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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Trouble in paradise: "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"

It's already old news, but for a while in the Taiwan-centric blogosphere, the viral video of a Taiwanese lout verbally harassing a British man and his Taiwanese girlfriend on the Taipei metro, was the only news that mattered, getting posted and re-posted, and commented upon, to the point where I didn't even need to sit through the entire 14-minute video to know what was going on. The incident didn't surprise me in the least, as I've always been aware that racism is deeply embedded in Taiwanese society. Taiwan is a multi-ethnic society in which the "ethnic card" gets frequently played in local politics. Many times in my classes when I was teaching there I would have adults make statements about members of the Hakka community or aboriginal groups in terms that would definitely be considered politically incorrect in the West. The flipside of the obsession with having pale, white skin (as reflected in the numerous TV ads for skin-whitening products) is a denigrating attitude towards those Taiwanese with darker complexions, many of whom live in the southern part of the island. And, of course, there is a deep-rooted xenophobia, as referred to in the BBC article which I've linked above.

For me, Taiwan was a place where people were constantly remarking on my very existence in their presences, and often not in a complimentary manner. I don't know how many times I would hear the expression "big nose" in the Taiwanese dialect, which people would often use knowing that very few foreigners could understand the local language. The supposed "kindness" shown toward big noses that so many Western residents seem to revel in for me smacked of a not-too-subtle reminder that I was always going to be on the outside, no matter how long I'd been living there or the fact that I had married a local woman and had a bi-cultural child. And speaking of my daughter, despite the fact she is an R.O.C. citizen and fluent Mandarin speaker, she was often referred to as being "foreign" (even by her own grandmother, though not meant in an insulting manner) - fortunately, she was too young at that time to understand what people were really saying.

Reading the BBC article, I was particularly bemused by the Taiwanese woman referring to so-called "white privilege". While I wish women had been flocking to me (they weren't), all that "power" I supposedly had didn't stop people from laughing about me while I was standing in front of them, let alone the woman who tried to sue me by making false hit-and-run accusations (thank god for CCTV cameras at traffic intersections!). Then there is the common knee-jerk reaction to accusations of discrimination and racism in Taiwan by pointing out examples of such against Taiwanese in Western countries. A comparison I find humorous, for not only is it a weak attempt to deflect attention away from the real issue(s), it also ends up being an unintentional admission that Taiwan is a society where xenophobia quite often rears its ugly head.

While the hoopla over the MRT video was being played out on social media, I was wondering how those Westerners who seem to feel that Taiwan is nothing short of an earthly paradise were reacting to the news. These are the folks who time and time again, when someone puts up a post on Facebook extolling the honesty or kindness or some other wondrous virtue of the people of Taiwan (usually through a personal experience such as having a wallet returned), fill the comments with replies such as "That's why I love Taiwan!" or "Taiwan is the best!" or some such nauseatingly naive observation, as if the act of being a Good Samaritan was the exclusive domain of the Taiwanese. Has the video served as a wake-up call, a realization that behind the smiling faces lie thoughts of an insulting, demeaning nature? Or will they find a why to dismiss, excuse or rationalize the behavior of Mr. Liao, the ogre on the subway, as an exception to the otherwise beautiful lives they have carved out for themselves on the Beautiful Isle? I suspect most of them will do the latter, preferring the blinders over seeing the bigger picture.

And perhaps there is some truth to being white and privileged. Just ask the factory worker from Thailand or the Filipina caregiver about how much their hearts have been touched by Taiwan.

Meanwhile, in this country, which of course has its own problems, Amber and I took a drive yesterday into Maryland horse country, stopping at the Woodstock Equestrian Park in rural Beallsville. Our purpose wasn't to go to riding, but to take an easy hike along an appropriately-named Field's Edge Loop trail. The path did just that, making a long loop around rolling farmland under a bright blue sky. It was far from a "hike", actually, being more of a leisurely walk up and down gentle slopes, but it felt great to be outdoors, chasing the few remaining butterflies and grasshoppers as winter prepares to set in, and watching V-shaped formations of geese flying overhead. We even got to see a few horses on a jumping course as we were leaving. On an afternoon such as yesterday's, all was briefly right with the world.

