Category Archives: Society & Culture

You Haven’t Really Lived in Taiwan Until You’ve Picked Up Pieces of a Dead Person With Chopsticks

I recently attended a Taiwanese funeral. If you haven’t, here’s what you might expect. It’ll vary by family, this is a general guide. My family’s Buddhist. [I’m hardcore Red Hat Taoist, but we try to make it work for the kittens]. The funerals I describe are Buddhist, but there are similarities across traditions.

When someone’s passing—if possible—the family gathers around the deathbed, not for comfort and support, more to chant. The process is intricate, usually a religious 師父 (master) is required to get everyone chanting, bowing, gonging, and kowtowing in syncopation. A sutra is chanted seeking forgiveness of karmic debts accrued during this—and previous—lives, so the departing soul can find peace. It’s intended to get them off the Wheel of Suffering, or to a better incarnation. The rest of the time the name of Amida Buddha is chanted, guiding the soul and Amida Buddha towards each other. [Something like that. It’s all Buddhist to me]. In my family it goes on for at least eight hours.

Next comes the encoffining. Family and spiritual guide(s) come together again for a spirited bout of chanting as the body is placed in the coffin, usually at the undertaker’s.

On the seventh day after death the family gathers, led by a monk and possibly lay-chanters, for a full day of intoning and general scraping. Bow here, bow there, get down on your knees and pray, stand up, chant, get down and hit your head on the floor. It seems all Zen and soul-rejuvenating, but mostly it’s just painful. Kneeling destroys the knees. Kowtowing hurts the back. The constant kneeling and rising—Buddhist leg squats—leaves the lower body quivering. You see decrepit monks doing it and it seems fluid and charming. It’s brutal. It’s like going bowling—assuming it’s easy since it’s the terroir of middle age fat alcoholics—and then suffering a week-long case of bowler’s butt. I can barely walk after prayers.

That is the first of seven weekly prayer sessions. It’s common to pay a temple to do the subsequent ones. They’re praying anyway, you can arrange a shout-out for your dearly departed.

When the funeral arrives the deceased is taken to a 殯儀館, funeral parlor and mortuary services complex. Most municipalities have one, Taipei has two. The one on Hsin-Hai Rd. is the Disneyland of death. It’s a huge complex, with a very large multi-room building, and smaller out-buildings, ready to accommodate the deceased and mourners. The main building holds at least a hundred concurrent funerals and thousands of mourners. Rooms range in size from small Las Vegas showroom to spruced up closet. Each room’s anterior has a mountain of flowers with the deceased’s picture top center. The coffin is placed centrally among the profusion of flowers. Tacky. If I were the corpse I’d be mortified. At the service’s end the coffin is quickly replaced by another—kinda like a hot-sheet motel. It’s a model of McDonald’s style efficiency. 

Everything in the ceremony itself is hierarchical. Each mourner dons a long dark cloak—for the Buddhist ceremony—with a small color-coded badge. The color denotes familial status. The family stands before the coffin in rows and columns according to rank. During my grandma-in-law’s funeral—despite barely knowing her—I ranked higher than my wife, and was placed more to the front, as befits my station and sperm count. I think it’s the worst part of the ceremony. I had no chance to comfort my wife. Instead I was busy—up front—being the foreign jackass. As with all aspects of my life, I provided comic relief and a focal point for staring. Is he going to screw this up? Aiya, he got it right. Double-or-nothing he fucks up the next kowtow. Foreigners: every funeral needs one.

Once arranged in order of descending importance, the process of chanting, genuflecting, kneeling, praying, kowtowing, and standing back up begins. Are you detecting a theme? During funerals my high school fight song keeps bouncing around my brain: “Bow to the left, bow to the right, stand up, sit down, fight! Fight! FIGHT! YeahhH TEAM!!!” But I digress. Once the family finishes, other assorted mourners, who’ve been watching from the side, get their chance to bow to the deceased.

At the end of the service, the family walks around the coffin three times while chanting. Then a nail is driven into the coffin lid, ceremonially sealing it. That duty falls to the eldest son, or nearest available facsimile.

