Vignette #6: Red Envelopes and the Karmic Circle of Cash

Any company that wants to retain employees in Taiwan needs to give year-end bonuses before Chinese New Year. Typically these bonuses will be 1.5-2 month’s salary. In a private enterprise the bonus is linked to profits. I moved here in the middle of Taiwan’s tech boom and some computer industry workers were getting year-end bonuses of 1-2 year’s salary. It was amazing. In today’s more restrained times companies sometimes claim low profits and try to get out of paying a bonus, this is negotiable between employees and management. It is hard not to at least pay a month’s salary as a bonus. The negative press and employee unrest caused by trying to cheap out on bonuses is counterproductive for companies. There are reasons, beyond just the money that people fight hard for these bonuses.

They need those bonuses to keep the family functioning happily. Traditionally the bonus was required to buy household necessities and prepare the New Year’s feast. A lot of aspects of family life in Taiwan are transactional in nature. Chinese New Year is, partially, a giant circle of cash, where money gets redistributed from productive, middle-years members of society, to the young and old. Those year-end bonuses are used to stuff the red envelopes handed out on chuxi (除夕). If the year-end bonuses disappear then that threatens family harmony. In Taiwan, familial love is often expressed with money. Saying “I love you” is awkward, while “Hey, here’s 12,000元” feels more comfortable, and you understand what that really means, right? Or to paraphrase my Taiwanese family; can you count love? How many loves are in my hand? Now money, that means something.

People often try to compare Christmas and Chinese New Year, they are both the largest family holidays of their comparative calendars, but the feeling is different. Christmas (ideally) is all about family warmth and togetherness. Chinese New Year, like all things related to Chinese families, is about duty and obligation (filial piety). I’m not saying that Taiwanese families don’t enjoy their time together, or that Chinese New Year lacks family warmth, I’m just saying that the motivation is different. If it is your obligation to your family to deliver up red envelopes, and your whole family structure is built on filial piety, then you’re going to do everything in your power to make sure the cash gets into the right hands on chuxi, and that the size of your red envelope is not face impairingly thin. Woe betide the employer that tries to stand in your way.

“Why Are the Taiwanese So Angry?”

Having recently hosted a foreigner visiting Taiwan, I was reminded that the Westerners I have shown around Taiwan have had the same question while here, “Why are they [Taiwanese people] always so angry?” The first time a traveler asked me this I was taken aback, for I know the Taiwanese as warm, friendly, and outgoing. The particular person that asked me this was a veteran world traveler who had been living in Japan for over a decade. When I questioned him further, he explained that he was referring to the Taiwanese tendency to yell at each other—rather angrily—upon first meeting. This basic question has been echoed by virtually every Westerner of my acquaintance who has come to Taiwan.

It’s an interesting question that requires some cultural information, a bit of linguistics, and a smattering of the psychology of culture shock to answer. As I imparted to my companion, the first thing that needs to be thought of are cultural norms. In Taiwan there is a cultural concept referred to as renao (熱鬧). I don’t think English has an exact translation for this word. Basically renao refers in a positive way to active, boisterous, happy, good-times surrounded by lots of people. Think of how happy the Taiwanese seem to be in a night market with hawkers and touts yelling while the crowds jostle each other. Though it may make the average Westerner’s skin crawl, to the Taiwanese, these moments are almost the definition of happiness—this is renao.When two friends meet on the street, restaurant, or school hallway, they will tend to try to create this happy, warm feeling of renao. The foreign visitor to Taiwan experiences this as a cacophonous barrage of Chinese that seems to increase both in tempo and volume until the people are virtually yelling at each other. In most parts of the world this is what a fight looks like. For the Taiwanese, they are simply trying to create the amount of noise necessary to feel happy. In their mind’s eye they are recreating the night market, banquet hall, or whatever other noisy environment symbolizes good times for them. The yelling is not done in anger, it is joyous.

There is also a linguistic component to why the Taiwanese tend to sound angry. Chinese is a tonal language. There are four tones: the first tone is a high tone; the second tone is rising tone; the third tone is a swooping tone, where the voice starts high, falls only to rise again at the end of the syllable; and the fourth tone is a falling tone. It is the fourth tone that is of interest here. The fourth tone starts high and drops quickly into the pit of your stomach, it pretty closely approximates the anger tone in European languages. Imagine that you are having a really bad day and your children are dancing on your last nerve as you try to get them ready to leave the house. In frustration, you snap, and yell, “Come here!” You will have said both come and here using the Chinese fourth tone. It is that sharp falling tone that denotes anger.

In Chinese, it does not connotate anger at all. It is simply the tonally correct pronunciation of the word. 20% – 25% of Chinese characters use the fourth tone. Inevitably, Mandarin sounds angry to those used to the sounds of Romance and Indo-European languages. The tendency to speak loudly combined with a snappish sounding language explains why foreign travelers think the Taiwanese tend to be irritated.

The psychology of international travel also comes into play. One of culture shock’s “joys” is a tendency to regard all interactions in the vicinity, that you can’t understand, as being related to you. Under these circumstances, being surrounded by people speaking loudly, with a mad or at least anxious tone, while gesturing vigorously can cause a near panic-attack in travelers try to guess how they caused the kerfuffle. Partly this is the result of the natural tendency to see oneself as the nexus of all things. Also, as travelers find themselves immersed in a totally alien environment they come to realize they don’t understand what is happening around them. It is natural that this growing discomfort manifests itself as anxiety that they inadvertently did something wrong to cause the heated discussions.

No, the Taiwanese are not rage-prone. They are some of the warmest people in North-East Asia. Random smiles from passing strangers is one of Taiwan’s charms. Visitor can count on a helpful smile and assistance should they ask a stranger for help. The Taiwanese are not choleric—those “angry” noises on the street are sounds of joy.

Hey Ya It’s Weiya

Weiya (尾牙) season is upon us. Weiya is the banquet held for employees during the Chinese New Year season to show appreciation for their hard work that year. During the course of the year there are several ya’s (牙) in Taiwan, when companies communally pray or baibai (拜拜), make offerings, burn spirit money and incense for Tudigong (土地公) the God of the Soil and Earth. These workplace ceremonies occur on the 2nd and 16th days of the lunar month. 尾牙 literally means the tail, or last, ya (牙). Thus, weiya is the final climactic workplace obeisance for the year. Originally in China, weiya was a feast giving thanks to the earth for providing a fruitful harvest. Over time weiya moved from a strict harvest festival to an employee appreciation banquet as there wasn’t a tradition of employee bonuses in China. It developed into a way for business owners to thank their workers and continues in this form to the present day in both China and Taiwan. During the month and a half before Chinese New Year virtually every company holds a weiya.

As with any other festival, religious observance, get-together, or celebration in Chinese culture, food is the most important part of weiya. The boss treats the workers to a banquet and then puts on a show to thank his employees. Often the boss himself will entertain, putting on his own song-and-dance show, embarrassing himself, and opening himself up to light mocking from his social inferiors. It is an interesting example of role reversal in popular culture and parallels Europe’s medieval carnivals. The historian in me finds that intriguing.

Most employers pay performers to provide weiya entertainment. Corporate engagements during weiya season are a great source of work for all types of performers at all levels of the entertainment industry. Large rich corporations may hire nationally or even internationally recognized performers, but most companies hire substantially more modest talent. (I’ve gigged at a couple weiyas, so…you know).

Besides eating and entertainment, the other important part of weiya is the series of lucky draws that occur during the banquet. I suspect that in pre-bonus China, lucky draws functioned as a way to randomly give bonuses. A face-conscious method of acknowledging employee contributions without raising one worker above others. In a similar way, traditionally, employers would point the head of the cooked chicken towards the employee who need not show up next year, a nonverbal face-saving method of firing. [Although, getting fired by chicken sounds brutal to me]. Most weiyas will have both cash (hongbao 紅包) and household items as prizes. Prizes reflect the company’s profitability and can be substantial, expensive sports cars are not unheard of, though washing machines, kitchen appliances and computers are more normal. The cash grand prize can reach into the 6-figures (NT$), even higher during Taiwan’s tech boom. Generally an effort is made to have a wide array of prizes of diverse value to be distributed as widely as possible throughout the company’s various departments.

Like many foreigners I have tended to try to avoid weiya. When I worked at a smaller buxiban (補習班) it was impossible to avoid, but when I moved to my first university I never went to weiya. Most the foreign staff avoided it, viewing it as an infringement on winter vacation. But now, if possible, I always go. It is not painful at all. You just sit around and enjoy a Taiwanese style banquet with other members of your department. And, I’ve won 10,000NT each of the last two years that I was able to attend. Not bad. I’m going for the grand prize this year.

