipative and astute here can potentially have a great deal to look forward to.

It does mean, however, that those unwilling or unable to think beyond the confines of their own language and political borders will be left behind by our fledgling century. Bear in mind, though, that it’s not just Taiwanese we’re talking about now.

It’s all of us.

- by Nathan Haslewood, Taiwanease magazine, 2007

brain_drained 2 Aug 25 2012 · 0 comments · Uncategorized ·

The Brain Drained

I hadn’t planned on asking this when beginning the research into this article but what I found forced the question:

What is the point of education?

Forgetting theory for the moment, I think most might agree with something along the lines of “to learn”. But is it really as simple as that? To learn what? And how? Isn’t it in fact wider in scope than this?

Shouldn’t education also be about preparing students to deal with the real world, to better deal with life? And what about training people to think analytically. Or to think creatively?

The reason for these questions is that the kind of learning going on in schools in this country still follows the traditional, rigid, very Chinese methodology that has been employed since the 1950’s.

Students spend their time preparing for endless tests, largely through rote learning The teaching is mechanical and dull in the extreme. A high school English teacher baulked when asked about the methods employed in teaching the language. She seemed almost embarrassed when discussing it, as though she were doing something wrong and knew it:

“We teach grammar.”

And what about speaking? Using the language?

“Er… No.”

But isn’t it, well, kind of boring?

She baulks again. “I think so, yes.”

This is just one example. A university student told of how, at high school, they learned how to become proficient at answering the questions set in the many exams they must take.

They are taught to be excpetional in this skill, able to fire off correct answers to a multitude of questions at breakneck speed. However, she then went on to say, “But we didn’t learn why those answers were correct, you know.”

Now it’s my turn to baulk. “We just learn the answers. Nobody tells us how they were got to or why they’re useful.”

The thing that really stuck in my mind, though, was what a very thoughtful and articulate university student said. “We don’t think.”

This one stops me dead. “We don’t ask questions. We don’t learn how to find the answers out ourselves. We just memorise everything. We don’t think at school.”

So back to the question of the point of education. Why do people learn in this way?

One of the most important factors of learning should be transferability. We learn how to solve problems at school in the hope that we are better able to tackle them later in life.

We learn to argue a case so that our general persuasiveness is improved. And Taiwanese students spend their time learning to memorize masses of information, to the detriment of other important skills, so as to…?

High school education exists solely to train students to pass the all-important high school and college entrance exams.

Students endure sometimes daily tests and the memorisation of countless facts, all of which will be soon forgotten, in the single goal of entering the most prestigious university possible.

Then, upon gaining acceptance, it becomes time to relax. University students generally smile guiltily when asked what their experience of college education is like. “We don’t do much,” they admit, “it’s our time to relax.” Given that the high school suicide rate in Taiwan is one of the highest in the world, second only to Japan, it becomes fairly easy to sympathise.

School teachers are highly constrained in what they are able to. The system itself places such huge demands on students and teachers alike that there simply isn’t time to do more creative or thought-provoking work.

The teacher I talked to said she’d very much like to do more interactive learning and give students more opportunity use what they have learned but that, due to the huge demands on her time in the classroom, it simply wasn’t possible.

Numbers also play an important role in this. There were 53 stuents in her high school class alone.

On the positive side, it appears that the everyone – government and teacher both – is well aware of the various problems plaguing their schools and are determined to change the system, however slowly.

Or so they say, at least. The first attempts at reform followed the lifting of martial law in 1987.

Pressure grew in the following years, culminating in a march on April 10th 1994 and the formation of the “League for educational reform 410”, encompassing over 90 different associations all committed to change. The government then established an independent Educational Reform Committee in July of that year.

It made its final report in December 1996 and recommended extensive changes in both the system itself and methods of teaching employed.

Changes were made, but were far from extensive enough. Not enough changed.

The previous “standard curriculum” of the KMT was changed to a “guidance of curriculum”, meaning the government no longer had a monopoly on the reading materials to be used.

However, despite their vigorous attacks on the education system while in opposition, the DPP essentially changed little in practice. The guided curriculum still required all reading materials to be submitted to the Ministry of Education before publication.

They remain highly regulated and uniform to this day. Changes were made in the content of what is studied. Mandarin is no longer the only language of education and Taiwan’s history is no longer taken as a mere sub-plot of the larger Chinese story.

