Taiwan, Harmonicas, Mike Stevens, and Public Humiliation

I’ve had to deal with undeserved fame as an expat. I’m not sure this is common. It happens to me through hobbies. I love to learn and have studied many things since moving to Taiwan, including jewelry design and goldsmithing, harmonica, piano, dance, and Go. I have some ability at art and design, at everything else I’m hopeless. The thing I’m worst at is music. I began studying piano and harmonica because I recognized my own deficiency and wanted to cultivate better musical appreciation. Also, my artistic hobbies were producing objets d’art that were cluttering my very small apartment. I expected studying music to produce nothing of value. I recognized my limitations and had no goals beyond developing musical taste.

When I took up harmonica, my tendency towards notoriety reached its apogee. At the start, everything was fine. I contentedly drove my harmonica teacher, Mr. Lee, to distraction. It reminded me of my youth. I’ve caused more than one music teacher to quit. I have chronic white man rhythm and tin-ear syndrome. Still, I had fun slaughtering Camptown Races and other classics from America’s songbook. My enjoyment was contingent on no one hearing, beyond my teacher and his long-suffering neighbors.

Harpin’ on a riff. It looks like I have skills. I don’t.

Then Mr. Lee asked me to get involved with some Taiwanese harmonica groups and associations. He didn’t ask because I’m a harmonica prodigy. He needed my English ability. Taiwan has a very active community of harmonicists, and they frequently invite foreign harmonica players to Taiwan for concerts and masterclasses. Mr. Lee was planning to invite some 10-hole harmonica players to Taiwan. He needed my help with English. To provide me credibility with foreign harmonica players he created a 10-hole harmonica club, and anointed me president. Surprisingly there wasn’t already one. Diatonic (10-hole) harmonica is not so popular in Taiwan. The soulful whiny music diatonic harmonica excels at—blues, hard rock, country, and fiddle music—is not very popular.  Instead, harmonica orchestras and ensembles are favored, thus most Taiwanese play chromatic, tremolo, bass, or chord harmonicas. The Taiwan 10-Hole Harmonica Club included a small, but passionate and highly skilled group of diatonic players, and then there was me—the putz in charge.

Lee Oskar, famed for his work with War and the harmonica that shares his name, with little old me.

During my presidential reign various harmonica virtuosi visited Taiwan, including Mike Stevens, Brendan Powers, Peter Madcat Ruth, Lee Oskar, Fumio Ishikawa, and many more. If you’re a harmonica nerd, these names are huge. I found myself attending and/or helping with many of these events. I enjoyed the concerts and taking those famed players around Taiwan. The inevitable masterclasses were a nightmare. My hobby was meant to be a solitary way to work through my musical issues. I never wanted to perform in public, but the masterclasses forced me to play in front of internationally respected artists and Taiwan’s best players. My position heading Taiwan’s diatonic harmonica club compounded my discomfiture.

Me and Madcat Ruth.

I always wondered if the Taiwanese players thought I was an undeserving jackass leveraging my whiteness into a position beyond my capabilities. Some Taiwanese players had technique on par with the visiting artists, and all were much better than I. The Taiwanese harmonica players were very kind, but behind the eyes sometimes I saw those beliefs. That’s okay—those were my thoughts too. I also caused disconsternation for visiting artists when I started tootling away in their masterclasses. It sounded like freeform jazz on bagpipes. For some I was their only point of contact in Taiwan while arranging their tour. It was natural to assume I’d have skills.  It was all very uncomfortable.

My unjustified renown sometimes bedevil me in other ways. On one of my first dates with my eventual wife I took her to a harmonica concert. As we sat down, a photographer stuck his SLR in our faces, and popped off a half dozen quick shots. The wall of rapid flashes stunned Venus and she stammered, “Whaaa,…what was that?” It was my old nemesis the paparazzi [see: I’m Kinda Racist]. I was forced to admit, “Oh, uh, heh-heh, sorry. I’m kinda famous,… sort of”. My friend referred to me as the Paris Hilton of Taiwan’s harmonica world; all fame, no talent.

In a life filled with embarrassment, my most ignominious moment happened around fifteen years ago at Mike Steven’s concert. Mr. Lee had asked me to help invite Mike Stevens and Raymond McLain to perform in Taiwan. [You can see them playing a classic Québécois/Acadian song here]. Mike pioneered using harmonica in bluegrass music.

From left to right, Raymond McLain, Yours Truly, and Mike Stevens at the National Palace Museum.

I happily helped correspond with them, made some of their arrangements, and acted as an English-speaking host and tour guide after they arrived. As your national harmonica representative, I introduced the sights, Taiwanese harmonica luminaries, and helped with basic cultural/language issues. It was massively fun. I enjoyed doing this with many harmonica players, but Mike and Raymond were particularly engaging. They had wicked senses of humor. We laughed our way up and down the island from concert hall to concert hall.

They were in Taiwan for four to five days and did two concerts, a short benefit show, and two masterclasses. In between Mr. Lee and I toured them around Taipei and Taichung. Mike enjoyed Taiwan and the pace of his mini-tour. He had just come from being Dwight Yoakam’s opening act, so he was used to; arrive, set up, sound-check, sound-check, play, breakdown, go, next day—next town. For him, Taiwan was leisurely.

At the Taipei concert venue, during the sound-check, Mr. Lee pulled me aside and told me I’d have to go onstage and introduce Mike and Raymond. I’m used to public speaking, but this was different. The Taipei show was in a concert hall holding over two thousand strangers. That’s different than addressing a hundred students, I know, who must tolerate me. It was scary.

The crowd extended to the left and right, and receded quite far into the darkness. It was intimidating.

I really didn’t want to do it. The entire thing was sprung on me a couple hours before the show. I’d have chewed my arm off to escape. I tried to fob it off on someone else. I even found a self-important big-mouth willing to do it. However, Mr. Lee insisted I do it. He’d arranged the concert, he was paying for and promoting the show, he didn’t want a random outsider onstage. He had a point.

As the crowd settled in, I got up onstage and introduced Mike and Raymond in English, which I admit I thought was weird—I mean the audience was overwhelmingly Taiwanese. As soon as I finished, I headed backstage intending to find a seat, relax, and enjoy the show. I should explain that Mr. Lee and I always spoke Chinese. Since we mostly communicated in the international language of music, he didn’t notice my Chinese’s limitations. Looking back I can see that Mr. Lee assumed I’d introduce them in Chinese. I presumed no one would be crazy enough to throw me onstage—in front of thousands—and expect Chinese to come out. English almost got stuck in my throat. As often happens living in a foreign country, there was a failure to communicate.

As I exited stage right, relieved to be done, Mr. Lee came running after me saying, “Wait, wait, get back on stage, you need to translate for them”.

“Huh!?!”

Mike Stevens and Raymond McLain on stage in Taipei.

Turns out he didn’t just want me to do the intro, but expected me to translate for the audience. So I stumbled back onstage, with zero prep, and began trying to do simultaneous translation. Judging from the looks Mike and Raymond shot me, I must have looked ill. Now, I had some Chinese, and a lot of English, but simultaneous translation is a specialized skill requiring fluency in both languages, a deep cultural understanding of both countries, and some specialized schooling. I didn’t have any of that. I really don’t know what in his experience of me made Mr. Lee think that my Chinese was up to the task.

It was an epic fail.

If you’ve ever seen a bluegrass concert you know it often involves storytelling, and the anecdotes usually have a rustic theme. Even with wonderful Chinese, I would have struggled to translate these tales. The stories inevitably went something like this: “Yada, yada, yada,… hillbilly thing, yada, yada, Moonshine,… White Lightening,… yada, hillbilly thing,…  ridge runner,.. yada,… grits ‘n’ greens,… hillbilly thing,… Po’ Boy,… revenours, yada, yada, yada, Arkansas toothpick,… chicken fried steak,…chicken ‘n’ waffles,… All ‘dem all was a larkin’,…  yada, yada,… ‘Ma still done blow’d up'”.  You try translating that. I’d find myself a third of the way through a story and realize I lacked the countrified Chinese vocabulary to bring it in for a landing. I really needed Taiwanese. Not just Taiwanese, but backwoods Chiayi (Taiwan’s Appalachia)  farmer’s Taiwanese.

