All posts by Darren Haughn

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.

I Want a Filial Man

The Salty Egg is a tribute to one man’s culture shock, but the longer I’ve lived in Taiwan the more my struggles have come to revolve around arcane points of culture. As I found myself grappling with the cultural minutiae of the Taiwanese grandmother-in-law/foreign grandson-in-law relationship, I realized my experiences might not be applicable for many readers. The large, relatively visible cultural differences, no longer attract my interest, in fact I struggle to notice them. So here is an example of a relatively easily observable cultural difference that still blows my mind.

I’ve spent all my working life in Taiwan teaching young adults ages 18 to 30. Early in my teaching career I found myself trying to explain the term mama’s boy. You’d think it’d be easy, but I had one hell of a time. The class proved incapable of understanding the terms negative implications. “But he’s a man who loves and cares for his mommy. That’s good right? Any woman would want that”. Welllll,… I’m not so sure….

Later in class we were having a discussion about the student’s ideal mate. The class was mostly women in their very early 20s. I was expecting adjectives related to handsomeness, muscularity, height, skin tone, anything along those lines—something that’d make a vagina try to swallow itself. Instead, nearly universally, the students stated the first and most important thing was that he be filial.

Say whaa??? I guess I could’ve understood if the male students were giving that answer. After all, traditionally the wife might be expected to move in with his parents and take care of his family. Despite societal pressure, the boys tended to be much more appropriately laser focused on boobs and hair. Kudos to them. But where were the girls coming from?…

When I queried their priorities, the female students would assure me it’s very important that a boyfriend dote on his family, particularly his mother. That must be his foremost concern. They seemed to think that the way he treated his mother would have some implications for how well he’d treat other women. I don’t know how they came to that conclusion. The domineering mother-in-law, beleaguered wife, and whipped mama’s boy husband relationship is thematic in Chinese culture. How could they have missed it? It just seemed so obviously antithetical to their self-interests, and frankly a weird thing for very young women to think about.

With the benefit of a couple decades of Taiwanese experience, I now guess they were raised to believe that filial piety is an important quality in a boyfriend or husband. Their families, presumably, believing that if the man cares about his family, then, by extension, should they marry, he will also care about his wife’s family. Meh. Maybe. Also, perhaps some of these women were trying to appear to be “good girls”. As Taiwanese women approach thirty, filial piety seems to become less of a priority in a potential mate. Perhaps they’re less concerned about appearing to be a “good girl” and they’ve had enough life experience to see how it works out for other women.

The experiences I describe were a long time ago, but things haven’t changed that much. When I ask my current classes about their ideal mate, there’s a wider variety of answers from the females like; can dunk a basketball, has big biceps, tall, long wavy hair, etc. My students are currently all 18-19 years old, so those types of answers seem reasonable and age appropriate. I don’t think this really represents a change in young Taiwanese women’s ideals. It just seems like they’re a little more comfortable letting their freak flag fly than previous generations. Filial piety still is a frequently stated characteristic of the ideal mate for these women. [The boys remain hyper-fixated on knockers, tresses and a well-turned-out clavicle. Ya gotta love the rapscallions!]

The whole situation continues to astound me. I think it’s a pretty big difference between Western and Asian women. I can’t pretend to know Western women very well, but I’m pretty confident that the ideal man described by these Taiwanese women would cause pink nipples to invert.

Will China Invade Taiwan?

A couple of readers have asked me to write this article in light of recent cross-strait tensions. I have always avoided political and geostrategic topics because there are other better people to read on the topic. Besides, I enjoy my little niche, writing about insignificant aspects of daily expat life. Politics is not my forte, so take what I say as little more than one opinion. If nothing else, hopefully it will give some insight into the feelings of being an expat in Taiwan at this time, which is this blog’s purpose.

Nobody—not even experts—have any real idea if China will invade Taiwan. Here’s the problem: President Xi, in China, has created a massive cult of personality, systematically eliminating any sources of information that might act as reality checks to his perceptions. He’s even more isolated than President Putin, and we all know how that’s worked out. So, anything I say here has no meaning if one day President Xi wakes up constipated and decides he needs to invade Taiwan to clear his bowels. If he says so, then it will happen.

Mostly the Taiwanese are blasé about any threat of invasion, as you would expect of people that have dealt with this intimidation for generations. The Ukrainians also didn’t pay much attention as the Russian army rolled up to their border. It is perhaps a normal reaction.

