The Cultural Struggle Every Expat in Taiwan Goes Through

Street in Taiwan | © Pixabay
Street in Taiwan | © Pixabay
The expat community in Taiwan is growing year after year, as people from around the world start to realize just how great the place is. But moving to Taiwan is not without its hiccups, and many expats go through something of a cultural struggle in their first few months on the island. We take a look at some of the potential problems.

The language

An unfamiliar language is by far and away the biggest obstacle in adapting to life in any new place and Taiwan is no different. Mandarin is a difficult language to learn, mostly due to the tones that give different meanings to words that may, to the untrained ear, sound exactly the same.

These days a lot of the bigger restaurants and stores will have English translations for their signage and menus. However, the smaller businesses are where the struggle lies for those with no reading ability. It’s not uncommon for newly arrived expats to do their shopping or dining out using hand gestures or pictures to identify exactly what it is they are trying to buy.

The food

Taiwan is well known as a food lovers’ destination not only for the sheer number of foreign cuisine restaurants but also for the local delicacies. There are a few dishes that may surprise both tourists and expats (chicken feet and duck blood being perfect examples) but in general, it’s all pretty easy to get used to.

However, when it comes to dining with locals, manners are everything. Never discuss business at dinner even if it’s a business dinner, unless the boss starts the conversation. Guests should never finish all the food on the table or the host will feel that they didn’t prepare enough. And never ever play with chopsticks no matter how much they may look like ideal miniature drumsticks.

Taiwanese cuisine © Wikilaurent / Wikimedia


Taiwanese people are extremely open and honest which can make for a bit of a culture shock to expats that usually play their cards close to their chest. It’s not uncommon for locals to remark on appearance in a negative way although no offense is intended. It’s also perfectly acceptable to ask someone how much they earn or even what their last tax bill was, which is difficult for many expats to get their heads around.

Then there are a number of local customs and traditions that only the locals seem to understand, but it’s the saving of face that is the most difficult to adapt to. Saving face can get tricky and easily cause misunderstandings. It’s a complex thing involving dignity and self respect, and in truth, understanding only comes with experience.

The traffic

The sheer volume of traffic in the cities is unimaginable for some expats and a little intimidating. At times there seem to be no rules and navigating traffic as either a pedestrian or a motorist is confusing. Traffic lights often seem to act as mere suggestions as opposed to steadfast rules while pedestrians and cyclists, in particular, can and will cross traffic at any given moment.

However, once expats understand that most people on the road are looking out for number one (themselves), then it’s quite easy to adapt to. Taking a slow and steady approach is, in this case, the best course of action.

Motorcycles in Taipei © Koika / Wikimedia