I had to think on my feet and rely on humor to get me through. The only difference between that night and my worst nightmare is I was wearing pants. I don’t remember everything I said, that’s God’s way of protecting your psyche, but I do recall some, “Oh crap, my Chinese is so terrible. I can’t translate this. Umm, okay it’s a funny story. When I tell you—PLEASE—laugh and clap….Ok,  NOW”. I melted down onstage before thousands. Embarrassing.

Like the stud I am, I got back onstage for the second concert in Taichung. This time I wasn’t caught off guard, I understood I’d be translating. I knew Mike and Raymond’s stage patter and the stories they’d tell. Between shows I’d worked out translations for their yarns. Some remained untranslatable or impossible to interpret for a Taiwanese audience, for those I had my jokes down. My shit was tight. The Taichung concert went extremely well. Unfortunately, it was a much smaller audience, just a couple hundred people. So, I humiliated myself in front of thousands, and redeemed myself in front of hundreds—story of my life.

Some of my fans wanted their picture with me. Posing outside the Taichung concert venue. It’s all about the fans—that’s why we do it.

After the tour finished, Mr. Lee paid me 遮羞費, compensation for embarrassment. It wasn’t necessary, the experience is one of my fondest memories. Of course, I have immensely thick skin and a boundless capacity to laugh at myself.

 

 

I’m Kinda Racist

I recently caught myself being racist against myself. I was sitting at a Taipei intersection watching a crowd of white people, with varying degrees of success, trying to negotiate traffic. There were tourists, seemingly confused by the flurry of vehicles, looking hopelessly maladroit. They reminded me of the punchline to a joke popular when I first arrived 流浪狗都會過馬路了 [even a stray dog can cross the street], an allusion to foreigners being too stupid to use a crosswalk. There were also long term residents confidently riding bicycles and scooters through the intersection. I hated it. I felt like a crotchety old man, wanting to yell at the kids to get off the lawn, or in my case: “Get out of my Asia. Go home, Whitey!”

Taiwan was the first Asian country I ever visited, approximately 35 years ago. I came to study Chinese folk religion. I spent about a month traveling Taiwan, and a week in Taipei. In the entire time, I spotted one foreigner. How could I not cross the street and talk with him? It was exciting. He was a foreign businessman, and the only foreigner, not part of my class, I saw that month.

I began my ESL career around 25 years ago in Yeosu (여수시), South Korea. At that time Yeosu was a small city relying primarily on fishing. When I first went there television news cameras followed me for a period of days. I was—almost—the first white person to live there, at least in living memory, a real novelty. There had been a white woman that arrived a couple months before me, but for some reason didn’t elicit quite that level of excitement. Possibly it was a problem of misogyny, or that she was unlikable. It gave me a sense of why celebrity sucks—those damn paparazzo.

When I started teaching in Taiwan, almost a quarter century ago, there were some foreigners around, especially in Taipei. However, we were still a small community of outsiders. If I didn’t know you then I’d probably seen you around and recognized your face. It was de rigeur to say hi or wave at any foreigner you bumped into. I enjoyed summer in Taipei back then, because foreign students would come to Shida (師大) to study Chinese. Also, the American born Taiwanese would come back to visit their relatives. There’d be a lot more English on the street. A chance to learn new slang. There would be more foreign faces in the crowd. It created a festival atmosphere and was fun, but—and this is important—then they would leave.

I’m aware there are a lot of advantages to me personally in Taiwan’s foreigner community having expanded (see: The WTO and My Waistline). I sometimes miss being unique, the feeling that I’m a special little flower. There were some distinct advantages. My favorite was that police would go out of their way to avoid you. If you did something they couldn’t just ignore, all you had to do was talk really fast at them in English. They’d let you go. They just didn’t want to deal with it. That’s not true anymore.

