Friday, February 25, 2005


"The sequence of photos shows the beach at Khao Lak, Thailand, on Dec.26, 2004. The photos show the water at first receding, then forming into the first wave that crashed ashore."

These are the soon to be famouspictures snapped by a Canadian couple of the waves that would kill them a moment later. I had thought that this was a visually undocumented event, in the sense that no photos I'd seen really captured what the people on the beach had experienced that day. Needless to say, I can imagine now. What strikes me is that the waves are so much more a horizontal event than a vertical, towering wall of water; more surge than wave. Maybe that's why the people don't run away. Or maybe, being able to hear it, they understand the futility of running.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Jay Chou in love with Taiwan No.1 beauty news anchor

I was channel surfing the other day, and singer Chou Jie Lun's press conference admitting that he had a girlfriend was being simultaneously broadcast on about ten different channels, the kind of treatment reserved for major presidential announcements. What is sad is that the primary story on google is from the Shenzhen Daily. Will Taiwan's English dailies just loosen up a bit? These are front page stories in the Chinese language press, and they don't even get a mention in the grey old English papers. What, they couldn't ask "Bank of Japan Board Leaves Monetary Policy Unchanged" to move over and make a little room? The closest acknowledgement of this side of Taiwan life is the very limited Taipei Times Friday "Pop Stop" feature. The other papers don't even do that.

The very same day that Jay and Hou Bei Tsen were hooking up, model Lin Zhi Ling announced that she was involved with the son of a major hotel owner. Lin is the real deal - a true product of Taiwan pop culture, having become famous without having apparently done anything of note or proven to have any talent at all. Not that I'm being critical - actually, I find it reassuring- it makes me feel like I've still got a shot myself. In a recent article from the Chinese press that I painstakingly translated, she expressed an interest in getting into movies and working with some of Taiwan's most famous directors. You go, girl! Incidentally, a recent internet poll of Taiwan men put Hou in the top place as the most desirable female, with Lin in second. Her previous boyfriend was the son of Lien Chan (see post below), so we know she is a playuh. Honestly, it is amazing how many foreigners have no idea who these people are, despite their being all over: on advertisements, on TV, in the local press. It ain't Japanese monetary policy, but it is part of making the environment you move in a bit more meaningful and, hey, it's fun.

KMT Party Chair Maneuvers

"In this regard, Ma, 55, obviously has an advantage over his potential competitor Speaker Wang. Ma during his five years as Taipei mayor has continued to enjoy extraordinarily high popularity. More significant, his supporters transcend party lines and ethnic groups. However, Ma's support bases are mainly concentrated in northern Taiwan.
On the other hand, Wang, 64 and a 10th term legislator elected from southern Taiwan, has seen his power base extend to the north. His political strength was demonstrated again in his recent election to a third term as legislative speaker. He won the support of 123 fellow legislators, while the KMT holds only 79 seats in the 225-member Legislature. This indicated that Wang continues to enjoy bipartisan support."

Watching the maneuvering in advance of the KMT Party Chair election provides a fascinating study in contrasts with the DPP. For someone whose frame of reference is the party primaries in the US, the elaborate dance going on now between Lien Chan, Ma Ying-jeou and Wang Jin Ping is bizarre. Lien has announced that he will step down this summer, but Ma is still being criticized for daring to announce his candidacy. My own humble opinion is that the lack of fair and transparent internal party elections in the KMT is closely linked to the tendency in the party toward bitter factional splits. Lee Teng Hui, ironically, while he was ushering the era of democracy for Taiwan, continued the tradition of autocratic KMT party leaders. Although James Soong was clearly the most popular of the next generation of leaders, Lee simply put his protege Lien in the position by fiat. Soong split off from the party with his followers and finished a close second in the 2000 presidential race. Lien, with the resources of the world's richest political party behind him, finished a distant third.

Compare this to the DPP. The first chairman of the party was Shi Ming De,"Taiwan's Mandela," who had spent twenty-five years in jail under KMT military rule. Chen Shui Bian was his defense attorney. Chen had spent time in jail, as well, and his wife is paralyzed for life, having been run over by a KMT tractor, but originally their credentials fell far short of Shi's. What happened was that, over time, the DPP rank and file tired of Shi's relaxed administrative style and lack of political savvy. When Chen defeated him in party primaries, Shi left the party in anger, but few followed him, because the process was perceived to have been fair. Current Premier Hsieh Chang Ting also vied with Chen for the top DPP post. A recent article related a moving moment when Hsieh conceded the race and told his supporters to take off their Hsieh vests and don Chen vests. Can such a thing be imagined in the KMT?

