What’s in a Name?

Choosing a personal name is tough. If you are Taiwanese and have ever studied English, then most likely, you’ve been forced to choose an English name. It is less cultural imperialism and more the total inability of English speakers to remember and wrap their tongues around names like Hsieh Pi-hsia, Xiong Xizhe, or Huang Chia-wen. Generations of Taiwanese students have found themselves at the lowest point of their English ability trying to choose a name that doesn’t make them look like a dork. I’m sympathetic—but, still inclined to giggle at some of the results.

If the person doesn’t take some normal English name that they’ve found in the media, then their name choices can get innovative. This creativity tends to follow certain lines. The first is the gender bender name, a boy named Jennifer or a girl named Allan. Occasionally the student is actually pretty sophisticated and is making a comment on their gender role or sexual orientation. That’s the exception. Usually they simply don’t realize the gender of the name. Sometimes they’re motivated by other factors. I have a male friend named Judy, which is a pretty fair Romanization of his Chinese name, while still managing to be an inappropriate English name.

Since people don’t have much feel for English names, another common mistake is choosing a name that is dated sounding. There are many young guys here named Joseph, Arthur, Milton or Sam. The anachronistic names get really incongruous when you find yourself meeting sexy young women named Betsy, Ethel, Mildred or Beatrix. You start imagining your grandmother as a young hottie and it is all very disconcerting.

They are still better than the common practice of choosing a name from pop culture, often anime. I have had lots of students named Doraemon, Pokemon, or Fido Dido. It is a bit like naming yourself Foghorn Leghorn or Pillsbury Doughboy. Also derived from pop culture is the tendency for girls to give themselves porn names. They name themselves after hot girls in movies, without catching the name’s nuance. So Amber, Ginger, Jade and Jasmine are common. I have to admit, I like the last two for Asian girls.

Some of the names they come up with are really nice, despite, or because of, their unconventional nature. Many names have an accidental, or sometimes intentional, hippy-dippy feel. Some examples that have been common in Taiwan include Apple, Sky, Rainbow, Willow, Dove, etc. If your father named you Meadow, I might look askance, but as a self-chosen secondary name, some of these are really nice. Names based on a translation of one or more characters in the person’s Chinese name can be charming. The names Sunny or Bright are based on a possible translation of Ming (明) a common character in many Chinese names. I’ve met a lot of women named Sunny and find the name a charming allusion to their disposition.

That’s just background to some of the challenges Taiwanese face choosing a foreign name. As a teacher I meet hundreds of new students every year, and often find myself marveling at their names. I’d like to share my five favorite student names, culled from twenty plus years of teaching. I had one particularly energetic male student named Far Eastern Express. I freakin’ loved it! It was oddly appropriate and weird at the same time. If I have a son, his name shall be Far Eastern Express Haughn, also appropriate for a daughter. I taught a pair of brothers named Thestus and Fester. It is hard to believe, but the names suited them. One looked like Herman Munster and the other looked like, well,… Fester. There was a student who gave his name as Blues Willy. I thought it was brilliant. The Blues is underappreciated in Asia. I thought maybe he was a kindred spirit. It is hard to describe the small thrill it gave me to call on Blues Willy to answer a question. The name alone made him a favorite. Imagine how crushed I was at the end of the semester, when I asked him how he’d chosen his name, and he told me that he was a big fan of the Die Hard movies. He had been mispronouncing Bruce Willis.

By far my favorite student name was Harden.

Spelled H-A-R-D-O-N.

If ever there was someone who deserved that name it was Hardon. He was a thoroughly miserable student who quickly got his blood up over any little thing. Undoubtedly, he was named by a disgruntled English teacher who’d had to deal with Hardon’s turgid moods. He did a good job catching Hardon’s spirit in an English name. I considered changing the name, but in the end decided to let it stand, as it were.

He really was a hardon.

