Having lived in Japan for several years, I was reassured to spot familiar convenience store and restaurant signs the minute I arrived in Taipei. Family Mart. Sushi Express. Royal Host. I’ll get around no problem, I told myself confidently. At this rate, I’ll be bustling about like a local!
Ahaha, oh past me, you’re funny.
In today’s post, I’d like to share with you the top moments where I was hit with a reminder of how differently Taiwan operates.
Number one: I don’t know what they’re saying!
I can’t get through Kansai International Airport without at least four people with questionnaires wanting to talk to me in English. Similarly, I can’t look at the price list for tickets at Kyoto Station without a well-meaning local sidling up and asking me (in English) if I’m lost.
When I was in Taipei my first night, I popped into a FamilyMart, a popular convenience store chain also present in Japan. I grabbed some juice and headed for the counter. There, I was asked three questions in rapid-fire Chinese. I shook my head helplessly, paid for my juice, and fled.
My friend who can speak Chinese was waiting for me. “You okay?”
“Was the cashier asking me if I wanted a bag?”
My friend nodded. “She wanted to know if you needed a straw. Then she asked if you wanted a bag and let you know it was worth 2 TWD,” she said. “The last question was if you were a member of their point system.”
“So I did okay by answering no?”
“Yeah. But next time, wave me over and I’ll translate.”
I can speak a few very simple words in Chinese– hello, yes, no thank you, thanks, and goodbye. I’m sure many folks traveling to Taiwan will have even less of the language at their disposal. Be prepared to have locals speak to you at full native speed. If you find yourself facing this situation, do whatever serves you best–drag a friend over who understands, pull up Google Translate, or just smile sheepishly and ask, “English?” in response.
Number two: I’m starving! How do I order food?
You want to order some food at a restaurant or a stand in the night market? Cool; hope you can read Chinese, because unless you stick to the highly tourist areas, there will be no English and no pictures. Your best bet will be to a) choose a random item on the menu, point to it, and hope for the best, or b) point to something you see someone else already eating. Coming from the States which has at least a few pictures in most menus, and living in Japan where you can look at plastic models of the food, this was a big thing for me.
Number three: What’s that smell in the market?
Ah, the night market. What a wonderful place. Not only is it perfect for people watching, but you can get all sorts of deals on clothes, toys, and good food to ea- wait, what is that smell? Is that garbage?
Actually, no. If you catch a whiff of something strong at the night market, chances are it’s stinky tofu– fermented tofu with a strong smell that takes some doing to get accustomed to. Many visitors to Taiwan struggle to eat this popular snack, and many also have trouble handling the scent of it.
My advice: try it at least once before you knock it. It tastes pretty good, so pinch your nose and split some with your friends. If the smell bothers you that badly, either buy other food at the market and sniff that while passing stinky tofu stands, or bring something else you can sniff at.
Number four: When am I supposed to pay the bus driver?
Buses have different rules. Some of them ask you to pay when you get on. Others ask you for it when you get off the bus. Yet others (going a further distance) will request you beep your card OR grab a ticket and pay it when you get off. In Kyoto, we generally pay the bus driver when getting off the bus, so I found myself letting locals go ahead of me so I could observe and copy them.
Number five: The toilet paper goes where?!
When you arrive in the airport, and even when in Taipei station, you’ll come across toilets that function as normal. The moment you go anywhere more local, however, you’ll start to see larger trash cans by the toilet, and signs telling you not to flush TP. Say what?
Yep, that’s right; you’re going to have to take care of business, then put your TP in the trash can. It can be tricky to remember, but try your best to follow this custom. You don’t want to be the jerk clogging the pipes, after all!
Have you been to Taiwan? What surprised you when you went there, or to another unfamiliar place?