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.

Starvation Culture in Taiwan

I had a Chinese history professor who used to say  Western culture is sin culture, while Chinese culture is starvation culture. As a student should—I’d nod sagely—pretend to understand the implications, and carry-on with my day. Even living in Taiwan was not quite enough to really understand how food underpins Chinese culture. I understood some things; but I never totally got it until I started living with a Taiwanese family.

Famine has hit parts of China near annually since written records began. The last widespread famine—the Great Famine in the aftermath of the Great Leap—happened around sixty years ago. Hunger is not an artifact of some distant place or time, but a painful shared memory. Even today, with the flooding, there are credible concerns of famine. Uncertainty over food assures it’s uppermost in people’s thoughts and a central social concern.

The obsession with food is immediately noticeable in Chinese language. Now it is pretty common for people to greet each other with 你好嗎 (how are you), but this is an import from European languages. A more orthodox Chinese greeting is 你吃飽了沒 (have you eaten). Asking about food, or your state of hunger, is the traditional way of greeting someone and starting a conversation. The whole hi-how-are-you-I’m-fine-thank-you-and-you conversation  is a piece of  modernity, conventionally in Chinese,  upon meeting you’d express concern over the person’s stomach.

I believe ethnically Chinese people generally spend more time fantasizing and talking about food. It seems more central to daily thinking than in the West. The quantity of conversations where people wax lyrical about a previous meal, or verbalize anticipation of the next meal is amazing. A twenty-first century expression of starvation culture is the Asian habit of producing in-depth photo essays of meals. Will future-you really want to see past-you’s Three Cup Chicken? The first time I traveled to Taiwan I enquired at a banquet about table manners and was told almost anything goes. No niggling little rules should slow or inhibit the full-throated enjoyment of a meal. The Taiwanese are the desperately horny teenage boys of  food and cuisine. These conversations happen among Westerners, but don’t hold the same rabid fascination.

One place these differences become obvious is when comparing Taiwanese and Western social gatherings. In the West, drinks only parties are pretty common. “Come on over for a few”. There is no such thing as a food-free party here. My wife and I host many get-togethers. Recently, for the first time, I hosted a soirée for some foreign friends and provided only light store-bought snacks. That simply isn’t done. My wife kept trying to cook. Usually we cook for a day or two before a party. I wouldn’t let her, knowing my friends would be happy with a couple forties. As I was laying out the “spread” she kept saying, “this is so weird, this is so weird, this is so weird,” and avoided the party. My friends, long-termers with some Taiwanese thinking, understood that type of party and it was successful, with much less muss, fuss, stress, and cooking.

With food being so central to Chinese culture it is not surprising that it’s an expression of love and affection. There is an endless circle of rotating food underpinning Taiwanese life. We buy groceries for ourselves, and then proportion some out to the in-laws. They in turn send us foodstuffs. Thus ensuring each household has food they never wanted and now have to use. That’s love. Does it give a familial feeling of warmth and nurturing? Sure. Is it annoying? Damn straight. Food needs to constantly be schlepped back and forth. The circle of food-giving, and the creation of that close-knit feeling, sometimes extends to close friends.

Food is a sign of affection. When dating if you go for dinner and your date gently places a choice morsel in your bowl with their chopsticks that’s a good sign. I’m not saying you’re getting lucky, but you’re in the right ZIP Code. It’s an expression of caring. If you’re invited to eat with a Taiwanese friend’s family often your friend will slip a bite of food into your bowl, not serving you, but sharing. I wouldn’t read too much into it, but they’re acknowledging you as some type of friend to their family. If you’re feeling like a cultural explorer, try putting a little food into your friend’s bowl and watch the family’s reaction. It’s interesting stuff.

College-aged me vaguely understood, but I didn’t see the multivariate ways China’s history of starvation influenced Chinese culture.

Vignette #24: Moon Festival’s Not So Traditional Tradition

On Moon Festival I walked around my neighborhood enjoying the evening and taking in the festivities. Mostly there were large extended family groups barbecuing on the street. I’ve never gotten used to seeing people sitting on cardboard in the streetjammed between carsmerrily drinking, shouting, and cooking, while the children run amok and the bounty of grilled meats drives the street dogs crazy. [There are no militant vegans out and about during Moon Festival—you can leave your gun at home]. Despite being a picnic in the gutter, I can attest these affairs are fun and full of 熱鬧. [See: Why Are the Taiwanese So Angry?]

When I first moved to Taiwan many Taiwanese told me that the family barbecue was a Moon Festival tradition. I naturally assumed it was some ancient Chinese shit. Nope. It’s the result of brilliant TV advertisements from rival soy sauce companies, 萬家香 and 金蘭. They promoted barbecuing as part of Moon Festival to push their barbecue sauce. I find this 1989 金蘭 commercial the most memorable from The Great Soy Sauce Wars. The period’s iconic catch phrase came from the other company (萬家香): 一家烤肉萬家香. (One house barbecues, the neighborhood enjoys the aroma).

