2/28/2012

Bradley Manning: A Nobel Peace Prize Nomination?

Bradley Manning, the American charged with the biggest leak of classified information in U.S. history, is in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize this year: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/27/nobel-peace-prize-2012-nominees_n_1303614.html It's worth pointing out this major WikiLeaks' cog could could face the death penalty. 

It'll be interesting to see how far the Nobel committee takes this one. It sounds like great news, even with Chinese government asking: "How do you like your Nobel Peace Prize now?"

2/27/2012

You Talkin' to Me?


Spend an hour in Taipei and you'll definitely come away with this impression: the city is awash with taxis. Taipei has a world class transit system and yet taxis play a big part in the shaping of the city's image and culture. I guess there are two reasons for this: they're cheap, typical fares run at NT$150 (a few bucks US), and they're "convenient," probably the most positively received concept in all of Taiwan. To hail a taxi, you're looking at three to five minutes. Often you don't even need to take it this far. Taxi drivers will honk at you if they see you on a sidewalk and sometimes even slow down and follow you, block a crosswalk, etc.

Taipei's taxis have been a topic of discussion recently, thanks to the Taiwanese performer Makiyo. A few weeks ago, she and a friend beat a driver senseless because he had the audacity to ask them to buckle up: http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2012/02/11/2003525188. In general, Taiwanese people seem to look down on the drivers. A common refrain is "they're all ex-cons!" In the Makiyo case, there is a lot of sympathy for the driver nonetheless. I'm guessing it stems from the fact he was beaten up by Makiyo, who is half-Japanese, and a non-Mandarin speaking Japanese friend. I doubt the story would have gotten the same media coverage had the attack happened at the hands of locals. With all of the taxi drivers out there, violence against them must occur on a regular basis. Apart from Makiyo, when's the last time you opened a Taiwan-based paper to a story of an attack on a taxi driver?

I rode in a taxi four times today. Instead of doing what I usually do, which is nothing, I decided to ask the drivers about how often they face violence, and what they do about it. I came away with basically the same story. All four of my drivers have been threatened. This happens on a regular basis too, like every three to four months. None of them were threatened by "foreigners" however (I was specifically asking this question). Usually, problems arise when they are cheated out of their fares. All four drivers said the same thing: they have learned not to confront passengers who do not wish to pay. They have all come to the same conclusion, namely, it's easier just to let it go. One driver told me he was stiffed just recently. It seems three passengers got in a fight while still inside his cab. Then, one passenger pulled out a knife. The other two fled, he giving chase. And wouldn't you know it? Nobody came back to pay the fare. At the end of the day, no journalist showed and no paper covered it. Another driver was also threatened with a knife, by teenagers in Keelung. He did the smart thing and ran away. When he returned to his cab, one of the teenagers was waiting around for some reason. He didn't have a knife, which was unfortunate for him, because the driver knew judo. This driver was interesting fellow; he used to be a sailor and has thus been all over the world. He even told me, upon discovering my nationality, he'd been to Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and L.A. (but I digress).

In my opinion, the life of a taxi driver isn't easy here. Taipei's streets are constantly clogged with traffic. For driving around for 12 hours, I've been told, a cabbie can expect to earn around NT$1000 to NT$1200 (30 to 35 bucks US). After the essentials (gas and smokes), it's closer to NT$800. Personally speaking, I'm on their side. Sure, I have had run-ins with them. I've even taken a driver to court: http://patrick-cowsill.blogspot.com/2010/07/how-to-go-to-court-in-taiwan.html, but 97.5 percent of the time, the experience has been one of satisfaction. I think I'll report back on this topic from time to time and check in with a post when I do have a story about a "foreigner" getting aggressive. I'll also compile some statistics. Right now, it's zero for four.

BTW, you know how some taxi drivers take the head rest off the passenger's seat in the front? I always figured it was for either a) to remove a blind spot when changing lanes or b) to see what the passenger in the back seat right was up to. It turns out it's neither. The drivers don't like it when people try to hail them and they already have fares on board. With the head rest gone, it's easier for us to see inside. I told my wife and she said "That's ridiculous! The light on top of the cab indicates whether the taxi has riders or not." Be that as it may, many cabs are missing the head rest in the front passenger's seat so that you can count heads.

*****
My friend Doug took the two photographs (above and below) on his cool new Nikon D7000 (with the filter on). He's one of the best photographers I know: http://www.thecyclingcanadian.com/


2/19/2012

Jeremy Lin Offered Taiwan Citizenship? How Does That Work?

