All posts by Darren Haughn

Vignette #25: Why 2020 Sucked—A Chinese Explanation

Well, 2020 has been replete with crapulescence.

But, wouldn’t you know it, the ancient Chinese had a method of contextualizing these events. 天干地支, the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches, is a system of ordinals dating back to the Shang Dynasty. It combines ten Chinese characters (Heavenly Stems) representing a celestial cycle with twelve Chinese characters (Earthly Branches) representing a terrestrial cycle. The Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches combine to create sixty possible two-character words. They can be used, and continue to be utilized in much of Asia, to rank, denote, and classify many things. These ordinals are used to create a sixty-year cycle.

In 庚子 years momentous events happen. A hundred and eighty years ago (3 cycles of 60 years) was the beginning of the First Opium War. Sixty years later began the Boxer Rebellion. Sixty years ago was the Great Chinese Famine. I know the examples are sinocentric, but it’s their system.

The year 2020 is both a rat year and a 庚子 year, magnifying the effect of each and creating a perfect celestial shitstorm. This year brought COVID-19, a trade war, financial crisis, worldwide civil unrest, flooding in Southern China, and Trump being even more Trumpy.

For me, 2020 brings to mind the Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times. This year’s been riveting—it is hard to take your eyes off world events. When the planet finally emerges from lockdown it’ll be surprising the changes the 庚子 year has wrought. Interesting times indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Haven’t Really Lived in Taiwan Until You’ve Picked Up Pieces of a Dead Person With Chopsticks

I recently attended a Taiwanese funeral. If you haven’t, here’s what you might expect. It’ll vary by family, this is a general guide. My family’s Buddhist. [I’m hardcore Red Hat Taoist, but we try to make it work for the kittens]. The funerals I describe are Buddhist, but there are similarities across traditions.

When someone’s passing—if possible—the family gathers around the deathbed, not for comfort and support, more to chant. The process is intricate, usually a religious 師父 (master) is required to get everyone chanting, bowing, gonging, and kowtowing in syncopation. A sutra is chanted seeking forgiveness of karmic debts accrued during this—and previous—lives, so the departing soul can find peace. It’s intended to get them off the Wheel of Suffering, or to a better incarnation. The rest of the time the name of Amida Buddha is chanted, guiding the soul and Amida Buddha towards each other. [Something like that. It’s all Buddhist to me]. In my family it goes on for at least eight hours.

Next comes the encoffining. Family and spiritual guide(s) come together again for a spirited bout of chanting as the body is placed in the coffin, usually at the undertaker’s.

On the seventh day after death the family gathers, led by a monk and possibly lay-chanters, for a full day of intoning and general scraping. Bow here, bow there, get down on your knees and pray, stand up, chant, get down and hit your head on the floor. It seems all Zen and soul-rejuvenating, but mostly it’s just painful. Kneeling destroys the knees. Kowtowing hurts the back. The constant kneeling and rising—Buddhist leg squats—leaves the lower body quivering. You see decrepit monks doing it and it seems fluid and charming. It’s brutal. It’s like going bowling—assuming it’s easy since it’s the terroir of middle age fat alcoholics—and then suffering a week-long case of bowler’s butt. I can barely walk after prayers.

That is the first of seven weekly prayer sessions. It’s common to pay a temple to do the subsequent ones. They’re praying anyway, you can arrange a shout-out for your dearly departed.

When the funeral arrives the deceased is taken to a 殯儀館, funeral parlor and mortuary services complex. Most municipalities have one, Taipei has two. The one on Hsin-Hai Rd. is the Disneyland of death. It’s a huge complex, with a very large multi-room building, and smaller out-buildings, ready to accommodate the deceased and mourners. The main building holds at least a hundred concurrent funerals and thousands of mourners. Rooms range in size from small Las Vegas showroom to spruced up closet. Each room’s anterior has a mountain of flowers with the deceased’s picture top center. The coffin is placed centrally among the profusion of flowers. Tacky. If I were the corpse I’d be mortified. At the service’s end the coffin is quickly replaced by another—kinda like a hot-sheet motel. It’s a model of McDonald’s style efficiency. 

Everything in the ceremony itself is hierarchical. Each mourner dons a long dark cloak—for the Buddhist ceremony—with a small color-coded badge. The color denotes familial status. The family stands before the coffin in rows and columns according to rank. During my grandma-in-law’s funeral—despite barely knowing her—I ranked higher than my wife, and was placed more to the front, as befits my station and sperm count. I think it’s the worst part of the ceremony. I had no chance to comfort my wife. Instead I was busy—up front—being the foreign jackass. As with all aspects of my life, I provided comic relief and a focal point for staring. Is he going to screw this up? Aiya, he got it right. Double-or-nothing he fucks up the next kowtow. Foreigners: every funeral needs one.

Once arranged in order of descending importance, the process of chanting, genuflecting, kneeling, praying, kowtowing, and standing back up begins. Are you detecting a theme? During funerals my high school fight song keeps bouncing around my brain: “Bow to the left, bow to the right, stand up, sit down, fight! Fight! FIGHT! YeahhH TEAM!!!” But I digress. Once the family finishes, other assorted mourners, who’ve been watching from the side, get their chance to bow to the deceased.

At the end of the service, the family walks around the coffin three times while chanting. Then a nail is driven into the coffin lid, ceremonially sealing it. That duty falls to the eldest son, or nearest available facsimile.

With that over, the family and some of the crowd makes its way to the crematorium, conveniently located elsewhere on Death World’s grounds. The mourners line up a reasonable distance from the oven and chant as the cremation begins. At the first funeral I attended, the attendants hurriedly stuffed granny into a hot oven as the flames danced and licked out the door. You could feel the heat on your face. It was visceral. I’ve never seen that since. Maybe the day of granny’s funeral was particularly busy at Taipei Municipal No. 2 Mortuary, Funeral Services & Death Fulfillment Center, Inc. Usually the dead are calmly placed in the oven, the door closed, and the flames turned on. Frankly, they phone it in.

With the cremation underway, the family retires to the crematoracafeteria, an onsite coffee shop with video displays, detailing the temperature of each roaster, and reamaining cooking time. It brings to mind a fast-food restaurant. This is a time of relief. The family has spent three to four full days chanting and it’s over. Phew. Give me a simple Protestant ceremony. You’re in, someone talks, you sing a song, and you’re out—fifty minutes tops.

When your loved one’s timer pops, the family goes to collect the remains. This is the oddest part of the funeral. Cremation doesn’t leave dust, as you might think, but rather a skeleton. The bones are so burned they lose structural integrity and can be easily crushed to dust. Taiwan has some ceremonies requiring the bones, so the remains are not pulverized. [See this article on Taiwanese folk religion]. The family isn’t presented an inoffensive urn, instead a skeleton is wheeled out. At my first funeral I was caught off-guard and freaked. Nobody else paid much mind. Each family member in turn takes a pair of long cooking chopsticks, picks up some bone, and puts it into the urn. Judging by the faces of everyone, there was general apprehension when it came my turn—I’m a sloppy eater, but I’m proud to say I didn’t drop a morsel of grandma. Afterwards, the attendants complete the transfer.

That’s the end of the funeral, but you shouldn’t go straight home. Stop along the way. I think that’s to throw ghosts off your trail. When you get home, you should disrobe immediately, wash your clothes and shower, to wash the death off.

So now if you die in Taiwan you have an idea what type of party to expect. [YMMV].

 

Beware the Cabbie (An Excerpt From My Book)

I apologize for being inconsistent about publishing. I’m struggling to write. So this week I’m doing something different. This is an excerpt from a novel I have been “writing”. Mostly it’s been laying on my shelf. The novel is fictional, but the event described here, did happen, more-or-less as portrayed. However, it took place at Kimpo airport in the early 1990s, not in Taiwan. I will be back to providing probing analyses of trivialities soon.

Here ya go….

          I arrived in Taiwan pre-internet, so there was no prearranging local accommodation and transportation, except at a small handful of expensive Western chains. As a very broke kid with a backpack this wasn’t an option. However, it was late at night, dark, and I was confused, jet-lagged and unsure how many days it had been since I slept. So, I went to the airport hotel kiosk, to get them to arrange a hotel for me, not the international backpacker’s solution. Their most valuable skill set was the ability to roll up in a foreign land, get into town, cheaply, and then find the cheapest possible accommodation. I suppose that sounds easy—it’s not! Of course, anyone can get a cab from the airport into town, and find a hotel, but a cab is not cheap, and a hotel is usually a budget-buster. No. Before the internet the accomplished international backpacker needed to be able to land in a foreign country cold, and immediately suss out how to get a bus into an area of the city they wanted to go, and figure out the cheapest form of accommodation. In most countries this is not a hotel, in many countries it’s not even a hostel, some places have unique forms of cheap accommodation. I always looked on in wonder at those able to arrive in a country and figure this all out while miserable and exhausted from travel. [Kickin’ It Old School with GenX].
          I wasn’t going that route. I wanted an evening to get my head together, before setting out to find a new life. When I rolled up on the kiosk, the staff asked me what kind of hotel I wanted. I expressed my needs succinctly, “The cheapest available room, my good man.” The head service person sniffed, looked down his nose at me, and tossed me a binder full of snapshots of hotels, ranging from expensive, at the front of the book, to relatively inexpensive at the back. I clawed my way to the back of the book and looked at the two or three hotels I could reasonably afford. Truthfully, I couldn’t afford even them, I needed to go off in search of a hostel or similar, but it was too much for jetlagged me to deal with.
         I pointed to the picture of a likely looking shithole. One of the counter-staff, a warm friendly young woman, quite the counterpoint to her supervisor, helped me phone the hotel, and ascertain that they did indeed have a vacancy. She reserved the room, gave me a name card for the hotel, and sent me on my way, with a warm smile.
         I got about three paces before spinning on my heels to get some follow up information. “Where can I get a taxi?”
         “If you go through that door,” pointing to a nearby exit, “you’ll find plenty of taxis waiting.”
          “How much should the taxi to cost?” That’s my international traveler experience coming to the fore.
          “Well,” she made a face clearly showing there might be some issues, “I usually pay seven or eight hundred NT.”
          Anticipating no problems, I gave Trina, according to her nametag, a winning smile, and a wave of the hotel’s name card. Trina only blanched slightly at the equine-like grin – I knew I’d like Taiwan.

