GenX-pat

Recently, I’ve been reading some demographers that are focused on generational studies. It has been interesting and sometimes enlightening for this GenXer. As part of an ignored generation there are things about my generational experiences I’ve not understood, since almost everything that gets written or discussed about generational topics is from a Boomer or Millennial viewpoint. These generational studies have shed a little light on some aspects of my life that I never completely understood, and surprisingly has taught me a bit about cross-cultural misunderstandings. This article is about a common GenX experience, that I thought was a universal Western experience, but turns out to be uniquely GenX, and has caused me to misunderstand Asian/Western cultural differences.

GenX’s childhood coincided with a time when children were, broadly speaking, socially despised. GenX children diverted Boomer and Silent Generation parent’s from their obsessive self-focus—and it wasn’t appreciated. It was not the time to be a child. Generally seen as burdensome, GenXers were history’s most frequently aborted children. Our upbringing reflected the period’s broader social trends and attitudes towards children. It wasn’t the fault of individual parents so much as a broad cultural trend, a societal decision to forsake childhood. Parenting books taught parents to value their needs over their child’s. A happy parent must be good for the child. TV and movies supported the primacy of parental needs over children’s, and academia lent its voice in support of the anti-childhood ethos. In the age of self-actualization, parents expected their children to self-actualize, essentially to comport themselves like small middle-agers. It was the time with the most broken marriages and broken families in history. So, GenX grew up neglected, and raised themselves like a pack of feral cats. [It’s the main reason we’re so awesome].

A typical slice of GenX life happened when I was in grade 9. A schoolmate came to class a bit pissed off, it seemed she’d arrived home the day before to find a note from her parents saying that—unbeknownst to her—they’d gone to Mexico for a week. The note said there was money on the table, Kraft Dinner in the cupboard, and that she should take care of herself and keep her brother alive. Apparently there’d have been hell to pay if he were dead when they got home. Looking back the weirdest thing is that nobody thought it was weird. Admittedly it was an extreme example, but her classmates all comforted her with their own very similar tales of parental neglect.

Raise yourself—we got no time for this shit.

As you’d expect of a generation of self-parenting children, bullying reigned supreme. I gotta admit, I don’t know when bullying came to be seen as bad—I’m guessing when Millennials started getting bullied. During GenX’s childhood, adults were pretty ambivalent about bullying. Parents would tell the victims to find a way to fix the problem themselves. Bullying built character, taught conflict resolution, and forced you to stand up for yourself. The bully in his own way was teacher and parent, and many parents appreciated the help. It was Lord of the Flies out there.

Raise yourself—we got no time for this shit.

So that’s what childhood was like, and here’s how that screwed up my cross-cultural literacy. I didn’t realize that—as a GenXer—I was raised uniquely. I thought that each previous generation had essentially raised themselves as we had. Not true. Apparently the Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, and Baby Boomers had comparatively idyllic childhoods, where they were cared for. I had no idea. I never saw Millennials grow up, as I was out of the country during their childhood and teens. I used to show up in Canada every couple years and see Millennials being molly-coddled, and there’d be some conversations with my contemporaries about how fucked up it all was. “How will they ever grow into functioning adults?” I had assumed that the Millennial’s childhood was a deviation from the norm. I didn’t know GenX was the aberration, and the Millennials were a return to normal values.

I always told my Taiwanese students and friends that rugged individualism and can-do spirit are essential cultural cornerstones in the West. No one is going to help you—you got to do it yourself. I’d explain how some of the things I commonly saw in Taiwan would not happen back home; parents lined up at schools to pick up their children, waiting for kids at the bus stop, coming and talking to the teachers, parents generally trying to fix their kids problems or provide guidance. For God’s sake, I’m a university teacher in Taiwan, and I have to deal with kid’s parents! By grade 3, I’d have been embarrassed to have my parents inserting themselves into my school life. I’d explain that these things just aren’t done in the West: we’re all about pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps. You got a problem—figure it out. I was wrong, but interestingly, I misunderstood my own culture, not Taiwanese culture.

