6 July, 2015 – Taichung, Taiwan
Very superstitious, writings on the wall,
Very superstitious, ladders bout’ to fall,
Thirteen month old baby, broke the lookin’ glass,
Seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past.
When you believe in things that you don’t understand,
Then we suffer,
Superstition ain’t the way.
-”Superstition” by Stevie Wonder
This is complicated, but in simplistic terms Taiwanese culture is a mixture of Han Chinese, Japanese, European, American, and Aboriginal Taiwanese cultures, depending on what aspect of the culture you’re talking about. Looking at their culture through western eyes, it can be confusing: ancient religious beliefs mixed with modernity of a vibrant pop and sports culture, on the surface, don’t seem to make any sense together. But it SEEMS to work here, though I’m just as bewildered by it as most of you would be, were you here.
Some aspects of individual parts of the culture are a mix too. Take religion, for example. Religion here is generally a mix of Buddhism, Taoism, and Chinese folk religion, including ancestor worship. The combination of these usually falls under the category of Buddhism-Taoism, of which 93% of the population considers themselves to be part of. There are some Christians here, and religious freedom is quite tolerant here (I’ve even seen a couple of protestant churches here, and I’ve heard there’s a mosque in town), but only 5% of the population considers themselves to be Christian.
You can find Buddhist temples everywhere. You can’t walk 500 meters without finding a decent sized one, and you can find one in every community park which, though small, are dotted all over the city.
There is a lot of etiquette and superstition here that comes from their spiritual beliefs, and some of it may sound ridiculous to a European or American, bordering on paranoia. Some examples from Wikitravel which I, through personal experience, can confirm:
Some Taiwanese are superstitious about anything connected with dying – unlucky things should never be mentioned. One thing to note is that the number 4 (four, pronounced ‘si’) sounds like the word for death in Mandarin.
Do not write people’s names in red. This again has connotations of death. When writing someone’s name in English or another language, this is not a problem, but avoid writing Chinese names in red.
Do not whistle or ring a bell at night. This is an “invitation to ghosts”.
Do not point at cemeteries or graves. This means disrespect to the dead.
There are numerous taboos dictating that certain objects shouldn’t be given to others, often because the word for that object sounds like another unfortunate word:
Umbrellas, which in Mandarin sound the same as the word for “break up”. Friends should therefore never give friends umbrellas. Instead, friends will euphemistically “rent” each other umbrellas for a tiny amount ($1, for example).
Clocks. The phrase “to give a clock” (“song zhong”), in Mandarin, has the same sound as the word “to perform last rites.” If you do give someone a clock, the recipient may give you a coin in return to dispel the curse.
Shoes. Never ever offer shoes as a gift to old people, as it signifies sending them on their way to heaven. This is acceptable only if by mutual arrangement it is nominally sold, where the receiving party gives a small payment of about $10.
As with mainland China, symbols resembling backwards swastikas are commonly seen in homes and Buddhist temples. They are a Buddhist symbol and have no relationship to Nazism or anti-Semitism.
You get the idea. Also, I have found that the greeting culture is a mix of western and Chinese influences too! In America, if you’re passing a stranger and you make eye contact, you may give a nod upward, if anything. Here, a slight bow of the head is very common. If contact is more than just passing, they use a combination of Chinese and English: “Hello! Ni Hao (pronounced knee-how)!” And they often use “bye” or “bye-bye” at the end of an interaction, though I’ve discovered that this is, more often than not, about the only English they know, except for aspects of pop culture.
Pop culture here is also a mix of influences, but mostly a combination of western, Japanese, and Korean. You see it in the phones, which nearly everyone has, and more often than not, their faces are buried in it, usually playing one game or another, so I guess that doesn’t differ much from American youth, except for the difference in the language of the games.
Though Taiwanese love their traditions and their culture, and can be a proud people, they apparently do not like the color of their skin. There are offices everywhere that offer skin-whitening sessions. Michael Jackson would’ve loved it here, though the people here might’ve been a little freaked out about his nose, which I’m convinced proved he was an alien. Nevertheless, these a lot of Taiwanese have self-esteem issues, no doubt brought on by the media.
