Category Archives: Vignette

Vignette #25: Why 2020 Sucked—A Chinese Explanation

Well, 2020 has been replete with crapulescence.

But, wouldn’t you know it, the ancient Chinese had a method of contextualizing these events. 天干地支, the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches, is a system of ordinals dating back to the Shang Dynasty. It combines ten Chinese characters (Heavenly Stems) representing a celestial cycle with twelve Chinese characters (Earthly Branches) representing a terrestrial cycle. The Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches combine to create sixty possible two-character words. They can be used, and continue to be utilized in much of Asia, to rank, denote, and classify many things. These ordinals are used to create a sixty-year cycle.

In 庚子 years momentous events happen. A hundred and eighty years ago (3 cycles of 60 years) was the beginning of the First Opium War. Sixty years later began the Boxer Rebellion. Sixty years ago was the Great Chinese Famine. I know the examples are sinocentric, but it’s their system.

The year 2020 is both a rat year and a 庚子 year, magnifying the effect of each and creating a perfect celestial shitstorm. This year brought COVID-19, a trade war, financial crisis, worldwide civil unrest, flooding in Southern China, and Trump being even more Trumpy.

For me, 2020 brings to mind the Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times. This year’s been riveting—it is hard to take your eyes off world events. When the planet finally emerges from lockdown it’ll be surprising the changes the 庚子 year has wrought. Interesting times indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vignette #24: Moon Festival’s Not So Traditional Tradition

On Moon Festival I walked around my neighborhood enjoying the evening and taking in the festivities. Mostly there were large extended family groups barbecuing on the street. I’ve never gotten used to seeing people sitting on cardboard in the streetjammed between carsmerrily drinking, shouting, and cooking, while the children run amok and the bounty of grilled meats drives the street dogs crazy. [There are no militant vegans out and about during Moon Festival—you can leave your gun at home]. Despite being a picnic in the gutter, I can attest these affairs are fun and full of 熱鬧. [See: Why Are the Taiwanese So Angry?]

When I first moved to Taiwan many Taiwanese told me that the family barbecue was a Moon Festival tradition. I naturally assumed it was some ancient Chinese shit. Nope. It’s the result of brilliant TV advertisements from rival soy sauce companies, 萬家香 and 金蘭. They promoted barbecuing as part of Moon Festival to push their barbecue sauce. I find this 1989 金蘭 commercial the most memorable from The Great Soy Sauce Wars. The period’s iconic catch phrase came from the other company (萬家香): 一家烤肉萬家香. (One house barbecues, the neighborhood enjoys the aroma).

I realized the family barbecue custom might be manufactured when a Taiwanese emigrant of my acquaintance visited Taiwan and was baffled by it. “What tradition? I’ve never heard of this in my life.” He actually was pretty exercised on the topic, carrying on about the deification of fads in Taiwan. At that time the practice was only maybe a decade old. The real Moon Festival convention was to sit outside, preferably away from urban centers, and gaze up at the full moon as a family—it has become collectively gazing down upon browning meat. In a testament to advertising, these companies managed to impose their will on a millennia old practice and intimately associate their products with Taiwan’s Moon Festival. Impressive.

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.