My Parents Are Nuts: The Generation Gap in Taiwan

The pace of change in Taiwan can be simultaneously heady and unsettling. Rapid changes to the physical environment tend to be exhilarating. It is fun to be in a vibrant swiftly evolving metropolis. Taiwan’s major centers all fit that bill. I recall a friend who went to his home country for summer break. Upon returning to Taipei, two months later, he couldn’t find his apartment. A new building went up beside his home during his absence. The skyline’s change disoriented him and for a few minutes he couldn’t situate himself and find his house. That doesn’t happen in Saskatoon.

The pace of physical change is part of the charm of living in a major Asian city. In Taiwan, seismic social changes parallel the changing cityscape. Sociologists, social psychologists, and other social researchers have been studying Taiwan because of its brisk pace of social change. Taiwan offers an interesting case study of sudden modernization. Taiwan has endured very swift industrialization and subsequent transition to a post-industrial society. Concomitant social trends have proceeded apace and likewise strained Taiwanese society; urbanization, democratization, social justice, demographic shifts, etc. The stresses this places on Taiwanese social institutions and the family is interesting for academics.

Take my family as an example, my father-in-law is the oldest of three boys. Twelve years separate the oldest and youngest. They are an interesting example of rapid industrialization’s affect on family. They were all born on the farm, but each in turn experienced, and was shaped by a different period of Taiwan’s industrial progression. My father-in-law, though he eventually came and worked in the city, absorbed, believes, and keeps trying to transmit, the agrarian mores of his upbringing. The second brother’s perspective was shaped by the first stage of Taiwan’s rapid industrialization—the growth of factories (for low-end products) and OEM production. The third brother was shaped by his experiences in the high-tech industry. These are three brothers, born not that far apart, who have experienced Taiwan in wildly divergent ways, each brother representing an important stage in Taiwan’s economic evolution.

If we extend the example a bit further to include my wife—the first-born son’s youngest daughter—she works in present day Taiwan’s postmodern globalized economy. In one generation they went from a subsistence farming mentality to my wife’s extremely urbane, modern, international outlook. She is hardly unique among middle-aged and younger Taipei residents. My wife and father-in-law exist in a totally different time and place. She is a multilingual, globe-trotting, independent, modern woman, and her father seems to believe he’s living in the Qing Dynasty. Imagine the strain that puts on a family.

Taiwan is rife with examples of the pressure rapid change causes people and their beliefs. Also, the social contradictions created by speedy societal shifts. Martial law was lifted in Taiwan in the summer of 1987 after 38 years. When I first came to live in Taiwan a couple decades ago I met many people in their late twenties who regarded students at that time as being from a wildly different generation, because much their schooling was done in the relative freedom of the post-martial law period. Though chronologically close in age there was a wide chasm in their experiences. Because of my age (50-ish) and the time I arrived in Taiwan, I have a lot of politically regressive, borderline anti-democratic—martial law wasn’t so bad—Taiwanese friends. I arrived in a period of sweeping political transition, so many of my (often slightly younger) Taiwanese friends have a very democratic outlook, no matter which party they support. As you move toward the next generation, who have never known an undemocratic Taiwan, the difference becomes more stark.

Some of those differences were on vivid display during the Sunflower Movement of 2014, which saw a coalition of student groups and civic activists protest attempts by the Kuomintang (KMT) government to pass the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement without a clause-by-clause review in the legislature. Basically the KMT tried to do an end run around democratic procedure.

What interested me was the reaction of my, generally older, KMT-leaning, friends. Many of them displayed a stunning inability to understand democracy, despite having lived in a democratic country for a generation. They kept referring to the Sunflower Movement as “undemocratic” because it was working to subvert the will of President Ma Ying-jeou the duly elected leader—a total misinterpretation of democracy. Another common refrain among this group was, “What about social order?” They seemed to regard the Sunflower Movement as an affront to politeness and knowing your place in the social order. They hearkened back, with fondness, to the well-ordered society of martial law times.

