I’ve been living in Taiwan for several years now. I’ve gained a fair bit of knowledge through some sort of cultural osmosis, and by now I have a pretty good feel for the country and its culture. I’d like to share some of that knowledge with my readers (all three of them). Back when I first wrote this I thought a single post would be enough but since then I have written three more that you can find here, here and here.
1.: The counting system
In Chinese, numbers and counting works more or less the same way as in English, they don’t put the ones before the tens like in German (36 is pronounced 6 and 30) and there’s none of that 4 times 20 malarkey that the French use when they want to say 80. This is the case from 1 up to 9999. After that however, things get kind of wonky (as seen from a European perspective). In Chinese there is a separate word called “wan” (萬) meaning 10 000 which is used as a basis for larger numbers. To make it a bit more clear, here are a couple of examples:
23 000 = 2 wan, 3000
150 000 = 15 wan
1 million = 100 wan
4.7 million = 470 wan
Population of Taiwan 23.55 million = 2355 wan
This system reaches a limit at 9999 wan or 99 million. At this point you start using another number called “yi” meaning 100 million. It is used as the basis for all numbers above 100 million. There could possibly be another number above this but I have never heard it used. For example the population of USA (323.1 million) is 3 yi, 2310 wan, and the population of china (1.379 billion) is 13 yi, 7900 wan.
The thing about this numbering system is that you get a factor of 10 difference between the European way of counting and the way Chinese speakers count, and people aren’t always good with converting between the two. Imaging you are buying a used car and the seller tells you the price is 50 000 TWD which is quite acceptable, but when you go to pay it turns out he’s actually asking for half a million. I have noticed that many Taiwanese, even those who speak fluent English, have problems with this, so pay attention. If you want to be really sure about a price, ask them to show you using the calculator on your phone.
2.: The language barrier
Chinese is not an easy language to learn and Taiwanese, a local “dialect” spoken by many people here in Taiwan, is arguably harder. At the same time most Taiwanese people don’t speak much English. Things have improved a fair bit in the last few years and it keeps getting better little by little but so far, you generally can’t assume that a person speaks English. With this in mind you’d think that communication is difficult but it’s not as hard as you might think. Taiwanese people are generally very friendly and helpful and will do their best to help you despite the language barrier. Some hand gestures and pointing can get you a surprisingly long way but when that fails, many people will know someone, a friend, relative or colleague, who speaks English, and they will call them to ask for help. Having some kind of three way phone conversation where you and a Taiwanese waiter/taxi driver/shop clerk keep handing his/her phone back and forth is perhaps a bit tricky but it will eventually get the job done.
One slightly tricky situation is if you do speak a little bit of Chinese (or Taiwanese, but that is less likely) but you are not super proficient or your pronunciation is a bit off. You see, Taiwanese people are so used to foreigners not knowing how to speak Chinese, that they simply assume we don’t no matter what. The result: you speak Chinese to them but they don’t understand what you are saying. To avoid this, you can try to tell them that you know some Chinese before you say anything else.
The reverse also happens sometimes, especially with Taiwanese people who have a heavy accent. You can, for example, get a shop clerk who tells you the price in English but because they mispronounce the words slightly, and you are not expecting them to speak English, you don’t understand what thy are saying. This is often easy to clear up, at least when it comes to average things like asking the price, but it helps to be aware that it does happen.
If you are using Google maps or some other GPS powered map service to find a place, the address doesn’t really matter. If you are trying to navigate by street signs, or perhaps sending a letter, it could be good to know how addresses work in this country. On the surface, it’s pretty similar to way we do things in the west but there are a couple of details to pay attention to:
Long streets and roads are often divided into sections so you might have Zhongyang road section 1 or section 2. Normally this doesn’t matter much but it’s often written out on websites and name cards and it can indicate which side of a large intersection the pace is on. Note that the house numbering stays the same for the whole street, you will never have No. 36 on section 1 and another No. 36 on section 2.
