Despite the fact that I am surrounded by 35 other Americans on a daily basis and rely on English and very very basic Chinese to get around, the culture here is about a complete 150 degrees. (We can thank globalization for the presence of convenience stores, Starbucks and McDonalds for the lack of the extra 30 degrees.) So, here’s a compiled list of my top 25 observations:
1. Face Masks – People where them riding scooters, in classes, in restaurants, and on trains. Essentially anywhere breathing takes place masks are worn.
2. Restaurants = Food and not drinks. – Unlike in the United States, or the land of limitless options, restaurants almost never have a drink menu. The lucky few will provide complimentary tea or water, but that’s a rarity that is not taken for granted! There are plenty of drink shops (mostly tea varieties) nearby.
3. Sealed with a film, delivered in a bag. – Speaking of drinks, all beverage shops that serve drinks place them in a machine that seals them tight. No lids involved! After sealing, they are delivered in a mini bag, which is actually extremely convenient when needing to free up your hands for a few minutes. Personal favorite = mango smoothie!
4. No tips. – To add to the already super cheap food prices (a full meal here ranges between $1 and $2 USD), tipping is just not a part of the culture. Coming back to the 15-20% going rate in the States will be difficult.
5. Separation of Genders – Keeping genders separate is a much stricter policy in Taiwan. There is a security guard in our dorm to make sure that no boys head to the girl side and vice versa. We even have to use different washing machines. This is a strange concept for me, especially because boys lived in the apartments next to mine on both sides at Kent.
6. Scooters are King – It’s difficult to describe how tightly scooters are tied with the culture in Taiwan, but hopefully this picture does some justice (This is what my 15-minute walk to school looks like nearly the whole way). Even on sidewalks, where it is technically illegal to ride them, it’s an unspoken rule that they have the right of way. I have spent many minutes on my walk to school moving out of the way for scooters and waiting for them to find a parking space…
7. Pale is in, tan is out. – Not once have I been so glad to have extremely pale skin. After living in a country where tanning booths and fake tan products are available at nearly every turn, it is refreshing to have nearly an entire population appreciate the translucent coloring I currently have. In fact, there are a lot of whitening products on the market, people wear long sleeve clothing and pants despite the 100 degree weather (and 100% humidity!) to keep away from the sun and UV protection umbrellas are a common item. (I might actually invest in one for the US, despite the weird looks I know I will get. I’d rather have healthy skin!)
8. 7 Eleven. It’s no secret that there’s a Starbucks on every corner in New York City, or so goes the saying. In Taiwan, 7 Elevens are the store of choice. They even have them in hospitals, department stores, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two existed in a university building.
9. Water machines – This is more of a necessity than a cultural nuance, but because the water is not safe to drink from the tap, our dorms, school and I’d assume most other building are equipped with water machines that dispense hot, cold and warm water on command. I think they’re neat at least.
10. Deny compliments – Western culture is very “I” oriented and is often marked by competitiveness and the desire to stand out. The same could not be said in the east and it is expected that you will deny compliments, from fear of being perceived as too narcissistic and standing out.
11. Accept things with both hands – I’ve noticed even in everyday shops that the cashiers will accept money with both hands… looking into why that is.
12. School is stricter – This not difficult to do, but we were given rules as to how to behave. In the US (at college), everyone is on their own. There are often unspoken rules about arriving on time, etc, but even those are just guidelines. Here there is no eating in class, no late arrivals, sign-in sheets, and overall a stricter environment.
13. Stray dogs – This city is filled with the nicest stray dogs I have ever seen, but I still keep my distance. They are everywhere, though, and the people of Tainan do their best to take care of them. It’s not uncommon to see the dogs wander in and out of open shop doors without being chased out.
14. Order food with tally sheet – At all of the restaurants I have been to, you order by tallying everyone’s order on the sheet or on a menu and paying the full group amount in cash. This always ends up testing our math skills, since more often than not, we all don’t have exact change.
