It was a question I wish I’d never asked. But having been in Taiwan only three weeks at that point, I was ready to stick my head in the mouth of any passing lion. I was a naïve EFL teacher fresh out of college. “Aru bah”, I learned from my first ever class of students, is a savage little ritual among Taiwanese middle- and high-school boys that begins when a few guys grab a target and hoist him spread-eagle off the ground. The ritual ends when they ram their victim into a door jamb, open door, handrail, brick column, or anything vertical – crotch-first. Thus I got my first real taste of culture shock.
Culture shock comes in as many forms as its victims. To some it is grating and relentless, like getting your mind caught in the gears of a huge machine. To others it is indefinably noxious, like breathing an unseen poison gas that is everywhere and that slowly smothers you to death. And still to others, culture shock is a rare but bitter problem, like stepping into a pile of dog crap in new shoes.
I belong in the last category. I have not been hit by culture shock in any sustained, or even particularly painful, way. Rather, small things either have ambushed and bollixed me, or have gradually congealed into a suffocating mesh of confusion and alienation. It might be the brief shock of finding the “wrong” money in your wallet. It might be the inexplicably disturbing revelation that people pay their bills at 7-11 convenience stores – and so must you do likewise. It might be finding strawberry flavored Cheetos ® as a party snack. Or the disarming awareness that there is neither spoon nor fork in the entire restaurant you’ve chosen. Or the fact that the garbage trucks blare a musak rendition of Beethoven’s “Für Elise” as they go. Or it’s finding that the city workers don’t wear hard hats but do wear beach sandals on the job. Or, alternatively, it’s discovering Taiwan legislated wearing scooter helmets only a year ago and wearing carfront seatbelts only two years ago – but didn’t legislate children or backseat passengers to wear either. Or it’s spotting children and adults urinate openly onto sidewalks and walls as you bicycle to work. Or it’s perhaps the crushing weight of city noise and grit burrowing into your every pore.
For me it’s Taichung’s street dogs. These walking shards of dog jerky have been my personal culture shock assassins since I arrived in Taiwan. Benji meets Cujo. Their pitiful cuteness only accentuates their grotesque repulsiveness. The dogs are, by law, it seems, mangy. Starved bitches trot across the roads, out of alleys, along the sidewalk, with their ragged teats jiggling and bobbing in a putrid marionette show and an overused, extruded uterus swaying to keep time. Crippled by joint problems, which are only worsened by an array of venereal diseases, many of the poor beasts hobble, jitter and waddle like goblins to whatever foul den they’ve found to escape the heat for the day. I’ve seen more than one three-legged dog. (I even saw a feature on the news about a two-legged dog. Unfortunately I never got around to calling the Taiwanese tourism bureau.) Taichung’s dogs stare out of beady, bland eyes, sometimes glazed and cockeyed, usually moist with fear of the fist, and always ambiguous. As hard to read as they are to stomach, they may be psychotic biters or like the broken spirits in Dante’s Inferno that scurry away at the first sign of a higher life. You never can tell. It’s best just to hurry past them.
I saw the worst cases, strangely enough, during a weekend getaway at a well known beach area called Ken Ting. The first, and worst, specimen gazed at me and my friends from hollow eyes in a shrunken inbred cranium. It actually looked so stupid, it looked haunted. It’s creased, leathery skin was nearly hairless. The dog also had numerous sores under its baggy throat, swollen pink paws, giant randomly curving claws and, like a cherry on top, a stiff, erect rat-like tail.
Soon after meeting this poor specimen, we ate breakfast at a shop apparently home to a minute puffball of a dog. The puffball would have been adorable – if not for its obscenely long, loping tongue, which was certainly the result of some inbred mutation. Whenever it yawned or, and it did so frequently, a tongue easily half the dog’s body length darted out and curled back in. How sad: the lewd little mutant could lick its own eyeballs, but it couldn’t put its whole tongue back in its mouth.
Fortunately, I haven’t found any dead dogs. Then again, I don’t think a carcass, even starved and bony, would last long in this literally dog eat dog town. There are two basic modes of being for Taichung’s zombie dogs: near death and digested. Then again, maybe when they die they just evaporate into dust. As for the claim that “the Chinese eat dogs” -- well, it is true, but, especially in Taiwan, on a small scale. If available, the indelicate delicacy has the unassuming menu name “fragrant meat”. Those are two characters it is well to memorize early and decline consistently.
