Wednesday, May 04, 2005

This is my contribution to the May issue of The Taichung Voice, without the heavy-handed editing that was exercised by the Geographically-impaired:

So I was reading the March issue of The Taichung Voice, with the articles about a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, when inspiration struck. I immediately tracked down Voice editor, Lance:

"Lance! Lance! I have a great idea for an article in the May issue! You have covered the prospects of an invasion of Taiwan, but now we need to warn Taichung residents of an equally dangerous threat. And I'm just the guy to pen the writing of the necessary warning!"

"Fix that last sentence. And what's the warning?" Lance said.

"The chance of Taichung being attacked by Ninja Robot Dinosaurs!"

Lance shook his head, "That's ridiculous. How could a robot dinosaur even wear a ninja mask?"

"But..." I was rather crestfallen. I had a Pulitzer-winning story here, and my big break was getting shot down by this J. Jonah Jameson wannabe.

Lance went on: "I'll tell you what, Karl. If you want to write something for the May issue, why don't you write a nice, informative article about things to do and not to do in Taiwanese society."

"You mean, like taking your shoes off inside, and not pointing at the Moon?"

"Yeah. Do something informative and thoughtful like Kevin Fitzpatrick does each month. Just try not to use the word 'postmodern' so much. And what do you mean you're not supposed to point at the moon?"

"It's true." I said. "If you point at the moon then the moon will become angry and cut your ear off."

Lance stared at me for a moment. "What kind of dinosaurs?"

There are all kinds of cultural tips to offer about that which should be done, and that which is taboo (or at least frowned upon) in Taiwan. If you have ever read a travel book on Taiwan, or if you have been here for more than a week, then you are already familiar with a handful of these. Let's first go over those that most people know: The chopstick thing.

You may not stick your chopsticks into a bowl of rice so that they stick up looking like rabbit ears from a 70's television set. Doing so makes them resemble incense the way it is used in a funeral rite. This is more than just impolite, it is forbidden. By everyone. So don't do it. While you are not doing that, you should also not be pointing your chopsticks at anyone. No death similarities here, it's just not polite. When eating rice, you might as well go ahead and eat every last grain of rice in the bowl. This is not even a question of polite or impolite, it's just that local lore says if you leave grains of rice in the bowl, you will end up with a pimply-faced spouse. What is more likely is that you will get lots of jokes about getting a pimply-faced spouse, which is probably more aggravating. And while you're are still at a dinner table somewhere, remember that while your mother used to tell you to keep your elbows off the table, in Taiwan it's better to keep your elbows on the table. What will draw disapproving glances is having one of your hands under the table, like in your lap. If one hand is under the table, then you have no way to push off the table and run away if you are suddenly attacked by a black-masked, metallic velociraptor.

Gifts are more important in Taiwan than they are in... wherever you are from. Gifts are given to show courtesy and respect, and to strengthen an existing relationship. So in addition to birthdays and holidays, it is often appropriate to bring gifts when you are visiting someone at their home. If the recipient refuses the gift at first, keep trying. They are just being modest. Good gift ideas include liquor, tea, cigarettes, candy, and as near as I can tell, anything with red bean in it. Just keep in mind a few thumbs down items when gift shopping. No clocks. The Mandarin for "give a clock" sounds like the words for "attending a funeral". Scissors and knives are not good gifts, probably because ninjas use knives, and the sound of scissors is ominously close to that of stealthily moving robots with long teeth. Additional things not to give as a gift are towels, handkerchiefs, umbrellas, straw sandals and green hats.

There are certain things that you should not do at night in Taiwan, and beating someone outside of Chubbies is only one of them. Do not whistle at night, and do not clip your fingernails or toenails at night. Both of these things will bring ghost visitations. These injunctions may seem to be closer to superstitions than to what is considered polite behavior, but in Taiwan it is often difficult to draw a clear line between the two. Sleeping at night is fine, but not with your feet facing the door. If you sleep with your feet facing a door, then your position resembles that of a corpse which is to be carried out. And as you're starting to pick up by now, things that resemble anything to do with death are shunned.

In social situations with Taiwanese, you will often be offered cigarettes if you are a man- not so often if you are a woman. You are not obligated to take one if you don't smoke, but there is sort an unwritten assumption that you will not grimace in horror as you take your first puff of a Long Life yellow. If someone is offering to light a cigarette for you (and it doesn't matter if it is a cigarette they gave you or one of your own) hold at least one hand up to cup the end of the cigarette and shield the flame. Do this even if shielding the flame is not in the least bit necessary. While sitting and smoking, or chatting, or whatever, do not bounce your leg up and down no matter how bored or nervous you are, or how much coffee you have had that morning. Many Taiwanese believe that if a man jiggles his leg like this, he will shake away all of his money and become poor. If a woman does it, then she is perceived to be cheap. And I don't mean thrifty. If a ninja robot dinosaur is shaking his leg, that means he is about to use kung fu and his robot sword on you, so you must be careful.

So after reading this, you should be well equipped with the knowledge to function smoothly, politely, and most of all safely (you know what I mean) in Taiwan. If you find yourself in a situation where you are not sure what to do, just ask someone. It's better than embarrassing yourself or your hosts, and it's a lot better than having ghosts follow you around wherever you go.

Oh yeah. And take your shoes off when you enter someone?s house.


Gretchen said...


Email me in Madison, Wisconsin


Anonymous said...

Kevin, we are moving back to asia, contact me. Marc Brand