Thursday, July 1, 2010

Asian culture: The definition of family-orientated in Taiwan

The definition of family in Taiwan is an interesting cultural difference. Taiwan officially has the lowest birthrate per capita in the world, and the most number of single women in their thirties – not sure if that is the exact definition but it something related to basically people not getting married. And, of course, it has a divorce rate similar to the west. Not really signs of a family orientated culture but, as any western expat knows, we have heard a million times how they think they are a traditional family based culture.
Stop me, and don't take it too seriously if it doesn't represent your opinions, but one of the reasons we like the place and especially the women, is the idea that they are more traditional – Despite protestations of coolness and indifference, in the end we are all like the idea that our wives are not going to leave us easily and are going to create a great family atmosphere, just like those movies tell us is possible. We throw ourselves into life here and then when it turns out not to be exactly the case we start to get frustrated. But, it is our fault, because we didn't get their definition of traditional – or we didn't listen.
This, roughly and with some flexibility was my idea of a traditional family.
  1. Have a lot of children – At least two and probably three.
  2. Wife – And this may be controversial for some, probably take at least five years out of work when the children are young. This again, very flexible as she could work part-time. I am really just hoping for her not to pop them out and then back to a 60 hour week a month later.
  3. Spend lots of time together as a family including going places at the weekends etc.
  4. Make work compromises that put family first.
Then there is the reality of the definition of family in Taiwan. It is not just the things listed above, but also the fact that:
  1. Taiwan has one of the highest rates of abortion in the world, and while, some of it is desperate young people, an awful lot is middle-class people who simply would rather have a new car than another child. Test it at work. For us PC liberal wimps who get suckered into the poor Asian thing, you should get to the bottom of when X-colleague tells you they had to have an abortion. They usually say something about Taiwan being expensive, and it is so hard to bring up a child, and they say it in this way that really makes you believe it was the only possible choice. You feel bad and then twenty minutes later, they get out their new HD video camera and ask you if you want to go to a really expensive seafood restaurant later.
  2. Children Quantity - You usually have to fight your Taiwanese wife up to two children, and unless you are a millionaire forget the third.
  3. Work – In general they are planning to have a cesarean so that they work up to the last day before the birth, and then they have already found mother-in-law/babysitter and don't plan to turn their computers off because they expect to be back in front of it very soon. We are all aware of the phenomenon of grandparents looking after children during the week.
  4. Quality time – Have you ever had this when you go to look at new apartment complexes? The sales assistant will see you are a foreigner, and immediately say: 'I'll take you to have a look at the children's play area. I know you westerners are into that kind of thing.”
  5. Again quality time – Have a couple of friends who experienced this and I have known countless Taiwanese who just do it naturally. They were with a girl long term and had decided to go back to their country. In order to make things smooth they got married. Once they got married the girl would start to back track on going with them citing she wouldn't be able to get a very good job. And, perhaps, they could live apart for a couple of years and see how it worked out. Understandably, their response was: I didn't marry you to live apart. If you can't make compromises why did you want to get married?
By the way, for any readers who think I am being cynical or a moaning westerner. I am going to stand by this one. Taiwanese children's charities regularly publish surveys with a clear message: Taiwan children are unhappy. Reason: don't see enough of their parents.
So that comes back to the definition of family in Taiwan and indeed many parts of Asia, especially the East Asian countries. Over the years Taiwanese insist they are traditional, you argue with them, you forget about it, you fall into a status quo of thinking you are hearing bullshit but can't be bothered to do anything about it. The argument raises its head every so often and the last time it did I had my epiphany.
Some how or another I had got onto the subject with a male colleague. He said, of course, the Taiwanese were family orientated and I posed him a few questions: Why don't you want kids then? Why do you farm them out before you even know what they look like? Why don't you spend time to play with them?
He answered: “Yes, I know that it your foreigner idea of family. So it is cultural thing. What we are talking about is taking care of our parents. We look after them.”
And that was it. He further went on to explain that that was the crux, the core, the crucial element; with the amount of cash you can stump up to look after them as the key. In his case, he explained that he was pretty good at sales and therefore had always been able to earn good cash, whereas his brother was hard working but not so clever. In order to fulfill his part of the bargain, he gave his brother his house on the strict understanding that the brother would be there at dinner, sit through crap soaps, and attend family gathering, something he had no interest in doing. Additionally, his brother would make an effort to have a son, while he preferred to stay single and shag around. His parents had no problem because he was doing his number one duty: making sure they could afford expensive aircon bills.
So there was my answer: you could stay single, have green hair, gay, lesbian, work in another country, never see your parents, as long as you stumped up the cash.
Important conclusion – It served me right for being an arrogant twat; getting stressed because their behavior didn't suit my western definition of traditional family. Nobody is right or wrong. Just make sure you understand before you commit.


feantir said...

You're so true!!
I'm living in France, marreid to a taiwanese, and have a lot of taiwanese friends living in France. i hear exactly the same things. children are expensive, etc. Even when living, working, havin a full time life in an other country, they keep theses very taiwanese ideas deeply in their mind.

But happily, there is a lot of foreigner women in Taïwan, coming from vietnam or other countries, who are having babies.. But is that the traditionnal "Taïwanese family"?

Unknown said...

As someone considering teaching English in Taiwan I think your blog is awesome! Please see what you can do to increase it's exposure! Thank you for relating your insightful experiences!

Dan Chapman said...

Hi Sterling. Thank you for your kind comments. It is always good to know i am going in the right direction.

As for exposure - I have done alot to market the site in all the traditional channels that are free. ie. linking and signing up to blog aggregration sites. At this point - the next stage was for readers who liked it to send it to other people; for it to go viral. As my numbers have stayed steady for a year or so, i guess this happened really happened. Anyway, i will keep plugging away.

Thanks again.

夏天的孩子 said...

Awesome blog!!

I stumbled upon it last weekend and have read many posts already.

It's interesting seeing a foreigner's view of my country. Especially after living in another country (Japan) with a foreigner status. I remember complaining about many of the same things, making fun of Japanese people, (and having done a lot of the same picking up girls stuff with my European friends there).

A lot of what you say is very true. (you must have lived here for a while to analyze Taiwan so well) And it is interesting that many of it were the same things I noticed in Japan as well. But now here in Taiwan, because it is where I grew up and I am used to things being this way I have never put much thought into how things are.

Even though you wrote this blog for foreigners living in Taiwan, I think it is interesting for Taiwanese as well. Seeing someone else's perspective of Taiwan can help us learn about problems we've never noticed.

Mama Shoe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

sir, i gotta take issue with you on this otherwise very good blog, this post is way off. you are wrong sir....Forget the survets. use your eyes and head, sir. Taiwansee kids are among the happiest children on Earth, from age 1 to about 12......they live in a wonderful coocoon of happiness, you are wrong. compare to Germany USA Japan, no way, Taiwan rocks for kids. Drop the survey stuff and pay attention. you ARE a dumb foreigner sometimes, always carping. why? truth hurts i know, but you need to grow up

Dan Chapman said...

Whoever the last poster was i have put your comments up because it is good to get debate and you are entitled to your opinion. However:

a) Don't know why i should ignore surveys. Children in Taiwan are cocooned, yes; but also unhappy because they don't see their parents who are working 24/7

b) You start by saying you like my blog and then go off into rudeness as if you think it is all a pile of offensive crap. Doesn't make sense.

Either way be polite in future as i value all polite comments.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dan

Sorry for the rude-ness. Didn't mean to come across that way. I just meant that surveys show nothing, indicate nothing, but you use them to buttress your already seemingly prejudiced POV. I am not saying you are a biased person, no, just that you see Taiwan through your Western eyes and you refuse to open them up to non-Western ways. Trust me, mate, kids here are the happiest on earth. I have been to 40 nations and i see in the kids faces here. They DO SEE their parents, and often. Who are you kidding, Dan. Don't believe the newspapers and don't believe PHD surveys. Trust your eyes. do you have kids yet? Do you work in a schoool? kids are very happy here. More than in japan, more than in USA. but yes, after 12 years old it all goes downhill. and unhappy sets in. sigh.