Category Archives: Culture Shock

What I Learned about Taiwan at the Urinal

If you’ve traveled much internationally, you’ve likely learned that different cultures prefer to maintain different levels of interpersonal space. Broadly, Southern Europe, South America, and the Middle East are considered contact cultures. While Northern Europe, North America, and Asia are non-contact cultures, prefering to stand further apart and touch less. Within that broad framework, gender, age, and climate are important factors determining interpersonal space. Across all countries, women prefer a greater social distance than men. The older you get the more distance you want. The largest factor determining socially appropriate proxemics seems to be climate, with warmer regions preferring closer social contact.

Since I come from North America and live in Asia, both non-contact cultural regions, you’d suppose that there’d be little problem. But, it manages to be an issue—more for me than the people around me. I suppose because I come from Canada, a place that tends to maintain a certain cool distance in all interpersonal interactions, and live in Taiwan—theoretically a non-contact culture—but, a warm country with warm-hearted people. They get in my space sometimes.

The preferred social distance with a stranger, in Canada, is approximately 100 cm. In China it is about 115 cm. There is no specific data for Taiwan, but personal experience leads me to believe it is closer than either China or Canada. When I first arrived here I had the classic proxemics culture shock. A friendly Taiwanese gentleman tried to have a conversation with me. As he talked to me, he kept coming forward, trying to get to his preferred social distance. I kept backing away, trying to maintain my comfort zone. He chased me around the room—in the friendliest possible way—trying to touch my shoulder the whole time. I was unaware that I was backing away. I’m sure he was equally oblivious that he was hunting me down. It was all subconscious.

During my first trip to Taiwan in 1986, forming a line was still an alien concept. In general, where you might expect a line up, the Taiwanese would form a scrum, and the most aggressive would emerge as the first person to get or do whatever. It was like China now. Normal rules of social distance did not apply in a Taiwanese “line”. When I came here to live that was changing, and generally people formed reasonably orderly lines. But, older people, whose social norms were established in an earlier time tended to not exactly understand the concept of lining up. They’d often cut in line, or join the line and then start pushing and shoving, like in the good ol’ days.

One day I was in line, enduring the constant jabbing and shoving of the geriatric obasan behind me. She seemed to be trying to speed me forward. I don’t know where she thought I should go. I was already close behind the person in front of me. I swear I didn’t do this on purpose, but I raised my hand up my side to just under my armpit, like a karateka moving into the horse stance. That caused my elbow to protrude behind me maybe 15 cm. I popped the old lady right in the middle of the forehead. I wasn’t trying to hit her. I don’t know what, if anything, was going through my head. I might have been trying to push back. When your space is violated the response can be instinctive. I still feel bad about that.

I’ve grown used to Taiwanese proxemics. I suspect they’re not too different from Canada, perhaps a slightly closer conversational distance and more intra-gender touching. I hardly notice it anymore, but there is one proxemics related thing that happens in Taiwan and drives me batty.

Why do Taiwanese men insist on violating international urinal rules? For the benefit of the ladies, the first rule of the urinal is thou shall not sidle up to a stranger, whip out your tallywacker, and begin performing essentially a private bodily function. If there are no other free urinals, then it is socially acceptable—keep your eyes forward. Pee-pee-makers must maintain a respectable interpersonal distance, like atoms in a gaseous state seeking equilibrium, fill the empty space first. Apparently, Taiwanese men are not signatories to the international peeing conventions. I blame China.

The bathroom at work has three urinals. If I need to use the facilities, and there is no one already there, I take either the left or right urinal. Thus, should someone come while I’m wrestling the snake, we can maintain the center urinal between us, like civilized human beings. It is frustrating how often someone will come in and take the middle urinal. This is not simply a function of the relatively small size of the facilities. Something similar happens in large bathrooms with a long wall of urinals. The Taiwanese just seem to be comfortable rubbing shoulders while tinkling.

The pissoir is the one place where differences in interpersonal space still cause me consternation. Between rubbing elbows with strangers and having a cleaning woman running a mop between my legs as I urinate, public washrooms can be trying for this bladder-shy expat.

Lost in Translation

As you may have perceived, my Chinese is functional, but not good enough for translation work. That doesn’t stop me. I’m often involved on the English end of translations. Hiring a competent professional translator is neither easy nor cheap. Usually a Taiwanese person with some knowledge of English and the material will be conscripted to convert the Chinese into “English”. These translations tend to retain a pretty strong Chinese feel. It is my job to turn that into actual English. It is tricky because the client often expects English to function like a high-context language. (See: A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places).

Chinese often emphasizes flowery speech and beautiful form over mundane matters of accuracy and clarity. The tendency is especially marked during formal speeches, for governmental or business purposes. I’m often asked to help translate such speeches. The preliminary translation that I receive is usually full of grandiloquence and little substance. Something like: “It is my greatest honor and privilege to welcome the most esteemed, distinguished, honorificabilitudinitatibus gentleman from that most splendiferous country, Luxembourg, where he is an inestimable manager of legendary perspicuity.” It is comically baroque. To those of us with hopelessly stuck in English brains, we’d say they’re gilding the lily rather much, if we’re being kind; or, they’re flinging the BS high and far, if we’re being accurate.

My first reaction is to get rid of the useless twaddle. Those ridiculous over-the-top honorifics sound farcical. But, it is precisely that part of the speech that most Taiwanese executives care about and are anxious to see accurately translated. I have been told on numerous occasions not to be too concerned about getting the actual substance of the speech correct, as long as all the various magniloquent phrases are accurately translated and that each appellation is included. What are you supposed to do? If you provide the desired translation, the boss ends up looking like an imbecile. If you don’t, they may just turn around and put that drivel back into the speech. If they will be speaking to a group of Westerners I usually try to explain that English doesn’t work quite the same as Chinese. I’m often met with incredulity, but usually manage to get them to follow my English advice. If the speech will be to a group of other Asians, I inform them that the translation is bad English, but since their audience may nonetheless enjoy it, they need to make a cultural judgement whether to keep the overwrought wording or not.

The bias toward simplicity and directness in English is lost on the Taiwanese. My wife studied English literature in university. One of the courses that she took was a professional English class, writing and speech-making for formal occasions. She recently shared with me the advice she got in the class. It was distinctly Chinese and included such gems as never use a simple word if you can find a big—preferably incomprehensible—word. According to the class “big” is too simple, “immense” would be better, but “elephantine” being less common would be preferable, while “Brobdingnagian” would clearly be best. If you’re lucky no one will understand, while simultaneously being impressed by your incomprehensible vocabulary, or should I say your sesquipedalian loquaciousness. Annoying, right? Theoretically my wife is aware this is wrong-headed, but she still constantly asks if the new vocabulary she’s learned would be considered a big word. If it isn’t, she’ll ask me for an alternate “big” vocabulary word. It is hard to get past that Taiwanese mindset.

Her professional English class likewise emphasized the importance of complex grammatical structures. Passive voice sentences were preferred over the clarity provided by active voice sentences. Passive voice makes the meaning less direct, less clear, and obviously—from a Chinese perspective—to be preferred. The teachers believed it sounded more sophisticated and professional. Even better if it was a compound-complex sentence with each clause in turn using passive voice construction, obscuring the meaning behind lost subjects, and objects that refer to unknown words and clauses. From a Chinese perspective, obviously one should prefer the complex circumlocutory nature of such sentences—it matches the high-context nature of Chinese. Unfortunately, they’re getting it exactly wrong.

This is what happens when a Chinese speaker’s preference for linguistic ornateness comes face-to-face with English’s low-context preference for simplicity and clarity. Chinese language, like the culture, places a premium on form (here). Choosing an artistic turn of phrase or using an impressive word is important in Chinese. In English, such things can be nice if it’s not overdone, as long as you don’t sacrifice function—clear communication—to achieve artistry. In Chinese thinking it doesn’t matter so much if you’re effectively communicating as long as the language you use sounds good.

Help! I’m Living in a High-Context Family

My wife, Venus Chen, contributed most of the ideas in this article. Mainly I just organized and wrote up her perception, and provided specific examples. I independently reached a similar set of conclusions, but she has dealt more intimately with these issues and has a deeper perspective.

When I first arrived in Taiwan I was constantly told how tight-knit families are here. It didn’t take long to figure out this was at best a communal fiction. Most of my Taiwanese friends shared almost nothing with their families—they were virtual strangers. The familial feelings in Taiwanese families are not based on love and warmth, but duty and obligation, with an artfully applied dash of guilt. If you don’t recognize it, that’s the formula for filial piety. The closeness in Taiwanese families is a closeness that expresses itself in form more than reality. (See: Form Over Function).

