Eric Lin was not merely my first Taiwanese friend – we’d actually met on the flight that brought me to Taiwan. He was trying to start a business with his friend based on a design idea they’d come up with in their spare time for better packaging of fragile items, which would enable him to quit his monotonous engineering job. He was great fun to talk to, and I was drawn to his complicated shyness: just awkward enough for it to be apparent, but not enough to stop him from ringing me up to have coffee.
In between, we chatted about good food, good design and world travel in the low-res world of Windows Live Messenger, as I figured out the contours of my new life in Taiwan.
One day a message popped up in the clear window of my flip phone, my first cell phone in Taiwan. It had black-and-white graphics. Eric had laughed when I’d told him where the dinged-up contraption had come from.
“A guy with a cart full of used phones in Snake Alley? That sounds reputable.”
“Yeah, I mean, I was broke. I needed a phone.”
Despite his amusement at my hilarious – and quite possibly stolen – phone, he was inviting me to dinner.
“Can’t do dinner, got work” I replied.
When we met, he asked me where I wanted to go.
“Oh, there’s this great place, it’s just over there – it’s really special. They have sushi…on a conveyor belt!” I exclaimed.
“Do you mean Sushi Express?”
He gamely went along for a time, smiling at this foreign girl, new to Taiwan, who thought of sushi on a conveyor belt as fancy and new. It took five plates of sushi before he finally cracked, ruefully informing me of the truth:
Sushi Express, this fancy and fun conveyor belt sushi place where each plate was NT$30, was basically fast food and not special in the slightest. They were all over Taipei, and other cities too. The sushi wasn’t even very good. To be honest, I’d known that, but I was so dazzled by the conveyor belt that I didn’t care.
I just laughed. It was too silly to be embarrassed about. I’d been in Taiwan for perhaps two weeks and still had a lot to learn.
Eric paid the bill despite my protestations; a total of around NT$400. He even bought me an anthropomorphic cartoon sushi keychain just because I thought it was cute. Aw, such a good friend, I thought. I kind of liked him, but after a few years of mostly dating complicated men who were into me but just not that into me (the book was still timely and relevant then), I took his straightforward kindness as a sign of friendship. I was even a little embarrassed for mildly crushing on a friend.
He went abroad for awhile after that. A few weeks later, another friend moved to Taiwan and we got together almost immediately – he was also straightforward and kind, bookish and a touch introverted with a sarcastic streak, and I’d liked him for years. My crush on Eric faded, but I was finally figuring out how to choose well.
This is the story I trot out every time someone fires off a quip about love and dating in Taiwan being about men looking for women to replace their mothers, or women looking for men to support them. Stories of men avoiding women with an extra ounce of body fat, imperfect skin or a birth date before 1990, or women repudiating men who don’t pay for everything and carry their bags abound.
Observing the Taipei dating scene from a distance, I find these stereotypes to be mostly false. I just see normal people of all ages dating each other. The first Taiwanese wedding I attended was for a regular couple in their mid-thirties. The second, early forties. Neither woman typically wore makeup and neither had regularly handed off their purses to their then-boyfriends (a cultural phenomenon that does exist but, as far as I can tell, indicates no deeper meaning. It’s just a thing that is sometimes done). Neither man seemed to be hunting for a bed warmer / maid.
People with less noble intentions exist in Taiwan, but frankly, every culture has their difficult people. I have met plenty of American women, for example, for whom net worth trumps a real connection, and plenty of American men who just wanted a pretty housekeeper, bed-warmer and mother.
I do, however, see differences by generation. My younger students (I teach adults) date in much the same way I did when I was their age, trying and failing to find love in those amorphous post-college years. You meet – perhaps in real life, perhaps online – you go out, you message, you flirt, you get together. It can happen pretty quickly. Taiwanese friends my age and older, however, admit to having approached dating on a slower timeline and with a more cautious mentality.
“So when you met your husband,” I asked a Taiwanese friend once, “how did you start going out?”
“We were classmates, and he found some way to invite a group of people out including me. Later we became close and then we started going out together on our own, without the group.”
“So he didn’t just ask you out directly?”
“Oh no, Taiwanese men never do that!” she replied. “Well, maybe the younger ones do, but we old people…it’s different.”
