Shit Ain’t Shit Till You Learn Some Shit About Shit

What is the most commonly used English word in Taiwan? If you guessed “shit”, you’d be correct.

It’s a personal bugaboo. I get why people like swearing in a foreign language. It’s fun. It speaks to the soul. In a practical sense it can be a great entrée into the language. Personally, I get pure joy from cursing in Taiwanese. [Cursing in Chinese doesn’t have quite the same panache]. In my mind it makes me seem very street, if the street is 秀朗路。I undoubtedly look like an English-speaker, who possibly could curse in Chinese [what’s street about that?], using Taiwanese in an ultimately ridiculous attempt to gain cred, to the sotto voce amusement of all. None of this detracts from my exhilaration.

I get it.

But, as an English teacher it assaults my sense of the language to hear shit being poorly used. Taiwanese usually use it as an expletive, which is at least a correct usage, but they do it with the wrong feeling. They usually say the word like she-TTTUUUUHHHH, ending with a prolonged and stressed “tuh”. It makes them sound—if not dumb—then like amateurs. Other than as an expletive, it is most commonly used to call someone “a shit guy”, which in English has no meaning. Most would assume they mean shitty guy, someone who is bad or immoral. Instead it refers to someone  who never catches a break or attracts bad luck.

It’s amazing the Taiwanese manage to find incorrect usages for shit, since it has such multitudinous uses. You can exclaim shit or shit on a stick. I’ve been shit-faced, shit on, and shit over, but never given a shit. You can take a shit, have a shit, work for shit, or work for a shit, but best not be a shit, though it’s good to be the shit. You can get your shit together, or leave shit everywhere; work for shit, do shit work, or do shit all. Shit can be real, or a lying sack. You can shit the bed, or the sheets, shit a brick, shit disturb, but don’t shit on your own doorstep or where you eat. It’s possible to know jack shit, ratshit, or go apeshit, but still be kingshit, a dipshit, or a dumbshit. You can have it on a shingle or a burger, in a sack, or through the eye of a needle. Never try to shit a shitter when shit happens. I have a shit-eating grin just writing this, but I’m no shit-eater. I know what you’re thinking—what a shithead.

I have spent most of my adult work-life teaching English in Taiwan. That is to say I’ve spent my life pissing into the wind, but my greatest career failure has been allowing the most commonly used English word in Taiwan to be used so poorly. Shit is clearly grandiloquent, but my students deliver it with neither grammatical—nor stylistic—correctness.

It makes me sad. I’m a professional and give a shit. No shit!

Cultural Differences of Little Consequence

There are lots of chances for culture shock and cultural misunderstandings in expat life. These often revolve around big cultural differences, but not all cultural variance assaults our core ideas. Some are simply quaint. These are the cultural contrasts a vacationer might notice between spa treatments, or might turn up in a high school report. They’re interesting, light, fluffy, and fun.

Generally Taiwanese prefer to shower at night while Westerners prefer to shower in the morning. For the Taiwanese, it’s a time to unwind, shed the day’s cares, and prepare for bed. Apparently Taiwanese people don’t sweat or spit all over themselves in their sleep. Us more messy Western sleepers tend to prefer an invigorating morning shower to wake up, wash away the sleep goo, and get ready to face the day.

Relaxing versus prepping is also a theme in eating soup. At banquets Taiwanese have the soup toward meal’s end, to settle the stomach and aid in digestion after gorging. Clearly they’re wrong—that’s why God invented whiskey and tobacco. In formal dining, Westerners usually have soup at the beginning of the meal, to warm the stomach, and lay the groundwork for the coming meal.

Continuing with the stomach theme, most Westerners are comfortable with a drinks only night out, or inviting friends over and entertaining them with drinks and perhaps light snacks. [See: Starvation Culture]. In Taiwan it is very odd to spend time with friends without talking around a mouthful of food.

Dating has a lot of small cultural differences. Kissing is culturally different, not so much in structure or delivery, as in timing. The kiss is an important part of early dates in the West. Should I? Shouldn’t I? Was that the signal? You have to get through the kiss to get to the good stuff. These things have stages, hence the whole first-base metaphor. Kissing has a less important role in dating in Taiwan. Kissing on the first or even second date is a bit odd, not wrong, possibly even charming, in a hey-I’m-dating-a-foreigner sort of way. It isn’t uncommon to hit a homer before circling around for some of that hot first-base action, which is also charming, in a hey-I’m-dating-a-Taiwanese-woman sort of way.

