休息一下 (On Break)

The Salty Egg will be on hiatus for three weeks to celebrate the New Year; rest and recover from showing my parents around Taiwan and Vietnam; prepare new articles (the cupboard is bare); and maybe fit in a hammer-fry mission [drunk] or two. If you’re lost without my weekly pontificating please dive into the archive and see if there’s anything you’ve missed. If you find an article you like, please share it. I will make my first post of the new year on Sunday, March 4th, and it will be scintillating. I can feel it.

See you in the Year of the Dog.

Chinese New Year’s Eve & the Lovelorn Expat

Chinese New Year is fast approaching and this year, by God, you’re not going to spend the holidays drinking alone in your crap taofeng (套房), binge watching downloaded shows for days on end. You’ve done your time, paid your dues, and are ready to move from being a total outsider to a quasi-participating member of Taiwanese society. This year is going to be different. This year you’ve got a girlfriend, and she’s invited you for Chinese New Year’s Eve, or chuxi (除夕), dinner with her family. Things really seem to be going well with the girlfriend, meeting the family, a big step, but you’re ready.

Slow your roll, Stud. The default position for most Taiwanese girls is to keep their family out of their business, especially anything related to love or libido. So, why are you suddenly being invited to meet her family on the most special family night of the lunar calendar?

There are two likely possibilities. One, she is firmly placing you in the friend zone and doesn’t feel threatened by the prospect of introducing you to her family on chuxi as you are of little romantic consequence. If your Chinese is good enough, you might even get to listen to her constant reassurances to her family not to worry, that you’re just a friend. She felt sorry for you during the holiday season and wanted to let you experience a bit of Taiwanese culture. [Been there, heard that]. It can be perturbing to receive word that there’s not much future in the relationship in such an awkwardly public manner. If you’re on the same page as her, relationship-wise, then it is a great opportunity to experience something beyond the reach of a tourist. I’ve had some wonderful chuxi experiences in this way. Don’t discount pity—my dating life would have been so much poorer without it.

The second, less likely prospect, is that inviting you to chuxi is her way of indirectly informing her family that you are a serious romantic prospect and marriage is a possibility. (It’s all very Taiwanese). This is precisely how her parents will interpret your presence at their dinner table on chuxi, unless your girlfriend proactively puts a stop to such thoughts. Are you beginning to get a sense of what kind of pressure cooker the Taiwanese family can be? Personally, the status of my relationship with Venus (my wife) became much clearer when she invited me over to her folk’s place for chuxi and offered her family no excuses for my presence. It amounts to a public declaration that you’re in a deep relationship. Two months later we were engaged. If your chuxi dinner plays out this way, and you’re not at that point in your relationship—run!

If you have a girlfriend, and she considers herself to be your girlfriend, but it’s like most relationships, on a spectrum of complication and affection that is hard to define, don’t expect an invitation to chuxi. You are in that vast middle ground between just friends and marriage prospect. Relax and enjoy getting drunk alone on chuxi, your girlfriend is looking out for your best interests by excluding you.

I did have one serious girlfriend who invited me over to have chuxi with her family before she’d worked out our relationship status in her own mind. When we were dating, she oscillated between firm commitment and an inability to accept a foreign boyfriend. She was a traditional Taiwanese. During chuxi her interaction with her parents flawlessly reflected her ambivalence.

Chuxi has been a very accurate litmus test for my Taiwanese romances. I’m not sure if this works equally well for expat women, but guys if you have any confusion about your relationship, chuxi will give a lot of insight.

Vignette #6: Red Envelopes and the Karmic Circle of Cash

Any company that wants to retain employees in Taiwan needs to give year-end bonuses before Chinese New Year. Typically these bonuses will be 1.5-2 month’s salary. In a private enterprise the bonus is linked to profits. I moved here in the middle of Taiwan’s tech boom and some computer industry workers were getting year-end bonuses of 1-2 year’s salary. It was amazing. In today’s more restrained times companies sometimes claim low profits and try to get out of paying a bonus, this is negotiable between employees and management. It is hard not to at least pay a month’s salary as a bonus. The negative press and employee unrest caused by trying to cheap out on bonuses is counterproductive for companies. There are reasons, beyond just the money that people fight hard for these bonuses.

