Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Love or Bread? (愛情還是麵包?) - Family Planning, Concepts of Happiness and "Materialism" in Asia

What would you choose? Love or Bread?” This is the question which parents in East Asia often ask their children when trying to convince them to marry the “right person”. It is a question that reveals some key elements of East Asian culture and mentality.

It is well known to Western observers of East Asian matters that in the countries of the Orient family planning plays a much more important role than in the West. When I was in Europe I seldom met people who began thinking about marriage when they were in their early twenties, let alone before they had found a suitable partner. In Asia, the way people think about their future is completely different, and I believe that if we really want to have a deep cultural exchange, we need understand these peculiarities.

As I have already explained in one of my earlier posts, in order to talk about and understand a culture, it is necessary to observe it. Observations are based on subjective experiences and therefore limited to particular cases, and every generalization derived from observations must always be regarded as hypotheses, not as an objective truth that applies to every single individual of a group. 

For example, if I say that Italian people are emotional, this may or may not be true in every single case, but if most Italians I've met are more emotional than most Germans I've met, I can form a judgment based on these observations, knowing that it doesn't necessarily apply to all Italians or Germans. Moreover, when talking with other people I can compare my observations with theirs and formulate a hypothesis, which is only a possibility and should not become a stereotype.

Family values are very heterogeneous, depending both on individual choices and local culture. For example, in Southern Italy - where I come from - family ties are still very strong. But even in places like Germany or Northern Italy, which have high divorce rates and where a large number of couples live together without getting married, you can still find a lot of people who have a traditional standpoint on family. In this post I will try to highlight some phenomena that I have observed in Europe and in Asia. In my view, the ideal of marriage and family has undergone a severe decline over the last decades in the West, whereas in Asia it is still very much alive, and this is mainly due to the difference between what I would call the individual norm of the West and the social standard of the East. 

Individual Norm versus Social Standard – Why in Asia Family Matters 

As I have said in one of my previous posts, Western analysts often use the antithesis between shame society and guilt society to explain a core difference between East and West. This distinction is extremely useful, but it is not sufficient because it doesn't take into account some of the major characteristics of the evolution of Western societies during the past three hundred years. 

I will argue that what makes Asia really different from the West, is that in the West the erosion of old values – especially those related to Christian thinking and society – has led people to question social conventions and to find in themselves the meaning and the purpose of their own lives, whereas Asian societies tend to keep collective values with which individuals identify themselves. Let's briefly examine this development. 

While in the Middle Ages the Christian religion permeated virtually all aspects of life in Europe, the beginning of the modern era witnessed a weakening of religious values. The Enlightenment openly challenged the supremacy of the Christian narrative, starting a secular discourse that has turned upside down the foundation of Western societies. 

Continue Reading

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Visiting Beijing Without Visa - New 72-hour Visa-free Transit Policy

Beijing at night
If you step over at Beijing Capital Airport and you have to wait long for your next flight, you might be wondering if you can leave the airport and take a walk around the city. This is the same question I asked myself a few days ago. I arrived in Beijing from Taipei at 4:00 p.m., and my next flight was at 1:30 p.m. of the following day. I really disliked the idea of idling around at the airport for so many hours, so I decided to try and find out if it was possible to go out without having a visa.

The answer is yes. And it is extremely easy. We often hear in the news that China has severe human rights issues, and we imagine that there must be strict control of personal freedom, police everywhere etc. I do not doubt that when you challenge the authorities you will sooner or later get into trouble. And, of course, websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Blogger are blocked (but, strangely enough, newspapers like Time or Der Spiegel can be accessed without any problem). But except for that, as a visitor, you don't notice any particular restriction. The one day visa is a good example of this.

I arrived at Terminal 3. After the body temperature control there are the passport control for Chinese nationals and foreigners, and the domestic and international transfers. On the left there is a “special line”. An officer was standing by the counter, apparently doing nothing. I walked up to him and explained my situation: “I will fly to Rome tomorrow at 1:30,” I said. “Is it possible to go out of the airport and visit the city?”
“Show me your ticket,” he said dryly. I gave it to him and he took a brief glance at it. Then he pointed to a desk: “Fill in the arrival card and come back.”

I did as I was told. I wrote my name, passport number, flight number, but left the purpose of the visit and the address in Beijing blank. I went back to the special line and handed the paper to the officer, who checked my passport, ticket and the arrival card. Then he put a huge stamp on my passport, writing by hand the date of my arrival (December 19th) and the day of my departure (December 20th) and gave me passport and ticket back. I was about to go to line up at the passport control, but he made a gesture indicating the exit behind his counter. “You can go,” he said.
This was the simplest bureaucratic procedure I'd ever seen. I got a one day visa for Beijing within just a couple of minutes. 

Don't forget that in order to get this visa, you need to have a ticket that shows you will depart within 24 hours and your luggage must have already been checked in (if your luggage arrives in Beijing with you, you won't be given the visa).

Outside of Dongzhimen Subway Station
I walked directly to the shuttle train and went to the arrival hall. From there I took the Airport Express which goes to Dongzhimen Subway Station, in Beijing's city centre.

I had a walk around Dongzhimen and then I took line 2, changed at Jianguo Station into line 1 and went to Tiananmen. Unfortunately, Beijing was terribly cold and I couldn't really enjoy my one day visit. After one year in Taiwan, which has a pleasant temperate weather all year, Beijing's piercing cold was too much for me.

The good news for all those who will step over in Beijing is that from January 2013 the immigration authorities at Beijing Capital Airport will be able to issue 72 hours visas.


On the 1st of January 2013 a new regulation came into effect. Travellers who step over at Beijing International Airport and are provided with a plane ticket for a flight that leaves Beijing after a maximum of 72 hours can easily obtain a 72 hours visa free entry, valid only within Beijing. 

The procedure is the same as I described above. Just fill in the arrival card, go to the special line left of the Immigration Inspection and give your passport, the ticket for the next flight and the arrival card to the officer. Within a few minutes you will get a stamp on your passport that will allow you a 72 hours stay in the PRC capital. This new policy is valid for citizens of the following 45 countries:

On the right you can see the China Immigration Inspection
and the desk where to fill the arrival cards. The special line
to get your 72 hours visa is on the left, where people
are queuing

-- Austria;
-- Belgium;
-- the Czech Republic;
-- Denmark;
-- Estonia;
-- Finland;
-- France;
-- Germany;
-- Greece;
-- Hungary;
-- Iceland;
-- Italy;
-- Latvia;
--the Republic of  Lithuania;
-- Luxembourg;
-- the Republic of Malta;
-- the Netherlands;
-- Poland;
-- Portugal;
-- the Republic of Slovakia;
--the Republic of Slovenia;
-- Spain;
-- Sweden;
-- Swiss;
-- Russia;
-- the United Kingdom of Britain;
-- the Republic of Ireland;
-- Cyprus;
-- Bulgaria;
-- Romania;
-- Ukraine;
-- the United States of America;
-- Canada;
-- Brazil;
-- Mexico
-- Argentina;
-- Chile;
-- Australia;
-- New Zealand;
-- the Republic of Korea;
-- Japan;
-- Singapore;
-- Brunei;
-- the United Arab Emirates;
-- Qatar.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

To Beijing

And so I am going back to Europe after a long year spent in Taiwan. Hopefully I'll come back to Asia as soon as possible.

