An Analogy about Abstinence

This is for the April 2014 Carnival of Aces.

Note: rape culture is mentioned, but not described graphically or in detail

I find that, in some ways, the social pressure to have sex is much like the social pressure to drink alcohol.

I have talked a little bit about my experiments with alcohol, and the fact that I sometimes use people’s reactions to my lack of drinking to gauge how they might react to my sexual inactivity and my asexuality (people who are not aware of asexuality generally are not good at distinguishing the orientation and the behavior). I want to expand on that in this post.

Before I was 21, my alcohol consumption was

- chocolates with small quantities of vodka
- sipping a tiny amount of wine at a family event – and I did this with parental permission

And I never tried to drink more before I was of age.

People find it weird that I was essentially following the laws about underage drinking, and making no effort to break them. In many of my social circles, you are expected to say that you snuck in alcohol before you were of age, through measures such as a fake ID if necessary, and it is a major coming-of-age rite when you can finally drink legally.

This is not unlike how ‘losing one’s virginity’ is considering a defining coming-of-age rite. I expressed my thoughts on this in “Virgins Don’t Exist”.

Some of the comments I have heard about groups which commit to never drink alcohol (such as Muslims) include things like “people are not going to stay away from alcohol for their whole lives”, “they do so many drugs because they don’t drink alcohol” “it is so horrible/extreme that they never drink alcohol”. To me, this resembles the things that people say about those who commit to indefinite or permanent sexual abstinence.

Both alcohol consumption and sex are considered ‘sinful’ in our culture. We are supposed to drink, but drinking too much is stigmatized. Women are supposed to have sex (with men), but if they have too much they are ‘sluts’. Swankivy has talked about how some people want asexuality to be fake because of their insecurities about desiring sex, and I think there may be insecurities around wanting alcohol too. Even aside from cultural attitudes about ‘sinful’ behavior, alcohol makes us vulnerable. So does sex.

However, I think the pressure to drink alcohol is not nearly as strong as the pressure to have sex. This is why it is a useful gauge – people’s reactions to the (lack of) alcohol consumption will most likely be milder than their reactions to the lack of sexual attraction and activity.

And, of course, alcohol and compulsory sexuality / rape culture are even more closely linked that that, but that is a digression which is best saved for another post.

When I finally did try to drink alcohol for real, I did it in an environment when I did not feel any social pressure to drink. I did it in Taiwan, where abstaining from alcohol is not as big deal as it is in some other cultures, and I did it when nobody was suggesting I drink alcohol. I did it because I had gotten curious about what it is like to drink more than a sip. I think I would not have willingly tried it under any other circumstances. I have found that sometimes I like alcohol, and sometimes I don’t.

Compulsory sexuality is even more built into our culture than alcohol consumption. If I lived in a society where everybody felt that sex was always 100% optional, I might be more inclined to experiment with sex out of curiosity. However, with sex-positivity/compulsory sexuality/rape culture (the three are closely linked – read “Sex Positivity Is Rape Culture in Disguise“) I do not expect to be in an environment with sufficiently low social pressure.

Maybe, if I actually tried sex, I would like it. Or maybe I would hate it. Or maybe it would bore me. I don’t know. But, ironically, all of these ‘sex-positivity’ people are making me even less inclined to even try. I will only feel safe if I am confident that my wishes and my sexuality as it actually is will always be respected, and many ‘sex-positivity’ types fail to respect asexual-spectrum orientations.

Now, if abstaining from sex were no bigger a deal than abstaining from alcohol in Taiwan…


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Farewell, Taoyuan City

I have been living in Taoyuan City for more than two years.

Last night was probably the last time I will ever sleep here. I had moved out of my apartment a few days ago (note: this blog has been on autopilot for a few months, so this will be published months after it’s written) and staying with a friend since then. Tonight I’m going to the airport.

The French comic book artist commented on all of the horrible, unpleasant things about Taipei, saying one could write a book ’100 reasons to detest Taipei’ … and yet he loves Taipei.

Personally, I felt that Golo was describing, not Taipei, but Taoyuan City.

