Wednesday, April 27, 2005

A Musical Language

During my time in Taiwan, I was entertained on all my days off – and for free! – by the singers who lived two floors above me - they had installed a massive home karaoke system to ensure the whole city could hear them. Taiwanese people are so kind! They sang the same song every time, to give me a chance to learn the words.
They never seemed to sing any better, and I found that fascinating. I invited researchers from Taiwan Taipei National Normal Music University to test my theory. For three months my bedroom was taken over by cables, sensors, beeping display screens and mysterious black boxes. Finally, Ran Toh-Yah, senior lecturer in the Vocal Training department, presented his findings.

"It's quite interesting," he began. "Over the last three months your neighbours have made no improvement at all. It's counter-intuitive, I accept that. Most people, when they repeat an action many times, be it speaking a foreign language or hammering a nail, improve. That is to say, they get better. Practice makes perfect. In Chinese we have the idiom, 'The Mating Frog Lacks Not Patience,' which I think says it all. Improvement generally follows the Fisher-Wight curve. In the case of your neighbours, the complete lack of improvement is, frankly, contrary to all scientific notions. Fisher and Wight, not to mention Einstein and Newton, would be turning in their graves. If they are dead. I don't know if Wight is dead yet."

So what was the song about? The researchers told me that what sounded to my barbaric Western ear as one Chinese song endlessly re-butchered was in fact three hundred different songs. They downloaded and printed the lyrics of half a dozen. Seeing the Chinese gobbledegook on the page, I visited top translator Tiffany Yen in her sumptuous coffee shop office. She charged me $4000 to translate the words into English and then told me that I should have bought a $280 book which contained the English translation of many Chinese songs.

These are the choruses from the three most popular Chinese songs, as warbled indefatigably by my neighbours.

3 - I Love You

I love you
You don't love me
We are not together
I hope you'll be happy

2 - You Love Her

I love you
You love her
We are not together
I hope she makes you happy

1 - You Love Me

You love me
I don't love you
We are together
But not for long


Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Trends in Taiwan

New crazes are sweeping Taiwan like plagues in Egypt, disrupting the economy and threatening to obliterate traditional Confucian values. The most talked-about crazes involve donuts, fare-dodging and gate-crashing.

Deified Donuts

The donut craze, like everything cool in Taiwan, is from Japan. Leading the donut invasion is the Japanese chain Mister Donut. A Mister Donut spokesman said, "We entered the Taiwanese market because our boss came here on a business trip and found every bread product in Taiwan, including sugar-free bread, was filled with sugar. So we knew Taiwanese people had a sweet tooth. When we opened our first store we had week-long lines outside. It's like selling candy to a nation of semi-affluent babies. But we never expected our product to be deified."

At the moment there are only three Mister Donut branches in Taiwan, all in the capital Taipei. People in the south have no access to quality donuts. I spoke to donut activist Hu-Chu Sing. "We built this temple to the god of donuts so we could pray for a branch of Mister Donut or Krispy Kreme to open in the south. We chant, pray and burn incense, and on auspicious days, especially dates with zero - the number of the donut - we hire mystics to perform donut dances. On the 20th of March a mystic in Tainan fell into a trance, and when he awoke he said Tainan would have good donuts within four years. Obviously we are doing all we can to get them here faster. We won't go back to the semi-conductor foundry until we got donuts." So many people are taking days off work to get in line for quality confectionary that the cost to the economy has been estimated at 14% of GDP.


Police say Taiwan’s most anti-social trend is ‘Tiffaning’, and it’s not just the notoriously cheap locals causing the trouble. "It's the coolest thing," said blond Jank Smurff, a South African living in Muzha. "You get on the bus and the fare is 35 dollars, but you've got a palmful of one-dollar coins and you throw in about 27 dollars and there's no way the driver can know how much you put in. Tiffaning is such a buzz." The spiritual leader of the movement is Tiffany Yen, a short woman with a big idea. "I was in a restaurant one day when I decided I didn't want to pay for my food. So I walked out and nothing happened. I did it again the next day. Nobody seemed to notice. I told some friends and they all tried it. We went to a bar and walked out without paying for our diet cokes and popcorn. It's the most fun you can have in Taiwan. The movement began to get bigger and soon people I didn't know were talking about it. They were even calling it Tiffaning. I wanted to see how far I could take it. I was taking English lessons with this cute guy, so what I did was turn up for class and say something like 'Let's just have lunch' or 'do you want to see a movie?' and then I'd spend the afternoon with him learning English but wouldn't have to give him any cash. And he's an English gentleman so he pays for movies and everything, automatically, without even realising he's doing it."


Parties, English lessons, family reunions – nothing is safe from the new breed of professional gate-crashers in Taipei city. "Legally speaking there's nothing we can do," said Mayor Ma Ying-Jiu's office, "these gate-crashers can go almost anywhere they like." How does it affect everyday life? "We arranged a private party for our friend," said caring Andrew Philip, an English teacher, "He was leaving Taiwan for ever, we’d planned it to the last detail. Suddenly all these people turned up telling us about their emotional problems and practicing their English on us. They left without paying for the chicken wings they ate. Today I had three people sneak into my English class thinking I wouldn't notice. It's out of control." The most bizarre offshoot of the gate-crashing phemomenon is date-crashing. "I took my girlfriend out for our first anniversary," said Tao Chen Long, a chipset engineer from Gaoxiong. "We were starting dinner when this girl came and sat herself at our table. She stayed with us throughout dinner, a movie and a romantic walk around Da-an park. She didn't even offer to pay and she only left when I invited her to join us for a threesome. It's like she stole my romance. But I'm Taiwanese so I don't feel this problem reflects badly on Taiwan at all. In fact I blame the foreign devils for talking about it."
Politicians I spoke to echoed those sentiments, claiming the problems were a figment of uncultured foreign whimsy.

