Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Taiwan Culture Shock: Best to blame the wall after all

Taiwanese and westerners differing ideas of family inevitability are the source of endless debate. On this occasion i was watching Shine with the wife.
You remember Shine? The story of the brilliant Australian pianist who has a nervous breakdown, seemingly caused by his overbearing father who pushed him too hard.
We were at the crucial part of the movie where he sees his father again after many years and everyone hopes he won’t be bullied again.
“Why do you always blame your parents for everything?” said the wife.
“Not everything,” I replied. “But the old guy is a bastard. Even now he is not sorry and trying to tell him he is an idiot and needs his father.”
She didn’t seem convinced and so i took the bait.
“I guess we face reality and admit our parents aren’t gods.””
She shrugged. “He just wants the best for his son.”
If the truth be told i had foreseen this topic arising and a possible argument; picked the DVD up, put it down, but wasn’t able to leave it alone.
“I know compared to the average Taiwanese parent he is a hippy who doesn’t care if his children weave baskets while smoking pot for all eternity.”
I could see her getting into explode mode so i changed tact. “Anyway, when you are facing ten years for drug smuggling, and banging your head against a wall with self-loathing at your own stupidity, you need someone to blame for your actions, to make yourself feel better,” I replied.
“We take responsibility ourselves,” she replied smugly. “You westerners should try and learn that is only your fault in the end. No excuses.”
“No you don’t,” I said. “You blame luck or the moon. And you still do the murder or robbery. Just deny why.”
“You talk too much,” she said. “My sister is naughty and i am not. Both have the same parent.”
She had a point.
“I don’t know,” I replied trying to be sociological. “Perhaps we believe that by identifying the root of the problem, and facing it we can get closure and hopefully improve, be happier as a person. Improve our society.”
“Does it work?” she asked.
“Of course not. I would say almost never. We firmly identity our parents as the problem. Wallow in self-pity. Restrict ourselves. Talk about it all the time. Make it the center of our lives, but still die alone and bitter having been unable to do anything about it….In that case, you are right – We might as well blame the wall or the 3rd letter of our names.”

Monday, December 28, 2009

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Taiwan Culture Shock: The definition of dangerous

The people who have kids will understand this one better.
I have an ongoing dispute with the mother-in-law about the definition of dangerous.
Her take appears to be straightforward: the bodies of young children have an inability to regulate temperature, but are resistant to drinking bleach.
When she is in my house, or looking after the children, she runs two paces behind them continually ready to take the place of their natural temperature gauge. In the summer, she is blasting aircon at them and nagging me every two minutes to take them back from the park because it is too hot. In the winter she has them wearing enough clothes for the arctic. The autumn and spring are the worse times of the year because the weather is changeable and the disputes increase. You arrange to meet the wife and mother-in-law in the park and, when you get there, of course, to combat the mild breeze they are wearing 3 layers of clothing.
“They are too hot,” you say.
“He is right,” would say the mother-in-law. “The sun is strong. Let’s go back to the apartment and turn on the aircon.”
“No. There is nothing wrong with the sun. Take off a couple of layers of clothing.”
I will of course then try and remove two layers and i will get terrible stares from the wife and mother-in-law.
“They will get a cold,” they say in unison.
I will insist, and the battle will then really begin as the mother-in-law follows them continually with that 2nd layer, taking every time the sun pops behind a cloud or the breeze vaguely picks up, to try and force a jumper over their heads.
I indulge this battle of wills for a while, but inevitably give up and go back to the apartment.
Once there, it starts again as she blasts on the aircon and adds layers and i turn off the aircon and remove.
“Wife. Take off the sweater. Feel his forehead.”
“It is cold.”
“So turn off the aircon.”
“Then it is too hot.”
And so on, and so on…
Meanwhile, during all of this it will be:
“Wife. Please ask your mother not to leave huge meat cleaver on the edge of the worktop. Better still, when she walks away to take a phone call, shut the damn kitchen door because she is actually cooking something on the stove.”
The wife will actually look at me, shocked that i could actually think her mother was careless.
So there it is: it seems children are impervious to meat cleavers, household cleaners left hanging around, and hitting windscreens because no seat belt, but if they are not wearing two jumpers they will collapse in an instant.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Religion in Taiwan: Exhuming your long dead grandfather

When we first arrive it is really hard to believe how a nation of technology lovers and capitalists are also so religious.

Well, not so much religious as superstitious. In the west we are brought up to believe in one God, and all religious practicies and ceremonies deemed to ward off evil spirits, bring good luck etc. are firmly relegated to shows about the Middle Ages and how stupid we were back then.

Not so in Taiwan. Here they cling onto beliefs that the druids would have found illogical -Businesses routinely consult fortune tellers to ask which country they should go to a trade show in. Paper BMWs are burnt for those in the after life to drive. And so, and so on...

After the initial period of shock wears off you get used to it, and find your own way to deal. My way was usually to switch off and ignore.

On this occasion the future wife was back after spending a couple of days down south with the relatives. As we hadn't seen each other for a few days we were naturally on the bed and she was playing with my nether regions.

"So what happened?" I asked.

I did vaguely remember her saying something about the family felt they had had bad luck and a fortune teller had told they needed to dig up the body of their grandfather. I of course had switched off.

"Oh, it was not good," she said in her usual understated way.

"Ok, explain again please," I said. "Why did you go?"

She explained. The family had been having bad luck for a few years and someone from the local temple had told them it was because the grandfather had not been looked after well in the after life. It was simple: they had to exhume his body, scrape whatever flesh was still on his bones off, wash the bones, perform some prayers, burn some paper money, and stick him back down under again. Then they would all win the national lottery for the next month.

"Hmm, seeing the body of your grandfather. Dead five years, couldn't have been easy," I said.

"Uh, that was ok," she replied. "The ceremony went wrong."

"Ok. Why?"

Apparently, the people they had hired to do the scraping, didn’t turn up so they all mucked in – and he was still quite fleshy considering the amount of time he had been dead.

"And you helped?....Of course, you did. Stupid of me to ask. You are a good daughter after all."

I suddenly became aware of where her hands were and what they were doing. "I guess you have washed your hands?" I asked.

"Of course," she replied. "What is the problem?"

"Nothing, just i have never had hands that recently touched dead flesh on my body."

"How do you know?"

"True. I am not the best judge of character under the influence of alcohol."

"Stupid," she replied. "So you want me to stop?"

I thought for a moment. "No. No. Definitely not. My warped side has already kicked in. This should be a pull to remember for all time."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Non-PC: Angelina Jolie

One of the wonderful things about Taiwanese women is they just don't understand that a woman can't be beautiful, sexy and intelligent at the same time.

I have heard it is getting better in the west (don't quote me, though), but my generation women were conditioned never to mention looks - looks were the enemy in the fight to get equality. With other women they did sit around discussing what a particular model looked like, but they would never do so with their boyfriend because of the fear that he would immediately devalue them. Of course, as a guy, it went without saying you couldn't say anything.

It came as a surprise therefore when you first got to Taiwan and your girlfriend would sit with a copy of cosmopolitan picking apart the bodies of the models.

"Her nose is a little flat," she would say.

"What," I would reply, because my natural sense of self-preservation told me this was a trick.

"Look. Her nipples are so dark. In Taiwan we like pink ones."

"Really?" I said. "So why is that?" Trying to change the subject.

"Makes you look younger," she replied. "In Taiwan they go dark after you have a child. You know you can get them replaced. It is popular in Japan."

"Which one do you like?" she asked.

"Pink of course," I replied. "Like yours."

"Oh. You lie. You know mine are not so pink. My mother always complain me that her daughter is too rough. That i suit - "

"The foreigner," I said.

"Yes. That i suit the foreigner."

"But they are not so dark..."

We then had about a half an hour conversation about the shade of her nipples and what shade I preferred. During the conversation i contradicted myself a million times, but it didn't matter. It was something that i quickly learnt with Taiwanese girls: they weren't trying to get to the bottom of what you thought, on a mission to find the truth, rather just get a compliment. As long as you started each contradiction with a compliment they were never going to pull you up on it; dump you because they had discovered the truth.

The world was tough. Most people were full of bullshit. Just make sure you cover the cracks, seemed to be the motto.

Anyway, after the years of middle class brainwashing, I think i never really got used to this non-pc behavior. This was my favorite from the wife a few years later:

We were watching The Bone Collector on DVD. In the movie Angeline Jolie plays a uniformed police officer.

I don’t know why she did this movie. It is not really her,” said the wife, referring to the fact that the only flesh on display was above the neck.

“Well perhaps she actually wants to be respected for her acting?” I actually felt rather strange explaining this to a woman. “She can’t get her tits out in every movie.”

“Why not," she said. "She has a great body. You know that is what we expect. It is her."

“I feel your pain," I said. "I will complain to the DVD shop tomorrow...Do you have a trade descriptions act in Taiwan?”

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Stereotypes: It is so nice even a foreigner would live there

Years ago when i was looking to buy an apartment, i would go with the wife to visit all these slightly out of town new complexes.

The moment they saw me it was: "Ok, I take you to see the swimming pool and the gym. I know that you foreigners care most about your leisure activity."

I would reply: "I would also like to know that the building isn't going to fall down and i have a shower, but you are right - Take me the jacuzzi. It is all that matters."

My wife tells me there is now an advertisement for an apartment building that takes these very ideas as its theme. The building is in Hong Shu Lin near Danshuei and, as it has a seaview, they built it with particularly big balconies.

Apparently, they have a big, fat foreign dude walking around saying things like:

"Wow, this wouldn't look out of place in America."

"Yes, even my family from back home would live here."

