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The Myth of the Busy Asian: Time, Money and Social Life

“I hate my job”, “I want to be my own boss” - these are sentences you're likely to hear often in Taiwan. Though I met several people who liked their job, I think that the great majority were extremely dissatisfied with their current occupation. Long working hours, despotic bosses, low wages or unfavourable working conditions are among the main reasons. 

One of the things that shocked me during my first stay in Taiwan was that people don't have nearly as much spare time as Europeans. When I was in Europe, I used to meet my friends on different days of the week or on the weekends. In Taiwan, I became acquainted with a completely different concept of time. People are simply too busy. As I explained in a previous post, life in Taiwan revolves around social circles. For most adult people, these circles are represented by family, friends and work. Taiwanese usually have longer working hours than Europeans, but they also have a more strict social hierarchy, with family and work at the top, followed by close friends and then by friends (which for the sake of clarity I will call acquaintances). The way people learn to make use of their time is therefore affected by the structure of social life.

“How Can I Keep a Foreign Friend?”

From time to time I stumbled upon Taiwanese blogs in which people asked how they could maintain friendships with foreigners. At the beginning I didn't really give much attention to this topic. Until I found out the reason why they may ask such questions. Let me tell you a few anecdotes to explain this point.

Before going to Taiwan I thought I would be able to make at least a few good friends. Taiwanese had told me that they are nice to foreigners, try to help them and want to make friends with them. Indeed, I met a lot of people there, and for some time, I believed my initial wish was coming true. However, I seldom managed to go beyond simple acquaintance. The reason is – I assume - that most people didn't have enough time. 

When I recall my year in Taiwan, a lot of faces appear before my eyes, faces of people I went out, talked, shared experiences and thoughts with. Many of them I believed to have become close friends of mine. I still don't know if I was right or wrong. Why is it so hard to make good friends? I believe the reason lies in the contrasting value of time in Europe and in Asia.

When I was in Europe, friendship and leisure were extremely important parts of the lives of people in my environment. I had a group of friends I'd spend time with, either on weekdays or weekends. I've always been willing to invest my time in friendships, though we were all busy with our studies, work and so on. I think that in Europe we separate work time and leisure time quite distinctly. I will explain later why this might be due to the history and economic development of Europe.

Taiwanese see things differently. For them, “being busy” is a normal condition of life. They have to work, have family and close friends. It is considered normal to say to a friend bluntly “I am busy”, without even apologizing. This is not something that happened to me just because I'm a foreigner. A Taiwanese friend of mine told me that she once asked a couple of friends to go out on the weekend, and all of them but one said they were busy. And even this one eventually cancelled. So my friend began deleting a few people from her Facebook list, because these were only the last of many rejections she'd got from them. "Why should I keep people I never meet?" - she wondered

As far as I've seen, few people feel guilty for wasting other people's time. And they don't feel guilty for rejecting you, even many times, on the ground that they are busy. It is not rare that friends don't meet each other even for months. I've never been to a country where it is more difficult to arrange an appointment. You may ask someone to go out and they might tell you: "I think I have a free day next month." It may take days, weeks or even months. Something inconceivable in Europe among close friends. 

The same thing happened to me dozens of times, even with people who actively sought my company and seemed to see me as a good friend. And the reason in my view is that Taiwanese don't have much spare time, and that they are accustomed from an early age to economize it. Therefore they are not familiar with the concept of investing or giving time to others. They usually ask you to meet when they want to – if they are bored, or have a lot of spare time (due to temporary unemployment, holidays, if a meeting was cancelled and they look for somebody else, and so forth). I rarely met people who thought that it was important to invest time to deepen a friendship. If they're busy, they're busy. Work and family come first. 

Let me give you an example. Before going to Taiwan I'd been looking for some language exchange partners in order to know at least a few more people in that foreign country. One of them was a very nice girl who had lived in Italy and could speak some Italian. During the two months prior to leaving Europe I used to chat with her very often on MSN or Facebook. We had a lot of common interests and topics to talk about. I thought we would become good friends. 

