Friday, December 28, 2012

A Christmas Experiment

Christmas is an emotional time of year.  Bringing family together to celebrate and perform countless traditional family rituals is bound to become associated with a host of emotions, both positive and negative.  During an “orphans’ Christmas party” held at a friend’s house for those with no family in Taipei, we played a game that involved sharing best and worst Christmas stories.  It was so interesting to see that people from all over the world have such strong emotional memories surrounding Christmas.

(Over) Analyzing Christmas

The Christmas season is full of stimuli (decorations, foods, music, smells) that have been consistently paired with a lifetime of experiences which can therefore trigger intense emotions (had to slip some ABA terms into the post). Spending a Christmas away from family and friends is an interesting psychological experiment because it provides an environment in which I am exposed to the same stimuli (there are Christmas decorations and music, although not as many), but without the events and activities that I usually experience with Christmas.  Imagine I am one of Pavlov’s dogs  hearing the bell chime, but not receiving the usual treat.  It is easy to take emotions associated with symbols (in this case Christmas music, decorations, and food) for granted because usually our emotions are also party in preparation for an upcoming event.  It is only when we are presented with the antecedent stimuli (Christmas stuff) without the consequential events (family gatherings, meals, gift giving) that we can separate the emotional associations one has with the holidays from the anticipation of specific future events.( I promise, if you have made it this far, no more behavioral terminology.)

I’m happy to report that the emotions that were brought forth by Christmas were all positive.  This tells me that Christmas for me has been a genuinely enjoyable season in the past, which is no surprise to me because my family has always worked incredibly hard to ensure that everyone is happy. Despite the sometimes stressful nature of family gatherings, we enjoyed each other’s company and the joy always outweighed any strife.  I know that having a positive relationship with Christmas is not true for everyone – Christmas can be an incredibly stressful time of year that is associated with anger and disappointment.  Crime rates and domestic violence skyrocket during Christmas, probably the result of the added stress of purchasing gifts and dealing with extended family.

A Mindful Christmas

For several years I have been reflecting on what Christmas really means to me and this year’s “experiment” of a Christmas in a foreign land was the perfect opportunity to separate the valuable aspects of the holiday from the junk.   Abel’s arrival also gives Jessica and me the opportunity to establish our own family traditions that reflect our unique values rather than mindlessly replicating mainstream rituals associated with Christmas.  

What I like about Christmas: delicious food, family gatherings, time off work and out of regular routines, communicating with distant friends and family via phone calls and cards, giving and receiving thoughtful gifts that have meaning to the recipient and gift-giver.  
What I want to avoid during Christmas: rushing around to make “appearances” at Christmas gatherings, spending more than I can afford for gifts, giving or receiving gifts that are based on how much they cost rather than their meaning, eating junk food for a week before and after Christmas.

Jessica and I missed our families a great deal this year, but we managed to have a very nice Christmas with Abel and our new friends. We exchanged simple gifts, ate loads of delicious and nourishing food, and had lots of time to relax and enjoy conversation. While this year was not an ideal Christmas due to our distance from family, it was beneficial in many ways. I have learned a lot about my emotional attachment to Christmas due to past experience and how I want Christmas to be celebrated by our family in the future.  I am looking forward to many years of joyful Christmas celebrations with the future.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Go With The Flow

I’m confounded by religion in Taiwan.

 It is easy in the United States to classify people on a continuum of religiosity, with non-religious on one end and highly pious on the other extreme. Also, most people self-identify with a discrete religious label such as “Catholic”, “non-practicing Jew”, “Methodist”, etc.  People in the US don’t just identify with a particular religion; the sect that they choose often informs much of their world-view and political outlook.  This is the sociology of religion with which I am familiar – choose your team, wear their colors, and do as the coach tells you.  Of course many people are independent thinkers in the area of spirituality, but a large part of religion in the United States is based on group identity.

This form of religiousness seems to be absent in Taiwan, with the exception of the Christian minority.  The traditional religions of Taiwan, and Chinese culture in general, are more like a constellation of beliefs, traditions, and philosophies that one can choose from based on personal opinions and preferences.  Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and traditional folk beliefs all intermingle to produce a rich trove of ancient beliefs and teachings from which people can choose.  There are people who ascribe to particular sects and traditions, but the different religious practices have been in contact for so many centuries that they have borrowed and mixed from one another so much that even scholars have a difficult time tracing their roots.

