All posts by Darren Haughn

Vignette #19: Disorientation and Discombobulation in New Taipei

I’m back living in the suburbs. My first decade in Taiwan, I lived exclusively in the Yungho (永和) or Chungho (中和) areas of Greater Taipei. I loved it, but when I married, I moved into Taipei. I’ve moved back. We got a new place in Chungho, not far from Yungho. Google maps says the living room is in Chungho, and the bedroom is in Yungho. That’s one of the hardest things to get used to about Yung/Chungho. The way the two districts interweave. It’s confusing.

The dilemma is amplified by the Taiwanese convention of every city, town, and district using the same street names, a real problem in densely pack and intertwined Yung/Chungho. You can very easily be riding down a certain street, look up and find yourself crossing the street you thought you were on. Unbeknownst to yourself, at some point the name of the street you were on changed, then you drove out of Yungho, entered Chungho, thus allowing you to traverse time and space to intersect with the road you were on. The space-time continuum is more plastic outside Taipei, or possibly it’s the twisty circular nature of the roads. Yung/Chungho is particularly cruel on visitors because the amorphous nature of their boundaries make it easy to cross, unawares, back and forth.

I spent my first decade in Taiwan muddled and befuddled on the roadways across the bridge. If you’ve navigated New Taipei and arrived at your destination only to find you’re in the entirely wrong city, you’re not alone. It’s not just a stupid foreigner thing. A Taiwanese person created a rhyme to help:

繞口令—–中永和的路名

永和有永和路,中和也有永和路, 中和有中和路,永和也有中和路;
中和的中和路有接永和的中和路, 永和的永和路沒接中和的永和路;
永和的中和路有接永和的永和路,中和的永和路沒接中和的中和路。
永和有中正路,中和也有中正路,永和的中正路用景平路接中和的中正路;
永和有中山路,中和也有中山路, 永和的中山路直接接上了中和的中山路。
永和的中正路接上了永和的中山路,中和的中正路卻不接中和的中山路。
中正橋下來不是中正路,但永和有中正路;
秀朗橋下來也不是秀朗路,但永和也有秀朗路。
永福橋下來不是永福路,永和沒有永福路;
福和橋下來也不是福和路,但福和路接的卻是永福橋。

It’s a tongue twister and mnemonic device to remember which streets intersect, interconnect, or exist in both districts. The Chinese is simple, If you can read it, it’s cute. If you can’t, listen to it being sung here. It is very catchy. Good luck journeying through the burbs.

Reflecting on Canada: Reverse Culture Shock (Pt. II—The Niggling Little Issues)

Canada’s larger paradigm shifts while I was away are dealt with in Part I. There are also the seemingly small things about Canada that might cause reverse culture shock. Though uncomplicated, these changes in yourself, or your home country, really hit you where you live. It is the reverse culture equivalent of simple culture shock—why do you eat that? You think karaoke is fun? How is that joke insulting?

The first of these simple reverse culture shocks would undoubtedly be the weather. I remember watching an expat friend return to Saskatchewan from Taiwan for a visit in winter. He’d been living in Taiwan for a decade and arrived during a cold snap. The skin on his hands dried up and fell off, leaving red, itchy, gross appendages. I wouldn’t look forward to dealing with a real Canadian winter.

One of the most bizarre changes to Canadian cultural norms that happened while I was gone—and totally blows me away—is Tim Hortons. When did that place become THE Canadian food experience? When I lived there it was little more than a place to go for crap coffee if you were out in the wee hours and nothing good was open. Ironically, it became an iconic piece of Canadiana when it was sold to an American group. If I ever consume that crap and pronounce it wonderfully Canadian, shoot me.

Growing up in a cold climate I cocooned myself in layers of blankets and quilts to sleep. It was a wonderfully secure and relaxing feeling to poke your nose into the cool air from under a mountain of blankets, very like swaddling. When I first moved to Taiwan, one of the adjustment problems I endured for years was being unable to get a really good sleep without the weight of a pile of bed covers pressing down on me. After decades, I’ve finally habituated to sleeping semi-nude upon the bed, under the air conditioner, with no covers. Try getting that out of your mind. Of course, why would you want to? Now when I visit Canada, I struggle to sleep under all those covers. I feel claustrophobic, like I’m suffocating.