I will fly to Beijing and then to Rome. I have a long stepover in Beijing. Hopefully I can leave the airport and take a walk around. It would be great if I could, though I'm not sure if this 24-hours visa exempt permit really works.

One Year Ago

I was at Taoyuan International Airport. My ex-girlfriend called me. I was surprised. We hadn't been talking with each other for a week. She'd refused to reply to my sms, to pick up the phone when I called her. Then, one day before my departure, she suddenly wrote me a long e-mail, at about 3 a.m.

I was happy that she'd called me, although she hadn't come to the airport to see me off. I was so silly. I'd gone to Taiwan for her, and even if she wasn't with me at the moment of my departure, I was still grateful that she was talking to me.

"We can be friends," she said.

"Why do you call me when I'm leaving to tell me that you just want to be friends with me?" I said. "Yesterday night I was tossing and turning in my bed until I received your e-mail, and then I was so happy, because I thought that we could solve our problems."

"We can be friends. This time I mean it."

"You always make one step forward and then one step back. You drive me crazy."

"I didn't call you to quarrel."

"All right, have a nice Christmas." I hung up the phone.

Then I regretted. The fear of losing her forever, of not hearing her voice any more was too powerful. I called her again. "Okay, listen. Fine, let's not quarrel."

"What time are you leaving?" she asked.

"In one hour." Until the last moment, I'd hoped she would come to the airport. Just like I'd done when she was in Europe. But she wasn't there.

I was checking in and talking with her at the same time. They told me my case was too heavy.
"I'll call you back," I said. "I must throw away some stuff."

Two boxes of tea and a package of pineapple cakes ended in the garbage bin.

I called her again, checked in, went to the security control. "Wait, I'll call you again in a few minutes."

It's hard to accept the loss of a person you love. But love sometimes is similar to an illness. Hearing her voice gave me a feeling of relief and peace, like a painkiller does to a sick person's body. It's just an illusion, a temporary, addictive palliation, before the pain resumes.

We kept on talking until the flight attendant on the plane asked me to switch off the phone. "Good-bye. Have a nice Christmas," I said.

When silence fell, it was as though the world around me had become empty.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Trip to Tainan

Tainan Train Station
Last weekend I made a one day trip to the Southern Taiwanese city of Tainan (Chinese: 臺南, pinyin: Táinán), the former capital and one of the most important centres of culture, history and architecture of the island.

This blog post is also intended as a special thanks to Grace, a Taiwanese friend who was so kind to show me around, and very patient, too. Since Tainan doesn't have an extensive public transport net, Grace picked me up at the train station with her motorcycle, a vehicle that, along with cars, is regarded by locals as indispensable for living comfortably in Tainan. To my great embarrassment, though, I had to admit that I cannot ride a motorcycle. That's why we had to take buses to move around. It was the first time she ever took a bus in Tainan. And now I know why: buses come more or less every half an hour, and service stops early in the evening. No wonder Tainanese snob public transport. Grace had no idea about the routes and about where the bus stop was. We went to the visitors information centre right inside the train station. Anyway, I liked the fact that she also became a tourist like me. 

From Taipei to Tainan

Street in Tainan
There are many trains and buses that go from Taipei to Tainan, but the fastest way to get there - around 2 hours - is the 高鐵, the High Speed Rail (HSR). A single ticket costs 2300 Taiwan Dollars (around 62 Euros). Quite expensive, given that you travel only for about one hour and forty five minutes and the train itself is not as comfortable as, for example, German ICEs.

One curious thing about the HSR to Tainan is that Tainan Main Station and the HSR Station are not located in the same place, and not even close to each other. When I arrived and got out of the station, all around me there was a huge green area, trees and a highway, but nothing that resembled a city. I wondered if that could possibly be Tainan, because it rather looked like countryside. Then my friend called me and I found out that I had to take another train to go to Tainan proper. A very nice guy from the tourist information centre took the trouble to accompany me to Shalun Station (Chinese: 沙崙車站; pinyin: Shālún chēzhàn), which is right in front of the High Speed Rail Station. He also helped me buy the ticket and we had a short talk. In case he ever stumbles upon this blog, I'd like to thank him for his kindness. And for the nice talk in Mandarin, which is always a great thing.

It took me less than two hours to get to Tainan HSR Station from Taipei, but almost one hour to go from Shalun to Tainan Train Station. The distance itself is not big (see map below), but I had to wait for about 25 minutes before the train left. The journey became therefore considerably longer than I had thought. 

Tainan Train Station is a very nice Japanese colonial building. A station had already been built in 1900, but in the following years it proved insufficient. It was eventually demolished and in the 1930's the current building was constructed. From the station we took a bus to the oldest part of Tainan, Anping District (Chinese: 安平區; pinyin: Ānpíng Qū) . 

Anping and Fort Zeelandia

There are two main bus lines that go through the historic centre of Tainan: number 88, which is red, and number 99, which is blue (see map). We took the blue one, which goes directly from the train station to Anping.

Originally an island separated from Tainan mainland, in the 17th century Anping was chosen by the Dutch East Indian Company as a strategic location for the construction of a fortress, known as Fort Zeelandia in English and Anping Castle (安平古堡) in Chinese. Taiwan was particularly important for the Dutch due to its favourable position. It served as a base for trade between the headquarters of the Dutch maritime empire in the East Indies (Indonesia), South China and Japan. The Dutch soon discovered that Taiwan also had an immense agricultural potential, which they readily exploited. Though Dutch rule in Taiwan lasted only from 1624 to 1634, it had a huge economic impact on the island. 

When the Manchu Qing conquerors overthrew the Ming Dynasty in mainland China, a Fujianese general named Zheng Chenggong, a Ming loyalist, retreated to Taiwan in the hope of reorganizing his forces and reconquering the mainland (an interesting historic parallel to Chiang Kai-shek). The last Ming Emperor had bestowed upon him the title 國姓爺 (Guóxìng Yé: Lord of the Imperial Surname). It is from the erroneous European pronunciation of this title that Westerners derived the name Koxinga, under which Zheng Chenggong is known in Western historiography. 

Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga)

Museum opposite the fort
In 1661 he attacked the Dutch possessions, and after a siege that lasted several months, on February 1662 the Dutch surrendered, giving up their short-lived colonial rule. Zheng Chenggong and his son Zheng Jing kept Taiwan as a Ming stronghold and governed it independently from mainland China. Until the Qing invaded the island in 1681 and retook it in 1684. 

The Fort Zeelandia we see nowadays doesn't have much in common with the fortress one would have seen four hundred years ago. During the Qing reign, the whole complex was abandoned and the only original part which has survived until now is the southern wall. The rest was rebuilt by the Japanese after they conquered Taiwan in 1895. First they built a Japanese-style custom house, then tore it down and built another one in Western style. [note] There are two museums about the history of the fort, with a lot of 18th century maps, artefacts and reconstructions of the original buildings.  

A typical alley close to Fort Zeelandia

Old Western-style house
Fort Zeelandia Tower
A house. Not in a very good shape

All around Fort Zeelandia there are old streets full of food stands, just like in night markets. In the narrow alleys we discovered some interesting Western-style houses (though I think they were built under the Japanese). There are also several temples, the biggest and most famous of which is the Mazu temple. Mazu (Chinese: 媽祖; pinyin: Māzǔ) is a Sea Goddess that began to be worshipped during the Ming Dynasty. [note] The origin of the strong Mazu cult in Taiwan dates back to the 18th century, when large numbers of immigrants from Southern China came to Taiwan. The journey across the strait was perilous, the ships often overloaded, pilots and sailors who earnt money through the transport of people didn't care much for the lives of their passengers and frequently let them disembark in areas that were too far away from the shore so that they drowned (a practice known as "feeding the fish"). [Davison Chapter 4]. Since the risk of death was so high, upon their arrival on the island the migrants established temples to thank Mazu's for the safe journey.

Mazu Temple Gate. Unfortunately, there was a huge tent right in front of the Temple
so I couldn't take a picture of the facade.

Main altar of the temple

After visiting Anping we took the bus and went to Shennong Street. It is an old narrow alley, one of the best preserved and most traditional in Tainan. There are some workshops, cafe's and restaurants. After a few minutes' walk you reach  a temple, called Yuwang, which marks the end of the street. One of the things I've always found interesting in Taiwan is that some ground floor flats are separated from the street only by a grating or a big window, so that it's possible to look inside. It's almost as if people lived on the street. This lack of privacy doesn't seem to bother them, and it is useful to foreign visitors like me, because I can peep inside and see how such flats look like. In this way I found out that many people set up gigantic Buddhist shrines in the living rooms of their homes, occupying much of the already scarce space. Somehow creepy. In Shennong Street there were some of the biggest "home shrines" I've ever seen. 

Shennong Street

Koxinga Shrine

Koxinga Shrine
As I mentioned before, Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga) defeated the Dutch in 1662 and became the ruler of Taiwan. His reign was very short, though, for he died only fourteen months after seizing power. In 1663 his son and successor, Zheng Jing, had a shrine built for his father, who immediately after his death became a folk hero and a mythological figure (read my previous post about temples and religion in Taiwan). The shrine underwent many changes that reflect the history of the island. Under the Japanese it was loosely incorporated into the Shinto-cult, Japan's imperial religion. The Guomindang (KMT) also sought to use the shrine to promote their own political agenda. They renovated it after 1945 and transformed it into a symbol of Chinese national heroism. When Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, the parallel between him and Koxinga became evident. In the early 1959's, a plaque was fixed over the main altar, with a slogan written by Chiang Kai-shek himself: 振興中華 (pinyin Zhènxīng Zhōnghuá: Revitalize China), on a plaque that was fixed over the main altar. The KMT used the shrine to suggest to the Taiwanese people that their island had already served as a national hero's base from which to reunite China. In this respect, the historical parallel proved to be more accurate than the KMT may have wished, for Chiang Kai-shek also failed to regain the mainland. 


Since it was already quite late and we were afraid of missing the last bus, I suggested to go back to Tainan Station and have dinner at a department store nearby. We went to Shin Kong Mitsukoshi (新光三越). Our dinner was nice, but we had to eat quickly, so we couldn't really enjoy it that much. 
When we arrived at the station, I said good-bye to Grace and went to the platform. The departure of the train to Shalun was scheduled for 21:45 and that of the High Speed Train to Taipei for 22:25. A little bit tight, but it would be enough. However, after a quarter to nine for some reason the train to Shalun was still not moving, and I became increasingly nervous. I started thinking about what I could do if I missed that train, which was the last one I could take. We arrived at 22:15, I ran to the High Speed Rail Station and fortunately I made it. But I still don't see the point of having two different stations for high speed and normal trains. 


-Gary Marvin Davison: A Short History of Taiwan: The Case for Independence

-Mark Harrison: Legitimacy, Meaning and Knowledge in the Making of Taiwanese Identity

-Lonely Planet Taiwan Travel Guide (Country Travel Guide)


Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Social Mask and Face in Asia

In 1894, the American missionary Arthur Henderson Smith (1845-1932) published Chinese Characteristics, a book which was to become very influential, for it was not only one of the most popular works about China written by a Western author, but it also inspired the father of contemporary Chinese literature, Lu Xun. 

Smith, who spent 54 years in China, shaped the way Western audiences perceived the Middle Kingdom in the late 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. Today he is probably best remembered for his book China in Convulsion (1901), one of the most interesting contemporary sources on the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, which Smith survived miraculously. [note]

In Chinese Characteristics, Smith introduced to Western audiences the peculiar meaning that the word "face" has in Chinese society: 

In a great range of cases constantly occurring in Chinese social relations, " face" is not synonymous with honour, much less with reputation, but it is a technical expression to indicate a certain relation instinctively perceived by a Chinese, but almost incomprehensible to the poor foreigner.

