Tag Archives: culture shock

F@cking the Dog in Taiwan: Inter-Expat Variance

The expat lifestyle’s greatest pleasure for me is meeting and interacting with people of diverse backgrounds. The Salty Egg normally discusses this in terms of interactions with the dominant culture. However, Taiwanese is not the only culture here that is alien to me. Expats themselves are drawn from all over the world. Taiwan-based expats are a heterogeneous soup of races, cultures, and creeds. It gives expat friendships some of their zest. Cultural misunderstandings among expats are almost as likely as Taiwanese-foreigner mix-ups.

I used to work in a school that had a nice mix of Americans, Canadians, Australians, Kiwis, South Africans, and a Brit. Every Monday morning, as colleagues will do, someone would ask me what I’d done over the weekend. I’d usually breeze by, and say something like, “Not much, you know, I just fucked the dog”.  Apparently my standard answer was causing vexation and concern among coworkers. Who knew fucking the dog isn’t a universal English idiom? My colleagues apparently imagined I (might) have had a canine sex slave chained, spread-eagle, to the bed.

I didn’t.

I still can’t believe I have to explain this, but fucking the dog means laying about. I suppose it started as doing the dog, meaning to lounge around, like a dog. Inevitably doing became fucking, and thus this eloquent phrase was born. (Dog Fucker is the noun form—use it well). I now know that despite it being extremely commonplace where I’m from, many other English speakers don’t know the colloquialism. All it took was a single visit from Taiwan’s SPCA to banish that piece of Canadiana from my lexicon. The potential for inter-expat misapprehensions is high, not surprising when you consider the expat diaspora.

By volume, the largest expat groups come from South-East Asia. They do all the work; build Taiwan’s buildings, catch the fish, work as maids, care for the sick and infirm, and become wives.  They’re a common sight on the streets, but other expats don’t generally rub elbows with them. Their concerns and lifestyle are different from the average Western or Japanese expat. You’re unlikely to meet them at the normal foreigner hangouts. They usually have less time, less expendable income, and in terms of where they socialize, there’s a tendency towards ghettoization. The potential for intercultural gaffs between these expats and others abound, but lack of proximity makes it unlikely.

It used to be, if you saw a white face in the crowd, it was an English teacher. The primacy of English teaching among Western expats is a thing of the past, but we’re still a very large component of the Western expat community. There’s often misunderstandings between English teachers (the lumpenproletariat) and English speaking businessmen, technical specialists, diplomats, engineers, etc. The groups exist in Taiwan and are drawn from the same countries, but experience Taiwan and expat life differently. I spend most of my time with English teachers, but of these exogenous groups I personally spend time with diplomats and corporate managers. Their experiences of expat life are so remote from mine as to be almost useless as a common reference point. We share the same watering holes and interests, but there’s plenty of room for internecine culture shock.

Opportunities for mutual misunderstanding among expats grows as the home cultures become more divergent. There are a lot of Japanese expats here, mostly Japanese businessmen and the wives of Japanese businessmen. The former work and drink (normally in establishments catering to the Japanese), the latter shop. There aren’t many points of commonality between us. Usually expats of such dissimilar backgrounds only have one common denominator—Chinese class.

Taiwan also has lots of non-English speaking crackers [along with whitie, I’m trying to bring back this racial epithet]. By a series of circumstances I have quite a few francophone friends and acquaintances. They’re generally not here to teach English, or French for that matter, a lot are businessmen, and there’s a surprising number of artists, writers, and other creative folk. I enjoy hanging out with them—they’re totally different than my normal expat crowd.

When the Russian economy tanked approximately fifteen years ago, there were lots of Russians in Taipei. That was a particular treat. They may not have sent their best, but they did send their models. Taipei was lousy with leggy, lithe, angular Russian women, each sporting a Melania Trump moue. Good times. Good times.

The kaleidoscope of foreigners in Taiwan gives life and friendship here its piquancy. I truly love it, but I must admit that my very best friends are usually Canadian (and Aries). I suppose it is more familiar, comfortable—with a lower chance of misunderstanding. Even there, though, Canada is a large variegated country with lots of room for regionalism. Cultural misunderstandings are common even among Canadian expats. Misconception and misinterpretation are a big part of expat life; whether from the host culture or other expats, you just have to deal with it. I choose to find it charming.

