Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Betelnut Equation. Why?

Why did it name the blog the betelnut equation?

I would have chosen Taiwan if someone hadn't wisely taken the name along time ago.

Anyway, the Betelnut Equation is so named because Taiwan is famous for the betelnut and for getting the best math scores in the world. The two items are opposite in many ways and serve as a good measure of the contradictions you see in Taiwan and in ourselves.

Taiwan culture shock: Don't expect PC

In Taiwan don't expect people to understand the rules of PC that we follow in the West.

One evening, a few months after getting to Taiwan, I was sat on my mattress on the floor watching a Taiwanese soap with the girlfriend of that time, a Carol Tu. I had just finished tipping and pouring food from plastic bags into paper bowls or plates, positioned between us. There was ducks’ blood with ground peanuts, a portion of smelly tofu, a bowl of fish ball soup, a plate of cold clams pickled in soy and garlic and pig’s intestine with thick soy all balanced precariously on that mattress.

"What is the foreigner dude doing on the show?” i asked Carol.

“He was meeting the girl’s father. He kick him out. Say the foreigner doesn’t understand Taiwan culture.”

Apart from a hammer jolt of injustice, I was thinking Carol seemed very nonchalant about it all.

“The father is a bastard? Don’t you think?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know? It is racist -What about your father?”

“He think you foreigners like to fuck around.”

Then Carol kind of suggested her father had a point: there was the Canadian guy who didn’t marry her after all, and she knew I didn’t love her. She had been with two western guys before, and it appeared what her father said about the GIs in Taiwan was right - American soldiers were stationed in Taiwan to protect it against the communists up until the end of the seventies.

“Your father has a second wife and kids in Indonesia and your calling westerners the unfaithful ones?” I replied. Carol liked to recount this story, and numerous others of her grandmother trying to install another woman in the family home to replace her mother as reason why she liked the foreigner. Then there was his student Amanda, and his other student Mary who liked to recount stories of catching her husband being unfaithful, and how their mother-in-laws always said: 'Your husband works very hard. He needs to have some fun.' I knew I should keep clear of these types of students, but feeling other’s pain was addictive, as was, it seemed, their interest in telling me. I once asked if she discussed this with her friends and Amanda had replied: "You know, I don’t talk this to anyone. Will lose the face. I know, you are the foreigner. You are very open."

I was slowly working out there was a downside to being seen as approachable.

I thought for a moment and then felt obliged to qualify my statement based on what most guys were up to in Taipei. “Yes, we fuck around before marriage, then we stay faithful to our wives. Unlike you people who get married to the first person they meet and then start to fuck around.”

Carol stared blankly at me clearly thinking: was I supposed to be impressed? Suddenly, she no doubt saw an image of herself hanging around in that foreigner bar in ten years time, putting up with boring conversation about the pollution, how westerners are taught to ‘think’ in the west; all delivered in badly broken Chinese where she had to guess the tones. She decided her next boyfriend would be old - If I didn’t marry her and make her happy of course.

"Anyway, he doesn't know i don't want to fuck around. He should judge every one as an individual."

"So you want to marry me?" she asked.

I learned my lesson. I never got into this argument again.

Taiwan culture shock: Wishing you weren't a foreigner

You know when you are an vacation or business you have to press palms and talk about yourself. You happily do it for the first few months in Taiwan, but then you remember you are not in Taiwan for two weeks, and sooner or later the non-PC unsubtly and stereotypes begin to get you down – and you lose your perspective for a little time, start to wish you weren't a foreigner.

On this occasion I was sat outside my school on a bench waiting for class.

“Wai gwo ren (Foreigner),” shouted a passing young mother as she turned her little daughter’s head in my direction and pointed.

“Wave! Quick say, ‘hello’,” she continued, now stopping her daughter dead in front of me, expecting a hello back from the foreigner.

Not again, I sighed, looking around me for other prying eyes, now embarrassed by my white skin.

“Hi,” I answered begrudgingly because I couldn’t bring myself to use the speech I had prepared about the fact that I was a person, and this street wasn’t a zoo; that the Taiwanese didn’t disturb perfect strangers from their own country -- Had I signed away my privacy after getting off that plane at Chiang Kai-Shek airport?

“Where are you from?” the mother asked. I was asked this question, along with: ‘How long had I been…’ and ‘Was I used to it?’ a thousand times a day, and, I was beginning to think it was racism.

How did she know I wasn’t from here? Apparently, there was one white guy with a Taiwan passport, and she might have stumbled upon him.

“Here,” I said determined to make a point.

“Really?” she answered sceptically. “So how long have you been here?”

“I said, ‘I am from here. I was born here.”

“Are you used to it here?”

“I am from here. I have lived here all my life. And, of course, I like Chinese food.”

“Really?” she insisted. She was now annoyed I had spoilt her chance to ask if he liked the food. “So…um…where are you actually from? America?”

“Yeah, I give up. ”

“Very good,” she replied. “Huh. Wow. Nice to meet you - Uh…you English teacher?”

“Student,”I replied outraged she would pigeon-hole me in that way, even though I was also a teacher like everyone else.

“You want to teach my son?” she asked.

