Category Archives: Family Life

“When I’m Dead…

…and gone, just sharpen
my toenails and drive
me into the manure pile”.

So said my grandfather, though he became sentimental about it at the end. Still, it hints at an earthy practicality as regards death and its rituals that was a feature of my life growing up. The soul goes to heaven and the body rots, once dead it doesn’t matter what happens on earth.

Taiwan is less simplistic. Taiwan has the three major Chinese religions; Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. However, often Taiwanese spiritual practices do not tidily fit into these religions. These are the rituals, rites, customs, and magic of the common Chinese people and Chinese Folk Religion. The state religions championed by various dynasties have incorporated these folk traditions. They are the amorphous sinew permeating Taiwan’s ritual life.

Central to Chinese folk customs is ancestor worship, which likely developed from Shang Dynasty (商朝) ancestor cults. It presumes a kind of two-way interaction between deceased members of the family and their living descendants. The ancestors remain part of the family where they are the focus of family ritual; primarily prayer and offerings. Historically ancestor worship seems to have developed out of fear; an uneasiness about the affect of a discontented ghost on the family.

The ancestors are pretty corporeal. They need their descendants to provide food, alcohol, money, and sometimes material objects or even spouses, along with prayers. To allow the dead’s needs to go unsatiated is to invite misfortune upon the family. Conversely if the ancestors are satisfied the living will receive good fortune as otherworldly repayment. It is very transactional. Sometimes the prayers are more like haranguing the ancestor: I provided you with this, that, and the other thing, yet still I don’t have _____. I’ll throw your tablet in the closet, until I get what I want. Get your act together! [Prayer in the folk tradition isn’t necessarily similar to prayer in institutionalized religions].

At the heart of these interplanar interactions is the deceased’s ancestral tablet. It looks like a small, usually wooden, grave marker. It is inscribed with the exact time of birth and death, the deceased’s name, and titles. It is often kept at the household’s family altar, where the ancestor is readily available for requests, consultations, and to receive sacrifices.

The ancestral tablet is to the left, encased in glass.

The ancestral tablet houses part of the deceased’s soul. Chinese Folk Religion, in particular the ancestor cult, views the soul as tripartite. One part goes to heaven after death, another stays with the body’s remains, and the third part is enclosed in the ancestral tablet by the family as part of the death rites. Thus, the ancestor becomes the family’s spirit-protector and the tablet becomes almost a talisman.

I used to think it would be neat to have a Chinese style family altar—part of my desire to be that funky-weird foreigner. Yeah, I’m that kind of expat. After getting a more intimate view of what’s involved though I no longer think it would be groovy. Propitiating the ancestor takes a shit-ton of time, work, and general hassle. Many modern Taiwanese share my attitude. It is possible to entrust the care and feeding of tablets to a temple. That seems a better option to me and many other Taiwanese.

Sources: The Salty Egg is almost entirely written from personal experience. I first came to Taiwan thirty-three years ago to study Chinese Folk Religion. The information here comes from that class—discussions with Taiwanese religious leaders, shamans, monks and priests, diviners and others during that trip—along with family; and my personal experience of rituals in Taiwan. Any religious observance has personal/family variance. This is a reasonable—if oversimplified—outline of this piece of Chinese Folk Religion.

 

Is Asian Child-Rearing Different?

Today I intended to examine contrasting socio-cultural norms and their impact on the COVID-19 response, but everything went sideways, and I ended up indulging my growing case of Old Fartitis.

There is a perceptible difference in child rearing goals between Western and Chinese societies. The Western stereotype is that Asian households coddle young children. Provide a level of support to teens and university students that would be odd in the West, but then expect more from their children when they enter the workforce. That this rearing creates a gentler and pleasanter young adult, willing to subjugate themselves to their parents, in return for the kindness their parents have shown them. There’s some truth to that, allowing for individual discrepancies.

The contrasting Asian stereotype of Western child-rearing is that parents allow their children to run wild, failing to adequately discipline disrespectful children. That everything is motivated by selfishness. Parents don’t adequately support their children for self-serving reasons, and children don’t respect and support their parents because it’s inconvenient. They’ll concede it creates capable and independent young adults, but at what cost? There’s some truth here too.

