Category Archives: Society & Culture

The Taiwanese Racial Slur

I like the racial epithet Whitey, it’s succinct and pithy. As great as it is, my favorite racial slur is the Taiwanese word adoah, 阿啄仔 or the alternate form 阿卓仔. The word means “big nose” or “tall nose”, the in 阿啄仔 means beak/beaky, while the alternate form’s means tall, while indicates closeness (it’s a familiarizing particle) and is a diminutive suffix. Add it all together and you’ve got foreigner, Caucasian more specifically. Since transliterating oral Taiwanese to written Chinese allows for some interpretation sometimes you’ll see 阿兜仔 or 阿凸仔 used. These are kind of funky ways of writing adoah, but I kind of like them as looks like a big nose in the center of a face, while looks like a nose. Semantics aside you got to admit “big nose” just kind of nails it.

Some take offense at being called adoah, while for others it just slides off them like a Big Mac all-beef patty off the bun. But is it racist? Well, it’s an almost perfect parallel to the English racial slur “slant-eyes”, so yeah, it’s hard to deny the insensitivity, but let me try, just to be a contrarian 混蛋 .

Don’t get me wrong, adoah can be overtly racist. I’ve had the word hurled at me in very aggressive and intimidating ways. But, in those cases even if the guy had said, “most honorable gentleman of the Caucasian persuasion”, tone and context would’ve ensured a scary—racially charged atmosphere—that’d have left my sphincter dancing.

So adoah can be used in a them’s fight’n’words kinda way, but it also may have no more implied negativity than “foreigner”. When I first came to Taiwan as a student in 1987, foreigners were either 美國人 [Americans] or 阿啄仔 [big noses]. I actually have some pretty warm memories of crowds of little kids skipping circles around me singing “big nose, big nose,….” Less amiable, but not unpleasant, are the memories of obasans pointing at me and telling their grandchildren to look at the big nose. In these contexts, personally, I find adoah neutral if not somewhat affable and was more put out by being called American.

Still times have changed and adoah is less commonly heard among Taipei’s urbane, who are reasonably aware of the sensitivities of foreigners. Outside Taipei the word gets bandied around more frequently. I’m mildly impressed though, despite not believing the word to be insulting—which many Taiwanese don’t—in the time I’ve been here the use of adoah has noticeably declined.

It’s required a shift from traditional Asian values that don’t particularly seek a broad ranging society of different ethnicities living together in respect and harmony. Most Asian societies prefer to stress homogeneity, consequently racial sensitivity is not the default setting. For people from societies that aspire to inclusivity this can be hard to accept. In multicultural Canada, where I’m from, there’s an official policy of empowering and promoting social, economic, and political inclusion, achieved partially through a constant process of navel-gazing, self-policing, and changing acceptable terms. Most Asian countries haven’t had to deal with such concerns, and so can be linguistically insensitive. Simply not much thought has been given to what words are used to refer to different races.

Taiwanese sometimes claim ignorance of the meaning of adoah, seeing it only as a word referring to foreigners. Many foreigners regard these claims with disbelief and occasionally anger. The vexation comes from a linguistic misunderstanding. We tend to learn Chinese character-by-character, building words from the individual characters we’ve learned. Multisyllabic words being regard—more often than would be correct—as collections of characters, each a word/meaning in its own right, thus allowing words to be deconstructed into deeper “real” meanings.

My explanation of the meaning of 阿啄仔, breaking the word down into characters and explaining the meaning of each character was a foreigner-type explanation. Taiwanese learn the language more holistically. Though they might be capable of breaking the word down into individual characters and examining the semantics, that’s not necessarily how they conceptualize the word. As I was writing this article my wife was surprised by the meaning of 啄. She knew the word 阿啄仔, but imprecisely understood the possible meanings of 啄. Do you continually think of the roots and stems of English words? No. It’s a word with a meaning more relevant than its Latin/Greek/Gaelic/… roots. My name is 達仁, to which my Canadian friends usually ask its meaning, and I’ll dutifully reply that it means kindhearted humanitarian or some such. Really that’s wrong. It means me. It’s a name. My name. My English name is Darren. No one asks what it means.  It means keeper of the oak grove or some such, but it doesn’t make sense to think of words in these terms.

