I am French and spend one year in Tainan, a city in the south of Taiwan. I had been told, prior to coming, that Tainan
was particularly friendly, even compared to Taiwan which is a particularly friendly country.
I have spent 7 months here, and there are things that I find just great here - in particular, I've collected a short list of the 4 most surprising recommendations in a list of politeness rules displayed on a wall in my children school. The rules were translated in English, so no mistake in translation (except in case of mistake in reporting...).
1. "Surprise others by performing random acts of kindness". The main thing is that this is really taught to children, implicitly and explicitly - and that really works. Beyond the very strict honesty of people here (a seller can find you 300 meters away and 5 minutes after you bought something a few cents too expensive due to a mistake he/she has made, so that he can give you back the few additional cents...), people can take a lot of time and energy for helping people they have never met before.
2. "Be positive and enjoy life".
3. "If you are asked a question in conversation, ask a question in return." This is less widely appreciated by westerners, in particular in countries like France in which we have a very strong focus on privacy - as a matter of facts, people who don't know you can ask questions that only close friends might ask in France. Keep in mind that it is intended to show interest.
4. "On a bus, always face forward." This is quite a mistery to me, I can understand that some people find that more comfortable to face forward, but I don't understand why it's a matter of politeness. If someone has an explanation please tell me :-) in trains for example, all seats face forwards.
All is not perfect; for example, when it's about gifts, the notion of conflict of interest is not considered.
Also there is a very strong sense of hierarchy; even politeness is very related to hierarchy - for this I prefer the French culture of equality - French people know that when you have a high position it probably means that you have stolen it. But many people here are masters in this special kind of politeness which both makes the world nicer and opens all doors; some kind of courtesy which is both a pleasure and a strength.
If you spend time here, you will also notice that children, or students, are extremely quiet here, and it is considered as a main politeness requirement - you can have a meal in a restaurant with a group of students sitting next to you, the noise will be very low. A teacher in Taiwan told me that there is a very strong pressure on parents here, and that children are supposed to be perfect and quiet for everything, and that this is why people have almost no children here (I don't know how Taiwan will look like in 2050 with so few babies...). The result is impressive to me; nonetheless, maybe there are bad consequences as well, the social pressure being, I guess, much stronger than in Europe.
There's much more to say, in particular the fact that politeness includes gestures more than in western countries - but I guess the rules above are less widely known. I don't speak Chinese, and people with both Taiwanese and Western culture are more than welcome for commenting - I might miss plenty of important points and deeply misunderstand some elements. Anyway, if you have the opportunity of spending one year in Taiwan, just do it - it's a real change!
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