Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Taiwanese Yankee in King George's Court

National Cathedral overlooks fog on the Potomac on a crisp fall morning. The weather has been amazing this week...

Ah, America. I love coming back here, where I am thin...

I came to Washington, DC to deliver a paper on wine marketing in Taiwan. That gigantic thud you heard about 3 pm eastern standard time was the sound of the pressure from that paper falling off my shoulders. I’ve been obsessing about it for a couple of months now...

Yes, that's right. There is an image of the two pandas in the National Zoo on metro tickets in Washington. Because as everyone knows there is nothing to see or do in Washington, and so our nation's capital must place the national symbol of another nation on its metro tickets.

The paper was presented at INFORMS 2008, a ginormous operations research and marketing science conference that saw something like 800 presentations spread across four days and two hotels. One of the topics at the conference was consumer behavior, and my brilliant and insightful friend Clyde Warden had set up a panel on marketing in Chinese culture to which four papers had been submitted, among them mine. Clyde, who is a very clear and practiced presenter, talked about the relationship between poultry purchase, market channel choice, and religion in Taiwan. I then followed with my paper on wine marketing. The audience was included a group of Chinese from China, all PhD students from the University of Maryland, who had volunteered to take care of setting up projectors, directing people to the right rooms, and so forth. They were interested in what the foreigners had to say about Chinese culture.

After my presentation had gushed out of me at the speed of thought (I always talk too fast), an audience member asked how the really educated consumers of wine in Taiwan experienced the taste elements of the wine itself, things like tannins, its bouquet, and so on. I knew the answer, and so did Clyde, and so did the Chinese sitting in the audience. But of course, to say the answer would be to get labeled as ethnocentric. Hence I danced around the question.

After the session was finished the Chinese came up to talk to us, and I found myself talking to a tall, slim, high-shouldered, oval-faced grad student from Beijing, a lovely girl much younger than myself. She repeated the question about the educated wine consumers, and then answered it with the simple answer I dared not give: “They don’t care about the taste. They just want to drink it to show how rich they are.”

Me in front of the Holocaust Museum. An amazing, moving experience.

Americans in Taiwan frequently express contempt for the conformist culture of status and prestige in Taiwan. In Taiwan this culture has clearly defined prestige tokens like XO and Mercedes Benz cars and LV bags whose acquisitions confers status upon the owner. Taiwanese compete to acquire these items of prestige and show them off to each other, to be like everyone else only more so, and with better stuff. In US culture this kind of thinking is disparaged as “keeping up with the Jones”. Such status chasing is a widespread behavior in Taiwanese culture – in academia where I currently reside it takes the form of forcing grad students to publish in high-ranking journals because of the status accrued to the university, or paying high-ranking scholars from abroad to speak in Taiwan – not because they are interested in their ideas, but because they hope that some of their status will slough off onto the locals, as if the scholar trailed status like mana in his wake. But Americans who criticize Taiwanese for their conformist materialist status-chasing, are, like the Taiwanese who buy LV bags and buy imported wine, simply working out their cultural programming.

Like Taiwan, my homeland has its own conformist culture, a conformist culture of nonconformism. Be your own man, we’re told. Be yourself. Stand out from the herd. In US culture the acquisition of a Benz is nice but it lacks unique non-conformist elements and thus does not confer much prestige or status. People will just shrug if you tell them you own a Benz. Let’s imagine, though, an unusual car pulls into the parking lot. You ask the owner what kind of car it is, and the owner tells you it is a kit car. Cool! He has just conformed to our conformist culture of nonconformism by purchasing an expensive toy that he has to assemble himself. This displays unusual skills and resources – time, money, uniqueness and the authentic experience of driving an unusual vehicle. In US culture an important element of such hobbies is the authenticity of the experience – hence the questioner’s inquiry as to what wine drinkers in Taiwan taste: do they have an authentic experience? Other elements of Cool Hobbies might include the expense of the hobby and its rarity. My well-off uncle collects cars of the 1960s, but that hobby lacks some the element of rarity or uniqueness, such vehicles are not uncommon. But he also collects Lionel trains made before 1950, which are rare indeed, and expensive. People who hear that award him points. Of course he repairs and runs the trains (authentic experience). Rarity, however, must still contain an element of familiarity –it must still be recognized as a prestige token. If you tell Americans you made it to the top of K2 much prestige will accrue, since all educated people know that K2 is a bitch-goddess that thrives on human sacrifice and thus Climbing K2 is included in their list of Cool Things, but if you tell them you summited Cerro Chalten no one but an aficionado will know why you are so amazing, and you will not be awarded so many points.

Our panel announcement...feeling a bit like Steve Martin in The Jerk here (my name! in print!).

