Monday, July 6, 2009

Expat Culture in Taiwan: My first Christmas

In the old days there was actually a day off for Christmas day, not because it was Christmas, but it was officially constitution day. Around 2000 they dropped constitution day and since then we haven’t even had a day off – unless you booked it of course. I had only been in Taiwan six months or so, and being a young university graduate was reveling in the idea I was simply not going to have a Christmas; that is was going to be hot. I had gone to a card shop and bought a bunch of Christmas cards with Santa sitting on a deckchair on the beach, and sent them off thinking I was so cool and subversive.
Christmas was a strange time in Taiwan as all the big department stores put up huge Christmas trees and played the usual carols. Taiwanese went and took photos of themselves in front of the tree, or sat in the sledge, and then completely ignored it. I cannot state that strong enough: they just don’t celebrate Christmas.
Anyway, as a teacher of the American language, I had to teach the children all about the great traditions they would never follow, culminating in cards and presents and me dressing up in a santa suit. After getting over my embarrassment at shouting ‘ho, ho’ for a couple of hours, I realized the whole thing had touched my immature heart and I suddenly felt it wasn’t so cool not to celebrate Christmas.
I got on the phone to the guys.
“Man, it is only Christmas day. Capitalist junk”
“Only good if you are a kid or have kids.”
“Man, can’t you miss it for one year... It’ll come around next year.”
“Nah, I ain’t wasting money on a bad Christmas dinner in some big hotel”
It seemed nostalgia hadn’t got the better of the others. I knew one person who would be celebrating Christmas so I gave him a call.
“Hey, John, what are you up to tomorrow?” I asked.
“I have booked to go to the Hyatt for lunch. I booked two places – I am still thinking about which bird to go with because I know you college boys won’t be coming…You want to come?”
I know the big hotels always had Christmas dinner for the expat crowd, but they could be a little pricey. “How much?”
“1800 a ticket.”
“Hmm, make sure she is really hot,” I replied.
I wasn’t that nostalgic – well, I was but I was also too tight to pay that much.
My student Michael’s family – the ten year-old boy I was supposed to be preparing to go to the UK – had invited me to their house. It wasn’t my first choice to go to my student’s house on Christmas Day, but I figured the alternative was to sit at home lonely watching Christmas day celebrations from around the world on CNN. I called them back to accept the invitation.
“Happy New Year!” shouted Michael’s family when I arrived. Taiwanese just couldn’t get Christmas was the more important day of the two.
“My brother, his wife, their child…1,2 children…yes…children. We have…Christmas party for you,” said Michael’s father pleased with himself, showing his English in front his family.
“Here is your Christmas card and present,” said Michael.
“See I write…Uh, very good eh!” announced Michael. “You sit here.”
I had had dinner at the house many times, Michael’s mother insisting on feeding me almost every time I came.
There wasn’t any turkey, but the thought was already enough. By the end of the day we had been Tenpin bowling, to eat snacks in a night market, and to another brother’s house, and then to KTV, because everyone wanted to sing.
The most popular family sport across Taiwan at the time was ten pin bowling. If the family couldn’t think of anything to do, they went bowling. And, as I was a foreigner – and by connection American - they assumed I liked bowling.
9:00 pm – I was back at the hotel waiting for Josh and Eric, regretting leaving my student’s family to drink with my mates when the atmosphere had been so warm and family orientated. They had been so kind, and even though I missed England, I was feeling upbeat and reflective:
Not bad…alcohol consumption down from the half bottle of vodka a day to several pints.
Have decided to sleep well again when I leave.
Don’t talk to my mates in my sleep anymore, or call out to people on the street because I think they are my friends.
Idea that I will be here for a while is not breaking me out in cold sweats.
Don’t get frustrated and walk off, so often, when required to repeat myself twice.
Beginning to be able to spot “Britishisms” I speak, and change into dull American English.
Fuck I miss Desmond Lynam and Andy Gray’s voices for the footie. Never thought I would say, I would miss that Scottish bastard’s voice - But I suppose the Japanese porn channels on the cable goes someway to making up.
Grateful for the veneer of privacy my room provides - once I turn the TV up loud, can actually forget the thickness of the walls leaves me you forever prepared for someone to walk straight through them, apologize for taking a wrong turning, then go straight back out.
After being woken by the motorbikes outside, am able to go back to sleep within half an hour
The mad Aussie guy next door has stopped having the same argument every night, in which he threatens to send his girlfriend back to the Philippines….Ah, that is because I head-butted him so can’t really add to the Adapted and Became Tolerant Of list.
Language still impossible - Tonight I desperately wanted to tell Michael’s mother how much I appreciated things, but all I could do was keep saying ‘Xiere, xiere’ knowing I was probably saying go die in hell or something worse. Tonal languages meant extra opportunities to fuck up, and the development of a habit of saying every word many times (xiere, xiere, xiere,xiere) in the hope you might have got it right once, but they never told you if you had it right so you tended to say it just a few more times for safety’s sake. We are often confused and misunderstood in our own language, but then, at least, you can make your point and blame the other person for the misunderstanding. Here, you just looked like a cunt.
“Hey man are you there?” It was Eric at the door with his Taiwan beer, closely followed by John and Pierre.
“Did you treat someone hot for lunch?” I asked John.
“Ok, I suppose. Preferred to have given you the ticket on reflection, but I guess I am just not Taiwanese enough yet.”
“What about you guys? Get up to anything?” I asked Eric and Pierre.
“Nothing,” they replied.
We had all been in Taiwan for about a year now, and as it was Christmas day, and although, the others denied it their parents had all called them and a couple of reflective thoughts had crept in. Eric, Josh, and Pierre shared one thing in common, separate from John: they choose to come to Taiwan and had been looking forward to the experience, but from there experiences diverged. Josh was not such a flurry of pride and confusion at the environment because he had already been on the road for three years, with stays in Australia, Thailand and Europe. He had got most of the basics of loss and disorientation out of his system a long time ago. He didn’t think too much about the culture beyond what he had to understand to do business, which was minimal – this wasn’t Japan, where supposedly not following certain etiquette could make or break a deal, the Taiwanese were very forgiving to westerners. He loved the small business, ‘can do’ culture of the Taiwanese. And, after a rocky start with the women, he was sure he had found his segment and it would be plain sailing after this. Besides, he would be gone back to Canada in a couple of years, Taiwan a distant, but happy memory.
Eric and Pierre had both come here straight out of college and were still dizzy, but then one was having the time of his life and the other disillusioned. In Taiwan you were always the foreigner. And it kind of showed how important your desires and goals were on your immigrant experience: Pierre wanted something for nothing and loved his status as the outsider, the center of attention; Eric was working furiously to belong, fit in, and wanted to be rewarded for his efforts to do so. Eric was particularly in a hurry to learn Chinese because he had figured he had a couple of years in Taiwan, before the pull of family got the better of him. Daddy was desperately trying to set him up with a good corporate job back home.
John, on the other hand, was still denying how much he loved Taiwan and where his destiny lay.

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