There are many other examples of intense societal paradigm shifts in Taiwan, each creating pressure on Taiwan’s social institutions.  Generational changes are normal in all societies, the generation gap exists everywhere because it is a natural part of an intergenerational society. Taiwan takes this normal phenomena and puts it on crack cocaine.

Don’t Marry a Foreigner: Being a Mixed Couple in Taiwan

Most my expat friends are, or have been, married to a Taiwanese person. I can count on one hand, with digits leftover, the number of couples able to give an appearance of wedded bliss. Intercultural marriage is tough.

When I got engaged, a little over a decade ago [see: Marrying Taiwanese], I tried to warn my wife of the potential problems in marrying a foreigner, but—proving herself wifely material—she ignored everything I said, and promptly forgot it all. It must’ve been love. How do I know she’s forgotten my warnings? Every time I pull some dumb foreigner move that’s got smoke shooting out her ears, I remind her that I’d warned of exactly such a situation before we married. She invariably replies she has no recollection, like a fifty-year veteran of the marriage wars. If I can offer one piece of marriage advice, it’s to take some time and compile a list every dumbass thing you think you might do while married, and present it to your fiancée as a warning. Get that information on record while she still loves you, then as each foible or piece of tomfoolery gets exposed, just lean back and say, “Yes, but I clearly warned you of just this situation before we married”.

Of course, when I was giving this advice, I was a single guy, unaware of the many issues awaiting us. I did my best to make educated guesses. I was amazingly portentous, and most things I warned of came to pass. I don’t so clearly remember every admonition, but I’m pretty sure I gave—at least—the following advice: “Be prepared for me to be as useless as tits on a boar when handling a lot of the daily administrative stuff that any household must do”. Also: “My perceptions about family, in general, and what I, as a child, owe my parents, and your parents, is wildly different from the Taiwanese norms of your parent’s generation”. Still in the family vein, “Your parents will never really get the hang of me, because I will never act like a Taiwanese son-in-law. I couldn’t if I wanted to—I don’t know how, but also I don’t want to”. I also cautioned her that I would never move to Canada, just in case she harbored those hopes. [See: I Shan’t Return]. I also warned her that intercultural marriage in Taiwan has more barriers to success than for couple living in the West. I was more warning myself with that one, since she didn’t have any concept of the life of an interracial couple in the West.

My wife began to perceive some of the prejudices after we announced our intention to marry, and even more so as the formal engagement approached. Her family and friends came out of the woodwork to issue warnings about the appalling risks of marrying a white guy. A few of the warnings she remembers from that period included, you have no idea what happened back in his home country—he could be a criminal. Foreigners are financially unstable, this is based on a longstanding perception of English teachers as unemployable losers. There were also warnings that, “He has no family in Taiwan”. Family is a source of support in Taiwan, marrying someone who is essentially without family removes that potential safety net, that’s why many consider marrying an orphan a bad idea. She was also warned that foreigners have less sense of family—that we are too individualistic. Some of these warnings corresponded with what I told her, though they were delivered in a much more negative way. And, what warning about other races would be complete without a caution about their sexual profligacy? It appears to be universal that each race thinks every other race is getting much more—and kinkier—sex. “They’re much more sexually open. He could desert you at any time [presumably upon the appearance of a hotter piece of ass]”. I guess the most hurtful comments that she received were that she “was betraying Taiwanese people” and “liked to eat Western food.” Obviously, there is hostility to intercultural/interracial marriage in Taiwan.

So, I asked my wife to share some things she’s actually found hard to deal with about having a foreign husband. In no particular order: “They won’t just give you money”. It’s pretty common in Taiwanese marriages for husbands to turn over their paychecks to the wife and then they receive an allowance. I know quite a few foreign husbands who do this too, but my Momma didn’t raise no fools. Seriously, I’ve noticed this practice is often a bone of contention, whether you follow the “Taiwanese way” or not.

Also, “They won’t pamper you in an Asian way”. When I asked her to be more specific, she said that they won’t let you whine (撒嬌). “They think of you as a strong independent individual, when you just want to be a bitch”. Possibly it’s just me, but I can’t stand the habit some Taiwanese women have of adopting the waif-like tone of a young girl and whining about everything. A surprising number of women here have this as one of their default settings. I can’t abide it.

