Friday, December 14, 2012

Why is Coming Home Always Weird?

I am 6 days into my 2nd homecoming – back to Wisconsin after 2 years in the field. Unlike the first time I returned from Taiwan, I don’t think I am suffering from culture shock … but that isn't to say it has been easy. I feel somehow – off. It’s not jet lag  though I have been trying to blame jet lag for my “comatose” state, as my family has taken to describing me.

I am being called comatose for my lack of responsiveness. I’m not actually sure what they expect of me. This is weird. These are people I’ve known my whole life – or their whole lives as the case may be – and yet I am not sure how to react to news: a new apartment, a redecorated room … that’s nice, I said.

I also don’t know how to talk about what I've been doing, and this goes beyond family. I stick with the superficial experiences mostly, like strange foods, but Asian food just isn't fascinating to me anymore. I’ve mentioned to a couple of people about the natural hot springs I went to shortly before I left Taiwan – but this was apparently not interesting to anyone else.

Another fascinating experience I had was being invited into a hostess club. Maybe I should write about that one here? I just don’t know how to explain it or how people will react. In fact at this point I don’t even know how appropriate it would be to bring up. Boundaries vary cross culturally and I find myself suddenly unsure of where some of those lie.  I spent some time socializing with a few professors in Taiwan, but then felt awkward my first day back to campus in Milwaukee.

It’s not that I ever fit in 100% here, but I could at least play along once upon a time. Just before I left Taiwan a good friend of mine (Taiwanese) said that I needed to come back because I belonged there. Another friend (American) sent a Facebook message telling me I had gone native. I never felt “Taiwanese,” yet I wonder, could they be right?  

Friday, November 9, 2012

For the Sake of Passion … Is a PhD Really Worth It?

I often get questions from friends and undergraduate students who are considering graduate school. Usually, they simply want to know if it is worth it. More specifically, there are two questions that seem to pique people’s curiosity about getting a PhD. The first is the amount of sheer work (and by extension time) that it takes. The other, is the massive amount of debt that I have accrued over the last 10 years.

Let’s start with the most basic fact. Getting a PhD will consume your life.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Public Learning Patch 1.1

This morning I finally did it. I made my Chinese practice blog (中文練習) public. Only time will tell if this was a mistake. Despite the recognition that this may turn out very badly I have decided to put an idea before caution. Why? This is the only way for change to happen and, on a larger scale, I think there is a serious problem with some cultural perceptions of education that I have seen recently. Do I think my little experiment is going to change the world of education? No, of course not; but sometimes all it take is “one small step…”

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Lonely Hearts Narrative Part 2.2

This post is part 2.2 of my series on dating and being a Western woman in Taiwan. The original question was posted here. In this post I will discuss cultural differences in interpersonal relationships. In the introductory post to this series I wrote down the basic narrative of how single white women perceive their status, but there is a problem with this narrative – many of these women haven’t been single the entire time they have been here.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Public Learning

Just before my friend and Chinese tutor 高健 left Taiwan for the summer we had an interesting discussion about learning through blogging - not through reading blogs, but writing them. He writes a blog about studying to be a Chinese teacher called iLearn Mandarin. I don't honestly know how I feel about this yet, but it is something I've been trying out ever since my adviser first told me to write a field blog almost 3 years ago....and now I have a second one called 中文練習 (Chinese Language Practice) at

How did I go from never even considering blogging to having 2 blogs in 2 different languages?!

Amazing what a little change in point of view can do to a person.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Skritter: My Favorite App or New Favorite Game?

Skritter logo. (Photo from the web.)
I've been using Skritter for 3 weeks now. Its a program that teaches Chinese and Japanese character writing. I'll admit, I'm in love. Their website claims a user can learn a new character every 192 seconds and remember 95% of what they learn. It is in every way an amazing educational program; not least because it reminds me of city-builder games like Sim City and Civilization. Wait, what?

