As a little girl, Taiwan was my happy place. I loved the scooter rides, the visits to feed the red, orange, and polka-dotted fish in the pond, the yummy yangleduo drinks; grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins all cooed their marvels at how [insert positive adjective] I was. Amidst a childhood strewn across Oregon, Illinois, New York, California, I was always the new girl, undecipherable. Taiwan was a safe harbor, a home where I was known, welcomed, embraced; a secret place where my favorite things and people lived.
And yet, I didn’t really know Taiwan. I thought I did, but although born on the island I hadn’t grown up here. I took my first flight to the United States at the age of one-and-a-half. I knew Taiwan through the Taiwanese music and soap operas I absorbed with my parents, the Taiwanese books my uncles shipped over, the Taiwanese cocoon my parents created. Taiwan was a joyful memory, my place of origin, a place I visited on vacations.
And yet, it remained a place unknown.
And yet, it was a part of me. I would not become complete until I knew Taiwan.
Six years ago, I moved back to the island during an inflection point in my life. I could no longer go down the path I’d been on (global marketing & business development for technology companies), but had yet to discover a new way. And so I came back to where my parents now lived, the home I didn’t grow up in, and yet the only home I really had.
And thus began the journey that would open my eyes to a whole new world, a world both foreign and familiar. One I struggled with even as it ran through my blood: a journey home.
When I first came back to Taiwan, I didn’t realize how much twenty years spent in the U.S. had shaped my entire outlook in subtle, yet deep ways. And because I looked and sounded Taiwanese, it confused my Taiwanese compatriots why I just didn’t seem to “get it.” I seemed inconsistent — sometimes I understood, sometimes I didn’t. No doubt it was strange, possibly even offensive.
When you are learning a new language, you are blessed with strange pronunciation and grammar so people can be more forgiving of a beginner, but what do you do when you look and sound like a native, yet culturally you’re still a beginner? Like a toddler, I took fumbling steps, fell down plenty, got back up, and continued until, slowly, I began to “get it.” I began to not just look and sound Taiwanese, but think and act like one, too. Along the way, I began sharing what I learned through my work as an intercultural coach, trainer, and consultant. Here are a few things I learned.
Direct vs. subtle
In the U.S., I grew up being asked to articulate my opinions, to voice my preferences, to claim my rights, and to express myself: to speak up. My brain was trained to be proactive. And so, back in Taiwan, my biggest blind spot was that I couldn’t catch the unspoken cues sent by a Taiwanese person. I was waiting for people to clearly articulate what they wanted to say, through words, through direct, concise expression — what in intercultural theory we call “low-context” communication. Yet I had entered a “high-context” culture.
Communicating in a high-context culture meant I had to know where it was my place to speak up and where not; to read between the lines even when someone did not decline directly (any hesitation expressed is a form of declining in Chinese culture, since a polite person would not impose further upon someone who has reservations); and to make space for others to express themselves, since they were not just going to speak up!
In other words, I had to go the opposite way from what I had been taught in the U.S. I learned to keep quiet during meetings, even when I had something to say — or to at least wait until the higher-ups and others had had a chance to speak first. I learned to say “no” on behalf of someone who is hesitating, even though the American in me would wonder, isn’t it their job to say no? These revelations even changed my relationship with my father, whom I discovered to be a model high-context communicator, as from a Taiwanese angle it would be immodest of him to tell me what he wanted or needed; instead, it was up to me to discern.
This was an entirely new way of operating. Before, in the U.S., it was a good thing if I had opinions, if I spoke up — it showed confidence. Now, in Taiwan, it showed immodesty. Now, my attention had to be focused much more on observing, on listening, on paying attention to the whole picture, on discerning how someone might feel, on making space. These are valuable behaviors for any human interaction, whether you’re a manager, a counselor, a friend, or a partner, and these skills are often taught in business schools, counseling programs, and various other venues… yet Taiwan was the laboratory in which I learned high-context communication.
Back to the Heart
Another way Taiwan has rounded my rough edges is through simple everyday kindness — from receptionists, waiters, taxi drivers, folks on public transportation, and people on the street. These everyday Taiwanese folks display a heart-centered goodness, and in a divided world where mistrust and self-protection are the norm, treating strangers with kindness is revolutionary. There’s the ah-ma on the MRT who gently reminds me to get off at my stop, because I had asked the bus driver about it when I got on the bus.
