Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Cultural Unawareness: Cultural Explosions

When we move to foreign lands, we have a tendency to take our culture with us. We are who we are, after all. I’ve spent 50+ years living in one culture and now I’m adjusting to a different one. But I’m open to it. I doubt that I’ll ever “go native,” because I can’t possibly learn all the cultural mores, nor do I have the desire. There are some aspects of the culture I was raised in that are worth keeping. Since we hang on to certain aspects of our culture, we will encounter some shocks. This is a phenomenon known as Culture Shock.

I have to admit that I haven’t been shocked too badly. It may be because I’m open to cultural differences, or it may just be that I don’t care about how people do things but I want to share some culture shocks that I have experienced.

What does it say? It says 獸醫, Oh that clears it up:

This is obvious; we aren’t always able to understand people. We also encounter difficulty trying to communicate our ideas, expectations and needs. For example, I can only read about 100 of the 80,000 Chinese characters that exist. This can lead to certain problems. Recently, we took our cat in to be neutered. So we went on Google and found a local veterinarian. We put the cat in a box and carted him off. When we arrived the people in the office spoke no English and since my Chinese lessons haven’t reached the word castration yet, (It’s difficult for the textbook authors to write a dialogue using that word so they have a tendency to ignore it and let you find out the hard way) we were forced to resort to international symbolic gestures. My wife made the universal sign for scissors and said, “snip, snip.” We were delighted with response, the knowing smile, and the gesture of understanding. So we bade farewell to the cat and wandered off. When we returned to pick him up, he still had his manhood intact…but he had a really nice haircut. We had taken him to the groomer, not the veterinarian.

City Planning? Yeah, right:

The last story brings up this one. One of the reasons that we got him to the wrong place has to do with City Planners. In the US, addresses are logically laid out. One side of the street has the even numbered addresses and the other side has the odd numbered addresses. They are laid out in close proximity to each other. For example, 373 Ming Sheng Street would be almost directly across the street from 374 Ming Sheng Street. However, the veterinarian at 374 Ming Sheng Street was a block and half south of 373 Ming Sheng Street. This led to part of the confusion. There are no City Planners. It’s random. In the US we have commercial zones and residential zones. Planners insure that it’s very difficult to locate commercial things in residential areas. In Taiwan, most people have businesses under their homes. On my street there is a motorcycle repair shop, actually two, there is a butcher who butchers pigs on his front porch. There are food sellers. It’s like a regular downtown area.


My mother always taught me that it was impolite to stare at people. In fact, in the US people get downright nasty if you stare at them. But as we have lived in Taiwan, we see people staring at us, a lot. It’s because we’re foreigners. My neighbor A fang, tells me that I’m the only American she’s ever met, and one of the few that she’s seen outside of television. So they’re very curious. But sometimes, it’s pretty funny. I’ve seen people stop and drop their jaw and stare as if I’ve come from Mars: The total slack jawed, big-eyed look. I have one of two reactions, I either smile and say “Ni hao,” or I give them the full Brooklyn Italian, “Hey Howyadoinn’? Fugeddaboutit.”

Me Chris…Who You?

Introductions are a thorny problem. In the US if we meet someone we will say, “Hi I’m Chris,” and extend our hand to shake hands. People almost without exception will shake your hand and tell you their first name. But that isn’t how it is done here. People rarely, if ever, just introduce themselves. So in our neighborhood, we have a neighbor who sells bread. We didn’t know her name so we just referred to her as the “Mian Bao Xiao Jie” (the Bread Lady.) But I was kind of uncomfortable with that. I didn’t want to know my neighbors as “The bread Lady” or the “Pork Guy” or the “Scooter Dudes.” I wanted to know them and be friends with them. So one evening, I said to the “Bread Lady”, “Ni hao Wo jiao Chris, ni jiao shen me ming zi.” ( Hi, my name is Chris, what’s your name?) She got very embarrassed, sputtered around a little, and finally answered, “Wo jiao A Fang.” (I’m called A Fang. - Fang means fragrant. It’s a girl name) I broke a few cultural rules with that one. The correct way to ask that is “Nin gui xing” (what is your honorable surname?” Then they will tell you and ask yours. You may eventually get to know each other’s given names…after you become friends. I should be calling her “xiao jie” (Miss). But she’s very friendly with us now, where before she was rather reserved.

Move It or Lose It, Pal:

Driving is very different in Taiwan. In the US, things on the road run very smoothly. People generally stay in their own lane, the usually go the right direction, they almost always do U-turns in the intersection and most watch out for pedestrians. I drive like an American and this has the unintended result of infuriating Taxi drivers. They’re always honking at me or passing me on the right, driving through the scooter lane.

Being a pedestrian in Taiwan is like playing a high stakes game of Frogger. You know that game, the frog has to get across the busy highway without becoming a flat red spot. This is what pedestrians do, here. You cans see them wide-eyed, in the racing stance, ready to sprint across the street at full-speed. You can also see the maniacal grin on taxi driver’s faces as they try tos ee how close they can come to the pedestrian, with making a mess on their car. I, as an American, have a tendency to let the pedestrian pass in front of me. But this is more dangerous than just going in front of them, because if I slow down some sociopathic, homicidal taxi driver, will pass on my right at high speed. It could result in a flat red spot on the road. I have to be less safe, it’s much safer that way.

Guess what…Chicken Butt:

Food can be quite interesting. Taiwanese people and American people don’t eat the same things. Okay, maybe that statement is obvious. But they eat parts of stuff that we don’t. For example, Duck Blood is very popular here. It comes mixed with rice in a little bar and people eat it. I tried it, accidentally once, and I won’t do it again. Americans are wasteful, as we prepare meats to eat. There are parts of the animal that we don’t eat. In Taiwan people eat everything. In fact, one thing that you find on menus is the rear end of the chicken. Not that little nub that goes over the fence last, where the tail feathers connect. I’m talking about rectums here. They say that it’s good for your skin, keeps the wrinkles from your face. Hmmm,….I look at it this way, wrinkles add character to my face. I did try one without knowing what it was. My friend waited until I ate it and then told me what it was. Hey it tasted like chicken. Afterward, my face was as smooth as a baby’s butt. Well, chicken’s butt, anyway.

I’m not intending to mock Taiwanese people, here. I just have to laugh at the differences and the confusion that comes from fusing two cultures together. I have found Taiwanese people to be friendly and generous, with their time and themselves. I have also found that culture aside, people all over the world are just people. They have the same basic need for relationships. I appreciate their patience as I unintentionally explode their culture before their eyes. No one has reacted angrily or been offended as I made cultural mistakes and did things they would find offensive. What is really interesting to me is the reaction of other Americans. In almost every case, they refuse to even acknowledge another American. Canadians are friendly, Filipinos are friendly, but Europeans and Americans are not. Maybe it’s a cultural thing…. I hope not.

Other posts you may be interested in: 

Taiwanese Traditions:  They Don't Include Christmas
Taiwan Travelogue:  The Cross Island Highway
Random Asianess:  Driving in Taiwan
Random Asianess:  Random Thoughts

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