Recipe: Goji-Sesame-Corn-Bread

I like Asian food! Really! Much more than German food, actually! However, there is one thing that we Germans are really spoiled with and that Asians are simply not able to produce: Good bread! Besides beer and sausages, probably the most outstanding item on the list of typical German food! Living in Taiwan, I kind of miss the large variety of tasty bread. Here, I can only get some soft, tasteless, almost cake-like, sponge crap, like American sandwich toast. Some local bakeries try to make “German bread”, but I have never found anything close to what I would call “good bread”. On the contrary, when I made a “good bread” for some friends, they couldn’t appreciate it, because it was “too hard” for them, “like eating steak”. I guess, it is a cultural thing.

Good that I like baking! I just make my own bread! And since we are in Taiwan, I try to combine the “German idea” of bread with the availability of typically local ingredients. Here is my recipe for a rustic rich-flavoured Goji-bread. It features tasty and very healthy Goji berries (枸杞), black sesame and polenta (coarse corn flour), adding up to the “German colours” (the colours of the German national flag).

Ingredients:

  • 500g flour (I usually use 300g wheat flour and 200g whole grain flour with rye and barley)
  • 1 big spoon white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 30g butter
  • 12-15g dry yeast (or according to the instructions on the yeast package, which sometimes comes in portions for 500g or 1kg flour)
  • 300ml warm liquid (I usually use 80-100ml milk with hot water; the more milk the less fluffy the end product)
  • 100g polenta (corn flour)
  • ~80g coarsely ground dried Goji berries (or “a good hand full”)
  • 1 big spoon of black sesame
  • 100ml hot water
  • extra wheat flower (up to 200g)

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Procedure:

Subject flours, sugar, salt, yeast and butter (in small pieces) into a large bowl. Pour the at least hand-warm water/milk mix into the bowl and immediately start kneading with your strong hand. Keep one hand clean, first, to hold the bowl or if needed for something (Trust me: There is nothing more annoying than needing a clean hand right after you just stuck both into the dough!). In the beginning, it feels a bit messy, but after some mixing and kneading the dough becomes more sticky and dry. When your kneading hand is more or less dry, start kneading enthusiastically with both hands. You may take the dough lump out of the bowl and do that on a big wooden board or the table. Knead for 10 minutes! This is very important! The dough might look homogenous after 2 minutes, but you have to continue treating it hard for much longer! This has to do with the chemical structure of flour and the mechanical forces that make the long carbohydrate chains intermingle. The longer you knead the better the bread will be in the end! When the dough is done, keep it covered at a warm place for 20 to 30 minutes for the yeast to rise. Strictly avoid breezes! My father (an experienced baker who taught me many tricks) used to put the bowl with the dough into a tempered water bath. In case your home has a heating, place it there. Taiwan is hot enough, I just put it on the balcony (securely covered to protect from dirt and dust!).

Meanwhile, prepare the “special ingredients mix” (you could just skip this, then the dough will become a very “ordinary” bread): In a suitable bowl or cup, mix the black sesame, polenta and coarsely ground Goji berries (I put a big handful of berries into a plastic bag and smash them with a hammer, but you might find more elegant methods) with hot water (I don’t measure it, but it must be roughly 100ml). Let it stand.

When the first dough is grown to at least double its original size (after about 20-30 minutes), add the Goji-sesame-corn-mix into the bowl. The addition of this watery mass would make the dough too wet, so you will have to add additional flour. Proceed as in the first part: Knead the mix with only one hand first, use the clean hand to add more flour until the dough feels dry enough (when nothing keeps sticking on your hand). Knead again thoroughly for 10 minutes. Keep warm for another 20-30 minutes.

Gojibrot2

After one more round of brief kneading, place the lump in the baking mould. If required (for example, if your baking pan is not of good quality), coat the inside of the mould with butter so that the finished bread comes out easily. Heat the oven to 180-200°C. Meanwhile, the dough will grow further in the mould. Before putting it into the oven, make a cut along its top so that it can “unfold”. Sparkle a few drops of water across the surface for proper humidity in the oven while baking and to make the top perfectly crunchy (don’t ask me how and why it works with water!). Bake the bread in the oven for 35-40 minutes. After taking it out, let it stand for at least 15 minutes. When you cut it too early, it will most likely fall apart.

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This bread is suitable for sweet toppings (jam, honey, chocolate spread, peanut butter, etc.) and for savoury ones (cheese, ham, eggs, etc.). My favourite are slices with spreadable cheese, ham, egg, cucumber and tomato…

Superstition = Ignorance

In the previous letter I mentioned ignorance. This is an important topic that is worth elaborating further. According to Buddha’s teachings – and I fully agree! – it is one of the three mind poisons, besides attachment (or greed) and resistance (or hate). It is even regarded as the root of all mundane afflictions since it produces and amplifies attachments and resistances. Not knowing how things really are – how, then, can beneficial and sustainable decision-making be possible? One of the most obvious unwholesome manifestations of ignorance is a mindset based on the maxim ‘We have always done it like this!‘ as often observed in matters of tradition, customs and especially religious and superstitious practices.

A while ago, your Mom insisted on taking you to a nearby temple of the deity “Mazu” (媽祖), the heavenly goddess and patron saint of fishers and sailors, who was suggested by a fortune teller as your “Ganma” (a kind of patron or godmother). Since you are perfectly healthy and develop more than well your Mom wanted to thank the Mazu and please her with your visit. I know that this is very important for her, so I didn’t stop her and went with you. Actually, for me, these religious rituals, same as horoscopes and fortune telling, are entire nonsense! But, pragmatically speaking, if it makes the family happy, why not?! However, I had one serious objection: In Taiwan, it is a custom to burn tons of incenses and even paper money for the deities and ghosts of their folk religion, a mix of Daoism (the biggest influence), Confucianism and Buddhism with strong impact of shamanistic beliefs and practices. Bringing a little baby to such a smoky and polluted place is certainly not a good idea! Isn’t that ironic? We take you to a temple to pray for your good health and, by that, expose you for a considerable time (20-30 minutes) to highly carcinogenic air, heavily laden with the combustion products of organic material, full of heterocycles, acrylates, and many more. This is exactly my problem with ignorance! Instead of applying rational, reasonable, knowledge-informed considerations to their decision-making and choice of options for their life, people do stupid, unhealthy, counterproductive, inefficient things that are motivated by traditions, believes, fears and unquestioned customs that are passed down from ancient times in which the people really had no better idea. What a humbug!

IronyGhostmoney

Indeed, the ubiquitous burning of ghost money is one of the most annoying things about Taiwan, from my perspective. The air is bad enough, but there is nothing worse than neighbours who burn an entire bucket of paper sheets on each and every possible occasion (the lunar calendar is full of special days of hundreds of deities). Especially in the “ghost month” (lunar 7th month) there is a brown layer of ashes above the city. In Taipei the public burning of ghost money is forbidden, but still many people do it, because for them it is a severe offense to stop them from their traditional customs. Sometimes I wonder if the young generation that has at least some formal education is still really believing in ghosts and spirits and the effectiveness of pleasing them by burning paper. Yes, cultural customs and traditions deserve some respect just for the sake of being a cultural element deeply rooted in a society. However, there is a limit, and that is rational reason! When traditions are found to be entirely counterproductive (like producing air pollution to pray for health), there must be a way to change the custom! Even religious and other spiritual worldviews have to be adapted to contemporary levels of knowledge! Ignorance is NOT bliss! As long as a society doesn’t reach this level of understanding, it will remain an “underdeveloped” one. Sorry, Taiwan!

airpollution

Christmas?

Last Saturday was Christmas Eve. Since you are still a “blank page” and not conditioned and patterned by cultural customs, yet, you probably don’t have any special connection to it. Being born and raised in Germany, however, I have a strong connection to it, since it is the “biggest” holiday throughout the year. Now I am in Taiwan. Here, people have a very different idea of Christmas. This made me think about “culture” and “customs”, which I’d like to share with you today.

First, a little bit of history: Christmas is celebrated by Christians as the birth of Jesus Christ. However, the Bible, the most important source book of Christian belief, doesn’t mention any date. So, why December 25th? In the Roman empire, it was not common to celebrate birthdays, except for that of the emperor. When in the 3rd and 4th century AD clerical leaders became more influential, they promoted and established the celebration of Jesus’ birth who – according to their belief – is the highest “King” of all. The first reported “Christmas” was held in 367AD. The choice of the date is a great example of the most impacting factor on human culture and customs: nature and its phenomena like weather, climate, seasons, etc. Civilised human societies tend to integrate natural symbolism into their rituals and customs to a large extend. This is the ubiquitous process of “constructing meaning from experience”, the basis of all life. Jesus was celebrated as their savior from suffering and sins, the bringer of hope and “light”. In Europe, the influence of the seasons (long warm days in summer, short cold days in winter) is stronger than in areas closer to the equator like Taiwan. From observations of the sun the people knew that days get shorter in autumn until a day known as “winter solstice”. In the “Julian calendar” used at that time, that was December 25th. From then on, days get longer again, symbolising the appearance of the bringer of light – a perfect day to celebrate Jesus! It also shows a human trait that is independent from all manifested forms of religious practice: the desire to have a pleasant life free from atrocities and suffering that arises from social and environmental conditions (cruel leaders, natural catastrophes, etc.), and the constant hope that “things get better”. This makes the members of a clan (e.g. a family) cooperative and supportive. Therefore, I tend to believe that it is not directly Jesus that made the people celebrate Christmas, but the human culture of giving each other warmth and hope in the dark times. Later, the Gregorian calendar substituted the Julian calendar as the commonly used one. Winter solstice, since then, was December 22nd, but Christmas was kept on December 25th, that’s why today the two events are on different days.

The element of “giving” is in one or the other way manifested in all cultural realms. Two more legends about giving and sharing are important for the history of Christmas. The first is that of the Bishop of Mira in Ancient Turkey, named Nikolaus. In times of drought and famine, he committed a miraculous act of providing enough food for the population of his town by unloading much more from a ship than could have been in it. In fact, the ship was almost empty when it arrived, but he told the workers to keep unloading and it took long time until it was actually empty. This miracle put him into the state of a “Saint”. He was also known for visiting the houses of poor families, giving gifts to the children. The Kids of the town, then, often indicated their biggest wishes by placing letters or other items in the windows of their room, so Saint Nikolaus could respond to their wish. His honorary day is December 6th, and until the 16th century it was a custom in Christian Europe that parents give gifts to children on that day (with the educational element of checking whether they behaved well throughout the year). The church reformer Martin Luther attempted to move this custom of giving gifts from Saint Nikolaus’ day to Christmas since Jesus is the more prominent “bringer of light/hope/love” than any Saint. Since then, Christian families give gifts on both days.

In Northern Europe, which is much colder and more snowy than the South, and also much darker in the winter time, there are different legends and tales about giving. The most prominent might be the one of “Father Frost”. Probably, this legend arose from a grumpy hermit living in the deep forest, surrounding himself with mysterious and sometimes scary stories. “Stay away from him! He eats children!”. He was depicted as a kind of beggar man with ragged clothes and a wild tousled white beard. But he was told to have a kind heart, and in the darkest and coldest nights of the year he sneaked into the villages, just to create something joyful, amusing or entertaining for the people, especially the Kids. Maybe he even made gifts.

Now we change the location, from Europe to North America. During the 18th and 19th century, millions of European tried to start a new life in the “New World”, crossing the ocean on ships, bringing European customs and traditions – or their interpretations of them – to America. Many of those emigrants, however, wanted to break with those old European traditions. Christmas lost its meaning. But people need narratives, something to belief in. During the 19th century, those above mentioned legends all mixed and merged into a new figure: Father Christmas, or “Santa Claus”. You can easily see the elements of Father Frost and the Saint Nikolaus in it, even though both have literally nothing to do with Christmas, except for their special trait of “giving”. In the late 19th century, the CocaCola company used Santa Claus as an advertisement figure and dressed him in the company’s colour red. As you can see today, this had a huge impact on the global perception of Christmas. US-American imperialism brought this form of “corporate Christmas” to all parts of the world, so that today even the non-Christian societies celebrate “X-mas”. This has two sides: Positively said, the idea of “giving warmth and love” is so universal that it does not necessarily have to relate to Jesus Christ, so for the “X” in “X-mas” you may insert your own personal belief or religion. Negatively said, however, we can state that a once meaningful and culturally deeply rooted and naturally grown custom is degenerated into a commercial “romantic” holiday that lost its original meaning. Today, people all over the planet watch American Hollywood movies presenting “the Christmas atmosphere” – something that has to do with snow, eating birds and having romances – and try to artificially create that same atmosphere even when the climate (no snow, not even cold), the local food culture (no roasted turkeys) and the idea of “romance” (e.g. in the more interpersonally distant Confucian societies) are entirely different. The “original desire to give and to form clan ties by establishing rituals and customs” is now replaced by the mindless and meaningless “longing for being like others” as a desperate try to be “as cool/fancy/funny/special as them”. Take Taiwan, for example: The big majority has no idea what Christmas is originally about. They know it from American movies. They think it is about Santa Claus, so they wear red hats, and the main element is “romance”, so it is comparable to our “Valentine’s Day”. The idea of clan- or family-internal giving of warmth and hope, of active creation of harmony and peace is lost.

