All posts by Darren Haughn

Vignette #26: A Little Sinophobia

I’ve recently been talking about the Taiwanese older generation’s attitude towards the wave of Chinese that hit Taiwan in the post-war period [see: Japan’s the Best]. Taiwanese sinophobia—in a roundabout way—has benefited me.

There were many obstacles along the path to marrying Venus [see: Marrying Taiwanese]. Hard as it may to imagine, I wasn’t entirely what the family had in mind. Contrary to expectation, the problem wasn’t a worry Venus was hitting above her weight class, striving for the stars when the moon would have been ample. No. They thought I wasn’t good enough!

Concerns ran the gamut. Will he be able to take care of our girl, is he functional in Taiwanese society. [As balls on a dildo]. That I was too fat. [Plain hurtful. Sure when I lay on my side my stomach lies beside me—but it’s beguiling]. That I was too old, they thought me older than I was. That I might not be the sharpest doorknob in the toolshed. [I’m not the type you’d call smart, nor stupid—I’m the type you’d think owns a terrarium]. Would I be true. [Their whole he’s fat-and-old-thing wasn’t a consideration]. Will he be caring and affectionate. [Like Super Dave Osbourne petting a kitten].

I found an unexpected ally in Venus’s ninety-something grandmother. Venus‘s mother said in her time parents, including her’s, swore they’d beat their daughters brutally, chop off their legs and to feed the pigs, rather than allowing her to wed a waishengren (外省人). [Chiayi strong]. My mother-in-law noted those who’d married Chinese immigrants, on average, had better marriages and lives, and maybe the current wave of foreigners in Taiwan would work the same way. Grandma’s sole comment on our marriage was that at least I’m not a waishengren.

Thanks grandma.

Japan’s the Best: A Taiwanese View of Japan

Taiwan is probably the only country colonized by the Japanese to look back on the experience with fondness. Other Asian countries, on the receiving end of Japan’s twentieth century expansionism, have raised Japan-hating to an art form.

Korea has dealt with Japanese aggression for longer than any other country, starting from Japan’s invasions of 1592 and 1597 which devastated Korea’s civilian population, military, technological capabilities and cultural artifacts. Japan succeeded in subjugating Korea in 1910. Koreans still hold a grudge.

China was forced to make concessions to Japan after the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). So feelings were already a bit tetchy—we know how easy it is to “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”—when the Second Sino-Japanese War rolled around (1937-1945). The assorted atrocities and humiliations China endured did nothing to soften perceptions of Japan.

Since 1592 Japan intermittently sought to extend its control to include Taiwan. Their goal was realized with the Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895) after the First Sino-Japanese War, when Taiwan was ceded to Japan. Though it still took a Japanese invasion to quell resistance in Taiwan.

All these countries have a pretty similar history with Japan and it has engendered the expected animus among Koreans and Chinese, only the Taiwanese openly flirt with Japanaiserie, and exhibit nostalgic feelings for the Japanese times. On the surface Taiwan’s reaction seems to make as much sense as cellulite on a skinny woman, but there’s more to the surface than meets the eye.

Partially it’s a tribute to how horrible  the Chinese were as an occupying force that Japanese rule glowed in comparison. The Chinese arrival in 1945 ushered in a period of government (Kuomintang) corruption and repression. Even after the worst of the post-war venality ended, Chinese rule didn’t contribute much to Taiwanese society. They were like hungry locusts, trying to take from Taiwan as much as possible for the eventual recapture of the motherland. Most of what Taiwan had, in terms of infrastructure , roads, bridges, rail, public buildings, etc., came from the Japanese. The Chinese only grudgingly began to build things in Taiwan in the 1970s.

Japan was the font of culture during imperial times and that didn’t change in many Taiwanese minds after the Chinese came. Japan has a seductive culture of its own, in addition Japan was the intermediary between Western civilization and Asia—Japan westernized much of Asia. Notice anything familiar about Taiwanese public buildings from the Japanese period? Japanese culture continues to have an outsized influence on both Taiwanese high and pop culture.

