Culture Contests

“As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate lovingly, our own.” ~Margaret Mead

I’ve come to the conclusion that Italians would likely, at their first encounter with Asian–and specifically Taiwanese–culture, find it barbaric.  Maybe “barbaric” is too strong of a term.  And maybe it’s not just Italians, but might be shared by all Europeans.  And I don’t think they would find it barbaric in a snobbish sort of way, but due to the different values that each culture places on different things, I’m pretty sure that an Italian traveling to Taiwan would have some things to reconcile with culturally.  But then, isn’t that what culture shock is for everyone?  Even so, there are some things that jump out as significant cultural differences:

1. The concept of face.  If Italians have a problem with you or something you do, they tell you.  They don’t worry about how much it might humiliate you in front of other people.  If you’re wrong, face it.  They don’t internalize the problems and hold the grudges for eternity, waiting for the other person to give in so that they don’t lose face (still, you do have the feuding families like the Montagues and Capulets of Verona, or the Fillipeschis and Monaldeschis of Orvieto…).  In Asia, on the other hand, it’s all about face and how you appear to other people.  If you make someone look bad in front of other people, you’re in trouble.  It’s a far different type of honor-society.  So, Italians would likely find Taiwanese people obnoxiously cryptic, whereas Taiwanese would find Italians very rude.

2. Asia on the whole would feel uncomfortably dirty to an Italian.  Not that everything’s perfectly clean here, but it’s a different kind of clean.  It’s not germless, but there’s not really dust sitting around.  There are public garbage cans (which don’t exist in Taiwan anymore due to recycling laws).  The rumors says that Italian grandmothers sweep their house up to four or five times a day to make sure that it’s clean.  When the normal color for the sky in Taiwan is a muted gray due to the pollution level, it’s impossible to even try to keep anything that clean.  Dust and smog coat nearly everything.  Walking through a market in Taiwan, anyone unfamiliar with one would see it as highly unsanitary with fish being gutted just behind the counter and fallen vegetables getting ground into the floor.  There are markets in Italy, but not quite the same.

3. Overall, I think that Italians and Taiwanese people have very different senses of timing.  On the surface, their concept of time looks the same–if you say something will start at 10:30, it likely won’t start until 10:40 or 10:45.  However, these two cultures differ when it comes to the idea of immediacy and waiting.  In Taiwan, the mentality is that “I am going to get to where I want to go as fast as I can and no one’s going to stop me.”  The result?  Crazy taxi drivers, high speed rail system, psycho street driving.  Italians will get there…eventually.  Granted, they still go places with a purpose, but there’s not as much focus on the individual getting to the place as in Asia.

4. Finally, I can’t disregard the food.  I love the food in both places, but I think that Italians would be taken aback by the way that food is fast in Taiwan, fried in all kinds of unhealthy things.  Food is not an art there in the same way that it is here.  Plus, in Italy you typically don’t find things like fish eyes as a delicacy and chicken heads still in tact.  Everything has been carefully cut up and prepared.

This is not to say that one of these cultures is better, and it’s not to say that something used to one culture would not be able to be comfortably in the other.  But it’s the inflexibility of the cultural mindset that gives rise to the idea that one culture is better than another.  Such a mindset resulted in the wiping out of entire civilizations in some cases, like when the Europeans landed in the Americans and proceeded to push back and take advantage of the natives, or when Rome started expanding its empire and taking over other, smaller groups of people.  It’s not with a mindset of superiority that we should go an engage other cultures, but a mindset of what we can learn from them.

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