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My First Evening at Shida Night Market

On my second day in Taiwan, a hot and humid Friday evening, my "friend" - let me call her Chloe - asked me to meet at a night market. For those who don't know what a night market is, I will explain it briefly. It's a street market that usually operates in the evening, where you can buy food, clothes and other things. Night markets are popular in the Chinese-speaking world and a vital part of the street and nightlife of major cities. However, I'm not going to write this post about the night market as such, because there are already hundreds, if not thousands of websites, including Wikipedia, where you can find all sorts of information about it. The subject of this post is rather a personal one.

A couple of days ago I went again to that night market, and I passed by a Taiwanese ice cream parlour. When I looked at it, I suddenly realized that it was the same place where I and Chloe had been exactly one year ago. A lot of memories came back. And a little bit of sadness, too.

***

I met Chloe at Taipower Building MRT Station. I was very happy to see her because - well, I'd gone all the way from Europe to Asia only to see her, so it was natural that I was enthusiastic about finally being with her. I couldn't believe we were really walking side by side. It was an amazing feeling.

But I soon came to realize that there was something wrong. The beautiful beaming smile that had always shone on her face when we were in Europe had vanished. She looked stressed, tired, unhappy. I was very frustrated because I seemed to be the only one who was enjoying those moments together after about two months. The first doubts came to my mind: "Are you sure it was a good idea to join her in Taiwan?" I wondered. "She doesn't seem very enthusiastic." When she didn't talk about food or souvenirs she kept on complaining about her job.
She showed me around, explaining to me what kind of food shops sold and asking me to try it. But I wasn't hungry. When I first came to Taiwan, I didn't know what a night market was. When she asked me to meet at the night market I thought I was supposed to have dinner before going there, and that's what I did. The more we walked, the more upset she became. She kept on asking me to try food, but I really couldn't eat much. So I just ate one or two snacks and then said I was full.
Then, we went to the the ice cream  parlour. She ordered something that unfortunately I didn't like. I didn't finish it, and I thought it was all right. After all, I hadn't gone to Taiwan to eat food. I was focused on her and I wanted us to know each other better and better.

A few weeks later, after a long series of quarrels, she suddenly told me that she was very angry with me because I didn't seem to like the food she recommended and the things she showed me. I said that I hadn't come to Taiwan to be a tourist but because of her. To be honest, I was expecting she would appreciate what I'd done. I thought she'd try to deepen our relationship. Instead, she said something that startled me: "You can at least pretend."

I'd never heard anything like that. Why should I pretend I like food? How can she be happy if I pretend? And why does she make out of a small thing a big trouble?

Suddenly I realized the real meaning that food has in one of my favourite films: "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman" by Taiwanese film director Ang Lee. Food is the way parents show their love to their children. They might not understand each other, they might not communicate with each other. But the old father ignores all the grievances and resentments in his family, and cooks for his three daughters every day. They don't like the daily routine, but accept it because if they refused to eat, they would hurt their father.

Culture difference sometimes is a barrier. And sometimes it is an insurmountable one. And when communication and mutual understanding is so hard, the obstacles to overcome are huge.

Here in Asia I often found myself in the same situation which some of my Asian friends faced when they lived in Europe. I had a Korean flatmate, a very nice and polite guy. His politeness and his attitude were often misunderstood in Germany, where many of the things that he had learnt in Korea were meaningless or even a burden to him. Respect for the elder and especially for teachers, for instance, is unusual in Europe. He told me that one day he went to a library and met one of his professors, whom he deeply admired. He was very surprised to see that famous professor sitting at a desk among normal students. So he looked at him and then made a deep bow. According to what he said, his professor was very much amused by his behaviour, and this made my friend feel strange. What we learn to be right, in another place might be inappropriate.

And so is the meaning of right and wrong, of respect, even of love and friendship. I often feel frustrated because I cannot understand many things in Taiwan. Things that to me are obvious, are considered strange. I tried to adapt to the new circumstances. But in the end, I think everyone has his or her own standards. You can make compromises. But there's a point where you have to say stop, and if you firmly believe that a certain behaviour is wrong, if trying to accept it makes you feel bad, why not just be yourself?

Comments

  1. sad story! i have had similar things with my girlfriend, similar in the way that i didnt understand i made a mistake and upset her. but nothing on the level of this. to be perfectly honest with you, if she cant appriciate you making the move there she is either not a good enough girl or its just not meant to be between you 2. that is something outside of a cultural difference.

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  2. Hi Louis, thanks for your comment. You're right, I would never suggest that we broke up only because of the cultural difference. There were many personal problems, too. However, I do think that cultural difference was extremely important. For instance, let's take communication; she would never discuss with me openly if she felt bad about something; she would constantly ask me to meet her friends, as if it was fundamental for me to be accepted by her environment, and she expected from me a certain behaviour that is pretty far away from my concept of gender equality. Well, maybe I am wrong, I don't know. Surely, there are many happy intercultural couples, so the cultural issue was certainly not the only one.

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  3. my girlfriend sounds quite different. she wouldnt let anything she is feeling bad about slip by without telling me( or being extremely obvious about showing shes feeling bad) she never asks me to meet her friends either, but i had a girlfriend who had that same trait- from another country.

    basicly i think there is a period of culture difference that you have to overcome, but i dont see this as anything different to any other relationship. i just see it as the usual give and take that you need to do in a relationship. but maybe a bit more confusing at the beggining ;) dont give up on taiwanese girls! there are some really great ones!

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