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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

"Taiwan: Love it or leave it, whiner!" - Kaminoge's friendly tips for fellow bloggers

There's less than a month to go before we leave Taiwan for the United States, so it's only natural that I reflect on my time here. I've been following Taiwan-based blogs for almost a decade now (plus keeping my own for nearly six years) - many of my favorites can be seen in the blog list to your right. Now seems as good a time as any to pass along those pearls of wisdom I've been collecting all these years, so whether you like it or not, here are Kaminoge's 9 unsolicited pieces of advice for Taiwan-based bloggers. Enjoy!

My kindergarten class had their graduation photos taken this morning. The smile on my face belies the fact that just moments before this picture was shot, a bird decided to relieve itself on my left shoulder and arm. Supposedly this is an auspicious sign in Taiwan. At least that's what my co-worker Ann (the woman to my left) told me.

Tip #1: Don't brag

You've worked hard to bring your Mandarin ability up to where it is today, and that's great. But please don't try to show it off by writing something like:

...and then I said "(insert string of Chinese characters here)". LOL!

without providing some sort of explanation or translation. Unless you're absolutely sure your blog is only being read by fellow near-fluent-in-Chinese readers/speakers, assume that many of your friends and relatives are going to have no idea what you've just written. Congratulations on your linguistic achievements. But you know what? Your Mandarin is no doubt better than mine, but I can probably speak Japanese much better than you can. And there are Westerners out there who can kick both our asses when it comes to other Asian languages such as Cantonese, Korean or Tagalog. A blog is meant to communicate your experiences and ideas to others, so clarify what it is you're trying to get across by providing pronunciation guides, translations and/or explanations. For example, don't write:

I just love to eat 臭豆腐 !

Instead, why not try something like:

I just love to eat 臭豆腐 (chòu​dòu​fu), aka "stinky tofu"!

We'll just ignore how horribly pretentious those above sentences look and sound.

All my student Colin needs is a gold chain to wear around his neck, and he'll be ready to hit the clubs and cruise the bars. My little lounge lizard.

Tip #2: Don't inflate the number of your Taiwanese friends

"Most of my (many) Taiwanese friends...." is a sentence I often come across in local blogs (italics are mine, of course). It's only natural to show how you have acclimated to a different culture by referring to all the friends you've made here, but, really, how many of these people can actually be considered as "friends"? For me, a "friend" is someone with whom the two of us can share experiences, feelings and thoughts that we wouldn't do with others we don't know as well. By that definition, I have exactly zero Taiwanese friends. Yes, 0. Partly that's because I'm somewhat of a loner who tends to keep to himself. But don't pity this fool - I'm married to a wonderful Taiwanese woman, whom I love deeply and look forward to spending the rest of life with; my in-laws are all great people who are welcome to visit us anywhere we may end up in the world; and I have made a number of acquaintances in Taiwan, mainly colleagues and students (current and former) who have done much to enrich my life here in this country. But acquaintances they are, and shall remain. And I have no problem with that at all (for the record, I don't hang out much with the expat crowd, either. My social life is based almost entirely around my family, or on activities I like to do by myself, like hiking on weekday afternoons). 

Now, let's be honest. How many of these so-called "Taiwanese friends" are people that you've used as local tour guides, or as sounding boards for improving your Mandarin? How many times have you returned the favor after being taken out by these "friends" and treated to drinks or meals? 

And then there's the other side of the coin to consider - the possibility that some of these "friends" have used you. After all, being seen in the company of Westerners can be a source of face for some people.

In any event, you're probably more outgoing than I am, and have made some good friendships with locals. Just try to apply the Webster definition rather than Facebook's interpretation of the word "friend".

I went hiking in Dà​kēng 大坑 this afternoon, possibly for the last time. Today's route was the reverse of the one I took last month (read about it here). It was four hours of sweaty bliss, with the added bonus of coming across a small group of five monkeys on the No. 4 Trail. 

