Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Balancing Empathy and Action: Thoughts from an Ill American

“But yesterday you said you’d go to the next family.”

“I’m really sorry. I was really tired when you called yesterday and wasn’t assertive enough about my situation.” Yesterday in the haze of fatigue and pain I had failed to maintain a firm stance in advocating for my health and fell back to an old pattern: it had sounded like trying to take some time off would be a huge nuisance, so I had agreed to go onto the next family. After laying very, very still for several hours, I had realized that I needed to be firm on this matter—I needed a chunk of time to “rest aggressively” and if I were to have a chance at preventing the decline from getting really out of control, I needed it now.

With this new resolve developing too late for a phone call, I sent an email. I really think I need to take this time off so that I can be a fully engaged and energetic participant for the rest of the program, I explained. And in classic Danica manner, I didn’t want this to be a problem or extra work for anyone, so I assured him that I had figured out all the transportation and accommodations I would need to carry out aggressive resting.

It is the following morning when we’re on the phone again. “Because you said yesterday that you’d go to the next family, they are prepared for you to arrive. They are waiting for you. So you need to go.” What he says is true, reasons one part of my brain, I should stick to my word and not expect last minute changes to wor—I really try to hold it together. I really do. But my defenses are worn thin, and frustration seeps through ever-widening cracks.

“I don’t understand why yesterday afternoon it was a possibility to take time off, but now just half a day later it’s not,” I say through tears. “I know it’s rude to not arrive when people are expecting me. I’m sorry. But if I go to the family, I’m afraid it will also be rude to only rest in my room and not interact with them.” My mind is crowded with disparate, competing thoughts and feelings. I need to stand my ground, I think. Health is a priority. But the fatigue and pain gnaw at the edges of my resolve and encourage unflustered assessments to balloon into emotional appeals. On top of this is my acute awareness that such an emotional outburst is, according to Chinese culture, quite inappropriate.

So here I am. Making demands. Being loud and emotional. And being completely aware that I must be filling the “ugly American” stereotype much too well. I am really, really embarrassed.

I recognize that I'm kind of hyper-aware of behaviors that might be tied to rude or inconsiderate foreigner. On a day-to-day basis I may go a bit overboard trying to counteract any notion of the “ugly American,” because I so strongly wish to be a flexible and respectful visitor. Because I have to refuse a lot of food due to gluten (and I’m afraid that will come across as being “picky”), I am willing to eat anything else. Really, anything. When people with whom I have no previous connection welcome me into their home and an organization has gone through the effort to plan all sorts of events, I feel like the least I can do is be willing to engage in whatever they have in store for me. The phrase you’ll hear coming out of my mouth more than any other is, “都可以 (dou1ke3yi3).“Anything/Either/All will do.” 
But in this instance, I feel pretty sure that hyper-awareness is not at all necessary to see this as a stunning performance of a foreigner being ignorant of or insensitive to local cultural norms. I can see how his arguments are valid when backed by the norms and expectations of behavior here—that actions I would deem small social gaffes worth doing for the sake of my health may feel much bigger and more important to others. I can see how the coordinator’s agreeing to my requests could reverberate negatively through his professional relationships. I don’t necessarily understand the all the details of why it’s so important to follow through with meeting the next family or how it might affect the “face” he has with other people involved, but I can see that those things are there. And I want to respect local norms, to do no harm to anybody’s social networks.

Yet I can’t abandon the commitment I’ve made to my health. My previous efforts that fell within the boundary of appropriateness—requesting a less busy schedule, triaging language study time for rest time, meditating to reduce pain and to maintain a more distanced perspective on the situation—had helped but were not enough. I’ve made mistakes about trying to ignore limits set by the body before, and I'm not about to repeat those mistakes. Thus, even while I am aware of the damage my adamant position has the potential to cause, I find myself sticking to it.