There’s the countless times people have called after me when I’ve accidentally dropped something on the street. Nowhere else could I leave my laptop alone in a Starbucks and expect it still to be there when I’m back. I still remember that one morning when I dropped my USB in the gutter right before an important presentation — the security guard of a nearby building, the neighborhood folks, those who had left their house to go to work, all dallied to help me fish that USB out. Or that time when the taxi driver gave me a box of cookies to share with my clients, saying modestly that he had an extra box. Or just recently, on the bus in the midst of a mighty typhoon, when the passengers cooperated with the bus driver to get everyone safely on and off the bus, and there was even warmth and cheer in our midst despite the tempest outside.
If you’ve lived in Taiwan for any length of time, I’m sure you have your own stories to share.
Whereas I started out treating everyday interactions as transactions, it was in Taiwan that I began to treat each person, even a stranger, as a real person, because that’s how I was treated. Taiwan values the heart, and though it may not aim to be the biggest, fastest, richest, it leads in providing what matters to the heart — a good life for its people. Taiwan is ranked second in safety worldwide, and has one of the best healthcare systems in the world, clean, garbage free streets, recycling, enforced regulations on drunk driving, helmets, and seatbelts, little parks in the midst of residential neighborhoods, city-run public gyms to keep citizens healthy, and a modern well-functioning public transportation system, including high-speed rail, MRT, a stellar bus system, even YouBikes!
Few places in the world combine these modern conveniences with such warmth of people, true kindness, mutual trust and willingness to help each other out. My American friend, who’s over eighty and has lived in Taiwan for more than twenty years, complained that Taiwan had softened his cautious nature so much that he’s afraid he’ll forget to be cautious abroad!
Taiwan brought me back to my heart.
The Grand scheme of things
Like many city dwellers, I had been fast-paced. Time was money. The few minutes I would save rushing up and down escalators was worth it to me if I could catch that MRT! A wave of impatience would burst in me each time someone blocked my way.
Yet in Taiwan, I learned a whole new way of viewing life and its pace. Here, people will not rush an older person who accidentally stands on the wrong side of the escalator. People will not rush into a crowded MRT car, even if there is still space left. People don’t rush, period. To them, a few more minutes are not worth a disturbance to equanimity and harmony. In the grand scheme of things, it’s our balanced energy and calm presence that are our best gifts to the world. Why squander these on a mere few minutes?
In Taiwan, I learned the Buddhist and Taoist philosophies that instilled in me a longer, broader, more holistic view of life and it’s unfolding. Whereas my American sensibilities had instilled in me a proactive, do-it-yourself attitude, which can also be useful at times, my Taiwanese sensibilities, influenced by Buddhism and Taoism, would calm me down and allow things to unfold at their own pace. Whereas I had viewed health through a pure Western medicine lens, here in Taiwan I learned how the mind, body, and spirit are all connected holistically. I learned mindfulness, allowing thoughts and feelings to pass through me before reacting, and saw how things began to get to me less. I took up yoga, and slowed down. Whereas I used to enjoy debating (I was on my high school debate team after all!), over the years I had mellowed out, and in Taiwan even more so, for I began to see both sides of the same coin, and it no longer seemed interesting to prove one right, one wrong, since all were parts of a whole.
These changes could certainly be a function of age, and with globalization, Eastern philosophies are prevalent now in the West as well, but I am thankful to be in Taiwan, which renowned bilingual playwright Stan Lai says “has preserved the essence of Chinese culture perhaps better than any other place in the world.” It is here where not only have I learned these ancient philosophies, but I can see them play out in day-to-day life and live amongst a people and a society that embodies these values.
On the move since childhood, I grew used to moving as an adult. The past six years in Taiwan have been the longest I have ever lived in one place. I had thought of leaving this beautiful island a few times during these past six years, as restlessness had been more familiar to me. The prospect of staying for a long time in one place had terrified me. Would I become stagnant? Yet perhaps my spirit knew I had things to learn here that I could not learn anywhere else. Taiwan has matured me, grounded me, and made me a rounder, more wholehearted person. It cradled my transformation during a critical point in my life, nurturing me back to completion and instilling a new set of heart-centered values. And through the years here, beyond childhood joys, I have come to know Taiwan, as I would a person who had always lived inside of me. After many years, many places, I have come home, at last.
Thank you, Taiwan.
Jane W. Wang is a cross – cultural coach, trainer , and consultant at the Community Services Center and adjunct instructor of Communication and Multiculturalism at Shih-Hsin University in Taipei. She works with leaders, teams, couples, and families to understand the impact of culture for more effective interactions and a successful stay overseas. For more on the Center’s cross-cultural programs, please see: https://www.communitycenter.org.tw/crosscultural/
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