The fundamentals of the education system, however, remain in place. School students are still not taught social interaction or how to use their imaginations.

Enormous emounts of stigma are still attached to less gifted students and failure in the examinations remains the end of the world for student and family alike.

More chronically, students still do not learn the simple enjoyment that can be had in the learning process. The push for reform has now declined because of the lack of consensus on the goals to be attained.

Unfortunately, the new generations that will go to on to shape Taiwan’s future must first be subjected to the punishing and largely pointless years of information regurgitation.

- by Nathan Haslewood, Taiwanease magazine, 2008

no_lunchbox_image Aug 24 2012 · 1 comment · Uncategorized ·

What, No Lunchbox?

It was surely one of the most hyped things of early 2007. It made the world press the globe over, turned the spotlight however briefly again onto Taiwan and its ongoing modernisation. But now the reporters have largely moved on to newer and fresher stories. The novelty is wearing off. So what are we left with in the aftermath?

In order to write this article I took a train from Tainan to Banqiao. It cost 1,300NT (USD $45), set off and arrived at precisely the time promised on the ticket and, true to the much talked about slashing of travel times, took a mere one hour forty minutes to essentially traverse the country.

From the pure, brilliant sunshine of Tainan to the overcast skies of Taipei county took roughly the same time it might take to get from Danshui to the Xin Yi district on the MRT or perhaps from the north to south of London on a bad day.

It must be said – it does somewhat force a change in your conceptions of distance. The south really isn’t that far away any more.

Allow me to describe the trip a little for you. Or I would, if there were much to describe.

The fact of the matter is that the new HSR is ultra-modern and thus ultra-bland, suffering from the same lack of imagination that can be found in virtually any new system. The station feels like just another faceless airport that could be anywhere in the world and it’s stuck out in the middle of nowhere.

The inside of the train is boring in the extreme. Clean, bright, exact. In the same way as the ICEs in Europe, the only way to gauge the speed of the machine is to glance out of the window or check the overhead display from time to time.

The train is silent, the ride is entirely smooth. There is really no feeling of the speed you are travelling at. And, I suppose, that’s the whole point. It really is a piece of cutting edge technology and quietly demonstrates what modern engineering is capable of. It doesn’t need to show off. It just does exactly what it says on the packaging.

There are, of course, teething problems and I’m not quite sure why I seem to be the only one who isn’t particularly surprised by this. Cut those responsible some slack. Yes, the Banqiao to Taipei part of the line failed its inspection and will thus remain closed until after Chinese New Year.

Yes, they are losing huge amounts of money every day. Yes, it’s true what they say about the ticketing system – it really is quite simply horrendous. Selecting a day you want to travel on and a time you want to have set off by, it gives you a list of the available trains.

You must then proceed to check each and every train to see that, no, there aren’t any seats available, at which point you must manually go back to check the next. So on, and so forth, until your blood begins to boil. Oh, and, yes, sales are way, way below what they’d previously hoped.

On the train I took, I counted a grand total of six people occupying the first three cars. The next few were slightly less than a quarter full, including business class. Car five’s air conditioning was obviously broken as it felt like a furnace and therefore was also empty.

Only in the final four cars did it seem like any other self-respecting train with perhaps an 80% occupancy rate.

I’ve covered the boring bits. Now to go a little deeper.

Let’s pause and look for a moment at what an incredible feat of engineering this was. A 345km line across land with one of the highest levels of seismic activity in the world.

The designer of the line itself, Faber Maunsell, describes the particular difficulties of creating a way of dealing with what in practice becomes “soil liquefaction” in river plains during an earthquake.

Some of the bedrock is apparently over 100m below ground level and a good portion of what’s above it will basically turn to something like jelly if things get really wobbly. So hats off to the boys and girls stuck in their offices getting this all together.

Slightly more interesting, perhaps, is the longer term view of what this means for Taiwan. Something that has recurred is an idea that came across in the reports somewhere of Taiwan the country now becoming “Taiwan city”.

As I mentioned a moment ago, travelling from north to south in so short a time really does make you rethink your preconceptions of the difference between country and city. If you have in the back of your mind that from central Taipei you could be in Kaoshiung in something like two hours, it does bring the south psychologically that much closer.

Short breaks of a an overnight stay in Tainan and hopping back the next day begin to spring to mind.

Haven’t had a walk by Love River in a while? Well, it’s not that far away really.

Miss Kenting? Go on, you’ll be there in time to catch the sunset.

In my mind at least, getting from Taipei to the south has changed from a journey to more of an inconvenience. The only thing that would stop me from a day trip now and again is price. 2,800NT return?

Er… I think I’ll just visit Danshui instead. But they might be forced to change that anyway if sales don’t improve soon.

A larger question to deal with is one of implications. What’s going on here on a larger scale?

Something that struck me while I was staring out of the window of the train was a sudden respect for this tough little nation that hadn’t really occurred before. In the face of it all, Taiwan has once again showed its determination to haul itself up to global standards.

Despite its minute size and political insignificance, Taiwan has raised its proverbial middle finger and taken another scoop in the process of carving out a place for itself in this world. In fact, parallels with Japan’s history came increasingly to mind.

A country with few natural resources using foresight, taking advantage of technology to push itself forward. Creating a niche in the global market as a springboard towards modernity.

And what does it mean to be a modern nation? There appears to be a checklist.

World class companies? OK, check.

A well-educated and healthy populace? OK, check.

A 21st century transportation system? OK, check.

Then what? What comes one, two, three decades down the line?

One interesting piece I found reported the purchase of 48 tilting trains by the Taiwan Rail Authority despite it being heavily debt-laden as it now faces previously unknown competition.

The high speed rail is demanding that other forms of transportation be modernised. Another interesting point came from Chen Lee-in, a research fellow at the Cheng-Hua Institute for Economic Research.

He stated quite plainly the fact that stares us all in the face every day, namely that, “the nation’s urban and rural landscapes are ugly” and called for the government to now begin to change the country’s skylines to reflect its new, developed status.

“Fifth Avenue in New York, Avenue des Champs Elysees in Paris and the pencil-shaped skyscrapers in Chicago reflect the characteristics of the different stages of economic and cultural development in which they were built and have a beauty that has stood the test of time”.

Taiwan’s buildings occasionally reflect the sun and that’s about it.

The point, though, is that calls such as this are being made. Now that another box on the list of modernity has been ticked off, it’s becoming increasingly likely that they will no longer fall on deaf ears.

Taiwan’s transportation system is now world class.

So what next?

- by Nathan Haslewood, Taiwanease magazine, 2008

cash pile Aug 22 2012 · 2 comments · Uncategorized ·

Talking Money

Guò nián 過年 means “to celebrate the new year” but a more literal rendering into English leaves it as “the passover of the Nián”, that most destructive of ancient China’s man-eating beasts.

It was said to spring from the mountains or the sea and came every New Year’s Eve to prey on both helpless villagers and hardened soldiers alike. The only way to ensure that you would survive this most horrific of fates was to scare the beast away with copious amounts of red and as raucous a racket as you could muster.

This is why you are startled at the crack of dawn or the chink of dusk by what sounds like a firefight only a block or two away and why you should at some point stand atop your building to watch the array of fireworks arcing over Taipei.

One explanation of the origins of red envelopes puts them as congratulations for having survived this most deadly of periods without having been eaten up or taken away.

No one really seems to know exactly where the tradition of giving red envelopes stems from but the stories make for interesting reading.

The best dates from the Sung Dynasty in the form of a young orphan who defeated a huge demon (quite possibly the Nián) using a magical saber. It had been terrorizing the village and the elders were so happy with the little nipper that they came out and showered him with a wad of cash that they’d stuffed into a red envelope.

The Taiwanese government, however, disputes this and points out that the tradition dates from the Qing Dynasty and originated in elders stringing one hundred coins together in the shape of a dragon for the children.

As this must have taken forever, there was presumably a collective sigh of relief when the advent of printing enabled a quick trip to the bank to suffice.

Regardless of its roots, the hóng bāo 紅包 tradition is deeply ingrained in not only Chinese culture but also those of Burma, Vietnam, Thailand, Korea and Japan (although in the latter two a white envelope is used instead).

The number four, as with the non-existant floors in hospitals, is always avoided, as are odd-numbered denominations because these are reserved for funerals.

