Life as a Freak: Being Other in Asia

This article examines the casual, almost charming, racism that gives color to expat life, those small moments that remind you that you’re really an outsider. I am relating the following stories for their anecdotal charm. If you want a more serious look at racial issues in Asia try: Asian Anti-Foreigner Bigotry Pt.I and Pt.II.

Being different in Asia can lead to bizarre experiences as locals, often unrestrained in dealing with foreigners, toss normal social mores when faced with the obvious outsider. There is often a kind of fast-and-loose disregard for social niceties as related to foreigners. The oddest examples are in Inappropriate Touching and Being Other where I describe literally being petted like an animal. The experiences ran from the pleasurable, having my arm and leg hair petted by strange women, to the less desirable vigorous chest hair stroking by a Korean man, while freebagging it in a steam bath. Don’t miss those stories.

You’d assume for homoerotic oddness that’d be unmatched, but no, during my very early days in Thailand [I lived there briefly], Korea, and Taiwan I somewhat regularly got hit on by gay men. Fine.  But, sometimes the inappropriateness of the situation made me think I must be doing something wrong. After an unusually assertive mid-afternoon invitation to enjoy a blowjob in the nearby public restroom—on a Wednesday—I was particularly flummoxed. There was no reason to believe me either gay, or looking for action. This happened during my early days in Taiwan, but also occurred in Korea and Thailand. I asked an older male student why these things were happening. In his words, it was probably because as we [Taiwanese] “know all foreigners are gay”.” Ahh. Well that explained that. I had been told something similar in the other countries. One of those racial situations that isn’t so bad, but causes pause. I’m pretty sure this belief has died over the last couple decades as interactions with the West have grown.

As globalized as Asia is becoming, you can always count on obasans to keep it real. It is a frequent refrain to hear old ladies telling their grandchildren, “Look, look,” with emphatic finger-pointing. “See the foreigner? Over there, look at him.” Gawp at the weirdness that is a foreigner. I have many friends—both Taiwanese and Western—who get really pissed off, but I don’t care about this one. You’re never going to change old ladies, and children are children.

It doesn’t stop there, when I step outside, I’m stared at by Taiwanese of all ages and genders. I’m used to it. I like it. It’s been a constant part of life since I was nineteen. During my first trip to Taiwan, thirty-three years ago, I walked into a nightclub and everything stopped. The music stopped. The dancing stopped, Conversation stopped. The houselights came up, and the entire club turned and stared at me for a solid twenty to thirty seconds. That’s the way it should be. However, ogling has been in steady decline as the expat population has grown. I don’t like it—it feels like people don’t appreciate what a special little flower I am.

As much as I might enjoy the attention it has cost me two relationships that I’m aware of. One was serious, but she couldn’t deal with the constant attention. She interpreted it—at least partially—as moral suasion aimed at getting her to conform, stop being a white-dating slut, and fulfill her social obligation to date, marry, and bear a Taiwanese. The other simply disliked being constantly noted. There’s a lot of pressure in Asia to just be another cog in the wheel, to not stand out. I stick out like a sore dink, and anyone who’s around me gets hit by the spotlight too. I guess it’s good that Westerners are less unique now—it’s helped stabilize my social life.

As a foreigner, I have been the recipient of a lot of weird friendliness, where people try to be affable, but the execution falls flat. Once while scootering around Taipei, I was chased from stoplight-to-stoplight by a young Taiwanese guy who kept trying to engage me in English and offer his assistance. I believe he was genuinely trying to be nice, but it was really uncomfortable to be chased all over town by a stranger—no matter how well-intentioned. When I came to Taiwan to study, thirty-three years ago, I went to the National Palace Museum and was quickly swarmed on all sides by hundreds of students yelling, “Hello, nice to meet you,” and trying to shake my hand. Rationally I know they were just teens trying to practice their English, but when you’re surrounded, jostled, and yelled at—no matter how friendly the intent—the result is intimidating. Similarly, at that time, I used to get chased around the city streets by adults yelling, “Nice to meet you. How are you? Nice to meet you. How are you?…” Undoubtedly they were looking for a chance to practice their English, but it was alarming.

As a Westerner, I’ve always considered myself a bit of a zoo animal in Asia—on display for the pleasure of others. The constant scrutiny has decreased over the decades as Asia has become more international. It’s like going from a caged zoo animal to one that lives in a nature park. To me the feeling of being on exhibit is an integral part of the expat experience, but life is undeniably more comfortable as one of a crowd—even if some sick part of me misses the over-the-top attention.

Hot Honeys and Dorky Dudes: Perceptions of Beauty and Interracial Dating in Asia

When I first started traveling to Asia over 30 years ago, I became aware people were having a disproportionate reaction to my appearances. To be succinct, they treated me like I was movie star handsome. I wasn’t then, am now. What was happening?

