Monday, 25 February 2013

Why Chinese People Take A Shower in The Evening

Yesterday I had once again a conversation about the alleged habit of Westerners to take a shower in the morning.

I was surprised when, a few years ago, a Chinese friend asked me for the first time the question: "Do Western people really take a shower in the morning?" I had never thought about this before. But apparently, a lot of Chinese/ Taiwanese notice (and disapprove of) this habit.

When you live with a Chinese family (which could for example be your girlfriend's/boyfriend's family) you might have noticed that they are not very happy with your going to bed without taking a shower or bath first. It seems as though they considered it disgusting, and they wish you had brought your own bed sheets. 

First of all, I don't think every Westerner takes a shower in the morning. I guess it depends on the person and the mood. I, for example, usually take a shower in the morning, but when it's hot outside, I prefer to take a shower immediately after coming back home in the evening. I have no clear rule, just rely on my feeling. Basically, I think it's nice to go out and start a day still fresh from a shower. On the web, some Taiwanese have described this as "一種禮貌" (a way to be polite), though I have some doubts if this is the right way of explaining it.

One of the reasons why Asian people might take a shower in the evening is something that quite surprised me. In Europe, I usually change my bed sheets once a week, in the summer even twice a week. So, I had never thought in my whole life that I should take a shower in the evening in order not to make the bed sheets dirty. But apparently, Chinese/Taiwanese tend to keep the same bed sheets for a long time. Even for months (that's what I've observed, but I might be wrong). I wonder if this could be one reason why they avoid going to bed without having taken a shower first. To be honest, I feel very uncomfortable with having the same bed sheet for so long...  

Monday, 18 February 2013

How Cyclists Behave in Taipei

A couple of days ago I was walking in the direction of National Taiwan University. Then I decided to go back and get something to eat, so I turned around. Suddenly, I heard a shrill cry and saw a woman falling down to my left side. She had been riding a bicycle and I assume she was trying to overtake me. But because there were many people on the street and there wasn't much room for such a bold maneuver she had come too close, and when I turned around she tried to avoid me and fell. The crazy thing is that she looked at me angrily, as though I had been the cause of the accident. "您好嗎?" (are you okay?), I asked. She didn't reply, but simply got up and left muttering to herself.

After this episode I decided to make a video to show you how cyclists in Taipei regularly ride their bikes in the middle of the street, even if there are plenty of people. They overtake, sometimes they ride pretty fast. I think this is a dangerous behaviour, especially because in the middle of a crowd it's hard to see clearly if there are children or animals, and they could hurt someone, or hurt themselves. I really don't get why cyclists are allowed to ride their bikes on the pavement. They should rather have special lanes only for themselves.

Unfortunately, the video is very shaky because I was holding a few bags and had to film with my phone, which has a terrible camera. Anyway, it's just to give you a general idea. You can see how cyclists try to overtake people, and you can also see that they come from behind me, so I cannot see them. The street wasn't extremely crowded that day, especially the campus itself was relatively quiet, but you can imagine how it looks like on the days and hours where it's full of people everywhere.

I also think it's nice to take videos of the city, because they show better than pictures how it feels like to walk around on a street in Taipei. 

Friday, 15 February 2013

"I Want To Be A Millionaire!" - Chinese New Year and The God of Wealth

In Taiwan the 14th of February - one of the first days of the new year of the lunar calendar - is considered the most propitious day to worship Caishen (財神 ), the God of Wealth.

The God of Wealth
This is one of those customs which to people like me who were raised in a Christian environment may appear extremely alienating. I could even begin to sound like one of those early Christians of the Roman Empire who inveighed against the "pagans". No, of course I won't inveigh against anybody. I will rather try as much as I can to immerse in the atmosphere of the religious rituals.

Thousands, if not millions of Taiwanese from North to South gathered this Thursday in temples all over the country to pray. Defying the huge crowds, people did their utmost to be among the first to welcome Caishen in the new year. 

As Apple Daily reported, even children shouted: "I want to be a millionare!"

How Zhao Gongming Became The God of Wealth

Illustrations from the Fengshen Bang
Like many Chinese deities, the God of Wealth is a semi-historical figure. The major literary source for the origin of the God of Wealth is the Fengshen Bang, (封神榜,  translated as "The Investiture of the Gods"), a 16th century Chinese classical novel written during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). 

Military strategist Jiang Ziya (姜子牙) was fighting for Wu Wang of the Zhou dynasty against the last of the Shang emperors. Zhao Gongming (赵公明), a hermit on Mount Emei, sided with the Shang sovereign. Zhao Gongming possessed supernatural powers, and he was defeated only by witchcraft. In order to kill this mighty enemy, Jiang Ziya made a straw image of Zhao, wrote his name on it, burned incense and worshipped it for twenty days. On the twenty-first day he shot arrows into the image's eyes and heart. Zhao Gongming immediately felt great pain, passed out and died. 

Later on Jiang Ziya convinced Yuanshi Tianzun, one of the major Daoist deities, to release from the underworld the spirits of the heroes who had died in battle. Yuanshi Tianzun praised Zhao Gongming's bravery, expressed regret over the circumstances of his death, and appointed him President of the Ministry of Riches and Prosperity. 

