Sunday, October 28, 2012

Betel Nut Buzz

I love new cultural experiences.  The excitement of trying anything for the first time gives me a thrill, so I was very excited to try Betel Nut since it packs a very tangible high aside from the novelty of the experience.   \

First and foremost – Betel Nut is not only completely legal in Taiwan, but chewing it is an extremely common practice here that dates back hundreds if not thousands of years.  All over Taiwan there are little booths lit up with neon lights that sell bags of betel nut to taxi drivers, truckers, and anyone else looking for a little pick-me-up. Apparently these booths are often staffed by scantily clad women in other parts of Taiwan, but this practice has been banned inside Taipei. Every betel nut vendor I have seen is staffed by a grumpy older man who is, thankfully, not wearing reveling clothes.

The betel nut buzz is nothing like that of alcohol or marijuana – it is much more akin to a strong cup of coffee.  Chewing a little right now, I can attest that the effects come on much quicker than caffeine, but are more short-lived.  How does it taste?  Somewhere between god-awful and just plain terrible.  It is extremely bitter - an acquired taste to say the least.  Since I have a fondness for most bitter flavors, I don’t find it as offensive as most first-time users probably do.  Even though I don’t mind the bitterness, I have gum ready to chew after I spit out the remainder of the pulp. 

The downside to chewing betel nut is that it has been identified as a carcinogenic.  This applies mostly to processed betel nut, not the natural preparation that you can find here in Taiwan.  However, the World Health Organization does officially classify it as a cancer risk factor for habitual users.  I figure that chewing a few times a month this year can’t be too deadly since I see plenty of cab drivers in their 60’s chewing it almost constantly. 

Although I don’t think occasional use will do me in, this is one part of Taiwan’s culture that I won’t be bringing back with me to the US.  I’ll stick to my coffee and tea.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Couldn't Have Said it Better Myself

I love it when I come across writing that makes me scream, “that is exactly what I’m trying to say!”  It is satisfying to read my thoughts in concise and articulate language, but it also makes me strive to improve my writing to such a level.  This is an introduction to a paper titled, “Diverse Contexts of Human Infancy” by Barry Hewlett which summarizes the ideas I was struggling to convey in the previous two “Going with your Gut” posts.

American parents are unique cross-culturally in that they usually do not know very much about infancy until they have their own baby. In many parts of the world, individuals grow up with infants around them because of high fertility or living with an extended family. Children in many parts of the world are expected to assist their mothers or female relatives with infant care, so by the time they become parents they are aware of basic needs of infants and know how to respond appropriately to them. American mothers and fathers, on the other hand, seldom, if ever, have had the opportunity to care for a baby until they have their own. First-time parents are often overwhelmed because babies take an enormous amount of knowledge and time. How many hours should an infant sleep, when is a good time to introduce solid foods, and should parents sleep with their infants are common questions. Since first-time American parents do not have this knowledge and do not live with someone who has the information, they often turn to “experts” for guidance. A handful of infant books and regular visits to the pediatrician are common.

One limitation to expert advice is that it is provided in the context of American culture. The expert usually does not have the time to read about infancy in other parts of the world, but gives the impression that the advice is based upon studies of infants around the world. This is seldom the case and can lead to inaccurate views of the abilities or development of human infants.

This chapter examines American and Western European biases in descriptions and characterizations of infants by examining infancy cross-culturally and placing infant care-giving practices in their cultural contexts. This approach to human infancy provides a broader understanding of human infancy. Understanding the diversity of cultural contexts of infancy can possibly develop a greater tolerance and respect for variability in baby care beliefs and practices, as well as identify options that might be available for enhancing infant development.

I have also come across another source of parenting information, “Parenting Science”, which is in sync with my own concepts of how to approach raising children in our culture.  The author, Gwen Dewar, is an anthropologist, but not one who recommends that we return to the lifestyle of hunters and gatherers.  She takes a more empirical approach to controversial parenting issues that is based on scientific studies, but where those studies are vague or absent she looks to case-studies from traditional cultures that shed light on humans natural development grounded in our evolutionary past. It is interested reading – give it a look!  

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Greatest Wealth is Health

I never thought that I would spend so much time worrying about health insurance, doctor visit copays, and dental coverage – a sure sign of getting older.  Now that Jess and I have a little guy to watch out for, quality healthcare is extremely important to us.  In fact, affordable access to healthcare is one of the reasons why I am writing this blog post from Taiwan.  If we were to “downshift” in the US by having one of us stay home with Abel and the other teach full time, the working spouse would have to pay $650 per month to cover the health insurance premiums for the family.  As a public school teacher, that is a huge expense which makes it nearly impossible to spend a year at home with a baby.  Luckily, Taiwan has a much more efficient and affordable healthcare system that even welcomes foreigners!

We had an up close and personal experience with healthcare in Taiwan just the other day when we took Abel in for his four month immunizations.  We have spent countless hours researching online, emailing with family doctors, and we even met with a travel health doctor while in Austin.  We were very nervous about the whole process, but we were happy to learn that our worries were unfounded.  I won’t say it was a pleasant experience, I doubt giving shots to a baby can ever be anything but miserable, but I did marvel at the efficiency of the clinic and its staff. 

The contrast between pleasantness and efficiency pretty well sums up one of the most interesting aspects of healthcare in Taiwan – not terribly pleasant, but extremely efficient.  The unpleasantness does not come from substandard care or unfriendly staff, but from is a byproduct of the system which does not sacrifice one iota of efficiency for the sake of privacy.  My other experience with the Taiwanese healthcare system was when I had to get a “health check” at the city hospital so that I could apply for the resident certificate.  During this check, I had blood drawn at a counter with 20 people lined up behind me, changed into a hospital robe and waited in line for my number to be called, and had a chest extra in front of 20 other strangers after they announced my name over the intercom.  No HIPA (Health Information Privacy Act) here in Taiwan.  My chart containing test results and other sensitive information was passed around to volunteers and left on counters.  Of course I had nothing to hide, but it is very different than the extreme privacy afforded at US hospitals.

Privacy may not be paramount in Taiwan, but equitable access to quality healthcare certainly is a top priority.  Every citizen, and even alien residents like us, is provided with free health coverage. The system is similar to Medicare, but expanded to the entire population.  Working folks pay a tax similar to Medicare tax that is a percentage of income, and there are small copays for visits, usually just a few dollars.  The poor, elderly, and veterans are all covered for free.

What makes this equitable access to care possible?  Efficiency.  Taiwan does more with less by cutting administrative costs and streamlining care delivery with the single payer system.  Also, record keeping and billing are extremely streamlined due to the health care card that is embedded with a smart chip that contains a summary of health information and records.  These streamlined measures help to make the Taiwanese system one of the most affordable and efficient in the world. While the US spends 15% of its GDP on health care, Taiwan spends only 6%.  That means that the average amount spent per person per year in the US on healthcare is $7000, but only $2000 in Taiwan.  That is an enormous difference considering that there is very little difference in quality.  

The amazing part is that people access healthcare services more often in Taiwan than in the US.  “Health seeking behaviors” are very high in Taiwan and people go to clinics, Chinese medical offices, acupuncturists, and massage therapists for even minor ailments.  And it is all covered! It seems to me that if you make healthcare affordable, then people will seek medical help for minor ailments before they become more severe, which will save everyone a lot of money in the long run.  Financial barriers to healthcare cause people in the US to put off going to the doctor, which leads to more chronic illnesses and acute conditions that require expensive and invasive procedures after they become more serious, which is part of the reason why the US has the highest per capital healthcare costs in the world. 

If the whole purpose of healthcare is to help us live longer healthier lives, then Taiwan is getting a lot of bang for their buck – the average Taiwanese lives over a year longer than the average American. We spend over three times as much and don’t live as long.  The Taiwanese studied our Medicare system to find inspiration for their healthcare system, now maybe it is time that we study Taiwan’s National Health Insurance system to find ways to improve the health of our country.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Not Just America’s Pastime

All of the Cardinals’ hysteria that is going on back at home piqued my interest in Taiwanese baseball.  Many people know that baseball is popular in Japan, but I imagine that few people realize that it is also a top sport in Taiwan. The Japanese introduced the sport in the early 1900’s and it has steadily grown in popularity to become the most popular national sport.

Without an expensive satellite package, sometimes it can be hard to watch your favorite teams’ games in the US, but no problem in Taiwan – there always seems to be a MLB game on, regardless of the time of day.  I just spoke with an older Taiwanese guy at the gym yesterday who told me that he keeps up on all the MLB teams and watches games almost every day.  He was a Giants fan, so when he found out I was from Cardinals’ country, he got pretty excited.

