Category Archives: Society & Culture

Humor’s Intercultural Perils: Why’s Everyone Pissed Off?

Do Chinese speakers have a sense of humor? On its face it seems a ridiculous question. However, many Westerners living in Taiwan have reached the conclusion that humor and Chinese culture are antithetical. As crazy as it sounds, it has a logic.

I once was one of those foreigners—I’ve since reformed. I would tell people that if you were being politically correct you’d say that humor is culturally defined and each culture has its own distinct sense of whimsy. However, if you were being truthful, you’d admit Chinese speakers have no sense of humor. I’d further explain most Chinese speakers, upon hearing a comedic aside, analyze it from every angle seeking a way to be offended. Further clarifying that a typical Chinese inner monologue after a joke might run: Have I been insulted; has my culture or race been slandered; and, how morally indignant am I, on a scale from outraged to apoplectic? If I wasn’t belittled, who was? Do I care? How much? If not directly about me, am I somehow peripherally being mocked? Let’s dig through five thousand years of human history trying to find some way to take umbrage. If not insulting, then is the joke somehow socially inappropriate?… After all this mental arithmetic, nothing is ever funny. That’s why sarcasm doesn’t exist in Chinese. That’s why Chinese speakers rely on the most unsophisticated types of humor; puns and puerile jokes, the domain of young children in the West.

I was wrong.

Well, sort of, like everything about culture, there are shades of grey. The mental gymnastics described above though overstated are kind of true. Thus, American humor can be very tough for Chinese listeners. A lot of American humor is outwardly directed, sometimes aggressive, and based on sarcasm and insult. Chinese speakers do better with American wit when that aggression is turned inwards to become self-deprecation. Then it’s clear to us Chinese speakers who is being insulted, and we’re okay with it.

Here’s where I was really wrong. Sarcasm exists in Chinese. It is very common for a group of friends engaged in badinage to be stunningly insulting and sarcastic, in a humorous way. The difference isn’t so much a matter of humor as variation between high-context and low-context communication styles (See: A Low-Context Dude and Unified Field Theory for background on the cultural linguistics). Americans are noted for their ability to move from strangers to ass-slapping and calling each other Butthead in the course of an evening. It’s friendly. It is also a very low-context cultural style. Other Western cultures, though perhaps more reserved, are also relatively low-context.

Chinese culture, and Asian cultures in general, tend to be more high-context. There is an emphasis on forming and deepening relationships within your group. As a consequence of this cultural style, humor is geared towards the in-group. If you’re not part of the group, you won’t understand the in-jokes, and likely will never hear them. Shared humor builds group cohesion and helps distinguish the in-group from outsiders. It’s coded messaging for the initiated. On the macro level, Taiwanese humor is a good example, much of it is based on the interplay of Chinese and Taiwanese, kind of creating puns across linguistic lines.  Only proficient Taiwanese speakers can really hope to understand, even in Taiwan that’s only a bit more than half the population. Non-Taiwanese have no hope.

Ultimately the tendency to confine joking to peers explains  why many foreigners living among Chinese speakers think they lack humor and don’t understand sarcasm. As outsiders, they are not invited to share in the jokes. Taiwanese people are capable of great sarcasm, and cut on their friends hard, but that’s just it, the humor is for close friends.

Humor and sarcasm coming from outside the in-group can seem aggressive to Chinese speakers. That is not how humor flows in Taiwan, rapier-like wit should only cut a group member—for social cohesion there’s an emphasis on maintaining surface calm among the wider society. For foreigners from a low-context culture, that doesn’t emphasize maintaining a respectful separation between social groups based on status and hierarchy, it is easy to inadvertently cause discomfiture with your banter. It is part of how we try to break down barriers and be more friendly and interesting. High-context cultures like their barriers just as they are—thank you very much.

The Problem With Asian Christians

It might surprise you to learn that I never set out to be controversial, disparaging, or offensive in my blog. I run through each article trying to insure no one would be insulted. It is genuinely perturbing when my writing causes some readers to become indignant. This article is different. I know some will find it insulting, but I still want to post it. It’s on a subject that, because of my jobs, has had an outsized affect on my expat life. Christians. Specifically Asians—living in Asia—who have personally felt the need to convert to Christianity.

