What can a small island country (yes, country — take note, China) teach us about communication?
Quite a lot, I would argue.
It has unfortunately become a common trope at Yale that “listening” is simply code for “non-action.” We saw it in the Calhoun and new college naming debates and following the Sarah Braasch incident, where administrative “listening sessions” had no effect on the final decisions or merely served as an outlet for expressing grievances.
But on the student level we don’t seem to do much better. While discussions at Yale often revolve around identity categories, hardly ever do they attempt to analyze the fundamental conditions that lead to the freedom and equality we desire. Instead, we almost always end conversations with a demand for greater listening, especially from those whose experiences differ from our own.
And that demand is a good one — if we actually followed through with it. What usually happens, however, is that we can only flirt with deep topics that actually allow us to understand each other (often sarcastically), and we mostly only get to the point of talking about Yale itself, our career plans and our stresses. Failing to listen well weakens our communities — so how do we actually practice what we preach?
That’s where Taiwan comes in.
This summer, thanks to a very lucky combination of a Light Fellowship, a Humanities thesis grant and an internet survey that trended on Taiwanese Twitter, I had the opportunity to travel all across the country asking three questions to over six hundred Taiwanese people. Although my questions were open-ended (“What is democracy?” “What is freedom?” and “Is freedom related to religion?”), every answer I received was earnestly delivered, thorough and unique. All of the kind people who helped with my research took my questions seriously and proved that anyone with an open mind can tackle broad questions about society with nuance and rigor.
Although answers varied greatly, there was a common trend: Most people described freedom as not simply the right to do anything, but the right to do what you want without harm to others. Many responses, both to the definitions of democracy and freedom, also emphasized “respect” as the most important characteristic of society. Democracy, according to the majority of people I talked to, is simply the best environment from which we can understand and respect others.
While the “other” versus “self” orientation of East Asia compared to Western countries is often discussed, I found Taiwan’s situation to be different. Unlike China, Taiwan continues to hold these outwardly oriented values within the context of total democratic freedom. Furthermore, amid a flurry of active organizations and political enthusiasm, Taiwanese people, more than in other modern democracies, remain strongly committed to traditional religion and family.
In a sense, I found some aspects of the ideal Tocquevillian America — that is, the increasingly antiquarian attention to community, neighbors and religion in the States — to be absolutely thriving in Taiwan. And that script — of tradition and reverence and respect — altogether produces an environment rich in good conversation propelled by a sincere ability to listen well.
This feeling followed me everywhere. Nowhere in America will a cashier in a local record store talk to you for an hour and then say, as you try to wrap up for fear of intruding: “But we haven’t finished talking yet.” Similar sentiments were expressed in a variety of contexts — I saw it in family worship, where the young and old fill temples attempting for hours to hear from their ancestors. I felt it when I asked people for directions, like the lady at the Confucian temple in Taipei whose response was not only detailed but included recommendations for when I arrived at my destination. I saw it in the large family in Tainan that spends the entire day talking and enjoying each other’s company because there’s nothing else that could be more important.
This all felt a world away from Yale, or America, where our listening is more likely to be ironic than earnest — less helpful and more skeptical. We’ll call others “genuine,” but we never really mean it.
My many conversations this summer all reflected a raw honesty that is in short supply at Yale today. In Taiwan, people weren’t afraid to admit when they didn’t know something. They weren’t afraid to go deeper, and they weren’t sarcastic about fundamental questions.
The spirit I felt so viscerally in person is even reflected in the traditional Chinese character for the verb “to listen.” Whereas China has simplified the character to a “mouth” radical and an element used in monetary terms, Taiwan has preserved the old diagram including an ear, ten eyes, and one heart — a set of instructions describing what listening should entail.
So, I’ll end with a challenge: With ten eyes and one heart let’s listen our way toward a closer and more responsive community of scholars. Let’s listen to Taiwan.
Leland Stange is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .