≡ Menu

The Cultural Impact of Borders

A two mile stretch of water separate two cultures that used to be one. How did this happen?

Any person who says that borders are meaningless lines drawn on a map that have no real cultural impact have obviously not crossed many of them before. Borders can be boundaries between different cultures, borders can also divide the same culture — but they all change because of it.

The difference that a traveler will experience when crossing a border that acts as true cultural boundary is obvious. The world is full of culturally respective borders — when you cross from Spain to France you know it, the same goes for traveling from the Dominican Republic to Haiti, etc . . .

But it is in the places where international boundaries are more political separators than cultural — where a dividing line bifurcates a nation of people — is where the power of a border can best be observed. I’m talking about places like the borderland between China’s Yunnan province and Laos or the border between Kurdish Turkey and Kurdish Iraq — the places where a group of people who were once a cohesive entity now exist on two opposing sides of a political divide. When crossing borders like this you logically expect a smooth transition, but this is rarely what you get: borders are powerful, they change the people on both sides of the line.

I’ve been hit in the gut by the unexpected transition of crossing borders between two similar cultures/ countries many times in my 13+ years of travel, but I don’t think I’ve experienced a larger shock  as when I went to Taiwan’s Kinmen Island from mainland China.

My definition of culture:Culture is the pattern of behavior, thought, belief, intuitive response, and worldview that people of a particular group have in common as a result of sharing a common location, identity, belief system, worldview, and history. By pattern, I mean tendency: culture is not something that’s absolute. Culture is a game of odds, but the odds are that people from a the same culture will display many similar behavioral traits which can be readily observed and adapted to.

Kinmen Island is just a few kilometers from China, and and up until 1949 it was a full-fledged part of the mainland, populated by the same people that were on Xiamen Island and the nearby parts of Fujian province. I wasn’t expecting much of a cultural shift when going there, but fifty years of separation and inter-cultural mish-mash on both sides has created two cultures whose observable differences are incredibly stark.

As soon as I stepped off the boat on Kinmen the cultural differences were obvious. Everybody was overwhelmingly polite, courteous, soft spoken, and, dare I say, meek. Though incredibly hospitable and kind, these are four adjectives that would not work for describing mainland China culture. In fact, these adjectives were the polar opposite of how I would generally describe the way people in China tend to act.

People of the mainland tend to speak loudly, directly, and without any sigh or indication of shyness. I remember my wife’s surprise when on her first night in China we heard a group of people yelling and screaming in our hotel. My wife asked if they were fighting, and I had to explain that that’s just how people talk here. Welcome to China. Like Israelis, Egyptians, Greeks etc . . . the volume of Chinese culture is turned up a few notches.

Taiwanese woman and the Pacific Ocean

Taiwanese woman and the Pacific Ocean

I busted out in a laugh the first time I was told that Chinese people think staring is rude. These are the most inveterate starers on the planet. If there is anything out of the ordinary about you — and simply being a foreigner is out of the ordinary in most places in this country — you will be mobbed in stares. If you’re stationary somewhere in public, it is not uncommon for people to walk right up and just look at you like you’re some kind of zoo exhibit. This constant staring breaks many foreigners down here — I’ve even known a few who imprisoned themselves in their apartments just because they couldn’t bear being out in the streets where everybody is looking at them.

Chinese culture is aggressive, loud, and engaging. It’s just the way it is. People push, they jostle for position in line, and if you don’t have a sharp elbow and a quick tongue ready people will cut in front of you in line as though you don’t even exist. When you walk through the streets it’s not uncommon to hear people yelling at you or loudly talking about you:

“Hello! Hello!”

“Waiguoren! Waiguoren!”

“It’s a foreigner! Hey, look, it’s a foreigner!”

“Laowai! Laowai!”

Oftentimes these wails are just catcalls, but sometimes they are verbal invitations to engage further and form an acquaintanceship.

The aggressiveness of Chinese culture is at the same time one of the best and worst things about living and traveling in China. It’s wonderful that this culture is so incredibly engaging and open to talking with and befriending visitors — but it can also be a little too engaging on occasion. I’ve programmed myself to balance Chinese assertiveness with assertiveness of my own — and it works out well — but on Kinmen I was plowing people over.

I had to take a step back and look around: these people are different. Nobody was calling out to me, nobody was engaging me, nobody seemed to even be noticing me.

“The people seem more civilized here,” a twenty-something American expat that I met on Kinmen spoke. This guy was also had a lot of experience in mainland China as well, and was probably the perfect person to test my observations against.

The people seem more civilized here.

Though I didn’t admit it that was exactly the adjective I was thinking of.

“When on the ferry you know if it’s a Chinese or a Taiwanese crowd by how the people are acting,” the American expat continued. He then paused for a moment before adding, “The Chinese just have more of the animal energy.”

This phenomenon probably couldn’t be described any better.

This American expat had a Taiwanese girlfriend with him who echoed his sentiment. “She hates going over to the mainland,” he continued, “she says that everybody is so rude over there.”

This was a young woman whose grandparents were completely born and raised in an undivided China. They represent the stock from which Taiwanese culture developed. It was clear that the difference between cultures was also obvious to the Taiwanese — there is something to this phenomenon.

—————–

I walked around Kinmen like I was a part of the landscape, as though heavily tattooed, bearded, peculiar looking white guys walked through here everyday. I can’t remember the last time I attracted so little attention anywhere in the world. I’ve grown use to people looking at me, asking me questions about the tattooing, kids gaping when I come around a corner — it’s just normal at this point.

So I came to a start when it became clear to me that nobody was staring at me on Kinmen. I’d would walk into a noodle restaurant full of people and nobody would look up. I would catch nobody peeking over at me as though I was some kind of oddity. These people don’t stare.

It was unbelievable. I know I’m a little funny looking and I expect people to stare at me. Never before in my traveling career have I been treated so inconspicuously. What was amazing is that I knew it was all a show, that it was a culturally derived code of etiquette not to stare at people. This was obvious, as when I would engage someone in conversation they would often ask the same questions everybody else does and get their picture taken with me.

At first this was relaxing — it was a nice break from being gawked at as I so often am on mainland China — but after a couple of days I began feeling lonely. I realized the extent to which I’ve cultivated a way of interacting with people based off of commanding their attention. It’s normal for people to stare at foreigners outside of tourist zones, and I’ve learned how to convert this attention into conversation and acquaintanceship. On Kinmen, I was lost. I would make small talk with people who would politely respond, smile, and then slink away shyly.

I’ve never had difficulty finding people to hang out with in China (well, outside of the Shanghai/ Beijing bubbles — which is totally different). All I have to do is find a place that has people sitting around together, walk in, take a seat, and try to make eye contact with someone. The whole process takes about one minute — after that I’m chatting with an acquaintance or a group of people. Chinese culture is so engaging that it’s almost impossible not to make friends.

I found the people of Kinmen overtly aloof. Aloof is probably the last adjective I’d ever use to describe the people of China. It was remarkable that this place that was once China, that is full of Chinese people, has a culture that shows attributes that are so remarkably different.

———————-

I went into a noodle restaurant and ordered up some dumplings. The place was packed with twenty-somethings, and I was looking for a way to engage them. I was on the hunt for some people to talk with — I had a load of questions about their home and culture to unload. But the struggle I had trying to hook conversation showed me a very interesting side of this culture none the less.

There was a worker sitting next to me packing them with meat and folding them up. I decided to make a spectacle of myself. I asked the lady to if she could teach me how to fold a dumpling. She half smiled then half-assly and matter-of-factly gave me a lesson. I thought that I could have used this interaction as a way to attract someone’s attention in the restaurant in order to pursue conversation, but nobody even looked up from their soups. I would need to be a social predator to talk with these people.

If I pulled this move on mainland China (and I have before) people in the restaurant would have been cackling, taking photos, laughing, asking me questions, patronizing, talking to me. Here in Taiwan, nobody showed signs of caring. Again, the difference in behavior was stark.

This is not to say that this is bad, it’s just very different.
————-

I put the American expat’s challenge to the test as I visited a tourist site on Kinmen. It was proposed that you can tell the Chinese and the Taiwanese apart just by watching the way they act, and, though I already knew it was true, decided to test this theory anyway. From what I could tell, there were two ways that various groups of tourist at the site were acting: some were quiet and reserved and some were boisterous, loud, and obnoxious. It was clear who was from where. But I began asking anyway, and I was surprised.

I was walking behind a group of tourists who were cackling, yelling, and carrying on without regard for anyone else around them. I knew they were from the mainland, so I walked up and asked the patriarch where they were from. He told me that he was from “here.”

Alright, maybe I was wrong, maybe these different patterns of behavior are not 100% discernible. I slunk away, finished with my sleuthing. But I found myself walking out of the site next to this same group. I listened to the way they talked — their Mandarin was perfectly clear and contained hard “R” sounds instead of the “UH” that’s common in Taiwan. Then they started talking about me.

“That foreigner asked [name] where he was from and he didn’t understand him hahahahhahahahahahha.”

These people were definitely from the mainland.

“I can understand you,” I told them. They were talking about me right next to me, I figured I should let them know.

Of course, they were from China.

I am not sure if Taiwanese behavior changed after being separated from the mainland, or if it was mainland culture that shape-shifted with the rise proliferation of the communism model. Obviously, it’s both, but the rate of observable change is astounding: I didn’t think culturally derived behavior could change so quickly. What I do know is that crossing the two mile stretch of water between mainland China and Taiwan is to venture into another cultural realm. In this case, a border divided one culture into two.

All cultures have patterns. Getting the feel and learning the rhythms of these patterns is part of the intrigue of travel. Comparing cultures is a key way to observe the attributes which make each one unique. Observing how these cultures change, adapt, and evolve is probably the best way of learning the broader patterns of the big picture: a world of humans separated into groups that morph into each other and divide apart through time and space. Going to the borderlands of a politically divided culture is one of the best ways to observe this evolution: it’s like studying two related species that share a common ancestor.

