Category Archives: Society & Culture

“Hello Fatso” and Other Taiwanese Greetings

To boldly state the obvious, rudeness is culturally defined. I’ve lived most of my life on the wrong side of the cultural norms/rudeness divide; frequently—totally unawares—insulting large groups and individuals alike. It’s a sword that cuts both ways, I have at times been insulted by Taiwanese, who were clearly unaware they’d done anything disparaging. Let’s take greetings and introductions as an example.

When I first came to Taiwan, over twenty years ago, upon being introduced to new Taiwanese people I always knew that three uncomfortable questions were coming. The conversations usually went something like this:

“Darren, I’d like you to meet Jim Lin. Jim, this is Darren, our new teacher.”

Of course, I’d politely say something like, “It’s nice to meet you, Jim.” While cringing on the inside, because I knew Jim would respond with something resembling…

“It’s nice to meet you, Darren. I see you’re fat. How fat are you exactly?” Undeterred by my sputtering, Jim, or the Taiwanese person du jour, could be counted on to blithely continue, “How old are you?” Twenty-nine. “Really!?! My God you look so old!” My spluttering would continue unabated. And Jim, failing to read the room, would persevere, “Well, how much money do you make?”

To which I’d normally make some vague answer, “Oh well, you know, I make enough to get by.”

I could expect the reply, “How much is that exactly?” And, normally there’d be some probing questions about my relationship status. “Are you married Darren?” Nope. “Do you have a Taiwanese girlfriend?” Not really your business, Jim.

This experience was remarkably consistent from person-to-person. I didn’t find it surprising because before coming to Taiwan I’d lived in Thailand. Thai has many more personal pronouns than English, which one you use is based on age, gender, social status, the speakers’ relationship, and the social context of their conversation. So, upon meeting a Thai person they often ask about your age, marital status, income, and if you have children. They’re trying to place you on the social hierarchy in relationship to themselves, so they know how to address you. This is not exactly true in Taiwan. It is, however, why I didn’t find Taiwanese behavior strange.

Taiwanese conversational norms, at that time, can be accounted for by Taiwan’s relatively more hierarchical society, the dissimilitude in privacy norms, and disparities in what was considered rude. Though not nearly as clearly stratified as Thai society, Taiwan, compared to North America was more hierarchical. Some of the questions I faced when meeting Taiwanese may partially be explained as a desire to achieve social clarity, but I doubt this was an important motivator. There was no overriding need to immediately place me within the social hierarchy. Also, in Confucian society my outsider status is my social position.

There are distinct differences in socially acceptable privacy levels between Taiwan and Canada. Taiwanese are much more invasive in their social interactions. In Canada, we’d say they have nose problems. Over the last couple decades, this has become less obvious in Taiwan’s large centers, but can still be experienced in smaller cities and towns.

The cause of these disagreeable greetings, however, was primarily differences in notions of ill-mannered. Traditionally, being a bit fat was not considered a bad thing in Taiwan. It showed that you had a bit of wealth. Older Taiwanese haven’t adapted to new trends, and don’t consider it inurbane to call you fat.

It isn’t just foreigners who find themselves occasionally called Tubby. I once watched an overweight Taiwanese teacher get introduced to an auditorium full of students as 胖胖的陳老師, approximately “our teacher, Fatso Chen.” The teacher clearly understood what was being said and the MC felt comfortable saying it anyway—even in such a formal setting. Fatso Chen, himself, didn’t have any particular negative reaction. He had extremely fine English, along with excellent comprehension of English culture, and when using English he showed feelings of being dispirited by those remarks. When speaking Chinese there wasn’t a hint that such expressions bothered him. If you’re fluent you think in the culture of the language you’re speaking.

