Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Our Christmas party this past weekend had me thinking a bit about culture shock and living in Taiwan; specifically how the things that still get to me at times aren't things I really expected, or things I expected would still crop up after a few years. I do believe it's true that you never quite get to a point where culture shock ceases to exist unless you move to a new cultural sphere fairly early in life, so that part is not surprising. What's surprising is the stuff that's stuck vs. the stuff I've gotten used to, or never had a problem with.

The idea that culture shock hits you unaware, from corners you'd never have expected, is nothing new. When I was studying in India, the program head copied the first chapter of a book by a woman who led a study abroad group in the '70s or '80s (I'm not sure it matters which) that covered this very phenomenon: the students would proudly proclaim that they could totally handle the spicy food, or that yeah, I didn't know how to ask for what I wanted but I just used charades - I'm so not feeling the culture shock! or otherwise crowing and preening about their successes vis-a-vis what issues they'd feared would fell them.

What really got them were other things - unexpected things. Being invited to visit a "statewide Gandhian homespun arts exhibit" (or something like that) by a "nearby" high school. The "State-Wide Exhibit" ended up being a sad little room of kids' art projects, which wouldn't be so bad except that by "nearby", the invitation had specified a school that ended up being four hours away by train.

How do you even conceive of that, let alone prepare for it, before you're living it?

Anyway, things that I thought would shock me, but haven't:

- The heat

Yeah, it gets hot. I sweat, I shower, I dab Green Oil here and there. I get over it. I wash my clothes and run through summer clothes more quickly.

- The rain

Once you're resigned to buying a new umbrella every few weeks, and you have plastic shoes to wear in the rain, this isn't so bad, though it can get depressing.

- The cockroaches

I still hate cockroaches and still feel lucky to have a husband who kills them for me, despite the fact that it reinforces stereotypical gender roles (whatever). But...I'm used to them. They're not going anywhere, and anyway they're the size of tanks.

- The more "don't stand out! don't make a fuss!" aspects of this Asian culture

Just gotta roll with it.

Though honestly, how I deal with this in others may be to roll with it (for example, I see what I think is a grave injustice against a friend, but that friend won't stand up for him/herself and do something about it because it is ingrained in them not to make a fuss, I've accepted that there's not much I can do)...but when it comes to me? I just ignore it. I realize that I shouldn't and that it probably sets me back socially and possibly professionally, but if something requires a little fuss-making, I go ahead and make it.

I've noticed recently that "don't make a fuss" has been tied, however loosely, to Western-style psychobabble recently. If you speak up, say what you think, stand up for yourself when you are being treated unfairly, or make it clear that you are not happy, you "have a low EQ". "Having a low EQ" has become the catch-all blame-phrase for people who do make a fuss. I don't know where they heard it, but the phrase has raced through the island - or through Taipei, at least - and been the standard "stay in line!" phrase lobbed at anyone who's gotten the short end of the stick or has a strong contrary opinion.

Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised to see KMT politicians saying something along the lines of "The DPP representatives simply have a low EQ!" - actually, it may have already been said.

- Certain etiquette differences

Yeah...people don't do RSVPs very well (but I've found will come through for you if you state clearly that you need a headcount for whatever reason), and they never do Thank You cards, to the point where when I gave them out for wedding gifts people looked at me funny, but that's OK.

- "Are you married? Why not?"

I kind of like personal questions. I know! But I do. I am fine talking about my age, marital status, why I don't have kids or want them anytime soon (if ever), my religion, politics, weight, whatevs. It's kind of freeing in a way. Just does not bother me. I rather wish the USA could be so open about these things in some ways and people wouldn't guard, say, their age like it's a state secret. In this way, I am totally an obasan in training - kung fu shoes, brightly colored clothes, inappropriate questions and all.

- 妳會講國語得好好喔!

Being told constantly that I speak Chinese well (even when I've just butchered something), or just amazement that I speak Chinese at all: not a problem.

- Cell phone use

I have been cluing my students in on this - back home, when socializing or in a meeting, you turn your phones off. You just do. Or at least put them on silent and don't answer. You don't text through conversations and don't randomly walk out of meetings (or class, or social events) to take phone calls that are not emergencies. happens in Taiwan and I'm used to it. Occasionally I have to keep myself from texting when I really shouldn't now.

