Category Archives: Expat Life

Vignette #27: Birth Control in Taiwan

I’ve been friends with a Taiwanese surgeon for decades. He once made an interesting statement. He said medical knowledge among Taiwan’s general population lagged behind the West’s by 15 to 20 years because information here needed to first be translated into Chinese, then noticed and disseminated by popular media. Whereas in the West it is pretty common for scientific studies to be featured in general news and magazine articles.

Personally, that disparity has been most keenly felt as regards Taiwanese attitudes towards birth control. Despite torturing dates with subpar jazz and creepy dude cologne every once in awhile even I managed to fall awkwardly into a penis flytrap. If the relationship developed, at some point skin-to-skin contact became desirable, and Taiwanese conceptions of contraception would become a problem.

Local knowledge of the pill seems cribbed from Vietnam War era pamphlets. Dated. The information relates to the original high-dose hippie pill. I could never convince Taiwanese women that if they went to a doctor and got a decent modern medication, side effects would be minimal, and occasionally desirable. They seemed to suspect ulterior motives, but I was just concerned for their menstrual well-being. I’m a caring and sensitive boy.

My humanitarian efforts were inevitably hampered as most who tried the pill, to avoid embarrassment, just bought something over the counter, not a doctor-prescribed modern low-dose pills. The packaging even looked like war surplus. They worked, but as you’d expect, the massive doses of estrogen and progestin had side effects, one of which was the creation of a confirmation bias in each woman’s mind. The pill = bad.

Thus, Taiwan‘s national form of birth control would best be described as spray-&-pray.

The Pervert in Class Is You

I’m sorry for how long this article took. The Covid shutdown has had its charms; working from home, pantless Friday’s, joining Taiwan’s fine tradition of high-functioning alcoholics, etc. But, Covid fatigue is real. When I finish online teaching I don’t want to do much. Writing has been about as enjoyable as leather pants in a Taiwan summer—just thinking about either gives me a rash and sweaty balls.

However, a friend asked for this follow-up to Talking ’bout Sex. He pointed outcorrectlythat after decades of teaching English in Asia, I must have countless stories of foreigner teachers shitting the bed with their obliviously offensive and inappropriate behavior. True dat.

He thought Talking ’bout Sex was building to some of those tales. I just didn’t think it that important. I haven’t filed those experiences in my mental Rolodex very carefully as other. The foreign teacher with both feet stuck in his mouth is ubiquitous and unmemorable. Still there’ve been a few standouts.

From my blog you might assume I’ve had problems with this. Not really. I get in more trouble with foreigners, when sometimes my words are halfway to Kaohsiung on High Speed Rail before my brain hops out of the taxi at Taipei Main Station. In class my words are more deliberate. Of course I’ve stepped on my own crank a few times. That’s how you learn. Generally it’s been infrequent and minor, but I have seen somethings….

Buxiban teachers are the worst.  Most FOB teachers are quickly put in front of a class with little training and no cultural understanding. They teach English the way they want to learn Chinese. Back in the day, the foreigner community was more dude-o-centric, and many wanted their language courses to resemble Get Laid in Chinese 101. A goal inevitably frustrated by uncooperative female Chinese instructors. But with their own classes, they were free to teach as they wished they were taught.

Examples are plentiful, but I’ll tell you two of my favorites. The first was an absolutely charming American guy. In a Western way, he was saucy, insouciant, and witty. I loved chatting with him, but his charms were completely lost on the students. He was constantly in trouble for something said in class. He eventually got shitcanned when he walked into an 8am adult, all female, class and said, first thing, “So, I was eating out my girlfriend this morning, really diving in there, and it got me to thinking about fish and chips….” He then proceeded to deliver a funnyif career-ending—soliloquy on sex and British cooking.

Usually it’s more of a problem for male teachers, but not to be outdone, there was a female version of him teaching at the same school. She didn’t have quite the same verve, but God she was graphic. I walked by her class once as she was talking about how “fucking” itchy her “cunt” got after “nailing” multiple guys, and she proceeded to colorfully conjecture, in detail, why that might be. She got complaints, but never really got in as much trouble as the guy. Her students seemed too flabbergasted and confused about cross-cultural gender roles to be offended. Good on her, I say. She rode that edge with stunning deftness.

Admittedly those are the worst examples I can think of, from three decades of ESL teaching. Most teachers find themselves afoul of Taiwanese morality at times. There’s a tremendous pressure for buxiban teachers to be entertaining. If you’re not engaging, you lose students; if you lose students, you lose classes; if you lose classes, you lose hours; which means less pay. Lose enough classes and you lose your job. Most teachers have a pretty strong desire to be amusing. Many think risqué badinage puts asses in seats and keeps them there. It doesn’t seem to be true.

My perception is that these things happen less now. Taiwan’s foreigner community has become more sexually mixed, guys have lost their frontier spirit, and are more domesticated. Also, teachers coming to Taiwan now are more professional. [See: Where Have All the Idiots Gone]. Still these situations arise occasionally as a reminder of what happens when low-context teaching meets a high-context class.

Convenience Stores in Taiwan and What They Say About You

There are many things about Taiwan that might stick out in a new arrivals mind. One of the most mundane, and therefore most interesting to me, is the surfeit of convenience stores throughout the nation. In Taipei there seems to be at least one, usually more, convenience store on most blocks. Though these convenience stores may share the same name as their Western counterparts they are different. Most convenience stores in Taiwan are part restaurant, coffee shop, grocery store, snack bar, pub, bank, ticket vendor, pharmacy and post office—not just places to get pepperoni sticks and a gallon of gas.

There are four main convenience store chains in Taiwan; 7-Eleven, Family Mart, OK-Mart, and Hi-Life. There’s a correlation between convenience store choice and the expat’s level of integration into Taiwan. This is all very scientific, using only the most up-to-date social research methodology [natch], as you’d expect from TheSaltyEgg’s  journalistic endeavors.

7-Eleven is the granddaddy of convenience chain stores. It’s run by Uni-President, and is ubiquitous throughout the island. For many foreigners they just seem “to have what you need while the others don’t”. Logical considering it’s a giant multinational administered by one of Taiwan’s biggest food companies. Their supply chain connects to America in a way that outstrips the others. 7-Eleven is the most likely to have the Western snack you desire, including—for one glorious and still remarked upon summer—salt and vinegar chips. FOB and not yet comfortable with salted duck egg flavored goodies? This is the place for you. I lived out of a 7-Eleven my first two years. It’s great when you just want cheezies and a tampon without having a “cultural experience”.

Family Mart is the next largest chain in Taiwan. It is a Japanese based company and more likely to have products from around Asia. Family Mart appeals more to the longer in the tooth expat who’s developed a taste for Asian snacks. They have a wide range of Japanese snacks like dried wasabi green peas, Hokkaido ice cream, and Japanese salty mixed rice crackers. They also have items from around Asia. This is where you go to assuage that 2:17 am craving for Singaporean fish skin crisps [actually pretty awesome] or Korean roasted seaweed snacks.

Things begin getting a little more Taiwanesey with OK Mart. It is part of the Canadian-based Circle K group of stores, still OK Mart has less international selection. For salty snacks you have the omnipresent Cheetos and Kyushu Seaweed Lay’s potato chips, or other Asian flavors. If you’re craving dried instant noodle snacks, they have a wide selection of this Taiwanese answer to the potato chip. If OK Mart is your bodega of choice, you’re on the road to acclimatization, next stop…

Hi-Life, a Taiwanese-run convenience store chain, with less international feel than the others. My local Hi-Life doesn’t even stock Coke products, but they have a pretty solid selection of grass jelly teas, red bean and taro ice cream bars, and 乖乖 (a tasteless puffed corn treat, like Cheez Doodles without the cheez). If Hi-Life can assuage your cravings—congratulations you’re Taiwanese.

However, the journey is not complete until you find yourself shuffling down the alley to the local mom-and-pop corner store in your betel nut stained wife-beater, nylon shorts, and blue rubber flip-flops, carrying an armload of empty 米酒 (Taiwanese rice cooking wine) bottles to exchange for a fresh bottle and some Longlife cigarettes. Then, and only then, will you be a 台客 (Taiwanese good ol’ boy), my son.

