Taiwan is a young country, an adolescent, and it frequently goes through growing pains.
The older generation still remembers when it was a Third World country, a time of poverty where only the hard working and lucky had enough food for their tables. It grew into an economic powerhouse thanks to manufacturing, and it's maintained a strong economy throughout the shifting economic times since it's rise to a global force.
But Taiwan isn't really a country, not in any legal sense. Despite distinct cultural and economic features, it continues to be in a kind of categorical limbo. China claims that Taiwan is its province. Taiwan claims to be independent. Most of the rest of the world refuses to take sides in the debate.
Even the Taiwanese are divided on the issue, some fiercely nationalistic and others pro-unification. A great understatement would be that it's complicated. Though people will ask your thoughts on the matter, don't take the bait! It's a can of worms best left unopened.
Teaching in Taiwan continues to be a popular international choice. Taiwan has a lot to offer an English teacher: competitive salary, a foreigner-friendly atmosphere, and an amazingly diverse culture for such a small island. It helps to be prepared for some of the cultural foibles and differences, however.
Culture shock is a very real thing, even among seasoned travelers and long-term expats. Here are a few things to expect.
The Taiwanese are almost universally friendly to foreigners. Over-the-top friendly. People will go out of their way to help a foreigner in need, to try to communicate with them, or just ask them a few questions.
In most city centers, there will be someone who speaks English who either wants to ask a foreigner where they're from, offer a local snack or treat, or just say hello.
Most importantly, this friendliness is genuine. It's not a con or trying to get a foreigner to buy something.
It's a real welcome to the island that so many Taiwanese are proud of. It's very rare to get any anti-foreigner sentiment (though it does happen). That does, however, lead to the question: What is a foreigner?
“Foreign” Means “White”
As a country, Taiwan is quite homogenous.
It's almost entirely made up of Han Chinese, some recent immigrants and others in the more distant past, with some indigenous groups mixed in. It's not a very multicultural country, and most people are still quite ignorant about other cultures.
Their exposure to other cultures mostly involves tour group excursions to other countries, TV, and movies.
This leads many Taiwanese to refer to Caucasians as foreigners. Foreigners are generally respected and treated extremely well, a sort of reverse-racism.
In fact, foreigners can expect better treatment in most cases than locals. It's only once people start treating a foreigner like crap that they really know they've been assimilated.
Other ethnicities from other countries aren't always given the same benefits.
Immigrants from South East Asia, typically migrant workers or domestic helpers, are often looked down on as lower status. Also Africans and 歡迎光臨 those of African descent aren't treated with as much respect as their Caucasian counterparts, though there has been a lot of progress in this over the last decade or so.
Taiwan isn't unique in these discriminatory views among Asian nations, and it's getting better, but it's something to be aware of. These prejudices can even affect a teacher's ability to get a job.
Regardless of ethnicity, it's good to remember that the Taiwanese are extremely blunt.
With everyone. What may seem to be an argument about to come to blows is actually just two locals discussing where to eat for dinner. If you're good-looking, expect a Taiwanese person to notice. A little on the chubby side, they'll tell you that too.
It's seen as just a form of sharing, and since it's obvious to them it couldn't possibly be a surprise to you.
Courtesy vs. Manners
There are elaborate levels of courtesy, especially in social gatherings. For example, the person inviting others to a meal is expected to pay the bill.
The invitees are expected to protest. Then the inviter must insist and pay the bill. Foreigners are typically treated as guests no matter what situation, so they can expect quite a few free meals.
But many Taiwanese have a different idea of what are good manners.
Burping, farting, and clipping one's nails in public are all just natural parts of a stroll in the park. In conversation, it's standard practice to ask personal details that are cringe-worthy in most Western countries. Marital status, salary, rent, and “foreigners always” statements are common. It's best to just roll with them with a smile.
The elderly also deserve special attention here. The older generation came from harder times, and their manners are often rougher. Combined with a cultural veneration for one's elders, and many of Taiwan's elderly population is downright rude.
It's not uncommon to be physically pushed out of the way or barked at by a hunched figure with a cane. It's best just to go around the shuffling figures and avoid eye contact unless you're looking for a scowl in return.
A Huge Generalization
For the most part, the Taiwanese are wonderful people.
There are a few bad apples, a few grumpy old people, but for the most part they are a great bunch to be around. Certain foibles will take some getting used to for sure, but there are worse people to be surrounded by than the friendly, straight-talking Taiwanese.