Category Archives: Society & Culture

The Care and Feeding of the Elderly in Asia

He looked at me through drooping eyebrows and dread eyes and in a slow choked voice whispered, “You have to. It’s your duty, you understand? There’s nothing more important in life.” My father-in-law had just asked how I intended to care for my aging parents in Canada. I gave a flip response, because everything I do is flippant, it’s part of my charm. I may have made some reference to that time-honored Canadian tradition of taking your aged, no longer productive, parents and putting them on an ice floe and setting them adrift. I’ve always thought the practice a marvelous piece of Canadiana. Of course I was joking,… probably, but it worried him. The unstated question was what are you going to do to me?

His fear gets to the heart of one of the traditional impediments to intercultural marriage. What’s going to happen to me? Will my foreign son-in-law or daughter-in-law care for me the way I expect? Often I’ve heard Taiwanese say that foreigners are too independent, using the word as a pejorative. They mean that many foreigners are only concerned about themselves and not their family. Like most cross-cultural beliefs this is a half-truth built upon a misunderstanding.

Most Westerners are relatively more independent from their families than the average Asian. Most Asians think it unilaterally the child’s idea, so they can selfishly pursue their own life, their own goals, their own pleasures. That’s not true. Traditionally Europeans lived similar to the Asian ideal. A large extended family living in close proximity, ideally under the same roof, caring for each other. The goal in Taiwan is still to have three generations under the same roof—all beaking off simultaneously. In North America that changed around 4 to 5 generations ago? Of course this varies by family and geography. In my family it was my grandparents who started the change. My great-grandparents would have liked to live with their children as they aged, but my grandparent’s generation did not want this. Their reasons undoubtedly were multivariate, some selfish and some altruistic, but it was a sea change in family life.

Here’s the part many Asians don’t get, when my grandparents generation became elderly, they didn’t want to live with their children. This is perhaps more a North American attitude than European. In the New World, rugged individualism was of paramount importance. On the frontier you needed to fend for yourself, children were raised to be independent for survival. These pioneers did not want to live in their children’s house in their twilight. It would have taken away their dignity and independence, the most important human attribute—what made a man a man. A short trip on the ice floe was preferable.

Also, the quality of care provided by family, though well-intentioned, is not the best. If grandma moves into the home and needs special care most families are ill-equipped to handle it. They have neither the skills, nor the time. The system was adequate for an agrarian society, but Asia has very rapidly urbanized. [See: My Parents Are Nuts].  Who takes care of grandma while mother and father work? The grandchildren? The whole situation is a untenable.

Here’s an anecdote showing the stereotypical differences between a Westerner (me) and traditional Taiwanese (my Favorite Student). One day I walked into class and he was behaving a little strangely. His chest was puffed up and had that cock-of-the-walk look. He was explaining his mother had moved into his house. Everyone was praising him as a good son. I walked in and immediately shat a triple-coiler all over his parade, when without thinking I rather pissily said, “Why are you doing that?”

He replied, “Well, she’ll be able to live with us and take care of the kids. Won’t that be nice?”

I was FOB and vehemently replied, “Nooo. Grandma is old, don’t stuffed her into a back room and expected her to care for your children. Child care is hard work. Grandma’s done enough work in her life. You made them, you take care of them. Let her enjoy the time she has left.” With hindsight I might’ve been a little too real. [I wasn’t always the paragon of cultural sensitivity I am now]. It shocked my favorite student and most of his classmates, but I did see one young woman nodding agreement. Things are change, society has  no choice.

As for my in-laws, when I was getting married I had the foresight to insist that no Chen would ever live with us. The wife readily agreed, though she was in love back then, so who knows. I have two parents-in-law and a brother-in-law that require medical care. Will they ever live under our roof? Never say never—but never.