Adventure travel is a good example of the way the two cultures look at status. Taiwanese are wealthy and many among them could afford to join one of those guided expeditions that regularly put moderately well-off Americans on the summit of the world’s highest mountain. Yet, consider the number of Taiwanese who own Benzes, compared to the number who have summited Everest. If you tell a Taiwanese you have surmounted Everest they are likely to give you a politely uncomprehending look, unless they are my father in law, in which case they will ask you exasperatedly why you wasted all that money and didn’t just watch it on TV. Summiting Everest is not a recognized prestige token in the great game of Taiwanese face. Similarly, if you show the Taiwanese your kit car, you will get a polite blank look. Kit cars count for little. Show them a Benz the size of the USS Forrestal, however, and you will rise in their eyes.

One interesting thing about this conformist culture of nonconformism in the west is that, like the conformist culture of conformism in Chinese society, it is an arms race. The my-Benz-is-bigger-than-your-Benz aspect of Taiwan culture has its counterpart in the my-hobby-is-cooler-than-your-hobby aspect of US culture (why don’t Taiwanese have hobbies but Americans do? The answer is the same: prestige and social status). At first it was cool to climb Everest but then later it got so any fool with $75,000 and a free couple of weeks could do it; the guides were just herding so many well-off cattle to the top. It lost prestige, and the adventure travelers had to do even more amazing things, like pay $100,000 to the Russians to become expensive cargo on a space trip. Similarly, within any particular hobby like mountaineering the arms race model applies. For a serious mountaineer climbing Everest is no great feat – the mountain is physically demanding but not technically difficult -- and so you have to do something out of the ordinary, like blazing a new route up the mountain, or doing it in a new, demanding, and dangerous way, such as climbing it without oxygen like Meissner did. After a while even climbing any particular mountain loses its prestige, and now you have to summit all 8000ers, or notch the highest mountain on every continent on your belt. In every cool hobby, the arms race is constantly evolving new forms of conformist nonconformism that all must attempt, just as the conformist culture of conformism is constantly evolving new status tokens that all must acquire – like imported wines or western fashions.

Georgetown. Sorry about the quality of the pics; blogger just lacks the image quality of Flickr, and I've been shut out of my Flickr account.

In both cases, the conformist culture of conformism and the conformist culture of nonconformism, the ultimate drive is, of course, displays of fitness for mating. An American who climbs Cerro Chalten or a Taiwanese who drives around in a BUS (Benz of Unusual Size) are both doing the same thing, showing that they have plentiful resources and would make a good mate. In The Mating Mind Geoffrey Miller makes this point: cool hobbies like mountaineering and scuba diving require investments in skills, time, and expensive equipment that are, like a peacock’s tail, displays of fitness – youth, health, brains, drive, money, free time.

And so all this comes back to the attractive young woman from Beijing standing in the hallway with me, telling me about wine drinkers in Chinese culture. What was my response? Of course in the presence of a beautiful woman I conformed to my conformist culture of nonconformism programming faster than you can blurt out evolutionary psychology: I told her I didn't know much about wine but I drink Riesling because I liked the taste, thus displaying my awesome grasp of the Authentic Experience. Be yourself, Michael. Stand out from the herd.

Do you think she wanted to have my baby?


Anonymous said...

The "THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU SAW" sign outside the Holocaust museum reminds me of 1984. It's pretty tacky. Which, I think from your caption, is very different from what's inside the museum.

Anonymous said...

Great article Michael! I love the narrative.

Prestige culture has been a major driving force of cultural change in Taiwan for hundreds of years. the culture/power dichotomy has been a major driving force behind wider acculturation of all peoples in Taiwan depending upon the values and customs of the regime holding access to the conduits of power. Even the traditional Taiwanese farm house was a symbol of prestige, despite being unsuitable for the Taiwanese climate.

Tommy said...

While I agree with you, grosso modo, I think you overlook the fact that there is indeed a huge conformist culture in the US of the type that is popular in Taiwan.

Fraternities and sororities, person types on MTV programming, investment bankers dropping their profession here and there at parties to pick up money-grubbing chicks, etc. The difference is that the US (moreso than Europe) has adopted rugged individualism into its national identity, therefore, the non-conformist conformism you bring up is given a higher status than the conformist conformism. However, as anyone who is truly not a conformist can tell you, it is still quite lonely being a true individual in the US.

Kudos to you for your presentation. I was wondering where you were going to go with the Wine Marketing thing. After all, even shit wine is relatively expensive in Taiwan, and it can be hard to find the selection you want.

Tommy said...

Oh did I say investment banker? Oops... I probably should have used another profession. Lets call him the Upper East Side Plastic Surgeon.

Robert R. said...

This seems to be the less funny version of Stuff White People Like. :P

In both cases, the conformist culture of conformism and the conformist culture of nonconformism, the ultimate drive is, of course, displays of fitness for mating.
After finding a mate, does the continuing expression of this conformalisticism express a desire for more mates? Or just habit?