I realized the family barbecue custom might be manufactured when a Taiwanese emigrant of my acquaintance visited Taiwan and was baffled by it. “What tradition? I’ve never heard of this in my life.” He actually was pretty exercised on the topic, carrying on about the deification of fads in Taiwan. At that time the practice was only maybe a decade old. The real Moon Festival convention was to sit outside, preferably away from urban centers, and gaze up at the full moon as a family—it has become collectively gazing down upon browning meat. In a testament to advertising, these companies managed to impose their will on a millennia old practice and intimately associate their products with Taiwan’s Moon Festival. Impressive.

Getting Engaged in Taiwan

My wife and I went from not knowing each other to dating, seriously dating, engaged, and married in under a year. [I’m hoping to get laid soon]. That was never my intention. I had it in the back of my mind to ask for her to hand, but the actual proposal was spur of the moment.

Venus took me for dinner to a luxurious restaurant and plied me with champagne, wine, and steak. At the end of the evening she picked up the bill. I have to admit—I came in my pants a little. After eating we went for a walk in the park. It was a beautiful evening, I was drunk, feeling romantic, and a little beholding to her—you know—for the free meal. The proposal slipped from my lips before thought kicked in. My mouth is often halfway to Kaohsiung before my brain gets out of the house. Don’t get me wrong, I knew I wanted to marry her. She’s like cheese cake, stuffed crust pizza, and cocaine poured together into a sexy blob.

I’d already soberly and rationally thought about the proposal. Still, on that night I had no intention of proposing. We hadn’t known each other long enough, but I got swept away on a tide of endorphins and gnocchi. The sky, the beautiful evening, the park, everything felt so right. So I [inadvertently] manned up. Asking someone to marry is the most baller thing I’ll likely ever do.

Immediately after proposing everything slipped from my control. Of course I have zero regrets. [I have to say these things if I want to wake up with an attached penis]. However, when I proposed, so early in our relationship, I assumed a lengthy engagement. You know, I’d introduce her as my fiancé—the future Mrs. Haughn, when there was nothing interesting to discuss we could chat about wedding dresses, walk arm-in-arm acting all betrothed,…. When that got old—in a decade or so—we’d marry. My plan.

That lasted a hot second after informing her family. There were the predictable Taiwanese familial hurdles. Everyone who ever knew anyone associated with my wife’s family felt the sudden need to opine about me specifically and foreigners generally. We heard from the neighbor of her third cousin twice removed about the dangers of the White Peril. It was ridiculous. [See: Marrying Taiwanese and Don’t Marry a Foreigner].

I’m sure feelings of helplessness are common among engaged men when the female marriage industrial complex swings into action. The minutia of a wedding has to be arranged—husbandly input is neither required nor desired. It’s not uniquely Taiwanese, it happens everywhere.

One aspect of the Taiwanese marriage industry isn’t universal. Psychics. They wield tremendous power over the ceremony, and even whether a suitor is accepted. A lot of expats can get quite indignant about the irrationality, it assaults their moral core. My attitude is fairly common among long-term expats. I was raised not to believe in psychics: I still kinda don’t. But, I’ve been here long enough that the way psychic prediction is woven into Taiwanese society does not unhinge me. Overtime I’ve become less inclined to totally dismiss psychic phenomena. [I’ve seen some shit].

When Venus told her parents of our plan to get married, calls went out across the land to psychics, astrologers, shamans, and geomancers. Come one, come all, tell us what to do about this white dude. Does he really love her, or does he have designs on our vast soda can collection? It happens to Taiwanese as well, though the urgency was greater because I’m a foreigner. There was no way for her father to go to my neighborhood and talk to family friends, neighbors, employers, and get a sense of Darren. I now understand his disquiet, I had no pedigree or guanxi. Concerns over my personality and our love created a large bump in second quarter earnings for Taiwanese psychics.

Pronouncing on character and compatibility is not all psychics do here, they also select appropriate dates and times for important family activities. My family has a Buddhist master (師父) they go to for advice about the future, exorcisms, and their general chanting needs. I don’t know how accurate he is, but his recitations are beautiful. There is an astrologer that is frequently consulted. This dude’s amazing, in unexpected ways. If memory serves, my father-in-law also consulted a shaman (乩童)  from the local temple in his hometown. Of course, my wife, likewise, consulted her own array of soothsayers.

