Women Are from Venus: Men Are Hopeless

This week was final exams week. I’ve been busy and haven’t prepared anything to share with you. However, through last night’s drunken haze, I remembered this little anecdote. Since I’ve been in teaching mode all week, here is a teacherly story.

Have you heard the old adage (I just made up): Women are from Venus; men are clueless. University students, more than other demographics, embody this truism. Most remember university as a time of growing sexual awareness and exploration; a time to test new-found freedoms. As a university instructor I have a bird’s eye view of these mini-dramas unfolding during the most [unintentionally] comedic period of human life. It’s fun.

One of my sophomore classes had a reigning king and queen. The pair were the most popular kids in class. It was easy to see why. Sylvia was on the school’s cheerleading team—a big deal at that school. She was fit, attractive, bubbly, and smart; the class spark plug. If there was anything fun or exciting happening she was at its center, making sure everyone had a good time. She was universally liked. Stan was tall, muscular, ridiculously handsome, charming—dumb as a stump—and super personable. As his teacher I should have found him irritating; he definitely wasn’t the sharpest nut in the candy dish, but it was impossible not to like him. They were LANG-208-47-B5 class’s power couple.

As a teacher, standing at the front of class, you see everyone’s reaction to everything. It gives you a strong sense of what’s going through student’s minds. On this Monday, our hero looked like the goose that swallowed the golden egg. He was the picture of barely contained giddiness. Sitting beside him was Sylvia, and there was definitely something rolling through her head too. I couldn’t quite read her expression, but the wheels were clearly turning.

I gave the class a writing assignment—in one page describe your weekend. Most of the essay’s ranged from “I slept” to “I played online games”. Ho-hum. Then I came to Sylvia’s essay. It was like nothing I’ve ever gotten from a student. It was oddly poetic. Dappled moonlight was gently brushing flower petals. Birds were crying sweet tears of joy and sorrow, while clouds looked on knowingly. It was beautiful, romantic, and totally incomprehensible. I liked it, but couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

Then I read Stan’s essay. He had pressed the definition of a one-page article to its utter limits, and I can quote his entire essay here: “Last night I went to Yangmingshan and touched a boobie. Score!”

Ahhh. I see.

His happiness bounced off the page with every pen stroke. He was a [very] simple young man, with an equally simple dream, a pure dream, a noble dream—to touch a boobie. God bless him, he lived his dream. But, from my perspective at the head of the class, the meaning of Sylvia’s facial expressions became clearer. Sylvia had different, more complex, aspirations. They didn’t end with an inept boob fondle. Sylvia was revving up to turn his existence into a raging hell; and so the dance of life began for Stan. The poor naive bastard had no idea what was coming. On that day, in that class, he sat fully three inches taller than normal, looking left and right with his shit-eating grin, just a happy-go-lucky guy—contentment personified. For that brief moment, before his world came tumbling down, you couldn’t help but want to be Stan.

Being a teacher has its entertainments.

“Hello Fatso” and Other Taiwanese Greetings

To boldly state the obvious, rudeness is culturally defined. I’ve lived most of my life on the wrong side of the cultural norms/rudeness divide; frequently—totally unawares—insulting large groups and individuals alike. It’s a sword that cuts both ways, I have at times been insulted by Taiwanese, who were clearly unaware they’d done anything disparaging. Let’s take greetings and introductions as an example.

When I first came to Taiwan, over twenty years ago, upon being introduced to new Taiwanese people I always knew that three uncomfortable questions were coming. The conversations usually went something like this:

“Darren, I’d like you to meet Jim Lin. Jim, this is Darren, our new teacher.”

Of course, I’d politely say something like, “It’s nice to meet you, Jim.” While cringing on the inside, because I knew Jim would respond with something resembling…

“It’s nice to meet you, Darren. I see you’re fat. How fat are you exactly?” Undeterred by my sputtering, Jim, or the Taiwanese person du jour, could be counted on to blithely continue, “How old are you?” Twenty-nine. “Really!?! My God you look so old!” My spluttering would continue unabated. And Jim, failing to read the room, would persevere, “Well, how much money do you make?”

