Those who know me best, know me to be a fashion-forward, trend-setting, gadfly (comment here). As a devout fashionista, it should surprise no one that I’ve spent a lot of time observing Taiwan’s fashion trends.
With the expansion of globalization and free trade over the last couple decades, fashion has become a bit more uniform around the world. When I first arrived in Taipei, twenty years ago, the Taiwanese were definitely reading from a different fashion script than the rest of the world. It was the period in Taiwan typified by what I call Haute Clown Couture. Taiwanese women were dressing like clowns. No joke. It was not odd to see a woman wearing a puffy and frilly wide-collared white blouse with giant primary color polka dots, and a pair of flared bell-bottom flood pants striped in discordant colors of puce, deep purple, and neon green. The overall effect resembled nothing so much as a colorblind clown.
A favorite memory from that time is of standing at an intersection one evening waiting, with a group of Taiwanese, for the walk light to cross the street. Suddenly a scooter driven by a foreign man screamed to a halt in front of us, and his girlfriend riding pillion whipped out a camera and fired off 4-5 quick pictures of the women around me. The rapid fire flash stunned the women. They gazed out dumbstruck like deer in the headlights. It was a drive-by paparazziing and the poor women had no idea what the was going on. I did. They were dressed in the ridiculous fashion of the day, and the foreigners, undoubtedly on their way back home, wanted to show their friends what was being worn in Taiwan. Of course, they could have simply tried to describe it—but who would have believed them? I smiled my wry little smile and nonchalantly walked across the crosswalk while the women around me struggled to collect themselves. The fashion really was that ridiculous.
While clown couture was at its height, trends in footwear were likewise extraordinary. It was like every shoe manufacturer was dumping their tackiest remainders from the 1970s, along with their failed prototypes, on the Taiwanese market. Shoes were so bizarre that when I had free time in the evenings, I would sometimes head over to the Main Train Station and sit at the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi building, then a popular gathering area, and watch the shoes go by. There were knee-high boots that seemed to have been directly copied from KISS’s stage gear. Tall platform heels with the clunky overall shape of moon boots detailed in the gaudiest ways. Even women wearing conservative lace-up flats managed to find shoes that were in some way bizarre. The trend toward shoes with very wide toes that narrowed to normal dimensions at the heels were a particular favorite. Essentially they were clown shoes—but not so long. It gave the women a retarded Orphan Annie look. Though, when worn with Haute Clown Couture it did complete the ensemble appropriately. There were also the extra-long very pointed shoes that overtime rolled up at the toes, since the last 2 or 3 inches of shoe had no foot in it, giving that timeless Aladdin look. I never got bored in Taipei. There was always a lot to marvel at.
There doesn’t seem to be such a high level of gaudiness in Taiwanese clothing anymore. As a long term resident I struggle to recognize whether Taiwan has changed, or I’ve just gotten used to the weirdness and don’t recognize it anymore. As regards fashion, Taiwanese norms have shifted. A trip to the current favorite hangout for the young and cool, the Hsinyi shopping district around Warner Village, rarely reveals any giggle-worthy ensembles. You could be in Tokyo, New York or Paris. Taipei is just another major center, conversant with world-wide trends, and a part of the fashion world’s conversation.
There are still some small local fashion design shops that go their own way, and champion Taiwan’s traditional embrace of fashions that make you feel a little sad for the wearer. Whipple is one such design shop. They are the current purveyors of the Retarded Orphan Annie look. They built their name on baggy knickers in ugly cuts and colors, paired with blouses that look like the Little Lulu cartoon character accidentally misbuttoned her dress. Even Whipple has toned it down and offers clothing more in line with world norms, perhaps just adding a small misshapen element for accent. It seems that fewer Taiwanese women want to look like that special little cousin who has both oars in the water, but on the same side of the boat.
It’s a bit sad. During the time I’ve been here, Taiwan has increased its global trade relations, and receives a higher proportion of its consumer items from abroad. The advantages are manifold (here), but as uniformity between Taiwan and the West has increased something has been lost. The street scenes are noticeably less colorful. When I first arrived, fashion provided visual proof that you’d landed in a place distinctly different from where you’d left. Was it tacky? Sure. But, it was also unique and fun. I love to face the world with a wry grin, and Taiwanese women kept me smiling. Now when I go out people watching there’s much less to smirk at—I have to be satisfied with just watching the hot girls.
