With that being said, I feel like I owe it to readers to share some of the not-so-nice aspects about the country. I often get e-mails from people wanting to learn more about Taiwan, primarily about teaching English, and there are a few things I definitely think they should be aware of before heading off to live on the sweet potato.
If I offend any Taiwanese person in the comments I’m about to make, I apologize, but as a foreigner who once lived in your country, these were some of the things I observed and so are my own personal perspectives (and please note, I’m aware there are MANY things wrong with the United States, so people don’t need to point that out).
Racism in Taiwan
I grew up living in a country that is a melting pot of cultures. I grew up in a neighborhood where white, black, hispanic, and Asian American people all hung out and all went to the same schools. We were all friends. One of my closest friends is black. This is normal in many places around America.
I understand that in countries such as Taiwan, there isn’t as much cultural diversity. In such countries (and even in some places in America, such as where I live now, out in the country), it may be hard for people to relate to those from different ethnic backgrounds.
However, I had a hard time with the serious issue of underlying racism in Taiwan.
First, let me say that overall, Taiwanese people are generally friendly to everyone (and maybe extra friendly toward white, blonde women). I often felt ashamed with all the attention I received and felt it was quite undeserved. People treated me wonderfully, and I’ll never forget that kindness. And now it makes me feel awful when foreigners in the United States are treated poorly, when I remember about how kind people once were to me in a land so far from home.
But some foreigners, especially those with darker skin, are not treated so wonderfully (and in fact, even some of my Taiwanese-American friends who have returned to Taiwan say that they are often criticized and made fun of for various reasons). There is an extreme underlying prejudice toward people with darker skin in Taiwan. Many Taiwanese will deny this or try to brush the truth under the rug.
I remember the time I went out with two non-Taiwanese friends I’d made – a guy from Africa and a girl from the Philippines. People stared at us like they couldn’t believe their eyes. Whether this was because we were all foreigners or because we were all foreigners of different races, I don’t know. Here’s a picture of us on that day:
Countless times I heard my students talk about how having brown skin was bad (many Taiwanese equate brown skin with being a lower class citizen) and ugly. Women tend to freak out about the sun and are constantly covering themselves to ensure they don’t get a hint of color. It may be more difficult for darker skinned people to find work in Taiwan, especially in areas such as teaching. There also is some prejudice toward Filipinos (many of whom work in Taiwan as housekeepers) and Taiwan’s native peoples. It broke my heart to hear the comments directed at Taiwan’s aborigines and witness how often they are ignored. I wrote about this subject in The Lost Tribes of Taiwan. It reminded me a lot of America’s own treatment of Native Americans.
I would often try to have discussions with my students about the subject of racism. I can only hope that in some way, I helped them see that all shades of people are beautiful and all should be treated with equality.
There are a lot of intense political issues that surround Taiwan, and some of these things can also be unpleasant to learn about. But I think anyone living in the country should learn about the country’s tumultuous political past and present.
Many Taiwanese people are polite and evasive when it comes to speaking their minds, BUT, there are also many who are completely blunt and honest. Though this isn’t always a bad quality, sometimes it can be a bit unsettling. I once had a Taiwanese guy tell me I would look younger if it weren’t for the wrinkles under my eyes (which I like to think are not that obvious!). One time, an older man who I befriended (a security guard in my apartment building), bought me some sort of wrinkle/beauty correction fluid. I understand he was trying to be kind, but it did hurt my feelings a little bit.
Some Taiwanese people also will not hesitate to call someone out on being overweight. I once had a local girl call me “A little fat.” My co-worker had a guy ask her if she ate McDonald’s all the time because she was fat. My students asked me why Americans were so fat and if they always ate hamburgers (I did have to laugh at some of the comments, but hid my face). Please note, this doesn’t happen all the time, and there are many Taiwanese people who also keep their opinions on such things to themselves.
I also had people tell me they thought all Americans were rich and had huge houses (not true) and many assumed that foreign women were all easy and wild (no doubt thanks to American media). I was happy to try to help correct these stereotypes.
Treatment of stray animals in Taiwan
This is another serious issue. I had a really hard time with the treatment of stray animals, especially dogs. There is a massive problem with street dogs and most of it stems from some people not being educated about what it means to take responsibility for a pet. Dogs are often purchased as puppies because “They look cute,” only to be discarded to the streets later in life. I saw my share of dogs being kicked and kept in horrendous living conditions. There are a number of dog owners in Taiwan who look at dogs as property - as guards to be chained up and thrown a scrap or two of food once in awhile.
Then there are the dogs on the streets who are often abused by passerby, who gather in packs like wolves and sometimes become vicious because of the hand they’ve been dealt. I was chased by such dogs several times but I didn’t blame them for their behavior. Thankfully, there are groups out there like MANA, who are striving to help the public understand the street dog epidemic. Nelie Aucamp, one of the founders of the group, shared her thoughts on Bamboo Butterfly with The Strays of Taiwan. There are also many Taiwanese people who do care about this issue and want to help the dogs.
Watch out for shady places of employment
While many schools in Taiwan are reputable, there are a few questionable cram schools who will make your time in the country miserable. If you’re thinking about moving to Taiwan to each English, please do your research. You can start by reading Teaching English in Taiwan: Part I.
If you are driving and get into a traffic accident in Taiwan, most likely it will be your fault
Please see The Truth about driving a scooter in Taiwan.
Though I could go on about a number of issues other travel bloggers may have complained about, I personally don’t really have many other unpleasant things to share about Taiwan.
Oh, except this:
Giant Taiwanese spiders
Yes, they exist. And I was lucky enough to encounter several of them during my stay. See Giant Taiwanese spiders: fact or fiction? For the most part though, these creatures leave most people alone (unless you are a spider magnet, like me).
Again, Taiwan is a wonderful country and I don’t hesitate to tell people how awesome it is. Other than the spiders, the things I’ve mentioned above do not apply to everyone in Taiwan and similar situations can be found in any country around the world. I just felt obligated to share some of the more unpleasant aspects about the country so people understand that living in Taiwan may not necessarily be a good fit, nor is the country perfect (as I sometimes make it sound). Please feel free to share your thoughts.