Don’t Drink the Snake Tea: 杯弓蛇影

– by Jessica Brumley

This fall, Fulbright ETAs share their experiences adjusting and adapting to new cultures – and the challenges, humor, and new ways of seeing the world that come with diving into life in another country.  Read the full series here.

This piece was written by Jessica Brumley, a 2016-17 ETA in Taiwan. 

I am not one given over to superstition.

I toss no salt 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. These American superstitions have no bearing on my personal practice and an approximately equal influence on my peers.


Even during Taiwanese Ghost Month, a time when water holds ominous qualities of the supernatural nature, my small party of Fulbrighter friends found a way to the beach every weekend. This haunted holiday marks the opening of hell for ghosts to wander the Earth freely: everything from mountain climbing to marriage is ill-advised, for fear that spirits will bring bad luck and physical harm.

I have come 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 a stigma to seemingly random objects. I do, however, recognize the powerful truth that things are not always as they seem.

As an outsider to Taiwanese culture, there is much I still have to learn about the people and the way of life that I have tried to emulate for the past year. Uncertainty still riddles many of my daily interactions, from ordering food and looking up directions to asking for assistance. Yet, slowly, our minds have begun to adapt to a culture that values the restoration of order, the over-extension of oneself to remedy the trouble of others. In the United States, this politeness would far surpass our 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.

Teachers constantly go out of their way to provide snacks for Fulbright meetings, to make our living situations more amenable, even to equip us with transportation to get to class. I am gifted so much food that I bring most of it home to my roommates, because I cannot eat an entire pineapple or a carton of mulberries by myself. Two other ETAs here in Yilan spent two weeks giving away oranges to anyone who would take them, because their schools gave them two huge bags at the same time. And once, after merely wearing my contacts for too long, a teacher immediately escorted me to the doctor’s office, where she stayed with me until the visit was over and I had medicine–and some pastries she had given me–in hand.

But for the people of Taiwan, living in a high-context society – a society that relies heavily on indirect communication and understood implication– means that there is often room for misinterpretation. Misconstruing a general suggestion for an actual invitation, for instance, can cause embarrassment on both parties.

I encounter this phenomenon every time I plan an outing with my host mother, Ellen. My host mom is quite possibly one of the most hospitable people I know. Before the winter months came in Yilan, she took me shopping for a warm hat, and she gave not only me, but every person living in my apartment, a sweater to wear when it got bitingly cold. She even furnished the thick blanket that still covers my bed. Ellen rightly assumed that we would underestimate the Taiwanese winter.

Ellen is a fairly direct individual, a characteristic less common among Taiwanese people. She tries to be as explicit as possible when asking me to hang out with her and her family, but we are often caught in a web of meaning, reading far deeper into each text message than is probably intended. This is mostly due to 客氣,  the concept of politeness, of thinking of others before one’s self. I feel that it is difficult to translate 客氣 into English because it is so intricately tied to the selfless culture of Taiwan that the word “politeness” does not do it justice. It is a way of living, where one sacrifices personal wants or pleasures for the benefit of another, and Ellen is the queen of it.

Let’s say Ellen wants to ask me to eat with her family and friends on Thursday of next week. She knows because I have mentioned it a total of two times, that I tutor on Thursday nights. (She takes that much of an interest in my life.) This is the only day that will work for the other people in the group, and she does not want to trouble them in any way. So, she first asks me,

“How serious is your tutoring class?”

I am confused by the question.  I consider the tutoring that I do to be important work and helpful to the students that I meet with once a week. I am momentarily hurt. Curious if Ellen thinks that I am not doing enough for my students, I respond
with something like,

“Pretty serious. We have a textbook that I use each week, and sometimes I give them small quizzes.”

Now, Ellen is even more hesitant to ask me to come with her. We continue on in this manner until eventually she bites the bullet and asks,

“Could you take time off?”

Realizing what has happened, I quickly try to recover the situation by explaining that I have taken off before, and that sometimes my students are very busy and have no time to meet anyways. I then let her know that I can be free if she has something planned.

