Category Archives: Culture Shock

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.

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.