The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock

Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture posits a theory that all cultures can be placed on a continuum between high-context and low-context. The position of the culture on this spectrum explains almost all cultural differences between two countries, regions, corporations, etc. The high-/low-context framework is exceptionally useful for contextualizing culture shock and giving the expat a way of understanding the wackiness that dominates his/her life. Taiwan is a high-context culture; most English speakers come from a low-context cultures, and therein lies the problem.

A higher context culture has an indirect and implicit style of interaction. High-context communication emphasizes context as the preferred method of imparting meaning. Words are not used to explicitly state meaning, rather meaning is conveyed indirectly and nonverbally. The meaning of a statement is to be found in between the actual words. In a high-context culture there is an emphasis on establishing long term relationships. That’s logical as clear communication in a high-context culture requires familiarity. As you can imagine talking with a stranger who is artfully trying to avoid saying what he really means is a recipe for miscommunication. High-context cultures de-emphasize writing as there is less room for subtle non-word communication. By contrast low-context cultures seek clarity in all aspects of communication. There is a strong emphasis on explicitly stating meaning. They speak directly, avoid nonverbal communication, and rely on written communication. Can you see the potential for cross-cultural miscommunication and culture shock?

High-context cultures tend to be exclusionary. They emphasize community over the individual. Long-term relationships are important and there is a strong differentiation between group members and outsiders. The emphasis on being part of a group means that people in the group have enough shared values, experiences, and other commonalities to be able to communicate without the necessity of explicitly stating everything. These cultures rely on their common background to explain situations. Asian countries with their relatively high level of racial homogeneity tend to be high-context. Whereas more racially diverse (European) cultures tend to be low-context. The higher cultural/racial diversity requires individuals from widely varied backgrounds to use words to clearly state meaning, as there isn’t the group cohesion necessary for high-context communication.

The languages themselves have developed to reflect these different communication styles. High-context languages tend to be more ambiguous. While low-context languages have developed to state meaning clearly and explicitly with enough precision to convey fine gradations in meaning. These differences are clearly manifested in high- and low-context languages’ vocabulary and writing structure. For more information on high-/low-context languages and cultural linguistics see “A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places”.

There is a strong correlation between collectivism and high-context cultures. High-context cultures emphasize building strong interpersonal connections and maintaining long term relationships. They seek to maintain strong kinship, patronage, and other social group ties. Distrust of outsiders is built into the culture, language, and communication style. [So, if you’re an expat in Asia, it sucks to be you]. There is a parallel emphasis on getting group members to conform to the larger group’s expectations. Low-context cultures are more individualistic. Interpersonal bonds are less stable. Group cohesion is less robust, which allows people to move in and out of a group more easily than in a high-context culture. Low-context cultures tend to be open and accepting of outsiders.

High-context cultures tend to be traditional. Communication requires society members to absorb shared cultural contexts and cues. Cultural stability is needed for the subtextual basis of high-context communication to be assimilated by all community members. High-context cultures tend to fight change and are slow to adapt. Low-context cultures have a lower emphasis on using shared history to provide shared communication references and thus are free to make quicker social changes. The downside is that large intergenerational communication gaps can develop, sometimes making cross-generational communication difficult.

One aspect of high- and low-context cultural differences that gets attention among multinational corporations is the difference between polychronic and monochronic work methods. High-context cultures tend to be polychronic, which values human interaction above time considerations and material objects. A polychronic work culture encourages multitasking, does not worry excessively about time management, and spurns strict organization in favor of a collegial—if chaotic—work environment. Low-context cultures tend to be monochronic, where people do one task at a time, they do it well, and then they move on. Time is considered to be very valuable. The monochronic approach to work is to carefully plan and schedule everything. Time management is of paramount importance. Getting it done is good; but getting it done on schedule is what matters. High-context cultures tend to feel that the process is more important than the product. In low-context cultures the end-result—in the case of work, the product—is what’s important. If you made a good product then the degree to which its production facilitated warm interpersonal feelings amongst staff is inconsequential. That’s not true for high-context cultures.

The high-/low-context framework provides a broad structure for perceiving and generalizing cultural differences. It aids in understanding the underlying social factors that sometimes lead to cross-cultural interactions going awry. It is generally used to place nations within a worldwide cultural context. It is inherently an instrument of overgeneralization, though a certain nation might generally be considered high-context certain groups, regions, corporations, ethnicities, etc. within that country may be lower-context. Still, I find high-/low-context theory useful for helping me understand my interactions with Taiwanese society.

