Too Many Mangoes

This is a blog which I kept during the years, 2006-11, when we lived in Taiwan. There are a lot of observations regarding life in China, stories of things that we did, and occasional reminiscences of life in London.
Monday, July 10, 2006 Erik

So, what is Taiwan like? First impressions are good, but mixed. Everything is a lot more confusing than in my long-held dreams of the Orient. Everything is stubbornly Chinese, and why shouldn’t it be? There are cars and motorcycles everywhere; strange characters on street signs, mangy dogs, manky little eateries, swanky shops selling fashion, shopping malls like you wouldn’t believe, nice old ladies taking even older ladies out for walks.

One of the professor has lent us a car and that makes all the difference to our lives — you don’t get around on foot here. We live close to campus in quite an uncharming apartment, but we bought bicycles for the girls and they are very happy riding around. There is a pool as well and big sports fields. Within easy walking distance there is a playground, a rollerskating rink and even a small but adorable zoo! We were wondering what that weird smell was and it turned out to be tiger poo!

The university is looking after me very well. Since I’m on sabbatical from the LSE in the autumn, I only do a few little things, but I’ll start for real in February next year. I have a great, big, office, and everything is high-tech — as one would expect from the “MIT of Asia.” What’s really striking is how they trust professors to do their work without interference. I can teach what I like, in the way I like, and grade students in whatever fashion I please. I can set up courses on my own server space. I can even blog. Taiwan democratized in the 1980s and there are plenty of people around who risked their lives for free speech.

The problem is that we don’t have a life here yet. We left our life behind in Norflondon. We are literally homeless and I for one feel quite existentially exposed. People are friendly but they are all strangers; the kids’ school is lovely but we don’t know anyone there; we have beds but not our favorite pillows. We are on vacation but with no ordinary life to go back to. We’ll adjust for sure, but adjusting is harder than I remember it to be. Perhaps I’m getting conservative in my old age — or perhaps just lazy.

When he was roughly my age, my maternal grandfather, who was a vicar in the Swedish church, decided to go up to Lapland to teach the locals about Jesus Christ. This was a very strange decision considering that most vicars slowly move their way down to Stockholm as their careers progress. You can have different kinds of careers, I guess. We were always romantics, my grandpa and me.

Sunday, August 27, 2006 Erik

I just got hold of Dylan’s new record, Modern Times, thanks to … errr … my connections in the record industry. Three days early, the official U.S. release is on Tuesday. I’m listening to it now.

“Thunder on the Mountain” is a pretty standard blues rocker; “Spirit on the Water” is of those jazzy 1930s songs Bob has been doing lately; “Workingman’s Blues” is a super-simple Dylan tune — a bit like “Make You Feel My Love” — which sounds terrible at first but which grows on you very quickly and eventually ends up as the best song you ever heard; “I Ain’t Talkin’” is apocalyptic, haunting — a grand closing number. All in all, it’s a superb album. No duds and with a couple of instant classics.

All my loyal and my much-loved companions
They approve of me and share my code
I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned
Ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road

Btw, the lyrics are here. As for reviews, even the grumpiest of Dylanophobes are handing out four stars, Dylan agnostics are reaching for five stars, and the fans are over the moon. In general the blogosphere seems to be exploding with Dylan references.

Compare the excitement over this album with the embarrassment that accompanied the latest Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney releases. Jagger et al belong thoroughly in the 1960s; Dylan is for ever.

Thursday, August 31, 2006 Erik

Naked Punch is a journal of criticism, philosophy and art, run by a small group of young, and youngish, intellectuals. Unusually they manage to get people of the stature of Norman Chomsky, Arthur Danto and Tariq Ali to contribute time and effort. They also organize debates, parties and various happenings around London. These are fun and funky people (and two are my former students). Check out their new issue — coincidentally it’s a theme issue on Chinese culture.

I’ve just written a 4000 word essay for them, about imperialism in the 19th century and neo-imperialism today. It will appear in their new on-line edition in the next week or so. Meanwhile you can read it here.

Sunday, September 17, 2006 Erik

I always wanted to give a course on “transgression” — a key social science concept too often ignored in the mainstream discourse. Of course I couldn’t have taught this kind of course at the LSE — I already blogged about this — but now I can, and here it is.

Courses are taught quite differently at the NCTU. I have only four students in the class but apparently that’s normal. The seminars, which are more like tutorials, go on for three hours at a time — and sometimes, if Taiwanese politics is discussed, for far longer. It’s a more conversational style but a lot more passionate.

My students are very bright, sociologists and philosophers by training and inclination. Since I never taught either subject I have to spend a lot of time reading up on stuff. Perversely I like giving courses on things I know nothing about. Somehow it’s interesting to hear what I will say (needless to say, students don’t always agree).

