Vignette #11: Dating Fails

I moved to Taiwan as a spritely young man of 29 years. Of course, my first priority was economic survival, but not far down the list was a relationship. I had reached the age where random interactions with women at clubs was losing its luster. That’s the venue where being a foreigner best allows you to exceed your capabilities. Unfortunately, when seeking a long-term “real” relationship, being a foreigner was not an advantage.

Being new to Taiwan I didn’t really have the dating chops necessary for success. I don’t know if other foreigners have experienced this. I suspect that most new arrivals immerse themselves so deeply in the party scene that they don’t notice, or care, that they’re not creating deeper relationships. At the time that didn’t appeal to me.

I ran into two uniquely Taiwanese problems right off the bat.

There was a prohibition against 29-year-old women marrying. It was thought an unsuitable time for major life changes, part of Taiwan’s ubiquitous birth date numerology fengshui thing. Taiwanese women either needed to marry before turning 29, or wait until after, when they’d be considered old maids (老處女: lao chunu). Of course, there were no similar problems for men; mid-30’s was generally considered an appropriate time for a randy young buck to begin exploring options with an eye towards eventually settling down. This doesn’t seem to be true for women anymore, but it was a common idea at that time, and it did not help me. Women in what I considered an appropriate dating age range were on a mission to get married. They couldn’t let anything deter them from their goal. A socially inept foreigner, dipping his toes into the Taiwanese dating pool, was hardly marriage material and nothing but a distraction. They were laser focused on their goals, and I didn’t fit in.

Another problem I ran into was that women my own age seemed to want to date men at least 10 years older than themselves. That meant the eligible women for me, as a 29-year-old, to date were around 19 or 20, and had the maturity of a 12-year-old back home. They were sexually attractive and yet fundamentally unappealing.

I now realize that I was probably meeting mostly wai sheng (外省) women. Their fathers had been Chinese soldiers who’d fled to Taiwan. They’d lost years of their lives to the civil war. When’s they got to Taiwan and had a chance to make up for lost time, they chose young brides. Their daughters regarded this age gap as normal and desirable. I wasn’t culturally astute enough to realize I’d have had better success if I’d sought bensheng (本省) women.

Intercultural dating can throw up surprising obstacles, these were two I faced early in my time in Taiwan. Fortunately, horny always finds a way.


Arachnophobia—the irrational fear of spiders—is not always so irrational.

When I first arrived in Taiwan, I shared an apartment with two other teachers. One day I came stumbling home from work, late at night, exhausted, and tripped through the darkness into the bathroom. As I closed the door and switched on the lights, something ran across my foot. It was hairy and had mass. I assumed it was a small rat.

I was quickly disabused of that notion when I spotted a spider the size of my head clinging to the tile wall over the tub. He apparently was trying to avoid being noticed. Small chance of that—it’s hard not to notice every twitch and muscle spasm of a spider the size of a human baby when you’re locked in a space little bigger than a closet with him.

I freaked.

I made an effort to fight down my fear, channel my coureur de bois ancestry, and do something to rid our domicile of this eight-eyed hairy invader. Actually, I don’t know if he was really hairy, but in my mind he had a full Fu Manchu. I desperately searched the bathroom for a weapon. When my eyes lit upon the toilet brush in the corner, I hastily grabbed it, armed and ready to join the battle, I screwed my eyes shut and waved the brush in the general vicinity of the spider like a spastic preteen majorette trying to swat an epileptic fly with her baton.

That’s when I realized the spider was fast. It jumped off the wall and started racing around the room like Speedy Gonzales on bennies. It ran across the wall, and then somehow jumped and skittered across my midriff, all the while I was banging the toilet brush in its wake. Somewhere in the back of my mind I must’ve been heartened to realize that anything that fast would not be poisonous. However, the frenetic speed of the spider was disconcerting. He ran to the left, zigged to the right, deked left, deked right, and jumped about five feet into the air, bringing us face-to-face. We looked each other in the eyes, he let out a terrified squeak, at least I assume he did, as I couldn’t hear it above my own girly cries, and then we both took off in opposite directions, leaving nothing but a pair of vapor trails.

I slammed the bathroom door behind me and quickly locked myself in the bedroom, hoping that the spider wouldn’t come a hunting. Who needs a bathroom anyway? I cowered in my room, contemplating leaving the house to the spider and finding new digs. When my roommates arrived home I was still in the bedroom, fear and laziness battling to see whether I was distressed enough to actually pack, a chore I despise.

As soon as I heard the front lock open, I ran out of my bedroom and excitedly told my roommates of the eight-legged behemoth currently making use of the facilities. I could almost see it, perched over the bowl, idly leafing through that month’s Penthouse while smoking a cigarette.