Wai sheng ren (外省人) and ben sheng ren (本省人) [see:The Neighbors Suck] perceptions and experiences of Japan differed greatly. The Chinese arrived in Taiwan straight from a protracted war with Japan. A war not noted for its warm and fuzzy moments. It was an article of faith that the Japanese must be despised. Look what they had done to China. The Taiwanese, however, had for fifty years been a nominal part of Japan, including during WWII. Many Taiwanese fought in the Japanese army. Taiwan endured Allied bombings.

As an example of how this might cause awkwardness, Kuomintang (KMT) memorials and remembrance services are for their war dead. The Taiwanese were on the other side, but in their own country have no way to memorialize their war dead. Former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) caused a stink when he visited Japan’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine (靖國神社) where his brother, who died in the Japanese navy, is enshrined. A slap in the face to some wai sheng ren and pretty reasonable for many ben sheng ren. Lee Tung-hui has been criticized as a Japan-lover by the Chinese government and some wai sheng ren, but it’s more like he was a Taiwanese of that period.

The upshot is the Taiwanese have a surprisingly positive view of Japan despite having been colonized. It’s just another thing that makes them unique.

When I first came to Taiwan I laughed at people’s fascination with all things Japanese. I used to ask my students if they could travel anywhere where would they go. The most common answer was Japan. It’s like me—a Saskatchewan boy—declaring that if I could go anywhere at all the first place I’d go is Bismarck, North Dakota.

Then I found myself adopting the Taiwanese love of all things Japanese. I recognized it during a joint Japanese-Taiwanese architectural exhibit. I was looking at photographs of a piece of architecture, that I assumed was Taiwanese, and thinking it a small, uninspired simple little box. Then my wife told me it was by a Japanese architect and my internal monologue changed instantly to: Ahh yes, the simplicity, the tasteful minimalism, the subtle interplay of shade and light; it’s truly an elegant example of the Japanese aesthetic. [Pretentious douche].

Taiwan’s relationship with Japan, and Japanese culture, confuses much of the rest of Asia, but gives insights into Taiwan’s unique experiences with being an occupied nation.

Shit Ain’t Shit Till You Learn Some Shit About Shit

What is the most commonly used English word in Taiwan? If you guessed “shit”, you’d be correct.

It’s a personal bugaboo. I get why people like swearing in a foreign language. It’s fun. It speaks to the soul. In a practical sense it can be a great entrée into the language. Personally, I get pure joy from cursing in Taiwanese. [Cursing in Chinese doesn’t have quite the same panache]. In my mind it makes me seem very street, if the street is 秀朗路。I undoubtedly look like an English-speaker, who possibly could curse in Chinese [what’s street about that?], using Taiwanese in an ultimately ridiculous attempt to gain cred, to the sotto voce amusement of all. None of this detracts from my exhilaration.

I get it.

But, as an English teacher it assaults my sense of the language to hear shit being poorly used. Taiwanese usually use it as an expletive, which is at least a correct usage, but they do it with the wrong feeling. They usually say the word like she-TTTUUUUHHHH, ending with a prolonged and stressed “tuh”. It makes them sound—if not dumb—then like amateurs. Other than as an expletive, it is most commonly used to call someone “a shit guy”, which in English has no meaning. Most would assume they mean shitty guy, someone who is bad or immoral. Instead it refers to someone  who never catches a break or attracts bad luck.

It’s amazing the Taiwanese manage to find incorrect usages for shit, since it has such multitudinous uses. You can exclaim shit or shit on a stick. I’ve been shit-faced, shit on, and shit over, but never given a shit. You can take a shit, have a shit, work for shit, or work for a shit, but best not be a shit, though it’s good to be the shit. You can get your shit together, or leave shit everywhere; work for shit, do shit work, or do shit all. Shit can be real, or a lying sack. You can shit the bed, or the sheets, shit a brick, shit disturb, but don’t shit on your own doorstep or where you eat. It’s possible to know jack shit, ratshit, or go apeshit, but still be kingshit, a dipshit, or a dumbshit. You can have it on a shingle or a burger, in a sack, or through the eye of a needle. Never try to shit a shitter when shit happens. I have a shit-eating grin just writing this, but I’m no shit-eater. I know what you’re thinking—what a shithead.

