Lovelocked Twenties

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Most of my friends are in their twenties, some early and some late pushing into their thirties.

In Taiwan I have Taiwanese and western friends, but most of my friends have western sensibilities because of their interest in English speakers and their culture. Therefore I only meet the cross-section of Taiwanese society that is willing to endure my stinted Chinese or speak with me in English. Everyone has a limit to their reach into all venues of society, as a woman I will never be welcomed into the men’s bathhouse.

My Taiwanese associates are more frequently in serious relationships, or pursuing one earlier in their lives than their western counterparts. I think part of this has to do with the innate communalism of their culture, “I can never do anything alone” mentality. Also Taiwan parents encourage children to settle down by the end of their twenties, the partying and ‘finding yourself’ era prevalent in the west is unacceptable.

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Relationships, friendships and otherwise are a keystone to being twenty-somethings. Despite our ages and backgrounds the nesting instinct hits hard in the twenties and for those expats attempting to flee responsibilities it can create a conflict. I want to be part of something, but I also want to be free.

I have a short list of couples in which I respect both parties. One American couple in particular has become my standard for a functional traveler relationship. They coexist well as a unit and as individuals; they have shared interests and independent interests. One of them might be at one party, while the other is in another country. Solid.

With that exception acknowledged I have to admit most relationships I witness feel forced. They want it to work so badly, and they don’t want to be alone. Relationships can be formed out of necessity, a need for intimacy and comfort. Creature comfort is important to all of us. Compromises can be expected.

I classic case is my Taiwanese girl biking friend. I spent most of spring and summer going on night bike rides with her, seeing her at many social events. Boom – enter vague Australian boyfriend. I haven’t seen her on purpose in six months, maybe because she seems dumber and I can’t respect her anymore because so much of her self worth is tied up in her relationship.

Nothing remains in her for me to relate to, she doesn’t bike anymore, she no longer goes on solo adventures, and I have ceased to invite her to parties because I know she will bring him. I will say she is still one of the sweetest girls you can find, and she is making an effort despite my radio silence. Too little, too late I’m afraid because when I don’t communicate with people frequently I lose belief in their existence. Especially, in the cases that I feel disappointed and want to forget people. Why dwell on past disappointments?

My third example is a tragic non-couple, forgive me for waxing poetic in my ambiguities. These two individuals are veteran travelers, friends, but with one-sided romantic love in the case of the man.

He told me about going from loving her at home, and then reuniting and loving her abroad. “Sometimes she wants to give me all I want,” and so it continues, strung along over decades of friendship. The free spirit and loving friend, both are independent, but incapable of the collaborative effort required in relationships. He sees someone else, his placeholder girlfriend and she parties on in a different city with other men. Then they are drawn back together magnetically by their shared history and friendship.

This is the mess we navigate in our twenties, abroad or at home. My hope is not that everything is perfect, but that I can learn something and be left with a lasting impression. This works, and this doesn’t. Try on the next shoe.

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.