Finding your bearings in Taibei

24 March 2010

When you move to a new country, that of finding your bearings and orienteering yourself is not an easy process. It takes time. This is true in both the topographic and the cultural sense.

When I came to live in Taipei, I found it almost impossible to remember the names of the streets. I knew that my school was on He Ping Dong Street and my house on Luo Si Fu Street, but the Xing Hai, Xin Sheng, Sen Lin all blurred into one.

I asked myself why. In Chinese the sound that corresponds to a character is always only one syllable, offering a smaller hook for our memory than a longer word; the same character can have many different meanings and appear in a variety of combinations with others; several different characters can have the same pronunciation; tones contribute to differentiate sounds and therefore meanings, but foreigners find tones difficult to grasp... All these reasons make it particularly difficult for speakers of Indo-European languages to retain Chinese words. Unless I had a memory card for it I could not memorise a new word — and I never made memory card for street names.

I also found it difficult to orient myself in a more abstract sense, that is within a culture I was new to. My so-called instincts failed me. Sometimes I could not interpret other people's behaviour towards me because I was not familiar with the cultural, social and moral codes that guided them. There is so much of our own culture that we take for granted or confuse with human nature! The difference between the two reveal itself when we go and live to the other side of the world! Here by applying my European codes I sometimes misinterpreted people's verbal and non verbal messages, elicited from them different responses to those I was looking for, risked to offend someone, took literally phrases that were pronounced as a form of politeness and be blind to the clues I was given as to the real intentions of the speakers.

People were generally very kind to me, but after a few promising first meetings a friendship did not develop. I wondered why. Others seemed critical of my life choices but then wanted to be my friends. I angered a teacher by asking a few innocent, I thought, language questions. I myself felt shocked or concerned at behaviours that people related to me as completely normal. Social relations were not very smooth at first.

Gradually I started marking some points of reference. For example that telling the truth and expressing what you think in Taiwan not necessarily perceived as a good way to communicate; that you should always bear in mind the other person's “face” and whether anything you say might remotely be causing them to “lose” it; that authority and hierarchy are due an absolute respect; that questions can be seen as challenges to one's authority.

These two processes, getting my bearings around Taipei and around the values that inform social interactions in Taiwan, came to a head when during a language class I was introduced to Eight Confucian Virtues:

Loyalty (Zhong), Filial Piety (Xiao), Benevolence (Ren), Love (Ai), Trust (Xin), Righteousness (Yi), Peace (He) and Justice (Ping).

Of course the meaning of these words and how to live by these values are not the same in the West and in a Confucian society. “Filial Piety”, for example, goes well beyond the love and respect we think is due to parents, to exclude any form or rebellion to them and to include, at least in the stories that are taken as a model for education, extreme forms of self sacrifice on the part of the children.

Besides being the firm values according to which the young generations are still educated in Taiwan, the above — paired two by two — also happen to be the names of four main and parallel roads in Taipei: Zhong Xiao Street, Ren Ai Street, Xin Yi Street, He Ping Street!

It was a surprise and an eye opener to find out that people in Taipei literally live within the grid of the Confucian values. Moral and topographic coordinates fused into one.