Taiwan’s home league is quite popular, but has had a rocky history.  The Chinese Professional Baseball League was formed in 1989 and was so popular that it spawned a rival league, the Taiwan Major League.  Things were going great for baseball in Taiwan until a series of game-fixing scandals involving the mafia became public.  In 2003, after only seven years, the TML was absorbed into the CPBL leaving only one league and several teams affected by the various scandals were dissolved. Attendance suffered because fans had lost trust in the players, but not in the game itself.

Interesting facts about baseball in Taiwan:

  • Taiwan has won more Little League World Championships than any other country!  I guess combining a love for baseball with very focused and dedicated youngsters is a winning combination.
  • The champion of the CPBL goes on to play in the Asia Series against Korea, Japan, and China.
  • If a pitcher hits a batter with a pitch, he tips his cap as a sign of respect and to indicate that it was not intentional.  There are few, if any, intended hit batsmen or retaliatory hits.
  • A baseball scene is depicted on the $500 NTD note.
  • At the end of every game, both teams and the umpires bow to the fans to show their appreciation for their patronage. 

Hopefully I’ll get to see a baseball game during our time here – probably my only chance to get fried tofu and green tea at a baseball stadium!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Global Constituents

Endless arguing, daily unsolicited phone calls, angry divisions between family and friends, endless spiteful commercials – all this fun and more during autumn of an election year.

I have been very fortunate to have been overseas for this election and the last. This geographic distance has given me respite from the ads, calls, and awkward/tense discussions, but there is nowhere on earth that is unaware of the US election.  Observing the election process from an international perspective has been fascinating – the entire world is watching the US and the average person in Taiwan is aware of the latest poll numbers, the debate performances, and each candidate’s policy proposals.  All the international channels, and even the local news stations, carry updates on the campaigning.  Do we get updates on local news about elections in Taiwan?  Of course not - maybe it would get 10 seconds of an international news segment on CNN during off-peak viewing. That would be about it.

Why does the US election gets daily coverage in Taiwan, yet we in the US are not even aware when there is an election in Taiwan? Simple -the US election is an event that has huge import to the entire world.  Most interesting to me is that although everyone in the world is a stakeholder in the US election, most of the world’s people have absolutely no input or voice in the process.  The US is the undisputed world military and economic leader and the decisions made by the next President of the United States will have an impact that is felt in a very tangible way by citizens of every country in the world.    The President is elected exclusively by the US citizens, but has power over people in every country. 

This gross geopolitical imbalance could be defused if the issues of global concern featured more prominently in the presidential election. There is no legal or electoral imperative to shift the debate towards international welfare, but I feel that there is a moral one.  Both candidates make strong claims to be caring Christian men, but the suffering of millions of humans around the world is virtually ignored because they are not voting constituents. This issue is ignored despite the fact that caring for one’s less-fortunate neighbors is a Christian, perhaps even universal, religious tenet.  I doubt that valuing American comfort to the detriment of those in the rest of the world could be defended by any verse in the Bible.  Unfortunately, a political candidate who vows to fight poverty on a global scale doesn't stand a chance to win an election.  Americans are so worried about unemployment and taxes that anyone who would admit to sacrificing a single job or raise taxes by a fraction of a percent to help alleviate suffering in another country would be blown out of the water in a national election. Ironically, with all the haranguing about the “1%” not paying its fair share, there has been no mention that the entire US population is the top 1% globally, and we surely don’t pay our fair share to help the billion people struggling to survive on less than $1 a day. Perhaps I’m being cynical – elections tend to have that effect on me.

I just hope that when voters go to the polls, or when questions are asked of the candidates, a little thought is given to the billions who will be affected by the election but have not impact on its outcome. Yes - it is our country, our election, and our choice.  Is it too much to hope that America will use its wealth and power to be a world leader in eradicating global injustice rather than a global bully in promoting its self-interest? Is this really such a radical thought? No matter who wins in November, my hope is that he uses his power and influence to benefit not just the people of the United States, but help to improve conditions for humanity irrespective of national borders.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Original Super-Market

There are two very different ways to shop in Taipei.  The easy way is to go to the supermarket and stock up on everything you need in one place, exactly as most people do in the US.  Then there is the old-school way to shop – taking a stroll through the street market.

Although going to the farmers’ markets is currently very fashionable in the US, most people have lost touch with buying food in a traditional market.  That is too bad because buying food at a street market is one of the most sensory-rich experiences you can find - entertainment as much as shopping. Brightly colored vegetables piled high in every direction, shrill calls of vendors advertising their specials, wafting fragrance of roasted peanuts and fried tofu, and the whirl of bikes, scooters, strollers, and carts hustling by in every direction. Always the stimulation junkie – Abel LOVES the market.  The market loves Abel back, and we get the rewards in the form of extra handfuls of greens and discounts on our fruit.