          As soon I walked out of the terminal, I was enfolded in Taiwan’s warm moist air. It was rather like returning to a polluted womb. I arrived March 19, 1996, and I began sweating as soon as I stepped out of the airport, little known to me, I wouldn’t stop sweating until December.
          There was a long line of yellow taxis in front of the arrivals terminal. Departing passengers were forming a fairly orderly line, precariously balancing suitcases and knapsacks atop their trollies, as they tried to roll forward to where a cab would whisk them the 50 km. into Taipei. I joined the queue and patiently awaited my turn to get into a cab.
          When I got to the front of the line, I poked my head in the window, gave the cabdriver the hotel card, and was surprised when he said, “Yes, yes, I know that place, 40,000 NT.”
          And so the dance begins, I was glad I had the foresight to ask Trina the price of a cab into town, I gave him my best are-you-insane smile, and countered with, “No. How about 600 NT?”
          He shook his head and gave a quick foreigners-are-so-amusing laugh.
          “Well, let’s use the meter,” I said pointing to the dust-covered digital meter.
          The cab driver just shook his head, while jerking his thumb towards the rear of the line of cabs.
          I stood there, nonplussed, with my backpack hanging from my arms, like a dead albatross. I didn’t know what to do, apparently if a taxi driver waited in line until he got to the front, he expected to be compensated with a month’s pay. As I was standing there tired, confused and unsure, other equally befuddled—if less budget-minded travelers—took my cab. Others began aggressively spilling down the line jostling for cabs. There’s something about fighting to board a crowded local train, or cab, that turns even mild-mannered tourists into imps from Hell, bent on climbing over those around them, as long as it allows them the salvation of a ride.
          I began to get worried. Arriving exhausted, broke, and alone to a new country, where you know nothing, is scary. It gets even more nerve-racking when things begin to unravel. Right now the ball of nervous energy that had resided in the pit of my stomach for the entire flight was being scattered all over the pavement, as though it were a ball of yarn being played with by a sabre tooth tiger, and I hadn’t even made it a hundred paces into Taiwan. Worse—I wasn’t sure how to get further into the country.
          I hefted my knapsack onto my back and began trudging down the taxi line, occasionally leaning my head into taxis, asking for a reasonable price into Taipei. I just kept getting pointed to the end of the line. On the upside, the adrenaline allowed me to carry my ridiculously heavy bag like a true Sherpa.
          Finally, I reached the last taxi in line. The driver did not inspire much confidence in his integrity. He was of indeterminate age, either a hard-living 25 or a well-preserved 50, with a likewise non-descript wardrobe. He wore tatty slacks, and a brown plaid shirt that had that quality of having been new-old stock left over in some dusty recess of a general store since the 1950s, no socks, and blue rubber flip-flops. The inside of the cab was infused with pollution and eau d’old man.
          “How much to go here?” showing him the hotel name card. As I looked off to the side I noticed his dashboard. Never have I seen such a pile of crap blocking a driver’s view of the road. Taped or glued to the dash, he had at least fifteen statues of various gods. Hanging from the rearview mirror were prayer beads, garlands and amulets, a jingling mass of superstition and hope. With the statues rising up from the dash, and charms hanging down from the mirror, there was little actual window to peer through to get a sense of what imminent collision the gods were helping to avoid, and which god was better suited to the task.
          “8,000NT,” came his reply. I nearly choked. He was the last cab in the line, and his cab could best be described as a rolling trashcan.
          I hoped the utter desperation was not apparent in my voice as I countered with, “600NT.” I was beginning to have visions of spending the next week sleeping in the airport as I tried to figure out how to get into Taipei.
          “5,000NT.”
          Well, at least there was some movement, he wasn’t just telling me to bugger-off.
          “900NT,” I countered. Even at that rate, I was going to be grossly overpaying.
          He sighed, grunted and moaned, acting like I was driving a real hard bargain, and countered with 4,500NT.
          “Look, I know what a cab ride into Taipei is worth, I’ll give you 1,000NT, and that is nearly double what the trip is worth.”
          “Look, there is no way you’re getting a cab into Taipei for that price, but I like you,” – yeah, right!!! – “so, I’ll take you for 4,000NT, and that is as low as I’m going to go.”
          As I tried to get him lower, he simply stated the obvious, “All I have to do is wait a few more minutes, until I move further up the line, and then I’ll be able to get a customer for much more than 4,000NT.”
