Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Taiwan characters: Eric and studying Chinese V

Eric posted his ad for someone to study and practice Chinese with him, then a few months later he was sure he had found paradise. Until it all came crashing down...

Eric turned his head and looked at Hsing-Cheng: “So you are saying the reason why there are always fights in the legislature is because of frustration; to show they are doing something. Am I saying it right?”

“Yes. No problems,” she replied. “Your Chinese is improving everyday.

“That is really interesting. Fascinating,” said Eric.

Background: apart from the stamp on the back of all products, ‘Made in Taiwan’ - Taiwan is best known for the mass brawls in the parliament that have made international news around the world over the years. The answer to why they never used to be able to talk out a problem was based on Taiwan’s rather undemocratic makeup at the time: when Chiang Kai-Shek was defeated by the communists and brought the Nationalist Army over from China, suppressing the 4 million Taiwanese who were already there, he was pretending to be a democrat, but there was a twist on his style of democracy: he claimed to the government of the whole of China, and so declared the honourable members of Nanjing, Xian, and Beijing that came with him needed to stay in the parliament to make policy for the little island of Taiwan, otherwise it wouldn’t be representative of the views of the whole of China. And, at the same time, those honourable members could only stand for re-election when they could return to China and face their respective electorates…Forty years later, the political climate had thawed such that Taiwanese wouldn’t simply be shot on the spot for a dissenting voice, and the number of seats for Taiwanese in the Taiwanese parliament had increased to maybe 20%. Still the honourable members for Xian and Beijing who were still alive were being wheeled into parliament with their drips – and pressing the buzzer on their chairs to rubber stamp anything Chiang Kai-Shek’s son Chiang Jing-Gwo wanted and block anything beneficial to the Taiwanese. Understandably the democratically elected and young Taiwanese members decided to take out their frustration, and show their electorate they were doing something, by taking a few pot shots at the old guys in the chairs.

Eric smiled to himself because life was great. He had put that advert for someone to practice his Chinese with and luck had fallen on him. Well, not immediately – there was the girl who had spoke English all the time, and replied, Oh, I thought you were joking when you said you wanted to speak Chinese. Then there was the one who answered the door in her underwear. He had been about to give up when he met Hsing-Cheng. Two months had passed in which she had happily taught him Chinese, not speaking a word of English.

He sat up straight on the bed, picking up the condom next to him. “You want a drink?”

Of course they were sleeping together - he had been wrong about many things in Taiwan but he knew no girl would give away free Chinese lessons unless she had an ulterior motive.

On the third lesson, after they had talked for many hours in Chinese, and he found out what a selfless, nice girl she was - he decided to initiate a ruse to get her back to his. She had initially seemed coy but he knew for a fact that they all were; he had learnt that you are supposed to ignore this otherwise nobody would ever sleep with anyone. He wasn’t culturally stupid on this one anymore.

Since then things had been even more perfect: she came around two or three times a week; she didn’t want to go for dinner or coffee; she never talked about their relationship or seeing each more often. She was just perfect.

“You are quiet today,” said Eric.

“You know we must stop this soon,” said Hsing-Cheng.

I see, thought Eric. The time had to arrive and I am not bothered. I am happy to say I am her boyfriend.
“I would love to have you as a girlfriend. Sorry, I should have said earlier,” said Eric.

“No,” she said starting to cry. “It is not right, I have a boyfriend.”

Eric wasn’t that surprised. He readjusted for the fact she was in an unhappy relationship with some Taiwanese guy her parents had introduced her to.

“It is okay. You can finish with him. I really like you and I am prepared to make a commitment,” he replied.

“No, you don’t understand. I love him. I will marry him soon.”

“So…uh….why?” said Eric switching to English; wanting to understand the explanation with no room for errors.

“I feel sorry for you. I like to help foreigners in Taiwan to pay back for when people help me in Canada. I know you want a girlfriend, but you should be honest in those columns. Not waste people’s time. I know you are shy, but you will find one. Taiwan girls are very easy…Hmm, I think best we don’t see each other again. ”

Eric wasn’t sure if he got off his bed again that day.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Expat Culture in Taiwan: To buy or not to buy...

