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.

The Problem With Asian Christians

It might surprise you to learn that I never set out to be controversial, disparaging, or offensive in my blog. I run through each article trying to insure no one would be insulted. It is genuinely perturbing when my writing causes some readers to become indignant. This article is different. I know some will find it insulting, but I still want to post it. It’s on a subject that, because of my jobs, has had an outsized affect on my expat life. Christians. Specifically Asians—living in Asia—who have personally felt the need to convert to Christianity.

Just for context, I’m definitely not an atheist. I can be kind of agnostic sometimes, but generally believe in something greater than myself. Personally my religious beliefs and  observances tend to be a poorly thought out hodgepodge of Buddhism, Christianity, and religious Taoism. I have no problem with religion. I think it offers hope, peace, and psychological support for many. That’s beautiful. Nor do I have a specific issue with Christianity. I’m a big admirer of Jesus, but some of his fans—not so much.

I began my expat journey almost twenty-five years ago teaching in a cram school on Korea’s coast. The school’s owner, my direct boss, Mr. Lee, was an ardent catholic. As I was newly arrived from Canada, that seemed natural to me, and I didn’t think much about it.

As I got to know him, I came to recognize some of his shortcomings as a boss. The biggest problem for us employees was that he was bereft of a moral center. He was being medicated for a psychological condition. I’m not sure if being conscienceless was a symptom of his condition. He did lots of amoral things. A small example was offering a job to a person in Canada, who then booked and bought a ticket to Korea, to be reimbursed later. Before he arrived, Mr. Lee found another candidate he preferred. The poor Canadian found himself out the price of the ticket, jobless, and broke in a foreign country. The only thing that saved him was that the other teachers stood up to Mr. Lee and insisted he honor his word.

Stuff like that happened continually. I was the one who mostly had to deal with Mr. Lee, since I was the senior teacher. He confessed once that he couldn’t distinguish right from wrong, and had difficulty putting himself in other’s shoes. He further stated that was why he liked Catholicism. I didn’t entirely understand his meaning, but filed the information away.

A couple years later I found myself in Taipei teaching English at a Christian organization when Mr. Lee’s words came slamming back. My boss there was a carbon copy of Mr. Lee. He was a vocal Christian much given to pontificating on Christianity and our Christian mission, but when you scratched the surface he was morally defective. This time I wasn’t the senior teacher, but he did keep me astride of some of his meetings with our boss. The boss clearly struggled to distinguish good from bad. I dealt with a lot of Taiwanese Christians at that job, most of them were wonderful people, but a seemingly higher than normal percentage lacked a moral center.

Also, hard-right ultraconservative evangelical groups have found fertile soil for recruitment in Taiwan [see: Gloria Hu]. These groups, such as International House of Prayer (IHOP) and the Bread of Life Christian Church, are hate groups, or at least share many of their characteristics. Of course, the rise of these groups is not solely a Taiwanese phenomena, but the speed of their rise here reinforces my biases, and hints at moral turpitude among a significant portion of Taiwan’s Christian community.

Which brings me to my hypothesis: If you’re born into a religion it means nothing; but, if you choose one, it says something about your personality. If you’re born into a Christian family, and you continue to follow that religion, it doesn’t provide insight into your personality. You’re just following your family tradition. So, if you’re Asian and you’re born into a Christian family, none of this applies to you. However, a noticeable portion of Asian Christians arrive in that religion because they recognize a personal flaw and they need Christianity’s clearly stated Manichean distinctions between good and evil—Thou shalt not….

Buddhism and Taoism do not provide such a clear list of does and don’ts. Both have a moral code that followers are encouraged to adhere to, but it’s presentation is fuzzy. A lot of it is about finding the true nature of something, someone, or yourself and then allowing that something, someone, or yourself to follow its true nature. Or, seeking to accept the nature of your existence. [Please forgive my extreme, and somewhat inaccurate oversimplification, I’m trying to make a point about Christians, not discuss Eastern religion].

If you’re born unable to distinguish good from evil, but aspire to goodness, Buddhism and Taoism can be indecipherable for the novice [high-context religions]. Whereas, at the very front of the bible there’s The Ten Commandments [low-context religion]. It is easy to see the appeal of Christianity for people lacking a moral compass. Christianity doesn’t change these people. Unfortunately, inability to empathize isn’t a religious failing, it’s a character failing.

