Category Archives: Vignette

Vignette #10: White Skin Sucks

White skin has its socioeconomic advantages, sure, but in purely physiological terms, it blows. It is terribly unsuitable to Taiwan’s hot humid climate. It is terrific if you’re lost in a snow drift, but here on the Tropic of Cancer it is anything but grand.

I’ve had a continuous rash for twenty-plus years. Heat rash, jock itch, Hong Kong foot, allergic dermatitis (I’m allergic to my own sweat—try that in Taiwan), hives, and every fungus known to man—I’ve hosted them all, along with other less heat related skin maladies. These problems are the low-grade background noise of living with white skin in Asia.

The more serious issues come from a lifetime spent under the hot Asian sun. Every summer for the last few years I have been doing battle with potential malignancies, sun damage, and various of the more serious consequences of white skin. Each year I get several small surgeries—this suspicious thing gets cut off, those ones get biopsies, and the less suspicious growths get burned off. I never get ahead, and just find myself doing the same thing all over again the next summer.

There is a general Asian predisposition towards thinking having whiter skin would be awesome. My wife is constantly shocked by how spectacularly unawesome it really is. The fairer you are, the bigger the problem. Being a white person living in Taiwan is like being a penguin living on the Serengeti. It is just not our natural habitat, and there’s a price to be paid.

Vignette #9: Taipei Burlesque

My first trip to Taiwan was in 1986, not too long after martial law was repealed. I came as part of a class studying Chinese folk religion. One of the things that stood out was the throwback nature of a lot of the entertainment; ballroom dance halls, taxi dancers, and burlesque. These amusement were on their way out, but they still seemed vital.

On one night out we went to a burlesque theater in Ximending (西門町). The local guide who was arranging temple stays, temple tours, and seminars with notable masters (師父) asked if we wanted to go see some strippers. When it comes to culture, you don’t have to ask me twice. I and most of the male members of the class joined the guide.

By that time, I’d spent a couple years in the navy, and my fair share of time in peeler clubs. I was expecting more of the same: loud canned music; a couple unhygienic stripper poles; and a handful of weary, trashy—and yet still appealing—women. However, I was transported back to a classier time, an age when eroticism was erotic.

We stood in line outside the theater underneath hand-painted posters of the performers that made them look like cigarette girls from 1920s Shanghai. I assumed the posters were hyperbolic, trying to conjure an atmosphere more than the reality. I was wrong.

When we were allowed in the place was a theater, not a strip club. There were show times. You didn’t just walk in on some naked woman, mosey by and grab a beer—hence the queues. There was a raised stage with theater seating. There were even stage sets to be used at appropriate times.

When the first performer came on stage, I knew I was in for something different. She was clothed (in more than just a puff of lingerie). She wore a beautiful qipao (旗袍) and was made up like what I imagine a Chinese flapper must have looked like. Then she started her performance. She sang a lilting Mandarin song, likely popular in the 1960s. You know the type, very lyrical with no discernable rhythm. Undoubtedly a love ballad. She was accompanied live, onstage, by a small quartet. I was certainly no judge of Mandarin singing at the time, but it seemed passably fair.

And, so the performances went. Each performer singing and moving sensually around the stage, alluding to stripping while not doing much stripping. The finale was a woman doing a dance with feather fans, alternatively using the fans to hide and reveal. The show was frankly very light on nudity. Afterwards we found out that the show’s managers hadn’t paid the police their bribe, so they’d been in the back of the theater ensuring no nudity.

The overall effect was that of a live variety show, a burlesque show. I do wish that the police had allowed the performers to do their complete acts. I’d like to have had the experience of enjoying my porn like a nineteenth century gentleman.

Vignette #8: The Hot-Crazy-Taiwanese Matrix

I was out with a group of guy friends the other night, drinking and trying to demystify the world’s most nebulous enigma. Chicks. There’s nothing unusual about that. All around the world men set out every evening to help each other come to grips with the female mind. Just as often the sun rises on those conversations with no deeper understanding having been achieved. It’s the universal male pastime—beer and quack theories.

When expats do it though there is an extra level of opacity between them and their love interest—culture. It is truly hard to know if the craziness is cultural, clinical bonkeritis, or female. As someone who has spent his whole life among expats I can tell you that these discussion focus heavily on the cultural. Sometimes the discourse can get quite sophisticated. Guys trying to add their own refinements to the scientific advancements being made by comedians working on the Hot-Crazy Matrix (Video). A friend once eloquently argued for adding a third axis to the Matrix to plot cultural factors, kind of an index of Chineseness. Beer doesn’t just produce pee; it produces brilliance.

On this most recent night of drinking, it landed like a bombshell on the evening’s drunken social psychological analysis of my bud’s wife when it was realized that she’s crazy. No cultural component involved. The bias towards cultural factors is so pervasive in these late night philosophy sessions that it took twenty-odd years of marriage, and discussion with the bros, to cut through the cultural noise and recognize a psychological issue.

The tendency to give primacy to cultural factors is natural. Expats live in an environment where the prevalent culture affects every aspect of our lives, sometimes in confusing ways. We’re used to dissecting the effect of Taiwanese family dynamics, education, interpersonal relationships, and other cultural norms on our lives. Often expat men are slow to realize when the problem isn’t that she’s Taiwanese; it’s that she’s a woman.

