Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Wasai-- Southern Hospitality

So here I was. A hot Sunday afternoon waiting for a local bus to take me from the center of Tainan to one of the larger temples on the outskirts of the city. I must have been there for about 20 minutes when a young lady walked by and asked in very broken English where I was going.

“Matsu Temple,” I explained.

She seemed surprised and then conveyed that she and her family were going there too and offered to take me there.

“Sure,” I thought looking around, half expecting to see the family station wagon pulling up.

Then she went on to explain that they weren’t here yet and that I should go up to her nearby apartment with her and wait for them.

Yeah, I know. It sounded really fishy but what the heck, I was young, reckless and actually had nothing better to do.

So we went back to her place. She sat me down in front of the TV, gave me a cold green tea and told me she was going to get ready and ducked into the next room.

Being from the big city, I started getting really paranoid. My senses were heightened and I tensed. Tensed for what? Flight? Fight? I wasn’t sure but in a few minutes my hostess came back and announced that we could go downstairs now.

Downstairs I her uncle and another young lady had pulled up. We got in and headed off to the Matsu Temple. On the way I found out that these two newer strangers spoke even less English than my first acquaintance.

I was a bit skeptical of the whole affair. There must be some angle here, right? But in the end, we ended up going to the temple. We walked around. We laughed at a Buddha that was displayed with a lit cigarette on the counter top at the front entrance. They helpfully pointed out some of the more arcane icons at the huge temple (even if their explanations in broken English were equally arcane).

Then on the way home stopped off at 3-4 small, cheap snack shops which I later found out were known for their respective specialties. They even refused to let me pay even though I did manage to force my money on the owner of one of the shops.

After 2-3 hours spent together, they asked me where I would like to be dropped off. I mentioned a place and that was it. No fuss, no muss. They had just seen it as a pleasant encounter for the afternoon, no questions, no demands.

This was just my story about the incredible hospitality of the Taiwanese. I’ve heard so many since.

There was my friend Josh, who after pushing his broken down motorcycle in the baking Taiwanese summer, was greeted by a young guy on his scooter. The guy slowed down just enough to tell Josh that there was a repair shop down the road and that it was his uncle’s. “Great,” Josh thought. They’re just looking for sucker foreigners to milk. His options were limited though and so he continued pushing until he found the shop in question.

When he got there, he recognized the guy that had just hailed him. He grabbed a tall cold tea that he had just bought, handed it to Josh and told him not to worry. In the end, the uncle fixed his bike and didn’t even charge him.

Sure there are horror stories too but never have I, in all my travels, heard as many wonderful stories of hospitality as I have here in Taiwan.

Submitted to Wasai Taiwan by: Robert Dawson

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Wasai--- Cute little castles on the hills of Taiwan

Not long after my arrival in Taiwan, while traveling to and fro through the land, I noticed these “little castles” on hills around the island. I kept looking at how pretty they are and how nicely colored some of them were and I told myself, one day I got to go and visit these little castles and see what the deal with them is.

A few more weeks passed and I made a couple of more trips around the island and I kept seeing more of those little castles and I finally said, “that’s it, I’m going to go up to that hill and investigate the situation.

So, I planed out my adventure, approached my Taiwanese friend, and said “ok, you’re going to take me up to those little castles so I can take pictures and see what is the deal with so many of them around the island. I ignorantly told my friend “is it because the island is so small that Taiwanese people decided to make or build mini castles? J You should see the size of some of the castles in Europe, Central, and South America”!

My friend smiled calmly told me to relax because no matter what, we’re not going to see and investigate any little castles because they are someone’s grave or resting place, and it will be very impolite and disrespectful for anyone to go and wonder around through someone’s burial place. Wow! What a shock that was to me when I heard that! “Graves… but they look nothing like graves” I thought! “They definitely don’t look anything like graves from other countries (especially the western countries) but nevertheless, that doesn’t make them any less graves than they are” my friend said. Fair enough, I though, but why all of them are on hills? “Well, in the Taiwanese tradition and belief, it is important that the person that died has a good view” my friend continued. At hearing this, I was so astonished; I could hardly keep myself from laughing. I knew and I saw all the things other cultures laugh at when they see what we do in the west, especially USA, and I thought how rude for them to do so, therefore, I forced myself not to even squeak out a smile at hearing all the stories about the dead, the little castles, the grave or tomb sweeping day, and so forth.

The whole experience just made me realize how different people are and how tradition and beliefs makes us even more different around the world. Although some things may look ridiculous and seem beyond absurd, we should respect the culture, traditions, and practices around the world. It is unimaginable for a westerner how a dead person might be interested in a good view, and as anyone can see, graves in the USA are always on a flat field and far from anything close to a good view, but then again, if the Taiwanese believed the same we did, I would have never seen those “cute little castles on the hills of Taiwan”. I did manage to quickly take an unnoticed photo of the Taiwan graves, and everyone that saw the photo and heard the story was just as shocked as I was. On the other side, they all agreed that unless people are different in beliefs and traditions, no beauty and variety would be seen anywhere.

