Category Archives: Society & Culture

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.

 

Life and Love in the Age of the Coronavirus

Comparing Western culture’s rugged individualism, America being the extremist example, versus the communitarian values of Asian societies is an overdone trope among cultural writers. I can’t believe I haven’t waddled into these waters. Just because it is a stereotype doesn’t mean it’s untrue.

I’ve watched with dismay Western countries response to COVID-19. Each seeming to fail, or occasionally succeed, along predictable cultural lines. The slowness of Italy and Spain to get their gregarious  street life locked down. What is either without its cafes, alfresco restaurants, and street fairs? In the early days of the lock down getting their citizens to self-isolate was like trying to force cockroaches to enter your carefully placed roach motels—they run everywhere, and do everything, but lock themselves in. Meanwhile Germans reacted like a mechanical metronome. Canadians sheepishly followed authority. All according to Hoyle.

As might be expected—the Americans went nuts, though again, along predictable lines. Admittedly, their response was hampered by poor leadership and institutions that have been gutted, but i’m just talking here about individual reactions, after people [slowly] began believing the entire world wasn’t engaging crisis actors to play an elaborate hoax aimed at discrediting President Trump. [Jeee-sus].

One of the first, most predictably American responses to the epidemic was to buy firearms, and hoard ammunition. Presumably that’s the default setting for any mass crisis. There is really only one logical reason for this. You’re not planning to protect yourself by shooting the virus out of the air. No. It only makes sense if you’re preparing to shoot your neighbors to protect your toilet paper stash.

America is arguably the most individualistically oriented Western society, and so provides a particularly extreme example of something that has been extant throughout the West’s response to the coronavirus—being concerned about individual needs before community. A lot of the poor response to COVID-19 comes down to our philosophy of rugged individualism.

I don’t need to do social-distancing. I’m young and healthy. I won’t get this thing, and if I do I’ll recover quickly. Let’s go party on the beach. Florida. Spring Break, Dudes! If I get the virus and leave a trail of death and destruction behind me, that doesn’t seem as important as my enjoying this beer. The thousands who made the pilgrimage to South Florida displayed, and sometimes verbalized, a stunning disregard for the welfare of others.

Governments aggravated the situation by asking citizens to take individual responsibility for their actions, while they kept everything open. It’s a very mixed message: You should social-distance, but if you decide not to, please enjoy our bars, eateries, and clubs. The ethos of rugged individualism extends into government—our most communitarian institution.

Largely the necessity of individually sacrificing for the community’s welfare seems to have been accepted in the West. But, the tendency to individualism still shows itself in little ways.

I had this conversation with a Taiwanese colleague: “Why don’t foreigners wear face masks?” I gave the normal Western response that surgical masks don’t protect you from the virus. She replied, “I know the mask doesn’t protect you. Still, why wouldn’t you wear it?” It protects others from your possibly virus-laden spit.

Good point. Why wouldn’t I?

 

Three Words of Love

I’ve talked differences between Asian and Western viewpoints on love. [Try: Marrying Taiwanese, Marriage Market, and Don’t Marry a Foreigner]. I’d like to approach the topic from a linguistic angle. The differences are reflected in the language. Here are three words that convey a particularly Asian take on love.

If you’ve done even a small amount of dating in Asia, then you’ve probably run into this word 緣份, 인연, or えん. The concept seems to permeate romance throughout North-East Asia. For this article, we’ll use the Chinese word 緣份 [Yuán fèn]. The word has a beautiful romantic feeling that doesn’t translate into English. The most common translations are fate or destiny. That’s not adequate. The word refers to two souls, with an unbreakable interconnectedness, fated to have serendipitous interactions throughout all their reincarnations. Pretty, right?

緣份 can refer to the relationship between any two people or things, but often refers to amorous relationships. It is close  in meaning to Western ideals of romantic love. Most Westerners can easily understand the feeling of the word, even if some of the intricacies elude us. It is not so different from soul-mates fated to be together. Close enough that you can at least feel the word’s intent.

The next word 冤家 [Yuānjiā] can also relate to love. Here is where Chinese concepts of love begin to diverge from Western ideas. The word reflects these differences and is difficult to explain. Translations of 冤家 include sweetheart, enemy, foe, and one’s destined love.

Huh? How can such disparate meanings be reconciled?

Buddhism provides the answer. 冤家 may refer to two enemies fated to keep meeting until they resolve their karmic issues. When talking about love, 冤家 has the feeling of a predestined love, but it’s a tragic romance. What brings you together is the karmic debt you owe your partner, and you are grievously fated to be together through all your lives, until the debt is paid, when finally you can be released from each other. Yep. The Chinese have managed to sum up marriage in two characters. 冤家 implies a dutiful love, with a whiff of bitter resentment. You’re obliged to pay your debts—a wonderfully Chinese love.

