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31. The Culture Shock I've met in Taiwan

The idea of such a theme is one that brings so much to mind that I find myself not knowing where to begin.  Taiwan has so many unique yet electrifying happenings that they are too numerous to mention. However I will begin with the idea of men carrying women’s bags or purse, it is somewhat seen as being associated with gay behavior in the western world to some extent. Seeing this opened my mind, as I began asking myself, what does that do or make the women feel.   After a small investigation I found it showed that the person cared for them in such a way that it brought them closer intrinsically thereby build bridges in their  relationships as it would become a norm and creating an endless love affair.

Another shock for me was the use of Beatle Nut, one would wonder where are the health officials to condemn such use although it is done, but having lived here and experience the drive of the economy in respect to manufacturing and time sensitive functions. One would understand you just have to find a way to survive through it all and as much as this is a coffee drinking society and most my classmates have dreams of opening a coffee shop to begin a business Beatle Nut would be their competitor as it is use to boost energy levels and revitalize the body.

Cultural Shocks is something that we all have to experience when we are moving from our normal environment to a strange and new inhabitant.  While we will all experience some sort of a shock at different levels and in different areas, I would like to take the opportunity to share with you some of the things that stood out most to me.  

I have always believed that the best way to experience a new city is to get lost in it.  However, this proved not to be a good idea in Taiwan as 1) I don’t speak the native language and 2) I DON’T SPEAK THE LANGUAGE.  Despite only knowing 你好   and 歡迎光臨, my friends and I went running around Taipei, like a crazy people not knowing how to get anywhere.  Normally when you are lost you stop and ask for help, but it is very difficult to communicate with others when you don’t speak the native tongue. We always had to resort to hand gestures and I’m positive we looked like Mimes performing a skit.  Even though we didn’t speak the native language, it doesn’t stop people from helping us. 

I have noticed that in general Taiwanese are shy, but this shyness doesn’t inhibit their willingness to help you.  Case in point, I was in the grocery store one day just looking at some products when a worker came to me and started speaking in Chinese.  Quickly realizing that I was a foreigner, and I caught a slight glimpse of the “lose your face” effect, she quickly apologized and left.  After 3 minutes, she came back with another worker and he asked if I needed help, I replied no and they left.  After 3 minutes the 2 of them came back with another person, and this continued until I looked up and over my shoulder and saw about 5 people staring at me wondering “does she need help?”  After I assured them I was fine they all laughed and moved on.  As I laughed to myself I thought this would never happen in my country.  But what should I have expected, when you arrive at every store they always yell “歡迎光臨”

I believe that I’m not the exception of the cultural shock that is experienced when studying abroad, yet I must confess that I consider myself very lucky for the way that I have lived this experience.

I remember that one of the first shocking moments that I had was before taking the flight to Taiwan. In the waiting room I realized that the journey that I was about to take had no comparison with anything that I had lived before. Sudden thoughts that I was going to an unknown place for two years, and worse, far away from those that I loved started to causing me so much anxiety that I can’t deny that the only thing that I wanted in that moment was to return home immediately, but fortunately the kindness and friendliness of the people inside the plane began to mitigate the strange sensation. And because of this I can say that what has struck me the most during this time is the warmth and service of people in Taiwan, who always have the power to pull me up. In this instance I’m sure that I could list so many stories that show kindness and hospitality of the Taiwanese who are always willing to help you in the hard times.

However, so far after nine months of being in Taiwan the only thing that I could compare with the term shock is the language barrier, because it has meant a dramatic change in my lifestyle and an obstacle to fully enjoy my new life in Taiwan. I remember that during the first months it was very difficult to eat something that I really wanted, move easily throughout the city, or even do my assignments properly, affecting my self-esteem and relation with others, and also taking me to feel frustrated and isolated, therefore less independent than I used to be. Nowadays, after many complicated experiences but also a lot of improvement with my Chinese I can say that I’m gradually overcoming this situation and the evidence is in a more confident attitude to cope the daily tasks in which I try to use my basic vocabulary多少錢?; 謝謝你; 對不起, 我不知道; or 對不起, 我的中文不是好and the indispensable開玩笑.

When I travelled to Russia eight years ago, I barely suffered any culture shock at all. I thought I wasn’t going to suffer any culture shock when I came to Taiwan. In reality, I hated my first few months in Taiwan. Well, maybe it was because I had a lot of Gambian friends around me for most of the time during my stay in Russia so I did not feel it.