When I first came to Asia, my experiences supported both stereotypes. I used to see Taiwanese parents picking up and dropping off their children at elementary school, and told my students that Canadians would almost never do that. Walking to school is a small way to teach children independence. An occasional ride was permissible, but children would tease kids if it were too frequent. “Ha ha ha, you have a mommy and daddy. Pussy.” Certainly there was no excuse for being walked to school. The commute was an independent time, a time for small adventures, and to ignore parental control.

I can think of many examples of Taiwanese children considering their parents first. A favorite example used to happen when I first arrived, but less now. I’d ask students of all ages what qualities they were looking for in a boyfriend or girlfriend. One of the most common answers was filial piety. They wanted someone who respected their parents. I was flummoxed and couldn’t even begin to guess why. Contrarily, I once tried to explain the concept of mama’s boy to a class of middle-aged Taiwanese students. They couldn’t wrap their brains around it. They understood the idea, but kept seeing it as a positive. They couldn’t comprehend women not finding it alluring. “But, he loves his mother.”

Everything I saw pointed to massive differences in raising children. The goal of Western upbringing was to create strong independent young adults capable of leaving the nest. Toughness was necessary. Ferberize them from birth, and continue pushing them to care for themselves throughout childhood, in order to create a functional and independent member of society.

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon

While Asian child-rearing focused more on social cohesion, with independence frequently not being the intent. [To hear one parent explaining the goal of a Taiwanese upbringing as emotionally crippling children so they won’t leave, see: My Favorite Student]. I once had a Taiwanese mother seek my advice on how to raise her son to be capable around the house. I told her to stop doing everything. She wanted to mollycoddling him, while he somehow simultaneously learned to stand on his own two feet. I tried to explain tough love, but it was an indecipherable oxymoron to her.

Turns out I overestimated the cultural differences. When I grew up, we were latchkey kids—both parents at work—we’d arrive home from school, take a jar of peanut butter, some pickles, a corn flakes and MacGyver a delectable five-course snack. We could take care of ourselves. Personally I began staying at home alone over the weekend, while my parents went to our cabin, when I was eleven years old. There were no cell phones, and the cabin had no phone. At the beginning of summers I would be taken to the cabin and left there alone for a week. I’m not unique. My experiences were typical of Generation X.

I never felt forsaken or unloved—I felt respected and trusted. My parents had enough faith in me to believe I wouldn’t burn the house down, or open the door to a serial rapist. I assumed my childhood represented the Western norm—then I met Millennials and GenZ. Now I’m questioning everything I thought I knew about Western family norms.

GenX is lodged between the Boomers—who had a stay-at-home parent—and the Millenials/GenZ, who have parents lodged so far up their asses they burp Aqua Velva. Turns out GenX was an anomaly, the first generation to be raised in dual income families, our parents just made it up on the fly.

Despite having recently figured out that we were neglected, I feel sorry for Millennials and GenZ. Parents/society don’t seem to trust them to do anything. “You can’t walk home from school. What if a bear gets loose in the city? I don’t want you becoming just another urban bear statistic.” Where’s the sense of independence and adventure? GenX teens had the best house parties. Seriously. There’s a whole genre of movies dedicated to it. What do they have?

What I always assumed were cultural differences in family norms and child-raising goals turns out to have a strong generational component. That’s why when I reached Asia everything seemed cloyingly family-oriented. Now Western parents are raising their children in a manner similar to Taiwanese parents. Meanwhile Taiwanese parents seem to be encouraging greater independence in their offspring now. My Taiwanese college students are about as independent and responsible as their Western counterparts. They work, something that was almost unheard of when I first arrived. They are just as likely to live on their own. Though the stated goals of parents in each culture remain different, in practice it seems we’re moving closer together.

Listen up young un’s, I hope you enjoyed this tale of how it was in my day. Now I gotta lift my balls up outta the way, hop on my velocipede machine, and go for a ride. Meet y’all here next week. Same time, same place, ye hear now.