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Expat Culture in Taiwan: Pierre and the restaurant I

Pierre did actually open his French restaurant; lower priced French food aimed at the TGI market had always been a good idea, the only thing we had been worried about was whether he would pull it off.
He did. It was a big pity.
It was already three months since the restaurant opened and we had eaten there five or six times a month. If you wanted to meet Pierre he insisted it had to be in the restaurant. We ate for free in exchange for having to say how much we liked the food every two minutes, tell him what a good job he had done, and agree that they were lucky that he had reserved a table for us. There was a game: although he had invited us, he would look surprised, then stressed because ‘he had promised the table to someone else’, make us stand for twenty seconds, and then he would miraculously find us a table. While he sat he would stand at the bar surveying the scene with an extremely serious look on his face, and, every time he caught one of our eyes he would shake his head, and then seek recognition for the fact that it was all just too fucking busy and, yeah, it was lucky he was there. Finally, he would come to the table every twenty minutes and apologize profusely for the fact that he was unable to sit down for long. He didn’t say why, just pulled his take a fucking look around you face.
“I am thinking about expanding soon,” he said. “I am starting to look for other sites…four within the year. I think that is possible.”
It was fortunate he only ever had five minutes at a time because his tales of success had made him insufferable. First night he had spent 10,000 NT on flowers as was the tradition for a newly opened business, his partners had got an appropriate date and lucky gold characters from a fortune teller, and then he had made the unprecedented step of hiring a queue of people to stand outside – Taiwanese have a magnetic attraction to queues – and business had boomed since, even making his name in the local papers.
“What about your partners?” I asked. “What do they think?”
“They follow everything I want to do. They know who has made them successful,” Pierre replied.
“Have you got a contract sorted out yet? Man, you know these people fuck each other over all the time,” asked Eric, probably right on this one, but not through any balanced judgment of his own.
“Ours is a verbal one. You know contracts are no use in this country,” he replied.
“Well, yes and no, man,” pushed Josh not learning from the mistakes he made with his girlfriends about trying to help.
The truth was illegal work and non-contract work was still extremely common – When you arrive and teach you probably have one legal contract job but then all your privates, advertising work, translation, and other small bits of this and that are all cash in hand. But that is only half the story as it is not a story of marginalized foreigners having no choice. In fact, the locals were as equally guilty of not getting contracts: almost all small businesses didn’t give contracts to employees and few had contracts within partners. It was horrifying and mind-boggling to hear the stories because almost everyone had one of how they invested 10,000 US dollars in a business and the partner ran off. It was a kind of tax in itself: the at least once in your life, rip-off tax.
The common misconception is the idea that, for the older generation they were brought up in an era when it really was the case that the contract was no use. This is not entirely the truth as there has always been a legal system in place for these kind of small cases, especially the last twenty years or so, and while it may not be perfect it is not much worse than most countries – Bear in mind that getting your money back is a long and usually difficult process anywhere in the world, yet we all insist on contracts.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers for why they did it, but here are a few factors.
It can be pretty feudal at times - Things are usually simple and what makes the Taiwanese so friendly and nice also proves to be their downfall in business. Talk to them and they always refer to their business partner as their friend, insisting on muddying clear business relationships with personal connections. Go for an interview at a small company and their No.1 priority is to try and work out if you are a nice person or not, whether you will fuck them over in future. (Tip for getting a job: They want the guy who appears stable, not the hot shot). It is a disease for them: they will have a dispute with a business partner and it is all the more hard to separate because they intertwined their families, but a nasty bust-up will happen. They will talk about keeping the next relationship strictly business, then you will see them, and they will introduce their next business partner. For example: “Uh, this is Mr. Chang…He is a really good man…You know his great grandfather used to live in the village next to my mother’s aunt. He has two sons and a daughter, I have already fixed up his second son with Little Mei…You know, my sister’s daughter. You know both his sons went to such-and-such University they are very smart. Mr. Chang is a Pig (Chinese zodiac animals) and that really fits into my animal. Mr. Chiang lost a lot of money in China and he talks about how lucky he is to meet us. He now calls me step-mother. I went to see a fortune teller and he says that October is a good time for us to launch the business…”
I would go and bang my head against the wall very hard.
The economic miracle effect – For those just arriving in Taiwan this is hard to understand as Taiwan has changed dramatically in the last fifteen years. When I first arrived the country had just had twenty years of 8% economic growth and there was an incredible optimism. They would tell you how they had lost a fortune and made it back several times and such was life. It was clear: as long as you could get hold of a pile of money to invest and networked an opportunity would arise. If said opportunity wasn’t offering you a contract then you thought about it for a while and invested anyway, because only a fool would miss this opportunity. After all you had met his family and he seemed a good guy.
Chao and confusion doesn’t equal clarity – While ego, self-interest and damn right dishonesty did play a part in the disappearance of your funds, the answer often wasn’t so intentionally evil. Take two or three or four people who don’t know much about business, invest their savings together, don’t sign a contract, and are too polite to hammer out key issues of who handles finances, division of labor, responsibilities and company direction, appealing each time to their friendship or skirting issues. The result isn’t organization. And then when you are about to lose your house you grab what is left first and run for the door.
What about for the young people? Well, just because you know what your parents did wrong, it doesn’t mean you can stop yourself repeating their mistakes. If you are thirty or more you grew up with these tales of how all you had to do was work hard, take a risk, and the money would come in. How your father was introduced to this guy who was had been looking to meet a good man. How they both liked Johnny Walker whiskey and they shared the same radical in the third character of their name. And they made a fortune together. There might be contradictory evidence in front of you as your father was now driving a taxi and you were paying the mortgage and the costs of his fancy imported American anti-depressants. Circumstances hadn’t quite gone your way because you graduated from university but then, just as daddy was going to help you pay for that degree in America he lost everything. Now you are just an ordinary college graduate without that all-important foreign degree to break into the international companies and the really big leagues. You still know your father is talking nonsense but to admit that to yourself is not being a good son - besides, delusion rescued you from the knowledge that all your money for the next twenty years would be going on paying your father’s mortgage. Roll the dice. Give it a go.
So what has this got to do with Pierre? Well, like any system in the world there was a positive angle to their particular way of doing things. In this case, it involved lots of: back-slapping and arms around shoulders, deals in late night drinking dens, talk of how you were going to beat the system, large piles of cash changing hands, hand shakes and talk of trust and friendship; it was romantic, it was very gangster film, and it didn’t involve spreadsheets. In the old days the atmosphere was infectious and we were affected to some lesser degree. Pierre loved this idea, but he was also broke and lazy, meaning he had no choice but to go out on a limb.
Back to the conversation:
“You ain’t going to be able to kick the fucker’s asses,” said John. “It is their country so when push comes to shove they always have more gangsters than you.
“You have naked photos of their wives? Anything similar?” John liked to tell us a story about the security camera video of him with the manager of the Kindergarten in the playpen one evening. That was his bargaining chip if he had any problems. We assumed he was lying about their being a video, but he had told his manager the story, the event happened, and there was no way she was going to question the security guard. This, of course, is the other way you make sure you get your money and have no problems.
“But you don’t know how to handle the Taiwanese like I do. Make them your friend and it is okay. Besides, they need me they wouldn’t be so stupid as to squeeze me out,” said Pierre bullishly before downing half his bottle of beer and pulling far too many facial expressions.
We sat saying nothing before its was Josh’s turn to air his neuroses.
“Pierre, isn’t that your ex behind the counter? You gave her a job…And she isn’t…giving you problems?” he asked.
“Of course,” replied Pierre. “Why should she?”
“They are not all crazed stalkers,” said John. “You were unlucky, get over it.
“Besides, there is always usually a way out. This week I had to let one go so I started speaking Chinese to her – Wo. Yao. Xue. Jong. Wen. She stopped answering my calls.”
“But that was a little –,” said Josh.
“Sneaky. Yes. But think about it – If she was so sincere she would surely have been happy to speak to me in Chinese.”
“Hmm,” said Josh.
“Hmm, what?” said John. “You want to tell us what a pathetic bleeding heart liberal you are.”
Half an hour later we were in the taxi into the center. Josh was sat in the front seat repeating to himself: ‘they broke up and are now friends.’
I was struck by the image of Pierre seeing us to the taxi and looking a bit like a mother when her children leave.
“He is fucked,” said John.
“Nah, we don’t know that,” I replied.
“Have to find somewhere else for dinner on a Saturday,” we both sighed.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Taiwan lifestyle: YoYo TV and how to love Taiwan

If you are feeling in a bad mood about Taiwan, there is no sure way to cheer yourself up.

Last night when i got home my daughter was watching YoYo TV, and it occurred to me that you can only have overwhelming love and respect for a country that employs a bunch of super cute twenty year old girls as children's TV presenters; then gives them names like 'peach big sister' and 'strawberry big sister', dresses them up as cartoon characters or nurses or Japanese anime characters always with a very short pom-pom style skirt and obligatory boots or long socks, and then makes them dance in unison while pulling V-signs across their faces and wiggling their fingers with wrists attached to their waists.

I am still not sure who the program is for...