For me, Christmas is strongly associated to childhood memories. My family is not religious, but in Germany it is impossible not to celebrate Christmas. Everybody does. Luckily (from a certain perspective), my family didn’t follow Christian rituals blindly, but we have always been aware of what Christmas is about: peaceful, cozy, heart-warming family time. When the sun sets at 4pm and rises at 9am, it just feels good to have a tree decorated with lights in front of the main door of our house. Preparing gifts for the other family members – self-made or bought – is as joyful as receiving the gifts from the others on Christmas Eve. This was the most special time of the year! Now, in Taiwan, I can’t have “Christmas mood”. My family (parents, grandparents, siblings) is not here, and the climate is different, too (not cold and dark enough). That’s why we could hold our annual “Gingerbread House Party” on Christmas Eve! In Germany, it wouldn’t work, because nobody would come since it is THE family festival of the year.

I was thinking a lot about what kind of traditions and family customs to expose you to. I am not religious and don’t want to indoctrinate you with biblical stories of Jesus that I myself don’t believe in. But even more, I don’t want to “teach” you that Christmas has something to do with red hats and buying expensive toys for you. Constructing meaning from experience. This should be the orientation for everything we decide to do. We experience love and the desire to make each other happy. Times are not always smooth and pleasant. Winter Solstice is a good example for the ups and downs of daily life: Days get shorter, darker, colder, but soon they will get longer, warmer, brighter again. And after all, it is us humans that make each other’s lives joyful, hopeful and happy. I hope, we can let you feel these experiences and their real meaning for our life. Then it doesn’t need Santas, reindeers, material gifts, church services or special meals. Then it is about love. Jesus would like that!

Research Portfolio

I am a researcher at University, currently as “Postdoctoral Research Fellow” at National Chung Hsing University in Taichung, Taiwan. I am working on a project entitled “Ethical and Social Implications of the National Nanotechnology Initiative in Taiwan”. Many people are not very familiar with this kind of research. Therefore, I’d like to explain a little more about it.

My research interests are situated between the cornerstones (blue boxes) “Science and Technology”, “Philosophy” and “Society”.

portfolio

I understand “Science and Technology” (S&T) as a social, academic and political endeavour that aims at facilitating and supporting the development of artifacts and infrastructures that have the potential to enrich and increase the quality of life. This ranges from “basic research”, applied sciences and engineering to product development and industrial production, covering all enactors and drivers of technological progress. “Philosophy“, from my point of view, is the attempt to reflect on metaphysical, epistemological and ontological questions on the one hand, and to elaborate principles and reasoning strategies for what is “good” and “right” on the other hand. I understand Philosophy as a down-to-earth and highly practical approach rather than a purely intellectual and academic discipline. The “Society” is both target group and study object of my research: the evaluation of the impact of S&T on the society and the societal background of scientific and technological activity on the one hand, and the exploitation of these findings for a socially healthy and sound progress. While “Science” and “Philosophy” can be understood as academic fields, “society” is a term that describes an entity of our lifeworld. On purpose I chose not to call it “Sociology” since I have no educational background in this field, whereas I can call myself “Scientist” (PhD in Chemistry/Nanosciences) and “Ethicist” (Master in Applied Ethics).

How are these three fields connected (green boxes)? Accompanying technological progress (including “science” as its foundation) with research on societal and environmental implications is a matter of “Technology Assessment” (TA). Historically, it developed from a rather technological or economic tool (e.g. analysing the components of a technological artefact concerning their probability to malfunction and risking a loss of the object or harm for someone or something) into a political and sociological tool that aims at taking the “larger picture” of technological development into account. It was highly promoted and extended by the academic field of “Science, Technology and Society” (STS), a sociological discipline. An important precondition is the acceptance of social constructivism as predominant driver of development, instead of technological determinism. The social constructivist approach allows to intervene any development process and guide it into the “right” direction. If progress was deterministic it would be a meaningless endeavour.

In the “Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics” we find this definition:

Technology Assessment (TA) is a scientific interactive and communicative process that aims to contribute to the formation of public and political opinion on societal aspects of science and technology.

Let me explain it a little more detailed. The “object” that TA is working on is “science and technology”. This includes all parts of the development chain, from design and planning via research, fabrication, product development, marketing and sales to consumption, application, and finally disposal and/or recycling. TA understands itself as “accompanying research on societal aspects” of S&T, which include ethical and also legal aspects (all summarized as “ELSI”). Furthermore, it is important to point out that it is an academic discipline that is devoted to scientific methodologies and procedures. Institutional TA can be found at universities or in independent research facilities as well as in the form of “offices” that perform professional TA for governments (e.g. the Office for Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag, Büro für Technikfolgenbewertung beim Deutschen Bundestag) or corporations as a kind of science consulting. Bringing together expertise from various fields such as science, industry, politics, social sciences, Philosophy and jurisprudence, its nature is highly interdisciplinary. It is often highlighted that TA is “communicative” because the generation of orientational knowledge  necessarily needs exchange of information among experts, a solution-oriented debate and the communication of conclusions, strategies and/or recommendations to the relevant stakeholders, decision-makers and – in some cases – the general public. The public is both a stakeholder and a target group: Representatives of public interest groups participate in TA processes and debates (e.g. patient groups in medical topics or environmental activists in projects with potential environmental impact); and at the same time the whole effort is undertaken in order to facilitate a socially sound and healthy development. The ultimate goal is the contribution to a sustainable development of society and its environment by creating a knowledge and insight base for efficient governance and policy-making. One extreme viewpoint would be that TA blocks innovation by influencing the decision-making with doubtful concerns and conservative fear-mongering. The other extreme would then be to take TA as an acceptance creator: Convincing the public and politicians that a new technology (e.g. Genetics or Nanotechnology) has great potential benefits, and creating a positive image of this technology in order to unleash its full potential. Certainly, TA is neither of this. From a more balanced point of view, TA aims at serving as an “early warning” against possible side-effects and risks of S&T development on the one hand, and at recognizing potentials and benefits of new technologies and exploring strategies to optimally harvest chances on the other hand.

