Saturday, April 25, 2009

Working in a Paternalistic Taiwan Company

Company Bike Trip

International Conference

Company Courtyard

Six of the Twelve Beds

My desk (one of seven in the study room)
The longer I worked at the publishing company as a regular worker, the more I realized how different the concept of workplace was to the Chinese mind. The hours were supposed to be from 8:30 to 5:30 with an hour off for lunch, but nobody ever really went by those hours. One person in the book store department had to arrive at work on time every morning to open the shop for customers. Whoever that person was going to be went home a little early the night before to make up for the fact that he or she would be getting to work “early” the next day. When there was not a rush project going, lunch could stretch out for two hours, and if something came up in the middle of the day, it was not a problem to take an hour here or there for personal business.

We were paid by the month, and things were very lax as long as the work was done in a reasonable time frame. BUT when we had to produce materials on short notice, we worked around the clock seven days a week with no complaints until the job was done. The entire viewpoint was task-oriented, and as long as things were accomplished before the deadlines, no one minded if a person took a nap here or an afternoon there to handle personal or family business.

The company was very family oriented, and my colleagues would often bring their children or nieces and nephews to work with them when their personal lives so dictated. Everyone in the company took turns amusing the children or finding jobs for them to “help” out with until they left with their relatives on whatever business brought them to downtown Taipei. The staff of the company acted like an extended family to everyone else. If a person got sick and family members were unable to accompany him or her to the doctor, General Manager would find a colleague to take the sick person to the clinic. If there was a death in one colleague’s family, the company would shut down so everyone could attend the funeral. The same held true for weddings and other major life events.

The company functioned differently from its American counterpart. When the Americans came to town for a collaborative project, they put us all on a 9 to 5 schedule. Everything was run by the rule book, and they tried to whip us into shape. As soon as the Americans left, we went back to our old ways because they fit better into the pattern of the local society.

The Taiwanese work week went for six days. When there was an important project, nobody went home. When one department in the company got behind, everyone who had time went in to help out. Nothing was rigid, except that things had to be done before the deadline. Whenever we had a major accomplishment, General Manager would close down the company for a day and take us out to play. Sometimes, he would bribe us by taking us to play BEFORE the Americans came to make our lives miserable.

One time, we were supposed to go to the airport to meet the owner and a contingent of several hundred American visitors for a huge international conference. We worked for several months getting all the housing arranged, the outlines published, the meeting places set up, and making sure every detail was perfect. Since we had finished our preparations early, General Manager told us to arrive at work at 5 am the following morning with our uniforms for the airport on hangers plus a duffle bag of play clothes for three days. He then loaded us into three vans with walkie-talkies, and we took a three-day sightseeing trip over all of Taiwan’s cross-island mountain highways. We were supposed to be home in time to shower before going to the airport, but we had our clothes in the vans, just in case. We had a wonderful time with perfect weather for the first day and a half. Then it began to rain; by the time we got to the last cross-island highway, we got stuck between two landslides. The road was cleared several hours later, leaving us barely enough time to rush to the airport, run into the bathrooms, wash our faces, comb our hair, and put on crisp uniforms over dirty, unwashed bodies. Fortunately, the American guests were wiped out from the flight, so we saw them to their accommodations and got a good night’s sleep before starting to work around the clock again the next morning.

At the international conferences in Asia, I was clearly considered part of the Taiwan contingent. At times it was awkward because the Americans would come to me to complain about how we did things and expect me to relay their words to General Manager. By this time, I was immersed in the culture and didn’t see why things had to be done so rigidly. I also felt trapped in the middle because after the Americans went home, I still had to live with whatever enemies I had made from relaying unkind words. Fortunately, my Chinese friends were understanding and did their best to take the pressure off me. My thoroughly Asian attitude landed me a spot on the team of videographers filming conferences in Japan and Korea. These were Asian-only events, and no other Americans were invited to attend because the accommodations were in youth hostels and cheap hotels where you slept on mats on the floor. We were squeezed in four or six to a room, and in the Korean Youth Hostel, the bathrooms were down the hall. It was determined that the average American would be too uncomfortable in those surroundings. I got a free trip to Japan and Korea, and I was so happy. General Manager gave us time and money to sightsee in the down time between sessions, so life was even better.

