I remember watching a documentary on German TV about exchange students in China a few years ago. It was funny to see how those young Germans tried to cope with an entirely new cultural environment.
German students lived with Chinese host families and went to school with Chinese teenagers. As it often happens in Western media, the world of the East was represented according to stereotypes: the Chinese families appeared authoritarian, while schoolchildren, who early in the morning had to go out on a huge courtyard to sing together the national anthem, were depicted as if they were but a brainwashed mass.
The relationship between the German students and their host families was particularly tense. The European guests could not understand why they were asked to do things that they thought were restricting their privacy and freedom. For example, why couldn’t they go out whenever they wanted? Why did they have to follow certain strange rules that appeared to them invasive? They seemed to believe that they had certain rights, and they wanted to enjoy them no matter what their hosts thought.
On this post I’d like to compare these stereotypes (if they are such) with my own experience, for I lived with a Taiwanese host family for quite a long time.
Before I came to Taiwan, I was very worried about how I should behave with them. Would I be allowed to go out in the evening and maybe stay out at night with friends? Would I enjoy the same level of privacy and freedom I am used to?
I asked a few Chinese friends for advice, and their replies surprised me. One of them – a good friend of mine, a passionate, very nice and clever guy – said that I should simply ask them before doing something. “We try to tolerate,” he said. “If someone asks to do something, we won’t say no.” That was to me a startling new concept.
When I arrived in Taiwan, I received an extraordinarily warm welcome. And so I began to explore the life in an average Taiwanese family from the inside.
First of all, my host parents were extremely nice to me. I had already prepared myself for the challenge of a homestay in a foreign country, and I was trying to be as open-minded as I could and to be careful not say or do anything that might offend or hurt them.
Contrary to the common stereotype, my Taiwanese host family were not authoritarian at all. I dare say that there were no particular rules I had to follow. I’d already lived with host families before: twice in England and three times in Germany. I Taiwan I even felt much freer. For instance, I once lived with a host family in Frankfurt where, shortly after my arrival, I was told the rules of the house. Let me tell you an anecdote about this.
One day I went to a supermarket to buy food. I came back home, opened the fridge, and suddenly my German host mother said in an almost alarmed tone that I couldn’t use the fridge. “Why not?” I asked. “There’s no space,” she answered. I had a look at what was inside the fridge: every item had been placed in perfect order, neatly one next to the other. There was plenty of space left, though. What the woman meant was that if I’d put my own things there, the wonderful order she had created would have been ruined. However, I insisted. Only after pointing out that I’d paid money to live in that house and I couldn’t possibly go out and eat in a restaurant three times a day did she agree to let me put my stuff inside. Among other rules, I had to pay to use the washing machine.
Don’t misunderstand me. That woman was really nice, and I remember a couple of mornings and afternoons that we spent together, talking about history, politics and life. She was already over 60 years old. She had beautiful eyes of an intense blue colour, white curly hair and a round face with red cheeks that looked like two apples. She showed me her family albums, told me a lot of interesting things about her parents and ancestors, about the hard life of her generation shortly after the end of WWII, of the “boom” years of the young West German Republic which coincided with the years of her adolescence, as well as about her memories of the fall of the Berlin wall and the Reunification of Germany.
Okay, I’m digressing now. What I wanted to say was simply that in my Taiwanese host family things were very different.
My Taiwanese parents spoiled me. They washed my clothes and cleaned my room – for free. When I protested, they smiled and said: “We treat you like one of our children.” I was very moved. They told me I should feel like their home were my home. Sure, I paid a rent to stay there. But when I handed them the money they looked embarrassed, which made me feel relieved, in some way.
However, there were also a few things that troubled me. As I’ve already mentioned above, there is a stereotype in the West that in the Far East families are authoritarian. I think I understand where this misconception comes from.
With my host parents, I couldn’t behave like I would have with Western people. I couldn’t say “no” directly. For example. When they cooked they often asked me to join them. And sometimes I wasn’t hungry or I had to go out, or I just didn’t feel like eating at that moment. This was a huge problem, because I had to live with them day after day and such situations occurred often. Upon my arrival I already knew enough about Asia to realize that a straightforward rejection would have been considered rude. But if you think that they would force me into doing something, you’re wrong. If you find the right way to handle them, then you have absolute freedom to do what you want.
It took me some time to understand that. If you don’t want to be disrespectful, you can have your way – indirectly. You just say that you are busy with something, for instance with work, or that you have to go out with a friend. In this way, you don’t say no, and no one will consider you rude, but the outcome is the same as if you’d rejected. The interesting thing is that, as far as I have observed, the need to be nice and to avoid direct rejections is a surface phenomenon; as long as you know how to reject indirectly, you can have your way most of the times and no one will bother you or insist too much.