It was futile she had broken me: “Why not," I replied. "And when I come to your house I want proper imported coffee, freshly ground from beans. Not the 3-in-1 packets of instant coffee, powdered milk and sugar you Taiwanese drink...Definitely no Chinese tea. If you want to give me lunch then it has to be pastrami on whole wheat bread, heavy on the mayo. And the first time I come to teach, you will have to come and pick me up at my house because there is no way I can find anything in your city…Of course I can’t speak any Chinese.”

“No problem. You come on Saturday for dinner and we take you to TGI Friday. You like steak, right?”

“I am American, aren’t I?”

“Great. I must go,” she said rushing off to her car.

In hindsight I know she couldn’t wait to get home to tell her sister they were all going out to dinner on Saturday with a foreigner, and to ask her where to buy a coffee maker. But at the time all I could think about was she was wearing clothes from a good label and dragging her kid into her double parked Benz. She was obviously middle class, and she should know better than to teach her kids to point at foreigners on the street and make generalizations. She should know only the ethnic minority, because they are sensitive and oppressed, has the right to bring up the colour of their skin, and their ethnic stereotypes. Like it was back home.

Still I thought of the free steak on Saturday, the daily praising of my country, and the well meaning unsubtly of the mother. I felt churlish and ungrateful.

I knew I should just go with the flow. Still it took a while.

Taiwan culture: Not necessary to live with your wife I

You get used to the usual questions, but the one about marriage and your wife I always found funniest:

“Where you from?”


“Very good. I have been to New York, and…uh…Disneyland.”

“How long you want to stay Taiwan?”

“Two years.”

“You come alone?”

“Yes. Huh, so brave. You don’t miss your family?”

“Not really” Chuckles and giggles at the ridiculous suggestion you don’t miss your family.

Then: “So you didn't bring your wife?”

“No, man, and just before I left I got her pregnant just to heap more shit on her pile of loneliness, and my irresponsibility.”

“One more time?”

“No, I am not married. And that should be self-explanatory. I told you I have come here for two years alone."

Expat Culture in Taiwan: Environmentally-friendly when it suits us.

When we first arrive and are hit by the mass of grey concrete that is downtown Taipei we immediately start to criticise the Taiwanese environmentally-friendly credentials. However, it is not that simple:

“Hey, that is something to worry about, man,”said Eric/Joe Bloggs pretending to choke, referring to the exhaust fumes from the fifteen deep mass of scooters lined up at the traffic light in front of us. “It is a disease, this constant building...Having to have another new car. Consumption, consumption, consumption. They don’t give a shit about their environment. This affects us you know - Global warming.”

“We all raped our environment too. Now we have decided to protect it why should everyone else around the world go back to living in shacks and riding a bicycle?” I would answer if I could be bothered to indulge. “Anyway, since when did we go back to riding bikes?”

Joe Bloggs would then point to the green fencing across the road with the warning to wear your hard hat. “Do you think all these building are necessary? It is consumption for consumptions sake.”

“I think you’ll find that is a school, man…And, that one is a hospital…Anyway, nice talking to.”

Friday, January 16, 2009

Characters: Friends

I have met many people other the years, scarcely more than i can remember; however, the guys i was closest to, and who became good friends, were Eric, Pierre and John.
John was a fellow Englishman, degreeless and with a hell raising past. He was unusual because he was at once best able to deal with the Taiwanese and always claiming he wanted to leave. While we all got paranoid at the stories of having to go and get our money from some school that decided not to pay us, he took it in his stride saying he had never relied on recourse to the law to get his pay check. He was also extremely adept at appealing to the locals need for titles, happy to call everyone 'boss' or 'older brother' to get his way. Unfortunately, he was always planning to leave because what made him enjoy Taiwan – his old-fashioned value set – also pulled him back to his home country.
Josh was an extremely pro-active and motivated Canadian. He quickly blazed a trail getting jobs most of us dreamt of but was fighting a desire to do his own thing - to set up a business rather than work for a company. He was also terrible with the women unable to adapt to the cultural nuances of dealing with them.
Eric was a Harvard educated New England private school boy suffering from incredibly high levels of needing to be authentic. He was fascinated by Chinese culture – language, medicine, art etc – but loathed dealing with the paternalism and nepotism that was the talk and protocol of everyday life. He was similar with the women: loving the idea of being able to get a lot of girls; desperately hoping to meet one who would tell him what to do.
I never knew if Pierre needed to be authentic or was just driven by a desire to stand out. Our freedom and special status got to all of us, but in Pierre’s case, a little too much. He set out from the start not to be pigeon-holed as a teacher – and it sent him on a number of ever increasingly more ridiculous adventures.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Taiwan culture shock: Taiwan girls

My friends would ask me what it is like dating a girl from Taiwan, and I would say, “You have watched Pulp Fiction of course. Well…Remember Bruce Willis’ character’s girlfriend. The one who lies on the bed talking about whether she has a belly or not - Who forgets to bring his watch and then gets so upset when he slightly loses his temper that he has to spend twenty minutes comforting her. There you have it…”
I used to quote the above as a comical first analogy when I had not been in Taiwan very long, but it still acts as a good lead in to some of the key aspects of the Taiwanese female and Taiwanese character in general.
One of the first things you think when you first start dating a Taiwanese girl is that they are ‘so nice.’ As if there is something in their heart that is just nicer than other races or cultures. Maybe, she leans into you and says something like: “You are such a wonderful boyfriend. I am so glad to be with you. That restaurant was so good you took me too. I am really grateful. Tonight you can do anything you want to me. You know I am just the little Taiwan girl and you are the man.”
Depending on how heavily you carry your own western baggage about directness, honesty and being realistic, your reaction ranges anything from skepticism, feeling a like squeamish to damn right revulsion. One of the things you do is remember how she is a downtrodden little Asian and you feel sorry for her because she has been pushed into this terrible position. Otherwise, you feel she is weak.
Of course this is nonsense. The correct way of viewing it is the culture emphasizes being polite, nice, enthusiastic, helpful. Asians are prepared to go to far greater levels of service than we are – Things that we won’t do because we view as impinging upon our rights, they will just do without thinking. Just take an Asian airline compared to a European or North American one. If you are on the Asian airline you can press the button on your seat a thousand times and the girl will come and give you a new drink; on the European one, after the second press you can already see her face resenting you and she will say something on the lines of, Get up and get it yourself, I know that is my job, but I think I have provided you with sufficient service. In short, we westerners don’t like to offer too much because we are too caught up with our rights and not being taken advantage of.
In fact, there is a word that sums up what the girl above is doing: Sa jiao. When a Taiwanese girl first started using the word with me I could only come up with a negative translation: sucking up or brown nosing. The girl will put her arms around you and say lots and lots of nice things and say how much he likes to ‘sa jiao’ with you. I suppose, we do have words that are similar such as ‘bonding’ – but, in general, we refer to the above more often than not in a negative way.
So, as she is being nice to you, how do you allay your fears that she is weak? You will soon find that out in time because if she is weak then she won’t require you to reciprocate and also be polite. And that comes back to the Pulp Fiction analogy and why it reminds me of Taiwanese girls. The joke is clear: She is in the wrong because she forgot to do the one thing that he requires her to do. We are thinking the stupid bitch should be apologizing and putting up her hand and saying ‘My bad.’ But no – Bruce’s character has to apologize in the end to stop her crying.
So how does it fit in? There you have the price for a Taiwanese girl being nice to you: You are expected to be nice back. A couple of the phrases you will hear most often are: “Ne bu yao shen chi (No, need to get angry); “Wei shih ma, ne mei you hao hao di jiang (Why don’t you just nicely say what you want to say?). An example, John once described a situation in which his wife was dithering in the middle of the road playing with her cell phone and a truck is approaching. He of course shouted words to the effect of ‘move quickly’ to which her subconscious reaction is to dig her heels in because of his sharp tone. He has to move back into the road and grab her to pull her out of the path of the truck. Once on the pavement she stood angrily and they had the following conversation:
“Why you get angry with me?”
“I wasn’t getting angry. I was shouting because it was a noisy road.”
“Still no need to shout. Just talk nicely.”
“I think talking nicely means you would be squashed.”
“Now you are being sarcastic.”
She refused to budge, at which point most of us would have walked off at the preposterous injustice of having to apologize for saving someone’s life – but not John, as I said he was good at dealing with Taiwanese, so he replied as follows: “I am sorry for losing my temper – You know how much I love you and so I panicked.”
She forgave him immediately no doubt giving him the best sex of his life that evening. We listened in admiration because, while we all loved the idea of the Taiwanese girl, we weren’t so good at handling them ourselves.
We can’t leave this topic without touching on the idea of sexism. Taiwan was still an incredibly sexist society compared to the west – exceptionally liberal compared to most of the rest of the world you have to remember – but it wasn’t that straightforward as that: Taiwan has one of the best employment markets for women in Asia and with economic opportunities come freedom. And while society was officially sexist many families were not. Women were used to getting their own way in more subtle ways rather than direct confrontation.
Another thing we like to say is the women don’t compete with us – At every turn they don’t try and show men that they can do it as well or better than them. Well, they don’t, but of course it has its drawbacks. Don’t expect them to say, No I am not tired, or, It’s ok I don’t need any help or I’ll go and pick up that dry cleaning I forgot myself. This is shown best when she has your kid. Don’t expect her to be up off the bed after one day to prove to you she is a strong woman. She will enjoy every day of the special month she is given in which gives her the right to lie on the bed, and do nothing. Don’t tell her every minute how hard she has worked and it is best she rests for longer – and you see how much trouble you get in for the rest of your life.
She lets you be the stronger sex, don’t be surprised therefore when she wants to be the weaker.
Another favorite is to accuse the girl of being a fraud because she was so nice to you in the first two months and suddenly not so afterwards; that she is reeling you in. The more likely explanation is you come from two different cultures separated by 5000 years of different culture. She was nice to you. You weren’t particularly nice back. After two months she is hoping you are going to start doing it her way and you are hoping she is going to do it yours. You are getting to the stage of the relationship where you have to start making decisions together and you will disagree on many things – and your cultural differences are no longer such fun. She has a face problem and drops into passive aggressive mode. You feel bad so push her to spell out she has a problem. It all goes to pieces.
Of course, the above pops its head up to differing degrees in every girl. If it doesn’t then she is the exception that proves the rule.
Of course there are some girls who don’t speak nicely to you or treat you like a man. There are also some girls who do it and don’t expect it back. In those cases I would suggest you look not to the failure of this but to personal issues with the girl: spoilt bitch, psycho or doormat.
I am not trying to put you off dating Taiwanese girls, just expect to behave like a ‘man’ if you want to be treated like one.
Oh, and by the way, it is all worth it. Every second.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Taiwan culture: AIDs or a condom - I'll risk the AIDs

Condoms were a no-no for some older women in Taipei because it suggested you were planning to have sex, and you did it often.

