A few years back, I commented to a friend of mine about how Taiwan has amazingly long lines and how willing Taiwanese seem to stand in them for long periods of time. For many who first come to Taiwan – and even those who live here for years – the “Line Culture” seen in Taiwan seems peculiar.
For those who don’t know, Taiwan (like many places in southeast Asia) is big into night markets. This is what a normal moment at a night market looks like in my city…
When it’s busy, I’ll spend over an hour walking through a crowd to move 100 meters. On a bad night, amusement park lines move faster than a crowded night market.
Night markets offer all kinds of things, but are usually focused on two things: cheap goods and cheap food. It’s like a mix between a flea market and a carnival where, instead of rides, you get booths and kiosks selling you everything from shoes to clocks to smoking accessories (and they are not subtle about their use, despite advocating illegal drug use).
No matter what, you have to deal with crowds. What’s interesting, though, is how Taiwanese people will be willing to stand in longer lines to get what most of us think of as “basically the same thing.” Just like how no one wants to go to an empty restaurant in Manhattan, no one wants to be alone in a line in Taiwan. A long line signifies the wait being worth it and it just self-perpetuates; people will often say “I’m standing in line because they make the best _____,” but the reality is, they’re often standing in line because the line is long and just assume they’re the best.
Despite this fact, what’s most interesting is not the Taiwanese willingness to stand in line for twenty minutes to get miniature deep-fried sweet potato balls: it’s their reaction to what they get at the end. See, most Americans, upon standing in a really long line for a half hour to get a hot dog, will be pissed if it’s not the best hot dog they’ve ever had in their life. Not that I would ever point fingers, or anything.
But Taiwanese don’t react that same way. The food is almost secondary to their purpose: standing in line.
It sounds insane, I know. It was to me, when I first presented my observation to a friend, a few years back. If the food really is amazing, I understand waiting, but if it’s mediocre, I’d be unhappy I wasted my time in line. And that’s where the difference is. Taiwanese don’t see standing in line as a waste of time, not because of what they get at the end, but what they get while in line.
Nope: the mini deep-fried sweet potato balls, you still gotta’ wait for!
Let me ask you this. Your buddy invites you to his house for a “sports party” for…pick your least-favorite sport. Nothing crazy – five or ten friends hanging out watching the game. Do you not go, because you find the game uninteresting?
Google “football party” and see how many pictures focus exclusively on food. Ask 90% of the women why they go to Super Bowl parties. Hell, ask most of the men! It’s not the game: it’s the party. Or maybe the commercials. Either way, it has little to do with the stated purpose of the affair: the pleasure comes from beyond what we say it is.
Just as I might go to a party where I don’t care about the game on TV, Taiwanese will stand in line for snacks and not care about whether or not they’re all that “delicious.” [delicious, a word that is only funny for those of us in Taiwan, as Taiwanese use it to describe literally every food]
Literally. Every. Food.
But for them and for us all, it goes beyond “the food” or “the game” – it’s about friendship, commonality, community, conversation, and simply something to do. While there are certainly implications as to the Taiwanese concept of fun being standing in line (something I’ll write more on at another time), it’s really not that different from countless other things we do in American culture!
Are you really in that hour-long line for that roller coaster because of the ride? When I ask you to tell me your three most fun moments at the amusement park yesterday, what are you going to tell me about? Sure, you won’t tell me how much fun it was to stand in line, but you might tell me how hilarious it was when something happened in the line, or a funny thing your friend said while you were simply walking around: the rides (the whole reason you’re at the amusement park) will seem trivial by comparison to the good times you had.
We lose track, in this modern world of ours, of what fun really is. We mistake the addictive nature of endless Candy Crush for actual enjoyment or achievement. This weighs on my mind and will be fodder for future pieces but, for now, I maintain my perspective that, if being social is a human condition, all cultures have ways to achieve that. What may seem boring or pointless to one person may be the most enjoyable thing someone else does, and vice versa, with neither party being pitiable. Except all those people who can’t stop sending me Candy Crush requests: them, I pity.
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