Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Taiwan: 2011 Summer Fellows – Openness of Taiwanese Culture

Taiwan and Korea share lots of similarities. These two countries both underwent colonization by the Japanese, rapid economic development, and democratization. In aspects of everyday life, they have similar cultures; they both eat boiled rice as a main meal, use a vocabulary based on Chinese characters, and their way of thinking reflects Confucianism. After spending few weeks in Taiwan, however, I discovered one substantial difference between these two dragons of Asia. In this blog post, I discuss Taiwanese cultural openness, particularly by comparing its culture with that of Korea.

Taiwanese society is quite open to foreign culture. One day in the second week in Taipei, I went to a SkinFood store, a Korean brand affordable cosmetic franchise, to buy a facial lotion. When I entered the store, salesladies in the shop served me with big smile. Interestingly, they say “안녕하십니까” (formal greeting in Korean) as a greeting, not because they thought I was Korean, but as the brand’s official greeting. In Taiwan, not only do foreign cultures hardly arouse an unfavorable impression, but they are also sometimes are regarded as a premium. Therefore, some stores, including SkinFood, make their employees speak a foreign language in terms of sales strategy.

Compared with Taiwanese society, Korean society is relatively less open to foreign culture. In Korea, I did not observe salespeople who speak in a foreign language when they serve customers. With few exceptions, such as when they serve foreign customers, they usually speak in Korean; speaking a foreign language is not necessary. Therefore, if there is a restaurant or store in which salespeople say ようこそ or 歡迎光臨 to their Korean customers, customers may find it uncomfortable, and the store is less likely to become popular.

How can we explain this huge difference between Taiwanese and Korean society? I suggest two possible explanations. First of all, the strength of national identity may cause cultural differences between two countries. Throughout its long history, Korea established a strong identity. Conflicting, exchanging, and comparing its culture with surrounding nations, Korea gradually shaped its own identity. With this strong national identity, Koreans easily distinguish something Korean from something foreign. On the other hand, Taiwan has a relatively weak version of national identity. Although the Formosa Island entered into Asian history in the sixteenth century, inquiries regarding Taiwanese identity have mainly been carried out during the last two decades. Distinctions between Taiwan’s culture and others tend to be blurrier. Therefore, Taiwanese people may be less sensitive to other cultures.

Government’s policy and education also may be an important factor. Although the Korean government seeks to promote multiculturalism today, its past education was highly focused on uniculturalism. Previous history textbooks tended to emphasize the idea of the danyilminzok (homogeneous nation of Korea). In receiving this education, Korea tends to be more self-centered. In contrast, the Taiwanese government maintained a multicultural mindset. From the very beginning, Taiwan has had a multicultural society, including diverse ethnic groups from various areas, such as Hoklo, Hakka, Mainlander, and Indigenous Taiwanese, all mingled in Taiwan. Therefore, the Taiwanese government had to provide multicultural education to its citizens. Such factors may explain Taiwanese people’s relatively higher level of tolerance for other cultures.

Discussing culture is a risky and difficult task. I do not want to over-generalize my impressions of Taiwan. By comparing Taiwan with my own country, however, I believe I brought up an important cultural difference between the two countries in a safer and more effective manner. Despite their similarities, Taiwan maintains a more open attitude towards foreign cultures as compared with Korea.

Seung Joon PAIK
Ph.D. Political Science, 2015
Sigur Center 2011 Chinese Language Fellow
National Taiwan University, Taiwan

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