Being other in Asia has led to some bizarre experiences as the locals, unfettered by Western norms for dealing with minorities, have felt free to let their freak-flag fly. I’m just going to recount a few of my odder moments in Asia. If you want more on the social underpinnings of this behavior read Anti-Foreigner Bigotry. These stories are just for shit and giggles.
I’m blonde, and hirsute compared to Asians, so it is common for strangers to play with my hair. Either they’ll ask first or just surreptitiously start touching my hair. Stroking the hair on my arms and legs seems to be practically irresistible for some young women. It’s fun. However, if you’re not expecting it, the light caressing of your leg can feel disconcertingly like a cockroach—one of those big flying motherfuckers—has just landed on your thigh and is threatening to crawl up your shorts. A suave James Bond type would have witty patter ready and be off to the races. My normal reaction has been to clench my butt cheeks so hard I shoot out of my chair, windmilling backwards through the air trying to get away from the offending coleoptera. Smooth. [I remained unmarried until forty].
In social settings, such as a club or bar, it’s pretty flirty. From my side, inviting some pretty young thing to stroke my leg hair was a surprisingly effective icebreaker. I know, sounds creepy, right? I don’t recall anyone ever saying no, and it has led to many pleasurable flirtations. Sometimes the desire to play with my hair is more clinical. I’ve had platonic female friends—who’ve been hurtfully contemptuous of the idea of dating—ask to touch my hair, and proceed to engage in what can only be described as light petting. Just as I’d begin thinking I’d misread the signals, and maybe her animus was really coquetry, the fondling would stop and the conversation would continue down the road of mundanity, leaving me going, well, okay, thanks for the boner, I guess. These episodes can spring from genuine platonic desire to learn about another race’s physical features.
The groping expression of racial curiosity from cute Asian females, though slightly racist, has its charms. The whole inappropriate touching thing can have a darker side, moments that make you go, “Huh! I really am an alien.”
During my time in Korea, quite long ago, I was at a bath house, sweating out my hangover. One of the best things about living in Korea was the bath houses. You could go to one usually for around $1 US. You got access to a sauna, steam bath, large jacuzzi, warm tub, cold tub and a lounge, for as many hours as desired. Usually the set up was luxurious, and most Koreans partook of the bath house at least weekly.
Once at my local bath house, while enjoying a steam, a middle aged Korean man sat right beside me. I felt it was slightly odd, male public nudity and close proximity don’t generally mix. You don’t want to risk inadvertently grazing each other, or catching a glimpse of ball sack and needing months of painful psychoanalysis. Still, having the guy perch down beside me wasn’t so socially awkward as to cause flight. Instead I ignored him. That went fine right up until he—totally uninvited—started stroking my chest hair and giving me a thumbs up, while telling me in stilted English that the mass of hair on my chest was great. Inappropriate, Dude. Inappropriate.
Would you call this sexual harassment? A bit of indecorous female touching is good clean fun, but when guys do it,…ugh. It helps me appreciate the #MeToo movement.
If you’ve traveled Taiwan you could be forgiven reaching the conclusion driving on the sidewalk is legal. It’s not; but, sending pedestrians flying for cover as you—astride 125cc’s of rumbling thunder—roar onto the sidewalk is practically the national pastime.
When I first arrived in Taiwan I too concluded sidewalk surfing on a scooter was perfectly legal. In my defense, nowadays people still drive on Taiwan’s sidewalks, but they’re a bit shifty-eyed about it. Occasionally they’ll even hop off and push their scooters. An astute onlooker might guess that sidewalk driving is illegal. Not so twenty-some years ago, then drivers had no compunction about using the sidewalk as a handy third lane.
I went to Taiwan to live and bought myself a scooter within weeks of arrival. I had no more knowledge of Taiwan than an average tourist. Unaware of my own illegality, I took great joy in playing motorized sidewalk snooker [old man off the hobbling geriatric woman’s walker into the stinky tofu stand], just like a native-born son of Taiwan—a most 台 of 台客’s.
One particular day, I was high-tailing it down the sidewalk heading to work—hell-bent for khaki—when I plowed past a police officer giving me the stink-eye. He was obviously tempted to stop me, but that was back when you could count on cops to assiduously avoid foreigners. [A beautiful era]. I was confused by his reaction. I thought maybe he’d never seen a white guy driving in Taiwan. It was still uncommon. It never occurred to me, as I scrapped old-guy [10 points] off my scooter’s bodywork, that the issue might be my one-man demolition derby through Taipei’s walkways.
