Taiwan can be a confusing place for expats. In many ways, it’s a modern, advanced, very global country, in terms of both its economy and its culture. Nonetheless, there are certain things about it that are absolutely nothing like what most European and American expats are used to. The native culture and customs remain firmly entrenched in people’s lives, and as an expat, it can be difficult to acclimatize to your new environment.No matter how enthusiastic and accepting you are, remember that confusion, frustration, homesickness, and anger are normal feelings for most expats; if you start to feel this way, it’s important to acknowledge and accept that you’re going through a bit of culture shock. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and you’ll soon get over it.
Here are a few points to help you prepare for life in Taiwan.
Most expats are well aware that they’re going to be facing a language barrier, but it can still hit you quite hard when you actually get there. Naturally, the best way to prepare is to learn Mandarin, and the best way to do this is formally and well in advance. Don’t wait to get to Taiwan and learn it through your daily interactions. That’s great for practice, but it’s a slow way to begin.
Taiwan has many other languages too, so you will still find yourself stuck sometimes. However, Mandarin is the most widely spoken native language, and English is the most widely spoken foreign language, so between the two you should be alright. However, for the first few months at least, you might still want to carry around a phrasebook, perhaps a map, and also your home address and the address of any place you’re going to, just in case you get lost. Today of course all of this can fit conveniently into your mobile phone.
Taiwan has a lot of global food, but some places have fewer options than others, and many expats want to try the local cuisine anyway. This is great, but be prepared – you might sometimes encounter something unusual, such as frog. However, for the most part, Taiwan has no big surprises in its cuisine, and many expats take a liking to the local food very easily.
Food etiquette might take a little more effort to settle into, especially when you’re eating with colleagues and/or business associates. At a business meal, you should never discuss business unless the host or a senior initiates the discussion. You should also make it a point to try every dish (if you really can’t handle the frog dish or the stinky tofu, politely refuse), and when you’re done, don’t finish every bit of food on your plate, or your host will think you’re still hungry. If you’re with friends, don’t be ashamed to admit you need guidance.
Western-style commodes are increasingly common across Asia, but you will still find a few Asian-style squat toilets in Taiwan, especially in homes. These are actually healthier for you, but they will of course take some getting used to. In addition, you might not always find toilet paper, so it’s good to carry tissues and wet wipes with you. Also, check whether there’s a bin provided for the used paper – in some places, the plumbing can’t handle it.
Learning to handle traffic is one of the biggest struggles for expats, both as drivers and pedestrians. The streets are often packed, and both vehicles and pedestrians seem to have no system and no regard of traffic rules or etiquette. But this basically is the system – both drivers and pedestrians simply go wherever they want to go, whilst simultaneously watching out for other drivers and pedestrians. And it works better than you’d expect. Whether you’re walking, driving, or riding, move slowly and cautiously but with confidence, and you should be fine.
There’s a lot to learn about general etiquette in Taiwan, but here are a few quick tips:
– In most homes and in some public places, you should take off your shoes before entering.
– “Face” is an important concept that basically involves self-respect and honor. Saving face in tricky situations is unimaginably important for locals, and this requires self-control, subtlety, and often not saying what you mean.
– It’s complex to navigate, but in general, remember that sincerity is less important than diplomacy.
– At the same time, it’s not considered rude or prying to comment on or enquire about things like age and appearance.
– Gifts will often be refused when first offered.
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