Too long? Long enough? A long time?

Taiwan Explorer 1, in response to a post on Foreign Sanctuary entitled You Know You’ve Lived in Taiwan a Long Time When…, called out “taiwanreporter, Love, Dadaocheng, Taiwanvore, The Stinky Tofu, Synapticism, Lao Ren Cha, and any other Taiwan blog to compile a post with the same title, and make a list of good and bad.”

So far, two intrepid bloggers have taken up his dare:
taiwanreporter: My 13 points: “You know you’ve lived in Taiwan a long time when…”
Lao Ren Cha (老人茶): You Know You’ve Lived in Taiwan Too Long When…

The latter struck me a surprising twist on the title, given that I’ve been reading Lao Ren Cha for a couple years now and she’s vehemently pro-Taiwan, has permanent residency, and seems intent on staying in Taiwan a lot longer.  This post isn’t directly about her blog post, although I do kind of wish she’d change the title. To be fair, taiwanreporter also refers to his as one of a “popular genre of ‘You know you’ve lived in Taiwan too long if…’ lists”

It seems that the genre they’re both referencing includes “classic” (in internet terms) lists from the 90s with the same title, ones which are largely incredibly condescending to and negative about Taiwanese local life. I won’t link to them, you can google them yourself.

The 90s lists represent everything I dislike about bad examples of expat culture, most of all the sense that the standards of ones’ home nation are the standards that one’s new location are failing to live up to. “Too long” suggests that it’s time to move on, that the new habits one has developed amount to little more than lowering one’s standards.

One can, and should, criticize things that are wrong with society, culture, and politics, especially in a place that one loves and cares about the future welfare of. Especially if you love it. In contrast, it is cultural imperialism to assume that the way things are in one’s home country are the way things should be everywhere.

Lao Ren Cha, title notwithstanding, avoids this pitfall, I think. But I seriously wonder what taiwanreporter meant by #4. I see nothing wrong with the building in his picture. You’re welcome to point out what I’m missing. And #6, without any backstory and accompanied by a photo of a staged aboriginal dance (see the audience on background risers) 2;, strikes me as offensive to the native people’s of Taiwan, who are once again portrayed as the dancing, drinking, uncivilized people that the government and media have lazily painted them as for centuries.3

I won’t be making one of these lists.  Many of the things I took to be normal and unobjectionable about life in Taiwan had to be pointed out to me as odd by my American partner when we lived there together from 2012-2013. I’m from there, I’m not usually in the habit of looking at it from outside.

So lists like these irk me, rather than amuse me.

Does that mean that I’m not the right audience for them? I’m at first tempted to say yes because I don’t really see their humor value.  But honestly, the fact that they make me uncomfortable doesn’t mean I should ignore them. It means I need to think more clearly about what I find objectionable or off putting.

Because neither should I claim that the habits of daily life, that normality that I grew up with in Taiwan, are the standard by which the rest of the world should be measured. I don’t need to jump to Taiwan’s defense at the first sign of criticism because what I need to do first is think about if it’s a valid point about a fault in the place I love.

Yes, I lived in Taiwan for a long time.  Yes, sometimes that blinds me to its faults, which I need to be more conscious of thinking through.

And yet I know firmly that no matter how much time I may yet be given to live in Taiwan, it will never be enough for me.


1 For about 20 seconds after I hit post, I incorrectly identified the source of this challenge. The error was corrected as soon as possible, but to my email subscribers, I apologize for the error in the text you received.
2 My snap judgement about the origin of this photo was wrong, as Klaus (taiwanreporter) has kindly pointed out in a comment below.
3 This is not to suggest that Klaus believes such things about aborigines or intended to reinforce them in his post, but it’s an unfortunate side effect of this genre of list. I think the rhetorical style of a list in the second person, such as all of these are, makes personal experiences sound as if they are experiences that a wider group of people also had happen and can agree with. I get into my critique of this list style in much greater detail in a comment below.

11 thoughts on “Too long? Long enough? A long time?

