Of course, Taiwan wasn’t my first travel rodeo. When I was quite a bit younger, I traveled around, including to, among other places, Venezuela. One great memory I have of that trip was two nights spent camping on the beach of Cayo Sombrero in Morrocoy National Park, a lovely small island and a true Caribbean paradise of coral, crystal waters, white sand, and coconut palms. Venezuelans know how to relax and have fun! So there was a good vibe too, with happy groups swimming and boating – or just hanging out merrily on the beach. I spent most nights by the campfire, and much of the day snorkeling, but also did some general walking around just to see what was. On the second afternoon I walked inland a bit to check out the interior, hidden from sight by a berm of silver sand and some dense foliage. I found a way in, and was really surprised by what was back there, just a stone’s throw from the beach: a stinking brackish swamp, with a few scrubby bushes around a dull pond of stagnant water, and lots of tiny biting flies in the foul, stuffy air! Salty water from the sea mixed with scant rainwater had accumulated with little natural drainage, creating the dismal place. I quickly returned to the beach, and in seconds the sea breeze blew away all the stank.
It was an interesting learning experience; ugliness is often hiding just behind beauty. This can happen in cultures as well. No place is perfect of course, and that includes my beloved chosen home Taiwan. The point is, if you do live in a place, know where the swamp is so you can stay away from it. And don’t get stuck in it, especially not the cultural swamp!
Much has been said about the food, scenery, positive atmosphere, and general high quality of life in Taiwan. It has also been said many times that perhaps the main attraction here is the Taiwanese people themselves, a peaceful, friendly bunch, for the most part. There’s lots of smiling, courtesy and warm helpfulness to strangers. One can make some good friends here over time, and the cross-cultural romances are quite sincere. If you lose your wallet or cell phone in a taxi, there’s a good chance it will be returned to you. And it’s hard not to be charmed by this plucky underdog nation, the only democracy in Chinese history, daring to be itself on the edge of a grim and grumpy old China that wants to annex it. Wow! I love Taiwan!
But if that all sounds too good to be true, it is. Like everywhere else, there’s a dark side here, like the thugs who sell heroin to addicts and enslave women as prostitutes, or the corrupt officials whose greed leads to social injustice. These are the sharks, the predators picking on the weak, and they swim through every water on earth.
However, what I’m talking about today, dear reader, is The Swamp: Cultural stagnation, or rather, aspects of the culture that promote stagnation. Here’s one, which ironically may be the flip side of the peacefulness and tolerance the Taiwanese value so highly: their apparent apathy. The boss is working you half to death without paying you overtime? Don’t make a fuss. The neighbor is drinking heavily and beating his dog? Don’t make a fuss. Just groan and put up with it. Complain a bit to your close friends and family, but don’t actually do anything about it.
The ideal here is social harmony, not rocking the boat. Part of this is rooted in Taoism, which advocates letting go of expectations about life and accepting the natural flow of things. One old Taoist adage is of a person who lives their whole life hearing the barking of the dogs from the next village, yet never goes there. Of course, that’s an ancient ideal, expressed poetically. But it’s not without ongoing resonance. Confucianism fits in with this as well: wait for an authority to tell you how to do things, or just do things the standard approved way.
Another reason for apathy is the fear of angering someone with the ability to harm or humiliate them, like a gangster, or a powerful family member or coworker. So if something troublesome happens, just turn a blind eye instead of getting involved. Stay out of trouble! Here’s one example: if a foreign dude was coming out of a bar in Taiwan and broke his leg falling down the stairs, people would almost certainly look after him very well. Everyone would be concerned, an ambulance would come soon, and the poor guy would be taken off to good medical treatment at a reasonable price. It would be another “I love Taiwan!” moment. But if instead, that same foreigner had offended some self-styled tough guy, making him lose face by getting too much attention from some girl, then it could be very different. The guy might get jumped by Mr. A-hole and five of his friends on the way out. They’d give him a good bashing for about 20 seconds, then take off. Here’s the rub: no bystanders would get involved in the fight, and when the police showed up, no one would have seen a thing. The CCTV cameras? Well, sorry we can’t really do anything, the police would say, while thinking: “No one’s dead and it’s just a foreigner. Maybe those guys were really mobbed up. Don’t make a fuss!” For the bleeding and befuddled foreign guy it’s an interesting lesson in cross-cultural communication!
Or at work, here’s another common scenario: Australian Rachel, the new online marketing manager for a Taiwanese company is getting stabbed in the back by a jealous Taiwanese coworker, who is lying about her to the boss, his friend. Will her other Taiwanese coworkers tell her? Of course not! Her boss, being shrewd, instinctively realizes that he may not be getting the whole story. But rather than risk social harmony at work, lets her go. The boss then hires some foreign guy to take her place, making the backstabbing coworker his supervisor. The backstabbing coworker, jealous that the new guy is making the same salary as him, makes the guy’s work life difficult, and belittles him behind his back. Welcome to the Swamp!
Marriage to a local can also lead into the Swamp. If the marriage sours, then the foreigner with no guanxi (= connections = hit points) might be in for some trouble, with pro-local judges unlikely to rule in their favor. He or she might lose custody of their child, and have little recourse to regain custody. And if the business, apartment, bank account or other property is in the name of the local spouse, then that can also be a major problem. People have been really messed up by this.
Again, ironically, the flip side to the legendary Taiwanese friendliness toward foreigners may be their subconscious insistence that their foreignness defines them. In normative terms, this means that rules on foreigners should not always be the same as those for Taiwanese, even when the difference is illogical and discriminatory. For example, in the national health insurance system, babies from a foreign couple aren’t covered until they are six months old. If there are birth complications, then that can be a big financial problem for the parents. It doesn’t seem to make any sense: Taiwan isn’t a birth destination like the USA, and foreigners here pay taxes and NHI premiums. So why hasn’t this obviously unfair law been changed? Because some civic groups object to that change without other changes being made for their constituents, underprivileged groups In Taiwan. There's no logical connection, but few people really care. Vague but strong jealousy toward foreigners among nativists, and the general irrelevance of foreigners to most locals on a day-to-day basis, makes this a non-issue for the vast majority of Taiwanese. But it’s a hell of a hard landing for some foreigner residents.
Foreigners have trouble getting credit cards because “If they run away to their own country, how can we get the money they owe us from them?” Never mind that the foreigner in question has lived here for 10 years, is married with two kids and owns a business! He’s still a foreigner. I’ve even heard of an American who had revoked his US citizenship to become a citizen of the Republic of China (Taiwan), not an easy process. One day, he noticed that an official had written on his official file: “foreigner with a Taiwanese ID card”!
That’s a funny example, but there are many more mundane ones that happen all the time. It’s like being in a vaguely defined business-class ghetto. Does that cause stagnation? It sure can. It can cause foreign residents to feel alienated from their chosen new home, and maybe leave, or base their business elsewhere. It can make them bitter, and less prone to the optimism that is at the heart of contributing your best to the society you live in. Which is the real irony, as it’s the contribution of talents, knowledge and ideas from abroad that makes foreigners genuinely useful here on this small island.
Of course, these kinds of things are relatively rare. The majority of the time, Taiwanese are super nice, and things work out for most foreign folk who come here, despite occasional gripes and groans. In fact, you might think this is all a lot of whinging, because bad things happen to good people all over the world.
It’s just that Taiwan is otherwise such a great place that it can shock you when things flip over so fast. If you run into some serious local bullshit, it can be really depressing, kind of like moving to a beautiful island, expecting a beach house, but ending up in a hut in the Swamp!