Tips for New Expats

I recently read a blog article giving, undoubtedly, sound advice on surviving as an expat in Asia. It had the typical bromides you’d expect; tips on fitting in, how to engage with your new cultural milieu, an admonition to learn the language—earnest and noble-minded advice. I’m going to go a different way.

The Salty Egg’s six tips for the newly arrived.

1. Hone a Vacant Disposition: I belong to several online discussion groups for Taiwan-based expats. One theme underlying many of the questions to these groups is the loss of control over one’s life when forced to do things a certain (Taiwanese) way. The feeling is made more acute because most cannot fathom the logic. Normally this happens when interacting with Taiwanese institutions, though sometimes it happens at the interpersonal level. This can create a feeling of being tossed around by forces that can’t be seen, understood, or predicted.

A recent example was someone asking the group why her buxiban would demand a photocopy of her bank account booklet, even though they had already been making salary deposits into that account for months. Why were they asking her to give up control of some of her personal financial data? A logical question.

You’ll drive yourself nuts asking logical questions in Taiwan. It is better to embrace the lack of rhyme or reason. It is the way it is, because it is the way it is. The way things are done here are not obligated to make sense to you. Over time you may come to see the logic behind things, a few longterm expats cross that rubicon. But, as a survival technique, it’s best just to do what’s required without worrying too deeply about the whys. Being firmly in control and micromanaging your life might be a survival skill back home, not so much here. Rather than trying to be on top of everything, it is better to just let go and drift along with the Taiwanese flow. You’ll keep your sanity much longer.

2. Don’t Think You’re Taiwanese: When I first arrived in Taiwan I was met by a friend who’d been living here for 12 years and on that first day he gave some tips  on surviving in Taiwan. Most of it I’ve forgotten. I’m sure it was mostly crap. However, he did say one thing that stuck with me and I think is valuable advice.

He’d observed that the happiest foreigners were those that remembered  they’re foreigners. Conversely, the most miserable were those who expected to be accepted as Taiwanese. The notion of immigration, accepting foreigners and giving them a route to citizenship, is Western. It is very rare for an Asian country to allow a foreigner citizenship. (That’s what makes us expats rather than immigrants). Race, ethnicity, culture, and nationality are muddled together in the Asian mind. If a white person were to say they are Taiwanese, the Taiwanese knee-jerk response would be to laugh. Ideas of race and culture are inextricably linked with national identity.

Some of these long-term expats put incredible effort into learning Chinese, Taiwanese, and the culture; while contributing to Taiwan’s social and civic life, and yet ultimately will never be accepted as Taiwanese. It is paradoxical that among this small high-functioning group of expats, so knowledgeable about Taiwanese life and culture, are some who fail to appreciate the obvious truth—they are not Taiwanese. If you have a chance to drink with one of these real oldtimers, sometimes the resentments float to the surface on the whisky vapors.

Try to fit in as much as you can, but don’t lose sight of what you are.

3. Don’t Go Native: There is a long literary tradition in Europe celebrating the European imperialist who goes native. They were seen as pariahs that abandoned their civilizing mission and sold out the values of their home country, but also as romantic figures who opposed civilization’s grinding advance, while honoring the noble savage. These outcasts and their mythical Eden captured the nineteenth century’s fancy. It’s amazing such an archaic  archetype still lights imaginations.

My first international working experience was in a small fishing community in South Korea. I was totally isolated from foreigners, Western food, or any type of Western culture (books, movies, TV, etc.) In my youthful naïveté I thought that seclusion would be a positive, a chance to really experience the culture. Go native. I was wrong. It was too much for this neophyte to cope with.

The drive to go native is not so common in Taipei as other places I’ve lived. Since Taipei is a global center, it would be hard and possibly meaningless to go native here. However, in some rural areas around Taiwan you can remove yourself from the outside world.

I’m not totally against going native, it’s my retirement plan. However, arriving straight from your home country and expecting to prosper in some remote community is unrealistic. Before you decide to walk into the mountains and go all Colonel Kurtz you should hone your cultural chops in one of Taiwan’s cities.

