Politeness - Taiwan vs. US

“Eat, eat!”
“It’s cold. You’re not wearing enough. Put on a coat.”
“How much did it cost… Oh, you paid too much!”

I hear these again and again, usually in Chinese. I know it’s common to say such things here, something like “How are you?” or “Nice weather” in English. Usually, I just smile and think nothing of it, but sometimes, especially when I’m tired, my American expectations and automatic responses kick in.

“Eat, eat!” I think “Eat?! I’m not hungry. I didn’t ask for food. If you offer it to me, I can politely refuse. And… can I ask what’s in it before you give me a big serving?”

“It’s cold. You’re not wearing enough. Put on a coat.” I think “Who are you? My mother?”

“How much did it cost? … Oh, you paid too much.” I think “Great, now that I’ve already forked over the money, you think I want to know I paid too much? What can I do about it now?”

There are more examples, for sure. It’s no mystery why I’m more comfortable with the English trait of saying things like “would you like…?” “perhaps you ought to…” “it might be a good idea if…”

I’m just venting. Anyone else want to share?

LOL…hey man…its called culture shock. Deal with it…embrace it.
I have been to Taipei only 5 times so far…brought there by love of a girl…and came back for love of the place.
During my time there, I experienced such things…mostly I took them with a grain of salt…after all, I came from NYC…not exactly a subtle place.
To me such social attitudes are charming…lol…if not a bit odd. Takes some getting used to for sure.
I found the Chinese to be reserved about some things, and in your face about others.
Don’t take it personally, try to accept it.
At the same time…I didn’t always try to conform 100% either. On more than one occasion, I let my American ways steamroll over their Chinese ways.
The best way to deal with it…is to be open…but don’t try to conform too much. Be yourself. Understand its just their way…and roll with it.
Like you said, it makes you feel like you are around your Mother…
I put my foot in my mouth many a times over in Taiwan. But for every social fau paw…I learned alittle more of their ways and I got used to it.

when you came here, how long and in what capacity? I mean like tourist, student, business etc…

The reason I ask is, if youve lived here a little longer (although I havent lived here all that long myself) you may start to understand a little more how ckvw feels. I start getting anoyed when people keep referring to me as their “foriegn friend”. Why cant I just be one of the gang plain and simple. It may be easy to gloss over something that seems so trivial, and I do try, but that type of thing really has alot of deeper societal implications that I cant begin to go into in this post.

Anyway, my point is, I think what ckvw (and ckvw, correct me if I’m wrong) means is, he is more comftorable with Western ideas of privacy, politness. Although ck, I gotta say, youll find alot of people in the US who will say all the things you mentioned in your post.


The thing that really gets me going is the total lack of concept of maps - and “You must follow me” to get to where we are going by car.

It seems almost compulsary to meet somewhere where it is impossible to park your car and leave it for a few minutes (red lines or - if lucky, yellow lines).

My wife tells me this is Taiwanese way to do things. I tell her it is stupid. She responds that they are only trying to help.

Someone who has been here for 10 years tells me that you will never overcome the local concept (or contempt??) that, as a foreigner, you need to be be helped, and that they cannot understand how you might consider that this is insulting and smarmy.

So the other day, on leaving A Li Shan, heading for Long Mei - not that far down the road - the laowai (with wife and two other chinese) was on the road first with the two other cars behind - not by design - just the car park was pretty congested - and the laowai was first out. There was some chinese discussion (I only got bits of it) in the car - and calls on the 2-way radio (they had bought 2-way radios with them - knowing that the dageda may not work in that area!!) - I got the impression that - despite the strong feeling that this was wrong - they would not actually ask me to pull over so I could follow one of the other local driven cars.

Small step for laowai kind???

And - yes I did manage to turn left at Long Mei without assistance from anyone.

