Welcome to Taiwan, foreigner!

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And so, much as White men (and various other types of men and women) have been doing for hundreds of years, I arrived in East Asia (Taiwan) looking for adventure and loot! And much as East Asians have been doing for hundreds of years, I was stared at by people who felt that I was really different from them on some kind of fundamental level. And, yes, it does bother me somehow, even to this day, despite my history of wandering. But doesn’t change the fact that I love Taiwan!

In fact, in the last post I suggested that I might have been in some way prepared for the cultural adventure here in Taiwan by my long history of interacting with different groups of people worldwide. But when I got here I made many mistakes, and was almost totally unaware of the specifics of East Asian culture. You could almost say that I bumbled and stumbled my way into knowledge of what not to do! I spoke too loudly in public places. I complained noisily when things didn’t go well, not knowing how badly I was losing face and causing others to lose face. I confronted people directly, and said things like “That’s stupid!” if someone did something stupid. As if I was cool to call it stupid, instead of actually being a fool because I was saying too much! On many different levels, I was out of tune with all the subtle signals that people around me were trying to convey.

In terms of consequences, however, that didn’t matter in Taiwan quite as much as you might think. The locals here tend to be one of the friendliest groups of people in the world to foreigners, and very tolerant as well. This made it possible to keep making mistakes without even realizing it.

Yet gradually but inexorably, pattern recognition set in, data was compiled, and a mental map of the culture here began to form. I don’t mean the obvious things, like Taiwanese are laid-back but hard-working and very family oriented, or that there is a strong influence of traditional culture on the modern. I mean the deeper parts of culture that govern expectations and emotional reactions to other people in social situations. These were different from any other place I’d been before.

After enough interactions – both successful and unsuccessful – with Taiwanese, things clarified into two basic precepts to avoiding problems in Taiwan:

1) Chill out! People here did NOT like it AT ALL when other people –especially foreigners – got angry, rowdy, obviously frustrated, or in their face in any way. Go with the flow!

2) Don’t be fooled! People here could have it in for you without your knowledge. Or could seem to agree with you without actually even understanding what you were saying. Or seem like the sweetest people in the world until you worked for them, but then…! Not that everybody was like this; just some people. But they could affect your life.

If you could follow those two concepts, you’d be OK. People would treat you fairly well indeed, and you could live happily here, provided that you liked the food and other aspects of life here.

But that still didn’t change the fact that Taiwan is part of East Asia, thousands of kilometers from Europe and the Mediterranean, on the far side of the Eurasian land mass. East Asia is isolated from the West by vast steppes, deserts, tundra, jungles and mountains. Hence, it had evolved autonomously for thousands of years, totally self-sufficient in terms of culture and technology, before Whitey ever showed up in his ships. Over history, the different ethnic groups of the region, dominated by the Han of China, had developed knowledge of and relationships with each other; they had become familiar co-features in a (largely) shared view of the world. So when the bold, stinky and loot-lusting gingers showed up in the 15th century, it was a complete shock that such people could even exist. It was even more of a shock that they seemed to have little interest in fitting in to the East Asian’s largely shared view of the world, and indeed had their own very different view of the world. And it got even worse! They even imposed their own view of the world on the Asians! Aiyo!

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Psssst! Wanna buy some opium?

The seismic wave of this cultural impact is still reverberating, and the initial response of “Huh?” when they see foreigners has faded only in part. People’s eyes almost pop sometimes when they see the see a White guy. (And they definitely pop when they see a Black guy!) For example, I’m in the elevator, going down. It stops on another floor, the door opens and there’s a local guy waiting to get into the elevator: He sees me: “Oh! A foreigner!!” his face says, so he either looks slightly terrified or has to engage me. Note, he has no fear that I will mistreat him. His fear is simply that he has to share space with me. Or, a mother is on the subway with her little boy, who looks at me and sees a face that is different, so quite normally he stares. Most probably he would get over it after a few minutes and look at something else. But instead his mother tells him how to react by her reaction, “Say hello! Say hello!” she says, making a big deal of it, and passing this “sense of intrinsic – as opposed to superficial – difference on.

Of course, the xenophobia in Taiwan is a much milder version than that of Japan or Korea, and can be in fact quite pleasant. It is a positive form of discrimination in many social situations. Ladies tend to think of foreign men as being more handsome than they would be regarded back home. People are very friendly and polite, helping out whenever necessary, and saying hello with big smiles.

But there is a deep sense of “us” and “them”, a high, steep wall around the culture that is almost insurmountable. No matter how long you are here, you will always be asked where you are from. This is something that is quite frankly annoying for those of us who have lived here for a long time. Don’t get me wrong, Taiwan is great, and I respect and have great fondness for the Taiwanese. But as Boromir might say on Facebook, “One does not simply become Taiwanese!”

This is very different from the experience of those of us who have come from multicultural societies.

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Welcome to the Culture Shack!

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This marks the start of my new blog for Clear Sky Communications on my favorite aspect of the company’s operations, cross-cultural communication. Why did I get interested in this field? Obviously not for the money! But, long story short, travel and cultural exploration have been part of my life since as far as back as I can remember. And why a Culture Shack? Well, aside from the play on words with Culture Shock, this blog is intended to be creative and somewhat informal.

