Asian societies are more hierarchical than the societies most expats come from. Whether we recognize it or not, our social status profoundly affects our daily lives. I’ve experienced some social mobility, upwards and downwards, since moving to Taiwan. As an outsider, I’ve been intrigued by how people’s reactions to me have changed with my altered circumstances.
People’s perceptions transformed when I switched jobs. Like many others, I started my Taiwanese journey as a buxiban teacher. Cram school teachers occupy a strange position in Taiwan’s social hierarchy. Teachers are traditionally very respected in Asia—buxiban teachers not so much. You’re barely considered a teacher, more of an overpriced tutor. I guess because you aren’t backed by a respected educational institute. Some cram schools hire undocumented and sometimes unqualified teachers—who occasionally did horrible stuff. Fly-by-night operations open, collect fees, and abscond in the night. These problems seem less frequent now, but during Taiwan’s buxiban gold rush, many fine teachers were tarred with this brush.
All that aside, I enjoyed buxiban teaching and probably would have continued indefinitely. However, I had an incompetent boss who’d taken a personal dislike to me. I forget exactly how he got me to overcome my natural state of inertia and start sending out resumes. I distinctly remember thinking I didn’t need to put up with his shit. I was right. I got a university job.
Taiwanese people’s attitude toward me shifted immediately. When it became generally known, I got a lot more respect from my buxiban students. Nothing changed in my teaching to warranted it. If anything, I got lazier as I began eyeing the exits. They seemed to suddenly regard me as wholly qualified. I was qualified before, but until I was fully vetted by an institution of higher learning, they had no way to be sure. Taiwanese coworkers had a similar reaction. My status with my buxiban bosses increased, I assume the logic was: I could never respect anyone who’d work for the likes of me.
That was all moderately interesting, but the change in status was most noticeable while dating. Taiwanese women are the canary in the coalmine—they let you know your social standing quickly and clearly. As a buxiban teacher, many women regarded me as okay for fun, a little sexual/cultural adventure on the wrong side of the tracks with a bad boy. If I became too attached, they were surprised I didn’t recognize myself as a dalliance. I was meant to be a fond memory of girlish recklessness that would get them through a lifetime of milquetoast married sex. I’d never been a bad boy and completely failed to recognize what was happening. I got used to it. When I switched to university teaching, I was completely unprepared to have Taiwanese women taking me seriously as a prospective mate. Blew my mind.
Whether I was regarded as a boyfriend or a toy, I was almost always a dirty little secret, concealed from family, sometimes from friends. It sounds bad, but actually is a common way for Taiwanese women to deal with social pressure around dating. It doesn’t just happen to foreigners. On the rare occasions that a woman introduced me to her family, the family would try to wreck the relationship. I assumed it was bigotry, but it stopped happening after I became a university teacher. I suddenly became a stable and reasonable candidate for their daughter and there was a palpable change in my treatment. I’m sure marrying would have been more difficult had I remained a buxiban teacher. It turns out the issue wasn’t racism: it was classism.
I found the whole thing amusing. Taiwan’s social hierarchy wasn’t deeply ingrained in my psyche. As an outsider to Taiwanese society, I have the privilege of fitting in equally well—or poorly—no matter the group’s social status. I’ve moved comfortably among the highest and lowest levels of Taiwanese society.
Recently I’ve taken a little trip down the social hierarchy. We have a house on Taipei’s Hoping East Rd. The neighborhood is on the richer side of middle class, or the lower side of rich. People there have pretensions, and tend to be a bit uppity in conversation: “I say Muffy, striped tuna with spotted dick? Why it’s simply not done, wot, wot”, or the Taiwanese equivalent. I was comfortable there, but we recently got another place in Chungho. The neighborhood is very middle class; teachers, police officers, small business owners, etc. It’s earthier than the old neighborhood. I’m very comfortable here too.
The advantage of not fitting in anywhere is you fit in everywhere. Being accepted by every level of Taiwanese society is another matter.
Here’s one they don’t tell you in travel books. Each race smells different, of course each individual has a unique smell, but there is an overriding race-based olfactory theme. If you’re part of the racial majority, it’s not really a concern. If you’re a racial minority, you can be painfully self-conscious of how different you smell.
Living in Korea was my first experience as a racial minority. I was a racial minority of one in Yeosu. I quickly became aware I was malodorous. It’s not that the Koreans didn’t smell. They must’ve—they ate garlic for breakfast—but, I never whiffed a bad odor, their scent was background music. However, I definitely perceived my own funk. I didn’t smell any worse than normal, but the eau de Darren stood out.
