“Are You Gay?”: The Untold Tale of My First Night in Taiwan

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.

The Neighbors Suck: Taiwanese Identity and China

There are many instances of small countries neighboring large and powerful nations. The list is long; Canada and the USA, Ireland and the UK, New Zealand and Australia, Portugal and Spain, the Ukraine and Russia, Taiwan and China, etc. The geopolitical positioning of these smaller countries causes them to share some characteristics. They tend to have a bit of a national inferiority complex. Not in the, “Oh, we’re such a crappy country” way, but more in an acute awareness they are an insignificant, or at least smaller player, on the international stage than their neighbor. They tend to define themselves in contrast to their powerful neighbor. They see large differences in culture where the rest of the world might see uniformity.

I’m Canadian. When I was growing up and trying to understand what being Canadian meant, the answer I received from adults was always a contrast between us and Americans: we’re polite, they’re rude; we’re multicultural, they’re a melting-pot; we’re democratic socialists, they’re rip-your-own-grandmother-off capitalists; we’re peace-loving, they’re imperialistic; etc. This is not a very affirmative way to define yourself. It doesn’t so much define what is Canadian, as what is not American.

Taiwan is an even more graphic example of the small country mindset. They define their country by how it differs, or is similar to China: Taiwan is a democracy, China doesn’t have open elections; Taiwan is defensive, China is aggressive; Taiwanese are polite, Chinese are rude; etc. Like Canadians, Taiwanese self-indentification is not positive, but rather a series of negative contrasts with their large and powerful neighbor. However, unlike most of the other small countries I listed, Taiwan is in an abusive relationship with its larger neighbor. China is the belligerent, drunken husband, yelling its demands and bullying. The bullying can reach shockingly petty levels, like when a teenage Taiwanese singer in a Korean pop group was forced to publicly disavow her flag. Petty. Taiwan is the battered wife, at times distressingly loyal, but beginning to recognize the nature of the relationship and pulling away.

On an individual level Taiwanese definitions of self are complex, multivariate, and changing. When I first arrived in Taiwan, twenty years ago, many of the people I met defined themselves as Chinese, in contrast to Taiwanese, which was regarded as déclassé. Most were the children and grandchildren of wai sheng ren (外省人), the Chinese who fled to Taiwan at the end of the civil war; many ben sheng ren (本省人), native Taiwanese, also defined themselves as culturally and racially Chinese. Today this is much less common. I arrived here a few years before the first peaceful democratic transition of power. During my time here, there has been the growth of a nascent nationalism. Taiwanese still define themselves in relationship to their larger neighbor, but increasingly see themselves as distinctly different from China and Chinese. In present day Taiwan only the cultural and political fringe sees itself as Chinese.

Self-definition is not simply an individual’s choice, but in Taiwan, institutions and businesses often have to define themselves and their level of Chineseness. Many corporations, most of which need to do business with China, must define themselves in opposition to Taiwanese national identity, or risk severe economic repercussions for themselves or their subsidiaries in China. Taiwanese businessmen have been coopted as foot soldiers in China’s culture wars.

Politics is perhaps the arena where this phenomenum is played out in its most blatant way. The two main political parties are virtually entirely defined by their philosophy towards China. There isn’t a traditional left and right in Taiwanese politics, there is only a sense of how each party views its relationship with China. When you vote for a leader in Taiwan, generally, you have very little sense of how they will actually govern the nation; how will they manage the economy, what are their stances on social issues, etc. You do have a sense of how they define themselves and Taiwan in relationship to China—that is defined. The actual guiding principles for governing the nation—well, we’ll just muddle through. I’m reasonably sure that former president Ma Ying-jeou’s first thought whenever devising policy was; what will China think? This is starting to change as politicians realize that their citizens want pragmatic solutions to the country’s problems.

Like other peripheral nations Taiwanese do constantly compare and contrast themselves with China to arrive at a sense of themselves as a nation and culture. It is not so different than the process we see in many other small nations around the world. After all, the flea is always more aware of the dog than the dog is of the flea. However, it is different in that Taiwan’s neighbor is not a good neighbor, and this lends a piquancy to the Taiwanese search for self. As a Canadian I can choose to define myself however I want in terms of my sense of myself as different than American. Taiwan, under constant threat of Chinese aggression, finds its self-definitions taking on stunning importance throughout all levels of society. The Taiwanese are living right next door to the neighborhood bully. They are forced to acknowledge this constantly in their national dialogue.

Vignette #1: There’s a Ghost in My Fridge

Once a month I will post a vignette. These are short, perhaps 1-5 paragraph, reminiscences of little broader significance. They are just fun little observations; snippets in time.

The seventh month of the lunar calendar is Ghost Month. It is a time where superstitions, never far below the surface in Taiwan, are given full flight and rule supreme. One of the many things purported to happen during Ghost Month is that electronics malfunction. Apparently ghosts, unfamiliar with modern electronic products, take up residence inside the circuitry of your TV, stove, or personal massager and cause it to malfunction, sometimes spectacularly.

I know what you’re thinking; hokum, bull-squirt, ridiculous.

I’d be right there with you, except my second Ghost Month in Taiwan everything I owned broke down on the first day of Ghost Month. I mean everything; TV, zone 1 DVD player, zone 3 DVD player, air conditioner, fridge, computer, the electronics on my motorcycle, even my friggin’ alarm clock. It was while complaining of this extraordinary coincidence that my students informed me of the superstition about Ghost Month and electronics.

I giggled and poo-pooed the very notion.  My rational Western mind rebelled at the silliness.

