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!


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…


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.

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…

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!

VIETNAM: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 9

Observations of Vietnam…get ready for the snark!:)

9 April – 2 May, pt. 2: Old Quarter, Hanoi

[as Walter Cronkite] “I just want to begin by saying to Roosevelt E. Roosevelt, what it is, what it shall be, what it was. The weather out there today is hot and shitty with continued hot and shitty in the afternoon. Tomorrow a chance of continued crappy with a pissy weather front coming down from the north. Basically, it’s hotter than a snake’s ass in a wagon rut.”
Robin Williams, as Adrian Cronauer, Good Morning, Vietnam

So let’s see, I covered our lovely accommodations, which improved only slightly a week or so into it, when they moved us up one floor, into a slightly better room. Still had the gnats though, which was okay. We needed some new friends…Timmy didn’t make it. Still, we had the whole outside world to explore! The people, the men, the women, the language, the sights, the smells, the sounds, the traffic, the weather, the hotel staff, the food, the shops, the currency, the culture!!!! Turns out that, for the most part, the only good thing about this place was it gave me a lot of material to be a sarcastic smart ass for this blog! So in that sense, thank you, Hanoi! Wow, look at all that material up there, three sentences back! Where to begin….

Buddhist Monastery
Buddhist Monastery

The Culture

OK, I’m getting the hard one out-of-the-way first. The culture is, to say the least, difficult to explain, and almost as hard to grasp. Most of their oldest traditions are based on Buddhist or local religious customs. I’ve seen a lot of hotels and other shops with little shrines just inside the door, where the workers or owners drop to their knees and pay homage. Just as common in the smaller shops and cafes (almost as numerous as the gnats), is burning fake money as an offering. This is usually done just shortly before or after opening or closing, in a metal container, out on the street curb. The smell of burning paper is one of the few things I came to like here for two reasons: 1] It reminds me of campfires, and 2] It drowns out the other smells, but more on that later.

There is of course, the customary bowing, which I generally return, as long as it’s someone I like or I’m in a good mood and feeling respectful, which at times was harder to do than it sounds, but most of the time I’m courteous, certainly more so than most people I saw. I even made a point to bow and step aside on narrow sidewalks where there was only room for one person to go through, particularly when it was someone older.

The Shops

There are tiny little shops everywhere, even shops on the sidewalks, selling various convenience store items in a couple of glass cases with wheels. Cigarettes are insanely cheap here ($1/pack at most), and almost ALL of the men smoke. We saw very few women doing so, but we’ve been told that more of them smoke when drinking, again, an occurrence we didn’t see much of. There are small markets strewn all over the Old Quarter, selling similar merchandise to what we saw in markets in Hong Kong. One difference though: Shoes. There are places to buy shoes everywhere, ridiculous numbers of them. They mostly sell either flip-flops, children’s shoes, or the most frequent, heels. Really. High. Heels. They’re usually 3-6 inches, and when women aren’t working, they’re usually wearing these. Shoes are an apparent obsession amongst Vietnamese women, and they all wear heels that any woman in America would be envious of. Personally, the heels made it difficult for me to know whether they were just dressed up for a night out, or if they were prostitutes, but that’s going into the subject of women here, so I’ll come back to that later.

The really bad one is a roaming street vendor. He or she is usually older, and either walking or cycling down the streets hawking shirts, hand fans, or shoe repair, just to provide a few examples. They are tenacious. At first, we tried being nice and polite, saying no while smiling. But early on, that wasn’t working. If we were sitting, we’d have to get up. If we were standing, we’d start walking, and they’d follow us, and keep trying to sell to us. On one occasion early on, a man called to me and pointed to my shoe. While I stood there, saying no, he grabbed my fucking foot and wouldn’t let go! I finally had to lurch my leg away from him to get away. That one really began my loathing of this place. Look, I know everyone here is poor and needs to find a way to make money. But I’m not going to pay for a physical assault (Yes sir, please repair my brand new shoe that doesn’t have anything wrong with it, oh and could you get all handsy with me too? That’s how I like it! Yeah, repair that shoe! Harder! Harder!). After that, we learned that if someone is approaching you to sell something, keep walking, show them the hand, and say no, without making eye contact. Deviate from that method, and they might get you or at the very least, persist in their sales pitch which we couldn’t understand anyway.

The Weather

See that quote up at the top of this article? That summed up most of our time here. There were some days that were cooler, in the high 70s, but even then, the humidity is insane!!!! It rarely dips below 50%, and is usually above 70%. Put that together with the fact that right now it’s 11am here, and it’s 90 degrees (not Celsius, for you non-American readers), and the humidity is currently at 70%. Combine that with my furry girth, and I’m flop-sweating my way through the Old Quarter. This place does get rain, usually at night, but we haven’t seen much rain, except for one really impressive night. A couple of weeks ago, a big thunderstorm rolled through Hanoi, and we got one hell of a light show, combined with a tropical downpour that made our heavy rains in Oregon look like a shower with bad water pressure.

More to come next entry!

– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston