Category Archives: Society & Culture

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.

The Wuhan Epidemic and the Mandate of Heaven

I’m going a bit off-topic to talk about China, but I’m currently on extended vacation due to the coronavirus out of Wuhan, so in some ways it feels on-topic. I won’t talk about why these viruses so frequently develop in China, but rather why they have a tendency to spiral out of control.

Emperors have ruled China since the murky depths of prehistory. Each dynasty derived its legitimacy—the right to rule—from the Mandate of Heaven. Essentially each dynasty’s rulers have served at the pleasure of heaven. Part of their role was to intercede with the gods to ensure good crops and protect against natural calamities. When a dynasty collapses it is marked by a great tragedy, usually a natural disaster—the signal for political change. This is why when a natural disaster strikes Taiwan, the Chinese leadership usually offers snippy comments on Taiwanese politics. They’re assholes—sure. But, they’re assholes with a political philosophy.

The Mandate of Heaven is an anachronism; but, in many ways so is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP doesn’t have a very clear mandate to rule. Nobody voted for them. The Party is atheistic, so presumably they weren’t chosen by the gods, and do not serve heaven. Why are they there?

I often see Western media talk about the CCP deriving its legitimacy from its ability to ensure continued prosperity. That’s true, but it misses the broader point. In a real sense, the CCP is just the latest dynasty to rule China. The majority of China is still undereducated and segregated from the world. The old ways hold sway, whether in technology, agriculture, medicine, or politics. CCP rule operates under the Mandate of Heaven, whether they like it or not.

If a cataclysm and chaos mark the end of a reign, then the opposite—periods of calm—must show heaven’s continued support. Prosperity and a relative lack of natural catastrophes are indicators the CCP continues to hold the Mandate of Heaven. The natural result—and visible sign—of such silky smooth trouble-free rule is social order and harmony. That’s one reason maintaining social order is the most important feature of Chinese governance.

In addition, the Chinese government has  a top-down centralized structure. A characteristic of such organizational structures is officials don’t want to risk their boss’s ire by kicking bad news up the chain. That’s just the way it is. (Soviet Russia was the same, watch Chernobyl).

When something happens that threatens social order, the instinct is to sweep it under the rug. Outbreak? What Outbreak? During SARS, the last epidemic that started in China, doctors were told by top provincial authorities not to educate the public about the virus. Hospitals just sent patients home for bed rest. Most knew nothing about Western medicine, ignored the advice, and simply continued daily life, infecting others. The current 2019-nCoV outbreak in Wuhan has followed a similar trajectory. Wuhan authorities initially tried to keep a lid on information regarding the epidemic. They literally preferred to let people die than acknowledge the true situation.

So vital is preserving a sense of social order and harmony, combined with the strong desire not to be the bearer of bad news, that during Spring Festival celebrations, Wuhan party officials did nothing to mitigate the worst effects of the public revelry.  A particularly egregious example was authorities, knowing about the epidemic, allowed state television to promote a municipal banquet—in the infected zone—where a hundred thousand guests ate together, dipping their chopsticks into the communal food, Chinese style. Also, at the beginning of the holiday hundreds of thousands were allowed to board trains and planes to infect other passengers, and then to spread the virus throughout China, and to a lesser degree the world. It wasn’t until the virus went international, and Wuhan authorities could no longer turn a blind eye, that measures to control the spread of the virus began to be taken.

When I was a child, a family friend, who was an epidemiologist, [drunkenly] contented that the thing that would eventually take out humanity was a virus—and that it would come from China.  Thus far I’ve seen nothing that contradicts his prediction.

Asian Anti-Foreigner Bigotry [Pt. II]

Part I gives a brief overview  of Asian attitudes towards race and racialism. See: Asian Anti-Foreigner Bigotry [Pt.I]. Part II discusses  some personal experiences of racism in Taiwan, specifically interpersonal racism. (Institutional racism is for another time).

I’m struggling with how to present the topic. A kind of casual, friendly, racism is the background music to my daily life in Taiwan. Yet it almost never reaches a distressful level. Sure I notice the obāsan pointing at me and telling her grandchild, “Look, look at the foreigner. Look at it!” Sure, I’ve noticed people who’d rather stand than sit beside me. If things like that bothered me, I wouldn’t have survived a month in Taiwan. But, I rather think I deserve ogling—I’m quite the specimen—and having some space on the bus is always pleasant. The following are examples of Taiwanese racism crossing my annoyance threshold.

I previously worked at a University with two campuses, one an hour outside Taipei. The school provided staff busing to the outlying campus. One day it was announced all foreign staff would be required to ride in the back of the bus. Some Taiwanese workers didn’t like sitting beside a foreigner for an hour. That annoyed me.

Administrative pronouncements are a speciality of Taiwan’s universities. Racism has a casual, unwitting, quality here. I don’t believe administration ever understood why their back-of-the-bus policy caused backlash. The whole episode dovetailed with American history in an unfortunate way. The next day I took a front seat, beside a Taiwanese colleague, and got as far into his personal space as decency allowed. The other foreign teachers did the same. Thus ended that rule, and with it my civil rights activism.

During a university-wide meeting at that school the foreign staff listened as a Taiwanese professor lobbied for the firing of all foreign teachers, presumably because we’re icky. That annoyed me. I’m pretty sure he was the dilhole behind the back-of-the-bus dictate.

On two occasions, while in smaller towns, local toughs have hurled racial epithets and threats at me. always of the prosaic get-lost-whitey variety. This may actually have happened many times, it happens in Taiwanese, which I don’t understand. The only reason I’m aware of those is the Taiwanese women with me tensed up and pushed me past the offending troglodyte. I’d learn what happened when I complained of losing my place in line for deep fried squid. That annoyed me,… and sometimes scared me.

