Category Archives: General

The Wuhan Epidemic and the Mandate of Heaven

I’m going a bit off-topic to talk about China, but I’m currently on extended vacation due to the coronavirus out of Wuhan, so in some ways it feels on-topic. I won’t talk about why these viruses so frequently develop in China, but rather why they have a tendency to spiral out of control.

Emperors have ruled China since the murky depths of prehistory. Each dynasty derived its legitimacy—the right to rule—from the Mandate of Heaven. Essentially each dynasty’s rulers have served at the pleasure of heaven. Part of their role was to intercede with the gods to ensure good crops and protect against natural calamities. When a dynasty collapses it is marked by a great tragedy, usually a natural disaster—the signal for political change. This is why when a natural disaster strikes Taiwan, the Chinese leadership usually offers snippy comments on Taiwanese politics. They’re assholes—sure. But, they’re assholes with a political philosophy.

The Mandate of Heaven is an anachronism; but, in many ways so is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP doesn’t have a very clear mandate to rule. Nobody voted for them. The Party is atheistic, so presumably they weren’t chosen by the gods, and do not serve heaven. Why are they there?

I often see Western media talk about the CCP deriving its legitimacy from its ability to ensure continued prosperity. That’s true, but it misses the broader point. In a real sense, the CCP is just the latest dynasty to rule China. The majority of China is still undereducated and segregated from the world. The old ways hold sway, whether in technology, agriculture, medicine, or politics. CCP rule operates under the Mandate of Heaven, whether they like it or not.

If a cataclysm and chaos mark the end of a reign, then the opposite—periods of calm—must show heaven’s continued support. Prosperity and a relative lack of natural catastrophes are indicators the CCP continues to hold the Mandate of Heaven. The natural result—and visible sign—of such silky smooth trouble-free rule is social order and harmony. That’s one reason maintaining social order is the most important feature of Chinese governance.

In addition, the Chinese government has  a top-down centralized structure. A characteristic of such organizational structures is officials don’t want to risk their boss’s ire by kicking bad news up the chain. That’s just the way it is. (Soviet Russia was the same, watch Chernobyl).

When something happens that threatens social order, the instinct is to sweep it under the rug. Outbreak? What Outbreak? During SARS, the last epidemic that started in China, doctors were told by top provincial authorities not to educate the public about the virus. Hospitals just sent patients home for bed rest. Most knew nothing about Western medicine, ignored the advice, and simply continued daily life, infecting others. The current 2019-nCoV outbreak in Wuhan has followed a similar trajectory. Wuhan authorities initially tried to keep a lid on information regarding the epidemic. They literally preferred to let people die than acknowledge the true situation.

So vital is preserving a sense of social order and harmony, combined with the strong desire not to be the bearer of bad news, that during Spring Festival celebrations, Wuhan party officials did nothing to mitigate the worst effects of the public revelry.  A particularly egregious example was authorities, knowing about the epidemic, allowed state television to promote a municipal banquet—in the infected zone—where a hundred thousand guests ate together, dipping their chopsticks into the communal food, Chinese style. Also, at the beginning of the holiday hundreds of thousands were allowed to board trains and planes to infect other passengers, and then to spread the virus throughout China, and to a lesser degree the world. It wasn’t until the virus went international, and Wuhan authorities could no longer turn a blind eye, that measures to control the spread of the virus began to be taken.

When I was a child, a family friend, who was an epidemiologist, [drunkenly] contented that the thing that would eventually take out humanity was a virus—and that it would come from China.  Thus far I’ve seen nothing that contradicts his prediction.

Inconsistencies in Publishing Schedule

Until the end of the Chinese New Year holiday my publishing will be a bit irregular. I will try to post as often as possible, but I’m dealing with [serious] family health problems; [minor but annoying] personal health issues; will play host to visiting family; and also will be making a trip to Canada during this period. I apologize. I recommend a trip through The Salty Egg’s back catalog when you find yourself suffering a bout of hyponatremia. Here are a few suggestions.

It was a surprise to me, but my most popular post by a very wide margin is Don’t Marry a Foreigner. One of my earliest posts, Marrying Taiwanese, is a perennial favorite, garnering daily views. It is unsurprising that intercultural dating/marriage are popular topics among my expat readers, but there are a few articles on the subject that are less widely trafficked: The Hot-Crazy-Taiwanese Matrix and Taiwan’s Marriage Market.

