MKL about Taiwanese society, China, domovina, and the European Union
Contrary to many other English-language blogs from Taiwan, MKL‘s isn’t markedly political. Politics does play a role, but usually takes second seat to daily life in Taiwan, and advice to foreign travellers or expats in the early stages of their lives in Taiwan about where to eat out, how to get from one place to another, places to go to on a holiday or on weekends, and about his after-hours obsession - night markets.
MKL started blogging in 2006 – and again in 2008. In February 2009, his monthly output of posts exceeded ten for the first time, and since, another post appeared at least every three or four days.
They were written from a number of places in Asia, and from his native land, Slovenia. For a year and a half now, Taiwan has been his home – it’s where he works, and where he is married.
His blog pages may take a while to load at times, as they usually come with a wide range of photos.
Q: You have been to dozens of countries, in Europe and in Asia. You settled down in Taiwan last year. In a post dedicated to your wife, Lily, you wrote:
Ever since I’ve come here, I tried so hard to make you proud of me. I found work, I complied with the norms of the environment and I’m tirelessly trying hard to survive in the fast-paced reality of Taipei. I feel like I’m caught in a typhoon ever since I’m here. It’s tough, but I will survive, because you’re here with me. You’re the reason I came here, you’re the reason I wanna stay.
How Taiwanese have you become since? And how are your Chinese language skills doing?
A: It might surprise you, but I’m becoming less and less “Taiwanese”, the more I understand Chinese language and the deeper I integrate and immerse myself in the culture. My Chinese level is basic, because my job and the commuting two ways takes about 12-13 hours a day during the week and it’s no piece of cake, it’s very stressful. I’m doing business with European companies and if you know how the traditionally-minded Taiwanese management ticks, you would imagine how big their expectations are. I can order food, drinks and have a simple conversation in Chinese, mostly about some daily matters. Aside from speaking, my hearing or understanding of Chinese improved greatly in the past year. I understand two times more than I can express in Chinese, usually it comes from the context. My whole living and working environment is Mandarin speaking, I have one American colleague who is here for a similar reason, the rest are all Taiwanese. Other foreign friends I have are mostly busy like me. I don’t frequent bars like Brass Monkey, I’m not into drinking and clubbing anymore. I am very Taiwanese in the sense, that I’m caught in this unhealthy system, where the older generation, who could have retired long time ago, run public companies like it’s their private business and where the culture of face and hierarchy often exceeds common sense and innovation. I can see a lot of young Taiwanese as bitter as me, but nobody can (or dares to) do something about it. They hop from company to company hoping to have a job that pays more and enslaves less. But the opposite is mostly the case. Ever since I started to work in Taiwan, I see the whole country in a completely different light.
Q: Your blog is about life in Slovenia, Taiwan, and about travels elsewhere. The difference between the countries where you lived and live – Slovenia and Taiwan – and the countries you visited, does this come down to the difference between family and friends?
A: I always felt a little bit bored in Slovenia. It’s a beautiful country with fairytale like scenery, but it’s small and a lot of things are going backwards in recent years. We used to be a success story in the 1990s, known as the most advanced post communist country in Europe, a role model candidate of all the countries to enter the EU in 2004. And the economic crisis, which started way before 2008 (most young well educated people could not get a good job as early as in the early 2000s), changed the political landscape a lot. People are very split now, much more than in Taiwan. They are divided into liberals (labeled as ex-commies) and conservatives (labeled as ex-nazi collaborators), arguing about who killed more people during WWII and similar nonsense, while young people can’t get jobs, where the social security is steadily disappearing and where a system similar to the one of guanxi enables certain groups to hold power and consume most of the resources. All the positive remains from the communist times such as a sense of community with common goals, solid social welfare, worker’s rights – all that is trampled upon in recent years, big business runs the show in Slovenia and they have good connections to certain parties and politicians. By all means, I’m not a communist and I would never like to have communism back, but not everything was bad during that time. Nevertheless, Slovenia is for me “heimat” (or domovina, as we call it) – and you are right, I do connect it with my family. I miss my mother and sisters every day, I miss the landscape, I miss being home, being one that belongs to somewhere, one that’s not seen as “waiguoren”. I have a very complex relationship with Taiwan, I’m not sure it’s a friend. It can be, but it’s also a friend you don’t fully trust, it’s someone you’re better careful about how much emotions you invest in.
Q: Is Lily blogging, too? And does she play a role in your blogging activities? Or would she rather discourage them?
