All posts by Darren Haughn

Asian Values

If you’re reading this in English, I assume at some point you’ve heard the phrase “Christian values”, a phrase that sounds good—seeming to imply service, compassion, peace, fellowship, etc., but is often used to justify bigotry and small-mindedness. “Oh, but I couldn’t possibly play a peripheral role in your day of joy. If I baked the cake for your big gay wedding, and there were gay people there, acting all gay, well the thought of all that gayness makes me feel so icky, and, and, uh,… oh yeah,… goes against my Christian values.” [And Jesus wept]. It’s a handy get out-of-jail-free card used to excuse all manner of bad behavior.

Not to be outdone, Asia has its own equivalent in the concept of “Asian values”. A phrase that on the surface also sounds good, inferring collectivism, familialism, a strong work and educational ethic, etc., but has been used to validate the dickiest of dick moves. The concept of Asian values is inherently a political concept. The phrase was coined at a meeting of Asian ministers held in Bangkok in 1993 to discuss human rights. The phrase was used to try to dispute the universality of human rights and justify a lesser version of human dignity suitable for Asians. It is cultural relativism aimed at limiting free speech and human rights, and was created by Asia’s authoritarian-leaning governments for Asia’s authoritarian-leaning governments.

In North-East Asia, where I’ve spent most my time, Confucianism is given primacy, and when governments speak of Asian values they mean Confucian values. A lot of negative aspects of Asian society end up being justified by referencing Confucianism. Authoritarian Asian governments try to appropriate Confucianism to legitimize their own heavy-handed centralized governance. There is nothing new in this, two classic Confucian texts, the Record of Rites and the Rites of Zhou, were probably compiled during the Han dynasty, long after Confucius died, and reflect Han sensibilities favorable to the unified central [authoritarian] state current at the time. That remains the appeal today.

Through the 1990s and 2000s I’d hear the term “Asian values” bandied about to justify many government policies. Here in Taiwan the Kuomingdang (KMT), the ruling party during the Martial Law period, has maintained—even in the current democratic era—a bit of an authoritarian mindset that harkens back to those times. During the anti-government protests during President Ma Ying-jeou second term the familiar refrain from the KMT and its supporters was: “What about social order?!?” [an Asian value]. Don’t protest our policies, you’re Asian—it’s all about social harmony. Now just go home; respect your betters, enjoy the paternalism, maintain the communal calm, and forget about what your government is doing.

I’ve seen Asian values used as a pretext for all manner of unhumanitarian policies. “No. The government will not make any effort towards providing reasonable levels of state funding for elder care. Respect for elders and the central role of family are core Asian values. The children can do it.” With the Asian demographic collapse—no they can’t. The smallest generation is on the verge of finding itself tasked with caring for aged grandparents, retired parents, and somehow also raising the next generation, while working God knows how many jobs to try to get enough cash to pull it off. It is one of the factors making it infeasible for many young adults to contemplate starting their own families. The UN, WHO, and some international NGOs noted the coming crunch decades ago, and warned Asian governments, but were poo-pooed as not understanding Asian values. Too late Asian governments are beginning to understand their own error.

On a more personal note Asian values are often pointed to as a rationalization for closed immigration policy. “We could not possibly allow you citizenship, despite international norms regarding reciprocity, as, well, you know—you’re white. Cultural homogeneity is a core Asian value that helps promote the social cohesion necessary for social stability and harmony.” Yada, yada, yada. Upon first hearing such things, my younger, more naïve, expat self, reacted by thinking: “What monkey flung this?” After 25+ years in Asia, I now understand that most Asians have the concepts of race, culture, ethnicity, and nationality all muddled together in their minds, making immigration difficult to accept, and xenophobia an Asian value. Asian governments are just beginning to become aware that in times of demographic decline this is not wise policy, but how do you change?

The examples of how the concept of Asian values has been employed by government are innumerable, but as democracy has grown, recourse to Asian values has decreased. It still rears its head on a policy-by-policy basis, but has less of a role in general political discourse. Despite a general decrease in governmental dickiness, Asian values are still part of authoritarian propaganda—one giant flaming priapism constantly spouting off about Asian values leaps to mind. Three guesses.

Don’t Use Logic to Argue in Chinese: High-context Arguments

My Chinese ain’t great—and that ain’t great—but it’s shielded me from making some egregious cross-cultural faux pas, while allowing a front row seat to watch many with excellent Chinese totally fail to communicate and seemingly never realize the problem. Most of my expat friends, with truly high-level Chinese language skills, are surprisingly dumb about how they communicate in Chinese. They endlessly use their superior language skills to [unintentionally] alienate, frustrate, and exasperate the Taiwanese. They understand what they are saying at the nuts-and-bolts, vocabulary and sentence pattern level, while being tone-deaf to what they are conveying at the higher distal level. When it comes to languages, I may be an underachiever, but I’m not an idiot. So let me tell ya, one of the most common mistakes many expats make when speaking Chinese is their insistence on using logic.

The Enlightenment was absorbed into Western culture over two centuries ago, and now logic is core to how most Westerners comprehend the world. If something cannot be proven logically then it is wrong—it’s that simple. Most regard this as an objective, irrefutable, truth, and can get kind of pissy when Taiwanese just simply disregard their carefully constructed A + B = C arguments as irrelevant fluffery. It is provable reality after all, and thus by definition the central truth at the core of whatever is being discussed.

Not so fast whitey.

Asia experienced the Scientific Revolution differently than the West. The Scientific Revolution is generally considered to have reached China by the 18th century, but it didn’t have such a revolutionary effect. Society just kind of putzed along largely unchanged. Historians debate why the Scientific Revolution didn’t originate in China, and why its impact on Chinese society was relatively small. Was it that Chinese society already had an advanced system for explaining natural phenomena and didn’t feel a need for scientific enlightenment? Was it that Western knowledge was only allowed limited freedom to spread outside court? Whatever the reasons, for our purposes it’s good enough to know that scientific logic holds a different—less preeminent—place in the minds of a large percentage of present day Taiwanese.

Beyond historical explanations, I believe the structure of the Chinese language itself has led to a certain distrust, and possibly disdain, for pure scientific logic. Here we’re back to that old bugaboo, high-context versus low-context cultures and languages. If you don’t know what this means—you should—it is helpful for contextualizing cultural differences between Asia and the West. You can review these ideas by reading The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock followed by A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places. [There are several other articles on this topic that aren’t as on point for this discussion, but are worth a read: Help I’m Living in a High-Context Family and It’s Totally Ontological, Dude! etc.]

In the broadest sense, the structure and layout of low-context languages [English, German, etc.] is logical. Everything in the language strives to convey—as clearly and directly as possible—the logic of each thought or feeling. The entirety of English is focused towards that goal. English language by nature is dry, clinical, and technical; perfect for expressing fine gradations of meaning, and very precisely dicing the logic of any situation. Chinese, as a high-context language, is more about face, hiding true intent, and preserving surface calm, to maintain at least an illusion of congeniality. Chinese is the opposite of English, it’s poetic. It’s great for beautifully expressing the ephemeral, in a fuzzy elegiac way.  English lends itself to communicating the technical, logical, and precise; while Chinese lends itself to art and feeling.

It’s all just a cute quirk of cultural linguistics until you find yourself living in a high-context culture, speaking a high-context language, while thinking with your low-context brain. Many Western expats have an unwavering commitment to cold-hearted logic that amounts to little more than self-flagellation when living in Asia. Ahh, the life of an Asian-based expat. 😉

Arguing seems to be the point where most foreigners really drive their heads into the wall. They have their point-of-view which they try to explain with clear simple logic. It’s obviously correct—anyone can see the logic, aaannd the Taiwanese person doesn’t give a flying crap on a stick. Screw your logic—what does that have to do with how I feel? When Taiwanese get into an angry argument, they are usually trying to express their feelings about something. If they’re unfortunate enough to find themselves arguing with a foreigner, then that foreigner is likely—equally angrily—trying to express the logic of the situation, and how that shows that they are CORRECT, GODDAMNIT!!!

It’s like a chicken and a duck talking [雞同鴨講], or perhaps a more useful analogy is that it’s a bit like a man and a woman talking. You, as a foreigner, may clearly and logically explicate on your point, outlining exactly why you did what you did, hold that point-of-view, or whatever, with irrefutable logic, and all you’re going to do is piss off your Taiwanese opponent, because, of course, that has absolutely nothing to do with their feelings. When they are talking angrily, they are usually not talking about who’s logically right or wrong, they are instead expressing perceptions and emotions. How they feel about whether something is right or wrong.

I know. It’s annoying. Get used to it. The number of foreigners I’ve seen with excellent Chinese language ability, absolutely fail to comprehend these cultural/linguistic differences, and act like utter tube steaks while speaking Chinese is stunning. Don’t waste time in an argument you can’t win. It has nothing to do with logic and everything to do with perceptions and feelings. There is nothing for you to win—don’t try. By engaging in an argument, you’re breaking the surface calm that’s treasured in high-context cultures, and thus you’re the ass right from the get-go. The best thing to do is to listen quietly, acknowledge their feelings, and just go to your happy place in your mind, as they express their clearly wrongheaded points-of-view. At the end, nod and say something like that’s interesting, or that you appreciate their perspective, and then move on with your day, otherwise you’ll just annoy yourself and the Taiwanese person to no avail. [I’m 55—these are my prime wisdom-giving years].

A Few Food-related Chinese Colloquialisms

It’s funny I don’t spend more time talking about food, it’s central to Chinese culture, and by extension Taiwanese culture. I have mentioned it a bit, see Starvation Culture and Insignificant Cultural Differences.   Given the stomach’s central role in Taiwanese thought and decision-making I should actually spend more time on food culture. So, I’m going to introduce a few common, and some less common, food colloquialisms in Chinese.

1). 吃醋 chīcù – literally to eat vinegar; meaning to be enraged with romantic jealousy. Supposedly, during the Tang dynasty, the emperor decided to reward a loyal chancellor by allowing him to select a woman to take home from amongst the palace concubines. The poor guy’s wife became enraged with jealousy and tried to ruin a good thing. The emperor was piqued by her attitude and told her to choose between accepting the new woman or drinking poison. She drank the poison, which turned out to be vinegar, as the emperor was just testing her resolve.

我看到她跟帥哥打情罵俏,吃醋了。
Wǒ kàn dào tā gēn shuàigē dǎ qíng mà qiào, chīcùle.
I saw her flirting with a handsome guy, so I got jealous.

2). 吃苦 chīkǔ – literally to eat bitterness; meaning to endure hardship. The etymology seems pretty obvious, accepting and choking down a bitter taste is like bearing hard times.

她很能吃苦。 她那天殺的丈夫留下兩個孩子,沒有工作,還有一筆汽車貸款。
Tā hěn néng chīkǔ. Tā nèitiān shā de zhàngfū liú xià liǎng gè háizi, méiyǒu gōngzuò, hái yǒu yībǐ qìchē dàikuǎn.
She’s endured a lot. Her crazy-ass fucking husband left her with two kids, no job, and a car loan.

我老婆只在隔5過10 的生日時幫我吹喇叭。我真能吃苦。
Wǒ lǎopó zhǐ zài gé 5 guò 10 de shēng rìshí bāng wǒ chuīlǎbā. Wǒ zhēnnéng chīkǔ.
My wife only gives me a blowjob on birthdays that end with a 0 or 5. How I suffer.

吃苦 is normally used to describe someone else’s predicament. When referring to yourself you’re more likely to say 我不怕吃苦、吃苦當吃補 meaning I’m not afraid of hard times because…

3). 吃苦當吃補  chīkǔ dāng chī bǔ – literally to eat bitterness as a [health] supplement; the approximate meaning is to turn lemons into lemonade.

我老公每年生日都要我幫他吹喇叭,我只好吃苦當吃補。
Wǒ lǎogōng měinián shēngrì dōu yào wǒ bāng tā chuīlǎbā, wǒ zhǐ hào chīkǔ dāng chī bǔ.
My husband asks me for a blowjob every year on his birthday, so I just try to make the best of a shitty situation.

4). 吃土 chītǔ – literally to eat dirt; meaning broke or bankrupt. Makes sense, with empty pockets you’re forced to eat dirt to quell the hunger.