Does your grandmother realize the Latin or Greek roots and their nuances as she uses a word? It’s unreasonable to expect more from Grandma Wang. After all, these things are rarely as simplistic as my explanation of how adoah is written implied.  Some Taiwanese assert that adoah is a sign of respect. The history and linguistics justifying this position are that the character not only means tall, but also more commonly means outstanding. Some note adoah may derive from the Taiwanese honorific title for priests during the early days of contact. Also, adoah may come from a story attributed to Zhuangzi,  an influential Chinese philosopher from the Warring States Period. It doesn’t really get much more venerable. At the same time referencing body characteristics doesn’t have the same prohibitions as in the West. [See: “Hello Fatso” And Other Taiwanese Greetings].

It’s valuable to understand where people are coming from, but ultimately it doesn’t matter whether the Taiwanese believe adoah is derogatory . Ethnic terms are insulting or neutral depending who says it and the context—those that the word is directed at get to decide. Personally I don’t see it in absolutes. I cut granny and the kids some slack, while with country folks it really depends how country. For the more cosmopolitan I have a higher standard. I also take into account facial expression and tone, can I perceive cognizance of an implied insult? If not, I’m likely to regard it as slightly funny and let it roll off me. But that’s just me, you get to decide for yourself.

Mask Mandate Madness

If you saw my last post you’ll know I’ve been sick. [See: Health Problems and The Sickly Egg]. I’m easing back into writing with some small articles.

COVID’s taught me many things, particularly how profoundly stupid and uncaring people can be. I’ve never had much faith in humanity, but I’m still taken aback. The West seems to produce more dumbasses/cm2 than Asia. A lot is down to the relative importance placed on individualism versus community. [See: Life and Love in the Age of the Coronavirus]. Western values are out-of-whack with present needs: public health and unchecked personal liberty are uneasy bedfellows. In more community-oriented Asia, people have been more willing to take small measures to maintain public health. The self-sacrifices have been minuscule. Wear a mask. Get a shot.

It seems to all be too much in the West. I get it. I come from Western Canada, ground-zero for rednecks and birthplace of the Canadian Convoy of Loons that occupied Canada’s capital and inspired wack-a-doodles the (Western) world over. Maybe I’ve lived in Taiwan too long, I’m stunned by the disregard for others, stupidity, and weird way it’s all linked to political ideology. [It’s getting so I can’t even talk to my unclebrother anymore]. You might think the problem is rednecks, but they abound in Asia without the COVID-related lunacy.

Take masking; it is such a small thing, virtually no inconvenience. Why does it inspire such retardicity in the West? There might be a reason beyond the usual individualism/communalism explanation. In the West—as kindergarteners—we’re taught to gauge emotions by looking at the mouth. I remember being shown simple line drawings of faces, with dots for eyes, and appropriately drawn mouths, with the teacher asking: “How does this person feel? They feel sad, see the mouth is downturned”. In Asia, children are taught to gauge emotions by looking at the eyes.

Perhaps masking creates socially uncomfortable levels of anonymity for Westerners. It could feel difficult to understand a friend’s meaning or get acquainted with a stranger. How do they feel? Are they hiding something? That information is hidden by a physical barrier. Not a problem for cultures with a tradition of face-covering, or in Asian cultures that emphasize the eyes for transmitting information.

Is this true? No idea. However, it would explain the West’s irrationality over masking. I’ve been wearing a mask for over two years and enjoy it. The mask hides my reactions, which are often lightning fast and stunningly inappropriate, and gives me a moment to compose myself—or at least that’s what I’d thought.

Where, Oh Where, Might the Prostitutes Be?

Where to find a prostitute? Mostly online.

But, it hasn’t always been that way. You used to find them behind railway stations. Throughout Asia, if you look behind the railway station, assuming it is not a new station, you can find the remnants of that bygone era. The topic suggested itself while having a coffee behind Taichung’s railway station. It is being rejuvenated, but carries the scars of its former life, whorehouses-cum-B&Bs dot the area with their weird and limited charm.

Red-light districts were there so travelers could arrive and easily find comfort and relaxation. This is not unique to Asia, it went on in the prairies, where I come from. But, it had disappeared long before I was born. Here in Asia, it was still a vibrant part of city life when I arrived.

If you consider the placement of Taiwan’s remaining red-light district, and relate them to the old railway stations, you’ll find that there’s still some correspondence. Ever wonder why Wanhua’s whorehouses are where they are? They’re around what was once the old Japanese railway station, Bangkah Station (艋舺停車場). The city ages and changes, but the girls stay the same.