Submitted to Wasai Taiwan by: Daniel Clinciu
(Sacramento, the U.S. --- Hinchu, Taiwan)

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Wasai--- Foreigner's Night

Many foreigners have been to a ladies night at the local bar or pub. The idea makes sense from a marketing standpoint. If the ladies can get free or reduced price beverages they are going to come in droves to the bar. Every guy knows that if the ladies show up in numbers the guys are sure to follow. In Taiwan, it is also not difficult to find bars hosting ladies nights. However, here the marketing scheme has taken an unexpected twist. Every weekend, somewhere in Taiwan, there is a foreigner's night at a local bar. Is the implication that having foreigners turn up will prompt Taiwanese to come as well? I have no idea what the logic of this tactic consist in, but I have been the happy beneficiary of no cover charge or free drinks numerous times.

A British friend who lives in Kaohsiung was discussing the strangeness of foreigner's night with me at just such a night and many pints into it. "If a pub in England advertised that foreigners could get in without paying cover, while English citizens were being charged five pounds, that pub would be fire bombed before the end of the night", he claimed. Having never lived in England, I can't substantiate the ferocity of his claimed response, but I'm sure the spirit of the response is valid. I imagine that in the United States a foreigner's night would result in a discrimination law suit. How do local Taiwanese feel about this reverse discrimination?

I took a trip to Penghu with some Taiwanese friends. We had a fun day snorkeling and scouting around the main island. Come nightfall, we decided to search for a local watering hole soon finding a funky place serving Belgian beers with hookahs packed with vanilla tobacco on every table. When my friends asked for a table they were told that there were none available. I was standing in the back of the group. We were disappointed as we turned to leave. At that point the waitress spotted me in the group. Her whole attitude changed. Suddenly there were two tables for us. After we sat down and started in on our beers, my friends jokingly thanked me for getting them a table. They clearly thought the situation was unfair but were resigned to it. Being put in this situation was slightly embarrassing but I would be lying if I said I was unhappy about getting the table.
Submitted to Wasai Taiwan by: Dustin Floreance
( Tainan County, Taiwan --- Lubbock, the U.S.)

Friday, November 30, 2007

Wasai--- A Legion of Miniature Janitors

The bell rings after 6th period and the 20 minute break begins. All day the kids have sprinted out of the classroom with every 10 minute break to start up a quick game of dodge-ball, jump-rope, hula hoop, catch or toss, and so on. They don’t waste a second of play time at Gong Jheng Elementary School (公正) in Yilan County.

But this time, something is different. Like the marching mops and brooms from Mickey Mouse’s magical escapade in Fantasia, 15 red handles waltz by my office window. It’s an army of little cleaning soldiers! . I walk out of the office and look up at the 1st grade hallway on the second floor, there’s a girl with a window squeegee, standing on the windowsill and whisking away the Windex. Two little munchkins run around below her, one sweeping loose dirt and trash into a dustbin, another doing a spotty mopping job. Continuing down the hall, two kids sprint past me, laughing, a large trash bin held between them. Two young girls with small trash cans and long tongs pick trash up out of the plants and out of the courtyard. A loud laugh causes me to look up towards the 1st floor boys room, just as 3 boys and girls come running out, tossing sudsy water back in and on the floor. The whole building is being cleaned by a legion of minature janitors!

This is different from the US, where you can normally find a crew of one or two sometimes pleasant, sometimes grumpy looking janitors, emptying all the trash bins, vacuuming all the carpets (of course, there is no carpet here with the amount of rain and obvious risk of mold and mildew – instead, almost every surface is ready for a soap and water scrub, and set up to drain water out of the way), and spreading sanitizer over any evidence of a sick second grader. Here the kids clean everything at break, and do so happily! They all smile and laugh and treat it like a game. This I find is a wonderful contrast to US culture. This isn’t child labor, but school instilling a sense of responsibility in kids from a young age. It took me a long time to realize that if I throw my trash on the ground, someone is going to have to pick it up! Children here are given a great degree of autonomy during free time. Recess means a break for kids to run in the halls, laugh and yell, and play whatever games they want. There is less supervision in my school than in US schools during recess, and the whole school, classrooms and hallways, all become a jungle gym. But there is no need to worry about the children behaving irresponsibly and disrespecting property, for the most part. They know the value of putting your trash where it belongs, because they’ve picked up what someone else has thrown down since 1st grade. I wonder how well this behavior carries over to the household. These are values I hope to instill in my children someday as well.