Silly Little Couple’s Fights

Each culture seems to have its own archetypal couple’s argument. They are the stereotypes convenient for jokes, TV shows, and other pop culture references, whether true or not.

In Canada, and many other Western countries, the prototypical argument is about leaving the toilet seat up and the female taking an unanticipated midnight bidet ride. Relationship hijinks ensue, and jokes abound about this situation, sitcoms and movies are replete with references. Do couples really spend much time quarreling over the nocturnal urinary patterns of the human male? I don’t know. They shouldn’t, a sitz bath is good for female perineum health. (You’re welcome). But still, it is the prototypical couple’s fight in the West.

Taiwan has its own clichéd couple’s fight; the question of who will take out the trash. For the majority of Taiwanese there is no curbside pickup or option to throw the trash in a back alley for later removal. Instead trash and recycling trucks meander through each neighborhood twice daily. The trash truck blares Beethoven—who must be rolling in his grave—to call people to bring out their trash, forcing them to drop whatever they’re doing, grab the trash, hustle down however many flights of stairs and try to meet the trucks [Video]. It’s annoying to put it mildly. The issue isn’t pure laziness, nor that the task is too onerous. In fact taking out the trash is a communal event, where you get a chance to pass the time of day with neighbors. It’s kind of pleasant. However, it is difficult to be there when the truck is scheduled. Most people work long hours and then may have evening plans that preclude them making it to the truck. I remember once being unable to get to the trash truck for three weeks. My fridge and freezer were stuffed with so many full trash bags that I couldn’t store food. I suppose the system worked okay when every house had a stay-at-home housewife. Not true now. Taking out the trash is, supposedly, the source of much bickering among Taiwanese couples.

Mixed-couples in Taiwan have their own typecast source of friction—control of the air conditioner. If the Taiwanese partner exerts dominance, the air conditioner may not get turned on until the foreign partner nears death, and even then only for a short time, leaving the foreigner to spritz all over the furniture. When sanity prevails, and the foreigner controls the air conditioner, the Taiwanese person is left shivering and shaking, attributing every sniff, cough, and sneeze to the [comfortable] temperature. I have one Taiwanese friend who claims she divorced her foreign husband because of air conditioning. It sounds apocryphal to me, but she swears it’s true.

I can’t speak to the truth of any of these stereotypes. However, these are the conventionalized couple’s arguments in Taiwan. They feature in conversation and jokes, just like the toilet seat up or down in the West.

Taiwan’s Marriage Market

China has garnered some attention in the Western media for its marriage markets (for example: China’s Marriage Markets). To the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been an equivalent in Taiwan during my time here. However, I have seen Taiwanese parents do their best to eliminate any romance from courtship, make marriage more about themselves than their children, and try to commoditize marriage (see: Marrying Taiwanese). But, they’ve never quite reached China’s levels of expediency.

When I first came to Taiwan, I became briefly—though never seriously—part of one woman’s marriage quest. Let’s call her Lily. She was about twenty-seven, the dreaded prohibition on marrying during your twenty-ninth year was looming large. Marrying at twenty-nine was inauspicious and at thirty a woman became an old maid (see: Dating Fails). The pressure was on.

Mother and daughter approached dating with all the romance of General George S. Patton knifing through France. They planned, strategized, attacked, fell back, regrouped, and then reassaulted Taipei’s bachelors. I had just arrived from Canada and watching the pair was my first opportunity to experience deeper culture shock than the I-can’t-believe-you-eat-that variety.

For them, dating was very much a rehearsal for marriage. Normal; I suppose. Their military precision made it seem unnatural. Then again, maybe I was abnormally lackadaisical regarding love and marriage. I was twenty-nine years old and had no schedule for falling in love. I lacked even a basic schematic diagram of my relationship history and future goals. I was floating along, whimsically moving between relationships—like a goddamn hippie.