Anonymous said...

Early in the post, you show a picture of a Metro ticket with pandas from the National Zoo and complain about how Washington DC shows something utterly foreign instead of something more relevant to the US capital.

Later in the post you show a picture of yourself at the Holocaust Museum, which gets me thinking about how Washington DC has so many things to see and do in the the capital city of our country, and you choose to go to a museum on events committed by non-Americas against non-Americans in country a thousand miles away.

The Holocaust is hardly an American experience just as pandas are hardly American animals. How is your focus on the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC during your visit better than the focus on pandas at the National Zoo by the Metro tickets?

Anonymous said...

Please get the flickr account fixed. I want to see those pictures.

Prince Roy said...

did you take that National Cathedral photo from the Princely balcony?

Anonymous said...

Racial/ethnic stereotypes have a basis in reality, are exploitable for profit, and something that companies spend huge amounts of money researching and refining. Most Americans would be unconfortable to contemplate that companies that are familiar household names believe in racial stereotypes just as much as the KKK. This is why people in marketing research do not discuss these matters publically. I think most focus group attendees would be appaled to know what the guy behind the one way mirror is writing on his clipboard.

Anonymous said...

That's why all those white swells learning Chinese in Taiwan are so grotesquely self satisfied.

That's why, whenever you newly meet one, they keenly watch for and then relishingly pounce on the first opportunity to show you their proficiency.

That's why they so quickly become indignant towards Taiwanese who address them in English.

That's why they don't even notice let alone care about the rudeness of conversing in Chinese to people who speak adequate English in the presence of those who understand little or no more than nihao.

MJ Klein said...

yes. her visa is about to expire.

Michael Turton said...


The museum is simply my personal choice and not symbolic of anything. The pandas on the ticket, that's a whole nother thing.

But I agree with your main point. Why is there a Holocaust museum on the mall? I dunno either.


Michael Turton said...

Robert, you should read The Mating Mind. You would like it very much.


Anonymous said...

There's a Holocaust museum on the mall because American Jews have a way disproportionate amount of influence on politics in the US.

The equivalent would be putting up a memorial dedicated to the "Rape of Nanking". Or how about the Armenians?

Many other examples, except Americans are never educated about them and only know about the Holocaust.

David said...

A wonderful well written article. I think a ride in a Russian space ship costs about US$20 million though. However, that just further emphasizes the point you are making.

Tommy said...


Jews make up a large minority in the US, and many of them have families that were profoundly affected by the Holocaust. In fact, the events leading up to, surrounding and following the Second World War led to a mass migration of Jews to the US, most of whom became American citizens. The Holocaust is, therefore, a part of American culture.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the length of this comment, but this otherwise well-reasoned and enteratining post turned in a seriously misleading direction, I think, when Geoffrey Miller was brought in at the end. What would Miller say about the imbalances in cross-pollination between the two cultures? Not a few Taiwanese women find those American values/fitness-displays attractive – even if American non-conformity is often basically conformist and even if American iconoclast instincts might be largely phony (“A Nation of Rebels,” by Heath and Potter). Meanwhile, few American women find the Taiwanese values/fitness-displays attractive, at least in the baldly ostentatious fashion that the values are enacted. From my reading of Miller, though I’m sure he would agree that populations in isolation will work out their own different-but-equal fitness scales, he would be among the first to point out that these scales CAN be compared in terms of fitness-display values once formerly-isolated populations meet and that one fitness scale is very likely to prove more effective than the other. So I seriously doubt he would support -- on the matter of fitness displays, anyway -- any cultural-relativist perspectives that this post seems to endorse.

So should comparative physical size (of whatever interpretation of the term), relative geopolitical power, and the influence of media and movie imagery then be brought into the discussion to help explain the glaring imbalance? My guess is yes, but only to a minor degree. In many cases, a woman’s words may, as Sophocles said, be written on the wind, but I don’t feel like I’m in the presence of the delusional when I hear women from both cultures say that they much prefer the American values/male-fitness displays to the Taiwanese counterparts.

What if we took mothers-in-law and the more sharply-defined gender roles here out of the equation? What effect would that have on the imbalance? A big effect, I think. Wouldn’t significantly more Western women be interested in Taiwanese guys if those guys stopped putting mother ahead of girlfriend or wife? And wouldn’t fewer Taiwanese women be attracted to Western men if Taiwanese men showed more independent thinking? And wouldn’t more Taiwanese men then spend time on hobbies – and thus become more attractive to women of both cultural groups? Once you bring Miller in, gender roles, not luxury consumer goods vs. hobbies or conformist vs. non-conformist cultural programming, becomes the crux, I think.

