Category Archives: Culture Shock

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Humor’s Intercultural Perils: Why’s Everyone Pissed Off?

Do Chinese speakers have a sense of humor? On its face it seems a ridiculous question. However, many Westerners living in Taiwan have reached the conclusion that humor and Chinese culture are antithetical. As crazy as it sounds, it has a logic.

I once was one of those foreigners—I’ve since reformed. I would tell people that if you were being politically correct you’d say that humor is culturally defined and each culture has its own distinct sense of whimsy. However, if you were being truthful, you’d admit Chinese speakers have no sense of humor. I’d further explain most Chinese speakers, upon hearing a comedic aside, analyze it from every angle seeking a way to be offended. Further clarifying that a typical Chinese inner monologue after a joke might run: Have I been insulted; has my culture or race been slandered; and, how morally indignant am I, on a scale from outraged to apoplectic? If I wasn’t belittled, who was? Do I care? How much? If not directly about me, am I somehow peripherally being mocked? Let’s dig through five thousand years of human history trying to find some way to take umbrage. If not insulting, then is the joke somehow socially inappropriate?… After all this mental arithmetic, nothing is ever funny. That’s why sarcasm doesn’t exist in Chinese. That’s why Chinese speakers rely on the most unsophisticated types of humor; puns and puerile jokes, the domain of young children in the West.

I was wrong.

Well, sort of, like everything about culture, there are shades of grey. The mental gymnastics described above though overstated are kind of true. Thus, American humor can be very tough for Chinese listeners. A lot of American humor is outwardly directed, sometimes aggressive, and based on sarcasm and insult. Chinese speakers do better with American wit when that aggression is turned inwards to become self-deprecation. Then it’s clear to us Chinese speakers who is being insulted, and we’re okay with it.

Here’s where I was really wrong. Sarcasm exists in Chinese. It is very common for a group of friends engaged in badinage to be stunningly insulting and sarcastic, in a humorous way. The difference isn’t so much a matter of humor as variation between high-context and low-context communication styles (See: A Low-Context Dude and Unified Field Theory for background on the cultural linguistics). Americans are noted for their ability to move from strangers to ass-slapping and calling each other Butthead in the course of an evening. It’s friendly. It is also a very low-context cultural style. Other Western cultures, though perhaps more reserved, are also relatively low-context.

Chinese culture, and Asian cultures in general, tend to be more high-context. There is an emphasis on forming and deepening relationships within your group. As a consequence of this cultural style, humor is geared towards the in-group. If you’re not part of the group, you won’t understand the in-jokes, and likely will never hear them. Shared humor builds group cohesion and helps distinguish the in-group from outsiders. It’s coded messaging for the initiated. On the macro level, Taiwanese humor is a good example, much of it is based on the interplay of Chinese and Taiwanese, kind of creating puns across linguistic lines.  Only proficient Taiwanese speakers can really hope to understand, even in Taiwan that’s only a bit more than half the population. Non-Taiwanese have no hope.

Ultimately the tendency to confine joking to peers explains  why many foreigners living among Chinese speakers think they lack humor and don’t understand sarcasm. As outsiders, they are not invited to share in the jokes. Taiwanese people are capable of great sarcasm, and cut on their friends hard, but that’s just it, the humor is for close friends.

Humor and sarcasm coming from outside the in-group can seem aggressive to Chinese speakers. That is not how humor flows in Taiwan, rapier-like wit should only cut a group member—for social cohesion there’s an emphasis on maintaining surface calm among the wider society. For foreigners from a low-context culture, that doesn’t emphasize maintaining a respectful separation between social groups based on status and hierarchy, it is easy to inadvertently cause discomfiture with your banter. It is part of how we try to break down barriers and be more friendly and interesting. High-context cultures like their barriers just as they are—thank you very much.

The Benefits of Being Misunderstood

One of the first benefits to the expat lifestyle I discerned was being misunderstood. It doesn’t sound like an advantage, but it has its moments.

I wasn’t here too long before I discovered how much more appealing I am to the opposite sex when they don’t quite understand me. It worked a charm on my social life. I was used to Canadian women examining every word I said fifteen different ways, if a Foucaultian deconstruction didn’t yield results, then it was time for a psycholinguistic or cognitive-linguistic approach. I’m not that deep, and often didn’t fair well in these analyses.

