"Pretending to read through the noise"
Readers reply to Zito Madu and Nick Haggerty, plus an extraordinary performance by Peiyao Wang at Weiyuying.
Hello dear readers! We hope you’re well. Here in Taiwan, Omicron cases are on the rise. We passed a thousand cases for the first time this week, and the wave shows no signs of abating. The good news is that so far very few infected people have developed severe symptoms. While people are starting to get nervous, life goes on as normal. The government has made it clear that it’s moving away from a “zero-COVID” strategy—this stands in stark contrast to China, which has doubled down on the policy. (For a harrowing account of the Shanghai lockdown, see this article in the New York Times Magazine.) Here’s hoping Taiwan can withstand this wave.
The best thing about writing this newsletter is hearing from you! This week we’ve collected some reader responses to guest pieces by Zito Madu and Nick Haggerty. Nick also shares an exciting update at the end about meeting up with Chen Shui-bian in Tainan. (Stay for the bonus photograph!)
Zito’s piece has had us thinking all week about waiting places. County jails where, if you can’t afford bail, you await trial. Prisons where you await determinations from faraway courts of appeal. Waiting for visas, waiting for word from family during wartime. Waiting on automated calls with banks and telecommunication companies. We’ve been thinking about train stations where, if you have a euro or a dollar to spare, you can get an espresso and sit in the cafe to avoid the crowds. We’ve been thinking about a summer in San Antonio, Texas, when we were tasked to greet immigrants just released from immigration prison, deposited by the busload at the Greyhound Station. A woman with a child in her lap had a ten-stop journey to upstate New York. Albert showed her the map of the country, pointing out the names of cities where she’d be stopping. And we’ve been thinking about the excruciating absence of transport in the poorest areas. Michelle remembers the miles her students in Arkansas would walk from their homes to Walmart in miserable heat because they couldn’t afford a car.
We’ve also been thinking about waiting places from the standpoint of privilege and parenting. We have a two-year-old, and we can afford to take her on a flight instead of a Greyhound, to that cafe at the train station, in a car through rural areas. How much discomfort should you put in your child’s life so they learn—beyond abstraction—about social and economic stratification? How do you teach them that our comforts are arbitrary and unmerited?
We don’t have answers to these questions, though you kind readers have pointed us to some answers. One reader points to “an expectant togetherness” as a political goal and ideal. Valuing civic planning is one way. “Waiting is a public activity we often share with fellow citizens,” one of you writes. “One good measure of civic planning and architecture might be how far they allow us to wait with dignity and comfort.” Another is to bring artists and books into waiting spaces. Yet another describes a political movement to show solidarity with migrant workers who often sleep at the Taipei Main Station.
In today’s newsletter, readers describe personal experiences of waiting and memories of Chen Shui-bian’s election and subsequent arrest. Thanks to you, as always, for being here. You can write to us any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Readers respond to Zito’s piece on waiting places
Siobhan Phillips, author of the forthcoming novel Benefit, writes:
Zito Madu’s lovely essay called to my mind many past waits and waiting places, including an anxious afternoon at the Springfield Greyhound station, half a tired night on the floor of Charles de Gaulle airport, and a second layover somewhere else I can't remember—when I, traveling solo, told myself not to fall asleep, fell asleep, and was then gently prodded awake by a stranger who made sure I didn't miss my flight. Waiting, I think, often forms a hasty but vital community among the waiters—a feeling woven of commiseration, silent or vocal, and relays of information, and small, needful help like the nudge I got. Most terrifying about “Vor dem Gesetz,” which I think of as the third-most-memorable instance of waiting in literature—Madu already mentioned the first, and I'll leave it to the writers of this Milton-titled newsletter to talk about the second!—might be the solitude of that long wait in front of the gatekeeper. I want to believe that if each of us waits alone, finally and existentially, we know that others must, too.