One of the things you suffer from in those early years when you haven’t decided if you are going home or not, is ‘to buy or not to buy’ syndrome.
At the start, when you first arrive, it is easy: you rent yourself a small room, you buy the minimal furniture and lifestyle accessories to fry yourself an egg and wash yourself and all is ok. After all, you will be leaving in a year and then you will buy that really nice armchair you want and a fancy set of cupboards. Then you hit your 2nd year extension and it starts to get painful, for a number of reasons:
1) You are already feeling bad because you have his funny feeling in the pit of your stomach that tells you there wasn’t any sense to your extension, and you are setting yourself up for the long haul in Taiwan. Still you are not able to deal with that at the time so it just leaves you feeling a little insecure.
2) You have probably extended because you like Taiwan, or your job, or a girlfriend, and you have begun the slippery slide into settling down, becoming domesticated.
3) You have already started driving around the city with your girlfriend having conversations about: ‘yeah, if I was going to stay in Taipei long-term, I would live here…’
What happens then it that you do what you have been resisting for years, you allow the girlfriend to take you to Ikea and other furniture shops and home comfort purchase crisis sets in.
What is purchase crisis? It is the period between when you don’t make any home comfort purchases and when you give up and accept you are staying in Taiwan. This is a painful time, because you start to buy home comforts and you are torn because you are in Taiwan to save money and frankly you know this is a total waste.
You start small by just buying a few wine glasses justifying it by saying: ‘so what if I can’t take them home, they are only cheap.’ But shopping is an addictive thing so on the way to the wine glasses you see the tables, chairs, and sofas, and it burns you inside. You arrive at the checkout with a lamp, and some prints in your trolley, and it is hurting because you know it is a complete waste of money, but you keep repeating to yourself: ‘It is not really very expensive. I might be able to sell it one day.’ Once purchased and at home it feels good, but also unsatisfied because you didn’t really want these items, you wanted the sofa and table.
One year later your apartment is filled with lots of small items, half of which you don’t really want. In particular, the prints that you knew were naff when you bought them, and too many rugs, drapes and all those disposable plant type things like Ikea sells to give you instant style to your room. You bought them not because you were lazy but because, by being fast food furniture and not requiring effort or love to install, they allowed you not to feel guilty about putting down roots. Still it dawns on you that all that crap you don’t want actually costs more than the sofa you did, and you are still sitting on that old sofa that someone gave you; that you hate.
Why didn’t you buy the sofa? Obviously, it can’t be packed into your suitcase, it is a large one-off purchase, and it, most importantly, signifies putting down roots --When you buy a sofa you always talk about it lasting you several years.
At this point you get even more depressed by your rootless existence, and double up your efforts to decide if you are going to stay in Taiwan or leave. In order to give yourself time to decide you resolve not to buy any more home comforts, but throw your money into buying DVDs because they can be taken with you.
About six months later you buy that sofa and get married…

Friday, September 6, 2013

Cute Language Uses: An unfortunate use of 'a' instead of 'the'

In the old days, when there were only a few places we foreigners went - apart from the girls who wanted to date foreigners - you would get a fair few gay men come to the bar. It wasn't that they were particularly looking to pick us up, it was more a case of them feeling free to be themselves in this bar - Remember, there are no homophobes in the west; it is just one big love-in.
But that wasn't the end of the story, as unlike straight Taiwanese men, they would feel the need to meet us foreigners and talk to us all night -We share an identity as social outcasts I suppose.
They were also very clever as they would befriend the girls in the bar - The girls in the bar liked to come with their gay friends because they could also be themselves: the traitorous, dirty slapper, free spirit that society said they were for liking foreigners. In fact, if you wanted to know the availability of a girl and the likelihood she might want to be with a foreigner just ask her how many gay friends she had. Similarly, if you see a girl wandering around the bar with a couple of gay guys target her: she is planning to do something her regular friends view as the activity of westerners; something that only other social outcasts would understand. What is she planning to do? Get drunk and maybe have a one night stand.
On this occasion i saw a girl who i had liked for a while. She wasn't with her female friends, rather an effeminate looking guy who was a little well-dressed and i guessed my luck was in.
I walked over.
"Hi," i said looking at her making my interest clear.
"Her English...Uh, not so good," he said. "I help you."
My heart sank a little as it was a noisy bar, and unfortunately his English was also not so good, either. What to do? I had to give it a go.
"Hi, I am Dan," I said. "What is her...Uh, I mean your...Both of you - what are your names?"
"Her is Little Mei. Me, I am Patrick," he said. "So where are you from?"
"England," I reply.
"Wow, I studied there for six months."
"Really," I asked. "Where?"
"Uh, London. How you say - I study a Queen's English."
I couldn't resist: "And you did a fantastic job."
"What?" he replied. "Thank you."
I thought about leaving it at that, but i guessed i should grasp this chance to get in his good books. Like with all things in Taiwan if you are recommended by the friend, they will cut off their hands for you.
"Sorry, anyway you don't want to say that. It is a grammar mistake that may result in misunderstanding...Especially for you."
"Queen also means gay."
"But i am gay," he replied. "What is wrong with that?"
"Nothing, but it is an often patronizing word for gay. Means - "
"What?" he said.
I was starting to sweat. I had started this explanation and feared i had no way to finish it.
"Again. Doesn't matter. Nothing, but would you go up to someone at a party and say i am studying a gay English?"
"I would love to meet the gay English," he replied.
"I am sure you would, but it is not my point....A not the...It just the fact - Forget it. Do you like to get your grammar wrong?"
"Uh, no," he replied.
"Ok, then just remember it is the not a....There is only one Queen," I said.
"England have two Queens," he replied. "She is Elizabeth II."
Great. In a country in which most people believed England was an American state, now i had an expert on English history.
"Yes, but when we talk about the Queen's English we are referring to this specific Queen's English and not the first."
The moment i finished speaking I knew the sentence was too difficult.
"You mean the first Queen didn't speak English?" he asked.
"Yes, she did," i replied. "But she has been dead for 500 years so it is clear we are talking about this Queen's English. You understand?"
I was lost at this point because it seemed he might have a point and I couldn't explain grammar.
"Anyway, just remember to use the. I am just trying to save you from being the butt - On the wrong end...The victim of a joke."
He whispered something in Little Mei's ear and they walked off.
I resolved never to help anyone again with the difference between a and the.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Expat Culture in Taiwan: Definition of Independence

