All posts by Darren Haughn

Hungry Ghosts, Pollution, and Ritual

Ghost Month, the seventh lunar month, started last week. It is considered an inauspicious time, so prohibitions abound. These proscriptions vary by region, but some that are common in Taiwan include: don’t swim, evil spirits that have drowned may seek to drown you; don’t fly, it is dangerous with all those ghosts out there; don’t make big life changes, marrying, starting a business, surgery, moving, etc., it’s just not a lucky time; do not sing or whistle, it attracts ghosts; and likewise, don’t wear red, it also attracts ghosts. There are many more, but you get the general idea. There are other common beliefs in Taiwan related to Ghost Month. One such belief is that mechanical and electrical devices are particularly likely to break down during Ghost Month, presumably because the ghosts like to play with all the new-fangled doohickeys. This would be an example of a quaint little superstition—if it weren’t so annoyingly true (here).

The entire month is an orgy of Buddhist, Taoist, and folk religion observances. It is that time when the gates of Hell open and ghosts are free to wander among us. Why would beings, released from the ethereal plane, spend their precious freedom among humans? The ghosts that come to earth are hungry ghosts, whose descendants have not provided them with the customary offerings of food and money, necessary for a comfortable ghostly existence. Hungry ghosts have long thin necks, pinched by hunger. The deceased who did not receive proper funeral rituals also return to earth during Ghost Month. As you might expect, these neglected spirits are a bit pissy, and wander the earth seeking food and light entertainment. (Scaring the bejesus out of Grandpa Lui is just the ticket).

To appease these wandering spirits, the Taiwanese make offerings to their ancestors throughout Ghost Month. Different than other festivals, this spiritual largesse extends beyond one’s own ancestors, to include offerings to the wandering souls of those forgotten by their descendants. The offerings take many forms. Families place food and drink on the family altar, in the home, and burn incence for their deceased ancestors. Similar offerings are made at tables placed on the street, in front of businesses. These offerings are aimed at the general ghostly hallabaloo. Likewise, temples overflow with food offerings to the resident gods during Ghost Month. Many types of joss paper are burned as offerings, these include: hell banknotes, so the ghosts can purchase afterlife necessities; along with paper models of various useful items, houses, servants, TV’s, etc. These offerings are made to deceased ancestors and gods throughout the year, but the fires reach a feverish pitch during Ghost Month.

Chinese folk religion is a living breathing aspect of Taiwanese culture. You can be walking down the street, turn a corner, and randomly bump into a temple parade, pilgrimage, shaman, or diverse other fascinating religious practices. It is so vibrant and alive, not part of the past, hermetically preserved in a museum, to be visited on Sunday afternoons by armchair cultural voyeurs. It is a living, breathing part of everyday life here—and I love it.

However, many foreigners who live here hate it. A few may dislike Chinese folk customs, regarding them as backward superstitious claptrap. Such cultural bigotry is generally absent from expat thinking. The reason most dislike these Chinese folk customs is more prosaic. It is the pollution caused by large-scale burning of incense, hell banknotes, other joss paper, and the perennial setting off of firecrackers.

They have a point. I’ve seen paper models of hell-bound daily necessities piled into literal mountains, four or five meters tall, and then set ablaze. The pollution released into the city by even one such bonfire is substantial. On any given day in most temples, lots of hell banknotes are burned along with massive amounts of incense. On a smaller scale the process is repeated in houses and business across Taiwan. This burning is a continual backdrop to life here. During festivals and special days on the Chinese Lunar calendar the smoke raises religion-related smog from background noise to a Death Metal concerto.

Most countries have a distinct smell, noticeable when you first step off the plane. Thailand smells like rotten bananas. Indonesia smells of clove cigarettes. Canada, at least the Vancouver International Airport, hits your olfactory senses with a wall of ozone. Taiwan has the peppery odor of a melange of ritual smoke. The smell has decreased with efforts to clean up some of these traditional practices. Some of the attempts have been comical failures. When I first came to Taiwan there was a move to try to get people to burn a hell credit card instead of hell banknotes. The theory was that the masses of paper being burned by each worshipper could be replaced by a single credit card. Cute idea. It didn’t work. Worshippers simply began burning hundreds or thousands of credit cards for their ancestors. Despite the difficulty of changing traditions, air quality has improved in Taiwan. Thirty years ago the smell of religious observances would hit you like a wall when you arrived at Chiang-Kai-Shek International Airport. Now the smell is more in the background.

