Rebellion, Loyalty, and Paths into Adulthood: Entering the Lifeworlds of Wanhua’s Wondering Youths

Written by Peijun Guo, translated by Sam Robbins

Image credit: 雙人翹孤輪 by SlidermanJefu/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As the rumbling from the exhaust engine ripped through the peaceful night, many youths are gathered in convenience stores and community parks of Taipei’s Wanhua district. Some smoke, some mess around, and then eventually the group moves on to the next place to hang out and waste some time. This group of youths who do not get on well at school and who wander about the city streets are part of the background murmur of parts of urban Taipei. They wander about as if they are waiting for something, whether it is to go to school, to find a job, or just for the juvenile detention center to take them in. 

The Taiwanese Hokkien phrase lōng-liu-lian 浪溜嗹 is often used to describe those who do not have a proper career or other standard form or work. These wandering youth, or lōng-liu-lian youth, are continually challenging and rejecting social expectations. They are also challenging how time has been regimented and controlled for them. This involves rejecting the national education system, as the youths are often ‘wandering’ about when they are required to be at school. It also involves staying out late at night when they should be at home resting or doing homework. These strategies they use to spend time the way they want are both against the law.

As they appear in the legal system, these youths are those in “possession of knives without just cause;” who remain “out past curfew;” and who “run away from school and family.” In Taiwan, academics from criminology, education, social work, and sociology have discussed these “deviant youths.” They describe the link between deviant behavior and crime and treat these youths as a problem and essentialize them. This group is rarely seen as one worth getting to know personally.

I have been researching such wandering youths who live in Taipei’s Wanhua district, the city’s poorest district. Although fairly central, whether because of poor travel links or because many outside Wanhua simply avoid it, the district can feel quite disconnected from the rest of the metropolis. My research has been trying to understand how the world these youths inhabit and better understand their day-to-day life. Specifically, I am trying to understand the importance of hanging out and having fun in these youths’ lives. Instead of seeing it merely as deviance, I see it as their way of using their limited resources to create a sense of self-worth in the face of continuous failure and disapproval in the labor market and school. In doing so, I have become aware of how this group of youths, typically viewed as homogenous, engage in divergent forms of hanging out and use many metrics to mark distinctions within the group, for example, between those under fifteen and those fifteen to eighteen. As the usual routes to ‘coming of age’ such as high school graduation, going to university or finding a job, are mostly inaccessible to these youths, they have their own practices to mark the passage of time into adulthood.

Teenagers of fifteen and under typically only have bicycles as they cannot yet afford a motorbike. Because of this, their mobility is relatively limited, and they spend most of their time at night and during the day in community parks. These younger kids typically do not have criminal records yet. The older teenagers- fifteen to eighteen- are seen as the big brothers and sisters in these youth groups. Because most of them have motorbikes, they are not limited by their vicinity, and many take trips as groups or with their boyfriends and girlfriends to much further afield. Obtaining a motorbike is perhaps the clearest marker in the passage into adulthood as defined by these youths. Without a motorbike, the younger teenagers’ free time is often less-well planned, and when shopkeepers or those in the local community see them, they often call the police. Such youth are frequent guests in the local police stations.

The other most prominent difference between the younger and older groups of teenagers is their community’s closeness. The older teenagers are often more willing to go out on a limb for each other and make a point of displaying such loyalty. This loyalty marks a sense of seniority and reflects a shared history. This type of loyalty is cultivated through continuous run-ins with the authorities. Banding together is thus a way to resist collectively, even if it is only symbolically. When one of the teenagers has to go to court, their friends will typically hold a type of ceremony to show their support and promise that their friendship won’t change.

For example, once I witnessed fifteen-year-old tientien (alias) go on a motorbike ride late at night with some older teenagers. One the way home, tientien was stopped by police officers and was taken to a police station for being out late at night (which is a crime for minors). Because the others could not help him get out of the police station, the group waited for him outside to show group solidarity. For the younger teenagers, they often haven’t had these kinds of experiences. When thirteen-year-old hsiao-hsin (alias) was called to court, it was his first legal system experience. He wasn’t sure if he would get sent to prison and didn’t know that cases seen by the juvenile court have a maximum sentence of three months. A few days before the hearing, hsiao-hsin pulled me aside and asked me privately how long I thought he would be sent away for and how harsh the punishment would be. Lacking legal experience and knowledge, the younger teenagers often have no one to turn to ask these kinds of questions. Whereas the older teenagers usually accompany each other to court, the younger teenagers usually only rely on family members (which isn’t a definite for many) or social workers to accompany them. Their peer groups aren’t as able to help them deal with the negative pressures from the authorities. Social workers will often try to stop certain kids hanging out with each other, making the younger teenagers friendship circles quite volatile. Such efforts are usually less effective in shaping the networks of older teenagers.

Especially for older teenagers, this type of friendship and loyalty is the essential medium through which they can create a sense of self-worth and receive support. Nevertheless, this sense of self-worth is created through and consolidated through negative interactions with authority figures. Through these same interactions, the authorities and the local communities become increasingly hostile to teenagers and become more punitive in their dealings. As these teenagers build lasting friendships with their peers, their surrounding environment becomes increasing unwelcoming and unwaning of their presence.

Thus, older teenagers live in a somewhat different world than younger teenagers, even though all ages are typically simply referred to as deviant youth. Social workers are typically aware of this and tend to focus their energy on younger teenagers’ interventions and view older teenagers simply as lost causes. The youths themselves are also aware of these differences. The older teenagers have created many ways aside from just motorbikes and kinship forms to measure the passing of time into adulthood that separates the older group from the younger group.

Their fashion and smoking mark these youths’ style, and their fashion is used as a way to rebel against their schools whilst also demonstrating their individuality. The younger teenagers typically wear sportswear to school, whilst older teenagers often invest in expensive jeans, tattoos, and some form of knife. There is significant planning that goes into when to use their knives and when to show them off. The older teenagers also separate themselves due to their increased (though still relatively limited) financial capacity, their “experience” in the legal system and their ways of hanging out.

Perhaps these teenagers of all ages are all lōng-liu-lian wondering youth as they appear in criminal systems and deviance literature. Even if this is the case, I want to show that the worlds they inhabit and rich and their acts of rebellion are meaningful in ways that might be overlooked. Without a route into adulthood and lacking the approval of the job market’s preferred education systems, these youths mark their journey into adulthood and create their own communities.

Peijun Guo is a Graduate student in the Department of Sociology, National Taiwan University, where she studies urban youth poverty in Taipei. She is conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Taipei’s Wanhua district.

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