All posts by Darren Haughn

Vignette #27: Birth Control in Taiwan

I’ve been friends with a Taiwanese surgeon for decades. He once made an interesting statement. He said medical knowledge among Taiwan’s general population lagged behind the West’s by 15 to 20 years because information here needed to first be translated into Chinese, then noticed and disseminated by popular media. Whereas in the West it is pretty common for scientific studies to be featured in general news and magazine articles.

Personally, that disparity has been most keenly felt as regards Taiwanese attitudes towards birth control. Despite torturing dates with subpar jazz and creepy dude cologne every once in awhile even I managed to fall awkwardly into a penis flytrap. If the relationship developed, at some point skin-to-skin contact became desirable, and Taiwanese conceptions of contraception would become a problem.

Local knowledge of the pill seems cribbed from Vietnam War era pamphlets. Dated. The information relates to the original high-dose hippie pill. I could never convince Taiwanese women that if they went to a doctor and got a decent modern medication, side effects would be minimal, and occasionally desirable. They seemed to suspect ulterior motives, but I was just concerned for their menstrual well-being. I’m a caring and sensitive boy.

My humanitarian efforts were inevitably hampered as most who tried the pill, to avoid embarrassment, just bought something over the counter, not a doctor-prescribed modern low-dose pills. The packaging even looked like war surplus. They worked, but as you’d expect, the massive doses of estrogen and progestin had side effects, one of which was the creation of a confirmation bias in each woman’s mind. The pill = bad.

Thus, Taiwan‘s national form of birth control would best be described as spray-&-pray.

The Pervert in Class Is You

I’m sorry for how long this article took. The Covid shutdown has had its charms; working from home, pantless Friday’s, joining Taiwan’s fine tradition of high-functioning alcoholics, etc. But, Covid fatigue is real. When I finish online teaching I don’t want to do much. Writing has been about as enjoyable as leather pants in a Taiwan summer—just thinking about either gives me a rash and sweaty balls.

However, a friend asked for this follow-up to Talking ’bout Sex. He pointed outcorrectlythat after decades of teaching English in Asia, I must have countless stories of foreigner teachers shitting the bed with their obliviously offensive and inappropriate behavior. True dat.

He thought Talking ’bout Sex was building to some of those tales. I just didn’t think it that important. I haven’t filed those experiences in my mental Rolodex very carefully as other. The foreign teacher with both feet stuck in his mouth is ubiquitous and unmemorable. Still there’ve been a few standouts.

From my blog you might assume I’ve had problems with this. Not really. I get in more trouble with foreigners, when sometimes my words are halfway to Kaohsiung on High Speed Rail before my brain hops out of the taxi at Taipei Main Station. In class my words are more deliberate. Of course I’ve stepped on my own crank a few times. That’s how you learn. Generally it’s been infrequent and minor, but I have seen somethings….

Buxiban teachers are the worst.  Most FOB teachers are quickly put in front of a class with little training and no cultural understanding. They teach English the way they want to learn Chinese. Back in the day, the foreigner community was more dude-o-centric, and many wanted their language courses to resemble Get Laid in Chinese 101. A goal inevitably frustrated by uncooperative female Chinese instructors. But with their own classes, they were free to teach as they wished they were taught.

Examples are plentiful, but I’ll tell you two of my favorites. The first was an absolutely charming American guy. In a Western way, he was saucy, insouciant, and witty. I loved chatting with him, but his charms were completely lost on the students. He was constantly in trouble for something said in class. He eventually got shitcanned when he walked into an 8am adult, all female, class and said, first thing, “So, I was eating out my girlfriend this morning, really diving in there, and it got me to thinking about fish and chips….” He then proceeded to deliver a funnyif career-ending—soliloquy on sex and British cooking.