One advantage of living in a foreign language environment is you have a fair expectation the people around you will not understand what you’re saying. I have become used to saying whatever I think whenever I want. It is becoming a problem as more people in Taipei understand and tune in, but my social habits were set in an earlier time. This assumed privacy has made many of my generation of Asian-based expats excessively direct and often rude. [See: The Benefits of Being Misunderstood]. Canada, during my time abroad, has gone in the opposite direction, becoming less verbally freewheeling. It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize my mouth getting me into trouble upon returning to Canada.

Most Canadians would be surprised to learn that they have a reputation for being aloof and borderline unfriendly. Though I understand the Canadian perspective on personal space, privacy, and amiability, after spending most of my adult life in Taiwan, I don’t share it. My personality tends towards introversion and quietness, but when you throw over all your friends and family to live as an expat, being an introvert doesn’t work. [See: Expat Friendships]. You need to be gregarious, meet strangers, and form new connections. I’ve gotten used to committing random acts of friendliness that fall totally flat in Canada. Once walking down the street in Saskatoon, I spotted a shop girl, in a store window, with a full-sleeve tattoo. It was impressive. So, like the Canadian-Taiwanese that I am, I spun around and went into the store to talk to her about her tattoo. You would have thought I was a mass murderer hell-bent on raping her in the middle of the store. It was a Canadian moment. I didn’t enjoy it, and it has repeated itself with both men and women when in Canada.

As a long term expat, one problem I have returning to Canada is finding everything unreasonably expensive. I think this is as much a psychological issue as economics.  My sense of Canadian value was set as a student 25-30 years ago. At the time, I might have reasonably, tried to eat and entertain myself for a week on $5-$15. Now when I go home and find a beer and burger kicking the crap out of a twenty dollar bill, I start channeling my grandfather: “$17.50!?! $17.50?!? That’s outrageous! Why in my day a lad could live for two weeks on $17.50, and still have enough change leftover for a blowjob”. It might just be age and psychology. I wasn’t present for many changes in Canadian society, including a period of hyperinflation during the oil boom, so I keep getting blindsided by costs. It’s like the normal aging process amped up on crystal meth.

Finally, no discussion of reverse culture shock would be complete without talking about driving. When I drove in Canada, before coming to Taiwan, I was a cautious and patient driver. I do drive in Taiwan and have the whole time I’ve lived here. I am , also, a very cautious and patient driver in Taiwan. But, when you take that careful and patient Taiwanese driver, and drop him onto a Canadian road—he’s the most aggressive asshole out there. I struggle with this every time I return to Canada. Usually before driving, I take the car out and drive around quiet streets, trying to redevelop a sense of Canadian timing. Even so, I struggle not to turn left as soon as a light turns green, to beat oncoming traffic. I find it hard not to dive the car into the smallest of spaces when changing lanes. I have a totally non-Canadian idea of proxemics as related to traffic. Most streets in Canadian cities seem like giant empty parking lots to me.

I could keep this list going for much longer. I haven’t touched on tipping, meat portions, socially acceptable sweat levels, etc., but I’ve run long.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflecting on Canada: Reverse Culture Shock (Pt. I—Big Things)

After I posted my article on transnationalism, someone wrote and asked me to expand on what I’d said, and I thought to myself…fuck off. Just kidding. I thought who knows. Maybe. My articles on the Taiwanese generation gap and Taiwanese reverse culture shock got me thinking more about alienation from home and globalization, so maybe I have more to say. This article is in two parts; the first part is somewhat serious and deals with bigger issues, the second part is lighter and discusses small things.

Friends and family tell me that I’ve changed and wouldn’t fit back into Canadian society. From my perspective, I haven’t changed much, but Canada and Canadians have changed a lot. I’m a perfectly preserved specimen of 1994 L.B. canadianeis. Some of Canada’s evolution matches global trends, others are uniquely Canadian. Either way, we’re in agreement that I wouldn’t fit in anymore.

