Hey Taiwan! Is This Um… Stuff… Really News?

Watching a nation’s newscasts provides insight into a culture’s psychology, at least the narrow slice of what captures people’s attention and brings in ratings for news stations. In Taiwan, which is a fairly small island, pleasantly peaceful and prosperous, the news reveals the country’s interests and concerns.

Major news stories garner airtime, like the MRT murders last year, the 黑心 recycled oil scandal, the Sunflower movement protests, the Kaohsiung gas explosions, local election coverage, the TransAsia plane crashes, etc. These stories would likely make news headlines just about anywhere.

But what I find curious and amusing is all the other frivolities considered worthy of primetime news.

A typical Taiwanese news broadcast consists of stories about new and trendy eateries. Restaurants and edibles feature prominently in Taiwanese culture. Recently there was a broadcast about a bakery that makes bread resembling watermelon. If it’s food and it’s cute, it’s sure to make the news.

And speaking of cute… Anything cute it is probably a trend worth reporting. Like the now famous mailboxes that were struck during a typhoon and left tilted in a way that was considered adorable by Taiwanese standards, drawing huge crowds just to pose for photo ops with the pair.

And speaking of queues… Taiwanese people are passionate about waiting in line for the latest and greatest food and other attractions. (To witness this, just go to Costco on a Saturday, lines of people snake around the store for a sample of food bits.) Taiwanese news reports on hotspots where queues are forming, and even on the phenomena of lining up and waiting itself.

A Taiwanese news broadcast wouldn’t be complete without dash cam footage of car wrecks and scooter crashes, which are plentiful.

It’s always a lucky day for news journalists when they can sniff out a story, pretty much any story, featuring a westerner in Taiwan. Whether causing a ruckus, or just reacting to local culture, or speaking Chinese, 外國人 are a sure to create a buzz.

And the ultimate Taiwanese news sensation features a combination of the above mentioned elements, as in this clip below. A western guy speaking Chinese, trending food, long lines… A Taiwanese reporter’s dream!

Finally, the news story that seems the most comical of all… Now and again something happens in Taiwan that gets picked up and reported by foreign news channels. When Taiwan is covered on the news in other countries, the foreign news coverage is news in Taiwan. “Hey look! We made CNN everybody!”

What makes this all so amusing to me is the fact that it is news at all. American news, while not being qualitatively better by any stretch, is just different. Food, lines, foreigners, car crashes and cute things are the stuff of Youtube videos or morning shows, but hardly feature stories on the news.

Taiwanese news seems more gossipy and lighthearted than its fear mongering American counterpart. The Taiwanese news aptly reflects what it’s like to live in an ordinarily pacific society, where people don’t have to bear the heavy burden of wars, police brutality, gang violence, racial discrimination, sexual violence and abuse, drug wars, gun violence, human trafficking, etc. being broadcast daily into their living rooms.

Sometimes I scoff when I see trivial Taiwanese news stories, and I’ve often argued, “But that’s not news!” At the same time, Taiwanese news reminds me of all there is to be grateful for. I appreciate being able to live in a peaceful country, where it’s generally safe to be any race, gender, or age. A country where guns are illegal and violence is the exception, not the rule.

What type of news stories do you consider odd or amusing? Let me know how Taiwanese news compares to news you’ve seen in other countries.

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OMG! I Never Thought This Would Happen In Taiwan! China, Yes, But Never In Taiwan!

Chicken bone Taiwan Hair SalonIt’s taken many disasters and disappointments before finally finding the right hair stylist. Blonde highlights are hard to come by in Taipei, and so while the salon itself is a far cry from the upscale western-esque salons I am used to, I’m happy to go there because my stylist is amazing. Plus, I get the added bonus of experiencing a traditional Taiwanese style salon.

As I lay there with my head in the shampoo bowl, a woman climbed into the reclining chair next to me for her shampoo. At first I thought perhaps she had just eaten lunch and had alarmingly bad breath. The smell was definitely food related, very pungent, with garlic and god knows what else. (For reference, stinky tofu smells like roses in comparison to whatever this was.)

Curious to get a peek of this woman, I glanced over to find an older Taiwanese lady getting shampooed, while at the same time viciously gnawing on what appeared to be a saucy bone. She was holding it in her fist, smacking her lips and sucking off whatever meat was presumably there, her fingers glistening with grease and sauce.

As if going to town on a hunk of meat in her bare hand while being shampooed weren’t enough, she then double-downed on the craziness when she discarded the bone by CHUCKING it onto the salon floor! No, she did not drop the bone. It did not slip from her hand. She hurled the bone onto the floor! Intentionally and as if it were no big deal.

“Oh my god!” I let out with a giggle of disbelief.

My stylist was horrified, quickly fetched a paper towel and retrieved the bone from the floor, tossing it in the trash. With a look of disgust she said, “Now there’s a blog post for you, rude grannies in Taiwan.”

From time to time I have experienced the “rude granny” phenomena in Taiwan. Mostly this consists of old Taiwanese ladies pushing me, stepping on me, cutting in line, staring and pointing at me. But until today I had never observed a category 4 rude granny.