The Taiwanese are not independent is a recurring expat discussion in Taiwan - along with, and because of it, the frustration why we are not catapulted to instant success.

It comes from their family relationships. You will here a 40-year old man say he has to ask his parents if he can go on holiday and you will explode at his immaturity.

Over the years you will then witness the contradictions to this: Same 40-year old man will mortgage his home, teach himself English, set up a business from scratch, gamble everything and succeed. Inspite of this you will still insist he is not independent and you will get even more frustrated because you haven't made your fortune.

Before the argument below I also suffered from my ingrained definition of independence...Until that is i had my eyes opened...

One afternoon, a couple of months after being in Taipei, I was sat in the hostel with Mike, a Canadian, Chris, an Australian, and John, an Englishman (who would later become a good friend). I didn't know much about these guys other than that John was supposedly ex-army and in Taiwan to try and stay out of trouble.

"Listen to that John,” said Mike pointing at his girlfriend next to him. “Christine wanted to go and study in Canada last year. She had saved her money. Arranged her course, and her father said no. She is twenty-five. You tell her in the West we are more independent. We would do it anyway. You know, I have told her if she wants to survive in the modern world she has to make up her own mind - be independent.”

“Hmm,” said John turning to Christine. "How do you put up with listening to this daily crap about your country? I doubt his dick is really that big."

John could say these kind of things because he was six-two, about fifteen stone - and basically looked you straight in the eye making it clear he would do more than just blow hot air.

“What, man?” asked Chris then turning to his girlfriend Roxy. “They lack independence these people - they are afraid to make decisions. You tell him Roxy.”

Roxy had a wry, earnest smile. She had had this conversation before; she knew what the foreigners liked to hear. “You know my brother lives in the house with my parents. He have the girlfriend before that he really love. Hmm, they together six years, but my parents say no, don’t let them marry.”

Chris was now pumped up.“What sort of fucking limp-dick doesn’t stand up to his parents, and marry the girl he loves?”

"Why didn't he marry her?" asked John.

Roxy answered,“You know that is a funny story. My father tell my brother, he have the good friend who is looking for the husband for his daughter. If my brother marry her, he can the high position in that company. Company is part of the Yuan He group. It is a very good opportunity .”

“Obviously a limp-dick who is selfish and cold-hearted, not lacking independence,” replied John.

“Nonsense mate," said Chris before turning to Roxy and suddenly changing the subject. "Hey, did you phone the police station about my visa? I only have a couple of days left and I have to leave?"

"There you go," said John. "You fucking moaners - Your girlfriends double as personal secretaries: ordering pizza, making calls, solving your visa or money transfer problems, writing Chinese on little pieces of paper so you can get around town in taxis, advising on schools to work at and places to go. When they are not available you sit around like a couple of spare tools...Not true, you always sit around like a couple of spare tools. You are more dependent on their girlfriends to function in Taiwan than an unborn baby is to its umbilical cord. Now who lacks independence, pricks?!”

Chris and Mike looked at each other scoffing at the ridiculously of what they had just heard.