          He had me there, the price may have been unfair, but I couldn’t see how to get him any lower. I was tired, bone-weary, from a combination of the adrenaline that had been coursing through my veins for the last day, jet-lag, lack of sleep, and the enforced inactivity of international flight. I needed to get someplace where I could shower, de-stress, and try to sleep, before I had to wake up and face another stress-filled day of trying to settle into a foreign country.
          I finally agreed to the price, put my backpack into the trunk of the cab, crawled into the backseat, and laid my head back with a sigh.
          The driver, his name was Jimmy, Jimmy Chen, as it turned out, was very chatty. Indeed, throughout the whole nearly hour long ride, he barely stopped to draw breath. I’m quiet by nature, my natural reticience was compounded by tiredness and the surety that I was being ripped-off. At most I grunted or sighed in reaction to Jimmy’s dialog. I was vaguely amazed at his English level, he was able to keep up a running monologue in English that bordered on the amazing. I supposed that with the amount of money he was pulling in, he probably had hired an entire department of foreigners to act as English support staff at Jimmy’s Taxi LTD Corporate HQ.
          I occupied myself during the cab ride by lolling my head from side-to-side, looking out the window, and watching the lights and neon signs go by. If you’ve never seen an Asian city at night, it really is something to behold. Jimmy’s constant droning barely cracked my consciousness.
          Finally, about fifty minutes later, and a full four hours after my flight arrived, we pulled up in front of the hotel. The Hotel Palace, belying its grandiose title, was neither grand nor palatial. Its façade was little more than a nondescript doorway that opened straight onto the sidewalk, with none of the amenities normally associated with hotels, such as a place for cabs with arriving guests to park and unload their baggage. So, Jimmy had to double-park in front of the hotel. He popped the trunk and dodged through the whir of cars and scooters to unload my bag from the trunk. Mighty kind. Traffic in Taipei is unique for the number of scooters. Each of the city’s intersections seems to buzz with dozens of motorized bikes, some holding entire families along with the family pet. Once, during Chinese New Year, I saw a family of four—mother, father, and two preteen children—along with grandma, and the family dog riding through town on a 125cc scooter. The mass of scooters whirl and circle through traffic, ignoring any known traffic rules, simply following the path of least resistance as they drive between cars, on sidewalks, along crosswalks, etc. I’m sure if you could take an aerial view, they would look like a mass of angry hornets circling the nest.
         Jimmy lept, uncaring, into this swarm of traffic, and it simply flowed around him as he headed to the back of the car and gathered up my bag. As I stood on the sidewalk watching, Jimmy hefted the bag out of the trunk, to reveal a small pile of suspicious white powder that had fallen from the bag, or sifted through its porous material, to form a small mound in the trunk.
          Any bonhomie that had existed between Jimmy and I rapidly evaporated as he turned on me. “Hey! What is this? Huh?” There was genuine anger and accusation in his eyes.
          I was stymied. I really didn’t know what it was, but I was concerned, the anti-drug signs in the airport kept flashing through my head. I’d been saving meeting the bullet with my name for a much later date. Jimmy looked angry enough to act as judge, jury, and executioner.
          “Uhmmm,…” I said, shifting my gaze left and right, looking for a way out, which probably didn’t help me to look innocent. “I really don’t know what that is.”
          Of course, this did nothing to assuage Jimmy, as he scowled at me and firmly demanded that I don’t try to move. He picked up some of the powder and began rolling it around between his gloved fingers, he was wearing white work gloves, which was common among taxi drivers at the time. He was really carrying on, doing everything he had learned undoubtedly from watching re-runs of American TV cop dramas, he examined the powder closely, rolled it around some more, touched his tongue to it, took a bit and rubbed it against his gums, just like on Miami Vice.
          Meanwhile, I was rapidly reaching the end of my tether. I’d about had it. I was so exhausted I could barely stand, I was still sore about being ripped-off on the cab fare, I had barely been able to tolerate being in the same cab with Jimmy on the way into Taipei. Dealing with this scene in front of a slowly gathering mob of pedestrians pushed me over the edge.
          “I don’t know what that stuff is. It is not drugs! I guarantee that.” Then I reached out, grabbed my pack, threw it over my shoulder and turned around to walk away.
          Jimmy shouted something I couldn’t understand.
          As I turned my back, I heard Jimmy take some of the powder and snort it. Jimmy was overtaken by a violent fit of sneezing and wheezing as I walked towards the hotel’s front entrance. I could feel an evil grin spreading across my face. Whatever that powder was, I knew it didn’t belong in his sinus cavity. It served the bastard right for hosing me on the cab fare.

