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.

Update:

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. 

Delay


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. 


Sources: 

-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)




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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.