They need those bonuses to keep the family functioning happily. Traditionally the bonus was required to buy household necessities and prepare the New Year’s feast. A lot of aspects of family life in Taiwan are transactional in nature. Chinese New Year is, partially, a giant circle of cash, where money gets redistributed from productive, middle-years members of society, to the young and old. Those year-end bonuses are used to stuff the red envelopes handed out on chuxi (除夕). If the year-end bonuses disappear then that threatens family harmony. In Taiwan, familial love is often expressed with money. Saying “I love you” is awkward, while “Hey, here’s 12,000元” feels more comfortable, and you understand what that really means, right? Or to paraphrase my Taiwanese family; can you count love? How many loves are in my hand? Now money, that means something.

People often try to compare Christmas and Chinese New Year, they are both the largest family holidays of their comparative calendars, but the feeling is different. Christmas (ideally) is all about family warmth and togetherness. Chinese New Year, like all things related to Chinese families, is about duty and obligation (filial piety). I’m not saying that Taiwanese families don’t enjoy their time together, or that Chinese New Year lacks family warmth, I’m just saying that the motivation is different. If it is your obligation to your family to deliver up red envelopes, and your whole family structure is built on filial piety, then you’re going to do everything in your power to make sure the cash gets into the right hands on chuxi, and that the size of your red envelope is not face impairingly thin. Woe betide the employer that tries to stand in your way.

“Why Are the Taiwanese So Angry?”

Having recently hosted a foreigner visiting Taiwan, I was reminded that the Westerners I have shown around Taiwan have had the same question while here, “Why are they [Taiwanese people] always so angry?” The first time a traveler asked me this I was taken aback, for I know the Taiwanese as warm, friendly, and outgoing. The particular person that asked me this was a veteran world traveler who had been living in Japan for over a decade. When I questioned him further, he explained that he was referring to the Taiwanese tendency to yell at each other—rather angrily—upon first meeting. This basic question has been echoed by virtually every Westerner of my acquaintance who has come to Taiwan.

It’s an interesting question that requires some cultural information, a bit of linguistics, and a smattering of the psychology of culture shock to answer. As I imparted to my companion, the first thing that needs to be thought of are cultural norms. In Taiwan there is a cultural concept referred to as renao (熱鬧). I don’t think English has an exact translation for this word. Basically renao refers in a positive way to active, boisterous, happy, good-times surrounded by lots of people. Think of how happy the Taiwanese seem to be in a night market with hawkers and touts yelling while the crowds jostle each other. Though it may make the average Westerner’s skin crawl, to the Taiwanese, these moments are almost the definition of happiness—this is renao.When two friends meet on the street, restaurant, or school hallway, they will tend to try to create this happy, warm feeling of renao. The foreign visitor to Taiwan experiences this as a cacophonous barrage of Chinese that seems to increase both in tempo and volume until the people are virtually yelling at each other. In most parts of the world this is what a fight looks like. For the Taiwanese, they are simply trying to create the amount of noise necessary to feel happy. In their mind’s eye they are recreating the night market, banquet hall, or whatever other noisy environment symbolizes good times for them. The yelling is not done in anger, it is joyous.

There is also a linguistic component to why the Taiwanese tend to sound angry. Chinese is a tonal language. There are four tones: the first tone is a high tone; the second tone is rising tone; the third tone is a swooping tone, where the voice starts high, falls only to rise again at the end of the syllable; and the fourth tone is a falling tone. It is the fourth tone that is of interest here. The fourth tone starts high and drops quickly into the pit of your stomach, it pretty closely approximates the anger tone in European languages. Imagine that you are having a really bad day and your children are dancing on your last nerve as you try to get them ready to leave the house. In frustration, you snap, and yell, “Come here!” You will have said both come and here using the Chinese fourth tone. It is that sharp falling tone that denotes anger.

