All posts by Darren Haughn

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.

Banged for Being Foreign

Here’s one they don’t teach in expat school and really should. There are people who’ll be attracted to your exoticness. Sometimes it’s intellectual; the desire to learn about another culture, language, way of thinking, whatever—this is why the offer of a “language exchange” has been the gold standard for hitting on random locals for decades. It starts the conversation.

I met my oldest Taiwanese friend this way. I’d been here days when I saw this beautiful woman on the bus. Ever the smoothie—I dropped jaw and stared. Prompting a piss-off face from her, but she was so pretty that it came across as cute and encouraging. I made my approach, eliciting a piss-further-off face that heartened me even more. Obviously, I should have crashed and burned, making an unwelcome cold approach on a random woman on the bus. I don’t remember all that was said, I can only assume my regular Bartholomew Bandyesque suavity. Despite that, the offer of a language exchange got her number and subsequent dates. Of course she knew what I was doing—chicks always know, they’re way ahead of us. Still, twenty-five years later and we remain friends.

Of course, the attraction of the exotic is often not intellectual. When I first started coming to Asia, it was pretty common among Asian women to want to try a white guy—in the words of my Taiwanese friend—to see what it feels like going in. And, she had no particular attraction to foreigners, but still even with her, there was the whiff of willingness for a little international mésaventure. I’m not sure what the appeal is, but I think we can thank Western pop-culture.

When I first arrived, decades ago, all foreign guys were regarded as essentially the same. As with any collector, Asian women have become much more discriminating, some developing maple fever [a personal favorite], while others became Anglo-anglers or Euro-tramps. Some chanted: “You splooge, I splooge, we all splooge for Spanish dudes,” while still others became girls of the red, white, and goo. Sounds great, right!?!

Not totally.

Sure, if you’re a traveler and the locals are on you like pubes on soap, well you just couldn’t ask for much more. If you’re living in Asia, at some point you’ll probably want a deeper relationship. It can be difficult navigating these landmines-with-boobs to find a sincere woman seeking a real relationship. You think you’re on the way to having a Sweet Baboo, only to find yourself with a Slutty Samantha. No slut shaming here. I love sluts. But, it’s important to know what you’re getting into, so to speak.

Sometimes Taiwanese hold an assumption that you understand that you are a foreigner [most of us do], and thus obviously ineligible for a serious relationship [many a foreigner never received that memo]. “Oh you didn’t know that? Yeah you should have—it’s obvious.” The problem can be compounded by a tendency to see foreigners as universally similar, a pack of commitment-phobic sex-crazed wastrels. “I’ve seen American movies. I know the score.” I ended up in one long term relationship when the Taiwanese woman assumed I knew the score too. I didn’t. It was a hookup that went extremely long as she didn’t have the ovaries to tell me she was just in it for the D.

In Taiwan the situation has changed. There are simply too many foreigners here. We are no longer so scarce. Of course it has always been a small percentage of Taiwanese women who’ve been interested in foreigners, but rarity assured a surprising level of dating success. Now there’s a white swinging dick on every corner. Also, Taiwanese people have become more sophisticated, they travel more, have seen more, and know more foreigners. They have more intellectual knowledge of the West, and if desired, more opportunities for carnal knowledge. We are just not as rare. Taiwan is still very amenable to intercultural relationships, but it does lack the Wild East feel it had. If you were looking for something like that, you need to head to other less Westernized areas of Asia.

I understand this article will not provoke sympathy among those who’ve not experienced fetishization. Even back in the day, during expat gripe sessions, callousness prevailed when some guy would moan on about this situation. Guys tend towards cruelty because we’re guys, and women could be mean because most expat women at the time were woefully underlaid and unprepared to sooth whingy over-satiated men. Champagne problems. Still, it was, and to a lesser degree still is, something that can happen to unsuspecting expats.

The Taiwanese Racial Slur

I like the racial epithet Whitey, it’s succinct and pithy. As great as it is, my favorite racial slur is the Taiwanese word adoah, 阿啄仔 or the alternate form 阿卓仔. The word means “big nose” or “tall nose”, the in 阿啄仔 means beak/beaky, while the alternate form’s means tall, while indicates closeness (it’s a familiarizing particle) and is a diminutive suffix. Add it all together and you’ve got foreigner, Caucasian more specifically. Since transliterating oral Taiwanese to written Chinese allows for some interpretation sometimes you’ll see 阿兜仔 or 阿凸仔 used. These are kind of funky ways of writing adoah, but I kind of like them as looks like a big nose in the center of a face, while looks like a nose. Semantics aside you got to admit “big nose” just kind of nails it.

Some take offense at being called adoah, while for others it just slides off them like a Big Mac all-beef patty off the bun. But is it racist? Well, it’s an almost perfect parallel to the English racial slur “slant-eyes”, so yeah, it’s hard to deny the insensitivity, but let me try, just to be a contrarian 混蛋 .

