Twenty years ago I journeyed to Taiwan to live and work. It was not my first trip to Asia, not even my first time to Taiwan. Relative familiarity didn’t stop me from experiencing culture shock of the simple “what is this” variety. (Culture shock has levels ranging from the simple, tourists surprised by things that are not as they assume, food, drink, bathrooms, traffic, whatever, to the more advanced culture shock experienced by long-term residents mostly integrated into their host society. They still experience shocks and discomfort in their more advanced personal and institutional interactions). This is the story of one such elementary case of culture shock.
I immigrated to Taiwan March 17th, 1997. By that time I had lived in Korea for a year and traveled a lot throughout Asia. When I arrived in Taiwan, I was prepared for culture shock, but because of my travel experience, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of the “ewww that food looks disgusting” variety. I had less than most newbies, but I still managed to make some simplistic and idiotic errors.
On my first day in Taipei, after establishing myself in the hostel, I headed out into the city to explore the sights. It was early evening, and after eating, I got myself a few beers, some betel nut and headed to a local park to sit and de-stress from moving my entire life to Taipei. I had arrived, and the nervous tension that surrounds a project when it is decided, but hasn’t begun yet, was already fading. Of course, I had jet lag and a general lassitude from the day and a half of travelling, but I was feeling pretty content to have made it and gotten set up. The hard part, finding a job and beginning to survive, was still in front of me. But, on that day, at that time, I had a real feeling of achievement and contentment.
I sat in that park, by myself, drinking canned Taiwan Beer, chewing betel nut, smoking a Long Life brand cigarette, and enjoying the breezy feeling of the blue rubber flip-flops I had just purchased. (I have a unique ability to immediately determine the lowest common denominator in any society and instantly sink to that level—this is my greatest gift as an international traveler). As I sat, I enjoyed the unfamiliarity of Taipei’s night scene. When the sun goes down, there are virtually no similarities between my hometown, Saskatoon, and Taipei. At night in Saskatoon, most head home, and the city becomes empty and quiet. Of course there are spots of activity, but because of the sprawl of the city in relationship to the population, you need to actively seek out these hotspots. Not true for Taipei, almost every corner of the city is a kaleidoscope of neon and sound after dark.
So, there I was allowing Taipei’s night to wash over me and engulf me in its foreign embrace, slightly squiffy from the beer and the draining of adrenaline. I was enjoying the sounds of Taipei. The city vibrates with activity at night and you can hear the thrum of its heartbeat in the crowds, shops and traffic. Sitting there, listening to the buzz, so different than Saskatoon was the first time I felt that I really was in a foreign country.
Of course I could hear the crowds—the bassline of Taipei. The distant barking of hawkers trying to get pedestrians to stop and look at their wares provided the chorus. The music came from a truck that I could barely make out under its own flashing lights in the distance that was playing the city’s melody, on a constant loop, over and over again, across large loudspeakers obviously wired into the truck. Crowds were gathering around the truck, obviously attracted by the lively tune, and its promise of fun and entertainment. I thought to myself, a street circus—what an awesome city.
Nope. It was a garbage truck calling residents down from their apartments to throw their trash into the truck.
On that night I remained blissfully unaware of reality, and the street circus added to the romance of my first night back in Asia. Another truck began driving around the park, this one was blue, in contrast to the distant yellow truck, it too had loudspeakers. As the truck drove someone was speaking on the loudspeakers.
I concentrated on the sound, to see if I could distinguish what was being said. To my amazement I could understand, to my further shock the speaker on the truck was very clearly and distinctly saying, “Are you gay?” over and over again as the truck drove around the park.
I sat in the park with my mouth agape as the truck drove in a circle around my position, continually repeating in a sing-song voice, “Are you gay?…Are you gay?…Are you gay?…” Randomly, presumably for variety, the voice would occasionally ask, “Have you ever been gay?” The voice elongated the word “are” so the entire melody sounded like, “[loudly] Arrre you gay?…Arrre you gay?…[quietly] Have you ever been gay?…[loudly] Arrre you gay?”
I was dumbfounded and looked around the small park to see who was being addressed. Pedestrians were passing through. I was the only one sitting there. He seemed to be talking to me.
I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea why I’d been singled out, though I suspected it was because most Taiwanese at that time had a preconceived notion that most foreign men are gay. I didn’t know if I was in danger and ought to get up and walk away, or if they wanted to invite me to a party. Eventually the truck drove off leaving me to sit in confusion.
Over the years I would occasionally hear that truck driving around Taipei broadcasting its strange message. I asked many Taiwanese friends what it was, but they could never figure out what I was talking about. It took me over fifteen years, not until I got married, to find out what it is. One day I was walking with my wife on the street when I heard the truck and asked what it was. It was a truck selling toe yo gay (土窰雞), Taiwanese for Kiln Chicken, a popular local food.
That was early in our marriage and I’ll never forget the look on her face—that was the moment she realized what it means to marry a foreigner.