Lost Ambition: Taiwan's Millennials Drown in Despair

Why you should care

Global isolation and economic stagnation have coalesced into a crippling epidemic of self-doubt.

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A grand tour of Jieru You’s life takes all of five seconds. Stool. Window. Bed. He logs long hours working at a nearby pharmacy inside the congested southern Taiwan port city of Kaohsiung. Today, he’s spending this rare moment of spare time slouched on the stool, bone-tired and wallowing in a thick muck of self-pity. “Taiwan isn’t suitable to live in. Only ghosts are willing to dwell in such a place,” You says, rubbing his face. The polluted, acrid air of Kaohsiung is stinging his eyes.

Such brooding sounds like the weathered morale of an old soul, though this 25-year-old is still in the infancy of his professional career. You isn’t alone. A social sickness is currently sweeping the island. Young people seem to be forgoing ambition, saddled instead by a creeping sense of aching loneliness or suffering from the pain of not mattering. Life appears so gray on the lush green islands of Taiwan that this growing group of self-loathing millennials has even come up with a sad prognosis for their state of mind: guidao, or the “ghost island” syndrome.

Many locals feel that Taiwan is ill.

Wenhui Chen, Ming Chuan University professor

It’s the latest term to wiggle its way into Taiwan’s lexicon. The number of searches for “ghost island” on Google over the first six months of 2018 is 86 percent higher than it was for the same period last year. Wend through Taiwan’s college lecture halls or buzzing online forums and you’ll likely overhear some using the self-deprecatory term. The topic has spawned more than 400 posts over the past year on PTT, Taiwan’s version of Reddit.

Here’s the SparkNotes version for you: “Ghost island” is shorthand for the global isolation, lack of opportunity, economic stagnation, government corruption and overall sense of despair that seem to be haunting Taiwan as of late. A 2016 HSBC survey found that only 32 percent of respondents believe that Taiwan is well-suited for their long-term career development. And this millennial malaise is now increasingly getting attention from contemporary artists and serious academic scholars too, particularly in the face of China’s rise.

“Every country has its own ghost,” says Ming Chuan University professor Wenhui Chen, who recently started studying the topic in depth. “Many locals feel that Taiwan is ill, and when they’re in a rage, they don’t know how to step back and see where the disease is. Traditional Taiwanese culture used to regard these unknown diseases as possession by evil spirits, so some people began to see Taiwan as a ghost island.” The idea stuck and soon spread.

For the past half-century, most countries have steered clear of formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, a self-ruled democracy, in keeping with Beijing’s “One China” policy — China insists the island is a part of its territory to be reunified someday. But almost all major nations have maintained unofficial ties with Taiwan through trade representative offices that serve as quasi-embassies, in recognition of the island’s technological and economic advances. Now, as China continues to wield its clout into pressuring the global community and foreign companies to refer to Taiwan as part of China, countries that were maintaining that balance are slowly succumbing. The national airlines of India, Japan, Canada and others have recently changed “Taiwan” to “Taiwan China” on their websites after Beijing demanded it. And the few countries that formally recognized Taiwan’s separate identity are breaking away. In May, the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso severed ties with Taiwan, picking diplomatic relations with China instead.

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Workers unload fish from the boat before transporting them to a fish market in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Source Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty

Taiwan is the world’s most populous self-governing entity and largest economy that isn’t a U.N. member, and this increasingly uncertain identity is contributing to the self-doubt the island’s population appears riddled with today. According to a 2018 survey by government-sponsored NGO Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, many millennials are at odds with their identity, caught between a Chinese one and a Taiwanese one, and sometimes feel like mere pawns of greater powers (ahem, China and America).

Mounting social pressures that Taiwan’s millennials face — including high housing prices, plummeting wages, a sinking economy and the ever-present fear of an invasion from China — are also coalescing into a pessimistic outlook toward the future, say some experts.

“It’s difficult to focus on driving these ghosts away from the island, and the impact of our wages, prices and costs of housing all reflect that degree of helplessness,” says Lisheng Xie, a millennial illustrator who published her book, Ghost Island, this year.

Fewer young people are taking to entrepreneurship. A stream of recruiting campaigns and hefty financial incentives have over the last three decades led to a steady exodus of booming Taiwanese businesses and brain drain toward neighboring China.

“When young people suffer from low pay, how can they pursue higher meaning in life?” asks Chen. “When companies struggle to survive, how can they upgrade their technology and transform Taiwan’s economy? Unfortunately, [millennials] have lost their way.” You uses a pithy Chinese proverb to describe the growing pains that he and his fellow millennials feel: min bu liao sheng. Or, in other words, “no way of getting by.”

Meanwhile, psychiatrists and career counselors are witnessing a surge in cases around these forebodings. (Many declined requests for comment, given the sensitive nature of the issue and the privacy of their patients.)

Not everyone has given up, of course. Xie’s book portrays the demons haunting Taiwan’s youth in humorous form to temper fears and caution people from reading too much into the “ghost island” trend. “Taiwan is really a country full of life and infinite possibilities,” she says. “As long as people get the right information and don’t allow others to manipulate their thoughts and judgments, they’ll be able to banish their inner ghosts, drive the dark clouds and evil spirits away and finally be able to see the dawn.”

Perhaps that’s the prescription. But to expel the ghosts, the sickness, no matter how widespread, is “worth paying attention to,” says Chen. Just as doctors examine medical illnesses, the citizens of Taiwan need deep soul-searching too. “If the ‘ghost island’ concept can develop into a culture of Taiwanese self-introspection, it will benefit the island,” he says. And after the exorcism, he adds, Taiwan’s millennials might just be able to restore their faith.

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