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 aren't as easy when a person doesn’t speak or read the local language.
Once expats start learning, speaking and understanding Mandarin, their understanding of Taiwanese culture will deepen and their frustrations should 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 expats can do to acclimatise is to start learning Mandarin as soon as possible. While it is challenging, learning Mandarin can help expats feel less isolated.
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 losing their temper or embarrassing anybody. Self-control and subtlety are preferred Taiwanese strategies when dealing with conflict, as this allows parties involved to save face. This can be frustrating for foreigners accustomed to direct communication, but it's 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, with the first year of the Taiwanese calendar beginning with the country's founding in 1911. Payslips, bank receipts, licenses and tax slips often show the year of both the Taiwanese and Western calendars.
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
Many new arrivals from the West have never used a squat toilet, which are common in Taiwan. While some public spaces have both squat and Western-style toilets available, many only have squat toilets. Bathroom stalls with a disabled sign are also rare. Toilet paper may not be free at public bathrooms but can be purchased from a vending machine. Paper isn't flushed but must be placed in the provided bin.
Traffic in Taiwan
Taiwan’s traffic makes even experienced expat drivers nervous. Even crossing the street can be hazardous. Scooters often ignore road rules and drivers must constantly be aware of them.
In order to navigate Taiwanese traffic, it's best to proceed slowly and avoid making 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 takes precedence in Taiwanese society, 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 when they are upset with them. It can be difficult for foreigners to discern indirect cues from locals, especially when saying “no” is involved.
Even though Taiwanese people are less direct in some ways, they can be more direct in others. A Taiwanese person may not tell someone that they are upset or they may not express open disagreement, 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 in Taiwan. On the whole, Taiwanese laws protect women.
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.
Despite high levels of gender equality in Taiwan, some traditionally minded locals do wonder about women who are single, unmarried or don’t have children. Some employers might also be overly familiar and offer unsolicited life advice or have sexist notions about the emotional or family needs of female employees.
►Read Lifestyle in Taipei for information about life in the Taiwanese capital
►For an overview of the housing market in the country, read Accommodation in Taiwan
"I think because I had travelled extensively before coming to Taiwan, I didn’t really have any initial culture shock. Just the usual excitement and adjustment process that comes with being in a new country. The hardest years for me were five years in, once I had kids. Becoming a parent is a major life change no matter where you are. But away from my home country, I found it more difficult to cope with the changes. I had very little family support, and most of my friends were still living the 'backpacker in Asia' kind of lifestyle.
"As a foreigner, you get a lot of attention in Taiwan. It can boost your ego. It can also be annoying. Mainly people are trying to be friendly, but you are constantly reminded that you’re an outsider. Once we had kids, the attention shifted from me to them. Our kids got a lot of attention everywhere we went in Taiwan. Mostly positive, but it gets annoying the older they get." Read more about Nick's move to Taiwan and how he adjusted to expat life in the country.
Are you an expat living in Taiwan?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Taiwan. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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