Vignette #7: My Favorite Student

I’d like to introduce my favorite student. I have had over ten thousand students, but one really stands out. Wei. He was one of my middle-aged buxiban students. I adored him. It is not that he was a particularly great English learner—he was okay. Nor did he have such an awesome personality—he annoyed most that dealt with him. It’s that he was the biggest L.K.K. (Taiwanese-style old fart) that I’ve ever seen—and, he was damn proud of it. Think redneck pride with a Taiwanese twist. He was idiosyncrasy, opinionatedness, warmth and kindness rolled together with a healthy dose of L.K.K. orthodoxy to form one complex, amusing and thoroughly vexatious sausage.

His eccentricities provided me endless in-class amusement. He was one quirky dude. The foible that amused me most was that he used three sets of glasses, as opposed to trifocals. I reveled in causing him to switch glasses as fast as a tap dancer on crack cocaine. I’d write something on the board [long-distance glasses], make the students write something in their books [close-up glasses], and then run to the center of the class and begin speaking [middle-distance glasses]. Wei would be flinging glasses onto his face left and right. The high point of my teaching career was running through the various focal lengths so quickly that he accidentally ended up wearing three pairs of glasses at once.

Wei’s whimsies were entertaining, but it was his dominant personality characteristic—Taiwanese hillbilly—that I loved him for. Objectively, being an L.K.K. is not charming. As a foreigner you’d think I’d have hated him for being an unrepentant, culturally insensitive, Taiwanese rustic, but the guy used to save my bacon regularly. His was my first adult conversation class. Up until then I’d only taught reading and writing. So, I’d prepare some conversation topic I thought would last 90 minutes, usually a cultural topic, only to have the students go, “Oh no, that’s not true. We don’t do that in Taiwan”. End of discussion; the material meant to last the whole class would barely make it past the opening minutes. That was before I was a seasoned conversation teacher with a vast repertoire of activities to fall back on. It was frustrating and frightening to suddenly need to vamp for an hour and a half. It was even more annoying because I knew the students were lying. They’d insist that aspect of Taiwanese culture or lifestyle, that I’d just seen in full operation, had disappeared long ago. They were unprepared to acknowledge many facets of life here. Most the students, I suppose, didn’t want to find themselves defending Taiwanese ways to me. Except Wei, who, God bless him, would come out and say something like, “Yes, yes, that’s exactly how it is in Taiwanese culture, and what’s more—that’s how it should be”. To which the rest of the class would face-palm and go, “Oh that. Yeah, yeah, we do that”.

An unforgettable instance occurred when I had prepared a discussion on child-rearing and family values. As usual the discussion ran onto rocky shoals when it turned to child-rearing goals. I contended that Western parents try to raise their children to be individualistic and independent; and, differences between Western and Taiwanese family life stem from this. The class felt Taiwanese parents shared Western parent’s goals. The conversation was in its usual danger of grounding to a halt, when to the class’s chagrin Wei began harrumphing. When their attention shifted to him, he artfully arranged his three pairs of spectacles on the table, leaned back in his chair, gazed unseeingly at the ceiling and said the most memorable thing any of my students have ever said, “No. The goal of Taiwanese child-rearing is to emotionally cripple your children, so they lack the confidence to go out on their own, and will never leave you.” He practically stuck his thumbs under his arms—Jed Clampett style—before continuing to pontificate, “And what’s more, that is a beautiful thing. That is the beauty of Taiwanese culture”. How could anyone not love such an unrepentant L.K.K.? The conversation snowballed beautifully after that.

Vignette #6: Red Envelopes and the Karmic Circle of Cash

Any company that wants to retain employees in Taiwan needs to give year-end bonuses before Chinese New Year. Typically these bonuses will be 1.5-2 month’s salary. In a private enterprise the bonus is linked to profits. I moved here in the middle of Taiwan’s tech boom and some computer industry workers were getting year-end bonuses of 1-2 year’s salary. It was amazing. In today’s more restrained times companies sometimes claim low profits and try to get out of paying a bonus, this is negotiable between employees and management. It is hard not to at least pay a month’s salary as a bonus. The negative press and employee unrest caused by trying to cheap out on bonuses is counterproductive for companies. There are reasons, beyond just the money that people fight hard for these bonuses.

They need those bonuses to keep the family functioning happily. Traditionally the bonus was required to buy household necessities and prepare the New Year’s feast. A lot of aspects of family life in Taiwan are transactional in nature. Chinese New Year is, partially, a giant circle of cash, where money gets redistributed from productive, middle-years members of society, to the young and old. Those year-end bonuses are used to stuff the red envelopes handed out on chuxi (除夕). If the year-end bonuses disappear then that threatens family harmony. In Taiwan, familial love is often expressed with money. Saying “I love you” is awkward, while “Hey, here’s 12,000元” feels more comfortable, and you understand what that really means, right? Or to paraphrase my Taiwanese family; can you count love? How many loves are in my hand? Now money, that means something.

People often try to compare Christmas and Chinese New Year, they are both the largest family holidays of their comparative calendars, but the feeling is different. Christmas (ideally) is all about family warmth and togetherness. Chinese New Year, like all things related to Chinese families, is about duty and obligation (filial piety). I’m not saying that Taiwanese families don’t enjoy their time together, or that Chinese New Year lacks family warmth, I’m just saying that the motivation is different. If it is your obligation to your family to deliver up red envelopes, and your whole family structure is built on filial piety, then you’re going to do everything in your power to make sure the cash gets into the right hands on chuxi, and that the size of your red envelope is not face impairingly thin. Woe betide the employer that tries to stand in your way.