A: She plays a major role in my way of blogging. If there was a saying that “behind every successful blogger there is a woman”, this would be 100% sure in my case. As you noted, I wasn’t much of a steady and productive blogger in the early stages. I basically put my blog on the map when I moved to Taiwan and started to write more about my experience. Lily introduced me to the Taiwanese way of blogging, which is very deep and informational, with tons of photos showing every detail. I thought: “Wow! This is impressive!” Lily’s style is similar: She would care about a certain quality of her posts and pictures, her articles have a certain order. It’s standardized, yes, but it’s a format, that guarantees a certain quality. I could say the same about your blog: You have structure, you have a theme, a style, a tone and a frame, where you implement all this. And that’s why your readers stick around, that’s why search engine’s will link to you. My philosophy is very similar, just that I have a different style and like to use a lot of pictures. I’m a very visual guy and I like to memorize my life in photos as well as show the reality around me that way. Some are excellent writers, but I can’t only rely on that, well, not in English. And Lily is my prime resource to explain certain cultural particularities in Taiwan and sometimes she wants to take a rest and watch TV, but I’m drafting my blog post and bugging her to explain some Chinese phrases. I always want to know the original meaning of the Chinese character, word or phrase, its cultural connotation and how a Taiwanese person feels about it, what is the context a certain term is commonly used. And my wife, as well as some friends, are my reference for that and I’m very thankful to have them around.
Q: You won Taiwanderful‘s popular online vote for the best overall blog and best travel blog. I was surprised when first reading about it – not because I’d find it an undeserving winner, but rather because it came to my mind that the blogs from and on Taiwan I was mostly reading were much more politics-centered than yours. So, from my personal perception, it seemed to become clear that there is a readership far beyond that. Is the readership of your blog rather diverse, in terms of “blue” (KMT & allies), and “green” (DPP & allies)?
A: My gut feeling tells me, that most of my readers and subscribers are just interested in life in Taiwan, not politics. I’m sure, they have strong opinions about that topic, but it’s not what they want to read on blogs all the time. There are very few Taiwan bloggers, who share so many images about the life in Taiwan like me, as well as about traveling to small towns, food stalls, even night markets. I like to be unique in this way and these things are interesting to blue, green, neutral, and most likely even red-minded readers. I like Taiwan the most, when it’s not related to the daily routine and politics, when i can take off my invisible mask. Despite all the challenges it bears for me, Taiwan is a great place to explore and that’s why I love to promote it as a travel destination.
Q: Are you always using the same camera when taking pictures? Which one(s)?
A: I’m mostly using my wife’s Pentax K-x White, a 2010 model. It has its limitations, but it served us very well so far. She recently bough Tamron AF18-200mm lens, which improved the quality a lot, especially when zooming. But too often a bulky camera has the effect, that you are quickly noticed and make people around you a little bit uncomfortable. So during my daily routine I’m using my iPhone 4 camera with photo processing software to have a retro effect. I like it a lot and it gives me the chance to take unexpected random shots, that turn out great. My wife also has a Canon S100, it’s a smaller pocket camera with great quality, we use it since recently, usually for short trips around Taipei. It’s also less obvious, very good for taking photos in restaurants and malls.
There were 14.85 million registered scooters in Taiwan, by 2010 (click picture for source) – photo by MKL
Q: My impression is that most foreign bloggers on Taiwan tend to side with the pan-green camp, rather than the pan-blue one, and often, this political inclination seems to kick in from about the first day they spend in Taiwan. Is that an accurate observation, or are there simply too many blogs that care about politics, but have slipped my attention?
A: You are spot on about that, unless they are dating a Taiwanese girl, that has a blue background and strong opinions on inner politics and cross strait issues (I know some of these cases). But most are green or leaning green from what I perceive. I’m not green nor blue. I had a natural affinity for a certain color, which was related to my home country’s centuries long struggles for independence from Austria and Yugoslavia, but the more I understand how things work in Taiwan, the less I believe, that Taiwan will follow Slovenia’s way. Now I’m mostly apathetic to politics in Taiwan, just like most Taiwanese I know. And I believe there are too many expats blogging about politics and KMT, it’s really not so interesting to read “KMT is bad” in 100 different ways every day – mostly it’s not really “blogging” according to my understanding. If you’re only quoting and commenting on other sources, you’re just a commentator. Blogging for me is about original content, about creativity, surprise, diversity, life and passions.
Q: Has blogging changed your perceptions – on Taiwan, Slovenia, or other places? Possibly even your view of the world? Has life in Taiwan changed your views? Has your marriage changed your views? Has work?
