Category Archives: Family Life

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.

Sperm Donation and the White Guy: A Trip to the Taiwanese Fertility Clinic

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.

Nope.

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.