I am not one given over to superstition.
No salt is tossed over this shoulder and I feel no particular aversion towards opened ladders. I do, in fact, own a black cat and keep my umbrella opened under a roof for the purely logical reason of effective drying. Even during Ghost Month here in Taiwan, my small party of Fulbrighter friends has found its way to the beach every weekend, at a time when water holds ominous qualities of the supernatural nature. I choose to realize that the things we arbitrarily avoid in this world are based almost exclusively on the consequences our culture has assigned to them. Barring those things physically dangerous or painful, we collectively decide to assign stigma as a community to seemingly random objects, and these warnings are carried down through generations so that they live on even in our fast-paced and technologically-based society.
I do, however, recognize the powerful truth that things are not always as they seem. And in times of stress, it is what we choose to see that defines us.
As our month-long orientation draws to a close in Yilan, I cannot help but feel that my impression of my daily life here has been shifted slightly. Before taking a single step in any airport, I looked on this journey as one that would be fraught with difficulty, difficulty that I would be expected to shoulder on my own. And while it is true that there have been slight hitches that we must individually overcome, like failing the scooter test the first time around, I find that my own struggles are not so much an individual’s problem as they are an opportunity for communally finding a solution.
Just like our bodies are adjusting to the oppressive heat and humidity, our minds are adapting to a culture that values the restoration of order, the over-extension of oneself to remedy the troubles of others. In the United States, one might call this common courtesy. But here in Yilan, I have either found the nicest people on the planet, or I have tapped into a cultural difference that extends beyond selfless congeniality.
The people here in Taiwan are just nice. Teachers constantly go out of their way to provide snacks, to make our living situations more amenable, even to equip us with transportation to get to class. Many times I find myself overwhelmed at their genuine desire to make us more comfortable in any way that they can. But as with any virtue, there is the threat of vice. For the people of Taiwan, living in a high-context society means that there is often room for misinterpretation. Misconstruing a general suggestion for an actual invitation, for instance, can cause embarrassment on both parties, simply because cross-cultural communication does not operate on the same wavelength as intercultural discourse. This new radio frequency causes confusion; it is hard to hear through static.
This brings me to a story I was told by teacher Ellen at orientation. In an ancient dynasty in an ancient land, a man invited his friend and colleague into his home. So as to keep this blog child-friendly, the two men shared a good meal over their drink of preference, call it “tea,” but when the friend looked into his cup, he saw a snake squirming at the bottom. Fearful of upsetting the host, the friend drinks the “tea” and begins to feel sick at the thought of swallowing a snake whole. The friend leaves and grows more and more ill. The host, realizing that his friend is sick and in need of assistance, offers to have him over to his house again for more “tea.” The friend politely attends, but eventually admits that seeing a snake in his tea is the cause of his ailment. The host, worried for his friend, happens to glance at a bow and arrow hanging on the wall behind the friend and realizes that what the friend had seen was nothing more than a reflection of the bow in his glass. The friend was ill on apparitions.
This story has survived the changing hands of governments and the tests of time. The idiom that this story represents, 杯弓蛇影, generally is used to describe someone who is superstitious. The friend, believing the image that he saw reflected in his glass, became ill just because of what he thought he had swallowed. There was, in actuality, no cause for his pain.
However, there seems to be a quick solution to the friend’s problems. Why didn’t the friend, upon seeing a snake, react violently in fear, throwing the cup across the room to avoid an encounter of the reptilian variety? As a host, wouldn’t I want to know that there was a snake in my house, or even still, that there was a snake in my serving glasses, where people put their mouths? If the friend had simply told his host that he saw a snake, this catastrophe could have been avoided. DON’T DRINK THE SNAKE TEA.
But as with all Chinese idioms, there is quite a lot more at play. To seem ungrateful of one’s hospitality would do the host a great disservice. Therefore, the friend allowed himself to endure what he believed was physical harm for the reputation of his friend. There was absolutely no reason for this type of suffering, and yet, it came to pass, because it is better to show loyalty to a relationship than to create strain from a perceived slight.
And in many social situations, my unfamiliarity with cultural norms has left the shadow of a bow in my cup. I have a few options. I can drink from the cup without questioning my host, an exercise that will most likely result in disenchantment and frustration. I can balk at the mysterious entity in my tea and run from a perceived problem, without the slightest regard for those who have so kindly handed me the tea in the first place. This shows ingratitude at the opportunity that has been presented before me.
In life’s snake tea moments, it is much better to come to a point of compromise. What could be seen as wading through the jungles of cultural expectations can be transformed into pleasant cultural exchange by simply learning to navigate hand in hand with the support system we already have in place. Through simple communication, we see past the shadows of what we fear to be true. By voicing our concerns, we lift the haze of societal structure and come to the heart of the matter.
And through whatever perceived difficulty comes your way, it will never be as bad as a snake in your tea. Knock on wood.