Under each heading will be several examples of cultural differences between Taiwan and the United States.
Within these examples, an explanation and a potential solution to combat these differences are provided.
Please note that this is NOT an extensive list! This merely scratches the surface and you’ll encounter more during your time in Taiwan.
1) 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.*
2) Competition is everywhere.
In Taiwan, they have Reader’s Theater competitions, English song competitions and every other competition you can think of in and out of the classroom. 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. *
3) Your students go to more school after school.
Many students go to cram school or bushiban. 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 creates a huge gap between high and low students.
*Having high-level students help low-level students and having activities for all levels is important*
1) People will stare at you on the streets.
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, for better or worse. Some places are more rural than others, but you’ll always come across someone who has never seen a foreigner before. Cue the stares and turning heads.
*One of your roles as an ETA is to be a cultural ambassador. It will get old, but embrace it and spread the multiculturalism. Not all Americans look alike!*
2) “Fat” is not as negative in Taiwan as it is in the States.
“Fat” is often used as an adjective, sometimes even used as an endearment. You may hear someone’s nickname being “小胖子” (“little fatty” or “chubby”). The Taiwanese aren’t as sensitive to it, however when coming from the States, you may be taken aback by it.
*Take time to educate those around you that being called “fat” is not as neutral in our culture as it is in theirs.*
3) People are covered from head to toe.
In Taiwan, getting a tan is not a recreational activity. To ensure that their skin stays light, people will wear jackets and long pants to cover their body while scootering, exercising or any time they’re out in the sun. Umbrellas with UV protection are also very common in Taiwan. Sun protection is taken seriously here!
*If you don’t want to go to these extremes, keep your sunscreen handy.*
1) Taiwanese language 台語
In Southern Taiwan, they are really pushing for the younger generation to learn Taiwanese. Parents will speak to their children in Taiwanese and you’ll see students learning it in school as early as third grade. 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, with more tones and sounds, Taiwanese is more difficult than you think.
*Ask your students to teach you a word every now and then!
Who can say no to free Taiwanese lessons?*
2) 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.*
1) What am I eating?
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 and embrace it! Part of the reason why you are in a foreign country is to learn about their culture. Try everything at least once and be adventurous!*
2) Restaurant Etiquette
In Taiwanese restaurants, they 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!*
3) Family-style meals
In Taiwan, and many Asian countries, family-style meals are everywhere and you’ll commonly see people sharing multiple dishes at restaurants. This may be different because Americans tend to order for themselves at restaurants, rather than sharing with each other.
*If you try family style meals, you will have the opportunity to sample many kinds of dishes!*