This is not to say that most women in Taiwan don’t follow their cultural programming. Rather, I’m saying that a much higher percent of them decide to abandon theirs in favor of the opposite culture’s fitness displays and values if given a reasonable opportunity. Still a minority, yes, but a much higher percentage than their American counterparts do or ever would.

Put another way, and some evolutionary biologists do very explicitly put it this way, making monogamous marriage a strong cultural imperative (especially with heavy moral overtones and strong gender roles attached) is a strategy and device for maximizing social stability by soaking up the hormones of mediocre men – by discouraging them from banding together as marauders. Monogamous-marriage-as-strong-and-universal-institution more serves men, not women; it much more greatly reduces female mate choice; it is a device for ensuring that a relatively few men don’t get most of the women – and thus for making sure testosterone-surpluses don’t fuel rebellion. Overt male dominance with covert female manipulation and control in Taiwan vs. less sharply-defined sex roles in the US: I think Miller would focus on that contrast more than on conformity vs. “non-conformity.” I think he would label the latter contrast a consequence of the former – while at the same time agreeing with you that non-conformity is largely not what it claims to be. But that the baldness of the values here has led to their being viewed as second-rate in terms of male fitness – by most females in the developed world and by ever-growing numbers of females in the newly-industrialized world –is something Miller would, if I remember right, surely highlight. My memory is quite fallible, but I recall quite clearly that he spends a lot of time in “The Mating Mind” extolling the fitness-display value of artistic and intellectual achievements and of physical prowess. His book is thus in no way fodder for cultural-relativist analysis. Rather, I think he’s saying that while it is not absolute, there is an underlying biologically-essentialist programming to fitness displays that make some more effective than others. A peacock opening a lustrous and large tail is going to get many more peahens than a peacock that gathers materials for a nest. And in the human species, burning time and energy on hobbies and sports is taken by most women, even in Taiwan , as showing a more impressive tail than is ostentatious consumption.

But what if consequences of the problems in the world financial system end up leading to widespread difficulty (in the developed and newly-industrialized world) in obtaining financial security through marriage, and what if the US has now really lost forever its position of financial ascendency? Then might Taiwanese and Chinese men’s fitness-display choices begin to prevail more in the world? Perhaps to a greater degree, but probably not to a decisive extent, because the dual nature of female sex drives would remain: the security-seeking drive and the very separate and opposed good-genes-seeking drive would both still operate. But this comment is already way too long, so I won’t go into evolutionary biology’s (many, but not all such scientists’) take on dual-and-opposed female sexual drives here.

In keeping with the dual-and-opposed-female-sex-drive-theory, though, I’ll say that even females from the land of Han nationalism are all at least sometimes attracted by balls first – probably just as much as Western females are. A direct answer might have pissed off some of the women and most of the guys in the audience, but I’m sure she was not the only Han female who genuinely wanted a straight answer. But for what purpose? Perhaps even she didn’t know. She might have hated you for an original straight answer (see the Sophocles mention above) even as she wanted one– and have been attracted to you at the same time. And that last conjecture is courtesy of the views of another big Miller fan, the distinctly non-academic David DeAngelo.

Anonymous said...

Or to put it all yet another way, that Beijing chic ain't your father-in-law and never will be.

Erik Lundh said...

Ufff.... Where's the picture of Tuniclif's famous Bloody Mary? Eastern Market?

Eli said...


This might just be my favorite post of all that you have written, and you have written some great stuff. A few things: While I agree with what you say about prestige, I think there are aspects of Chinese culture that match the conoisseurism of wine drinking in the west. The first thing that comes to mind is tea drinking, which also uses a whole host of vocabulary to describe it. Obviously, conoisseurism has a lot to do with prestige, in both cultures. I wonder if the woman from Beijing was referring specifically to wine, and how she felt Chinese people are able or not able to appreciate wine, a western substance. Would she have had the same reaction to tea? Or to Chinese liquor? Or to Peking Opera? I don't know how many times Chinese friends have asked me: "Can you really appreciate that Chinese delicasy?" "Can you as a westerner comprehend that Tang dynasty poem?" "Can you grock Chinese culture?" (Obviously paraphrased) So, was the woman from Beijing also implying, in the same way, that she as a Chinese person could not appreciate this Western thing called wine?

Michael Turton said...

Erik -- it's been nonstop socializing here. Haven't had time to run around doing stuff, really.

Michael Turton said...

Vin and Wulingren -- there's a hell of a lot more to say about it, of course, like tossing in social class, of course. All I was trying to say really was: "we're not so different."

Vin if you are in taiwan we really need to get together for a beer.


Anonymous said...

Jews make up a large minority in the US, and many of them have families that were profoundly affected by the Holocaust. In fact, the events leading up to, surrounding and following the Second World War led to a mass migration of Jews to the US, most of whom became American citizens. The Holocaust is, therefore, a part of American culture.

