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!

Monday, 26 November 2012

Culture Shock - From Honeymoon to Mastery (Part I)

One of the most amazing and at the same time challenging experiences in a foreign country is the surprise, the shock and distress you feel when encountering unexpected traits of the host culture. The way people act, their speech, their body language - to name only a few - are unfamiliar and may prompt in you reactions that range from curiosity to amusement, from disappointment to anger.

First impressions, I think, are unlikely to stir strong emotions. But if you choose to go deeper into the culture and the life of a place, you start a long and often hard journey, a process of learning and - as  it is often called - "broadening your horizon". I met quite a few foreigners in Taiwan who have very different attitudes towards the country. Some are enthusiastic. Others feel interested in things they consider strange and unusual and try to know more about them. Others, on the contrary, are completely indifferent, or even contemptuous. 

In the first part of this post I will briefly talk about the causes, consequences and different categories of culture shock, as well as the difference between prejudice, stereotype and observation. In the second part of this post I will talk about my own experience with culture shock, and especially about the issues of politeness, respect and good manners in Taiwan.

Since I am afraid someone might misunderstand me, I would like to clarify one point. Before I came to Taiwan I had very high expectations. And unfortunately, I was quite disappointed. This might affect the way I write. And if I am going to say something unpleasant for Taiwanese to read, then only because I base my words on what happened to me in the year that I spent here, knowing that it has no general, but only personal value. If I may freely quote Charles Dickens:  Prejudiced, I never have been otherwise than in favour of Taiwan. No visitor can ever have come here with a stronger sympathy and interest than I had in this island.

What is Culture Shock?


Culture shock can be described as the disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, or to a move between social environments. [note]
Culture shock implies the experience of something unexpected and somewhat incomprehensible. One of the biggest problems with culture difference is that people who find in another country habits or attitudes they dislike, tend to see this difference in terms of national pride. A usual reaction to the estrangement of immigrants, for instance, is that they start idealizing their own country and think it is superior to their host country. Actually, I think it's not about inferiority or superiority, nor about right or wrong. 
I believe that right or wrong are individual values. There are many things that I consider wrong in my own country, and I know many people who dislike as many things about their home country as they do about their host country. 

Culture shock is primarily a question of identity and of understanding, which is a painful and hard process because - no matter what - most books written about the subject can hardly help individuals cope with concrete problems that arise during their life abroad. Culture shock is the experience of something unusual and distressing that would not happen, or would not happen with the same frequency, in the cultural environment one is familiar with. A minor example of this are table manners.

I went to restaurants in Asia where people spit bones on the table. Though this might also happen in Europe, I would say it is quite rare, and actually I've never seen it. It is mostly considered inappropriate to put your food remains on the table. On the other hand, in Europe smoking is allowed in places where it is not allowed in Taiwan. On university campuses in Taipei, smoking is prohibited. In Europe, not only is it permitted, but until a few years ago in some countries people could smoke inside high-school buildings! (and I remember seeing a lot of students smoke when I was in junior high-school...). Again, it's not a question of superiority or inferiority, but of difference and of knowledge. If you know a habit, you might dislike it, but it won't shock you. Culture shock is a feeling of dislike increased by surprise.

The reason why some people react with disgust or contempt when they see certain habits is not only or necessarily because they disagree with these habits, but also because they are new to them and so particularly conspicuous. There are travellers who, when criticizing allegedly odd habits of their host country, don't even think of all the disgusting things in their home country, because the latter are familiar to them, so that they tend to consider them more "normal". I was stunned when some Taiwanese told me they think Germany is dirtier than Taiwan. Probably, they don't think that dirty night markets, street restaurants or building facades are disgusting, but when they see a drunk German teenager pee on the street of the city centre on a Saturday night, they might feel appalled, believing Germans don't know what hygiene means. The fact that people, especially young people, urinate on the street at night after getting drunk in pubs or clubs is widely tolerated in Germany, or at least, in some parts of it, like Berlin (and now someone will say that Berlin "is not Germany", but that's another topic).

