My wife, Venus Chen, contributed most of the ideas in this article. Mainly I just organized and wrote up her perception, and provided specific examples. I independently reached a similar set of conclusions, but she has dealt more intimately with these issues and has a deeper perspective.
When I first arrived in Taiwan I was constantly told how tight-knit families are here. It didn’t take long to figure out this was at best a communal fiction. Most of my Taiwanese friends shared almost nothing with their families—they were virtual strangers. The familial feelings in Taiwanese families are not based on love and warmth, but duty and obligation, with an artfully applied dash of guilt. If you don’t recognize it, that’s the formula for filial piety. The closeness in Taiwanese families is a closeness that expresses itself in form more than reality. (See: Form Over Function).
The adult children should come home and visit the parent’s the prescribed number of times per month, and deliver the prescribed amount of money for support. If during these regularly scheduled visits there is no meaningful interaction, and all present just stare like zombies at the TV, that’s fine. It is not about being close as a family—it is about observing correct form. When we first married, during one of our first weekly trips home, I went along, and was surprised when we arrived and the parents left. Venus and I sat alone for a couple hours watching TV until they returned. No familial closeness had been achieved, but form had been observed. I don’t quite follow the logic, but I suppose if the neighbors had been watching, they would have thought what a good daughter and marginally acceptable son-in-law, they visit weekly. (High-context cultures prioritize perception over reality).
Many Taiwanese choose to hold back most aspects of their lives from their parents. Usually they just give parents some small irrelevant pieces of information about their lives, trying to provide an illusion of involvement. One of the reasons for this is that Taiwanese kids are afraid to make mistakes. Parents, teachers, and schools do not provide a safe environment to fail. Consequently, the young never learn how to screw up, pick themselves up off the floor, and try again. That fear extends into adulthood where it is compounded by the fear of losing face that comes with admitting failure. If they fear that something may not work out, it’s easier to hide it. The classic example of this would be the daughter who gets engaged before her parents are even aware that she has ever had a first date. The most extreme example I can think of is a former student who met, dated, lived with, got engaged to, and married someone without her parents being any the wiser. I bumped into her two years after she married and her parents still didn’t know, despite weekly visits home. That example is exceptional, but in day-to-day family life small secrets and misdirection are the norm.
At the same time the default position of parents is to strive toward controlling their children’s lives. This is understandable for young children, but extends well into middle age. At its core is the fear of failure. If I don’t exert maximum control over my children, they may fail. I will feel bad if they fail, but also what will that do to my face if it becomes known that my child is a failure. Taiwanese parents don’t have the conception of we did our job, we raised a good child, now we should trust their judgement, and allow them the opportunity to sink or swim on their own, only coming to the rescue, in a nonjudgmental way, if necessary. That is not the Taiwanese way.
Parents here, of course, feel sad that their children won’t share with them. They feel sad that when they make an effort to help and the children get mad. Their experience, knowledge, and goodwill is not appreciated. The children, likewise, may be generally unhappy with the status quo. They might like some advice from their parents, but instead they get parents just telling them what to do, or more likely what not to do. It is not really advice, but just an attempt at control. So, kids often simply avoid all the drama by keeping parents out of the loop.
I’d like to introduce my favorite student. I have had over ten thousand students, but one really stands out. Wei. He was one of my middle-aged buxiban students. I adored him. It is not that he was a particularly great English learner—he was okay. Nor did he have such an awesome personality—he annoyed most that dealt with him. It’s that he was the biggest L.K.K. (Taiwanese-style old fart) that I’ve ever seen—and, he was damn proud of it. Think redneck pride with a Taiwanese twist. He was idiosyncrasy, opinionatedness, warmth and kindness rolled together with a healthy dose of L.K.K. orthodoxy to form one complex, amusing and thoroughly vexatious sausage.
His eccentricities provided me endless in-class amusement. He was one quirky dude. The foible that amused me most was that he used three sets of glasses, as opposed to trifocals. I reveled in causing him to switch glasses as fast as a tap dancer on crack cocaine. I’d write something on the board [long-distance glasses], make the students write something in their books [close-up glasses], and then run to the center of the class and begin speaking [middle-distance glasses]. Wei would be flinging glasses onto his face left and right. The high point of my teaching career was running through the various focal lengths so quickly that he accidentally ended up wearing three pairs of glasses at once.