          The mystery was solved when I got into my room, opened my bag and found all my clothes covered in white powder. The can of Desenex I was carrying had exploded. Desenex is an anti-fungal powder to combat crotch rot. Jimmy shouldn’t need to worry about contracting a case of jock-nose for the rest of his life.

 

The Monolingual Expat

While back in Canada, chatting with strangers, I mentioned living in Taiwan. They asked if I speak Chinese. [Actually the question was whether I speak Thai, but that’s a story for another day]. I replied, “Well, define Chinese,” baffling the table. So I explained, “Yes, I do speak Chinese. I speak shit Chinese.” They clearly assumed I’d simply confirm my fluency. There is a reasonable expectation that long-term expats in Taiwan would have passable Chinese. Often that is not true.

Monoliguisticexpatitis is an English-speaker’s disease. Since English is the world’s lingua franca, it is too easy to be understood everywhere. It’s hard to imagine any reasonably large urban center or tourist destination where—when you’re recognized as a foreigner—people wouldn’t speak English. It’s detrimental to language learning. In Taiwan’s large centers, surviving with just English is easy. Often it’s hard to get Taiwanese people to speak Chinese with you.

Opportunities to speak Chinese are not as widespread as you’d assume. If you’re new to Taiwan most your Chinese interactions are probably with service people. These exchanges are often too simple to help with more than the basics, or descend into the surreal. My favorite occurs when the young counterperson freaks as I enter an American fast-food chain. Stone-cold terror. “Oh God my English is so bad. I can’t spell and have no idea when to use the auxiliary verb—what am I going to do? I should have studied harder for that test.” It doesn’t happen every time, but when it does I  like to put them at ease right away with my smooth Chinese ordering, because I’m a nice foreigner: 請你給我一個1號餐. Usually that draws a bug-eyed gawp. Well, these things happen. So, ever the charming foreigner, I’ll repeat myself in passable Chinese, 請你給我一個1號餐. The steadily widening eyes by this point usually look like those of a drunken Russian getting kicked in the nards on YouTube. It begins to feel like a passion play, but it’s not clear which of us is Christ. Around this time the server will skitter off to find the manager. On their return, I get a third chance for some real-world Chinese practice, 請你給我一個1號餐. The manager, older, wiser, and unintimidated by my blonde hair, will probably recognize Chinese. These interactions have minimal positive impact on Chinese learning. 

The opposite is also common. Sometimes you’ll meet Taiwanese dying to speak English with a native speaker. It’s almost impossible to get them to interact in Chinese. It is unnatural to continue speaking Chinese while being replied to in English. You’re being socially awkward. It can be demoralizing for the language learner. It feels like they think  your Chinese is inadequate.  Dealing with a conversation partner who’s either too scared or excited is not good for language learning.

Non-English-speaking Europeans tend to have better Chinese skills. Partially it’s that many come from multilingual countries and are used to interacting in their non-dominant language. But also, not many Taiwanese are going to speak to them in French. If their English is poor, they have to speak Chinese. For them, Taiwan is an immersive Chinese language experience. I’d never say it’s good to be French, but in this one way it’s advantageous.

While Europeans are often multilingual, English speakers tend to be monolingual. Partly it’s an accident of geography. English developed in England, relatively isolated from other languages. Insularity seems to have bred linguistic self-centeredness. Whether for historical reasons or pure arrogance, many English speakers have the attitude that:  English is my first, and God willing, last language. [What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? English].

The stereotypical English attitude to other languages is a factor in some English-speaking expat’s monolingualism. Also, many of us—despite living in Taiwan—inhabit remarkably English environments. There’s a reason English teachers tend to have terrible Chinese. We spend our workdays speaking English in class, taking breaks with other English teachers, and interacting with staff in English. It is an entirely English work environment. Many other technical experts in Taiwan exist in a similar English bubble. It’s bad in many ways. It definitely makes Chinese fluency difficult. For these expats, learning Chinese in Taiwan has little advantage over studying Chinese in their home countries.

There is one last problem. Motivation. Sometimes comprehension is undesirable. I don’t want a clear idea what my in-laws are saying. When they’re talking I turn my brain to the Charlie-Brown’s-teacher setting: wah, wah, woh, wah, wah. Likewise, sometimes you just don’t want to know what your wife is saying. Nothing good can come from it, just more chores and probing insights into how you should change—monolingualIsm has its advantages.

