Showing posts with label friends. Show all posts
Showing posts with label friends. Show all posts

Saturday, August 3, 2013


So I have tons of photos from Sun Moon Lake to post, and I'm working on a post about making idli in Taipei and another on the conflicting ideas of "we're all the same around the world" vs. "our cultures make us all diverse" (hint: they're both true and not even all that conflicting).

I'm also working on turning Taipei in Sepia and Blue into a story that could potentially be published somewhere. That's already happened with Spirit Mediums in Donggang, which will be published as a story called Gods Rushing In in an anthology of stories by expat women in Asia which I think is coming out next year (but don't hold me to that). least I know I'm not a terrible writer, even though my blog posts are riddled with errors, run-on sentences, half-sentences and all sorts of organizational problems. Yay!

But I seem to have a fair amount of bloggers' block, because I haven't been able to sit down and hammer any of this out.

It could be partly because I've been in front of the computer too much for other reasons - since I've given notice at work and started up as a freelancer I've managed to secure a pretty good seminar contract, and that required creating my own materials (for giving good interviews in English).

But I think it's mostly for three reasons:

First, I have four or five friends who are leaving or probably leaving Taiwan in the fall or winter. Two want to go back to Canada, one is definitely going back to the USA, one is likely doing the same, and one is moving to the USA to be with her fiance. Of course I'm really happy for all of them and I want only the best for them as they make their way in life! I just can't help but feel a little down that in the near future I am going to lose something like a third of my social circle. Obviously I'm not hanging on any one friend, it's just that losing five (well, not losing permanently, you know what I mean) at roughly the same time is a bit of a blow. As long as I don't guilt-trip or get all mopey-faced around these friends, I think it's fine to admit that this has me a little down, and it's not anyone's fault, and it's not like I would or want to make anyone change their plans. Add to this a friend who is moving to Kaohsiung, and damn.

I also am feeling acutely right now my lack of a female Best Friend - a BFF - (I mean other than Brendan, who really is my best friend, and that's not just a cliche) in Taiwan. It comes and goes - most of the time it's fine, sometimes I'm actually grateful to be relatively free, sometimes I feel like Brendan fits that role so well that I'm covered, sometimes I notice but it's no biggie, and sometimes I just really want someone I can call up and be all "I need margaritas ASAP. You free?" and I know she'll (I feel like this particular role is best suited to a woman in my case) either have time or make time, and that time'll be sooner rather than later. I've had friends who were like this but I don't now, and I'm feelin' it.

I know I'll get through it. I have other friends and I have Brendan.

Second, ever since the great weight was lifted off my shoulders when I gave notice at work, it's been hitting home how really and truly awful my workplace has been. It's not like I didn't know before, but just to keep myself psychologically whole while I toiled for those people, I relegated that knowledge to somewhere in the back-end of my amygdala, where I didn't have to think about it day-to-day. I've known I had to quit ever since they gave Brendan the shaft, and only stuck around long enough to build up a little savings and get permanent residency so they can't touch me visa-wise.

 (they have been known to accidentally-on-purpose screw up paperwork for leaving teachers to cause disruptions in their visas and residency permits, which causes all sorts of immigration issues and renders you ineligible for permanent residency, so this was really something I just had to grit my teeth and do so as to not risk that). Now that I'm mentally free to ponder to the fullest extent just how horrible they are, wow.

I don't even feel bad saying all of this publicly, although I won't name the company (under Taiwanese law they could sue me for that). If I need to work in an officially employed capacity again and a potential employer finds this, I feel that either they should understand what some bosses can be like in this industry in Taiwan, or give me a chance to explain myself further. If they'll do neither, I'm not sure I want to work for them. Or I'll just delete the post when it's time to look for work, if this freelancing thing doesn't work out and I need to seek it.

The problem is, what this is doing is causing me to feel bitter - hopefully temporarily but I can't be sure - about the entire English teaching industry in Taiwan, and about working under Asian (my former boss isn't Taiwanese) bosses in general. I label this as a cultural difference, and the issues here are differences in how we think based on our cultural upbringings. But it has just enough of a shine of racism to it that I don't want this thought lurking in my head to the extent that it is.

It has me not wanting to trust any potential boss who is Chinese (and I mean that culturally, not racially), especially any who own an English school in Taiwan. It has me thinking they're all awful, because every single one I've worked under has been basically awful, and most stories I've heard have also been awful. Awful in that maybe someone from the same culture could deal with all the bullshit, but I just can't.

And that is not good, my dears. That is not good at all. Not good for my career, not good for my psyche, not good for the whole "I don't want to be racist and this could be seen as racist although it's not about race, it's about differing cultural expectations" thing.

Anyway, this could be its own blog post, so I'll save the rest of my rant until then, maybe with a few happy posts - because I'm also happy, I'm not just down - as a buffer.

And third, the fact that lately, everyone I know seems to be having a hard time in Taiwan, or even openly hating it (this is related in some way to the fact that four or five of my friends are leaving or planning to leave by the end of the year).