This is one of John's stories.

He had had a particularly bad class and started drinking beer from the 7/11 and hanging around on Chong Hsiao East Road, one of the most popular shopping areas.

After a couple of beers he was starting to get horny and so started to talk to a woman in her thirties stood looking in the window of Mango.

“Hi,”he said. “How are you?”

“Ok. Uh, nice to meet me,” she replied.

“Sorry, I am new in Taipei, and I am looking for a coffee shop. I have walked around for a long time,” he said.

“There is one behind you - There,”he replied.

“Uh, so stupid. I should buy you a coffee for showing me where to go. If you would join me...”

Twenty minutes later in the coffee shop.

“You are very pretty you know," said John.

“Thank you, but I am not going to fuck you,”she replied.

John was taken back but continued,“Of course, you are a traditional Taiwanese woman.”

“No, that is not the reason. Most of you foreigners have AIDs, don’t you?"

He then explained that he had given up and started to leave, but been invited back to hers. Then, later, as the time to penetrate had come, he had reached in his trouser pocket for some condoms.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"Putting on a condom of course," he replied.

"You think i am the dirty girl? - Sleep around?"

“Whatever, I was just trying not give you AIDs, after all."

Taiwan culture: The innocent one afternoon stand

This little story, the innocent one afternoon stand, revolves around a couple of themes that often recur:

a) This is a generalization with a hundred confusing exceptions, but: Taiwanese women are a little bit more coy and shy about saying what they want.

b) Bars and nightclubs are equivalent to whore houses and everyone inside has HIV.

I had met Zoe in a Japanese lifestyle accessories store - and now, four hours later, we were lying on the bed in a Love Hotel. She was playing with my cum on her chest; i was thinking about when i could get away.

Bored, single girls always went to lifestyle accessory stores, bookshops, Ikea or record shops; anywhere big enough that the staff wouldn't bother them - and they could wander slowly picking up items, pretending to show an interest in buying when their only interest was getting noticed, exposing themselves.

Clothes shops weren’t such a good pick up ground because girls were usually there to make purchases.

Zoe had smiled back immediately; she had been nervous, but extremely talkative.

"I haven't had a boyfriend for more than a year," she said. "I am really glad to meet you."

This did make me feel a little bad. I hadn't decided if I was going to see her again, and I didn't feel I had to, but I always liked happy endings. I decided I should try and help her meet another guy.

"That is a shame," i replied. "You are very pretty and you should have confidence in yourself. You know there are many bars where you could go to meet men. In the bar you will have lots of guys competing over you. No need to wait another year.”

"Really, but i don't like the one night stand."

There is was again, I had heard it so many times: the only possible outcome of interaction with the opposite sex within a bar was a one-night stand; in fact many believed the only outcome of walking into a bar was sex: I would have to explain to incredulous faced Taiwanese guys that i went to the bar and didn't get laid, usually saying, In the ideal world, but i am afraid it is not as easy...

Anyway, as i said, i wanted her to find another guy so i continued: "You don't actually have to sleep with the guy that evening, you could just give him your phone number. You know, I even met this guy who married a girl he met in the bar. Imagine that."

“I know, I go bar once. I give my phone number to a guy and he call me. We go out many times...Hmm, maybe 1 month, but wo bu gan zuo (I don’t dare do).”

"One month? He waited one month? Well, i think you missed an opportunity there - a marriage opportunity."

She looked at me in disbelief and i figured i had done my best. Besides, I wouldn't mind seeing her again.

I felt a little guilty so I lied back down resigning myself to not getting away so quickly. I started to think about the obvious: She must be aware this was a one-afternoon stand; store, coffee then to a hotel. But then getting picked up next to fancy imported diaries, notebooks, and table lamps, was always so much more innocent and wholesome. No doubt father’s around Taiwan were shooing away their 15 year-old daughters saying: "You just go and have some fun at the hotel with that stranger. He likes to buy pens."

Friday, January 9, 2009

Expat Culture in Taiwan: Always have to be different

In Taiwan for the first few years you teach and date Taiwanese girls for no other reason than you are not very good at finding needles in haystacks. Go to the bar and you won't be shaking hands with an accountant, a salesman, or a advertising executive, the best you can hope for is adults versus kids; high-level versus low. Most people accept this - albeit with plenty of moans - but then you get your guys who have to be different; who can't stand to be one of the masses.

Pierre was an extreme example, but there were many others.

This was the first time we met him.

“Man, it is the TU dude. Let’s invite him over,” said Eric who was an amateur social anthropologist continually pointing out the characters he thought were interesting. He had pointed Pierre out in TU - a famous nightclub - because, among all of Carrie’s victims, he had stood out most.

