Observing Taiwan

Figuring things out about Taiwanese culture is a fascination of mine, and I love to ask questions, conduct surveys, and theorise about the strange things I encounter. It seems that all foreigners have opinions about their host country: I just try to test mine against reality. This article describes the techniques I use.

A useful starting point might be: people believe they do things for sensible reasons. If I see people doing something for a reason that escapes me, then I try to imagine a point of view that would explain it. For instance, why are the parents of one of my students very angry because she wants to be a surgeon (they want her to become a dentist)? Are the two jobs different here? Why the need to guide their child’s career so precisely? What view of life makes dentistry seem a great job?

Once I’ve observed something, and developed a theory or two about it, I take the issue to my informants. I teach adults for a living, and I exploit them. I use my conversation class students for straw polls (e.g. “Should foreigners living in Taiwan learn Chinese?”) and to hear how they describe their lives; I use my one to one students to discuss things in depth; my local, expat and Internet friends get to hear my rambling suppositions.

I’ve come across all kinds of interesting things through my “studies”.

Explanations given for the dentistry question include: many patients sue their surgeon, so it’s a dangerous job; dentistry is a stable, high paying career; most surgeons are men; being a surgeon is stressful and exhausting.

I’m constantly amazed at how few Taiwanese people want to leave the country. After all, I teach people a foreign language, so you’d think I’d be encountering the ones with wanderlust, but it’s very rare to meet someone who wants to be away for longer than their Masters’ degree. In contrast, a recent survey in the UK found that 54% of the population wanted to leave.

Many people who say they don’t believe in ghosts obviously still worry about them. I asked one woman, ‘So, would you be happy marrying a man who had a ghost wife’? She recoiled, ‘No! How terrible! Three people in the bed every night’…

The next step, after all the talking, is to use the theory in the real world. If you notice that when Taiwanese people have problems, they tend to ask their friends for help – why don’t you start doing that too?

One cultural triumph of mine came when I was getting a picture framed for a friend. When the shop staff heard that my friend was female, they insisted that I choose a pink frame. My friend usually wears all black, and pink would have been a terrible choice, but my Chinese wasn’t good enough to make this clear. Suddenly, I knew how to convince them: “My friend has short hair”. All the shop staff gasped, and immediately offered me other colours.

Clearly, it’s easy to get these speculations wrong. I try to remember that almost all of my genuine conversations here are in English, and that English-speaking Taipei residents may not be a very representative sample of Taiwan. I avoid accepting one person’s opinion of things, as some individuals are, well, highly individual. There also seems to be a class divide: middle class people’s interpretations tend to be more magnanimous than poorer people’s. And certain cultural traits, which seem so divergent to what I remember about England, to many Taiwanese people seem simply, “natural’.

I don’t know if my amateur investigations have made me fonder of Taiwan, and the more I learn about cultural differences, the more unbridgeable they seem. That said, I feel a level of peace about the things that different here, now that I have a little understanding of how they work. Additionally, figuring out things about Taiwan has shown me things about my own culture’s values: ask enough about dentists, and you start to see the assumptions that underlie your view of “normal”. Many Taiwanese people also talk about the West, and say how racist people were towards them, or how difficult it was to be accepted by locals. I suppose, if I wanted to keep my comfortable view of things, I shouldn’t have started asking questions.

This article first appeared in Taiwanease magazine in October 2006