We’ve been living in Taiwan for nearly two years now. And in that time, we’ve started to notice some trends in terms of what people assume Taiwan is like. Sometimes people are spot on. Other times, they’re just a little bit off the map. Literally. So we’ve decided to clear the air once and for all, banishing a few misconceptions while also reaffirming a few of the stereotypes. While we felt we could have added a few more things to the list, we tried to rely most heavily on the presumptions we hear from people who haven’t yet made it to Taiwan. Accordingly, here you are—facts and fiction about life in Taiwan.
Let’s start with The Misconceptions:
1. Taiwan is not Thailand
You would think this would be a bit obvious. But I guess it’s not. We’ve actually lost count of how many times we’ve had the following conversation:
Random person we just met: Where do you live? Oh cool! That must be so much fun. I just love Thai food. Do you eat it, like, all the time?
Dan or I trying to be polite: Um…yea…there are a couple of Thai restaurants. They’re pretty good. But we try to eat more local Taiwanese food…
Random person we just met: Wait, where do you live? Not Thailand? Oh, Taiwan. Where is Taiwan again?
“I love Thai food” is literally the number one statement we get after we tell people we live in Taiwan. Not to judge, because the number one Google search for Taiwan is ‘Where is Taiwan?’, so I guess there are a lot of confused souls out there.
To clarify, here is a map of Taiwan:
2. The official language is Mandarin
We’re often asked how our Taiwanese is coming along. Well, we haven’t really focused on it, because since World War II Mandarin has been the official language of Taiwan. Until the 1980’s speaking and learning Taiwanese was actually discouraged. There’s been a bit of revival in Taiwanese since those times, but Mandarin is still very much the language you’ll see and hear in Taiwan. A lot of scholars actually choose to come to Taiwan over Mainland China for the pure fact that Taiwan still uses traditional Mandarin characters (rather than Mainland China’s simplified version). But please don’t ask us how our Mandarin is coming either, because that answer is a bit embarrassing…
3. We don’t live in an iconic tropical getaway
Perhaps this fits along with the whole Thailand thing. While we do live close to the equator, Taiwan is in East Asia, not really Southeast Asia (like Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam..) While there are some really beautiful beaches in the south of Taiwan, there are also some really not-so-beautiful beaches. And it gets cold here. (Even our friends from South Dakota vouch for us on this one.) I’m still wearing a jacket and we’re nearing the end of April. We love Taiwan, but it’s not exactly the computer screensaver version of paradise you might have in mind.
4. We don’t eat eggrolls or fortune cookies
Maybe you already knew that fortune cookies are an extremely American product, but did you know that egg rolls are too? Savory and crispy, deep-fried rolls-filled with egg, pork, and cabbage-are a staple of American Chinese cuisine. But they are nonexistent in Taiwan. While we do have ‘egg rolls’, they are more of a cookie or biscuit, made from eggs, flour, and sugar. I was extremely disappointed about this because I love me some American-style egg rolls, even if the calorie count is probably mind-blowing.
5. We’re not on holiday
Taiwanese people work extremely hard. It’s not uncommon for them to put in twelve-hour days, five or even six days a week. And the kids? They spend all day in school, all night honing in on their math, English, music, art, tae-kwon-do…the list goes on and on. Even if we don’t labor away quite to the same extent as our Taiwanese counterparts, we’re still actually working over here. A lot. And while we are able to explore on the weekends and occasionally travel around Asia, we’re not just in Taiwan on a prolonged vacation.
Now for the stuff that’s Spot On:
1. There are lots of bad drivers in Asia
We don’t want to be totally stereotypical or offensive, but it’s sorta true. Compared to a Western point of view, Taiwanese are bad drivers. It’s totally normal in Taiwan to straddle the middle line while driving ridiculously slowly in your decked-out Honda Civic. And if someone is turning left, they won’t look into the immediate lane to see if there is any traffic coming. No, no, no—as long as the far lane is clear, they’re taking that turn. But there is a method to the madness, and once you understand how it works, it kinda makes sense. I guess. I’m sure that Taiwanese people think all the foreigners are really the bad drivers, and I wouldn’t dare to contest with this.