Taiwanese Generational References

The thing about cross-cultural living is you lose your frame of reference—those little tricks used to prejudge a situation. One loss is a broad understanding of each generation’s reality. For example, the Greatest Generation lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Those events shaped who they are and how they live. Baby Boomers have shared social, economic, and international events that shaped their outlook, and on-and-on for each generation. Of course each individual is different, but there is groupthink: I can better understand where you’re coming from if I know where you came from.

You lose those broad insights when moving to another country. If I’d relocated to America, there’d be slight changes. With a small knowledge of American history and culture I could conjecture other’s generational viewpoint.

Not true for Taiwan. The events that shaped generational thinking are very different. I’ve found it a useful shorthand to think of Taiwanese as sharing similarities with the preceding generation in Canada. I realize I’m screwing with reality, Taiwan lived through the same world events as other countries at the same time. But, in my personal interactions with Taiwanese there seems to be this intercultural cross-generational parallel.

People the equivalent age to Western Baby Boomers saw the Chinese arrive or arrived themselves. They lived through the darkest days of the White Terror. Their thinking was set in Taiwan’s pre-Asian Tiger days and shaped by its emergence. Taiwan had a fair amount of poverty. My parent-in-law’s generation—seventy-plus years old—seems to share similarities with the Greatest Generation. They have the extreme frugality of those who lived through the Great Depression. Don’t throw anything away, who knows when you might need a 20mm square button to match a purple leisure suit. Better hang on to that.

Taiwan’s baby boom (they don’t call it that) began a bit later, the early 1950’s,  after the KMT completely lost China and overt hostilities eased. By the mid-1960’s the birthrate began to be perceived as a problem and government began promoting the nuclear family (一個孩子不嫌少,兩個孩子恰恰好/One child isn’t too little, two is just right). These children are around thirty to fifty-five years old, but resemble the West’s Baby Boomers. They may have been born into relatively poor economic circumstances, with parents who exhibited Depression-era practicality, but they found themselves living and working in a booming economy where anything seemed possible, and want was for others.

In some ways my wife and mother are similar, each was born into strained economic circumstances with a high degree of rurality. For early Canadian Baby Boomers, photos were not a common part of family life. My mother has a couple poor quality childhood photos, and one professional baby picture. My wife’s treasured childhood memories are mostly photos of others, where she’s wandered into the background. Both consciously try to create and preserve memories. My mom didn’t have a wealth of toys growing up, but she had wanted a certain doll, which inevitably didn’t come. My wife had one toy growing up (really)—a dolly. She’d wanted a Barbie and ended up with a Night Market Nancy. Both can get a bit over-wrought about dolls.

Each came of age in a time of endless jobs and good pay, making it hard for them to relate to the economic problems not only of their parent’s generation, but also later generations. That’s me. When I graduated high school, the job market tanked—almost on that day. My generation, either by choice or necessity, went to university in droves. The job market hadn’t improved by graduation, so employment uncertainty shaped our worldview.

When I moved to Taiwan, I had a hard time economically relating to people my age. And, they couldn’t relate to me. “Why did you come to Taiwan?” I’d be honest, “Because there’s no work in Canada,” inevitably illiciting a response like, “What do you mean ‘there’s no work’? Aren’t you willing to work?” Of course, I’d do anything, “I mean there’s no work,” followed by the inevitable blank incomprehension. It was stunningly similar to conversations with Canadian Baby Boomers at the time.

Which brings us to the generation that graduated after the Global Financial Crisis (2007/8). Taiwan’s low birthrate after 1996 and oversupply of university spots sent them to university in droves.  Similar to how the bursting of the job market in Canada forced a prolonged education on many Canadians of my generation. Upon graduation this abundance of Taiwanese university graduates entered a crippled job market. These are my people. I relate to their life’s journey at a gut level, in a way I can’t connect with Taiwanese my age. Their struggles are mine. The world kicked them in the same places as it did my generation in Canada, and created people of similar outlook and attitude.