Background: Carrie was an institution around town, famous for her ability to spot the fresh young egos who had just got off the plane, make them hers and move on after a few weeks. She was a good-looking girl, no question, but not the best; her strategy was to have plenty of attitude and presence to attract the wannabe alpha-male. It was a strategy that only worked if the guy didn’t get the joke about foreign men in Taiwan: everyone could get a girl and your looks were not the most important thing. (Eric was the opposite – his self-image had kept his feet firmly on the ground from day one, when it was okay to develop a spring in your step, at least). This guy, however, had excelled all expectations, walking around the disco chest out, triumphant: 'look I have just arrived but I have the most beautiful girl in here' - blissfully clueless to the sniggers around.

“How you doing, man!”said Eric shaking his hand. “Eric - Pointing to himself - And this is John..And Dan. You came here alone?”

“Pierre!” replied the TU guy. “And no, I am waiting for a girl.”

“Well, that is why we are here!”I said. Get similar minded people together in a group and they will pump up each others egos; in Taiwan the noise from men was deafening. However, listening to geeks talk about the women fighting over them could be a stomach churning experience.

“Not me. You know I had girlfriends before I came here,”said Pierre contradicting himself.

“Really? Not from what we have seen,”said Eric.

“What did you say?”

“Joke, dude. Come on, you got yourself a Chinese girl.”

“Not for me. I have slept with one or two, but they don’t do anything for me. I am seeing a Canadian model. I like a girl to have breasts..."

That one was not exactly creative, I thought, Chinese girls don't have big tits...Wow...Sharp...

"Anyway, I can get girls wherever I am in the world. My French girlfriend, will come here in a few months so I am a busy man you see."

Pierre then suddenly asked.“Please let me get you all a beer.”It was a real dilemma: free beer or tell him to fuck off. Eric, of course, wanted the free beer, figuring he deserved it for listening to his bullshit; John figured he needed to learn to be more tolerant; and i wanted to see if John was up to the challenge of not punching him out.

A couple of minutes later Pierre was back from the bar and hadn't forgotten the subject.“It is so sad to just stay here because you can get a girlfriend,”he said.

“So what honourable motives keep you in Taiwan?”i asked.

“France is a shit hole: high unemployment, high taxes, and no opportunities for young people. You know I went for several interviews and at each one I was the best candidate, but they had to give it to an African or an Arab. It is fucked.”

As I had guessed, he had not come to contribute his sweat and blood to the disadvantaged of the land.

“So, how did you know you were the best candidate?”asked Eric.

Pierre gave us a stern, I just told you so look then remembered that all good stories have some evidence: “I phoned the interviewer…you cannot be afraid in these circumstances.”

“So what are you doing now? Teaching French?” asked Eric.

“I teach English not French.”

“Wow, that is cool man. Yeah, I suppose your English is perfect.”

Later we found this was nonsense, but it was the best he could think of at the time to make himself sound different.

Pierre continued, "Actually for the moment, I am a student. You know I only studied two terms of Chinese in France, and then I won a scholarship here. You know most foreigners still don’t get the tones so well. I have no French accent, and perfect tones.”

"Man, that is good. I have a strong American accent and I don’t think I will ever lose it," replied Eric before receiving a well, you are just a mortal look.

Eric continued,“So why do you think you are so good?”

“Who knows...Maybe it is my musical background.”

“So you can be an interpreter, or teach Chinese back in France,”continued Eric who was clearly suffering the effects of six months of being labelled as an English teacher, now sub-conciously only associating foreigners with jobs that utilised their native language skills.

“No, no, I will never go back to France. You know, language is the beginning, it is not the end. I don’t restrict myself to being a foreigner: teaching, translating or editing. I will do whatever I want to do.”

“So what are you doing now for cash?”I asked.

“I have my grant from school”

“I hear they are not enough?” said Eric because he had actually applied.

“I have one or two private students to top things up – only need one or 2 because they are extremely high paying.”

“I thought you didn’t lower yourself to teach!” I said still just trying to relieve the tension.

“This is short-term. I think I will start looking in a few months when I have finished studying...You know I can, how you say, understand a place very quickly?”

“Suss out”

“Get the low down.”

“Yes, suss out a place. Once I do I will succeed.”

By the end of the evening they knew how he had sung in the choir, played youth football for Paris, and how he was an excellent teacher and student, even though he was not particularly interested in either. They had had their lives broken down, analysed and even told how their meaningless existences were actually good for them.

“Why doesn’t that guy just do his own thing? I am surprised you didn’t punch him,” said Eric to John.

“I am trying to turn the other cheek, but, yes, it did come close to being the other set.”

“Well, I think the son of God himself, would have jumped that guy,” I said. “Actually talking to an asshole like that is quite good occasionally.”

“Yeah? Why?” asked John.

“Reminds us why we don’t want to go back to the west,” I said.

I was talking about the brainwashing back home to succeed, be productive, set yourself goals, meaning most of my friends permanently talked like they were in an interview: "I am a smart guy with excellent analytical and communication skills” would be an answer to, "How are you?" Then i would ask, "re you happy?" and they would reply: "Of course, man. In 2 years time I will be able to move to a bigger house and get a new car." I had to admit that I had been touched by many of those values, but reasoned that I was different because I didn’t compete with his fellow man, just myself.

“Give him a few months, he’ll learn,”said John.