The role of Philosophy in this approach is mostly manifested as “Ethics“. It means the “study of what is good and/or right” and has a tradition that dates back to the Ancient Greek Philosophers in Europe and Confucius, Laozi and Buddha (as the most prominent representatives) in Asia (6th century BC). It is useful to distinguish descriptive ethics (the study of what certain people or societies believed in certain times, their value systems and worldviews), prescriptive ethics (the “core” of Ethics, elaborating the normative rules we call “morals”) and “meta ethics” (the “ethics of ethics”, reflections on purpose and performance of Ethics). In recent years a new boom of ethics could be observed under the umbrella term “Applied Ethics” (or sometimes “Practical Ethics”). Most prominent examples in this field are bioethics, medical ethics, research ethics, business ethics, profession ethics, media ethics and political ethics.The abovementioned aspects of modern TA approaches such as identifying risks and other problematic concerns, defining what are “benefits” and for whom, classifying and weighing arguments and values, and foreseeing in which way certain decisions might conflict with particular moral values, require a reasonable and strong normative framework within which debates can be held or decisions can be made.  In this respect ethics is a fundamental and crucial element of modern TA concepts such as participatory TA, constructive TA or Parliamentary TA. The role of Ethics in a TA debate is primarily the moderation of the interdisciplinary debate and the identification of argumentation lines, fallacies, contradictions (and similarities), logic or formal mistakes, etc. Different stakeholders speak “different languages” that are coloured and shaped by their respective discipline and professional environment (e.g. when a scientist speaks of “freedom” he might mean something different than the lawyer speaking of “freedom”). An ethicist sorts and interprets the arguments according to the established ethical principles (e.g. deontology, consequentialism, contractarianism, virtue ethics, etc.). Ideally, after a debate in which all viewpoints could be exchanged and discussed, a conclusion can be derived on the basis of a set of values that the group agreed upon. TA doesn’t provide stakeholders and decision-makers with recommendations like “Do A to achieve B.”, but with arguments of the form “If you consider doing A, take into account that B might occur which affects a value C in a certain way.”. The value C can be characterized by one or more of these ethical dimensions, for example principles of justice, responsibility, autonomy, freedom, equality, security, health, etc., the action A is one of the elements in the development chain from scientific research via product development and marketing, regulation and policy-making up to application and consumption. The possible effect B that might occur is either a risk or, when supposed to be “positive”, a benefit. Again, the input from normative sciences (Ethics) is necessary for identifying those risks and benefits by compiling the values that determine if an effect is rather a risk or a benefit.

With the narrower but still wide frame of these areas of S&T research we can go further into detail. I regard my research as a contribution to S&T-related governance and policy-making, providing “orientational knowledge” that helps decision-makers to reflect the important matters of the decisions they are responsible for on a solid knowledge base. A term that is often stressed in this case is “sustainability“. I promote a holistic idea of sustainability that includes not only economic and societal stability and wealth, but also environmental health and global balance. Modern S&T activities have, in many ways, a global character. Not only are the enactors of scientific and technological progress internationally connected in networks and collaborations, but many of the wanted and unwanted effects of technology impact the entire globe rather than a locally confined area of it. This also gives TA and the reflection on ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI) a highly intercultural character. Different cultures with different legal systems and different worldviews and value systems might come to different evaluations of risks and benefits, set different priorities in ethical conflicts, or require different measures when defining the implications of “sustainability”.

Here – and this is the central theme of my research interest (red circle) – the interculturality aspect takes a significant turn: I believe that there is no (one) “global” solution for the conflicts and problems that go along with the development of S&T under the paradigm of uncertainty and post-positivism. Instead, it is important to look into the social and cultural specificities of the particular cultural realm. Embedding political decision-making on S&T-related issues, fed by TA and related knowledge sources, into the context of worldviews, mentalities and the “social reality” of a particular “society” (e.g. a nation, or a union of nations like the EU) can contribute positively to the goal of sustainability. The principles and ideas that are exploited for the ethical evaluation of human attitude, behaviour and activity (we can also say: the metaphysical foundations of morality) vary from culture to culture with the “Western” (European, North American) one as the predominant and the “Asian” as the second most prominent. Currently, the “non-western world” is confronted with both the effects of (characteristically western) S&T progress and their (also predominantly western) political and legal frameworks. However, the values and worldviews that underlie governance principles as well as laws and regulations – in some but not all cases – collide with different value settings in those non-western countries. Culturally specific ethical and societal foundations and their application in S&T policy surely facilitate a more sustainable development than the inconsiderate copy of methodologies, principles, guidelines, etc. of another culture.

I’d like to specify my research interests further by outlining my particular competences and expertise (purple boxes). The scientific field that I am most familiar with is Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies since I did (lab) research in that field (nanostructured surface patterning by soft lithography). I also feel familiar with closely related fields such as biotechnology, genetic engineering, and energy-related matters. In the field of “Applied Ethics” I focus on science ethics and more society-focused technology ethics, but also medical ethics and bioethics if required. My contribution to TA comes from the side of accompanying ELSI studies rather than the “technical” sociological methodology. The cultural realm that I know most of and that I currently focus on is East and South-East Asia, in particular Taiwan, China, Korea, Japan (“Confucian societies”) and those influenced by Buddhism. Therefore, I acquired knowledge in Buddhist Ethics, its foundations and applications. As pointed out before, I put a focus on the specificities of particular cultures in a global comparison of cultural realms. This is an endeavour of “comparative philosophy” that analyses schools of thought and sets them into perspective to others, by this enabling the international and intercultural communication of knowledge, insights and ideas.

