Island time

One thing that continues to surprise/bug me about Taiwan is the fact that Taiwanese people  are constantly late for everything.  Ok, I know this is an island, and one should expect island time on islands, but when I think of island time, I usually think of the Caribbean – more like vacation destination islands.  Places where life is intentionally slowed down and siesta is a fact of life.  Places where arriving an hour and a half late for dinner is expected.  Places where I can sip a pink drink with an umbrella and appreciate the bikini clad eye candy walking around.  Places where people intentionally go to be lazy.

Most Asians I’ve met back home are on the ball (time wise) and rarely late for anything, so I thought this would be the norm here as well.  Turns out, not so much.  Besides personal meetings where people are constantly late, I’ve heard of frequent lateness with business people as well.  My gf is a sales rep. for a tech company, and she routinely has to wait for people to show up to meetings (buyers and suppliers).  I myself have had to wait 30 mins for a realtor to arrive and show me an apartment.

There seems to be a very relaxed attitude toward time here that I did not expect AT ALL.  It’s even crept into the language.  A very common phrase here is “等一下” (děng yīxià) – wait a moment.  It’s repeated with common regularity, and no one bats an eyelash…people will contentedly mill about waiting for the wait to be over.

If one asks how long the wait will be, the answer is invariably “Later”.  In this context, later can mean 5 mins or 2 hrs.  I never have any idea.  But this too, seems to sit very well with the locals.

Ok – I can be a time nazi sometimes, so unless I’m in the right mindset, I like to time things so that I don’t have to wait – but when no-one else is doing that, it’s pointless to keep it up.  It’s probably one of the harder things I’ve had to get used to over here – let time go and have things happen whenever they will.

Keep in mind, this is a perspective from the small town I live in – I’m sure the cities are all hustle, bustle and time-is-money.  But outside, it seems life slows right down.

So, inevitably, I started wondering why?  Why, in this country where people work themselves to death, are serious about everything, have conservative and old fashioned views on life – why are they so lax about time?  It’s definitely NOT the “relaxed” nature of the Taiwanese because most of the ones I know aren’t really relaxed.  Work and Duty are worshipped as the twin gods of success, so I can’t really see a Taiwanese throwing that all aside, tokin’ off a big fatty and relaxing to reggae beats – there has to be more to it!

I’ve started to think it probably has to do with the simple fact of population density.  Because there are so many people in such a tight space, things just naturally take longer.  More traffic on the streets, longer lines to buy something, more wait time at the supermarket – things like these will naturally slow everything down.  There is a point where efficiency is just overrun by mass numbers, and maybe Taiwan has overshot that point.  And growing up with all this, the Taiwanese brain expects it and therefore “等一下” (wait a moment) isn’t such a big deal.  From my perspective, your average Taiwanese has more patience because he/she knows that things take longer.

So being late for work, just means one got caught in traffic – not one overslept due to too much rum the night before.  Showing up late for dinner means there was a line-up at the ATM – not intentionally waiting till the last minute to finish that last quest in Starcraft.  Being delayed for a meeting suggests one had a lot of clients to visit the hours before – not that one spent the last half hour talking to that scantily clad binlang xishi (betelnut girl) around the corner.

After almost 2 years here, I’ve started to be able to relax a bit on the time factor.  Nowhere close to zen-like patience yet, but also far away from biting people’s heads off for being half an hour late, so I’ve made progress.  Figure give it another 5 years, and maybe I will start to percieve time like a Taiwanese!

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6 Responses to “Island time”


  1. 1 June June 19, 2013 at 2:17 am

    Maybe it’s a passive-aggressive thing as they are so uptight about everything else and this is a way to “rebel” . . . Makes me wonder how they ever can plan anything!

  2. 3 Anonymous June 19, 2013 at 5:11 am

    I vaguely remember reading something about lateness like this being prevalent among tropical countries. There are exceptions, maybe Australia, but the heat is just too much for Egyptians, Mexicans, Taiwanese, and Guyanese.

  3. 5 ashkaufen June 27, 2013 at 11:10 pm

    Nice post. I agree with you, but also disagree. I sometimes show up to work at 8:10 to have enough time to prepare for class that starts at 8:30 without feeling rushed, but the office worker who unlocks the front door doesn’t show up until 8:28, once it was 8:40! But this is usually on Saturday. I guess the universal attitude toward working on Saturday is “more relaxed.”

    It’s a scream how people say “later, later.” Later in Taiwan-glish can actually mean as soon as 5 seconds. When people say “later” to me, I’m usually not expecting a result suddenly. But sometimes in Taiwan, “later” means asap. So now I’ve begun to take it as “as soon as I get done with this,” and no longer anticipate a wait.

    But you make an interesting point about how despite the commonality of lateness, people aren’t lazy. And even in the case of waiting in line (for example at the ATM) most people here are efficient, so we don’t need to wait long. Americans on the other hand..

    And although I like being able to get through a long wait quickly at say, a restaurant, I don’t like it when the servers loom over you and whip out your plate from under you as soon as you take the last bite. That does not promote my own personal ability to enjoy or relax. Sometimes the “efficiency” of how things work around here puts me on edge.

    Taiwanese aren’t Europeans. The only people I know who take siestas are retired. Actually a lot of office workers dim the lights and put their heads down to nap after lunch, too. But we’re not talking the Italian or Spanish extent. Recently, I’ve conversed about the European economic crisis quite a bit in my conversation classes, and people in Taiwan equate the state of things their with a “too relaxed” attitude toward work.

    Go figure.

    So in the Taiwanese mind, I’ve gathered that being late is okay so long as you apply yourself with aneurism producing furor (in the case of some companies, but not all) once you are in the office. Just like America, bosses here tend to worry less about their employees being late, but focus more on how productive/good at meeting deadlines they are.

    Considering that the work schedule for most people here runs later into the evening, people tend to sleep less and have minimal “personal time.” It’s kind of like contextually imposed workaholism, if you will. Haven’t you seen the odd news story of people having seizures in the boardroom from overwork? From Junior High School on, most Taiwanese people are under a lot of pressure. It promotes efficiency, which I can appreciate, but also leads to lack of sleep and high stress which makes them become disorganized, cluttered and chronically late.

    • 6 islandsidechronicles June 28, 2013 at 4:06 am

      Hey, and thanks for the long and detailed response.
      In terms of the “later”, I have also reached a similar conclusion – just wait until they are done doing what’s currently at hand.
      Ad for your comment about the rushed efficiency in restaurants, I have experienced that, but usually only at noodle shops etc. The more expensive restuarants I’ve found that I’ve been able to take my time and relax – but maybe thats a small town Vs. Taipei thing.
      And finally with the intense pressure and workload – well I’ll just say I’m glad I’m not Taiwanese in that aspect. To be living that kind of lfe from Junior high up would – for me – be absolutely horrible.
      Welcome aboard, and I’m looking forward to seeing Taiwanese life through your eyes as well. Cheers!


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