Sunday, 10 June 2012

Taiwan is Another Country, They Do Things Differently There

Much has already been written on the differences between the East and the West, about communal and individualistic cultures, and about how attitudes and values differ according to nationality. All of that is true and apparent to me living here. I spent the greater part of my career teaching English to immigrants, and I also lived in another Asian country for a while a long time ago, so I know to an extent what to expect from our experience of living in Taiwan.

Such things don't really interest me anymore. In fact, what always strikes me and seems to be the more pervasive 'truth' is how similar humans are, deep down. Language barrier aside, it's still possible to share a joke or an experience with another person of any nationality and understand things from their perspective. We tend to focus on the differences between people, but in my experience there's far more that unites us than sets us apart.

It's the less predictable things, the small, surprising differences, that tickle my fancy. These are things that take my notice, make me pause and sometimes make me wonder exactly what's going on.

Take toilets, for example. Toilets are great here, they really are. Of course, as in most countries, the further you get off the beaten track the more challenging the toilets become. Civilisation has less of an impact the closer to nature you get. But generally speaking, in the cities the toilets are clean and well-maintained, often by cleaners who are always on-site.

On my beloved MRT, there is usually an electronic display at the toilet entrance showing you which ones are free or occupied. There are signs to tell you which kind of toilet (Western or Asian) you'll find waiting for you behind the door. But best of all, in each toilet, there's an emergency button to press and summon aid should you need it.

I'm not exactly sure what kind of help you might need. In fact, I'd rather not think about it. But it's reassuring that should you have a toilet emergency, assistance is the press of a button away.

Another source of perplexity to me continued for some time before I finally solved the puzzle. On the route to my son's school we pass a much larger school with a large, high wall and decorative railings across the top. One day as we passed I noticed an old man attaching some pillows to them with string.

I mulled this over all the rest of the way to school. Was he planning on climbing the railings and he needed some kind of cushion? Was it an ancient Taiwanese signalling system of some kind? One pillow on the railings meant a conspiracy revealed, two pillows meant meet me here at midnight, that kind of thing?

I couldn't figure it out. Why would someone tie their pillows to school railings? This went on for weeks. Sometimes it was pillows, sometimes sheets, occasionally a duvet. Each time I thought to myself, there has to be a rational explanation for this. The old man didn't look insane in any other way.

Then, on one of the first fine, dry days of the year, Taipei bloomed with bed linen. Everywhere you went, people were drying their washing in public places. Railings, fences, children's playgrounds, anywhere that would hold a large item securely, there would be someone's damp bedclothes. The old man had just been ahead of the game.

I found it quite heartwarming, to be honest. People obviously felt that the risk of someone stealing, or tearing, or besmirching their property was extremely low.

I'm not sure about how the children who would normally use the playgrounds felt about it, mind you.

A final sight that caused me to do a double-take when I first saw it is the phenomenon of human sign supports.

These are people who are paid (or, at least, I sincerely hope they are paid) to stand at intersections holding signs. All day.

Such signs seem to appear mostly at weekends, so I assume this is a way to earn a little money for doing a very easy but very boring job. Not to mention what it must be like when it rains.

But then again, is this so very different from the sandwich board bearers you still occasionally see walking up and down in shopping centres in the UK?

As I said, our similarities are greater than our differences.

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