I’ve been pretty continuously outside Canada since 1994. When I left, the internet existed, but it was totally different than it is now. There were no browsers. Very few people had even heard of it. It certainly was not putting the world at your fingertips. I’ve written a bit (here) about how the internet has internationalized life in Taiwan. It has also internationalized Canada, particularly in rural area. Fads, fashions and trends are instantaneously global now. Growing up in Saskatchewan, we used to be able to watch a fashion trend arrive. It followed a certain pattern. If the trend was coming from Europe or New York, it would hit Toronto first. In a couple years it would arrive in Saskatchewan. If the trend came from Los Angeles or Asia, it would hit Vancouver first, and make its way to Saskatchewan in a year or less. Via travel and TV we’d be aware of what was happening in the major centers, it’s just that it would seem stupid until the fad actually swept over Saskatchewan.

The internet has changed my home for good and bad. Almost anything that is available anywhere in the world is also available in Saskatchewan which is more a part of the wider world. However, some of the more lunatic ideas sweeping social media have found fertile soil in Western Canada.

In particular a kind of anti-science—anti-fact—ethos pervades. The root cause would seem to be oil. Much of Western Canada really profited from the oil boom when China ramped up industry. At the national level a pro-oil Albertan Prime Minister was elected. He did what he could to stifle the spread of facts. He went to war with Environment Canada and tried to muzzle scientists. It had a Dark Ages feel—we can’t stand the light of knowledge, it scours the flesh so. Judging from social media, Western Canada is a sucker for every piece of unsubstantiated, nonscientific, BS that gets posted. I think the root cause is a strong desire to deny climate change in an attempt to help the oil industry. There is room for legitimate scientific debate on climate change. However, the people filling my social media with climate change denials don’t know anything about climatology. They back themselves up with pseudoscience and fallacious arguments: It flooded a hundred years ago, so all the flooding now cannot be caused by climate change; it snowed, climate change is a hoax. I know nothing about climate change, so I’m going to take the word of oil executives and the politicians they pay. Of course poor scientific education and a lack of critical thinking are partly to blame, but largely it is economic self-interest. In the words of Upton Sinclair:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

The same thing is happening around the world, President Trump is trying to destroy the EPA and crash global climate change accords, because it’s all a hoax the world’s scientists concocted. His single-digit IQ and empirical research tells him so. Canada actually beat Trump down the path of ignorance.

I left Canada before the last oil-boom really got going. People didn’t try so desperately to deny science. There was always a kind of anti-intellectualism that I assume is common in farm communities, however no one was trying to say the earth is flat, vaccines are harmful, or that scientific knowledge must be stopped—it’s all bunkum. Now when I go home I do meet people desperate to be freed from knowledge’s oppressiveness. It’s weird.

Another area where Canada is following global trends is the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment. As essentially an immigrant myself, I find this one especially execrable. My contact with Canada mostly comes through family and friends in Western Canada. This may be skewing my understanding, the politics of Western Canada can be particularly vile. Maybe I’m looking at the past through rose-colored glasses, but during the last major refugee crisis to hit Canada, we took a lot of Vietnamese boat people. I don’t think there was so much negativity around the refugees. We didn’t have a direct role in creating that crisis. Canadian military operations helped create the Syrian refugee crisis. Bomb the shit out of people and they’re going to run. I suppose the difference with Vietnamese refugees is Syrian refugees are a little too brown, and a lot too Muslim.

I guess I came of age in a much kinder and more humanistic Canada. Since I’ve been gone Stephen Harper became Prime Minister, and he brought Alberta’s political culture to the nation. Alberta politics has been borderline insane since 1935 when a right-wing populist party took control of the Provincial government and held it for almost forty years. Right-wing populism always has aimed to exploit voter’s fear and bigotry. That this political culture spread to the rest of Western Canada, and with the election of Stephen Harper, infected the national body politic, places me outside Canada’s Overton Window. National and provincial politics, and Canadian political discourse,  would undoubtedly cause reverse culture shock as 1994-Canadian meets 2019-Canadian.

