Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Huang Yan-ru’s political awakening

Nations aren’t built through the pursuit of materialistic gain. Their foundations are erected by individuals with awareness and ideals, by people who are ‘political.’ Here is the case of one young Taiwanese who experienced such an awakening

She lay on the pavement like a broken doll, the slits of her dark eyes expressing deep pain. Above her loomed a line of police officers with riot gear. Behind them, the Ministry of Economic Affairs, where the residents of Yuanli (苑裡), Miaoli County, had gathered on Sept. 3 to deliver, yes, a severed pig’s head — a symbol of anger directed at the government’s refusal to consult them about wind turbines that are being built in their neighborhood, often uncomfortably close to their homes.

Huang after her fall at the MOEA
During a melee with police, Huang Yan-ru (黃燕茹) fell on the ministry building’s side of the fence that had been laid by law enforcement to keep the protesters at bay. It was a bad fall, on her back, which immediately brought the scuffle to a halt and sent people rushing to help her. Minutes later, as she agonized on the ground, an ambulance pulled over, and after immobilizing her neck, medics spirited her away to hospital. After a urine test to ensure she hadn’t damaged her kidneys, Huang was sent home.

The diminutive Huang (she can’t be more than five feet tall) has been a continuous driving force in the activism that has taken Taiwan by storm in recent months, and a regular presence at protests. More often than not, she is in the front lines when things get rough — she had a bad fall during a protest in front of the Presidential Office on July 18 against demolitions in Dapu and had earlier injured her knee in Yuanli — and seems to launch herself into the agitated crowds with nary a concern for her safety.

At a Dapu protest in Taipei, July 18
The truly admirable thing about Huang, however, is that, by her own admission, she wasn’t always like that. In fact, her political consciousness, if we can call it that, is a relatively new phenomenon. In a Facebook entry earlier this week, Huang opened up on the subject with two photos of herself and an accompanying text. The first photo showed a young woman with immaculate makeup and nails, her longish hair done with evident care. Her features are soft, and she is smiling. Just like any other regular girl which one encounters on the streets, in the MRT, or at the shopping mall.

The second picture shows a markedly different person. Gone is the softness. Her hair is cut short, and the makeup is gone, and she is wearing a simple T-shirt.

I used to be one of those girls who obsessed about my image, who spent a lot of time, energy and money on makeup and other superficial things, she writes (I am paraphrasing). She continues: Since I became involved in social issues and started paying attention to questions of justice, I feel that I have become alive, that I am, at long last, a person.

What cause for rejoicing! What rebirth!

Yes. Politics, a sense of justice, this is what makes us alive, what distinguishes citizens from the countless masses who obsess mindlessly about money and other material gains. Nations aren’t built by consumers; countries aren’t made of stock markets, bank accounts, fast cars, jewelry, nail polish, fancy purses, smart phones, expensive restaurants, or any of the other icons of materialism that so often pass off, by accumulation, as living. What Hung, along with the many others who have engaged in activism in the past year, has experienced is a graduation from the perfect law-abiding citizen that people at the top count on to stay in power, into a full-fledged human being who wants more from life, who is animated by a desire to shape her world, and who will defy the status quo system that would rather keep her and everybody around her bottled up as consuming mindless automatons.

It must be said, politics, dreams, idealism and thinking are all highly inconvenient to forces that are bent on maintaining the system as it is, which is little more than a mechanism by which the already rich continue to enrich themselves (pressures that, I should add, play directly into unificationist dynamics), while the middle class and the poor — along with Taiwan’s youth, which looks to the future with not unjustified apprehension — crawl on. Many people accept this reality as a fact of life, a law of Nature even, and will cruise through their entire lives without ever being truly alive.

For people like Huang who have had their awakening, however, there is no going back, unless one is willing to shed one’s self. It is they, not the architects, investors, bankers, who are the world builders, who infuse nations with ideas, ideals and mores that animate and distinguish nations. Let us hope, for Taiwan’s sake, that others, many others, experience the same epiphany. (Photos by the author)

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