Hey Aaron,

Yeah, I have been to Taipei a bunch of times…mostly for short visits tho…no longer than 3 months at a time. I originally came over to see my girlfriend and came back because I loved the place…similiar yet opposite to my beloved NYC.
I plan to return this spring for a very long time to finish writing my screenplay.
I hear what people are saying in this post, and it does merit discussion.
I travel ALOT and experience such things often. Some call it culture shock. I find the best way to survive it, is to assert yourself when appropriate, but realize that you cannot change a culture. It is what it is…different.
Taipei reminded me so much of NYC…the energy…is very high. So on one hand It felt very familiar and safe. On the other hand, there is much less cultural diversity and I felt forever out of place. I was the odd ball freak who stood out like a New York bagel in a sea of chinese pastry.
It was fun…at first…th attention and all…but the longer I stayed, the more I got used to the city…but the people never stopped treating me like a foriegner. Friendly yes…but I was the gwai lo…and I always would be. Took some getting used to. To accept this. I’m sure many Taiwanese would go thru something similiar coming to NYC in their own way.
There will always be clashes…things you resist and object to. Again, I think there will be times you should assert yourself, and other times when u should lay bak and go with the flow.
I can’t wait to return and experience such things again.

the stuff mentioned in the first post could just as easily be applied to americans of various ethnic backgrounds. for example, traditional jewish mother types? annoying, yes, but not really specific to taiwanese…

Giving and receiving help are ways of strengthening bonds. If you don’t want that kind of bond (ie, you don’t want to return the favor someday and generally have a relationship of mutual giving and taking), you’ll find all the offers of help stifling. I found all the offers of help I received in Taiwan (even when I didn’t need it) to be comforting- people were looking out for me and I wasn’t so alone). Also, Chinese love to do things together. Whereas my Chinese husband could drive himself to the doctor by himself, he often wants me and my 2 young girls to go with him- it’s more comforting and less lonely that way-even if he were going to be gone a little while. You may see that as weak and too sentimental/smarmy- but I like the Chinese way better. I was less lonely in Taiwan (after I could speak reasonable Chinese and got to know the culture, that is) being a foreigner than I am in America. Oh, I have family and friends around me, but, except for my mother, children and husband, I don’t feel the closenes with other Americans that I did with Taiwanese friends. Maoman said somewhere that he feels that Canada was a “lonely paradise” while Taiwan was a “happy Hell”. I understand what he means.

I have the same annoyed feeling at people constantly offering their ‘advice’ as if they know more about what is good for me than I know myself. But, I have to admit, it is a personality – or character – thing. I simply have a very strong personal sense that human dignity demands allowing people to make their own decisions and to have their own thoughts. Even though I realize that Taiwanese are often just trying to be helpful or friendly, or just trying to start a conversation, I still feel annoyed. And I probably always will to some extent. Just as there are things in our home countries that annoy us, there are things in our new countries that annoy us.

Advice to just “chill out” or “take it easy” is callous and dismissive.

And I want to add…If a person has been to a country for a while (say, more than 3 or 6 months, especially in Taiwan), their annoyance is NOT culture shock. Culture shock is a short-term phenomenon that occurs in the beginning of one’s stay when one is planning to stay for the long term (one year or more). When one visits a place for only a short time, they do not feel culture shock. Quite the opposite. Everything seems exotic and cool. Short-term visitors – and certainly mere tourists – shouldn’t take their impressions too seriously. That’s why I like to hear from long-timers. I often learn something insightful from them.

Perhaps “cultural inadaptation” would be a better term for the inability to roll with the cultural norms in another country after being there for more than 3-6 months.


I’m not so sure this is about cultural adaptation. Of course, living in Taiwan for a long time requires a certain degree of adapting, but there are many things that NO ONE should have to ‘adapt’ to.

I originally lived in Tainan starting in '96. I first have to say that living in Taipei is a paradise compared to Tainan (although I still miss it sometimes!). What I mean by that is it is a very rare occurrence for someone to cheat me, yell out ‘big nose’ (a-do-ah) at the top of their lungs and point, people crashing their motorcycles while pointing out the foreigner to their kids, etc, etc… Of course, ‘very rare’ is also relative to Tainan.

Of course there are many differences between cultures, and most of these cannot be labeled as ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than traits in other cultures; just because one culture beleives burping in public is incredibly rude, if another culture doesn’t, it does not make that culture less ‘sophisticated’. (although I still don’t like it )

However, I believe some societal traits (I don’t want to call them cultural traits) can be labeled as ‘better’ or ‘worse’ (I realize I might get flak for this…) I beleive that people should have a -basic dignity or basic respect- for any other person they meet, just because they’re human. It doesn’t mean they have to be polite or like them, but it does means they shouldn’t literally stare at them for a half-hour while they are eating, yell out ‘big nose’ when they’re two feet in front of you, lie to your face about prices on a menu you can obviously read, yell out ‘how are you’ because they think its funny to say something to a foreigner (not friendly or polite, but funny - you can almost always tell the difference, and I do appreciate those that say ‘hello’ to be friendly), almost as many people yelling out ‘f*** your mother’ for no reason because, again, they think its funny to say something, etc… This happened literally on a daily basis (actually several times a day).

Should I adapt to this? I don’t think so. I treat everyone I meet with basic respect, and I expect others to do the same regardless of what culture you’re from. But again, I’d like to propose that this is not a cultural shortcoming, but perhaps a societal shortcoming. (this sounds right to me for some reason, even if no one else can see any difference…)

That being said, I also met some of the friendliest people (and some of my best friends) down there.

I disagree…it IS culture shock…IF you still hold onto your own cultural background and don’t adapt to your new country. You will forever be in a state of culture shock if you don’t open yourself up to your new surroundings.
If certain cultural differences annoy you, complaining about it won’t do anything but pop a blood vessel in your brain and stress you out.
Let go…and try to be alittle less externally motivated and more internally motivated. You’ll be much happier.

Well, not to insult anyone but if you don’t like the local culture and way of doing things why are you (still) here? Why is it that most foreigners/expats always expect things to be the same as at home or want to change things?

Isn’t that the “fun” of being in a foreign place, being exposed to different people, cultures and behaviour?

How would you feel if foreigners come to your country and tell you how to behave, what to say and what to do or not to do?
Personally I have a problem with Americans (never been to the US though) who usually tend to be over friendly but I fell it’s too much on the surface only. Yet should I choose to visit the US I have to live with that and I don’t think I have the right to ask them to change just for me.
(To prevent any missunderstandings: I have no problems with Americans, only with the fact that some are “too friendly” for what I am used to.)

There are of course bad things (especially with regards to cruelty against animals here) but there are surely also good things about the place and the people.
Make some local friends and try to understand, not to change.

Else, without wanting to be rude: if you want things to be like at home - go home.

PS: I am a foreigner/expat myself.

Of course everywhere there are things that one likes and things that annoy people. If something is annoying me, I’ll talk it over with someone in a similar situation because they can sympathize and offer suggestions. I even complain about my mother sometimes, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love her or appreciate her. And I don’t expect her to change either. I could say the same thing about Taiwan.

Thanks to those who’ve offered sympathy, feedback, and shared their own experiences.

(Regan - I see you’ve already responded to what I edited, but I had already decided that I wanted to change it before.)

I don’t expect that you advocate total assimilation by immigrants to your country (Taiwan included) or that you tell them to “go back wherever they came from” if they haven’t mastered the language or aren’t totally comfortable with all aspects of the culture.

I think there is a big difference between expats and people living in another country than the one which they are born in.
An expat is usually on a short term assignment, so he/she might not have the time to adapt to the local culture and learn the language, perhaps isn’t even interested. That’s actually fine as long as he/she does not cause any harm (insult perhaps a better word?) to the local people, culture or laws.

