Saturday, January 14, 2012

Annual Party (尾牙) Culture in Taiwan

Here, be cheered up by nearly naked engineers dancing in diapers
Seriously, I got nothin'. I can't write anything except to say how disappointed I am in the election results, and what good'd that do?

So, I'm going to write about the 尾牙, or company year-end banquet that is held by most workplaces of some size in Taiwan. Smaller offices don't always hold them, especially tiny offices with just a few people in them working in Taiwan for a larger global company. Some of the larger companies, like Mediatek, hold them by business unit rather than for the whole company. Others, like Foxconn and Gamania, hold ginormous company-wide bashes (Foxconn even invites reporters; the others don't).

Not many foreigners get to attend these parties - large international companies that employ a few foreigners will certainly invite them, but otherwise there aren't many chances to attend. Some English schools have something similar (Kojen holds its annual banquet at the end of the summer, and my husband's company has one before Christmas), but they're not quite the same and resemble weddings or corporate events back home more than a  knock-down drag 'em out Taiwanese 尾牙(pronounced "wei ya" for all you non-Chinese speakers).

And I really mean knock down drag 'em out:

The lack of foreigners attending these parties could explain why they're not really talked about in expat circles, except to note that adult students take time off around this time of year to attend. And the expat versions are, in my opinion, not nearly as much fun.

There are different kinds of annual parties, of course. One company I work with has an extremely formal affair, which probably did not include engineers dancing in diapers.  Attendees are invited to wear ball gowns, but few actually do. Another has a 1,500 person mega affair in the NTU gymnasium, and this year featured an executive in drag and my student in a sequined top dancing to Lady Gaga (I was not invited; I saw the pictures). 

The one I was invited to last night was for a very local company - you can see the name displayed across the top of most of the photos I've included. They're based in Tucheng (土城) and the party was in Shulin (樹林) - yes, I rode the MRT to the end of the line and then took a cab from the station and back; I was that excited about attending one of these functions. This one, I  have been assured, was about as "local" as it gets, at a seafood restaurant in an old Japanese-era brick building, with backlit stage screen bearing the company's name, smoke machines (no joke!), lasers, confetti, sexy dancers, alcohol and insane talent shows and, of course, a lucky draw. It wasn't terribly formal - I wore a nice but not fancy outfit I might wear to work on any given day, adding only a light touch of makeup - and felt   as though I was dressed just about right.

Here are some sexy flight attendants for you
I believe I was invited at all simply because this company is extremely Taiwanese, locally based, not that large, started by one whip-smart, slightly kooky engineer who decided that he may as well open his own company, who is the CEO but very visible in the company offices. He is my former student (the General Manager is my current student). They have much more of a "come on, the more the merrier, we like you so come drink and eat with us" attitude than other companies I've worked with (although generally speaking I have liked every company I've worked with, even if they didn't invite me to their year-end banquets). My own organization was surprised at their hospitality: I decided that it was such an interesting chance to see a piece of local culture that I couldn't pass it up, even though it meant postponing another class.

The Taiwanese attendees will often tell you that the lucky draw is the most important part of the night, and the best part. Some will even say it's the main reason to attend. Companies do this differently, too. Some give out money and prizes. Some give out fewer, larger prizes (Foxconn famously has a prize in the millions of NT, paid out over several years. Other companies give out smaller prizes to more people. Some give every employee a red envelope with a few thousand in it, and have a few prizes on top of that). Bigger prizes have been things like cars or other luxury items. On the awesome but slightly less extravagant end, my friend's girlfriend won a purse from Tod's.

Many companies have a well-known rule that if an executive or high enough manager wins the prize, he or she has to donate it back to the company for someone else to win, and sometimes add more money on top of that (if it's a cash prize, they either give it back or double it). Some companies get a set amount from the company for the lucky draw prizes, and the higher-ups each put in another NT$20,000 or so to pad the prize-load. If an executive wins and does not do this, he or she is the object of much whispering and tittering in the cube farm the next day, and on Facebook.

I, however, think the best part of the night is the part you don't usually see at affairs full of foreigners (although Brendan's company holiday bash featured a watered-down version of one, which was, honestly, nothing like the one I saw on Friday), the talent show.

This is where all the shy, maybe kind of awkward, definitely not wild-n-crazy students you thought you had practice for weeks for the chance to prance around on a stage in Spongebob underpants.

Or do a sexy dance (these are all company employees).

Or do whatever this is.

Basically, they get up there and do things I just don't see foreigners generally acquiescing to, let alone coming up with the idea for.  They tried to get me to sing some random Christmas song from the '70s at Brendan's party, and I was conveniently in the bathroom fixing my lipstick when it was supposed to happen (there was no rehearsal, though. It was just sort of  thrust upon me). Nobody at the party full of foreigners seemed interested in  getting onstage.

And yet, these generally introverted, often (but not always) quiet guys who spend all day every weekday boxed up in a cubicle are willing to do...this:

And this:

And, uh, this:

And, you know, that's what I think makes a Taiwanese year-end banquet so much fun. I was quite literally stunned several times over by the increasing craziness of the talent show acts. Every time I found my mouth hanging open, that no group would do something nuttier or more self-effacing than what I'd just seen, I was proven wrong by, oh, I don't know, dorky engineers in clown wigs dancing with secretaries in black leather corsets.

I left at about 11pm, when the party at the actual venue was winding down. I probably could have finagled an invitation to KTV, but I was tired and needed to catch the MRT home (and wasn't sure who I trusted to drive me among those heading to KTV until 3am). So when the lights came up, I said my slightly drunken Chinese and Taiwanese goodbyes and caught a cab back to MRT Fu-da, stuffed and full of alcohol - but not that drunk, as I'd spaced it out between courses of food.

Although I did have a bit more than intended: my students are the CEO and General Manager, who are of course just the guys who came around with wine, beer and whiskey to "bottoms up" with every table, and they seemed to take great delight in coming by my seat more than once to see if I could handle it (I could). They were clearly much worse off than I was.

Not only did I pull off a decent night of socializing in Chinese, but I made some friends, too. These guys' costumes are probably offensive to somebody but who cares.

 One thing I really enjoyed was the challenge of socializing in Chinese in an entirely Taiwanese milieu for a night, with no chance to slip back into English. It was sink-or-swim social Chinese, and I am proud to say that I swam.  The chance to bring out my Chinese for a real-life event and have to use it all night - not a simulation, not "just for fun" with people who actually speak English, but all-out, all night, with people who don't speak English.

Just the sort of thing I encourage my students to do in English, which they seem to be terrified of (although less so when I am done with them).

It's a fun night - assuming you speak Chinese or the attendees have an overall good level of English, otherwise it could be quite confusing and not that much fun - and something I hope more foreigners get the chance to do. Certainly more fun, from what I've heard, than a typical Taiwanese wedding. Then again, that's hearsay: I've never been to one.

I do think the level of craziness has something to do with the fact that these guys work far more grueling hours than most Westerners, and get out far less often. We foreigners might go out at least once a week, and things like "beer on Friday with coworkers" would be a pretty normal thing to do. It's almost as though we have tiny wei-yas all year, and these guys save it all up for one crazy bash in which they shed all inhibition.

With my student, the General Manager...and his secretary, who won two lucky draw prizes.
Basically, I wish I could go to one of these every year!

So now, my goals for socializing and cultural experience in Taiwan,  beyond the festivals I'd like to hit this year, are:

- A wedding. It's been five years and I've never been to one. My friends just aren't into marriage.

- A street party or "ban dou" (辦桌), for a wedding or otherwise.

- Something featuring showgirls or dancers. Preferably on a truck that converts into a stage and is covered in LEDs (電花車), and as local as possible. I don't want high class professional showgirls, I want the ones who come in on a blue truck for the Pingdong Pineapple Factory annual bash. Or something.

- Something where I actually have to practice with a group and go on stage dressed as something ridiculous (no sexy dancing, though).

And with that, I leave you with a few more amusing photos from my ridiculous Friday night. I can only hope you all get the chance to go to one of these someday. They're a cultural experience not to be missed.

My two students, singing a Taiwanese folk song, completely off their heads
Obligatory group shot before the drunkenness commenced (the guys in suits are my students)

Spongebob, check. Not sure why he needs a Spiderman, but check. But...three Spidermen?


These guys crack me up

And some more sexy flight attendants for you.

1 comment:

Nick Herman said...

This makes a lot of sense. My HS students do skits on this level of craziness on their own volition, minus the costumes. Their classmates love it.