Wei’s whimsies were entertaining, but it was his dominant personality characteristic—Taiwanese hillbilly—that I loved him for. Objectively, being an L.K.K. is not charming. As a foreigner you’d think I’d have hated him for being an unrepentant, culturally insensitive, Taiwanese rustic, but the guy used to save my bacon regularly. His was my first adult conversation class. Up until then I’d only taught reading and writing. So, I’d prepare some conversation topic I thought would last 90 minutes, usually a cultural topic, only to have the students go, “Oh no, that’s not true. We don’t do that in Taiwan”. End of discussion; the material meant to last the whole class would barely make it past the opening minutes. That was before I was a seasoned conversation teacher with a vast repertoire of activities to fall back on. It was frustrating and frightening to suddenly need to vamp for an hour and a half. It was even more annoying because I knew the students were lying. They’d insist that aspect of Taiwanese culture or lifestyle, that I’d just seen in full operation, had disappeared long ago. They were unprepared to acknowledge many facets of life here. Most the students, I suppose, didn’t want to find themselves defending Taiwanese ways to me. Except Wei, who, God bless him, would come out and say something like, “Yes, yes, that’s exactly how it is in Taiwanese culture, and what’s more—that’s how it should be”. To which the rest of the class would face-palm and go, “Oh that. Yeah, yeah, we do that”.
An unforgettable instance occurred when I had prepared a discussion on child-rearing and family values. As usual the discussion ran onto rocky shoals when it turned to child-rearing goals. I contended that Western parents try to raise their children to be individualistic and independent; and, differences between Western and Taiwanese family life stem from this. The class felt Taiwanese parents shared Western parent’s goals. The conversation was in its usual danger of grounding to a halt, when to the class’s chagrin Wei began harrumphing. When their attention shifted to him, he artfully arranged his three pairs of spectacles on the table, leaned back in his chair, gazed unseeingly at the ceiling and said the most memorable thing any of my students have ever said, “No. The goal of Taiwanese child-rearing is to emotionally cripple your children, so they lack the confidence to go out on their own, and will never leave you.” He practically stuck his thumbs under his arms—Jed Clampett style—before continuing to pontificate, “And what’s more, that is a beautiful thing. That is the beauty of Taiwanese culture”. How could anyone not love such an unrepentant L.K.K.? The conversation snowballed beautifully after that.
Any company that wants to retain employees in Taiwan needs to give year-end bonuses before Chinese New Year. Typically these bonuses will be 1.5-2 month’s salary. In a private enterprise the bonus is linked to profits. I moved here in the middle of Taiwan’s tech boom and some computer industry workers were getting year-end bonuses of 1-2 year’s salary. It was amazing. In today’s more restrained times companies sometimes claim low profits and try to get out of paying a bonus, this is negotiable between employees and management. It is hard not to at least pay a month’s salary as a bonus. The negative press and employee unrest caused by trying to cheap out on bonuses is counterproductive for companies. There are reasons, beyond just the money that people fight hard for these bonuses.
They need those bonuses to keep the family functioning happily. Traditionally the bonus was required to buy household necessities and prepare the New Year’s feast. A lot of aspects of family life in Taiwan are transactional in nature. Chinese New Year is, partially, a giant circle of cash, where money gets redistributed from productive, middle-years members of society, to the young and old. Those year-end bonuses are used to stuff the red envelopes handed out on chuxi (除夕). If the year-end bonuses disappear then that threatens family harmony. In Taiwan, familial love is often expressed with money. Saying “I love you” is awkward, while “Hey, here’s 12,000元” feels more comfortable, and you understand what that really means, right? Or to paraphrase my Taiwanese family; can you count love? How many loves are in my hand? Now money, that means something.
People often try to compare Christmas and Chinese New Year, they are both the largest family holidays of their comparative calendars, but the feeling is different. Christmas (ideally) is all about family warmth and togetherness. Chinese New Year, like all things related to Chinese families, is about duty and obligation (filial piety). I’m not saying that Taiwanese families don’t enjoy their time together, or that Chinese New Year lacks family warmth, I’m just saying that the motivation is different. If it is your obligation to your family to deliver up red envelopes, and your whole family structure is built on filial piety, then you’re going to do everything in your power to make sure the cash gets into the right hands on chuxi, and that the size of your red envelope is not face impairingly thin. Woe betide the employer that tries to stand in your way.
