Category Archives: Society & Culture

Hungry Ghosts, Pollution, and Ritual

Ghost Month, the seventh lunar month, started last week. It is considered an inauspicious time, so prohibitions abound. These proscriptions vary by region, but some that are common in Taiwan include: don’t swim, evil spirits that have drowned may seek to drown you; don’t fly, it is dangerous with all those ghosts out there; don’t make big life changes, marrying, starting a business, surgery, moving, etc., it’s just not a lucky time; do not sing or whistle, it attracts ghosts; and likewise, don’t wear red, it also attracts ghosts. There are many more, but you get the general idea. There are other common beliefs in Taiwan related to Ghost Month. One such belief is that mechanical and electrical devices are particularly likely to break down during Ghost Month, presumably because the ghosts like to play with all the new-fangled doohickeys. This would be an example of a quaint little superstition—if it weren’t so annoyingly true (here).

The entire month is an orgy of Buddhist, Taoist, and folk religion observances. It is that time when the gates of Hell open and ghosts are free to wander among us. Why would beings, released from the ethereal plane, spend their precious freedom among humans? The ghosts that come to earth are hungry ghosts, whose descendants have not provided them with the customary offerings of food and money, necessary for a comfortable ghostly existence. Hungry ghosts have long thin necks, pinched by hunger. The deceased who did not receive proper funeral rituals also return to earth during Ghost Month. As you might expect, these neglected spirits are a bit pissy, and wander the earth seeking food and light entertainment. (Scaring the bejesus out of Grandpa Lui is just the ticket).

To appease these wandering spirits, the Taiwanese make offerings to their ancestors throughout Ghost Month. Different than other festivals, this spiritual largesse extends beyond one’s own ancestors, to include offerings to the wandering souls of those forgotten by their descendants. The offerings take many forms. Families place food and drink on the family altar, in the home, and burn incence for their deceased ancestors. Similar offerings are made at tables placed on the street, in front of businesses. These offerings are aimed at the general ghostly hallabaloo. Likewise, temples overflow with food offerings to the resident gods during Ghost Month. Many types of joss paper are burned as offerings, these include: hell banknotes, so the ghosts can purchase afterlife necessities; along with paper models of various useful items, houses, servants, TV’s, etc. These offerings are made to deceased ancestors and gods throughout the year, but the fires reach a feverish pitch during Ghost Month.

Chinese folk religion is a living breathing aspect of Taiwanese culture. You can be walking down the street, turn a corner, and randomly bump into a temple parade, pilgrimage, shaman, or diverse other fascinating religious practices. It is so vibrant and alive, not part of the past, hermetically preserved in a museum, to be visited on Sunday afternoons by armchair cultural voyeurs. It is a living, breathing part of everyday life here—and I love it.

However, many foreigners who live here hate it. A few may dislike Chinese folk customs, regarding them as backward superstitious claptrap. Such cultural bigotry is generally absent from expat thinking. The reason most dislike these Chinese folk customs is more prosaic. It is the pollution caused by large-scale burning of incense, hell banknotes, other joss paper, and the perennial setting off of firecrackers.

They have a point. I’ve seen paper models of hell-bound daily necessities piled into literal mountains, four or five meters tall, and then set ablaze. The pollution released into the city by even one such bonfire is substantial. On any given day in most temples, lots of hell banknotes are burned along with massive amounts of incense. On a smaller scale the process is repeated in houses and business across Taiwan. This burning is a continual backdrop to life here. During festivals and special days on the Chinese Lunar calendar the smoke raises religion-related smog from background noise to a Death Metal concerto.

Most countries have a distinct smell, noticeable when you first step off the plane. Thailand smells like rotten bananas. Indonesia smells of clove cigarettes. Canada, at least the Vancouver International Airport, hits your olfactory senses with a wall of ozone. Taiwan has the peppery odor of a melange of ritual smoke. The smell has decreased with efforts to clean up some of these traditional practices. Some of the attempts have been comical failures. When I first came to Taiwan there was a move to try to get people to burn a hell credit card instead of hell banknotes. The theory was that the masses of paper being burned by each worshipper could be replaced by a single credit card. Cute idea. It didn’t work. Worshippers simply began burning hundreds or thousands of credit cards for their ancestors. Despite the difficulty of changing traditions, air quality has improved in Taiwan. Thirty years ago the smell of religious observances would hit you like a wall when you arrived at Chiang-Kai-Shek International Airport. Now the smell is more in the background.

