Thursday, February 5, 2009

Student Life in Taiwan

Tsai Hsia and me on a student trip to a park near Taipei

Friends from the Student Center on a holiday hike (some girls hiked in heels)

Teresa and her junior high ESL tutees

Teresa, Biying, and Peiling: Students at home (in uniform, no less)

Student Center holiday bike ride

Winter break was a watershed in our Chinese learning. I think the biggest breakthrough was that we had gained confidence in what we had learned and began using more and more Chinese to communicate. After all, we had spent three whole days wandering around Guangzhou by ourselves without a guide or interpreter, and we had managed to find our way home to tell the tale.

We continued our routine of Chinese class, homework, English teaching and church activities, but we also began doing more of the shopping for dinners at home, and I began to teach English to more and more of the junior high students from church. It was a fun, carefree existence. Chinese students are not expected to do much more than study hard and get good grades. The church leaders and old grandmother-types from church made sure that all the inhabitants of the student center had plenty to eat, medical care if it was needed, and plenty of opportunity for recreation on holidays.

Every time there was a national holiday, the whole student center would go out to play. We took bike rides, went to parks, ate catered potluck dinners put on by the ladies at church, and had a great time in general. Most of the college students were older than I was because they had had to take so many entrance exams to advance beyond ninth grade. But almost none of them had ever had to work for their spending money, even if their families were not so well off. In typical Chinese families, the adults consider a young person to be a child until he or she gets married. As a rule, the entire family will scrimp and save so that its students do not have to work while they are studying.

It was sometimes hard for Lynne and me to relate to the students. They could not believe that I had been earning most of my spending money by babysitting from the time I was eleven years old. Chinese families in those days rarely hired outside babysitters because several generations all lived in one house, and the grandparents cared for the grandchildren. This also meant that most of our friends at the student center did not really understand how to manage money. They had never worried about utility bills, buying groceries, or other necessities of life. When they ran out of spending money, they took a trip home and came back with a purse full of money and a basket full of food to be sure they didn’t waste away without Mom’s down-home cooking.

Because I was younger than they were, I was able to make a few friends. Poor Lynne was older and a university lecturer besides, so many of our roommates were too much in awe of her to be friends. They were never rude or anything, but since our backgrounds were so different it was hard to find a common ground even after we could speak the language better.

Being younger than everyone was not that easy, either. Chinese people are very age conscious and do not usually call people by name (unless they use an English nickname). They call friends “Elder Brother” and “Elder Sister” or “Younger Brother” and “Younger Sister.” I did not like to wear skirts, and I did not act like a proper girl, so my nickname was “Younger Brother.” All my “Elder Sisters” took it upon themselves to train me in proper behavior and to get me to act like a lady. Sometimes I had to change my clothes several times before my well-meaning roommates would let me out the door because they did not think I was properly dressed. Since Lynne was usually in the faculty lounge, I was the only person holding to my opinion. It was me against the house, and the house always won. Eventually, they even took me out to buy “proper shoes” and “proper clothes” that I couldn’t really afford. (They didn’t have the money to pay for them, either, but that didn’t stop them from making me buy the items.) My friends didn’t understand long-term budgeting, and my Chinese was not at a level where I could successfully explain my concerns, so it was me against eight plus the shopkeepers. I usually bought at least part of what they wanted me to get.

I complained to my teacher, and all she did was congratulate me on making true Chinese friends. She told me that when Chinese people compliment you, they are keeping you at a distance with politeness. They don’t really mean half of what they say. When they start to correct everything about you, it means that you have gotten into their hearts, and they are correcting you because they care. There are a number of Chinese proverbs about this phenomenon: “The deeper they love you, the harder they scold you;” and “Scolding is affection, spanking is love. If you don’t spank or scold, you will harm the child.” Teacher gave me a “gift” that she gave me over and over during my years in her class. She wrote the word “perseverance” on my copy book and told me to learn to enjoy my friends’ love. I was totally frustrated. My own parents hadn’t tried to control what I wore since my first year of junior high. I was used to American freedom and individuality, and now I had to learn to “enjoy their ‘love’” by letting them make me wear uncomfortable clothing. In the end, however, it was easier to roll with it than to be constantly fighting with all my roommates. And when the weather turned hot again, I discovered that skirts were much cooler than pants, so it wasn’t all bad.


Barrie said...

Fascinating cultural differences. If you're up for it, it would be interesting to see some photos of the "acceptable" clothing.

Teresa said...

Hi Barrie,

The photo with my ESL tutoring students was taken towards the end of the school year. By that time you can see that I am in a blouse and skirt. As we progress through the story you will see a marked decrease in the number of pictures of me in overalls (not acceptable clothing) and an increase in the number of pictures of me in skirts and later in dresses. I wore skirts and blazers in the States when I was an intern at the US Senate, but I really am a jeans and t-shirt kind of person. My idea of dress up was a pair of jeans that weren't too faded and didn't have holes in them. I even wore overalls with a blouse (instead of a t-shirt) to church on Sundays.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Really interesting about the clothing and how politeness keeps people at bay.

Teresa said...

Linda, the Chinese have a proverb about how you have to beware of people who hide daggers in their smiles. You really cannot take things at face value. Sometimes it's as subtle as a crinkle in the forehead or a strange look in their eyes. The body language was much harder to learn than the tonal language (and that was hard enough).

Joannalynne said...

阿弟! 我喜歡你的overalls!

Joannalynne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Teresa said...

Your dad liked them, too. :)

Barbara Martin said...

These are intersting posts, Teresa. Thanks for providing insight into the politeness of Chinese.

Teresa said...

Thanks for your kindness, Barbara. Chinese culture is very ancient and very interesting.

Aghori said...

You say that several generations of family live together. Which side of the family?

In India a woman "marries into" her husbands family which means she leaves her parents' home and moves in with her in laws, so the family structure is patri-lineal.

Do husbands in Taiwan move in with their in-laws or do the wives move in with their's like in India?

Teresa said...

Hi Aghori,

Women move in with their husbands' families. I will write more about that later when I get to the part of my story about how I met my husband, the marriage negotiaions, living with is family, having kids, etc.

In my husband's Hakka Chinese subculture, the parents spill a bowl of water out on the ground behind the bridal car that is taking their daughter away to show that this daughter is no longer of their family. It doesn't mean that they don't love her; it just means her obligations are now to her husband's family.

Many men in Taiwan and China pay a bride price to the woman's family for the privilege of bringing the woman into their home. The woman's family has to then give gifts that are commensurate with the bride price, but the husband is expected to at the minimum have a newly refurbished "bridal suite" that the couple will live in. A Chinese friend's son here in the US just go married right before the Chinese New Year, and they paid US$33,000 for the bride. Now the parents are shopping their daughter around to get their money back. My husband's family was not that bad. My father-in-law took the money and put it in a new bank account under his daughter's name, so she would have her own resources in case her mother-in-law was stingy.

Is this similar to what happens in India? I have read articles that Indian parents are using online matchmaking websites to get their children married off.

Aghori said...

In India the groom's side gives nothing to the bride's family. The bride's family gives ALOT to his family though...

Hey, first you said that groom's family gives brideprice but then you said your father-in-law put the money given to him in an account for his daughter.... So that means YOUR family gave money to your hubby's family? Isn't that the opposite of what you stated usually takes place?

Seems that Chinese and Indian cultures are very similar on living with the in-laws (wife moves in with her's while the son stays put at home).

Teresa said...

Wow. You mean in India, the girl's family pays the husband to take their daughter?

When I was talking about my father-in-law, I was referring to the money paid to him for my sisters-in-law. Instead of pocketing it, he set up accounts for my sisters-in-law to use in case their husbands' mothers were stingy and didn't give them enough money.

In my case, I did not want to be bought and sold, and the house my in-laws were living in was very small. My husband is second of 7 children, so there were many younger siblings at home (1 boy and 3 girls). There were 3 bedrooms: one for my in-laws, one for the boys, and one for the girls. If the family had stayed in that home, my younger brother-in-law would have been moved to the living room couch until the last of his sisters had married out.

My own American father and I talked about it. He did not need the money (and it would not have been much in US dollars with the exchange rate in those days), so my father suggested to my future father-in-law during negotiations that my husband's family take the money they had saved up for my bride price and buy a new larger home with enough rooms for everyone. My American relatives could not believe that I was using a wash board in Taiwan, so they chipped in to give me a washer and dryer. My friends from work gave me a refrigerator, and I had a full set of dishes of my own that my grandmothers and mother and aunt had given me when I moved away for university. Thus, I came with the full set of bridal gifts and the family got a new home. This fact actually bought me a fair amount of freedom to make mistakes because I had been such a bargain bride, so to speak.

The concern with my sisters-in-law was that if they had a girl as the first child, the mother-in-law might not give them or the baby enough food or proper medical care because it was "only a girl". By putting the money from their bride prices in a secret account in the daughter's name, my father-in-law insured that they could get such care for themselves.

Frequently in the big, multi-generational families, income is pooled, and in the 80's a number of families required the younger generation to hand over their unopened pay envelopes to the parents. Then they were given back "pocket money." Now that Taiwan companies use checks and electronic bank transfers, this is not such a problem.

When I was married in the mid-1980's, most transactions were done in cash. When my father-in-law paid the down-payment for the new house, he took a large shopping bag full of NT1000 bills. We got sealed envelopes of cash every pay day. We stood in line at the bank once a month to pay the mortgage, and the utilities department had a bill collector who went door to door collecting cash payments for electricity and water.

In the traditional engagement ceremony, the man's family brings a tray heaped with cash for the bride price plus the agreed upon weight of gold in jewelry for the woman. They also give boxes and boxes of wedding cakes with the wedding announcement adhered to the boxes. During the ceremony, the woman's family gives a number of token gifts to the man and his parents. After the ceremony, the woman's family totals up the value of the cash and gold, subtracts the amount of their gifts to the groom's family, and then prepares the trousseau or dower gifts to equal the balance. If they are not happy with the marriage, they skimp on the dower gifts as insult. If they feel their daughter is marrying well, they may give a higher amount of dower gifts, but usually things are pretty much equal in value.


Aghori said...

In India dowry is paid to the groom's family. His family frequently asks for alot of money and stuff like motocycles, fridges, etc. Dowry is illegal but that in no way has diminished it's practice. Dowry deaths also take place.

Since the daughter in law is often expected to serve her in laws, you can say that she is paying to do work, rather than getting paid to do work.

The in laws not only get a free maid, they get PAID by their maid's family!!!!

Teresa said...

You mentioned "dowry deaths" take place. What is that all about? Why is the dowry system illegal? Is it too expensive to have a girl get married? What percentage of girls can marry without worrying about a dowry?

Some Chinese daughters-in-law are treated like maids, at least at the beginning of the marriage and especially in families outside the city or with a lower level of education. But this is changing. Many young people won't live with their parents any more. Are things changing in India?

Aghori said...

Things are changing in India. Dowry has been made illegal in India decades ago because of all the abuse surrounding it. Nevertheless, it is still present throughout India.

Now there is even abuse of the "anti-dowry" laws! So the husbands are now claiming victimhood....

You can google: dowry India, dowry deaths, 498a. It's all out in the open.

Teresa said...

Dear Aghori,

I googled the words you gave me, and I was shocked by the problem. I have heard of couples and in-laws arguing in Taiwan because one side felt the gifts didn't equal the money or the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law don't get along, but I have never heard of anything like setting a woman on fire because she didn't bring enough gifts to her wedding.

Among my husband's relatives and my Chinese friends, the thought is that the man's family has gained an asset who will help them in business, with children, and with the elder generation. Of course, there can be friction, especially between generations, but usually it doesn't get so violent.

I'm sorry to hear that it is taking so long in India to change customs that are harmful to women.

murat11 said...

Had to laugh at your teacher's response to your complaints. There's a thorny, at times uncomfortable, truth in what she was saying and quoting to you (as parents, I think we sometimes live by this truth), but there is also an oppressiveness at times. Of course, back here on our side of the pond, we had the O'Jays singing the same truth to us with (They smile in your face) / All the time they want to take your place...

Teresa said...

Yes, my teacher taught me a lot about the world and human nature. She was very patient and very good at explaining human culture.