Thursday, July 7, 2011

"Honey, I'm going to China for business"

The American perspective:

So you've just been told you're going to Shanghai on business. If you're pretty new in the business travel game, you're kind of excited, if not, you know that you'll have a comfortable trip regardless. You'll fly business class and be picked up at the airport. You'll probably be put up in a decent hotel - a Sheraton, Hyatt or Marriott at the least, something much fancier depending on your position and the importance of the trip. You'll attend a few meetings, possibly even held in your posh hotel, have a few business-related meals in good restaurants and have all that great food reimbursed by the company. You'll probably have a day or two to go sightseeing, or be able to extend your trip by two or three days with personal leave (paid by you) if you're interested in a mini-vacation. You'll have time to walk the Bund and do some shopping, hit up a swank bar or two, and you'll fly back, again in business class. You'll bring back enamel chopsticks for your kids who will be excited to hear about Mom or Dad's trip to China. You'll meet new people, do some networking, maybe have to deal with a cultural gaffe or two that will make a good story later. People will ask you about your life and work back home and share stories of their own trips or time spent working in the USA.

The Taiwanese perspective:

You've just been told you're going to Shanghai on business. You'll fly economy class and maybe get picked up - it depends. You have to write "Chinese" on your immigration form - if you write "Taiwan" or "Republic of China" you'll be denied entry. You'll head out past Shanghai to Kunshan, where you'll stay in a factory dormitory/guesthouse. There's nothing to do - Kunshan is an industrial zone. You'll be handling factory issues all day, attending meetings, and racing around like a madman or madwoman. No time for shopping and you won't be anywhere near anything interesting in Shanghai itself. You're so tired out after ten- to fourteen-hour days in the factory that if there is a day off - and there rarely is, because you often have to handle work issues through the weekend - you have the energy to flip on the TV in your room and sleep, and nothing more. You'll get asked about Taiwan all the time, with the added implication that don't you agree it's a part of China? Everybody knows that. Nobody will want to hear any other opinion on the matter and to say as much could get you into a fight, so you have to deflect those questions rather than stand up for your country. The factory workers, if they meet you, probably dislike you for being their Taiwanese boss. You get no more sleep or free time than you would in Taiwan. When you fly back nobody asks you about your trip - they all know that a "business trip to China" doesn't mean high-rise hotel bars and networking at business dinners in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Beijing. It means a week in a factory dorm in Kunshan, Tianjin, Shenyang or Dongguan. You fly there and back on your own time, not company time. You eat crappy food. You go to work the next day, not even a few hours to recuperate. Back to the meetings, back to the fluorescent lights.

Of course, it's not always like this - I am sure there are American businesspeople who endure awful trips to China with back-to-back meetings and hostile negotiations, and I have students who go to China and have a posh time of it in downtown Shanghai, Hong Kong or Beijing.

I'm just talking generally about what I've noticed, comparing the majority of my students' trips to China and those I know in the USA who regularly travel there on business.

I thought of this after a taxi driver told me yesterday, "so you are American? Why are you going to this office building? Are you a boss?" "No. I do corporate training - business English, business skills." "But you are American. I think Americans are the boss and the Taiwanese are workers. So you should be the boss."

This comment really bothered me, I must say. I don't necessarily think the driver approved of the situation, but it was uncomfortably accurate (although in a way that was more true even ten years ago and is slowly starting to fade) and painfully self-deprecating and neo-colonialist.

And I can't help but wonder when there'll be some great shift in the world economy that makes it so the dividing line between business class and the W Hotel and a factory guesthouse in Dongguan isn't so sharply divided along racial lines.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Reason #22 to Love Taiwan

Every Wednesday morning, at least for now, I teach a class out in Tucheng Industrial Park. That means getting up earlier than I would normally prefer to, but it's fine because I enjoy the class itself.

In the lobby of the building where I teach, there's a small setup by a tea company (they also have other products but seem to specialize in tea). They're the ones who produce the famous Fushoushan Evergreen tea served at Presidential banquets, and they have an office on the 2nd floor. There is often, but not always, a man staffing the area, which includes shelves of tea for sale and other tea products. In front is a table with an electric heater and traditional tea-making implements with a draining board.

