Category Archives: Family Life

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.

Help! I’m Living in a High-Context Family

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.

Vignette #7: My Favorite Student

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.

Vignette #6: Red Envelopes and the Karmic Circle of Cash

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.