The improvement is partially the result of social changes. Folk religion and folk cultural practices have declined a bit with urbanization. Some temples have proactively tried to reduce their carbon footprint. A good example would be Hsing Tian Kong. The temple has decided to try to be a leader, among religious institutions, in fighting air pollution. The large incense burners at the front and rear of the temple stand empty. The smaller incense pots, placed in front of each god’s effigy, are either empty, or gone. The oven used to burn hell banknotes is closed. It is exactly what most expats have been clamoring for.

I recently visited Hsing Tian Kong for the first time since the changes went into effect—I hated it. The place was pristine, almost sterile in feeling. It lacked the characteristic temple smell. Nor were there glimpses of statues of gods and goddesses mysteriously coming in and out of view from behind a gauze of smoke. Indeed, on that fine sunny day, the temple’s air was annoyingly crisp and clean. The only wisps of smoke in the whole place came from the few burning incense sticks wielded by Taoist lay practitioners conducting exorcisms. It was all just so…so devoid of feeling.

Hsing Tian Kong was once my favorite temple in Taipei. The place where I went for succour, to bai-bai, get a talisman, cleanse my prayer beads, or simply have the demons exorcised. No more—a temple without smoke is no temple. Here is where I part ways with

most expats. My first trip to Taiwan over thirty years ago was to study Chinese folk religion. As much as I have any religion, it’s to the temple and folk rituals that I turn. Perhaps I’ve become a Taiwanese LKK, but gimme that old tyme religion, it’s good enough for me.

 

Profound Musings

This week I haven’t got a post. Life got in the way. However, I do have this decidedly off topic piece I prepared to celebrate passing my first half-century. It was my birthday this weekend. Here’s what I’ve learned from 50 years of living. I hope you enjoy it.

50 Years of Wisdom with Darren

1. Never fall in love with a stripper. If you fall in love with a stripper, don’t buy her new boobs. If you buy her new boobs, make sure you have touching privileges.

2. Scotch from China is not Scotch.

3. Never answer when your wife asks, “How does my _______ look in these ______ ?”

4. Always buy a couch that’s long enough to sleep on.

5. Karaoke is never a good idea. If you can’t avoid it, then own it. Sing loud, proud and off key.

6. That hot Thai chick with the Adam’s apple is a dude.

7. Go to 2nd base. She’s likely the most beautiful woman you’ll ever get, but avoid 3rd base – it’s frightful.

8. Middle aged white men can’t twerk.

9. Writing your name in the snow looks better after taking your vitamins.

10. 18-24 year old Asian girls really are better.

11. Don’t play sports – there’s no upside.

12. Hone a vacant disposition. It’ll serve you well in all your endeavors.

13. Spare no sympathy for vegetarians. It’s their own damn fault.

14. Don’t piss into the wind. (Same advice goes for puking).

15. Your ultra-healthy friend is just as likely to die as you, probably over their post-workout non-fat, no foam, chai soy latte. That’s no way to go.

16. Any penis worth its salt deserves a cool nickname.

17. If you’re doing what everyone else is doing, you’re doing the wrong thing.

18. Perfectionism is an inability to prioritize.

19. Bacon is good on everything.

20. Alcohol is a temporary solution only if you stop drinking.

21. Marry a woman who makes less money than you. There’s less pressure to compensate in the bedroom.

22. My wife did not settle. She compromised. It’s different.

23. I’ve never met a happy couple where the husband is smarter than the wife.

24. Edible panties are best eaten straight out of the package.

25. Telling your love that her eyes are deep and piercing like two piss-holes in the snow (high-romance in Canada) does not translate well into Chinese.

