Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Taiwan Culture Shock: Best to blame the wall after all

Taiwanese and westerners differing ideas of family inevitability are the source of endless debate. On this occasion i was watching Shine with the wife.
You remember Shine? The story of the brilliant Australian pianist who has a nervous breakdown, seemingly caused by his overbearing father who pushed him too hard.
We were at the crucial part of the movie where he sees his father again after many years and everyone hopes he won’t be bullied again.
“Why do you always blame your parents for everything?” said the wife.
“Not everything,” I replied. “But the old guy is a bastard. Even now he is not sorry and trying to tell him he is an idiot and needs his father.”
She didn’t seem convinced and so i took the bait.
“I guess we face reality and admit our parents aren’t gods.””
She shrugged. “He just wants the best for his son.”
If the truth be told i had foreseen this topic arising and a possible argument; picked the DVD up, put it down, but wasn’t able to leave it alone.
“I know compared to the average Taiwanese parent he is a hippy who doesn’t care if his children weave baskets while smoking pot for all eternity.”
I could see her getting into explode mode so i changed tact. “Anyway, when you are facing ten years for drug smuggling, and banging your head against a wall with self-loathing at your own stupidity, you need someone to blame for your actions, to make yourself feel better,” I replied.
“We take responsibility ourselves,” she replied smugly. “You westerners should try and learn that is only your fault in the end. No excuses.”
“No you don’t,” I said. “You blame luck or the moon. And you still do the murder or robbery. Just deny why.”
“You talk too much,” she said. “My sister is naughty and i am not. Both have the same parent.”
She had a point.
“I don’t know,” I replied trying to be sociological. “Perhaps we believe that by identifying the root of the problem, and facing it we can get closure and hopefully improve, be happier as a person. Improve our society.”
“Does it work?” she asked.
“Of course not. I would say almost never. We firmly identity our parents as the problem. Wallow in self-pity. Restrict ourselves. Talk about it all the time. Make it the center of our lives, but still die alone and bitter having been unable to do anything about it….In that case, you are right – We might as well blame the wall or the 3rd letter of our names.”

Monday, December 28, 2009

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Taiwan Culture Shock: The definition of dangerous

The people who have kids will understand this one better.
I have an ongoing dispute with the mother-in-law about the definition of dangerous.
Her take appears to be straightforward: the bodies of young children have an inability to regulate temperature, but are resistant to drinking bleach.
When she is in my house, or looking after the children, she runs two paces behind them continually ready to take the place of their natural temperature gauge. In the summer, she is blasting aircon at them and nagging me every two minutes to take them back from the park because it is too hot. In the winter she has them wearing enough clothes for the arctic. The autumn and spring are the worse times of the year because the weather is changeable and the disputes increase. You arrange to meet the wife and mother-in-law in the park and, when you get there, of course, to combat the mild breeze they are wearing 3 layers of clothing.
“They are too hot,” you say.
“He is right,” would say the mother-in-law. “The sun is strong. Let’s go back to the apartment and turn on the aircon.”
“No. There is nothing wrong with the sun. Take off a couple of layers of clothing.”
I will of course then try and remove two layers and i will get terrible stares from the wife and mother-in-law.
“They will get a cold,” they say in unison.
I will insist, and the battle will then really begin as the mother-in-law follows them continually with that 2nd layer, taking every time the sun pops behind a cloud or the breeze vaguely picks up, to try and force a jumper over their heads.
I indulge this battle of wills for a while, but inevitably give up and go back to the apartment.
Once there, it starts again as she blasts on the aircon and adds layers and i turn off the aircon and remove.
“Wife. Take off the sweater. Feel his forehead.”
“It is cold.”
“So turn off the aircon.”
“Then it is too hot.”
And so on, and so on…
Meanwhile, during all of this it will be:
“Wife. Please ask your mother not to leave huge meat cleaver on the edge of the worktop. Better still, when she walks away to take a phone call, shut the damn kitchen door because she is actually cooking something on the stove.”
The wife will actually look at me, shocked that i could actually think her mother was careless.
So there it is: it seems children are impervious to meat cleavers, household cleaners left hanging around, and hitting windscreens because no seat belt, but if they are not wearing two jumpers they will collapse in an instant.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Religion in Taiwan: Exhuming your long dead grandfather

When we first arrive it is really hard to believe how a nation of technology lovers and capitalists are also so religious.

Well, not so much religious as superstitious. In the west we are brought up to believe in one God, and all religious practicies and ceremonies deemed to ward off evil spirits, bring good luck etc. are firmly relegated to shows about the Middle Ages and how stupid we were back then.

