I’m engaged to a really great guy. He was born in Taipei but learned English when he was very young and came to the US for college. His parents came for a visit to meet me last week. After eating at several good restaurants around town, we invited them to our apartment for dinner.
I thought the dinner went really well — my future in-laws paid me many compliments on the decorating, the cooking and on my appearance. I was smiling and thanking them, all aglow in what I thought was profound approval. Wow, was I in for a surprise.
The next day, my fiancé told me that it was going to take a lot of work to repair the impression I’d made on my in-laws. I thought that perhaps they disapproved that we were living together before marriage, but apparently many people do that in Taiwan and no one thinks anything of it. The problem is that my in-laws now think that I am a spoiled, vain woman and they told my fiancé that he might think twice before marrying me — I would make a preening and difficult wife.
What the hell is going on? My fiancé just shakes his head when I try to get him to explain. He usually doesn’t clam up like this, it’s making me really nervous.
In The Dark
Ah, you are experiencing a culture shock. I am laughing because I had a similar experience when I traveled to Taiwan for the first time to attend my son’s wedding to a Taiwanese woman.
I was given many compliments by friends and relatives at the reception, so many that it embarrassed me. I didn’t know what to do but laugh and give profuse thanks for the nice things they were saying. The next day, my son told me I was behaving like a self-centered air head and I should learn better manners before mortifying him again. He was off on his honeymoon before I could ask him to explain. His friend, Dr. Ian Clarke, a great guy from New Zealand who is a university professor of sociology here, clued me in on the egregious faux pas I had made. Here’s the deal:
It is the cultural standard of many Eastern countries for people to act modestly in an outward manner. You could hear an Olympic gold medalist given a compliment after breaking the world speed record, and the reaction would be, “Oh, no, I am so slow! I was terrible.” Now, this does not mean that people from such cultures do not have any ego. It simply means that they know that they are seen in a better light if they deny all praise and say how awful they are. Privately, these people brag as much as anyone.
This seems really odd to Americans who have the likes of Kanye West and his accompanying horde of simpering Kardashians who take every opportunity to exploit their abilities, scant or otherwise, and who even attempt to steal the spotlight from others every chance they get. In Taiwan, Kim and Kanye would be seen as disgusting people with swelled heads and enormously large butts, although no one would ever say it to their faces and they may even want their pictures taken to show proximity to such famous fools.
Dr. Clarke explained to me that this outwardly humble lack of ego on the part of Easterners works within the operations of their particular society, but in places such as the Mideast, such behavior might get you slaughtered. There, if you do NOT assert yourself strongly, and as brazenly as possible, you might be annihilated by those around you. This is a cultural norm and no one sees an aggressive male as a preening braggart who thinks he is better than everyone else. That is how all men are.
So, back to your fatal dinner. Here is how you hung yourself: When you thanked your in-laws for their compliments and reveled in the praise, essentially, you were crowing, “Oh, yes, I know how wonderful and beautiful I am, I am such a special, entitled woman! You are so perceptive to notice!”
The next time you see your in-laws and they compliment you (for they will surely try again, to test you) just respond with, “Oh, no, my apartment looks awful! No, no, my clothes suck and I am a very unattractive person who just doesn’t know how to cook!” They will approve of your modesty and perhaps refrain from interfering with your wedding plans.
It is always a good idea to check on cultural habits when becoming part of an extended foreign family or traveling to other countries. Americans often take it for granted that their dollars and their presence entitles them to act however they wish when they roam the world. Let us hope that our cocky American teens abroad learn the folly of this behavior before trying any silly pranks that we would laugh at here. In North Korea, no one has such a sense of humor.