不行,這家妓院看起來太高級了。我最近窮到吃土。我們試試前面那個網襪阿桑,她看起來比較屬於我的層級。
Bùxíng, zhè jiā jìyuàn kàn qǐlái tài gāojíle. Wǒ zuìjìn qióng dào chī tǔ. Wǒmen shì shì qiánmiàn nàgè wǎng wà āsāng, tā kàn qǐlái bǐjiào shǔyú wǒ de céngjí.
This whorehouse looks too classy for me. I’m broke. Let’s try the one with the grandmother in fishnet stockings out front, it looks to be my speed.

很抱歉我不能和你們一起去墾丁。 我窮到要吃土了。
Hěn bàoqiàn wǒ bùnéng hé nǐmen yīqǐ qù kěndīng. Wǒ qióng dào yào chī tǔle.
I’m sorry I can’t go to Kenting with you guys. I’m broke.

5). 吃香 chīxiāng – literally to eat fragrant; meaning popular, sought after, or highly valued. It is easy to understand how this phrase was derived, of course we seek to eat fragrant food.

她又高又瘦,身材勻稱,頭髮和皮膚都很完美,當然她在演藝界很吃香。
Tā yòu gāo yòu shòu, shēncái yúnchèn, tóufà hé pífū dōu hěn wánměi, dāngrán tā zài yǎnyì jiè hěn chīxiāng.
She is tall and thin, well-proportioned, with perfect hair and skin, of course it’s easier for her in show business.

6). 吃豆腐 chī dòufu – literally to eat tofu; meaning to flirt, tease, or take advantage of someone, in a sexually harassing manner. The way this phrase was described to me is that it implies surreptitiously stroking the soft white, tofu-like, skin of a young woman. That really helps the meaning stick in my mind, but of course there’s an ancient Chinese story; during funerals the family would prepare a tofu dish for friends and relatives. Sometimes uninvited people would take advantage of the situation and go there just “to eat the tofu”.

要小心這個客戶!聽說他會趁機吃女業務豆腐!
Yào xiǎoxīn zhège kèhù! Tīng shuō tā huì chènjī chī nǚ yèwù dòufu!
Be careful of this client! Rumor has it he tries to take advantage of female sales staff!

7). 眼睛吃冰淇淋 yǎnjīng chī bīngqílín (Taiwan slang) – literally eyes eating ice cream; meaning checking out the hotties. The way I think of this is if the English expression “eye candy” were a verb phrase, it’d be 眼睛吃冰淇淋.

她穿著迷你裙走進教室,男孩們的眼睛都在吃冰淇淋。
Tā chuānzhuó mínǐ qún zǒu jìn jiàoshì, nánháimen de yǎnjīng dōu zài chī bīngqílín.
She walked into class in a miniskirt, and every boy checked her out.

8). 炒魷魚 chǎo yóu yú – literally fried squid; meaning to be fired. Supposedly shop assistance in Hong Kong, in the mid-20th century often slept in the back on straw mats. If they were fired, they rolled up their mats and left. The crisscrossed pattern of the straw mats looked similar to the cuts put in fried squid, hence it means to be fired.

你要注意點,不然小心被炒魷魚。
Nǐ yào zhùyì diǎn, bùrán xiǎoxīn bèi chǎoyóuyú.
You better get your shit together or you’re going to get fired.

9). 炒飯 chǎofàn – literally fried rice; meaning to have sex. The feeling is similar to “getting some” in English. If you’ve ever seen rice being rhythmically shaken, tossed, or stirred—to and fro—as it is fried in a large wok at a Chinese restaurant then you get it.

室友在門口掛上襪子的時候,就表示他今晚在炒飯。
Shìyǒu zài ménkǒu guà shàng wàzi de shíhòu, jiù biǎoshì tā jīn wǎn zài chǎofàn.
When my roommate hangs a sock on the doorknob, I know he’s getting some.

Well, I bit off more than I could chew with this one. I intended this to be a short article with a couple of phrases that might be interesting. However, there are so many food colloquialisms in Chinese that this is going to be the first of two or three parts. As always be aware that my Chinese isn’t the greatest. I did my best to give translations that convey both the feeling as well as the meaning. The expressions in this article are the ones I think are pretty commonly known among us expat types, but there are many more… Part II coming soon-ish.

