Category Archives: Family Life

Getting Engaged in Taiwan

My wife and I went from not knowing each other to dating, seriously dating, engaged, and married in under a year. [I’m hoping to get laid soon]. That was never my intention. I had it in the back of my mind to ask for her to hand, but the actual proposal was spur of the moment.

Venus took me for dinner to a luxurious restaurant and plied me with champagne, wine, and steak. At the end of the evening she picked up the bill. I have to admit—I came in my pants a little. After eating we went for a walk in the park. It was a beautiful evening, I was drunk, feeling romantic, and a little beholding to her—you know—for the free meal. The proposal slipped from my lips before thought kicked in. My mouth is often halfway to Kaohsiung before my brain gets out of the house. Don’t get me wrong, I knew I wanted to marry her. She’s like cheese cake, stuffed crust pizza, and cocaine poured together into a sexy blob.

I’d already soberly and rationally thought about the proposal. Still, on that night I had no intention of proposing. We hadn’t known each other long enough, but I got swept away on a tide of endorphins and gnocchi. The sky, the beautiful evening, the park, everything felt so right. So I [inadvertently] manned up. Asking someone to marry is the most baller thing I’ll likely ever do.

Immediately after proposing everything slipped from my control. Of course I have zero regrets. [I have to say these things if I want to wake up with an attached penis]. However, when I proposed, so early in our relationship, I assumed a lengthy engagement. You know, I’d introduce her as my fiancé—the future Mrs. Haughn, when there was nothing interesting to discuss we could chat about wedding dresses, walk arm-in-arm acting all betrothed,…. When that got old—in a decade or so—we’d marry. My plan.

That lasted a hot second after informing her family. There were the predictable Taiwanese familial hurdles. Everyone who ever knew anyone associated with my wife’s family felt the sudden need to opine about me specifically and foreigners generally. We heard from the neighbor of her third cousin twice removed about the dangers of the White Peril. It was ridiculous. [See: Marrying Taiwanese and Don’t Marry a Foreigner].

I’m sure feelings of helplessness are common among engaged men when the female marriage industrial complex swings into action. The minutia of a wedding has to be arranged—husbandly input is neither required nor desired. It’s not uniquely Taiwanese, it happens everywhere.

One aspect of the Taiwanese marriage industry isn’t universal. Psychics. They wield tremendous power over the ceremony, and even whether a suitor is accepted. A lot of expats can get quite indignant about the irrationality, it assaults their moral core. My attitude is fairly common among long-term expats. I was raised not to believe in psychics: I still kinda don’t. But, I’ve been here long enough that the way psychic prediction is woven into Taiwanese society does not unhinge me. Overtime I’ve become less inclined to totally dismiss psychic phenomena. [I’ve seen some shit].

When Venus told her parents of our plan to get married, calls went out across the land to psychics, astrologers, shamans, and geomancers. Come one, come all, tell us what to do about this white dude. Does he really love her, or does he have designs on our vast soda can collection? It happens to Taiwanese as well, though the urgency was greater because I’m a foreigner. There was no way for her father to go to my neighborhood and talk to family friends, neighbors, employers, and get a sense of Darren. I now understand his disquiet, I had no pedigree or guanxi. Concerns over my personality and our love created a large bump in second quarter earnings for Taiwanese psychics.

Pronouncing on character and compatibility is not all psychics do here, they also select appropriate dates and times for important family activities. My family has a Buddhist master (師父) they go to for advice about the future, exorcisms, and their general chanting needs. I don’t know how accurate he is, but his recitations are beautiful. There is an astrologer that is frequently consulted. This dude’s amazing, in unexpected ways. If memory serves, my father-in-law also consulted a shaman (乩童)  from the local temple in his hometown. Of course, my wife, likewise, consulted her own array of soothsayers.

Choosing appropriate dates and times for marriage is astrology’s purview, explaining why Taiwanese weddings sometimes happen at bizarre times. 5:30 am? Sounds great for a wedding. [Allowing you to have the reception at the Yellowtail Snapper Gentlemen’s Club breakfast buffet]. Our spiritual consultants provided appropriate dates and times for marriage, all them much sooner than I anticipated. From the list, taking into consideration other superfluous needs and wants, we chose a date (06/07/08), a couple months after our engagement. Taiwan had once again looked upon my plans and giggled.

