Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Opposite Day: Pseudo-Philosophical Thoughts on Annual Parties


I even made a video this year...

Every year, I have the pleasure of attending the annual party (尾牙 or "wei ya") of one of my clients. They're a small, local semiconductor company located out in Taipei County (I still haven't gotten used to this whole "Xinbei" thing) and, unlike a lot of companies, their annual party is an absolute blast. Some combination of being staffed by geeky, overworked engineers, the outside-Taipei mindset and the local flavor of the firm means lots more alcohol, lots more craziness, an insane talent show, and really exciting lucky draws.


 Last year I just wrote generally about the culture of annual parties in Taiwan - the short of it being that in a country where working hours are so long, and opportunities to socialize fewer due to family obligations, more structured social circles and those aforementioned working hours, the annual party is often a blowout party where otherwise mild-mannered geeks (and I don't say this to stereotype - the folks at this particular firm really are best described as "mild mannered geeks") go hog-wild and wake up with a raging hangover the next day. It's one of the few times when drinking in Taiwan finally reaches levels of craziness and obligation seen in other parts of Asia: the CEO and GM, you see, must get drunk; it is, for all intents and purposes, a rule.


 This year I observed a bit more of what was going on, and had a few other thoughts.

The annual party is ostensibly an event held by a company in appreciation of its staff (and often key clients, customers or vendors - I got to go because I'm a "vendor"), but certain aspects of it reminded me a bit of older traditions - Saturnalia, Opposite Day and the Lord of Misrule - the offering of one fun party, like a piece of fruit covered in silver tinsel, in exchange for something of far greater value: the continued loyalty of overworked and underpaid employees. This isn't to say the annual party I personally attended was full of overworked and underpaid employees: I'm talking in generalities here, not pointing fingers at individuals, but it is an issue that's been on my mind a lot.

At an annual party, the people at the top serve - not literally, but in terms of paying for it (often out of their own pockets) - those at the bottom, like an inversion of masters and servants. While new employees are often conscripted into entertaining on stage, the guys at the top also have an obligation to get up there, wear crazy outfits (I know one guy at another company who dressed up like Lady Gaga and did a whole routine) and get drunk for the entertainment of the rank-and-file employees.


 The biggest deal of all is the lucky draw, or lottery: prizes depend on the company budget as well as donations from executives and higher-level managers, but it's common to have many small prizes and one or two top prizes of NT$60,000, or something similarly nice, like an iPad Mini or iPhone 5. At Foxconn, I've heard the prizes go into the millions, but for the top prizes the lucky draw boxes are only full of the names of those deemed to be "excellent employees".

If the lucky draw were put together just on a company budget, that'd be one thing - but it's not. Company budgets for these things can be surprisingly stingy (not the one I attended - as a smaller and very local company, they take the lucky draw quite seriously and budget lavishly for it) - what happens is that managers and directors get up on stage to draw the winners, but when they're doing so, they're expected to generously "donate" to the prize about to be drawn. It's not uncommon for a manager to get up on stage and announce that he or she will double or even triple the coming prize out of his or her own pocket. One guy I know at another company donated two iPad Minis, one black and one white. Another got onstage, announced he'd double the prize, and then drew his own name - culture dictates, apparently, that he then had to triple or even quadruple the amount. He did, and ended up being out over NT$100,000. If one manager draws a prize and gets the name of another manager, the winning manager is still expected to donate the prize for another draw as well as add to it (I've heard of that happening too).


 Technically, these donations are voluntary: nobody will tell higher-ups that they have to donate to the lucky draw. It's just expected. It's part of the culture. I've heard of just once instance in which the guy in charge didn't beef up the lucky draw prizes out of his own pocket. Nobody told him he had to, nobody forced him to do it, but let's just say that things in his department didn't go as smoothly as he would have liked the next year.

I also see it as a bit of a social equalizer, albeit a very minor, inconsequential one. Pretty much the only people who earn even close to what they're worth in skilled labor are higher-level managers, perhaps some (but not all) doctors, and unqualified English teachers (the qualified ones are generally underpaid). It makes sense, then, that on this Taiwanese iteration of Opposite Day, of the leaders putting on a show to entertain the workers, that there'd be a tiny bit of wealth redistribution. That the person who makes more than enough to buy a nice apartment in Taipei and raise a family on one income (still usually male) would be out tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars (one chairman of one company I know has a personal, not company, but personal, lucky draw budget of NT$10million per year), while the family making do on two incomes and living too far from the MRT out in Taipei County would get a windfall.


 To me, a lucky draw is a form of gambling - some would disagree as you don't put any money in unless you're the person in charge, but prizes are distributed unevenly and in bursts of good luck. How is that not like gambling? That, to me, makes it something of a cultural thing. When I see or hear of people playing the lottery or gambling in the USA, it tends to be something done rarely, but meant to inject a little fun into life, like occasionally deciding to play a game of pool for money or picking up a lottery ticket on a lark. Here, it seems to go on at a constant low level, from the receipt lottery (I don't play because even though it's free, it's time consuming) to mahjong being far more common at get-togethers than card games in the US, and more often played for money.

Or maybe I'm wrong and I just didn't hang out with gambling types in the USA, but I don't think so. Considering the stronger belief in luck - luck coming in, luck going out - this makes sense. There's even a saying in Taiwanese (not sure if it also exists in Chinese): 娶妻前,生子後 (in my crude understanding of Taiwanese phonetics I'd pronounce that as something like tsua-mbo jian, xi-gya ao). Meaning that you're prone to good luck "before marrying, and after having a child". Students will insist that this is true: "the only time I ever won a big prize was just after I had my son", or "yes, that really seems to happen? Why? I don't know. 財神 (the god of wealth) maybe." When someone at the weiya I attended won - a woman about to get married (even though "娶妻前" is meant to be "before taking a wife, in the modern world it can be translated more equitably as "getting married"). At my table someone muttered "of course she won. She's getting married soon." "Uh huh," her friend replied. "When you get married it's easy to win".


 I'm not really a believer in luck: coincidence, yes, random windfalls or tragedy, sure, but not "luck" insofar as its a force in the universe beyond statistically possible windfalls or tragedies. I personally suspect more of those lotteries are fixed than people would like to admit, or even consider. I've mentioned this to a few people, just to see their reactions, and oh my! You should see the horrified look on their faces. Eyes widen. Mouths drop. "NO! Absolutely NOT! The lucky draws are NEVER FIXED!" they say.

Maybe not. Or maybe so: I could very easily see, in Taiwan, many bosses who decide that the "lucky" draw should be appropriately "lucky" for the right people, and seeing to it that it happens, while everyone else pretends that no, it's "luck". I don't even think this is a bad thing. I simply suspect it happens. Perhaps not every time, but from time to time.


 And as for lucky draws, I'd rather see everyone get a slightly nicer bonus than see one guy win big. That could be a cultural difference, or it could be just me.



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