Category Archives: Society & Culture

Don’t Use Logic to Argue in Chinese: High-context Arguments

My Chinese ain’t great—and that ain’t great—but it’s shielded me from making some egregious cross-cultural faux pas, while allowing a front row seat to watch many with excellent Chinese totally fail to communicate and seemingly never realize the problem. Most of my expat friends, with truly high-level Chinese language skills, are surprisingly dumb about how they communicate in Chinese. They endlessly use their superior language skills to [unintentionally] alienate, frustrate, and exasperate the Taiwanese. They understand what they are saying at the nuts-and-bolts, vocabulary and sentence pattern level, while being tone-deaf to what they are conveying at the higher distal level. When it comes to languages, I may be an underachiever, but I’m not an idiot. So let me tell ya, one of the most common mistakes many expats make when speaking Chinese is their insistence on using logic.

The Enlightenment was absorbed into Western culture over two centuries ago, and now logic is core to how most Westerners comprehend the world. If something cannot be proven logically then it is wrong—it’s that simple. Most regard this as an objective, irrefutable, truth, and can get kind of pissy when Taiwanese just simply disregard their carefully constructed A + B = C arguments as irrelevant fluffery. It is provable reality after all, and thus by definition the central truth at the core of whatever is being discussed.

Not so fast whitey.

Asia experienced the Scientific Revolution differently than the West. The Scientific Revolution is generally considered to have reached China by the 18th century, but it didn’t have such a revolutionary effect. Society just kind of putzed along largely unchanged. Historians debate why the Scientific Revolution didn’t originate in China, and why its impact on Chinese society was relatively small. Was it that Chinese society already had an advanced system for explaining natural phenomena and didn’t feel a need for scientific enlightenment? Was it that Western knowledge was only allowed limited freedom to spread outside court? Whatever the reasons, for our purposes it’s good enough to know that scientific logic holds a different—less preeminent—place in the minds of a large percentage of present day Taiwanese.

Beyond historical explanations, I believe the structure of the Chinese language itself has led to a certain distrust, and possibly disdain, for pure scientific logic. Here we’re back to that old bugaboo, high-context versus low-context cultures and languages. If you don’t know what this means—you should—it is helpful for contextualizing cultural differences between Asia and the West. You can review these ideas by reading The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock followed by A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places. [There are several other articles on this topic that aren’t as on point for this discussion, but are worth a read: Help I’m Living in a High-Context Family and It’s Totally Ontological, Dude! etc.]

In the broadest sense, the structure and layout of low-context languages [English, German, etc.] is logical. Everything in the language strives to convey—as clearly and directly as possible—the logic of each thought or feeling. The entirety of English is focused towards that goal. English language by nature is dry, clinical, and technical; perfect for expressing fine gradations of meaning, and very precisely dicing the logic of any situation. Chinese, as a high-context language, is more about face, hiding true intent, and preserving surface calm, to maintain at least an illusion of congeniality. Chinese is the opposite of English, it’s poetic. It’s great for beautifully expressing the ephemeral, in a fuzzy elegiac way.  English lends itself to communicating the technical, logical, and precise; while Chinese lends itself to art and feeling.

It’s all just a cute quirk of cultural linguistics until you find yourself living in a high-context culture, speaking a high-context language, while thinking with your low-context brain. Many Western expats have an unwavering commitment to cold-hearted logic that amounts to little more than self-flagellation when living in Asia. Ahh, the life of an Asian-based expat. 😉

Arguing seems to be the point where most foreigners really drive their heads into the wall. They have their point-of-view which they try to explain with clear simple logic. It’s obviously correct—anyone can see the logic, aaannd the Taiwanese person doesn’t give a flying crap on a stick. Screw your logic—what does that have to do with how I feel? When Taiwanese get into an angry argument, they are usually trying to express their feelings about something. If they’re unfortunate enough to find themselves arguing with a foreigner, then that foreigner is likely—equally angrily—trying to express the logic of the situation, and how that shows that they are CORRECT, GODDAMNIT!!!

