The vast differences between America and Taiwan and adapting to culture shock.

View from our roof in Taichung
View from our roof in Taichung

My husband and I moved to Taichung, Taiwan recently to find work teaching English. We didn’t have a safety net lined up. We just jumped off the edge of America without a parachute, and hoped it would all work out. Not the smartest idea, I know, but we wanted adventure before we were too old and complacent to try new things. It soon became clear that for two American tourists who had never traveled outside the United States, we hadn’t prepared for the massive culture shock ahead of us. At first the differences in our new environment seemed similar to my experiences growing up in Hawaii, but they quickly became vast and the adjustment to the adventure we seeked has been exciting, if not overwhelming.

WTF are you?!
WTF are you?!

The first thing we noticed were THE CONSTANT STARES, POINTING, AND WHISPERS. We’re a walking freak show in this part of the world. They are not shy about making you feel like you have two heads. I’m not sure if it’s just because we look different than most people here, or if it’s because Americans are in denial about how fat we all are. But if you bow and give them a friendly ‘Ni Hao’ (pronounced knee-how), they often smile and wave back.

Okay, you're not a freak. I can relax now.
Okay, you’re not a freak. I can relax now.

They are just as obsessive about weight here as they are in America but they hate tanning. There are ‘skin whitening’ clinics everywhere. The harsh sun gives everyone a tan that no one wants. Other than video game phone app commercials, they advertise nothing on television but products to keep your skin as white and smooth as lotus petals.

Can you make my face look like this, please?
Can you make my face look like this, please?

The second thing we noticed was the drastic appetite changes we would have to accept. Familiar food can be one of the few comforts available when you’re neck-deep in chaotic change, but we had a hard time finding even the simple staples we had become accustomed to everyday in the U.S. like ketchup, beef, and chocolate. When we did find them, they were too expensive for our dwindling budget so we had to adjust quickly to what was available.

You will be mine, oh yes, you will be mine.
You will be mine, oh yes, you will be mine.

THE FIRST WORDS I LEARNED IN MANDARIN WERE CHICKEN, PORK, AND PLEASE. Luckily, we found a very cheap apartment near a local market where a delicious bowl of shrimp noodles and an endless variety of fruits and veggies were abundant everywhere we turned. Most food vendors close between 2:00pm and 5:00pm though so be prepared and fill up at lunch.
Chocolate is a tough one to locate but they do have bakeries that sell cheap donuts filled with red bean, custard and raisins. This makes losing all those packed on American pounds finally easy to get rid of. My husband had a harder time dealing with this so, with the added draw of convenience store air conditioning, he stuck to eating 7-11 hotdogs and Twix for the first month which was loads more expensive than street food. Luckily, OUR RENT IS ONE THIRD what it was back home which makes up for a lot! If you want to save up a nest egg, come to Taiwan and teach.

I could die happy, right now!
I could die happy, right now!

WHEN WE SAW A PIZZA HUT, I thought my husband was going to cry until he saw what it was made with. Instead of tomato sauce, they use miracle whip which ruined it for us both. The crust is like a cardboard cracker instead of soft buttered bread. They had a large variety of toppings but if you don’t like seafood with extra cheese, don’t bother. Then, one day we found ‘PIZZA ROCK’, opened by an American expat. Extra cheese, spicy tomato sauce, and pepperoni with garlic red vinaigrette dipping sauce on the side. This became my drug of choice though we can only afford to eat it once a month. I savor each bite like nothing else before, and even get a little teary eyed as the bus pulls away from the store front. Speaking of buses…

Oh, God, please don't let me pee my pants before the bus gets here!
Oh, God, please don’t let me pee my pants before the bus gets here!

THE BUSES HERE HAVE LITTLE TO NO SCHEDULE. People just show up at the stops and hope they don’t melt in the constant humidity before their bus arrives. You should see their pained expressions and desperate hope fade when a bus appears on the horizon and it turns out to be yet another wrong number. But it’s a lot safer than driving or even riding a scooter here because…

It's all good. I'll just wrap my head wound up in my tee-shirt and be on my way.
It’s all good. I’ll just wrap my head wound up in my tee-shirt and be on my way.

THERE ARE NO RULES FOLLOWED ON THE STREETS OF TAIWAN. Don’t misunderstand me. There are street lights and crosswalks, it’s just that drivers and pedestrians simply choose to ignore them completely. This leads to many scooter and car accidents. I’ve been here for only two months and I’ve witnessed three collisions! As long as no one is gushing blood and nothing is broken, the victim just gets back on their scooter and hopes they don’t pass out from a concussion before they make it home. So, we’ll deal with the lack of public transit schedules as it does teach you patience, and makes you very grateful for the air conditioning on board. Believe me, you cannot live here with only an electric fan!

gfd

The constant humidity and heat would surely inspire the use of copious amounts of ice and flinging off of blankets – but not in Taiwan! IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO FIND ICE or even ice water in this country because Chinese medicine believes cold water is bad for your system. To top that off, TOP SHEETS ARE NO WHERE TO BE FOUND. Thick blanket are readily available though for lying in your own muck during the sticky Taiwanese nights. When our air conditioner broke recently, combined with the already painful metal springs jamming into my hips, I seriously considered flinging myself off the roof and onto the filthy streets five stories below. Which brings me to…

eww...Eww...EWW!
eww…Eww…EWW!

The filth. First off, everything is dusty because of the air pollution. But the worst thing is, there are NO PUBLIC TRASH CANS. Because we live in a cheap area near an outdoor public market, the rotting food and street garbage tends to pile up fast in my neighborhood which turns an average walk to the bus stop into a game of ‘watch out for the rancid’.
They do have garbage and recycling pick up a couple of times a week, which announces itself by playing classical music on speakers attached to back of the trucks. But you better get the sorting right! If you overlooked even one piece of crumpled paper or you forgot and tossed a can into your garbage bag, the recycling Nazi will throw a hissy fit. I always recycled back home in America, but my life still had meaning if I forgot an occasional can. I’m still learning Chinese, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard some nasty choice phrases directed at me for leaving an empty jelly jar in my trash. This hypocrisy combined with the lack of public trash receptacles can really bug the hell out of you. Oh, yeah – speaking of bugs…

Bring it on human! I'll give you a noogie you won't soon forget!
Bring it on human! I’ll give you a noogie you won’t soon forget!

ANTS, AND LIZARDS, AND ROACHES – OH, MY! I’ll just put it this way…the bugs here are so big, and aggressive that they’ll take your lunch money, and stuff you into a locker. It made me grateful I had grown up around the same breed on Oahu, and I’ve acclimated quicker then my husband has. I didn’t realize any man’s voice could reach that octave.

There's a reason this kid looks so miserable.
There’s a reason this kid looks so miserable.

My husband did find a teaching job within a month, though I’m still looking, but it quickly became apparent how differently they treat their kids here. Beating children with sticks, ignoring them, insulting them, and shaming them about their weight and intelligence are common child rearing tactics here. There’s not much you can say or do to change it. It’s just part of the ingrained Asian culture in this part of the world, but it’s very hard to not swing the parents over your knee and show them just how it feels to be harassed and humiliated.

jhyt
THE WATER IS UNDRINKABLE and makes your bathroom smell like rotten eggs. Taiwan is a volcanic island so there is a lot of sulfur in the water. We were spending a crazy amount of money on the bottled water industry, which I hate supporting, until my husband’s first paycheck when we could finally afford a Brita pitcher. But we still have to double filter the tap water if we don’t want to experience the symptoms of dysentery. Although, getting sick here is easier and cheaper to cure because…

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YOU CAN BUY PRACTICALLY ANY DRUG without prescriptions here. Antibiotics and every painkiller you can think of is readily available, and cheap as hell at any corner drug store. I’ve always hated taking pills of any kind myself so it’s not much of a perk for me, but it would be paradise for all you American pill poppers back home! Prostitution is also legal here! It’s quite a relaxed contradiction considering…

THE BUREAUCRATIC BULLSHIT IS ENDLESS IN TAIWAN. I won’t go into detail but we’ve had so many problems with government policies surrounding foreigners that it sometimes feels like we’re living under Putin’s rule. If you want more details about how difficult it is to acquire a work and residency permit here, just check out ‘Diary of a mad expat: entry 15’ below. Despite all this…

Taiwanese moon
Taiwanese moon

MOVING HERE HAS MADE US MORE CAPABLE, RESOURCEFUL, AND AMBITIOUS than we’ve ever had to be in our lives. I’m pretty sure that would have happened no matter where we moved, because you can get lazy living in America. The everyday annoyances hold little weight compared to how lucky we feel to be seeing the world. Travel is always a life changing experience, and if you embrace things as an adventure instead of an ordeal, a little struggle can go a long way in growing your soul and character into what they were always meant to be.

If you’d like to know more in-depth detail about Taiwanese culture, like the superstitions, music, sports, and karaoke, check out my husband’s latest blogs on the subject. Hope you enjoy it!

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3 thoughts on “The vast differences between America and Taiwan and adapting to culture shock.

  1. The Fabulous Traveler July 5, 2015 / 11:05 am

    Wow! I loved this post. I’m an expat for the first time in Australia. You and your husband are troopers. I don’t think I could deal with the smell of the trash and the agonizing heat.

    Like

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