Monday, March 23, 2009

Taiwan culture shock: A night at a Taiwanese family's house

Most of the time we hang around with other expats or our local girlfriends; we are kind of aware we are in a different country but not feeling it in our bones - until, that is, you spend an evening at a Taiwanese family's house.

I couple of things really offend our meritocratic and space loving western selves:

a) They really do see that cousin twice-removed on a regular basis - and have a specific title and position for everyone in the family tree.

b) Don't expect 'No thank you, I don't want anymore' to get them to stop offering -They know you are just being polite.

Now if you are Eric, suffering alienation and nostalgia for a land where it is ok to hate and ignore even your closest relatives, you don't want to be spending a lot of time at a Taiwanese family apartment.

I arrived at the apartment of the girlfriend at the time, a Carol Tu. I insisted she say i was her English teacher so that nobody would lose face if we broke up later.

As I entered Carol’s apartment: “Jesus – Why are there so many people?” I asked.

“They are my family,” she answered.

“You have five brothers and six sisters?”

“No, they are uncles…aunties.”

I had heard the stories of girls expecting to get married after a few months. “What the hell? I told you I ain’t getting married….Engaged… Nothing. I’m out of here.”

Carol caught me a flight of stairs down. “Hey. Come back. Why you leave?”

“All those relatives in your house - You think I am stupid?”

“You really are strange. You want to meet my family and then you leave. I know you don’t want to marry me.”

“Uncles and aunties only come for special occasions: This ain’t one.”

“This is Taiwan, we see them every day.”

I stood silent, my sails minus any wind: “I’m sorry. I don’t see my uncles and aunties unless it is a wedding, funeral or christening. You don’t have christenings here, and everyone looked too happy for the other one. I’m sorry. Okay. I’m cool.”

“So arrogant,” she added scornfully as they walked back in past the metal grate door.

“Nice to meet you,” said Carol’s father. “I hear you are a good English teacher.”

Diane started to introduce everyone.

“That is my Jou jou…uncle,” replied Carol.

“Jou jou is his name,” I asked.

“No, jou jou means uncle – Oh…” said Carol as another middle-aged Taiwanese guy walked over. “That is my bo fu…Uncle,” she said.

I was confused. “Explain, please.”

“Jou Jou means uncle on my mother’s side and Bo fu my father’s - What?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said rolling my eyes in disbelief.

“That is Xiao (small) Jou (Younger brother from mother’s side),” she continued as they went around the room.

“Sorry…Perfectly logical I suppose,” I said. “What if there are three uncles, what do you call the middle one? Zhong (middle) Jou?”

“Don’t be stupid, Number Two Uncle.”

“Ok, attach other title for side of the family...I am getting it,” I said. “Now I know where ‘Number One Son’ came from."

She continued to explain the various titles for grandparents and cousins and aunties based on side of the family and age. For example, if you had two older brothers then they would be ‘big brother’ and brother number two.

The truth is I had seen this on the textbook, but ignored it as vocabulary used in ancient times. “Sorry. You actually use these titles? Are we in Mississippi or something?”

I thought for a moment and then pushed: “So what is his actual name? He is not my Younger Brother from Father’s side.”

There was a pause and Carol didn’t answer.

“Hey, what’s the matter? You serious?” I asked. “Don’t you know his name?” For a moment I thought it was quite cool she didn’t know her relatives’ names – I made a point of ignoring Mine.

“I have never asked him…Younger Brother from Father’s side, what is your name?” asked Carol.

He looked at her as if to say what the fuck has it got to do with you, when he realized and came walking over.

“My name is Michael. How are you?” His English name wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.

He continued, “Is it a good name? I don’t know. Many years before, I have the teacher from Canada.”

“It is a good name, man. What is your Chinese name?”

“Mr. Hu.”

“Thanks, man,” I said. We are not going to get your Chinese first names out under torture are we?
“And you are Dan. What does Dan mean?” asked Mr. Hu.

It was that old chestnut again, I thought. My name has to mean something like: Son of the mighty mountain sword.

“Cool dude, man. It means cool dude…Sorry, it has no meaning of course. Western names have no meaning.”

“What does your name mean?” I asked trying a different angle to get his Chinese name.

“Don’t you just say English name no meaning?”

“Yeah, man. I am not going to crack you, am I?”

The men were finished now so Diane could start to introduce the women. “That is my mother’s younger sister.”

She is sexy I thought. “Where is her husband?”

“No - Thirty-five never married. My grandmother very sad when she have the second daughter, not the son. She think it best she stay at home and help look after her when she is old."

I started to furrow my brow again.

“It is okay,” added Carol. “She is happy to do it for her mother. It is her duty - Taiwan families.”

“Say, “How are you?” to the foreigner,” said the uncle to his five year old son.

I smiled a fake smile as I hadn’t come to teach English.

“And that is my cousin - My grandmother’s brother’s son.”

“Okay, he is your second cousin, but that is like feeling a sense of attachment to the children of a woman my father slept with in university. I have first cousins I don’t know the names of.”