Of course, Madu's essay reminded me of how often an expectant togetherness breaks into hierarchies of class and race and gender and nationality into an "engineered" misery, as he so memorably describes. I recognized everything about his account of the Port Authority; the most indelible waiting space of my past, though, is the "ticketed passengers" area for the Long Island Railroad at Penn Station—which I don't think exists anymore, given recent renovations. It's been a while since I sat under that low, fluorescent-lit ceiling, trying to prolong the eating of whatever cheap baked good I had allowed myself, pretending to read through the noise before boarding a train east. That was an awful space, its awfulness rigorously guarded; one had to show a ticket to enter. Those who could not pay were denied the pleasure of squeezing into dirty, divided seats, or trying to maneuver their luggage in and out of dirty, narrow stalls in an adjacent restroom. And those who could pay more were already on their way—in the comfortable and convenient bus, perhaps, or in a private car. "With enough money, waiting becomes almost optional," as Madu writes.
Almost but never completely (see Kafka, maybe?) Madu's essay had me thinking not only about the hierarchies of different waiting rooms (the good airport "lounges" serve only frequent flyers, or those with particular credit cards) but also about the idea of public space as waiting room. Waiting, after all, is a public activity we often share with fellow citizens. One good measure of civic planning and architecture might be how far they allow us to wait with dignity and comfort. When I lived in LA, I took city buses all over the place, noting the difference between bus stops with a place to sit and those without—also those with and without a tree. Seats gentle our waiting, as Madu notes (even Kafka’s waiter got a stool); so does shade. But public and private architecture, both, too often aim at the opposite of gentle—as if anyone has the authority to distinguish legitimate and illegitimate waiting, and as if those distinctions don't ultimately make all waiting worse.
Also, I hope it does nothing to deny the awfulness of waiting places, and their injustices, to say that Madu's essay—that opening image!—convinced me of the beauty also to be found in waiting. In its solidarity, perhaps, properly understood. I'm taking elementary Spanish this year, and last week we learned vocabulary of travel; I like knowing that "the waiting room" is "la sala de espera"—"espera," more than "wait," offering connotations of expectation and hope.
Sara Protasi, philosopher and author of The Philosophy of Envy, writes:
That essay by Madu. A punch in the gut. No relief. No information about whether Disney World was worth it. No reassuring ending. Not even a glimpse of some positive things to come, even though it’s implicit in the fact that he's writing this essay (and how he is writing it!) that he got out of that misery, at least physically. That omission, that ending, that lack of reassurance felt purposeful and unforgiving, almost cruel, but then I realized it was justified. The little kids he and his siblings were (and the many who still are like them) deserve our transient heartbreak.
Michael Fahey replied via Twitter:
An elegant and moving essay. Poverty in Taiwan shuts people out from expansive lives too, but public waiting places are generally humane. Taipei Main Station is an important exception.
Michael’s comment about Taipei Main Station led us to recall Andrew Ryan’s work on creating solidarity with migrant workers. Andrew kindly shared a video about Indonesian migrant workers. The train station section begins at 20 minutes.
Tobias Baskin writes:
Waiting is a state of desire. When you wait for something, you don't have it. And once you have it, you are no longer waiting. This is the definition, I think, of desire, because you cannot desire something that you have. I think feeling desire makes people uncomfortable. (As the old Dan Hicks love song recognized: "How can I miss you when you won't go away?") Relationships too need some desire, which requires every now and then some distance. All of which leads me to realize that waiting is important. Madu, in his review of Kiki's Delivery Service, cites Miyazaki's comment about "ma", the empty space between actions. Space where breaths can be taken and the mind unwind. Thanks to Madu's writings, I've been thinking more about how to put ma in one's life, how to create empty breaks that will make salient what we do.
Chitra Aiyar writes:
I loved this essay. I forwarded it to multiple people and read his other work. One of my friends Keni, who is also Nigerian, runs a place called The Laundromat Project, which I love so much because it recognizes the importance of bringing artists and cultural workers to the places where people spend a lot of time, including laundromats.
It also made me think about other places where poor people wait—housing court and family court in particular. I remember in family court waiting to pick up a restraining order and it took hours. People were reading, and the clerk shouted, “No reading!” because people missed hearing their numbers.
There are projects where people bring in books, especially children’s books, to family court and housing court so that the wait is more bearable. But as I’ve just described, this can cause confusion.