Friday, October 30, 2009

Taiwan Expat Culture: Western women and the unspoken discussion

Western women made up a tiny percentage of the western population here for one good reason: the men dated Taiwanese girls almost exclusively, and you had to get used to be celibate. Most stuck it out a year or so before the desire to get looked at on the street and some self-respect took over.
When you were talking therefore to a western girl the subject was best left untouched – like with Taiwanese guys – for obvious reasons: if they were nice you were rubbing it in, if they were suffering from sour grapes an argument would ensue.
This wasn’t Thailand where we were buying the girls, so in most situations western girls liked to console themselves with the idea that Taiwanese women were a walk over. This was also far from the truth but, still, the subject was best left alone.
On this occasion a drunk Australian girl decided to give the subject an airing while we were at a BBQ. This was a long time ago when Pierre was still trying to prove he was different from everyone else. He dated lots of Taiwanese girls but every time there was a party he would bring a western date just to prove he could, and tell us we were sad bastards. It was a little awkward because most of us had actually forgotten how to speak to them and so would spend our time trying to get away and speak to someone else.
The BBQ was on a rooftop and an hour or two into it we were already drunk, when Pierre promptly brought her over again, and promptly left.
“So, Danielle, I hear you are leaving Taiwan soon?” I said trying to make small talk.
“Yeah, I have had enough. It is horrible here,” she replied.
“I know what you mean,” said Eric. “The racism can get you down.”
“Well, it is a different culture,” replied Josh. “It is not for everyone.”
“No, it is not that,” she replied. “You guys…With the young girls…And you are fat…It is disgusting.”
“I think you have the wrong country,” I said. “Yes, we play a couple of leagues above our status, but this ain’t Thailand. Most guys are with a girl just a couple of years difference who is probably their teaching assistant.”
“So why you think you can have a girl a couple of leagues above you? Is that right?”
Josh interrupted, “It is just a supply and demand issue. Don’t take it too seriously.”
“What is this supply and demand?” she said. “That is a pathetic excuse to cover your arrogance. Supply and demand means you can take and steal what you want? Is that moral?”
Josh continued, "As long as you don't lie to the girl and cheat her the rest is ok."
"No, it is disgusting."
John finally lost his patience. “Look, love. If you were shipwrecked on a desert island populated by Brad Pitts and Tom Cruises you would have laid your beach towel and not got off your back since. It is not moral or immoral, just the way of the world….Take for example this evening - because Pierre is an arrogant so-and-so you are going to get laid. You take the breaks as they come..."

Monday, October 26, 2009

Work in Taiwan: Last days at MTI and thoughts on Taiwanese companies

My last department meeting at MTI went as expected.
Vivian, my new colleague responsible for market intelligence and research management was giving her proposal on setting up a database - She had found she didn’t have any budget to do research and that nobody had any interest in seeing it, so she had to think of something productive to do until she quit.
Ordinarily, she should just be using the database done by the last person and the person before…and so on...But she couldn’t because, as with all the others, the database had been lost.
She suggested we spend a few thousand dollars on some database software and Mickey wasn’t so happy.
“The license fee is very expense. What value is this?” queried Mickey.
“You will have a database of competitors, products, country profiles, consumer behaviour and market trend information for you engineers to make better marketing decisions,” she replied.
Mickey didn’t get the joke.
“We don’t really worry about what our competitors are doing – we just concentrate on being No.1,” continued Mickey. “If you can do it with Excel then go ahead. I don’t want to stop your creativeness, but make sure...”
Mickey then talked for half an hour about how about organization, but never organize anything. Talked about getting his staff to take responsibility, but never allowed anyone to make a decision. Asked his staff to be bold and give their ideas, but immediately knocked the idea down as stupid.
Last thoughts on time at MTI:
I was highly critical of Mickey, but not the VP or Chairman. These guys were tough, hardworking and prepared to make decisions.
It was interesting because every western business journalist had written off Taiwanese companies as destined to fail once they started competing with multinationals. It was always for these two reasons: they couldn’t brand and they were badly organized.
The first showed how much culture blinded us. Westerners were obsessed with branding, holding it as a sign of failure that you don’t have a brand.
If I had a pound for every time some foreigner I met in the bar complained that the end of the billion dollar Taiwanese company he worked for was imminent because they didn’t have a brand...And he had told them so...Anyway, it was clearly not the case because a simple fact remained: 80% of the world’s computer hardware was made by companies in Taiwan, that grew every year. These companies had made simple decisions that they didn’t brand very well so they would concentrate on research and development, design and manufacturing. We looked down on them because supposedly western companies outsource what they don’t want to do to them; they on the other hand look at it in the opposite way: they outsource their sales and marketing to the western companies.
It reminded me of my time at school, where we laughed at the Greek guys who worked in their father’s restaurants and hotels in the evening because it wasn’t glamorous, ignoring the fact that they drove to school in BMWs whereas we stood on bus stops in the cold. They understood life is about earning a living. Maybe, we have forgotten that in favor of life is about seeing our name in lights.
The business journalists would try to be balanced: recognize what the Taiwan companies did well, and speak of great lengths about how the Taiwanese companies had successfully built themselves up from nothing in a short time, but then let their brand bias show. Inevitably ending with a warning: ‘When the company reaches the stage where is has to brand...” What stage is that? Why is it inevitable?
The second point about organization inevitably led back to the old one about Taiwanese not being able to think for themselves. It was a classic surface observation from people who hadn’t spent long in Asia. Taiwanese existed in a very hierarchical structure meaning they choose when to express their opinion and when not – Just look at the way they talk to the guy they know is below them in the structure...Just look at the average boss...He is filled with opinions and attitude. The most telling example is that Taiwan has one of the highest percentage of small business ownership in the world. Why? Nobody likes to listen to the boss.
Even if you accept that there is some weight to the above argument, the system is far from doomed. The Taiwanese spent vast fortunes on foreign education - also backed up by statistics showing it to be one of the highest percentages in the world.
When I left MTI my department was filled with fifteen guys and girls who had MBAs from America. They could punch their weight in any company in the world – and most actually had previously. As long as they didn’t allow themselves to become corrupted or to forget these foreign born and educated MBA holding, mid-thirties Taiwanese - now languishing in the middle and lower management layers, frustrated by the upper layer of engineers with old-style management attitudes - eventually take over in the next 10 years Taiwanese companies will become extremely strong. And, anyway, anything they lacked they would make up with hard work. It was frightening stuff: they worked 15 hour days, they didn’t take holidays, and everything was put second place to work.
Would i recommend working for one? Hmm...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Expat Culture in Taiwan: Breaking yellow fever IV

The American girl, Denise, who John had taken for dinner had called him back after two weeks saying she had had time to think and she wanted to give things a go - The fundamental clash of ideologies they had over favorite colour could be resolved by agreeing to disagree.
That evening he was meeting her for dinner.
“Sorry, I am late!” he said.
“I have been waiting for 10 minutes,” she replied.
“Yeah, sorry,” he repeated.
“What does that tell you about what you think about me? How do you think I feel?” she hadn’t finished.
“Sorry! The traffic was bad. I’ll buy dinner.”
“You think you can buy me with dinner to make up? That is not the kind of relationship I am looking for.”
“Not my point. I was trying to make up.”
“Anyhow, we always split the check, that way we won’t complicate the relationship.”
“Your right!” He gave her a wink and a grin.
John had expected the sudden verbalization of feelings that a Taiwanese girl would have denied and then slowly made you apologize for by silent treatment. He was actually looking forward to that but Denise had too many feelings. Denise watched too much Sex and the City psycho-babble and now she needed to know how she felt about everything; to be in-touch with herself, aware of her feelings. Denise was also unquestionably smart, ambitious and quick to learn, meaning she had succeeded in this area beyond her wildest expectations, her understanding of her feelings taking on a momentum of their own. John admitted it was important to deal with one’s emotions, however, she appeared to look for emotions to deal with and be affected by; little things she could ignore, that wouldn’t scar her in future - events do have a pecking order of impact and the death of a relative did warrant downing tools and thinking again, but not every ‘fuck off’ or ambiguous response. There are always going to be trials and tribulations on a journey and if you stop to analyze how you feel about them all, you will never achieve anything; and then that lack of success proves to be a scar in itself. Sometimes you had to just give yourself a slap around the face and get on with it.
A few weeks later, after having to analyze the implications of his every move in terms of his ability to socialize with the opposite sex, he had had enough.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” said John. “Break up with the girl and the bitch gives me a head trip that your Maggie would have thought too much.
“Just goes to show for all the theorizing and cultural fuckin’ analysis it is the basic emotions that come to the fore when the economics of want kick-in - She was desperate, gonna miss her shag, and no amount of feminist teaching was gonna keep her mouth shut…Moaned about Taiwanese girls all the time, too!”

