Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Yesterday I went to the local hypermarket to do some grocery shopping. As I was walking past the meat section, a brightly colored fish on ice caught my eye. I'd never seen a fish with such vivid coloring in the frozen fish section- it was orange with turquoise blue markings. Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was a parrot fish.

What is a parrot fish? A cute, lovely fish so named because their bright coloring and markings resemble that of a parrot. They even have prominent teeth causing their mouths to look somewhat like beaks. These were the fish that I swam around with during my dives around the Great Barrier Reef. It had never one crossed my mind these cute, eye-catching fish that are so fun to watch could end up on my dinner plate! Oh dear! It was kind of like finding Nemo on ice.
My father just went into the hospital for some minor surgery and will be staying there for about a week to recover.

I was surprised to learn that the hospital doesn't provide meals for its inpatients. This means that the patient's family must provide, prepare and deliver all three meals to the patient on a daily basis. As you can imagine, it's quite a burden for the patient's family. In fact, the hospital doesn't provide much more amenities than a one star hotel! We've had to bring the most basic of basics such as: bath towels, hand soap, drinking water, drinking glasses and eating utensils.

I was appalled by the lack of service provided by this particular hospital. From what I've observed the nurses don't even make rounds or check on patients much. I think that they are just focused on the intensive care unit- where all bed-ridden patients' beds stay one large room with their beds separated by curtains. Otherwise, I really wonder what the nurses busy themselves with. In fact, my Mother hired a personal health aide to accompany my father during his stay. This was proved to be very helpful with all of the running around my mom had to do. Unfortunately, I couldn't help out much during the days since I was busy teaching.

I can't say that the above description stands for all hospitals in Taiwan. My dad ended up at this particular hospital because the surgeon who performed my father's surgery is very reputable and a personal friend. Fortunately, my father's surgery went off without a hitch and there have been no complications so far.

My one conclusion or explanation for why many hospital situations in Taiwan have evolved the way it has or still persist in this way- is that it is an indication of the extent to which the Taiwanese depend on their families and social networks. There isn’t a strong or well-organized system of social welfare institutions. The burden of caring for the terminally or chronically ill is usually assumed by family members who effectively become home health aides to their ailing relatives, or if more affluent, home health aides are hired into the patients' homes. In Taiwan, this responsiblity falls on the son due to lingering Chinese patriarchal ideals. And by corollary, daughters-in-law. Once a woman gets married, her primary responsiblity is to her husband's family. If parents are fortunate enough to have both sons and daughters; it is their sons who are expected to care for them in times of need. Those who only have daughters are left to lament the uncertainty that declining health brings since they cannot count on their daughters for support. It's a pretty disturbing custom that I've heard so many middle-aged Taiwanese bemoan. I just can't understand these customs. I can't accept the idea that once a woman gets married, that her obligation to her family of origin should change.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

It's upsetting enough that the local media still reports and refers to the shooting of Taiwan's President as a "questionable" assasination attempt. The last straw came when one of my American friends who lived in Taiwan, emailed me and asked me if it were possible that the shooting was staged. The coverage he's seen hasn't been very thorough and that leaves a lot of questions hanging so one assumes the worst and starts to entertain all of the rumors. After setting him straight, I suggested that he read the following, from a less biased news source:


Q&A: Taiwan election dispute
Taiwan's opposition claims that the re-election of President Chen Shui-bian in March was unfair, coming as it did just hours after he was shot during a campaign rally.

BBC News Online looks into the background to the main allegations fuelling the row.

Was the shooting stage-managed?

Mr Chen has denied the allegations repeatedly. In a BBC interview, he said: "Such allegations and accusations are not fair to myself, nor is it fair to the 200,000 election workers and the many others involved in the election process".

Most of the suspicions about the shooting stem from claims made within hours of the event by Sisy Chen, a maverick legislator opposed to the president. She alleged that the president had been taken to a hospital that was several kilometres away, rather than to the nearest available treatment centre.

The government pointed out that wherever the president travels, one hospital is designated to treat him in case of emergency because of security concerns, and this was where he had been taken.

But within hours of Ms Chen's comments, rumours started spreading across Taiwan, by word of mouth and by text message, that the shooting was faked. According to these rumours, the shooting was designed to cause a surge of sympathy for the president and tip the extremely tight race in his favour.