As a Canadian, I am accustomed to apologizing three or four times before breakfast. We say sorry the way New Yorkers say f*#k you—without much planning, sincerity, or even awareness—but an apology is always at the ready. The pre-emptive apology is a common Canadian verbal tick. Not that we’re necessarily all that apologetic in reality, but the words just flow readily from our tongues; it’s a little piece of what makes a Canadian. One of my earliest cross-cultural lessons in Taiwan was delivered by my then American roommate when he sold me his scooter, and threw in the free advice, “If you’re ever in an accident – never apologize! It just sets them [the Taiwanese] off.” Imagine my chagrin. I found it hard not to randomly apologize for no reason; how could I hold in an apology when I had actually done something wrong? The longer I’ve been in Taiwan, and the deeper my interactions with Taiwanese have become, the more I’ve had pause to consider that off-the-cuff warning.
It is true, when dealing with people of Chinese extraction, an upfront apology is rarely advised. The Chinese have a blame culture. If something goes wrong—whether at work, in the home, or on the street—following the incident there is a period of searching for someone to blame. This anecdote was related to me by one of my Taiwanese students, I think she might have been paraphrasing Bo Yang’s book The Ugly Chinaman (醜陋的中國人). She pointed out that when a Westerner is walking down the street and steps in dog shit, he gets a bit upset, wipes it off on the grass, and moves on. If a Chinese person steps in dog shit, he gets irrationally angry at the shit for being there, perhaps yells at it, he then starts angrily accosting passersby searching for the dog owner. Somebody must be blamed. An incident that for the Westerner might last seconds and be forgotten in minutes could consume the Chinese person’s whole morning and eat at his mind all day.
Ideally the search for someone to blame would find the actual guilty party, but that is certainly not necessary, as long as someone is held accountable and everyone acknowledges the “guilty” party. Concepts of face are at the root of the Chinese blame game. In a culture where face is paramount, it is necessary to fight anything that might diminish your face, thus people try to avoid being blamed. Sometimes people, who are clearly in the wrong, contort reality ridiculously to try to avoid blame and the commensurate loss of face.
Perhaps less clear is how the blame game also functions to enforce the social hierarchy. The most stunning examples of this phenomenon come from mainland China. Criminal trials in China are not so much about the rule of law as getting the accused to publically accept blame. News footage of these unfortunates reading clearly coerced confessions on Chinese TV are graphic illustrations of how the blame game works. For Westerners it is hard to see how this serves justice or the truth. It doesn’t. It is simply the blame game being played at the judicial level, and acted out on the national and sometimes international stage. The accused accepts blame and apologizes, while genuflecting toward the state’s power.
The social hierarchy is affirmed and maintained. In Taiwan, the judicial system left show trials behind with the end of martial law. However, there are still remnants of this in Taiwanese jurisprudence, and in the attitude of Taiwanese citizens, who want to see the accused formally accept blame. That is the blame game writ large, but it is played constantly in the day-to-day lives of Taiwanese, from their smallest familial interactions to workplace intrigues.
When something goes wrong at work, there is an immediate process of trying to fix blame, depending on the magnitude of the screw up, this can involve high-intrigue, infighting, backstabbing and immense political drama. When I first began working in Taiwan I got caught in the center of one of these whirlwinds. The details are unimportant, but someone made a mistake and it was causing big problems for the company. Looking back, I now realize that my Taiwanese coworkers were sharpening their long knives and getting ready for a bout of corporate intrigue, when I breezed in—stupid Canadian—assessed the situation and said something like, “Well, that’s a hell of a mess.” There was some general murmuring among my coworkers about who might be to blame. I cut that off immediately with, “Mistakes were made, if I was at fault, I’m sorry. Now, what should we do to fix the problem?” My colleagues were stunned. This is not the Taiwanese way—face must be preserved. The idea of apologizing for something that is not your fault is sacrilegious. Actually, apologizing for something you did is nearly as bad. I effectively short circuited the palace intrigue before it could get going. Truthfully, I was at most tangentially involved in the error. I was simply doing something that I had learned working in Canada. If the search for a fall guy is getting in the way of efficiently fixing the problem, then just step up, take the blame, and move on. I watched people who arrived from Canada after me do the same thing.