These areas were lively affairs, without much stigmatization. My clearest memories come from my time in Korea. Yeosu (여수시), where I lived three decades ago, was a bit of a backwater. It had some charm, but basically was the Korean version of Eufaula, Alabama, with an ocean. Despite being a small sleepy city with little in the way of nightlife, the back of the train station was an amazing hive of vibrant, bouncy, juttering, and bustling activity after sundown. It shocked this young naive prairie boy. It’s hard to understand how such a sleepy burg sustained that level of commerce, but I guess there’s more to the surface than meets the eye. That area of Yeosu is so imprinted in my memory that even now the smell of sweaty tits and bad decisions makes me think of Korea.

When I first came to Taiwan it was the same. It’s a little hard to describe how blasé whoring was. Just a natural part of going out:

“What should we do tonight?”
“I don’t know. What do you feel like?”
“Movie?”
“Ahh. I don’t know. I don’t think there’s anything very good playing.”
“Beer?”
“Hmmm. I’m still a little hungover from last night. I don’t think so.”
“Blowjob?”
“Mmm. Yeah. That might be OK. A bill clinton would hit the spot about now.”
“Alright, fluffernutters it is. Let’s go.”

It constantly blew me away to see pals wandering around the red-light districts like a group of friends in Canada making their way to the next bar. It was just so natural and unweird—nothing furtive about it.

The Victorian era is still screwing with Western attitudes towards sex: it’s hard to grow out of the morality you’re born into. The scenes I’ve seen played out across Asia’s red-light districts are different than Canada, where plenty of shame is attached to commercial sex. It’s really hard to imagine a group of friends nonchalantly whoring around there. They’d definitely be perceived as greasy social retards, the kind to get their genitals caught in their fly when talking to a real live woman. Also, Western individualism and can-do attitude makes it feel gratuitous to pay for sex when with ingenuity and bravery anything can be a vagina.

The stigmatization of prostitution has grown in Taiwan, but it is still less defamed than in North America. Businessmen still make it to the KTV. Some massage parlors offering proper massages. A handful of blowjob bars exist in Taipei. But, it does feel like this aspect of life in Taiwan is on the wane.

Partially it has just moved online, and that is inherently less social. Also, the status of women has changed. You can’t just bang a good girl, but you can ride a strong independent woman like the tilt-a-whirl in a two-bit traveling carnival. [Just one of the many reasons I’m an ardent feminist]. Now that there are more strong modern women in Asia, it’s natural to think if you really apply yourself, you should be able to get it free, so paying begins to speak poorly of one’s interpersonal skills. Nobody wants to seem like that geek with his crank stuck in his pants.

Vignette #26: A Little Sinophobia

I’ve recently been talking about the Taiwanese older generation’s attitude towards the wave of Chinese that hit Taiwan in the post-war period [see: Japan’s the Best]. Taiwanese sinophobia—in a roundabout way—has benefited me.

There were many obstacles along the path to marrying Venus [see: Marrying Taiwanese]. Hard as it may to imagine, I wasn’t entirely what the family had in mind. Contrary to expectation, the problem wasn’t a worry Venus was hitting above her weight class, striving for the stars when the moon would have been ample. No. They thought I wasn’t good enough!

Concerns ran the gamut. Will he be able to take care of our girl, is he functional in Taiwanese society. [As balls on a dildo]. That I was too fat. [Plain hurtful. Sure when I lay on my side my stomach lies beside me—but it’s beguiling]. That I was too old, they thought me older than I was. That I might not be the sharpest doorknob in the toolshed. [I’m not the type you’d call smart, nor stupid—I’m the type you’d think owns a terrarium]. Would I be true. [Their whole he’s fat-and-old-thing wasn’t a consideration]. Will he be caring and affectionate. [Like Super Dave Osbourne petting a kitten].

I found an unexpected ally in Venus’s ninety-something grandmother. Venus‘s mother said in her time parents, including her’s, swore they’d beat their daughters brutally, chop off their legs and to feed the pigs, rather than allowing her to wed a waishengren (外省人). [Chiayi strong]. My mother-in-law noted those who’d married Chinese immigrants, on average, had better marriages and lives, and maybe the current wave of foreigners in Taiwan would work the same way. Grandma’s sole comment on our marriage was that at least I’m not a waishengren.

Thanks grandma.