But for those who want to live in that country I think this is a must, else you isolate yourself - something which I have noticed most foreigners do in my home country. They don’t want to learn the language, stick to themselves and live within their own community, yet making inappropiate demands and sometimes breaking the law (of course also locals do so).
You should not give up your own traditions or culture but I believe it is crucial to adapt, and if there is a conflict of interest you may need to step back, after all you are the foreigner or guest (t)here.

This might sound a bit harsh but if you think you can just live in a country and abuse the benefits offered without even trying to adapt and yet complaining you should not deserve to be there.

I don’t mind to adapt - but I would like the locals to listen when I say that maybe there is a better way to do something - rather than be brushed off with “that is the way we always do it” - are local minds totally closed

How do you define “better”? Maybe better for you but not necessarily better for them or others.
Sure, there are certain things which could need improvement and benefit all (e.g. their driving skills, or rather lack thereof), but there are also parts where you just have to let it be and let them find or stick to their own way.
Not everything needs change, imagine it’s all like ‘at home’, there would be nothing to talk about and impress your friends …

Making suggestions is ok but one should not try to force a change upon a system which has been since decades for that, something which is part or actually defines the local culture and way of living.

I do think it’s ideal to try to adapt to local culture, and I get a little frustrated with myself when something bothers me that I think shouldn’t. Yes, I was talking about some problems I’ve had in adapting, but I wasn’t saying the Taiwanese should change. It’s not up to me to change a society. I admit it, I’m not perfect, but I’m not giving up!

I think there is some issue about the word ‘adapt’ here. Of course one will need to adapt at least somewhat to enjoy themselves probably anywhere. (I don’t remember anyone saying they didn’t enjoy living here in this particular thread - sorry if I missed it)
But adapt to what? Where is the line of what we should and shouldn’t adapt to?

While I was in Taichung, there was a rash of motorcycle gangs (ok, scooter gangs) that would pull up to a stranger at a red light and cut his hand off for fun.
Should I just say… ‘oh well, its just part of the culture’ and not let it bug me? I don’t think so.
Every 14 days people burn paper money on the street, making the environment I live in much worse. Should I accept this as part of the culture and let it be? …probably. (Although it would be ironic if they were praying for cleaner air! )

My opinion is that one should accept differences in culture, and should not accept lack of basic decency (cutting off of hands, spitting on you…) Where that line is is hard to say.

Just tossin’ a few ideas out there…

I totally agree with you but you have given some extreme examples. “Cutting off hands” should also be covered by the local laws and regulations, so it’s the authorities which need to act here. It’s surely not part of the culture or any traditional habit but merely a crime.

There are just a lot of people who seem to complain about too many things which are different from their home country, thus always making comparisions and assuming their way of doing things is better or best. It may not be, it’s just a different environment you grew up in with a different culture. E.g. Korean eat dogmeat, who are we to tell them not to do so?
Just because you grew up in a place where dogs are treated as pets doesn’t make you (not eating dogs) better. In my country people eat horse meat and I personally love rabbit (not wild ones but those others keep as pet), something which a lot of Asian people find “strange”. Would I allow them to come to my country and tell me 'You can’t do that!"? I don’t think so. I can, I will and I don’t think it makes me a “bad person”.

You are right to say that burning paper pollutes the air but is this not exactly one of the things which defines the local culture? Like it or not, but I don’t think we, as outsiders, have the right to complain about this or try to prevent it. It is their environment, their place, their air (please don’t argue now with global warming or similar, this would go too far off topic).

Perhaps we can agree to create some awareness about certain things, but if things should really change it will take time, months if not years.
I cannot expect that I can cross the road tomorrow without that I always need to look-out for any crazy drivers which just would run you down - in 10 years this might be different and I can rely on them to stop, but surely it will not happen next week or next month.

Maybe I wrote it wrong???

Would it be possible for a Taiwanese to consider that “there may be another way to do something” - or is “the way we always do it” so deeply embedded that they are unable to even discuss the possibility.