“I don’t know. I call him cousin. He is staying with us because he have to study in Taipei. He already live with us two years so I call him younger brother.”

I started to fizz and shoot bolts.

“Taiwanese families are very complicated,” she said. “You know, he is a good boy. He got into the best Junior High School in Taiwan when he thirteen. He make his parents very proud. They miss him very much, but he has to study...”

“So where do they all live?” I asked. There was her mother and father, grandmother, aunty, sister, brother and his girlfriend, her, and the second cousin who she now called younger brother, and there were only three bedrooms in this apartment.

“My father and his brother bought the apartment opposite for my grandmother. My aunty stays with her for free. She is very grateful.”

“It is not for free – she is an indentured slave to your grandmother.”

“My aunty is very traditional. I tell you that. Me? No way. That is why I like the foreigner.”

“What about your uncle?”

“The floor below,” Then as if it made it sound like it was so much further away. “Opposite.”

“So which room is yours?”

“I sometime sleep with my mother…Hmm…sometime sister. My brother needs the room for his girlfriend. My step-brother because he is a student.”

“I’m sorry,” I exclaimed not even interested in asking where the father slept, because I knew it would only result in my head shaking off its base.

“So what about your MBA application?” I asked trying to change the subject away from my personal nightmare of relative-density.

“Say, How are you?, to the foreigner,” shouted the uncle to his son for the twentieth time.

“I’m off work now,” i quipped in Chinese to tremendous laughter and I assumed they got the point.

Back to the subject of Carol's MBA. “Don’t talk about it. I am very sad.” It seemed her brother needed to get married - he had just got his girlfriend pregnant and so he needed money to pay for the wedding. Her father had no money because his shoe factory in Shenzhen just went bankrupt and it was down to the daughters. They had protested that their brother didn’t have any money because he refused to work, but her father had insisted: “He is your older brother, and we are all family so you should help. You are girls - Your children cannot pray for us when we are dead.”

“You are going to accept this,” I asked.

She shrugged her shoulders. “We are a traditional family. I’ll earn the money again.”

If you are a traditional family why was he getting his girlfriend pregnant before marriage, I thought. I really have just arrived in the Asian version of a council estate.

“Say, “How are you?” to the foreigner,” shouted the uncle to his son.

“What is your name?” I said to the kid hoping that would placate things but he ran off followed by the uncle who had lost face now because his kid didn’t answer.

“Let’s eat,” said Carol’s mother.

Ten minutes later. “What’s up?” I asked because nobody was going to eat.

“My grandmother is keeping us waiting.” Carol explained – nobody would eat before the grandmother and she kept everyone waiting just to see she was getting respect. Finally, her two sons went to the sofa to get her and they walked arm-in-arm to the table.

“You want a knife and fork,” asked Carol to me. “My uncle is asking.”

“That is okay. I can use the chopsticks,” I said picking them up and waving them in the air.

“No need to be polite,” pushed the uncle. “Yi-Ching (Carol) get him the knife and fork.”

“I’m okay. Look.” This time I picked up a salty thousand year old egg and took a bite.

“Wow, you eat the real Chinese food,” said her uncle.

“I would if you would only let me get on with it.”

“Sorry?” said her uncle.

“Of course. Something has to be pretty special to make me sit in the room with more than two relatives of any one family.”


“I like it very much.”

“Where are you doing?” I asked to Carol as she started to go out the door.

“I have to go to the uncle apartment. Look for the knife and fork,” she said happy to leave me there.

I started to break off a piece of the steamed fish and pile on some garlic and ginger – but the uncle was still trying to help. “Just a…moment,” he pushed. “She get you the knife and fork.”

“Thanks. I’ll use the chopsticks while I am waiting.”

“You eat the pig intestine,” asked Carol’s mother who had sat quietly waiting for her turn to praise after the men.

Carol was back, her mission to find the knife and fork failed.

“Tell your mother I am happy to try everything. Western food is very bland.”

“What is she doing?” I asked, because Diane’s mother was picking the chillies out of the dish of intestines and putting the rest on the little plate next to his bowl. “She know you don’t like too spicy.”

“Then she knows something I don’t.” I began to feel under pressure as Carol’s mother piled food on my plate in a manner that hadn’t happened to me since I was five.

I took a breather.

“Eat a little more,” pushed the aunty who looked after her grandmother.

“Wo cher bao le, Xie xie (I am full, thank you),” I said to raucous laughter and a chorus of “bu yong ke chi (No need to be polite).”

Carol’s mother finished shelling the plate of prawns and tipped them into my bowl: “Just a little left - ”

“I know – No need to be polite,” I said.

“They are just trying to be polite,” said Carol.

“I know, but don’t they know I am a cold, heartless westerner? In the name of exerting my individuality I was brought up to say exactly what I want at all times no matter who it offends. No matter ruining that persons life with the truth was completely unnecessary. When I say I am full, I am full. You understand?”

“Uh,” said Carol.