This feeling seems to be normal. I met a Chinese girl in Canada who expressed similar concerns about feeling stinky. She wasn’t, but she was still self-conscious. I am not suggesting any race smells worse than another. Though I’d nominate Caucasians for that dubious honor. We are sour smelling. Other races tend towards musky, musty, or spicy.
Not that long ago a friend visited from Canada while my wife was out of the country. We did lots of guy things. He stayed with me in our apartment, a pretty confined space. When my wife came home the first thing she said was, “Oh my God, it stinks like white dude in here”, and immediately opened every window. It’s hard not to be self-conscious.
I’ve had to deal with undeserved fame as an expat. I’m not sure this is common. It happens to me through hobbies. I love to learn and have studied many things since moving to Taiwan, including jewelry design and goldsmithing, harmonica, piano, dance, and Go. I have some ability at art and design, at everything else I’m hopeless. The thing I’m worst at is music. I began studying piano and harmonica because I recognized my own deficiency and wanted to cultivate better musical appreciation. Also, my artistic hobbies were producing objets d’art that were cluttering my very small apartment. I expected studying music to produce nothing of value. I recognized my limitations and had no goals beyond developing musical taste.
When I took up harmonica, my tendency towards notoriety reached its apogee. At the start, everything was fine. I contentedly drove my harmonica teacher, Mr. Lee, to distraction. It reminded me of my youth. I’ve caused more than one music teacher to quit. I have chronic white man rhythm and tin-ear syndrome. Still, I had fun slaughtering Camptown Races and other classics from America’s songbook. My enjoyment was contingent on no one hearing, beyond my teacher and his long-suffering neighbors.
Then Mr. Lee asked me to get involved with some Taiwanese harmonica groups and associations. He didn’t ask because I’m a harmonica prodigy. He needed my English ability. Taiwan has a very active community of harmonicists, and they frequently invite foreign harmonica players to Taiwan for concerts and masterclasses. Mr. Lee was planning to invite some 10-hole harmonica players to Taiwan. He needed my help with English. To provide me credibility with foreign harmonica players he created a 10-hole harmonica club, and anointed me president. Surprisingly there wasn’t already one. Diatonic (10-hole) harmonica is not so popular in Taiwan. The soulful whiny music diatonic harmonica excels at—blues, hard rock, country, and fiddle music—is not very popular. Instead, harmonica orchestras and ensembles are favored, thus most Taiwanese play chromatic, tremolo, bass, or chord harmonicas. The Taiwan 10-Hole Harmonica Club included a small, but passionate and highly skilled group of diatonic players, and then there was me—the putz in charge.
During my presidential reign various harmonica virtuosi visited Taiwan, including Mike Stevens, Brendan Powers, Peter Madcat Ruth, Lee Oskar, Fumio Ishikawa, and many more. If you’re a harmonica nerd, these names are huge. I found myself attending and/or helping with many of these events. I enjoyed the concerts and taking those famed players around Taiwan. The inevitable masterclasses were a nightmare. My hobby was meant to be a solitary way to work through my musical issues. I never wanted to perform in public, but the masterclasses forced me to play in front of internationally respected artists and Taiwan’s best players. My position heading Taiwan’s diatonic harmonica club compounded my discomfiture.
I always wondered if the Taiwanese players thought I was an undeserving jackass leveraging my whiteness into a position beyond my capabilities. Some Taiwanese players had technique on par with the visiting artists, and all were much better than I. The Taiwanese harmonica players were very kind, but behind the eyes sometimes I saw those beliefs. That’s okay—those were my thoughts too. I also caused disconsternation for visiting artists when I started tootling away in their masterclasses. It sounded like freeform jazz on bagpipes. For some I was their only point of contact in Taiwan while arranging their tour. It was natural to assume I’d have skills. It was all very uncomfortable.
My unjustified renown sometimes bedevil me in other ways. On one of my first dates with my eventual wife I took her to a harmonica concert. As we sat down, a photographer stuck his SLR in our faces, and popped off a half dozen quick shots. The wall of rapid flashes stunned Venus and she stammered, “Whaaa,…what was that?” It was my old nemesis the paparazzi [see: I’m Kinda Racist]. I was forced to admit, “Oh, uh, heh-heh, sorry. I’m kinda famous,… sort of”. My friend referred to me as the Paris Hilton of Taiwan’s harmonica world; all fame, no talent.
In a life filled with embarrassment, my most ignominious moment happened around fifteen years ago at Mike Steven’s concert. Mr. Lee had asked me to help invite Mike Stevens and Raymond McLain to perform in Taiwan. [You can see them playing a classic Québécois/Acadian song here]. Mike pioneered using harmonica in bluegrass music.
