Romance and a food analogy

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When I came to Taiwan my decision was shaped by a desire to learn Chinese and teach English, perhaps save money and live a less  work-driven lifestyle. The location within Taiwan was chosen primarily because I knew friends living and working in Kaohsiung. After all there are fewer romantic opportunities for a western woman relative to a western man in Taiwan. 

In the past few weeks, as summer simmers down to autumn, several couples have broken up. Whereas in mid June everyone was dating or having some kind of summer fling, now the cooler weather has also cooled the heads and hearts of my young adult friends.

One breakup in particular interests me because it addresses many of the issues of biracial couples in Taiwan. She is Taiwanese, he is American; this is her first boyfriend, and it is not his first girlfriend. Originally I met them a year ago as a long-established couple. 

The woman, J, became my friend because she was a friend of a friend and also has a very generous disposition when it comes to sharing food and travel with people she knows. The man, E, did not strike me as very pleasant; although we shared common interests his pomposity was only endured in social gatherings for the sake of J.

The understanding from the perspective of of Taiwanese people is that all white American men are sleazebags that have come to Taiwan to sleep with Taiwanese women. Some will say this is because Taiwanese women will happily sleep with Caucasian men because of their “western looks” and, ahem, other physical attributes despite their lousy work ethic or commitment phobias.

Talking with my male friends they admit it is also easier to date Taiwanese women because the women don’t ask to be impressed the same way a more belligerent western woman would demand, “What can you do for me?” or “Why do you think you’re special?” My understanding from talking with friends is that many relationships between western men and Taiwanese women are pursued because they are easy to start and maintain, although I have witnessed much harder to dissolve.

Taiwanese girlfriends have a reputation for trying very hard to “get him back” and “make things right.” There is an implication that as an expatriate from a first world country if a man visits a country lower on the economic food chain he can have his pick of the young beauties that want to make a financially advantageous match. The bigger the economic gap between the two people the more disparity in physical beauty as well. For example a friend mentioned seeing many creepy fat old white men with beautiful young Cambodian wives, and the same in the Philippines. 

In the case of J and E, it seemed as though it was very advantageous for E to have a Taiwanese girlfriend to show him around and help him order food not to mention improve his quality of life as a social hermit. Of course I am sure there are also pressures put on him from dating J as well, but being her friend I am blind to them. I believe E is that lecherous American male stereotype and within their shared apartment building the neighbors and friends often talked about how loud he would yell at her when he got angry, which was often.

Unsurprisingly, the western women who lived in the building with J and E were not supportive of the way he treated her and more than once told her she should leave him. So for a long time she didn’t see our group, much of winter and spring she was a stranger because she realized none of her friends liked E.

Even talking with her two weeks ago at the hair stylist when she talked about the relationship no longer working, all she said was she remembered how sad she was last time he broke up with her. As an excuse she would say, “You know he is my first boyfriend.” 

There is an exaggerated romanticism about ‘first love‘ here in Asia, an understanding you will never really fall out of love and maybe years later you will reconnect…many Korean soap operas are right along these lines. Despite J being an intelligent, multilingual young Taiwanese woman she is still subject to these cultural guidelines: 1. find a first love between 20-25 years old 2. marry or date that person for a long time *3. (optional) have one child and be a stay at home mom that sends her child to English preschool and cram school. **4. If at all possible marry someone from North America or Europe so you can move there and live the life of a rich and famous suburban housewife.

From my own trials and errors I know that finding people to sustain relationships or friendships is difficult. Now, for the food analogy: people are all different flavors and they can combine well in many unexpected new flavor profiles to become something even better. Even if you don’t like the taste of licorice that doesn’t mean it doesn’t match well with another flavor. It just means licorice and lemongrass don’t work well together, each have their merits and can compliment other flavors very well. Lemongrass and coconut milk are natural friends and bring out the best qualities in both. In the end we are all looking for people that bring out our own natural good qualities, for however long that might be. Even the best chocolate has a shelf-life, so enjoy it while you can.

Dongxi of Taiwan or things I don’t understand

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There are some social trends that seem to be based in Taiwanese culture that cannot really be explained. The same way you might find yourself explaining why a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is the most popular sandwich at lunch amongst American school children. Sometimes the things we do, and repeat so often they become traditions, don’t really make sense to an outsider looking in.

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The modest collection of mothballs at a store down the street from my apartment.

 

1. Old Taiwanese people smell like mothballs, probably because they buy a lot of mothballs. I have only seen a few moths while I was camping here in Taiwan, but perhaps that is because they have already been eradicated. The bathroom at my Chinese school has a mothball hanging in a little mesh baggie from each toilet.

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Arm guards and gloves in assorted hideous prints to protect your delicate skin.

2. Ladies wear arm guards, gloves and special scooter skirts in the summer to avoid getting tan or flashing anyone at stoplights. Modesty to the point of looking like a weird scarecrow version of yourself in 100 degree Fahrenheit weather with 75 percent humidity. As you might imagine I chose the less modest, sunburnt approach.

3. Almost everyone wears face masks on their scooters and bicycles, or medical masks to work when they get sick. Granted the air quality is very poor in winter, but the masks mostly just make your face sweat. This facial anomaly is coupled with “whitening” face creams to help avoid getting tan, or “black” as my English tutor students said.

4. Every Taiwanese woman is your mother. This mothering is present in your everyday  interactions with coworkers, friends and teachers. ‘Oh, you think you can go running at night? But that is very dangerous.’ I know, life is dangerous and sometimes you have to accept the risk and live without fear.

