Category Archives: Vignette

Vignette #23: Flashing Lights and Arrests

Have you heard the one about the Taiwanese exchange student in Texas? It seems the highway patrol wanted to pull him over so they put the flashing lights on and drove up behind them.  The hapless student led them on a merry chase for twenty miles, all the while blissfully unaware that he was in a scene from Smokey and the Bandit. When apprehended and asked what he thought he was doing, his reaction was: Huh!?! How could I know you wanted to stop me. There were no hints. Likely apocryphal, but possibly it’s true.

For those who don’t know, Taiwan’s police drive everywhere with their flashing lights on. It doesn’t imply any sort of rush, emergency, or desire to apprehend you. The flashing cherry simply tells the world: Hey look. I’m driving,… in a car,… and it has some flashing lights…. Fun!

Many foreigners, when they arrive, ask the obvious question: Why? Most Taiwanese can’t answer because they’ve never thought it strange, but it is weird, prevents stealth, and impedes police work.

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I have a theory. During martial law it made a lot of sense for cops to drive around with the lights a-popping. They weren’t a police force as we currently understand it. They were a force of oppression,  there to keep the citizenry in check, and be a visible symbol of governmental power and reach.  It makes perfect sense to try to draw as much attention as possible. We see you. The government is everywhere.

I think when martial law ended, the police showed up for work the next day, and exhibiting the Asian preference for doing it the way it’s always been done, turned on their flashing lights and headed out. A few decades later, and no one has given it a second thought—except yours truly.

Vignette #22: Expats, Celebrities & Gold-diggers

Have you ever dreamed of being a kept man/woman, a sexual plaything of the rich and famous? It’s in my spank bank rotation and I assume many women have it cued up in the ol’ flickopedia. Normally such thoughts are unrealistic fantasies, but if you were an Asian-based expat a few decades ago it wasn’t totally improbable.

Despite the even higher social bans on intercultural relationships at that time, celebrity-foreigner dating was modestly common. A brief list of some celebrities who’ve dated non-famous non-rich foreigners includes; Maggie Cheung (張曼玉)—Hong Kong actress, Mimi (張咪)—Chinese singer, GiGi Leung (梁詠琪)—Hong Kong actress/singer, Stefanie Sun (孫燕姿)—Singaporean singer,…. There are some Asian societal norms that make the Asian male star-foreign female relationship less common, but there are a handful, like Park Joo Ho (박주호) the Korean football player who married a Swiss woman.

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It is easy to understand how these relationships might develop. Foreigners are frequently genuinely unaware of Asian star’s celebrity, and even when told, are often wholly unimpressed. How famous are you really if I’ve never heard of you? This still functions today, but was even more pronounced decades ago when Asian popular media rarely made it to the West. It must be refreshing for stars to hang with the truly apathetic after constantly dealing with awe-struck fans.

When I first came to Taiwan—if you were that kind of person—you could, as a foreigner, actively work yourself into the social circles of the famous. I knew one guy who tried and succeeded at just that. He was handsome and brainless—something of a mimbo. For awhile he was showing up in tabloids with this starlet or that star. His obvious gold-digging eventually got him bounced from those circles. He’s the only expat fame whore I’ve met.

Most expats are indifferent to local celebrities. I believe that nonchalance is what allows occasional social interactions with the famous. Personally—without ever trying—I’ve socialized with a movie director, a couple actors, a TV personality, and a handful of pop singers [that I’m aware of].

The first time stands out: during my first trip to Taiwan I was invited to party with a just emerging pop singer. Actually she wanted to meet my friend, because she was “into mod style” and he was a punker—a rare commodity in mid-1980’s Taiwan. A group of us sat around her apartment eating, drinking, and listening to her album. In a theoretical sense I liked the idea of partying with a star, but her fame was totally lost on me. So blasé was I that I made zero effort to remember her name.

Since returning to Taiwan, curiousity has driven me to try to figure out who she was. I’ve conjectured a few different people, currently I think it was a young Pan Mei-Chen (潘美辰). I don’t have such a clear memory of her appearances [we were drinking heavily], but I remember her album cover, and it closely matches one of Pan Mei-Chen’s.

So, Ms. Pan, if you’re reading this, and want to rehash old times over a beer you know where to find me.

Vignette #21: Expat Recidivism

When you’re young it seems the world is giant, full of adventure and possibilities. I chased that feeling as a young man. I retain that boundless boneless desire for travel, though tempered by a middle aged need for roots.

My first decade abroad I was scrupulously careful not to acquire anything that couldn’t be thrown away, or stuffed into a rucksack. I always wanted to be ready to roll down the road again as a peripatetic pedagogist. I had a kind of a permanent wartime mentality. If I’m down-and-out and running, what do I need, and what can I shed?