Just for context, I’m definitely not an atheist. I can be kind of agnostic sometimes, but generally believe in something greater than myself. Personally my religious beliefs and  observances tend to be a poorly thought out hodgepodge of Buddhism, Christianity, and religious Taoism. I have no problem with religion. I think it offers hope, peace, and psychological support for many. That’s beautiful. Nor do I have a specific issue with Christianity. I’m a big admirer of Jesus, but some of his fans—not so much.

I began my expat journey almost twenty-five years ago teaching in a cram school on Korea’s coast. The school’s owner, my direct boss, Mr. Lee, was an ardent catholic. As I was newly arrived from Canada, that seemed natural to me, and I didn’t think much about it.

As I got to know him, I came to recognize some of his shortcomings as a boss. The biggest problem for us employees was that he was bereft of a moral center. He was being medicated for a psychological condition. I’m not sure if being conscienceless was a symptom of his condition. He did lots of amoral things. A small example was offering a job to a person in Canada, who then booked and bought a ticket to Korea, to be reimbursed later. Before he arrived, Mr. Lee found another candidate he preferred. The poor Canadian found himself out the price of the ticket, jobless, and broke in a foreign country. The only thing that saved him was that the other teachers stood up to Mr. Lee and insisted he honor his word.

Stuff like that happened continually. I was the one who mostly had to deal with Mr. Lee, since I was the senior teacher. He confessed once that he couldn’t distinguish right from wrong, and had difficulty putting himself in other’s shoes. He further stated that was why he liked Catholicism. I didn’t entirely understand his meaning, but filed the information away.

A couple years later I found myself in Taipei teaching English at a Christian organization when Mr. Lee’s words came slamming back. My boss there was a carbon copy of Mr. Lee. He was a vocal Christian much given to pontificating on Christianity and our Christian mission, but when you scratched the surface he was morally defective. This time I wasn’t the senior teacher, but he did keep me astride of some of his meetings with our boss. The boss clearly struggled to distinguish good from bad. I dealt with a lot of Taiwanese Christians at that job, most of them were wonderful people, but a seemingly higher than normal percentage lacked a moral center.

Also, hard-right ultraconservative evangelical groups have found fertile soil for recruitment in Taiwan [see: Gloria Hu]. These groups, such as International House of Prayer (IHOP) and the Bread of Life Christian Church, are hate groups, or at least share many of their characteristics. Of course, the rise of these groups is not solely a Taiwanese phenomena, but the speed of their rise here reinforces my biases, and hints at moral turpitude among a significant portion of Taiwan’s Christian community.

Which brings me to my hypothesis: If you’re born into a religion it means nothing; but, if you choose one, it says something about your personality. If you’re born into a Christian family, and you continue to follow that religion, it doesn’t provide insight into your personality. You’re just following your family tradition. So, if you’re Asian and you’re born into a Christian family, none of this applies to you. However, a noticeable portion of Asian Christians arrive in that religion because they recognize a personal flaw and they need Christianity’s clearly stated Manichean distinctions between good and evil—Thou shalt not….

Buddhism and Taoism do not provide such a clear list of does and don’ts. Both have a moral code that followers are encouraged to adhere to, but it’s presentation is fuzzy. A lot of it is about finding the true nature of something, someone, or yourself and then allowing that something, someone, or yourself to follow its true nature. Or, seeking to accept the nature of your existence. [Please forgive my extreme, and somewhat inaccurate oversimplification, I’m trying to make a point about Christians, not discuss Eastern religion].

If you’re born unable to distinguish good from evil, but aspire to goodness, Buddhism and Taoism can be indecipherable for the novice [high-context religions]. Whereas, at the very front of the bible there’s The Ten Commandments [low-context religion]. It is easy to see the appeal of Christianity for people lacking a moral compass. Christianity doesn’t change these people. Unfortunately, inability to empathize isn’t a religious failing, it’s a character failing.

