After spending 25 days in Taiwan, I found myself with more questions than answers. Since I didn’t speak the language, I couldn’t just ask locals I met in passing. My knowledge of the country felt very superficial. Fortunately, at the end of my trip, I stayed at Dario’s AirBnB in Taipei. Not only does Dario like to chat with his guests, but he’s also been an expat in Taiwan for over five years! It quickly became clear that this man had a lot of insight into the local culture.

Dario (living in Taiwan)

(Photo courtesy of Dario Panzeri)

Originally from a small town north of Milan, Dario has been living in Taiwan since August 2012, when he moved to Taipei to begin his second post-doctoral job as a plant researcher at the National Taiwan University. Three years ago he met Hope, a local Taiwanese woman (now his girlfriend), and they decided to start hosting on AirBnB in March 2017, as he put his academic career on hold and took some well-deserved time off.

So, what is it really like living in Taiwan?

In this (long) post, Dario takes the time to answer my many questions. Hopefully, both travellers and future expats can learn something that will make their stay in Taiwan more rewarding.

Big Travel Nut: Hi Dario! What are three things that you wish you had known before you moved to Taiwan?

Dario: Like most people in the West, I was pretty ignorant about Taiwan at first. My colleagues and students did a great job introducing me to the interesting features of Taiwan in the first few months, and later my girlfriend and various new friends took over this task. In retrospect, arriving with no preconceptions allowed me to have a very pleasant discovery experience. Taiwan is so safe in every regard that any lack of knowledge is not overly detrimental.

Having said that, arriving with at least basic Mandarin would have been very helpful, and would have sped up discoveries and relationship building.

As well, having a good knowledge of the climate is important. For example, summers can be unbearably hot and humid, which affects your day to day life, whether you’re an expat or a tourist.

Those with food restrictions will need to learn more about the cuisine. Since meat is traditionally used in everyday meals, vegetarians need to learn which dishes contain meat, how to order vegetarian, and so on. Otherwise, they’ll be eating the same foods all the time, vastly limiting their culinary experience.

Dinner feast in Shueishe village, Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan (things I love about Taiwan)

BTN: Is there something you love in Taiwan that you would miss back home?

Dario: For one, the bureaucracy in Taiwan is so friendly! Getting things done is relatively cheap and efficient, and the employees treat you with respect and empathy. It’s not always perfect, but I would never swap the bureaucracy here with the Italian one. And the Taiwanese hospitals and health care are top notch.

I don’t have experience living outside Taipei, but for such as small metropolis, its transportation system is incredibly efficient. The city has everything you need, but you can be in nature with a 20-minute MRT (subway) ride.

The food is interesting, varied and cheap. Going back to Italy would mean trading a great culinary culture for another, but over time, I would probably miss my favourite local foods … and their price!

Even though the climate is not pleasant during the summer months, I would miss the Taiwanese mild springs and autumns, even the winters. During Christmas time, the weather is often pleasant enough to enjoy an outdoor picnic.

Another benefit, at least for me, is the quietness of the mind you can experience. Not understanding what people say in the street or bus puts you in a state of isolation, which favours introspection and peace, even while living in a bustling city. At first it didn’t feel right, but now I got used to it, and it can be valuable. I understand that this may not work for those more outgoing than I am, and it may cause loneliness instead.

Oh, and the general level of civic education here is amazing! There are no graffiti on the streets, and no vandalism in the public spaces and gardens. People always make lines, and there is practically no street crime.

BTN: Are there things that you find difficult or still have trouble adjusting to?

Dario: As I mentioned, the summer weather can be unbearable in Taipei. Scorching sun and 80% humidity are not a good combination. In many places, including public transit, the air conditioning keeps the temperature quite cold, so you experience a huge shock when going from indoors to outdoors (and vice-versa). I find it very hard to adapt to these extremes of temperatures. As Taiwan has an important range of high mountains, fleeing the big cities and gaining altitude helps considerably with this though.

On theJade Mountain Trail with the lab students and colleagues (living in Taiwan)

On the Jade Mountain Trail with lab students and colleagues (Photo courtesy of Dario Panzeri)

On the social level, there are some features of the family hierarchy that are hard to digest for a Westerner. Not only the elderly are held in great consideration and respect (which is good in itself) but the younger generation’s needs and aspirations are trampled and denied. The duty of the young in this society is to serve the well-being of the elders. The result is that the young generations have no freedom of choice about their careers or studies. This is an oversimplification, but I still get surprised when I hear a 40 or even 50-year old who cannot do this or that because the parents prefer otherwise.

The stinky tofu is also difficult to get used to! 🙂

BTN: How would you describe the character of the Taiwanese people?

Dario: To understand the culture, it’s useful to think of centuries of unbroken Confucianism, blended with Taiwanese and Fujianese notes, sprinkled with a pinch of Japanese influence, and a recent but strong steer towards Western culture. Many Taiwanese have a fascination with everything occidental, and a very romantic idea of countries such as France and Italy.

This plays in my favour of course, but regardless, the Taiwanese tend to be helpful and kind. If you look lost or in trouble, and they are not too shy about using their scholastic English, they will eagerly offer to help. This welcoming kindness is what travellers encounter.

Longer time residents like me come to learn about the importance of “the face”: the reputation and appearance displayed in society. At work, you won’t see open competition or confrontation. From the outside, everything seems to be working well, and everyone is worthy of praise. Even when there is an obvious confrontation, the Taiwanese will always avoid blunt tones or harsh words. For us, more direct westerners, this could lead to misunderstandings when we first find ourselves in a Taiwanese working environment.

As mentor in my laboratory, I’ve noticed that in general, the local students are way less independent than their Italian counterparts. They likely spent their whole life supported by their families, and all they were asked to do was go to class after class and take test after test. This leaves little room for making their own decisions about what they’d like to do in life.

BTN: What do the Taiwanese do for fun?

Dario: The way the Taiwanese entertain themselves is also quite different. The most common night out is a visit to the night market, where locals and tourists alike enjoy shopping, street food and various fair games. Restaurants are also a very popular social destination. Occasionally, youngsters go to karaoke: a private room in a dedicated structure, where they can bring beers and snacks and sing their favourite tunes.

Enjoying the Night Market in Tainan (living in Taiwan)

Enjoying a night market in Tainan

Very few people go to a pub for a beer, at least not with the frequency we are used to. Drinking alcohol is less popular, and more ritualistic than entertaining. It can be done during big holidays or family gatherings, or as part of business. I’ve heard accounts of companies’ nights out where bosses and employees toast together. Contracts are often signed after some serious drinking!

BTN: Are you learning Mandarin, and if so, what do you struggle with the most? How should one go about learning the language?

Dario: I intended to take classes from the beginning, but as the job soon took over, I didn’t progress much. When I finally ended my contract after four years, I signed up for six months with the Chinese Cultural University‘s intensive programme.

It’s been really tough, and I’ve just been scratching the surface. The problem is the sheer amount of memorization required. For each word, you need to remember the pronunciation, the tone (of which there are 5), the meaning, and the written character. After six months of classes, I could decently discuss the topics covered, but outside of those, no chance.

The grammar is not very difficult, luckily. The pronunciation can be tricky, and the tones are hard to master and require a long brain reprogramming. Western languages use tones to express a statement or a question, or to give a certain rhythm. In Chinese, the tones are used to differentiate words. They are an integral part of the words. On top of that, every single word must be memorized individually. Related words do not sound alike, and there is nothing like a Latin or Greek root to give you a hint.

Writing can be fairly difficult at the beginning, but it can be fun too. Chinese calligraphy can become an artistic pleasure. I like to think that for all the words and characters there are to learn in Mandarin, we Europeans have these sadistic conjugations and irregularities. The Taiwanese “really” struggle learning them. Justice is done!

Chinese characters (living in Taiwan)

If you want to learn Mandarin, I recommend at least one year in a school (a university or private institute) to lay the base, and then either more school, private tutoring, or just practice with market vendors and taxi drivers. Without daily practice, though, it’s almost useless. Experts told me that two years of intensive study is the minimum for decent fluency.

BTN: Have you been learning or studying anything else while in Taiwan?

Dario: One of my great fascinations is oriental martial arts, which I began practicing in Italy at the age of 15 or so. Just before moving to Taiwan I joined a very interesting Taiwan-born master, operating in Milan. He taught mostly Meihuaquan, a style from the North of China. Training under his direction has been the culmination of my practice.

After moving here, I also explored other martial arts such as Wing Chun, a traditional style from Guangzhou, exceptionally well suited for self-defence. Later, I found the local branch of that style I was doing in Italy. The experience was quite surreal, as this new teacher was all about spirituality, rather than techniques.

A big difference in the teacher-student relationship between East and West is the amount of unconditional trust and adoration teachers expect here. The local branch of this particular style comes from a closed society tradition originating in Northern China. My teacher in Italy had detached himself from such traditions, and focused on a more Western teaching style. At first these spiritual aspects captured my curiosity, but after a couple of years training with this Taiwanese group, I got disillusioned and quit.

Meihuamen Club Training (living in Taiwan)

Training with the Meihuamen Club (Photo courtesy of Dario Panzeri)

This is the exception, however. Most local martial arts schools and teachers are quite pragmatic and technical. Questioning a teacher (in a constructive manner) is not really expected, nor practiced, by the locals. Even though the younger generations see the traditional martial arts as a useless relic of the past, Taiwan houses countless martial arts schools. An interested westerner has plenty to try out here. Even a casual traveller may join a T’ai chi group in a park. Generally, the Taiwanese practitioners are welcoming to curious foreigners, and will gladly accept one for a short demonstration, or even for a few months.

BTN: There are so many temples all around the country. How much and what kind of a role does religion play in Taiwanese life?

Dario: The religious life of Taiwan struck me with its openness and diversity. Coming from 99.9% Roman Catholic Italy, this has been a big change. In Taiwan, every major religion is represented, with Buddhism and Taoism sharing the majority of the believers. On the less populated East Coast, and in the mountainous interior, the Catholic missionaries really went out of their way to convert the Aboriginal communities. There are also some local born syncretic cults and proto-religions such as the I Guang Dao.

Most of the temples that catch a traveller’s eye are Taoists, run by a branch of priests that are allowed to have a family. These families take care of the temples’ maintenance and the organization of the various festivals. Taoist temples are the baroque ones, with dragons and phoenixes. Buddhist temples are usually more sober in their decoration, but not their size.

Mazu Taoist temple in Lukang (living in Taiwan)

Mazu Taoist temple in Lukang

However (not sure if this is exclusive to Taiwan), some temples may host both Taoist and Buddhist “sections”. The famous Longshan temple in Taipei is Taoist, but some of its “inner chapels” are dedicated to gods from the Buddhist tradition as well.
 A very popular deity here is Mazu, a benevolent protectress of fishermen.

The temple is a place where gods can be asked for something. Before an important exam, or life event, believers go to the temple to interrogate the appropriate deity on whether their plan is sound, or the moment is right, or just for a blessing. Then, a sort of divination takes place, and the temple personnel helps in the interpretation. This is Taoist tradition. Those that follow a Buddhist sect also engage in more personal practice, such as daily sutras reading and/or meditation.

Fo Guang Shan in Kaohsiung, the largest Buddhist monastery in Taiwan (living in Taiwan)

Fo Guang Shan Buddhist monastery in Kaohsiung (Photo courtesy of Dario Panzeri)

BTN: Wow, this gets quite complicated …

Dario: Oh there is more! There are also Chinese folk beliefs, like the traditional cult of the ancestors. In many houses, a corner is set aside as a shrine to them. And then there are ghosts and spirits! I have no idea whether this belief originated in Chinese culture or not, but it’s very important in Taiwan. Every lunar month, on a particular day, many shops prepare a small table out on the street, with incense, fake paper money, fruits and snacks. This is an offering for the spirits that roam the environment, so that they won’t interfere with the shop’s business. After a few days, the paper money is burnt in a portable brazier, and the food retrieved (and possibly eaten?).

In the lunar calendar there is a “Ghost Month”, usually around August. Some believe that ghosts are particularly hungry and daring during this time, and will try their best to catch someone off-guard and steal their body. It’s better to avoid bathing in the ocean, or wandering in remote places alone on those days. A less colourful interpretation is that this month is simply dedicated to the memory of the ancestors.

Finally, they also have a sort of Chinese astrology/numerology. Whenever one is planning to marry, travel, open a business, move house, and so on, he/she consults an astrologer, who advises on which day would be favourable and which to avoid. Another function of this astrology is picking an auspicious name for a newborn, according to the date.

All these practices are not mutually exclusive, so many Taiwanese do all of the above (unless they’re Christians of course).

BTN: Do you have a favourite Taiwanese holiday or festival? If so which one and why?

Dario: I don’t really get involved in any of the festivals here to tell you the truth. Chinese New Year is the main holiday, similar to our Christmas in length and intensity. Many people leave the city to visit their families all around the island, and Taipei becomes a ghost town for few days. This actually gives me the opportunity to enjoy the parks and nearby hiking trails, as the air becomes very clean.

There are other similar but shorter festivals, also involving family gatherings, ancestors worship, and family tombs cleaning.
 I quite like the mid-Autumn Festival for its mooncakes, a pastry with a cooked egg filling. During this time, Taiwanese typically do barbecues.

BTN: Do you know other interesting festivals or events?

Dario: There is the Dragon Boat Festival, when dragon boat races are held in various locations. This is also the time for sticky rice. Oily glutinous rice is shaped into small pyramid and filled with meat, peanuts, and mushroom then wrapped in bamboo leaves. It reminds me of an Italian risotto in a 100% biodegradable wrap!

There is also the lantern festival, where man-sized sky lantern are covered with good wishes, lit, and released simultaneously at night.

Lantern Festival (living in Taiwan)

About to release a paper lantern (Photo courtesy of Dario Panzeri)

During the Mazu festival and pilgrimage, the statue of Mazu is carried on a sedan chair all the way from central Taiwan to some temple in the North. Devout followers walk or cycle alongside it for part of the way. Firecrackers and shoulder-carried giant puppets of guardian gods performing ritual dances accompany the procession. Often during these festivals, scantily dressed young majorettes lead the parades, or carnival floats representing various local deities are accompanied by big jeeps carrying pole dancers.

Down south, there is a firecrackers festival where people wear improvised protective gear (working gloves, motorbike helmets, etc.) and then enter an arena where very big firecrackers are let loose. The whole firecracker idea is to scare away “bad spirits” I think.

BTN: Are the Taiwanese upset by certain things that foreign visitors do? If so, what are some examples?

Dario: Generally, the Taiwanese are very tolerant, and even if some behaviour offends them, they will probably keep any remonstration to themselves.

Taiwanese having a meal in Taipei (living in Taiwan)

At the dining table, it’s more likely that we’ll get disturbed by them, as the Taiwanese etiquette is quite different when it comes to eating. It is considered acceptable to spit bones or discarded food bits directly on the table, drink soup noisily, burp, or talk while chewing.

Most of them have a notion that burping is impolite in some part of the West. However, they may ask you a question right after you put something in your mouth, and expect an answer straight away. They get puzzled and confused as you keep silently and hastily chewing your food, instead of replying.

In my experience, they perceive “us” as too direct and blunt when arguing or disagreeing. However the cultural shock is quite small, as much of western culture arrives in the form of TV and cinema, so that they know what to expect.

BTN: Garbage trucks playing music, cement trucks painted with colourful designs, Hello Kitty decals everywhere… Is there a reason or philosophy behind all the “cuteness” in Taiwan?

Dario: I am not sure whether the music-playing trash truck convoy is a Taiwanese invention. However, the pervasive cuteness could be attributed to the recent Japanese influence. This cuteness, safety, and harmlessness integrate well with their way of social interaction, where on the outside no conflict should appear. Even the Taiwanese Army displays cute soldiers on its advertisement posters!

Cute Hello Kitty minivan (living in Taiwan)

Cute Hello Kitty minivan in Kenting

BTN: Well, thanks a lot for your time Dario! This was certainly very enlightening.

Have you been visiting or living in Taiwan? Any other interesting tidbits that you would like to mention about the people and the culture? Please tell us in the comments.


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