Category Archives: Society & Culture

GenX-pat

Recently, I’ve been reading some demographers that are focused on generational studies. It has been interesting and sometimes enlightening for this GenXer. As part of an ignored generation there are things about my generational experiences I’ve not understood, since almost everything that gets written or discussed about generational topics is from a Boomer or Millennial viewpoint. These generational studies have shed a little light on some aspects of my life that I never completely understood, and surprisingly has taught me a bit about cross-cultural misunderstandings. This article is about a common GenX experience, that I thought was a universal Western experience, but turns out to be uniquely GenX, and has caused me to misunderstand Asian/Western cultural differences.

GenX’s childhood coincided with a time when children were, broadly speaking, socially despised. GenX children diverted Boomer and Silent Generation parent’s from their obsessive self-focus—and it wasn’t appreciated. It was not the time to be a child. Generally seen as burdensome, GenXers were history’s most frequently aborted children. Our upbringing reflected the period’s broader social trends and attitudes towards children. It wasn’t the fault of individual parents so much as a broad cultural trend, a societal decision to forsake childhood. Parenting books taught parents to value their needs over their child’s. A happy parent must be good for the child. TV and movies supported the primacy of parental needs over children’s, and academia lent its voice in support of the anti-childhood ethos. In the age of self-actualization, parents expected their children to self-actualize, essentially to comport themselves like small middle-agers. It was the time with the most broken marriages and broken families in history. So, GenX grew up neglected, and raised themselves like a pack of feral cats. [It’s the main reason we’re so awesome].

A typical slice of GenX life happened when I was in grade 9. A schoolmate came to class a bit pissed off, it seemed she’d arrived home the day before to find a note from her parents saying that—unbeknownst to her—they’d gone to Mexico for a week. The note said there was money on the table, Kraft Dinner in the cupboard, and that she should take care of herself and keep her brother alive. Apparently there’d have been hell to pay if he were dead when they got home. Looking back the weirdest thing is that nobody thought it was weird. Admittedly it was an extreme example, but her classmates all comforted her with their own very similar tales of parental neglect.

Raise yourself—we got no time for this shit.

As you’d expect of a generation of self-parenting children, bullying reigned supreme. I gotta admit, I don’t know when bullying came to be seen as bad—I’m guessing when Millennials started getting bullied. During GenX’s childhood, adults were pretty ambivalent about bullying. Parents would tell the victims to find a way to fix the problem themselves. Bullying built character, taught conflict resolution, and forced you to stand up for yourself. The bully in his own way was teacher and parent, and many parents appreciated the help. It was Lord of the Flies out there.

Raise yourself—we got no time for this shit.

So that’s what childhood was like, and here’s how that screwed up my cross-cultural literacy. I didn’t realize that—as a GenXer—I was raised uniquely. I thought that each previous generation had essentially raised themselves as we had. Not true. Apparently the Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, and Baby Boomers had comparatively idyllic childhoods, where they were cared for. I had no idea. I never saw Millennials grow up, as I was out of the country during their childhood and teens. I used to show up in Canada every couple years and see Millennials being molly-coddled, and there’d be some conversations with my contemporaries about how fucked up it all was. “How will they ever grow into functioning adults?” I had assumed that the Millennial’s childhood was a deviation from the norm. I didn’t know GenX was the aberration, and the Millennials were a return to normal values.

I always told my Taiwanese students and friends that rugged individualism and can-do spirit are essential cultural cornerstones in the West. No one is going to help you—you got to do it yourself. I’d explain how some of the things I commonly saw in Taiwan would not happen back home; parents lined up at schools to pick up their children, waiting for kids at the bus stop, coming and talking to the teachers, parents generally trying to fix their kids problems or provide guidance. For God’s sake, I’m a university teacher in Taiwan, and I have to deal with kid’s parents! By grade 3, I’d have been embarrassed to have my parents inserting themselves into my school life. I’d explain that these things just aren’t done in the West: we’re all about pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps. You got a problem—figure it out. I was wrong, but interestingly, I misunderstood my own culture, not Taiwanese culture.

I didn’t realize not every Western teen has been expected to confront life with the maturity and independence required of GenX. I told one-and-all that if parents tried to pull this “Asian” crap in the West, their kids would get the shit beat out of them. I grew up with a kid, nice guy, but his parents raised him like a Boomer or Millennial. They cared for him—during GenX’s childhood years!?! That poor kid’s life was a raging hellscape, he got beat up daily. “Ha, ha [in the voice of Bart Simpson’s bully], your parents love you,” boom, crash, blam…. It wasn’t cool to have parents: adults should be neither seen, nor heard, certainly they should not be arriving at school to walk you home.

When I began seeing Millennials being raised back home, I thought the West had collectively decided to become more Asian. That we were adopting the parenting style and societal norms of Asia. I was shocked. Helicopter parents in the West? How could that happen? I now know that my generation’s experiences were unique. Western society is more communal, and “Asian”, than I ever dreamed. Of course, the stereotypical differences between Western individualism and Asian communalism do exist [see: Asian Child-Rearing and Elder Care]. It’s just the differences are smaller than I’d imagined.