These are my personal experiences,  you may have had a completely different experience of Christians in Asia. I hope you have. With my jobs I’ve rubbed elbows with an unusual number of Asian Christians. It hasn’t been an entirely positive experience, and has left me a little wary of Christians here.

Sliding Up and Down Taiwan’s Social Hierarchy

Asian societies are more hierarchical than the societies most expats come from. Whether we recognize it or not, our social status profoundly affects our daily lives. I’ve experienced some social mobility, upwards and downwards, since moving to Taiwan. As an outsider, I’ve been intrigued by how people’s reactions to me have changed with my altered circumstances.

People’s perceptions transformed when I switched jobs. Like many others, I started my Taiwanese journey as a buxiban teacher. Cram school teachers occupy a strange position in Taiwan’s social hierarchy. Teachers are traditionally very respected in Asia—buxiban teachers not so much. You’re barely considered a teacher, more of an overpriced tutor. I guess because you aren’t backed by a respected educational institute. Some cram schools hire undocumented and sometimes unqualified teachers—who occasionally did horrible stuff. Fly-by-night operations open, collect fees, and abscond in the night. These problems seem less frequent now, but during Taiwan’s buxiban gold rush, many fine teachers were tarred with this brush.

All that aside, I enjoyed buxiban teaching and probably would have continued indefinitely. However, I had an incompetent boss who’d taken a personal dislike to me. I forget exactly how he got me to overcome my natural state of inertia and start sending out resumes. I distinctly remember thinking I didn’t need to put up with his shit. I was right. I got a university job.

Taiwanese people’s attitude toward me shifted immediately. When it became generally known, I got a lot more respect from my buxiban students. Nothing changed in my teaching to warranted it. If anything, I got lazier as I began eyeing the exits. They seemed to suddenly regard me as wholly qualified. I was qualified before, but until I was fully vetted by an institution of higher learning, they had no way to be sure. Taiwanese coworkers had a similar reaction. My status with my buxiban bosses increased, I assume the logic was: I could never respect anyone who’d work for the likes of me.

That was all moderately interesting, but the change in status was most noticeable while dating. Taiwanese women are the canary in the coalmine—they let you know your social standing quickly and clearly. As a buxiban teacher, many women regarded me as okay for fun, a little sexual/cultural adventure on the wrong side of the tracks with a bad boy. If I became too attached, they were surprised I didn’t recognize myself as a dalliance. I was meant to be a fond memory of girlish recklessness that would get them through a lifetime of milquetoast married sex. I’d never been a bad boy and completely failed to recognize what was happening. I got used to it. When I switched to university teaching, I was completely unprepared to have Taiwanese women taking me seriously as a prospective mate. Blew my mind.

Whether I was regarded as a boyfriend or a toy, I was almost always a dirty little secret, concealed from family, sometimes from friends. It sounds bad, but actually is a common way for Taiwanese women to deal with social pressure around dating. It doesn’t just happen to foreigners. On the rare occasions that a woman introduced me to her family, the family would try to wreck the relationship. I assumed it was bigotry, but it stopped happening after I became a university teacher. I suddenly became a stable and reasonable candidate for their daughter and there was a palpable change in my treatment. I’m sure marrying would have been more difficult had I remained a buxiban teacher. It turns out the issue wasn’t racism: it was classism.

I found the whole thing amusing. Taiwan’s social hierarchy wasn’t deeply ingrained in my psyche. As an outsider to Taiwanese society, I have the privilege of fitting in equally well—or poorly—no matter the group’s social status. I’ve moved comfortably among the highest and lowest levels of Taiwanese society.

Recently I’ve taken a little trip down the social hierarchy.  We have a house on Taipei’s Hoping East Rd. The neighborhood is on the richer side of middle class, or the lower side of rich.  People there have pretensions, and tend to be a bit uppity in conversation: “I say Muffy, striped tuna with spotted dick? Why it’s simply not done, wot, wot”, or the Taiwanese equivalent. I was comfortable there, but we recently got another place in Chungho. The neighborhood is very middle class; teachers, police officers, small business owners, etc. It’s earthier than the old neighborhood. I’m very comfortable here too.