And for that, I feel ashamed. It might be one thing to be ignorant of what my words and actions were doing, but how can I continue that path if I am aware that my words and actions are asking people to disregard social values and to risk adding tension to some of their own social connections? To be unwittingly disrespectful or harmful is unfortunate, but to be knowingly so feels...well, kind of immoral. Or at least mean-spirited.

Now, just you wait a minute. Before you all get up in arms about assuring me that advocating for my health is not the equivalent of being an “ugly American” (don’t worry, my parents have taken care of that), you have to understand that all experiences for me involve multiple layers of thought and feeling. So while I felt embarrassed, ashamed, and like an “ugly American”—and those were all very real feelings—I also had the trusty, mostly-rational part of me that can keep sight of all of the reasons why advocating for my health in whatever ways are effective does not make me a horrible person. The point of writing about this experience isn’t to berate myself or to apply a negative label to myself. Instead, I felt compelled to write about the inner turmoil I felt in this encounter because navigating a new cultural environment as an “ill American” returns to a dilemma I encounter often but that always seems to leave me confused.
Anthropologists call it “cultural relativism”—that all “cultures” are worthy of respect and that we ought to suspend our judgment as we try to understand another “culture’s” worldview. I guess I prefer “empathy,” so that we can apply this attitude on any scale from individuals to whole societies.1 Whatever the name, to be willing to set aside whatever preconceived notions you might have, to suspend judgment, and to truly try to understand a view that is different from your own—even when that view might contradict something you feel vary deeply to be “true” or “right”—is a good first step to encountering difference positively and to resolving conflict.

But then what? It’s just the first step, and while empathizing may improve future steps by reminding us of the human in each other, unless the second step is for those who hold different views to isolate themselves from each other, something has to change. And here’s where I reach my dilemma: Empathy allows me to “see where a person is coming from” even if their “conclusion” on a matter is drastically different from mine. When it comes down to acting, compromise is sometimes a solution, but there are some cases where I remain confident in the position I held before empathizing and want to act accordingly. I can see how being vocal and stubborn about my health can be disrespectful in my host culture and could result in tension between some of the people involved, but if that’s what it takes to keep myself out of an emergency situation, I’ll do it.2

I get the same feeling when I try to communicate with people about climate change. I work to understand why people take the positions that they do and try to communicate that I respect that opinion, but in the end, I am not only still confident that scientific evidence points to anthropogenic climate change, but I also want to educate those very people about why they might want to reconsider their view. Heck, I’m a climate change proselytizer if there ever was one.
To empathize but then not to budge. It feels to me that any “relativism” is lost. It’s like, “Okay, we had our moment. I suspended my judgment in attempt to understand your perspective, and I may have really felt your view and your reasoning. But now I’m going to make a judgment that my perspective is better/more accurate than yours.” In the moment that shifts from non-judgment to judgment, I feel that something is lost—doors to particular kinds of relationships are closed as people realize where others stand.

And then quickly the counterarguments come marching in, pointing out that being steadfast in one’s support of something “right” or “good” is a sign of strong moral character. And, aha, spend any amount of time reading anthropology blogs on the matter and you’ll find that many see a distinction between methodological cultural relativism and moral cultural relativism. When one goes “into the field,” one’s research should be bracketed by cultural relativism, but that doesn’t mean one must relinquish all one’s own senses of morality. (Of course, distinguishing between the two doesn’t prevent the role of the researcher and the degree to which he or she practices cultural relativism from getting much muddier when he or she encounters something that feels immoral.) That is, to be willing to suspend judgment to understand others’ worldviews doesn’t mean one has to engage in complete moral relativism (the idea that there are no absolute morals).

I get that. While morality is complicated, and there are certainly some behaviors that are tied to morality that I don’t think should be, there are also instances where I have absolutely no doubt about what is moral or immoral. In cases where people’s safety, well-being, or dignity are being threatened,3 there is no “dilemma.” It’s easy to shift from putting myself in the perspective of the perpetrators to ask “Why would they do this?” to taking a resolute stance against violence and harm. (Sometimes too easy, which is why I think it remains important to take a moment to empathize, to recognize that another’s view is reasoned from beliefs and information just like my own—if only to remember that they are human, too, and have that affect how I interact with or think about them).

