About Me

My Photo
Tainan, Taiwan
I'm an ESL teacher from Colorado. I worked in Taipei in 2000 for over a year, paid off my undergrad loans, traveled, saved $ to travel some more. So when I got pregnant in grad school I thought I could return to Taiwan, be economically self sufficient while my daughter masters Mandarin.We came to Tainan when she was 2. Taiwan is an excellent base to explore Asia, while living in relative (gun free) safety and benefiting from a cheap and efficient national health care system. The people are amazing too. I have friendships that are 14 years old and I'm always making new ones.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Buddha's Birthday + Zhaijiao Buddhism: Taiwan's Top 9 Buddhist Groups

Buddhist temple roof, Anping 2012
Its impossible to live in Taiwan and not be curious about local beliefs. There's a temple on every block, a shrine in most people's homes. Local deities' birthdays stop traffic, its common to drive or walk around burning ghost money on the sidewalks. Buddhism as its practiced here is mostly a mix with folk Taoism. In the same temple you can see Taoist folk gods (former generals) alongside Buddha and Guanyin/Matzu, goddesses of mercy and the sea.

Every May Buddhists celebrate Buddha's birthday in Taiwan by bathing his statue. Buddha's birthday (佛誕)  is celebrated in Taiwan officially on the second Sunday in May, the same as Mother's Day, as well as the 8th day of the 4th lunar month, which this year is May 25th. So it's not too late to observe some local customs.

 There are three main Buddhist traditions: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana (Tibetan). Taiwanese Buddhism developed over the past 300 years when the first Han Chinese immigrated to Taiwan.  They followed the Mahayana traditions, of unselfishly delaying enlightenment and becoming Bodhisattva saints to help mankind, as they usurped agricultural lands from aboriginals, pushing them into the mountains where they remain today. (Which is no different from Christian Europeans doing the same thing in the Americas, Australia and Africa.)

3 Buddhist traditions, which is your cup of tea?

A noticeable feature of Taiwanese Buddhism is "Zhaijiao"or "Lay Buddhism" (齋教) . Zhaijiao started during the Qing dynasty in Taiwan and blossomed under Japanese colonial rule. Most of its early followers were widows and unmarried women who could not be nuns, because there were no nunneries at that time, so they worked in the vegetarian halls. So its most powerful movement was vegetarianism. Thus, Taiwanese Mahayana also differs from Buddhism in other Asian countries on a modern level because laypeople, and everyday practitioners run temple duties, chant Buddhist scriptures and lead charity events rather than just monks or nuns. There is also a senses of social responsibility of its followers that is noticeable in everyday Taiwanese life. Chan (Zen) Buddhism is one of the most popular sects and there are several popular followings.

 Here is a scant list of some of the main Buddhist groups in Taiwan and with abbreviated backgrounds for English speaking people to participate in meditation or Buddhist educational retreats. Check their websites for more unabridged information. There are "4 Main Temple" of Buddhism in Taiwan, they compromise the first four in the following list:

1. Tzi Chi Foundation "Compassionate Relief"
If I had to pick my favorite organized Buddhist group in Taiwan it would be Tzi Chi, the world's largest Buddhist charity. Their headquarters, as well as university are located in Hualien. Their leader is nun Cheng Yen, the 78 year old "Mother Teresa of Asia". She is one of the first faces of mainstream Buddhism I saw when I first moved to Taiwan. She is often on TV with English subtitles.

Cheng Yen, founder of Tzi Chi Compassionate Relief
Living in Anping, several of my closest Taiwanese friends were followers of Tzi Chi and their kids went to that elementary school. They are all very gracious, sincere people. Tzi Chi seemed to be the first ones offering disaster relief to neighboring countries. I often dropped off old clothes or recyclables at their collection community center by my home. They are renown for their community outreach in times of natural disaster in Taiwan and internationally. They have centers throughout the country that take old clothes and recyclables, which they use for disaster relief- the most recent in Nepal, but also during the Tsunami in Japan and typhoons here and the Philippines. They have missions teams and you can volunteer in any of their local and global mission or donate bone marrow.

