Category Archives: Culture Shock

Is Asian Child-Rearing Different?

Today I intended to examine contrasting socio-cultural norms and their impact on the COVID-19 response, but everything went sideways, and I ended up indulging my growing case of Old Fartitis.

There is a perceptible difference in child rearing goals between Western and Chinese societies. The Western stereotype is that Asian households coddle young children. Provide a level of support to teens and university students that would be odd in the West, but then expect more from their children when they enter the workforce. That this rearing creates a gentler and pleasanter young adult, willing to subjugate themselves to their parents, in return for the kindness their parents have shown them. There’s some truth to that, allowing for individual discrepancies.

The contrasting Asian stereotype of Western child-rearing is that parents allow their children to run wild, failing to adequately discipline disrespectful children. That everything is motivated by selfishness. Parents don’t adequately support their children for self-serving reasons, and children don’t respect and support their parents because it’s inconvenient. They’ll concede it creates capable and independent young adults, but at what cost? There’s some truth here too.

When I first came to Asia, my experiences supported both stereotypes. I used to see Taiwanese parents picking up and dropping off their children at elementary school, and told my students that Canadians would almost never do that. Walking to school is a small way to teach children independence. An occasional ride was permissible, but children would tease kids if it were too frequent. “Ha ha ha, you have a mommy and daddy. Pussy.” Certainly there was no excuse for being walked to school. The commute was an independent time, a time for small adventures, and to ignore parental control.

I can think of many examples of Taiwanese children considering their parents first. A favorite example used to happen when I first arrived, but less now. I’d ask students of all ages what qualities they were looking for in a boyfriend or girlfriend. One of the most common answers was filial piety. They wanted someone who respected their parents. I was flummoxed and couldn’t even begin to guess why. Contrarily, I once tried to explain the concept of mama’s boy to a class of middle-aged Taiwanese students. They couldn’t wrap their brains around it. They understood the idea, but kept seeing it as a positive. They couldn’t comprehend women not finding it alluring. “But, he loves his mother.”

Everything I saw pointed to massive differences in raising children. The goal of Western upbringing was to create strong independent young adults capable of leaving the nest. Toughness was necessary. Ferberize them from birth, and continue pushing them to care for themselves throughout childhood, in order to create a functional and independent member of society.

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon

While Asian child-rearing focused more on social cohesion, with independence frequently not being the intent. [To hear one parent explaining the goal of a Taiwanese upbringing as emotionally crippling children so they won’t leave, see: My Favorite Student]. I once had a Taiwanese mother seek my advice on how to raise her son to be capable around the house. I told her to stop doing everything. She wanted to mollycoddling him, while he somehow simultaneously learned to stand on his own two feet. I tried to explain tough love, but it was an indecipherable oxymoron to her.

Turns out I overestimated the cultural differences. When I grew up, we were latchkey kids—both parents at work—we’d arrive home from school, take a jar of peanut butter, some pickles, a corn flakes and MacGyver a delectable five-course snack. We could take care of ourselves. Personally I began staying at home alone over the weekend, while my parents went to our cabin, when I was eleven years old. There were no cell phones, and the cabin had no phone. At the beginning of summers I would be taken to the cabin and left there alone for a week. I’m not unique. My experiences were typical of Generation X.

I never felt forsaken or unloved—I felt respected and trusted. My parents had enough faith in me to believe I wouldn’t burn the house down, or open the door to a serial rapist. I assumed my childhood represented the Western norm—then I met Millennials and GenZ. Now I’m questioning everything I thought I knew about Western family norms.

GenX is lodged between the Boomers—who had a stay-at-home parent—and the Millenials/GenZ, who have parents lodged so far up their asses they burp Aqua Velva. Turns out GenX was an anomaly, the first generation to be raised in dual income families, our parents just made it up on the fly.

Despite having recently figured out that we were neglected, I feel sorry for Millennials and GenZ. Parents/society don’t seem to trust them to do anything. “You can’t walk home from school. What if a bear gets loose in the city? I don’t want you becoming just another urban bear statistic.” Where’s the sense of independence and adventure? GenX teens had the best house parties. Seriously. There’s a whole genre of movies dedicated to it. What do they have?

What I always assumed were cultural differences in family norms and child-raising goals turns out to have a strong generational component. That’s why when I reached Asia everything seemed cloyingly family-oriented. Now Western parents are raising their children in a manner similar to Taiwanese parents. Meanwhile Taiwanese parents seem to be encouraging greater independence in their offspring now. My Taiwanese college students are about as independent and responsible as their Western counterparts. They work, something that was almost unheard of when I first arrived. They are just as likely to live on their own. Though the stated goals of parents in each culture remain different, in practice it seems we’re moving closer together.

Listen up young un’s, I hope you enjoyed this tale of how it was in my day. Now I gotta lift my balls up outta the way, hop on my velocipede machine, and go for a ride. Meet y’all here next week. Same time, same place, ye hear now.

Three Words of Love

I’ve talked differences between Asian and Western viewpoints on love. [Try: Marrying Taiwanese, Marriage Market, and Don’t Marry a Foreigner]. I’d like to approach the topic from a linguistic angle. The differences are reflected in the language. Here are three words that convey a particularly Asian take on love.

If you’ve done even a small amount of dating in Asia, then you’ve probably run into this word 緣份, 인연, or えん. The concept seems to permeate romance throughout North-East Asia. For this article, we’ll use the Chinese word 緣份 [Yuán fèn]. The word has a beautiful romantic feeling that doesn’t translate into English. The most common translations are fate or destiny. That’s not adequate. The word refers to two souls, with an unbreakable interconnectedness, fated to have serendipitous interactions throughout all their reincarnations. Pretty, right?

緣份 can refer to the relationship between any two people or things, but often refers to amorous relationships. It is close  in meaning to Western ideals of romantic love. Most Westerners can easily understand the feeling of the word, even if some of the intricacies elude us. It is not so different from soul-mates fated to be together. Close enough that you can at least feel the word’s intent.

The next word 冤家 [Yuānjiā] can also relate to love. Here is where Chinese concepts of love begin to diverge from Western ideas. The word reflects these differences and is difficult to explain. Translations of 冤家 include sweetheart, enemy, foe, and one’s destined love.

Huh? How can such disparate meanings be reconciled?

Buddhism provides the answer. 冤家 may refer to two enemies fated to keep meeting until they resolve their karmic issues. When talking about love, 冤家 has the feeling of a predestined love, but it’s a tragic romance. What brings you together is the karmic debt you owe your partner, and you are grievously fated to be together through all your lives, until the debt is paid, when finally you can be released from each other. Yep. The Chinese have managed to sum up marriage in two characters. 冤家 implies a dutiful love, with a whiff of bitter resentment. You’re obliged to pay your debts—a wonderfully Chinese love.

The final word has a similar meaning, 相欠債 [sio-khiàm-tsè] is a Taiwanese word basically meaning I owe you, you owe me, so we are each other’s predestined pain in the ass. Whatever misery you bring me I need to take, because we are 相欠債. Again it refers to two people continually meeting throughout their many lives because they owe each other a karmic debt. When referring to love it can imply acceptance of the couple’s fate of being karmically stuck together and needing to make the best of it. It shows a higher level understanding of life. 相欠債 can have a feeling of a love that is accepting of fate. By surrendering to this destiny, it shows a higher level comprehension of life, and on that plane love is a given. This is more of an older generation Taiwanese expression.

Each of these words refers to an intellectual concept more than an emotion, partially explaining why many Taiwanese don’t often speak about love. A Taiwanese person probably would think of these words as talking about life, duty, obligation, debt, fealty, rather than love. Each word can refer to any relationship, it’s my silly Western brain that insists on interpreting each word’s love-related themes. For me, they are three words describing love, each different, running from beautiful, through dutiful, to philosophical. The emphasis on love is my cultural baggage shading the meaning of each word towards something more Western. None of these words have an exact English equivalent, and in those differences perhaps there is a little insight into how attitudes of love and relationships may differ between Asia and the West.