This article is a foreigner’s perspective on inter-generational differences in Taiwan. The Taiwanese have their own way of looking at generational shifts related to unique domestic events. A common one is the sharp generational divide between people who completed their education under martial law and those that did not. Or, those who came of age early in Chang Ching-kuo’s (蔣經國) reign, and look back on the Martial Law Period and early Taiwanese manufacturing boom with fondness. They’re unable to relate to the tech boom, globalization, Taiwan’s post-industrial society, etc. They are sort of like Taiwanese Trump voters or Brexiteers. These are the people that almost foisted Han Guo-yu (韓國瑜) on Taiwan.

Admittedly, this article  puts an anachronistic and foreign skein over everything. It is inherently inaccurate—and yet helpful.

“When I’m Dead…

…and gone, just sharpen
my toenails and drive
me into the manure pile”.

So said my grandfather, though he became sentimental about it at the end. Still, it hints at an earthy practicality as regards death and its rituals that was a feature of my life growing up. The soul goes to heaven and the body rots, once dead it doesn’t matter what happens on earth.

Taiwan is less simplistic. Taiwan has the three major Chinese religions; Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. However, often Taiwanese spiritual practices do not tidily fit into these religions. These are the rituals, rites, customs, and magic of the common Chinese people and Chinese Folk Religion. The state religions championed by various dynasties have incorporated these folk traditions. They are the amorphous sinew permeating Taiwan’s ritual life.

Central to Chinese folk customs is ancestor worship, which likely developed from Shang Dynasty (商朝) ancestor cults. It presumes a kind of two-way interaction between deceased members of the family and their living descendants. The ancestors remain part of the family where they are the focus of family ritual; primarily prayer and offerings. Historically ancestor worship seems to have developed out of fear; an uneasiness about the affect of a discontented ghost on the family.

The ancestors are pretty corporeal. They need their descendants to provide food, alcohol, money, and sometimes material objects or even spouses, along with prayers. To allow the dead’s needs to go unsatiated is to invite misfortune upon the family. Conversely if the ancestors are satisfied the living will receive good fortune as otherworldly repayment. It is very transactional. Sometimes the prayers are more like haranguing the ancestor: I provided you with this, that, and the other thing, yet still I don’t have _____. I’ll throw your tablet in the closet, until I get what I want. Get your act together! [Prayer in the folk tradition isn’t necessarily similar to prayer in institutionalized religions].

At the heart of these interplanar interactions is the deceased’s ancestral tablet. It looks like a small, usually wooden, grave marker. It is inscribed with the exact time of birth and death, the deceased’s name, and titles. It is often kept at the household’s family altar, where the ancestor is readily available for requests, consultations, and to receive sacrifices.

The ancestral tablet is to the left, encased in glass.

The ancestral tablet houses part of the deceased’s soul. Chinese Folk Religion, in particular the ancestor cult, views the soul as tripartite. One part goes to heaven after death, another stays with the body’s remains, and the third part is enclosed in the ancestral tablet by the family as part of the death rites. Thus, the ancestor becomes the family’s spirit-protector and the tablet becomes almost a talisman.

I used to think it would be neat to have a Chinese style family altar—part of my desire to be that funky-weird foreigner. Yeah, I’m that kind of expat. After getting a more intimate view of what’s involved though I no longer think it would be groovy. Propitiating the ancestor takes a shit-ton of time, work, and general hassle. Many modern Taiwanese share my attitude. It is possible to entrust the care and feeding of tablets to a temple. That seems a better option to me and many other Taiwanese.

Sources: The Salty Egg is almost entirely written from personal experience. I first came to Taiwan thirty-three years ago to study Chinese Folk Religion. The information here comes from that class—discussions with Taiwanese religious leaders, shamans, monks and priests, diviners and others during that trip—along with family; and my personal experience of rituals in Taiwan. Any religious observance has personal/family variance. This is a reasonable—if oversimplified—outline of this piece of Chinese Folk Religion.

 

Life and Love in the Age of the Coronavirus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good point. Why wouldn’t I?

 

Three Words of Love

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

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

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

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

Huh? How can such disparate meanings be reconciled?

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

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

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

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