When I breathlessly hauled ass into class and told them the story, the whole class looked at me like a cross-eyed Appalachian cousin-brother. They insisted my behavior was terribly illegal. My reaction was: “Really? In Taiwan?!? Illegal?” I continued in a scoffing tone, “Pray tell what is this ‘traffic violation’ of which you speak?” Turns out there were traffic regulations restricting the driving of motorized vehicles on the sidewalk.
That was my first introduction to Taiwanese legal philosophy. Just ignore laws that are inconvenient, don’t make sense, or are too annoying—unless there’s a cop around.
I’ve had to deal with undeserved fame as an expat. I’m not sure this is common. It happens to me through hobbies. I love to learn and have studied many things since moving to Taiwan, including jewelry design and goldsmithing, harmonica, piano, dance, and Go. I have some ability at art and design, at everything else I’m hopeless. The thing I’m worst at is music. I began studying piano and harmonica because I recognized my own deficiency and wanted to cultivate better musical appreciation. Also, my artistic hobbies were producing objets d’art that were cluttering my very small apartment. I expected studying music to produce nothing of value. I recognized my limitations and had no goals beyond developing musical taste.
When I took up harmonica, my tendency towards notoriety reached its apogee. At the start, everything was fine. I contentedly drove my harmonica teacher, Mr. Lee, to distraction. It reminded me of my youth. I’ve caused more than one music teacher to quit. I have chronic white man rhythm and tin-ear syndrome. Still, I had fun slaughtering Camptown Races and other classics from America’s songbook. My enjoyment was contingent on no one hearing, beyond my teacher and his long-suffering neighbors.
Then Mr. Lee asked me to get involved with some Taiwanese harmonica groups and associations. He didn’t ask because I’m a harmonica prodigy. He needed my English ability. Taiwan has a very active community of harmonicists, and they frequently invite foreign harmonica players to Taiwan for concerts and masterclasses. Mr. Lee was planning to invite some 10-hole harmonica players to Taiwan. He needed my help with English. To provide me credibility with foreign harmonica players he created a 10-hole harmonica club, and anointed me president. Surprisingly there wasn’t already one. Diatonic (10-hole) harmonica is not so popular in Taiwan. The soulful whiny music diatonic harmonica excels at—blues, hard rock, country, and fiddle music—is not very popular. Instead, harmonica orchestras and ensembles are favored, thus most Taiwanese play chromatic, tremolo, bass, or chord harmonicas. The Taiwan 10-Hole Harmonica Club included a small, but passionate and highly skilled group of diatonic players, and then there was me—the putz in charge.
During my presidential reign various harmonica virtuosi visited Taiwan, including Mike Stevens, Brendan Powers, Peter Madcat Ruth, Lee Oskar, Fumio Ishikawa, and many more. If you’re a harmonica nerd, these names are huge. I found myself attending and/or helping with many of these events. I enjoyed the concerts and taking those famed players around Taiwan. The inevitable masterclasses were a nightmare. My hobby was meant to be a solitary way to work through my musical issues. I never wanted to perform in public, but the masterclasses forced me to play in front of internationally respected artists and Taiwan’s best players. My position heading Taiwan’s diatonic harmonica club compounded my discomfiture.
I always wondered if the Taiwanese players thought I was an undeserving jackass leveraging my whiteness into a position beyond my capabilities. Some Taiwanese players had technique on par with the visiting artists, and all were much better than I. The Taiwanese harmonica players were very kind, but behind the eyes sometimes I saw those beliefs. That’s okay—those were my thoughts too. I also caused disconsternation for visiting artists when I started tootling away in their masterclasses. It sounded like freeform jazz on bagpipes. For some I was their only point of contact in Taiwan while arranging their tour. It was natural to assume I’d have skills. It was all very uncomfortable.
My unjustified renown sometimes bedevil me in other ways. On one of my first dates with my eventual wife I took her to a harmonica concert. As we sat down, a photographer stuck his SLR in our faces, and popped off a half dozen quick shots. The wall of rapid flashes stunned Venus and she stammered, “Whaaa,…what was that?” It was my old nemesis the paparazzi [see: I’m Kinda Racist]. I was forced to admit, “Oh, uh, heh-heh, sorry. I’m kinda famous,… sort of”. My friend referred to me as the Paris Hilton of Taiwan’s harmonica world; all fame, no talent.
