A Response to Joseph Fritz’s “Taiwan Has the Worst Culture” Article

First, let me say Joseph Fritz is my friend. When we arrived in Taiwan almost two years ago, Joseph was one of the first people who genuinely reached out to my family and spent time trying to help us adjust and find ways to make life work in this culture.We couldn’t be more different, but that actually makes our friendship quite valuable. We are still friends today.

I wrote Joseph after he posted his article and told him I would be writing a response to his article, so this should come as no surprise to him.

I have been coming to Taiwan for the last ten years and moved here almost two years ago with my family. We love Taiwan, Taiwanese people and most things about Taiwanese/Chinese culture. It does seem that we have a rather odd expat culture here in Taichung. I will only write concerning Taichung because I don’t have much experience outside of this city with which to gauge the whole island.

First a little about my personal experiences. More often than not when we run into other expats on the street, in a restaurant or in a public place, it is standard practice to pretty much ignore each other. We’re from Texas, and it’s in our cultural blood to engage with others, so when we see other expats, it is very natural for us to say hello, stick a hand out for a handshake, try to start a conversation. On most occasions, those initial expressions are met with a cold stare, a lone hand stuck out left alone or an awkward hello left hanging. Now, to be fair, I should say maybe some of the people we ran into were not fellow English speakers. They could be from some of the countries represented here that are of European descent, but don’t speak English or share our sense of Southern Hospitality.

On the other side, I have met lots of really great people here. I’ve been to an AMCHAM meeting where the people were more than friendly. A news discussion group hosted by Courtney Donovan Smith that was really great. I’ve run into people out in public where we ended up really connecting and finding out we had lots of things in common other than the fact that we weren’t from Taiwan. Several of the events where foreigners gather have a really great vibe and a lot of the expat restaurant owners are really great.

So, the question that I think Fritz was getting at – Why? What’s going on when Expats encounter each other and pass like ships in the night?

This is where I offer some of my own thoughts. I don’t necessarily disagree completely with what Fritz puts forth, but I think there are other more significant reasons:

– To take off and move across the world to any country requires a certain type of person. Not necessarily a personality type, but a certain kind of person. That person has a certain level of independence that others may not. Taiwan, as you may know, is a highly interdependent culture. Arriving here, independent living is absolute anathema to the vast majority. So this person who used their highly unique personality and skill set to move themselves across the world finds their self quite alone. And the other expats they run into are also really independent people, which in forming relationships only adds to the complexity.

– In addition, in this culture, Westerner’s can be (not always) idolized to some degree. Unfortunately, Taiwan has placed Western culture and it’s people on a pedestal. So the English teacher, the Engineer, the Professional from the West ends up even more isolated and placed on some artificial pedestal. This can give the Expat an unhealthy image of themselves. They are always praised, always given special privileges, so that their self-perception becomes a little exaggerated.

– Another possibility is that there are some individuals who just never really learned how to get along with people in their own culture. They have potentially been outsiders for the majority of their lives. In response, it is actually much easier to live in a foreign culture than to live in their home culture. In the foreign culture, they don’t experience the sense of isolation or rejection that their home culture gives them. However, when they encounter other Expats, it may remind them of the home culture and it’s just easier to avoid them in this big city and stay somewhat isolated and alone.

– In the responses on the Info Exchange, one poster noted the communication issue. I think this has some merit, on both sides. For those who attempt to learn Chinese, most effort is rewarded with praise from the Taiwanese, contributing to the superhero complex. But it also results in a constant comparison with other foreigners – “How well do you speak? How many characters do you know? Can you read and write? etc…”

– In our home cultures, we easily are able to share our thoughts and feelings, have our non-verbal cues read by others, etc. Here, that is taken away from us. This contributes to an almost constant state of isolation. I’m not sure exactly how this plays into our interactions with other expats, but I think it does.

