Category Archives: Culture Shock

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.

It’s Totally Ontological, Dude

The problem with being punctual in Taiwan is there’s no one there to appreciate it.

I’ve adjusted to life in a high-context culture, and what I haven’t adapted to, I’m pretty good at ignoring. Nothing really riles me, except high-context time. The Taiwanese concept of time is, for me, the cultural equivalent of being forced to wear wet underwear. It just drives me nuts. I can’t help it. I come from a Germanic background. The Germans are lots of things—but round-headed they ain’t. My family immigrated to Canada in the early seventeenth century, so actually there was very little Germanness in my upbringing. Despite that, a Teutonic sense of time and punctuality was whipped into me from an early age, and boy, it stuck.

The German culture has a very monochronic sense of time. Monochronic cultures emphasize the importance of time. For them, time is constant, continuous, and tangible. It has value—it can be saved, spent, wasted, etc. Typically adhering to strict deadlines is emphasized. Punctuality is a cardinal virtue. Low-context cultures tend to be monochronic, while high-context cultures are more polychronic. Punctuality and time-structure are less important in polychronic cultures. Time is more fluid. Deadlines are a nice ideal, but nothing to get bogged down with.

On the scale from extremely monochronic to especially polychronic, modern Taiwan is somewhere in the middle, but leaning polychronic. I lived in Thailand years ago—Thai time is a polychronic hell. Taiwan is pretty reasonable, however the insouciant attitude to punctuality here still sets my Germanic blood boiling. On an interpersonal level you can adjust, even find humor in it. When I first moved to Taiwan, I became friends with a China Airlines flight attendant. I liked meeting her. She was always on time—to the second. That’s fair, and also impressive. That was her airline training. Then she quit the airline. I swear to God she hasn’t been on time since then. At the snap of a finger, she went from the most precisely punctual person I ever met to just another Taiwanese women, constantly half an hour late. It amazes and tickles me.

It is not always so easy to see the humor when dealing with my wife. She’s engaged in an epic struggle to be slightly late for everything. It drives me crazy. I get antsy if we’re not on target to arrive at inconsequential events at least 10-15 minutes early. It’s calming to be out the door in good time, and to not have to rush about trying to make it. Venus feels ripped off if she arrives early, like somehow she lost that time. She would rather use that time at home, running in ellipses trying to get ready, dashing in and out of the door to collect the various forgotten items, and then racing through Taipei gridlock, constantly checking our watches, trying to find ways to defeat traffic, and sliding into an event just as the doors are shutting. It leaves me a jittering mass of frayed nerves. She loves it—she thinks if she arrives at the last second she won. Someday it is going to be the death of me. Flying with my wife is a thrill ride that usually sees me arrive at the gate with my iliohypogastric nerve in full spasm. (That’s classy medical terminology for “it’s a sphincter-flapping experience”).

For contrast, a while back one of my oldest Canadian friends visited me. His background is German Mennonite, so, you know, his head has a few right angles also. We bicycled around Taiwan. At the end of the trip he had a midnight flight to Canada. He left for the airport before 6:00 pm. It’s less than an hour from my house to the airport, but as he said: “I’ll leave a bit early, you know, just in case of problems, and to have a stress-free transit to the airport. And, hey if I’m a few hours early, that’s okay it will allow me to mellow out before the flight, and not have to rush to get on the plane”. I hear ya, Bud.

In your personal life it may annoy, but differences between mono- and polychronic time can be disastrous in business. The monochronic workplace values orderliness—doing things at the appropriate time and place. There is a strong preference towards concentrating on a single task, doing the job well and on time, then moving on to the next task. Plans are important, and not to be carelessly violated. The polychronic workspace favors multitasking. A polychronic manager likely has an open door policy. While chairing a meeting he might answer phone calls, talk with staff, and possibly pop out to deal with an office issue. People and relationships are the primary concern, tasks and objectives are worthy goals, not absolute musts.

When these two business cultures interact, there’s a lot of room for misunderstanding. I once met a Canadian salesperson in Taiwan on business. He’d flown in to meet the CEO of a medium-size Taiwanese corporation. His company had already laid the groundwork for a multi-million dollar sale, and he came to smooth out some issues. During the meeting with the corporation’s senior officers, the CEO and senior purchasing agent were late, the meeting was interrupted by phone calls, and a few times staff wandered in disrupting the meeting. He was livid, and saw management’s behavior as an intentional slap in the face. He’d flown from Canada for the meeting and they’d disrespected him and his time by not arriving  punctually and concentrating on him during the meeting. He believed they were being deliberately insulting and that the deal was clearly in peril.

I tried to tell him there might be another interpretation. But, he wasn’t interested in hearing any of my Asian culture explanations bullshit—he’d seen what he’d seen, and knew what he knew. Nothing was going to change his mind about the abuse he’d suffered. I just let it go, and left him sulking in his beer. No corporation is paying me to teach their staff about intercultural business practices. That was awhile ago, most upper management in large Taiwanese companies are sensitive to these issues now. Misunderstandings are more likely further down the management chain or in smaller, more local, companies.

Still, I understand how he felt, I continue having a visceral reaction to the discourtesy of tardiness. It’s hard not to feel disrespected. The final anecdote belongs to my wife; no one disrespects a man quite like his wife. Sometimes I pick her up from work on my scooter. Her old office was on Fuxing North Rd., a pretty busy thoroughfare. I’d ride all the way there, allowing plenty of time to negotiate rush hour traffic and arrive in good time. I was constantly miffed that she was never downstairs, on the road, waiting for me when I got there. After all, she knows precisely when I’ll arrive—I’m never late. But, that’s okay, I know I’m in Taiwan, we can’t expect perfection. So I’d phone from the street, let her know I was there, and commence waiting. Usually she’d be precisely twenty minutes late, which really pissed me off. If you can manage to be precisely twenty minutes late each time, then you can just as easily be on time—it’s the same process. When I would ask her why she was late, it was always a variation on the same theme, “Oh, I was about to leave, when blah-blah walked by my desk, so obviously we had to chat, have a cup of tea, maybe enjoy a communal pee [girl-style]. What could I do?” You could tell them your husband is downstairs, in the heat and humidity,  on the baking asphalt, choking on gas fumes, waiting for you, and that you need to go! I stopped picking her up after I was left standing on the street waiting for three hours for her to come down. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me a hundred times, shame on me.

However from her perspective, relationships [with colleagues] are important—time not so much. She had absolutely no compunction about wasting my time. It never occurred to her that there was anything remotely ill-mannered about  it. Of course to me, Monochronic Man,  there’s no greater affront—she’s disrespecting my time and me as a person. It’s enough to make my Germanic head explode. Yep, I could totally understand where that Canadian salesman was coming from. Let’s just say, punctuality’s siren call leans towards a whisper here.

What I Learned about Taiwan at the Urinal

If you’ve traveled much internationally, you’ve likely learned that different cultures prefer to maintain different levels of interpersonal space. Broadly, Southern Europe, South America, and the Middle East are considered contact cultures. While Northern Europe, North America, and Asia are non-contact cultures, prefering to stand further apart and touch less. Within that broad framework, gender, age, and climate are important factors determining interpersonal space. Across all countries, women prefer a greater social distance than men. The older you get the more distance you want. The largest factor determining socially appropriate proxemics seems to be climate, with warmer regions preferring closer social contact.

Since I come from North America and live in Asia, both non-contact cultural regions, you’d suppose that there’d be little problem. But, it manages to be an issue—more for me than the people around me. I suppose because I come from Canada, a place that tends to maintain a certain cool distance in all interpersonal interactions, and live in Taiwan—theoretically a non-contact culture—but, a warm country with warm-hearted people. They get in my space sometimes.

The preferred social distance with a stranger, in Canada, is approximately 100 cm. In China it is about 115 cm. There is no specific data for Taiwan, but personal experience leads me to believe it is closer than either China or Canada. When I first arrived here I had the classic proxemics culture shock. A friendly Taiwanese gentleman tried to have a conversation with me. As he talked to me, he kept coming forward, trying to get to his preferred social distance. I kept backing away, trying to maintain my comfort zone. He chased me around the room—in the friendliest possible way—trying to touch my shoulder the whole time. I was unaware that I was backing away. I’m sure he was equally oblivious that he was hunting me down. It was all subconscious.

During my first trip to Taiwan in 1986, forming a line was still an alien concept. In general, where you might expect a line up, the Taiwanese would form a scrum, and the most aggressive would emerge as the first person to get or do whatever. It was like China now. Normal rules of social distance did not apply in a Taiwanese “line”. When I came here to live that was changing, and generally people formed reasonably orderly lines. But, older people, whose social norms were established in an earlier time tended to not exactly understand the concept of lining up. They’d often cut in line, or join the line and then start pushing and shoving, like in the good ol’ days.

One day I was in line, enduring the constant jabbing and shoving of the geriatric obasan behind me. She seemed to be trying to speed me forward. I don’t know where she thought I should go. I was already close behind the person in front of me. I swear I didn’t do this on purpose, but I raised my hand up my side to just under my armpit, like a karateka moving into the horse stance. That caused my elbow to protrude behind me maybe 15 cm. I popped the old lady right in the middle of the forehead. I wasn’t trying to hit her. I don’t know what, if anything, was going through my head. I might have been trying to push back. When your space is violated the response can be instinctive. I still feel bad about that.

I’ve grown used to Taiwanese proxemics. I suspect they’re not too different from Canada, perhaps a slightly closer conversational distance and more intra-gender touching. I hardly notice it anymore, but there is one proxemics related thing that happens in Taiwan and drives me batty.

Why do Taiwanese men insist on violating international urinal rules? For the benefit of the ladies, the first rule of the urinal is thou shall not sidle up to a stranger, whip out your tallywacker, and begin performing essentially a private bodily function. If there are no other free urinals, then it is socially acceptable—keep your eyes forward. Pee-pee-makers must maintain a respectable interpersonal distance, like atoms in a gaseous state seeking equilibrium, fill the empty space first. Apparently, Taiwanese men are not signatories to the international peeing conventions. I blame China.

The bathroom at work has three urinals. If I need to use the facilities, and there is no one already there, I take either the left or right urinal. Thus, should someone come while I’m wrestling the snake, we can maintain the center urinal between us, like civilized human beings. It is frustrating how often someone will come in and take the middle urinal. This is not simply a function of the relatively small size of the facilities. Something similar happens in large bathrooms with a long wall of urinals. The Taiwanese just seem to be comfortable rubbing shoulders while tinkling.

The pissoir is the one place where differences in interpersonal space still cause me consternation. Between rubbing elbows with strangers and having a cleaning woman running a mop between my legs as I urinate, public washrooms can be trying for this bladder-shy expat.