Is my house guest creepy and, if so, should I kick him out?
June 19, 2017 3:40 PM   Subscribe

My family is hosting a guest we don't know extremely well. He's from another country and culture and we're not sure if we're reading his behavior properly. My wife thinks she saw him surreptitiously touch my son's ears two times. I'm at work and my son is at daycare since I heard this from her. I'm not sure what to do when I get off work and go home to meet up with this house guest.

My wife and I (now both 36) met a friend of our friend's family while traveling in Taiwan 10 years ago. The Guy from Taiwan (GFT) and I kept in touch somewhat, exchanging emails twice a year or so. We both just like knowing someone in another country, pen pals for lack of a better term. Recently, GFT left his job and found time to travel. He asked if he could stay with us in our small 1-bedroom apartment in the U.S. for about a week. We said no problem but that we have a cat and a three year-old son. He knew this and said no problem. We're not the only friends he's visiting on his month-long trip.

GFT showed up we were all happy to see him. He was happy to see us. He had few plans and said he just wanted to tag along and do whatever we do but that he would tour the city when we're at work and daycare. About his few plans he said he'd never been outside of Asia and wouldn't know where to begin.

I took him downtown on my way to work, to the grocery store, a national park, playgrounds, restaurants. He seemed neither interested nor disinterested with all of this. He wants more to talk a lot and leans into me very closely when we talk. He doesn't speak English well and I don't speak any Mandarin, so I considered he was straining to hear me but was also wondering if it was a cultural difference in personal space.

This morning after my wife and I dropped our son off at daycare, she told me she saw GFT lighting touching our son's ears as he was playing next to GFT in our apartment. She was alarmed because she had thought she had seen him do the same thing the day before but wasn't sure. She was extra-alarmed because I had told her previously that I was having a hard time explaining personal privacy to GFT about his photo-taking. He takes photos ALL THE TIME, which appeared to me just a stereotypical Asian thing. But ... I stopped him from loudly asking if a pan-handler was a "beggar" and if he could take her picture. I stopped him from taking a picture of kids at daycare who were cheesing and playing around us when we picked my son up together ("no photo kids" ... "need parent permission"). He seemed surprised that that would be a problem but immediately put his phone away and apologized to me after about 5 minutes of translating each other.

The final, most uncomfortable yellow flag I hesitate to note but also feel is remarkably peculiar is his interest in homosexuality. When we first met GFT in 2007, he was single. We figured he was gay. We just had a feeling as we are breeders but also have a lot of gay friends and family. We assumed that that topic was more taboo in Taiwan than in the U.S., so we never asked about it. Yet, he likes to talk about lesbians and gays I'd say more than your average house guest. Pointing to map: "Is this 'Gay Village' a gay place?" He took pictures of lesbians on the bus "for his lesbian cousin." He said "Is very special." I told him not to do that, couldn't find the words to explain why at the time. I could not get an explanation of "special." My wondering here is whether public, non-heterosexuality is simply refreshing and remarkable to a Taiwanese person or if he's unusually interested in the topic for anyone anywhere.

It appears to me that there are, at a minimum, language barriers and some cultural differences about personal space and privacy between us. What I am unclear about is how to proceed regarding the touching of my son's ears. I'm not sure how to start that conversation or if I even give discussion a fair shot. My stomach has been churning all day. I half want to freak out ... but of course do not want to put someone on the street if this is all a misunderstanding. Is "touching ears" similar to a high five in Asia? Is it similar to something else that's innocuous? Do I ask if he did this? Why? Do I just say "no touch ears?" "No touch boy?"

To try to return to brevity, is this behavior weird for Asia/Taiwan? If so, what can I say or ask? Am I being an ass?
posted by metajc to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You have what, three days left? Just don't let him stay in a room with your kid alone if you feel uncomfortable about him.

I suspect it's just general social awkwardness and cultural differences, but it sounds like you're basically done with the whole thing, so just kind of be busy for the rest of the time he's staying with you.
posted by empath at 3:57 PM on June 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

Part of it is cultural. For one, personal space isn't really a thing in Taiwan so that might explain why he's being super close. Also, Taiwan is on the edge of making same-sex marriage legal (a first in Asia, so a really big deal) so I wonder if that's fueling his curiosity about homosexuality. Taiwan is considered the most gay-friendly destination in Asia but if you're actually Taiwanese you know that many families are maaaaybe okay if other people do it so long as it's "not my son/daughter."

Personally I think this guy is just super clueless. He's never been out of the country and he's probably a bit socially inept. I'm guessing, and this is really giving him the benefit of the doubt, that perhaps his parents spoiled him or he was too focused on studying (Taiwanese education emphasizes rote memorization) to develop socially. Not all Taiwanese are like this but I feel like Taiwan's/Asia's culture of parenting and education often produces more socially stunted adults than other places.

But I think you're justified in feeling creeped out. He is being weird and seems like he's unable to pick up on social cues. I think that the majority of young Taiwanese people have more self awareness and would probably agree he's being a weirdo. But if we give him the benefit of the doubt, he's could be socially clueless and grew up sheltered since that happens...a lot.

Since communication is tough I don't know how you'd approach setting boundaries with him...maybe just stick it out until the week's over and spare yourself the awkward conversation.
posted by bluelight at 3:59 PM on June 19, 2017 [7 favorites]

I can't speak to the rest of it but personal space is definitely a cultural thing.
posted by bunderful at 4:02 PM on June 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you're really worried, maybe your son can stay with grandma for a couple days as a fun sleepover or something. Some of what you describe does sound cultural -- personal space is definitely a thing I've experienced even just went tourists have no concept of leaving space between other people standing in a line, etc. Some of it is that he might just be weird. I think it's reasonable to feel creeped out and I also understand not wanting to go through the awkwardness of kicking him out. But depending out much time is left, if he's supposed to leave on Sunday, maybe you can tell him something came up and you need him to leave Saturday, or something. It should be enough time for him to make his next plans.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:10 PM on June 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Are you sure it was ears? If your son has anything other than jet-black Asian hair he may very well have been admiring his hair. I have mousey brown hair and got fawned over for being "blonde" in Japan - it's definitely a "thing". I also note that a friend of mine, raised in Sydney but within the Korean community, had never really run into that many white babies until I had one and hadn't realised that hair often starts out blonde and goes darker as we age and made a fuss a few times over our tow-headed little one.

In short, agree with what you've flagged above - well meaning but awkward and it will be over soon!
posted by jrobin276 at 4:31 PM on June 19, 2017 [13 favorites]

Sorry, on preview: Yes, people definitely reached out and touched my hair. I'd bet it was this.

There is no/little understanding as to why this sort of thing (or the picture taking or...etc...) is a problem and it was difficult if not impossible to explain even to my students who were fluent. I mean, intellectually they understood fine (could explain it back to me) but they didn't "get it". Many of the places (Taiwan, Japan) are fairly (extremely?) homogenous and have not had to deal, as a society, with the "other" almost at all.

Maybe make small talk like, "he has such cute hair! I need to comb it" and see if he picks it up. If that's it, and you're comfortable, maybe he could comb his hair or something and get it out of his system...(and hopefully stop the weird "ear touching").
posted by jrobin276 at 4:40 PM on June 19, 2017

re: jrobin276's response, I don't recommend going the "cute hair...comb" route. If he hasn't been able to pick up on your body language he's definitely not going to get the hint and if you hand him a brush he might just see it as an invitation to do more touching.

To be fair, it's not just Asians who have a thing about touching hair especially if it's blond. You'll find people who do this all around the world (sometimes for different reasons). I think the concept of personal space is much more stressed in Western culture and probably in the US more so than other places.
posted by bluelight at 4:55 PM on June 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

This definitely sounds like social awkwardness + cultural differences around personal space and photos. I'm honestly not sure why the ear thing is freaking anyone out...I can totally see ruffling a toddler's hair in a way that is close to their ears and I promise I'm not creepy...toddlers are just cute and often have cute hair! This likely goes double if you're talking about an Asian person who may not have been around non-black/straight hair a lot (consider all the white people who think it's fine to touch African American hair...I mean, it's clearly culturally inappropriate in that context, but it's not like it's creepy in the sense I think you mean.) Don't let the guy babysit and there's no need to leave them alone together if you're getting some type of alarm bell, but "ears" don't strike me as some super creepy location on a toddler's body?

The other stuff just sounds like awkward tourist/cultural, maybe it will be a slightly painful week and you won't choose to repeat it, but it doesn't seem like the guy is dangerous from your explanation.
posted by rainbowbrite at 5:28 PM on June 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

How old is your friend?

I am from Taiwan and have lived in the US and Canada for a little more than half of my life, and I have to say-- his behaviour would be considered really rude and inappropriate even in Taiwan, especially if he's sort of your/my age (I'm 32).