I was just reading in the Taipei Times (Sunday, February 19) the American basketball phenom Jeremy Lin (point guard for the New York Knicks) has been offered citizenship by authorities responsible for this sort of thing in Taiwan: 

"'Both of Jeremy Lin's parents were born in Taiwan and hold dual citizenship of the Republic of China (ROC) and the US,' [Lin's uncle] said. 'Jeremy Lin was born in California and has US citizenship in the ROC as well as well [as] by the Ministry of Foreign affairs,' [Lin's uncle] said."

The usual problems will occur for Lin should he accept. For example, all Taiwanese men as well as any who take out citizenship (and are under 35) have to do military service. But there is something a lot more interesting about this above assertion, at least to me. You see, if you apply for Taiwanese citizenship, you have to renounce your current citizenship. Of course, once you have gained Taiwanese citizenship, you are then free to apply for citizenships of other countries, including the one you have recently renounced. 

Here's the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson James Chang: "We have checked with the Bureau of Consular Affairs. The government has never received an application from Jeremy Lin for ROC citizenship."

No kidding they haven't. Jeremy Lin is packing a US passport. If they had received an application, he wouldn't be. 

"'Even though Jeremy Lin has US citizenship, he is eligible for ROC citizenship because both of his parents retain ROC citizenship and because Taiwan allows dual citizenship,' [Chang said]."

I really doubt however Lin will give up his US citizenship to apply for a Taiwan passport. After all, that would really complicate things for him to play basketball and go about living in his own country. Or will they change the rules just for this American because he looks like Taiwanese people?  

2/18/2012

Buckle Up, Taiwan!

                                                                                                    - Image courtesy of Jasmine Yu
Taiwan's new seat belt law, meant to protect the good people of this land, has citizens up in arms and swinging.

A couple of weeks ago, Taiwan's very own Makiyo (the media isn't exactly embracing her as one of our own while at the same time labeling American phenom Jeremy Lin local goods, but that's the topic of another post) took part in an attack on a taxi driver for suggesting she ought to follow the law and buckle up. For his concern, the driver received a concussion, broken ribs, a visit to intensive care and overblown media attention.

The law now reads like this: passengers (or at least most passengers) will buckle up or be subject to a fine of NT$4500. I have not been without my own (mis)adventures concerning the new law.

Tonight, after picking up my daughter and wife on my way home from the office, we hailed a taxi. The concept was simple: we'd worked hard (and played to a similar effect in the case of my daughter) all day long and were dead tired. We thought we'd treat ourselves to ride home in comfort this cold and dark Friday evening, no questions asked, just drop us off where we needed to go. We didn't have it in us for a ride on public transport.

After piling into a cab at the corner of Chungshiao (忠孝) and Linsen (林森), we immediately set about buckling in. My wife first fastened her own seat belt while I held the wiggly Ahleena, our daughter, down and plied her with an iPhone. Then it came time for me, only we could not find the nozzle to fasten the clasp. It was buried deep beneath the seat, according to our driver. I asked him to pull over because he was driving while my offspring and I were not buckled in. He did so and then both he and my wife worked at retrieving nozzle.

A couple of minutes later, we were back on the road. A problem still existed however. Even though the nozzle had been located, I still couldn't get it to go into the clasp of my seat belt: "Try your daughter's clasp," the driver suggested. And like magic it worked. Then I set about trying to get the other clasp to take hold so I would also be battened down. No such luck. I stared at the "Buckle up or pay NT$4500" sticker on the back of the front seat, stuck over the holes where the headrest was supposed to be about ten centimeters from my face, and declared: "It's not working."

"Try again," he said, and we disappeared into the underpass reaching from the Xinyi District of Taipei into Wanhua (萬華). When we emerged, my daughter was set but I still was still not buckled in. That I even cared seemed to annoy the driver. "I'm just going to pull over," he announced. "It's up to you! We can continue or you can get out." In other words, we could go home without a seat belt working or get the fu%# out.

