Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Taiwan jokes: What is a subway….

This little language miscommunication happened the first time my parents came to Taipei. My wife had never met my parents before - she had never met any white people over fifty before - and, having been brought up to respect her parents-in-law she had been shaking like a leaf before they arrived. Still she managed to put their culture shock first and spent the time trying to make conversation, point out things that might be familiar to my parents. My wife speaks good English but my parents have a strong local accent that most Americans would have trouble following let alone Taiwanese – They think ‘when the cows come home’ is everyday English.
We were in a taxi leaving the restaurant. At this juncture the wife had decided my parents might want to know they could have a sandwich tomorrow.
“There is a Subway,” she said pointing out the window of the taxi.
“Really,” replied my mother. We had speed past too quick for her to see exactly what a subway in Taiwan looked like. Why a road underpass was sufficient news to be pointed out, but she was determined to bond with her daughter-in-law, no matter what. “Back in England we don’t use them. They are a bit dangerous,” she replied.
“The subway?”
“Yeah, some people were attacked in them so they closed them down…Terrible!”
“Wow, nothing like that happens in Taiwan.”
“Well they are quite old… And dark at night,” continued the mother.
Ordinarily I only scanned my mother’s conversation for certain key words like ‘heart attack’ preceded by ‘I am having’, otherwise I just answered ‘yes’ or ‘hmm’ and carried on thinking about whatever I was thinking about or talking to my father. Knowing my home town it was plausible that someone was attacked in a sandwich shop; however, at ‘dark at night’, I understood. I didn’t dare stop them though.
“They don’t have the light?” continued the wife.
“Well it is under the street so the lights are never strong enough.”
“Our subways are not all underground. Most are on the street.”
“That is interesting. In England, our country, they are all underground. How else do you get across the road?”
“We just cross anywhere in Taiwan. Nobody worries…Hmm, maybe, we drive our car there.. Or the motorcycle.” The wife had from the start looked like she was being led down through a maze of underground slippery caves, now they had added a blindfold and forced her to wear high heels.
“Oh, that is different. How do you drive in a subway?”
“Not really inside, but close to the entrance.”
Silence fell as the two women, as accomplished as they were at making conversation, needed a few seconds to retrace a thread or two.
“What are you laughing for?” asked the wife because i was now rolling about in the front seat of the taxi.
“I don’t know either. You two are fantastic.”
“We don’t care do we. We were happy talking.” interrupted his mother.
The wife nodded her head and smiled wholeheartedly, because she had been brought up to respect parents, not run screaming like she wanted to do now. “That’s right mum!”
I sat back and smiled contentedly - Women could sometimes be worth all the trouble.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Taiwan lifestyle: We are not so weird anymore

The theme of how times have changed has many different angles. One of the them is how life here has become a quite a bit less 'them' and 'us' – For any new arrival who is suffering from being called foreigner every five minutes that is hard to belief but believe me it has got better. Or worse, depending on your standpoint – Again believe me there are lots of people who revel in their status as 'white monkey' and have moved further and further south as the locals stopped staring at them. But that is a different story...

Lets put things in perspective - In the old days we like to say 5% of girls really wanted a foreigner, 20% would think about it, and the rest just weren't interested. Now, we kind of think it is still 5% for the really want category, while the middle, who would think about it, has risen to maybe 60 or 70 and the not interested now a mere 20 or so.

It was Saturday afternoon and I was sat on ChongHsiao with Eric, Pierre and John, having a beer, and looking at the street life.

Suddenly a white dude comes along with a girl and we started to stare for no other reason than we have been in Taiwan too long. He was displaying various signs of the opposite: he was trying to impress the hot girly he was with by actually putting on an ironed shirt and a comb through his hair when it was a hot sweaty afternoon; he was politely saying hello to every foreigner he met on the street, and doing so in that way you could tell it was planned; he was still displaying space parameter manners: giving way to Chinese people on the pavement, and apologizing for bumping into them - As if it mattered, as if he expected them to do the same back. And, most importantly, he was reacting to stares as if he viewed himself as something more than a goldfish in a bowl.

