It was quite obvious that moving from Canada to Taiwan would be a change. What wasn’t so obvious was the immensity of the change, and the mindset shift I would have to undertake to adapt to my new surroundings.
The first thing that really struck me was the difference in the concept of personal space. As westerners, we are used to having a much larger personal boundary than what is afforded in Taiwan. Part of my mind was already aware of this from pictures that I had seen, but to know something theoretically, and actually experience it are two completely different things.
Just knowing about the crowds doesn’t really do anything. It’s the behaviour that results from this condition that is important. A lot of what we would consider rude or pushy is perfectly normal here. Jostling or leaning on other people is acceptable and no one bats an eyelash. For a westerner, some of this type of behaviour can be very irritating and induce stress. But, here, it makes sense. With this many people packed into a much smaller area, there is no consideration given to personal space, because there just isn’t enough space!
Once I realized this, I decided to conduct my own experiment to see how far (personal space-wise) I could push a Taiwanese person. This experiment probably broke all the rules for experimental ethics, but I really wanted to try it.
I was in Taipei on the MRT (Mass Rapit Transit – subway) during rush hour. The compartment was fairly crowded so this helped. There were 2 guys to my right engaged in a conversation. I started leaning into one of them. No big deal…the chattering continued. So then, slowly, I leaned more. His body naturally gave a little, but they continued the conversation. This continued for another few minutes. Finally, I was leaning on him so hard that if he moved, I would have smacked my face on the floor. I was almost at 45 degrees and could have easily had a nice snooze on this guy’s back. No reaction….these guys continued chatting completely oblivious to me.
Now, I had no idea what he was saying, so he could have been talking about this stupid foreigner leaning on him, but his body language suggested that he wasn’t even aware of my presence. Completely different concepts of personal space.
It took a while for me to get used to this. While I still cannot be completely “Taiwanese” and push my way around, I am much more at ease when it happens to me these days.