Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"Got kids?...why not? Is it because you're fat?"

I'd like to throw a big shout-out to all the Old Ladies of Taiwan (and Taxi Drivers of Taiwan) for daring to ask the tough questions - questions that they really need to know the answers to, and if they don't get them, clearly the Earth will stop spinning and the sky will fall in. Questions that generally seem to fall on foreign women - although men get them too - and require either contortions of information and explanation or just reddening silence and a mumbled "我也不知道噁".

They're really quite adept at getting, ahem, all up in yo' bidness:

"Are you married?" ("Why not?")
"Do you have kids yet?" ("Why not? You should have a boy and a girl. But not more than two.")
Variation: "How many kids do you have?" ("None? Why not?")
"When will you have kids?" ("Why not?")
"Why are you fat? Are all Americans fat?"
"Have you gained/lost weight?"
"How old are you?"
"How much is your rent?"
"What do you make per hour?" ("Oh, my granddaughter makes more/less than that.")
"Did you vote for Obama? Did you know that he's black?"
"What do you think of Ma Ying-jiu?"
"Did you have a boyfriend before you got married?"
"Why are Americans so rich?"
"Do you still work after marriage?" ("Why?")
"Why are your boobs so big?"
"Why do you have hair on your arm?"
"Why do Americans let their parents die in institutions instead of taking care of them?"
"Why did Americans elect someone stupid like Xiao Buxi?" (George W. Bush)
"Why doesn't America like Taiwan?"
"It's cold/warm out you shouldn't wear that." (for all values of "that")
"Where did you buy that? How much did it cost?" ("That's too expensive.")
"How much money do you save?"
"Why don't Americans save money?"
"Why do you have an iPhone" (note: I don't have an iPhone, I have an iPod Touch) "you should save your money."
"Why do you travel so much? You should save your money."
"You should cook at home, not eat here" (while the beef noodle joint owner glares) " can save more money and beef noodles will make you fatter."
"Why are you eating that?" ("It's not good for you.")
"Do you believe in Christianity? How about Buddhism?"
And both "Why didn't you stay in the good American economy" and "Why is the American economy so bad?"
"Did you live with your [now-] husband before marriage?"
"Did your father allow you to move abroad/live with a man before marriage?"

I mean, come on ladies, the world needs to know. How will we ever carry on without knowing how old you are, why you don't have babies yet, why you weigh what you do and who you voted for!

And yes, I did say "ladies", because we female expats do get more of this than the men, although they get it too. It's like being female opens you up to being asked so many more probing questions, or maybe it's that the Old Ladies and Taxi Drivers of Taiwan don't think it matters what the men weigh, how old they are, whether or not they're married (and why - they have to know why or it simply does not count), what their rent is and how much they save. Maybe it's a woman-to-woman thing that transcends culture and generation, like when I showed my wedding pictures to my friend's Grandma and we bonded despite age, culture and language barriers. (Note: the same Grandma who talked at length about how she'd run her son's house differently from how her daughter-in-law does it, and who admonished me to have two kids, not three, because she "had three and you can't carry them if you have so many, so don't make my mistake").

You also open yourself up to it more if you clearly speak Chinese; more so if you speak enough Taiwanese to get attention, despite not being nearly fluent (not that I'd know anything about that, ahem).

So. Let's take stock of me.

Young? Check.
Female? Check.
Married? Check.
Speaks Chinese? Check.
No kids yet? Check.
Living in a neighborhood with few foreigners? Check.

I'm like the poster girl for the kind of foreigner Old Taiwanese Ladies and Taxi Drivers like to hurl questions at like streams of betel nut juice at a sewer grate.

Fortunately for them, I'm fairly open. I won't tell them what I weigh and I won't dignify the "No kids? Is that because you're fat?" questions with a response, but I'm happy to talk to them about why I don't want kids right now - I leave the "do you want them someday" debates firmly off the table - what I think of Ma Ying-jiu, how much my rent is, how old I am etc.. I'm not sure if I'm just naturally a sharer or I've been in Taiwan so long that I've become desensitized and I just don't care if they know what I make and the fact that I lean green.

