Feathered Bars

“I had to pack up my things and leave secretly in the middle of the night. I drove my sister’s car alone to my new apartment. I had to sneak out. My father wouldn’t let me leave.”

While it may sound somewhat surprising, this is exactly what a young Taiwanese woman had felt she was forced to do. But, Kim, at 24 years old, is very far from being your typical Taiwanese woman. This year, she made the decision to move out of her family’s home to live independently, something that was met with a huge amount of resistance.

“My father’s a very traditional Taiwanese man,” she says, “He wouldn’t let me leave and didn’t understand why I wanted to go. He thought I was going because I had a boyfriend and I wanted to live with him, but it wasn’t about that. It was about getting my independence; about getting control over my own life.”

This, to me, and most others of my generation from the West sounds like a perfectly legitimate reason for wanting to leave home, as it also does to our families who, beyond a certain point, would begin to question our desire to remain living at home.

The eastern experience is entirely at odds with our own. Even though Kim’s parents eventually came to grudgingly accept the new situation, more distant relatives, as well as neighbours and family friends cast her as the “bad” daughter who had abandoned her family and its corresponding duties.

Why is it, though, that Taiwanese and asian people in general are expected to stay at home until they are married while our culture so encourages us to “launch”, as the recent movie put it?

The first reason sounds strange to the western ear. Parents here see their children as an investment in their own future to an extent that seems quite foreign to most of us. One of a group of university students even mentioned the word “property” when discussing how parents view their children.

When asked why they didn’t see themselves leaving the nest after graduating they reported that it’s something that can’t be discussed in isolation; it’s endemic of a far wider issue. Parents in Taiwan spend a great deal of money on their children’s education and training and therefore expect a good “return” on that investment.

That is why so many Taiwanese are pushed to become doctors or professors or, at the very least, to get a good, steady job and stick at it. In a country where “the cradle to the grave” would require an explanation almost every time, it’s perhaps not so hard to imagine the importance this can take on for worried parents who feel themselves aging and must rely on the next generation to keep them in the style to which they have become accustomed.

A Westerner used to being encouraged to determine a large part of their own destiny might resent this attempt at control but the idea was one the students didn’t generally share. “We are never taught to think like this; to think for ourselves,” one said, “Our parents choose everything for us.

Because we’re never told that one day we will be independent, we never learn to think about it.” It appears that parents direct their children’s lives to such an extent and it is so much the norm that neither party ever really envisions the children choosing for themselves. Parents direct, children obey; also something that is apparently to be expected in the classroom.

This, I think, is what makes Kim so different. She was, by her own admission, “exposed” to Western culture during her three and half years of study at a top US university. She described how she returned to Taiwan a “woman” who was used to, and moreover now demanded, her independence.

To the subsequent question of, “Does this mean that you see other Taiwanese people your age as more similar to children?” she smiled and guiltily agreed.

However, how does the picture look when the microscope is turned back on ourselves? What is the price we pay for the personal space and independence we enjoy? It is perhaps interesting to hear that Taiwanese people see Westerners as “cold” when it comes to the family.

Just as we find it difficult to understand how asian people can live with the restraints we are free of, they come off baffled when they hear of our practice of sending young children away to boarding school or elderly family members off to “homes”. It appears that, at the very point where asian culture sees the family as having the responsibility to care for its own, we too readily hand ours over to a third party.

Be it the state, a school or a home for the aged, we often give up those who, by nature’s own hand, are closest to us. That any member of the family could be a stranger is something very unnatural to many Taiwanese, as would be growing up without a father at home.

It seems, therefore, that the cost of our freedom could be a substantial amount of stress and indeed pain, particularly for young children who will always fail to understand why their parents don’t speak and for whom granny is but a distant figure who sends pressies in the post and gives overly sloppy kisses.

Asian people are often seen as rather innocent and naïve by their western counterparts. The average Taiwanese woman must be home before 12am until well into her twenties. The general consesnsus is that women need to be perenially protected; that it isn’t safe for a woman to live alone or stay out too late.

There was also agreement from both men and women that women are generally more “home oriented” and therefore, by dint of deductive logic, require less independence. This would jar heavily on the ears on the same generation of Western raised women who often do not want any predictions as to inherent feminine traits to be made at all. It is quite clearly an issue of gender here.

Every single person I talked to agreed that it was very different for sons and daughters. Sons, as they get older, get a far greater degree of freedom and are far less likely to have a curfew imposed. Women, such as Kim, face the misunderstanding and stigmatism of their family and society at large and potentially broken relationships if they choose to flee the nest.

But where can we go from here? Is it possible to say that one culture is better than another, or must we simply stop at saying they are different? Does it even make sense to ask which society makes people happier than the other? Perhaps we are only able to say that there are good and bad points to both the eastern and western traditions of raising children that we could all learn from.

For example, a good aspect of western culture might be that we are taught from an early age to think for ourselves and make decisions about our own lives that almost certainly aid us when we come to look after ourselves, while a bad side is surely that our families are overly atomistic, almost to the point of being uncaring towards more distant family.

A bad side of eastern culture is that those who feel the need to take control of their own lives, and especially women, are either unable to do so or will inevitably suffer a great deal, while a good side has to be the caring, supportive foundation in life that so many of us, with our weekend Dads and overheard squabbles about maintenance payments, so sadly lack.

To me at least, while I have found there are bars on the windows of the central family nest in Taiwan, I now suspect that they are warm, loving and softly feathered ones, even ones I sometimes wish I had myself.

- by Nathan Haslewood, Taiwanease magazine, 2007

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