The Devil is in the Details

Here’s a short bulletin from The Culture Shack!


I remember two years ago when I was active with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan’s Small Business Committee, I gave a short talk – one among many other speakers – at DV8 Pub on Fuxing S. Rd (Gary’s place) for one of the events. Carrie K was there, John K was there, Josh Yang was there, Jenna, Andrew Lunman, Joe O’Brien, and many others. Maybe you?

The gist of the talk was slightly uncomfortable: Beware of being in a business relationship with Taiwanese partners – investors, contract partners, etc. – where you lack important leverage or knowledge, because they have a home-team advantage that might make you an easy mark.

Who you gonna call? Cross-cultural busters? I don’t think so! Sorry, eh!

Locals have detailed, deep and varied and local knowledge –language, customs, guanxi (connections), legal status, etc. You don’t. If you’re smart, you’ll get that.

In my brief talk, I summarized a few sob stories about expats who’d put a lot of  time, passion and money into small enterprises here, only to get burned badly.

Two years later, looking back, after various experiences, inputs and considerations, I’d like to reiterate this message:

Nothing has changed at all. Be very careful about the devil in the details in a business relationship with Taiwanese partners – investors, contract partners etc. I mean it.

The locals’ have home-team advantage might make you an easy mark, if they are so inclined.

This is intended for expat small business start up people. The big companies hire big lawyers and avoid this kind of BS. You have to do this using your own noggin.

I’ve just heard two recent stories that only confirm this:

  • One expat I know signed a bogus rental contract for a new business location that was actually scheduled for demolition.
  • Another signed what they thought was a rental contract for a new business, but was actually an agreement stating that they would guarantee payment of the rent if the actual tenant could not.

Both “contracts” were in Mandarin and were not checked out by CPAs, lawyers, or trusted Taiwanese people with close unambiguous relationships.

Both expat guys got screwed, and not in the good way.


  • For any location search and contract negotiation, get the help of a Taiwanese person with local connections to the area in question whose business interests AND social interests align (or at the very least do not conflict) with yours.
  • For any contract, use a CPA or lawyer, for whom YOU (or your very very trusted Taiwanese partner) are “The Client”.

This will probably save you some misery and some money!

Or take your chances and add your list to the “I got screwed in business in Taiwan!” club.

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Hockey Night in Taiwan

The puck drops, and the two forwards Liu and Wang fight for it. Wang hooks it out to Chen, and Chen passes to Chen who return passes it to Chen! Chen to Li. Li takes it across the line. Li can’t get past Hsieh. Li to Wang, Wang shoots! Oh! Deflection off the post! Wang gets it again. Wang to Li, Li shoots! He scores! 2-0 for the Typhoon!

Go typhoon

It’s hockey night in Taiwan! More and more Taiwanese are playing ice hockey, part of the sport’s global growth in popularity. And -Surprise, surprise! – Canadian players and coaches are skating beside them in force.

British Columbian Ryan Lang is head coach for the Chinese Taipei Men’s International Ice Hockey Team, in the International Ice Hockey League (IIHF) Division 3. Manitoban Cullen Revel owns the company ROC Sports which manages two successful programs: The Tigers for kids under 12, and the Typhoon for older kids and young adults. Many Canadians not only coach or play themselves, but get their kids involved as well. It’s part of our national obsession, eh?

Go Tigers!


Ontarian Anthony Van Dyck – a founding board member of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan – says his 10-year-old daughter Trudi plays with the Tigers. “Trudi is fascinated by the Canadian side of her culture because it’s the one side she can’t express on a daily basis.” Trudi is really into the game after finishing her first season.



Van Dyck says he likes the fact that hockey develops strength of character, because the practices take a lot of effort. “Cullen Revel is really ‘Go go go!’ with the kids. He’s everything you’d expect in a Canadian coach.” He says when Trudi falls down, she always gets back up with a smile. That’s something that can come in handy as an adult. Revel says the most satisfying aspect of his job as a coach is watching the personal development of the players. Lang agrees: “It teaches you teamwork, responsibility and accountability.”

But oddly enough, the recent history of hockey in Taiwan began with a Kiwi! About 25 years ago, New Zealander Geoff Le Cren was walking through Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall when he saw someone roller-blading by. He thought: “That looks cool!” So he got involved in the sport himself, and before long was coaching local kids and had opened up a shop selling equipment. Business was so good he was hiring guys to teach skating for him. “I had one Russian guy and one Canadian guy coaching for me on weekends, and they suggested we do some hockey. I said OK, and I fell in love with the game within a year!” And so the Holiday Cup league was formed, an inline hockey league in Taiwan. They started with just 50 players and the league now has about 100 teams, says Le Cren, who is Bauer Hockey’s sports equipment distributor for Greater China and Southeast Asia. He says there are about 1800 people playing inline hockey in Taiwan overall.

But what about ICE hockey, you know, hockey? Le Cren said that during the Vietnam War, US soldiers used Taiwan as an R&R location. “One of the facilities they had was an ice rink near Yuanshan. Soldiers used to play hockey and some Taiwanese guys used to play with them.” This was the beginning.

Since then, the development of ice hockey has been perennially hampered by a shortage of rinks. Some opened only to close again in a few years, and some of those that did stay open were less than ideal. Le Cren: “There was at a rink in Sanchong that had no insulation, so all the moisture accumulated in the ceiling tiles. One day, just as my class was lacing up their ice skates, half of the ceiling collapsed in the middle of the rink. Fortunately no one was on the ice!”

Some were a lot better: one rink in Xizhi, in the basement of the Acer Building, served as the humble birthplace for a league that has become legend for expat hockey in Taiwan, the Chinese-Taipei Ice Hockey League, or CIHL. It started out on shaky grounds in 2003, but rebooted successfully in 2004, thanks to Le Cren and others. These included  local players Wayne Lin, Eddy Chang, and Michael Lee. Rich Lee was in charge of the ice facility, but the expats ran the league. It was Le Cren, Montrealer Bob Ford, and Craig Crawford from Saskatchewan who were the league’s executive officers.