But after I moved to Taiwan, we met only four times in more than a year. She was busy with her work, sometimes she didn't want to go out because she needed to take a rest after a long and stressful week. So basically we chatted more online than face to face. Of course, from my viewpoint we could not have become real friends. How can you call someone you see four times in a year a friend? What upset me, however, was that she used to tell me that Taiwanese help foreigners and are nicer than Italians. 

This is something that I experienced many times. People were too busy to meet new friends, and they were not very helpful, although they said they would help. My impression was that people try to do something at the beginning to show they are nice, but when you really need some help, they're usually just too busy or tired to do anything. I don't mind, because I like to be independent and do things on my own. Yet I don't like when people pretend to be very nice with words, but they don't let facts follow. To be fair, I definitely don't mean to say I didn't meet helpful or nice people, on the contrary. I just want to point out that the majority of the I met people were busy with their own things. 

Now you might make the objection: “This is only because you were a foreigner. When people go to other countries it's always like that. It's hard to make friends with locals because they have their own lives, friends and work.” This is absolutely true. Many Taiwanese abroad suffer from loneliness, even much more than I did. Indeed I overall enjoyed my life in Taiwan. Furthermore, I experienced similar difficulties both in England and Germany. So it's a normal phenomenon. But there is an essential difference.  

When I was in Germany, for instance, it wasn't easy to make friends with local people. In many ways much harder than in Taiwan. In my opinion, Taiwanese are easy-going and it's simple to have a chat and ask them out, at least at the beginning. However, when Germans don't show interest in you, it means they don't want to be your friend. Or we can meet sometimes but not often, which clearly means that in their life you don't play a big role. But Taiwanese send you mixed signals. On the one hand they treat you as a friend and go out with you and talk with you about anything – as long as they have time. But then they might disappear for weeks or months, they might not have enough time to meet. Besides that, even close friends in Taiwan don't seem willing to invest time in deepening and nurturing a friendship. An example: I had a Taiwanese friend in Germany. We were quite close, hung out together on weekends etc. She often asked me to help her with her homework. She studied in Germany and it was hard for her at the beginning. I thought that since we were friends, and that on top of that she was a non-European with less experience in Germany than me, I should help her. So, although I was busy myself, I tried to do for her what I could: I read and explained her difficult texts, corrected her seminar papers etc. But when I was in Taiwan, though she came to Taipei for almost two months, she didn't tell me she was there. She didn't even ask me how I was doing in Taiwan. When I found out that she had come to Taipei I asked her why she had not contacted me. And her response was that she was busy. 

The attitude underlying this behaviour is: “If I have time or need your help I'll ask you, if I'm busy I don't have time for you.” To me, this appears selfish. But in Taiwan it's normal. 

Indeed, by Taiwanese standards this is not a big deal. Many people have a different understanding of respect and friendship than I do. To them, not having time and not seeing you for a long time has nothing to do with respect. Even if you sacrificed your own time for them, they won't think much about it and won't do the same for you. When I say “them”, of course, I mean the majority of the people I met. If somebody disagrees with my perspective, I'd be happy to read your comments. 

Moreover, I have to say that in the short time I spent in Hong Kong my experiences were totally different from those in Taiwan. I haven't lived in Hong Kong long enough to draw any conclusion from that.

In January last year I went back to Germany for fifteen days. Since I would leave Europe for Taiwan at the end of the month, I seized the opportunity to meet my friends in Berlin to say good-bye (and until now I haven't met any of them again). One of these friends is an Italian guy who was, at that time, writing his master thesis. I went to the library of our university to have a talk with him. After a while, he said that he had to go back to studying because he had to hand in his thesis next week. “I'm really sorry,” he explained. “I don't like when people make themselves important, but I must go."

His expression of sorry was a nice and friendly gesture. He simply tried to make me understand that I, as his friend, was also important to him. I would also apologize if I didn't have time for a friend and at least briefly explain why I'm busy. I might not do so if we meet quite often, but not if we don't. In Taiwan, I noticed that most friends won't apologize if they're busy. That's because they think: “Since we're friends, I don't need to say sorry. They have to understand I'm busy." That's it. They don't think: "I should try to make my friends feel that I think about them, too, but it's just that I must get my work done." In my opinion, it is exactly because we're friends that I try to make them feel I value the time we share or could share. 

I am, however, far from blaming this kind of Taiwanese people. It's just that they have different priorities than I have. I believe friendship is important in life, and that in order to be friends with someone, time is essential. Sharing experiences, having common memories, knowing each other deeply – this is the core of every friendship. Meeting a person once a month or a couple of times a year isn't enough to create a special bond. That is why, in the end, I decided to give up and not invest much time for others, because very few people ever did the same for me. 

I am not sure if Taiwanese themselves suffer from the conditions of their social life. Yet I know that some of the people I've met are very isolated. They have few really close friends and often feel lonely. Some people go out with friends only on some weekends, but mostly go to work, go back home, eat and watch TV. A look at the statistics will clearly show why working life in Taiwan can be alienating:

The annual working hours for Taiwanese employees eclipses many industrialized nations, according to figures from the Council of Labor Affairs (CLA) and the OECD. On average, the Taiwanese work 2,200 hours annually; 20% more than their counterparts in the United States or Japan and more than 35% longer than those in Germany. [source: CNN]

However heterogeneous working hours and social life of every individual might be, I think that, generally speaking, the burden of strenuous jobs, the relative lack of spare time and the underestimation of time in keeping friendships made social life in Taiwan much less pleasant than I'd hoped. That's a reason why so many Taiwanese dream of going abroad and enjoy (and, strangely enough, at the same time seem to despise) the relaxed life of Europe.

I shall argue that one of the main reasons for the evaluation of time in regard to work and social life is the peculiar economic and development history of Taiwan.  

Laziness vs Hard Work, or 

Why Economic Development Makes Us See Time Differently

After her tour of Asia in 1911– 1912, Beatrice Webb, the famous leader of British Fabian socialism, described the Japanese as having ‘objectionable notions of leisure and a quite intolerable personal independence’. She said that, in Japan, ‘there is evidently no desire to teach people to think’. She was even more scathing about my ancestors. She described the Koreans as ‘12 millions of dirty, degraded, sullen, lazy and religionless savages who slouch about in dirty white garments of the most inept kind and who live in filthy mudhuts’. No wonder she thought that ‘[ i]f anyone can raise the Koreans out of their present state of barbarism I think the Japanese will’, despite her rather low opinion of the Japanese. [Chang 2008, p. 183] 

In this excerpt from the book “Bad Samaritans”, economist Chang Ha-Joon makes clear that cultural development theories are but a myth. Korea, a country whose people were once considered lazy and backward, and whose per capita income used to be less than half that of Ghana, is now one of the richest, most innovative and industrialized countries in the world. As to Japan, it is the third largest economy, with a population often praised for its diligence and team work spirit. 

From Western racism to Max Weber's theory of Protestant Ethics as a reason for the development of Northern Europe, culturalism fails to appreciate the impact of economic policy on the habits and behaviour of the people. 

In the course of my life I've heard many “culturalist” opinions that allegedly explain why a certain country is rich or poor. I even remember watching a documentary about Singapore in which the journalist came to the conclusion that the economic miracle of the city-state is due mainly to its “hard-working” people. In reality, the idea that the economic performance of countries is caused by culture is highly speculative and hard to prove. Italy or France, for instance, were – and still are – among the richest countries in the world, and in the 1960's they were far wealthier and more industrialized than Korea, Taiwan or Singapore. The culture itself can't have changed that much in such a short period of time. Germany became, from a poor rural country, an industrial giant in less than a century. The same regarding China – when my father was born, China was a backward country marred by civil war and poverty, and now it is a rising industrial powerhouse.

