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.

Taiwan culture: It is where you make love that counts!

I know the "Only in X country’ is overworked crap in 99% of cases, but this story, where you make love, along with betel nut girls, had to be a genuine only in Taiwan.

It was Valentine’s day and a lonely girl had called me up to see what I was doing. I had no particular plan so an hour later we were in her car waiting in a queue of cars to get into a spanking new Love Hotel.

I suggested we could go back to mine, or maybe an older Love Hotel, where we could get in immediately, but apparently that wouldn’t be much fun: this place was a newly opened upmarket Love Hotel with special spider shape chairs in each room with straps, and she was paying so I had no choice. I liked the idea, but i didn’t like the idea of waiting in the car for another hour just to get in - It was a hot day and she was wearing a mini-skirt and vest and I was turned on now; call me old-fashioned but it was the prospect of getting her naked that was getting me excited, not the chance to go to the ‘In’ Love Hotel of the moment. But then again, I wasn’t Taiwanese!

"Shit," I said, before shrinking down in my chair. Outside a reporter was wandering about with a microphone and camera crew to cover this important breaking story.

Taiwan culture: A wolf in little red riding hoods clothing

Doesn’t drink, smoke, has to home by six p.m, but doesn’t mind a three-some with you and your mates in the afternoon.

In Taiwan you can meet a lot of wolf in little red riding hood clothing type girls, who, if you judge them by usual standards of social norms you will be writing them off as virgins, religious cult members or nuns.

It can take alot of getting used to when you first arrive. This story happened to me:

The girl behind the counter in Subway who made my sandwich was smiling as she collected my tray so I decided to test the water.

“Hello, what is your name?” I asked.

“Me? Oh, I am Jenny. Hmm…What is your name?”

As she replied, her back had straightened, and she had blurted out her answer, nervously, positively, like this was an exam.

“No, need to stand to attention,”I said. “Only Joking, I am Dan. Nice to meet you."

“Nice to meet you too… Oh…” I extended my hand to shake, and worked out a full meaty shake was not the done thing: we kind of touched thumbs on flat fingers and moved robotically, nervously up and down a few times.

“Hmm, where are you from?” she asked.

“England - So let’s cut to the chase,” I said because I was being driven wild by her innocent freshness as she continued to dip her head every few seconds, smile and cross her hands in front of her stomach. It was a weird feelings of corrupting innocence, something I had never had in England; presumably only pedophiles talk to girls of an age range that are still innocent. It was unusual to meet post-puberty girls who had such a fresh, positive attitude to life. The innocence was giving me goose pimples…It was also making me feel ashamed. “Would you like to go out for a drink some time?”

“You mean the bar?”

“Of course.”

“I am sorry. I don’t like the bar. Smoky. My father say I can't drink the alcohol.”

“Hmm, sorry, then I think I best be on my way.”I replied hurrying for the door red-faced looking around to see if anyone was coming after me to beat me up for talking to the virgin.

A few weeks later i went back to this Subway.

“Why don’t you want to go out with me?” said the girl.

“You said you didn’t like bars?” I replied.

“Yes,” she said, and after about ten minutes it kind of dawned on me I should keep an open mind.

“Okay, what about tonight?” I asked.

“I am not allowed out in the evening,” she replied.

I stared at her as if to ask if she was trying to wind me up and things went silent for a minute.

“I finish in half an hour. You want to wait for me?” she asked.

“And, what are we going to do? Go shopping for pencil cases?”

“Hmm...Have some tea,” she replied.

I was now absolutely sure I was being wound up, and only a plonker would still be around in 20 minutes....

I sat watching her drink, leaning over her glass of cold green tea, elbows on lap, her hands nailed at the wrists while holding her straw with her two index fingers. I talked; she occasionally prised one hand from the side of her glass to cover her mouth while she laughed, before reattaching to clap or fiddle with her straw. Occasionally, she sat up, but mostly she stayed chin to the glass looking up at me sheepishly. I thought I saw signs, but then I also knew she didn’t drink, had to be home by six o’clock, and read cartoons. She also looked young of course – they all did – and that didn’t help, but the problem was more mental: I didn’t want to be anyone’s first love. I met girls in bars in Taiwan because I had been told the ones outside were traditional. A shotgun wedding was something I could do without. But it wasn’t just that: there was no atmosphere, no dirty talk; this was chatting up without the ‘up’, physical attraction without either force. Sex wasn't polite. I knew she was twenty-three, because I had made an excuse to see her I.D. card - but I still couldn’t help thinking I was going to wake up on the paedophile wing of a local jail smoking my own dick.

“Can I go, now?”I asked after about an hour exhausted by the debate going on in my head and starting to go dizzy from twisting my neck to look out the window every two seconds for those relatives.

“Hmm, okay,” she replied.

“What are you doing?” I asked as she had followed me a few paces behind and was now getting on the back of my scooter.

“You said ‘lets go.’”

“Look love, I don’t want to sit in the park and hold hands.” She slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Tao yen, tao yen, you foreigners are so direct.”

Tao yen meant hate – but not in a literal sense, more a oh don’t be stupid. A must word you will definitely learn if you ever date a Taiwanese girl.

“Hmm, let’s go to MTV,” she continued.

I had heard of MTV. MTV’s were like KTVs, huge building filled with hundreds of individual rooms with a TV and a sofa in each for you to relax and watch a film that was out on video. They were of course used by young people who couldn’t afford a hotel room. As I was living in the hostel with no privacy I was looking forward to the opportunity to be in a room with a comfortable sofa, and a chance to relax and watch a film.

We got out at the seventh floor, and searched among the racks of films. I let Hello Kitty choose, and so she picked ‘Pretty Woman’ and we headed into a room led by an assistant.

“Hmm, still a little sticky,” I joked to myself, but still relaxed myself down onto the huge leather sofa that went from one side of the room to the other. It was a long way down because the sofa was minus the legs; more like a sofa bed on the floor.

Two minutes later the assistant who brought us to the room was back with a glass of cold milk tea and a glass of lemon tea, and then we were alone, sat next to each other.

“Not seen the film before?” I asked her.

“Hmm, I see it many times,” she replied, looking at me sideways sucking on her glass of lemon tea. “…You want me to give you the blow job?”

“What do you think?” I replied.

“You don’t like me?”

“Please…Sorry….Yeah, I would love you to give me the blowjob…Come here.”

For the rest of the month we met regularly at the MTV or a Love Hotel until, one day, she asked me if it was possible to bring this another guy she had met for some tag team action, or one of my friends if I so wished.

It was then I had to admit those reservations, prejudices of behavior were wrong: not drinking, smoking, and wearing Hello Kitty didn’t have to equate with being an unhappy innocent being taken advantage of in the big bad world. She was repressed, boring – but absolutely not innocent.

But, anyway, I preferred the pickup with some physical interaction, so I decided to stay in the bar.