Saturday, 27 July 2013

Singaporean Cartoonist Leslie Chew Faces Jail For Contempt of Court

Government lawyers in Singapore started legal proceedings against Chew Peng Ee, known as Leslie Chew, the author of the satirical comic strip "Demon-cratic Singapore". He has been accused of contempt for “scandalising the judiciary of the Republic of Singapore”, said the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC).

The charges refer to four Cartoons that Chew had published on his Facebook page on July 20, 2011, on January 3 and 4, and on June 16, 2012. The AGC explained: "The present legal proceedings are aimed at protecting the administration of justice in the Republic of Singapore and upholding the integrity of one of our key public institutions." Leslie Chew is also currently under investigation for sedition after an allegedly "racially sensitive" comic strip was reported to the police. If Chew is found guilty of contempt, he may face a fine or imprisonment, or both. His case will be heard on August 12.

The move against Leslie Chew is seen by some as another proof that the People's Action Party (PAP), Singapore's ruling party since 1959, is further tightening its grip on political dissent and criticism of the government. Recently, the Singaporean government introduced a new regulation that requires websites that publish at least eight articles on Singapore over a period of two months and have at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month, to obtain an individual licence. The licence must be acquired by putting out a performance bond of S$50,000. Licenced websites will be compelled to remove 'prohibited content' within 24 hours after being notified by the government. According to the existing Internet Code of Practice, content that undermines "public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws" is deemed prohibited.

Singapore isn't new to harsh punishment against individuals who criticise the institutions of the city-state. In 2010, British author and journalist Alan Shadrake (78) was sentenced to six weeks' jail and a S$20,000 ($15,400) fine. Unable to pay the sum, he subsequently served an eight weeks' jail term. In his book Once a Jolly Hangman - Singapore Justice in the Dock, Alan Shadrake had denounced Singapore's judicial system as unfair. He criticised the death penalty, the lack of impartiality and the favouring of rich and powerful people. Furthermore, he argued that courts are used by the ruling party to silence political dissent. The judge who found Mr. Shadrake guilty of the charges declared that in his book he made "claims against a dissembling and selective background of truths and half-truths, and sometimes outright falsehoods. A casual and unwary reader, who does not subject the book to detailed scrutiny, might well believe his claims ... and in so doing would have lost confidence in the administration of justice in Singapore".

The new licence regulation and judicial cases such as Leslie Chew's are seen by some commentators as an attempt by the PAP to restrain political change in Singapore. Alex Au, author of the blog Yawning Bread, called it "re-introducing the climate of fear". 

If you want to contribute to the fund-raising to help cartoonist Leslie Chew, visit the author's website.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Filial Piety (孝) in Chinese Culture

In order to understand Chinese culture and society it is fundamental to understand the Chinese family. The family in China was not only a social unit, but it represented a whole codified ideology that pervaded the state and the society for thousands of years. Many of the differences between Chinese and Western thinking are comprehensible only from the point of view of the unique place that the family has in Chinese culture.

Illustration from the Classic of Filial Piety (source: Wikipedia)

Without doubt, the pillar of the Chinese family structure was the concept of filial piety. In Chinese, filial piety is expressed by the character 孝(pinyin: xiào). The character xiao is made up of an upper and a lower part. The first part is derived from the character lao (老, pinyin: lǎo), which means 'old'. The second part is the character 子 (pinyin: zi), which means 'son'. There are different interpretations of the meaning of the character xiao

1) the old are supported by the younger generation; 

2) the young are burdened and oppressed by the old; 

3) the purpose of the family is the continuation of the family line (chronological, from top to bottom) (see Ikels 2004, pp. 2-3).

Filial piety was a central value in traditional Chinese culture. Its importance went far beyond that of the biblical commandment "honour thy mother and thy father". Filial piety was and still is a value based on strict principles of hierarchy, obligation and obedience. It is no exaggeration to say that it was the very foundation of the hierarchical structure of the Chinese family and thus of the Chinese society as a whole. That does not mean that the idea of filial piety has not changed over the centuries or that children are always filial. But we need first of all to understand what xiao means, where it comes from, and how it was practised in the past, before we can examine the exceptions and the changes. 

Continue reading

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Xinyi District in Taipei and Italian Dinner

Yesterday I went to dinner with a friend. She told me something interesting: "On your blog you always write about the dark sides of Taiwan and Asia."

I thought about what she said and I realised it's true. Indeed, I've been writing many posts about certain sides of Chinese / Taiwanese culture and life that I find different from those in the West, and that perhaps I do not like very much. 

I usually try to be as balanced and objective as possible; but it is true that there are things about Chinese culture and thinking that are not quite compatible with my own personality and values. For example, I have written so many posts about the structure of the Chinese family because it is one of the aspects of this culture that fascinates me most, and that at the same time I cannot really accept as a guidance for my own life. 

There are some Westerners who are enthusiastic about Taiwan. "I love Taiwan"; "Taiwan is a country of opportunities"; "Taiwanese people are nice and friendly", etc. There are bloggers who seem to specialise in writing eulogies of Taiwan. I never wanted to do that. I don't want to create an idealistic, over-optimistic image of Taiwan. The purpose of my blog is not so much to 'promote' Taiwan or China, but to make sense of my experiences by trying to understand how this society works. 