Smith gives a few examples of what Chinese mean by the word face, such as the following one:

To decline a gift especially prepared, such as a tablet, or even a simple pair of scrolls, might give great offence, unless it is done while the matter is still in embryo—and this for obvious reasons is generally impossible. In a case within our knowledge, a few Chinese resolved to present a foreigner with a token of this sort, which the foreigner resolved not to accept. When a single step has been taken in the affair, it is too late according to Chinese ideas to decline, for the will of the many must be respected. So the inscription was bought, and arrangements were made to present it, when, to the dismay of the donors, the obstinate foreigner, who had not enjoyed the advantage of an education of which a book of propriety is a part, absolutely refused to receive it. Here was a case of the irresistible projectile, impinging against an invulnerable target. The present could not go back, and the crass foreigner would not receive it. In this crisis the middle-man, through whom the business had thus far proceeded, consented to take charge of it, with the concurrence of both parties, the would-be givers, and the would-not-be receiver. After a certain lapse of time, the obnoxious present was surreptitiously sent to the premises of the (theoretically unwilling) recipient, and thrust into an unused drawer. Thus the donors had sent it—somewhere, while the recipient (theoretically) never received it, and what is of chief importance, the "face" of both parties was saved!

Nowadays, we have no opportunity to verify Smith's theories of "face", given that he lived and worked more than a century ago, in a feudal, imperial China that doesn't exist any longer. 

A more scientific attempt at understanding East Asian cultural patterns was made by American anthropologist Ruth Benedict in her classic book, The Chrysanthemum and The Sword (1946). One of Benedict's most famous theories revolves around the contrast between guilt societies (West) and shame societies (East Asia). While in guilt societies the individual acts according to abstract moral standards, in shame societies the category of shame exerts control over a person's behaviour. We can understand shame as

"a reaction to other people's criticism, an acute personal chagrin at our failure to live up to our obligations and the expectations others have of us. In true shame oriented cultures, every person has a place and a duty in the society. One maintains self-respect, not by choosing what is good rather than what is evil, but by choosing what is expected of one." [note

Generally speaking, life planning and social interaction in Asia are much more influenced by the expectation, or the pressure, of society, than it is the case in Western countries.   

In one of my previous posts I explained that, as far as I can judge, in Taiwan  the understanding of ideas like politeness or respect is not the same as I learnt in Europe. The notions of "social mask" and "face" can perhaps help make these differences clear. 

One of the things that I really love about Taiwan is that whenever I talk with strangers they will be very nice. I know exactly that whatever I do, there will be a certain level of benevolent tolerance towards me. For example, a few days ago I went to Tainan. A friend's friend, whom I met for the first time that day, showed me around. I unfortunately caused her some trouble, for which I apologized. But I knew she wouldn't get angry. She couldn't have got angry with a stranger. I'm not saying that she wasn't nice or that she was just pretending to be nice, in fact she was extremely friendly. I'm saying that even if she weren't a friendly person, she wouldn't have shown anger to me. Paraphrasing Ruth Benedict, I may say that life in Asia is like a chess game. There are certain rules to follow, which make it easier for people to foresee how others will react. In the case I mentioned above, I could predict that a stranger would always be nice to me, no matter what. This is what I would call a "social mask", a role played in order to interact with other individuals, which doesn't necessarily represent a person's true self. This social mask can also be understood as a wall: strangers will keep a distance from each other through a barrier of politeness.

This seems to me to be consistent with a number of phenomena I've observed in Taiwan, and I'd like to name two of them. The first is the common phenomenon of people speaking in a high-pitch voice, the second is make-up.

If you come to Taiwan, you will for sure hear a lot of people in shops who talk in an almost unnatural high-pitch voice. There are grown-up girls who pretend to have baby voices. Surprisingly enough, the reason is that a high-pitch voice is considered polite. No one expects shop assistants to be natural. They should act and follow precise requirements of politeness, even if they make male shop assistant sound extremely effeminate, and women sound like little girls. As a Westerner, I had never in my whole life associated high-pitch voice with politeness. That's probably the reason why to me this is rather annoying.

The second phenomenon is make-up, which I believe to be one of the most astonishing things I've seen in Taiwan. Girls change their whole appearance through make-up, making their eyes bigger with the aid of contact lenses, using long fake eyelashes, face powder and all sorts of cosmetics. The result is astounding. Watch the following video to see the full extent to which make-up can transform normal girls into beauties.

If you think that this girl is just an exception, you are wrong. Extreme make-up is a very common sight in Taiwan, and just as the high-pitch voice, it is considered a sign of politeness. In fact, bosses might ask their female employees to put make-up on, because if they don't, they'll be considered rude. 

It's obvious that make-up is not just an Asian phenomenon. But I would argue that most Westerners would consider so heavy make-up as highly unnatural, and in the end, as a superfluous mask that hides the true self of a person. Instead of accepting themselves as they are, girls hide themselves behind this mask, even though sooner or later their friends or boyfriends will find out how they really look like. This is, again, one of the most important differences I've observed between Westerners and Asians. When I was in Europe, I had the impression that people value "honesty", in the sense of being one's true self in social interactions, even if that means confrontation with others, while in Asia rules of politeness often regulate social interaction between people who don't know each other. As I mentioned previously, these rules do not apply when people have a closer relationship. It is absolutely normal for friends to quarrel, to get angry with or criticize each other, as well as for bosses to shout at their employees mercilessly.   

One should therefore not mistake friendliness for goodness. The point I want to make is that, as far as I can judge, in Asia social standards are extremely important in defining what an individual should do and how he or she should live. And that the pursuit of such goals is not necessarily related to the general moral directives I learnt in the West. 

Let me tell you a story to explain this point. Imagine the following situation: a 28-year-old girl believes that she should get married before she gets 30, being this what her parents and society expect. She has had the same boyfriend for a long time, but she doesn't really love him as much as he loves her. She doesn't break up, however, because she is afraid that she wouldn't be able to find another guy to get married with. So she keeps the "old" one, but at the same time she looks for a "better" one: a guy who has more money, has a flat and a car and is more handsome. If a girl could get married with such a man by the age of 28, then the expectations of society would be completely fulfilled and she could deem herself lucky. And if she finds such a man, she might break up with her old boyfriend in favour of the new one. Because the point of marriage is, in the eyes of society, not to find true love, but to have a comfortable and stable life. Such stories are not uncommon, as far as I know.

Imagine now another situation: a girl wants to find a boyfriend, because, according to the expectations of society, a girl who hasn't got a boyfriend is considered to be a "loser". That's why parents in Asia might make their daughter feel ashamed of being single and encourage her to find a boyfriend, something that I never heard of in Europe. So, this imaginary girl we're talking about finds two guys, but she's not so sure which is the better one. Again, social criteria are here very important. She will be very nice to them, pretend to be very soft and sweet - a behaviour which does not necessarily reflect her true self. After choosing one of the two guys, she will probably not confront the one she wants to reject, but stop contacting him and find excuses not to meet him. Such as: "I'm busy", "I have to work," or something like this. Although I personally consider this sort of indirect rejections way more painful and disrespectful than an honest and direct talk - if a girl tells me she loves someone else, I would still respect her and I'd appreciate she told me the truth - in Taiwan avoiding confrontation is easier for the girl, and somehow it saves both persons' face, though it won't prevent the guy to suffer.  