To which I’d normally make some vague answer, “Oh well, you know, I make enough to get by.”

I could expect the reply, “How much is that exactly?” And, normally there’d be some probing questions about my relationship status. “Are you married Darren?” Nope. “Do you have a Taiwanese girlfriend?” Not really your business, Jim.

This experience was remarkably consistent from person-to-person. I didn’t find it surprising because before coming to Taiwan I’d lived in Thailand. Thai has many more personal pronouns than English, which one you use is based on age, gender, social status, the speakers’ relationship, and the social context of their conversation. So, upon meeting a Thai person they often ask about your age, marital status, income, and if you have children. They’re trying to place you on the social hierarchy in relationship to themselves, so they know how to address you. This is not exactly true in Taiwan. It is, however, why I didn’t find Taiwanese behavior strange.

Taiwanese conversational norms, at that time, can be accounted for by Taiwan’s relatively more hierarchical society, the dissimilitude in privacy norms, and disparities in what was considered rude. Though not nearly as clearly stratified as Thai society, Taiwan, compared to North America was more hierarchical. Some of the questions I faced when meeting Taiwanese may partially be explained as a desire to achieve social clarity, but I doubt this was an important motivator. There was no overriding need to immediately place me within the social hierarchy. Also, in Confucian society my outsider status is my social position.

There are distinct differences in socially acceptable privacy levels between Taiwan and Canada. Taiwanese are much more invasive in their social interactions. In Canada, we’d say they have nose problems. Over the last couple decades, this has become less obvious in Taiwan’s large centers, but can still be experienced in smaller cities and towns.

The cause of these disagreeable greetings, however, was primarily differences in notions of ill-mannered. Traditionally, being a bit fat was not considered a bad thing in Taiwan. It showed that you had a bit of wealth. Older Taiwanese haven’t adapted to new trends, and don’t consider it inurbane to call you fat.

It isn’t just foreigners who find themselves occasionally called Tubby. I once watched an overweight Taiwanese teacher get introduced to an auditorium full of students as 胖胖的陳老師, approximately “our teacher, Fatso Chen.” The teacher clearly understood what was being said and the MC felt comfortable saying it anyway—even in such a formal setting. Fatso Chen, himself, didn’t have any particular negative reaction. He had extremely fine English, along with excellent comprehension of English culture, and when using English he showed feelings of being dispirited by those remarks. When speaking Chinese there wasn’t a hint that such expressions bothered him. If you’re fluent you think in the culture of the language you’re speaking.

Money is another area where Taiwanese and Westerners differ sharply in what is appropriate small talk. In Western Canada, anyway, it is really impolite to say anything at all about money. You’ll either appear nosey, braggadocios, or self-pitying. However, in Taiwan there doesn’t appear to be any prohibitions on talking about money. It is less common nowadays for someone to ask about my salary, but my purchases are fair game. I suppose it is partially because bartering is common, so everyone wants to know what you paid, to see if you got ripped-off. The answer to that question is always yes. That’s usually true, but even if I got the best deal in the world, I can count on my Taiwanese friends to cluck their tongues, shake their heads, and look at me with sad eyes. I don’t know why Taiwanese don’t find that malapropo. It is annoying as hell.

Things have changed over the last couple decades in Taipei. I’m no longer insulted every time I meet a new person. I assume that the spread of Western media, along with the cultural imperialism of fine English teachers, such as myself, has taught Taiwanese not to refer to new (Western) acquaintances as Tub-o-Lard. As for money, people almost never ask how much I earn, despite still asking what I paid for everything. Of course it is possible nothing has changed and I’m just meeting a different class of people.

 

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.

Taiwanese Delicacies #4: Oyster Vermicelli

The next Taiwanese delicacy was a revelation for me when I first encountered it. I didn’t expect to like it—there were clearly intestines in it. Of course I tried it. My guiding culinary principle is to try everything. To my amazement, I enjoyed every mouthful and have since overcome any squeamishness about eating poop tubes. (See: Gross Out Porn for the Armchair Traveler).