Usually it’s more of a problem for male teachers, but not to be outdone, there was a female version of him teaching at the same school. She didn’t have quite the same verve, but God she was graphic. I walked by her class once as she was talking about how “fucking” itchy her “cunt” got after “nailing” multiple guys, and she proceeded to colorfully conjecture, in detail, why that might be. She got complaints, but never really got in as much trouble as the guy. Her students seemed too flabbergasted and confused about cross-cultural gender roles to be offended. Good on her, I say. She rode that edge with stunning deftness.

Admittedly those are the worst examples I can think of, from three decades of ESL teaching. Most teachers find themselves afoul of Taiwanese morality at times. There’s a tremendous pressure for buxiban teachers to be entertaining. If you’re not engaging, you lose students; if you lose students, you lose classes; if you lose classes, you lose hours; which means less pay. Lose enough classes and you lose your job. Most teachers have a pretty strong desire to be amusing. Many think risqué badinage puts asses in seats and keeps them there. It doesn’t seem to be true.

My perception is that these things happen less now. Taiwan’s foreigner community has become more sexually mixed, guys have lost their frontier spirit, and are more domesticated. Also, teachers coming to Taiwan now are more professional. [See: Where Have All the Idiots Gone]. Still these situations arise occasionally as a reminder of what happens when low-context teaching meets a high-context class.

Talking ’bout Sex

Making observations about sex is hard; incomplete information, lies, and your own baggage block reality. But, I just wouldn’t be me if I let such piffling concerns deprive you of my wealth of sexual insights.

So let’s rap about sexual experiences and language.

Taiwanese and North Americans (I’m less sure about other Western cultures)  have a very different manner of talking about sex. Generally these differences are evident in discussions among close friends, acquaintances, and relative strangers. Taiwanese are more reticent to discuss sexual experiences, while North Americans sometimes won’t shut up about it. The differences generally hold true for both men and women, and is a source of annoyance for Taiwanese and Americans alike.

As a point of comparison, while working in Canada I went out with a coworker for the first time in a social setting. Within five minutes of meeting, I barely knew him, he informed me—on the down-low—that he has a pinprick-dick, that people tease him, and he’s sensitive about it. [Then don’t randomly tell people you have a micropenis]. Still it’s endearing when people tell you their secrets. It’s intimate, friendly, and creates closeness [in the West]. Dude’s super lovable. I can’t imagine a similar conversation in Taiwan.

That level of openness runs totally counter to high-context culture, where communication is more implicit and relies on context to convey meaning. “Hey Man, I have a nanometer-peter”, is too explicitly upfront for Taiwan.

Many foreigners get themselves into trouble for their explicit manner of communication. The problem is particularly acute for teachers, since they talk a lot and usually try to be humorous and captivating. The line between entertaining and inappropriate is drawn differently in high-context cultures. [Sometimes it seems like the Taiwanese are contriving to emulate that world famous Muslim sense of humor]. It’s primarily a problem for men, who Taiwanese think perverted or inappropriately on the make. Western women also cross the line, but it confuses rather than insults.

Western women are more inclined to braggadocio than Taiwanese. They’re not trying to seem slutty, they’re looking to make a good Western-style story. Everything is more boldly stated in low-context cultures. “I got so wasted last night I….” Don’t expect Taiwanese women to start a story this way, nor tell tales of sexual derring-do. These differences are part of the reason Taiwanese have traditionally thought of Western women as slatterns.  Openness, tall talk, and sardonicism are elements of a good English story—not a Chinese story.

Cross-cultural differences in speaking styles make it seem to Taiwanese that Westerners are doing an inordinate amount of random banging. It is not particularly true. There’s enough gratuitous rolling in the hay here that a farmer should bale the streets in the morning. I’m no Gay Talese, but from what I’ve been able to observe, I don’t think there’s much dissimilarity in sexual mores. The differences are more in word than deed.