It’s the issues that don’t seem to have a clear “right” answer that cause the paralysis. Sometimes the matters are small, such as the case of traveling as an “ill American.” In fact, I think I could argue to myself that it’s small enough that I’ve completely overthought the situation. Alternatively, some would argue that deciding between being culturally appropriate and prioritizing my health should not be a dilemma at all. If often feels like a dilemma, however, because it’s not always clear what “needs” to be done. Living with a long-term something (illness? or...? could we call it something else? give it a name?) that can sometimes be debilitating but is probably not life-threatening means that I, at least, give some weight to other factors. It’s not like the flu where if I’m feeling miserable for a few days, it might be okay to be kind of irritable and self-interested for a bit. Such behavior would not translate well into the long-term. It wouldn't be fun for anyone else, and I wouldn't feel like myself. I still have to be “me” in whatever way is possible at any given moment, and that means the factors outside of “prioritizing my health,” like how my behavior represents 4-H or which actions would be good for or kind to others involved, do count for something.

Sometimes these matters are larger—cases in which no matter what decision is made somebody or some group will be harmed or in which the decisions made affect everyone, including those who disagree with the decision. There is surely still a benefit from understanding the other view—at the very least it allows whoever had their position prevail to continue empathizing, to understand that accepting or adapting to the prevailing view will be difficult. But the action that follows empathy may not be clear. What helps one community may harm another. How do you “weigh” the harm done against each other? (Here, what comes to mind is the way that DDT has been used to reduce malaria in Africa but those same chemicals concentrate in Inuit food sources in the Arctic. A hopeful sign that such dilemmas might be solved is seen in how Sheila Watt-Cloutier addressed the issue of these pollutants, showing how we might change perspectives so that we don’t have to weigh one harm against another.) When is it okay to make people go along with something they disagree with for the “greater good”—for instance through policy that regulates pollution, or carbon emissions, or health insurance—and when is it not?

I wish after writing, reading, rethinking, and revising this whole brain jog I could have something to say to you that ties it all together or reaches a moment of realization. Sorry, folks, I don’t have a final snappy comment on this matter. To be honest, I still feel nearly as bad about playing the part of the “ill American” as before I started writing, and for me the tension between being truly empathetic and ultimately sticking to my own views and understandings is not yet resolved. What do you think?

Empathy and relativism are good, but using what is learned from those attitudes to take action that is both “right” and effective is not always (perhaps “is rarely”) straightforward. I may not have clear conclusions to write here now, but there is something about being able to identify what is going on in that tension between non-judgmental empathy and unavoidably judgmental4 action that makes me hopeful that maybe with time I will find a balance between empathizing with people’s differing views and values and advocating for my own.

As usual, the experiences arising from this illness (please can we give it another name?!) continue to push me to consider and grapple with new thoughts and perspectives. What a dedicated teacher it is!

1. Some might say that I shouldn’t conflate cultural relativism and empathy. Certainly a relativistic view involves some kind of empathetic approach, but perhaps in tying the two together my personal understanding of cultural relativism involves more “putting yourself in another’s shoes” than the mainstream definition of the concept intends. For now they remain intricately tied to each other in my mind.

2. I want to be clear that I do not want to convey anyone here as being “insensitive” to my own health needs—let’s be real, there were several instances last year where the same kind of “breaking point” had to be reached before the necessary people would take action. With “invisible” health challenges, it’s hard for people to really know what you’re dealing with until you reach such a point regardless of what “culture” you’re in—it’s just that here, an emotional outburst seems to carry more disapproval than in places I’ve been in the U.S.

3. In a lot of ways, my views align with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I know that some have argued that it is a distinctly Western-biased document, so I can imagine how my being raised in the “Western” context could make me unaware of other angles. I can’t tackle that right now while still trying to hold together this other train of thought. Perhaps another time.

