Ashley Abroad

Livin' in and lovin' Taipei since 2011

Category: relationships and relating

好久不見, 台灣!Long time no see, Taiwan. It’s good to be back.

I made my way back to the lovely isle of Formosa approximately one week ago and have since been regaining my bearings. For those of you who read my blog with some regularity, you probably already know that I am married to a Taiwanese guy, which is one of the reasons Taiwan has become my bonafide home. For those of you who didn’t know that, now you do. However I haven’t been Taiwan like home lately, because I have been gone for about 4.5 months. Let’s just say that the situation was semi-out of my hands. I’m thankful to have an understanding husband and a forgiving job- neither one has left me- they were both waiting back here with open arms for my imminent return.

At the risk of being a bore, I’ll forgo a lengthy diatribe re-detailing my dental implant woes which necessitated corrective surgery (i.e. the reason I remained back stateside for so long). If you really want to know about all of that, albeit I can’t promise it’ll be edge-of-your-seat reading, you can look through my previous entries where I discuss it at length. Personally, I am so sick of it all myself, that I bore myself to tears just thinking about explaining it all to anyone ever again (perhaps because I’ve needed to do it so many times). It gets old, people. It just gets old. As a compulsive novelty-seeker, I have always deplored repetition, well with the exception of running. I can repeat that every day, don’t ask me why or how, I’m just really driven to do it.

Anyway, here I am back in Taipei. Things have been pretty stable for folks out here it seems. The political situation has moved around a little bit, in a good way. The prez stepped down as the head of the KMT political party (the party I don’t like) which means he relinquished a bit of his power, although he’s still in office. I guess he was too much of a wimp to stand up against a majority opposition party government; the DPP had a sweeping victory in the most recent elections. For those who are unfamiliar with Taiwan politics, the KMT is the party that used to rule Mainland China but seceded to Taiwan after losing to the Communists. They dominated Taiwan as a single-party government for years and years until the 90s when Taiwan held its first democratic elections. At that time the KMT was strangely voted back into power. Anywhoo: DPP stands for ‘Democratic Progressive Party’ and as a democratically and progressively inclined girl, that’s the team I root for.

On the job front, things are getting off the ground in fits and starts. Luckily I was fortunate enough to be able to do some work related to my Taiwan-based jobs over the internet while back home. One such job, was the titillating experience of editing a Catholic priest’s thesis on marriage. There are a lot of comments I could make, but for the sake of avoiding being offensive I will bite my tongue, er fingers. I also had a slew of editing jobs through my ‘second official job’ here in the ‘wan, which primarily consists of editing, as well. Busying myself with editing hopeful international students’ SOP’s kept me occupied many an evening while I stayed at my mom’s in Vancouver, WA. What’s more, I was able to self-teach myself the useful skill of uploading Word documents to Google Docs where they can be edited with the new ‘track changes’ function; I must use track changes when I edit (so that the Ss’s can see where they made their mistakes).

I’ll be honest. One of the things on the forefront of my mind throughout the arduous process of my return journey was the thought of all of the delicious food I wanted to eat once I got back here. Unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to indulge those cravings to the level that I would like to just yet. For example, I have not even been to a single noodle shop here after one week!  For a person living in a Chinese society, that’s almost impossible to avoid. But one of the reasons is due to the fact that my husband quit his office job to pursue his dream of becoming a chef and is currently working in a restaurant near our house. Naturally, I end up going there semi-regularly. The type of cuisine that they specialize in is Japanese seafood. I almost always order a ‘sake ikura donburi,’ which means salmon and salmon roe rice bowl. It comes as part of a set meal. As cool as it is that I can go there and eat that all the time, I miss the days where we had more time to spend together. Sigh. Even when I go to the restaurant I can’t really see him since he’s usually tied up preparing food for other customers. In the near future, he’ll have more free time, in the meantime I guess I’ll just need to try and be patient. Let’s just say this is a hard lesson about the meaning of compromise.

Xīnnián kuàilè! 新年快了!Happy Chinese New Year 2014!

The Chinese New Year is coming, although it’s not here yet. But it’s no secret that it’s on everybody’s mind.

I haven’t begun my seasonal vacation yet, but the school kids are already on break. I think they had a half day yesterday, because I saw a lot of them out and about during normal school hours, lining up to buy cōng yóubǐng 蔥油餅 at the stall near the end of my street.

