Oral History: My Taiwanese Family Through the Generations
In my Taiwanese family, one strong, connecting thread has always been the need to respect one’s elders and to honor the family traditions. While in other cultures, individualism is stressed as an important value, in the Taiwanese tradition the individual is only as great as the generosity and respect he or she shows to relatives and loved ones. This is reflective of the Confucian system of values which stresses the need for children to show respect to their parents and to fulfill their obligations to them. Both my mother and my grandmother stated that outright disobedience as a child would not have been tolerated even though I, as part of my awareness of American cultural traditions, have been more apt to question and challenge what I have been told to do. Still, I do so in a respectful manner: I cannot imagine shouting and slamming the door to end an argument, unlike some teenagers!
Of course, some things have changed. For the older women of my family, marriage was the focus of their lives. My grandmother has many memories of being taught as a little girl to cook and clean by her own mother, in preparation for her marriage. Even though my mother received an education, she was always taught that marriage and raising children was the most important facet of a woman’s life. In contrast, my female relatives my own age and slightly older view marriage and family is only one component among many in their lives: some are unmarried and even those who are married with children have jobs and hobbies apart from the family nexus. Although the younger women in the family may not be as eager to have children and do not see winning a husband as their most important goal in life, all members of my family — male or female — tend to remain in very frequent contact with their nuclear and extended family, calling them frequently and asking their opinions about various issues. Some of these conversations may be about serious matters; others may simply be about what to serve on a holiday. Regardless, my family is a very happy, large, functioning unit and there are few boundaries between us, no matter how old or young we might be.
Because all members of my family are so close-knit they are often reluctant to talk about personal issues outside of the family. Even in my own upbringing, I do not remember being openly reprimanded in the store or school: everything was done privately, behind closed doors. In the case of older members of my family, disobedience was simply not tolerated. Confucianism often is called a religion of ancestor worship or veneration of the past, and I see traces of that throughout my family history: even those who are not actively religious are very careful about not overtly offending members of the family or showing a loss of face in public regards to family pride. When something bad happens to one of us, whether it is a bad grade or job loss, we not only think of ourselves but how it affects our family.
Taiwanese people have a reputation for being superstitious (Culture and etiquette, 2014, Rough Guides). My family members are no exception. For example, no one is supposed to talk about a ‘worst case’ scenario such as the potential for a car crash or sickness. Even giving a handkerchief is regarded as a bad omen because it means that the person who receives it might become sick or cry. Certain words like four or clock which sound like death are avoided, as are objects associated with those things. When my grandmother plays the lottery she would never play a number four (Culture and etiquette, 2014, Rough Guides).
I do not retain all of the superstitions of the older people of my family, but I am a superstitious person in the sense that I do not like to tempt fate with my actions. Some of the superstitions I observe, for example, I have learned in America and are not part of my culture but the care with which I observe them are very Taiwanese, such as not walking under ladders and becoming upset when a black cat crosses my path. Many people have been surprised by the emphasis on superstition and folk religion in Taiwanese culture, given the society seems so modern otherwise (Culture and etiquette, 2014, Rough Guides). But it is important to remember the modern history of Taiwan: when mainland China became communist, the to Taiwan and thus felt much more comfortable retaining their traditions and beliefs vs. In communist China, where there was an effort to eradicate them.
Another very important philosophy in Taiwanese culture is Daoism, for example, which stresses being in harmony with the world rather than resisting it. This is completely contrary to the Western notion of being a ‘captain of one’s fate and a master of one’s soul.’ Instead, the stress is to follow ‘the way of the Dao,’ bending with the currents of life, rather than attempting to break them. I see this influence in the stress upon harmonizing my attitudes with others while I was growing up, rather than engaging in open conflict. In many Western families, debating is seen as the best way to resolve a problem. The Daoist philosophy would suggest that this often simply makes people unhappy and polarizes them further. Daoism is founded on a concept of compromise and I see that in my own actions with my friends as well as my family. I try to be the peacemaker rather than take sides, and this attitude has always been very beneficial for me, I believe.
When interviewing my mother and grandmother, I became more conscious about how my attitudes and personality are still constantly being shaped by my family, as are my core values. While certain beliefs and practices may have changed with the times and because of my location, there can be no doubt that my heritage continues to affect me. I see my family as my greatest source of strength and know that will not change.
Culture and etiquette. (2014). Rough Guides. Retrieved from: