All posts by Darren Haughn

GenX-pat

Recently, I’ve been reading some demographers that are focused on generational studies. It has been interesting and sometimes enlightening for this GenXer. As part of an ignored generation there are things about my generational experiences I’ve not understood, since almost everything that gets written or discussed about generational topics is from a Boomer or Millennial viewpoint. These generational studies have shed a little light on some aspects of my life that I never completely understood, and surprisingly has taught me a bit about cross-cultural misunderstandings. This article is about a common GenX experience, that I thought was a universal Western experience, but turns out to be uniquely GenX, and has caused me to misunderstand Asian/Western cultural differences.

GenX’s childhood coincided with a time when children were, broadly speaking, socially despised. GenX children diverted Boomer and Silent Generation parent’s from their obsessive self-focus—and it wasn’t appreciated. It was not the time to be a child. Generally seen as burdensome, GenXers were history’s most frequently aborted children. Our upbringing reflected the period’s broader social trends and attitudes towards children. It wasn’t the fault of individual parents so much as a broad cultural trend, a societal decision to forsake childhood. Parenting books taught parents to value their needs over their child’s. A happy parent must be good for the child. TV and movies supported the primacy of parental needs over children’s, and academia lent its voice in support of the anti-childhood ethos. In the age of self-actualization, parents expected their children to self-actualize, essentially to comport themselves like small middle-agers. It was the time with the most broken marriages and broken families in history. So, GenX grew up neglected, and raised themselves like a pack of feral cats. [It’s the main reason we’re so awesome].

A typical slice of GenX life happened when I was in grade 9. A schoolmate came to class a bit pissed off, it seemed she’d arrived home the day before to find a note from her parents saying that—unbeknownst to her—they’d gone to Mexico for a week. The note said there was money on the table, Kraft Dinner in the cupboard, and that she should take care of herself and keep her brother alive. Apparently there’d have been hell to pay if he were dead when they got home. Looking back the weirdest thing is that nobody thought it was weird. Admittedly it was an extreme example, but her classmates all comforted her with their own very similar tales of parental neglect.

Raise yourself—we got no time for this shit.

As you’d expect of a generation of self-parenting children, bullying reigned supreme. I gotta admit, I don’t know when bullying came to be seen as bad—I’m guessing when Millennials started getting bullied. During GenX’s childhood, adults were pretty ambivalent about bullying. Parents would tell the victims to find a way to fix the problem themselves. Bullying built character, taught conflict resolution, and forced you to stand up for yourself. The bully in his own way was teacher and parent, and many parents appreciated the help. It was Lord of the Flies out there.

Raise yourself—we got no time for this shit.

So that’s what childhood was like, and here’s how that screwed up my cross-cultural literacy. I didn’t realize that—as a GenXer—I was raised uniquely. I thought that each previous generation had essentially raised themselves as we had. Not true. Apparently the Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, and Baby Boomers had comparatively idyllic childhoods, where they were cared for. I had no idea. I never saw Millennials grow up, as I was out of the country during their childhood and teens. I used to show up in Canada every couple years and see Millennials being molly-coddled, and there’d be some conversations with my contemporaries about how fucked up it all was. “How will they ever grow into functioning adults?” I had assumed that the Millennial’s childhood was a deviation from the norm. I didn’t know GenX was the aberration, and the Millennials were a return to normal values.

I always told my Taiwanese students and friends that rugged individualism and can-do spirit are essential cultural cornerstones in the West. No one is going to help you—you got to do it yourself. I’d explain how some of the things I commonly saw in Taiwan would not happen back home; parents lined up at schools to pick up their children, waiting for kids at the bus stop, coming and talking to the teachers, parents generally trying to fix their kids problems or provide guidance. For God’s sake, I’m a university teacher in Taiwan, and I have to deal with kid’s parents! By grade 3, I’d have been embarrassed to have my parents inserting themselves into my school life. I’d explain that these things just aren’t done in the West: we’re all about pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps. You got a problem—figure it out. I was wrong, but interestingly, I misunderstood my own culture, not Taiwanese culture.