I’ve heard stories of people tossing garbage, spitting, urinating and defecating on the streets and floors in malls and shops in China, but never in Taiwan. I could hardly believe my eyes when that bone was airborne. In the salon! Fortunately this behavior is very rare in my personal experience here, so I’m not suggesting this happens often. Since it was my first time ever witnessing a flying bone in a hair salon, I just had to tell you about it. Like when I had the farting / texting masseuse.

Have you ever seen this kind of behavior somewhere? Do you have any rude granny stories? Please share with me in the comments. Good times!

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“Go Ahead, Call The Cops!” How To Outsmart Taxi Scams In Hong Kong

Hong Kong Taxi ScamI wasn’t in Hong Kong an hour when I had a standoff with my cab driver. “I’m calling the police!” he boomed in his even louder than normal loud voice, and before I could say or do anything he had dialed his flip phone and was angrily barking in Cantonese.

Welcome to Hong Kong.

It was a Friday night, my first time in Hong Kong. I was traveling alone, to attend a conference for my travel business. I jumped in a cab at the airport and showed the driver the name of the hotel I had booked. Off we went.

Quite some time later, we neared the hotel’s alleged location. After circling the block three times, the driver informed me he would be dropping me off in the proximity of the hotel, because he didn’t really know exactly where it was. Unacceptable, I thought to myself. I insisted that he deliver me to the hotel, as agreed. The thought of wandering around Hong Kong with my bag at 11:00pm trying to find my way to the hotel seemed inane after spending a small fortune on a cab ride.

Of course this was all transpiring in Mandarin Chinese. Mandarin was clearly his second language, and mine as well. Our communication was labored. He wasn’t the most placid of cabbies. We were both growing impatient and exacerbated as he rounded the block one more time. Finally, by a stroke of dumb luck he pulled up in front of my hotel.

The meter read $130. As I opened my wallet, he told me the price was $180. I pointed to the meter and said I would pay $130. That’s when he called the police. I was stunned. If anything, it seemed HE was the one trying to rip ME off. So why was he calling the police? Was he bluffing?

Seeing that I was still unwilling to pay him more than the metered amount, the cab driver started hollering at passersby, hailing anyone he thought might serve to interpret English and Cantonese. Some young guys approached the cab. By this time we had drawn a small crowd. The young men kindly told me the driver was charging a toll fee, in addition to the meter fee. Now staff from the hotel had also gathered around the cab.

So this is Hong Kong.

I asked my new interpreter friends if I should be concerned or afraid of the cops. Being American, and having also lived in Mexico for five years, I am well aware of police brutality and shakedowns. Could this be a scam orchestrated by the driver his police buddies to empty my pockets? “The cops here are cool, just sit tight,” one guy said.

Finally the cops arrived, three men in uniform donning peaked caps. They were tall, fit and dashing. For a split second I thought (hoped?) maybe they could be strippers. Two began talking to the driver and one started asking me questions in English. I explained the meter read $130 when we arrived at the hotel, after several extra annoying laps around the neighborhood. The driver wanted to charge me an additional $50.

Honestly at this point I didn’t even do the currency conversion. It wasn’t about how much it cost. I have this terrible pet peeve about being ripped off and taken advantage of when I travel. This is where my stubbornness rears its head and I defiantly dig in my heels.

I calmly explained, “There is nothing posted in the cab about paying toll fees, and I didn’t see a receipt for the toll.” The police officer demanded the driver show the toll receipt. It was $30. He instructed me to pay $160, and I agreed. It was a small but sweet victory. I called the cabbie’s bluff and won.

The police asked if I wanted to file a complaint against the driver for overcharging me. I proffered my passport and my side of the story. They readily accepted and began filling out paperwork. They told me I would need to appear at the police station within five days to complete the complaint process.

“Oh. I’m flying back to Taipei after my conference tomorrow. Unfortunately I won’t be here long enough to pursue the complaint.”

A handsome cop returned my passport and apologized for my unfortunate choice of cab drivers. I thanked him several times and apologized for their trouble.

Truth be told, I didn’t really want to get tangled up in Hong Kong’s legal system, but the look on the cab driver’s face when I called his bluff and started to file the complaint was highly satisfying. Along with the fact that his police scare tactics backfired, and I wasn’t intimidated into paying the inflated price he originally claimed I owed. I have no problem paying for services rendered. Money was never the issue; I just really hate getting cheated or lied to.

Taxi overcharges and fraud, especially airport taxis which prey on your fresh off the plane vulnerability, are usually avoidable with the following five tricks. I’ve had pretty good success with these in my travels.

  1. Ask a convenience store clerk at the airport how much a taxi should cost to your destination. As a non-vested third party, they will give an honest figure.
  2. Take taxis with meters whenever possible.
  3. Non-metered taxis still exist in some cities. If the taxis are not metered, negotiate the price before getting in. This is when #1 above really comes in handy.
  4. Check at the airport to see if you can buy flat rate taxi tickets before getting into a cab.
  5. Do a bit of research before you travel to know if taxi scams are prevalent in the city you will be visiting, and what you can do to avoid them. Many cities have reliable and convenient transportation by train, bus or subway, and you may be able to avoid taxis altogether.

