Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Weird House

Welcome to the house of WEIRD FOREIGN PEOPLE

Just for fun on a sunny morning, I wanted to make the quick observation that culture differences span not only attitudes, interpretations, actions and reactions - and when at home they extend far beyond what you do at home. They also affect what you do to your home.

I'm obviously not the first person to notice this: my husband has noted that in Korea, people pump a lot of money into their cars and comparatively little into their homes. I once heard an expat in China muse that the money we'd spend on a new floor, a nice print for our wall and a paint job would be spent, in China, on a designer bag - the walls could stay dingy and the floor could stay cracked or peeling. That's not always true, of course, but there's a grain of truth to it.

What I've found interesting is that in the US, people often assume, when we talk about where we live and what our home is like, that "Asian people decorate in an Asian way, and we decorate in an American way." I don't know exactly what they picture, but I get the feeling that a lot of Americans think that everyone in Asia lives here:
from here

Or if they don't have money, here:

from this site - go visit so they get traffic and don't sue me
You know, this idea that I'll always have a couch and coffeetable and they'll have tatami mats and lanterns or something, with red walls and round doors, and a futon and those old Chinese chairs and they'll sit around playing zither and drinking tea out of impossibly tiny cups while they talk about Confucius. Or something.      

Whereas it seems the exact opposite is true. Young travelers who come to Asia to set up shop as English teachers generally don't have enough money to live anywhere much better than a horrible cement monstrosity (although some luck out) - maybe not as bad as the one pictured but pretty bad. I lived in one. Those who do have money would, very often, prefer to live here:
from this site
I know I would.

And most Taiwanese people I know would laugh at that and instead jump at the chance to live here:

from this no longer functional site

Most people don't have the money for such interiors, but if you look into what people do with their decorating budget, and what their dreams are, you will find a stark difference: and it's really not what you might have imagined.

A lot of people visit our home, now that I have one that isn't horrible, and we've gotten some rather surprised reactions to how I've chosen to decorate and even interact with my living space that goes against cultural norms in Taiwan.

I do want to keep this lighthearted - I'm not trying to make fun of anyone here, except in a friendly way, but here goes. A short list of things locals have said when visiting my apartment:

1.) "You don't have a TV? But...what do you do in the evenings?"

2.) "AAAAH! CAT! Can you make him go away?"

3.) "Your window is open? Without a screen? I never do that! If you do that it's too cold, or it's too hot." (We do have window screens, I just usually open the window fully so the cat can go out on the casement and I can get to my herbs, and I like the open air feeling. Apparently a fully open window is a weird thing).

4.) "Wow. Why did you paint so many colors on your walls?" (Instead of the usual white or cream color you see in apartments)

5.) "Even if I didn't know you I would  know that foreigners live here." "Why?" "Because IT'S TOO CHINESE!"

6.) "You sit on the floor?" (we have a tatami dining area with floor cushions). "I thought white people liked chairs."

7.) "Oh, no TV?"

Yes, we sit on the floor.

8.) (friend's wife, to my friend) "Psst, there's no TV?" "No." "Really?" "Really. She told me before." "Wow."

9.) "Why don't you have a TV?"

10.) "There are so many pictures on the walls. I have no pictures."

11.) "Why do you have this? This is Chinese."

12.) "You don't wear your shoes inside! I thought foreigners didn't take their shoes off."

13.) "You have too many spices."

14.) "So, what's your rent?"

15.) "Where's your TV?.....oh."

16.) "Why do you want curtains made of chiffon. [that was not really a question.] That's too light. You should use this heavy fabric. See the nice flowers on it? I also have it in shiny gold. Do you want tassels? No? I have lots of tassels. Oh." (from my tailor, who made our curtains)

16.) "Is your TV in another roo....oh."

17.) (looking at my cat) "You have a cat?"

18.) "WHERE DID YOU GET THIS? It is too local. We don't have this. It's too Asian." (referring to a basket we own that used to be a typical household item in Taiwan)

Not our basket, but close enough. I'm too lazy to take a photo.

19.) "I like your house but I prefer Western style in my house."

20.) "Wow. Your coffeemaker! But you can't make lattes!"

Of course, not every comment has been critical - and most of these were meant in friendly banter. Surprise, even, that we'd choose a more Asian style for a lot of our decorating flourishes, that we would eschew a TV, that we do take our shoes off, or that we'd open the window all the way to let the air in, and only close the screen if there are too many bugs. And, of course, rather than a tiny, yippy Maltese we have a cat who appears to have multiple personality disorder (although, honestly, don't all cats?). They're not surprised that we don't go down the typical route of blue or black vinyl couches, a Fat Buddha calendar, a round dining table and a glass-topped coffee table (and a side table made of yellow wood topped in thick, greenish plastic) with a huge TV on the wall, but I think what they often expect is something more Western, you know, like they'd choose and like they imagine we'd choose because we are Western.

It's always interesting to visit other peoples' homes and see what they've done with their interiors - and I look forward to being able to make observations.                                                                 


Steve said...

I laughed hysterically while reading this because it's so true! I'd love to have the money to go hog wild and decorate my place in a (NON-TACKY) Chinese style. Like you, many of my Taiwanese friends think I'm nuts when I tell them I don't have a TV. They also don't understand what a single guy like me needs a kitchen for, lol.

blobOfNeurons said...

You keep your windows fully open? But what do you do about the mosquitoes?

Jenna Cody said...

Mosquitos only present a problem in late afternoon/early evening (5-7pm) and during those times I close the screens. At other times, leaving windows open is no big deal.

I also grow an herb garden on my windowsill so I need to frequently open it to water my plants.