These are my personal experiences,  you may have had a completely different experience of Christians in Asia. I hope you have. With my jobs I’ve rubbed elbows with an unusual number of Asian Christians. It hasn’t been an entirely positive experience, and has left me a little wary of Christians here.

The Benefits of Being Misunderstood

One of the first benefits to the expat lifestyle I discerned was being misunderstood. It doesn’t sound like an advantage, but it has its moments.

I wasn’t here too long before I discovered how much more appealing I am to the opposite sex when they don’t quite understand me. It worked a charm on my social life. I was used to Canadian women examining every word I said fifteen different ways, if a Foucaultian deconstruction didn’t yield results, then it was time for a psycholinguistic or cognitive-linguistic approach. I’m not that deep, and often didn’t fair well in these analyses.

Taiwanese women may have wanted to subject me to that level of interpretation, but they lacked the cultural and linguistic skills. I found it refreshing. My first Taiwanese girlfriend didn’t speak much English, so we relied on my Chinese. Anything I said was pretty basic, and didn’t support much scrutiny. Other women I dated had better English, but not good enough to pretend to find hidden meaning in every word. If my words or actions could be interpreted a couple ways, I got the benefit of the doubt [the opposite to Canada]. Dating is easier when you’re not understood.

It’s good expats weren’t widely understood, because the expat community 20-25 years ago was overwhelmingly male. If you’ve ever been in very isolated male-dominated working and living environments—rig-worker, lumber camp, the navy, etc.—you know that it tends to be unhealthily male—straight-forward, rude, and coarse. Taiwan’s expat community was no exception.

At that time, I’d only been here a year or two, and was hanging out with other newbies. People used English as a tool of obfuscation while working out their culture shock and assimilation issues. The struggle to learn and adapt sometimes took the form of offensive commentary on Taiwanese culture and people, frequently murmured in public, with Taiwanese around, but hidden behind English. Most these expats were decent, broadminded, and culturally sensitive people who have adapted and become productive members of Taiwan. They wouldn’t have wanted to make any Taiwanese uncomfortable, but being an expat is hard, and it isn’t always pretty. They assumed they were speaking behind a cloak of incomprehensibility.

I didn’t hang out with an abnormally rude batch of foreigners. There were many different expats from diverse backgrounds, but this dyspeptic foreigner’s disease afflicted most at some point. It’s universal. I’ve helped several Taiwanese who have moved to the West deal with culture shock and assimilation. They behave the same—classic immigrant stuff.

The other type of private conversation commonly held in English, in public, was commentary on the surrounding pulchritude. It was like taking a men’s locker room and dumping it in the middle of a Taipei street. Again people assumed they were concealed behind English. As I said, the expat community at the time was a sausagefest, so there wasn’t much self-censorship. This has changed, there are more foreign women coming and staying in Taiwan. It has had a salubrious effect on the level of discourse among foreigners. [See: Sex and the Expat Woman]. Also, a rise in general English levels, at least in Taipei, has curbed public rudeness among expats.

I must admit to still assuming an environment of incomprehension and saying things I shouldn’t. I’m not rude towards Taiwanese people, culture, or women, but I do publicly say things not intended for universal consumption. My remarks aren’t terrible, just personal, nothing you’d want broadcast to an entire coffee shop. (I have a clarion voice that cuts through classroom noise and carries to any room’s far corners. I can’t seem to control it). Usually I’m with a Taiwanese person, and they give me a look to remind me that the people around us might understand.

I’ve noticed that many long term expats have no bone in their tongue. My generation of expats, and earlier, spent years living in a verbal free-fire zone, where anything went. It is hard to put that gibbering monkey back in the can, especially as concurrently the aging process drives you to not care. Inappropriateness, thy name is aged expat.

Sliding Up and Down Taiwan’s Social Hierarchy

Asian societies are more hierarchical than the societies most expats come from. Whether we recognize it or not, our social status profoundly affects our daily lives. I’ve experienced some social mobility, upwards and downwards, since moving to Taiwan. As an outsider, I’ve been intrigued by how people’s reactions to me have changed with my altered circumstances.

People’s perceptions transformed when I switched jobs. Like many others, I started my Taiwanese journey as a buxiban teacher. Cram school teachers occupy a strange position in Taiwan’s social hierarchy. Teachers are traditionally very respected in Asia—buxiban teachers not so much. You’re barely considered a teacher, more of an overpriced tutor. I guess because you aren’t backed by a respected educational institute. Some cram schools hire undocumented and sometimes unqualified teachers—who occasionally did horrible stuff. Fly-by-night operations open, collect fees, and abscond in the night. These problems seem less frequent now, but during Taiwan’s buxiban gold rush, many fine teachers were tarred with this brush.