Friday, November 20, 2015

From Russia With Eggs

The events of last Friday in Paris have dominated the headlines for the past week, and like many users on Facebook, I changed my profile photo to show the French tricolor. I noticed that this action on our parts triggered a certain reaction from some Facebook users, who posted links to articles that criticized the showing of solidarity with the people of France while simultaneously ignoring the equally horrific bombings that took place in Beirut the day before what occurred in Paris (as well as other atrocities that have taken place in Nigeria, Pakistan and other locales outside of the developed world). While valid points about selective outrage were made, I couldn't help but notice from looking at their previous feeds from before Friday the 13th that none of these holier-than-thou types had expressed any outrage over the Beirut bombings at the time they happened. They waited instead until well after the expressions of sympathy and solidarity started showing up across Facebook following the terrible events in Paris to get up on their virtual soapboxes. When tragedy strikes, some people can't resist the opportunity to show their moral superiority.

Unfortunately, an even nastier trend also emerged on Facebook: the cries of those opposed to President Obama's plan to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees into this country. Most of these people have put up, or linked to, posts proclaiming that we should take care of our hungry veterans, or the homeless on the streets, before opening up our borders to more people in need. The problems with that line of reasoning are legion. To begin with, like the smug "What about Beirut?" posters described above, very few of these folks suddenly concerned about those who have fallen through the social safety net have in the past publicly proclaimed on the pages of Facebook their concern with America's homeless population. The United States has the resources to take care of all those in need in our country, as well as continue to live up to the ideals spelled out on the Statue of Liberty (a gift from France, it shouldn't be forgotten); what it lacks is the will to do so. The American suburbs are populated by many of who are afraid of the outside world, and of the people who inhabit it. It's the same old sad and ironic paradox being played out yet again, that of a so-called nation of immigrants that suffers from xenophobia. And never mind that virtually all of our newfound fans of the homeless are themselves descended from immigrants. For every proverbial two steps forward this country takes, it continues to fall back one step each time. On the other hand, I've seen a lot of positive posts on my Facebook thread, so perhaps hope will eventually triumph over dismay. 

Meanwhile, life goes on here in northern Virginia, as I continue to do daily battle with the complex rules of Russian grammar (which must have been hammered out by Russian grammarians over all-night vodka drinking sessions). Today my class had its first field trip, an excursion to the Hillwood Museum and Gardens in the Rock Creek Park area of Washington, D.C. The museum is housed in a 1923 neo-Georgian manor that was owned by Marjorie Merriwether Post, heir to the cereal-company fortune:

One of the wealthiest women in the U.S., Post purchased the estate in 1955. She began collecting French decorative arts in 1919, and her tapestries, furnishings and other objects are on display in the French Drawing Room. This room, with its painted and gilt wood paneling and mantel from Parisian homes dating to the time of King Louis XVI (1774-92), was the first stop on our guided tour with our Russian-speaking guide:

While Post started out as a Francophile, her passions shifted in 1937-8, when she lived in Moscow with her third husband, Joseph Davies, who was the U.S. ambassador to the U.S.S.R. at that time. She began collecting Russian imperial art; her timing was impeccable, as Stalin's government was willing to part with such treasures in order to get hard currency to fund industrialization programs. Post took advantage of the fire sale to amass an amazing collection, which is now on display at Hillwood. The Russian Porcelain Room, for example, has cases containing an array of imperial glass and porcelain, including four dessert services commissioned by Catherine the Great in the late 18th century, and distinguished by the insignia of the Russian elite:

This double-headed eagle inlaid in the center of the floor was a symbol of the Russian imperial court:

The Pavilion was used by Post for after-dinner entertaining, which included the showing of movies to her guests. The room is highlighted by two paintings: The Countess Samoilova and Her Foster Daughter, by Karl Briullov; and (pictured below) A Boyar Wedding Feast. The latter painting, by Konstantin Makovskii in 1883, depicts a wedding feast between two noble class families in 16th- or 17th-century Russia:

Next we visited the Icon Room, containing objects and liturgical pieces associated with the Russian Orthodox Church, and including creations by Carl Fabergé, celebrated jeweler to the tsars and tsarinas: 

The Library. The painting on the wall in the far left of the photo is a 1934 portrait of Post in a white silk dress with a red velvet sash. On the right is a portrait of her mother, Ella Merriweather. A portrait of her father, C.W. Post, hangs on the opposite side of the room, over the fireplace:

The Dining Room brought us back to the French theme, though the hunting scene paintings are Dutch and the table Italian:

One of the highlights of the museum is the Case of Bleu Celeste. This case is filled with pieces dating from the mid-18th century, manufactured by the famed Sèvres porcelain factory:  

Heading up to the second floor, we passed through the Entry Hall. The grand staircase is dominated by a giant portrait of Catherine the Great, among other tsars and tsarinas:  

The second floor contains Post's Bedroom Suite. The two girls in the painting over the fireplace are of two of her daughters, Adelaide and Eleanor:

Upstairs is also where the two finest pieces in Post's collection are displayed: two imperial Easter eggs by Fabergé. Both were gifts from Russia's last tsar, Nicholas II, to his mother, Maria Fedorovna. The first egg, the midnight blue Twelve Monograms Easter Egg (1896), is studded with diamond monograms:

The Catherine the Great Egg was presented by Nicholas to his mother in 1914. It originally held inside a miniature figure of the empress, seated in a wind-up sedan chair carried by two servants, and was revealed by opening the top of the egg. It was unfortunately lost, but the egg is still a magnificent example of Fabergé's art:

Speaking of Catherine the Great, this chalice pictured below was part of a set of liturgical gold vessels presented by the tsarina in 1791 to the Holy Trinity Cathedral of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg:

The chalice is on display in another room containing religious items connected to the Russian Orthodox Church:

In addition to its treasure trove of Russian art, Hillwood is also noted for its gardens. Some of the objects displayed outside were a little, um, odd:

Posing with two of my three classmates and our teacher, Olga:

The Mansion as seen from the Lunar Lawn:

Post was prepared during the Cold War:

We may live in a republic, but the American ruling classes have always looked up to their European aristocratic counterparts, aspiring to live in equally appointed mansions surrounded by extensive art collections. The sheer ornateness of the treasures of the Russian imperial families as displayed at Hillwood also provides a telling clue as to why Bolshevism eventually took hold in the Russian Empire, leading to the unfortunate end of the Romanovs

After our tour of the Hillwood Museum and Gardens, our group reunited at Mari Vanna, a somewhat pricey Russian restaurant on Connecticut Avenue. The beef-and-pork pelmeni пельме́ни (traditional handmade Russian dumplings) were delicious, however:

Russian isn't an easy language to learn, but I am enjoying studying it more than I did Mandarin Chinese several years ago, though I still wish I could be learning Lithuanian (as was originally intended). And as I'm going to Vilnius, it really isn't necessary for me to learn much about Russian culture. Still, I enjoyed Marjorie Merriweather Post's extensive collection of Russian art, and am appreciative that she opened her estate to the public. Even if, as the Wikipedia entry on her states, she was "alleged to have purchased art expropriated from Soviet citizens well after the Russian Revolution, including victims of Stalin's Terror at discount prices from Soviet authorities." If she hadn't, I might've had to spend another full day in the classroom.

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Feeling monumental

You know it, I know it, we all know it: the Washington Monument needs no introduction. Still, a few brief facts are in order: the cornerstone was first laid on July 4, 1848, but due to construction and political problems, it remained stuck at a mere 152 feet (46 meters) for more than two decades (Mark Twain called it a "factory chimney with the top broken off"). After the Civil War, Congress authorized funding to complete the monument, but it still took until the end of 1884 for the structure to reach completion. It's still the world's tallest stone structure and tallest obelisk, reaching a height of 555 feet (169 meters). The monument measures 55 feet (17 meters) wide at the base, tapers off to 34 feet (10 meters) at the top and is capped by a small aluminum pyramid. And until this Veterans Day, my family and I had never been inside it:

Thanks to damage from the magnitude 5.8 2011 Virginia Earthquake,  the monument was closed the first time we were in the Washington, D.C. area. Repairs were completed and the monument was reopened to visitors in May 2014, while we were in Shanghai. Ever since, riding the elevators to the top of the monument was at the top of our list of things to do once we returned to northern Virginia. I first looked into reserving tickets online more than a month ago, but due to high demand combined with our time constraints (we're pretty much only free on Saturdays and national holidays), the earliest available date I could find that fit our schedule was Veterans Day. Fortunately, November 11 turned out to be a beautiful day, with clear skies and temperatures in the mid-60's F (mid-to-late teens C). The views from the top (at 500 feet/152 meters) turned out to be well worth the long wait.

Looking east, we could look down the National Mall (currently undergoing renovations scheduled to last until December 2016) to the Capitol (itself undergoing renovation work). Visible on the left are the National Museum of Natural History and the National Gallery of Art. On the right, you can see the Smithsonian Institution Building ("The Castle"), the Hirshhorn Museum, the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian:

A closer view of the Capitol Building, flanked by the Supreme Court Building on the left and the Library of Congress on the right (and RFK Stadium hovering in the background):

Zooming in on the Smithsonian Castle and the Freer Gallery of Art:

To the north, we could see the White House and the Ellipse:

Turning west, we had a great view of the National World War II Memorial, the Reflecting Pool and, of course, the Lincoln Memorial:

Finally, the southern windows expose the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial:

The floor below the observatory contains a few exhibits, giving you something to look while waiting for the elevator ride back to ground level:

If you could only choose one structure to symbolize Washington, D.C., a strong case could be made for the Washington Monument. Visiting it today was further proof (if any were needed) that Washington is an amazing city to experience. If you haven't seen the obelisk and would like to, do as we did and book your tickets online, for a small fee; free tickets are available at the Monument itself, but they go quickly.

Having crossed the Washington Monument off of our collective District of Columbia bucket list, it was time to find somewhere to have lunch. From past experience, the cafeterias inside the various museums along the National Mall are best avoided (mediocre food at high prices), so we strolled north to Pennsylvania Avenue. In a nod to this country's colonial beginnings, we settled on the British-themed Elephant & Castle pub and restaurant, where I lunched on stuffed Yorkshire pudding, washed down with a DC Brau Public Pale Ale:

Across the street from the restaurant stands the Old Post Office Pavilion, a magnificent Romanesque Revival structure that's unfortunately being redeveloped into a luxury hotel by none other than Donald Trump. We visited it three years ago:   

We returned to the Mall and the Sōtatsu: Making Waves exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Tawaraya Sōtatsu 俵屋宗達 was a 17th century Japanese artist and co-founder of the Rinpa 琳派 school of Japanese painting. The Sackler Gallery is currently showing the first retrospective of Sōtatsu's work outside of Japan. Noted for his painted folding screens, my daughter described the banner outside the gallery as being a "screen shot":

Photography wasn't permitted inside the Sōtatsu exhibit, but I did manage to surreptitiously take this screen shot:

Inspired by Sōtatsu, Amber created her own folding fan art:

On the way to the Making Waves exhibition, we passed through this deconstruction of James McNeill Whistler's The Peacock Room. Part of an immersive installation by painter Darren Waterston called Filthy Lucre, Peacock Room: REMIX features broken pottery pieces and paintings of peacocks eviscerating each other:

My daughter was simultaneously fascinated and horrified by the room, going in several times to have a look. She was relieved later when we went upstairs to the Freer Gallery to see the actual Peacock Room:

This ceiling-to-floor installation consists of the word "monkey" rendered in twenty-one languages:

Amber and I finished our afternoon on the Mall by going for a ride on historic Carousel on the Mall, while my wife took a break on a nearby bench. It was by far the fastest Merry Go Round I've ever experienced. A plaque on the gate explained its small role in the civil rights struggles of the Sixties:

Washington on a crisp, clear autumn afternoon - is there any better time to be in the District? OK, perhaps spring (when the cherry blossoms bloom), but at least now there are fewer people to cope with.