Taiwan is a surprise – the place that they told you was “Eastern” and “collectivistic”, seems actually better described as “every man for himself”. On buses, people get on, find enough space to stand, and once they’ve done that, they will rarely move to make things easier for other people. If I’m standing near the front, and there is space at the back of the bus, then you will have to push me past to get it. Routinely in London, someone would cry, “Can you all move back, please?” but this kind of communal thinking is not common on Taiwan’s buses. Neither will people “scoot across”, if they are sitting in the aisle seat and the window seat is free. I’ve asked many people why this is (why force the other person to clamber over you to get to the window seat?) and people usually say something like, “The aisle seat is more convenient”. Now, if you are disabled, elderly, or are with a small child, lots of people will leap up to help you – but if you are a normal, faceless stranger, then you may have to get used to treating other people as obstacles.
What’s odd, of course, is that in many situations, Taiwan seems an incredibly polite and warm place. Among close friends and family, people will indeed try to act collectively, and the people who seem to know me well have many times been really generous and hospitable. If, in England, you told your friends you were moving house, they’d merely remind you to invite them to the housewarming party; when I moved house in Taipei, a small army of friends and colleagues offered furniture, brought their relatives in cars to help move my stuff across, and one person even told his friend to drive around the area I wanted to live in and find a good apartment for me.
I think these two images of Taiwan, of buses and moving house, demonstrate the divide, in Taiwanese society, between your obligations to people you know and people you don’t. In terms of society as a whole, people are competitive, tough-minded, and have a very low level of trust for strangers. In situations where people have no way to relate to each other, in a crush, where lots of strangers are trying to get the same thing, or when driving, where no one can see anyone else’s face – people behave as if their moral obligations to other people are almost non-existent. If I don’t know you, and I’m in a hurry, then expect nothing from me.
An example of all this: One evening, when I was travelling home, two thirty-something women boarded the bus. There was one seat free, so one of them sat down, and her friend stood in the middle of the bus. Then, one stop later, the other seat became free – now, woman number two would be able to join her friend. However, a third woman had been standing next to the seat, and made to sit down in it. The seated friend shouted at this new woman, “WAIT!” (“DENG YI XIA!”), and beckoned her friend over. I mean, she really shouted at her, the way I would shout at a child about to touch an electric cable.
However, at this moment, the standing friend was shaking her head – she didn’t want to sit down. And so, now with a sweet smile on her face, friend number one turned to the woman she’d just screamed at, and, smiling, gestured that Ok, the seat was available. This woman then took the seat without replying, her face almost expressionless, and the bus rolled on. It is rare to see someone yell in public in Taipei, but it wasn’t rare enough that anyone reacted, or looked round to see what was happening. Perhaps we should call this rude, perhaps we should call it normal, but either way, in Taiwan, this is the tough world people live in.