That said, at my non-answer I got the best rejoinder ever from an Old Taiwanese Lady: "if you want to lose weight, you should eat less and exercise more". Thanks, Old Wu. Because I totally didn't know that.

And really, you just have to laugh. The questions are clearly not going away - Taiwan will always have taxi drivers who ask you all sorts of crazy stuff, and those Old Taiwanese Ladies are already pushing 150 and will probably outlive you.

Which reminds me - best conversation ever:

Old lady in night market, grabbing my butt: 妳為甚這麼胖呵?
Me: 妳為甚麼這麼老呵?
Old lady in night market: 因為我小的時候我不是那麼胖啊!

(Old Lady: 1 - Jenna: 0).

Anyway, I figure, they're just trying to be friendly. They don't mean it to be rude, and don't even realize that there are people out there who think it is rude - or they realize it's a bit rude but when it's 2011 and one is old enough to tell stories about one's childhood friend the Dowager Empress Cixi, one simply stops caring.

I can see how this might bother some foreign women enough that they'll choose not to stay, and I've certainly heard my share of Western women mentioning this phenomenon. I do think that most of us take it with a grain of salt ("Don't eat that salt! It's not good for you! How will you have babies?") and adjust to it enough that we can laugh about it rather than be offended.

I have found that if you actually answer their questions, they tend to like you more and sort of adopt you as a surrogate granddaughter. One woman in my neighborhood, who's 75 if she's a day, has taken to calling me 妹妹 ("Little Sister"). Another told me her life story, which was a fascinating insight into life 60+ years ago for a Taiwanese woman, from the perspective of that woman and not a museum exhibit or history book written by a bunch of men, and was totally worth divulging my age and rental fees.

In the end, this isn't a post complaining about the personal questions or asking "What's up with that?" because deep down, I think we all know what's up with that.

It's more of a chuckling recognition, and maybe a bit of a warning for any potential expat women who find this blog before coming, or who are just settling in and dealing with culture shock. Be prepared.


Solo Taiwan said...

First time to your blog, and I am enjoying it thoroughly. Just wanted to add a few questions to your list from those of us who are unmarried (but in a long-term closeted relationship with their Taiwanese "roommate") as of yet:
Do you have a boyfriend?
(used to get this question a lot more 5 or 6 years ago, but I suppose I look like an old lady now, which is why recently I find they just skip to asking if I'm married--they're disappointed by my "no" either way).
Why don't you have a boyfriend?
Don't you want to get married?
Is your dad okay with you being single?
Would you consider dating a Taiwanese guy?
How are Taiwanese guys and American guys different?

One other random comment that I sometimes don't know how to respond to:
Your skin is so beautiful and white! (especially awkward when I've got period acne)

Anyway, nice blog :-). Will continue to drop by!

Catherine Shu said...

Now that I think about it, I think it's all a hazing ritual. The OTL are trying to decide if we will be worthy of inclusion in 40 or so years. They focus on foreign women because, well, you'll be an Old Lady someday... but it's up to them to decide if you'll be an Old Taiwanese Lady.

J said...

Reading this makes me feel like I'm missing out by not getting these questions... I'm not even cool enough for the hazing ritual.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

I've got another one - "Why does your husband have so much arm hair?" and "He's so handsome - how'd you get him?"

Gee, thanks Old Ladies.

Cahleen @ The Alt Story said...

Oh, it gets even better after you have a kid. According to those ladies, it's a wonder all of our children have managed to survive to adulthood. Their the only ones who know how to take care of children, and all of my strange western parenting quirks are practically on par with child abuse.

Those ladies usually actually just make me chuckle, but for some reason when it comes to my kid and their gnarled, grabby hands pulling at his clothes and trying to shove food in his mouth without my permission, a certain line is crossed. If they just pick on me I can laugh about it though.

Cahleen @ The Alt Story said...

You have no idea how much it's bothering me that I wrote "their" instead of "they're".

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

I'd fix it for you but I can't - I don't have that capability!