The rise of endless war in the Middle East parallels my expat experience. Desert Storm I: The Genesis broke out while I was in Thailand, my first extended stay in Asia. Canadian troops were there for the original, the sequel, and all other messes in the Middle East, up to and including the Syrian crisis’s early days. I believe this continual war footing has had a strong effect on Canadian identity and psyche. It has been a slow moving change, so it seems like Canadians living in Canada are unaware of the changes. Blind patriotism, jingoism, my country—right or wrong—has increased since I’ve been gone. The Canada I grew up in hated this attitude. It was part of the reason Canadians feared being misidentified as American. To me opposite to blind patriotism partly defines Canada’s national identity. Seeing Canadians acting like Americans is disconcerting. This attitude also contributed to the rise of right-wing populism. The hate engendered in these politics were part of the lunatic fringe in my Canada. It is a lot more mainstream now.

During return trips to Canada the thing that has caused serious reverse culture shock has been massive inflation brought on by the oil boom. The Canadian dollar’s value rose dramatically without a commiserate drop in prices. Most Canadians were unaware of this inflation, because the prices they paid remained stable, but there was approximately a 25%-30% rise in the real cost of products. (The equivalent to how much the dollar rose in value). I sure noticed the difference as my Taiwanese money went much less far. The price of a trip home rose precipitously. The cost of servicing my Canadian student loan debt became very onerous.

Despite all these changes, it is nice to note that some things are shockingly consistent. Growing up in Western Canada was a continual political battle with Trudeau. Forty years later and it is—amazingly—the same. Kind of warms the heart.

Part II talks about some of the fun little sources of reverse culture shock. [See: Reflecting on Canada Part II]

Silly Little Couple’s Fights

Each culture seems to have its own archetypal couple’s argument. They are the stereotypes convenient for jokes, TV shows, and other pop culture references, whether true or not.

In Canada, and many other Western countries, the prototypical argument is about leaving the toilet seat up and the female taking an unanticipated midnight bidet ride. Relationship hijinks ensue, and jokes abound about this situation, sitcoms and movies are replete with references. Do couples really spend much time quarreling over the nocturnal urinary patterns of the human male? I don’t know. They shouldn’t, a sitz bath is good for female perineum health. (You’re welcome). But still, it is the prototypical couple’s fight in the West.

Taiwan has its own clichéd couple’s fight; the question of who will take out the trash. For the majority of Taiwanese there is no curbside pickup or option to throw the trash in a back alley for later removal. Instead trash and recycling trucks meander through each neighborhood twice daily. The trash truck blares Beethoven—who must be rolling in his grave—to call people to bring out their trash, forcing them to drop whatever they’re doing, grab the trash, hustle down however many flights of stairs and try to meet the trucks [Video]. It’s annoying to put it mildly. The issue isn’t pure laziness, nor that the task is too onerous. In fact taking out the trash is a communal event, where you get a chance to pass the time of day with neighbors. It’s kind of pleasant. However, it is difficult to be there when the truck is scheduled. Most people work long hours and then may have evening plans that preclude them making it to the truck. I remember once being unable to get to the trash truck for three weeks. My fridge and freezer were stuffed with so many full trash bags that I couldn’t store food. I suppose the system worked okay when every house had a stay-at-home housewife. Not true now. Taking out the trash is, supposedly, the source of much bickering among Taiwanese couples.

Mixed-couples in Taiwan have their own typecast source of friction—control of the air conditioner. If the Taiwanese partner exerts dominance, the air conditioner may not get turned on until the foreign partner nears death, and even then only for a short time, leaving the foreigner to spritz all over the furniture. When sanity prevails, and the foreigner controls the air conditioner, the Taiwanese person is left shivering and shaking, attributing every sniff, cough, and sneeze to the [comfortable] temperature. I have one Taiwanese friend who claims she divorced her foreign husband because of air conditioning. It sounds apocryphal to me, but she swears it’s true.

