Yun-Tzai Lee and Joanne Chen are one of those sickening couples that finish each other’s sentences, lace their fingers together and just won’t stop oozing adorable. But the three little words ‘I love you’ don’t come as easily to Lee as they do to his fiancée Chen. His face turns beetroot-red at the thought of uttering the phase, and causes him to feel ‘buhaoyisi’ (pronounced ‘boo-how-eee-suh’) – one of the many ways to feel mortified or to be sorry in Taiwan.
“Most people here will feel this way,” Lee said.
Welcome to the linguistic minefield of apologising in Taiwan, where simply saying ‘buhaoyisi’ can open a Pandora’s Box of profuse politeness. The word is made up of four characters that literally translate to ‘bad meaning’ or ‘bad feeling’, and serves as a tidy catch-all that can be deployed in all kinds of situations, from meekly catching a waiter’s attention to expressing a guilt-ridden apology to your boss to the paralysing feeling that washes over you as you struggle to confess your love.
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Buhaoyisi is forever on the lips of Taiwanese, according to Prof Chia-ju Chang, Chinese professor at Brooklyn College City University of New York. “We use it all the time as Taiwan is a verbally polite culture. So, we use it when we interrupt people or asking of a favour. We can even use it to start a conversation.”
Buhaoyisi is often spoken so fast that it comes out as a slurry of consonants that sounds like gibberish to the unsuspecting ear. And unlike ‘Entschuldigung’ in German or ‘excuse me’ in English, translating ‘buhaoyisi’ is no simple task, says Ouyu Yang, a teacher at National Taiwan University’s Chinese Language Division. The Western notion of ‘sorry’ is far too limited to express all the social graces and good form that weigh down on this loaded expression; buhaoyisi can also be a feeling, a sensation, a code of conduct and a whole system of thought that permeates Taiwanese culture.
The Western notion of ‘sorry’ is far too limited to express all the social graces and good form that weigh down on this loaded expression
Ride the subway in Taipei and you’ll hear a cacophonous chorus of ‘buhaoyisi’ as passengers gingerly nudge past others in humble deference. Enter a classroom, and you’ll see students start and end each question with ‘buhaoyisi’, dripping with a sense of indebtedness and gratefulness even as the discussion continues. Open an email, and the first line will usually be ‘Buhaoyisi’ – implying ‘sorry to slightly bother you’ – even for the smallest of favours. And if a dear cousin gives you a gift, the correct response isn’t ‘thank you’, but rather, ‘buhaoyisi’ for the inconvenience I’ve caused you.
For the uninitiated outsider, Taiwan may seem like the world’s most apologetic country, a nation obsessed with saying sorry – but in fact, the culture of buhaoyisi reveals a lot about the islands’ hidden layers of modesty and shyness.
Decades of Japanese colonisation, as well as moral teachings of Confucianism, have played a huge hand in shaping Taiwan’s extreme apology culture to what you see and hear today, according to Khin-huann Li, sociolinguistics professor emeritus at National Taiwan Normal University. Although the phrase’s exact origins are unknown, Li and other linguists theorise that it is largely a product of the millennia-old Confucian notion of harmony, which centres on maintaining interpersonal relationships rather than individual ones. Preserving social cohesion at all costs is still the bedrock of Taiwan’s social morality; placing the larger clan, the society, before yourself, the individual, is key.
In addition, part of Taiwan's buhaoyisi culture is heavily influenced from Japan’s sumimasen apology culture, with the two sharing a deep history.
Overall, as a habit, saying buhaoyisi often helps confrontations from escalating further, Li said.
“Traditional Taiwanese culture is like that – more delicate and thinking of other people, trying to keep polite relationships with others,” he explained.
On the one hand, the expression carries an air of submissiveness and hyper decorum, but on the other hand, it also demonstrates the unparalleled politeness of Taiwan. That's why, for the traveller, saying sorry in Chinese can easily turn into a linguistic minefield. When in doubt, Li says, err on the safe side and just say buhaoyisi; chances are they’ll say buhaoyisi back to you. It’s the unspoken rule on the islands of Taiwan.
