Taiwan’s ‘buhaoyisi culture’ falls victim to a Dickensian curse

Ever so ‘umble …

The following piece appeared in today’s News Lens.

In literature’s hall of shame, few characters have caused such revulsion as Uriah Heep, the antagonist of the Charles Dickens novel “David Copperfield.” The feigned humility and malevolent obsequiousness of David Copperfield’s nemesis have made his name a byword for sycophancy.

In some ways, Heep’s kowtowing makes him the perfect avatar for what has been dubbed buhaoyisiculture in Taiwan.

For all his loathsome qualities, Heep is a complicated character who can be seen as the product of a society premised on keeping people in its place. Heep himself casts his self-abnegation as a defense mechanism, telling the novel’s eponymous hero: “When I was quite a young boy, I got to know what umbleness did, and I took to it. I ate umble pie with an appetite… ‘People like to be above you,’ says father, ‘keep yourself down.’ I am very umble to the present moment, Master Copperfield, but I’ve got a little power!”

Here Dickens makes it clear that pretending to be “ever so umble” has served Heep well. Through Heep, Dickens points to the hypocrisy of system that taught working class children “from nine to eleven o’clock that labour was a curse; and from eleven o’clock to one, that it was a blessing and a cheerfulness, and a dignity, and I don’t know what all, eh?”

While Dickens and Heep reflect a specific set of social values at a specific time and place – the Protestant work ethic and the prospect of social mobility in Victorian England – I couldn’t help but be struck by the parallels upon reading this piece for the BBC by Leslie Nguyen-Okwu that caused a bit of a buzz late last week.

Under the headline “The island that never stops apologizing,” Nguyen-Okwu examines the Taiwanese habit of prefixing and suffixing statements and actions with the phrase buhaoyisi (不好意思). Literally translating as “bad feeling,” the phrase is equated in the article with the word “sorry” in English.

[For the rest of the article, click here.]

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