I hit Taiwan as a nineteen year old student. There were almost no foreigners at the time. As part of the class, I traveled around Taiwan visiting temples. I had two Taiwanese women follow me from city to hamlet, mountain to ocean. Everywhere I went, there they were. As a teen I was mystified by the attention and incapable of fully taking advantage. Before this, women never went out of their way—except to avoid me. I was probably the first foreigner they’d interacted with beyond the movie screen.  I was the unwitting beneficiary of a glamorized and fetishized view of Westerners common at the time. [Is it any wonder I still love this place].

I lived in Korea not long after, and found myself continually compared with Robert Redford, back when he was still handsome. I don’t look like Robert Redford—never have. I’m more of a Brad Pitt. Korean women were simply comparing me to the only handsome blonde foreigner they knew. Perceptions of my face benefited from being part of a very small control group.

Beauty is a cultural construct and is radically different between groups. I know that doesn’t seem earth-shattering, but that was pre-Internet, when cultural groups, ethnicities, races, and nationalities were not sharing videos and other information. Now we’re a little more aware—black men like big butts, white guys like big boobs, and Chinese are face-focused. (I know this is a wild generalization, but in broad sweeps it has some truth).

The Chinese have 5,000 years of literary and artistic output codifying their ideas of beauty. These ideas are numerous and deeply entrenched. As a single example there are many notions of what constitutes a beautiful female face. One traditional ideal of Chinese beauty is a face shaped like a pumpkin seed (瓜子臉).

People I met were surprised at what Asians I found attractive. Their tastes equally mystified me. When this extensive code of beauty is applied to Westerners the system implodes. Our faces defy Tang Dynasty ideals of beauty, leaving the Chinese without a baseline for judging foreign beauty. I’ve benefited from the phenomena. I have a large, protruding, hooked, ugly Germanic nose.  Asians simply cannot see it, though it is literally as plain as the nose on my face. Asians measure nose size by broadness not height. Many find my prodigious proboscis positively pretty because it’s paper-thin. Sometimes having a misunderstood face isn’t beneficial. When I was younger, my eyes were limpid pools of cobalt; an azure sea the ladies could swim in. They’ve since become plain gray. When Asians look at eyes, they simply survey the eyelid shape. Do you have double eyelids? Check. Moving on. Poetry must suffer greatly from the lack of the concept of eyes being the windows to the soul. My best and worst physical features both get ignored. I guess it’s a bit of a push.

It is interesting to watch people react to mixed couples. Those I saw were always a foreign dweeb with a super-hot—model quality—Asian woman. It was so common that it became a clichéd commentary among expats. In Thailand, Korea, Indonesia, and Vietnam I was dimly aware the women didn’t share my assessment. I have a large circle of Taiwanese female friends, they vehemently hold the opposite opinion. Often asking me why is that handsome foreigner with such an ugly woman? I used to be stunned, now I take it in stride and just wipe the pulchritude-induced drool off my cravat and shatter their reality with the news that the guy is clearly a dweeb. This doesn’t just happen in Asia. While in Canada, my wife had the distinct pleasure of overhearing strangers trying to figure out what she—an obvious babe—was doing with such a dork [me]. Years later the memory still warms her heart.

In cross-cultural dating clearly what’s happening is two ugly people are finding each other, each thinking they’ve scored big and are punching above their class. Everyone wins. That’s beautiful.

 

 

Taiwanese Generational References

The thing about cross-cultural living is you lose your frame of reference—those little tricks used to prejudge a situation. One loss is a broad understanding of each generation’s reality. For example, the Greatest Generation lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Those events shaped who they are and how they live. Baby Boomers have shared social, economic, and international events that shaped their outlook, and on-and-on for each generation. Of course each individual is different, but there is groupthink: I can better understand where you’re coming from if I know where you came from.

You lose those broad insights when moving to another country. If I’d relocated to America, there’d be slight changes. With a small knowledge of American history and culture I could conjecture other’s generational viewpoint.

Not true for Taiwan. The events that shaped generational thinking are very different. I’ve found it a useful shorthand to think of Taiwanese as sharing similarities with the preceding generation in Canada. I realize I’m screwing with reality, Taiwan lived through the same world events as other countries at the same time. But, in my personal interactions with Taiwanese there seems to be this intercultural cross-generational parallel.

People the equivalent age to Western Baby Boomers saw the Chinese arrive or arrived themselves. They lived through the darkest days of the White Terror. Their thinking was set in Taiwan’s pre-Asian Tiger days and shaped by its emergence. Taiwan had a fair amount of poverty. My parent-in-law’s generation—seventy-plus years old—seems to share similarities with the Greatest Generation. They have the extreme frugality of those who lived through the Great Depression. Don’t throw anything away, who knows when you might need a 20mm square button to match a purple leisure suit. Better hang on to that.