Until today, the God of wealth is worshipped in the whole Chinese-speaking world, and is one of the most popular deities during the first days of Chinese New Year, when people pray to secure prosperity and success for the next 12 months. (note 1, 23, and 4: E.T.C. Werner: Myths & Legends of China, p. 251)

Praying To Caishen

As you may imagine, the celebrations are all about money. Temples such as Xiahai Chenghuang Temple gave people red envelopes (紅包). 

In New Taipei City, more than 10,000 worshippers used shuttle buses to reach the Jinshan Caishen Temple (金山財神廟). Inside the temple there were bags with money and bankbooks. People signed with their identity card and then prayed. After the prayer, they "擲筊". This Chinese word describes the throwing of two half-moon-shaped wooden pieces, one side of which is flat while the other one is round. If they fell on the same side for three times, the worshippers could go to the registration desk and get 300 Taiwan dollars. 

Similar rituals were carried out in the thousands of different temples of both Taiwan and mainland China. 

Below is a short video to show how this all works.And you will also see various 辣妹 (lamei=hot girls) dancing inside the temple. Well, this is also cultural difference. I bet you've never seen anything like this in a church, have you?

Thursday, 14 February 2013

East Meets West: Myths About Collectivism and Individualism

The view that Western countries are more individualistic while Eastern countries are more collectivist is still one of the most popular ways people interpret the cultural difference between East and West. 

Academic works seemed to confirm this myth. For instance, studies from the 1970's, 80's and 90's found that Chinese, Japanese and Chinese-Americans tend to perform better in groups than when alone, while the opposite was the case for Westerners (see Leung / Au 2012, p. 500). 

But is this really true?

First of all, we should clarify what we mean when we say individualistic and collectivist. In fact, these words are very ambiguous. 

The Oxford English dictionary gives two definitions of collectivism. The first one is "the practice or principle of giving the group priority over each individual in it"; the second is "the ownership of land and the means of production by the people or the state". We see that this word can be applied to both the social and the economic sphere, creating some confusion. 

The Oxford dictionary has three definitions for individualism: 1) independence and self-reliance; 2) self-centred feeling or conduct; egoism; 3) a social theory favouring freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control. 

So, what do we mean when we say the West is more individualistic and the East more collectivist? Usually, we imply that Western people are more self-centred while Asians are more "group-oriented". But what does this really tell us about the difference in the way people think? It actually doesn't tell us very much, because individualism often tends to be mistaken for either "selfishness" or, in political terms, for self-determination (and individual-based human rights); on the other hand, collectivism often times sounds like a synonymous of "solidarity" and sacrifice, or of repression of the individual. 

That is why these two categories don't help us. I often talked with Koreans who stressed the fact that in Korea people are "like one", that they help each other, while Western individuals just live for themselves. Then I asked them: "So, if a Korean gets a good job, buys a house and a car, will he share his wealth with people who are poorer than him?" They looked at me and realized that what they were saying had in inherent contradiction. In fact, you will easily see that Asian collectivism is not about morality, universal solidarity and disinterested self-sacrifice, at least not more than you will find in the West. 

As a matter of fact, East Asian countries are more unequal than Western countries such as Sweden or Germany. In Northern Europe, people accept that they should pay higher taxes in order to finance the standard of living of unemployed people and egalitarian education opportunities. In this respect, they are therefore more collectivist than Asian societies. 

In order to explain these apparent contradictions we must free our mind from the assumption that we can discuss the difference between East and West in moral terms. In fact, selfishness and altruism are to be found in both cultures, depending on the individual. Selfishness and altruism are moral, individual characteristics. The real difference lies in the degree of conformity to social norms.

Conformity is something Westerners experience, too. I guess that many of us know it from our school years. The pressure to be cool and obtain social status is strong, and we often choose to do what makes us appear best in front of others. In most cases, no one forces us to speak or act in a certain way. We conform to the norm because of our own desire to be accepted and enjoy social status. 

The difference between East and West is therefore to be found in the different degrees of conformity and in the different situations in which conformity is stronger. 

For example, Eastern societies tend to stress the importance of marriage to define the self-esteem of the individual. Often times, if you are single you will be considered a loser. Your parents will put a lot of pressure on their children to get married and have a baby, to achieve a formally stable lifestyle accepted by the society. This pressure is extremely strong. 

In a recent article from the BBC, a 30-year-old Chinese woman explained: "I'm under lots of pressure. My sisters and my relatives all ask me why I'm not married. When they call me, I'm scared to pick up the phone."

If you have lived in Asia, you might have experienced the enormous and pervasive strength of such social pressure, which comes from parents, relatives and friends alike and makes you feel like an outcast if you don't comply.

But as I said, calling the yielding of the individual to this pressure "collectivist" might be misleading, because collectivism means different things and somehow this word seems to maintain the mystification of Eastern thinking instead of giving a neutral explanation. It also prompts people to conclude that yielding to social pressure is morally motivated. 

But you will have definitely noticed various kinds of selfish behaviour in China. I have met several people, among them business men, who didn't really care much about others, and who wanted to enjoy power and wealth for themselves, to which the recognition of the family and the society as a whole is vital. It is hard to reconcile the category "collectivism" with a behaviour that is clearly motivated by ambition. In fact, personal ambition is what drives people to be successful. Collectivism suggests the tendency towards equality and self-repression. But in Asian societies you will rather find a harsh competition between individuals, in which ambition is the motive of their action. 

