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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Taiwanese black and white ways, limitations on social life, and control freak behavior

Black and white proper ways

In Taiwan, there is this cultural black and white thinking that strictly dictates that there is one “right way” (“dee-uh” in Taiwanese) of doing things, and all other ways are “wrong ways” (“mmm-dee-uh” in Taiwanese). It is subjective and singular-minded. In their belief system, everything, especially people, must be strictly controlled and regulated through “proper ways” of behaving and conduct. Any deviation from these “proper, right” ways must be quickly “corrected” (“gai” in Taiwanese) or else all chaos will erupt (you gotta remember they live in fear, not confidence or optimism, and thus tend to use “negative reinforcement” to control their children).

For example, there is a proper time to go to bed (9pm to 10pm usually) and get up (early morning), even on Friday and Saturday nights. There is a proper time to eat meals (and you gotta eat quickly, this isn’t Europe where you can savor the process of eating, for to take too long would be to waste time idlely) that must be followed everyday. Most Taiwanese people stick to these sleeping and eating schedules strictly in a daily mechanistic routine, and this includes those who are retired or financially independent and don’t even have to work! Rarely do they just let loose and party, and even if they do, it’s strictly controlled and kept within a short time frame, so that it doesn’t get out of hand! (albeit there is a minority who drink alcohol, gamble, and play mahjong a lot, but these are a minority)

Severe limitations of social life

And of course, there is a proper way to meet people, make friends, or get acquainted with the opposite sex, and that is by introductions through mutual connections. Not only are most Taiwanese people too shy to talk to strangers, but they are taught that it is improper, indecent, and “wrong” as well. The only ones who tend to talk to strangers freely are old people and little children.

Thus, it is very hard to meet people or get dates there. The social environment does not flow freely at all, unlike many European, Latin, or African countries. Having to depend on introductions through others is very limiting indeed, but alas, it is the “proper” way to do things, and most Taiwanese and Orientals in general are afraid to deviate from it (you gotta remember, most of them prefer to “follow the pack” rather than think or do things their own way).

So, similar to Anglo-Saxon dominated countries (America, Canada), in Oriental countries (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans mostly) it takes time, effort, and luck to meet people by developing connections through the proper channels first, which is usually through school, work or mutual friends. That means little of it is really in your control. You gotta mostly wait and hope you get lucky. After all, you can’t just meet people in public or talk to strangers while you’re going out and doing something, for to do so would make you appear rude, inappropriate, and even “freakish”.

Unfortunately, those who are seeking dates or an intimate relationship are in the worst position, for their romantic choices are strictly limited within their schools, work environments, and social cliques. Thus the millions of other potential partners they could be matched with out there, are simply closed off to them and off-limits. It’s very sad and depressing, if you ask me, but that’s how it is. (Thank God though, that the internet now offers them a way to meet people that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to meet through these traditional channels, otherwise their situation would be hopeless unless they had the right connections)

And since it’s improper conduct to talk to strangers in Oriental societies, or to even look at them, it makes it damn near impossible to “pick up” girls that you find attractive. (which in the Philippines is so easy that it’s not even a challenge) To even try is not only inappropriate, but “freakish” as well, and would put one at risk of incurring the wrath of the Oriental collective. Very few dare to violate such norms, and instead prefer to live in their safe comfort zones by following the pack and its rules. Thus, even attractive, hot or sexy people do not dare try to “pick up” the opposite sex in public settings, and in fact, no one dares to even stare at them either. To call that “prudish” would even be an understatement. Now, to romantic Casanovas like me, these societal rules are just plain suffocating and unacceptable.

Simply put, in Anglo-Saxon and Oriental dominated countries, social interactions and relationships are usually strictly limited within one’s work environment, school, or social clique. Suffice to say though, it’s even worse in America because in many office settings, dating co-workers is an un-official taboo, whereas it’s very acceptable and even encouraged in Asia.

Generally, the Asian countries where people are much more comfortable and relaxed talking to strangers and are more approachable and less shy, are Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. But even in these countries, most people tend to “follow the pack” rather than think for themselves. In regions like Malaysia and Indonesia, the people are gentle and passive, not as strict, controlling or angry prone as Orientals, but since they are strictly Muslim, they are very conservative and abide by strict rules and customs (and that includes not dating any non-Muslims).