Currency, eating utensils, daily business, dogs – culture shock happens and it can hurt. But, for the wise, there are ways to resist. One teacher I know, named Mike, is the only man I’ve seen that imports culture shock. Mike’s “reverse culture shock” consists in anything from subtle language jokes to crudely ribald humor. If he’s having a conversation with a Taiwanese, for example, and she compliments his attempt to say even a word of Mandarin, one of Mike’s favorite tactics is to say, in a completely self-effacing manner, “No, no, your Chinese is much better than my English.” The Taiwanese then waves her hand in polite disagreement and Mike laughs, presumably at the Taiwanese’s kindness. If he’s in a crowd of Taiwanese or at a noisy restaurant, Mike will often shout random words and phrases in Mandarin: “Pineapple? Pineapple! … Are you tired? … I want penguin! … Penguin? Penguin! … Goat! Strawberry!”
I am, to say the least, conflicted about Mike’s behavior. He admits it is just a coping mechanism, which I can understand. But for some reason, his reverse culture shock just doesn’t seem fair. It just doesn’t seem right to make the locals feel out of place.
Then again, life abroad is flinty, savage business. You cannot have a weak heart or soft mind. But you don’t want a thick skin either, lest you miss the many exotic breezes of the cultural atmosphere. To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, walk sensibly but carry a big psychological shield at the ready. The same exotic winds that push you into the seas of “a broader perspective” are also full of the flaming darts of culture shock. Mike has found his shield by importing culture shock.
For me and the Americans I’ve met here, probably the most troubling area of culture shock, aside from the obvious cultural barrier, has to do with touch and personal space. Watching the Taiwanese interact, especially teens and pre-teens, is a strange experience for an American like me. On the streets, females often grab each other’s elbows or hands or shirts as they walk together. Guys and girls alike rest their hands on each other’s shoulders in elevators or in shops. At my employer school, I often see middle school boys walking in pairs or small packs, clinging to each other by the neck, elbows, shorts, shirts, hands, ears. For me, as an American, raised to covet personal space, this is only mildly awkward.
More troubling is the fact that the Taiwanese are often “close talkers”. They sometimes touch my arm or shoulder when they greet me or mention something funny. I’ve never known the smell of digested ginger before talking with Taiwanese. I’ve also never had the chance to observe so many different types of dentition before talking with Taiwanese. Braces, gaps, overbites, underbites, skewed canines, chipped incisors, purple gums, bits of food, gray-brown cigarette and maroon betel nut stains, and even some astoundingly beautiful choppers – I’ve had a tour of Taiwan’s mouth in less than four months.
Along the same lines, to my surprise, the Taiwanese are often extremely loud. Is it just a reflex to talk over chronic city noise? Is it just to be hearty and genuine? Is it to appear confident? I don’t know. I sometimes yearn to shriek, in miraculously perfect Mandarin, “Dear people of Taiwan, normal speaking volume carries quite well enough! Shouting is not the only way, I assure you!” But I’d probably just add to the madness and be cheered into submission again.
The freakishness of the Taiwanese sense of personal space increases exponentially as I approach my middle school classroom. At first glance, everything seems in order for middle school boys. They’re punching each other in the crotches, slapping each other on the backs, pushing each other around, yanking each other back by the shirts, headlocking each other in the bathroom, slapping each other’s thighs, and so forth.
I was walking to class one day and noticed a pack of middle school boys buzzing in and out of the bathroom like bees in and out of a hive, chattering, laughing and beckoning me. “Teacher,” they said in halting English, “someone pee pee in the soap.” I looked, and sure enough, the automatic soap dispenser was full of a watery yellow fluid. I just shook my head, grinned, and went to teach. All pretty standard for the middle school zoo.
But then, inside the classroom, you start to see things.
Very strange things.
I have, for example, seen fourteen-year-old boys delicately grab each other’s earlobes while they listen to me teach. I have seen the same boys rest their hands on each other’s thighs while I labor to explain vocabulary. I have seen these boys pat or rub each other’s faces – briefly, quickly, or slowly – while they rehearse a dialogue or answer homework discussion questions. I once walked into my classroom to find one boy pumping a second boy’s head into a third boy’s crotch – as they all laughed. Another time, I spied a gigantic middle school boy, easily the size of a black bear in both girth and height, trundling to his class on the third floor. Attached to his back was a dwarfish boy with his slender arms wrapped around the black bear boy, like a baby koala clinging to its mother. They (it?) shuffled serenely, step for matched step, to their (its?) classroom and I went twice as quickly to mine.