If you’re more of a tourist than a resident of Taiwan, you could try Snakes & Whores, or some of my food writing; The Taiwanese Hamburger, Oyster Omelette, or Oyster Vermicelli. One of my favorite food articles is actually Gross-Out Porn for the Armchair Traveler.

But, I’m not a very serious guy, and tend to like the lighter things. Three of my favorite pieces have no deeper meaning than a chuckle; Sperm Donation and the White Guy, Harmonicas and Public Humiliation, and Are You Gay? A very fun, if off-topic, read is Profound Musings. Check it out.

For those times when you’re not feeling quite so irreverent, try my articles on cultural linguistics. There’s quite a few, but the starting point is The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock and A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places.

Or, if you’re just looking for information on intercultural interaction and culture shock, try these; Guanxi, Humor’s Intercultural Perils, Taiwan’s Social Hierarchy, and Symbolic, Parabolic, Metaphorical,  Allegorical,... The entire blog’s theme is culture shock, so just surf around. There are lots of good things to find.

 

Reflecting on Canada: Reverse Culture Shock (Pt. II—The Niggling Little Issues)

Canada’s larger paradigm shifts while I was away are dealt with in Part I. There are also the seemingly small things about Canada that might cause reverse culture shock. Though uncomplicated, these changes in yourself, or your home country, really hit you where you live. It is the reverse culture equivalent of simple culture shock—why do you eat that? You think karaoke is fun? How is that joke insulting?

The first of these simple reverse culture shocks would undoubtedly be the weather. I remember watching an expat friend return to Saskatchewan from Taiwan for a visit in winter. He’d been living in Taiwan for a decade and arrived during a cold snap. The skin on his hands dried up and fell off, leaving red, itchy, gross appendages. I wouldn’t look forward to dealing with a real Canadian winter.

One of the most bizarre changes to Canadian cultural norms that happened while I was gone—and totally blows me away—is Tim Hortons. When did that place become THE Canadian food experience? When I lived there it was little more than a place to go for crap coffee if you were out in the wee hours and nothing good was open. Ironically, it became an iconic piece of Canadiana when it was sold to an American group. If I ever consume that crap and pronounce it wonderfully Canadian, shoot me.

Growing up in a cold climate I cocooned myself in layers of blankets and quilts to sleep. It was a wonderfully secure and relaxing feeling to poke your nose into the cool air from under a mountain of blankets, very like swaddling. When I first moved to Taiwan, one of the adjustment problems I endured for years was being unable to get a really good sleep without the weight of a pile of bed covers pressing down on me. After decades, I’ve finally habituated to sleeping semi-nude upon the bed, under the air conditioner, with no covers. Try getting that out of your mind. Of course, why would you want to? Now when I visit Canada, I struggle to sleep under all those covers. I feel claustrophobic, like I’m suffocating.

One advantage of living in a foreign language environment is you have a fair expectation the people around you will not understand what you’re saying. I have become used to saying whatever I think whenever I want. It is becoming a problem as more people in Taipei understand and tune in, but my social habits were set in an earlier time. This assumed privacy has made many of my generation of Asian-based expats excessively direct and often rude. [See: The Benefits of Being Misunderstood]. Canada, during my time abroad, has gone in the opposite direction, becoming less verbally freewheeling. It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize my mouth getting me into trouble upon returning to Canada.

Most Canadians would be surprised to learn that they have a reputation for being aloof and borderline unfriendly. Though I understand the Canadian perspective on personal space, privacy, and amiability, after spending most of my adult life in Taiwan, I don’t share it. My personality tends towards introversion and quietness, but when you throw over all your friends and family to live as an expat, being an introvert doesn’t work. [See: Expat Friendships]. You need to be gregarious, meet strangers, and form new connections. I’ve gotten used to committing random acts of friendliness that fall totally flat in Canada. Once walking down the street in Saskatoon, I spotted a shop girl, in a store window, with a full-sleeve tattoo. It was impressive. So, like the Canadian-Taiwanese that I am, I spun around and went into the store to talk to her about her tattoo. You would have thought I was a mass murderer hell-bent on raping her in the middle of the store. It was a Canadian moment. I didn’t enjoy it, and it has repeated itself with both men and women when in Canada.

As a long term expat, one problem I have returning to Canada is finding everything unreasonably expensive. I think this is as much a psychological issue as economics.  My sense of Canadian value was set as a student 25-30 years ago. At the time, I might have reasonably, tried to eat and entertain myself for a week on $5-$15. Now when I go home and find a beer and burger kicking the crap out of a twenty dollar bill, I start channeling my grandfather: “$17.50!?! $17.50?!? That’s outrageous! Why in my day a lad could live for two weeks on $17.50, and still have enough change leftover for a blowjob”. It might just be age and psychology. I wasn’t present for many changes in Canadian society, including a period of hyperinflation during the oil boom, so I keep getting blindsided by costs. It’s like the normal aging process amped up on crystal meth.

