On Culture

Hey everyone! Thanks for your patience; I know I haven’t written in a long time!

I’ve had the idea of writing a “culture” post for a long time- pretty much since I’ve arrived in Taipei. However, I knew the whole process would take a long time, so I’ve just been putting it off day after day, waiting until I have a great amount of time.

Spring break starts today. I finally have time.

First of all, before I dive into this, I must say, my life here is really very NORMAL. Which is great, because one of my main goals for coming to NTU for exchange was to become a normal college student. Or at least, as normal of a student as an exchange student can be. While culture shock isn’t a lie, I haven’t had an incredibly difficult time getting used to things here (granted, I don’t have to deal with administration like the four year foreign students do. When they leave the office, I can see the slump in their step and the fatigue in their eyes). It’s actually been incredibly easier getting adjusted in Taipei than when I first came to Madison (I knew people here before coming, my personality is much better suited for the general social climate here, and people are generally much more understanding if I don’t know how to do something, because I am not Taiwanese). I spend much too much time pointing out “how we do this in America” to my friends, which I’m sure may get bothersome after a while. Sorry guys. Taipei is not some “scary-mystical-orient”. It’s just… normal.

With that being said, there are some things that still catch me off guard after my first month here, or that I simply thing are interesting or curious. Every city has “strange” or “unique” quirks, I just notice the ones in Taipei because I am new! (America is weird too. I’ve tried to explain the Electoral College and sturgeon fishing to my classmates, and they look at me like I’ve turned into a particularly confounding algebra problem).

Disclaimer: I’ve been here for about six weeks, which means I’m TOTALLY NOT AN EXPERT AT ANYTHING. Take everything I say with a grain of salt. Taiwanese friends, if you think I’m wrong about something and want to call me out on it, do it.

Here we go:
My NTU-is-super-awesome-and-not-that-different-from-Wisconsin-but-some-things-are-still-different list:

1~~ People people everywhere
According to that-one-book-I-got-from-the-library-before-I-left, the population density in Taiwan is 1,605 people per square mile. In Taipei, that number shoots up to 25,186. Taiwan has one of the highest population densities in the world, behind Bangladesh.

In the USA? 79. Yep, you didn’t read that wrong. That’s two digits, in comparison to five.

There are SO many people in Taipei. Granted, this is probably the same as in Chicago or New York, but I’ve never lived in Chicago or New York. This is VERY new to me, and I feel like it affects nearly every facet of life here.

First, there’s the obvious. People live in big apartment complexes, instead of individual houses. Streets seem to be filled with people, both day and night. Standing on the bus or metro is the norm (the 80 prepared me for this), and more than anything, everything you do involves crowds and LINES.

Standing in line to see *Yuan Zai!!*. Because lines are what we do best.
Standing in line to see *Yuan Zai!!*. Because lines are what we do best.

Which brings me to my next point. When I came here, I wasn’t super accustomed to waiting in lines for things. There was a very large gap between my line-logic and the logic of my peers. You see, when a Taiwanese person sees a line as a food stall, they thing “wow, many people are buying that. It must be good. I should wait in line and buy that too”. In contrast, my thought process is “there are people there. I’m not going to spend 3 minutes waiting in line for the thing. I’ll go to the place that no one else is at”.

This was a bad idea. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. The Taiwanese are a highly-educated people. They know what they’re doing when they stand in line for dinner (or for anything, really). Don’t be the idiot who saves an extra two minutes, but ends up buying something completely inferior.

In addition to this, people here just kind of push you aside sometimes. It’s not rude, it’s just… normal. And this is only sometimes, most of the time a polite “excuse me” is still given. A girl I met who had studied abroad in Oklahoma said to me that she thought we are strange in the US, because if one other person is in the same aisle as us, about ten feet away, we will say “excuse me”, and wait for them to go around us. In her words, if people did that in Taiwan, their voice would get horse in about 15 minutes. There’s simply too many people. I have to say… she has a point.

2~~ Convenience

Taipei is crazy convenient. I feel like convenience is the buzzword of Taiwan. Taiwan has the highest number of convenience stores per square kilometer of anywhere in the world (Taiwan also has the highest Facebook usage rate. Pride). These stores aren’t the scary, bullet-proof-glass-between-you-and-the-teller-for-the-love-of-God-only-buy-packaged-goods places they sometimes are in the US. They’re really really nice. The closest equivalent
I can think of is Kwik Trip? These places not only sell normal convenience-store fair, but you can also go there
to buy real food (ok, it’s a microwave meal, but they heat it up for you!), scan and print documents, pay your bills, buy tickets to concerts, pay your school fees, and pick up things you buy online. It’s glorious. If that doesn’t satisfy you, the streets here are literally teeming with shops. In Madison a trip to Target is an all-day affair that happens maybe once every other month. Here I can stop and buy groceries on the way home. It’s great.