The reasons range from "it's OK but I'm just not excited every morning to be here" to "I hate this place" to "it'd be great except for all the racism" to "I'm trying so hard to do well at work, save money and have a good time, but it's just not working out for me, I'm miserable and exhausted and I want to go home" to a Taiwanese friend who says her own people irritate the everloving hell out of her and she just wants to go back to Canada to be with her girlfriend.

And that has me down. It has me down because it has me questioning why I like it so much, and why my experiences have generally been positive - save my terrible work situation. Why do good things keep happening to me, and not to others? What is it about Taiwan that I see the good in, and they don't? I've had to think a lot about this. Also about the light that went on in my head when a friend of mine revealed that her issues stemmed mostly from her extremely racist boss, not necessarily Taiwan itself (or not only Taiwan itself). I haven't had to deal with that kind of racism, so it was a wake-up call that just because people are nice to me because I'm Paley McCracker, that it doesn't mean things are going to be all positive and happy for foreigners who are not white.

I think this - what do I see in Taiwan that others don't? Why have I had good experience when others haven't? Or why do I see great things where others are merely "meh" about it all? - also deserves its own post so I'll stop there, too.

Oh yeah, and there's a fourth. I've had a minor but distressing health issue these past few weeks that I'm currently being tested for. I'm awaiting the results (don't worry, it's not life-threatening or even long-term threatening) but the likely culprit is a hormone imbalance that is probably wreaking havoc on my emotions without my realizing it.

Anyway, that's where I'm at. A big ol' swirl of emotion. I'm not unhappy. Life is actually quite nice since I've given notice at work. I'm trying to travel more but not succeeding. I'm starting the DELTA Module One in September, online.

I've just got a lot on my mind and some of it is getting me down.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

It's A Christmas Miracle!


So we're headed home for a few weeks to celebrate Christmas and New Year's with family (our cat still hasn't seemed to figure out that we're going) after a day in Shanghai on their 48-hour transit visa. As you can see above, I got myself a fancy new haircut, complete with dip-dyed purple ends (hard to see in this photo, but they're there). Can't wait to shock the family!

Anyway, there has been so much tragedy in the news these days that I wanted to post a few photos of something happy before we go. Something that affirms love rather than questions the existence of good in the world: weddings.

Last night we attended the wedding of our good friends CK and Eliza (CK is my former student). Because I'm friends with people who generally don't choose the most normal paths in life - I have very few friends who graduated, got jobs, found a partner, got married and had babies: most have taken different routes - despite having lived in Taiwan for over six years, this was the first Taiwanese wedding we've attended.


I'm still getting used to my new camera, and while it takes fantastic pictures when you know how to use it, I don't always know how to use it. This image, for example, could have been sharper (and also looks lighter on my computer - I've lightened it some more since uploading for future posting):



What was great about this wedding, which was held at the Sheraton Taipei, was that it wasn't actually all that similar to what I'd heard about Taiwanese weddings. People said that we should be prepared for bad wine, mediocre food, 500 random people who don't know each other and don't mingle, and interminable speeches by people who seem to barely know the couple.

It just wasn't true: there were a hundred people there at most and all of them seemed to know the couple well - neither has a large family, and the groom especially was adamant about not inviting everyone under the sun, only good friends. There were only two speeches, one of which was short. the other was heartfelt and personal.


The food was...pretty good. I mean, it wasn't the greatest Chinese food I've eaten in my life, and it didn't shatter my world, but it was fine. Perfectly good hotel standard food. The wine was drinkable - although it's still weird to me to drink red wine with Chinese food, which I usually associate with beer (but then I usually go for spicy Sichuan, not banquet food). There was definitely mingling between tables, although we didn't know enough people to mingle that much - I didn't see any other former students from among CK's work crowd, but we did say hi to a few friends of the couple that we'd met at a party once. Despite joking about it, we were not seated at the 老外桌 ("foreigner table") - we were the only foreigners there!



I quite liked Eliza's choices of dress - simple and clean lines, flattering colors. She didn't look like a lot of brides in wedding photos I see - like an over-decorated sugar-flower covered cake. Not at all. And she did look like a movie star. As one friend said before they got engaged, "哇!If CK doesn't marry with her, he is the crazy man!" [sic - I left the grammar unedited because the definite article lends a nice emphasis].



I think one of the reasons I was so touched by this wedding is that I've known CK for several years, and he would always say that he was never going to get married, that he just wasn't interested in family life or married life, that he'd date women but they had to understand he wasn't going to marry anybody (at the wedding itself the emcee said "Honestly, CK, we thought you liked men!"). He had his reasons, and as a friend you can say "so he's an independent guy, that's cool". I admire independent people - I like to think I'm one of them, and married someone who respected, even liked, my need to just be who I am - but as an independent person who met the right guy (or rather, had known the right guy all along) and decided to marry, I was really happy to see my friend keep his independent self and yet still find someone he wants to spend his life with. Love is a great thing and we should have more of it in this world!

