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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Yo! Mr. Trudeau sir! Have you got a pair?


Why is it that right-wing douchebags like Trump have the nerve to stand up to asshole communist regimes like China, but supposedly decent, principled guys like Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau don’t?

As a Canadian living in Taiwan for the last fifteen years, I was gratified by the news of Trump’s phone call with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, just as I have been appalled at most else he’s done or said. I’m very from being on the right wing – even in strictly Canadian terms – and I’m sick of hearing Trump’s name, but l welcomed his pre-inauguration call to Taiwanese president Tsai Yingwen, which angered China. The reason is simple: what Taiwan needs most is recognition from the world. Its invisibility makes marginalization and coercion by China much more likely. And since Taiwan is a free, democratic country with a lot in common with Canada, that would be a huge shame.

Not that you’d likely have heard much about Taiwan’s unique society before Trump’s call, or his subsequent remarks doubling down on the “one China” policy.

Recognition of Taiwan has been constantly blocked by communist-controlled China, which has territorial claims on the prosperous island, considering it a renegade province that has never re-unified with the mainland after losing the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Taiwan has to compete in the Olympics as “Chinese Taipei”. (Imagine how Canadians would feel about competing as “British Ottawa!”) China wants the flag of Taiwan to be invisible to the public, even outside Taiwan’s “officially unofficial” embassy in Washington DC. Taiwan cannot participate in the WHO, thanks to China, except as “Chinese Taipei” with only observer status. Even Switzerland’s ISO considers Taiwan to be “Taiwan, province of China.”


Yet despite a supposed tradition of standing up for democracy, Canada has done little since Harper’s early years to stand up to China on anything, let alone Taiwan. Current PM Justin Trudeau has cozied up to China, with plans to negotiate a mutual extradition treaty, despite the growing superpower’s recent vicious crackdown on human rights lawyers. At a recent IATA air-safety meeting in Montreal, Taiwan was shut out at China’s request. What “Mr. Wonderful” Trudeau say about this on his home turf? Nothing.

In addition, the CBC’s coverage of Taiwan has been very light on anything positive, even about the massive December 10 rally in Taipei that saw 250,000 people support same-sex marriage, an change endorsed by Taiwan’s female president. Taiwan may very well become the first nation in Asia to support marriage equality, a fact reported by news outlets around the world. Yet a Google search for “Taiwan marriage equality CBC” comes up blank. However, the numerous CBC articles about Trump’s recent statements about Taiwan have focused on China’s angry response, or the risks Trump is taking. References to Taiwan’s democracy are often couched in terms of how Trump should not “recognize Taiwan as an independent democratic country.”

Well, I’ve got news for you CBC: Taiwan is an independent democratic country. What’s more, it has a humane political culture, the rule of law, and a free press, unlike China. Also unlike China, it doesn’t illegally detain and torture human rights activists. Heck, it even has good public healthcare! It’s a friendly, peaceful, hardworking nation, the kind of place Canadians would instantly connect with.


It’s also a real success story as a self-made country. Taiwan was one of the original Asian tigers, and although times are tougher now (as they are all over) it still has a decent standard of living, low unemployment, and a dynamic electronics industry. In terms of overall quality of life, people in Canada are a bit better off. But we did that with a huge trove of natural resources, and the benefit of having the world’s greatest superpower as our friend and neighbor. Taiwan achieved almost the same thing with a growing hostile giant as their neighbor, and with comparatively few natural resources, except human resources that is.

Taiwan is one of the good guys, and it could use a shout out from our government. It could use a bit more sunlight in the international arena, and it could use the occasional word of overt verbal support by leaders with more class than Donald Trump.

But don’t expect that from young Trudeau. He’s high on oil pipe dreams of trade with China, and for him principles seem to be just words used for locking in voter base, not for standing up for human rights worldwide. It’s a damn shame.

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Will Taiwan get lucky with the surge in foreign students?

 Music pumps, alcohol is consumed, hormones are released, bodies gyrate! It’s another Ladies’ Night at the Brass Monkey pub in downtown Taipei, for many folks a great way to release their mid-week tension. But could this cross-cultural revelry also be part of the answer to making Taiwan more internationally competitive?

 Maybe! Because tearing up the dance floor are a group from the “Foreign Students in Taiwan” club at their weekly “International Mingle”. FSIT’s ranks have continued to swell in recent years – their FB page now has almost 15,000 members – part of a steady increase in the number of foreign students that many hope will make Taiwan wiser in the ways of the world.

 Taiwan needs more foreign talent! Every year, up to 30,000 ambitious local professionals leave to work in China, the USA, or other places where salaries are higher and opportunities more diverse. In addition, about 56,000 Taiwanese annually go abroad to study in the USA, the UK, Japan, China or Korea – among other countries. After graduation, many of these find jobs in China, Europe or the USA.

 This is a serious loss, as the native labor force is shrinking due to age, and comes at a time when Taiwan needs its best and brightest to compete in a global economy increasingly driven by innovation.