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Lonely Hearts Narrative Part 2.1

I left off my last Lonely Hearts post with the question: Why do expat women get so bitter over yellow fever? The answer to this can be summed up by the phrase “white fever.” No, this isn’t a phrase that I have ever heard anyone use before, however considering the “symptoms” of “yellow fever” (which is a phrase commonly used) the term seems apt. The way I see it there are two causes of this affliction, though both stem from cultural differences:

1. ideas about masculinity

2. expectations within interpersonal relationships

But once again, this post would be too long as one, so after the break I will cover number 1.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

When in Rome … or 入境隨俗

Recently I have had encounters with 2 Taiwanese who have spent several years in the States each. Interestingly, in both encounters there was considerable miscommunication, both verbally and in regards of body language.

I admit that after spending about 2 years here I probably should be more fluent in Taiwanese communication, but what about them? Both have spent more time in the States than I have in Taiwan. People say the only way to truly learn a language is to immerse oneself in the culture, but what about body language and cultural mores?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Lonely Hearts Narrative

I’ve written before on Western women complaining about their inability to land a man, Taiwanese or otherwise, here and here. I guess this is becoming a series of sorts. To some extent I still believe everything I wrote before, to some extent I don’t. In my own journey adjusting to celibacy I have found myself joining in this “lonely hearts” mentality from time to time, but if I am honest, the narrative I have been reciting (more or less the same as the other Western women) is not the truth – or at least not the whole truth.

The narrative goes something like this:

I am single because all the white guys have yellow fever and all the Taiwanese guys are either too afraid to speak English or not attracted to white women. (Whether or not the speaker knows Chinese is irrelevant, because it is generally assumed white people can’t speak Chinese at all unless/until they prove otherwise.)

Though there is some truth hidden within this narrative, it is still just that, a narrative. It is a culturally acceptable way of expressing loneliness (to oneself or to others) that blames outside factors, thus leaving the question of the speaker’s desirability out of the equation. This narrative is loosely based on a true story.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Difference Between Conservatism and Formality

It’s been said by many a newly arrived foreigner in Taiwan that this culture is conservative. Some will continue to see Taiwan in this way for the duration of their stay, but those who stay longer and explore enough quickly learn that “conservative” is not the right word. This I learned sometime ago, but what I struggled with until recently was what was the right word to describe sociality here. I think I have found it: formality.

Thanks to Matt for sparking the formality idea Smile

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

2nd Body Language Acquisition

I have about 2 years in the field now, not all at once, but close enough.  Given my particular field site (an ESL game company), my time in language classes filled mostly with college students or recent grads, and the overall topic of video games, most of the people I associate with on a day to basis are quite Westernized. Many of them have studied abroad and they all speak English to varying levels. This has perhaps slowed my Chinese language learning, but it has not completely stalled it, and I have been getting by alright… until recently.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Thoughts That Keep Me Up at Night

It has been suggested that human relationships – whether intimate or distant – are based on the idea of the Other. It starts when a mother holds her infant up to a mirror and says, “Look, that’s you.” This is said by some to be the point at which an infant realizes it is an individual among other individuals and that the mother is not a part of the Self. 

This then is said to carry on throughout life and often gets expressed on a societal level, as well as on an intimate level, in negative ways. For example, in cross-cultural exchanges, whether they be first contact situations, international political relations, or anything in between, humans can conceptualize the Other in abstract terms because they are different; they are not the Self. Even within a single culture, a similar dehumanization occurs with the apathy so many people display to societal problems. A rich businessman or politician can decide to cut jobs or programs without guilt because when he does so he does not conceive of the reality of thousands of individuals suffering because of this decision. They are not, in fact, individuals to him. They are the Other, the poor, the unemployed, a statistic.  They are not the Self. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Fieldwork Challenges of the 21st Century: Why I Can’t Keep my Blog Up-to-Date

In short – I often don’t know what to write.  This is not a writer’s block, not exactly.  What I have is an ethical dilemma of content. The importance of anonymity to protect research subjects has been drilled into my brain over many years of college and graduate school. This makes it difficult for me to blog about my experiences in the field while I am in the field. My fear is that it would be too easy for anyone in Taipei to figure out the identity of anyone I mention (and I happen to know that there are people in Taipei who have looked at this site).

This is something that was never covered in any of my classes unfortunately. When the classics were written there were no blogs. Malinowski did not have to worry about keeping his informants’ identities safe.

So, why then did I start a blog?