I can’t speak to the truth of any of these stereotypes. However, these are the conventionalized couple’s arguments in Taiwan. They feature in conversation and jokes, just like the toilet seat up or down in the West.

Humor’s Intercultural Perils: Why’s Everyone Pissed Off?

Do Chinese speakers have a sense of humor? On its face it seems a ridiculous question. However, many Westerners living in Taiwan have reached the conclusion that humor and Chinese culture are antithetical. As crazy as it sounds, it has a logic.

I once was one of those foreigners—I’ve since reformed. I would tell people that if you were being politically correct you’d say that humor is culturally defined and each culture has its own distinct sense of whimsy. However, if you were being truthful, you’d admit Chinese speakers have no sense of humor. I’d further explain most Chinese speakers, upon hearing a comedic aside, analyze it from every angle seeking a way to be offended. Further clarifying that a typical Chinese inner monologue after a joke might run: Have I been insulted; has my culture or race been slandered; and, how morally indignant am I, on a scale from outraged to apoplectic? If I wasn’t belittled, who was? Do I care? How much? If not directly about me, am I somehow peripherally being mocked? Let’s dig through five thousand years of human history trying to find some way to take umbrage. If not insulting, then is the joke somehow socially inappropriate?… After all this mental arithmetic, nothing is ever funny. That’s why sarcasm doesn’t exist in Chinese. That’s why Chinese speakers rely on the most unsophisticated types of humor; puns and puerile jokes, the domain of young children in the West.

I was wrong.

Well, sort of, like everything about culture, there are shades of grey. The mental gymnastics described above though overstated are kind of true. Thus, American humor can be very tough for Chinese listeners. A lot of American humor is outwardly directed, sometimes aggressive, and based on sarcasm and insult. Chinese speakers do better with American wit when that aggression is turned inwards to become self-deprecation. Then it’s clear to us Chinese speakers who is being insulted, and we’re okay with it.

Here’s where I was really wrong. Sarcasm exists in Chinese. It is very common for a group of friends engaged in badinage to be stunningly insulting and sarcastic, in a humorous way. The difference isn’t so much a matter of humor as variation between high-context and low-context communication styles (See: A Low-Context Dude and Unified Field Theory for background on the cultural linguistics). Americans are noted for their ability to move from strangers to ass-slapping and calling each other Butthead in the course of an evening. It’s friendly. It is also a very low-context cultural style. Other Western cultures, though perhaps more reserved, are also relatively low-context.

Chinese culture, and Asian cultures in general, tend to be more high-context. There is an emphasis on forming and deepening relationships within your group. As a consequence of this cultural style, humor is geared towards the in-group. If you’re not part of the group, you won’t understand the in-jokes, and likely will never hear them. Shared humor builds group cohesion and helps distinguish the in-group from outsiders. It’s coded messaging for the initiated. On the macro level, Taiwanese humor is a good example, much of it is based on the interplay of Chinese and Taiwanese, kind of creating puns across linguistic lines.  Only proficient Taiwanese speakers can really hope to understand, even in Taiwan that’s only a bit more than half the population. Non-Taiwanese have no hope.

Ultimately the tendency to confine joking to peers explains  why many foreigners living among Chinese speakers think they lack humor and don’t understand sarcasm. As outsiders, they are not invited to share in the jokes. Taiwanese people are capable of great sarcasm, and cut on their friends hard, but that’s just it, the humor is for close friends.

Humor and sarcasm coming from outside the in-group can seem aggressive to Chinese speakers. That is not how humor flows in Taiwan, rapier-like wit should only cut a group member—for social cohesion there’s an emphasis on maintaining surface calm among the wider society. For foreigners from a low-context culture, that doesn’t emphasize maintaining a respectful separation between social groups based on status and hierarchy, it is easy to inadvertently cause discomfiture with your banter. It is part of how we try to break down barriers and be more friendly and interesting. High-context cultures like their barriers just as they are—thank you very much.