In Taiwan, after a few months guys, realized they didn’t need to compete with your fellow foreigners because there were not ten people applying for that job, and the general spirit was to do your own thing.

"I think he has already been here a while."

"At least he bought the drinks," said Eric who was still unable to weigh the unseen costs of something, only see the financial saving.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Strange Taiwan Jobs: A taste of Paris - Taiwan style

A couple of weeks after the condom ad we had the apartment building complex shoot outside of Taipei.

“Jesus. Why am I a waiter again?” complained Eric while we were on the way.

“It is your fault, you choose to be the waiter in the bar ad,” answered Pierre. "Now you are type-cast. You Americans should understand that principle: all French are arrogant gigolos, and English psychos or gays, no?"

“Hey, less of the gay thing,” interrupted John.

“What are you looking at?” said Pierre, as for a moment we all thought the French stereotype was spot-on.

I continued,“You will always be remembered affectionately as the waiter dude.”

"Harvard to waiter," said Eric, "just glad my parents won’t see."

“Besides, I have to be concert pianist because I can actually play the piano,” said Pierre.

“I don’t think they will require you to play,”said Eric not prepared to give up quite yet.

“No he is right, he has to do it – even if you wear a dinner jacket you will still stink of a baseball cap and trainers. He has the big nose and the stuck up look that is unmistakably European,”said John.

“And you can’t do since no concert pianist ever looked like he can bench press the piano, and will rip it apart with his bare hands if it doesn’t listen,” replied Eric.

“Exactly," replied John. "That is why I am the gym instructor and lifeguard.”

“Anyway, you know I get the best paid role, because I found the work,” said Pierre who was no doubt thinking we weren’t grateful for the work he had given us.

A few weeks back Pierre had met a girl who was an agent. She asked him if he wanted to pretend to be a French doctor promoting this strange cream that would apparently make your breasts bigger, and he hasn’t looked back since. That was what kept us hanging around with Pierre: he spoke perfect English, his limited Chinese had perfect pronunciation; in short, his extreme confidence seemed to have due cause.

As we arrived at the shoot, I looked up at the name of the apartment complex we were going to do the advert for, 'Taste of Paris.’That was why I liked the Taiwanese, they weren’t afraid to pander to national stereotypes: If you were selling watches get a picture of a little blonde girl on a mountain; wedding clothes shops were always called Taipei-Paris or Taipei-Rome (which was a bit like saying Paris-Wigan); and, anything to do with engineering, a big fat guy with an over large moustache. Westerners - well, in fact Americans - were regarded as being creative and outgoing and cool, so if they were naming a new restaurant, or bar, or coffee shop and were trying to bring in young hip crowd, they had to call it California Dreaming, or Californian Heaven, or California something... And then you hired a couple of Westerners to hang around pulling exaggerated facial movements (remember all Westerners are very expressive).

In this case, to keep with stereotypes, all new apartment projects had a European architectural theme, and names like “Tuscan Dream” or ‘Bordeaux Chateaus’ to evoke images of European grandeur of old. Today, a minibus had picked them up in Taipei and then headed out the city, got off the freeway, onto a road wide enough for just one truck, cutting through some rice fields, past a couple of traditional red brick courtyard houses, and a defunct ball bearing factory – they had to go this way because the road connecting the community up to the freeway was still being built – before suddenly arriving at a ‘Taste of Paris’, this new upscale apartment complex in Taipei County. There were eight tower blocks surrounding a courtyard; fountains, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, spa baths, a fitness center, basketball court, obligatory convenience store and cash machine, and even its own cinema.

Twenty minutes later we had started to film our parts. The first was John so we were walking to the gym to shoot his part.

“Hey, it is John...Yes? Hah, so strong. Very good,” said the director. "So where are you from?”

“England, mate,”replied John.

“Very good. Oh – a gentleman.”

“Hmm, something like that,” smiled John because he didn’t exactly fit the gentleman stereotype.

But the director wasn't finished.“Hmm, I think you more like the American.”

“So I have heard,”said John now bored to indulge the discussion. I was also British and so had heard this before: it seemed all British were supposed to be lily-livered, wimps, scared to say boo to a goose; Hugh Grant had a lot to answer for!

Two minutes later, they had arrived at the gym in the basement. The slim model who came with them would have to lie on the bench press while John taught her how to use it.

“Ok?” asked the director.

“No problem.” This was John’s second assignment so he got the idea about exaggerated actions. The model pushed out one repetition and John gave her a long high clap in front his face followed by a thumbs up.

“So now you push the weight. Show how strong you are,” asked the director who was taking a more than professional interest in John.

John benched the whole stack.“Wow! You sure you not the American?”exclaimed the director.
“Very sure, mate.” John swore if he ever saw Hugh Grant or any other member of the Four Weddings and a Funeral cast, he would -.

Outside by the pool.

“Hey, what is up with this girl?” asked Eric because the model in the swimsuit he had to serve cocktails to wouldn’t stay on her sun bed. Every time the scene had a hold up or went longer than twenty seconds, she broke away into the shade.

“She wants to stay white. If she gets some suntan she cannot get any other work for a while,” replied the translator.

“Selfish,” replied Pierre. “You think I am happy in this heat. These people just aren’t team players. It is the top-down structure here that stops them being able to work together. We are more flexible - will just get on with things.”