My roommates—big, strong, healthy young men both—were gratifyingly dainty in their reaction, and join me in a trembling group as far from the bathroom as possible. We huddled together and in quick nattering voices discussed what to do. None of us had a plan beyond avoiding the bathroom’s vicinity.

Into that cringeworthy huddle of masculinity strode one of the guy’s Taiwanese girlfriend, a cute little slip of a thing saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it”. She marched past us, picking up a broom on her way to the bathroom. She quickly slipped into the bathroom, locking the door behind. From the bathroom there came grunts, some excited yells, and the sounds of banging and thrashing, while we three men excitedly clutched each other outside the door and chattered about what might be going on inside.

Suddenly the bathroom door burst open, we collectively jumped back, and out she strode—triumphant—with one hand holding the broom over her shoulder like a shotgun, while holding the dead spider, dangling by one leg, in her other hand. Our hero.

I was a little disappointed to see that the spider was not really as big as my head. It was only it’s long legs which made it appear so large. The body was big, perhaps a little smaller than a ping pong ball. Someone later told me it was a banana spider, disconcertingly fast, but ultimately harmless.

State of the Blog and Answer to Critics

I’ve been publishing this blog for a year now, it seems like a good opportunity to engage in a little navel-gazing, a sort of state of the blog, if you will. I haven’t really tried to explicate my reasons for writing this blog beyond the briefest of explanations in the About section of The Salty Egg.

My original motive for the blog was a desire to begin writing books. My research indicated that getting published in today’s market virtually requires an online presence. I now recognize that traditional publishing is probably not the route for me. If I write a book, I will likely follow the indie publishing route. Therefore, this blog is not serving its original purpose.

Also, it is shockingly time consuming to publish one post a week. I’m an inefficient writer. I type about 1.5 words per minute, and am easily distracted by the Internet, TV, two flies humping on the windowsill, etc. I squeeze my writing in-between work and family commitments and it absorbs most of my free time. So, why continue the blog? Simply, I am writing about something I care about, the lifestyle of Asian-based expats. Most my readers are also expats. I feel our stories are being lost. Our home country’s don’t care about us, as we are not an important political force. Our data is not being collected through censuses or other social research methods. Likewise, we are unimportant in our adopted countries, again because we are politically inconsequential. I have a vague hope of filling in some of the blanks, giving voice to at least my own experiences, and hopefully some other’s experiences as well.

Some critics have accused me of glorifying minutiae, one elegantly claimed that I have graphophilia, and what I write amounts to little more than compulsive jottings and random brain farts. [Kudos. I really enjoyed that one]. However, he missed the point. My academic background is social history, I tend to think the mundane aspects of daily life give the deepest insights. I hope that in two or three years the articles, cumulatively, will give a little feel for the expat life.

Since I’ve broached the subject of responses to my writing, I’d like to thank those of you who have taken the time to read my blog and comment. I don’t generally interact too much with commentators. However, I usually take note of what’s being said. Most of the comments are positive and I appreciate that. I also appreciate that the negative comments are generally thoughtful and genuine, an anomaly on the Internet. I haven’t engaged with those posters partly to avoid getting into purposeless online squabbles, and I need to preserve my equanimity to be able to continue writing. However, I will admit that some critics have made valid points that deserve to be addressed.

A pretty common complaint is that I am guilty of overgeneralizing. That is both totally true and totally inane. I’m writing about culture, of course I’m generalizing. The generalizations that are most contentious are not my own. They are the work of various academics I’ve drawn from, Edward T. Hall (cultural linguistics), Umberto Eco (cultural anthropology), and Agnieszka Sorokowska (proxemics). This criticism tends to come from business people and engineers. I guess their training makes them uncomfortable with this type of macro thought. History is the art of generalization. I’m in my academic comfort zone.

A more valid criticism is that I, as a foreigner, white person, outsider, etc., have no right to criticize Asian society. I have some sympathy with this viewpoint. I would note, I don’t really criticize so much as write about my life, family, observations, and daily experiences. My adult life experiences have almost all happened in Asia. I cannot write about my life without writing about Asia—they are inextricably linked. Sorry if that causes discomfort, but I absolutely assert the right to an opinion about my own life, and to express that opinion.

A related criticism is that I, as a Westerner, should not try to change Asia. It is insulting. Again, I have some sympathy with this viewpoint. However, I would first note that my blog does not try to change Asia. I am simply describing aspects of my life here and occasionally giving an opinion about the quirks of my life. The only instance where I proactively sought to change Taiwan is my post The Hot Pot Conundrum Explained. [If I were able, through my meager efforts, to break the constant cycle of hot pot dining I would consider my life not to have been in vain]. All other posts are descriptive, not a call to action. These complaints that I lack the requisite Asianness to comment on Asia come mostly from foreign-born Taiwanese and occasionally Western college students. Taiwanese living in Taiwan seem more interested in hearing an outsider’s perspective. I have no idea what, if anything, is the social significance of this. I just find it interesting.

