Taiwanese Delicacies #3: Taiwanese Meatballs

If your Taiwanese friend offers to take you for meatballs, you’re in for a surprise. 肉圓 (Chinese: rou yuan, Taiwanese: ba wan; for this dish the Chinese pronunciation is acceptable) literally translates as meatball, but has no resemblance to the Swedish or Italian versions. It is a large football-shaped blob of whitish or clear silvery gelatinous gluten-looking material, served floating in a reddish brown sauce.

The mucilaginous looks of rou yuan come from its outer layer of rice and sweet potato flour. Rou yuan is served either with a thick chewy [silvery] outer layer, or a softer, more delicate, [whitish] outer layer. Both are tasty, I tend to prefer the softer version—it is a less gloppy eating experience. The rou yuan’s filling is generally pork with bamboo shoots and shiitake mushrooms. Sometimes there will be a vegetarian option.

Rou yuan is either steamed, or cooked in oil and left to soak in warm oil. It’s served individually in a small bowl, covered in a sweet chili sauce. The sauce is similar to the O-a-chian (蚵仔煎) sauce, basically a mix of ketchup, sugar, garlic paste, chili and rice flour, or similar ingredients.

Rou Yuan is generally easy to find, with many small neighborhood restaurants serving it. But, if you’re having a hard time finding it, as always, head to the nightmarket, the spiritual home of Taiwanese cuisine.

Transnationalism and the Global Soul

It was a gorgeous January or February day last year; blue skies, warm temperatures, no rain, no wind—perfect. I put on a pair of shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, sandals, and a fedora; grabbed a book, ice cold beer, and headed downstairs to enjoy the sun. On the elevator I was joined by two Taiwanese, each wearing winter clothes. One had a tuque, down-filled jacket, long pants and winter boots. The other was wearing a heavy three-quarter length parka and snow boots. As I looked around the elevator it occurred to me that I’m never going to fit in here.

Apparently, I don’t fit in back in Canada either. Friends and family tell me I’m no longer Canadian. I suppose that’s true. They think I have changed, become more Asian. Maybe. But, I believe Canada has changed while I’ve remained the same. I am a throwback to an earlier Canada. One example is since I’ve been gone Canada has been in an almost constant state of war.  It has changed Canadian’s perceptions of themselves and their country. Jingoism has become more normal, a blind patriotism that Canadians used to hate in Americans. I cannot easily relate to this new national attitude. It is not just Canada, but throughout the world ultra-nativist nationalism and regionalism is on the rise. We can see it in Trump’s America, among Brexiteers, and in the rise of ultranationalist movements throughout Europe.

Some of this is in reaction to globalization, which  has left behind many disaffected communities worldwide. It is perceived as benefiting the elites and being the world order of multinational corporations, international bankers, and globetrotting moneyed elites. The emotional component of this trend seems to be bigotry, voter’s fear of the [scary] other, generally immigrants. As an expat, I can’t condone such attitudes. After all, an expat is just an immigrant with a few less legal rights.

I come from Western Canada. Embarrassingly, if Canada were America, then Western Canada would be Trump country. It is an area of Canada where the regressive features of Canadian political life—anti-immigrant sentiment and barely concealed racism—are finding fertile soil.

My life as an expat stands in stark contrast to the attitude of insular nationalism apparently sweeping the world, and certainly my region of Canada. Almost by definition I am a globalist, certainly not the elite globalist of popular imagination. Like most expats, I am simply a worker—an international worker. We are, through circumstance or inclination, able and willing to work outside our home countries. We are the real leading edge of globalization.

As an expat I am heavily invested in the current global order. If the WTO or other trade relationships collapse I don’t know what happens to expats. Certainly our quality of life would decline precipitously. I have previously commented on how much nicer expat life is when you have access to international products (here). But, if trading relationships were hindered, many would find themselves unemployed. Most expat jobs are predicated on international trade. Even ESL teaching requires students who think they’ll benefit from English; generally via the chance to study in an English-speaking country, global job opportunities, or international trade.