I believe the hardest thing to adjust to life in Taiwan is the language barrier. It is very frustrating going to a restaurant to eat and you cannot order food because of not being able to speak the language and unable to read the Chinese characters. I can remember my first dinner in Tainan. I went to a restaurant and wanted to order some food. The menu was all in Chinese, unfortunately for me none of the waiters and waitresses didn’t understand much English. I ended up ordering some by looking at the picture on the menu. I was served a dish that I found very hard to eat. Once I started learning, speaking and understanding a little bit of Chinese, I began to understand the Taiwanese culture and things were less frustrating as before.

I also noticed that it is not common for people to shake hands, especially men. Where I am from we shake hands when greeting someone older or with all persons present every time you meet them as a sign of respect or as a sign of peace especially in churches. In the Catholic Church service, the members of the congregation make peace with God in asking Him to forgive their sins. We shake hands in church is a sign of making peace with each other and to reconcile any differences or arguments before we come to our Lord’s banquet table. A handshake also symbolises our rightness with and love for each other. At first I found it very strange to see that they don’t shake hands but after going to church I found out that they in fact don’t shake hands when it is time for peace. Well maybe it is because of some health reasons that they have a fear of hand contact with complete strangers and for that one needs to find out. Nonetheless I have adapted to that since it is said, you do in Rome as Romans do.

Studying and living abroad can be the most incredible experience of your life or it can be the worst, depending on how you deal with the difficulties of living and working in a foreign country. Adjusting to a new country and a new culture can be trying, especially when we are not willing to adapt or be accepting of a culture that is completely different to our own. This can lead to feelings of depression, loneliness, isolation and complaining.

I have not gone abroad before. This is the first time I live in a foreign country and I choose Taiwan is my destination. 

Taiwan is an Asia country and its culture is similar to my culture, Vietnam. I have lived in Tainan, Taiwan for eight months for studying. Tainan is a city in southern Taiwan. It is the fifth largest city of Taiwan. I lived in campus most of my time. It is the largest area that I have ever seen. I was surprised at the scenery here. I think that is a good condition for me to develop my studying. I go to class and go to the library all day. I did not have a lot of time to go outside. Moreover, it takes me much time to explore everything in university and in campus.

One day, my friend advised me to enjoy the food in Taiwan. She said everybody laugh at me if I don’t have anything to talk about Taiwan especially the food when I come back Vietnam. She still said the best way to start getting yourself accustomed to an exotic culture is to get involved. Get to know your new culture. Go out and experience life. Make new friends. Her words were my motivation to have a trip one day in Taiwan.

It has been almost two years since I first came to Taiwan to study the International Graduate Program of Civil Engineering and Management at National Cheng Kung University. I come from Ecuador, a country located literally in the other side of the world, in the American continent. I will always be grateful with the International Cooperation and Development Fund for giving me the chance of coming to Taiwan not only to study here, but to know its cultural differences and environment.

Before I arrived, even though I knew that Taiwan would be different from my home country, I wasn’t completely aware of what to expect. I had never traveled abroad before, so coming to Taiwan would be my first experience in a foreign country. So when I landed on summer 2010 at Taipei airport, the first shock I felt was the weather. I know it is not a cultural shock, but it really made me feel a bit uncomfortable: it wasn’t the hot temperature (I’m kind of used to it at home) but the extreme humidity that told me that I was not at home anymore. I believe that was the very first thing that hit me, but it didn’t last long. Ever since I got off the plane and walked on Taiwanese land, I have experienced the kindness of people everywhere. So I thought everything was going to be fine. But the beginning was a bit hard for me, maybe because as I said, I had never been in a foreign country anywhere in the world.

I have nine months and a few days of living in Taiwan, as a student of ICEM Master Program at National Cheng Kung University in Tainan City. Since the moment I got on the plane to Taiwan, I started noticing the differences between my country’s culture and the culture of the place I will call home for the following year or so. In many moments I’ve been aware of the differences between the culture of my home country (Nicaragua) and Taiwanese culture: sometimes subtle, other times obvious and completely opposite to what I was used to.