The advantage of not fitting in anywhere is you fit in everywhere. Being accepted by every level of Taiwanese society is another matter.

Taiwan’s Marriage Market

China has garnered some attention in the Western media for its marriage markets (for example: China’s Marriage Markets). To the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been an equivalent in Taiwan during my time here. However, I have seen Taiwanese parents do their best to eliminate any romance from courtship, make marriage more about themselves than their children, and try to commoditize marriage (see: Marrying Taiwanese). But, they’ve never quite reached China’s levels of expediency.

When I first came to Taiwan, I became briefly—though never seriously—part of one woman’s marriage quest. Let’s call her Lily. She was about twenty-seven, the dreaded prohibition on marrying during your twenty-ninth year was looming large. Marrying at twenty-nine was inauspicious and at thirty a woman became an old maid (see: Dating Fails). The pressure was on.

Mother and daughter approached dating with all the romance of General George S. Patton knifing through France. They planned, strategized, attacked, fell back, regrouped, and then reassaulted Taipei’s bachelors. I had just arrived from Canada and watching the pair was my first opportunity to experience deeper culture shock than the I-can’t-believe-you-eat-that variety.

For them, dating was very much a rehearsal for marriage. Normal; I suppose. Their military precision made it seem unnatural. Then again, maybe I was abnormally lackadaisical regarding love and marriage. I was twenty-nine years old and had no schedule for falling in love. I lacked even a basic schematic diagram of my relationship history and future goals. I was floating along, whimsically moving between relationships—like a goddamn hippie.

Lily asked me, with what I suppose must’ve been a flirtatious giggle, whether I wanted to be on her potential husband list. Nope. There wasn’t anything wrong with Lily. She was reasonably attractive, warm and funny, but I hadn’t been in Taiwan long enough to deal with that level of cultural immersion. If I’d agreed they’d have pulled out their marriage book, written my name on a new page, discussed my relative merits, and created a pros and cons list. I know because I’d watched them do it. I imagine my name in the marriage book is as far as I’d have gotten, but if I’d passed this early appraisal I’d have found myself on a first date with Lily. I was never privy to these early dates, I’m guessing they were pragmatic affairs.

I was however invited on a few of her later dates, in that Asian group dating kind of way, after she’d winnowed the list down to her final two. I believe she was assessing how each prospect interacted in larger social groups and their interactions with her friends. Nothing was ever spontaneous.

One was a doctor, not so handsome, and looked to be well into middle age; but, you know, a doctor. The other was an entrepreneur, in his mid to late thirties, and, if not handsome, at least not ugly; but, you know, not a doctor. She  was dating the two finalists concurrently—the better to compare them. The men were aware of it and seemed okay with the setup.

It must have gotten awkward when it came time to compare them sexually—because that was part of the process. As Lily bluntly explained sex and sexual compatibility are important in marriage. Therefore, she really needed to get out there and test-drive each man. Make sure it fit. God bless her pragmatic little heart. I should note that Lily was not the only Taiwanese woman to express this sentiment in similarly businesslike tones. I couldn’t fault the logic, but found their hard-nosed unsentimental approach to sex disconcerting.

Mother and daughter’s priorities largely aligned, but not completely. They agreed the man needed a stable income, a house in Taipei, a car, and a cell phone. They disagreed on how important the intangibles were. The doctor’s looks weren’t good enough for the daughter; the mother didn’t care. The entrepreneur’s business didn’t have enough status for the mother; the daughter didn’t care. The daughter worried about having a husband who kept a doctor’s schedule; the mother didn’t care. They struggled, agonized, scrutinized, and compromised. Eventually they came together and chose the businessman.

I was much too newly arrived to be able to understand her family’s ethnic and cultural background. I could not contextualize their behavior—were they normal or bonkers. I’ve fallen out of touch with Lily, so I can’t reexamine her family. Given that the “boyfriends” went along with everything and Lily’s friends all played their role, I’m guessing it wasn’t that unusual. Still, I’ve neither seen, nor participated in, anything like it since.