During this time of year, just about every place in the Chinese world, people will be getting their annual bonuses and celebrating with office “year-end parties.” The annual bonus should be equivalent to at least one month’s salary at minimum.

My husband, who is Taiwanese and works in an office in Nèihú 內湖, Taipei City was thrilled to receive one that was larger than last year’s. And it’s probably a good thing, too. Because I don’t get anything.

Unless you want to count that NT$200 worth of gift certificates good for purchases at Starbucks or 7-11 that they gave us around Christmas? Bah. Even my husband thought that was kind of a joke. My recent fondness for matcha green tea lattes aside.

I honestly have no idea how much my Chinese Teacher (as in teachers of Chinese Language) counterparts receive, or if they even receive anything from my company. But from what information I was able to gather, it seems that to not receive a CNY bonus is to justify righteous outrage. For Chinese people, to be stiffed on this would be a disgrace.

Even assembly-line workers in China get something extra this time of year. Because it is imperative to be able to travel home and spend this holiday with one’s family. It’s the highest volume travel time of the entire year, worldwide.

In the English language Taiwan-forum-o-sphere (can I call it that?) the general consensus (as for what we assume must be our Taiwanese boss’s reasoning on this matter) is that since Chinese New Year is “not the foreigner’s tradition” there is no need to pay them a bonus. Okay, I hear that, but Christmas is my tradition, so why don’t you just give me the bonus at a different time?

In the west, we call it “holiday bonus” so as not to offend anyone who doesn’t participate in the majority holiday, Christmas. But it would be unheard of to distribute bonuses among employees based on race or ethnicity (ie; including some and excluding others). Can you imagine? Christmas bonuses only for those who celebrate Christmas? It might just start a war.

A popular justification I imagine I’d hear if I were to take it up with a boss here in Taiwan (I mean any Taiwanese boss who hires foreigners) is this: “we pay the foreigners more than the Taiwanese employees.”

Well, that’s all well and good (no wait, that’s messed up!) Okay, okay, I don’t decided how much anyone gets paid in Taiwan, although I think paying an English-speaking foreigner more to teach English is okay, since it’s our native language. After all, pay should be based on skill level, right?

So of course I hope that my company pays it’s Chinese language teachers the same to teach Chinese. Seems reasonable. I can only speak for the foreigners in my company, but our wages are already lower (per hour) than in a traditional cram school. But I will never work in a cram school again. Cram school=prison and it’s not about education it’s all about business.

Although Chinese New Year is not my tradition from childhood, celebrating it with my Chinese family has become my tradition since I’ve been in Taiwan. This year marks my fourth Chinese New Year celebration with them.

I anticipate that we will all be gathering together at my in-laws house where we will eat a big meal. My husband will cook a lot of dishes, his mom some, and others will bring dishes to share. Myself, my husband, and others will hand out red envelopes full of money to the children. And I’ll also give some to my in-laws.

After that, we’ll sit around, watch TV, eat snacks and vegetate. We’ll socialize and go around to the other relatives homes to visit. Then, we’ll take a group trip to the temple and “bai bai” (pray). Then my husband’s uncle will give them some money to protect our family in the coming year “a blessing.”

So how are you going to tell me Chinese New Year “isn’t my tradition?” I’m hard pressed to concur with that kind of ridiculous superficiality. I may be white, but when it comes to this time of year, I am doing and thinking of all of the same things that Chinese people do. And I have strong doubts that I’m the only one.

So, where’s my bonus?

The virtues of western vs Chinese parenting (as seen on TV!) & how not to lose your face at work

The other day my husband and I had a couple of our friends over for dinner. He is an avid cook with the intention of going into the restaurant business some time in the near future. As most people know, office worker salaries in Taiwan are pretty meager. And although they allow one to afford all of life’s basic necessities here in Taiwan, it’s well under the poverty line by US standards. So naturally I have implored my husband to consider other avenues to a more rewarding and satisfying career. And he immediately knew what that was. So although I have numerous hang-ups and foreboding thoughts on the restaurant biz, I’m trying to let them all dissipate so that I can better stand behind my husband in realizing his dream. And he is, I like to think standing behind me as well through the course of my endeavors.

But anyway.

So our friends had come over for dinner. We had a couple of western-style pasta dishes and ate with (can you believe it?) forks. And I hadn’t even requested that type of table setting. As the only western person in the group, I was mildly astonished that my husband just did that automatically. It didn’t raise any eyebrows, however. I suppose our friends just expect these kinds of things when they’re guests in the home of a guy married to a foreigner.

So we ate our fill and had some drinks. Then we kind of drifted over to the living room for a bit of social time. We talked about various things like my upcoming trip to Hawaii and the one guy’s recent business trip to Hong Kong. And then his girlfriend brought up the topic of American dramas and how she has been watching one recently. She told me that by watching this show she noticed some very different things about western versus Chinese parent-child relationships.

She went on to point out that here in Taiwan, or on a more broad level within the whole of Chinese culture, parent-child relationships are more authoritarian. Ie; it is the son or daughter’s duty to do right by their mother and father based on the elder’s decree. On the converse (by the way the show she was watching is “Breaking Bad”) we foreigners encourage our young to express themselves and share their feelings with us. I assume she was talking about Skyler and Walter Jr? You wouldn’t know unless you watched the show (which I have, BB fan here).

Her observations, although taken from a TV series, were I’d say pretty spot on. Western parents typically do indeed like to know their children’s feelings about things. Of course it varies case by case and in some cases (ie; in the case of certain macho dads who push their sons into punishing sports against their wills) it may be virtually nil, but I’d say this is a distinctive trait of western culture that contrasts with Asian culture.

Emotionally sympathetic parenting such as most western people have been brought up in, is so widespread, that if your parent isn’t wasn’t “emotionally available” (to steal a term from one of my former college classmates who majored in Conflict Resolution) that is akin to growing up in a dysfunctional household, and you are to be pitied.

I have been making a lot of observations about cultural differences since I hit the island in 2010. But they’ve been so numerous and so convoluted by the language barrier and my foreign lens on things. I often don’t grant myself the authority to form judgements because I don’t trust myself to be accurate in my assessments as an outsider. I have certainly crossed barriers and broken a number of taboos which I didn’t know even existed until I crossed the line throughout the course of assimilating into my life here. Most of the time this was because I never imagined that it wouldn’t be a good idea to express myself.

But self-expression is something I have learned to control. Especially at work. There is a time and a place for it, but check it at the door before you head into the office. Well, there are exceptions, of course. For example, among other western co-workers it’s perfectly okay to be as obnoxiously extroverted as we please. But in dealing with our Taiwanese co-workers we must conform to a whole different set of rules. Otherwise we might completely alienate them, humiliate ourselves or cause “loss of face.”

Perhaps one of the red flags that you have “messed up” is when Chinese co-workers are suddenly distancing themselves from you. As I’ve mentioned before, Chinese people are very non-confrontational, but they don’t want to be involved with anyone who is prone to committing social faux pas. Nobody is going to tell you that you did anything wrong, they’ll just avoid you.

This is tricky since sometimes foreigners are avoided even though they haven’t broken any of the unspoken rules (yet). Perhaps this is because there is a high likelihood that eventually we will? Either way, a good rule of thumb is never to confront somebody about a problem in front of a group at work, especially if they are the boss. And never openly criticize somebody in front of their co-workers. Concepts such as constructive criticism that we are taught in western culture will only serve to alienate us in a conventional office setting here in Taiwan.

But it would be ethnocentric to claim that western culture is superior because we have a “more open line of communication.” In certain ways, it makes life easier, but when we don’t speak our minds at work (like the Taiwanese) we can avoid unnecessary conflict. So I can see the virtues and shortcomings on both sides. Furthermore, I’d say the same thing about Chinese vs western parenting styles.

After my friend saw the parent-child relationship as portrayed on the American drama, she came away with the sense that western parents and children are more like friends than in Chinese culture. This is true much of the time, but in certain cases kids need more authority and less emotional sympathy from their parents. But anyway, my friend had taken this to be something very special and positive, even going so far as to confide that if and when she has her own children one day, she would like to emulate this parenting style.


A wedding and a typhoon

雨降って地固まる  “A storm will clear the air”

Apparently this is an old Japanese saying. My student of some time, let’s call her Mrs. K, told me about it this morning, when I mentioned that I had attended a wedding which began at 12 noon, on the day immediately following Friday’s dramatic typhoon. She is Japanese herself, I’ve mentioned her in previous posts. Anyway, this saying was apt in that in accordance with it’s meaning, it’s a good time for new beginnings once a storm has passed.

As we are situated in a low (not tall) building, nestled in a small lane and surrounded by other taller buildings, we didn’t bear the brunt of the storm. The rain was calamitous, and so was the wind, but it didn’t blow so dramatically outside of our windows. In fact, our experience of this storm, which was alleged to have been a “super typhoon” with the most severe center directly over Taipei, wasn’t that exciting. I assumed the same for most people, but I was wrong.

That bad boy did some damage! We’re talking uprooted trees, downed power lines, smashed cars, broken windows, and even one fatality in New Taipei City; an unfortunate victim of falling bricks. My husband told me that on his way to and back from Keelung, a city even further north than Taipei (on the north coast of the island) he saw some serious debris and a lot of smashed up smithereens and what-not on the side of the road.

He saw all that stuff on Sunday. But on Saturday, the first thing we did was get all gussied up to go and attend one of my husband’s former swim teammate’s wedding. It was held at a rather new and shiny venue down in Dapinglin 大坪林. The name of the place is 京采飯店 “Splendor Wedding Banquet” a mildly ostentatious name. But then, no embellishment is ever enough when it comes to naming luxury apartment buildings, wedding facilities or restaurants in Taiwan (maybe Taipei especially). “Bring the bling” could be the naming brigade’s motto, if there was such a team busily generating names for local establishments.

Don’t Taiwanese people ever get to the point where things are too, um, flashy? My husband insists that over the top bling with no shame is “old fashioned” but I really think a lot of what I think are over pretentious and awkward English names, resonate hollow on the locals. Even the ones that know English well. I think maybe they don’t have concepts like “tacky” and “ostentatious.”

I really don’t think Taiwanese people are truly that eager to alienate others with pretentiousness, not even when they truly are wealthy. But the frequent proclamations about “hope you can be rich” and “make more money” at weddings, or on birthdays makes the set of priorities come across to many western people as kind of gangster-ish. I mean, they also usually throw in something about wishing everyone (especially the married couple, or birthday boy/girl) health and happiness, too. But at the end of the day, you can’t deny that materialism is idealized.

But I have met tons of good people, foreigners and Taiwanese alike here on the island, and have had in-depth conversations with open-minded Taiwanese natives about cultural differences. I hope I can continue to have these kinds of conversations as I think cross-cultural communication is very productive. Better global harmony through understanding each other better, right? It’s oh, so much more than simply language.

Enough talk. Here are some picture (in no particular order and to be labeled at a later date) of the pre-typhoon weather conditions intermixed with some miscellaneous food (and don’t forget the bride and groom!) shots from the wedding we attended on the following day.



Making a cross-cultural relationship work

About a year and a half ago, my husband had a job wherein he was quite friendly with his supervisor. That guy was kind of like a second father to him. Anyway, at one point his son, whom he had sent to Texas USA to be raised by his sister (the son’s auntie) was coming to Taiwan to visit. Of course he had come to visit previously many times, after all they are father and son.

But anyway, the son was now an adult and married. Still living in Texas, he was of course fluent in English- with an American/Texan accent. Apparently sending him to America had been a good move, he seemed quite educated and was apparently succesful, having just bought a new house.

Since we all decided to meet up at one of Taipei’s many night markets, where we ended up eating teppanyaki at an outdoor stall (I guess they can actually prepare teppanyaki at a stall, who knew?!), our dinner was followed by a sociable stroll. At that point, my now husband Lawrence and I were just engaged.

I asked the son if he had married a non-Asian woman. He replied “oh no, I couldn’t the culture is just too different,” then he caught me looking at him perplexedly so he sputtered “but I’m not saying it’s not going to work for you guys!”

After all those years in America, still a protective guardian of one’s sacred culture? I can’t hold it against him. Lawrence’s former supervisor’s son is a good guy. Like all of us, he just had just had a space cadet moment and forgot he was talking to a white girl. I wonder what aspects of outside cultures he feels threatened by?

I have read a lot online about Chinese/Western relationships and of course I’ve talked about it with a lot of people as well. People pretty much unanimously concur that Chinese culture is more patriarchal, even to this day. In fact, that is one argument to explain the popular phenomenon of Chinese women (or Taiwanese) choosing  to instead date or marry foreigner men.