Face Meet Foreigner, Foreigner Meet Face: Taiwanese Management and the Expat

In my first job, the school’s management structure was traditional Chinese, meaning there were many layers of middle management, each responsible for very little, if anything. At times it seemed almost like there was one boss for every two workers. During more than five years with the company, I never ascertained what any of them did. Mostly they seemed to just swagger in and out of my work life, looking boss-like, whilst accomplishing little. Each sported a grandiose though ultimately unenlightening title: Executive Director of Corporation (what corporation, it was a school); VP Hospitality Services (at a school?); Managing Director of Marketing, East Sea Zone (where is the East Sea?); etc.

Many Taiwanese companies have a top heavy structure. Presumably, one reason is that the Taiwanese like to have face. One way to get face is to have a title, preferably as majestic and cryptic as possible. For management distributing titles is an easy way to give a stellar worker a bit of face. It is an economical incentive and effective in keeping up workplace morale. Another benefit is the company builds its corporate face by having a Managing Director of Grommets, Asia Pacific Zone on staff. It’s a win for everyone, except that many of these “managers” do not have a management role, or at least not a very clearly defined one. Many Taiwanese managers are little more than local industry’s superfluous third nipple.

In my school the coven of middle managers seemed primarily concerned with accruing more face for themselves. The time-wasting meeting was a favorite tool of middle managers who felt the need for a little ego bump. The process went something like this: call a general meeting, usually no reason for the meeting was given, because usually there was no purpose; the workers would show up and sit quietly, while the boss du jour paraded back-and-forth at the podium, fingers hooked under his armpits, chest stuck out, pontificating grandiosely on some point of total insignificance. At monologue’s end the floor would be opened to discussion.

Asian staff members all were savvy enough not to engage in any discussion. Veteran expats also had things figured out enough to avoid talking. At these meetings, there would be no discussion, mostly because nothing of substance was ever said. At the end, the boss would make some self-important grunts and stride out of the meeting hall—cock of the walk—happy that face had been served and the office’s hierarchy acknowledged and maintained.

These little morality plays tended to get pretty roughly ground up on the rocky shoals when there were newly arrived teachers from America, Australia or Europe. New arrivals consistently failed to discern the purpose of such meetings. They frequently interrupted the boss’s self-serving little monologues with questions, observations, or suggestions, generally on the stupidity of how things were currently being done.

Boss: “…and, as I proposed in discussions with the Assistant Vice-Minister of the Ministry of Education,” said while positively bursting with the radiated importance of having rubbed shoulders with such an august personage. Puffing himself up, so all present could better appreciate his importance, the boss would continue, “We should have more real-world English, including, but not limited to business situations, foreign classroom situations,…”

Newby #1: “Well, there’s no such thing as business English, that’s simply a marketing technique. We need to provide our students with a sound founda…”

Boss [wresting back control of the conversation]: “Yes, well, we can certainly examine that. But, to continue, the Assistant and I agreed to get together a proposal to take to the Minister regarding this very important new initiative….”

Newby #2: “Excuse me, if you’re going to be talking with the Education Minister, maybe you could address the issue of class sizes. Teaching a language course with class sizes sometimes reaching seventy students is a joke, and needs to be addressed.”

Boss [clearly losing his equilibrium]: “ Yes, well, okay, but back to the point…”

The above conversation is a pretty typical example of how these meetings could rapidly devolve into something that was never intended; a meaningful exchange of ideas between workers and management. I have seen bosses literally become so nonplussed by the out of control level of interaction that they ran away in the middle of their speech. If they managed to limp to the end of their speech—all the while questioning how much face they were really getting and whether getting face from a bunch of crazy laowai ( 老外) was worth the trouble—and opened the floor to general discussion that’s when things really slipped away from them.

Occasionally bosses staggered to the general discussion phase of the meeting, but I never saw one make it beyond. The Asian way for a meeting’s general discussion to proceed is with each staff member sitting quietly, offering up as little input as possible, allowing the boss to strut around a bit pretending to try to elicit comments. After these fruitless attempts, the boss having completed his strutting and crowing would stride out, face served, while the workers trickled out – nothing achieved.