2. People eat a lot of rice and noodles
Rice and noodles are two staples in Taiwanese cuisine, present at nearly every meal. Often the question won’t be “What do you want to eat?” but rather “Rice or noodles?” I love my carbs too much to ever question this methodology.
3. Coffee is really popular
Before we came to Taiwan, I was reading an outdated article where the author contended coffee would never be successful in Taiwan; tea was an authentic part of Taiwanese culture, and there was just no way that coffee could compete with that. I feel bad for whoever that author was, because boy was he wrong. Coffee holds a huge presence in Taiwan—one that looks to be growing more and more popular by the minute. Not to say that it has replaced tea by any means, just that coffee certainly holds its own. Almost any Starbucks you pass will have a line out the door on any given day. Independent, artsy coffee shops seem to be popping up everywhere. And if that doesn’t convince you, I actually have to make a reservation if I want a table at my favorite coffee shop in Hsinchu. That’s Hsinchu, people—not Taipei or Kaohsiung or any of the ‘major’ cities in Taiwan, but Hsinchu. At a coffee shop. For real.
4. Cute is SO in
It really is all about the cuteness in Taiwan. Never mind the fact that you’re 80 years old—go ahead and throw on that bedazzled Hello Kitty t-shirt. Should you decorate your restaurant with oversized stuffed animals? Why of course. What about a flashing heart light on the back of your scooter? Yep. Even if you’re a dude? Double yep. The cute factor really plays into most aspects of life in Taiwan. At first it drove me a little bit nuts. Then I stopped noticing. Now I find myself secretly eyeing those very same Hello Kitty t-shirts myself…
5. Taiwan is one crowded place
Taiwan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. So yea, it’s crowded. If you’re traveling anywhere over a holiday, you better book those hotels way in advance. That goes for the train too. There’s no chance you’re getting a seat if you just show up at the train station expecting to hop on the next carrier that pulls up. We won’t even mention Taipei’s night markets, because that’s like a claustrophic’s worst nightmare. I’m still doing my best to cope with hoards of people everywhere. Luckily there’s a pretty easy solution: get out of the cities. There are still loads of places in Taiwan that remain unscathed from urbanization and development. Often just a quick scooter ride will bring you out of the pollution and into stunning landscapes, with plenty of elbow room all around.
So what do you think? Did we change any of your misconceptions about Taiwan? Is there anything you would add to the list? As always, we encourage comments below!
Interested in learning more about all Taiwan has to offer? Download our free eBook, 101 Tips to Living in Taiwan, for an all inclusive guide to life in Taiwan.
Great post there guys – Taiwan has been one of my favourite places to travel in so far and people I told about it also confused it with Thailand. I ended up just saying that Thailand is $hit – Taiwan is where it’s at! Safe travels, Jonny
Haha so funny how that seems to happen to everyone. Even my Taiwanese friends get it when they travel :-) Haven’t been to Thailand yet, but Taiwan is def an amazing place!
I have been to Thailand and now I am even more curious about Taiwan.
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Awesome! I’m glad we made you curious, that’s our goal :-) Hope you can make it soon.
this is my first time visiting your blog, what a great first post to land on. I’ve not yet been to Taiwan considering I’ve traveled to many places in Asia. I do agree with many of your many observations.
thanks for sharing them and loved my visit.
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Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you liked it. It’s unfortunate many travelers don’t make it to Taiwan. It’s an awesome place!
I guess it makes sense that coffee is popular since they work such long hours! Wow! And I just love Thai food too. Lol!
Dana Carmel @ Time Travel Plans recently posted…5 Reasons Travel Makes Us a Better Couple
Haha so true! I was hoping to kick my coffee addiction while in Taiwan but now I drink it more than ever.
Loved this post! When we visited Taiwan for 3 weeks back in December, we had the good fortune to CouchSurf most of our time there and we learned so much about the country that way. Pretty much the first thing most of our hosts would lament was how most people thought Taiwan was Thailand, which was just shocking to me! I mean, I know the names are kind of similar, but come on!
