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.