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Do's and Don'ts!

Taiwan is not a particularly daunting place to visit. It's crowded, and it can be confusing, but you'll be pleasantly surprised at how friendly and helpful everyone is.

In general, Taiwanese people are not overly formal or easily offended. Furthermore, most people in Taiwan are very familiar with Western customs, so a visit to Taiwan does not necessitate a crash course in any long list of unfamiliar rules. What's more important is to remember to bring along a generous stockpile of smiles. People in Taiwan are quite hospitable (though many may be shy or nervous when meeting a foreigner), and a friendly disposition will make up for a host of faux pas.

The Taiwanese are also especially appreciative of foreign guests who are curious about their culture. An avid interest in things Chinese, and the unique aspects of Taiwanese living, will win you a lot of friends.

  • Dress
    The Taiwanese dress the same way people in the Americas and Europe do. Many keep constantly up-to-date on the latest look to stroll down the catwalks of Milan. So when packing for Taiwan, you don't need to bring along your kimono or your Mao suit.
    Fashion statements on the wilder side are not unknown here. Hippies have long since ceased to turn heads. But no matter your sartorial inclinations, a neat look is always appreciated.

  • Dressing for Business
    For business or formal occasions, the code is almost exactly the same as in the West. Ladies should wear attractive dresses, skirts, or suits with slacks. Gentlemen should wear a tie, and above all, good leather shoes. During the hot months, it is almost impossible to wear a suit coat, but for more formal occasions, it is appropriate to bring one along for show anyway.

  • Shoes
    Always take your shoes off when you enter someone's home. This rule is virtually universal in Taiwan. Usually your host will provide you with a pair of slippers to wear while indoors. If you receive guests into your room or home, it's always a nice touch to make sure extra slippers are ready. Don't take off your shoes in public places - it's not expected, except in a few restaurants or tea houses with tatami mats.
    In Taiwan, wearing sandals or "flip flops" is viewed as a farmer's habit, and therefore inappropriately proletarian. Polite people do not go out on the town, much less show up for work, in sandals. They may, however, happily wear them down to the morning market to purchase the day's fresh vegetables. Many libraries and finer establishments do not allow sandal-wearers onto the premises at all. Nevertheless, leather sandals with straps, particularly imported ones that are expensive (or appear to be), are increasingly accepted.

  • Greetings
    When they meet each other, people in Taiwan usually shake hands. They generally do not bow as in Korea or Japan, except on very formal occasions, such as when receiving an award or addressing an audience.
    When presenting a gift, money, a package or a document, it is polite to offer it with both hands. This symbolizes that the present is an extension of your person.

  • Staying Calm
    It's common for Asian travel guides to warn visitors never to show anger - "Orientals never get angry in public, and are deeply offended if you do." This, of course, is mythological. East Asians have the same full range of emotions as everyone else. When involved in a fender-bender or political debate, they will more than likely get hot under the collar, just like you.
    But it is important to remind travelers, especially first-time visitors to Asia, that the feelings of anger or frustration you might experience probably arise from your own unfamiliarity with the environment. You're bound to encounter jostling crowds, disorderly queues, confusing bureaucracy, and all manner of signs with crucial information that is only written in Chinese. Frustration is inevitable, especially in a crowded city. So don't flip your wig! It's normal.
    You may find that people make a fuss when you enter the room, as if you're from a different planet, instead of a different continent. More often than not, they're just trying to make sure you feel at home.
    When they first meet you, Taiwanese people tend to like to ask a lot of questions, many of which might seem a little personal by the standards of your home culture. They may touch on your salary, the prices of your possessions, various details concerning members of your family, your age, your zodiac sign, your blood type and much more. Get used to the interrogation - it's viewed as a way of being friendly. And feel free to ask plenty of questions yourself.
    One aspect of Chinese culture that often upsets visitors is the social context of laughter. Chinese people laugh when embarrassed. If someone drops a book on your toe, the first thing they will probably do is laugh. Don't leap to the conclusion that they've done it on purpose and are having a good chuckle at your expense. They're most likely sincerely sorry, and only wish to lighten an awkward situation.
    Anger is usually a sure sign of culture shock. So don't take umbrage - take five. And remember that with a serious language barrier, even simple tasks will probably take longer to accomplish than they would back home. So don't pack your schedule too tight. Set aside extra slack time for getting lost, getting confused, and having fun.