15. No hugs, no physical contact – I first noticed this then when taking a group picture. Normally it’s second nature to put your arm around the person next to you. But with Taiwanese friends, that just led to an uncomfortable few seconds as you could feel them tense up. Turns out you almost never touch friends! Lesson learned.
16. Everyone is incredibly nice – I have never met so many generous, selfless people in my life. Everyone goes out of their way to make sure everything we need is taken care of and that we are enjoying our time in Taiwan. Between the bike shop owner that opened his doors hours after it closed to let us take shelter from the down pouring rain, our language partners who drive us and guide us to the best places in Tainan (and give up their time to do so), the locals who have always been willing to lend a helping hand or are unnecessarily patient with our lack of Chinese, and my extremely generous extended host family, this country is full of pleasant people.
17. Majors / Colleges – I would venture to say that 75% of my friends in the United States have changed their major at least once, added or dropped a minor, or are still uncertain as to what they want to study. We have the freedom to choose and continually rechoose the path we wish to follow. In Taiwan, students are placed on a track at the age of 15 based on what they test well in. When it comes time for college, they all take a long, mind bending exam to determine what they are able to study at university. The higher the score, the more options they have. For example, only students with high marks can become doctors or engineers (but they can also choose lower score majors if they wish), but students with lower scores are limited as to what they can choose.
18. No trashcans – Finding a trash can is like playing a game of hide-and-seek. They aren’t in classrooms, in restaurants (for public use at least) and there are absolutely no trashcans on the streets. However, the amount of litter is extremely small! Whether that is attested to the culture (more socially responsible) or that the Taiwanese people know where they are, we all have had to carry empty water bottles and other trash around for longer than we would have liked!
19. Bamboo Mats – Our mattresses are bamboo mats covered with small cushions. Our room won the lottery, because we were accidentally given two each. Our backs are thankful, because even with two mats, using them is not a luxury experience.
(Note: This is one of the beds during my host stay – not from my dorm room)
20. Taxi Culture – Public transportation is lacking in this city and the only way to get around is by foot, bike, scooter or taxi. Taxis are relatively cheap and we often rely on them to get to places that are out of reach with the other modes of transportation, but it is essentially a hit or miss with how skilled the driver is. Sometimes I feel like a crash test dummy, other times I can enjoy a slow stroll through the city.
21. Garbage Trucks sound like cream trucks – Imagine the confusion we had when we heard the repetitive melodic tune that is closely associated with ice cream in the US turn out to be garbage trunks. I’m still not quite sure why such a happy song would play during such an unpleasant task, but to each their own.
22. Hole in the wall Restaurants. The best restaurant in Taiwan could very well be hidden behind the facade of wear and tear, unappetizing decor and questionable sanitary practices, but often these restaurants are the gems of the city. It’s a 50-50 chance that sometimes our stomachs are not always willing to take, but the winners have been absolutely amazing culinary feasts.
23. Cockroaches. Mosquitos. Spiders. Oh my. – Before heading to Taiwan, the horror stories surrounding monster-sized spiders greatly outnumbered any warning of the realistic bug problems that include hungry mosquitos and an abundance of cockroaches. We all have chicken-pox-like battle scars from those biting bugs and have tested out the quality of our shoes by taking out a cockroach or two. It may all be part of the experience, but it’s not a pleasant one!
24. Ghosts – We’ve been warned, especially as Ghost month approaches, to never whistle at night (for fear of a ghost following you home),and put away laundry (or a ghost could wear your clothes) and stay away from swimming in the ocean (or a ghost could swap souls with you).
25. Towels – Full body sized towels do not seem to exist. Instead all excess water is removed with a dishtowel. I was warned about this before coming, so I thoroughly relish the luxury amenity of additional inches of material.
As an added bonus – here are a few pictures from my host stay this weekend in Kaohsiung. The experience reiterates number 8 on this list as the people I met this weekend were incredibly welcoming, generous and despite the extreme communication barrier, went out of their way to make sure I was “happy.” (A question they reiterated throughout the 3 day stay.) I hope to update this in the near future, but time keeps flying!