4. Don’t Shun Your Culture: I have been most guilty of this one. It can take many forms. I have seen expats try to reduce their engagement with other expats to the bare minimum, preferring to completely immersed themselves in Taiwanese friendships. [I did this one]. It’s not really a good idea. There’s a vibrant expat community in Taiwan. You should enjoy the rapport. You accomplish nothing ostracizing yourself.

A similar mistake I made was refusing to eat any Western food in my first few years here. I had the idea that a person’s ability to adapt to a culture was reflected in his ability to adjust to the food. All I accomplished was to deny myself some good food. My asceticism proved nothing.

Similarly, I have seen students of Chinese refuse to speak anything but Chinese, even with other foreigners. So you have the ridiculous situation of two English speakers, capable of engaging English conversations, reduced to banal Chinese conversations. Whatever infinitesimal amount this speeds Chinese learning is not worth the loss of decent conversation.

By shunning your culture you’re not integrating quicker, you’re just making yourself miserable.

5. Don’t Unconditionally Trust Your Pillow Dictionary: Definitely get yourself a pillow dictionary. (I’m assuming I don’t need to explain this wonderfully eloquent French phrase). They will aid your transition into Taiwanese culture. They can explain many things, assist with daily life, and help you learn the language, hence the name.

Of course, as they are teaching you about Taiwanese culture, they are also passing along their own beliefs. As a newbie, you may not be aware that you’re being indoctrinated into a certain view of Taiwanese society. In my early days I received a pro-China, pro-KMT, anti-Taiwanese culture view of Taiwan from the people I first met. Those attitudes were more common at that time. I had to uncover the biases through my own research.

It is in the area of language acquisition where my pillow dictionary proved most faulty. My first long-term Taiwanese girlfriend only spoke Chinese. The onus was on me to bring my Chinese up to scratch. I succeeded admirably! It wasn’t very long before I was going whole days speaking only Chinese. There was little I couldn’t express in my new language. I was rightly proud of myself.

It wasn’t until we broke up that I discovered there was a problem. When I started trying to engage with other Chinese speakers, I became less comprehensible. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with them. They didn’t seem to understand Chinese at all. It turns out I had spent a couple of years speaking pidgin Chinese. Basically I was speaking English using Chinese words. My girlfriend understood and considered that to be good enough. I was shocked to find out I wasn’t really speaking Chinese.

When it comes to your pillow dictionary trust but verify.

6. Don’t Try to Change Taiwan: When I moved here, I accepted that I’d always be an outsider, and as such have little ability to change Taiwanese society, culture, or people. Where this is most often a problem in my life is Taiwan’s institutional racism. My solution is just to let it roll off my back, accept it, and move on. Choosing not to rail against these problems allows me to retain my equanimity. That’s my personal choice.

I think everyone, including immigrants/expats, have the right to try to improve their lives. I really respect some of the expats I know who are fighting to change the injustices they see. Sometimes it takes a toll on their emotional equilibrium. If you decide to try to change Taiwan, be prepared for frustration. High-context cultures in particular change from within, and you’re from without. I prefer to maintain my contentment, even if I have to ignore a few things along the way.

Vignette #10: White Skin Sucks

White skin has its socioeconomic advantages, sure, but in purely physiological terms, it blows. It is terribly unsuitable to Taiwan’s hot humid climate. It is terrific if you’re lost in a snow drift, but here on the Tropic of Cancer it is anything but grand.

I’ve had a continuous rash for twenty-plus years. Heat rash, jock itch, Hong Kong foot, allergic dermatitis (I’m allergic to my own sweat—try that in Taiwan), hives, and every fungus known to man—I’ve hosted them all, along with other less heat related skin maladies. These problems are the low-grade background noise of living with white skin in Asia.

