When East meets West, as it does in Taiwan, collectivism yields to individualism. Traditions are given up and forgotten, but new values are adopted. In the end, a new balance must be found.
Taiwanese society is like a sponge that has become saturated with a foreign culture during its evolution. Since people here had a first taste of western culture family values have noticeably changed, especially during the past decade when the island’s economy began to expand. A growing appetite for material goods and other stimulants leads people to spend less time with their family and to devote themselves to personal pleasures.
"The influence of Western values on Taiwan could be summed up in the word ‘individualism’," said Professor Wu Chyi-in, Associate Research Fellow of the Academia Sinica’s Sociology Institute, in an exclusive interview with MercatorNet. "In the past, children weren’t allowed to give an opinion, no matter how respectfully they expressed it. They could be severely punished. But now there is no way parents can do that."
Most Taiwanese children today are allowed to have their say and even decide what they want to do. They may express their feelings about things they don’t agree with, and parents are no longer the ones who decide just because they earn the money. "There is a growing trend that parents have to negotiate with children regarding anything, whether it is about which restaurant to go for weekend family gathering or about their career," professor Wu says. He puts the changes down to the country’s economic wealth.
Study and work
In the past, there was only one way to win praise from the society: to study really hard. But now, people living in Taiwan have become more aware that a child’s life is not only about studying, and later on working. Parents start to care about their children’s self and realize little by little that there are other things to enrich their children’s life, such as learning painting, music or even how to live with other children of their age.
Lin Chun-yu, a young lady in her late 20’s, working in the finance industry, had a typical traditional upbringing. "I didn’t think very much at that time. The only target I had during my time as a junior high school student was to pass the senior high entrance exam. Not until I turned 19 did I feel I was being respected, treated like an adult," Lin Chun-yu told MercatorNet.
"But my kids will be different. They will not be forced to study hard and get good grades. There are so many other interesting things to learn and do than sit in a classroom and study." Making a concession to traditional values Lin adds: "I will be a very indulgent mother, but my kids have got to know how to be good and honest individuals."
Marriage, western style
Marriage in the past was a tremendous issue between two families, involving the parents, the grandparents, their expectations and the interests of many others. But individualism has had its effect here also. "I think that one of the major purposes of marriage is to have children, regardless of the husband’s and the wife’s families. Marriage in the past involved too many factors, which made it a really complicated thing," says Lin Chun-yu.
Yet a "simple" modern marriage is not easy to bring off. Last year one in every five marriages in Taiwan were to a foreigner — mostly women from neighbouring Asian countries who met their husbands through a marriage broker. Taiwanese men find the women of their country too independent, unwilling to fit into the husband’s family and look after his old parents. The average Taiwanese bride is 29, and the country’s birth rate is among the world’s lowest, at 1.2 births per woman.
Lin Chun-yu, who wishes to get married before the age of 30, admits: "Now that I say all this, I still don’t know what it is like to be a mother. I want to have children, but I still wish to preserve my liberty and do what ever I want. It is an important milestone in my life to be a mother, but I haven’t got the courage to do the leap."
Although people who grew up in the conservative past find themselves used to the new rules that individualism has imposed, they realise it has come at a cost.
Lin Tsui-hsiang, in her late 40’s and the mother of two daughters, says she likes the convenience that life provides now although she sometimes feels nostalgic for the simplicity of life when she was a teenager. "It is very important now for everyone to live freely and independently. Take my family as an example. Each one has a job, manages his or her own money and is free to decide what to buy whenever there is a discount at a department store.
"But I sometimes miss the past when people, as well as family members, had tighter bonds between them. Now, everyone in the family has something to do individually after work or weekends — meeting friends to gossip in a coffee shop, going to the movies alone. No matter what we do, it is important to fill up our time with little pleasures," the middle-aged mother said.
Nostalgia may not solve the problems of excessive individualism, but as younger Taiwanese experience its downside, our country may move towards a better balance of East and West.
Taijing Wu is a journalist in Taiwan.