Culture Shocks

June 17, 2003

6/17/03

I would like to begin by noting that the WHO has removed the travel warning against Taiwan, yippie (and it’s about time)! Not expecting a huge wave of tourism immediately on the heels of this announcement, but still, it is good news. And let me just say, now that the SARS crisis appears to be behind us, that there is nothing like an epidemic to bring out the hypochondriac in all of us. I’m looking forward to a day in the very near future when I can cough without wondering to myself, “wait, was that a dry cough? Do I need to cough again? Is this, perhaps, the start of some sort of respiratory ailment, or simply an attempt to clear my throat? Come to think of it, is my face a bit warm? I have a slight headache…. is that from insufficient caffeine intake, or is a headache a symptom of SARS???”

Of course, perhaps as a reminder that there is not only SARS to threaten us, we’ve had five earthquakes in the last eight days, all over 5 on the Richter scale and strong enough in Taipei to make us all drop everything and run for the nearest doorway (a structural strong point in any building). Lest any of you starting worrying about potential disaster, I’d like to point out that Taiwan had a massive earthquake disaster three and a half years ago, and the odds are way against another calamity so soon. See, don’t you feel better now? Of course, the last major typhoon was a while ago, so perhaps we’re due…. On the bright side, I head home in eight weeks (August 11, 3:45 p.m., just so you know).

In the meantime, here’s the round-up on recent events.

On the American Dream. On my way into the subway last week, I was stopped by a middle-aged man selling steamed bread from a cart on the street. He began by making polite conversation, but soon brought the conversation around to his goal to immigrate to America. He first wondered how vital English is in the United States, as he couldn’t say much beyond “hello” without prompting. I politely answered his questions as honestly as possible (noting, for example, that although English is very useful in America, it would be wrong to assume that all newcomers are already fluent…). Proving that what he lacked in language ability, he made up for in sheer gumption, he looked me in the eyes and, in all seriousness, asked me to marry him. He must’ve thought it was his lucky day – he meets at random an American girl who is not only single, but who can speak Chinese, thereby easing his transition into American society (not to mention helping out with the green card). He kindly mentioned that the difference in our ages made no difference to him, which was certainly a relief. He was mildly disappointed when I turned him down, but gave me his phone number, just in case I either change my mind or think of someone else who might be interested in a mail-order husband from Taiwan. As a friend here pointed out, he does own his own business (i.e. the steamed bread cart), and who knows? Under his careful guidance, steamed bread could sweep the nation. If anyone’s interested – fed up with the dating game or looking for the excitement that an cross-cultural marriage can bring – let me know.

Speaking of Cross-Cultural Excitement… Last Friday night was easily one of the most unique evenings I have had in Taiwan. After going out to a rather quiet and uneventful dinner with my friend Yuwen (female, Taiwanese) we were called up by a Korean friend (Kailang, male), who was out with another Korean friend, and suggested we all meet up. Yuwen and I proposed going to a local pub for a drink, but the boys decided on Karaoke, and wondered if we’d be willing to come along. Because I’d managed to spend more than nine months in Taiwan already without ever once darkening the door of a karaoke establishment, I decided that it was high time and we agreed, but on the condition that we would not sing. Hah.

Kailang gave us the address of the place they were heading, which we had a little trouble finding, largely because it turned out to be an all Korean establishment, and there were no Chinese signs marking the entry. Inside we discovered a clean, comfortable bar with big, soft couches, low tables, and about 40 patrons – all men, all Korean. Kailang and his friend turned out to be Kailang and his seven friends, again, all male, all Korean. Fortunately for us, they all spoke Chinese – most of them much better than me – so we could at least communicate. We sat down, the ten of us, around a table, and Yuwen and I were immediately uncomfortable, partly because being female (and, in my case, Western) was earning us the stares of the whole establishment, and partly because Kailang and friends were not speaking at all, just sitting stiffly looking stern and intimidating.