Note: Language isn’t really my forte, but I did my best.

The Whiny Women of Taiwan

When I first moved to Taiwan I was 29 years old. After taking care of the basics, food, job, housing, I was ready to date. I immediately ran into a problem. All the women I met considered men 9 to 20 years their senior to be appropriate dating age. (It’s an entire nation of women with daddy issues). That meant the women interested in dating me were 20 years old, and acted like a 12 year old back home. Admittedly, they were very cute, but…

The problem I had was not physical, most were beautiful, nor was it personality, many being genuinely wonderful—it was all the 撒嬌ing. Google Translate tells me 撒嬌 (sājiāo) means coquettish—I just checked—but for my whole life in Taiwan I’ve thought of it as meaning whining. My definition of 撒嬌 is childishly and annoyingly complaining, or being in a pet, in an obvious attempt to manipulate others [men]. That’s what it looks and sounds like. Nothing sets my teeth on edge quite like it.

I suppose my reaction is natural, as a child, whining was one of the personality flaws parents tried to beat out of little girls. [Simpler times]. It’s natural I would carry some residual dislike. Not so in Taiwan, I’ve seen parents and particularly grandparents actively teaching sniveling, literally holding back candy until a little girl starts whingeing, upon which she receives the reward. They find it charming female behavior.

The 撒嬌 is a cruel mistress. It only works for the pretty or cute. I’ve watched cute young girls use their wiles to get what they want, while their less cute friends, pull a moue as best they can, but get substantially poorer results. Even though I prefer this outcome, and think it is better for the girls, it’s hard not to pity the ugly little sprogs.

What may be considered cute in a child [it isn’t] is sexually manipulative in a 20-something, and with each subsequent decade becomes more grotesque. But, pretty young women, enjoy a brief period when they can get whatever they want by simply pouting. Of course the older you get the less it works. However, for as long as you remain cute or beautiful, you can still pull out a 撒嬌 now and then, and be rewarded by getting your way. Though their beauty may have waned, the amount a middle-aged woman whines is a pretty good indicator of their youthful looks. Lots of petulance? She was a cute young thing. If they manage to remain beautiful into middle-age, then the whingeing continues unabated.

It still shocks me when I see highly successful professional career women trying to manipulate staff, clients, or bosses, with pursed lips and a plaintive tone. It makes you just want to smack them upside the head. I’m not alone in this. The behavior seems to bother many Western women even more than me. I once found myself in front of a class full of young women who demanded I explain why their female teacher was so upset with them for whining to get their way. I explain to them that women have worked hard to improve their place in society. That they fought to prove themselves the equal of men in business. That it’s been an arduous battle that isn’t finished. I then suggested that seeing a bunch of educated women mewling around like babies undercuts feminism. [I know you think I’m not the one to have delivered a message on feminism, but I am a feminist with impeccable credentials. I’ve been a lifetime committed member of the Free the Nipple movement, up on the barricades, fighting the good fight, since before it was a movement, and will continue until the day I die—and possibly for a few days after. I’m not sure how the afterlife works]. Anyway, the students couldn’t have disagreed more. They were shocked anyone would find something so cute and manifestly feminine insulting to womanhood. They were right. The 撒嬌 is a pure expression of the female in Taiwan. I have occasionally witnessed boys trying to do it. It doesn’t work. Their question was: why should women give up any weapon they have in the battle of the sexes if it gets them what they want? They were clear about what they were doing, and mercenary in intent. *Shrug* Sometimes we try, but fail to teach.

The difference in cultural attitudes surrounding 撒嬌ing was my first deeper culture shock. The first time I met a difference more profound than the traveler’s basics: Why is everyone shouting? Do you really eat that? Or, the ever popular, how does this toilet work? I’m a fan of Taiwanese women in many ways, but in this way, not so much. It’s just a game; a manipulation. But, I find it deeply annoying.