Also, Taipei’s public transportation is incredibly efficient. The longest I’ve ever had to wait for the MRT is 6 minutes (and when that happened everyone around me looked like they were being tortured by the “long” wait). The MRT is fairly cheap and very clean and will get you almost anywhere. If you can’t quite get to your location you can also take the bus, which has a convenient electronic sign telling you when your next bus is coming (at least at the stops near school). And if that isn’t enough, outside every metro stop you can rent bikes, which are free for the first half hour you use them. The best part? I can use my student ID card to do it all. Magical. I’ve heard that the public transit options outside of Taipei are really not nearly as convenient and you do need a scooter to get around, but 反正 I’m living in Taipei, so I’ll continue to sing the praises of the MRT. I like the Madison metro, but I’m still a bit jaded about the fact that sometimes buses stop halfway down their route and tell me to get out, or just don’t come at all.

3~~ Traffic
With that being said, it’s a good thing that Taipei has such good public transit, because the traffic here is terrifying. Granted, to put this in perspective, it is not Mumbai, it is not Jakarta, heck, it’s not even Beijing. However, since I am from a city where having more than three other cars on the same road as me makes me panic just a little, I’m still not very used to things here.

First of all, most people ride scooters or bikes, as traffic congestion and small alleys make driving an actual car a bit of a pain in the rear. However, these scooters and bikes ride on the same road as the killer-taxis-and-trucks. One of my first weeks here I saw a taxi driver completely take out a guy on a scooter near school. Luckily the guy was fine (helmets are mandatory and enforced), but the taxi driver was completely unfazed by the whole thing, even though he was completely in the wrong. Jerk. From what I’ve heard, this is a very normal occurrence. At least it seems that people seem to obey traffic lights- I don’t fear for my life when I cross the street. But I think I’ll still stick to my public transit.

Related to this- UGH the traffic pollution. When I first arrived the traffic pollution was really bad, so much that I felt like I couldn’t quite breathe in all the way. Most people around me wore face masks to filter some of the nastiness out before it hit their lungs. And it just sort of lingered for a while, as Taipei sits in a basin, so it takes a while for wind to pass through the city. Granted, now the cloud of grossness seems to have gone away, and you must keep in mind, this is not Manchester-cerca-the-industrial-revolution airpocolypse. But still, I enjoy the ability to safely get oxygen into my system.

4~~ Food
Taiwanese LOVE food. Food blogs, food television shows, food vacations, all kinds of food adventures are appreciated here. Whereas Americans usually travel to a place to see something (and then take a mandatory family picture with the thing to put on the family Christmas card), Taiwanese seem to enjoy traveling to eat regional specialties. Night markets are a homegrown love, and between your neighborhood market, cute cafes, mom and pop joints, and super-fancy-swanky restaurants around the city, you should never go hungry. And all my friends seem to have OPINIONS about food. Whereas when I eat food it usually falls into the categories of “bad”, “good”, or “fine”, it seems that everyone around me has a more sophisticated palate. A description of Taiwanese foods could take about 4 more blog posts to describe, for now just suffice to say, it’s yummy.

5~~ The People

Taiwanese people are just… nice. There’s no other word for it. I’ve lived in Wisconsin and even for a short stint, in Minnesota (aka the nicest place on earth south of Canada). I know Midwestern nice. People in Taipei seem just as kind as at home, even though they live in a jam-packed big city. Yes, not everyone is in a good mood all the time, but there seems to be a general level of congeniality among just about everyone. So many of my classmates have reached out to me and helped me out, even though they gain absolutely nothing for doing it. At first I thought this might be a fluke, but I’ve been assured by others that in fact, Taipei is just a place full of nice people. They’re almost as nice as Petra Krause, although no one else can ever quite reach this level. Midwesterners and Taiwanese should meet up more.

In addition to this, Taiwanese don’t try to rip me off! I LIKE THIS SO MUCH. My friend and I got somewhat ripped off by a taxi driver here once, but he wasn’t ripping us off because I was a foreigner, but because it was busy and he could play the market. Prices are usually clearly marked, but even when they aren’t, people don’t quote me different prices than what they give other people. Granted, I haven’t tried to go to any flea-market-type situations, or buy anything incredibly expensive. And if you actually know the seller or are a hardcore bargainer, you may still be able to change the price, I’m not sure. But for normal everyday things this is valid. Yay!!

