A Guided Tour

The Salty Egg is getting a bit large and unwieldy. [That’s what she said]. Please feel free to surf around the back catalog—they’re all diamonds. If the serendipitous approach doesn’t appeal, here are a few starting points.

It was a surprise to me, but my most popular post by a very wide margin is Don’t Marry a Foreigner. One of my earliest posts, Marrying Taiwanese, is a perennial favorite, garnering daily views. It is unsurprising that intercultural dating/marriage are popular topics among my expat readers, but there are a few articles on the subject that are less widely trafficked: The Hot-Crazy-Taiwanese Matrix and Taiwan’s Marriage Market.

If you’re more of a tourist than a resident of Taiwan, you could try Snakes & Whores, or some of my food writing; The Taiwanese Hamburger, Oyster Omelette, or Oyster Vermicelli. One of my favorite food articles is actually Gross-Out Porn for the Armchair Traveler.

But, I’m not a very serious guy, and tend to like the lighter things. Three of my favorite pieces have no deeper meaning than a chuckle; Sperm Donation and the White Guy, Harmonicas and Public Humiliation, and Are You Gay? A very fun, if off-topic, read is Profound Musings. Check it out.

For those times when you’re not feeling quite so irreverent, try my articles on cultural linguistics. There’s quite a few, but the starting point is The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock and A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places.

Or, if you’re just looking for information on intercultural interaction and culture shock, try these; Guanxi, Humor’s Intercultural Perils, Taiwan’s Social Hierarchy, and Symbolic, Parabolic, Metaphorical,  Allegorical,... The entire blog’s theme is culture shock, so just surf around. There are lots of good things to find.

I’ve found the Internet enjoys nothing more than to be morally indignant. If being outraged floats your boat (no judgement) try: The Whiny Women of Taiwan, Humor’s Intercultural Perils, White Privilege in Asia, and The Problem with Asian Christians. Each has created a kerfuffle in its own way. The article that’s caused the most copious outpouring of cyber-acrimony is The Hot-Pot Conundrum Explained. It’s about soup.

Vignette #28: Channel Z

Netflix changed my life. Never before, in my expat life, has the mind-numbing been so close at hand. I’ve been in Asia since long before streaming, even before the Internet and downloading, when finding passive English entertainment bordered on the impossible.

My Chinese wasn’t good enough for Taiwanese TV, and it didn’t look appealing anyway. You could buy a little cylinder that attached to the back of your TV and would unscramble one of the soft porn channels. [Mayor Chen Shui-bian ruined that for everyone]. Otherwise, there wasn’t much.

However, there was one oasis of mindless entertainment: Channel Z. It was a Japanese cable channel, now defunct, that used to be viewable on Taiwanese cable. Channel Z was responsible for some of my most memorable television moments.

All the news, morning, cooking, and talk shows were co-hosted by hot, partially dressed, young Japanese women. They provided jiggle interest, and seemed as sweet as toffee and twice as smart. I was entranced by the shiny hair and boob-shaped boobs. Simple. Elegant. A winning concept.

I personally enjoyed the cooking shows. They were cohosted by naked hotties, wearing but an apron, exposing ass and a tantalizing bit of side-boob. The shows inevitably involved the male host [Benny Hill San] having his cohosts bending to get ingredients, reaching for or running up ladders to fetch things, while he contrived to look up the apron. They don’t write ‘em like that anymore. Needless to say, I’m practically an itamae (qualified Japanese chef).

The best TV I’ve ever seen happened when an all-girls Canadian rock band was touring Japan and had an interview on a Channel Z talk show. The hosts had surprisingly good English, and asked unexpectedly pertinent questions. However, most of the video was of the other cameramen trying to get upskirt shots. Channel Z must have asked the women to wear skirts: thinkers-and-planners. Pity the Canadian publicist that arranged it, Channel Z was a legitimate well-rated Japanese station. Z’s upskirtiness was undoubtedly a surprise.

The band was graceful. The lead singer and band spokesperson artfully squirmed away from the action cameraman, on elbows and knees in front of her, and in a voice that belied nothing promoted their next concert. When asked about their experiences in Japan—in an all-cultures-are-valid Canadian sort of tone—replied, “There certainly seem to be some cultural differences between Canada and Japan”. Surreal. The band was pretty stoic, except the bassist, who seemed to catch on early, and was pissing herself laughing, while playfully fending off the cameras.

Now that’s entertainment!

More Expat Archetypes

The article is a continuation of Expat Archetypes. It would be best to perused it before reading Part II below.

The Phile: Many sojourns begin from cultural fascination; Philes arrive with a genuine desire to learn. Sinophiles to Francophiles, the [theoretically] beloved culture draws many to try living in the culture first-hand. Philes have existed since Marco Polo—they’re as classic as an unshaven bush.

There are many species in the genus, each with a particular passion, but as a group they’re harmless, if dull. You have to love their enthusiasm, even if not what they’re saying, or the fact they interrupt every conversation to say it. Arcane points are their stock-in-trade, and have their place, but if I just want to enjoy a beer, do I really need to hear—again—about the role Ma Xinyi’s assassination played in the Taiping Revolution, and why that’s been important for the development of neon signage in Asia?!?

Characteristics: When young their overwrought enthusiasm for the culture annoys: when older, their bitter disappointment borne of having lived in the culture annoys equally. The Phile can be found on the periphery of any expat gathering pontificating on facts best left unpontificated. You know that dull buzzing in your ear when out for a beer? That’s the Phile.

Subset: The Wannabe is a subspecies of expat that ranges the world, trying to be what they’re not—a member of another race, culture, or country. I’ll talk specifically about The Asian Wannabe, because I have daily contact. Found throughout Asia, particularly on the Indian subcontinent, and in China and Japan. They are distinguishable by their attempts to become Asian. A surprising number of whities arrive expecting to become Asian. Deluded. I suppose the idea comes from expectations developed growing up in more inclusive societies. There is no equivalent to Taiwanese-American or Chinese-Canadian here. The Wannabe exists wherever there are expats.

Characteristics: Easily recognizable as the blonde head towering above all the black-hairs, in traditional hanbok, kimono, kung fu jacket, etc. The mimicry is concurrently genuinely stupid and sweet.

The ESLoser: The frequently maligned and much joked about English as a Second Language instructor is the backbone of most English-speaking working expat communities. (Retirement communities abroad are different). ESLosers are the lumpenproleteriat that holds the whole thing together. Despite getting that Quaker-in-a-titty-bar face when discussing ESLosers, most other expats would find their goods or services out of demand without them. I am many of these archetypes to varying degrees, but foremost I’m an ESLoser, so it is a bit hard to be objective. That provisio out of the way, I’m now going to cut on them.

ESLoser are a diverse group. From high-energy youthful and enthusiastic children’s teachers to jade old alcoholics funding a passion for lechery by doing the minimum as infrequently as possible. The ESLoser is ubiquitous and undefinable. They share similarities with the Burner [see: Part I]. Many ended up where they are by virtue of poor planning, circumstance, and shit-that-happens happening. For the older generation that would describe almost all ESLosers [see: Where Have All the Idiots Gone], but now there is such a thing as a professional ESL teacher. Ugh.

Characteristics: They can be found on practically any corner trying to sell something any English-speaker could do, hustling to survive with little going for them but the host country’s perception of need. They have a devil-may-care joie de vivre that is the envy of other archetypes.

The Teach was initially going to be included with the ESLosers, but ESLosers are the cool kids—The Teach most definitely is not. They have limited redeeming qualities, and a boundless capacity to annoy.