Except for roads and streets, you also have lanes. These belong to the road or street that they intersect with and are numbered rather than named. To find a place in one of these lanes, you follow the “parent” road/street, and find the lane with appropriate number. For example you can have a road called Minsheng Road with a lane going off it to one direction which has the number 25. A house in that lane would then be house number x of Minsheng road lane 25.
Floors in Taiwan start with 1 on the ground level and counting up with floor 2 being one level above ground and so on. Floors below ground will be called “B” together with a number starting one level below ground and counting down i.e. B1 is the first basement, B2 the second and so on. On address, the floor is either indicated as “F” or by the Chinese character for floor. Note that it is not uncommon for businesses to be one or two floors up, so if the shop sign says “2F” you need to go up one set of stairs to find the place.
Addresses here are generally written in one single line, with the exception of the post code which is often one row below. A tricky thing is that addresses written with Chinese characters start with the city, then the street, the lane, the house number and finally the floor. When written in English, the address starts with the floor, then the house number, the lane, the street and finally the city. Example:
6F, No. 38, Lane 257, Datong Road, Taipei City.
4.: ID cards and ARC
Like any reasonably developed nation, Taiwan has a comprehensive registry system for all it’s citizens. It is called the Household Registration and tracks a number of important data for every person like their date of birth, where they live, if they are married and so on. One aspect that I think is slightly strange is that unless a person owns a house/apartment, their registration will generally stay with their parents, even though they actually live and work in another city. This means that if they have to fill in their residential address in some kind of form they will fill in the address of their parents rather than the apartment they are renting. If a Taiwanese person gets some kind of official mail like a fine ticket it will go to the address in the household registry and when they go to vote, they have to vote in the county where they are registered. Along with this, every person also has a national ID number which is shown on all kinds of ID cards, be it the insurance card, the driver’s license or the national ID card.
As a foreigner you will generally not get a Taiwanese ID card but if you have a resident visa, you will get something called an Alien Resident Certificate (ARC for short). This is a small ID card which contains, except that standard information, an ID number similar to the Taiwanese ID number. The ARC also has your address listed, and just like the address in the Taiwanese household registrar, this is not necessarily the address where you live, but address of your “home”. For students, this is likely the address of the university and if you have a job it will be the address of the company. For those who are lucky enough to marry a Taiwanese person, and get a spouse ARC, the address will most often be the same as the one on your spouse’s household register.
It is important to note that while the ARC should be equivalent to a Taiwanese ID, this is not always the case. Presumably, there have been foreigners in the past who have misused their ARCs in various ways so there are companies that put limits on how you can use it. For example some phone companies will require a large cash deposit from foreigners signing up for a contract that includes a phone, while holders of Taiwanese IDs can simply pay by installments.
5.: Haggling, discounts and tipping
When travelling outside the western world you will often have to haggle about prices when shopping. Other than food it doesn’t seem to matter what you are buying, you always have to haggle and while that is part of the travel experience it gets a bit annoying after a while. This is not the case in Taiwan however, prices are generally clearly posted and perhaps more importantly, they are fair. In mainland china for example, they might try to charge you $100 for a pair of pirate copied jeans and you have to haggle your way down a reasonable price. Not so in Taiwan, here, if the price tag says $100 it means that the thing is worth $100. It should be noted however that there is a small margin for haggling and you can often ask for a discount say 10% off.
Speaking of discounts, sales and discounts are counted backwards compared to the way we do it in the west so where we would say 20% off, Taiwanese say that you pay 80% of the price. On signs a sale is usually written as x折 where x is a number. If you add a zero after that number you get the percentage you have to pay. Example:
9折 = pay 90%
6折 = pay 60%
8.5折 = pay 85%
Finally, you never give people tips in Taiwan. Sure, there probably are cases where it’s appropriate but I’ve never been in that kind of situation. Even in nicer restaurants you generally don’t give a tip. What is common for restaurants where food costs more than say 200 NTD per dish, is that they have a service charge of 10% which is added onto your bill. If this is the case it will always be clearly stated on the bill, and it is calculated to the exact number of NTD so if your meal costs 1480 NTD, the service charge will be 148.
