Cultural quirks are some of my favorite things to explore, as they not only highlight something interesting about whichever country you might be visiting, but they serve to point out the uniqueness of your own country as well. Instead of thinking everything you do is normal, you begin to realize your home country’s values and traditions are probably just mere coincidence.
And if you go all the way to the other side of the planet, like I did when I visited Taiwan, things can be rather different indeed. Taiwan surprised me in a number of ways, and although I always expect things to be different when visiting a new country, some of these differences were completely unexpected.
So here they are: All the surprises Taiwan had in store for me.
1) Only the teachers switch classes, not the students
So most of us who grew up in the Western world are probably accustomed to the massive migration patterns of students wandering from one class to the next, bumping into each other in a sea of confusion several times per day, forming circles of friends in the halls that block everyone else from moving, and slowing everything down.
Some Asian countries have figured out that a much better way to handle this situation is to have the teachers switch classes instead of the students. So instead of thousands of students wandering between the halls, you just have a few dozen teachers going back and forth. It’s a million times easier.
It also means that a student’s class is far more important, because it’s the student’s only class. They sit next to the same students, all day, every day, and in some schools, even eat lunch inside the classroom. I’m not so sure how I feel about this, since it’s nice to have some variation throughout the day, so you can interact with different people. Taiwanese students basically get stuck sitting next to the same people all year long.
2) Their school uniforms are weird
So when I was a kid, we had discussions over whether or not professional-looking school uniforms would make students more productive, studious, and accepting of others. Some people argued that students would be less judgmental, since they wouldn’t be able to judge other students based on how they dress. I think this is just plain stupid, because it basically implies that students don’t have memories good enough to remember who’s who.
But I never thought school uniforms would look like this:
They weren’t all like that, of course. Many of the uniforms I saw in Taiwan were the professional kind that sort of looked like office clothing, but plenty of others looked like athletic outfits, with fluorescent colors and snazzy styling. I guess wearing uniforms to school wouldn’t be so bad if they’re comfy, right?
3) They have vertical apartments
No wonder Americans are so fat. We sit on our couches all day, drive to wherever we need to go, and take escalators or elevators to get up to the next floor. While American households are short and broad, Taiwanese apartments are tall and skinny.
I can’t imagine they’re all this way, but the Taiwanese apartments I saw were three floors tall, with only one or two rooms per floor. You’d get a workout just going back and forth between rooms all day. Not much, obviously, but it’s a lot better than the lazy strolling across flat surfaces that most Americans get. Combine that with the reasonable food portions and walkable urban spaces, and you’ve got yourself a healthy population that marvels at how Americans could possibly be so huge.
4) They’re terrified of rain
This one was pretty funny. It rains all the time where I live, so I don’t mind taking a brief stroll through a mild drizzle, but they’d look at me like I was a crazy person.
They’d literally wait inside the building until they were all outfitted with ponchos so they could walk the ten seconds it took to get from the schoolhouse to the cafeteria. Literally ten seconds.
I was informed it has to do with acid rain fears. Fair enough. I don’t like acid raining down on me either. But I doubt it’s bad enough that they’d all need to hide in fear of the tiniest droplet.
Oh, and they also use umbrellas for sunshine. Fair skin is considered more attractive than a farmer tan, so they cover themselves up. It’s mostly the girls who do this, though it’s funny to compare that to American girls who spend all day in the sun to get tan. Beauty is apparently whatever the magazines say it is.
5) They’re super hard-working
This is generally true not only of Taiwan, but of many East Asian countries, particularly highly modernized ones like Japan and South Korea, whose kids are constantly studying and get some of the world’s best math scores. But wow is it hard.
It’s not just the kids who study all day (and I really mean all day), but also the workforce who spend all day on the job. Working 70 hours a week seems like a perfectly normal thing to do here, and, somewhat surprisingly, no one ever seemed annoyed when I showed up to buy something. I expect this has something to do with the fact that a huge number of Taiwanese people own their own businesses, even if it’s just a noodle cart on the sidewalk.
It was quite a challenge adjusting to those 12 hour days, and even though the kids had done it for years, all they ever wanted to do was take a break. 8AM to 8PM is an intense schedule for anyone, and breaks were short. East Asian school schedules don’t leave much time for fun, and you can tell the kids just want to go run around for a while. Don’t tell anyone, but sometimes I let them.
6) They’ve got bats in parks
No, not the baseball kind. The Batman kind. Actual bats. Flying around all over the place. In public parks, with kids running around too.
I don’t quite know how no one seems to get upset at flying rabies monsters swirling around overhead while they try to practice Tai Chi in the park, but apparently they were all just fine with this. Which is weird to me, because this is what bats look like:
But I guess they’re kind of adorable sometimes. Maybe? Oh well.
7) A 7-11 is on every corner
I would never have expected this particular quirk, but Taiwan is absolutely filled with 7-11s. They’re all over the place, from big cities to small towns, and often can be found located so close to each other than you can see multiple 7-11s at the same time. No country has more 7-11s per person than Taiwan.
Generally you don’t see Western retail brands with this sort of market saturation in other countries; in many major European cities, for example, there’s a McDonald’s and a Starbucks in the center of town, and that’s it. This keeps them special, and people think it’s a fancy foreign activity to go there.
But 7-11 is different. First of all, it’s owned by a Japanese company anyway, which acquired it from its former American owners in 1991. It’s also a convenience store, meaning it’s good for business to have them all over the place, which builds brand loyalty and market dominance.
But 7-11 also provides a number of unique services in Taiwan that its American stores don’t. At a Taiwanese 7-11, you can pay your bills, send a fax, call a taxi, ship packages, get a bus pass, print photos and documents, and lots more. For a country that doesn’t always have widespread access to online services, this is incredibly convenient, especially if you only have to walk a block or two to get there.
8) They’ve got funny English names
It’s fairly common throughout Asia for people to use English names when dealing with Westerners, most of whom would injure themselves when trying to pronounce their real names. But since they’re not native English speakers, they don’t necessarily know that Beatrice is a name for old people or that D’Artagnan is only for musketeers.
What’s also amusing is when their name is a noun, and they simply convert the noun to the equivalent English word. Imagine Americans named Faith or Joy, both of which sound fine in English, but those specific words might not work if translated into some other language. So a few of these Taiwanese kids had names like King, or Circle, which just sound weird to English speakers.
But my favorite was when their names were side by side and they combined together to form a new name:
But they can make fun of my name if they want. I’ve got a weird one too.
9) They have no public garbage cans…but their garbage trucks play music!
This one was incredibly annoying. I’d walk for hours with an empty soda bottle looking for somewhere it could go, but nope. They just don’t seem to do public garbage collection in Taiwan. Each business has its own garbage can inside, and the garbage trucks come around once a while (playing adorable music like ice cream trucks do in the US) and owners would simply toss their garbage onto the truck.
Check it out:
On the one hand, this meant there were no ugly garbage cans on the street, but on the other hand, I’d have to wander around looking for garbage cans when I needed to get rid of something. It was weird. Almost as weird as musical garbage trucks.
10) Teenage boys cry like little girls
Of all the surprises Taiwan had to offer, this was by far the biggest one. Every single camp ended exactly the same way: With a room full of thousands of Taiwanese children crying their eyes out, because the camp was over, and their guest teachers that they had known for maybe a week were leaving forever.
But this happened whether they were kindergarteners or high school kids, and whether they were boys or girls. The 17 year old tough guy kids were crying right along with the 5 year old girls. All in front of their moms and dads, who showed up for the closing ceremonies. I’ve never seen anything like it.
It wasn’t just “tough guy” culture, either, because even the tough guys who sat in the back of the class and were way too cool for whatever was going on would cry too. Gender roles seemed pretty strong in Taiwan, with a clear split between quiet, well-mannered girls, and louder, athletic guys. But they’d all cry together in the end anyway.
I don’t really know what this says about a culture, and I’m not saying this is necessarily good or bad, but it was quite a surprise. American kids aren’t nearly this emotional in public, and it really raises the question of what’s “normal,” since this was a clear cultural difference, rather than a universal facet of human nature. We’re clearly doing something totally different in the US, even if we don’t know what it is.
More from Taiwan…
But for all its surprises, it’s not like I didn’t have a good time. Taiwan was a lot of fun for me, and since it doesn’t get too many visitors, especially in comparison to other countries in the region, they’re happy to have guests. Especially if you have funny-colored hair, which they’ll poke at.