Category Archives: Expat Life

Will China Invade Taiwan?

A couple of readers have asked me to write this article in light of recent cross-strait tensions. I have always avoided political and geostrategic topics because there are other better people to read on the topic. Besides, I enjoy my little niche, writing about insignificant aspects of daily expat life. Politics is not my forte, so take what I say as little more than one opinion. If nothing else, hopefully it will give some insight into the feelings of being an expat in Taiwan at this time, which is this blog’s purpose.

Nobody—not even experts—have any real idea if China will invade Taiwan. Here’s the problem: President Xi, in China, has created a massive cult of personality, systematically eliminating any sources of information that might act as reality checks to his perceptions. He’s even more isolated than President Putin, and we all know how that’s worked out. So, anything I say here has no meaning if one day President Xi wakes up constipated and decides he needs to invade Taiwan to clear his bowels. If he says so, then it will happen.

Mostly the Taiwanese are blasé about any threat of invasion, as you would expect of people that have dealt with this intimidation for generations. The Ukrainians also didn’t pay much attention as the Russian army rolled up to their border. It is perhaps a normal reaction.

Most of my expat friends living in Taiwan are rather less unconcerned, but comfort themselves with logical arguments why it couldn’t happen, usually centered on the idea that the Chinese military is incapable of successfully invading Taiwan. They are right. The PLA is massively corrupt, making the Russian army’s venal general staff look like little more than morally ambiguous street urchins. Broader Chinese society looks down on soldiers as uneducated hicks, causing morale problems. The amount of naval and air power required to get an invasion force across the Taiwan Straits is stunning. The times of year that the Straits are navigable by troop carriers is small. Once you get to Taiwan, where do you land? There are only a few places that might be suitable for landing an army. It is relatively easy to concentrate defensive forces at those beaches. The PLA would need to take, hold, and resupply those beaches before moving inland, where they would quickly run into mountainous terrain. Maintaining supply chains from China to troops fighting in Taiwan would be a logistical nightmare. How many casualties would the Chinese public accept? The actual fighting would, after all, fall upon the little emperors created by China’s One-Child Policy. With my limited military background, and without taxing my brain at all, I came up with these very obvious problems facing the Chinese military. I’m sure there are multitudes more obstacles facing a Chinese invasion.

I do not believe that China can successfully invade and take over Taiwan. Here’s what scares me—just because they can’t do it doesn’t mean they won’t. Even if unsuccessful, it sure as hell would ruin my life. All these larger reasons for why it couldn’t happen have no meaning if President Xi is responding to a different “logic”, and the stimuli shaping his outlook are different than for Westerners.

China has huge problems; socially, economically, politically, demographically, environmentally,…. But, let’s just look at what I think is China’s biggest problem—demographic collapse. Urbanization causes demographic decline as city dwellers no longer need kids for labor, nor can afford them. China just came through a period of the most vast and rapid urbanization in world history. There have been the expected declines in birthrate and the problem has been compounded by China’s One-Child Policy. Chinese society will not be able to sustain itself within the next 10-15 years. There simply won’t be enough people of productive age. Demographics is at the root of most of China’s other problems. Population contraction is being faced around the world, but is particularly acute in China. Barring massive immigration to China [not going to happen], China is facing monumental societal upheaval.

The CCP hates that. They’re all about control and maintaining power, whatever it takes. As social stability and the Chinese people’s ability to generate and maintain wealth declines the CCP finds itself in jeopardy. Their justification for holding power has been they’d keep citizens safe and provide a chance at wealth. Demographics, COVID, and CCP mismanagement have laid waste to that social contract. So, how can the CCP justify maintaining power? They have just one card to play—enflaming rabid ultranationalist sentiment. And that’s why I’m not so nonchalant about the threat posed by the Chinese military. Invasion might end up being the only option.