The final word has a similar meaning, 相欠債 [sio-khiàm-tsè] is a Taiwanese word basically meaning I owe you, you owe me, so we are each other’s predestined pain in the ass. Whatever misery you bring me I need to take, because we are 相欠債. Again it refers to two people continually meeting throughout their many lives because they owe each other a karmic debt. When referring to love it can imply acceptance of the couple’s fate of being karmically stuck together and needing to make the best of it. It shows a higher level understanding of life. 相欠債 can have a feeling of a love that is accepting of fate. By surrendering to this destiny, it shows a higher level comprehension of life, and on that plane love is a given. This is more of an older generation Taiwanese expression.

Each of these words refers to an intellectual concept more than an emotion, partially explaining why many Taiwanese don’t often speak about love. A Taiwanese person probably would think of these words as talking about life, duty, obligation, debt, fealty, rather than love. Each word can refer to any relationship, it’s my silly Western brain that insists on interpreting each word’s love-related themes. For me, they are three words describing love, each different, running from beautiful, through dutiful, to philosophical. The emphasis on love is my cultural baggage shading the meaning of each word towards something more Western. None of these words have an exact English equivalent, and in those differences perhaps there is a little insight into how attitudes of love and relationships may differ between Asia and the West.

Note: Language isn’t really my forte, but I did my best.

The Whiny Women of Taiwan

When I first moved to Taiwan I was 29 years old. After taking care of the basics, food, job, housing, I was ready to date. I immediately ran into a problem. All the women I met considered men 9 to 20 years their senior to be appropriate dating age. (It’s an entire nation of women with daddy issues). That meant the women interested in dating me were 20 years old, and acted like a 12 year old back home. Admittedly, they were very cute, but…

The problem I had was not physical, most were beautiful, nor was it personality, many being genuinely wonderful—it was all the 撒嬌ing. Google Translate tells me 撒嬌 (sājiāo) means coquettish—I just checked—but for my whole life in Taiwan I’ve thought of it as meaning whining. My definition of 撒嬌 is childishly and annoyingly complaining, or being in a pet, in an obvious attempt to manipulate others [men]. That’s what it looks and sounds like. Nothing sets my teeth on edge quite like it.

I suppose my reaction is natural, as a child, whining was one of the personality flaws parents tried to beat out of little girls. [Simpler times]. It’s natural I would carry some residual dislike. Not so in Taiwan, I’ve seen parents and particularly grandparents actively teaching sniveling, literally holding back candy until a little girl starts whingeing, upon which she receives the reward. They find it charming female behavior.

The 撒嬌 is a cruel mistress. It only works for the pretty or cute. I’ve watched cute young girls use their wiles to get what they want, while their less cute friends, pull a moue as best they can, but get substantially poorer results. Even though I prefer this outcome, and think it is better for the girls, it’s hard not to pity the ugly little sprogs.

What may be considered cute in a child [it isn’t] is sexually manipulative in a 20-something, and with each subsequent decade becomes more grotesque. But, pretty young women, enjoy a brief period when they can get whatever they want by simply pouting. Of course the older you get the less it works. However, for as long as you remain cute or beautiful, you can still pull out a 撒嬌 now and then, and be rewarded by getting your way. Though their beauty may have waned, the amount a middle-aged woman whines is a pretty good indicator of their youthful looks. Lots of petulance? She was a cute young thing. If they manage to remain beautiful into middle-age, then the whingeing continues unabated.

It still shocks me when I see highly successful professional career women trying to manipulate staff, clients, or bosses, with pursed lips and a plaintive tone. It makes you just want to smack them upside the head. I’m not alone in this. The behavior seems to bother many Western women even more than me. I once found myself in front of a class full of young women who demanded I explain why their female teacher was so upset with them for whining to get their way. I explain to them that women have worked hard to improve their place in society. That they fought to prove themselves the equal of men in business. That it’s been an arduous battle that isn’t finished. I then suggested that seeing a bunch of educated women mewling around like babies undercuts feminism. [I know you think I’m not the one to have delivered a message on feminism, but I am a feminist with impeccable credentials. I’ve been a lifetime committed member of the Free the Nipple movement, up on the barricades, fighting the good fight, since before it was a movement, and will continue until the day I die—and possibly for a few days after. I’m not sure how the afterlife works]. Anyway, the students couldn’t have disagreed more. They were shocked anyone would find something so cute and manifestly feminine insulting to womanhood. They were right. The 撒嬌 is a pure expression of the female in Taiwan. I have occasionally witnessed boys trying to do it. It doesn’t work. Their question was: why should women give up any weapon they have in the battle of the sexes if it gets them what they want? They were clear about what they were doing, and mercenary in intent. *Shrug* Sometimes we try, but fail to teach.

The difference in cultural attitudes surrounding 撒嬌ing was my first deeper culture shock. The first time I met a difference more profound than the traveler’s basics: Why is everyone shouting? Do you really eat that? Or, the ever popular, how does this toilet work? I’m a fan of Taiwanese women in many ways, but in this way, not so much. It’s just a game; a manipulation. But, I find it deeply annoying.