Taiwanese women may have wanted to subject me to that level of interpretation, but they lacked the cultural and linguistic skills. I found it refreshing. My first Taiwanese girlfriend didn’t speak much English, so we relied on my Chinese. Anything I said was pretty basic, and didn’t support much scrutiny. Other women I dated had better English, but not good enough to pretend to find hidden meaning in every word. If my words or actions could be interpreted a couple ways, I got the benefit of the doubt [the opposite to Canada]. Dating is easier when you’re not understood.

It’s good expats weren’t widely understood, because the expat community 20-25 years ago was overwhelmingly male. If you’ve ever been in very isolated male-dominated working and living environments—rig-worker, lumber camp, the navy, etc.—you know that it tends to be unhealthily male—straight-forward, rude, and coarse. Taiwan’s expat community was no exception.

At that time, I’d only been here a year or two, and was hanging out with other newbies. People used English as a tool of obfuscation while working out their culture shock and assimilation issues. The struggle to learn and adapt sometimes took the form of offensive commentary on Taiwanese culture and people, frequently murmured in public, with Taiwanese around, but hidden behind English. Most these expats were decent, broadminded, and culturally sensitive people who have adapted and become productive members of Taiwan. They wouldn’t have wanted to make any Taiwanese uncomfortable, but being an expat is hard, and it isn’t always pretty. They assumed they were speaking behind a cloak of incomprehensibility.

I didn’t hang out with an abnormally rude batch of foreigners. There were many different expats from diverse backgrounds, but this dyspeptic foreigner’s disease afflicted most at some point. It’s universal. I’ve helped several Taiwanese who have moved to the West deal with culture shock and assimilation. They behave the same—classic immigrant stuff.

The other type of private conversation commonly held in English, in public, was commentary on the surrounding pulchritude. It was like taking a men’s locker room and dumping it in the middle of a Taipei street. Again people assumed they were concealed behind English. As I said, the expat community at the time was a sausagefest, so there wasn’t much self-censorship. This has changed, there are more foreign women coming and staying in Taiwan. It has had a salubrious effect on the level of discourse among foreigners. [See: Sex and the Expat Woman]. Also, a rise in general English levels, at least in Taipei, has curbed public rudeness among expats.

I must admit to still assuming an environment of incomprehension and saying things I shouldn’t. I’m not rude towards Taiwanese people, culture, or women, but I do publicly say things not intended for universal consumption. My remarks aren’t terrible, just personal, nothing you’d want broadcast to an entire coffee shop. (I have a clarion voice that cuts through classroom noise and carries to any room’s far corners. I can’t seem to control it). Usually I’m with a Taiwanese person, and they give me a look to remind me that the people around us might understand.

I’ve noticed that many long term expats have no bone in their tongue. My generation of expats, and earlier, spent years living in a verbal free-fire zone, where anything went. It is hard to put that gibbering monkey back in the can, especially as concurrently the aging process drives you to not care. Inappropriateness, thy name is aged expat.

Vignette #17: Smells Like Caucasian

Here’s one they don’t tell you in travel books. Each race smells different, of course each individual has a unique smell, but there is an overriding race-based olfactory theme. If you’re part of the racial majority, it’s not really a concern. If you’re a racial minority, you can be painfully self-conscious of how different you smell.

Living in Korea was my first experience as a racial minority. I was a racial minority of one in Yeosu. I quickly became aware I was malodorous. It’s not that the Koreans didn’t smell. They must’ve—they ate garlic for breakfast—but, I never whiffed a bad odor, their scent was background music. However, I definitely perceived my own funk. I didn’t smell any worse than normal, but the eau de Darren stood out.

This feeling seems to be normal. I met a Chinese girl in Canada who expressed similar concerns about feeling stinky. She wasn’t, but she was still self-conscious. I am not suggesting any race smells worse than another. Though I’d nominate Caucasians for that dubious honor. We are sour smelling. Other races tend towards musky, musty, or spicy.

Not that long ago a friend visited from Canada while my wife was out of the country. We did lots of guy things. He stayed with me in our apartment, a pretty confined space. When my wife came home the first thing she said was, “Oh my God, it stinks like white dude in here”, and immediately opened every window. It’s hard not to be self-conscious.