My daughter at the neighborhood Buddhist temple, just checking it out. Anping 2006

2. Dharma Drum Mountain (法鼓山or Fagushan Founded by Master Sheng Yen, they focus on Chan (Zen) meditation. They are located in New Taipei City with a complex of monasteries, two universities and a college. They practice three kind of educational outreach and four kinds of environmentalism.  Their main goal is to educate the public in Buddhism and they also raise money for other donations. Their leader was also a mainland Chinese monk. They spend 200 million NT per year to help families just above the poverty line who don't quality for govt assistance. They are having meditation events/festivals, May 23rd and 24th and in September, check their schedule.

Chung Tai Temple, Puli 2011
3.Chung Tai Chan Szu- Probably the least socially engaged, they encourage a monastic life and is the most controversial, due to its exorbitant $650 million monastery in Puli. They were also in the news back in September 1996 for basically kidnapping children summer campers and not returning them to their parents until the police were called and the parents had a sit in. Scary!

4. Fo Guang Shan- Located in Kaohsiung, they are the most comprehensive group with a monastery for men, women and foreigners. It has adult centers, youth and children;s camps, 3 kindergartens, a middle school and three universities. Believers recite Confucian ethics along with Buddhist chants and  is associated with Chinese cultural activities. They publish books, a journal, newspaper, have medical clinics, hospitals, treatments for prison inmates and a cemetery for the poor. Their leader is the Chinese, charismatic leader, Hsing Yun.

5.  Taiwan Vipassana- This probably is the most well known for Westerners and comes from the Theravada branch of Buddhism. This branch focuses on meditation techniques for calming the mind and having insight rather than teaching a system of religious beliefs. I have had friends do the 10 day silent Vipassana course (hardcore!). They offer, 1 day, 2 day, 10 and 20 day courses, for Mandarin and English speakers and some are for women only. Here is their schedule for the Lyu-Guei location. They have a main branch in Kaohsiung and another in Taichung.

Chung Tai Temple, Puli 2011
6.  Fu-Chih- They regard Tibetan Buddhism as they most advanced although they combine some Confucianism and Han Buddhism. They promote organic goods and a healthy lifestyle for body, mind, spirit and the environment, shun the media spotlight and have a nondescript building in Taipei. They also publish 2 journals and are working on a life education center, a boarding school complex in central Taiwan. They founded one of my favorite health food stores, Leezen.

7.  Ling Jiou Shan- They also embrace Tibetan and Theravada, Han traditions but goes further in trying to bridge all world belief systems and is known for their Museum of World Religions and the Chan Institute. Their leader Xindao was a student at Foguang who immigrated to Taiwan at age 13 from Burma, where he was a child-monk soldier in a monastery in Burma.

8. Kadampa Buddhism- Located in Tamsui, they offer retreats and meditation classes in English. They are a kind of modern (Gelug) Vajrayana (Tibetan) branch of Buddhism that was officially started in England and they have branches all over the world. Their main point is teaching meditation to be used practically. They call themselves the "Pure Gelugpas" and follow the writings of Je Tsongkhapa, which are interpreted and taught by their founder, the Venerable Kelsang Gyatso.

Master Miao
9. Tathagata Chan (Zen) Abode-  Led by the charismatic Guru Master Miao. They have groups all over the island, check their official website. I have 2 dear friends who are followers and they both have the same testimony. This guru recently became enlightened, he is now god incarnate, as in the "New Christ" which means he is free of all karma and can help his followers clean their karma so they can reincarnate in a better form or even better stay in heaven. When my friends push me to go to one of his meditation groups, I say, but I am already going to heaven, Jesus already did 2000 years ago what this guy claims to do now, so I don't see the point. My friends claim it has changed their lives, that this man is God, which is pretty charged on many levels.  I am wary and slightly curious. Master Miao has his followers meditate 30 min every day, and meet once a week, like church.

What I know for sure is that meditating 30 min everyday for 4+ years, definitely had a noticeably positive impact on my friends' lives, regardless of their claim for their guru to be the Godhead.  I've been inspired to recently have been making my own times in the morning for a daily devotion and meditation, more in the style of vipassana. I'll meditate on uplifting scriptures  or subjects like, abundance, goal setting . I think even emptiness is an illusion.

Meeting Taiwan's New Age Buddhists
Taiwan's Socially Engaged Buddhist Groups
Dharma Net
Meditate and Buddhism in Taiwan
Database of Buddhist Temples in Taiwan
The Development of Taiwanese Buddhism
The Corporate Body of Buddhist Educational Foundation
A Buddhist Library
Urban Dharma
Out of the Monastery into the Crowds

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Spring in Yilan: New Developments and Hair Experiments Gone Wrong

It's funny, every Spring like clockwork, like a migratory water fowl I get this itch, inner antsiness where I want to move or change jobs. I often would scan job ads or flight deals for pleasure. This Spring I was utterly void of unsettledness. The out of the blue job invitation from Taitung sort of provided a short spat of turbulence, but in the end I settled for remaining contented in Yilan.

However, my Spring wasn't all inner collectiveness and tranquility. Its starting to get really warm and I've been meaning to get a hair cut for the upcoming summer. This has building up and then my Trickster manifested last Saturday morning. I thought to myself, "How hard could it be to give myself bangs?" Its friggin' harder than it looks- well looks like I indeed gave myself bangs. Then my neighbor came over and decided to help, I handed over the scissors as she cut away more. Needs to grow in a few weeks before it looks um, normal. It looked like a Cleopatra wig.

Bad Cleopatra wig
I should of stopped when I had the chance. But feeling like it couldn't get much worse, what the hell, I decided to cut it shorter. This time I actually went to a professional. I think it was the same man who trimmed it before and did a decent job. However this time he literally chopped it in 5 minutes, it was uneven, I had long bits still. I got what I paid for, a 100 NT (3 bucks USD) cut outside Carrefore! 

After the chop, Z is trained to open up my bottle and pour me my ale

The damage is done. It will grow. Until then I drowned my sorrows in (a single) Canadian beer and copious amounts of onion rings at Piggies Bar. Z says I look like the KGB agent in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, she had me repeat ,"Hello Dr Jones" with a terrible Russian accent until I had to put my foot down. Its ok, I had the first laugh. Everything is temporary, right? 

Beyond the mane, just smile anyways
Besides the state of my hair, life is good! At least that's what I thought Tuesday afternoon, laying in my hammock, relaxing until it was time to teach a yoga class, then tutor a junior high girl in my home. Later that night I and took my twice a week TRX class with my hottie trainer. Today I started teaching my now Wed and Fri afternoons of just Art and PE to kindy kids with great English. Easy money, super fun, at a superb school for a fantastic boss! I feel so blessed. I have a fitness community, I enjoy my work, I started juicing consistently every morning the past 2 weeks. It's all rainbows and unicorns at the moment.

Lazy lady hair
Another reason to gloat is this weather. For the past month or two, its sunny mornings, even sweaty hot 90F around 11, then something about lunchtime, like a switch, it cools down. Clouds roll in from the mountains and soften the sun, there's a breeze from the ocean, sometimes a shower cools it off. Everyday I feel lucky to be here. I was forewarned how rainy and bleak Yilan weather is, but its just my style! Fresh and smelling sweet. It will be miserably hot soon enough, until then, enjoying perfection, which is a long, luxurious Spring.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mother's Day Weekend

Mother's Day was categorically a weekend and not just a Sunday, at least I started getting the stipulated greetings and carnations starting Friday eve. My first gift came last Sunday, my Uni student hand made me this incredible shoulder bag. The fabric fits my personal tastes in color and design to a tee. I still can't believe she made it. I'm happily surprised she judged my preferences so well.

My lovely one of a kind bag, leather and printed canvas
 My weekend started Friday night after my tutoring, when I am at my energy's lowest ebb. I dragged my kid and I to the Sports Park for an hour Hiit followed by 30 minutes boxing, sparring with partners. My TRX teacher provides this on the side of working at various gyms. Its exactly what I need because I resist it so much at that end of the week/evening time.

Saturday morning I woke at the crack of dawn and took my kid and I to Wai'ao beach to catch a yoga class. It was part of a bigger weekend retreat that was organized by the radiant  Mind Body Yoga at the Rising Sun Surf Inn. I obviously couldn't live in a dorm for the weekend, but the instructor was open and kind  and invited me to drop in for any of the asana classes. We missed the 6:20 train to Wai'ao and drove, making the 7:30 class right on time. Z played near the rocks and we vinyasa-ed with the waves.

