Category Archives: Expat Life

Chinese New Year’s Eve & the Lovelorn Expat

Chinese New Year is fast approaching and this year, by God, you’re not going to spend the holidays drinking alone in your crap taofeng (套房), binge watching downloaded shows for days on end. You’ve done your time, paid your dues, and are ready to move from being a total outsider to a quasi-participating member of Taiwanese society. This year is going to be different. This year you’ve got a girlfriend, and she’s invited you for Chinese New Year’s Eve, or chuxi (除夕), dinner with her family. Things really seem to be going well with the girlfriend, meeting the family, a big step, but you’re ready.

Slow your roll, Stud. The default position for most Taiwanese girls is to keep their family out of their business, especially anything related to love or libido. So, why are you suddenly being invited to meet her family on the most special family night of the lunar calendar?

There are two likely possibilities. One, she is firmly placing you in the friend zone and doesn’t feel threatened by the prospect of introducing you to her family on chuxi as you are of little romantic consequence. If your Chinese is good enough, you might even get to listen to her constant reassurances to her family not to worry, that you’re just a friend. She felt sorry for you during the holiday season and wanted to let you experience a bit of Taiwanese culture. [Been there, heard that]. It can be perturbing to receive word that there’s not much future in the relationship in such an awkwardly public manner. If you’re on the same page as her, relationship-wise, then it is a great opportunity to experience something beyond the reach of a tourist. I’ve had some wonderful chuxi experiences in this way. Don’t discount pity—my dating life would have been so much poorer without it.

The second, less likely prospect, is that inviting you to chuxi is her way of indirectly informing her family that you are a serious romantic prospect and marriage is a possibility. (It’s all very Taiwanese). This is precisely how her parents will interpret your presence at their dinner table on chuxi, unless your girlfriend proactively puts a stop to such thoughts. Are you beginning to get a sense of what kind of pressure cooker the Taiwanese family can be? Personally, the status of my relationship with Venus (my wife) became much clearer when she invited me over to her folk’s place for chuxi and offered her family no excuses for my presence. It amounts to a public declaration that you’re in a deep relationship. Two months later we were engaged. If your chuxi dinner plays out this way, and you’re not at that point in your relationship—run!

If you have a girlfriend, and she considers herself to be your girlfriend, but it’s like most relationships, on a spectrum of complication and affection that is hard to define, don’t expect an invitation to chuxi. You are in that vast middle ground between just friends and marriage prospect. Relax and enjoy getting drunk alone on chuxi, your girlfriend is looking out for your best interests by excluding you.

I did have one serious girlfriend who invited me over to have chuxi with her family before she’d worked out our relationship status in her own mind. When we were dating, she oscillated between firm commitment and an inability to accept a foreign boyfriend. She was a traditional Taiwanese. During chuxi her interaction with her parents flawlessly reflected her ambivalence.

Chuxi has been a very accurate litmus test for my Taiwanese romances. I’m not sure if this works equally well for expat women, but guys if you have any confusion about your relationship, chuxi will give a lot of insight.

Studying Wei Chi in Taiwan

I keep trying to engage with Taiwanese society. As an inveterate learner, one way I attempt to be a part of the Taiwanese community is by taking classes. Ideally this would allow me to meet like-minded individuals, create friendships with locals, share our mutual interests and learn something. It never works out that way.

A few years ago I decided to take a Wei Chi  (圍棋). I was first introduced to Wei Chi, or Go, while in grad school by an exchange student from Beijing. I liked it—what little I understood of it. Go is played on a board with a 19×19 grid. Like in chess, two players face off across the board, one with black stones, the other with white stones. At the beginning of the game the board is empty. The black player begins by placing his stone on one of the 361 possible intersections on the grid. Then it is white’s turn to place his stone on one of the 360 possible remaining intersections. And so the game proceeds as the players alternate turns. The object of the game is to control territory. The rules are simple, the game play is infinitely complex, orders of magnitude more intricate than chess. I’ve always had a problem with the pure analytical thought in chess. The greater number of moves possible in a Go game means that pure calculation is not the preferred approach. Go has a greater emphasis on intuitive play based on experience and shape recognition that more suits my brain.