However, if China has any dreams of invading, they are on a timeline. They likely have to accomplish it within the next 10 years before demographic collapse makes it a nonstarter. Also, China has had a large military buildup over the last decade, and it’s unclear if they’ll be able to sustain that level of acquisition. They may need to use their toys or risk them decaying unused and irreplaceable. Sure invasion wouldn’t be “logical”, but the CCP does all kinds of things that defy [our] logic. They didn’t need to ruin Hong Kong. It wasn’t logical. But, they did it anyway, largely because of internal political struggles within the CCP. Those forces are still in play, and trying to use the Taiwan issue for political gain.

Personally I do not believe an invasion is imminent. I’ve always thought a blockade is a more likely scenario. I do think there was probably an invasion plan in place, for the near-term, that was made obsolete by the Ukraine war and the world’s response. President Xi undoubtedly expected a weak-kneed reaction from the anemic democracies of the world when faced with the military might of an authoritarian powerhouse bent on getting things done. [Remember Xi is drinking his own Kool Aid]. Now he needs to go back to the drawing board and come up with an alternate plan, but most his planners and freethinkers have been disappeared, so it’s a task.

Banged for Being Foreign

Here’s one they don’t teach in expat school and really should. There are people who’ll be attracted to your exoticness. Sometimes it’s intellectual; the desire to learn about another culture, language, way of thinking, whatever—this is why the offer of a “language exchange” has been the gold standard for hitting on random locals for decades. It starts the conversation.

I met my oldest Taiwanese friend this way. I’d been here days when I saw this beautiful woman on the bus. Ever the smoothie—I dropped jaw and stared. Prompting a piss-off face from her, but she was so pretty that it came across as cute and encouraging. I made my approach, eliciting a piss-further-off face that heartened me even more. Obviously, I should have crashed and burned, making an unwelcome cold approach on a random woman on the bus. I don’t remember all that was said, I can only assume my regular Bartholomew Bandyesque suavity. Despite that, the offer of a language exchange got her number and subsequent dates. Of course she knew what I was doing—chicks always know, they’re way ahead of us. Still, twenty-five years later and we remain friends.

Of course, the attraction of the exotic is often not intellectual. When I first started coming to Asia, it was pretty common among Asian women to want to try a white guy—in the words of my Taiwanese friend—to see what it feels like going in. And, she had no particular attraction to foreigners, but still even with her, there was the whiff of willingness for a little international mésaventure. I’m not sure what the appeal is, but I think we can thank Western pop-culture.

When I first arrived, decades ago, all foreign guys were regarded as essentially the same. As with any collector, Asian women have become much more discriminating, some developing maple fever [a personal favorite], while others became Anglo-anglers or Euro-tramps. Some chanted: “You splooge, I splooge, we all splooge for Spanish dudes,” while still others became girls of the red, white, and goo. Sounds great, right!?!

Not totally.

Sure, if you’re a traveler and the locals are on you like pubes on soap, well you just couldn’t ask for much more. If you’re living in Asia, at some point you’ll probably want a deeper relationship. It can be difficult navigating these landmines-with-boobs to find a sincere woman seeking a real relationship. You think you’re on the way to having a Sweet Baboo, only to find yourself with a Slutty Samantha. No slut shaming here. I love sluts. But, it’s important to know what you’re getting into, so to speak.

Sometimes Taiwanese hold an assumption that you understand that you are a foreigner [most of us do], and thus obviously ineligible for a serious relationship [many a foreigner never received that memo]. “Oh you didn’t know that? Yeah you should have—it’s obvious.” The problem can be compounded by a tendency to see foreigners as universally similar, a pack of commitment-phobic sex-crazed wastrels. “I’ve seen American movies. I know the score.” I ended up in one long term relationship when the Taiwanese woman assumed I knew the score too. I didn’t. It was a hookup that went extremely long as she didn’t have the ovaries to tell me she was just in it for the D.

In Taiwan the situation has changed. There are simply too many foreigners here. We are no longer so scarce. Of course it has always been a small percentage of Taiwanese women who’ve been interested in foreigners, but rarity assured a surprising level of dating success. Now there’s a white swinging dick on every corner. Also, Taiwanese people have become more sophisticated, they travel more, have seen more, and know more foreigners. They have more intellectual knowledge of the West, and if desired, more opportunities for carnal knowledge. We are just not as rare. Taiwan is still very amenable to intercultural relationships, but it does lack the Wild East feel it had. If you were looking for something like that, you need to head to other less Westernized areas of Asia.

