Category Archives: Vignette

Vignette #3: Kickin’ it Old School with GenX

Recently, while browsing my Facebook feed, I came across an inquiry in one of the groups I subscribe to. The young man was considering moving to Taiwan to look for an English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching job. He was seeking the normal information; job prospects, working conditions, living conditions, cost of living, etc. He received a lot of accurate information within hours. He went on to ask how people had ever managed to move abroad pre-Internet.

Well, let me tell you how it was back then, you, you… Millennial.

Of course we tried our best to do research before leaving, but there just wasn’t much information. You might be able to find government stats on the local economy, but you really had to use your imagination to glean from those charts the lifestyle you might expect to live in that country. You might comb your contacts for someone familiar with the country. These tended to be immigrants from the country, but often their information was wildly out-of-date and irrelevant to a newly arrived foreigner. Ultimately, after doing what research you could, you just had to man up and fling yourself into the unknown.

Some countries in Asia had ways of arranging jobs from Canada, that at least took care of one major worry. Taiwan did not. When I decided to move to Taiwan I had to accept that my job search would begin after my plane touched down. Unlike many others, I was [sort of] fortunate to have two friends living in Taiwan that I could phone for advice. As you might expect, their advice took the form of, “Yeah Man, come on out. There’s work here. You’ll do okay. Come out, Dude. We’ll party.” It was a little reassuring, but ultimately not what you want to stake your future on.

But, I did. I had no choice. The job market in Western Canada at that time was a soul-destroying sinkhole. Desperate times make desperate men.

I was broke, so I bought a plane ticket to Taipei with a credit card I shouldn’t have been allowed to have. I took a cash advance for whatever remained on my credit limit, so I’d be able to live, hopefully for a month, while I tried to find work and accommodation. That gave me about a month to get settled in Taiwan and find work. If I couldn’t get it done in that time my food and accommodation would run out, and I had no way to get back home. Those were the stakes. I gave my balls a tug, got on the plane—with one backpack, a mountain of credit card and student loan debt—and flew to Taipei, with very little sense of what awaited me, or how well I’d survive.

That’s how Generation X rolled back in the day, Son.

Vignette #2: But Is It Dessert?

 

I’ve inferred in earlier posts that the Taiwanese have little to no comprehension of dessert (here). I’d like to share a memory from when I had just moved to Taiwan that graphically illustrates the point.

One of the first friends I made in Taiwan invited me to join her and a group of friends for dinner. It was a lovely evening where we were graciously treated to a nice meal by one of her friends. After dinner we wandered over to a cuo bing (剉冰), Taiwanese shaved ice, shop. This is a popular local dessert where a plate is filled with shaved ice and the customer can add their choice of toppings. It is very refreshing in the Taiwanese heat.

Cuo bing toppings. Darren Haughn © 2017

It’s the toppings that give insight into Taiwanese dessert philosophy. There are a few toppings that a Westerner might expect, sugary candies of various sorts. These are for children and I’ve never seen an adult, other than myself, choose them. For adults there is a wide array of flavorless choices, including; red beans, green beans, taro, yams, dou hua 豆花 (a tofu-like bean product, lacking tofu’s taste and texture), Job’s tears and various other boiled grains. In short, if it tastes like wet cardboard then it is regarded as dessert-worthy.

Which brings us back to my reminiscing. After a fine meal with new friends, I was expecting an equally fine dessert. You can imagine my shock when we all gathered around a bowl of shaved ice on which the shopkeeper had unceremoniously dumped a can of corn. The corn was literally standing in the center of the shaved ice in a semi-gelatinous blob, having retained the contours of the can it so recently occupied. My new friends were digging into it with relish, raving about how delicious it was. I was poleaxed. After overcoming my initial stunned reaction I had to struggle not to break into peels of laughter. I didn’t want to do anything that would crap all over the kindness that had been extended to me, but come on, how is that dessert?!?

 

Vignette #1: There’s a Ghost in My Fridge

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).