Beyond that there was the camaraderie of being part of a handful of foreigners against the world. It was like living in a small town and had a similar know-your-neighbor mentality. The other day I was walking down the street and out of the corner of my eye I caught a puff of blond hair. I turned, smiled, waved and said “hello”. The young woman, in her mid-20s, stared at me like a piece of shit on her shoe. She didn’t say hi, smile, nod, or wave,… nothing. This has become the norm. I guess I could understand if it looked like I might accost them, or try to talk, but I have always been clearly walking or riding past. Foreign guys are only marginally better. Coldness amongst foreigners is the inevitable consequence of the expansion of Taiwan’s foreigner community. Random friendliness is increasingly met with the stink eye.

Yep, I miss it when white people were a little less common.

Betel Nut

Some things that are no longer common for me, are an integral part of the Taiwan experience (see: Who Cut the Tofu?). Of these experiences, the one I’ll talk about today is betel nut, or more specifically betel nut juice.

Betel nut, or areca nut, bianlong (檳榔) is grown on a feathery palm tree (Areca catechu L. Family: Palmaceae) throughout southern Asia. The nut is chewed in a manner similar to tobacco, the effects are also similar to tobacco. It can give you a low-grade—head-spinning—type of buzz, similar to nicotine. It is a stimulant that can increase alertness, stamina, and give a sense of well-being. The effects are part of the reason that physical laborers, taxi drivers, and truckers are the primary chewers of betel nut. I suppose that’s why it used to be called the poor man’s opium. Personally, I enjoy the taste and feel of betel nut, but I’m unusually 台客 in my appetites (see: Are You Gay?).

There are numerous ways to prepare the betel nut quid. Two methods are common in Taiwan. One is to simply take the nut, wrap it in a betel vine leaf, with (white colored) slaked lime collected from seashells. The lime is important as it increases alkalinity, aiding absorption of arecoline, the nut’s stimulant. When prepared this way there is none of the characteristic red dying of the chewer’s saliva. The other way betel nut is commonly prepared in Taiwan is by cutting the green nut in half and placing  red slaked lime along with a slice of the female part of a flower into the nut. The flower comes from a plant in the pepper family. It provides the safrole that is mixed with the lime, dying it red. Safrole is used in the illegal production of MDMA and is responsible for much of the betel nut high.

The red colored lime paste used to cover Taipei’s streets and walkways as users expectorated in a manner similar to someone with a tobacco chaw. Mores have changed thanks partially to government education programs and an increasingly cosmopolitan attitude in Taipei. But, my stories are from the good ol’ days when the crimson juice flew everywhere, and Taipei’s streets looked like there’d been a massacre.

My first trip to Taiwan was almost thirty-five years ago. Things were different. One of those things was the rate and carelessness of spitting. In 1987 Taiwan, hawking phlegm balls was practically a national sport. On one disorienting occasion I watched a stunning Taiwanese woman, dressed in a beautiful qipao, walking elegantly down the street. Her hair, makeup, clothes were all perfect. But, as she walked towards me, she was—with verve and gusto—trying to gurgle up a ball of throat butter. I half expected her to close one nostril with her finger and suck up the mucus, for added volume and color. When she was just a little ways off, she spat, gave the catarrh a self-satisfied glance, and continued rolling her hips down the street, in one of the sexiest walks I’ve ever seen—well,…you know,…except for the whole phlegmy tuvan throat singer thing.

My point is, there was a lot of spitting going on, and it was pretty socially acceptable. It was heaven for the dedicated bianlong (檳榔) chewer. As you might expect, the sidewalks were often stained almost red.