26. When you get married don’t let your wife throw away all her g-strings. (She’ll want to).

27. Don’t stop your friend if he is about to unwittingly pee on an electric fence. (High-quality free entertainment is hard to find). Don’t stand behind him.

28. The problem with being a conservative is that you’re always on the wrong side of history. Time never flows backwards.

29. Single ply toilet paper builds character.

30. Salad is not food. It’s what food eats.

31. Men, don’t be embarrassed about your cleavage.

32. Men have difficulty expressing their emotions in words. Say it with interpretive dance. Chicks love that.

33. I once dated a Vogue model. There’s no deeper meaning to this entry. I just want everyone to know.

34. Skirts are best for car sex. Bing, bang, boom, and you’re back at the mall.

35. The problem with women is they always think you have potential. Potential for what?!?

36. If you find yourself shopping for vegetarian cookbooks as part of a grand scheme to get into some hottie’s pants, just walk away. It’s not worth it.

37. It takes a lot of time to do nothing.

38. Listen to no sense; speak no sense; anything less would be wasting the privilege of being old.

39. Strive to be just slightly above average in all that you do. Under-performing brings stress. Over-performing brings more [unpaid and under-appreciated] responsibilities, work, and stress. Just slightly better than average – that’s your sweet spot.

40. Women like it sweet; men like it dirty; and never the twain shall meet.

41. Don’t try to sit on a squat toilet.

42. Date pessimists – they don’t expect much.

43. Never give the object of your affection a romantic gift basket of deodorant. It seems no different than soap, bath oil, and perfume – yet it is (apparently).

44. When flying, always ask the head stewardess where and when that plane’s chapter of The Mile High Club is meeting, because you just never know.

45. Trans fats are the best fats.

46. The squeaky wheel is annoying.

47. If I could travel back to 1978, I’d kiss Wendy Hayes right on the playground. If she beat the crap out of me – so be it.

48. Smooth is good; honest is better.

49. Kissing was invented to prevent guys from saying something stupid right when they have the most to lose.

50. When you’re married, hotel sex is the closest thing you can get to the excitement of a new partner – doing it on a different bed, in front of a strange chair, while looking deeply into a mirror you’ve never seen before.

51. Peeing in the woods – macho good times. Pooping in the woods – just plain disgusting.

52. A great head of hair can hide most other social failings. Always use conditioner (f*ck Pert+, a separate conditioner – condition like a millionaire).

53. Never argue with a women, instead patiently explain to her why you’re right. That’s chivalry.

54. At formal functions, business meetings, PTA gatherings, job interviews, etc. follow church rules (i.e. put your booze in a thermos).

55. “That’s what she said,” is not witty repartee when talking to the female judge hearing your case.

56. Despite what your mother says, all the cool kids do not wear bedazzled slacks to high school.

57. When ending a long term relationship always put a puppy with heart eyes emoji at the end of the text. That’s class!

58. Only sleep with people crazier than you. I’m not sure this is really good advice, but it always seems to work out that way, so you may as well embrace it and try to enjoy the ride.

59. If everything seems to be going well at work, you’re out of the loop.

60. Should you find yourself at a hair waxing salon, in a curious/adventurous/metrosexual mood – do not try the “Between the Cheeks” special.

61. If you do, have Johnny Cash’s cd queued up. The lyrics to Burning Ring of Fire will never be more personally meaningful.

62. A full Brazilian will not make your penis look larger.

63. Paradoxically, Brazilian barbecue makes it look like you have more meat.

64. Your parent’s stupidity is inversely proportional to your maturity.

65. Look upon the world with wry humor in your heart and a smirk on your face, for then the world will never disappoint you.

66. Yogi Bear 3D is the movie of our generation.

67. The advantage to dating young women (besides the obvious) is they can’t tell the difference between intriguing and fucked up.

68. Black and white is for the young, when you get older you find only hard and harder decisions.

69. Skidmark is not as cool a nickname as it sounds.

70. If life hands you lemons, buy salt and tequila.

71. Even people who are total shits may have an underlying good; even a turd can contain a kernel of corn.

72. The microbial flora in your intestines has more to do with happiness than your bank account.

73. A baculum might be nice.

74. When one has a penis such as mine, one does not do dishes.

75. When you reach 50 you can no longer distinguish between the hip trends and the ones that are just stupid. Frankly, it’s a relief.

