I bicycle to work every morning, sometimes the chaos of traffic just gets to me. Usually I can bear it, but today, dodging cars, scooters, buses,taxis and old people on various slow speed motorized vehicles, was just more than I could handle. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking, you know people, in a normal civilized world sidewalks are a thing. And then I immediately felt ashamed of myself for having that thought. I felt like an arrogant neocolonialist. I am going on year number three in Taiwan, and most of the novelty has worn off. From time to time I catch myself drifting into this kind of thought. I am not going to pretend that I know everything about living abroad, Taiwan is the only other country I have lived in (aside from a semester abroad), but the single most hardest thing about living abroad is looking past your own cultural bias. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to NOT critique a culture through your own cultural lens.
As a teacher, I get a pretty good scope of the education system, and the education system gives a good insight into society as a whole, because it is a huge part. How kids act and are treated at school is very telling of a culture. When I arrive at work in the morning, students are busy sweeping, taking out the trash, cleaning their home rooms, etc. This, I think is a brilliant idea, getting students to care for their own environments while teaching them responsibility (and saving the school a money on cleaning costs) cleaning duties are also a good alternative for punishment. Then they plug away for 8 hours worth of classes expected to retain all of the information that was just thrown at them. This part horrified me at first, and still does. They are drilled to death with an emphasis on memorization and regurgitation. Any type of critical and analytic thinking skills are non-existent, creativity is not encouraged, if anything discouraged. As a result of all this studying, I have met some of the most amazing people I have ever met in my lifetime, and literally the most dull people to exist on planet earth.
As rigid as the education system is, sometimes it feels like there is absolutely no regulation on anything else. People set off firecrackers literally at any time of day anywhere, like a Sunday at 8 AM right outside my house. People bring their dogs in handbags into restaurants, or burn stacks and stacks of ghost money on a 100 degree day on the side of the road, or think table tennis is a competitive sport, or cover head to toe in a bee-keeper like outfit, just to protect your skin from getting “dark”, or girls literally being immobile when they have their period. At first I looked at these things in a state of incredible awe, like; wow this is so exotic it can’t be for real, then I went through the phase of thinking; wow this is so absurd and backward it can’t be real, now I realize it is not a matter of being backward or wrong, it is just cultural preference. I prefer restaurants where animals are not allowed inside, I prefer not to have firecrackers set off in front of my house in the morning, I prefer contact sports, and tampons, and a nice tan. It doesn’t mean I am right. I just means my culture is different and has different values.
It is not only foreigners abroad that have cultural bias. It is everybody everywhere. When some of my students told me that they started English lessons at the age of five, I was blown away, I thought that was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. When I told them that was the age I started playing soccer, they thought the same, that it was the most ridiculous thing they have ever heard. Different culture, different values. I was explaining to my friend that I refuse to get a World Gym membership because all of their advertisements are naked anorexic girls basically going at it. And I said only in Asia are women still blatantly sex objects. She pointed out that in the U.S we still have ring girls and cheerleaders at sporting events whose job it is to basically sell sex. True, it was so normal in my mind I hadn’t thought of that example, or maybe that was my cultural bias not wanting to see the faults with my own culture. There is a lot of room for grey, where is the middle ground between a culture that tells women they are fat for eating three meals a day and a culture where heart disease is a leading cause of death? Both cannot be right, and both aren’t completely wrong.
One culture is not superior to the other, all cultures have positive and negative aspects, and not every person embodies every single aspect of their culture. It is hard to find appreciation for a culture for what it is without your personal opinion constantly interfering. It takes incredible patience and a certain self-awareness to decide what your personal values are and how the align with your own culture and the culture you are currently living in. I commend people who can truly immerse themselves without judgment (though I have yet to meet one).
It is an exercise in patience and personal growth, but sometimes no matter how open-minded of a person you are, or however long you have lived abroad, thoughts like; you know people, sidewalks are a f*ing thing, will still creep across your mind. It is a constant battle with yourself living in a foreign culture, to really live and appreciate every single moment for what it is, and not what you think it ought to be. What it does is help you realize more about your own cultural perspective and what your own personal values are.