  • Dining
    Although many Western-style restaurants use the knife, fork and spoon, the utensils of choice throughout Taiwan are chopsticks. If you don't know how to use a pair yet, give it a whirl - it's easier than it looks.
    Don't be afraid to pick up your bowl and hold it under your chin when you eat; it's no breach of etiquette in Taiwanese society. Bones can be tucked away under the edge of your plate; the waiter or waitress will scoop them up later.
    Do avoid the temptation to use your chopsticks like drumsticks and tap out a beat on your water glass - it's an act that would earn any child a good scolding from Mom.

  • Tipping
    At the finer hotels, it is appropriate to tip a bellhop. In restaurants, gratuities are seldom expected. When they are, they're added automatically to your bill. Other than that, tipping is a custom that Taiwan has yet to acquire.

  • Drinking
    When someone pours you a drink, a polite and discreet form of thanks is to tap the table next to the glass about three times with your middle finger. This is a miniaturized imitation of the tradition of bowing three times when thanking a superior.
    The traditional Chinese toast is performed by holding up one's glass with both hands and inviting your friend to drink. The other person also holds up his or her glass with both hands, and looking each other directly in the eyes, both people drink at the same time.
    The typical toast in Mandarin is kanpei (pronounced "ganbei"), which means "drain your glass." If this toast is offered, both individuals are required to drop the whole drink down the hatch. The Taiwanese equivalent is "Hotala."
    However, if you do not wish to drink the entire portion, you can quickly respond with the words "suei yi," which mean "according to your liking." Then both parties can sip however much they prefer.
    Drinking can be competitive, and hosts often feel obliged to achieve in their guests a state of thorough intoxication. But if you've reached your limit, or you don't want to drink at all, just politely refuse, as many times as it takes. Eventually, you'll be let off the hook. A good excuse, like "I have to drive," helps. Remember that the most important thing is to toast your companion, in order to seal your bond of friendship. Asking for a non-alcoholic drink and toasting with that is an excellent method.

  • Face
    Generally, you'll discover that people insist on buying you drinks and meals, giving you gifts, food and cigarettes. If you refuse, they'll insist some more. The more you refuse, the more they insist, and so on. Usually, you'll give up and accept what's been offered. (With cigarettes, however, it is increasingly common to get away with a simple "I don't smoke.")
    What is happening during these rituals of insistence and refusal is an exchange of "face" (mian tze). The giver is actually gaining face, and while the receiver does not gain face, he or she must be careful not to appear too eager to receive a gift, or else they will lose face.
    Face is something similar to the Western concept of a good reputation, only more highly valued. It is gained by demonstrating the willingness - and the wherewithal - to share. Generosity is the essence of face. And accepting friends' generosity (with a show of polite reluctance) is a way for people of lesser means and social standing to give something of value to others.
    Of course, this means that giving is actually getting, and if you always receive, you'll lose in the long run. That's why it is common to see friends fighting each other at restaurant cash registers.
    As a "foreign friend," you'll perpetually find yourself in the position of guest, and probably encounter a free meal or two. But those who stay in Taiwan for any length of time, especially business people, might want to start thinking of inventive ways to beat your associates to the bill; you'll rise in their esteem.