Diversity in Expat Culture

One annoyance of expat life is its tendency to create shallow friendships. Everyone is transitory, and friendships are fleeting. [See: Expat Friendships]. The upside is expat life offers diversity of friendship. It’s charming how expat life throws together people from all the world’s corners, each bringing their unique backgrounds. Despite a certain American cultural hegemony, traditions from the world over jostle and blend delightfully in the expat community.

On big holidays you’re quite likely to get invites for a special meal or party. If you’re alone on the holidays someone is likely to be looking out for you, and invite you to something. If not, it’s easy to band together with other lonely expats and create some drunken holiday cheer. At these parties, the expectedness of different traditions doesn’t diminish their beguiling nature. I’ve been at expat Christmas potlucks that have included the requisite turkey and fixings, but also the host culture’s interpretation of Christmas, and dishes associated with Christmas’s around the world; Beijing Duck (Taiwan), Kentucky Fried Chicken (Japan) [still makes me giggle, but it’s a Japanese thing], pickled herring and snus (Sweden), oysters and foie gras (France), mincemeat (England), kutya and nalysnyky (Ukraine), topped off with malva pudding (South Africa). It sounds like a pot-pourri of horrors. However—like people—each regional dish blended smoothly to create a harmonious meal, with just a soupçon of cacophonous flavors, adding tang without being too jarring.

Cross-cultural togetherness is somewhat expected during big holidays: we’re all here without much family. I’m more enchanted with the countless small examples of cultural sharing that happen serendipitously. For me, these have included being invited by a group of Americans to a pub to watch The Super Bowl live. I don’t care about football, and even less American football, but I don’t want to meet the person that can’t enjoy hot wings and binge drinking at 5:30 am. Being unexpectedly slipped a container of pierogis from a Ukrainian coworker. Attending a funeral and afterwards finding the Irish attendees had created a spontaneous wake, reciting Irish funeral toasts and getting slowly swizzled. It was touching. Perhaps one of my favorite incidences was stumbling upon a French-Canadian teaching assorted Anglos some Québécoise curses. (Not to be confused with cursing in France. The Québécois curse like they’re taking inventory of a cathedral). Mon tabarnak—it was funny.

Another area of expat diversity is across socio-economic lines. Admittedly class distinction influences inter-expat relations and inhibits friendships, still the shared experience of being foreigners in a foreign land does create some odd-bedfellows. And, definitely in interactions with the host culture, it is easy for a poorer person to have friendships with rich Taiwanese. I suppose the social indicators of class are a little confusing across cultural lines.

Another charming aspect of expat life is the way it throws together people of different ages. Expats often interact across age groups without much prejudice. If I were still in Canada I wouldn’t expect to have many cross-generational friendships outside of work. Here my friends range from twenty-five to seventy-five. Admittedly sometimes it creates slightly awkward situations. I get invited to clubs, music festivals, and raves by (much) younger friends. I love being included, but it sucks to have to spend a night listening to some DJ (why are they considered performers?) delivering EDM; Techno, House, Trance, etc. True my generation had similar music, but most thought of it as syntho-shit—admittedly it’s still shit—but it’s nice to be included. It’s healthy to be around other age groups. It keeps your mind youthful and expanding. At these outings I’ve learned important life lessons, for example middle-age white men can’t twerk.

Likewise the host culture and their openness to intercultural friendships prevent expats from becoming homogenously foreign outsiders. The Taiwanese also play an important role in diversifying the expat experience. Many are happy to include a foreigner in their circle.

The expat experience makes me think of first-generation immigrants to New York in the early twentieth century. Diverse cultures—a medley of backgrounds and experiences—rubbing together. Heterogeneity is the spice of expat life.