Sixty-six is a fine choice for some because of its similarity to the pronunciation of “smooth life” in Mandarin. The bank notes given should be as new and crispy as possible, leading to queues at the banks and headaches for the government due to the rush to secure these before the festivities begin.

The money is said to be “cleansed” through being enveloped in red and is thus void of any negativity as it’s passed on.

It is described as “age suppressing money” by many, a form of bribe to buy the giver an extra year of life and, simultaneously, as “age extension money” by others, used to put children’s illnesses behind them and therefore secure strength and health on their part.

Red envelopes are not only given at New Year but also, as mentioned, funerals, as well as at the birth of a child and both engagement parties and weddings. It’s furthermore a way of helping out if someone’s sick and is, as such, part gift and part financial aid.

One of its darker sides is that, particularly for weddings, a friend is in practice unable to attend if no money is given. There are no explicit rules regarding this but it would be a faux pas beyond measure to turn up empty handed, even if destitute.

Worse still, in my opinion, is the price that is put quite explicitly on friendship. If you’re an acquaintance then you can get away with as little as 1,200 or 1,500NT but if you’re a friend – a “true” friend – then you’ll be expected to give from 3,500 upwards with a very hazy upper limit.

Your relationship is very frankly scrutinised, weighed up against your bank balance, and you simply have to reach for that envelope. There is a feeling here of taking a bond that should be founded on anything but money and bringing in an inappropriate materialism.

This, I must say, strikes me as somewhat distasteful.

This obligation, however, is far from foreign to Westerners. While Western weddings involve gifts that are “voluntary” it would, again, be incredibly poor taste to arrive without something to offer your hosts. It would, likewise, be virtually unthinkable not to give something at Christmas.

The downside of the Western practice is that the more frequent giving of goods rather than money leads occasionally to disappointment and invariably to the accumulation of mountains of junk.

The oft repeated joke is of newly weds receiving toasters in four different colours. Unless you stick pretty rigidly to the wedding gift list, it’s fairly easy to either miss the mark or go wide of it completely.

Finding something which is at once symbolic, practical and enjoyable for the recipient is not always an easy task.

The good side of this practice, however, follows the maxim that “it’s the thought that counts”, something that has a good degree of truth to it.

I was brought up to believe that one of the most important aspects of selecting a gift is having in mind the person for whom you are buying it. It forces you to spend time thinking of them and the kind of person they are.

My own experience provides food for thought as I receive markedly different forms of presents from each of my parents.

My father never gives money, instead choosing something that he thinks will enrich me intellectually or strike some kind of cord with who I am. My mother, on the other hand, consistently slips me a card with some money inside.

Which do I prefer? Actually, both.

I’ve come to see myself as getting the best of both worlds, being given a helping hand which came in exceptionally handy in those scrimping student days and yet having something of more lasting significance and sentimental value as well.

Is the asian practice of giving cold, hard cash then overly materialistic?

Thankfully I’m learning slowly but surely that not all questions have an easy answer because they are poor questions in the first place.

Because a practice is not my own does not mean it is good or bad. The judgement stumbles and falls at the hurdle of cultural relativity.

Yes, it’s a little strange, curious at first, yet is ultimately fathomable and highly interesting to investigate.

I suppose this is, after all, why articles such as this are written in the first place.

- by Nathan Haslewood, Taiwanease magazine, 2008

betel_nut_stuff Aug 22 2012 · 0 comments · Uncategorized ·

The Beauties of Betel Nut

I could tell you that the trade in betel nut is now worth a staggering US$3.6 billion a year in Taiwan alone.

I could tell you that there are estimated to be around 2.8 million chewers, representing roughly a quarter of the entire male population.

I could tell you that there are approximately 100,000 kiosks throughout Taiwan and that, despite the enormous revenue they generate, the industry is utterly unregulated and is still taxed at a normal rate.

I could easily tell you all of this.

It might even be interesting to deal with the dangers of the habit and the fact that chewers are 28 times more likely to develop oral cancer and that in central Taihsi (台西) Township, for example, an average of 2,374 people per 100,000 die of oral cancer every single year.

I could tell you all this and much, much more.

But it’s all been done.

Instead, I thought it would be far more interesting to have someone go out and actually do some groundwork on behalf of all those who have ever been disgusted by it or wondered what in the world the attraction was.

The first thing I did was visit one of my local betel nut owners. He emerged from a back room, looking highly suspicious of this foreigner and accompanying translator.