General Manager was good to us, but he also felt free to interfere in our lives, such as meddling with our living arrangements. A group of young working women, whose families did not live in Taipei, needed safe accommodations like the Student Center. General Manager got the family I was living with to move into an office flat with these women. The family had three rooms in the corner, and the old area for the secretarial pool was screened off by a wall made of wooden closets. Twelve bunk beds were crammed into this room for all of us single women. The kitchen was on the balcony, and they installed shower heads into all the stalls with the toilets, so more than one person could shower at a time. Five women who slept early were given desks in the bedroom; the other seven of us had desks in a small separate room for night owls and students. Each woman had her own section of the closet wall with a large drawer, room to hang up clothes, and a shelf or two. We each got one shelf in the night owl room for books. Life at such close quarters was very difficult, but in the end it was not as bad as General Manager’s attempts at match-making.

Monday, April 20, 2009

TV, Novels, and the Three Character Classic

My Reading and Kung Fu Show Buddy

Moving in with the family gave me my first access to Chinese TV. The two older children and I loved to watch historical Chinese dramas. These frequently included a kung fu component, so we watched adventures set in traditional Chinese society. The dramas usually played from Monday through Saturday and lasted for a month. The two dramas I remember most were a dramatization of Louis Cha’s novel, The Eagle Lovers and another about the legend of the Yang Family Generals. Both dramas were set in the Song Dynasty. The Yang Family Generals were a real warrior family, who lived on the northern border and fought the Mongolians for several generations. In the drama, one of the leading characters was the old matriarch who kept her sons loyal and fighting for China. The themes on TV reinforced the lessons we were getting every day in class.

Watching TV helped my listening comprehension, and it also helped my reading. Because there are so many regional dialects in China, and people from every region of China had fled with the Kuomintang to Taiwan, TV shows had Chinese subtitles so everyone could understand the Mandarin. Many times, I knew the words by sound, but I did not know what characters went with them. As I was watching TV, my reading vocabulary and ability to read quickly also increased.

As I got engrossed in the story from the kung fu novel, I decided that I would start to read real Chinese books. I went out and bought a few novels, but they were too hard for me. Then one day, I found children’s novels with the bo, po, mo, fo beside the characters. One company put out abridged versions of all the Chinese classics in bo, po, mo, fo editions. They were just the right level for me. I read The Tale of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, The Legend of the Marshes (108 Heroes), and many other books. After devouring these books, I worked up to some easier novels and essays, and finally I got my hands on kung fu novels by Louis Cha. Each novel consists of several volumes, but since I started with the novels I had seen on TV, I was able to understand most of the plot. Eventually, I got the original version of The Legend of the Marshes and read it from beginning to end. It took me one year and one day, but I did it.

Then my friends at the publishing company decided it was time for me to begin learning some classical Chinese. They had me buy the Three Character Classic with bo, po, mo, fo and modern Chinese interpretation, and they had me get a book called Three Hundred Tang Dynasty Poems. Then they told me to forget about understanding them and just start memorizing. One of my friends had a degree in Chinese. She went through and marked the poems I “needed” to know. When I discussed this with Teacher she said it was the way she had learned these texts. She said that if I took the time to memorize them, they would help me for the rest of my life. I was a little skeptical, but I set myself to the task. This work was apart from my regular school work, so it did not go fast. But I kept at it, even after I stopped taking formal classes. By the spring of 1990, I was able to recite and write the entire Three Character Classic from memory, and I have to say that knowing it has helped me time and again because it is such a succinct overview of Chinese culture and history. I sometimes come across things in Chinese books that trigger a phrase from the Three Character Classic, and it helps me understand what I’m reading.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Twentieth Anniversary of 1989 Chinese Student Protests