4. By “unavoidably judgmental” I don’t mean judgmental in the pejorative sense but rather in that sense that any decision requires some sort of judgment. For example, me taking advocating action to address climate change involves judgment but (I hope that) it doesn't necessarily mean I have a "judgmental" attitude toward people who do not share that position.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Which rules and when?

[...welcome to your new cultural environment...to unlock the next level you must identify and put into practice the behavioral “rules” regarding propriety and respect that guide people’s everyday actions with each other...successful participation may lead to hidden worlds...good luck]

Your goal is to gain some understanding of “what it’s like” or “what it means” to live in a particular time and place enmeshed in a particular set of cultural practices. Sure, your own worldview and past experiences make it impossible to ever see the world in exactly the same way as any other person or group, but that doesn’t stop myriad IFYEs and anthropologists from immersing themselves in new communities to understand the many varieties of human experience.

In setting out on this journey, you can’t just walk into a room (or into a country) and all of a sudden “get” what is going on. Having a sense of what is going on around you takes time, as you must first understand some premises in order to even become aware of, let alone understand, other pieces of the puzzle. It is this process of gathering prerequisite pieces of knowledge before advancing understanding that brings to mind the video game metaphor above*—of advancing through levels of understanding and finding hidden worlds of meaning.

A similar image of the traveler entering a foreign “culture”** is seen in the “Land of Oz” exercise conducted at the IFYE Orientation to raise IFYEs’ awareness about the existence of different cultural practices and to “encourage cultural sensitivity.” Basically, the organizers of the orientation gathered in one room and interacted with each other based on a set of made-up rules. For example, some of the rules in the version taught at this year’s orientation were: “Women take off their shoes to enter the room, but men do not. Visitors can speak directly to women, but can only speak to men with a woman as a middle-person. Men sit on chairs, women sit on the floor. Visitors cannot speak directly to the leader. Questions should not be answered with “yes” even if the answer to the question is affirmative.” The IFYEs, who were kept in a separate room and knew none of these rules, then cycled through this “Land of Oz.” Each person interacted with the citizens of Oz until he or she broke a rule, at which time he or she was escorted away and reported back to the IFYE group what he or she thinks the rule is.

Obviously, this game is not like real life, and I have wondered if the use of such arbitrary and sometimes silly rules may give the wrong impression to someone entering a “different culture” for the first time about the role or meaning of the “rules” that guide everyday interactions—that is, that a newcomer might identify such ”rules” in real life and not realize that what may seem like superficial or arbitrary rules at first glance (like the Oz rules) are likely tied to a much larger and more complex system of beliefs.

But I digress. My point here isn’t to critique this exercise but to use the game as an example of a common way that cultural immersion is imagined or talked about among exchange/study abroad programs: You’re sent into a different operating system, and you’re goal is to “crack the code.”

To some extent, I think this image is effective in encouraging such travelers to be attentive toward the behavior around them that demonstrates what it means to be an appropriate and respectful participant in one’s host community, but there is another aspect to a traveler immersing him or herself in another culture that doesn’t seem to get equal attention (except maybe in Anthro Methods). When immersing myself in Taiwan—or, actually, when traveling abroad in general—I come with my own smorgasbord of characteristics and conditions that introduce a smattering of alternate operating systems. The fact that I’m here through the IFYE program and fill the role of “American Grassroots Ambassador” creates its own system of guidelines for interactions, and those guidelines sometimes contradict the guidelines that are already set in place in the communities around me.

