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John Wayne's Holster: Taiwan - Just Like the US, Only Different
John Wayne's Holster
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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Taiwan - Just Like the US, Only Different

Sunrise at Yushan (Jade Mountain, Taiwan)

Travelling offers one the opportunity to see how people from different countries or cultures go about life. For me, it is always interesting to veiw my own culture through the lens of another. There are always lessons to be learned.

I am currently spending the summer in Taiwan. The main purpose of the trip is to visit family members and explore opportunities of (possibly) putting down some roots here.

During my time here, as well as during several previous vists, I have made a lot of observations. Actually, I spend a great deal of my time observing, as my Mandarin language abilities leave much to be desired. But I am slogging away at it, and making (very) slow but steady progress.

The island has a long and complicated history. Taiwan has historically been inhabited by Malay and Polynesian peoples. Many other peoples have also made Taiwan their home. Mainland Chinese have emigrated to Taiwan over the years for one reason or another - typically to escape oppressive governments or to search for a better life. The Japanese ruled the island several times as well, with many Japanese settling here. As such, Taiwan has a fairly rich demographic and cultural composition. That being said, the character of the island is overwhelmingly Chinese.

In many ways, Taiwan is similar to the United States. In many more ways, it is not. I think it is fair to say that modern Taiwanese admire the western (i.e. US) lifestyle. To ensure that lifestyle, Taiwan has modeled its economic system after the US. As such, the goings-on on Wall Street and inside the beltway affect Taiwan almost as much as they affect the US itself. According to a popular local saying, "when the US get a cold, Taiwan sneezes."

Taiwan's economy is a capitalist system strongly driven by exports. Unlike the US, Taiwan enjoys a large trade surplus and has averaged about 8% real GDP growth over the past three decades. Although the government still maintains some control over the economy, the current trend is toward a hands-off or laizee faire approach. This deregulation may result in the same kind of trouble for Taiwan that the US banking industry is going through.

If the worldwide economy does experience a downturn, I think Taiwan will fare better than the US. For starters, I have seen a much stronger work ethic among the Taiwanese than I have seen in the US. In addition, the people here do not have the same "entitlement mentality" that many Americans have. In other words, the Taiwanese are not going to sit around and wait for the government to bail them out. Moreover, the Confucian family principle still remains strong here. People generally put the needs of their family and country before individual needs. It is not uncommon for two or three generations of a family to live under the same roof. And people take care of their parents and grandparents when they are old or sick, rather than shipping them out to nursing homes and such for someone else to take care of.

Overall, the country is pretty safe. Certainly, Taiwan has its share of crime, especially since marial law was lifted in the late 80's; however, compared to the US, its rate of violent crime is low. During my time here, I have rarely heard police sirens. And about the only time I have ever seen a police officer, he was standing by the roadside holding a radar gun.

Speaking of roads and radar guns, driving in Taiwan can be hazardous to your health. Surely there are road signs, traffic lights, and such, but no one seems to notice them. Red lights are taken as mere suggestions. Double yellow lines painted on the road simply indicate where the middle of the road is. Drivers are free (apparently) to drive on either side of it, or straddle it if they so choose. Making a left turn is more akin to a game of chicken or a test of wills. J. Edgar Hoover must have developed his aversion to left turns during a visit to Taiwan. Crossing the street is an adventure. Of course, crosswalks are present at most intersections, but these are not reminders for motorists that pedestrians may be about. Rather, they seem more like reminders for pedestrians to keep their eyes peeled for vehicles whose break pedals are wired directly to the horn.

Traffic concerns aside, the condition of the roads in Taiwan is quite good. With the exception of some rural or moutainous areas, the roads are maintained quite well. Traffic jams are sometimes encountered, but by New York or San Francisco standards, they are not that bad. About the only time of year one can expect major delays is during the Chinese New Year and the Double-Ten holiday.

Environmentalism is a mixed bag here. The large export industry of Taiwan is driven by industrialization. Industry in turn generates a lot of pollution, especially in the south where a great deal of industry is centered. Although Taiwan does have an EPA, it does not appear to be as effective as it should be. Industrial pollution in Taiwan is pretty bad. In Kaohsiung county, the air quality is among the worst I have ever experienced. The water quality is not great either, but I must say that it is getting better. The Love River in Kaohsiung was notoriously famous for its stench - a funk that gave Cho Dofu (aka Stinky Tofu) a run for its money. However, the government has recently done a great deal to clean the river up. That being said, reports of the governor retrieving a crab from his pocket after swimming in the river was ridiculous. And as far as the river's fetor goes, I don't think Chanel stockholders will lose sleep if someone starts marketing a Love River fragrance line.

