For the past month, Taiwan has been busy preparing for the 2018 local elections in every province. Hualien has been quite active in these preparations which has been both exciting to watch and extremely inconvenient. My first direct encounter with the election was when I was at Tongmen a few weeks ago.
Every other weekend (give or take) Gina and I travel to Tongmen, a Toroko village about 20 minutes outside of Hualien city. We attend the church service from 10-12, and then we work with the youth group for an hour teaching English through church hymns. The community is incredibly kind and welcoming and has graciously accepted us into their church. The service is in both Toroko language and in Chinese so we understand very little, but the youth that are part of the church help us find the right pages in the hymnal and are very patient with our poor Chinese. For me, the most important part of religion is the community it builds so I really enjoy these visits and getting to know the youth at the church. Additionally, they are quick learners and have incredible voices so it is a very rewarding experience. The last time Gina and I were in Tongmen, we somehow accidentally found ourselves thrown into a political rally. It happened like this:
After the church service, the church minister came to us and said, “Wait here for a moment, we are going to pray.” The Chinese words for “go pray” (去禱告 qù dǎo gào) and “eat cake” (chī dàn gāo 吃蛋糕) are very similar, so I turned to Gina and excitedly told her we were going to eat cake. “Really?” She said. “I thought she said they were going to go pray.” As we stood there waiting, an extremely loud series of bangs rang out from around the corner. Gina and I instinctively ducked, thinking we were under attack. The youth group looked at us funny and told us it was simply fireworks. Suddenly the minister came back and told us and said “Okay time to go!” She grabbed our arms and ushered us around the corner where a group of people were huddled under a tent. A man in a vest with the number 1 stood holding a microphone, shouting out a variety of things that I hardly understood due to the group of people chanting “1號， 1 號!” However, I discovered after a few moments that he was a candidate to represent Tongmen in government. Although we picked up on very little of what he said, when he called out to the foreigners in the crowd we snapped to attention. He as well as many members of his campaign group gathered in a group around us and asked to take a picture. Suddenly we found ourselves chanting his name and number one, which was quite funny because neither Gina or I could actually vote in the election.
I looked around frantically for cake but unfortunately discovered that Gina’s interpretation was correct and we wouldn’t be getting any cake. But suddenly the crowd dispersed and came back with tables and stools.
“What’s happening?” I asked our friend the minister.
“We are going to eat food!” the minister told me excitedly in Chinese. Suddenly huge platters of food came from all over and were placed on the table. The minister turned to us and said in Chinese, “These dishes are traditional Toroko dishes, they all have a special ingredient.”
“Oh really?” I asked. “They look delicious!”
“Yes!” She said. “蝦米! How do you say that in English?”
“Oh… well, 蝦米 is shrimp.” Anyone who knows me well would remember that I am actually very allergic to shellfish. I had already filled my bowl and I looked down sadly, realizing I couldn’t eat one bite. Thankfully Gina agreed to eat both bowls so I didn’t look impolite. When the minister came back and asked if we had enjoyed the food we both chimed in, “Oh yes so much!” When she insisted that we eat more, I quickly replied that I was much too full to possibly imagine eating another bite, despite the fact that my stomach was rumbling. Both Gina and I graciously thanked number 1 for his generosity, and returned to teach our English class.
This was my first encounter with the political campaign but certainly not the last. This was earlier on in the month but as it got closer to the elections, I found myself running into people campaigning everywhere. When biking around the city, I was often passed by blue trucks playing pre-recorded tracks of candidates stating their position. I almost missed my train on the way home from school one time because of a train of cars blocking the road on the way to the Xincheng station. One time when getting ice cream, Isabel and I were completely trapped by a huge mob of people campaigning for Hualien City candidate number 2, in a parade that included brightly lit floats and drummers who performed in the street. “Hey look, my student!” Isabel shouted excitedly. Perhaps the most frustrating part of the whole campaign was the candidate who had his base right across from my school in Xincheng. The week before the election, coincidentally the week my students had a speaking exam, we would hear the deafening sound of fireworks every hour or so across the street. As you can imagine, this made it extremely difficult to capture my student’s attention in the classroom.
However, the other ETAs and I had fun with the election. One night while a parade of different candidates was going by, we cheered loudly for each truck and chanted the candidates number over and over. We definitely caught the candidates off guard, who were quite confused by a group of foreigners cheering loudly from the street. One thing that baffled me was the sheer number of candidates. Candidates were represented by numbers that were assigned based on when a candidate applied to run. In some areas, numbers went up to 18! This was shocking to me. It is still unclear to me how individual candidates are elected when the voting base is so drastically divided by the number of candidates.
Surprisingly, despite the Taipei pride parade, I saw no public campaigning for the referendums that were on the ballot for the election. The ballot included a question about whether or not Taiwan should continue the use of nuclear power or switch to coal power. There were three separate questions addressing LGBTQ+ rights, including two about same sex marriage, and 1 that asked candidates whether or not the Ministry of Education should implement the Enforcement Rules of the Gender Equality Education Act in elementary and middle schools. I personally find this issues to be incredibly important so I was very confused that so much attention was directed to elected individuals and these questions appeared to be dismissed or deemed less important.
Saturday Election Day. Unlike the US, Taiwan does not have an absentee ballot system so all forms of transportation were booked for the day as people tried to get back to their province to vote. I find this somewhat problematic, because people who are overseas are unable to vote. Additionally, students who attend school outside of their province are unable to vote unless they head back to their hometowns, a hassle that can be expensive, and for some students, requires them to miss classes. Although voting is far from perfect in the US, I will say that it was fairly convenient for me to vote this year. I received my ballot by email and resubmitted it by email, something I could have done the same day as the election.
Additionally, in Taiwan polls close at 4:30 on the day of the election, which makes it difficult for people who work on Saturdays to vote. After this time, ballots are counted individually by hand. On Saturday evening, candidates awaited the results anxiously. On my evening run, I passed by three separate candidate offices and saw a crowd of people sitting inside, watching the live count screen. As I was about to go to bed, I checked to see the referendum results. Much to my dismay, all three questions that addressed LGBTQ+ rights were shut down. Same sex marriage was denied, and it was decided that the Gender Equality Education Act does not need to be enforced in middle and high school. Sadly, the results were about 7:3 against same sex marriage and the Gender Equality Education Act. Taiwan is an extremely empathetic country, so I found it difficult to learn that something I view as a human right has been denied to LGBTQ+ individuals citizens in Taiwan. However, the lack of attention directed at towards this question and the ambivalent attitude many voters appeared to have made this result not particularly surprising. This decision made me feel both sad and isolated here in Taiwan, and I can only imagine how members of the LGBTQ+ community feel about this decision.
Overall, I am glad that elections are over. It’s nice to have peace and thankfully giant posters of candidates faces will be removed from billboards soon and I can escape the feeling of constantly being watched.