Cultural evolution works on the same model as biological evolution: traits converge, diverge, and change as groups grow together and separate apart. Borders are conceptual lines that divide groups of people. When a culture is divided both segments will diverge until they are clearly separate entities from each other and what they once were. Nothing is static about culture — they are always changing, always shifting, always adapting to new circumstances. Borders are often the driving points for these changes.

Filed under: Border Crossing, China, Culture and Society, Taiwan

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3533 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support Wade Shepard’s writing on this blog (please help):

Wade Shepard is currently in: Astoria, New York

6 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

  • mercury December 25, 2012, 1:21 pm

    I wonder if Taiwanese culture is different because it’s basically composed of the upper class from China that decided to escape the mainland so that they could preserve their private businesses and industries? Its my experience that the wealthy classes are almost always more civilized and more reserved than the lower classes.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard December 25, 2012, 7:47 pm

      This is an excellent hypothesis. It is true that loads of the Chinese upper and educated classes did flee to Taiwan, and this more than likely had a major effect on the how the culture realigned itself. Not sure if I mentioned this above, but the way that the Taiwanese outwardly acted on Kinmen seemed, I have to say it, Japanese-esque (the excessive politeness, the lack of staring, the superficial engagement of outsiders, the quiet demeanor). I think that the extended Japanese occupation of the main island of Taiwan may have already laid the altered cultural groundwork before the ROC even fled there. But I think I’ll have to take this up with someone who has studied this far more than me before I start rattling off nonsense 🙂

      I like how you call a spade a spade here. This is true. Mainland China when under a long period of “rustification” where the former upper and educated classes were sent out to the countryside for reeducation. Basically, the cultivated classes were taught to be like the lower ones as the society was flipped upside down. This definitely had some kind of major impact on the culture as a whole. Today, “uncivilized” acts in China (spitting, pissing in the street, yelling etc . . .) are often attributed to a lack of education and being from the countryside — i.e. poor.

      This is an avenue of investigation that goes way beyond this article, but it would be interesting to find out what happened here and why. Thanks for the discussion 🙂

      Link Reply
  • Andy Graham December 26, 2012, 4:29 am

    I think you said correct,
    “Any person who says that borders are meaningless lines drawn on a map that have no real cultural impact have obviously not crossed many of them before.”
    There USA and many European countries have decided it is not proper to point out that cultures are all different, that we are not the same. Therefore when the cross borders, they forgive and forget what they experienced.

    Yet, it is always painful for me, people have no desire to know other cultures, or they would not stay in hotels the locals could never afford. The Western traveler makes every effort possible to not have a true cultural experience, and to pay big money to make sure there is not one uncomfortable moment.

    Personally I always think about Poland, there was almost zero cultural diversity, it was all white bread, what a relaxing culture to live within.

    There is always a reason for a border crossing, one country or culture decided they did not want to live with the other culture. I leave countries because I am tired of the local culture, and I am finished tolerating it.

    Denial of the cultural impact of borders is rampant on the planet, President Obama wants to treat Syrians like somehow they are even close to being the same culture. More or less saying we agree, and they could care less about the USA, only what we can give them.

    Have fun in China, and do not stay so long you learn to hate them, leave before you are to the last straw, leave before the camel’s back is read to break.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard December 27, 2012, 7:57 pm

      Right on, there’s is this strange brainwashing in US culture where we program ourselves to act like everybody is the same and there is no such thing as culture — or at least no such thing as cultural variation. We’ve confused different with inferior, and this leads us to a widespread self-imposed stupidity that goes up to the highest level of authority — as you point out.

      As far as I’m concerned, there’s no greater insult that a person can pay someone who is secure and proud of their culture than to treat them as if they are the same as everybody else. That’s just pure ignorance.

      Very true, there is a point where it becomes time to leave all countries. You push these boundaries almost daily in China 🙂 But there is just something about this place that’s so interesting that good or bad, like or dislike start to lack relevance. Though I have to say that it’s time to start visiting the hinterlands of this country again, and the next months I should be spending a good deal of time in other countries.

      Link Reply
  • John December 26, 2012, 7:17 am

    This article is exactly the kind of thing from this website i’ve come to expect. Personal, revelatory and interesting.

    Dating a Taiwanese girl, has help to formulate my own opinions of Taiwan and my experience in with my cantonese friends….. I would say that there is a consistent theme of boisterousness from my experience with mainland chinese folk. Although I have not visited many provinces, its amazing to see that nature come out.

    I think as a shy, introverted person I can’t help but reflect on the circumstance which led me to come to china. Its almost like something that I needed.

    I feel fortunate to come into the presence of people are so engaging.

    My appreciation for Taiwan is changed. Not worse, just different. I think by seeing this ‘essential’ side of china, we can appreciate many dichotomies, the various kinds of borders/dualities that life presents us with.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard December 28, 2012, 12:33 am

      Thanks man, much appreciated.

      Yes, it’s good to get this jolt of cultural difference to figure yourself out and rattle up the world view a little. Don’t stay away too long though, as this can change you for good. Sluicing away some of the layers of your own culture patterning is probably the ultimate reward/ curse of travel 🙂

      Agree with your last statement completely. Yes, take this world in and appreciate the isness of it.

      Link Reply