When my class finishes at 10:30am, if the guy is there he invites me to sit and drink for awhile, and will tell me about what he's brewing, but without the annoying pressure of a sales pitch. He knows from our chats that I already have a lot of tea at home and much of it is from his company; I'm hopelessly addicted to the super-expensive Fushoushan tea. The front desk and security guys often come over and chat as well, and teach me a little Taiwanese and have some tea with us, which the guy replenishes in their large steel mugs. Today, he brewed a ridiculously caffeinated red-colored "old tea", not unlike Pu-erh, but definitely not Pu-erh itself. It had a slightly sour taste, similar to Oriental Beauty, but from aging, not from insect saliva (if you've ever wondered where the unique flavor of Oriental Beauty comes from, it's the saliva of the insects that eat the tea leaves unless one of my students is REALLY yanking my chain).

And that's what I love about Taiwan - that in the lobby of a ho-hum office building in a ho-hum industrial park in ho-hum Tucheng, there's a guy who brews traditional tea to showcase his company products, and I can sit there drinking it like I'm at Wistaria House, chatting with him, chatting with the guards and having an all-around good time drinking fabulous, high-quality tea.

Try doing that in some bland office building in Scranton, PA.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


Riffing a bit on my post about friendship in Taiwan over a week ago...I was chatting with a local acquaintance about the phrase "外國朋友" (or 外國人朋友) - literally "foreign friend".

"It should be pretty good," he said. "In the past, Taiwan didn't have many foreigners, so if a Taiwanese person had a foreign friend, it was some kind of honor."

"An honor? To have a friend who is not from Taiwan? Any friend? Of any age, from any country?"

"Yes. So they are trying to be very nice when they call you 'foreign friend', it's like a friend but higher."

"Hmm. But it seems to me that to say 'foreign friend' makes it clear that that friend is different or set apart."

"Yes! It's true!"

"So to me that sounds like 'these people are my friends, and this foreigner is my foreign friend, like I'm not really a friend the way anyone else is."

"Yes. But it's an honor to that person."

"That local person or that foreigner?"

"That local person, and maybe the foreigner too."

"I honor, OK, but I don't really want to feel 'different' or 'higher' or have any special honor for being a foreigner. People are just people, you know? 人就是人. 'Higher' doesn't mean 'closer', in fact it feels like there is some distance."

"Yes, probably there is. Maybe that could be a language or culture issue."

"I guess. I know it is hard, and there are a lot of language and culture barriers. But still, I would rather be just a friend. Like people are just people. Have the chance to be closer, not higher. Not some special foreign friend. Anyway it's clear I'm a foreigner, there's no need to actually say so. Nobody will ever mistake me for Taiwanese."

"That is true!"


Fortunately, none of my friends say this in my presence (I have no idea, if they mention me at all, if they refer to me as a foreign friend when I'm not around, though). I have heard it, though, and heard myself referred to by others as someone's "foreign friend". I don't worry too much about that because I don't really know the people in question, so that's different from a real, actual friend. I try not to say "Taiwanese friend" unless there is some specific reason why I need to mention that they are Taiwanese (to explain something about an anecdote or joke, for example) or, as in my last post on friendship, I'm actively trying to dissect friendship norms with locals compared to those I have with other expats.

It makes me wonder, though. How much am I a friend and how much am I a foreign friend, and will that ever change? Should it? Is it even a big deal? Is there a bit of distance and maybe a bit of bragging inherent in the phrase foreign friend or am I overanalyzing it as I do everything?

Dunno. You tell me.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Oldest House in Xindian

"Xindian's first street, those who will tear down this culture are about to become historical criminals" (or something to that effect)

We went with our friend J this past weekend to seek out an old house/shrine in Xindian, near Dapinglin. J had learned that not only did the house still exist, but that it was slated for destruction despite being a fairly important historical relic - the first house built by the first people to settle Xindian in what used to be the only part of Xindian, which is now a forgotten lane off Minsheng Road.

You can reach this area by taking Minsheng Road (which starts near Dapinglin and is not far from the river separating Xindian from Taipei, very near our house in fact) to Lane 86, which is found after driving through a patch of farmland that nobody would really expect in this part of urbanized northern Taiwan, turning in and walking to the temple at the end past some old broke-down houses (which are older than they look I might add). Just before the temple to the left is a gateway with the name of the shrine on it. Go through there and walk down to the end - you can reach the inside by going in through the open door with the room full of junk (a local assured us this was OK to do) or see the outside by heading to the right and going around.

