10 Taiwan Cultural Tips from an American Expat

During my first year in Taiwan, my friend Sara flew in from Hawaii for a long weekend. As I was sharing bits of my new life with her, she noticed I kept repeating the phrase “…but they never told me”, whether it was stories about bus issues, failed coffee searches, or toilet paper etiquette. I was experiencing a bit of culture shock and Sara suggested I make a list so I scribbled it in my mind. Now that I have a blog, it’s a good time to share to share this list. So, here are 10 Taiwan cultural tips from an American expat in Taiwan. 


1.) The Bus

When I first moved to Taiwan, I had to wait a couple months before I could legally buy a scooter and was forced to take the bus if I wanted to venture outside my neighborhood. Early one rainy Sunday morning, I was feeling restless so I wandered out to the main road and started walking through the puddles in my flip flops, just waiting for a bus to come along. I saw one approach so I ran to the nearest bus stop and stood next to it. The bus splashed me as it drove on by.

Taiwan cultural tips
No more bus! Scootering into the mountains…

Assuming I was standing in the wrong place or at the wrong angle, I ran across the street and tried again. I made eye contact with the bus driver as he smiled and kept on driving. Finally, I saw a bus stop with some other people waiting so I joined the line. As the bus approached, they RAISED THEIR HANDS and the bus stopped. (I guess that’s a common practice all over the world, but I’ve never had to rely on the bus!)

2.) Coffee

Living in a tea-loving country like Taiwan, coffee was a real issue at first. I NEED my morning coffee so I bought a small coffee maker for my non-existent kitchen (only a refrigerator – typical Taiwanese style). At the local supermarket, I found a blue bag marked “Coffee” that felt squishy like ground coffee (everything was written in Chinese).

When I got home and ripped it open, I found powdered coffee creamer inside. Not very helpful at all. I finally managed to track down a large selection of ground coffee at RT Mart, the Taiwanese equivalent of WalMart (but without the freaky-looking people). Recently, I’ve discovered the joys of Costco for a great deal on a 3-lb can of ground coffee, but I really should have just ordered my favorite Starbuck’s blend from Amazon!

3.) Toilet Paper Etiquette

Toilet paper does not go in the toilet. Most restrooms, even at home, are equipped with small trash bins and that is where the toilet paper goes. Always. When I visit the US, it usually takes me a while to get over the feelings of guilt when I flush the toilet paper. I was guilty of doing that here in Taiwan the first few weeks because I really didn’t know!

4.) Bad hair days

The Taiwan humidity, especially in the summer, makes every day a bad hair day. I thought I would just need to accept it so I coped by getting a helmet-shaped haircut. Even though I also wear a hood (unzipped off a windbreaker) under my scooter helmet, my hair was still looking horrible all summer long. Luckily, I discovered the joys of Moroccan argon oil which seems to help with the frizz, but nothing can stop me from sweating on those hot, humid summer days!

Taiwan cultural tips
View looking into the mountains just outside of Hsinchu, Taiwan. Haircut resembling a helmet.

5.) Cell Phone Plans

I avoided getting a cell phone when I first arrived in Taiwan, not wanting the additional expense and assuming it would be outrageous like in the US, where I was paying a ridiculous $103/month through T-Mobile. I was also a little scared of the 2-year commitment that most cell plans required (“commitment issues”). Finally, I broke down and dropped by the cell phone store and was shocked to get a Samsung tablet for only $49 USD with a 2-year contract, and a monthly charge of only about $25/month. Another great option is a prepaid SIM card from Lycamobile with unlimited international talk, text, and data for $23. That’s such a deal compared to my old cell plan in the US!

6.) WCIF – Thank God for Facebook!

After surviving the first year feeling like every shopping excursion was a treasure hunt, I discovered the beauty of expats joining together to document exactly where great “stuff” can be found, on a Facebook page called “Where Can I Find?” WCIF covers everything from medication and supplements to Ben and Jerry’s ice cream to nonstick cooking sprays like PAM.

Taiwan cultural tips
Ben ‘n Jerry’s. One of the comforts of home.

7.) Crossing the Street

Street-crossing etiquette is a very cultural thing. In the US, cars will stop if a pedestrian is anywhere near that white crossing zone. In Vietnam, pedestrians just walk through the scooters, being careful to walk at the same pace and not make any sudden moves. It’s like a dance and it works in Hanoi. I tried the Vietnamese dance method here in Taiwan and caused traffic chaos, lots of honking and cursing. Taiwanese pedestrians obey all “walk/don’t walk” signals, but ironically cars and scooters don’t really take note of that red light.

Beware – pedestrians get very little respect here!

Taiwan cultural tips
Vietnam street crossing – such an organized dance!

8.) Blue Trucks

Also, beware of blue trucks from hell! I developed a fear of these blue monsters very early, but I wasn’t sure what creature was typically behind the wheel of these monsters-on-wheels. And then this is what I learned; they’re usually driven by construction workers, and it’s culturally acceptable for construction workers to have a few (or more?) beers for lunch. After a brief nap, they’ll get back on the roof for their afternoon shift. I never understood this until I recently had construction workers napping in my front yard before climbing back on my roof.

9.) American Expat – Big Shoe Issues

Size 10 women’s shoes do not exist on this island! Seriously! They never told me that. Last year I was forced to buy men’s running shoes because I was desperate. I’ve learned the hard way, and now stock up on BIG SHOES whenever I visit the US or just order my favorite Asics from Amazon.

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Lots of shoes – but nothing in my size!

10.) US Embassy

The US Embassy does not exist here. The US has no “official” ties with Taiwan, in an effort to keep the peace with China. Since I did virtually NO research before moving here and I’m an ignorant American, I was a little shocked to find this out. They never told me…but then again, I never asked that question.


Relocating to a new country can be overwhelming and incredibly stressful. Little things become big issues, like when you’re really, really hungry but have no idea what to eat so you dine at 7-11. Again. At first, you may feel like a fish swimming upstream, and then slowly life starts to feel almost “normal”. Suddenly you’re gliding through rush hour traffic with ease and your favorite Fried Rice Lady knows your name, and you know you’re “home”.


Other related Taiwan expat articles you might enjoy:

 Nine Reasons Expats Choose Taiwan

Moving to Taiwan – the Price of Starting a New Life

Taiwanniversary – Four Expat Lessons Learned After Three Years in Taiwan

 

(Vietnam Photo credit: patrikmloeff on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND)

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4 Replies to “10 Taiwan Cultural Tips from an American Expat”

  1. This is funny, very interesting and a bit scary, this must be quite stressful at times!

    1. It was a bit stressful at first but it was all worth it!

  2. I faced the same issues when I went to the US. My first experience of taking a taxi in the US is hilarious. I did not realize that there would be a difference, so I just stood by the road and raised my hand. Then I found no taxi stopped!! I was confusing at that time, until my American friend told me that you need to make a call to get a taxi. At that moment, I found out that I was soooo silly just standing by the road and raising my hand.
    The humidity was an issue for me. The humidity in US is not as high as that in Taiwan. That causes a static electricity issue to me, especially in winter. It was a pain in the neck. Every time I touched the door knob, I got shocked by static electricity.

    1. Yeah, culture shock happens everywhere! I get “reverse” culture shock when I go back to the US for a visit. Things that were once normal to me now seem strange. (Sounds like a topic for another post!)

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