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.

Dear Salty,

I have been dating a Taiwanese woman for a couple years. Things are heading toward marriage, but…

One surprise since starting TheSaltyEgg is I’ve become something of a Dear Abby for the lovelorn journeying down the Taiwanese marriage rabbit hole. I receive semi-regular mail seeking relationship advice once they’ve crashed on the rocky shoals of the Taiwanese family, more from international readers than expats who can just bounce advice and beer around on a night out. [See: Hot-Crazy-Taiwanese Matrix]. These emails come from men, women, Asians, non-Asians, and foreign born Chinese. [I know. I’m surprised too]. Marrying Taiwanese, still receives multiple daily hits five-ish years after posting. Since marriage articles seem appreciated, enjoy.

This is based on mine and acquaintences’ personal experiences. Don’t get your boxer briefs in a wad if your experience is different. I’m working from a small sample. Still, I know tens of expat-Taiwanese couples and there are some consistencies.

The article is from a foreign male/Taiwanese female perspective. Taiwanese men have their own cultural and family expectations to live up to, particularly eldest sons. There’s a strong expectation they’ll marry a Taiwanese girl and start cranking out Taiwanese boys to keep the 陳 name alive. Daughters have an inherently greater ability to break these familial/social norms, since traditionally once married they’re out of the family anyway, partially explaining the relative rarity of foreign woman/Taiwanese man marriages. It’s like seeing a pube on a millennial—sure it happens, but it gives you pause, and makes you think. If you’re not a foreign male/Taiwanese female couple, glean what you can, but your mileage may vary. Apologies for my manocentric viewpoint, the world needs a female me [sassy and sexy] to record the womancentric expat experience.

Of the interracial couples I know in Taiwan, I can only think of a couple where the Taiwanese woman comes from a healthy happy family. Traditional Taiwanese prejudices against intermarriage and the intrinsic engagement hurdles prevent most Taiwanese, that have an opportunity, from trying. It’s a difficult path. Women who wed foreigners seem to come in four models: crazy; eccentric; in an an unhealthy daddy-daughter relationship; or from a dysfunctional family.

Bonkers is bonkers, nothing much to say. Crazy is less bound by social norms. Does a soup sandwich care what other sammies think of it? I think not.  So, intermarriage is OK; and as a bonus, unsuspecting foreigners are less likely to sniff out the problems. This is a small minority of intercultural marriages.

Some people are just eccentric and don’t much notice normative behavior. It’s relatively simple for them to love and marry a foreigner. Why not?

The last two models are the most common and difficult to navigate. There are lots of daddy issues floating around Taiwan. I blame Confucius. [More on that in subsequent articles]. The issue seems a bit age-specific, with younger dads being less patriarchal and more relatable for daughters. For many Taiwanese women past their mid-thirty there are issues. The patriarchy hasn’t been kind.

Logically, some of these women seek a man different from Dear Ol’ Dad—what’s more different from a Confucius-loving, honor and tradition addicted, pater than a foreigner? This category has been good to many foreign men, creating opportunities to marry above themselves. Despite the effort, many of these women marry a different skin-toned version of their father anyway: different culture, same personality.

Next are women from dysfunctional families. I’m talking about “normal” dysfunction you might expect anywhere—I still blame Confucius—but that’s my bias. If the family is unstable, the familial bonds of kinship and duty might be looser, and the woman more able to withstand family pressure.

One feature of getting engaged in Taiwan is that it’s a family affair, with both families sniffing each other‘s arses. A well-known Chinese saying is you marry the family, not the person. The exact opposite of what we say. Both side’s families check each other out, looking for red flags, checking their compatibility, and as a side-thought, maybe the children’s compatibility. 門當戶對 (homogamy) is desired. [See: Don’t Marry a Foreigner]. Many foreigners hope that like telemarketers or genital warts, if they pretend the family isn’t there long enough they’ll just disappear. Good luck. Foreigners enter marriage negotiations as free agents lacking familial baggage, but also that sober second thought. What a Taiwanese family would run screaming from, foreigners blithely stumble into. Not necessarily bad, if her family is fucked up enough a blonde might be her only reasonable option. It’s pure symbiosis, both sides have a chance to marry up. Win-win.