Yet picking your nose on a first date might be acceptable. There’s definitely an odd tendency towards public nose-picking. The number of times I’ve seen someone engaged in a third-knuckle-deep snoot root on the street, in a bus, at a restaurant is disturbing. Man, woman; old, young; hot, not; high-class or low-class place; it does matter, nothing stands in the way of a good rhinogasm. Oddly despite the fascination with the nostrils, blowing your nose in public is bad form. They’d rather snuffle. Taiwanese nasal culture is opposite to the West’s.

Private space blends with public space in Taiwan in other ways. At the traditional morning market it’d be surprising if you didn’t see women shopping in their pajamas, or old men in their undershirts and—what looks like—boxer shorts. I don’t really mind. We have Walmart, so, you know, there’s no room for aspersions, but it drives my French friends nuts.

As a teacher, one cultural difference I find myself dealing with is that plagiarism is not a mortal sin like in the West. A traditional way of studying in Chinese culture is to copy accepted authorities. Also Taiwanese students tend to be more communal in their study habits; they study together, share their research, and copy each other. It is not so bad here. You look like a raging lunatic if you get too over-the-top morally indignant. Sure you’d have been expelled and blackballed, but what’s that to do with here?

The Taiwanese are generally good savers. Even though I’ve been a part of a Taiwanese family for over a decade I still don’t entirely understand the mechanics of it. My wife seems profligate, yet saves an awesome percentage of her income. My parents-in-law are the same. My wife has me saving/investing 65%+ of my income, and despite doing it, I don’t get how it is happening. [I’m pretty sure I’m suffering]. I’m frugal, but left to my own devices, I’d be lucky to save 15-20%.

It’s always amazed me how often little things are the opposite. We have a 20% off sale, in Chinese it’s a 80% on sale. Which direction does a compass point? North? In ancient Chinese it pointed south. These little cultural differences are interesting, but won’t cause much culture shock or intercultural discomfort. They’re just fun.

Diversity in Expat Culture

One annoyance of expat life is its tendency to create shallow friendships. Everyone is transitory, and friendships are fleeting. [See: Expat Friendships]. The upside is expat life offers diversity of friendship. It’s charming how expat life throws together people from all the world’s corners, each bringing their unique backgrounds. Despite a certain American cultural hegemony, traditions from the world over jostle and blend delightfully in the expat community.

On big holidays you’re quite likely to get invites for a special meal or party. If you’re alone on the holidays someone is likely to be looking out for you, and invite you to something. If not, it’s easy to band together with other lonely expats and create some drunken holiday cheer. At these parties, the expectedness of different traditions doesn’t diminish their beguiling nature. I’ve been at expat Christmas potlucks that have included the requisite turkey and fixings, but also the host culture’s interpretation of Christmas, and dishes associated with Christmas’s around the world; Beijing Duck (Taiwan), Kentucky Fried Chicken (Japan) [still makes me giggle, but it’s a Japanese thing], pickled herring and snus (Sweden), oysters and foie gras (France), mincemeat (England), kutya and nalysnyky (Ukraine), topped off with malva pudding (South Africa). It sounds like a pot-pourri of horrors. However—like people—each regional dish blended smoothly to create a harmonious meal, with just a soupçon of cacophonous flavors, adding tang without being too jarring.

Cross-cultural togetherness is somewhat expected during big holidays: we’re all here without much family. I’m more enchanted with the countless small examples of cultural sharing that happen serendipitously. For me, these have included being invited by a group of Americans to a pub to watch The Super Bowl live. I don’t care about football, and even less American football, but I don’t want to meet the person that can’t enjoy hot wings and binge drinking at 5:30 am. Being unexpectedly slipped a container of pierogis from a Ukrainian coworker. Attending a funeral and afterwards finding the Irish attendees had created a spontaneous wake, reciting Irish funeral toasts and getting slowly swizzled. It was touching. Perhaps one of my favorite incidences was stumbling upon a French-Canadian teaching assorted Anglos some Québécoise curses. (Not to be confused with cursing in France. The Québécois curse like they’re taking inventory of a cathedral). Mon tabarnak—it was funny.

Another area of expat diversity is across socio-economic lines. Admittedly class distinction influences inter-expat relations and inhibits friendships, still the shared experience of being foreigners in a foreign land does create some odd-bedfellows. And, definitely in interactions with the host culture, it is easy for a poorer person to have friendships with rich Taiwanese. I suppose the social indicators of class are a little confusing across cultural lines.