With my language skills finally at a level that I thought could handle a Go class, I signed up for a buxiban (補習班), cram school. I was primarily motivated by the goal of learning, but I had a secondary desire to develop new Taiwanese acquaintances. Even by my own low standards, Go class was a spectacular failure as a friendship making tool.

When I enrolled I was a neophyte and my first class was for absolute beginners. In class there was me, over forty years old, and my classmates, a dozen pre-kindergarten students. There were actually some advantages to this. Obviously it was the correct level for my game play. Also the teacher was partially teaching  his young charges Chinese. Go has its own specific, and pretty funky, Chinese terminology. My Chinese language instructors couldn’t teach it to me. The golden rooster stands on one leg (金雞獨立) turns out not to be in common usage among Chinese speakers. A quite large part of class was learning Go vocabulary, and since the students were so young the teacher included Taiwanese phonetics (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ) with the characters, which was helpful. Another advantage was that the students were too young to be intimidated by the hulking blonde Adonis amongst them. Their only experience of foreigners was their big fun-loving English buxiban teachers. With that as their entire lexicon of cross-cultural experience, there was no reason for fear.

Unfortunately, in every other way the class was awkward. Classes had a set formula; a lecture, followed by solving Go problems, and then students paired off to play a game. The age differential caused some issues for me. If I played a game with one of my classmates and lost, I’d feel bad because he was four years old. Of course, four year old boys are not noted for their subtlety. After stomping me across the board I was often treated to a pudgy little hand with four extended fingers being waved in my face. “Ha, ha. I’m only four years old.” That hurt. Conversely if I won—they’d cry, and I’d feel bad. It was a no-win situation, I was either a loser or a cur.

Finally I moved up into a class full of grade school aged students. There were some obvious benefits. The lectures had more strategic content and were more intellectually stimulating. My classmates never cried if they lost a game, though they were more likely to get pissed. Likewise, I didn’t find it nearly as annoying to lose to them; and they wouldn’t ridicule me if I did. There were other issues. The older students were intimidated. Some of it was a natural preteen desire to interact with people their own age. They also attributed to me an intellectual superiority that I simply did not possess over the Go board.

Occasionally a Taiwanese retiree will show up in this level of class. That might have worked well for me, but my class was all children. I eventually quit. I’d enjoyed learning Go, but I was the class pariah. At the same time high-quality English language Go content began being posted on the Internet. I didn’t need class as much. I am considering going back to Go buxiban, not so much for the Go study as for the Chinese language benefits. When learning a language, it is helpful to have an interest that allows you to use your target language in a natural setting, something outside the language classroom. It might be time to try it again.

Where Have All the Idiots Gone: Professionalization and ESL Instruction

If you haven’t figured it out, I’m an English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor. In the 21-odd years that I’ve done this, the job has changed a lot. Not in terms of the actual work. I still spend my days going, “This is a cow. Moo. Cow? Come on, you know, MOOOO!?!” But, the status of ESL instruction has changed. It’s been professionalized.

When I started, nobody chose to be an ESL teacher, you fell ass-end backwards into it. We were a merry band of losers, drug addicts, fugitives, degenerates, down on their luck international adventurers, and other assorted unemployables—the scum of earth’s four corners.

I can recall one Canadian who flew to Taiwan with dreams of becoming a gigolo. I met him in my hostel, where the more transient congregated in the evenings to drink. Though handsome enough, I suppose, he had one major problem, he lacked the skills to be a male prostitute in Taiwan. There are bars in Taipei where male prostitutes, or midnight cowboys, as the Taiwanese term them, ply their trade. Unfortunately for him, the midnight cowboy’s job is mostly to act as a host, encouraging women to drink while charming them with elegant Chinese conversation, singing and dancing. Think of a male geisha. He was hoping for more of a wham-bam-put-the-cash-on-the-table-Ma’am type interaction. So, of course, he supported himself as an English teacher while he waited for his man-whoring career to take off.