If the intercultural marriage is going to happen, the Taiwanese partner needs to fight family, tradition, expectations, and biases. It’s asking a lot. Rebellion against the family is not the normal resting state for Taiwanese daughters. Women need to be able to stand up for the relationship or marriage won’t happen. It seems to require some level of, or combination of, craziness, eccentricity, dysfunction, or desire to flip Dad—or what he represents—the bird. [Also see: Getting Engaged in Taiwan].

Convenience Stores in Taiwan and What They Say About You

There are many things about Taiwan that might stick out in a new arrivals mind. One of the most mundane, and therefore most interesting to me, is the surfeit of convenience stores throughout the nation. In Taipei there seems to be at least one, usually more, convenience store on most blocks. Though these convenience stores may share the same name as their Western counterparts they are different. Most convenience stores in Taiwan are part restaurant, coffee shop, grocery store, snack bar, pub, bank, ticket vendor, pharmacy and post office—not just places to get pepperoni sticks and a gallon of gas.

There are four main convenience store chains in Taiwan; 7-Eleven, Family Mart, OK-Mart, and Hi-Life. There’s a correlation between convenience store choice and the expat’s level of integration into Taiwan. This is all very scientific, using only the most up-to-date social research methodology [natch], as you’d expect from TheSaltyEgg’s  journalistic endeavors.

7-Eleven is the granddaddy of convenience chain stores. It’s run by Uni-President, and is ubiquitous throughout the island. For many foreigners they just seem “to have what you need while the others don’t”. Logical considering it’s a giant multinational administered by one of Taiwan’s biggest food companies. Their supply chain connects to America in a way that outstrips the others. 7-Eleven is the most likely to have the Western snack you desire, including—for one glorious and still remarked upon summer—salt and vinegar chips. FOB and not yet comfortable with salted duck egg flavored goodies? This is the place for you. I lived out of a 7-Eleven my first two years. It’s great when you just want cheezies and a tampon without having a “cultural experience”.

Family Mart is the next largest chain in Taiwan. It is a Japanese based company and more likely to have products from around Asia. Family Mart appeals more to the longer in the tooth expat who’s developed a taste for Asian snacks. They have a wide range of Japanese snacks like dried wasabi green peas, Hokkaido ice cream, and Japanese salty mixed rice crackers. They also have items from around Asia. This is where you go to assuage that 2:17 am craving for Singaporean fish skin crisps [actually pretty awesome] or Korean roasted seaweed snacks.

Things begin getting a little more Taiwanesey with OK Mart. It is part of the Canadian-based Circle K group of stores, still OK Mart has less international selection. For salty snacks you have the omnipresent Cheetos and Kyushu Seaweed Lay’s potato chips, or other Asian flavors. If you’re craving dried instant noodle snacks, they have a wide selection of this Taiwanese answer to the potato chip. If OK Mart is your bodega of choice, you’re on the road to acclimatization, next stop…

Hi-Life, a Taiwanese-run convenience store chain, with less international feel than the others. My local Hi-Life doesn’t even stock Coke products, but they have a pretty solid selection of grass jelly teas, red bean and taro ice cream bars, and 乖乖 (a tasteless puffed corn treat, like Cheez Doodles without the cheez). If Hi-Life can assuage your cravings—congratulations you’re Taiwanese.

However, the journey is not complete until you find yourself shuffling down the alley to the local mom-and-pop corner store in your betel nut stained wife-beater, nylon shorts, and blue rubber flip-flops, carrying an armload of empty 米酒 (Taiwanese rice cooking wine) bottles to exchange for a fresh bottle and some Longlife cigarettes. Then, and only then, will you be a 台客 (Taiwanese good ol’ boy), my son.

Vignette #26: A Little Sinophobia

I’ve recently been talking about the Taiwanese older generation’s attitude towards the wave of Chinese that hit Taiwan in the post-war period [see: Japan’s the Best]. Taiwanese sinophobia—in a roundabout way—has benefited me.