Numerous Taiwanese girls and women have said to me over the past couple of years “Chinese men are not romantic, foreigners are romantic but have many girlfriends.” To a certain extent and in many cases, their assumptions about western guys are true. A lot of Taiwanese girls and women were or are baffled at my choice to date and marry a Chinese/Taiwanese guy.

Just like with anything, these blanket statements are not 100% accurate 100% of the time. I’m no pushover, in fact I have bitch-face tendencies at times. So any guy who is in a relationship with me is going to see my opinionated and unedited side, the side of me which people who don’t know me well enough would never expect to exist. I am not materialistic or demanding, but I am not above complaining if I ever feel that my needs are not being met in a relationship.

Most people would probably agree that every relationship, whether long-term or short lived goes through stages. The first stage being the giddy, infatuated, head-in-the-clouds phase. Both parties are head over heels mad about each other and it couldn’t be more perfect. But at some point the reality sets in and you start to notice one another’s faults. And how that phase is handled can really make or break how things workout for the long run. In the long run it becomes all about compromise.

Are you going to criticize and nitpick each other until you are both reduced to little nubs? Or are you going to try and focus on the positive and redeeming qualities (which are hopefully still prominent enough) of that person?

I think that for girls the hardest part of progressing beyond the first relationship stage is that you are no longer made to feel like you are a princess. I mean, of course you never expected anyone to treat you like a princess in the first place which is exactly why you were so charmed by your guy. But when you come back down to earth and he’s kind of just indifferent or “used to it” we might panic.

I think that’s why a lot of relationships fail and people just date forever without commitment. Everyone wants to be special and to have another person recognize it, it’s almost like the key to relationship success is ongoing reciprocity in making each other feel special. So people just quit their relationships as soon as the infatuation wears off and move on to the next shiny object across the room.

I mean, I’ve heard guys say that they like to feel useful or needed and that that’s often enough to make them want to stick around with a girl. But that’s American guys. I don’t really know that much about how the collective Asian man culture thinks. But it seems like couples really commit to their marriages as if it’s an obligation and romance is never really even a part of it. This culture is very sensible.

The older generation was much more patriarchal, so women who were getting married had better to have been raised to be prepared to stand up to their long list of wifely duties. But these days it seems like things are opening up even though it’s a slow process since the younger generation and the older generation are so much more closely involved in Taiwan (it’s a filial piety thing).

Sometimes, and I realize this might make many people take offense, I feel like filial piety holds Taiwan back and impedes progress. Parents shape their children so much here and outside of that the children are shaped through institutions, like school or the media. And adult children don’t leave home until they get married. So there’s a lack of individuality and spunky personalities.

It’s almost like they don’t have a chance to grow up before they find a husband or wife, or develop life skills or become interesting. I’m not saying that every Taiwanese person is dull. But I’ve noticed that a lot of people here don’t try to be interesting. They’re too consumed with work or responsibilities. What’s more, it seems like a lot of people don’t expect anyone else to be interesting, either. Conversely, Americans are competitive about trying to be interesting. Well, at least in cities like Portland, Oregon, where I lived previously.

When my husband and I argue we often both cite cultural differences to back ourselves up. We use cultural differences to excuse our behavior that the other didn’t like and we use cultural differences to complain about each other’s inadequacies. But more often than not, I think this reason is just too convenient and it’s not the real reason that we had an issue in the first place. I mean, I never would have married a patriarchal, overly-serious armchair King who makes me do all of the household chores. And that is exactly what I have asserted I would never be able to accept in a husband to my husband. He knows I’m outspoken and that I am highly critical of popular ideas in Taiwan that put men on a pedestal above girls, yet he’s not afraid.

The things that bother us both the most about each other most of the time are very run-of-the-mill with any couple. We’re both committed and we trust each other wholeheartedly, so there’s no jealousy. But we still get annoyed with each other all of the time. Even so, it’s never reached the point of being intolerable because we love each other a lot. Even when we get so mad that we can’t stand the sight of each other it’s inevitable that it won’t be long before we can’t wait to put that issue behind us. I think we both know that these idiosyncrasies are just a natural part of adapting. And that ultimately our struggles to make it work will reward us immeasurably.



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