When I ask Taiwanese people ‘what is the most awful place in northern Taiwan’, ‘Taoyuan City’ is often one of the answers, though some people claim that Zhongli (which is right next to Taoyuan City) is even more awful. Taoyuan City is often near the top of ‘Worst Traffic in Taiwan’ lists, and some people refuse to visit me in my neighborhood because the traffic is too awful (I did not have a car or scooter, so traffic was usually not an issue for me). It’s dirty, the buildings are all kinds of concrete rectangular boxes (unless they are aging brick buildings), there’s poverty, recreational drug abuse, the gangs, the public transit system is not so great, there are all of those factories in Guishan right next door to pollute everything, and most people think the only redeeming quality is that it’s cheaper than Taipei.

To learn more about Taoyuan City, you can check out the blog The Taiwan Adventure.

People have often asked me why I live here. Why would anyone who had grown up in San Francisco choose to leave and live in Taoyuan City? Well, after spending most of my life in a famous city like San Francisco, it’s nice to live in a not-famous city. Downtown Taoyuan is actually pretty convenient once you know your way around, and the rent is shockingly low (compared to San Francisco, though even my friends in Taipei were impressed). The fact that much of it is bland, typical Taiwanese urban area actually had it’s own appeal, since I was interested in learning what a ‘bland Taiwanese urban area’ is like. There are plenty of weeds and wildlife – even the center of the concrete jungle has lots of birds, and once time a lizard crawled into my apartment. And the monotony of the city actually helped me focus on things such as the people, or learning the language, or other things. Sometimes over-stimulation is not so great.

Every single post in this blog up to now has been written in Taoyuan City, as well as every post I’ve written for other blogs (Manga Bookshelf and Hacking Chinese) up to now. This is the last one written (though I have a few more in the pipeline which I may publish later).

When I moved into my apartment, the first thing I did was clean everything. It was already reasonably clean, but the Grand Cleaning was my way of claiming the space.

The last thing I did in my apartment – right up to when the landlord’s representative came to return the deposit and collect the keys – was clean the apartment. I did not have to do it so zealously, but the same act had the opposite meaning – instead of claiming space, I was relinquishing space. Once I had cleaned a space, it was no longer mine.

Some Taiwanese people asked me what my favorite place in Taiwan is. I said the first thing which came to the top of my head – ‘Taoyuan City’. They asked ‘Why?’ I answered ‘Because Taoyuan City is the most wonderful place in Taiwan’. Well, nobody took that answer seriously. But Taoyuan City has been my home in Taiwan. It’s where I’ve felt secure and happy. It’s where I came to rest after my adventures across Taiwan, and it’s where I’ve had some of my happiest moments. So yes, I love Taoyuan City more than anywhere else in Taiwan.

Farewell.

A Trip to Japan

So, just about now my first real trip to Japan (almost three months) has concluded. It certainly has given me lots of inspiration for blogging – but since I am still traveling, blogging is not so convenient now.

It was good to get out of Taiwan. I love Taiwan … but it is only about the size of Kyushu, and for three years I did not leave even once. It was getting to the point that I was starting to feel that the rest of the world was unreal.

I would like to thank Queenie for her advice about Kansai.

So, where did I go? Here is a snapshot:

Prefectures where I spent at least 9 nights:

Osaka Prefecture
Kyoto Prefecture
Okinawa Prefecture
Kagoshima Prefecture

Prefectures where I spent at least 5 nights:

Nara Prefecture
Wakayama Prefecture

Prefectures where I spent at least two nights:

Nagasaki Prefecture
Fukuoka Prefecture
Oita Prefecture
Kumamoto Prefecture
Hiroshima Prefecture
Okayama Prefecture
Shimane Prefecture

Prefectures which I visited, but did not stay overnight:

Hyogo Prefecture
Mie Prefecture
Saga Prefecture
Yamaguchi Prefecture

As you can see, I went to a lot of places, which makes it hard to pick favorites. These, however, are some of the highlights for me:

KANSAI

- The Night Tour in Gion. This was the best thing I did in Kyoto.
- Walking along the Yama-no-be-no-michi in Nara.
- The Takarazuka Revue (here is a video clip of one of the shows I saw)

RYUKYU/AMAMI ISLANDS

- Iriomote island! Even though the weather was not so good … this place is unique. It has the same latitude as Taiwan, from which it is only a couple hundred of kilometers away, is a part of Ryukyu, and legally now part of Japan, yet it is very different from Taiwan, Japan, and the other Ryukyu islands. I am convinced that it is unlike anywhere else on earth.
- Zamami island is the most beautiful place I went to during this trip.
- I found that Yoron island is a really cool place – beautiful coral rock beaches, the friendly people and their unique language (it was fun to see how they reacted to me speaking a little Yoron-hogen), etc.