6~~ Hair
Ok, this is not a very profound observation. But it seems like most people here have very nice hair. And there’s more hair salons than one could ever possibly use? I pass at least 4 on my two block walk to school. I’ve heard some of the really terrifying back-alley places are actually fronts for prostitution (sketch sketch sketch sketch sketch), but 99% of them are just normal hair salons. I actually went to one the other day, and it was super pleasant. For about $12 I got my hair cut (with the obligatory lecture about why I should wait less than one year before getting a haircut), a
free bottle of water, and a little mini tv to watch while I got my hair done. Sweet.

7~~ The doggy rich-poor gap
I’ve never seen a pack of stray dogs before I came to Taipei. I’ve also never seen a dog being pushed in a baby stroller, wearing pants and a hat. Both these things are completely normal here. Whereas people seem to be fairly evenly distributed among the wealth spectrum, there’s definitely a gap when it comes to dogs.

Apparently dog ownership is a somewhat new phenomenon here? It seems many owners have forgotten that their dogs are, indeed, dogs. Dogs are put in strollers, so their feet don’t get “tired” from touching the ground. They are carried around in baby-backpacks, so they can see the sights. They get taken to doggy-spas, where they get their nails painted in the newest colors. Sometimes I wonder what their little doggy brains think when they see their mangy, mutt cousins running around the streets. Lady and the tramp, anyone?

Can we take a moment to appreciate this pooch?
Can we take a moment to appreciate this pooch?

At least some people do care about the street dogs. I know NTU started a trap, neuter, and release program a few years ago to try to control the stray dog population on campus. I also know there are a lot of
economic incentives that have been put in place, trying to get people to adopt strays instead of buying purebreds. But still, I feel bad for the left-behind puppies. There has to be some sort of middle ground in the doggy-class-gap.

8~~ Voice Levels
Ok, first of all, let me say, my Taiwanese classmates DEFINITELY have the ability to speak LOUDLY. You should hear them at protests, when they are promoting their club at the student canteen, or when they see a friend on the street and get excited. But for some reason, when many of my classmates get to class, they “need” a microphone. I’ve  never seen a student use a microphone in class before, ever. Microphones are even used for classes with like, 20 students. I’m not used to this at all (as all my friends know, I have horrible inability to control the volume of my voice. I’m sorry world).

The flip side of this, is that in general people are fairly conscious of how loud they are being, especially in places like the subway and in restaurants. Any time I’ve ever been annoyed by someone being obnoxiously loud outside the window of my dorm room, it’s been a foreign student (come on foreign students, get your act together). There seems to be more of a mindset here of “if I do the thing and I annoy other people, I probably shouldn’t do the thing”. I like it a lot.

9~~ Etiquette and Safety

Taipei is crazy safe, especially considering how many people live here. Violent street crimes just don’t occur very often here. It’s SO NICE. This is not to say that Taiwan does not have crime. Things like domestic violence, identity theft, and tax fraud still happen. Also, apparently the Taiwanese mafia still has a pretty good grip on a lot of political and economic channels? But still, it is safe for women to walk at night here. I don’t have to be afraid whenwalking home after dark, and there are always so many people on the street that even if something were to happen, bystanders could help me.

It seems as though Taiwanese are also very… orderly. The Taiwanese government has put a lot of resources into “etiquette campaigns”. They give up the revenue they could earn in public places by selling ad space, and instead put up posters reminding citizens to recycle, help the elderly, pregnant, and disabled, and to kindly stick to the right to let others pass on your left. When you wait for the metro, they show you what to do in case of an earthquake, how to help the blind and elderly into the carriage, and politely remind you not to chew gum or eat or drink in the station. Some of my friends get annoyed by this, saying its’ a bit of a “nanny state”. This is valid: if you see these signs and commercials every day for 20 years, I could see how it could seem overbearing. On the other hand, they seem to work. People in Taipei queue instantly, give up their seats to those who need them, and keep the streets impressively clean.

One thing I really like here is the attention that seems to get paid to women’s safety. Buses are equipped
with “emergency buttons”, which you use in case of pickpocketing or sexual assault (not like this is super female specific, but it’s aimed at females). Bathroom stalls also have “emergency buttons”, which are apparently for if a bad earthquake happens and you need help, or if you experience sexual assault (or like… if you start to give birth? these are the only reasons I can think of that you would press the button). My favorite is that the MRT has a “waiting place for female passengers traveling alone at night”. The Metro isn’t scary or sketchy to start with, but I think the fact that this exists is awesome. Basically it’s just a normal waiting line, except that it’s monitored by security staff, and only for females. I can’t say anything about how effective these things actually are, or tell you how often they are actually used, but I like the fact that they exist. America should try this out.