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. Thank your for sharing your opinions on the topic.

    I guess my post was the one that started it all. My list served as a personal ‘trip down memory lane’ for me – a way to reflect about how much I have changed and grown since arriving in Taiwan 15 years ago. I honestly and truly love the place and its people. I feel that every place has its shortcomings and it is my personal choice to live here so I am not one to judge – maybe that is why my list was considered ‘too kind.’ But, at the end of the day, everyone is entitled to their opinion.

  2. The title was meant to be a joke – like, sarcastic, “haha I’ve been here too long” (but seriously actually I’m never going to leave because it’s awesome). I thought the actual points I made made that obvious – I guess not!

    • Yeah, unfortunately the sarcasm of the title just flew right by me. (make of that what you will). Instead, as you can see, I found it perplexing given what I’ve been reading on your blog for the last few years.

      • Perhaps I should change it then. I never meant it to be critical of Taiwan (or fetishizing of it, which is another trap a lot of expats fall into) or to imply that I feel I’ve been here too long – quite the opposite. I’m not that attached to the title.

      • Sarcasm on the internet is often a game of wondering if someone will catch that you’re not serious, or get all riled up because they think you are, isn’t it?

        I’m still waiting for the internet to invent a sarcasm symbol. Fake html tags amuse me, but they’re not an actual solution.

  3. Also to defend Klaus, the one aboriginal festival I’ve been to, Pasta’ai in Wufeng (not the tourist one in Nanzhuang), had those bleacher seats too – but it was absolutely local. A few outsiders showed up (like, uh, us) but those bleachers were full of locals from that town and the surrounding towns, mostly Saisiyat (it’s a Saisiyat festival), some other tribes who came to socialize and respectfully watch, a few schmoozing local politicians. And I don’t think he denigrated them regarding drinking or dancing – I mean, yeah, he drank millet wine from a bamboo bucket, but I have too. Because it’s what you do, it’s a part of the festival. That doesn’t need to have a value judgment attached to it.

    • I have a real problem with the way this genre is written, I think. Let me try to explain.

      Telling a story, as you did above, about going to Pasta’ai in Wufeng, is immediately understandable as your experience at a particular time and place. I don’t doubt your story (And why would I? I like reading your stories about doing things in Taiwan.) If I’d read about Klaus’ exciting story about being made a brother to a particular tribe’s elder and how he’s honored that bond by returning yearly to take part in their traditional festivities, that would be along similar lines – a interesting personal narrative of a special and meaningful experience.

      But these lists – what exactly are they doing when they make declarative statements about “you know you’ve been here a long time when X experience happens to you or Y mindset shifts.?” Are they personal impressions of the changes that being in Taiwan has wrought on oneself (in which case, why not say “I know I’ve been here a long time because XYZ?”), or are they meant to be broadly applicable to wider expat experiences? The second person narration puts them in an odd place between the personal and the universal, and I think overall the intent, given that they’re not strictly first person narration, is meant to induce readers into saying, “Yeah! Me too! I’ve had the same experience!” They invite agreement.

      For example:
      “You know you’ve been in Taiwan when you don’t hear the garbage truck and think of ice cream.”

      This relates to some people being used to hearing ice cream trucks playing jingles driving around during the summer . (I’m not sure how extensive that practice is, but in my limited experience I’ve heard them in Illinois and Michigan. I don’t want to call it American and apply it to the rest of the US in case it’s not actually that widespread.) That people from that group can move to Taiwan, get initially faked out by the garbage truck song, and then learn to disassociate tinkling music from frozen desserts is an experience that a theoretically broad group of people could share in and relate to. It unites the expat community in their shared experiences of adapting to a new place.

      Adding an intensely personal experience about a relationship – adoption into an aboriginal community, or marrying a local spouse (for an example I didn’t see, but consider of a kind) – into a list of experiences that generically seem to describe widespread things that “you” (the reader? the writer? the imaginary expat?) experience, seems to diminish that personal aspect. Not all expats who’ve lived in Taiwan a long time have become brothers to aboriginal elders and now spend the New Year with them. I’d wager not a whole lot have. Isn’t it a bit odd to have it represented as such? I’d actually LOVE to read about Klaus’ experience with that because it is exceptional and, I imagine, unusual.