- The whole "white man/Taiwanese woman" relationship dynamic

Meh. It happens, and honestly it's not always seedy. Sometimes, it's the real deal and since I have no way of knowing between two people what is and isn't something more than a superficial relationship, I'm just not going to judge. Though I will say - you can pretty much tell based on intuition which couples are together because they genuinely like each other and which are so iffy that they're only a few steps above transactional. I guess people can have those relationships if they want...doesn't affect me that much, because that's not the crowd I socialize with. So...I can't say it's really been an issue for me.

- "Maybe" and "That might be difficult" means "No"

This is going to sound horrible but I totally use it to my advantage. "But you never said no!" You said 'maybe'"! I know. I shouldn't.

- Anything regarding dirt and pollution

After life in China and India, I have to say that the air generally seems clear and the streets clean in Taiwan. In the rain it can look a little drab but compare "a little drab" to, say, a mid-size Chinese city. Gray skies aren't gonna clear up...put a mask on yer face!

And now...

Things that I never expected to still bother me, even after living here since 2006, but do:

- The complete and utter lack of adequate feminine hygiene products

Sorry to have to spell it out, but it's true and needs to be addressed. Seriously, I can walk into any store and see shelves of napkins. That's great and all, but this is a subtropical country with devastating summers and high humidity and JUST NO. Someone needs to introduce tampons and other Like four summers ago. And the teeny tiny ones do not count. NO THEY DO NOT SO DON'T EVEN. I'm not sure if it's that the local women aren't interested (which may be true), or that the local women don't know how interested they would be if the option were there, because nobody's bothered to try to market better options. I do wonder if women have resigned themselves to inferior hygiene products because they don't like to talk about these issues, so it's never been considered that they'd prefer something better if it were offered.

What makes me wonder are the commercials: a woman walks down the street in a typical office girl outfit (may even be a bank teller uniform or the sad little uniforms they put on some office workers, which I also think need to die) and she looks uncomfortable. Then we see as her skirt turns into a bamboo steamer - the kind dumplings are made in - with steam coming out. Then we see a revoluntionary new feminine towel design ("this one has useless flappy things on the side and a stupid indentation that does NOTHING! Look, ladies, we're pandering to you without actually providing you with a comfortable solution!") and she's all happy and walking down the street in her skirt again, la la laaa.

OK, whatever. I don't care if your revolutionary new sanitary napkin poops rainbows, in the Taipei summer that particular product is absolutely not good enough no matter how many stupid flaps you put on it.

Again, it's not like I'm all gung-ho about talking about this stuff, but really, someone had to say it.

- The "family before friends" thing

In terms of etiquette differences, I've gotten used to the things listed above. However, there's one fairly immutable rule of Western etiquette that is simply not followed here: prior commitments take precedence over newly proposed plans. Back home, if you've committed to doing something socially, unless you really can't do it - you're sick, a genuine emergency, you're so tired that you absolutely need a break - you, well, do it. A few months ago we had plans to go to KTV with some friends after dinner, and honestly, I wasn't feeling it. It was pouring, I was tired, and I just wanted to curl up under a blanket and drink ginger tea. But I went, because I had committed to going and that's what you do. I ended up having fun, by the way, but that's almost beside the point.

If someone extends an invitation after you've accepted something already, you politely decline. Doesn't matter who extended the invitation or if it's a "better offer".

Here, it just doesn't work that way: if you are committed to doing something with friends, but suddenly your family wants to do something, you pretty much have to cancel with your friends. You can't tell your Auntie who suddenly decided to visit Taipei that "you have a prior commitment". Along these lines, I once didn't attend a family reunion because I wasn't told about it until after I'd made plans to visit friends in Detroit, tickets bought and all. My Grandma L. was upset, but hey, they shoulda told me earlier. If I were Taiwanese, I'd have been cancelling the trip to attend the reunion.

I understand this on a "culture difference" level - please don't get me wrong, I hold no ill will towards friends who have done this in Taiwan (and it has happened). I get that it's just how things work. But on a gut level, no, I don't think I'll ever accept it as normal.

- The ubiquity of same-same products

Back home, say you want to buy a garbage can. You go to Bed, Bath & Beyond and don't really like their selection - everything's too small, or not really suited to your purposes. You go to Wal-Mart and they have sort of what you want - maybe larger cans, different materials, but it's too flimsy and cheap. You try Target and they have some different designs of slightly higher quality, including the metal well-sealed can you've been looking for but couldn't find at the other two you buy it.

