Category Archives: Culture Shock

Vignette #28: Channel Z

Netflix changed my life. Never before, in my expat life, has the mind-numbing been so close at hand. I’ve been in Asia since long before streaming, even before the Internet and downloading, when finding passive English entertainment bordered on the impossible.

My Chinese wasn’t good enough for Taiwanese TV, and it didn’t look appealing anyway. You could buy a little cylinder that attached to the back of your TV and would unscramble one of the soft porn channels. [Mayor Chen Shui-bian ruined that for everyone]. Otherwise, there wasn’t much.

However, there was one oasis of mindless entertainment: Channel Z. It was a Japanese cable channel, now defunct, that used to be viewable on Taiwanese cable. Channel Z was responsible for some of my most memorable television moments.

All the news, morning, cooking, and talk shows were co-hosted by hot, partially dressed, young Japanese women. They provided jiggle interest, and seemed as sweet as toffee and twice as smart. I was entranced by the shiny hair and boob-shaped boobs. Simple. Elegant. A winning concept.

I personally enjoyed the cooking shows. They were cohosted by naked hotties, wearing but an apron, exposing ass and a tantalizing bit of side-boob. The shows inevitably involved the male host [Benny Hill San] having his cohosts bending to get ingredients, reaching for or running up ladders to fetch things, while he contrived to look up the apron. They don’t write ‘em like that anymore. Needless to say, I’m practically an itamae (qualified Japanese chef).

The best TV I’ve ever seen happened when an all-girls Canadian rock band was touring Japan and had an interview on a Channel Z talk show. The hosts had surprisingly good English, and asked unexpectedly pertinent questions. However, most of the video was of the other cameramen trying to get upskirt shots. Channel Z must have asked the women to wear skirts: thinkers-and-planners. Pity the Canadian publicist that arranged it, Channel Z was a legitimate well-rated Japanese station. Z’s upskirtiness was undoubtedly a surprise.

The band was graceful. The lead singer and band spokesperson artfully squirmed away from the action cameraman, on elbows and knees in front of her, and in a voice that belied nothing promoted their next concert. When asked about their experiences in Japan—in an all-cultures-are-valid Canadian sort of tone—replied, “There certainly seem to be some cultural differences between Canada and Japan”. Surreal. The band was pretty stoic, except the bassist, who seemed to catch on early, and was pissing herself laughing, while playfully fending off the cameras.

Now that’s entertainment!

The Foreigner Card

If you’ve traveled internationally you’ll have noticed there’s a sort of get out of jail free card for foreigners. It is a kind of social contract where the host region accepts that you, as a foreign guest, don’t know what you’re doing. A foreigner’s card gives the holder the right to screw up the basics of life; get continually lost, ask stupid questions, and just generally act like a one-inch dildo—in the place, but useless there.

I first encountered the concept of a foreigner card in a James A. Michener essay. It expressed in writing something I had felt and used, but never articulated. A foreigner’s license is a necessity for travel. If you were held to account every time you fucked up, international travel would be miserable. Things are usually a little more loosey-goosey for foreigners. People need a little leeway to make it through.

Most understand and freely give dispensations to travelers. The amount of indulgence is a bit dependent on locale. A foreigner’s license in Paris is worth little more than an extremely fine French leather shoe up the ass. In some locations it will get you ripped off. Traveler beware. But, in Taiwan it is golden.

It had even greater importance before the Internet increased the comfort and safety of travelers. You couldn’t arrive in a country with most your bookings in hand, a better sense of where to eat than a local, or any real idea of the lay of the land. Guide books were better for getting excited about—rather than getting through—your travels. Today’s level of research and preparation wasn’t possible.

Translation software now makes reading local signage possible. You can even have a bit of a conversation with a patient local. Google Maps and GPS on your phone prevent getting too lost; or your phone will at least produce an address, in the local language, to show a taxi driver. No longer does the woebegotten traveltard need to tap on someone’s shoulder seeking help.

Not having to depend so heavily on the kindness of strangers is a significant improvement for travelers, but it does come at a cost. Asking for help on the street—foreigner’s card in hand—was a great way to meet people and interact with locals. I still have a good friendship that began by asking directions and has lasted a quarter century. If I remember right I may have asked for directions while not lost. She was hot. [Still counts].

Despite technological advances, the foreigner card is still a travel necessity. Things are almost guaranteed to get fucked up beyond technology’s ability to repair. The card is still an overall positive as regards travelers, but for expats, it invites abuse. It is pretty common for expats to use their foreignness to advantage; to purposely screw the rules, get around annoyances, or otherwise skirt societal norms. It’s no bueno to seek social acceptance on one hand, and benefit by up-playing your foreignness on the other.

There’s no shortage of examples from my life. A personal favorite comes from a friend who during Taipei’s hot summers liked to bicycle to a high-end apartment complex, and despite not belonging, whistle past the security guards with a wave and a smile. Once inside he’d head to the outdoor pool complex to cool-off and lounge about.  All it took were balls, a soupçon of impertinence, and a foreigner’s license. He relied on people being too intimidated to speak up, or assuming he belonged. I have lots of examples and have been guilty as well.

In the hands of a traveler the foreigner’s license is necessary, helpful, and should exist. In the hands of an expat it can become abusive, allowing an escape from the hard work of integrating. Most foreigners I know who’ve lived here have occasionally reaped the foreigner card’s benefits. It’s hard to think of an aspect of [white] expat life in Asia that is not, at least somewhat, colored by special privilege. [See: White Privilege in Asia].

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.

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.