Category Archives: Expat Life

Vignette #15: I Ain’t Famous, I Just Look that Way

I’m around 193 cm. tall with blonde hair, cobalt eyes, pale skin, big shoulders, a barrel chest and majestic midsection. My every feature conspires to make me conspicuous. I’m ostentatiously unChinese and stick out like a sore dick, hovering above the crowd with my freakish pinkness.

People notice me. Less now than in the past, when I was the only foreigner they’d see for weeks. Nowadays you can’t swing a youtiao (油条) in Taipei without smacking a foreigner. Despite that, the sideshow aspects of my appearance conspire with my movie star good looks to ensure I still get lots of stares.

I don’t mind the attention. Some expats have been driven from Asia by that feeling of constantly being under a microscope. It makes me nostalgic for how it was when I first came to Asia, and there weren’t three whiteys [I like that word—I’m trying to restore it to its former glory] on every corner.

“It’s 7:30, do you know where your husband is?” A picture sent to my wife by one of Taipei’s network of concerned citizens.

I can’t go anywhere in Taiwan without being recognized. Partly that’s a function of how much my looks obtrude into the Taiwanese mind. On that level, I assume that all non-swarthy foreigners experience something similar. It’s also because my wife—through her work and personality—knows a stunning percentage of Taiwan’s population, so they know of me. I’m infamous by association.

“I think that’s your husband on his way to TGIFridays. Isn’t he on a diet?” Another concerned citizen heard from.

I can’t get away with anything. Frequently when I’m out and about, my wife will phone me and ask, “Why are you at ____?” How does she know I’m there? Someone has phoned and told her, or thanks to modern technology, sent her a picture of me there. It’s hard to cheat on your diet if you know your wife is likely to end up with an unbecoming photo of you snarfling down that bacon double cheeseburger at the Monkey.

It kind of kills a lot of the adventure and intrigue marriage offers.

A Trip to the Taiwanese Dentist

One of the first queasy expat moments comes when seeking medical care for the first time. Here we’re at our most vulnerable. It is a genuinely uncomfortable needing medical assistance and facing support staff, nurses, and often dentists or doctors who do not speak English, or speak medical jargon and have that confused with English. Seeking medical attention in a system different from what you’re used to tests the mettle of many.

Luckily I’ve not faced major health issues for most of my time abroad, but even insignificant health problems can be a bunghole tightening experience. My first toothache crashed down on me early in my Taiwan stay, twenty two years ago. I had a cavity that was impossible to ignore. I tried. However, eating was an obstacle course of pain and nerve twinges food had to run through my debilitated beerhole. Every morsel I masticated, every sip I supped, had me skittering around like a cat being ambushed by a cucumber [Video]. There was no getting around it, I needed a dentist, but I didn’t know where to turn. I’d seen many dental clinics walking around Taipei. Usually through the office window you could see a straining dentist hunched over an antsy patient. Window shopping for a dentist didn’t ease my mind. My friends were know-nothing newbs—totally unhelpful. So, I did the only thing I could think of, I went to the lone dentist advertised in the English newspaper. He claimed to be Harvard trained—that sounded reassuring.

Like anyone embarking on a dangerous mission, I did a little recon first. The clinic had nice modern looking chairs and cute dental assistants. What do I know about assessing dental competency from a brief walkby? I made an appointment.

At the appointed time and hour I timorously made my way to the clinic.

A little background information is necessary to explain my apprehensions. Before coming to Taiwan I had lived in Korea. While there, I had talked with people who’d gotten dental care. In Korea, at that time, it was common for dental work to be done without anesthesia. My roommate had some cavities filled without freezing. She claimed it was fine. She wore headphones to drowned out the drill’s noise, which according to her made all the difference. She was delighted to save a few won skipping the injections. Color me skeptical. I really don’t think a Walkman is any substitute for the oblivion offered by modern pharmacology. I personally was horrified. I’m pretty sure these dental practices were mentioned in a book of medieval torture I read in school. I belong to the knock me out as much as possible school of thought. If someone is going to be drilling, cutting, yanking, or otherwise messing with my mouth, I don’t want to feel anything—damn the expense. My foremost priority on my Taiwanese dental adventure was to ensure that I got novacaine.

Different from a dental office you might find in the West, the dentist in Taipei had a waiting area that was not really separated from the his workspace. The receptionist’s counter partially obscured the view, but waiting clients were privy to much that was happening in the business end of the clinic.

After waiting, and watching, it was my turn. I made my way to the dental chair. When I sat down in the chair the dentist found I actually had two cavities, one on an upper right side molar, the other on the lower left side.

During the examination I maintained a laser focus on my priorities. Number one: freezing. The dentist grabbed a needle—without prompting—and froze my lower left molar. My stress flew away. I relaxed knowing whatever happened I wouldn’t feel it. The dentist then grabbed his drill, buzzed it menacingly a few times, but I remained nonchalant. Then he proceeded to drill the upper right—unfrozen—molar.

Bastard!

The tension that shot through my spine bowed my body into a banana shape, with only my heels and head touching the dentist’s chair. (I used to have abs). My pelvis and legs were shaking in a pretty decent parody of Josephine Baker’s Banana Dance. I’d have leaped right out of the chair, but with the buzzing drill in my mouth, I was scared of being cut to ribbons. I kept my gaping maw as still as possible, but it was at the end of two hundred pounds of wildly flailing protoplasm, so, you know, accurately drilling out a cavity was probably tough. The dentist gently cooed at me to take it easy. It worked a charm—I calmed right down. Idiot. Despite the power drill screwing into my tooth I managed to make it absolutely clear that the molar was not frozen. He seemed to already be aware of that, and just laughed and told me to calm down. Yeah, right! I don’t know why he was drilling the unfrozen tooth. I think maybe he was conducting an experiment to see if a white patient would put up with the same shit an Asian patient would. Nope.

He continued drilling; I continued reverse twerking.

I have to admit, despite being a freaky sensation, the drilling did not hurt. It was just weird—and then he exposed the root.

My heels and head lost contact with the chair as I basically hovered above it like a yogic flyer, only just descending to the chair long enough for the skin on my back to contract and launch me back into the air. My feet and legs were shooting out in all directions. Eventually the dentist gave up, reached for a syringe, and with a condescending laugh froze my upper jaw…and everything calmed down.

I’m tall, so the receptionist’s counter did little to hide my legs dancing like a criminal’s on the end of the hangman’s rope. The entire waiting area sat enthrall to their every quiver. They also heard my gurgling high pitched moaning. When I left, I was greeted by five very anxious and pale faces. It seems like the layout of Taiwanese dental offices needs reconsidering.

It took an inordinate amount of time for my upper molar to heal. It was a mass of jangling nerves for at least a month. The slow healing was a direct result of the lack of local anesthetic. I left that office feeling physically abused. Over two decades later, I still feel enmity towards the dentist. I must admit that he, apparently, did very good work. Every dentist that I’ve seen since, both in Canada and Taiwan, have complemented his handiwork. All I know is it was too painful. When I told the tale of my tribulations to my Taiwanese girlfriend, expecting a healthy dose of sympathy sex, all I got was laughed at and called a pussy (孬種).

Is this namby-pamby attitude towards dentistry just me, or are all foreigners the same?

 

Election Day

I’m not very politically engaged. My answer to being disenfranchised is to politically disengage. I do nominally lean pan-Green. However, if I had the power to vote, I would probably vote for whomever I felt was the best candidate for the time and place, regardless of party affiliation.

Despite being politically detached, I know an election is happening. The rise in the decibel level of my community forces my awareness. The tendency in Asian elections, as with many things here, is to try to be as noisy as possible. There is a pretty constant stream of trucks, with loud speakers, driving up and down the street blaring their political messages. Along with occasional marches of one or two hundred people screaming the slogans of their chosen one.