Here, you want a well-sealed metal garbage can for your kitchen, so you go to Ai Mai - they have plastic crap with flimsy lids. You go to Carrefour - plastic crap, flimsy lids. You go to Ikea. Plastic crap, flimsy lids and a few metal office cans. You go to the night market - plastic crap with flimsy lids. Muji has what you want but it costs about $2000 more than you want to pay. Everywhere else - plastic crap, flimsy lids.

There's no variation - every store sells more or less the same things. Chocolate brands are the same, home items are the same, curtains all look the same, laundry bins are the same...if what you want is slightly different from what every single store is selling, then you're out of luck.

(By the way, we did find our metal kitchen garbage can with a sealed lid at Nitori).

- Some of the more institutionalized sexism

A few examples:
- companies that put men in either fairly unassuming uniforms or no uniforms at all, but just a dress code, but stick women in ridiculous, fussy, form-fitting costumes reminiscent of flight attendants

- When a group, during a practice module at work, has to elect a leader, they almost always elect a male leader/spokesperson with all the women in subordinate roles

- General office dress code: I would almost like to write a letter to the entire nation about this. High heels, pantyhose if your skirt is modest enough and light makeup are no longer strictly necessary. Peep-toe shoes and even conservative sleeveless shirts (with wide shoulder coverings mind you) are no longer unacceptable. (OK, in some industries they are - in high finance one could make a case for the old dress codes still being intact for example - but I'm sorry, if you work for a medical supply company, no. Just no.) It's like someone got a Business Dress Code manual from the 1980s and decided that all Taiwanese working women had to dress that way today, without looking at the copyright date on the book.

Granted, it's less and less common now and some companies are bucking the old rules; you can see women in chic sweaters and slacks, comfortable flats and peep-toe shoes in some offices. I've just seen too many examples of women getting "talked to" for not wearing heels to work or some such that I felt it really warranted mentioning.

- The whole "Oh, someone else is also trying to use the sidewalk? Don't they know I own it?" thing

You know what I mean. Yes you do. For a country full of extremely friendly and generally polite, mild-mannered and laid-back people (except at work)...they sure are good at sidewalk hogging!

- The Japanese work ethic

Yes, y'all work too much. From the "this is my job, I must work 12 hours a day" to the "my boss said I have to do this on the weekend so I will" (which, hey, occasionally it really needs to be done, but not to the extent that it happens in Taiwan over things that are really not emergencies) to the ridiculous holiday policy - New Year's on a Saturday so we don't get Friday or Monday off? Really? I don't care if a more reasonable holiday policy was "traded" for a 5-day work week, Taiwanese people deserve both a 5-day workweek and a good holiday policy.

There's also the "oh, I only have to work this hard until I'm 60, then I'll retire and enjoy my life" - a popular sentiment, but really, you're resigned to having no free time at all, or being so tired that all you can do is sleep and watch TV, from the ages of twenty to sixty, with your student years being equally grueling (with the exception of college, which I hear is quite easy), for maybe two decades of peace at the end?

I've written about friends who couldn't attend our wedding due to work: one was given four days off when really, to make the trip worth the expense she needed six (and couldn't get it), and another whose colleague refused to cover for her, so she couldn't take the time off. Just two more anecdotes to support how I am never going to get used to the work ethic, nor do I particularly want to. Fortunately, I've got a job that doesn't force it upon me.

As for the "but there's so much work to do. I have to do it!"....hmm. Or, people could refuse to be overworked, thus forcing companies to hire more people instead of trying to get the work of a team out of one person. Don't want to rant too much about this because in recent times this has also become a problem in the USA. It's shocking even when I'm home!

Just like to add, as well, that salaries are not nearly high enough to compensate for the tedious work hours. The average entry level pay is $25 - $30,000 NT/month, and if you want to make it up to a more liveable salary (say $50,000/month, which honestly speaking is low for me, but very liveable) you have to work your ass off for years. Locals clearly feel differently, but for me, a middling, not entry-level salary like $40,000 is simply not worth the time you're expected to put in to earn it here.

- "Oh, it's 11:30 - I have to go. My Grandma's waiting for me!"

