Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Inconvenient Truth

The Taiwanese people are all about convenience. In all of my ESL classes, the most common adjective I hear is convenient.

I believe that for the Taiwanese, the convenience of their country is a source of pride. I have read in a couple of places that Taiwan has the most convenience stores per-capita than any other place on earth, and while I don’t have a verifiable source for this one, I definitely believe it.

On a routine day at work teaching conversational English with students ranging from the very lowest to the very highest levels of English proficiency I will have a conversation similar to this one:

Q: Why do you like living in Taichung?
A: It's very convenient

Q: What’s your favorite thing about Taiwan?
A: It’s convenient.

Q: Why is the sky blue?
A: Because it’s convenient.

Q: Why would you not want to live in the United States?
A: Because it is not convenient.

Woah woah woah… Hold on here. Now anyone reading this who is an American would immediately react the same way I did when I first heard that answer: What the Hell are you talking about!?

The US is inconvenient? The US - the king of 24-hour service and Wal-Mart - is inconvenient!? These people obviously don’t know what they’re talking about!

My natural follow-up question to this statement is:
Why do you think the United States inconvenient?

One very common answer to this is:

The US is inconvenient because it takes ½ hour to drive to the grocery store (or an hour and a half, depending on who you ask)
--> The reasoning behind this is that the US is a very big country and therefore everything is spread apart. This reasoning also led one person to tell me that in the US people never have trouble finding a parking spot because there is room for everyone… so if you’re in NYC and you’re having trouble parking your car, don’t worry, there’s room in North Dakota!

The number one answer to this question, however, is a variation of this:
All the stores close at 5 or 6pm.

This common Taiwanese belief that America is inconvenient is something that I have been grappling with for a couple of months now. In my quest to understand this, my mental process has gone through three distinct phases:

Phase 1: What the Hell are you talking about!?

Initially, Nick and I were both completely blown away by this misconception, especially because even our clients that have been to – and have lived in- the US felt this way. What on earth would you ever want to buy that you couldn’t buy because the store was closed? Malls typically stay open till 9, boutiques until 6-8pm, and we have grocery stores, convenient stores and Wal-mart all open 24-hours. That pretty much covers anything I could ever need at any time of the day. These people – I concluded – were crazy and delusional.

Phase 2: Maybe they have a point…

After a couple trips to a Taiwanese night market I began to see what the Taiwanese were talking about. Taiwanese shopping culture is really quite unique. Shopping is a cultural and social event here in Taiwan, and night markets are bustling with activity almost every night of the week until around midnight. At night-markets, you can buy pretty much anything you would want from street vendors and stores: food, clothes, bags, shoes, trinkets, kitchen items…

In addition, because of the bustling late-night shopping activity, it is not uncommon for other stores, non-night-market stores, to follow suit and stay open until or past 10:00pm. These include cell phone stores and furniture stores to name two. (This was one thing Nick and I were quite perplexed about when we first arrived in Taiwan… who wants to buy a couch at 10pm?! Apparently, the Taiwanese do.)

So, I guess they have a point. In the US, you really can’t buy furniture or go clothes shopping late at night; so, I reasoned, maybe Taiwan is more convenient that the US.

Phase 3: no, no, NO… definitely not!

Not too long after my night market revelation, I had another eye-opening experience. Every morning I go to my Chinese class from 8am – 10am. The university I go to is right in the middle of the biggest night market in Taichung: Feng Chia Night market.

One morning after class I wanted to go shopping and pick up some new clothes and some other random wares. I figured Feng Chia would be a great place to shop, and because it was so early in the morning (10:30am) I could miss the crowds that amass in the evening.

However, I was sorely disappointed when I realized that none of the stores were open! I knew that the street vendors wouldn’t be around until the evening, but come on… I just wanted to go to some regular clothes stores before lunch time… and NONE of them were open! Now THIS, I thought to myself, is REALLY inconvenient!

And then it hit me – convenience is based on a cultural expectation. How could I have missed it!?

For me it is hugely inconvenient that I can’t run any of my errands in the morning; I like to get all of these things done and out of the way early in the day.

Sure, I enjoy shopping at night, but usually as purely a social experience. Maybe I buy something, maybe I don’t . But when I really have something I need to do, I like to wake up early and get it out of the way.

But here in Taiwan, people get their business done in the evening. Their expectation is that almost all shopping activities occur in the evening. If a Taiwanese woman realizes at 10pm that she has nothing to wear tomorrow, there is no need to fret, her favorite store is still open for a couple more hours!

So, for my American self, Taiwanese shopping can be really inconvenient sometimes. In general, I'd say that the amount of hours a retail business stays open in the US are the same as those here in Taiwan, they just operate on different schedules - 9am - 9pm vs. 12pm - 12am for example.

So, it really all boils down to one simple mantra: expectations are cultural!

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