Today's post will be somewhat different in honor of the 20th anniversary of the death of Hu Yaobang and the beginning of the 1989 student protests in China. I have been doing translation work for one of the student leaders from the protests in Wuhan, June Fourth poet Jiang Pinchao.
Today's post is my translation of one of Mr. Jiang's poems in his booklet June Fourth Movement Twentieth Anniversary Memorial with much thanks to my cousin Brian E. Hansen for his excellent editing work. Mr. Jiang ( with his friend and fellow student leader Bob Fu of China Aid Association ( came to my school (California State University, Long Beach) on Monday to give a memorial presentation about the 1989 June Fourth Student Movement and Tiananmen Massacre in China. It was quite well-received and there was a lot of press coverage in the international Chinese language media outside China. ( I did the translation and interpretation for the project, so I got my picture in the newspaper, too. Enjoy the poem!!
for Mei
By Jiang Pinchao
Cut and bruised by
chains, burned by
electric shocks,
I’m shredded by wounds—
Mei, I was tortured
until nothing remains
but my will.
Snow blows outside, and
inside my solitary cell is icy.
Pit toilet, dining table, bed
cram into five meters square.
The stench of urine and feces
stabs my nostrils.
A thin prison quilt covers me,
I lie on top of my prison clothes
curled up in a ball on the
concrete and wooden bed with no mattress.
I blow on my fingers,
unable to stop shivering.
Mei, I’m so cold.
The sores on my back and legs
numb in my cell’s icy air.
Brushing my wounds is
like touching someone else.
I wonder if I am dead.

Mei, you told me to protect myself
to stop making trouble
but I couldn’t when they
beat Tang, my comrade in suffering.
They beat him with electric wands that
burned his flesh.
His eyes rolled into his head and he
fell to the ground
foaming at the mouth
without any chance to explain.
When he opened his mouth
my comrade could make no sound.
I held up my hands but
he could not count my fingers.
He had been sitting with the felons
but near the doorway.
He did not hear the guards knock
before they exploded into the cell
accusing him of keeping them outside
so he could secretly
commit illegal acts inside.

Mei, they beat my comrade in suffering, Pan, until he
screamed like a dog being slaughtered.
The felons had forced him to carry
bags of plastic powder in the prison factory
while they jeered him.
He came from Hunan and
had a scholar’s scrawny physique
so he could not do the work.
He returned to prison from solitary full of anger.
The wardens believed a false report
and cited him for refusing labor reeducation.
The guards instructed the felons
to beat him until he confessed.
They kicked him and
punched him in the mouth until
blood dribbled from his lips.
He screamed piteously.
Mei, if you heard him
your heart would be bruised and ripped.

Yeh had been trying to help by
sweeping the guards’ offices
but he broke a rule:
political prisoners
cannot go anywhere alone
but must line up three in a row
with a felon to lead them.
They beat Yeh, my comrade in suffering
until his eyes bugged out.
He stood as a grown man
who had never shed tears
before his leaders and students in school,
but as he endured the illiterate felons’
swinging fists
he could not keep from crying,
not because his body ached
but because his heart did.

Mei, I live among the tortured,
I am one of those punished for their ideas.
We eat, sleep, walk, exercise,
enter the metal door where we rake the plastic,
carry one hundred pound bags,
burn our flesh as we heat each piece,
work the red-hot blobs of plastic,
get brainwashed in the pig-sty meeting room, and
urinate and defecate as a group.
The salted eggs you gave me
became a special treat for all of us.
My comrades never forget to share
their cigarettes with me.
Our eyes shed the same tears
and the same blood courses through our veins.
The law, the prisons, some felons, the wardens,
isolate us
to squeeze the life out of us.
They use slaves to crush slaves
to break down our will
to push us to survival’s brink.
Atrocities against my comrades
are my sufferings, too,
Mei, I cannot stop caring for them

We went on strike,
refused to attend meetings
so we were isolated and beaten.
Mei, I did not listen to you and
embroiled myself in another fight.
Being honorable gets me in trouble,
because honor offers no protection:
our enemies do whatever they please.
Their poisonous acts are no better than those of Jiu San
and we suffer no more than Li Yuhe.
When will we be judged honorable,
when will our guards and wardens be
judged criminals and
hated by all?
Now we are confused with them
mere targets for their fists and wands.
I do not know if
they enjoyed being lords
of our mistreatment.
I held my breath
under their blows
until my weakness
became my strength.
Mei, I know I was wrong
not to take care of myself,
I made you suffer.

Do not say we no longer have a future
do not say we will never see our friends again
do not say we will never regain our lost youth
do not say we have paid the price of loneliness
and do not say no one will remember us
even if we shout to people
from the depths of our hearts.
I do not want us to die
in the iciness of reality.
My comrades and I howl like wolves in the wilderness
facing an encircling wall of spears with
our tongues, the gift of life, lolling out.
As we face death the wilderness screams and
we rely on each other for survival.
Before our eyes the hunters prepare to
execute us but we summon all our hate and
will not accept this fate.

Mei, I know this resistance is wrong but
I must help my comrades.
I know I am foolish but I cannot escape their pull.
Mei, I am so tired
I want to return to your arms
I want you to dress my wounds and
see you weep for me.
Mei, do not scold me
because I must be foolish again.

December, 1991, Hanyang Prison
The events discussed in the poem actually happened to Mr. Jiang and his fellow students during their four-year imprisonment after the Tiananmen Incident. For more information see:

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Power of Traditional Chinese Women

After reading the last post, many people are probably wondering what I was thinking marrying into a traditional Chinese family. Teacher did not just stop with teaching us the expectations; she also trained us how to work the system. She believed that woman’s lib was crazy because a successful traditional Chinese woman has more power and an easier life than a so-called liberated woman. One of her mantras was: “Men and women are different.” Men are pushier, stronger physically, more impetuous, and less perceptive than women. In Teacher’s mind, women should be the puppet masters behind the men, shielding themselves behind a hunk of protective male flesh, appearing soft and delicate, but having innards of steel. Another of her favorite idioms was “steel within softness.” A successful woman, in Teacher’s eyes, was soft outwardly, but tough as nails on the inside.

Women in Chinese history are a conundrum. There are proverbs about how “virtuous women are illiterate,” but many women were educated at home. Confucian teachings also insist that sons put their mothers on a pedestal and respect them to the uttermost. Even the emperors did not dare to directly contradict their mothers, lest the heavens wreak havoc on the nation for their lack of filial piety. Throughout Chinese history, Dowager Empresses were frequently the power behind the throne, sometimes for the good as in the case of the grandmother of Kangxi and sometimes for evil as in the case of the last Dowager Empress. Even among the populace, the matriarchs played a huge role in greater family fortunes by the way they steered the household.

These sentiments about mothers still run deep. One of my mother-in-law’s brothers proudly told people that if his wife did not treat his mother right, he would divorce her for a better woman because a man can have many wives but only one mother. Once a woman becomes a mother, she is accorded a different status by society at large. There are awards on Mother’s Day for top mother in the town, the county, the country. Widowed mothers, who do not remarry, are especially honored, if they stay with their husband’s parents raising their children.

Like most Chinese, Teacher believed that strong households make society strong, and strong societies make the world strong and peaceful. She believed that families in which both parents work outside the home produce children of weak character, who are poorly educated. She felt that it was an honor for women to pour their beings into their children, producing a happy, healthy, well-trained crop for the future of the family, the country, and the world. Since being a mother was such a high, noble calling, she could not understand why so many Westernized, modern women would ignore their children and go out to compete with men in the world of work. This meant the children were neglected and grew up to be problems to society; the men felt threatened and disrupted family harmony; in the end, society and the world were in chaos.