  However, while government measures to attract foreign professionals to Taiwan to fill this gap have been limp, the number of foreign students in Taiwan has been growing impressively. From 2006 to 2014, the total number of foreign students – whether for degree, diploma, short course, exchange program, or Mandarin language training – went from 27,000 to almost 93,000, an increase of 66,000. Of this 93,000, 33,000 were from Mainland China, and 20,000 were “overseas compatriots” i.e. ethnic Chinese not from the PRC without a Taiwan ID card, often from Hong Kong or Malaysia. That’s a lot of Han bodies, but still leaves 40,000 students per year from other cultures, an increase of about 23,000 from 2006.

 Out of a total of 1.3 million college students overall, that’s not much – only 3%. But it’s still much higher than the overall percentage of Westerners in the workforce. And on campuses with international MBA programs and Mandarin training centers (NTU, NTNU, NCCU, to name a few), it’s even more noticeable.

 This leads to all kinds of cultural exchanges: local students and staff have a chance to interact with students from around the globe: Russia, India, Turkey, Italy, Latin America, as well as North America and Western Europe; foreign students get to experience the Taiwanese. Everybody gets lucky!

 That is something the FSIT and its co-founder Daniel Tarpy are best at. Tarpy was born into a multicultural world. His dad was a US navy sailor in the Vietnam War, and Tarpy himself was born in ‘the PI’, the Philippines. His parents took a position as missionaries in Taiwan, which is why Tarpy lives here. In 2011, he was involved with TedX at Ming Chuan University, where he is now doing his master’s in global affairs, and in the same year he and some classmates started the FSIT. The vision was, he says, “to integrate the world, to have less violence, more understanding.” The group has held arts and games events, big parties – as well as their weekly “mingle” at the Brass Monkey. Naturally, with university students, there is a lot – ahem – ‘going on’. Romance between foreigners and locals is nothing new to Taiwan, and Tarpy says that about half of foreign students date each other and the other half date locals. He says that the biggest cross-cultural pattern here is Caucasian on Taiwanese, but notes that there is a shift toward increasing numbers of Taiwanese men with Caucasian women. That’s one indicator of cross-cultural influence. Another is the growing number of Taiwanese students who seem totally at home around foreigners. “Some students just seem more comfortable with an international crowd. Others don’t. You can really tell the difference.”

 But while this spike of foreign students is helping future professionals to be more open minded and comfortable working in close-quarters with a multicultural crowd, can it really make up for the brain drain?

 Thanks to recent changes in government policy, foreign students can now get part-time open work permits. Many of them give language classes (privates) or work as servers. Also, after graduation, they can get a 6-month visa extension to look for jobs, and don’t need to meet the normal requirement of two years of work experience before they can be hired by Taiwanese companies. Many stay on as teachers or do sales and marketing jobs for local companies exporting to their own countries, and a lot of ethnic Chinese from Southeast Asia work in the ICT industry.

 But not only are their numbers far fewer, they also lack the experience of those heading abroad. In fact, many argue that the brain drain cannot be stopped unless its underlying cause is addressed – low salaries. Why would top talent come here if they are seduced by better paying rivals like China? And why wouldn’t an adventurous young Taiwanese engineer, facing the grim realities of local salary levels, want to get some experience in Silicon Valley?

  It’s a hard one: in the age of offshoring, automation and AI, salaries are not likely to rise significantly. And in terms of this recent bulge in foreign students eventually fulfilling Taiwan’s needs, no one knows how long it’s really going to be!

 The FSIT Students in Taiwan is a lovely group of bright young people who were very kind to me and I hold them in high esteem. If you are bored and want to blow off some steam, go to the Brass Monkey’s Ladies’ Night on Thursdays, dear reader, and say “Hi!” to Daniel Tarpy and friends. You’ll have a blast!


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A History of Pessimism in Taiwan


Over time , I have decided that that many Taiwanese have a tendency toward pessimism – or at least an aversion to optimism – about change and “making their own luck”. For right now specifically, this pessimism is about the economic future of Taiwan, and what the prospects are for the younger generation. So how did we get to this gloomy situation? It is quite likely that normal fears at ever-changing challenges have been reinforced by historical experience.

The morale of those living in post-war Taiwan was grim. In 1950, the Nationalists lost the Chinese Civil War, although they clung to the forlorn hope that they would someday “Retake the Mainland!” The best they could do though was to hang on to Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu. Even that was touch and go: the specter of a major war with Mao’s People’s Republic of China (PRC) loomed large throughout the 1950’s, as the PRC gobbled up some ROC-held islands off the mainland coast, and engaged in artillery battles with Republic of China (ROC) forces in the Kinmen and Matsu islands.


Military tension legitimized martial law, and the Taiwan Garrison Command had the power to detain, torture and execute almost anyone they wanted to, whether an alleged communist agent or Taiwan independence activist. To boot, Taiwan’s economy was in recession. For the average Taiwanese, life was tough.

But things got better. From 1959, there was a cease-fire, the beginning of today’s status quo. Moreover, the economy stabilized, and started to improve. And improve. And improve! And then a miracle happened: the Taiwan Economic Miracle. From cane rat to Asian tiger in just 20 years!