Also, there was a pretty cavalier attitude among some about where exactly the spit was going. During this time, it was semi-common for people to hawk a loogie off their balcony, without much regard for what was going on below. On one memorable occasion someone spat a giant load of betel nut schmegma off the balcony. It plopped down right in the center of my traveling companion’s head, and rolled down his face, like a flock of pigeons with Irritated Bowel Syndrome had been doing a fly by. It was damn funny. [I was nineteen, and not yet the fully evolved and enlightened human being you see now]. And then it happened to me.

Just after moving here, I was riding a scooter on a stretch of freeway, zinging along as fast as my scooter would go, when the driver in front of me rolled down his window and spat a massive wad of bianlong juice out his window. I watched it, almost in slow motion, roll and tumble into the open, curve towards me, and then with my 70+ kph closing speed, hit me center mass. I unconsciously swerved and swiveled, nearly crashing. If I hadn’t observed what was happening I’d have thought I’d been shot. The red gore spreading across my white t-shirt was a reasonable facsimile of a high caliber chest wound. These things are much less droll when they happen to you.

It is all an example of something that’s changing in Taiwan. There’s a lot less public spitting, less betel nut chewing, and less unmindful spitting. Not something I miss.

Sex and the Expat Woman

Disclaimer: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a woman, thus whatever insights I offer are limited. I can only pass on  observations and what expat women have told me, intentionally or unintentionally. I’m also limited by not wanting to go over nine hundred words. Put differently, it is a big topic that I’m unqualified to expound upon and will not dedicate the necessary time to … so let’s begin.

Taiwan is a very rapidly changing society (see: My Parents Are Nuts and Taiwanese Reverse Culture Shock), the brisk transitions affect expat’s as well as natives. Taiwan-based expat women’s lives have evolved particularly quickly. A couple decades ago Taiwan’s expat community was almost homogeneously male. It’s not that women didn’t come, they just didn’t last. There were undoubtedly multivariate social reasons. I’m going to concentrate on psychosexual and sociosexual causes, particularly the role of horniness in high female expat turnover. [How could this possibly go wrong?]

I first became aware there was an issue at a welcoming party not long after arriving. It was your normal drunken expat sausagefest. What fascinated me was the small handful of women at the party. They were behaving in a way I’d never experienced. They got drunk in a different manner from the normal goofy female drunkenness I’d experienced in Canada. They were on what appeared like a testosterone driven hammer-fry mission. They attacked the booze like sailors on shore leave, became aggressively and rowdily drunk, sequestered themselves in the kitchen, and—for lack of a better term—began acting like men. Low-class men. They complained loudly and belligerently about their horniness, talked in graphic (and pretty humorous) detail of what they’d do to a cock—should they ever see one again—and lobbed occasional catcalls at the male partygoers. If they were men, we’d say they were being a pack of dicks.

The guys studiously avoided the kitchen, but as a stupid newbie I didn’t know. When the party needed more beer, I trundled in to get some. As soon as I walked in, I was surrounded by four drunk women who proceeded to engage in a little lite sexual harassment. The last member of the quintet came to Taiwan with her boyfriend and seemed embarrassed by the other women. My kitchen excursion climaxed when a woman from the Bronx, dressed like Leather Tuscadero, with a cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth, slowly looked me up and down through smoke-squinted eyes, as though trying to choose a satisfactory sausage from the deli platter, and asked in a throaty voice, “So? We gonna happen or what?” That was the first time I’d seen her. Theoretically, being objectified and treated like nothing more than ten inches of dangling meat should have been a giant turn on. After all, that’s the dream, right? However, it turns out the purple-headed General is a coward. I squirmed from their clutches and returned to the party and the knowing merriment of the other guys.

Those women were about a year and a half through their two year, sexless, stays in Taiwan. They were like a pack of cats in heat, rubbing up against anything that’d stay still. I now believe that’s what happens to a collective of women when the ol’ panty gerbil gets hungry and no one will feed it—they begin acting like horny men. It’s sort of beautiful—we’re all the same. The difference is that it is an unusual and uncomfortable position for women. They were used to being both the brake and accelerator in sexual liaisons back home. It must have been a genuine shock to not be able to give it away, no matter how hard they tried.

