Friday, December 16, 2011

So I'm Quiet...But I Want To Talk

Not long ago I was chatting with a student - we were sharing a taxi to the HSR, as he was returning to Tucheng while I returned to Taipei. He asked me what I thought of Taiwanese people, if I had any Taiwanese friends, what it was like to have a social life as a foreigner in Taiwan - all in all a more interesting conversation than the usual "you married yet? How long have you been in Taiwan? Can you eat our food?" taxi banter.

I told him basically what I said in the linked post above, albeit more succinctly. Basically that my Taiwanese friends were great, that generally we have friendships not unlike those in the West, but with two key differences that I have come to accept (because I have to - if I didn't I wouldn't have any local friends):

1.) Americans hang out with their friends far more often. It would be highly unusual to not see a friend for months on end unless they lived far away.  It would be a sign that the friendship was dying. In our free time our first thought, at least those of us who are extroverts, is what we can do socially. In Taiwan people seem to spend time with friends far less often, take the initiative to invite friends out less often (they do it, just not with the same frequency) They don't worry about not seeing friends for awhile, and don't really think of social options first when faced with free time.  Whereas doing something with friends would be my default weekend plan, staying home and resting is often the default in Taiwan.


2.) While there are introverts back home and extroverts in Taiwan who buck the trend (I count many of these among my friends), very generally speaking people are more outgoing in the USA. If you invite them to a party or group event, they'll take the initiative to talk to people they don't know - the default would be to socialize, not to be quiet until someone talked to you. When I host a party back home I don't have to play hostess too much - people will get on without my help. Here I feel like, for many of my local friends, I have to introduce them around and get things flowing far more.  People talk less and often reveal far less about themselves.

When I said that exactly - "people reach out less, they reveal less about themselves, they talk less" - my student nodded vigorously and added that when he was young, his parents and teachers actively taught him not to talk too much. He was taught that not only was being quiet and listening to others a virtue and talking too much a sign of arrogance, but that revealing too much or giving too many opinions was a bad idea, because "if the wrong person heard your idea, you could get in trouble in the past". Along the lines of the cryptic "a truck would come to your house" comment another student once made.

He added that it might seem to foreigners that many Taiwanese people are quieter, have less to say, have fewer opinions (unless you're an old lady or a taxi driver), or are generally happy to just be quiet - but that it's not really true, at least with many of them. "In fact we have a lot of ideas and opinions. Actually, sometimes I want to say something, but I don't. It's not easy to forget my teachers and my family telling me to be quiet. They told me it's dangerous to say too much, and that people - especially children - need to be quiet. So I am quiet. But I want to talk."

Basically he was saying that a lot of people in Taiwan are not naturally introverted or quiet - they are that way because it was drummed into them that they should be that way.

Which...hmm. First, it begs the question - if this is true and it's not an ingrained cultural trait but rather something that's drilled into children from a young age, due to traditional beliefs, political threat or more likely a vitriolic combination of both - is it even possible for an entire culture to force itself to be quiet? Is it possible to mold introverts from people who would otherwise be outgoing? I have my doubts: I'm a natural extrovert and I don't think any amount of childhood training could have repressed that. I was always a bit too talkative in class and teacher reprimands and even notes home never really curbed that tendency. Not to mention that there are enough openly outgoing people in Taiwan for me to wonder - if they never got rid of their talkative streak, how can anyone say that this kind of conditioning works?

It also makes me wonder - if this is something drilled into children the way American kids were forced to practice penmanship to perfection in my grandmother's generation, does its status as a cultural belief deeply held enough to be forced upon children with such vigor not count it by default as a cultural trait - especially considering that humility as a virtue really is a cultural trait here?

And finally, if this was exacerbated by the political climate of the 20th century - mainly the KMT and the White Terror but let's face it, the Japanese weren't angels either - I have to wonder if things were different for those who lived their lives before any of that. If I found a 110-year-old woman out in the countryside - not inconceivable, seeing as old folks in Taiwan seem to make it to 250 without much problem (just kidding...sort of. I am pretty sure some of my neighbors in Jingmei were born during the late Ming Dynasty) - would she have different notions?

Just something to wonder about. I really don't know, I found my student's comments interesting is all. "They told me it's dangerous to talk too I am quiet. But I want to talk" - it makes one think doesn't it?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Been here for only 48 hours but I couldn't stop wondering why people are generally more quiet here (especially as compared to other Asian countries) -- so I googled. This post explained a lot!