It’s like a chicken and a duck talking [雞同鴨講], or perhaps a more useful analogy is that it’s a bit like a man and a woman talking. You, as a foreigner, may clearly and logically explicate on your point, outlining exactly why you did what you did, hold that point-of-view, or whatever, with irrefutable logic, and all you’re going to do is piss off your Taiwanese opponent, because, of course, that has absolutely nothing to do with their feelings. When they are talking angrily, they are usually not talking about who’s logically right or wrong, they are instead expressing perceptions and emotions. How they feel about whether something is right or wrong.

I know. It’s annoying. Get used to it. The number of foreigners I’ve seen with excellent Chinese language ability, absolutely fail to comprehend these cultural/linguistic differences, and act like utter tube steaks while speaking Chinese is stunning. Don’t waste time in an argument you can’t win. It has nothing to do with logic and everything to do with perceptions and feelings. There is nothing for you to win—don’t try. By engaging in an argument, you’re breaking the surface calm that’s treasured in high-context cultures, and thus you’re the ass right from the get-go. The best thing to do is to listen quietly, acknowledge their feelings, and just go to your happy place in your mind, as they express their clearly wrongheaded points-of-view. At the end, nod and say something like that’s interesting, or that you appreciate their perspective, and then move on with your day, otherwise you’ll just annoy yourself and the Taiwanese person to no avail. [I’m 55—these are my prime wisdom-giving years].

A Few Food-related Chinese Colloquialisms

It’s funny I don’t spend more time talking about food, it’s central to Chinese culture, and by extension Taiwanese culture. I have mentioned it a bit, see Starvation Culture and Insignificant Cultural Differences.   Given the stomach’s central role in Taiwanese thought and decision-making I should actually spend more time on food culture. So, I’m going to introduce a few common, and some less common, food colloquialisms in Chinese.

1). 吃醋 chīcù – literally to eat vinegar; meaning to be enraged with romantic jealousy. Supposedly, during the Tang dynasty, the emperor decided to reward a loyal chancellor by allowing him to select a woman to take home from amongst the palace concubines. The poor guy’s wife became enraged with jealousy and tried to ruin a good thing. The emperor was piqued by her attitude and told her to choose between accepting the new woman or drinking poison. She drank the poison, which turned out to be vinegar, as the emperor was just testing her resolve.

我看到她跟帥哥打情罵俏,吃醋了。
Wǒ kàn dào tā gēn shuàigē dǎ qíng mà qiào, chīcùle.
I saw her flirting with a handsome guy, so I got jealous.

2). 吃苦 chīkǔ – literally to eat bitterness; meaning to endure hardship. The etymology seems pretty obvious, accepting and choking down a bitter taste is like bearing hard times.

她很能吃苦。 她那天殺的丈夫留下兩個孩子,沒有工作,還有一筆汽車貸款。
Tā hěn néng chīkǔ. Tā nèitiān shā de zhàngfū liú xià liǎng gè háizi, méiyǒu gōngzuò, hái yǒu yībǐ qìchē dàikuǎn.
She’s endured a lot. Her crazy-ass fucking husband left her with two kids, no job, and a car loan.

我老婆只在隔5過10 的生日時幫我吹喇叭。我真能吃苦。
Wǒ lǎopó zhǐ zài gé 5 guò 10 de shēng rìshí bāng wǒ chuīlǎbā. Wǒ zhēnnéng chīkǔ.
My wife only gives me a blowjob on birthdays that end with a 0 or 5. How I suffer.

吃苦 is normally used to describe someone else’s predicament. When referring to yourself you’re more likely to say 我不怕吃苦、吃苦當吃補 meaning I’m not afraid of hard times because…

3). 吃苦當吃補  chīkǔ dāng chī bǔ – literally to eat bitterness as a [health] supplement; the approximate meaning is to turn lemons into lemonade.