It is only then that she tells me of her dinner plans.

This is only a brief example of our indirect, meandering way of talking to each other. We are very conscious of each other’s time constraints, and so we  客氣 our way through interactions in a way that is often confusing to the other. We both, in truth, want to spend time together, but because we are constantly attempting to put the other before ourselves, we often complicate something as simple as a dinner invitation.

This brings me to a story Ellen told me at our August orientation. In an ancient dynasty in an ancient land, a man invited his friend into his home. The two men conversed over their drink of preference, but when the friend looked into his cup, he saw a snake squirming at the bottom. Fearful of upsetting the host, the friend drank his tea, but he began to feel sick at the thought of swallowing a reptile. He was still sick when the host invited the friend into his home yet again. The friend politely attended, but eventually admitted that seeing a snake in his tea was the cause of his ailment. The host, worried for his friend, happened to glance at a bow and arrow hanging on the wall behind the friend’s chair and realized that what the friend had seen was nothing more than a reflection of the bow in his glass. The friend was ill on apparitions.

In my mind, through my own interpretation of the scenario, 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 this surface-level explanation does not adequately convey the swirling complexity that lies underneath. The idiom derived from this story, 杯弓蛇影 (“to see a bow reflected in a cup as a snake”), generally is used to describe someone who is superstitious. Believing in the image that he saw reflected in his glass, the friend became ill just because of what he thought he had swallowed. But the friend genuinely believed that drinking the tea was his best option. To seem ungrateful of one’s hospitality would do the host a great disservice. The friend, therefore, 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. (客氣 level: off the charts.)

This story represents a cultural difference that is nuanced and difficult to define. American culture respects and praises the idea of self. We are proud of our independence, our resourcefulness, and our ingenuity. Typically, we are driven more to stand out as individuals, rather than participate as a group. Taiwanese culture understands and even engages in this type of glorified individualism from time to time. However, as a culture based largely around the teachings of the Buddha and the Dao, cooperation and mutualism is more integral to daily interactions.

In the same vein, this type of communal ideology generally requires its practitioners to put others before themselves, or to be constantly aware of the needs of others around them. This type of selflessness can lead to indirection. These small, subtle cultural expectations govern Taiwanese society, and its people understand it. But as a foreigner recently transplanted into this new frame of thinking, it is easy for us to appear rude or self-serving, too willing to accept gifts, or not as appreciative of the things we are given.

And in many social situations, my unfamiliarity with cultural norms has left the shadow of a bow in my cup.

For example, I recently accepted my fifth carton of cherry tomatoes from a teacher who noticed I was eating them straight from a previously gifted carton and assumed that I needed more. This is despite the fact that I had been gifted five cartons of a snack that I do not particularly enjoy but felt obligated to consume entirely. And, until I confronted him about this issue,  my language partner wrote a new essay for me to edit every week because he knew that, as an English major, I enjoyed those sorts of things.

In these special moments, 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 shrink from 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 those who have worked tirelessly to make our transition into Taiwanese life as seamless as possible. 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.The next time Ellen asks me how serious my tutoring class is, I will know better than to balk in response. This is just her way of asking if I am free for dinner. And when the sixth carton of cherry tomatoes lands in my lap, I will offer to share them with my beneficiary.

The next time Ellen asks me how serious my tutoring class is, I will know better than to balk in response. This is just her way of asking if I am free for dinner. And when the sixth carton of cherry tomatoes lands in my lap, I will offer to share them with my beneficiary.

Through whatever perceived difficulty comes your way, it will never be as bad as a snake in your tea. Knock on wood.


Jessica Brumley is a Fulbright ETA in Yilan County, Taiwan, where she teaches first through ninth grade English at two separate schools (primary and middle). She graduated from Western Kentucky University in 2015 with degrees in Literature and English for Secondary Education. She will be attending the University of Georgia for graduate studies (Masters in English) in the fall.

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