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.

Where, Oh Where, Might the Prostitutes Be?

Where to find a prostitute? Mostly online.

But, it hasn’t always been that way. You used to find them behind railway stations. Throughout Asia, if you look behind the railway station, assuming it is not a new station, you can find the remnants of that bygone era. The topic suggested itself while having a coffee behind Taichung’s railway station. It is being rejuvenated, but carries the scars of its former life, whorehouses-cum-B&Bs dot the area with their weird and limited charm.

Red-light districts were there so travelers could arrive and easily find comfort and relaxation. This is not unique to Asia, it went on in the prairies, where I come from. But, it had disappeared long before I was born. Here in Asia, it was still a vibrant part of city life when I arrived.

If you consider the placement of Taiwan’s remaining red-light district, and relate them to the old railway stations, you’ll find that there’s still some correspondence. Ever wonder why Wanhua’s whorehouses are where they are? They’re around what was once the old Japanese railway station, Bangkah Station (艋舺停車場). The city ages and changes, but the girls stay the same.

These areas were lively affairs, without much stigmatization. My clearest memories come from my time in Korea. Yeosu (여수시), where I lived three decades ago, was a bit of a backwater. It had some charm, but basically was the Korean version of Eufaula, Alabama, with an ocean. Despite being a small sleepy city with little in the way of nightlife, the back of the train station was an amazing hive of vibrant, bouncy, juttering, and bustling activity after sundown. It shocked this young naive prairie boy. It’s hard to understand how such a sleepy burg sustained that level of commerce, but I guess there’s more to the surface than meets the eye. That area of Yeosu is so imprinted in my memory that even now the smell of sweaty tits and bad decisions makes me think of Korea.

When I first came to Taiwan it was the same. It’s a little hard to describe how blasé whoring was. Just a natural part of going out:

“What should we do tonight?”
“I don’t know. What do you feel like?”
“Movie?”
“Ahh. I don’t know. I don’t think there’s anything very good playing.”
“Beer?”
“Hmmm. I’m still a little hungover from last night. I don’t think so.”
“Blowjob?”
“Mmm. Yeah. That might be OK. A bill clinton would hit the spot about now.”
“Alright, fluffernutters it is. Let’s go.”

It constantly blew me away to see pals wandering around the red-light districts like a group of friends in Canada making their way to the next bar. It was just so natural and unweird—nothing furtive about it.

The Victorian era is still screwing with Western attitudes towards sex: it’s hard to grow out of the morality you’re born into. The scenes I’ve seen played out across Asia’s red-light districts are different than Canada, where plenty of shame is attached to commercial sex. It’s really hard to imagine a group of friends nonchalantly whoring around there. They’d definitely be perceived as greasy social retards, the kind to get their genitals caught in their fly when talking to a real live woman. Also, Western individualism and can-do attitude makes it feel gratuitous to pay for sex when with ingenuity and bravery anything can be a vagina.

The stigmatization of prostitution has grown in Taiwan, but it is still less defamed than in North America. Businessmen still make it to the KTV. Some massage parlors offering proper massages. A handful of blowjob bars exist in Taipei. But, it does feel like this aspect of life in Taiwan is on the wane.

Partially it has just moved online, and that is inherently less social. Also, the status of women has changed. You can’t just bang a good girl, but you can ride a strong independent woman like the tilt-a-whirl in a two-bit traveling carnival. [Just one of the many reasons I’m an ardent feminist]. Now that there are more strong modern women in Asia, it’s natural to think if you really apply yourself, you should be able to get it free, so paying begins to speak poorly of one’s interpersonal skills. Nobody wants to seem like that geek with his crank stuck in his pants.

Homesickness & COVID 

I am nominally Canadian, but I’ve been working abroad for a long time. I’ve lived overseas longer than in Canada. Since I’ve been gone the country’s changed, and my hometown, Saskatoon, is unrecognizable. I no longer fit in there. It is not my home.

So, imagine my surprise when I started getting homesick. Seriously. I couldn’t even identify the feeling.

I’ve dealt with homesickness before, but it’s been 30-plus years, since I was in Korea, a super shitty experience. It is not surprising that when I lived there I suffered homesickness.

The feeling culminated at Christmas when I began having visions of a former crush. A young woman I’d—unintentionally—tormented with my affections, which were expressed in true dork fashion. I had the suave and sophisticated smoothness of 220 grit sandpaper. Suffice it to say our interactions were fraught with awkwardness [my part] and animus [her part].

When I was in Korea, that “relationship” was long past. I hadn’t thought about her for years, but as Christmas approached, I kept waking in the night to see a vision of her in my bedroom doorway. Every night. Finally, one night I woke up, frustrated, and asked what she wanted. She said she wanted forgiveness, and I gave it, as everything had been my fault anyway. After that I never saw her again.