5. Big ass snails. During the rainy summer months these things take over, they crawl on the steps leading up the mountain. They attach to the tiled walls of apartment buildings and even this one at a bus stop shelter.

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The African giant snail (Achatina fulica) it is an invasive species according to Wikipedia, so from now on I will start stepping on them.

6. Posing for photos, everyday. Selfies, attractive and unattractive posted to Facebook, LINE, Twitter, Instagram etc.

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Teaching my Taiwanese tutoring students about taking a selfie during our photography discussion.

7. Creepy caucasian mannequins in night markets and storefronts, for some reason they always seem to be caucasian instead of asian. *See header

8. Squeaky children’s shoes for toddlers. I imagine these have some practical uses, like sonar for grandmothers watching over grandchildren. When the squeaking gets too far away, you have to go see what they are up to. On the other hand I think my own dear relatives would have taken them off my feet and thrown them in the nearest bonfire because of the noise.

9. Healthy tea and other foods, every locale has a famous “Get healthy quick” or “It tastes so bad it must be good for you” remedy. I have had several discussions with Taiwanese people about food, because I care about things that taste good and make me feel good at the same time. There is an overwhelming belief that things that taste bad for you, must be good for you. Bitter tea, bitter melon, bitter medicine as one Taiwanese hiker said to me, “Medicine is bitter.” But I thought bitterness was your natural survival instincts telling you not to eat something because it was poisonous? I ran this idea by a few friends and they said I was imagining things, but  check out these citations to back me up. Sometimes things are disgusting and really don’t help your health at all. Sometimes people live longer because of a genetic lottery, and not conservative lifestyles. After all I defend my lifestyle by reiterating this headline, teetotalers don’t live as long as moderate drinkers. And yes, I could stand to be more moderate but it is about finding a happy medium not running yourself ragged trying to be the top or bottom 15 percent.

10. Saving money is more important than enjoying life, and family is more important than anything else even if they make your life miserable. There seems to be this overwhelming deferral of enjoyment, and maybe it isn’t relegated just to Taiwan. An understanding that you should sacrifice your present happiness to the gods of tomorrow in exchange for more time. But I am asking: what is the point of having more time if you don’t enjoy the time you have already had? The argument for travel and hedonism I will make is: there are experiences I can have now in my young adult life, that I cannot have when I am older. The general trend is as you get older you become more conservative, your health, mobility and overall quality of life degenerates and it doesn’t have to be sad. After all you have life experiences and all the people you have met to enrich your life, your creature comforts become even more soothing. However, the mind, the ever restless mind will not let me rest until I have seen all I can while I am able. I haven’t earned that rest, that time in the rocking chair to reminisce is still distant, so far away it might never happen.

Happiness is being alone in a spacious apartment

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This past month I moved into a new apartment. I have never lived alone, not from lack of trying, I never had the financial option. So far I have delighted in keeping it clean, buying new kitchen equipment and generally answering to no one when I am struck by a desire to wake up and paint to music in the early morning.

I would like to take some time to appreciate the roommates, flatmates and housemates past. The good, the bad and glorious.

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View from my kitchen window, observe the ornamental bars over the windows. This apartment is five stories up, no one is getting in, but this is Taiwanese.

 

First and last my dear immediate Jones family, thank you for waiting for the bathroom when I took hour-long showers. Thank you Dee, my obsessive and overbearing freshman roommate who offered a strong incentive to move out and move on. Thank you Nicole, for the frequent physical assault upon my body and happiness. May the shadows in your corners never catch up to you.

Thank you Heidi, for understanding the meaning of ‘venting’ and cocooning to recover on the weekend. Thank you Sarah, for inviting me out in Australia and introducing me to Jewish culture. Thank you Laura for the sublet from hell, and that apartment of summer roommates in Boston including that cute Irish architect Michael who showed me giving up on your after graduation dreams was ok. Thank you Megan and Irene for making me realize three female roommates was too much. Thank you Lindsey for seeing me through a depressing but cheap summer in a frat house. Thank you Loie for signing a lease and then leaving a month later and inviting Belinda to smoke down the apartment for three months.

Finally to my most recent and beloved Taiwan roommates: thank you Scott for your sympathy, thank you Clay for your drunken apathy and food sharing, thank you Chen for organization and giving up on a lost cause.

I know it hasn’t been easy for my roommates either, all introverts need a little cubby of space to themselves the way every extrovert needs to have an ear to listen to them at the end of the day.

In the past few weeks I have tried to categorize the little joys and little sorrows that are living by myself. Mostly joy, reveling in listening to my music when I want it, eating when I am hungry, sleeping when I am tired, taking a shower with the door open, only wearing pants when I have to.

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I have finally graduated from my single bed to a ridiculously large California King?

I know for some, they are not afflicted with a guilty conscience if they disturb someone else, but I am absurdly happy everytime I can be awake and not worry about keeping someone else awake. I am happy everytime I can go to the bathroom because no one else is in it. I am happy everytime I see my table with art projects on it that are getting in no one’s way. Even everytime I see my dinner dishes that I wait to do until morning that will disturb no one. Everytime I temporarily leave an article of dirty laundry in the bathroom where it will devastate no one’s modesty.

Every single time I know that the way I live will not harm anyone’s happiness and every single time I make myself a fancy breakfast just for me. I am happy.

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My kitchen has an oven, most Taiwanese apartments don’t even have kitchens. The landlord is a lovely eccentric man who delights in refurbishing with western tastes in mind. The water jug is for drinking water which you get from a reverse osmosis pump, like you would gas. The water in Kaohsiung isn’t dangerous the way it might be in Mexico, but it has heavy metals.