We’re talking about one of the quintessential Taiwanese dishes, Oyster Vermicelli.

If you’re going to try it, you’ll need to learn to say it in Taiwanese. You won’t get far ordering it in Mandarin. The characters are 蚵仔麵線 pronounced ô-á mī-sòa in Taiwanese. Using the Roman alphabet to transliterate produces some pretty incomprehensible spellings; Oamisoir, Oh Ahh Mee Sua, Orh Aaa Mee Suan, etc. It’s a bit of a mouthful. Here’s my two-bit Taiwanese lesson: The first syllable (ô) is pronounced ehh, like someone just farted in your face or punched you in the stomach; the next two syllables are easy (á) is pronounced ahh, like you just had an epiphany; () is the same as the English pronoun me; and, (sòa) is hard to describe, it is a bit like saying the first part of suave, but then having the rest of the word get stuck in your throat, and become a guttural nng sound, while your tone simultaneously drops, and your mouth widens at the corners, like you’re grimacing. Make of that what you will. I suck at languages, so grain of salt.

Taiwanese Oyster Vermicelli is a soup. It has a delightful woodiness that comes from the Japanese smoked bonito flakes (katsuobushi) in the soup stock. The stock is geng (焿 or 羹), meaning thickened, usually with starch, giving it a smooth and slimy texture. Many Taiwanese soups are prepared this way. The vermicelli is made primarily of wheat flour, formed into noodles and steamed until tan-brown. The process allows it to be cooked for a long time without breaking down. The main ingredients are rounded out by oyster and intestines. If you order 蚵仔麵線 Oyster Vermicelli in Taipei you can assume it’ll include intestines, unless you specify otherwise. However, if you want to be very precise you can order 蚵仔大腸麵線 Oyster and Braised Intestine Vermicelli.

The soup is garnished with cilantro. Garlic paste and spice may be added. To suit my own taste, I generally add vinegar to any geng soup stock. The soup itself is a full-flavored hearty blend, dominated—but not overwhelmed—by the fish flakes, with oyster providing a touch of the sea, and just a soupçon of shit on the palate from the intestines. It is a well-balanced blend of flavors. The vermicelli, because it’s been cooked for a long time, is very tender. It hits the spot perfectly on cold winter days. It really is delicious.

Election Day

I’m not very politically engaged. My answer to being disenfranchised is to politically disengage. I do nominally lean pan-Green. However, if I had the power to vote, I would probably vote for whomever I felt was the best candidate for the time and place, regardless of party affiliation.

Despite being politically detached, I know an election is happening. The rise in the decibel level of my community forces my awareness. The tendency in Asian elections, as with many things here, is to try to be as noisy as possible. There is a pretty constant stream of trucks, with loud speakers, driving up and down the street blaring their political messages. Along with occasional marches of one or two hundred people screaming the slogans of their chosen one.

My first experience of Asian election noise came in South Korea. [That’s  not quite true, my first experience came in Thailand, but involved tanks and automatic weapon fire, and so falls outside the purview of this discussion]. Where I lived, in Korea, they had massive apartment complexes each containing a dozen, or more, large residential towers. At about five in the morning, a truck would pull up and stop outside each individual building and blare its political message at the insensate beings within. I was stunned that any political candidate would consider this to be a good move. My natural [Canadian] reaction was nobody would vote for such an a-hole. My Korean friends found my reaction stupefying. How would you know who to vote for if they didn’t come yell at you at the crack of dawn?

Compared to that, Taiwan election noise is positively civil.

The other reason I know an election is happening is because I can’t drive anywhere without being diverted by road construction, as whichever party controls the public construction purse strings tries to make it look like they’re really working for the community. It is pretty transparent when you don’t see any construction for 3.986 years, and then all of a sudden you can’t walk to the 7-11 without tripping over a hardhat. But, hey, politicians will be politicians wherever you are.

I know I sound, well, salty, but I’m a big fan of Taiwanese democracy. I lived here during the first democratic transfer of power. I love the enthusiasm and excitement that the Taiwanese bring to their young democracy. Most people seem unjaded about their civic responsibilities. It’s nice.