Chris replied, “How can you compare the two? I ask my girly to order a pizza and that makes me as bad as the person who lives at home until they are thirty?”

“Yes, moaner. The definition of independence isn’t the ability to tell your parents and authority to fuck off.”

It was a revelation and the answer. People are complicated and capable of all sorts of weird and wonderful things. The 40-year old Taiwanese guy who set up his business from nothing will, if his mother requests, run down the high street wearing a pink frock, high heels and wig, screaming i love hairy bottoms. Get used to it. It is a different culture. Things are done differently here.

Years later John defined his ability not to fall for most of the stereotypical misjudgements as thus: "I am not a poncey college boy that covers my lack of social confidence by rejecting family, relationships and all things emotional. I didn't sit and watch 'Neighbours' every lunch time just to laugh in a condescending way."

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Taiwan girls: The moral code and the highest moral of all

Just last week we were watching some DVD, New York, I love you, I think it was called. A collection of short stories glorifying that city, as if it hasn't already been glorified enough. My wife was excited because Maggie Q was in it, but sure enough, as it got to the end of her scene, things went to Asian girl stereotype and it was revealed she was employed in the oldest profession in the world. I had been over this subject a few times before, but as the movie was boring, I started it again.
“Hey, doesn't it bother you all Asian girls are portrayed as hookers in the west?” I asked.
“She is American, isn't she?” said the wife preferring to watch the movie.
“Sure,” I replied. “But if you weren't looking at the Asian half why did you get excited when she came on the screen – point her out.”
“She is beautiful,” she replied.
“I think you are avoiding the question. Aren't you bothered?”
“I am living in Taiwan,” she answered. “Besides a lot of Taiwanese girls are hookers. Or KTV girls etc. It is a culture thing.”
I was taken way back. How could she say that? When I had first arrived and seen all the KTVs I had also tried to find an answer to what appeared in front of me. After a while, I just concluded that I was being an obnoxious foreigner and the propensity for Asians to sell sex was an illusion created by bigotry.
“You can't say that,” I replied. “You are saying Asian girls are dirty little – that gets me more excited admittedly – immoral hussies.”
She looked at me angrily. “It is not a moral thing, it is religious.”
“Religious or cultural?”
“Both,” she replied.
“Please explain,” I asked as it seemed she was going to leave me in limbo. I paused the DVD.
“Well, you know, I was a Christian when I was young...Oh, it is so different. They are always telling us what is moral and right and wrong and what we shouldn't do. It is so troublesome.”
“So, you are saying, your parents didn't teach you moral values etc? All the crap on the TV shows when I first arrived. Dads still care about the virginity of their daughters. I have first hand evidence I am not going into now...”
“Of course, stupid,” she replied. “You are missing the point. Do you remember why I gave up being a Christian.”
“Maybe, but enlighten me again.”
“When my grandfather died they said at the church I couldn't worship him...”
She paused wrongly assessing I had put two and two together. “Go on...”
“You really are stupid,” she continued. “Of course we Taiwanese girls have morals, but the highest moral is parents. If you are doing something for your parents that cancels out all the negatives below. What will your sister do if your mother needs the money for a life-saving operation?”
“Nothing. We have the national health service.”
“You know what I mean. Will she go to the KTV and earn the money?”
“You have met my sister and so the national health service waiting list is quicker than her earning potential...But I get your point – No she wouldn't. And nobody would expect her to.”
“See. In Asia we would all go to the KTV and get respect because we earned the money to save our mother's life.”
“So, you are saying all of the girls in the KTV are doing it to earn money for mother's operation. That is a lot of operations. And you all have national health insurance too.”
“Well, you know, if you can also manage to buy a Hermes bag, you deserve it. Hermes bags are very nice.”
“I know. You have told me many times -”
“Yes, and I am still waiting.”
I sat back and thought about it. “Anyway. Wow. Interesting. I'll have to get more stupid, slow romantic movies in future.” Then I suddenly got a bad feeling. “Didn't your grandmother die of cancer? Has your mother had a check-up recently?”
She looked at me and smiled. “I don't know, but I will do my duty when the time comes.”
“Lets just hope we have another ten years. Time for you to get too old.”
“I see. You say I will look unattractive in ten years. I can't earn any money?”
“Not at all. Just you will have a couple of nieces coming to an age where they can pick up the baton.”
“Yes. Even our daughter -”
“Ok. You win. End of subject...”
I spent the next few days sending my resume out to companies in England and making arrangements for the move.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Studying Chinese: Not exactly Mr. Miyagi

After a few weeks of Chinese classes i was beginning to curse The Karake Kid and Mr. Miyagi.

