Before moving to Taiwan, I knew very little about the country except that it’s an island with some murky connection to China. I had a Skype interview with a Taiwanese school, jumped on a flight and arrived on this island totally clueless. In the past few years, I’ve learned a few Taiwan fun facts and cultural quirks of this island nation, located in the South China Sea.
1.) Funny English names
Most Taiwanese adopt an English name in order to simplify communication with foreigners since their Chinese names may be difficult to pronounce. Sometimes English teachers in elementary school will assign them some random name. Other times, they get a little more creative. Some of the most unique I’ve met: Eureka, Sunny, Rain, Sky, Bell, Jelly, Dragon, and Adidas.
(If you could choose any name, what would you pick? I think maybe Annika…)
2.) No public trash cans
During my first week in Taiwan, I lived in a small dorm room above the school where I worked. I ate my tasteless 7-11 meals in my tiny room and, over a few days, the trash slowly accumulated. And then one night I was awakened by the rustling sound of cockroaches! Yuck.
The next morning, I grabbed my small bags of trash and went in search of a trash can. I walked down the street and turned right, walked along the main road for a while, and circled back to my temporary home, still carrying my trash bags.
Shockingly, there are no public trash cans in Taiwan!
(But the good news is…)
3.) Garbage trucks play music
Like the ice cream trucks of childhood in America, Taiwan’s garbage trucks play music to alert residents of their approach. People hear the music and line the streets carrying their bags of trash, then run after the truck and toss it in.
(My friend Sara witnessed this trash ritual when she visited me…she was amused!)
4.) The Republic of China
The official name of the country is Taiwan, “Republic of China”, which is not to be confused with “The People’s Republic of China”, which is mainland China. They really don’t like each other. Sadly, in an effort to maintain peace with the powerful Chinese, very few countries in the world officially recognize Taiwan as a country. Those who do are mostly “world powerhouses” like Vatican City, Haiti, and Nauru. The US has no official diplomatic ties and there is no US embassy in the country.
(I really didn’t know that before I got here…)
5.) Chinese Art Capital of the World!
Taiwan Fun Fact – this island nation has the greatest collection of Chinese art in the world, “relocated” (stolen?) from Beijing in the revolution of 1949 when the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan. He “borrowed” the best stuff and the more than 600,000 pieces were crammed into three ships which sailed across the stormy waters of the Taiwan Strait. This loot is now on display at The National Palace Museum …(sadly, a place I still haven’t visited.)
6.) Really Big Mountains – lots of them!
Surprisingly, Taiwan has the highest mountain in all of East Asia, Jade Mountain, which is nearly 13,000 feet tall. A mountain range runs right down the middle of the country with 100 peaks over 3000 meters (9,800 feet). (Great hiking and beautiful scenery for long scooter rides!)
7.) Taiwan Fun Fact – Stinky Tofu stinks!
It smells like dirty feet to me, but people here actually love stinky tofu. I tried it once and, thankfully, it tastes much better than it smells! But what the heck is it? Stinky tofu is tofu that has been marinated for several hours in a brine of vegetables and shrimp that has been fermenting for six months or more. (Sounds kind of like Norwegian lutefisk.)
The smell of stinky tofu wafts through the air in the night markets. Reportedly, some stinky tofu food stalls have even been fined for their contribution to air pollution. (The smell is pretty disgusting…)
8.) Aboriginal People
Amazingly, the aboriginal people have been here for years… like about 8,000 years before the Chinese immigrated to the island. There are 14 recognized aboriginal tribes in Taiwan. Many of these tribes live in the mountains or on the east coast near Hualien. Each tribe has its own customs, culture, and distinct language.
9.) White symbolizes death!
Unlike the West, where black is common at funerals, in Taiwan the color of death is white. Red is considered lucky, as demonstrated in the fat red envelopes containing lots of cash which are exchanged during Chinese New Year. When attending funerals, it is common to give a cash donation in a white envelope. (Very bad to confuse the two…)
10.) Ghost Month is real!
During Ghost Month, Taiwanese people believe the gates of hell open up and release the angry ghosts. Ghost Month is taken very seriously here in Taiwan. The angry ghosts are annoyed because they may have died a traumatic death, like drowning or a tragic car accident, and they’re looking for a new body to inhabit. Taiwanese people are very careful not to upset the angry ghosts during Ghost Month.
Some things to avoid: traveling into the mountains, swimming in the ocean, whistling after dark, buying a new house or a new car.
(I feel fairly confident that the ghosts are looking for a Chinese-speaking body to inhabit…)
11.) Magical 7-11! –
Another Taiwan Fun Fact – there’s a 7-11 on nearly every corner in Taiwan, and these are not your average American-style 7-11…they’re magic! You can pay your bills, ship stuff, make copies, fax documents, buy train tickets, call a taxi, get a bus pass, print photos.
Luckily, they also carry a fine selection of beer and many times become an evening hangout for the local neighborhood. (Hot date at 7-11!)
Obviously, every country has its cultural quirks, making it unique and interesting when viewed by a foreigner. I’m sure my hometown of Zumbrota, Minnesota, which seems very ordinary “vanilla” to me would be fascinating when viewed by someone from Taiwan…kind of like a Martian’s view of life on Earth.
Expats in Taiwan – can you add any other facts or quirks to my list?