Category Archives: Culture Shock

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].

 

Hot Honeys and Dorky Dudes: Perceptions of Beauty and Interracial Dating in Asia

When I first started traveling to Asia over 30 years ago, I became aware people were having a disproportionate reaction to my appearances. To be succinct, they treated me like I was movie star handsome. I wasn’t then, am now. What was happening?

I hit Taiwan as a nineteen year old student. There were almost no foreigners at the time. As part of the class, I traveled around Taiwan visiting temples. I had two Taiwanese women follow me from city to hamlet, mountain to ocean. Everywhere I went, there they were. As a teen I was mystified by the attention and incapable of fully taking advantage. Before this, women never went out of their way—except to avoid me. I was probably the first foreigner they’d interacted with beyond the movie screen.  I was the unwitting beneficiary of a glamorized and fetishized view of Westerners common at the time. [Is it any wonder I still love this place].

I lived in Korea not long after, and found myself continually compared with Robert Redford, back when he was still handsome. I don’t look like Robert Redford—never have. I’m more of a Brad Pitt. Korean women were simply comparing me to the only handsome blonde foreigner they knew. Perceptions of my face benefited from being part of a very small control group.

Beauty is a cultural construct and is radically different between groups. I know that doesn’t seem earth-shattering, but that was pre-Internet, when cultural groups, ethnicities, races, and nationalities were not sharing videos and other information. Now we’re a little more aware—black men like big butts, white guys like big boobs, and Chinese are face-focused. (I know this is a wild generalization, but in broad sweeps it has some truth).

The Chinese have 5,000 years of literary and artistic output codifying their ideas of beauty. These ideas are numerous and deeply entrenched. As a single example there are many notions of what constitutes a beautiful female face. One traditional ideal of Chinese beauty is a face shaped like a pumpkin seed (瓜子臉).

People I met were surprised at what Asians I found attractive. Their tastes equally mystified me. When this extensive code of beauty is applied to Westerners the system implodes. Our faces defy Tang Dynasty ideals of beauty, leaving the Chinese without a baseline for judging foreign beauty. I’ve benefited from the phenomena. I have a large, protruding, hooked, ugly Germanic nose.  Asians simply cannot see it, though it is literally as plain as the nose on my face. Asians measure nose size by broadness not height. Many find my prodigious proboscis positively pretty because it’s paper-thin. Sometimes having a misunderstood face isn’t beneficial. When I was younger, my eyes were limpid pools of cobalt; an azure sea the ladies could swim in. They’ve since become plain gray. When Asians look at eyes, they simply survey the eyelid shape. Do you have double eyelids? Check. Moving on. Poetry must suffer greatly from the lack of the concept of eyes being the windows to the soul. My best and worst physical features both get ignored. I guess it’s a bit of a push.

It is interesting to watch people react to mixed couples. Those I saw were always a foreign dweeb with a super-hot—model quality—Asian woman. It was so common that it became a clichéd commentary among expats. In Thailand, Korea, Indonesia, and Vietnam I was dimly aware the women didn’t share my assessment. I have a large circle of Taiwanese female friends, they vehemently hold the opposite opinion. Often asking me why is that handsome foreigner with such an ugly woman? I used to be stunned, now I take it in stride and just wipe the pulchritude-induced drool off my cravat and shatter their reality with the news that the guy is clearly a dweeb. This doesn’t just happen in Asia. While in Canada, my wife had the distinct pleasure of overhearing strangers trying to figure out what she—an obvious babe—was doing with such a dork [me]. Years later the memory still warms her heart.

In cross-cultural dating clearly what’s happening is two ugly people are finding each other, each thinking they’ve scored big and are punching above their class. Everyone wins. That’s beautiful.

 

 

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.