The more serious issues come from a lifetime spent under the hot Asian sun. Every summer for the last few years I have been doing battle with potential malignancies, sun damage, and various of the more serious consequences of white skin. Each year I get several small surgeries—this suspicious thing gets cut off, those ones get biopsies, and the less suspicious growths get burned off. I never get ahead, and just find myself doing the same thing all over again the next summer.

There is a general Asian predisposition towards thinking having whiter skin would be awesome. My wife is constantly shocked by how spectacularly unawesome it really is. The fairer you are, the bigger the problem. Being a white person living in Taiwan is like being a penguin living on the Serengeti. It is just not our natural habitat, and there’s a price to be paid.

Couth, Foreigners, and Table Manners

Table manners in a Chinese cultural environment are pretty loose. They exist and are different from the West, but are not too onerous. The priority is enjoying your food. The rules are designed not to interfere with gustatory pleasure. It is still possible for unsuspecting foreigners to unintentionally run afoul of propriety.

I once watched a group of newly arrived foreigners unknowingly set flame to a business banquet. There was a group of ten of us sitting around the typical circular table at a Chinese banquet. The conversation and Kaoliang were flowing, and as is typical the hosts were talking up the restaurant’s speciality—the pièce de résistance—whetting the guest’s appetite for the best and most expensive dish, a crustacean they called mini-lobster. (I think it was crayfish). The collected foreigners had been so primed by the mouthwatering descriptions that when the host twirled the Lazy Susan in the middle of the table to present the honored foreign guests with first choice, they loaded their plates full of lobster. The platter didn’t get past the third foreigner before being stripped bare. My foreign colleagues were stunningly oblivious. Chowing down on the meal’s highlight while offering compliments to the host around partially eaten mouthfuls. The Taiwanese stared on with their jaws scraping dust mites off the floor. Even the most obtuse traveler should have been a bit more savvy. Don’t help yourself to a giant serving from the communal plate. If it is countable, just take one. Sometimes the problem is be a bit more subtle.

Long ago I traveled to see a girlfriend in Hong Kong. While I was there, her mother invited me to come to their house for dinner. I managed to thoroughly botch the evening, though—thankfully—I was the only injured party.

Her mother offered to cook anything, and asked what type of Chinese food I’d like to try. I asked for hot pot. (I know! What was I thinking? My only excuse is I was young and foolish). When I arrived at their home a veritable feast was laid out across every available surface; tidbits just waiting to be dipped into the hot pot’s broth. I was excited. After a bit of preliminary conversation, mostly translated into Cantonese by my friend, and mute smiling and head bowing from the rest of us, the meal began.

Each member of the family was given a fairly standard sized rice bowl. They in turn began preparing their dipping sauces and cooking their food. When it was my turn I was given a giant bowl. It was not a rice bowl; not even a soup bowl—it was a whacking great bowl, something that might have been used to make bread dough for a Hutterite family. In the finest tradition of Chinese hostesses everywhere, my friend’s mother had preloaded the bowl with soup and a myriad of delicacies she’d already boiled. Let me reiterate—it was a big bowl, and it was pretty much full.

I sat at the table, almost completely hidden behind my prodigious bowl, occasionally glimpsing over its top—or around its side—to join in the dinner talk. Slowly I ate my way through that entire bowl. I was full, but not nauseated. Satisfied. Content. It had been a great meal, and I looked forward to spending a bit of time digesting and enjoying a tête-à-tête with my friend’s family.

It was not to be.

The mother, upon seeing my empty bowl, made a face I couldn’t decipher and refilled it. Now, I have always been a polite boy, and my mother, in the grand tradition of Ukrainian babas everywhere, had taught me to always clean my plate, especially when eating at someone else’s home. It’s polite.

I didn’t particularly want to eat the second bowl. But, I had traveled all the way from Canada to Hong Kong to see my girlfriend. Her family had graciously cooked for me. I was damn well going to be courteous.

So I started eating, more slowly this time. I ate, and I ate, and I ate. It was a ginormous bowl full of fine Chinese edibles. I was past the point of appreciating the food. What once had been sublime cuisine turned to ash in my mouth as I tried to power my way through the entire second bowl. I finish it all—such was my commitment to etiquette, politeness, grace, and gentility.

