Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Culture Fatigue: "I get it but I don't like it"

I had a conversation earlier today (OK, a thread of Facebook comments, DON'T JUDGE ME) about "cultural fatigue" - vs. culture shock - with a friend. The context: the curriculum where she works in Japan requires that a certain article on the topic be assigned, but the article itself is outdated, and not in a "this is foundational" way.

"Culture fatigue" is a concept I came across awhile ago, when I did some searching (OK, Googling, DON'T JUDGE ME) to figure out what was bothering me on a near-daily level, like a low-grade chronic ache, about my life. It wasn't depression. It wasn't my marriage. It wasn't my job. It wasn't my apartment. It wasn't my social life. It wasn't living in another country per se, and I wasn't unhappy with Taiwan overall. But it was something.

After our conversation, I did another search to see if anything new had been written on the topic, and came across this. It more or less perfectly encapsulates what sometimes bothers me about life in Taiwan (or long-term life in any country). His examples are generally money related.

Although occasionally, very occasionally, I've felt nickeled-and-dimed in Taiwan (a taxi driver taking an obviously inferior route, a dry cleaner charging me a touch more than I thought dry cleaning usually cost, a guy showing me a price on a calculator for a scarf (299) and telling a local woman the price in Chinese for the same kind of scarf (250 - and I did call him on it and I got it for 225 - "you should knock off 25 more for giving me the foreign price" I said, and he did!), mostly money isn't a problem. Things cost what they cost and yes, friends and relatives get a discount, but you the foreigner generally get the price that an unfamiliar local would get. At least in Taipei.

So these aren't my issues. Taiwan is a very different place from Colombia (I think I just won the "duh" award with that statement), and the culture fatigue issues I face are, understandably, quite different.

My examples for Taiwan are below.

Before I get into them, please keep in mind: I really do love living here. I don't mean these as an ad hominem attack on Taiwan. I could write a similar post of similar length on great things about life here and aspects of the culture that I find positive or preferable. I do not mean to imply that these happen every day to me (they don't) or that I think they make people here crazy or "inscrutable" (they really don't). I don't think all of these are "wrong" per se, just a very different way of looking at the world. My point is that these are the cultural norms that give me trouble; they are the ones that cause culture fatigue. It doesn't mean they are "wrong", just that I find them difficult to deal with.

In fact, because this sort of post tends to get people angry, I've gone ahead and highlighted in pink the areas where I try to empathize with, or at least understand, the other side of the issue.

- - Never knowing if "sorry, I'm just so busy these days. I still want to hang out and see you, I'm just very busy", after you haven't seen a friend in months, is really "I'm busy" (it can be - considering working hours and family obligations in Taiwan), or if it's a polite brush-off. In the USA I'd know.

- - The concepts of respect for rank and giving "face" to people higher in rank than you (I naively thought face was something everyone got in equal measure. Boy was I wrong), meaning that if you have a dispute with someone higher-up than you, even if you are right and everybody knows you are right, they may well not support you. This can happen in the USA too, but it isn't as common. I do get it - face is a big deal, and if you are judicious in giving it and then trying to get what you want through other means, it's not that hard to be successful. It just wears me down to have to do things this way so often.

- - Not imparting important, or even just pertinent, information if informing somebody of something too early (or at all) could make waves in the placid surface on the lake of social harmony. As in, the other day I was in the Eslite Dunhua cafe after a class, and I was hungry. It was about 2:30pm. I asked for the menu, saying "I'm quite hungry, so I want to order some food" in Chinese. They give me the menu. I pick out something healthy and light - the smoked salmon salad. They say "oh, I'm sorry, the kitchen is closed".
"OK, but I said I wanted to order food when I asked for the menu."
"You can have a cake!" (pointing to the cake display).
"If I wanted a cake I would not have asked for the menu because I can see the cakes."
"Oh, yes, that's true."
"So why did you give me the menu?"
"Excuse me, I don't understand."
"I asked for a menu saying I wanted to order food. If you knew the kitchen was closed, why did you give me the menu? Why didn't you just say the kitchen was closed in the beginning?"

I mean I guess it's possible that the server was either a.) not that smart or b.) not having a good day (we all have Stupid Days, it's OK), but this sort of thing has happened many times before. It's happened enough that I recognize it as a cultural tic and not just One Ditzy Waitress.

