Trials and travails of a Taiwanese-American kid in Taiwan

Saturday, November 10, 2007


A popular summit without karaoke? This would never be allowed to happen in Taiwan.

There's nothing quite like wandering through the lush greenery of a trail through the rolling hills around the cities and towns of Taiwan, only to be greeted by a crude shack at the top with a TV and surround sound system filled with locals singing their hearts out. In hindsight, it seems to be one of the hallmarks of Taiwanese culture: To Go Boldly where No Man Has Gone Before... and to Erect a Karaoke Stand There.

I'm surprised no one has tried doing this on the summit of Yushan yet.

Perhaps it is simply my lack of musical talent, but I never really caught on to the karaoke craze while growing up in Taiwan (or vice versa). Conversely, almost every single Taiwanese student I've known, both in Taiwan and abroad, is crazy about it. Even here in the US, almost every major meeting of Taiwanese students involves a lengthy session of graduate students crooning into a microphone (with the echo effects cranked way up).

Come to think of it, this may explain why we all seem to get along so well, despite our differences. It may be a form of escapism, but with everything else going on, sometimes you just need to escape for a while. And Matsu knows that I've done my share of introducing them to local culture in Colorado, namely: "To Ski, Climb, Run, and Drink Lots of Microbrewed Beer".

"We're having a karaoke session on Saturday, come on by", my friend said. "We even went through the trouble of downloading some English MVs for you."

For the record, my Mandarin is perfectly fine, and liberally sprinkled with language commonly heard from your local betelnut chewing cabbie. But my understanding of Taiwan pop music seems to be stuck from around my high school days in the late '90s. Somewhere along the line, my friends became more interested in having someone who could convincingly (to their ears anyhow) fake a variety of North American accents, than rehash 1997 in Taiwan pop music.

"Why don't we go hiking instead?" I suggested. "Why?" my friend replied, "We'd just start singing at the summit. Why go through all the trouble when we can do it down here? You can bring the beer."

As if to accentuate his point, it rained on Saturday. And so I found myself with 15 other Taiwanese grad students, standing in front of a big screen TV and a karaoke machiene, with a microphone in my hand, awaiting the first song...

... which turned out to be "I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing" by Aerosmith. I spent most of the song with my vocal chords stretched to the breaking point, and no sound coming out of my mouth.

Whatever the beneficial effects of living at high altitude for long periods, singing isn't one of them.

One by one, we went down the ever growing queue of songs. Ballads of love and loss seemed to be the most popular... all sung by everyone in the room (or so it seemed, it was hard to tell with the echo effect of the microphone cranked up to the max). The rain came down outside, we sang offkey, no one cared. Normally reserved students poured their hearts out.

If you've lived in Taiwan long enough you realize that the cynical nature projected by most people is a facade that rarely comes down... except in the presence of very close friends, or barring that, a karaoke machine (or liberal amounts of alcohol). "You can have dreams and ideals", my parents once told me, "as long as you don't tell them to anyone else". You don't do something for some idealogical reason... you do it because "沒辦法" ("I had no other choice"), "警察在看" ("There's a cop looking"), or some similarly pragmatic reason. Sometimes, you even start to believe it. Interestingly however, Taiwanese students arriving here have no problem accepting the idea that "Pedestrians have the right of way", without having to qualify it with "lawsuits are expensive", or "windshields are a pain in the butt to replace".

Just one of those cultural things I suppose.

After my third offkey rendition of "Country Roads", I finally managed to squeeze in a non-English song dating from my last days of high school. Maybe I just needed a reminder of brighter days when the future seemed boundless, untempered by the cynicism of reality. Or maybe I was getting fed up with the love ballads from the latest 星光 talent search stars....

Either way, I was still singing off key.

Title: The Fool
Language: Taiwanese

Artist: Mayday
Original Translation by C.C. and Merry, slightly modified.

我的心內感覺 人生的沈重 不敢來振動
In my heart I feel the seriousness of life, but I don't dare touch it
我不是好子 嘛不是歹人 我只是愛眠夢
I'm not a goody good, and I'm not a bad person either, I just love to dream
我不願隨浪隨風 飄浪西東 親像船無港
I don't want to drift with the wind and tide, like a boat with no harbor
我不願做人 奸巧鑽縫 甘願來作憨人
I don't want to be a devious opportunist person, taking advantage of others. I'd rather be a fool.