我老公每年生日都要我幫他吹喇叭,我只好吃苦當吃補。
Wǒ lǎogōng měinián shēngrì dōu yào wǒ bāng tā chuīlǎbā, wǒ zhǐ hào chīkǔ dāng chī bǔ.
My husband asks me for a blowjob every year on his birthday, so I just try to make the best of a shitty situation.

4). 吃土 chītǔ – literally to eat dirt; meaning broke or bankrupt. Makes sense, with empty pockets you’re forced to eat dirt to quell the hunger.

不行,這家妓院看起來太高級了。我最近窮到吃土。我們試試前面那個網襪阿桑,她看起來比較屬於我的層級。
Bùxíng, zhè jiā jìyuàn kàn qǐlái tài gāojíle. Wǒ zuìjìn qióng dào chī tǔ. Wǒmen shì shì qiánmiàn nàgè wǎng wà āsāng, tā kàn qǐlái bǐjiào shǔyú wǒ de céngjí.
This whorehouse looks too classy for me. I’m broke. Let’s try the one with the grandmother in fishnet stockings out front, it looks to be my speed.

很抱歉我不能和你們一起去墾丁。 我窮到要吃土了。
Hěn bàoqiàn wǒ bùnéng hé nǐmen yīqǐ qù kěndīng. Wǒ qióng dào yào chī tǔle.
I’m sorry I can’t go to Kenting with you guys. I’m broke.

5). 吃香 chīxiāng – literally to eat fragrant; meaning popular, sought after, or highly valued. It is easy to understand how this phrase was derived, of course we seek to eat fragrant food.

她又高又瘦,身材勻稱,頭髮和皮膚都很完美,當然她在演藝界很吃香。
Tā yòu gāo yòu shòu, shēncái yúnchèn, tóufà hé pífū dōu hěn wánměi, dāngrán tā zài yǎnyì jiè hěn chīxiāng.
She is tall and thin, well-proportioned, with perfect hair and skin, of course it’s easier for her in show business.

6). 吃豆腐 chī dòufu – literally to eat tofu; meaning to flirt, tease, or take advantage of someone, in a sexually harassing manner. The way this phrase was described to me is that it implies surreptitiously stroking the soft white, tofu-like, skin of a young woman. That really helps the meaning stick in my mind, but of course there’s an ancient Chinese story; during funerals the family would prepare a tofu dish for friends and relatives. Sometimes uninvited people would take advantage of the situation and go there just “to eat the tofu”.

要小心這個客戶!聽說他會趁機吃女業務豆腐!
Yào xiǎoxīn zhège kèhù! Tīng shuō tā huì chènjī chī nǚ yèwù dòufu!
Be careful of this client! Rumor has it he tries to take advantage of female sales staff!

7). 眼睛吃冰淇淋 yǎnjīng chī bīngqílín (Taiwan slang) – literally eyes eating ice cream; meaning checking out the hotties. The way I think of this is if the English expression “eye candy” were a verb phrase, it’d be 眼睛吃冰淇淋.

她穿著迷你裙走進教室,男孩們的眼睛都在吃冰淇淋。
Tā chuānzhuó mínǐ qún zǒu jìn jiàoshì, nánháimen de yǎnjīng dōu zài chī bīngqílín.
She walked into class in a miniskirt, and every boy checked her out.

8). 炒魷魚 chǎo yóu yú – literally fried squid; meaning to be fired. Supposedly shop assistance in Hong Kong, in the mid-20th century often slept in the back on straw mats. If they were fired, they rolled up their mats and left. The crisscrossed pattern of the straw mats looked similar to the cuts put in fried squid, hence it means to be fired.

你要注意點,不然小心被炒魷魚。
Nǐ yào zhùyì diǎn, bùrán xiǎoxīn bèi chǎoyóuyú.
You better get your shit together or you’re going to get fired.

9). 炒飯 chǎofàn – literally fried rice; meaning to have sex. The feeling is similar to “getting some” in English. If you’ve ever seen rice being rhythmically shaken, tossed, or stirred—to and fro—as it is fried in a large wok at a Chinese restaurant then you get it.