Taiwan’s economy had long been agricultural, sugar being the main export. But to help with the war, Japan had started industrialization. Under the KMT, this continued, first as import substitution, then as manufacturing for product export. Expansion was facilitated by infrastructure development, such as government-built ports, highways, railways etc. The 1970’s and 80’s also saw the beginnings of offshoring for the burgeoning US electronics industry, for which Taiwan was an early partner. Investment capital and expert advice were not in short supply; nor were native work ethic or business savvy.

The results rocked: In 1960, Taiwan’s per capita GDP was the same as Swaziland’s. By 1980, it almost equaled that of Portugal.

Per Wikipedia: “Between 1952 and 1982, economic growth was on average 8.7%, and between 1983 and 1986 at 6.9%. The gross national product grew by 360% between 1965 and 1986. The percentage of global exports was over 2% in 1986 … industrial production output grew a further 680% between 1965 and 1986.”


Healthcare and education improved, and a new middle class emerged, the grandparents and parents of today’s students and young working people.

With wealth came a stronger military. But the security situation was in constant flux. The United Nations recognized the PRC as “China” in 1971, triggering Chiang Kai-shek to quit the UN. The US broke off formal diplomatic relations with the ROC in 1979, and most American soldiers left. However, the US Congress also passed the Taiwan Relations Act, promising welcome (if vaguely worded) military support.

Although martial law was relaxed somewhat after CKS’ death in 1975, police busted up a pro-democracy march in Kaohsiung in 1979. The following year saw a series of arrests and murders of underground activists, and many others fled police, often with the help of the Presbyterian Church.

In 1987, President Chiang Ching-kuo – CKS’ son – ended martial law and further democratized the country. The pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, founded in 1986, became legal and gained greater influence. In 1988, native son Lee Tung-hui became the KMT president of Taiwan, pivoting the government toward independence and localization.

This situation was far from ideal for the old-guard Nationalists, who longed for (re)unification with China. Also, the country as a whole faced some challenges. Economic growth was slowing and rival China was increasing in power, both as a business competitor and as a military threat. But overall things weren’t too bad! Taiwan had a free democracy; the children of the Taiwan Miracle workers enjoyed a standard of living far exceeding their predecessors. And America was there in case of trouble with China.

So, as opposed to Taiwan’s history leading inevitably to pessimism, these years provided a significant basis for optimism. Does this then unravel my thesis? Not so fast, dear reader! Our despair wouldn’t be properly gloomy if we didn’t first crush false hope!

Since the 90s, China has been expanding like a huge and dangerous red star just a few hundred kilometers away from Taiwan, the power of its gravity pulling on the entire world. Financially, militarily, and diplomatically far outmatched, the Taiwanese must feel sometimes like the heirs of Koxinga, waiting for China to come in force to capture – one way or another – their Kingdom of Taiwan.

Democracy – always more attractive in the abstract – has proven somewhat farcical to many Taiwanese, what with former president Chen Shui-bian being jailed for corruption, badly failed economic promises by the last president Ma Ying-jeou, and legislators regularly performing stunts or throwing chairs at each other – when they aren’t being overrun by student activists!

In the economy, wages have stagnated for almost 15 years, causing a brain drain of the best and brightest to China, America and Europe. Plans to be a “center of value-added innovation for the global ICT supply chain” or “the new southbound policy” sound suspiciously like old wine in new bottles.

Hence, it’s no surprise that the Taiwanese can seem a bit resigned and gloomy about the future sometimes. It’s hard to feel that your glass is half full when the level is falling and the bartender is always busy with other customers!

On the bright side though, many observers feel there is still a path back to tiger-hood for Taiwan, if it has the guts to embrace it. They say Taiwan needs to shake off the ghosts of the past and become truly innovative – in effect, to pour a really new wine into the glass. I hope so. And on that note, dear reader, I’m off to the pub myself!

Pouring red wine into glass

Keep it coming!

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Lunman the Burgermeister

This article is dedicated to Andrew Lunman, friend to me and many others, and a smart traveler rat who not only stayed out of the swamp, but also made life on the beach better for all! Hope you’re enjoying life back in Canada!

Bongos in 2003 was the blasting off point for the Taipei burger wave, and Lunman’s career as a successful restaurant owner. By 2004 the burgers, beer and Mexican food place in the Gongguan student ghetto was “busy every day”, he said. Despite a somewhat hard-to-find location, Bongo’s made a beefy splash in both the foreign and local NTU student community. People loved the food and the price was right, just 190NT for a good burger, fries and drink. Although larger operations were in his future, Lunman says, “I never equaled the return on investment I got from Bongos.”

 It was the culmination of several streams of experience in Lunman’s life. One of these was education. Lunman graduated in management economics at Guelph University, cooking his way through college. After graduation, he became a loans officer – “Frosty the No Man” as he put it – for the Royal Bank of Canada. He hated that for 8 months, then decided to go on the road.

 That’s where he got some of his core restaurant cooking experience. In 1999 he ended up in Australia with almost no money, so he started working for various restaurants to make some cash. He soon had to a chance to apply for a rather posh job at Club Med in the Whitsunday Islands, a position that was pretty far above his level of restaurant experience at that time. However, Lunman says that he was “creative in the interview process”, and managed to score a test of competency at the job, which was a demo cooking position, cooking right out in front of the customers. It was a serious challenge to live up to the performance requirements of a restaurant run by French chefs, one that he says he met with a “laser like focus”, working long hours, asking questions, and swotting up on the manuals for the Australian Culinary School.