KYUSHU/WEST HONSHU

- Shiratani Unsuikyo and the walk to Jomon-sugi goes through fantastic forest.
- Beppu: a fun onsen town

If I had to pick one region as my favorite, it would definitely be the Ryukyu islands. The Ryukyu archipelago is much less convenient than Japan, but certainly worth the extra effort. I would also rather live in the Ryukyu archipelago than mainland Japan.

Expect more commentary … at some time.

The Beidawushan Series: Putting It All Together

As I said in the introduction, this whole series is an exercise in connecting the dots.

Water > Roots > Trunk > Branches > Leaves > Mist > Water

Water > Roots > Trunk > Branches > Leaves > Mist > Water

That’s not to say I have done an exhaustive job. Far from it. I did not write anything about geology, for example. If I were to go into discussing everything connected to Beidawushan, I could keep this series running forever. The point is to make a deep enough scratch in the surface to get a glimpse of what lies below, or more accurately, to weave together some threads of knowledge to form an increasingly strong web.

This is the process of holistic learning. To quote Olle Linge:

“Holistic” might sound like a fancy word for some people, but it’s actually quite simple. Rather than focusing on single, separate units of data or facts, an holistic approach regards everything as a part of something, as part of the whole. Everything you learn will be connected to everything else you know, perhaps not directly, but at least via other bits and pieces of knowledge you have stored in your brain. A multidimensional web is the most accurate metaphor for this kind of structure.

This series was prompted by my departure from Taiwan. I completed and scheduled all of this posts before I left, but most of them were published after I was already gone. I want to hold onto my memories of Taiwan, and one way to do that is to put them together into a learning web so that when I think of one thing, it will bring to mind another thing.

A picture of Nandawushan

A picture of Nandawushan

You might think I chose Beidawushan because is my favorite place in Taiwan, or at least because it is very special. It is not. There are places in Taiwan more beautiful and fascinating than Beidawushan. Beidawushan has its unique features, but I chose it as a topic, not because it is exceptional, but because it is typical.

And as I said in the introduction, one of the most important things I have taken with me is an improved ability to learn holistically. I am a better learner now than when I came to Taiwan.

My father claims I have also become a better photographer.

My father claims I have also become a better photographer.

This type of learning is sorely lacking in formal education, both in Taiwan and in California. That’s not to say it is totally absent – some professional educators do try to foster holistic learning. But lots of formal education on both sides of the Pacific is highly focused on cramming facts into one’s head to pass a test set out by authorities, facts which will be promptly forgotten after finals. Students spend an incredible amount of time studying for exams when, in fact, if they want to get high scores they should stop studying.

Yet holistic learning is not just about becoming a better student. It’s about thinking about whole systems rather than isolated compartments. And a lack of systematic thinking cuts through the heart of the great crises of our time.

If that rope stopped being there, you might have a crisis

If that rope stopped being there, you might have a crisis

People fail so badly at managing environmental crises when they cannot think about the whole system. Take climate change, for example:

- Some people think that their consumption of fossil fuels are limited to simply the gas they put in their vehicles and the electric bills their pay, totally ignoring, for example, the fossil fuels need to produce frozen dinner they bought that day.
- Some people only look at carbon emissions, which might cause them to, say, ignore methane emissions, such as the methane emissions from factory-farm cattle or rice paddies.
- People who are only looking at climate change might ignore the fact that the earth is losing about 1% of its topsoil every year, the effects of nuclear waste, the collapse of fish populations around the world due to greedy fisheries, the prevalence of toxic chemicals in stuff sold to ordinary people, the destructive impacts of damming rivers … and this list could go on, and on, and on.
- Some people treat the environment as a issue that can be kept separate from social problems. It cannot. For example, why have fossil fuel companies devastated indigenous communities from Canada to Ecuador with toxic spills, and why are governments pushing policies which will continue the devastation? You can’t explain that without understanding finance (where do these companies get the funds to pollute the environment?) or colonialism and racism.