It was evidently very much out of the ordinary and he was initially pretty brusk. However, within a short time he was veritably spitting information at me through his mouthful. And what a wealth of it he turned out to be.

I discovered that are generally three types of nut to be had. The first is the one he termed “for beginners” and was, he claimed, the most popular that was sold at his store. It consisted of a split nut with quite a fair dose of a very deep red paste, topped off with something I was surprised to find actually smelled attractive, having a somewhat citrus scent to it.

The second kind of nut was smaller and wrapped in a leaf. The nuts were smaller and there were therefore two to a bundle. These were reported to be a little sweet and very much on the spicy side. They were, as the first kind, sold in silvery boxes.

The final kind, however – the “real” betel nut that is primarily chewed in central and southern Taiwan – was more expensive than the other two and yet far simpler in design. There was no box, only a cheap plastic “baggy”, and they looked incredibly plain, consisting of a bare nut covered in a seemingly bland leaf.

Whereas the previous two kinds smelled rather good and appeared reasonably appetising, this third kind simply smelled like any other entirely inedible plant might. He said this final one was reserved for the hardcore chewers. From what I saw I didn’t much fancy it.

Forgetting the nuts themselves, it was interesting to get behind the scenes of this industry for a second. He informed us that he required a licence but that it was classed as nothing other than a common fruit by the government. It’s greatly suprising but true, and could go a step towards understanding why what is essentially a form of mild drug is so incredibly widespread.

As a fruit, it is not taxed as tobacco or alcohol are, and the official controls regarding its use are non-existent. A licence is needed before a store can be opened, but it isn’t difficult to gain and essentially means very little in practice.

The final mystery that he proved able to solve was that of why so few women chew the stuff while men are so commonly seen helpfully decorating the sides of the roads and pavement.

The answer was short, simple and believable. “Men don’t care about how they look. Women do.” Well, that was that then.

The second leg involved biting the bullet, as it were, and really getting to grips with the nut itself. In this adventure I enlisted the help of a friendly construction worker who was initially as curious about me as I was of him.

As soon as he realised what it was I was interested in, he happily jumped down from the truck and began to guide me through the world of betel nut chewing. It was at this point that I was beginning to think, “Do I really want to do this?”

As previously instructed, I tried the “beginners” nut first. It was, to put it mildly, a taste explosion.

I could feel the paste immediately invade and overwhelm every single taste bud. It was tangy, fiercely so, and I have to admit that most of the paste was soon to be found forming a very red line on the pavement next to my feet.

Having got beyond the shock of the initial taste, though, the taste of the nut itself began to make its way through. It was bitter in the extreme and not particularly pleasant, a little like what I imagine the taste of chewing an acorn to be like.

It brought forth an unexpected amount of juice from my glands and, not wanting to swallow it, I had soon made a fair amount of red, gooey mess.

Added to this, I was offered one of the typical drinks, called “Baulidabe”, that is apparently now growing in popularity over “Whisbih”, the more traditional, mildly alcoholic medicinal beverage.

The one given me was mixed with coconut juice and was actually very easy on the palette. Having been somewhat fortified by this small dose of Dutch courage, I moved onto round two.

This was much sweeter than the first but, as the betel nut store owner had said, far more spicey.

However, having already been initiated to the taste by the first and feeling more than a touch warmed up by both it and the Baulidabe and Whisbih (which I’d already now opened), it wasn’t such a shock. Although I can’t exactly say it went down a treat, it wasn’t really all that bad.

The third, on the other hand, was truly disgusting. From the first moment it entered my mouth to the second I spat it out, it was horrible.

It tasted far stronger than the others and there were no spices or other flavours to make it more manageable. It was simply the chewing of a nut in a leaf. The colour of the spit leaving my mouth was far redder than before.

It is, I have to say, something I may not choose to do again.

But what did it feel like? Try to imagine, if you will, the feeling you might get if you drank a cup of strong coffee and then went for a fairly swift jog.

This might sound simply awful but bear with me a moment. I say jog because of the unusually warm glow that I felt welling up from inside of me. It was quite nice, actually.

There were also stimulating effects that weren’t all that strong but were hardly non-existent either. It made me feel more awake, more alert and my pulse seemed to quicken.

