Taiwanese Reverse Culture Shock

Reverse culture shock sometimes occurs when someone who has lived long term in a foreign country returns home. It is possible to experience psychological and emotional distress while trying to reintegrate into your native society. Reverse culture shock can be very pernicious because often it hits unexpectedly. Most expats anticipate needing to make cultural adjustments, but frequently return home presuming they’ll easily slip back into accustomed patterns. However, while abroad values and cultural assumptions may have shifted from living in another culture. Expats often see themselves as outsiders, so it can be surprising how much the host country’s culture and mores have been absorbed. During the expat’s absence, the home country may have shifted socially or culturally further alienating the repatriating expat. Returning home to find the familiar has become unfamiliar can be genuinely surprising. Reverse culture shock is difficult to manage because it’s unforeseen.

Personally, I’ve never dealt with a strong case of reverse culture shock. When I returned to Canada after working in Korea, I had a few minor issues, textbook reverse culture shock symptoms. I couldn’t explain my experiences abroad, which didn’t matter much, no one wanted to listen. I felt estranged from Canadian society, and definitely had no chance to utilize my new skills. Since I’d only been gone a year, those feelings were manageable. I’ve been living outside Canada for a couple decades now. I only return occasionally for brief visits. I’m on vacation, not reintegrating. Friends and family tell me I don’t fit into Canadian culture anymore. Truthfully I don’t know what they’re talking about. I suppose they know something I don’t, and I’d suffer severe reverse culture shock if I moved back.

The feeling of reverse culture shock I remember best was actually the most minor. Robin Pascoe in Homeward Bound notes: “re-entry shock is when you feel like you are wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes. Everything looks almost right.” I experienced this in a more literal sense than Pascoe intends. While driving around Saskatoon, after first arriving back, I was unable to shake the feeling of wearing new glasses to which my eyes were unaccustomed. You know the sensation when you get a new prescription, turn your head, and the buildings seem to lie down. That’s exactly how I felt. A feeling of vertigo induced by an unfamiliar skyline with low  buildings and flat terrain. It was an unexpected physical manifestation of reverse culture shock.

Though I have limited personal experience of reverse culture shock, I have coped with Taiwanese returning after long stays overseas. Their reverse culture shock has been a problem. I work in Taiwan’s university system. One thing Taiwanese universities do is invite Taiwanese scholars, who have spent their teaching careers in Western universities, back to Taiwan to take on high-level administrative tasks in the twilight of their career, or after retirement. They’re a botheration. Many have been outside Taiwan for thirty to forty years, possibly more depending where they did their schooling. Suddenly they are parachuted into high-profile positions dealing with strategic planning and staff management. Local universities perceive them as the best of both worlds. They have distinguished careers abroad, so they understand Western education, but they are Taiwanese—born in Taiwan—so obviously they understand Taiwan. Not true.

Most left Taiwan in the 1960s or 1970s. Taiwan is a very fast changing society (see: Generation Gap). Their Taiwanese cultural understanding is outdated. As a single example, often they presume staff should have a martial law era slavish dedication to authority. They can assume an outmoded dictatorial management style. They cause problems for local staff that don’t care to relive the 1970s, or weren’t alive then. There are other examples of why this practice is problematic. These returning administrators suffer from reverse culture shock. Their position of authority allows them not to deal with it. Instead their staff has to try to work around their obtuseness. As a peon within the university system, I generally do not deal directly with these people. However, I do have many Taiwanese friends in university administration. They have expressed dissatisfaction with these outside consultants’ inability to assimilate into the modern Taiwanese workplace.

The same story is being played out in Taiwanese companies as managers return from abroad—most frequently from China—to find a society and workforce they little understand. For those coming from working in China, Taiwan’s democratization and shift from sinocentrism can be disorienting. Their positions often allow them to exist in a bubble, detached from present day Taiwanese society. However, they risk becoming irrelevant as bosses, an impediment that staff must work around.

Repatriates expect to find their homes unchanged, reverse culture shock occurs when this expectation is not met. In Taiwan, because of the pace of change, reverse culture shock can be Brobdingnagian. [Sorry, it was on my word of the day toilet paper]. Taiwanese institutions’ tendency to seek foreign perspectives by employing Taiwan-born expats lends a particular intensity to reverse culture shock.

My Parents Are Nuts: The Generation Gap in Taiwan

The pace of change in Taiwan can be simultaneously heady and unsettling. Rapid changes to the physical environment tend to be exhilarating. It is fun to be in a vibrant swiftly evolving metropolis. Taiwan’s major centers all fit that bill. I recall a friend who went to his home country for summer break. Upon returning to Taipei, two months later, he couldn’t find his apartment. A new building went up beside his home during his absence. The skyline’s change disoriented him and for a few minutes he couldn’t situate himself and find his house. That doesn’t happen in Saskatoon.