What is wrong with having an open primary, in which all comers- including the incumbent, if he wishes- can present their cases to the rank and file? Lien is the scion of one of the island's richest families, but he clearly wouldn't have become head of the party in fair elections, and he has performed dismally in two general elections. Yet, the whole discussion is framed in terms of whether Ma's running would be disrespectful to Lien. What about paying the members of the party the respect of an open and fair election? Friday's Taiwan News contains a poll (20% of respondents KMT members) of Taiwanese on the issue: if Lien doesn't run, 52% would support Ma, and 25% support Wang; if Lien did run, the breakdown would be 45 Ma, 18 Wang and 9 Lien. Yet, Lien seems to be seriously contemplating trying to engineer a succession to Wang. Incredible.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Japan to Join U.S. Policy on Taiwan

"Such talk reflects what diplomats and scholars call the defining drama of East Asia for the 21st century -- the competition for economic and political dominance in the region between Japan, the world's second-largest economy, and China, the world's most populous nation and a fast-developing economic and military power. "

Japan isacknowledging: that Taiwan is a mutual security concern of both the U.S. and Japan. The role of oil is the 900 pound gorilla in the room here. Like most of East Asia, Japan has no domestic oil resources. Most of the oil comes by way of a long, and vulnerable, route from the Middle East that passes through the Taiwan Straits. For China to control Taiwan would put them in position to strangle Japan. This was the U.S. strategy in the Second World War. In my first year here, I taught an old man who had memories of manning an anti-aircraft battery, shooting at American planes. These are just about all gone from the West coast here, but Hualien is still chock full of the fortified caves and bunkers from the era. In the end, the American air force took a tremendous toll on shipping in the era, which was a crucial factor in the outcome of the war.

Chesapeake Bay Dialects Dying

"Almost 50 percent of the region's residents were born in a state other than the one where they live, which is more than other big cities and close to twice the national average. Linguistically, that means 'nobody really has any idea what Washington, D.C., is,' said David Bowie, a linguistics professor at the University of Central Florida. "

I used to hate growing up in a civil servant suburb of Washington, D.C.:, but in Taiwan, any regional dialect would be held against me. My indistinguishable American accent, rightly or wrongly, positions me perfectly for teaching here. This article explores the deterioration of regional dialects in the region.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Here' an article about my good friend Rob that came out last week. He told me not to post it but, well, I did anyway. He's shy. Posted by Hello

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Personal Story

Just a bit of a personal background informing the exchange I had with Scott Sommers a week or so ago:

For years now, I have frequented, on vacations, one of Taiwan's beautiful, and rural - and unserviced by foreign English teachers - locations. I've had the opportunity to make many Taiwanese friends in the area, but never met a foreigner who lived there. For many years, my Taiwanese friends have encouraged me to move there, and, indeed, it has been a bit of wet dream of mine to do so. But, of course, it was completely impractical. There were no legal, visa-supplying schools in the area.

Two years ago, a Taiwanese friend told me she and a foreign woman (married to a Taiwanese) were starting a school down there. Well, I admit, I felt a bit jealous. There was another foreigner, living out my fantasy. Then, this fall, my friend called and made me a sweet offer - their school was expanding, they needed a third foreign teacher, and they would love it if I would come and fill the spot. Great! A few weeks then went by when I had a hard time contacting my friend, and I started to worry. Then, she called. This was her message:

The foreign woman who was her partner (we'll call her F.) only had a high school degree. She had married a Taiwanese man in the area several years ago, and was for years the only foreign English teacher in the area. She started with one-on-ones, built to group classes over years, and ultimately found that she had enough students to start a proper school. What she and her husband didn't have was enough capital to go through the whole, elaborate legalization process. So they sought out my friend, who did. In the end, they started their school, as "partners" - the foreign woman's students, and my friend's capital. Business was good, because by all accounts she was a very good teacher. Within a year, they hired a second foreign teacher - one with a BA -, but a close personal friend of F., so no threat.

The next year, they were ready to hire a third foreign teacher (that would have been me), but as my friend explained: "When F. saw your resume, she freaked. First, she said you couldn't come, then she demanded to buy us out. We got angry and told her, 'no, you are not buying us out; we are buying you out, and all the papers are in our name.' That is to say, we are firing her. What that means, John, is that you can come in and start immediately, be our English Director, and have the power to hire two foreign teachers of your choosing." Hey, I admit, I thought about it. But, truth be told, it would have been a pretty creepy thing to do, and in the end, I didn't pull the trigger.