After the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) lost the election, its candidate Lien Chan appeared to incite further speculation by referring to unspecified "doubts" and calling the result unfair.

What evidence is there to back these claims?

Very little.

KMT supporters told BBC News Online they based their suspicions on the fact there was no photographic evidence of the attack taking place, and no by-standers had come forward to say they had seen the perpetrators.

But Mr Chen was campaigning when the attack took place, in a motorcade driving through the streets of the southern city of Tainan. On such occasions, it is usual for the only cameras to be on board the motorcade, ahead of or behind the president's vehicle. Cameras therefore have a poor and patchy view of what is going on immediately around him.

To complicate matters further, some pictures were released soon after the attack which local TV said showed a red, blood mark on Mr Chen's jacket. The pictures were poor quality and were reproduced by several international news organisations, including BBC News Online.

Pictures were then released of Mr Chen arriving at hospital, but on these, no blood was visible.

The discrepancy - which spawned further conspiracy theories - was explained when it turned out that the red mark on the TV pictures was in fact a safety belt, and Mr Chen's injuries had only left blood marks on the inside of his clothes.

As for the lack of witnesses, such election events are also marked by the letting off of large numbers of fire-crackers as the motorcade passes. In the confusion and noise - with everyone looking at the president rather than the crowd - it is less surprising that nobody seemed to notice the attacker.

And what evidence is there the attack was genuine?

The government released pictures of Mr Chen being operated on, pictures of the bullet's damage to his stomach and to the knee of his Vice-President Annette Lu, and pictures of the bullet itself.

Investigators have interviewed more than 400 people and now believe two shots were fired. They narrowed down the scene of the attack to a 50-metre stretch of road, and found two bullet casings.

A team of US forensic experts also studied the evidence, and backed up the government's explanation of how the attack happened.

Since then, a report by a government committee has concluded that Taiwan's security bureau received information about a possible attack on the president but did not take the intelligence seriously.

The report said a security bureau agent warned his superiors that he had received a tip-off from a newspaper reporter that a man described as "a gangster-like" supporter of the president had threatened to shoot him in an attempt to garner sympathy votes for Mr Chen.

Police say they are chasing the suspect. But until someone is charged with the attack, the confrontational mood spawned by such a tight election will continue to fuel mistrust.

What about opposition claims about spoiled ballots?

Since Mr Chen won the election by less than 30,000 votes, the KMT has also raised questions about the relatively high number of spoiled votes, again calling the result into question.

Election authorities declared a total of 337,000 ballots invalid, a sharp increase from the 120,000-140,000 spoiled in the past two presidential polls.

Independent observers have not raised any concerns about the increase, and since the counting was open to scrutiny by both campaigns, it is difficult to see how anything could have been done to favour one over another.

A more likely explanation is that this election saw the introduction of stricter rules on what constitutes a spoiled ballot. Civic groups disillusioned with the nature and style of Taiwan politics may also have persuaded people to spoil ballots as a protest vote.

The most visible such group was the Million Invalid Ballot Alliance, which received some media coverage and called on people to reject both candidates.

A court-approved recount of the vote, completed in May, failed to throw up widespread discrepancies with the original result. About 38,000 votes tallied in the original count were found to be problematic. But even if all of these were ruled invalid it would still not affect the final result since 16,000 of them were cast for Mr Lien.

What about claims that soldiers were prevented from voting?

The opposition says thousands of troops were put on alert after the shooting and thereby prevented from voting. Because the army - or at least its leadership - is perceived to favour the KMT, the implication of this claim is again that enough votes were involved to swing the election.

But the military and the government have countered that no extra troops were put on alert. Some troops were already on combat alert - as happens at every Taiwan election - and the total was about 37,000.

It seems unlikely - given that the rest of the population was so divided - that rank and file soldiers were not equally split, whatever their officers' views.

So what happens next?

The longer the dispute rumbles on, the less impact it seems likely to have.

Mr Chen has now been inaugurated for a second term and can afford to carry on governing regardless, although the nature of his election victory will continue to undermine his legitimacy.

Some of his critics have also started saying it is time for the opposition to move on, if they are to properly contest legislative elections in December.

