We are not the world

Foreigners and the “civilizing” of Taiwan

YOU’RE ON the street, minding your own business and a mother and her six-year-old daughter pass you, but not before the kid pokes out a finger and says, “Waiguoren! Waiguoren!” What is your reaction? Do you even care? Is the mother at fault for not educating her kid about manners? Or is it a cultural thing?

These are but a few of the issues brought up in various Living in Taiwan threads (“Civilizing” Taiwan; ‘Us and Them’ syndrome; Is it so bad to be called a ‘waiguoren’?) and the Open Forum (Pet Peeves 2004). They make for interesting reading, particularly if you are not familiar with living abroad, happen to be Chinese, or are an alien observing from a different planet.

It’s easy to pick out faults. The Pet Peeves thread has a list of about a million of them – all directed at Taiwan or its citizens. But the real trick is how to make this place of ours a better one.

LittleBuddhaTW asks, “What needs to be done to make Taiwan a more ‘civil’ society? … many of my younger friends have adopted many Western concepts of manners, cleanliness, and politeness, although a broader social consciousness still seems to be lacking.”

But why are the Chinese like that? Was the author Bo Yang correct in his famous essay “The Ugly Chinaman”? Is Chinese culture mired in the soy pit of backwardness? Namastestore: “It’s not about culture, or whatever word you want to use. It’s a ‘me’ syndrome that is not relegated to one particular country.”

Of course, everything is relative. People here complain bitterly about the traffic for example, but drivers in Ho Chi Minh City are worse, as is the case in many other countries. Perhaps it is more a matter of expectations and whether you can accept as “standard” in your daily life certain conditions, such as those described so eloquently by plasmatron: “In my experience during the last 5 years anywhere outside Taipei has continued to be a cesspool of inbred, uncivilized, ignorant, arrogant, binglang chewing, Taiwanese speaking, plaid polo shirt wearing, selfish, bigoted, low-brow hicks who are utterly devoid of the most basic tenets of civilized society….”

People tend to do what comes naturally, and this usually means either a conditioned response or following the path of least resistance. But it would be wrong to say that all the Taiwanese are “rude, vile pigs” as Sir Elton so recently put it. Having said that, it would also be true to say that there are problems that need fixing. The amazing thing is that most of these “civilizing” remedies are easy to achieve with a little dedication.

The single most important thing that the Taiwanese could do to shape up would be to enforce their own laws. Maowang: “The rule of law is a concept that is beginning to be taken seriously.”

Maybe. While there have been some papering over of some of the “shrug, look the other way” mentality here, thing have not changed all that much over the last 20 years in Taipei.

However, an improvement in enforcement would certainly have a knock-on effect whereby police officers would eventually be respected and admired instead of the way they are currently viewed – as corrupt and bungling skivers – which in turn would lead to raising the public’s collective consciousness of “doing what’s right.”

But so as “a journey of a thousand li begins with a single step,” turning Taiwan into a kinder and cleaner place – at least as it seems to suit us persnickety waiguoren – may be in the hand of each one of us as xp+10K says, “And whatever Taiwan is, there doesn’t appear to be much I can do about it. The most I can hope for is to be able to do a little bit about myself.

Wolf Reinhold is a moderator on www.forumosa.com, a discussion board for Taiwan’s online community.

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