I think some people who suggest dealing with climate change by going to higher altitudes do not understand just how harsh higher altitudes can be.

I think some people who suggest dealing with climate change by going to higher altitudes do not understand just how harsh higher altitudes can be.

When discussing the documentary Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above, some Taiwanese people said that the public will fix the problems described in the film. I was skeptical, not because I doubt the good intentions of the public, but because Taiwanese people pour so much time and energy into cramming their studies, working overtime to keep a job, or escaping through games/TV/social media/manga/movies, that I’m not sure how they’ll get the time/energy to understand the problems, let alone act. Hikers obviously have a bit of time and energy … and many hikers already understood the issues described and were harsh critics of government and business policies even before the film came out.

El Palo Alto, which is Spanish for ‘The Tall Tree’, is the name of a famous redwood tree, not unlike the famous red cypress tree on the Beidawushan national trail (indeed, once we reached the red cypress forest, I started yapping about coast redwood trees in California). Two entire towns, Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, are named after this single tree. Palo Alto home of famous institutions such as Stanford University and Hewlett-Packard, and has been home to famous people such as Steve Jobs and Jeremy Lin. East Palo Alto is home to poor people, many of whom are Latino or black, who find it very difficult to escape poverty because there are few jobs, many cannot afford cars, and public transit is terrible. In college I knew someone living in East Palo Alto who did not have a car, so he had to either a) spend 2-3 hours each way riding buses to go to class or b) ask people who did have cars (few of whom lived in East Palo Alto) to give him rides – additionally, he worked part time to support his himself. On top of this, East Palo Alto has one of the highest homicide rates in California – I once overheard someone say ‘I live in Menlo Park. People live in Menlo Park. People die in East Palo Alto’.

The famous tree of the Beidawushan national trail, not to be confused with El Palo Alto.

The famous tree of the Beidawushan national trail, not to be confused with El Palo Alto.

Anyway, about El Palo Alto. California is currently working on building a high-speed train, which means that the train tracks which pass right by the tree will need to be expanded. This might damage the tree. Thus, local citizens have organized to protect the tree from the high-speed train project.

Someone pointed out that the area is so developed that the conditions which allowed El Palo Alto to grow so high no longer exist, thus El Palo Alto will have no successor when it dies (even coast redwoods are not immortal). The high speed train, on the other hand, might prevent additional road construction in California, or kill the intra-California flight industry (much as the high-speed train in Taiwan killed the Taipei-Kaohsiung flight route) which will help preserve old growth forests where redwoods can support a vibrant ecosystem.

I don’t completely agree with the commentator’s analysis, but at least he was thinking about forests, while some people were only able to think about a single tree.

Forests are more than a collection of trees.

Forests are more than a collection of trees.

In order to reduce the harm that contemporary civilization causes to our environment – and, you know, try to prevent billions of people from dying horrible deaths at young ages – we need to think more about the forest, and not just about the tree. And we need to think about the rivers which come from the forest, the farms which depend on the rivers, the people who depend on the farms, what the river brings into the ocean, and the mountain which collects moisture from the ocean and pulls it back into the forest.

And we need to stop thinking about nature as something separate from humanity – humanity is part of nature. That’s why I spend so much time discussing the humans of Beidawushan. Ecology, culture, economics, politics, geology – it’s all connected. For example, the Archdruid Report has some thought-provoking essays about religion and nature here, here and here.

For another example, hiking is a popular recreational activity in Taiwan. Hiking Beidawushan usually means riding a fossil-fuel powered vehicle to the trailhead – where the great typhoon Morakot landslide is. Burning that fossil fuel contributes to increasing the intensity and frequency of Morakot-like storms.

