Before narrating some of my experiences in Taiwan, I would like to say that there is nothing wrong with culture shock. Everyone experiences it and everyone deals with it in a different way. The stress of living in a new country, trying to make new friends, walk around new places with the fear of getting lost (although this could be quite an adventure) and specially the inability to speak the language can all lead to culture shock.

If I can give you an advice, I would say that it is better to observe what you really like about the new culture. Don’t focus on the negatives. I personally believe that the best way to start getting yourself acquainted with a new exotic culture is to get involved with it and submerged in it. Go out and experience life, talk with people, eat Chou Dou Fu (stinky tofu), walk not necessary knowing where you are going. Well, this of course, can get you lost, but I think getting lost is the best way to get to know new places, especially if you are in a safe country like Taiwan (with one of the lowest crime rates in the world). But don't listen to me and try always to have a map with you and a pocket dictionary, this can make your live easier, because it is in those early days that the difficulty in communicating results the more frustrating.

Thank god we all know about the existence of universal gestures as well as the use of much more subtle gestures such as a smile that, regardless of the place in which we are, will be clearly understood. However, in Taiwan I learned that all rules have their exceptions. One curious gesture that I've noticed here in Taiwan is that people tend to signal their noses to refer to themselves. I remember that during one of my first Chinese classes, our laoshi (professor) started to signal my classmates one by one requesting that we say our names in Chinese and, unexpectedly, she touched her nose. I thought that she wanted us to say “nose” in Chinese or that maybe her nose was tickling; finally I understood that by touching her nose she was referring to herself. I think that for them it results equally curious that we touch our hearts when we refer to ourselves and, what would you say about counting with one single hand? So different from our Western customs! The first time I bought fruits, the fruit vendor tried to communicate with me by showing me the price figures with her hand which did not clarify at all how much I owed her. Try to count 697 with one single hand without getting confused!  Finally, I showed all the coins I had and then she took from my hand the money that I owed her. We both laughed and I left waiving my hand as a goodbye gesture, being this, apparently, one of those universally understood gestures.

Another shock for me was the traffic, before I came to Taipei, crossing the street never seemed so hazardous; even though the traffic in my country is crazy by all standards, it does not compare with melee I found in Taiwan. Here in Taiwan, even if the light is green for pedestrians, the cars and specially the scooters keep going. I must confess that it took me a while to realize that I was not going to die there and then; somehow they more or less calculate how fast the people are walking and therefore it is never a good idea to freeze or run as I used to do with my friends during our first days thereby causing a further mess in the already chaotic raffic. 

This reminds me of one of the funniest things I used to see during my first long aimless walks and which today I find fairly common: watching an entire family in a scooter together with their kids and even their dogs which is not an uncommon sight, as I now understand; and what do you say about the eighty years old grandmas driving said scooters at full speed? Crazy, isn’t it? Well, I would like to be like them when I reach that age.

To tell the truth, I believe that the traffic in Taipei is a bit dangerous, but once the dangers faced in the overcrowded avenues are overcome, you will have no complaints about the public transportation system. Firstly, it is fairly easy to find the MRT since the signals are very efficiently placed and, secondly, it is also very easy to use. Something that seemed very positive to me was that all Taiwanese citizens are fond of maintaining order and discipline. They place themselves in ordered rows and climb up and down the stairs in the correct side. One of my first amazing experiences was when I learned that once inside the MRT it is prohibited to eat, drink or chew gum. Imagine, it was a shock for me to learn that there is a penalty fine of 7,500 NT dollars for chewing gum in the MRT! This was one of my first culture shocks. I could not believe that anyone coming from the night market with a delicious pearl milk tea is forbidden to sip it until such time as one leaves the MRT premises!

Aside from its delicious teas, Taiwan is widely known for its cuisine. Foods such as fresh grilled squid, scallion pancake, turnip cake, Niu Rou Tang (beef noodles), pork-filled steamed bun, are some of my favorites. I love the great variety, but the only inconvenience I found is that in Taiwan they do not eat raw vegetables. The idea of a Salad Bar results totally alien for them. They seem to consider it appropriate only for barn animals. I think it has something to do with the belief that too many pesticides are used so the vegetables are best when steamed or cooked. However, I miss my fresh vegetables! Anyway, I have instead raw meat, raw fish (thank god I love sashimi) and enjoy a big variety of delicious fresh and dry fruits.

There are so many things to see and experience in Taiwan that one may walk for hours blissfully unaware of the passage of time. The more curious you are and the more you like to explore along small and narrow streets, the more they will lead to new places to discover, such as tiny temples in the middle of nowhere and colorful markets full of movement and living cultures and traditions.

The night markets of Taipei are a true experience of modern Taiwanese life, a nightly display of raucous colors and tastes backed by interesting history, but if you decide to spend a weekend there, you will find that the city is so full that it would be easy to believe that all its 23 million inhabitants are present and teeming at the same time and at the same place.

To summarize, I would like to say that Taiwan has much to offer and that we have much to learn from its culture regardless of the fact that sometimes it would be difficult for us to overcome some of its cultural barriers, such as the language; but I think that learning about the different aspects of its culture is as important as studying and learning its language. I do not believe that it would be possible to achieve full language proficiency without absorbing at least a certain number of its cultural elements even though some of them may seem, at first, alien and even shocking to our Western way of thinking.

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