You could say that this is why this was a Christmas miracle - CK actually got married! - but I figure it's a Christmas miracle because someone was willing to marry CK!


The five-year-old daughter of some mutual friends (another kid, who was maybe 1 year old, came up to me, stared at me curiously, and when I said "hi" to him in Chinese, his face wrinkled up like crumpled paper and he ran away crying - no joke - but this kid knows and likes me)


Mutual friend and former student Linda

Of course no wedding in Taiwan is complete without wedding games. First, Eliza had to maneuver an egg from her husband's pants cuff to...ah...another place.

DSC02490 DSC02491

Then CK had to eat something (couldn't tell what) while blindfolded:



And then he had to eat a cookie or something draped in a suggestive spot on the bride's dress (hey at least it wasn't under the bride's dress):


Someone asked: "新娘好吃嗎?"



And because puerile humor carries the day in these wedding games:


...they had to play a game of...ahem...horseshoes!


I figured I'd end on that photo because it basically made the whole wedding. To wit: “他應該很外向因為大家都可以看他的香蕉!"

Super fun to watch, but I'm kind of happy this is not an American wedding tradition...

Anyway, Merry Christmas everyone, if I don't post again before then (depends on how much free time I have), and don't eat too many bananas this holiday season.

Friday, December 16, 2011

So I'm Quiet...But I Want To Talk

Not long ago I was chatting with a student - we were sharing a taxi to the HSR, as he was returning to Tucheng while I returned to Taipei. He asked me what I thought of Taiwanese people, if I had any Taiwanese friends, what it was like to have a social life as a foreigner in Taiwan - all in all a more interesting conversation than the usual "you married yet? How long have you been in Taiwan? Can you eat our food?" taxi banter.

I told him basically what I said in the linked post above, albeit more succinctly. Basically that my Taiwanese friends were great, that generally we have friendships not unlike those in the West, but with two key differences that I have come to accept (because I have to - if I didn't I wouldn't have any local friends):

1.) Americans hang out with their friends far more often. It would be highly unusual to not see a friend for months on end unless they lived far away.  It would be a sign that the friendship was dying. In our free time our first thought, at least those of us who are extroverts, is what we can do socially. In Taiwan people seem to spend time with friends far less often, take the initiative to invite friends out less often (they do it, just not with the same frequency) They don't worry about not seeing friends for awhile, and don't really think of social options first when faced with free time.  Whereas doing something with friends would be my default weekend plan, staying home and resting is often the default in Taiwan.


2.) While there are introverts back home and extroverts in Taiwan who buck the trend (I count many of these among my friends), very generally speaking people are more outgoing in the USA. If you invite them to a party or group event, they'll take the initiative to talk to people they don't know - the default would be to socialize, not to be quiet until someone talked to you. When I host a party back home I don't have to play hostess too much - people will get on without my help. Here I feel like, for many of my local friends, I have to introduce them around and get things flowing far more.  People talk less and often reveal far less about themselves.

When I said that exactly - "people reach out less, they reveal less about themselves, they talk less" - my student nodded vigorously and added that when he was young, his parents and teachers actively taught him not to talk too much. He was taught that not only was being quiet and listening to others a virtue and talking too much a sign of arrogance, but that revealing too much or giving too many opinions was a bad idea, because "if the wrong person heard your idea, you could get in trouble in the past". Along the lines of the cryptic "a truck would come to your house" comment another student once made.

He added that it might seem to foreigners that many Taiwanese people are quieter, have less to say, have fewer opinions (unless you're an old lady or a taxi driver), or are generally happy to just be quiet - but that it's not really true, at least with many of them. "In fact we have a lot of ideas and opinions. Actually, sometimes I want to say something, but I don't. It's not easy to forget my teachers and my family telling me to be quiet. They told me it's dangerous to say too much, and that people - especially children - need to be quiet. So I am quiet. But I want to talk."

Basically he was saying that a lot of people in Taiwan are not naturally introverted or quiet - they are that way because it was drummed into them that they should be that way.

Which...hmm. First, it begs the question - if this is true and it's not an ingrained cultural trait but rather something that's drilled into children from a young age, due to traditional beliefs, political threat or more likely a vitriolic combination of both - is it even possible for an entire culture to force itself to be quiet? Is it possible to mold introverts from people who would otherwise be outgoing? I have my doubts: I'm a natural extrovert and I don't think any amount of childhood training could have repressed that. I was always a bit too talkative in class and teacher reprimands and even notes home never really curbed that tendency. Not to mention that there are enough openly outgoing people in Taiwan for me to wonder - if they never got rid of their talkative streak, how can anyone say that this kind of conditioning works?

It also makes me wonder - if this is something drilled into children the way American kids were forced to practice penmanship to perfection in my grandmother's generation, does its status as a cultural belief deeply held enough to be forced upon children with such vigor not count it by default as a cultural trait - especially considering that humility as a virtue really is a cultural trait here?