I understand this article will not provoke sympathy among those who’ve not experienced fetishization. Even back in the day, during expat gripe sessions, callousness prevailed when some guy would moan on about this situation. Guys tend towards cruelty because we’re guys, and women could be mean because most expat women at the time were woefully underlaid and unprepared to sooth whingy over-satiated men. Champagne problems. Still, it was, and to a lesser degree still is, something that can happen to unsuspecting expats.

More Expat Archetypes

The article is a continuation of Expat Archetypes. It would be best to perused it before reading Part II below.

The Phile: Many sojourns begin from cultural fascination; Philes arrive with a genuine desire to learn. Sinophiles to Francophiles, the [theoretically] beloved culture draws many to try living in the culture first-hand. Philes have existed since Marco Polo—they’re as classic as an unshaven bush.

There are many species in the genus, each with a particular passion, but as a group they’re harmless, if dull. You have to love their enthusiasm, even if not what they’re saying, or the fact they interrupt every conversation to say it. Arcane points are their stock-in-trade, and have their place, but if I just want to enjoy a beer, do I really need to hear—again—about the role Ma Xinyi’s assassination played in the Taiping Revolution, and why that’s been important for the development of neon signage in Asia?!?

Characteristics: When young their overwrought enthusiasm for the culture annoys: when older, their bitter disappointment borne of having lived in the culture annoys equally. The Phile can be found on the periphery of any expat gathering pontificating on facts best left unpontificated. You know that dull buzzing in your ear when out for a beer? That’s the Phile.

Subset: The Wannabe is a subspecies of expat that ranges the world, trying to be what they’re not—a member of another race, culture, or country. I’ll talk specifically about The Asian Wannabe, because I have daily contact. Found throughout Asia, particularly on the Indian subcontinent, and in China and Japan. They are distinguishable by their attempts to become Asian. A surprising number of whities arrive expecting to become Asian. Deluded. I suppose the idea comes from expectations developed growing up in more inclusive societies. There is no equivalent to Taiwanese-American or Chinese-Canadian here. The Wannabe exists wherever there are expats.

Characteristics: Easily recognizable as the blonde head towering above all the black-hairs, in traditional hanbok, kimono, kung fu jacket, etc. The mimicry is concurrently genuinely stupid and sweet.

The ESLoser: The frequently maligned and much joked about English as a Second Language instructor is the backbone of most English-speaking working expat communities. (Retirement communities abroad are different). ESLosers are the lumpenproleteriat that holds the whole thing together. Despite getting that Quaker-in-a-titty-bar face when discussing ESLosers, most other expats would find their goods or services out of demand without them. I am many of these archetypes to varying degrees, but foremost I’m an ESLoser, so it is a bit hard to be objective. That provisio out of the way, I’m now going to cut on them.

ESLoser are a diverse group. From high-energy youthful and enthusiastic children’s teachers to jade old alcoholics funding a passion for lechery by doing the minimum as infrequently as possible. The ESLoser is ubiquitous and undefinable. They share similarities with the Burner [see: Part I]. Many ended up where they are by virtue of poor planning, circumstance, and shit-that-happens happening. For the older generation that would describe almost all ESLosers [see: Where Have All the Idiots Gone], but now there is such a thing as a professional ESL teacher. Ugh.

Characteristics: They can be found on practically any corner trying to sell something any English-speaker could do, hustling to survive with little going for them but the host country’s perception of need. They have a devil-may-care joie de vivre that is the envy of other archetypes.

The Teach was initially going to be included with the ESLosers, but ESLosers are the cool kids—The Teach most definitely is not. They have limited redeeming qualities, and a boundless capacity to annoy.