It is therefore not the laziness or the cultural heritage of a country which is responsible for its poor economic performance, but the other way round. Economic policies have a deep impact on culture and habits. 

To put it plainly: people naturally react to the economic structure of their environment. If a country has a strong welfare system, people don't fear extreme poverty and can therefore have a more relaxed way of life. In a poor country, on the contrary, the struggle for survival makes life hard and affects their choices regarding marriage, career, time planning and so on. 

In the same way, laziness and industriousness are often consequences of the economic condition of a country. In fact, the modern forms of time and discipline are closely related to the industrial society and its division of labour. 

Time, for example, is a product of human society, and changes in the concept of time can be attributed to changes of the organization of society. [Elias 1988].

In pre-industrial societies, leisure (gr. scholé, lat. Otium) was a privilege of the upper classes [Immerfall /Wasner 2011, p. 18-19]. Traditionally, peasants – the class that by far outnumbered all the others – followed natural working rhythms. Peasant life was hard, marred by high taxation, natural calamities and illnesses. Given that peasants produced the food they needed, hard work to them was not a matter of choice, but of survival. In this sense, some segments of the upper classes in societies like ancient Greece, the Roman Empire or Imperial Russia could be “lazier” than peasants.  

As a matter of fact, laziness or hard work are not related – or not exclusively related – to culture, but to the economic system of a society. For instance, a few years ago I met a middle-aged German man in a library in Berlin. One day he talked to me, and I found out that he had been unemployed since 1982. If he's still unemployed, then it's been more than 20 years now. In this respect, laziness can be a result of unemployment or of a job market with widespread part-time work. Underdeveloped countries may give the impression that its people are lazy. In reality, it's mostly because they cannot find a full time job and because they have not internalized what we can call the “industrial sense of time”. [Chang 2008, p. 196]  

Let's consider the German example again. In the 18th century, German states began to organize their “human capital” more efficiently. The disciplining of the work force was an important element of the subsequent industrial revolution. Industrialists demanded from factory workers discipline and efficiency. They set clocks and pretended the exact observance of time schedule, therefore instilling in the workers the “industrial sense of time”. This subsequently influenced the whole feeling for the value of time in the entire society. 

Around 1800, in certain German states working, hours could be as high as 90 per week. In the following decades, they were slowly reduced to 78 (1870), 66 (1890) and 59 (1910) [Immerfall / Wasner 2011, p. 20]. And now, little by little, we arrive to the point. From the 1950's onward, the influence of left-wing parties, the policy of wage increases and the decrease of working hours paved the ground for the emergence of the consumption society. People had more money to spend, and they had more time, so they became consumers. In 1990, for the first time average working hours were less than free time in Germany.

With some differences, this pattern of development is common to the whole of Western Europe after 1945. Consequently, I was born in a “leisure society”, a society where work and leisure are balanced, and where people value their free time as a fundamental part of their lives, a time to have fun and spend with friends.  

In East Asia, work is decisively predominant. The weakness of trade unions, the focus on exporting, the lack of a comprehensive welfare system as well as the increasingly neoliberal policies of the last decade give the employees less contractual power. On the other hand, in Asia it's easier to find a job and easier to get fired, because legislation doesn't protect workers. In Asia – I believe – one can see the disruptive consequences of neoliberal policies that consider job security, welfare and good working conditions as a hindrance to capitalism. What certain people call “hard work” appears to me as a veiled form of irrational neoliberalism which often undermines the happiness and future of many people by causing high levels of stress and constant fears of being sacked when too old to find a new job, leaving one without a pension. 

The habits and the concept of time of Taiwanese have been influenced by the economic system of their country. Due to the long working hours, the time spent for work and other “essential” social activities is more than the time invested in friendships. Besides, for many people spare time is the time to get a good rest after a very stressful week at work, and they just want to relax at home, watch TV and sleep. Therefore, social life is less important than in Europe. Moreover, given the lack of a welfare system, family planning is often determined by material considerations rather than simple love or pleasure.  