Monday, April 04, 2005

The Taiwan Center for Mentally Unsafe Foreigners

I accepted an invite to tour Taiwan's most respected centre for the study and treatment of culture shock, The Taiwan Center for Mentally Unsafe Foreigners. Dr. Han greeted me and began explaining why he created the facility. "We do seem to have this problem in Taiwan of foreigners being quite unable to adjust to our cultural norms even after many years. I have come to think that Taiwan represents a uniquely difficult place to live, to eat, and, especially, to work." We began our tour.

Dr. Han led me into a small room. A white-coated scientist controlled two computers and four CCTV monitors, and looked through a large one-way mirror into an adjoining room. Dr. Han jabbed his finger at the other room. "We call this Restaurant Therapy. A lot of foreigners are deeply unsettled by their experiences in Taiwanese restaurants, coffee shops, cinemas, and other places of relaxation. The simplest purchases can quickly degenerate into complicated, surreal, or even life-altering ordeals."
We looked through the mirror into a comfortable, well-lit room in which two foreigners were interacting with doctors dressed as civilians. "We call this the Choice Deprivation Survival Skill Room. This is a safe environment where we can allow foreigners to come to terms with situations that have affected them in the real world. Subject A is from the States, so, obviously, he is used to getting any kind of coffee he likes. Last month he went to a coffee shop in Tainan and asked for a very simple coffee with a splash of vanilla. The vanilla was there on display, right in his line of view, but the staff refused to give him any. The vanilla was reserved for certain types of coffee. They wouldnt give him a splash of vanilla even when he offered to pay extra. Subject A didn't handle the situation well, I'm afraid... so he comes here once a week to practice." I watched as the doctor led Subject A through a role play the doctor refused to add vanilla to a coffee and Subject A smiled politely and took the coffee back to his seat.

I turned to look at Subject B. His doctor offered him a choice of apples, red or green. Subject B nodded like a homeless woodpecker.

"Subject B's case was more complicated. He went to a local theme park on a hot day and was attracted to an ice-cream stall. The ice-cream came with real fruit toppings. It was possible to have two toppings for a small extra charge. He asked for a kiwi/strawberry mix and the staff of the ice-cream stall told him it wouldn't taste good. At first he was very polite and assured them that, strange as it seemed to them, he did indeed enjoy that mix of flavours. However, and this is I'm afraid somewhat typical, the workers insisted that kiwi and strawberry should not be mixed and absolutely refused to make it." Subject B stopped nodding. His eyes wandered vaguely around the room." So what happened to him? Why is he here?" I asked. "As I said, it's complicated. We think his brain went into some kind of meltdown. His psyche equates civilised life with boundless choice, almost complete freedom of movement and action. He thought Taiwan was a normal country, so his experience with the ice cream was dangerously unexpected. If he had been expecting something of the sort, things would have been better. Now, if you ask him a question he just nods his head. His therapy is currently ineffective."

We walked to the top floor. "I'm afraid you can't go inside any of the rooms, but you can take a quick look through the windows. Just don't make any grammar mistakes while you're up here." "What do you mean? This is the place we put our demented English teachers. We've got some very sorry cases here. Chaps whose students just never improve, guys who really want to do some good and are frustrated at every turn. Some people can't handle it. It affects men more than women, and Canadians more than other nationalities." I peeked inside one of the rooms. I saw something appalling. "Is he... is he Canadian?" I asked. "Yes, I'm afraid so." "What's he doing? He's flashbacking. In his head, he's teaching his advanced class. The one that made him freak out." I leaned in a little closer to the glass. His eyes were red and puffed; his tie had been tugged askew. He wagged his fingers at his imaginary students and, his body tense and hard, raised his shaking hands to his shaking head, and screamed, "The past tense of 'go' is 'went'! The past tense of 'go' is 'went'!" I gagged on some stomach acid that had risen into my mouth. "I'd like to go home now", I said.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

April Fool's Pranks Go Wrong

As if to prove that Taiwanese people have a failed sense of humour, April Fool's Day 'gags' have been spectacularly backfiring all across the heavily-polluted island.

In Tainan, 45 year-old Rang Toh-Yah donned a JFK mask, entered a police station brandishing a plastic AK-47 and roared, "Give me the money! Free the imprisoned gang bosses!" Panicked officers shot him 20 times.

On flight EVA1276 from Hong Kong to Taipei, startled passengers overwhelmed an elderly woman who announced she had a grenade and wanted to be taken to Mexico City. After a brief brawl in which the woman, who cannot be freed for legal reasons, was beaten unconscious by her contemporaries, flight attendants found a mouldy papaya in her hand.

Meanwhile, in Taipei, the American company Hewlett Packard reinstated three suspended employees who were among the victims of a particularly malicious prank. Mean-spirited Tiffany Yen couldnt understand the English editions of Harry Potter and, stretching her language skills to the limit, directed her rage upon the letters HP. She asked her boyfriend, a software engineer, to hack into the HP website, and he changed HPs slogan from HP Invent to Harry Potter isn't even good. More than 700 angry Harry Potter fans complained to Hewlett Packard, who suspended three webmasters before they discovered Ms. Yen's involvement. Their legal team continues to investigate, and have found that Ms. Yen remains unmarried.