Monthly Archives: December 2010


Imagine for a minute that the Republicans and the Democrats went to war. Each amassed an army and waged long, severe battles throughout the United States. Finally, the Republicans won and installed a ruthless dictatorship.

The Democratic leadership, joined by about 2 million of their followers, fled to Hawaii  and set up their own ruthless dictatorship. The population already living in Hawaii–Republican and Democrat–was powerless to protest or resist.

In 1949, Taiwan was pretty much Hawaii in this scenario.

When Mao came to power in China, Chiang Kai-Shek and his defeated Nationalist Party fled to ‘Formosa’, an island off the Chinese mainland about the size of Maryland. They remained (and remain) a province of China, but in the last 60 years they’ve built their own government, infrastructure and economy.

I’m sure I’m totally screwing up a lot of the details here, and that my Hawaii analogy is inapt in a million glaring ways, but that’s as close as I’ve come to understanding the history and ongoing tensions in Taiwan after traveling here for the last week.

A lot of the interesting stuff, of course, happened after Taiwan set up its own mini-tatorship next door to the big one. Taiwan’s per-capita GDP is currently almost four times that of mainland China’s. Taiwanese people earn as much as Finnish or British people on average, while Chinese people earn as much as Bosnians and El Salvadorans.

There are a million other vast differences like this in wealth, health and well-being between Taiwan and mainland China. Walking around Taipei feels like a cheaper, more crowded version of any EU capital. People wear brand-name clothing and walk around with earbuds. Cashiers unerringly hand out receipts whenever you buy anything, and attempts to haggle are greeted with bemused refusal. You never see beggars or touts. Most people don’t speak English, but within 30 seconds they can find one who does.

It’s also demonstrably not a dictatorship anymore. The Taipei Times reports criticism of the government and speaks out about media censorship, even in China-China. I saw two street protests in three days in Taipei, both peaceful and both sentried by the same bored-looking cops you see outside in ‘Free Speech Zones’ in the US.

You can see how Taiwan’s history and current situation leave some lingering tensions. All the Taiwanese who were forced to live under Nationalist rule for 30 years aren’t exactly over it, even if things are way better now than they were. There are linguistic and cultural tensions between the Mandarin people and the Taiwanese. Not to mention the issue of whether Taiwan should be fully independent from China or attempt further integration.

I don’t know how Taiwan went from being The Dictatorship Next Door to the middle-class economic tiger of today, and I’m looking forward to finding out. When I arrived, I imagined Taiwan as a sort of alternate-reality China, a version demonstration of what China would be now if Mao hadn’t so profoundly prevented its growth and prosperity. As I depart, I think of Taiwan less as an example of what China could have been, and more as a model of what it should be.

Comments Off on Taiwan

Filed under Serious, Travel

The Boy Who Stopped Reading Shitty Swedish Fiction

Getting over my knee jerk snobbery toward megapopular airport books is a lot harder when they suck incredible ass.

After resisting the ‘Millennium Trilogy’ for years (because it kept being recommended to me by stupid people–there’s that snobbery, see?), I finally gave in and bought The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Literally at the fucking airport, because I forgot my real novel at my hotel in Cape Town.

You can tell you’re reading a bad novel when the only reason you’re continuing with it is because you ‘want to see what happens’. It’s not that any of the characters are compelling, or that it reveals something about a place or a time or an aspect of humanity you didn’t understand before. You just need to know how the girl mysteriously disappeared, and who masterminded the plot, and what’s the deal with that creepy cousin or whatever.

I realized halfway through that, whatever the denouement (or three-nouement, really, since I’m sure the ending of the first book is just going to manhandle me into reading the next two), the made-up solution to this made-up mystery isn’t designed to do anything beyond making me briefly forget my immediate surroundings. After 200 pages I called it quits.


Filed under Books

I Love Taiwan

Comments Off on I Love Taiwan

December 29, 2010 · 11:41 am

Breakfast Chauvinism

I consider myself a pretty respectful traveler. I make reasonable efforts to consume local cuisine. I demonstrate what I consider to be an above-average level of interest in the history and lifestyles of the countries I visit. I try to see things beyond the tourist-trap circuit.

But I have to admit, it is a struggle to apply these principles before 9 am. When I rock up to the breakfast buffet, I want bread and cheese and jam. Rice and fish are great, fine. But I don’t want them for breakfast. Thanks for the offer of beans and chipotle, South America, but wait til a dude has his pan and queso, alright?