The final issue she mentioned corresponds with one of my pre-marriage warnings, “you’ll need to handle a lot of the administrative stuff”. It turns out to be true, and annoying. Some of the problem is undoubtedly my shitty Chinese. I simply cannot do a lot of things. Reading and filling in Chinese forms is beyond me. Also, I don’t really understand how to do many things, what office to go to, what to ask for, etc. Likewise, the relevant Taiwanese authorities often don’t know what to do with me. If I’m doing something related to my being a foreigner in Taiwan, the Taiwanese government office will, generally, be used to dealing with foreigners, and know what to do. But, as a man married to a Taiwanese wife, sometimes I show up in offices where clearly they’ve never seen a foreigner. I send them into a tizzy. Confusion reigns. If we show up as a couple, often staff will ignore me and just deal with her. Even if I’ve been handling everything just fine, they’ll face her and answer my questions, give instructions to her, and ignore my existence as much as possible. Government offices and employers have even phoned her and tried to deal with my issues through her. I can understand how it gets annoying.

A related problem is that often forms/computer programs will not accept my Taiwanese identification number. This creates my wife’s single biggest annoyance about having a foreign husband—doing our joint taxes. She should be able to just enter both our IDs into an online form, where a list of our income and deductions will automatically be correctly placed into the tax form. Then all you have to do is double-check everything and submit it. When my ID number is fed into the form—everything seizes. All my information needs to be manually inputted, and the system gets glitchy (from all the foreignness), and there are often problems. I cringe every time tax season is upon us.

This is my little warning about some of the pitfalls for Taiwanese in marrying a foreigner. If you’re in love, take the plunge. Intercultural marriage can be very rewarding, precisely because of its unique challenges. It keeps me entertained. Just be aware that stuff can get a little weird.

I’d like to thank my wife for letting my readers know some of the things that piss her off about me. Thanks Sweetie.

Vignette #15: I Ain’t Famous, I Just Look that Way

I’m around 193 cm. tall with blonde hair, cobalt eyes, pale skin, big shoulders, a barrel chest and majestic midsection. My every feature conspires to make me conspicuous. I’m ostentatiously unChinese and stick out like a sore dick, hovering above the crowd with my freakish pinkness.

People notice me. Less now than in the past, when I was the only foreigner they’d see for weeks. Nowadays you can’t swing a youtiao (油条) in Taipei without smacking a foreigner. Despite that, the sideshow aspects of my appearance conspire with my movie star good looks to ensure I still get lots of stares.

I don’t mind the attention. Some expats have been driven from Asia by that feeling of constantly being under a microscope. It makes me nostalgic for how it was when I first came to Asia, and there weren’t three whiteys [I like that word—I’m trying to restore it to its former glory] on every corner.

“It’s 7:30, do you know where your husband is?” A picture sent to my wife by one of Taipei’s network of concerned citizens.

I can’t go anywhere in Taiwan without being recognized. Partly that’s a function of how much my looks obtrude into the Taiwanese mind. On that level, I assume that all non-swarthy foreigners experience something similar. It’s also because my wife—through her work and personality—knows a stunning percentage of Taiwan’s population, so they know of me. I’m infamous by association.

“I think that’s your husband on his way to TGIFridays. Isn’t he on a diet?” Another concerned citizen heard from.

I can’t get away with anything. Frequently when I’m out and about, my wife will phone me and ask, “Why are you at ____?” How does she know I’m there? Someone has phoned and told her, or thanks to modern technology, sent her a picture of me there. It’s hard to cheat on your diet if you know your wife is likely to end up with an unbecoming photo of you snarfling down that bacon double cheeseburger at the Monkey.

It kind of kills a lot of the adventure and intrigue marriage offers.