In an effort to distinguish themselves from the “lesser” ESLoser, The Teach engages in self-conscious preening and peacocking, involving the wearing of business attire while ardently and conspicuously discussing such weighty matters as differentiated versus an onset-rime segmentation approach to biliteracy and cognate recognition for acquisition of domain-specific emergant-litera… yada, yada, yada,… bullshit, bullshit, bullshit,….

Characteristics: Can be found in meetings, seminars, conferences, and breakout session vocalizing, in the characteristic dull drone of The Teach, on the power of the Lau Remedies and morphophonology, like they have a dictionary—pardon me, an appendix of lexical terminology—stuck up their ass. The purpose of this overt displaying is to be thought of as…

The Expert: Someone, somewhere, somehow, has made the—frequently dubious—decision that this person is an expert on something, and that their unique skill set is needed in the host country. Despite being “experts” brought over for their wonkish, usually technical knowledge, many of these people are rip-roaring fun. They have a disproportionately high income for the local economy and they’re on a Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure type experience. They have a shelf life, and soon will be back home trudging through their normal 9-to-5, so they have an insatiable need for experiences. Chemical and civil engineers, shipping specialists, and environmental managers all great fun, despite the humdrum job descriptions.

Characteristics: Physically they are obvious engineers [you know what I’m saying]. They have an almost manic need to see it all and do it all as quickly as possible, they’ve a bit of a nymphomaniac-on-death-row feel to them.

The Mooch: Here you have your business executives, diplomats, financial experts, et al. They’re overseas on that most prized of possessions—the expat contract: “Money for nothin’, and your chicks for free…”

 

The best paid and most useless of expats—neither local experts, nor suitably equipped to manage local staff—essentially they’re high-priced interns, or tourists on an expense account. As soon as they know enough to be useful they’re sent on to another country to continue suckling at the corporate/government tit. They have a psycophant-induced hyper-inflated sense of self-worth. For them the world is debutante balls and Dilly Bars, while their local secretary does the work—who else? Producers of nothing, takers of everything; every self-respecting expat dreams of sinking to their exalted heights.

 Characteristics: The Mooch can be seen getting driven here-and-there, asking their assistants to perform simple chores, being coddled, and just generally exhibiting a two-year old’s cross-cultural sensitivity and abilities.

There’ll be another part when I get around to writing it.

The Foreigner Card

If you’ve traveled internationally you’ll have noticed there’s a sort of get out of jail free card for foreigners. It is a kind of social contract where the host region accepts that you, as a foreign guest, don’t know what you’re doing. A foreigner’s card gives the holder the right to screw up the basics of life; get continually lost, ask stupid questions, and just generally act like a one-inch dildo—in the place, but useless there.

I first encountered the concept of a foreigner card in a James A. Michener essay. It expressed in writing something I had felt and used, but never articulated. A foreigner’s license is a necessity for travel. If you were held to account every time you fucked up, international travel would be miserable. Things are usually a little more loosey-goosey for foreigners. People need a little leeway to make it through.

Most understand and freely give dispensations to travelers. The amount of indulgence is a bit dependent on locale. A foreigner’s license in Paris is worth little more than an extremely fine French leather shoe up the ass. In some locations it will get you ripped off. Traveler beware. But, in Taiwan it is golden.

It had even greater importance before the Internet increased the comfort and safety of travelers. You couldn’t arrive in a country with most your bookings in hand, a better sense of where to eat than a local, or any real idea of the lay of the land. Guide books were better for getting excited about—rather than getting through—your travels. Today’s level of research and preparation wasn’t possible.

Translation software now makes reading local signage possible. You can even have a bit of a conversation with a patient local. Google Maps and GPS on your phone prevent getting too lost; or your phone will at least produce an address, in the local language, to show a taxi driver. No longer does the woebegotten traveltard need to tap on someone’s shoulder seeking help.

Not having to depend so heavily on the kindness of strangers is a significant improvement for travelers, but it does come at a cost. Asking for help on the street—foreigner’s card in hand—was a great way to meet people and interact with locals. I still have a good friendship that began by asking directions and has lasted a quarter century. If I remember right I may have asked for directions while not lost. She was hot. [Still counts].

