Mainstream Taiwanese culture is a curious combination of traditional Chinese practices, modern commercialism and technological ingenuity, capped off with a palpable Japanese flavour left over from decades of colonial rule. Those expecting stereotypical “Chinese” experiences akin to what can be had in mainland China or even Hong Kong are likely to be surprised and enchanted by the striking behavioural differences between the Taiwanese and their fellow Chinese neighbours.
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For starters, Taiwanese people are unquestionably some of the friendliest in Asia, if not the entire world, and most foreign visitors are impressed by the often staggering level of hospitality from the moment they arrive.
If you’re invited to someone’s home, it’s a good idea to bring a gift, usually something simple such as flowers, a tin of biscuits or cookies, or a box of chocolates. Before entering someone’s home, always remember first to remove your shoes, even if your host initially says it’s not necessary.
Facing up to face
As in many parts of Asia, the concept of “face”, the grey area between politeness and public pride, is an omnipresent reality in Taiwan, but foreigners who are by nature thoughtful and sensitive to others are not likely to encounter serious problems. Many Taiwanese have travelled, studied or worked overseas and are somewhat accustomed to behaviour that could be categorized as “Western”. As such, many Taiwanese, particularly in urban areas, are extremely accommodating of foreigners and often grant them general amnesty from the Taiwanese nuances of face.
The best working rule is to avoid behaving in a way that causes someone to be embarrassed in front of others, or in front of you. Pointing out other people’s mistakes or shortcomings, especially in public, is rarely appreciated and will usually precipitate the proverbial “loss of face”. Losing one’s temper in public and openly expressing anger is a sure-fire way to lose face, both for yourself, and the recipients of your outburst, and sometimes even for those in the near vicinity. Not only are such public displays of emotion likely to cause profound embarrassment, they often will convince others that you are uncivilized and undeserving of further attention or assistance. This doesn’t mean that Taiwanese people don’t get angry, but rather that there is a general belief in the virtue of self-control when dealing with others.
When Taiwanese are embarrassed or upset, they often will smile or giggle nervously, which can be confusing or even annoying for the uninitiated foreigner. Understand that such smiles or laughter are in fact expressions of apology rather than amusement, and try to respond with a smile of your own.
Physical gestures and greetings
Visitors to Taiwan and many other Asian countries will notice that most people beckon to each other with their palms facing down, waving towards the ground, and travellers are well advised to emulate this – calling people towards you by rolling your fingers back with your palms up is widely considered to be crudely suggestive, particularly when a man is motioning towards a woman.
Although in Chinese tradition shaking hands was not the usual manner of greeting, Taiwanese men now commonly practise this custom, particularly in business circles. However, powerful or overly enthusiastic handshakes are considered aggressive and can cause considerable bewilderment. Men and women generally don’t shake hands upon meeting, opting instead for slight nods of deference, although this is changing and urban businesswomen are increasingly likely to offer their hands when meeting foreigners.
Exchanging business cards (míngpiàn in Mandarin) is a Taiwanese obsession, even between people with no business intentions, and name cards with contact details can be very useful for any foreigner planning to spend time in Taiwan. Printing of business cards in Taiwan is cheap and quick; sophistication and detail are not essential, with your telephone, email address and preferably your name in Chinese characters being sufficient.
When exchanging business cards, gifts or tokens of esteem, presenting them with both hands tells your counterpart that you are offering them unreservedly, as a wholehearted expression of yourself. To the contrary, passing business cards with one hand or flipping them across tables is uniformly viewed as uncultivated, flippant and even disrespectful. When receiving another’s business card it’s considered respectful to read their name and title and, when appropriate, to praise them for their position on the career ladder. Avoid immediately putting cards in your wallet or pockets – even if you’re only trying to secure them, such action is likely to be interpreted as a sign of uninterest. Also, writing on business cards – especially in red ink, which is typically reserved for letters of protest or angry remarks – is still a major faux pas in Taiwan. This should only be done when you need to jot down essential information, such as a mobile phone or hotel room number, and have nothing else to write on. Even then it’s best to first apologize and ask permission.
One of the most fascinating features of Taiwan, and one that never ceases to amaze even the longest-term of foreign expatriates, is how some of the most ancient of Chinese superstition has survived – and even thrives – in one of the world’s most technologically advanced societies. This seeming paradox pervades everyday life in Taiwan and is visible through countless actions, from the hip young computer salesman making elaborate offerings at a makeshift shrine in front of his trendy downtown Taipei shop to the practising female geneticist praying fervently to a fertility god for the blessing of a son.
While most of the places of ancient lore are in mainland China, many of the traditional practices no longer exist there, stamped out during decades of Maoist revisionism and replaced primarily with conspicuous consumerism. And though traditional southern Chinese beliefs such as those of the Cantonese have survived in places such as Hong Kong and Macau, nowhere are age-old Chinese superstitions – mostly Fujianese – more a part of everyday life than in Taiwan.
For the visitor, one of the most obvious aspects of this is the widespread belief in bad omens, and the lengths to which many Taiwanese will go to avoid them. Comments or jokes that imply death or disaster are almost certain to elicit visible cringes from those within earshot and can make some people decidedly edgy. For example, a seemingly innocuous statement such as “she’s going to get herself killed walking in front of all that traffic,” can imply in the minds of many Taiwanese that this will actually happen. This is not to say that warning people to be careful is taboo, but rather to not follow up such a warning with a statement of what could happen if it’s not heeded.
Actions that imply the notion that something untoward could happen are also widely avoided in Taiwan, which helps to explain why so many Taiwanese refuse to write last wills out of fear that such action could precipitate their own demise. Giving someone a handkerchief as a gift, for example, is not recommended as it implies that the recipient may soon have reason to cry. Likewise, things that are symbolic of death, such as white flowers – requisite at funerals – are to be avoided. If you want to give someone flowers, it’s best to choose other colours.
Even words or phrases that remind people of death can cause offence, with the most obvious of these being mispronunciations of the Chinese word for “four,” (sì) which said in the wrong tone can mean “to die” (sǐ). Giving clocks as gifts also is unthinkable, as the Mandarin phrase “to give a clock” (sòngzhōng) sounds the same as that for “to attend a funeral”.
Another fairly common Taiwanese fear that in part can be chalked up to superstition is that of deep water. Many Taiwanese are unwilling to venture into water that is deeper than their heads, and most public swimming pools are no more than chest deep. Although this can be partially attributed to poor Taiwanese swimming standards – generally much lower than those of most Western countries – for some it has more to do with the fear that discontented ghosts lurking beneath the surface could possess them, as their bodies are believed to be particularly vulnerable while submerged in water. During the seventh lunar month, which usually lands in August, many Taiwanese – especially older ones – will avoid the sea altogether. However, this belief is far less common among the young and is quickly dying out.