76. Young children are an unending source of joy and wonder for fifteen minutes.

77. You realize how insignificant you are when you pee in the ocean.

78. You can’t ruin a friendship with sex, that’s like trying to ruin ice cream with chocolate syrup and sprinkles.

79. Moody self-obsession is only attractive in men who can play guitar.

80. You can lead your mother to the dough, but you can’t make her pinch perogies.

81. Never throw away (delete for you young whipper snappers) porn.

82. I haven’t got a problem with God, it’s his fans that annoy me.

83. Men don’t like taking instructions unless it involves really complex lingerie.

84. If you forget your wife’s birthday – don’t panic. You can make a romantic handcrafted gift from easily available household items. With just a pair of her old panties and scissors you can create a lovely pair of crotchless panties.

85. Whatever happens in Bangkok doesn’t count.

86. The best way out is by going through.

87. Faster horses; younger women; older whisky; and more money. That’s what it’s all about.

88. I don’t care what you’re excuse is – grandma panties are never okay.

89. At least once in your life you need to rock a unitard.

90. Believe or don’t believe; you can only follow the path your senses reveal to you.

91. If a woman is dressed in such a way as to expose half her boobs and I look – I’m the pervert. If I expose myself and a woman looks – I’m the pervert.

92. Marriage brings many positive changes if you keep an open mind. For example, when we got married my wife insisted that we buy a second towel. I thought she was crazy. Now I like it – very opulent. It’s nicer than using the bath mat.

93. Never regret the stupid things you’ve done; regret the stupid things you could have done.

94. Rum is a natural laxative. Do with that what you may.

95. It’s only kinky the first time.

96. Never make snow angels in a dog park.

97. You get all the greens you need from grass fed beef.

98. Everything in life truly worth doing can be done in the shower.

99. Never take two steps when one will do. If that leaves surplus free time, that’s why God invented sofas.

100. Never miss the chance to do something nice for your fellow man in a really dickish way. Doing good pleases the soul. Being a dick thrills the id.

101. All I know is there’s more than I know.

Tips for New Expats

I recently read a blog article giving, undoubtedly, sound advice on surviving as an expat in Asia. It had the typical bromides you’d expect; tips on fitting in, how to engage with your new cultural milieu, an admonition to learn the language—earnest and noble-minded advice. I’m going to go a different way.

The Salty Egg’s six tips for the newly arrived.

1. Hone a Vacant Disposition: I belong to several online discussion groups for Taiwan-based expats. One theme underlying many of the questions to these groups is the loss of control over one’s life when forced to do things a certain (Taiwanese) way. The feeling is made more acute because most cannot fathom the logic. Normally this happens when interacting with Taiwanese institutions, though sometimes it happens at the interpersonal level. This can create a feeling of being tossed around by forces that can’t be seen, understood, or predicted.

A recent example was someone asking the group why her buxiban would demand a photocopy of her bank account booklet, even though they had already been making salary deposits into that account for months. Why were they asking her to give up control of some of her personal financial data? A logical question.

You’ll drive yourself nuts asking logical questions in Taiwan. It is better to embrace the lack of rhyme or reason. It is the way it is, because it is the way it is. The way things are done here are not obligated to make sense to you. Over time you may come to see the logic behind things, a few longterm expats cross that rubicon. But, as a survival technique, it’s best just to do what’s required without worrying too deeply about the whys. Being firmly in control and micromanaging your life might be a survival skill back home, not so much here. Rather than trying to be on top of everything, it is better to just let go and drift along with the Taiwanese flow. You’ll keep your sanity much longer.

2. Don’t Think You’re Taiwanese: When I first arrived in Taiwan I was met by a friend who’d been living here for 12 years and on that first day he gave some tips  on surviving in Taiwan. Most of it I’ve forgotten. I’m sure it was mostly crap. However, he did say one thing that stuck with me and I think is valuable advice.