From a 17 year old maybe, but we're all at, nearing or past 30!

Again, please don't think I hold this against my local friends. Not at all. I've accepted that that's just the way it is and if I want to stay out later, I call up foreign friends for a night out (difficult, as most foreign friends have actually left - we still have a few kicking around but it's not like before when we had an actual group). I've otherwise resigned myself to the 11:30 "bedtime"...but I'll never get used to it or particularly like it.


Anonymous said...

I have been cluing my students in on this - back home, when socializing or in a meeting, you turn your phones off. You just do. Or at least put them on silent and don't answer. You don't text through conversations and don't randomly walk out of meetings (or class, or social events) to take phone calls that are not emergencies.

Sadly, not anymore. It may not be quite as pronounced, but it's gotten pretty bad here. I had a boss who was NOTORIOUS for this. Actually, wait, no ... two bosses. And they're not the exception, sadly.

catherine_sr. said...

I feel the same about a lot of these things as you do. Esp. the "don't make a fuss" one because I have to deal with it from my family and relatives. It is SO ANNOYING. I love my parents and I understand that we grew up in very different cultures, but I just can't roll with that.

And re: the Taiwanese woman/white man thing. I feel hypocritical talking about it sometimes because I'm married to a white man and I know people stereotype us... but no one can deny that there are white male expats who pretty much see Taiwanese women as sexual chattel. I mean, if the women they date (or screw, or whatever) don't mind that, then good for them. But, frankly, it's one of the reasons I don't go to clubs or bars that target an expat clientele. I wasn't a fan of clubbing to begin with, but it became even less appealing when I saw things like sexy costume contests where all the contestants were skimpily-dressed, extremely young Taiwanese women and all the spectators were middle-aged white guys making crass jokes.

I dealt with creepy men with Asian fetishes back in the US harassing me -- and to see it on display so openly here and be so widely accepted, if not celebrated, in the English-speaking expat community definitely makes me feel alienated at times.

Cahleen Hudson said...

Ahhh, the tampon thing. Back in my Kojen days, I ended up with an all female adult class. Somehow the topic of tampons came up and so I brought a few of my precious imported Playtex in for a demonstration (not on myself, obviously, just showing them the mechanics of the tampon). They were horrified, and insisted that the tampon would cause them to lose their virginity. When I explained to them that there was already a small opening "down there," they were shocked. Mind you, these women were in their early 30s. Obviously this isn't representative of all Taiwanese women, but maybe many of them just aren't comfortable enough with their bodies to use a tampon?

Also, just to warn you, if you do decide to have a baby, the level of obasan intrusiveness will reach new heights!

Jenna said...

That's just it (about the Taiwanese woman/white man relationships) - enough of them are sincere love - or at least really-like - matches that I'd never presume to judge. But enough of them are sketchy that...well...I just choose not to socialize with people whose idea of a meaningful relationship is "she was dancing on a bartop in a glitter bikini and that was hot". Ew.

Which, like you, has led to some degree of alienation with the expat crowd (though I do have expat friends) - something that basically every foreign woman who moves to Taiwan without a family/support system faces. My preferred hangouts are the ones I highlighted in my "Drinky Drinky" post - cafes that get Westerners and Taiwanese, which are funky and beer-soaked, but not "bars". If I go to an actual bar (which is not that often), it's with friends and we find our own table and hang out; we don't go to meet new people.

It does make it harder to make foreign friends, because such a large number of them are creepy old white guys (note: there ARE non-creepy old white guys - just like there are perfectly normal/non-seedy Taiwanese girl/white man relationships - I am talking about a certain subset) And among the younger folks, they're either too young or still in a "WOOO! BEEER AND CHICKS!" mentality...though of course not all are).

@Cahleen - yeah, I'm willing to accept that the tampon thing is because Taiwanese women are not that interested, but huh. I mean, honestly, I think that Taiwanese women are sexually active just as American women (usually) are. It surprises me that an *entire* class of women in their early 30s thought that way. Early 20s...maybe. But then sex ed in Taiwan is much more realistic than the USA - you've seen the brochures and commercials, right? So you'd *think* they'd know better.

Cahleen Hudson said...

I was shocked too! It was a really small class, so it was probably just a coincidence that I got a bunch of clueless women in my class. A larger one would have probably had more of a variety of experiences. I have seen those amusing brochures!