I have spent most of my adult work-life teaching English in Taiwan. That is to say I’ve spent my life pissing into the wind, but my greatest career failure has been allowing the most commonly used English word in Taiwan to be used so poorly. Shit is clearly grandiloquent, but my students deliver it with neither grammatical—nor stylistic—correctness.

It makes me sad. I’m a professional and give a shit. No shit!

Cultural Differences of Little Consequence

There are lots of chances for culture shock and cultural misunderstandings in expat life. These often revolve around big cultural differences, but not all cultural variance assaults our core ideas. Some are simply quaint. These are the cultural contrasts a vacationer might notice between spa treatments, or might turn up in a high school report. They’re interesting, light, fluffy, and fun.

Generally Taiwanese prefer to shower at night while Westerners prefer to shower in the morning. For the Taiwanese, it’s a time to unwind, shed the day’s cares, and prepare for bed. Apparently Taiwanese people don’t sweat or spit all over themselves in their sleep. Us more messy Western sleepers tend to prefer an invigorating morning shower to wake up, wash away the sleep goo, and get ready to face the day.

Relaxing versus prepping is also a theme in eating soup. At banquets Taiwanese have the soup toward meal’s end, to settle the stomach and aid in digestion after gorging. Clearly they’re wrong—that’s why God invented whiskey and tobacco. In formal dining, Westerners usually have soup at the beginning of the meal, to warm the stomach, and lay the groundwork for the coming meal.

Continuing with the stomach theme, most Westerners are comfortable with a drinks only night out, or inviting friends over and entertaining them with drinks and perhaps light snacks. [See: Starvation Culture]. In Taiwan it is very odd to spend time with friends without talking around a mouthful of food.

Dating has a lot of small cultural differences. Kissing is culturally different, not so much in structure or delivery, as in timing. The kiss is an important part of early dates in the West. Should I? Shouldn’t I? Was that the signal? You have to get through the kiss to get to the good stuff. These things have stages, hence the whole first-base metaphor. Kissing has a less important role in dating in Taiwan. Kissing on the first or even second date is a bit odd, not wrong, possibly even charming, in a hey-I’m-dating-a-foreigner sort of way. It isn’t uncommon to hit a homer before circling around for some of that hot first-base action, which is also charming, in a hey-I’m-dating-a-Taiwanese-woman sort of way.

Yet picking your nose on a first date might be acceptable. There’s definitely an odd tendency towards public nose-picking. The number of times I’ve seen someone engaged in a third-knuckle-deep snoot root on the street, in a bus, at a restaurant is disturbing. Man, woman; old, young; hot, not; high-class or low-class place; it does matter, nothing stands in the way of a good rhinogasm. Oddly despite the fascination with the nostrils, blowing your nose in public is bad form. They’d rather snuffle. Taiwanese nasal culture is opposite to the West’s.

Private space blends with public space in Taiwan in other ways. At the traditional morning market it’d be surprising if you didn’t see women shopping in their pajamas, or old men in their undershirts and—what looks like—boxer shorts. I don’t really mind. We have Walmart, so, you know, there’s no room for aspersions, but it drives my French friends nuts.

As a teacher, one cultural difference I find myself dealing with is that plagiarism is not a mortal sin like in the West. A traditional way of studying in Chinese culture is to copy accepted authorities. Also Taiwanese students tend to be more communal in their study habits; they study together, share their research, and copy each other. It is not so bad here. You look like a raging lunatic if you get too over-the-top morally indignant. Sure you’d have been expelled and blackballed, but what’s that to do with here?

The Taiwanese are generally good savers. Even though I’ve been a part of a Taiwanese family for over a decade I still don’t entirely understand the mechanics of it. My wife seems profligate, yet saves an awesome percentage of her income. My parents-in-law are the same. My wife has me saving/investing 65%+ of my income, and despite doing it, I don’t get how it is happening. [I’m pretty sure I’m suffering]. I’m frugal, but left to my own devices, I’d be lucky to save 15-20%.