My first experience of Asian election noise came in South Korea. [That’s  not quite true, my first experience came in Thailand, but involved tanks and automatic weapon fire, and so falls outside the purview of this discussion]. Where I lived, in Korea, they had massive apartment complexes each containing a dozen, or more, large residential towers. At about five in the morning, a truck would pull up and stop outside each individual building and blare its political message at the insensate beings within. I was stunned that any political candidate would consider this to be a good move. My natural [Canadian] reaction was nobody would vote for such an a-hole. My Korean friends found my reaction stupefying. How would you know who to vote for if they didn’t come yell at you at the crack of dawn?

Compared to that, Taiwan election noise is positively civil.

The other reason I know an election is happening is because I can’t drive anywhere without being diverted by road construction, as whichever party controls the public construction purse strings tries to make it look like they’re really working for the community. It is pretty transparent when you don’t see any construction for 3.986 years, and then all of a sudden you can’t walk to the 7-11 without tripping over a hardhat. But, hey, politicians will be politicians wherever you are.

I know I sound, well, salty, but I’m a big fan of Taiwanese democracy. I lived here during the first democratic transfer of power. I love the enthusiasm and excitement that the Taiwanese bring to their young democracy. Most people seem unjaded about their civic responsibilities. It’s nice.

Transnationalism and the Global Soul

It was a gorgeous January or February day last year; blue skies, warm temperatures, no rain, no wind—perfect. I put on a pair of shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, sandals, and a fedora; grabbed a book, ice cold beer, and headed downstairs to enjoy the sun. On the elevator I was joined by two Taiwanese, each wearing winter clothes. One had a tuque, down-filled jacket, long pants and winter boots. The other was wearing a heavy three-quarter length parka and snow boots. As I looked around the elevator it occurred to me that I’m never going to fit in here.

Apparently, I don’t fit in back in Canada either. Friends and family tell me I’m no longer Canadian. I suppose that’s true. They think I have changed, become more Asian. Maybe. But, I believe Canada has changed while I’ve remained the same. I am a throwback to an earlier Canada. One example is since I’ve been gone Canada has been in an almost constant state of war.  It has changed Canadian’s perceptions of themselves and their country. Jingoism has become more normal, a blind patriotism that Canadians used to hate in Americans. I cannot easily relate to this new national attitude. It is not just Canada, but throughout the world ultra-nativist nationalism and regionalism is on the rise. We can see it in Trump’s America, among Brexiteers, and in the rise of ultranationalist movements throughout Europe.

Some of this is in reaction to globalization, which  has left behind many disaffected communities worldwide. It is perceived as benefiting the elites and being the world order of multinational corporations, international bankers, and globetrotting moneyed elites. The emotional component of this trend seems to be bigotry, voter’s fear of the [scary] other, generally immigrants. As an expat, I can’t condone such attitudes. After all, an expat is just an immigrant with a few less legal rights.

I come from Western Canada. Embarrassingly, if Canada were America, then Western Canada would be Trump country. It is an area of Canada where the regressive features of Canadian political life—anti-immigrant sentiment and barely concealed racism—are finding fertile soil.

My life as an expat stands in stark contrast to the attitude of insular nationalism apparently sweeping the world, and certainly my region of Canada. Almost by definition I am a globalist, certainly not the elite globalist of popular imagination. Like most expats, I am simply a worker—an international worker. We are, through circumstance or inclination, able and willing to work outside our home countries. We are the real leading edge of globalization.

As an expat I am heavily invested in the current global order. If the WTO or other trade relationships collapse I don’t know what happens to expats. Certainly our quality of life would decline precipitously. I have previously commented on how much nicer expat life is when you have access to international products (here). But, if trading relationships were hindered, many would find themselves unemployed. Most expat jobs are predicated on international trade. Even ESL teaching requires students who think they’ll benefit from English; generally via the chance to study in an English-speaking country, global job opportunities, or international trade.

