Taiwan: A (realistic, negative) look at the people

Talk about culture shock.

I had read all the information I could - Lonely Planet, Wikitravel, forums, etc. my students had told me about their visits. I heeded warnings about language barriers and made sure I was prepared for everything I could conceive.

One thing I didn't consider was manners.

I lived in America for almost all of my life, but I had traveled to Europe and met people from all over the world. I've lived in Japan for six months and figured the rest of Asia would be about the same, in most respects.

A culture steeped in tradition and respect, a push for high education and a hive mentality. That's a small part of what I've seen in Japan.

But Chinese/Taiwanese people are nothing like this.

I don't mean the people of Taiwan are dumb, unreligious savages. But there is a serious lack of manners that is hard to ignore.

People push and shove to get through a crowd. They don't say anything, so I know they aren't saying a Chinese form of the phrase "excuse me" or "I'm sorry". In fact, in the Taiwan guide book I was looking at (Lonely Planet I think) there were no translations for these words. There's no remorse for disturbing others.

Along the same lines, people stop and block narrow sidewalks or passageways. At an intersection in a night market, a couple stopped to ponder which way to go... right in the middle of the intersection so nobody could get through. People walk down the middle of the path slowly, spread out wide in groups. (Sure they do that in America too, but not as much in crowded areas). Just you try walking through a convenience store with narrow aisles. People don't make way. Maybe that's why everyone just pushes through, since nobody makes way anyway.

Are you trying to take a picture? You'll probably have a Taiwanese or Chinese person in your way. They may literally look right at you and see you're trying to take a picture exactly where they're standing, but they won't move out of common courtesy. The same goes for looking in stores.

People cut in line. Like, you're in line and then they're all of a sudden in front of you, like they have a right to do that. I told you about one incident that happened at Taipei 101, but it happened a few more times too. At vending machines, convenience stores, everywhere. I was next in line to buy a single item at the convenience store, when a guy literally walked right up in front of me, and when the next register opened, tried to go ahead of me. I had to shove my item into the clerk's hand and say "I was next".

People spit. On the street, in the subway, everywhere. Gross.

And they smoke without concern to others around them. Walking with cigarettes, or standing in major crowded areas, or in front of doors to businesses. I was resting at a temple yesterday afternoon, and guys who sat down on either side of me were puffing away, no concern for me. In fact, I ended up with cigarette ash on me!

Motorbikes are everywhere, but that means they're parked all over the sidewalks. And sometimes driven on the sidewalks or the wrong way down the street.

People burp and fart audibly without modesty. I was on a train early in my trip, and heard a nearby passenger let out a fart. And several times I've heard men burping.

And speaking of men, do they not wash their feet? I never noticed women's feet but I certainly saw nasty, nasty looking toenails. Yellow or brown, needing to be cut, and jus disgusting.

Now not everybody is rude, dirty, and has no manners. Shop clerks always say thank you when buying something, and some of the people I had a chance to talk with we're friendly (see yesterday's post about the junior high girl looking for some conversation). But to travelers to Taiwan, be warned: people there are completely different from western culture or the Japanese. And now I see why the Japanese don't consider themselves to be Asian.

Don't think I had a horrible time on my trip. People in Taiwan are generally more sophisticated and more in touch with politeness, and even with the rudeness, grossness, and general incivility I witnessed I really had a great time. I just felt it is important to make these impressions made, so others can mentally prepare themselves for the trip. (And I was told by one Taiwanese person that mainland Chinese are even ruder.)


  1. The ironic thing is; most Taiwanese that I've talked to think they are more closely related to the Japanese rather than the Chinese. I've never been to either country, but I'd love to go sometime. I hope that your stay gets better.

  2. Jeremy: Japan ruled Taiwan for a long time, and the influence is certainly there. Fashion, music, and pop culture from Japan and South Korea is more prevalent than from China, but the Chinese behaviors are still strong. They may walk, talk (eh...?), and dress Japanese, but deep down their blood still carries Chinese DNA.

    If I can get to China sometime soon then I can make a fully-informed observation.

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  5. I do not think Taiwanese are related to Japanese be it genetically or linguistically. While many Taiwanese put Japanese on pedestal for flamboyant, modern, superior feeling and cool elements in Japanese pop culture & popular gadgetry as well as recent phenomenon of imitating Japanese attires and what not, Taiwanese dialects or main languages such as Hakka or Mandarin etc, culture & genetic make ups are related to the mainland Chinese! Except the Austronesian elements in the aboriginal people, most people in Taiwan are Chinese descents. Did you know that the southern sporadic small islands of Ryukyu(also Okinawa) used to be separate kingdom that had nothing to do with the mainland JAPAN? Ryukyu kingdom HAD their own KING(NOT the Japanese emperor), language,culture,different facial feature(their face is different from mainland Japanese who look more like Korean), temperament(Ryukyu people are warm & friendlier)etc? Ryukyu people used to be more closely tied to China in diplomatic relationship & paid regular tributes to the Chinese royals. Meiji era Japan coerced the assimilation of Ryukyu indigenous people & the king named Sho Tai was abdicated. Even as late as in the latter part of the 20th century "Japanized" Ryukyu people still had the bitterness towards the mainland Japan & there had long been an independence movement as they consider themselves differently from the mainland Japanese- remember? During WW2 Japanese troops exploited many Okinawan as human shields against the U.S.troops as people of Ryukyu were considered as inferior by "superior" mainland Japanese. So many of Ryukyu-ans were viciously killed by the Japanese troops. After Japan's annexation of the Ryukyu area that Ryukyu people had slowly begun to lose their own language & culture and systematic assimilation with the mainland Japanese society ensued and with interracial marriages- but now younger generation Ryukyu islanders seem fully assimilated with the mainland Japanese unconcerned about their past own language/dialect. Taiwanese folks who are of indigenous background may somehow be related to Ryukyu people that had nothing to do with Japan but majority of more than 90% of Taiwanese are related to mainland Chinese! While Koreans who are said to have about 70% of the same genetic make ups as the next door Japanese(recent findings by 3rd party western scientists)& staggering similarity between Korean and Japanese languages -exactly the same grammar,syntax,linguistic root,concepts etc; both languages have strict formal & informal endings of verbs depending on the opposite listener - Koreans normally put distance themselves from the Japanese as both Japan and Korea as arch rivals fought each other for many centuries including the last humiliating defeat by modernized Japan finally conquering Korean peninsula. Interestingly the ancient Koreans used to have their own names before adopting the Chinese style of 3 syllabic names, such as Taro,Paso,Ijinashi,Sadahaam etc. that sound more like current Japanese names (or rather current Japanese names sound like the ancient Korean names) Inferiority complex Koreans do not want to be related to Japanese and superiority feeling Japanese also dislike the idea that Koreans are their ancient kinsmen. While Japanese and Koreans have sort of taboos about the past NOT even wanting to dig deeper academically on research, Taiwanese desire to become like Japanese though it is not a feasibility. But as far as distinguishing between the mainland Chinese and Formosa Taiwanese are concerned I think that Taiwanese Chinese are a way more mannered and modernized than their mainland counterparts.

  6. Thank you for your insight. I want to make it clear that I had a generally good time in Taiwan, and in most cases when actually talking to or dealing with someone they were in the most part polite.

    But in public, as part of the rest of the mob, when they don't know the people around them or aren't conducting business with them, it seems to be a pretty selfish, every-man-for-himself mentality. It could certainly be worse, but courtesies I would think that are universal were just lacking here.

    Jeremy might have been saying that (city-dwelling?) Taiwanese people have a greater connection to Japanese culture than Chinese, though I certainly agree that their ancestry ties back to China. And the Korean-Japanese ties are stronger given their proximity and Japan's relatively recent occupations. South Korea has also had a lot more western influence, like Japan, than Taiwan. After WW2 and then into the Korean War and beyond, US troops have been in both countries. The western influence and thus similar interests in current culture would certainly develop in a similar way.

    As for Taiwanese vs. mainland Chinese behaviors, that's a comparison I can't really make other than my interactions with Chinese people in San Francisco.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  7. Dude, have you been to Korea? They are by no means polite and considerate like the Japanese. They spit, push and yell in public just as much. And when I mean 'polite' I mean by western standards and ignorance. The Japanese are an anomaly in East Asia because they have been exposed to western influences much earlier than China and Korea. Commodore Perry in the 1800s. In addition, Japan made it a point back then to "modernize and westernize because they saw the power shift from China dominance to Western dominance.

    Koreans have long been heavily influenced by the Chinese and was a tributary state to the Chinese empire all the way up until 1895 when Japan defeated China in the first Chinese-Japanese war. Since then Korea has been primarily influenced by, as you said, the US and Japan.

    As for mainland China, they have lost their ancient culture thanks to Mao Tse Tungs Cultural Revolution. If you think Taiwanese have no manners based on your western standards, please do not go to China. You will faint and will probably post a novel instead of a blog about how disgusting and horrific your experience was. It's as Darwinistic as you can get. I am currently living in Shanghai as an expat and can see it is gradually improving as China wants to be seen on equal footing on the global stage.

    I'm done now. Seeya

  8. Michael - when I wrote this post, I had not yet been to Korea. However, I have since traveled to Seoul and its surroundings and it seems that (at least for that area) they are better-behaved by western standards. And many of my (Japanese) students have told me about how rude eastern Asian people are.