Also, not to knock Thai food, but the food we ate in Taiwan has been some of the best we’ve had on our whole trip! It’s little wonder it’s been one of our favorite destinations!
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We haven’t couchsurfed as much as we probably should here in Taiwan. It is an awesome way to get to know a place, we just keep forgetting it’s an option since we live here. Glad you had an awesome time! It is on my list to learn how to make some Taiwanese (not Thai :-p ) dishes so I can bring them back home and share them. Thanks for stopping by!
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Although, you think it’s crowded in Taipei and the drivers there are bad…try living in Shanghai with me. ;) Those “red, green lights,” are just…reverence. Ahem. I never came close getting hit by a car in Taipei but here, in Shanghai, on a daily basis. Such is life. :) I had a local in Shanghai say that Shanghai and Taipei are the same an my husband asked if he ever been to Taipei and he said, “No.” We didn’t want to be rude about what’s so different between the two cities but oh man, HUGE HUGE HUGE HUGE difference. You inspire me to do a similar post in the future. Thank you for this.
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The driving definitely took some getting used to! Especially since this was our first experience using scooters as our personal vehicles. I’m glad we’ve inspired you :-) We would love to hear more about Shanghai! If you do a post in the future please send the link our way so we can check it out. Drive safe!
We are including Taiwan in our SEA stint later this year. I didnt really know a lot about it until recently and now Im really keen on visiting. Ill be coming to you guys for tips when we get there :P
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YAY!! Please ask us any and all questions you have :-) We’re working on re-organizing all our Taiwan posts on our blog, so hopefully by the time you are heading here it will be a bit more useful. We might just have to exchange tips and tricks on Taiwan for more of your house sitting tips!
Wow, that’s shocking getting Taiwan and Thailand mixed up! It’s like all those people commenting on the Czech Republic after there were reports about one of the Boston bombers being from Chechnya! Love your map to drill home where each of the countries is!
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Thanks! I think we definitely take for granted that other people are more geographically aware. Although I will admit there are quite a few times I’ve had to google “Where is _____” :)
How about bubble tea, that was one of our favourite discoveries when we visited Taipei. Also the great thing is it doesn’t contain any bubbles. Another misconception.
Flashpackatforty – Craig recently posted…Photo Flashback – Kyoto: Geisha and Hanami
Good addition :) I LOVE bubble tea-I consume a dangerous amount over the summertime for sure.
Honestly, I didn’t even know there’s such a thing as Taiwanese language :) I’ve heard a lot of great things about Taiwan and I’m planning to have an extended layover there on my next visit to my parents in Indonesia so I could check things out.
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A bit jealous you have an excuse to go to Indonesia so often! We’re already planning our next visit back so we can see more than just Java and Bali. Where is your family at? Don’t know when your next trip will be but we’ll be in Taiwan until August-don’t hesitate to drop us a line!
Cute is in? Well then Montecristo will be a hit if we ever go! He’s got a very large wardrobe you know … LOL! You should like us on FB to see all the cuteness.
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O gosh, you have no idea how in cute is :) Montecristo will fit right in with all the other pups and their wardrobes here!
just discovered your blog… my Husband and I are also expats living in Hsinchu :) I cannot TELL you how many times we have heard “I love Thai food!” or “isn’t Taiwan part of China?” your list is definitely spot on!
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Thanks for the note! Glad to hear that other people get the same comments we do :) How long have you been in Hsinchu for? Would love to hear your thoughts about it!
Good on your for putting people straight and also sharing a bit about Taiwan!
thank you, glad you enjoyed it!
Liked your article, but have to say one thing: I live and have worked in Taipei and people spend a lot of time in the office, yes, but a not so small amount of that time is spent chatting, checking Facebook, sleeping or having lunch and dinner…
I’m sure you’re right. I guess from an American perspective, it’s common to do all that in the office but still work way less hours in the day! I’m glad you don’t feel like you are being overworked though! Thanks for sharing your perspective.
So awesome of you to set the record straight.
I’ve come into the same types of situations about Cancun, where I’ve been based for the past three years. People always have these superstitions and ridiculous misconceptions about the city, and I’d hazard a guess that roughly 95% of the people who have anything to say or think about the city have NO CLUE that the Hotel Zone where Spring Break takes place has nothing to do with mainland Cancun, where the real Mexicans live.