In a life filled with embarrassment, my most ignominious moment happened around fifteen years ago at Mike Steven’s concert. Mr. Lee had asked me to help invite Mike Stevens and Raymond McLain to perform in Taiwan. [You can see them playing a classic Québécois/Acadian song here]. Mike pioneered using harmonica in bluegrass music.
I happily helped correspond with them, made some of their arrangements, and acted as an English-speaking host and tour guide after they arrived. As your national harmonica representative, I introduced the sights, Taiwanese harmonica luminaries, and helped with basic cultural/language issues. It was massively fun. I enjoyed doing this with many harmonica players, but Mike and Raymond were particularly engaging. They had wicked senses of humor. We laughed our way up and down the island from concert hall to concert hall.
They were in Taiwan for four to five days and did two concerts, a short benefit show, and two masterclasses. In between Mr. Lee and I toured them around Taipei and Taichung. Mike enjoyed Taiwan and the pace of his mini-tour. He had just come from being Dwight Yoakam’s opening act, so he was used to; arrive, set up, sound-check, sound-check, play, breakdown, go, next day—next town. For him, Taiwan was leisurely.
At the Taipei concert venue, during the sound-check, Mr. Lee pulled me aside and told me I’d have to go onstage and introduce Mike and Raymond. I’m used to public speaking, but this was different. The Taipei show was in a concert hall holding over two thousand strangers. That’s different than addressing a hundred students, I know, who must tolerate me. It was scary.
I really didn’t want to do it. The entire thing was sprung on me a couple hours before the show. I’d have chewed my arm off to escape. I tried to fob it off on someone else. I even found a self-important big-mouth willing to do it. However, Mr. Lee insisted I do it. He’d arranged the concert, he was paying for and promoting the show, he didn’t want a random outsider onstage. He had a point.
As the crowd settled in, I got up onstage and introduced Mike and Raymond in English, which I admit I thought was weird—I mean the audience was overwhelmingly Taiwanese. As soon as I finished, I headed backstage intending to find a seat, relax, and enjoy the show. I should explain that Mr. Lee and I always spoke Chinese. Since we mostly communicated in the international language of music, he didn’t notice my Chinese’s limitations. Looking back I can see that Mr. Lee assumed I’d introduce them in Chinese. I presumed no one would be crazy enough to throw me onstage—in front of thousands—and expect Chinese to come out. English almost got stuck in my throat. As often happens living in a foreign country, there was a failure to communicate.
As I exited stage right, relieved to be done, Mr. Lee came running after me saying, “Wait, wait, get back on stage, you need to translate for them”.
Turns out he didn’t just want me to do the intro, but expected me to translate for the audience. So I stumbled back onstage, with zero prep, and began trying to do simultaneous translation. Judging from the looks Mike and Raymond shot me, I must have looked ill. Now, I had some Chinese, and a lot of English, but simultaneous translation is a specialized skill requiring fluency in both languages, a deep cultural understanding of both countries, and some specialized schooling. I didn’t have any of that. I really don’t know what in his experience of me made Mr. Lee think that my Chinese was up to the task.
It was an epic fail.
If you’ve ever seen a bluegrass concert you know it often involves storytelling, and the anecdotes usually have a rustic theme. Even with wonderful Chinese, I would have struggled to translate these tales. The stories inevitably went something like this: “Yada, yada, yada,… hillbilly thing, yada, yada, Moonshine,… White Lightening,… yada, hillbilly thing,… ridge runner,.. yada,… grits ‘n’ greens,… hillbilly thing,… Po’ Boy,… revenours, yada, yada, yada, Arkansas toothpick,… chicken fried steak,…chicken ‘n’ waffles,… All ‘dem all was a larkin’,… yada, yada,… ‘Ma still done blow’d up'”. You try translating that. I’d find myself a third of the way through a story and realize I lacked the countrified Chinese vocabulary to bring it in for a landing. I really needed Taiwanese. Not just Taiwanese, but backwoods Chiayi (Taiwan’s Appalachia) farmer’s Taiwanese.