On the other hand, there are also foreigners who write negative articles about Taiwan and China. As to the latter, I'd say that many Westerners tend to portray it in a negative light. As far as I'm concerned, I would like to stay in the middle between these two extremes, idealisation on the one hand, and condemnation on the other. 

Anyway, in order to counterbalance a little my posts that are perhaps too focused on the 'dark side' of Taiwan, today I will take a break from my usual posts about culture and society and simply share with you what I did yesterday. I think that I will in the future remember that evening as one of my nice memories of the time I spent in Taiwan.

I went to dinner with a very nice and interesting person. I can't mention her name, of course, but she will know I'm talking about her if she ever happens to read this post, either now or in the future. 

She wanted to go to an Italian-style restaurant, called 'Bite 2 Eat' (薄多義). It is located in the most modern and fashionable area of Taipei, Xinyi District (信義區, pinyin: Xìnyì qū), which locals sometimes call 'the Manhattan of Taipei'. This area, together with a section of Da'an District (大安區 Dà'ānqū), is often called by Taipeinese 'Eastern District' (東區Dōngqū). It is considered the most bustling, modern area of the city. The Western District, around Taipei Main Station, on the contrary, has long been considered the old part of the capital. In fact, the Japanese had developed Taipei's centre mostly around the main station. At that time Xinyi was used to grow tea leaves.

Xinyi was completely reshaped by the urban planning of the 1990s. The government wanted to create a financial and business centre that was adequate to the growing economy and the new global status of Taiwan. So the city government and private investors created this huge modern area, whose most famous landmark is Taipei 101, one of the tallest buildings in the world. 

Bite 2 Eat is right opposite Taipei City Hall MRT Station exit 2. Apparently it is a very popular place. It opens at 5.30 pm, but at 5 o'clock there were already many people waiting. About half an hour after we arrived, it was completely full. It is a very, let's say, 'lively' place; people enjoy talking, and it was so loud my friend and I looked like two old people who cannot hear each other. At one point, she said: "You are my only travelling friend." "You have no other friends who travel?" I asked. "What?" She looked confused. "What did you just say?" I asked again. "I said you're my only Italian friend." "Oh, I see." Indeed, it was so loud that from time to time we had such weird conversations.

After our prolonged dinner - which ended at 9.30 when the restaurant closed - we went to Eslite Bookstore. This is one of the places every tourist should visit. It is a famous Taiwanese bookstore chain, with some branches open 24 hours a day (if you quarrel with your girlfriend, maybe that could be a place to spend the night). As I have observed, in this bookstore there is a surprisingly large number of Taiwanese beauties dressed as if they were about to take part in a fashion show. Indeed an attraction in its own right.

Let me now share with you a few pictures of Xinyi, Taipei 101 and Bite 2 Eat.

I like trees, but I have to admit that I wished this one had been cut down because it's impossible
to take a decent picture with the tree blocking the view. 

A fake European-style market. Honestly, putting a fire extinguisher and the emergency exit right there was not the most brilliant idea. It takes the atmosphere away from this market, or, if you will, it makes it more obvious that it's just an illusion. 


The pizza is smaller than it looks on the picture, but it's quite good

I didn't try this spaghetti, and I just realised I didn't ask my friend how it was. But it looks good.

Taipei City Hall Station, exit 2

Taipei 101

Let me share other pictures of Xinyi I took on different occasions:

Bellavista. I don't know if you can guess what it is. Well, though it may look like something else, it's actually just a department store.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Are Asian Girls Easy? - Marriage, Concubines, and Moral Values

'Are Asian girls easy?' - this question has been asked many times and it seems to be an obsession both with expat communities and Asian people themselves. From a personal point of view, I would argue that Asian girls are not - generally speaking - 'easier' than girls  anywhere else. But even if they were, I don't think anyone should blame them. We accept that men are 'easy', so why should women be blamed for the same behaviour? Whether we like it or not, it is in our common interest to respect everyone's freedom, and even the freedom to act in a way we might ourselves dislike.

However, every individual also has the right to see the world through his own eyes, applying his own moral standards. For example, I can hardly expect from a Christian to accept casual sex, because Christians have their own moral standards. Everyone has the right to their own opinion as long as they do not impose it on others by force. 

Yet I don't think that Asian girls are considered 'easy' because, or exclusively because of their sexual behaviour. In this post, I would like to examine one specific aspect of the 'myth of the easy Asian girl', which is related to the concept of marriage in East Asia. 

I would like to show that the idea of marriage in East and West was and is still based on principles that are different from those in the West, and that these different principles may create huge misunderstandings between Westerners and Asians. Before I begin, however, I'd like to point out again that I'm talking about certain segments of the population and about general phenomena, not about every single individual.

Chinese Marriage

In traditional Chinese society, marriage was first and foremost a duty of children towards their parents. The purpose of marriage was to maintain the family lineage and the economic stability of the family nucleus. Parents often saw children as their old-age insurance, as the ones who would take care of them when they grew old. Children had to be subordinated to parents, obey them, serve and make them happy in their old age. Marriage was therefore based on the concepts of hierarchy, social duties and filial piety. 