When the Taipei Arena opened in 2005, with its Olympic sized hockey rink – still the only one in Taiwan – the CIHL really took off, despite a lack of protective glass for the first year. “One day, an innocent fan got a puck in the face, and the league had to pay,” Le Cren said. Then the arena put the glass up!

The teams were starved for ice time though, because to this day, only public skating is allowed from 9 AM to 9 PM, seven days a week. That means all hockey teams compete for the remaining morning and evening ice time not only with each other but also with figure skaters and speed skaters!



Despite this, the CIHL grew in leaps and bounds, and eventually had two divisions: a club level and a more competitive open division, where team leaders would draft players. This led to mixed teams of expats and locals, which was good for the development of hockey in Taiwan. According to Bob Ford: “It allowed the young Taiwanese who were coming into the sport a chance to play a higher, faster, more competitive level of hockey than they had previously.”

There were also some cultural readjustments that took place.

“At first, the Taiwanese players where really sensitive. If an expat drove them into the boards, or there was incidental contact and the Taiwanese player fell over, he’d be gunning for you!” Le Cren said. “Sometimes a Taiwanese player who knocked another over would go back and help him up, in the middle of play!” But gradually the local players adapted.

During the CIHL’s heyday, there were about 120-130 players in the open division, with teams coming up from Kaohsiung, Chiayi and Taichung to play on weekends.

They kept going until 2012, when suddenly, with no warning, the CIHL had all their ice time cancelled – after the season had already begun. It was a bitter blow, a puck to the pills, so to speak!

The reasons were a bit murky, but the general drift was that this was a takeover by some of the Taiwanese involved in promoting hockey who wanted to make money from the sport. So when the national hockey federation (CTIHF) tried to put together a successor league, the expat lads shunned them (Go puck yourselves!) This contributed to the new league’s failure.

The core of Canucks – along with some others – formed the Gentlemen’s Hockey Club. Others played in other clubs, or stopped playing ice hockey. The guys from Taichung, Chiayi and Kaohsiung no longer showed up. “It was like the breakup of the Soviet Union!” says Ottawan Alex Whalen, hockey stalwart and owner of Whalen’s restaurant, which sponsors the Gentlemen’s Hockey Club. “Everyone just went off in their own direction.”

A couple of years later, a local lady named Betty Liu started the Taipei International Hockey League (TIHL). The former CIHL lads joined and actively promoted her effort. The two division system was adopted again, and now there are four teams in the open league operating on a draft system: the Venom, the Black Bears, the Clouded Leopards, and the Snow Leopards. The ex-CIHL guys say that Liu is good at getting them ice time. Sweet!

TIHL (2)


So like little Trudi, when expat hockey was knocked down, it got back up with a smile. And Canadians are leading the way.

Ryan Lang, who coaches the men’s international team, says that Taiwanese punch above their weight at hockey, for such a small country with limited facilities. According to Bob Ford, one reason for this was the CIHL. “Most of the current men’s national team were all kids that were playing in the lower division when they were 12 years old and up and then joining the open [more competitive] division when they were 16.” That’s where they played with the expat lads, elevating their game.

Lang and a player


Lang’s CTIHL men’s teams play in tournaments in China, Malaysia, Thailand and beyond. There they battle other regional teams who also get strong coaching, as well as better financial support than Taiwan gives its team. It’s a tough slog against countries like China that are building ice rinks at a furious rate, Lang says, but: “Our under-18 team won a bronze last year at a big tournament. That’s a big deal. We were pretty stoked about that!”

Bronze (2)


Ontarian Steven Clark, ex-CIHL player and current TIHL player, is the most experienced hockey player in Taiwan. “Clarky” played varsity hockey at Michigan State University, one stop shy of the NHL. He said there is an elite Taiwan Typhoon team that is distinct from the regular program run by Revel. “We got all the best players in Taiwan together,” says Clark. “We used to be the most feared hockey team in Asia.” Clark says they won several major international tournaments, but it’s getting harder. “I’m 36 years old now. Some of the teams we play against have ex-pros from Europe. It’s been a few years since we’ve won a tournament. I’d really like to win one more!”

Canadian Trade Official Tom Cumming played with the Gentlemen’s Club in Taipei, and his two sons played for the Tigers. He also took them to many tournaments in the region. Cumming is moving on (Happy trails, Tom!) to his next posting, Guangzhou, South China, where hockey has yet to take off. “It’s like starting at ground zero. I am not even sure if there is a rink there,” said Cumming. “But I made a promise to my son. I’ll do whatever I can to get ice hockey going there. After all, it’s my duty as a Canadian!”

Sports shrine




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Foreigner with a Taiwan ID

Here in expat haven Taiwan, where residence is easy but citizenship hard, it’s a dream of many long-term foreign residents to become legally Taiwanese, without having to first renounce their original nationality. It’s my dream as well.

World Citizen (3)

I hope never to renounce my Canadian citizenship. Canada is in my soul, and I’d hate to betray that feeling.

But damn! I’d love to have an ROC passport. Banking, getting a cell phone, and other personal and business-related tasks would be simpler. I could never be denied renewal of my residence permit. Last but not least, I wouldn’t feel that annoyance of always being a guest, somehow temporary, in the place I call home.

Yes indeed! I might never really become Taiwanese, but I do relish the thought of being promoted to “foreigner with a Taiwanese ID”!

But if you have the ID, doesn’t that make you Taiwanese? Don’t you mean “new Taiwanese” or some such?

No, dear reader! In my humble opinion, there is a difference.

From the 1950’s until the 1990’s, immigration to Taiwan was very low. But then movements of people between China and Taiwan became easier, which started a flow of “Chinese brides” – women hoping for a better life in Taiwan by marrying rural Taiwanese men. Brides from Vietnam and Indonesia, among other countries, also became in demand at this time, coming either from the blue-collar guest workers who started coming to Taiwan in large numbers in the late 1990’s, or sent over by agencies. A much smaller percentage of men also married into Taiwanese nationality.



Government statistics tally it thus: a grand total of 321,683 spouses from China proper have become Taiwanese citizens through marriage, 100,099 from Vietnam, and 28,191 from Indonesia, out of a total of 495,907 marriage-based naturalizations.