The same principles can be seen at play in all Taiwanese social interactions, from an altercation on the street to dating and marriage. In my interactions with Taiwanese girlfriends, and now my wife, I have been annoyed by an inability to discuss things that I am unhappy about. When I express dissatisfaction with anything, whether it is her fault or not, sometimes there’s no way it could be her fault, she is likely to react with anger and accuse me of blaming her—a high sin in Taiwan’s blame culture. It makes it difficult to have any type of meaningful conversation when your partner automatically feels that they’re being blamed. Understand here, that as a Westerner you might not enjoy being blamed, but it probably doesn’t cause you to have paroxysmal spasms of existential self-doubt. It does for the Taiwanese. Indeed every relationship I’ve had with a woman of Chinese cultural extraction, from Hong Kong to Beijing, has had this issue.
It is very difficult for a Taiwanese person to say, “I’m sorry.” Apologizing is admitting culpability and accepting blame, with all the loss of face this involves. I have been married for nine years. I don’t remember my wife ever apologizing first. The same thing is true for past girlfriends. If they did something wrong, there will be no apology. You [as the wronged party] need to figure out a way to apologize to them for whatever they did wrong. It can be pretty damn challenging. They will pout, get angry, and behave miserably until you apologize. Once you have apologized, then they will feel free to apologize for whatever they did wrong. I have discussed this with many foreign married men, and others in long term relationships, and this seems to be pretty universal. It doesn’t make Taiwanese women bad people. It just means that apologizing has a different cultural meaning and gravitas.
One social phenomenon I noted when I first arrived in Taiwan is that old married couples here seem to grow apart, rather than together. In Canada, if a couple dodges divorce for a few decades, then they seem to demonstrate a mature intimacy and closeness. In Taiwan, old married couples often seem to be married in name only, with little genuine affection remaining. I recognize that the causes of this are multivariate, but I wonder if at the core isn’t the inability of both parties to apologize. Over time, the ability to discuss things grounds
to a halt on the shoals of past perceptions of blame and recrimination, until eventually it is easier to avoid discussions that risk dredging up unresolved issues. It is hard for past issues to heal without the catharsis offered by apology. Indeed, avoiding topics that might cause debate, with its looming threat of acrimony and blame, is a common conversational strategy in Asia. It is good for maintaining a veneer of civility in the wider society, but when this is extended into intimate relationships I think it discourages true intimacy.
I have lived in Taiwan for around twenty years. I don’t have real issues with losing face or taking blame, but I have become much more strategic in how and when I apologize. Before, I used to toss out apologies like Johnny Appleseed tossing seeds. Now, I think about what results an apology will achieve, if it is beneficial or not. I don’t really calculate based on face, as a Taiwanese person would, but rather on whether it will produce the social result I desire. With my wife I always apologize first, occasionally I wait a little while—to enjoy the silent treatment—but I always apologize fairly quickly. If you don’t find a way to apologize reasonably quickly minor arguments can quickly spiral out of control. It is just not worthwhile to do anything else. In other contexts I have become more calculating and slower to apologize.
As for receiving apologies, I recently was surprised to find out how Taiwanese I’ve become. My social attitudes can best be described as a messy goulash of Canadian and Taiwanese mores, where even I don’t know if my reaction will be Western or Asian. Last year my oldest Canadian friend came to visit me in Taiwan. We spent a few days bicycling along Taiwan’s coast, from Taipei to Hualien. On the second morning, we awoke at dawn to find he’d lost the key to his bike lock, with the bike locked to a pole in the middle of nowhere. The entire journey was in peril, so my friend did the Canadian thing, he turned to me and gave me a very heartfelt apology, dripping with sincerity. My reaction stunned me; I hated it. I wasn’t really mad at him. Shit happens. The Canadian in me understood what he was doing; the Taiwanese in me had no use for his apology and didn’t want to hear it—perhaps the most singularly unCanadian moment of my life. For the first time I began to understand how an apology might set a Taiwanese person off. My instincts are still basically Canadian, I always want to apologize, but I have to think about whether it will come around to bite me. As a practical matter, I seldom apologize in Taiwan. And, when I have a traffic accident, I never apologize.
There are many instances of small countries neighboring large and powerful nations. The list is long; Canada and the USA, Ireland and the UK, New Zealand and Australia, Portugal and Spain, the Ukraine and Russia, Taiwan and China, etc. The geopolitical positioning of these smaller countries causes them to share some characteristics. They tend to have a bit of a national inferiority complex. Not in the, “Oh, we’re such a crappy country” way, but more in an acute awareness they are an insignificant, or at least smaller player, on the international stage than their neighbor. They tend to define themselves in contrast to their powerful neighbor. They see large differences in culture where the rest of the world might see uniformity.
