All posts by Darren Haughn

R & R

My parents are coming to Taiwan again this Chinese New Year for vacation and family togetherness. For that reason I’ll be on hiatus for 3-4 weeks. During that time I hope to post 1-2 articles. They’ll appear at random times.

If you’re missing your weekly dose of saltiness may I suggest reading: Sperm Donation and the White Guy (my best writing); Low-Context Dude (the cultural linguistic explanation for why Chinese is a real mother to learn); Marrying Taiwanese (the process I went through to get engaged); ESL Professionalization (some of the changes I’ve seen in the ESL profession); or, just follow your nose through the back catalog. There’s a lot of good stuff there.

Thank you for reading over the last year. May the Year of the Pig bring you health, prosperity, and good fortune. Happy New Year.

Women Are from Venus: Men Are Hopeless

This week was final exams week. I’ve been busy and haven’t prepared anything to share with you. However, through last night’s drunken haze, I remembered this little anecdote. Since I’ve been in teaching mode all week, here is a teacherly story.

Have you heard the old adage (I just made up): Women are from Venus; men are clueless. University students, more than other demographics, embody this truism. Most remember university as a time of growing sexual awareness and exploration; a time to test new-found freedoms. As a university instructor I have a bird’s eye view of these mini-dramas unfolding during the most [unintentionally] comedic period of human life. It’s fun.

One of my sophomore classes had a reigning king and queen. The pair were the most popular kids in class. It was easy to see why. Sylvia was on the school’s cheerleading team—a big deal at that school. She was fit, attractive, bubbly, and smart; the class spark plug. If there was anything fun or exciting happening she was at its center, making sure everyone had a good time. She was universally liked. Stan was tall, muscular, ridiculously handsome, charming—dumb as a stump—and super personable. As his teacher I should have found him irritating; he definitely wasn’t the sharpest nut in the candy dish, but it was impossible not to like him. They were LANG-208-47-B5 class’s power couple.

As a teacher, standing at the front of class, you see everyone’s reaction to everything. It gives you a strong sense of what’s going through student’s minds. On this Monday, our hero looked like the goose that swallowed the golden egg. He was the picture of barely contained giddiness. Sitting beside him was Sylvia, and there was definitely something rolling through her head too. I couldn’t quite read her expression, but the wheels were clearly turning.

I gave the class a writing assignment—in one page describe your weekend. Most of the essay’s ranged from “I slept” to “I played online games”. Ho-hum. Then I came to Sylvia’s essay. It was like nothing I’ve ever gotten from a student. It was oddly poetic. Dappled moonlight was gently brushing flower petals. Birds were crying sweet tears of joy and sorrow, while clouds looked on knowingly. It was beautiful, romantic, and totally incomprehensible. I liked it, but couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

Then I read Stan’s essay. He had pressed the definition of a one-page article to its utter limits, and I can quote his entire essay here: “Last night I went to Yangmingshan and touched a boobie. Score!”

Ahhh. I see.

His happiness bounced off the page with every pen stroke. He was a [very] simple young man, with an equally simple dream, a pure dream, a noble dream—to touch a boobie. God bless him, he lived his dream. But, from my perspective at the head of the class, the meaning of Sylvia’s facial expressions became clearer. Sylvia had different, more complex, aspirations. They didn’t end with an inept boob fondle. Sylvia was revving up to turn his existence into a raging hell; and so the dance of life began for Stan. The poor naive bastard had no idea what was coming. On that day, in that class, he sat fully three inches taller than normal, looking left and right with his shit-eating grin, just a happy-go-lucky guy—contentment personified. For that brief moment, before his world came tumbling down, you couldn’t help but want to be Stan.

Being a teacher has its entertainments.

“Hello Fatso” and Other Taiwanese Greetings

To boldly state the obvious, rudeness is culturally defined. I’ve lived most of my life on the wrong side of the cultural norms/rudeness divide; frequently—totally unawares—insulting large groups and individuals alike. It’s a sword that cuts both ways, I have at times been insulted by Taiwanese, who were clearly unaware they’d done anything disparaging. Let’s take greetings and introductions as an example.

When I first came to Taiwan, over twenty years ago, upon being introduced to new Taiwanese people I always knew that three uncomfortable questions were coming. The conversations usually went something like this:

“Darren, I’d like you to meet Jim Lin. Jim, this is Darren, our new teacher.”

Of course, I’d politely say something like, “It’s nice to meet you, Jim.” While cringing on the inside, because I knew Jim would respond with something resembling…

“It’s nice to meet you, Darren. I see you’re fat. How fat are you exactly?” Undeterred by my sputtering, Jim, or the Taiwanese person du jour, could be counted on to blithely continue, “How old are you?” Twenty-nine. “Really!?! My God you look so old!” My spluttering would continue unabated. And Jim, failing to read the room, would persevere, “Well, how much money do you make?”

