Category Archives: Society & Culture

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 offer a “proper” massage. 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.

Vignette #26: A Little Sinophobia

I’ve recently been talking about the Taiwanese older generation’s attitude towards the wave of Chinese that hit Taiwan in the post-war period [see: Japan’s the Best]. Taiwanese sinophobia—in a roundabout way—has benefited me.

There were many obstacles along the path to marrying Venus [see: Marrying Taiwanese]. Hard as it may to imagine, I wasn’t entirely what the family had in mind. Contrary to expectation, the problem wasn’t a worry Venus was hitting above her weight class, striving for the stars when the moon would have been ample. No. They thought I wasn’t good enough!

Concerns ran the gamut. Will he be able to take care of our girl, is he functional in Taiwanese society. [As balls on a dildo]. That I was too fat. [Plain hurtful. Sure when I lay on my side my stomach lies beside me—but it’s beguiling]. That I was too old, they thought me older than I was. That I might not be the sharpest doorknob in the toolshed. [I’m not the type you’d call smart, nor stupid—I’m the type you’d think owns a terrarium]. Would I be true. [Their whole he’s fat-and-old-thing wasn’t a consideration]. Will he be caring and affectionate. [Like Super Dave Osbourne petting a kitten].

I found an unexpected ally in Venus’s ninety-something grandmother. Venus‘s mother said in her time parents, including her’s, swore they’d beat their daughters brutally, chop off their legs and to feed the pigs, rather than allowing her to wed a waishengren (外省人). [Chiayi strong]. My mother-in-law noted those who’d married Chinese immigrants, on average, had better marriages and lives, and maybe the current wave of foreigners in Taiwan would work the same way. Grandma’s sole comment on our marriage was that at least I’m not a waishengren.

Thanks grandma.

Japan’s the Best: A Taiwanese View of Japan

Taiwan is probably the only country colonized by the Japanese to look back on the experience with fondness. Other Asian countries, on the receiving end of Japan’s twentieth century expansionism, have raised Japan-hating to an art form.

Korea has dealt with Japanese aggression for longer than any other country, starting from Japan’s invasions of 1592 and 1597 which devastated Korea’s civilian population, military, technological capabilities and cultural artifacts. Japan succeeded in subjugating Korea in 1910. Koreans still hold a grudge.

China was forced to make concessions to Japan after the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). So feelings were already a bit tetchy—we know how easy it is to “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”—when the Second Sino-Japanese War rolled around (1937-1945). The assorted atrocities and humiliations China endured did nothing to soften perceptions of Japan.

Since 1592 Japan intermittently sought to extend its control to include Taiwan. Their goal was realized with the Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895) after the First Sino-Japanese War, when Taiwan was ceded to Japan. Though it still took a Japanese invasion to quell resistance in Taiwan.

All these countries have a pretty similar history with Japan and it has engendered the expected animus among Koreans and Chinese, only the Taiwanese openly flirt with Japanaiserie, and exhibit nostalgic feelings for the Japanese times. On the surface Taiwan’s reaction seems to make as much sense as cellulite on a skinny woman, but there’s more to the surface than meets the eye.

Partially it’s a tribute to how horrible  the Chinese were as an occupying force that Japanese rule glowed in comparison. The Chinese arrival in 1945 ushered in a period of government (Kuomintang) corruption and repression. Even after the worst of the post-war venality ended, Chinese rule didn’t contribute much to Taiwanese society. They were like hungry locusts, trying to take from Taiwan as much as possible for the eventual recapture of the motherland. Most of what Taiwan had, in terms of infrastructure , roads, bridges, rail, public buildings, etc., came from the Japanese. The Chinese only grudgingly began to build things in Taiwan in the 1970s.

Japan was the font of culture during imperial times and that didn’t change in many Taiwanese minds after the Chinese came. Japan has a seductive culture of its own, in addition Japan was the intermediary between Western civilization and Asia—Japan westernized much of Asia. Notice anything familiar about Taiwanese public buildings from the Japanese period? Japanese culture continues to have an outsized influence on both Taiwanese high and pop culture.