A few people are natural born rovers, who pursue an itinerant lifestyle until their ashes are cast upon the wind. I respect them. I love the romance of what they do—but it’s a hard life.

Most wanderers begin craving permanence, stability, a lasting connection to places and people. Usually sometime in their mid-thirties to early forties, they look around and find nothing; no meaningful possessions, no significant relationships, nor any feeling of belonging—not even a goldfish to mourn their passing. That’s the international vagabond’s midlife crisis.

At heart I’m a freebooter, but I have other needs too. The expat lifestyle is a good compromise. You get to put down roots, yet still feel you’re on the road. There’s still the chance to feel you’re in a foreign land, discovering new things, and being surprised by the patterns of life. For me, Taiwan is home, but it remains fresh and exciting.

It’s that feeling of having the best of both worlds that salves the wanderer’s soul, and makes expat life addictive. I’ve known many who’ve tried giving it up and returning to their home countries; it’s a rare few that succeed. Of course practical matters of job and finances are factors. However, I believe most can’t face a life without the possibility of being excited or stunned by prosaic pieces of daily life. That’s an adventure too.

Vignette #20: Legal Philosophy and Taiwanese Traffic

If you’ve traveled Taiwan you could be forgiven reaching the conclusion driving on the sidewalk is legal. It’s not; but, sending pedestrians flying for cover as you—astride 125cc’s of rumbling thunder—roar onto the sidewalk is practically the national pastime.

When I first arrived in Taiwan I too concluded sidewalk surfing on a scooter was perfectly legal. In my defense, nowadays people still drive on Taiwan’s sidewalks, but they’re a bit shifty-eyed about it. Occasionally they’ll even hop off and push their scooters. An astute onlooker might guess that sidewalk driving is illegal. Not so twenty-some years ago, then drivers had no compunction about using the sidewalk as a handy third lane.

I went to Taiwan to live and bought myself a scooter within weeks of arrival. I had no more knowledge of Taiwan than an average tourist. Unaware of my own illegality, I took great joy in playing motorized sidewalk snooker [old man off the hobbling geriatric woman’s walker into the stinky tofu stand], just like a native-born son of Taiwan—a most 台 of 台客’s.

One particular day, I was high-tailing it down the sidewalk heading to work—hell-bent for khaki—when I plowed past a police officer giving me the stink-eye. He was obviously tempted to stop me, but that was back when you could count on cops to assiduously avoid foreigners. [A beautiful era]. I was confused by his reaction. I thought maybe he’d never seen a white guy driving in Taiwan. It was still uncommon. It never occurred to me, as I scrapped old-guy [10 points] off my scooter’s bodywork, that the issue might be my one-man demolition derby through Taipei’s walkways.

When I breathlessly hauled ass into class and told them the story, the whole class looked at me like a cross-eyed Appalachian cousin-brother. They insisted my behavior was terribly illegal. My reaction was: “Really? In Taiwan?!? Illegal?” I continued in a scoffing tone, “Pray tell what is this ‘traffic violation’ of which you speak?” Turns out there were traffic regulations restricting the driving of motorized vehicles on the sidewalk.

Who knew?

That was my first introduction to Taiwanese legal philosophy. Just ignore laws that are inconvenient, don’t make sense, or are too annoying—unless there’s a cop around.

Vignette #18: Surviving Taiwan’s Traffic

Surviving half a life spent on Taiwan’s roadways is no mean accomplishment. My second day in Taipei found me driving a borrowed scooter—barreling through Taipei—trying to keep up with a friend showing me Taipei. He’d been here a long time, knew what he was doing in Taipei traffic, and was going like a bat out of Hell. That was back before the MRT opened, so traffic was much more congested and unruly than its current stateliness. Of course, that was before helmet laws—so I wore nothing but a fearful grimace and blonde hair waving in the wind.

Before setting out, he gave me just one piece of advice: “In Taiwan, the vehicle in front has the right-of-way. If he cuts you off, brakes short, or squeezes you out of your lane it is your job—as the follower—to yield. He has done nothing wrong”. By following this simple rule, traffic moves efficiently, if annoyingly, through Taipei. If you haven’t experienced Taiwanese roadways you need to use your imagination to conceptualize what this rule does to traffic flow. [Incidentally, it also explains pedestrian behavior].

Back in the day, people were so unconcerned about what was happening behind them they used to remove their scooter’s rearview mirrors. They were scared of being disemboweled if thrown over the handlebars, and why care what’s going on behind you? Once in front all others must bow to your will.

Honestly, I’m not sure this is a literal Taiwanese road rule. On the written portion of my Taiwanese driver’s test, I did say the person in front has the right-of-way, but I could’ve got the answer wrong. It is very possible my friend was being hyperbolic. It doesn’t matter. It was the best survival advice I’ve ever received. If you keep this idea in mind while out in Taiwanese traffic you’ll live longer.