Perhaps we should locate an Irish Potato Famine Memorial Museum next to it. Maybe just down the street we could have our Persecution of French Huguenots Memorial Museum. And across the street we could place our Communism Memorial Museum. All those events caused large numbers of immigrants from certain peoples to come to the United States and become citizens, and affected many families.

How about a Slavery Memorial Museum?
At least that would be about something that didn't only occur overseas.

Anonymous said...

My personal observations as an American male:

Taiwanese girls can be much more openly attracted to education, profession, and money than American girls are (well, I would say American girls just hide it better). I would say that's the biggest difference, with some Taiwanese girls mistaking some foreigners for having money when all they really have is a suit (you'd think Mormons have already so debased the value of the shirt and tie that it wouldn't make a difference, but there's a sucker born everyday I guess).

Vin made some long comments that can be boiled down to some kind of Western male superiority argument. Well, from what I've seen--the good news is that a bunch of people in Taiwan and a bunch of foreigners that would otherwise maybe not have found "the one" were able to find "the one".

The bad news? Vin's argument doesn't match observation. The biggest prediction would be that sort of douche bag white guys could get with really hot Taiwanese girls that would otherwise have access to stud Taiwanese guys. I don't see that at all. Once in awhile, I'll see a really beautiful Taiwanese girl with a foreigner, but that foreigner is usually real good looking too. But most of the time, it's the American reject bag together with the Taiwanese reject sack.

I think it makes a lot of sense. If you're some handsome guy with good social schools and a top college education, you don't leave your home country--you get a job and make tons of money. Teaching English in Taiwan only looks like a lot of money to peole that couldn't make it in a developed country. The guys that have the competence to do something slightly interesting, like open a buxiban are very few and far between. Most foreigners in Taiwan, they are for the most part, from the reject bag. There are exceptions, but on average, that's just the way it is.

The explanation on the female side is the same--the hot chicks all have had good looking, highly educated, steady boyfriends for awhile and there are quality guys lined-up taking numbers. She ain't trolling for a foreign boyfriend.

There is something to the phenomenon though--most Taiwanese girls I know think white guys (and girls) are just all sluts and for the subsegment of the (often Taipei) female population that sort of wants to practice their English and just have a fling, the white guy "slut" is perfect.

Anyways, like I said, people that come to Taiwan are looking for something, and I think that's true for a segment of Taiwan's population too--if they both find what they're looking for, more power to them, I say.

Anonymous said...

"Because as everyone knows there is nothing to see or do in Washington, and so our nation's capital must place the national symbol of another nation on its metro tickets."

A little hypersensitive, aren't we?

Anonymous said...

Michael, great seeing you today, albeit how short it was.......

Anonymous said...

I think a really important point in trying to lump Chinese and culture together in Taiwan is the importance of horizontal transmission of culture as opposed to the typical vertical transmission model "westerners" like to attribute to Asian peoples (ancient and mysterious). I think this post really highlights the possibility that Taiwan is culturally Taiwanese and NOT Chinese, but something else.

The peer group plays a more important role in cultural transmission and cultural drift (change) than the parents do. Look at the differences in behavior and values between generations. Wine drinking an example of Taiwan's prestige culture says a lot about who Taiwanese are trying to identify with as peers and which age group is adopting this culture.

I was reminded of this last night when I was a the home of a well-to-do Taiwanese family and I noticed their decoration scheme was heavily influenced by classical European tastes. Most striking were the displays of Dutch China plates--replicas of the type valued by Dutch traders in Taiwan 400 years ago. On display they had butter dishes, salt and pepper shakers, salad plates and serving platters. An arrangement completely juxtaposed to the typical modes of preparing and serving Taiwanese cuisine. They were identifying with people they sought as their peers in Europe.

In Taiwan peer groups are less defined by ethnic background and or cultural background, but by class (sometimes class impacted how citizens were treated by the state). It was very common for cross ethnic marriage to occur as long as both parties shared a similar class background. In several cases plains aborigine elites would marry Han elites over people of the same ethnic group of a lower class.

The over arching factor is not a shared or common culture based on descent ... but the state structure which provides the cultural schemas for successfully negotiating pathways to power and prosperity.

Here, Taiwan has had a different experience than China under several different regimes that built state structures far different than experienced by the people in China. These structures allowed people to form new and different peer groups with markedly different values, memes, idioms and metaphors to best navigate through the structures of society that reflected the values of different governing polities.

Changes in the governing regime often resulted in the invention of new classes and cultures as people adjusted to best adapt to their environment. The most recent example may be Taiwan's shift to democracy. Following Lee Teng hui's successful consolidation of power and repealed many of the constraints of the dictatorship, Taiwanese were again free to renegotiate their values, symbols, meanings and cultures. This also opened up new pathways to economic prosperity for a number of Taiwanese who became the Nouveau rich of the 90's. An excellent example may be the surge in indigenous cultural production and how indigenous symbols have been deployed by indigenes and Han alike.