And finally, if this was exacerbated by the political climate of the 20th century - mainly the KMT and the White Terror but let's face it, the Japanese weren't angels either - I have to wonder if things were different for those who lived their lives before any of that. If I found a 110-year-old woman out in the countryside - not inconceivable, seeing as old folks in Taiwan seem to make it to 250 without much problem (just kidding...sort of. I am pretty sure some of my neighbors in Jingmei were born during the late Ming Dynasty) - would she have different notions?

Just something to wonder about. I really don't know, I found my student's comments interesting is all. "They told me it's dangerous to talk too I am quiet. But I want to talk" - it makes one think doesn't it?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Tastes of Childhood: Making Lahmacun in Taipei


I've mentioned before that my mom's side of the family is Armenian from Musa Dagh, Turkey and that this is one of the reasons why we chose Turkey as our next travel destination: to seek out my homeland (or rather, one of my homelands - I'm also Polish, Swiss and generic British/Irish). Of all my many threads of ancestry, my Armenian heritage has always been the most vibrant and the biggest part of my life - I do believe that's because that side of the family came to the USA the most recently, and also because that branch of the family has been the most tenacious in terms of keeping heritage and memories alive. That tends to happen when your family lives through a genocide. When one's great grandfather (in my case, Mehran Renjilian) was a freedom fighter (the Turks would say "terrorist" but they're wrong) in the Armenian resistance...later turned minister. When one's family arrives in the USA after being forced to leave not one, but two countries - the second being Greece as the Nazis closed in.

So, after many years of regaling friends with homecooked Indian food, various appetizers and organizing outings to restaurants, I decided that on the eve of the trip that will mark my generation's first return to Musa Dagh, that I will cook some of the best-loved and most familiar dishes of my childhood.

The party will be in two weeks. I can make some of these dishes in my sleep, quite literally: I've had dreams where I have made hummus from scratch and upon waking up realized that even in my dream I followed exactly the right recipe. I have to admit, though, that there are others that I've eaten plenty of but never attempted to make (such as "fish cookies" which are flavored not with fish but with honey, and derive their name from the herringbone pattern cut across the top), and still others that I've attempted once before, failed at miserably, and never tried again...such as lahmacun.

The last time I made lahmacun, or tried to, I was too scared to attempt the dough, being terrified of trying something that included yeast. Instead I put the tasty topping on soft pita. The pita burned. I took the smoking mess of charred bread and raw meat laid out in a glass casserole out of the oven and plopped it on the counter, where the glass instantly shattered.

You can imagine my trepidation at deciding to not only attempt lahmacun again, but to do so with my tiny electric oven and with real dough made with actual yeast (I'm a great baker of cakes, muffins and such but not so experienced with bread products).

So this weekend was the test run.

My beloved husband helps out in the kitchen as I prepare the lahmacun dough.

I mostly followed this recipe, with a few changes to reflect the flavors I remember from childhood. I would never use ground beef - only lamb will do. Beef is a cop-out. I also added extra garlic, black pepper and allspice to the recipe. The "Armenian spice" I grew up with is made of cumin, paprika, cayenne pepper, black pepper and allspice and that's the combination I created and added.

Ground allspice in my tiny marble mortar&pestle.
 Fortunately, I have a wonderful husband who, while not exactly a kitchen god in his own right, is very good at helping out in the kitchen - chopping, grinding, peeling, mixing, stirring - whatever I may need when my two hands and one brain just aren't enough.

Lahmacun is not just flavored with dry spices and lamb - it also includes the pungent flavors of onion, parsley, mint, tomato, lemon and garlic (and, of course, salt).

Mint and lemon - yum!
 My mom once wrote a short story of her experiences making lahmacun, lamenting that Nana - her grandmother - could always turn out perfect dough circles but hers were eternally lumpy and lopsided.

I have to say that I take after my mother, but it doesn't matter: I care about taste, not looks.

Sorry, Nana. I hope as you look down on me from heaven (despite my not being religious) I hope you will forgive my horrifically uneven dough rounds).
Creating this dish in Taipei was - and will be, when I make it again in two weeks - a collision of memories. My life in Taipei with our assortment of friends here, our decrepit apartment that we'll soon be moving out of for better digs, our insane cat, Chinese class, evenings enjoying Belgian beer at various Da'an cafes or going out for some of the best food I've ever had from around China and the world... and commingled with childhood holidays where we'd serve typical American food - turkey or ham, gratin potatoes, green beans, tossed salad, apple pie - alongside hummus, Armenian string cheese, cheoreg (my mom wrote that recipe!), babaghanoush, pilaf, fish cookies, olives and lahmacun. We'd eat scrambled eggs with string cheese, bacon and cheoreg the next morning sitting around Grandma and Grandpa's kitchen table in their suburban house that is so typically American that I once saw their living room in a TV commercial (except it wasn't theirs - it just happened to be the same pre-fab living room). Running around the backyard with my cousins, all much younger than myself and helping Grandma make deviled eggs - it took years for her to realize that I was, in fact, capable of cooking much more than that.

