Wednesday, August 29, 2012

China and Taiwan: a Social and Cultural Comparison

           In late July I said goodbye to Taiwan and visited Beijing for a week before returning home to the United States. Having lived in Beijing during my senior year of high school (2008-2009), I was very excited to return to China’s capital city to visit my host family and Chinese friends—both of whom I have not seen since I left China more than three years ago.  With Taiwan still fresh in my mind, I was also eager to compare what life is like on the Mainland with that of Taiwan. While Taiwan and Mainland China both share Chinese social and cultural characteristics, sixty plus years of political separation between the two has caused them to socially and culturally evolve in a very different fashion. In this blog post and the next, I will discuss what I think are the most salient social and cultural differences between Taiwan and Mainland China.
            Before I arrived in Taiwan, I was very much aware of the fact that Taiwan uses traditional or “complex” Chinese characters, whereas the Mainland uses simplified Chinese characters. I also knew that Taiwanese people have a distinctive Mandarin accent different from most places in Mainland China. What I was completely unaware of, though, was the vast difference in everyday words and expressions in China and Taiwan. For example, off the top of my head, I can recall that the English words for taxi, potato, peanut, “and”, metro, pineapple, and garbage all employ different Chinese words in Taiwan than in Mainland China. One of my Taiwanese interlocutors said that the differences in diction between Taiwanese Mandarin and Mainland Chinese Mandarin are greater than the diction differences between British English and American English. I agree with his assessment.
            In addition to language, I noticed several differences in the way Taiwanese and Chinese people interact with their fellow countrymen in public spaces. It seems that Taiwanese people have a sense of personal space, whereas in China personal space (especially when one takes public transportation) is virtually non-existent. This social difference is most likely due to the extremely crowded nature of many of China’s cities—many of which are almost equal in size to Taiwan’s entire population. While most people in Taiwan stand in line to wait for a bus or the metro, it seems that most people in China either do not stand in line or cut in front of the line if there is even a line formed. Taiwanese drivers are also apt to yield to drivers wanting to merge into their lanes, whereas my recent Beijing taxi driver lamented to me about Beijing drivers’ increasing unwillingness to yield to other drivers. I learned an idiom over the summer that I have grown fond of, mainly because it is so effective in describing Chinese people’s behavior in public spaces: 争先恐后, “striving to be first, and hating to be last.” In China, everyone seems to be in a rush and consequently cannot afford to stand in line or yield to other drivers. In Taiwan, people seem to be more laid back.
            Being six foot eight, I naturally receive a lot of attention in Asia, particularly in China. I remember Chinese people staring at me all the time when I was in China during my senior year of high school. When I was in Taiwan this summer, though, relatively few Taiwanese people stared at me, and, even if they did, they did it in a subtle way. Receiving a lot of attention as I did in China is, in my view, both good and bad—it is good in the way that many people are interested in you and reach out to you in conversation, but is bad in the way that one can quickly feel less than human when everyone is staring at you. In Taiwan it is the reverse: I felt that it was harder to reach out to young Taiwanese people and make friends because I was just another  “foreigner,” but did enjoy less people staring at me overall.
         Well, I think I will end here and pick up making more social and cultural differences between Taiwan and China in my next blog post. Thanks for reading!


  1. Thank you for sharing. But could you tell me what are the same things between Taiwanese and Chinese culture?

  2. Thank you for sharing. But could you tell me what are the same things between Taiwanese and Chinese culture?