I had to think on my feet and rely on humor to get me through. The only difference between that night and my worst nightmare is I was wearing pants. I don’t remember everything I said, that’s God’s way of protecting your psyche, but I do recall some, “Oh crap, my Chinese is so terrible. I can’t translate this. Umm, okay it’s a funny story. When I tell you—PLEASE—laugh and clap….Ok, NOW”. I melted down onstage before thousands. Embarrassing.
Like the stud I am, I got back onstage for the second concert in Taichung. This time I wasn’t caught off guard, I understood I’d be translating. I knew Mike and Raymond’s stage patter and the stories they’d tell. Between shows I’d worked out translations for their yarns. Some remained untranslatable or impossible to interpret for a Taiwanese audience, for those I had my jokes down. My shit was tight. The Taichung concert went extremely well. Unfortunately, it was a much smaller audience, just a couple hundred people. So, I humiliated myself in front of thousands, and redeemed myself in front of hundreds—story of my life.
After the tour finished, Mr. Lee paid me 遮羞費, compensation for embarrassment. It wasn’t necessary, the experience is one of my fondest memories. Of course, I have immensely thick skin and a boundless capacity to laugh at myself.
Asia has a different relationship with bodily functions than the West. In Taiwan you can expect to be frequently engaged by public displays of earthiness. Today we’ll examine that Taiwanese classic—the public fart.
I first faced this phenomenon in class. I was teaching maybe a dozen students, when a sweet teenage girl farted. It wasn’t remotely feminine or polite. She didn’t release a subdued puff of gas, wave a hand in front of her face and go, “Oops, pardon me, tee-hee, I seem to have fluffed”. No. She lifted her right butt cheek off the chair, Farmer John style, and let loose a resonant ass blast. The ol’ Arkansas trouser spider was really barking that day. Then she screwed up her face, bore down, and ejected one more panty cough, lowered her derrière to the seat, rearranged her face into its usual serene countenance, and continued taking notes like nothing had happened.
As their teacher, I was of course ready to leap in with jokes and general dumbassery as soon as someone commented. (If you can’t make fun of your students, who can you make fun of?) Well, the man sitting to her right—where the flatus had been directed—turned red and his eyes began watering, but no comments, smirks, or looks were exchanged. I was stunned no one lightened the tension with some puerile humor. The class carried on as if nothing had happened, despite the obvious discomfort of all but our teenage heroine.
That is not the Canadian way.
Occasionally when visiting my in-laws, one or both parents will be farting all over the room. I can’t deal with it. Sometimes, even at the dinner table, my father-in-law will fire a nut knocker my way. It is hard not to feel he is editorializing or engaging in social commentary; you know, the father/son-in-law dynamic. However, my wife swears he means nothing by it, and that it is just something he has always done. Chiayi charm. It only affects my appetite, everyone else unmindfully carries on.
That’s an extreme example, but even when walking in public areas, there’s a lot more gas getting passed than I’d expect in the West. I don’t mean to be too harsh. When I lived in Korea—admittedly long ago—public urination and occasionally defecation, by males and sometimes females, was common. By comparison Taiwan’s fart culture seems tame. Possibly it is even disappearing. I seem to be eating fewer air biscuits, or perhaps I’ve acclimatized and don’t notice it—sometimes it’s hard to know
One of the first queasy expat moments comes when seeking medical care for the first time. Here we’re at our most vulnerable. It is a genuinely uncomfortable needing medical assistance and facing support staff, nurses, and often dentists or doctors who do not speak English, or speak medical jargon and have that confused with English. Seeking medical attention in a system different from what you’re used to tests the mettle of many.
Luckily I’ve not faced major health issues for most of my time abroad, but even insignificant health problems can be a bunghole tightening experience. My first toothache crashed down on me early in my Taiwan stay, twenty two years ago. I had a cavity that was impossible to ignore. I tried. However, eating was an obstacle course of pain and nerve twinges food had to run through my debilitated beerhole. Every morsel I masticated, every sip I supped, had me skittering around like a cat being ambushed by a cucumber [Video]. There was no getting around it, I needed a dentist, but I didn’t know where to turn. I’d seen many dental clinics walking around Taipei. Usually through the office window you could see a straining dentist hunched over an antsy patient. Window shopping for a dentist didn’t ease my mind. My friends were know-nothing newbs—totally unhelpful. So, I did the only thing I could think of, I went to the lone dentist advertised in the English newspaper. He claimed to be Harvard trained—that sounded reassuring.
Like anyone embarking on a dangerous mission, I did a little recon first. The clinic had nice modern looking chairs and cute dental assistants. What do I know about assessing dental competency from a brief walkby? I made an appointment.
At the appointed time and hour I timorously made my way to the clinic.
A little background information is necessary to explain my apprehensions. Before coming to Taiwan I had lived in Korea. While there, I had talked with people who’d gotten dental care. In Korea, at that time, it was common for dental work to be done without anesthesia. My roommate had some cavities filled without freezing. She claimed it was fine. She wore headphones to drowned out the drill’s noise, which according to her made all the difference. She was delighted to save a few won skipping the injections. Color me skeptical. I really don’t think a Walkman is any substitute for the oblivion offered by modern pharmacology. I personally was horrified. I’m pretty sure these dental practices were mentioned in a book of medieval torture I read in school. I belong to the knock me out as much as possible school of thought. If someone is going to be drilling, cutting, yanking, or otherwise messing with my mouth, I don’t want to feel anything—damn the expense. My foremost priority on my Taiwanese dental adventure was to ensure that I got novacaine.
Different from a dental office you might find in the West, the dentist in Taipei had a waiting area that was not really separated from the his workspace. The receptionist’s counter partially obscured the view, but waiting clients were privy to much that was happening in the business end of the clinic.
After waiting, and watching, it was my turn. I made my way to the dental chair. When I sat down in the chair the dentist found I actually had two cavities, one on an upper right side molar, the other on the lower left side.
During the examination I maintained a laser focus on my priorities. Number one: freezing. The dentist grabbed a needle—without prompting—and froze my lower left molar. My stress flew away. I relaxed knowing whatever happened I wouldn’t feel it. The dentist then grabbed his drill, buzzed it menacingly a few times, but I remained nonchalant. Then he proceeded to drill the upper right—unfrozen—molar.
The tension that shot through my spine bowed my body into a banana shape, with only my heels and head touching the dentist’s chair. (I used to have abs). My pelvis and legs were shaking in a pretty decent parody of Josephine Baker’s Banana Dance. I’d have leaped right out of the chair, but with the buzzing drill in my mouth, I was scared of being cut to ribbons. I kept my gaping maw as still as possible, but it was at the end of two hundred pounds of wildly flailing protoplasm, so, you know, accurately drilling out a cavity was probably tough. The dentist gently cooed at me to take it easy. It worked a charm—I calmed right down. Idiot. Despite the power drill screwing into my tooth I managed to make it absolutely clear that the molar was not frozen. He seemed to already be aware of that, and just laughed and told me to calm down. Yeah, right! I don’t know why he was drilling the unfrozen tooth. I think maybe he was conducting an experiment to see if a white patient would put up with the same shit an Asian patient would. Nope.
He continued drilling; I continued reverse twerking.
I have to admit, despite being a freaky sensation, the drilling did not hurt. It was just weird—and then he exposed the root.
My heels and head lost contact with the chair as I basically hovered above it like a yogic flyer, only just descending to the chair long enough for the skin on my back to contract and launch me back into the air. My feet and legs were shooting out in all directions. Eventually the dentist gave up, reached for a syringe, and with a condescending laugh froze my upper jaw…and everything calmed down.
I’m tall, so the receptionist’s counter did little to hide my legs dancing like a criminal’s on the end of the hangman’s rope. The entire waiting area sat enthrall to their every quiver. They also heard my gurgling high pitched moaning. When I left, I was greeted by five very anxious and pale faces. It seems like the layout of Taiwanese dental offices needs reconsidering.
It took an inordinate amount of time for my upper molar to heal. It was a mass of jangling nerves for at least a month. The slow healing was a direct result of the lack of local anesthetic. I left that office feeling physically abused. Over two decades later, I still feel enmity towards the dentist. I must admit that he, apparently, did very good work. Every dentist that I’ve seen since, both in Canada and Taiwan, have complemented his handiwork. All I know is it was too painful. When I told the tale of my tribulations to my Taiwanese girlfriend, expecting a healthy dose of sympathy sex, all I got was laughed at and called a pussy (孬種).
Is this namby-pamby attitude towards dentistry just me, or are all foreigners the same?