I guess it wasn’t quite as profound as I’d expected it to be but, I must admit, I didn’t dare swallow too much of the red spit that my chewing instructor was quite happily gulping down.

Plus I only managed three nuts.

And I was nearly sick on the third.

The final stage of my little experiment involved asking my red-toothed friend why he so enjoyed betel nut.

There were essentially two reasons. The first incorporates the feelings just metioned. He said it was something he associated exclusively with work and didn’t chew at home. There is Gauliang added to the concoction and it is this, he told me, that gives the warm feeling that makes those icy Taiwanese winter days that much more bearable.

He was, admittedly, red enough in the face to be described as positively radiant. He also mentioned that it made him feel “stronger” and gave me a proud showing of his scrawny arm.

But, all sarcasm aside, I can now understand how the slightly mind-dulling and body-invigorating effects would help to get through a day of manual labour or boredom at the wheel of a long-haul drive. I can see that now and even empathise a little.

Just a shame it’s kind of a dirty habit.

The second reason is far more enthralling. It’s highly tied up in what it means to be Taiwanese.

“Foreigners can’t do it”, he said with a laugh but, as always, there’s a degree of truth to what we joke about. It’s a way in which Taiwanese differ markedly from those on the mainland.

It’s more likely than not chewed in higher proportions of people, such as those in central and southern Taiwan, who prefer to speak Taiwanese to Mandarin.

It’s associated in many minds with what it means to be a “Tai-Ke”. It’s also a friendship thing and is shared in the same way that cigarettes are between smokers who are forced to brave the cold for their nicotine fix.

It shows affiliation and gains acceptance. As with smoking, not everyone chews betel nut, and those who do appear to be joined by some kind of unspoken bond.

The man I talked to started chewing because, as I myself did with smoking so many years ago, for everyone around him it was normal.

And did he worry about contracting cancer?

At this he really seemed to stop and ponder for a moment. It was evidently something that he knew about.

After thinking about it for a little while, he turned around and said with a smile, “Well, if it really does cause cancer, then half of the men in Taiwan would come down with it! It can’t be that bad…”

Of course not.

It never is.

- by Nathan Haslewood, Taiwanease magazine, 2007

154_8391615125_3409_n Aug 21 2012 · 0 comments · Uncategorized ·

Dancing to a Different Beat

As you approach you are first struck by the grandeur of the building; the sheer size of the yellow roofed structure and the spacious, well laid out gardens surrounding the monument.

Having walked from the MRT station, you round the corner with the intention of seeing Sun Yat Sen himself before you notice Taipei 101’s neon magnificence looming up before you.

It’s quiet, peaceful even, the stillness only occasionally broken by a distant siren here and giggle-laced conversation there.

And it’s then that your ear picks up on a strange sound. There is some form of chanting not too far away, accompanied by a rhythmic, almost tribal drum beat.

As you move closer you can begin to discern that the chanting is repetitive, with what might be described as a single “caller” being answered by an array of voices.

Your curiosity now having been thoroughly tickled, you finally get close enough to glimpse white clothed bodies conducting what looks like a bizarre dance while their compadres encircle them and clap.

Bewildered, surprised, but also strangely enthralled, you reach for the camera while thinking to yourself, “what in the world is going on…?”

This, at least, is what I imagine a typical Taiwanese first encounter with Capoeira to be like.

But what might perhaps be even stanger still is the sight of this greatly unusual but entirely foreign martial art being conducted chiefly by Taiwanese in the very heart of these symbolic testaments to Taiwan’s identity.

Right there, amongst such definitions of Taiwanese-ness as the Sun Yat Sen Memorial and Taipei 101, is where you’ll find Taiwan’s branch of the Grupo Axe Capoeira training hard five times a week.

The foreignness of this artform could not possibly be greater if it tried.

Its roots lie in a history entirely devoid of even the remotest whiff of Asian influence.

Largely attributed to the need of the African slaves taken to Brazil to hide their martial prowess from white masters, it embodies a pseudo-European, African and now South American culture and history all of its own.

All singing is done in the original Portuguese and focuses to a large extent on the plight of black Brazilians struggling with poverty and racism.

It is a martial art, yes, but one that is nearly unrecognisable to Asian folk who are more probably than not used to fighting forms complete with forms (also known as kata) and set moves that to some more modern practioners (such as Bruce Lee) might seem somewhat rigid.