“The director is asking if someone can move the sun canopy nearer her,” said the translator moments later..

“Sure, man,” replied Eric. “Come on Pierre.”

“We don’t need to do this – we are the actors - superior status,” said Pierre.

“Just lift the fucking canopy.”

“So have you managed to get your stuff yet?” asked John to Pierre who had left half of his belonging in his old apartment when he moved.

“Typical Taiwan story. The girlfriend phones me and says the boss has asked her to go to work on Saturday and Sunday...It is very important, apparently. You know, I am actually sympathetic. Well at first I got angry, and she started to cry - So anyway I ask her, if he said why, and she says no. So I asked her why she didn’t want to challenge the guy, find out why she had to give up her weekend. That is what we would do, right? At least you ask why you have to do something? Am i not right?”

“Hmm, what does this guy want us to do now?” asked John bored with the subject. He was supposed to be the lifeguard, but all he had done for half an hour was stand in the sun. “Do I have to rescue someone later?”

Pierre:“Fuck, I don’t know. Just hang around and follow whatever he says is my attitude.”

“Cut,”screamed the director and the cool Taiwanese enjoying the good life lounging by the pool, soaking up the sun, and drinking cocktails, sprinted inside out of the sun and into the aircon.

At six 0'clock the sun went down and they were ready to do Pierre’s part.

“So you pretend to play the piano,” instructed the director to Pierre. Pierre was sat at the grand piano surrounded by all the Taiwanese who had earlier been lounging around the pool. However, now they wearing dinner jackets, trying to ignore the mosquitoes, and preparing to listen to Pierre’s piano recital, above the noise from the freeway.

“I don’t need to pretend.” Not one to miss a chance to show-off Pierre played a couple of verses of Beethoven. Then, because of it, the finish, the walk around the tables of applauding Chinese being toasted with champagne for his performance, was more genuine than expected.

“It is weird how a man can be so talented and stupid,” said Eric.

“People always manage to surprise,” replied John.

Expat Culture: Jumping to false conclusions II

Among us expats it was very easy to get confused by cultural differences and jump to false conclusions.
I think i was guilty of this one.

My student Sara Liu had a successful toy business.

I guessed it was successful because she had three houses, a couple of BMWs in the drive and, six hours a week, she could also afford to pay me 1000NT an hour to check her faxes.

“Who does your designs?" I asked her while checking through the catalogue for her toy business. She used these designs to attract worldwide business, but all I saw was a bunch of items with diverse colours that didn’t match; dark blues, greys and whites instead of oranges, yellows and light blues; colours that didn’t shine; block like shapes instead of innovative curves; blunt corners instead of smoothed circular ones. In short, toys you would find in the markets, and pound shops.

“We do,” she replied.

“And the brochure? Your logo?” I asked. They were called ‘Cute Love Toys’ and their logo was a kid with the head of a teddy bear; it wasn’t centered, and the company name was in black Times New Roman, size 14 font. Finally, the cover paper was at least half the thickness it should be, and there was no plastic layer to add gloss. The whole thing looked like it had been done in Word.

“I do,” she replied.

“Why don’t you improve the designs and the brochure? You could hire a designer...Get new customers. Increase your prices by adding value.” I think I remembered reading that in some promotional literature for one of companies he had applied to before coming to Taiwan.

“I know, but everything is cost-down in Taiwan.”

“But you will get more customers.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “I need to ask my father. I think there is no chance.”

I continued,“I’m sorry. Doesn’t he know you can’t be successful without a successful marketing strategy?”

“Hmm...I know in the West you respect the marketing. I always want to study the marketing when I was young, but mei-you ban fa (no chance). I have to help the family business - Here no need,” she replied. “My father like to make the decision. He think his way is successful.”

She handed me a fax with an order for about half a million US dollars. On seeing it the frustration levels went up; frustration for all the money she could be giving me in gratitude for taking my advice.

“You have to challenge him. Make things happen for yourself. Create your own rules, that what we are taught to do in the West.”

“I know, but this is Taiwan...So why did you come to Taiwan?” she asked changing the subject.

“Too difficult to get a job in England. Too much competition.”

“I see,” she replied.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Expat Culture in Taiwan: Jumping to false conclusions I

This is one i believed myself once; then heard a hundred times from new arrivals over the years.
The background: foreigner hears middle-aged Taiwanese person tell them they have to ask their mother if they can change a job, and the result is that they decide Taiwanese lack independence - and they the foreigner jump to the false conclusion they are destined to succeed.

Jake and Pierre were a couple of guys who i met in the bar, but it could have been many others.

“I am glad I came,” smirked Pierre, desperately excited by the imminent prospect of success. “With the education we received growing up in the West - the way we’ve been taught to think about things, we’ve got so many opportunities.”

“I hear you man,” echoed Jake because he had also been in Taipei just a few months, and enjoyed hearing the articulation of things he had felt.

“So why are you here?” Jake asked.

“You know -- France is a shit-hole. People’s attitudes…Bankrupt of new ideas…Old ones failing,” replied Pierre.

“Canada the same. This place is the future.”

Then Pierre turned to me.“Dan, tell us what you think? We have been taught to think for ourselves, not to blindly follow our parents, or teachers, or bosses. To make up our own minds, no?” asked Pierre.