Friday, October 2, 2009

Expat Culture in Taiwan: John and breaking yellow fever II

John decided there was only was only one thing for it. He invited the American girl from his school for dinner and was going on his first date with a white girl in 4 years.
“So why do you want to date foreign girls, again? Isn’t it like choosing the old mini when there is a Porshe on display,” asked Eric even though he only dated Taiwanese girls who acted, looked and talked like western girls.
“You look nervous, man?” I said.
“Yeah, I had been wondering what that feeling was,” said John. “For the first time in many years I am actually worried about whether I will be interesting or not…Can’t use my status as a foreigner to get by. Okay, fire away with the fuckups I could make now...”
Me: “Don’t ask her where she learnt her English…or praise it….I guess is pretty basic.”
Josh: “Don’t give her a lecture about how England is better than America.”
Pierre: “Don’t ask her if she wants to watch a video - or use any other false pretence to get her back to yours. Ask directly.”
Me: “No need to talk slowly or dumb down what you say.”
Eric: “Expect her to understand your wisecracks, but not necessarily laugh; as opposed to laugh, but….”
Pierre: “Oh - When asking her to come back to your place, actually wait for an answer and listen to her when she analyses the consequences, lays out ground rules and expectations. Just getting the check and starting to leave won’t save her face.”
“What are use supposed to do – When she gives me these ground rules?” asked a worried John.
Pierre: “Nothing! It is a good sign, she is just venting, before the eventual capitulation.”
Eric: “No need to ask her if she has studied abroad? If not, when is she planning to go?”
Josh: “Positive - she will pay half the bill.”
Pierre: “No, negative. When I go on a date they pay all the bill.”
Me: “That is because you pretend you have no money.”
Eric: “He doesn’t pretend. He has no money.”
Josh: “No need to ask her why she likes foreigners…No brainer, I suppose.”
Me: “If you get her back to yours, no need to show her photos of your family - She also has ugly white family, and doesn’t care.”
Pierre: “If she seems coy or says no in the bedroom, she means it.”
Me: “Ask about previous relationships, she will want to talk about them, and you are expected to listen and be concerned.”
Pierre: “Yep, important one - you are going to get all her baggage spilled out.”
Me: “Expect her to say things like: ‘I don’t know if I am ready for a relationship yet...or…Let’s take things slowly - I’ve just managed to get comfortable with my self again, and I don’t know if I can make room for someone else.’”
John: “As opposed to pretending everything is ok, then finding yourself having to remove all sharp instruments from your apartment.”
Eric: “Yeah, expect to say something about yourself, beyond name, age and occupation, if you want her to trust you -- You know with Taiwanese girls all you have to do is say you know their mother and they will get in the car.”
Josh: “Expect her to question your status as the superior sex, and, dare I say it react if she hears something she doesn’t like.”
Eric: “Taiwanese girls do that.”
Me: “The Taiwanese you date do, yes.”
Pierre: “Expect her to talk about what type of person she thinks you are. Maybe pick you apart a little.”
John: “As opposed to heap praise on you, then slowly reel you in and crush you quietly over time.”
Me: “Expect her to demand things sexually.”
John: “Hmm, that is a toughie - I haven’t been down on a bird for years.”
“Chinese girls expect you to go down on them too,” echoed Eric and Josh.
“No, they don’t. It is because you spend all day asking if she wants it, telling her it is what a liberated woman wants, and you are a foreigner so there is no need to be embarrassed to ask…In the end she just says yes to shut you up.”
“Maybe,” said Eric. “How do you know that?”
Me: “Expect her to look for an imperceptible, insignificant difference that allows her to say you are not suited and walk away. As opposed to pretending to herself she is easily pleased and then sitting around looking miserable until you dump her.”
John: “Good point.”
Josh: “Taiwanese girls aren’t like that man!”
John: “We’ll talk to you later Josh.”
Pierre: “Finally, expect her to get up in the morning and either regret that you went too far or tell you she just wants to be friends. Basically, deny she has any feeling for you, say it was just a one night stand. To, regardless of her true feelings, be totally noncommittal…Show she is as hard as any guy.”
John: “Fuck, how I am supposed to remember all that. Just makes me more nervous.”
“Don’t worry, this is a worse case scenario analysis,” suggested Pierre. “Think of it as similar to dating an ABC girl. You must have been out with a few.”
“No,” replied John. “You Dan? Eric?”
We both replied, ‘No.’
ABC girls knew we weren’t super-cool, why bother to play on a level-field.
“Anyway, guys,” said John. “I let you know how I get on tomorrow.”

Expat Culture in Taiwan: John and breaking yellow fever I

As I have said before John was always going to leave. He had arranged to do some six months later, and was now obsessively worrying he had permanent yellow fever. Like the rest of us, of course, he had only dated Taiwanese girls, but he had assumed that was a matter of convenience and environment that would rub off as soon as he left. Last time, he went back it was as he suspected and he adapted back again, it was about environment.
However, lately he felt his disinterest in white women wasn’t because of this, or because he was a lazy, creature of habit, but genuine sexual disinterest. An American girl in his school had shown an interest and he had walked away. Now he feared it was the permanent kind that would slow him down; leaving him hanging around fish ‘n chip shops and language schools when he got home.
He decided the women situation had to be resolved by a trick used in the Army: response/reaction drills - do something repetitive for long enough and it becomes instinctive. They used it in the Army to teach them to fire a gun under pressure. Now other gun in hand he opened Page3.com online.
Right. Has to be white English birds otherwise I am buggared my training before I start,’ he thought. ‘Okay, perfect for the task - Ruth, Nikkala, Zoe and Anna - good looking, big tits and sexy – me old self would be gagging for a bit of that….’
Five minutes later.
Shit, I am a hopeless - I have already gone back to the slideshow for Leilani Dowding. She is only half Asian but half is better than nothing.’
He then tried FHM, Maxim, and even Cosmopolitan. ‘Shit, so many girls - Even supermodels, but I only perk up when I spot something Asian. This girl is as white as a sheet from Hull but her surname is Lee and that is enough to get me all turned on…Here I am again stuck on the page for Myleene Klass…And in this one Rachel Stevens - I read somewhere she is a quarter Chinese and now I am obsessed.
Oh, well, I am going to be eating a lot of fish and chips.’

Expat Culture in Taiwan: Missing home and the perils of the Internet

No matter how many years you stay you will think of home. The feeling sub-dues as home becomes a more surreal place. You probably don’t actually want to go home, but still the mind will play tricks when times are bad. If you are feeling nostalgic, don’t get on the Internet just before bed. If you do the following might happen…
What a #@* waste of time,’ I thought, looking out the window at the morning sunlight starting to come through the curtains.
I had decided to give myself one little fix of home by typing the name of the local newspaper from my hometown into Google. I had seen the names of a few guys I played football with, and now six hours later I was still sitting there, blurry eyed.
Let me see, what pointless information have I learnt…,” I said to myself. ‘Weston football club has a hen night tomorrow…Courtesy of Somerset Tourist Board, Somerset is famous for cider, creams teas and there are caves in Wookey Hole – all that I of course fuckin’ know, and have known since I was five…Weston-Super-Mare has two piers and, after half an hour staring at the webcam picture located on the Old Pier it has only changed once…I know the list of shops in the Sovereign Center and the fact that Jerry and the Pacemakers are playing at Weston Playhouse Theatre even though I hate them. Hmm…did I purchase two tickets for my parents? - Have to phone visa later to check.
Right got a miserable day of work ahead and I don’t want to be late - Wow, Hobb’s Boat near fuckin’ Lympsham has a website…Stop! Turn off the computer you dopey pillock!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Taiwan Culture Shock: Are they lying or too polite?

The age old debate about whether the Taiwanese are lying or too polite is always an interesting one. Usually people will quote the experience of the expat businessman who, every time he asks his staff if they can finish on time reply, ‘of course’ and don’t do so. He thinks they are full of shit, but the truth is they were just being Taiwanese: in Taiwan the boss rewards you for trying to get it done, not for being realistic about whether you could get it done. This is a simplistic generalization as in many instances the Taiwanese are capable of being direct; however, you have to gauge the circumstances – were they talking to you as a peer or underlying? In general, when the pressure hits and you are talking to them as their boss, they will revert to Taiwan style: say yes to everything you ask, sit in the office until six in the morning, but not get it done.
But this is not the most interesting aspect of the polite versus lying debate. A few months ago I heard one from a friend that was a really good example:
Chris (friend), “Hey, man. I will never get these Taiwanese. This guy says he will get me a work visa through his company and it never happens. I have lived here so many years….It is a dishonesty. They think it ok to lie.”
Me: “So, were you paying this guy? Why was he doing this for you?”
Chris: “You know I am working with Michael…He is Michael’s friend. Supposed to do it as a favor.”
Me: “Ok, so he obviously isn’t that close a friend to Michael. You are not offering him anything.”
Chris: “So why didn’t he just tell me direct? He is a coward.”
Me: “No. He is Taiwanese. It is up to you to use your commonsense.”
Chris: “It wouldn’t happen like this back home.”
Me: “No, it wouldn’t. Because you wouldn’t bother to ask complete strangers to do you a favor.”
And this I venture in my humble opinion spells out the crucial, fundamental cultural difference: The Taiwanese will always say yes and you have to work out if what you have asked them is actually realistic.
It can be broken down further:
a) When the Taiwanese agree to do something it doesn’t mean any obligation on their part to tell you if what they promised is realistic. Through painful experience I have a million examples. It is the way they view doing a favor. For example, you ask someone if they can help you change some money at the bank because you can’t speak good Chinese. They agree and you tell them the appointment is at 2pm. They arrive at 3pm and you go on a rant about waiting for an hour, and why didn’t they call and if you couldn’t make it just say. They get really offended because they agree to do you a favor and in their opinion did their best to do it for you; to them, you asked them to help, you were originally at zero. The fact that they turned up at all means you should be grateful. It happened a few weeks ago when we were going to a bar. A girl we met outside said she was a member and she could get us in for cheaper, wait here and she would be back with her friends. We asked her if she would be back soon because it was only saving us 100NT and we would rather pay. ‘Of course,’ she said. She came back about half an hour later just as we were about to give up and go in. And, again, of course, she had no concept of the fact that we would have rather paid than wait. She had offered to do us a favor.
b) The Taiwanese actually do it to each other in exactly the same way. Countless times the wife at work might mention her birthday in passing and it will develop like this. Colleagues have to show excitement and push her to do a party, because they have to show their passion. She is not particularly interested, but has to show her passion back as they push harder. A party is arranged and we sit in KTV at 9.30 on her birthday and none of them turn up or even phone to make an excuse. If you asked them why not, they would simply reply, “You mentioned your party so it was the right thing to make you feel good about it. Get you excited…” This actually leads nicely into the next point, because the only people who turn up at the KTV are the real friends. Again, please don’t guess I am suggesting there is deliberate nastiness going on here, most of the time there isn’t. It is just the unfortunate results of herd mentality and a culture that emphasizes being polite.
c) Please use your commonsense. I once invited a Canadian guy to my wedding party who was more a friend of a friend; I knew him but didn’t really make the effort to call that often. He replied: “Thanks, man. I don’t know what I am up to on Sunday. If I can get up I might swing by.” At the time I was shocked by his directness, but after a while I kind of realized it was appropriate. I was simply trying to invite him to make up the numbers and we weren’t close. He was just reflecting that in his answer. Being English I wouldn’t have been able to be that direct, I would have had to try to think of an excuse, while secretly thinking ‘why the fuck is this guy inviting me to his wedding?’ Now a Taiwanese would have stood there for twenty minutes telling you how much he appreciated the invitation, and where was it, and how excited he was, but then just not bothered to turn up. In the end, the result is the same: nobody goes to the wedding because it wasn’t appropriate to invite them in the first place. What is my point? When some Taiwanese offers to do something for you, or you ask them to help you get you a visa when you are offering nothing in return, think about why the hell they should do this for you.
d) And it is not easy to do the above because the Taiwanese are actually really generous and friendly. When you arrive in the first few months you are overwhelmed by the offers of help and free gifts and lunches. Taiwanese invite to their house for dinner, they almost always pick up the check when you go for dinner for the first time, they drive you around, and they give bottles of whiskey that are hanging about in their house. Don’t get cynical they do these things because they like to be kind to guests and especially to foreigners. They are social people and are therefore also having a great time. There is no ulterior motive. So from this it is very easy to let your commonsense go out the window and start asking for things that are really beyond the pale. You wouldn’t ask someone you hardly knew in your own country: I have overstayed my visa could you go to the police station with me and act as my guarantor? I am looking to get out of teaching could you ask around in your company and try and get me a job? You wouldn’t ask these questions because you would be rightly told to fuck off. In Taiwan you wouldn’t be told to fuck off, they would be polite, but then just not do it.
What is the moral of the story? Think about the situation not the words you just heard.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Expat Culture in Taiwan: Canadian English Teachers Show II

