taiwan information - taiwan culture and etiquette
Taiwan shares several cultural taboos with other East Asian nations.
- Do not stick your chopsticks straight up or even sticking into your bowl of rice. This is reminiscent of incense sticks at a temple, and has connotations of wishing death upon those around you. When putting down chopsticks, either place them on the provided porcelain chopstick rest (at fancier restaurants) or rest the chopsticks across the top of your bowl.
- Some Taiwanese are superstitious about anything connected with dying - unlucky things should never be mentioned.
- Do not write people's names in red. This again has connotations of death. When writing someone's English name, this is not a problem, but avoid writing Chinese names in red.
- Do not whistle at night. This is an "invitation to ghosts".
- Do not point at cemeteries or graves. This is also an "invitation to ghosts".
- There are numerous taboos dictating that certain objects shouldn't be given to others, often because the word for that object sounds like another unfortunate word:
- Umbrellas, which in Mandarin sound the same as the word for "break up". Friends should therefore never give friends umbrellas. Instead, friends will euphemistically "rent" each other umbrellas for a tiny amount (NT$1, for example).
- Clocks. The phrase "to give a clock" ("song zhong"), in Mandarin, has the same sound as the word "to perform last rites." If you do give someone a clock, the recipient may give you a coin in return to dispel the curse.
- Shoes. Never ever offer shoes as a gift to old people, as it signifies sending them on their way to heaven.
- Knives or sharp objects, as they are made for or could be used to hurt the person.
- The Taiwanese are certainly not puritanical and enjoy a drink, especially the locally brewed Taiwan Beer and Kaoliang. However, Taiwan does not have a culture of heavy drinking and is rare to see anyone drunk on the streets. While over indulging in alcohol is not a social taboo as such (and some people do so at weddings), it is considered a sign of lack of self-confidence and immaturity, and doing so certainly won't gain you any respect among Taiwanese friends.
- You are expected to remove your shoes before entering a house. You will find some slippers to be worn by visitors next to the entrance door. It is likely to be the same ritual for bathrooms and balconies where you will be expected to remove your slippers to wear a pair of plastic sandals (though it is less shocking not to use the sandals by then).
- In southern Taiwan, and especially in public places, physical contacts of any sorts should be avoided.
- As you will get along with Taiwanese people, you are very likely to receive small presents of any sorts. This will be drinks, food, little objects... These are a very convenient way to lubricate social relations for Taiwanese people, and are specially commons betweens friends in their 20s. You should reply to any such presents with something similar, but it does not need to be immediate, or specific to the person (i.e. keep it simple). You are not expected to offer anything in return as a teacher (i.e. in a classroom environment) as long as the relationships stays formal. Beware of the sometime overly generous parents who can go as far as offering presents running in the thousands of NT$ and who will then expect you to take special care of their child (understand that their expectations will be considered as fair in Taiwanese culture).
- You are not expected to tip in hotels and restaurants.
Taiwanese society is rather polarized by allegiance between supporters of the two major political blocks informally known as "Pan-Blue Coalition" and "Pan-Green Coalition", although there are large numbers of people who are either centrist or who don't care. To simplify a complex situation, pan-blue supporters tend to be more favorable toward the idea of (re)unification with China and pan-green supporters tend to be more favorable toward the idea of establishing a formally independent Republic of Taiwan, among other differences. There is even a small group of people who consider Taiwan a part of Japan, due to 50 years of Japanese occupation.
Although there are some correlations, it is highly unwise to assume anything about a particular persons political beliefs based on what you think you know about their background. Also, the very brief sketch of Taiwanese politics obscures a large amount of complexity.
Unless you know your listener well, it is unwise to say anything (either positive or negative) about the current government, about historical figures in Taiwanese history, about Taiwan's international relations, or about relations with mainland China. Some figures such as Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Ching-kuo are generally seen positively, but others (Chiang Kai-shek, Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian in particular) arouse very polarized feelings.
Some people will get very offended if you imply that Taiwan is part of China. Other people will get very offended if you imply that Taiwan is not part of China. Referring to the PRC as "Communist China" or "mainland China" (中國大陸 zhōngguó dàlù) rather than simply China will tend not to offend anyone as the term is generally used to exclude Hong Kong and Macau as well, making it less subjective. Referring to the Republic of China as a whole as "Taiwan Province" will draw a negative reaction from most Taiwanese. "Greater China" may be used in certain business contexts. Keep in mind however, that there are so many subtleties and complexities here that if you are talking about these things, you've already wandered into a minefield.
However, simply referring to the island as 'Taiwan' is fine, as that is the name used by the locals, regardless of their political persuasion. Titles such as 'Republic of China' are reserved for official matters only.