There were many obstacles along the path to marrying Venus [see: Marrying Taiwanese]. Hard as it may to imagine, I wasn’t entirely what the family had in mind. Contrary to expectation, the problem wasn’t a worry Venus was hitting above her weight class, striving for the stars when the moon would have been ample. No. They thought I wasn’t good enough!

Concerns ran the gamut. Will he be able to take care of our girl, is he functional in Taiwanese society. [As balls on a dildo]. That I was too fat. [Plain hurtful. Sure when I lay on my side my stomach lies beside me—but it’s beguiling]. That I was too old, they thought me older than I was. That I might not be the sharpest doorknob in the toolshed. [I’m not the type you’d call smart, nor stupid—I’m the type you’d think owns a terrarium]. Would I be true. [Their whole he’s fat-and-old-thing wasn’t a consideration]. Will he be caring and affectionate. [Like Super Dave Osbourne petting a kitten].

I found an unexpected ally in Venus’s ninety-something grandmother. Venus‘s mother said in her time parents, including her’s, swore they’d beat their daughters brutally, chop off their legs and to feed the pigs, rather than allowing her to wed a waishengren (外省人). [Chiayi strong]. My mother-in-law noted those who’d married Chinese immigrants, on average, had better marriages and lives, and maybe the current wave of foreigners in Taiwan would work the same way. Grandma’s sole comment on our marriage was that at least I’m not a waishengren.

Thanks grandma.

Japan’s the Best: A Taiwanese View of Japan

Taiwan is probably the only country colonized by the Japanese to look back on the experience with fondness. Other Asian countries, on the receiving end of Japan’s twentieth century expansionism, have raised Japan-hating to an art form.

Korea has dealt with Japanese aggression for longer than any other country, starting from Japan’s invasions of 1592 and 1597 which devastated Korea’s civilian population, military, technological capabilities and cultural artifacts. Japan succeeded in subjugating Korea in 1910. Koreans still hold a grudge.

China was forced to make concessions to Japan after the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). So feelings were already a bit tetchy—we know how easy it is to “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”—when the Second Sino-Japanese War rolled around (1937-1945). The assorted atrocities and humiliations China endured did nothing to soften perceptions of Japan.

Since 1592 Japan intermittently sought to extend its control to include Taiwan. Their goal was realized with the Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895) after the First Sino-Japanese War, when Taiwan was ceded to Japan. Though it still took a Japanese invasion to quell resistance in Taiwan.

All these countries have a pretty similar history with Japan and it has engendered the expected animus among Koreans and Chinese, only the Taiwanese openly flirt with Japanaiserie, and exhibit nostalgic feelings for the Japanese times. On the surface Taiwan’s reaction seems to make as much sense as cellulite on a skinny woman, but there’s more to the surface than meets the eye.

Partially it’s a tribute to how horrible  the Chinese were as an occupying force that Japanese rule glowed in comparison. The Chinese arrival in 1945 ushered in a period of government (Kuomintang) corruption and repression. Even after the worst of the post-war venality ended, Chinese rule didn’t contribute much to Taiwanese society. They were like hungry locusts, trying to take from Taiwan as much as possible for the eventual recapture of the motherland. Most of what Taiwan had, in terms of infrastructure , roads, bridges, rail, public buildings, etc., came from the Japanese. The Chinese only grudgingly began to build things in Taiwan in the 1970s.

Japan was the font of culture during imperial times and that didn’t change in many Taiwanese minds after the Chinese came. Japan has a seductive culture of its own, in addition Japan was the intermediary between Western civilization and Asia—Japan westernized much of Asia. Notice anything familiar about Taiwanese public buildings from the Japanese period? Japanese culture continues to have an outsized influence on both Taiwanese high and pop culture.

Wai sheng ren (外省人) and ben sheng ren (本省人) [see:The Neighbors Suck] perceptions and experiences of Japan differed greatly. The Chinese arrived in Taiwan straight from a protracted war with Japan. A war not noted for its warm and fuzzy moments. It was an article of faith that the Japanese must be despised. Look what they had done to China. The Taiwanese, however, had for fifty years been a nominal part of Japan, including during WWII. Many Taiwanese fought in the Japanese army. Taiwan endured Allied bombings.