The classroom consisted of four desks arranged in a rectangle facing the board; I was sitting in my usual seat next to the teacher, on her left hand side.

For the moment, all was silent because we, the students, had collectively complained: to practice the dialogue from the book we always started with Eric and read a sentence each going around the class, today, we wanted a more creative way.

The teacher finally spoke. “Park, you read the first sentence this time,” she declared proudly to the Korean guy directly opposite Eric.

I want to buy a book.” “How much is that book?” ‘Which book?” “That book,”
we all repeated.

Praise the lord, I thought, the dialogue conversation sounded so different and fresh on this, the tenth time, now that it was circling clockwise rather than anti-clockwise around the class.

"Now let’s read the vocabulary,” she announced.

Clockwise or anti-clockwise, I thought, or maybe, we are going to get another spectacular piece of innovation like odds and even numbers?

"Not exactly Mr. Miyagi is it man?” said Adrian. “It doesn’t get any better.”

Adrian sat on my left, he had been in Taiwan for about five years. He was back at the Chinese school studying Chinese because he needed a visa.

Unfortunately, I was beginning to understand Adrian wasn't just a moaning old hand: the teaching was still very Dead Poet’s Society and i was wondering why i was bothering to study. I had got an apartment near Shih Ta University because I planned to study Chinese in their language program - supposedly the best in Taipei, Taiwan. I thought having to give them a letter of reference was strange because I was a paying customer, studying for personal pleasure, but I nonetheless prepared all the documentation to prove himself worthy of a place. Then it started: rote combined with memorization, repetition and drills, and only the register in between. I complained that perhaps they should at least be allowed to make a sentence to practice, but apparently the teacher knew better, we were too basic to be allowed to innovate. Finally, there was a weekly test which I began to be sure she just hid behind to waste a lesson. I walked out after two months shaking my head telling them: 'You waste one lesson a week testing me when I am a paying adult. Gonna make me stand in the corner next?' I decided if authority was going to be so unquestioning, I would head to a private Chinese language school like this one, where there were no rules.

"Wipe on, wipe off...” said Adrian, pleased with his observation. “You watched the Karate Kid when you were young, right, man? I wanted to come to Asia because of that movie. Wanted to be taught by a cool little Asian dude like Mr. Miyagi...The ultimate teacher, with his cool, alternative methods for learning karate. Not like the reality, eh?”

"I hear you, man,” I replied.

It was funny: east Asia have done one fantastic thing, they have managed to convince the world that they are these great delivers of knowledge. Trust in me and I can impart knowledge to you in some magical way. It is not just Mr. Miyagi. There is Kung Fu with Grasshopper, Jackie Chan…In fact whenever Chinese, Japanese and maybe even Koreans appear on the scene it is inevitably a double act of master and student with the student getting wiser by the second just by being in the aura of the great teacher.”

"But they are actually good students?”I countered because all the top students in my school were East Asian.

"Much more earthy reasons.” Adrian pretended to crack a whip.

He continued, "Five years I have been here man, in and out of schools studying Chinese, and I haven’t met a teacher who threw out the traditional for the creative, the tried and tested for the unusual and inspirational. Unfortunately, the downside of Miyagi’s techniques, unquestioning loyalty for the teacher’s methods I have seen too fucking much of.”

"Thanks. You want to go to lunch?” I said making an excuse to get away. The unfortunate reality Grasshopper got his pupils to write the sentence a thousand times behind the curtain wasn’t what I wanted to hear.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Where is Taiwan?

Where is Taiwan, is usually the next question asked after the acceptance you don't live in Thailand after all. Your friends are confused because they spent a lot of time checking flights to Bangkok and imagining which islands they were going to visit.

Taiwan is off the South-East coast of China, a little download from Japan, a little higher than Hong Kong. It kind of also answers the question of when you return in winter to your western country why you don't have a permanent suntan. Taipei has a winter, not a zero degree snowy winter, but definitely a winter where you have a wear a medium sized jacket. Nobody has central heating because this winter only actually lasts for around 6 - 8 weeks, so you definitely know it was cold.

Although Taiwan is a small place, the weather actually gets significantly better as you move down the island. Even in winter Kaohsiung, Tainan and Taitung have sunshine, you can swap the jacket for one long sleeved layer and expect much less rain.

Also it is eight hours ahead of the UK and around fifteen hours ahead of pacific coast USA. For more details check out the Taiwan wiki.