Finally, no discussion of reverse culture shock would be complete without talking about driving. When I drove in Canada, before coming to Taiwan, I was a cautious and patient driver. I do drive in Taiwan and have the whole time I’ve lived here. I am , also, a very cautious and patient driver in Taiwan. But, when you take that careful and patient Taiwanese driver, and drop him onto a Canadian road—he’s the most aggressive asshole out there. I struggle with this every time I return to Canada. Usually before driving, I take the car out and drive around quiet streets, trying to redevelop a sense of Canadian timing. Even so, I struggle not to turn left as soon as a light turns green, to beat oncoming traffic. I find it hard not to dive the car into the smallest of spaces when changing lanes. I have a totally non-Canadian idea of proxemics as related to traffic. Most streets in Canadian cities seem like giant empty parking lots to me.

I could keep this list going for much longer. I haven’t touched on tipping, meat portions, socially acceptable sweat levels, etc., but I’ve run long.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflecting on Canada: Reverse Culture Shock (Pt. I—Big Things)

After I posted my article on transnationalism, someone wrote and asked me to expand on what I’d said, and I thought to myself…fuck off. Just kidding. I thought who knows. Maybe. My articles on the Taiwanese generation gap and Taiwanese reverse culture shock got me thinking more about alienation from home and globalization, so maybe I have more to say. This article is in two parts; the first part is somewhat serious and deals with bigger issues, the second part is lighter and discusses small things.

Friends and family tell me that I’ve changed and wouldn’t fit back into Canadian society. From my perspective, I haven’t changed much, but Canada and Canadians have changed a lot. I’m a perfectly preserved specimen of 1994 L.B. canadianeis. Some of Canada’s evolution matches global trends, others are uniquely Canadian. Either way, we’re in agreement that I wouldn’t fit in anymore.

I’ve been pretty continuously outside Canada since 1994. When I left, the internet existed, but it was totally different than it is now. There were no browsers. Very few people had even heard of it. It certainly was not putting the world at your fingertips. I’ve written a bit (here) about how the internet has internationalized life in Taiwan. It has also internationalized Canada, particularly in rural area. Fads, fashions and trends are instantaneously global now. Growing up in Saskatchewan, we used to be able to watch a fashion trend arrive. It followed a certain pattern. If the trend was coming from Europe or New York, it would hit Toronto first. In a couple years it would arrive in Saskatchewan. If the trend came from Los Angeles or Asia, it would hit Vancouver first, and make its way to Saskatchewan in a year or less. Via travel and TV we’d be aware of what was happening in the major centers, it’s just that it would seem stupid until the fad actually swept over Saskatchewan.

The internet has changed my home for good and bad. Almost anything that is available anywhere in the world is also available in Saskatchewan which is more a part of the wider world. However, some of the more lunatic ideas sweeping social media have found fertile soil in Western Canada.

In particular a kind of anti-science—anti-fact—ethos pervades. The root cause would seem to be oil. Much of Western Canada really profited from the oil boom when China ramped up industry. At the national level a pro-oil Albertan Prime Minister was elected. He did what he could to stifle the spread of facts. He went to war with Environment Canada and tried to muzzle scientists. It had a Dark Ages feel—we can’t stand the light of knowledge, it scours the flesh so. Judging from social media, Western Canada is a sucker for every piece of unsubstantiated, nonscientific, BS that gets posted. I think the root cause is a strong desire to deny climate change in an attempt to help the oil industry. There is room for legitimate scientific debate on climate change. However, the people filling my social media with climate change denials don’t know anything about climatology. They back themselves up with pseudoscience and fallacious arguments: It flooded a hundred years ago, so all the flooding now cannot be caused by climate change; it snowed, climate change is a hoax. I know nothing about climate change, so I’m going to take the word of oil executives and the politicians they pay. Of course poor scientific education and a lack of critical thinking are partly to blame, but largely it is economic self-interest. In the words of Upton Sinclair:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

The same thing is happening around the world, President Trump is trying to destroy the EPA and crash global climate change accords, because it’s all a hoax the world’s scientists concocted. His single-digit IQ and empirical research tells him so. Canada actually beat Trump down the path of ignorance.

I left Canada before the last oil-boom really got going. People didn’t try so desperately to deny science. There was always a kind of anti-intellectualism that I assume is common in farm communities, however no one was trying to say the earth is flat, vaccines are harmful, or that scientific knowledge must be stopped—it’s all bunkum. Now when I go home I do meet people desperate to be freed from knowledge’s oppressiveness. It’s weird.

Another area where Canada is following global trends is the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment. As essentially an immigrant myself, I find this one especially execrable. My contact with Canada mostly comes through family and friends in Western Canada. This may be skewing my understanding, the politics of Western Canada can be particularly vile. Maybe I’m looking at the past through rose-colored glasses, but during the last major refugee crisis to hit Canada, we took a lot of Vietnamese boat people. I don’t think there was so much negativity around the refugees. We didn’t have a direct role in creating that crisis. Canadian military operations helped create the Syrian refugee crisis. Bomb the shit out of people and they’re going to run. I suppose the difference with Vietnamese refugees is Syrian refugees are a little too brown, and a lot too Muslim.

I guess I came of age in a much kinder and more humanistic Canada. Since I’ve been gone Stephen Harper became Prime Minister, and he brought Alberta’s political culture to the nation. Alberta politics has been borderline insane since 1935 when a right-wing populist party took control of the Provincial government and held it for almost forty years. Right-wing populism always has aimed to exploit voter’s fear and bigotry. That this political culture spread to the rest of Western Canada, and with the election of Stephen Harper, infected the national body politic, places me outside Canada’s Overton Window. National and provincial politics, and Canadian political discourse,  would undoubtedly cause reverse culture shock as 1994-Canadian meets 2019-Canadian.

The rise of endless war in the Middle East parallels my expat experience. Desert Storm I: The Genesis broke out while I was in Thailand, my first extended stay in Asia. Canadian troops were there for the original, the sequel, and all other messes in the Middle East, up to and including the Syrian crisis’s early days. I believe this continual war footing has had a strong effect on Canadian identity and psyche. It has been a slow moving change, so it seems like Canadians living in Canada are unaware of the changes. Blind patriotism, jingoism, my country—right or wrong—has increased since I’ve been gone. The Canada I grew up in hated this attitude. It was part of the reason Canadians feared being misidentified as American. To me opposite to blind patriotism partly defines Canada’s national identity. Seeing Canadians acting like Americans is disconcerting. This attitude also contributed to the rise of right-wing populism. The hate engendered in these politics were part of the lunatic fringe in my Canada. It is a lot more mainstream now.

During return trips to Canada the thing that has caused serious reverse culture shock has been massive inflation brought on by the oil boom. The Canadian dollar’s value rose dramatically without a commiserate drop in prices. Most Canadians were unaware of this inflation, because the prices they paid remained stable, but there was approximately a 25%-30% rise in the real cost of products. (The equivalent to how much the dollar rose in value). I sure noticed the difference as my Taiwanese money went much less far. The price of a trip home rose precipitously. The cost of servicing my Canadian student loan debt became very onerous.

Despite all these changes, it is nice to note that some things are shockingly consistent. Growing up in Western Canada was a continual political battle with Trudeau. Forty years later and it is—amazingly—the same. Kind of warms the heart.

Part II talks about some of the fun little sources of reverse culture shock. [See: Reflecting on Canada Part II]

Dancing Octopus Legs

I have mentioned in passing some of the odd foods available here, and there are some doozies, but the weirdest dishes passed my palate while living in Korea. There was the ever-popular street food—silkworm pupae. I came to quite enjoy a cup of worms as I strolled around window shopping. The taste and smell are not the best, but when you bite into one there is an initial crunchiness followed by a spurt of goo. Very satisfying. Then there was Korean dog soup, a favorite on cold winter days. The meat is dark, tangy, and shockingly delicious. It reminds me a bit of moose. I only ever had it one time. I was hungry when I first tucked into the bowl and well-able to power through, but as I ate, I became less hungry, until eventually every time I raised the spoon to my mouth I thought: “This is dog. This is dog. This is dog.” And, that was the end of that. Still, by far the weirdest food that I’ve eaten came in a high-end Korean sushi joint.

Now, personally, I can pretty much choke down anything. I may not enjoy it, but I get it done. It is one of the social graces I’ve developed living in Asia. If you’re invited to have dinner with a friend’s family, you should suck down your lightly boiled pig’s intestine, roasted pork fat, and under cooked chicken—and smile. This is the story of a newbie to Korea, who lacked my gustatory disposition, and a formal dinner party we attended together.