 Then one day, something totally unexpected happened. He was working diligently away out in the dining room when flames and smoke started shooting out of the main Club Med kitchen, 30 meters away. Too focused on trying to keep up with orders to think about anything else, he kept cooking away while the place was being evacuated and the fire brigade came in. “After that, they thought I was utterly unflappable!” This may have helped him pass his probation and keep the job! He and stayed on for about 6 months, eventually leaving so he could travel around Australia for a few years. But then it was time to go back to Canada.

 Lunman worked in Whistler, British Columbia doing Italian and French food, because the mountain tourist town just north of Vancouver was always busy with tourists. It was also a well-known stop on the travelers’ trail that he had come to love. But he didn’t want to do this forever: “It was too much work for too little money. And I realized that I didn’t want to be a kitchen slave or an office monkey.” He said that he was ready to go to Asia and make some money teaching English. “I had an international mindset. I was a rolling stone, and didn’t want to settle into a 9 to 5 career. That was not the way I wanted to live my life.”

 So he came to Taiwan in 2001, hoping to find what he called “a paid adventure”. He started off teaching kids and then became a hockey coach as well, working long hours. But then he noticed the lack of good Western food. “There was nothing really good. There was Grandma Nitty’s, and places like TGI Friday’s, which isn’t good food, or you end up paying 600 – 700 NT for a meal.” He said to himself, “Here’s an opportunity!”

 So he opened his first restaurant, Blast Burger: “I just jumped in, boots and all.” It was in a high traffic area in a food court in Zhonghe by an RT Mart hypermarket and under a large apartment building. He signed contracts, bought equipment, and just went for it, with a menu that included fish and chips, wings, quesadillas, burgers, sausages, and weekly specials. But it didn’t work out. “I made only a little bit of money, and not enough to pay back my initial investment.” However, he said that it was a real learning experience. He wasn’t so busy, so he had time to observe the walkers by, and see who showed an interest. “Every type of person that you can imagine walked through that food court.” Old people, young people, city slickers and Uncle Binlang in his white and blue flip flops, everybody, he said. He said he began to enjoy profiling the people to try and guess where they’d stop and eat in the food court, which had noodle places, dumpling places, etc. “I started to see very clearly what choices people made. I realized who my customers were. They were all under 30, nobody over 35. And they were fairly well dressed. They wore Western brands, fashionable things.”

 He also learned some other useful lessons. “You have to be careful with contracts,” he said. “Things like cleaning services and upgraded electricity never happened.” “That entire food court was built on lies,” he said. When he left he remembers a Taiwanese man from the food court committee in a shiny suit smiling at him and saying, “Now you know what it’s like to do business in Taiwan!”

 Undeterred, and now reinforced with Debby, his then girlfriend and current wife, he decided to try again. He now had all the experience he needed: management skills, cooking skills, and a target market that was chosen from real experience. The result was Bongo’s, which he renovated by himself with “duct tape and bubble gum.”

By 2004 and he was already experiencing “the growing pains of success” from the roaring burger trade he was doing. “I was so busy, just absorbed in it.” He said he had two restaurants’ worth of business, so that’s when he decided to open CODA, another success story. “If I didn’t copy myself, somebody else was going to do it.” CODA, he said, was a good facility with a purpose built kitchen. In fact, he says that he planned CODA as a central kitchen for further restaurant projects. CODA, just around the corners from Bongo’s, was more upscale, including special salads, pastas and thin crust pizza. “Food I wanted to do,” he said. He also said he wanted the brand to stand by itself. “I never wanted it to be ‘Andrew’s store,’” grunted Lunman. His plan worked and CODA started thriving too, adding another cash cow to his small but growing herd.

 There were some interesting cultural bumps along the road. He said there was an old man with an illegal breakfast shop near CODA and Bongos. Lunman would visit it every day, and the old man running it always smiled at him very politely. But then things started happening: the police were called on late night noise complaints. “But we were only open to 10pm!” There were other false allegations made, like that they were having karaoke nights, or lacked required equipment, like a smoke hood and fan. He said someone even bribed a Taipei City official to pull his business license, which he only got back by using a local ombudsman from the community. Then one day one of his neighbors finally told him about what was going on: it was the old man. He had been instantly averse to having a foreigner set up shop in in the neighborhood, and had been constantly complaining to everyone all the time about Bongo’s. He was furious when Lunman got his business license back, and showed no sign of being willing to accept the foreign element in his neighborhood. So Lunman started to retaliate: “I started to make official complaints about his business! And the police and the city people kept showed up at his place. Eventually he gave up.”

 Exploring the topic of culture more, Lunman talks about racism in Taiwan. He says that there is a lot of xenophobia about foreigners, but not much overt racism. But when it does exist, it can be sneaky. He had told me before how foreigners stick out here, and can therefore attract problems with illegal or semi-legal businesses. They also lack the support network of guanxi that locals have, so they should be very careful with their relationships. “When my landlord came over to renegotiate the lease, I’d drink tea with him for a couple of hours.”

