All posts by Darren Haughn

Vignette #23: Flashing Lights and Arrests

Have you heard the one about the Taiwanese exchange student in Texas? It seems the highway patrol wanted to pull him over so they put the flashing lights on and drove up behind them.  The hapless student led them on a merry chase for twenty miles, all the while blissfully unaware that he was in a scene from Smokey and the Bandit. When apprehended and asked what he thought he was doing, his reaction was: Huh!?! How could I know you wanted to stop me. There were no hints. Likely apocryphal, but possibly it’s true.

For those who don’t know, Taiwan’s police drive everywhere with their flashing lights on. It doesn’t imply any sort of rush, emergency, or desire to apprehend you. The flashing cherry simply tells the world: Hey look. I’m driving,… in a car,… and it has some flashing lights…. Fun!

Many foreigners, when they arrive, ask the obvious question: Why? Most Taiwanese can’t answer because they’ve never thought it strange, but it is weird, prevents stealth, and impedes police work.

Embed from Getty Images

I have a theory. During martial law it made a lot of sense for cops to drive around with the lights a-popping. They weren’t a police force as we currently understand it. They were a force of oppression,  there to keep the citizenry in check, and be a visible symbol of governmental power and reach.  It makes perfect sense to try to draw as much attention as possible. We see you. The government is everywhere.

I think when martial law ended, the police showed up for work the next day, and exhibiting the Asian preference for doing it the way it’s always been done, turned on their flashing lights and headed out. A few decades later, and no one has given it a second thought—except yours truly.

White People Look Weird: Expat Self-Alienation

Being a minority in Asia has given me an odd perspective on my country, my culture, and myself. In the mid- 1980s—pre-globalization, the Internet, and most immigration—Asia was, from my perspective, stunningly homogeneous.

As an outsider, it was enough to change your self-perceptions. In Korea I became so alienated from my race that I stopped regarding white as normal. For the first six or seven months in Yeosu, I never saw another foreigner. Hard to imagine in the Internet age, but not only didn’t I see another living foreigner, I also didn’t see a picture of a foreigner, one on TV, nor in film—all I saw for half a year were Koreans.

I gained perspective on what it felt like to be Korean living in virtually homogeneous Korea. Any variation from the racial norm stuck out as unnatural. During that time, I traveled to a larger center and spotted a mixed race school girl. If I saw her in Canada, I wouldn’t have noticed her, or I’d have thought her looks a pleasant racial blending. When I saw her, through my Korean eyes, I found her freakish. She had freckles, slightly lighter skin, and hair running to auburn. Frankenstein’s monster. Undoubtedly, she was cute, but after seeing only “pure” Koreans for months, she seemed exceptional, in a negative way.

Don’t judge. The first time I saw another white person I had a similar reaction. After a few months, I found a theater playing a Western movie. The film transfixed me. It wasn’t the story, nor the special effects—I couldn’t get over how bizarre the white people looked. I spent the whole movie staring and thinking, “My God, look the nose on her—it’s huge.” Seriously, it felt like it was coming right out of the screen. I was hypnotized by the freakishly colorful eyes. Don’t get me started on the uniqueness of each person’s hair. I was so estranged from my race that I saw my Caucasian characteristics as weird and unseemly.

I don’t think this could happen anymore. The consumption of pop-culture is more globalized. Helped by video sharing sites, downloading, and Netflix, we listen to each other’s music and watch each other’s TV shows and movies . If I lived in Yeosu today, I wouldn’t lack visual images of white people. I would have access to endless videos and photos—I’d find imagery of my own race. Plus, it is undoubtedly more international now, with a foreigner community. I wouldn’t disassociate from my race.

For travelers and expats, the Internet’s ready access to your own culture provides comfort previously undreamed of by international travelers. Still, something important has been lost. It is now feasible to physically live in a foreign country while not really living there. You can live in Taiwan, do your shopping in American [online] stores—except for shoes, where Italy is obviously the place to shop—buy English books, watch Hollywood movies, and even access regional TV programs from your home. It’s truly awesome and comfortable and … limiting.

It is much harder to escape your culture and immerse yourself in another. It may be impossible to experience the cultural uncoupling I’ve described. That’s sad. My time in Asia has roughly corresponded with the rise of the Internet. My quality of life has risen dramatically with improved access to Western goods and cultural items. Also, concurrent globalization and trade liberalization means you can find a range of international goods in-country.