Li also suggests that this culture of buhaoyisi is unique to Taiwan, as opposed to the rest of the Chinese-speaking world; while you'll hear buhaoysi many times over throughout the streets of Taiwan, you are less likely to hear buhaoyisi being used in this way in China or Malaysia, which place less emphasis on such polite-isms.
When in doubt, err on the safe side and just say buhaoyisi
According to InterNations’ Expat Insider Index, Taiwan is consistently ranked as one of the world’s friendliest countries. Around 90% of expats in Taiwan gave residents high marks for hospitality, compared to a combined average of 65% in the rest of the surveyed countries. Nowadays, more than one-third of expats are considering staying on the tiny Pacific island forever, according to the survey of 12,500-plus respondents around the world. The secret to attracting people to the lush, tropical islands of Taiwan is really no secret at all – just be, well, nice.
However, according to 25-year-old pharmacist Jieru You, who lives in the port city of Kaohsiung, this nice, little narrative that Taiwan is leading the world in friendliness may be a false one, or at least not the full picture. Having to make yourself smaller and apologise constantly for small inconveniences, and sometimes even your mere presence, can ultimately do more harm than help. And ironically, asking permission to do, to speak, to come and to go all the time can be unnecessarily inconveniencing yourself more than anyone else.
“When making a request to someone else, Taiwanese people will often use buhaoyisi as a lead-in to express their desire to ask for help from a place of humble submission,” You said. As a matter of fact, he was already feeling a bit ‘buhaoyisi’ – embarrassed to be interviewed at all – before diving into his thoughts.
The concept of ‘saving face’ is a big deal in Taiwan. Imagine a chessboard of social exchanges, in which everyone else’s moves affects your next one. Face, in this case, is the social currency that allows you to make friends and foster professional connections that can lead you to your next big job, an investment in your company or even a warm introduction to your future wife. Without ‘face’, people are less likely to trust you or help you get ahead in life. The end game is to protect yourself, your self-image and your dignity and curry favour with others by reciprocating their acts of kindness.
That’s why Taiwan is confrontation-averse; it’s a country constantly striving to avoid conflicts and preserve harmony at all costs. But what happens when fiercely following that moral compass goes awry? You just might get something akin to Taiwan’s conundrum of over-apologising.
The end game is to protect yourself, your self-image and your dignity
On the flipside, people with ‘thin face’, meaning a lack or loss of your social reputation and status, try not to trouble others for fear of inconveniencing them, and they certainly don't like to lose face in public, adds Yang. So instead of standing up, everyone sits down and stays there while little gets done.
Yang feels like she’s drowning in a pool of too many perfunctory apologies, in which saying buhaoyisi is more of a habit than a word with deeper meaning. The result is half-hearted, stripped of any sincere apology or regret. Not to mention, thanks to the island’s growing global isolation and economic malaise, Taiwanese are suffering from the poetically named syndrome of guidao, or ‘ghost island’.
On the world stage, Taiwan’s identity is often misunderstood, says Wenhui Chen, informatics professor at Ming Chuan University, who studies the ghost-island phenomenon. He says that the island is often viewed as a pawn between China and the US, floating along without many of the diplomatic trappings of an officially recognised country. Chen predicts Taiwan’s apologetic, kow-towing culture may not prove so fruitful in the end, and could even lead to the society’s own undoing.
Of course, not everyone bears such a doom-and-gloom forecast for Taiwan. Li, for his part, sees the island’s deep buhaoyisi culture as integral to keeping the peace – and if the culture of buhaoyisi disappears, then so will centuries of timeworn tradition.
“If the society keeps these concepts and expresses these words daily, then the society could be more polite, more moral and more conservative,” Li said. “If not, the society becomes impolite, immoral and too aggressive. Taiwan’s culture [must] be kept in a good shape in terms of morality and harmony.” He then ended with the obligatory ‘buhaoyisi’.
Why We Are What We Are is a BBC Travel series examining the characteristics of a country and investigating whether they are true.
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