Culture shock, imposter syndrome and other challenges I faced living in Taiwan
Author: Sherry Hsia
Excerpted from Canada’s First Women-Only virtual business mission to Taiwan panel organized by Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.
Since I graduated from college in 1996, I have worked in an American ad agency in San Francisco, had two short stints in the garment and film industries in Taiwan, started my own company in hospitality marketing and recruitment, worked in a family-run culinary school, and, most recently, started my own consulting firm. In the past 25 years, I’ve had experiences working in both western and eastern culture environments. I have been a foreign worker, a local employee, a potential family business successor, and an entrepreneur.
There were plenty of ups and downs. Today I will share with you some significant observations gleaned throughout the development of my career.
The shock of having culture shock in my hometown!
Even though I was born and raised in Taiwan, I still experienced major culture shock when I moved back home after 11 years in the States.
When I worked in the advertising industry in the US, I wasn’t afraid to speak up or present my point of view, and my bosses appreciated my confidence. I had this fun bantering relationship with all my bosses and colleagues. They said I was sassy! They gave me direct feedback, both positive and negative. I was comfortable with our communication style, and I felt valued and appreciated. As a result, I worked harder, and I moved up fast.
Seven years later, when my work visa expired, I moved back to Taiwan. Proud of my accomplishment, I behaved in Taiwan as I did when I was in the States. But instead of being seen as sassy, I was viewed as insubordinate, disrespectful, and hard to work with (I am guessing because I asked too many questions?). I reacted quite poorly to that. Internally, I started to develop self-doubts. Externally, I toughened up and became very defensive and easily triggered when given feedback.
I reacted by only seeing the downsides of eastern culture. I blamed the local education system for cultivating only “yes people” and believed that MY way was the better way. This lasted for a long time until I received intercultural sensitivity training. I thought I was a global citizen with a global mindset because of my life experience, and I even served as a subject matter expert by teaching International Perspective in a school; however, it turned out I was actually quite ethnocentric in my thinking. I began to see that this approach was too often the root of the problems I had working in Taiwan. For example, I never understood why my employees couldn’t or wouldn’t give me feedback directly in meetings. I wanted to replicate the positive work environment from my ad agency days, where people were encouraged to speak truth to power, give each other feedback, and be direct in their communications. I believed I made very clear to my employees and teammates the workplace culture that I wanted to create, so when I made decisions and didn’t receive any objections, I assumed everyone was 100% in agreement with me. Imagine my surprise when I heard people say after the fact, “Yeah…we didn’t think it would work, but you had already made up your mind…”
“You should have said something!!! Why didn’t you say anything?” I would ask. The answers were usually along the lines of “But you are the boss!” or “It looked like you already made up your mind.” They were answers I could understand because they were different from how I would have conducted business. Again, it was only after my organizational psychology training that I realized giving employees orders for a few months or years as their boss was not enough to overturn their personality preference or the culture they grew up in that encourages respect and obedience to authority.
There are culture differences. The environment matters. What gets you here may not get you there.
You have to know your triggers so you can respond rather than react.
Every culture has its strengths and weaknesses. Isn’t this culture the reason Taiwan can maintain a sense of normalcy during the pandemic?!
What are some obstacles you faced? How did you overcome them?
There are nuisances and there are obstacles. Nuisances are like the usual condescending remarks or “mansplaining”—there is always an abundance of them. But the real obstacles are the ones coming from within.
Like many third culture kids, I have a very Chinese/Taiwanese side and I have a very
American/Western side. Each side has a specific expectation of the roles I play: boss, mother, daughter, wife, daughter-in-law, and friend. And of course, there is the universal dilemma every career woman faces: how to balance work and family life.
I held myself to the highest standard in all the roles I played. As a result, there was a period of time when I felt like a total failure, as I couldn’t meet all the standards I internalized and imposed on myself.
I dreaded waking up. The second I opened my eyes, there was a sense of heaviness and the urge to cry. Everything to me was an obligation, and nothing excited me or made me happy. This also led to imposter syndrome. I used to have confidence in my job performance when I had ample time to prepare. With the increase in roles and responsibilities, though, I never felt like I had enough time. I wasn’t able to give the 120% I was used to giving, so I felt like a fraud.
It took a lot of difficult work and professional help to get out of that slump. It’s the same help that I try to provide to others now. That work is ongoing and never complete. For example, I looked at the names and backgrounds of my fellow panelists and my first reaction was still, “Hmmm, these women are amazing. Did they make a mistake inviting me?” I had to coach myself out of that mindset.
How did I overcome that?
For a lot of successful career women, the default mode of solving a problem is to work harder. At first, I was no different, but this hard work drove me to physical and mental exhaustion, which led to stress and depression.
For me, the first step of solving a problem is to acknowledge that I have one. When I realized I did not even enjoy the time I spent with my kids, I realized I had a problem. I first met with a life coach, and then was fortunate enough to find the organizational psychology program at Columbia’s Teachers College. In the program, I learned from incredibly wise and insightful professors, was assigned a wonderful executive coach, took quite a few personality assessments, bonded with a group of amazing women friends, and used myself as a case study to apply all my learnings to helping myself.
It sounds cliché but it is really all about reconnecting with my inner self. So often you are buried by “shoulds” or driven by “revenge productivity” where you try to prove to others your self-worth, but while you accomplish a lot on the outside, you neglect yourself.
You can always stay connected to your authentic self through frequent meditation or journaling. However, sometimes you do need external assistance when you are struggling too much. A coach in combination with personality assessments such as Hogan and Myer-Briggs were helpful for me, and that is exactly the service I have now set up to provide to my clients.
Lastly, do something fun just for yourself!
Not for the sake of advancing your career, not because it will benefit your family—do it just for you! As Sheryl Sandberg recommended in Lean In, ask yourself what would you do if you weren’t afraid. It was a happy coincidence that I discovered pole dancing, which helped me discover pure joy because there was no expectation whatsoever on how I would perform. It helped me reconnect with my body and made me step outside of my comfort zone…and the result was very empowering.