Japan’s the Best: A Taiwanese View of Japan

Taiwan is probably the only country colonized by the Japanese to look back on the experience with fondness. Other Asian countries, on the receiving end of Japan’s twentieth century expansionism, have raised Japan-hating to an art form.

Korea has dealt with Japanese aggression for longer than any other country, starting from Japan’s invasions of 1592 and 1597 which devastated Korea’s civilian population, military, technological capabilities and cultural artifacts. Japan succeeded in subjugating Korea in 1910. Koreans still hold a grudge.

China was forced to make concessions to Japan after the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). So feelings were already a bit tetchy—we know how easy it is to “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”—when the Second Sino-Japanese War rolled around (1937-1945). The assorted atrocities and humiliations China endured did nothing to soften perceptions of Japan.

Since 1592 Japan intermittently sought to extend its control to include Taiwan. Their goal was realized with the Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895) after the First Sino-Japanese War, when Taiwan was ceded to Japan. Though it still took a Japanese invasion to quell resistance in Taiwan.

All these countries have a pretty similar history with Japan and it has engendered the expected animus among Koreans and Chinese, only the Taiwanese openly flirt with Japanaiserie, and exhibit nostalgic feelings for the Japanese times. On the surface Taiwan’s reaction seems to make as much sense as cellulite on a skinny woman, but there’s more to the surface than meets the eye.

Partially it’s a tribute to how horrible  the Chinese were as an occupying force that Japanese rule glowed in comparison. The Chinese arrival in 1945 ushered in a period of government (Kuomintang) corruption and repression. Even after the worst of the post-war venality ended, Chinese rule didn’t contribute much to Taiwanese society. They were like hungry locusts, trying to take from Taiwan as much as possible for the eventual recapture of the motherland. Most of what Taiwan had, in terms of infrastructure , roads, bridges, rail, public buildings, etc., came from the Japanese. The Chinese only grudgingly began to build things in Taiwan in the 1970s.

Japan was the font of culture during imperial times and that didn’t change in many Taiwanese minds after the Chinese came. Japan has a seductive culture of its own, in addition Japan was the intermediary between Western civilization and Asia—Japan westernized much of Asia. Notice anything familiar about Taiwanese public buildings from the Japanese period? Japanese culture continues to have an outsized influence on both Taiwanese high and pop culture.

Wai sheng ren (外省人) and ben sheng ren (本省人) [see:The Neighbors Suck] perceptions and experiences of Japan differed greatly. The Chinese arrived in Taiwan straight from a protracted war with Japan. A war not noted for its warm and fuzzy moments. It was an article of faith that the Japanese must be despised. Look what they had done to China. The Taiwanese, however, had for fifty years been a nominal part of Japan, including during WWII. Many Taiwanese fought in the Japanese army. Taiwan endured Allied bombings.

As an example of how this might cause awkwardness, Kuomintang (KMT) memorials and remembrance services are for their war dead. The Taiwanese were on the other side, but in their own country have no way to memorialize their war dead. Former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) caused a stink when he visited Japan’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine (靖國神社) where his brother, who died in the Japanese navy, is enshrined. A slap in the face to some wai sheng ren and pretty reasonable for many ben sheng ren. Lee Tung-hui has been criticized as a Japan-lover by the Chinese government and some wai sheng ren, but it’s more like he was a Taiwanese of that period.

The upshot is the Taiwanese have a surprisingly positive view of Japan despite having been colonized. It’s just another thing that makes them unique.

When I first came to Taiwan I laughed at people’s fascination with all things Japanese. I used to ask my students if they could travel anywhere where would they go. The most common answer was Japan. It’s like me—a Saskatchewan boy—declaring that if I could go anywhere at all the first place I’d go is Bismarck, North Dakota.

Then I found myself adopting the Taiwanese love of all things Japanese. I recognized it during a joint Japanese-Taiwanese architectural exhibit. I was looking at photographs of a piece of architecture, that I assumed was Taiwanese, and thinking it a small, uninspired simple little box. Then my wife told me it was by a Japanese architect and my internal monologue changed instantly to: Ahh yes, the simplicity, the tasteful minimalism, the subtle interplay of shade and light; it’s truly an elegant example of the Japanese aesthetic. [Pretentious douche].

Taiwan’s relationship with Japan, and Japanese culture, confuses much of the rest of Asia, but gives insights into Taiwan’s unique experiences with being an occupied nation.