When I came to Taiwan for the first time last January which feels like an eternity ago, I couldn’t but fall in love instantly. I visited the city of Taipei during the Chinese New Year celebration and got quite a wrong impression at first sight: so many closed stores and empty streets. But I loved the atmosphere, I enjoyed the even if not beautiful yet undoubtedly very charming street scenery with its colourful advertisement signs against grey walls and I couldn’t get enough of all the delicacies in the streets and night markets. As a huge fan of flowers I was also astonished by the diverse Flora in Taipei and in the mountain around – long story short, I couldn’t find a single spot to judge badly. Well, except for Stinky Tofu.
But just because I like discovering a place does not mean I have an instant desire to live there – I would be a very restless person otherwise. Something about Taiwan got me and I did not know what exactly it was, but since the people of a country communicate mentality and ideas of their nation it were the people of Taiwan who got me tangled. It didn’t take longer than a week and I had a network of peers around me to share thoughts and experience and to enjoy life together.
Taiwan arouses my special curiosity, because I feel that the underestimated island state with its challenging history is a very unique place in the world. I obviously still have dozens of countries left undiscovered, but from what I have seen so far in Europe, the United States and Asia I know that there is no other country like Taiwan. Not even taking the rise of Taiwan to a fairly democratic nation even if overshadowed by Chinese domination and the economic success into consideration, I think Taiwanese culture and mentality could be a fantastic role model. It is a shame that it is not better recognized in the international community.
I am usually careful with praises of nation states and although the case of Taiwan offers the opportunity to throw light on sovereignty and national identity from a different perspective to what I am from my federalist European perspective are used to, I am still aware of challenges in Taiwanese politics, economy and social life. My goal is not to depict an all-embracing picture of Taiwan’s political and social reality. In fact, what I describe might be very one-sited, generalizing and maybe exagerating. Yet it is my truth, my perception. I will only give an introduction to what I think is the factor to determine the uniqueness of this fascinating country I could call my home for the last months. My approach is of a cultural nature and tries to examine mentality and people’s interaction.
Live and make sure, others live well
I used to live in Europe where the slogan usually goes “Live and let live” if not “Live and let die”. Being in Asia in general and in Taiwan in particular, I quickly realized that people are very attentive and caring, yes I was almost annoyed at their obligingness. “I can take care of myself”, was my reaction, but obviously I knew enough about courtesy not to kick out against my dear acquaintances. Together with the other exchange students and expats I used to comment on how sheltered young people in Taiwan are raised, spoiled with support and parental care which made our peers appear less independent and less brave then what we were used from “the West”. It also annoyed us how easily a little joke could offend somebody – irony and sarcasm are no methods of communication in Taiwan. Over the months though I came to the realization that all this only represents the general Taiwanese mentality: make sure your environment is doing fine. That does not mean that my friends would take actual impact on my life decisions – but in any case they would back me up. If I am crossing the streets a little bit too careless, people will grab my arms and make sure I won’t get hit by a car. The MRT stations are equipped with automated doors so nobody could accidently stumble on the tracks. Everything is secured, everything is safe. Everything is also very convenient. Almost every building is wheelchair-accessible, volunteers are located in all public places to help out with anything and let it just be some friendly words and a smile. Everything is very well-thought through. The society is impressively attentive, it astonishes me every day; convenience is a magic word. Maybe traffic rules aren’t strictly obeyed, but common courtesy is always followed.
Cherish life and studying (about life)
Even though, Taiwanese humor can’t (in my eyes at least) compete with what I know from Europe, Taiwanese are very happy people who enjoy good company and laughter. Life is considered a valuable treasure and people seem to strive for happiness much more actively than in other parts of the world. At the same time they are extremely curious about everything happening nearby and beyond the ocean around them. Even small, objectively insignificant things can amaze and fascinate Taiwanese, they have an eye for the detail and value the little things. Maybe it is, because they live quite isolated on an island which makes them more pro-active in their approach to studying, but it is obvious that Taiwanese don’t easily get tired of learning, of asking questions, of reading, of comparing and of sharing. This curiosity about everything new must also be the reason for the Western culture to be so enshrined in contemporary Taiwanese lifestyle. But it would not be typical Taiwanese to simply copy and paste – aspects of both cultures are being connected with each other to create a beautiful, new mixture of just the best parts of both the traditional and modern East and the modern West.
Last but not least the most amazing feature of Taiwanese mentality: the creative enthusiasm. Every time I spend a couple of hours with a Taiwanese friend I return home empowered, motivated and stoked to change the world (even more). The first time that I could encounter the Taiwanese spirit about progress was in March 2014 when I witnessed the occupation of the Executive Yuan. I was not only impressed with the collective ideas and the patience of the protestors, but mostly with the politicized minds I could meet. I have not met a neutral or lethargic Taiwanese person. They all have some hopes, some dreams, innovative projects and visionary ideas of the future. Many of those projects might never actually come to life and other will fail after a short time, but there is definitely no harm in trying. Taiwanese know that – and keep fighting. Once they’ve devoted to something, they stick to it. They are passionate to enrich their own personality through experience and hard work and in consequence automatically support the improvement of the general situation.
I would be naïve if I would try to cover the entire Taiwanese mentality. But writing this text I have plenty of people in mind who I met over the last months. Many of them apologized that they would ask so many questions, but could not give any answers themselves. They apologized, because they wouldn’t know anything and I couldn’t get anything out of the conversation. I hope, the young Taiwanese generation will recognize their potential and find confidence with what they do. Because I know that the short time I could taste the lifestyle in Taiwan helped me learn plenty about the world and myself.
Of course I will miss Taiwanese food, the sun, the big parks and the busy streets. I will miss the night markets and the small eateries, I will miss the mountain and the hot springs. Only thinking about the departure upsets me a bit. But what makes me sigh the deepest is the fact that I have to prepare myself for people who will be much harsher and self-concentrated. Of all things I hope the most that I will be able to communicate what I experienced in Taiwan in a way which reverses cultural process in Taiwan: I hope, aspects of Asian culture can have an impact on Europe. Europe would be a much friendlier, much more delightful place.