I’m Canadian. When I was growing up and trying to understand what being Canadian meant, the answer I received from adults was always a contrast between us and Americans: we’re polite, they’re rude; we’re multicultural, they’re a melting-pot; we’re democratic socialists, they’re rip-your-own-grandmother-off capitalists; we’re peace-loving, they’re imperialistic; etc. This is not a very affirmative way to define yourself. It doesn’t so much define what is Canadian, as what is not American.
Taiwan is an even more graphic example of the small country mindset. They define their country by how it differs, or is similar to China: Taiwan is a democracy, China doesn’t have open elections; Taiwan is defensive, China is aggressive; Taiwanese are polite, Chinese are rude; etc. Like Canadians, Taiwanese self-indentification is not positive, but rather a series of negative contrasts with their large and powerful neighbor. However, unlike most of the other small countries I listed, Taiwan is in an abusive relationship with its larger neighbor. China is the belligerent, drunken husband, yelling its demands and bullying. The bullying can reach shockingly petty levels, like when a teenage Taiwanese singer in a Korean pop group was forced to publicly disavow her flag. Petty. Taiwan is the battered wife, at times distressingly loyal, but beginning to recognize the nature of the relationship and pulling away.
On an individual level Taiwanese definitions of self are complex, multivariate, and changing. When I first arrived in Taiwan, twenty years ago, many of the people I met defined themselves as Chinese, in contrast to Taiwanese, which was regarded as déclassé. Most were the children and grandchildren of wai sheng ren (外省人), the Chinese who fled to Taiwan at the end of the civil war; many ben sheng ren (本省人), native Taiwanese, also defined themselves as culturally and racially Chinese. Today this is much less common. I arrived here a few years before the first peaceful democratic transition of power. During my time here, there has been the growth of a nascent nationalism. Taiwanese still define themselves in relationship to their larger neighbor, but increasingly see themselves as distinctly different from China and Chinese. In present day Taiwan only the cultural and political fringe sees itself as Chinese.
Self-definition is not simply an individual’s choice, but in Taiwan, institutions and businesses often have to define themselves and their level of Chineseness. Many corporations, most of which need to do business with China, must define themselves in opposition to Taiwanese national identity, or risk severe economic repercussions for themselves or their subsidiaries in China. Taiwanese businessmen have been coopted as foot soldiers in China’s culture wars.
Politics is perhaps the arena where this phenomenum is played out in its most blatant way. The two main political parties are virtually entirely defined by their philosophy towards China. There isn’t a traditional left and right in Taiwanese politics, there is only a sense of how each party views its relationship with China. When you vote for a leader in Taiwan, generally, you have very little sense of how they will actually govern the nation; how will they manage the economy, what are their stances on social issues, etc. You do have a sense of how they define themselves and Taiwan in relationship to China—that is defined. The actual guiding principles for governing the nation—well, we’ll just muddle through. I’m reasonably sure that former president Ma Ying-jeou’s first thought whenever devising policy was; what will China think? This is starting to change as politicians realize that their citizens want pragmatic solutions to the country’s problems.
Like other peripheral nations Taiwanese do constantly compare and contrast themselves with China to arrive at a sense of themselves as a nation and culture. It is not so different than the process we see in many other small nations around the world. After all, the flea is always more aware of the dog than the dog is of the flea. However, it is different in that Taiwan’s neighbor is not a good neighbor, and this lends a piquancy to the Taiwanese search for self. As a Canadian I can choose to define myself however I want in terms of my sense of myself as different than American. Taiwan, under constant threat of Chinese aggression, finds its self-definitions taking on stunning importance throughout all levels of society. The Taiwanese are living right next door to the neighborhood bully. They are forced to acknowledge this constantly in their national dialogue.
Once a month I will post a vignette. These are short, perhaps 1-5 paragraph, reminiscences of little broader significance. They are just fun little observations; snippets in time.
The seventh month of the lunar calendar is Ghost Month. It is a time where superstitions, never far below the surface in Taiwan, are given full flight and rule supreme. One of the many things purported to happen during Ghost Month is that electronics malfunction. Apparently ghosts, unfamiliar with modern electronic products, take up residence inside the circuitry of your TV, stove, or personal massager and cause it to malfunction, sometimes spectacularly.