Despite technological advances, the foreigner card is still a travel necessity. Things are almost guaranteed to get fucked up beyond technology’s ability to repair. The card is still an overall positive as regards travelers, but for expats, it invites abuse. It is pretty common for expats to use their foreignness to advantage; to purposely screw the rules, get around annoyances, or otherwise skirt societal norms. It’s no bueno to seek social acceptance on one hand, and benefit by up-playing your foreignness on the other.

There’s no shortage of examples from my life. A personal favorite comes from a friend who during Taipei’s hot summers liked to bicycle to a high-end apartment complex, and despite not belonging, whistle past the security guards with a wave and a smile. Once inside he’d head to the outdoor pool complex to cool-off and lounge about.  All it took were balls, a soupçon of impertinence, and a foreigner’s license. He relied on people being too intimidated to speak up, or assuming he belonged. I have lots of examples and have been guilty as well.

In the hands of a traveler the foreigner’s license is necessary, helpful, and should exist. In the hands of an expat it can become abusive, allowing an escape from the hard work of integrating. Most foreigners I know who’ve lived here have occasionally reaped the foreigner card’s benefits. It’s hard to think of an aspect of [white] expat life in Asia that is not, at least somewhat, colored by special privilege. [See: White Privilege in Asia].

Where, Oh Where, Might the Prostitutes Be?

Where to find a prostitute? Mostly online.

But, it hasn’t always been that way. You used to find them behind railway stations. Throughout Asia, if you look behind the railway station, assuming it is not a new station, you can find the remnants of that bygone era. The topic suggested itself while having a coffee behind Taichung’s railway station. It is being rejuvenated, but carries the scars of its former life, whorehouses-cum-B&Bs dot the area with their weird and limited charm.

Red-light districts were there so travelers could arrive and easily find comfort and relaxation. This is not unique to Asia, it went on in the prairies, where I come from. But, it had disappeared long before I was born. Here in Asia, it was still a vibrant part of city life when I arrived.

If you consider the placement of Taiwan’s remaining red-light district, and relate them to the old railway stations, you’ll find that there’s still some correspondence. Ever wonder why Wanhua’s whorehouses are where they are? They’re around what was once the old Japanese railway station, Bangkah Station (艋舺停車場). The city ages and changes, but the girls stay the same.

These areas were lively affairs, without much stigmatization. My clearest memories come from my time in Korea. Yeosu (여수시), where I lived three decades ago, was a bit of a backwater. It had some charm, but basically was the Korean version of Eufaula, Alabama, with an ocean. Despite being a small sleepy city with little in the way of nightlife, the back of the train station was an amazing hive of vibrant, bouncy, juttering, and bustling activity after sundown. It shocked this young naive prairie boy. It’s hard to understand how such a sleepy burg sustained that level of commerce, but I guess there’s more to the surface than meets the eye. That area of Yeosu is so imprinted in my memory that even now the smell of sweaty tits and bad decisions makes me think of Korea.

When I first came to Taiwan it was the same. It’s a little hard to describe how blasé whoring was. Just a natural part of going out:

“What should we do tonight?”
“I don’t know. What do you feel like?”
“Movie?”
“Ahh. I don’t know. I don’t think there’s anything very good playing.”
“Beer?”
“Hmmm. I’m still a little hungover from last night. I don’t think so.”
“Blowjob?”
“Mmm. Yeah. That might be OK. A bill clinton would hit the spot about now.”
“Alright, fluffernutters it is. Let’s go.”

It constantly blew me away to see pals wandering around the red-light districts like a group of friends in Canada making their way to the next bar. It was just so natural and unweird—nothing furtive about it.