Teacher pointed out that since most Chinese families owned family businesses, being a stay-at-home mother did not preclude one from working. An ideal Chinese wife ran the household, raised the kids, comforted her husband, and helped with the family business. She was the hub around which all the wheels of the family spun. Since she was the center, she was truly the one in control, although she never let it be obvious to outsiders. Teacher always told us that behind every successful man there is a wise woman. Sometimes I think she considered men to be a necessary but inferior breed. Her recipe for handling men seemed to entail treating them like overgrown children. Since they were prone to brute force, one did not antagonize them but used feminine whiles to get one’s way.

Teacher used two of her neighbor families when she was a junior high student in Taiwan to illustrate her arguments for choosing to be a model Chinese woman for the sake of personal, familial, and societal well-being. Mrs. A was a modern woman. When the family arrived in Taiwan from mainland China, everyone was poor, so Mrs. A went out and got a job apart from her husband. She never had energy to cook or check her children’s homework. Her children were latchkey children; they came home, ate some instant noodles, and then ran off to play. They made the wrong friends and one of the sons became a thief when he could not pass the entrance exam for high school. Mr. A blamed Mrs. A for neglecting the children. They had frequent arguments that were so loud the entire neighborhood was party to their disputes. Eventually, Mr. A stopped coming home and shacked up on the other side of town with a mistress. And then the daughter moved in with her father and the mistress. Mrs. A continued at her job, coming home to spend her evenings alone in her house. One day she became ill, but no one was home, so no one knew. By the time the neighbors figured out that they had not seen her for a day or so, she was delirious with fever. She never fully recovered and had to go into a sanitarium because no one in her family wanted to care for her. Mrs. B, on the other hand, believed that she only had these few years to make a difference in her children’s lives. She tilled a garden patch on some vacant land near the end of the street and sold fresh vegetables to the neighbors. She was always at home with a snack for her children when they got home from school. She was educated herself, and her children always had their homework done on time and were well-prepared for their tests. They all went to good high schools and prestigious universities. Mr. B started his own business, and Mrs. B helped him by doing the books at night while the children were doing their homework. Mr. B always came home to a hot meal, and they saved much money by not eating instant noodles or restaurant food. Even though, Family B did not have as much money in the first year or two after coming to Taiwan, they built a solid foundation in all areas of their lives. By the time the children were college-age, Mr. B’s business was well-established, so the B’s could afford the tuition. At this time, Mrs. B took a part-time job doing something that she enjoyed, but she was still always home before Mr. B and her children, so the family could eat dinner together. In their old age, Mr. and Mrs. B’s children were happy to care for them, and they had happy relationships with their many grandchildren. Their children all had successful careers that they attributed to the fact that Mrs. B had wisely chosen to work from home and make sure the family hung together. The children did everything in their power to make Mrs. B’s retirement a happy one, including sending her on sightseeing trips around the world, buying expensive clothes for her, and giving her whatever she wanted. Teacher would always end these lectures by telling us: “If you are going to have babies, you must raise them well; only then can you have the satisfaction of knowing that you have done a noble work which has helped your family and society.”

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Chinese Daughter-in-Law Training

Teresa, Susanna, Beatrice, Miss Yan, and Melanie
at Beatrice's Wedding to a Chinese Businessman

The longer we spent with Teacher, the more she worked to make us proper Chinese daughters-in-law. When Beatrice announced her engagement to a Taiwanese businessman and Miss Yan told Teacher she would be going back to Thailand to get married, our Chinese daughter-in-law training went into high gear. Most of every class was spent discussing families and marriage.

The first theme was that arranged marriages were good because they were not based on hormones. Teacher went to great lengths to demonstrate that the Western fixation on romance does not lead to a stable family life. She was very anti-divorce, especially when there are children involved. (This may have been due in part to her experience growing up in her aunt’s home.) She said that in an arranged marriage, the parents used rational thought, life experience, and deep knowledge of their children to find spouses and households who were true matches for their children’s temperaments. Even though there was no love at the beginning, because the matches were well-thought out, the relationships blossomed and deepened over time, making them more stable. One of Teacher’s favorite maxims was, “Love in a relationship must be nurtured.” She exhorted us to get beyond our hormones when picking a mate by looking for someone who had similar background and interests, and then she told us that we needed to work for our entire life at nurturing our marriage. I have to say that after listening to this speech at least once a week for more than a year, my thinking about marriage changed.

