About three weeks ago, my son, who had been teaching English in South Korea left for Taiwan for his new teaching assignment. Because this was at exactly the time that the COVID-19 virus was exploding in South Korea, he was put in a 14-day quarantine upon arrival in Taiwan. His recruiter met him at the airport and took him to a hotel room where he was told to stay for 14 days under penalty of a $5,000.00 fine. He was told that he would receive a phone call each day on the hotel room phone so they could make sure he was adhering to the quarantine. He was able to order food through Uber Eats. We spoke every few days on Skype. He reported that he had not received a phone call until day five, but I imagine it took them a while to get things set up. He managed to keep his spirits up during the quarantine and was finally released on Thursday. We spoke with him on Friday night, and I was astounded at the hospitality that the Taiwanese offered him.
His recruiter picked him up from the hotel and took him immediately for a health check. There they took blood, updated his MMR vaccine, and gave him a physical. All for free, I’ll note. Then the recruiter took him around to apartments that he had identified interest in renting. They found one that suited his needs, and he signed the lease. The building is owned by an elderly couple who didn’t speak much English, but they insisted on driving him and the recruiter around to pick up items that he would need, including a bicycle. They had to drive out to a monastery where they had loaned several bicycles to pick it up. He described them tying the bike to the trunk of their car in a very haphazard manner because they were determined to have it for him. After getting back to the apartment, the recruiter drove him to the school where he will be teaching so that he could meet his colleagues and get materials he will need.
I was speechless after he told me this story. The recruiter could easily have dropped him off at the health department and left. Instead, she offered a level of hospitality that would be unheard of in the United States. He said that all told, they spent 13 hours together. While I understand that she was motivated to keep him as a prospect, she went so above and beyond what she needed to do to make him happy, that I had to really think about why.
My son has had a fascination with Asian cultures for a number of years now. He has spent time in both Japan and South Korea and is seriously considering moving permanently. When he talks about his experiences, I get the idea that while Westerners understand the negative sides of the cultural emphasis on “saving face”, we do not appreciate the positives that come with it. It was important to the recruiter and the landlord and landlady, that my son has a positive impression of Taiwan, especially after being quarantined. So, they made it their business to put on a good face and make sure that he would have what he needs. They looked at him as a young man who just left quarantine in a foreign country who could use some help. It did not matter that they had to give up their day to do so. Living in conformist societies is hard for Westerners to understand. But my son likes the way that everyone knows what is expected. When cultural rules are spelled out, it relieves some of the anxiety for some people.
While Western cultures focus on teaching people to be independent, Eastern cultures teach people how to be part of the collective. In a 2016 study by O’Brien, Chopik, O’Brien, and Konrath cross-cultural study on empathy and compassion found, “Parents from collectivistic cultures stress the strong interconnection of individuals (Lebra, 1976). For example, East Asian parents teach their children to fear loneliness and isolation, whereas Western parents generally focus on teaching children the benefits of being independent and unique.” In a sample of 104,365 adults from 63 countries, countries with higher levels of empathy also had higher levels of collectivism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, self-esteem, emotionality, life satisfaction, and prosocial behavior.
This information matches with the experiences that my son has had in Asian countries. While Americans expect most everyone to be able to handle their business on their own and assume that everyone wants it that way, the Taiwanese express their empathy to the new foreign teacher by making his first day in their country smooth and welcoming. This is not to say that Americans are not friendly or compassionate, but it completely depends on the person as to how much they are willing to put themselves out for a stranger. Whereas in Asian cultures, it is expected that everyone will go out of their way to show hospitality, regardless of whether it inconveniences them. While there are costs and benefits to this way of living, I can understand why my son likes it. Now I just hope that I can visit him sometime this year, but I think COVID-19 has something to say about that.