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Travel Guide > Asia > Taiwan

Taiwan People & Culture

  
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Ethnic Groups

Taiwan was originally populated by indigenous tribes which spoke various Austronesian languages. Today these people form only about 2% of the population, the other 98% tracing their ancestry to the Chinese mainland. The Han majority is further split into "Taiwanese" forming about 84% of the population, whose families migrated during the Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as "mainlanders," forming about 14% of the population, whose families fled to Taiwan from mainland China after the communist takeover in 1949. Among the Taiwanese group, Hoklo (Minnan) speakers form the majority, which is about 70% of the population while the remaining 14% are largely Hakka speakers. During the Japanese colonial era, Japan-born residents and their families accounted for almost one-tenth of the population; with the exception of those whose skills were needed by the island's new rulers, they all had to leave at the end of World War II.

Taboos

Taiwan shares several cultural taboos with other East Asian nations.

  • Some Taiwanese are superstitious about anything connected with dying. One thing to note is that the number four (pronounced si) sounds like the word for death in Mandarin, so hospitals and some other buildings don't have a fourth floor.
  • Do not write people's names in red. This again has connotations of death. When writing someone's English name, this is not a problem, but avoid writing Chinese names in red.
  • Do not whistle or ring a bell at night. This will attract ghosts.
  • Do not point at cemeteries or graves. This means disrespect to the dead.
  • There are numerous taboos dictating that certain objects shouldn't be given to others, often because the word for that object sounds like another unfortunate word:
    • Umbrellas, which in Mandarin sound the same as the word for "break up". Friends should therefore never give friends umbrellas. Instead, friends will euphemistically "rent" each other umbrellas for a tiny amount (NT$1, for example).
    • Clocks. The phrase "to give a clock" (song zhong), in Mandarin, has the same sound as the word "to perform last rites." If you do give someone a clock, the recipient may give you a coin in return to dispel the curse.
    • Shoes. Never ever offer shoes as a gift to old people, as it signifies sending them on their way to heaven. This is acceptable only if by mutual arrangement it is nominally sold, where the receiving party gives a small payment of about NT$10.
    • Knives or sharp objects, as they could be used to hurt the person.
  • The Taiwanese are certainly not puritanical and enjoy a drink, especially the locally brewed Taiwan Beer and Kaoliang. However, Taiwan does not have a culture of heavy drinking and is rare to see anyone drunk on the streets. While over indulging in alcohol is not a social taboo as such (and some people do so at weddings), it is considered a sign of lack of self-confidence and immaturity, and doing so certainly won't gain you any respect among Taiwanese friends.

Etiquette

  • You are expected to remove your shoes before entering a house. You will find some slippers to be worn by visitors next to the entrance door. It is likely to be the same ritual for bathrooms and balconies where you will be expected to remove your slippers to wear a pair of plastic sandals (though it is less shocking not to use the sandals by then).
  • In public places, especially in south Taiwan, physical contact of any sorts should be avoided.
  • As you will get along with Taiwanese people, you are very likely to receive small presents of any sorts. This will be drinks, food, little objects... These are a very convenient way to lubricate social relations for Taiwanese people, and are specially commons betweens friends in their 20s. You should reply to any such presents with something similar, but it does not need to be immediate, or specific to the person (i.e. keep it simple). As a teacher you are not expected to offer anything in return (i.e. in a classroom environment) as long as the relationship stays formal. However beware of the sometime overly generous parents who can go as far as offering presents running in the thousands of NT$ and who will then expect you to take special care of their child (understand that their expectations will be considered as fair in Taiwanese culture).
  • You are not expected to tip in hotels, restaurants and taxis, though bellhops may still expect NT$50 or so for carrying your luggage.
  • If you need to use a temple's washroom, bow to any statues of deities you see on the way whether or not you believe in them. While most people will not mind you using the temple's washroom, they expect you to treat their place of worship with respect. If you plan to offer gifts (such as simple fruits) to the deities, it's expected that you wash the fruits and your hands prior to offering. In additional, upon entering and leaving a temple, do take note and avoid stepping on the extra step (a single raised step, similar to that of a stair's, often found at the gateways) that divides the outside and the inside of the temple. Always try to step over it instead of on it.

Gay and lesbian travelers

Taiwan is quite liberal when it comes to homosexuality. There are no laws against homosexuality, though same-sex marriages are not recognised. Openly displaying your homosexuality in Taiwan almost certainly won't bring any public rebuke. Violence against gays and lesbians rarely occurs. That being said, Taiwan still has some fairly strong male machismo streaks in its society and homosexuality is not quite as open and accepted as in the West or even other Asian countries like Thailand. But the trend seems to be to be more accepting of it as exampled by gay oriented bars/pubs as well as the many entertainers who are known to be gay as well as a transsexual with her own TV show.

Gays and lesbians may wish to attend the annual Taiwan Pride parade event (which started in 2003). This event takes place sometime between September and November, and has become the biggest Pride Parade in Asia throughout the years.





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