After two decades living in Taiwan I no longer dismiss the notion out-of-hand. No, I do not believe there is a ghost living in the vibrator, at least I hope not. But, I cannot deny that Ghost Month is a time when you better be prepared to replace some electronics. Though usually not as spectacular as during my second year, it is a consistent part of life for me here. I used to struggle to find a rational explanation, but I’ve given up. If you’re going to live in a foreign land it’s best to reconcile yourself to living with the local ghosts, hobgoblins and superstitions. Just roll with it. This Ghost Month I have replaced two air conditioners and fixed my smartphone (three times).

The WTO and My Waistline: Western Food in Taiwan

I first came here over thirty years ago on a study abroad excursion for a month. At that time, the savior of international travelers—McDonalds—had just opened their first location in Taiwan. There were two small privately run western style restaurants in Taipei, and that was it for western food. There were several restaurants giving a local interpretation of western food, usually consisting of a minute steak with a fried egg on it, and some distinctly nonwestern side dishes. Salad was an alien concept. The idea of eating cold vegetables was a source of revulsion, for logical reason, you need to cook out any germs that might be present from the use of human waste and pesticides in production. Cheese was viewed as a vile diarrhea-inducing lump of fat. Beef, though available, was not much loved, and tended to be hidden among the dish’s other ingredients. Potatoes were not readily available. The price of a plate of fries was astronomical, and usually consisted of 7-10 fries that were simply julienned pieces of potato that had been deep fried, without any other preparation. They weren’t so much french fries as soggy oil sponges.

When I began living in Taiwan, twenty years ago, there were a few more decent western restaurants and many more McDonalds locations in Taipei. Still, it was difficult to find a good western meal in a restaurant. Likewise the ingredients for western cooking were hard to find. For the first two years that I was here I only ate one western meal. Partly this was a financial decision; local food was cheap, western food was expensive. Also it was a manifestation of my belief that how well an expat adapts to the local culture, and whether they will survive long-term, can be measured by how well they adapt to the local food.

The first time I went back to Canada I ate everything. I gained 10 kgs. in 3 weeks. I had been missing so many of the flavors—something as simple as salt. There were no salty foods or snacks in Taiwan. I ate ketchup, salt & vinegar, and dill flavored potato chips until I felt plaque forming in my arteries. Then I had more. Hawkins Cheezies, beef jerky, pepperoni sticks, it was an orgy of salty snacks. But also sweets, the Taiwanese don’t like sweet food, so their desserts are bland. Even western desserts here fail to get the right level of orgasmic, coma-inducing, decadent sweetness. It is as if the baker looked at a magazine picture and thought, “Well, I guess that’s how a Chocolate Praline Torte should look,” and copied the look. Western desserts are gorgeous here. Then he licked the page and thought to himself, “Well, I guess that’s how a Chocolate Praline Torte should taste.” Those were just the snacks, there was also Ukrainian food, western bar food, barbeque, I couldn’t get enough, because I’d been denied those flavors for two years. When I returned to Taiwan and stepped on a scale, I vowed never to do that again. Luckily help was on the way.

Taiwan’s food scene changed in 2002 when Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization. Within a very short time free trade brought full-sized western grocery stores, carrying a host of western brands. It began a boom in international restaurants, especially in Taipei. Now I can find everything from British pub grub to Tex-Mex and extremely fine steak houses. There are French, Italian, German, Middle Eastern, and even a few African restaurants here. They run the gamut from large international chains to small expat-run restaurants. I am sometimes disappointed when I go back to Canada now. I can get better western food in Taiwan. Of course, I can’t get somethings that have particular importance to me—perogies like dear old bubba used to make.

All these bars and restaurants have become a refuge for expats: A little taste of home, with the ambience of home. Taipei has become a mecca for foodie travelers, mostly because of the tremendous local cuisine, but also because of the international dining available. Still, there would not be a boom in western restaurants if they didn’t enjoy patronage from locals. Their clientele is overwhelmingly young and Taiwanese. These young Taiwanese are sophisticated consumers. They know what they’re ordering, how it should be served, and whether it is actually good or not. This may sound elementary, but think about it. Do you really recognize authentic Chinese food? Can you tell if it is a good example of the dish? Is it being served appropriately? It has taken me a couple of decades to develop a reasonable palate for Asian food.

The change in attitude amongst Taiwanese consumers began before WTO and was apparent when I moved here. Western restaurants at that time had a largely foreigner clientele, but Taiwanese in their 20s and 30s, were beginning to show a willingness to try foreign cuisines. Having wine and cheese was seen as classy. Some truly enjoyed the experience. Salad became something that people ate, at least as a side dish. There was a new openness to western cuisine. Of course people also needed to learn about western food. Fifteen years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to take a young Taiwanese woman to a restaurant and be asked in a slightly embarrassed way to order for her, because she couldn’t understand how to create a meal from what was on the menu. These were not your average Taiwanese, most were worldly and open-minded, with at least a little international travel experience.

Restaurants themselves have had to learn how to prepare and serve western food. Many times I’ve gone out with a group of friends for dinner only to have the restaurant serve the meal plate by plate, Chinese style, totally failing to appreciate that each plate is an individual serving. It forces some to eat their meals, while others look on hungrily. That’s unpleasant. I have seen one person finish their meal, dessert and a cup of coffee before others at the table got their food. The situation has improved with greater competition among western restaurants and a better understanding among Taiwanese of how a western meal should work.

My life as an expat has changed enormously since the WTO came. The availability of items that make living in Taiwan a less foreign experience is astounding. I began living in Asia before free trade opened the doors for western products. Comfort food was a plane ride away, now it is just down the street. I eat more western food now than I have most of my adult life. I’m not sure if it is coincidence, aging, or the WTO, but my belly has been on an outward trajectory since 2002.