I didn’t realize not every Western teen has been expected to confront life with the maturity and independence required of GenX. I told one-and-all that if parents tried to pull this “Asian” crap in the West, their kids would get the shit beat out of them. I grew up with a kid, nice guy, but his parents raised him like a Boomer or Millennial. They cared for him—during GenX’s childhood years!?! That poor kid’s life was a raging hellscape, he got beat up daily. “Ha, ha [in the voice of Bart Simpson’s bully], your parents love you,” boom, crash, blam…. It wasn’t cool to have parents: adults should be neither seen, nor heard, certainly they should not be arriving at school to walk you home.

When I began seeing Millennials being raised back home, I thought the West had collectively decided to become more Asian. That we were adopting the parenting style and societal norms of Asia. I was shocked. Helicopter parents in the West? How could that happen? I now know that my generation’s experiences were unique. Western society is more communal, and “Asian”, than I ever dreamed. Of course, the stereotypical differences between Western individualism and Asian communalism do exist [see: Asian Child-Rearing and Elder Care]. It’s just the differences are smaller than I’d imagined.

I’ve come to these realizations quite late. When I started asking friends in Canada about these things, they were all like, “We’ve known this for decades, where have you been? Under a rock?” Nope. In Taiwan. Because of my expat life, I hadn’t seen Western children younger than myself being raised, so I didn’t know any of this. I guess it’s always good to learn a bit about yourself, no matter how late, there are no age limitations on self-awareness: kinda like stripping in Wyoming—you’re never too old.

Please pardon the expaticus oldfartitis evident in this article, and my previous article, Taipei Traffic. If you can’t relate to the GenX themes, I understand. I’m going to write one more article that features a bit of generational navel-gazing, and that’ll end my Old Fart Trilogy.

Here’s an Unpopular Opinion: Taipei Roadways Are Smooth, Safe, and Efficient…

well…relatively speaking.

I can already hear the expat Internet erupting, “How dare you. We’re totally united in our self-righteous condescension of Taiwanese drivers, traffic, and road rules”. Yeah—no we’re not. “But how can you possibly take such a stance?” Well, here’s how…

I have a case of expaticus oldfartitis. My perspective is longer than most the whiners online. I arrived here almost three decades ago, and found myself driving a scooter, helmetless, as was the way, through Taipei traffic in my first days. [See: Surviving Taiwan’s Traffic]. That was pre-MRT, when the streets were logarithmically more densely packed than Taipei’s current gentrified roadways.

The top picture was taken in December 1987 out a hallway window at the Flowers Hotel in Downtown Taipei. The picture is of Hankou St. (漢口街) and Liaoning St. (遼寧街). The bottom picture was taken from the same window 3月13日, 2016.

 

With the higher viscosity of 1990’s traffic came a greater frequency of poor driving decisions. More people making choices meant more errors. Endless traffic jams encouraged outside-the-box thinking in order to arrive at work on time. I rarely went a week without riding up on a serious accident, my brain didn’t even process all the minor ones. I come across a lot less accidents now, I can’t really remember the last serious one. Taipei’s road conditions have improved a lot.

I’m actually legitimately surprised by the fuss over Taipei traffic that gets kicked up periodically by expats online. I guess people are arriving from whatever bucolic pasture spit them out and can’t cope. “Well, this isn’t how we do it back in good ol’ Bumblefuck”. Of course not, You can’t compare Taipei to a place with 4 vehicles per 1,000 sq. acres, a pair of which are consistently stopped in the middle of the road chatting. Be fair. How does Taipei’s traffic and road safety compare with Hanoi, Tianjin, Seoul, Hong Kong, or Jakarta? Pretty favorably.

Part of the that’s-not-how-we-do-it-back-home attitude is a tendency to deprecate or disbelieve in any traffic law that doesn’t exist back home. Hence there’s a certain expat opposition to the two-stage left turn. For readers that don’t know, a two-stage left turn can be executed by scooters. If a scooter were to make a “normal” left turn, it would need to traverse multiple lanes of traffic, from the right lane (where scooters drive), to the left turning lane. Once stopped in mid-intersection, the high volume of oncoming traffic and the large number of scooters clumped there waiting to turn left, would insure a dangerous situation. With the two-stage left turn, scooters stay in the scooter lane (on the right), drive halfway through the intersection, and halt at the front of the traffic stopped at the red light, waiting to go in the direction the scooter would have went had it turned left. There is often a box painted on the road reserving stopping space for scooters making a two-stage left. When the light turns green, the scooter heads off in the desired direction. “Computer modelling has indicated that hook turns [two-stage left turns] have the potential to significantly reduce delays and congestion in most situations, especially where overaltraffic flow is high.”* As a commuter, in my opinion, it works great. If it makes the traffic racists feel better, two-stage turns are a provision allowed cyclists in many bike-friendly Western cities.