There were some cultural reasons for their sexual deprivation. First, they were daunting. If they scared me, what must Taiwanese men have felt? Beyond that, Taiwanese men have a lot of family obligations to live up to. Primarily to find a nice Taiwanese girl, get married, and have Taiwanese babies. Taiwanese women don’t have quite the same imperative since once they marry they’re out of the family, so if they have mixed kids it is not such a big deal. The other big problem was that the foreign men were all dating Taiwanese women. Only the Taiwan-based foreign models were consistently dating, below themselves admittedly, but still they had some romantic life. One solution was to arrive in Taiwan as a couple, but these couple frequently broke up when the guy noticed all the Taiwanese women. Taiwan breaking up Western couples was almost a trope.

For most people it’s impossible to live long term in a place without the hope of a satisfactory sex life. Involuntary celibacy erodes your psychological well-being. Not many women stayed here beyond two years. I believe the dearth of intimate contact was the cardinal cause of high turnover among expat women.

That’s the way it was; but I see women breaking through now. There are a growing number of mixed couples where the man is Taiwanese. Twenty years ago, seeing an AMWF couple would have stopped me in my tracks. It’s a heartwarming change. Also, there are a lot more Western couples in Taiwan, and they seem better able to stay together. Consequently there are a lot more expat women living here, and staying longer. Counterintuitively, the high rate of intermarriage between Western men and Taiwanese women is making expat society more stable and tolerable for expat females. It doesn’t fix the underlying problem, but women are no longer forced to spend their time with rutting males, who regard them as little more than background fauna. Not getting laid is terrible; concurrently watching dweeby foreign dudes score is insufferable—but nobody gets jealous of married sex.  The current situation just feels better. Expat life in Taiwan is maturing, becoming more inclusive and family friendly. It’s no longer just a pack of horny dudes on the make.

Vignette #16: Who Cut the Tofu?

Asia has a different relationship with bodily functions than the West. In Taiwan you can expect to be frequently engaged by public displays of earthiness. Today we’ll examine that Taiwanese classic—the public fart.

I first faced this phenomenon in class. I was teaching maybe a dozen students, when a sweet teenage girl farted. It wasn’t remotely feminine or polite. She didn’t release a subdued puff of gas, wave a hand in front of her face and go, “Oops, pardon me, tee-hee, I seem to have fluffed”. No. She lifted her right butt cheek off the chair, Farmer John style, and let loose a resonant ass blast. The ol’  Arkansas trouser spider was really barking that day. Then she screwed up her face, bore down, and ejected one more panty cough, lowered her derrière to the seat, rearranged her face into its usual serene countenance, and continued taking notes like nothing had happened.

As their teacher, I was of course ready to leap in with jokes and general dumbassery as soon as someone commented. (If you can’t make fun of your students, who can you make fun of?) Well, the man sitting to her right—where the flatus had been directed—turned red and his eyes began watering, but no comments, smirks, or looks were exchanged. I was stunned no one lightened the tension with some puerile humor. The class carried on as if nothing had happened, despite the obvious discomfort of all but our teenage heroine.

That is not the Canadian way.

Occasionally when visiting my in-laws, one or both parents will be farting all over the room. I can’t deal with it. Sometimes, even at the dinner table, my father-in-law will fire a nut knocker my way. It is hard not to feel he is editorializing or engaging in social commentary; you know, the father/son-in-law dynamic. However, my wife swears he means nothing by it, and that it is just something he has always done. Chiayi charm. It only affects my appetite, everyone else unmindfully carries on.

That’s an extreme example, but even when walking in public areas, there’s a lot more gas getting passed than I’d expect in the West. I don’t mean to be too harsh. When I lived in Korea—admittedly long ago—public urination and occasionally defecation, by males and sometimes females, was common. By comparison Taiwan’s fart culture seems tame. Possibly it is even disappearing. I seem to be eating fewer air biscuits, or perhaps I’ve acclimatized and don’t notice it—sometimes it’s hard to know