Don’t get me wrong, adoah can be overtly racist. I’ve had the word hurled at me in very aggressive and intimidating ways. But, in those cases even if the guy had said, “most honorable gentleman of the Caucasian persuasion”, tone and context would’ve ensured a scary—racially charged atmosphere—that’d have left my sphincter dancing.

So adoah can be used in a them’s fight’n’words kinda way, but it also may have no more implied negativity than “foreigner”. When I first came to Taiwan as a student in 1987, foreigners were either 美國人 [Americans] or 阿啄仔 [big noses]. I actually have some pretty warm memories of crowds of little kids skipping circles around me singing “big nose, big nose,….” Less amiable, but not unpleasant, are the memories of obasans pointing at me and telling their grandchildren to look at the big nose. In these contexts, personally, I find adoah neutral if not somewhat affable and was more put out by being called American.

Still times have changed and adoah is less commonly heard among Taipei’s urbane, who are reasonably aware of the sensitivities of foreigners. Outside Taipei the word gets bandied around more frequently. I’m mildly impressed though, despite not believing the word to be insulting—which many Taiwanese don’t—in the time I’ve been here the use of adoah has noticeably declined.

It’s required a shift from traditional Asian values that don’t particularly seek a broad ranging society of different ethnicities living together in respect and harmony. Most Asian societies prefer to stress homogeneity, consequently racial sensitivity is not the default setting. For people from societies that aspire to inclusivity this can be hard to accept. In multicultural Canada, where I’m from, there’s an official policy of empowering and promoting social, economic, and political inclusion, achieved partially through a constant process of navel-gazing, self-policing, and changing acceptable terms. Most Asian countries haven’t had to deal with such concerns, and so can be linguistically insensitive. Simply not much thought has been given to what words are used to refer to different races.

Taiwanese sometimes claim ignorance of the meaning of adoah, seeing it only as a word referring to foreigners. Many foreigners regard these claims with disbelief and occasionally anger. The vexation comes from a linguistic misunderstanding. We tend to learn Chinese character-by-character, building words from the individual characters we’ve learned. Multisyllabic words being regard—more often than would be correct—as collections of characters, each a word/meaning in its own right, thus allowing words to be deconstructed into deeper “real” meanings.

My explanation of the meaning of 阿啄仔, breaking the word down into characters and explaining the meaning of each character was a foreigner-type explanation. Taiwanese learn the language more holistically. Though they might be capable of breaking the word down into individual characters and examining the semantics, that’s not necessarily how they conceptualize the word. As I was writing this article my wife was surprised by the meaning of 啄. She knew the word 阿啄仔, but imprecisely understood the possible meanings of 啄. Do you continually think of the roots and stems of English words? No. It’s a word with a meaning more relevant than its Latin/Greek/Gaelic/… roots. My name is 達仁, to which my Canadian friends usually ask its meaning, and I’ll dutifully reply that it means kindhearted humanitarian or some such. Really that’s wrong. It means me. It’s a name. My name. My English name is Darren. No one asks what it means.  It means keeper of the oak grove or some such, but it doesn’t make sense to think of words in these terms.

Does your grandmother realize the Latin or Greek roots and their nuances as she uses a word? It’s unreasonable to expect more from Grandma Wang. After all, these things are rarely as simplistic as my explanation of how adoah is written implied.  Some Taiwanese assert that adoah is a sign of respect. The history and linguistics justifying this position are that the character not only means tall, but also more commonly means outstanding. Some note adoah may derive from the Taiwanese honorific title for priests during the early days of contact. Also, adoah may come from a story attributed to Zhuangzi,  an influential Chinese philosopher from the Warring States Period. It doesn’t really get much more venerable. At the same time referencing body characteristics doesn’t have the same prohibitions as in the West. [See: “Hello Fatso” And Other Taiwanese Greetings].

It’s valuable to understand where people are coming from, but ultimately it doesn’t matter whether the Taiwanese believe adoah is derogatory . Ethnic terms are insulting or neutral depending who says it and the context—those that the word is directed at get to decide. Personally I don’t see it in absolutes. I cut granny and the kids some slack, while with country folks it really depends how country. For the more cosmopolitan I have a higher standard. I also take into account facial expression and tone, can I perceive cognizance of an implied insult? If not, I’m likely to regard it as slightly funny and let it roll off me. But that’s just me, you get to decide for yourself.

To All The Women I’ve Offended Before…

I should’ve included this with my previous post: Have I Butthurt You? I’m making my posts shorter for the moment [The SicklyEgg], so women get their own separate post. Lucky.

I piss off women. I know. It’s a gift. I’ve had it since I was knee-high to a turd. With the wonder of the Internet no longer am I limited to annoying friends, family, wives, and girlfriends; now you—dear stranger—can take that ride too. What an age we live in!