Money is another area where Taiwanese and Westerners differ sharply in what is appropriate small talk. In Western Canada, anyway, it is really impolite to say anything at all about money. You’ll either appear nosey, braggadocios, or self-pitying. However, in Taiwan there doesn’t appear to be any prohibitions on talking about money. It is less common nowadays for someone to ask about my salary, but my purchases are fair game. I suppose it is partially because bartering is common, so everyone wants to know what you paid, to see if you got ripped-off. The answer to that question is always yes. That’s usually true, but even if I got the best deal in the world, I can count on my Taiwanese friends to cluck their tongues, shake their heads, and look at me with sad eyes. I don’t know why Taiwanese don’t find that malapropo. It is annoying as hell.

Things have changed over the last couple decades in Taipei. I’m no longer insulted every time I meet a new person. I assume that the spread of Western media, along with the cultural imperialism of fine English teachers, such as myself, has taught Taiwanese not to refer to new (Western) acquaintances as Tub-o-Lard. As for money, people almost never ask how much I earn, despite still asking what I paid for everything. Of course it is possible nothing has changed and I’m just meeting a different class of people.

 

Symbolic, Parabolic, Metaphorical, Allegorical … Chinese

As you might have surmised, I have issues with Chinese. Just as doctors make terrible patients; many language instructors are the worst language learners—I’m one of those. Despite living in Taiwan, I exist in an English bubble. I spend my work days in an English environment, and when I go home most of my recreation is also in English. My Chinese is an embarrassment, except when I swear, which is stunningly smooth, natural, and stylish, but that uses a different part of the brain. I usually refer to my Chinese as functional, meaning I can get around in Chinese and accomplish most things that need doing. Normal daily conversations are okay. If I have a patient audience, I can even have a deeper discussion. However, there are definite limits to what I can do.

One aspect of Chinese that causes me problems is the depth of shared history, literature, and culture that can be drawn on by Chinese speakers to make allusions that shape and shade their meaning. (For an introduction to this topic see: The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock and A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places). There is no equivalent to this in English. I cannot draw on five thousand years of shared English linguistic tradition to come up with allusions to make my speech more eloquent.

I have not heard many other foreigners complain about this issue. It might just be me. In my family, this comes up, and it’s frustrating.

On one memorable occasion, my wife made a statement to me, in Chinese, which I absolutely did not understand. When I asked for clarification, she launched into a very long-winded explanation of what she had said, and it went something like this: “Well, what I said was ‘blah, blah, blah, blah’. Now, in the Song Dynasty there was a famous poet, Su shi, who drew on the tradition of Lu Yu, a Northern Tang Dynasty poet and proponent of ci poetry that employs the rhythms of popular Tang songs. In the cadence of ‘blah, blah, blah, blah‘ you should have recognized a reference to the meter of that particular Song Dynasty poet, who in turn was making a poetic allusion to that earlier Tang Dynasty poet. As you know [no I don’t], the ci form linked poetry with other arts, particularly painting, so this shades the meaning of what I said to be: ‘blah, blah, [shadings of a holistic view of the arts], blah, blah’. Now, Su Shi himself was deeply political, as were many Northern Song poets, and spent years in exile for his opposition to the corrupt government minister Wang Anshi. So, you should interpret what I said as: ‘blah, blah, [shadings of a holistic view of the arts], blah, [with a dash of stick it to the man], blah’.”

Of course, all of this simply shades the meaning of the actual words. It adds color and implies a richer meaning than the words themselves. Someone educated enough to speak in this manner is considered eloquent. The audience needs to be equally knowledgeable to pick up these little linguist breadcrumbs. A shared history and culture are required for this manner of speaking to have any meaning.

The conversation simply left me going: “Huh?!? So should I wash the dishes or not?”

I don’t get the impression that many other foreigners run into this particular quirk of Chinese. I’m guessing because most Taiwanese are savvy enough not to speak in such a connotative way to second language speakers. However, my in-laws have a tendency towards this type of speech. Indeed, my family is staunchly Taiwanese and confuses the issue further by bringing in Taiwanese allusions and Japanese allusions, from the occupation period. I’m actually a big lover of Chinese art, literature, and history. I appreciate that the culture is rich enough that it affords opportunities for bringing this kind of texture and nuance to the meaning of a sentence. That is seriously cool. But, my Chinese is at a level where I’d be satisfied if when some random dude yelled at me, “Hey Dummy, hurry up and get on the bus, you’re holding up the line,” I’d be able to deliver a pithy reply in unaccented Chinese. I’m not there yet.