Thanks so much for sharing this. I think it’s great when long-term immersion travelers set the record straight regarding misconceptions/rumors/etc. regarding the place they’ve come to call home.
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Thanks! I can understand how the misconceptions about Cancun could get old after a while as well. Does that mean you don’t actually lay on the beach and drink cocktails in your board shorts everyday?!?
I’m a Taiwanese American and my parents are from Taiwan (Kaohshiung and Taipei)
Your article is pretty much true. But whenever I tell my friends I’m from Taiwan, they basically never confuse it with Thailand. Probably different people have different concepts of understanding :D It’s pretty much true we’re bad drivers. It’s probably because we mainly ride motorcycles =w=. Also, whenever I go back to Taiwan and my relatives take my family out to dinner, they never ask us if we want rice or noodles. Rather, they ask what we want to eat or suggest a place for us to go eat.
Additionally, Taiwanese is more of a local language. Basically A LOT of people speak it. But it’s mostly spoken in the southern areas really. Whenever my parents take us to the night market, they speak Taiwanese to the vendors. Just saying. No biggie
But your articles about Taiwan are very good and accurate. You make Taiwan look even more awesome :D
Hi Emily! Thanks for leaving your comments- it’s great to hear from another perspective, especially since you are Taiwanese American! That’s interesting your friends don’t confuse it for Thailand.. haha just yesterday actually we were at a tax office explaining that we had income from Taiwan. We must have said Taiwan three or four times, and every time he just repeated ‘Thailand’, and even wrote Thailand down on his notes! Are your friends American born Chinese/Taiwanese? That might explain it! Or they are just better educated on their geography haha. Also, that makes sense that there is more Taiwanese in the south. We lived in the North, and none of my Taiwanese friends could speak it, though often their parents were conversational. It will be interesting to see what happens with the language in a few decades! Thanks again for the thoughtful comment!
Hi, I am also Taiwanese American. As for the Taiwanese language, only native (or aboriginal) Taiwanese would speak Hokkien (Taiwanese) and Mandrin.
(BTW: Thanks for not saying Taiwan is a Chinese province(cause clearly, we are not) )
Hi! Great post! Very accurate!
I was born in Taiwan but I live in the US. So, I’m Taiwanese, haha!
People usually ask me if I’m Chinese and it kind of annoys me when they say “What’s the difference?”. But ANYWAY…these are some things I love about Taiwan when I visit there:
– cheap but DELICIOUS food (must try beef noodle, bubble tea)
– night markets: fun for everyone, mostly people active at nights :)
– most people there are very nice and sweet and they are polite with foreigners
GREAT place, except the weather. So glad I stumbled upon your site!
I loved this and CANNOT believe people think Taiwan is Thailand! Actually, that’s a lie – I can totally believe it, but it makes me super sad. I had no idea they were so into cute things in Taiwan – I thought that was mainly Japan for some reason… You learn something new every day… ;)
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Great post! And I absolutely believe that people confuse Thailand with Taiwan. Because: Same story here in Europe with Sweden and Switzerland. Swiss people are from Switzerland and Swedish people are from Sweden. And never mind the question where those 2 countries actually are situated ;-)
To the Author-So your in taiwan right now? I hope you get this in time but for my school project we had to an asian countrie, I chose Taiwan because I am a bit Taiwanese( I’m also black-white-american indian-japinese- and of course taiwanese) but anyway what special clothse do they wear there? We have to dress up(please give me tips for a guy).
HAHAHAHAHAHA I’ve been living in Taiwan for two months now and nearly noticed ALL of your points. Everyting is just sooo true, but actually, that is why I love this country so much!
xx Sandra (from originally from Austria – not Australia ;) )
Wow thank you for 13 years i didnt know that thailand and tawain were different i thought the word taiwanese (i think thats what people in taiwan are called) was a thing that people in thailand were called and i never knew tawain was a seperate country i also learned alot of other things so thankyou ( i think i got confused because the both start with the sound tie )