In 1544, a Portuguese ship sailed off the Asian continent and soon came to find the Ihla Formosa, meaning “beautiful island,” known today as Taiwan. From its rugged mountain ranges to its gently rolling plains, Taiwan is one of Asia’s sweet treats. Seen from space, it has been called a sweet potato because of its shape. Though Taiwan is small, it has heavily influenced the world around it and is one of the leading countries in the manufacturing industry, including bicycle manufacturing, biotechnology, semiconductor device fabrication, laptop computers, and smart phones.
Emily Feng, a 26-year-old Taiwanese-American masters’ student at California State University, Long Beach and part-time social worker shares some insight about Taiwanese culture. “Taiwanese people are in general passionate, direct with regards to communication, friendly, open and down to earth,” she says. Though born in Houston, Texas, Emily spent a total of fourteen years on and off in Taiwan. She now lives in Los Angeles, but returns twice a year to visit her family in Taiwan.
Taiwan has a unique blend of Chinese and Japanese cultures. Both Standard Mandarin and Taiwanese Minnan are spoken. Common cultural behaviors include removing one’s shoes before entering a house and not writing a Chinese name in red ink, which carries connotations of death. The majority of the population follows Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, or a combination of the three. Although only 4.5% of Taiwan is Christian, “it is a pretty safe place to be Christian,” Emily explains. “In fact, most people recognize the faith as a Western faith, therefore the majority of believers are Westernized and highly educated. I feel that the local Taiwanese have a hard time identifying with the Christian faith because of the culture barrier. Buddhism and Taoism’s thoughts and theologies are so ingrained in Taiwanese people’s daily lives that it has become second nature, even for those who do not practice either religion. For example, thinking such things as, ‘I better not run that red light, because if I do bad things, I will have bad karma’ is common. There are so many rituals and laws that people practice that it has become more of a lifestyle. On the flip side, the Christian faith doesn’t emphasize such rituals and laws and allows for more freedom. But it’s hard for Taiwanese people to really relate, especially with the faith not being as culturally ingrained and being stereotyped as a Western faith.”
Taiwan has a deep history, some of it scarred by conflicts with its Asian neighbors. “My family members were persecuted by the Japanese during World War II. Many of them were killed by the Japanese. My grandparents have a deep, unresolved resentment and prejudice towards the Japanese people,” says Emily. “However, living in America, my brother is married to a Japanese woman, and I have a lot of Japanese friends. Initially, this brought many of my family members discomfort, but slowly, they have begun to accept it.
Taiwan has a deep history, some of it scarred by conflicts with its Asian neighbors. “My family members were persecuted by the Japanese during World War II. Many of them were killed by the Japanese. My grandparents have a deep, unresolved resentment and prejudice towards the Japanese people,” says Emily. “However, living in America, my brother is married to a Japanese woman, and I have a lot of Japanese friends. Initially, this brought many of my family members discomfort, but slowly, they have begun to accept it.”
Emily has great admiration for her parents’ sacrifice to provide for her. “My parents lived in poverty. Although they were considered to be upper middle class and the more privileged ones, overall, they still experienced a lot of hardship,” shares Emily. “Food like chicken, apples and candy were luxuries. They were expected to study hard, work hard and take care of their family. Stories of my parents’ hardships and what they did to get to where they are now are at times so unbelievable.”
Taiwan’s biggest discussion taboo is politics and government. “People are extremely sensitive because Taiwan is divided into two major groups. One group is the Taiwanese, whose ancestors moved to Taiwan from the Fu Jien province of China 300 years ago. Another group is the Mandarin Chinese, who moved to Taiwan with Shang Kai Shek because they lost the war with the Communists. My family is Mandarin Chinese. We are basically pro-China. We hope that one day, our relationship with China will be reconciled and we will be one nation again, of course on our terms of democracy, for example. Many others are Taiwanese and do not identify themselves with China. They believe that China is a huge bully, and that we, as Taiwanese, should stand up for ourselves and fight for our independence as a country (Taiwan is not officially recognized by the United Nations). This is a very sensitive subject and it often divides friendships and even families. People are very passionate about whichever side they are on, and as a result, people normally do not discuss politics because it gets extremely heated and creates more separation.”