The second point is that moral standards are different in East and West. For instance, Westerners often perceive Asian people as "deceitful". The reason is that we, generally speaking, have different communication strategies. This doesn't mean that Westerners don't deceit. But as far as I can judge, in Asian countries not sharing your true feelings is way more normal than in the West, and it is often even seen as an acceptable way of handling personal problems. 

The reason why Westerners see Asians as deceitful is that in Asia putting pressure on others while not articulating your true feelings in order to let others understand exactly the motives and purpose of your will is more widespread and more acceptable than in the West. It is often assumed that Asians are less direct; but you will find many situations where Asian people are very direct. If they want to get married and you don't, they will just say what they want. This is the condition to keep the relationship, otherwise they will find someone else. If they want to get married with you and have no one else, they will just say what they want. They will make comments on their friends' appearance, and they will even criticize each other fiercely, provided that they know each other well or are in a hierarchic work relationship. That doesn't mean everybody does this sort of things. Just like in the West, every individual has a different personality, and so there are gentle people, aggressive people etc. The difference lies in the fact that in Asia, people are more used not to express their feelings, but rather to control each other through pressure. 

For instance, if your parents asked you to marry someone you don't love (though you don't dislike him or her), what would you think? I would think my parents are selfish. So, you see that moral standards can differ very much. Asian parents, by stressing social status and material stability over love, on the one hand follow social prescriptions, and on the other are acting against your own instinct and desires. They are not more altruistic in doing so, for they will accept the possibility of your unhappiness or frustration. But Asian moral standards would not condemn parents for this. 

At the same time, while this pressure is extremely direct, it isn't based on a form of communication in which the parties involved share their feelings. There are two parties with their their own position. If children yield to parents' wishes, it's because parents manage to convince them or because children are not strong enough to resist. But, of course, there are children who go their own way, and parents who don't care about social norms. 

It would therefore be wrong to assume that Asian people have higher moral values or a more altruistic mindset than Westerners, and vice versa. The most important thing for both Asian and Western people is to try to understand each other's communication strategies and moral categories, bearing in mind that "good" or "bad" do not depend on culture, but on every individual's character and moral standards.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

"Tainglish": Taiwan's Bad English Ads

A few weeks ago I made a one day trip to Tainan. I took the High Speed Rail (HRS), the fastest way to get there. While I was sitting on the train I leafed through the official HRS magazine and found the following ad.

Now, what does this exactly mean? "Inspire the fascinate dream of travelers".

All right, no one is perfect. I know how difficult it is for someone who is not a native speaker to write in English (since I belong to this group). I don't blame people who make mistakes and I don't mind making mistakes myself. But that's different for a company which is paying to have its ad published on a magazine. 

There are two possibilities: either did the owner/s ask a relative to translate the sentence into English in order to save money; or they hired a translator who lied about his or her English skills, or who got hired only thanks to 'guanxi' and was totally unqualified for the job. 

An even more striking example - inside Taipei main station there is a huge ad with an incredible misspelling. Look at this:

Have you noticed it? Yes, exactly:

What should we make of this? I mean, they could have just checked a dictionary. I understand it's excruciating to check every single word in a long text if you're not a native speaker. But that's just a sentence, it wouldn't have taken much time. Besides, this is supposed to be a professional ad. Did the boss ask a friend or relative to translate it in order to save some money? And how comes it that nobody noticed it? This ad made it on a wall in Taipei main station and no one noticed the mistake. 

Actually, in my humble opinion they don't need to use English. We are in Taiwan and most people speak Chinese. Usually this sort of ads have 99% Chinese and 1% English, because it looks cool and sophisticated to have something written in English. You want to prove your company is international. But if you really want to show your company is international, at least hire someone who can proofread your ads. 

This is not an isolated case. A famous Japanese bakery chain uses a slogan written in English, which makes no sense at all. Some day I might take a picture of that, too. 

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Living in Taiwan: Seven Reasons Why It's Good to Be Here

Chinese New Year can be a pretty boring time for a foreigner. All of my friends were celebrating with their families, and since I have no family here, nor have I a girlfriend whose family I could join, I had nothing special to do. Shops and cafes were closed - apart from big chains like McDonald's or Starbucks, which were overcrowded anyway. So I had a lot of time to think.

On Saturday evening I went out to buy my dinner. While I was walking around, I heard the voices of the people inside their homes, the sounds of their New Year celebrations. Then I suddenly asked myself: "What on earth are you doing here? Why are you still in Taiwan?" 

Before I came to Taiwan, some Taiwanese friends of mine had recommended me their country, highly prasing it and going so far as to say that Taiwan is a "paradise for foreigners" (bear in mind that when I say foreigners I mean 'Westerners'). 

"It's easy for foreigners to find a job," they argued. "Taiwanese are nice to foreigners and treat them better than they treat each other." Others stressed the fact that Taiwan is cheap and there's a lot of great food. Others again talked about "girls who like foreigners." 

Some of these praises I found not to be true - but I will talk about it in another post. Right now I would like to explain why in my view it is indeed good to live in Taiwan.