I didn’t realize not every Western teen has been expected to confront life with the maturity and independence required of GenX. I told one-and-all that if parents tried to pull this “Asian” crap in the West, their kids would get the shit beat out of them. I grew up with a kid, nice guy, but his parents raised him like a Boomer or Millennial. They cared for him—during GenX’s childhood years!?! That poor kid’s life was a raging hellscape, he got beat up daily. “Ha, ha [in the voice of Bart Simpson’s bully], your parents love you,” boom, crash, blam…. It wasn’t cool to have parents: adults should be neither seen, nor heard, certainly they should not be arriving at school to walk you home.

When I began seeing Millennials being raised back home, I thought the West had collectively decided to become more Asian. That we were adopting the parenting style and societal norms of Asia. I was shocked. Helicopter parents in the West? How could that happen? I now know that my generation’s experiences were unique. Western society is more communal, and “Asian”, than I ever dreamed. Of course, the stereotypical differences between Western individualism and Asian communalism do exist [see: Asian Child-Rearing and Elder Care]. It’s just the differences are smaller than I’d imagined.

I’ve come to these realizations quite late. When I started asking friends in Canada about these things, they were all like, “We’ve known this for decades, where have you been? Under a rock?” Nope. In Taiwan. Because of my expat life, I hadn’t seen Western children younger than myself being raised, so I didn’t know any of this. I guess it’s always good to learn a bit about yourself, no matter how late, there are no age limitations on self-awareness: kinda like stripping in Wyoming—you’re never too old.

Please pardon the expaticus oldfartitis evident in this article, and my previous article, Taipei Traffic. If you can’t relate to the GenX themes, I understand. I’m going to write one more article that features a bit of generational navel-gazing, and that’ll end my Old Fart Trilogy.

Here’s an Unpopular Opinion: Taipei Roadways Are Smooth, Safe, and Efficient…

well…relatively speaking.

I can already hear the expat Internet erupting, “How dare you. We’re totally united in our self-righteous condescension of Taiwanese drivers, traffic, and road rules”. Yeah—no we’re not. “But how can you possibly take such a stance?” Well, here’s how…

I have a case of expaticus oldfartitis. My perspective is longer than most the whiners online. I arrived here almost three decades ago, and found myself driving a scooter, helmetless, as was the way, through Taipei traffic in my first days. [See: Surviving Taiwan’s Traffic]. That was pre-MRT, when the streets were logarithmically more densely packed than Taipei’s current gentrified roadways.

The top picture was taken in December 1987 out a hallway window at the Flowers Hotel in Downtown Taipei. The picture is of Hankou St. (漢口街) and Liaoning St. (遼寧街). The bottom picture was taken from the same window 3月13日, 2016.

 

With the higher viscosity of 1990’s traffic came a greater frequency of poor driving decisions. More people making choices meant more errors. Endless traffic jams encouraged outside-the-box thinking in order to arrive at work on time. I rarely went a week without riding up on a serious accident, my brain didn’t even process all the minor ones. I come across a lot less accidents now, I can’t really remember the last serious one. Taipei’s road conditions have improved a lot.

I’m actually legitimately surprised by the fuss over Taipei traffic that gets kicked up periodically by expats online. I guess people are arriving from whatever bucolic pasture spit them out and can’t cope. “Well, this isn’t how we do it back in good ol’ Bumblefuck”. Of course not, You can’t compare Taipei to a place with 4 vehicles per 1,000 sq. acres, a pair of which are consistently stopped in the middle of the road chatting. Be fair. How does Taipei’s traffic and road safety compare with Hanoi, Tianjin, Seoul, Hong Kong, or Jakarta? Pretty favorably.

Part of the that’s-not-how-we-do-it-back-home attitude is a tendency to deprecate or disbelieve in any traffic law that doesn’t exist back home. Hence there’s a certain expat opposition to the two-stage left turn. For readers that don’t know, a two-stage left turn can be executed by scooters. If a scooter were to make a “normal” left turn, it would need to traverse multiple lanes of traffic, from the right lane (where scooters drive), to the left turning lane. Once stopped in mid-intersection, the high volume of oncoming traffic and the large number of scooters clumped there waiting to turn left, would insure a dangerous situation. With the two-stage left turn, scooters stay in the scooter lane (on the right), drive halfway through the intersection, and halt at the front of the traffic stopped at the red light, waiting to go in the direction the scooter would have went had it turned left. There is often a box painted on the road reserving stopping space for scooters making a two-stage left. When the light turns green, the scooter heads off in the desired direction. “Computer modelling has indicated that hook turns [two-stage left turns] have the potential to significantly reduce delays and congestion in most situations, especially where overaltraffic flow is high.”* As a commuter, in my opinion, it works great. If it makes the traffic racists feel better, two-stage turns are a provision allowed cyclists in many bike-friendly Western cities.