In many respects, the family represented a social security net that individuals could take advantage of. Within the family, there was a strict subordination of children to parents, wives to husbands, women to men (if you want to know more about marriage in Chinese culture, read my posts Family In Chinese Culture - Hierarchy, Harmony, Communication, and Love, Romance, Duty: Marriage in Chinese Culture).

The idea with which a Chinese man or woman entered marriage, was completely different from the one of his or her Western counterparts. For a Chinese man, for instance, marriage was an obligation towards his parents and his family lineage, and it was a strict social institution that maintained and expanded the net of social dependencies between him and other individuals. A large number of marriages used to be arranged, and bride and groom met only on their wedding day. 

Love, on the other hand, didn't play a major role in the choice of a spouse. Marriage and love were two different things; the first was a duty, the second a pleasure. A Chinese man, however, could still pursue pleasure in a way that was legitimate in the eyes of society: by having many spouses and concubines. As long as he had the financial means to provide for them, and as long as he treated his first wife as the second head of the household after himself, no one would condemn polygyny. I have given a few example of concubinage both in old and modern China in an earlier post. As a consequence, for a Chinese man marriage did not mean that he had to be faithful to one wife and love her; he could have concubines and extramarital affairs, as long as he provided for the family and respected social hierarchies. Though the old idea of marriage has changed and monogamy has been institutionalised, the custom of taking mistresses or of having extramarital affairs is still widespread, as we shall see later.

It is fundamental to understand the difference between the traditional Western and Eastern family. In the West, family was usually based on love and mutual consent. Although hierarchy or lineage concerns did exist, they were quite limited when compared to Asia. Even if Western parents might be strict or authoritarian, their power waned as children grew, and the submission of children to parents was never as strong as in Asia. 

In Chinese society, marriage was based on filial duty, and on the idea of service. The ones hierarchically inferior had to serve their superiors, and had to show their love through service and rituals. 

In the autobiography "Six Records of a Floating Life", written at the beginning of the 19th century by the Chinese scholar Shen Fu (沈復, 1763–1810?), there are a few staggering episodes that demonstrate how a Chinese family worked. Let us see one example:

One day my father said to Fu-ting [a friend], 'I have led a hard life, often away from home. I would like to have someone to live with me and serve me, but I have not been able to find anyone. If my son respected my wishes he would find me someone from our home county so that our dialects would be the same. Fu-ting passed this on to me, and I secretly wrote to Yun [the author's wife] telling her to find someone. She did, a girl named Yao. As father had at that time not yet accepted her, however, Yun decided it would be best not to tell my mother about what was going on (Shen Fu 2004, Part III).

Now, here we see that a father asks his son to find him a concubine to spend time with him and serve him. Something that in the West would have been completely inconceivable, was in Chinese society perfectly normal. Men could have more than a woman, if they could afford  her; it was so legitimate that a father could even ask his own son to find him a woman. There was a system of family hierarchy that codified the position of all these wives and concubines, who could be really numerous in wealthy households (the Emperor himself had thousands of concubines).

From a Western point of view, the father's request would have been considered immoral and improper. But in Chinese society, a man could have many wives, and a son, who was hierarchically subordinated to his father, could not refuse to fulfill his father's wishes if he wanted to be considered a filial son. In some respects, marriage was a morally less serious thing than in the West, where a couple was supposed to love each other and belong to each other forever (in theory). This difference explains a lot about the different attitudes of Asians and Westerners up to this day.

In another passage of the book, Yun, the author's wife, tries to find a concubine for him:

Hsü Hsiu-feng, who was my cousin’s husband [...] brought a new concubine back with him, raving about her beauty to everyone, and one day he invited Yün to go and see her. Afterwards Yün said to Hsiu-feng, ‘She certainly is beautiful, but she is not the least bit charming.’ ‘If your husband were to take a concubine,’ Hsiu-feng asked, ‘would she have to be charming as well as beautiful?’ ‘Naturally,’ said Yün. From then on, Yün was obsessed with the idea of finding me a concubine, even though we had nowhere near enough money for such an ambition (ibid., Part I).

This scene might appear awkward to a Westerner. It shows how different East Asian values might be from those in the West. I shall argue that until today Chinese and Western values regarding love, dating and marriage differ deeply, and that it is in these differences that we must try to find the roots of how Westerners perceive Asians and vice-versa. Because many stereotypes that exist today are often nothing more than huge misunderstandings. They are caused by the fact that we judge others by our own standards, while they act and think according to different principles. 

In fact, how would you judge Yun's behaviour? By accepting the custom of concubinage, isn't she automatically accepting the inferior role of women, and isn't she accepting women to be treated as sexual objects? Perhaps some Western men would be glad to have a wife who asks them to take another woman, or who accepts to live under the same roof with her husband's concubines, yet in the Western concept of marriage this desire could not be gratified within a legitimate framework. And I would say that most women would not tolerate concubines within the household that they regard as their own, not to mention traditional Christian values that did not allow monogamy. In China, on the contrary, this was normal, most especially in rich and powerful families. It is an obvious thing that, given these premises, the way in which the idea of femininity and the role of women in society developed, was very different from the view that Western women have developed of themselves.   