Before I digress any further...Taiwan's unique experience and continued structural change under its own governance and the specific values of the governing polity (and parties) has compelled Taiwanese to adopt new symbols and meaning that are salient and instantly decoded by other Taiwanese in ways that are different from China... i.e. different cultures. China's experience with Maoist ideology (including the cultural revolution) also changed the structural pathways to power and influenced the formation of culture. Blah blah blah...

Wealey's dad said...

Here's an interesting piece regarding conspicuous consumption from The Atlantic. People have the tendency to demonstrate their wealth through conspicuous consumption when they are poor.

May be we will see more kit cars on the streets of Taipei when Taiwanese have more money in their pockets?

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm, I think that is not quite true (about not caring how it tastes, only about the price.) If it is completely awful tasting, I don't think anyone would drink it.

You'll notice that ice wine was quite popular in Taiwan and China, because its obviously they are not just buying on price tag, but somebody likes sweet wine.

And I think you could easily find Americans who drink expensive wine for the EXACT same reason. They may just be better at pretending they can tell the taste difference in the wine.

Red A

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous said...
"My personal observations as an American male:"

Dude, crawl back into your hermit cave. you are an imbecile.

Taiwanonymous said...

Great post. I'd like to hear more about the wine marketing. There is a boutique wine store in my neighborhood, and while the restaurants around it have gone in and out of business, the little store has managed to survive. It's one of those places that I just can't imagine how they stay in business.

Patrick Cowsill said...

Status and conforming are pretty important to a lot of people in Taiwan, like anywhere else. Someone mentioned:

“They don’t care about the taste. They just want to drink it to show how rich they are.”

For this reason, I think I've been on the receiving end of great expensive bottles of booze here in Taiwan.

But I have also run into people who say they are drinking wine because they are convinced of the health benefits. They'll tell me "I have a glass a day". You'll see now that a few shops in Taiwan are offering decent bottles of Chilean, French, Australian, etc. wine for more reasonable prices. I should take a cue from the and wean my appetite for Taiwan Beer.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Michael. Bobo culture is still going strong in North America, I see.

Bobos--Bourgeois Bohemians--were well described (and the word coined) by David Brooks in his book Bobos in Paradise (2000). The book is ready for a slight update but it remains a perceptive and entertaining read.

Brooks, who describes himself as a Bobo, has the shtick down:

It's not about making money. It's about doing something you love. Life should be an extended hobby. It's all about working for a company as cool as you are.

- The Observer

The Bobo is Ben & Jerry's and Starbucks, Blackberries and SUVs, Europe and America.

And it is not Taiwanese. We don't do Bobos here.

The reason we don't is because in Taiwan it's fine to be a bourgeois without the bohemian. There is no shame in saying 'I want to make money' and then making it and enjoying it.

It's a big difference, and it shows itself in many ways. Plenty of cultural and historical reasons exist for it, of course. Much about 'status' depends on how people perceive their society's bell curve, how they view the things their parents held dear, how they reject certain things as well as how they embrace others.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous (5:28) offers My personal observations as an American male [...]
Most foreigners in Taiwan, they are for the most part, from the reject bag. There are exceptions, but on average, that's just the way it is.

Then I am as pleased to represent the exception as you are the rule.

: D

Anonymous said...

Reply to Anon:

I think you’ve misunderstood or are unaware of the evolutionary biology/psychology argument. No worries, though; most people misunderstand, not because it’s difficult to understand, but because it’s relatively new and it takes some reading to become familiar with.

Yes, my argument came off as American values vs. Taiwanese, but that’s because I was replying to a frame that Michael set. Actually, it’s not a good frame for getting to the bottom of the sex and romance stuff. My real point lies quite apart from cultural preferences and cultural conditioning and it is this: Women are programmed, regardless of culture, to see male conspicuous consumption as an inferior fitness display. Do they want men to have money? Yes! Must men, to get mates, have more money than they need to take care of themselves? Generally, no! And do women respect men showing off money? Almost invariably, no! Put it this way: a guy who owns a Porsche because he wants to impress, will not impress (but very well may draw quiet contempt). But a guy who owns a Porsche but does not brag about it but rather races it on weekends? He will score points in several categories and women will chase him The first guy – a provider-type will have to work hard to get women – and the ones he gets will milk him and either have “good genes” types lovers on the side or else dream about having them. Why? Because women are in no way stupid (are a lot smarter than men on this stuff, actually): they realize that the first type of guy is basically compensating for a lack of confidence by trying to “buy” them. The second guy, though? He’s got juice, a life they would like to attach themselves to, and gens they would like to get.

Your observations about the levels of appearance of who’s hooking up cross-culturally here are irrelevant. Why? All kinds of factors significantly complicate the picture, so I’ll only bother to cite one: generally, the hottest looking people do not bother to learn foreign languages; from a young age, they’ve been thriving on the attention their looks garner; they haven’t been applying themselves to study. So take a Taiwanese woman of this sort – or even take a Taiwanese hottie who did learn English --; they know so well that their opportunities to play guys are far greater in the Taiwanese sphere than in the West. And if they get openly involved with a Westerner HERE, god forbid, many of those chances go out the window, not just for the moment, but forever. Few would ever close their choices off like that, even if they find some Westerners attractive.

No one is saying character and integrity don’t matter. But yes, being a “douchebag” not only works for appealing to one of women’s dual sexualities (the “good genes”-seeker); it’s actually one of the more maximal strategies.

In essence, seriously being a “bad boy” is faking fitness (“I’m so strong and independent that I don’t care at all what people think of what I do”) unless the guy really is clever enough to avoid sanction and punishment; the same as conspicuous consumption is the ploy of the mediocre to fake fitness.

There are many factors, dimensions, whatever that come into play, but whatever, the key thing I was saying is that evolutionary biology/psychology deems conspicuous consumption and not breaking free from mama to be, in women’s eyes, markers of low fitness no matter what culture women are from. Women are PROGRAMMED by the genes to see these choices as low fitness, whenever women have work opportunities and when economic privation does not rule the land – the case today in Taiwan, different from the case in the past here. There’s not much culture can do, short of outright coercion, to override this programming. Even female will has trouble overiding the programming, which is part of why what women say they like and want is so often so different from they choose.

The key is to understand that female sexuality is dual. David De Angelo gives a lay man’s (If you read him, pardon the pun) take on all of this. And Geoffrey Miller and Randy Thornhill are two of the leading purveyors of the scientific view. I’ve put at the bottom here their abstracts for papers for a conference in Arizona earlier this year.

Check it all out, I’d say; do some reading. Maybe your views on many things, especially between men and women, will change.

Geoffrey Miller, University of New Mexico
The Evolutionary Social Psychology of Consumer Behavior

Evolutionary psychology is starting to illuminate the world of consumer behavior, marketing, and product design - but that world can also reveal many new things about human nature. In this talk, I'll review some key ideas from my forthcoming book 'Faking fitness: The evolutionary origins of consumer narcissism', and discuss three recent empirical studies. (1). Asking people to think about possible mates leads men to invest more money in conspicuous consumption (spending on high-cost luxuries), whereas it leads women to invest more time in blatant benevolence (conspicuous altruism) (Griskevicius et al., 2007). (2) Players in the online game 'World of Warcraft' are willing to spend a huge price premium at public auctions for weapons that look larger, cooler, and rarer, even controlling for all objective attributes of the weapons (Mendenhall & Miller, in prep) (3) Professional lap-dancers earn much more money per shift when they are in estrus (maximum–fertility days just before ovulation), than when they are in the luteal or menstrual phases of the cycle, but taking the contraceptive Pill eliminates this estrus earnings boost (Miller, Tybur, & Jordan, 2007). In each case, an evolutionary psychology theory plus empirical investigation of consumer spending patterns yields new insights into human social and sexual strategies.

Randy Thornhill, University of New Mexico
The Functional Design and Phylogeny of Women's Dual Sexuality: Estrus and Extended Sexuality

Recent research questions the conventional wisdom about the evolution of women's sexuality. Women have two functionally distinct sexualities. At the fertile phase of the cycle, women prefer male traits that may mark superior genetic quality. At infertile cycle phases, women prefer men willing to invest resources in a mate. Women's peri–ovulatory sexuality is homologous with estrus in other vertebrates and estrus likely arose first in the species ancestral to vertebrates. Thus, contrary to conventional wisdom, women have not lost estrus, and human estrus likely functions to get a sire of superior genetic quality, which is the evolved function of estrus throughout the vertebrates. Women's sexuality outside estrus is extended sexuality. It appears to function, as in other taxa with this type of sexuality, to get material benefits from males. Also contrary to conventional wisdom, men perceive and respond to women's estrus, including by increased mate guarding. Men's response is limited compared to other vertebrate males, implying co-evolutionary history of selection on females to conceal estrus from men and selection on men to detect it. Research indicates that women's concealed estrus is an adaptation to conditionally copulate with men other than the pair–bond partner. Women's sexual ornaments–the estrogen–facilitated features of face and body–appear to be honest signals of individual quality pertaining to future reproductive value (R. Thornhill and S. W. Gangestad. In press. The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality. Oxford Univ. Press).