1 - Taiwan Is a Great Place to Experience Chinese Culture

Well, this statement is quite complicated, because many Taiwanese don't want to be Chinese. Still, despite all the political differences between Taiwan and the PRC, I think it's undeniable that Taiwan is a centre of Chinese culture. People speak Chinese, have Chinese customs, religion and architecture etc. So, if you want to learn Mandarin, Taiwan is a nice place to do it. True, nowadays mainland China is more dynamic and polarizing. But Taiwan is a little bit easier for Western people to live in. Why? Let me explain:

- Taiwan is way smaller than China, which means that its big cities are not much more crowded than in the West. Taipei, for example, is comparable in size to big European cities (around 6 millions in the whole metropolitan area), while cities like Beijing or Shanghai have around 20 million people. That's a big difference, isn't it? 

- Taiwan has a high per capita income and relative income equality. It means that the lifestyle and the standard of living are comparable to those in the West. In China, on the contrary, you have wealth and poverty coexisting side by side in deep contrast. China is a developing country with many challenges ahead, so its way of life and material conditions may be difficult for Westerners to cope with. We should also not underestimate the fact that China is still partially a rural society and that only a few decades ago the majority of the Chinese people were peasants. For people who come from countries like the US, Great Britain or Germany, which industrialized long ago, this might be hard to understand; but we should always remember that the rural way of life, as opposed to the sophisticated urban life of rich countries, might be one reason why the behaviour of some Chinese, including the "new rich", seems to us quite rude and unrefined. 

- Taiwan is a democracy. Well, many Westerners are obsessed with democracy and are deeply anti-Communist, which makes it hard for them to live in China. When a Chinese says: "I'm a member of the Communist party," Westerners give a start. Overall, Westerners don't mind to see in shops portraits of Chiang Kai-shek (at Taipei airport, for instance, there are teapots and plates with Chiang's image), but they are deeply disturbed by depictions of Mao - mostly because the first was 'our' ally and the latter was 'our' enemy. Anyway, I myself believe in democracy, so it's good that in Taiwan you have rule of law, elections, free media and internet (that's why I can write this post; in mainland China blogger, along with many other sites like Twitter or Facebook, is blocked, which is annoying). 
Nevertheless, I'd like to warn Westerners that democracy alone doesn't make countries similar or compatible to Western culture by magic. Taiwanese culture is deeply different from the West's. It is a fallacy to assume that because Taiwan has elections and free media it is "Westernized". It's unquestionable that the influence of the West on Taiwan and Asia in general has been strong. But this word "Westernization", as far as I can judge, is often used in very superficial terms. To name just a few examples, in Taiwan marriage, family or even ideas like freedom and equality are not necessarily the same as in the West (read my posts about marriage and family). But that's not all. If you think about it, you might find out that even very simple concepts like 'respect', 'love', 'politeness', 'sacrifice' etc., have a different meaning from the one you're used to. So, don't overestimate the cultural importance of political labels.

Overall, because Taiwan began to industrialize much earlier than mainland China, it doesn't have the sharp social contrasts and inequality you can see in China. Besides, over the last two decades Taiwan has become a democracy, For these reasons, living in Taiwan might be easier for foreigners than living in mainland China. Taiwan is therefore a great window to the Chinese-speaking world.  

2 - It's Easy for Westerners to Find a Job

This is true if you hold a passport from an English-speaking country. Then you can do what the majority of foreigners do here: work as an English teacher. 

Teaching English in Taiwan is apparently relatively easy. Many cram schools hire people who have no teaching qualification (though I think they must have a bachelor's degree). English teachers have an easy life compared to a great part of the local population. We have to bear in mind that Taiwan is a country with some of the longest working hours in the world and a widespread culture of unpaid overtime. Given the things I heard from Taiwanese people, working here is very stressful, most especially in the IT industry. A report from CNN says it all:

"The annual working hours for Taiwanese employees eclipses many industrialized nations, according to figures from the Council of Labor Affairs (CLA) and the OECD. On average, the Taiwanese work 2,200 hours annually; 20% more than their counterparts in the United States or Japan and more than 35% longer than those in Germany" (note)

Against this backdrop, working as a teacher in Taiwan is a paradise, because you have Western-style working hours and the pay is decent. So it's true that many Western teachers here can have a comfortable, relaxed lifestyle.

If you're not a native speaker of English, like me, things are very different. You may consider finding a 'normal' job, but you must accept the stress and long working hours (and the overtime) attached to it. I've heard that foreigners get a higher pay than locals, which I have no data to confirm, though. I guess it depends on the company and the boss. I heard bosses tend to see foreigners as an 'added value'. Moreover, recognizing the cultural differences, Taiwanese bosses may not treat their foreign employees like they treat their Taiwanese employees. 

3 - Many Taiwanese Think Foreigners are 'Cool'

This seems to be true. For many decades, Taiwanese have been taught that English is necessary and speaking English is not just cool but also extremely useful for their job; many Taiwanese seem to be imbued with myths about Western civilization. 

I'm generalizing, but there are definitely many Taiwanese who think it's cool and useful (because they can speak English and know more about the West) to have a Western friend or a Western boyfriend/girlfriend. 

Taiwanese hold foreigners in high esteem; first of all because of the economy (the West, and Japan, were the example Taiwanese wanted to follow). Then, the very existence of Taiwan depended on American support, because the PRC constantly proclaimed they wanted to invade it. So, admiring the West, and particularly the US, and finding Western things cool was and still is part of the zeitgeist.

Decades of wrong economic policies, however, are beginning to compromise the image of the West, so perhaps some day this 'love for all things Western' will be gone. Nevertheless, it is true that as a Westerner you get a lot of attention and this might be a good feeling for some people. 