The Monolingual Expat

While back in Canada, chatting with strangers, I mentioned living in Taiwan. They asked if I speak Chinese. [Actually the question was whether I speak Thai, but that’s a story for another day]. I replied, “Well, define Chinese,” baffling the table. So I explained, “Yes, I do speak Chinese. I speak shit Chinese.” They clearly assumed I’d simply confirm my fluency. There is a reasonable expectation that long-term expats in Taiwan would have passable Chinese. Often that is not true.

Monoliguisticexpatitis is an English-speaker’s disease. Since English is the world’s lingua franca, it is too easy to be understood everywhere. It’s hard to imagine any reasonably large urban center or tourist destination where—when you’re recognized as a foreigner—people wouldn’t speak English. It’s detrimental to language learning. In Taiwan’s large centers, surviving with just English is easy. Often it’s hard to get Taiwanese people to speak Chinese with you.

Opportunities to speak Chinese are not as widespread as you’d assume. If you’re new to Taiwan most your Chinese interactions are probably with service people. These exchanges are often too simple to help with more than the basics, or descend into the surreal. My favorite occurs when the young counterperson freaks as I enter an American fast-food chain. Stone-cold terror. “Oh God my English is so bad. I can’t spell and have no idea when to use the auxiliary verb—what am I going to do? I should have studied harder for that test.” It doesn’t happen every time, but when it does I  like to put them at ease right away with my smooth Chinese ordering, because I’m a nice foreigner: 請你給我一個1號餐. Usually that draws a bug-eyed gawp. Well, these things happen. So, ever the charming foreigner, I’ll repeat myself in passable Chinese, 請你給我一個1號餐. The steadily widening eyes by this point usually look like those of a drunken Russian getting kicked in the nards on YouTube. It begins to feel like a passion play, but it’s not clear which of us is Christ. Around this time the server will skitter off to find the manager. On their return, I get a third chance for some real-world Chinese practice, 請你給我一個1號餐. The manager, older, wiser, and unintimidated by my blonde hair, will probably recognize Chinese. These interactions have minimal positive impact on Chinese learning. 

The opposite is also common. Sometimes you’ll meet Taiwanese dying to speak English with a native speaker. It’s almost impossible to get them to interact in Chinese. It is unnatural to continue speaking Chinese while being replied to in English. You’re being socially awkward. It can be demoralizing for the language learner. It feels like they think  your Chinese is inadequate.  Dealing with a conversation partner who’s either too scared or excited is not good for language learning.

Non-English-speaking Europeans tend to have better Chinese skills. Partially it’s that many come from multilingual countries and are used to interacting in their non-dominant language. But also, not many Taiwanese are going to speak to them in French. If their English is poor, they have to speak Chinese. For them, Taiwan is an immersive Chinese language experience. I’d never say it’s good to be French, but in this one way it’s advantageous.

While Europeans are often multilingual, English speakers tend to be monolingual. Partly it’s an accident of geography. English developed in England, relatively isolated from other languages. Insularity seems to have bred linguistic self-centeredness. Whether for historical reasons or pure arrogance, many English speakers have the attitude that:  English is my first, and God willing, last language. [What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? English].

The stereotypical English attitude to other languages is a factor in some English-speaking expat’s monolingualism. Also, many of us—despite living in Taiwan—inhabit remarkably English environments. There’s a reason English teachers tend to have terrible Chinese. We spend our workdays speaking English in class, taking breaks with other English teachers, and interacting with staff in English. It is an entirely English work environment. Many other technical experts in Taiwan exist in a similar English bubble. It’s bad in many ways. It definitely makes Chinese fluency difficult. For these expats, learning Chinese in Taiwan has little advantage over studying Chinese in their home countries.

There is one last problem. Motivation. Sometimes comprehension is undesirable. I don’t want a clear idea what my in-laws are saying. When they’re talking I turn my brain to the Charlie-Brown’s-teacher setting: wah, wah, woh, wah, wah. Likewise, sometimes you just don’t want to know what your wife is saying. Nothing good can come from it, just more chores and probing insights into how you should change—monolingualIsm has its advantages.

The article is intended as an explanation—not an excuse. It is wrong to live in Taiwan and not make an earnest effort to learn the language. Personally, I do study and speak Chinese, but am embarrassed at my level of fluency.