I find it endearing that my wife, and her family, have such faith in my Chinese that they think there’s any prospect I might be able to draw inferences from such sketchy linguist trails. I don’t know what in their experience of me makes them think there’s any chance I’d get it—but, you got to love them for trying.

Guanxi: The Chinese Art of Getting Screwed by Friends and Family

I first heard of guanxi (關係) in a university class on Chinese culture. Guanxi is a set of interpersonal relationships that function as a web of influence. Guanxi is variously translated to English as relationships or connections. These translations fail to convey the complex social ties that come from this web of kinship, friendship, patronage/clientage, or “friendships” of convenience, based on perceived mutual benefit. The concept of guanxi developed naturally out of Confucianism, with its emphasis on creating hierarchically appropriate associations among society members. The implied reciprocal benefits, obligations, and trust required for a guanxi network were viewed as helpful in maintaining the socioeconomic order.

My professor described guanxi in glowing terms. I remember him explaining it is natural to do business where there’s an established connection. It creates a mutually beneficial synergy, enriching your acquaintance with your business, while receiving preferential service and pricing. He went on to explain that guanxi could exist between friends, family members, friends of friends, or a friend’s family. Guanxi can be extremely tenuous; my friend’s father’s youngest brother is friends with your step-sister, therefore we have a connection and I would like you to perform my vasectomy. It just feels safer having “someone I know” working down there. I found myself nodding along with the professor’s points. Yes, it’s logical to seek a sense of connection with business associates.

I still like the idea of guanxi, especially in a high-context country like Taiwan. High-context cultures are community-driven, connection-oriented, distrusting of outsiders (exclusionary), and emphasize building trust through shared experiences. Guanxi makes sense in the Chinese cultural milieu. In theory it’s a great way to do things.

However, nothing kills theory quite like experience. I got an inkling that guanxi might not be that great while still in Canada. One of my (white) friends was married to a Chinese girl, and had a ringside view of Saskatoon’s Chinese community. He told me guanxi was a license to fuck over friends and family. I was incensed. Obviously this white moron didn’t know what he was talking about, and might even have some racist tendencies. I didn’t believe him, and I should know, after all I knew Chinese culture. I was in a Chinese culture class after all.

His example was of a local Chinese run auto shop. He claimed that the owners abused members of the Chinese community. They would rip-off friends and family, while providing good service to outsiders. Guanxi was the problem, or so he said. That just didn’t jib with my book learnin’. His idea was that because of guanxi the shop owner felt free to abuse their Chinese customer base. Those customers would come back. They had to—they had guanxi. However with strangers the shop needed to provide decent service or those people would not return.

I didn’t really believe him. My professor and I were in agreement—guanxi’s great. I now recognize my friend’s observations to be stunningly astute, especially for a relative outsider to Chinese. His ideas mirrored Bo Yang’s (柏楊) observations on guanxi and Chinese culture in The Ugly Chinaman (醜陋的中國人).

It seems true. I was misinformed. Guanxi is a nightmare for Chinese people. I can give many examples from my own (semi-Chinese) life in Taiwan. The first example I’d like to offer is trifling, but it bugs me. My neighborhood is served by Taipei’s shittiest traditional breakfast shop. I love my doujiang (豆漿), shaobing youtiao (燒餅油條) with egg, dan bing (蛋餅), and their food is good, but they rarely bother opening. If they open one, maybe two, days a week I’m lucky. They never open on the days I’m jonesing for xiao long bao (小籠包)It really pisses me off. Finally a couple of years ago a competing Taiwanese style breakfast store opened right beside the crappy restaurant. I was ecstatic. Finally I would be able to have fantuan (飯糰) whenever I wanted. The luxury! The new shop was great. The food was good and they opened daily. I was in heaven. Naturally the old breakfast shop began opening every day to compete. They started to operate like a proper business. I wasn’t having it. I did not want to support them. I wanted to take my business to the new shop.