4 - Taiwanese are Polite

Yes, they are. People will be nice to you, they won't shout at you or be rude. But wait, it's not that simple... 

We must first of all understand what Taiwanese politeness is about. I would  bluntly describe Taiwanese politeness as a distant, ceremonious indifference. I must point out that politeness and friendliness are two different things. Friendliness is heartfelt, politeness isn't. 

Generally speaking, Taiwanese have two different attitudes towards strangers: 1- indifference; 2- politeness. These two kinds of behaviour depend on different situations. Let me give you two examples to show it.

1) I was sitting on a plane a few weeks ago. There were two Taiwanese mothers with their children sitting in front of me. During the flight, the children began watching the Gangnam style video on their tablets. The music was really loud and it bothered not just me, but also other passengers, who from time to time cast angry looks on the children. But they did not say a word. The typical Taiwanese attitude in such a case is: do nothing. No one told those two mothers that it was rude and disrespectful to let their children play music loudly. In Germany, someone would definitely have told the mothers something like: "Excuse me, but it's really loud. Could tell your children to stop?" But in Taiwan, no one says anything. They simply endure it. This is what I call the "it's-non-of-my-business" attitude. As I said, strangers simply act as though they did not perceive what others were doing, unless it's absolutely necessary for them to intervene. You can see this on the street: people walk and drive as though they were the only ones around. 

2) Politeness is an attitude of more or less cold ceremoniousness. In Taiwan, politeness is usually confined to strangers. When people know each other well, they won't be polite. That doesn't mean they are not nice, but they are definitely not polite. Within the family, instead of politeness there is something I would call "familial piety". To put it plainly: the attitude of the shop girl who tries to sell you a product by putting on a standard smile and using a high-pitch voice is not the same thing as the attitude that a son might have to his parents or a nephew to his uncle. The first is a ceremonious business ritual; the second is based on family ties, which is a relationship that is completely different from the one you have with a perfect strangers like a shop clerk. 

It is therefore true that people here will be polite. While in Germany or Europe in general even strangers may mind your business or be rude to you, in Taiwan they usually won't do that. As a foreigner, we are of course subject to particular attention, but this attention is most of the times positive and benign. So far, except for a bus driver at Taipei bus station, no stranger has ever been rude to me. But, as I said in one of my earlier posts, what we can call rudeness may exist between close friends and family members. 

5 - Taiwanese Girls

I will devote a whole post to this (very old) subject. For now, I will just say that, as far as I could see, there is a specific group of Taiwanese girls that are really into Western men. It is truly one of the most peculiar and fascinating things here in Taiwan; and perhaps one of the most inexplicable. You see pretty young girls literally throwing themselves into the arms of some foreign guy. 

I once went to a club. I was doing nothing at all. I was simply standing at the bar drinking my cocktail. In Europe, no one would have talked to me. But in Taipei, six girls approached me, and two of them were so hot and wore so tiny clothes that I had already noticed them dancing on the dance floor. 

One reason why some Taiwanese have a bad opinion of foreigners is exactly that it is widely known what (some) foreigners do at night. But this phenomenon is so conspicuous that Taiwanese tend to generalize and think all foreigners go clubbing and then take girls home. That isn't the case. Many foreigners do not go clubbing, and many Taiwanese do not either. But those who do it polarize the attention, hence the bad reputation. 

If you're a male who likes clubbing and girls, well - you'd better come and see with your own eyes. I met a Western guy some time ago, who is definitely not very handsome and in Europe probably didn't have much success with girls. In Taiwan, whenever he goes clubbing, he "scores".  

6 - The Weather

Have you ever gone out in shorts in the middle of February? Well, in Taiwan you can. The most interesting thing about the Taiwanese weather is that it is mild and extremely changeable. The temperature rarely goes above 37 and rarely below 15. In Taipei, the average temperature is 19 degrees in the winter and slightly above 30 in the summer. 

The best thing about the weather is that the temperature fluctuates a lot. For example, the summer can be quite hot and humid. But it's not hot every day. Very often it gets cooler, for example 26, 28 degrees. There are also many typhoons during the summer, which bring cool air and wind.  

Only to give you a comparison: in my home country Italy in the summer every day is hot. You have to endure the scorching heat for about three months. In some parts of the country, the temperature can even reach 45 degrees, though rarely. In Taiwan, when it's cold, you know that within a couple of days it will get warmer. When it's hot, you know that in a week or in a few days it will get cooler or there will be a typhoon. 

So, it's not a continuous, long-lasting cold or heat, and there are no unbearable extremes. Having said that, it's true that the summer can be quite challenging, but I guess not as much as in Hong Kong, Singapore or Shanghai.  

7 - The Food

The food is one of the great strengths of Taiwan. Well, not if you don't like Chinese food, of course. But I personally love it. Chinese food is extremely various, you will never stop discovering new dishes wherever you go. Besides, I guess that Taiwan is a paradise for vegetarians and vegans. In fact, Taiwan, like other countries with a long Buddhist tradition, developed over the centuries a Buddhist vegan cuisine that is really delicious. 

