Taiwan: Cultural Boo-Boos

A gift bag for a good friend!

Despite being half-Taiwanese, and having spent a fair amount of time here observing what are very foreign customs, I still struggle to express myself sometimes. Not only linguistically, although that also happens more often than I’d like, but rather importantly, in terms of gestures. This gift bag is something I fretted over for weeks; a very good girl friend of mine helped me out a lot in the past, and I wanted to find some way to repay her that she would appreciate, and wouldn’t be accidentally offended by. I settled on some beauty products and a top of Western labels (harder/more expensive here in Taipei) and making some passive Origami goldfish (six, with my mother’s suggestion, staying well away from the unlucky number four).

Pish, how can you possibly accidentally offend someone, you ask?
Believe me, it’s happened in the past.

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Two years ago I made a big boo boo offering to pay a Taiwanese friend petrol money for a three hour round trip out to the beach; there were five of us in the car, and he paid for petrol and toll booths along the way, so of course we should offer, right? As the strange look passed that his face quickly told, it was very wrong.

I later asked a girl friend what I did wrong, and she suggested that I should have taken him out to dinner instead. I didn’t see the difference between her suggestion and my action at the time, and it wasn’t until later till I realised that that in itself was was a subtle indicator that I had committed a cultural faux-pas; it wasn’t till later I thought that perhaps the custom I was used to, that of ‘Let’s go Dutch’ – each person being accountable for their own finances and it being expected of the recipients to split the costs – wasn’t something that was expectable a third of the way across the planet. In a conversation with another Chinese friend, she put it in a rather succinct analogy, where the cultural barrier could be transcended in one blunt description: what I did was the equivalent of treating him like a taxi driver.

Ah.

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I think half the the pain of being a foreigner is insulting people when you mean well.

I’m still not sure that there’s a set in stone guideline for how these things work, but I suspect that there are a whole set of cultural mistakes I make every day without noticing. Do share any similar experiences if you have them; I’m still carrying a long back-log of cultural misunderstandings, waiting to be deciphered…

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