Master’s student and Student Services Coordinator, Kate Broderick is studying in Taiwan for a three-week intensive study of Chinese language and culture, based at Tunghai University in Taichung. The program was made possible by a scholarship from the School of Arts and Communication at Florida Tech. She will be chronicling her experience over the next three weeks on our blog.
During my three weeks in Taiwan, I’ve been exposed to many surface differences (like how they eat ketchup on their eggs, and don’t like ice in their drinks), but the most fundamental difference beneath all of the unimportant clutter is the differences in our perceptions about humanity’s place in the world. As Americans, we are fundamentally proud of our individual rights, of being unique, separate, and independent. As part of my degree in Global Strategic Communication, I learned that this is called the individualist/collectivist dimension by Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede. An an individualist culture, identity is based on the individual, we emphasize individual initiative and achievement, and believe that people are responsible for themselves. Taiwan, on the other side of the spectrum, is a collectivist culture.
It is only though living in Taiwan as part of the Study Abroad: Taiwan program that I can say I actually understand what it means to be in a collectivist culture. During my studies in the US, I read how a collectivist culture is based upon group loyalty and orientation, identity based on the social system, and heavily emphasizes belonging. The “I” is replaced by the “we.”
As humans, we can’t help but interpret things that are different as threatening–Hollywood has the tendency of portraying collectivist governments where the individual is blotted out “for the greater good.” We so dearly value and treasure our independence and individuality that something that fundamentally opposes our beliefs is easy to misunderstand and disregard. I admit that my entire concept of a collectivist culture was wrong, wrong, wrong prior to Taiwan.
Pre-Taiwan, I thought the individual had no place in a collectivist society. Post-Taiwan, I’ve realized instead that the individual is recognized, but as a part of the greater whole. Think of it like a puzzle: as individual puzzle pieces, we are limited, but by finding our unique place in the puzzle we can become part of something so much larger than ourselves. The puzzle and puzzle pieces are dependent upon each other: if a single piece is missing from the puzzle–or a single person from society–it is incomplete. It is an elaborate network of mutual dependence and reciprocation.
That’s all fine and dandy, I’m sure you’re thinking, but what does my jibber-jabber actually mean in daily life? Quite a lot in Taiwan! I will attempt to describe a small window in my day yesterday: I am learning Chinese at the Chinese Language Center at Tunghai University. 45 Korean students (South Korea is also highly collectivist) are also studying at the CLC, but I don’t know all of them. I happened to be walking back to my dorm from the main office–about a five minute walk–by myself. Several of the Korean students noticed I was walking by myself and walked back with me to the dorm so I wouldn’t have to walk by myself. I had only seen the students before in passing, maybe once or twice. A little while later, I left my dorm to meet up with my friend at the Main Gate–also about a five minute walk away. I took the elevator down with two other Taiwanese girls who noticed I was alone. They asked where I was headed, offered to walk with me, and then waited with me until my friend arrived. These are just two minor instances, but I think they show how the concept of “alone” and “by myself” is completely different. As much as I love my individual rights, I also love waking up in the morning with a fundamental sense of belonging. Everybody is your extended family–this is shown even in the language, where you call older people “Aunt” and “Uncle,” and your friends’ parents as “Mom” and “Dad.”
I think I am going to miss the sense of belonging the most–not that we don’t have it in the United States, but it’s somehow different. We are all in this world together, all trying to get by as best we can. We want to succeed as individuals so desperately, but I think we don’t always have to be in competition with our neighbors. Our Chinese Professor said the competitive nature is bad for our minds and our being, because it means we are willing to succeed by hurting others: if you win, someone loses. But even with a “win” you are hurting yourself—your success has the cost of someone else’s failure. Instead, imagine how much better it is for everyone if you try your best while helping your neighbor try their best.
I love my individual rights: I love being free to express myself. But studying in Taiwan has completely ripped my narrow individualist world open to possibilities: we are all on this world together, trying as best we can to live and thrive. Isn’t it better if we help each other along? I am not saying this concept is entirely new to Americans—it’s just that studying in Taiwan has been instrumental in helping me understand how winning through competitiveness isn’t the only way to succeed.