Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Plug into Culture to Avoid the Shock?

In another follow up to the Lindsey Craig article, we have this recent article published by the Gazette.  The writer is a Taiwanese Canadian (or overseas Taiwanese?) who returned to Taiwan after being away from the island for several years. While Ms. Craig's article might have received a negative reaction for her dislike of the smells, the negative reactions to the food, etc., this recent article might treat the subject a little too lightly to do any real good.  The article is here:

My original point still stands about culture shock.  While preparation and education is key, one cannot simply 'prepare-away' culture shock by reading other's experiences.  This kind of definition of culture shock is oversimplified and rather one-sided.  While this might work for 'travelling', it does not work for truly living there, because there are distinct periods (the so-called 'honeymoon', reaction and acceptance phases) that one struggles with that people travelling there do not.  One might try reading any of the number of psychological treatises on culture shock before trying to prescribe it away with blow-offs like 'do your homework and everything will be positive' and 'if you don't like the place, it's all your fault'.    Enough said on that.

But let's get away from the Orientalism for awhile. Hunting roaches with pellet guns might be fun for Chuck and the like, but people relocating need help dealing with visa issues, being an 'institutionalized foreigner' and striking differences in work culture.  You might need to talk to more than one person. "Information for Foreigners" is a good place to start.

While food and bugs might be everyone's favorite superficial talking point, learning a few words in Chinese won't prepare you to argue employment law when an unscrupulous employer denies you your health or labor insurance or tricks you into doing an illegal job interview. The employer may be fined.  You will be deported. Are all Taiwan employers bad? No.  Does it still happen?  Yes.

Going to school to learn Chinese in Taiwan might be fine. However, learning that you need to have a interview to examine your attendance, grades and discuss future plans with the Foreign Affairs Police (now re-termed the NIA) every few months in order to renew your visa might quash any visions you have of reading those road signs.  Especially if you miss a few classes (e.g. sick) or aren't doing so well in your studies.

Of course, signing up at a local school to study is only illegal if you are a visitor--people who work full time are allowed, but be prepared that it is the norm to leave Taiwan to make any changes to your visa (e.g. if you are a visitor and want to become a student).  This can be a considerable shock to your wallet while you wait at home or in a foreign country to get your visa processed.  It could be just one of the many surprises Taiwan's visa system can have for you.  Far worse than roaches, in my opinion.

These are just a few differences from Canada that 'travelers' do not experience in Taiwan.  You must live there to get it.  The food, the culture and even the bugs are really interesting and make one feel like a real Dr. Livingstone, but in the end, love it or hate it, there is a wealth of misinformation and rosiness out there that mislead people into believe living abroad will be 'perfect' and 'wonderful'.  There are successes, but there are also disasters.  You need to understand both.

Locals in a country are not always the best source of information because they have never lived there as a foreigner and had to abide by the different regulations for 'foreigners', 'aliens', etc. Finally, no matter how much you prepare, you will always be at a disadvantage to truly understand until you experience things first hand.  Then you can make your decision over whether you can accept it or not.

The political correctness of being unable to accept another culture is a topic for another blog, but please: 'my vacation in Taiwan was great' is not a refutation of whether or not culture shock exists or if it is valid or not.  By all means, buy a Lonely Planet and read some websites, but don't think that you are totally in control of your own experience.  If you do, that's the first huge shock you are in for.


  1. Hi Lai Wongbao,

    Thanks for the comments regarding my Cultural Shock article published in response to Lindsey. Unfortunately as much as I wanted to go further into details (especially the psychological aspects of cultural shock), given the audience and limits inherent in newspaper opinion articles, I decided to limit the article to topics that would engage the audience. Just wanted to counter this perceived negativity surrounding living in Taiwan.

    You are right in that a vacation can't be used to refute a negative cultural shock experience.


  2. Hi Yi-Jeng,

    Thanks for taking time to respond to my blog. I fully understand about wanting to dispel perceived negativity about a place you care about. Also, I like your first point on Ms. Craig's article not being an attack on the culture per se, but rather her shock over being unable to adapt. Hopefully that will dispel some negativity, too.

    Ms. Craig's article, although maybe in not quite the right way, attempted to point out that some people really do have disasters when they live abroad--and it is my feeling that often nothing can prepare them for that. It was sad that the case in point had to be Taiwan as many people have been sensitive of such personal admittances. Yet I, too, have to admit I had a lot of culture shock in Taiwan--and that was after living in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai for years beforehand--with two degrees on East Asia to boot! That was preparation.

    It doesn't mean I didn't find the beauty in the place, either, but rather I was a bit jealous of the locals that seemed to have everything work so smoothly when everything I did seemed to be like pulling teeth. Culture shock incarnate!

    But to my point--while Ms. Craig's worries seemed a tad superficial, I feel that people often can learn a lot from the negative experiences of others when they prepare to go abroad. Obviously one wouldn't want to research only positive experiences. All the cat-calls aside (accusing her of a ruse with the communists, etc) I think such a viral response to negative opinions is a much greater disservice to Taiwan.

    Anyhow, I think your article will go far to balance things after Ms. Craig's article, so in my lowly opinion, you probably have achieved your goal. Perhaps the two articles should have been published side by side. Yet, it is still my feeling that both should have been published.(Mark Twain and all that). It's always good to have both sides of the story.


  3. Whoops, mixed my writers! It wasn't Mark Twain, but Evelyn Beatrice Hall.

  4. I think the comment about satisfactory attendance and grades also applies to other countries as well, not just Taiwan. To keep student visa valid in Australia, students must satisfy the minimum performance as well.

    I definitely agree the comment about employment conditions in Taiwan, some of the things you described is not just a problem for foreigners but also for Taiwanese people. There has been a lot of complaints from young Taiwanese about working conditions. This is something Taiwan needs to improve upon, but I do know first hand this is not really a unique problem and it does happen elsewhere in the world.

    I do believe the original article and the subsequent notes in Montreal Gazette, however are not worth publishing. As far as I can see, nearly all comments from readers are negative. This is because the so called "well meaning" messages are simply not delivered properly due to the way it was written and it reads like a whiny piece of work with lots of complaints. And for someone who is a journalist, this level of work really is not acceptable, not mention a number of factual errors in the article.