A few weeks ago I watched a documentary about Japan which shows a quite extreme case of precarious working conditions and the hardships of reconciling material concerns and social life. I think that this extreme case can at least show, even though in an exaggerated form, some of the points I've made in this post.

BBC: A Story of Love and Hatred


Chang Ha-joon: Bad Samaritans - The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism

Stefan Immerfall / Barbara Wasner: Freizeit


  1. Hi,

    This is a bloody excellent post, thanks for sharing your personal experience and deep reflections with everyone here.

    For myself, my wife is Taiwanese and I have a very different experience to you - when I go to Taiwan all I get is people around me who want to spend time with me (I never go for more than 3 weeks at a time as I work in England). This is a part of the story you tell though - I am with 'family' all the time and people in Taiwan are time-rich when it comes to family relations. I can imagine for Taiwanese, they spend most of the day with colleagues and then much of the rest of the time on family. Any spare time would likely to spent on close friends or on friends who understand the pressures they face.

    Coupled with that is your very interesting observation on apologies. I think this resonates for me too, care is shown through gifts and help much more than words. In fact Taiwanese can become very awkward if you apologize and wouldn't dream of saying sorry personally. Probably this is something to do with face but more to do with a familiarity with others. There's not much diversity in Taiwan; due to this similarity, implicitly people expect mutual understanding without words needing to be said.

    I do feel for you though and this is another reason I wouldn't be very keen on moving to Taiwan - I work 10-6pm and go home to see my family 4-5 times a year. I don't doubt that working 50+ hours a week and seeing family every week would have an effect on how much I wanted to socialise too.

  2. @hello_operator

    Thanks for your comment. What you say is particularly interesting for me because I've never experienced real family life in Taiwan. I mean I have lived with a Taiwanese family and met other families, but I was never a member of it, so my relationship to them was definitely different from the one I would have as a son-in-law.

    Do you have any blog posts about your life in Taiwan? I'd be very glad to read them.

    As to the working hours - ever since I've come to Taiwan, whenever politicians talk about labour market flexibility I'd like them to read the following BBC article about Taiwanese who died from overwork:

  3. Sorry I don't blog and my total time in Taiwan is 5.5 weeks! I have been with my Taiwanese wife for more than half a decade though and in my two times in Taiwan I've been married and had two Chinese New Years. This probably skews my ideas too - going at Chinese New Year, when everyone has time off, I didn't feel like people didn't have time for me. Also, going around with my wife and meeting her old friends gave me a nice chance to meet people on a genuinely friendly basis. This is very limited experience though, and the second time going I felt much less tolerant of spending so much time with family: they wanted to spend all their time with us and we had very little time for ourselves. Indeed coming back we are both more wary of tying ourselves too closely to family - there is an extremely strong bond of reciprocity between family members in Taiwan which at first fascinated me but now makes me nervous. For instance if we asked for a large investment, for example a house deposit, there would be very strong expectations for us to be close to the family, help much more - and if we didn't a lot of... unpleasantness! The mechanics of family life are really interesting - I found your post on Chinese families very interesting too :-)

    I do think the labour marking in Taiwan is really crazy though and really puts me off emigrating to be honest. I work best when under moderate pressure and given freedom to choose what to do. And working on something meaningful in Taiwan as a foreigner (when I don't speak the native language fluently and the default work is English teaching) seems unlikely. Do you work in Hong Kong now?

  4. I am still in Taiwan, but I will soon go to Hong Kong. What you write is very interesting. I'm assuming that you and your wife live together in England. I have noticed that many Taiwanese and Chinese tend behave differently when they are abroad, because they don't have much pressure from the family.

    In my opinion it's hard for Westerners to get used to Chinese families. Most especially, the hierarchy and the idea that family is basically an economic might be some reasons why you began feeling nervous. As far as I am concerned, after more than a year in Taiwan I have become less compromising than I used to be.


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