“I consider myself more Chinese than Taiwanese. I know this is a controversial topic. I never studied Taiwanese history, only Chinese history. Although I recognize myself more as Chinese, when I am in Taiwan I am considered ‘Americanized’ because I attended an American school in Taiwan, which has really prevented me from becoming more acculturated into Taiwanese culture as a whole.”
For Emily, being referred to as “Americanized” has its ups and downs. “I think the things that are taught in the Bible are often contrary to American living. I think Asian culture in general likes to be in groups and communities, and you see that emphasized in the Bible. I enjoy being more in group relationships rather than one-on-one relationships. For example, the Taiwanese always hang out in groups while Americans highlight “the best friend”, which is a more one-on-one relationship. I can definitely see the difference in church culture when I go back to Taiwan. Being in a community is so much more natural and convenient in Taiwan. People do so without the church. In America, it is often times unnatural for people to travel in groups or live their lives heavily involved with others. The space between people is far greater. Because of this, in many ways it’s sad that this world is becoming ‘Westernized.’ The rest of the world is learning and adopting ‘the American way,’ which has some pros, but also has some cons, such as the more “lone ranger” culture, as well as materialism and heroism.”
Taiwanese culture also stresses strong work ethic. “People work a lot,” says Emily. “They work from 8 A.M. to 6 P.M. on average. It is very common to work overtime with little pay. People tend to go in early and leave late from work.” However, the long hours are also shared in community. “Taiwanese people like to sing Karaoke or eat dinner with co-workers after work,” Emily says. “It’s very different from the American work environment where usually you don’t hang out with your co-workers too much, and there’s more emphasis on professionalism and space between co-workers.”
I don’t like the fact that Christians are considered a Westernized faith because God is a God of all nations.
Taiwan has five major holidays that are celebrated as festivals. Rather than Christmas, the most well-known and important holiday is Chinese New Year. “We don’t really celebrate Christmas in Taiwan. December 25 is actually Constitution Day for Taiwan. People usually associate Christmas as a party day, like Americans do with Halloween. It is festive but people don’t see it as a family gathering like the Americans do, nor do people celebrate Christ. The big family holiday is definitely the Chinese New Year,” says Emily.
“Living in America now, I miss my family the most,” shares Emily. “I also have a great church that I attend in Taiwan. I have been attending that church since I was eighteen—before I was even walking with God. God has used that church to really bless my family and me. It is often times a lot more intimate for me to learn about God in my native culture and mother tongue, Taiwanese.”
I think the things that are taught in the Bible are often contrary to American living. I think Asian culture in general likes to be in groups and communities, and you see that emphasized in the Bible. I enjoy being more in group relationships rather than one-on-one relationships.
Although Emily always has a great time being with her family when she visits, she notices that her years living in America have put up some new barriers. “My family often perceives my American culture to be too liberal. My individualism is considered to be too opinionated or selfish, especially being a woman, where in Taiwanese culture we are encouraged to be submissive and passive. In American culture, more freedom is given for a woman to speak her mind or to be athletic and I have been culturally integrated into having both these American traits. People in Taiwan are really skinny. I am also considered to be too tanned and muscular. Muscular legs for women in Taiwan are a big taboo, which is very contrary to American culture.”
Regardless of her cultural shifts and past family history, what stays with Emily is her love for God. “I am passionate about Jesus. I would love to use the skills I’m learning from my master’s degree to help people have healthy marriages and families. I would love to travel to places where no one wants to go to serve God.” Perhaps one day, God may also heal the strife and division among the Taiwanese that still affects the country today. “I don’t like the fact that Christians are considered a Westernized faith because God is a God of all nations,” says Emily.