      Unfortunately, because the experience of going up to the mountains to drink and dance with aborigines every year is, by nature of the way this genre of list works, made to sound as if it’s a common experience, it seems to reinforce the idea that aborigines just drink and dance. I’m pretty sure that these lists are just kind of a trap because they’re rhetorically unclear.

      • Hey Katherine,
        interesting discussion here, sorry for only discovering it a bit later via trackback.

        First, let me say no offense taken, you raise some valid questions. If I had spent more time designing my list instead of hacking it down one late afternoon, it probably would have turned out to be more stringent.

        I am not going to go into the discussion whether most of these lists serve to reinforce clichees, or to make the reader aware of cultural differences, if they are framing other places according to one’s home country’s standards or not, and if so, if that’s always bad. As far as I am concerned, everybody is welcome make up his or her mind about this.

        As for the building in my #4, or course there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just an example of your standard Taiwanese inner-city apartment block with an unwashed tile facade and blind windows. As a matter of fact, I would not hesitate moving in. But if I take time to think about it, I also cannot help but wonder how much more livable and aesthetically pleasing Taiwanese cities would be if someone actually felt responsible to care more about the outside appearance of buildings. If this is a perspective I only have because I happened to grow up in a different place, it’s still the way I feel about it, and I will not deny that. But of course I notice how staying in Taiwan has changed my perception of so many things that a recently arrived tourist, for example, would immediately notice and take issue with. Good.

        As for the Aborigines in #6, yes it might be an interesting story to share, and maybe some day I will. (It’s not really all that spectacular, though.) Just let me say that this ceremony is not staged. It is the actual Mayasvi ceremony that Tsou villages are celebrating yearly in front of their Kuba platform, which is the traditional gathering place of the warriors. The Tsou in this village have decided for themselves that they want to open their ceremony to visitors, as it gives them a chance to present their culture, and also because some young people would probably see no sense in participating anymore if they felt no one was appreciating it. That’s what I was told. It’s all in the hands of the locals, and the festival is not commercialized yet – but with more tourists hearing about it from year to year, that is bound to change if the tribe does not do something to limit the number of visitors. Personally I am worried, and I have shared my concerns.
        Why did I mention the dancing and drinking? Because that’s what happened. (No one got seriously drunk, by the way.) And because in Taiwanese society, most social events tend to be rather anemic affairs (again, just my perception), this was a hugely welcome change for me and left a deep impression.
        Hearing people say that Taiwan’s Aborigines “can all sing and dance well”, “drink too much”, or anything like that, makes me cringe. You will not catch me saying or writing anything of the kind.
        Like Jenna wrote about how some stranger “invited you along on some adventure and you went, and it was the coolest thing ever and one of your best memories”, this is probably my version of that kind of unexpected experience. It’s not a “common experience” at all, and it’s not meant to “reinforce” anything.

        Appreciate your comments, and I will try and follow your blog more closely.

      • Thank you for your extended comment, Klaus.

        On #4, I had a similar experience with my husband when we arrived in Taipei in 2012. He kept telling me how dirty the buildings were and asking why the Taiwanese didn’t bother washing them since they’re covered with bathroom tiles anyway. I didn’t notice the dirt and when I did, it didn’t bother me – it seemed like a feature of the environment that wasn’t hurting anyone or detracting from the aesthetics of cramped city living. He he wanted to take a powerwasher to every building and I maintained that there are far more important things for people to worry about than external aesthetics, so we had to agree to disagree.

        I’d love to read your unexpected experience written up someday! As you say, it left a deep impression and I think that would make a great story. But I can also see why you worry that an increase number of visitors at their ceremony might have negative effects on it in the long term. Is that part of why you haven’t written it up, given the large audience for your website?

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