I wanted to introduce the high-/low-context framework for use in future articles on cross-cultural interaction. It is a useful model to illuminate aspects of expat life in Asia. As you can imagine this article barely scratches the topic’s surface. If you’re interested in more information try reading Hall, Edward T. Beyond Culture. Anchor Books, 1976. ISBN 978-0385124744 and Samovar, Larry A. and Richard E. Porter. Communication Between Cultures. 5th Ed. Thompson and Wadsworth, 2004. ISBN 0-534-56929-3.

Studying Wei Chi in Taiwan

I keep trying to engage with Taiwanese society. As an inveterate learner, one way I attempt to be a part of the Taiwanese community is by taking classes. Ideally this would allow me to meet like-minded individuals, create friendships with locals, share our mutual interests and learn something. It never works out that way.

A few years ago I decided to take a Wei Chi  (圍棋). I was first introduced to Wei Chi, or Go, while in grad school by an exchange student from Beijing. I liked it—what little I understood of it. Go is played on a board with a 19×19 grid. Like in chess, two players face off across the board, one with black stones, the other with white stones. At the beginning of the game the board is empty. The black player begins by placing his stone on one of the 361 possible intersections on the grid. Then it is white’s turn to place his stone on one of the 360 possible remaining intersections. And so the game proceeds as the players alternate turns. The object of the game is to control territory. The rules are simple, the game play is infinitely complex, orders of magnitude more intricate than chess. I’ve always had a problem with the pure analytical thought in chess. The greater number of moves possible in a Go game means that pure calculation is not the preferred approach. Go has a greater emphasis on intuitive play based on experience and shape recognition that more suits my brain.

With my language skills finally at a level that I thought could handle a Go class, I signed up for a buxiban (補習班), cram school. I was primarily motivated by the goal of learning, but I had a secondary desire to develop new Taiwanese acquaintances. Even by my own low standards, Go class was a spectacular failure as a friendship making tool.

When I enrolled I was a neophyte and my first class was for absolute beginners. In class there was me, over forty years old, and my classmates, a dozen pre-kindergarten students. There were actually some advantages to this. Obviously it was the correct level for my game play. Also the teacher was partially teaching  his young charges Chinese. Go has its own specific, and pretty funky, Chinese terminology. My Chinese language instructors couldn’t teach it to me. The golden rooster stands on one leg (金雞獨立) turns out not to be in common usage among Chinese speakers. A quite large part of class was learning Go vocabulary, and since the students were so young the teacher included Taiwanese phonetics (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ) with the characters, which was helpful. Another advantage was that the students were too young to be intimidated by the hulking blonde Adonis amongst them. Their only experience of foreigners was their big fun-loving English buxiban teachers. With that as their entire lexicon of cross-cultural experience, there was no reason for fear.

Unfortunately, in every other way the class was awkward. Classes had a set formula; a lecture, followed by solving Go problems, and then students paired off to play a game. The age differential caused some issues for me. If I played a game with one of my classmates and lost, I’d feel bad because he was four years old. Of course, four year old boys are not noted for their subtlety. After stomping me across the board I was often treated to a pudgy little hand with four extended fingers being waved in my face. “Ha, ha. I’m only four years old.” That hurt. Conversely if I won—they’d cry, and I’d feel bad. It was a no-win situation, I was either a loser or a cur.

Finally I moved up into a class full of grade school aged students. There were some obvious benefits. The lectures had more strategic content and were more intellectually stimulating. My classmates never cried if they lost a game, though they were more likely to get pissed. Likewise, I didn’t find it nearly as annoying to lose to them; and they wouldn’t ridicule me if I did. There were other issues. The older students were intimidated. Some of it was a natural preteen desire to interact with people their own age. They also attributed to me an intellectual superiority that I simply did not possess over the Go board.

Occasionally a Taiwanese retiree will show up in this level of class. That might have worked well for me, but my class was all children. I eventually quit. I’d enjoyed learning Go, but I was the class pariah. At the same time high-quality English language Go content began being posted on the Internet. I didn’t need class as much. I am considering going back to Go buxiban, not so much for the Go study as for the Chinese language benefits. When learning a language, it is helpful to have an interest that allows you to use your target language in a natural setting, something outside the language classroom. It might be time to try it again.