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Shilin Official Residence (士林官邸): Chiang Kai-shek's Taipei Villa

Two days ago I went with a friend of mine to "Shilin Official Residence" (Chinese: 士林官邸; pinyin: shìlín guāndǐ). From 1950 to 1970 the nice villa, which is surrounded by a beautiful park, was late Republic of China President Chiang Kai-shek's residence (note). It is located on Zhongshan North Road, in Shilin District of Taipei City (see map).

We met at Shilin MRT Station, and from there we walked to the residence. It took us only about 10 minutes.

During the Japanese Colonial Era, the Horticultural Experimental Station was located in the villa. When China's Nationalist government was defeated by the Communists and Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan (see my introduction to the history of Taiwan), he chose the blue greyish villa as his new residence. The secluded location of the building and the 1,300 square meter park befitted Chiang Kai-shek's and his wife Song Mei-ling's quiet lifestyle.

Entrance of Shilin Residence Park

For many years after Chiang Kai-shek's death, only the park was accessible to visitors, while the villa itself was off-limits. In 2008, a  NT$116 million restoration project began, and on January 2 2011 the villa was officially opened to the public. (note)

When the Republic of China was still recognized as the sole legitimate government of China by most countries, Chiang Kai-shek received distinguished official guests in his Shilin residence. To name only a few: US President Eisenhower (note); US ambassador Walter McConaughy in 1969 (Jay Tailor 2009 p. 547); the then governor of California Ronald Reagan, who took part in the Double Ten Day celebration, that is, the sixtieth anniversary of the 1911 Revolution (ibid. p.571).  

Chiang Kai-shek with his wife Song Mei-ling

The only criticism I would like to make is that it is forbidden to take pictures inside the residence. That's why I cannot post any photos of the very nice and interesting interior, which is, just like the park itself, a fascinating combination of Western and Chinese styles. For instance, Chiang Kai-shek's bed-room was more Chinese, while Song Mei-ling preferred to have a Western-style one. Despite the fact that Chiang Kai-shek was a Chinese nationalist, both he and his wife were Christians, so there are many pictures with religious motives all around the house.

Shilin Official Residence is open Mon~Fri 08:00-17:00 and Sat~Sun 08:00-19:00. Tickets cost 100 Taiwan Dollars per person.

Madam Chiang's Cadillac

A nice cafe at the entrance of the residence. It's the beginning of February, but, as you can see, the weather in Taiwan is like summer in Europe!

My friend told me that Chiang Kai-shek valued feng-shui. Whether this pond or the garden have a special feng-shui, I cannot tell. I didn't ask her to explain me all the details. 

The front of the villa

"[T]he Xinlan Pavilion (新蘭亭) with inscription by Yu Youren which hosted Chiang's birthday celebrations. Former President Chen Shui-bian revealed that the grounds contain a hidden tunnel that connects to the Presidential office in downtown Taipei." (note)

Inside the Xinlan Pavillion

After visiting the residence, I and my friend took a long walk in the neighbourhood. I want to post here some pictures of a school we saw, although it has nothing to do with Shilin residence. I think schools in Taiwan have a peculiar style, completely different from anything I ever saw in Europe. This building, in particular, seems to me like a mix between a department store, a hotel and a Chinese-style house. 

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Friday, 8 February 2013

Family In Chinese Culture - Hierarchy, Harmony, Communication

The Role of the Family in Chinese Culture

Scene from the Song Dynasty Illustrations
of the Classic of Filial Piety (detail),
depicting a son kneeling before his parents.
It is fundamental for Western people to understand the importance that family has in Chinese society. The family was for centuries the pillar of the Chinese state, and we can still observe its centrality in shaping the economic, social and  moral horizon of the Chinese people. However, we should be very careful not to interpret or judge Chinese society assuming that language can be a guidance. Instead, language is more likely to confuse us.

Communication is a process that requires a positioning of the parties involved, both toward each other and toward the cultural narratives that implicitly and unconsciously influence their thinking (see Yin / Hall 2002, p. 199). Only to mention one example: the word 'marriage' can be understood by different speakers in different ways, depending on their own cultural background and personal opinions, which are often not openly explained in conversation. The simple word 'marriage' does not reveal what the speakers associate with the idea of marriage. 

A Westerner, for instance, may think of marriage in terms of a relationship between two individuals; a Chinese, on the contrary, may see it as a matter between two families. In this case, if a Westerner and a Chinese talk about marriage, the notions that are hidden behind the simple words marriage will not come to the surface unless the participants decide to discuss it openly.

In order to understand the impact of the family in Chinese thinking, we must first of all comprehend that in old China, the family was the nucleus of the society. Traditional Chinese society is best understood by referring to the triad ruler-father-husband. This triad represented the formal order of Chinese society. Its opposite was luan, chaos or disorder. For society to function properly, the three relationships (husband-wife, father-son, ruler-subject) had to be strictly hierarchic. These relationships were unequal, that is, the superior demanded obedience from the inferior, while the superior was supposed to exercise his power benignly. (see Swartz 2002, pp. 120-124)

"Within the state ideology of 'family order', disorder was a serious threat to the legitimacy of the imperial system. Disintegrating families reflected poorly on the influence of local magistrates whose job was to keep people quiet (i.e., to avoid litigation and complaints) so the emperor could 'do nothing' (wuwei) and rely on li (or 'rites'). Thus, we see an example of the historical predilection of the Chinese against litigation." (ibid., p. 126)

In this context, disrupting the order of the family meant a disruption of the order of the whole society and consequently of the state. The ultimate rationality of the institution of marriage was not questioned, but it was assumed that it had to serve as the pillar of society, in which the authority of the husband and the father reflected the authority of the emperor. 

