Musings on Taiwanese Culture

The following is a collection of observations about Taiwan, in no particular premeditated order:

While people here are often trying to find ways to be extra polite and pay for other people (their meals, the taxi, and so forth), by and large, they also worship money. I mean this mostly figuratively, except in the case of Ghost Month, in which ghost money is burnt as part of the offerings to the dead ancestors. Before coming to Taiwan I didn’t know that any faiths believed in an afterlife that included a financial economy.

Rich people pay their workers small wages in many cases, and cheap foreign labor (largely Filipino) doesn’t help things. Essentially, material values reign in the place of spiritual values, though the Chinese traditions seem to remain glued to society, though often in ways that mock themselves, as illustrated by the burning bags of Doritos for the spirits of the dead.

This brings me to my next observation, which somehow took me more than 2 months to learn: that in Chinese culture the number corresponding to one’s age is +1 compared to the West. When an infant is born, he or she is officially considered one year old by the Taiwanese. I suspect this goes along with the traditional expectations with respect to family. The age of adulthood is around 25 here, and parents and grandparents continue to have a lot of influence throughout the adulthood of their kids and grandchildren. I see more grandparents with small children here than I did in the U.S. But one crucial difference that the Taiwanese have from the mainland Chinese in this regard, is that women are not expected to marry while they are young, and often not at all. Mainland Chinese women are considered ‘leftover’ if they’re still unmarried at age 27.

There’s very little “life is about the journey” mentality here, as far as I can tell. You get where you’re going, move on to the following task, and so on.

While the driving skill here is poor, public transportation in Taiwan is superior to everywhere I’ve experienced thus far. Buses and trains start and stop according to their schedule. People wait in orderly lines for subway doors to open, allow the passengers to disembark, and then walk on. If you step on the yellow line at the edge, there are employees who will immediately blow a whistle telling you to keep away from the edge. Taxis are clean, and taxi drivers are polite. The same is true for buses. I get the overall sense that when taking public transportation, people do their best to avoid taking up space and to remain in their designated area. This is kind of the opposite experience of walking down the street, where scooters obstruct the sidewalk and force you to walk close to passing traffic. In Taiwan, you can trust strangers (including strangers who do low or unskilled labor for low pay) to do their jobs effectively and treat their customers with a high amount of friendliness and helpfulness. Many people are disincentivized from actively pursuing higher-wage jobs because the rate of pay isn’t much higher. Homeless and impoverished people do exist, but there are very few and I don’t usually see them.

A foreigner who has lived in Taiwan for fifteen years told me that with Taiwanese women, you have to subtract five years from their actual age to determine a) how old they look, and b) their maturity level. Thus according to this equation, a twenty-seven year old Taiwanese girl looks and acts like a twenty-two year old, a twenty year old like a fifteen year old, etc. etc. A Taiwanese woman told me she thinks Western women appear younger than their actual age, and says this is because Asian women “aren’t so used to exercise,” so old Taiwanese women appear to age more dramatically. It’s true that more than once, I’ve underestimated girls’ ages here, but this is probably just a matter of adjusting to what people look like and getting more and more used to the sensory perceptions involved in daily life.

One of those sensory perceptions is smell, and at Alishan I bought some chopsticks that, for whatever reason, emanate a kind of smell I associate with being in nature in a log cabin. Equipped with said chopsticks I am finally able to eat rice and noodles in a civilized manner.

…the surface is just beginning to be scratched. The language barrier is significant, which is of course more than just a tool to communicate, but also a pathway into thousands of years of history and culture and alternative perspectives on all sorts of things. I thought I could just jump in and splash my way into fluency, but like the high tide at Kenting, it just ends up overwhelming you, shoving you down below the surface.

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