"You know his girlfriend?” I said to everyone.


“No, nor do I. The guy has only been here for 6 months and I never seen his girlfriend before,” said Pierre.

The implication and inside joke from us was thus: in the old days, new arrivals picked from a small pool of foreigner groupie girls so you always knew everyone’s girlfriend. It was only after a few years that you were able to break out of this and slowly get into the rest of society.

You dated the same girls out of necessity - Girls before either wanted a foreigner devil or didn’t. It was a big deal for them because their parents surely didn't approve. You went to bars to get girls, but there weren't may bars. Not many Chinese went to the bars, especially girls, because they were dens of sin. In the old days the number one place was 45. There were other bars but they were filled with Taiwanese drinking tea or playing Kerr Plunk or the game where you pull the bricks out – Bars had to provide these games because Taiwanese didn't know what to do in a bar. Going to a bar for them was like going to Paris, something you had to try and get a photo.

Also, and importantly, of course you didn't speak Chinese when you arrived, and nobody wanted to speak to you in Chinese because you were here for a purpose – especially the girls, if you were going to get ostracized by your family the least that you could do was learn English. Now with Chinese all the rage in the West guys are arriving with a passing ability in the language and speaking reasonably well in a short time. And, while most foreigners are still English teachers there is a vague segment of other opportunities – You could get a job in a computer company doing marketing with access to the average office girls. In short, there was no need to date your ex-room mate's girlfriend anymore when he left.

“Times are changing,” I said. “We are not so weird as we used to be.”

“No, fucking way, man,” said Eric. “How many times have you been called a foreigner today? Stared at? Talked about to your face?”

“Just the once or twice,” I replied. “But I suppose I did get up at 1 pm.”

“Shut up, American,” said Pierre. “Don't start.”

“But he does have a point,” said John. “It is pretty fucking far from the day when I am not viewed by my stereotypes. Where people start to look at me first rather than my big hooter...Thank goodness, I must add. I am going to have to move down south then.”

“So if it isn't any form of enlightenment, why?”I said.

“It is the divorced granny effect,” said Eric.

For once Eric had a reasonable point: when we arrived divorce was a taboo subject, nobody admitted to living with anyone, women had hymen replacement operations, and when you went to the beach girls wore a dress. They were still up to naughty stuff but, like in all crumbling dictatorships, it was all being done behind closed doors. Now was a different story: we had Next magazine and Apple, celebrities got divorced just to get a spot on a talk show, TV shows every night competed to dance as close to the censors as possible with bikini fashion shows, everyone lived together, and the prized possession was a girl who hadn't had an abortion (Along with last weeks statistic about having the lowest birthrate in the world, Taiwan also has one of the highest rates of abortion). It was not that they had particularly bothered to address the subject of breaking down foreign stereotypes, simply there own society going to pieces had narrowed the gap. We were still weird foreigners but not a social stigma anymore.

“I prefer the old days,” said John. “I could go to the bar and guarantee the girls all spoke English. Now I keep going up to girls and they ask me if I speak Chinese. I go on dates and the girls want to eat in Chinese restaurants...Are not impressed with my lectures about how cool England is.”

“Yeah,” said Pierre. “I could go to Eslite and I was the only one. Girls were impressed I could speak great Chinese. Now, I have to move quickly.”

(Eslite was a huge 24 hour bookshop that Pierre thought of as his favorite pickup joint. He had decided that if girls were wandering around alone on a Friday or Saturday night or Sunday afternoon then they didn’t have a boyfriend, and desperately wanted one.)

“What are you thinking about Dan?” said John.

“I am thinking about all those girls who did such a sterling service for the foreign community. I hope they have husbands now.”

“Amen,” he replied.