Most of my expat friends living in Taiwan are rather less unconcerned, but comfort themselves with logical arguments why it couldn’t happen, usually centered on the idea that the Chinese military is incapable of successfully invading Taiwan. They are right. The PLA is massively corrupt, making the Russian army’s venal general staff look like little more than morally ambiguous street urchins. Broader Chinese society looks down on soldiers as uneducated hicks, causing morale problems. The amount of naval and air power required to get an invasion force across the Taiwan Straits is stunning. The times of year that the Straits are navigable by troop carriers is small. Once you get to Taiwan, where do you land? There are only a few places that might be suitable for landing an army. It is relatively easy to concentrate defensive forces at those beaches. The PLA would need to take, hold, and resupply those beaches before moving inland, where they would quickly run into mountainous terrain. Maintaining supply chains from China to troops fighting in Taiwan would be a logistical nightmare. How many casualties would the Chinese public accept? The actual fighting would, after all, fall upon the little emperors created by China’s One-Child Policy. With my limited military background, and without taxing my brain at all, I came up with these very obvious problems facing the Chinese military. I’m sure there are multitudes more obstacles facing a Chinese invasion.

I do not believe that China can successfully invade and take over Taiwan. Here’s what scares me—just because they can’t do it doesn’t mean they won’t. Even if unsuccessful, it sure as hell would ruin my life. All these larger reasons for why it couldn’t happen have no meaning if President Xi is responding to a different “logic”, and the stimuli shaping his outlook are different than for Westerners.

China has huge problems; socially, economically, politically, demographically, environmentally,…. But, let’s just look at what I think is China’s biggest problem—demographic collapse. Urbanization causes demographic decline as city dwellers no longer need kids for labor, nor can afford them. China just came through a period of the most vast and rapid urbanization in world history. There have been the expected declines in birthrate and the problem has been compounded by China’s One-Child Policy. Chinese society will not be able to sustain itself within the next 10-15 years. There simply won’t be enough people of productive age. Demographics is at the root of most of China’s other problems. Population contraction is being faced around the world, but is particularly acute in China. Barring massive immigration to China [not going to happen], China is facing monumental societal upheaval.

The CCP hates that. They’re all about control and maintaining power, whatever it takes. As social stability and the Chinese people’s ability to generate and maintain wealth declines the CCP finds itself in jeopardy. Their justification for holding power has been they’d keep citizens safe and provide a chance at wealth. Demographics, COVID, and CCP mismanagement have laid waste to that social contract. So, how can the CCP justify maintaining power? They have just one card to play—enflaming rabid ultranationalist sentiment. And that’s why I’m not so nonchalant about the threat posed by the Chinese military. Invasion might end up being the only option.

However, if China has any dreams of invading, they are on a timeline. They likely have to accomplish it within the next 10 years before demographic collapse makes it a nonstarter. Also, China has had a large military buildup over the last decade, and it’s unclear if they’ll be able to sustain that level of acquisition. They may need to use their toys or risk them decaying unused and irreplaceable. Sure invasion wouldn’t be “logical”, but the CCP does all kinds of things that defy [our] logic. They didn’t need to ruin Hong Kong. It wasn’t logical. But, they did it anyway, largely because of internal political struggles within the CCP. Those forces are still in play, and trying to use the Taiwan issue for political gain.

Personally I do not believe an invasion is imminent. I’ve always thought a blockade is a more likely scenario. I do think there was probably an invasion plan in place, for the near-term, that was made obsolete by the Ukraine war and the world’s response. President Xi undoubtedly expected a weak-kneed reaction from the anemic democracies of the world when faced with the military might of an authoritarian powerhouse bent on getting things done. [Remember Xi is drinking his own Kool Aid]. Now he needs to go back to the drawing board and come up with an alternate plan, but most his planners and freethinkers have been disappeared, so it’s a task.

Banged for Being Foreign

Here’s one they don’t teach in expat school and really should. There are people who’ll be attracted to your exoticness. Sometimes it’s intellectual; the desire to learn about another culture, language, way of thinking, whatever—this is why the offer of a “language exchange” has been the gold standard for hitting on random locals for decades. It starts the conversation.

