Culture Shock in Taiwan

Remember that experiencing culture shock is normal, so expats should expect some degree of disorientation in the very least. Simple tasks and comforts that you take for granted in your home country, such as being able to ask for directions or order food, are not as easy when you don’t speak the local language and are unable to read Chinese characters. Once you start learning, speaking and understanding Chinese, you will slowly feel the fog lifting, your understanding of Taiwanese culture will become less cloudy and your frustrations will lessen.

The People

The people of Taiwan value hard work, patience, humility, friendliness and respect for others. They are highly motivated and centered around the extended family, their most important economic resource. They dislike loud, showy and unrefined behavior. Bringing shame on anyone (“loss of face”) brings shame to the entire family.

Undoubtedly the hardest thing to adjust to in Taiwan is the language barrier. Mandarin Chinese is the official language and other languages spoken are Taiwanese, Hakka (another Chinese language), and the indigenous languages of Taiwan’s aboriginal people.

The most important thing you can do to help yourself acclimatise is to start learning Chinese as soon as possible. Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language so you will have to train your ears as well learn the vocabulary.

Mandarin has four tones, which means that syllables can be said in four different ways by altering the pitch of your voice. Syllables said in different tones have completely unrelated meanings so it is important to get your tones right to avoid talking gibberish! While it may seem daunting in the beginning, learning Chinese is the best way to avoid feeling isolated and cut off from Taiwanese society.


  • pay for proper lessons as opposed to agreeing to meet with a “language exchange” partner where no payment is required but you will be expected to teach English in return for Chinese lessons
  • always carry your address written in Chinese in case you get lost
  • learn to say your address in Chinese as soon as possible
  • invest in a good pocket-sized phrase book including Chinese characters so you can always point out what you are trying to say
  • think ahead, ask yourself before you leave home if you require directions, a map or an address to avoid language barrier frustrations or getting lost later on
  • befriend an English-speaking Taiwanese person as soon as possible to help you in case of emergencies e.g. a colleague or neighbour
  • if you come across a store or restaurant you like, take the business card so you can return again easily as the address will be on the card in Chinese
  • don’t be afraid to practice your Chinese with strangers. You will come across many Taiwanese strangers who will want to practice their English with you!

Saving face
The concept of “saving face”, meaning the ability to maintain a favourable reputation, is highly regarded by all, and means that expats should be careful to avoid embarrassing anybody under all circumstance. It is very important to remember that losing your temper in public is regarded as unforgivable and very rude. Self-control is preferred and often dealing directly with a situation is avoided in order for everybody to save face. This can be very frustrating for foreigners accustomed to direct communication and who always show exactly how they feel, but it is vital for smooth dealings with others and to avoid terribly awkward moments.

Taiwan uses a different system for numbering the years. While it is common knowledge that we are in the 21st century, Taiwan started counting from year zero when it was founded in 1911. For example, the year 2010 in the Western calendar will be the year 99 in Taiwan. When in doubt as to what the Taiwanese year should be, just subtract 1911 from the Western year. Payslips, bank receipts, licenses and tax slips will often show the Taiwanese year in addition to the Western year. Dates are written Y/M/D.

Many public holidays are also calculated according to the lunar calendar. Chinese Lunar New Year is the most important holiday when everything shuts down for a few days and is at the end of January/beginning of February.

Public bathrooms
If you are moving from a Western country chances are that you have never used a squat toilet. While most places have both squat toilets and Western-style “throne” toilets available, some public places, bars and restaurants only have squat toilets. If you need a Western-style toilet, look for a stall with a disabled sign. Toilet paper is often not provided for free at public bathrooms but can be purchased from a vending machine. Also, toilet paper is not to be flushed but must be placed in the provided bin.

Taiwan’s traffic can turn even the most experienced drivers into a ball of nerves, and crossing the street has never seemed so hazardous. If you are driving a car you must be constantly aware of the scooters zooming past you. Scooters are a law unto themselves and road rules seem to be taken as suggestions only. Seeing three adults or even a family of four all squashed onto one scooter is not uncommon.

The trick to surviving Taiwan’s traffic is not to make any sudden moves, for example, change lanes slowly and deliberately to give oncoming scooters behind you the chance to slow down and avoid you. The same applies for crossing a busy street, walk slowly even though you may want to run so that scooters see you and have time avoid you.


Things to remember

  • always take off your shoes when entering a Taiwanese home
  • when paying with cash or giving something to somebody use both hands when offering the item, it shows you are offering with the fullest extent of yourself
  • when calling people, wave them over with your palm down
  • you will appear greedy if you open a gift upon receiving it, you should put it aside to open later
  • a clock is seen as an inappropriate gift as in Mandarin “to give a clock” sounds similar to “attend a funeral”. Handkerchiefs are also no good as it suggests that the person is going to cry soon.
  • writing in red – unless you are a school teacher – is reserved for letters of protest


Body Language

  • Do not touch anyone, especially a baby, on top of the head.
  • Affection for the opposite sex is not shown in public.
  • Never use your feet to move an object or to point at an object. Feet are considered dirty.
  • Place your hands in your lap when sitting.
  • Men should not cross their legs, but rather place both feet on the floor.
  • Putting an arm around another’s shoulder, winking and pointing with your index finger are all considered rude gestures. Point with an open hand.
  • Palm facing outward in front of face moving back and forth means “no”.
  • Placing your right hand over your left fist and raising both hands to your heart is a greeting of respect for the elderly


Helpful Hints

  • Speaking even a few words of Chinese is greatly appreciated.
  • Revere the elderly. Hold doors, rise when the elderly enter a room, give the elderly your seat, etc.
  • Refer to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as “Mainland China.”