In Chinese, it does not connotate anger at all. It is simply the tonally correct pronunciation of the word. 20% – 25% of Chinese characters use the fourth tone. Inevitably, Mandarin sounds angry to those used to the sounds of Romance and Indo-European languages. The tendency to speak loudly combined with a snappish sounding language explains why foreign travelers think the Taiwanese tend to be irritated.

The psychology of international travel also comes into play. One of culture shock’s “joys” is a tendency to regard all interactions in the vicinity, that you can’t understand, as being related to you. Under these circumstances, being surrounded by people speaking loudly, with a mad or at least anxious tone, while gesturing vigorously can cause a near panic-attack in travelers try to guess how they caused the kerfuffle. Partly this is the result of the natural tendency to see oneself as the nexus of all things. Also, as travelers find themselves immersed in a totally alien environment they come to realize they don’t understand what is happening around them. It is natural that this growing discomfort manifests itself as anxiety that they inadvertently did something wrong to cause the heated discussions.

No, the Taiwanese are not rage-prone. They are some of the warmest people in North-East Asia. Random smiles from passing strangers is one of Taiwan’s charms. Visitor can count on a helpful smile and assistance should they ask a stranger for help. The Taiwanese are not choleric—those “angry” noises on the street are sounds of joy.

Hey Ya It’s Weiya

Weiya (尾牙) season is upon us. Weiya is the banquet held for employees during the Chinese New Year season to show appreciation for their hard work that year. During the course of the year there are several ya’s (牙) in Taiwan, when companies communally pray or baibai (拜拜), make offerings, burn spirit money and incense for Tudigong (土地公) the God of the Soil and Earth. These workplace ceremonies occur on the 2nd and 16th days of the lunar month. 尾牙 literally means the tail, or last, ya (牙). Thus, weiya is the final climactic workplace obeisance for the year. Originally in China, weiya was a feast giving thanks to the earth for providing a fruitful harvest. Over time weiya moved from a strict harvest festival to an employee appreciation banquet as there wasn’t a tradition of employee bonuses in China. It developed into a way for business owners to thank their workers and continues in this form to the present day in both China and Taiwan. During the month and a half before Chinese New Year virtually every company holds a weiya.

As with any other festival, religious observance, get-together, or celebration in Chinese culture, food is the most important part of weiya. The boss treats the workers to a banquet and then puts on a show to thank his employees. Often the boss himself will entertain, putting on his own song-and-dance show, embarrassing himself, and opening himself up to light mocking from his social inferiors. It is an interesting example of role reversal in popular culture and parallels Europe’s medieval carnivals. The historian in me finds that intriguing.

Most employers pay performers to provide weiya entertainment. Corporate engagements during weiya season are a great source of work for all types of performers at all levels of the entertainment industry. Large rich corporations may hire nationally or even internationally recognized performers, but most companies hire substantially more modest talent. (I’ve gigged at a couple weiyas, so…you know).

Besides eating and entertainment, the other important part of weiya is the series of lucky draws that occur during the banquet. I suspect that in pre-bonus China, lucky draws functioned as a way to randomly give bonuses. A face-conscious method of acknowledging employee contributions without raising one worker above others. In a similar way, traditionally, employers would point the head of the cooked chicken towards the employee who need not show up next year, a nonverbal face-saving method of firing. [Although, getting fired by chicken sounds brutal to me]. Most weiyas will have both cash (hongbao 紅包) and household items as prizes. Prizes reflect the company’s profitability and can be substantial, expensive sports cars are not unheard of, though washing machines, kitchen appliances and computers are more normal. The cash grand prize can reach into the 6-figures (NT$), even higher during Taiwan’s tech boom. Generally an effort is made to have a wide array of prizes of diverse value to be distributed as widely as possible throughout the company’s various departments.

Like many foreigners I have tended to try to avoid weiya. When I worked at a smaller buxiban (補習班) it was impossible to avoid, but when I moved to my first university I never went to weiya. Most the foreign staff avoided it, viewing it as an infringement on winter vacation. But now, if possible, I always go. It is not painful at all. You just sit around and enjoy a Taiwanese style banquet with other members of your department. And, I’ve won 10,000NT each of the last two years that I was able to attend. Not bad. I’m going for the grand prize this year.