A glimpse of the social structure in Taiwan.
Reader’s Note: The author has lived in Taiwan for almost 17 years at the time of this writing.
Length: 2,600 words
Reading Time: 9 minutes
The Contribution of Asian Culture
The majority of Asian societies are patriarchal. One of the most outstanding aspects of a patriarchal society is that people are expected to be respectful towards parents, seniors, and certain other people, especially males, who hold an authoritative position, such as a supervisor, manager, business owner, teacher, professor, community leader or even simply the head of a household.
The Chinese value of Filial Piety is a good example. Generally, Filial Piety means to be good to one’s parents, to take care of them, to show love, respect and support; to display courtesy; ensure male heirs, uphold fraternity among brothers, and eschew rebellion. Children are expected to advise one’s parents wisely, support them financially, defend their reputation and sense of moral righteousness, and display sorrow for calamities afflicting the family, such as financial turmoil, sickness, and death. Filial piety also entails that one should engage in good conduct, not just towards parents, but also outside the home so as to bring a good name to one’s parents and ancestors. It is considered honorable to perform the duties of one’s job well, so as to obtain the material means to support one’s parents in old age and add to the wealth of the extended family.
Thus, those people, including women, who grow up in these societies value education and professionalism, and learn to honor and respect others. During their lives they hone these skills to a fine art. This particular aspect of eastern societies does much to set in place many of the other qualities described later.
There is also a strong sense of collectivism, so people are very sensitive about the context and implications of any particular idea. People who think or behave in any manner that is ostensibly different from the norm would typically be either rejected, or labeled as an outsider, by some definition. Family members who act unilaterally and against the interests of the larger family are blamed and ostracized until they fall in line. So, far-eastern Asians view western individualism as selfish and absolutely cannot understand it as a value.
Also, because of the pressure to conform and cooperate, the majority of Asians tend to spend more time obsessing over family interests, and since weighty matters are decided by the leading patriarch of the family, the others are free to pursue various interests that are light-weight by comparison, such as health and fitness, and following gossip and fashion trends prevalent in popular media outlets. Westerners who notice this tend to interpret it as superficiality or pretentiousness, but Asians consider it to be a psychological luxury to not have to be concerned with portentous matters.
General Goals and Values
The Taiwanese approach to success is very disciplined. Much attention and effort are devoted towards education and “bettering one’s self” usually through developing some kind of talent or useful skill. This value is connected not so much to personal development, as westerners are inclined to think, but more along the lines of attaining social pertinence, preserving financial security, and developing the ability to make important life decisions without being limited by social or financial constraints. Thus, it is understandable why young people are encouraged to pursue education and career first and foremost, and this is seen to be a foundation to which other aspects of life may be discovered and added. This emphasis is expected and fully supported by the family. It is not uncommon for aunts and uncles to pool their money in order to allow their most promising son or daughter to study abroad.
In Taiwan, the social code demands that everyone, no matter what their situation in life, should find some way to “fit in” to the cultural mythos (which is based on Confucianism and Filial Piety), and not cause disturbances, inconveniences, increased expenses without a good purpose, nor make an embarrassing scene. People who contribute much, accomplish much, and/or support others, are seen as better or more honorable, and people who are what we would call “parasites” or “trouble makers” are seen as bad or low.
Men in Taiwan, young and old, are under a lot of pressure, and are rated and observed much more than women are. Women in Taiwan, as in many Asian cultures, are less valued and scrutinized than males, simply because they contribute less to the wealth and honor of the family, and instead tend to be burdensome liabilities in this respect. Females are considered to be a man’s property, or subject to a man’s control, but it is unacceptably rude and disrespectful to women to talk about it in these terms.
Westerners are typically offended by the fact that women are valued less than men in Asia, but the upside of this dynamic is that Asian women are liberated from heavy responsibilities and the burden of performance, and therefore lead relatively leisurely lives. A common saying that captures the attitude that Taiwanese women have in the face of a challenge is, “When the sky falls down, I will simply stay flat. A man will eventually come along and take care of it.”
Those Asian women who wish to have more freedom in pursuing their own interests in life and who want to escape their responsibilities to family are drawn to western culture and non-Asian men from Western cultures, especially those who are white. (Western men who take an interest in Asian women should be aware of this dynamic.) Over the past 20 years, there has been an increasing number of Taiwanese women who pursue a lifestyle based on the feminist ideologies of western culture. This focus on herself, and her disinterest in family, are the same reasons why these women are considered to be less valuable, less desirable, or unsuitable for marriage by Asian men. As a result, about 25% of Taiwanese women marry western foreigners, and about 10% of Taiwanese men marry foreign women from surrounding SEA countries who have more traditional family values.
Westerners experience humility by recognizing individual talents and weaknesses, expressed through personality. Asians tend to have a better handle on humility in recognizing one’s place in creation, where some people need your help, while you need help from others. Most Asians recognize that humility is the very same state that opens one’s heart to experience life. Whereas for westerners, it is not part of the common consciousness that humility is a part of life, but instead, humility is commonly misunderstood as piousness, obsequiousness, and sometimes shame.
Because of this appreciation of honor and humility, in Asia, and particularly in Chinese-influenced Asian cultures, a person’s place in life is very important for figuring out cues for the social hierarchy and who is worthy of respect. Things like age, job position, marital status, how many children one has, how much money one makes, etc. are all cues that indicate social hierarchy. These things are personal/private to most western-thinking people, but in Asia, it is more important to identify your standing in society so that others can know where you fit in.
In some places like Korea, this will even affect how they literally speak to you, by what honorary titles and tones they use.
Usually, the reveal is accompanied by a bit of humor because asking certain questions (like age) can be irritating or embarrassing. For example, if you are lucky and look younger than your age, it is always a good thing to let them know your actual age. (People in this situation often ask others to guess their age.)
Furthermore, in most of Asia, every interaction must have one person who is mutually recognized as the senior. The senior has a responsibility to guide and nurture the junior. The junior has the responsibility to honor and respect the senior. Even among peers, senior-junior roles will be adopted based on the senior’s expertise in a mutually held value. Upon first meeting, people prioritize identifying each other and quickly fall into these roles for the sake of social fluidity.
Thus, people in Taiwan have an intense need to constantly be informed of the “pecking order”, all the business and social dealings, and even who has what, in painstaking detail. (In comparison, the western concepts of privacy and individuality seem arrogantly selfish, and stinks of deception.) This strong need to stay informed seems to indicate that people don’t know how to interact unless they know their exact place in society, and this becomes a basic psychological need that consumes a lot of their attention and mental energy.
To make this clearer to the reader, I’ll offer a couple real life examples.
- In my job as a professor, we have a department meeting every month. Before the meeting can begin, the secretaries must painstakingly assess every faculty member’s accomplishments over the last month to determine if there has been any change in the seniority. The rank is printed out and given to every person attending the meeting. There is one professor under me, and he is always smiling and bowing graciously to me, which felt awkward to me at first. (I’m sure he felt the same way.) But he helped me realize that to fit in well and establish good rapport, I should be kind of the same way to the other professors who are my senior.
- Unlike the west, teachers are regarded to have a lot of authority, especially in their area of expertise, and should be respected. But in some of my classes, I have some students who are older than I am, which makes them a senior in terms of the social interaction. If one of them wants to discuss something other than what I have prepared, I have to relinquish some of the class time to do so. Still, it is recognized that I have control of the class and that others may not be so interested in his subject, so at some point, the senior student will indicate it’s enough, and allow me to continue with the lesson. I have the authority to refuse or cut them off short, but this would be seen by the entire class as disrespectful. On the other hand, if the student rambles on and on, and takes up a significant amount of class time, then this would be seen as disrespectful to me.