My wife understood my feelings, but every time we went for breakfast she insisted on going to the old shop. To go to the new shop would have required walking past the old shop and into the new shop. A statement I was willing to make. However, my wife couldn’t bring herself to do it. She’d bought breakfast there for years, she chatted with the owner every time—there’s a bond. They had guanxi. Apparently the other Taiwanese felt the same. As soon as the old shop began conducting business properly the new shop withered and died, no one wanted to snub the old shop’s owners and patronize the new shop. Within a month the new store was out of business, within a month and a day the old breakfast shop took a holiday, and we were back to the  extremely intermittent daanbing availability—fucked by guanxi.

Another example comes up when dealing with health issues. Neither my wife nor I have any particular connection to healthcare providers. We don’t really know doctors. But, in guanxi culture it is necessary to have some guanxi. So, when either I or my wife need a doctor, I know that it’s going to be a shit show. My wife will start trying to find some connection to an appropriate specialist, exploring flimsiest connections seeking someone who knows someone, who knows someone that has a friend that knows a doctor. All so that she can say, “I’m acquainted with blah-blah” when she goes into the doctor’s office. Well, also she feels more secure if one of her social contacts vouches that this person is a good doctor. It’s meaningless, but reassuring. My approach when single was to randomly selected a doctor. I’m still alive. Now that I’m married I find myself playing the doctor guanxi game. Our connections are always at least seven degrees away from anyone the doctor cares about. Frankly it’s embarrassing trying to exploit such flimsy connections.

This outlines one pernicious aspects of guanxi. If you don’t have the connections you can be cut out.

Nothing I’ve said here is news to those living in a Chinese cultural environment. The Taiwanese know they are getting screwed by quanxi. It has been happening their whole lives. Awareness does not translate into ability to change. Guanxi is right at the core of Chinese culture, it is central to high-context culture. The very foundations of Chinese culture would have to change for people to stop getting bamboozled by guanxi.

Hungry Ghosts, Pollution, and Ritual

Ghost Month, the seventh lunar month, started last week. It is considered an inauspicious time, so prohibitions abound. These proscriptions vary by region, but some that are common in Taiwan include: don’t swim, evil spirits that have drowned may seek to drown you; don’t fly, it is dangerous with all those ghosts out there; don’t make big life changes, marrying, starting a business, surgery, moving, etc., it’s just not a lucky time; do not sing or whistle, it attracts ghosts; and likewise, don’t wear red, it also attracts ghosts. There are many more, but you get the general idea. There are other common beliefs in Taiwan related to Ghost Month. One such belief is that mechanical and electrical devices are particularly likely to break down during Ghost Month, presumably because the ghosts like to play with all the new-fangled doohickeys. This would be an example of a quaint little superstition—if it weren’t so annoyingly true (here).

The entire month is an orgy of Buddhist, Taoist, and folk religion observances. It is that time when the gates of Hell open and ghosts are free to wander among us. Why would beings, released from the ethereal plane, spend their precious freedom among humans? The ghosts that come to earth are hungry ghosts, whose descendants have not provided them with the customary offerings of food and money, necessary for a comfortable ghostly existence. Hungry ghosts have long thin necks, pinched by hunger. The deceased who did not receive proper funeral rituals also return to earth during Ghost Month. As you might expect, these neglected spirits are a bit pissy, and wander the earth seeking food and light entertainment. (Scaring the bejesus out of Grandpa Lui is just the ticket).