室友在門口掛上襪子的時候,就表示他今晚在炒飯。
Shìyǒu zài ménkǒu guà shàng wàzi de shíhòu, jiù biǎoshì tā jīn wǎn zài chǎofàn.
When my roommate hangs a sock on the doorknob, I know he’s getting some.

Well, I bit off more than I could chew with this one. I intended this to be a short article with a couple of phrases that might be interesting. However, there are so many food colloquialisms in Chinese that this is going to be the first of two or three parts. As always be aware that my Chinese isn’t the greatest. I did my best to give translations that convey both the feeling as well as the meaning. The expressions in this article are the ones I think are pretty commonly known among us expat types, but there are many more… Part II coming soon-ish.

The Taiwanese Racial Slur

I like the racial epithet Whitey, it’s succinct and pithy. As great as it is, my favorite racial slur is the Taiwanese word adoah, 阿啄仔 or the alternate form 阿卓仔. The word means “big nose” or “tall nose”, the in 阿啄仔 means beak/beaky, while the alternate form’s means tall, while indicates closeness (it’s a familiarizing particle) and is a diminutive suffix. Add it all together and you’ve got foreigner, Caucasian more specifically. Since transliterating oral Taiwanese to written Chinese allows for some interpretation sometimes you’ll see 阿兜仔 or 阿凸仔 used. These are kind of funky ways of writing adoah, but I kind of like them as looks like a big nose in the center of a face, while looks like a nose. Semantics aside you got to admit “big nose” just kind of nails it.

Some take offense at being called adoah, while for others it just slides off them like a Big Mac all-beef patty off the bun. But is it racist? Well, it’s an almost perfect parallel to the English racial slur “slant-eyes”, so yeah, it’s hard to deny the insensitivity, but let me try, just to be a contrarian 混蛋 .

Don’t get me wrong, adoah can be overtly racist. I’ve had the word hurled at me in very aggressive and intimidating ways. But, in those cases even if the guy had said, “most honorable gentleman of the Caucasian persuasion”, tone and context would’ve ensured a scary—racially charged atmosphere—that’d have left my sphincter dancing.

So adoah can be used in a them’s fight’n’words kinda way, but it also may have no more implied negativity than “foreigner”. When I first came to Taiwan as a student in 1987, foreigners were either 美國人 [Americans] or 阿啄仔 [big noses]. I actually have some pretty warm memories of crowds of little kids skipping circles around me singing “big nose, big nose,….” Less amiable, but not unpleasant, are the memories of obasans pointing at me and telling their grandchildren to look at the big nose. In these contexts, personally, I find adoah neutral if not somewhat affable and was more put out by being called American.

Still times have changed and adoah is less commonly heard among Taipei’s urbane, who are reasonably aware of the sensitivities of foreigners. Outside Taipei the word gets bandied around more frequently. I’m mildly impressed though, despite not believing the word to be insulting—which many Taiwanese don’t—in the time I’ve been here the use of adoah has noticeably declined.

It’s required a shift from traditional Asian values that don’t particularly seek a broad ranging society of different ethnicities living together in respect and harmony. Most Asian societies prefer to stress homogeneity, consequently racial sensitivity is not the default setting. For people from societies that aspire to inclusivity this can be hard to accept. In multicultural Canada, where I’m from, there’s an official policy of empowering and promoting social, economic, and political inclusion, achieved partially through a constant process of navel-gazing, self-policing, and changing acceptable terms. Most Asian countries haven’t had to deal with such concerns, and so can be linguistically insensitive. Simply not much thought has been given to what words are used to refer to different races.

Taiwanese sometimes claim ignorance of the meaning of adoah, seeing it only as a word referring to foreigners. Many foreigners regard these claims with disbelief and occasionally anger. The vexation comes from a linguistic misunderstanding. We tend to learn Chinese character-by-character, building words from the individual characters we’ve learned. Multisyllabic words being regard—more often than would be correct—as collections of characters, each a word/meaning in its own right, thus allowing words to be deconstructed into deeper “real” meanings.