My girlfriend’s mother saw the bowl was empty again, gasped, made yet another inexplicable face, and proceeded to refill the bowl. I was sick. I didn’t know what to do. I was sure I couldn’t choke down another mouthful. But, I wanted to make my mother proud. So I picked up the bowl and started eating again. I ate the bowl inchmeal, morsel by choked down spoonful.

Finally I finished the whole bowl—bowl number three—and these were titanic basins of food. I proudly put the empty bowl on the table—propriety served. I leaned back in the chair, unbuttoned my pants, and began moaning like every father after Christmas dinner. I was stuffed to the gills and felt gross, but beneath that gut-churning vomitous feeling was also pride. My mother had raised a good boy—so well-mannered.

My girlfriend’s mom spotted my empty bowl, gasped, said something in Cantonese under her breath, patted me on the shoulder, and, of course, filled my bowl again. I wanted to cry.

Unable even to contemplate another mouthful, I finally sobbed to my girlfriend, “Why? Why does your mother hate me so?!?” She giggled and told me to just stop eating.

I’m not sure my girlfriend really understood the subtext of that meal. Probably, like myself and her family, she didn’t really know what was happening. From my [Western] perspective, the proper thing to do when invited to someone’s house to dine was to eat all the food on your plate. It shows that you enjoyed the food, are satiated, and appreciate the host’s efforts. For my Taiwanese friends, that’s why if you’re invited to someone’s home in the West normally they will ask you to serve yourself, or just put a token bit of each dish on your plate. They know that whatever is on your plate you’ll have to finish. Many of my Asian friends have been disconcerted by this Western manner of serving; it seems borderline impolite, or at least lacking warmth.

Chinese table manners are almost the opposite. It is acceptable—indeed polite—to leave some food on the communal serving dish or your personal bowl at the end of the meal. It shows that there was enough food and that you’re full and satisfied. (Rice is the exception, you should eat all the rice in your bowl). Placing food into someone else’s bowl is a gesture of affection. The exact feeling varies a bit with context. My girlfriend’s mother was acting the perfect Chinese hostess. My pain came from my own lack of cultural awareness.

What Would Make Taiwan Better?

I love living in Taiwan and, compared with my earlier days, find it very convenient. You can find almost anything that you want in Taiwan’s shops and restaurants. The following is my personal list of five things I wish were more common in Taiwan. My quality of life is great, but if these things were available it would be a smidge better, like putting chocolate sprinkles on ice cream.

1. Adult Sizes: I’m a big guy. I’m tall, broad of shoulder and chest, with an expansive stomach, long legs, big feet, and freakishly large head—everything is big. Nothing in Taiwan fits. It is very annoying to buy clothes or shoes. I would like it if when I saw something I like I would have a reasonable expectation of my size being stocked.

 When I first arrived my running shoes crapped out. I looked high and low for a new pair and couldn’t find anything in my size. A Taiwanese friend decided to help. She was convinced that there were plenty of larger sizes in Taiwan and I was just looking in the wrong places. She was wrong. We eventually found a pair of high-tops special ordered in a clownish size for a window display. My friend convinced the shop owner to sell them to me. They were truly ridiculous looking, but all I could find.

Similarly I have had problems finding clothes. I arrived with one backpack that I’d stuffed full of polo shirts and khakis, figuring those could be worn anywhere. After about a year I was heartily sick of polo shirts and desperate for a change. Of course I couldn’t find anything that fit. Again a Taiwanese friend tried to rescue me [they’re so kind]. She was also convinced I just didn’t know where to look. She was wrong. At that time there was a shop selling large sizes in Tienmu. She took me there. The clothes were indeed large. They were a motley collection of very worn 2nd or 3rd hand clothes, mostly jeans and t-shirts. Judging by the designs on the shirts, I’d guess a lot of the stock was left over from the 1970s. I believe someone had developed a business buying Salvation Army rejects and shipping them to Taiwan.