A: Believe it or not, blogging relaxes me. It’s my hobby, it’s my pastime. I have thoughts and ideas, I observe this very foreign and different environment and share it with my readers. It’s basically just expressing myself with words and photos. I’m not a great photographer, but I have a certain style, I know what I want to capture and present. Blogging also helps me to train my brain, to concentrate – maybe it’s similar to those old Taiwanese men, who play mahjong near the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. By reading other blogs, especially on China and Korea, I learned a lot about these countries, I have to say these bloggers affect my perception of them as well. Most foreign Taiwan bloggers don’t impress me, because I can’t relate to them – I usually see Taiwan and its reality way different from them. Perhaps because I’m of a very different background (a small and young, relatively unknown and underestimated post communist country). I’m not too sure.
Q: Is blogging your preferred way of discussing matters of public interest, or do other ways of expressing yourself – social networking, youtube, Twitter, etc. – matter just as much to you, or more? About a year ago, you seemed to lose interest in “social media” - do you still find it boring? And if so, do you still tweet, facebook, etc., because it helps to promote your blog?
A: Ever since I wrote that post, I’m less and less on social media. I’m there for the sake of being there and in hope, that something interesting will happen – but it mostly doesn’t. My updates are usually just links to my new blog posts, Twitter and Facebook help me to get some new readers. If I don’t find social media enchanting, it doesn’t mean that other’s don’t, too. Recently I am very active on Instagram, taking pictures of my daily life in Taiwan. I simply love it. It’s social, but very simple. You post a photo and if it’s good, people “like” it. No pressure to be “friends” or “follow”. I don’t have time for these complexities – I’m very busy and most of my online activity is consumed by blogging or reading blogs, but I am very selective.
Q: How closely do you follow Taiwan- and non-Taiwan-related blogs respectively? Do you (as a reader) or they (as bloggers) focus on certain, recurring kinds of news and topics? Does China play a role in your reading and blogging habits, too?
A: I follow blogs in Google reader, they are divided in several categories. Usually I check all blogs in my Taiwan, China, Korea, Japan and Slovenia folders. These are the countries, that interest me the most. I also like to read some blogs about gadgets and technology and I like travel blogs a lot, too. I am a big fan of Peking Duck and China Smack, I always eagerly read their articles and comments. China also plays a role on my own blog, I’ve recently written several posts about Chinese vs. Taiwanese, because I find it fascinating, how the two people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait can be so different, but sometimes so alike. I intend to write more about this, but I always try to not focus on the political part, but on the cultural and ideological differences. In the industry I am in, I can see how Chinese companies are beating Taiwanese with lower price and comparable, if not better quality of their products and services. It’s an eye opener. I blame the corporate culture, that I have described in my first answer. Taiwan is on the losing end in this part of the world, it’s losing its competitive edge, innovation is driven in China, Korea and quality is traditionally associated with Japan. If that continues in the next years, I fear Taiwan will start to put “Made in China” labels on their products to raise their image. Perhaps I’m exaggerating, perhaps. But I’ve seen a lot in the recent two years – China’s pace is impressive. Taiwan is not doing bad, but a lot of things are stagnating or regressing here. China is definitely moving forward in great leaps and those foreigners, who live here and don’t want to acknowledge that, are either dreamers or simply ignorant.
Q: You said earlier (#8) that the more you understand how things work in Taiwan, the less you believe that Taiwan will follow Slovenia’s way (i. e. in terms of internationally recognized independence). Is this related to the way businesses work and bosses lead – or fail to lead? To their authoritarianism? Or do you see factors beyond business?
A: This is related to two things: First this year’s presidential elections, that were a major blow to the independence movement and secondly, China’s rise to a superpower, which is the most important factor here. Taiwan is surrounded by countries, that have greater economic and political power such as Japan, South Korea and PRC, while USA’s role of an ally and protector is diminishing by the year. How can Taiwan survive in such environment on its own, when the country itself is internally split and intentionally not recognized? Can this status quo continue like this forever? Despite Taiwan’s often cited soft power, I am not too optimistic about that. We had nearly 95% of electors, who were attending the independence referendum of Slovenia in 1990, voting in favor for independence. Compare that to Taiwan of today and with the circumstances I mentioned above. If it was a game of chess, China definitely has the upper hand at this point and Taiwan’s next big move can be lethal. People know that and therefore chose the safe way. Not only that, the business potential for Taiwanese making money in China is becoming a more and more important factor for softening the Cold War attitude and moving towards a closer cooperation (perhaps a kind of a union in a decade or two?). Interestingly, in my industry, almost no Taiwanese supplier has a market in China, even though they try very hard to get the business going by opening branches and investing money. However in reality, they are treated like foreign companies, no brotherly feelings there. I’m not sure what will happen in the end, I’m just an observer and I’m trying to not put too much emotions in this issue, because people might decide something, that I disagree with. Taiwan in itself, in its own bubble, is a very complex matter and when you add China to that, it becomes even more complicated. In the end I only hope that it can keep its unique charm, its advanced civil society, freedom of press, freedom of speech and free elections. To keep all that, it might not be necessary to follow Slovenia’s way.