A Trip to the Taiwanese Dentist

One of the first queasy expat moments comes when seeking medical care for the first time. Here we’re at our most vulnerable. It is a genuinely uncomfortable needing medical assistance and facing support staff, nurses, and often dentists or doctors who do not speak English, or speak medical jargon and have that confused with English. Seeking medical attention in a system different from what you’re used to tests the mettle of many.

Luckily I’ve not faced major health issues for most of my time abroad, but even insignificant health problems can be a bunghole tightening experience. My first toothache crashed down on me early in my Taiwan stay, twenty two years ago. I had a cavity that was impossible to ignore. I tried. However, eating was an obstacle course of pain and nerve twinges food had to run through my debilitated beerhole. Every morsel I masticated, every sip I supped, had me skittering around like a cat being ambushed by a cucumber [Video]. There was no getting around it, I needed a dentist, but I didn’t know where to turn. I’d seen many dental clinics walking around Taipei. Usually through the office window you could see a straining dentist hunched over an antsy patient. Window shopping for a dentist didn’t ease my mind. My friends were know-nothing newbs—totally unhelpful. So, I did the only thing I could think of, I went to the lone dentist advertised in the English newspaper. He claimed to be Harvard trained—that sounded reassuring.

Like anyone embarking on a dangerous mission, I did a little recon first. The clinic had nice modern looking chairs and cute dental assistants. What do I know about assessing dental competency from a brief walkby? I made an appointment.

At the appointed time and hour I timorously made my way to the clinic.

A little background information is necessary to explain my apprehensions. Before coming to Taiwan I had lived in Korea. While there, I had talked with people who’d gotten dental care. In Korea, at that time, it was common for dental work to be done without anesthesia. My roommate had some cavities filled without freezing. She claimed it was fine. She wore headphones to drowned out the drill’s noise, which according to her made all the difference. She was delighted to save a few won skipping the injections. Color me skeptical. I really don’t think a Walkman is any substitute for the oblivion offered by modern pharmacology. I personally was horrified. I’m pretty sure these dental practices were mentioned in a book of medieval torture I read in school. I belong to the knock me out as much as possible school of thought. If someone is going to be drilling, cutting, yanking, or otherwise messing with my mouth, I don’t want to feel anything—damn the expense. My foremost priority on my Taiwanese dental adventure was to ensure that I got novacaine.

Different from a dental office you might find in the West, the dentist in Taipei had a waiting area that was not really separated from the his workspace. The receptionist’s counter partially obscured the view, but waiting clients were privy to much that was happening in the business end of the clinic.

After waiting, and watching, it was my turn. I made my way to the dental chair. When I sat down in the chair the dentist found I actually had two cavities, one on an upper right side molar, the other on the lower left side.

During the examination I maintained a laser focus on my priorities. Number one: freezing. The dentist grabbed a needle—without prompting—and froze my lower left molar. My stress flew away. I relaxed knowing whatever happened I wouldn’t feel it. The dentist then grabbed his drill, buzzed it menacingly a few times, but I remained nonchalant. Then he proceeded to drill the upper right—unfrozen—molar.

Bastard!

The tension that shot through my spine bowed my body into a banana shape, with only my heels and head touching the dentist’s chair. (I used to have abs). My pelvis and legs were shaking in a pretty decent parody of Josephine Baker’s Banana Dance. I’d have leaped right out of the chair, but with the buzzing drill in my mouth, I was scared of being cut to ribbons. I kept my gaping maw as still as possible, but it was at the end of two hundred pounds of wildly flailing protoplasm, so, you know, accurately drilling out a cavity was probably tough. The dentist gently cooed at me to take it easy. It worked a charm—I calmed right down. Idiot. Despite the power drill screwing into my tooth I managed to make it absolutely clear that the molar was not frozen. He seemed to already be aware of that, and just laughed and told me to calm down. Yeah, right! I don’t know why he was drilling the unfrozen tooth. I think maybe he was conducting an experiment to see if a white patient would put up with the same shit an Asian patient would. Nope.

He continued drilling; I continued reverse twerking.

I have to admit, despite being a freaky sensation, the drilling did not hurt. It was just weird—and then he exposed the root.

