Borrow and Lend, Give and Take


Last week my tutoring students’ parents offered me vegetables. My first reaction was surprise because there isn’t a garden near their home.

So I said yes, out of curiosity and I genuine desire for organic vegetables. After the lesson and tea with the family I was ushered into the car and driven ten minutes over to the family plot of corn, lettuce and greens. I met the grandmother’s dogs in the kennel there, and saw where their uncle is building a new structure.IMG_5914.JPG

I have grown accustom to this kindness and shared experiences offered to me in Taiwan, and I hope I never take it for granted.

A new acquaintance told another story about her visit to Chiayi. She said she was sitting at a restaurant that only served meat with her friends and when the waitress found out she was vegetarian she walked her down the street to order her vegetarian food from a different restaurant.

In the past week I tallied the times I had been paid for going out with friends. On Friday I had a drink with a girlfriend, she paid for me. Saturday a friend who had borrowed my motorcycle paid for my Korean dinner. Sunday, my tutoring family fed me lunch and another friend took me to the movies for dinner. I feel so taken care of it might be time for another party. Even my Japanese classmate for Chinese class gave me chocolate from home this morning.

Truthfully, I am grateful to know such generous people. Although sometimes I feel a little stressed by the monetary payback system. Obviously, I plan to get these friends back, but I live in fear of not knowing when I should or shouldn’t fight people paying the bill. Am I being presumptive? I don’t know, because I don’t have adequate knowledge of cultural norms.

I talked with my boss about this topic today, as a Taiwanese woman who has lived in the United States she has a balanced and open-minded perspective in addition to being a superwoman mid-30s mom with a toddler. She said in her visit to her sisters home in the states she hid money under the pillow when she left.

“I knew she wouldn’t take it if I gave it to her,” she said. Although it is common practice to give money as a gift for Chinese New Year, birthdays or weddings. A practice once looked down upon by snooty Americans, but which is becoming more widely practiced in the USA as well. Sometimes people feel it lacks personal touch, but it is practical. Our economic reasoning as human beings is erratic no matter what the cultural norms are in your part of the world, just check out this NPR article.

We also chatted about store coupons and gift cards. There are few opportunities to buy gift cards in Taiwan, it just isn’t done. Going to the bank before a big holiday you will find many Taiwanese queuing up to pull out large quantities of cash. Both are practical, one with a little more security than the other and yet they haven’t caught on here the same way. It remains a largely cash-based consumer culture.

In an effort to make businesses reliably distribute receipts the government of Taiwan created a receipt lottery. Every two months numbers are picked and many people win hundreds to thousands of New Taiwan Dollars just for checking the numbers at the top of their receipts.

It is an interesting world of free receipt lottery and guanxi  (關係) or interpersonal connections based on reciprocation. It sounds altruistic and beautifully communal, but you never know when people are going to hold something over your head. The idea is reminiscent of nepotism. I make things happen for you, and you do the same for me. It can be innocent or a bit mobster, but either way it is difficult to extricate yourself from if you ever get on someone’s bad side. My plan? Never get on someone’s bad side, and always take the free vegetables.

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