Your flight is a week away and you are super excited to start your study abroad in Taiwan. Your suitcase is already filled with cotton t-shirts, sneakers, a supply of deodorant, a toothbrush, a Chinese-English dictionary, your passport and visa, and of course a good stash of quality dark chocolate.
But what about your mental suitcase?
Before you embark on any relatively long-term project abroad you need to be prepared for new customs, new thought patterns, new tastes, new language, new beliefs, new sounds–new everything. Basically, you need to be prepared for culture shock.
One major point to note:
• Culture shock does not come in one shape and size. We all come from our own different cultural backgrounds, so naturally our experiences among new cultures will also be different. Therefore, some of the following coping mechanisms might work for you while others might not. Also, some of what you experience in Taiwan may be very stressful to you, but may be wholly insignificant to your friend.
And now, a short mental checklist (to be edited and updated periodically):
• Taiwan’s weather is mad-eye MOODY. (Please excuse the really bad HP allusion).
Spend one day in Taipei and you may experience blue sunny skies, sweltering humidity, torrential downpours and cold damp temperatures. If this does not eventually affect your mood, you are not human. Also, weather forecasts are useless; my rough guestimation is that they are correct maybe 10% of the time.
o How to Cope: Learn from the locals—always carry an umbrella (they sell them everywhere here for $100NT). They protect you not only from the rain, but also from the brutal sun. I would also recommend always having a plan B. You may plan an amazing five day trip to the Kending complete with hiking, sandy beaches and surfing for yourself and your best friend who has traveled all the way from the U.S. to visit you. Then it rains. It pours. It downright monsoons. (Believe me, it happened). This is where an alternate itinerary (like visiting the hot springs and checking out the local aboriginal culture) comes in handy so you won’t be too disappointed. Also, pack appropriate clothing and allergy medications before you arrive.
• Not everyone in Taiwan speaks English. Big surprise this one, I know. But I’ve also come across a handful of foreigners who continually bemoan the fact that they cannot understand the locals and the locals cannot understand them. If you weren’t already aware, the official language in Taiwan is Mandarin Chinese, though many people also speak Hoklo (or “Taiwanese”) and other indigenous languages. Sometimes you may experience being in a supposedly English-taught class and the professor will begin to speak in Chinese. Don’t panic. Understand that there are some local students in class that might not fully understand a concept or idea unless explained in their own language. However, if this becomes a problem (ie: the professor persists in repeatedly speaking Chinese for long lengths of times), then talk with the professor privately about your concern and if it still does not change, speak to a representative in your school’s international office (at NCCU, the OIC)
o How to Cope: Study a little Mandarin before you arrive. This doesn’t have to be much—just enough to learn about the four tones and maybe a little about the history of the language. Learning a few basic phrases, such as how to properly say ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, ‘this one’ and ‘I want/I don’t want’ wouldn’t hurt either. You will most likely learn a lot more once you get here and there are plenty of friendly people willing to help, but you will feel a lot more comfortable if you have some background in the language beforehand.
• Wearing surgical masks. Many people in Taiwan, as well as throughout East Asia, wear surgical masks. (They even come in fancy colors and patterns now!).
Coming from the West, we are often suspicious of people who cover their faces; it implants a spatial separation we are generally uncomfortable with, and also may suggest sickness or disease (as my Dad remarked, it reminds him of those old doomsday sci-Fi flicks about the plague). However, people here sincerely believe wearing a mask will either protect them from getting sick, or will prevent them from spreading germs. Whatever the validity of the claim may be, remember the context. East Asia’s recent experience with SARS and H1N1 scares has prompted many to prepare for the worst. Moreover, with so many people living in one place, the Taiwanese are very wary of the potential of one virus.
• Noise. Forget the stereotype of the quiet little Asian man. Taiwanese people are LOUD–and all the more so when they share a big meal together. Want evidence? Simply mozy on over to any restaurant, bar or cafe in Taipei. More significant, however, is noise tolerance in general. Be prepared to encounter high levels of noise due to traffic, the garbage man jingle, trucks blaring advertisements for political candidates, construction at 8AM, neighbors arguing and fireworks.
o How to Cope: Pack some earplugs just in case and your own mp3 player. Find a quiet spot in the city and visit it at least once a week.
• I’d like some food with my oil, please. One of the most difficult quirks about Taiwan that I’ve had to adjust to is the liberal amount of oil they use in cooking. You can readily find most anything in some fried form–deep-fried, stir-fried, pan-fried–you name it, they fry it. Most vegetable dishes are also fried and, I’ve found, usually drowning in oil to the point where all nutritional content has disappeared. Be prepared to have to adjust to local flavors–it may be difficult to find the foods you are used to eating, especially for those with certain dietary restrictions. But before you write off Taiwanese cuisine as a whole, make sure you try as many different types of foods here as possible: night market snacks, different regional and aboriginal cuisines (including from mainland China), as well as Taiwan’s international food scene.
o How to Cope: Bring some spices and local foodstuffs from home that don’t go bad. Buy fresh vegetables and other produce and cook your own food. This is always the best method to eat healthier, and more critically, to eat exactly what you want to eat. True, this is also difficult for students who live in the dormitories where cooking is forbidden, but students can still purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, wash them and eat them raw. You can also ask for your food to be prepared with less oil when you order. Of course, obviously not *everything* is fried or cooking with oil. Look for steamed, boiled or grilled options (you usually won’t find baked/roasted/broiled because most people don’t use ovens).
• Smile for the Camera. No use beating a dead horse. Refer to my recent post for a fuller explanation.
o How to Cope: Taking a word of advice from good friend Daniel, when and if this happens, kindly decline and explain to the person who is asking that you are a resident of Taiwan and that not all foreigners like to have their picture taken.
• Food is not served all at once. When you go to a Western-style restaurant with a group of friends, be prepared to wait a while for your food. Often your friend’s meal will come out and you will have to wait up to twenty more minutes or more for your own to follow. This is mostly due to the tradition of family-style eating. If you go to a Taiwanese style restaurant or eat in someone’s home, all of the food will be put on plates in the center of the table and you will be expected to share and serve yourself. Thus, dishes typically do not come out all at once because everyone can begin eating once the first dish is served. For some reason, this has translated over to almost all of the restaurants in Taiwan.
o How to Cope: Inform the waiter that you would like all of the dishes to be served at the same time (this sometimes does and sometimes does not work). I would better suggest, however, that you do like the locals and eat once your meal is served. Don’t worry about “being polite”–that Western custom simply does not apply here. Also, I would recommend telling the waiter that your want your drink first or served with the main meal; often, drinks are otherwise served last, like dessert. Bon appetit!
And finally, the two universal coping mechanisms: (1) Learn how to practice cultural relativity—the ability to put yourself in someone else’s cultural “shoes”. What does this entail? Trying to think about the reason *why* people behave the way they do here. What is the value behind the action? What does this person believe? For example, before you accuse someone for being stupid to put shrimp in your “vegetarian” stir-fry, put yourself in their cultural mindset. Many Taiwanese do not consider fish or shellfish to be meat. Learn from these experiences. This time, politely inform them that you also cannot eat shellfish and can they please make a new dish. Next time, make sure you make it clear exactly what foods you cannot eat when ordering and again politely ask them to repeat it back to you to make sure the order is correct.
Cultural relativity means that an observer cannot condemn any practice in which culture engages. In other words, cultural relatively does not allow us to judge another culture, even when its practices are inhumane. Cultural respect requires us to be aware that our own ways are not the only ways, but it allows us to judge others when warranted.
(2) Learn to develop empathy. This is hardly a conscious act, but it should be an obligation. Cultural empathy refers to the ability to accurately understand the experiences of people from diverse cultures and to convey that understanding responsively. When you are empathetic, you are able to develop an emotional and psychological bond with another person or social group. Ultimately, you become “other”-oriented and THAT is an invaluable life skill.
Don’t let your ignorance be an excuse. Being mentally prepared will enable you and the others around you to have a smoother and more enjoyable experience abroad.
For those who are already here, perhaps take some time to reevaluate your own attitudes and behaviors. I know I could definitely benefit from an attitude readjustment every so often as well. Nobody likes a complainer and it is all to easy to fall into the trap of being negative about everything. It’s not *that* bad and, if it is, then go home. Nobody is forcing you to be here.
Also, for those who are already here, what are some other cultural quirks you have encountered in Taiwan and how did you learn to cope?
For those who are now mentally packing, don’t let any of this alarm you. You are about to embark on an exciting journey full of wonderful and surprising experiences that only Taiwan can uniquely supply. Be proud of taking the leap and being adventurous–you will not regret it!
See you on the other side.