He’d observed that the happiest foreigners were those that remembered  they’re foreigners. Conversely, the most miserable were those who expected to be accepted as Taiwanese. The notion of immigration, accepting foreigners and giving them a route to citizenship, is Western. It is very rare for an Asian country to allow a foreigner citizenship. (That’s what makes us expats rather than immigrants). Race, ethnicity, culture, and nationality are muddled together in the Asian mind. If a white person were to say they are Taiwanese, the Taiwanese knee-jerk response would be to laugh. Ideas of race and culture are inextricably linked with national identity.

Some of these long-term expats put incredible effort into learning Chinese, Taiwanese, and the culture; while contributing to Taiwan’s social and civic life, and yet ultimately will never be accepted as Taiwanese. It is paradoxical that among this small high-functioning group of expats, so knowledgeable about Taiwanese life and culture, are some who fail to appreciate the obvious truth—they are not Taiwanese. If you have a chance to drink with one of these real oldtimers, sometimes the resentments float to the surface on the whisky vapors.

Try to fit in as much as you can, but don’t lose sight of what you are.

3. Don’t Go Native: There is a long literary tradition in Europe celebrating the European imperialist who goes native. They were seen as pariahs that abandoned their civilizing mission and sold out the values of their home country, but also as romantic figures who opposed civilization’s grinding advance, while honoring the noble savage. These outcasts and their mythical Eden captured the nineteenth century’s fancy. It’s amazing such an archaic  archetype still lights imaginations.

My first international working experience was in a small fishing community in South Korea. I was totally isolated from foreigners, Western food, or any type of Western culture (books, movies, TV, etc.) In my youthful naïveté I thought that seclusion would be a positive, a chance to really experience the culture. Go native. I was wrong. It was too much for this neophyte to cope with.

The drive to go native is not so common in Taipei as other places I’ve lived. Since Taipei is a global center, it would be hard and possibly meaningless to go native here. However, in some rural areas around Taiwan you can remove yourself from the outside world.

I’m not totally against going native, it’s my retirement plan. However, arriving straight from your home country and expecting to prosper in some remote community is unrealistic. Before you decide to walk into the mountains and go all Colonel Kurtz you should hone your cultural chops in one of Taiwan’s cities.

4. Don’t Shun Your Culture: I have been most guilty of this one. It can take many forms. I have seen expats try to reduce their engagement with other expats to the bare minimum, preferring to completely immersed themselves in Taiwanese friendships. [I did this one]. It’s not really a good idea. There’s a vibrant expat community in Taiwan. You should enjoy the rapport. You accomplish nothing ostracizing yourself.

A similar mistake I made was refusing to eat any Western food in my first few years here. I had the idea that a person’s ability to adapt to a culture was reflected in his ability to adjust to the food. All I accomplished was to deny myself some good food. My asceticism proved nothing.

Similarly, I have seen students of Chinese refuse to speak anything but Chinese, even with other foreigners. So you have the ridiculous situation of two English speakers, capable of engaging English conversations, reduced to banal Chinese conversations. Whatever infinitesimal amount this speeds Chinese learning is not worth the loss of decent conversation.

By shunning your culture you’re not integrating quicker, you’re just making yourself miserable.

5. Don’t Unconditionally Trust Your Pillow Dictionary: Definitely get yourself a pillow dictionary. (I’m assuming I don’t need to explain this wonderfully eloquent French phrase). They will aid your transition into Taiwanese culture. They can explain many things, assist with daily life, and help you learn the language, hence the name.

Of course, as they are teaching you about Taiwanese culture, they are also passing along their own beliefs. As a newbie, you may not be aware that you’re being indoctrinated into a certain view of Taiwanese society. In my early days I received a pro-China, pro-KMT, anti-Taiwanese culture view of Taiwan from the people I first met. Those attitudes were more common at that time. I had to uncover the biases through my own research.

It is in the area of language acquisition where my pillow dictionary proved most faulty. My first long-term Taiwanese girlfriend only spoke Chinese. The onus was on me to bring my Chinese up to scratch. I succeeded admirably! It wasn’t very long before I was going whole days speaking only Chinese. There was little I couldn’t express in my new language. I was rightly proud of myself.