Not so when newly minted expats were involved. When the floor was opened to discussion, the newly arrived staff member would take over the floor to set up a roundtable discussion to really dig into the issues, root around, and expose the internal inconsistencies of how things were being done, with an eye to improving on the frankly irrational system they were laboring under. This is the opposite of face-giving. It was digging around looking for problems. From a Taiwanese perspective, the newbies were trying to change things that had been done a certain way, for a long time, and hence obviously should always be done that way.

The poor boss who hadn’t been looking to solve any problems, or God forbid change anything, but simply wanted to engage in a practical reminder of the social structure and each person’s position in the pecking order, was inevitably forced to flee the room with the uncomfortable realization that, at least in the eyes of his employees, the social hierarchy might not be quite what he thought. Of course all this subtext was totally lost on newly arrived teachers, who inevitably were disappointed that the boss would choose to leave just as they were beginning to peel away the layers of illogicality and really get at how to improve the workplace.

Oh those wacky foreigners.

Taiwanese Motels = Opulence + Fun + Kink

Everyone has heard of Japanese love hotels. The Taiwanese have their own—superior—version of the love hotel. It is the motel. Taiwanese motels are not the utilitarian roadside refuge for long distance travelers that they are in North America. They can be stunningly elaborate love palaces. Even the most basic motel room probably includes a one- or two-person Jacuzzi and a spa shower, a shower cabinet with eight or more nozzles. It is common for a motel room to also have a steam bath, massage chair, at least three free porn channels (one American, the rest Japanese), and a sex chair.

The invention of an octogenarian Taiwanese women, the sex chair was inspired by her desire that she and her equally venerable husband could continue to enjoy an active sex life. The chair is an intriguing mash-up of a gynecological examination table and an elliptical trainer. Basically, the woman sits on the chair, placing her legs in the thoughtfully provided stirrups, so that she may… present, as they say in animal husbandry. At the business-end of the chair there is a pull-out foot stool for the man to kneel on, and a pair of long handles to aid in his exertions. The handles give the apparatus that gym equipment appearance. If used as a mobility aid the chair offers significant improvements to an elderly or disabled person’s quality of life, but, you know, it is used in much more creative ways by perfectly able-bodied people. [Caution: If there is a large weight differential, with the male being heavier, when he kneels on the pull-out foot stool—which is attached to the chair—the unit becomes a teeter-totter, with a fulcrum point between the stool and chair. In such a case, the female could easily be launched over your left shoulder, sent flying across the room, and land on the floor in an upset puddle of naked chick, hypothetically speaking,… or so I’ve heard somewhere].

Motel rooms get more elaborate from there. Plenty have bathtubs large enough to function as small lap pools, some rooms even have pools. Often there will be a room with an elaborate sound system and karaoke machine. These rooms function more as a party room than a den of iniquity. Some motels even have theme rooms. You know the type; a Hollywood themed room, a Hello Kitty room (because this is Asia), a pirate room, etc. Not all amenities are elaborate, sometimes it is the small touches that show they care. Many motels have a vending machine in the room selling various sex toys. If not, the room service menu will likely offer a dozen or two, in case you didn’t have a chance to stick a dildo in your purse that morning. Virtually every motel provides a complimentary condom and free lube. That’s just plain classy.

That conscientious attitude extends beyond the room. You don’t need to leave the car until you’re hidden away in the room. Check-in is done via drive-thru window. Afterwards, you’ll park your car virtually inside the room. The most common method is for your room’s private garage door to open upon check-in. You drive your car into the garage, close the door, and then take a private staircase—occasionally a private elevator—to your room. Some motels even have a button on the room’s sound system that mimics an MRT station or other benign environments, in case of an ill-timed phone call from home. If you’re using the room for something other than a rendezvous with your wife, don’t worry, the proprietor’s got your back.