Most expats are what I loosely term transnationalists. Our interests are global, not nationalistic, encompassing, not exclusionary. It makes expats extremely open and willing to accept other groups. Backwoods westerners who maintain the prejudices of home don’t last long as expats. It is not easy to be a xenophobe while living in another culture, surrounded by other religions, ethnicities, and races; where even expat friends are likely a very diverse group. The expat lifestyle demands a certain openness.

One benefit of the expat’s global perspective is it gives you a view of your home country devoid of petty regional squabbles, internecine warfare, and politics. It is kind of the view from space. It is a unique and more honest way of seeing your country. One of the things Canadians struggle with is a sense of national identity. We’re a young immigrant country and many wonder what defines us. Most who think about such things want the answer to be English-speaking, white, Christian, etc. As a Canadian whose lived abroad for many years, I can tell you what defines Canada—multiculturalism. Our public policy that emphasizes the importance of immigration, and encourages diverse racial, religious, and ethnic groups to maintain their cultures while living in Canada. This is unique. It defines Canadian culture—diversity is the definition.

Earlier I questioned where I fit in. I don’t fit in Canada and I’ll never be accepted as Taiwanese, so what am I? I have lost my national identity, but I have gained something more. I truly believe that I can be comfortable living anywhere, among any group of people. I will find what is best about that place, those people, and come to enjoy what is unique about that society. Expats are constantly forced to adapt, change, and, I’d argue, better themselves. That’s what makes them compelling individuals. In contrast, I find myself stunned by anti-immigrant sentiment and fear of cultural change in the West. For someone who thrives on the challenges and joys of a life full of cultural diversity, it just doesn’t make sense.

Who am I? I’m a citizen of the world.

Hungry Ghosts, Pollution, and Ritual

Ghost Month, the seventh lunar month, started last week. It is considered an inauspicious time, so prohibitions abound. These proscriptions vary by region, but some that are common in Taiwan include: don’t swim, evil spirits that have drowned may seek to drown you; don’t fly, it is dangerous with all those ghosts out there; don’t make big life changes, marrying, starting a business, surgery, moving, etc., it’s just not a lucky time; do not sing or whistle, it attracts ghosts; and likewise, don’t wear red, it also attracts ghosts. There are many more, but you get the general idea. There are other common beliefs in Taiwan related to Ghost Month. One such belief is that mechanical and electrical devices are particularly likely to break down during Ghost Month, presumably because the ghosts like to play with all the new-fangled doohickeys. This would be an example of a quaint little superstition—if it weren’t so annoyingly true (here).

The entire month is an orgy of Buddhist, Taoist, and folk religion observances. It is that time when the gates of Hell open and ghosts are free to wander among us. Why would beings, released from the ethereal plane, spend their precious freedom among humans? The ghosts that come to earth are hungry ghosts, whose descendants have not provided them with the customary offerings of food and money, necessary for a comfortable ghostly existence. Hungry ghosts have long thin necks, pinched by hunger. The deceased who did not receive proper funeral rituals also return to earth during Ghost Month. As you might expect, these neglected spirits are a bit pissy, and wander the earth seeking food and light entertainment. (Scaring the bejesus out of Grandpa Lui is just the ticket).

To appease these wandering spirits, the Taiwanese make offerings to their ancestors throughout Ghost Month. Different than other festivals, this spiritual largesse extends beyond one’s own ancestors, to include offerings to the wandering souls of those forgotten by their descendants. The offerings take many forms. Families place food and drink on the family altar, in the home, and burn incence for their deceased ancestors. Similar offerings are made at tables placed on the street, in front of businesses. These offerings are aimed at the general ghostly hallabaloo. Likewise, temples overflow with food offerings to the resident gods during Ghost Month. Many types of joss paper are burned as offerings, these include: hell banknotes, so the ghosts can purchase afterlife necessities; along with paper models of various useful items, houses, servants, TV’s, etc. These offerings are made to deceased ancestors and gods throughout the year, but the fires reach a feverish pitch during Ghost Month.

