Having visited Taiwan more than a dozen times over the past two decades, I've learned a number of things about the island which aren't obvious to newcomers, and which most guidebooks omit. Taiwan is an exceptionally welcoming society: The people are friendly and open-minded, and tolerant of outsiders doing the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time. In part, this is because of the sheer diversity of Taiwanese society. The non-indigenous majority trace their ancestry to different parts of China, and multiple faiths are followed.
Food & Drink
1. In upmarket restaurants and hotels, a 10% service charge will be added to the bill. In other places tips aren’t necessary or expected.Credit: StefanC
2. Every neighborhood has a buffet-style restaurant where you help yourself to meat, fish, vegetables, tofu and other items, then take them to a counter where they’re counted or weighed and you’re told the price (seldom more than US$4). Grab a bowl of rice, some soup and maybe some sweet black tea, sit down and eat. If you can, go to such places just before midday to get the freshest morsels.
3. Taiwanese eat every part of an animal. If you order fried noodles, you may well find chunks of pig’s lung among the pork, onions and seasonal greens. Pig's lung isn't this writer's favorite food, but it's said to be good for you on account of being rich in iron.
4. Those on a halal/kosher diet will struggle because pork gravy is used as a garnishing on many dishes. It’s so ubiquitous it’s often referred to simply as “meat” and not identified as porcine in origin. Vegetarian restaurants are a good alternative.
5. When buying cakes, be prepared for anything. What look like sweet cakes are often filled with azuki beans, dried pork or something else savory.
6. The water won’t kill you. Almost all Taiwanese Credit: StefanCdrink boiled, filtered or mineral water, but if it’s a hot day and you’ve run out of water, don’t be afraid to swallow a few cupfuls of what comes out the tap. In most places it’s good enough to drink, and nowhere will it seriously threaten your health. When washing fruit (Taiwan has superb fresh fruit), it's fine to use tap water.
7. Taiwanese aren’t especially nationalistic but some do believe their cuisine is among the world's finest. Try to find something positive to say about local cooking, especially if a Taiwanese person is taking you to dinner.
8. Most places are open seven days a week, often from 10am to 10pm. Few stores close for lunch.
9. Unlike in many other Asia countries, there’s little scope for bargaining in Taiwan. However, when buying electronic goods it’s often possible to get extra freebies such as memory cards.
10. Few shop workers speak good English, so be patient or enlist a Taiwanese friend to help if buying expensive/complex items.
11. Go clean and casual. It’s fine to wear T-shirts, short pants and sandals when on vacation, but Taiwanese expect clean clothes and clean bodies. The grunge look is not appreciated.
12. It's OK to show quite a lot of bare skin. In summer many young women wear the shortest pants imaginable and halter tops. Men only strip off their shirts at the beach or if engaging in hard physical labor.
13. Not long ago, tattoos were synonymous with gang membership. Nowadays it’s quite fashionable for young people of both sexes to sport small tattoos. However, if you meet a man with tattoos covering most of his calves, his back, shoulders and upper arms, you can assume he is (or was) mob muscle. Don't be fearful; gang members don't make a habit of threatening tourists.
14. Political movements in Taiwan often adopt a particular color, so you might want to ask local friends if there’s any reason to avoid wearing a special color. Visitors who are obviously not Taiwanese needn't worry about this.
15. Taiwan is very safe, but as in every other country, pickpockets favor dense crowds. Keep your wallet in your chest pocket when attending festivals. When parking your car, put valuables in the trunk or carry them with you.
16. Some Taiwanese drivers are less than considerate, and outside Taipei you’ll often see motorcycles and bicycles on the wrong side of the road or using the sidewalks. Before crossing any road, look in every direction.
17. High-speed services (THSR) are far quicker than the conventional (TRA) trains, but because some of the THSR stations are far from city centers (especially Tainan and Chiayi), you may not save any useful amount of time, even though you’re paying more than double for the ticket.
18. Long-distance buses between the major cities are a good deal, especially mid-week, and almost all are very comfortable. Air-conditioning is standard; some have entertainment systems built into the seats.
19. In places like Taipei, Taichung and Kaohsiung, local buses (all air-conditioned, but sometimes so crowded you won’t find a seat) have bilingual signs showing their destination. However, do not expect drivers to understand English. On most, eating and drinking are strictly prohibited.
20. Taipei and Kaohsiung’s mass rapid transit (MRT) rail systems are slightly more expensive than using local buses, but they’re quick and highly efficient ways of getting around those cities. However, because most routes are underground you’ll miss a lot of interesting views. Never smoke, eat or drink on the MRT.
Language & Culture
21. The Mandarin Chinese spoken in Taiwan is a bit different to that spoken in mainland China. There are variations in pronunciation and word usage, and traditional “long-form” characters are used in Taiwan, unlike the simplified “short-form” script used in the PRC. However, overall the differences are no greater than those distinguishing British English from American English.
22. Few people have the confidence to speak English, but a fair number of people understand English, so think twice before launching into a bad-tempered rant about Taiwan or its people.
23. Taiwanese people can’t read hanyu pinyin. Unlike mainland Chinese, Taiwanese don’t learn hanyu pinyin at school. Most will recognize the English words for “Taiwan” and “Taipei” but won’t have a clue if you write down your destination in hanyu pinyin and it’s somewhere obscure, like Xinhua in Tainan.
24. People talk about you like you’re not there. You won’t notice this unless you speak Mandarin or one of Taiwan’s local languages, but because foreign visitors are few and far between, a lot of locals will find you very interesting... and discuss your clothes, hair, height or girth with their friends, assuming you understand nothing.
25. Taiwan is exotic, yet also just the same as your home country. Raucous temple parades in which spirit mediums slash themselves will grab your attention. However, if you ask local people what they like to do in their free time, most will give the same answers as your friends at home: Watch TV, play computer games, relax with friends over beer or coffee.