Indeed, when you meet someone new, you can often hardly tell if they want to be good friends with you. Because they will mostly be nice and friendly. After a while, however, they might suddenly be "very busy".

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Living with a Taiwanese Host Family

I remember watching a documentary on German TV about exchange students in China a few years ago. It was funny to see how those young Germans tried to cope with an entirely new cultural environment.

German students lived with Chinese host families and went to school with Chinese teenagers. As it often happens in Western media, the world of the East was represented according to stereotypes: the Chinese families appeared authoritarian, while schoolchildren, who early in the morning had to go out on a huge courtyard to sing together the national anthem, were depicted as if they were but a brainwashed mass. 

The relationship between the German students and their host families was particularly tense. The European guests could not understand why they were asked to do things that they thought were restricting their privacy and freedom. For example, why couldn't they go out whenever they wanted? Why did they have to follow certain strange rules that appeared to them invasive? They seemed to believe that they had certain rights, and they wanted to enjoy them no matter what their hosts thought. 

On this post I'd like to compare these stereotypes (if they are such) with my own experience, for I lived with a Taiwanese host family for quite a long time. 

Before I came to Taiwan, I was very worried about how I should behave with them. Would I be allowed to go out in the evening and maybe stay out at night with friends? Would I enjoy the same level of privacy and freedom I am used to?

I asked a few Chinese friends for advice, and their replies surprised me. One of them - a good friend of mine, a passionate, very nice and clever guy - said that I should simply ask them before doing something. "We try to tolerate," he said. "If someone asks to do something, we won't say no." That was to me a startling new concept.

When I arrived in Taiwan, I received an extraordinarily warm welcome. And so I began to explore the life in an average Taiwanese family from the inside. 

First of all, my host parents were extremely nice to me. I had already prepared myself for the challenge of a homestay in a foreign country, and I was trying to be as open-minded as I could and to be careful not say or do anything that might offend or hurt them.

Contrary to the common stereotype, my Taiwanese host family were not authoritarian at all. I dare say that there were no particular rules I had to follow. I'd already lived with host families before: twice in England and three times in Germany. I Taiwan I even felt much freer. For instance, I once lived with a host family in Frankfurt where, shortly after my arrival, I was told the rules of the house. Let me tell you an anecdote about this.

One day I went to a supermarket to buy food. I came back home, opened the fridge, and suddenly my German host mother said in an almost alarmed tone that I couldn't use the fridge. "Why not?" I asked. "There's no space," she answered. I had a look at what was inside the fridge: every item had been placed in perfect order, neatly one next to the other. There was plenty of space left, though. What the woman meant was that if I'd put my own things there, the wonderful order she had created would have been ruined. However, I insisted. Only after pointing out that I'd paid money to live in that house and I couldn't possibly go out and eat in a restaurant three times a day did she agree to let me put my stuff inside. Among other rules, I had to pay to use the washing machine. 
Don't misunderstand me. That woman was really nice, and I remember a couple of mornings and afternoons that we spent together, talking about history, politics and life. She was already over 60 years old. She had beautiful eyes of an intense blue colour, white curly hair and a round face with red cheeks that looked like two apples. She showed me her family albums, told me a lot of interesting things about her parents and ancestors, about the hard life of her generation shortly after the end of WWII, of the "boom" years of the young West German Republic which coincided with the years of her adolescence, as well as about her memories of the fall of the Berlin wall and the Reunification of Germany. 
Okay, I'm digressing now. What I wanted to say was simply that in my Taiwanese host family things were very different.

My Taiwanese parents spoiled me. They washed my clothes and cleaned my room - for free. When I protested, they smiled and said: "We treat you like one of our children." I was very moved. They told me I should feel like their home were my home. Sure, I paid a rent to stay there. But when I handed them the money they looked embarrassed, which made me feel relieved, in some way.

However, there were also a few things that troubled me. As I've already mentioned above, there is a stereotype in the West that in the Far East families are authoritarian. I think I understand where this misconception comes from. 

With my host parents, I couldn't behave like I would have with Western people. I couldn't say "no" directly. For example. When they cooked they often asked me to join them. And sometimes I wasn't hungry or I had to go out, or I just didn't feel like eating at that moment. This was a huge problem, because I had to live with them day after day and such situations occurred often. Upon my arrival I already knew enough about Asia to realize that a straightforward rejection would have been considered rude. But if you think that they would force me into doing something, you're wrong. If you find the right way to handle them, then you have absolute freedom to do what you want.

It took me some time to understand that. If you don't want to be disrespectful, you can have your way - indirectly. You just say that you are busy with something, for instance with work, or that you have to go out with a friend. In this way, you don't say no, and no one will consider you rude, but the outcome is the same as if you'd rejected. The interesting thing is that, as far as I have observed, the need to be nice and to avoid direct rejections is a surface phenomenon; as long as you know how to reject indirectly, you can have your way most of the times and no one will bother you or insist too much.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Making Friends in Taiwan

If you're not just a backpacker or on a business trip, but you plan to stay in Taiwan for a long time, one of the questions that you'll inevitable ask yourself is: how can I make friends? 

I guess almost every expat blog has at least one post about this subject, so perhaps the world doesn't need another guy to discuss the issue. But since I lived here for a year and have my own personal experience and thoughts, why not share them with others who live here, or are about to come, or are just curious? 

First of all, the obvious thing is that, as a foreigner, you are different from the rest of the people here. Which means that your way of socializing cannot possibly be the same as local people's. That I believe to be the reason why my experiences with friendship have had many highs and lows.

How Do Locals Make Friends?

Huge topic. Sure, I am a foreigner and definitely don't have enough knowledge to answer such a complex question. But I'll just make a simplistic supposition based on things I've heard. I'll argue that the life of many  Taiwanese basically revolves around three social hubs: family, school and work. 

Traditionally, the role of the family in Taiwan has been greater than in most parts of the West (although I will explain in another post why this isn't that simple). But let's say, if we want to generalize, that the pressure from the family and the interdependence between family members is stronger than in Western countries. Given this fact, it's not hard to understand why many Taiwanese won't go through a period of "Sturm und Drang", a phase of rebellion against family and authority, at least not to the same extent which I have witnessed in Europe. I'd say that Taiwanese teenagers tend to be, at least on the surface, more well-behaved and spend more time with their family than their average Western counterparts.