In addition to the “pick your mate well, so you do not need a divorce” speech, Teacher taught us about how to live in a multi-generational household. The first rule of a Chinese family is to know your position. If you are the eldest, you have more say in what the family does, but you also have more responsibility to make things go right. As a Chinese daughter-in-law, you gain your position from your husband’s birth order. If you marry an eldest son, your words will carry much weight with your in-laws, but you will also be expected to help with all the younger siblings. If you marry a second or third son (but not the youngest), your position will depend more on how competent your husband is at his work. If you marry the youngest son, resign yourself to not having any say in the running of the family, but you can also be assured that no one will expect you to bear much responsibility for anyone but your own children.

In the past, women in Chinese families gained status by the number of sons they bore. This still holds true to some extent, but younger generations, who have studied biology, now know that this is not the woman’s responsibility, so the onus of not bearing sons is waning to some extent. Because traditional Chinese worship their ancestors through the paternal line, a man needs a son to feed his ghost and to carry on the family line. If the first wife does not produce a son, it is still not uncommon for the man to try with someone else. Since Sun Yat-Sen’s revolution and the abolition of polygamy, this means that some Chinese men divorce their wives for failing to give them a son.

In addition to bearing sons, women in Chinese families gain status by their sufferings for the family. The Chinese have a saying that a woman is “pressure-cooked into a mother-in-law.” It refers to the process that when a woman marries into the family, the other women haze her until she learns her place. The hazing stops when she bears a son and / or makes a significant contribution to the family’s fortunes. As long as her mother-in-law is alive, this hazing can start up again at any time. If a woman has borne a son, but fails to contribute anything more to the general well-being of the family, the hazing will start again to train her to be a good matriarch. A woman without a son, who nevertheless has been loyal to and suffered for her husband’s family, is frequently accorded much honor, and her words hold much weight. The Chinese are a very practical society, and they honor good results. The hazing is for the most part verbal, although I know one woman who married into a very rich Chinese family in the Philippines in 1984. She ate and worked with the servants until she had given birth to a son. Then she was allowed to eat with her mother-in-law and other sisters-in-law. Once she was in that circle, her worth to the family was gauged by how well she trained her son and supported her husband in his business. The men of the family always ate at a separate table from the women.

Many multi-generational families engage in one business. Joshua’s third maternal uncle had five sons who all worked in his business making banisters. When they married, the daughters-in-law quit their outside jobs and worked with their husbands in the family business. The whole family lived together in one household until all five sons were married and had children. At their height, there were twenty-one people in three generations under one roof. The daughters-in-law rotated cooking and cleaning chores by the week. Joshua’s uncle controlled all the money and gave each of his progeny an allowance based on their needs. My father-in-law felt this was foolish in modern society because Joshua’s cousins never learned how to manage money when they were young. After the fifth son had children and the father had retired, they all split into five small households. The parents would rotate eating with each son’s household for a week. Some sons have done well managing on their own; others have had trouble adjusting to bearing so much responsibility.

The final point our teacher made about Chinese marriage is that the woman joins the man’s family, leaving her own. Whatever you were in your birth family no longer exists; if you “marry a dog, you follow a dog, marry a chicken, you follow a chicken.” Daughters are called “money-losing items” because parents raise them to contribute to someone else’s business. When a daughter marries, her parents throw a bowl of water after the car driving her away to show that she has been washed from the family. Her first priority is now her husband’s family. The married daughter who cares for her own parents over her in-laws is asking for more hazing until she learns her place. When traditional Chinese women expressed their loyalty to their husbands they would say: “I am your family member in life and your household’s ghost in death.”