“I definitely waited until I knew she liked me,” another friend said of courting his wife. “I couldn’t just ask her on a date. You know, Taiwanese men are too shy.”
But the fact that he was having that conversation with me at all indicated that Taiwan can be a more liberal place than it is given credit for. While many still avoid difficult conversations with their parents, more and more same-sex couples are open with their families, some openly expressing affection at public rallies supporting marriage equality that are covered by the media. Even the old tradition of the man paying for dates – unnecessary in the modern world, to my mind – is in flux.
“I had a date a few weeks ago,” a female friend once told me, “where I said I was happy to pay my share, and I was! Well, he said my share was NT$304 or something like that, but I only had NT$300. He said I could give him the $4 on our second date!”
“Maybe he was joking, trying to say he wanted to see you again but being really awkward about it?”
“No, I did see him again last weekend, and he actually asked me for the $4.”
“So, you going to see him again?”
“Nope. But not because he didn’t pay.”
Nowhere else is this generational shift more evident than at the shrine of Yue Xia Lao Ren, or the Old Man Under The Moon. His most famous home is among an assemblage of statues at the Xiahai City God temple on Dihua Street, next to the Yongle fabric market. (Learn how to make handicrafts in Dadaocheng by joining the Vintage Taipei Day Tour)
According to one legend, the Old Man Under The Moon ties each end of a red string to the finger or toe of a fated couple – literally attached to your soulmate by a thread. You are meant to marry this person unless the marriage arrangements of your family interfere, in which case you must follow your family’s wishes. (How pragmatic!)
In another story, a young man meets an old man reading by the light of the moon, who says he is perusing a list of marriages and preparing to tie the feet of each couple with a red cord. Later, in a nearby market, the old man points to a toddler and tells the younger man that she will be his wife someday. Despite trying to have her killed soon after, the younger man does indeed eventually marry her.
At the shrine of the Old Man Under The Moon, you may see parents – mothers, usually – praying for good matches for their children. It is quite likely that they are asking for the Old Man to find husbands with good career prospects for their daughters, and gentle, pliant women who will make good mothers for their sons’ families. Perhaps love enters into the equation as well, as it always does despite societal pressures to marry for money, position, offspring or family ties. Love wasn’t any less prevalent in past generations, it was just harder to navigate.
Next to these older supplicants, however, you’ll see younger ones, some of whom may share these more traditional concerns, but most of whom just want someone to steal their heart. Someone straightforward and kind, perhaps the type of person who won’t judge you for not knowing that Sushi Express is a fast-food chain.
The ones who, like the young friends whose wedding I recently attended in Changhua, will softly lean into each other on their wedding day, after turning to their parents, and bowing respectfully to the older generation. (Read More: The living history in Dadaocheng)
I hope that the Old Man Under The Moon, whose story dates from the Tang Dynasty, has also kept up with the times and no longer deals in practicality and family arrangements but rather delivers romance based on respect, love, compatibility and attraction to all couples regardless of origin or gender.
You might be wondering what happened to Eric Lin.
Well, a few weeks after our lunch, I was chatting with him on Messenger and I offhandedly mentioned my boyfriend (Now, by the way, my husband).
“Oh you have a boyfriend?”
“Very recently yeah, but we were friends for years,” I wrote back, thinking nothing of it.
“Anyway how are you?”
“Good. I’ve gotta go. TTYL”
I never heard from him again.
A few months later, I wondered where Eric had gone – he was such a cool friend! – and I remembered our last conversation.
“Oh,” I thought to myself.
I’d really had no idea.
That was a dozen years ago. Like me, Eric would be in his mid-thirties now, and is likely happily paired off. He probably took her out for a fancy dinner, because she’d have already known Sushi Express was a cheap fast-food place, and she would have been quick enough to see his signals for what they were. I have no way to contact him to say hello, nor do I think I should. I can only hope The Old Man Under The Moon found him his heart’s desire.
As for me, I’m still in Taipei. And if I ever run into Eric, Sushi Express is on me.
Jenna Lynn Cody is a corporate trainer and writer living in Taipei. Her long-running blog, Lao Ren Cha contains her musings on women’s issues in Asia, as well as travel, hiking, photography and food – with a few personal anecdotes thrown in.