Capoeira has its fair share of kicks, many of which are similar to those of Tae Kwon Do, for instance, but is so very much more than this.

While incorporating relatively little in the way of punches, a good Capoeirista will surprise and confuse an opponent with a variety of flips, hand stands, feints, tricks, grapples and a constant transferal from an upright position to extremely low ground movements and back again.

And, for those proficient enough, this will all be done in a state of complete fluidity where one move flows invisibly into the next and the player is never, ever stationary.

The results can be simply breathtaking, especially if performed by a professional or, if you’re truly lucky by two professionals playing together.

Added to that is the music, a deep, rhythmic music that both rouses and controls the players, who should play to the tempo it sets.

A roda – meaning “circle” in Portuguese – typically begins at a slower pace so that the players can warm up and demonstrate the cleanliness of their moves while also getting some practice but soon the drum will speed up to the time of the birembau (the one-stringed instrument which the other instruments follow) and “the gloves come off”, as it were.

It is at this higher speed that the real playing occurs, when the kicks begin to fly and the jumps and kicks become more elaborate.

And, if the players are in the mood, it is at this point that contact begins to enter the proceedings. There are no “rules” at this point, meaning the game can go in any direction that the players take it.

Each contender is forced to react to the opponent’s moves while hopefully trying to control the game.

If the game gets too rough you can step out, but if you want to take it to the next level that option always remains available, too.

The art also differs from Asian arts in the type of training that is received.

From day one, each person is encouraged to learn the songs and instruments so that they are later able to participate fully in making the roda a success.

Many soon become hooked and go beyond the simple training to try to discover something of the meaning behind the songs and the context in which they were written, bearing in mind that Capoeira was illegal for much of its history because of its association with the black underclass and their resistance.

Beyond that, Capoeira is also very much a “practical” artform. From day one, actually practising what you have learned against people of all levels is an integral part of the training process.

It is often something of a shock to new students but most soon come to love it.

It is unpredictable, often challenging and takes a good deal of commitment and time to learn but for these very reasons it’s attracting increasing numbers of Taiwanese.

Because it’s unpredictable it can never become dull. Because each player is free, there’s always something more to learn from those you play against.

Iena (this Capoeira name means “Hiena” in Portuguese, given him because of his propensity to laugh insanely at any given moment) has been studying Capoeira for five years and teaching it for three.

When he and his sister were asked why they’d begun studying Capoeira they told a story of reading a Japanese comic book as a kid in which Capoeira featured.

At the time they’d assumed that it was only a fairy tale, a product of the author’s imagination, and had dismissed it as a fantasy.

It was only once they’d gone to study in Australia that Iena’s sister, Mei Mei, came across Capoeira by chance at college.

She immediately told her brother that she’d discovered the magical sport that they’d read of as kids. She joined almost the same week and her brother soon followed.

And now, six years later, they are still to be found there under the yellow roof most evenings of the week. It was interesting to ask them why they loved Capoeira.

It was because of its complete difference from anything they’d ever seen before that they became so addicted. “Capoeira is more like freestyle. We use all the space there is.”

Many of the members had tried or still did other martial arts but were drawn to Capoeira because it filled in the gaps that the others left open.

Whereas other martial arts are often one-directional, Capoeiristas will move in a way that is far more unpredictable.

Whereas other martial arts are practiced in a simulated environment, students of Capoeira are taught to get used to being face-to-face with opponents from the very beginning.

Oh, and of course Capoeira looks quite simply incredible when done with any level of skill, whereas other martial arts just don’t catch the eye.

Capoeira is now set to grow exponentially, especially as groups such as Axe Capoeira Taiwan move beyond the beginners stage and public recognition of the sport increases.

Pure Fitness, one of the best gyms currently in Hong Kong is already holding regular Real Capoeira classes (as opposed to the watered down version sometimes found in fitness centres) and will be opening a new fitness centre in the Taipei 101 building in the earlier part of 2007.

They plan to include Capoeira as part of the core of their fitness activities under the instruction of Indio, one of the best practitioners in Asia, who will then return here to teach full-time.

It seems that the influence of this wholly Brazilian art form is growing.

The future is certainly bright.

The future’s Brazilian.

- by Nathan Haslewood, Taiwanease magazine, 2007