Patrick Cowsill said...

"Most foreigners in Taiwan, they are for the most part, from the reject bag."

That would have to include the "foreigners" coming here from China for the past 400 years. There was nothing for them in China: land, food, you name it. They were rejects in every sense of the word. I'm talking about the Chinese settlers from Fujian during the Ming and Ching Dynasties and the soldiers in the Chiang Kai-shek's army. See accounts of the ragged scamps that landed in the late 40s: they could not drive or even ride a bike. They had no idea what running water was, etc. They saw the locals as nothing more than targets to steal from or shoot at.

無名 - wu ming said...

it seems to me that your description of taiwanese consumer conformism would apply to a whole heck of a lot of americans.

it was a fair point about the conformism of nonconformism, though. being approachably quirky and eccentric definitely wins one points, in the right circles. as does disdain in the wrong ones.

Anonymous said...


You're wrong about women being turned off by conspicuous consumption. Signaling and information is well-researched by economics (evolutionary psychology, possibly because of the lack of mathematical rigor in the field is quite late to the game). The question is who benefits from conspicuous consumption--those at the top don't necessarily benefit and are even be hurt by conspicuous consumption, but average Joe's do benefit. If it didn't, there'd be zero reason to do it, and it just wouldn't happen.

Your argument about the good-looking in Taiwan and in the US are along my lines, so I don't know where the disagreement is coming from, except that you say "it's complicated".

Anonymous said...


Perhaps my phrase "but very well may draw contempt" mislead; I'm not prepared at all to say most women would feel contempt for male conspicuous consumption, but many of the women, both Taiwanese and Western, whom I know do, so I doubt the percent is insignificant.

Anyway, though, the point is that once women's "good genes"-seeking sexuality is taken into account, conspicuous consumption is revealed as a high-cost (in terms of time as well as money) strategy with lesser success rates than other strategies -- an all-around inferior strategy.

And that's why this statement of yours is exactly right: "those at the top don't necessarily benefit and are even be hurt by conspicuous consumption, but average Joe's do benefit. If it didn't, there'd be zero reason to do it, and it just wouldn't happen." Yes, those average Joes do benefit somewhat, but not nearly as much as they hope and think. (Peopl's beliefs often don't tally with reality.) Other choices would maximize benefits much more than this one does. Conspicuous consumption is simply not a high-fitness choice -- it is basically "faking" fitness, and most women know that. But the "provider-seeking" part of their sexuality will, in the case of many women, be interested in milking this faked fitness to a degree -- maybe to a large degree.

None of this means women aren't interested in conspicuous consumption -- especially as a form of competition among themselves. I'm only saying, that while it does work to a degree, it is a relatively ineffective (maybe the least effective) strategy of all for getting women.

Great confidence, passion, a sense of humor (the kind females relate to, not the more ironic style males relate to -- but also not female-style humor), and honesty and integrity is by far the best strategy. These things have no material cost and women know that. Yet this package is beyond the grasp of most guys (including me, but I'm working on it), and they know that, too. Thus, in most cases, it beats even good looks and physical prowess. And that's why, compared with conspicuous consumption, it's far superior to them as a fitness measure.

If we agree taht cosnpicuous consumption is a male-fitness strategy that works to a degree but not to a high degree -- taht it works quite poorly in relation to some other strategies (inclduing being a "bad boy"), then we have no argument at all. Anyway, I wasn't thinking in terms of arguing; if people don't buy the evolutionary biology/psychology angle, then there's not much you can say to them. Basically, I was just making sure that angle got aired.

Anonymous said...

Correction: I wrote that the top "good genes" package is beyond the grasp of most guys. But hwo knows if that's actually true? Many guys (in all cultures) may be capable of delousing themselves of their cultural conditioning and social programming. Maybe all they need is exposure to evolutionary biology/psychology knowledge; then, if their genes have blessed them with (a) flexibility of mind and (b)powers of concentration and determination, they can acquire the package. Maybe there are lots of guys with latent good-enough genes. If there are, and if they all started suddenly displaying them, the, in the endless evolutionar arms race, looks and physical prowess would probably become much more decisive fitness factors.

Anonymous said...

question: by XO do you mean cognac?
Because I tried to explain to my student that XO is the short for "extra old" and not the name of an alcohol.Could you please tell me if it's an American slang word or only a Taiwanese one. An other one: do you know the meaning of DM , word used to design posters in Taiwan?
Sorry, it's not really the topic but I'd really like to know...

Anonymous said...

question: by XO do you mean cognac?
Because I tried to explain to my student that XO is the short for "extra old" and not the name of an alcohol.Could you please tell me if it's an American slang word or only a Taiwanese one. An other one: do you know the meaning of DM , word used to design posters in Taiwan?
Sorry, it's not really the topic but I'd really like to know...