 Now that his operation was on a roll, Lunman launched Forkers, the first true gourmet burger restaurant in Taipei, near Zhongxiao Dunhua. The restaurant exploded almost from day one. Success was “instant and overwhelming,” said Lunman. “Forkers paid for itself in six months. There was a bit of burnout and success shock. But it was nice to see all my plans come to fruition.”

 Riding the wave, he opened Forkers 2, near Zhongshan MRT. He said it grossed 1,000,000 NT in the first month. He now had four stores going on. “It was too much on my plate.” He said his success had painted a bullseye on his chest: “The green eyed monster reared its ugly head.” He was getting constant neighbor complaints and online smearing. He was still top of the heap, but the competitive environment was changing. Many other gourmet burger places started up, like Evans, KGB, and many more. “By 2011, there were about 1000 burger restaurants in Taiwan.” Costs were going up, but he couldn’t increase prices too much or else he’d lose customers to cheaper competitors. One example was fryer oil: “When I started out, 18L cost 280NT. In 2012, it was up to 1000NT.” Rent was increasing too, as the property market kept heating up. “I could see the writing on the wall. There were stormy seas ahead,” he said. He saw only two choices: either go bigger still, or sell and consolidate. He chose the latter option, selling off Forkers 1 and 2, and consolidating Bongo’s and CODA into one location. That done, he started thinking about going home to Canada with Debby, and spending some time with his family there.

 But before that, he had something else to do. “I wanted to give back to the community. When I started all my businesses, I had no one there to turn to. I wanted to have a foreigner small business network where people could support each other, so they wouldn’t have to operate in a vacuum.” So, even though it took a huge amount of effort, the CCCT’s Taiwan Small Business Network was born, and had soon made a name for itself. It was a packed house at CODA September 2015 that started off the recent monthly series of TSBN events, where successful foreign entrepreneurs shared their knowledge. “I am very happy with the CCCT right now. There is a happy and active chamber, and a board environment that is more open. And there’s a strong and active SBC that is actually helping small business people today.”

 There are lots of new faces now. And we’re really helping them, hearing their thanks. That’s why we do it.” On behalf of everyone that you have helped, thank you again, Andrew Lunman, boss of the burger, promoter of poutine, giver of gravy, brother in beer, shooter of pucks, stalwart of the small business community!

 Before our interview ended, he shared a few parting words of mentorship to future entrepreneurs. “If you really feel the drive, its right for you. But if you are running away from something you don’t like, if you are sick of teaching, this is not a good reason to start your own business.” He says that he usually tells this to people as a warning. For those that insist on going that route, he has this to say: “Be careful! Being an entrepreneur is not for everyone. It’s stressful, challenging, exhausting and risky. Not just ‘I didn’t make any money risky’. Not making money is not what I mean by failure. In addition to draining bank accounts, it can destroy relationships, affect your self-esteem, even your mental stability. It’s a real risk.”


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PRIDE! Asian Millenium

UPDATE: Since this post was originally published in October 2016, there have been huge pro and anti marriage equality demonstrations in Taiwan. Taiwan’s president Tsai Ying-wen has stalled on putting through legislation, and now the issue will be put to the test in 5 referendums on the issue, 2 for, 3 against marriage equality, to be held alongside the minicipal elections on November 24th.


Is Confucius dead? Well, of course he is! His bones are long since dust. But is the power of the Chief Teacher now over, that giant who cast a long and often-luminous shadow over 2,500 years of history?

The West had a similar moment: “God is dead!” said Nietzsche, his moral authority killed by reason and humanism in the Enlightenment. But now perhaps it is East Asia’s turn, or more specifically, that of Taiwan. Has the traditional influence of this venerable old Grand Master been killed by the new modernity? Generational change and the Internet? Or is the old dude’s ideology still ruling the roost?

Rather than inventing the whole thing himself, Confucius actually formalized and polished up a pre-existing “golden age” system of values from the Zhou dynasty. This system went on to strongly influence the politics and society of China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam, as well as overseas Chinese communities worldwide, most notably in Singapore. He is the most famous ancient Chinese person in the world: if you asked a 12 year old in Appalachia, they’d probably know his name!

Like most traditional Chinese systems, Confucianism is richly complex, a mixture of spiritualism, ritual, social values, and practical wisdom. But one aspect stands out very clearly, hierarchy. Hierarchy in Confucian society was defined within the larger context of five key relationships: Ruler to subject, father to son, husband to wife, older brother to younger brother, and friend to friend. (This latter relationship was the only egalitarian one.) Other relationships mattered of course. Teachers were respected, mothers too. Daughters also had to respect dad. But everyone was put into their slot, their position on the team, and had to play that position. That was what made for a harmonious society.

Like most hierarchies though, the harmony was less wonderful if you were lower in the pecking order, and worse still if you had no formal place in it all. This was an important reality for women in general, lesbians in particular, and for gay men as well.

In Confucian society, a woman were generally respected as an obedient, humble and hardworking wife or daughter. Her role in society was to obey, and above all, produce a male heir for hubby.