I also feel a sense of loss. It’s healthy to, once or twice, get so removed from your race/culture that your own weirdness slaps you in the face. Many small difficulties of expat life have disappeared, like traveling hundreds of kilometers to the only English “bookstore” in your region to gaze in wonder upon the dozen thirty-year-old titles, or uncomprehendingly watching Chinese TV, because what else? The expat life is special, and it makes you special. But, how special are you really if you travel to Asia, but only eat the regionally grown organic quinoa of your birthplace, or exclusively drink Starbuck’s double shot, half-caf, decaf, almond milk, mint mocha macchiatos, with a gentle breeze of cinnamon?

For a bit more on the Internet’s impact on expat life see: WTO and My Waistline and Kickin’ it Old School. For the whiny alternative viewpoint see: Making Taiwan Better.

Life as a Freak: Being Other in Asia

This article examines the casual, almost charming, racism that gives color to expat life, those small moments that remind you that you’re really an outsider. I am relating the following stories for their anecdotal charm. If you want a more serious look at racial issues in Asia try: Asian Anti-Foreigner Bigotry Pt.I and Pt.II.

Being different in Asia can lead to bizarre experiences as locals, often unrestrained in dealing with foreigners, toss normal social mores when faced with the obvious outsider. There is often a kind of fast-and-loose disregard for social niceties as related to foreigners. The oddest examples are in Inappropriate Touching and Being Other where I describe literally being petted like an animal. The experiences ran from the pleasurable, having my arm and leg hair petted by strange women, to the less desirable vigorous chest hair stroking by a Korean man, while freebagging it in a steam bath. Don’t miss those stories.

You’d assume for homoerotic oddness that’d be unmatched, but no, during my very early days in Thailand [I lived there briefly], Korea, and Taiwan I somewhat regularly got hit on by gay men. Fine.  But, sometimes the inappropriateness of the situation made me think I must be doing something wrong. After an unusually assertive mid-afternoon invitation to enjoy a blowjob in the nearby public restroom—on a Wednesday—I was particularly flummoxed. There was no reason to believe me either gay, or looking for action. This happened during my early days in Taiwan, but also occurred in Korea and Thailand. I asked an older male student why these things were happening. In his words, it was probably because as we [Taiwanese] “know all foreigners are gay”.” Ahh. Well that explained that. I had been told something similar in the other countries. One of those racial situations that isn’t so bad, but causes pause. I’m pretty sure this belief has died over the last couple decades as interactions with the West have grown.

As globalized as Asia is becoming, you can always count on obasans to keep it real. It is a frequent refrain to hear old ladies telling their grandchildren, “Look, look,” with emphatic finger-pointing. “See the foreigner? Over there, look at him.” Gawp at the weirdness that is a foreigner. I have many friends—both Taiwanese and Western—who get really pissed off, but I don’t care about this one. You’re never going to change old ladies, and children are children.

It doesn’t stop there, when I step outside, I’m stared at by Taiwanese of all ages and genders. I’m used to it. I like it. It’s been a constant part of life since I was nineteen. During my first trip to Taiwan, thirty-three years ago, I walked into a nightclub and everything stopped. The music stopped. The dancing stopped, Conversation stopped. The houselights came up, and the entire club turned and stared at me for a solid twenty to thirty seconds. That’s the way it should be. However, ogling has been in steady decline as the expat population has grown. I don’t like it—it feels like people don’t appreciate what a special little flower I am.

As much as I might enjoy the attention it has cost me two relationships that I’m aware of. One was serious, but she couldn’t deal with the constant attention. She interpreted it—at least partially—as moral suasion aimed at getting her to conform, stop being a white-dating slut, and fulfill her social obligation to date, marry, and bear a Taiwanese. The other simply disliked being constantly noted. There’s a lot of pressure in Asia to just be another cog in the wheel, to not stand out. I stick out like a sore dink, and anyone who’s around me gets hit by the spotlight too. I guess it’s good that Westerners are less unique now—it’s helped stabilize my social life.

As a foreigner, I have been the recipient of a lot of weird friendliness, where people try to be affable, but the execution falls flat. Once while scootering around Taipei, I was chased from stoplight-to-stoplight by a young Taiwanese guy who kept trying to engage me in English and offer his assistance. I believe he was genuinely trying to be nice, but it was really uncomfortable to be chased all over town by a stranger—no matter how well-intentioned. When I came to Taiwan to study, thirty-three years ago, I went to the National Palace Museum and was quickly swarmed on all sides by hundreds of students yelling, “Hello, nice to meet you,” and trying to shake my hand. Rationally I know they were just teens trying to practice their English, but when you’re surrounded, jostled, and yelled at—no matter how friendly the intent—the result is intimidating. Similarly, at that time, I used to get chased around the city streets by adults yelling, “Nice to meet you. How are you? Nice to meet you. How are you?…” Undoubtedly they were looking for a chance to practice their English, but it was alarming.

