As a foreigner living in Taiwan there is a pretty solid chance that you’ll get a lot of attention. Because you are often under the microscope, there are some things that you might want to avoid.
Basically, there are some social faux pas that you can get away with because you are a foreigner, but it’s best to just avoid making these mistakes.
1. Don’t Stab Your Rice with Your Chopsticks
If you are coming to Taiwan from a country that is heavily influenced by religion, you may be surprised by the lack of religion that you see in Taiwanese daily life. There are temples everywhere, and there are lots of little symbols you run across, such as burning ghost money and lighting firecrackers, but overall, it’s very minor and it often flies under the radar. Don’t be fooled though. Taiwanese are very spiritual and quite often superstitious.
One recurring superstition you will run across here is the fear of anything related to death. An example of this is the number 4. In Chinese, the number 4 and the word for death sound incredibly similar. You’ll find that many people avoid this number when ever possible, like when choosing a mobile phone number or a floor to live on in an apartment building. This is just one of many of these little superstitions you’ll run across while living in Taiwan.
A common mistake many foreigners make during their first few weeks here is while eating out. Many meals come with a bowl of white rice. It’s very easy and convenient to just jam your chopsticks into your rice while you are taking a rest or reaching for your water or tea so that they don’t roll away. This is a big no-no.
Chopsticks sticking up from a bowl of rice resemble the incense that is burned at temples. It’s one of those things that reminds locals of death. Instead, rest your chopsticks on the top of the bowl. They may roll off, but you can always get a new pair. It’s better than giving the entire eatery heart palpitations.
2. Keep Your Fingers Down When You Gesture Someone to “Come Here”
I am not really sure about the origin of this one, but it’s less of a superstition and more of a generally accepted sign of being polite. In America it’s normal for us to beckon a friend by giving them the come here gesture with an index finger or our hand. We usually do so with our palm turned upwards towards the sky. For some reason that is considered rude in Taiwan.
Here in Taiwan the proper way to wave someone over to you is a little different. The first thing is that you should use your entire hand and not just your index finger. The other thing is that you should do so with your palm facing the ground. It’s a very small difference, but many of these little social quirks usually are. After a few days you get used to it, and now that I have been here for years I almost get offended if I see someone do it the American way.
3. Don’t Expect Special Treatment
Taiwanese are generally extremely polite and accommodating to foreign guests. Most Taiwanese want the outside world to look highly upon their country. It’s true that we often get treated better than locals. My wife is Taiwanese (that’s actually her photo at the top of this post), and she constantly comments how when we go out to eat as a couple we get better service than when she goes out with her friends. It’s not always the case, but it does happen a lot.
With that being said, don’t expect special treatment. The quickest way to wear out your welcome is to act like you are the king of the world. Like anywhere else, Taiwanese courtesy only goes so far. There isn’t any room for arrogance or rudeness, and once you cross the line you’ll find your hosts doing everything in their power to shuffle you out of the door, with a smile.
Overall, the atmosphere is Taiwan is pretty relaxed. If you do something stupid many people just brush it off as a simple mistake made by a foreigner who doesn’t know any better. They don’t take it personally. Furthermore, they don’t want to embarrass you either by making a big stink about it.
If you find yourself getting corrected by a friend for something that you did, it will usually be in the form of a whisper. Just apologize, thank them for their help, file the info in your head to avoid future mistakes, move along without making a big deal of it, and enjoy your time in Taiwan.