One of the most striking examples to me is how people are expected to try to pay for their friends’/guests’ meals—and I mean really try. I’ve watched numerous shouting matches between people trying to pay for each other and have also observed the quieter tactics of pushing money into the hands of the friend and then running away. If we imagined that I were a guest outside the 4-H program, it would be appropriate for me to join in this dance of fighting to pay and losing/winning enough times to keep the relationship fairly balanced (anthro nerd alert: this would be the time to insert a slew of exchange/Mauss/David Graeber/Debt related thoughts if I weren’t trying to stay on topic). The operating system of the IFYE program, however, involves the expectation or agreement that the Farmers Associations/4-H cover IFYEs basic food, housing, and transportation expenses during their time as ambassadors. So that’s awkward. Of course, I’ve tested the waters on this matter to gauge which system the individuals I was with thought was most appropriate for our relationship, but such experiments haven’t revealed a strong pattern either way. Conflicting guidelines like these are what make “doing the right [culturally appropriate] thing” fantastically unclear in many encounters.

Not only are there multiple operating systems coming into play, but also the determination of which system takes precedence changes through time as my relationships with people evolve. For instance, at meals, everyone is supposed to let the oldest people serve themselves first. Pretty straightforward, right? Except my host families almost always tell me to serve myself first. In some cases I’ve tried to refuse and take food after my elders, and by watching people’s responses at different points during my stay it seems as if it is better if I accept the offer to take my food first when I first arrive and am a shiny new guest, but that it becomes increasingly appropriate for me to fall in step with the age hierarchy the longer I am with a family. This mealtime dance is just one of the many situations I find myself in wondering, “Sooo, have I been here long enough to do what everyone else does and be met with approval rather than strange looks?”

Thus, engaging with a cultural system different from my own is not as straightforward as identifying, mimicking, and unlocking a new level.*** There is a much more complicated process of not only being aware of the multiple sets of “rules” guiding your and others’ behavior but also gauging which rules dominate with different people and at different times. Furthermore, any "testing" done at one family may not apply with the next, since, just like in the U.S., each family has different levels of formality and different ways of doing things. We might amend that old cliché to say, “When in Rome do as the Romans you're with do if that seems to be appropriate at the time.” Attempting to understand the lives of the people around me does involve identifying and practicing the behavioral expectations that influence people’s everyday lives, but living here involves a nuanced dance that draws steps from the people around me, my position as an IFYE, and the varying types relationships that develop between me and the people I encounter.
*Or at least I think that’s kind of like the text you’d find in a video game...my experience is rather limited in that realm.
**You’ll see me almost always put “culture” in quotation marks, because I take issues with its traditional and popular definitions but haven’t found a good alternative that would enable me to give it up entirely. You can’t spend too much time in the Bowdoin anthro department before you start to have an awkward relationship with that concept.
***I’d also like to point out that this conflicting sets of behavioral expectations idea is not at all limited to the traveling abroad experience. Each of us fills all sorts of different social roles and sometimes the types of behavior expected from a person’s different roles conflict, leading people to switch between those different roles similar to how I might switch between different sets of rules here. I won’t say more about that here, because it could get long and out of hand very quickly, but if this sounds interesting to you, you should read Erving Goffman’s work on fronts and then come hang out with me.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Notes on a Taiwanese Wedding

As we hurriedly troop into the restaurant to take our seats we rush by the bride and groom as they prepare to make their big entrance. In that moment, the situation looks quite like a stereotypical heteronormative American wedding. The woman is dressed in a ravishing white dress with a long train spread out behind her, and the man is wearing a black tuxedo, tie tied neatly and shoes carefully shined. We are running late but manage to present a red envelope filled with money to the groom’s mother and take our seats before the real festivities begin. We find ourselves in a ballroom filled with rows of round tables seating somewhere between 300 and 400 guests. What follows includes a few motifs from American weddings seen in the movies—the bride and groom’s clothing, a little boy and girl as “ring bearer” and “flower girl”—but it is also so much more. More festive than weddings set in churches, it carries its own Taiwanese flair. Based on the Taoist astrology, this day is a particularly good day for having a wedding, so this lively combination of feast, fashion show, and proper formalities set to pop music, flashing lights, and a disco ball is just one of three weddings occurring in this restaurant alone and one of many across Taiwan.

The 12-course feast begins with fried sweet potato balls. These treats are really just to tide us over until the “fashion show” starts—that is, when the bride and groom enter the room for the first time. First, a projector streams video of a rock violin concert onto the screen up on the stage. As soon as that streaming is stopped, four waiters walk down an “aisle” (really just a slightly wider space between two rows of table) holding candles that they must carefully protect from draft of air with their free hands. As they step aside, the two small children trot down the aisle, and then the bride and groom walk down the aisle together to take their places up on the stage. An announcer introduces the mother and father of the bride and the mother of the groom, who also come to the stage to stand beside their children. A waiter brings glasses of wine to the bride, groom, and parents. They raise their glasses to toast the occasion, and the hundreds of guests—family, extended family, really extended family, and friends of the bride and groom—follow suit.

These star players take their seats at the table just in front of the stage, but the bride and groom don’t stay for long. We are served a boatful of sashimi, shark soup, and then a giant crab. It is the giant crab that signals their departure. With her train bunched up in her arms for safe walking, the bride is whisked away to change into her second set of clothes. (The groom has it easy—he appears to just be changing his tie color to match the color of the bride’s dress.) In the interim, our time and stomachs are filled with shrimp fried rice and endless toasting to the married couple and to anyone sitting at our table. I quickly learn to not drink anything until someone has come up with a new reason to raise his or her glass. Such strategy prevents filling much needed space in my stomach with tea and prevents the awkwardness of having an empty glass when someone raises his or her glass.

The lull between dishes is an opportunity for the parents of the bride and groom to make their rounds to individual tables. When the groom’s mother reaches our table, she invites my host parents to get together after the wedding and to eat dinner together. My host parents assure her that they are much too busy and have to go home after the wedding. “This,” my host brother says, “is Taiwanese manners.” Apparently, it would be rude for the bride’s mother not to make such an offer, but it would also be rude for my host parents to accept such an offer. They both perform their parts flawlessly, and the bride’s mother goes about her way after raising her glass for one more toast with our table.

Upon the arrival of the abalone and shrimp, the main lights dim, colorful lights start darting around the room, and the disco ball starts turning. The bride returns in a glossy blue dress with her arms full of chocolate roses. Eager children (and some eager adults) rush across the room and swarm around her trying to snatch a rose from her arms. She and the groom go sit down, but leave with the arrival of the next dish—black chicken soup with ginseng. The next dishes come at a faster pace. Beef steak, a whole fish, shrimp that we cook at our table. (I fortunately avoid embarrassment this time, because my shrimp peeling skills are leagues ahead of where they were a few weeks ago.) In the presentation of this meal’s courses there are multiple messages being conveyed. The families putting on this large banquet are serving expensive dishes, such as the shark fin soup and abalone, displaying not only their wealth but also their generosity. The guests, in turn, are responsible for indicating their appreciation of the food—it really is too much to eat all at once, thus plastic bags are provided for guests to take food home. I’m told that taking the food home communicates that it was a meal well done. (This is different from the engagement banquet, I’m told, when the groom’s relatives aren’t supposed to finish the meal and have to high-tail it before dessert is served.)

“Where is the bride?” I ask my host brother, as he’d said she would be wearing three different sets of clothing. It turns out she will not be making another aisle walk. Instead, we have to make it through the cheesecake and the ice cream before we make our way to the door where the bride and groom are handing out candy and thanking guests. The bride is now wearing a purple dress with gossamer layers that reach to the floor, and the groom’s tie has been changed to match. I’m supposed to wish them well as we pass through the line, so my host brother quickly teaches me an appropriate idiom that essentially tells the bride, “I hope you have a child soon.” I feel a little weird saying that, because I think “What if she doesn’t want to have a child right away?” But I recognize that this discomfort stems from my own cultural and personal perspectives. Here, saying such a thing to the bride is completely normal. Having the appropriate idiom come out of a foreigner’s mouth pleases those who hear me in the same way that people might be pleased by a dog performing a cute trick. I am rewarded with a piece of candy from the bride, which, I’m told, will bring me luck.