All that aside, I enjoyed buxiban teaching and probably would have continued indefinitely. However, I had an incompetent boss who’d taken a personal dislike to me. I forget exactly how he got me to overcome my natural state of inertia and start sending out resumes. I distinctly remember thinking I didn’t need to put up with his shit. I was right. I got a university job.

Taiwanese people’s attitude toward me shifted immediately. When it became generally known, I got a lot more respect from my buxiban students. Nothing changed in my teaching to warranted it. If anything, I got lazier as I began eyeing the exits. They seemed to suddenly regard me as wholly qualified. I was qualified before, but until I was fully vetted by an institution of higher learning, they had no way to be sure. Taiwanese coworkers had a similar reaction. My status with my buxiban bosses increased, I assume the logic was: I could never respect anyone who’d work for the likes of me.

That was all moderately interesting, but the change in status was most noticeable while dating. Taiwanese women are the canary in the coalmine—they let you know your social standing quickly and clearly. As a buxiban teacher, many women regarded me as okay for fun, a little sexual/cultural adventure on the wrong side of the tracks with a bad boy. If I became too attached, they were surprised I didn’t recognize myself as a dalliance. I was meant to be a fond memory of girlish recklessness that would get them through a lifetime of milquetoast married sex. I’d never been a bad boy and completely failed to recognize what was happening. I got used to it. When I switched to university teaching, I was completely unprepared to have Taiwanese women taking me seriously as a prospective mate. Blew my mind.

Whether I was regarded as a boyfriend or a toy, I was almost always a dirty little secret, concealed from family, sometimes from friends. It sounds bad, but actually is a common way for Taiwanese women to deal with social pressure around dating. It doesn’t just happen to foreigners. On the rare occasions that a woman introduced me to her family, the family would try to wreck the relationship. I assumed it was bigotry, but it stopped happening after I became a university teacher. I suddenly became a stable and reasonable candidate for their daughter and there was a palpable change in my treatment. I’m sure marrying would have been more difficult had I remained a buxiban teacher. It turns out the issue wasn’t racism: it was classism.

I found the whole thing amusing. Taiwan’s social hierarchy wasn’t deeply ingrained in my psyche. As an outsider to Taiwanese society, I have the privilege of fitting in equally well—or poorly—no matter the group’s social status. I’ve moved comfortably among the highest and lowest levels of Taiwanese society.

Recently I’ve taken a little trip down the social hierarchy.  We have a house on Taipei’s Hoping East Rd. The neighborhood is on the richer side of middle class, or the lower side of rich.  People there have pretensions, and tend to be a bit uppity in conversation: “I say Muffy, striped tuna with spotted dick? Why it’s simply not done, wot, wot”, or the Taiwanese equivalent. I was comfortable there, but we recently got another place in Chungho. The neighborhood is very middle class; teachers, police officers, small business owners, etc. It’s earthier than the old neighborhood. I’m very comfortable here too.

The advantage of not fitting in anywhere is you fit in everywhere. Being accepted by every level of Taiwanese society is another matter.

Vignette #17: Smells Like Caucasian

Here’s one they don’t tell you in travel books. Each race smells different, of course each individual has a unique smell, but there is an overriding race-based olfactory theme. If you’re part of the racial majority, it’s not really a concern. If you’re a racial minority, you can be painfully self-conscious of how different you smell.

Living in Korea was my first experience as a racial minority. I was a racial minority of one in Yeosu. I quickly became aware I was malodorous. It’s not that the Koreans didn’t smell. They must’ve—they ate garlic for breakfast—but, I never whiffed a bad odor, their scent was background music. However, I definitely perceived my own funk. I didn’t smell any worse than normal, but the eau de Darren stood out.

This feeling seems to be normal. I met a Chinese girl in Canada who expressed similar concerns about feeling stinky. She wasn’t, but she was still self-conscious. I am not suggesting any race smells worse than another. Though I’d nominate Caucasians for that dubious honor. We are sour smelling. Other races tend towards musky, musty, or spicy.

Not that long ago a friend visited from Canada while my wife was out of the country. We did lots of guy things. He stayed with me in our apartment, a pretty confined space. When my wife came home the first thing she said was, “Oh my God, it stinks like white dude in here”, and immediately opened every window. It’s hard not to be self-conscious.