“Hmm, anyone want a drink?” I asked not expecting to persuade his first person of the day of its failings.

How the fuck can you the individual westerner be so great but the west so shit? Slow down before make up your mind.

The truth is the contradiction of the Taiwanese was an incredibly hard thing to reconcile, and ten years later most foreigners are still mulling over it in their heads. What is that contradiction? A guy will set up his business from nothing, mortgage his house, risk everything, carve out new markets, run his business - but then if his mother ask him to dye his hair pink and run down the high street in a dress he will do it.

Advice: don't try to understand, just remember that humans are a mass of contradictions and anything is possible.

Alternatively, read Jumping to false conclusions II to find out why it is so hard for us.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Expat Culture in Taiwan: Alienation and the authentic experience

Another favorite form of alienation for those seeking an authentic foreign experience is that many of the symbols of western capitalism - MacDonalds, Starbucks and TGI Fridays - that they reject are worshipped here. It twists the mind and leads to the very wrong conclusion: the locals have given up their culture.

"Jesus Christ, I am in Subway," said Eric, who had called me up for dinner and to complain about his day. "I didn’t fly ten thousand miles to eat a goddamn sandwich."

"Hmm. Keep an open mind." I replied. It was true that these tacky symbols of western capitalist imperialism that Eric always complained about were everywhere. The average block had a McDonalds, a Starbucks and at least four 7/11s - not a mention a Mango and a Topshop; however, that was ignoring the fact that the other 80% of the block was made up of restaurants where the animals were just breathing their last breaths, shops selling large orange buddhas, Chinese tea and medicine, red temples with daoist gods, and shops selling Chinese tea.

Eric wasn’t the only one like it: the hostel was filled with guys moaning about western restaurant chains - Apart from Pizza Hut, Pizza Hut was the exception; by the number of empty pizza boxing littering the hostel living room, it seemed they were excused in the boycott of the crass and philistine.

Eric continued: "I am disappointed, man. They want to practice their English all the time, and drink coffee and ask me about America. It is too modern here."

"I know what you mean – It is much better if we had to crap in a bucket. Throw cold water over our heads to wash. Walk everywhere. Read books by candlelight. Die when we got the slightest illness."

"You know what I mean - have their own take on modernity. Not follow us. Since when were fast food chains the aspiration of the middle classes?"

"I see: the square wheel, the flushing sit down toilet with perhaps a hole coming out the side, a round car, the computer with no keyboard...What other things should Asians fix that aren’t broken?"

"Come on, the MacDonalds thing. There are thousands in this city."

"Yeah MacDonalds bothers me. I mean, as you say there are thousands of them in this city - "

"So you agree with me?" he interrupted.

"I agree it is a travesty when Burger King is much better and there are only two of them here...And Kentucky...There are not enough."

I continued, "Only joking me old cocker. Just don’t eat there…And bear in mind all the things you accuse these people of you were guilty of with regard to us. You know: America playing catch up to the English."

"But that is different, man...We improved on it."

"Haven’t they improved on it? Aren’t you always saying it is more capitalist here than back home? Discos, bars and restaurants open all night - The convenience stores...Life is twenty-four seven."

"Alright, man. I have to go and teach. We’ll talk another time," answered Eric like he could win that argument if he had time.

"I know," I smirked.

Then i saw him looking out the window scanning the buildings, about to use all the English signs as ammunition. "And before you say anything, of course there isn’t Chinese characters all over the west - It ain’t the world’s second language, matey."

Taiwan culture shock: Where are the white TV presenters?

Taiwan is not a multi-racial society. White foreigners make up less than a tenth of one percent of the people. Don't expect to see any white TV presenters. This can prove a shock to our finely tuned, PC, middle class sensibilities.

In the case of Eric, who i met while studying at a Chinese school, it proved to be more a shock than others.

We were sat on a bench outside the Chinese school waiting for our class to start.

"The racists," said Eric who was reading the local English language rag for Taiwan. "Where are the positive discrimination and equal opportunities job adverts for white westerners?"

"Welcome to the rest of the world, dude," I replied before qualifying my comments. "It is a little bit more complicated than that."

"I am not talking about myself man - i have only been here a few months, but some guys... guys like you, have been here a few years. It is so racist."

"Four years, actually. But I speak shit Chinese. I wouldn’t give me a job."

"Well, maybe, but there are some guys who speak Chinese fluently -"

I interrupted, "Even one or two who can write the language as well. And for those guys, who could actually cope in an average Taiwanese company, it is a fucking crime the Taiwan authorities don’t spend all their energy knocking on doors, finding them, and dragging them into mainstream society - whether they like it or not."

"You know what I mean - The cable doesn’t have one white presenter, actor or newsreader."

"To represent who? – The white western fluent Chinese speaking slither...Sorry segment of society who are actually interested in watching the local TV. Presumably because they can’t be watching and presenting at the some time."

"Alright, man. Another time," said Eric obviously a little confused how he was losing the argument when he knew he was right.

I thought about continuing the argument - after all i had once believed similar things, but i kind of had the feeling Eric was only going to learn from his own mistakes.

Over the years we actually became reasonably close friends and i got to regret not trying harder to nip his alienation in the bud.