Taiwan’s baby boom (they don’t call it that) began a bit later, the early 1950’s,  after the KMT completely lost China and overt hostilities eased. By the mid-1960’s the birthrate began to be perceived as a problem and government began promoting the nuclear family (一個孩子不嫌少,兩個孩子恰恰好/One child isn’t too little, two is just right). These children are around thirty to fifty-five years old, but resemble the West’s Baby Boomers. They may have been born into relatively poor economic circumstances, with parents who exhibited Depression-era practicality, but they found themselves living and working in a booming economy where anything seemed possible, and want was for others.

In some ways my wife and mother are similar, each was born into strained economic circumstances with a high degree of rurality. For early Canadian Baby Boomers, photos were not a common part of family life. My mother has a couple poor quality childhood photos, and one professional baby picture. My wife’s treasured childhood memories are mostly photos of others, where she’s wandered into the background. Both consciously try to create and preserve memories. My mom didn’t have a wealth of toys growing up, but she had wanted a certain doll, which inevitably didn’t come. My wife had one toy growing up (really)—a dolly. She’d wanted a Barbie and ended up with a Night Market Nancy. Both can get a bit over-wrought about dolls.

Each came of age in a time of endless jobs and good pay, making it hard for them to relate to the economic problems not only of their parent’s generation, but also later generations. That’s me. When I graduated high school, the job market tanked—almost on that day. My generation, either by choice or necessity, went to university in droves. The job market hadn’t improved by graduation, so employment uncertainty shaped our worldview.

When I moved to Taiwan, I had a hard time economically relating to people my age. And, they couldn’t relate to me. “Why did you come to Taiwan?” I’d be honest, “Because there’s no work in Canada,” inevitably illiciting a response like, “What do you mean ‘there’s no work’? Aren’t you willing to work?” Of course, I’d do anything, “I mean there’s no work,” followed by the inevitable blank incomprehension. It was stunningly similar to conversations with Canadian Baby Boomers at the time.

Which brings us to the generation that graduated after the Global Financial Crisis (2007/8). Taiwan’s low birthrate after 1996 and oversupply of university spots sent them to university in droves.  Similar to how the bursting of the job market in Canada forced a prolonged education on many Canadians of my generation. Upon graduation this abundance of Taiwanese university graduates entered a crippled job market. These are my people. I relate to their life’s journey at a gut level, in a way I can’t connect with Taiwanese my age. Their struggles are mine. The world kicked them in the same places as it did my generation in Canada, and created people of similar outlook and attitude.

This article is a foreigner’s perspective on inter-generational differences in Taiwan. The Taiwanese have their own way of looking at generational shifts related to unique domestic events. A common one is the sharp generational divide between people who completed their education under martial law and those that did not. Or, those who came of age early in Chang Ching-kuo’s (蔣經國) reign, and look back on the Martial Law Period and early Taiwanese manufacturing boom with fondness. They’re unable to relate to the tech boom, globalization, Taiwan’s post-industrial society, etc. They are sort of like Taiwanese Trump voters or Brexiteers. These are the people that almost foisted Han Guo-yu (韓國瑜) on Taiwan.

Admittedly, this article  puts an anachronistic and foreign skein over everything. It is inherently inaccurate—and yet helpful.

Vignette #22: Expats, Celebrities & Gold-diggers

Have you ever dreamed of being a kept man/woman, a sexual plaything of the rich and famous? It’s in my spank bank rotation and I assume many women have it cued up in the ol’ flickopedia. Normally such thoughts are unrealistic fantasies, but if you were an Asian-based expat a few decades ago it wasn’t totally improbable.

Despite the even higher social bans on intercultural relationships at that time, celebrity-foreigner dating was modestly common. A brief list of some celebrities who’ve dated non-famous non-rich foreigners includes; Maggie Cheung (張曼玉)—Hong Kong actress, Mimi (張咪)—Chinese singer, GiGi Leung (梁詠琪)—Hong Kong actress/singer, Stefanie Sun (孫燕姿)—Singaporean singer,…. There are some Asian societal norms that make the Asian male star-foreign female relationship less common, but there are a handful, like Park Joo Ho (박주호) the Korean football player who married a Swiss woman.

Embed from Getty Images

 

It is easy to understand how these relationships might develop. Foreigners are frequently genuinely unaware of Asian star’s celebrity, and even when told, are often wholly unimpressed. How famous are you really if I’ve never heard of you? This still functions today, but was even more pronounced decades ago when Asian popular media rarely made it to the West. It must be refreshing for stars to hang with the truly apathetic after constantly dealing with awe-struck fans.

