Taiwanese University Sophomore a Mix of Old and New

Eye On Taiwan
Date: May 30, 2016
By: David Wang

More than once has academics, observers and media in Taiwan discussed the issue of the impact upon traditions amid modernization of the local society, especially when the city of Taipei, the national capital, still saw plenty of pedicabs, rice paddies and even water buffalos in the late 1960s, when the tallest high-rise condo in the city was merely 10 stories, which has been raised 10 folds by the Taipei 101 skyscraper only some 55 years later.

But has the traditional mindset and attitude changed in Taiwan? When that 10-floor condo tower in Taipei stood proudly in the late 1960s, few Taiwanese women dared openly defy their husbands let alone 20-year-old women tell a male stranger in public about their bisexual tendency.

At least one young Taiwanese woman seem to live up to the more liberated, progressive, forthright,

Zia Kao

Zia Kao

and relatively more independent female model that most of her counterparts could have only dreamt of, even in the West, in the 1950s across Taiwan. At least to some degree.

Zia Kao (as shown), 20, not only tells me that she could be enamored by friends of both genders, but that many women in her age group also share her view of being indifferent to marriage, an institution that her parents still believe to be a necessary (Read our daughter shall marry. End of conversation.) part of their daughter’s life.

As far as I’m concerned, my husband’s parents are his business. I don’t need marriage…it’d be an affair only between my partner and I…but I’m open to living with a partner for a few days…not all the time. I won’t quit my job to be a housewife if I ever marry. My priority in life is to be financially independent…so I want to focus on making money. I don’t give a hoot about knowing my way around the kitchen, because it’s so convenient to just go out to eat, says Zia, who is irrefutably a product of Taipei, a city famous for its world-leading 7-Eleven density. But would she be so nonchalant about cooking had she grown up in Alice Springs, Australia or 10 kilometers outside of Pensacola, Florida, where the nearest diner to her home could be 15 minutes away by car, instead of a few steps, literally, in Taipei as is often the case.

My parents have raised me and invested a lot of money over the years, so I’d repay them by supporting them in their old age…or put them in a seniors’ home, says Zia, showing at least one aspect of Taiwanese tradition that she still embraces. In fact Taiwanese children can be sued for abandoning and not supporting their aging parents.

Gender equality still has some ways to go in Taiwan because my parents still believe I should learn to cook, do housework and all the usual duties expected of a woman, says Zia, a view that the newly-elected, first female Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen may not agree with. But Zia does feel that gender equality has progressed in Taiwan for decades ago women, due to being relatively more isolated and shut out from information and news, were homebound and had less opportunity for advancement.

Candidly confessing that she did not score high enough to enter a public or state-run university with affordable tuition of about US$1,230 per year, versus double that at private schools, Zia, a sophomore at the Fo Guang University (lit. Buddha’s Light University), a private university in Linmei Village, Jiaoxi Township, Yilan County, Taiwan, also casually called her schoolmates slackers.

Our university charges public school tuition because it is backed by both donations and Fo Guang Shan Monastery in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, the school’s founder…without religious influence nor pressure to subscribe to Buddhism, says Zia. The high-profile temple attracts many dignitaries, worshippers and tourists.

I’m not religious, says Zia, who seems to show independent discretion unseen in countless Taiwanese who are herded mindlessly into patronizing sectarian religions on the island, but admits to following her parents to shrines in Taipei without knowing why and what the object of their worship, to contradict her otherwise admirable capability to think on her own.

The university is truly in the sticks…I study economics and commute every weekend to work part-time at Subway, a branch that she criticizes for being in the wrong location as it’s sandwiched (no pun intended) between other stores at the corner of Zhong-Shan and Zhong-Xiao near the Taipei Train Station. It’s easily missed by passersby and business is especially slow in weekends due to little foot traffic. It should be behind the Xin-Guan Mitsukoshi (an upscale department store) where plenty of students frequent the area, says Zia, showing business sense beyond her years and belying her bookish appearance.

Unfortunately Zia does not plan to point her apparently sharp nose towards business as a career, which would score points for a Taiwanese female who has become more liberated and independent in the Information Age. I aim to take the exam to work for Chunghwa Post of Taiwan, the state-run postal service, says Zia, who obviously can’t break free of the tether that binds thousands of Taiwanese who still vie for a handful of civil service jobs that become available occasionally, simply due to the ironclad stability of the paycheck.

