Sunday, June 26, 2011

Navigating Friendship in Taiwan

Enjoy this horrible photo where only one person looks halfway decent of some of my friends here...before someone asks me to take it down because we all look pretty awful.

I’ve been talking a lot with expat friends about friendship in Taiwan, making local friends and maintaining a social circle in ways that we’re accustomed to, and found a few interesting trends among what those friends are saying (and my own experience).

One thing that people seem to universally agree on – people in Taiwan don’t seem to pick up ‘random’ friends or create diverse groups of friends in the way we do back home. I am sure it happens, but it doesn’t seem to be the norm. Back home, I counted among my circle of friends a guy I met because he was one table over at an Indian restaurant and, as he was south Indian, noted how I was eating like a local. Another I met at a bus stop. In Taiwan, one of my best friends – no longer in Taipei, sadly – I met at a swimming pool. Another few have come from Teh Internets. All of these people have met and more than a few are now independently friends as well.

Of course, plenty of other friends I met in more typical ways – through work, or a club or mutual friends, or my former college friends with whom I’m still close. Maybe I’m the weirdo here – one more shy friend from back home has noted “yeah, you meet people at a bus stop and a month later they’re coming over for dinner and bringing the wine. Some of us just can’t do that!”

I don’t think it’s that weird, though. I do think this happens far more often back home than it does here.

It was noted that it’s typical in both cultures to make friends in groups – classmates and former classmates, colleagues, peers in your industry, and it seems much more common to actually socialize with family as though they’re your friends (and I say this as someone whose sister is also counted as a good friend and who will happily socialize with her brother-, sister- and cousin-in-law). You see a lot more of “I’m going out with my cousins” here and a lot less of “yeah, we met at the bus stop”. It seems like there are three typical circles – colleagues, classmates and family…and not a lot more than that.

I guess my point is I feel more like my friendship “circles” back home are circles that have spokes flying off here and there, and I have a lot more independent attachments to people than many Taiwanese seem to, and I feel more inclined to invite them out together than many Taiwanese seem to. I stick less in tight circles of classmates, family and coworkers than the Taiwanese seem to.

I’ve been told by locals and expat observers alike that it is fairly rare that a typical Taiwanese person will go out of their way to talk to and socialize with someone totally new unless introduced by a mutual friend or that person entered a previously existing circle of coworkers, family or classmates.

Which is all fine if you’re local, but if you’re not it can make it difficult to make local friends. If you don’t have a milieu waiting for you – work, school or family – in which to enter those circles, it’s harder (and made harder still by the aforementioned linguistic and cultural barriers). It does, therefore, make sense that while most foreigners are likely to date locals, they tend to befriend other foreigners with the exception of possibly a few local colleagues and a language exchange partner.

I want to say before I continue that this hasn’t really been a problem for me – I have many local friends, if anything I’d say I have more local friends than expat ones (although I have a fair amount of both). I've written about this before but but it bears repeating: I do feel that there are expected and established communities and circles where an expat would typically make friends: at work or in class, or going out on the weekend with a larger group of people your own age - whether that's 21 or 51 - and joining clubs with those same people. I feel too old for the young buxiban and student crowd but way too young and in a different place in life vis-a-vis the older professional crowd. I don't quite fit into the ABC crowd.

And yes, that makes it hard to socialize, although I like to think I've been successful regardless.

So, some trends I've noticed:

The first is that I think it’s more than language and more than the expected cultural gaps that make it easier, and therefore more common, for expats to socialize with other expats and not as much with locals. If everyone around you tends to socialize with coworkers and classmates, then you will too: and your classmates and coworkers are usually other foreigners. If those around you are less likely to make random friendships, you’re less likely to have the opportunities for connection. So it’s not so much about misunderstanding or misinterpreting actions, and not about communication, but more about a mode of socializing that isn’t so easy to breach for outsiders.

However, I would guess that like me, most longer-term expats have a number of local friends. What I’ve noticed here is that they tend to be one’s girlfriend’s friends (this makes the assumption that a huge number of expats are men with Taiwanese girlfriends, but that assumption is of course based in truth), “Chinese teacher” colleagues from the English schools where they work, and language exchange partners turned friends. Of course, if you’ve got a non-teaching job or are in school with other local students your chances of cultivating more local friendships go up.