I know what you’re thinking; hokum, bull-squirt, ridiculous.
I’d be right there with you, except my second Ghost Month in Taiwan everything I owned broke down on the first day of Ghost Month. I mean everything; TV, zone 1 DVD player, zone 3 DVD player, air conditioner, fridge, computer, the electronics on my motorcycle, even my friggin’ alarm clock. It was while complaining of this extraordinary coincidence that my students informed me of the superstition about Ghost Month and electronics.
I giggled and poo-pooed the very notion. My rational Western mind rebelled at the silliness.
After two decades living in Taiwan I no longer dismiss the notion out-of-hand. No, I do not believe there is a ghost living in the vibrator, at least I hope not. But, I cannot deny that Ghost Month is a time when you better be prepared to replace some electronics. Though usually not as spectacular as during my second year, it is a consistent part of life for me here. I used to struggle to find a rational explanation, but I’ve given up. If you’re going to live in a foreign land it’s best to reconcile yourself to living with the local ghosts, hobgoblins and superstitions. Just roll with it. This Ghost Month I have replaced two air conditioners and fixed my smartphone (three times).
What follows are three emails that I sent to family and friends during the process of getting engaged to a Taiwanese woman in Taiwan. They outline some of the problems I had and my perceptions at the time. They were sent in mid-2008. I have chosen not to edit the emails hoping to preserve the flavor of the original emails and my impressions at that time. Of course my understanding of Taiwanese family dynamics and traditions has greatly expanded since getting married, and I will write about some of the themes introduced here with greater detail and accuracy later.
Ok, so here is what is new with me:
Last summer I met a wonderful woman through the wife of a colleague. I was invited over for a “set-up” dinner. Frankly, I wasn’t super-thrilled, but the set-up is the most common and reliable way of meeting new people in Asia. Over the course of the last 13 years, I have overcome my Canadian abhorrence of this practice. Sometimes it is best to accept your life in a foreign culture and allow yourself to be the beneficiary of guan-xi. (By the way, this custom really sucks when you are a newby in country and have no connections working for you).
Anyway, over dinner I met Venus, had a charming evening and gave her a ride home after dinner. We met once more about a week later, when apparently she was going to tell me that she was just coming off a bad relationship and had no interest in starting a new relationship. That of course was before I hit her with the 1,000 halogenic watts of Haughn charm. [Actually, I am not too sure if any other Haughn’s have it, but I have my own quirky charm; though it has taken 40 years for anyone else to recognize how charming I am. Such is the price of true artistry].
Immediately after that date she went to Canada for a month. She is a Canadian trade representative, working for the Canadian government in Taiwan. I was pretty much left to stew in my own juices for a month. Thankfully, Venus was apparently doing the same. And, when she arrived back in Taiwan, towards the start of October, we began to date.
Things really progressed quickly from there. I have never met anyone like her. She is like a female Taiwanese version of me, with a few of the rough edges sanded off. She has a wicked smile with an equally wicked sense of humor – an unbelievably rare commodity among Taiwanese. [Complex cultural factors render Taiwanese virtually humorless]. She can witty repartée with the best of ‘em. In short, she is crazy in all the same ways that I am crazy, and I choose to find that charming. But, unlike your’s truly, Venus also possesses a great deal of poise, social grace, smarts, good looks…
On April 4th, I asked Venus to marry me and she said yes. It is truly a wonderful thing!
But, that did begin a 3 week journey into the bowels of Taiwanese family Hell, which I truly hope is about to end. I’ll give you a brief summary of some of the things that have been going on, though not nearly everything or in that much detail, as it would likely take a book.
Those Westerners among you who imagine that asking someone to marry you, and being accepted, means that you are engaged are woefully wrong. It means precisely nothing! You are not engaged until the girl’s family says that you are engaged—and there are many mountains to climb before that happens. Those mountains grow ever steeper and more precipitous if her father is still in the picture.
I have been dealing with many things, but I will try to just tell you some of the funnier ones.