Despite ubiquitous smartphones, pervasive Internet penetration, online and cross-border shopping, plenty of global brands from Adidas to Bottega Veneta at swanky Japanese-branded department stores and glitzy malls in Taiwan, Zia, like untold numbers of Taiwanese young and old, still remains traditional at heart to prefer a 9-to-5 life behind a counter processing mail and stamping withdrawal and deposit slips for the banking services offered by the state-run post office, showing both lack of adventurous spirit, entrepreneurship, and more tellingly lack of confidence in privately-run businesses in Taiwan, or lack of energy, ambition and skills to survive in such sector.

Traditional mindset is not nearly as easily replaced as buying another iPhone or Samsung apparently.

Also showing a tad jadedness and callousness not commonly seen in a 20-year-old from say Salt Lake City, Utah or Eugene, Oregon of the USA; Brighton, the UK, Kalgoorlie, Australia, Zia did not bat an eye when told that certain senior girls from elite high schools in Taipei would meet dentistry school guys on seemingly innocent camping trips to actually pave their roads to financial security (read very young but precocious gold-diggers), commenting that such behavior for young Taiwanese girls being normal.

Zia, clearly a woman who believes in achieving financial independence, should be proud of herself for not belonging to such crass class of Taiwanese women.

Also displaying a premature loss of innocent mind that is inevitably sullied by corruption, a form of pollution arguably more egregious than acid rain and pesticide-tainted foods and crops in Taiwan, which is practically endemic in Taiwan as such occurrence in various forms is reported in media daily, Zia says, when told that civil service jobs may be bought in rural Taiwan, such practice also exists in Taipei but one’s pocket has to be deep enough, and that even the postal service is not immune. But one needs to be well connected to someone high up to pull strings and enough bucks to keep quiet all potential whistle-blowers, says Zia.

What else is new?

I read novels and comics on my smartphone, says Zia, who apparently does not fear the blue spectrum that reportedly injures vision when she spots a particularly scintillating story. Zia also does not shy away from revealing herself as a “Fu-Nuh” (literally decadent girl) who reads risqué novels and would even share with classmates any segment that is especially graphic in description. Admittedly more frank than even guys in her university, Zia says that she won’t censor her speech, confessing to having seen porn video as early as a junior high schooler (likely true of 99 percent of her peers at that age in Taiwan with the easy access to the Internet) to show again being a full-scale, intrepid woman of the Information Age.

Openly admitting to being disinterested in news, Zia says that she watches cartoons on TV to apparently show no remorse for not wishing to be well-informed about current events as a university student should in the 21st century, perhaps to also indicate the failure of the Taiwanese educational system, one that is perfunctory without motivating students to stay current and interested on their own. I only watch news for school assignments, says Zia.

Also not drawn to politics in Taiwan, Zia says that the two main political parties, the Democratic Progressive Party and Kuomintang (literally National People’s Party), only rock the boat of the rival regardless of who is the official administrator, again revealing herself as a relatively traditional Taiwanese female who regards herself as being powerless in the Big Picture.

Apparently not too worried about her pursuit of a career in the postal service, Zia says that one’s alma mater makes a decisive difference in job application in Taiwan, adding that employers’ decisions are influenced by the school more than one’s other attributes as professional skills, aptitude, and experience. Such belief, which Zia insists is the reality in Taiwan to show her traditional mindset, also actually exposes the staid condition of the job market on the island.

Also showing her partial naivete, Zia does not mention the fact that a fair number of political high-fliers as ex-president Mah Ing-jeou may have graduated from the taken-for-granted “top-ranked” schools in Taiwan, one can safely wager the kitchen sink with a third-mortgage on one’s home that most of the major and small and medium-sized enterprises on the island have been set up by Taiwanese who have graduated from run-of-the-mill schools, with many baby boomers and older generations, such as Terry Guo, the CEO of Foxconn of Taiwan (the mega-supplier of information tech manufacturing services), being a graduate from an unremarkable vocational university, and the founder of the Formosa Plastics empire, Wang Yung-ching, an elementary school graduate.

Zia, a Taiwanese woman apparently caught in the cross-current of the Internet era and age-old traditions, shows another vein of boldness as she wolfs down during the interview a McDonald’s meal of burger, large Coke and fries, obviously unaware or unfazed by the health hazards of such fast food, adding that she simply does not want to have another Subway, which is a free perk with her part-time gig.

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