All posts by Darren Haughn

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.

 

Male-Male vs Female-Male

I’ve been distracted by the covi-plague, but it’s time for me to get back to my bread and butter—writing about nothing. That’s my sweet spot.

As mentioned in Expat Friendships developing deep companionships as an expat is difficult. The problem extends to expat-Taiwanese interactions, though for different reasons. I’ve been here a long time. Most of my friends and acquaintances are Taiwanese. I have some wonderful female friends; but guys, not so much. I have actually actively sought male friends, largely unsuccessfully.

When I was single, I was aware of the problem, but not much bothered. I had an army of female friends. If I wanted to see a movie, go dancing, have coffee, take a trip I knew the perfect companion. Beyond my obvious sexiness—to know me is to need a change of panties—there were other appeals for Taiwanese women in having an intercultural friendship.

Twenty or more years ago there was a distinct coolness factor in having a foreign friend. Look, I’m international, I can function in the wider world. However, familiarity breeds contempt, with a passel of foreigners on every corner now, perceptions of our suavity have slipped. But still, we retain some appeal. Many women enjoy communicative activities and language learning. Foreign friends are a great way to practice these skills. That’s why the whole language exchange thing was such a great fiddle for finding dates. It was useless for learning Chinese, but awesome for the social life. Still works, but not as well.

Great, right!?!

Not totally. From my earliest days here I’ve focused more on developing Taiwanese friendships than expat friendships. I hoped to gain cultural insights and smooth the transition into Taiwanese society. It worked, but I ended up with all female friends, any guy friends were expats.

As much as Taiwanese women may enjoy intercultural friendships, most Taiwanese men find them wearisome for much the same reasons. What guy wants the annoyance of communicating through a haze of cultural misunderstandings and worse—in English? It’s like doing extra credit in school long after graduation.

As an illustrative anecdote, years ago I was at the site of a traffic accident where a car struck a scooter. I went running up to assist. The scooter driver was on his back, on the asphalt, looking surprisingly chill—until he saw me, when genuine panic Took over. He started sliding on his bum away from me, pushing himself with his hands and uninjured leg, while agitatedly saying, “No English,… no English”. I tried to calm him, but he wasn’t having it. The perfect metaphor for my attempts at friendship with Taiwanese guys.

Also, I was twenty-nine when I arrived in Taiwan. By that age guys have their circle of friends and generally aren’t looking to expand. I found there were simply less opportunities for developing male-male friendships with Taiwanese.

The feeling was a bit mutual. I didn’t seem to have much in common with most Taiwanese men. The ones I met didn’t have a lot of hobbies or interests. They just wanted to talk about their jobs and stock portfolios. The Taiwanese stock market was really booming at that time, and guys were deeply fascinated by how well they were doing. Not a great conversation.

The downside relying heavily on XX chromosome friendships became manifest when I got married. I lost all my friends when I tried cleaning out the non-platonics.  Turns out all the female friends I’d accumulated over a dozen years weren’t as conversant with Plato’s canon as my wife would’ve preferred. Somehow I’d failed to notice that even my purest friendships were less than transcendent.

Marriage may have closed a beautiful door, but it did open a less comely window. I’ve developed some male acquaintances from among my wife’s guy friends. They’re forced to interact with me. Before marriage I had one true Taiwanese guy friend, after marriage maybe two—I have a pretty strict definition of true friendship—and a  handful of acquaintances.

I think the situation I’m describing is no longer. Younger Taiwanese men seem more open to developing international friendships. And, the plethora of foreigners living in Taiwan means Taiwanese women have more chances for cross-cultural friendships and language practice should they desire. Now a moderate looking foreign guy is unlikely to find himself with such a stack of female friends, at least not without considerable effort. I suppose these changes are one  impact of globalization. It’s an improvement.

I have no idea if long-term female expat experiences are analogous, and they also find it easier to develop friendships with Taiwanese women. I’m going to guess it’s similar, but less extreme.