Lily asked me, with what I suppose must’ve been a flirtatious giggle, whether I wanted to be on her potential husband list. Nope. There wasn’t anything wrong with Lily. She was reasonably attractive, warm and funny, but I hadn’t been in Taiwan long enough to deal with that level of cultural immersion. If I’d agreed they’d have pulled out their marriage book, written my name on a new page, discussed my relative merits, and created a pros and cons list. I know because I’d watched them do it. I imagine my name in the marriage book is as far as I’d have gotten, but if I’d passed this early appraisal I’d have found myself on a first date with Lily. I was never privy to these early dates, I’m guessing they were pragmatic affairs.

I was however invited on a few of her later dates, in that Asian group dating kind of way, after she’d winnowed the list down to her final two. I believe she was assessing how each prospect interacted in larger social groups and their interactions with her friends. Nothing was ever spontaneous.

One was a doctor, not so handsome, and looked to be well into middle age; but, you know, a doctor. The other was an entrepreneur, in his mid to late thirties, and, if not handsome, at least not ugly; but, you know, not a doctor. She  was dating the two finalists concurrently—the better to compare them. The men were aware of it and seemed okay with the setup.

It must have gotten awkward when it came time to compare them sexually—because that was part of the process. As Lily bluntly explained sex and sexual compatibility are important in marriage. Therefore, she really needed to get out there and test-drive each man. Make sure it fit. God bless her pragmatic little heart. I should note that Lily was not the only Taiwanese woman to express this sentiment in similarly businesslike tones. I couldn’t fault the logic, but found their hard-nosed unsentimental approach to sex disconcerting.

Mother and daughter’s priorities largely aligned, but not completely. They agreed the man needed a stable income, a house in Taipei, a car, and a cell phone. They disagreed on how important the intangibles were. The doctor’s looks weren’t good enough for the daughter; the mother didn’t care. The entrepreneur’s business didn’t have enough status for the mother; the daughter didn’t care. The daughter worried about having a husband who kept a doctor’s schedule; the mother didn’t care. They struggled, agonized, scrutinized, and compromised. Eventually they came together and chose the businessman.

I was much too newly arrived to be able to understand her family’s ethnic and cultural background. I could not contextualize their behavior—were they normal or bonkers. I’ve fallen out of touch with Lily, so I can’t reexamine her family. Given that the “boyfriends” went along with everything and Lily’s friends all played their role, I’m guessing it wasn’t that unusual. Still, I’ve neither seen, nor participated in, anything like it since.

Don’t Marry a Foreigner: Being a Mixed Couple in Taiwan

Most my expat friends are, or have been, married to a Taiwanese person. I can count on one hand, with digits leftover, the number of couples able to give an appearance of wedded bliss. Intercultural marriage is tough.

When I got engaged, a little over a decade ago [see: Marrying Taiwanese], I tried to warn my wife of the potential problems in marrying a foreigner, but—proving herself wifely material—she ignored everything I said, and promptly forgot it all. It must’ve been love. How do I know she’s forgotten my warnings? Every time I pull some dumb foreigner move that’s got smoke shooting out her ears, I remind her that I’d warned of exactly such a situation before we married. She invariably replies she has no recollection, like a fifty-year veteran of the marriage wars. If I can offer one piece of marriage advice, it’s to take some time and compile a list every dumbass thing you think you might do while married, and present it to your fiancée as a warning. Get that information on record while she still loves you, then as each foible or piece of tomfoolery gets exposed, just lean back and say, “Yes, but I clearly warned you of just this situation before we married”.

Of course, when I was giving this advice, I was a single guy, unaware of the many issues awaiting us. I did my best to make educated guesses. I was amazingly portentous, and most things I warned of came to pass. I don’t so clearly remember every admonition, but I’m pretty sure I gave—at least—the following advice: “Be prepared for me to be as useless as tits on a boar when handling a lot of the daily administrative stuff that any household must do”. Also: “My perceptions about family, in general, and what I, as a child, owe my parents, and your parents, is wildly different from the Taiwanese norms of your parent’s generation”. Still in the family vein, “Your parents will never really get the hang of me, because I will never act like a Taiwanese son-in-law. I couldn’t if I wanted to—I don’t know how, but also I don’t want to”. I also cautioned her that I would never move to Canada, just in case she harbored those hopes. [See: I Shan’t Return]. I also warned her that intercultural marriage in Taiwan has more barriers to success than for couple living in the West. I was more warning myself with that one, since she didn’t have any concept of the life of an interracial couple in the West.