  • Networking
    Building a network of personal connections has long been an important feature of Chinese life. It is done through a concept known as kuanhsi (pronounced "guanhsi"), which simply means "relations."
    Just like "face," kuanhsi is an important abstract commodity in Chinese society. It can be gained, lost or increased, and it is absolutely crucial for getting things done. Kuanhsi is a social bond between two people, who share an informal pact to help each other. Kuanhsi is a relationship that is nurtured and strengthened over time. With a network of kuanhsi relationships, a person can develop business opportunities, find information and get help in times of trouble. Kuanhsi relationships that go far back in time can amount to very solemn commitments.
    Kuanhsi is established through shared bonding experiences, and it lies at the heart of the wining, dining and karaoke singing that plays so big a part in Taiwanese business culture. Two business people who are interested in striking a mutually beneficial deal must first engage in kuanhsi-building rituals, which provide a foundation of trust for their future interactions.
    The process may also involve you in a good deal of "kuanhsi gifting," which makes for a constant flow of watches, chocolates, cognac, cell phones, and so forth. Also popular is kuanhsi golfing.
    Some foreigners are surprised to discover that Chinese friends may call upon them for special favors. But it is also good to know that your friends will take their obligations to help you very seriously.
    The tradition of kuanhsi helps add a personal touch to otherwise professional relations. Especially if you visit Taiwan for business, it's smart to jump right on in the kuanhsi game.

  • Respecting Age
    Chinese culture is well-known for the special value it places on respecting elders. While the rules in this regard are no longer formalized as they were in ancient times, pouring a drink or holding a door (or lighting a cigarette) for a person of an older generation will always win high approval. When meeting a group of people, it's nice to greet the eldest person first.

  • Taboos and Superstitions
    Chinese folk beliefs abound with special do's and don'ts. Most of these involve special ceremonies and events, and many taboos have to do with puns in the Chinese language. For instance, both the word for "happiness" and the word for "fish" are pronounced yu. On Chinese New Year day, a fish is cooked and set on the table, but not eaten - so that the family will enjoy a full year of fortune.
    If you have the chance to take part in a holiday or festival, be sure to ask in advance what is expected of you.
    In everyday Taiwanese life, it's really hard to do anything terribly offensive, but here are the most important rules to remember:

    • If you want someone to come to you, don't wave them over with an upturned finger. This is impolite. Wave them over with your fingers turned down, as if they were sweeping something toward you. The same motion is used when hailing a cab.

    • When using a toothpick in public, cover your mouth with your hand.

    • If someone gives you a present, it's best not to open it in front of them.

    • When someone gives a business card to you, do not stick it in your hip pocket. Also, don't stick it in your wallet and then put your wallet in your hip pocket. You would be symbolically stating that you want to sit on them! Putting a business card in your wallet and then placing the wallet in a front pocket is no problem.

    • After eating a meal, never leave your chopsticks sticking up in the left-over rice at the bottom of your bowl. This is what people do at shrines when offering a meal to their ancestors' ghosts. Doing it in a restaurant would be a terrible curse on the proprietor.

    • When writing anything friendly, don't use red ink. This color is reserved for protests, denunciations, and corrected exams.

    • Sometimes funerals, weddings, or religious ceremonies will suddenly occupy a whole street without warning. Even though they're blocking your way, it's not good to walk through such a gathering.

    • When you're just getting to know someone, and it begins to rain but they don't have an umbrella, it's bad luck to give them an umbrella to go home with - a sure omen that you'll never see each other again. (The Chinese word for umbrella - san - sounds like the word for "to break apart.") This is particularly important for dating couples the first few times they go out together. If you like your new friend, take the time to escort him or her with the umbrella out to the bus stop or taxi.

    • Don't present someone a clock as a gift. The phrase "to give a clock" (sung chung) sounds just like "to attend a funeral" - it's very inauspicious. Giving a watch is okay.

    • Likewise, it's best not to give a handkerchief as a present. Being something that is used to wipe away tears, it will actually bring them some kind of bad fortune that is cause for crying. But don't worry. If you accidentally give an unlucky gift, the curse can be set straight if the receiver gives you a coin as a token payment - then it technically becomes a purchase instead of a present.

Source: Government Information Office, July 2002