People wait all day when they’re poor. When you’re poor, it’s as if you’re not even warranted an explanation.
Readers respond to Nick Haggerty’s piece on Chen Shui-bian
An anonymous reader who grew up Taiwan recalls the time when the corruption scandals unfolded and when Chen Shui-bian was charged with crime:
I remember him being the butt of every joke. Everyone, and I mean everyone young and old, made fun of him and criticized him openly.
My most vivid memory was hearing firecrackers during the day while I was at home—really loud and continuous firecrackers, the kind you only hear during Chinese New Year. I was really confused. Is it Chinese New Year? I wondered. When I asked my parents, they said that he had been officially charged with one count of the crime. Each time he was charged of another count, I heard firecrackers. I realized that the joy that people had of locking him up was synonymous to the excitement of Chinese New Year. This was certainly a learning experience for me. That’s politics: one man’s suffering can be another man’s moment of triumph.
“He loved money too much. He is a disappointment and a disgrace,” was what I heard. Perhaps this is why the extent of his poverty—that he was born dirt poor—really resonated with me as I was reading Haggerty’s article. Maybe he just didn’t fully understand the way money, power, and politics work at the highest realm because he didn’t have family members or people close to him who have experienced that type of political success. Or maybe he forgot the golden rule that all outsiders, including myself, follow not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is a means of survival: you always need to be extra careful because there are some things that other people can get away with, but you can’t. Like Icarus who flew too close to the sun, he was blinded by the light.
An anonymous reader writes:
This fresh piece helps to show that Chen, while certainly flawed, was flanked on all sides. The CIA was keeping tabs on him, with Bush’s White House not at all hiding their attitude towards Taiwan—they wanted Chen to be their pawn as they cozied up to the PRC, and he wouldn’t obey. Internally, the KMT was livid that they’d lost to a local, “uncivilized” person not from the mainland.
I don’t lionize Chen, and I understand the corruption scandals are a stain on his legacy. But I think it’s unclassy when people take glee in his downfall or fail to recognize the context in which he arose. Globalization, American pressures, Chinese chauvinism, laws still in flux, a democracy in transition, a personal upbringing of poverty—Haggerty’s two pieces manage to cover so many facets. I’m grateful to him for situating Chen in his time period and looking to examine his legacy beyond the issue of corruption.
One reader, who prefers to stay anonymous, told us that Chen was a traitor to his party, which he nearly ruined through his greed.
A reader who grew up in the martial law era of Taiwan shares her mixed feelings about Chen Shui-bian. (She also explains why she prefers to stay anonymous: “Years after the end of Martial Law, I still have the fear of putting myself or my family in danger.”) She writes:
I appreciated this essay. I have mixed feelings about Chen Shui-bian. I went to his presidential campaign rallies and, like everyone else who was there, got very emotional. We had so much hope for him and for the opportunity to be heard and to take our country back. He energized the DPP supporters and made history by bringing the opposition party to power for the first time in history, breaking decades of KMT's monopoly. It was no small task. Back then, the KMT was the wealthiest political party in the world. They took so many properties (including my family's) and engineered the biggest wealth transfer in history in the name of the country to enrich KMT coffers. They far out-spent DPP on political campaigns and vote rigging.
It's easy for people who have never lived under dictatorship to underestimate how challenging it is to fight for regime change. But even less known to activists for democracy is that toppling the regime was the "easy" part.
Chen Shui-bian had the talent for rallying Taiwanese for democratic movement, but his aggressive and antagonizing personality is not always the best for governing. He was gutsy and bold in bringing many changes, even when he was the mayor of Taipei. Some of his reforms had lasting impact, including civil servants' attitude when serving the people.
Being the first president from the opposition party in fifty years, he also faced the tremendous challenge of talent shortage. Before his presidency, most Taiwanese were either blocked from important positions in the government or they steered away from politics in fear of putting their families in danger. Many Taiwanese became successful businessmen, doctors and lawyers while the mainlanders monopolized the politics, the military and judicial system. (Even today a big percentage of judges are the descendants of mainlanders.) The DPP struggled to fill key positions with the right people and was weak when it came to economic policies. They almost lost the second term because of that. Back then, people thought the KMT was better at driving the economy. As time went on, the DPP gradually built its bench, which is why Tsai Ing Wen's government is able to drive great policies in most areas today.