Wai sheng ren (外省人) and ben sheng ren (本省人) [see:The Neighbors Suck] perceptions and experiences of Japan differed greatly. The Chinese arrived in Taiwan straight from a protracted war with Japan. A war not noted for its warm and fuzzy moments. It was an article of faith that the Japanese must be despised. Look what they had done to China. The Taiwanese, however, had for fifty years been a nominal part of Japan, including during WWII. Many Taiwanese fought in the Japanese army. Taiwan endured Allied bombings.

As an example of how this might cause awkwardness, Kuomintang (KMT) memorials and remembrance services are for their war dead. The Taiwanese were on the other side, but in their own country have no way to memorialize their war dead. Former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) caused a stink when he visited Japan’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine (靖國神社) where his brother, who died in the Japanese navy, is enshrined. A slap in the face to some wai sheng ren and pretty reasonable for many ben sheng ren. Lee Tung-hui has been criticized as a Japan-lover by the Chinese government and some wai sheng ren, but it’s more like he was a Taiwanese of that period.

The upshot is the Taiwanese have a surprisingly positive view of Japan despite having been colonized. It’s just another thing that makes them unique.

When I first came to Taiwan I laughed at people’s fascination with all things Japanese. I used to ask my students if they could travel anywhere where would they go. The most common answer was Japan. It’s like me—a Saskatchewan boy—declaring that if I could go anywhere at all the first place I’d go is Bismarck, North Dakota.

Then I found myself adopting the Taiwanese love of all things Japanese. I recognized it during a joint Japanese-Taiwanese architectural exhibit. I was looking at photographs of a piece of architecture, that I assumed was Taiwanese, and thinking it a small, uninspired simple little box. Then my wife told me it was by a Japanese architect and my internal monologue changed instantly to: Ahh yes, the simplicity, the tasteful minimalism, the subtle interplay of shade and light; it’s truly an elegant example of the Japanese aesthetic. [Pretentious douche].

Taiwan’s relationship with Japan, and Japanese culture, confuses much of the rest of Asia, but gives insights into Taiwan’s unique experiences with being an occupied nation.

You Haven’t Really Lived in Taiwan Until You’ve Picked Up Pieces of a Dead Person With Chopsticks

I recently attended a Taiwanese funeral. If you haven’t, here’s what you might expect. It’ll vary by family, this is a general guide. My family’s Buddhist. [I’m hardcore Red Hat Taoist, but we try to make it work for the kittens]. The funerals I describe are Buddhist, but there are similarities across traditions.

When someone’s passing—if possible—the family gathers around the deathbed, not for comfort and support, more to chant. The process is intricate, usually a religious 師父 (master) is required to get everyone chanting, bowing, gonging, and kowtowing in syncopation. A sutra is chanted seeking forgiveness of karmic debts accrued during this—and previous—lives, so the departing soul can find peace. It’s intended to get them off the Wheel of Suffering, or to a better incarnation. The rest of the time the name of Amida Buddha is chanted, guiding the soul and Amida Buddha towards each other. [Something like that. It’s all Buddhist to me]. In my family it goes on for at least eight hours.

Next comes the encoffining. Family and spiritual guide(s) come together again for a spirited bout of chanting as the body is placed in the coffin, usually at the undertaker’s.

On the seventh day after death the family gathers, led by a monk and possibly lay-chanters, for a full day of intoning and general scraping. Bow here, bow there, get down on your knees and pray, stand up, chant, get down and hit your head on the floor. It seems all Zen and soul-rejuvenating, but mostly it’s just painful. Kneeling destroys the knees. Kowtowing hurts the back. The constant kneeling and rising—Buddhist leg squats—leaves the lower body quivering. You see decrepit monks doing it and it seems fluid and charming. It’s brutal. It’s like going bowling—assuming it’s easy since it’s the terroir of middle age fat alcoholics—and then suffering a week-long case of bowler’s butt. I can barely walk after prayers.

That is the first of seven weekly prayer sessions. It’s common to pay a temple to do the subsequent ones. They’re praying anyway, you can arrange a shout-out for your dearly departed.