Personal space/privacy/boundary wasn't really a thing for my parents generation, so when I was a kid there were definitely adult neighbours who felt like they could just pinch my face whenever they wanted, and my parents wouldn't bat an eye. This is partially to say that I could see hair/ear-touching as sort of the same thing as pinching face, or just general affectionate (albeit impolite) tactile interaction with kids.

That being said, it's *definitely* not like that now-- most of my Taiwanese friends (granted most of them live in major cities) would know to ask the parents first before photographing let alone touching a kid, and would know much much better than to objectify or gaze upon the queers and the downtrodden. Honestly, if I were hosting this guy, I maybe wouldn't be creeped out, but I would definitely be annoyed (and on that note, kudos to you for being sensitive to possible cultural differences). My Taiwanese cousin (33) just had a fight with her mother-in-law yesterday for not asking for her permission before cutting her son's hair.

If he's middle aged or above and have lived outside of urban centres most of his life and is really sheltered, I could maybe see how his good intentions would transpire in these still-annoying behaviors. That'd be like my uncle. My uncle would do these things. My uncle is 68.

If he's young-ish and has gone to college-- hm, that's is one extremely large dose of social ineptness that couldn't be explained away by the education system (I mean, there are plenty of well-adjusted non-annoying adults who went through that system).

One last thought: it's also not impossible that his intense interest in gay culture comes from a place of homophobia. Yes, Taiwan is on the cusp of legalizing same sex marriage, but what that really means is that both the pro-LGBT liberals and fervent homophobes have been OBSSESSED with LGBT in the public eyes for most of the last three to five years.
posted by redwaterman at 5:46 PM on June 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Wait, you and your wife are concerned that someone you barely know, who makes you both uncomfortable, might very well have touched your child in a creepy way? Who cares if he meets metafilter's standard of creepy or if it's a misunderstanding? Protect your son, protect both of your mental health, trust your wife more than strangers on metafilter, and get the house guest out of the house. Put the guy up in a hotel if need be, but if he creeps you out get him away from your kid for heaven's sake.
posted by windykites at 6:18 PM on June 19, 2017 [12 favorites]

Do you have any tactful Mandarin-speaking friends you could just happen to have dinner plans with? Someone you could explain the situation to and who could get a better read on GFT's behavior?
posted by yeahlikethat at 6:36 PM on June 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

There is much less of a culture of "Stranger Danger" in Taiwan. There, kids are doted upon by the extended family and get to be cheeky with adults and climb onto the laps of any uncle or aunt. A warm greeting from an adult to a child can involve patting of the head or shoulder, or a mussing of the hair.

If your family was invited to a family gathering in a child-centric culture like the Taiwanese, it would probably be considered rather odd for you to insist that no adults touch your child at all. I think Italian and Mexican families might be similar in this respect.

That being said, you should do whatever feels comfortable to you since it's your house, your rules.

The polite fiction would be to claim some family emergency and shuffle him along. He can handle himself.

The gay stuff - he probably thinks it's super cool that Americans are so open about it, and part of that could be that he formed his impressions of American social norms from TV and movies.

It's not your job to educate him about American social norms, if you don't feel up for it. The language barrier probably doesn't help. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it just turned out it wasn't a good fit after all. I would let him down easy though.
posted by metaseeker at 8:29 PM on June 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

+1 that gay marriage has been big in the news in TW lately so he may just be excited to see what it's like to live in a place where we're a bit further along, if he has a close lesbian relative.

The birth rate in Taiwan is craaazy low, so it's entirely possible he doesn't actually know that many small children. When my sister (who's a lot younger so most of her peers don't have kids) brought her friends over to meet my kids, a lot of them just wanted to touch tiny hands and feet and ears and noses, and feel how soft they are. I get it. Kids are pretty soft and if you don't know any it's not like you can ask strangers if you can feel their kid's soft nose.

That said, let this be a lesson to you: now that you have a small child, just don't invite people to stay over if you don't know them very well and aren't sure it'll be a super comfortable thing. This situation doesn't seem that worrisome, but it could have been! You can easily use your kid as an excuse: "Oh, we'd love to, but little Maurice has been having these motherfucking night terrors and he's up screaming 4-5 times a night, we're all a complete wreck and couldn't possibly handle a houseguest. Can we help you find a hotel nearby and meet up for a meal or four while you're in town?" Done.
posted by potrzebie at 9:33 PM on June 19, 2017 [7 favorites]

My Taiwanese grandma would touch my ears all the time when I was little and tell me that they were good ears and the way they were shaped was a sign of good fortune.

I don't know if that's what this guy is thinking.