I’m sure there are plenty of other reasons. This is a complex issue and can’t be oversimplified. Many people are here because they want to be. They provide a great service to this culture, they work hard, bring value to the people they work and live with, they strengthen the economy and do their best to be a benefit to the culture. Living in a foreign culture is a stress in itself, let alone the work, language, cultural issues.

If you are struggling with any of these assimilation issues, adjusting to a foreign culture or have some personal issues that you have never worked through. I wish you the best. Perhaps, for your own personal health and your future good, you should give some thought to these issues and any help you might need.

I will continue to be a friend to all and friendly to everyone. It’s hard enough as it is.

I welcome your thoughts and commentary below. I will respond to thoughtful posts.


7 thoughts on “A Response to Joseph Fritz’s “Taiwan Has the Worst Culture” Article

  1. The ideas here are solid and certainly worthy of greater exploration.

    It’s a great feeling to know that what I write makes readers feel so strongly about what they think and believe.

    Our friendship has always been about what we share, not our differences; may it always be so.

    Joseph Fritz

  2. Nice post, Todd. I read the original article by Joseph Fritz. And I think he’s right, but he’s also wrong. Wielding a broad sword is rarely the most effective way forward, IMO.

    I agree with you that the reasons people don’t say hello or might have an icy demeanor are varied. For me, personally, it depends on my mood. If I’m feeling chatty and sociable and I have the time, I’m more likely to stop and engage people. If I’m not, then I probably won’t. Which is ever more the case for me. New dad, old husband, improviser, maintaining current friendships, learning Chinese, work, more work, gardens to tend, words to write, books to read, life to enjoy.

    Honestly, I feel that I’m failing at maintaining my current friendships. I feel that I don’t have enough time to see everyone, to really spend quality time with them.

    So when I see someone, I don’t have an impulse to get to know him or her. I mean, I wish Billy Bob and company the best in their endeavors, but most times, I don’t have the time, energy, or desire to get to know them. I have a limited amount of time in the day, lots of things that I want and need to do with that time so I rarely spend it getting to know new people unless it happens in one of my established circles. And I think this is normal even in the non-expat life. From what I see, as we get older, we make fewer and fewer connections with others.

    Maybe it’s more obvious here because we stand out among the local population. I don’t know.

    But as far as being rude, mean, or obnoxious to foreigners, to anyone out of habit? That’s not healthy. Here, there, or anywhere.

  3. Taichung is a large city, like Seattle or London for example. When I walk in the streets of said cities I do not greet, acknowledge or interact with people walking by. I just act the same in Taichung. Call me impolite, moody or else. I don’t feel like I should adjust standard behavior just for Taichung city.

  4. Yep, but Taiwan and perhaps many places in North Asia are kind of unusual for their level of development but their lack of immigration and immigrant citizens and racial mix. So there’s that difference.

    When you get older it’s true that it’s harder to make friends , most Taiwanese are the same of course, many have very small social circles outside their family. In fact many Taiwanese really only hang out with their families!

    Then it’s tough in Taiwan because there are very few immigrant support networks, even foreign spouses and caregivers have way more social interaction and organised support than the few thousand expats in Taiwan. So it’s the loneliness that gets to people is my guess.

    All generalizations, everybody can have a different experience somewhat. What I hate personally is some very good friends have left Taiwan and they never came back even for a visit. Some never contact you again. To all intents and purposes, those people could have died and it would be the same result. That surely hurts.

  5. Constantly being told you are a ‘lao wai’ or ‘wai guo ren’ must have some psychological effects.
    Years and years of it. That doesn’t help many for sure.

    I think there may be something in the independent and unusual nature of people who do come and stay in Taiwan contrasting with the local culture of risk aversion and interdependence. Good insight! Oil and water are hard to mix.

  6. I think part of the problem may be that Americans tend to be outgoing with strangers, but some of the expats you meet on the streets might come from more reserved Northern European cultures, where acknowledging strangers is seen as strange. Just a thought.

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