Vignette #16: Who Cut the Tofu?

Asia has a different relationship with bodily functions than the West. In Taiwan you can expect to be frequently engaged by public displays of earthiness. Today we’ll examine that Taiwanese classic—the public fart.

I first faced this phenomenon in class. I was teaching maybe a dozen students, when a sweet teenage girl farted. It wasn’t remotely feminine or polite. She didn’t release a subdued puff of gas, wave a hand in front of her face and go, “Oops, pardon me, tee-hee, I seem to have fluffed”. No. She lifted her right butt cheek off the chair, Farmer John style, and let loose a resonant ass blast. The ol’  Arkansas trouser spider was really barking that day. Then she screwed up her face, bore down, and ejected one more panty cough, lowered her derrière to the seat, rearranged her face into its usual serene countenance, and continued taking notes like nothing had happened.

As their teacher, I was of course ready to leap in with jokes and general dumbassery as soon as someone commented. (If you can’t make fun of your students, who can you make fun of?) Well, the man sitting to her right—where the flatus had been directed—turned red and his eyes began watering, but no comments, smirks, or looks were exchanged. I was stunned no one lightened the tension with some puerile humor. The class carried on as if nothing had happened, despite the obvious discomfort of all but our teenage heroine.

That is not the Canadian way.

Occasionally when visiting my in-laws, one or both parents will be farting all over the room. I can’t deal with it. Sometimes, even at the dinner table, my father-in-law will fire a nut knocker my way. It is hard not to feel he is editorializing or engaging in social commentary; you know, the father/son-in-law dynamic. However, my wife swears he means nothing by it, and that it is just something he has always done. Chiayi charm. It only affects my appetite, everyone else unmindfully carries on.

That’s an extreme example, but even when walking in public areas, there’s a lot more gas getting passed than I’d expect in the West. I don’t mean to be too harsh. When I lived in Korea—admittedly long ago—public urination and occasionally defecation, by males and sometimes females, was common. By comparison Taiwan’s fart culture seems tame. Possibly it is even disappearing. I seem to be eating fewer air biscuits, or perhaps I’ve acclimatized and don’t notice it—sometimes it’s hard to know

Taiwan’s Marriage Market

China has garnered some attention in the Western media for its marriage markets (for example: China’s Marriage Markets). To the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been an equivalent in Taiwan during my time here. However, I have seen Taiwanese parents do their best to eliminate any romance from courtship, make marriage more about themselves than their children, and try to commoditize marriage (see: Marrying Taiwanese). But, they’ve never quite reached China’s levels of expediency.

When I first came to Taiwan, I became briefly—though never seriously—part of one woman’s marriage quest. Let’s call her Lily. She was about twenty-seven, the dreaded prohibition on marrying during your twenty-ninth year was looming large. Marrying at twenty-nine was inauspicious and at thirty a woman became an old maid (see: Dating Fails). The pressure was on.

Mother and daughter approached dating with all the romance of General George S. Patton knifing through France. They planned, strategized, attacked, fell back, regrouped, and then reassaulted Taipei’s bachelors. I had just arrived from Canada and watching the pair was my first opportunity to experience deeper culture shock than the I-can’t-believe-you-eat-that variety.

For them, dating was very much a rehearsal for marriage. Normal; I suppose. Their military precision made it seem unnatural. Then again, maybe I was abnormally lackadaisical regarding love and marriage. I was twenty-nine years old and had no schedule for falling in love. I lacked even a basic schematic diagram of my relationship history and future goals. I was floating along, whimsically moving between relationships—like a goddamn hippie.

Lily asked me, with what I suppose must’ve been a flirtatious giggle, whether I wanted to be on her potential husband list. Nope. There wasn’t anything wrong with Lily. She was reasonably attractive, warm and funny, but I hadn’t been in Taiwan long enough to deal with that level of cultural immersion. If I’d agreed they’d have pulled out their marriage book, written my name on a new page, discussed my relative merits, and created a pros and cons list. I know because I’d watched them do it. I imagine my name in the marriage book is as far as I’d have gotten, but if I’d passed this early appraisal I’d have found myself on a first date with Lily. I was never privy to these early dates, I’m guessing they were pragmatic affairs.

I was however invited on a few of her later dates, in that Asian group dating kind of way, after she’d winnowed the list down to her final two. I believe she was assessing how each prospect interacted in larger social groups and their interactions with her friends. Nothing was ever spontaneous.

One was a doctor, not so handsome, and looked to be well into middle age; but, you know, a doctor. The other was an entrepreneur, in his mid to late thirties, and, if not handsome, at least not ugly; but, you know, not a doctor. She  was dating the two finalists concurrently—the better to compare them. The men were aware of it and seemed okay with the setup.

It must have gotten awkward when it came time to compare them sexually—because that was part of the process. As Lily bluntly explained sex and sexual compatibility are important in marriage. Therefore, she really needed to get out there and test-drive each man. Make sure it fit. God bless her pragmatic little heart. I should note that Lily was not the only Taiwanese woman to express this sentiment in similarly businesslike tones. I couldn’t fault the logic, but found their hard-nosed unsentimental approach to sex disconcerting.

Mother and daughter’s priorities largely aligned, but not completely. They agreed the man needed a stable income, a house in Taipei, a car, and a cell phone. They disagreed on how important the intangibles were. The doctor’s looks weren’t good enough for the daughter; the mother didn’t care. The entrepreneur’s business didn’t have enough status for the mother; the daughter didn’t care. The daughter worried about having a husband who kept a doctor’s schedule; the mother didn’t care. They struggled, agonized, scrutinized, and compromised. Eventually they came together and chose the businessman.

I was much too newly arrived to be able to understand her family’s ethnic and cultural background. I could not contextualize their behavior—were they normal or bonkers. I’ve fallen out of touch with Lily, so I can’t reexamine her family. Given that the “boyfriends” went along with everything and Lily’s friends all played their role, I’m guessing it wasn’t that unusual. Still, I’ve neither seen, nor participated in, anything like it since.