Category Archives: Expat Life

Vignette #19: Disorientation and Discombobulation in New Taipei

I’m back living in the suburbs. My first decade in Taiwan, I lived exclusively in the Yungho (永和) or Chungho (中和) areas of Greater Taipei. I loved it, but when I married, I moved into Taipei. I’ve moved back. We got a new place in Chungho, not far from Yungho. Google maps says the living room is in Chungho, and the bedroom is in Yungho. That’s one of the hardest things to get used to about Yung/Chungho. The way the two districts interweave. It’s confusing.

The dilemma is amplified by the Taiwanese convention of every city, town, and district using the same street names, a real problem in densely pack and intertwined Yung/Chungho. You can very easily be riding down a certain street, look up and find yourself crossing the street you thought you were on. Unbeknownst to yourself, at some point the name of the street you were on changed, then you drove out of Yungho, entered Chungho, thus allowing you to traverse time and space to intersect with the road you were on. The space-time continuum is more plastic outside Taipei, or possibly it’s the twisty circular nature of the roads. Yung/Chungho is particularly cruel on visitors because the amorphous nature of their boundaries make it easy to cross, unawares, back and forth.

I spent my first decade in Taiwan muddled and befuddled on the roadways across the bridge. If you’ve navigated New Taipei and arrived at your destination only to find you’re in the entirely wrong city, you’re not alone. It’s not just a stupid foreigner thing. A Taiwanese person created a rhyme to help:

繞口令—–中永和的路名

永和有永和路,中和也有永和路, 中和有中和路,永和也有中和路;
中和的中和路有接永和的中和路, 永和的永和路沒接中和的永和路;
永和的中和路有接永和的永和路,中和的永和路沒接中和的中和路。
永和有中正路,中和也有中正路,永和的中正路用景平路接中和的中正路;
永和有中山路,中和也有中山路, 永和的中山路直接接上了中和的中山路。
永和的中正路接上了永和的中山路,中和的中正路卻不接中和的中山路。
中正橋下來不是中正路,但永和有中正路;
秀朗橋下來也不是秀朗路,但永和也有秀朗路。
永福橋下來不是永福路,永和沒有永福路;
福和橋下來也不是福和路,但福和路接的卻是永福橋。

It’s a tongue twister and mnemonic device to remember which streets intersect, interconnect, or exist in both districts. The Chinese is simple, If you can read it, it’s cute. If you can’t, listen to it being sung here. It is very catchy. Good luck journeying through the burbs.

Reflecting on Canada: Reverse Culture Shock (Pt. I—Big Things)

After I posted my article on transnationalism, someone wrote and asked me to expand on what I’d said, and I thought to myself…fuck off. Just kidding. I thought who knows. Maybe. My articles on the Taiwanese generation gap and Taiwanese reverse culture shock got me thinking more about alienation from home and globalization, so maybe I have more to say. This article is in two parts; the first part is somewhat serious and deals with bigger issues, the second part is lighter and discusses small things.

Friends and family tell me that I’ve changed and wouldn’t fit back into Canadian society. From my perspective, I haven’t changed much, but Canada and Canadians have changed a lot. I’m a perfectly preserved specimen of 1994 L.B. canadianeis. Some of Canada’s evolution matches global trends, others are uniquely Canadian. Either way, we’re in agreement that I wouldn’t fit in anymore.

I’ve been pretty continuously outside Canada since 1994. When I left, the internet existed, but it was totally different than it is now. There were no browsers. Very few people had even heard of it. It certainly was not putting the world at your fingertips. I’ve written a bit (here) about how the internet has internationalized life in Taiwan. It has also internationalized Canada, particularly in rural area. Fads, fashions and trends are instantaneously global now. Growing up in Saskatchewan, we used to be able to watch a fashion trend arrive. It followed a certain pattern. If the trend was coming from Europe or New York, it would hit Toronto first. In a couple years it would arrive in Saskatchewan. If the trend came from Los Angeles or Asia, it would hit Vancouver first, and make its way to Saskatchewan in a year or less. Via travel and TV we’d be aware of what was happening in the major centers, it’s just that it would seem stupid until the fad actually swept over Saskatchewan.

The internet has changed my home for good and bad. Almost anything that is available anywhere in the world is also available in Saskatchewan which is more a part of the wider world. However, some of the more lunatic ideas sweeping social media have found fertile soil in Western Canada.

