What you need to know
Scooters, a type of vehicles commonly used in Taiwan, symbolize the Taiwanese mentality - a preference for small government and prioritization of self and household over the larger community.
By Chien-Cheng Chiu
As someone who has been studying abroad since 18, riding a scooter for the first time in Taiwan was a peculiar experience. On one hand, it was a sense of carefree independence. Unlike the car or metro system, a scooter brings you anywhere from the main roads and bridges to the narrowest alley in the city. On the other hand, it was a sense of insecurity and danger. Without any protection, the scooter rider faces the wind, the smell of the city, and all the perils on a typical Taiwanese street.
Scooter is emblematic of Taiwanese culture. This is not to repeat the cliché that the scooter is an element of Taiwanese culture, just like how bubble tea or the night market is. What I am referring to as “scooter” here is a spirit of independence, accompanied by danger and insecurity. Although anthropologists now tend to avoid essentializing cultures, I find it accurate to say this “scooter spirit” indeed tells us about how the Taiwanese people think, feel, and act.
The premise is that modes of transportation are not to be neglected in the formation of our subjectivity. Counterintuitive as it may sound, how we traverse in the town in fact shapes how we define and recognize ourselves. James A. Fujii, a Japanese academic who specializes in East Asian Studies, writes about the role of urban railroads in shaping Tokyoites into intimate but alienated commodities in the modern capitalist society. As a foreign resident in Tokyo, one-hour ride on the train every day indeed brings changes to me: the pressure to be on time, the indifference to strangers, immersion into my personal space… If the train stands for intimate alienation, then what will the scooter represent?
Scooter, which freely travels to anywhere in the city, represents the spirit of independence and individual agency. Taiwanese people put the self or the household over the larger community. One piece of evidence for this is the surprisingly small government in Taiwan. In 2021, Taiwan’s tax-to-GDP ratio is 13.2%, whereas the average for OECD countries is 34.1% in the same year (albeit Taiwan’s income tax is said to be high). This figure reveals the mentality that one would rather run companies, do transactions, or invest in properties than submitting taxes to the government. Government expenditure, likewise, is low. In 2021, Taiwan’s government expenditure was 11.63% of GDP, while the OECD average is 46.3% in the same year. Underlying this small government is, on the citizen’s part, reluctance to contribute or sacrifice for the community and, on the government’s part, a laissez-faire attitude on people’s life.
I can also recall that everyone in the apartment I lived in Taipei shunned becoming the president of the homeowner association, and the participation rate of regular assemblies was low. This draws a sharp contrast with Japan where the participation in homeowner association is much more active. In some apartments such as mine, residents are obligated to submit a fee every month to a fund that will be used for future refurbishments of the entire apartment. In Taiwan, refurbishments are usually conducted separately.
The scooter — the sense of independence on one hand and insecurity or danger on the other — is an apt metaphor here, for both the benefits and the downsides. A small government implies less spending on public infrastructure, and the results are roads that are forever bumpy. Yet I doubt the Taiwanese people would be willing to be taxed more for better roads if they had the option to keep money at their disposal — this is the scooter spirit. The refurbishment for my apartment in Taipei is never coordinated: today one household above me carries out a noisy renovation, and tomorrow another household below me starts another one. I was therefore awed by my Japanese friend’s apartment that was undergoing a large-scale renovation for the first time in 60 years. It seems impossible to coordinate and decide on such a plan in Taiwan. Independence and insecurity are two sides of the coin (in this case, two sides of the scooter). The other side is do not expect the community to make arrangements for you.
The scooter spirit, in its benign form, leads to diversity. For example, it gives birth to unique scenery in the media scene. Taiwan’s YouTube industry, along with podcasts and all other forms of self-media, are peculiarly prosperous. The content produced by Taiwanese YouTubers is so diverse that one would not hesitate to call it television. Entertainment, news, documentary, education…The Taiwanese YouTube is a heteroglossia. By contrast, being a YouTuber in Japan remains an urban legend. Again, this is the scooter spirit — starting one’s own business and media looks more desirable in the eyes of Taiwanese people. In the music industry, too, we see a growth of indie music, which brings in a variety of music genres. We have No Party For Cao Dong for rock, EggPlantEgg for Hokkien pop, Leo Wang for hip-hop, Sunset Rollercoaster for city pop…In 2019,The Reporter, a renowned independent media in Taiwan, published a series of articles on the rising popularity and importance of indie music in Taiwan. Be it the media or music, Taiwanese people seem to prefer personalized, sometimes niche contents to the ones that everyone is following.
The scooter spirit, in its vicious form, is egoism. Ogasawara Yoshiyuki, a Japanese scholar on Taiwanese politics, describes the attitude of Taiwanese people toward politics as “me-first” (oresama). High expectations are placed on the politicians to serve the voters (me), otherwise they can be easily abandoned in the next election. Ogasawara points out the problems of such a culture: less trust for public figures and difficulty in forming long-term political plans — exactly like my apartment in Taipei. This “me-first” mentality is, needless to say, evident in scooter riders in Taiwan. I should, however, do justice to them as this “me-first” mentality is applicable to car drivers and bicycle riders as well. Car drivers complain that scooter drivers weave in and out of traffic, while scooter riders criticize the road design that favors cars and forces them to the inside lanes. The result is the “living hell” traffic as a CNN journalist dubbed it. So we get the meme making a contrast between Taiwanese people in real life (represented by Keanu Reeves in real life) and Taiwanese people on vehicles (represented by Keanu Reeves in a car chase scene).
The dual qualities of Taiwanese people, independence on one hand and egoism on the other, are succinctly summarized by the scooter metaphor. The scooter is independent but insecure and dangerous, and so are the Taiwanese people.
Chien-Cheng Chiu writes about history, culture, and life in the East Asia region. Currently a fourth-year student at the University of Tokyo, he is working on a senior thesis about manga and animation.
TNL Editor: Kim Chan (@thenewslensintl)
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