10~~ Awkward.

Speaking of females…. *face turns red*. I considered not writing this one. This is how awkward I feel about the subject of… being female. *squirms in seat uncomfortably and hurriedly glances around premises*

Bluntly, it seems that females are comfortable with announcing when they’re on their period here. Ugh, there we go. I was always taught that this is NOT something you talk about with others. Especially in polite company. The first time one of my classmates turned to me and just said, like it was nothing, “oh, I’m on my period”, I literally had no idea how to respond. My jaw slacked, my eyes got wide, and I sat there like an idiot, not saying anything. I didn’t know this girl, I just happened to sit next to her in class. I figured maybe she was just freakishly blunt and open, but after this, a great number of people have shared this… um… information with me. Classmates, ladies in church, even a professor! It’s said in public, within earshot (or to) males, and I can’t handle it. I have no idea how to respond when they tell me this. Like… congratulations on your fertility, sorry  it causes you pain? This is one that will definitely take some time to get used to.

11~~ Taiwanese Identify

Oof, this is a biggie. Saved the best for last.

First of all, Taiwanese people are NOT from Thailand. They are from Taiwan. Taiwanese. Thai. Two different things. Two different countries. Glad we got that straight.

So, are people from Taiwan Taiwanese? Chinese? Both?

Good question.

The answer to this is really complicated, and laced with history and politics. Basically, Taiwanhas four main social groups. “Taiwanese”

have family that came from China, usually Fujian, before 1949, and make up about 82% of the population. Within this, there are Hoklos, 70%, and Hakka, who have a different language and culture, at 12%. 10% of those in Taiwan are “Mainlanders”, who come from families that immigrated to Taiwan with the KMT after they lost the Chinese Civil War. These three groups are all ethnically Han Chinese (I’m pretty sure. I’m still a little unclear on Hakka). 2% are indigenous people, who aren’t Han-Chinese, but rather ethnically related to people from other Pacific island nations. There’s also a good number of people who have immigrated to Taiwan recently to marry into Taiwanese families
(according to that-one-book-I-got-from-the-library in 2003 1 in 3 marriages was to a foreign bride). Each person also has a different conception of what it means to be an ethnicity. Is it your family background? The environment you grew up in? Both? You can also add to this the fact that the Japanese occupied Taiwan until the end of WWII, so many older people actually identify as Japanese, not Taiwanese or Chinese.

Long story short, the figures change year by year, but roughly 50% of people consider themselves to be both Taiwanese and Chinese, while the rest split between being either Chinese or Taiwanese. The figures differ against social group, occupation, family background, and everything-else-that-influences-self-perception. There are a lot of political and economic influences behind this (I actually get very excited about demographic analysis, but that’s just because I’m a nerd. I realize very few people reading this will probably care). University students have one of the highest rates of identifying as purely Taiwanese.

In addition to this, it seems to me that some people do really care about family background.

One of my professors took roll the first day, and asked one of my American classmates what her family background was. She responded that she didn’t know, probably German and Dutch? The professor scoffed, raised his eyebrows, and declared that HE knew his family background going back 3,000 years. I had only one conclusion from this.

My professor is obviously a Slytherin.

But really, when you think of this, it makes sense. Ancestor worship and respect to elders is very heavily ingrained in Taiwanese culture. And so knowing your great-great-great-great-uncle’s-brother’s-son-twice-removed is more important than in other cultures. I don’t think Taiwanese are rude to the “mudbloods” in their midst, I’ve never been treated badly here. And I’m not sure if everyone cares about their family history. However, I do think it is cool that people would be so proud of their family backgrounds.

At the same time, I do feel this creates kind of a strange dynamic for Taiwanese/Chinese-America or insert-your-hyphenated-country-here students. A separate category of “foreigner” exists for students of Chinese or Taiwanese ancestry, and in general the societal expectations on these students are much much higher than students of non-Taiwanese/Chinese ancestry. In the defense of Taiwanese society, due to immigration patterns caused by political instability in the early 20th century, most immigrant kids are 2nd or 3rd generation kids, and usually can still speak some Madarin or dialect. However, I still don’t think the whole thing is incredibly fair. It seems like a great amount of pressure to come to your “homeland” for the first time, and have everyone expect you to understand everything, or risk others looking down on you as a “banana” (somewhat offensive slang term for someone who is “yellow on the outside and white on the inside”. I did not make this up). And speaking dialect doesn’t mean you can speak Mandarin. But alas.

That is all I can think of for now! If you read this all the way to the end… THANK YOU. I’m interested to hear what you all think about this, especially those of you from Taiwan!