Tip #3: You are always going to be an outsider

No matter how many "friends" you have made, no matter how well you speak Chinese, no matter the fact that you may be married with children, you are always going to be perceived differently. Your local friends and acquaintances likely do not refer to you as "John" or "Jane" when talking with their fellow Taiwanese, but instead as "that foreigner, John" or "Jane, that American girl". No matter how close you may feel to these people, the use of these adjectives establishes a linguistic barrier that serves to keep you permanently on the outside, one of the "Them" in the "Us and Them" dichotomy. 

There's nothing wrong with being a permanent wài​guó​rén 外國人; in fact, there are a lot of advantages to be had by not being part of the inner circle. However, don't delude yourself into thinking you have broken down walls - just because you can't see them doesn't mean they're not there.

Striking a pose on Dakeng's No. 4 Trail. And, no, I did not bring that flag with me.

Tip #4: People are people, not stereotypes

Nothing brings out your exciting foreign adventure to the friends and folks back home more than filling your blog with stock characters - the Exotic Others populating your Taiwanese version of Under Milk Wood. There might be the old women gossiping in thick, impenetrable dialect. Or the local artisan engaged in some traditional craft or another. Or the neighborhood food stand dishing out a local delicacy that you initially found disgusting, but now have learned to love (and write often about eating). But are the people in your Taiwanese neighborhood really that different? I live on a typical street in an ordinary part of a nondescript city (well, district now) in central Taiwan. In my neighborhood, there are full-time and part-time workers; the self-employed, underemployed and unemployed; homemakers, children, students and retirees; some folks who are very kind and others who can be rude and inconsiderate; and the occasional eccentric. In short, they are flesh-and-blood human beings, living ordinary lives that aren't that much different from those of neighbors I've lived among back in my home country.

Tip #5: What's true for Taipei is not necessarily true for the rest of Taiwan

If you live in Taipei (Tái​běi) 台北, you're probably enjoying your life in Taiwan. And why not? Taipei has come a long way from the gritty version of Ōsaka 大阪 that I encountered on my first visit back in 1998 (though in all fairness, Ōsaka also looks much better these days). Taipei has all mod cons, be it shopping, dining, arts and culture, entertainment, sports and recreation and so on. But unlike in Japan, for example, where Tōkyō 東京 may be the dominant metropolis, but competing loci like Ōsaka, Nagoya 名古屋 and Fukuoka 福岡 provide many of the same amenities on a proportionately smaller scale, Taipei is light years ahead of Kaohsiung (Gāo​xióng) 高雄 and Taichung (Tái​zhōng) 台中 is the cosmopolitan department. Don't assume that those of us out in the hinterlands are living the same lives of convenience that you're enjoying in Taiwan's biggest metropolis.

You wouldn't assume everywhere in the USA is like New York City, or that London encapsulates life in the UK, would you?

 Political graffiti 

Tip #6: Get a scooter

This one is a no-brainer for bloggers like myself who live in areas with poor public transportation. But in (you guessed it) Taipei, with its excellent network of buses and subway trains, a scooter isn't necessary at all. They're noisy and polluting, and using public transportation is certainly the greener way to live. But riding a scooter can provide insights into Taiwan and its society that can't be gleaned from the windows of a bus, train or taxi cab.

Having your own wheels allows you to see those interesting places that are otherwise inaccessible by means of public transport. But being on a scooter also enables you to take in things that you might not want to see - the concrete box tenements, the small factories providing the engine for Taiwan's economic growth, the featureless flat terrain along the west coast, the power lines, the pollution. You can find out what it feels like to turn down an alley in a lower-income part of town and be greeted with suspicious, and occasionally hostile, glares from the residents there. And nothing beats the feeling of coming home on a hot day with your face covered in dark grime from the exhaust filled-air your scooter has been cutting through.

OK, so why would anyone want to blog about that? Well, it's the reality of daily life for a great number of people in Taiwan, which brings us to the next tidbit.

Hazy views of nearby communities

Tip #7: Embrace the bad and the ugly, along with the good

You can choose to ignore that which is not so nice to look at, or you can take it all in on your blog. I, of course, often go on the latter path, and end up receiving not-always-polite comments that I should leave. But let's be up front and brutally honest here: while there are places of great beauty in Taiwan (the mountains and the east coast, for example), much of what you see on this island is an assault on your sense of aesthetics. From Sān​chóng 三重 in the north to the outskirts of Kenting (Kěn​dīng) National Park  墾丁國家公園, it's pretty much one long string of ugly buildings, regardless of whether you're going through a city, a town or even the countryside. And we are not talking "Third World-desperation" ugliness here - something clearly went wrong during Taiwan's postwar economic growth period. The occasional gems can be found (often Japanese-era buildings that have been preserved, but also traditional homes and some attractive modern designs), and improvements have been made (Taipei is a good example, and Kaohsiung is also making efforts to catch up), but the dreariness is still unrelenting for the most part.

But why be like Alice and continue living in Wonderland by ignoring it? Reality is far more interesting than fantasy IMHO. You can show me the old Japanese wooden house, for example, but don't shy away from putting up photos of the boxy tenement rows in the same area. This is Taiwan as it really is, and putting things in their proper perspectives can help make the gems shine even brighter.

The good, the bad and the ugly extends to people as well. We've all read stories on blogs about some great act of kindness (the returning of a lost object, for example), followed by the inevitable comments - "Only in Taiwan", "The Taiwanese are wonderful people", and "This is why I love Taiwan" being just a few of the nauseating examples. But do the Taiwanese have a monopoly on showing benevolence toward their fellow human beings? I, for one, have been the beneficiary of wonderful acts of kindness from some of my fellow Americans, as well as from Australians, Brits, Canadians, Japanese, Swedes and so on. On the other hand, personal items have been stolen from me in Taiwan, plus I've had an unwarranted lawsuit filed against me in a failed attempt to extort money from the "rich foreigner" over a minor traffic accident. To put it another way, I have had the unfortunate "pleasure" of encountering some truly nasty and unsavory people who happen to hold ROC identity cards.

The point is that the people of Taiwan are just that, people. By focusing only on the good and ignoring the bad and the ugly, you are providing us with a distorted view of life in Formosa. By all means, tell us about the great folks you have encountered. But also let us know the bad things that happen from time to time as well. I'm sure the good will outnumber the bad, but choosing to present the Taiwanese as only paragons of hospitality and kindness is condescending and patronizing to the very people you supposedly are lauding.

 See? There is beauty in Dakeng.

Tip #8: No one designated you as the sole interpreter of Taiwan

This is perhaps the most important point of all. You want to share your experiences and observations with the rest of the world, but you sometimes forget one very important fact: all of us who have moved to Taiwan from our native lands come from very different personal backgrounds, which naturally color our perceptions of everything we do, experience, feel, hear, see and taste in Taiwan. And yet far too many bloggers insist that their experiences in Taiwan are the only ones that matter, with the result being a lot of needless and sometimes nasty bickering in the blogosphere resulting from challenges and denials made in response to assertions and statements of so-called "fact". There is no one "correct" interpretation of Taiwan that has to be provided to the outside world - we all see Taiwan in different ways, and that reflects both the vibrant local society and the often colorful foreign characters who have come to see it for themselves. 

So don't take it upon yourself to define what Taiwan is or isn't. If, for example, someone asks a question on a forum seeking advice on what to do in Taipei on a 24-hour visit, and the general consensus is to visit the National Palace Museum if the person is interested in Chinese art, but to skip it if otherwise, don't put it up post after post arguing why your suggestions are right and the others are wrong. Advice is meant to offered (and, in turn, accepted, rejected or modified), and not as a point to be debated in a zero-sum game of winners and losers. Taiwan means different things to different people - you might not like it, but that doesn't mean they are "wrong".

 We all know what these are, and the role they play in local culture, don't we?

Tip #9: There is more to this part of the world than just Taiwan, you know

You like (or even love) Taiwan, and you've done a lot of traveling around the country, perhaps having even ventured to some of the offshore islands. That's great. And you make occasional trips back to your home country to see the family, and sometimes you treat yourself to a beach vacation in a place like Bali or Thailand. Good on you as well. But there is more to North East Asia than just this country. Too often, those bloggers who have been here for quite a while begin to think that what they are seeing and experiencing in Taiwan is somehow "unique" to this island alone, and a bubble begins to grow around them. The solution is easy - Japan and Korea are only short plane rides away!