My wife began to perceive some of the prejudices after we announced our intention to marry, and even more so as the formal engagement approached. Her family and friends came out of the woodwork to issue warnings about the appalling risks of marrying a white guy. A few of the warnings she remembers from that period included, you have no idea what happened back in his home country—he could be a criminal. Foreigners are financially unstable, this is based on a longstanding perception of English teachers as unemployable losers. There were also warnings that, “He has no family in Taiwan”. Family is a source of support in Taiwan, marrying someone who is essentially without family removes that potential safety net, that’s why many consider marrying an orphan a bad idea. She was also warned that foreigners have less sense of family—that we are too individualistic. Some of these warnings corresponded with what I told her, though they were delivered in a much more negative way. And, what warning about other races would be complete without a caution about their sexual profligacy? It appears to be universal that each race thinks every other race is getting much more—and kinkier—sex. “They’re much more sexually open. He could desert you at any time [presumably upon the appearance of a hotter piece of ass]”. I guess the most hurtful comments that she received were that she “was betraying Taiwanese people” and “liked to eat Western food.” Obviously, there is hostility to intercultural/interracial marriage in Taiwan.

So, I asked my wife to share some things she’s actually found hard to deal with about having a foreign husband. In no particular order: “They won’t just give you money”. It’s pretty common in Taiwanese marriages for husbands to turn over their paychecks to the wife and then they receive an allowance. I know quite a few foreign husbands who do this too, but my Momma didn’t raise no fools. Seriously, I’ve noticed this practice is often a bone of contention, whether you follow the “Taiwanese way” or not.

Also, “They won’t pamper you in an Asian way”. When I asked her to be more specific, she said that they won’t let you whine (撒嬌). “They think of you as a strong independent individual, when you just want to be a bitch”. Possibly it’s just me, but I can’t stand the habit some Taiwanese women have of adopting the waif-like tone of a young girl and whining about everything. A surprising number of women here have this as one of their default settings. I can’t abide it.

The final issue she mentioned corresponds with one of my pre-marriage warnings, “you’ll need to handle a lot of the administrative stuff”. It turns out to be true, and annoying. Some of the problem is undoubtedly my shitty Chinese. I simply cannot do a lot of things. Reading and filling in Chinese forms is beyond me. Also, I don’t really understand how to do many things, what office to go to, what to ask for, etc. Likewise, the relevant Taiwanese authorities often don’t know what to do with me. If I’m doing something related to my being a foreigner in Taiwan, the Taiwanese government office will, generally, be used to dealing with foreigners, and know what to do. But, as a man married to a Taiwanese wife, sometimes I show up in offices where clearly they’ve never seen a foreigner. I send them into a tizzy. Confusion reigns. If we show up as a couple, often staff will ignore me and just deal with her. Even if I’ve been handling everything just fine, they’ll face her and answer my questions, give instructions to her, and ignore my existence as much as possible. Government offices and employers have even phoned her and tried to deal with my issues through her. I can understand how it gets annoying.

A related problem is that often forms/computer programs will not accept my Taiwanese identification number. This creates my wife’s single biggest annoyance about having a foreign husband—doing our joint taxes. She should be able to just enter both our IDs into an online form, where a list of our income and deductions will automatically be correctly placed into the tax form. Then all you have to do is double-check everything and submit it. When my ID number is fed into the form—everything seizes. All my information needs to be manually inputted, and the system gets glitchy (from all the foreignness), and there are often problems. I cringe every time tax season is upon us.

This is my little warning about some of the pitfalls for Taiwanese in marrying a foreigner. If you’re in love, take the plunge. Intercultural marriage can be very rewarding, precisely because of its unique challenges. It keeps me entertained. Just be aware that stuff can get a little weird.

I’d like to thank my wife for letting my readers know some of the things that piss her off about me. Thanks Sweetie.