I’ve been based in Taiwan for nine months now and just finished a drama called 《花甲男孩轉大人》. It’s on Netflix under “A Boy Named Flora A”. It was so slow-paced I nearly gave up on it, but what kept my attention was the amount of local culture it featured.
This might seem strange–wouldn’t every drama feature local culture? Not so. At least not to this extent. Jay Chou’s movie Secret for instance didn’t feature an ounce of local culture, whereas this drama was drenched in Taiwanese culture. Very 台. Even a little too perfectly 台, in the sense that the props master knew exactly what modern Taiwanese people think of as “traditional Taiwanese” and purposely put those props in the show.
Nonetheless, this would probably make a good show for people trying to learn about Taiwanese culture. From an early scene where the main character A-ga thinks a phone call about this grandma’s death was a scam call 詐騙集團 (scam calls being a big phenomenon here) to A-ga’s dad dating a woman who is a “betel nut beauty” 檳榔西施. To the grandma’s Vietnamese caretaker who speaks very good Mandarin and Taiwanese Hokkien.
Speaking of which about half the drama was in Taiwanese! As I read the Mandarin subtitles, my mind would try to figure out what they would say in Taiwanese. Sometimes I’d get stuck. At any rate, the answer would be clear in a second.
Watching the drama made me realize how much I’ve learned about Taiwan thanks to my friends, family, and coworkers here. So I thought I’d screenshot some scenes and interpret them. I’ll also include some scenes that feature customs I’d never heard of. Maybe you can tell me if you’ve experienced them!
1. Sausage stands at tourist destinations
I’ve always loved Taiwanese sausages, but didn’t know sausage stands were such a big thing at tourist destinations until this time I came to Taiwan. I didn’t really notice this phenomenon until a friend posted about how this beach that only locals had been privy to had since turned into a “Sausage stand-filled tourist destination.” Now I notice them everywhere!
2. Bra stores
Not sure if this is unique to Taiwan, but at least back in New Jersey, I think I’ve only seen bra stores in malls. Definitely not along the side of the street. I remember going with an aunt when I came to Taiwan as a middle schooler. There are usually bra stores in markets, I think.
3. Photo studios
I actually had to look up how to say 照相館 in English, because I can’t remember the last time I used this word. (never.) But when I came to Taiwan and had to get an ID photo taken for a hospital check-up to get my resident card, I went to one. There were no instant photo booths in the nearest metro station, so I asked around the convenience stores and a lady pointed me to the nearest photo studio.
I approached the store apprehensively and asked how long it’d take them to take the photos. “We’ll need one hour to develop them.” An hour to get ID photos! The horror. But I had no choice so I sat down and an old man, like the one in the screenshot above came to take my photo.
This scene in the drama helped me make sense of my experience. The photographer character said,
Now very few people come to photo studios because they can just take photos on their phones. But back in the day, you only took photos for big events, like marriages or funerals. Everyone who came was super nervous.
A-ga asked the photographer how long he’d been running this place and he said 60. So yeah, many of these photo studios are old establishments, run by… old people.
I started taking intercity buses in Europe — specifically Flixbus. They’re so cheap and they go EVERYWHERE. When I came to Taiwan though I stayed away from the intercity buses. I took one and got stuck in traffic and vowed to never do that again. But now I default to them for travel between central and northern Taiwan. It’s so hard to get train tickets last minute here on the weekends and my grandparents live about an hour from the nearest high-speed rail station. Whereas I can always count on U-bus! or it’s formerly nationally-owned counterpart, Kuo Kuang.
Except for last Sunday when I wanted to take a U-bus back from Lugang (once the biggest city in central Taiwan) but they were all booked. It was a holiday weekend, so the normal Sunday schedule got moved to Monday, resulting in fewer buses. I had to take a 70 minute bus ride to the high-speed rail station and then take the high-speed rail. It took about the same amount of time (Ok, maybe a little less), but cost about twice as much. Yeah.. not fun. Not to mention that U-buses are pretty comfortable. Oh and here’s a view from the u-bus I took last time back from my grandparent’s town.