On this particular episode of the Canadian English teachers show one of the ‘stars’ is talking about how he plans to get out of teaching and set up a business. He has some outlandish idea of something he thinks is lacking from the market – and buoyed up by his superiority complex, too many years without being challenged by his peers, he is determined to get an investor for his idea.
It is hard to not go through this stage - Remember the locals think we foreigners are all creative and so we begin to believe in our stereotype. You forget that an idea is worth shit without a plan to make it work, but, depending on how deeply you have fallen, it takes a while to remember.
Next the star of the show was on the phone to one of his student’s fathers pitching him his business idea; he didn’t have a business plan, a power point, or an intention to invest any money himself, just a reasonably well thought through idea about something that might work.
He then announces to the camera that he is pretty psyched because the father has invited him to lunch on Sunday to discuss things - Also secretly happy because he avoided having to take the guy to an expensive dinner to talk about the idea.
“What an asshole,” shouted Josh. “He makes me ashamed to be a Canadian.”
“What’s up?” said Pierre. “Seems like a good way.”
“Are you going to tell him, man? He listens to you,” said Josh to John.
John spoke: “Pierre you know I don’t like to call you a daft cunt, but…”
We all knew instinctively that you have to invite the other person if you want to be taken seriously. Don’t beg. Go with an agenda. If, after twenty minutes, you are talking about the differences between France and Taiwan and where to go on vacation in France, get up and walk out. We had all been through that stupidity when we started teaching: we didn’t know what we were doing so we talked to students for hours hoping they would sign up. This was no different: in business, if all you have is an idea, and not the belief to make it work, then you spend a lot of time clutching at straws.
Pierre still hadn’t given up. “Guys, you have been here a few years but you still don’t understand the Taiwanese.  It is good for him to go to his house. Do you know why? Because he will be more relaxed, he will play with his kids and show him he can trust him, he can’t say ‘no’ to him in front of his wife, kids and probably his grandmother. He will lose face…I would do it that way.”
Twenty minutes later and the show was playing out a rather awkward scene at the house. Unfortunately, the guy’s plan of inviting our Canadian star back saying ‘No’ in front of his family, hopefully so he wouldn’t get too angry was backfiring.
“The lying bastard…wasting my time,” says our Canadian star giving his opinion to the camera.
Then it was the narrator’s turn to say about the perils of trying to set up a business in Taiwan. Pity he didn’t say about the real perils: letting your commonsense go out the window when your ego is massaged by well meaning foreigners.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sorry for not posting this week

Sorry to any regular readers but i am super busy this week and next. I will get back to posting the week after.

For any new readers please enjoy the hundreds of posts already up. As this blog gives insights in living in Taiwan there is plenty of valuable stories and knowledge to get you ahead in Taiwan.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Been in Taiwan too long: More

On the way out to a restaurant, Pierre was riding his scooter on the pavement and beeping his horn at women and children to get out the way.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“It is the way it is done!”
I had been influenced by the culture a lot: I went through reds lights, tried to look for somewhere to put my feet up whenever I sat down, keep my coat on in doors, didn’t pick my feet up when I walked and stood on the straps on the back of my scandals; I had given up looking where I was going when I walked, thought the best part of the meat was next to the bone, didn’t make eye contact when people were talking to me, and wandered off when they were midway through a sentence without asking to be excused. However, I still hadn’t managed to get my head around the idea it was okay to push pedestrians to move out the way on the pavement.

Expat Culture in Taiwan: The Canadian English teachers show

There was a popular Canadian TV show called ‘English Teachers in Taiwan’. It was an awful show trying to make drama out of a pretty undramatic situation: in Taiwan you are treated like Gods, there is plenty of work, and the major cause of you messing up is usually yourself. Still, as the human being has a tendency to like to blame others it was easy to make up stories. In one or two episodes the camera followed our intrepid teachers as they tried to get an apartment, and the following huge drama unfolded.
Said English teachers find an apartment they like, but there are other people who want the apartment so the landlord asks them to put down a deposit on the deposit as a show of commitment. They have one week to get the rest of the deposit together or they will lose the ‘commitment payment’. Over the next week they all sit around squabbling and bickering about who is to blame for the fact that none of them has the rest of the money, while the narrator paints a picture of peril in the dodgy renting industry in Taiwan. The narrator tries to make it seem that they are somehow victims in this process, which is nonsense: they shouldn’t have given over the money if they didn’t know where the rest was coming from. They were stupid.
In the end, after the deadline passes and they don’t have the money, the narrator tells us about the terrible lesson the poor English teachers have learnt – only for the landlord to reduce the deposit and let them pay it off slowly. She was kind and generous.
As I say in Taiwan you are usually your own biggest enemy…

Friday, September 4, 2009

Been in Taiwan too long: Older western people

Most foreigners in Taiwan were male and young. It was very rare to see an older western person.
I was walking down the street with Josh one day when a mid-fifties white woman walked by.
"Stop staring," i said.
“Wow, you didn’t find that a little freaky?” said Josh.
“No,” I said lying.
“I mean that was a middle aged white woman in the flesh, I haven’t seen one of those for...Jesus...A couple of years. I mean old white people are rare here, but old white women…I found myself fascinated by her white wrinkly skin, staring at her like she was the exotic one.”
“You’re a funny one!” I said, But I got the point – we had all been here too long.

Expat culture in Taiwan: Paranoid forum rambling

There were numerous forums set up to help people in Taiwan. These sites, set up by people who generously gave up their time to contribute back; were unfortunately, hijacked by moaning stupid foreigners.
A quick look through showed page after page filled with comments about how there was actually no need to follow this tradition. That it could be done another way because it was in Hong Kong.
Ironically, it was always the same monikers in these forums and not so close inspection would reveal their rants the previous week about how they hated Hong Kong because it was an uncultured hellish modernity.
It proved to them that the Taiwanese didn’t care as much their about fellow man and the environment as we did back home, that it told us something was inherently bad about the Taiwanese character, and if only they let foreigners run the government…but they don’t because they are racists…and that was another story…And don’t get them started on that because they didn’t want to waste anymore time on the subject after having to give their advice on it yesterday in the discussion thread entitled, ‘What is your favourite Taiwanese food?’
Eric was strange – he was either giving you detailed information on the history of Taiwan that suggested he would be the first to the battlefield or complaining about the place. He liked to trawl these forums for support for his ideas.
“I am not the only one who is prepared to say some things are wrong here. Look!” said Eric.
Eric had printed out one of forums about burning paper money and how it is bad for the environment, like he had found the smoking gun.
Eric continued, “It is so clear man, back home we wouldn’t allow some tradition to go on if it wrecked the environment.”
“What about Christmas dumb ass. We chop down enough trees to crowd a couple of small minorities and a bunch of endangered species out of their share of the oxygen supply; then we string lights everywhere burning electricity and causing safety hazards…” said Pierre.
“The wrapping paper as well…trees and incineration,” said John.
“Yes. American, looks like you fucked up again!” For the 14,314 time he promised not to open his big mouth. He was serious this time.
We wondered how it was both possible to be so interested in, love and know so much about a country; and complain about it all the time. But that was the answer – He felt done enough to be accepted as a Taiwanese and he couldn’t accept they wouldn’t call him thus.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Taipei famous places: Shih-Da University