Dear Salty,

I have been dating a Taiwanese woman for a couple years. Things are heading toward marriage, but…

One surprise since starting TheSaltyEgg is I’ve become something of a Dear Abby for the lovelorn journeying down the Taiwanese marriage rabbit hole. I receive semi-regular mail seeking relationship advice once they’ve crashed on the rocky shoals of the Taiwanese family, more from international readers than expats who can just bounce advice and beer around on a night out. [See: Hot-Crazy-Taiwanese Matrix]. These emails come from men, women, Asians, non-Asians, and foreign born Chinese. [I know. I’m surprised too]. Marrying Taiwanese, still receives multiple daily hits five-ish years after posting. Since marriage articles seem appreciated, enjoy.

This is based on mine and acquaintences’ personal experiences. Don’t get your boxer briefs in a wad if your experience is different. I’m working from a small sample. Still, I know tens of expat-Taiwanese couples and there are some consistencies.

The article is from a foreign male/Taiwanese female perspective. Taiwanese men have their own cultural and family expectations to live up to, particularly eldest sons. There’s a strong expectation they’ll marry a Taiwanese girl and start cranking out Taiwanese boys to keep the 陳 name alive. Daughters have an inherently greater ability to break these familial/social norms, since traditionally once married they’re out of the family anyway, partially explaining the relative rarity of foreign woman/Taiwanese man marriages. It’s like seeing a pube on a millennial—sure it happens, but it gives you pause, and makes you think. If you’re not a foreign male/Taiwanese female couple, glean what you can, but your mileage may vary. Apologies for my manocentric viewpoint, the world needs a female me [sassy and sexy] to record the womancentric expat experience.

Of the interracial couples I know in Taiwan, I can only think of a couple where the Taiwanese woman comes from a healthy happy family. Traditional Taiwanese prejudices against intermarriage and the intrinsic engagement hurdles prevent most Taiwanese, that have an opportunity, from trying. It’s a difficult path. Women who wed foreigners seem to come in four models: crazy; eccentric; in an an unhealthy daddy-daughter relationship; or from a dysfunctional family.

Bonkers is bonkers, nothing much to say. Crazy is less bound by social norms. Does a soup sandwich care what other sammies think of it? I think not.  So, intermarriage is OK; and as a bonus, unsuspecting foreigners are less likely to sniff out the problems. This is a small minority of intercultural marriages.

Some people are just eccentric and don’t much notice normative behavior. It’s relatively simple for them to love and marry a foreigner. Why not?

The last two models are the most common and difficult to navigate. There are lots of daddy issues floating around Taiwan. I blame Confucius. [More on that in subsequent articles]. The issue seems a bit age-specific, with younger dads being less patriarchal and more relatable for daughters. For many Taiwanese women past their mid-thirty there are issues. The patriarchy hasn’t been kind.

Logically, some of these women seek a man different from Dear Ol’ Dad—what’s more different from a Confucius-loving, honor and tradition addicted, pater than a foreigner? This category has been good to many foreign men, creating opportunities to marry above themselves. Despite the effort, many of these women marry a different skin-toned version of their father anyway: different culture, same personality.

Next are women from dysfunctional families. I’m talking about “normal” dysfunction you might expect anywhere—I still blame Confucius—but that’s my bias. If the family is unstable, the familial bonds of kinship and duty might be looser, and the woman more able to withstand family pressure.

One feature of getting engaged in Taiwan is that it’s a family affair, with both families sniffing each other‘s arses. A well-known Chinese saying is you marry the family, not the person. The exact opposite of what we say. Both side’s families check each other out, looking for red flags, checking their compatibility, and as a side-thought, maybe the children’s compatibility. 門當戶對 (homogamy) is desired. [See: Don’t Marry a Foreigner]. Many foreigners hope that like telemarketers or genital warts, if they pretend the family isn’t there long enough they’ll just disappear. Good luck. Foreigners enter marriage negotiations as free agents lacking familial baggage, but also that sober second thought. What a Taiwanese family would run screaming from, foreigners blithely stumble into. Not necessarily bad, if her family is fucked up enough a blonde might be her only reasonable option. It’s pure symbiosis, both sides have a chance to marry up. Win-win.