Let's stop for a moment here. You may speak Chinese fairly well, and feel you have a good understanding of the local culture, and of how things are done in this society. Therefore, when you travel in Taiwan, you might feel like this is your land and these are your people. Going to a place like Japan or Korea, on the other hand, where you don't the know the culture or the language, and where it seems there are fewer people who can speak English compared to Taiwan, can be quite intimidating. Suddenly you feel like that nervous new arrival getting off the plane at Taoyuan Airport for the first time. So you end up sticking to the well-know tourist spots, and relying on your friends who are teaching English in those countries to guide you around. And you return to Taiwan with your conviction about the uniqueness of this island and its people safely intact.

Well, don't. Get out of Tōkyō, Kyōto 京都 or Seoul and venture off into the less-traveled (by Westerners, anyway) parts of the country. Try to make the most out of your encounters with the locals, and don't let language barriers get in your way. And, most importantly, don't let your friends who live and work there define those countries for you. You may discover that Taiwan isn't so unique after all, or even that many aspects of life on Formosa have a strong Japanese influence, for example. And, as a bonus, you might also return to Taiwan with a greater appreciation of what is truly special about this society. In any event, you will have popped that bubble!

Looking up at the ridge I had just walked along.

And there you have it. Time to get off my pedestal and confess that I have been guilty of most of those crimes mentioned above. Hypocritical admissions aside, I hope you don't take these tips too seriously. Please feel free to comment, criticize (constructively, I hope) and/or disagree. But do me a favor, and read through everything carefully first before posting. If you begin a comment with:

If you hate it here so much, why don't you just leave?

then I would suggest that you are badly in need of an online course in remedial reading comprehension. Peace out.

Amber loves to order teas for me from tea stands, and I love to watch her do so. Seeing as her Mandarin is so much better than mine (and possibly even yours), it's best I let her do it. Then again, maybe I'm just being lazy.


  1. Jim, i don't care what people say, i'm going to miss you. wish we could have actually met somewhere along the way. maybe in the month before you leave?

    1. Thanks, MJ. I'm sorry, too, we haven't had the chance to meet yet. I'll be in Japan until April 25, then I'm going to spend the time after my return getting everything ready for our departure on May 8. If I do have some time, I'd like to get together.

    2. wow, not even four weeks from now. maybe some of the bloggers can come down your way for your convenience. i'll make some calls.

  2. If you don't mind me asking, why have you decided to leave Taiwan?

    1. I don't mind - I accepted a job offer in the United States. The offer was unexpected, so I've had to rush to get everything together.

  3. Good luck with the move Jim! I'm sure Amber will adjust in no time!

  4. "Jim, i don't care what people say, i'm going to miss you. wish we could have actually met somewhere along the way. maybe in the month before you leave?"

    Ditto, and I wish I could have met you as well. I have always enjoyed your blog. This post is particularly interesting. I'm going to mull it over and get back to you. I will say this straight off; the walls will be there in your own country as well. I agree that people shouldn't delude themselves about them not being there (I often find people that think they have conquered them in Taiwan and everything is great to be boring and full of it). Walls ares not the worst thing in the world.

  5. Same here, I'm sorry our paths weren't able to cross. It's going to be interesting to see what kind of reverse cultural shock I'll be experiencing after I get back (and I know there's going to be some!), as well as how my wife reacts to adjusting to a new lifestyle (though I'm sure she'll be fine).

  6. Congrats on getting the job. I managed to leave Taiwan four years ago and was never happier. Then ended up back in Taiwan kicking and screaming. The bitterness hasn't quite ended. I like your blog because I have many of the same feelings about this island as you. I hope everything goes well for and your family back home. Having to move your family back here isn't something I'd wish on my worst enemy. My only advice is to pay very close attention to your wife. I thought mine would be fine to.

    Big Ell

  7. Thanks for the comments Big Ell! And thanks for the advice, as well. I will do my best to make sure she is happy in her new surroundings.

  8. I came to your post by way of Michael T's blog and am glad I did. Your "unsolicited pieces of advice" are thoughtful and well stated. I too am guilty of most of these and most times I realize it a bit too late. Good luck with the new job and life in the states. Thanks for presenting all the colors of Taiwan.