Culture shock is often related to a contrast between home country versus host country. For many people, travelling is a way to escape from something - from a failed relationship or marriage, stress at work, pressure from the family and so on. In certain cases, travelling can be construed as a quest for happiness, self-development, self-discovery, etc. Therefore, the host country chosen to be the place where one can escape from reality is often idealized. It is a better world where one doesn't have to face the difficulties and the problems of the home country. I think of the novel by Elizabeth Gilbert "Eat Pray Love." Interestingly enough, in the introduction of the book, the author-narrator describes how miserable her life had become and how she couldn't bear it any longer. After realizing that she didn't love her husband and didn't want to be a mother, she goes through a painful divorce, a painful relationship, and on top of all that, she loses almost all of her money. The solution is, of course, to go travelling. It is the perfect journey. Since her editor has agreed to give her a large sum of money to go travelling so that she can write about her experiences when she comes back, she has no financial worries. She spends a few months in Italy, India and Bali. Long enough to enjoy the good and interesting aspects of life in those new places, but not long enough to have a real life full of daily problems. In Italy, for instance, she mainly enjoys food, but she also meets a lot of friends and has fun with them. Gilbert's stay in Italy is what we can call the "honeymoon" phase of a stay in a foreign country. Let's talk about that for a moment.


The Four Phases of Culture Shock


When I came to Taiwan I was really enthusiastic. I had heard a lot of great things about Taiwan before coming here, which had given me a "positive" bias towards this island. But as time went by, I realized that there were many things that made me feel bad or that I didn't like. I think that my stay in Taiwan is a good example of the four phases of culture shock: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and mastery.

  • Honeymoon phase

"During this period, the differences between the old and new culture are seen in a romantic light. For example, in moving to a new country, an individual might love the new food, the pace of life, and the locals' habits. During the first few weeks, most people are fascinated by the new culture. They associate with nationals who speak their language, and who are polite to the foreigners. This period is full of observations and new discoveries. Like most honeymoon periods, this stage eventually ends." [note]

  • Negotiation phase

"After some time (usually around three months, depending on the individual), differences between the old and new culture become apparent and may create anxiety. Excitement may eventually give way to unpleasant feelings of frustration and anger as one continues to experience unfavorable events that may be perceived as strange and offensive to one's cultural attitude. Language barriers, stark differences in public hygiene, traffic safety, food accessibility and quality may heighten the sense of disconnection from the surroundings.
Still, the most important change in the period is communication: People adjusting to a new culture often feel lonely and homesick because they are not yet used to the new environment and meet people with whom they are not familiar every day. The language barrier may become a major obstacle in creating new relationships: special attention must be paid to one's and others' culture-specific body language signs, linguistic faux pas, conversation tone, linguistic nuances and customs, and false friends.
In the case of students studying abroad, some develop additional symptoms of loneliness that ultimately affect their lifestyles as a whole. Due to the strain of living in a different country without parental support, international students often feel anxious and feel more pressure while adjusting to new cultures—even more so when the cultural distances are wide, as patterns of logic and speech are different and a special emphasis is put on rhetoric." [note]

  • Adjustment phase

This is the period during which one starts to develop problem-solving skills for dealing with the host culture. In this phase, one searches for ways to cope with the new reality, the outcome of this quest depending on the individual. Reactions to the new environment can be, among others:
  • Homesickness
  • Boredom
  • Withdrawal
  • Excessive sleep
  • Compulsive eating/drinking
  • Irritability
  • Stereotyping host nationals
  • Hostility towards host nationals [note]
During the adjustment phase the individual defines his relationship to the host country, whereby the outcome differs in every single case. Generalizing, one might say that the two opposite reactions are rejection or acceptance (mastery). In the case of rejection, the consequence might be the decision of leaving the host country, or a deep resentment towards the host country.

  • Mastery phase

In the mastery stage people are able to integrate in the host culture. The extent to which integration occurs, varies strongly in every single case.


Between Love and Hostility - Prejudice, Stereotype, Observation


A couple of weeks ago I had a quite fierce argument with a fellow blogger. He said that one of the purposes of his blog is to refute prejudices and stereotypes, but I thought that he was stereotyping himself and ignoring other people's opinion (which he described as biased). I think that in most conversations about this topic it is quite easy to end up in vague statements such as "you cannot generalize". Which is one of the main reasons why it's so hard to say anything at all about any country or people. If you say "Chinese are polite", you will also find people asserting the opposite. Basically, there is hardly a single statement that one can make about a country that won't be refuted by someone else. 

Now, if generalizing is so bad and pointless, probably you can't talk about a culture or a people, because it's impossible to avoid generalization. That's why I suggest to make a distinction between prejudice, stereotype and observation.

Prejudice


The word prejudice comes from the Latin verb "praejudicio", which means "pre-judge". Prejudice is "a set of affective reactions we have toward people as a function of their category memberships." [see: David Schneider: The Psychology of Stereotyping. New York / London 2004, p. 27]. 

Stereotype


The word stereotype is a modern coinage, entering the English language in the late 17th century. It derives from the Greek words "stereos" (solid) and "typos" (model, pattern). The initial meaning of the term referred to a metal plate used to print pages. In the 18th century its meaning began to apply to solid behaviour patterns, and it was not until the 20th century that journalist Walter Lippmann first made an extensive use of the term in its contemporary meaning [see: Schneider 2004, p. 8]. 

A stereotype can be described as "a positive or negative set of beliefs held by any individual about the characteristics of a group of people. It varies in its accuracy, the extent to which it captures the degree to which the stereotyped group members possess these traits, and the extent to which the set of beliefs is shared by others." [J.M. Jones: Prejudice and Racism (2nd edition). New York 1997, p.170].   

The difference between prejudice and stereotype is that the first is an affective pre-judgement often based on  past experiences, while the latter is based on the process of categorization.


Observation


Both prejudice and stereotype, though they often have a negative meaning, are basic tools of our cognition process. If I go to the cinema, watch a horror movie and dislike it, I might choose not to go and watch another horror movie. This is a prejudice - I haven't watched all horror movies, but based on my past experience I tend to think I dislike the genre.

Stereotyping is a form of categorization which is almost inevitable. If I meet many Italian people who are emotional, I will tend to think that Italian people are emotional.

Nevertheless, prejudice and stereotype have a low level of accuracy. For example, how can I have an opinion about Germans, Italians, Chinese etc. if in my own lifetime I won't even meet 1% of the total population? Perhaps I've met two or three stingy Italians, but can I say all Italians are stingy?

Observations, on the contrary, are based on and limited to particular cases. The Oxford English Dictionary defines observation as "the action or process of observing something or someone carefully or in order to gain information." I will use the word observation in this everyday meaning.

Now, observations are extremely important when you try to know more about your host country.

For instance, if a girl goes to Italy she will probably meet some men on the street who whistle at her or call her "bella" (beauty). Well, this is a simple observation and if someone has met such people it's obvious that this memory will always be associated with their image of Italy. However, it is not legitimate to infer that all Italians are like this. Observation is necessary, but observations should not turn into stereotypes or prejudices.  

Thursday, 15 November 2012

How it feels to be a foreigner in Taiwan

Before going to Asia, a few friends of mine told me about their experience in China. A German guy said that in China he felt for the first time what it means to be a foreigner. He is blond and has blue eyes, so it was easy for him to be spotted among the crowds of Chinese.

People looked, even stared at him, sometimes for minutes. Someone asked to take a picture with him, as though he were a tourist attraction, children pointed at him on the streets. He didn't seem to be very happy about receiving so much attention from passers-by. Neither would I have been.

I am not blond, so at least I am not as conspicuous as he is. However, it's still easy for Asians to notice me, of course. And I was afraid of being stared at on the streets or in public places, which makes me feel quite nervous.

When I arrived in Taiwan, I was positively surprised. I never saw anyone staring or pointing at me. Strangely enough, I felt here even more relaxed than in Germany. When I was in Berlin I often felt observed by others. Once I was sitting in a tram with my flatmate, talking about Germany, when a German guy who was sitting opposite to us suddenly turned around: "Sorry to bother you," he said smiling, "but I don't agree with your opinion." This sort of "intrusion" (a benevolent one, for sure), has never happened to me so far in Taiwan. People mind their own business and don't seem to focus too much on what others do. At least that's what I've observed in Taipei. I heard that in smaller cities it might be quite different.

I live in Xindian, which is a district in New Taipei City. I seldom see any foreigners. When I took my first walk near my new home, I saw a lot of old people and street vendors with their stands placed on the pavement. I was expecting they would look at me, but actually, no one did. I was relieved. I felt somehow "free". In their eyes, I wasn't strange. I was just a normal person walking around. I was very happy about that.

Now that I've been living in Taipei for a year, however, I've become aware of certain nuances I had not noticed during my first months. For instance, I realized that some people do look at me. But they do it in a very discreet way. Instead of staring at me, they look at me with the corner of their eye. If I look at them, they immediately turn away. Some people are so good at it that I can barely notice them.

