Voices from Taiwan Speak Up on #MeToo

Voices from Taiwan Speak Up on #MeToo
Photo Credit: Corbis/達志影像

What you need to know

Four Taipei residents: A Taiwanese woman, two of her Taiwanese-American counterparts, and a UK national, offer their takes on how the #MeToo phenomenon of women speaking up on social media about their experiences with sexual harassment at the hands of men has been received in Taiwan.  

Darice Chang, Taiwanese-American artist, writer, model and translator residing in Taipei

I think the fact that #MeToo hasn’t caught on in Taiwan has to do with both linguistic barriers — hence, lack of information — as well as cultural context. Many of the films that Weinstein was involved with - “Reservoir Dogs”, “Kill Bill”, “Inglorious Basterds”, weren’t terrific hits on this side of the Pacific. When social activist and human rights/LGBTQ rights advocate Miao Poya appeared on Yahoo TV speaking about #MeToo, she had to first contextualize and explain not only who Weinstein was, but the degree of his influence and the magnitude of the issue, using movie references such as Pepper Potts in “Ironman” for Gwyneth Paltrow, Hermione from “Harry Potter” for Emma Watson, since the stars aren’t famous enough to be known on a first-name basis for most Taiwanese. Furthermore the Twittersphere, where the issue first arose is much less prevalent in Taiwan, where Facebook rules.

From a personal standpoint, I, too was surprised by the lack of response. My feed is comprised of a mix of international and local Taiwanese, as well as friends in Japan, Australia, and the U.S. etc., and most of the #MeToo posts I saw from those in Taiwan were (surprisingly) from feminist expat men, and even one entirely in Chinese from a Taiwanese male — granted, a Sunflower activist and a hardcore punk — not exactly indicative of average Taiwanese sentiment.

Considering that my friends are skewed towards those used to voicing their opinions: social activists, many from the Sunflower Movement and friends I had campaigned with during the last election; vegan activists, the kind that spend their weekends on the streets passing out flyers and talking to passersby about the horrors of animal agriculture; as well as event organizers, artists, and musicians, it was the silence of Taiwanese women that echoed the loudest.

My friends from California and Minnesota were not shy to share their stories, including several accounts of childhood sexual abuse from family members.

They have a strong network of like-minded people populating their feeds — there is no fear of retaliation or ridicule. And even if they are attacked, they are fully armed with the tools and knowledge to respond.

This is not the case in Taiwan, that network is absent and relevant knowledge is sparse. When I speak to one of my feminist Taiwanese friends, even she admits that she gets all her information in English. There simply isn’t the corresponding information in Chinese.

Womany, one of the largest and most prominent feminist specific media outlets in Taiwan, didn’t post anything [they did put up a Facebook post]. I thought perhaps it was due to the translation lag time, so I gave it a day. And then two. It’s now been a week. Still nothing.

Further, too, is the lack of cultural precedence. As a harmony-driven society, Taiwan, its own culture an amalgamation of native Taiwanese, colonial Japanese, and nationalist Chinese ideologies, tends, like most East Asian cultures, to put the group before the individual. Thus, the practice of sharing individual stories is not nearly as widespread as in the West.

What it comes down to though, I think, is lack of information and resources. Without the massive media coverage like that seen in America, nor the cultural context to deal with the fallout, it is difficult for a Taiwanese woman to even know about the issue, and considering cultural context, post about it in a meaningful way.

Renee Chou, Taiwanese communications professional passionate about making Taiwan more progressive

About a week ago, my timeline became flooded with posts about harassment experiences with a hashtag #MeToo. Not surprisingly most of the posts were shared by my English-speaking friends, and only a few were done in Mandarin by their Taiwanese counterparts.

For a few days, I deliberated if I should post my own experience, which happened at work a long time ago. I filed a complaint yet the perpetrator (a colleague) was never brought to justice.

I no longer work there, so adverse impact to my career was not a concern for me. I was mainly put off by the vibe the #MeToo trend was creating. Don’t get me wrong, I consider myself a feminist in every aspect, and I was very impressed by how open my circle of friends were being on social media about their own unfortunate experiences. To be completely honest, like many others, I too was somewhat disappointed by the fact that many of my Mandarin-speaking friends, chose to stay silent.

Their silence, compared to the overwhelming openness from English-speaking friends, got me thinking.

The idea is to show the magnitude of the issue by posting #MeToo if one has ever been sexually harassed. Speaking up takes courage as one has to face something painful from the past in order to post it, and I applaud all those who have chosen to speak up. Seeing posts from others, even when one choses to remain silent, can help them cope, especially knowing that they are not alone and it really isn’t their fault.

I respect their choice to stay silent, because I trust that whatever was stopping them, their sense of threat, fear, despair, are all real. Culture does play an important role in shaping how a society responds to certain issues, and while the idea of keeping your head down runs deep in Taiwan, I feel uneasy placing the responsibility to speak up on those who have clearly been violated.