The first thing that you notice is that Taiwanese are extremely polite and always willing to help, especially with foreigners. People kindly help you whenever possible. And the ones who don’t help you, let you realize something very particular of this culture: Taiwanese are very shy (and that comes from someone many times labeled as shy, for Nicaraguan standards).

“Noooo! When you meet a Taiwanese girl, don’t even think about kissing her at the cheeks!” - my first mistake and the first advice I received in this island. Coming from a Latin country, where this is such a common practice (not doing it is considered weird and impolite), it was one of the things that made me feel disoriented at the beginning. Whenever I met someone (and trust me you will meet a lot of people) I was not sure of what to do. Even when I met some Latin people I hesitated “should I kiss her or no?” I did not know many things that are considered polite in my country are impolite from the point of view of a Taiwanese, and viceversa. So my first advice to lessen the culture shock: make some research about the manners and norms that are part of the Taiwanese culture before coming here, it will be useful and will save you some embarrassing moments. But even if you make some research beforehand, I guess that you never get the whole picture until you experience it. And, my second advice: a hand shake is enough!

As soon as  I got the email from TICA newsletter,  where  we need to talk about The Culture Shock I've met in Taiwan,   A lot of thing came to my mind to write,  but  I don’t  know which topic are the best to describe the biggest culture shock.  Maybe the  language,  people, hobbits, religion, minds, costumes, but suddenly  came to my mind  which activity  we do every day, three times per day and sometimes more that.

Yes, you´re right is “The food” why food, in my case was the biggest culture shock.  E.B White  wrote  “In our opinion food should be sniffed lustily at table, both as a matter of precaution and as a matter of enjoyment, the sniffing of it to be regarded in the same light as the tasting of it.”  some of them think about why I cited this phrase, well, is simple because at the second day when I arrived at Taiwan, I walked around shilin night market, for my surprise in the middle of market, I start to feel a strong smell, in that time I cannot recognize what kind of smell was it, And one of my friend   told me.. is Stinky Toffu,  Stinky … what…  I cannot believe that the name of that dish was Stinky tofu.

When someone has a shock they change forever. A shock will make damages and may also leave deep scars. Cultural shocks are just the same, and it is up to each one of us to make a decision: complain of the pain we had or keep going on. When I came to Taiwan, I didn't realize how much my life was going to change. I’m not talking about language, food or customs. In my case, after 9 months those barriers are being left behind already. Is easy to speak mandarin with Taiwanese people; is a little bit tricky to eat noodles with chopsticks, and is very exciting to jump into a scooter wearing a yellow plastic bag rain coat! Yet, there is one aspect that is amazingly hard to understand: People.

The university where I study accounts with a great number of foreigner students, which makes it a diverse place to learn about each other. Also, I have many Taiwanese friends who are my classmates. So…what do you expect when you have so many people from different parts of the world? Is it fights, misunderstandings…romance maybe?? Well, in my opinion I’ve found one very thing: Love.

When asked about culture shock, I know most people will be inclined to write about the difficulty of the Mandarin Chinese, or the food especially ‘stinky Tofu’ and the many awkward encounters with curious locals.  For this reason I am going to talk about some other “cultural shocks” I have noticed. I’m sure others too have noticed.

My first real Shocking experience and I mean Shocking to the point I just stood and was starring, was the Toilet. Have you ever used a Squat Toilet? I didn’t even know what that was until I arrived here. Two things were unsettling about it. How exactly are you supposed to position yourself and how wise is it to have the toilet tank hovering overhead? For first timers, this is something that takes some time to get used to.

The second eye opening experience I had, especially since I live in a more rural setting, is the predominant religion. Prior to coming you read about the country and its customs. Obviously Buddhism is highlighted. However when you actually arrive and begin exploring, you notice all these huge, intricately designed temples and statues all over.  The two most conspicuous rituals to me were the food and money.  First off, the food is just sitting there.  My first hungry ghost festival, I didn’t understand what was going on, I just thought to myself, “These people must be lunatics, why would anyone want to buy all these fresh fruits and leave them laying there.” Secondly, I noticed there was a small metal furnace in front of almost every business or house and they kept putting paper which looked like money. So I asked a friend what are they doing and he told me they are burning money. You could have imagined the expression on my face when I heard that response. He then further explained it is ghost money (joss paper) and not actual New Taiwan Dollars.  After some time here, the rituals seem a bit less surprising.