I also fundamentally disagree with the assumption that it is invalid for society’s outsiders to try to improve their lives. It is the kind of immigrant-hating commentary that is rife around the world. “If you don’t like America, if you will not bend yourself to the mores of white America, then get out.” I have not made significant efforts to improve Taiwanese society for the betterment of expats . (I have my reasons). But, I believe everyone has the right to try to improve their lives. Though I don’t contribute, I am impressed by some of the lobbying being done by foreigners regarding Taiwanese immigration issues. No group in any society should be made to feel they must either accept the status quo or get out.

A smaller, though valid, complaint I get is that my Word Press theme is not very compatible with some mobile devices. I know this and would like to fix it. I’m currently using one of the free themes provided by Word Press. The price is undoubtedly a contributing cause of the wonkiness. Since I am not about to start writing code, the easiest way for me to improve the situation would be to buy a Word Press theme that is compatible across all mobile platforms. This costs money. I recently purchased a new house and am currently redefining broke. I may begin exploring ways to monetize the blog with the goal of improving it and making it self-sustaining. If I do that, I’ll try to only use unobtrusive methods that don’t make visiting The Salty Egg an exercise in annoying ecommerce.

If I didn’t directly address your particular complaint I apologize. I probably won’t do another one of these state of the blog addresses for at least another year. In the meantime, I hope you will continue to read my blog, comment on my posts, and share them if you like them.

Thank you for reading The Salty Egg.

Taiwanese Delicacies #2: Oyster Omelette

The food served at Taiwanese night markets can be fad-driven, but this Taiwanese delicacy has stood the test of time. When thinking of Taiwanese street food this must be one of the first dishes that springs to mind. It’s called O-a-chian (蚵仔煎) in Taiwanese. Don’t bother learning its Mandarin name, no one will understand. In English, you could call it Taiwanese Oyster Omelette.

Oyster omelette is popular throughout southern China and the parts of south-east Asia where Chinese immigration has been strong. There are lots of regional variations in the omelette, even within Taiwan there is locational variety. Kinmen’s O-a-chian is different from what you might find at a night market in Taipei or Tainan.

The standard Taiwanese Oyster Omelette is made primarily of eggs, small oysters, some 小白菜 (I’m unsure of the English, it’s something from the Chinese cabbage/bok choy family), and sweet potato starch. The starch is combined with water and mixed with the egg, giving the egg layer a thick snot-like consistency. Then the omelette is covered in a slightly sweet sauce. I’ve never seen this sauce outside Taiwan. To help you understand its flavor, I found some recipes for making a substitute if you don’t live in Taiwan. One example calls for heating ketchup, vinegar, miso paste, soy sauce, and sugar together with cornstarch and water. I imagine that would taste approximately correct.

O-a-chian tastes good. It has a nice savory flavor, but what it’s really about is its texture. Chinese cooking is unusually concerned about textures and mouth-feel. Many things that seem inedible to outsiders are part of Chinese cuisine because of mouth-feel; tendons, chicken gristle, shark’s fin, bird’s nest, sea cucumber, etc. O-a-chian combines the chewiness of sweet potato starch with the delectable tenderness of the oysters. There’s the crispness of the lightly fried green leafy shit, along with the feel of golden fried eggs. It’s good taste and good feel combined.

If you visit Taiwan this is a classic Taiwanese street food that you really need to try. In Taipei, look for it in and around night markets. O-a-chian is more common outside Taipei, where you should be able to find it in neighborhood restaurants, as well as the night market.

Hungry Ghosts, Pollution, and Ritual

Ghost Month, the seventh lunar month, started last week. It is considered an inauspicious time, so prohibitions abound. These proscriptions vary by region, but some that are common in Taiwan include: don’t swim, evil spirits that have drowned may seek to drown you; don’t fly, it is dangerous with all those ghosts out there; don’t make big life changes, marrying, starting a business, surgery, moving, etc., it’s just not a lucky time; do not sing or whistle, it attracts ghosts; and likewise, don’t wear red, it also attracts ghosts. There are many more, but you get the general idea. There are other common beliefs in Taiwan related to Ghost Month. One such belief is that mechanical and electrical devices are particularly likely to break down during Ghost Month, presumably because the ghosts like to play with all the new-fangled doohickeys. This would be an example of a quaint little superstition—if it weren’t so annoyingly true (here).