I get this one too: social harmony is more important than individual wants, and social harmony must be achieved and maintained (that's why we smile and shake hands after an argument at work when nothing's actually been resolved. OK). So you just go with it and assume the other person gets this on a cellular level too. The waitress probably figured, when it was clear I did not want a cake, that I would be all "oh, OK, well, thank you!" and not call her out on giving me a menu when I couldn't order anything. My calling her out disturbed social harmony. Her giving me the menu, however unthinking it seemed to me, was trying to maintain it. I get it, but it wears me down.

- - Related to the example above, the whole listening to your requests and suggestions, the person nods that he or she understands...then completely disregards them. Or, as you make a request or list a requirement, the person says that would be fine, and then proceeds to go against everything agreed on to try to get you to bend even after you've already said you can't or won't. Again, nodding and "understanding" uphold social harmony. Nobody can say directly that they don't agree or can't grant your request. So they don't say it. You are just expected to understand. And again, when this happens I know why it happens and I try to handle it with grace. But it wears me down.

Example: let's say you are asked to create material for and teach a series of workshops on some business skill. You agree, and you get to work. You say you will need a projector and screen in class. to show a short video in the workshop. "I understand." The morning of the workshop - no projector or screen. "Oh, we don't have that, sorry. You can teach without it." Yes, by changing my entire lesson plan with about ten minutes to spare, I can. ARGGGHHHHH. (One day I decided I was done. Done. I just flatly refused to do that when confronted with material changed without my knowledge ten minutes before class. "You can just teach this instead." "No." "But..." "NO. You get me the agreed-upon material or I won't teach. I am not joking. You have ten minutes." "But..." "Do it or this class doesn't happen." It felt so good.)

Or you tell someone you need a month's notice to clear time to do something on weekday nights, but weekends are generally fine. Then they call you up and ask when you are free in two weeks. You list weekends and one weekday night because it happens to be open. They call you and say "what other weekday nights are you free?"
"Oh, well, we want to do this on weekday nights. You said you could do that?"
"Yes, with a month's notice."
"Oh. I see. Well, could you try to free up those nights now for two weeks later? You have two weeks!"
"No, I'm sorry."
"Are you sure? We really want to do this on those nights."
"I already told you, to get those free I need a month's notice."
"Well, maybe you can try?"
"No, I'm sorry."

And then you are made to feel bad - well, if you let them make you feel bad - for declining to try, because you look like the uncooperative, inflexible one. The point is that they want to do something, and that means they'll try to bend every factor to fit in place to make it happen. That means asking you if you can also be flexible so they can make it happen (which often, but not always, may also benefit you). What you told them before...yeah, it means something, but if they need to ask for something you said you couldn't give to achieve what they want, they will anyway. It's not that they didn't understand, it's that this is a country in which almost everything is flexible if you know where to press, push, twist or bend, so they're hoping they can bend you. It's not personal. Again, I get it but I don't like it.

- - Lying, especially at work. Either employees lying to avoid being blamed for something, or bosses lying to try to manipulate employees into doing something they might otherwise resist (this covers 99% of "please finish this tonight, it's an urgent issue!"). Related: when you call someone out on that lie and the mood of the room turns against you, not the liar, because they lost face when you called them out for...blatantly lying. I do get that "lie" doesn't quite mean the same thing in Asia as it does in the West, but it doesn't blunt the force of the culture fatigue.

- - Not apologizing. I understand this one: apologizing puts an unnecessary spotlight on you in a situation where everybody already knows you screwed up. Not apologizing is a way to save face, but it's not like you're not accountable. People know. If you say it openly people don't let it go. Totally different from the US where apologizing is what you do to get people to let it go. I get it. I do. But I still get irritated when someone screws up royally and doesn't acknowledge it.

- - Very strange assumptions, to me, about what constitutes a "good relationship" or even "a marriage". Like, the idea that if you are moved to hire a private detective to spy on your spouse, that the problem isn't the marriage itself but his mistress (or her "mister"). Or that it's OK if a husband stands with his parents against his wife on some issue, and the wife is expected to cave (so happy that I don't have this problem: and it involves things like "my mother wants us to have a baby so we're going to do that", and if the wife makes a fuss she's the bad guy). Or that if he retreats emotionally and gives her, basically, The Fade, and she shows up crying on his doorstep, and he reluctantly goes back to her, but she has to sa jiao him to get him to do anything at all, that this is apparently a happy ending.

Let's be fair here - not all, not even most, relationships in Asia are like that. It's one subset of people, one cultural meme among many. And plenty of Taiwanese would find certain Western relationship norms odd: I mentioned to a class I've had for awhile that of course Brendan knows of my not-terribly-many ex-boyfriends. We were roommates twice as friends: he's met most of 'em. It's really not a big deal. I know his history too. NBD. It's normal. Your past is a part of you. It would be odd to withhold it (of course you don't give lots of details, but you know, the general outline).