My explanation of the meaning of 阿啄仔, breaking the word down into characters and explaining the meaning of each character was a foreigner-type explanation. Taiwanese learn the language more holistically. Though they might be capable of breaking the word down into individual characters and examining the semantics, that’s not necessarily how they conceptualize the word. As I was writing this article my wife was surprised by the meaning of 啄. She knew the word 阿啄仔, but imprecisely understood the possible meanings of 啄. Do you continually think of the roots and stems of English words? No. It’s a word with a meaning more relevant than its Latin/Greek/Gaelic/… roots. My name is 達仁, to which my Canadian friends usually ask its meaning, and I’ll dutifully reply that it means kindhearted humanitarian or some such. Really that’s wrong. It means me. It’s a name. My name. My English name is Darren. No one asks what it means.  It means keeper of the oak grove or some such, but it doesn’t make sense to think of words in these terms.

Does your grandmother realize the Latin or Greek roots and their nuances as she uses a word? It’s unreasonable to expect more from Grandma Wang. After all, these things are rarely as simplistic as my explanation of how adoah is written implied.  Some Taiwanese assert that adoah is a sign of respect. The history and linguistics justifying this position are that the character not only means tall, but also more commonly means outstanding. Some note adoah may derive from the Taiwanese honorific title for priests during the early days of contact. Also, adoah may come from a story attributed to Zhuangzi,  an influential Chinese philosopher from the Warring States Period. It doesn’t really get much more venerable. At the same time referencing body characteristics doesn’t have the same prohibitions as in the West. [See: “Hello Fatso” And Other Taiwanese Greetings].

It’s valuable to understand where people are coming from, but ultimately it doesn’t matter whether the Taiwanese believe adoah is derogatory . Ethnic terms are insulting or neutral depending who says it and the context—those that the word is directed at get to decide. Personally I don’t see it in absolutes. I cut granny and the kids some slack, while with country folks it really depends how country. For the more cosmopolitan I have a higher standard. I also take into account facial expression and tone, can I perceive cognizance of an implied insult? If not, I’m likely to regard it as slightly funny and let it roll off me. But that’s just me, you get to decide for yourself.

Mask Mandate Madness

If you saw my last post you’ll know I’ve been sick. [See: Health Problems and The Sickly Egg]. I’m easing back into writing with some small articles.

COVID’s taught me many things, particularly how profoundly stupid and uncaring people can be. I’ve never had much faith in humanity, but I’m still taken aback. The West seems to produce more dumbasses/cm2 than Asia. A lot is down to the relative importance placed on individualism versus community. [See: Life and Love in the Age of the Coronavirus]. Western values are out-of-whack with present needs: public health and unchecked personal liberty are uneasy bedfellows. In more community-oriented Asia, people have been more willing to take small measures to maintain public health. The self-sacrifices have been minuscule. Wear a mask. Get a shot.

It seems to all be too much in the West. I get it. I come from Western Canada, ground-zero for rednecks and birthplace of the Canadian Convoy of Loons that occupied Canada’s capital and inspired wack-a-doodles the (Western) world over. Maybe I’ve lived in Taiwan too long, I’m stunned by the disregard for others, stupidity, and weird way it’s all linked to political ideology. [It’s getting so I can’t even talk to my unclebrother anymore]. You might think the problem is rednecks, but they abound in Asia without the COVID-related lunacy.

Take masking; it is such a small thing, virtually no inconvenience. Why does it inspire such retardicity in the West? There might be a reason beyond the usual individualism/communalism explanation. In the West—as kindergarteners—we’re taught to gauge emotions by looking at the mouth. I remember being shown simple line drawings of faces, with dots for eyes, and appropriately drawn mouths, with the teacher asking: “How does this person feel? They feel sad, see the mouth is downturned”. In Asia, children are taught to gauge emotions by looking at the eyes.

Perhaps masking creates socially uncomfortable levels of anonymity for Westerners. It could feel difficult to understand a friend’s meaning or get acquainted with a stranger. How do they feel? Are they hiding something? That information is hidden by a physical barrier. Not a problem for cultures with a tradition of face-covering, or in Asian cultures that emphasize the eyes for transmitting information.