Some of this behavior, like any people’s, is nothing but bizarre and there’s no need to analyze sheer weirdness. But much of this behavior stems from the fact that Taiwanese culture is very open, or, better, porous. Porousness is a fact; openness is a choice. Taichung’s porousness has much to do with the climate. It is hot and humid here, so leaving doors and windows open is simply more comfortable than closing them. But even when it has cooled off by November, people leave curtains open while they sit watching TV. Radios blast music or news out of apartments at obscene volumes. They (the men, at least) leave windows open while standing bare-chested in shorts or in underwear. Shop owners, as if trying to ignore the fact that they are responsible for the store behind them, float to and from the street like tidal water in and out of a coral reef. A family-owned diner often looks more like a family that happens to be eating near a shop than a “real business”. Almost every street in Taichung is an olla podrida of frenetic neon lights, wok stands manned by sweaty, smoking cooks, transparent booths “womanned” by trampy la mei (“spicy girls”) selling binlang (or betel nut, a popular addictive chewable stimulant made of plants), sleek furniture stores, techno-pumping clothing stores, AC-spewing gyms, English bushiban (“cram schools”), and more. (My favorite English bushiban is “The Awesome English School.” I can only hope it lives up to its name.) Since public space is so hard to come by for billboards, many companies hire tiny flatbed trucks to drive through the city carrying two- or four-sided billboard boxes and – O, the humanity! – blasting by loud speaker the recorded yelps of a shrill-voiced Chinese woman. Between these trucks and the musical garbage trucks, you are lucky to sleep past 8 or 9 AM. At least in the States you can turn off the loud, annoying car ads. Here you’d have to carjack them. In short, Taichung is an over-filled water balloon leaking the water of urban life through any strained micro-pore it can find.
The city is porous due to the inevitable urban pressures of “social density”. Its citizens, however, are open due to cultural reasons that yet elude me. First, for example, whereas Americans sit and watch TV, Taiwanese (and many Asians, from what I gather) sit together and perform TV à la karaoke. A karaoke night is a thoroughly social experience. People are vulnerable to embarrassment; they express themselves through singing and their choice of songs; and they celebrate each other’s performances. In the United States, TV provides a chance to “veg out”. In Taiwan, on the other hand, TV provides a chance to burst out.
Second, whereas in the States official teams of garbage men collect people’s trash, in Taiwan citizens actually help the garbage people load the trash. I’ve never seen a female garbage work in the U.S. In Taiwan, there are countless garbage women. People bring their trash out as a family. Sometimes they stand together and watch or help the trash folk – all to the sweet strains of a musak “Für Elise”.
Finally, whereas BBQs in the States are usually and essentially hierarchical, Taiwanese BBQs are collective. As any American supermarket commercial can illustrate, American BBQs consist of one grill master mastering a massive grill while others sit and perhaps mingle. But at a Taiwanese BBQ there are numerous small hibachi grills and small groups sit together around each grill. People pass food to each other, swap cooking duties, and talk while cooking. When the party’s over everyone, children and adults alike, spontaneously pick up and remove the trash. The ant-like harmony is stunning. All that’s missing is the Beethoven.
Of course, a population as dense and tactile and as porous as Taiwan carries risks, the most recent of which was the sensational SARS scare. Taiwan’s aggressive response to SARS has left some strange scars on the urban landscape: dusty stacks of anti-SARS flyers piled up under desks, old anti-SARS posters peeling off windows, mounds of anti-SARS buttons (one of which I proudly wear on my backpack) lie in stationery stores like old bottle caps. Living in Taichung is like living in a house decorated for a surprise birthday party that never happened.
Another reminder of SARS is the heavy use of “preventive” face masks. Even before SARS hit, these masks were designed to reduce inhaled air pollution for the innumerable people that ride scooters. The masks spread like an aggressive fungus during the SARS fiasco. Fortunately, despite its sensational impact, SARS did not addle the Taiwanese’s fashion sense. Some Taiwanese settle for the fashionable austerity of carpentry and medical masks, but the majority prefers to go designer: black with a yellow lightning bolt, baby-blue with Snoopy atop his doghouse, Blackstock flannel, etc. I am torn between the simplicity of an aquamarine medical mask and a sturdier, electric-blue Mashi Maro ® mask suited for Taichung’s chicest.
As I said, culture shock comes in many forms and from many sources. Sasparilla soda is a popular drink here. The problem, though, is that while “sasparilla” is a perfectly valid spelling, here the drink is always spelled: “Sarsaparilla”. There’s even popular brand of sasparilla called “Root SARS”. I hesitate to make too much out of too little, but what am I to do with these facts? What are we as a global village to do with these facts? I’ve grown to expect humorous misspellings and “off” slogans here (e.g., “we make feel you good because we can you good times”). But this is a detail of an altogether gravely higher magnitude.
A mere coincidence? A sick joke? A conspiracy perhaps? If I were a betting man (I’m not) I’d see your “Soylent Green is made of people! It’s made of peeeeeeople!” and raise you a “Sarsaparilla is made of SARS! It’s made of SAAAAARS!” Culture shock happens – and it may just topple the world.