As we walk downstairs we see this final act of the wedding performance also being carried out at the other two weddings, and I reflect. What can I take from this experience? Well, with my host brother as my trusty explainer connecting this wedding to weddings in general, I’ve learned quite a bit about this ritual. Observing wedding practices in a culture different from my own? It’s almost like I’m doing traditional anthropology! Cultural lessons aside, if for some reason I ever found myself getting married, I’d definitely skip the nuisance of changing clothes so many times, but I would definitely be open to fun music, flashing lights, and disco balls.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

On Typhoons, Taiwan, and Climate Change

Soulik’s first whispers in the Taichung region begin on Friday with strong winds kicking sand into the air that bite at our bare legs and sting our eyes. As we ride home in the sultry heat, the wind and Min Yuan battle over who will control the direction of the scooter. I simply ride on back hoping Min Yuan wins. “It’s 'the day of' in Taipei,” they say and the T.V. shows footage of large waves pummeling the east cost, but we’ve yet to see a drop of rain. By late afternoon the sky has turned a sickly yellow, and as the evening wears on the wind strengthens, rattling the windows and doors, as if saying, “Hey. Hey! Pay attention! I’m coming.”

On Saturday morning Soulik is knocking at the door—and the windows, and the roof—with sheets of rain pushed sideways by the gusts of wind coming off the ocean. A quick glance outside shows trees bending at the will of this wind, bowing to the mountains that are receiving too much water on steep slopes. Yet as the world seems to be threatening to blow away outside, the day spent inside a sturdy house is remarkably calm. A day of reading and sewing is punctuated by brief events—the announcement that we will not spend the day at my host family’s main house in Long Jing as planned because that area is flooding, an excursion to the top floor of the house to unplug the drain on a flooding balcony, a 20 meter walk through the rain to get lunch from the 7/11, and the intermittent cries of the neighbor’s baby. The storm’s intensity waxes and wanes throughout the day’s perpetual dusk, but my needle’s stitches creep across the brightly colored fabric to a different rhythm. Slow and steady, unwavering.

 The images that roll in on the television, however, suggest that much of Taiwan is experiencing a slew of dynamic and unpredictable conditions. Emergency rescue crews are shown pushing rafts of evacuated families through waist-deep water, struggling to stay upright and to keep the rafts under control. Riverbeds that had held just a trickle a few days before are filled to the brim with bubbling brown waves that tear at the river banks until enough land has been given to the river that a paved road becomes a bridge and then crumbles away. Along mountain roads, drivers have captured videos of hillsides sloughing away—slope failures encouraged by steep slopes, intense rainfall, and the two 6.0+ earthquakes that loosened the mountains' soil this spring.

As with many natural disasters, the poor and agriculturally involved are disproportionately affected. Families with less money have run down houses that more easily fall apart when hit by floods. Those houses seem to be situated most frequently on lower ground and near the eroding edges of rivers. Many crops were ruined in the floods, taking a chunk out of farmers’ incomes and triggering a rise in food prices.

Typhoons are not new in Taiwan.  According to a flood exhibit at Wufeng’s 921 Earthquake Museum, throughout most of the 20th century, Taiwan experienced about 4 typhoons per year. Low-pressure systems develop in the warm southwestern Pacific Ocean, growing into cyclonic storms we recognize as typhoons and hurricanes. Along with typhoons, as an island situated over a subducting tectonic plate boundary, Taiwan experiences frequent and often large earthquakes, thus the government and communities are well-practiced at responding to unpredictable earth system activity. Accordingly, the preparation for, endurance of, and response to the storm was calm, efficient, and as graceful as anything can be in 145 mph wind and torrential rain. 