In particular a kind of anti-science—anti-fact—ethos pervades. The root cause would seem to be oil. Much of Western Canada really profited from the oil boom when China ramped up industry. At the national level a pro-oil Albertan Prime Minister was elected. He did what he could to stifle the spread of facts. He went to war with Environment Canada and tried to muzzle scientists. It had a Dark Ages feel—we can’t stand the light of knowledge, it scours the flesh so. Judging from social media, Western Canada is a sucker for every piece of unsubstantiated, nonscientific, BS that gets posted. I think the root cause is a strong desire to deny climate change in an attempt to help the oil industry. There is room for legitimate scientific debate on climate change. However, the people filling my social media with climate change denials don’t know anything about climatology. They back themselves up with pseudoscience and fallacious arguments: It flooded a hundred years ago, so all the flooding now cannot be caused by climate change; it snowed, climate change is a hoax. I know nothing about climate change, so I’m going to take the word of oil executives and the politicians they pay. Of course poor scientific education and a lack of critical thinking are partly to blame, but largely it is economic self-interest. In the words of Upton Sinclair:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

The same thing is happening around the world, President Trump is trying to destroy the EPA and crash global climate change accords, because it’s all a hoax the world’s scientists concocted. His single-digit IQ and empirical research tells him so. Canada actually beat Trump down the path of ignorance.

I left Canada before the last oil-boom really got going. People didn’t try so desperately to deny science. There was always a kind of anti-intellectualism that I assume is common in farm communities, however no one was trying to say the earth is flat, vaccines are harmful, or that scientific knowledge must be stopped—it’s all bunkum. Now when I go home I do meet people desperate to be freed from knowledge’s oppressiveness. It’s weird.

Another area where Canada is following global trends is the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment. As essentially an immigrant myself, I find this one especially execrable. My contact with Canada mostly comes through family and friends in Western Canada. This may be skewing my understanding, the politics of Western Canada can be particularly vile. Maybe I’m looking at the past through rose-colored glasses, but during the last major refugee crisis to hit Canada, we took a lot of Vietnamese boat people. I don’t think there was so much negativity around the refugees. We didn’t have a direct role in creating that crisis. Canadian military operations helped create the Syrian refugee crisis. Bomb the shit out of people and they’re going to run. I suppose the difference with Vietnamese refugees is Syrian refugees are a little too brown, and a lot too Muslim.

I guess I came of age in a much kinder and more humanistic Canada. Since I’ve been gone Stephen Harper became Prime Minister, and he brought Alberta’s political culture to the nation. Alberta politics has been borderline insane since 1935 when a right-wing populist party took control of the Provincial government and held it for almost forty years. Right-wing populism always has aimed to exploit voter’s fear and bigotry. That this political culture spread to the rest of Western Canada, and with the election of Stephen Harper, infected the national body politic, places me outside Canada’s Overton Window. National and provincial politics, and Canadian political discourse,  would undoubtedly cause reverse culture shock as 1994-Canadian meets 2019-Canadian.

The rise of endless war in the Middle East parallels my expat experience. Desert Storm I: The Genesis broke out while I was in Thailand, my first extended stay in Asia. Canadian troops were there for the original, the sequel, and all other messes in the Middle East, up to and including the Syrian crisis’s early days. I believe this continual war footing has had a strong effect on Canadian identity and psyche. It has been a slow moving change, so it seems like Canadians living in Canada are unaware of the changes. Blind patriotism, jingoism, my country—right or wrong—has increased since I’ve been gone. The Canada I grew up in hated this attitude. It was part of the reason Canadians feared being misidentified as American. To me opposite to blind patriotism partly defines Canada’s national identity. Seeing Canadians acting like Americans is disconcerting. This attitude also contributed to the rise of right-wing populism. The hate engendered in these politics were part of the lunatic fringe in my Canada. It is a lot more mainstream now.

During return trips to Canada the thing that has caused serious reverse culture shock has been massive inflation brought on by the oil boom. The Canadian dollar’s value rose dramatically without a commiserate drop in prices. Most Canadians were unaware of this inflation, because the prices they paid remained stable, but there was approximately a 25%-30% rise in the real cost of products. (The equivalent to how much the dollar rose in value). I sure noticed the difference as my Taiwanese money went much less far. The price of a trip home rose precipitously. The cost of servicing my Canadian student loan debt became very onerous.

Despite all these changes, it is nice to note that some things are shockingly consistent. Growing up in Western Canada was a continual political battle with Trudeau. Forty years later and it is—amazingly—the same. Kind of warms the heart.

Part II talks about some of the fun little sources of reverse culture shock. [See: Reflecting on Canada Part II]

Expat Friendships

I was meant to be in Macau today. Typhoon Lekima kiboshed that. My flight was canceled, and I couldn’t get there. So, here I sit brokenhearted, paid my airfare, but am stuck farting around Taipei. It makes me extremely sad, not because I’m missing out on gambling, or whoring, but because I was flying to Macau to meet a friend and chat.