With that over, the family and some of the crowd makes its way to the crematorium, conveniently located elsewhere on Death World’s grounds. The mourners line up a reasonable distance from the oven and chant as the cremation begins. At the first funeral I attended, the attendants hurriedly stuffed granny into a hot oven as the flames danced and licked out the door. You could feel the heat on your face. It was visceral. I’ve never seen that since. Maybe the day of granny’s funeral was particularly busy at Taipei Municipal No. 2 Mortuary, Funeral Services & Death Fulfillment Center, Inc. Usually the dead are calmly placed in the oven, the door closed, and the flames turned on. Frankly, they phone it in.

With the cremation underway, the family retires to the crematoracafeteria, an onsite coffee shop with video displays, detailing the temperature of each roaster, and reamaining cooking time. It brings to mind a fast-food restaurant. This is a time of relief. The family has spent three to four full days chanting and it’s over. Phew. Give me a simple Protestant ceremony. You’re in, someone talks, you sing a song, and you’re out—fifty minutes tops.

When your loved one’s timer pops, the family goes to collect the remains. This is the oddest part of the funeral. Cremation doesn’t leave dust, as you might think, but rather a skeleton. The bones are so burned they lose structural integrity and can be easily crushed to dust. Taiwan has some ceremonies requiring the bones, so the remains are not pulverized. [See this article on Taiwanese folk religion]. The family isn’t presented an inoffensive urn, instead a skeleton is wheeled out. At my first funeral I was caught off-guard and freaked. Nobody else paid much mind. Each family member in turn takes a pair of long cooking chopsticks, picks up some bone, and puts it into the urn. Judging by the faces of everyone, there was general apprehension when it came my turn—I’m a sloppy eater, but I’m proud to say I didn’t drop a morsel of grandma. Afterwards, the attendants complete the transfer.

That’s the end of the funeral, but you shouldn’t go straight home. Stop along the way. I think that’s to throw ghosts off your trail. When you get home, you should disrobe immediately, wash your clothes and shower, to wash the death off.

So now if you die in Taiwan you have an idea what type of party to expect. [YMMV].

 

Starvation Culture in Taiwan

I had a Chinese history professor who used to say  Western culture is sin culture, while Chinese culture is starvation culture. As a student should—I’d nod sagely—pretend to understand the implications, and carry-on with my day. Even living in Taiwan was not quite enough to really understand how food underpins Chinese culture. I understood some things; but I never totally got it until I started living with a Taiwanese family.

Famine has hit parts of China near annually since written records began. The last widespread famine—the Great Famine in the aftermath of the Great Leap—happened around sixty years ago. Hunger is not an artifact of some distant place or time, but a painful shared memory. Even today, with the flooding, there are credible concerns of famine. Uncertainty over food assures it’s uppermost in people’s thoughts and a central social concern.

The obsession with food is immediately noticeable in Chinese language. Now it is pretty common for people to greet each other with 你好嗎 (how are you), but this is an import from European languages. A more orthodox Chinese greeting is 你吃飽了沒 (have you eaten). Asking about food, or your state of hunger, is the traditional way of greeting someone and starting a conversation. The whole hi-how-are-you-I’m-fine-thank-you-and-you conversation  is a piece of  modernity, conventionally in Chinese,  upon meeting you’d express concern over the person’s stomach.

I believe ethnically Chinese people generally spend more time fantasizing and talking about food. It seems more central to daily thinking than in the West. The quantity of conversations where people wax lyrical about a previous meal, or verbalize anticipation of the next meal is amazing. A twenty-first century expression of starvation culture is the Asian habit of producing in-depth photo essays of meals. Will future-you really want to see past-you’s Three Cup Chicken? The first time I traveled to Taiwan I enquired at a banquet about table manners and was told almost anything goes. No niggling little rules should slow or inhibit the full-throated enjoyment of a meal. The Taiwanese are the desperately horny teenage boys of  food and cuisine. These conversations happen among Westerners, but don’t hold the same rabid fascination.

One place these differences become obvious is when comparing Taiwanese and Western social gatherings. In the West, drinks only parties are pretty common. “Come on over for a few”. There is no such thing as a food-free party here. My wife and I host many get-togethers. Recently, for the first time, I hosted a soirée for some foreign friends and provided only light store-bought snacks. That simply isn’t done. My wife kept trying to cook. Usually we cook for a day or two before a party. I wouldn’t let her, knowing my friends would be happy with a couple forties. As I was laying out the “spread” she kept saying, “this is so weird, this is so weird, this is so weird,” and avoided the party. My friends, long-termers with some Taiwanese thinking, understood that type of party and it was successful, with much less muss, fuss, stress, and cooking.

With food being so central to Chinese culture it is not surprising that it’s an expression of love and affection. There is an endless circle of rotating food underpinning Taiwanese life. We buy groceries for ourselves, and then proportion some out to the in-laws. They in turn send us foodstuffs. Thus ensuring each household has food they never wanted and now have to use. That’s love. Does it give a familial feeling of warmth and nurturing? Sure. Is it annoying? Damn straight. Food needs to constantly be schlepped back and forth. The circle of food-giving, and the creation of that close-knit feeling, sometimes extends to close friends.

Food is a sign of affection. When dating if you go for dinner and your date gently places a choice morsel in your bowl with their chopsticks that’s a good sign. I’m not saying you’re getting lucky, but you’re in the right ZIP Code. It’s an expression of caring. If you’re invited to eat with a Taiwanese friend’s family often your friend will slip a bite of food into your bowl, not serving you, but sharing. I wouldn’t read too much into it, but they’re acknowledging you as some type of friend to their family. If you’re feeling like a cultural explorer, try putting a little food into your friend’s bowl and watch the family’s reaction. It’s interesting stuff.

College-aged me vaguely understood, but I didn’t see the multivariate ways China’s history of starvation influenced Chinese culture.

The Care and Feeding of the Elderly in Asia

He looked at me through drooping eyebrows and dread eyes and in a slow choked voice whispered, “You have to. It’s your duty, you understand? There’s nothing more important in life.” My father-in-law had just asked how I intended to care for my aging parents in Canada. I gave a flip response, because everything I do is flippant, it’s part of my charm. I may have made some reference to that time-honored Canadian tradition of taking your aged, no longer productive, parents and putting them on an ice floe and setting them adrift. I’ve always thought the practice a marvelous piece of Canadiana. Of course I was joking,… probably, but it worried him. The unstated question was what are you going to do to me?

His fear gets to the heart of one of the traditional impediments to intercultural marriage. What’s going to happen to me? Will my foreign son-in-law or daughter-in-law care for me the way I expect? Often I’ve heard Taiwanese say that foreigners are too independent, using the word as a pejorative. They mean that many foreigners are only concerned about themselves and not their family. Like most cross-cultural beliefs this is a half-truth built upon a misunderstanding.

Most Westerners are relatively more independent from their families than the average Asian. Most Asians think it unilaterally the child’s idea, so they can selfishly pursue their own life, their own goals, their own pleasures. That’s not true. Traditionally Europeans lived similar to the Asian ideal. A large extended family living in close proximity, ideally under the same roof, caring for each other. The goal in Taiwan is still to have three generations under the same roof—all beaking off simultaneously. In North America that changed around 4 to 5 generations ago? Of course this varies by family and geography. In my family it was my grandparents who started the change. My great-grandparents would have liked to live with their children as they aged, but my grandparent’s generation did not want this. Their reasons undoubtedly were multivariate, some selfish and some altruistic, but it was a sea change in family life.

Here’s the part many Asians don’t get, when my grandparents generation became elderly, they didn’t want to live with their children. This is perhaps more a North American attitude than European. In the New World, rugged individualism was of paramount importance. On the frontier you needed to fend for yourself, children were raised to be independent for survival. These pioneers did not want to live in their children’s house in their twilight. It would have taken away their dignity and independence, the most important human attribute—what made a man a man. A short trip on the ice floe was preferable.

Also, the quality of care provided by family, though well-intentioned, is not the best. If grandma moves into the home and needs special care most families are ill-equipped to handle it. They have neither the skills, nor the time. The system was adequate for an agrarian society, but Asia has very rapidly urbanized. [See: My Parents Are Nuts].  Who takes care of grandma while mother and father work? The grandchildren? The whole situation is a untenable.

Here’s an anecdote showing the stereotypical differences between a Westerner (me) and traditional Taiwanese (my Favorite Student). One day I walked into class and he was behaving a little strangely. His chest was puffed up and had that cock-of-the-walk look. He was explaining his mother had moved into his house. Everyone was praising him as a good son. I walked in and immediately shat a triple-coiler all over his parade, when without thinking I rather pissily said, “Why are you doing that?”

He replied, “Well, she’ll be able to live with us and take care of the kids. Won’t that be nice?”