The KMT has instituted legal action against the election authorities in the hope the courts will rule the election was illegal. But under Taiwan's election law, election authorities appear to have acted correctly, since the poll should only have been suspended if Mr Chen has been killed in the shooting.

Story from BBC NEWS:


Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Relatives of Old and New

Most of March and April saw the coming and going of many relatives here. Several of my aunts and uncles had returned to Taiwan to cast their votes for the March 20th Presidental elections. And several of my cousins, who didn't have voting rights came later to do the standard tour around Taiwan consisting of Taipei, Dam Shui, East Coast (Tai Dong), Hualien Taroko Gorge, Southern Taiwan- Kenting National park. My cousins had not visited Taiwan in over ten years, so it must have been an eye-opening comparison for them. Most of my weekends were spent catching up with relatives of old and new.

Recently on one particular weekend, I had the pleasure of spending an evening chatting with my cousin "B" and his wife "L", my cousin-in-law (a new relative), who I didn't know very well, since none of us have ever lived in the same country, let alone the same city since they've been married. After dinner on a Friday night, they welcomed a leisurely walk along Kaohsiung's Love River. It was a much needed diversion from the dizzying schedule they had been keeping- driving around Taiwan trying to see all the sights in a week.

As "L" talked excitedly about the biodiversity of Taiwan- as seen in it's various plant and wildlife- I realized that I had never heard anyone talk about Taiwan in that way. Usually the comments are about how polluted the air, water and environment are. Her enthusiasm was heartening. As she described some of the things she'd observed during her trip- a jumping fish that skimmed the water on the East Coast, the same white birds she'd noticed flying about in the sky throughout Taiwan- I began to see the things around me differently with a new appreciation. All the things around me became new- seeing things through someone else's eyes for the first time.

As we walked along the Love River, "L" explained how she's always been a biologist at heart, having nurtured this natural curiousity about the environment and nature from a young age. She was in one moment delighted by a geko she spotted and then disgusted by a huge cockroach creeping by.

That night I began to see so many people and things around me in a different light.
You never know where one of those seemingly "random" conversations will lead you...

The other day I was having one of those "random" conversations, as I often do with "B", one of the English teachers I work with. "B" can talk on almost any topic, since he has a pretty broad range of knowledge and opinions. It is always so fascinating to converse with him. He always manages to off into these interesting tangents while covering diverse topics and giving personal anecdotes.

On this particular day we were talking about how as teachers in Taiwan, we often feel more like entertainers than educators. The students in Taiwan are often so shy and reserved, that they have a major mental block or anxiety about speaking English. Getting them to speak in conversation class is really like pulling teeth, so teachers need to liven up the class and resort to certain antics just to get a peep out of students.

B started talking about the crazy classroom antics of a particular foreign English teacher "A", who used to live in Taiwan. As usual, "B"'s story got more interesting as he described his long lost friend. Apparently "A" was an extremely creative and prolific musician, performer, artist, a unique character who kept people guessing about his sexual preferences, a person with boundless energy, an unbreakable spirit, and most amazing of all, a person who had beat the odds of survival in his lifelong battle against cystic fibrosis.

Apparently A had become something of an "Urban Legend"- "B" had heard through certain circles that "A" had returned to the U.S. and had collaborated on innovative, interactive theatrical projects. "B" had vaguely heard that "A" had been working on just such a theatrical project in New York and that the theme of the play was somehow related to a wedding.

That's what tipped me off.

"That sounds like an off-broadway play that I've always been curious about seeing, but never got around to seeing- called 'Tony and Tina's Wedding,' " I said.

As I described the play, "B" got onto the internet did a search using "Tony and Tina's Wedding" and his friend's name. And low and behold- his friend was one of the people who had collaborated on the writing the play.

Amazing... when things like this happen, I really felt like a messenger, you never know what information, or connections we can provide to others that we meet in this journey called life.

Now I'm definitely going to have to make sure I check out "Tony and Tina's Wedding" the next time I'm in New York, which, will be some time this summer.

Three colors of blue expanding far from view
turquoise, Turquoise, TURQUOISE
like green emeralds dotting the horizon
against the bright blue sky
pristine and precious
sun in your eyes
an island paradise
nature pure and
my heart soars
and you smile