Category Archives: Society & Culture

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.

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.