In an effort to distinguish themselves from the “lesser” ESLoser, The Teach engages in self-conscious preening and peacocking, involving the wearing of business attire while ardently and conspicuously discussing such weighty matters as differentiated versus an onset-rime segmentation approach to biliteracy and cognate recognition for acquisition of domain-specific emergant-litera… yada, yada, yada,… bullshit, bullshit, bullshit,….

Characteristics: Can be found in meetings, seminars, conferences, and breakout session vocalizing, in the characteristic dull drone of The Teach, on the power of the Lau Remedies and morphophonology, like they have a dictionary—pardon me, an appendix of lexical terminology—stuck up their ass. The purpose of this overt displaying is to be thought of as…

The Expert: Someone, somewhere, somehow, has made the—frequently dubious—decision that this person is an expert on something, and that their unique skill set is needed in the host country. Despite being “experts” brought over for their wonkish, usually technical knowledge, many of these people are rip-roaring fun. They have a disproportionately high income for the local economy and they’re on a Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure type experience. They have a shelf life, and soon will be back home trudging through their normal 9-to-5, so they have an insatiable need for experiences. Chemical and civil engineers, shipping specialists, and environmental managers all great fun, despite the humdrum job descriptions.

Characteristics: Physically they are obvious engineers [you know what I’m saying]. They have an almost manic need to see it all and do it all as quickly as possible, they’ve a bit of a nymphomaniac-on-death-row feel to them.

The Mooch: Here you have your business executives, diplomats, financial experts, et al. They’re overseas on that most prized of possessions—the expat contract: “Money for nothin’, and your chicks for free…”

 

The best paid and most useless of expats—neither local experts, nor suitably equipped to manage local staff—essentially they’re high-priced interns, or tourists on an expense account. As soon as they know enough to be useful they’re sent on to another country to continue suckling at the corporate/government tit. They have a psycophant-induced hyper-inflated sense of self-worth. For them the world is debutante balls and Dilly Bars, while their local secretary does the work—who else? Producers of nothing, takers of everything; every self-respecting expat dreams of sinking to their exalted heights.

 Characteristics: The Mooch can be seen getting driven here-and-there, asking their assistants to perform simple chores, being coddled, and just generally exhibiting a two-year old’s cross-cultural sensitivity and abilities.

There’ll be another part when I get around to writing it.

The Foreigner Card

If you’ve traveled internationally you’ll have noticed there’s a sort of get out of jail free card for foreigners. It is a kind of social contract where the host region accepts that you, as a foreign guest, don’t know what you’re doing. A foreigner’s card gives the holder the right to screw up the basics of life; get continually lost, ask stupid questions, and just generally act like a one-inch dildo—in the place, but useless there.

I first encountered the concept of a foreigner card in a James A. Michener essay. It expressed in writing something I had felt and used, but never articulated. A foreigner’s license is a necessity for travel. If you were held to account every time you fucked up, international travel would be miserable. Things are usually a little more loosey-goosey for foreigners. People need a little leeway to make it through.

Most understand and freely give dispensations to travelers. The amount of indulgence is a bit dependent on locale. A foreigner’s license in Paris is worth little more than an extremely fine French leather shoe up the ass. In some locations it will get you ripped off. Traveler beware. But, in Taiwan it is golden.

It had even greater importance before the Internet increased the comfort and safety of travelers. You couldn’t arrive in a country with most your bookings in hand, a better sense of where to eat than a local, or any real idea of the lay of the land. Guide books were better for getting excited about—rather than getting through—your travels. Today’s level of research and preparation wasn’t possible.

Translation software now makes reading local signage possible. You can even have a bit of a conversation with a patient local. Google Maps and GPS on your phone prevent getting too lost; or your phone will at least produce an address, in the local language, to show a taxi driver. No longer does the woebegotten traveltard need to tap on someone’s shoulder seeking help.

Not having to depend so heavily on the kindness of strangers is a significant improvement for travelers, but it does come at a cost. Asking for help on the street—foreigner’s card in hand—was a great way to meet people and interact with locals. I still have a good friendship that began by asking directions and has lasted a quarter century. If I remember right I may have asked for directions while not lost. She was hot. [Still counts].