The house was built by the Liu family, the first to settle in Xindian, and they are apparently fighting to keep it (although from the look of the place they don't have the money for proper upkeep).

Meanwhile, the government along with the MRT company is planning to focibly buy up this and all the other land around it to build an MRT depot near the green and soon-to-be-dug yellow lines. Why they can't just build the depot 100 meters to the left is beyond me.

The temple, despite having plants growing out the roof (below), has a few parts (such as the above) where it looks like some restoration work has been done.

The pillars look recently restored, as well.

The lions and door gods are brightly painted.

As the sun set, we wandered back to the more settled area and ran into Mr. Wei, an ebullient, talkative man in his fifties who was polishing eggs (we guess by the sheer number of eggs that he is in the egg business), playing with his granddaughter and keeping an eye on his 90-year old half deaf father in law, Mr. Chen.

We learned from Mr. Wei that he and some other folks on the street, who are mostly Chens, are also opposing the forced tear-down and relocation, but they're more concerned with compensation than history. Basically, "you can take the house and property but give me a fair amount of money". (Although he used much more elliptical speech: "they prepared the bento box, but they won't give it to me unless I demand it" and "they know that if you are eating food and have some candy, a child will cry like my granddaughter. Give her a candy and she'll be happy. All I want is a candy" and "If I buy a scooter and you want to take it from me, and I paid ten thousand kuai for it, but now it's worth four thousand, well, even if you give me four thousand that's OK because I am not selfish and I don't want to cheat anyone. But don't offer me a hundred kuai!").

Basically, they feel that the compensation offered - nay, pushed on them - by the government is insufficient for what the property is worth and what it will cost to relocate.

There's more to it of course - most people in that neighborhood are old-school Hoklo and are deep green (Mr. Wei used to vote KMT, then realized he hated the KMT, and began voting DPP but is disillusioned by Chen Shui-bian's actions: "he promised soda for everyone, but only he got soda and we got water!") and the government of Xinbei city is, of course, KMT. I can't help but wonder if they want to break up a chunk of opposition party voters. That's speculation, of course, but not outside the realm of possibility.

As we talked, Mr. Wei told us that when his father-in-law, Old Chen, was four years old (so 86 years ago) a huge flood washed away much of the area, and the only thing not underwater was the roof of the Liu shrine. His father hid him up there and he survived - "he says you could see all the way to Gongguan and it was just water. Jingmei was underwater. This whole area was underwater."

As he told us the story, I looked at old Chen and realized for the first time that he wasn't wearing pants.

He went inside and came out, still in his wife beater and skivvies, and proceeded to stand in the doorway and look at us as he put on his pants. Ah, to be a 90-year-old man who can take off and put on pants wherever you like...

"Does he speak Chinese?" we asked.
"No, you have to speak Taiwanese to him," Mr. Wei answered.
"Have you eaten rice?" (jia-ba-buei?) we asked, and he just stared ahead.
"He's kind of deaf, you need to shout."
Old Chen looked at us like we were the strangest things he'd ever seen - three foreigners speaking Taiwanese to him - smiled, and said something (I think it was "I've eaten" - jia ba - but I'm not sure). He then went inside to watch TV.

Mr. Wei gave us a tour of his own house, a rambling jumble of corridors built a hundred years ago of brick and wood shipped from Xiamen, with the old roof beams still intact, and lots of metal and old shingles where necessary - we went all the way out to the old pigsty, now a storage area, and the lemon and mango trees beyond that.

"It's a hundred years old or more," he said, "and they can tear it down I guess, but they have to pay me fairly."

A Shenkeng Pictoral

Shenkeng (深坑) is a town near the southeastern edge of Taipei City, accessible by a quick bus ride from Muzha or a longer bus ride from Jingmei. They've recently started investing in renovating the Japanese-era buildings along the old street, and it remains a popular weekend spot. While there you can also take hikes (see the previous post) or visit the old mansion near the main tourist street's entrance.