Another huge difference between West and East (generalizing) is the amount of time Asians spend both in school, cram school and - later - university. I would say that from the moment children start going to school, this becomes the centre of their lives. As a result, most Taiwanese meet their best friends when they are students. Though after graduation these friendships are often not nurtured and ex classmates may see each other only sporadically, at least everyone seems to have a group - however small - of classmates and fellow students that will be close to them for the rest of their lives. Most of the times, Taiwanese don't seem to socialize outside of school/ university when they are young. This seems to me not the case in Western countries. 

The third hub is the workplace. Taiwanese work a lot, just like Koreans and Japanese, and they barely have free time to go out and meet new friends. People usually socialize with their coworkers. And although they like to go out in their spare time, it's hard to make new friends when you work hard almost every day or have to work overtime (remember, there are no trade unions in Taiwan and saying "no" to your boss when he asks you to work overtime is extremely rare). 

These three hubs of Taiwanese social life tend to be pretty tight. In general, although Taiwanese are friendly when you meet them and probably would like to make friends, they don't seem to have enough time or even be familiar with the concept of investing time in friendships. They probably won't often invite you to join their friends and won't try to spend much time with you. That doesn't mean they don't like you, it's just that they have got used to this kind of life inside the three hubs I mentioned before. However, for an expat who comes here willing to make a lot of good friends, this might be very disappointing. Some foreigners I've met even give up trying to meet local friends after a while. So, bear in mind that if you want to make friends in Taiwan, the fact that Taiwanese have these three tight social hubs and are very busy at work will be a hindrance. 

Now I'd like to talk about what I consider to be the four most effective ways of socializing in Taiwan.

Find A Boyfriend / Girlfriend

This title may look funny, but yes, actually some people look for a relationship because it makes their social life a lot easier. Your Taiwanese girlfriend/boyfriend will help in your daily life. You can meet your girlfriend's / boyfriend's friends and hang out with them. You won't feel lonely. However, before starting a relationship, think it over. Don't underestimate the cultural difference and try to understand if your partner is in a relationship because he/she wants to get married. You don't want to end up breaking your partner's heart or getting married with someone you don't love. (you can also check my posts about family and marriage in Chinese culture)

While being introduced to new friends by your partner or - if you already have friends you met in your home country - by the ones you already have, is probably the soundest way to make friends, if you come to Taiwan without knowing anyone, you will have to find other ways to meet people, which can be tricky at times. 

Meeting People Online

With the rise of the internet, now everyone has endless opportunities to meet new people. Since I am too shy to talk to strangers and don't have the gift of small talk, I assume that if I'd come to Taiwan in the 1980's I would have probably ended up feeling lonely and homesick. Fortunately, with the hundreds of social platforms at my disposal, I had the chance to meet quite a lot of people. 

However, there is a huge problem with this method. I said in my previous posts that overall my experience in Taiwan was relatively disappointing. I think that one of the reasons is that some of the people I met online were rather "strange".

That's not just a Taiwanese phenomenon. People who use such platforms tend to see them as a sort of tool for finding a boyfriend or girlfriend. In fact, I heard from Asian people who live in Europe that they had bad experiences with language exchange etc. Though it is natural for everyone to look for love as much as it is natural to look for other things like a job, happiness and so forth, I am not the kind of person who starts a relationship quickly. I need time to know a person deeply and to see if we match. This slow process is particularly difficult in Asia, as I will explain in another post. 

Now, what you can do is to try and find friends of the same sex. In this case everything should be fine. But when it comes to friends of the other sex, things get more complicated.

As the commonplace goes, there is a segment of the male expat population who are attracted by local girls, and a segment of the local female population who are attracted by foreign (euphemism for Western and mostly white Western) guys. And when I say attracted, I mean physically attracted, because, as far as I can judge, deep mutual understanding is limited. 
Do I agree with this commonplace? Is it a myth? Is it reality? As far as I could observe, this isn't just a myth. 

There are a lot of pretty and highly attractive Taiwanese girls out there, so it's natural that foreign guys like them. On the other hand, it seems that there are Taiwanese girls who feel fascinated by Westerners: they consider them handsome, easy-going and perhaps associate them with certain misconceptions about the "West".

Anyway, there are two obvious barriers to overcome: first, every individual is different; second, the cultural background is different. 
As to the first point: when you meet new people, you won't necessarily like them and vice-versa. That's pretty normal. But if you have a positive prejudice about someone due to nationality or appearance, maybe you might convince yourself that you match although you don't.

I want people to see me as a person with my own character and opinions. I am not just "a foreigner". At the same time, a Taiwanese girl is more than just "a Taiwanese". That is why I mistrust people who are looking for a partner or friendship only on the basis of nationality or appearance. We must "connect" as individuals, that is the most important thing.

As to the second point: the depth of cultural difference should never be underestimated. I have seen Western-Taiwanese couples here who got together for the wrong reasons and far too quickly. For instance, I once met a girl who was after a foreign boyfriend. She seemed extremely nice and friendly at the beginning, and I was very impressed by her - both because she was beautiful and because she was extremely nice. But, as I said in my previous post, due to the attitude of friendliness and politeness towards strangers which is considered normal in Taiwan, some Westerners might not realize this doesn't necessarily reveal how a person's character really is. When I was in Europe, I seldom encountered a gentleness and friendliness similar to that of Taiwanese. So, when I came here, I assumed that this behaviour reflected the real personality of the people I met. While that can, of course, be the case, it is not always true. The girl I mentioned before, for instance, turned out to be - by my standards - pretty rude and moody. 

The purpose of this post is not to stereotype, but to show one thing: due to the different environment and culture, it is hard for a newcomer to predict or estimate certain situations in the host country. For example, in Europe I can usually recognize more easily which people I will get along with and which I won't. In Taiwan, due to the different social attitude locals have towards each other, this is much harder.      

So, when you look for friendship or language exchange online, you will likely have to deal with several people who "like" foreigners. If you want to have some fun in Taiwan, such people will probably make you happy. If you're looking for a real friendship or a real relationship, you'd better be careful. 

Going to Nightclubs

Nightclubs in Taiwan - I guess I'll write about this on another post. Yes, it will be full of stereotypes and commonplaces, I don't mind. Let's forget about love and friendship. Let's forget about idealism. Imagine you just want to have fun on a Saturday night. Clubbing in Taiwan will be a great experience.

Let me write from a male perspective. If you are a European who's always dreamt of chatting up girls in clubs, in Taiwan you will find a lot of amazingly beautiful girls, many of whom are eager to talk to foreigners. What am I basing my judgement on? Well, on what I saw, which is related to that tiny, small piece of Taiwan, to that parallel world which is Taiwanese nightlife. Places where people, for all possible reasons, seem to be looking for something: "release their emotions", find friends, have a one night stand, or just dance and have a drink. A portion - small or big, no one can tell, but nevertheless very conspicuous - of these millions of girls who live in Taiwan, has become an attraction of its own to foreign visitors. 