Traffic phenomena in Taiwan

1. Introduction and problem definition

When I came to Taiwan for the first time, I got the impression that it is a “developed” country: everybody has a car and a mobile phone, factories and companies all along the highways, a high speed railway, one of the tallest skyscrapers of the world in the center of the capital Taipei, and many more hints. Upon a closer look, though, especially as a resident of Taiwan calling it “my home”, it seems to me that the Taiwanese society is in several ways underdeveloped and primitive. Taiwan has huge social problems, with people having low education, low understanding for social interaction and a lack of ethical and moral behaviour. I could give hundreds of examples that support this thesis, for example business fraud, food scandals, low mass media quality, betel nut consumption, extreme religious superstition, etc. However, the longer I stayed in Taiwan the more I felt unhappy about “complaining” and criticising the Taiwanese people. After all, Taiwanese are not “bad people”, and looking down upon them is arrogant and wrong. In order to find a way to “harmonise” my view at Taiwan I consulted the areas of life that help me the most in many cases: science and philosophy. I tried to figure out a way to explain the specific situation of Taiwan and its citizen so that I can understand the people’s behaviour and mentality (and – by this – be able to forgive them). This is the realm of social sciences, psychology and a bit of philosophy. I’d like to illustrate my logic by the topic “traffic”. This is the “public sphere” with the highest impact on everybody’s daily life. Moreover, it is very obvious that Taiwan has a “traffic problem”. Let me circumstantiate this claim with some numbers: Taiwan has a traffic death index of over 35 according to independent statistics (the government officially published a value of 16, but experts say it is definitely not correct). That means, out of 100,000 “traffic acts” (a journey from A to B) 35 never reach their destination (for comparison: Germany 2.8; USA 5.3; Kongo 11.2; Philippines 17). Unfortunately, I lost the link to the source of these values, but as soon as I find it again, I add it here. Some Taiwanese claim that Taiwan is just too small and too many people want to use the little space. I don’t agree to that! Cities like Seoul or Tokyo have a much higher density of people and vehicles and yet the traffic is not that terrible. I see the source of all problems in the individual behaviour and its underlying mentality, and that’s why I want to focus on that in the following descriptions. I will first present my observations on Taiwanese roads, illustrated in graphical sketches. Then I will present a model based on constructive realism that helps identifying the mismatch between “Western” technology (and its usage) and “Taiwanese” mentality and worldview.

It is very important to point out that the following text uses “generalisation” as a tool. Of course, not everybody is the same. Of course, it is not right to blame “everybody” for the flaws of some. If you are Taiwanese and feel offended because you don’t drive like I describe, well, then just don’t feel adressed and be proud of being not like the stereotype depicted here! Unfortunately, Taiwan is not a “feedback culture”. Direct open criticism of others’ behaviour is very seldom and not appreciated. This makes change and progress very slow, because people usually don’t have the trigger to re-think and reflect their behaviour and, therefore, won’t consider changing a custom or habit. I am not in the position to tell Taiwanese what they “should do better”, but if my article makes only one scooter driver hesitate before driving on the sidewalk in the wrong direction through a crowd at a bus stop, I call it “successful”. All these traffic-related death cases are avoidable! But the change to the better can only be achieved when people are open-minded enough to see the real reasons for the problem and the own role in it instead of blaming outer circumstances like the size of the Island or the government.

2. Observations

To explain my observations of traffic behaviour I made illustrations comparing Taiwanese customs (on the right) to an “ideal” (and, by the way, legally demanded) behaviour (on the left). In an original version I labelled the left part with a German flag since I believe the German traffic behaviour is highly regulated and people are used to stick to the rules (except speed limits, to some extend). In order to avoid unnecessary discussions about the correctness of my perception of German traffic, I just label the left side as “ideal case”.

I start with a rather symbolic example: How to deal with a dead-end road. Probably (and hopefully) it doesn’t happen too often in Taiwan, but it does happen, which can be taken as a perfect example of the mindset that most Taiwanese have. This gives a hint of the reasons why the situation here is what it is.

traffic1

When a road is labelled as a dead end road it would be wise not to drive into it when the destination is not in that road. If it is somewhere “behind” it, one would take another way even if that is longer. Many Taiwanese will enter the road with the “dead end” sign even though they know the destination is beyond the end of the road. This has several reasons. First of all, the trust in road signs is very low, rooted in the low trust in the government and official institutions. Maybe the sign is old and not valid anymore but nobody removed it. Maybe the sign was already invalid in the first place and there is no dead end at all. Maybe someone put the sign there to fool the drivers or just to force them to go another way, but actually the road is open. There is also a considerable amount of drivers in Taiwan that just don’t see the sign. “Road blindness” is a widespread and dangerous phenomenon in Taiwan: People not even recognising what the situation is and what proper action needs to be applied. Another aspect is the high degree of superstition and the strong influence of religious believes: Taiwanese people strongly believe in ideas of “fortune” and “luck”. By praying to various Gods and other heavenly entities in temples and shrines, and by burning incences and huge amounts of Ghost money at home, at shops or at sacred sites, they increase their chances to experience fortunate incidents and to simply have more luck by being favoured by ghosts and gods. By driving into the dead-end road they try this luck. In an environment where nothing, especially not the government, is trustworthy, everything  – especially the personal achievement – is based on luck. Why not also a road that might miraculously open up somehow? You never know!

Whereas the former illustration is to depict the mindset of Taiwanese drivers, the next is the hard reality: Queueing at a junction at red traffic lights:

traffic2

People are expected to line up behind the white mark, independent from the type of vehicle. It is valid for cars, busses, trucks, but also motorcycles and scooters. Bicycles may pass on the right side if there is enough space. The pedestrian crossing has to be kept free in any case, that’s why a white line indicates where to stop. Taiwanese widely ignore the marks on the street completely! And I mean COMPLETELY! Not only they stop on the pedestrian crossings, they also don’t queue in the lanes that are marked, they just squeeze into every available space. Many scooters even overtake the whole queue on the opposite lane and stop in front of it, which – when many scooters do that – jams the junction completely. In many Taiwanese cities the roads, even big ones, have no sidewalk. Pedestrians walk literally on the street and have to fight their way through this chaos. On top of this, many scooters (in the illustration marked in red) even drive in the wrong direction (or, if you want to put it that way, on the wrong side of the street). I’d like to remark that the different number of vehicles in the graphic is just an illusion. On the left side, the queue is just longer. The Taiwanese all drive as far as possible to the front so that the density of vehicles per space is higher. This also slows down the traffic massively!