I was FOB and vehemently replied, “Nooo. Grandma is old, don’t stuffed her into a back room and expected her to care for your children. Child care is hard work. Grandma’s done enough work in her life. You made them, you take care of them. Let her enjoy the time she has left.” With hindsight I might’ve been a little too real. [I wasn’t always the paragon of cultural sensitivity I am now]. It shocked my favorite student and most of his classmates, but I did see one young woman nodding agreement. Things are change, society has  no choice.

As for my in-laws, when I was getting married I had the foresight to insist that no Chen would ever live with us. The wife readily agreed, though she was in love back then, so who knows. I have two parents-in-law and a brother-in-law that require medical care. Will they ever live under our roof? Never say never—but never.

Taiwanese Generational References

The thing about cross-cultural living is you lose your frame of reference—those little tricks used to prejudge a situation. One loss is a broad understanding of each generation’s reality. For example, the Greatest Generation lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Those events shaped who they are and how they live. Baby Boomers have shared social, economic, and international events that shaped their outlook, and on-and-on for each generation. Of course each individual is different, but there is groupthink: I can better understand where you’re coming from if I know where you came from.

You lose those broad insights when moving to another country. If I’d relocated to America, there’d be slight changes. With a small knowledge of American history and culture I could conjecture other’s generational viewpoint.

Not true for Taiwan. The events that shaped generational thinking are very different. I’ve found it a useful shorthand to think of Taiwanese as sharing similarities with the preceding generation in Canada. I realize I’m screwing with reality, Taiwan lived through the same world events as other countries at the same time. But, in my personal interactions with Taiwanese there seems to be this intercultural cross-generational parallel.

People the equivalent age to Western Baby Boomers saw the Chinese arrive or arrived themselves. They lived through the darkest days of the White Terror. Their thinking was set in Taiwan’s pre-Asian Tiger days and shaped by its emergence. Taiwan had a fair amount of poverty. My parent-in-law’s generation—seventy-plus years old—seems to share similarities with the Greatest Generation. They have the extreme frugality of those who lived through the Great Depression. Don’t throw anything away, who knows when you might need a 20mm square button to match a purple leisure suit. Better hang on to that.

Taiwan’s baby boom (they don’t call it that) began a bit later, the early 1950’s,  after the KMT completely lost China and overt hostilities eased. By the mid-1960’s the birthrate began to be perceived as a problem and government began promoting the nuclear family (一個孩子不嫌少,兩個孩子恰恰好/One child isn’t too little, two is just right). These children are around thirty to fifty-five years old, but resemble the West’s Baby Boomers. They may have been born into relatively poor economic circumstances, with parents who exhibited Depression-era practicality, but they found themselves living and working in a booming economy where anything seemed possible, and want was for others.

In some ways my wife and mother are similar, each was born into strained economic circumstances with a high degree of rurality. For early Canadian Baby Boomers, photos were not a common part of family life. My mother has a couple poor quality childhood photos, and one professional baby picture. My wife’s treasured childhood memories are mostly photos of others, where she’s wandered into the background. Both consciously try to create and preserve memories. My mom didn’t have a wealth of toys growing up, but she had wanted a certain doll, which inevitably didn’t come. My wife had one toy growing up (really)—a dolly. She’d wanted a Barbie and ended up with a Night Market Nancy. Both can get a bit over-wrought about dolls.

Each came of age in a time of endless jobs and good pay, making it hard for them to relate to the economic problems not only of their parent’s generation, but also later generations. That’s me. When I graduated high school, the job market tanked—almost on that day. My generation, either by choice or necessity, went to university in droves. The job market hadn’t improved by graduation, so employment uncertainty shaped our worldview.

When I moved to Taiwan, I had a hard time economically relating to people my age. And, they couldn’t relate to me. “Why did you come to Taiwan?” I’d be honest, “Because there’s no work in Canada,” inevitably illiciting a response like, “What do you mean ‘there’s no work’? Aren’t you willing to work?” Of course, I’d do anything, “I mean there’s no work,” followed by the inevitable blank incomprehension. It was stunningly similar to conversations with Canadian Baby Boomers at the time.