To appease these wandering spirits, the Taiwanese make offerings to their ancestors throughout Ghost Month. Different than other festivals, this spiritual largesse extends beyond one’s own ancestors, to include offerings to the wandering souls of those forgotten by their descendants. The offerings take many forms. Families place food and drink on the family altar, in the home, and burn incence for their deceased ancestors. Similar offerings are made at tables placed on the street, in front of businesses. These offerings are aimed at the general ghostly hallabaloo. Likewise, temples overflow with food offerings to the resident gods during Ghost Month. Many types of joss paper are burned as offerings, these include: hell banknotes, so the ghosts can purchase afterlife necessities; along with paper models of various useful items, houses, servants, TV’s, etc. These offerings are made to deceased ancestors and gods throughout the year, but the fires reach a feverish pitch during Ghost Month.

Chinese folk religion is a living breathing aspect of Taiwanese culture. You can be walking down the street, turn a corner, and randomly bump into a temple parade, pilgrimage, shaman, or diverse other fascinating religious practices. It is so vibrant and alive, not part of the past, hermetically preserved in a museum, to be visited on Sunday afternoons by armchair cultural voyeurs. It is a living, breathing part of everyday life here—and I love it.

However, many foreigners who live here hate it. A few may dislike Chinese folk customs, regarding them as backward superstitious claptrap. Such cultural bigotry is generally absent from expat thinking. The reason most dislike these Chinese folk customs is more prosaic. It is the pollution caused by large-scale burning of incense, hell banknotes, other joss paper, and the perennial setting off of firecrackers.

They have a point. I’ve seen paper models of hell-bound daily necessities piled into literal mountains, four or five meters tall, and then set ablaze. The pollution released into the city by even one such bonfire is substantial. On any given day in most temples, lots of hell banknotes are burned along with massive amounts of incense. On a smaller scale the process is repeated in houses and business across Taiwan. This burning is a continual backdrop to life here. During festivals and special days on the Chinese Lunar calendar the smoke raises religion-related smog from background noise to a Death Metal concerto.

Most countries have a distinct smell, noticeable when you first step off the plane. Thailand smells like rotten bananas. Indonesia smells of clove cigarettes. Canada, at least the Vancouver International Airport, hits your olfactory senses with a wall of ozone. Taiwan has the peppery odor of a melange of ritual smoke. The smell has decreased with efforts to clean up some of these traditional practices. Some of the attempts have been comical failures. When I first came to Taiwan there was a move to try to get people to burn a hell credit card instead of hell banknotes. The theory was that the masses of paper being burned by each worshipper could be replaced by a single credit card. Cute idea. It didn’t work. Worshippers simply began burning hundreds or thousands of credit cards for their ancestors. Despite the difficulty of changing traditions, air quality has improved in Taiwan. Thirty years ago the smell of religious observances would hit you like a wall when you arrived at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport. Now the smell is more in the background.

The improvement is partially the result of social changes. Folk religion and folk cultural practices have declined a bit with urbanization. Some temples have proactively tried to reduce their carbon footprint. A good example would be Hsing Tian Kong. The temple has decided to try to be a leader, among religious institutions, in fighting air pollution. The large incense burners at the front and rear of the temple stand empty. The smaller incense pots, placed in front of each god’s effigy, are either empty, or gone. The oven used to burn hell banknotes is closed. It is exactly what most expats have been clamoring for.

I recently visited Hsing Tian Kong for the first time since the changes went into effect—I hated it. The place was pristine, almost sterile in feeling. It lacked the characteristic temple smell. Nor were there glimpses of statues of gods and goddesses mysteriously coming in and out of view from behind a gauze of smoke. Indeed, on that fine sunny day, the temple’s air was annoyingly crisp and clean. The only wisps of smoke in the whole place came from the few burning incense sticks wielded by Taoist lay practitioners conducting exorcisms. It was all just so…so devoid of feeling.

Hsing Tian Kong was once my favorite temple in Taipei. The place where I went for succour, to bai-bai, get a talisman, cleanse my prayer beads, or simply have the demons exorcised. No more—a temple without smoke is no temple. Here is where I part ways with

most expats. My first trip to Taiwan over thirty years ago was to study Chinese folk religion. As much as I have any religion, it’s to the temple and folk rituals that I turn. Perhaps I’ve become a Taiwanese LKK, but gimme that old tyme religion, it’s good enough for me.