6.: The importance of Face
I think there are plenty of other people out there who can explain the concept of Face better than I can but this is my understanding of it. Face is a kind of intangible commodity that a person has more or less of, which can be gained, lost or given, somewhat similar to respect. I think the clearest example in English is the phrase “to lose ones face” indicating that something has happened that makes you look bad. Basically, having Face makes you respected and gives you higher status. The way you act in different social settings, it could be with your friends, your family or with colleagues at work, determines if you gain or lose Face. How you should act to gain/keep Face depends on your place in the societal hierarchy. Being polite and showing deference to people who are above you is important but it is also important to treat people below you well; giving praise to a subordinate who has done a good job gives them Face, but you also gain Face in the eyes of others. It can also be beneficial to you if you can prevent another person from losing Face.
So how to know where you fit into the hierarchy? Generally, your superiors, say your boss or teacher, will have a higher place in the hierarchy; the same thing goes for people who have important positions in society like government officials etc. as well as people who are older than you. People who serve you in any way like waiters, shop clerks etc. are seen as being lower than you. This means that someone who has a high position compared to their peers, say the company sales manager, would have a lower position compared to you if you are their customer. Furthermore, a guest is seen as having higher status than the host, but a good host stands to gain a lot of Face from treating his/her guests well.
This last part often manifests in people squabbling about the bill at restaurants but unlike in the west, where it might be a question of how to split it, here it is often about getting the right to pay. Buying other people a meal lets you show off that you have money and that you can treat your guests well, which conveys Face to you as a host. At the same time, letting people buy you a meal and accepting their generosity gives you Face as a guest. It’s really just a question of who is the guest and who is the host, which again boils down to that social hierarchy. If you are lower in the hierarchy, it is good to show willingness to pay the bill, but in the end, let the person who is higher pay it, that way you both gain Face.
So how does all this apply to you as a foreigner? Taiwanese understand that foreigners, at least those who look foreign, don’t know the unwritten rules of the culture and they are thus excused. There are a few rules of thumb however, that can be useful to know.
First, always be polite. Saying “please” and “thank you” is obvious but here it’s also common to apologize for causing trouble or giving a person an extra work load. Note that you can still ask someone to do something, but ending the request with a quick “sorry to bother you” makes it go over better.
The average Taiwanese is also less direct in their communication than us westerners so if you ask a question they will sometimes go into a long-winded explanation, which is a way for them to save Face in case the question was a bit too private or whatever. This can be quite annoying at times and you can keep pressing for a direct answer if you want, but the polite thing to do is to listen and wait for the answer you’re looking for to pop up in their explanation.
Second, if someone gives you something to eat or drink, always accept it. Of course, if it’s something you really don’t like or you are allergic to it, you can say no but if it’s even remotely edible, you should at least give it a try. The reason is that food is very important in Taiwanese culture – when travelling Taiwanese will always make sure to try the most famous local food for example – and offering someone a snack or drink is a sign of friendship.
As an example, I’ve often had colleagues offer the entire team snacks or drinks for various occasions like buying a new car, getting a promotion, birthdays and so on, and there was always a table in the office where people coming back from business trips would deposit free-for-all bags of candy or cookies. I used to decline some of these offers and I think my colleagues viewed me as somewhat aloof for it. My relationships with them has improved a lot since I started taking part in this little ritual. Interestingly I found that buying things for others is less important than accepting the food that they offer.
Third, if a Taiwanese person takes you out for a meal, it might be a friend, a colleague or someone you’re doing a business deal with, always let them pay the bill. This goes back to what I said before about people squabbling about the bill, they want to pay for the meal to show that they are a good host. It might feel a bit awkward sometimes especially if you are clearly more well off than they are, so you can always show willingness to pay but in the end, you should let them have the honor of treating you. Granted, if you’re just going out with some friends or colleagues it’s perfectly fine to split the bill or “go dutch” as they say here. However, if they make any attempt to pay the whole bill, let them.