We came to Tainan after a very long trip through the island’s mid-section, waiting in long lines of traffic. Tainan is in the southern section of Taiwan and Taipei, where a huge proportion of the people actually reside, is in the very northern tip. While Tainan is one of the largest of the handful of cities in Taiwan, it is decidedly rural. It was raining.
Peichi’s grandmother, spinster aunt, and unmarried uncle live among a clan community in one of the more…um…I guess “suburban” is the right word, parts of Tainan. Life in all of Taiwan, and particularly the more traditional and rural areas is communal and clan oriented. Traditionally, when a woman gets married she comes to live with the husband at his family home. This almost always includes his parents and often some aunts and uncles.
To Western eyes this seems ridiculous. On the whole it has both positives and negatives. First, Taiwan (like almost all cultures I’ve witnessed) is a patriarchal/matriarchal society. The Father typically does no work inside the house, but works a job to bring in money. His after-work time is spent playing gambling games, chatting with the other men, drinking, and smoking. The wife often does not hold an official outside job, but is responsible for the care and keeping of the home. This means that she also by default makes most of the real decisions. Men think they’re in charge, but the women really have more say.
Clan life brings with it a sense of community. It also brings shared resources. This cannot be overlooked. Grandmothers and grandfathers can help take care of young children while their parents work. Conversely, children can take care of their parents when they reach old age. There is also a sense of history and life cycle that is shared in clan life that is missing and often leads to larger societal problems in much of Western culture.
On the other side, clan life lessens social mobility. Children often forgo opportunities out of a sense of obligation to the elder relatives. Money is also never kept for oneself or immediate family, but shared with the larger family, which mitigates much of the possible benefits of new wealth, particularly when it gets spread to those in the family who have little financial responsibility. Further, because of all of this, ambition is not generally seen as a positive trait, as it is in the West.
Whether positive or negative, clan life is central to every aspect of Tainanese culture. Even houses are constructed around clan life. Traditional Taiwanese houses were built as more of a complex, intended to house 4 or more family units within a single building. Each compound was built in a C formation, with a big courtyard in the middle. The courtyard existed as a family meeting place, the location for bathing, and an entryway into the main sections of the structure. In the center of the building was the family idol, where the family worshipped both Taoist idols and their own ancestors.
These homes started falling out of fashion only about 20 years ago, when because of space restrictions, different buildings were built. The new buildings still incorporate much of the same concepts as the old ones, but with each family unit dwelling on a different level of a multi-story structure. Each floor has two or three bedrooms and a bathroom, and the ground level contains the kitchen and common areas. Families still gather outside for fellowship. The family altar is usually on the ground floor at the entrance, or on an enclosed roof patio.