Submitted to Wasai Taiwan by: Dale Albanese
(Yi-lan county, Taiwan--- the U.S.)
related post:
Cleaning in schools
At my Taiwanese public elementary school of around 200 students, there are no “janitors” – at least not in the same capacity as in the US. Instead, students arrive 10 minutes before class officially starts and clean the school to cheery, upbeat children’s music. I will never forget the surprise I felt at 7:50 in the morning on my first day when I arrived to a school swarming with children toting brooms, mops, and squeegees, accompanied by a spunky Chinese version of “Old MacDonald.” There are also cleaning breaks during lunchtime and again at 3pm, right before the last class period of the day. I regularly have to jump over piles of debris and squeeze by students sweeping and mopping in order to enter or exit the teachers’ office. Even the tiny first graders can be seen wielding squeegees nearly as big as they are as they wash the classroom windows. Sure, sometimes it seems like the students do just as much gossiping and horsing around as they do cleaning, but that way no one seems to really mind. The mindset among students here isn’t that it “isn’t their job” or that “someone else” will do the cleaning. Instead it is just an established norm that the students will take a break from their day of sitting in class and spend a few minutes doing routine cleaning every day.

This concept of “cleaning up after yourself” applies to the lunchtime routine as well. While lunch as its own entity is also very different from its counterpart in the US in ways that extend beyond on what lunch is served, lunch dishes are the responsibility of the individual students. Instead of eating with school dishes and utensils, the students bring their own dishes and chopsticks. The students fill their bowls with school lunch, eat it, and then either pack their dishes back up to be taken home and washed, or wash them at school in the large sinks located at the end of each hall.

The reason for these differences is probably mostly centered around practicality. It is less expensive to operate a school without a staff to take care of daily cleaning, serving lunch, and washing dishes. However, I think that putting the students in charge of these tasks has a greater benefit than saving money alone. When it is the students’ own agency that keeps the school neat and that gives them clean dishes to eat from, they are learning valuable life skills. I remember throughout my time as a student in the US seeing signs that read “Your mother doesn’t work here. Clean up after yourself.” Besides the problematic implication that it is the mother’s job to do the cleaning anywhere, this sentiment is actually not reinforced by the way schools operate in the US. What might seem so shocking to Americans (putting the students in charge of cleaning) is just a mundane part of daily school culture here. However, it represents a great level of autonomy and personal responsibility that young Taiwanese students take on as contributors to the operation of their school. And I have to admit that I am impressed.
Submitted to Wasai Taiwan by: Julie Goshe
(Yi-lan City, Taiwan-- Tiffin, the U.S.)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Wasai-- Racism in Taiwan

If you approached most Taiwanese people and asked them about racism in Taiwan, they would probably tell you that there is no racism in Taiwan. They might say racism is a problem in other countries and they will be quick to relate stories about this if it has personally affected them. However, if you spend a little time observing and listening to people in Taiwan you will soon find that racism exists in Taiwan, just like every other country in the world.

The classified ad above (from the Taipei Times 24 June 2006) shows that Taiwanese employers can very specifically advertise for employees based on race. Discriminating on the basis of race or ethnicity is probably the worst one. However, in Taiwan it is considered quite normal to specifically state the age, gender and even marital status in an employment ad.

I remember once visiting a school and the owner told me she was having difficult employing new teachers. She said lots of people had applied but they were all “block” teachers. I wasn't quite sure what she meant and it was only later that I figured out she was in fact saying “black” not “block.” Discrimination against foreigners wanting to teach English whose skin is not considered to be the right color is common. So is the terrible treatment that many migrant workers from Southeast Asia are subjected to.

Racism manifests in many ways. In Taiwan it is probably reasonable to say it rarely manifests as physical violence. Instead it is expressed in more subtle ways through verbal discrimination and exclusion.

In many ways I am fortunate, as an English speaking white male I don't really experience the negative forms of racism discussed above. However, there are also positive and neutral forms of racism which I encounter on a daily basis.

The positive form is something that most people probably actually appreciate. The “foreigner” is singled out for special treatment. They are given a special place at the table, others insist upon paying for their meals or giving them things for free. This is often people being very friendly or going out of their way to take care of guests. It is not necessarily a bad thing, but I sometimes feel uncomfortable in these situations. Why should I enjoy all this special treatment when there are Taiwanese people around me just as deserving of it.

There is also a neutral type of racism that is also commonly encountered. It is the person who insists on pointing out the presence of a “foreigner.” This is often accompanied by chatter amongst their group speculating about whether the foreigner can speak Chinese or whether they should go and practice their English with him.

What annoys me about this is constantly being seen as other or outsider. In reality we are all humans. No matter what color our skin or what language we speak we share far more in common than that which differentiates us.

It is important to discuss this topic because Taiwanese people are in a state of denial. Although racism is not going to disappear overnight, if people begin to openly discuss then attitudes can change. Taiwan's demographics are changing with the presence of many foreign workers and spouses. They are all an important part of Taiwan's future. Taiwan must ensure that they are welcomed and integrated into the community.
Contributted to Wasai Taiwan by: David Reid
(Australia--- Taipei, Taiwan)
Visit his blog: David on Formosa