Another charming aspect of expat life is the way it throws together people of different ages. Expats often interact across age groups without much prejudice. If I were still in Canada I wouldn’t expect to have many cross-generational friendships outside of work. Here my friends range from twenty-five to seventy-five. Admittedly sometimes it creates slightly awkward situations. I get invited to clubs, music festivals, and raves by (much) younger friends. I love being included, but it sucks to have to spend a night listening to some DJ (why are they considered performers?) delivering EDM; Techno, House, Trance, etc. True my generation had similar music, but most thought of it as syntho-shit—admittedly it’s still shit—but it’s nice to be included. It’s healthy to be around other age groups. It keeps your mind youthful and expanding. At these outings I’ve learned important life lessons, for example middle-age white men can’t twerk.

Likewise the host culture and their openness to intercultural friendships prevent expats from becoming homogenously foreign outsiders. The Taiwanese also play an important role in diversifying the expat experience. Many are happy to include a foreigner in their circle.

The expat experience makes me think of first-generation immigrants to New York in the early twentieth century. Diverse cultures—a medley of backgrounds and experiences—rubbing together. Heterogeneity is the spice of expat life.

Vignette #25: Why 2020 Sucked—A Chinese Explanation

Well, 2020 has been replete with crapulescence.

But, wouldn’t you know it, the ancient Chinese had a method of contextualizing these events. 天干地支, the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches, is a system of ordinals dating back to the Shang Dynasty. It combines ten Chinese characters (Heavenly Stems) representing a celestial cycle with twelve Chinese characters (Earthly Branches) representing a terrestrial cycle. The Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches combine to create sixty possible two-character words. They can be used, and continue to be utilized in much of Asia, to rank, denote, and classify many things. These ordinals are used to create a sixty-year cycle.

In 庚子 years momentous events happen. A hundred and eighty years ago (3 cycles of 60 years) was the beginning of the First Opium War. Sixty years later began the Boxer Rebellion. Sixty years ago was the Great Chinese Famine. I know the examples are sinocentric, but it’s their system.

The year 2020 is both a rat year and a 庚子 year, magnifying the effect of each and creating a perfect celestial shitstorm. This year brought COVID-19, a trade war, financial crisis, worldwide civil unrest, flooding in Southern China, and Trump being even more Trumpy.

For me, 2020 brings to mind the Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times. This year’s been riveting—it is hard to take your eyes off world events. When the planet finally emerges from lockdown it’ll be surprising the changes the 庚子 year has wrought. Interesting times indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Haven’t Really Lived in Taiwan Until You’ve Picked Up Pieces of a Dead Person With Chopsticks

I recently attended a Taiwanese funeral. If you haven’t, here’s what you might expect. It’ll vary by family, this is a general guide. My family’s Buddhist. [I’m hardcore Red Hat Taoist, but we try to make it work for the kittens]. The funerals I describe are Buddhist, but there are similarities across traditions.

When someone’s passing—if possible—the family gathers around the deathbed, not for comfort and support, more to chant. The process is intricate, usually a religious 師父 (master) is required to get everyone chanting, bowing, gonging, and kowtowing in syncopation. A sutra is chanted seeking forgiveness of karmic debts accrued during this—and previous—lives, so the departing soul can find peace. It’s intended to get them off the Wheel of Suffering, or to a better incarnation. The rest of the time the name of Amida Buddha is chanted, guiding the soul and Amida Buddha towards each other. [Something like that. It’s all Buddhist to me]. In my family it goes on for at least eight hours.

Next comes the encoffining. Family and spiritual guide(s) come together again for a spirited bout of chanting as the body is placed in the coffin, usually at the undertaker’s.

On the seventh day after death the family gathers, led by a monk and possibly lay-chanters, for a full day of intoning and general scraping. Bow here, bow there, get down on your knees and pray, stand up, chant, get down and hit your head on the floor. It seems all Zen and soul-rejuvenating, but mostly it’s just painful. Kneeling destroys the knees. Kowtowing hurts the back. The constant kneeling and rising—Buddhist leg squats—leaves the lower body quivering. You see decrepit monks doing it and it seems fluid and charming. It’s brutal. It’s like going bowling—assuming it’s easy since it’s the terroir of middle age fat alcoholics—and then suffering a week-long case of bowler’s butt. I can barely walk after prayers.