One of the things that is odd about motels, and indeed Taiwanese-run hotels, is that they can be rented for a xiuxi (休息), or rest break ranging from 1.5 to 3 hours. A new motel, or one that is popular for some other reason, will offer a shorter 休息. A rest, generally, is half the cost of staying the night. For obvious economic reasons motels prefer to run a hot-sheet joint. Sexual swashbucklers pay better than tourists. Motels in Taipei normally don’t allow you to check-in for an overnight stay until after 6 pm. If the motel is very popular it might be later than that. Popular places also have a maximum stay of 8-12 hours.

Taiwanese think they’re copying Americans. Bless their kinky little hearts—but, no. From movies or visits to the West, they see motels are common along city outskirts. What Isn’t appreciated is North America’s size, and that if people are traveling by car, they might be in their car for days. Motels in North America serve a practical purpose. They provide a relatively cheap place for travelers, allow drivers to stay on the highway and avoid going into the city center. Indeed renting a room for a short stay (休息) is illegal in most places. The Taiwanese are way out in front of the West in the naughtiness sweepstakes. They just think they need to catch up. That’s natural. The grass is always pervier on the other side of the fence.

I’m a huge fan of Taiwanese motels. For what you get, they are stunningly economical, especially considering that rooms with these features simply don’t exist in the West, or are reserved for Vegas high-rollers. I don’t use the rooms for any nefarious purpose. I like to go to a motel that is slightly past its prime. During weekdays they’ll let me check-in for a stay between noon and 2 pm. As long as they have a spa shower and powerful Jacuzzi, I’m happy. All I want is to sit in the Jacuzzi for 10-12 hours, reading a book, and drinking. I’m married; my days of making a woman do a half gainer off the sex chair are probably in the rearview mirror…. I checked with the wife, she says—definitely. Still, motels are great for de-stressing.


A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places

The following article continues from “The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock” (here) by giving specific examples of differences between Chinese and English. The contrast between high- and low-context languages is at the core of the linguistic differences outlined here.

There are a lot of different languages, but only two styles of communication: high- and low-context. Asian languages tend towards the high-context end of the continuum, English toward the low-context side. There is a fundamental difference in the linguistic objectives of Chinese and English. Chinese is designed to obfuscate. The language aims to hide the speaker’s exact meaning, to obscure what’s in their hearts, and to conceal their thoughts. English’s raison d’être is to communicate as succinctly, directly, and clearly as possible exactly what you mean, want, feel, or think. These different goals explain the differences in structure and usage between Chinese and English. Much cross-cultural miscommunication is rooted in these differences.

One complaint of Chinese-speaking students of English is that there are “so many words”. In English there are many words with only slight gradations in meaning or feeling. A simple example would be the Chinese word kan (看) meaning look. English probably has over fifty words with a similar meaning; peer, peek, leer, stare, glance, glimpse, gaze, gape, scan, ogle, view, observe, etc. These words are used in daily conversation. Since English seeks to be as explicit as possible, it is necessary to have a plethora of words conveying fine deviations in meaning. Chinese has 看. They don’t need such a finely defined spectrum of meaning as precision isn’t the goal. [Before some pedantic student of Chinese tells me there are Chinese translations for every possible English word meaning look—I know that. However, those words are not in common usage. As you start trying to exactly translate the fine variations of English meaning you’re soon down a rabbit hole, looking at poetic terms from the Tang dynasty or something similarly ridiculous].