I can only speak for myself, but I find the expat lifestyle difficult for maintaining friendships. I’m naturally a little introverted. I prefer one or two good friends to a bunch of acquaintances. I favor deep meaningful conversation with one over passing the time of day with many. The expat lifestyle is wonderful for developing a lot of acquaintances, less awesome for maintaining deep and meaningful friendships.

People whirl into the country, and twirl out just as quickly. As a newly arrived expat, I was surrounded by very transient people, who considered staying in Taiwan more than a couple months an accomplishment. Most lacked a clear plan for two weeks into the future. As you might expect, many would disappear virtually overnight, on to the next country or back home. They were unstable. Great for partying with. Wonderful if you wanted a “Hey Bud, how’s it hanging?” relationship. There were a lot of those people around. Nice people. Not wanting more than to scratch the interpersonal surface was natural. They were passing through, and it wasn’t worth the effort. I think my experiences are pretty typical.

As you become a longer-term expat, you develop acquaintances that are more stable. But still, expat friends leave. It is just an undeniable aspect of the lifestyle. Even among long-term residents, some quit Taiwan. They might’ve been here for 10 or more years, and then suddenly they’re saying, “Yeah, that’s it. I’m leaving.”

In a couple of decades here I have developed a couple of very deep friendships with other expats. The kind of friendship where you can talk deeply about anything. That type a relationship is pretty special among expats. Two of the best of those have left. Leaving a definite hole in my life.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a wife, and I have other companions still in Taiwan. But, some of my most special confidants have moved on. That’s why I was heading to Macau. I was going to meet one of those very good friends. The plan was simply to drink and converse the entire weekend. I’ve been known to fly halfway around the world for good conversation.

I’m Kinda Racist

I recently caught myself being racist against myself. I was sitting at a Taipei intersection watching a crowd of white people, with varying degrees of success, trying to negotiate traffic. There were tourists, seemingly confused by the flurry of vehicles, looking hopelessly maladroit. They reminded me of the punchline to a joke popular when I first arrived 流浪狗都會過馬路了 [even a stray dog can cross the street], an allusion to foreigners being too stupid to use a crosswalk. There were also long term residents confidently riding bicycles and scooters through the intersection. I hated it. I felt like a crotchety old man, wanting to yell at the kids to get off the lawn, or in my case: “Get out of my Asia. Go home, Whitey!”

Taiwan was the first Asian country I ever visited, approximately 35 years ago. I came to study Chinese folk religion. I spent about a month traveling Taiwan, and a week in Taipei. In the entire time, I spotted one foreigner. How could I not cross the street and talk with him? It was exciting. He was a foreign businessman, and the only foreigner, not part of my class, I saw that month.

I began my ESL career around 25 years ago in Yeosu (여수시), South Korea. At that time Yeosu was a small city relying primarily on fishing. When I first went there television news cameras followed me for a period of days. I was—almost—the first white person to live there, at least in living memory, a real novelty. There had been a white woman that arrived a couple months before me, but for some reason didn’t elicit quite that level of excitement. Possibly it was a problem of misogyny, or that she was unlikable. It gave me a sense of why celebrity sucks—those damn paparazzo.

When I started teaching in Taiwan, almost a quarter century ago, there were some foreigners around, especially in Taipei. However, we were still a small community of outsiders. If I didn’t know you then I’d probably seen you around and recognized your face. It was de rigeur to say hi or wave at any foreigner you bumped into. I enjoyed summer in Taipei back then, because foreign students would come to Shida (師大) to study Chinese. Also, the American born Taiwanese would come back to visit their relatives. There’d be a lot more English on the street. A chance to learn new slang. There would be more foreign faces in the crowd. It created a festival atmosphere and was fun, but—and this is important—then they would leave.

I’m aware there are a lot of advantages to me personally in Taiwan’s foreigner community having expanded (see: The WTO and My Waistline). I sometimes miss being unique, the feeling that I’m a special little flower. There were some distinct advantages. My favorite was that police would go out of their way to avoid you. If you did something they couldn’t just ignore, all you had to do was talk really fast at them in English. They’d let you go. They just didn’t want to deal with it. That’s not true anymore.

Beyond that there was the camaraderie of being part of a handful of foreigners against the world. It was like living in a small town and had a similar know-your-neighbor mentality. The other day I was walking down the street and out of the corner of my eye I caught a puff of blond hair. I turned, smiled, waved and said “hello”. The young woman, in her mid-20s, stared at me like a piece of shit on her shoe. She didn’t say hi, smile, nod, or wave,… nothing. This has become the norm. I guess I could understand if it looked like I might accost them, or try to talk, but I have always been clearly walking or riding past. Foreign guys are only marginally better. Coldness amongst foreigners is the inevitable consequence of the expansion of Taiwan’s foreigner community. Random friendliness is increasingly met with the stink eye.

Yep, I miss it when white people were a little less common.

Sex and the Expat Woman

Disclaimer: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a woman, thus whatever insights I offer are limited. I can only pass on  observations and what expat women have told me, intentionally or unintentionally. I’m also limited by not wanting to go over nine hundred words. Put differently, it is a big topic that I’m unqualified to expound upon and will not dedicate the necessary time to … so let’s begin.

Taiwan is a very rapidly changing society (see: My Parents Are Nuts and Taiwanese Reverse Culture Shock), the brisk transitions affect expat’s as well as natives. Taiwan-based expat women’s lives have evolved particularly quickly. A couple decades ago Taiwan’s expat community was almost homogeneously male. It’s not that women didn’t come, they just didn’t last. There were undoubtedly multivariate social reasons. I’m going to concentrate on psychosexual and sociosexual causes, particularly the role of horniness in high female expat turnover. [How could this possibly go wrong?]

I first became aware there was an issue at a welcoming party not long after arriving. It was your normal drunken expat sausagefest. What fascinated me was the small handful of women at the party. They were behaving in a way I’d never experienced. They got drunk in a different manner from the normal goofy female drunkenness I’d experienced in Canada. They were on what appeared like a testosterone driven hammer-fry mission. They attacked the booze like sailors on shore leave, became aggressively and rowdily drunk, sequestered themselves in the kitchen, and—for lack of a better term—began acting like men. Low-class men. They complained loudly and belligerently about their horniness, talked in graphic (and pretty humorous) detail of what they’d do to a cock—should they ever see one again—and lobbed occasional catcalls at the male partygoers. If they were men, we’d say they were being a pack of dicks.

The guys studiously avoided the kitchen, but as a stupid newbie I didn’t know. When the party needed more beer, I trundled in to get some. As soon as I walked in, I was surrounded by four drunk women who proceeded to engage in a little lite sexual harassment. The last member of the quintet came to Taiwan with her boyfriend and seemed embarrassed by the other women. My kitchen excursion climaxed when a woman from the Bronx, dressed like Leather Tuscadero, with a cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth, slowly looked me up and down through smoke-squinted eyes, as though trying to choose a satisfactory sausage from the deli platter, and asked in a throaty voice, “So? We gonna happen or what?” That was the first time I’d seen her. Theoretically, being objectified and treated like nothing more than ten inches of dangling meat should have been a giant turn on. After all, that’s the dream, right? However, it turns out the purple-headed General is a coward. I squirmed from their clutches and returned to the party and the knowing merriment of the other guys.

Those women were about a year and a half through their two year, sexless, stays in Taiwan. They were like a pack of cats in heat, rubbing up against anything that’d stay still. I now believe that’s what happens to a collective of women when the ol’ panty gerbil gets hungry and no one will feed it—they begin acting like horny men. It’s sort of beautiful—we’re all the same. The difference is that it is an unusual and uncomfortable position for women. They were used to being both the brake and accelerator in sexual liaisons back home. It must have been a genuine shock to not be able to give it away, no matter how hard they tried.

There were some cultural reasons for their sexual deprivation. First, they were daunting. If they scared me, what must Taiwanese men have felt? Beyond that, Taiwanese men have a lot of family obligations to live up to. Primarily to find a nice Taiwanese girl, get married, and have Taiwanese babies. Taiwanese women don’t have quite the same imperative since once they marry they’re out of the family, so if they have mixed kids it is not such a big deal. The other big problem was that the foreign men were all dating Taiwanese women. Only the Taiwan-based foreign models were consistently dating, below themselves admittedly, but still they had some romantic life. One solution was to arrive in Taiwan as a couple, but these couple frequently broke up when the guy noticed all the Taiwanese women. Taiwan breaking up Western couples was almost a trope.

For most people it’s impossible to live long term in a place without the hope of a satisfactory sex life. Involuntary celibacy erodes your psychological well-being. Not many women stayed here beyond two years. I believe the dearth of intimate contact was the cardinal cause of high turnover among expat women.

That’s the way it was; but I see women breaking through now. There are a growing number of mixed couples where the man is Taiwanese. Twenty years ago, seeing an AMWF couple would have stopped me in my tracks. It’s a heartwarming change. Also, there are a lot more Western couples in Taiwan, and they seem better able to stay together. Consequently there are a lot more expat women living here, and staying longer. Counterintuitively, the high rate of intermarriage between Western men and Taiwanese women is making expat society more stable and tolerable for expat females. It doesn’t fix the underlying problem, but women are no longer forced to spend their time with rutting males, who regard them as little more than background fauna. Not getting laid is terrible; concurrently watching dweeby foreign dudes score is insufferable—but nobody gets jealous of married sex.  The current situation just feels better. Expat life in Taiwan is maturing, becoming more inclusive and family friendly. It’s no longer just a pack of horny dudes on the make.