Those flavors - mahlab (a spice made from the ground pits of a certain cherry), tahini, aromatic lamb, tangy lemon, earthy cumin, pungent mint and parsley, fiery cayenne - are the sensory receptacles of my childhood and going back from there, of my heritage. Despite sweating in a kitchen in Taiwan over a plastic table covered in parchment paper, whereas my great grandmother would have done this first on a rough kitchen counter in rural Turkey and later in Athens, and later still in Troy, New York, I did feel a connection to the feisty woman who passed away when I was 9 and who never did quite become fluent in English. It was also meaningful to me to share this first batch of lahmacun - the food of my childhood - with my ever-amazing husband:

...who, you know, certainly appreciates good food. We ate it as I always have, topped with fresh vegetables (onion, cucumber, tomato, bell pepper, all will do) and a squeeze of lemon.

And it means a lot to me to be able to share this food with my friends in Taipei in just a few short weeks, before we say goodbye until October.

Oh yes, and I made a cucumber yoghurt mint salad, too!

Friday, July 1, 2011

What's in a name?

Leading off from a recent Facebook discussion on the importance of names, I’d like to talk a bit about naming in Taiwan and what I’ve observed of it.

I know a lot of foreigners who applaud Taiwanese who don’t take English names. I have to say I rather like the convention of having an English name, because the culture surrounding what to call someone (vis-a-vis your relationship to them) is so different as to be confusing, especially for people whose roles in your life are unclear – like foreigners, who don’t always fit neatly into defined circles of acquaintance in Taiwan.

I’m going to change names for this but use relevant examples, by the way – I don’t want to publish my friends’ actual full names, even Chinese names in Pinyin.

Here, though, is why I like having an English name to refer to.

I have a student named “Lin Shu-fen”. Shu-fen is a doctor, about fifteen years older than I am, and she and I get along like gangbusters. I’ve taught her for well over a year at this point in a one-on-one course. She has an English name that she’s not only never used, I only know of it through third-person information. She doesn’t care for it and has never told me of its existence.

Many of you are aware that calling somebody by their first name alone is a sign of a close friend or family level of intimacy, and that people in one’s outer circle would generally call her by a nickname – A-fen? Xiao Shu? Something else? – or some variant on Little, Miss, Mrs. Or Old (Lin Xiaojie, Old Lin, Little Lin). Someone who is not a very close friend, spouse or family member would generally not just call her “Shu-fen”.

In Japan they solve this with the suffix “-san” – anybody can be a –san and it can be applied to either the first or last name. In Taiwan it’s less clear, because as a foreigner you might not know off the bat which other name to use, which is too formal and which is too intimate.

For the first year or so of our acquaintance, I had a really hard time figuring out how to address my student by name. I felt in my gut that “Shu-fen” was too familiar, but all of the common nicknames were unclear – which one to use? I couldn’t call her (or didn’t feel comfortable calling her) A-, Xiao- or Lao- because I don’t want to make any statements about our relative positions or ages, and I couldn’t call her any variant on what in the USA we’d refer to as “Ms. Lin”. I was at a loss. Dr. Lin would have been way too formal, as well, and calling her “Lin Shu-fen” to her face? No.

Being a direct person, once I figured we had a strong enough acquaintance I just asked her directly what she’d like to be called, and explained my predicament honestly. She laughed up a storm and told me that “Shu-fen” was fine, and to go ahead and use that. Phew.

Another student, let’s call him “Chang Ying-de” (I am not sure that’s a real name, but whatevs). We were discussing this issue and he said that many of the people he meets as part of his public-relations heavy job call him “Little Chang” even though he’s in his forties. He has an English name, “Bill”, so of course I use that. We talked about what I would call him if he had no English name and, after thinking about it, told me honestly that he had no idea - that he’d probably just have me call him “YD” (for the first letters of his “name”) or get used to me calling him by his first name in Chinese.

He laughed and agreed that Xiao Chang (“Little Chang”), A-ying and “Xiao Ying” would be very strange indeed, but “A-Chang” or “Mr. Chang” in English or Chinese would be entirely too formal.

(Note – the “ying” in his pseudonym is correct, and anyone who called him “Xiao Ying” now would be calling him 小英, the adopted public nickname of Tsai Ying-wen, who is running for President in 2012. Her campaign posters all read “I just want Little Ying!” – 我就要小英!”so he’s abandoned that nickname…”too weird!”)

“Would you be OK with it if I had to call you ‘Ying-de’?”
“Honestly, if you ask me that now, no. That would be too weird. It’s not that I don’t like you as a teacher or enjoy our class, it’s just that you’re not my best friend or close family member. But if I had no English name I would get used to it.”

I’m not sure I would, though. I got used to it with Shu-fen, but I don’t know about doing that as a matter of course. I do of course run into other students, usually in short-term or seminar courses who I see briefly and then never again or not for years, who don’t have English names. I call them by their Chinese first names because I have no choice, but generally speaking I prefer to try to adhere to the local culture as much as possible.