Not so in Taiwan. Here they cling onto beliefs that the druids would have found illogical -Businesses routinely consult fortune tellers to ask which country they should go to a trade show in. Paper BMWs are burnt for those in the after life to drive. And so, and so on...

After the initial period of shock wears off you get used to it, and find your own way to deal. My way was usually to switch off and ignore.

On this occasion the future wife was back after spending a couple of days down south with the relatives. As we hadn't seen each other for a few days we were naturally on the bed and she was playing with my nether regions.

"So what happened?" I asked.

I did vaguely remember her saying something about the family felt they had had bad luck and a fortune teller had told they needed to dig up the body of their grandfather. I of course had switched off.

"Oh, it was not good," she said in her usual understated way.

"Ok, explain again please," I said. "Why did you go?"

She explained. The family had been having bad luck for a few years and someone from the local temple had told them it was because the grandfather had not been looked after well in the after life. It was simple: they had to exhume his body, scrape whatever flesh was still on his bones off, wash the bones, perform some prayers, burn some paper money, and stick him back down under again. Then they would all win the national lottery for the next month.

"Hmm, seeing the body of your grandfather. Dead five years, couldn't have been easy," I said.

"Uh, that was ok," she replied. "The ceremony went wrong."

"Ok. Why?"

Apparently, the people they had hired to do the scraping, didn’t turn up so they all mucked in – and he was still quite fleshy considering the amount of time he had been dead.

"And you helped?....Of course, you did. Stupid of me to ask. You are a good daughter after all."

I suddenly became aware of where her hands were and what they were doing. "I guess you have washed your hands?" I asked.

"Of course," she replied. "What is the problem?"

"Nothing, just i have never had hands that recently touched dead flesh on my body."

"How do you know?"

"True. I am not the best judge of character under the influence of alcohol."

"Stupid," she replied. "So you want me to stop?"

I thought for a moment. "No. No. Definitely not. My warped side has already kicked in. This should be a pull to remember for all time."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Non-PC: Angelina Jolie

One of the wonderful things about Taiwanese women is they just don't understand that a woman can't be beautiful, sexy and intelligent at the same time.

I have heard it is getting better in the west (don't quote me, though), but my generation women were conditioned never to mention looks - looks were the enemy in the fight to get equality. With other women they did sit around discussing what a particular model looked like, but they would never do so with their boyfriend because of the fear that he would immediately devalue them. Of course, as a guy, it went without saying you couldn't say anything.

It came as a surprise therefore when you first got to Taiwan and your girlfriend would sit with a copy of cosmopolitan picking apart the bodies of the models.

"Her nose is a little flat," she would say.

"What," I would reply, because my natural sense of self-preservation told me this was a trick.

"Look. Her nipples are so dark. In Taiwan we like pink ones."

"Really?" I said. "So why is that?" Trying to change the subject.

"Makes you look younger," she replied. "In Taiwan they go dark after you have a child. You know you can get them replaced. It is popular in Japan."

"Which one do you like?" she asked.

"Pink of course," I replied. "Like yours."

"Oh. You lie. You know mine are not so pink. My mother always complain me that her daughter is too rough. That i suit - "

"The foreigner," I said.

"Yes. That i suit the foreigner."

"But they are not so dark..."

We then had about a half an hour conversation about the shade of her nipples and what shade I preferred. During the conversation i contradicted myself a million times, but it didn't matter. It was something that i quickly learnt with Taiwanese girls: they weren't trying to get to the bottom of what you thought, on a mission to find the truth, rather just get a compliment. As long as you started each contradiction with a compliment they were never going to pull you up on it; dump you because they had discovered the truth.

The world was tough. Most people were full of bullshit. Just make sure you cover the cracks, seemed to be the motto.

Anyway, after the years of middle class brainwashing, I think i never really got used to this non-pc behavior. This was my favorite from the wife a few years later:

We were watching The Bone Collector on DVD. In the movie Angeline Jolie plays a uniformed police officer.

I don’t know why she did this movie. It is not really her,” said the wife, referring to the fact that the only flesh on display was above the neck.

“Well perhaps she actually wants to be respected for her acting?” I actually felt rather strange explaining this to a woman. “She can’t get her tits out in every movie.”

“Why not," she said. "She has a great body. You know that is what we expect. It is her."

“I feel your pain," I said. "I will complain to the DVD shop tomorrow...Do you have a trade descriptions act in Taiwan?”