Well, they were shocked. SHOCKED! Apparently none of them had told their wives about their ex-girlfriends (not even general details - nothing at all, as though they never existed). They knew nothing of their wives' ex-boyfriends. "It's better that you don't get into that," they said. "That can create bad feelings. So there is no reason to say it."

My thought: if it creates bad feelings, there is a problem in your current relationship. And if you don't know at least the general outline of someone's past, I feel that you don't really know them. But those Taiwanese guys don't see it that way at all. My way is culture shock to them (not so much culture fatigue: they don't live in my culture; I live in theirs).

- - The acceptance of sexism as "that which we cannot change", even as someone espouses generally feminist ideals. It's fine for a woman to be President of Taiwan, or for a woman to be powerful (Cher Wang, Chen Chu, various General Managers and politicians), wealthy, successful. It's fine if other people's wives are breadwinners (among the younger generation, it's apparently more acceptable for their own wives to be breadwinners). If I mention that I am a breadwinner, nobody gasps. And yet, it's just accepted as "that's the way things are" when asked how they feel about how Taiwanese women are so harshly judged on their appearance and age, how divided-by-gender some industries are, how a wife is expected to submit in small but significant ways to her husband's family, that her husband's family is always the one given priority on holiday visits (nobody thinks to question how patriarchal it is to always give Chinese New Year's Day to the husband's side, and the less important day after to the wife's), that the husband's family has a lot of say in when they start trying for a baby, that a man can have support for women's rights and yet still feel that his son should grow up to be a provider, but that his daughter need only find a good husband.

Related: "women do X, men do Y". Men can say bad words; women shouldn't. Men are strong, women are not. Men prefer pretty women, women prefer rich and powerful men. Women love babies, men like 'em well enough. Women don't drink as much. When they do, they prefer light drinks, sweet cocktails, low-alcohol fruit beers, and fizzy, white or pink, light wine. Men drink whiskey and Kaoliang. Men shake hands with men, they don't extend their hands to women. Women may extend their hand to men. I am sorry, I just don't like this. I can try to empathize but this is a hot button for me I just want to scream "講三小!"

(That's Taiwanese for "WTF are you saying?")

Same with racism by the way. Seems everybody has egalitarian views on race, and yet everyone considers racism against non-white foreigners including Southeast Asians to be something that can't be changed.

This one? Well, if you come from a culture that values harmony, conformity, stability and tradition, it's understandable that you might throw up your hands at a difficult situation and say "it's our culture, it's always been this way, we can't change it". I can't come up with an "I get it" beyond that, though. I really can't. It just sucks.

- - "I have to" - when someone who doesn't actually have authority to tell you what to do...tells you what to do. "I have to diet this much, people will think I'm fat if I gain weight". "I have to have a baby, my mother-in-law wants us to". "I have to stay late at work, my coworkers will think I am not loyal to the company." "I have to make my kid go to buxiban for 200 hours a week, everybody else does so I have to, too". "I have to have a big wedding and invite 500 people I don't know." "I have to invest in my brother's idea for a milk tea stand even though I don't want to because my parents say I should." 'I have to buy an apartment near my parents even though I don't want to live in that neighborhood." The boundary god. My boundaries are such that they're practically guarded by an electric dog fence (and all of y'all except Brendan are wearing special collars - sorry). I want to scream "You don't HAVE to. You are CHOOSING to! And that's OK! You have decided that you'd rather go along with this social expectation than fight it. You think that's preferable for you. FINE! That's great! You do you! But YOU DO NOT HAVE TO!"

But, I've come to realize that what "I have to" really means is "I choose to, because going with the flow is preferable to me, but I want to express that the expectation is very strong and that maintaining social harmony is still more important to me than getting my own way, while also expressing that I am not really happy about it." So...okay.

This happens in the USA too: "I HAVE TO wear white on my wedding day because it'll upset my mom if I don't!" 

But I do kind of wish that people generally (not just in Taiwan) would be more cognizant of the differences between what they actually have to do, and what they choose to do, albeit under pressure.

- * - * -

If you've gotten this far and are fuming angrily about how much I hate Taiwan, how whiny I am, how I "just don't get it", well, mosey on back and read the stuff in pink, thanks.