Chinese folk religion is a living breathing aspect of Taiwanese culture. You can be walking down the street, turn a corner, and randomly bump into a temple parade, pilgrimage, shaman, or diverse other fascinating religious practices. It is so vibrant and alive, not part of the past, hermetically preserved in a museum, to be visited on Sunday afternoons by armchair cultural voyeurs. It is a living, breathing part of everyday life here—and I love it.

However, many foreigners who live here hate it. A few may dislike Chinese folk customs, regarding them as backward superstitious claptrap. Such cultural bigotry is generally absent from expat thinking. The reason most dislike these Chinese folk customs is more prosaic. It is the pollution caused by large-scale burning of incense, hell banknotes, other joss paper, and the perennial setting off of firecrackers.

They have a point. I’ve seen paper models of hell-bound daily necessities piled into literal mountains, four or five meters tall, and then set ablaze. The pollution released into the city by even one such bonfire is substantial. On any given day in most temples, lots of hell banknotes are burned along with massive amounts of incense. On a smaller scale the process is repeated in houses and business across Taiwan. This burning is a continual backdrop to life here. During festivals and special days on the Chinese Lunar calendar the smoke raises religion-related smog from background noise to a Death Metal concerto.

Most countries have a distinct smell, noticeable when you first step off the plane. Thailand smells like rotten bananas. Indonesia smells of clove cigarettes. Canada, at least the Vancouver International Airport, hits your olfactory senses with a wall of ozone. Taiwan has the peppery odor of a melange of ritual smoke. The smell has decreased with efforts to clean up some of these traditional practices. Some of the attempts have been comical failures. When I first came to Taiwan there was a move to try to get people to burn a hell credit card instead of hell banknotes. The theory was that the masses of paper being burned by each worshipper could be replaced by a single credit card. Cute idea. It didn’t work. Worshippers simply began burning hundreds or thousands of credit cards for their ancestors. Despite the difficulty of changing traditions, air quality has improved in Taiwan. Thirty years ago the smell of religious observances would hit you like a wall when you arrived at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport. Now the smell is more in the background.

The improvement is partially the result of social changes. Folk religion and folk cultural practices have declined a bit with urbanization. Some temples have proactively tried to reduce their carbon footprint. A good example would be Hsing Tian Kong. The temple has decided to try to be a leader, among religious institutions, in fighting air pollution. The large incense burners at the front and rear of the temple stand empty. The smaller incense pots, placed in front of each god’s effigy, are either empty, or gone. The oven used to burn hell banknotes is closed. It is exactly what most expats have been clamoring for.

I recently visited Hsing Tian Kong for the first time since the changes went into effect—I hated it. The place was pristine, almost sterile in feeling. It lacked the characteristic temple smell. Nor were there glimpses of statues of gods and goddesses mysteriously coming in and out of view from behind a gauze of smoke. Indeed, on that fine sunny day, the temple’s air was annoyingly crisp and clean. The only wisps of smoke in the whole place came from the few burning incense sticks wielded by Taoist lay practitioners conducting exorcisms. It was all just so…so devoid of feeling.

Hsing Tian Kong was once my favorite temple in Taipei. The place where I went for succour, to bai-bai, get a talisman, cleanse my prayer beads, or simply have the demons exorcised. No more—a temple without smoke is no temple. Here is where I part ways with

most expats. My first trip to Taiwan over thirty years ago was to study Chinese folk religion. As much as I have any religion, it’s to the temple and folk rituals that I turn. Perhaps I’ve become a Taiwanese LKK, but gimme that old tyme religion, it’s good enough for me.