Not long after getting married the notion of little feet pitter-pattering across our kitchen floor ignited my wife’s maternal instincts. I was more ambivalent. Still it seemed like the grown up thing to do; so we tried to commemorate our love with children. We commemorated our brains out, but no little feet. After spending most of my life trying to avoid pregnancy, it never occurred to me that getting pregnant wouldn’t be automatic. A zygote always seemed a slip away. During one of my wife’s semi-regular trips to the gyno, the doctor suggested fertility testing.
I’m nothing if not a gentleman, so I offered to be tested first. It’s strange that isn’t standard procedure. The process for testing females is invasive; but for men you’re just a single “YEEE-HAAAA” away from fertility clarity. Since we were at the hospital already all we had to do was go to the top floor, where the fertility clinic is located.
I know I volunteered, but I was hesitant until I saw the clinic. I’d imagined a very antiseptic setting: white walls; fluorescent lighting; an ammonia-scented cell with nothing in it, but an oft-used steel cup, hard backed chair, and some 1970’s porn. Not at all. The fertility clinic had none of the hospital’s asceticism. Tasteful music was piped throughout the clinic. The floors were carpeted, and not in leftover shag, but fine carpeting in a tasteful shade. The walls were elegantly painted and trimmed in oak. The nurse’s station was an oak enclave. Straight past the nurse’s station, the waiting room featured giant floor-to-ceiling windows offering a panorama of Taipei. Off to the side stood a series of oak doors leading to stylishly appointed rooms sharing the same view. Presumably these were the masturbatoriums. There was no one on the ward except the two nurses at the station. It was all so refined and comfortable. I couldn’t help but feel it’d be an honor to crank one out at such a fine establishment.
The nurses explained, in soothing tones, the procedure for producing a viable sample. It all sounded fun. I was disappointed I couldn’t just take one of the masturbation suites and avail myself of the panoramic view. “Oh yeah, Taipei. You want it there? You take it there!” I needed to wait a week to build up as many viable sperm as possible.
During that week I was to abstain from ejaculating, tobacco, booze, and underwear that prevented the boys from a-danglin’ and a-janglin’. The instructions were nicely written out in Chinese. My wife and nurses enjoyed a nice little chat, in Chinese, about my testicles and their productive powers. My Chinese is not great. A clinical discussion of spermatozoa health, gametogenesis, and hormonal influences on sperm yield was be a bit beyond my ken. Of course, everyone thought I’d picked up every nuance. I thought I had too. I love my optimism. Turns out I did not understand and spent the whole week breaking every rule in my Chinese sperm pamphlet. I continued to drink, smoke cigars, and wear my favorite sparkly spandex g-string. Apparently the only instruction I’d understood was to control the emissions.
I’m not going to insult your intelligence by saying the week flew past. It didn’t. Turns out I’m not a fan of abstinence. I tried to divert my attention from the gonadal discomfort through the healing power of hobbies. By the end of the week I was ready to carve a complete model of the HMS Victory with my bare teeth.
Finally Saturday arrived, the one week anniversary of my self-denial. I practically danced to the bathroom to get my date out of the medicine cabinet. It was a clear plastic bottle, about the dimensions of a small Dixie cup, with a red screw on top. Sexy thy name is 60ml. Specimen Bottle.
Things didn’t go as well as expected. Turns out making sweet love to a hard plastic cup is not conducive to sample production. When it came time to…let’s keep it highbrow here and speak euphemistically…spurt the curd, there were technical issues. It was necessary to get all my product into the cup. My member—though only moderately above-average—was too girthy to create an effective seal with the specimen cup. I couldn’t imagine how else to capture the sample. Holding the cup a couple inches away from my juddering and sputtering body hoping to catch the proverbial silver bullet seemed fraught with potential mishaps. Too much spillage and the process would need to be restarted from the beginning. No. I needed to jam my member into the cup, or at least hard against the cup’s mouth. I did not want another week of celibacy. The specimen bottle manufacturer had given scant consideration to the self-evident need for smooth edges. Each time La Petite Mort [classy, n’est pas?] approached and I got the cup into position my manhood would shrink from the discomfort, losing all interest in sample production.
Penises are damn inconsiderate.
After several failed attempts, I broke another of the hospital’s rules, specifically the prohibition on lubricants. Rules be damned. I can’t have The Man getting between me and my genitalia. I carefully applied some lube, contamination or not, if I didn’t get it done there’d be no test. The lube facilitated a firmer and less painful cup-to-penis interface. Finally success.