To which I’d normally make some vague answer, “Oh well, you know, I make enough to get by.”

I could expect the reply, “How much is that exactly?” And, normally there’d be some probing questions about my relationship status. “Are you married Darren?” Nope. “Do you have a Taiwanese girlfriend?” Not really your business, Jim.

This experience was remarkably consistent from person-to-person. I didn’t find it surprising because before coming to Taiwan I’d lived in Thailand. Thai has many more personal pronouns than English, which one you use is based on age, gender, social status, the speakers’ relationship, and the social context of their conversation. So, upon meeting a Thai person they often ask about your age, marital status, income, and if you have children. They’re trying to place you on the social hierarchy in relationship to themselves, so they know how to address you. This is not exactly true in Taiwan. It is, however, why I didn’t find Taiwanese behavior strange.

Taiwanese conversational norms, at that time, can be accounted for by Taiwan’s relatively more hierarchical society, the dissimilitude in privacy norms, and disparities in what was considered rude. Though not nearly as clearly stratified as Thai society, Taiwan, compared to North America was more hierarchical. Some of the questions I faced when meeting Taiwanese may partially be explained as a desire to achieve social clarity, but I doubt this was an important motivator. There was no overriding need to immediately place me within the social hierarchy. Also, in Confucian society my outsider status is my social position.

There are distinct differences in socially acceptable privacy levels between Taiwan and Canada. Taiwanese are much more invasive in their social interactions. In Canada, we’d say they have nose problems. Over the last couple decades, this has become less obvious in Taiwan’s large centers, but can still be experienced in smaller cities and towns.

The cause of these disagreeable greetings, however, was primarily differences in notions of ill-mannered. Traditionally, being a bit fat was not considered a bad thing in Taiwan. It showed that you had a bit of wealth. Older Taiwanese haven’t adapted to new trends, and don’t consider it inurbane to call you fat.

It isn’t just foreigners who find themselves occasionally called Tubby. I once watched an overweight Taiwanese teacher get introduced to an auditorium full of students as 胖胖的陳老師, approximately “our teacher, Fatso Chen.” The teacher clearly understood what was being said and the MC felt comfortable saying it anyway—even in such a formal setting. Fatso Chen, himself, didn’t have any particular negative reaction. He had extremely fine English, along with excellent comprehension of English culture, and when using English he showed feelings of being dispirited by those remarks. When speaking Chinese there wasn’t a hint that such expressions bothered him. If you’re fluent you think in the culture of the language you’re speaking.

Money is another area where Taiwanese and Westerners differ sharply in what is appropriate small talk. In Western Canada, anyway, it is really impolite to say anything at all about money. You’ll either appear nosey, braggadocios, or self-pitying. However, in Taiwan there doesn’t appear to be any prohibitions on talking about money. It is less common nowadays for someone to ask about my salary, but my purchases are fair game. I suppose it is partially because bartering is common, so everyone wants to know what you paid, to see if you got ripped-off. The answer to that question is always yes. That’s usually true, but even if I got the best deal in the world, I can count on my Taiwanese friends to cluck their tongues, shake their heads, and look at me with sad eyes. I don’t know why Taiwanese don’t find that malapropo. It is annoying as hell.

Things have changed over the last couple decades in Taipei. I’m no longer insulted every time I meet a new person. I assume that the spread of Western media, along with the cultural imperialism of fine English teachers, such as myself, has taught Taiwanese not to refer to new (Western) acquaintances as Tub-o-Lard. As for money, people almost never ask how much I earn, despite still asking what I paid for everything. Of course it is possible nothing has changed and I’m just meeting a different class of people.

 

Vignette #14: Taipei’s Sexy Police Women Work the Corner

Around a decade ago, police services in Taipei were instructed to recruit more female officers. The government sought to rectify the stunning lack of estrogen on the force. The police quickly complied, and in short order these newly minted female officers were being seen on the street everywhere.

Kudos.

However, the police recruitment office handled the hiring of females the way a lot of Asian offices approach it—they hired on looks. Normally this is done in public-facing jobs, where customers enjoy being served by energetic, attractive, young people and is particularly common in traditional female jobs, like flight attendants.

I don’t really have much against the police hiring women based on looks. I’m a feminist. I believe hotties have as much right as uggos to break gender barriers. However, having all these extremely beautiful women suddenly directing traffic on every street corner—the starting point for new police officers in Taipei—had unforeseen consequences.

On the positive side, middle-aged, roly-poly male police officers suddenly experienced fits of community service, put down their doughnuts and coffee (or the Taiwanese equivalent), left their precinct houses, and took these young charges under their wing to show them how to direct traffic—very altruistic. I’m sure some of these men hadn’t ventured outside the station in a decade or more. Judging by the strain these guys put on their uniform buttons—it was overdue. These beauties had a salubrious effect on the forces’ general fitness for duty.

