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Sunday, February 5, 2017

Feeling delirious

It's been a quiet weekend staying at home (for the most part) as I struggle to contain a cold from getting worse. Which is a shame because the weather has been pretty nice lately. Yesterday, in fact, would've been a great day to have gone for a drive outside of Vilnius, but sometimes timing just doesn't work out for the best. If you've been following the news lately regarding the new administration and a certain executive order, you probably think I've been busy at work dealing with the continually-changing situation. But the actual effect on our operations has been less than expected. If you're wondering about my take on the order, let me just say that despite the disclaimer at the bottom of this blog page, I (along with everybody else) have been advised to be discrete in what we post on social media, so I'll be keeping some opinions to myself.

Inside the Cathedral of the Theotokos

On Thursday, perhaps feeling stifled on some fronts, or maybe just suffering from the ill-effects of the oncoming cold, I turned my attention to much-less important matters. Namely, my curiosity at a Sino-centric comment left on a Facebook post in which I linked an article on an unpleasant aspect of the Japanese language. I was bemused rather than annoyed, but still gave vent to some ideas of mine regarding what transformations expatriates in Taiwan undergo the longer they stay on the island. When I was finished and read it over, I realized what a disjointed mess it was, with no clear point on a topic that doesn't merit that much time and effort. I also almost completely overlooked the hypocritical fact that I've always tended to look at Taiwan through my own experiences living and working in Japan. So I decided to shelve the post and wait and see what would transpire this weekend.

Just having some saturation fun - the actual church interior isn't really this cheerful

Until I read an otherwise excellent blog post this morning on the Longtan Butokuden 龍潭武德殿 martial arts hall in Taoyuan 桃園 and saw it - another irrelevant reference to Tang China written by someone who, by his own admission, doesn't know much about Japan (after all he describes in the article how he needed a Japanese friend's assistance to define 武道). And so, as an excuse to post some photos taken in Old Town this afternoon as I walked my daughter over to a classmate's home for a playdate, I've decided to go ahead and publish the meanderings of a feverish mind. Feel free to ignore them and just enjoy the pictures...

 Exterior of the Cathedral of the Theotokos, Vilnius' main Orthodox house of worship

So the other day, as I'm often wont to do, I linked an article from the Japan Times to my Facebook timeline. It was a story on the surprising number of demeaning and negative words in the Japanese language related to women, and I thought it might be of interest to some of my FB friends, one of whom (one of the most knowledgeable people I know on the subject of Taiwanese culture, history and society) replied not long after I posted the link. His comment chalked it up to Confucianism, which I found a little surprising - while Confucian philosophy has long made its presence felt in Japanese thinking, Neo-Confucianism didn't attain widespread support in Japan until the Tokugawa bakufu 幕府 adopted it at the beginning of the Edo period 江戸時代 in the early 17th century. What struck me about the Facebook comment was how quickly a Chinese agent was assigned to explain what I would've assumed to have been a facet of the Japanese language that has developed over the centuries, reflecting long-held nativist attitudes toward women (and which might be one explanation as to why Neo-Confucianism received state support from the Tokugawa 徳川). Which in turn got me to thinking...

The view of Old Town from near the Artillery Bastion museum

Being a former foreign resident of Taiwan (an ex-expat, if you will), I've noticed that the longer one stays in the country, the more one looks at other countries in the region (think Japan and Korea) through a Chinese cultural prism. The influence of China on its neighbors' cultural development was substantial - from architecture and art to language and religion, Chinese influences shaped much of what we consider today to be quintessentially Japanese (though in the case of Japan many of these foreign ideas went through a Korean filter before being adopted and absorbed). But the Japanese also adapted, added to, altered, revised and reinvented many of these same concepts and techniques, combining them with nativist elements in many cases to produce the vibrant culture that continues to attract and impress outsiders. It isn't as easy as it sounds to say this aspect of the society is the result of this particular Chinese import and leave it at that - the reality (like the culture itself) is much more layered and nuanced.

Looking toward the Three Crosses at the right, with the Bernardine Church & Monastery in the center and the Cathedral of the Theotokos off to the left

From my observations, it would appear many long-term Western residents of Taiwan first approached the country through a general interest in things Chinese. My best friend, for example, first went to Taiwan to learn Mandarin, after having become interested in Chinese art while a college student. Throughout the 1990's and into the early 2000's, it was still easier for the aspiring Sinophile to get themselves set up in Taiwan than in the People's Republic - there were fewer hassles in obtaining visas to study Mandarin, well-paying teaching jobs were still easy to procure and the standard of living was much closer to back home when compared to China. I've met a number of expats who ended up in Taiwan after first living and working in China, and the almost-universal consensus was (and still is) that life on Formosa is much better. Many resident Westerners over time have learned to appreciate that while the Taiwanese may share much in common culturally with their cousins in China, the society has differentiated itself over the course of several centuries as to belie the tiresome refrain that there is only One China, of which Taiwan is an undeniable part. Thus many expats today are very sympathetic of the localization movements that are helping to carve out a separate identity for the Taiwanese people.