我不是頭腦空空 我不是一隻米蟲
My head isn't empty, and I'm not useless
人啊人 一世人 要安怎歡喜 過春夏秋冬
Oh people! A lifetime is so long, how can we happily pass the years?
我有我的路 有我的夢 夢中的那個世界 甘講伊是一場空
I have my own road, I have my dreams. Is the world that I dream of just an illusion?
我走過的路 只有希望 希望你我講過的話 放在心肝內 總有一天
On the road that I have travelled, I have only hope. Hope that all we've talked about is in our hearts, believing one day it will all come true.

看到滿天全金條 要煞無半項 環境來戲弄
Seeing my dreams dance through the sky, I reach out for it but grasp nothing, the world is mocking me
背景無夠強 天才無夠弄 逐項是攏輸人
My background's not strong enough, my talent's not good enough, I lose to others in everything
只好看破這虛華 不怕路歹行 不怕大雨淋
I'd best see through this facade, unafraid of how difficult the road ahead may be, and unafraid of being drenched by the rain
心上一字敢 面對我的夢 甘願來作憨人
On my heart there is one word: daring, when facing my dreams, I'm willing to be a fool.

Outside, the rain kept pouring down, the world moved on, but for a moment, all that was forgotten.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

和平! 人權! An Account of the Executive Yuan Protest

I'm still somewhat shaken from what I just saw. Some 500 students have been peacefully gathered in front of the Executive Yuan for the last day or so to protest the current Parade and Assembly Law (集會遊行法), the abuse of which has led to so much trouble over the last couple of days. The current law restricts the right of citizens to peaceably assemble, by forcing them to apply for permits which the government may deny at will after reviewing the protest topic, allows the government unrestricted rights to close off large areas from protesters, and allows police to forcibly disperse protesters even if they are not violent. The students are demanding the law be revised to require the government to grant permits upon receiving a notification without the current content review ("government shall allow" vs. the current "government may grant a permit"), while requiring police to follow the rule of law and due process in all arrests and detentions. In other words, the law should protect the rights of protesters - not restrict them.

Despite numerous attempts by partisans to connect them to the DPP, the students have steadfastly refused to align themselves with any political party. In fact, speaker after speaker made it clear that while the current Parade and Assembly Law is a relic from martial law, successive administrations from both parties have lost interest in amending or revising the law after assuming the reigns of power, even as they claimed to oppose it while in the opposition... as the saying goes, power corrupts. Even the power that you might not use. Others attempted to link them to the few violent protesters over the last day or so - a patently false claim as the protesters promptly ejected any would-be participants who seemed too agitated, or too close to any partisan cause.

The protesters made it clear that they were not anti-police - in fact, they made a conscientious effort to differentiate between rank and file police officers, who were forced to carry out oppressive policies from their superiors. The current Parade and Assembly Law encourages that type of behavior from the government, victimizing protesters and police alike. As such the real responsibility lies with those who give the orders, and the laws that enable them. Under these considerations, the protesters' demands include apologies from President Ma and Premier Liu, as well as the resignations of the Directors of the National Police Agency and National Security Bureau for the unprecedented abuses of police power over the past few days. Further information can be found in the statement of protest.

Watching the live feed and narration provided by a few students with a webcam, I was struck by the orderliness and relatively relaxed atmosphere throughout. The students spent most of the time calmly seated in front of the gate of the Executive Yuan, listening to speakers who spoke about the need for reform and the rights of citizens to demonstrate peacefully. There was little anger towards police, even as the police raised placards declaring the assembly to be unlawful. (The protesters responded with their own placards reading "Dissent! Police action is unlawful"). Students handed police officers water and flowers, making it clear that they bore them no ill will. Unfortunetely, TVBS, true to its acronym, promptly ran a story claiming that the students supported the actions of the police over the past few days. When this gross distortion became known, the protesters faced the TVBS reporter on scene and chanted "TVBS 不要臉!" ("TVBS, have you no shame?")

By the start of Friday morning, rumors were flying that the police would move in at 4PM. Earlier in the morning, the secretary to Premier Liu came out amid chants of "Ma, Liu apologize!", "NPA and NSB chiefs resign!", "Amend the Parade and Assembly Law!". In response to the students' questions, he provided evasive answers, first claiming that the KMT had supported revising the law over the past 8 years of DPP administration and trying to pass the blame off to the DPP. But he could not answer questions from the protesters as to why the KMT had not done so now that it holds a supermajority in the Legislative Yuan and the Presidency, nor could he provide any assurances or timetables as to when it would be revised in accordance with the protesters' demands. Flustered, he quickly retreated back into the building as the protesters declared his response unsatisfactory and his attitude patronizing. A vote was taken and the protesters agreed to remain until their demands were met.