As you can imagine, there is a little dance going on behind every social interaction. An emphasis on loyalty and respect are nuances of the hierarchy, and judicious amounts of both humor and cynicism is to be expected. Of note, the pecking order mentality also sweeps aside the western concept of social equality as being fake and mechanical.
Since the recognition of social hierarchy is a foundational tenet of the culture, it is unacceptable to question it. Since foreigners question it, they are seen as clueless.
Hospitality and Sincerity
Humans have a psychological need for precious moments of sincerity and compassion, so people value hospitality and sincerity all over the world. There are sincere and insincere people, and there is a concept that sincere people do not speak out.
In the US, we have a proverb, “Open rebuke is better than hidden love”. It stresses the importance of filling time with meaningful interaction, as opposed to holding good intentions but doing nothing. This may explain why westerners are more direct and expressive.
Compared to westerners, Asians tend to be very emotionally reserved and not outwardly expressive of their deeper thoughts and feelings, unless you personally know them for years, or if they happen to have a personality that is uncommonly out-going. In Asia, it is commonly understood that people have a hard protective layer that needs to be gently and patiently peeled off, step-by-step, in the process of developing a relationship. To westerners, this is interpreted as an apparent lack of sincerity.
In general, the Taiwanese greatly value honesty, sincerity, trust, and kindness, perhaps even more than Americans, but not towards strangers, as this is seen to be foolish, risky, and weak. This approach follows the evolution of a winning strategy, which I covered in a previous post, Strategies for the Iterated Prisoners’ Dilemma (2021 March 17). Over time, group socialization coerces players to be honest and sincere (sooner or later) for the benefit of participating in the group.
But once you get past the layers of face-protection and fear, Taiwanese are deeply sincere. Their candidness is then similar to that of southern country hairdressers.
Another way to put it is that always having a lot to say often works against sincerity. So westerners have their own way of being insincere. Part of the issue is that the most significant part of what one wants to say is inexpressible. There is probably no single best way to coping with this. This has a few implications.
- Westerners say too much and Asians say too little.
- Taiwanese are generally more polite towards strangers, while Americans are more genuinely concerned.
- Westerners like to show more than what they really feel inside, while Taiwanese have a tendency to hold back.
- Americans are seen to be rather flaky, in that they sound very open and empathetic, and they say a lot more than what they are willing to back up with action, after which one realizes some part of what was “revealed” was not genuinely felt or truly actionable.
- What comes up in Taiwan speech is possibly the extreme opposite of flake.
- Taiwanese elders do not appreciate eloquent speakers due to their lack of sincerity.
Likewise, westerners may see this reservedness and conclude that Asians don’t have any concept of helping their fellow man, but this is not true at all. If the person who needs help is a close family member or a trusted business partner, then all stops are pulled in order to see that person through. But outside of these covenant relationships, people only care for the interests of others when they are being paid for it, or when they have some kind of vested interest.
The means of helping one’s fellow man must also follow an absolute social hierarchy, and this simplifies moral norms of what actions are appropriate and/or necessary.
A junior is not to assume that a senior needs any kind of help, as this would be disrespectful. But at the same time, the junior should be aware that if the senior asks for help, then he is morally obligated to do so.
How would you know if someone is sincere and trustworthy? Time will prove everything, so relationships are built slowly over time.
The Taiwanese approach to living is practical, yet relaxed. Although there are a few busybodies (as there are in every culture), people mind their own business for the most part.
I actually find this to be a more wholesome and sensible approach to living. I’ve known students who came from horribly broken homes who were still very emotionally healthy, happy, and content, and I think it’s because of this generous social capital.
As you might imagine, this kind of social structure is much closer to the Biblical ideal compared to western progressivism, individualism, and gynocentrism (chivalry). In general, there is less of a societal wide drift away from God’s ordained order. I think this is why I enjoy living here so much.