The same holds true for my friends. While I do have friends here I’d consider close, I’d still feel weird calling them outright by their Chinese given names (my student confirmed this – that even his good friends have nicknames for him, and it would really have to be a close, almost brotherly, friendship before someone would actually call him Ying-de). Fortunately, they all have English names – Sasha, Lilian, Roy, Ray, Cathy, Cara – so I don’t need to worry about that. I’d feel less weird calling them by their given Chinese names than I would students, but it’s still a stretch. Yichen, Chiya, Hsin-yi, Xiaozhong, Yicheng…I dunno. I guess I could, but it would feel off somehow.

Granted, I don’t have the same hangups about my own Chinese name, 張白蓮. I’m fine with people calling me “Bai-lian” and would in fact feel weird being called “Chang Xiaojie”, “Xiao Lian”, “A-lian” or any variant thereof. Of course everybody just calls me Jenna, or they’re calling because they’re Zhonghua Telecom, my goat milk company or they’re my Chinese teacher, and they just call me by my full name (Chinese teachers have occasionally just called me “Bai-lian”). I love how the goat milk company, who I never revealed my occupation to, calls me Teacher Chang.

I chose that name, by the way, for specific reasons. Chang because that was the common surname when I lived in Guizhou, and when I chose it, I had no idea that I’d someday live in Taiwan. If I could choose again – I can, but it’s a pain as my Chinese name is on my resident visa and my three chops all say “Chang” – I’d choose Lin () as it evokes my middle name, Lynn. “Bai” because my given name, Jenna, means “white and pure” and “lian” (lotus) because my maiden name meant flower in its native language (白花, or literally “white flower”, is a terrible name. It sounds like something a country girl or possibly betel nut beauty would have). My Chinese name means something to me – that’s why I don’t mind when people use it, and I went to the trouble of getting it added to my visa.

Side note as I end this – I’m endlessly fascinated by the reasons behind one’s choice of name, if one has the ability to choose. Yet another reason why I like seeing English names in Taiwan; people can choose them. It’s true that many people don’t – that they keep whatever name they were given in their cram school or by their pre-school teacher or parents, or they just use initials, a la YD, YR, JK, CC. You get an equal number of foreigners with meaningless Chinese names Occasionally, though, you get someone who has really put thought into their English name – I’ve met an Ansel who was really into photography, and a Margaret who chose her name because her grandmother was named Pearl (in Chinese), and she wanted to honor her but felt “Pearl” was too easy – so she picked a name that meant “Pearl”. I’ve met a Blade – changed from “Kevin” – because he wanted to stand out and have a name that sounded confident (his words).

I love hearing those stories, as well as the fairly common tale of changing one’s Chinese name to affect one’s luck. I don’t think this actually works as I’m not superstitious, although it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy: I do think people take on characteristics of how their names feel and sound even if their meaning isn’t evident, and not necessarily in the most obvious way (I’ve met plenty of lovely Angelas btu never met an Angela whom I’d say was “angelic”). If you change your name because you want a different verbal talisman to associate with yourself, it is entirely possible that the new name will affect your personality because you allow it to do so psychologically.

Of course, Taiwanese parents will often attempt this as well. I once had a student named Wen-ya, which is a name evoking ladylike grace. “I have that name because my parents changed my old name,” she said.

“Because I was too much of a…like a boy…”

“A tomboy?”
“Yes! So they gave me a name that is really for a lady to make me more like a lady.”

“Did it work?”

Although perhaps if she’d chosen it herself, it might have worked just fine.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Navigating Friendship in Taiwan

Enjoy this horrible photo where only one person looks halfway decent of some of my friends here...before someone asks me to take it down because we all look pretty awful.

I’ve been talking a lot with expat friends about friendship in Taiwan, making local friends and maintaining a social circle in ways that we’re accustomed to, and found a few interesting trends among what those friends are saying (and my own experience).

One thing that people seem to universally agree on – people in Taiwan don’t seem to pick up ‘random’ friends or create diverse groups of friends in the way we do back home. I am sure it happens, but it doesn’t seem to be the norm. Back home, I counted among my circle of friends a guy I met because he was one table over at an Indian restaurant and, as he was south Indian, noted how I was eating like a local. Another I met at a bus stop. In Taiwan, one of my best friends – no longer in Taipei, sadly – I met at a swimming pool. Another few have come from Teh Internets. All of these people have met and more than a few are now independently friends as well.

Of course, plenty of other friends I met in more typical ways – through work, or a club or mutual friends, or my former college friends with whom I’m still close. Maybe I’m the weirdo here – one more shy friend from back home has noted “yeah, you meet people at a bus stop and a month later they’re coming over for dinner and bringing the wine. Some of us just can’t do that!”

I don’t think it’s that weird, though. I do think this happens far more often back home than it does here.

It was noted that it’s typical in both cultures to make friends in groups – classmates and former classmates, colleagues, peers in your industry, and it seems much more common to actually socialize with family as though they’re your friends (and I say this as someone whose sister is also counted as a good friend and who will happily socialize with her brother-, sister- and cousin-in-law). You see a lot more of “I’m going out with my cousins” here and a lot less of “yeah, we met at the bus stop”. It seems like there are three typical circles – colleagues, classmates and family…and not a lot more than that.