The that’s-not-how-we-do-it-back-home crowd is also likely to complain about people driving on sidewalks. But, you do have to account for Taipei’s scooter density, the location of scooter parking (on the sidewalk), and cultural differences in proxemics. Taiwanese are more comfortable with less personal space, that extends to interactions with vehicles. The situation is similar to many Asian cities. You wanted to live in another culture, so suck it up Buttercup, and check both ways before crossing the sidewalk.

Taipei driving isn’t all sunshine and lollipops, there are some problems. On market day mornings every octogenarian in Taipei seems to hop on their bicycle and wobble unheedingly into traffic, but that’s not a Taiwanese problem—it’s an octogenarian problem. Admittedly Taiwanese 祖嬤們 do seem to have raised crotchety-and-oblivious to an art form, but it’s not a big deal, just calm down and go around. That’s the answer to most problems you might have with Taipei traffic. Driving back in the West is about order, but in Asia it’s about flow. 

I think some newer expat’s horror over Taipei traffic reflects a generational shift. Millennials and a few GenZers have arrived. They were raised with different expectations of personal safety, generally believing in a social contract where society endeavors to protect them. I’m GenX and that has most definitely not been my experience. Examples abound: did you know there were more school shootings during GenX’s teen years than Millennial’s. It didn’t start with Columbine. It’s just society didn’t give a shit—presumably because it was GenX teens shooting GenX teens. More on point would be changes to transportation that happened in the 1980s as a direct result of society’s desire to protect Millennial children. Car seats became de rigeur and minivans were developed to ensure an appropriate place to buckle that precious cargo. Is it any wonder the bubble wrapped Babies-on-Board generation would have different expectations of personal safety than the generation that played tag in uncovered pickup truck beds while bouncing down grid roads at high speed.

Upset by the sight of children on scooters? When I arrived it didn’t occur to me to be mortified. What X’er child hasn’t sailed along—unhelmeted—clinging for dear life on the back of some motorized contraption? The assumption always was that if you fell off you’d bounce. Those were just the skinned knees and broken bones of childhood. If you didn’t bounce, well, “Don’t worry, we can always make another of you,” was the familiar parental refrain. At least now children in Taipei are helmeted, they didn’t use to be.

From my (GenX) perspective if something crazy happens when going 30-50 kmh on a scooter, while helmeted,… well, it’s just not that bad. Some expats have expressed confusion online as to why the death rate on Taipei’s roads isn’t higher. Of course, the death rate is too high, as it is in any city, but from a North American perspective it’s confusingly low on a per accident basis. The reason is speed—speed kills. Most accidents in Taipei happen at relatively low speeds. When it comes to survivability on the roads, speed is more of a factor than drivers that set your teeth on edge.

Next time you’re driving around Taipei and find yourself cursing the drivers or traffic, ask yourself is the anger really justified, or are you just suffering from a privileged sense of your own safety? Do you simply have a touch of millenialitis or the newer variant genz-eitgeist?

 

I’ve been dealing with health issues, along with a general lassitude that’s kept me from writing. Apologies if you’ve been a reader and wondered what happened. Some friends and acquaintances have pointed out I should start writing again since I’m in my 50s and these are my prime wisdom-giving years. I do hope under the snark, contrarianism, and sarcasm of my writings some of you find something of some value. I’ll try to overcome my general distaste for writing and publish a bit more regularly.

 

* Hounsell, Nicholas; Yap, Yok Hoe (14 August 2013). “Hook Turns as a Solution to the Right-Turning Traffic Problem”. Transportation Science. 49 (1): 1–12. [The article is written from the perspective of countries that drive on the left].

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.