Another favorite was Pierre who I saw strolling down a beach in South Korea. At that time it was pretty uncommon to meet another foreigner, so I ran up to him hoping to have a conversation. Oh joy! English! Unfortunately, it turned out that Pierre spoke a nearly incomprehensible patois of French and English. He was from Quebec and had fallen on hard times in the economic depression that spread through Canada in the early 1990s. When I asked him what he was doing in Korea he said, as you might have guessed, that he was, “teaching zee Anglais,” in his truly “autrrrageous Franch accent.” At the time I didn’t see anything wrong with it. He needed a job, and who cares if a handful of Koreans ended up speaking English like half-wit Cajuns.

There was a clown car full of colorful characters populating my early days in Asia. They all survived by teaching ESL. No one regarded it as a profession. It was a stop-gap until they could get their lives together. Expat ESL teachers were a counter culture in the truest sense. We were outcasts from our home countries and existed on the peripheries of Taiwanese society, largely ignored by Taiwanese social institutions.

Those days of extreme color are fading. Not long after I started teaching in Taiwan, there began to be a change. More people washed up on Asian shores not because they were running from personal demons, but because they were economic refugees, and they came in droves. Asia is unrecognizable from my early days—there are foreign faces everywhere now.

These new immigrants were a different sort of person. Most of them had one or two degrees. They came because they faced underemployment in their home countries. Without paying any attention to the news, I knew how countries were fairing economically, simply by the people I met at the local watering hole. For the first few years that I was here, all you ever saw were Canadians. When the tech bubble burst, in came the Americans, then South Africans, and Russians, etc. These new teachers had invested a lot in their educations, their futures, and they brought with them a more professional attitude towards and enthusiasm for teaching. People began to think of their jobs as a career.

Some of them eventually went back home and set up professional TEFL (Teaching English as a Second Language) programs in Western universities. When I first heard of such a thing, I thought it was ludicrous. I could not imagine TEFL as a field of study someone would choose. I suppose in my heart ESL instruction will always be something you turn to when you’re down-and-out and running.

But, I have to admit that things have changed, not only for me personally, but also for the ESL teaching community. We have standards now. I now teach at a university. I’m constantly doing professional development. Gone are the days of trying to hustle up one-on-one students on the street, or scrambling from one buxiban (cram school) gig to the next, trying to keep the beer flowing. Most my friends from those early days are either gone—unqualified or unwilling to adapt—or have moved into respectable jobs at universities, international schools, public schools, or as full-time contract buxiban teachers. They now, like me, are constantly doing training, research, publishing, etc. The whole thing is beginning to smell like a profession.

I’m aware as I’ve progressed up the ESL food chain, I’ve naturally fallen out of touch with the more transient members of the ESL community. However, from what I see, it does seem like new arrivals are more trained and qualified. Partly because the Taiwanese ESL market has matured. There is less demand for English instruction, people are no longer being stopped on the street and offered employment simply based on their foreign face. The gold rush is over. Also, the government is paying more attention to foreigners, they have been rationalizing the work visa process. Admittedly, it is a work in progress, but it doesn’t seem like there are as many people here for a decade, or more, on a tourist visa. The attitude of immigration officials used to be, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, you must really love being a tourist here. Indeed, all law enforcement is more willing to deal with foreigners. I used to be able to get out of any petty legal kerfuffle by deluging the cop with a flood of quick-paced, incomprehensible English—not any more.

In general, professionalization has been a good thing. There are standards now. I don’t think Pierre would do well. Somehow I  find that sad, like earth’s bountiful tapestry became slightly less rich.  Doesn’t it warm your heart to imagine a group of Zydeco Koreans in an international business meeting laying down some Acadian patter? However, those standards also mean there are less stories of some serial pedophile, from whichever country, having been found teaching kindergarten here. That’s good. The counter culture thing was fun, but there is a better chance of integrating into Taiwanese society when your job doesn’t brand you as just slightly above thief, and below gangster. I know that I would have found it difficult to marry if there hadn’t been a professionalization of ESL instructors. Still sometimes I miss the old west feel of being one of just a few foreigners in a country, ignored by local government and law enforcement. Professionalization has brought a certain blandness. I don’t imagine I’ll ever again, as happened on a break from teaching in Thailand, watch as one of my co-workers uses his break time to try to arrange an arms shipment to a tribe of rebels fighting on the Burmese border. Maybe that’s a good thing. But, I miss it.

Why Taiwan?

In a previous post (here) I give a broad explanation of my path to becoming an expat, but why choose Taiwan, after all the choices were virtually limitless.

Asia was booming at that time and a natural draw. I had a familiarity with the region, along with an interest in the history and culture. That background gave me enough cultural sense to be relatively comfortable. If I’d randomly chosen to go to Africa—I wouldn’t have had a clue. I understand the appeal of thrusting yourself into the total unknown, but when living abroad, an ability to contextualize your experiences increases the likelihood you won’t bounce back home in a couple months, emotionally exhausted from the weirdness. So it was Asia for me, I just needed to choose a country.

I had just finished a one-year teaching contract in Yeosu (여수시), South Korea. It was a thoroughly rotten experience. That was around 22 years ago, and Korea had a strongly xenophobic culture. It still does, though expat friends stationed there tell me it has improved a bit. If you’re going to stay in a country long term, it is nice to be allowed to fit into the society to some degree. At least there should be a chance of forming genuine friendships and even finding a girlfriend. Life without these basic social contacts with locals is a reality for many expats around the world. It takes a heavy toll on their emotional equilibrium, and can make them extremely crusty. I wanted to avoid any external factors that would create a cycle of negativity and make me more irascible than my basic nature dictates. I knew that I needed to find a country where the population wouldn’t ostracize me as a matter of principle.

Korea was out. Japan was eliminated for the same basic reason. Though perhaps not as overtly xenophobic, Japan is still very insular, and I feared a repeat of my Korean experiences. I had a job offer to teach at a university in China. I was likewise concerned about anti-foreigner sentiment there, but ultimately rejected the offer for financial reasons. I had a student loan debt that needed to be serviced, and the salary, though lordly in China, wouldn’t make the monthly payments. I considered Thailand, a country I love—that is certainly foreigner friendly—but rejected it for the same reason, not enough money. Other South-East Asian nations posed the same practical problems. I needed a certain level of earnings.

Thankfully there was Taiwan—the perfect fit. It was possible to make enough money to live, plus service my loans. The people are relatively open compared to other North-East Asian countries. I had been to Taiwan before, and liked it. Plus, I had some friends from Saskatoon already living in Taiwan, so there was a bit of a social network already established.

That’s how I ended up in Taiwan; but, why stay for 20 years? There have certainly been opportunities to move on. The expat community in Taiwan is unusually stable. Many choose to stay permanently. It’s unusual. In most countries there is a higher turnover of expats. I can’t speak for others, but for myself the primary reason is the people. They are open and friendly. At the simplest level, interactions with strangers on the street are handled with kindness and patience. During the early stages of my life here, this alone was enough to predispose me to like Taiwan. The fact that when lost, or confused, I could count on passersby to go out of their way to help was wonderful. The fact that the aid was invariable delivered with patience and a smile was icing on the cake.

That the Taiwanese’s warmth extends into deeper relationships is important. They are open to establishing friendships with foreigners. The friendships can be genuine and deep on both sides. I have found in other Asian countries that native-foreigner friendships often have a look-at-my-new-pet-white-guy cache for the Asian that precludes meaningful friendship. At work youare the company’s Caucasian, paraded out on formal occasions to give the company face as an international player. At the interpersonal level you can find yourself fulfilling virtually the same function for a group of guy friends out for the night. Hey chicks, look at us. We’re so international and sophisticated. See—we got a whitey. Or, when dating, you can become the white eye-candy giving face to some girl. (It took me a long time to figure this one out, somehow the fact that I was functioning as arm-candy didn’t instantly occur to me). Don’t get me wrong, there’s a little of this in Taiwan. However, it is not so prevalent as to preclude genuine interpersonal relationships.