As you would expect, Karaoke is HUGE here, with Karaoke businesses all over the place, some reputable, some a little more shady. In Asia, most Karaoke establishments are private rooms that you rent for a few hours with your friends to drink and sing in. In the shadier establishments, women who work for that particular establishment will come up and offer you other forms of “entertainment” as well, since prostitution is now legal here! That’s right, guys! You pathetic little bastards can come over here and pay to get your rocks off in this country, at a fraction of the price you’d have to pay back home! Oh sure, the cost of the flight would make up for the difference in price, but hey…Asian girls! Need I say more?
As I mentioned in the previous blog, TV here is mostly Chinese, as is most of the print. But in both cases, anime and manga are massively popular here, thanks to the Japanese influence. You put some COMMON form of anime memorabilia, which can be found anywhere, between two ADULTS, and they’ll fight over it like two male cats fighting over a female in heat. Seriously, come over here and try it. Bring a Hello Kitty glass or backpack that you got as a kid and lay it on the ground around a bunch of grown-ups here, and stand back! Maybe not hours of entertainment, but at least a few minutes!
Music is a mix too. Lots of pop songs, both American and Asian. No rock here…they LOVE pop stars, though, so while I do hear plenty of American artists, I don’t hear any that I like, because pop = no talent. Nevertheless, the music has taken its toll on me. There are times when I want to drive a sharp implement into my brain because I caught myself whistling Wiz Khalifa’s “See you again”. That’s my greatest fear; that somehow, listening to crappy American music in Taiwan will make me retarded (P.C. People, get over yourselves), and leaving me looking like a combination of Stephen Hawking and a zombie on The Walking Dead.
Another thing about music. You can hear an odd thing coming from ringtones, school speakers, and garbage trucks here: Classical music. Among the annoying tunes I’ve gotten stuck in my head from these odd sources for music are Verdi’s “Spring” (you’ve heard it at weddings), Beethoven’s seemingly endless “Fur Elise”, and “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music. Lovely music in their own right, but absolutely maddening if you get it stuck in your head.
Sports, too, are big here, particularly the two American sports of professional baseball and basketball. Now, baseball’s been huge here for quite some time, as anyone over 30 might remember from watching the Little League World Series as a kid, and watching some team of 12 year olds from Taiwan beating the shit out of some 12 year olds from Davenport, Iowa. (Maybe that’s what happened! Those 12 year-olds from Davenport got their asses handed to them by some team from Taiwan, resulting in a trauma from which they never recovered from as adolescents. In response, to release the guilt and anger they felt from being violated on the baseball diamond by a score of 13-1, they formed Slipknot! Now it makes sense!)
Now, the NBA has surpassed it, and while every other Asian country has men and boys alike sporting gear from Liverpool FC, Manchester United, or Barcelona, Taiwan has men and boys alike sporting gear from the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Miami Heat, and the LA Lakers. They play basketball everywhere here too…not very well, though, from what I’ve seen. Sometimes I watch them playing, laying more bricks than a construction worker, all the while thinking they’re the next Jeremy Lin, and I’m thinking that even though I’m 44, out of shape, and a smoker for 18 years, that I could take them! But even so, you’ve got to admire their enthusiasm for the game, and with all the other culture shock we’re enduring, even watching an American sport I can’t stand suddenly seems comforting.
Lastly, there’s convenience stores. Yes, convenience stores. They. Are. Everywhere. There are, quite possibly, more convenience stores per capita than in any other country on Earth. There is one convenience store for every 2500 people. There are 4 major chains here: 7-11, Family Mart, Hi-Life, and OK Mart (known back in the states as Circle K). I walk 500 meters to catch the bus to go to work, and I pass two of them! I walked 700 meters to the bank to send money via Western Union, and I passed three of them! And there are always people inside! It’s bizarre, but it works…I know because I go there everyday too! Maybe it’s the air conditioning.
Whew! That was a long one! Hope you enjoyed it! I’ll be back soon, with more tales from Taiwan!
– For images of our journey, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston