In many ways, Taiwan’s a nice place to live.
We say “thank you” and “excuse me” almost like punctuation. We’re exceedingly polite, except when it comes to traffic and elections. We are passionate democrats and are politically progressive compared with many of our East Asian neighbors: We elected an unmarried, childless woman as president and legalized same-sex marriage. We have laws in place for sexual harassment on campuses and in the workplace. And we’re banning plastic straws.
But somewhere along the way, our niceness became something to be exploited.
Taiwan is now reckoning with our long-delayed #MeToo movement, an experience that has shown us just how far women — even in the most progressive and woke places — still have to go to win and preserve their safety and autonomy.
It began on May 31 with claims by Chen Chien-jou, a former staff member of the governing Democratic Progressive Party, that she had been harassed by the filmmaker Hsueh Chao-hui. Her complaint was dismissed by none other than the party’s head of women’s affairs. To the party’s credit, that official and some of those accused of harassment have since resigned, and President Tsai Ing-wen and other senior officials have apologized and promised substantive changes. (Mr. Hsueh issued a public statement denying Ms. Chen’s accusation.) On July 13, Taiwan’s cabinet proposed harsher penalties for perpetrators of sexual harassment and increased support for survivors under the three existing gender equality laws.
The movement has grown far beyond politics, with dozens of men and women from a variety of backgrounds coming forward with their own stories of being victimized. In spite of all of Taiwan’s progress, our society remains patriarchal and hierarchical. Under Confucian values, women obey their fathers and their brothers and eventually their husbands. People are expected to respect and yield to their elders and superiors — in short, the powers that be.
#MeToo may have been underway for years in America, but Taiwan needed to have its own reckoning at its own pace. It took the Taiwanese Netflix series “Wave Makers,” released this year, to give us the script. In a pivotal scene, two women working for a political party reflect on how to handle a case of sexual harassment. Reaching agreement, they repeat to each other, “Let’s not just let it go this time.”
Those words have become the movement’s rallying cry, resonating because we have always been taught to let it go. It’s the nice thing to do. But not this time. We’re tired of letting things slide, tired of retreating.
As a young woman growing up in Taipei in the 1980s and ’90s, I was taught to expect sexual harassment. Many clothing shops sell so-called safety shorts for women and girls to wear under their skirts to thwart peeping Toms. We have designated women’s waiting areas in metro stations with enhanced surveillance.
The message? Creeps happen, but the burden is on us, women and girls, to change our behavior to protect ourselves.
In elementary school, a boy tried to flip up my skirt. The teacher told me I should calm down because my screaming made it more fun for him to tease me. I stopped wearing skirts.
I began a career as an interpreter at conferences, but I soon decided it was too risky after I was asked to stay for late dinners or got stuck in car rides alone with older male clients — and they were always older male clients. I lived for several years in Shanghai, and at one event I attended, the speaker complimented my bilingual fluency, then got drunk and talked for hours about his penis and how he would divorce his wife for me. The nice Taiwan girl in me held her tongue. But that wasn’t the only time. I began doing stand-up comedy, but a guy got my phone number at an open mic event and proceeded to harass me on social media. I stopped doing comedy for more than a year.
Harassment makes you feel small. It says, “You’re not one of us. You’re entertainment, ornamental, a thing.” It chips away at you and your potential. Without safe passage, ambition dies.
Again and again, I shrank from situations in which I’d stand out. I conceded space to the predators because it’s not polite to scream and make a scene when someone gropes you on the bus, makes dirty jokes or touches you inappropriately. When you rock the boat, the social penalty is harsh.
“You’re overreacting.” “He doesn’t mean anything by it.” “Don’t be so full of yourself. You’re not even that hot.” “You should be grateful for the attention.” Or the best one: “He’s just being nice.” These and other familiar refrains — hopefully fading somewhat in the United States and other countries — are still common in Taiwan.
In a collectivist culture like ours, the burden of being nice and preserving group harmony falls on those with less power and authority, and that can mean male victims, too. According to a Taiwan media report that cited statistics from the Ministry of Education from 2022, 24 percent of campus sexual harassment survivors were men, and some of the survivors who have come forward in recent weeks have been men. As it’s been said, sexual violence isn’t only about sex; it’s also about power.
Since Taiwan’s #MeToo moment started, I’ve had multiple conversations with friends of all genders, sharing survivor stories, sometimes still wondering out loud, “Does this count? Or am I overreacting?” Being nice is so ingrained in us that it’s not going to be undone in a few weeks.
Recently when I had the opportunity to interpret for Ms. Chen, the whistle-blower who started it all, in an interview with the foreign media, I jumped at the chance. I rushed across Taipei to a cafe where she talked about her journey and her determination to make her political party — and, by extension, our society — a better, safer place for everyone.
It’s kind of poetic that the first time I spoke out about #MeToo was as a conduit for someone braver. It’s as if by interpreting for Ms. Chen, I had absorbed some of her courage. It made me think: Maybe the nice thing to do is to speak our truth.
Vickie Wang (@vickiedetaiwan) is a Taiwanese writer, interpreter and stand-up comedian who lives in New York and Taipei.
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