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.
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