Choosing appropriate dates and times for marriage is astrology’s purview, explaining why Taiwanese weddings sometimes happen at bizarre times. 5:30 am? Sounds great for a wedding. [Allowing you to have the reception at the Yellowtail Snapper Gentlemen’s Club breakfast buffet]. Our spiritual consultants provided appropriate dates and times for marriage, all them much sooner than I anticipated. From the list, taking into consideration other superfluous needs and wants, we chose a date (06/07/08), a couple months after our engagement. Taiwan had once again looked upon my plans and giggled.

The uncertainty when control passes to family members, the community, and psychics explains why red bombs (wedding invitations) come so shortly before the wedding. People want to ensure they’ve navigated all obstacles and will actually marry. There’s many a slip ‘twixt dick and toilet. In Taiwan you usually receive your wedding invitation one or two weeks before the ceremony. You’re expected to drop everything to attend. It’s inconvenient, but this explains that.

A Bigot Abroad?

Recently I had dinner with a longtime reader of The Salty Egg. He mentioned that one of my posts had caused a shitstorm on Twitter. I am only dimly aware of people’s reactions to my writing. When I publish a post I don’t really pay much attention to what happens after that. I don’t read the comments. (If you’ve really given me what-for in the comments,…you haven’t). I don’t track who is re-posting. As far as I’m concerned it’s out there in the ether, I’ve said my piece, and I’m onto new things. The way I notice I’ve caused a kerfuffle is when my website gets a spike in traffic. Normally I get hundreds of readers a week. If I suddenly get 10,000 readers in a couple hours after a new article, I know people are mad about something. The Internet loves to be pissed off.

Despite what it does for my traffic, I’ve never intentionally set out to annoy or anger. It usually comes as a shock when it happens. A lot of the outrage is frankly ridiculous and ignorable. Some is more weighty. The specific nexus of the Twitter storm, mentioned by my fan, was issues over what gives me the right, as a white man, to comment on Asian culture/race?

A solid question. One that I have grappled with since my historical methodology course in grad school. Do outsiders really have the right to examine and write about other people’s history? At the time I was writing about French history. My people are not French. I wasn’t even a Francophile. Was my perspective valid? Can white men write about African culture? Can men write the story of women?

This is one of those navel-gazing topics academics enjoy debating. I’m going to skip to the end, and give you the answer. Yes. If you are honest about your background, perceptions, and biases, then you will add a valid perspective. Ideally we should have lots of insider and outsider viewpoints represented. As a practical matter, it simply must be that way, otherwise commentator specificity is subdivided ad infinitum, until only a pubescent German-Dutch Jewish girl living in the Netherlands, preferably near Amsterdam, can present a valid look at Anne Frank’s life. Personally, I have always enjoyed outsider history. They see things from a differentpossibly more truthfulperspective.

Specifically related to my blog, I wish there were more outsiders writing about life in Taiwan, offering a range of different perspectives. I wish more foreign women writing about their lives in Asia. I would also like to know the experiences of Black people living here. More perspectives are better.

So that is my position on outsiders commenting on other cultures. Now here’s the part that seems to fuck with people’s heads—I am not an outsider, at least not totally. I have lived in Taiwan for decades, my entire life is in Taiwan, my family is Taiwanese, my work  is Taiwanese. I live a (culturally) Taiwanese life. I am more Taiwanese in thought and action than I am my own ethnicity of German-Ukrainian Canadian. Taiwanese society is my society. Taiwanese culture is my culture. Taiwanese family life is my family life. Trippy, right?

Interestingly, white people seem to have the biggest problem with this. The further people get from being part of Taiwanese culture the more my writing offends their sensibilities. In general, Taiwanese people, born in Taiwan, and living in Taiwan have less issueS with my writing than American-born Taiwanese living in Taiwan, who have less issues than American-born Taiwanese who’ve never lived here.  Longterm expats in Taiwan accept my writing more than white people who’ve never left their home country.

The issue seems to be that people, particularly white people, are clinging to a 1950s idea of race where races are seen as distinct, whole, homogeneous, and separate. These ideas extend to culture as well. In our globalized world it’s an anachronism. We are living in a post-racial world, not that there aren’t different races, but that the cultural signifiers differentiating races/cultures  are becoming fuzzy. A lot of people haven’t caught up to this yet.

I get complants that I’m a white man telling Taiwanese how they need to change. First, I’ve never done that. Second, am I really “a white man” in the way they mean? I am not looking outward, as a foreigner, and commenting on Taiwanese society. I am looking inward, at my own life and family, and describing that. Those people that are triggered by this have a narrow view of race and culture that is out of sync with our interconnected world. I find the criticism slightly ridiculous. I maintain that I have the right to have opinions about my life, and to write about them. Essentially people have a problem  categorizing a white person who’s lived their entire life in Asia, and become in a sense a racially non-Asian Asian. The bending of clearly defined racial/cultural subsets into something more amorphous challenges society’s assumptions of self and other.