I hope we are not trying to create a society where the victims need to feel “obliged” to “change society” after their traumatic experiences. Yes, it would be “empowering” to be able to do so, but choosing to remain silent shouldn’t equate to weakness.

Speaking up is a choice. Staying silent is a choice. At the end of the day, the ones who should be held accountable for a culture where rape, assault, and casual harassment are common are the perpetrators, not the victims.

Jane W. Wang, Taiwanese-American founder of Build Great Bridges (BGBridges)

Earlier this week, I spent a morning attempting to write a #MeToo post. I stared at my Facebook status screen, typed and erased a few times, read a couple other #MeToo posts for inspiration. Finally, I made a brief post about the Asian context, then quickly deleted the post.

Frustrated, I opted to vent to a group of my girlfriends instead — all of whom, with one exception, had not made a #metoo post either.

We are all international women living in Taiwan. Our Facebook feeds were flooded with #metoo posts from our friends. Why didn’t we post?

We all agreed: it’s complicated and we didn’t know what we could say to do the issue justice without saying something wrong.

One friend said she was too triggered to post. Another said that although she had been groped and harassed by her married bosses before, in public even, yet there was no power play involved so she didn’t feel her experiences warranted posting. Yet another friend spoke about minor yet uncomfortable incidents, but also about the social expectations that stifle women here in a deeper, embedded way that is damaging as well.

For my part, my hesitation came from not feeling that my experiences were "bad enough" to warrant posting. I did also notice that, although I am generally open about my life, this is one area I feel uncomfortable discussing in public. Was that the "Asian" in me?

While my friends and I are certainly not a scientific sampling, the reality is that #MeToo has not quite caught on in Taiwan, or even in Asia, apart from English-speaking Singapore. A few friends in Taiwan with international networks did post, but most of my Taiwanese friends had not heard of #MeToo. I wondered, even if #MeToo could get through to Taiwan’s audience, would women speak up in this ‘don’t rock the boat’ non-confrontational culture of harmony?

According to a video by Yahoo TV’s Miao Poya, sexual assault or harassment victims would likely become targets of shaming if they do speak up in Taiwan — people often blame the victim for putting herself in harm’s way, or accuse her of being a troublemaker for speaking up, or admonish her to “think of the reputations and families you are destroying.” If touched inappropriately, people might say, “oh it’s just a touch, it’s not as if a piece of your meat is missing!” There seems to be much more sympathy for the perpetrator than the victim.

Moreover, in a power play situation, victims and witnesses worry that their professional opportunities and reputation would be damaged if they speak up.

Hence, the culture of silence continues — in many ways deeper than in the States, since culturally here, to remain quiet is a virtue as much as being vocal is rewarded in the U.S. In this quiet culture that prioritizes perpetrators’ egos over victims’ suffering, speaking out may be riskier than it’s worth.

And yet, how then can we make change?

David Green, UK native, editor at The News Lens

I come to this conversation feeling something of an interloper — a feeling that gets to the heart of why I am writing — so here goes. When Jane and I sat down to discuss this issue last week, I had a simple question I felt worth asking: “Is the conversation I see happening among my foreign friends in Taiwan and among those I know back home and elsewhere on social media also happening in Taiwanese society, and if not, why not?”

Part of the motivation for this line of thinking has been conversations with my partner and other female friends about their experience with sexual harassment in Taiwan. The upshot of these is that Taiwan is no different from elsewhere in the world when it comes to appalling behavior by men. Another is reflections on how I felt as one in possession of “the male gaze” — a term coined by feminist critic Laura Mulvey in the 1970s to describe how movies and other visual arts depict the world from the male perspective — in Taiwan and my hometown of London. I feel infinitely more comfortable in London than I do in Taiwan in this respect. That is just a fact, and one that I find very hard to explain.

Perhaps it speaks to a more pronounced imbalance of gender dynamics at play here, or just that as a foreigner there is more attention pointed at me due to my intrinsic alienness, and so I feel more observed. I will not subject the reader to circular introspection, save to say that it is a conversation I am having with myself and those I know.

That opening of the door of discussion is why I feel that the #MeToo phenomenon represents a sea change in the conversation about feminism, gender rights and gender equality. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a result of the campaign itself, more that #MeToo is a flood occurring now that a long-creaking dam has finally broken. I felt the seams pulsing before the revelations about predatory Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, and had already resolved to make positive changes to my own behavior and what I was prepared to accept on behalf of other men in public spaces.

This penetration of my thinking, by definition as a man the root of all the problems we are discussing here, is why I feel this time could be different. Of course, there is nothing more laughably self-important, and quintessentially male egoist, than believing that, “just because me then others as well.” But there is something to the idea that if men stay silent, then #MeToo can only partially succeed.

This is why it is important that The News Lens and other media address this issue in our local context of Taiwan. If this at least starts a conversation that leads to other media picking up the thread and offering more opportunities for those with the inclination to lend their voice, then that can only be a good thing — and if they happen to me men, well then so much the better.