The International Writers Magazine

Running Away in Taipei
Pam Klicki

Taiwan is a humble Chinese island nation turned popular sanctuary for a growing expat community. With job and travel opportunities galore, foreigners are flocking to Taiwan and further impacting the nation’s hybrid identity.

Like many a transient foreigner here, I’m on the run from a stereotypically normal life back home in Canada. Wanting to travel but needing to work, I came to Taiwan with two goals in mind, take a cultural challenge, then take the money and run.
Now, having lived for over two years in Taipei, the over-crowded, polluted capital city of Taiwan, the haze has settled in. East has met west, culture is commercial, and the national image is on the fence.
From all over the globe, foreigners come to Taiwan to involve themselves in thriving industries like education and technology. With personal goals and temporary time frames in mind, we rarely ponder how our ubiquitous influence is affecting the local people.
Foreigners provide language training and cultural insight; a highly demanded service in Taiwan. For simply talking the talk and walking the walk, we are treated to a rich quality of life with little consequence. Foreigners are paid well to share experiences, yet we’re territorial about the cultural norms we see copied in Taiwanese pop culture. Despite our intentions of cultural generosity, we criticize their adaptations of our Western institutions.
The Taiwanese are very admittedly interested in adopting western culture. They grow up with American television and music. They learn about and admire Western ideology. But in Taiwanese society, a lack of true bonding between foreigners and locals exists.
"Living in Taipei, it's very easy not to get involved in the culture," says Barbara, an Entrepreneur from Ireland. "I don't feel a sense of history in Taipei, and there's not much promotion for Taiwanese culture."
Barbara has lived and traveled all over Europe and America and says this is the first time she's felt so disconnected from the local people. She feels the cultural differences stifle communication between locals and foreigners.
The Taiwanese don’t strive to mirror every aspect of Western culture. Drinking alcohol for instance is a social taboo here unless done so in a bar or night club. Behaving boisterously in public is frowned upon, and complaining is highly unnatural. Such social benchmarks of Western society are very out-of-place in Taiwan. But due to the advantages of the Western influence otherwise, foreigners are rarely criticized for their “inappropriate” behavior.
Greg, 32, a teacher from South Africa, has been living in Taipei for over five years. He’s married to a local woman with whom he speaks Chinese, but says they communicate from a Western standpoint. Greg represents a significant contingent of the foreign population here; established, involved, but not culturally socialized. Greg considers Taiwan's adaptability to be among its assets. He hopes foreigners can recognize this as an authentic, positive aspect of Taiwanese culture. "Taiwan is unique in Asia because it's a very adaptable place,” says Greg.  “It's had to be from the start." 
Taiwan is a rogue nation of China. Passed back and forth between China and Japan since 1895, it has narrowly avoided Communism under the watchful eye of the Mainland. Ruling authorities in Taiwan have been left alone for over five decades to cultivate the prosperous democratic pin-drop.
Economic prosperity has been Taiwan’s focus. It’s still defining its cultural identity as it attempts to gain face in the global village. Both proud and regretful of its Chinese/Japanese history, it now has a finger on the pulse of American culture.    "It's Disneyland culture," says Barbara, of contemporary Taiwanese copy-cat style. True, Taiwan favors the "kitschy," colorful, cartoon character-driven image Disney invented and Japan has refined. But why in Taiwan's case is it seen as tacky? Does Taipei need a Disneyland theme park to substantiate itself? 
Elana, 25, is an American teacher who's been in Taipei for over two years. She’s made painstaking effort to immerse herself in Taiwanese culture. Learning to speak Mandarin and exploring local interests with local people are a way of life for her. "It gives me a better experience than other foreigners," she says.
 Elana’s efforts aren’t shared by most foreigners here. Those in Taipei stick to western ghettos where they are surrounded by the comforts of home. Western-style restaurants and shops provide a tolerable English environment on the fringe of authentic Asia. 

Factories and little plastic toys are primarily associated with Taiwan. Its major cities are concrete jungles thrown together in a misshapen, unaesthetic manner; where by the small gems of the island are easy to take for granted even for those living here. The beautiful mountain getaways, lovely beaches, and bustling night markets become highlights only if you 'mission out' to experience them.

Many foreigners working in Taiwan are here to pay off debt or earn money for travel. English teaching, the top foreign job market here, easily develops into a long-term occupation choice based on job availability. Whether we enjoy it or not, we teach, take what we need and offer little to nothing in return. We assimilate the willing Taiwanese into Western culture in their own backyard. As visitors to the country, we are excused for neither contributing nor learning and appreciating their indigenous culture.
"Why Taiwan?" people ask when I’m out on my travels. I crack the "everything's made in Taiwan," joke time after time, but I often wonder the same question. Taiwan has given me the quality of life, job flexibility, and opportunity to travel I could never have in Canada. But an exasperating quality about Taiwan keeps me on the run. Taiwan has become westernized by choice and incident, but there are some cultural gaps influence may never bridge.   
"Saving face," a governing principle in their relations with others shrouds the culture in confusion to outsiders. A loss of face happens when someone is publicly embarrassed. After being stared at, pointed to and whispered about, approached and asked personal questions, as a foreigner you must "save face" and respond politely. A foreigner reacting with annoyance or anger results in a loss of face for the inquisitive, but intimidated Taiwanese.
I’ve seen a Taiwanese man ignore his dog’s droppings on a 7-11 store floor. Men and women alike don’t excuse themselves for spitting in the street. Mothers allow their children to urinate in public. Excusing or even acknowledging such actions means losing face.
The cultural-sensitivity challenges for foreigners in Taiwan are worth the privileged lifestyle we lead. But as social consciousness evolves, so will acceptance of social norms on both sides. With an endless stream of Westerners passing through the Taiwan turnstiles, only time will tell how well borrowed culture really sells.
As for me, I’m still deciding where I fit into the Taiwan mix. I sit, sipping Chinese tea on Tuesday evenings with my private student, discussing the perplexing cultural differences between her and me. Each week I ponder whether I deserve the 700 New Taiwanese dollars per hour she’s paying me to chat with her. I walk out to my scooter and drive off, feeling I am but a simple a clog in the machine. Somehow I’m doing what I came here to do.
© Pam Klicki December 2005

More Destinations here

© Hackwriters 1999-2005 all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibiltiy - no liability accepted by or affiliates.