When I first came to Taiwan—if you were that kind of person—you could, as a foreigner, actively work yourself into the social circles of the famous. I knew one guy who tried and succeeded at just that. He was handsome and brainless—something of a mimbo. For awhile he was showing up in tabloids with this starlet or that star. His obvious gold-digging eventually got him bounced from those circles. He’s the only expat fame whore I’ve met.

Most expats are indifferent to local celebrities. I believe that nonchalance is what allows occasional social interactions with the famous. Personally—without ever trying—I’ve socialized with a movie director, a couple actors, a TV personality, and a handful of pop singers [that I’m aware of].

The first time stands out: during my first trip to Taiwan I was invited to party with a just emerging pop singer. Actually she wanted to meet my friend, because she was “into mod style” and he was a punker—a rare commodity in mid-1980’s Taiwan. A group of us sat around her apartment eating, drinking, and listening to her album. In a theoretical sense I liked the idea of partying with a star, but her fame was totally lost on me. So blasé was I that I made zero effort to remember her name.

Since returning to Taiwan, curiousity has driven me to try to figure out who she was. I’ve conjectured a few different people, currently I think it was a young Pan Mei-Chen (潘美辰). I don’t have such a clear memory of her appearances [we were drinking heavily], but I remember her album cover, and it closely matches one of Pan Mei-Chen’s.

So, Ms. Pan, if you’re reading this, and want to rehash old times over a beer you know where to find me.

“When I’m Dead…

…and gone, just sharpen
my toenails and drive
me into the manure pile”.

So said my grandfather, though he became sentimental about it at the end. Still, it hints at an earthy practicality as regards death and its rituals that was a feature of my life growing up. The soul goes to heaven and the body rots, once dead it doesn’t matter what happens on earth.

Taiwan is less simplistic. Taiwan has the three major Chinese religions; Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. However, often Taiwanese spiritual practices do not tidily fit into these religions. These are the rituals, rites, customs, and magic of the common Chinese people and Chinese Folk Religion. The state religions championed by various dynasties have incorporated these folk traditions. They are the amorphous sinew permeating Taiwan’s ritual life.

Central to Chinese folk customs is ancestor worship, which likely developed from Shang Dynasty (商朝) ancestor cults. It presumes a kind of two-way interaction between deceased members of the family and their living descendants. The ancestors remain part of the family where they are the focus of family ritual; primarily prayer and offerings. Historically ancestor worship seems to have developed out of fear; an uneasiness about the affect of a discontented ghost on the family.

The ancestors are pretty corporeal. They need their descendants to provide food, alcohol, money, and sometimes material objects or even spouses, along with prayers. To allow the dead’s needs to go unsatiated is to invite misfortune upon the family. Conversely if the ancestors are satisfied the living will receive good fortune as otherworldly repayment. It is very transactional. Sometimes the prayers are more like haranguing the ancestor: I provided you with this, that, and the other thing, yet still I don’t have _____. I’ll throw your tablet in the closet, until I get what I want. Get your act together! [Prayer in the folk tradition isn’t necessarily similar to prayer in institutionalized religions].

At the heart of these interplanar interactions is the deceased’s ancestral tablet. It looks like a small, usually wooden, grave marker. It is inscribed with the exact time of birth and death, the deceased’s name, and titles. It is often kept at the household’s family altar, where the ancestor is readily available for requests, consultations, and to receive sacrifices.

The ancestral tablet is to the left, encased in glass.

The ancestral tablet houses part of the deceased’s soul. Chinese Folk Religion, in particular the ancestor cult, views the soul as tripartite. One part goes to heaven after death, another stays with the body’s remains, and the third part is enclosed in the ancestral tablet by the family as part of the death rites. Thus, the ancestor becomes the family’s spirit-protector and the tablet becomes almost a talisman.

I used to think it would be neat to have a Chinese style family altar—part of my desire to be that funky-weird foreigner. Yeah, I’m that kind of expat. After getting a more intimate view of what’s involved though I no longer think it would be groovy. Propitiating the ancestor takes a shit-ton of time, work, and general hassle. Many modern Taiwanese share my attitude. It is possible to entrust the care and feeding of tablets to a temple. That seems a better option to me and many other Taiwanese.

Sources: The Salty Egg is almost entirely written from personal experience. I first came to Taiwan thirty-three years ago to study Chinese Folk Religion. The information here comes from that class—discussions with Taiwanese religious leaders, shamans, monks and priests, diviners and others during that trip—along with family; and my personal experience of rituals in Taiwan. Any religious observance has personal/family variance. This is a reasonable—if oversimplified—outline of this piece of Chinese Folk Religion.