The mother started pouring me a bowl of chicken soup so I, in vain tried to stop her. “Really. I am full. Thanks,” I said.

“She says it have the Chinese medicine. It is very ‘bu’. I don’t know how to say…uh…good for your health.”

It wasn’t good for the chicken’s health I thought as I noticed its sad face staring at me from out the top of the pot. Eye-to-eye with this chicken at this moment dispelled any myths these creatures didn’t feel. Still as someone I had met said: So you don’t want to know it was ever alive. Isn’t that hypocritical? It was, and I was no hypocrite. As for the ‘bu’ thing, I was curious. I wasn’t feeling in bad health, but he had an open mind about the power of Chinese medicine. Maybe, I could stay in good health without going to the gym. And, as an Englishman, I had to concede on issues of fat: overweight in this country was a couple of kilos, not twenty or so.

“Cheers,” I said to the chicken while looking it in the eye.

I finished my bowl of soup then accepted guile was the only way to stop them feeding me: “I have to go the bathroom.”

I stayed in the bathroom for five minutes counting the tiles on the wall, floor, just about everywhere. Still it didn’t take very long because it was the typical Taiwan bathroom: toilet, sink and bath with shower unit inside, all stacked up next to each other; sealed floor so you could spray water anywhere – and a box of tissues on the toilet unit behind your head, rather than a roll on a conveniently placed holder in front of you.

“You ok?” said the uncle to concerned smiles from everyone when I came out of the toilet. “Not used to the Chinese food, eh.”

“That is right. I wouldn’t go in there again today.”

While I was gone they had all retired to the sofa. “Please sit down,” said at least four relatives just in case I was afraid to.

It was also a typical living room: huge black leather sofa, and armchairs; hard wood floor never carpet; altar consisting of a table with a Daoist deity behind; undecorated white walls save for a picture of dead relatives and some scrolls with lucky Chinese phrases on the front; and then lots of dark, hard wood furniture. The furniture seemed to be a sign of wealth and the more Indonesian rainforest you had managed to purchase the richer you were.

“Please,” said the mother. The coffee table was now awash with watermelon, grapes and small tomatoes that were supposed to be dipped in plum powder.

It wasn’t exactly environmentally friendly: there was a box of tissues to mop every drop of juice, cocktail sticks to pick up the fruit, finally, to spit or drop that grape peel or those watermelon seeds were little paper boxes. It seems you couldn’t have any thing reusable.

I didn’t have anything to say so I started to peel the skin from the grapes and pretend to be deep in concentration, while looking at the TV out of the corner of my eye as they flicked through the channels. There was the soap that I was sure was now actually a documentary. On the next channel was a Hong Kong soap opera set in ancient times with young, pretty boy Chinese pop stars wearing long wigs and gowns, swishing their swords and trying to sound stern, and authoritative - Imagine Haircut One Hundred, Milli Vanilli, or Soft Cell playing Shakespeare, cowboys or Knights of the Round Table.

“So why you come to Taiwan?” said one of the uncles. "Earn money?” added oldest aunty from the mother’s side.

“No. I am interested in the culture. In studying Chinese,” I replied to fall about laughter.

“So you want to go to the China. Do some business,” she continued.

“You are very lucky. We really admire the America,” said uncle number two from the father’s side. “You have the quality of life. Nice house. Taiwan too small.”

"What do you think about England," I asked trying to subtlely make the point before continuing.
“I like here. People are very friendly and the food is good.

"And I know: Wo bu yong ke chi (I don’t need to be polite)."

“Thank you. It is my honor to meet the foreigner,” said Uncle Michael.

“So who is the old guy on the wall,” I asked trying to change the conversation guessing who it was.

“That is my grandfather - My father honour him.”

“Good, but does he have to watch me eat?”

“My father say the picture help us remember to respect him. To think what he would like us to do.”

“And do opposite, presumably.”

“Stupid. You know when he died it was so much trouble. We crawl on the hands and knees to show our respect. He have the old red brick house with a courtyard, and all the family, get out the car at the gate and crawl to the door of the house with our heads down to the ground, crying, praying to the God for him - Oh…very painful.”

“My heart would hurt, yes, if I crawled for anyone.”

The aunties and uncles then got up, got out the card table and started to gamble. I figured he had half an hour or so to wait before I could politely make my excuses and go.

. . .

“Nice to meet you, Dan?” said everyone as I headed for the door.

I was glad we lied and said I was her English teacher because it had meant less pressure. The truth is I had enjoyed himself - it had been an experience. But he still couldn’t possibly imagine it becoming part of my world.

“I give you a ride,” said the uncle, Michael. I protested it was okay to get a bus but, like on all other occasions, I wasn’t able to refuse.

“Carol say you are the good English teacher,” said Michael as they drove.

“Thanks, mate.”

“Don’t worry. We know. You have some fun. But we are a traditional family her father not approve the foreigner. Just fun, ok.”

Suddenly I couldn't think of anything else but getting accepted by Carol’s family…

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