BenQ Digital Camera

One of the inspirations for this series is the piece “WHAT THE FLUCK”. It’s about a totally difficult topic, but I admire Adam Curtis’ ability to weave private equity firms, Philip K. Dick, high-heel shoes, elections for a coal-miners union, a former mayor of Minneapolis, a British sex icon from the 1950s, Standard Oil, an editor who had just been fired from his job, small farmers on the prairie, drug addiction, and kittens all into a cohesive narrative.

If you liked the individual bits of this blog series – the photos, the myths, the practical hiking information – that’s nice. But what I really hope people will take away from “The Beidawushan Series” is a sense that everything is connected, and that readers will become a little better at understanding how everything is part of a whole.

Farewell, dear teacher.

Farewell, dear teacher.


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The Beidawushan Series: The Hikers

One of the pleasures of hiking in Taiwan is meeting one’s fellow hikers.

A photo off various bushes, with a mountain slope in the background, and a clear sky.

Together, to the ridge!

We hiked Beidawushan during weekdays, so we did not encounter many professional hiking groups, though there was one student group from northern Taiwan, and another student group whose was setting out for intense river-tracing. We mostly saw middle-aged people, but young adults were also well-represented.

A trail running through a forest

Onwards through the forest!

There was a group of Taijiang National Park rangers. Though Taijiang is not known for hiking, I suppose many of their rangers enjoy hiking in their free time. Perhaps they like hiking in their free time because it’s not part of their regular work duties.

Most of the hikers were small, self-organized groups from Pingdong and Kaohsiung. Many of them had hiked Beidawushan many times, and as I heard again and againg ‘each time you hike it, it’s different’. As a group not from southern Taiwan, we were considered a little unusual (okay, the fact that one of us came from Quemoy, and I am not even Asian was definitely enough to mark us as unusual).

A certain old man is known to have hiked Beidawushan over three hundred times…

A forest full of mist

Don’t get lost!

Here are some English-language tales of Beidawushan hikes. If you know of more, please comment!

Shan Ding Lu – Beidawu Mountain
Pashan – Beidawushan, the Ship of the South
Into the Mountains: Beidawu Shan
Hiking Taiwan: Beidawu

And here are some Beidawushan videos on YouTube:

A Good Video Made by Taiwanese Hikers – I think this gives a good sense of what many Taiwanese hiking groups are like. Just hearing them talk in Taiwanese is nostalgic for me.
Some Foreigners Try (and Fail) to Reach the Summit
A Beautiful Speeded-Up Beidawushan Video

The most famous hiking event is the ‘Coming of Age’ ceremony organized by the Pingdong County government. It is held every year so that Pingdong youth can build self-confidence and connect to their natural, cultural, and historic heritage – in other words, so they can experience all of the stuff I’ve been writing about in this blog series.

A photo of the giant red cypress tree

Let the young discover the majesty of the red cypress!

In clear weather, Beidawushan is visible from everywhere in the Pingdong plain, which is where most people in Pingdong live. While Pingdong is generally more rustic than, say, Kaohsiung City, the youth of Pingdong, like youth around Taiwan, have a tendency to have their lives absorbed by tests, electronic games, cram schools, manga, online-socializing, tests, TV, anime, tests. Those are not necessarily bad things, and they have all brought good into my own life (*ahem* I am a Manga Bookshelf contributor), but forming your life around those things tends to make one focus indoors, rather than nourishing a curiosity about one’s own position in history and the biosphere. I think bringing the youth out – both in a literal and metaphoric sense – is good.

Why is it good? That will be the topic of the next – and final – post.


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The Beidawushan Series: Clouds and Sunset

The #1 draw for hikers to Beidawushan is seeing the ‘cloud-sea’ from the ridge, particularly at sunrise or sunset.

Hemlock trees as the sun has jst set below a sea of clouds

There is a noted sunset-viewing spot near Cedar Valley Lodge. I did not see any sunsets there because of the weather, but I did see this:

BenQ Digital Camera

That is the formation of a cloud.

Wind brings moist air up from the ocean, and then that moisture hits the Dawu mountain ridge. The moisture piles up, increasing the water saturation of the air. Since the only way is up, the moisture has to keep going up to higher and higher altitudes, which means the temperature gets lower and lower and – voilà! Clouds!

A cloud sea below the ridge, with high-level clouds above

As you can see in the above picture, there are both low-level clouds (below the mountain ridge) and high-level clouds (way above the mountain ridge). I’m not a meteorologist, so I’ll let NASA explain it all.

Clouds creep over the ridge

Clouds creep over the ridge

The forests are essential to this cloud-making process, as they a) hold the soil together on the steep slopes and b) help hold onto the moisture long enough that it makes nice, gentle clouds rather than, say, devastating floods.

Suffice to say, these clouds are an essential source of precipitation for both the Pingdong plains to the west and Taidong to the east – and this is in addition to the fact that many of the rivers in both counties originate from the Dawu mountain ridge. So if you have a farm in Pingdong or southern Taidong – or if you ever eat food from Pingdong or southern Taidong – your stomach is connected to this water cycle.

I did not see any sunrises during my hike, but I did see this sunset:

BenQ Digital Camera

BenQ Digital Camera

BenQ Digital Camera

BenQ Digital Camera

BenQ Digital Camera

BenQ Digital Camera

BenQ Digital Camera

BenQ Digital Camera

Of course, I’m just an amateur with a not-so-good camera. Scroll down to the slideshow on this page to see what professional photographers can do.


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The Beidawushan Series: Sleeping on the National Trail

Most people need at least three days and two nights to reach the summit of Beidawushan via the national trail (and if you’re not taking the national trail, you’re going to need even more time). So where can you sleep?

Most hikers spend two nights sleeping at ‘Juniper Valley Lodge’, which is about 2000 meters above sea level.

A tree next to Juniper Valley lodge.

A tree next to Juniper Valley lodge.

As I’ve mentioned before, it was once a Paiwan hunting ground, and then the Japanese built a shelter there. After the Japanese left, the Paiwan built a school there. Eventually, the Pingdong Forestry Bureau put their own shelter there, and rebuilt the shelter in 2001. That is the structure which sits there today.

The shelter, being next to a stream, has plenty of water, and even has flush toilets. There is a private room for forestry employees, and a large room which can accommodate 60 people. Visitors need to bring their own sleeping bags.

In addition to the shelter, there are ten wooden platforms for 4-person tents.

It's very atmospheric.

It’s very atmospheric.

One can reserve indoor spaces (but not tent spaces) at Juniper Valley Lodge at this website – if you have a ROC ID (an ARC number will not cut it). What if you do not have an ROC ID number? Here are your options:

- Get someone who has an ROC ID number to make the reservation for you (it’s okay if they do not join you on the hike)
- Call the phone number, and ask them to make the reservation for you (I’ve done this and it worked, but I don’t know whether or not they speak English)
- Don’t make a reservation, and hope for the best. Chances are, if it’s not a weekend or holiday, and there are no large school groups, you can just show up and get a space

If you don’t have a tent, Juniper Valley Lodge is your only option. But if you do have a tent…

- Old Trailhead. There is plenty of space for tents at the old trailhead, and there’s even a ‘bathroom’ nearby (it’s a low-tech composting toilet). Alas, there is no water source.
- Last Water Source. The stream which passes by Cedar Valley Lodge of course originates from the ridge, and at about 6.3 km from the old trailhead you pass through the stream source. This is known as ‘last water source’ because it is the last place you can get water before reaching the summit. If you look carefully, you can find an excellent spot to pitch a small tent (3 people maximum). It’s well-protected by Yushan cane, and it’s right next to a water source!

'Last Water Source' is actually a bit dangerous to cross since it's quite slippery

‘Last Water Source’ is actually a bit dangerous to cross since it’s quite slippery

-Dawu Shrine. I met a Pingdong Forestry Bureau employee who was planning to pitch a tent at the Dawu shrine because he wanted to see both sunset and sunrise from the ridge. The shrine is the closest spot to the summit where sleeping is possible (the employee said that the weather is too dangerous at the summit itself for sleeping). Alas, there is no water source.

There are a couple other places where camping is possible, but I think these are the most useful spots.


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