I could go on, but I’ll end with the most annoying size problem—the lack of adult size condoms. The condoms in Taiwan may not be as small as they are in Japan [important to Taiwanese, because they compare themselves to Japanese], but they’re really small. It took me by surprise at first. One day—early on—I found myself, through no fault of my own, in the middle of some hot party action, so I slipped down to 7-11 to get some protection. I chose a brand that is available in Canada. It all looked copacetic. Nope. It was like trying to put skinny jeans on a 300 lb. Walmart cashier. By the end, I was a sweating twitchy mass, sporting a pinched and claustrophobic member that had lost all interest in partying and just wanted to be set free. The discomfort is real. For years, every time I went back to Canada, I filled my suitcase with condoms. I guess this is an example of a good problem to have, but still a problem. Sometimes I’d meet someone new and be caught short, then I was on the phone to my brother, “Send a gross of Magnum condoms,… No…. No…. Don’t ‘get around to it,’ get your ass out of bed, go buy them, and FedEx them—now!” A real problem.

The internet has fixed this problem. I now buy clothes, shoes, hats, etc. online. It is not as nice as being able to try them on, but it works, and there is such a wide selection that I’m coming to prefer it. Yes, you can also get Western size condoms.

2. American Style Chinese Takeout: The Taiwanese all think I’m nuts, but Taipei desperately needs a Western style Chinese restaurant. A place you can go for Pineapple Sweet & Sour Chicken Balls, General Tso’s Chicken, Lemon Chicken, Sweet & Sour Spare Ribs, Sizzling Ginger Beef, Chop Suey, Fried [converted] Rice, and Fortune Cookies, this is every bit as much comfort food for Westerners as burgers and pub grub. When I travel back to Canada one of the first things I do is get Chinese food. A friend in southern China tells me his city has an American-Chinese takeout joint run by a Canadian. Taipei needs one.

3. Al Fresco Dining:   I like to eat and drink outside. There are a few places in Taipei that offer a decent patio, but they are few and far between. Often al fresco dining amounts to little more than a table and chairs that have been thrown out on the street to accommodate smokers. Some of the best patios in Taipei close when the manager decides that the weather isn’t appropriate. It is exasperating—too cold for Taiwanese is beautiful and balmy to a Canadian. I’m on a constant, and frustrating, search for places I can sit outside on a mild evening enjoying a meal, some wine, and a cigar.

4. Licorice: I love high-quality real black licorice. Salty or sweet, soft or chewy, it is all great. I would even accept Twizzlers or Red Vines in a pinch. Taiwan has embraced a lot of foreign foodstuffs, but the Taiwanese seem incapable of wrapping their minds around licorice. To them, it looks like and has the texture of a rubber tire, while tasting strongly of Chinese medicine. I have gotten some genuinely comical reactions from friends and students when I let them try a piece; bug-eyed, prune-mouthed, red-faced disbelief that it could possibly be a traditional Western candy. Consequently, it is virtually impossible to find licorice in a store in Taiwan. There used to be some privately run Western groceries in Tienmu that had Twizzlers. Now we have larger Western grocery chains that either don’t know enough to stock licorice, or don’t find it economical. I fill my luggage half full of licorice whenever I travel outside Asia.

5. Properly Contoured Toilet Bowls: Western  style toilets in Taiwan seem to be purposely designed to ensure you crap all over the bowl’s side. Toilets here lack wide watery bowls. Instead there is a relatively small amount of water at the bottom of a narrow bowl. Meaning that there is a lot of unprotected porcelain that’s likely to get spattered with waste. I don’t have this problem in any Western country I’ve been to, the bowl shape and water-to-porcelain ratio is design to prevent excessive messiness. Maybe Western butts are shaped differently than Taiwanese butts. I doubt that. I think, coming from a squat toilet tradition, the Taiwanese simply don’t realize that a toilet bowl can be designed in such a way as to limit side-of-bowl crapping.

None of these are terribly serious issues, but they’re what I’d improve if I were building the perfect Taiwan.