Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Society without Orientation[s]

A Society without Orientation[s]

By Kevin A. Stoda, Taiwan

A few weeks ago, I had a chat with a Wesleyan pastor here in Taiwan. As I complained about the dearth of orientations at my new job and elsewhere in the country, the Taiwanese pastor concurred that until he went to a work in a seminar in Thailand with a group of pastors for several months a few years back, he had never experienced a work orientation.
A week later, I met an academic in Taiwan, who, too, shared that he had never had any formal orientation in work or life--until he traveled abroad to do a graduate degree in the United States. These two Taiwanese agreed that having orientations at the workplace would be a good idea and should be implemented generally in Taiwan—and not just for foreigners, like myself.
Currently, I am only aware of a few foreign-owned corporations in the entire country that have good work and living orientations for their employees here in Taiwan. Interestingly, in most cases these work- and life orientations are generally only for high-level expats who are coming to take on key positions in the local corporate ladder. For example, in her book, TAIWAN A to Z ,
Amy Liu alludes to some of these orientations which she has worked with at Dell Computers.

One major reason why there is such a great lack of awareness in Taiwan concerning the need to orient new workers and new university students to their new ways of life (or work) in this land is that the country is a high-context culture. “Context has to do with how much you have to know before you can communicate effectively.”
I.e., “[w]hen workers from high-context and low-context cultures have to work together often problems occur by the exchange of information.” Some business and human resource persons have written, for example: “In comparison to high-context cultures [especially in East Asia] low-context cultures like USA and Germany orientate on [and towards] many people of [and in] their daily life because they don’t differentiate as much as high-context cultures between in- and out-groups.”
In other words, taking the Americans and Germans, for example, the “direction of communication is orientated on personal characters and [specifically identified or just-]referred to situations (direction difference). They mostly communicate within their out-groups in a broad and diffuse way (quantity difference). Within communication they exchange information just to the necessary extent so that work can be done and they don’t discuss or exchange information constantly in their work environment and colleagues (quality difference).”
In contrast, Chinese—who are considered to live in high context culture--identify greatly with the in-groups and the communication within such in-groups is constant. This is why, “[i]n China communication tends to be very efficient because of their information-flow at work and in privacy. They discuss everything in advance and consider meetings as an official ‘ceremony’ where the already commonly agreed decision will be announced. This is important in the way of ‘giving and keeping face’.”
In contrast low-context cultures often see meetings as informational—rather than typically formal events. Often, “[t]he decision-making process takes place within the meeting.” This is just not done in many Asian cultures because “face needs to be protected” publically—and this means that surprises are kept out of “official” meetings.


I have participate in Japan at a few great orientation meetings for and in the work place—carried out cooperatively by Westerners working with Japanese counterparts. This tradition has probably developed both over many decades and likely through the fact that in order for the Japanese to become the first Asian state to catch up with the West back in the late 19th Century, the Japanese had to “humble themselves” and become full-time students of other cultures.
Over the years, many Japanese instituions have learned that acquiring information from abroad and about another culture cand be done both formally (through direct explanation or direct education) and/or informally through fun group activities and informal discussions.
In the 1890s, Japan took over Taiwan and began to orient the locals to the Japanese system—both formally and informally. However, after Japan left in 1946, the replacement peoples and replacement authorities (who took over were from Mainland China) saw themselves as the Center Kingdom and pretended that the Taiwanese had always been part of that culture. This is why those Mainland Chinese, who came to power for the last 5 decades of the 20th Century wouldn’t even allow the Taiwanese languages and various dialects be spoken in schools.
A time of informal and formal acculturation was over in the new Taiwan—even before it had begun, i.e through heavy-handed acculturation policies . The Taiwanese had to simply accept the pattern of the newly occupying Chinese who took over most of the island’s resources afer 1946—by nook and by crook. If the Taiwanese failed to accept the Chinese Mainlander’s way, advancement in this new Taiwanese society would be thwarted at every turn.
Naturally, schools still had to play the traditional role of directly teaching some Chinese culture which later at the turn of the new millenia evolved more into a more modern and democratic Taiwanese ways of thinking. However, the states of identity in Taiwan are constantly in flux as of 2011—i.e. as martial law became a memory 2 full decades ago. This state of confusion and transformation in this era in history will likely continue for several decades.
In short, aside from Amy Liu, who is going to define Taiwanese culture today? Sadly, no one is stepping up to identify and organize a new national identity and orientation for the Taiwanese as a whole today. This may be why so many readily desire to work in China or abroad—where things, like self-identity become clearer in several ways.
However, the art and practice of orienting workers and university students continues to be left to the trial-and-error method of observing and making mistakes (rather than organizing orientations). This is unclarity about new situations and how to respond to them in Taiwan leads to a lot of amusing silence and shoulder shrugging. For example, Taiwanese are too often unwilling to give quick direct answers to certain specific questions—questions & answers which appear to be quite obvious at times.
Amy Liu explained that her days as a child in Taiwan (only 2 decades ago), students were punished for giving wrong answers. No wonder hesitancy and deferring to others to take a public lead in decisionmaking is rare at times here! This public punishment in the classroom makes it hard for Taiwanese to quickly voice an opinion. Such answers or revealed-thoughts require thoughtful observation and reflection before speakng publicly.. This has been the case for most of recent generations of Taiwanese.
On the other hand, informal gatherings among in-groups can still be quite open. However, sharing insider information with an outsider is just not done. Hence, formal orientations are still quite rare in Taiwan. In short, unless your are invited to join the in-group, you will lack in Taiwan almost any official or informal orientation to a new job or new university. (Contrast that to the USA, where parents are even sometimes invited to university orientations of their offspring, i.e. in order to quickly make them, too, feel included in the future alumni’s in-group.)

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