Dancer's Pose with a partner

It was uncharacteristically hot for 8 am in Yilan,we were all sweating profusely and I stripped down into a swim suit at first opportunity. We had to end our pranayama (breathing) exercises on the boardwalk under the shade. Z and I frolicked a bit on the beach and headed back to Tainan, it was too hot. Fortunately in typical Yilan fashion, it cooled off with a rain.  The rest of my day was spent in my hammock.

I received a postcard from Z in the mail. She illustrated a triune picture of this Rose with massive thorns (our relationship) what was me in the center with chili peppers/horns in my hair and a mysterious flower. How strange she said that was me, I told her, "Its you, not me with the yellow hair and bangs." She still hasn't completely differentiated herself from me. This dance of her dependence and self's need for independence. She wrote about surviving our "2 hell trains," the 15 hour train in Burma that stopped in the middle of the tracks for hours and the more recent day trip to Taitung and back (see previous post.) She wrote, "I made it because you were with me." My heart is still gushing.

Then Sunday at church more carnations and a gift. Z was moved to give me an exceptionally long and tear filled hug, her head hidden in my chest under my arms. She's always on the move and unless one of us asks for a hug, we don't usually cuddle until bed time. So that voluptuous hug was gratifying.


A luxuriously long and late lunch at the French Bistro Le Temps, which had a special course for Mother's Day was in order. Z shared my plates with me, except for her own dessert, black sesame tarts. We were perfectly satisfied from the fresh, organic produce and contented with each other's company.

Mother's Day, Le Temps
 I have this past year or half year feel like she and I in our relationship are in a golden period, the eye of a storm. Its as if a light bulb went on in her head recently that she actually understands what I am talking about. I think even when she was in 1st grade or 2nd grade I was still speaking gibberish, like a Peanuts cartoon, she even didn't really understand the concept of lying. It wasn't easy for me because when I was 4 or 5 I had a clear moral understanding of what was wrong or right, especially with things like just for example, lying. Because of this sort of jump in her EQ (thank God) communication has been so much easier and gratifying than years past. Big sigh. Not only that but her lifelong prayer for a Dad has lost its teeth in intensity. I think after dating AJ and then breaking that off, she can see for herself that its better for her and me to be alone than with the wrong person. Thankfully this lesson was learned with a real nice friend.


I just pray she continues to grow in wisdom and grace especially as the teen years are right around the corner. I've begun to "batten down the hatches" on an inner level, mainly by trying to utterly enjoy this stage she is right now.

Z playing with pigeons draws the customary crowd outside Le Temps

Friday, May 8, 2015

Yilan: A good Thing Going, Why Change?

I just turned down that job in Taitung- not that I had it in the bag for sure. The last message I got at lunch about an hour ago was they were going to have another meeting to decide between me and another woman who is already in Taitung. I replied, "Let me make it easier for you all, I've decided to stay in Yilan." I felt such a relief.  Then I got another message that he was working with HR to hire us both. Oh well. Wish I could of figured it out before being on a train for 9 hours.

Passing Thru the Rift Valley

I don't know if the nearly 5 hour train ride there had knocked the stars out of my eyes, or what, but I just wasn't that impressed. I was getting the sinking feeling I was going to be a slave again, and I've been so free since Chinese New Year. There seemed to be a lot of unknowns and mixed messages and I came away from it overburdened with confusion. The presence or absence of peace is a major indicator which way I decided. Of course my ego is like, "I want this" because of past rejection, because of it been under a formidable leader for sustainable development in Taitung, because my kid could go to a Waldorf school, because its aligned with my personal values, was the biggest thing for me.

On the train ride back (another 4 1/2 hours) I realized I have a good thing going here in Yilan. Why would I give that up?

1. I think the climate in Yilan is better. I don't mind the rain, I quite enjoy it and this year hasn't been as bad as everyone warned. I don't have to exaggerate that each day is fresh and smells amazing.  Its pleasantly cool and sunny. I'm glad I'm not melting in the dry polluted airs of Tainan. If that means dumping liters of water out of my dehydrator everyday so be it. Everything but the parking here is serene.

2. My kid goes to an awesome school. Her class size is small in comparison to most schools, and they seem to balance academic, music and sports.  My kid was having trouble in math (she got an 80% on her midterm, which is basically failing by Asian standards), so now the school appointed a volunteer tutor (fabulous lady) twice a week to help her after school for an hour. I don't need to go to an after school anchingban or hire a tutor. She plays recorder every morning and guitar on Friday and she has half days twice a week.

 Her school is amazing, very supportive from the get go, and my kid isn't the easiest of students to have in your class. There's the language and cultural barrier with me as her mom, that takes extra time. I've been having growing pains with her homeroom teacher who is young and inexperienced. She called me into  a meeting a month ago for Z's attitude. To my dismay my daughter was organizing a class revolt, instigating the class to reject teacher's homework assignments. She would stand up and say, "This is too much work, who thinks we can do less, let's all unite and tell teacher..." I wonder where she gets it from? I had to explain that her class isn't a Democracy (maybe teacher can try "Flipping"), teacher is the captain and there will be no mutinies.  And there hasn't been since.

There was a recent incident, where her teacher made flippant, disrespectful comments, but she apologized (sort of, not to me, but to my translator and the principals) and blamed her statements on being seriously grieved, her grandmother just died. Fair enough. we all have our moments. She wants another meeting and is big on using LINE, so I think boundaries are an issue, I don't mind enforcing boundaries from time to time.

Long train ride, digging our heels in

The Waldorf school in Taitung just didn't sell it to me as a parent. The kids in that elementary school don't write until 3rd grade, my kid is currently top of her class in Mandarin (midterms 2 weeks ago), why would I want her Mandarin to slip and become mediocre? That's one of THE big benefits of living here. They also don't use any books or technology in grades 1-6, which I think is excessive. My kid is a bibliophile and spent the time of my interview and demo in their (small) library.

Also, the foreign teachers in the Waldorf school in Taitung, are trying to bring more sports into their curriculum as they, "Have more aboriginal kids from the  mountains who need to run around." Also foreign staff see the importance of team building and sportsmanship. So if they aren't big on books or computers and apparently sports, what exactly do they do? If its run around wild, enjoying the fresh air and nature, doing art, my kid does that literally everyday already. I dont need to move to Taitung for that.

3. My current job is also pretty darn good. I work for a Canadian guy with kids whose been here for years and he has loyal employees. He is easy to talk to, assumes the best, gives teachers a lot of flexibility and on his word, promised more hours next semester. It is also a relief to work for him. No managerial good cop-bad cop games.

Breakfast burritos on the train

I got the impression that there was too much internal conflict with the staff in Taitung between progressives and old school minded educators. I assumed because of the high profile leader and his reformist values that everyone would be on the same page or they would at least hire educators with similar forward looking values, but apparently that is not the case. I was forewarned to be "flexible".

I also got the impression that there was no real defined point between being  teacher and having a life outside the school. We had to spend at least an evening in the dorms providing that homey atmosphere they need and also that night 2 teachers had evening classes until 7:30.

 I have a kid, my off time is my time to be with her. I think its possible to be a good teacher, even be a parental role model without taking away my family time, but I got the impression that would be an issue if I took that job.

I like how much free time I have at the moment. I will be able to say how many hours more I want next semester. Not everyday I' m thinking.

4. My current living environment is fabulous. My apartment building is new and I'm across the street from the most sublime park in all of Yilan County, if not all of Taiwan (see Yilan's Best Kept Secret). I also started regularly going back to the gym for TRX and kettlebell classes, even Tainan wasn't offering that when I left it 9 months ago. I also think Yilan has way more bike trails than Taitung and better weather to bike in. (See Living Clean in Yilan and What's Not To Do).

5. Plans for going home in August remain. I dont have to put anyone out or change schedules. I need to go home and see my grandparents and not worry about making waves with a new job. My current boss is supportive.

What a relief to be happy exactly where I am!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Labor Day Weekend and School Dazed

We are the Champions.
Friday was May 1st, the international Labor Day (worker's of the world unite!). My Canadian boss in solidarity gave the kindergarten staff the day off (now do a fist pump.) I basically ran errands, so not quite the relaxing start of a weekend.

Saturday was my daughter's school, " Sports Day", an epic event in their school calender. Her class has been making posters and practicing dances for weeks. I had no idea it was going to be test of endurance for the parents. Our previous sports day experience in Tainan was just a harmless couple of hours on a Saturday, but this one was a full 5 hours. Traveling by train and buses through Burma, India and Sudan seemed less excruciating. If we are here next year I will sell T-shirts to the parents and teachers that say, "We Survived Another Sports Day."

My daughter told me she had to be there at 7:50, when really she had to be there at 8:50. I kept wondering when it would start. Then in the gymnasium it was speech after speech of local dignitaries, the mayor, principals, school superintendent, nearby school principals... The irony being no one was listening or even trying to pretend to be respectful listeners.  After almost 7 years living here, its one thing that still ruffles my feathers. When I first moved here, I thought it was just local culture. I wonder if I went home if it would be similar, a modern phenomena of rude listeners.

I find it strange that local culture loves having microphones (KTV in buses, homes, neighborhood get-togethers), but as soon as someone is speaking everyone just tunes out. Anyways, the mic was super LOUD, the audience was super LOUD and it was really hot, the first hot day of the year (it since has cooled) and it was just uncomfortable, over stimulating, jarring.  Someone would of made a small fortune selling iced teas.

She was pumped for her dance.

There was a lot of waiting and down time. Grades 1-6, each class had to rotate games and dances, one by one, and then we all went out to the blazing track for races. My daughter got first in the 100 m dash, which she was proud. Their class relay wasn't as successful, but it was all in good fun. I was pretty much wiped out after coming home. My kid enjoyed herself, so that's all that really mattered.

Wilting in the shade.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Holy Surprise! Jah is Good Everyday

Looks like I'm going to Taitung on Wednesday. A three hour train ride there and four ride back. Harsh but necessary.Z will probably tag along. Why the midweek, last minute trip?

This afternoon, I just got a surprise, out of the blue phone call and I was in happy tears, jumping around my living room!! Someone I met 2 years ago in Taitung, remembered me, saw my blog and called me. We were going for the same job at Stanley Yen (嚴長壽) 's Junyi Bilingual school, (he got the job- ). Now they want me. (Read, Tantalizing Taitung)

 The elementary school is totally Waldorf now, the  Middle School is halfway there. The salary is same as the one I had here at the bilingual school in Yilan,which is significantly better than my part time situation at the moment.  Z's tuition for the semester would be what I was paying Chung Dau every month (wonderful!).

Thankfully I hadn't booked flights back home for our August trip yet, that sort of is all up in the air. There is no way we are NOT going home, but when we do will be a factor. I am not even thinking about the stress of moving again. The move to Yilan from Tainan was boatloads harder than I expected, but we have seriously less stuff now, so for someone reason I am not concerned about another move, perhaps because its "meant to be."

I'm rushing ahead. There is still the whole process to go through again, a demo and interview that needs to be successfully completed. But I am as ever hopeful. 

Why the massive elation? 

1.) Its in Taitung, need I say more?

2.) Stanley Yen (嚴長壽) is THE mover and shaker in Taiwanese education reform. To be under his visionary leadership for my own personal values, would be like a firecracker under my wings igniting the flame of purpose. Imagine being that passionate about a job again. Its only in the void of terrible to mediocre to better than average leadership that you recognize a trail blazer, visionary when you meet him face to face.

3.) Z could go to a Waldorf school 

4.) Z could go to a Waldorf school with Aboriginal students 

I must confess that the one time Z saw me cry and in public was on the train leaving Hualien to Taipei when I found out I didn't get that job 2 years ago. I was just so pining for it. She remembers it to this day. I suppose being a single mom I have "be strong" and all that, breaking down for a good cry only occasionally, when she is asleep. She is absolutely fascinated by wanting to see me cry, she often mentions wanting to capture it on video recording which is extreme. I guess I saw my parents cry a

lot because my brother was often in the hospital, in ICU. I'm not trying to be unreal, inauthentic, I'm not the crying type to begin with. But on that train out of Hualien, when I found out they gave the job to the guy who already lives in Taitung -who happens to be getting me this job now- I let the tears roll down my face in front of everyone. As the cycle of tears keeps turning, today those tears were happy. I was moved this guy remembered me from 2 years ago and would seek me out, compliment my blogs, recognize that I share the same values, want me on his team, on Stanley Yen's team no less. 

Who doesn't love lightening bolt news out of the blue? But I do especially. Le't hope for more tears of joy.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Game of Boners and the Season of the Woman

"Men are not aware of the misery they cause and the vicious weakness they cherish, by only inciting women to render themselves pleasing." - Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)

I love Game of Thrones, it gets better and better and the latest headline has heralded season 5 as the "Year of the Woman"Truly? Its about time! Arya Stark and Daenerys Targaryen are the series' current strong women. If season 5 is anything like its previous seasons, than the notion of "strong women" will be defined from the point of view of the average male viewer. How would women retell the story of Game of Thrones had they the chance? Elle magazine had the female characters ranked according to their looks, which is appalling but hardly surprising. Sounds like not much of an opposing angle from average female viewers either. 

My main question as a female viewer is, where is the mother daughter relationships, and why are they missing and ultimately devalued? There's plenty of father-daughter, mother-son, but not much air time devoted to this special relationship, which to me is more evident of the blatant patriarchal entertainment industry's fear of strong mother-daughter bonds, than the excessive screen time of GoT's over the top sexualized nudity. Frankly the lack of dynamic mother-daughter relationships in the show ultimately reflects in a weak and uninspired character development of its heroines. Don't get me wrong, I adore Brienne, Daenerys and Arya, but I take it with a grain of salt. I can guess that the phallocentric show, like western culture is totally shit scared of a close Mother-Daughter relationship which attacks it as unhealthy, pathological or in this case totally missing.

I am not the first one to critique the show's use of sex as a plot device, ok maybe I was, but I didn't write about it first. I was surprised to read that the show is supposedly an improvement from the books in terms of less rape, and HBO created totally new female characters with some kind personality ("9 Ways Game of Thrones Is Actually Feminist").  I love the response to this in Megan Murphy's critique of how people are forcing feminism in places it doesn't exit ("Just Because You Like it Doesn't Make it Feminist".) I do like it but I'm also very aware that the show is hardly the beacon of gender equality people claim.

The show is soft porn for dudes and the first few seasons straight female viewers like myself had to endure T and A here and there and everywhere as all the female characters were literally either Queens or prostitutes. "But that's how life was like back then!" Say the typical male viewer. "Back when?" Middle Ages? Renaissance? History should be called Hisfantasy. What was true then is true now - rape is still very much alive and well (read, Will It Really Take a Man's Word...). What is going on is this, "the patriarchal castration of the female personality principally offers women but two alternatives: an impossibly idealised motherhood or an emphasis on the kind of sexual attraction that turns women into objects" ( Phillips, "Beyond the Myths"). Popular story telling hasn't moved past the Virgin Mary/Mary Magdelene polarity, despite reality being so much more interesting. Phillips goes on to write, "Patriarchy devalues femininity. It creates a dichotomy between feminine sexuality and motherhood." In GoT femininity and sexuality are one in the same. When will this dichotomy of femaleness not be the world view in which we tell stories and watch great entertainment or frame "strong women"? Motherhood is hardly portrayed at all, except as a vehicle for men's security of kingdoms or the dragon fantasy of Daenerys.

What of normal women, mothers, married to the local miller, tanner, cobbler, farmer, weren't there any legitimate women, somewhere between Queen and whore back in western history? Is it responsible to re-represent Western history that way, basically making the lives and stories of ordinary women disappear as if they never existed? I suppose that is much of history anyways. In early Medieval writings, there was total gender separation, with men having little contact with women who lived in a world of their own (Phillips 1991). What the majority of women did was not recorded. In later medieval writings there are records of women working alongside fathers and husbands in shoe-making, candle-making, the silk industry, they were members of guilds. Normal women did exist. 

So what is it about this show that everyone is gushing about? For Canadian, feminist author Margaret Atwood, who wrote a recent column in the Observer, the popularity of the show is not from its influence from English history but literature. GoT "Draws its inspiration from so many fictional sources it’s hard to keep track. The Iliad, the Odyssey,Beowulf, ancient Egypt, H Rider HaggardThe Sword in the Stone, the Ring Cycle, Tolkien, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Mabinogion, Harry Potter, The Jungle Book, Ursula K Le Guin, Hans Christian Andersen, Idylls of the KingConan the Barbarian – himself the stolen-away downmarket twin of Walt Whitman – and The Wind In the Willows." If only there was some Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, or Christine de Pizan thrown in for good measure.

