When visiting another country, especially if that country is around the other side of the world, you must be thinking what do they do that is different from me. Moreover, what should I not do to avoid embarrassment? I certainly had these thoughts, so I decided to do some research.
What are the do’s and don’t when you visit Taiwan? The short answer of use common sense doesn’t work and the Taiwanese culture is fundamentally different to the west in many ways. Small things often matter a lot; don’t whistle at night, accept items with both hands, don’t give your loved one an umbrella as a present. The list goes on!
You have probably gathered by now that, “the do’s and don’ts” are quite extensive. Join me on this journey into the etiquette of one of Asia’s great locations – Taiwan
Before we start
There are a few things to note before we start. The Taiwanese are, on the whole, amiable people. As a nation, they have adopted many western ways. This does not mean that they have forgotten their heritage. Taiwanese society is full of superstitions and folklore. They will not expect you to know the superstitions or the small social graces, so if you exhibit them, you will come across as a very caring and thoughtful person who has taken the time to educate yourself on the Taiwanese way of life.
Where better to start than with greetings. The usual handshake is frequently used to greet foreigners. A simple hello, a wave of the hand or a “Ni hao!” will suffice. Don’t try to hug or plant little kisses on the cheek (French and Italians pay attention!!)
Chopsticks are the weapon of choice in a typical Taiwanese restaurant. If you have never used them, take some time to try before you travel. It is not just about being able to use chopsticks, it is about how to place them. There will be a bowl for rice or noodles. Never put down your chopsticks in the bowl this is a big no-no and will get commented on even by the usually reserved locals. Instead, place them parallel across the bowl, so they rest on top.
The bowl of rice can also be raised in your hand and placed near your mouth, and the chopsticks are used to “shovel” the rice into your mouth.
Just like Asia in general, there is no requirement to give tips in Taiwan. The price you see on the menu is the price that you will pay. In rare circumstances, there may be a service charge, but this should be clearly displayed on the menu.
If you still want to tip go ahead, maybe you want to leave something for the maids that clean your hotel room then 100 NT$ placed on the pillow of an unmade bed should suffice.
Don’t feel obligated to tip, people are not expecting it.
One of the quaint traditions in Taiwan is that of giving gifts. Even someone that you meet for the first time may have a gift for you. If you are given a gift, always take it with both hands and don’t open it in front of them, wait until you get home.
If you want to make a good impression then consider giving a small gift. It does not have to be something costly. To make it even more special give something that is not made in Taiwan. Taiwanese are fascinated by foreign things!
Expect your gift to be refused! This is normal, just keep on insisting. They will eventually take it. You can also turn down their gift a few times too!
A list of things NOT to give:
- A handkerchief. You are implying that they may soon have a reason to cry.
- Shoes for elderly. It represents them walking to heaven.
- A clock. Giving a timepiece is said the same as attending a funeral.
- An umbrella. Don’t give an umbrella to your Taiwanese girlfriend or boyfriend unless you want to break up.
- Knives or scissors. Another symbol of a break-up or cutting ties.
- White flowers. They are used at funerals.
- Don’t give items of four. Four is an unlucky number so don’t give four items. If the thing you want to give is packaged in fours, then give two packets.
Using Two Hands
I touched briefly on this in the section above. It is very common to give and receive items using two hands. I think that it shows that it shows mutual respect.
Items that are typically given and received with both hands:
- Business cards
- Money and receipts
- Documents, passports etc.
When travelling on public transport, it is good form to offer up your seat to the elderly, kids or a pregnant woman. Expect stares if you don’t.
Remove your shoes before entering peoples houses. They will often hunt at this by providing you with a pair of house slippers. These slippers are always too small for my big, fat feet. I try to oblige by waddling around in them.
One of the most hotly debated topics is that of China’s claim to Taiwan. Talking about this is to be avoided in my opinion. It is reported that the majority of Taiwanese are in favour of independence, but not all of them are. So it is best to keep your opinions to yourself on this one.
Taiwan has many superstitions that go way back in history. Despite the shiny, modern external appearance, the people are extremely superstitious. Not only are there a lot of superstitions, but they also range from the dull to the incredibly weird.
When in Taiwan, laugh at or break these superstitions at your peril, as the locals take them very seriously. The good fortune or health of their entire family could depend on it!
The number four is taken very seriously indeed as it signifies death! To illustrate the magnitude of the fear for this seemingly simple number, buildings in Taiwan often don’t have the fourth floor. They go from three to five, which can be very confusing the first time visit such a construction. You should not give gifts or money that contain four items.
Ghost Month Taboos
Ghost month is the seventh month of the lunar calendar. During this time ghosts, spirits and deceased ancestors return from the lower realm. There are a whole bunch of taboo’s associated with ghost month.
1. Do not whistle (especially at night). 2. Leaning against walls is considered dangerous as ghosts like to stick to them. 3. Avoid making big purchases such as a house or a car. 4. The last bus at night maybe driven by a phantom driver! 5. Don’t go out alone at night. Ghosts are looking for people to possess. The young make the best targets. 6. If you get tapped on the shoulder don’t turn your head, turn your whole body. Ghosts are trying to remove the protective flames from your shoulders. 7. Don’t hang your clothes out at night. Ghosts will *wear them* to gain access to your house. 8. Don’t go swimming. Taiwanese are notoriously bad swimmers, and if you swim during ghost month, it is believed that those who drowned will try to take the life of the living to get a chance of rebirth. 9. Don’t shower after midnight.
Taiwan has around 15,000 temples, so the likelihood of you visiting one is high. Make sure you follow these steps to avoid blunders.
1. Make a short prayer in front of the temple entrance. 2. Enter the temple through the door on the right-hand side (Dragon door). Step in with your left foot. Leave the temple through the door on the other side (Lion door, never take the middle door! Exit with your right foot. Walk around the temple in an anti-clockwise direction. 3. When lighting incense, never blow it out, wave it around to extinguish the flames. Waft some of the smoke toward yourself. This is thought to be cleansing. 4. Never touch, climb on or point at the statues. 5. Be respectful and wear decent clothes. 6. Sit cross-legged, not with your feet stretched out so that your soles are showing. 7. Don’t use flash photography. 8. Don’t use electronic devices. Yes, put away your phones! 9. Don’t touch a monk.
Pole Dancers at funerals
If you get invited to a Taiwanese funeral, then don’t be surprised to see a marching band, pole dancers or strippers.
Dancing on fire crackers
At certain times of the year, you will probably hear the sound of firecrackers, thousands of firecrackers! What you might not have expected though is to see people dancing on top of them as they explode!