Which brings us to the generation that graduated after the Global Financial Crisis (2007/8). Taiwan’s low birthrate after 1996 and oversupply of university spots sent them to university in droves.  Similar to how the bursting of the job market in Canada forced a prolonged education on many Canadians of my generation. Upon graduation this abundance of Taiwanese university graduates entered a crippled job market. These are my people. I relate to their life’s journey at a gut level, in a way I can’t connect with Taiwanese my age. Their struggles are mine. The world kicked them in the same places as it did my generation in Canada, and created people of similar outlook and attitude.

This article is a foreigner’s perspective on inter-generational differences in Taiwan. The Taiwanese have their own way of looking at generational shifts related to unique domestic events. A common one is the sharp generational divide between people who completed their education under martial law and those that did not. Or, those who came of age early in Chang Ching-kuo’s (蔣經國) reign, and look back on the Martial Law Period and early Taiwanese manufacturing boom with fondness. They’re unable to relate to the tech boom, globalization, Taiwan’s post-industrial society, etc. They are sort of like Taiwanese Trump voters or Brexiteers. These are the people that almost foisted Han Guo-yu (韓國瑜) on Taiwan.

Admittedly, this article  puts an anachronistic and foreign skein over everything. It is inherently inaccurate—and yet helpful.

“When I’m Dead…

…and gone, just sharpen
my toenails and drive
me into the manure pile”.

So said my grandfather, though he became sentimental about it at the end. Still, it hints at an earthy practicality as regards death and its rituals that was a feature of my life growing up. The soul goes to heaven and the body rots, once dead it doesn’t matter what happens on earth.

Taiwan is less simplistic. Taiwan has the three major Chinese religions; Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. However, often Taiwanese spiritual practices do not tidily fit into these religions. These are the rituals, rites, customs, and magic of the common Chinese people and Chinese Folk Religion. The state religions championed by various dynasties have incorporated these folk traditions. They are the amorphous sinew permeating Taiwan’s ritual life.

Central to Chinese folk customs is ancestor worship, which likely developed from Shang Dynasty (商朝) ancestor cults. It presumes a kind of two-way interaction between deceased members of the family and their living descendants. The ancestors remain part of the family where they are the focus of family ritual; primarily prayer and offerings. Historically ancestor worship seems to have developed out of fear; an uneasiness about the affect of a discontented ghost on the family.

The ancestors are pretty corporeal. They need their descendants to provide food, alcohol, money, and sometimes material objects or even spouses, along with prayers. To allow the dead’s needs to go unsatiated is to invite misfortune upon the family. Conversely if the ancestors are satisfied the living will receive good fortune as otherworldly repayment. It is very transactional. Sometimes the prayers are more like haranguing the ancestor: I provided you with this, that, and the other thing, yet still I don’t have _____. I’ll throw your tablet in the closet, until I get what I want. Get your act together! [Prayer in the folk tradition isn’t necessarily similar to prayer in institutionalized religions].

At the heart of these interplanar interactions is the deceased’s ancestral tablet. It looks like a small, usually wooden, grave marker. It is inscribed with the exact time of birth and death, the deceased’s name, and titles. It is often kept at the household’s family altar, where the ancestor is readily available for requests, consultations, and to receive sacrifices.

The ancestral tablet is to the left, encased in glass.

The ancestral tablet houses part of the deceased’s soul. Chinese Folk Religion, in particular the ancestor cult, views the soul as tripartite. One part goes to heaven after death, another stays with the body’s remains, and the third part is enclosed in the ancestral tablet by the family as part of the death rites. Thus, the ancestor becomes the family’s spirit-protector and the tablet becomes almost a talisman.

I used to think it would be neat to have a Chinese style family altar—part of my desire to be that funky-weird foreigner. Yeah, I’m that kind of expat. After getting a more intimate view of what’s involved though I no longer think it would be groovy. Propitiating the ancestor takes a shit-ton of time, work, and general hassle. Many modern Taiwanese share my attitude. It is possible to entrust the care and feeding of tablets to a temple. That seems a better option to me and many other Taiwanese.

Sources: The Salty Egg is almost entirely written from personal experience. I first came to Taiwan thirty-three years ago to study Chinese Folk Religion. The information here comes from that class—discussions with Taiwanese religious leaders, shamans, monks and priests, diviners and others during that trip—along with family; and my personal experience of rituals in Taiwan. Any religious observance has personal/family variance. This is a reasonable—if oversimplified—outline of this piece of Chinese Folk Religion.