Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cultural Norms.

When sharing about our experiences in Taiwan friends and family are often intrigued, shocked, mesmerized, stunned, appalled, or just amazed at the things we experience on a day to day basis. The things we share often evoke these feelings because they are so different from the experiences we have on a daily basis in America.

Cultural norms are one of the most difficult aspects of living abroad. We have particular ways of doing things and when someone goes and messes that up, it's often hard to cope. You can feel lost, confused, upset, or even down right angry. You become overwhelmed with this feeling of "why can't they do it my way?" We've been blessed by the Taiwanese's eagerness to practice their English and their genuine kindness to strangers. We often think about how as an American we can be so harsh in our thinking of "You're in America, you should speak English!" As a foreigner, who doesn't speak the language, I have a new respect for those living in America trying desperately to communicate and learn a very difficult language.

Today while browsing some blogs, I stumbled upon another travelers take on Japanese Cultural Norms. Jan Chipchase uses pictures to share things that are so normal and everyday for Japan...but for a foreigner are very, well foreign. While paging through I was amazed to see that so many of these cultural norms were true for Taiwan - 16/20 in fact! Taiwan was under Japanese rule until 1945 so I'm not sure if that explains the commonalities, or if these are more Asian norms!?! Maybe my friends in China or Korea can speak to that...

Take a minute to check out the photos then read my Taiwanese version of some of Jan Chipchase's photos.

1. Manga in Restaurants - while I know many Taiwanese are into comic books, more common are cartoon tabloid newspapers. These can be seen in most breakfast and lunch restaurants. We also frequent a Sunday brunch place where 99% of the families are eating brunch in silence while looking at comic books or these newspapers.

3. Sealed Books - visiting a bookstore can be quite frustrating when you just want to page through the book; maybe to see pictures, text, or just feel the pages. All books and magazines have these plastic covers on, I supposed to protect them from damage and, like the article says, customers sitting/standing around reading them. Most of the bookstores around us are very friendly and will remove the plastic if you'd like to look, with no pressure to buy, but it seems like such a hassle that I rarely do!

5. Human Flows Redirected - if the crowds of public transportation frustrate you, you're in a real treat here! Train stations, bus stations, and metro stations have arrows showing you where to wait to get on and where to walk when you get off, and people usually follow! It's so orderly...even the escalators are efficient - right side for standers and left side for walkers! Not sure, but I have been told that the yellow raised walkway is for blind pedestrians!?!

6. Counting Norms - luckily one of the first things we learned when we arrived as they're used commonly in general conversation. When establishing price, quantity or time these are great ways to communicate, especially if you can't speak the language!

7. Beer Emotions - I counted this one mostly because of the ironic advertisements that can be seen everywhere. They sure do catch your attention - though I'm not always sure it's in a good way!

9. Reminders on How to Use Toilets - I never knew the simple task of going to the bathroom could be such an ordeal. In Taiwan some sewer systems and toilets can't handle tissue paper, while others can. For this reason, there are signs in bathrooms telling you want to do with your soiled tissue paper - be sure you know, as you might find out the hard way by clogging a toilet!

10. Ambient Service Expectations - signs and behaviors of this can be seen all over retail stores...from 7-11 to departments stores, you are overwhelmed by employee's service.

11. Unwelcome Mats - subtle much?! While the Taiwanese are very friendly, they often lack tact and can be very blunt both in giving requests or in general conversation. Sometimes, you're not quite sure how to react - or whether you should react!

12. No Groping Signs - while I have yet to see this one, there are a number of similar informational signs in elevators, and on buses, trains, and the metro that can be quite entertaining. Apparently, they get the point across though!

13. Stores Selling Face Masks - after the passing of the H1N1 scare the presence of surgical face masks diminished, but only slightly. If you have a cough or a runny nose, you're advised to wear a mask. People with lower immune systems or feel that they are at a higher risk of getting sick (the old, the young, or pregnant women) often wear them when in crowded places like buses or schools. Also, the air quality in Taiwan can be quite low due to high pollution from factories and cars, because of this people regularly wear masks while driving scooters to protect themselves - though they often wear more fashionable masks rather than surgical masks!

14.Guides for Where to Queue - talk about efficiency and organization, there is no question as to where to wait in line in Taiwan. From banks to shopping malls, elevators to buses, everywhere has designated places to form a line.

15. Incentivized Recycling - though I'm not sure how it works exactly I often see people digging through and separating recyclables, then once or twice a week a truck comes around, weighs their bags and hands them some cash. Trash and recycling are collected daily by trucks that drive around the community that sound like the ice cream truck (don't be fooled!). Some cities only collect trash in special bags that residents can buy at 7-11 in an attempt to cut down on the amount of trash people have and hopefully encourage recycling.

17. Call 119 - Here too! Don't get confused in an emergency!

18.Home Textures - there is little differentiation between materials used indoors and outdoors. Often there is an understanding that this space is "clean" and you must remove your shoes, however as a foreigner the space looks no different than the one I just stepped from.

19. Proof of Being There - love these stamps! Visit any fairly popular place in Taiwan and you'll surely find a "cute" stamp to add to your book or ticket stub. Many places, like museums or tourist hot spots actually give you a little booklet that has places for all the stamps around the building - people move from place to place stamping their booklet at each stop.

20. Separation of Clean and Dirty Spaces - as mentioned before it's very common to have defined "clean" and "dirty" spaces. Sometimes this is very clear and understandable - like the bathroom - while other times it's difficult to comprehend - like how certain classrooms are "clean" and you must remove your shoes, and others are not!

I hope this helps to shed some light on our time in Taiwan and share some of the norms we have grown accustomed to over the past year. It's by no means easy to get used to, and I'll be the first to admit that I feel frustrated at times, but the reality of it is that I'm a guest in their country and just like a guest in someone's home... I must play by their rules!

Until next time...

(*if you're living abroad, in Taiwan or elsewhere, please feel free to share/add some other experiences in the comments section)

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