Category Archives: Culture Shock

It’s Totally Ontological, Dude

The problem with being punctual in Taiwan is there’s no one there to appreciate it.

I’ve adjusted to life in a high-context culture, and what I haven’t adapted to, I’m pretty good at ignoring. Nothing really riles me, except high-context time. The Taiwanese concept of time is, for me, the cultural equivalent of being forced to wear wet underwear. It just drives me nuts. I can’t help it. I come from a Germanic background. The Germans are lots of things—but round-headed they ain’t. My family immigrated to Canada in the early seventeenth century, so actually there was very little Germanness in my upbringing. Despite that, a Teutonic sense of time and punctuality was whipped into me from an early age, and boy, it stuck.

The German culture has a very monochronic sense of time. Monochronic cultures emphasize the importance of time. For them, time is constant, continuous, and tangible. It has value—it can be saved, spent, wasted, etc. Typically adhering to strict deadlines is emphasized. Punctuality is a cardinal virtue. Low-context cultures tend to be monochronic, while high-context cultures are more polychronic. Punctuality and time-structure are less important in polychronic cultures. Time is more fluid. Deadlines are a nice ideal, but nothing to get bogged down with.

On the scale from extremely monochronic to especially polychronic, modern Taiwan is somewhere in the middle, but leaning polychronic. I lived in Thailand years ago—Thai time is a polychronic hell. Taiwan is pretty reasonable, however the insouciant attitude to punctuality here still sets my Germanic blood boiling. On an interpersonal level you can adjust, even find humor in it. When I first moved to Taiwan, I became friends with a China Airlines flight attendant. I liked meeting her. She was always on time—to the second. That’s fair, and also impressive. That was her airline training. Then she quit the airline. I swear to God she hasn’t been on time since then. At the snap of a finger, she went from the most precisely punctual person I ever met to just another Taiwanese women, constantly half an hour late. It amazes and tickles me.

It is not always so easy to see the humor when dealing with my wife. She’s engaged in an epic struggle to be slightly late for everything. It drives me crazy. I get antsy if we’re not on target to arrive at inconsequential events at least 10-15 minutes early. It’s calming to be out the door in good time, and to not have to rush about trying to make it. Venus feels ripped off if she arrives early, like somehow she lost that time. She would rather use that time at home, running in ellipses trying to get ready, dashing in and out of the door to collect the various forgotten items, and then racing through Taipei gridlock, constantly checking our watches, trying to find ways to defeat traffic, and sliding into an event just as the doors are shutting. It leaves me a jittering mass of frayed nerves. She loves it—she thinks if she arrives at the last second she won. Someday it is going to be the death of me. Flying with my wife is a thrill ride that usually sees me arrive at the gate with my iliohypogastric nerve in full spasm. (That’s classy medical terminology for “it’s a sphincter-flapping experience”).

For contrast, a while back one of my oldest Canadian friends visited me. His background is German Mennonite, so, you know, his head has a few right angles also. We bicycled around Taiwan. At the end of the trip he had a midnight flight to Canada. He left for the airport before 6:00 pm. It’s less than an hour from my house to the airport, but as he said: “I’ll leave a bit early, you know, just in case of problems, and to have a stress-free transit to the airport. And, hey if I’m a few hours early, that’s okay it will allow me to mellow out before the flight, and not have to rush to get on the plane”. I hear ya, Bud.

In your personal life it may annoy, but differences between mono- and polychronic time can be disastrous in business. The monochronic workplace values orderliness—doing things at the appropriate time and place. There is a strong preference towards concentrating on a single task, doing the job well and on time, then moving on to the next task. Plans are important, and not to be carelessly violated. The polychronic workspace favors multitasking. A polychronic manager likely has an open door policy. While chairing a meeting he might answer phone calls, talk with staff, and possibly pop out to deal with an office issue. People and relationships are the primary concern, tasks and objectives are worthy goals, not absolute musts.

When these two business cultures interact, there’s a lot of room for misunderstanding. I once met a Canadian salesperson in Taiwan on business. He’d flown in to meet the CEO of a medium-size Taiwanese corporation. His company had already laid the groundwork for a multi-million dollar sale, and he came to smooth out some issues. During the meeting with the corporation’s senior officers, the CEO and senior purchasing agent were late, the meeting was interrupted by phone calls, and a few times staff wandered in disrupting the meeting. He was livid, and saw management’s behavior as an intentional slap in the face. He’d flown from Canada for the meeting and they’d disrespected him and his time by not arriving  punctually and concentrating on him during the meeting. He believed they were being deliberately insulting and that the deal was clearly in peril.

I tried to tell him there might be another interpretation. But, he wasn’t interested in hearing any of my Asian culture explanations bullshit—he’d seen what he’d seen, and knew what he knew. Nothing was going to change his mind about the abuse he’d suffered. I just let it go, and left him sulking in his beer. No corporation is paying me to teach their staff about intercultural business practices. That was awhile ago, most upper management in large Taiwanese companies are sensitive to these issues now. Misunderstandings are more likely further down the management chain or in smaller, more local, companies.

Still, I understand how he felt, I continue having a visceral reaction to the discourtesy of tardiness. It’s hard not to feel disrespected. The final anecdote belongs to my wife; no one disrespects a man quite like his wife. Sometimes I pick her up from work on my scooter. Her old office was on Fuxing North Rd., a pretty busy thoroughfare. I’d ride all the way there, allowing plenty of time to negotiate rush hour traffic and arrive in good time. I was constantly miffed that she was never downstairs, on the road, waiting for me when I got there. After all, she knows precisely when I’ll arrive—I’m never late. But, that’s okay, I know I’m in Taiwan, we can’t expect perfection. So I’d phone from the street, let her know I was there, and commence waiting. Usually she’d be precisely twenty minutes late, which really pissed me off. If you can manage to be precisely twenty minutes late each time, then you can just as easily be on time—it’s the same process. When I would ask her why she was late, it was always a variation on the same theme, “Oh, I was about to leave, when blah-blah walked by my desk, so obviously we had to chat, have a cup of tea, maybe enjoy a communal pee [girl-style]. What could I do?” You could tell them your husband is downstairs, in the heat and humidity,  on the baking asphalt, choking on gas fumes, waiting for you, and that you need to go! I stopped picking her up after I was left standing on the street waiting for three hours for her to come down. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me a hundred times, shame on me.

However from her perspective, relationships [with colleagues] are important—time not so much. She had absolutely no compunction about wasting my time. It never occurred to her that there was anything remotely ill-mannered about  it. Of course to me, Monochronic Man,  there’s no greater affront—she’s disrespecting my time and me as a person. It’s enough to make my Germanic head explode. Yep, I could totally understand where that Canadian salesman was coming from. Let’s just say, punctuality’s siren call leans towards a whisper here.

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).

Or:

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.