One major thorn in the side is that the Taiwanese government has decided to change the law regarding locals marrying foreigners, effective May 23rd. It used to be that a foreigner (me) would have to get a sworn affidavit from his counsel office swearing that he is single, submit that to Taiwanese court and register the marriage. After May 23rd no one, not even the Taiwanese government, knows how marriages between foreigners and Taiwanese will proceed—undoubtedly with a greater degree of fuss. Likely, though no where near official, I would have to get a form from Vital Statistics in Saskatchewan stating I am single, take that to the Vancouver office of the Taiwan Trade Office to be certified, get the form to Taiwan and register the marriage. But, no one is sure that this is what would have to be done. And, if it is what needs to be done, I would likely be the first person attempting it, so you can imagine how smoothly that would go.
The consular officer I spoke with strongly recommended registering the marriage before May 23rd. OK, I’m game. Unfortunately, Venus’s grandfather died July 1st almost a year ago. According to Chinese custom the spirit of the deceased is still hanging around until a year after their death, and no marriage can take place. What to do?!? What to do?!?
If you guessed that you consult with a team of shamans, feng-shui masters, chi-kung masters, astrologers and soothsayers you win the golden banana. Oddly enough, I am actually on comfortable ground here as it was the study of such things that originally brought me to Taiwan 21 years ago, and I haven’t totally lost my fascination. So, I have a team of people talking to the dead and looking for meaning in dirt clumps. It is all very charming.
All the signs align for a wedding July 6th at 5:30 am. I personally am rather taken with this date (06/07/08)—it has a nice ring to it. But, there is that sticky legal issue…what forms do I need and how can I possibly get them? [No solution yet].
Meanwhile, Venus’s family has been driving her nuts by phoning multiple times a day and raising various issues with our impending engagement (because remember we are not really engaged yet). Most of these issues have a very strong racial overtone that it is difficult not to find insulting. But, I do take some comfort from the fact that they have her best interests at heart and that they are trying to protect her. Also, if I were Taiwanese they would make things equally difficult, they would just fixate on some other aspect of my character.
For those of you on my mailing list unfamiliar with Asian cultures, Asians wrote the book on family dysfunction. They really know how to get into each other’s affairs in what can only be described as ridiculously inappropriate ways. This has mostly been Venus’s cross to bear and I truly feel for her.
On Tuesday of this week I was summoned to Venus’s parent’s home to…to…I’m not sure how to describe it….state my intentions, answer questions, listen to her father’s ideas,…etc. Give them a chance to gauge me. I’m really not sure how to describe it. The meeting was a surprise to both Venus and I as the arrangements had been made for the formal engagement negotiations to take place this Saturday (tomorrow). Basically, I got grilled for a bit less than 2 hours in Chinese. I am very surprised that my Chinese was up to the task, as this was definitely not your normal everyday conversational Chinese dialogue. We were called upstairs to the family altar where I answered her father’s questions while her mother fervently prayed at the altar. I’m not sure if she was praying for my irretrievably lost soul or for me to do well. Venus seems to feel that I did well. I’m less convinced, since I personally think I would be lucky if I truly understood half of what was going on.
Apparently I have won over the mother and an uncle who showed up later that evening. As I have noted in my many years here, father’s are always the problem. For those of you married to Taiwanese women, if you got engaged outside Taiwan or your father-in-law for whatever reason isn’t in the picture, you really can’t appreciate how troublesome the father is in these matters. [I don’t know why…who wouldn’t love the guy that’s banging his daughter?!?]
Anyway, Saturday is the day that has been arranged for the formal engagement negotiations. I will be taking 2 Taiwanese friends with me to act as my representatives (normally this would be done by my parents and a matchmaker). They will attempt to negotiate the best possible price for my bride. I think I’m joking, but I am not too sure if I am or not. Traditionally that is exactly what would happen, but I am pretty unclear on what is going to happen tomorrow. But, if all goes well, I should be formally engaged tomorrow.
So, wish me well.
Okay, so I guess that I left some of you hanging about the outcome of my marriage negotiations. First let me say that it went well, as well as can be expected.
During the initial interview [for lack of a better word], last Tuesday…I faced the firing squad alone. This was like a pre-interview, before the formal engagement negotiations that were held on Saturday. Frankly, for me, this interview was far more nerve-wracking than what followed on Saturday. But, I will give you a brief little summary (though I know that I touched on it earlier):
I was summoned to Venus’s parent’s place on Tuesday to explain myself—I guess. Venus and I were hauled upstairs to the family altar to be interviewed together. I sat in a stiff-backed chair feeling very ill-at-ease, while Venus sat on the floor beside me, her father sat in a chair across from me and her mother prayed fervently at the family altar. The interview lasted for a bit less than 2 hours, all in Chinese. I answered many questions, virtually all related to money. Even when a question was asked that seemed to me to have nothing to do with money, in reality the answer they were looking for had to do with money.
