Category Archives: Vignette

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.

Vignette #16: Who Cut the Tofu?

Asia has a different relationship with bodily functions than the West. In Taiwan you can expect to be frequently engaged by public displays of earthiness. Today we’ll examine that Taiwanese classic—the public fart.

I first faced this phenomenon in class. I was teaching maybe a dozen students, when a sweet teenage girl farted. It wasn’t remotely feminine or polite. She didn’t release a subdued puff of gas, wave a hand in front of her face and go, “Oops, pardon me, tee-hee, I seem to have fluffed”. No. She lifted her right butt cheek off the chair, Farmer John style, and let loose a resonant ass blast. The ol’  Arkansas trouser spider was really barking that day. Then she screwed up her face, bore down, and ejected one more panty cough, lowered her derrière to the seat, rearranged her face into its usual serene countenance, and continued taking notes like nothing had happened.

As their teacher, I was of course ready to leap in with jokes and general dumbassery as soon as someone commented. (If you can’t make fun of your students, who can you make fun of?) Well, the man sitting to her right—where the flatus had been directed—turned red and his eyes began watering, but no comments, smirks, or looks were exchanged. I was stunned no one lightened the tension with some puerile humor. The class carried on as if nothing had happened, despite the obvious discomfort of all but our teenage heroine.

That is not the Canadian way.

Occasionally when visiting my in-laws, one or both parents will be farting all over the room. I can’t deal with it. Sometimes, even at the dinner table, my father-in-law will fire a nut knocker my way. It is hard not to feel he is editorializing or engaging in social commentary; you know, the father/son-in-law dynamic. However, my wife swears he means nothing by it, and that it is just something he has always done. Chiayi charm. It only affects my appetite, everyone else unmindfully carries on.

That’s an extreme example, but even when walking in public areas, there’s a lot more gas getting passed than I’d expect in the West. I don’t mean to be too harsh. When I lived in Korea—admittedly long ago—public urination and occasionally defecation, by males and sometimes females, was common. By comparison Taiwan’s fart culture seems tame. Possibly it is even disappearing. I seem to be eating fewer air biscuits, or perhaps I’ve acclimatized and don’t notice it—sometimes it’s hard to know

Vignette #15: I Ain’t Famous, I Just Look that Way

I’m around 193 cm. tall with blonde hair, cobalt eyes, pale skin, big shoulders, a barrel chest and majestic midsection. My every feature conspires to make me conspicuous. I’m ostentatiously unChinese and stick out like a sore dick, hovering above the crowd with my freakish pinkness.

People notice me. Less now than in the past, when I was the only foreigner they’d see for weeks. Nowadays you can’t swing a youtiao (油条) in Taipei without smacking a foreigner. Despite that, the sideshow aspects of my appearance conspire with my movie star good looks to ensure I still get lots of stares.

I don’t mind the attention. Some expats have been driven from Asia by that feeling of constantly being under a microscope. It makes me nostalgic for how it was when I first came to Asia, and there weren’t three whiteys [I like that word—I’m trying to restore it to its former glory] on every corner.

“It’s 7:30, do you know where your husband is?” A picture sent to my wife by one of Taipei’s network of concerned citizens.

I can’t go anywhere in Taiwan without being recognized. Partly that’s a function of how much my looks obtrude into the Taiwanese mind. On that level, I assume that all non-swarthy foreigners experience something similar. It’s also because my wife—through her work and personality—knows a stunning percentage of Taiwan’s population, so they know of me. I’m infamous by association.

“I think that’s your husband on his way to TGIFridays. Isn’t he on a diet?” Another concerned citizen heard from.

I can’t get away with anything. Frequently when I’m out and about, my wife will phone me and ask, “Why are you at ____?” How does she know I’m there? Someone has phoned and told her, or thanks to modern technology, sent her a picture of me there. It’s hard to cheat on your diet if you know your wife is likely to end up with an unbecoming photo of you snarfling down that bacon double cheeseburger at the Monkey.

It kind of kills a lot of the adventure and intrigue marriage offers.