One key point about this demographic is that they are – generally speaking – readily assimilated into existing “Taiwaneseness”. Spouses from China integrate into Taiwanese society quite well due to the close cultural relationship between the two countries.

Southeast Asian immigrants come from societies with key cultural commonalities with Taiwan. They are family-oriented, and have that “work hard, save hard, make your kids study hard” approach to life. They also come from high-context societies with a strong focus on group identity and interdependence. When the spouses marry into the family, they usually adopt the language and customs of Taiwan, and their kids are most often brought up simply as Taiwanese. Some Taiwanese high school students I talked to, with many fellow students with a Southeast Asian immigrant parent, told me that in terms of appearance, language use and behavior, “They are just like Taiwanese, you cannot tell the difference.”

These are the new Taiwanese.



In contrast, most of the Western (or Western-influenced) people I know who want Taiwanese citizenship come from individualistic, multicultural societies. They usually don’t want to be completely assimilated into Taiwaneseness, but rather keep their original heritage alive and on display. That usually means keeping their original citizenship. This can also be pretty important for practical reasons, such as being able to return as needed to care for ageing parents, and also conferring citizenship on kids.

These perfectly understandable desires are usually justified by reasons why it is good for Taiwan to change the law. Foremost is that it is unfair, and even silly, for Taiwan to have a renunciation requirement for aliens who wish to naturalize when the same requirement doesn’t apply to Taiwanese. One scenario: A Canadian man marrying a Taiwanese woman could help her get Canadian citizenship. Taiwan would not cancel her Taiwanese citizenship. The couple could also get Canadian citizenship for their kids. But the man would lose his Canadian citizenship if he became Taiwanese. Kafka would have smiled.

I think that many Taiwanese people would sympathize with these frustrations. But you’re not likely to get enough sympathy to get laws changed by talking about double standards to a country that recognizes your home country but isn’t formally recognized by them. Asking Taiwan to fix laws just because they seem weird to vote-less people affected by them doesn’t seem like a strong play. Essentially this is an appeal to compassion, which is weak because white-collar foreigners are viewed as privileged. Which we generally are.

The second major justification invoked is that Western-influenced foreigners bring in intellectual capital, such as creativity, critical thinking, global mindset, artistic skills and traditions, and tech and business knowledge. Thus, measures that encourage them to settle here are good for Taiwan, especially considering the well documented brain drain of talented locals to China, the USA and elsewhere.

Here I think most Taiwanese would definitely agree. But only to the point of making our life here easier, not equal. It’s common knowledge that the government has done a lot to facilitate the ease of life of foreign permanent residents, with liberalized permanent residence card (APRC) laws being the best example. And for those with a very high level of skills, dual citizenship is now on the table, as of March 24th, this year.

But dual citizenship in general for average Joes and Jills? That idea seems to inspire a certain fear of [threat]. Fill in the box with job losses, scams, social disruption, etc. Call it caution or call it xenophobia: it’s a cultural firewall that’s very hard to hack.



Let’s face it: most of us don’t want to become New Taiwanese: we want to become a completely new kind of Taiwanese. It’s a bold idea, a win win scenario, and one that I support 100%. But it’s not our call, and most locals aren’t there yet. Maybe in 10 years, maybe.

If you let go of your past citizenship, dear reader, take the plunge, you will pass the loyalty test and be welcomed to the fold. And you will be loved. But for now, at least, the dream of being a foreigner with a Taiwanese ID is just that.



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Vibrant Colors: The Indian Community in Taiwan

It was quite a contrast to return last week from multicultural Vancouver to Han-dominated Taiwan. But although there is less global variety here, there are still interesting groups like the Indian community that add new cultural colors – like food, yoga, henna, music and dance – to our everyday lives.


Holi Festival 2017

Speaking of color, I was miffed to find I’d missed out on the Holi festival in Yonghe on March 12th. I’ll definitely be at the next one! It sounds like a great time. Holi is an ancient Hindu springtime “festival of love” where young and old, man and woman, all throw multicolored powders higgledy-piggledy over each other!

It is fitting that Holi has become more global. India’s great diaspora continues. The country now has more people who were born there who are currently living overseas than any other country in the world, 30 million people!


According to Rajan Khera, former president of the Indians’ Association of Taipei (IAT), recently Holi in Taipei has become bigger and more inclusive. This year’s event saw a total of about 1000 participants. “We wanted to invite all the Indian groups,” said Khera. “We also had many non-Indians as well.”

The IAT – the oldest of the Indian groups – was started in the mid-1970s. Back then, Taiwan’s economic miracle attracted a number of Hindi-speaking traders who became exporters of Taiwan-made products to India and other parts of the world. Khera said that the group grew to include about 200 families. They celebrated Diwali and Holi together and other social and religious occasions at their own center in Tianmu.

But in the 90’s, exporting from Taiwan became less viable. Local prices went up, and profits went down. China beckoned with its own much larger economic miracle, so traders left to set up shop over there. At that time, Khera said, there were no direct flights and business links were very difficult. Hence, many families left for China, often settling in Guangzhou. The IAT shrunk to only about 41 families. But Khera says: “Over the last six or seven years, the number has been growing again. Now we are at about 57 families.”

Diwali IAT

                      Diwali with the IAT: Photo by Jefferey Wu

And this is only one group. According to community leader Priya Lalwani Purswaney, “There is a Punjabi group, a Malayali group, a Gujarati group, etc.” Purswaney also talks about the different occupations: “There are also the importers, who import precious stones to Taiwan. This has become the biggest group. Then there are those involved in academic work, doing graduate research, or bachelor’s degrees. Then there are global businesspeople working as managers for 3 or 4 years for multinational corporations like Unilever or Citibank.” There are also a lot of software engineers, she said. Altogether, the Indian community here now numbers about 3000 (numbers vary from year to year) of which 1600 are professionals. About 1400 are university students, attracted to scholarships and the good research components to Taiwanese tech training.

Purswaney knows these occupational groups well because of her direct experience. “My father was a visiting professor in mechanical engineering. I came to Taiwan in 1987 when I was 16. I was the first Indian university student in Taiwan.” She got her business BA from Tatung University, her MBA from NTU, and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in Translation and Interpretation from NTNU. With her top-notch language skills, she went on to work for various companies in marketing and translation, and also for India’s de facto embassy in Taiwan, the India-Taipei Association. Now she works as the only English – Mandarin simultaneous interpreter in Taiwan who is not Taiwanese, she says.


                                      Priya Lalwani Purswaney watching the cricket!

By all accounts, the Indian community here helps each other and hangs together in times of need. Purswaney says that she started the Facebook group Indians in Taiwan to help people get the information they need: good schools for their kids, where to buy Indian food, how to get visas etc. She hopes it will become part of an umbrella that includes all Indians, irrespective of age, occupation, religion, or state of origin.

Rajan Khera said, “Not too long ago a young male Indian student died. He was from a poor family, and his parents didn’t even have passports. But the community took care of it and sent the body back to India.” On a lighter note, one recent post on Indians in Taiwan said, “Is anyone flying from Delhi to Taipei on Flight XYZ on April 25? My old Auntie is flying here and she is traveling alone. If anyone could keep her company, that would be great!”

For many reasons, the Indian community here has also been growing and thriving. One reason is a good cultural fit with Taiwan. Many people I spoke with talked about the Buddhist connection. Buddhism originated in northern India around 500 BCE, and became important in China after 200 CE. According to Purswaney, a further similarity is that “both Taiwanese and Indians are very entrepreneurial. They like to start their own small businesses.“

Another is just that a lot of people love to live in Taiwan, and Indians are no exception. One is Mayur Srivastava. The well-known founder of Mayur Indian Kitchen has been offering great food to local diners, as well as jobs to local workers, since 2011. In addition, he has three children with his Taiwanese wife. Mayur loves Taiwan and is very happy here. Andy Singh Arya – the friendly owner of both Out of India and the Three Idiots Toast and Curry – also offers great food and is married to a Taiwanese woman. He too has nothing but good things to say about the friendliness, helpfulness, humility, and trustworthiness of Taiwanese. What better reason do you need than that?

Big Bums

                                          Andy Singh Arya and friends!




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Hongcouverstan: money and diversity have changed Pacific Canada forever

Just jumped the puddle for a long overdue family visit back in Vancouver. That city has always had the stunning backdrop of the North Shore Mountains, still capped with snow in early April. And it has always been Canada’s gateway to the Pacific. But socially of course it has moved with the times, the latest change being the continuing development of its exceptional degree of multiculturalism.

Van 1

Of the city’s population, 45% are immigrants, more than 52% of residents speak a language other than English at home, and only about 46% are ethnically European. Welcome to globalization!

It is a far cry from the Vancouver I first visited in 1984. Back then, only about 7% of the population was non-white, mainly from the long-standing Chinese and Japanese communities from before WW2. Other than that, you had a very Anglo-Celtic-Germanic-Slavic mix, with some Italian and Greek thrown in so it wouldn’t be too boring.

But since the late 1980’s, wave upon wave of immigrants have built up a very diverse population. More than 30% of the city’s current residents are ethnically Chinese. There are large populations of Filipinos, Punjabis, Thais, Cambodians, and Vietnamese, as well as Latinos, Poles, Russians, Pakistanis, Iranians, and more. The list goes on. This means a variety of faces and languages, and also of food. The best huaraches in town on Commercial Drive, man! And not just restaurants, but also little grocery shops. Go on in and get some sangak, baba ganoush, samosas, or gulab jamun!

Van 3

Why so many immigrants? One reason is that having a family member in Canada makes it much easier to immigrate. An example of this is in the Filipino population. A lot of the Filipinos came over as maids and nannies for well-to-do families in the 1980’s and 90’s. Many eventually became citizens, and slowly saved up enough money to bring over their families: usually kids they had not lived with for over a decade. These poorer immigrants often have an inspiring work ethic and purity of purpose that makes them natural contributors to the country.

In addition, Canada has gained doctors, professors, scientists, business managers, and investors from other countries’ elites, not to mention computer industry skills from globally mobile migrant workers.

But is there a downside to all this?

The “Rain City”  has lost a certain laid-back folksy charm. Back in the day, it was a one of the friendliest cities in Canada, if not Planet Earth. You’d get a really nice “Hello!” from almost anyone you stumbled across, and lots of “please” and “thank you” to boot. If you stood at the curb looking to cross the street, drivers (there were far fewer cars on the road) would stop for you even if there was no crosswalk. But not anymore. In fact, my globe-trotting Iranian brother-in-law once drove through a crosswalk and didn’t notice someone who had just walked up to it – not onto it – at the last second. The guy yelled at him and gave him the finger! How dare you not stop immediately the instant I show up!

Courtesy has become a bit strained, as I saw for myself. On the last day of my visit, in order to walk off some of the amazing food my sister had been shoveling into my pie-hole., I did a 9k walk around Stanley Park’s outer seawall. It was a lovely sunny spring day, with fine salt air, in a beautiful location. There were groups of all cultures out enjoying it. Taking a photo, I inadvertently stepped into the bicycle lane. A woman on a bike hurtled toward me and said in a loud and unfriendly tone of voice, “You are on the bicycle path! Please get off!” She had a point of course. But couldn’t she have said it a bit more nicely? About 20 minutes later, a gruff guy on a bike yelled at a whole bunch of walkers: “Get out of the way! Get out of the way!”

It seems like that old-school Vancouver courtesy has now sometimes been replaced by rude outbursts at people – many of them originating from elsewhere – who don’t follow the rules!

Beyond that, cultural experts talk about the gradual erosion of interpersonal trust and civic spirit in “hyper diverse” cities like Vancouver. Rather than fuse harmoniously or have open conflicts, diverse communities tend to “hunker down”.

One thing immigration has undoubtedly done to Raincouver, one of the most livable cities in the world, is to drive property prices way way up. A decent home in a nice neighborhood can easily go for around two million Canadian dollars. If you are a long-term resident and homeowner, that’s a great thing! But if you are typical couple like a school teacher and an engineer, looking to buy a house, fuggedaboutit! In Vancouver, economic inequality, just like the police and the gangs, has transcended ethnicity.