Think about the series' strong heroines, they are hardly the wholly feminine superpower they seem. Classical strong heroines in Western history are always linked to their strong relationship with their mother or mother figures-ie the only fitting spouse to the God of the Underworld was the daughter of Demeter.   There isn't much of that in Game of Thrones and in fact it follows Hollywood's stereotypical mistrust of mother-daughter relationships. I think Margaery Tyrell is an example of a strong woman who has been schooled by her grandmother Olenna Redwyne on the ways of the world, but that hardly got any air time.

Daenerys has no connection to her mother, no females who mothered her, she has been ruled by men, her brother, her late husband, and all her counselors are older men and even her current beau gives her policy advice! She hardly has her own voice, tho that's forgivable because she is sexually attractive, young and never mothered. The only female who gave her advice at all, was a courtesan of her husband, who taught her a few bedroom tricks as he only knew one, the Dothraki favorite (think horse). She isn't even a queen, "Khalisi" is only the title referring only to the wife of the khal. I am hoping the writers will connect her with more of her feminine wisdom as she has to learn to mother her uncontrollable, adolescent dragons. How will they mythesize motherhood though her story?

As for Arya Stark, she did have a  relationship with her "strong" mother Catherine who was tragically murdered in the already classic wedding murder scene.  But did they have a strong relationship? One can only assume. Since her mom's death, she has also been groomed and counseled by men, the swordsman Syrio and now the Faceless Man who serve the many faced god of death. That daughters without mothers like Arya and Daenerys are obliged to develop self assertiveness and independence without disturbing patriarchal values on femininity and containing "strong women" is nothing new. Jane Austen did it first in her female characters.

Whats more comical than claiming these characters are "strong women" is after 5 seasons of sexualizing the female characters, the actor playing Jon Snow, Kit Harrington was huffing and puffing about becoming a sex symbol! ("Being Called a Hunk is Demeaning"). Before you call me a hypocrite or a sexist (because I am all about hunkifying Drago), its not the same thing.

The Guardian columnist Barbara Ellen put it this way, "However, male sexual objectification is relatively rare – generally reserved for well-known males, fictional or otherwise...By contrast, female sexual objectification is an ongoing socioeconomic-cum-psychosexual epidemic, affecting the vast majority of women at some stages of their lives. Even when they are no longer objectified (losing looks or fertility; ageing), it’s used against them in a routine way. Without meaning to be crude, from a female perspective, you’re screwed when you’re being sexually objectified, then you’re screwed when you’re not. This is the truth of female objectification – it’s less about personal sexiness and more about impersonal power structures. Where sexual objectification is concerned, fame is a game-changer for men, while merely amplifying normality for women. To suggest otherwise seems misguided at least. Maybe it’s time for men to speak up about things that genuinely affect them instead of putting a spurious man-spin on typically female experiences."Men Know Nothing At All About Being Sex Objects")

Is there any other female GoT character that deserves to be called a "strong woman"?  Melisandre, she is the high priestess of the male God of Light and hardly the epitome of feminine power, although she uses her sexuality when she can as a weapon, more soft porn scenes. So nope. However she unlike most of the female characters is not expected to bear children or marry for a position or security.

Brienne of Tarth would never even be a possibility historically speaking. If women dressed as men to escape female bondage, or to act like them, they were put to death. Arya would never make it. Just read the 13th century French romance "Huon of Bordeaux". Of course in Celtic and Teutonic pre-Christian groups women did fight alongside men, but they also believed in female goddesses and had a completely different way power was shared and femininity viewed than the medievalist GoT.

So whats a woman with a brain to do who likes watching GoT? I'm not going to feel guilty, if Margaret Atwood is a fan I'm in good company. I'm waiting for the leak of episode 5 along with the sheep, fingers still crossed that Drogo might return and hoping the writers might grow up from the way they trivialized Cersei.

Beyond the Myths: Mother Daughter Relationships (1991) by Dr. Shelly Phillips
The Abused Wives of Westeros
Today's Twisted TV Moms