I happily helped correspond with them, made some of their arrangements, and acted as an English-speaking host and tour guide after they arrived. As your national harmonica representative, I introduced the sights, Taiwanese harmonica luminaries, and helped with basic cultural/language issues. It was massively fun. I enjoyed doing this with many harmonica players, but Mike and Raymond were particularly engaging. They had wicked senses of humor. We laughed our way up and down the island from concert hall to concert hall.
They were in Taiwan for four to five days and did two concerts, a short benefit show, and two masterclasses. In between Mr. Lee and I toured them around Taipei and Taichung. Mike enjoyed Taiwan and the pace of his mini-tour. He had just come from being Dwight Yoakam’s opening act, so he was used to; arrive, set up, sound-check, sound-check, play, breakdown, go, next day—next town. For him, Taiwan was leisurely.
At the Taipei concert venue, during the sound-check, Mr. Lee pulled me aside and told me I’d have to go onstage and introduce Mike and Raymond. I’m used to public speaking, but this was different. The Taipei show was in a concert hall holding over two thousand strangers. That’s different than addressing a hundred students, I know, who must tolerate me. It was scary.
I really didn’t want to do it. The entire thing was sprung on me a couple hours before the show. I’d have chewed my arm off to escape. I tried to fob it off on someone else. I even found a self-important big-mouth willing to do it. However, Mr. Lee insisted I do it. He’d arranged the concert, he was paying for and promoting the show, he didn’t want a random outsider onstage. He had a point.
As the crowd settled in, I got up onstage and introduced Mike and Raymond in English, which I admit I thought was weird—I mean the audience was overwhelmingly Taiwanese. As soon as I finished, I headed backstage intending to find a seat, relax, and enjoy the show. I should explain that Mr. Lee and I always spoke Chinese. Since we mostly communicated in the international language of music, he didn’t notice my Chinese’s limitations. Looking back I can see that Mr. Lee assumed I’d introduce them in Chinese. I presumed no one would be crazy enough to throw me onstage—in front of thousands—and expect Chinese to come out. English almost got stuck in my throat. As often happens living in a foreign country, there was a failure to communicate.
As I exited stage right, relieved to be done, Mr. Lee came running after me saying, “Wait, wait, get back on stage, you need to translate for them”.
Turns out he didn’t just want me to do the intro, but expected me to translate for the audience. So I stumbled back onstage, with zero prep, and began trying to do simultaneous translation. Judging from the looks Mike and Raymond shot me, I must have looked ill. Now, I had some Chinese, and a lot of English, but simultaneous translation is a specialized skill requiring fluency in both languages, a deep cultural understanding of both countries, and some specialized schooling. I didn’t have any of that. I really don’t know what in his experience of me made Mr. Lee think that my Chinese was up to the task.
It was an epic fail.
If you’ve ever seen a bluegrass concert you know it often involves storytelling, and the anecdotes usually have a rustic theme. Even with wonderful Chinese, I would have struggled to translate these tales. The stories inevitably went something like this: “Yada, yada, yada,… hillbilly thing, yada, yada, Moonshine,… White Lightening,… yada, hillbilly thing,… ridge runner,.. yada,… grits ‘n’ greens,… hillbilly thing,… Po’ Boy,… revenours, yada, yada, yada, Arkansas toothpick,… chicken fried steak,…chicken ‘n’ waffles,… All ‘dem all was a larkin’,… yada, yada,… ‘Ma still done blow’d up'”. You try translating that. I’d find myself a third of the way through a story and realize I lacked the countrified Chinese vocabulary to bring it in for a landing. I really needed Taiwanese. Not just Taiwanese, but backwoods Chiayi (Taiwan’s Appalachia) farmer’s Taiwanese.
I had to think on my feet and rely on humor to get me through. The only difference between that night and my worst nightmare is I was wearing pants. I don’t remember everything I said, that’s God’s way of protecting your psyche, but I do recall some, “Oh crap, my Chinese is so terrible. I can’t translate this. Umm, okay it’s a funny story. When I tell you—PLEASE—laugh and clap….Ok, NOW”. I melted down onstage before thousands. Embarrassing.
Like the stud I am, I got back onstage for the second concert in Taichung. This time I wasn’t caught off guard, I understood I’d be translating. I knew Mike and Raymond’s stage patter and the stories they’d tell. Between shows I’d worked out translations for their yarns. Some remained untranslatable or impossible to interpret for a Taiwanese audience, for those I had my jokes down. My shit was tight. The Taichung concert went extremely well. Unfortunately, it was a much smaller audience, just a couple hundred people. So, I humiliated myself in front of thousands, and redeemed myself in front of hundreds—story of my life.
After the tour finished, Mr. Lee paid me 遮羞費, compensation for embarrassment. It wasn’t necessary, the experience is one of my fondest memories. Of course, I have immensely thick skin and a boundless capacity to laugh at myself.