Having produced the sample at home I was on the clock to get my boys to the hospital, to be counted, before they committed mass suicide. I made sure the specimen bottle was securely fastened and threw on a pair of cargo shorts and t-shirt. I placed the cup in my cargo shorts, grabbed my bicycle and headed to the hospital, about a ten minute ride away. It was an uneventful trip. My cup o’ posterity and I arrived at the hospital intact. I’m a bit phobic of hospitals, but I felt comfortable. I knew that waiting for me on the top floor was a quiet sanctuary with charming nurses ready to discreetly take receipt of my seed. I took the elevator up and opened the oak doors fully expecting the oasis I’d last visited a week earlier.
Where once empty hallways faintly echoed with classical music; now stood women everywhere. The corridors roared with their idle chatter. There must have been two hundred women in the fertility clinic. They were standing in the passageways, sitting in the waiting room, and crowding around the nurse’s station. Many couldn’t even find a piece of wall to lean against. It was chick-a-palooza.
When I walked in every estrogen-infused eye turned on me. As a foreigner, you can’t do anything in Taiwan without becoming the center of attention. I’ve learned to live with it, but on this day it was tougher than usual. Each woman’s stare seemed to gauge The quality of my seminal fluid from an analysis of my gait. It was brutal. They looked at me with cold, hisogynistic, lizard eyes that blame me for all the faulty sperm that had led them there. They projected their partner’s impotency onto me. Finding my virility wanting, they shot me through with their withering stares. I only had to walk ten paces to the nurse’s station, the longest ten steps of my life. I was a red-faced, self-conscious, mess by the time I slunk into line behind a thirty-something Taiwanese man. Slowly the women lost interest in me and I tried to find an innocuous female-free place to rest my eyes.
The whole experience was more challenging to my masculinity than anticipated. I wasn’t sure how much I wanted a child. At first, part of me hoped the doctor would find a cup of dead sperm, then my wife and I could move on. We wouldn’t have to constantly plan our lives around the possibility of pregnancy: we’ll spend the summer in France, unless we’re pregnant; we’ll stay in the same house unless we get pregnant; etc. An awful lot of our plans had become contingent on our reproductive organ’s. It was oppressive. Infertility didn’t sound so bad. We were happy, content in our marriage, and had a lot of fun and interesting things in our lives. However, as I moved through the fertility testing process, I began fearing I was shooting blanks. I don’t know why. Call it animal instinct, but by the time that I arrived at the fertility clinic—sperm in hand—I didn’t want to find out my guys were too lazy to get off the sofa and inseminate an egg.
That trepidation was in my heart as I approached the nurse’s station to drop off my cup. I focused on the guy in front of me, as you do, to try to get the procedure down before my turn. As he walked up, the nurse found his patient information on the computer, printed a numbered specimen tag, and placed it on the relevant form. Afterwards, she pulled out a clear plastic Ziploc bag and held it open with both hands, discreetly out of view. The guy dropped his specimen bottle in the bag. The nurse (logically) never touched the bottle, but quickly sealed the bag and put it in a collection box under her desk. It was all very circumspect and professional.
I didn’t really mean to look at the guy’s specimen, but…well…how could you not? There was the tiniest dot of white in the cup. It seemed more parakeet than human. I don’t mean to belittle the guy. He might have had a medical condition, we were in a hospital after all. I merely bring it up to provide context for what happened next.
I don’t mean to sound braggadocious, but if we take porn stars—my only frame of reference—as average, then I am an above average emitter. Despite some spillage during production and packaging, I had a cup with a few millimeters of liquid Darren in the bottom. After producing the sample, I had carefully wrapped the outside of the cup with a medical form I’d been given and held it in place with a rubber band. Modesty. When my turn came, I dutifully pulled the specimen bottle from my cargo short’s side pocket and dropped it into the waiting Ziploc bag. When the nurse saw the paper, she insisted that I take back the cup and unwrap it before returning it to the bag. I did as she asked. Unbeknownst to me, during my journey to the hospital the cup’s contents had been agitated by my pedaling causing my essence to…well…foam up. The cup I dropped into the Ziploc bag appeared to be about three-quarters full of semen. It looked like I’d been collecting bull semen.