I definitely experienced sensory overload on our first trip down the market street, not to mention overwhelmed by the cognitive burden of trying to figure out if lady #1’s broccoli at 35 TWD a basket is a better deal than lady #2’s broccoli for 20 TWD a pound, but then there is also lady #3 who has two crowns of broccoli for 30 TWD, and she said hers is local . . .  you get the idea.  It is much easier to comparison shop when you can take your time standing in front of goods which are lined up, packaged, and labeled on a shelf.  It takes some trial and error, but after a month we are starting to get to know where to go for what vegetable and which vegetables are the best value.  Despite the complexity of the comparison shopping, the market is generally significantly cheaper than going to the fluorescent, sterile, and impersonal supermarket - and way more fun.

We are just beginning to delve into a whole new realm of the market – seafood.  Clams, crabs, oysters, snapper, squid, salmon, mussels, tuna – you name it, they’ve got it lined up on their ice filled tables. We were a little hesitant about buying fish sitting out in the open air, so for our first seafood foray we went with Tilapia – a conservative choice considering the options. When the fish we chose began to flop and flap violently in the plastic bag we were handed, we realized freshness was not a concern.  I was concerned, however, that it might actually manage to flop its way out our little refrigerator. Luckily, the walk home and the cold temperature in the fridge relaxed the fish enough to keep him safely contained until dinner time.    

Without any language skills, I rely completely on Jess to navigate our market trips.  This can be a little frustrating for me, and probably for Jess since she has to do all the negotiating, but we both really enjoy our Sunday morning market trips. I'm certain about one thing - it sure beats a trip to Wal-Mart!

Tofu Vendor - Everything on the table is tofu!
Crabs that are neatly tied up for your convenience! 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Confucius Says: Teachers Rock!

It is nice to be in a country that values education and teachers.  Taiwan, and much of Asia, puts great emphasis on education at the family and societal level – children are strongly encouraged to do well in school and schools are funded appropriately by the government.  We’ve all seen the statistics of how US students compare to their Asian equivalents in standardized tests – they are well behind in science and math.  This is in addition to the fact that students in Taiwan, China, Korea, and Japan all start learning English, in addition to their native language, beginning in Kindergarten!  They have an entire additional subject to learn, but still manage to outperform American students.

A lot of experts have weighed in on this issue, but it seems clear to me that the high value of education stems from Confucian values that place great responsibility on the younger generation to serve and learn from the older generation.  Also, Confucius himself was a teacher and taught of the importance of learning from the society’s elder members. Confucius thought and philosophy are alive and well in Chinese culture – there is even a National Teacher’s Day which was celebrated last month.

Teachers in Taiwan not only enjoy a more respected social status than their US counterparts, but they also enjoy a better salary.  Although my hurried googling didn’t result in any definitive numbers that adjust for cost of living, I can speak to our experience as English teachers here in Taiwan.  We are able to live a much more comfortable life here in Taiwan by working just a fraction of the hours that we worked while in Texas.   Combined, Jess and I now work under 30 hours a week, but are able to afford an apartment downtown, eat out at restaurants most days, and travel around the city as much as we like.  I’m not saying any of this to brag, but to highlight the contrast with our financial situation while in the US – we worked 100 hours a week combined, cooked at home for nearly every meal, and dared not waste gasoline.  Of course this comparison involves more variables than just teacher salary, but it is a huge difference in lifestyle for us made possible by being professional educators.

It hasn't all been easy. My search for a part time teaching position has had many ups and downs over the last month, mostly because I have very limited hours of availability due to Jess’ schedule.  I interviewed and was offered a job as an online tutor working in the evening (8-10) and weekends.  I even signed an employment contract, but there was a misunderstanding about which kind of foreign visa I have, so I couldn’t apply for a work permit.  Luckily, the very next day I was approached by one of Jess’ coworkers about a tutoring opportunity for twin 1st graders who attended Jess’ school last year.  Two days after being disappointed about the online tutoring job, I was sitting in a fancy apartment tutoring two cute kids in reading for twice the pay of the online position!  Again, it is because society places such a high value on education that tutors are so well compensated and teachers are able to enjoy comfortable lifestyles. 

We're looking forward to getting back to the States, but we will miss the perks of teaching here.  We'll just have to plan on working to raise the status of the education profession in the US so that teachers are given the respect and economic incentives they deserve.