The improvement is partially the result of social changes. Folk religion and folk cultural practices have declined a bit with urbanization. Some temples have proactively tried to reduce their carbon footprint. A good example would be Hsing Tian Kong. The temple has decided to try to be a leader, among religious institutions, in fighting air pollution. The large incense burners at the front and rear of the temple stand empty. The smaller incense pots, placed in front of each god’s effigy, are either empty, or gone. The oven used to burn hell banknotes is closed. It is exactly what most expats have been clamoring for.

I recently visited Hsing Tian Kong for the first time since the changes went into effect—I hated it. The place was pristine, almost sterile in feeling. It lacked the characteristic temple smell. Nor were there glimpses of statues of gods and goddesses mysteriously coming in and out of view from behind a gauze of smoke. Indeed, on that fine sunny day, the temple’s air was annoyingly crisp and clean. The only wisps of smoke in the whole place came from the few burning incense sticks wielded by Taoist lay practitioners conducting exorcisms. It was all just so…so devoid of feeling.

Hsing Tian Kong was once my favorite temple in Taipei. The place where I went for succour, to bai-bai, get a talisman, cleanse my prayer beads, or simply have the demons exorcised. No more—a temple without smoke is no temple. Here is where I part ways with

most expats. My first trip to Taiwan over thirty years ago was to study Chinese folk religion. As much as I have any religion, it’s to the temple and folk rituals that I turn. Perhaps I’ve become a Taiwanese LKK, but gimme that old tyme religion, it’s good enough for me.

 

Lost in Translation

As you may have perceived, my Chinese is functional, but not good enough for translation work. That doesn’t stop me. I’m often involved on the English end of translations. Hiring a competent professional translator is neither easy nor cheap. Usually a Taiwanese person with some knowledge of English and the material will be conscripted to convert the Chinese into “English”. These translations tend to retain a pretty strong Chinese feel. It is my job to turn that into actual English. It is tricky because the client often expects English to function like a high-context language. (See: A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places).

Chinese often emphasizes flowery speech and beautiful form over mundane matters of accuracy and clarity. The tendency is especially marked during formal speeches, for governmental or business purposes. I’m often asked to help translate such speeches. The preliminary translation that I receive is usually full of grandiloquence and little substance. Something like: “It is my greatest honor and privilege to welcome the most esteemed, distinguished, honorificabilitudinitatibus gentleman from that most splendiferous country, Luxembourg, where he is an inestimable manager of legendary perspicuity.” It is comically baroque. To those of us with hopelessly stuck in English brains, we’d say they’re gilding the lily rather much, if we’re being kind; or, they’re flinging the BS high and far, if we’re being accurate.

My first reaction is to get rid of the useless twaddle. Those ridiculous over-the-top honorifics sound farcical. But, it is precisely that part of the speech that most Taiwanese executives care about and are anxious to see accurately translated. I have been told on numerous occasions not to be too concerned about getting the actual substance of the speech correct, as long as all the various magniloquent phrases are accurately translated and that each appellation is included. What are you supposed to do? If you provide the desired translation, the boss ends up looking like an imbecile. If you don’t, they may just turn around and put that drivel back into the speech. If they will be speaking to a group of Westerners I usually try to explain that English doesn’t work quite the same as Chinese. I’m often met with incredulity, but usually manage to get them to follow my English advice. If the speech will be to a group of other Asians, I inform them that the translation is bad English, but since their audience may nonetheless enjoy it, they need to make a cultural judgement whether to keep the overwrought wording or not.

The bias toward simplicity and directness in English is lost on the Taiwanese. My wife studied English literature in university. One of the courses that she took was a professional English class, writing and speech-making for formal occasions. She recently shared with me the advice she got in the class. It was distinctly Chinese and included such gems as never use a simple word if you can find a big—preferably incomprehensible—word. According to the class “big” is too simple, “immense” would be better, but “elephantine” being less common would be preferable, while “Brobdingnagian” would clearly be best. If you’re lucky no one will understand, while simultaneously being impressed by your incomprehensible vocabulary, or should I say your sesquipedalian loquaciousness. Annoying, right? Theoretically my wife is aware this is wrong-headed, but she still constantly asks if the new vocabulary she’s learned would be considered a big word. If it isn’t, she’ll ask me for an alternate “big” vocabulary word. It is hard to get past that Taiwanese mindset.

Her professional English class likewise emphasized the importance of complex grammatical structures. Passive voice sentences were preferred over the clarity provided by active voice sentences. Passive voice makes the meaning less direct, less clear, and obviously—from a Chinese perspective—to be preferred. The teachers believed it sounded more sophisticated and professional. Even better if it was a compound-complex sentence with each clause in turn using passive voice construction, obscuring the meaning behind lost subjects, and objects that refer to unknown words and clauses. From a Chinese perspective, obviously one should prefer the complex circumlocutory nature of such sentences—it matches the high-context nature of Chinese. Unfortunately, they’re getting it exactly wrong.

This is what happens when a Chinese speaker’s preference for linguistic ornateness comes face-to-face with English’s low-context preference for simplicity and clarity. Chinese language, like the culture, places a premium on form (here). Choosing an artistic turn of phrase or using an impressive word is important in Chinese. In English, such things can be nice if it’s not overdone, as long as you don’t sacrifice function—clear communication—to achieve artistry. In Chinese thinking it doesn’t matter so much if you’re effectively communicating as long as the language you use sounds good.

Form Over Function

When I first came to Taiwan to study Chinese folk religion, I was surprised to learn that form was valued over function. In a religious context, that meant that if the form of an individual’s prayer was correct, it didn’t matter what was in their heart or their beliefs. If the devotee went from incense censer to censer in the prescribed order and made the obeisances correctly, that was good enough. As I’ve lived here longer I’ve found that form is highly valued in most areas of life.

Form’s importance partially relates to the nature of high-context culture, with its emphasis on community and maintaining a shared perspective, based on shared history and culture (The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock). People are discouraged from scratching too deeply below the surface—there be dragons. If social cohesion’s underpinnings are examined too closely the house of cards will fall. The surface calm and solidarity required by high-context societies necessitates a willful denial of deeper social realities. The form, or surface, needs to be prioritized over the heterogeneity below the surface.

A system of politeness that emphasizes form developed in the Chinese cultural milieu to maintain surface calm. I’d like to turn to Chinese literature for a historical example. The Water Margin: Outlaws of the Marsh (水滸傳) is one of the four great classic novels of China (四大名著). Written in the 14th century by Shi Nai’an, it has been described as China’s tale of Robin Hood. It is an adventure story about bandits. What surprises is how much of the narrator’s time is spent describing the formal modes of address and politeness employed when for example two bandit leaders meet, or a court official and General meet, etc. Much of the story is conveyed in the subtle shifts in forms of politeness. It was surprising to read an adventure novel where several pages might be spent on the minutia of showing respect:

After the usual courtesies as to names, Lu Da said that he had met Lin Cheng’s father at the Eastern Capital. Lin Chong was much pleased, and insisted upon making LuDa his sworn elder brother…. Lu Da ordered his servants to bring wine for the guest and when the later had partaken three cups,…  (Shi Nai’an, The Water Margin: Outlaws of the Marsh. Translated by J. H. Jackson. Tuttle Publishing: Hong Kong, p. 64).

Or:

Chao Gai pressed Lin Chong three times to take the seat of honor, but Lin Chong declined the honor. At last Chao Gai gave way and agreed to take the premier seat, and Lin Chong took the second seat. The other six men took their seats in a row. (Ibid. p. 214).

While the actual adventure parts of the story—the chases and battles—can be shockingly brief, occasionally little more than a couple paragraphs. Form is important: Sometimes it is almost the whole story.