Before coming to Taiwan, I didn't believe this was such a big phenomenon. But now, I do. Can't you find the same phenomenon in nightclubs of other countries? Sure you can. Have I ever seen the same phenomenon in the same frequency as I did in Taiwan? My answer is no. 

Are nightclubs good places to meet friends, or even a girlfriend/boyfriend? Some people say yes, others say no. As far as I am concerned, I think that especially the idea of finding love in a nightclub isn't a good one. Anyway, if some of you ever have the chance to come to Taiwan, I advise you to go and find out. 

Culture Shock - From Honeymoon to Mastery (Part II)

Concepts of Politeness

A few years ago I went to a bookstore in Italy to buy a book for a lecture at my university, in Trieste, a city close to Venice. The shop had two counters, one for normal books, which was to the right of the entrance, and the other only for university books, which was at the end of the store, opposite the main door. As usual, there were many people in the queue. We were all students except for a man who looked very old (Trieste is known for having one of the oldest population in Italy). He was very tall, haggard and hunchbacked, and he wore a dark-green suit. For some reason, he kept on smiling all the time.

The man told the shop assistant - a young, bold guy who looked like an emaciated version of Mike Stipe - what book he was looking for. The shop assistant shot at him a furious glance, "You are in the wrong section," he said angrily, "this counter is only for students. Don't you see?" and he pointed at the big sign that said "University Books".  

The man thanked and, still smiling, turned around. At that moment, the shop assistant made a vulgar gesture with his arm and said: "Ma vaffanculo!" - which in Italian means "fuck off." I was absolutely shocked. I already knew that shop assistant, everyone knew him because he was probably the rudest shop clerk in town. I had been to that bookstore many times and had already noticed his complete lack of manners and respect. But insulting an elder man simply because of a small mistake - well, that was really too much. I protested and said he could not talk to customers that way. As a response, the shop clerk shouted at me. I said to him that he was extremely rude and walked away. I never went to that store again.

This kind of experience is not totally uncommon in Europe. Customer service can be extremely low. Not that every shop assistant or shop keeper were like that, but such things happen and not entirely unusual. I'll give one more example.

There was a secretary at Humboldt University who was famous for being extremely moody. She worked - and probably still works - at the International Office and was in charge of the enrollment of foreign students (I wish I knew what genius gave her that job; unless it was a scheme to frighten foreign students, it just makes no sense). One morning she came out of her office, asking in an angry tone each of the students who were lining up: "What do you want?" She was in an awful mood. An Italian girl, after spending a few minutes in the office, got out in tears. The secretary had shouted at her, and we could hear her screaming from the corridor.

Though these two cases are extreme, they show the extent to which rudeness seems to be tolerated in Europe.

A characteristic that people often consider very "Western" is directness. In the West - some say - people are straightforward, individualistic, tend to discuss things openly and don't shun confrontation. Germany is a country where straightforwardness is quite common. Overall, I rarely met people in Europe who explicitly regarded politeness as a key value. 

Before I came to Asia, if one had asked me what was in my perception one of the biggest differences between East and West, I would undoubtedly replied: "politeness". I believed that East Asian people were more polite, respectful and that they cared more about each other's feelings than Westerners. After spending a year in Asia, however, I have a different perspective on this subject.

Before coming to Taiwan, what Taiwanese told me about politeness impressed me: "Taiwanese are very polite and nice", "They like foreigners," "They help foreigners", "The group is more important than the individual," "Taiwanese care about other," etc. (read also my post about the myth of collectivism and Asian values).

Another thing I'd often heard was that customer service is much better than in Europe. Given these premises, I expected a lot when I came here. And for some time, I tried to make these prejudices fit into the reality I was living every day. Until I finally had to admit to myself that these myths didn't seem to make much sense. I'm not arguing that Taiwan is worse than Europe, only that many of the things I'd heard were way too idealistic and created in me too high expectations. 

Politeness in Stores: Is it All about Money?

As far as I have experienced, the saying that "The customer is God" doesn't seem to have much to do with the reality. Of course, it depends on what you consider polite or not. Is good customer service based on honest friendliness, or is it just a formal act? Is it an attitude that comes from a real respect for the customer, or is it a ritual that has to be performed mechanically by someone who wants your money?

In general, I would say that, in most cases, Asian politeness in stores is either a ritualized, ceremonious performance, or it doesn't exist altogether. That doesn't mean that you won't find truly friendly staff, but in my experience, true friendliness depends - like in Europe - on the individual shop clerk, while now I am talking about the average phenomenon of politeness. 

Japanese restaurants are the ones where "ritualized politeness" is commonest. Waiters bow and say standard phrases. You can see their lips and bodies move, but their soul seems not to be taking part in the process. They are simply performing a play.

The other extreme are places like 7-11 and other convenience stores, where you can feel that the staff is tired and not well-paid. They seldom smile, often don't say "thanks" and look terribly bored or annoyed. 

Between these two extremes there are all sorts of nuances. 

Once I went to a Western-style fast food restaurant called Evan's Burger. The staff there wasn't very friendly. One of the girls who worked there almost threw the bill on our table without saying a word or even looking at us. I mean, it's not that bad, but I definitely didn't feel as though I'd been treated like a God.

The worst experience was in a small dumpling restaurant near Zhongshan MRT station. It is a very famous, crowded place where you have to share the table with other people because there are way more customers than available seats. The staff was pretty rude. I was there with a Taiwanese friend. I asked her why they behaved like that. She said that their shop is famous that they don't need to be polite to attract more customers.

However, what will definitely never happen in Taiwan is that the staff in a shop will quarrel with you. This is, in my opinion, the real difference between Europe and Taiwan. In Asia in general, people avoid as much as possible confrontation with strangers, so I have never been shouted at or reprimanded in a shop. In this respect I indeed think that customer service is better than in Europe.

I will shortly add something about public offices: they seem to be far better than in Europe. I am indeed thankful and relieved that when I go to renew my visa civil servants are respectful. I heard from foreigners a lot of bad things about Immigration Offices in Germany and Italy, so I think it's fair to praise Taiwan in this respect. While in my home country going to an office was a true adventure, in Taiwan bureaucracy seems to be relatively simple and fast.

Standing Someone Up Is Not a Big Deal

I have talked about customer service, but what about politeness in other situations? In my experience, people here are not as polite as they often believe themselves.
One thing that really upset me so many times in Taiwan is that a lot of people seem not to respect each other's time. I'll give you a few examples.