Marriage patterns have changed very much in Chinese society. However, the starting point of marriage was different from that in the West. The evolution of these two systems has perhaps brought them somewhat closer to each other, but it has not created complete convergence. 

In the next post I will be examining more in detail how traditional marriage patterns and gender division has shaped Asian women's role and self-perception as girlfriends and wives. I believe this peculiar social pattern is one of the reasons why Westerners tend to have a certain image of Asian women; an imagine that oscillates between idealisation (pure, innocent etc.) and denigration (easy, materialistic etc.).  

Marriage in the West 

The first thing we have to understand is that in the Western tradition, marriage never had the absolute ideological power that it had in Asia. In the West, the concept of marriage was determined by an interplay of different moral, legal, religious and social elements. 

If we consider the last few hundred years of Western history, the most powerful force that shaped marriage was probably the Christian religion. In the Middle Ages, marriage in the West was conceivable only within a Christian framework, and even after the Middle Ages up to this day Christianity retains a strong influence on the Western understanding of marriage. Nevertheless, even in the past the concept of marriage was not clear and not without internal contradictions. For example, marriage could be seen from a religious, a social, a contractual and a natural perspective, each emphasizing different centres of power and authority (for a detailed analysis, see Witte 1997, Introduction).

Generally speaking, perhaps, we can single out two major models of marriage: the religious one and the contractual one. The religious model recognises the authority of the Christian faith. The contractual model, which we can also call Enlightenment model, sees marriage as a contract between two individuals and downplays the role of religion. However, both these models were never so clear and undisputed that they could dominate the collective understanding of marriage. We can argue that this endless debate about the meaning and forms of marriage is still going on in the West, as can be seen in the issue of gay marriage. 

I would like to emphasize here the importance that the Christian tradition has had in shaping certain Western values regarding marriage. In general, I shall argue that marriage was understood as an indissoluble union of a man and a woman based on mutual love, sacrifice and solidarity, and on the common care for their children. In the Christian tradition, marriage was an extremely serious matter, because it was not only a bond between individuals, but between individuals, the Christian community at large, and God:

[M]arriage between Christians was an indissoluble sacrament. The temporal union of body, soul, and mind within the marital estate symbolized the eternal union between Christ and the church and brought sanctifying grace to the couple, the church and the community (ibid., p. 5).

An important aspect of the Christian concept of marriage is that marriage was not seen as a good thing per se. In fact, Christianity emphasizes the love for God and the pursuit of virtues for the sake of moral purity, while it criminalises sexual desire. For example, when Mary gave birth to Jesus, she was a virgin; she became pregnant not through 'base' sexual intercourse, but by God's will. God sent his son to the world of men through a perfectly pure woman who was above sexual lust and earthly desires.

Accordingly, sexual lust was considered a sin. But because 'flesh is weak', marriage was seen as a remedy, as a way to control and domesticate sexuality within a Christian framework. Celibacy was regarded as an act of moral superiority and was encouraged, though it was common knowledge even in the Middle Ages that the vow of chastity was hard to fulfill. 

Since marriage laws in the Middle Ages were mostly enacted and enforced by the church, a series of 'immoral' acts were banned and prosecuted as crimes: contraception, abortion, divorce (with some exceptions), polygamy, polygyny etc.    

So far the theory. The practice was quite different, and it's easy to find out in the literature and the documents of the Middle Ages that people often disregarded religious moral  norms and laws. However, the relationship between traditional Christian values and the actual behaviour of individuals is like the relationship between state and corruption nowadays. Corruption is widely seen as a negative phenomenon and is forbidden by the laws. Yet corruption exists, as a deviation from official norms. What is important to stress here is that Christian moral values existed and were recognised as a moral guide by a large part of the population, even if often only on paper. 

The contractual, or Enlightenment model, is perhaps even more complex than the religious one. The idea that marriage is only a contract between to individuals somewhat invalidates the objective nature of marriage. The contractual model is now very widespread, maybe even prevalent in the West. This model of marriage is what creates so much confusion, because it is not based on clear, objective principles, but on individual opinions, desires and choices. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that the contractual model inherited many of the elements of the Christian concept, most especially the principle that marriage is a consensual union of two individuals, and that polygamy or concubinage are not permitted.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Clean Underground, Dirty Restaurants - Thoughts About a Taiwanese Contradiction

While I was at Taipei MRT Station this evening I saw the following sign:

As you can see, there is a foreigner on the picture, who of course lacks manners and knowledge so that he eats and drinks in the MRT. A foreign barbarian disrupting the local order - a disgraceful sight. To be fair, I have seen a few foreigners do that before, mostly because we don't have such regulations in the West, so we can't even imagine that they exist. I used to eat and drink in Berlin's underground all the time and never thought there was something wrong or disgusting about it.

Certainly, Taipei's MRT is superior to most Western underground systems as far as cleanliness is concerned. However, I do not totally understand why Taiwanese are so obsessed with the cleanness of their underground, while they often disregard the cleanness of the restaurants they eat in.

The reason why I am writing this post and share with you my doubts is that two weeks ago I went to a Taiwanese restaurant where I swore to myself never ever to go again. It is a vegetarian Buddhist restaurant in Gongguan area. I've been there many times before, and I had already noticed that it wasn't at all clean. However, I wanted to get used to local life, and this kind of small street restaurants are just like this, and no one seems to care much about it.

But last time ... well, that was really too much. Warning - I am going to tell you something totally disgusting, so don't read it if you are too delicate.

I was sitting at a table at the back of the restaurant, right in front of the wall and a big sliding glass door. Behind the glass door are stored things like rice and other foodstuffs. On the wall there was a huge, disgusting dead cockroach, who must have been there for some time because its body was partly decomposed. You can guess... how disgusted I felt. I just lost my appetite completely, and I wish I could erase this image from my memory.

Now, when I talk with Taiwanese and point out that some restaurants are dirty, I am perceived by some people as arrogant or too picky. And if I say I don't understand why one cannot even drink in the MRT, I am perceived again as arrogant or disgusting. I mean, what is the point of being so strict about the cleanliness of the MRT when no one goes to check the hygienic conditions of restaurants? I must be really missing something; and I wish I knew what it is.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Are Asian Girls Easy? - The Myth of the Innocent Asian (Part III)

Before I came to Taiwan I believed that Asian girls were pure and innocent and that 'evil' Western guys took advantage of Asians' nice and friendly behaviour. I think that this is the version that Asians themselves would like to believe.

But soon I realised that things are not so simple. First of all, I want to emphasize that when we talk about different cultures and societies, we should always make clear by what standards we are judging certain phenomena. In fact, things that are morally acceptable in one country might not be morally acceptable in another. I think this is an extremely important point. If we look at the history of Asia and the West, we can easily recognise that in these two civilisations marriage was based on completely different values.

Asian people tend to believe that Westerners are selfish and pleasure-seeking. Of course, Asians have the right to criticise the West as much as they want. I am not trying to defend the West and I am not suggesting that the West is morally superior to the East. What I am saying is that these two civilisations have established systems based on different moral and social values. And often times they judge each other from two very different perspectives.

Now, many Asian people, most especially those who stick to traditional values, emphasize the idea that Asians have sense of responsibility, respect the elders and care about the group rather than about the individual. Westerners, on the contrary, are seen as self-centred and irresponsible. This is one of the major causes of the love-hatred relationship between Asian and Western people.

The self-perception of many Asian people also influences the perception that some Westerners have of them. After all, if they represent themselves in this way, it is hard for Westerners who do not know much about the reality of Asian societies to free themselves from this point of view.

I would like to show that these 'Asian values' are not exactly what they might appear to be at first glance. And in order to do this, we must distinguish between the image of themselves that people want to project on others - which in some way is a sort of self-propaganda - and the actual principles upon which their behaviour and thinking are based. Consequently, if we examine the foundations of marriage and family in Asian societies, we might discover that their underlying principles can be actually perceived by Westerners as immoral, or at least as questionable. I shall argue that these values are part of the reason why Asian girls are considered easy by some Westerners, and why sometimes Westerners do not respect them.  

In the next posts, I will illustrate this point by discussing four phenomena: concubinage, filial piety, the role of money in marriage, and the different gender-roles in Asian relationships and marriage.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Are Asian Girls Easy? Why Asians and Westerners Are Attracted to Each Other, and Why It Is All a Misunderstanding (Part II)

There are lots of forums and websites that discuss the question of whether Asian girls are attracted to Western men (and vice-versa). Nevertheless I decided to express my own view on the subject because it is related to the general topic of this series of posts. I think it is undeniable that this mutual interest exists, although it affects only a small part of the population (how small or large, of course no one can tell). Of course, there are many individuals who truly love each other and I'm not trying to belittle their genuine feelings or personal experience. What I'll be discussing in this post is rather a general trend referred to a certain part of the population.

How can we explain this phenomenon? The first and most obvious thing is mutual physical attraction. As I mentioned in my post about the cult of cuteness in East Asia, Asian girls tend to accept a social-role that leads them to act and behave in a way that emphasizes their femininity, fragility, softness and subordination to men (at least on the surface). Many Asian girls also know how to take care of their appearance; they want to be skinny, they know how to use make-up etc. Let me repeat that I am not talking about every Asian girl, of course, but about a certain segment of the population (yet a large one, as far as I could observe).

Western men, on the other hand, possess certain physical and 'social' qualities that Asians seem to value: white skin, height, big eyes, social status etc. (of course, not every Westerner possesses all of these qualities). Actually, there is nothing wrong with being physically attracted to people from other countries. I want to try to be as objective as possible, so I will explain this point through an example that has nothing to do with Asia. I asked myself the question: why are north-European blonde girls popular in Italy? I think if we answer this question we can also understand better why some Asians and Westerners feel mutual attraction for each other.

I must admit that when I was a teenager I was obsessed with blonde girls. I remember when I went to England for the first time and saw many blonde girls I was overwhelmed. Though not all Italians share the same feeling, blonde girls from Germany, Sweden, Norway etc. are extremely popular in Italy and in Mediterranean countries in general. Why is that? Some people say it's because they're exotic. But if it were true, then all girls who look different should be popular, too, which doesn't seem to be the case. Women from Muslim countries, for instance, may be exotic, but I doubt whether they're particularly sought-after.

I think the reason lies rather in the fact that 'nordic' girls represent a particular ideal of beauty. I don't know exactly why this is so. Interestingly enough, blondness was for centuries regarded as an attribute of beauty, and I wonder if I was unconsciously influenced by that.

Blondness as a symbol of beauty dates back to the Greek and Roman world. For example, Ovid in Ars Amatoria and the Epistles mentions this motif. Blonde hair as a symbol of beauty continued to exist in medieval Europe, where it was considered as a reflection of positive moral characteristics. Blonde hair symbolised light and brightness as opposed to darkness. "Blonde hair became part of a standardised code of earthly feminine beauty and romance in literature" (Pitman 2008, p. 61). Blonde hair was therefore associated with women who were both morally good and of high social status. Petrarch's Laura is blonde and her blondness is one of the major motifs of the Canzoniere. Boccaccio's six beauties in Ameto and Emilia in Teseida have blonde hair, too (see Bettella 2005, p. 134).

But blondness also assumed a socio-political meaning in the 19th and 20th century. Because of the economic development of Northern Europe, the "northern races" started to see themselves as superior to the rest of the world. Being from the North and looking 'nordic' was not just an aesthetic category; it was also associated with power, vitality, strength, purity and martial virtues. The culmination of this phenomenon was, of course, the aesthetic ideal of Nazi Germany, where the "image of the tall, blond, blue-eyed, clean-limbed Nordic" became a fantasy of physical perfection (see Hutton 2005, p. 101).

I still remember that when I was young we had at home a painting of two blonde cute angels. And I have three young nieces who are all blonde and - needless to say - everybody loves them because they're so cute. So it seems that the 'nordic' type is a beauty ideal created under certain social and historical circumstances. 

After I moved to Germany, however, my interest in blonde girls soon vanished. I realised two very simple things. First, it is ridiculous to be together with a girl because she is blonde; you can't base your judgement on such superficial characteristics without looking at a person's character and at the 'chemistry'. Second, it became clear to me that there are plenty of beautiful girls who are not blonde. My ex-girlfriend, for example, was of course not blonde, because she is Taiwanese, but in my eyes she was the most gorgeous girl I'd met during my whole stay in Germany.

Be as it may, I would argue that the effect Western men make on a certain segment of the Asian population can be compared to the effect that blonde 'nordic' girls make on a certain segment of the male population in Southern Europe.

Let us now look at some socio-economic and aesthetic reasons that can explain why some Asians and Westerners are attracted to each other:

1 - Western men are perceived as handsome due to Asian beauty standards, like the preference for fair skin, big eyes, long eyelashes etc. Furthermore, as far as the character is concerned, they may be perceived as more easy-going, romantic, open-minded etc.

2 - Some Asian girls who are not popular with their own fellow countrymen may resort to Western men; for example, girls who earn much (and therefore cannot easily find a richer partner), or who are not considered pretty by Asian standards etc., may think that Westerners are more suitable partners for them because they do not share Asian men's ideal of female subordination and beauty standards (I will explain later why this is a double-edged sword).

3 - Since for decades Western countries were seen as richer and more developed than Asia, the good image somehow has stuck to Westerners. In a comparable way, the myth of the more developed northern Europeans has stuck to them and defines their collective reputation and image. Consequently, some Asian girls perceive Westerners as image-enhancing, just like men, if you will, who might show off their beautiful girlfriend as a status symbol.

Why are Western males attracted to Asian girls?

1 - As I mentioned before, the hierarchical and role-specific nature of Asian societies leads girls to display their femininity in order to fit in certain gender-roles and the expectations of men. I will explain this point more in detail later. Now I would just like to stress that Western men might feel drawn to the aesthetic ideal of soft, cute and submissive femininity some Asian girls project. However, this is, too, a double-edged sword, because these qualities are not always the reflection of a girl's true personality. I will show in the next post why the foundations of marriage and dating in East and West are very different, and why therefore femininity is defined in different ways.

2 - Some Westerners consider Asians 'easy' which in my view is the result of  Asians' dating and marriage behaviour.

3 - Some Westerners who wish to start a stable family may think that Asian girls are more virtuous and reliable than their Western counterparts.

There is also two another reasons, common to both Asians and Westerners, why they might like each other. 1) some people tend to project on their foreign partner their own wishes and expectations, which are sometimes quite unrealistic. For example, some Asian girls expect from Western men not only the good qualities that they attribute to the West, but also the ones they find in Asian men. For example, Western men should be romantic, open-minded and warm-hearted, but also accept the typical Asian male gender-role of the main bread-earner, of the one who spoils his girl and takes care of her, who pleases his parents-in-law etc. 

In the same way, Westerners expect Asians to have all the advantages of their own image of the Asian girl, but they may not see or may not want to see some aspects of Asian thinking that is perhaps less compatible to common Western standards.

2) A person from abroad, from another culture, represents the 'otherness'. Some people are drawn to a foreign partner out of interest in other cultures and languages, or because this seems to them a way to escape from the uniformity and problems of everyday life.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Are Asian Girls Easy? - A Few Thoughts About How Westerners (may) Perceive Asian Girls (Part I)

A couple of weeks ago some friends of mine shared on Facebook an article that soon became very popular. The article was a merciless criticism of Taiwanese girls. It accused them, among other things, of being "Hello Kitty, submissive, shallow, brain dead and a good f***" (read the full article here). The post was - I think - nothing more than a collection of passages from posts that had already been circulating online for some time. But despite not being at all new, pieces like that always stir minor controversies every time they are (re-)published.

The reaction of Taiwanese netizens to this post was a mix of anger and shame. Some people told me that they admitted that the content of the article had some truth in it, but they were angry at the offensive tone and the exaggerations of the author. 

Now, let me first say something about the style of the post. Of course, it is offensive and simplistic. However,

1) I think that this is a marketing strategy. Writing posts that oversimplify complex topics and make people feel angry is a deliberate technique. In fact, readers are more likely to share or comment on an article if it provokes in them a strong emotional reaction. If you write a long and difficult article, people will not react to it. Just go to a library and take a look at the piles of great books that no one touches. It's because they are too complex, or too deep, or because people don't have time to read them. On the contrary, tabloids like Apple Daily in Hong Kong / Taiwan, or Bild Zeitung in Germany attract millions of readers. It's because they provoke, oversimplify, publish trivial pieces, nurture prejudices, show pictures of half-naked women etc., and people read them because they affect their emotions and arouse their interest. I'm not defending this strategy, but unfortunately that's the the way it is. If you want to write something popular, one of the best ways it to provoke and make people angry. Chances are people will share your content. 

Some of you may remember the ill-famous blogger Chinabounder. He was an English teacher in China, and he launched a blog called Sex and Shanghai, in which he wrote about his sexual exploits with Chinese women, and even with his own school students. He became a celebrity because a Chinese professor started a campaign against him. Chinabounder, who published his posts anonymously, was for a while searched by the police, who, however, never found him. His blog became a short-lived internet sensation. It is hard to tell whether popularity was Chinabounder's intended target. But if it was, then he certainly achieved his goal.

The author of the article I mentioned before achieved his goal, too; it was shared more than 20,000 times on Facebook, and more than 400 on Google+. If you read the piece, you will certainly notice that it is not written as an objective social analysis. The author either wanted to vent his anger, or write something popular. That is why his language is simplistic, aggressive, provocative and sharp. Therefore, its content should not be taken too seriously. 

2) There is, however, another reason why the post raised such an outcry: it promoted the stereotype of the easy and shallow Asian girl, and at the same time it promoted the stereotype of the arrogant, disrespectful foreigner. 

I believe that these two stereotypes are based on a perception that should be understood in the context of cultural difference and of certain cultural misconceptions. They are not totally untrue, but they seem to me a product of a lack of mutual understanding. In the next posts, I will try to explain why in my opinion some Westerners perceive Asian girls as easy.  

Six Taiwanese Things that Europe Should Have

I've been quite busy and tired during the last few days. I wasn't in the right mood to continue my 'serious' posts, so I decided to simply write a post about some of the things that I find very useful and nice in Taiwan and that Europe should and could, in my opinion, learn from.

1 - Convenience Stores

If there is a title that Taiwan undoubtedly deserves, then this must be "Kingdom of Convenience Stores." With a total of 9,204 outlets, Taiwan has "the highest density of convenience stores in the world, with each store serving 2,500 people" (note). 

When I lived in Berlin, I used to say that if you walk for five or ten minutes you will find an underground station. In fact, Berlin has one of the most extensive underground networks in the world, and you can truly go anywhere by tube. In Taiwan, if you walk five minutes you may not find an underground station, but certainly you will find a convenience store. Sometimes you see two or three of them on the same street, or even opposite one another. I've always wondered how they manage to make profits in spite of such density and all the expenses they have to sustain.

Anyway, convenience stores are really useful. They are like mini-markets, selling food, drinks, and products like shampoos, pens, notebooks etc. They also have a range of products such as fresh fruits, salads, sandwiches, cold noodles, sushi and so on. Some convenience stores, especially the ones opened recently, are quite big and have tables and restrooms. Besides, many convenience store chains offer wireless internet. However, you can access it only if you have a contract with certain telecommunication companies like 中華電信 (Zhōnghuá diànxìn). Convenience stores are open 24-hours a day, which makes them extremely useful especially for people who get off work late (and in Taiwan the number of these unfortunate people is not small).

In Europe, late in the evening or on Sundays all supermarkets are closed and there is virtually no place to go to buy food except for some restaurants or Kebap shops. I used to live in Pankow district in Berlin. There were a few supermarkets near my house, but on weekdays they closed between 8 p.m. and 12 a.m., and on Sundays they didn't open at all. So, I had to plan when to go and buy food, and sometimes it happened that I simply had nothing in the fridge (especially when I returned from a trip abroad). In Taiwan, this will definitely not happen.
In my hometown in Italy it's even worse. How many times did I hear my mother ask me on Saturdays at five or six p.m.: "Don't you need to buy anything? Remember that tomorrow supermarkets are closed."?

