The mixed bliss of thinking small in Taiwan

By Alan Fong, The China Post

You might not have seen a “micromovie” or been in a “microrelationship,” but if you are a Chinese-speaking person living in Taiwan, chances are you have heard about terms that started with the words “micro” (微, Wei) or “little” (小, Xiao) quite a lot lately. The recent proliferation of phrases like “microtrips,” “microlove” (微戀愛), “small days” (小日子) and “little but certain happiness” (小確幸) in Taiwan point to a trend of limitation or lack of ambition. The underlining social forces, however, are more complicated. The use of the prefix “micro” came in part as a parody of the abuse of niche micromovies in Taiwan. Mostly running from 5 minutes to half an hour long, micromovies originated in the mainland as a format designated for smart device users. The idea was to make films that can be consumed in one bus trip or even an elevator ride. Some microfilms in Taiwan, however, are sometimes seen as glorified half-baked low budget films. Netizens in Taiwan coined nonsense terms such as “having a microrelationship” or “going for a microtrip” to jeer what they see as a sleazy practice of using a chic name to package a cheap project. The popularity of the prefix is symbolic of the nation’s plight of limited resources and slowed economic development after the “Taiwan miracle” in the last century. The word “little,” on the other hand, is in vogue for more positive reasons. Buzz terms starting with“little” (小) generally have a Japanese connotation of small scope and high qualify. The term “little but certain happiness” (小確幸), recently popping up like mushrooms in local newspaper pages, was coined by Japanese author Haruki Murakami in his 1996 essay “How to Find a Whirling Cat.” Also translated as “little happiness in hand,” the term was used by Murakami to represent a sense of fulfillment through self-restraint in everyday life, such as the joy of having a cold beer after intense exercise.

In Taiwan, however, “little but certain happiness” is associated more with coffee rather than beer. It is a term loved by hipsters, known in Taiwan as wen-qing (arty youths 文青), who one blogger described as people who love black retro eyeglass frames, eco-friendly lifestyle (or known in Taiwan as LOHAS), grainy photos, indie music and costly coffee, among other things. Despite its apparent dislike of mass consumerism, the recent incarnation of local hipster culture is a new form of instant gratification that emphasizes nourishment of the mind — an anti-consumerism consumerism. The indie brands, arty bookstores, organic food stores and cafes might not all be the product of mass consumerism but they took lessons from its distribution and marketing techniques.

The operative word of the term is “certain.” The focus on having certainty in happiness reflects the anxiety of local youth that the lifetime goal of their parents’ generation (i.e. owning a home) is no longer surely obtainable.

A cup of NT$250 boutique coffee is expensive, a NT$120 cup of chain store coffee is expensive, even a NT$55 cup of convenience store takeout is expensive. But they are affordable prices for a small dose of “certain happiness,” especially when people know it will take an average office worker decades of modern-day slavery to not be able to buy even a small apartment in Taipei.  This trend, however, is not all bad as it highlights a more sophisticated way to appreciate life that comes with better-educated and more resourceful youths compared to their parents. It also points to the idea of pursuing happiness through extra-economical means.