What makes me feel quite uneasy is when a beautiful girl sits or stands in front of me, looking at me from time to time. Eye contact with a stranger is one of those situations where I really don't know how to behave. Once I was waiting for a friend of mine at Eslite Bookstore in Taipei City Hall Station. I was trying to read a book in Chinese, and to my great surprise I managed to understand the first page without using a dictionary. I was concentrating on the book, when suddenly I got the feeling that someone's eyes were fixed on me. I looked up and saw a girl. A very pretty one, I must add. She immediately lowered her eyes. We exchanged looks several times, I was even thinking about talking to her. But then, my friend came and the girl disappeared.

It seems to me there are some Taiwanese who are really curious about foreigners. It's not bad, it's even flattering to receive such attention. But it's also deceptive. Why would you want to be friends with someone who is interested in you only because you're a foreigner, regardless of your personality? There are so many foreigners, they can quickly replace you with someone else.

After spending a few months in Taiwan, last April I went to Hong Kong to apply for a visa. There nobody looked at me. In Taiwan I felt like I was something special, but in Hong Kong I was just a tiny drop in the ocean. That's easy to explain. Hong Kong is way more international than Taipei. Besides, for a century it was a British Colony, and Hong Kongers got used to seeing foreigners. It made me feel a little bit lonely to be completely lost in the crowd, but I learnt to appreciate it. During my second stay in Hong Kong a few weeks ago, I got the feeling that most of the people I met there were interested in me for who I am and not just because I am exotic. A part of the people I met in Taiwan (maybe around 40%, I would guess) seemed rather interested in just making a foreign friend. 



Sunday, 11 November 2012

Praying in Taiwan: Xiahai Chenghuang Temple (霞海城隍廟)


Xiahai Chenghuang Temple at night. From Wikipedia
In February of 2012 a friend of mine took me to a famous Daoist temple in Taipei, Xiahai Chenghuang Temple (霞海城隍廟). I had asked her to show it to me because I wanted to pray to the Chinese God of Love, Yuelao.

I am not a spiritual person, but I thought it would be interesting to have a first-hand experience of local religious beliefs. 

Though I am not a Christian I was raised in a Christian (Catholic) society, and I have been influenced by it, no matter whether I rationally believe in that religion or not.

From the point of view of Christendom, a Chinese temple may remind of an ancient Roman or Greek temple. It is a colourful building with symbols and statues. The sort of images Christians used to reject as "eidola", i.e. depictions of demons made by humans. The Christian God has nothing human. He has no shape and is beyond human rational understanding. He therefore cannot be depicted in sacred images.

Chinese Gods, on the contrary, have an earthly form. There are statues and images of creatures that combine animal and human features, and most major Gods have human shape. Many of them are historical figures from the past, such as imperial officials or local "heroes". Very much like the ancient Roman Ceasars, who were declared to be divine though they were mortals.

On this picture you can see some deities
with animal and human features
Christian religion, and especially the New Testament, regards the pursuit of worldly possessions and desires as a hindrance to faith [note]. Money, vanity, power or sexuality all have a negative connotation. What matters is the "new life" after death. Jesus Christ, for instance, although he was God's son, was neither a king nor a wealthy and powerful man; in order to be pure and perfect, his mother, Mary, had to be a virgin. He belonged to the poor and weak people of the Roman Empire and he died as an outcast in the most brutal and ominous way. No wonder Christians were so disdainful of Roman and Greek religion. Their God was completely different from the deities of the ancient world, who had human characteristics and shared with them even their evil desires.

Even if a Westerner doesn't believe in Christianity, he might tend to consider Eastern religions and ritual practices as more superstitious and "naive" than Christianity. Well, I tried not to think this way. We may regard something unfamiliar to us as "strange" and "naive". But I wanted to take my visit in the temple seriously and try to figure out what people feel when they pray to their Gods.
       


About Xiahai Chenghuang Temple


Xiahai Chenghuang Temple is located  in Dihua Street, in Taipei City's Datong District [see map]. Though fairly small, it is one of the most famous Daoist temples in the Taiwanese capital, devoted to Chenghuang (Traditional Chinese 城隍, pinyin: Chénghuáng), or Town God. Town gods are deities who watch over human affairs and guard their cities, very much alike ancient Greek Gods [note].The worship of Town Gods is popular in Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore as well in Chinese communities throughout East Asia.