My writing is very self-deprecating. I poke fun at a lot of people and social foibles, but it is mostly self-directed. The closer the group is to me, the more likely they’ll get teased. If you’re a handicapable  black woman living in the American south there’s no way for me to say anything in a self-deprecating  anger about your life, so I have nothing to say, and will do my best to observe all the social niceties—mind my p’s, and dot my q’s. If you’re part of my Taiwanese or Canadian family obviously you’re fair game. [I catch shit for this on the regular from Taiwanese family who find it hard to see the affection implied in teasing]. If you’re an expat or Taiwanese don’t expect any special consideration—we’re too close. You’re  going to get hit with the self-deprecating splash back. If you’re a woman of course I’ll tweak your sensibilities, after all  I’m half woman myself, on my mother’s side. It just doesn’t get any closer than that.

If you are an expat white woman living in Asia,… well what can I say, you’re practically me. [Mortifying, isn’t it!?!] And, I hate to break it to you sister, but we are definitely not a protected class. I admire the moxie of white women for trying; but let’s be honest, when our expat forbearers were colonizing the world, the wife was right there alongside the husband enjoying her half of the slave-provided couple’s massage. So, though not deliberately hurtful of female sensibilities, I’m also not very mindful of them.

I don’t try to offend anyone, but when I cause offense it’s usually a result of a disregard for the group-based sensitivities of those closest to me. If you have a lot of sacred cows TheSaltyEgg isn’t for you. I don’t know what I would write if I wasn’t free to write about the things and people closest to me.  Of course, the irreverence of how I do it can be offputting. I recognize that, but cheekiness is a fundamental part of who I am.  I always pick the ass of those closest to me—it’s my love language. I try to keep some personality in my writing to avoid that dry academic ickiness, but then you’re stuck with my temperament . It’s not for everyone.

If You’re Not Laughing at Your Students, You’re Doing Something Wrong

I enjoy collecting stories and as a long-term teacher I’ve gathered quite a few. I’ve already posted a funny teaching story in My Favorite Student, but here’s a couple others that might bring a smile.

I was teaching a first year university English class.  In this school, students were grouped together by major, and rotated as a unit—en masse—from classroom to classroom and teacher to teacher, kinda like elementary school back home. They’d spend 6-8 hours together daily.

In this particular class there was a couple. Pretty unusual in a freshman class, where they’ve just come from an oppressive and repressive high school experience. Most students, having worn a school uniform their entire lives, don’t know how to dress, have no sense of their own style, and can’t make themselves up. Many of the young women still sport watermelon-head haircuts. Some having come from unisex high schools are clearly freaked by having members of the opposite sex next to them. They are, in short, a mass of awkwardness and neuroses. Not a lot of dating gets done that first year.

This couple were the darlings of the entire class. They were singular for even existing, and obviously sparked the female student’s romantic dreams and the male student’s horny dreams. Titanic may have had Rose and Jack, but Financial Management class (FIN.90.104-A1/2) had Sunny and William.

One day I was marking essays and Sunny had handed in some very overwrought prose. [Asians tend towards the melodramatic in literature]. Dewy flowers were opening their petals revealing nature’s sun-dappled smile, a rainbow’s kaleidoscope was reflected in the calm pond, angels floated through the azure sky trumpeting nature’s beauty and glory, yada,… yada,…yada. You get the idea. It went on for two very densely packed pages. At the end I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about.

Then I read William’s essay. His writing was more succinct, I can quote the essay’s entirety: “Yesterday I went to Yangmin Mountain. I touched a booby. Score!!!!!” Hemingwayesque.

I looked up to see William craning his head this way and that, with a big silly grin, and puffed out chest—positively glowing. You could see the song running through his head: I touched a booby, I touched a booby, I touched a booby—score! I touched a booby, I touched a booby, I touched  a booby—score!…. You couldn’t help but like the guy.

Meanwhile sitting beside him was the equally readable Sunny. It’s amazing how clear things are from the front of the classroom. You could see the dreams of romance, commitment, roses, sunsets, and paddle boats floating behind her eyes. She was clearly revving up to turn easy-breezy happy-go-lucky William’s life into a raging hellscape of emotion and drama. The big dumb goofy bastard had no idea what was coming. You had to feel sorry for the guy. He’d had a dream. A simple dream. A pure dream. A noble dream. The dream of touching a booby. He’d achieved his dream, and at the very apex of his existence, it was about to turn to dust.

Still, it’s fun for the teacher.

More recently I had the following experience: the Taiwanese government just passed a law giving women up to one day per month leave for menstruation. Most working women don’t avail themselves of the law, fearing it might undermine their status. College women have no such qualms—they are all over that shit. Rarely does a day pass that I don’t have students telling me, in stunning detail, about their periods. It’s kinda awkward and hadn’t been very fun, until I was emailed by one particular student asking for menstrual leave. His name is Jim. I wished him luck and sent him to the Student Affairs office to get a menstrual leave form for me to sign.

If you can’t laugh at your students, who can you laugh at?!?