Super control freak attitudes and behaviors

Now back to the Oriental control nature discussed earlier. If you deviate from their strict notions of the proper and right way of doing things, even in little things, many Taiwanese people, including non-family members, will be quick to try to correct you and fix you, as if it were their second nature. In fact, controlling and correcting others is in their instinct, as if they live and breathe it. You can never take it out of most of them, not even by reasoning with them, showing them the folly or illogical nature of their ways, or by “correcting” them. You see, they aren’t this way because they choose to be or because it’s logical or necessary. It’s simply “the way” they’ve always done things and not to be questioned. They aren’t a freethinking society, but rather a “follow the right way” society.

Even in the USA, when my parents’ Taiwanese friends learned that my dream was to pursue acting, they quickly discouraged it, labeling it as “useless and impractical” because such a path leads to an unstable income or little or no income at all. They never thought to consider that my belief is that one should do what one loves and follow one’s passion regardless of whether they are making good money or not. No, to them, making money is a practical value that is of far higher importance than love, passion, or even following one’s heart. You see, the matters of the heart and soul are of a dimension that aren’t part of their shallow materialistic paradigm.

This obsessive controlling/correcting nature is strongest in the relationship between parents and their offspring. (which outsiders don’t always get to see, for many families hide their control freak nature from outsiders in an attempt to save face) Parents are constantly controlling and correcting their children over every little thing without end. One of the most common warnings they utter to them in Chinese is “Ni jze yan tzu, wo yao shun tche oh.” which means “If you’re gonna be like this, I’m going to get angry.” And they are constantly labeling everything to them in black and white categories such as “dweh” (right) and “buh-dweh” (wrong), thus instilling in them a black and white worldview.

As another example, my dad’s younger brother and some of his close friends whom I call “Uncles” were strict controlling Asian parents who used anger, shouting, threats and fear to manage their children. To Western styles, their approach seems abusive, cruel, and excessive. But in Taiwanese families, such a parenting style is actually quite normal, standard, and even expected. They do it all in the name of “it’s for their own good”. What I gather is that in these parents’ minds, there is this fear that if their children are not sternly and tightly controlled, then chaos will erupt and the whole family will go down the drain. So in their minds, they are doing what’s right. Thus, the parents and the children both live in fear.

One harmful effect of all this is that it contributes to their vulnerable insecure state of constantly living in fear of criticism. Rather than empowering them with self-confidence or self-worth, it weakens their ego and worth by subjecting them to excessive control, negative reinforcement, and fear tactics. In addition, they also tend to have this annoying habit of talking to you like you don’t know anything, even when they have no idea what you really know. Thus it’s no wonder that Orientals tend to be shy, timid, introverted, and non-assertive. They also almost never brag, unless they are Americanized of course.

As a result, Taiwanese children tend to pass on such strict controlling ways to their own children of the next generation, and the cycle repeats. One of the ways to break it is, of course, by becoming a freespirit and freethinker like me who can think outside of the box and choose his/her own path and behavior rather than following that of society like a robot. But of course, those Taiwanese who dare to be different will risk alienation from many of their ethnic kind, and find that many Asian cliques will exclude them and/or avoid them. For to them, following the pack is normal whereas thinking on your own, if it deviates from the norm, is seen as freakish, dangerous, unstable, outside their comfort zone, and thus makes them feel uncomfortable.

What Taiwanese people (as well as many Orientals and Americans) don’t understand is that you can’t change people by merely “correcting” or “fixing” them with a lecture about what they “should or ought” to do. Change comes from within, and you can’t change someone unless THEY want to be changed.

And besides, change itself is complicated. Some things about you can be changed, while others can’t. Sometimes, the change is only temporary, lasting for days, weeks, or even months, before you revert back to your behavior prior to the change. But even real change often occurs gradually, not instantaneously (as the result of some dumb lecture).

But alas, Taiwanese ways assume that you are a conformist by nature rather than an independent thinker, and that thus you can be “corrected” into conforming to their ways. Thus they assume that you can be changed by a simple lecture from them telling you what you should do. Yeah right. Perhaps it is these folks that need to be “corrected” by being given some wisdom about the folly of their control freak nature, and the ability to see things from more than one angle so that their mind can be expanded.