    I've heard from others about China's troubles - loss of historical culture, every-man-for-himself philosophy, and of course health issues due to pollution. Actually, I don't think I'd be shocked by a visit to China. I hadn't been aware of the issues I mentioned above before my trip to Taiwan, despite my usual extensive research. And in some respects Taipei was better (perhaps due to exposure to western culture). And as you have seen some changes in Shanghai, there is "hope" for China yet.

    I hope to visit China sometime. After Taiwan and with others' comments, I have a better idea of what to expect. And as I mentioned here with Taiwan, despite different cultural norms I still really enjoyed my trip - and I will have a good time in China, too. When I wrote this post, I wanted to get away from the "look at all this awesome stuff I saw" posts and give an honest opinion of the culture shock most people don't write about.

    And about a year later after writing this post, I will add that Japanese people aren't perfect either - as they, too, spit, smoke, and ride their bicycles on the sidewalks. It is a much smaller percentage than in Taiwan. And of course, Americans do a lot of this stuff too...

    Anyway, thank you for your comments! I appreciate your insight on China.

  9. Anytime Ryan,
    Another thing I would mention is that, during your visit to Taiwan, most of this uncouth behavior you witnessed might have well been from mainland Chinese tourists. There has been major influx of tourists from the mainland these past few years because of the warming of relations between the two countries.

    I say this because being a Taiwanese-American myself, I have never heard of Taiwanese people behaving in such manner. Taiwanese have been influenced by Japan and the USA just as much as Korea has. (Taiwan was also handed over to the Japanese along with Korea in 1895 by China). And since you probably could not tell the difference between the mainland chinese accent as opposed to native Taiwanese, you may have assumed they were Taiwanese.

    Another thing I'd like to mention is that, Japanese people are not what you think they are. They are cunning devils that will smile to your face and stab you in the back. I'm all for being real instead of two-faced. Chinese and Koreans might be rough around the edges, but they wear their hearts on their sleeves.

    If it weren't for the Japanese invasion of China in WWII where they killed more than 20 million Chinese and Korean people, China would be a democratic country today and Korea wouldn't be split in half. If you'd like an explanation to why that is, I'd be happy to explain.

    Healthy discussion! :0)

  10. Michael - I heard a similar thing from a couple native Taiwanese when I was there. But they were talking about immigrants instead of tourists. I know a lot of the people I saw were current residents - native or Chinese.

    After living in Japan, I've learned a lot about them. As individuals they are very polite, but of course that doesn't mean they like you. But that's okay. It is a little frustrating at times when they won't say no but want to, but society as a whole is acceptable to me. A lot of the hostility toward Japanese people - by Chinese, Taiwanese, and Koreans especially - comes about from pre-1950s actions. Japanese language and society doesn't provide much opportunity for questioning and opinions. It truly is a hive society, so whatever the queen bee says goes, whether its a good idea or not.

  11. I have lived in Japan for a number of years and much of what you are commenting about is equally true about Japan, especially in regards to blocking narrow passageways and doorways. Some older men urinate in public or spit on the floor but it isn't all that common.

    Japan's obsession with proper behaviour has little to nothing to do with "Western" influences. It has to do with the fact it was ruled by a warrior based honour culture for about a 1000 years. In fact many Japanese find Westerners equally obtrusive, loud and impolite. China was ruled by educated upper class and a had a strong peasant culture. It still depends what strata you come from, to this day in China, in regards to behaviour.

    Taiwan though has changed hands many times in 500 years and was largely considered a frontier land even by the Chinese. It was thus built a bit of the pioneering spirit without the best of manners making the equation. But that being said 50 years of Japanese colonial rule and development along with he fact Chiang Kai Shek's flee from the mainland with roughly 2 million highly educated upper class individuals might have added a bit more mannerly sophistication.

    In the end though what you will find in some of the densest places on Earth, Taiwan being the most dense on Earth, is the ability for people living there to ignore others. It is the only way to cope with such an erratic and hectic environment, you will find equally disturbing manners in New York City or Tokyo.

  12. Plato's Finger - yes, people block doorways and urinate here too. And yes, Japan's mannerisms aren't based in western culture, though there are lots of western influences on some aspects of it (formal business suits at the office, for example).

    I agree - living in the Tokyo area now for a couple more years after this post I'm able to see some of the negative aspects in Japan a little more clearly. But from a tourist's perspective, I still feel my original opinions mostly hold true. There is more of an effort by Japanese people to be polite. Even in Korea I didn't see a lot of the rudeness I saw in Taiwan, and Seoul is a pretty dense city.

    Of course, I understand there are cultural differences. People in France urinate on the streets, and I've seen a few San Franciscans do it too.

  13. What about this? Any thoughts? http://blog.happierabroad.com/2012/12/dark-taiwan.html