The that’s-not-how-we-do-it-back-home crowd is also likely to complain about people driving on sidewalks. But, you do have to account for Taipei’s scooter density, the location of scooter parking (on the sidewalk), and cultural differences in proxemics. Taiwanese are more comfortable with less personal space, that extends to interactions with vehicles. The situation is similar to many Asian cities. You wanted to live in another culture, so suck it up Buttercup, and check both ways before crossing the sidewalk.

Taipei driving isn’t all sunshine and lollipops, there are some problems. On market day mornings every octogenarian in Taipei seems to hop on their bicycle and wobble unheedingly into traffic, but that’s not a Taiwanese problem—it’s an octogenarian problem. Admittedly Taiwanese 祖嬤們 do seem to have raised crotchety-and-oblivious to an art form, but it’s not a big deal, just calm down and go around. That’s the answer to most problems you might have with Taipei traffic. Driving back in the West is about order, but in Asia it’s about flow. 

I think some newer expat’s horror over Taipei traffic reflects a generational shift. Millennials and a few GenZers have arrived. They were raised with different expectations of personal safety, generally believing in a social contract where society endeavors to protect them. I’m GenX and that has most definitely not been my experience. Examples abound: did you know there were more school shootings during GenX’s teen years than Millennial’s. It didn’t start with Columbine. It’s just society didn’t give a shit—presumably because it was GenX teens shooting GenX teens. More on point would be changes to transportation that happened in the 1980s as a direct result of society’s desire to protect Millennial children. Car seats became de rigeur and minivans were developed to ensure an appropriate place to buckle that precious cargo. Is it any wonder the bubble wrapped Babies-on-Board generation would have different expectations of personal safety than the generation that played tag in uncovered pickup truck beds while bouncing down grid roads at high speed.

Upset by the sight of children on scooters? When I arrived it didn’t occur to me to be mortified. What X’er child hasn’t sailed along—unhelmeted—clinging for dear life on the back of some motorized contraption? The assumption always was that if you fell off you’d bounce. Those were just the skinned knees and broken bones of childhood. If you didn’t bounce, well, “Don’t worry, we can always make another of you,” was the familiar parental refrain. At least now children in Taipei are helmeted, they didn’t use to be.

From my (GenX) perspective if something crazy happens when going 30-50 kmh on a scooter, while helmeted,… well, it’s just not that bad. Some expats have expressed confusion online as to why the death rate on Taipei’s roads isn’t higher. Of course, the death rate is too high, as it is in any city, but from a North American perspective it’s confusingly low on a per accident basis. The reason is speed—speed kills. Most accidents in Taipei happen at relatively low speeds. When it comes to survivability on the roads, speed is more of a factor than drivers that set your teeth on edge.

Next time you’re driving around Taipei and find yourself cursing the drivers or traffic, ask yourself is the anger really justified, or are you just suffering from a privileged sense of your own safety? Do you simply have a touch of millenialitis or the newer variant genz-eitgeist?

 

I’ve been dealing with health issues, along with a general lassitude that’s kept me from writing. Apologies if you’ve been a reader and wondered what happened. Some friends and acquaintances have pointed out I should start writing again since I’m in my 50s and these are my prime wisdom-giving years. I do hope under the snark, contrarianism, and sarcasm of my writings some of you find something of some value. I’ll try to overcome my general distaste for writing and publish a bit more regularly.

 

* Hounsell, Nicholas; Yap, Yok Hoe (14 August 2013). “Hook Turns as a Solution to the Right-Turning Traffic Problem”. Transportation Science. 49 (1): 1–12. [The article is written from the perspective of countries that drive on the left].