For example, one of the earlier questions was along the lines of, “How could I assure them that I would make Venus happy?” The answer to that I thought was pretty obvious and I tried to articulate it with my horribly clunky Chinese….That by giving her the whole of my heart she would feel secure and happy in our love, or words to this general effect. Unfortunately my Chinese totally failed me at this crucial point. Chinese is a tonal language, the meaning of a word can change radically with the tone in which you articulate the word. Xin can mean either heart or sex, depending on the tone. I intended to say that I would give her my whole heart, but instead I said that the way that I would assure Venus’s happiness by giving her lots of sex […long and hard, day and night…what more can any woman ask of her husband???]
Venus thinks this is the funniest thing that I have ever done [she is as yet unaware of the full breadth of some of my social guffaws]. Some of you may well think that her father would just assume that I screwed up the language, but actually my answer dovetailed nicely with that generation’s perception of Westerners, so he thought my answer was a legitimate reflection of my ideals. I didn’t notice any change in his countenance, but Venus says that she could see that he was definitely ruminating dark thoughts. Anyway, Venus broke into the conversation to save my sorry ass and informed me of what I had really said. I broke out in gales of laughter, which I don’t know how her parent’s perceived, and tried to correct my faux pas.
I finally managed to explain my true answer to the question, which is when I found out that this was the wrong answer anyway. They didn’t want to talk about love, respect, feelings, shared commitment or anything like that! They wanted to talk about money! And, so I spent the next 2 hours talking about money—though I kept trying to turn the conversation around to important issues—but, they weren’t terribly interested.
Her parents come from an agrarian part of what was once a dirt-poor area of Taiwan. They had never met each other before they married, and to quote Venus, “What do they know about love?” For them, marriage is a financial transaction, ultimately I suppose they are not exactly wrong…but, I am leading with my heart and not excessively worried about the money, while they are leading with their wallets. (Venus and I make virtually the same amount of money and have about the same amount of assets, so it seems like a non-issue to me).
I have to say that this interview taxed my Chinese ability to its utter limits. Chinese is a very circuitous language. They do not directly state their point. This natural tendency of the language is even more pronounced during formal negotiations/interviews, etc. The questions Venus’s father asked tended to go around in circles so much that I inevitably found myself rather lost as to what exactly he might be asking me. So very often I found myself just taking a shot in the dark and hoping for the best. Anyway, despite undoubtedly making many screw-ups during this interview, things did go well enough for us to proceed to the next stage, the formal engagement negotiations, which took place last Saturday. [Actually, Venus assures me that I did very well and that my feelings came through loud-and-clear, if that is true, then I definitely had an angel on my shoulder].
I actually was not so worried about the formal engagement negotiations taking place on Saturday, since there were going to be lots of people there. Are they really going to be volatile in front of the 4 people I brought as my representatives? I brought Gain, my former goldsmithing instructor, who acted as translator and matchmaker—a person who has an official position in such negotiations. Venus also invited Yvonne, who introduced us, and her husband Vitas, a co-worker of mine, and their child. It was like a big banyan.
Things started off perfectly, in my opinion. We just sat around, had tea and chit-chatted. No one said anything serious. I was in heaven! I thought, “Wow! Is this all there is to it? GREAT!!!”
I was soon disabused of that notion.
Venus kept getting more and more upset. (Typical irrational female! Everything was going swimmingly,…No one was talking about anything of substance. Wonderful!) And, then the axe dropped.
Her brother informed me that I would have to bring up the subject of the engagement or it would never be spoken about. [OH?!? Hmmm…Really? That’s a poser.] But, since we got all these people to give up their Saturday to help us out, it really wouldn’t have been fair to just turn around and have to do it again,…[I suppose]…so I broached the subject.
Basically with a translator, it wasn’t really all that bad. I gave a speech about myself that lasted around and hour or so—my family background, philosophy of love and family. Then I answered many questions all of them shockingly direct and mercenary—money, money money…discussed in infinite detail. The differences in our perceptions of marriage led to a bit of miscommunication, beyond the obvious problems with my language ability. It is like we were talking four different languages; Chinese, English, the language of love and the language of money. I kept talking English/love and they kept talking Chinese/money.