Children and wives were thus subordinated to the patriarch, who exercised an extensive power over them. The importance of marriage as a fundamental nucleus of state order is shown by the fact that adultery was considered a state crime. Adultery compromised the purity of the family lineage. Even if the husband decided to show clemency, the sate would nevertheless punish the wife. If a woman acted against the husband, she acted against the state, and she had no one to turn to and nowhere to go. She was but an outcast of the society. (see ibid., p. 127)

As I already mentioned in an earlier post, love and romance were not viewed as the purpose of marriage. On the contrary, marriage was a contract between two families, in which genuine affection was subordinate to material and family lineage concerns. In this way, the empire worked as a self-regulating society, in which strict social norms helped maintaining order. The punishment for not complying with the family ideology of the state was the isolation of the individual, sanctioned by the stigmatization by the society of those who acted against these norms.

An Englishman in China

Sir John Barrow (source)
At the end of the 18th century, the English statesman Sir John Barrow (19 June 1764 – 23 November 1848) served as an attache' of the first British embassy to China. In 1804, he published "Travels in China". It is of great interest to read today - more than two hundred years after the book was written - what Sir Barrow thought about Chinese culture and society. Of course, his opinions can't be considered objective or scientific. Nevertheless, the impressions he recorded are of great historical value and I think it's worth examining them in the context of the Western contact with Chinese society. Most especially because - as we shall see - he criticized in a very interesting way the common understanding Westerners had of Chinese filial piety and family:

"Their [the Chinese'] manners in domestic life are little calculated to produce that extraordinary degree of filial piety, or affection and reverence towards parents, for which they have been eminently celebrated, and to the salutary effects of which the Jesuits have attributed the stability of the government.

Filial duty is, in fact, in China, less a moral sentiment, than a precept which by length of time has acquired the efficacy of a positive law; and it may truly be said to exist more in the maxims of the government, than in the minds of the people. [...] The first maxim inculcated in early life is the entire submission of children to the will of their parents.

The tenor of this precept is not only 'to honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land;' but to labour for thy father and thy mother as long as they both shall live, to sell thyself into perpetual servitude for their support, if necessary, and to consider thy life at their disposal. So much has this sentiment of parental authority gained ground by precept and habit, that to all intents and purposes it is as binding as the strongest law. It gives to the parent the exercise of the same unlimited and arbitrary power over his children, that the Emperor, the common father, possesses by law over his people. Hence, as among the Romans, the father has the power to sell his son for a slave; and this power, either from caprice, or from poverty, or other causes, is not unfrequently put in force. A law that is founded in reason or equity seldom requires to be explained or justified. The government of China, in sanctioning an act of parental authority that militates so strongly against every principle of nature, of moral right and wrong, seems to have felt the force of this remark. [...]

No previous conversation [between bride and bridegroom] is allowed to take place, no exchange of opinions or comparison of sentiments with regard to inclinations or dislikes; all the little silent acts of attention and kindness, which so eloquently speak to the heart, and demonstrate the sincerity of the attachment, are utterly unfelt. In a word, that state of the human heart, occasioned by the mutual affection between the sexes, and from whence proceed the happiest, the most interesting, and sometimes also, the most distressing moments of life, has no existence in China.

The man takes a wife because the laws of the country direct him to do so, and custom has made it indispensable; and the woman, after marriage, continues to be the same piece of inanimate furniture she always was in her father's house. She suffers no indignity, nor does she feel any jealousy or disturbance (at least it is prudent not to shew it) when her husband brings into the same house a second, or a third woman. The first is contented with the honour of presiding over, and directing the concerns of, the family within doors, and in hearing the children of the others calling her mother. It might be urged, perhaps, on the part of the husband, that it would be highly unreasonable for the woman to complain. The man who purchased her ought to have an equal right in the same manner to purchase others. The case is materially different where parties are united by sentiments of love and esteem, or bound by promises or engagements; under such circumstances the introduction of a second wife, under the same roof, could not fail to disturb the harmony of the family, and occasion the most poignant feelings of distress to the first. But a Chinese wife has no such feelings, nor does the husband make any such engagements.

It has been remarked that this unnatural crime [prostitution] prevails most in those countries where polygamy is allowed, that is to say, in those countries where the affections of women are not consulted, but their persons purchased for gold—a remark which may lead to this conclusion, that it is rather a moral turpitude than a propensity arising from physical or local causes. The appetite for female intercourse soon becomes glutted by the facility of enjoyment; and where women, so circumstanced, can only receive the embraces of their proprietors from a sense of duty, their coldness and indifference, the necessary consequence of such connections, must also increase in the men the tendency to produce satiety. (John Barrow: Travels in China, Chapter IV)

Barrow's word are not unbiased. They refer to a society that doesn't exist any more, so that it's impossible for us to verify his description. Furthermore, China has, of course, experienced radical social changes and modernization in the past two hundred years. Children and wives now enjoy a great degree of freedom that was unimaginable in the 18th century. 
Teach English Abroad
Nevertheless, Barrow expresses a contrast between Eastern and Western family structure which, surprisingly enough, has still some validity nowadays. While Westerners tend emphasize love, affection, communication and warmth as the ideal (and I stress the word ideal) of marriage, Chinese, instead, tend to emphasize stability, formality, filial piety, sacrifice and economic welfare. That is not meant to suggest that Chinese marriage is devoid of love or that in the West material concerns play no role; it rather shows different general tendencies and communication strategies. 