Tammy was a fresh graduate from an Ontario university. She was about 22 years old, and spending a year teaching in Korea was to be her first big international experience. It all seems romantic and wonderful when you’re young and sitting in Canada, and then you get here. Tammy arrived in my little corner of Hell—living in rural Korea thirty years ago really was a horror—a giggling mass of excitement and good intentions. The school director was happy to see her as he was short-staffed. I was happy to see her because I’d been living as the lone white guy in that Korean fishing village for months and I was going stark raving mad.

To celebrate Mr. Lee took the entire staff out for a nice Korean dinner. At that time in Yeosu (여수) if you wanted to go out for a decent meal you had two choices, sushi or Korean barbecue. Mr. Lee chose sushi. Yeosu’s sushi was hardcore, as you’d expect from a Korean fishing village. There were slabs of raw fish, uncooked mollusks and sea urchin, which if you’ve never tried is really tough to get down—there was none of this California Sushi Roll shit.

So, off we went to a restaurant. As we were a group of perhaps a dozen, we were able to get our own little private room, that had one of those tables with the legs cut short so that you could sit cross-legged on the floor while eating, Japanese style. The table ran parallel to the back wall of the room, so nearly half the people sat against the back wall, with the table in front of them. Tammy, as the guest of honor, was seated in the center of the table, with her back against the wall. There were at least two or three people on either side of her. On her left sat the boss, Mr. Lee, and on her right sat Mrs. Lee. The rest of us were randomly gathered around Tammy, who was the evening’s focal point.

As I’m telling this story, you have to bear in mind that this was 25+ years ago, and the availability of different types of food around the world has increased exponentially since then (The WTO and My Waistline). This was a time when not every gas station in Canada was serving sushi rolls. Most small- and medium-sized cities had no sushi. For the adventurous western Canadian, you could go to Vancouver and try it. Probably Toronto had sushi restaurants too.

So, this was a new experience for our girl Tammy. She bore up under the strain pretty well. It was very obvious to me, watching her face, that she was not enjoying the meal, but she managed to put on a reasonable show. You know, smiling, nodding, joining the conversation, complimenting the food, having a bit of Soju, and just generally holding her end socially. Neither the boss, nor any of the other Korean staff seemed to suspect just what a difficult time she was having choking down the food. Of course they wouldn’t. It was a really fine, high-end, dining experience—they weren’t looking for signs of dietary distress or nausea.

But, Tammy was showing all the classic signs. She was barely touching her food, while doing her best to appear to be enjoying the meal with all the fake gustatory verve she could muster.  But, a slightly closer look revealed she was green around the gills. Whenever she put some raw seafood in her mouth you could see that it wasn’t going anywhere. She would chew, and chew, and chew, trying to get it down, but it just stuck there. Inevitably she’d have to take a drink, and try to swallow it like a pill.

I’m not as fully evolved as I appear, I’m definitely capable of enjoying a bit of schadenfreude from time to time. I especially enjoy watching people suffer through culture shock, I suppose because I’ve spent so much of my life doing the same. I was seated opposite Tammy, and had a terrific view of the whole spectacle.

The meal was coming to an end, and Tammy, realizing the ordeal was ending, was visibly beginning to relax. I was proud of her. Then the final dish arrived. The table hushed in anticipation as the server came from the kitchen carrying the pièce de résistance. I knew something was wrong when I saw Tammy turning from sickly green to pale white. I looked over my shoulder to see the waitress carrying a large platter of slimy looking things—and they were moving. I had never seen the likes before. It looked like a heaping platter of wet writhing worms.

I turned my head back to the table, just in time to see Tammy, who was trapped between Mr. and Mrs. Lee, move her head to the left, and forcefully puke down Mr. Lee’s side, from ear to waist. Such a pity, she had done so well.

But, on the plus side, I thoroughly enjoyed the show. Mr. Lee was an ass—it was awesome.

What had been delivered to our table turned out to be Korean-style Dancing Octopus Legs (video here). According to Wikipedia San-nakji (산낙지) is a raw long armed octopus (Octopus minor), a small octopus species. They are killed before being cut into small pieces and served. The octopus’ complex nervous system, with two-third of its neurons in the tentacle’s nerve cords, allows the octopus to exhibit a variety of reflex actions without brain activity. In other words, the tentacles move on the plate posthumously.

As a meal, the San-nakji was tough to stomach, but as dinner entertainment, it put on one hell of a show.