The adult children should come home and visit the parent’s the prescribed number of times per month, and deliver the prescribed amount of money for support. If during these regularly scheduled visits there is no meaningful interaction, and all present just stare like zombies at the TV, that’s fine. It is not about being close as a family—it is about observing correct form. When we first married, during one of our first weekly trips home, I went along, and was surprised when we arrived and the parents left. Venus and I sat alone for a couple hours watching TV until they returned. No familial closeness had been achieved, but form had been observed. I don’t quite follow the logic, but I suppose if the neighbors had been watching, they would have thought what a good daughter and marginally acceptable son-in-law, they visit weekly. (High-context cultures prioritize perception over reality).

Many Taiwanese choose to hold back most aspects of their lives from their parents. Usually they just give parents some small irrelevant pieces of information about their lives, trying to provide an illusion of involvement. One of the reasons for this is that Taiwanese kids are afraid to make mistakes. Parents, teachers, and schools do not provide a safe environment to fail. Consequently, the young never learn how to screw up, pick themselves up off the floor, and try again. That fear extends into adulthood where it is compounded by the fear of losing face that comes with admitting failure. If they fear that something may not work out, it’s easier to hide it. The classic example of this would be the daughter who gets engaged before her parents are even aware that she has ever had a first date. The most extreme example I can think of is a former student who met, dated, lived with, got engaged to, and married someone without her parents being any the wiser. I bumped into her two years after she married and her parents still didn’t know, despite weekly visits home. That example is exceptional, but in day-to-day family life small secrets and misdirection are the norm.

At the same time the default position of parents is to strive toward controlling their children’s lives. This is understandable for young children, but extends well into middle age. At its core is the fear of failure. If I don’t exert maximum control over my children, they may fail. I will feel bad if they fail, but also what will that do to my face if it becomes known that my child is a failure. Taiwanese parents don’t have the conception of we did our job, we raised a good child, now we should trust their judgement, and allow them the opportunity to sink or swim on their own, only coming to the rescue, in a nonjudgmental way, if necessary. That is not the Taiwanese way.

Parents here, of course, feel sad that their children won’t share with them. They feel sad that when they make an effort to help and the children get mad. Their experience, knowledge, and goodwill is not appreciated. The children, likewise, may be generally unhappy with the status quo. They might like some advice from their parents, but instead they get parents just telling them what to do, or more likely what not to do. It is not really advice, but just an attempt at control. So, kids often simply avoid all the drama by keeping parents out of the loop.

Form Over Function

When I first came to Taiwan to study Chinese folk religion, I was surprised to learn that form was valued over function. In a religious context, that meant that if the form of an individual’s prayer was correct, it didn’t matter what was in their heart or their beliefs. If the devotee went from incense censer to censer in the prescribed order and made the obeisances correctly, that was good enough. As I’ve lived here longer I’ve found that form is highly valued in most areas of life.

Form’s importance partially relates to the nature of high-context culture, with its emphasis on community and maintaining a shared perspective, based on shared history and culture (The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock). People are discouraged from scratching too deeply below the surface—there be dragons. If social cohesion’s underpinnings are examined too closely the house of cards will fall. The surface calm and solidarity required by high-context societies necessitates a willful denial of deeper social realities. The form, or surface, needs to be prioritized over the heterogeneity below the surface.

A system of politeness that emphasizes form developed in the Chinese cultural milieu to maintain surface calm. I’d like to turn to Chinese literature for a historical example. The Water Margin: Outlaws of the Marsh (水滸傳) is one of the four great classic novels of China (四大名著). Written in the 14th century by Shi Nai’an, it has been described as China’s tale of Robin Hood. It is an adventure story about bandits. What surprises is how much of the narrator’s time is spent describing the formal modes of address and politeness employed when for example two bandit leaders meet, or a court official and General meet, etc. Much of the story is conveyed in the subtle shifts in forms of politeness. It was surprising to read an adventure novel where several pages might be spent on the minutia of showing respect:

After the usual courtesies as to names, Lu Da said that he had met Lin Cheng’s father at the Eastern Capital. Lin Chong was much pleased, and insisted upon making LuDa his sworn elder brother…. Lu Da ordered his servants to bring wine for the guest and when the later had partaken three cups,…  (Shi Nai’an, The Water Margin: Outlaws of the Marsh. Translated by J. H. Jackson. Tuttle Publishing: Hong Kong, p. 64).


Chao Gai pressed Lin Chong three times to take the seat of honor, but Lin Chong declined the honor. At last Chao Gai gave way and agreed to take the premier seat, and Lin Chong took the second seat. The other six men took their seats in a row. (Ibid. p. 214).