Most expats are what I loosely term transnationalists. Our interests are global, not nationalistic, encompassing, not exclusionary. It makes expats extremely open and willing to accept other groups. Backwoods westerners who maintain the prejudices of home don’t last long as expats. It is not easy to be a xenophobe while living in another culture, surrounded by other religions, ethnicities, and races; where even expat friends are likely a very diverse group. The expat lifestyle demands a certain openness.

One benefit of the expat’s global perspective is it gives you a view of your home country devoid of petty regional squabbles, internecine warfare, and politics. It is kind of the view from space. It is a unique and more honest way of seeing your country. One of the things Canadians struggle with is a sense of national identity. We’re a young immigrant country and many wonder what defines us. Most who think about such things want the answer to be English-speaking, white, Christian, etc. As a Canadian whose lived abroad for many years, I can tell you what defines Canada—multiculturalism. Our public policy that emphasizes the importance of immigration, and encourages diverse racial, religious, and ethnic groups to maintain their cultures while living in Canada. This is unique. It defines Canadian culture—diversity is the definition.

Earlier I questioned where I fit in. I don’t fit in Canada and I’ll never be accepted as Taiwanese, so what am I? I have lost my national identity, but I have gained something more. I truly believe that I can be comfortable living anywhere, among any group of people. I will find what is best about that place, those people, and come to enjoy what is unique about that society. Expats are constantly forced to adapt, change, and, I’d argue, better themselves. That’s what makes them compelling individuals. In contrast, I find myself stunned by anti-immigrant sentiment and fear of cultural change in the West. For someone who thrives on the challenges and joys of a life full of cultural diversity, it just doesn’t make sense.

Who am I? I’m a citizen of the world.

Vignette #11: Dating Fails

I moved to Taiwan as a spritely young man of 29 years. Of course, my first priority was economic survival, but not far down the list was a relationship. I had reached the age where random interactions with women at clubs was losing its luster. That’s the venue where being a foreigner best allows you to exceed your capabilities. Unfortunately, when seeking a long-term “real” relationship, being a foreigner was not an advantage.

Being new to Taiwan I didn’t really have the dating chops necessary for success. I don’t know if other foreigners have experienced this. I suspect that most new arrivals immerse themselves so deeply in the party scene that they don’t notice, or care, that they’re not creating deeper relationships. At the time that didn’t appeal to me.

I ran into two uniquely Taiwanese problems right off the bat.

There was a prohibition against 29-year-old women marrying. It was thought an unsuitable time for major life changes, part of Taiwan’s ubiquitous birth date numerology fengshui thing. Taiwanese women either needed to marry before turning 29, or wait until after, when they’d be considered old maids (老處女: lao chunu). Of course, there were no similar problems for men; mid-30’s was generally considered an appropriate time for a randy young buck to begin exploring options with an eye towards eventually settling down. This doesn’t seem to be true for women anymore, but it was a common idea at that time, and it did not help me. Women in what I considered an appropriate dating age range were on a mission to get married. They couldn’t let anything deter them from their goal. A socially inept foreigner, dipping his toes into the Taiwanese dating pool, was hardly marriage material and nothing but a distraction. They were laser focused on their goals, and I didn’t fit in.

Another problem I ran into was that women my own age seemed to want to date men at least 10 years older than themselves. That meant the eligible women for me, as a 29-year-old, to date were around 19 or 20, and had the maturity of a 12-year-old back home. They were sexually attractive and yet fundamentally unappealing.

I now realize that I was probably meeting mostly wai sheng (外省) women. Their fathers had been Chinese soldiers who’d fled to Taiwan. They’d lost years of their lives to the civil war. When’s they got to Taiwan and had a chance to make up for lost time, they chose young brides. Their daughters regarded this age gap as normal and desirable. I wasn’t culturally astute enough to realize I’d have had better success if I’d sought bensheng (本省) women.

Intercultural dating can throw up surprising obstacles, these were two I faced early in my time in Taiwan. Fortunately, horny always finds a way.


Arachnophobia—the irrational fear of spiders—is not always so irrational.

When I first arrived in Taiwan, I shared an apartment with two other teachers. One day I came stumbling home from work, late at night, exhausted, and tripped through the darkness into the bathroom. As I closed the door and switched on the lights, something ran across my foot. It was hairy and had mass. I assumed it was a small rat.

I was quickly disabused of that notion when I spotted a spider the size of my head clinging to the tile wall over the tub. He apparently was trying to avoid being noticed. Small chance of that—it’s hard not to notice every twitch and muscle spasm of a spider the size of a human baby when you’re locked in a space little bigger than a closet with him.

I freaked.

I made an effort to fight down my fear, channel my coureur de bois ancestry, and do something to rid our domicile of this eight-eyed hairy invader. Actually, I don’t know if he was really hairy, but in my mind he had a full Fu Manchu. I desperately searched the bathroom for a weapon. When my eyes lit upon the toilet brush in the corner, I hastily grabbed it, armed and ready to join the battle, I screwed my eyes shut and waved the brush in the general vicinity of the spider like a spastic preteen majorette trying to swat an epileptic fly with her baton.

That’s when I realized the spider was fast. It jumped off the wall and started racing around the room like Speedy Gonzales on bennies. It ran across the wall, and then somehow jumped and skittered across my midriff, all the while I was banging the toilet brush in its wake. Somewhere in the back of my mind I must’ve been heartened to realize that anything that fast would not be poisonous. However, the frenetic speed of the spider was disconcerting. He ran to the left, zigged to the right, deked left, deked right, and jumped about five feet into the air, bringing us face-to-face. We looked each other in the eyes, he let out a terrified squeak, at least I assume he did, as I couldn’t hear it above my own girly cries, and then we both took off in opposite directions, leaving nothing but a pair of vapor trails.

I slammed the bathroom door behind me and quickly locked myself in the bedroom, hoping that the spider wouldn’t come a hunting. Who needs a bathroom anyway? I cowered in my room, contemplating leaving the house to the spider and finding new digs. When my roommates arrived home I was still in the bedroom, fear and laziness battling to see whether I was distressed enough to actually pack, a chore I despise.

As soon as I heard the front lock open, I ran out of my bedroom and excitedly told my roommates of the eight-legged behemoth currently making use of the facilities. I could almost see it, perched over the bowl, idly leafing through that month’s Penthouse while smoking a cigarette.

My roommates—big, strong, healthy young men both—were gratifyingly dainty in their reaction, and join me in a trembling group as far from the bathroom as possible. We huddled together and in quick nattering voices discussed what to do. None of us had a plan beyond avoiding the bathroom’s vicinity.

Into that cringeworthy huddle of masculinity strode one of the guy’s Taiwanese girlfriend, a cute little slip of a thing saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it”. She marched past us, picking up a broom on her way to the bathroom. She quickly slipped into the bathroom, locking the door behind. From the bathroom there came grunts, some excited yells, and the sounds of banging and thrashing, while we three men excitedly clutched each other outside the door and chattered about what might be going on inside.

Suddenly the bathroom door burst open, we collectively jumped back, and out she strode—triumphant—with one hand holding the broom over her shoulder like a shotgun, while holding the dead spider, dangling by one leg, in her other hand. Our hero.

I was a little disappointed to see that the spider was not really as big as my head. It was only it’s long legs which made it appear so large. The body was big, perhaps a little smaller than a ping pong ball. Someone later told me it was a banana spider, disconcertingly fast, but ultimately harmless.

State of the Blog and Answer to Critics

I’ve been publishing this blog for a year now, it seems like a good opportunity to engage in a little navel-gazing, a sort of state of the blog, if you will. I haven’t really tried to explicate my reasons for writing this blog beyond the briefest of explanations in the About section of The Salty Egg.

My original motive for the blog was a desire to begin writing books. My research indicated that getting published in today’s market virtually requires an online presence. I now recognize that traditional publishing is probably not the route for me. If I write a book, I will likely follow the indie publishing route. Therefore, this blog is not serving its original purpose.

Also, it is shockingly time consuming to publish one post a week. I’m an inefficient writer. I type about 1.5 words per minute, and am easily distracted by the Internet, TV, two flies humping on the windowsill, etc. I squeeze my writing in-between work and family commitments and it absorbs most of my free time. So, why continue the blog? Simply, I am writing about something I care about, the lifestyle of Asian-based expats. Most my readers are also expats. I feel our stories are being lost. Our home country’s don’t care about us, as we are not an important political force. Our data is not being collected through censuses or other social research methods. Likewise, we are unimportant in our adopted countries, again because we are politically inconsequential. I have a vague hope of filling in some of the blanks, giving voice to at least my own experiences, and hopefully some other’s experiences as well.

Some critics have accused me of glorifying minutiae, one elegantly claimed that I have graphophilia, and what I write amounts to little more than compulsive jottings and random brain farts. [Kudos. I really enjoyed that one]. However, he missed the point. My academic background is social history, I tend to think the mundane aspects of daily life give the deepest insights. I hope that in two or three years the articles, cumulatively, will give a little feel for the expat life.

Since I’ve broached the subject of responses to my writing, I’d like to thank those of you who have taken the time to read my blog and comment. I don’t generally interact too much with commentators. However, I usually take note of what’s being said. Most of the comments are positive and I appreciate that. I also appreciate that the negative comments are generally thoughtful and genuine, an anomaly on the Internet. I haven’t engaged with those posters partly to avoid getting into purposeless online squabbles, and I need to preserve my equanimity to be able to continue writing. However, I will admit that some critics have made valid points that deserve to be addressed.

A pretty common complaint is that I am guilty of overgeneralizing. That is both totally true and totally inane. I’m writing about culture, of course I’m generalizing. The generalizations that are most contentious are not my own. They are the work of various academics I’ve drawn from, Edward T. Hall (cultural linguistics), Umberto Eco (cultural anthropology), and Agnieszka Sorokowska (proxemics). This criticism tends to come from business people and engineers. I guess their training makes them uncomfortable with this type of macro thought. History is the art of generalization. I’m in my academic comfort zone.

A more valid criticism is that I, as a foreigner, white person, outsider, etc., have no right to criticize Asian society. I have some sympathy with this viewpoint. I would note, I don’t really criticize so much as write about my life, family, observations, and daily experiences. My adult life experiences have almost all happened in Asia. I cannot write about my life without writing about Asia—they are inextricably linked. Sorry if that causes discomfort, but I absolutely assert the right to an opinion about my own life, and to express that opinion.

A related criticism is that I, as a Westerner, should not try to change Asia. It is insulting. Again, I have some sympathy with this viewpoint. However, I would first note that my blog does not try to change Asia. I am simply describing aspects of my life here and occasionally giving an opinion about the quirks of my life. The only instance where I proactively sought to change Taiwan is my post The Hot Pot Conundrum Explained. [If I were able, through my meager efforts, to break the constant cycle of hot pot dining I would consider my life not to have been in vain]. All other posts are descriptive, not a call to action. These complaints that I lack the requisite Asianness to comment on Asia come mostly from foreign-born Taiwanese and occasionally Western college students. Taiwanese living in Taiwan seem more interested in hearing an outsider’s perspective. I have no idea what, if anything, is the social significance of this. I just find it interesting.

I also fundamentally disagree with the assumption that it is invalid for society’s outsiders to try to improve their lives. It is the kind of immigrant-hating commentary that is rife around the world. “If you don’t like America, if you will not bend yourself to the mores of white America, then get out.” I have not made significant efforts to improve Taiwanese society for the betterment of expats . (I have my reasons). But, I believe everyone has the right to try to improve their lives. Though I don’t contribute, I am impressed by some of the lobbying being done by foreigners regarding Taiwanese immigration issues. No group in any society should be made to feel they must either accept the status quo or get out.

A smaller, though valid, complaint I get is that my Word Press theme is not very compatible with some mobile devices. I know this and would like to fix it. I’m currently using one of the free themes provided by Word Press. The price is undoubtedly a contributing cause of the wonkiness. Since I am not about to start writing code, the easiest way for me to improve the situation would be to buy a Word Press theme that is compatible across all mobile platforms. This costs money. I recently purchased a new house and am currently redefining broke. I may begin exploring ways to monetize the blog with the goal of improving it and making it self-sustaining. If I do that, I’ll try to only use unobtrusive methods that don’t make visiting The Salty Egg an exercise in annoying ecommerce.

If I didn’t directly address your particular complaint I apologize. I probably won’t do another one of these state of the blog addresses for at least another year. In the meantime, I hope you will continue to read my blog, comment on my posts, and share them if you like them.

Thank you for reading The Salty Egg.