Q: Have you seen big changes in your own blog or blogs, and in the Chinese, Taiwanese or foreign “China blogosphere” since you started blogging yourself? Or have you seen changes in the mainstream media?
A: I think a lot of green bloggers have become more obsessively green, which I find backwards and a lot of initial China bloggers have either become less critical or have stopped blogging. Maybe less critical is not the right word, I believe they just became older, became more nuanced and sober. The spirit of the young single expat, who thought he can change the world sobered up through the years. A lot of these bloggers either moved back to their home countries or they married a local girl and begun to exchange ideology for pragmatism and nuance. It’s a natural process.
Q: Have you ever stopped reading blogs because you felt they were becoming boring, or because they angered you?
A: Yes I did for both reasons. I don’t want to waste time on reading stuff written by people I don’t respect or find repulsive. There are a few Taiwan bloggers, who fit this category.
Q: Do you regularly watch television or listen to the radio? If so, what are your preferred channels, and why?
A: I watch TV, but movies mostly, however I don’t have a lot of time for it. When I was in Slovenia, I used to watch German TV a lot, from talk shows to entertainment. I was also a big fan of CNN and American news in general, especially during the 2008 election campaign: I watched Obama’s victory speech in Chicago at 2 am on CNN and I teared up. But this is the last memorable moment that I have with television. I shifted to Internet, especially here in Taiwan, where there’s not German nor Slovenian TV. And most American TV stations are showing movies nonstop, such as HBO. TV for me is just on, but I don’t really watch it. I spend more time on my Mac, iPhone and iPad, I’m slowly turning into a geek.
Q: What’s the worst online article or post you have ever read about Taiwan (that you remember)? And what’s the best one?
A: The worst must have been an article by some guy, who came to Taiwan and can’t get girls. He’s only trash talking about everything here, completely obsessed with the notion, that Taiwan is the worst place in the world. But I have the feeling, that the book “Cultural Shock-Taiwan: Cow Mentality, Rubber Slipper Fashion in BinLang Country” must be topping my first example. As for the best posts, there were several and I’m not sure, if I could point out the best one.
Q: Have you become more aware of what it means – to you – to belong to your country? Or about civil liberties and democracy? There was a paragraph in your post-election gleanings in January this year – you wrote from a business trip that
In Germany, almost nobody cared about the election in Taiwan - there were no reports on TV – nothing. Instead, a sunk ship in Italy was nonstop in the news. Same goes for my home country and probably most Western countries. Nobody gives a rats ass about democracy anymore. We’re bitter and self-absorbed, because we saw how governments change, but everything remains the same. It’s not like we want to have dictatorships back, but the feeling of pure enthusiasm for political convictions are over – cynicism prevails these days.
How do you deal with these feelings yourself? Are they simply your feelings, that are going to be with you unless they change, or are you looking for something more sustainable that might replace the past, pure enthusiasm for political convictions? Has some other feeling replaced the old ones since? Or is some cynicism the almost inevitable concomitant of getting older?
A: I think I’ve become very cynical, but for different reasons than the Europeans I met during my business trip. My problem is I don’t know where I really belong. In Taiwan I’m always going to be “waiguoren” and stick out from the rest, but Slovenia for me is at this point very foreign, too. If I go back too early, I will feel, that I’ve failed at what I set myself to achieve. Europe in general has lost its drive and soul in recent years. Most Taiwanese, with whom I work with, see it as the place, where the economy is constantly deteriorating and the Euro continuously depreciating. The export business of most Taiwanese suppliers suffers a lot and that affects people’s perceptions here. When I see how low the Euro has fallen, I feel sad and somewhat insecure about the whole idea of the EU in general, even though I support the ideals of the Union and I’m proud to be EU citizen. You have to know, that the Euro is one of the few connections I have with my native continent. I could get 48 NTD for a Euro in 2010, when I first came to Taiwan. Today, I only get 36.5 NTD and it keeps falling. Is that a sign, that Europe’s best days are over? I’m not sure, but I’m rather pessimistic at this point. I don’t know, if I will lose my cynicism, perhaps, if I find a way to slow down my fast-paced life, but that’s a very challenging task, if you chose to live in Taipei.
Q: MKL, thanks a lot for this interview.
The interview was conducted by an exchange of e-mails.
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