In the past, every large and medium-size Chinese city had a Town God, who was usually a defunct local "hero", a personality who was widely recognized for having contributed to public good. The duty of Town Gods was similar to that of imperial officials in feudal China. "It was believed that Chenghuang was empowered by the celestial ruler to exterminate evils in towns and cities and make citizens live a prosperous and happy life. He was even capable of granting what people prayed for." [note].

The origin of Xiahai Chenghuang Temple dates back to the year 1821, when a group of colonists from Tongan district of Ximen, in Mainland China's Fujian Province, settled in Taipei's Bangka area (today's 萬華區, Wanhua District). Upon their arrival, one of them, merchant Chen Jinrong (陳金絨), established a shrine devoted to Xiahai Chenghuang, an underworld deity worshipped by inhabitants of Tongan. He built the shrine by using a statue of the God he had brought with him from his hometown [note 1, 2].

In  1853, during feuds between settlers that had come to Taiwan from different parts of Fujian Province, Tongan immigrants were jointly attacked by people from Jinjiang (晉江), Huian (惠安) and Nanan (南安). Consequently, the Tongan population abandoned Bangka and resettled in Dadaocheng. Chen Jinrong's Xiahai Town God statue had been luckily saved from destruction and brought to Dadaocheng, where the Tongan community raised money to build a temple for the deity. [note]

Taiwan's Town God worship is a combination of different elements from Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism [note]. One of the most popular deities worshipped in Xiahai Chenghuang Temple is Yuelao, the God of Love (a sort of Eastern Cupid, if you will).



Yuelao - The Match-Maker


Yuelao (月老) is the short form of 月下老人 (Yuexialaoren), which literally means "old man under the moon".

According to a legend from the Tang Era, one evening a man called Wei Gu was passing by a guesthouse in the city of Songcheng. He saw an old man who was sitting under the moonlight and reading a book. He thought it was strange and asked the man what he was doing. The man replied that he was reading a book where all past and future marriages of men were recorded. He pointed at a woman who was hawking food on the street. She had a three-year-old daughter. The old man told Wei Gu that that child was destined to become his wife. Wei Gu, however, disliked the girl and hired assassins to kill her.

More than ten years elapsed, and Wei Gu got married. To his surprise, he discovered that his bride had a scar on her eyebrow. She was the same girl the old man had predicted would be his wife. [note]

The legend became so popular that the "old man under the moon" was incorporated in popular religious beliefs as the god of love.





Praying 


The pot where you throw incense sticks
When I went to the temple I didn't know exactly how to pray. Fortunately, my friend taught me how to do it and explained me a lot of things, which I will now tell you. Of course, what I'm going to say is not exhaustive. I didn't do any research afterwards. If you find any facts that are not correct, please let me know. 

As you can see on the pictures, the temple was really crowded. There was a long queue that went from the door and reached to the courtyard. My friend assured me that most people - among whom there were many young and pretty girls - had come to pray to Yuelao.

First of all, we bought a bundle of incense sticks from an old woman. We burnt two of them and threw them into a big pot. The sticks are not the only things we had to purchase. In order to ask the God a question or tell him your wish you should make a "sacrifice". There are people who buy food, for example sweets, biscuits or fruits. Or you can buy fake money. We opted for the money and put it on the long table in front of the main door. Then we lined up.

The main shrine has a variety of Gods and deities. Chuanghuang, the Town God, sits with his wife at his side at centre of the shrine, surrounded by several Gods. There are also other, smaller rooms with several deities. It is customary to pray to all Gods and not only to the one you want to ask something to. 

When you pray, you have to hold the incense sticks up and lower your head slightly. You have to bow three times and introduce yourself. Tell the God your name, where you come from and where you live. As my friend told me, the address is very important, so don't tell the God a wrong address. Afterwards you are ready to ask the God for something. Different Gods are in charge of different aspects of human life: work, family, health and so on. After  praying to a God, you have to throw two incense sticks into a pot.