Then the liquor came. I knew, before this evening, that there were a lot of rules and cultural norms in Korea that dictated interpersonal relations in all situations, including drinking, but I had never before grasped the extent of them. Every drink is poured by a friend – you never pour yourself a drink – using both hands. You must hold your cup while the liquor or beer is being poured with both hands (and, as I learned the hard way, without crossing your legs or looking otherwise casual about it). Every drink – every sip taken – begins with at least two people toasting. They drink with the right hand holding the glass an the left hand resting on the right forearm. When two people toast together, the younger person must turn to the side to drink – drinking straight on would be an affront to the older friend. Bear in mind, these boys are all on a soccer team together, and the difference in their ages is slight – but over the course of the evening, it was possible to determine based on who turned which way all of their relative ages. It was sorta like a GRE analogy problem, “A turns away when drinking with B, C turns when drinking with D, D turns with B, E turns with everybody…. who is the third oldest in the group?” After the boys had all consumed about two shots of whiskey apiece, they loosened up considerably, and turned out to be rather fun.

Of course, the dictates of rank do not stop with drinking; Kailang says that when, for example, his “older brother” gets up to sing, especially if it is a particularly difficult song, it is very important that the younger boys “help” him by dancing alongside. He didn’t get specific about the reasoning behind this, but my guess is that this way, if the older guy really sucks, he doesn’t “lose face,” since the sheer ridiculousness of the dancing takes the attention away from the sounds he makes and means his “little brothers” are far more humiliated. They were, of course, all pretty bad – really, I don’t care how well you sing normally, nobody sings well at karaoke – though since most of the songs were popular Korean classics, I had no real standard by which to judge them.

Ultimately, I got called upon to sing twice – the novelty of having an American in their midst apparently being too great not to take advantage. The first time it was “Dancing Queen” – proof that ABBA is known and still popular around the world, as everyone in the place was singing along on the chorus (although I kept hearing people shout “dancing cue…” rather than the more recognized “queen” version). The second time was, however, a particularly special experience. One of Kailang’s older friends, whom I had not actually met or talked to up to this point in the evening, approached me and explained that his absolute all-time favorite English song was on the song list, and that he would consider it a “great honor” and a “life-long memory” if I would be willing to sing it with him. He was already rather drunk at this point, so I was not even sure if it would even be a one-day memory for him, but I couldn’t refuse this request.

This brought me to one of those important junctures in life, one of those sort of “out-of-body” experiences, where you wonder exactly how you got to where you were. Where I was, namely, was a Korean karaoke bar in Taipei, at 2:00 in the morning, standing arm-in-arm with a very drunk Korean man I didn’t know, belting out Bette Midler’s “The Rose.” Kailang and friends had opened umbrellas and were holding them like parasols, also arm-in-arm, swaying on the stage behind us. I have to give this guy credit – he wasn’t kidding when he said this was his favorite song. He knew every word without the monitors.

Let me just say, on a side note, that “The Rose” is an excellent pick the next time any of you find yourselves in a forced karaoke situation. It is within a doable range, neither too high nor too low, lacks complicated twists and turns, and is – most importantly – mercifully short. Two minutes and you’re out.

Incidentally, although Korean drinking culture means everyone toasts until nobody can manage to pour anymore, the boys were easy on us and kept the toasts in our direction to a minimum, the ratio of whiskey to water in our glasses small. This, I found out later (upon inquiry), was not because we were girls, or because we were not Korean: it was because Kailang told his buddies that if we had more than a drink or two we’d both throw up, and they were trying to avoid unpleasant scenes. God bless Kailang for this white lie! Yuwen and I were the only ones not to stumble out when we left around 3:30 a.m., and definitely the only ones waking up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning.

And in other popular American songs… The American missionary at my church is planning on heading back home next week for a six month visit. To send him off, the church is having a potluck on Saturday, and at the potluck, a group of us will perform Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him,” complete with Embarrassing Choreography. I was included in the group by virtue of being a native English speaker (see, this can work against you sometimes, however much of an advantage it may seem to be in the Modern World Marketplace), though the mostly mid-40s to mid-60s Taiwanese men and women I will be performing with know the song much better than I do (the movie “Sister Act” swept East Asia a few years back). I promise to have someone take pictures, though in this case it is a pity I don’t have a video camera. I have a feeling this will be priceless. If anyone has any suggestions for “something American” I can make for the potluck using locally accessible ingredients (i.e. no potatoes, no cheese, etc.), no oven, and stoveware that is limited to a wok and a pot, I could use them. Before Saturday, please, and remember I’m 13 hours ahead of US Central Time.

Uffda, enough for now. Off to tackle the homework, much more intense now that I’m the only one in my class and I can’t hide from the teacher!

Copyright 2004 by Meredith Oyen