I’m not trying to suggest that modern Asia is nearly as formalistic as it was in the Yuan Dynasty, but there certainly are echoes of that history today. Let’s start with a stupid foreigner story. During my first couple weeks living in Taiwan I rode the bus frequently. One day, from my seat, I saw an old Taiwanese man hobble onto the relatively full bus. He was the picture of geriatric distress; a cane, bowed back, small shuffling steps, sagging skin and a constant grimace as he meandered along. Naturally, I got up and offered him my seat, to which he very politely declined, and indicated with his hands that I should return to my seat. I was slightly confused—the guy obviously needed a seat—but, I honored his wishes. I didn’t want to insult him by implying that he was too decrepit to stand. After I sat back down, he gave me a look that I couldn’t decipher. Shortly afterwards a gently smirking Taiwanese businessman offered the old codger his seat, which he gratefully accepted. The old man then spent the rest of the bus ride glaring daggers at me. Most perplexing.

Later that day I found out from Taiwanese friends that I am supposed to offer something three times, so the recipient can reject the offer twice, before finally allowing himself to be cajoled into acceptance on the third time. Who knew? Where I come from, if somebody offers you something, politely reject it if you don’t want it, or take it if you do, because the offer isn’t coming again—function over form.

There are endless examples of the importance of form in Asian social interactions. Korean drinking culture is a great illustration of the importance of form in social interactions. Drinking in Korea is not just about getting drunk, although that is the desired byproduct, it is about showing respect. There are a lot of ritualized rules surrounding how to get drunk with friends. The briefest of lists includes: pour and receive drinks with both hands; don’t pour your own drink; pour drinks for others; definitely for the first drink, and as much as possible for subsequent drinks, try to drink at the same time as others (don’t drink alone); turn to the side when drinking in front of a social superior; etc. As a foreigner, it can be rather odd to watch a group of Korean friends descend into a drunken debauch, all the while, very precisely, observing the correct forms and rituals required to maintain politeness and the social hierarchy. Nothing wrong with it, it’s just distinctly different.

Generally, the form-over-function nature of Asian societies is harmless. Indeed it is part of the culture’s charm. However, it can go too far. One extreme example comes from Chiayi (嘉義), Taiwan. This event happened not too long after I arrived in Taiwan. Four people were working in Pachang Creek (八掌溪) when the water began to rise. The four workers became trapped on a small piece of land in the center of the flooded river. Rescuers arrived in plenty of time to carry out a rescue. However, for three hours no rescue helicopter came. Eventually the four were swept to their deaths, literally in front of the TV cameras, family, and emergency services workers standing helplessly on the riverbank.

The problem? Well, it was a matter of form. There was confusion over whether police air rescue or air force search and rescue should handle it. In my mind, I imagine the gathered rescuers calling for a search and rescue helicopter, and the commander on the other end answering, “Oh, I’m so honored to be considered first for this great undertaking, yet I must demure to my honorable colleague from police air rescue.” And, when they called in police air rescue, the commanding officer there responding, “Oh, the air force commander is too kind, we police are but amateurs compared with the air force’s pilots. I must insist that they take on this grand endeavour.”  And, on and on, until everyone died, in a shockingly literal example of the Midwestern American idiomatic expression; a Chinese fire drill. I’m sure that is not exactly what happened; but, I’m likewise sure it is sort of what happened.

Form is important. For people from lower-context cultures, the importance of social form is perplexing, but it is the glue that maintains the surface homogeneity necessary for a high-context culture to function. It is intrinsic to the culture and not likely to change.

A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places

The following article continues from “The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock” (here) by giving specific examples of differences between Chinese and English. The contrast between high- and low-context languages is at the core of the linguistic differences outlined here.

There are a lot of different languages, but only two styles of communication: high- and low-context. Asian languages tend towards the high-context end of the continuum, English toward the low-context side. There is a fundamental difference in the linguistic objectives of Chinese and English. Chinese is designed to obfuscate. The language aims to hide the speaker’s exact meaning, to obscure what’s in their hearts, and to conceal their thoughts. English’s raison d’être is to communicate as succinctly, directly, and clearly as possible exactly what you mean, want, feel, or think. These different goals explain the differences in structure and usage between Chinese and English. Much cross-cultural miscommunication is rooted in these differences.

One complaint of Chinese-speaking students of English is that there are “so many words”. In English there are many words with only slight gradations in meaning or feeling. A simple example would be the Chinese word kan (看) meaning look. English probably has over fifty words with a similar meaning; peer, peek, leer, stare, glance, glimpse, gaze, gape, scan, ogle, view, observe, etc. These words are used in daily conversation. Since English seeks to be as explicit as possible, it is necessary to have a plethora of words conveying fine deviations in meaning. Chinese has 看. They don’t need such a finely defined spectrum of meaning as precision isn’t the goal. [Before some pedantic student of Chinese tells me there are Chinese translations for every possible English word meaning look—I know that. However, those words are not in common usage. As you start trying to exactly translate the fine variations of English meaning you’re soon down a rabbit hole, looking at poetic terms from the Tang dynasty or something similarly ridiculous].

In Chinese, rather than trying to exactly outline fine differences in meaning, everything is chabuduo yiyang, 差不多一樣 or “about the same.” Chinese verbal communication is absurdly sloppy from an English perspective. For example, I had a student take a couple days off school because she’d hurt her 手 shou (hand). When she returned I was surprised to see her hand was fine, but her elbow (臂肘) was broken. When I asked her about this, she gave the very Chinese reply: chabuduo yiyang. How is a hand even remotely similar to an elbow? If you’re willing to accept that a hand and elbow are more-or-less the same thing, then the difference between glance and glimpse is virtually meaningless. The specificity of English words is a source of annoyance and confusion for Chinese speakers. There are endless examples of how inexact Chinese can be. What blew my mind when first arriving in Taiwan was ta (他, 她, 它) meaning he, she, and it respectively, but in oral communication being pronounced the same. How can you even begin to have a conversation if you don’t know if the person you’re talking with is referring to a pal, hot babe, or a lump of poop? How this pronoun confusion could be used to conceal endless shenanigans is obvious and indeed the whole point. I could go on forever, but I’ll just give one more example, specifically the way Taiwanese use comfortable/uncomfortable. If you ask a Taiwanese person the reason they were late, missed school, didn’t want to meet, etc. the most common answer would be, “I felt uncomfortable.” That’s the most disingenuous answer possible—what does it mean? Did you have a cold, the flu, broken bones and contusions, a heart attack, a psychotic episode, depression over a breakup, or just general lassitude? Can you imagine missing work and telling the boss it was because you felt uncomfortable? That kind of equivocation doesn’t fly in English, but it is at the core of Chinese communication.

Often Chinese-speakers, when speaking English, will seek to make English as obscurantist as Chinese. English doesn’t work that way. When you try to hide your real meaning in English, it is obvious and you are quickly perceived as a liar. Failing to be reasonably direct and frank is impolite. Chinese is the opposite—of course. Stating your meaning too directly and clearly in Chinese is rude. The example I give my female students is that if they have a boy chasing them, they are free—in English—to tell him directly that though they appreciate the attention they do not share his romantic feelings. The guy may not be happy, but it is polite and not particularly hurtful. It conforms to English’s goal of stating as clearly as possible what is in your heart. In Chinese, to be polite, you need to circle around the truth to the point of miscommunication and befuddlement. English guys misunderstand what females are trying to say all the time, so pity Chinese dudes. Nightmare.

These linguistic differences are not too important until your language skills reach a high level. If you’re a beginning Chinese-speaker, the listener will be happy you’re speaking their language, but as your skill increases, the expectation that you will have internalized the language’s logic increases. If you speak Chinese fluently, but construct your dialog with English logic it can be off-putting. In extreme cases being semi-functional in Chinese is better than having excellent Chinese without the commensurate cultural awareness. I knew a linguistically gifted diplomat who spoke phenomenal Chinese. He worked hard at it. Unfortunately, he was not similarly gifted when it came to perceiving and studying Taiwanese culture and history. In fact he quite strongly objected to the notion that the Taiwanese were anything other than white Canadians speaking a different language. He continually, inadvertently, caused grave insult with his tactless (English style) of speaking Chinese. Ironically it would have been far better if his Chinese was poorer, the Chinese listeners would have forgiven him any perceived slights as just a lack of language skill, but since his language ability was excellent they concluded that he was ignorant or rude.