You can either simply tell a God your wish, or you can ask him a question. How does the God answer your question? There is an interesting method for that (I have to remark I noticed that other temples have other systems, but this one seems to be used everywhere). You take two small wooden objects that are shaped like a half-moon. They have a flat side and a rounded concave side. You throw the two shapes on the ground. If they both land on the concave or the flat side for three times in a row, the God says yes. If, however, one of the shapes falls on one side, but the other one on the other side, the God says no. 
 Two wooden shapes you have to throw on the ground
  to receive a God's reply



The main shrine. Yuelao is the God in the middle of the
picture with a stick in his hand and the big pendant
After finishing my prayer I was given a small bag with a lucky charm inside. I also got a cake, which has a peculiar meaning: after their wedding, married couples bring cakes to the temple to thank the God who helped them. These cakes are then distributed to the visitors of the temple who also want to find their second half. First time visitors receive an additional small gift, in my case a candy.

I was supposed to always take the lucky charm with me. But I didn't. One day, I decided to take it out and put it in my bag. That afternoon I had a huge fight with my ex-girlfriend. Apparently, Yuelao had decided that we didn't belong together. For some reason I believed in it. Maybe because - as Freud said - sometimes you know what's right or wrong for you, but you need an external object to show it to you. 
    

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Chang Yung-fa's Memoirs: Taiwan's Success Story seen through the Eyes of One of its Makers


The history of a country is always the history of its people. Of their lives and thoughts, of their hardships and successes. If you want to understand the rise of Asia's economic power, is there a better way than knowing the personal stories of those business people who, born into poverty, struggled to become wealthy? I believe that such individual stories will allow future generations to understand much better this era of astonishing economic and social change in the Far East.

If Japan is the "pioneer" of Asian capitalism, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore belong to the second generation of Asian "economic miracles". They shocked the Western world - which in its arrogance believed to be destined to exercise a monopoly over progress and economic development forever - by the unprecedented pace of their industrialization and their long-lasting economic success.

Chang Yung-fa (Traditional Chinese: 張榮發, pinyin: Zhāng Róngfā, born in 1927 in Taiwan), founder of the global shipping and aviation conglomerate Evergreen, is one of those businessmen whose life is intertwined with the era of economic rise of East Asia. Therefore, his life is more than a personal account. It tells us something about the generation that made Taiwan the economic powerhouse it is today. In his memoirs, entitled "Tides of Fortune", Mr Chang tells the story of how he rose from a humble sailor to one of Taiwan's richest men

"Dr Chang Yung-fa's memoirs," writes Great Britain's ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the foreword of the book, "provide the reader with more than a description of a phenomenally successful business career: they offer too a unique insight into Taiwan itself. Who could have imagined fifty years ago, when the Kuomintang leadership withdrew to that island from mainland China, that by the end of the twentieth century Taiwan would have become one of the region's most astonishing economic success stories?"

Of the third generation of mainland Chinese who had moved to Taiwan from Fujian Province, Mr Chang was born into a poor family. His father became a seaman at the age of 25. Though "seafaring was considered one of the most perilous professions", Mr Chang says, "jobs were scarce and life [...] harsh during the Japanese rule."

His entrepreneurial career started when he became the owner of his own ship in the 1960's. In 1968 he founded Evergreen Maritime Corporation, which grew into a world leader in the container shipping industry.  In 1991 Mr Chang launched Taiwan's first private international airline, Eva Air. 

Chang Yung-fa's memoirs offer a deep insight into almost a century of Taiwanese history, from the Japanese rule and the first decades of the Republic of China on Taiwanese soil to the modernization and rise of the "Asian Tiger". 


Tides of Fortune: Memoirs of Chang Yung-Fa

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Why I decided to go to Taiwan

When I meet new Taiwanese friends, the question they invariably ask me is: "Why did you choose Taiwan instead of Mainland China?" Sometimes I tell them the truth, sometimes I just say that I am interested in Taiwan. I thought for a few days whether I should publish this post on my blog and tell strangers about my private matters. At last, I decided to share my experiences with you guys.

I've always been interested in East Asia. Not for rational reasons, such as future career prospects. My interest was born out of a feeling, which I cannot explain. I think every country has its own aesthetics. When you see the image of a city or a landscape, sometimes you feel fascination, you want to go there. The way people look like, behave and get dressed, the architecture, the nature - there are many reasons why a place might attract you. 

As far as I can remember, my interest in East Asia dates back to my teenage years. At that time I had no internet at home, and my access to knowledge about and from other countries was limited. When I look back on those days, I am really thankful that someone invented the internet. The only source of information I had were newspapers and television. In Italy - my home country - the quality of TV programmes is really poor. When I was young, we had 6 big channels and several minor ones. The minor ones were local TV stations with a very boring content, mostly cheap B-movies, strange cartoons, advertising programmes and odd talk shows. So, basically 99% of Italians used to watch the 6 big channels. 3 of them are state-owned and often party-controlled. The remaining 3 belong to Silvio Berlusconi, the richest man in Italy, a media magnate who became Italy's Prime Minister and controlled all of the 6 channels for more than a decade. Still, Italian TV had a lot of great programmes and shows, especially comedy. However, great journalism and documentaries were a rarity.

Whenever there was a documentary about East Asian countries, I was always fascinated and I wished I  could watch more and more of them. Unfortunately, most of these documentaries were very superficial - a journalist went to another country and talked about his/her first impressions, food and things considered "strange" in Italy. I remember very few good programmes. One of them was about Hong Kong.

It was a short documentary, I guess about thirty minutes long. I watched it avidly and when it finished I really wanted to buy a plane ticket and go there. There was something exciting, enthralling about that throbbing, ultra-modern cosmopolitan city.

As a teenager I was, like many other people of my age, fascinated by Japan. When I was a kid, Japan was still experiencing its amazing economic rise and it was admired and feared by the whole world. From the point of view of its global impact, the 80's were probably Japan's golden age. Not only its brands and products had already established themselves on the world markets and become the desired objects of all of us kids - everywhere on the planet, included in my small Italian home town - , but Japanese cartoons, as well, were conquering the TV schedule. Italy developed a large anime fan base, with some anime series becoming cult. However, many of us didn't even know these cartoons came from Japan.

I wasn't one of those Westerners who suffer from yellow fever. When I was young, I rather suffered from blonde fever. I was obsessed with Northern European countries and I thought German or English girls were the most beautiful of all. I was about 15-18 back then. I travelled to England when I was 15 and lived with a host family. I loved the country and the atmosphere. In the English school I went to there was a group of students from Hong Kong. I made some friends among them.

Strangely enough, although I was interested in Asia I was biased about Asian people. I am willing to admit it, because ever since then my opinion has changed completely. For some strange reason, there are Western people - I am sorry to say that - who have a lot of prejudices about Asians. For example, I've heard from Westerners that Asians are stupid, stink or are liars. Before making Asian friends, I thought that Asians were stupid, too. (Remember, I was about 15 years old, so please if you are an Asian don't be angry!) In Italy, a country where there is a huge Chinese community, the bias against Chinese might be stronger than in other countries. Some Italians call Chinese people "cinesini", which literally means "small Chinese" - a pejorative term that I asked my parents not to use.

The reason why I thought so lay probably the fact that the Asian people I happened to meet in real life or see on TV didn't look cool. They were too 乖: well-behaved, sweet, gentle, I don't know how to describe it. They were not the type of cool, aggressive person I admired when I was young. Now let me say one thing: ever since those days I met a lot of cool, nice and interesting Asian people and made a lot of great Asian friends. That early bias vanished long, long ago.

Anyway, the fact is that I was not particularly interested in making Asian friends until the age of 23, when I met a girl who was to become my girlfriend. A pretty, lovely Korean girl who introduced me to many aspects of Asia's culture and life. I tried to study Korean, but failed. To be honest, I didn't like the language very much. Besides, it is such a difficult language that if you're not highly-motivated you can hardly go past the basics.

I will not talk in detail about my relationship. I will only say that it lasted for about four years. During the last of these years, among many problems, my girlfriend noticed I was getting more and more interested in China but was still not very interested in Korea. She didn't like it at all. I began reading books about East Asia and China in particular, and after a whole year of reading books about history, society as well as novels, and after watching a lot of films, my fascination kept growing day by day. I felt the time was coming for me to begin to study Chinese. I went to a bookstore, bought a Chinese language course ( a great one!) and began learning by myself. After the first two lessons I knew I'd fallen in love with this language.

I was 26 years old. I was living in Berlin, Germany, where I studied at Humboldt University. One day I went to a friend's birthday party. There I met a nice Belgian girl. While we were talking she gave a very good advice: "Why don't you look for a language exchange partner?" she asked. I was skeptical. I am not a German native speaker and I was certain I wouldn't find anyone who wanted to learn Italian. But she encouraged me, saying that my German was good enough. I gave it a try. I posted an ad on a university website, TU Sprach- und Kulturbörse. And I had luck.

A girl from Hong Kong replied to my ad. She said she was working in Berlin and needed someone to practice her German. I was very happy about receiving her e-mail. I knew nothing about her, though. I didn't have her picture, didn't know her age or what kind of job she had. Since she said she wasn't a student and mentioned she worked, I assumed she must be older than me. How much older - I couldn't guess. But it was just language exchange, so there was no pint in asking her. 

We made an appointment. I waited for her at Friedrichstrasse U-Bahn station. I was very nervous. There are many Asians in Berlin. I saw a lot of Asian women of all ages go by while I was waiting, and every time I stared at them, wondering if one of them was my language partner. Then I spotted a girl who was wearing a beige coat and jeans. I didn't see her face, only her back. She didn't turn around. After a few minutes I decided to go and ask her if she was waiting for someone. It was the first time I met a stranger online, so I felt quite embarrassed and uneasy. I said "hello" to her. She looked at me in surprise. Then she gave me a slightly embarrassed smile and introduced herself. 

My language partner became my first close Chinese friend. She is a very nice and funny person, and I really had a wonderful time with her. Until now, I remember with  happiness the days we spent together in Berlin. It was May, I think, and the weather was nice, often warm and sunny. I was impressed by her. She was two years younger than me, was travelling alone and seemed to have a very strong and independent character. She'd found a flat and a job in a restaurant, all by herself, without speaking German. She was so smart and brave, I truly admired her. And I still do. Unfortunately, she left Berlin after only two months. 

From the moment I met her, I became addicted to language exchange. After she left Berlin I wanted to meet more people like her. Of course, it makes more fun to learn a language if you have nice friends you can talk to. Well, I could never "replace" her. Nevertheless, I met a lot of new great Chinese friends, smart, interesting people that I will never forget. I can say most of my best friends in Berlin were Chinese.

I also made a couple of Taiwanese friends. But I was far from thinking of going to Taiwan. My plan was to finish my master thesis and go to Mainland China to do a PhD, or just to spend a few weeks there and study Chinese first and then decide whether to stay there or not. Shortly before I completed my thesis, however, something happened which changed everything. If you don't like romance, please skip this part, because I'm going to be a little sentimental. 

In the summer I met a Taiwanese girl and I fell in love with her at first sight. She was so beautiful I couldn't believe my eyes. Her body, her face, her style - everything about her was amazing. But it wasn't all about her looks. During our first meeting we spent around six hours together, talking as though we had endless things to say to each other. I was really happy. We met at least once every week. I had the greatest summer of my whole life. I showed her a lot of places in Berlin. It was the first time she travelled abroad. She was so enthusiastic about everything - the food, the people, the culture. Her stay in Europe was an adventure to her, an adventure that made her feel happy. And I could see her happiness in her bright smile and in her eyes. I loved to look at her while joy shone on her face. As Haruki Murakami says in one of his novels: when she was with me I was happy and when she left, all of a sudden my world became empty. And that's exactly how I felt. The only thing I wanted was to be with her. Does it sound mad? Well, it was. 

I didn't want her to think of me as one of those guys who believe Asian girls are easy. But she was going to go back to Taiwan soon, so I had to be honest with her about my feelings before it was too late. When I finally told her, her reaction was a huge disappointment. She said that she already had a boyfriend. A boyfriend she'd never mentioned before. I'd considered the possibility of a rejection, of course. But the thought there might be a guy waiting for her back home had never crossed my mind. It really hurt me.

I spent a sleepless night, tried to prepare myself to say good-bye to her forever. And then, unexpectedly, she told me that she and her boyfriend had a lot a problems. She showed in a very obvious way that she liked me. We went travelling together and had a wonderful time. On her last day in Europe I went with her to Frankfurt and saw her off. She wouldn't stop crying. My shirt got wet from her tears. At that moment, in my heart I already knew that I would follow her. I just couldn't think of being without her. I felt that girl was the best thing that could ever happen to me. It sounds kitchy, I know. But that is how it feels like to love someone. I told her I would go to Taiwan. I said it, and I meant it. 

She entered the security area of the airport. I saw her figure become smaller and smaller. From time to time she turned around and waved at me, still crying. Until she disappeared from my view. I wasn't too sad, though. I knew that I would seen her again soon.