If the intercultural marriage is going to happen, the Taiwanese partner needs to fight family, tradition, expectations, and biases. It’s asking a lot. Rebellion against the family is not the normal resting state for Taiwanese daughters. Women need to be able to stand up for the relationship or marriage won’t happen. It seems to require some level of, or combination of, craziness, eccentricity, dysfunction, or desire to flip Dad—or what he represents—the bird. [Also see: Getting Engaged in Taiwan].

Convenience Stores in Taiwan and What They Say About You

There are many things about Taiwan that might stick out in a new arrivals mind. One of the most mundane, and therefore most interesting to me, is the surfeit of convenience stores throughout the nation. In Taipei there seems to be at least one, usually more, convenience store on most blocks. Though these convenience stores may share the same name as their Western counterparts they are different. Most convenience stores in Taiwan are part restaurant, coffee shop, grocery store, snack bar, pub, bank, ticket vendor, pharmacy and post office—not just places to get pepperoni sticks and a gallon of gas.

There are four main convenience store chains in Taiwan; 7-Eleven, Family Mart, OK-Mart, and Hi-Life. There’s a correlation between convenience store choice and the expat’s level of integration into Taiwan. This is all very scientific, using only the most up-to-date social research methodology [natch], as you’d expect from TheSaltyEgg’s  journalistic endeavors.

7-Eleven is the granddaddy of convenience chain stores. It’s run by Uni-President, and is ubiquitous throughout the island. For many foreigners they just seem “to have what you need while the others don’t”. Logical considering it’s a giant multinational administered by one of Taiwan’s biggest food companies. Their supply chain connects to America in a way that outstrips the others. 7-Eleven is the most likely to have the Western snack you desire, including—for one glorious and still remarked upon summer—salt and vinegar chips. FOB and not yet comfortable with salted duck egg flavored goodies? This is the place for you. I lived out of a 7-Eleven my first two years. It’s great when you just want cheezies and a tampon without having a “cultural experience”.

Family Mart is the next largest chain in Taiwan. It is a Japanese based company and more likely to have products from around Asia. Family Mart appeals more to the longer in the tooth expat who’s developed a taste for Asian snacks. They have a wide range of Japanese snacks like dried wasabi green peas, Hokkaido ice cream, and Japanese salty mixed rice crackers. They also have items from around Asia. This is where you go to assuage that 2:17 am craving for Singaporean fish skin crisps [actually pretty awesome] or Korean roasted seaweed snacks.

Things begin getting a little more Taiwanesey with OK Mart. It is part of the Canadian-based Circle K group of stores, still OK Mart has less international selection. For salty snacks you have the omnipresent Cheetos and Kyushu Seaweed Lay’s potato chips, or other Asian flavors. If you’re craving dried instant noodle snacks, they have a wide selection of this Taiwanese answer to the potato chip. If OK Mart is your bodega of choice, you’re on the road to acclimatization, next stop…

Hi-Life, a Taiwanese-run convenience store chain, with less international feel than the others. My local Hi-Life doesn’t even stock Coke products, but they have a pretty solid selection of grass jelly teas, red bean and taro ice cream bars, and 乖乖 (a tasteless puffed corn treat, like Cheez Doodles without the cheez). If Hi-Life can assuage your cravings—congratulations you’re Taiwanese.

However, the journey is not complete until you find yourself shuffling down the alley to the local mom-and-pop corner store in your betel nut stained wife-beater, nylon shorts, and blue rubber flip-flops, carrying an armload of empty 米酒 (Taiwanese rice cooking wine) bottles to exchange for a fresh bottle and some Longlife cigarettes. Then, and only then, will you be a 台客 (Taiwanese good ol’ boy), my son.