I'd arranged an appointment with a friend of mine at the beginning of the week. We decided to meet on Friday. Then, a few hours before we were supposed to meet, she sent me an sms and said something like: "It's raining. Let's meet another day." I was really annoyed. I had already planned my evening, and now I had nothing to do. For me, it was a waste of time. But I said nothing. What can you actually say in such a situation? I didn't want to start quarreling, so I just tried to be nice. 

Had it happened just once, it would have been fine. But I had a lot of appointments cancelled this way. "It's raining," "I'm tired,", "Btw, I realized I don't have time," - I don't know how many times I heard sentences like this. At the beginning, I didn't mind, but then I realized that for some people it's normal to do this, and I began getting impatient. 

Just a few days ago I heard a story from an American friend of mine. On a Saturday night, a Taiwanese girl invited him to go with her and some friends of hers to a pub. He got into a cab and a couple of minutes later she sent him an sms, telling him that she and her friends had already arrived but there were not enough seats, so he couldn't join them. She added that he could join them later, at around 3 am. But what could he have done for about four hours alone? He thought her behaviour was very inconsiderate.

What's more, politeness seems to depend on social roles and closeness. For example, no one expects one's boss to be polite, and in fact, Asian countries boast some of the most ill-tempered bosses one can imagine. Parents are not expected to be polite to their children, neither close friends to each other. I will talk about this in a future post. 

"What? You have a Samsung Laptop?"

I used to go to Yamazaki on the NTU campus. A Taiwanese guy used to have language exchange there with a girl from Australia. Since the guy spoke loudly I couldn't help hearing what they were saying. For some reason, every time he and the girl met he would talk about politics. His favourite topic was China, which he obviously hated. The thing is that the girl had been to China and seemed annoyed by his continuous, long soliloquies about this subject. He wanted her to listen to him, but he didn't seem to expect her to disagree.

One day, she timidly tried to tell her opinion and praised China. The guy got angry and said something to her in a quite rude tone. Then he said impatiently: "Okay, let's go back to the previous topic." The girl just smiled. She was clearly upset by his rudeness. I never saw them again. I guess that the girl was just tired of him.

This anecdote shows one thing: when people say that Asians are not direct, it isn't always true. In fact, people here can be extremely direct, it's just that this happens in situations that Westerners do not expect.

I was in a restaurant with a Taiwanese language exchange partner. I wanted to check a word I couldn't remember so I took out my laptop. When she saw it, she exclaimed: "What? You have a Samsung laptop?" I was taken aback and looked at her in surprise. "What's wrong with it?" I asked.

"Samsung is from Korea!" she answered. Then she started to explain to me that she hates Korea, that Koreans are cheaters and that I'd better buy another computer, either from Apple or from a Taiwanese brand.

I said that I know a lot of nice Koreans and that when I spend my money I don't care where the product comes from but it's only quality that matters.  I said I had bought a laptop from Asus but didn't like it, but I was very happy with the quality of my Samsung laptop. She was kind of upset.

Another example I want to give are the comments people make about others' appearance. Parents say to their children: “Your eyes are too small,” “You're too fat,” and things like that. Friends, too, make remarks about each others' appearance: "Why are you so fat?" "If you don't change your looks you'll never find a boyfriend", "Your shoes are so ugly, you should buy new ones!" etc. I find this very direct, and to be honest, extremely rude. However, it seems to be considered perfectly normal in Taiwan among very close friends. It's really a question of cultural difference. 

Politeness Is For Strangers

One of the big misunderstandings I had when I came to Taiwan was based on the assumption that politeness, respect and friendliness had the same meaning they have for me. By my standards, the closer you come to a person, the nicer, the friendlier and the more respectful you should get. If Taiwanese are nice to strangers – I thought – they will be even much nicer to their friends and family. After some time, I began doubting whether this assumption was true. 

Imagine the following scene. A married, middle-aged couple and their child are driving to a friend's house. The husband gets lost and the mother starts yelling at him: “How can you be so stupid?” When they arrive, she tells their friends in a mocking tone that they were late because her husband got lost.

Well, I would regard the wife's behaviour as unacceptable. First of all, yelling at each other for a petty thing such as this seems to me very disrespectful. I think she should have rather tried to help him find the way. 

I have seen wives and girlfriends treating their husbands or boyfriends in a way that would make me really furious, especially if they did that in front of other people. I've also seen men treating women badly, but much less often, I don't know why. I know of cases of domestic violence by husbands which, of course, I am not likely to witness in person, though one day I actually saw a man hitting a woman on the street (but that was the only case). 

I've never heard my parents talk to each other like that, especially not in front of me or their friends. Sure, all families have quarrels and arguments, but I would consider that kind of behaviour very mean. People in the West talk so much about “the loss of face” in Asian culture. But where is the “face” in this case? Doesn't the husband feel humiliated in front of his child and his friends? My mother would never shout at my father like that. I'd assume they would argue about a very serious problem, but definitely not because my father got lost.

Besides, I wonder: what if the wife were driving and her husband yelled at her? Wouldn't she get angry?

I have seldom be shouted at by my friends in Europe. If someone is rude to me, they're not likely to become my friends anyway, and the ones who are, usually show to me “respect”. But in Taiwan, if you are really close to someone, you will rarely hear the word “thanks”, your friends might complain about a lot of things, cancel meetings in the last minute, even get angry very easily. Which they consider normal because "we are friends and don't need to pretend". The idea is: because we are so close, we don't need to put on a mask, we don't need to be polite, we don't need to be afraid to lose each other because you'll always be my friend and I'll always be your friend, no matter what happens, no matter how much we unnerve or upset each other right now.

Let me add that I also met a lot of people who were really kind and gentle, but I also met quite a lot who weren't.

This concept of friendship was one of the most challenging things for me in Taiwan. Something I've never been able to get used to. In my view, friendship has to be deserved. You cannot just get angry and criticize and expect I'll always be there and endure this day after day. If you hurt your friends, if you make them feel uncomfortable, what sort of friend are you?

What would you do if a friend of yours often comes late and you just say nothing because you want to avoid quarreling, but when you come late she or he gets angry? That happened to me with a few people, and I feel it's very unfair. No one likes to wait, so if they don't want to wait I stop coming late. But if my friends come late I will be annoyed. And then they get angry.  

And here comes the problem. For many Taiwanese, strangers or acquaintances deserve politeness, but dealing with friends, family members or people hierarchically inferior is a different story. The funny thing is that in Europe, at least in my own experience, strangers tend not to be as nice as in Taiwan, but  people who are very close tend to be nicer than in Taiwan. It seems to be the exact opposite!