Despite technological advances, the foreigner card is still a travel necessity. Things are almost guaranteed to get fucked up beyond technology’s ability to repair. The card is still an overall positive as regards travelers, but for expats, it invites abuse. It is pretty common for expats to use their foreignness to advantage; to purposely screw the rules, get around annoyances, or otherwise skirt societal norms. It’s no bueno to seek social acceptance on one hand, and benefit by up-playing your foreignness on the other.

There’s no shortage of examples from my life. A personal favorite comes from a friend who during Taipei’s hot summers liked to bicycle to a high-end apartment complex, and despite not belonging, whistle past the security guards with a wave and a smile. Once inside he’d head to the outdoor pool complex to cool-off and lounge about.  All it took were balls, a soupçon of impertinence, and a foreigner’s license. He relied on people being too intimidated to speak up, or assuming he belonged. I have lots of examples and have been guilty as well.

In the hands of a traveler the foreigner’s license is necessary, helpful, and should exist. In the hands of an expat it can become abusive, allowing an escape from the hard work of integrating. Most foreigners I know who’ve lived here have occasionally reaped the foreigner card’s benefits. It’s hard to think of an aspect of [white] expat life in Asia that is not, at least somewhat, colored by special privilege. [See: White Privilege in Asia].

Homesickness & COVID 

I am nominally Canadian, but I’ve been working abroad for a long time. I’ve lived overseas longer than in Canada. Since I’ve been gone the country’s changed, and my hometown, Saskatoon, is unrecognizable. I no longer fit in there. It is not my home.

So, imagine my surprise when I started getting homesick. Seriously. I couldn’t even identify the feeling.

I’ve dealt with homesickness before, but it’s been 30-plus years, since I was in Korea, a super shitty experience. It is not surprising that when I lived there I suffered homesickness.

The feeling culminated at Christmas when I began having visions of a former crush. A young woman I’d—unintentionally—tormented with my affections, which were expressed in true dork fashion. I had the suave and sophisticated smoothness of 220 grit sandpaper. Suffice it to say our interactions were fraught with awkwardness [my part] and animus [her part].

When I was in Korea, that “relationship” was long past. I hadn’t thought about her for years, but as Christmas approached, I kept waking in the night to see a vision of her in my bedroom doorway. Every night. Finally, one night I woke up, frustrated, and asked what she wanted. She said she wanted forgiveness, and I gave it, as everything had been my fault anyway. After that I never saw her again.

I chalked it up to Christmas-induced psy-homesickness-chosis. I was living alone—totally alone—in a fishing village. There were few people willing to interact with me outside the student-teacher paradigm. Homesickness was natural.

When I returned to Canada, I learned she’d died around that time. Either I’d seen a ghost, had a premonition, psychotic break, or a spectacularly weird reaction to homesickness. My students love it when I tell it as a ghost story, but I’m pretty it was just overarching homesickness.

Of course that was back when mullets and tramp stamps were cool. Now expats can avail themselves of the Internet and video conferencing. You would think that’d kill homesickness, and for me it did—until COVID.

COVID in Taiwan has brought those feelings of homesickness to the forefront again. I’m not entirely sure why, probably it’s a combination of being unable to travel, interacting with friends and family through video conferencing, which is great, but also underlines the distances. It makes you painfully aware you’re missing out on your loved one’s lives. You can see them changing and you’re not there. I’ve watched my parents age via video. Maintaining relationships with online conferencing creates a feeling of closeness, and paradoxically, a feeling remoteness. I experience changes happening in the live’s of my family as a TV program.

Normally it doesn’t bother me. Pre-COVID I had the ability to travel to see family. The video conferences were just a nice way to maintain contact between trips. I have enjoyed video conferencing Christmas for years. The difference, I think, is I always felt if I really needed to, I could get home. COVID has brought that into doubt. In an emergency, could I get home in time for my presence to be meaningful? I’ve watched a few of my international students not be able to get home in time for the funeral of a parent.

COVID sucks. The feelings of distance and separation it creates are real. For the first time in decades I’m yearning for home.