My father, who voted for Chen, was not crazy about him, especially towards the end of the second term. My father began to see him as someone who wanted to succeed at other people's expense. I was not very happy with his confrontational and sometimes divisive style, which is better suited for a lawyer or a congressman but not so much for a president. But he was our best bet at the time.
Although my dad was not fond of him by the end of his term, he believed that he was treated unfairly by the KMT. What they put him in jail for was based on an ambiguous law that could have also put Ma Ying-jeou in prison. It was a gray area. My dad and my family see the imprisonment of Chen Shui-bian and many of the DPP cabinet members after they left office as political persecution.
It was clear that Chen's wife was corrupt, but many of us believe that Chen Shui-bian himself was not. He was never into money. Even if Chen Shui-bian was corrupt, he didn't deserve the kind of treatment he got in prison as a former president of the country. It was appalling. That some of his cabinet members were falsely imprisoned further deepened the belief that the judicial system is still controlled by the mainlanders.
I was deeply disappointed by how he handled himself after he got out of the jail. He was outspoken and critical of the DPP publicly for no good reason. I am glad he finally shut up after the last election.
Nick shares this follow-up about meeting Chen Shui-bian
I visited Chen Shui-bian primarily as a fan—not as a journalist. I wasn’t disappointed. He was generous and unassuming. The strongest impression I was left with was of his boyish, uncontainable smile that he flashes in moments of excitement. And I glimpsed the tragic hero that he is, still on a quest to reclaim a place in life befitting of his status.
There were two important aspects of his legacy that he wanted me to know about, perhaps because I had neglected them in my essays. First was the 2005 constitutional reforms he supported, which abolished the National Assembly, instituted single-member districts in the Legislative Yuan, and aligned the timing of legislative elections to coincide with presidential elections. Chen argues that the DPP’s legislative majority from 2016 can be partially attributed to these reforms, though it had taken over a decade to reap these gains. I defer to political scientists and legal scholars on this point, though this claim appears plausible.
Chen also said that he saw himself as not simply as the first president to rise in a peaceful transition of power in Taiwan’s history but all of Chinese history. In his view, a several-thousand-year cycle of dynastic succession, war, and revolution had been sundered by the DPP’s victory in 2000. He seems sure of his place in history.
“Luminous Shadow” at Weiwuying
We finally checked out the extraordinary space at Weiwuying, Kaohsiung’s world-class concert hall. Outside the undulating walls, there’s a grand piano sitting outside for anybody to play. A beautiful park envelops the different performance halls.
Pianist Pei-yao Wang planned, directed, and played in a show inspired by Wu Ming-yi’s The Stolen Bicycle. A meditation on memory and loss, it was one of the most innovative “concerts” we’ve ever been to, blending elements of performance art, visual installation, and live music. Violinist William Wei and cellist Victor Coo joined Wang in offering stunning renditions of songs that included Janáček and Prokofiev. Folk tunes served as a thread that ran through the music, as the complex relationship between indigeneity and memory played central parts in Wu’s novel. Photos by the Malaysian visual artist Jeffrey Lim were shown on the stage. We were mesmerized.
Thank you to everyone for the conversations about Homeland Elegies and The Brothers Karamazov! We’re both traveling at the end of April. In May we’ll read Siobhan Phillips’s Benefit. In June we’ll read Lisa Hsiao Chen’s Activities of Daily Living. All subscribers are welcome to the book club.
Also, we’re moving book club dates to Thursdays rather than Fridays for the summer. We’ll talk about Siobhan Phillips’s novel on Thursday, May 26 at 6 PM EST and Lisa Chen’s book on Thursday, June 30 at 5 PM EST. Looking forward!!
And finally, a photo that gave us joy: A Taipei motorcyclist’s helmet is made to be the shape of a rice cooker.
Thanks to Alexander Synaptic from Spectral Codex, whom Albert has been following for years, for snapping this awesome photo.