In addition to showing the physical consequences of the storm, television stations showed the ways that this storm—just like other natural events, I’m told—have brought people together to celebrate their solidarity and strength. Crowds of people are showing singing the song that is customary to sing after natural disasters, “My Future is not a Dream.”
“Are you like me? Under the sun with your head hung low? Sweating as you toil silently in your hard work. Are you like me, often the recipient of indifference or cold feelings, but refusing to give up on the life that you want for yourself? Are you like me, busy the entire day pursuing, chasing after a gentle kindness, that you can't even comprehend. Are you like me, having experienced great loss? Time after time, hesitating at the busy intersections. Because I don't mind what others say, I've never forgotten myself. The promise that I made to myself to keep a grasp on love. I know that my future is not a dream. I earnestly live every minute of life. I know that my future is not a dream. My heart and my hopes create my action” (Translation by Josh Chamberlain on Oolong Tea Times).
Everyday political, racial, and class controversies and complaints seem to be suspended for a moment in an emotional performance of Taiwanese-ness as people express hope about recovery and pride about their perseverance through these dangerous events.

The outcome of this storm was relatively good—a huge relief in comparison to the 2009 Marakot typhoon in which the storm and its landslide-filled aftermath killed 600 people. Yet recent decades have seen increasing frequency and intensity of these storms, challenging the adequacy of the emergency response I saw work so well in more extreme conditions. In the past thirty years, the average has risen to 5 typhoons per year and in the past decade the average has crept up to 6—a part of the trend of fewer days of rain per year but more large-volume events when it does rain (921 Earthquake Museum Exhibit, Fuli Soybean Farmer). The number of days of rain per year has decreased, while the average annual precipitation has increased (921 Earthquake Museum). The result of these large-volume events for farmers is that much of the water runs off, becoming floods, rather than absorbed for their crops to use (Fuli Soybean Farmer). This drought-flood pattern is characteristic of an intensification of thehydrological cycle*, the increased evaporation and increased precipitation arising from a warming planet.
            While climate change may be a thorny, politically charged topic in the United States, it seems to be treated as a matter-of-fact in Taiwan. The 921 Earthquake Muesum includes a wall of facts about how the climate has been changing and explains, “The temperature of the sea surface has risen 0.6˚ Celsius in the 20th century, which induces that more water evaporations and stays in the air. Even tiny increase in water vapour could affect the climate. Drizzles we saw in the past are no longer easy to see. Nowadays, it is either drought or torrential rain (sic).” Evidence suggests, the exhibit says, that greenhouse gases, which are mainly a result of human activities, have caused this warming. In Taiwan, it seems, the symptoms of a warming climate are clear—to farmers, to the government, and, as far as I can tell from my encounters so far, to a good chunk of the general population.
The day after the typhoon, the sun is beating down on us once again and most areas in Taichung dry out. For us and for many people in the area, it is back to “normal.” We visit the crowded rows of shops at the port, sampling various seafood delicacies and watching children fly kites. Aside from the row of fallen trees in the parking lot and the chatter about the storm between vendors and customers, it appears to be just another day. Yet the decimated watermelon fields we see on our evening walk and the continuing images of roads disappearing into rivers or under avalanches of dirt suggest that the reverberations of Soulik will be felt throughout Taiwan for quite some time.
After the storm a blue barrel sits in the top branches of a tree, indicating where the flood waters were just 12 hours before.
*Interestingly, the flood exhibit stated that, “It is commonly believed such phenomenon has (sic) connections to the geological changes caused by the 1999 Chi-Chi Earthquake.” I’ve always thought of the relationship between plate tectonics and climate as one of a longer time-scale than decadal time-scales. In this case, a) this connection doesn’t seem to be the most likely explanation, given what I do know about the atmosphere, the ocean, and the climate, though I’m not sure if there is something I’m missing due to a lack of a Plate Tectonics course and, b) with the use of passive voice it is unclear whether “it is commonly believed” means that the Taiwanese general population has made the connection in their minds or whether there is some sort of research/evidence that has led people to say “commonly believed.” Anyway, I thought I should mention this statement, but the earthquake is by no means necessary to explain such changes in typhoon frequency/intensity.