But I also personally wouldn't be that weirded out by the touching you describe. I mean I would think it was weird but not stomach churningly creepy. It's possible my upbringing included a lot of adults poking at me like they were examining produce
posted by danny the boy at 10:23 PM on June 19, 2017 [14 favorites]

It all sounds like basic cultural differences to me.

I understand the thought that one should "listen to your fears", which I assume is behind the advice to put the "creepy" guy in a hotel, but this has me wondering about the times when our "fear" is crossing the line into xenophobia.

Also, re touching the toddler's ears: I'm a 62-year-old woman, born and raised in the states and with the typical rather wide personal-space boundary, but I can't imagine spending a couple of hours (let alone days) in close contact with a toddler and NOT touching his little ears, stroking his hair, whatever (stopping way short of anything that could be considered remotely abusive, of course). Most kids are cuddly little things and I respond accordingly. Never in my wildest dreams did it occur to me that parents might object. (Nor would I have objected when my kids were little.)
posted by she's not there at 10:32 PM on June 19, 2017 [11 favorites]

Here is a link about ears in Chinese face reading. I make no claim about the legitimacy or veracity of this source, other than that it was the first google result for "Chinese fortune ear shape"

I can also confirm that other cultures around the world aren't as hung up about their kids as Americans, and that this guy may not view you as a mere acquaintance, but a close (enough) friend who's putting him up for a week. This isn't a stranger on the street touching your child out of the blue, is all I mean...
posted by danny the boy at 10:34 PM on June 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

This doesn't seem that weird. When I play with a cute cuddly toddler I affectionately stroke their hair and tickle their tummy and cup their soft baby cheeks, and marvel at their sweet little perfect ears and fingers and feet.
posted by amaire at 10:53 PM on June 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just nthing that this doesn't sound stomach-churningly weird, maybe just a bit annoying.

Do I just say "no touch ears?" "No touch boy?"

Personally I think that speaking broken English to someone who doesn't speak the language well comes across as rude and condescending. Broken English really isn't any easier to understand than proper English and it can be confusing. Just speak slowly and clearly.
posted by Umami Dearest at 12:56 AM on June 20, 2017 [14 favorites]

If you need to communicate something complex to him, maybe you could find a local (good) restaurant with Mandarin-speaking socially-apt wait staff (or owner), call ahead, and go during a non-busy time. It's not a professional translator, but $20 or so for ten minutes helping bridge the language and cultural gap -- plus some food your guest might or might not like -- could be a worthwhile and interesting investment.
posted by amtho at 3:34 AM on June 20, 2017

Google translate comes up with this for "please do not touch my son's ears": 請不要碰我兒子的耳朵
posted by brujita at 6:25 AM on June 20, 2017

A university I used to work at in America had a pamphlet for overseas students that provided a run down of some do's and don'ts regarding things that are considered inappropriate in America but that might not be considered inappropriate in their home country. Two of these items were:

1. Do not, under any circumstances, touch the children, including patting them on the head or touching their hair.
2. Do not, under any circumstances, take photos of the children.
posted by Polychrome at 6:39 AM on June 20, 2017

I don't think it's particularly creepy for him to touch your child's ears, honestly. I am glad that US culture has moved toward not forcing children to hug and kiss adults, but I would consider this more in the far-less-intimate category of head-patting, and therefore okay. Especially as he's staying at your house. He isn't a stranger on the street.
posted by desuetude at 7:27 AM on June 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm a parent of two small children, the eldest a girl of 3, and I would not be particularly alarmed by the ear touching. I'd consider it akin to patting the kid on the head, or tucking some hair out of their face, or any other little innocuous gestures that come naturally if you've been spending time with a kid. I mean, if you're skeeved you're skeeved, clearly, but in and of itself it doesn't sound problematic.

I wonder if it's now a case of "bitch eating crackers": you've had your fill of awkward, uncomfortable house guest (understandably!) and now everything he does is setting your teeth on edge? I've been there (with visiting family, friends, or friends of my husband) and it's hard not to be annoyed. I'd examine that feeling before I decided my son was in danger, though.
posted by lydhre at 11:21 AM on June 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

It's not necessarily creepy to want to touch a cute little kid- all the cheek pinching and head patting grannies do it for a reason- but being sneaky about doing it is.
posted by windykites at 7:36 PM on June 20, 2017

Mandarin-speaking socially-apt wait staff

Your local Chinese restaurant wait staff is more likely to speak Cantonese.
posted by empath at 7:45 PM on June 20, 2017

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