5. Taiwanese bowls
A lot of bowls you’ll find in old people’s houses have these pink flowers on them. I think my maternal grandma has them too. I don’t know why this is, but hadn’t noticed this until this time in Taiwan. I mentioned to my coworkers that I’d like to buy some Taiwanese bowls so I can use them in the future when I no longer live here. They were like “??? you mean those floral bowls???” They showed me some pics and I was like, nevermind. Apparently, you can get Taiwanese pottery bowls from Yingge and other pottery towns but it’s quite rare even for Taiwanese people to own them because they’re pricy. When I went to a pottery sale with my aunt, the potters mentioned that a lot of their work is actually bought by Japanese people.
6. Origami lotus flowers
The plot of this drama centers around A-ga’s grandmother passing away, but not completely. It seemed like she was in a comatose state on the verge of death. And all the family members come back to see her, some with an eye towards inheritance.
One of my coworkers lost a grandfather a few months ago and I heard from other coworkers that she folded lotus flowers late into the night. I was like “why?” as in “what is this custom?” and they replied something like, “You can also buy them from temples, but it’s better to fold them yourself.” I clarified: “Why lotus flowers?” and they speculated that it might be because Buddha always sits above one.
I found this paragraph from a blog post that seems to illustrate how much time goes into making these origami flowers:
Origami skills and hot glue guns are necessary in a Chinese Buddhist funeral. A ridiculous amount of origami needs to be created for the multiple-day service. Lotus flowers and the pedestal it sits on, gold and silver nuggets (think origami boat without a sail). Hundreds, I’m not exaggerating, hundreds and hundreds of these labor-intensive petite creations. Some of them are for the alter. One hundred and eight lotuses create a “blanket” that drapes over the coffin. All will meet a fiery end. Symbolism aplenty, arts and craft skill required.
While googling the keywords “origami flowers funeral”, I also came across Hmong origami funeral wreaths. Now I wonder if Japanese origami is also associated with spiritual affairs.
7. Mortuary refrigerators
“Mortuary refrigerator” is the term I found when I googled “corpse refrigerator”. Not sure of the cultural context of the term, but in Mandarin it’s called 冰櫃. It’s apparently a Buddhist custom to keep the corpse around; something related to the 7-7-49, a period of time after the death.
My grandma said that when my dad’s grandma died, they kept the refrigerator in the living room. She said that for months afterwards, she could hear the humming of the refrigerator. Grandma was clearly not a fan of this custom and said that next time someone dies she doesn’t want to repeat this.
8. Hiring strippers for the funeral
Funerals and weddings both feature banquets and the banquet guy (in the white shirt) comes to visit the family. He makes a few offers like, “if you host 30 tables, I’ll give you a table (of food) for free. More than 30 and I’ll give you a dish/type of banquet food for free. And if you do 80, I’ll throw in dancers. 3 or 5 of them can even strip for you.” Yup.
Actually one of my team members who is from Europe asked me about this custom of hiring strippers last November when we were in Serbia for a company meet-up. She had seen a documentary about funeral strippers in Taiwan. Another (female) team member was like, “Wow, I want to die in Taiwan!” I know, my team members are great.
I remember when my maternal grandfather passed away, I saw a LINE message about hiring dancers, though I’m not sure if that implied strippers. At any rate, I remember my mother was against the idea.
9. Buddhist Funerals
I knew that Japanese funerals were Buddhist. Didn’t know that it worked like that in Taiwan as well. Both Japan and Taiwan have other local religions, namely Shinto and Taoism (and probably some more in Taiwan that I’m not aware of). But funerals are for some reason Buddhist affairs.
10. Finally, some customs I did not recognize:
If you know about these, let me know!