As the nurse was going through her routine of quickly and discreetly zipping the bag and whisking it under her desk she caught a glimpse of my sample. Her mouth dropped and her eyes grew wide as she abandoned all pretense of being a disinterested professional. She thrust my sample up above her head, holding it to the light for a non-too-professional stare. Remember I had an audience of around two hundred Taiwanese women. To their credit, up until this point, they’d been pretending not to pay attention to me. That was over. It was as though the nurse were raising the Holy Grail up to the light. The chalice—my chalice—seemed to become suffused in a preternatural radiance as the fluorescent light hit the seminal fluid. Every eye turned as one and gazed upon the cup with the rapture of early Christian supplicants seeing a piece of the true cross. I could almost hear the women joining together in a telepathic chorus, “Oh my God, its foreigner goo! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Halle-luuuuu-jah!” It was like a Monty Python skit come to life. The nurse recovered her professionalism after what seemed an interminable time and dropped the bag under her desk. I gave my adoring fans a red-faced combination nod/half bow and got the hell out of there.
A week later the printout of my results came back and confirmed what I’ve always known. I’m thoroughly average, all the way down to the cellular mitosis level. Sperm count = average. Motility = average. Viability = average. But, handwritten on the report’s back was; Volume = impressive. God, I love nurses.
What follows are three emails that I sent to family and friends during the process of getting engaged to a Taiwanese woman in Taiwan. They outline some of the problems I had and my perceptions at the time. They were sent in mid-2008. I have chosen not to edit the emails hoping to preserve the flavor of the original emails and my impressions at that time. Of course my understanding of Taiwanese family dynamics and traditions has greatly expanded since getting married, and I will write about some of the themes introduced here with greater detail and accuracy later.
Ok, so here is what is new with me:
Last summer I met a wonderful woman through the wife of a colleague. I was invited over for a “set-up” dinner. Frankly, I wasn’t super-thrilled, but the set-up is the most common and reliable way of meeting new people in Asia. Over the course of the last 13 years, I have overcome my Canadian abhorrence of this practice. Sometimes it is best to accept your life in a foreign culture and allow yourself to be the beneficiary of guan-xi. (By the way, this custom really sucks when you are a newby in country and have no connections working for you).
Anyway, over dinner I met Venus, had a charming evening and gave her a ride home after dinner. We met once more about a week later, when apparently she was going to tell me that she was just coming off a bad relationship and had no interest in starting a new relationship. That of course was before I hit her with the 1,000 halogenic watts of Haughn charm. [Actually, I am not too sure if any other Haughn’s have it, but I have my own quirky charm; though it has taken 40 years for anyone else to recognize how charming I am. Such is the price of true artistry].
Immediately after that date she went to Canada for a month. She is a Canadian trade representative, working for the Canadian government in Taiwan. I was pretty much left to stew in my own juices for a month. Thankfully, Venus was apparently doing the same. And, when she arrived back in Taiwan, towards the start of October, we began to date.
Things really progressed quickly from there. I have never met anyone like her. She is like a female Taiwanese version of me, with a few of the rough edges sanded off. She has a wicked smile with an equally wicked sense of humor – an unbelievably rare commodity among Taiwanese. [Complex cultural factors render Taiwanese virtually humorless]. She can witty repartée with the best of ‘em. In short, she is crazy in all the same ways that I am crazy, and I choose to find that charming. But, unlike your’s truly, Venus also possesses a great deal of poise, social grace, smarts, good looks…
On April 4th, I asked Venus to marry me and she said yes. It is truly a wonderful thing!
But, that did begin a 3 week journey into the bowels of Taiwanese family Hell, which I truly hope is about to end. I’ll give you a brief summary of some of the things that have been going on, though not nearly everything or in that much detail, as it would likely take a book.
Those Westerners among you who imagine that asking someone to marry you, and being accepted, means that you are engaged are woefully wrong. It means precisely nothing! You are not engaged until the girl’s family says that you are engaged—and there are many mountains to climb before that happens. Those mountains grow ever steeper and more precipitous if her father is still in the picture.
I have been dealing with many things, but I will try to just tell you some of the funnier ones.