Shih-Da University was of course famous for being one of Taiwan's best universities and also, if you wanted to study Chinese, somewhere you might end up going.
As the years went on the sports track became more famous for us than the university itself. In Taiwan all public university tracks were completely free to use by everyone in the evening so if you needed a jog just head down there.
The sports field was an amazing slice of Taiwanese life and attitudes to sport:
1) Old people briskly walking bare feet while continually stretching and shaking out limbs and pulling their grandchildren behind.
2) Young couples on a date in their Sunday Best clothes having a romantic walk.
3) Young women in fresh new tracksuits on their first jog because they went over 50Kg, who never came back because starving themselves was so much easier
4) And members of the Shih Da University sports club who never actually did anything but stretch and contemplate, trying to remember the exact moves they had studied the day before.
Otherwise, on the center and outer areas of the track young and old competed for space to dance.
Every 10 meters there was a different group of teenage girls and boys with their portable CD players, rigorously drilling their hip-hop and R’n’B moves so that might have a career which didn’t require any scholarly skills. The old people, who pioneered taking up public space in parks, were practicing dancing or Tai chi, and no doubt regretting going on those marches for democracy – All that sacrifice just to watch their grandchildren shaking their thighs to hip-hop.
The old people weren't going to easily lose their dominance of the great outdoors sports hall - Every night a group of about a 100 or so swayed their hips to Oh What an Atmosphere by Russ Abbott and Ache Breakie Heart among others; gently pushing back the young people to the outer corners of the field.
But I am not poking fun – it was an amazing atmosphere, made possible because all the parks and sport’s grounds weren’t the preserve of drug dealers after dark, and Taiwanese ability to relax and do their thing, fifty in a telephone box – because the more of them there were the more outgoing and confident they became.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Expat Culture in Taiwan: The embarrassment of seeing other foreigners on TV

As I say Taiwan wasn’t a multi-racial society – at least not one that included westerners. When a white face popped up on the TV you paid attention.
On this occasion we were at John’s place having a few beers when a couple of large people suddenly arrived on a variety show.
“Jesus, we are strange,” said Josh suddenly feeling awkward, embarrassed at the sight of these white people on a local TV show.
He knew he shouldn’t care, but he had a good job in a Taiwanese company so he found himself watching them to make sure they didn’t enforce too many stereotypes, that they had enough wisdom to show they understood the country they were in, and could fit in. Yes, he also knew he shouldn’t be thinking like this, because he was a minority and minorities should be respected for what they are, encouraged to show their diversity. In the west this PC approach was the prevailing philosophy of the educated of his generation – but in Taiwan it was different: his attitude now was the product of being an immigrant pioneer, and the ambassadorial responsibilities it carried. It was no wonder so many like Eric, brought up in the era of empowered ethnic minorities got so frustrated.
“Yeah, now I know how those in the black community felt, watching a couple of their own on Opportunity Knocks when I was a lad.” said John.
“I knew at the time! I felt with them,” replied Eric who was self-conscious for others as well as himself.
Pierre sat silently. He was actually thinking about the subject; he was thinking he didn’t like being a member of a minority group because it gave you certain obligations, it was much better to be an individual in the majority half because you could fuck up, behave like a dick, and everyone just blamed you and your character, they didn’t try and wrongly blame everyone in your group.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Expat Culture in Taiwan: Anti-mainstream with a budweiser

"Man, that is an expat bar. I ain't one of those guys who needs my hand held while i am here."

This is something you will hear often from the just-left-college-want-to-sound-anti-mainstream expat types. Just like back home where these people won't be seen dead in a swanky busy night club because they don't follow the crowd, in Taiwan they won't be seen in expat bars or doing expat things.

But have you noticed back home there is nothing more different about their motives than those of the 'plebs' they are criticising: go to one of their watering holes and behind the black clothes, covered flesh, and unrythmic dancing, you will see them getting pissed out of their brains and trying to pick up the girl next to them.

While they are abroad it is no different: they don't speak Chinese, want to drink American beer and are there to pick up girls - but, if you are going to appeal to their particular sensibilities and get them into your bar, you have to create that suspension of mainstream that they need.

One particular bar in Taiwan had managed this to perfection. Firstly, they hid their Western food at the back of the menu behind the Chinese, making sure you could applaud yourself loud and hard that you had managed to find the picture of the sandwich amongst all those Chinese characters. Second, was the minimalist, student bar design. Third was the curt, unpolished staff who didn’t appear interested in you being a foreigner and always answered your requests with a one word grunt instead of a sentence of good English. Fourth, was the scarce use of English on the walls. And finally there was the boss: long dank hair, permanently miserable and unfriendly, he solidified his and the bar’s image with the notice he had over the DJ booth: ‘DJ’s Music Choices Are Final, Don’t Trouble Him.'

With it the illusion he didn’t set up to that the bar to baby sit foreigners was complete, leaving them to drink their bottles of Budweiser, talk about the game, and patronise some young enthusiastic girls who came to practice their English.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Taiwan girls: Definitions of a victim

Living in a society where they are treated as the lesser sex, Taiwanese women have some wonderful ways of defining themselves as the victim.

The wife came back from KTV at 4.30 in the morning drunk and determined not to wake me up. “I was out with Helen tonight. She told me something, but you mustn’t tell anyone,” she said.

“Go on!” I was impatient because this ‘I have to be sure you won’t tell before I tell you’ stage was so pointless: If I said, ‘I am going to get on the phone to Helen and tell her everything the moment you have finished’ she would wait five minutes and blurt it out anyway.

“She fucked her friend’s husband. She tells me everything you know.”

“She is a naughty girl, eh.”

“No, don’t say that - She is our friend.”

“I know. However, she is the secret girlfriend of a guy who has been engaged for three years and now -”

“That guy wanted it you know. What could she do?”

“Now you put it like that I see the logic – Just a moment. Now I am awake pass me the phone. I need to call Helen to get round here and fuck me. She is a nice girl and I want so she couldn’t possibly say no. In fact she is bringing herself closer to heaven with her generous act.”

I paused for a moment. “So you would do that?”

“Of course not! Hey, by the way, she loves that guy. You know it is not easy for Taiwanese girls.”

Yes, indeed, it wasn’t easily for some Taiwanese girls. Still two wrongs don’t make a right, I thought.

“Maybe,” I replied. “But you do have one thing going for you - the ability to absolve yourself of all responsibility so easily.”

Monday, August 17, 2009

Western Stereotypes: Foreigners are all dirty horn dogs II

Foreigners had a bad reputation as dirty horn dogs.

As i say not all girls were of the subtle variety. This one i had gone to pick up in the disco, and she had said: "Hey, you are just trying to fuck the Taiwan girl." To which i had replied nervously, "No, no, i am looking for a girlfriend." To which she had replied, "Pity because i just want to get fucked."

I figured no strings sex for a while was great so i continued to see her. However, she had taken her stereotype of foreigners a little too far:

One afternoon, i emerged from the shower to hear her talking sweetly to someone on the phone.

I didn't think too much of it - and just started making a little conversation. "So…" I started to say.

“Sssh, just a moment,”said Jenny while covering the receiver.

I decided there had to be mitigating circumstances so he let her finish her call.

"I am going to see another guy later. We are finished, yes?”

No, I hadn’t jumped to an unfair conclusion.

“S’pose I shouldn’t really object. I don’t intend to make you me bride, after all," I replied. "You have an open attitude there for a good little Taiwanese girl.”

“You know," she said, "I used to be such a good girl, traditional Taiwanese girl, then it all went wrong when I applied to university. I wanted to go to Tai Da, the best in Taiwan, everyone thought I would get there, and I only got into Jeng Zhi, the 3rd best in the country. I was so unhappy …you know I was a Christian, but God couldn’t be good…so I just decided then to sleep with as many men as I could. I went to all the foreigner bars because I know you foreigners don’t care - Chinese guys they are too troublesome, they don’t like it when you have several boyfriends. You know, I only started going to the bar three months ago and I have slept with twenty foreign guys already.”

I laughed at the stereotyping:Westerners were supposed to be dirty horn dogs in a state of constant divorce and orgy, whereas Taiwanese viewed themselves as traditional.

Maybe, there was alot of truth in the stereotype, but this was a little bit further than I was prepared to go to live up to my stereotype.

"You have much to be proud of then young lady. Anyway, best you are on your way if you have another appointment.

One thing i was curious about before she left: "Hey, why did you ask me to shoosh, you obviously don't care if he hears?"

"You misunderstand," she replied. "He is from Nigeria so i can't understand his accent so well."

When she left i took the condom from the bin and filled it with water just to reassure myself it didn't have any leaks.

Work in Taiwan: Beyond teaching I

After going through the usual stages: teaching... then studying chinese... then thinking i had made all this effort to study i should try and get a job where i had to speak it - I started to apply for jobs other than teaching.

Interviews for teaching English were artificial worlds in which every compensation was given for the fact that you didn’t speak Chinese and knew nothing about the culture. Generally, speaking they were done by some fluent English speaking aggressive Taiwanese girl who had a hundred westerners through her school every day – Or some old Taiwanese woman who didn’t speak five words of English and smiled at you for 10 minutes before phoning her one friend who spoke some English to ask her if she would offer you the job. Going for an interview at a Taiwanese company where i was applying for a job with everyone else, I guessed would be different.

Today was my first interview and I was nervous. The position was quality inspector - I would have to drive around the country visiting factories, giving their products a quality stamp of approval so they could get their letter of credit.

The next afternoon I was on the way to the interview in Taipei County, trying not to stare at the semi-naked betel nut girls while swerving for about the tenth time to avoid another scooter going down the wrong side of the road in my direction.

I was driving to an industrial park in Wugu, a suburb west of Taipei. Everyone thought the traffic was bad in Taipei city, until they crossed any of the bridges which connected the city to the county. Once over the bridge everybody immediately took off their helmets because the police in the county didn’t enforce that law. The removal of helmets was a huge irony, because you needed that helmet more than ever this side of the bridge, but Taiwanese were risk takers, and didn’t believe that the government should be telling them what to do.

The eight lane wide roads, the minimum number necessary to keep traffic flowing at all through Taipei city, suddenly became two or four wide in the county. In the event of even slower moving traffic, it seemed there was only one thing to do – drive more aggressively. In the city the eight lanes meant the sun was still able to get past the buildings to the street, here the street was plunged in permanent shadow. Finally, the local government made it worse by seemingly using only discretionary flashing lights – On the one lane intersections in Taipei they used traffic lights that permanently flashed suggesting slow-down; in the county these lights were everywhere.