Long Shan Temple, one of the oldest in Taipei, worships a mixture of Buddhist, Taoist, and Folk Deities.
Dissecting the religions of Taiwan is no easy task, partially because it strains the definition of “religion”.  A perfect example involves the most outward display of religion that I have witnessed in Taiwan – setting up shrines and burning “ghost money”.  In this widely practiced ritual, business set up shrines and offering of food on the street and burn “ghost money” as a show of respect to the deceased. This practice is not part of any organized religion, but is the derived from ancient folk tradition based on ancestor worship. Buddhism does not condone the offerings to the deceased and Taoism tolerates it but does not promote its practice.  So why is this practice so widespread if it is not a part of any organized religion?  It is culture, not religion.  An analogy could be made with tombstones and flowers.  We wouldn’t consider placing flowers on tombstones to be a religious practice, even though it is spiritual in a way.  The same could be said of the Taiwanese custom of burning ghost money and offering food to the deceased.  I suppose it is easy to label foreign cultural practices as “religion” because it involves ritual and belief, but in reality it exists outside any formal religious tradition.

Statue of Matsu in Da'an Park
Another example of the complexity of worship in Taiwan can be found in the most commonly portrayed diety on the island - the Goddess Matsu.  Matsu is believed to be a woman who lived in Fujian province at around 900 CE and is credited with saving her father during a typhoon.  Her legend quickly grew around China and she was soon worshiped as the Goddess of the Southern Sea.  Since Taiwan is an island, many of the early settlers identified with her and thanked her for their safe arrival.  Matsu is not formally incorporated into any religion, but she is the most commonly worshiped figure in Taiwan. 

Of the major “religions” in Taiwan, only Taoism and Confucianism are indigenous; (Buddhism is often associated with China and the Far East, but it is an imported religion from India) however, there is a problem with this classification.  Confucianism is not a religion, but a philosophy.  Confucius did not teach about metaphysics or supernatural forces, which are necessary components for any religion.  Confucius’ teachings are about how to organize society and to best live one’s life.  There are shrines to Confucius all over, and everyone is familiar with his teachings, but it is not a religion in the strict sense of the word.

Young clerks at a trendy clothing store burning ghost money.

Taoism is more easily classified as a religion, but it is fundamentally different than the Abrahamic religions that dominate the Western world.  Taoism, which is often depicted by the yin/yang symbol, is a collection of teachings from Laozi, who is believed to have lived in the 4th century B.C.  Taoism is may be familiar to many Americans since it was embraced by “Beats” and “Hippies” as a source of inspiration and guidance.  Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, and Alan Ginsberg regularly referred to the most important Taoist text, the I-Ching and a central tenet of Taoism, “Go with the flow” was a mantra of the ‘60s counterculture.  The reason it was so inspirational to the cultural revolutionaries of the mid-century was due to its non-dogmatic and decentralized approach to religion.  Taoist teachings contrast with the paternalistic nature of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.  There are no commandments, no sins, no stories of punishment or virtue in Taoism and there is no centralized structure to the religion as it is practiced.  Taoism is just a way to look at the world and some tools, like Tai-Chi and Fung-Shui, that can help one to thrive in it.

The amorphous nature of Taoism brings me back to my initial statement – religion in Taiwan challenges my assumptions of what it means to be religious. In Taiwan it is common to mix some Confucian philosophy with Taoist metaphysics and Buddhist ethics while practicing ancient folk rituals. Religious labels are too simple for the complex mix of beliefs found in Taiwan, so I just need to take some Taoist advice and go with the flow . . .

Friday, December 14, 2012

Considerate, but still a little creepy

When traveling to a new place, it is natural to focus on the differences - people’s habits, dress, and language all seem so inexplicable and foreign in different countries.  I had traveled in Asia before coming to Taiwan, so some aspects of Taiwan felt vaguely familiar, but there were others that I found puzzling.  One such puzzle was the ubiquitous surgical face masks.  Old people, young people, people on scooters, people working in shops, kids going to school – about 1 in 5 people wear a face mask on any given day.  At first this made me imagine some terrible apocalyptic scenario caused by an unstoppable pandemic that I didn’t know about because I couldn’t read the newspapers.  Of course I quickly realized this was not the case, and that wearing face masks is common behavior.  It still struck me as impersonal and possibly paranoid behavior that did make me feel like the entire city was as contaminated as a hospital.  It was as though seeing how worried others were about germs made me hyper-aware of germs.  Luckily, this impression also wore off and I figured out why Taiwanese people feel it necessary to wear masks so often.

Not my photo, but a common scene on the streets of Taipei
My initial impressions centered on the assumption that the masks are meant to protect the user.  In most instances, this is not the case - people wear masks to protect others.  If you feel like you are coming down with something, if you have a cold, or any sort of cough, it is common courtesy to wear a mask so that you don’t spread your germs to those around you. I emphasized “common courtesy” because that is what is so remarkable about this practice.  This is a quintessential example of Taiwanese courtesy and thoughtfulness.  Wearing a mask is uncomfortable, not particularly attractive, and it offers the wearer no benefit, yet thousands of people do it every day as a courtesy to others.  I think if you look up the definition of “considerate” in the dictionary, there should be the picture of a Taiwanese person on the subway wearing a facemask.