2 - Night Markets

I personally don't like night markets very much. They are too crowded, and I don't like to eat while I'm walking, let alone while walking in the summer heat. However, they are an integral part of Taiwanese life and apparently many Taiwanese (and Chinese) miss them when they go abroad. I've often heard Taiwanese complain that in the West there's nothing to do at night. I'm not really sure if I agree with that; anyway, it is true that if you live close to a night market you can go there and have a snack in the middle of the night, which is quite convenient.

3 - 白花油

白花油 (pinyin: Báihuāyóu) means 'white flower oil'. It is an aromatic ointment that is used to treat headache, bruises, muscular pain and - most important of all - mosquito bites. Since Taiwan has a lot of mosquitoes all year round, such lotions are extremely useful. The white flower oil is a traditional medication and is completely natural. It can be bought in convenience stores, supermarkets etc. Some of my Taiwanese friends saw me put it on mosquito bites and said to me: "I can't believe a foreigner is using this! That's what our grandparents use." The astounding thing is that this ointment really works. You just rub it on the mosquito bite for a couple of seconds, and it will give you a feeling of freshness, and eventually make the itch disappear completely. It is way better than most products I've tried in Europe, which are mostly just a waste of money.

4 - Toilets in the MRT

One thing that really bothers me in Europe is that public toilets seem to be a luxury good. In Berlin, for example, you have to pay to use the toilet. Using the public toilet inside Zoologischer Garten Station, for example, cost 1 Euro 50 the last time I went there. The fee increases year by year, in fact the first time I went to Berlin I remember paying just 80 cents!

I mean, even if you just want to wash your hands you need to pay 1 Euro 50. This is absolutely ridiculous and unhygienic, because people will not wash their hands often.

In Italy, this is even worse. At least, in Germany you pay for clean toilets. In Italy, you pay for dirty ones. When I went to the main station in Rome this January, the cleaning staff looked like some mafia thugs that were there only to collect money. Sure, they cleaned from time to time, but I wonder whether they were just pretending to be cleaning, because the toilets were always as dirty as before.

In Taiwan, fortunately things are different. Every MRT station has toilets, and although they are not always perfectly clean, at least they are so most of the times. So, thumbs up for the MRT.

5 - Road Toll Payment

One nice thing in Taiwan is that before travelling you can buy at convenience stores a roadway toll ticket. Instead of stopping at the toll collection points to pay, you just use the ticket and in a few seconds you can continue your journey smoothly. I wonder why there is no such thing in Europe.

6 - Vegetarian Food

Asia has a long tradition of vegetarian cuisine. This is because Buddhism and Buddhist monks have spread vegetarianism throughout the Far East. The first precept in Buddhism prescribes that one should not take the life of or cause unnecessary harm to living beings. Accordingly, killing or inflicting pain to a living being, as well as inducing someone else to do so, are seen as offenses against this principle (Walters / Portmess 2001, p. 85).  However, this precept is not followed strictly, and vegetarianism is not compulsory, most especially for lays. But monks are expected to respect this principle more strictly (see Harvey 2012, pp. 273-274).

References to the vegetarian diet of monks are numerous in Chinese literature. For example, in the famous work Six Records of a Floating Life (Chinese, 浮生六記 pinyin: Fú Shēng Liù Jì) by scholar Shen Fu (沈復, pinyin: Shěn Fù, 1763–1810?), there are many descriptions of the author's travels, which involved frequent stops at temples. Just to name one of several examples,

The monks at the temples settled me in the Pavilion of Great Mercy. The pavilion faced south, and to its east was a Buddha. I occupied the pavilion's westernmost room, which had a moon window and was directly opposite the shrine, the room where pilgrims would normally have had their vegetarian meals (Six Records of a Floating Life, Part III).
Another example can be found in the Ming Dynasty story by Feng Menglong The Oil Vendor and the Queen of Flowers. 

秦重將轎子讓與父親乘坐,自己步行,直到家中。秦重取出一套新衣,與父親換了,中堂設坐,同安莘氏雙雙參拜。親家莘公、親母阮氏,齊來見禮。   此日大排筵席。秦公不肯開葷,素酒素食。
Qin Zhong put his father on a sedan chair and went with him to his house. There he provided his father with a change of clothes, gave him a seat of honour and kowtowed before him together with his wife. Afterwards Qin Gong met Shen Shan and his wife Ruan, natives of Tong'an district. 
A sumptuous banquet was held, but Qin Gong, accustomed to the vegetarian diet of the temple, refused to eat meat and ate only vegetarian food (The Oil Vendor and the Queen of Flowers).   

During hundreds of years, the monks' vegetarian diet of course led them to create a varied and rich vegetarian cuisine, which in my opinion should become more popular among vegetarians and vegans in the West, who often have no choice but to eat salads, cereals and bread.