Is this true? No idea. However, it would explain the West’s irrationality over masking. I’ve been wearing a mask for over two years and enjoy it. The mask hides my reactions, which are often lightning fast and stunningly inappropriate, and gives me a moment to compose myself—or at least that’s what I’d thought.

Where, Oh Where, Might the Prostitutes Be?

Where to find a prostitute? Mostly online.

But, it hasn’t always been that way. You used to find them behind railway stations. Throughout Asia, if you look behind the railway station, assuming it is not a new station, you can find the remnants of that bygone era. The topic suggested itself while having a coffee behind Taichung’s railway station. It is being rejuvenated, but carries the scars of its former life, whorehouses-cum-B&Bs dot the area with their weird and limited charm.

Red-light districts were there so travelers could arrive and easily find comfort and relaxation. This is not unique to Asia, it went on in the prairies, where I come from. But, it had disappeared long before I was born. Here in Asia, it was still a vibrant part of city life when I arrived.

If you consider the placement of Taiwan’s remaining red-light district, and relate them to the old railway stations, you’ll find that there’s still some correspondence. Ever wonder why Wanhua’s whorehouses are where they are? They’re around what was once the old Japanese railway station, Bangkah Station (艋舺停車場). The city ages and changes, but the girls stay the same.

These areas were lively affairs, without much stigmatization. My clearest memories come from my time in Korea. Yeosu (여수시), where I lived three decades ago, was a bit of a backwater. It had some charm, but basically was the Korean version of Eufaula, Alabama, with an ocean. Despite being a small sleepy city with little in the way of nightlife, the back of the train station was an amazing hive of vibrant, bouncy, juttering, and bustling activity after sundown. It shocked this young naive prairie boy. It’s hard to understand how such a sleepy burg sustained that level of commerce, but I guess there’s more to the surface than meets the eye. That area of Yeosu is so imprinted in my memory that even now the smell of sweaty tits and bad decisions makes me think of Korea.

When I first came to Taiwan it was the same. It’s a little hard to describe how blasé whoring was. Just a natural part of going out:

“What should we do tonight?”
“I don’t know. What do you feel like?”
“Movie?”
“Ahh. I don’t know. I don’t think there’s anything very good playing.”
“Beer?”
“Hmmm. I’m still a little hungover from last night. I don’t think so.”
“Blowjob?”
“Mmm. Yeah. That might be OK. A bill clinton would hit the spot about now.”
“Alright, fluffernutters it is. Let’s go.”

It constantly blew me away to see pals wandering around the red-light districts like a group of friends in Canada making their way to the next bar. It was just so natural and unweird—nothing furtive about it.

The Victorian era is still screwing with Western attitudes towards sex: it’s hard to grow out of the morality you’re born into. The scenes I’ve seen played out across Asia’s red-light districts are different than Canada, where plenty of shame is attached to commercial sex. It’s really hard to imagine a group of friends nonchalantly whoring around there. They’d definitely be perceived as greasy social retards, the kind to get their genitals caught in their fly when talking to a real live woman. Also, Western individualism and can-do attitude makes it feel gratuitous to pay for sex when with ingenuity and bravery anything can be a vagina.

The stigmatization of prostitution has grown in Taiwan, but it is still less defamed than in North America. Businessmen still make it to the KTV. Some massage parlors offering proper massages. A handful of blowjob bars exist in Taipei. But, it does feel like this aspect of life in Taiwan is on the wane.

Partially it has just moved online, and that is inherently less social. Also, the status of women has changed. You can’t just bang a good girl, but you can ride a strong independent woman like the tilt-a-whirl in a two-bit traveling carnival. [Just one of the many reasons I’m an ardent feminist]. Now that there are more strong modern women in Asia, it’s natural to think if you really apply yourself, you should be able to get it free, so paying begins to speak poorly of one’s interpersonal skills. Nobody wants to seem like that geek with his crank stuck in his pants.