In Chinese, rather than trying to exactly outline fine differences in meaning, everything is chabuduo yiyang, 差不多一樣 or “about the same.” Chinese verbal communication is absurdly sloppy from an English perspective. For example, I had a student take a couple days off school because she’d hurt her 手 shou (hand). When she returned I was surprised to see her hand was fine, but her elbow (臂肘) was broken. When I asked her about this, she gave the very Chinese reply: chabuduo yiyang. How is a hand even remotely similar to an elbow? If you’re willing to accept that a hand and elbow are more-or-less the same thing, then the difference between glance and glimpse is virtually meaningless. The specificity of English words is a source of annoyance and confusion for Chinese speakers. There are endless examples of how inexact Chinese can be. What blew my mind when first arriving in Taiwan was ta (他, 她, 它) meaning he, she, and it respectively, but in oral communication being pronounced the same. How can you even begin to have a conversation if you don’t know if the person you’re talking with is referring to a pal, hot babe, or a lump of poop? How this pronoun confusion could be used to conceal endless shenanigans is obvious and indeed the whole point. I could go on forever, but I’ll just give one more example, specifically the way Taiwanese use comfortable/uncomfortable. If you ask a Taiwanese person the reason they were late, missed school, didn’t want to meet, etc. the most common answer would be, “I felt uncomfortable.” That’s the most disingenuous answer possible—what does it mean? Did you have a cold, the flu, broken bones and contusions, a heart attack, a psychotic episode, depression over a breakup, or just general lassitude? Can you imagine missing work and telling the boss it was because you felt uncomfortable? That kind of equivocation doesn’t fly in English, but it is at the core of Chinese communication.

Often Chinese-speakers, when speaking English, will seek to make English as obscurantist as Chinese. English doesn’t work that way. When you try to hide your real meaning in English, it is obvious and you are quickly perceived as a liar. Failing to be reasonably direct and frank is impolite. Chinese is the opposite—of course. Stating your meaning too directly and clearly in Chinese is rude. The example I give my female students is that if they have a boy chasing them, they are free—in English—to tell him directly that though they appreciate the attention they do not share his romantic feelings. The guy may not be happy, but it is polite and not particularly hurtful. It conforms to English’s goal of stating as clearly as possible what is in your heart. In Chinese, to be polite, you need to circle around the truth to the point of miscommunication and befuddlement. English guys misunderstand what females are trying to say all the time, so pity Chinese dudes. Nightmare.

These linguistic differences are not too important until your language skills reach a high level. If you’re a beginning Chinese-speaker, the listener will be happy you’re speaking their language, but as your skill increases, the expectation that you will have internalized the language’s logic increases. If you speak Chinese fluently, but construct your dialog with English logic it can be off-putting. In extreme cases being semi-functional in Chinese is better than having excellent Chinese without the commensurate cultural awareness. I knew a linguistically gifted diplomat who spoke phenomenal Chinese. He worked hard at it. Unfortunately, he was not similarly gifted when it came to perceiving and studying Taiwanese culture and history. In fact he quite strongly objected to the notion that the Taiwanese were anything other than white Canadians speaking a different language. He continually, inadvertently, caused grave insult with his tactless (English style) of speaking Chinese. Ironically it would have been far better if his Chinese was poorer, the Chinese listeners would have forgiven him any perceived slights as just a lack of language skill, but since his language ability was excellent they concluded that he was ignorant or rude.

My Taiwanese wife has brilliant English. She works for the Canadian government in an English-speaking environment, with native English-speaking bosses. She learned English entirely in Taiwan and despite near native-speaker fluency, her thinking remains Taiwanese. Sometimes she’ll come home from work and say something like, “Today my boss said, ‘blah-blah-blah,’ and then he said, ‘blah-blah-blah.’ So, what does it really mean?” Her assumptions are wrong. She is thinking in Chinese, looking for a deeper hidden meaning behind the words. I have to explain that if the boss said “blah-blah-blah” then he meant “blah-blah-blah”. That he is in fact trying to convey precisely what he wants, feels or needs, in as direct a manner as possible. The only thing that might make him inexact is a failure of language ability.