One major thorn in the side is that the Taiwanese government has decided to change the law regarding locals marrying foreigners, effective May 23rd. It used to be that a foreigner (me) would have to get a sworn affidavit from his counsel office swearing that he is single, submit that to Taiwanese court and register the marriage. After May 23rd no one, not even the Taiwanese government, knows how marriages between foreigners and Taiwanese will proceed—undoubtedly with a greater degree of fuss. Likely, though no where near official, I would have to get a form from Vital Statistics in Saskatchewan stating I am single, take that to the Vancouver office of the Taiwan Trade Office to be certified, get the form to Taiwan and register the marriage. But, no one is sure that this is what would have to be done. And, if it is what needs to be done, I would likely be the first person attempting it, so you can imagine how smoothly that would go.
The consular officer I spoke with strongly recommended registering the marriage before May 23rd. OK, I’m game. Unfortunately, Venus’s grandfather died July 1st almost a year ago. According to Chinese custom the spirit of the deceased is still hanging around until a year after their death, and no marriage can take place. What to do?!? What to do?!?
If you guessed that you consult with a team of shamans, feng-shui masters, chi-kung masters, astrologers and soothsayers you win the golden banana. Oddly enough, I am actually on comfortable ground here as it was the study of such things that originally brought me to Taiwan 21 years ago, and I haven’t totally lost my fascination. So, I have a team of people talking to the dead and looking for meaning in dirt clumps. It is all very charming.
All the signs align for a wedding July 6th at 5:30 am. I personally am rather taken with this date (06/07/08)—it has a nice ring to it. But, there is that sticky legal issue…what forms do I need and how can I possibly get them? [No solution yet].
Meanwhile, Venus’s family has been driving her nuts by phoning multiple times a day and raising various issues with our impending engagement (because remember we are not really engaged yet). Most of these issues have a very strong racial overtone that it is difficult not to find insulting. But, I do take some comfort from the fact that they have her best interests at heart and that they are trying to protect her. Also, if I were Taiwanese they would make things equally difficult, they would just fixate on some other aspect of my character.
For those of you on my mailing list unfamiliar with Asian cultures, Asians wrote the book on family dysfunction. They really know how to get into each other’s affairs in what can only be described as ridiculously inappropriate ways. This has mostly been Venus’s cross to bear and I truly feel for her.
On Tuesday of this week I was summoned to Venus’s parent’s home to…to…I’m not sure how to describe it….state my intentions, answer questions, listen to her father’s ideas,…etc. Give them a chance to gauge me. I’m really not sure how to describe it. The meeting was a surprise to both Venus and I as the arrangements had been made for the formal engagement negotiations to take place this Saturday (tomorrow). Basically, I got grilled for a bit less than 2 hours in Chinese. I am very surprised that my Chinese was up to the task, as this was definitely not your normal everyday conversational Chinese dialogue. We were called upstairs to the family altar where I answered her father’s questions while her mother fervently prayed at the altar. I’m not sure if she was praying for my irretrievably lost soul or for me to do well. Venus seems to feel that I did well. I’m less convinced, since I personally think I would be lucky if I truly understood half of what was going on.
Apparently I have won over the mother and an uncle who showed up later that evening. As I have noted in my many years here, father’s are always the problem. For those of you married to Taiwanese women, if you got engaged outside Taiwan or your father-in-law for whatever reason isn’t in the picture, you really can’t appreciate how troublesome the father is in these matters. [I don’t know why…who wouldn’t love the guy that’s banging his daughter?!?]
Anyway, Saturday is the day that has been arranged for the formal engagement negotiations. I will be taking 2 Taiwanese friends with me to act as my representatives (normally this would be done by my parents and a matchmaker). They will attempt to negotiate the best possible price for my bride. I think I’m joking, but I am not too sure if I am or not. Traditionally that is exactly what would happen, but I am pretty unclear on what is going to happen tomorrow. But, if all goes well, I should be formally engaged tomorrow.
So, wish me well.
Okay, so I guess that I left some of you hanging about the outcome of my marriage negotiations. First let me say that it went well, as well as can be expected.
During the initial interview [for lack of a better word], last Tuesday…I faced the firing squad alone. This was like a pre-interview, before the formal engagement negotiations that were held on Saturday. Frankly, for me, this interview was far more nerve-wracking than what followed on Saturday. But, I will give you a brief little summary (though I know that I touched on it earlier):
I was summoned to Venus’s parent’s place on Tuesday to explain myself—I guess. Venus and I were hauled upstairs to the family altar to be interviewed together. I sat in a stiff-backed chair feeling very ill-at-ease, while Venus sat on the floor beside me, her father sat in a chair across from me and her mother prayed fervently at the family altar. The interview lasted for a bit less than 2 hours, all in Chinese. I answered many questions, virtually all related to money. Even when a question was asked that seemed to me to have nothing to do with money, in reality the answer they were looking for had to do with money.