What I rarely see, which is a shame, are groups composed of expats and locals in a mix, socializing together. Maybe this does happen more often than I think, but I don’t see it because I’m not exactly a regular on the bar scene and I don’t belong to any local clubs or groups (my work, Chinese study, marriage and current social circle keeps me busy enough). This is where I’d love to hear experiences from other expats that buck the narrative I’m describing.
That said, when I do go out with my mixed group of foreigners and locals – a group that’s ever-evolving as friends are made and friends leave, including Taiwanese friends who have left to study abroad – I feel like we’re the only group like that around.

Another thing I’ve noticed – expat friendships with locals tend to be mostly female. I don’t mean relationships – I mean friendships. This is true for me, as well – and I can’t really explain why (but I’ve discussed it with other expat friends who agree. Making local female friends is fairly easy, but making local friends who are male just doesn’t seem to happen much). I have a few, although all but one are currently not in Taiwan due to work or study. I’d try to suss out some theories on this but none has ever really had enough sticking power that I can confidently post it and defend it. I’ve consistently found, however, that my very small handful of male Taiwanese friends tends to be the exception.

It also seems to be true that while plenty of friendships in Taiwan exist between men and women, it all seems to be in groups: Classmates, Coworkers, Family. Locals I’ve talked to (mostly students) have confirmed this: you rarely get an independent male-female friendship. If you do, people start to gossip and wonder. If a man and a woman are hanging out one-on-one consistently, it’s assumed that they’re in a pre-dating stage, and a married person (such as myself) who has a friend of the opposite gender will sometimes be suspected of an affair. One of my students came out and said that she lost touch with most of her male friends from before her marriage – it wasn’t that she didn’t want to be friends, but it felt “strange” to spend time with them now that she was married.

Which is totally not how I feel at all – one of my closest friends in Taiwan is male (another expat, but still). It would strike me as ridiculous to give up my friendships with men because I’m in a relationship or married. I know it happens in the USA, but it seems to happen on a smaller scale.

Yet another observation – and I’m not quite sure how to word this because it’s supposed to be an observation based on what many of my other friends have said as well as my experience but could so easily be misinterpreted as me complaining, which is absolutely not the intent – is that “foreign friends” of locals in Taiwan seem to get fewer invitations out from their Taiwanese friends than they do from other expats, or that they would back home. I do believe this has to do with the fact that we don’t fit into Classmates, Coworkers or Family, so it would be awkward to invite us to those gatherings, and if you’re the only expat friend of that person, there’s no easy place to fit you in. Almost like a curiosity (although that sounds bad, and conveys a tone I don’t know if I really intend). You might get invitations for lunch or coffee, but you wouldn’t often be invited to, say, a house party or a restaurant gathering. So what happens is that your local friends know all of your friends, but you know few or none of your local friends’ friends (again, exceptions exist in my own life and generally I am happy with the invitation reciprocity I receive).

I can see, though, how a typical expat might cultivate some local friendships and then, after awhile, wonder why he or she doesn’t seem to get as many return invitations, and wonder if he or she is being snubbed, when really the local friend just isn’t sure what sort of gatherings to invite their expat friend to attend. That right there is a huge cultural gap: I remember once someone I know was narrating advice she’d heard aimed at Taiwanese who want to practice their English, and one item was “maintain friendships with foreigners”. “But why would they have to be told to do that?” came the question. Honestly, I can see why. It can make you really think - and question - when your invitations are accepted with alacrity, but you rarely get the same types of invitations in return, and maybe not as frequently (or maybe it's just that I'm a planner and party-thrower and the friends I've made aren't like that).

Another culture gap – family coming before friends. I can see how a foreigner who invites a local out and then gets a cancellation at the last minute because “relative X wants to have dinner” or “mom wants the family to go out” might feel slighted. I’ve accepted that this is how it is – back home we’d tell Aunt Mabel we’re not free that day, sorry. Here, a local friend is more likely to cancel with you to have dinner with Auntie Chen.

I’ve also noticed that parties tend to be a lot quieter. To illustrate this, a tableau: imagine walking into a restaurant to find out it’s been booked out for a wedding that day. A Hello Kitty bride and Daniel groom top a pink-tulle covered arch, and a glittering Double Happiness hangs inside a heart above diners’ heads. Pink tablecloths with white and gold flowers. You are disoriented at first, not sure what’s going on, because it’s so quiet. People are talking quietly at their round banquet tables and music is playing, but you see little of the mingling and inter-table socializing that you would in a lively wedding back home.