 

Lost in Translation

As you may have perceived, my Chinese is functional, but not good enough for translation work. That doesn’t stop me. I’m often involved on the English end of translations. Hiring a competent professional translator is neither easy nor cheap. Usually a Taiwanese person with some knowledge of English and the material will be conscripted to convert the Chinese into “English”. These translations tend to retain a pretty strong Chinese feel. It is my job to turn that into actual English. It is tricky because the client often expects English to function like a high-context language. (See: A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places).

Chinese often emphasizes flowery speech and beautiful form over mundane matters of accuracy and clarity. The tendency is especially marked during formal speeches, for governmental or business purposes. I’m often asked to help translate such speeches. The preliminary translation that I receive is usually full of grandiloquence and little substance. Something like: “It is my greatest honor and privilege to welcome the most esteemed, distinguished, honorificabilitudinitatibus gentleman from that most splendiferous country, Luxembourg, where he is an inestimable manager of legendary perspicuity.” It is comically baroque. To those of us with hopelessly stuck in English brains, we’d say they’re gilding the lily rather much, if we’re being kind; or, they’re flinging the BS high and far, if we’re being accurate.

My first reaction is to get rid of the useless twaddle. Those ridiculous over-the-top honorifics sound farcical. But, it is precisely that part of the speech that most Taiwanese executives care about and are anxious to see accurately translated. I have been told on numerous occasions not to be too concerned about getting the actual substance of the speech correct, as long as all the various magniloquent phrases are accurately translated and that each appellation is included. What are you supposed to do? If you provide the desired translation, the boss ends up looking like an imbecile. If you don’t, they may just turn around and put that drivel back into the speech. If they will be speaking to a group of Westerners I usually try to explain that English doesn’t work quite the same as Chinese. I’m often met with incredulity, but usually manage to get them to follow my English advice. If the speech will be to a group of other Asians, I inform them that the translation is bad English, but since their audience may nonetheless enjoy it, they need to make a cultural judgement whether to keep the overwrought wording or not.

The bias toward simplicity and directness in English is lost on the Taiwanese. My wife studied English literature in university. One of the courses that she took was a professional English class, writing and speech-making for formal occasions. She recently shared with me the advice she got in the class. It was distinctly Chinese and included such gems as never use a simple word if you can find a big—preferably incomprehensible—word. According to the class “big” is too simple, “immense” would be better, but “elephantine” being less common would be preferable, while “Brobdingnagian” would clearly be best. If you’re lucky no one will understand, while simultaneously being impressed by your incomprehensible vocabulary, or should I say your sesquipedalian loquaciousness. Annoying, right? Theoretically my wife is aware this is wrong-headed, but she still constantly asks if the new vocabulary she’s learned would be considered a big word. If it isn’t, she’ll ask me for an alternate “big” vocabulary word. It is hard to get past that Taiwanese mindset.

Her professional English class likewise emphasized the importance of complex grammatical structures. Passive voice sentences were preferred over the clarity provided by active voice sentences. Passive voice makes the meaning less direct, less clear, and obviously—from a Chinese perspective—to be preferred. The teachers believed it sounded more sophisticated and professional. Even better if it was a compound-complex sentence with each clause in turn using passive voice construction, obscuring the meaning behind lost subjects, and objects that refer to unknown words and clauses. From a Chinese perspective, obviously one should prefer the complex circumlocutory nature of such sentences—it matches the high-context nature of Chinese. Unfortunately, they’re getting it exactly wrong.

This is what happens when a Chinese speaker’s preference for linguistic ornateness comes face-to-face with English’s low-context preference for simplicity and clarity. Chinese language, like the culture, places a premium on form (here). Choosing an artistic turn of phrase or using an impressive word is important in Chinese. In English, such things can be nice if it’s not overdone, as long as you don’t sacrifice function—clear communication—to achieve artistry. In Chinese thinking it doesn’t matter so much if you’re effectively communicating as long as the language you use sounds good.