When the funeral arrives the deceased is taken to a 殯儀館, funeral parlor and mortuary services complex. Most municipalities have one, Taipei has two. The one on Hsin-Hai Rd. is the Disneyland of death. It’s a huge complex, with a very large multi-room building, and smaller out-buildings, ready to accommodate the deceased and mourners. The main building holds at least a hundred concurrent funerals and thousands of mourners. Rooms range in size from small Las Vegas showroom to spruced up closet. Each room’s anterior has a mountain of flowers with the deceased’s picture top center. The coffin is placed centrally among the profusion of flowers. Tacky. If I were the corpse I’d be mortified. At the service’s end the coffin is quickly replaced by another—kinda like a hot-sheet motel. It’s a model of McDonald’s style efficiency. 

Everything in the ceremony itself is hierarchical. Each mourner dons a long dark cloak—for the Buddhist ceremony—with a small color-coded badge. The color denotes familial status. The family stands before the coffin in rows and columns according to rank. During my grandma-in-law’s funeral—despite barely knowing her—I ranked higher than my wife, and was placed more to the front, as befits my station and sperm count. I think it’s the worst part of the ceremony. I had no chance to comfort my wife. Instead I was busy—up front—being the foreign jackass. As with all aspects of my life, I provided comic relief and a focal point for staring. Is he going to screw this up? Aiya, he got it right. Double-or-nothing he fucks up the next kowtow. Foreigners: every funeral needs one.

Once arranged in order of descending importance, the process of chanting, genuflecting, kneeling, praying, kowtowing, and standing back up begins. Are you detecting a theme? During funerals my high school fight song keeps bouncing around my brain: “Bow to the left, bow to the right, stand up, sit down, fight! Fight! FIGHT! YeahhH TEAM!!!” But I digress. Once the family finishes, other assorted mourners, who’ve been watching from the side, get their chance to bow to the deceased.

At the end of the service, the family walks around the coffin three times while chanting. Then a nail is driven into the coffin lid, ceremonially sealing it. That duty falls to the eldest son, or nearest available facsimile.

With that over, the family and some of the crowd makes its way to the crematorium, conveniently located elsewhere on Death World’s grounds. The mourners line up a reasonable distance from the oven and chant as the cremation begins. At the first funeral I attended, the attendants hurriedly stuffed granny into a hot oven as the flames danced and licked out the door. You could feel the heat on your face. It was visceral. I’ve never seen that since. Maybe the day of granny’s funeral was particularly busy at Taipei Municipal No. 2 Mortuary, Funeral Services & Death Fulfillment Center, Inc. Usually the dead are calmly placed in the oven, the door closed, and the flames turned on. Frankly, they phone it in.

With the cremation underway, the family retires to the crematoracafeteria, an onsite coffee shop with video displays, detailing the temperature of each roaster, and reamaining cooking time. It brings to mind a fast-food restaurant. This is a time of relief. The family has spent three to four full days chanting and it’s over. Phew. Give me a simple Protestant ceremony. You’re in, someone talks, you sing a song, and you’re out—fifty minutes tops.

When your loved one’s timer pops, the family goes to collect the remains. This is the oddest part of the funeral. Cremation doesn’t leave dust, as you might think, but rather a skeleton. The bones are so burned they lose structural integrity and can be easily crushed to dust. Taiwan has some ceremonies requiring the bones, so the remains are not pulverized. [See this article on Taiwanese folk religion]. The family isn’t presented an inoffensive urn, instead a skeleton is wheeled out. At my first funeral I was caught off-guard and freaked. Nobody else paid much mind. Each family member in turn takes a pair of long cooking chopsticks, picks up some bone, and puts it into the urn. Judging by the faces of everyone, there was general apprehension when it came my turn—I’m a sloppy eater, but I’m proud to say I didn’t drop a morsel of grandma. Afterwards, the attendants complete the transfer.

That’s the end of the funeral, but you shouldn’t go straight home. Stop along the way. I think that’s to throw ghosts off your trail. When you get home, you should disrobe immediately, wash your clothes and shower, to wash the death off.

So now if you die in Taiwan you have an idea what type of party to expect. [YMMV].