Taiwanese Reverse Culture Shock

Reverse culture shock sometimes occurs when someone who has lived long term in a foreign country returns home. It is possible to experience psychological and emotional distress while trying to reintegrate into your native society. Reverse culture shock can be very pernicious because often it hits unexpectedly. Most expats anticipate needing to make cultural adjustments, but frequently return home presuming they’ll easily slip back into accustomed patterns. However, while abroad values and cultural assumptions may have shifted from living in another culture. Expats often see themselves as outsiders, so it can be surprising how much the host country’s culture and mores have been absorbed. During the expat’s absence, the home country may have shifted socially or culturally further alienating the repatriating expat. Returning home to find the familiar has become unfamiliar can be genuinely surprising. Reverse culture shock is difficult to manage because it’s unforeseen.

Personally, I’ve never dealt with a strong case of reverse culture shock. When I returned to Canada after working in Korea, I had a few minor issues, textbook reverse culture shock symptoms. I couldn’t explain my experiences abroad, which didn’t matter much, no one wanted to listen. I felt estranged from Canadian society, and definitely had no chance to utilize my new skills. Since I’d only been gone a year, those feelings were manageable. I’ve been living outside Canada for a couple decades now. I only return occasionally for brief visits. I’m on vacation, not reintegrating. Friends and family tell me I don’t fit into Canadian culture anymore. Truthfully I don’t know what they’re talking about. I suppose they know something I don’t, and I’d suffer severe reverse culture shock if I moved back.

The feeling of reverse culture shock I remember best was actually the most minor. Robin Pascoe in Homeward Bound notes: “re-entry shock is when you feel like you are wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes. Everything looks almost right.” I experienced this in a more literal sense than Pascoe intends. While driving around Saskatoon, after first arriving back, I was unable to shake the feeling of wearing new glasses to which my eyes were unaccustomed. You know the sensation when you get a new prescription, turn your head, and the buildings seem to lie down. That’s exactly how I felt. A feeling of vertigo induced by an unfamiliar skyline with low  buildings and flat terrain. It was an unexpected physical manifestation of reverse culture shock.

Though I have limited personal experience of reverse culture shock, I have coped with Taiwanese returning after long stays overseas. Their reverse culture shock has been a problem. I work in Taiwan’s university system. One thing Taiwanese universities do is invite Taiwanese scholars, who have spent their teaching careers in Western universities, back to Taiwan to take on high-level administrative tasks in the twilight of their career, or after retirement. They’re a botheration. Many have been outside Taiwan for thirty to forty years, possibly more depending where they did their schooling. Suddenly they are parachuted into high-profile positions dealing with strategic planning and staff management. Local universities perceive them as the best of both worlds. They have distinguished careers abroad, so they understand Western education, but they are Taiwanese—born in Taiwan—so obviously they understand Taiwan. Not true.

Most left Taiwan in the 1960s or 1970s. Taiwan is a very fast changing society (see: Generation Gap). Their Taiwanese cultural understanding is outdated. As a single example, often they presume staff should have a martial law era slavish dedication to authority. They can assume an outmoded dictatorial management style. They cause problems for local staff that don’t care to relive the 1970s, or weren’t alive then. There are other examples of why this practice is problematic. These returning administrators suffer from reverse culture shock. Their position of authority allows them not to deal with it. Instead their staff has to try to work around their obtuseness. As a peon within the university system, I generally do not deal directly with these people. However, I do have many Taiwanese friends in university administration. They have expressed dissatisfaction with these outside consultants’ inability to assimilate into the modern Taiwanese workplace.

The same story is being played out in Taiwanese companies as managers return from abroad—most frequently from China—to find a society and workforce they little understand. For those coming from working in China, Taiwan’s democratization and shift from sinocentrism can be disorienting. Their positions often allow them to exist in a bubble, detached from present day Taiwanese society. However, they risk becoming irrelevant as bosses, an impediment that staff must work around.

Repatriates expect to find their homes unchanged, reverse culture shock occurs when this expectation is not met. In Taiwan, because of the pace of change, reverse culture shock can be Brobdingnagian. [Sorry, it was on my word of the day toilet paper]. Taiwanese institutions’ tendency to seek foreign perspectives by employing Taiwan-born expats lends a particular intensity to reverse culture shock.