It wasn’t until we broke up that I discovered there was a problem. When I started trying to engage with other Chinese speakers, I became less comprehensible. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with them. They didn’t seem to understand Chinese at all. It turns out I had spent a couple of years speaking pidgin Chinese. Basically I was speaking English using Chinese words. My girlfriend understood and considered that to be good enough. I was shocked to find out I wasn’t really speaking Chinese.

When it comes to your pillow dictionary trust but verify.

6. Don’t Try to Change Taiwan: When I moved here, I accepted that I’d always be an outsider, and as such have little ability to change Taiwanese society, culture, or people. Where this is most often a problem in my life is Taiwan’s institutional racism. My solution is just to let it roll off my back, accept it, and move on. Choosing not to rail against these problems allows me to retain my equanimity. That’s my personal choice.

I think everyone, including immigrants/expats, have the right to try to improve their lives. I really respect some of the expats I know who are fighting to change the injustices they see. Sometimes it takes a toll on their emotional equilibrium. If you decide to try to change Taiwan, be prepared for frustration. High-context cultures in particular change from within, and you’re from without. I prefer to maintain my contentment, even if I have to ignore a few things along the way.

Vignette #10: White Skin Sucks

White skin has its socioeconomic advantages, sure, but in purely physiological terms, it blows. It is terribly unsuitable to Taiwan’s hot humid climate. It is terrific if you’re lost in a snow drift, but here on the Tropic of Cancer it is anything but grand.

I’ve had a continuous rash for twenty-plus years. Heat rash, jock itch, Hong Kong foot, allergic dermatitis (I’m allergic to my own sweat—try that in Taiwan), hives, and every fungus known to man—I’ve hosted them all, along with other less heat related skin maladies. These problems are the low-grade background noise of living with white skin in Asia.

The more serious issues come from a lifetime spent under the hot Asian sun. Every summer for the last few years I have been doing battle with potential malignancies, sun damage, and various of the more serious consequences of white skin. Each year I get several small surgeries—this suspicious thing gets cut off, those ones get biopsies, and the less suspicious growths get burned off. I never get ahead, and just find myself doing the same thing all over again the next summer.

There is a general Asian predisposition towards thinking having whiter skin would be awesome. My wife is constantly shocked by how spectacularly unawesome it really is. The fairer you are, the bigger the problem. Being a white person living in Taiwan is like being a penguin living on the Serengeti. It is just not our natural habitat, and there’s a price to be paid.

Couth, Foreigners, and Table Manners

Table manners in a Chinese cultural environment are pretty loose. They exist and are different from the West, but are not too onerous. The priority is enjoying your food. The rules are designed not to interfere with gustatory pleasure. It is still possible for unsuspecting foreigners to unintentionally run afoul of propriety.

I once watched a group of newly arrived foreigners unknowingly set flame to a business banquet. There was a group of ten of us sitting around the typical circular table at a Chinese banquet. The conversation and Kaoliang were flowing, and as is typical the hosts were talking up the restaurant’s speciality—the pièce de résistance—whetting the guest’s appetite for the best and most expensive dish, a crustacean they called mini-lobster. (I think it was crayfish). The collected foreigners had been so primed by the mouthwatering descriptions that when the host twirled the Lazy Susan in the middle of the table to present the honored foreign guests with first choice, they loaded their plates full of lobster. The platter didn’t get past the third foreigner before being stripped bare. My foreign colleagues were stunningly oblivious. Chowing down on the meal’s highlight while offering compliments to the host around partially eaten mouthfuls. The Taiwanese stared on with their jaws scraping dust mites off the floor. Even the most obtuse traveler should have been a bit more savvy. Don’t help yourself to a giant serving from the communal plate. If it is countable, just take one. Sometimes the problem is be a bit more subtle.

Long ago I traveled to see a girlfriend in Hong Kong. While I was there, her mother invited me to come to their house for dinner. I managed to thoroughly botch the evening, though—thankfully—I was the only injured party.

