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 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.