I’d like to propose a different way of looking at this issue. I think we should be looking at the degree to which people are cultural stakeholders in a society, rather than their race, ethnicity, or birth culture. That should inform the degree to which they can meaningfully comment on a culture. If some lunatic is on a racist screed against African culture having never been there, eaten the food, had a conversation with an African person, etc. then obviously whatever they’re saying needs to be understood as not coming from a cultural stakeholder. However, if there is someone commenting on Korean culture who has lived in Korea their whole life, speaks the language, has studied the history and culture, is essentially Korean in all but skin tone, then their viewpoint needs to be understood by the degree to which they are a stakeholder in Korean culture.

Just my two cents.

These topics have been running themes. See: State of the BlogLife as a FreakWhite Privilege in Asia, Humor’s Intercultural Peril, and Transnationalism and the Global Soul, among others.

The Care and Feeding of the Elderly in Asia

He looked at me through drooping eyebrows and dread eyes and in a slow choked voice whispered, “You have to. It’s your duty, you understand? There’s nothing more important in life.” My father-in-law had just asked how I intended to care for my aging parents in Canada. I gave a flip response, because everything I do is flippant, it’s part of my charm. I may have made some reference to that time-honored Canadian tradition of taking your aged, no longer productive, parents and putting them on an ice floe and setting them adrift. I’ve always thought the practice a marvelous piece of Canadiana. Of course I was joking,… probably, but it worried him. The unstated question was what are you going to do to me?

His fear gets to the heart of one of the traditional impediments to intercultural marriage. What’s going to happen to me? Will my foreign son-in-law or daughter-in-law care for me the way I expect? Often I’ve heard Taiwanese say that foreigners are too independent, using the word as a pejorative. They mean that many foreigners are only concerned about themselves and not their family. Like most cross-cultural beliefs this is a half-truth built upon a misunderstanding.

Most Westerners are relatively more independent from their families than the average Asian. Most Asians think it unilaterally the child’s idea, so they can selfishly pursue their own life, their own goals, their own pleasures. That’s not true. Traditionally Europeans lived similar to the Asian ideal. A large extended family living in close proximity, ideally under the same roof, caring for each other. The goal in Taiwan is still to have three generations under the same roof—all beaking off simultaneously. In North America that changed around 4 to 5 generations ago? Of course this varies by family and geography. In my family it was my grandparents who started the change. My great-grandparents would have liked to live with their children as they aged, but my grandparent’s generation did not want this. Their reasons undoubtedly were multivariate, some selfish and some altruistic, but it was a sea change in family life.

Here’s the part many Asians don’t get, when my grandparents generation became elderly, they didn’t want to live with their children. This is perhaps more a North American attitude than European. In the New World, rugged individualism was of paramount importance. On the frontier you needed to fend for yourself, children were raised to be independent for survival. These pioneers did not want to live in their children’s house in their twilight. It would have taken away their dignity and independence, the most important human attribute—what made a man a man. A short trip on the ice floe was preferable.

Also, the quality of care provided by family, though well-intentioned, is not the best. If grandma moves into the home and needs special care most families are ill-equipped to handle it. They have neither the skills, nor the time. The system was adequate for an agrarian society, but Asia has very rapidly urbanized. [See: My Parents Are Nuts].  Who takes care of grandma while mother and father work? The grandchildren? The whole situation is a untenable.

Here’s an anecdote showing the stereotypical differences between a Westerner (me) and traditional Taiwanese (my Favorite Student). One day I walked into class and he was behaving a little strangely. His chest was puffed up and had that cock-of-the-walk look. He was explaining his mother had moved into his house. Everyone was praising him as a good son. I walked in and immediately shat a triple-coiler all over his parade, when without thinking I rather pissily said, “Why are you doing that?”

He replied, “Well, she’ll be able to live with us and take care of the kids. Won’t that be nice?”

I was FOB and vehemently replied, “Nooo. Grandma is old, don’t stuffed her into a back room and expected her to care for your children. Child care is hard work. Grandma’s done enough work in her life. You made them, you take care of them. Let her enjoy the time she has left.” With hindsight I might’ve been a little too real. [I wasn’t always the paragon of cultural sensitivity I am now]. It shocked my favorite student and most of his classmates, but I did see one young woman nodding agreement. Things are change, society has  no choice.

As for my in-laws, when I was getting married I had the foresight to insist that no Chen would ever live with us. The wife readily agreed, though she was in love back then, so who knows. I have two parents-in-law and a brother-in-law that require medical care. Will they ever live under our roof? Never say never—but never.