Do you have a story about being scammed or overcharged by taxi drivers? I’d love to hear it! Please share in the comments.

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Asshole Bosses In Taiwan

asshole bossSeems like this topic has been cropping up in various convos this week, so I want to get your input on it. I’ve heard different versions of basically the same story from numerous people (both Taiwanese and expats.) It goes like this…

A Taiwanese boss screws up or is somehow offended, maybe something minor, or something of consequence. Regardless, when the issue comes to light, the boss does one or more of the following.

  • Flies into a blind rage, finds a scapegoat to chew out, perhaps piles on a little public humiliation to boot. Maybe even fires someone.
  • Points the finger and plays the blame game. Passes the buck and pins the problem on someone. Heads will roll.
  • Denial, level OJ Simpson. Acts as if the problem doesn’t exist. Ignores the situation. Problem? What problem?

From what I have observed in Taiwan, saving face is of supreme importance, especially when there are well defined hierarchical levels at play. So a boss (or person in a superior position) who deflects responsibility for a mistake by throwing her employee under the bus believes to have saved face, but has she?

The larger truth is that those observing the situation see exactly what is going on. The boss is fronting. The mistake is glaring. But acknowledging the boss’ error would be far too shameful. It’s the perfect recipe for the classic elephant in the room. Despite all of this, the fall guy takes his blows and attempts to amend the situation. No one dares step out of line in the pecking order. In fact, everyone is expected to collude to maintain the unspoken pact.

This face saving circus can be extraordinarily trying for Americans who have Taiwanese managers or supervisors. I realize calling it a circus is disparaging, so let me clarify. There is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of saving face in Asian cultures, however, it becomes a circus in my book when truths are distorted and managers are absolved of responsibility or sound decision making. It’s a circus when reasonable solutions are discarded in favor of lunacy. When saving face results in workers being unjustly demoted, fired, or handed pay cuts and other punishments “to make an example of them” or “to show them who’s boss.”

Americans believe to err is human. We admire a person of any rank who admits to a mistake and accepts responsibility for it. We believe it is courageous to show our vulnerability and our faults, knowing we will be judged and criticized for them. While it takes fortitude to face the music, Americans view displaced anger, blame and denial as cowardly and childish. Certainly these would not be regarded as traits of a leader.

Because the saving face concept is not so entrenched in American culture, experiencing the wake of a Taiwanese boss’ temper tantrum, and worse, being expected to play along as a subordinate whipping boy to preserve the superior’s face, feels abhorrently unacceptable to most (possibly all?) Americans.

I say it can be trying for Americans, but it’s a rough ride for Taiwanese people too. My Taiwanese friends express outrage and indignation when their workplaces have been brutalized by face saving circus clowns. Even so, they fear the wrath of their supervisors and managers at work, and are more resigned to “the way it is.” They wisely realize they are very likely to encounter the same asshole boss at the next job and the next.

I personally feel, to use the sage words of legend Sweet Brown, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” I avoid asshole bosses by being happily self-employed. What do you do when the face-saving circus comes to town? How do you deal with asshole bosses? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories on this topic. I invite you to share in the comments.

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The English Mistake Taiwanese People Don’t Even Know They Make, And It’s Confusing & Funny As Hell

M or Ello?Sometimes language mistakes are so standardized that non-native speakers actually think they are correct. A fine example of this is “no problemo” used by many Americans to mean “no hay problema” in Spanish. Fortunately, the mutation is close enough to the original phrase that it doesn’t cause confusion.

But what if the mistake were significant enough to totally baffle the native listener? That’s exactly what happened to me at a coffee shop in Taipei last weekend!

To set the scene, I was at the counter ordering a cup of tea in Chinese. I’m pretty confident and well-practiced when it comes to using my Chinese skills to procure tea. There isn’t much that can go wrong in this simple transaction. I make my request, and the barista asks me questions like, “For here to go?” “Do you want sugar with that?” Etc.

Everything was going along swimmingly in Chinese until the barista asked, “妳要ello嗎?” (Do you want ello?) Nobody had ever asked me about “ello” before and I had never heard this word. But there are countless Chinese words I don’t know, so I cocked my head and asked, “Ello是什麼?” (What is ello?) The barista held up a paper cup. I must have looked even more confused. He held up another, smaller paper cup and asked, “M嗎?” (M?)

That was the clue that tipped me off and my confusion broke into a quiet chuckle. I smiled and said, “Ello就好了。” (Ello is just fine.)

He was asking if I wanted a size medium (M) or large (L) cup!

For some strange reason unbeknownst to me, Taiwanese people routinely pronounce the letter L like ello. No letter in English is pronounced with more than a single syllable, except W (because it just wouldn’t be English without exceptions, right?)

So where did this erroneous pronunciation for L come from? I am soliciting any tips or leads as to WHY this mistake persists in Taiwan in such a ubiquitous way. Please help me crack the case by leaving your theories, suggestions, ideas, clues, speculations, insights and funny ello stories in the comments below.

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