The article is intended as an explanation—not an excuse. It is wrong to live in Taiwan and not make an earnest effort to learn the language. Personally, I do study and speak Chinese, but am embarrassed at my level of fluency.

Starvation Culture in Taiwan

I had a Chinese history professor who used to say  Western culture is sin culture, while Chinese culture is starvation culture. As a student should—I’d nod sagely—pretend to understand the implications, and carry-on with my day. Even living in Taiwan was not quite enough to really understand how food underpins Chinese culture. I understood some things; but I never totally got it until I started living with a Taiwanese family.

Famine has hit parts of China near annually since written records began. The last widespread famine—the Great Famine in the aftermath of the Great Leap—happened around sixty years ago. Hunger is not an artifact of some distant place or time, but a painful shared memory. Even today, with the flooding, there are credible concerns of famine. Uncertainty over food assures it’s uppermost in people’s thoughts and a central social concern.

The obsession with food is immediately noticeable in Chinese language. Now it is pretty common for people to greet each other with 你好嗎 (how are you), but this is an import from European languages. A more orthodox Chinese greeting is 你吃飽了沒 (have you eaten). Asking about food, or your state of hunger, is the traditional way of greeting someone and starting a conversation. The whole hi-how-are-you-I’m-fine-thank-you-and-you conversation  is a piece of  modernity, conventionally in Chinese,  upon meeting you’d express concern over the person’s stomach.

I believe ethnically Chinese people generally spend more time fantasizing and talking about food. It seems more central to daily thinking than in the West. The quantity of conversations where people wax lyrical about a previous meal, or verbalize anticipation of the next meal is amazing. A twenty-first century expression of starvation culture is the Asian habit of producing in-depth photo essays of meals. Will future-you really want to see past-you’s Three Cup Chicken? The first time I traveled to Taiwan I enquired at a banquet about table manners and was told almost anything goes. No niggling little rules should slow or inhibit the full-throated enjoyment of a meal. The Taiwanese are the desperately horny teenage boys of  food and cuisine. These conversations happen among Westerners, but don’t hold the same rabid fascination.

One place these differences become obvious is when comparing Taiwanese and Western social gatherings. In the West, drinks only parties are pretty common. “Come on over for a few”. There is no such thing as a food-free party here. My wife and I host many get-togethers. Recently, for the first time, I hosted a soirée for some foreign friends and provided only light store-bought snacks. That simply isn’t done. My wife kept trying to cook. Usually we cook for a day or two before a party. I wouldn’t let her, knowing my friends would be happy with a couple forties. As I was laying out the “spread” she kept saying, “this is so weird, this is so weird, this is so weird,” and avoided the party. My friends, long-termers with some Taiwanese thinking, understood that type of party and it was successful, with much less muss, fuss, stress, and cooking.

With food being so central to Chinese culture it is not surprising that it’s an expression of love and affection. There is an endless circle of rotating food underpinning Taiwanese life. We buy groceries for ourselves, and then proportion some out to the in-laws. They in turn send us foodstuffs. Thus ensuring each household has food they never wanted and now have to use. That’s love. Does it give a familial feeling of warmth and nurturing? Sure. Is it annoying? Damn straight. Food needs to constantly be schlepped back and forth. The circle of food-giving, and the creation of that close-knit feeling, sometimes extends to close friends.

Food is a sign of affection. When dating if you go for dinner and your date gently places a choice morsel in your bowl with their chopsticks that’s a good sign. I’m not saying you’re getting lucky, but you’re in the right ZIP Code. It’s an expression of caring. If you’re invited to eat with a Taiwanese friend’s family often your friend will slip a bite of food into your bowl, not serving you, but sharing. I wouldn’t read too much into it, but they’re acknowledging you as some type of friend to their family. If you’re feeling like a cultural explorer, try putting a little food into your friend’s bowl and watch the family’s reaction. It’s interesting stuff.

College-aged me vaguely understood, but I didn’t see the multivariate ways China’s history of starvation influenced Chinese culture.