I met my oldest Taiwanese friend this way. I’d been here days when I saw this beautiful woman on the bus. Ever the smoothie—I dropped jaw and stared. Prompting a piss-off face from her, but she was so pretty that it came across as cute and encouraging. I made my approach, eliciting a piss-further-off face that heartened me even more. Obviously, I should have crashed and burned, making an unwelcome cold approach on a random woman on the bus. I don’t remember all that was said, I can only assume my regular Bartholomew Bandyesque suavity. Despite that, the offer of a language exchange got her number and subsequent dates. Of course she knew what I was doing—chicks always know, they’re way ahead of us. Still, twenty-five years later and we remain friends.

Of course, the attraction of the exotic is often not intellectual. When I first started coming to Asia, it was pretty common among Asian women to want to try a white guy—in the words of my Taiwanese friend—to see what it feels like going in. And, she had no particular attraction to foreigners, but still even with her, there was the whiff of willingness for a little international mésaventure. I’m not sure what the appeal is, but I think we can thank Western pop-culture.

When I first arrived, decades ago, all foreign guys were regarded as essentially the same. As with any collector, Asian women have become much more discriminating, some developing maple fever [a personal favorite], while others became Anglo-anglers or Euro-tramps. Some chanted: “You splooge, I splooge, we all splooge for Spanish dudes,” while still others became girls of the red, white, and goo. Sounds great, right!?!

Not totally.

Sure, if you’re a traveler and the locals are on you like pubes on soap, well you just couldn’t ask for much more. If you’re living in Asia, at some point you’ll probably want a deeper relationship. It can be difficult navigating these landmines-with-boobs to find a sincere woman seeking a real relationship. You think you’re on the way to having a Sweet Baboo, only to find yourself with a Slutty Samantha. No slut shaming here. I love sluts. But, it’s important to know what you’re getting into, so to speak.

Sometimes Taiwanese hold an assumption that you understand that you are a foreigner [most of us do], and thus obviously ineligible for a serious relationship [many a foreigner never received that memo]. “Oh you didn’t know that? Yeah you should have—it’s obvious.” The problem can be compounded by a tendency to see foreigners as universally similar, a pack of commitment-phobic sex-crazed wastrels. “I’ve seen American movies. I know the score.” I ended up in one long term relationship when the Taiwanese woman assumed I knew the score too. I didn’t. It was a hookup that went extremely long as she didn’t have the ovaries to tell me she was just in it for the D.

In Taiwan the situation has changed. There are simply too many foreigners here. We are no longer so scarce. Of course it has always been a small percentage of Taiwanese women who’ve been interested in foreigners, but rarity assured a surprising level of dating success. Now there’s a white swinging dick on every corner. Also, Taiwanese people have become more sophisticated, they travel more, have seen more, and know more foreigners. They have more intellectual knowledge of the West, and if desired, more opportunities for carnal knowledge. We are just not as rare. Taiwan is still very amenable to intercultural relationships, but it does lack the Wild East feel it had. If you were looking for something like that, you need to head to other less Westernized areas of Asia.

I understand this article will not provoke sympathy among those who’ve not experienced fetishization. Even back in the day, during expat gripe sessions, callousness prevailed when some guy would moan on about this situation. Guys tend towards cruelty because we’re guys, and women could be mean because most expat women at the time were woefully underlaid and unprepared to sooth whingy over-satiated men. Champagne problems. Still, it was, and to a lesser degree still is, something that can happen to unsuspecting expats.

The Taiwanese Racial Slur

I like the racial epithet Whitey, it’s succinct and pithy. As great as it is, my favorite racial slur is the Taiwanese word adoah, 阿啄仔 or the alternate form 阿卓仔. The word means “big nose” or “tall nose”, the in 阿啄仔 means beak/beaky, while the alternate form’s means tall, while indicates closeness (it’s a familiarizing particle) and is a diminutive suffix. Add it all together and you’ve got foreigner, Caucasian more specifically. Since transliterating oral Taiwanese to written Chinese allows for some interpretation sometimes you’ll see 阿兜仔 or 阿凸仔 used. These are kind of funky ways of writing adoah, but I kind of like them as looks like a big nose in the center of a face, while looks like a nose. Semantics aside you got to admit “big nose” just kind of nails it.

Some take offense at being called adoah, while for others it just slides off them like a Big Mac all-beef patty off the bun. But is it racist? Well, it’s an almost perfect parallel to the English racial slur “slant-eyes”, so yeah, it’s hard to deny the insensitivity, but let me try, just to be a contrarian 混蛋 .