My Parents Are Nuts: The Generation Gap in Taiwan

The pace of change in Taiwan can be simultaneously heady and unsettling. Rapid changes to the physical environment tend to be exhilarating. It is fun to be in a vibrant swiftly evolving metropolis. Taiwan’s major centers all fit that bill. I recall a friend who went to his home country for summer break. Upon returning to Taipei, two months later, he couldn’t find his apartment. A new building went up beside his home during his absence. The skyline’s change disoriented him and for a few minutes he couldn’t situate himself and find his house. That doesn’t happen in Saskatoon.

The pace of physical change is part of the charm of living in a major Asian city. In Taiwan, seismic social changes parallel the changing cityscape. Sociologists, social psychologists, and other social researchers have been studying Taiwan because of its brisk pace of social change. Taiwan offers an interesting case study of sudden modernization. Taiwan has endured very swift industrialization and subsequent transition to a post-industrial society. Concomitant social trends have proceeded apace and likewise strained Taiwanese society; urbanization, democratization, social justice, demographic shifts, etc. The stresses this places on Taiwanese social institutions and the family is interesting for academics.

Take my family as an example, my father-in-law is the oldest of three boys. Twelve years separate the oldest and youngest. They are an interesting example of rapid industrialization’s affect on family. They were all born on the farm, but each in turn experienced, and was shaped by a different period of Taiwan’s industrial progression. My father-in-law, though he eventually came and worked in the city, absorbed, believes, and keeps trying to transmit, the agrarian mores of his upbringing. The second brother’s perspective was shaped by the first stage of Taiwan’s rapid industrialization—the growth of factories (for low-end products) and OEM production. The third brother was shaped by his experiences in the high-tech industry. These are three brothers, born not that far apart, who have experienced Taiwan in wildly divergent ways, each brother representing an important stage in Taiwan’s economic evolution.

If we extend the example a bit further to include my wife—the first-born son’s youngest daughter—she works in present day Taiwan’s postmodern globalized economy. In one generation they went from a subsistence farming mentality to my wife’s extremely urbane, modern, international outlook. She is hardly unique among middle-aged and younger Taipei residents. My wife and father-in-law exist in a totally different time and place. She is a multilingual, globe-trotting, independent, modern woman, and her father seems to believe he’s living in the Qing Dynasty. Imagine the strain that puts on a family.

Taiwan is rife with examples of the pressure rapid change causes people and their beliefs. Also, the social contradictions created by speedy societal shifts. Martial law was lifted in Taiwan in the summer of 1987 after 38 years. When I first came to live in Taiwan a couple decades ago I met many people in their late twenties who regarded students at that time as being from a wildly different generation, because much their schooling was done in the relative freedom of the post-martial law period. Though chronologically close in age there was a wide chasm in their experiences. Because of my age (50-ish) and the time I arrived in Taiwan, I have a lot of politically regressive, borderline anti-democratic—martial law wasn’t so bad—Taiwanese friends. I arrived in a period of sweeping political transition, so many of my (often slightly younger) Taiwanese friends have a very democratic outlook, no matter which party they support. As you move toward the next generation, who have never known an undemocratic Taiwan, the difference becomes more stark.

Some of those differences were on vivid display during the Sunflower Movement of 2014, which saw a coalition of student groups and civic activists protest attempts by the Kuomintang (KMT) government to pass the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement without a clause-by-clause review in the legislature. Basically the KMT tried to do an end run around democratic procedure.

What interested me was the reaction of my, generally older, KMT-leaning, friends. Many of them displayed a stunning inability to understand democracy, despite having lived in a democratic country for a generation. They kept referring to the Sunflower Movement as “undemocratic” because it was working to subvert the will of President Ma Ying-jeou the duly elected leader—a total misinterpretation of democracy. Another common refrain among this group was, “What about social order?” They seemed to regard the Sunflower Movement as an affront to politeness and knowing your place in the social order. They hearkened back, with fondness, to the well-ordered society of martial law times.

There are many other examples of intense societal paradigm shifts in Taiwan, each creating pressure on Taiwan’s social institutions.  Generational changes are normal in all societies, the generation gap exists everywhere because it is a natural part of an intergenerational society. Taiwan takes this normal phenomena and puts it on crack cocaine.