As hard as it is for Chinese-speakers to adjust to English precision imagine English-speaker’s problems learning Chinese. Direct talk is relatively easy to learn once you realize that is the goal. How do you learn to artfully circumnavigate precision in favor of conveying a whiff of meaning? The Chinese tendency towards circumlocution becomes manifest in formal situations, when dealing with the older generation, or talking to someone of a higher or lower social position. One example can be seen in the marriage negotiations between myself and my wife’s family (“Marrying Taiwanese”). Honest to God I have no idea how I got through it. My father-in-law has some good qualities, but the man seriously believes that he lives in the Qing Dynasty. Before the formal engagement negotiations, he called me to his house to discuss issues he wanted clarified before the formalized engagement negotiations that would involve my representatives, the matchmaker, Venus’s family, financial negotiations, etc. I had trepidations. My Chinese sucks, it is functional at best. During this interview he talked a lot, and to my credit I understood virtually every word—but, I had no idea what he was saying. First he would talk in circles, seemingly drawing closer and closer to making a point, but just as he was about to clearly state his concerns, he would jump to another issue and beginning circling around it, eventually almost saying something before leaping to some other nebulous point. I was expecting an intense discussion about the nature of love, commitment, family, etc. Instead he circled around in the clouds talking about arcane, random, unrelated points. I understood the words—but, I had no idea what they meant. At the interview’s end, I asked Venus (who was there the whole time) to clarify what had been said. She didn’t know, but said not to worry about it, as no one understood him. Why bother having language if no one (even native-speakers) can understand? That’s my English bias; get to the point, state it clearly, and move on. Chinese is not that way.

Chinese writing is likewise imprecise compared to English. I’ve taught academic writing to Chinese students for a couple decades, they have a really hard time accepting how directly English should be written. The notion of a clear and direct thesis statement being expounded at the beginning of an essay is antithetical to Chinese language’s logic. Often Chinese students will do weird things when writing in English. Sometimes they’ll write a pretty decent essay clearly proving something, only to say in the last sentence, “Despite the overwhelming evidence I’ve outline, I believe the total opposite.” End of essay. It is enough to give you vertigo. It is surprising how often students try to build suspense, have a plot twist, and denouement in their academic writing. They’re seeking literary beauty more than clarity (very Chinese style). It is hard to explain that simplicity and clarity are beautiful in English and the core of academic writing.

I also edit academic papers for Chinese-speaking professors seeking publication in English journals. They have good grammar, but retain an inability to organize their writing into a coherent argument. Most fail to clearly state their thesis. If they have one, it is left to the reader to guess what it might be, as they do their best to circle around it, and with what they undoubtedly perceive to be great artistry try to subtly lead the reader to their point. It is English with Chinese characteristics—and it is God-awful. At its very best you get a descriptive essay suitable for newspaper publication. More typically it is seemingly random musings loosely related to the topic. The professors are doing the same thing as the students. They are trying to create that artistic Chinese argument, where like the great sages of yore, they gently nudge the reader in a certain direction. Despite having tremendous English ability, they’ve totally failed to connect with English’s low-context nature. To some degree academic writing is an unnatural fit for Chinese. The fine gradations of meaning and careful explications necessary are the realm of low-context languages. English is great for scientific writing, academic writing, contract writing, technical writing, anything requiring clarity. Chinese is wonderful for poetry and literature, where the language’s vagueness adds to its ability to convey feeling and beauty.

Chinese-speakers forced to forsake Chinese’s ambiguity can reacted negatively to English meticulousness. I have a Taiwanese lawyer friend who does international negotiations. She hates dealing with English lawyers because of “their anal need” to clarify, define, and explicitly state everything in writing. Were the contract in Chinese there would be no way to achieve such succinctness. She prefers Chinese because in-between the lines, in Chinese’s indefiniteness, she can wiggle around with an eye toward helping her clients. Where everything is so cut-and-dry there is no room for “lawyering”.

The differences between high- and low-context languages affect communication in ways that are hard to grasp. Many people with advanced second language skills fail to appreciate the structural differences between their native and secondary languages, the results include culture shock, misunderstanding, and unintentional rudeness. This is particularly important for long term expats since as your language skills advance there is an unconscious expectation in the host culture that you’ll communicate in a culturally appropriate manner. The onus is on us.