As an example of how this might cause awkwardness, Kuomintang (KMT) memorials and remembrance services are for their war dead. The Taiwanese were on the other side, but in their own country have no way to memorialize their war dead. Former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) caused a stink when he visited Japan’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine (靖國神社) where his brother, who died in the Japanese navy, is enshrined. A slap in the face to some wai sheng ren and pretty reasonable for many ben sheng ren. Lee Tung-hui has been criticized as a Japan-lover by the Chinese government and some wai sheng ren, but it’s more like he was a Taiwanese of that period.

The upshot is the Taiwanese have a surprisingly positive view of Japan despite having been colonized. It’s just another thing that makes them unique.

When I first came to Taiwan I laughed at people’s fascination with all things Japanese. I used to ask my students if they could travel anywhere where would they go. The most common answer was Japan. It’s like me—a Saskatchewan boy—declaring that if I could go anywhere at all the first place I’d go is Bismarck, North Dakota.

Then I found myself adopting the Taiwanese love of all things Japanese. I recognized it during a joint Japanese-Taiwanese architectural exhibit. I was looking at photographs of a piece of architecture, that I assumed was Taiwanese, and thinking it a small, uninspired simple little box. Then my wife told me it was by a Japanese architect and my internal monologue changed instantly to: Ahh yes, the simplicity, the tasteful minimalism, the subtle interplay of shade and light; it’s truly an elegant example of the Japanese aesthetic. [Pretentious douche].

Taiwan’s relationship with Japan, and Japanese culture, confuses much of the rest of Asia, but gives insights into Taiwan’s unique experiences with being an occupied nation.

Shit Ain’t Shit Till You Learn Some Shit About Shit

What is the most commonly used English word in Taiwan? If you guessed “shit”, you’d be correct.

It’s a personal bugaboo. I get why people like swearing in a foreign language. It’s fun. It speaks to the soul. In a practical sense it can be a great entrée into the language. Personally, I get pure joy from cursing in Taiwanese. [Cursing in Chinese doesn’t have quite the same panache]. In my mind it makes me seem very street, if the street is 秀朗路。I undoubtedly look like an English-speaker, who possibly could curse in Chinese [what’s street about that?], using Taiwanese in an ultimately ridiculous attempt to gain cred, to the sotto voce amusement of all. None of this detracts from my exhilaration.

I get it.

But, as an English teacher it assaults my sense of the language to hear shit being poorly used. Taiwanese usually use it as an expletive, which is at least a correct usage, but they do it with the wrong feeling. They usually say the word like she-TTTUUUUHHHH, ending with a prolonged and stressed “tuh”. It makes them sound—if not dumb—then like amateurs. Other than as an expletive, it is most commonly used to call someone “a shit guy”, which in English has no meaning. Most would assume they mean shitty guy, someone who is bad or immoral. Instead it refers to someone  who never catches a break or attracts bad luck.

It’s amazing the Taiwanese manage to find incorrect usages for shit, since it has such multitudinous uses. You can exclaim shit or shit on a stick. I’ve been shit-faced, shit on, and shit over, but never given a shit. You can take a shit, have a shit, work for shit, or work for a shit, but best not be a shit, though it’s good to be the shit. You can get your shit together, or leave shit everywhere; work for shit, do shit work, or do shit all. Shit can be real, or a lying sack. You can shit the bed, or the sheets, shit a brick, shit disturb, but don’t shit on your own doorstep or where you eat. It’s possible to know jack shit, ratshit, or go apeshit, but still be kingshit, a dipshit, or a dumbshit. You can have it on a shingle or a burger, in a sack, or through the eye of a needle. Never try to shit a shitter when shit happens. I have a shit-eating grin just writing this, but I’m no shit-eater. I know what you’re thinking—what a shithead.

I have spent most of my adult work-life teaching English in Taiwan. That is to say I’ve spent my life pissing into the wind, but my greatest career failure has been allowing the most commonly used English word in Taiwan to be used so poorly. Shit is clearly grandiloquent, but my students deliver it with neither grammatical—nor stylistic—correctness.

It makes me sad. I’m a professional and give a shit. No shit!