As a Westerner, I’ve always considered myself a bit of a zoo animal in Asia—on display for the pleasure of others. The constant scrutiny has decreased over the decades as Asia has become more international. It’s like going from a caged zoo animal to one that lives in a nature park. To me the feeling of being on exhibit is an integral part of the expat experience, but life is undeniably more comfortable as one of a crowd—even if some sick part of me misses the over-the-top attention.

Hot Honeys and Dorky Dudes: Perceptions of Beauty and Interracial Dating in Asia

When I first started traveling to Asia over 30 years ago, I became aware people were having a disproportionate reaction to my appearances. To be succinct, they treated me like I was movie star handsome. I wasn’t then, am now. What was happening?

I hit Taiwan as a nineteen year old student. There were almost no foreigners at the time. As part of the class, I traveled around Taiwan visiting temples. I had two Taiwanese women follow me from city to hamlet, mountain to ocean. Everywhere I went, there they were. As a teen I was mystified by the attention and incapable of fully taking advantage. Before this, women never went out of their way—except to avoid me. I was probably the first foreigner they’d interacted with beyond the movie screen.  I was the unwitting beneficiary of a glamorized and fetishized view of Westerners common at the time. [Is it any wonder I still love this place].

I lived in Korea not long after, and found myself continually compared with Robert Redford, back when he was still handsome. I don’t look like Robert Redford—never have. I’m more of a Brad Pitt. Korean women were simply comparing me to the only handsome blonde foreigner they knew. Perceptions of my face benefited from being part of a very small control group.

Beauty is a cultural construct and is radically different between groups. I know that doesn’t seem earth-shattering, but that was pre-Internet, when cultural groups, ethnicities, races, and nationalities were not sharing videos and other information. Now we’re a little more aware—black men like big butts, white guys like big boobs, and Chinese are face-focused. (I know this is a wild generalization, but in broad sweeps it has some truth).

The Chinese have 5,000 years of literary and artistic output codifying their ideas of beauty. These ideas are numerous and deeply entrenched. As a single example there are many notions of what constitutes a beautiful female face. One traditional ideal of Chinese beauty is a face shaped like a pumpkin seed (瓜子臉).

People I met were surprised at what Asians I found attractive. Their tastes equally mystified me. When this extensive code of beauty is applied to Westerners the system implodes. Our faces defy Tang Dynasty ideals of beauty, leaving the Chinese without a baseline for judging foreign beauty. I’ve benefited from the phenomena. I have a large, protruding, hooked, ugly Germanic nose.  Asians simply cannot see it, though it is literally as plain as the nose on my face. Asians measure nose size by broadness not height. Many find my prodigious proboscis positively pretty because it’s paper-thin. Sometimes having a misunderstood face isn’t beneficial. When I was younger, my eyes were limpid pools of cobalt; an azure sea the ladies could swim in. They’ve since become plain gray. When Asians look at eyes, they simply survey the eyelid shape. Do you have double eyelids? Check. Moving on. Poetry must suffer greatly from the lack of the concept of eyes being the windows to the soul. My best and worst physical features both get ignored. I guess it’s a bit of a push.

It is interesting to watch people react to mixed couples. Those I saw were always a foreign dweeb with a super-hot—model quality—Asian woman. It was so common that it became a clichéd commentary among expats. In Thailand, Korea, Indonesia, and Vietnam I was dimly aware the women didn’t share my assessment. I have a large circle of Taiwanese female friends, they vehemently hold the opposite opinion. Often asking me why is that handsome foreigner with such an ugly woman? I used to be stunned, now I take it in stride and just wipe the pulchritude-induced drool off my cravat and shatter their reality with the news that the guy is clearly a dweeb. This doesn’t just happen in Asia. While in Canada, my wife had the distinct pleasure of overhearing strangers trying to figure out what she—an obvious babe—was doing with such a dork [me]. Years later the memory still warms her heart.

In cross-cultural dating clearly what’s happening is two ugly people are finding each other, each thinking they’ve scored big and are punching above their class. Everyone wins. That’s beautiful.