I’ve asked myself several times if I will wear a mask when I get sick.  Luckily, I haven’t had even a cold yet, but most likely I will before we leave.  I want to say that I will because it is the culturally appropriate thing to do and the courteous thing to do, but honestly I don’t know if I can walk around with a surgical mask on my face.  Why?  I think I would look ridiculous.  Even with thousands of other Taiwanese wearing masks every day all around me, my own cultural norms are so strong that I will have to make a concerted effort to leave the house wearing something that I associate with surgery and hospitals.  How often do you see people walking around the US with surgical masks on their faces?  If you did, how would you react?  I know that I would not stand anywhere near them because I would assume that a) they are very, very sick or b) they are crazy.  Despite my hesitation, I will force myself to wear a mask if I have a contagious illness.  If I had any courage I would do the same in the US and demonstrate what real courtesy looks like – even if it does look creepy at first sight.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Ode to Breast Milk

I spend a lot of time reflecting on how lucky I am to have a healthy and happy son, but I also realize that it is more than just luck.  Besides genetic and gestational variables that have led to Abel’s healthy development, I believe that the most important single reason why he is healthy is breastmilk.  This is some AMAZING stuff.  I always assumed that formula and breastmilk were functionally the same – they fill up a baby and give it the nutrients he/she need to grow.  While formula does provide the necessities, breastmilk provides so much more.

My List of Amazing Breastmilk Facts:
  • A child that is breastfed for the first year scores an average of 8 points higher on IQ tests, even when controlling for parents education, socioeconomic factors, etc.
  • Breastmilk provides a major immunity booster that leads to babies having half as many ear infections as formula fed infants.
  • Babies’ stomachs are sensitive and breastmilk is the most easily digested protein. Breastfed babies almost never experience constipation.
  • Breastmilk, even when not ingested, is a powerful antibacterial agent.  It can be applied directly to skin, and even into babies’ eyes, to cure rashes and irritation.  (We’ve actually tried this – it works!).
  • The composition of a mother’s breastmilk changes throughout the day to reflect the mother’s hormonal level, and actually contains sedatives at night which helps the baby sleep.
  • The composition of a mother’s breastmilk changes as the child grows to reflect their changing nutritional needs. 
  • Best of all – a breastfed babies poo doesn’t smell bad!!!!  (I will miss this as we transition to solids . . .)

I know, this list sounds too good to be true, but these facts are widely known. I want to make clear that my intention is not to make anyone feel bad for not breastfeeding – it is a very personal decision that every mother should make based on what is best for her and her child.  Also, a great many mothers are not able to breastfeed for a variety of reasons. Babies who are formula fed are happy and healthy too.

My hope is that no mother chooses not to breastfeed due to societal pressures or a lack of support.  Breastfeeding is hard, very hard at times.  The first few weeks are problematic for most new mothers, as our experience can attest.  Luckily, we had the support of a lactation consultant who was willing to drive across town on Saturday night to help Abel latch properly and calm our anxiety.  We were fortunate, many mothers don’t have that level of support and give up breastfeeding because of the initial difficultly.  That is a shame because mothers need support. Lots of it.  Gone are the days when the village midwife would stick around for a few days until a new mother got the hang of it.  Choosing not to breastfeed is fine, but it is a decision that should not be made out of duress.

The other reason breastfeeding may not be chosen by mothers is that it is not embraced by mainstream society. Breasts are taboo - sexual and scandalous.  Of course there is nothing sexual our scandalous about feeding an infant the way nature intended, but that logic does not trump the stigma that breastfeeding has in our culture.  A woman who breastfeeds in public in the United States is likely to get stares from some and possibly even disdain from others. This is so unfortunate because that mother who is the object of curiosity or derision, is doing the absolute most caring thing possible – nourishing and caring for a vulnerable baby.  We should do so much more to encourage breastfeeding in the US, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it will greatly benefit the country.  The education system will benefit by having brighter kids, the healthcare system will have fewer sick children, and a great deal of money will be saved on producing formula.

Taipei is striving to make breastfeeding easier and more publicly acceptable.  There are breastfeeding rooms in all subway stations, museums, libraries, and hospitals.  These are nice rooms – leather recliners, sinks, water dispensers, and changing tables.  By law, women cannot be stopped from breastfeeding in public.  There is also a public ad campaign to make the public aware of how important breastfeeding is to a baby’s health.  The ads have a photo of a breastfeeding mother with information and statistics on how it helps – the photo alone is very important in that it desensitizes it in their minds.

I am proud to have a wife who has worked so incredibly hard to give our son the best possible start.  It would have been easier to do it differently, but she persevered through many difficult weeks after the birth when feeding was not so smooth.  She continued as we traveled across the country in our car and over the ocean by plane.  Now that she is the primary breadwinner, it is very inconvenient to have to pump enough breastmilk to feed him while she is working. Every day she has to take time to pump while at work, first thing in the morning, and after Abel goes to sleep.  She does it all so that he is well-fed and healthy.  Having a healthy son is not due to just luck, it is a result of the hard work of a very caring and loving mother.