As with any overseas transition, there are large cultural differences to be expected from moving to Taiwan. Several examples are highlighted below, with potential solutions for addressing them provided.
Students take school supplies very seriously in Taiwan.
For some reason, students love their stationary and school supplies. Be warned that students will play with anything inside of their pencil cases during class. From erasers to pens and even their personal name stamps and small cutting knives, they have everything in their arsenal. Because they love their school supplies, they’ll also be reluctant to share with those who didn’t bring anything with them to class.
Talk with your coteacher about how to cut out the distractions during your lessons.
Competition is everywhere.
Taiwanese classrooms have Reader’s Theater competitions, English song competitions, and more. It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to see at least one instance of students competing against each other during classroom activities. This is also a method of getting the students to participate.
Try tying any competitions to your incentive system, either through competition between classes or tables.
Students attend more classes after school.
Many students attend cram school (known as 補習班) after regular school hours. The amount of time they spend at cram school and the quality of their time there is highly dependent on how much their parents are willing to spend. This ultimately creates a classroom divide between high-level and low-level students, making teaching difficult.
Consider differentiating activities and breaking students into groups.
- People will stare at foreigners shamelessly.
Whether it’s an old Taiwanese man on the street or a little girl on the MRT, you’re bound to hear “外國人，外國人！” (foreigner). To them, people who don’t look Asian, are exotic. Because Taiwan has a fairly homogeneous population, not all locals have seen people of different racial/ethnic groups, especially in rural areas.
One of your roles as an ETA is to be a cultural ambassador. Maintain a sense of understanding and openness. The fact that not all Americans look alike can also be a cultural lesson to impart to students and community members.
- “Fat” is not as negative in Taiwan as it is in the U.S.
Instead, "fat” is often used as a harmless descriptor, sometimes even as a term of endearment. You may hear someone’s nickname being “小胖子” (“little fatty” or “chubby”). The Taiwanese aren’t as sensitive to it, although you may taken aback hearing it used so casually.
Try to not take being called "fat" personally; Taiwanese do not intend to be rude or malicious by using the word. In classroom settings, let students know that being called “fat” has different connotations in other cultures.
- People are covered from head to toe.
In Taiwan, getting a tan is not a recreational activity. On the contrary, Taiwanese people prefer to avoid getting tan and thus wear long sleeves and pants to limit their sun exposure when outside. Umbrellas with UV protection are also very common in Taiwan.
If you don’t want to go to these extremes, keep your sunscreen handy.
- Taiwanese language 台語
Schools across Taiwan, particularly in the south, now encourage younger generations to learn Taiwanese. Children take Taiwanese class in as early as third grade and parents and older relatives often speak in Taiwanese. As a foreigner, knowing Mandarin will be surprising, but if you really want to give them a shock, speak to them in Taiwanese! Be warned, however; with more tones and sounds, Taiwanese is more difficult to learn than Mandarin.
Ask your students to teach you a word every now and then. Who can say no to free Taiwanese lessons?
- Squat Toilets
In Taiwan, they don’t always have the western toilets like in America. Instead, they have “squat toilets” or “squatty potties”. These are ubiquitous around schools and other public places. These bathrooms may not supply any toilet paper or soap, so you’ll need to provide your own. In Taiwan, this means little packets of tissues are used as toilet paper.
Always carry tissues and hand sanitizer for sanitary reasons.
Food & Restaurants
- Many Asian cuisines make use of every animal body part in their meals and Taiwan is no exception. You may be invited to a dinner where the food cannot be readily identified. That may scare you, but it is part of the experience.
Be open-minded about trying Taiwanese cuisine; think of it as a cultural learning experience. Dare yourself to try new delicacies and flavors at least once.
- Taiwanese restaurants do not accept tips. They’ll chase after you if you give them extra money. The reason for this is because they either have the customer get their own utensils and drinks or they already include a service fee in the bill.
If you’re not sure what to do, observe and follow the other customers. Otherwise, feel free to make mistakes and get a learning experience out of it!
- Family-style meals are common in Taiwan and many Asian countries. Expect to see people sharing multiple dishes at restaurants. This may be different because Americans tend to order for themselves rather than sharing with each other.
If you try family style meals, you will have the opportunity to sample many kinds of dishes!