It all depends on your point of view, I suppose. A government functionary would say, "The law is the law, and she was breaking the law by teaching without a BA." A parent from the area might say, "Rural areas are egregiously underserved for English instruction in Taiwan. This is someone with a high school degree who proved herself as an excellent teacher over many years, when others (with BA's) were unwilling or unable to come here. What's wrong with that?" I suppose I could empathize with the government official, but my empathy is with the parent and the teacher, because their case seems more convincing.

Now if someone - even in an underserved area - was building bridges or doing surgery with only a high school diploma, I'd want to put an immediate stop to that. And if I was a "qualified" bridge builder or surgerer (excuse me, my editor informs me I must use the formal term "surgerizor"), I would have no qualms about bumping her aside. That's my point. Teaching English to seven year olds ain't brain surgery. I'll sleep fine making the choice I made. After all, some of my friends in the area are the parents of kids in that school. They're pretty clear about where their loyalties lie.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Michael J. Totten: Drinking with Christopher Hitchens and the Iraqis

"Well," Hitchens said. "I'm off. I have to get up in the morning and continue the fight on CNN."
"Oh, come on, Christopher," I said. "You're the one who's supposed to keep us up all night."
I could almost see the good angel on one shoulder getting the crap kicked out of him by the devil hovering over the other. It was the world's shortest fight ever.

Michael Totten has a spectacular post: on the psychological cross-currents between allied Iraqis and Americans at a social gathering, as well as a priceless portrait of Christopher Hitchens. Stuff like this you just don't get in the newspapers.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Havel on EU Appeasement

"But today this is happening. One of the strongest and most powerful democratic institutions in the world -- the European Union -- has no qualms in making a public promise to the Cuban dictatorship that it will re-institute diplomatic Apartheid. The EU's embassies in Havana will now craft their guest lists in accordance with the Cuban government's wishes. The shortsightedness of socialist Prime Minister Jose Zapatero of Spain has prevailed."

It is surely no coincidence that, at the same time it is considering lifting the ban on arms sales to China, the EU: is banning the presence of Cuban dissidents at Cuban embassy functions. Vaclav Havel's visit to Taiwan this fall coincided with calls from Glenn Reynolds and others that he be the choice to replace Kofi Annan at the UN. A better choice couldn't possibly be made. The Bush administration certainly can be criticized for speaking in overly-musical tones about advancing democratic values, when, in fact, its policy is a balancing act between US interests and principles. But what's striking about the EU is that they've abandoned any pretext about advancing democratic values in the world at all. This issue also calls into question the judgement of The Taipei Times - Taiwan's most stridently pro-independence newspaper - in viewing much of the world through the prism of the European left. Do they not understand? These people are not your allies!

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Avian Flu

"As a result, the prevalence of the infection in birds makes a new, more deadly human outbreak likely. Public health experts say it is only a matter of time before the flu strain remakes itself, unleashing a disease that is both highly lethal and as easy to catch as an ordinary flu bug.
If this occurs, World Health Organization officials predict that, in the most optimistic scenario, 2 million to 7 million people would die worldwide and that the toll could potentially reach 100 million. Health experts say the virus has already exhibited traits similar to those that caused the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which is estimated to have killed about 40 million people."

This is scary stuff. The health officials quoted sound like people watching an accident develop in slow motion from on high, but unable to do anything about it. It is a moving thing to see societies leap in a decade a distance that western societies took generations to achieve - but clearly, as we sometimes see in Taiwan, there are often problems of a lack of awareness of modern issues, like hygeine.

Kung Fu

Had a rare opportunity to see the new Steven Chow (Zhou 1 Xing 1 Chr 2) movie "Kung Fu Hustle." I'd seen Chow's previous movie, "Shaolin Soccer", on a bus, with the sound turned down, and was mildly intrigued. I'd like to see it again, for real. All I can say is, within the first five minutes you know you're in the hands of a real master. Writer, Director and Actor, Steven Chow is an auteur here in the old school sense. It's hard not to reflect that the Hong Kong Kung Fu movie genre gets a real shot in the arm by being re-interpreted by Quentin Tarantino. But although Kung Fu clearly owes a lot to Kill Bill, the energy in Hustle is real and original. And for a change, we get to see it here before it opens in the States in March!

What I Did on my Holidays

The incomparable Robert Johanson has created a blog of our DWEN AN WINTER ENGLISH CAMP at Dong Hwa University in Hualien. Forty of the very best high school students on the island gathered for five days of intensive English instruction and practice. The photos include a day at an aboriginal village in the East Rift Valley, and a day at Taroko Gorge. The Dun An Foundation is personally financed by Taipei Mayor Ma Ying Jeou as a service organization for youth. Activity organizer Steven Chen told the students they didn't have to become politicians to be "players", but he hoped they would become opinion leaders for their generation. Truly a pleasure to teach these guys!