Obviously this is no longer the case in Taiwan. Many Taiwanese women are getting married later, some are getting married but not having kids, and some are not getting married at all! Part of this is economic: it’s tough to have kids in today’s economy. But some of it has to do with freedom, the desire not to be encumbered by a man or children. Women deciding for themselves not to be mothers or wives? Aiyo!

In fact, the current president is an unmarried woman! She has a trans-woman on her cabinet, Audrey Yang, minister of digital affairs. None of this seems to fit in terribly well with a conservative approach to Confucian values. Nor does the growing acceptance of same sex couples.

But then perhaps that’s because we tend to imagine Confucian values more strictly than they are. Confucian views on being queer were less shame-oriented than in the West. Gay men who married and had kids in Imperial China were not typically stigmatized. Punishments by the law were fairly light, and seldom applied. There was no great judicial fervor to “root out” gay men. And if it was rumored that some women were “special friends” with each other, this was merely a matter of gossip, not even a crime. In fact, as long as it was invisible, it was as if it didn’t even exist.

But however tolerant society was, being LGBTQ was still considered something to be ashamed of, something against nature, something to be hidden.

Not anymore! At the LGBT Pride Parade in Taipei, they sure ain’t hidin’ and there’s not a trace of shame to be seen! On Halloween weekend, an expected 80,000 members of the LGBTQ community – and their friends, family and other supporters – march through the heart of Taipei in an extremely colorful throng. It’s more than a show of pride, it’s also a show of millennial power: the power of youth, the power of numbers, the power of solidarity!


The parade started in 2003 and dramatically highlights the fact that Taiwan has perhaps the best LGBTQ scene in Asia. This extends well beyond the emblematic bars and nightclubs. Overall, there is a significant level of tolerance and acceptance of alternative lifestyles. Homosexuality is legal. LGBTQ workers are protected against discrimination by law. Transsexual people can legally register a change of gender. Gays and lesbians can serve in the military. These formal factors are augmented by the aforementioned general “Who cares?” attitude.

However, there’s still a long way to go. The fear of being bullied keeps many kids in the closet in high school. Post high school is a more common time to come out, with sex legally permitted, less supervision, and more support groups available. But there is still trouble with upsetting family members, so some gays and lesbians never fully come out to their parents. Although discrimination at work is illegal, it is hard to prevent. Is malicious gossip discrimination? If the boss doesn’t promote a gay man to the rank of manager, is it because of sexual orientation, or a performance issue?

So while the level of tolerance and human rights here in Taiwan is fairly good, I think it’s a case of Confucius just being in a mellower mood recently, not actually dead.

Something that would change all that would be marriage equality. Proposals are pending for a bill that would recognize same sex marriages, but they have run up against silent opposition. Key people – most likely older men, as ever the defenders of “old school” values – seem to be blocking it from the shadows. More visible are some rabidly-homophobic fringe Christian groups. President Tsai has yet to make any bold public steps to confront this. If she did, it would cement Taiwan’s position as a leading progressive Asian nation.

What would Confucius say about actually having same sex married couples protected by law, having kids with two moms or two dads? Now that would be a big nail in the  old boy’s coffin!


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The Swamp


Of course, Taiwan wasn’t my first travel rodeo. When I was quite a bit younger, I traveled around, including to, among other places, Venezuela. One great memory I have of that trip was two nights spent camping on the beach of Cayo Sombrero in Morrocoy National Park, a lovely small island and a true Caribbean paradise of coral, crystal waters, white sand, and coconut palms. Venezuelans know how to relax and have fun! So there was a good vibe too, with happy groups swimming and boating – or just hanging out merrily on the beach. I spent most nights by the campfire, and much of the day snorkeling, but also did some general walking around just to see what was. On the second afternoon I walked inland a bit to check out the interior, hidden from sight by a berm of silver sand and some dense foliage. I found a way in, and was really surprised by what was back there, just a stone’s throw from the beach: a stinking brackish swamp, with a few scrubby bushes around a dull pond of stagnant water, and lots of tiny biting flies in the foul, stuffy air! Salty water from the sea mixed with scant rainwater had accumulated with little natural drainage, creating the dismal place. I quickly returned to the beach, and in seconds the sea breeze blew away all the stank.

It was an interesting learning experience; ugliness is often hiding just behind beauty. This can happen in cultures as well. No place is perfect of course, and that includes my beloved chosen home Taiwan. The point is, if you do live in a place, know where the swamp is so you can stay away from it. And don’t get stuck in it, especially not the cultural swamp!

Much has been said about the food, scenery, positive atmosphere, and general high quality of life in Taiwan. It has also been said many times that perhaps the main attraction here is the Taiwanese people themselves, a peaceful, friendly bunch, for the most part. There’s lots of smiling, courtesy and warm helpfulness to strangers. One can make some good friends here over time, and the cross-cultural romances are quite sincere. If you lose your wallet or cell phone in a taxi, there’s a good chance it will be returned to you. And it’s hard not to be charmed by this plucky underdog nation, the only democracy in Chinese history, daring to be itself on the edge of a grim and grumpy old China that wants to annex it. Wow! I love Taiwan!

But if that all sounds too good to be true, it is. Like everywhere else, there’s a dark side here, like the thugs who sell heroin to addicts and enslave women as prostitutes, or the corrupt officials whose greed leads to social injustice. These are the sharks, the predators picking on the weak, and they swim through every water on earth.