That is the first of seven weekly prayer sessions. It’s common to pay a temple to do the subsequent ones. They’re praying anyway, you can arrange a shout-out for your dearly departed.

When the funeral arrives the deceased is taken to a 殯儀館, funeral parlor and mortuary services complex. Most municipalities have one, Taipei has two. The one on Hsin-Hai Rd. is the Disneyland of death. It’s a huge complex, with a very large multi-room building, and smaller out-buildings, ready to accommodate the deceased and mourners. The main building holds at least a hundred concurrent funerals and thousands of mourners. Rooms range in size from small Las Vegas showroom to spruced up closet. Each room’s anterior has a mountain of flowers with the deceased’s picture top center. The coffin is placed centrally among the profusion of flowers. Tacky. If I were the corpse I’d be mortified. At the service’s end the coffin is quickly replaced by another—kinda like a hot-sheet motel. It’s a model of McDonald’s style efficiency. 

Everything in the ceremony itself is hierarchical. Each mourner dons a long dark cloak—for the Buddhist ceremony—with a small color-coded badge. The color denotes familial status. The family stands before the coffin in rows and columns according to rank. During my grandma-in-law’s funeral—despite barely knowing her—I ranked higher than my wife, and was placed more to the front, as befits my station and sperm count. I think it’s the worst part of the ceremony. I had no chance to comfort my wife. Instead I was busy—up front—being the foreign jackass. As with all aspects of my life, I provided comic relief and a focal point for staring. Is he going to screw this up? Aiya, he got it right. Double-or-nothing he fucks up the next kowtow. Foreigners: every funeral needs one.

Once arranged in order of descending importance, the process of chanting, genuflecting, kneeling, praying, kowtowing, and standing back up begins. Are you detecting a theme? During funerals my high school fight song keeps bouncing around my brain: “Bow to the left, bow to the right, stand up, sit down, fight! Fight! FIGHT! YeahhH TEAM!!!” But I digress. Once the family finishes, other assorted mourners, who’ve been watching from the side, get their chance to bow to the deceased.

At the end of the service, the family walks around the coffin three times while chanting. Then a nail is driven into the coffin lid, ceremonially sealing it. That duty falls to the eldest son, or nearest available facsimile.

With that over, the family and some of the crowd makes its way to the crematorium, conveniently located elsewhere on Death World’s grounds. The mourners line up a reasonable distance from the oven and chant as the cremation begins. At the first funeral I attended, the attendants hurriedly stuffed granny into a hot oven as the flames danced and licked out the door. You could feel the heat on your face. It was visceral. I’ve never seen that since. Maybe the day of granny’s funeral was particularly busy at Taipei Municipal No. 2 Mortuary, Funeral Services & Death Fulfillment Center, Inc. Usually the dead are calmly placed in the oven, the door closed, and the flames turned on. Frankly, they phone it in.

With the cremation underway, the family retires to the crematoracafeteria, an onsite coffee shop with video displays, detailing the temperature of each roaster, and reamaining cooking time. It brings to mind a fast-food restaurant. This is a time of relief. The family has spent three to four full days chanting and it’s over. Phew. Give me a simple Protestant ceremony. You’re in, someone talks, you sing a song, and you’re out—fifty minutes tops.

When your loved one’s timer pops, the family goes to collect the remains. This is the oddest part of the funeral. Cremation doesn’t leave dust, as you might think, but rather a skeleton. The bones are so burned they lose structural integrity and can be easily crushed to dust. Taiwan has some ceremonies requiring the bones, so the remains are not pulverized. [See this article on Taiwanese folk religion]. The family isn’t presented an inoffensive urn, instead a skeleton is wheeled out. At my first funeral I was caught off-guard and freaked. Nobody else paid much mind. Each family member in turn takes a pair of long cooking chopsticks, picks up some bone, and puts it into the urn. Judging by the faces of everyone, there was general apprehension when it came my turn—I’m a sloppy eater, but I’m proud to say I didn’t drop a morsel of grandma. Afterwards, the attendants complete the transfer.

That’s the end of the funeral, but you shouldn’t go straight home. Stop along the way. I think that’s to throw ghosts off your trail. When you get home, you should disrobe immediately, wash your clothes and shower, to wash the death off.

So now if you die in Taiwan you have an idea what type of party to expect. [YMMV].