 

 

Taiwanese Generational References

The thing about cross-cultural living is you lose your frame of reference—those little tricks used to prejudge a situation. One loss is a broad understanding of each generation’s reality. For example, the Greatest Generation lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Those events shaped who they are and how they live. Baby Boomers have shared social, economic, and international events that shaped their outlook, and on-and-on for each generation. Of course each individual is different, but there is groupthink: I can better understand where you’re coming from if I know where you came from.

You lose those broad insights when moving to another country. If I’d relocated to America, there’d be slight changes. With a small knowledge of American history and culture I could conjecture other’s generational viewpoint.

Not true for Taiwan. The events that shaped generational thinking are very different. I’ve found it a useful shorthand to think of Taiwanese as sharing similarities with the preceding generation in Canada. I realize I’m screwing with reality, Taiwan lived through the same world events as other countries at the same time. But, in my personal interactions with Taiwanese there seems to be this intercultural cross-generational parallel.

People the equivalent age to Western Baby Boomers saw the Chinese arrive or arrived themselves. They lived through the darkest days of the White Terror. Their thinking was set in Taiwan’s pre-Asian Tiger days and shaped by its emergence. Taiwan had a fair amount of poverty. My parent-in-law’s generation—seventy-plus years old—seems to share similarities with the Greatest Generation. They have the extreme frugality of those who lived through the Great Depression. Don’t throw anything away, who knows when you might need a 20mm square button to match a purple leisure suit. Better hang on to that.

Taiwan’s baby boom (they don’t call it that) began a bit later, the early 1950’s,  after the KMT completely lost China and overt hostilities eased. By the mid-1960’s the birthrate began to be perceived as a problem and government began promoting the nuclear family (一個孩子不嫌少,兩個孩子恰恰好/One child isn’t too little, two is just right). These children are around thirty to fifty-five years old, but resemble the West’s Baby Boomers. They may have been born into relatively poor economic circumstances, with parents who exhibited Depression-era practicality, but they found themselves living and working in a booming economy where anything seemed possible, and want was for others.

In some ways my wife and mother are similar, each was born into strained economic circumstances with a high degree of rurality. For early Canadian Baby Boomers, photos were not a common part of family life. My mother has a couple poor quality childhood photos, and one professional baby picture. My wife’s treasured childhood memories are mostly photos of others, where she’s wandered into the background. Both consciously try to create and preserve memories. My mom didn’t have a wealth of toys growing up, but she had wanted a certain doll, which inevitably didn’t come. My wife had one toy growing up (really)—a dolly. She’d wanted a Barbie and ended up with a Night Market Nancy. Both can get a bit over-wrought about dolls.

Each came of age in a time of endless jobs and good pay, making it hard for them to relate to the economic problems not only of their parent’s generation, but also later generations. That’s me. When I graduated high school, the job market tanked—almost on that day. My generation, either by choice or necessity, went to university in droves. The job market hadn’t improved by graduation, so employment uncertainty shaped our worldview.

When I moved to Taiwan, I had a hard time economically relating to people my age. And, they couldn’t relate to me. “Why did you come to Taiwan?” I’d be honest, “Because there’s no work in Canada,” inevitably illiciting a response like, “What do you mean ‘there’s no work’? Aren’t you willing to work?” Of course, I’d do anything, “I mean there’s no work,” followed by the inevitable blank incomprehension. It was stunningly similar to conversations with Canadian Baby Boomers at the time.

Which brings us to the generation that graduated after the Global Financial Crisis (2007/8). Taiwan’s low birthrate after 1996 and oversupply of university spots sent them to university in droves.  Similar to how the bursting of the job market in Canada forced a prolonged education on many Canadians of my generation. Upon graduation this abundance of Taiwanese university graduates entered a crippled job market. These are my people. I relate to their life’s journey at a gut level, in a way I can’t connect with Taiwanese my age. Their struggles are mine. The world kicked them in the same places as it did my generation in Canada, and created people of similar outlook and attitude.

This article is a foreigner’s perspective on inter-generational differences in Taiwan. The Taiwanese have their own way of looking at generational shifts related to unique domestic events. A common one is the sharp generational divide between people who completed their education under martial law and those that did not. Or, those who came of age early in Chang Ching-kuo’s (蔣經國) reign, and look back on the Martial Law Period and early Taiwanese manufacturing boom with fondness. They’re unable to relate to the tech boom, globalization, Taiwan’s post-industrial society, etc. They are sort of like Taiwanese Trump voters or Brexiteers. These are the people that almost foisted Han Guo-yu (韓國瑜) on Taiwan.

Admittedly, this article  puts an anachronistic and foreign skein over everything. It is inherently inaccurate—and yet helpful.