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Friday, September 2, 2011

Facebook Contrasts: Students in Taiwan and Mainland China

Hualien City is a smaller city on the eastern coast of Taiwan with some wonderful natural scenery nearby.  One afternoon a few days ago I stopped by a store in Hualien well-known for its shaved-ice desserts.  While I was there, several local senior high school students who were also enjoying the desserts asked if they could sit with me and chat.  They were likely interested in speaking to a foreigner and practicing their English.

It provided an opportunity to learn a little about them and see how they compared to the many youth I've spoken with and researched in Mainland China.  Of course, there is a wide range of youth in Mainland China and I am not sure whether the students I spoke to in Hualien were representative of either their city or of Taiwan.  Still, there was an aspect of the conversation that clearly differed from any I have had in Mainland China.

After chatting for maybe 10-20 minutes they asked something that most youth in Mainland China never ask.

They asked me if I had a Facebook account so that we could be "friends".

In most places I've been in Mainland China if I were speaking to local youth they may ask if I use QQ or Sina Weibo, but almost never do they ask about Facebook.  That isn't surprising since Facebook is blocked in Mainland China.

However, in Taiwan there is no Great Firewall blocking sites such as Facebook on the Internet.  The Taiwanese students told me they use Facebook regularly and that it is particularly useful for keeping connected with their friends from junior high school.  Unlike junior high school, their senior high schools have specialized areas of study, so now many of their friends go to different schools.

There were other indications that Facebook is a regular part of their lives -- in some ways similar to people in other parts of the world.  For example, after having someone take a photo of us with one of their mobile phones they excitedly spoke about later posting the photo on their Facebook accounts.  And at one moment several of them energetically said (zàn) to voice their approval of something.  (zàn) is the equivalent on Facebook in Taiwan for "Like".  They were consciously using it in the same manner they would use it online on Facebook.

Their use of Facebook is striking in comparison to most youth in Mainland China.  Like the waitress in Chengdu I wrote about in an earlier post, I believe there are many in China who would question why it is that these students in Hualien, Taiwan:

Five students in Hualien posing for a photo in a dessert store

are free to use online services such as Facebook without restriction while these students in Zigong, Sichuan province:

Five students in Zigong posing for a photo in a McDonalds

are not only blocked from using Facebook but also services such as YouTube, Twitter, and more.

I suspect that many of these students would agree with the waitress in Chengdu when she said, "That's not fair!"

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