However, what I’m talking about today, dear reader, is The Swamp: Cultural stagnation, or rather, aspects of the culture that promote stagnation. Here’s one, which ironically may be the flip side of the peacefulness and tolerance the Taiwanese value so highly: their apparent apathy. The boss is working you half to death without paying you overtime? Don’t make a fuss. The neighbor is drinking heavily and beating his dog? Don’t make a fuss. Just groan and put up with it. Complain a bit to your close friends and family, but don’t actually do anything about it. The ideal here is social harmony, not rocking the boat. Part of this is rooted in Taoism, which advocates letting go of expectations about life and accepting the natural flow of things. One old Taoist adage is of a person who lives their whole life hearing the barking of the dogs from the next village, yet never goes there. Of course, that’s an ancient ideal, expressed poetically. But it’s not without ongoing resonance. Confucianism fits in with this as well: wait for an authority to tell you how to do things, or just do things the standard approved way.


Another reason for apathy is the fear of angering someone with the ability to harm or humiliate them, like a gangster, or a powerful family member or coworker. So if something troublesome happens, just turn a blind eye instead of getting involved. Stay out of trouble! Here’s one example: if a foreign dude wa would s coming out of a bar in Taiwan and broke his leg falling down the stairs, people almost certainly look after him very well. Everyone would be concerned, an ambulance would come soon, and the poor guy would be taken off to good medical treatment at a reasonable price. It would be another “I love Taiwan!” moment. But if instead, that same foreigner had offended some self-styled tough guy, making him lose face by getting too much attention from some girl, then it could be very different. The guy might get jumped by Mr. A-hole and five of his friends on the way out. They’d give him a good bashing for about 20 seconds, then take off. Here’s the rub: no bystanders would get involved in the fight, and when the police showed up, no one would have seen a thing. The CCTV cameras? Well, sorry we can’t really do anything, the police would say, while thinking: “No one’s dead and it’s just a foreigner. Maybe those guys were really mobbed up. Don’t make a fuss!” For the bleeding and befuddled foreign guy it’s an interesting lesson in cross-cultural communication!

Or at work, here’s another common scenario: Australian Rachel, the new online marketing manager for a Taiwanese company is getting stabbed in the back by a jealous Taiwanese coworker, who is lying about her to the boss, his friend. Will her other Taiwanese coworkers tell her? Of course not! Her boss, being shrewd, instinctively realizes that he may not be getting the whole story. But rather than risk social harmony at work, lets her go. The boss then hires some foreign guy to take her place, making the backstabbing coworker his supervisor. The backstabbing coworker, jealous that the new guy is making the same salary as him, makes the guy’s work life difficult, and belittles him behind his back. Welcome to the Swamp!

Marriage to a local can also lead into the Swamp. If the marriage sours, then the foreigner with no guanxi (= connections = hit points) might be in for some trouble, with pro-local judges unlikely to rule in their favor. He or she might lose custody of their child, and have little recourse to regain custody. And if the business, apartment, bank account or other property is in the name of the local spouse, then that can also be a major problem. People have been really messed up by this.

Again, ironically, the flip side to the legendary Taiwanese friendliness toward foreigners may be their subconscious insistence that their foreignness defines them. In normative terms, this means that rules on foreigners should not always be the same as those for Taiwanese, even when the difference is illogical and discriminatory. For example, in the national health insurance system, babies from a foreign couple aren’t covered until they are six months old. If there are birth complications, then that can be a big financial problem for the parents. It doesn’t seem to make any sense: Taiwan isn’t a birth destination like the USA, and foreigners here pay taxes and NHI premiums. So why hasn’t this obviously unfair law been changed? Because some civic groups object to that change without other changes being made for their constituents, underprivileged groups In Taiwan. There’s no logical connection, but few people really care. Vague but strong jealousy toward foreigners among nativists, and the general irrelevance of foreigners to most locals on a day-to-day basis, makes this a non-issue for the vast majority of Taiwanese. But it’s a hell of a hard landing for some foreigner residents.

Foreigners have trouble getting credit cards because “If they run away to their own country, how can we get the money they owe us from them?” Never mind that the foreigner in question has lived here for 10 years, is married with two kids and owns a business! He’s still a foreigner. I’ve even heard of an American who had revoked his US citizenship to become a citizen of the Republic of China (Taiwan), not an easy process. One day, he noticed that an official had written on his official file: “foreigner with a Taiwanese ID card”!

That’s a funny example, but there are many more mundane ones that happen all the time. It’s like being in a vaguely defined business-class ghetto. Does that cause stagnation? It sure can. It can cause foreign residents to feel alienated from their chosen new home, and maybe leave, or base their business elsewhere. It can make them bitter, and less prone to the optimism that is at the heart of contributing your best to the society you live in. Which is the real irony, as it’s the contribution of talents, knowledge and ideas from abroad that makes foreigners genuinely useful here on this small island.

Of course, these kinds of things are relatively rare. The majority of the time, Taiwanese are super nice, and things work out for most foreign folk who come here, despite occasional gripes and groans. In fact, you might think this is all a lot of whinging, because bad things happen to good people all over the world.

It’s just that Taiwan is otherwise such a great place that it can shock you when things flip over so fast. If you run into some serious local bullshit, it can be really depressing, kind of like moving to a beautiful island, expecting a beach house, but ending up in a hut in the Swamp!

So be a smart traveler rat: stay on the beach!


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Welcome to Taiwan, foreigner!


And so, much as White men (and various other types of men and women) have been doing for hundreds of years, I arrived in East Asia (Taiwan) looking for adventure and loot! And much as East Asians have been doing for hundreds of years, I was stared at by people who felt that I was really different from them on some kind of fundamental level. And, yes, it does bother me somehow, even to this day, despite my history of wandering. But doesn’t change the fact that I love Taiwan!

In fact, in the last post I suggested that I might have been in some way prepared for the cultural adventure here in Taiwan by my long history of interacting with different groups of people worldwide. But when I got here I made many mistakes, and was almost totally unaware of the specifics of East Asian culture. You could almost say that I bumbled and stumbled my way into knowledge of what not to do! I spoke too loudly in public places. I complained noisily when things didn’t go well, not knowing how badly I was losing face and causing others to lose face. I confronted people directly, and said things like “That’s stupid!” if someone did something stupid. As if I was cool to call it stupid, instead of actually being a fool because I was saying too much! On many different levels, I was out of tune with all the subtle signals that people around me were trying to convey.

In terms of consequences, however, that didn’t matter in Taiwan quite as much as you might think. The locals here tend to be one of the friendliest groups of people in the world to foreigners, and very tolerant as well. This made it possible to keep making mistakes without even realizing it.

Yet gradually but inexorably, pattern recognition set in, data was compiled, and a mental map of the culture here began to form. I don’t mean the obvious things, like Taiwanese are laid-back but hard-working and very family oriented, or that there is a strong influence of traditional culture on the modern. I mean the deeper parts of culture that govern expectations and emotional reactions to other people in social situations. These were different from any other place I’d been before.

After enough interactions – both successful and unsuccessful – with Taiwanese, things clarified into two basic precepts to avoiding problems in Taiwan:

1) Chill out! People here did NOT like it AT ALL when other people –especially foreigners – got angry, rowdy, obviously frustrated, or in their face in any way. Go with the flow!

2) Don’t be fooled! People here could have it in for you without your knowledge. Or could seem to agree with you without actually even understanding what you were saying. Or seem like the sweetest people in the world until you worked for them, but then…! Not that everybody was like this; just some people. But they could affect your life.

If you could follow those two concepts, you’d be OK. People would treat you fairly well indeed, and you could live happily here, provided that you liked the food and other aspects of life here.

But that still didn’t change the fact that Taiwan is part of East Asia, thousands of kilometers from Europe and the Mediterranean, on the far side of the Eurasian land mass. East Asia is isolated from the West by vast steppes, deserts, tundra, jungles and mountains. Hence, it had evolved autonomously for thousands of years, totally self-sufficient in terms of culture and technology, before Whitey ever showed up in his ships. Over history, the different ethnic groups of the region, dominated by the Han of China, had developed knowledge of and relationships with each other; they had become familiar co-features in a (largely) shared view of the world. So when the bold, stinky and loot-lusting gingers showed up in the 15th century, it was a complete shock that such people could even exist. It was even more of a shock that they seemed to have little interest in fitting in to the East Asian’s largely shared view of the world, and indeed had their own very different view of the world. And it got even worse! They even imposed their own view of the world on the Asians! Aiyo!


Psssst! Wanna buy some opium?

The seismic wave of this cultural impact is still reverberating, and the initial response of “Huh?” when they see foreigners has faded only in part. People’s eyes almost pop sometimes when they see the see a White guy. (And they definitely pop when they see a Black guy!) For example, I’m in the elevator, going down. It stops on another floor, the door opens and there’s a local guy waiting to get into the elevator: He sees me: “Oh! A foreigner!!” his face says, so he either looks slightly terrified or has to engage me. Note, he has no fear that I will mistreat him. His fear is simply that he has to share space with me. Or, a mother is on the subway with her little boy, who looks at me and sees a face that is different, so quite normally he stares. Most probably he would get over it after a few minutes and look at something else. But instead his mother tells him how to react by her reaction, “Say hello! Say hello!” she says, making a big deal of it, and passing this “sense of intrinsic – as opposed to superficial – difference on.

Of course, the xenophobia in Taiwan is a much milder version than that of Japan or Korea, and can be in fact quite pleasant. It is a positive form of discrimination in many social situations. Ladies tend to think of foreign men as being more handsome than they would be regarded back home. People are very friendly and polite, helping out whenever necessary, and saying hello with big smiles.

But there is a deep sense of “us” and “them”, a high, steep wall around the culture that is almost insurmountable. No matter how long you are here, you will always be asked where you are from. This is something that is quite frankly annoying for those of us who have lived here for a long time. Don’t get me wrong, Taiwan is great, and I respect and have great fondness for the Taiwanese. But as Boromir might say on Facebook, “One does not simply become Taiwanese!”

This is very different from the experience of those of us who have come from multicultural societies.


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