My heels and head lost contact with the chair as I basically hovered above it like a yogic flyer, only just descending to the chair long enough for the skin on my back to contract and launch me back into the air. My feet and legs were shooting out in all directions. Eventually the dentist gave up, reached for a syringe, and with a condescending laugh froze my upper jaw…and everything calmed down.

I’m tall, so the receptionist’s counter did little to hide my legs dancing like a criminal’s on the end of the hangman’s rope. The entire waiting area sat enthrall to their every quiver. They also heard my gurgling high pitched moaning. When I left, I was greeted by five very anxious and pale faces. It seems like the layout of Taiwanese dental offices needs reconsidering.

It took an inordinate amount of time for my upper molar to heal. It was a mass of jangling nerves for at least a month. The slow healing was a direct result of the lack of local anesthetic. I left that office feeling physically abused. Over two decades later, I still feel enmity towards the dentist. I must admit that he, apparently, did very good work. Every dentist that I’ve seen since, both in Canada and Taiwan, have complemented his handiwork. All I know is it was too painful. When I told the tale of my tribulations to my Taiwanese girlfriend, expecting a healthy dose of sympathy sex, all I got was laughed at and called a pussy (孬種).

Is this namby-pamby attitude towards dentistry just me, or are all foreigners the same?

 

Taiwanese Delicacies #5: Savoury Rice Pudding

Today we take a deep dive into Taiwanese cuisine. 碗粿 is one of the few Taiwanese foods that does not trace its origins to China. It is a truly native Taiwanese dish.

I couldn’t find any information, in English, about it on the internet so we’re stuck with my own tin-eared transliteration of 碗粿 from Taiwanese into the Roman alphabet—Mwa Guei. That’s the best I could do. The first syllable begins with a nasal “mng” sound, made while puckering the lips together as though about to kiss your aunt. Then the sound expands into a “wa,” while the corners of the mouth pull wide, into a kind of creepy—open-mouthed—grimace. The nasal twang is maintained through the whole syllable. The tone is high and even. If you know some Chinese, it ressembles saying 我 with a really bad head cold. The second syllable, guei or gway, sounds like 鬼. It is pronounced with a falling tone. Yeah, I know, that was useless, but try to order this dish in Taiwanese. Using Chinese to say 碗粿, alludes to 碗糕, which sounds like a childish curse in Taiwanese—and makes you sound like a knob.

If you’ve been in Taiwan a while you’ll undoubtedly have heard how fantastic the food is in Tainan. If you’re like me, you’ve thought, “What the hell are you talking about? It’s the same general stuff as at any night market in Taiwan.” The Tainan version of mwa guei is one of the things Taiwanese people are referencing. The dish is more common in the South. I actually didn’t know it existed for the first decade I lived in Taipei. I never saw it, in person or on a menu; I never heard it talked about. I don’t know how I missed it—it is available in Taipei, but I didn’t get introduced to it until I married a Taiwanese woman. Now every time I go to Tainan, I have to bring back a couple dozen for the wife and in-laws. The northern version is different, whiter, and at least for my family, less desirable.

Mwa guei is made from long-grain Indica rice (在來米) flour. It is made in a similar way to radish cake (蘿蔔糕). Generally, mwa guei contains pork, dried shrimp, shiitake mushrooms, salted duck egg, shallots, soy sauce, rice wine, and sugar. In the southern version the ingredients are sautéed, placed directly in the uncooked rice paste, which is  then steamed, ensuring the savory flavor infuses the entire dish. The sauces leaching into the rice paste give southern mwa guei it’s characteristic brownish color. In the North the rice paste is cooked separately from the other ingredients, preserving its pristine whiteness. The other ingredients are then placed on top. Mwa guei is served with a typical sweetish Taiwanese sauce on top. Hot sauce and minced garlic are provided on the side.

I [inaccurately] associate mwa guei with breakfast. I suppose because it is somewhat commonly served at breakfast in the South. In reality it is a snack served all day, the Taiwanese just begin eating it in the morning.

Be sure to try this true Taiwanese classic.