Taiwanese society isn’t so overtly racist as to use moral suasion to prevent inter-cultural relationships. First a little anecdote, when I lived in Korea I had a coffee date with a charming Korean girl. When she got home in the afternoon, her father was waiting for her at the door. Someone had seen her downtown with “that foreigner” [I was the only one in Yeosu at the time] and phoned him at work. He took the rest of the day off and rushed home to confront her. Needless to say, that ended that. Fathers can play havoc on your dating life anywhere. Taiwanese fathers, and Canadian fathers, can be real bastards, totally unsympathetic to your sexual needs. However, in Taipei it’s hard to imagine friends or neighbors ratting out a girl to her family for dating a foreigner. They don’t have the concept that there is a social and moral responsibility to preserve the flower of Taiwanese womanhood. As weird as it sounds, that very notion exists in much of Asia.

These considerations were very important factors in my decision to stay in Taiwan. If you’re going to live long term in a foreign country your social needs should have a chance of being fulfilled. You need friendship, you need to be able to date, perhaps marry, start a family, etc. This is why I’ve stayed in Taiwan. Taiwanese society gives foreigners the chance to feel at home, what you do with that chance is your own responsibility. Of course there are other smaller reasons to continue to live here. Taiwan is very comfortable. There is lots of foreign food, Western entertainment, access to English entertainment, it’s relatively unpolluted compared to many other regions of Asia, has good public transport, jobs, etc. But, the real reason I’ve remained is the people—I love the Taiwanese.

恁北係台湾郎。

Vignette #3: Kickin’ it Old School with GenX

Recently, while browsing my Facebook feed, I came across an inquiry in one of the groups I subscribe to. The young man was considering moving to Taiwan to look for an English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching job. He was seeking the normal information; job prospects, working conditions, living conditions, cost of living, etc. He received a lot of accurate information within hours. He went on to ask how people had ever managed to move abroad pre-Internet.

Well, let me tell you how it was back then, you, you… Millennial.

Of course we tried our best to do research before leaving, but there just wasn’t much information. You might be able to find government stats on the local economy, but you really had to use your imagination to glean from those charts the lifestyle you might expect to live in that country. You might comb your contacts for someone familiar with the country. These tended to be immigrants from the country, but often their information was wildly out-of-date and irrelevant to a newly arrived foreigner. Ultimately, after doing what research you could, you just had to man up and fling yourself into the unknown.

Some countries in Asia had ways of arranging jobs from Canada, that at least took care of one major worry. Taiwan did not. When I decided to move to Taiwan I had to accept that my job search would begin after my plane touched down. Unlike many others, I was [sort of] fortunate to have two friends living in Taiwan that I could phone for advice. As you might expect, their advice took the form of, “Yeah Man, come on out. There’s work here. You’ll do okay. Come out, Dude. We’ll party.” It was a little reassuring, but ultimately not what you want to stake your future on.

But, I did. I had no choice. The job market in Western Canada at that time was a soul-destroying sinkhole. Desperate times make desperate men.

I was broke, so I bought a plane ticket to Taipei with a credit card I shouldn’t have been allowed to have. I took a cash advance for whatever remained on my credit limit, so I’d be able to live, hopefully for a month, while I tried to find work and accommodation. That gave me about a month to get settled in Taiwan and find work. If I couldn’t get it done in that time my food and accommodation would run out, and I had no way to get back home. Those were the stakes. I gave my balls a tug, got on the plane—with one backpack, a mountain of credit card and student loan debt—and flew to Taipei, with very little sense of what awaited me, or how well I’d survive.

That’s how Generation X rolled back in the day, Son.