The Victorian era is still screwing with Western attitudes towards sex: it’s hard to grow out of the morality you’re born into. The scenes I’ve seen played out across Asia’s red-light districts are different than Canada, where plenty of shame is attached to commercial sex. It’s really hard to imagine a group of friends nonchalantly whoring around there. They’d definitely be perceived as greasy social retards, the kind to get their genitals caught in their fly when talking to a real live woman. Also, Western individualism and can-do attitude makes it feel gratuitous to pay for sex when with ingenuity and bravery anything can be a vagina.

The stigmatization of prostitution has grown in Taiwan, but it is still less defamed than in North America. Businessmen still make it to the KTV. Some massage parlors offering proper massages. A handful of blowjob bars exist in Taipei. But, it does feel like this aspect of life in Taiwan is on the wane.

Partially it has just moved online, and that is inherently less social. Also, the status of women has changed. You can’t just bang a good girl, but you can ride a strong independent woman like the tilt-a-whirl in a two-bit traveling carnival. [Just one of the many reasons I’m an ardent feminist]. Now that there are more strong modern women in Asia, it’s natural to think if you really apply yourself, you should be able to get it free, so paying begins to speak poorly of one’s interpersonal skills. Nobody wants to seem like that geek with his crank stuck in his pants.

Homesickness & COVID 

I am nominally Canadian, but I’ve been working abroad for a long time. I’ve lived overseas longer than in Canada. Since I’ve been gone the country’s changed, and my hometown, Saskatoon, is unrecognizable. I no longer fit in there. It is not my home.

So, imagine my surprise when I started getting homesick. Seriously. I couldn’t even identify the feeling.

I’ve dealt with homesickness before, but it’s been 30-plus years, since I was in Korea, a super shitty experience. It is not surprising that when I lived there I suffered homesickness.

The feeling culminated at Christmas when I began having visions of a former crush. A young woman I’d—unintentionally—tormented with my affections, which were expressed in true dork fashion. I had the suave and sophisticated smoothness of 220 grit sandpaper. Suffice it to say our interactions were fraught with awkwardness [my part] and animus [her part].

When I was in Korea, that “relationship” was long past. I hadn’t thought about her for years, but as Christmas approached, I kept waking in the night to see a vision of her in my bedroom doorway. Every night. Finally, one night I woke up, frustrated, and asked what she wanted. She said she wanted forgiveness, and I gave it, as everything had been my fault anyway. After that I never saw her again.

I chalked it up to Christmas-induced psy-homesickness-chosis. I was living alone—totally alone—in a fishing village. There were few people willing to interact with me outside the student-teacher paradigm. Homesickness was natural.

When I returned to Canada, I learned she’d died around that time. Either I’d seen a ghost, had a premonition, psychotic break, or a spectacularly weird reaction to homesickness. My students love it when I tell it as a ghost story, but I’m pretty it was just overarching homesickness.

Of course that was back when mullets and tramp stamps were cool. Now expats can avail themselves of the Internet and video conferencing. You would think that’d kill homesickness, and for me it did—until COVID.

COVID in Taiwan has brought those feelings of homesickness to the forefront again. I’m not entirely sure why, probably it’s a combination of being unable to travel, interacting with friends and family through video conferencing, which is great, but also underlines the distances. It makes you painfully aware you’re missing out on your loved one’s lives. You can see them changing and you’re not there. I’ve watched my parents age via video. Maintaining relationships with online conferencing creates a feeling of closeness, and paradoxically, a feeling remoteness. I experience changes happening in the live’s of my family as a TV program.

Normally it doesn’t bother me. Pre-COVID I had the ability to travel to see family. The video conferences were just a nice way to maintain contact between trips. I have enjoyed video conferencing Christmas for years. The difference, I think, is I always felt if I really needed to, I could get home. COVID has brought that into doubt. In an emergency, could I get home in time for my presence to be meaningful? I’ve watched a few of my international students not be able to get home in time for the funeral of a parent.

COVID sucks. The feelings of distance and separation it creates are real. For the first time in decades I’m yearning for home.