Van 4 (2)

But change is a constant. One longtime Vancouverite, Dave, chatted with me as we caught some sun on a bench by the seawall in Stanley Park. “Canada needs populating! Our population is too small, and we don’t breed fast enough. We need more people,” he said. “We get all kinds of people coming in here. As long as they aren’t crazy or don’t blow stuff up, they’re welcome!”

I caught the little ferry over to Granville Island, famous for its covered market under the Granville Bridge. There were tourists from all over, eating, relaxing, and enjoying the view. I sat outside, sipping BC wine and listening to a folk singer playing songs by Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. In the warm sunshine, I basked in music-conjured emotion, the sadly happy feelings from songs I heard in my youth. Gone they were, never to return, just like the Vancouver of yesterday. It’s a big grown-up world city now.

Later that night I flew back to Taipei, where I am the perpetual newcomer hoping for greater status and security, the shoe on the other foot, the coin neatly flipped. Except for the massive difference in attitudes toward immigrants.

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Snot-nosed Jack

Beyond our cultural differences, we find our human similarities.

Source: Snot-nosed Jack

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Snot-nosed Jack


Cross-culturalists talk about the distinctions between internal guilt cultures like the West and the public shame (face) cultures of Taiwan and the East. But I believe there is something that transcends and underlies both of these cultural distinctions – the sense of justice. I think this is hard-wired for the entire human race. Alas, it’s a part of us that is too often activated in the negative.


When I was ten years old, my family moved to Lesotho in Africa from 1975-77. The country only had a population of one million people back then. It is a sovereign country geographically surrounded by its much larger and more populous neighbor, South Africa. It is called “the Roof of Africa” because the entire nation is above 1000 meters. At those altitudes, the sun cuts razor sharp shadows through the dry air. There are winter frosts, and a sky full of stars. It’s an almost forestless country, and the many sheep and cattle grazing on the mountain slopes keep it that way. To make up for the lack of trees however, their dung can be combined with mud to build huts, and is a good fuel for cooking fires, although its smoke adds a tinge of pungency to the air.


Maseru, the capital city, had a whopping 30,000 inhabitants. The roads downtown were OK, and led you past a few fancy buildings like an art shop shaped like a gigantic Basuto hat, and some banks and government offices. There was one small truly posh neighborhood, a couple of nice ones, and then in declining order of poverty, plain-Jane concrete block homes, and then shanty towns. You could hear the summer rain coming at a distance by the sound it made on the tin rooves.

Out on the street, you could see who lived where: African in a brand new Mercedes-Benz with driver? Posh area! Anybody in a Land Rover, Volvo, or kombi? Nice area! Any Whites? Nice area! African walking on the street in decent white-collar garb? Cinder block homes. Tsotsi hat, blanket, or overalls? Shanty town. Little blond boy in safari shorts and sandals? That would be me, dear reader! I must have gotten that world-class African smile ten times a day, especially from older countryside women who would beam down at me, touch my hair and say “Heh heh! Such pretty hair! Heh heh heh!”


My father was a civil engineer on a Third World development project, building a small center of civilization in a remote mountain area. He was on site most of the week. I went to the international elementary school with the other expat kids and the local elites. We lived in a nice area in a lovely old brick house with grape vines, rose bushes and plum trees in the garden. We had a coal fireplace for winter, no TV, and a 4-digit phone number. We had maids who lived in the shanty town, chubby cheerful women.


We lived right across the street from the Maseru Club, the colonial era country club, with swimming pool, tennis courts, golf course, etc. There was a bar where white dudes would get florid on Saturdays. My band of ruffians and I wandered the grounds and beyond, playing kick-the-can, talking about Formula race cars, and shooting at pigeons with pellet guns. Once we killed a Black Mamba hiding in a rock crevice after shooting it about 20 times! Occasionally we had run-ins with a group of homeless African boys who caddied at the gold course. They waited around by the cars until a group of players came in, hoping to be hired. Those not actively caddying would open the car gas tanks, lower a piece of string with a rag at the end into the gas, and then sniff it to get high. After a few years of this their neurological and physical health was shot. When we cut through the car park sometimes they would shake us down for change. I was scared of them, because there were a couple of mean older ones who looked pretty f***ed up. There were also some scrawny younger kids. These poor guys had a pretty rough life. But my band of privileged young expats and I happily roamed far and wide. We were ninjas who could sneak into any part of the club undetected. God help us if we did get caught! We’d get a hoarse-voiced yelling at by “The Colonel”, an old British soldier who’d lost a lung in India in World War II. He’d come after us shaking his cane in the air, and kick us out for the rest of the day, if he found us up to no good.


On Sundays, families would gather for a curry buffet on the veranda. The women folk would come out, ladies with hats and make up, young girls in pretty dresses. After curry, all the kids would watch Sunday matinees like silly Dean Martin movies, or Tarzan. After that, us boys would hang around outside as parents gradually came out to collect their kids, get into their cars and drive away. That’s when I got into a fight with a local kid. It was my fault.

One day when we hanging around a bunch of the caddies came to beg for change. There was one skinny little guy who had mucus constantly running out of his nose, maybe from sniffing gas. He had his hand out, and I pretended to give him some change, but then pulled it back and put it into my pocket – an obnoxious boyish prank. Oh, that pissed him off! He yelled at me, and then took off his belt and tried to whip me with it. This wasn’t very effective because he had to hold his pants up with his other hand! He was a scrawny little guy, probably as least as old as me but physically no match due to general poor health and nutrition.

All the other caddies and local elite or expat boys knew at once without speaking that no one else should get involved. The fight was on! “Get him, John!” “Go for it man!” He kept whipping at me with the belt and hauling up his pants with the other hand, his eyes glaring at me, snot running down his face. I got bolder and rushed him, chasing him around a parked car, and then closed on him, grabbed the back of his head with my left hand and went to punch him in the face with my right. He grabbed my punching hand with both of his, stopping my fist about 10 centimeters from his mouth. He had dropped his belt and probably his pants too, but I didn’t notice! I made a big effort and got in a pretty good punch right on his grimacing mouth. Bop! He whimpered and blood suddenly formed clear red lines in the cracks between his teeth. My whole feeling changed at once. I suddenly lost all desire to fight, so I let him go. He ran a short distance away, and threw rocks at me until a big Canadian boy – a silent friend – came up and clobbered him one. The kid, bloodied and beaten, ran down the road sobbing, clutching his pants, back to the golf course he called home. I had won the fight. Later we named him “Snot-nosed Jack”.

A few weeks later, I was completely alone, walking across the polo field toward the Maseru Café to score some chappies chewing gum or perhaps a Stoney’s ginger beer when I suddenly saw – to my shock – Snot-nosed Jack. He was alone on the road right by the polo field, only about 100 meters away. He shouted, then climbed through the four-strand barbed wired fence and came at me. I was scared! He came right up, full of angry words, and started to take off his belt. I told him no, it’s OK. I don’t want to fight. I offered him a small amount of change. He could see that I was scared. His face totally changed. He beamed at me, very happy, and refused the money. This was a point of honor. He walked away happily, waving goodbye. There was no sneer, no attempt at retribution. We were good.

That brings us back, dear reader, to my starting point. The “standard” cross-cultural analysis is that Africa is more of a shame culture, which involves public space. But the boy hadn’t “shamed me back” in front of my crew or his. There were no witnesses. I think his happiness was about warrior culture, something ingrained in boys in Africa. He had stood up again and prevailed against this strange “rich” White boy who had insulted and beaten him. He had proven his courage, and hence his value as a man, hence as a human being.

I don’t think this kind of thing would have happened in Taiwan. I think here he would have got some friends and jumped me, or just stayed away. But I think anybody reading this story from Taiwan, Canada, Lesotho or whatever country would feel that somehow justice had been done.

painEPILOGUE: I don’t think this incident is a metaphor for race relations, but feel free to interpret it any way you want. Lesotho is in terrible shape now, ravaged by AIDS. We can thank both Western and African superstitions for that. The Thaba Tseka Project my dad worked on is now considered a textbook case in Third World development failures, of how simply throwing money at a problem doesn’t work. South Africa – also AIDS blighted – has transitioned from competent apartheid to incompetent freedom, for now. Let’s hope for the best! And Snot-nosed Jack? Here’s where I’d like to have a rosy conclusion and say that maybe somehow he’d remember me as a friend.

But the truth is he’s probably dead. Where’s the justice in that?

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Third Culture Kids and Other Global Nomads


Are you an expat or a foreign student doing an overseas stint? A globile (globally mobile) entrepreneur on a start-up quest? Or did you meet your significant other abroad and follow them back? Those are some very practical reasons to live in a foreign land like Taiwan. But there’s another kind of traveler, a global nomad, someone for whom travel itself is a natural condition of their life. Some are born into it, while others are stricken with the wanderlust, and roam the Earth at will. I am one of them, dear reader. How about you? Where do you fit into the growing tribe of global migrants?

 It’s a huge group, actually! Currently, there are almost 250,000,000 people living in a country they weren’t born in. That’s a 40% increase since the year 2000, and more than a 300% increase since the year 1960, a growth rate higher than the world’s population. Every year around another 4 million become migrants. If we were a nation, we’d be the fourth most populous in the world. If we all held hands we could circle the Earth once, a 40,000 km human chain.

 And it would be a diverse group too! Blue-collar guest workers, white-collar tech workers, conventional immigrants, twenty million refugees. But one less well-known category is of children who were dragged around the world by their parents during their developmental years, the kids of soldiers, diplomats, missionaries, international school teachers, expat business-people, etc. It’s not so much that these kids exist that is not well known, but rather how it affects their long-term development.

 Third Culture Kids – TCKs – are kids who grow up outside their native culture. Their native (or parental) culture is the first culture, the culture(s) they grow up in is the second culture, and their own hybridization is the third culture. They tend to have a few distinctive characteristics: higher levels of education and creativity, multilingual proficiency, and better social and cultural intelligence. But there are also some distinctive challenges: TCK’s tend to have confused national loyalties and a hard time fitting in back home. In fact, the question, “Where is home?” is often a hard one to answer, sometimes for the rest of their life. One summary of these cultural chameleons says, “TCK’s are particularly adept at building relationships with other cultures while not possessing a cultural identity of their own.” This can lead to angst and delayed development.


One TCK told me: “Well, I was born in Hong Kong, stayed there for the first 18 months of my life, then my parents returned to the UK. We later also lived in Kuwait. My father was in the British military, so even back in the UK I did not have one ‘home town’ – moving house with each redeployment, every three years or so.” After that he said, the pattern was set and he just kept moving around: India, Germany, and now back in Asia. He tried living in the UK, but he just didn’t like it.

 Jenny, another TCK told me “My grandparents were from China, and they moved to the Philippines. I went to the local schools there. My family always identified as Chinese….But my father doesn’t like to use chopsticks! ….They wanted me to live in Taiwan: ‘Chinese countries are safe’, my dad said.” When Jenny got here, she worked really hard on her Mandarin in an effort to fit in. “But I found there were some things about Taiwanese culture I couldn’t agree with. Like the “face” culture, where people do or don’t do things for face. I also couldn’t get into the superstitions.” Jenny says she mainly identifies with American culture now, because it is global, and many of her friends are from the USA.

 Some TCKs eventually settle down and adapt to either their native culture or an adopted one. Some stay in a slightly blue limbo. But others embrace their situation.

 One example of this is TED-talker Taiye Selasi, a novelist of Nigerian and Ghanaian descent, born in the UK, who grew up in Massachusetts and studied International Relations at Oxford. Where is she from? Selasi talks about being ‘multilocal’: “History is real,” she says, “Culture is real. But the sovereign state is only 400 years old. How can a person come from an idea?” She says people come from the places they are local to. It’s an idea that might be of solace and utility to identity-crisis prone TCKs.

 Another TED-talker, global author Pico Iyer says: “The typical person I meet today will be, let’s say, a half-Korean, half-German young woman living in Paris. And as soon as she meets a half-Thai, half-Canadian young guy from Edinburgh, she recognizes him as kin. She realizes that she probably has much more in common with him than with anybody entirely of Korea or entirely of Germany.”

 Multilocal works for me! I’m a first generation Anglo-Canadian. That makes me technically a TCK, but I think Brits in Canada are not really going to a different culture; it’s more like going to live with your cousins! Later, ‘traveler dad’ took us to Lesotho for a few years. It was my first real cross-cultural experience, very intense and eye-opening. When we came back, we lived in Ottawa. I could have reattached to Canadian-ness and become normal, but the wanderlust in our family erupted again. I moved to Montreal, which is a cross-cultural experience for an Anglo. Then my sister moved to Venezuela, and my parents to India. And after visiting each place, I got reinfected with the travel virus, what the Germans call “farsickness”.

 So here I am in Taiwan. I am local to Taipei, especially Tamsui, but many other places as well on this island that is more than just an idea. I’m still Canadian, but one part – something else. I live in a cross-cultural interzone made up of my fellow locals. And it suits me just fine!

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Playing his part: American Brook Hall brings Broadway to Taiwan

Originally from New Mexico and Oregon, Hall studied film and theater studies at St. Edward’s University in Austin. “I did West Side Story in the community while I was still in high school when I was 14,” he recounts. His parents encouraged his interest in the arts. “There were a lot of creative people hanging around my house, it was at the end of the hippy period.” While other boys were playing electric guitar and football, he was doing dance, singing and community theater. Through university he was involved in many entertainment projects, including summer theater in Birmingham, Alabama. Just before graduation in 1998, he did honors school in flamenco in Spain. This lust for travel was a premonition of his eventual journey to Taiwan. “I’d always thought of joining the Peace Corps,” Hall said. But now it was time to dance on down to big street, the Big Apple!

 New York City! An incredibly exciting and challenging place for a young man in love with dance and theater. Hall found loads of work there, although often it was in shows traveling around the country. “I’d audition for shows, get a gig, and then it’s on the road for three months: Iowa, Denver, Florida, or Montana. Or you’d get onto a national show and do maybe 200 shows around the whole country.” When he came back, he’d start looking for work again. And also see lots of shows! “There was so much going on, so many little theaters and artistic scenes, acting classes, dancing, everything you could imagine.” There were also the big shows like Miss Saigon, the Blue Man Group, De La Guarda etc. “I’d be given free tickets at the TKTS booth in Times Squares – the crossroads of the universe – where I was working as on on-site promoter for shows – from gambling addict scalpers who couldn’t sell them by showtime.”

  Then the travel bug bit him again. “I had a buddy from college that had settled in Taiwan. He was doing some theater stuff in southern Taiwan, so on July 4th, 2001, I came out to see him.” This led him to a big community carnival type production in an abandoned sugar factory in Ciaotou, a district of Kaohsiung. There were about 100 people, half of them Taiwanese, half from all over the world, including Brazil and Europe. “We did a parade through the small town, with stilt walkers, jugglers and clowns! It was great!”

 Following the footsteps of his friend, Hall moved to Taichung, where he found firm footing as a dancer. “I taught tap dancing, did company shows, press conferences, and also taught flamenco and salsa. I met some old guys who were the godfathers of tap in Taiwan!” he said. He also began to notice some cultural differences. “Compared to the USA, people here have a tendency to just wing it when it comes to small shows. I remember one time we showed up for a tap performance and they showed us a grassy area and told us that’s where we were supposed to work! Tap dancing on grass?” He also found that people were kind of casual about wiring, fire in performance, and other safety issues. Furthermore, despite his many skills, he was always known in Taichung as the “dance guy” because he did a lot of tap and flamenco shows, and that’s the culture here. “You stick to one thing and do it as well as possible; you’re known for that one thing.”

 “Later on I became the ‘musical guy’,” said Hall, “working with Greenray Theater, Lancreators Theatre, and Paper Windmill Theater doing their touring children’s theater.” Then his career started to blossom. From 2007 to 2014, some productions he worked on as either producer, consultant, director or choreographer at major venues – including the National Theater – were Smokey Joe’s Café, Let’s Broadway, Daylight, and Anything Goes.

 One interesting show he co-produced and directed was Hedwig and the Angry Inch in Mandarin, a glam rock musical about a transgendered woman who experiences a lot of pain, frustration and tragedy because of her conflicted gender identity. “Split down the middle, I thought it would be interesting for Taiwanese because it is similar to the country’s own identity issues.”

 Another was a Taiwanese play that he directed and choreographed at Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall and the National Theatre called “Golden Banana History” (Hedwig might have giggled at the title) about a revolt of banana farmers in southern Taiwan during the early years of KMT rule. It was politicized during Chen Shui-bian’s presidency, then became a cash cow as DPP organizations around the island paid for shows to inspire voters. The writer and producer feuded over the money, which meant the show was eventually cancelled, the producer went into hiding, and the performers and designers sued for compensation!


 It was only one of the times that Hall was frustrated by the way things work in Taiwan. Government regulations were also a problem. “You can only get a work permit for as long as your project was running. If that was less than 6 months, they wouldn’t give you an ARC,” said Hall. He’d had his APRC clock zeroed due to bad paperwork, and getting permits was often a nightmare. This gave him a creative inspiration. In Golden Banana History, “There was a court scene. I made it into a kind of madcap affair with circus music and papers flying around everywhere, my interpretation of the craziness of the bureaucracy here!”

 Eventually Hall decided that he had enough of relying on other people. “A contract means absolutely nothing here!” He’d been lied to and ripped off enough. What’s more, he had wide experience, a long list of talented creative and technical people to work with, and a mature understanding about what could work in Taiwan. And as Anton Chekhov would say, “Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.”

 And so, in 2014, the Lab Space was born and has been rocking on to this day. “We’ve done Tuesdays with Morrie, Wait Until Dark, Santaland Diaries, Ives’ Shorts, the God of Carnage, I, Claudia, and two 24-hour theatre festivals. What we do is special. It’s different when your audience is just 2 meters away from the actors.”