Fine, if there was less fucking traffic, I thought, but there wasn’t, so all you could do was to pull out hitting your horn as loud as you could and hope for the best.

I had wanted to get off after the first junction, and take a taxi.

“Jesus Christ, I am still alive…And surprised,” I shouted as I arrived at the company, and another ‘Killer Truck’ shot by missing me by inches. They were caused ‘Killer Trucks’ for obvious reasons: used to carry heavy building materials up and down the country their amphetamine-fuelled drivers were the major cause of death on the road. In one infamous case, the driver is reported to have reversed back over a pregnant woman to kill her because the funeral costs would be less than the hospital bills.

I parked up my motorbike and tried to knock the exhaust fume pollution from my shirt, but only managed to smudge it across the white front. Now I knew why the Taiwanese wore a jacket no matter the weather.

“Manager Liao, we have a foreigner here for the interview,” spoke the receptionist into the phone.

This job was for foreigners only, I thought, so presumably, today, there was a need to go beyond my alien status to describe me, perhaps as - ‘Foreigner Two O’clock.’

I settled down in the reception area with my glass of warm water, and smiled at everyone as they passed by pointing at me and whispering behind their hands.

It was a new building - I qualified myself because they had a different idea of measuring building age in Taiwan: built ten years ago was old, new meant last year. This one was especially new: It still smelt of fresh paint, and untreated asbestos; plastic cut from the end of wire cables still lay on the floor next to sockets; the walls were still perfectly white.

Half an hour later I was led to an empty office to meet my interviewer.

“Sorry, I am very busy,” she said because she was late.

“No problem, I know you work very hard. I can tell.” She took her head a little to feign the compliment, but I knew it had been appreciated. I had learnt quickly how to make a Taiwanese person feel good about her or himself.

She dipped her head a little and handed me her card with two hands. “I am Emily Liao.”

“So you are the personnel manager, nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too,” she replied nervously, and we shook hands like it was a naughty, empowering experience.

After the hand shake she returned her hands to a folded position in front of her waist, kept smiling, and clearly was getting stuck on how to move onto the serious part. "So you have any questions for me?" I asked.

They were nice people, I thought, but sometimes a little too polite; standing on ceremony seemed an essential skill to learn.
“You are from England?” she asked, now firmly sitting back straight on her chair, hands in her lap.

“Bath. Have you been?”

“Hmm…not England. I studied in Manchester for two years.”

“Great…Wow,”I said. I had been to Manchester many times but I wasn’t going to ask her what school she went to, I didn’t want this part of the interview to go on too long.

There was a long silence in which I kept the upbeat smile, waiting for her to move on, but it didn’t happen. “I bet you had a great time?” I felt forced to ask.

“Hmm… yes.” There was another long silence. She felt guilty about spending my interview talking about her experiences in England, so she waited for me to ask another question. She later told me I was unusual - All the other guys she had interviewed that week wouldn’t shut up about their homelands, and the difference between Taiwan and abroad. She didn't want to offer them the position but they were fun to talk to.

"So how long you been in Taiwan?” She gave up and got on with the interview.

“Two years.” It was a lie but there were good reasons for it.

“So your Chinese is very good?” she asked me speaking Chinese.

“Na li, na li (Oh, not so good).” It was hard trying to control the desire to shout my achievements loudly, but this was Taiwan - You were supposed to get your brilliance across through a smokescreen of humbleness.

“You like Taiwan?” she asked back speaking English.

It had gone as expected: Taiwanese always ask if you spoke Chinese and when you replied, yes, they continued to speak to you in English. It was sufficient to say you had studied for a long time and they took you at your word. I had only studied for six months, not long enough. It would be a challenge if I got the job.

“Do I like Taiwan?” I repeated back to her getting stressed at the way the interview was going.

Have we started the interview yet? Can I get on with detailing how I have motivated teams…Got diverse and opposing personalities to work together…improved performance across a company. I was getting worried I wouldn’t have a chance to prove myself; that she didn’t like me, but was embarrassed to say so.
“Taiwan is an exciting place. Fantastic business opportunities,” I said.

“Don’t worry. You can say if you don’t like it. Taiwan is too busy; too competitive. We work all the time, because afraid the boss."

She continued,“So why did you come to Taiwan?”

Now, I really wanted to ask if they had started the interview yet.

“I spent two years working as a buyer in the clothing industry back in England so I think it would be easy to make the transition to quality control,” I replied determined to conduct the interview myself. “Under my watch costs were negotiated down thirty percent, return rates were lowered, and we secured deals with premier high street brands…Of course, I got a lot of support, and now I feel I could have done much better. I still have lots to learn.”

“I know,” she replied. “I read your resume. You are extremely well-qualified.”

I wouldn’t trust anything I wrote there. You are duty bound to try and catch me out. Jesus, I wasted my time last night memorizing it.

“I am an independent guy who is prepared to make decisions.”

I know you think that is a good thing, she thought. Pity the boss won’t let you.

“I have always been an organized person, and a good communicator, but I have enhanced those skills through my work experience.”

Hmm, refer to the thing about the boss. Anyway, you don’t have to keep talking about these things. Don’t we all have them? You managed to get the qualifications and work experience, so of course you have those things. How else did you survive there? You learnt that is the important thing.

“You come for the work experience?” she now asked suspiciously, and he kind of felt this was the make or break question; the test of my integrity and initiative.

“My girlfriend is Taiwanese and she wants to live here. After a year of dating back in England she gave me a choice, and now I like the place.” It had taken a while to think of this excuse – Taiwanese bosses were very aware that their companies did not have very good reputations and paid low wages, so they were pleasantly surprised and suspicious that you would want to work for them. The truth - I have fucked around for the last few years so now I need some work experience. Or, I am a loser who can’t get a job in my own country – was best avoided; similarly, when you had a resume packed with the sort of experience mine was, you had to make them feel comfortable you would stay.

“Really. No wonder your Chinese is so good. You didn’t say you have the Taiwan girlfriend.”

“Yeah, sorry, about that. I just got wrapped up detailing my credentials for this position.”

“So, you speak Chinese at home or English?”

“Both. Mostly Chinese now as I am supposed to be trying to get a job here.”

“Wow. So you two are very happy?”

“That’s right.”

“As I was saying when I entered that company in England, I instituted a checklist system to standardize purchasing. Something I am sure you know about in this job.” I naturally assumed in a quality control position that this there would be a series of standardized checklists to follow.

“Yes, you are very good. I know. Hmm...So you say, your weaknesses are you like to work all the time? That is right?”

“Yeah, people keep criticizing me for having no interests, no social life. Work, work, work,” I replied. I wrote that I was football team captain on my first resume, and kept drawing attention to it during the interview. I didn’t get the job, so I asked the personnel woman, and apparently, they liked me, but thought I was a bit lazy wasting my time playing sports during university instead of studying.

“Hmm, I think you suit the Taiwan.”

She could speak almost perfect English, but still added unnecessary ‘the(s)’.

“Yeah, many people keep telling me that.”

She checked her watch. “Ah, nice to meet you. I must go…Please wait a moment,” she said, then paused to congratulate herself.

It seemed an appropriate use of politeness was viewed as ninety percent of the job in Taiwan. I taught business English, and my students spent half the time asking me if their email was polite enough:

Client: Did you get the file?
My student: Dear Michael,
How are you? Thank you kindly for your email yesterday.
Please be informed I got the file.
If you have any other queries please do not hesitate to contact me. Have a good weekend. Yours sincerely and best regards…

I had sent several emails back and forth with this woman, and she was no different:

Thank you kindly for your email, and the submission of your resume. It was wonderful to speak to you yesterday by phone…Kind regards…
Thank you for your email of yesterday requesting confirm of the time of your interview. Please be informed your interview time is….
I was extremely happy to receive your email request you can change the time of your interview…Thanks and best regards…
It is a pleasure to enclose a small map of how to get to our company…Kind regards again…Have a good day.

“Nice to meet you too,”I said half-heartedly as she left the room. I was disappointed I had wasted all of last night inventing those examples of showing initiative and overcoming obstacles. I sat wondering what had gone wrong. Why didn’t she like me? Perhaps she knew my resume was fake and was just too polite to say. Taiwanese like to avoid confrontation so she must have just gone through the interview, and now she would send someone to politely get me out of the building.

“Hi, nice to meet you,” said a different woman as she strode into the room, disturbing me from my analysis. She had an impeccable American accent, power-suit, and purposeful walk which said she was the boss, not the lackey sent to throw me out.

Ten seconds later. “Sit down,” she said because I was standing smiling like the personnel manager just had.

“Sorry.” Jesus, I thought, this dithering is catching.

“My name is Mary Chu, I am the Greater China Regional Manager. Emily says you are the best candidate so far, by a long way. She won’t disturb me unless she thinks you are good.”

“Thanks,”I replied wondering where she got that insight from. “As you can see I have a history of success in business. I am pro-active, not afraid to take decisions or risks kind of guy.”

I could tell from her manner she had spent most of her time in America and I could dispense with the well if you think so, but I really am too humble to say manner.

“I just have a couple of questions. So you think you can handle Chinese people? You know we have the face problem, and you are younger than many of the bosses. They won’t like to take orders from someone younger than them.”

“Yes, I have always been a diplomat. Anyway, Taiwanese are smart people, reasonable, open-minded and more modern than you think.”

She gave me a look that said you are either a really good bullshitter or naïve as hell. Either way, I would be perfect.