Harmonious Society and Emotional Barriers

In many respects, the Chinese concept of family indeed contributes to social stability. When every individual has defined roles, and breaking the positive law is sanctioned by the society, individual decisions are subjected to strict social control. 

The stability of the Chinese family is a major factor in what is commonly called "the harmonious society". It is nevertheless necessary to question the term "harmony" and try to take a closer look at its nature. To this purpose, we shall examine some fundamental characteristics of the Chinese family.

Obedience is an important requirement of filial piety. Generally speaking, filial piety is not based on mutuality. While in the past, the term obedience could be understood literally, today this word can rather be described as the yielding of the children to parental pressure. Parents exert pressure on their children in order to discourage the formation of self-determined wishes that might run against what is considered socially acceptable.

"In Chinese parenting, parents would usually encourage children to pursue socially approved 'vertical goals', hoping to receive thereby more social achievement [...]. However, for the 'horizontal goals' that children personally embrace, Chinese parents would not necessarily give the same support. Although Chinese have a concept of 'family as a whole', compared with vertical distinctiveness, parents feel a lesser degree of having or not having face as a result of their children's achievement or failure in horizontal goals." (Hwang / Han 2012, p. 493)
Material success and marriage are usually the two main points on which Chinese parenting focus. Parents inculcate in their children the need to be successful in school and work, even if that means neglecting friendship or leisure. The same as to marriage: parents discourage their children from trusting their feelings of love and the pursuit of happiness, and put pressure on them to choose their partners in order to enhance their social status and their financial well-being. A reflection about the ultimate reason why marriage is a goal per se, while love or happiness are seen as having low priority, are, too, discouraged.

Communication between parents and children therefore tends to be vertical, that is, hierarchic. It is not a mutual understanding in which both parents and children share their feelings and thoughts. A feedback from the children is possible, but parents will exert as much pressure as possible in order to influence their children. As a recent article on the BBC shows, pressure from the family to find a marriage partner can go so far as to become cause of anxiety and stress for children.

We should, however, be careful not to mistake parental pressure for despotism. While in old China fathers might have been despotic, this is, generally speaking, not the case in modern times, and children enjoy a high degree of freedom. They can also openly disregard parents' advice, as long as they have the strength of character to act against parental and social norms.

We can describe parental influence as a "benign authority" which claims to be based on a knowledge and a common sense that children are seen as incapable of obtaining on their own. Parental pressure is therefore - if I may use this word - a kind of light and benevolent "indoctrination" based on what society views as right or wrong. It is the result of century of development in which "family ideology" was the foundation of the old Empire.

Western people sometimes misunderstand the meaning of the harmonious society. First of all, we must understand the formal, ritual and social character of Chinese marriage practices. Chinese often think of their own society as superior because divorce rates are lower than in the West. However, this is a misunderstanding. Unhappy families exist both in the West and China. But while in the West this may often lead to divorce, in Chinese culture social stability is seen as having priority. If, for example, the husband has another woman, or if there are serious problems between parents and children, a Chinese family is more likely to keep up the appearance by avoiding divorce, despite the fact that all the individuals of the family might be unhappy and have deep conflicts. Especially if parents didn't get married because of the feelings they felt for each other, alienation might eventually occur. But while divorce rates can be easily measured, family unhappiness and conflicts cannot. 

On the other hand, because marriage is based on rational considerations that have the purpose of maintaining stability, love, affection and warmth are of lesser importance. You may find that members of Chinese families tend not to express their feelings to each other, but keep a wall surrounding them. For instance, the feeling of love is seldom expressed verbally. 

If parents push their children to get married, maybe telling them that love isn't important, or putting pressure in order that their children may marry a certain person, they definitely have the well-being and happiness of their children in mind, however they are often not ready to change their own view or to discuss it with their children, even when they are aware they might be  sacrificing their children's happiness. This is what I would call an "asymmetric communication strategy".

I would like to illustrate this point by the following example. I once met a Taiwanese man who worked for a big IT company. He complained with me that his Western customers were often not very nice to him and his colleagues. In fact - he argued - the Taiwanese company always sent people to pick up Western business partners at the airport and invited them to eat. But the Western partners didn't do the same for the Taiwanese when they travelled to the West. I explained to him that his Western customers didn't see the necessity of engaging in social activities with them, because it was just a business matter. The Taiwanese side assumed that Taiwanese formal business rules could be applied to Western people and please them. However, dinners in which business partners gather, eat and drink in a semi-official atmosphere might not necessarily suit Western preferences. The Taiwanese should have instead asked their Western customers what they wanted to do and if they needed anything. In fact, a Westerner might be less content with a situation of formal kindness, than with something he or she really needs and wants, which can make him or her truly happy. This is what I would call an asymmetric communication strategy: when two parties communicate vertically, that is, when one side does not ask the other and does not try to understand the feelings or wishes of the other before making any decision, but rather demands formal compliance with his or her wishes. Asymmetric communication strategies are the reason why Asian people are often considered "indirect" by Westerners. In reality, we shall see in the next posts that Asians and Westerners are both direct or indirect, but in different situations.