"Good idea," I said, taking him up on his idea. "I've really had enough." The reason I wanted to take a taxi home revolved around a concept of relaxation. This was more than I had bargained for and I explained it in like terms. When we got out, I was surprised, no, make that pissed off, to discover the driver expected us to pay, even though his illegal cab hadn't delivered us to our destination but rather hauled us 300 meters or so down the street and deposited us in a mist of wet coldness. "I've got a better idea," I said. "Right over there is a police station. Do you see it? Let's go over there and report a) how you've gypped us out of a comfortable ride home and b) you're operating without seat belts." I figured I had it in the bag, but instead, the driver took me up on my offer. He even tailed us, as we walked for a couple of blocks in the rain to the station, on this night we'd paid extra to hail a cab to be out of the muck.

Normally, the police are interested to hear a foreigner speak Chinese. This time however they couldn't care less. The minute they heard it was seat belt related, they were fed up. The guy who seemed to be running the joint did not have the time of day for our dispute; he immediately assigned the case to someone who was about to start shaving peach fuzz next week. I will say that the youngster, Officer Liang, was both patient and concerned nonetheless; he constantly scribbled our utterances down in a pocketbook. He then directed the taxi driver to present his cab. After watching the driver enact a dangerous slice across traffic through a busy intersection, one that involved a near takeout of a scooter, Officer Liang had his body of evidence. "OK, let's have a look at those seat belts," he said, choosing to ignore the driver's crazy maneuver over the crosswalk and against a red light.

It was now the driver's chance and he meant to make the most of it. He climbed in the back seat and proved that indeed all the seat belts could be fastened. But, as I later showed, this could not be done in a normal position. The only way such a feat could be achieved was by putting both knees on the seat, an ass against the window and then applying a particular slamming action with the palm.

"I'll knock off 20$NT. He still needs to pay me NT$80," the driver said. 

"There's no way I am paying more than half." Actually half would have been about NT$35, seeing as the meter had run the whole time the driver had followed us, but I held out an NT$50 coin. Here we were arguing over about a dollar. Weirdly, the driver took it and even said thank you. Then, get this, Officer Liang asked me,

"Do you want him to take you home still?" Good idea or what?

In my opinion, Taiwan's new seat belt law, which I accept as a good one, is screwed from inception because the people don't want to conceive of its positive intent. I'm guessing it'll fade out in six months or so. What I experienced with this pugnacious driver is one of the reasons: the drivers don't give a shi%. And why should they? After all, they're simply reading the public will and responding to it. The very next cab we grabbed was no better; my wife clearly asked the driver before we entered this: "Do you have seat belts for all of us?" Once inside, the driver said: 

"People find buckling up an inconvenience, especially if they don't want to go far." When it turned out that he didn't have enough seat belts for the three of us, he simply pulled up to the curb and let us out. There would be other passengers out there in the darkness who didn't care about buckling up to follow the law, so it hardly seemed worth it on a Friday night.

The third driver had a similar attitude: he told us that, even though there was indeed a seat belt regulation, there was no need to fumble about and get agitated, as we were, trying to take care of our daughter, because only adult passengers would be fined! What kind of parents would we be if we only buckled ourselves in safe while ignoring the needs of our four-year-old?

To tell the truth, I kind of admire the scrappiness of the first driver. But.... I didn't care for this: he seemed at the end of the day simply concerned with people getting screwed financially and nothing else factored into his conviction. To me, the reaction to the new law reflects the attitude to the helmet law. When we see motorcyclists in Taipei who wear helmets but do not bother to take such precautions for their offspring, it speaks to this idea: namely, the only reason I conform is I don't want to get a ticket. 

I guess I'm being stubborn and this sounds a bit corny, but Taiwan's new seat belt law is important to me. I will conform to the new law and won't be denied my right for safe, or at least safer, passage.

2/01/2012

Vietnamese Beer


Vietnamese Beer, originally uploaded by Patrick Cowsill.
I have 333 or Saigon Beer in the background and Bia Ha Noi in the foreground. The latter is from northern Vietnam, up Hanoi way. This is the first time I've seen it in Wanhua (萬華), Taiwan or anywhere else for that matter. Wanhua, of all places, is starting to show an Asian-cosmopolitan side. I bought all three of these cans (for NT$35 = US$1 apiece) from a Vietnamese sub sandwich shop I frequent in Nanjichang (南機場) Market, which is operated by a friendly and cool looking Taiwanese man married to Vietnamese woman. The slice of white in the lower-right corner is the piece of paper he kindly slid under my iPhone when I took this shot upon buying the cans.

BTW, Nanjichang (南機場), which means South Airport Market, was the site of Taipei's airport during the Japanese colonial era, hence the name. I've been planning to write about this for some time. I'll follow up pretty soon.