Culture Shock in Taiwan

Expats should expect some degree of culture shock in Taiwan. Simple tasks and comforts that are taken for granted in an expat’s home country are not as easy when a person doesn’t speak or read the local language.

Once expats start learning, speaking and understanding Chinese, their understanding of Taiwanese culture will become less cloudy and their frustrations will ease.

Language barrier in Taiwan

The most difficult thing to adjust to in Taiwan is the language barrier. Mandarin is the official language, while Taiwanese, Hakka and indigenous Formosan languages are also spoken.

The most important thing a person can do to acclimatise is to start learning Chinese as soon as possible. In Mandarin, vowel sounds can be said in four tones, each with a different meaning. While it is challenging, learning Chinese can help expats feel less isolated.

Tips for overcoming the language barrier

  • Pay for lessons instead of meeting with a “language exchange” partner that has to be taught English in return.

  • Expats should carry their address written in Chinese in case they get lost, and learn to say it

  • A pocket-sized phrase book including Chinese characters allows an expat to point out what they are trying to say

  • Before leaving home, expats should ask themselves whether they need directions, a map or an address to avoid language barrier frustrations or getting lost later on

  • Befriend an English-speaking local to help in emergencies

  • Take business cards at stores or restaurants that might be revisited. The address will be in Chinese and can be shown to locals for directions.

Don’t be afraid to practice Chinese with strangers. Many people want to practice their English in return.

Saving face in Taiwan

“Saving face" refers to maintaining personal and collective honour and integrity, and is central to Taiwanese social relations. Expats should avoid embarrassing anybody or losing their temper at all costs. Self control and subtlety are preferred to dealing directly with a situation if they allow everybody to save face. This can be frustrating for foreigners accustomed to direct communication and emotional honesty, but it is vital for smooth interactions. 

Taking off shoes in Taiwan

It is custom for people to remove their shoes before entering homes, tea houses and certain public areas. There are usually slippers available for people to wear once they have taken their shoes off.

Dates in Taiwan

Taiwan uses a different calendar to the West. While it is common knowledge that we are in the 21st century, Taiwan started counting from year zero when it was founded in 1911. When in doubt as to what the Taiwanese year should be, subtract 1911 from the Western year. Payslips, bank receipts, licenses and tax slips often show both the Taiwanese and Western years.

Many public holidays are also calculated according to the lunar calendar. Chinese New Year is the most important holiday and is at the end of January or beginning of February.

Public bathrooms in Taiwan

Chances are that new arrivals from the West have never used a squat toilet. While many public places have both squat and Western-style toilets available, many only have squat toilets. Bathroom stalls with a disabled sign are usually Western-style. Toilet paper may not be free at public bathrooms but can be purchased from a vending machine. Paper is not flushed but must be placed in the provided bin.

Traffic in Taiwan

Taiwan’s traffic makes even experienced expat drivers nervous, and crossing the street can be hazardous. Scooters often ignore road rules and drivers must constantly be aware of them. Seeing a family squashed onto one scooter is not as uncommon as it should be.

The trick to surviving Taiwanese traffic is to proceed slowly and not make any sudden moves, whether changing lanes or crossing a busy street, so that scooters have time to react accordingly.

Friendships in Taiwan

Expect friends to cancel plans at the last minute for family affairs – family comes first, and this isn’t considered rude. Unreliable RSVPs and uninvited guests, even when reservations are involved, are also common.

Local friends may also not directly tell an expat they are upset with them. It can be difficult for foreigners to discern indirect cues in Taiwan, especially when saying “no” is involved.

Local friends are often fine with less interaction than expats may be used to. While this is changing, expect the party to end early. Many locals will leave at 11.30pm to catch the last MRT, possibly because they have family members waiting at home – it is not unusual for a person in their early 30s to worry about how their parents will react to them staying out late.  

Even though Taiwanese people are less direct in some ways, they can be more direct in others. A Taiwanese person may not tell someone they are upset or openly disagree, but many will make remarks about their expat friends’ complexion, changes in weight or other things that wouldn’t be mentioned in the West.

Gender in Taiwan

Expat women can expect to be safe, treated with respect and earn equal wages. On the whole, Taiwanese laws protect women. Abortion is legal under certain conditions, birth control is available and women’s health is recognised as a distinct medical field.

Maternity leave is guaranteed to full-time employees and most reproductive health needs are covered under national health insurance, except for birth control. It is more likely to find women who prefer an independent lifestyle and have chosen not to marry in Taiwan than in many other Asian countries.

Some people do still wonder about women who are single, unmarried or don’t have children. Some bosses might be overly familiar and offer unsolicited life advice, or have sexist notions about the emotional or family needs of his female employees.