Inappropriate Touching and Being Other

Being other in Asia has led to some bizarre experiences as the locals, unfettered by Western norms for dealing with minorities, have felt free to let their freak-flag fly. I’m just going to recount a few of my odder moments in Asia. If you want more on the social underpinnings of this behavior read  Anti-Foreigner Bigotry. These stories are just for shit and giggles.

I’m blonde, and hirsute compared to Asians, so it is common for strangers to play with my hair. Either they’ll ask first or just surreptitiously start touching my hair. Stroking the hair on my arms and legs seems to be practically irresistible for some young women. It’s fun. However, if you’re not expecting it, the light caressing of your leg can feel disconcertingly like a cockroach—one of those big flying motherfuckers—has just landed on your thigh and is threatening to crawl up your shorts. A suave James Bond type would have  witty patter ready and be off to the races. My normal reaction has been to clench my butt cheeks so hard I shoot out of my chair, windmilling backwards through the air trying to get away from the offending coleoptera. Smooth. [I remained unmarried until forty].

In social settings, such as a club or bar, it’s pretty flirty. From my side, inviting some pretty young thing to stroke my leg hair was a surprisingly effective icebreaker. I know, sounds creepy, right? I don’t recall anyone ever saying no, and it has led to many pleasurable flirtations. Sometimes the desire to play with my hair is more clinical. I’ve had platonic female friends—who’ve been hurtfully contemptuous of the idea of dating—ask to touch my hair, and proceed to engage in what can only be described as light petting. Just as I’d begin thinking I’d misread the signals, and maybe her animus was really coquetry, the fondling would stop and the conversation would continue down the road of mundanity, leaving me going, well, okay, thanks for the boner, I guess. These episodes can spring from genuine platonic desire to learn about another race’s physical features.

The groping expression of racial curiosity from cute Asian females, though slightly racist, has its charms. The whole inappropriate touching thing can have a darker side, moments that make you go, “Huh! I really am an alien.”

During my time in Korea, quite long ago, I was at a bath house, sweating out my hangover. One of the best things about living in Korea was the bath houses. You could go to one usually for around $1 US. You got access to a sauna, steam bath, large jacuzzi, warm tub, cold tub and a lounge, for as many hours as desired. Usually the set up was luxurious, and most Koreans partook of the bath house at least weekly.

Once at my local bath house, while enjoying a steam, a middle aged Korean man sat right beside me. I felt it was slightly odd, male public nudity and close proximity don’t generally mix. You don’t want to risk inadvertently grazing each other, or catching a glimpse of ball sack and needing months of painful psychoanalysis.  Still, having the guy perch down beside me wasn’t so socially awkward as to cause flight. Instead I ignored him. That went fine right up until he—totally uninvited—started stroking my chest hair and giving me a thumbs up, while telling me in stilted English that the mass of hair on my chest was great. Inappropriate, Dude. Inappropriate.

Would you call this sexual harassment? A bit of indecorous female touching is good clean fun, but when guys do it,…ugh. It helps me appreciate the #MeToo movement.

Reflecting on Canada: Reverse Culture Shock (Pt. II—The Niggling Little Issues)

Canada’s larger paradigm shifts while I was away are dealt with in Part I. There are also the seemingly small things about Canada that might cause reverse culture shock. Though uncomplicated, these changes in yourself, or your home country, really hit you where you live. It is the reverse culture equivalent of simple culture shock—why do you eat that? You think karaoke is fun? How is that joke insulting?

The first of these simple reverse culture shocks would undoubtedly be the weather. I remember watching an expat friend return to Saskatchewan from Taiwan for a visit in winter. He’d been living in Taiwan for a decade and arrived during a cold snap. The skin on his hands dried up and fell off, leaving red, itchy, gross appendages. I wouldn’t look forward to dealing with a real Canadian winter.