This is exactly what we observed when we tried to eat at a famous restaurant in Longtan.

Many Taiwanese friends and students have told me that they and people they know are quite shy when it comes to socializing in a party atmosphere – think like your typical house party back in the USA. My local friends generally aren’t like that, with a few exceptions, but I’m speaking from a few experiences as well as talking to others about their experience. I can name several of my local friends who can be quite sociable at the house parties we occasionally throw (usually on Christmas).

Which – again, I look forward to comments that refute this and tell their own story – but my experience has been that house parties just don’t happen, or when they do, they’re small and contained within a group: Classmates, Colleagues or Family. You sit in a circle; mingling is just different. It looks more like this. (I don't agree with the entire post but the picture is quite evocative).

You don’t see a lot of the sort of parties I throw, where I basically invite everyone I know from every group: Classmates and Colleagues (I have no local family). Locals and expats. People I met at the swimming pool. Former students.

I would cover the psychological differences and toll it takes on people who are not extroverted to have to change out social circles every other year or so - especially if they are here long-term and primarily friends with other expats who come and go - but, I dunno, it strikes me as sort of obvious. I am quite extroverted and it can take something of a toll on me, because one goes through high and low periods. Periods where you have a ton of friends, then a chunk goes home and you have very few until you make some new ones, and then some of those go home, and you are less social until you make still more friends, and then BLAMMO! It's been five years and you're only still hanging out with one or two people from your first year here. If you're not naturally inclined to pick up friends, that can be really hard, and having some local friends who are less likely to leave can help stabilize things a bit.

Finally, I’ve noticed that friendships seem to be conducted mostly in English, even though I do speak Chinese. This is partly because my husband generally comes along and while he can understand most of what is said, he can’t easily contribute in Chinese, and I think partly because the Taiwanese are more used to using English because they have to, whereas Chinese is ‘fun’ for me.

And, you know, after five years I’m still trying to work through all of these things. I’m learning to accept that group gatherings here aren’t done in the same way that they are often done back home. I’m learning to accept that my own gatherings will be a bit quieter and probably end earlier (what often happens is that my Taiwanese friends show up and leave at 11:30pm, and the foreigners stay, talk and drink until 2am). I’m learning to accept that the kinds of reciprocating invitations I get will be different, and that that’s just how it is because I’m not a Classmate, Coworker or Family.

I’m also learning to accept that this is expanding my definition of how friendships are conducted, it’s making me more laid-back and giving me more chances to get to know people one-on-one. That it’s OK to have a quieter gathering, that I don’t have to take it personally when Auntie Chen gets precedence, and that I have to completely abandon my notion of timely and accurate RSVPs because it just doesn’t happen.

And, you know, that’s OK. It’s a new perspective. Some parts of it are awkward and difficult to puzzle out, but that’s life, and if you want to maintain friendships you have to learn to be flexible.


J said...

That sums up pretty much everything for me. Even going to grad school with Taiwanese classmates doesn't necessarily help- in my case they're almost all girls, but are mostly very guarded and distant when I talk with them. Friendship is clearly not an option. Other western classmates- especially male- have had similar experiences. Outside of school I occasionally meet guys who are interested in meeting foreigners, but you have to be pretty aggressive to get anywhere with those and even then you might end up just being the token white friend. It does make long-term life here less appealing, especially if you're socially passive (and I would say I am).

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

J - Yeah, I too fear the "token white friend" thing. That's not what I want to be, as much as it might be a tempting facsimile of friendship for a lonelier person.

BTW I think I'm going to edit this post down - there are a few places where I repeat myself or am not entirely clear (that tends to happen when you write a post piecemeal over the course of four days). So if it suddenly becomes shorter, it's not self-censorship - it's just too long.

Holly said...