The first time I came to Taiwan, over thirty years ago, small hotels used to post their prices behind the reception desk. Normally there was a price for locals and another for foreigners. It wasn’t a secret, you just needed to be able to read Chinese. These foreigner prices still exist. It happens in small shops, at night markets, or while bartering. In my personal experience Taiwan is not bad for this, so I’m only minimally annoyed. Just slightly bothered I have to keep my guard up.

I used to date and develop an intimate relationship with women that assumed I understood we’d never be boyfriend and girlfriend. They thought I realized I’m white and ineligible for a relationship. Unfortunately, I had little concept of my alabaster sheen. That annoyed me. This has changed in the time I’ve been here. It’s less likely now to find a woman indulging her latent psychopathic narcissism at your expense. Though I must admit it could be delightful, if you understood the rules of the game.

It sounds bad, but isn’t really, at least for me. Taiwan is unique among Northeast Asian countries for its relative acceptance of outsiders, which developed in parallel with the trend away from self-identifying as Chinese. I’m not sure if that’s causation or coincidence. I suspect it has been a factor allowing the country to re-create its relationship with racialism and provides the freedom to be more inclusive. Strides are being made at the interpersonal and institutional levels. A lot of the Taiwanese attitude about race is grounded on an education system deeply rooted in Confucian values and teachings. Confucius didn’t say much about race relations, so not much is taught on the subject now. As a white man, I can’t speak for other races, I rarely experience aggressive racism in Taiwan. Culturally things are usually never in your face in Asia. By far the most common way I experience racism in Taiwan is through white privilege—I’m coddled. [See: White Privilege in Asia]. It’s racist, but if you’re going to experience racism, that’s the kind you want.

Asian Anti-Foreigner Bigotry [Pt. I]

This article and its second part are an extension of White Privilege in Asia, and look at the downsides of being a racial minority in Asia.

Asian acquaintances sometimes ask about my experiences with racism in their country. I struggle to respond in a meaningful way. Is there racism in Asia? Certainly. Is it overt? Frequently. Does it have a negative impact on my quality of life? Not so much. Asia has a very different history, perceptions, and socio-cultural norms regarding racial discrimination.

When I first moved to Taiwan 20+ years ago most Taiwanese self-identified as Chinese, and held Chinese views on racism: “We are the victims of Western imperialism and cultural bigotry. By definition we cannot be racist—we are the oppressed, and thus free to say anything.” A pretty good example came in conversation with a middle-aged Taiwanese man explaining how Western racial ideology brutalized Asia. He had a point, that was undercut by the fact he was concurrently expounding on his theory that black people [that’s not the term he used] had barely evolved from the apes. He was explaining why they’re all drug-addled animals…. But still, according to him, Chinese racism is an oxymoron—victims that they are. Surreal as the conversation was, it was not an outlier at that time.

As a graduate student in Canada I was classmates with a PhD candidate from Beijing. We were in a historiography (philosophy of history) class together. A lot of time was spent debating racist underpinnings in the writing of history. After one such class, he asked me why we considered racism wrong. In his opinion, as long as you could logically support your arguments, racial prejudice was valid. If you’ve read Chinese history, written by Chinese scholars, you have an idea where he was coming from. He tried to engage me in academic debate, but my own cultural/academic background prevented me from serious discourse on intellectual racism’s merits. He was not a bad guy and I wouldn’t exactly call him a racist. He simply reflected his own cultural background.

Shortly later I found myself living in a small South Korean city. The Land of the Morning Calm is one of Asia’s most xenophobic countries. My Korean experiences opened my eyes to Asian attitudes on race and racism. My favorite story is of a very sweet female college student in my class. One day she demurely informed me that, “Racism is one of the great flowers of Korean culture.” To her chagrin I burst out laughing. I could see on her face she was rechecking her English. I told her, “I’m not sure what you meant to say, but that definitely wasn’t it!” I was wrong. She got the English exactly right.

I’d spent my entire life absorbing an anti-racist message through school, family, media, etc. Korea taught me the same wasn’t necessarily true in Asia. Indeed many Asians saw nondiscrimination as potentially culturally dangerous. At that time the Korean economy was booming, The government was pushing global integration as the way forward and my adult class was animatedly discussing globalization in Korean. They were all very enthusiastic and asked my opinion. I told them they couldn’t realistically hope to globalize while maintaining a culture of ethnocentrism. They were outraged. As a single voice they leapt to racism’s defense. I pointed out globalization required foreign experts be welcomed as members of Korean society, so they’d be willing to stay and dedicate their working live’s to Korea. That brought the discussion crashing to an angry end—nothing must ever challenge Korea’s racial and cultural homogeneity. During their long history of invasion xenophobia was used to maintain the Korean race. For me to blithely call racism bad was to attack Korean culture’s very soul.

Korea is extreme, but not unique. All Asian societies are racially uniform, plus ethnically and culturally monolithic to a degree hard to comprehend for the average Westerner. In such homogeneous societies who is there to speak up against racism? Prejudices can proceed unabated by contact with other races. Most Asian societies prefer/demand racial and cultural constancy; change and diversity are seen as a threat. [See: The Unified Field Theory ]. It is no wonder many Asians don’t see a problem with racism—as long as it isn’t directed at them.

Have a look at Asian Anti-Foreigner Bigotry [Pt. II] for specific examples of white privilege not being all it’s cracked up to be.