Sometime last year, in the middle of that big yellow dust storm that blew in from China, I met a friendly acquaintance for coffee. He was handing over a short-term gig as he and his partner were soon leaving Taipei, bound for the hard glitter of Hong Kong.
“What caused you to choose to leave, if I may ask?” I said while trying to manage my grossly oversized latte.
“People here are just…rude” – the word hit the table with a clang. “They have no sense of manners.”
I thought about that for a minute.
“Well…from the perspective of American etiquette – yeah, you’re right. But…they’re friendly! You’ve gotta give ‘em that much! They may push on the bus, never RSVP and stop in the middle of the sidewalk to answer their cell phones, but nobody can say they’re not nice people, under all that.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” he remarked, unenthused and unconvinced.
I did mention, but didn’t linger on, the fact that Hong Kong people can be just as rude if not worse, and that where they have a stronger sense of Western-style etiquette, I don't find Hong Kong as friendly or kind as Taiwan. I figured, maybe Hong Kong will be more to his liking - and that’s great. Everyone deserves to like where they live. I also figured, if he prized good ‘manners’ over friendly openness, well, that’s fine too. Not my business. Diff’rent strokes and all that, to use an old cliché.
I’ve mulled the conversation over since then and come to this conclusion: Taiwan is a friendly place – Thailand may be famed for its smiling locals (many are genuinely nice, some are smiling because they’re thinking of ways to take your money) but, honestly, in all my travels in Asia I haven’t met a general population as welcoming as the Taiwanese (although I also found Bangladesh to be especially welcoming - perhaps because it doesn't have a tourist industry per se). A genuine sense of welcoming pervades Taiwan, not the kind where you have to watch your back for that kid who seems nice but really just wants you to buy something from his cousin’s carpet shop.
I have noticed that a lot of the foreigners who leave Taiwan feeling as though it’s a lonely, uncaring, monolithic and monolingual place – or worse yet, leave thinking that the Taiwanese are mannerless boors (which is only true insofar as you believe American etiquette to be the pinnacle of good taste), do so because they are wrapped up in specific ideas of how social etiquette works, and aren’t necessarily open to it working a different way. That’s not to say that the person I met for coffee was close-minded or unwilling to try – I didn’t know him well but he didn’t seem to be.
Just that there is a big difference between “being friendly” and “having good manners”. Friendliness is, to some extent, universal. Having good manners is not, or at least is not measured on a universal standard.
I have come across many foreigners who confuse the two and, as a result, dismiss the Taiwanese as “unfriendly” simply because they have a different approach to etiquette – not because they are actually unfriendly.
From my perspective, the Taiwanese are (generally) eager to welcome and befriend foreigners, and not in a “Speak, English Monkey, speak!” way, at least not nearly as often as you’d think (yes, it does happen, but it’s not as common as some expats allege it is). If you look remotely confused while outside, someone will drag out their best English, come up to you and ask if you need help. Forget your purse in a taxi (I’ve done it)? A staff member at Ikari Coffee, of all places, helped me call the police, who put out a taxi radio-wide notice and I got my purse back - with all the money in my wallet still there (frankly I was more concerned as my passport and all other ID cards were in that purse). Show that you speak Chinese and taxi drivers are the chattiest people you’ll meet – and if you don’t speak Chinese, they’re not silent because they want to be: they just may not speak English. While hiking in the Pingxi area, thirsty and a bit overheated, we walked down to what we thought was a café (old house with lots of chairs and tables around). It was a private home, but the owners – who were hosting friends and family – ushered us in and fed us and gave us water anyway, even as we protested. Everywhere I go people strike up conversations – even when I had first arrived and had few (or no) friends, I was never lonely. Someone would always talk to me, even if it was superficial chat between strangers.
Anyway. I have a million stories like this from my time in Taiwan. The flip-side stories about people being mean, distant, apathetic or cold are few and far between (I could tell you about this one horrid taxi driver who insulted me for making one mistake with a tone while giving him an address…but he’s in the minority.)
And yet…there’s a huge etiquette gap between the USA and Taiwan. Here, it’s fairly normal to leave cell phones on through class (I allow this only because the people I teach have demanding jobs and really do need to pick up if the boss is calling), temples and museums…and to answer them too. People will wander down the street looking at something on their smartphone or just chatting, not paying attention to any other pedestrians. Bike riders don’t pay attention to pedestrians and scooter drivers, while they are more attentive, hog sidewalk space that they really shouldn’t. Pedestrians stroll at impossibly slow speeds with their friends or on the phone, often blocking the entire thoroughfare in both directions…and pay little attention to anyone who wants to get past. Scooters park in the most irritating places. Yes, people push to get on buses and more than once I’ve had someone cut in line to board the MRT.
No, they don’t write thank you notes (or e-mails) and no, they often don’t RSVP on time if at all. Yes, they do cancel plans even after saying they’ll be there – if Grandma wants to go out to dinner or Auntie Chen stays in town a few extra days, long-held plans with friends are canceled, often with less than an hour to go.
All of these things are true – not true of everyone, and not true all the time, but true enough to be observed frequently and remarked upon.
None of them mean, however, that the Taiwanese are “unfriendly” or “rude”. I define “friendly” by how receptive people are to being friends – real friends, not “gossip behind your back” friends, not by cultural standards of when it’s OK to cancel your plans with someone, or realizing that you’re supposed to RSVP. I define “rude” by somewhat subjective cultural standards and while a lot of the above behavior can be irritating, it’s not a marker of friendliness or unfriendliness.
So while I wish all the best to that person in Hong Kong – he probably will like it more than Taipei given his preferences regarding social behavior, and I have no problem with that – I’ll take friendliness over etiquette any day. As such, I’ll take Taipei over Hong Kong any day.