-I recently wrote this article on experiencing culture shock for Expats Blog, but I’ve revamped and expanded it a little.-
For the first two months or so I was here, I suffered from what I term “Cultural Honeymoon.” I was overly in love with Taiwan. I distinctly remember telling everyone that I was definitely for sure coming back next year, as it was so amazing and I couldn’t imagine going home. Fortunately, I didn’t sign off on that, because by Christmas, I realized that no, I couldn’t come back for various reasons. College mostly, but once the luster of the job wore off, I saw how ill-suited I was for it. Not that it was or is a bad system. It was perfect for that (this) period in my life; it gave me valuable experience teaching. I just don’t want to stay in Taiwan specifically, and I’d like to work for a public school. And for that, I need a degree. So that’s a long story to tell you about culture shock. Point being, I wasn’t shocked by the culture; I was enamored.
Culture shock – the trauma you experience psychologically and physiologically when you move to another country with a totally different culture. It sounds scary, and honestly, it was a big concern of mine when I made the decision to move to Taiwan, halfway around the world from my home.
I was scared for nothing. Maybe because I had grown up surrounded by various cultural influences (food, movies, music, language), and had done a LOT of research before coming here, I was pretty much fully prepared for the upheaval. I did have rather worse expectations than reality though, so here’s a brief rundown on that.
Language– I was fully expecting to be crippled by my inability to speak and read Chinese. Like, not being able to function at all without a translator, getting hopelessly lost in cities, not being able to order in restaurants, etc. etc. etc. The reality was not that bad. True, Chinese is a much more closed-off language than most. There’s no shortcut to pronouncing characters. Were I in France, I could at least tell someone what road I needed, butchering the sounds but probably getting my meaning across. In Taiwan, not so much. That is a genuine difficulty. Fortunately, with public transportation, I only need to know my destination, not how to get there, and for close areas, once I’ve biked there the first time, I have a good enough sense of direction to find my way again. Usually.
I can also function just fine in shops and restaurants on my own. There are some places with menus lacking pictures, but for most nicer restaurants and coffee shops, if they don’t have an actual English menu, I can just point to the picture and say, “I want this.” For other shops, there’s little conversation anyway. I bring the product, you ring it up, give me the total, I pay you. Simple. It’s actually quite funny; when we’re out with our Taiwanese teachers, they tend to take over and order for us even when we’re perfectly capable of doing it ourselves. I think they have an innate sense of responsibility for us – the foreigner guests.
Food – thinking the food would be identical to our local Chinese restaurant was a little short-sighted of me. Taiwanese food is actually quite different; more oily and with a lot more sea-food. I don’t actually like most of it. In fact, I was really worried that my body would react violently to the different food. I’ve had some stomach problems off and on for years, so I made sure to bring plenty of stomach medicine. I was also expecting to lose a lot of weight since I didn’t think the food would agree with me.
In fact, while I don’t like some of the food, there are plenty of other options available. There are lots of ethnic joints, whether American or Italian, that I adore. They also have plenty of fast food stops, and convenience store goodies have kept the weight on, sadly enough. I think my favorite food so far has been from the Korean place. (I’m not biased, I swear.) Hot-pot, a traditional Taiwanese meal, is also extremely delicious, and probably my favorite of the ethnic variety.
Even the stuff I thought wouldn’t sit well hasn’t created many problems. I haven’t been really ill since I arrived, and that’s with me eating some very dubious stuff on occasion *coughdurian*cough.
Environment – I didn’t have a clear picture of what Taiwan would look like before I came. I knew Taipei was an international city, up there with New York, Beijing, Paris, and so on, so I figured it would be similar. But for the rest of the island, having cleared out my head of grass huts and people-driven rickshaws (it’s not China, it’s not Thailand…), I really wasn’t sure what to expect. When I got here, I saw that it was different than anything in America. They have farmland and cities, and nothing in between. No real suburbs, since the island is so small and the population density so large. The towns are crowded, with apartments, condos, and shops all smushed together haphazardly, rising vertically to save space. The malls are generally over ten stories, but each story is smaller than an average JC Penney back in the States. Other than that, the only other major difference to my home is the lack of A/C. Homes may have a small unit, but it’s not the all-encompassing indoor atmosphere regulator like it is where I live.
Those are the major things I can think of. A lot of personal stuff, like being stared at and so on, I mention in ‘Being a Foreigner.’