In other areas, environmentalism is alive and well. Formosa Plastic's plans to operate a steel processing plant near the Cigu Estuary was turned down due to the potentially negative impact on both the endagered Black-faced Spoonbill and Pacific Humpback Dolphin. Recycling is also widespread in Taiwan. Just about every neighborhood has a recycling center, many of which are staffed by volunteers. And just about everything is recycled.

On the cultural front, Taiwan would seem a bit odd to the average westerner. Karaoke Bars (aka KTV Bars) are everywhere. The bars are pretty fancy as well. They are not your typical American dive with a microphone and projection screen TV. KTV bars have private rooms with plush sofas, flat screen LCD TVs, and state of the art karoake machines. They provide high-class waitress service where one can order cocktails, mixed drinks, finger foods, sushi, etc. But like the US, most people can't sing. Perhaps the private rooms is a blessing in disguise.

While we are discussing music, I should also mention that, suprisingly, the Carpenters are immensely popular here. I heard them so many times on the radio that I think their lyrics are permenantly stuck in my head. If I hear Yesterday Once More once more.... Hip Hop music is also popular here, but not the Snoop Dog or Dr. Dre variety. It's Chinese rappers apparently mimicing American hip-hop. It's a pretty good facsimile, but comes off more like Jackie Chan donning an NBA jersey, low riding pants, a backwards Yankee's hat (Chien-mien Wang is home-grown), and lots of bling. But unlike the US, Chinese character tatoos are not all that popular here.

The food in Taiwan is excellent. But don't try ordering General Tso's Chicken or Egg Foo Young. Nobody knows what that is here. When you explain to them what it is, they laugh and wonder how westerners can eat that crap. As far as variety goes, anything goes. The locals have a saying, "If it can walk, crawl, fly or swim, it can be eaten. And that is not far from the truth. As for quality, most restaurants here serve good quality, great tasting food. Even your roadside vendors sell food that is better than some five-star restaurants in the US. And to be fair, some are worse than rat-infested KFCs. Speaking of KFC, it is very popular here. So are Starbucks, McDonalds and Pizza Hut. McD's even delivers.

On the negative side, people waste a lot of food here. It is fashionable among the young professionals to entertain large groups of friends, ordering immense amounts of food that no party could hope to finish. It's sort of a way to flaunt your wealth, or at least paint the facade of wealth, to your colleagues.

Politics here is also highly polarized - even more so than the US. Part of the country wants to declare independence from mainland China. They resent everything the ghosts of Chiang Kai Shek and Chiang Ching Kuo, and the KMT party (aka China pigs) stand for. The other part of the county respects the contributions of the KMT party and wants to maintain the status quo with China. Neither can apparently see eye to eye with the other. It is not uncommon to see fist fights - actually slap fights - in Taiwan's parliament. And the woman can (and do) dish out the slaps as well as the men.

Smoking here, like mostly everywhere else, is also popular, but not nearly popular as chewing betel nut. This cultural feature is so fascinating, that it deserves its own blog article. As such, I will follow-up this post with a betel nut post.

Lastly, issues of privacy or personal space are treated much differently here than in the US. For the most part, they are not issues. Siblings often share bedrooms, not just with each other, but with their parents and/or grandparents. And there are few (if any) secrets in a Taiwanese home. Houses in the cities are typically so close, that neighbors often know the goings-on in each other's homes. It is not uncommon for neighbors or relatives to invite themselves over to your house, unannounced, late at night. When they come in, they expect to fed. And the hosts do not feel imposed upon. It's the way things go in a tight-knit community built on Confucian principles. I guess Hillary was right, it does take a village.

Personal space issues don't end at the village gate either. While visiting the Science and Technology Museum in Kaohsiung, I had (in my mind) my personal space violated. I was in the men's restroom relieving myself of several cups of green tea. Seeminly out of nowhere, a little old lady with rubber gloves and a scrub brush started cleaning the urinal to my left. When she finished, she stood next to me, apparently waiting for me to finish so she could get on with her work. I thought this was an anomoly, but it happened to me again at a restaurant a few days later.

Anyway, those are some of my observations of Taiwan. In many ways, Taiwan is like the west. In fact, it has (unfortunately) modeled itself as such. I fear that if Taiwan continues on this path, they may find their way of life eroded until they are left with the selfish, valueless, ethically bankrupt moral relativism of the west. In fact, this has already begun to happen. Cartoons in Taiwan often show crude behavior, such as public urination or abuse of women. Drug and alcohol abuse are increasing. Young people are becoming less family centered and more focused on personal happiness - at any cost.

Fortunately, Taiwan is also different. Traditional asian and family values are still strong in the culture. However, these values are being diluted in the quest for all things American. In my opinion, Taiwan would be better off to model themselves after other asian countries (Singapore comes to mind). Or better yet, create a uniquely Taiwanese identity grounded on Confucian principles.


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