So many good points and things I totally relate to, especially about group dynamics when you get local and expat friends together. One thing I've noticed is that, when I invite all my random friends to an event, the expat friends who've just met each other often stay in touch afterwards and become friends, but the Taiwanese friends usually either only talk to other Taiwanese or stick to small talk without forming any new friendships with my other friends. Or those friends will try to stick by my side the entire event, which isn't cool, since I'm a mingler. On the opposite end of the spectrum, very occasionally a Taiwanese friend (usually someone I haven't known for very long) will latch on to my other expat friends, adding them on Facebook after barely saying hello, or contacting them later for favors, which is embarrassing for me. Luckily, that doesn't happen often, and it makes me more appreciative of the local friends who I can feel comfortable bringing into any social situation. Those friends also tend to be ones who actually invite me to group gatherings rather than one-on-one outings only, and they also hang with people who are cool and don't make me feel so conspicuous for being the only foreigner in the room.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Yeah, my local friends are cool too. I don't have any who latch on to other foreigners in an awkward way and while a few are really quiet, they're not totally unable to socialize - they generally don't initiate it, though.

And that's really what I want more of - it can be hard for expats and locals to get to know each other just because of cultural and possibly language issues, but it's extra hard when shyness comes into it (as it so often does in Taiwan). Sometimes I see the same thing with Taiwanese who don't know each other or have a "Family, Friends, Coworkers" circle to put new people in. That's why I really don't think it's a race issue - it's a culture issue and a "breaking out of circles" issue.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

I edited it to include this link:

I don't agree with everything the post says, but the first few paragraphs are dead on and the picture is very evocative. This is what I mean when I'm talking about parties, and I've noticed it too: It's not that one or two locals leave at 11:30...THEY ALL DO. And the foreigners stay and leave slowly as they get tired until there're just three or four of us.

Anonymous said...

At the one party I've been too which was hosted by a Taiwanese (unless you count a Lunar New Year celebration as a party) actually had a pretty good mix of locals and expats - about 60% of the guests were local, and 40% expat. The expats included South Africans, somebody from English, and Guatemalans, and a couple people from the USA (including me). While I don't know all of the locals identities', I think the host is a waishengren, and that some of the guests were Hoklo, and at least one was Hakka. Some of the guests were co-workers, a few were family of the host, the South Africans are actually the host's neighbors, and I know that the Guatemalans were not the host's co-workers, family, or former classmates.

That said, I spent the most time talking to my fellow American, mainly because I had never met her before and I was interested in comparing notes (also, she doesn't speak much Chinese, and not everyone at the party spoke English, so her range of conversation partners was limited). However, I noticed that the Guatemalans were mixing with the Taiwanese, and some of the locals took great interest in the South Africans (I would like to note that one of the South Africans was 5 years old).

I'm one of those people who likes to leave the party by 11:30 myself (unless it's a new year's party) so I don't know how late the party went. Also, many of the guests needed to leave while public transit was still running.

As for me, back in the States I was one of those people who put family first. However, now that I am in a corner of the world where I have no family (my nearest relative, if you call my uncle-in-law's-nephew-who-I've-never-met a relative, is in Seoul), I have a much more friends-oriented social life (I keep in touch with my family of course).


Jenna Lynn Cody said...

MK - interesting!

I'd post a story, too, but I don't have one. None of my Taiwanese friends have hosted a house party that I've been aware of - or if they have, it was restricted to people from one of their circles. That's not to say they haven't planned events, though. Yes, I've met locals at house parties, but the parties themselves almost always seem to be thrown by foreigners.

Kawa said...

I enjoy reading your blog immensely. Your views about women and make up - I agree entirely. I'm looking forward to all the great food in Taipei and have written down all your recommendations. Thanks for your interesting posts.

Jorge said...

Hello from Tokyo! I am an American expat living and working here for 5 years. I feel you hit the nail on the head. Your article is very spot on to the social life here also. Many paths to friendship here seem to be tightly structured. Many expats here run into many invisible walls here due to the fact that family,classmates and work circles dominate the social scene.

It is unusual for us to have narrow number of approved paths to get to know someone. But perhaps in Taiwan and Japan this narrow path works for them.

As I am an outgoing guy have tried to put together some ESL social clubs for locals to get together. Overall it was good but imagine a line of 100 people waiting for the public swimming pool to open.$10 American dollars to get in. It opens and 95 of those people dip a toe into the pool and then leave.

One last observation. Men and women here seem to lead more divided lives. The roles tend to be more defined. Less overlap than what we are used too.

Thanks for your post. It was very useful.