For example, one of the earlier questions was along the lines of, “How could I assure them that I would make Venus happy?” The answer to that I thought was pretty obvious and I tried to articulate it with my horribly clunky Chinese….That by giving her the whole of my heart she would feel secure and happy in our love, or words to this general effect. Unfortunately my Chinese totally failed me at this crucial point. Chinese is a tonal language, the meaning of a word can change radically with the tone in which you articulate the word. Xin can mean either heart or sex, depending on the tone. I intended to say that I would give her my whole heart, but instead I said that the way that I would assure Venus’s happiness by giving her lots of sex […long and hard, day and night…what more can any woman ask of her husband???]
Venus thinks this is the funniest thing that I have ever done [she is as yet unaware of the full breadth of some of my social guffaws]. Some of you may well think that her father would just assume that I screwed up the language, but actually my answer dovetailed nicely with that generation’s perception of Westerners, so he thought my answer was a legitimate reflection of my ideals. I didn’t notice any change in his countenance, but Venus says that she could see that he was definitely ruminating dark thoughts. Anyway, Venus broke into the conversation to save my sorry ass and informed me of what I had really said. I broke out in gales of laughter, which I don’t know how her parent’s perceived, and tried to correct my faux pas.
I finally managed to explain my true answer to the question, which is when I found out that this was the wrong answer anyway. They didn’t want to talk about love, respect, feelings, shared commitment or anything like that! They wanted to talk about money! And, so I spent the next 2 hours talking about money—though I kept trying to turn the conversation around to important issues—but, they weren’t terribly interested.
Her parents come from an agrarian part of what was once a dirt-poor area of Taiwan. They had never met each other before they married, and to quote Venus, “What do they know about love?” For them, marriage is a financial transaction, ultimately I suppose they are not exactly wrong…but, I am leading with my heart and not excessively worried about the money, while they are leading with their wallets. (Venus and I make virtually the same amount of money and have about the same amount of assets, so it seems like a non-issue to me).
I have to say that this interview taxed my Chinese ability to its utter limits. Chinese is a very circuitous language. They do not directly state their point. This natural tendency of the language is even more pronounced during formal negotiations/interviews, etc. The questions Venus’s father asked tended to go around in circles so much that I inevitably found myself rather lost as to what exactly he might be asking me. So very often I found myself just taking a shot in the dark and hoping for the best. Anyway, despite undoubtedly making many screw-ups during this interview, things did go well enough for us to proceed to the next stage, the formal engagement negotiations, which took place last Saturday. [Actually, Venus assures me that I did very well and that my feelings came through loud-and-clear, if that is true, then I definitely had an angel on my shoulder].
I actually was not so worried about the formal engagement negotiations taking place on Saturday, since there were going to be lots of people there. Are they really going to be volatile in front of the 4 people I brought as my representatives? I brought Gain, my former goldsmithing instructor, who acted as translator and matchmaker—a person who has an official position in such negotiations. Venus also invited Yvonne, who introduced us, and her husband Vitas, a co-worker of mine, and their child. It was like a big banyan.
Things started off perfectly, in my opinion. We just sat around, had tea and chit-chatted. No one said anything serious. I was in heaven! I thought, “Wow! Is this all there is to it? GREAT!!!”
I was soon disabused of that notion.
Venus kept getting more and more upset. (Typical irrational female! Everything was going swimmingly,…No one was talking about anything of substance. Wonderful!) And, then the axe dropped.
Her brother informed me that I would have to bring up the subject of the engagement or it would never be spoken about. [OH?!? Hmmm…Really? That’s a poser.] But, since we got all these people to give up their Saturday to help us out, it really wouldn’t have been fair to just turn around and have to do it again,…[I suppose]…so I broached the subject.
Basically with a translator, it wasn’t really all that bad. I gave a speech about myself that lasted around and hour or so—my family background, philosophy of love and family. Then I answered many questions all of them shockingly direct and mercenary—money, money money…discussed in infinite detail. The differences in our perceptions of marriage led to a bit of miscommunication, beyond the obvious problems with my language ability. It is like we were talking four different languages; Chinese, English, the language of love and the language of money. I kept talking English/love and they kept talking Chinese/money.
