Of pigs and prudery

Anyone who has lived in Taiwan long enough, or for that matter any place where they stand out in terms of appearance or culture, will probably have experienced Othering. In Taiwan, it’s rarely of the nasty, aggressive kind nor, necessarily, even of the intentionally discriminatory type– though, as I’ve made clear elsewhere, that obviously exists, too – but more often the annoying us vs them stereotyping that leads to sweeping (and often completely uninformed) generalisations.

Were I to magically shed a millimetre of girth every time I heard sentences of the form “foreigners (don’t) eat/drink/like/other verb + noun” – as if the world were divided into a pair of dichotomous halves: Taiwan and Laowaiguo, the latter a loose confederation of essentially undistinguishable bands of occidentals – I’d long ago have substituted the midlife-crisis H.I.I.T. for market-vendor wisdom.

It goes both ways. Immigrants to Taiwan from the Confederated Tribes of Laowaiguo are wont to paint pictures of “Taiwanese” traits with fat, daubing brushstrokes. (I’m guilty, for sure; I suppose I’m kind of doing it right here).

This kind of Othering often seems to serve as a way of defining the Self (in opposition to the Other). It may be confirmation bias on my part, but the word “foreigner” appears to crop up with ear-pricking frequency in casual conversation here. People seem obsessed. Many Taiwanese have a stalker-level preoccupation with “foreign” habits, beliefs and characteristics – real or posited – and I’m pretty sure there’s some kind of sadomasochistic vicariousness at play in the gleeful accounts of shameful Laowaiguoren antics, which occupy a space in local media almost inversely proportionate to their banality.

Either way, received wisdom tends to frame the dialogue around alleged characteristics in terms of polar oppositions: Taiwanese modesty vs Laowaiguo arrogance; introvertion vs outlandishness; more generally, and perhaps the one from which all the others are seen to stem, the collective vs the individual. These all-or-nothing depictions ipso facto leave no room for subtleties or context.

To illustrate what I mean, a couple of examples should suffice:

1. Taiwanese are generally extremely friendly, helpful and polite in one-to-one situations and, especially, when they know or have some connection to you. But many can become ill-mannered, selfish oiks in in public spaces where their fellow citizens become faceless masses who do not have to be accounted to. I have written about this here. This is particularly the case when they get on a scooter or behind the wheel of a vehicle. Much of the aggressive, bullying behaviour that one comes across on a daily basis here would be unthinkable throughout the territories of Laowaiguo. It bespeaks a “might is right” attitude that is anathema to Western ideas about traffic flow (and, more generally, civil behaviour ), where the weakest or most vulnerable (ie pedestrians) have priority.

In contrast, Laowaiguoren can be extremely direct and confrontational in one-to-one situations in a way that many Taiwanese find incredibly rude, boorish and overbearing. (As someone who is regularly criticised even by fellow Laowaiguoren for this, one can well imagine how I would come across to many Taiwanese.)

2. For years, I have been teaching an IELTS class with a unit on hospitality and social interaction. One of the sections asks students to consider the importance in their society of several types of social behaviour, including making eye contact and maintaining personal space. The students overwhelmingly conclude that, yes, both of these aspects of interaction are considered important by Taiwanese. (Of course, there have been a few students over the years who have disagreed, sometimes providing just the kind of reasons and examples that I would.)

Taking the question literally, I can’t exactly say they are wrong. They are arguing that these actions are considered important, not that people actually perform them. For this reason, I began to raise that distinction and divide the question into those two points. Once I started doing that, I noticed that the number of people replying “no” (it’s not something that people do/are good at) rose ever-so slightly but that could well be because (to the more perceptive among them), posing the question in that way gave the game away.

Either way, I find it astounding that, not only do almost all of them answer “yes,” but that there is also invariably considerable surprise at my contention that many Laiwaoguoren might completely disagree.

Several students protest that Taiwanese would definitely be uncomfortable with people standing to close to them while communicating (especially one-to-one) and this highlights another way in which context is all-important – one which is basically related to the first point. I agree: being generally shy and uncomfortable with the proximity and attention that is a prerequisite to private/personal communication, Taiwanese (and East Asians in general) tend to stand further away from interlocutors in such settings. But in public, where there is no need to focus on any particular individual, encroachments into what, in Laowaiguo, would be considered personal space are the norm.

In disagreeing with my observation that Taiwanese are generally poor at making and maintaining eye contact, the students point out that they are all doing so with me in class. This, again, illustrates an interesting difference: in a formal situation where there is really not much choice, of course eye-contact is usually made and maintained (after all, to not do so would be to disrespect a teacher which, the increasing prevalence of “dinosaur parents” and their spoilt sprogs notwithstanding, is still a major no-no). However, in the free-for-all of public spaces, there is no need to look at anyone: to do so might invite unwelcome approaches, including from people you’ve cut up in your motor or barged into on the MRT.

And this leads me seamlessly to the point of this post: statues of copulating pigs. If you couldn’t see that, um, coming, let me explain.

Among the oppositions I previously mentioned, Laowaiguoren licentiousness/permissiveness vs Taiwanese chastity/prudery is a well-known fact (attested to in the aforementioned media reports). Flying in the face of this, Taiwanese are often surprisingly “open” and direct when it comes to the body and basic bodily functions.

I’ve worked in offices with people who have returned from the toilet to tell me with a cheerful wince that they are “having really bad diarrhoea” or that their “period is really heavy today”. I’ve also had colleagues who openly and regularly fart (burping is its own category) right next to me without batting an eyelid, and if anyone ever closed the door to the urinals at one of these locations, where the female staff and students walk past with a nice view of everyone lined up there, I’ll be buggered. Speaking of which, this:

I’ve seen some bizarre and irreverent statues and public “artworks” in Taiwan but this is something special. It caught my eye from the opposite side of the road as I pedalled through Mingjian Township in Nantou County on a cross-island bike trip over Lunar New Year. It appears to be attached to a piggy theme park which is part of the Nantou Agricultural Marketing Co. (南投縣農產運銷股份有限) premises next door. The location is apparently open to the public for tours/activities and is very much hog-focussed. (Indeed a bit of digging online indicated there are similar ‘works’ inside).

The slogan underneath reads “sheng sheng bu xi” (生生不息), which I suppose is roughly akin to the biblical exhortation to “go forth and multiply.” The monstrous creation is apparently the work of Mingjian-based artist and former police officer Wang Song-kuan (王松冠) who is also behind Jinglin Sculpture Park, another attraction in the township, which I didn’t know about at the time. There is nothing in Wang’s other works to hint at this kind of thing.

Meanwhile, it appears that miniature versions are available from the company’s website for anyone interested in owning their own souvenir of the salacious swine.

For want of anything meaningful to add, I will leave you with the words of my mate Scouse Dave who, on receiving my snap of the sculpture via FB Messenger just before I set off on my bike again, commented:

“I mean, where do you start with this? Someone, somewhere commissioned this, someone sketched it, sculpted it, people paid to transport it, it was unveiled … At what point did someone think it had gone too far to ask if, of all the statues in the world, a pig fucking a tortoise [a few people thought it looked like that at first sight] is really what was needed?”


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