Lantern Festival: The Perils of Chinese Folk Customs

Lantern Festival (元宵節) marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations. It falls on the 15th day of the Chinese lunar calendar’s first month. During Lantern Festival, Taiwanese municipalities hold displays of intricate lanterns. The festival dates back over 2000 years, initially the lanterns were rudimentary, likely crafted from bamboo with a simple covering. During the Song Dynasty the lanterns became elaborate and colorful, often portraying scenes from folk tales. Now they are usually made from a metal frame encased in fabric. The designs can be stunning, depicting scenes from Chinese history or mythology, along with the obligatory gaudy Hello Kitty lanterns, or similar nonsense. [What would a Chinese festival be without camp?] The pièce de résistance, the center of the display, and the largest lantern on the festival grounds, is the depiction of the coming year’s Chinese zodiac animal. The lanterns draw large crowds every year.

What I really like though are the sky lanterns (天燈). These are small lanterns made of lightweight paper, oblong in shape, with an opening at one end. Below the opening is suspended some type of fuel, usually ghost money, that can be burned, providing hot air that allows the lantern to rise into the sky, similar to a hot air balloon. People write their hopes, dreams and wishes on a lantern and release it. The lantern carries those messages to heaven. Lantern Festival has several origin legends. One holds that it was a time to worship Taiyi (太乙), the ancient Chinese God of Heaven, believed to control people’s destiny. I’m conjecturing here, but it makes sense that during a festival associated with Taiyi, people would want to send messages about their destinies heavenwards for his consideration. Whatever its origins, the sight of an evening sky full of lanterns—each holding someone’s aspirations—is poetic, ethereal and beautiful. In Taiwan, the best place to see sky lanterns and perhaps fly one is Pingxi (平溪) in New Taipei City.

I have only ever released a sky lantern once. As with most things I do in Taiwan,… it didn’t go to plan.

A good friend took me camping with his family in Miaoli (苗栗) during Lantern Festival. We were part of a large group traveling together. The group had arranged various activities for the children [and the retarded foreigner in their midst]. These activities included the normal things you would expect on a Taiwanese camping trip; loud karaoke on one giant generator-driven TV screen, movies on another TV screen, Mandopop blaring on several stereos, and of course lots of hotpot. As a Canadian, I don’t feel the necessity to overwhelm nature with noise and boiled meat, but they had also planned to release some sky lanterns. Though Pingxi is the place to go, sky lanterns are flown all around Taiwan during Lantern Festival. I was excited.

As the evening wore on, they pulled out the lanterns and invited me to write my hopes for the future on one. Despite feeling a bit awkward, I really opened up and laid myself bare. I poured my soul out, all my aspirations, my deepest and most dearly held yearnings were written on that lantern. I don’t remember everything I wrote, but I know I asked heaven to bring me my soulmate, true love, someone to share the joys and pains of my life. I got some light mocking, as this is not a Chinese style wish, but it was my ambition.

When I had finished, I took the lantern, placed some ghost money in the holder, and lit it. I watched mesmerized as the lantern slowly floated upwards carrying my deepest desires for the future. The lantern rose gently for about thirty feet, where a gust of wind took it and swept it into a tree. The lantern promptly exploded into a ball of flames, crinkled up, pitched, rolled and tumbled to the ground with the slow fiery grace of the Hindenburg. After dousing the blazing wreckage of my dreams, my friend sauntered by, casually threw an arm over my shoulder and said, “Oh well, maybe next year,” and strolled off to help his children with their lanterns. I was devastated. I stood looking down on the smoldering hulk of my lantern for a long time. I felt like Charlie Brown standing under the kite-eating tree. Sigh. Slowly I turned away and plodded back to my tent.

These Chinese folk customs are all very quaint—until they explode into a pile of flaming debris at your feet. I did not find love that year.