Anyway, things went fairly well—I guess and Venus and I are now officially engaged, which has been quite a battle, but that part is over. We will get married July 6th in Taipei, then fly to Canada for a second ceremony in Saskatoon.
Alright, so I am back again with part 3 in my ongoing adventures in the marriage realm. [And, Venus here, giving my comments in blue]. I am going to begin by explaining a cute piece of Chinese [Taiwanese!!!!] marriage custom – ping jing. In its most basic form, it is a perfectly charming [definitely not so charming] Asian custom, whereby the prospective husband gives a reverse dowry to the family of the bride to compensate them for losing their daughter. A substantially more charming custom than the Western custom of giving dowries to bribe prospective husbands to ease a family’s burden by taking one of the girl-children away. [Well, ok, both ways suck!]
At the very end of the formal engagement interview with Venus’s father, almost the last words out of his mouth were something to the effect of: “Oh, and now that we have settled all of that, just give me whatever you feel in your heart for ping jing.” Though I understand that it is indeed a rather charming custom that places value on the female child and that Venus’s parents regard it as a gesture, thanking them for having raised a marriageable daughter, there is no denying that ping jing smacks of purchasing a bride. [The feeling is so unromantic and unbeautiful]. My own personal feeling is that Venus is a priceless treasure, thus I want to offer nothing for ping jing. Venus suggested taking her to the marketplace and staging a mock auction to see what fair market value is.
Personally, I was not that shocked to be asked for a ping jing. The last 3 women that I dated all told me that if we were ever to get married, I would have to pay a ping jing. So, I had just come to assume that this is still the norm in Taiwan. But, according to Venus – NO!!! It is definitely not normal! [It is normal to ask for ping jing, but generally it is now understood that the ping jing will be returned. This is very complex…traditionally ping jing is to show appreciation to the girl’s family, but then they would provide a dowry. My father had slightly different plans. I think, he planned to take the ping jing, a larger amount, and then add an equal amount of money to it and use that as a down-payment on an apartment for us. Since by Taiwanese custom a man cannot support a family without property, he shouldn’t marry without owning a house. Since Darren is a foreigner, he cannot own property, a source of problems during the engagement negotiations]. (In fact, the reason that I never mentioned this custom earlier is that Venus became so angry and embarrassed when her father asked for ping jing. She couldn’t bear for my Canadian friends and family to think that I had purchased a China Doll).
Frankly, it bothered her much more than it bothered me. [Darren finds it all very charming. He doesn’t know how much I had to argue on his behalf to get rid of the ping jing]. Deep down in my misogynistic heart, I sort of savored the idea of buying a bride. [I was already mapping out my bargaining strategy…. “Well, she’s already 33 [try 32 at that time], the blooms off the rose, only an A-cup, low bone density, and her virginity is highly suspect…Weeelll, shiiit, I reckon we can still deal….I have an old sofa and a mattress that you can have in exchange for her. But, I’m going to need some kinda warranty.”] I thought it would be a great story to tell the grandchildren. [Well OK, I found this whole idea insulting: I am flesh and blood and should be bought with flesh—leg of pork is traditional. A mattress? The mattress that Darren and who knows how many women have slept on? NO WAY! I have a better story for the grandchildren: When my relatives thought we were just dating, they didn’t say much except, “What? You can’t find yourself a Taiwanese?”; “What? You can’t find a man of your own generation?”; “What? You can’t find a smaller man?”; [I would note here that large size definitely affords the ladies some advantages] “What? A teacher with no property?” And, I would add on my own, “WHAT? My virginity is highly suspect?!?” Hummmphf!]
Venus did not share my enthusiasm for this little piece of chinoiserie [Duh?] and launched a vehement campaign to get her father to do away with the need to pay a ping jing, an attitude on her part, that I suspect her father found quite incomprehensible, after all ping jing is an expression of the inherent value of female children. [Traditionalists would say that I am out of my mind. They would say that they have my best interests at heart and that I am “selling” myself too cheaply]. But, after a few weeks of relentless campaigning, Venus was able to get her father to give up on ping jing. I’m happy to save some money (actually potentially a pile of money), but I am a bit sad to lose the story. [See what I have to put up with. He just doesn’t understand].
With that little issue of ping jing out of the way Venus and I were free to launch ourselves on Taipei’s multi-billion dollar wedding industry—first stop, the Taiwanese wedding photographer.