The next illustration is about parking the car:

traffic3

When visiting a store, a restaurant, a bank, a market stand or street vendor, Taiwanese usually park their vehicle right in front of it. Doing this with scooters and motorcycles is bad enough, because they block the sidewalk (or side of the road when there is no sidewalk) for pedestrians and especially those with wheelchairs or baby strollers. With cars and those small blue trucks that are ubiquitous in Taiwan it is worse, especially at junctions where they block the pedestrian crossings and make it impossible for busses to turn. Combine this illustration with the previous one, and you can get an idea of the chaos at many junctions here! It is also very common that bus stops are jammed with parked cars and scooters. It is not that there are no parking lots in Taiwan. But Taiwanese prefer the “convenient” way to just exit the car and enter the shop without walking too far. Also, they save the parking fee.

Talking of bus stops, there is another thing that annoys me a lot! Not to say, I am really upset, because this behaviour is the most stupid and dangerous of all: Overtaking a bus at a bus stop on the right side!

traffic4

In Taichung most roads have no sidewalk. Therefore, bus stops are literally just marks on the road. But this can never excuse the behaviour of many scooter drivers and sometimes even cars that overtake the bus on the right side while it is stopping at a bus stop and passengers enter and exit the bus. Some scooter drivers even honk their horns and drive full speed through the crowd. To complete this: also here I observed scooters doing this from the other side, riding in the wrong direction. This is horribly dangerous for the bus passengers, of course. The same reckless custom happens on the left side of the bus: disregarding the oncoming traffic people try to pass by the bus, sometimes jamming the road or, at least, putting themselves into a very dangerous situation when the space between bus and oncoming car is barely enough for a scooter. The option of waiting patiently behind the bus is seldomly taken into consideration. I take the bus from my home to my workplace every morning and back in the evening. It is a one-hour-ride through the city with 38 bus stops. Once I counted all scooters that pass by the bus on the right side at bus stops, it was 118. Not all of them cause a dangerous situation and might even watch out for pedestrians. But many times it almost comes to a crash with someone exiting the bus. Other crashs are only avoided by the passengers watching out and waiting for the scooters to pass which prolongues the time that the bus stands there with open doors, forcing more traffic participants to wait.

Another Kamikaze manoeuvre that can be observed everywhere and at any time is the way people turn left at junctions. The rule – which is reasonable and useful – is that anyone turning left has to let oncoming traffic pass by first, including the pedestrians on the crossing! Many Taiwanese car drivers ignore this rule and turn left whenever possible AND even when it is impossible. They slowly roll forward more and more until an oncoming vehicle leaves a little too much space or has to stop. Then they quickly rush to the left. Following left-turners only wait for that moment and all rush after the first car, so that the oncoming traffic has to stop completely. Some cars or trucks change to the left lane even long before the junction and drive the last meters before turning on the pedestrian crossing on the left. Scooters are even worse. The common pathway of a left-turning scooter is illustrated here:

traffic5

Not only the city traffic is an adventure, also a ride on the highway is! Even though the average speed on the expressways is much slower than in Germany, it is not safer or less challenging to use it in Taiwan. The rules for driving on the highway, like overtaking only on the left side, riding “as right as possible”, never using the emergency lane, etc., are – no surprise – widely ignored. Most highways and freeways in Taiwan have three lanes. The idea is that slower vehicles (trucks, slow cars or “relaxed” drivers) take the right lane at 90-100 km/h, the middle lane is for medium speed (110-120 km/h) and the left lane for overtaking at higher speed (>140 km/h). Vehicles should change the lane as seldom as possible and only to the left for overtaking and then back to the “rightest” lane according to their chosen speed. The acceleration lane at the highway entrance is for aligning to the speed on the right lane in order to filter in between two vehicles. Not so in Taiwan:

traffic6

The blatant impatience that we observed in the city traffic before is also ubiquitous on the highways: People just can’t wait. Slower vehicles are overtaken on both sides, including the emergency lane that is regarded as a fourth lane. When entering the highway, many drivers try to filter in by all means IN FRONT OF that truck! Slow cars often don’t change to the right lane, forcing faster travellers to overtake in risky manoeuvres. Other drivers change lanes out of a sudden without any obvious reason. This causes a high level of unpredictability. You never know what the driver in front of you will do next. What is not obvious from this illustration but not less dangerous: The distance between cars is usually way too short. The rule of thumb is: Your speed in km/h should be the distance in meters to the vehicle ahead of you. Sometimes drivers here leave much too little space (this is also a problem in Germany, I admit).

These observations allow certain conclusions: Obviously, Taiwanese people are extremely impatient, self-centered, reckless and unaware of the effect of their actions and decisions. No need to mention that this driving style causes conflicts and risks. However, it is also my observation that Taiwanese usually are not very upset about other drivers. From personal conversations I know that most Taiwanese don’t like the local traffic and they criticise other drivers a lot. But on the road, people usually don’t complain or insist on their rights. Misconduct is accepted and ignored. What would cause a massive case of “road rage” and aggression in Germany is so common in Taiwan that nobody really bothers.

3. Interpretation

“Traffic” as a public domain based on the development of the automobile technology is a “Western” invention. Carl Benz (who built the first motorised vehicle), Henry Ford (who initiated mass production of cars), Rudolf Diesel (who invented an alternative engine that uses lighter fuel) – the pioneers of automobiles are all European or American. Its development is highly embedded into “Western” social and cultural constitutions. During the colonisation by the West in the past century, especially by US-American geopolitical investment in East Asia (Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam) after World War II, Confucian societies were confronted with Western approaches of life conduct such as capitalism and democracy, as well as with Western technologies like automobiles. However, these domains were “uprooted” from their original cultural soil in which they were in line with values, worldviews and social contracts, and imposed onto societies with completely different preconditions, mentalities and education levels. In order to understand this aspect better, the concept of “constructive realism”, suggested by Fritz Wallner ([1],[2]) can be applied.