When I was growing up in Nova Scotia, my mom did social work in North Preston and Cherrybrook. These were largely poor rural Black communities with long histories stretching back to the days of the Atlantic slave trade. When I was with my mom, we’d often be invited into people’s homes. To me at the time, a wee lad of seven, It felt so different than the homes of the people on my street. The houses were older, there were more people inside them. The food smelled odd, the people talked differently and I was the racial minority. But there was an unmistakable feeling of warmth and welcome. So I relaxed and played in the yard with the neighborhood kids, and had a great time. Cross-cultural lesson number 1: when there is positive energy on both sides, cultural differences are not that important.

Later my family moved to Lesotho in Southern Africa for two years. My dad had got a development job for the Canadian government building a town in the mountains, and took advantage of this opportunity to take the whole family on an adventure. Life in a small African country in 1975 is something that is pretty hard to describe to the modern networked crowd. We didn’t have a TV, so I read a lot. Our phone number was four digits long! Socially, the elite Lesotho citizens and the expats didn’t mix much, other than at elite schools. One of my main cultural experiences was with other expats: for the first time in my life I was socializing with Brits, Aussies, Israelis, Indians, and Americans. This was kind of fun! I learned about marmite, Milo, ginger beer, and boys’ comics. The prep school I went to was British style, as Lesotho had been a British colony. There were uniforms, prefects, and the possibility of being caned by the headmaster! On weekends, there was the Maseru Club, with its bowls, polo field, tennis courts, and Sunday curries! The ghost of the British Empire (sorry Commonwealth!) was still around, at least as long as the Colonel was alive, a veteran from WW1 who would chase us naughty boys off the premises if we were naughtier than usual. This kind of club and prep school lifestyle was of course in stark contrast to that of most of the locals, who lived a life of hard work, poverty, and little chance of escape to something better.

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Just across the border lay South Africa. My dad’s sister (from England, like my dad) had married a South African doctor studying in London, and moved back with him. They had a family and my dad’s parents had retired there. It was fun, driving down from the crisp, arid mountains of Lesotho to the warm, floral seacoast of Durban, for southern hemisphere Christmas in summer. Braaivleis of boerewors by the pool! Loads of family, sweets and Christmas presents!

The one disturbing thing though was the apartheid. It was in full bloom when we were there. Steve Biko died in police custody four months after we moved back to Canada. In addition to schools and residential areas, swimming pools, beaches, restaurants, and bathrooms were also racially segregated. My adopted sister was part Black, and sometimes we’d get glared at, or she’d have to go to a different bathroom than us, which upset her and made me angry. I discussed the issue of apartheid with my Afrikaner uncle Johan, who would defend it. “It’s just different systems for different kinds of people,” he’d say. I disagreed, but he was still a great guy. Cultural lesson number 2: you can love people you disagree with.

Moving back to Canada gave me my first experience with reverse culture shock. I was unprepared for Canadian white-picket fence suburbia in Ottawa. But years later when I moved to Montreal, I had another cultural experience: les Québécois! Making friends with some cool French Canadian folks in Montreal was a new experience for me, and one I really enjoyed. There was something very laid back and “just human” about Québécois culture, a certain lack of pretentiousness. I felt more comfortable being spontaneous and creative there than in stuffy old Ottawa. There is something free spirited in the Montreal culture that I love. I embraced these new characteristics, and consciously tried to become more open minded. My third cultural lesson was that you can not only learn about other cultures but also learn from them, indeed be changed by them, hopefully for the better.

My next big cultural experience was when I went to India for six months to stay with my parents, who were doing development work there for nine years. Of course, it was a crazy, colorful experience. India is an amazing place for a young traveler, riding around on trains, seeing beaches, temples, markets, and all the psychedelic pandemonium that “India” implies. Being a lazy young backpacker, hanging out with other travelers, wandering around this amazing country, was a fantastic experience. But my main cultural experience here was having an Indian girlfriend. She was a smart and lovely young lady, studying pharmacology at a university in New Delhi. She was a friend of a friend of a neighbor of my parents. We hit it off very well. She said that I was her “MB hero”! (From Mills and Boon, a sister company to Harlequin Romance.) But while we were like a normal couple in private, she was terrified of showing any physical affection in public. Part of this was the fear of being disowned by her family if they felt she had behaved dishonorably. Another major issue for her was the very real chance of being stalked and sexually assaulted on the way back to her dorm. Being young and somewhat inexperienced at the time, I thought her fears were exaggerated. Only much later did I understand how real these dangers were, and how brave she had been to date me at all. So, cultural lesson number 4: People will deviate from cultural expectations if they want to, but often only secretly. Their culture and society still have a terrible power over them through fear and shame.

The main lessons I learnt from all these cultural interactions was that culture is more than just the obvious things, such as language, religious rituals, food, music etc. There is a deeper level: The issues of self-identity and description, as well as values and beliefs about humanity and morality, are the true differences between us. Who are you? What defines you? What must you do? What are you allowed to do? What mustn’t you do? What is acceptable to you? I had only touched the surface of these things in my previous travels, but came to truly confront and seek to understand them after years of living in Taiwan. This lead to the research which became the basis for the cultural training that my company now conducts.

But for me it is more than just the background to a training platform: it is part of my own journey to make sense of this complex and confusing world. Traveling around, interacting with other cultures: it’s what I do! And loving it!

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