I Want a Filial Man

The Salty Egg is a tribute to one man’s culture shock, but the longer I’ve lived in Taiwan the more my struggles have come to revolve around arcane points of culture. As I found myself grappling with the cultural minutiae of the Taiwanese grandmother-in-law/foreign grandson-in-law relationship, I realized my experiences might not be applicable for many readers. The large, relatively visible cultural differences, no longer attract my interest, in fact I struggle to notice them. So here is an example of a relatively easily observable cultural difference that still blows my mind.

I’ve spent all my working life in Taiwan teaching young adults ages 18 to 30. Early in my teaching career I found myself trying to explain the term mama’s boy. You’d think it’d be easy, but I had one hell of a time. The class proved incapable of understanding the terms negative implications. “But he’s a man who loves and cares for his mommy. That’s good right? Any woman would want that”. Welllll,… I’m not so sure….

Later in class we were having a discussion about the student’s ideal mate. The class was mostly women in their very early 20s. I was expecting adjectives related to handsomeness, muscularity, height, skin tone, anything along those lines—something that’d make a vagina try to swallow itself. Instead, nearly universally, the students stated the first and most important thing was that he be filial.

Say whaa??? I guess I could’ve understood if the male students were giving that answer. After all, traditionally the wife might be expected to move in with his parents and take care of his family. Despite societal pressure, the boys tended to be much more appropriately laser focused on boobs and hair. Kudos to them. But where were the girls coming from?…

When I queried their priorities, the female students would assure me it’s very important that a boyfriend dote on his family, particularly his mother. That must be his foremost concern. They seemed to think that the way he treated his mother would have some implications for how well he’d treat other women. I don’t know how they came to that conclusion. The domineering mother-in-law, beleaguered wife, and whipped mama’s boy husband relationship is thematic in Chinese culture. How could they have missed it? It just seemed so obviously antithetical to their self-interests, and frankly a weird thing for very young women to think about.

With the benefit of a couple decades of Taiwanese experience, I now guess they were raised to believe that filial piety is an important quality in a boyfriend or husband. Their families, presumably, believing that if the man cares about his family, then, by extension, should they marry, he will also care about his wife’s family. Meh. Maybe. Also, perhaps some of these women were trying to appear to be “good girls”. As Taiwanese women approach thirty, filial piety seems to become less of a priority in a potential mate. Perhaps they’re less concerned about appearing to be a “good girl” and they’ve had enough life experience to see how it works out for other women.

The experiences I describe were a long time ago, but things haven’t changed that much. When I ask my current classes about their ideal mate, there’s a wider variety of answers from the females like; can dunk a basketball, has big biceps, tall, long wavy hair, etc. My students are currently all 18-19 years old, so those types of answers seem reasonable and age appropriate. I don’t think this really represents a change in young Taiwanese women’s ideals. It just seems like they’re a little more comfortable letting their freak flag fly than previous generations. Filial piety still is a frequently stated characteristic of the ideal mate for these women. [The boys remain hyper-fixated on knockers, tresses and a well-turned-out clavicle. Ya gotta love the rapscallions!]

The whole situation continues to astound me. I think it’s a pretty big difference between Western and Asian women. I can’t pretend to know Western women very well, but I’m pretty confident that the ideal man described by these Taiwanese women would cause pink nipples to invert.

Will China Invade Taiwan?

A couple of readers have asked me to write this article in light of recent cross-strait tensions. I have always avoided political and geostrategic topics because there are other better people to read on the topic. Besides, I enjoy my little niche, writing about insignificant aspects of daily expat life. Politics is not my forte, so take what I say as little more than one opinion. If nothing else, hopefully it will give some insight into the feelings of being an expat in Taiwan at this time, which is this blog’s purpose.

Nobody—not even experts—have any real idea if China will invade Taiwan. Here’s the problem: President Xi, in China, has created a massive cult of personality, systematically eliminating any sources of information that might act as reality checks to his perceptions. He’s even more isolated than President Putin, and we all know how that’s worked out. So, anything I say here has no meaning if one day President Xi wakes up constipated and decides he needs to invade Taiwan to clear his bowels. If he says so, then it will happen.

