2/11/2009

Strawberry Generation X in My Backyard

There are four parks within minutes from my home in Wenshan, Taiwan. They all have monkey bars, slides, rocking turtles and teenagers. For some reason, the teenagers in my neighborhood congregate in playgrounds. This is a concern for parents with infants as the older kids weave their bikes through wobbling toddlers, practice throwing fastballs with rocks at anything colorful that can serve as a target, slam dunk basketballs between the monkey bar grates and persist in all other kinds of stupid and dangerous stunts. They also litter cigarette butts and empty drink boxes on the ground where the smaller kids are playing. I really don't get why the playgrounds are so popular with teenagers, but every single one in my neighborhood comes with them.

I took the above shot a couple of Sundays ago. Notice how teenagers have taken over the jungle gym - the kids in the picture are 14 and 15 years old . I was telling myself I'd do something about it if my daughter tried to climb the stairs. Then another two-year-old beat her to it. He didn't get far as the kid with his ass hanging out dropped a couple of rungs, oblivious to the little boy he was impeding and about to land on, and continued with his attempts to impress the young ladies inside. When I went over and asked them if they were little kids, or if they weighed 30 kilograms or less like the sign said they needed to be, he became even more sarcastic than I was being and a bit hostile. "This is not a joke," I warned him. "Get lost." After the teenagers had returned the playground to the toddlers, a mom came over and thanked me. There was a nice wimpy-looking man nearby and his face was beet red. He was the little boy's father.

I go to this park almost every evening after I pick my daughter up from the babysitter's. The teenagers are always there. It has more or less the same crew; sometimes it swells to ten or even 15, and then there are some new faces. On occasion, the teenagers borrow my cell phone to call up more buddies to come over. I'm starting to get to know a few, like Andy, who's 14, and his chain-smoking girlfriend Amy. I once asked Andy if he had to study or something. He said he did from time to time. "Come on," I prodded, "you're not that diligent" and he agreed.

Actually, I'm finding when I talk to Andy and a few of his pals that I like them. I hear a lot of talk about how this generation, labeled the Strawberry Generation (actually they're post Strawberries as they were born from 1993-96 - Strawberries are the 1980s), is pretty useless. According to people my age (I'm 38), they're selfish, lazy, wasteful, unfilial and what have you. Taiwan's birthrate, which is less than one now combined with a high divorce rate, 35% and increasing last I heard, are the main culprits for spawning these non-Confucian mutants. Parents do one of the three: spoil them as they're only children, neglect them as they have to work 24/7 to keep up with the country's high cost of living or simply ignore them as they're divorced and back in the dating game. The tag Strawberry speaks to the character of this generation. It's easy to bruise.

The reason I think I might kind of like post Strawberries is they seem less inhibited, freer and a lot more fun. They can be pretty friendly, in a real way. I see this in Andy, the before-mentioned ringleader of the park invaders. He often comes over to talk to me, between smokes, and not just to bum my cell phone. He plays with my daughter and even scolds me for not teaching her better English.

When I mix new Taiwanese like my daughter (20% of Taiwanese babies have at least one "foreign" parent) in with the Strawberries and post-Strawberries, I can see that Taiwan is soon going to be a radically different place. That's more than OK by me. In a way, the presence of such a generation is "sweet" and satisfying, so long as it's not in my local playground.

2/01/2009

No Hubbub about Pandas

We didn't think the pandas were on display yet. That's why we went to the zoo today, to enjoy it before all the hubbub. We also went because it's 10 minutes from our home and my daughter loves ostriches, hippos, monkeys, gray wolf and zebras, which she has started calling "zemas". We timed the pandas wrong; the circus is already up and running. Note: if you do want to visit the zoo and do not want to be counted as one among the fawning masses, make sure you say "I don't want one" the minute you swipe your MRT card to get in. I didn't know what was going on, so when the ticket checker thrust out her arm and abruptly said "Please wait", I did exactly that. A moment later I was holding a stub with the time 4:10 - 4:19 for a panda viewing. I wasn't asked if I wanted to see them, but I'm sure I'm being counted as one (three counting my wife and daughter) out in support of this scam.

The reason I find this so offputting is the pandas are named Tuan Tuan (團團) and Yuan Yuan (圓圓). When you put the words together, you get 團圓 or reunification in English. To suggest that Taiwan and the PRC are being reunified is disingenuous, especially since the PRC didn't even exist until 54 years after China threw Taiwan to Japan. That's just part of it. In 1683, China tried to sell Taiwan back to the Dutch. Around the same time, the Emperor Kangshi said that Taiwan was nothing more than a blob of mud floating in the sea, a blob that would never be worthy of inclusion within the Center Kingdom. Historically speaking, the Taiwanese have never shown an interest in being a part of China either. The numbers speak for themselves: during 212 years of Ching rule, they revolted 159 times. When I showed my wife the stub, she gave her usual spit of disgust: "We don't want to see any damned pandas!" My wife blames President Ma for all of this and even calls him a traitor or a mole, like Matt Damon in The Deceased. Personally, I'm not one to take sides when it comes to politics. The last eight years have proven to me that no matter who's in power, I'm still going to be labeled as an outsider (I'm white) and have my rights limited for this reason.

I'm really not picking sides when it comes to President Ma and the previous administration. I can't stress this enough. After all, it was Chen who scapegoated "foreign" laborers as the reason for Taiwan's escalating unemployment rate, who went off on a xenophobic tirade about having an American grandson, who did nothing to overturn some pretty racial immigration laws, etc. But I am noticing a pattern with Ma, that perhaps my wife is right when she says he playing Matt Damon to a Jack Nicholson Beijing. In The Deceased, Matt Damon is groomed by Boston gangsters to infiltrate the police department. When he gets older, he goes through the police academy, enters the police department, moves up the chain of command. All the while he's feeding the gangster organization he truly works for anything they want. For me, this whole panda thing shows something about Ma's intentions.

Ma's maneuvers also remind of something I saw seven years ago, when I was at the 2002 Asian Championships for Women's Soccer at the old stadium on the corner of Dunhua and Nanking in Taipei. China was playing the Philippines and it wasn't a great game. She had already scored ten goals and was now controling the ball to run out the clock. I was there with a couple of American friends. We had a chest of beer, so we weren't about to leave even though the game was out of reach for the Filipinas. I remember there were some Taiwanese patriots in the stands waving Taiwan flags. A few had banners, reminding the Chinese about Tibet and Tianamen, and anything else they could think of. Suddenly, the cops showed up and started confiscating flags and banners. My friends and I were stunned. We couldn't imagine someone having their country's flag confiscated by their own police. So we started to shout down to some people directly below us who had a flag, giving them words of encouragement.

The police were making their way toward us and flag bearers were anxious. "Come sit with us," they pleaded. "The police will be afraid of you." That was a bit hard for us to believe. It probably would've been within the powers of the police to take our beer and write us up for public drunkeness. Plus our message to them was "Stand up for yourselves!" After the cops had made off with their flags, we walked down to find out what had transpired. It seems the cops weren't that happy about the task, but were acting on the orders of then Taipei Mayor, Mr. Ma.

At the end of the day, I can't understand why two pandas in Taiwan with a combined name that seems to undermine the country's sovereignty is not offensive but free speech, which is protected by Taiwan's constitution, or the Taiwan flag are.