Her mother offered to cook anything, and asked what type of Chinese food I’d like to try. I asked for hot pot. (I know! What was I thinking? My only excuse is I was young and foolish). When I arrived at their home a veritable feast was laid out across every available surface; tidbits just waiting to be dipped into the hot pot’s broth. I was excited. After a bit of preliminary conversation, mostly translated into Cantonese by my friend, and mute smiling and head bowing from the rest of us, the meal began.

Each member of the family was given a fairly standard sized rice bowl. They in turn began preparing their dipping sauces and cooking their food. When it was my turn I was given a giant bowl. It was not a rice bowl; not even a soup bowl—it was a whacking great bowl, something that might have been used to make bread dough for a Hutterite family. In the finest tradition of Chinese hostesses everywhere, my friend’s mother had preloaded the bowl with soup and a myriad of delicacies she’d already boiled. Let me reiterate—it was a big bowl, and it was pretty much full.

I sat at the table, almost completely hidden behind my prodigious bowl, occasionally glimpsing over its top—or around its side—to join in the dinner talk. Slowly I ate my way through that entire bowl. I was full, but not nauseated. Satisfied. Content. It had been a great meal, and I looked forward to spending a bit of time digesting and enjoying a tête-à-tête with my friend’s family.

It was not to be.

The mother, upon seeing my empty bowl, made a face I couldn’t decipher and refilled it. Now, I have always been a polite boy, and my mother, in the grand tradition of Ukrainian babas everywhere, had taught me to always clean my plate, especially when eating at someone else’s home. It’s polite.

I didn’t particularly want to eat the second bowl. But, I had traveled all the way from Canada to Hong Kong to see my girlfriend. Her family had graciously cooked for me. I was damn well going to be courteous.

So I started eating, more slowly this time. I ate, and I ate, and I ate. It was a ginormous bowl full of fine Chinese edibles. I was past the point of appreciating the food. What once had been sublime cuisine turned to ash in my mouth as I tried to power my way through the entire second bowl. I finish it all—such was my commitment to etiquette, politeness, grace, and gentility.

My girlfriend’s mother saw the bowl was empty again, gasped, made yet another inexplicable face, and proceeded to refill the bowl. I was sick. I didn’t know what to do. I was sure I couldn’t choke down another mouthful. But, I wanted to make my mother proud. So I picked up the bowl and started eating again. I ate the bowl inchmeal, morsel by choked down spoonful.

Finally I finished the whole bowl—bowl number three—and these were titanic basins of food. I proudly put the empty bowl on the table—propriety served. I leaned back in the chair, unbuttoned my pants, and began moaning like every father after Christmas dinner. I was stuffed to the gills and felt gross, but beneath that gut-churning vomitous feeling was also pride. My mother had raised a good boy—so well-mannered.

My girlfriend’s mom spotted my empty bowl, gasped, said something in Cantonese under her breath, patted me on the shoulder, and, of course, filled my bowl again. I wanted to cry.

Unable even to contemplate another mouthful, I finally sobbed to my girlfriend, “Why? Why does your mother hate me so?!?” She giggled and told me to just stop eating.

I’m not sure my girlfriend really understood the subtext of that meal. Probably, like myself and her family, she didn’t really know what was happening. From my [Western] perspective, the proper thing to do when invited to someone’s house to dine was to eat all the food on your plate. It shows that you enjoyed the food, are satiated, and appreciate the host’s efforts. For my Taiwanese friends, that’s why if you’re invited to someone’s home in the West normally they will ask you to serve yourself, or just put a token bit of each dish on your plate. They know that whatever is on your plate you’ll have to finish. Many of my Asian friends have been disconcerted by this Western manner of serving; it seems borderline impolite, or at least lacking warmth.

Chinese table manners are almost the opposite. It is acceptable—indeed polite—to leave some food on the communal serving dish or your personal bowl at the end of the meal. It shows that there was enough food and that you’re full and satisfied. (Rice is the exception, you should eat all the rice in your bowl). Placing food into someone else’s bowl is a gesture of affection. The exact feeling varies a bit with context. My girlfriend’s mother was acting the perfect Chinese hostess. My pain came from my own lack of cultural awareness.