Of course, all of us, including me, are sometimes prone to such erroneous assumptions, as I myself may be flawed in thinking that this article will change the behavior of any control freak Taiwanese/Orientals.

Even in the Philippines, I’ve seen examples of this “control to the proper way” nature from Taiwanese and Japanese that set them apart from the Filipinos. Here are two instances:

- At a dinner party in a Taiwanese man’s home, while we were eating good vegetarian food, our host suddenly pointed to me and told me to eat the proper way with spoon and fork together rather than just a fork, even though I was doing fine with only a fork. Now, such an action about a trivial matter was totally out of context in a carefree lax happy-go-lucky Filipino society, and totally out of the norm, especially since it is a Filipino custom in homes to eat with bare hands. But it was the Taiwanese mentality to correct even such miniscule things, even though he was a very nice man. Afterward, all the other Filipino guests at the table followed suit and used both fork and spoon as well, since we were all in his home. I don’t know why he chose to correct only me though, probably because I’m Taiwanese too, so he felt more comfortable doing that to me.

- One time, while my girlfriend and I were at a hotel swimming pool during my parents’ visit, we met this really cute little boy only a few years old. My girl took a fancy to him and so while I was taking pictures, she got next to him to have her picture taken with him. While my camera was charging its flash, the boy’s mom suddenly came and took her kid away briskly. Afterward, I was puzzled and said, “That mom was not Filipino was she?” My girlfriend said that she was Japanese. “Oh no wonder,” I said, “cause a Filipino mom would never have a problem with a stranger wanting to take pictures with her kids. Only a Japanese or Oriental would be so strict and paranoid about it.” She nodded in agreement.

Taiwanese act like Christians, Filipinos act like Buddhists

Here is one odd inverse that I’ve observed between Taiwanese and Filipinos. Although Buddhism is part of Chinese culture and tradition, the Taiwanese mainstream personality is far more Christian-like with its black and white views and judgmental attitude. Clearly their “one way is the right way” mentality is more compatible with Christian thinking, as well as their overly righteous tone and speaking manner. Very few of them are truly nonjudgmental. Furthermore, their negative reinforcement tactics of controlling others through fear is also more similar to the classic Christian system of keeping its followers in fear of punishment and condemnation from God.

On the other hand, though Catholicism is deeply ingrained in Filipino culture to the point where over 90 percent of Filipinos claim to be Catholic, their cultural attitude seems more Buddhist than Christian. Filipinos are generally very nonjudgmental to the point where even misfits and weirdos from other countries feel like they fit in with them. They are also very tolerant and do not have this belief that only one way is the right way. In addition, they are very lax, carefree, slow to anger, not overly serious, and do not get riled up over little things that go wrong. As an example, amazingly the drivers in Manila in heavy slow traffic never seem to lose their cool or look impatient, even if other drivers cut them off or nearly hit them. They seem to have this Zen-like attitude of dealing with problems and do not get overly excited about little things, as though they are adept at practicing “nonattachment”, a key principle taught in Buddhism as a path to liberate the mind from suffering, karma and illusion. And even when they are upset, they quickly get over it as if nothing happened. It is not in their nature to hold a grudge or be resentful.


  1. I bumped into this blog purely by accident. Given that I am Taiwanese / Chinese, grew up in US, as well as a Christian, I feel that I can speak reasonably about the subject matter.

    I have had little issues with the date scene in Taiwan the brief time I've been there. The Taiwanese culture does seem to be a bit more class- and wealth- oriented than the American version. The Chinese term of this is "men-don-hu-dwai" or "Matching the door and the family."

    So if you have some issues here, perhaps it's a good idea to consider the Taiwanese girl's perspective.

    Also, you seem to have some strange ideas about Christianity. Your idea of Christianity seems to match somewhere between Calvinism to Christian Fundamentalism.

    Having visited multiple church / congregations, I can say that Christianity is quite broad -- so your characterization is both unfair to the Christians as well to the Taiwanese. (Given that I've never been to the Philipines nor studied Buddhist philosophies, I'll not mention the other side of your analogy).

  2. Some great posts.

    Having dated some Taiwanese women, your posts give me insights I might not have had in the past.

    Maybe this is why I prefer mainland women.

    You have whetted my curiosity about the Philipines.

    Perhaps I will check it out.

  3. You make some good points. But have you compared the economy and poverty in the two countries?


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