What is Taiwanese culture?

It’s hard for me, a Taiwanese, to clearly describe what Taiwanese culture is.

We speak Mandarin and have similar traditions to the Chinese, but in other ways we are not akin to China; the majority of our young people are crazy about Japanese and (recently) Korean pop culture; we sometimes refer to all the foreigners as “westerners” or “The Americans” (That really angered my English teacher who was a Canadian!) and we are so friendly to foreigners while we can be secretly biased against different ethnic groups on the island.

Sounds ridiculous? I’m serious.

As I begin my writing, I want to make apology to all the other foreigners who are mistaken as Americans. Taiwan is isolated from the world because the current situation with China, and she depends quite a lot on U.S. military weapons. The Taiwanese learn early on that we have no real political power to claim our position. “The Americans” are the only concern in our news (it’s a little bit better nowadays), and that’s why Taiwanese people tend to take all the white and black people as “The Americans”. The phenomenon is still common for my grandparent’s generation, but not so much for the young people.

What about the friendly attitude and against each other thing? I had a mixed nationality boyfriend back in high school, and he looks more like his French father than his Taiwanese mother. We used to play a game when we went to restaurants. He pretended that he was a foreign visitor who can’t speak Mandarin, and I am his tour guide. We seldom needed to make a reservation to get nice spots in restaurants when we played that game, and we got extra service from time to time. However, there’s no chance for me to enjoy that privilege if my partner is a Taiwanese boy. Why is that? Part of the explanation I can offer is that the Taiwanese are curious about foreigners, and we tend to flatter foreigners for no reason. My English teacher asked me once “Why do people sometimes seem afraid of me?” The answer is simple: You are a foreigner, and you don’t look like us. The Taiwanese are either afraid of you or too friendly to you. It’s a huge difference when I travel to other countries, and I personally think it’s special.

On the other hand, the Taiwanese are against each other especially during the election. The politician would separate the Taiwanese into “Taiwanese”; “Chinese immigrants” and “Native people”. Ironically, those who called themselves “Taiwanese” were descendents from China. The only difference between them and “Chinese immigrants” is that their great great-great-grandfather came to Taiwan earlier. I can’t figure out the logic behind this, but I know from the bottom of my heart that this is the very reason why we don’t have a clear Taiwanese culture.

All in all, Taiwan is a nice place for foreigners to enjoy food and a mix of different cultural things like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Native culture, and Hakka… But as a Taiwanese, I’m so upset to find there’s no “Taiwanese culture”. Perhaps the above descriptions can be part of it.

Mindy Chang is from Taiwan and is currently studying for a graduate degree in the USA.

Read more:
All I want is your fifty cents: small change and China
Okinawa – closer to Taipei than Tokyo
Mandarin, Spanish and Arabic – languages on the way up

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  • Mindy,

    This is true to a certain extent almost everywhere. People love to form ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ groups. Maybe because of historical reasons, this is accentuated in Taiwan. I transited through Taipei once and picked up a colorful kaleidoscope. That’s my enduring image of your country – so many bright colors looking beautiful together.

  • Interesting, thanks for sharing.


  • Mindy

    To Sanjay:
    I like the way you use kaleidoscope to describe my country. I think that’s what I try to present through this article.

  • I’m speaking completely hypothetically, which as an interculturalist I know is wrong becuase it belies my unconscious assumptions, BUT, your description reminds me a little of Singapore, Hong Kong and a little Belgium–countries either sandwiched between and strongly influenced by others, or commercial centers that attract and/or are dominated by businesses around the world.

    Perhaps what’s changing is the habit of trying to connect cultural heritage to national heritage–we struggle in the US with this, where our hyphenated identities don’t really apply because of the disconnect to a homeland (e.g. Italian Americans who have never even been to Italy), and yet individuals still seem to look for ways to define and differentiate their heritage–maybe ultimately as a way to create a sense of belonging in an increasingly impersonal society.

  • Nirav Shah

    Is “Taiwanese” language and Traditional Chinese language – the same? I am working on something at work and my colleagues said they don’t want me to record voice prompts in Taiwanese, they want Traditional Chinese instead. Are these essentially one and the same?

  • I understand your feelings. As a Taiwanese born Canadian, I’m also disappointed that Taiwan doesn’t have a clear culture because of politics….

  • Ling Yao

    Ano, disappointed? Why should you be? Being born in mainland China can sometimes give you far more conflicts…I am not Taiwanese, but I wonder if it would have been better had I been so.

  • AhHua

    Great article. As a half-Taiwanese, I say “Taiwanese” and “Chinese” culture interchangeably when trying to explain Taiwanese culture to non-Asian friends which often confuses them. Trying to explain the similarities and yet differences between Taiwanese and Chinese culture to those unfamiliar with the area is very difficult, as is explaining the difference between Taiwanese and mainlanders living in Taiwan.. Because originally, we Taiwanese are also from the mainland!

  • veronica

    I have a question, where do the latino’s fit in (in your culture?)