The entire month is an orgy of Buddhist, Taoist, and folk religion observances. It is that time when the gates of Hell open and ghosts are free to wander among us. Why would beings, released from the ethereal plane, spend their precious freedom among humans? The ghosts that come to earth are hungry ghosts, whose descendants have not provided them with the customary offerings of food and money, necessary for a comfortable ghostly existence. Hungry ghosts have long thin necks, pinched by hunger. The deceased who did not receive proper funeral rituals also return to earth during Ghost Month. As you might expect, these neglected spirits are a bit pissy, and wander the earth seeking food and light entertainment. (Scaring the bejesus out of Grandpa Lui is just the ticket).

To appease these wandering spirits, the Taiwanese make offerings to their ancestors throughout Ghost Month. Different than other festivals, this spiritual largesse extends beyond one’s own ancestors, to include offerings to the wandering souls of those forgotten by their descendants. The offerings take many forms. Families place food and drink on the family altar, in the home, and burn incence for their deceased ancestors. Similar offerings are made at tables placed on the street, in front of businesses. These offerings are aimed at the general ghostly hallabaloo. Likewise, temples overflow with food offerings to the resident gods during Ghost Month. Many types of joss paper are burned as offerings, these include: hell banknotes, so the ghosts can purchase afterlife necessities; along with paper models of various useful items, houses, servants, TV’s, etc. These offerings are made to deceased ancestors and gods throughout the year, but the fires reach a feverish pitch during Ghost Month.

Chinese folk religion is a living breathing aspect of Taiwanese culture. You can be walking down the street, turn a corner, and randomly bump into a temple parade, pilgrimage, shaman, or diverse other fascinating religious practices. It is so vibrant and alive, not part of the past, hermetically preserved in a museum, to be visited on Sunday afternoons by armchair cultural voyeurs. It is a living, breathing part of everyday life here—and I love it.

However, many foreigners who live here hate it. A few may dislike Chinese folk customs, regarding them as backward superstitious claptrap. Such cultural bigotry is generally absent from expat thinking. The reason most dislike these Chinese folk customs is more prosaic. It is the pollution caused by large-scale burning of incense, hell banknotes, other joss paper, and the perennial setting off of firecrackers.

They have a point. I’ve seen paper models of hell-bound daily necessities piled into literal mountains, four or five meters tall, and then set ablaze. The pollution released into the city by even one such bonfire is substantial. On any given day in most temples, lots of hell banknotes are burned along with massive amounts of incense. On a smaller scale the process is repeated in houses and business across Taiwan. This burning is a continual backdrop to life here. During festivals and special days on the Chinese Lunar calendar the smoke raises religion-related smog from background noise to a Death Metal concerto.

Most countries have a distinct smell, noticeable when you first step off the plane. Thailand smells like rotten bananas. Indonesia smells of clove cigarettes. Canada, at least the Vancouver International Airport, hits your olfactory senses with a wall of ozone. Taiwan has the peppery odor of a melange of ritual smoke. The smell has decreased with efforts to clean up some of these traditional practices. Some of the attempts have been comical failures. When I first came to Taiwan there was a move to try to get people to burn a hell credit card instead of hell banknotes. The theory was that the masses of paper being burned by each worshipper could be replaced by a single credit card. Cute idea. It didn’t work. Worshippers simply began burning hundreds or thousands of credit cards for their ancestors. Despite the difficulty of changing traditions, air quality has improved in Taiwan. Thirty years ago the smell of religious observances would hit you like a wall when you arrived at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport. Now the smell is more in the background.

The improvement is partially the result of social changes. Folk religion and folk cultural practices have declined a bit with urbanization. Some temples have proactively tried to reduce their carbon footprint. A good example would be Hsing Tian Kong. The temple has decided to try to be a leader, among religious institutions, in fighting air pollution. The large incense burners at the front and rear of the temple stand empty. The smaller incense pots, placed in front of each god’s effigy, are either empty, or gone. The oven used to burn hell banknotes is closed. It is exactly what most expats have been clamoring for.

I recently visited Hsing Tian Kong for the first time since the changes went into effect—I hated it. The place was pristine, almost sterile in feeling. It lacked the characteristic temple smell. Nor were there glimpses of statues of gods and goddesses mysteriously coming in and out of view from behind a gauze of smoke. Indeed, on that fine sunny day, the temple’s air was annoyingly crisp and clean. The only wisps of smoke in the whole place came from the few burning incense sticks wielded by Taoist lay practitioners conducting exorcisms. It was all just so…so devoid of feeling.

Hsing Tian Kong was once my favorite temple in Taipei. The place where I went for succour, to bai-bai, get a talisman, cleanse my prayer beads, or simply have the demons exorcised. No more—a temple without smoke is no temple. Here is where I part ways with

most expats. My first trip to Taiwan over thirty years ago was to study Chinese folk religion. As much as I have any religion, it’s to the temple and folk rituals that I turn. Perhaps I’ve become a Taiwanese LKK, but gimme that old tyme religion, it’s good enough for me.