It’s always amazed me how often little things are the opposite. We have a 20% off sale, in Chinese it’s a 80% on sale. Which direction does a compass point? North? In ancient Chinese it pointed south. These little cultural differences are interesting, but won’t cause much culture shock or intercultural discomfort. They’re just fun.

Diversity in Expat Culture

One annoyance of expat life is its tendency to create shallow friendships. Everyone is transitory, and friendships are fleeting. [See: Expat Friendships]. The upside is expat life offers diversity of friendship. It’s charming how expat life throws together people from all the world’s corners, each bringing their unique backgrounds. Despite a certain American cultural hegemony, traditions from the world over jostle and blend delightfully in the expat community.

On big holidays you’re quite likely to get invites for a special meal or party. If you’re alone on the holidays someone is likely to be looking out for you, and invite you to something. If not, it’s easy to band together with other lonely expats and create some drunken holiday cheer. At these parties, the expectedness of different traditions doesn’t diminish their beguiling nature. I’ve been at expat Christmas potlucks that have included the requisite turkey and fixings, but also the host culture’s interpretation of Christmas, and dishes associated with Christmas’s around the world; Beijing Duck (Taiwan), Kentucky Fried Chicken (Japan) [still makes me giggle, but it’s a Japanese thing], pickled herring and snus (Sweden), oysters and foie gras (France), mincemeat (England), kutya and nalysnyky (Ukraine), topped off with malva pudding (South Africa). It sounds like a pot-pourri of horrors. However—like people—each regional dish blended smoothly to create a harmonious meal, with just a soupçon of cacophonous flavors, adding tang without being too jarring.

Cross-cultural togetherness is somewhat expected during big holidays: we’re all here without much family. I’m more enchanted with the countless small examples of cultural sharing that happen serendipitously. For me, these have included being invited by a group of Americans to a pub to watch The Super Bowl live. I don’t care about football, and even less American football, but I don’t want to meet the person that can’t enjoy hot wings and binge drinking at 5:30 am. Being unexpectedly slipped a container of pierogis from a Ukrainian coworker. Attending a funeral and afterwards finding the Irish attendees had created a spontaneous wake, reciting Irish funeral toasts and getting slowly swizzled. It was touching. Perhaps one of my favorite incidences was stumbling upon a French-Canadian teaching assorted Anglos some Québécoise curses. (Not to be confused with cursing in France. The Québécois curse like they’re taking inventory of a cathedral). Mon tabarnak—it was funny.

Another area of expat diversity is across socio-economic lines. Admittedly class distinction influences inter-expat relations and inhibits friendships, still the shared experience of being foreigners in a foreign land does create some odd-bedfellows. And, definitely in interactions with the host culture, it is easy for a poorer person to have friendships with rich Taiwanese. I suppose the social indicators of class are a little confusing across cultural lines.

Another charming aspect of expat life is the way it throws together people of different ages. Expats often interact across age groups without much prejudice. If I were still in Canada I wouldn’t expect to have many cross-generational friendships outside of work. Here my friends range from twenty-five to seventy-five. Admittedly sometimes it creates slightly awkward situations. I get invited to clubs, music festivals, and raves by (much) younger friends. I love being included, but it sucks to have to spend a night listening to some DJ (why are they considered performers?) delivering EDM; Techno, House, Trance, etc. True my generation had similar music, but most thought of it as syntho-shit—admittedly it’s still shit—but it’s nice to be included. It’s healthy to be around other age groups. It keeps your mind youthful and expanding. At these outings I’ve learned important life lessons, for example middle-age white men can’t twerk.

Likewise the host culture and their openness to intercultural friendships prevent expats from becoming homogenously foreign outsiders. The Taiwanese also play an important role in diversifying the expat experience. Many are happy to include a foreigner in their circle.

The expat experience makes me think of first-generation immigrants to New York in the early twentieth century. Diverse cultures—a medley of backgrounds and experiences—rubbing together. Heterogeneity is the spice of expat life.