Constructive Realism distinguishes three levels of reality. The first, most fundamental, is the “actuality” (German: Wirklichkeit). It is the real world that we find ourselves in, that all living creatures must rely on to survive. It may have certain structures or may function according to certain rules, but humans have no access to these structures or rules, and no way to recognise them. No matter how hard we attempt to explain these structures, it will always be incomplete or insufficient, because we are limited in our cognitive tools. Therefore, the explanations and their comprehensions remain a human construction. The structures of this world, its temporal and spatial distances and causal laws, are all hypotheses proposed by mankind. For our purpose, we don’t need to speculate about this level of reality, but leave it to the philosophers. We are more interested in the other two levels that constitute the world that we are able to understand: our lifeworld and several microworlds (in analogy to Berger and Luckmann ([9]) who named them “social everyday reality” and “provinces of meaning” or “subuniverses”, respectively). The knowledge created within each construction results in different worldviews with distinct functions, manifested and sustained by different types of language.

The lifeworld is the reality sphere in which an individual find itself living in. The contents of it can neither be exhausted nor can human beings go beyond their boundaries. Lifeworlds exist inevitably at a particular point in history, differing by historical age and culture, undergoing slow or drastic changes. However, despite the changes, lifeworlds are constantly sustained by a transcendental formal structure called cultural heritage. The perception and realisation (or better: construction) of the lifeworld by a cultural group (i.e. a society, the citizen of a nation, etc.) can be characterised by originative thinking (according to Heidegger [3], [4]), substantive rationality (as in Weber 1921/1963 [5]) and participative construction (see Levi-Bruhl [7]). The constitution of the lifeworld helps the members of the cultural group to form worldviews concerning the “common” metaphysical questions of life, like purpose and meaning of life, self-cultivation and self-recognition, or value and belief-systems (Whorf [10]).

The other world construction is that of the microworld. Microworlds are the realm of “experts” and people with specifically elaborated knowledge in particular fields such as natural or social and normative sciences, politics, economy, etc. Within any given microworld the reality of the given world is replaced by a second order constructed reality that can be verified by empirical methods. The knowledge created in a microworld is characterised by technical thinking (in terms of Heidegger), a formal rationality (Weber [5], [6]) and dominative construction (Evans-Pritchard [8]). Microworlds impact our worldviews by facilitating the recognition and understanding of the “real” world (see, for example, Kuhn [11]).

It is worthwhile to have a closer look at the ambivalent influence that lifeworld and microworlds have on each other. The most important carrier of culture is language. It is also the medium through which lifeworlds are comprehended, analysed and recorded (see, for example, Wittgenstein’s “language game” approach, [13]). People sharing a cultural heritage also share the power of reinterpreting it. Intersubjective communication may determine the interpretation of cultural tradition and helps to establish acceptable standards of behaviour, identify with their community, and strengthen social integration. The language sets of lifeworlds and specific microworlds are fundamentally different in function and character and, therefore, incompatible. Yet, the development of scientific and other microworlds has massive impact onto the lifeworld of the social and cultural realms that they affect. According to Habermas’ theory of the differentiation of social systems from peoples’ lifeworlds,[14] the progress of microworlds that gain enough power and impact to constitute a “social system” can lead to a discrepancy or even a mismatch between the lifeworld of people and one or more microworlds that they are confronted with. The original functions of communication (satisfying three social needs: cultural reproduction, social integration, individual socialisation) are undermined and substituted by material reproduction, social control and individual autonomy. In a process Habermas called “colonisation of the lifeworld by the system” the originative thinking is replaced by technical thinking, so that money and power replace the position of language in the lifeworld, becoming the media for system integration. Systems in the lifeworld are liberated from regulation by social norms and become more and more autonomous. Finally, the new order of the social system begins to instrumentalise the lifeworld. In simpler words: Individual people embedded into a certain lifeworld (a culture, a society) gain specific knowledge to elaborate a microworld (for example: a new technology, a new physical law, a new political theory, a new jurisdiction paradigm, a new education or psychotherapy approach). When this microworld grows big enough it has a recurrent effect onto the lifeworld it is affecting. In case it is the lifeworld of the society it originates from, it may or may not be in harmony with the lifeworld’s consequences on worldview (the meaning of life, values, virtues, etc.). When it matches there is no conflict, when it doesn’t match the lifeworld and microworld challenge each other and are forced to refine and re-define their worldviews. When the affected lifeworld is that of a completely different cultural or social realm, the impact might cause drastic changes and disharmonies in both lifeworld and microworld. An example might be the social system (and form of “microworld”) “capitalism”. Max Weber identified its roots dating back to Protestant Ethics and its Zeitgeist of Europe in the 16th/17th century. It emerged and gained power because the lifeworld of European societies at that time was “right” for it. The values, virtues and beliefs of the people shaped the principles and political and economic implementation of “capitalism” in its development during the 19th and early 20th century. When it was “exported” to other parts of the world, especially East Asia (Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan) around the mid of the last century, it was imposed onto Confucian, non-individualistic societies. In other words: The microworld “capitalism” that flourished on the soil of the lifeworld “Christian, individualistic, Kantian, democratic” was uprooted and transplanted onto a lifeworld “Taoist, interrelational, Confucian” (the political organisation was too different for the mentioned countries to be termed here). The technical system was exported without the normative guidelines, without the instructions. Today we see an extremely unhealthy, greedy, exorbitant materialistic form of hyper-capitalism in East Asian countries, going along with high degree of stress-related depression, high suicide rates and rampant unhappiness and psychological degeneration, not to speak of massive environmental destruction.

Social psychologist Kuang-Kuo Hwang from National Taiwan University applied this model to “indigenous Psychology”,[15] I exploited it to reason my approach of elaborating an “Asian” concept of “Applied Ethics” based on Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist philosophy. I believe that it can also be applied perfectly to “traffic”: After the invention of the technology “automobile” it entered the public domain through mass production and the construction of infrastructure (roads, gas stations, parking lots, etc.) and the economic market. It was accompanied over decades by governance and regulation that is based on European understandings of “law and order”, individual rights, safety, etc. “Individual” traffic in which a technical layman (someone who doesn’t know how a car works) is given the control over a technical artefact (a car) that is so strong that it can cause damage and death when used improperly requires people with a certain degree of social and ethical mentality. In post-enlightenment era (and post-WWII) Europe this was given. An individualistic democratic society in which everyone receives education in technical and normative aspects of life, learning about cause-effect-relations, physics, but also social and moral behaviour, an adult can be considered “prepared to participate in automobile traffic”. A certain degree of patience, respect, consideration and awareness of a “social contract” are preconditions for “traffic” in this form.