My Taiwanese wife has brilliant English. She works for the Canadian government in an English-speaking environment, with native English-speaking bosses. She learned English entirely in Taiwan and despite near native-speaker fluency, her thinking remains Taiwanese. Sometimes she’ll come home from work and say something like, “Today my boss said, ‘blah-blah-blah,’ and then he said, ‘blah-blah-blah.’ So, what does it really mean?” Her assumptions are wrong. She is thinking in Chinese, looking for a deeper hidden meaning behind the words. I have to explain that if the boss said “blah-blah-blah” then he meant “blah-blah-blah”. That he is in fact trying to convey precisely what he wants, feels or needs, in as direct a manner as possible. The only thing that might make him inexact is a failure of language ability.

As hard as it is for Chinese-speakers to adjust to English precision imagine English-speaker’s problems learning Chinese. Direct talk is relatively easy to learn once you realize that is the goal. How do you learn to artfully circumnavigate precision in favor of conveying a whiff of meaning? The Chinese tendency towards circumlocution becomes manifest in formal situations, when dealing with the older generation, or talking to someone of a higher or lower social position. One example can be seen in the marriage negotiations between myself and my wife’s family (“Marrying Taiwanese”). Honest to God I have no idea how I got through it. My father-in-law has some good qualities, but the man seriously believes that he lives in the Qing Dynasty. Before the formal engagement negotiations, he called me to his house to discuss issues he wanted clarified before the formalized engagement negotiations that would involve my representatives, the matchmaker, Venus’s family, financial negotiations, etc. I had trepidations. My Chinese sucks, it is functional at best. During this interview he talked a lot, and to my credit I understood virtually every word—but, I had no idea what he was saying. First he would talk in circles, seemingly drawing closer and closer to making a point, but just as he was about to clearly state his concerns, he would jump to another issue and beginning circling around it, eventually almost saying something before leaping to some other nebulous point. I was expecting an intense discussion about the nature of love, commitment, family, etc. Instead he circled around in the clouds talking about arcane, random, unrelated points. I understood the words—but, I had no idea what they meant. At the interview’s end, I asked Venus (who was there the whole time) to clarify what had been said. She didn’t know, but said not to worry about it, as no one understood him. Why bother having language if no one (even native-speakers) can understand? That’s my English bias; get to the point, state it clearly, and move on. Chinese is not that way.

Chinese writing is likewise imprecise compared to English. I’ve taught academic writing to Chinese students for a couple decades, they have a really hard time accepting how directly English should be written. The notion of a clear and direct thesis statement being expounded at the beginning of an essay is antithetical to Chinese language’s logic. Often Chinese students will do weird things when writing in English. Sometimes they’ll write a pretty decent essay clearly proving something, only to say in the last sentence, “Despite the overwhelming evidence I’ve outline, I believe the total opposite.” End of essay. It is enough to give you vertigo. It is surprising how often students try to build suspense, have a plot twist, and denouement in their academic writing. They’re seeking literary beauty more than clarity (very Chinese style). It is hard to explain that simplicity and clarity are beautiful in English and the core of academic writing.

I also edit academic papers for Chinese-speaking professors seeking publication in English journals. They have good grammar, but retain an inability to organize their writing into a coherent argument. Most fail to clearly state their thesis. If they have one, it is left to the reader to guess what it might be, as they do their best to circle around it, and with what they undoubtedly perceive to be great artistry try to subtly lead the reader to their point. It is English with Chinese characteristics—and it is God-awful. At its very best you get a descriptive essay suitable for newspaper publication. More typically it is seemingly random musings loosely related to the topic. The professors are doing the same thing as the students. They are trying to create that artistic Chinese argument, where like the great sages of yore, they gently nudge the reader in a certain direction. Despite having tremendous English ability, they’ve totally failed to connect with English’s low-context nature. To some degree academic writing is an unnatural fit for Chinese. The fine gradations of meaning and careful explications necessary are the realm of low-context languages. English is great for scientific writing, academic writing, contract writing, technical writing, anything requiring clarity. Chinese is wonderful for poetry and literature, where the language’s vagueness adds to its ability to convey feeling and beauty.