The pace of physical change is part of the charm of living in a major Asian city. In Taiwan, seismic social changes parallel the changing cityscape. Sociologists, social psychologists, and other social researchers have been studying Taiwan because of its brisk pace of social change. Taiwan offers an interesting case study of sudden modernization. Taiwan has endured very swift industrialization and subsequent transition to a post-industrial society. Concomitant social trends have proceeded apace and likewise strained Taiwanese society; urbanization, democratization, social justice, demographic shifts, etc. The stresses this places on Taiwanese social institutions and the family is interesting for academics.

Take my family as an example, my father-in-law is the oldest of three boys. Twelve years separate the oldest and youngest. They are an interesting example of rapid industrialization’s affect on family. They were all born on the farm, but each in turn experienced, and was shaped by a different period of Taiwan’s industrial progression. My father-in-law, though he eventually came and worked in the city, absorbed, believes, and keeps trying to transmit, the agrarian mores of his upbringing. The second brother’s perspective was shaped by the first stage of Taiwan’s rapid industrialization—the growth of factories (for low-end products) and OEM production. The third brother was shaped by his experiences in the high-tech industry. These are three brothers, born not that far apart, who have experienced Taiwan in wildly divergent ways, each brother representing an important stage in Taiwan’s economic evolution.

If we extend the example a bit further to include my wife—the first-born son’s youngest daughter—she works in present day Taiwan’s postmodern globalized economy. In one generation they went from a subsistence farming mentality to my wife’s extremely urbane, modern, international outlook. She is hardly unique among middle-aged and younger Taipei residents. My wife and father-in-law exist in a totally different time and place. She is a multilingual, globe-trotting, independent, modern woman, and her father seems to believe he’s living in the Qing Dynasty. Imagine the strain that puts on a family.

Taiwan is rife with examples of the pressure rapid change causes people and their beliefs. Also, the social contradictions created by speedy societal shifts. Martial law was lifted in Taiwan in the summer of 1987 after 38 years. When I first came to live in Taiwan a couple decades ago I met many people in their late twenties who regarded students at that time as being from a wildly different generation, because much their schooling was done in the relative freedom of the post-martial law period. Though chronologically close in age there was a wide chasm in their experiences. Because of my age (50-ish) and the time I arrived in Taiwan, I have a lot of politically regressive, borderline anti-democratic—martial law wasn’t so bad—Taiwanese friends. I arrived in a period of sweeping political transition, so many of my (often slightly younger) Taiwanese friends have a very democratic outlook, no matter which party they support. As you move toward the next generation, who have never known an undemocratic Taiwan, the difference becomes more stark.

Some of those differences were on vivid display during the Sunflower Movement of 2014, which saw a coalition of student groups and civic activists protest attempts by the Kuomintang (KMT) government to pass the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement without a clause-by-clause review in the legislature. Basically the KMT tried to do an end run around democratic procedure.

What interested me was the reaction of my, generally older, KMT-leaning, friends. Many of them displayed a stunning inability to understand democracy, despite having lived in a democratic country for a generation. They kept referring to the Sunflower Movement as “undemocratic” because it was working to subvert the will of President Ma Ying-jeou the duly elected leader—a total misinterpretation of democracy. Another common refrain among this group was, “What about social order?” They seemed to regard the Sunflower Movement as an affront to politeness and knowing your place in the social order. They hearkened back, with fondness, to the well-ordered society of martial law times.

There are many other examples of intense societal paradigm shifts in Taiwan, each creating pressure on Taiwan’s social institutions.  Generational changes are normal in all societies, the generation gap exists everywhere because it is a natural part of an intergenerational society. Taiwan takes this normal phenomena and puts it on crack cocaine.

Don’t Marry a Foreigner: Being a Mixed Couple in Taiwan

Most my expat friends are, or have been, married to a Taiwanese person. I can count on one hand, with digits leftover, the number of couples able to give an appearance of wedded bliss. Intercultural marriage is tough.

When I got engaged, a little over a decade ago [see: Marrying Taiwanese], I tried to warn my wife of the potential problems in marrying a foreigner, but—proving herself wifely material—she ignored everything I said, and promptly forgot it all. It must’ve been love. How do I know she’s forgotten my warnings? Every time I pull some dumb foreigner move that’s got smoke shooting out her ears, I remind her that I’d warned of exactly such a situation before we married. She invariably replies she has no recollection, like a fifty-year veteran of the marriage wars. If I can offer one piece of marriage advice, it’s to take some time and compile a list every dumbass thing you think you might do while married, and present it to your fiancée as a warning. Get that information on record while she still loves you, then as each foible or piece of tomfoolery gets exposed, just lean back and say, “Yes, but I clearly warned you of just this situation before we married”.