As the clock neared 4PM, a sense of uncertainty was in the air, as larger groups of police alternately congregated and dispersed. Citizens came with donations of food, water, and blankets. As the time ticked away, the students performed a roll call by institution. Cheers went out as "National Taiwan University!", "National Taipei University of Education!" and other institutions of higher learning went out. But the loudest cheer was reserved for a lone voice which shouted: "Central Police University!" (I don't know who you are buddy, but I salute you sir!).

At 4PM, three large police buses pulled up in the street behind the protesters, with squads of police officers emerging. "Remember!" the organizers shouted: "No violence! It is not the fault of the police that their orders are unconstitutional! No one is wrong here. Remain peaceful! We reassemble in 2 hours at Liberty Square!".

Sitting on the ground, the 500+ students linked hands and sang, in English, "We Shall Overcome". As the last lines of "We are not afraid today" faded, and the crowd of police grew larger, the students chanted "和平!" ("Peace!").

Then suddenly, the police officers turned around, reboarded their buses and left. The students cheered... it was as if a miracle had occurred. Plans were made to stay till a satisfactory answer was given by the government.

The moment proved to be short lived. Rumors began flying again that the police intended to detain them, then release them somewhere far away from public transportation. Calls went out across the web as individuals and groups promised to provide transportation for any stranded students.

About 20 minutes later, a large phalanx of police carrying riot shields poured out of the Executive Yuan and the 3 police buses which had suddenly returned. As the police surrounded the students, the students chanted "Peace!" again, joined by a growing crowd of citizens in the street. A group from the pan-green aligned Taiwan North Society attempted to offer their assistance, but were politely and firmly rejected by the students. "We are not rejecting your ideas, but we reject partisanship in this demonstration."

Finally, police officers began to forcibly remove the students dragging the limp, unresisting students, still chanting, into the police buses. The students began chanting "人權!" ("Human Rights!"), along with the crowd which quickly joined in.

Then the feed cut off.

It took over an hour to remove all 500 students. The latest report from the restored feed indicates that they were dropped off at the rear gate of National Taiwan University. The protesters are now reassembling at Liberty Square, welcoming anyone who is willing to join in peaceably, without political flags or placards, and without a partisan agenda. Reports indicate taxi drivers who heard of their plight are picking them up and taking them to Liberty Square for free.

The gate of the Executive Yuan is now clear of students. But the citizens who gathered have now taken up the students' cause, launching their own sit-in, and are now chanting the students' three demands: "Ma and Liu apologize", "NPA and NSB chiefs step down", and "Amend the Parade and Assembly Law!" The crowd is still growing as I type this, chanting "同學加油!" ("Go students!")

I am an engineering graduate student. For a long time, I considered myself cynical about anyone who randomly invoked Godwin's Law. The last few days, and what I saw today have now changed that. The Parade and Assembly Law isn't just a blue problem or a green problem, it is a threat to all of our civil liberties. Citizens do not spontaneously become violent - and while there are always people in any demonstration who simply seek to cause chaos, they are vastly outnumbered by ordinary citizens who simply wish to express their dissent. It is only when those in power seek to use their authority to silence dissenting voices that good people may feel that they have little recourse. Successive administrations from both parties have been loath to relinquish the promise of almost unlimited authority offered by the current Parade and Assembly Law. What we saw over the last two days is simply the culmination of that process. The government could not resist the temptation to overstep their bounds far beyond what was required for public safety, and ended up facing the inevitable backlash.

Today I saw peaceful idealistic students not so unlike myself who chose to show resolve and restraint in the face of great adversity. Not one broke and ran. Not one struck back at the police officers, and the police officers did not use excessive force on the students. Everyone stayed on message. The students may have begun the movement, but it is now something bigger as nonstudents have joined in as well.

As the police officers carried the students away, the voice of the student announcer on the feed broke as he said "This is how a police state begins. It's been 20 years since martial law ended and the law still hasn't been amended!"

For once, I am inclined to agree.

Protest photos from participants.

Live feed from Liberty Square.

Several similar protests are now being organized by students across Taiwan. In particular, a sit-in is now planned in front of the Kaohsiung Police Department.