Anyway, things went fairly well—I guess and Venus and I are now officially engaged, which has been quite a battle, but that part is over. We will get married July 6th in Taipei, then fly to Canada for a second ceremony in Saskatoon.
Alright, so I am back again with part 3 in my ongoing adventures in the marriage realm. [And, Venus here, giving my comments in blue]. I am going to begin by explaining a cute piece of Chinese [Taiwanese!!!!] marriage custom – ping jing. In its most basic form, it is a perfectly charming [definitely not so charming] Asian custom, whereby the prospective husband gives a reverse dowry to the family of the bride to compensate them for losing their daughter. A substantially more charming custom than the Western custom of giving dowries to bribe prospective husbands to ease a family’s burden by taking one of the girl-children away. [Well, ok, both ways suck!]
At the very end of the formal engagement interview with Venus’s father, almost the last words out of his mouth were something to the effect of: “Oh, and now that we have settled all of that, just give me whatever you feel in your heart for ping jing.” Though I understand that it is indeed a rather charming custom that places value on the female child and that Venus’s parents regard it as a gesture, thanking them for having raised a marriageable daughter, there is no denying that ping jing smacks of purchasing a bride. [The feeling is so unromantic and unbeautiful]. My own personal feeling is that Venus is a priceless treasure, thus I want to offer nothing for ping jing. Venus suggested taking her to the marketplace and staging a mock auction to see what fair market value is.
Personally, I was not that shocked to be asked for a ping jing. The last 3 women that I dated all told me that if we were ever to get married, I would have to pay a ping jing. So, I had just come to assume that this is still the norm in Taiwan. But, according to Venus – NO!!! It is definitely not normal! [It is normal to ask for ping jing, but generally it is now understood that the ping jing will be returned. This is very complex…traditionally ping jing is to show appreciation to the girl’s family, but then they would provide a dowry. My father had slightly different plans. I think, he planned to take the ping jing, a larger amount, and then add an equal amount of money to it and use that as a down-payment on an apartment for us. Since by Taiwanese custom a man cannot support a family without property, he shouldn’t marry without owning a house. Since Darren is a foreigner, he cannot own property, a source of problems during the engagement negotiations]. (In fact, the reason that I never mentioned this custom earlier is that Venus became so angry and embarrassed when her father asked for ping jing. She couldn’t bear for my Canadian friends and family to think that I had purchased a China Doll).
Frankly, it bothered her much more than it bothered me. [Darren finds it all very charming. He doesn’t know how much I had to argue on his behalf to get rid of the ping jing]. Deep down in my misogynistic heart, I sort of savored the idea of buying a bride. [I was already mapping out my bargaining strategy…. “Well, she’s already 33 [try 32 at that time], the blooms off the rose, only an A-cup, low bone density, and her virginity is highly suspect…Weeelll, shiiit, I reckon we can still deal….I have an old sofa and a mattress that you can have in exchange for her. But, I’m going to need some kinda warranty.”] I thought it would be a great story to tell the grandchildren. [Well OK, I found this whole idea insulting: I am flesh and blood and should be bought with flesh—leg of pork is traditional. A mattress? The mattress that Darren and who knows how many women have slept on? NO WAY! I have a better story for the grandchildren: When my relatives thought we were just dating, they didn’t say much except, “What? You can’t find yourself a Taiwanese?”; “What? You can’t find a man of your own generation?”; “What? You can’t find a smaller man?”; [I would note here that large size definitely affords the ladies some advantages] “What? A teacher with no property?” And, I would add on my own, “WHAT? My virginity is highly suspect?!?” Hummmphf!]
Venus did not share my enthusiasm for this little piece of chinoiserie [Duh?] and launched a vehement campaign to get her father to do away with the need to pay a ping jing, an attitude on her part, that I suspect her father found quite incomprehensible, after all ping jing is an expression of the inherent value of female children. [Traditionalists would say that I am out of my mind. They would say that they have my best interests at heart and that I am “selling” myself too cheaply]. But, after a few weeks of relentless campaigning, Venus was able to get her father to give up on ping jing. I’m happy to save some money (actually potentially a pile of money), but I am a bit sad to lose the story. [See what I have to put up with. He just doesn’t understand].
With that little issue of ping jing out of the way Venus and I were free to launch ourselves on Taipei’s multi-billion dollar wedding industry—first stop, the Taiwanese wedding photographer.