A window between cultures

  1. A window between cultures

    by
    Nick Kembel

    “Western guys in Taiwan live like kings. They can be found leaving the clubs of Taipei City with a girl in each arm”. These were the words of a Taiwanese student living in New York City, offering incentive to some American students to come out and teach English in Taiwan. My partner Emily, overhearing the conversation at the time, was, like many young adult Taiwanese, fulfilling her dream of studying in a native-English speaking country, before being drawn back to Taiwan by her family responsibilities and expired visa.

    When I heard this, I asked myself, “Why have I never seen that happen?” after having spent the last three years teaching in Taipei, and sometimes enjoying the city’s nightlife. In fact, I have only dated one girl during the length of my stay. At least half of my western male friends in Taiwan remain single, even struggling to find that special someone as they pass the time on this island, while many others maintain committed relationships. Yet I even find it common to hear other foreigners making generalizations and complaining about the behavior of their peers in this county, further propagating these types of stereotypes.

    “I can’t deny the extra attention that I receive in Taiwan,”

    When I decided to write a book about my experience of life in Taiwan, I intended to counter some of these ideas. Certainly the figures cannot be ignored, with a purported 20 times more western men dating Taiwanese women than western women dating Taiwanese men. But I hoped to offer a more realistic perspective of the foreigner’s experience of Taiwan, based on my own time spent here, as well as the experience of other guests, including western women, non-heterosexual men, and non-western foreigners. I can’t deny the extra attention that I receive in Taiwan, but for me it most often comes in the form of teenagers and young adults wanting to take pictures with me and hoping to practice their English, or curious Taiwanese just doing what most travelers know them for, which is being overly courteous, helpful, and welcoming to visitors.

    While a few expats might pass away the nights in the bars and clubs of the city, the majority of fellow westerners that I encounter in Taiwan seem to prefer using their free time getting out to the beach, hiking, exploring the island, taking pictures, writing, making art, playing music, studying Chinese, and partaking in a variety of other hobbies and activities.

     “I am having a pint and cigarette with Chiang Kai Shek,”

    Throughout “Taiwan from the Eyes of a Foreigner”, I offer English readers basic information on the genetic composition, historical background, and religious landscape of Taiwan, providing a sort of cultural guide for life in this country, and some of the surprises or oddities that it can occasionally present to us. To keep local readers entertained while addressing these topics, I attempted to include my own take on the subjects, infusing it with humor whenever possible. For example, in reference to the traditional, Confucian-based ideals of Taiwan, I contrasted it with my own upbringing as a punk rocker in Canada. To represent this clash of ideals, I presented a cartoon image of Confucius battling a mohawked punker, Street Fighter style. In another image, I am having a pint and cigarette with Chiang Kai Shek, discussing our dramatically different pastimes and aspirations.

    “I attempt to encourage those short term visitors, as well as the lifers, to dig a little deeper,” 

    Armed with the information provided, I hope that western readers can take away a broader understanding of and respect for Taiwanese culture, ideally leading to a reduction of confusion the next time they encounter circumstances commonly associated with ‘cultural shock’. Many foreigners come and do their 1 or 2 years in Taiwan, but I attempt to encourage those short term visitors, as well as the lifers, to dig a little deeper, explore further, and make more sense of it all.

    For Taiwanese readers, the book also serves as a cultural guide. Local people have commented that the book presents their own country in a way they had not previously viewed it, and even mentions places in Taiwan that they have never heard of. But simultaneously, the book offers insight into western culture and our way of thinking, so that Taiwanese may have a look at where we are coming from. For example, once they learn about the arctic environment, vast geographical space, or enforcement of traffic and open liquor laws that exist in my country, they might be a little less shocked the next time they see me walking with no shirt on in the summer, carrying a beer on the street, or getting frustrated with the crowds.

    With this dual audience in mind, it was essential that my book be presented in both English and Chinese. This presented a variety of challenges in terms of translation, particularly of humorous language and expressions. Having a Taiwanese person analyze and translate every word I said also highlighted some serious points for editing. This was my own window into Taiwanese culture, as I was forced to realize that I had made too many assumptions and generalizations in my analysis.

     “I had to choose my words carefully, for my intention was never to criticize or divide, but to bring the two cultures together by focusing on commonalities.”

    We foreigners speak very directly, coming from a culture that encourages independence and free thought, while the Taiwanese are not so accustomed to critical thinking, particularly in regards to their own culture. I had to choose my words carefully, for my intention was never to criticize or divide, but to bring the two cultures together by focusing on commonalities. At the same time, it would be impossible to ignore the differences. In my opinion, however, the differences ought to be celebrated. While similarities make life more comfortable for outsiders in a new place, differences are what make one group more interesting to the other, and will ultimately bring us closer together.

    We foreigners speak very directly, coming from a culture that encourages independence and free thought, while the Taiwanese are not so accustomed to critical thinking, particularly in regards to their own culture. I had to choose my words carefully, for my intention was never to criticize or divide, but to bring the two cultures together by focusing on commonalities. At the same time, it would be impossible to ignore the differences. In my opinion, however, the differences ought to be celebrated. While similarities make life more comfortable for outsiders in a new place, differences are what make one group more interesting to the other, and will ultimately bring us closer together.

    “Taiwan from the Eyes of a Foreigner” is presented in both English and Chinese, and includes poetry, 200 color photographs, as well as 16 illustrations by Canadian artist Leanne Kembel. It is available in bookstores across Taiwan, or from www.nickkembel.com.

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