Vignette #14: Taipei’s Sexy Police Women Work the Corner

Around a decade ago, police services in Taipei were instructed to recruit more female officers. The government sought to rectify the stunning lack of estrogen on the force. The police quickly complied, and in short order these newly minted female officers were being seen on the street everywhere.

Kudos.

However, the police recruitment office handled the hiring of females the way a lot of Asian offices approach it—they hired on looks. Normally this is done in public-facing jobs, where customers enjoy being served by energetic, attractive, young people and is particularly common in traditional female jobs, like flight attendants.

I don’t really have much against the police hiring women based on looks. I’m a feminist. I believe hotties have as much right as uggos to break gender barriers. However, having all these extremely beautiful women suddenly directing traffic on every street corner—the starting point for new police officers in Taipei—had unforeseen consequences.

On the positive side, middle-aged, roly-poly male police officers suddenly experienced fits of community service, put down their doughnuts and coffee (or the Taiwanese equivalent), left their precinct houses, and took these young charges under their wing to show them how to direct traffic—very altruistic. I’m sure some of these men hadn’t ventured outside the station in a decade or more. Judging by the strain these guys put on their uniform buttons—it was overdue. These beauties had a salubrious effect on the forces’ general fitness for duty.

On the negative side, I’m pretty sure accident statistics spiked. Not that they didn’t do a good job directing traffic, but they were a distraction. There was no warning these young women were going to hit the street. I was stunned when I pull up to my local intersection their first morning on duty. I was just minding my own business, somnambulating my way to work, when—bam—there she was, a goddess in government issue blues and sensible shoes. It was like suddenly finding a young Bo Derek, in mirrored aviator sunglasses provocatively waving you through traffic.

I drove into a lamppost. I can’t be the only one.

The practice of hiring on looks extends to men. It used to be required that you submit a photo with your resume for many jobs. I was hired from Canada, by a Korean school, based on my photo, not my resume. I’m sure they didn’t think I was particularly attractive, but they thought I looked kind. They took the photo to a face-reader who confirmed my amiability, and I was in. Sure, it’s not a flashy way of getting hired on your looks, but it still counts.

Vignette #13: Halloween in Taipei

I was sittin’ in a bar, just a knockin’ ’em back, when in rolls a crew of pint-sized ghouls, princesses, and the cutest little strawberry you’ve ever seen. Yep, Halloween traditions have made it to Taiwan, and the trick-or-treaters were out in force. I’m not sure why they were making the rounds five days before Halloween, but that’s a piddling detail.

TV and movies have spread many Western traditions to Taiwan. There’s a childish appeal to many of these customs that is largely lacking in Taiwanese traditions. Tomb Sweeping Day and Ghost Month, with their emphasis on filial duty, don’t have quite the juvenile appeal of Halloween. Santa Claus and Christmas cater to children’s sensibilities more than Chinese New Year. (See: Ho, Ho, Ho, It’s a Very Taiwanese Christmas). Naturally kids here want to enjoy the hijinks they see in Western media, though the local interpretation differs from what you’d find in the West. In the case of Halloween, there’s no chance that the tykes would be successful going house to house trick-or-treating. So, it has become a bit of a tradition for English buxibans to gather their youngest classes together and take them, as a group, around to participating merchants. It is an exercise in almost unbearable cuteness.

Each group of thirty or so students is accompanied by a couple of local teachers, along with one or two foreign teachers, all dressed up in Halloween garb. The foreign teachers’ hangdog expressions as they herd their miniature brigades of highly excited phantasmagorical charges through the streets is nearly as delightful to behold as the unbridled excitement of the children.

The schools often go to merchants and supply them with candies to give the students. I think, on Anho Rd., where I was, the merchants were supplying the treats and letting neighborhood schools know that they wished to participate in the festivities, because there were numerous groups of children, obviously from various schools, walking up and down the street, going from store to restaurant collecting goodies.

It was heartwarming to watch these groups of children traipse through the dark bar, with its regular coterie of afternoon drunks, collecting their candy from the obviously tickled barmaids. It was a very fine Taiwanese Halloween, and added a nice touch of cherubic color to this old souse’s afternoon quaff.