This week we are doing Euripides’ Bacchae, so please excuse me while I go off to the woods for a bit of revelry …

Thursday, September 21, 2006 Erik

These are five things I love about my new life:

  • the creative confusion of the streets and the cities — how people relate to each other — everyone talks, even to strangers, in very nice and cheerful ways.
  • the Peking duck the nice man sells on our street. We have it every Friday with a bottle of wine.
  • the Taiwanese mountains — green, rugged, full of hiking trails and tucked-away temples.
  • the passion, seriousness and erudition of my new colleagues.
  • the crazy Chinese language. I get to make the rudest sounds and write the strangest squiggles.

These are five things I will never understand:

  • why people block up the windows in their apartments and turn on the brightest and most industrial looking florescent lights.
  • why no students drink beer.
  • why bureaucrats love paperwork so much and why they stamp every paper with hundreds of stamps.
  • why there are no sidewalks to save you from the ferocious motorcycle drivers.
  • why girls who sell betelnuts wear next to no clothes.
betelnut beauty
Monday, September 25, 2006 Erik

OK, now I’m really going to blow my left-wing credentials. Sweden has a new government, it’s a conservative one. Friends around the world send emails commiserating with me for this radical departure from “the Swedish way.” I beg to differ. Yes, it’s a conservative government but I’m all for it.

A first thing you must remember is that Swedish Conservatives in American terms are located somewhere to the left of Howard Dean. They support large government, they support high taxes, they support “socialized medicine” and education too. In fact, this was traditionally always the case. The “Swedish model” was a joint project between the left and the right.

Some twenty years ago the Conservatives decided to break with this tradition and they became libertarian. Obviously Swedes didn’t trust them. In Sweden a party that promises to reduce taxes loses votes. Swedes like paying taxes, they like what the state does for them. Lower taxes means more insecurity. People don’t want that.

When Fredrik Reinfeldt took over as leader in 2003, he returned the Conservative Party to its traditional path. It’s not pure Social Democracy to be sure. The Conservatives want to tweak the welfare system, make it more efficient and better at delivering services. It’s the traditional welfare state but in an updated package.

I think they are right about this. I also think a change of government now and then is necessary for democracy. A majority of voting Swedes agree. Swedes like changes, especially changes that promise that everything will stay the same as it always was.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006 Erik

We’re renting an unfurnished apartment for this year and before we could move in we had to get beds, chairs and tables. We began by going to the ancient wood-carving village of Sanyi in the Taiwanese mountains where they sell gorgeous and very expensive furniture. Then we went to the local Hsinchu mall where they sell very ugly and cheap furniture. Then we went to IKEA. There are three IKEAs in Taiwan and as everywhere else in the world the stores are crammed with people eating meatballs and trying out beds. Forget Americanization, the world is slowly being Swedified.

Swedes have a love/hate relationship to the furniture giant. We were fed up with the stuff years ago. Among my first childhood memories is my father swearing as he failed to put together some flatpack. He was still assembling flatpacks, and still swearing, the day before he died. And yet we keep on coming back. The particular combination of nice design, low price and poor quality exemplified by the IKEA experience no other furniture maker has managed to rival.

Our house now looks like it was inhabited by an anxious Electrolux executive on his first foreign assignment. We sleep on “Gutevik,” sit on “Bredaga” and switch on “Knivsta” when it gets dark in the evening. (Knivsta, in case you wonder, is a pit of a village a little north of Stockholm. Thanks to IKEA it is achieving undeserved world fame).

If we only had thought about it we should have had IKEA help us move. First we should have taken advantage of their admittedly great returns policy and handed back all the stuff we bought at the IKEA store in Edmonton. With the money we should have gone to the IKEA store in Taipei and bought it all back again. That way we could have turned the tables — if that’s the right expression — both on IKEA and on globalization.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006 Erik

Since I got to Taiwan I’ve wondered why my new NCTU colleagues are so much more interesting than almost all academics I knew in London (or in Sweden for that matter). Then it suddenly struck me: they are almost all my own age — between 40 and 50, let’s say … For better or worse, they are just a lot more me.

The reason is surely that European universities expanded their social science departments in the 1960s and 70s whereas Taiwanese universities expanded theirs in the 1990s. In the 60s and 70s it was statistical studies and rational choice that was the big thing. That’s what PhD students studied and that’s what they continued to teach once they got tenured jobs. Since there were lots and lots of these people they soon occupied all positions in academia all over Europe, clogging the arteries of science like a big lump of tosh.

By contrast people of my generation who got their PhDs in the 1990s — at least the cool ones among us — were all doing versions of Foucault and post-modernism. That’s where the action was; that’s what made your name, got you high, got you laid. OK, much of the intellectual excitement may have evaporated since then but in a pair-wise comparison the ex-Foucaultian will always be far more interesting than the still practicing rational choice theorist. Here in Taiwan it is we who clog up the arteries of science.

Jean Bernard L�on Foucault, 1819-1868, French astronomer and completely unrelated to the great Michel who made us feel intellectually insignificant while adding at least 4 years to our PhD experience back in the 1990s.