The uncertainty when control passes to family members, the community, and psychics explains why red bombs (wedding invitations) come so shortly before the wedding. People want to ensure they’ve navigated all obstacles and will actually marry. There’s many a slip ‘twixt dick and toilet. In Taiwan you usually receive your wedding invitation one or two weeks before the ceremony. You’re expected to drop everything to attend. It’s inconvenient, but this explains that.

The Care and Feeding of the Elderly in Asia

He looked at me through drooping eyebrows and dread eyes and in a slow choked voice whispered, “You have to. It’s your duty, you understand? There’s nothing more important in life.” My father-in-law had just asked how I intended to care for my aging parents in Canada. I gave a flip response, because everything I do is flippant, it’s part of my charm. I may have made some reference to that time-honored Canadian tradition of taking your aged, no longer productive, parents and putting them on an ice floe and setting them adrift. I’ve always thought the practice a marvelous piece of Canadiana. Of course I was joking,… probably, but it worried him. The unstated question was what are you going to do to me?

His fear gets to the heart of one of the traditional impediments to intercultural marriage. What’s going to happen to me? Will my foreign son-in-law or daughter-in-law care for me the way I expect? Often I’ve heard Taiwanese say that foreigners are too independent, using the word as a pejorative. They mean that many foreigners are only concerned about themselves and not their family. Like most cross-cultural beliefs this is a half-truth built upon a misunderstanding.

Most Westerners are relatively more independent from their families than the average Asian. Most Asians think it unilaterally the child’s idea, so they can selfishly pursue their own life, their own goals, their own pleasures. That’s not true. Traditionally Europeans lived similar to the Asian ideal. A large extended family living in close proximity, ideally under the same roof, caring for each other. The goal in Taiwan is still to have three generations under the same roof—all beaking off simultaneously. In North America that changed around 4 to 5 generations ago? Of course this varies by family and geography. In my family it was my grandparents who started the change. My great-grandparents would have liked to live with their children as they aged, but my grandparent’s generation did not want this. Their reasons undoubtedly were multivariate, some selfish and some altruistic, but it was a sea change in family life.

Here’s the part many Asians don’t get, when my grandparents generation became elderly, they didn’t want to live with their children. This is perhaps more a North American attitude than European. In the New World, rugged individualism was of paramount importance. On the frontier you needed to fend for yourself, children were raised to be independent for survival. These pioneers did not want to live in their children’s house in their twilight. It would have taken away their dignity and independence, the most important human attribute—what made a man a man. A short trip on the ice floe was preferable.

Also, the quality of care provided by family, though well-intentioned, is not the best. If grandma moves into the home and needs special care most families are ill-equipped to handle it. They have neither the skills, nor the time. The system was adequate for an agrarian society, but Asia has very rapidly urbanized. [See: My Parents Are Nuts].  Who takes care of grandma while mother and father work? The grandchildren? The whole situation is a untenable.

Here’s an anecdote showing the stereotypical differences between a Westerner (me) and traditional Taiwanese (my Favorite Student). One day I walked into class and he was behaving a little strangely. His chest was puffed up and had that cock-of-the-walk look. He was explaining his mother had moved into his house. Everyone was praising him as a good son. I walked in and immediately shat a triple-coiler all over his parade, when without thinking I rather pissily said, “Why are you doing that?”

He replied, “Well, she’ll be able to live with us and take care of the kids. Won’t that be nice?”

I was FOB and vehemently replied, “Nooo. Grandma is old, don’t stuffed her into a back room and expected her to care for your children. Child care is hard work. Grandma’s done enough work in her life. You made them, you take care of them. Let her enjoy the time she has left.” With hindsight I might’ve been a little too real. [I wasn’t always the paragon of cultural sensitivity I am now]. It shocked my favorite student and most of his classmates, but I did see one young woman nodding agreement. Things are change, society has  no choice.

As for my in-laws, when I was getting married I had the foresight to insist that no Chen would ever live with us. The wife readily agreed, though she was in love back then, so who knows. I have two parents-in-law and a brother-in-law that require medical care. Will they ever live under our roof? Never say never—but never.

“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.