Sometimes I’m surprised at my own dickishness about this. I’m perfectly capable of seeing something like crocodile or cow tongue on a dinner menu in a foreign country and thinking ‘hmm, interesting’. Last week in Jakarta, though, when I saw that my hotel was offering fish heads as part of the breakfast buffet, my first thought was ‘Eww, what the fuck, Indonesia?! Get it together.’

I don’t know if this will wear off as I get older and travel more. I have a sinking feeling that it may just spread to lunch and dinner.


Filed under Travel


Jakarta is grimy and sort of human.


The ubiquitous crowds and humid climate give it the ambiance of the inside of someone’s uterus.


Everything moves slowly through the mud


There’s shockingly little to do, for a city of 14 million people


Even the wildlife seems bemused by this.


They sell handerchiefs and fireworks on the street


The locals spend a lot of time negotiating traffic crises


or food crises, which are occasionally the same thing.


The constant chaos after awhile becomes soothing


And your internal cavalry surrenders to the gridlock.



Filed under Pictures, Travel

South Africa as Super-America

I’ve sort of come to think of South Africa as super-America. All of the problems the states suffers from are here, but turned up to 11. We’ve got income inequality, they’ve got extreme income inequality. We’ve got historical racism, they’ve got profound historical racism. We’ve got high crime, they’ve got bonkers high crime. There’s a lot both countries could learn from each other.

Americans, for example, tend not to see the structural components of racism. It’s easy for us to say ‘that black dude is poor because he didn’t finish high school, go to college and get a job. It’s his fault.’

It’s a lot harder for an American to say that about a black South African, whose family was so profoundly disadvantaged by Apartheid (dude, your race was part of your social security number) that he can’t be expected to make up the gap in one generation.

The situation is actually the same in America, we just don’t see it because the magnitude isn’t as profound. Just as black South Africans weren’t instantly transported out of the townships when Apartheid ended, black Americans weren’t magically moved to Connecticut when segregation ended.

We have more time between us and segregation than South Africa does, but that doesn’t mean we’re not still swimming in its wake.

1 Comment

Filed under Serious

Stray Thoughts on South Africa


I’ve been in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria for work this week. I’m pretty much here to talk to people and organizations about human rights in South Africa, and my overall impression is that this country is really hard.

I don’t mean that it’s callous (though sometimes it is), or inaccessible (though sometimes it is), but just that it’s really difficult. At every level and on every issue, it’s really tough to find a constructive or feasible—forget about ‘right’—way to do things. Race, gender, economics, work, culture: It’s all threaded with a history and a context that make it difficult to talk about and even more difficult to reconcile.

Obviously, it’s a totally fascinating place, and every conversation with someone who grew up here teaches you something you didn’t know. It’s my first trip to Africa, and I keep coming to little mini-piphanies every time I chat with someone longer than 10 minutes.

Given the high crime rate, public space is conceived very differently than it is in Europe or America. For us, being in public is showing off, and interacting with your environment.

Here, all the communication is one-way. Walking from your parking spot to a bar, you’re behind enemy lines.

Being in public means looking over your shoulder, knowing who’s around you and being ready to act in extreme ways at any moment.

‘Be aware of your surroundings,’ my Serbian cabdriver told me as he drove me home at 2 am in Cape Town.

‘Everyone says that,’ I said. ‘But what are you supposed to do if you see something sketchy, or a potential thief approaches you?’

‘You must act,’ he said.

‘What, kick them in the nuts and run away?’ I said.

‘No,’ he said. ‘You must beat them. Strike fast, and when they are on the ground, kick them so they cannot get up.’

‘Holy shit, have you actually done this?’

‘Twice since the World Cup,’ he said. ‘And many before.’

‘Jesus,’ I said.

‘Yes, the soccer really calmed things down.’

A survey was published this week showing that blacks are victims of violence far more than whites. When we think of crime in South Africa, it’s tempting to think of a rich, white majority under siege by the poor, black masses, but it’s much more accurate to think of the whole country as living under house arrest.

I’ve never been to a place where I was so relentlessly encouraged to racially profile. My driver in Johannesburg warned me repeatedly about the ‘gormless Africans’ on the streets and in the shops. Even black people and ‘coloreds’ (that’s what they call mixed-race people here) warned me about this.

But it’s not as simple as saying that everyone is racist. People understand the plight of other racial groups, and the intense injustices under Apartheid are widely known and repented. It’s just that, as soon as the issue of security comes up, all the ‘rainbow nation’ stuff flies out the window.

It’s clear to me now that racial unity, and other lofty, logical principles are only valid as long as nothing is on the line. As soon as you’re in danger of losing your job, or walking down a deserted downtown street, you’re gonna do everything you can to keep yours, and look to members of your tribe for support.


Filed under Pictures, Serious, Travel