I’ve been living in Taiwan for close to ten years now and despite feeling at home here there are still some aspects of Taiwanese culture that baffle me. That’s not to say I think the way people here do things is wrong, or that we in Europe are better, it’s just that from my perspective these cultural practices and behaviors are kind of quirky. Mind you, some of these might be common to other countries in Asia, it’s just that I never lived there long enough to notice. So without further ado, here are some things about Taiwanese culture that I still find strange.
The non swimming tropical islanders.
Taiwan technically isn’t a tropical island but it’s so close to being one it doesn’t really make a difference. Despite that, most people in Taiwan don’t really know how to swim. Coming from a country where it’s cold most of the year and the sea barely reaches 20 degrees in the height of summer yet everybody can swim, this seems very strange to me. If you live in a country where the sea is nice and warm for about 80% of the year, surely you would learn to swim, but apparently not. OK, I admit, a lot of Taiwanese technically do know how to swim, it’s just that they’re limited to about 25 meters and only if they can see the bottom ie. in a pool. In my book that doesn’t count.
Keeping the protective plastic
When you buy a product you often get some for of protective plastic bag or film on it. For example it’s very common to have a plastic film on the screen of a new TV. I’m used to removing this directly when I’m unpacking the product but here in Taiwan people tend to leave it on. I can kind of understand why you might leave it for a short period but Taiwanese people can often leave it for years. The explanation that I’ve got when asking is that the product looks new for much longer and there is some logic to that, but when this protective plastic is starting to age or get dirty that’s no longer the case. Taiwanese people however, will often keep the plastic on for much longer, sometimes until the product itself starts looking old because it has gone out of fashion.
The need for daily rice
I’ve met many Taiwanese who need to eat at least one bowl of rice every day or they will not feel satisfied. I can fully understand having preferences for certain foods, personally I start really craving European food after about two weeks of eating Asian. However, this insistence on having rice every single day is a bit much in my opinion. Like, French people love their baguettes, Italians eat a lot of pasta and so on, but I don’t think I met anyone in Europe who has quite such a need for a single type of food.
The separation of food and drink
For Europeans food and drink are deeply interlinked; whenever you are having a meal, no matter if it’s at home or in a restaurant, there will always be some kind of drink available. Not so in Taiwan. Here, some simple restaurants won’t serve any drink at all and at fancier places you might get your drink after the meal is finished, like some kind of liquid desert. I also know many Taiwanese people can finish an entire meal without having a single drop to drink, as if they don’t get thirsty. It’s as if eating and drinking are two completely separate activities here.
The love of special offers
Pretty much everyone likes special offers but I find that Taiwanese people are more fond of them than most. Firstly there are a lot of them here: seasonal sales, birthday offers, point cards and memberships in almost every chain store, coupons, vouchers and two for one offers. Secondly, people will put a lot of effort in making use of all these deals. This can be everything from buying things you don’t really want or need, to standing in long lines for an extra nice offer or even buying fake stickers for your point card just to save a few bucks. I have the privilege of affording everything I need at full price, so I personally tend to either miss or purposefully avoid special offers, especially those that require collecting of points or vouchers. I guess because of this, the Taiwanese obsession with getting a good deal becomes extra noticeable to me. Still, I do think people here are a bit more crazy for this kind of thing than the average European.
Queuing for famous food
No matter where you go in Taiwan there is always some local specialty food and there is always one particular shop selling this food that’s extra famous. So when a Taiwanese person goes to some place they always want to try the famous local dish and it absolutely has to be from the famous shop. It doesn’t matter if the queue goes around the block, it doesn’t matter if there are ten other shops nearby selling the exact same dish, it’s got to be from that one shop. So they will happily stand in line for an hour when you can get something that tastes almost exactly the same without waiting, just next door. I can understand wanting to try a famous food but I think this is a bit too much. Furthermore, the local famous food will always be one of the main attractions when traveling which I also find a bit strange. I think Europeans tend to focus on seeing things first, and local foods second when going to a new place.
The inconsistent safety
I find that most people tend to either take safety seriously, or barely care at all. Taiwanese people however, take both of these approaches at the same time. Let me explain what I mean. In day to day life Taiwanese people have a rather relaxed attitude to safety. I see people doing all kinds of dangerous work without using proper protective equipment. For example, drilling in metal without goggles, standing on a ledge high up without a safety harness or welding without eye protection. When it comes to their spare time however, especially such activities that are enjoyable because they includes a certain amount of danger like rafting, bungy jumping etc. Taiwanese people tend to be overly careful. For example I’ve seen big groups of people in full wetsuits and life jackets snorkeling in beautiful calm waters. Not that it’s wrong to use some extra safety equipment if you are unsure about your ability to handle a situation, it’s when you contrast this overly safe behavior with the disregard to safety in daily life that it becomes strange for me.
The non-sweet deserts
Nearly every tropical fruit you can think of grows in Taiwan; papaya, mango, lychee, passion fruit and dragon fruit are all abundantly available. You might assume then that Taiwanese deserts would be based around these fruits. In this case however, the saying “assume makes an ass out of you and me” is entirely true. You see, with the exception of Pineapple cakes, most deserts in Taiwan are made from things that we Europeans generally don’t think of as sweet. Examplse include red beans, green beans, purple rice, taro (a kind of root vegetable) and yams. It honestly bothers me that you have an island full of delicious fruit, but if you order desert at a cafe or restaurant, youre likely to just get beans and root vegetables instead. Why Taiwan, why?