“You know, the reason we like to employ foreigners is because they are more honest,” she revealed. “Customers here like to give the red envelopes. You know bribes.”

“Well, you can rely on me,” I replied with all the sincerity I could muster, smirking to myself at the stereotyping.

I was called a foreigner and stereotyped every minute of everyday, and if I was pushed to use a negative term, I would also define this as racism - I had been through the politically-correct English education system, schooled in the premise that all reference to the nationality of an ethnic minority was racism. You couldn’t take one look at the oriental guy and put him in the top math class. Why? - Even though it was essentially a positive move, it was stereotyping.
However, unlike many, I was making the highly controversial decision that racism wasn’t such an endemic and integral part of a Confucian culture that one had to withdraw into their shells and not engage the people. I was making the outrageous conclusion, that perhaps an element of what was going on was ignorance, and perhaps, with a little patience stereotypes could be smashed. I wasn’t afraid to be an ambassador for my culture.

I was also going to take advantage of the positive stereotypes when they came. Presumably, no black guy ever says, “how do you know my dick is big, you racist” to the hot girl who wants to sleep with me.

In this case, one good thing that Hollywood had done for Westerners was permeate the myth that business in the West was honest, that we had integrity, we soul searched and made the right decisions.

They had obviously not heard of Nick Leeson, I thought.

Likewise, I would worry about the negatives later - And if there was a glass ceiling I couldn’t rise above, at some time in the future, then I would leave, but for the moment the ceiling was way above my head.

Still I knew some guys who took it personally, refusing positive and negative alike; who would take pleasure in citing to her all the examples of corporate corruption in America. I knew they had a point, that perhaps they were taking the moral high ground because it was racism, but then I also remembered why I need this job. I was here to make up for the three or four years I had spent hanging around doing nothing since graduation. There were very good reasons to smile at the stereotypes and think about the work experience I wanted.

Soon I was wandering out of the building in shock, wondering how Emily knew i was the best candidate. I sat on my motorbike outside the office, thinking it was best to resolve this before I had to concentrate on the traffic.

Why didn’t she care about my people skills? Getting a degree or succeeding in anything wasn’t about just the accomplishment; it was about the manner, efficiency with which it is achieved. It made no sense.

I kind of promised to come back next Monday with my passport so they could process my work permit. It made sense to take the job – the company was actually an international one (albeit a foreign subsidiary) and the position was quality assurance of Taiwanese manufacturers. It was a good, solid job.

Another one of those ‘killer’ trucks went by spraying me with exhaust fumes, and I got my jacket out of the inside of my motorbike, and put it on back-to-front.

As I left I drove past ‘Future Ever Last Transistors’ again and sighed - Coming to this industrial park hadn’t been good for me because I had spent the afternoon driving past similarly awkward named companies, all the time practicing that sales pitch about bringing value to their international operations, helping them attract new customers.

That marketing company would be great fun… interesting…a wonderful challenge, I thought.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Taipei famous spots: The combat zone and old Asia

For one of John's last nights in Taipei - he left often and came back - we went to the combat zone.

The combat zone was an old strip of bars left over from when the American servicemen were stationed in Taipei.

As non-expat young guys we never went there, but it was interesting to see how stereotypes of Asia were alive and well.

We rarely went there because it was an odd place that reminded you of Thailand or the Philippines with its neon lights and bars with names like Malibu or California Dreaming, and girls in the entrance shouting at you to come in. You simply didn’t see this anywhere else in Taipei - of course there were hundreds of Adult KTVs and whorehouses, but the sell was always soft, passive in fact, hidden behind a door.

We went in the first place, The Bull and Parrot, and soon got a reminder of the most important reason why we didn’t go there normally: paying for sex or company was totally unnecessary in Taipei.

We ordered drinks and very soon four not so young or good-looking girls came and sat next to us. They themselves obviously didn't get out of this area very often because they should have guessed from our age and dress we weren't going to be forthcoming with the cash. They made basic conversation about where we were from, and we answered in Chinese that we were students, but it still didn't shake them off.

"You want to buy us a house drink?" asked my one.

I shouldn't have asked because I knew it would just encourage her, but i was curious: "How much?" I asked.

"400NT," she replied and I choked a little on my Taiwan beer.

"That is ok," I replied. "Just here to have a few drinks with my friends."

She continued. "I would like to talk to you," she said pushing herself up close.

"No, thanks," I replied but i was beginning to lose my patience and get stressed. "Why don't you get me a drink for the pleasure of talking to me?"

We moved to the place next door and on entering told the barmaid not to send any girls if she wanted us to stay and drink beer.

We sat down next to a group of guys from Silicon Valley who were in town for the technology show. They all had a girl next to them and kept asking us if we wanted one. We told them it was not necessary to pay for female company in Taiwan, and they just laughed incredulously.

All around the bar European or American businessmen were paying ridiculous amounts of money for the chat of some very average looking girl; and they were doing it because they believed it was necessary. It was Asia after all, and, especially if they had spent a lot of time in China and Thailand, they had picked up the impression that all girls in bars were whores and any that didn't require payment were sat at home knitting or reading Buddhist scripture. They had no idea there was a westernised middle class who were out in bars having fun.

We left after a few hours and offered to take them with us to the other bars, but they knew better - or were scared either way...

Taiwan teaching stories: Swimming in English

This was another Lily story – the one who had me teach the dying woman. This time she had me teach swimming in English.

Lilly was always late so you either: sat waiting uncomfortably outside her office smiling at your prospective student, or, stood around on the street somewhere, time already past appointment, waiting for her to take you to a student another half-an-hour away. On this occasion it was the latter.

“It is a swimming pool,” I said as we pulled up. “So the kid’s mother works here?”

“Yes,” she replied.

Lilly paid the entry fee and a young mother came to greet us with her eight-year old son.

I love this country, I thought to myself: kid can’t even be assed to change out of his swimming trunks.

“So what size for shorts?” asked Lilly. “Try on a hat.”

“Why?” I asked.

“You can teach swimming, yes?” But her tone said he didn’t care either way. “His mother say, he want learn to swim, but doesn’t like study English. This way if he wants to swim, he must - ”
“What is his level of English?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I think he knows a little.”

Yes, it seemed it had only occurred to me that urgent, life-or-death instructions should be shouted using a language he understood.

“You don’t disappoint,” I told Lilly.

The kid started tugging my arm, smiling and expectant. It was a super hot day and the water looked really inviting. I was actually I good swimmer so I figured I could at least make sure he didn’t drown. I went to get changed and put on a swimming cap. This was an odd cultural point: in Taiwan it was okay, perhaps mandatory, to spit and empty the contents of your nose in the water at the end of every length, width or dive, but letting your recently shampooed hair loose was a public health crime

One hour later and the boy was still alive and I had actually enjoyed myself.

The English aspect was problematic: if the kid ever found himself hanging round swimming pools in an English speaking country, then the phrases: ‘kick your legs’, ‘breath’ and ‘move your arms’ from today’s lesson would be invaluable.

I was actually looking forward to the next lesson but it was not to be: the mother wanted her son to learn to swim with American English.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Taiwan culture: Smuggling into Taiwan I

The stereotype of Taiwan is knock offs being smuggled into the west, but little known there is also a huge trade in luxury goods being smuggled the other way.

I found out when Pierre arrived back in Taipei - two weeks previously he had headed back to France bragging of yet another deal, this time a big import/export deal. It was so big apparently he had invested all his money and it necessitated the need to stay on my couch...again…Well, that is what Pierre said, and I didn’t listen anymore...

Now, he was back and, besides the two suitcases, he had three huge sport’s bags.

I helped him lug the bags up the four floors to my apartment, got a blast of aircon, and started to think about what was wrong.

“Must have paid a fortune in excess for all this shit?”I said then thought about it, and knew instinctively that he didn’t pay an extra cent. He had found a young Taiwanese girl in Charles de Gaulle and persuaded her to say his carry-on luggage was hers. When the air stewardess tried to stop him carrying so many bags onto the plane, he winked and said “I am bringing it for the lady. We French are gentlemen.”

Pierre opened the suitcases: “Shoes, blouses, skirts, and t-shirts. Never been shopping for women before. Now I am an expert. I cleaned out every small size in Paris.”

“This is your fuckin’ business. What happened to a container ship and customs?” We had thought that he was going to negotiate with wholesalers, and arrange shipment for his friend’s shop, not bring the stuff himself.

“This way works out cheaper. Don’t worry, everybody does it,” he replied. The cost of clothing from European brands was a minimum of twenty percent higher in Taiwan, and could be anything up to hundred percent, meaning things could be bought retail in France, and still sold at a healthy profit back here undercutting the official store who paid for the license. His friend, like many others, had a small boutique shop and made a good living based on getting on a plane to Europe 3 or 4 times a year.

There was one more suitcase on the floor. “You still got the bloody cover on this suitcase,” I said before starting to rip it off. As i did Pierre erupted in panic, diving across the suitcase to protect it like it was his own child getting beaten. “That is not mine. It costs two thousand US."

It seemed one of the most lucrative items was bags from the top designers: Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Chanel etc. The trade in these bags bought in Europe and then smuggled to Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan was now so large that the shops in Paris refused to sell to Asian customers unless they proved themselves to be genuinely wealthy. Pierre, being French, had no problem. He had handed over most of the bags to a contact a couple of streets down the road from the shop. The contact would then distribute them among air hostesses who could bring them into Asia easily.

This one suitcase was for one of his French students.

Pierre got out a pile of money and it appeared he had made enough to keep himself afloat for four or five months - although with Pierre you kind of guessed there was a catch somewhere.

'Let's go and get pissed,' he said.

I thought i would enjoy while the money lasted.