While the actual adventure parts of the story—the chases and battles—can be shockingly brief, occasionally little more than a couple paragraphs. Form is important: Sometimes it is almost the whole story.

I’m not trying to suggest that modern Asia is nearly as formalistic as it was in the Yuan Dynasty, but there certainly are echoes of that history today. Let’s start with a stupid foreigner story. During my first couple weeks living in Taiwan I rode the bus frequently. One day, from my seat, I saw an old Taiwanese man hobble onto the relatively full bus. He was the picture of geriatric distress; a cane, bowed back, small shuffling steps, sagging skin and a constant grimace as he meandered along. Naturally, I got up and offered him my seat, to which he very politely declined, and indicated with his hands that I should return to my seat. I was slightly confused—the guy obviously needed a seat—but, I honored his wishes. I didn’t want to insult him by implying that he was too decrepit to stand. After I sat back down, he gave me a look that I couldn’t decipher. Shortly afterwards a gently smirking Taiwanese businessman offered the old codger his seat, which he gratefully accepted. The old man then spent the rest of the bus ride glaring daggers at me. Most perplexing.

Later that day I found out from Taiwanese friends that I am supposed to offer something three times, so the recipient can reject the offer twice, before finally allowing himself to be cajoled into acceptance on the third time. Who knew? Where I come from, if somebody offers you something, politely reject it if you don’t want it, or take it if you do, because the offer isn’t coming again—function over form.

There are endless examples of the importance of form in Asian social interactions. Korean drinking culture is a great illustration of the importance of form in social interactions. Drinking in Korea is not just about getting drunk, although that is the desired byproduct, it is about showing respect. There are a lot of ritualized rules surrounding how to get drunk with friends. The briefest of lists includes: pour and receive drinks with both hands; don’t pour your own drink; pour drinks for others; definitely for the first drink, and as much as possible for subsequent drinks, try to drink at the same time as others (don’t drink alone); turn to the side when drinking in front of a social superior; etc. As a foreigner, it can be rather odd to watch a group of Korean friends descend into a drunken debauch, all the while, very precisely, observing the correct forms and rituals required to maintain politeness and the social hierarchy. Nothing wrong with it, it’s just distinctly different.

Generally, the form-over-function nature of Asian societies is harmless. Indeed it is part of the culture’s charm. However, it can go too far. One extreme example comes from Chiayi (嘉義), Taiwan. This event happened not too long after I arrived in Taiwan. Four people were working in Pachang Creek (八掌溪) when the water began to rise. The four workers became trapped on a small piece of land in the center of the flooded river. Rescuers arrived in plenty of time to carry out a rescue. However, for three hours no rescue helicopter came. Eventually the four were swept to their deaths, literally in front of the TV cameras, family, and emergency services workers standing helplessly on the riverbank.

The problem? Well, it was a matter of form. There was confusion over whether police air rescue or air force search and rescue should handle it. In my mind, I imagine the gathered rescuers calling for a search and rescue helicopter, and the commander on the other end answering, “Oh, I’m so honored to be considered first for this great undertaking, yet I must demure to my honorable colleague from police air rescue.” And, when they called in police air rescue, the commanding officer there responding, “Oh, the air force commander is too kind, we police are but amateurs compared with the air force’s pilots. I must insist that they take on this grand endeavour.”  And, on and on, until everyone died, in a shockingly literal example of the Midwestern American idiomatic expression; a Chinese fire drill. I’m sure that is not exactly what happened; but, I’m likewise sure it is sort of what happened.

Form is important. For people from lower-context cultures, the importance of social form is perplexing, but it is the glue that maintains the surface homogeneity necessary for a high-context culture to function. It is intrinsic to the culture and not likely to change.

Face Meet Foreigner, Foreigner Meet Face: Taiwanese Management and the Expat

In my first job, the school’s management structure was traditional Chinese, meaning there were many layers of middle management, each responsible for very little, if anything. At times it seemed almost like there was one boss for every two workers. During more than five years with the company, I never ascertained what any of them did. Mostly they seemed to just swagger in and out of my work life, looking boss-like, whilst accomplishing little. Each sported a grandiose though ultimately unenlightening title: Executive Director of Corporation (what corporation, it was a school); VP Hospitality Services (at a school?); Managing Director of Marketing, East Sea Zone (where is the East Sea?); etc.

Many Taiwanese companies have a top heavy structure. Presumably, one reason is that the Taiwanese like to have face. One way to get face is to have a title, preferably as majestic and cryptic as possible. For management distributing titles is an easy way to give a stellar worker a bit of face. It is an economical incentive and effective in keeping up workplace morale. Another benefit is the company builds its corporate face by having a Managing Director of Grommets, Asia Pacific Zone on staff. It’s a win for everyone, except that many of these “managers” do not have a management role, or at least not a very clearly defined one. Many Taiwanese managers are little more than local industry’s superfluous third nipple.

In my school the coven of middle managers seemed primarily concerned with accruing more face for themselves. The time-wasting meeting was a favorite tool of middle managers who felt the need for a little ego bump. The process went something like this: call a general meeting, usually no reason for the meeting was given, because usually there was no purpose; the workers would show up and sit quietly, while the boss du jour paraded back-and-forth at the podium, fingers hooked under his armpits, chest stuck out, pontificating grandiosely on some point of total insignificance. At monologue’s end the floor would be opened to discussion.

Asian staff members all were savvy enough not to engage in any discussion. Veteran expats also had things figured out enough to avoid talking. At these meetings, there would be no discussion, mostly because nothing of substance was ever said. At the end, the boss would make some self-important grunts and stride out of the meeting hall—cock of the walk—happy that face had been served and the office’s hierarchy acknowledged and maintained.

These little morality plays tended to get pretty roughly ground up on the rocky shoals when there were newly arrived teachers from America, Australia or Europe. New arrivals consistently failed to discern the purpose of such meetings. They frequently interrupted the boss’s self-serving little monologues with questions, observations, or suggestions, generally on the stupidity of how things were currently being done.

Boss: “…and, as I proposed in discussions with the Assistant Vice-Minister of the Ministry of Education,” said while positively bursting with the radiated importance of having rubbed shoulders with such an august personage. Puffing himself up, so all present could better appreciate his importance, the boss would continue, “We should have more real-world English, including, but not limited to business situations, foreign classroom situations,…”

Newby #1: “Well, there’s no such thing as business English, that’s simply a marketing technique. We need to provide our students with a sound founda…”

Boss [wresting back control of the conversation]: “Yes, well, we can certainly examine that. But, to continue, the Assistant and I agreed to get together a proposal to take to the Minister regarding this very important new initiative….”

Newby #2: “Excuse me, if you’re going to be talking with the Education Minister, maybe you could address the issue of class sizes. Teaching a language course with class sizes sometimes reaching seventy students is a joke, and needs to be addressed.”

Boss [clearly losing his equilibrium]: “ Yes, well, okay, but back to the point…”

The above conversation is a pretty typical example of how these meetings could rapidly devolve into something that was never intended; a meaningful exchange of ideas between workers and management. I have seen bosses literally become so nonplussed by the out of control level of interaction that they ran away in the middle of their speech. If they managed to limp to the end of their speech—all the while questioning how much face they were really getting and whether getting face from a bunch of crazy laowai ( 老外) was worth the trouble—and opened the floor to general discussion that’s when things really slipped away from them.

Occasionally bosses staggered to the general discussion phase of the meeting, but I never saw one make it beyond. The Asian way for a meeting’s general discussion to proceed is with each staff member sitting quietly, offering up as little input as possible, allowing the boss to strut around a bit pretending to try to elicit comments. After these fruitless attempts, the boss having completed his strutting and crowing would stride out, face served, while the workers trickled out – nothing achieved.

Not so when newly minted expats were involved. When the floor was opened to discussion, the newly arrived staff member would take over the floor to set up a roundtable discussion to really dig into the issues, root around, and expose the internal inconsistencies of how things were being done, with an eye to improving on the frankly irrational system they were laboring under. This is the opposite of face-giving. It was digging around looking for problems. From a Taiwanese perspective, the newbies were trying to change things that had been done a certain way, for a long time, and hence obviously should always be done that way.

The poor boss who hadn’t been looking to solve any problems, or God forbid change anything, but simply wanted to engage in a practical reminder of the social structure and each person’s position in the pecking order, was inevitably forced to flee the room with the uncomfortable realization that, at least in the eyes of his employees, the social hierarchy might not be quite what he thought. Of course all this subtext was totally lost on newly arrived teachers, who inevitably were disappointed that the boss would choose to leave just as they were beginning to peel away the layers of illogicality and really get at how to improve the workplace.

Oh those wacky foreigners.