Of course, when I was giving this advice, I was a single guy, unaware of the many issues awaiting us. I did my best to make educated guesses. I was amazingly portentous, and most things I warned of came to pass. I don’t so clearly remember every admonition, but I’m pretty sure I gave—at least—the following advice: “Be prepared for me to be as useless as tits on a boar when handling a lot of the daily administrative stuff that any household must do”. Also: “My perceptions about family, in general, and what I, as a child, owe my parents, and your parents, is wildly different from the Taiwanese norms of your parent’s generation”. Still in the family vein, “Your parents will never really get the hang of me, because I will never act like a Taiwanese son-in-law. I couldn’t if I wanted to—I don’t know how, but also I don’t want to”. I also cautioned her that I would never move to Canada, just in case she harbored those hopes. [See: I Shan’t Return]. I also warned her that intercultural marriage in Taiwan has more barriers to success than for couple living in the West. I was more warning myself with that one, since she didn’t have any concept of the life of an interracial couple in the West.

My wife began to perceive some of the prejudices after we announced our intention to marry, and even more so as the formal engagement approached. Her family and friends came out of the woodwork to issue warnings about the appalling risks of marrying a white guy. A few of the warnings she remembers from that period included, you have no idea what happened back in his home country—he could be a criminal. Foreigners are financially unstable, this is based on a longstanding perception of English teachers as unemployable losers. There were also warnings that, “He has no family in Taiwan”. Family is a source of support in Taiwan, marrying someone who is essentially without family removes that potential safety net, that’s why many consider marrying an orphan a bad idea. She was also warned that foreigners have less sense of family—that we are too individualistic. Some of these warnings corresponded with what I told her, though they were delivered in a much more negative way. And, what warning about other races would be complete without a caution about their sexual profligacy? It appears to be universal that each race thinks every other race is getting much more—and kinkier—sex. “They’re much more sexually open. He could desert you at any time [presumably upon the appearance of a hotter piece of ass]”. I guess the most hurtful comments that she received were that she “was betraying Taiwanese people” and “liked to eat Western food.” Obviously, there is hostility to intercultural/interracial marriage in Taiwan.

So, I asked my wife to share some things she’s actually found hard to deal with about having a foreign husband. In no particular order: “They won’t just give you money”. It’s pretty common in Taiwanese marriages for husbands to turn over their paychecks to the wife and then they receive an allowance. I know quite a few foreign husbands who do this too, but my Momma didn’t raise no fools. Seriously, I’ve noticed this practice is often a bone of contention, whether you follow the “Taiwanese way” or not.

Also, “They won’t pamper you in an Asian way”. When I asked her to be more specific, she said that they won’t let you whine (撒嬌). “They think of you as a strong independent individual, when you just want to be a bitch”. Possibly it’s just me, but I can’t stand the habit some Taiwanese women have of adopting the waif-like tone of a young girl and whining about everything. A surprising number of women here have this as one of their default settings. I can’t abide it.

The final issue she mentioned corresponds with one of my pre-marriage warnings, “you’ll need to handle a lot of the administrative stuff”. It turns out to be true, and annoying. Some of the problem is undoubtedly my shitty Chinese. I simply cannot do a lot of things. Reading and filling in Chinese forms is beyond me. Also, I don’t really understand how to do many things, what office to go to, what to ask for, etc. Likewise, the relevant Taiwanese authorities often don’t know what to do with me. If I’m doing something related to my being a foreigner in Taiwan, the Taiwanese government office will, generally, be used to dealing with foreigners, and know what to do. But, as a man married to a Taiwanese wife, sometimes I show up in offices where clearly they’ve never seen a foreigner. I send them into a tizzy. Confusion reigns. If we show up as a couple, often staff will ignore me and just deal with her. Even if I’ve been handling everything just fine, they’ll face her and answer my questions, give instructions to her, and ignore my existence as much as possible. Government offices and employers have even phoned her and tried to deal with my issues through her. I can understand how it gets annoying.

A related problem is that often forms/computer programs will not accept my Taiwanese identification number. This creates my wife’s single biggest annoyance about having a foreign husband—doing our joint taxes. She should be able to just enter both our IDs into an online form, where a list of our income and deductions will automatically be correctly placed into the tax form. Then all you have to do is double-check everything and submit it. When my ID number is fed into the form—everything seizes. All my information needs to be manually inputted, and the system gets glitchy (from all the foreignness), and there are often problems. I cringe every time tax season is upon us.

This is my little warning about some of the pitfalls for Taiwanese in marrying a foreigner. If you’re in love, take the plunge. Intercultural marriage can be very rewarding, precisely because of its unique challenges. It keeps me entertained. Just be aware that stuff can get a little weird.

I’d like to thank my wife for letting my readers know some of the things that piss her off about me. Thanks Sweetie.