Category Archives: Humor

Expat Archetypes

Here are a few archetypal expats I’ve met, or been, during my time in Asia. Personally I’ve passed through several of these archetypes. I’m guessing that’s not unique. 

The Burner: People who wash up on Asia’s shores because they can’t stay in their home countries. They end up here because of bankruptcy, divorce, legal problems, etc. They’re jet-setting losers. The Burner usually does well. Asia is a second chance and they’ve got the smarts and life experience to take advantage. They’re a personal favorite, they have the best stories, just crank them up with a couple drinks and let ’em fly—entertainment all night.

Characteristics: Alcoholism, frown lines, a brooding thousand yard stare, and cargo shorts; barely repressed rage directed at the West.

The Irrationally Angry Foreigner (IAF): Chronically incapable of adapting to change, they lash out at any differences from their perceived social ideal (the West). IAFs are raging assholes, totally lacking self-awareness, and assuming themselves the only right-minded people in a nation of idiots. It’s annoying—even Tom Cruise is mindful enough to know he’s short and crazy. Avoid IAFs at all costs. They’ll drag you down to their level, and have you violently raging about how much better Western grommets are than Asian grommets. The fury that burns brightest is the briefest—thankfully IAFs don’t last long. They either get over it or get out.

Characteristics: The red-faced pedestrian punching the taxi grill while bellowing at the driver for some perceived infraction is an IAF. The foreigner in a pet about pedestrian rights and pitching parked bicycles off the sidewalk is an IAF. They’re everywhere.

The Backpacker: Present throughout Asia in their current iteration since the late sixties, they’re traveling through seeking experiences they can afford. Northeast Asia is the wrong part of Asia. Coming here for budget travel is like going to Dubuque, Iowa for the opera. The Backpacker can be annoyingly cheap as they try to make their exit date. They were responsible for many Asian stereotypes of Westerners when I arrived. My sense is this is changing as Asia gets more sophisticated in its view of foreigners and stereotypes evolve.

Characteristics: Backpack adorned with flags and vibram-soled sport sandals. They’re in wonder of everything, knowledgeable about nothing. Usually they’re fun for short periods.

Subset: The Begpacker funds their international backpacking by begging as they go. Recognizable by their cardboard sign, alms bowl, and ability to relax on any piece of shopping district sidewalk. Generally they’re young, white, and ridiculously entitled; you’d have to be to fly from Europe or N. America to Laos or Cambodia and beg from subsistence farmers. They’re the unsolicited dicpic of expats.

The Addict: From the kindergarten teachers on speed (children love it) to the drunk falling off his barstool, they are our ever-present id. The expat life—if not actively promoting it—certainly aids addiction. It’s a bit like the military; lots of young people, free from family constraints, far away from recognizable societal guardrails, in an unknown land where the party runs 24/7. The most common entry level expat job, cram school English teacher, [inadvertently] promotes the party life. Most of the work is from 3:00-10:00pm. After work, what are you going to do? You’re making relatively good money and can sleep until mid-afternoon, for many the answer is clear. It can be vertigo-inducing after spending your teen years in Bumblefuck, USA. For some older expats the party never ended.

Characteristics: They travel in fun-loving packs, and can be seen in large numbers in their native habitat—bars and clubs. They’re great fun to be around. To find the related subspecies, Homo Hungoveris, The Addict’s less charming cousin, check buxibans in the afternoon.

The Slut: Some men arrive here specifically to bag Asian women. I’m not talking about normal guys who arrive for a long-term stay desiring an active social life. No. I mean guys trophy hunting and collecting beaver pelts. These guys are young, dumb, and full of cum. They’re very predatory. Honestly I’ve never seen this behavior so blatantly displayed outside the expat community. I suppose it exists everywhere, but the phenomenon is on crack cocaine here. I suppose the expat lifestyle’s freedom from social restrictions, combined with a depersonalized view of Asian women as easy china dolls, allows it to flourish. Amazingly, despite being as charming as an abscessed perianal boil, some of these guys get more ass than a toilet seat. Toxic masculinity exists for a reason I guess.

Characteristics: Men with hyper-aggressive banter, heads on a swivel, and eyes on pinions. You’ll find the Slut hitting on your mother-in-law, the hottie in the bar, their students, or the local obosan collecting trash. As one told me, “always be closing.”

The Earth Muffin: All expat archetypes are annoying in their own way, but my choice for most annoying are Earth Muffins. They’re here on a spiritual journey of self-discovery and tofu. The magical mystical East is the place to find both. I guess what bothers me is they take Eastern religion, philosophy, and mysticism, add a gloss of new age spirituality, and masquerade it as depth and meaning. It’s a mish-mash of bullshit. The Earth Muffin shouldn’t be confused with people earnestly studying religion, meditation, qigong, kung fu, or whatever. You can find The Earth Muffin in the park doing their own creative take on Tai Chi because, “it is all about spirituality and individualism—not a set form—but free-flowing energy and communing with the universe.” [Read in a laidback, yet pretentious voice].

Characteristics: They look like they went on a granola run, got lost, and ended up in Asia. Male—Man bun, Thai print harem pants, embroidered Hmong satchel, day old granola in the hair, and morning tofu breath. Female—virtually indistinguishable from the male, except smelling of patchouli.

 

I can think of more archetypes, but this is too long already.

 

Inappropriate Touching and Being Other

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.

Vignette #20: Legal Philosophy and Taiwanese Traffic

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.

Who knew?

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.

Taiwan, Harmonicas, Mike Stevens, and Public Humiliation

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.

Harpin’ on a riff. It looks like I have skills. I don’t.

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.

Lee Oskar, famed for his work with War and the harmonica that shares his name, with little old me.

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.

Me and Madcat Ruth.

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.

From left to right, Raymond McLain, Yours Truly, and Mike Stevens at the National Palace Museum.

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.

The crowd extended to the left and right, and receded quite far into the darkness. It was intimidating.

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”.

“Huh!?!”

Mike Stevens and Raymond McLain on stage in Taipei.

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.

Some of my fans wanted their picture with me. Posing outside the Taichung concert venue. It’s all about the fans—that’s why we do it.

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.

 

 

Vignette #16: Who Cut the Tofu?

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