Looking at St. Casimir's Church from the rear

And yet, while many Taiwanese are proud to point out the differences between their island and the mainland (no capital "M", please), there's still a widely-held belief that Chinese culture is superior to those of their neighbors', and that China was (and perhaps still is) the Middle Kingdom, culturally-speaking. There was many a time when I was teaching in Taiwan that I would bring up some aspect or another of Japanese or Korean culture in my adult classes, only to have otherwise pro-green, independence-supporting students dismiss them with statements along the lines of "they were just copying us". I remember on one occasion the sheer disbelief among one student group of mine when I brought in an article from the Japan Times on wasei-kango 和製漢語 (made in Japan Chinese-character compounds) - it was hard for some to accept that everyday words such as 百貨店 and 歴史 were not coined in China by Chinese people.

Cat figurines climbing a pole are watched by a bird figurine on a roof, with the campanile of Sts. Johns' Church rising in the background

And so it shouldn't come as a surprise than a Westerner with an abiding interest in Chinese art, history or literature, for example, would settle down in Taiwan and be influenced by what they see all around them, and then transpose these cultural absorptions into their perceptions of Japanese or Korean society, especially if they've never spent any extended periods of time in those countries. Which might explain why, while I was impressed by the sight of Tōen-jinja 桃園神社, Taiwan's best preserved Shintō shrine, a certain well-known long-term resident Western travel writer could only see vestiges of Tang China.

Peering inside the Shrine of Divine Mercy

And then there's the geographical factor to consider. Taiwan is a great place to visit, and has a lot to keep the traveler engaged and entertained, but as an island country smaller than the states of Maryland and Delaware combined there's only a finite number of places to check out and things to do. While the tourist moves on, the resident remains behind and eventually exhausts all the main sights, and then most of the minor ones as well. While I presently live in a small European country, accessible borders and cheap flights mean no end to the possibilities if and when I tire of Lithuania. In Taiwan, longer distances over wide bodies of water and higher airfares make escaping the country a more difficult prospect, especially in an age when local wages have been stagnant for over a decade or more. And so there's a tendency to revisit the same places time and again. In the beginning, the expat is amused to hear a Taiwanese describe a local attraction as being "world famous", knowing that term means "famous in Taiwan only". Somewhere down the road, however, some of these same sightseeing spots or local delicacies take on the same meaning to the foreign resident, as familiarity is assumed to be universal (it still isn't).

A closer view of the image of Jesus that supposedly appeared to St. Faustina Kowalska in 1931

At the same time, there also develops the tendency to assume that what is seen in daily life in Taiwan is somehow unique to the country (low crime rates, hot springs, strange English on T-shirts, all the amazing services available to customers in convenience stores etc.). Well, it ain't. 

Approaching St. Catherine's Church. We have a view of the front of the church (the opposite direction from this angle) from our living-room window

I've lived for roughly equal lengths of time in both Japan and Taiwan, and the outlooks among many foreign residents in the two countries can be very different. While I did know an Englishman who was astounded that people in Taiwan sat in chairs and on sofas in their homes, and not on carpeted or straw mat-covered floors like in Japan, most of the 外人 I knew (and still know) in Japan tend not to look at neighboring countries through a Japanese prism. This might be because many of them may have come to accept the line that Japan is somehow uniquely unique (it isn't, of course), so the similarities may come as pleasant surprises (I'm certainly keen on seeking out the Japanese influence in Taiwan).

A creepy painting in the Church of the Holy Spirit

And there's the rub, for while Taiwan's culture is derived from, and similar in many ways to, that of southern China, there's also a very strong and continuing Japanese influence. Not enough to deserve the "China under Japanese management" tag some Western observers have applied to Taiwan, but enough to amaze some of my colleagues from when I was working in Shanghai 上海. A number of them had studied and/or worked in China before joining the State Department, and many made their first visits to Taiwan while posted in Shanghai. The almost-universal consensus among them was that Taiwan was a very pleasant surprise, in the sense that it wasn't as Chinese as they had imagined, that it really was (is) a different country.

The Church of the Holy Spirit might be a cool place to visit on Halloween

So what does this all mean? Nothing, really, nothing at all. Other than an annoying tendency among some long-term Western residents in Formosa to refer to Shinto shrines 神社 as "temples" 寺 or to read the characters 小 and 大 on the handle of a high-tech toilet in a Japanese hotel room as "xiǎo" and "dà" instead of  as "shō" (or "chīsai") or "dai" (or "ookī"), respectively.

7% pleasure from Kaunas

If you ask me, it's all Confucius' fault.

And now for something completely different. I purchased this from an online second-hand bookshop. It's the first (and would turn out to be the only) edition of Lonely Planet's USSR entry in its Travel Survival Kit series. The guidebook came out in December 1991 and was obsolete as soon as it store shelves.

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