What happened in Taiwan? Until the 1980s wide parts of the population were too poor to own a car. After the democratisation processes and growing wealth of the population, the roads (that were mostly in poor conditions) filled rapidly with cars and small trucks. The traffic death rate was tremendously high because people drove the cars and trucks just like they drove scooters or bicycles before. Most people, especially the elderly, never received a proper school education, have no sense for speed and physical energy transformation, and additionally show a lack of patience, caution and other necessary character dispositions. Young people are not encouraged to drive “better” because there are no incentives for it and – a phenomenon of a Confucian society – nobody tells them to or criticises them. The school and education system is designed to prepare the Kids for a life dominated by technical and practical skills (more Western microworlds: microelectronic industry, capitalist economy, universities, functionally differentiated society, etc.), but doesn’t make them “free thinkers” with high personal moral integrity. Moreover, except making it obligatory to wear helmets on motorcycles and scooters, there is no significant political attempt to improve the traffic situation (for example by pushing through parking regulations, speed limits, etc., or by controlling the traffic with a higher presence of policemen, or by improving the driver education and license tests). With other words: the social, historical and cultural preconditions for the microworld “traffic” in Taiwan are fundamentally different from those in Europe.

4. Conclusion

What is the conclusion from such a finding? Criticism is only “constructive” (and criticism should always be constructive, otherwise it is just a complaint) when an alternative or strategy for improvement is suggested or offered. However, the case here is not so simple. The problem can be expressed in two ways: “Taiwanese are not ready for individual motorised traffic.” or “Individual motorised traffic is not suitable for the Taiwanese society.”. The difference is the point of intervention: Either something has to be changed in the microworld “traffic” or its implementation in the society, or the society has to re-think and refine its conclusions from lifeworld aspects, that means its values and worldviews and, as a consequence, its actual behaviour and life conduct. The question is: What is more difficult? It will certainly be impossible to “remove” the microworld “traffic” from this Island. It has conveniences that nobody wants to miss and became a substantial part of daily life. However, the regulations and guidelines that tell how “traffic” is done are not natural laws or eternally fixed. They can and should be adapted for the needs and specificities of the particular society they are subjected on. Another solution could be to design the infrastructure of roads and other traffic-related facilities in a way that “forces” drivers to drive slower or more carefully (for example: build proper sidewalks with “bus stop bays”, construct separating elements between lanes, make roads so narrow that overtaking becomes impossible, etc.). Maybe a higher presence of policemen and higher penalties would do, or more strict driver education. Ultimately, given the latest developments in autonomous cars and self-driving vehicles, it could be a great solution for Taiwan to take the responsibility out of Taiwanese drivers’ hands and let the cars “decide” about speed, distance and manoeuvres. These are technical questions about the fashion of the microworld, most of which are political aspects.

However, all these solutions sound a little bit like “We accept that Taiwanese are not mentally capable of western-style traffic, so we make it “idiot-proof” in order to keep it running.”. What about the other option of “changing peoples’ mindsets”? Is it possible to “make a society more patient” or to “create an environment of safety and care” in which people reflect selflessly what they are doing and how it affects others? From a certain perspective it is much harder to change habits and behaviour patterns than laws and regulations. I believe, however, that the most sustainable solution is a mix of both. As long as Taiwanese don’t start reflecting and questioning their normative foundations, their ethics and morals, and the way they choose to live together and cooperate, the best political, legal or technological solution won’t bring groundbreaking benefits. Siddharta Gautama Buddha taught (and I agree fully) that the mind creates thoughts, thoughts become action, actions become habits, habits become character (or “personality”) and character determines the “fate” of a person. It all starts with the mindset: The starting point of all individual and interrelational change is the awareness for the phenomena and characteristics of this world. Raising awareness and supporting the mindfulness of people can partly be achieved by institutionalised education (Kindergarten, schools, etc.), but is mostly a matter of “social environment”. Young people can be “taught” how to “do right” in traffic, but the more sustainable way would be to equip them with a mindset that tells them “I should be patient in this situation because otherwise I cause trouble to another traffic participant!” or “The safety of that pedestrian is more important than me arriving in time!”, rather than “I am patient because I was told to be.” or “I drive slowly because otherwise the policeman will give me a penalty.”. A traditionalist might insist on Confucian values and social models, for example favour (renqing), relationships (guanxi) and face (mientse). From this, a theory of distributive justice as basic part of ordinary people’s ethics can be deducted.[16] However, it turned out that “Confucian traffic conduct” obviously doesn’t work out well. To a certain extend, people might have to give up their idea of “face” and start giving each other feedback and criticism in order to induce a change to the better. Maybe people should stop understanding “burning ghost money” and “bowing with incenses in front of a Buddha statue” as Buddhist or Taoist practice, but spend more efforts and time on practicing mindfulness and awareness in order to manifest character dispositions such as patience, empathy and compassion (which would truly be “the Buddhist way”). Maybe people should be motivated (by school education, mass media, etc.) to reflect upon the question of “how we want to live” in this society and on ways to personally contribute to the “change to the better”. Changes like this usually need several decades, at least one or two generations. When more and more (young?) people raise their voices against careless and reckless driving, more and more people might feel urged to re-think their behaviour. How many traffic death cases have to happen before enough people change their driving style? I see Taiwan on the way, but there is still a long distance to go when the pace is not massively accelerated. And, from my point of view, this is only possible by reflecting on worldview and value systems as part of the lifeworld. Blaming or working on the microworld “traffic” alone will not solve the problem.

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  11. Kuhn T, “Possible Worlds in the History of Science”, in: Possible worlds in humanities, arts and sciences, proceedings of Nobel Symposium 65 (ed. S Allen), pp.9-32, deGruyter, New York, USA, 1986

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  16. Hwang KK, “The deep structure of Confucianism: a social psychological approach”, Asian Philosophy 2001, 11(3), pp.179