Taiwanese Reverse Culture Shock

Reverse culture shock sometimes occurs when someone who has lived long term in a foreign country returns home. It is possible to experience psychological and emotional distress while trying to reintegrate into your native society. Reverse culture shock can be very pernicious because often it hits unexpectedly. Most expats anticipate needing to make cultural adjustments, but frequently return home presuming they’ll easily slip back into accustomed patterns. However, while abroad values and cultural assumptions may have shifted from living in another culture. Expats often see themselves as outsiders, so it can be surprising how much the host country’s culture and mores have been absorbed. During the expat’s absence, the home country may have shifted socially or culturally further alienating the repatriating expat. Returning home to find the familiar has become unfamiliar can be genuinely surprising. Reverse culture shock is difficult to manage because it’s unforeseen.

Personally, I’ve never dealt with a strong case of reverse culture shock. When I returned to Canada after working in Korea, I had a few minor issues, textbook reverse culture shock symptoms. I couldn’t explain my experiences abroad, which didn’t matter much, no one wanted to listen. I felt estranged from Canadian society, and definitely had no chance to utilize my new skills. Since I’d only been gone a year, those feelings were manageable. I’ve been living outside Canada for a couple decades now. I only return occasionally for brief visits. I’m on vacation, not reintegrating. Friends and family tell me I don’t fit into Canadian culture anymore. Truthfully I don’t know what they’re talking about. I suppose they know something I don’t, and I’d suffer severe reverse culture shock if I moved back.

The feeling of reverse culture shock I remember best was actually the most minor. Robin Pascoe in Homeward Bound notes: “re-entry shock is when you feel like you are wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes. Everything looks almost right.” I experienced this in a more literal sense than Pascoe intends. While driving around Saskatoon, after first arriving back, I was unable to shake the feeling of wearing new glasses to which my eyes were unaccustomed. You know the sensation when you get a new prescription, turn your head, and the buildings seem to lie down. That’s exactly how I felt. A feeling of vertigo induced by an unfamiliar skyline with low  buildings and flat terrain. It was an unexpected physical manifestation of reverse culture shock.

Though I have limited personal experience of reverse culture shock, I have coped with Taiwanese returning after long stays overseas. Their reverse culture shock has been a problem. I work in Taiwan’s university system. One thing Taiwanese universities do is invite Taiwanese scholars, who have spent their teaching careers in Western universities, back to Taiwan to take on high-level administrative tasks in the twilight of their career, or after retirement. They’re a botheration. Many have been outside Taiwan for thirty to forty years, possibly more depending where they did their schooling. Suddenly they are parachuted into high-profile positions dealing with strategic planning and staff management. Local universities perceive them as the best of both worlds. They have distinguished careers abroad, so they understand Western education, but they are Taiwanese—born in Taiwan—so obviously they understand Taiwan. Not true.

Most left Taiwan in the 1960s or 1970s. Taiwan is a very fast changing society (see: Generation Gap). Their Taiwanese cultural understanding is outdated. As a single example, often they presume staff should have a martial law era slavish dedication to authority. They can assume an outmoded dictatorial management style. They cause problems for local staff that don’t care to relive the 1970s, or weren’t alive then. There are other examples of why this practice is problematic. These returning administrators suffer from reverse culture shock. Their position of authority allows them not to deal with it. Instead their staff has to try to work around their obtuseness. As a peon within the university system, I generally do not deal directly with these people. However, I do have many Taiwanese friends in university administration. They have expressed dissatisfaction with these outside consultants’ inability to assimilate into the modern Taiwanese workplace.

The same story is being played out in Taiwanese companies as managers return from abroad—most frequently from China—to find a society and workforce they little understand. For those coming from working in China, Taiwan’s democratization and shift from sinocentrism can be disorienting. Their positions often allow them to exist in a bubble, detached from present day Taiwanese society. However, they risk becoming irrelevant as bosses, an impediment that staff must work around.

Repatriates expect to find their homes unchanged, reverse culture shock occurs when this expectation is not met. In Taiwan, because of the pace of change, reverse culture shock can be Brobdingnagian. [Sorry, it was on my word of the day toilet paper]. Taiwanese institutions’ tendency to seek foreign perspectives by employing Taiwan-born expats lends a particular intensity to reverse culture shock.