As a popular day trip destination from Taipei, Shenkeng sees a lot of people with dogs in bags. I love dogs in bags!

It's also famous for barbecued stinky tofu and stinky tofu in general...worth a try even if you're put off by the smell. I like the spicy kind filled with hot red cabbage pickle.

I won't say much more because anyone who's lived in Taipei for even a brief period knows about Shenkeng, and for those who don't, the above is an adequate introduction. I think it's really true that a picture says more than I could in a long post, so enjoy some pictures!

Day Hike to Paozilun Falls (炮子崙瀑布)

Yesterday we took a lovely and not-too-challenging hike from Shenkeng (深坑) to Cannon Mountain Falls (炮子崙瀑布), a high waterfall known because you can wade into the pool around it and stand under the falls themselves.

The hike itself is outlined in one of the two Taipei Day Trips books by Richard Saunders - and provides fairly good directions. Here are some online directions anyway:

To get there, as you exit Shenkeng Old Street at the end closest to the bus depot and old mansion, turn left and cross the bridge. Head right at the Y and take the next right, which turns at a small shop selling cypress wood items (a good place to pick up cypress oil and other things if you want - I want to go back and get a fruit basket). Cross the large road and head straight up the road that starts at the betel nut shop across from you. Keep right at the sign for 文山 spray painted on a metal fence. Keep going slightly uphill for awhile. Ignore the sign telling you to turn right for Paozilun Trail and keep straight up the steep hill. At the top where it evens out you'll see a very small trail inlet to the left - hopefully there will be cars parked around it, better marking it. It's very easy to miss and doesn't look like the right way (but it is). Turn in and walk up - it's "paved" with blue foam pads (???) and at one point, carpeting. Don't ask - I don't know either - and much of the trail is made of sandbags.

The trail is clear with no deviations or turns - follow it to the falls themselves. (There's a continued trail veering to the left behind the shower if you want to keep going - we didn't).

Some hanging vines in the sunlight along the trail.

It was so hot on the road yesterday that I started to feel dizzy as we climbed and got prickles all over my head, so we sat on the trail for awhile as I drank water, poured cold water on my neck and waited for the feeling to pass. I snapped this picture as I was starting to feel better. The hike is not steep, long or terribly difficult (but would be very slippery in the rain, especially going down) but the time spent under the sun on the road really wiped me out.

Once there, you can set up a picnic (there are chairs lying around a makeshift rest area that you can probably use, or just bring a blanket), wade in the water or sit under the falls. These guys - we suspect they were "brothers" (兄弟) but didn't ask - were having a blast doing just that. Towards the end they all went back under the falls, praying both before and after their showers. It was unclear from their explanation but it seemed as though showering under it was both a spiritual and medicinal act. The water exerts a lot of pressure on whoever is below it, and turns the skin bright red from the pounding, which gets the blood flowing - a practice which is very much a part of Chinese medicine. We believe there's a spiritual component as all of them prayed before getting under the water.

Of course, as wimpy foreigners, we just hung out below the falls and got wet that way under the cold mountain spring. It was perfect after a hot and sweaty hike that nearly knocked me out.

Not every local can handle it - this younger guy went under the falls at the behest of his girlfriend, and really couldn't handle it.

Paozilun (Cannon Mountain) is so named because you often hear thunder but rarely get rain along with it. We heard thunder and beat a quick path back to the road. "Oh, don't worry about it," the guys told us, "you always hear thunder here but it never rains."

Well, it rains a lot in northern Taiwan so we are sure that it does, in fact, occasionally rain here too, so we headed back anyway. As we re-entered Shenkeng proper it did in fact start to rain. I waved to the betel nut girl and her two aunties as we returned to eat some stinky tofu and shaved ice.

Update: chatting with a student about this, he said "it's not that there's a god in the waterfall, it's more that nature is full of gods and spirits. So in dangerous areas people will pray or bring ghost money. You can find a lot of ghost money along Bei-Yi Highway (the winding mountain highway that has been the site of many fatalities between Pinglin and Yilan before the construction of the Xueshan Tunnel) for this reason. So those guys were praying to respect nature, because the waterfall must be a little dangerous. Maybe the pressure can break your neck, or a stone could fall down from it. They're praying to 大自然 - nature."

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.