On the negative side, I’m pretty sure accident statistics spiked. Not that they didn’t do a good job directing traffic, but they were a distraction. There was no warning these young women were going to hit the street. I was stunned when I pull up to my local intersection their first morning on duty. I was just minding my own business, somnambulating my way to work, when—bam—there she was, a goddess in government issue blues and sensible shoes. It was like suddenly finding a young Bo Derek, in mirrored aviator sunglasses provocatively waving you through traffic.

I drove into a lamppost. I can’t be the only one.

The practice of hiring on looks extends to men. It used to be required that you submit a photo with your resume for many jobs. I was hired from Canada, by a Korean school, based on my photo, not my resume. I’m sure they didn’t think I was particularly attractive, but they thought I looked kind. They took the photo to a face-reader who confirmed my amiability, and I was in. Sure, it’s not a flashy way of getting hired on your looks, but it still counts.

Symbolic, Parabolic, Metaphorical, Allegorical … Chinese

As you might have surmised, I have issues with Chinese. Just as doctors make terrible patients; many language instructors are the worst language learners—I’m one of those. Despite living in Taiwan, I exist in an English bubble. I spend my work days in an English environment, and when I go home most of my recreation is also in English. My Chinese is an embarrassment, except when I swear, which is stunningly smooth, natural, and stylish, but that uses a different part of the brain. I usually refer to my Chinese as functional, meaning I can get around in Chinese and accomplish most things that need doing. Normal daily conversations are okay. If I have a patient audience, I can even have a deeper discussion. However, there are definite limits to what I can do.

One aspect of Chinese that causes me problems is the depth of shared history, literature, and culture that can be drawn on by Chinese speakers to make allusions that shape and shade their meaning. (For an introduction to this topic see: The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock and A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places). There is no equivalent to this in English. I cannot draw on five thousand years of shared English linguistic tradition to come up with allusions to make my speech more eloquent.

I have not heard many other foreigners complain about this issue. It might just be me. In my family, this comes up, and it’s frustrating.

On one memorable occasion, my wife made a statement to me, in Chinese, which I absolutely did not understand. When I asked for clarification, she launched into a very long-winded explanation of what she had said, and it went something like this: “Well, what I said was ‘blah, blah, blah, blah’. Now, in the Song Dynasty there was a famous poet, Su shi, who drew on the tradition of Lu Yu, a Northern Tang Dynasty poet and proponent of ci poetry that employs the rhythms of popular Tang songs. In the cadence of ‘blah, blah, blah, blah‘ you should have recognized a reference to the meter of that particular Song Dynasty poet, who in turn was making a poetic allusion to that earlier Tang Dynasty poet. As you know [no I don’t], the ci form linked poetry with other arts, particularly painting, so this shades the meaning of what I said to be: ‘blah, blah, [shadings of a holistic view of the arts], blah, blah’. Now, Su Shi himself was deeply political, as were many Northern Song poets, and spent years in exile for his opposition to the corrupt government minister Wang Anshi. So, you should interpret what I said as: ‘blah, blah, [shadings of a holistic view of the arts], blah, [with a dash of stick it to the man], blah’.”

Of course, all of this simply shades the meaning of the actual words. It adds color and implies a richer meaning than the words themselves. Someone educated enough to speak in this manner is considered eloquent. The audience needs to be equally knowledgeable to pick up these little linguist breadcrumbs. A shared history and culture are required for this manner of speaking to have any meaning.

The conversation simply left me going: “Huh?!? So should I wash the dishes or not?”

I don’t get the impression that many other foreigners run into this particular quirk of Chinese. I’m guessing because most Taiwanese are savvy enough not to speak in such a connotative way to second language speakers. However, my in-laws have a tendency towards this type of speech. Indeed, my family is staunchly Taiwanese and confuses the issue further by bringing in Taiwanese allusions and Japanese allusions, from the occupation period. I’m actually a big lover of Chinese art, literature, and history. I appreciate that the culture is rich enough that it affords opportunities for bringing this kind of texture and nuance to the meaning of a sentence. That is seriously cool. But, my Chinese is at a level where I’d be satisfied if when some random dude yelled at me, “Hey Dummy, hurry up and get on the bus, you’re holding up the line,” I’d be able to deliver a pithy reply in unaccented Chinese. I’m not there yet.

I find it endearing that my wife, and her family, have such faith in my Chinese that they think there’s any prospect I might be able to draw inferences from such sketchy linguist trails. I don’t know what in their experience of me makes them think there’s any chance I’d get it—but, you got to love them for trying.