I do feel, though, that this is difficult to talk about for a few reasons. One is that I do feel as an expat, that either I'm supposed to happily embrace my the culture of the country where I live, and if I really love it in that country, I can't show any irritation or criticism of that culture: either you love it or you don't, goes that binary thinking, and if you complain at all, you don't love it. It's not true, and people surely know that on some level (I get annoyed with constant complainers, but will defend anyone's right to vent a bit or complain for awhile even if they love a place).

Another is that I feel that as openminded, 21st century folk, that we're supposed to approach culture differences at all times with "it's not bad, it's just different" or even "their culture is BETTER than ours", and no criticism shall pass our lips lest we be labeled 'narrowminded', 'ethnocentric', 'culturally imperialist' or just 'racist'. Believe me, there are ways in which I do feel Taiwanese culture is superior, but there are times when I really want to say this: there are other ways in which I do feel American (narrowed down to my home country for simplicity's sake) culture has one up on Taiwanese ways of doing things. I don't think that makes me narrowminded or racist. Examples: I think that in Taiwanese companies, when you want to get rid of someone, strongly encouraging them to quit rather than firing them is better. People screw up, people are sometimes just not good fits. That's no reason to poison someone's chances, in a small country with a very interconnected culture, of getting another job and making something of themselves by firing them publicly.  But then the American way of insisting on accountability and prizing efficiency and "it's not personal, just fix your mistakes and get it done, don't waffle, don't get defensive, don't hide behind 'face' to avoid accountability" is probably better than the Taiwanese way of often getting defensive (due to loss of face) when publicly or even privately-but-directly called out on a mistake. Not that everyone in either culture always conforms to these norms, just that they are common.

Finally, the idea that "under our skin, we're all the same" applies to all people in all ways. It does not. Sure, under our different races we are all born with similar ranges of intelligence and stupidity, aptitudes and idiosyncracies, good and bad people. There's no gene that makes "Asians smarter at math", or "Jews better with money" or whatever. That's ridiculous and we all know it. But we actually aren't all the same under our skin. Not for genetic or racial reasons, but that our cultures make our outlooks and fundamental worldviews, well, fundamentally different. We're the same in so many ways, but different in others, and it's time we acknowledged that more openly. I don't think it's un-PC to say so.

What are your "culture fatigue" issues in Taiwan (or elsewhere)? Got anything to add? As long as you don't just dump on Taiwan (and even if you do, although I'd hope my lovely, intelligent commenters would be the sort to attempt understanding and empathy), I'd be glad to add to this list. I am sure someone else out there in Taiwan in the throes of cultural fatigue will come across this post and be able to see the source of their anger and frustration more easily. Maybe it'll keep an expat from exploding somewhere, or giving up and flying home in a fit of rage. And that would be all worth it.


cathy said...

Ah, thank you for writing this! I didn't know it was called culture fatigue. I thought I was just becoming jaded. I've been living in Benin for about a year, and am just... tired. I've met some lovely people, the food is great, my bosses are great people, i'm constantly inspired, i love my house, so many good things, but I find myself becoming increasingly frustrated and irritated lately. Your post makes sense! For example, here, friendship = money. I understand it, but I personally can't accept it. For me, a true friendship does not involve money at all. Whereas here, giving money IS the act of friendship. Or being called white. I understand that here you are called by what you look like or what your profession is. White person! Tomato seller! Bread seller! I understand it's polite in their culture and they mean nothing by it... but I still can't embrace it. In any case my service finishes in a few weeks, so hopefully it'll still be culture fatigue then and not culture hate. Good luck with all those culture fatigue moments in Taiwan - I sympathize from here in Benin.

Ben Thompson said...

Great post, and well said.

Two things really get to me:
- when you genuinely don't hear someone, and you ask them to speak up, and they assume you don't understand
- constantly talking about and looking at my kids. We'll be walking down the street and people are literally walking backwards staring, or like tonight in a 3C, the clerk is calling out to others to look at my son, blithely presuming I don't understand.

My daughter is starting school this week. I'm really worried about her being called out as a foreigner :(

closetjj said...

Well, for me it was the fact that most Taiwanese are too shy to even try to speak English. I've been introduced to many people but very few became close friends. I'm starting to wonder if it's just language barrier or if they naturally keep some distance. I know I'm not alone in this as many other foreign students complain that Taiwan is boring and that people don't know how to have fun. People are just so fond of their smartphones.

I also know that I need to do my part and learn their language too but I can only learn so much in such a short time. Most younger Taiwanese do understand English, they're just afraid to speak. I hate to compare but in my country, people with bad english would try to at least make foreign guests happy.

David said...

I recently experienced the situation of being given a menu even though the kitchen was closed here in Australia. Maybe that's not just a Taiwan problem.