Taiwan Taboos: Mistakes Waiting to be Made
Learning to live in a foreign country is like the beginning of a relationship. At first, everything is new and exciting. Later, little things start to become annoying. At some point, you may want out, but as you work through the difficult times, the more tolerable – and even enjoyable – it becomes. Just as dance moves come more naturally with practice, an attitude of continuous cultural learning can make life abroad more comfortable. Time and research will reveal both personal and cultural taboos. Just as success in a relationship requires personal taboos to be handled with extreme care, successful integration into a foreign society requires cultural taboos to be treated similarly.
Many travel books have carefully documented Taiwan’s cultural taboos. Unfortunately, I only read those after personally discovering many of them. Absorbing Taiwanese culture involved a steep learning curve for me. Slipping as I ascended the incline was inevitable.
My friends and I arrived in Taiwan during the week-long Chinese New Year holiday, which meant that we couldn’t immediately buy scooters. Not to be curbed by lack of transport, we set out to explore Tainan City on foot. After several blocks, we had a number of empty water bottles and snack bags. There were no garbage bins to be seen. There were a lot of fire drums around though, so we assumed that was how garbage was disposed of. As we approached a small drum with our garbage, we were shoed away. We later learned that people used those fire drums to give offerings to their ancestors.
“I see red people!”
The cram school provided us ESL teachers with stationery, including white board markers, a white board eraser, and red pens. During one of my first lessons, I was asked to give an oral test. I recorded the students’ names and scores using the only pen I had. The parents were furious! As it turned out, to write someone’s name in red ink in Taiwan means that the person is going to die soon.
More offensive than letter bombs…
Because the school managed my rent payments, I had to bring the rent to the administrative assistant. The assistant was very reluctant to take the envelope of money from me. Why? Because it was white. White envelopes filled with money are only acceptable for funerals; for any other occasion, money should be presented in a red envelope.
Food for the gods
One school manager offered to buy me dinner because I had back-to-back classes. Sitting down with my fried rice, I appreciated the school’s generosity, but had little time to enjoy the meal. I couldn’t finish the serving, so I impaled the rice with my chop-sticks, to the horror of everyone at the table. Stabbing food with chop-sticks and leaving them up-right in the bowl resembles the way food is offered to gods with incense.
Despite how culturally illiterate I was when I first arrived, and the number of people I must have offended, I did learn from my mistakes and was given more than a second chance. Perhaps it was because of the culture of saving face, but the Taiwanese were very forgiving. Once I learned a bit about the culture, I was able to understand and even embrace many aspects of it. In the cultural dance, I did continue to occasionally step on a few toes, but slowly I learned some important moves.