I’ve come to these realizations quite late. When I started asking friends in Canada about these things, they were all like, “We’ve known this for decades, where have you been? Under a rock?” Nope. In Taiwan. Because of my expat life, I hadn’t seen Western children younger than myself being raised, so I didn’t know any of this. I guess it’s always good to learn a bit about yourself, no matter how late, there are no age limitations on self-awareness: kinda like stripping in Wyoming—you’re never too old.

Please pardon the expaticus oldfartitis evident in this article, and my previous article, Taipei Traffic. If you can’t relate to the GenX themes, I understand. I’m going to write one more article that features a bit of generational navel-gazing, and that’ll end my Old Fart Trilogy.

Asian Values

If you’re reading this in English, I assume at some point you’ve heard the phrase “Christian values”, a phrase that sounds good—seeming to imply service, compassion, peace, fellowship, etc., but is often used to justify bigotry and small-mindedness. “Oh, but I couldn’t possibly play a peripheral role in your day of joy. If I baked the cake for your big gay wedding, and there were gay people there, acting all gay, well the thought of all that gayness makes me feel so icky, and, and, uh,… oh yeah,… goes against my Christian values.” [And Jesus wept]. It’s a handy get out-of-jail-free card used to excuse all manner of bad behavior.

Not to be outdone, Asia has its own equivalent in the concept of “Asian values”. A phrase that on the surface also sounds good, inferring collectivism, familialism, a strong work and educational ethic, etc., but has been used to validate the dickiest of dick moves. The concept of Asian values is inherently a political concept. The phrase was coined at a meeting of Asian ministers held in Bangkok in 1993 to discuss human rights. The phrase was used to try to dispute the universality of human rights and justify a lesser version of human dignity suitable for Asians. It is cultural relativism aimed at limiting free speech and human rights, and was created by Asia’s authoritarian-leaning governments for Asia’s authoritarian-leaning governments.

In North-East Asia, where I’ve spent most my time, Confucianism is given primacy, and when governments speak of Asian values they mean Confucian values. A lot of negative aspects of Asian society end up being justified by referencing Confucianism. Authoritarian Asian governments try to appropriate Confucianism to legitimize their own heavy-handed centralized governance. There is nothing new in this, two classic Confucian texts, the Record of Rites and the Rites of Zhou, were probably compiled during the Han dynasty, long after Confucius died, and reflect Han sensibilities favorable to the unified central [authoritarian] state current at the time. That remains the appeal today.

Through the 1990s and 2000s I’d hear the term “Asian values” bandied about to justify many government policies. Here in Taiwan the Kuomingdang (KMT), the ruling party during the Martial Law period, has maintained—even in the current democratic era—a bit of an authoritarian mindset that harkens back to those times. During the anti-government protests during President Ma Ying-jeou second term the familiar refrain from the KMT and its supporters was: “What about social order?!?” [an Asian value]. Don’t protest our policies, you’re Asian—it’s all about social harmony. Now just go home; respect your betters, enjoy the paternalism, maintain the communal calm, and forget about what your government is doing.

I’ve seen Asian values used as a pretext for all manner of unhumanitarian policies. “No. The government will not make any effort towards providing reasonable levels of state funding for elder care. Respect for elders and the central role of family are core Asian values. The children can do it.” With the Asian demographic collapse—no they can’t. The smallest generation is on the verge of finding itself tasked with caring for aged grandparents, retired parents, and somehow also raising the next generation, while working God knows how many jobs to try to get enough cash to pull it off. It is one of the factors making it infeasible for many young adults to contemplate starting their own families. The UN, WHO, and some international NGOs noted the coming crunch decades ago, and warned Asian governments, but were poo-pooed as not understanding Asian values. Too late Asian governments are beginning to understand their own error.

On a more personal note Asian values are often pointed to as a rationalization for closed immigration policy. “We could not possibly allow you citizenship, despite international norms regarding reciprocity, as, well, you know—you’re white. Cultural homogeneity is a core Asian value that helps promote the social cohesion necessary for social stability and harmony.” Yada, yada, yada. Upon first hearing such things, my younger, more naïve, expat self, reacted by thinking: “What monkey flung this?” After 25+ years in Asia, I now understand that most Asians have the concepts of race, culture, ethnicity, and nationality all muddled together in their minds, making immigration difficult to accept, and xenophobia an Asian value. Asian governments are just beginning to become aware that in times of demographic decline this is not wise policy, but how do you change?

The examples of how the concept of Asian values has been employed by government are innumerable, but as democracy has grown, recourse to Asian values has decreased. It still rears its head on a policy-by-policy basis, but has less of a role in general political discourse. Despite a general decrease in governmental dickiness, Asian values are still part of authoritarian propaganda—one giant flaming priapism constantly spouting off about Asian values leaps to mind. Three guesses.

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.