I guess my point is I feel more like my friendship “circles” back home are circles that have spokes flying off here and there, and I have a lot more independent attachments to people than many Taiwanese seem to, and I feel more inclined to invite them out together than many Taiwanese seem to. I stick less in tight circles of classmates, family and coworkers than the Taiwanese seem to.

I’ve been told by locals and expat observers alike that it is fairly rare that a typical Taiwanese person will go out of their way to talk to and socialize with someone totally new unless introduced by a mutual friend or that person entered a previously existing circle of coworkers, family or classmates.

Which is all fine if you’re local, but if you’re not it can make it difficult to make local friends. If you don’t have a milieu waiting for you – work, school or family – in which to enter those circles, it’s harder (and made harder still by the aforementioned linguistic and cultural barriers). It does, therefore, make sense that while most foreigners are likely to date locals, they tend to befriend other foreigners with the exception of possibly a few local colleagues and a language exchange partner.

I want to say before I continue that this hasn’t really been a problem for me – I have many local friends, if anything I’d say I have more local friends than expat ones (although I have a fair amount of both). I've written about this before but but it bears repeating: I do feel that there are expected and established communities and circles where an expat would typically make friends: at work or in class, or going out on the weekend with a larger group of people your own age - whether that's 21 or 51 - and joining clubs with those same people. I feel too old for the young buxiban and student crowd but way too young and in a different place in life vis-a-vis the older professional crowd. I don't quite fit into the ABC crowd.

And yes, that makes it hard to socialize, although I like to think I've been successful regardless.

So, some trends I've noticed:

The first is that I think it’s more than language and more than the expected cultural gaps that make it easier, and therefore more common, for expats to socialize with other expats and not as much with locals. If everyone around you tends to socialize with coworkers and classmates, then you will too: and your classmates and coworkers are usually other foreigners. If those around you are less likely to make random friendships, you’re less likely to have the opportunities for connection. So it’s not so much about misunderstanding or misinterpreting actions, and not about communication, but more about a mode of socializing that isn’t so easy to breach for outsiders.

However, I would guess that like me, most longer-term expats have a number of local friends. What I’ve noticed here is that they tend to be one’s girlfriend’s friends (this makes the assumption that a huge number of expats are men with Taiwanese girlfriends, but that assumption is of course based in truth), “Chinese teacher” colleagues from the English schools where they work, and language exchange partners turned friends. Of course, if you’ve got a non-teaching job or are in school with other local students your chances of cultivating more local friendships go up.

What I rarely see, which is a shame, are groups composed of expats and locals in a mix, socializing together. Maybe this does happen more often than I think, but I don’t see it because I’m not exactly a regular on the bar scene and I don’t belong to any local clubs or groups (my work, Chinese study, marriage and current social circle keeps me busy enough). This is where I’d love to hear experiences from other expats that buck the narrative I’m describing.
That said, when I do go out with my mixed group of foreigners and locals – a group that’s ever-evolving as friends are made and friends leave, including Taiwanese friends who have left to study abroad – I feel like we’re the only group like that around.

Another thing I’ve noticed – expat friendships with locals tend to be mostly female. I don’t mean relationships – I mean friendships. This is true for me, as well – and I can’t really explain why (but I’ve discussed it with other expat friends who agree. Making local female friends is fairly easy, but making local friends who are male just doesn’t seem to happen much). I have a few, although all but one are currently not in Taiwan due to work or study. I’d try to suss out some theories on this but none has ever really had enough sticking power that I can confidently post it and defend it. I’ve consistently found, however, that my very small handful of male Taiwanese friends tends to be the exception.

It also seems to be true that while plenty of friendships in Taiwan exist between men and women, it all seems to be in groups: Classmates, Coworkers, Family. Locals I’ve talked to (mostly students) have confirmed this: you rarely get an independent male-female friendship. If you do, people start to gossip and wonder. If a man and a woman are hanging out one-on-one consistently, it’s assumed that they’re in a pre-dating stage, and a married person (such as myself) who has a friend of the opposite gender will sometimes be suspected of an affair. One of my students came out and said that she lost touch with most of her male friends from before her marriage – it wasn’t that she didn’t want to be friends, but it felt “strange” to spend time with them now that she was married.

Which is totally not how I feel at all – one of my closest friends in Taiwan is male (another expat, but still). It would strike me as ridiculous to give up my friendships with men because I’m in a relationship or married. I know it happens in the USA, but it seems to happen on a smaller scale.