Don’t get me wrong, adoah can be overtly racist. I’ve had the word hurled at me in very aggressive and intimidating ways. But, in those cases even if the guy had said, “most honorable gentleman of the Caucasian persuasion”, tone and context would’ve ensured a scary—racially charged atmosphere—that’d have left my sphincter dancing.

So adoah can be used in a them’s fight’n’words kinda way, but it also may have no more implied negativity than “foreigner”. When I first came to Taiwan as a student in 1987, foreigners were either 美國人 [Americans] or 阿啄仔 [big noses]. I actually have some pretty warm memories of crowds of little kids skipping circles around me singing “big nose, big nose,….” Less amiable, but not unpleasant, are the memories of obasans pointing at me and telling their grandchildren to look at the big nose. In these contexts, personally, I find adoah neutral if not somewhat affable and was more put out by being called American.

Still times have changed and adoah is less commonly heard among Taipei’s urbane, who are reasonably aware of the sensitivities of foreigners. Outside Taipei the word gets bandied around more frequently. I’m mildly impressed though, despite not believing the word to be insulting—which many Taiwanese don’t—in the time I’ve been here the use of adoah has noticeably declined.

It’s required a shift from traditional Asian values that don’t particularly seek a broad ranging society of different ethnicities living together in respect and harmony. Most Asian societies prefer to stress homogeneity, consequently racial sensitivity is not the default setting. For people from societies that aspire to inclusivity this can be hard to accept. In multicultural Canada, where I’m from, there’s an official policy of empowering and promoting social, economic, and political inclusion, achieved partially through a constant process of navel-gazing, self-policing, and changing acceptable terms. Most Asian countries haven’t had to deal with such concerns, and so can be linguistically insensitive. Simply not much thought has been given to what words are used to refer to different races.

Taiwanese sometimes claim ignorance of the meaning of adoah, seeing it only as a word referring to foreigners. Many foreigners regard these claims with disbelief and occasionally anger. The vexation comes from a linguistic misunderstanding. We tend to learn Chinese character-by-character, building words from the individual characters we’ve learned. Multisyllabic words being regard—more often than would be correct—as collections of characters, each a word/meaning in its own right, thus allowing words to be deconstructed into deeper “real” meanings.

My explanation of the meaning of 阿啄仔, breaking the word down into characters and explaining the meaning of each character was a foreigner-type explanation. Taiwanese learn the language more holistically. Though they might be capable of breaking the word down into individual characters and examining the semantics, that’s not necessarily how they conceptualize the word. As I was writing this article my wife was surprised by the meaning of 啄. She knew the word 阿啄仔, but imprecisely understood the possible meanings of 啄. Do you continually think of the roots and stems of English words? No. It’s a word with a meaning more relevant than its Latin/Greek/Gaelic/… roots. My name is 達仁, to which my Canadian friends usually ask its meaning, and I’ll dutifully reply that it means kindhearted humanitarian or some such. Really that’s wrong. It means me. It’s a name. My name. My English name is Darren. No one asks what it means.  It means keeper of the oak grove or some such, but it doesn’t make sense to think of words in these terms.

Does your grandmother realize the Latin or Greek roots and their nuances as she uses a word? It’s unreasonable to expect more from Grandma Wang. After all, these things are rarely as simplistic as my explanation of how adoah is written implied.  Some Taiwanese assert that adoah is a sign of respect. The history and linguistics justifying this position are that the character not only means tall, but also more commonly means outstanding. Some note adoah may derive from the Taiwanese honorific title for priests during the early days of contact. Also, adoah may come from a story attributed to Zhuangzi,  an influential Chinese philosopher from the Warring States Period. It doesn’t really get much more venerable. At the same time referencing body characteristics doesn’t have the same prohibitions as in the West. [See: “Hello Fatso” And Other Taiwanese Greetings].

It’s valuable to understand where people are coming from, but ultimately it doesn’t matter whether the Taiwanese believe adoah is derogatory . Ethnic terms are insulting or neutral depending who says it and the context—those that the word is directed at get to decide. Personally I don’t see it in absolutes. I cut granny and the kids some slack, while with country folks it really depends how country. For the more cosmopolitan I have a higher standard. I also take into account facial expression and tone, can I perceive cognizance of an implied insult? If not, I’m likely to regard it as slightly funny and let it roll off me. But that’s just me, you get to decide for yourself.