Chinese-speakers forced to forsake Chinese’s ambiguity can reacted negatively to English meticulousness. I have a Taiwanese lawyer friend who does international negotiations. She hates dealing with English lawyers because of “their anal need” to clarify, define, and explicitly state everything in writing. Were the contract in Chinese there would be no way to achieve such succinctness. She prefers Chinese because in-between the lines, in Chinese’s indefiniteness, she can wiggle around with an eye toward helping her clients. Where everything is so cut-and-dry there is no room for “lawyering”.

The differences between high- and low-context languages affect communication in ways that are hard to grasp. Many people with advanced second language skills fail to appreciate the structural differences between their native and secondary languages, the results include culture shock, misunderstanding, and unintentional rudeness. This is particularly important for long term expats since as your language skills advance there is an unconscious expectation in the host culture that you’ll communicate in a culturally appropriate manner. The onus is on us.

Hey Ya It’s Weiya

Weiya (尾牙) season is upon us. Weiya is the banquet held for employees during the Chinese New Year season to show appreciation for their hard work that year. During the course of the year there are several ya’s (牙) in Taiwan, when companies communally pray or baibai (拜拜), make offerings, burn spirit money and incense for Tudigong (土地公) the God of the Soil and Earth. These workplace ceremonies occur on the 2nd and 16th days of the lunar month. 尾牙 literally means the tail, or last, ya (牙). Thus, weiya is the final climactic workplace obeisance for the year. Originally in China, weiya was a feast giving thanks to the earth for providing a fruitful harvest. Over time weiya moved from a strict harvest festival to an employee appreciation banquet as there wasn’t a tradition of employee bonuses in China. It developed into a way for business owners to thank their workers and continues in this form to the present day in both China and Taiwan. During the month and a half before Chinese New Year virtually every company holds a weiya.

As with any other festival, religious observance, get-together, or celebration in Chinese culture, food is the most important part of weiya. The boss treats the workers to a banquet and then puts on a show to thank his employees. Often the boss himself will entertain, putting on his own song-and-dance show, embarrassing himself, and opening himself up to light mocking from his social inferiors. It is an interesting example of role reversal in popular culture and parallels Europe’s medieval carnivals. The historian in me finds that intriguing.

Most employers pay performers to provide weiya entertainment. Corporate engagements during weiya season are a great source of work for all types of performers at all levels of the entertainment industry. Large rich corporations may hire nationally or even internationally recognized performers, but most companies hire substantially more modest talent. (I’ve gigged at a couple weiyas, so…you know).

Besides eating and entertainment, the other important part of weiya is the series of lucky draws that occur during the banquet. I suspect that in pre-bonus China, lucky draws functioned as a way to randomly give bonuses. A face-conscious method of acknowledging employee contributions without raising one worker above others. In a similar way, traditionally, employers would point the head of the cooked chicken towards the employee who need not show up next year, a nonverbal face-saving method of firing. [Although, getting fired by chicken sounds brutal to me]. Most weiyas will have both cash (hongbao 紅包) and household items as prizes. Prizes reflect the company’s profitability and can be substantial, expensive sports cars are not unheard of, though washing machines, kitchen appliances and computers are more normal. The cash grand prize can reach into the 6-figures (NT$), even higher during Taiwan’s tech boom. Generally an effort is made to have a wide array of prizes of diverse value to be distributed as widely as possible throughout the company’s various departments.

Like many foreigners I have tended to try to avoid weiya. When I worked at a smaller buxiban (補習班) it was impossible to avoid, but when I moved to my first university I never went to weiya. Most the foreign staff avoided it, viewing it as an infringement on winter vacation. But now, if possible, I always go. It is not painful at all. You just sit around and enjoy a Taiwanese style banquet with other members of your department. And, I’ve won 10,000NT each of the last two years that I was able to attend. Not bad. I’m going for the grand prize this year.