Yet another observation – and I’m not quite sure how to word this because it’s supposed to be an observation based on what many of my other friends have said as well as my experience but could so easily be misinterpreted as me complaining, which is absolutely not the intent – is that “foreign friends” of locals in Taiwan seem to get fewer invitations out from their Taiwanese friends than they do from other expats, or that they would back home. I do believe this has to do with the fact that we don’t fit into Classmates, Coworkers or Family, so it would be awkward to invite us to those gatherings, and if you’re the only expat friend of that person, there’s no easy place to fit you in. Almost like a curiosity (although that sounds bad, and conveys a tone I don’t know if I really intend). You might get invitations for lunch or coffee, but you wouldn’t often be invited to, say, a house party or a restaurant gathering. So what happens is that your local friends know all of your friends, but you know few or none of your local friends’ friends (again, exceptions exist in my own life and generally I am happy with the invitation reciprocity I receive).

I can see, though, how a typical expat might cultivate some local friendships and then, after awhile, wonder why he or she doesn’t seem to get as many return invitations, and wonder if he or she is being snubbed, when really the local friend just isn’t sure what sort of gatherings to invite their expat friend to attend. That right there is a huge cultural gap: I remember once someone I know was narrating advice she’d heard aimed at Taiwanese who want to practice their English, and one item was “maintain friendships with foreigners”. “But why would they have to be told to do that?” came the question. Honestly, I can see why. It can make you really think - and question - when your invitations are accepted with alacrity, but you rarely get the same types of invitations in return, and maybe not as frequently (or maybe it's just that I'm a planner and party-thrower and the friends I've made aren't like that).

Another culture gap – family coming before friends. I can see how a foreigner who invites a local out and then gets a cancellation at the last minute because “relative X wants to have dinner” or “mom wants the family to go out” might feel slighted. I’ve accepted that this is how it is – back home we’d tell Aunt Mabel we’re not free that day, sorry. Here, a local friend is more likely to cancel with you to have dinner with Auntie Chen.

I’ve also noticed that parties tend to be a lot quieter. To illustrate this, a tableau: imagine walking into a restaurant to find out it’s been booked out for a wedding that day. A Hello Kitty bride and Daniel groom top a pink-tulle covered arch, and a glittering Double Happiness hangs inside a heart above diners’ heads. Pink tablecloths with white and gold flowers. You are disoriented at first, not sure what’s going on, because it’s so quiet. People are talking quietly at their round banquet tables and music is playing, but you see little of the mingling and inter-table socializing that you would in a lively wedding back home.

This is exactly what we observed when we tried to eat at a famous restaurant in Longtan.

Many Taiwanese friends and students have told me that they and people they know are quite shy when it comes to socializing in a party atmosphere – think like your typical house party back in the USA. My local friends generally aren’t like that, with a few exceptions, but I’m speaking from a few experiences as well as talking to others about their experience. I can name several of my local friends who can be quite sociable at the house parties we occasionally throw (usually on Christmas).

Which – again, I look forward to comments that refute this and tell their own story – but my experience has been that house parties just don’t happen, or when they do, they’re small and contained within a group: Classmates, Colleagues or Family. You sit in a circle; mingling is just different. It looks more like this. (I don't agree with the entire post but the picture is quite evocative).

You don’t see a lot of the sort of parties I throw, where I basically invite everyone I know from every group: Classmates and Colleagues (I have no local family). Locals and expats. People I met at the swimming pool. Former students.

I would cover the psychological differences and toll it takes on people who are not extroverted to have to change out social circles every other year or so - especially if they are here long-term and primarily friends with other expats who come and go - but, I dunno, it strikes me as sort of obvious. I am quite extroverted and it can take something of a toll on me, because one goes through high and low periods. Periods where you have a ton of friends, then a chunk goes home and you have very few until you make some new ones, and then some of those go home, and you are less social until you make still more friends, and then BLAMMO! It's been five years and you're only still hanging out with one or two people from your first year here. If you're not naturally inclined to pick up friends, that can be really hard, and having some local friends who are less likely to leave can help stabilize things a bit.

Finally, I’ve noticed that friendships seem to be conducted mostly in English, even though I do speak Chinese. This is partly because my husband generally comes along and while he can understand most of what is said, he can’t easily contribute in Chinese, and I think partly because the Taiwanese are more used to using English because they have to, whereas Chinese is ‘fun’ for me.

And, you know, after five years I’m still trying to work through all of these things. I’m learning to accept that group gatherings here aren’t done in the same way that they are often done back home. I’m learning to accept that my own gatherings will be a bit quieter and probably end earlier (what often happens is that my Taiwanese friends show up and leave at 11:30pm, and the foreigners stay, talk and drink until 2am). I’m learning to accept that the kinds of reciprocating invitations I get will be different, and that that’s just how it is because I’m not a Classmate, Coworker or Family.

I’m also learning to accept that this is expanding my definition of how friendships are conducted, it’s making me more laid-back and giving me more chances to get to know people one-on-one. That it’s OK to have a quieter gathering, that I don’t have to take it personally when Auntie Chen gets precedence, and that I have to completely abandon my notion of timely and accurate RSVPs because it just doesn’t happen.

And, you know, that’s OK. It’s a new perspective. Some parts of it are awkward and difficult to puzzle out, but that’s life, and if you want to maintain friendships you have to learn to be flexible.