Saturday, June 18, 2016

In Defense of the 90-minute lunchtime nap and the convenience store sleepers

Greetings from Kaohsiung! I taught a workshop down here today and, seeing as that meant my HSR tickets were free, I've decided to spend the weekend (Brendan will be joining me soon). I'll be doing something similar in Tainan next week.

Anyway, I have a quick little thing to say, a dispatch from the field I guess you could call it.

When I walked in to the office with my co-teacher, it was just at the end of the 90-minute lunch break (12-1:30) which, as many of you know, is a pretty normal thing in Taiwan. Generally you have a half-hour or one-hour lunch, and then lights are turned down in the office and people often rest or even take naps for the rest of the time (I suppose if you wanted to go out to a restaurant you could also do that).

I used to, if not laugh at this, at least smile. My baseline assumption was that people often don't get enough sleep in Taiwan due to crazy working hours and impossible school expectations, therefore they have to nap in the middle of the day. I viewed it as a symptom of a problem.

A lot of expats do this - and I'm not pretending I'm better than they are, because I did it too in this case. They see something different from their own culture and immediately think of ways that it's worse than how things are done where they came from. Perhaps only later, after an initial period of rejection (even mildly so), do many come around to, if not a better way of doing things, a way that works considering how things work in this other country.

And you know what? It is true, working hours in this country are crazy - when you consider yourself as getting home 'early' at 7 or 8pm, that's crazy. And education expectations ARE nuts - children should not be studying at buxibans after school 5 days a week and on Saturday until 10pm or later, and still have homework to do on top of that. It is likely that this does have something to do with the 'lunchtime nap' culture at so many Taiwanese offices.

I have to say, though, that despite all of the above being a real problem, I've come around to the nap time idea. I have a non-traditional work schedule myself, but I sometimes come home from a lunchtime class, carve out a half an hour or an hour to nap, drink a cup of coffee and then continue with my work day.

First of all, napping is not necessarily something people do just because they are under-rested - even when I got a full night's sleep, sometimes after a busy morning and knowing I have a busy evening coming up, I do want more than a one-hour break before I have to be up at bat again for the rest of the day. Sometimes, that extra half hour isn't necessarily needed to sleep per se, but because a 90-minute break is more restorative than a one-hour break. I feel like I really got to give my mind enough time to rest, and I imagine locals feel the same. I don't always sleep - sometimes I veg out on the couch or just order a pot of tea and sit in an armchair in a cafe. I might read a book or pet my cats. I try my best not to surf the Internet, because that's not restful (it is pleasantly distracting, though).

Even if you work a more normal day - let's say you can leave at 6 - I do feel like a longer, 90-minute break is likely to make you more productive in the afternoon, just because you feel like you got a real rest. I know when I have my afternoons free, I feel more effective in my evening classes than when I don't (and I don't always).

Secondly, you've probably noticed this isn't just an office thing. Laborers and workers lay out on the floor in shops under construction or in the shade on sidewalks. I once - and I am not joking - saw one sleeping half in a manhole, with his upper half on the sidewalk, near the Youth Park. People crowd 7-11s and Family Marts to sleep at the tables. Drivers park their taxis or trucks and lean back for naps. I've joked that every coffee shop has to have at least one businessman sleeping at a table with a half-finished cup of coffee for feng shui purposes, rather like the fish tanks you often see near the doors of businesses. He should be oriented to the West or facing the cash register to bring maximum profit to the business.

I have come to kind of admire folks who can just lay out like this, snooze away on a sidewalk or at a convenience store and not give two craps about how they look, whether they are snoring or drooling, who sees them or what sort of germs might be currently invading the skin on their faces. I aspire to have such a "give zero fucks" attitude. I mean, I'm getting there, I already give very few fucks indeed, but they give ZERO, if not a negative number of fucks, and that is really the best goal in life. Before I leave Taiwan I WILL take a nap on a shady sidewalk just to show I've made it, and I am a better person for it.

Of course, it also makes sense given the climate here. Half the country is tropical year-round. In the summer it's straight up tropical in the entire country. In the winter the weather is absolutely depressing in Taipei - all dark clouds and rain and humid chilliness without central heating. I can understand the need for something like a siesta to either restore oneself in the face of yet another day of black clouds and cold rain, or to be still and cool during the hottest part of the day.

So, I acknowledge there are some issues with overwork, both in employment and in school, in Taiwan. I have to say, though, that I've come around to the 90-minute lunches and after-lunch naps. That change not only in how I see these naps but also the fact that I now engage in them when I get a chance has been a good reminder not to look first at why the way a different culture does something is ultimately worse than the way mine (or yours) does, but first to look for how and why it works in a local context. That doesn't mean every practice is ultimately better or just different - my personal pet peeve, scooters that speed on the right past buses that are stopped and letting passengers on and off, which is a risk to the lives of the passengers as well as the scooter driver, for instance, is unequivocally worse - but it's worth considering positively first.

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