Sunday, January 25, 2009

Taiwan culture shock: Don't expect PC

In Taiwan don't expect people to understand the rules of PC that we follow in the West.

One evening, a few months after getting to Taiwan, I was sat on my mattress on the floor watching a Taiwanese soap with the girlfriend of that time, a Carol Tu. I had just finished tipping and pouring food from plastic bags into paper bowls or plates, positioned between us. There was ducks’ blood with ground peanuts, a portion of smelly tofu, a bowl of fish ball soup, a plate of cold clams pickled in soy and garlic and pig’s intestine with thick soy all balanced precariously on that mattress.

"What is the foreigner dude doing on the show?” i asked Carol.

“He was meeting the girl’s father. He kick him out. Say the foreigner doesn’t understand Taiwan culture.”

Apart from a hammer jolt of injustice, I was thinking Carol seemed very nonchalant about it all.

“The father is a bastard? Don’t you think?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know? It is racist -What about your father?”

“He think you foreigners like to fuck around.”

Then Carol kind of suggested her father had a point: there was the Canadian guy who didn’t marry her after all, and she knew I didn’t love her. She had been with two western guys before, and it appeared what her father said about the GIs in Taiwan was right - American soldiers were stationed in Taiwan to protect it against the communists up until the end of the seventies.

“Your father has a second wife and kids in Indonesia and your calling westerners the unfaithful ones?” I replied. Carol liked to recount this story, and numerous others of her grandmother trying to install another woman in the family home to replace her mother as reason why she liked the foreigner. Then there was his student Amanda, and his other student Mary who liked to recount stories of catching her husband being unfaithful, and how their mother-in-laws always said: 'Your husband works very hard. He needs to have some fun.' I knew I should keep clear of these types of students, but feeling other’s pain was addictive, as was, it seemed, their interest in telling me. I once asked if she discussed this with her friends and Amanda had replied: "You know, I don’t talk this to anyone. Will lose the face. I know, you are the foreigner. You are very open."

I was slowly working out there was a downside to being seen as approachable.

I thought for a moment and then felt obliged to qualify my statement based on what most guys were up to in Taipei. “Yes, we fuck around before marriage, then we stay faithful to our wives. Unlike you people who get married to the first person they meet and then start to fuck around.”

Carol stared blankly at me clearly thinking: was I supposed to be impressed? Suddenly, she no doubt saw an image of herself hanging around in that foreigner bar in ten years time, putting up with boring conversation about the pollution, how westerners are taught to ‘think’ in the west; all delivered in badly broken Chinese where she had to guess the tones. She decided her next boyfriend would be old - If I didn’t marry her and make her happy of course.

"Anyway, he doesn't know i don't want to fuck around. He should judge every one as an individual."

"So you want to marry me?" she asked.

I learned my lesson. I never got into this argument again.

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