One of the most bizarre changes to Canadian cultural norms that happened while I was gone—and totally blows me away—is Tim Hortons. When did that place become THE Canadian food experience? When I lived there it was little more than a place to go for crap coffee if you were out in the wee hours and nothing good was open. Ironically, it became an iconic piece of Canadiana when it was sold to an American group. If I ever consume that crap and pronounce it wonderfully Canadian, shoot me.

Growing up in a cold climate I cocooned myself in layers of blankets and quilts to sleep. It was a wonderfully secure and relaxing feeling to poke your nose into the cool air from under a mountain of blankets, very like swaddling. When I first moved to Taiwan, one of the adjustment problems I endured for years was being unable to get a really good sleep without the weight of a pile of bed covers pressing down on me. After decades, I’ve finally habituated to sleeping semi-nude upon the bed, under the air conditioner, with no covers. Try getting that out of your mind. Of course, why would you want to? Now when I visit Canada, I struggle to sleep under all those covers. I feel claustrophobic, like I’m suffocating.

One advantage of living in a foreign language environment is you have a fair expectation the people around you will not understand what you’re saying. I have become used to saying whatever I think whenever I want. It is becoming a problem as more people in Taipei understand and tune in, but my social habits were set in an earlier time. This assumed privacy has made many of my generation of Asian-based expats excessively direct and often rude. [See: The Benefits of Being Misunderstood]. Canada, during my time abroad, has gone in the opposite direction, becoming less verbally freewheeling. It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize my mouth getting me into trouble upon returning to Canada.

Most Canadians would be surprised to learn that they have a reputation for being aloof and borderline unfriendly. Though I understand the Canadian perspective on personal space, privacy, and amiability, after spending most of my adult life in Taiwan, I don’t share it. My personality tends towards introversion and quietness, but when you throw over all your friends and family to live as an expat, being an introvert doesn’t work. [See: Expat Friendships]. You need to be gregarious, meet strangers, and form new connections. I’ve gotten used to committing random acts of friendliness that fall totally flat in Canada. Once walking down the street in Saskatoon, I spotted a shop girl, in a store window, with a full-sleeve tattoo. It was impressive. So, like the Canadian-Taiwanese that I am, I spun around and went into the store to talk to her about her tattoo. You would have thought I was a mass murderer hell-bent on raping her in the middle of the store. It was a Canadian moment. I didn’t enjoy it, and it has repeated itself with both men and women when in Canada.

As a long term expat, one problem I have returning to Canada is finding everything unreasonably expensive. I think this is as much a psychological issue as economics.  My sense of Canadian value was set as a student 25-30 years ago. At the time, I might have reasonably, tried to eat and entertain myself for a week on $5-$15. Now when I go home and find a beer and burger kicking the crap out of a twenty dollar bill, I start channeling my grandfather: “$17.50!?! $17.50?!? That’s outrageous! Why in my day a lad could live for two weeks on $17.50, and still have enough change leftover for a blowjob”. It might just be age and psychology. I wasn’t present for many changes in Canadian society, including a period of hyperinflation during the oil boom, so I keep getting blindsided by costs. It’s like the normal aging process amped up on crystal meth.

Finally, no discussion of reverse culture shock would be complete without talking about driving. When I drove in Canada, before coming to Taiwan, I was a cautious and patient driver. I do drive in Taiwan and have the whole time I’ve lived here. I am , also, a very cautious and patient driver in Taiwan. But, when you take that careful and patient Taiwanese driver, and drop him onto a Canadian road—he’s the most aggressive asshole out there. I struggle with this every time I return to Canada. Usually before driving, I take the car out and drive around quiet streets, trying to redevelop a sense of Canadian timing. Even so, I struggle not to turn left as soon as a light turns green, to beat oncoming traffic. I find it hard not to dive the car into the smallest of spaces when changing lanes. I have a totally non-Canadian idea of proxemics as related to traffic. Most streets in Canadian cities seem like giant empty parking lots to me.

I could keep this list going for much longer. I haven’t touched on tipping, meat portions, socially acceptable sweat levels, etc., but I’ve run long.