Tuesdays with Morrie – D.C. Rapier and Victor Stevenson – Photo by Topie Openshaw

 Hall’s excitement is clear when he talks about this theater he loves. But as the Immortal Bard said, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Making the bottom line work is a challenge. “We pay our talent, and we manage to break even on the productions,” in part due to the kindness of the Taipei City Department of Cultural Affairs. But what makes it tough are the operational costs, keeping the LAB Space running between shows. “We’ve applied for money from the national government’s Ministry of Culture for operational costs, but we keep getting rejected.”

 This is frustrating, because Hall knows he can be a real asset to Taiwan. He pauses at this point, torn between humility and the need to make a point: “With my skillset I’ve made an impact here over 15 years. Maybe a hundred people I’ve helped shape have become key performers in current major Taiwanese shows. I’ve helped hundreds more by showing them that even if they are a big fish in a small pond, there’s a bigger pond. And when they see that, they step up….I’ve helped funnel several performers directly from Taiwan to New York, writing recommendations for universities, acting programs, etc. The Taiwanese tourism and economic offices promote Taiwan in NYC with some of that same talent, showing off their singing and dancing. So it has come full circle.” Hall is generous in his praise for the people at the Lab Space. “All the people I’ve worked with there have been amazing, every single one of them. But if I had to mention two, it would be Emma Liu, my past administrator, who left this year. She helped get the whole thing going. And her replacement Derek Kwan.” Kwan is also an actor for the LAB’s productions, someone Hall calls “a true renaissance man”.

 “I am excited about the future. I’m looking forward to doing The Diary of Anne Frank. We also want to do some New York style cabaret. I’m also planning to bring in some guest directors from here and Europe, maybe New York.”

 “We are doing stuff no one else is, and for a cheaper price. We do surveys after each show, and we have a 99% very satisfied rating.” How many shows per year would Hall like supporters of his theater to see in order to help it stay afloat? “Just come to one show. One. After that, I’m confident people will come back.”

 Break a leg, bro!

Words! Words! Words! – Charlie Storrar, James Lo, Angela Collenberg – Photo by Cheng Yi Lee

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What’s friendly, cheap, and doesn’t pay taxes in Taiwan? Me? Nope.The future? I hope not. But you’re schmart if you guessed the Uber ride-hailing service. It’s a super popular app: freedom from betel nut, 100NT cheaper, and schmartphone friendly. The future will be good because of innovations like Uber! Too bad it got kiboshed for being totally illegal, say betel-nut-phobes and technophiles alike, hoping that it returns to the streets of Taipei,  

 But Uber ain’t blowing up my skirt, if you know what I mean. And it’s not just because I have a fondness for Taiwanese cabbies. It’s also because I’ve come to the conclusion that technology is not always our friend, dear reader. Not when one is on the wrong end of the better weapon, for example, or on the wrong side of history, and not when corporate profits and shareholder value mean getting rid of your job. Case in point: Uber. “First, they came for the taxi drivers!”

 Then they’ll come for your job. According to a 2013 Oxford University study, as many as 47% of American jobs could eventually be replaced by automation. Other sources estimate up to 50% unemployment in 30 years. Factory workers, replaced by industrial robots, you think? Yes, of course. That’s been happening for decades. But also drivers of all sorts.Uber’s real plan isn’t to provide a new system where more presentable human drivers in shiny app-summoned-cars replace grumpy old men in beat up cabs. It’s going to use self-driving cars to replace human drivers altogether. Within 20 years, most commercial fleet drivers will also be replaced. (That’s a 10-4 good buddy!) Airline pilots will be next. But wait – computers can’t do that! Wrong verb tense English teachers! They couldn’t do that. Now they can. And a lot of your jobs will soon have been replaced, in the future imperfect. Not only will live video technology and 5G VoIP upgrades mean that you will soon be competing online with all the great unwashed native speakers of the West, but AI enhanced learning will diminish the value of the human teacher to that of a bright-eyed greeter. We may always need human doctors, but we may not need them as surgeons or diagnosticians. Robots can perform delicate surgical procedures more precisely and safely than human hands. Intelligent agents sifting through terabytes of “big” medical data can cross-reference your symptoms better than any human brain.

Robots and AI aren’t just becoming more efficient, they also don’t need unions, good working conditions, vacations, salaries, pensions, or health insurance. And they are getting cheaper and better every year.

The “end of employment” will set us free, we are told, to do higher things. Like write poetry and debate the soul in neo-renaissance communes in the forest? Or to get drunk under the bridge along with the taxi drivers, speechwriters, economists, historians, reporters, technical writers, copy writers, translators, models, cooks, construction workers, accountants, and models, to name but a few? Whatever makes the boss more money, I expect.

But who is going to buy all the products and services if we don’t have jobs? Don’t worry buddy! There will be lots of cheap stuff for oompa loompas like us. If a slum dweller in Manila can afford a cell phone, don’t worry, you can too! Some techno-utopians argue that things will get so cheap that you won’t need much money. But while wages have been stagnant for 15 years due to automation and offshoring, food prices and real estate prices have been going up for decades for the most basic of reasons: increasing demand, especially for things like meat. Futurists create wondrous visions of remote work from cheap 3D-printed homes, as well as super-efficient food production in vertical farms. Ant burgers in the trailer park? Or syntho-steak under the pine trees? Same answer as above.

Other futurists tout a “basic human income”. (It’s already happening in Finland!) We won’t need jobs because we’ll get super welfare. Party at my place! But that’s hard for me to get my head around too. Let’s assume 50% unemployment in the year 2050. First, that’s a huge hit to the tax base. But anyway, for the USA, let’s assume that 50% of the population – workers and their dependents – needs an annual basic human income of 12,000 USD (2017 adjusted) per person. 200 million (2050 estimate) people X 12k = equals 2.4 trillion USD per year, about four times America’s current military spending and 2/3 of the overall budget. Good luck getting that one through Congress!

But perhaps you think I am paranoid, dear reader. Even in this age of weakening democracy and rising inequality, there’s no way the uber rich would ever throw us decent middle-class hobbits under the bus! We’ll all be taken care of by our corporate overlords. There will be a bright new techno-world waiting for us. It’s the magic of the markets. So get into your shiny Uber and enjoy your ride to the future.

 Ubtopia? You-hopia!


Hey punk! Do you feel lucky?

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