Category Archives: Expat Life

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.

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?