I chalked it up to Christmas-induced psy-homesickness-chosis. I was living alone—totally alone—in a fishing village. There were few people willing to interact with me outside the student-teacher paradigm. Homesickness was natural.

When I returned to Canada, I learned she’d died around that time. Either I’d seen a ghost, had a premonition, psychotic break, or a spectacularly weird reaction to homesickness. My students love it when I tell it as a ghost story, but I’m pretty it was just overarching homesickness.

Of course that was back when mullets and tramp stamps were cool. Now expats can avail themselves of the Internet and video conferencing. You would think that’d kill homesickness, and for me it did—until COVID.

COVID in Taiwan has brought those feelings of homesickness to the forefront again. I’m not entirely sure why, probably it’s a combination of being unable to travel, interacting with friends and family through video conferencing, which is great, but also underlines the distances. It makes you painfully aware you’re missing out on your loved one’s lives. You can see them changing and you’re not there. I’ve watched my parents age via video. Maintaining relationships with online conferencing creates a feeling of closeness, and paradoxically, a feeling remoteness. I experience changes happening in the live’s of my family as a TV program.

Normally it doesn’t bother me. Pre-COVID I had the ability to travel to see family. The video conferences were just a nice way to maintain contact between trips. I have enjoyed video conferencing Christmas for years. The difference, I think, is I always felt if I really needed to, I could get home. COVID has brought that into doubt. In an emergency, could I get home in time for my presence to be meaningful? I’ve watched a few of my international students not be able to get home in time for the funeral of a parent.

COVID sucks. The feelings of distance and separation it creates are real. For the first time in decades I’m yearning for home.

Vignette #27: Birth Control in Taiwan

I’ve been friends with a Taiwanese surgeon for decades. He once made an interesting statement. He said medical knowledge among Taiwan’s general population lagged behind the West’s by 15 to 20 years because information here needed to first be translated into Chinese, then noticed and disseminated by popular media. Whereas in the West it is pretty common for scientific studies to be featured in general news and magazine articles.

Personally, that disparity has been most keenly felt as regards Taiwanese attitudes towards birth control. Despite torturing dates with subpar jazz and creepy dude cologne every once in awhile even I managed to fall awkwardly into a penis flytrap. If the relationship developed, at some point skin-to-skin contact became desirable, and Taiwanese conceptions of contraception would become a problem.

Local knowledge of the pill seems cribbed from Vietnam War era pamphlets. Dated. The information relates to the original high-dose hippie pill. I could never convince Taiwanese women that if they went to a doctor and got a decent modern medication, side effects would be minimal, and occasionally desirable. They seemed to suspect ulterior motives, but I was just concerned for their menstrual well-being. I’m a caring and sensitive boy.

My humanitarian efforts were inevitably hampered as most who tried the pill, to avoid embarrassment, just bought something over the counter, not a doctor-prescribed modern low-dose pills. The packaging even looked like war surplus. They worked, but as you’d expect, the massive doses of estrogen and progestin had side effects, one of which was the creation of a confirmation bias in each woman’s mind. The pill = bad.

Thus, Taiwan‘s national form of birth control would best be described as spray-&-pray.

The Pervert in Class Is You

I’m sorry for how long this article took. The Covid shutdown has had its charms; working from home, pantless Friday’s, joining Taiwan’s fine tradition of high-functioning alcoholics, etc. But, Covid fatigue is real. When I finish online teaching I don’t want to do much. Writing has been about as enjoyable as leather pants in a Taiwan summer—just thinking about either gives me a rash and sweaty balls.

However, a friend asked for this follow-up to Talking ’bout Sex. He pointed outcorrectlythat after decades of teaching English in Asia, I must have countless stories of foreigner teachers shitting the bed with their obliviously offensive and inappropriate behavior. True dat.

He thought Talking ’bout Sex was building to some of those tales. I just didn’t think it that important. I haven’t filed those experiences in my mental Rolodex very carefully as other. The foreign teacher with both feet stuck in his mouth is ubiquitous and unmemorable. Still there’ve been a few standouts.

From my blog you might assume I’ve had problems with this. Not really. I get in more trouble with foreigners, when sometimes my words are halfway to Kaohsiung on High Speed Rail before my brain hops out of the taxi at Taipei Main Station. In class my words are more deliberate. Of course I’ve stepped on my own crank a few times. That’s how you learn. Generally it’s been infrequent and minor, but I have seen somethings….

Buxiban teachers are the worst.  Most FOB teachers are quickly put in front of a class with little training and no cultural understanding. They teach English the way they want to learn Chinese. Back in the day, the foreigner community was more dude-o-centric, and many wanted their language courses to resemble Get Laid in Chinese 101. A goal inevitably frustrated by uncooperative female Chinese instructors. But with their own classes, they were free to teach as they wished they were taught.

Examples are plentiful, but I’ll tell you two of my favorites. The first was an absolutely charming American guy. In a Western way, he was saucy, insouciant, and witty. I loved chatting with him, but his charms were completely lost on the students. He was constantly in trouble for something said in class. He eventually got shitcanned when he walked into an 8am adult, all female, class and said, first thing, “So, I was eating out my girlfriend this morning, really diving in there, and it got me to thinking about fish and chips….” He then proceeded to deliver a funnyif career-ending—soliloquy on sex and British cooking.

Usually it’s more of a problem for male teachers, but not to be outdone, there was a female version of him teaching at the same school. She didn’t have quite the same verve, but God she was graphic. I walked by her class once as she was talking about how “fucking” itchy her “cunt” got after “nailing” multiple guys, and she proceeded to colorfully conjecture, in detail, why that might be. She got complaints, but never really got in as much trouble as the guy. Her students seemed too flabbergasted and confused about cross-cultural gender roles to be offended. Good on her, I say. She rode that edge with stunning deftness.

Admittedly those are the worst examples I can think of, from three decades of ESL teaching. Most teachers find themselves afoul of Taiwanese morality at times. There’s a tremendous pressure for buxiban teachers to be entertaining. If you’re not engaging, you lose students; if you lose students, you lose classes; if you lose classes, you lose hours; which means less pay. Lose enough classes and you lose your job. Most teachers have a pretty strong desire to be amusing. Many think risqué badinage puts asses in seats and keeps them there. It doesn’t seem to be true.

My perception is that these things happen less now. Taiwan’s foreigner community has become more sexually mixed, guys have lost their frontier spirit, and are more domesticated. Also, teachers coming to Taiwan now are more professional. [See: Where Have All the Idiots Gone]. Still these situations arise occasionally as a reminder of what happens when low-context teaching meets a high-context class.

Talking ’bout Sex

Making observations about sex is hard; incomplete information, lies, and your own baggage block reality. But, I just wouldn’t be me if I let such piffling concerns deprive you of my wealth of sexual insights.

So let’s rap about sexual experiences and language.

Taiwanese and North Americans (I’m less sure about other Western cultures)  have a very different manner of talking about sex. Generally these differences are evident in discussions among close friends, acquaintances, and relative strangers. Taiwanese are more reticent to discuss sexual experiences, while North Americans sometimes won’t shut up about it. The differences generally hold true for both men and women, and is a source of annoyance for Taiwanese and Americans alike.

As a point of comparison, while working in Canada I went out with a coworker for the first time in a social setting. Within five minutes of meeting, I barely knew him, he informed me—on the down-low—that he has a pinprick-dick, that people tease him, and he’s sensitive about it. [Then don’t randomly tell people you have a micropenis]. Still it’s endearing when people tell you their secrets. It’s intimate, friendly, and creates closeness [in the West]. Dude’s super lovable. I can’t imagine a similar conversation in Taiwan.

That level of openness runs totally counter to high-context culture, where communication is more implicit and relies on context to convey meaning. “Hey Man, I have a nanometer-peter”, is too explicitly upfront for Taiwan.

Many foreigners get themselves into trouble for their explicit manner of communication. The problem is particularly acute for teachers, since they talk a lot and usually try to be humorous and captivating. The line between entertaining and inappropriate is drawn differently in high-context cultures. [Sometimes it seems like the Taiwanese are contriving to emulate that world famous Muslim sense of humor]. It’s primarily a problem for men, who Taiwanese think perverted or inappropriately on the make. Western women also cross the line, but it confuses rather than insults.

Western women are more inclined to braggadocio than Taiwanese. They’re not trying to seem slutty, they’re looking to make a good Western-style story. Everything is more boldly stated in low-context cultures. “I got so wasted last night I….” Don’t expect Taiwanese women to start a story this way, nor tell tales of sexual derring-do. These differences are part of the reason Taiwanese have traditionally thought of Western women as slatterns.  Openness, tall talk, and sardonicism are elements of a good English story—not a Chinese story.

Cross-cultural differences in speaking styles make it seem to Taiwanese that Westerners are doing an inordinate amount of random banging. It is not particularly true. There’s enough gratuitous rolling in the hay here that a farmer should bale the streets in the morning. I’m no Gay Talese, but from what I’ve been able to observe, I don’t think there’s much dissimilarity in sexual mores. The differences are more in word than deed.