I remember coming out of the terminal at CKS airport the day I got to Taiwan. The inside was air conditioned and when I went out the august 2003 heat hit me in the face like a hammer and 20 seconds later I was drenched in sweat.

The weather is just one of many things that are very different in Taiwan. The food is quite different from what I was used to, even from what we call Chinese food back home (usually Cantonese style). The air is thicker, the houses are smaller, the streets are crowded, 臭豆腐 (stinky tofu) and kimchi smells permeate your clothes during lunch, it was hard to communicate with people, all songs on the radio sound the same; It was like being in a different planet. In addition to finding myself in a new environment, I also found myself living alone for the first time. There was no fresh coffee smell waking me up or breakfast waiting for me at the table in the morning. There were also no clean clothes magically appearing on top of my recently made bed. In addition to this, I was sharing a house with people who I barely knew and quickly found out I didn’t like very much.

Interacting with people was not piece of cake either; the value system is different in Chinese society. The concept of “face” (how to give it, how to get it) was especially difficult for me to get used to. I am a very straightforward person by nature, I speak my mind and I don’t like going around in circles when discussing an issue. This is often misinterpreted as impatience and rudeness. This applies to my international classmates at 師大 and 政大 as well. Cultural differences regarding personal space, appropriate voice volume and personal hygiene can make conversations very awkward. For example, Costaricans and Latin Americans in general are very effusive, in Costa Rica we use to greet friends of the opposite sex with a kiss in the cheek, and I found the hard way that this kind of greeting was VERY inappropriate in Muslim countries.
It had been hard adapting to my new life and at this point I had three options: go back home, stay, complain and be miserable or adapt and enjoy the experience. This is when I realized that cultural shock is a mix of ignorance and arrogance. We are ignorant about the new environment; we are not familiar with the culture, the places and the customs so all these small details take us by surprise. We are also arrogant because we tend to assume that the things WE eat, the way WE talk, OUR values and OUR opinions are RIGHT and they should be the standard EVERYWHERE in the world.

I have met people who choose option #1 when dealing with cultural shock, both foreigners coming to Taiwan and some Taiwanese friends going abroad to study or work. I believe there is nothing wrong with going back to your home country, it actually takes self awareness to make this decision. If you miss your friends, your family, your country and your mom’s cooking so much that you are unable to explore and embrace a new place then you have no business being abroad.
I have also met many people who choose option #2. They seem to forget that THEY are the foreigners and they are NOT in their country. These people live in a constant state of cultural shock and can’t grow out of it, which keeps them from fully enjoying their experience abroad. This is by no means the ideal option and if you are considering choosing option #2 (stay, complain and be miserable), please refer to option #1.

I have chosen option 3 myself, and I can’t say I regret it. Cultural shock is a self-induced state and once one becomes aware of it and takes action to minimize it life becomes much easier. I started noticing that the things I like about Taiwan vastly outnumber the things I don’t.

This insight helped me very much dealing with “reverse” cultural shock when I went back to Costa Rica after my first year in Taiwan. I found myself missing many of the things I had trouble getting used to in Taiwan in the first place. I also realized that my behavior had changed considerably and some of the things I loved about being in my country had actually started to annoy me. It was very strange for me to find myself in a position where I had to get used to living in my country again, but it certainly helped me realize that the ability to quickly adapt to new environments is a competitive advantage in this increasingly global marketplace.

Juan Carlos Madrigal is from Costa Rica and he was enrolled in 2005.He had also previously received a scholarship to study mandarin granted by the Ministry of Education in 2003