Mostly the Taiwanese are blasé about any threat of invasion, as you would expect of people that have dealt with this intimidation for generations. The Ukrainians also didn’t pay much attention as the Russian army rolled up to their border. It is perhaps a normal reaction.

Most of my expat friends living in Taiwan are rather less unconcerned, but comfort themselves with logical arguments why it couldn’t happen, usually centered on the idea that the Chinese military is incapable of successfully invading Taiwan. They are right. The PLA is massively corrupt, making the Russian army’s venal general staff look like little more than morally ambiguous street urchins. Broader Chinese society looks down on soldiers as uneducated hicks, causing morale problems. The amount of naval and air power required to get an invasion force across the Taiwan Straits is stunning. The times of year that the Straits are navigable by troop carriers is small. Once you get to Taiwan, where do you land? There are only a few places that might be suitable for landing an army. It is relatively easy to concentrate defensive forces at those beaches. The PLA would need to take, hold, and resupply those beaches before moving inland, where they would quickly run into mountainous terrain. Maintaining supply chains from China to troops fighting in Taiwan would be a logistical nightmare. How many casualties would the Chinese public accept? The actual fighting would, after all, fall upon the little emperors created by China’s One-Child Policy. With my limited military background, and without taxing my brain at all, I came up with these very obvious problems facing the Chinese military. I’m sure there are multitudes more obstacles facing a Chinese invasion.

I do not believe that China can successfully invade and take over Taiwan. Here’s what scares me—just because they can’t do it doesn’t mean they won’t. Even if unsuccessful, it sure as hell would ruin my life. All these larger reasons for why it couldn’t happen have no meaning if President Xi is responding to a different “logic”, and the stimuli shaping his outlook are different than for Westerners.

China has huge problems; socially, economically, politically, demographically, environmentally,…. But, let’s just look at what I think is China’s biggest problem—demographic collapse. Urbanization causes demographic decline as city dwellers no longer need kids for labor, nor can afford them. China just came through a period of the most vast and rapid urbanization in world history. There have been the expected declines in birthrate and the problem has been compounded by China’s One-Child Policy. Chinese society will not be able to sustain itself within the next 10-15 years. There simply won’t be enough people of productive age. Demographics is at the root of most of China’s other problems. Population contraction is being faced around the world, but is particularly acute in China. Barring massive immigration to China [not going to happen], China is facing monumental societal upheaval.

The CCP hates that. They’re all about control and maintaining power, whatever it takes. As social stability and the Chinese people’s ability to generate and maintain wealth declines the CCP finds itself in jeopardy. Their justification for holding power has been they’d keep citizens safe and provide a chance at wealth. Demographics, COVID, and CCP mismanagement have laid waste to that social contract. So, how can the CCP justify maintaining power? They have just one card to play—enflaming rabid ultranationalist sentiment. And that’s why I’m not so nonchalant about the threat posed by the Chinese military. Invasion might end up being the only option.

However, if China has any dreams of invading, they are on a timeline. They likely have to accomplish it within the next 10 years before demographic collapse makes it a nonstarter. Also, China has had a large military buildup over the last decade, and it’s unclear if they’ll be able to sustain that level of acquisition. They may need to use their toys or risk them decaying unused and irreplaceable. Sure invasion wouldn’t be “logical”, but the CCP does all kinds of things that defy [our] logic. They didn’t need to ruin Hong Kong. It wasn’t logical. But, they did it anyway, largely because of internal political struggles within the CCP. Those forces are still in play, and trying to use the Taiwan issue for political gain.

Personally I do not believe an invasion is imminent. I’ve always thought a blockade is a more likely scenario. I do think there was probably an invasion plan in place, for the near-term, that was made obsolete by the Ukraine war and the world’s response. President Xi undoubtedly expected a weak-kneed reaction from the anemic democracies of the world when faced with the military might of an authoritarian powerhouse bent on getting things done. [Remember Xi is drinking his own Kool Aid]. Now he needs to go back to the drawing board and come up with an alternate plan, but most his planners and freethinkers have been disappeared, so it’s a task.