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Top 6 Unusual Things in Taiwan

Taipei street scene

1) People Wearing Surgical Masks

If you go out wearing a surgical mask in Europe you'll probably see people staring at you in panic, wondering whether you want to spread a mortal disease by mingling with healthy people instead of putting yourself into quarantine. 

Don't worry, it's not that in Taiwan millions of people have serious diseases. It's just a habit to wear surgical masks, and no one will think you're weird and no one will look at you if you wear one.

I don't know if the habit of wearing masks comes from Japan, or if it is a consequence of the SARS panic from a few years ago, which led East Asian countries to care more about public health in their overcrowded cities. Actually, wearing masks is not a recent phenomenon; I remember reading a book written in the 1930s about Japan, in which the author described a group of Japanese soldiers' wives in occupied Manchuria wearing surgical masks.

Definitely, East Asian people seem very concerned about their health in crowded places. In Taipei's MRT stations, you will often hear the announcement that if you have symptoms of a cold you are kindly requested to wear a mask. 

Last year in February I caught a bad cold. Since I had already paid for a month's private classes in a Chinese school, I decided to attend my lessons anyway. But, following the Taiwanese habit, I bought a pair of surgical masks at a convenience store (yes, they are considered items of daily use), put one of them on and went to school. My teacher - though not happy about spending an hour in a tiny classroom with a coughing and sneezing student - said that she appreciated I was wearing a mask. "You are very polite," she added, "most Western students sneeze and cough all the time, but they won't put masks on." So, apparently, wearing a mask has three main purposes: 1) to protect yourself from diseases or pollution; 2) to avoid spreading your own disease; 3) to be polite by showing you care about other people's health.  

Oh, I had almost forgotten another option. During the first few days following a plastic surgery, some girls will wear masks in order not to show the spots on their skin. So, if you see a girl wearing a surgical mask, maybe she is sick, or maybe she just had plastic surgery to become more beautiful.

2) Hyper-clean Underground - Hyper-dirty Restaurants

Take the MRT in Taipei and you will time and again hear the following announcement: "Please do not smoke, eat, drink, chew gum or beetle nut in the Taipei Metro System. Thank you."

So, no matter how long your journey lasts, you simply can't drink. And if you woke up late and want to eat a sandwich while on the metro - forget about it. For Taiwanese, there seems to be nothing more barbarous than devouring a sandwich on the underground in front of other people, possibly making your seat or the floor dirty. The cleanliness of the MRT stations is one of the things Taiwanese are most proud of, and perhaps you might have heard the question: "What do you think of our MRT?"

But then comes the moment when you get out of the MRT and perhaps you want to go to a restaurant or to a night market. And here is when the inexplicable happens. While the MRT is as clean as a hotel lobby, night markets are dirty and stinky, and lots of street restaurants are dirty, have cables hanging from the ceiling, and even rests of food may lie on the floor. It is puzzling how people who value the cleanliness of their underground so much can, a moment after getting out of the station, be eating in so greasy places.  

3) Girls Holding Umbrellas in the Sun

Throughout East Asia white skin is considered beautiful. A girl's white skin is something she can be proud of. So while we Westerners go to the beach and lie for hours in the sun to get a cool tan - getting a cool tan is something many Asian girls are afraid of. That is why on hot sunny days many  Taiwanese girls (especially the pretty ones) will protect their beauty with an umbrella. Most of them perhaps would like to do the same when they travel to Europe, but we cast on them bewildered, intimidating glances, so they soon give up.

4) High-pitch Voices

One day I was sitting in a cafe' near Gongguan sipping my coffee, when two girls came in and sat next to me. One of them was wearing a blue top, an extremely tiny mini-skirt (a friend of mine once called this kind of skirts "jeans panties") and high-heel shoes. Besides, she was wearing heavy make-up with the typical fake eyelashes. Then, she opened her mouth and out came a voice like a 3-year-old girl's. 

Whether it was her natural voice or not (yet I doubt it was), it is not uncommon to hear grown-up girls faking a baby-voice (I am not saying ALL girls talk like that, just some of them). There are two reasons why high-pitch voice is so en vogue: 1) Taiwanese think it sounds polite; that is why shop clerks, even men, will talk to their customers in a high-pitch voice, no matter how irritating you may find it; 2) it is characteristic of the Taiwanese-style 'cuteness' which - please remember it - doesn't tell you anything about the real personality of a girl, because cuteness may be just manners.     

5) Taiwanese Drivers' Crazy Persona

When Taiwanese drive their car or ride their bike, a metamorphosis occurs. "I come first and everyone else is an obstacle", may be the way to summarize their attitude behind the wheel. What is true for cyclists (read my post about cyclists in Taipei) is also true for drivers. As a pedestrian, you should also remember that no car will stop before the zebra crossings to let you go first.

6) People Burning Money on the Street

If you walk on the streets of Taiwanese cities you will notice that from time to time people burn paper in some sort of big metal cans. This will mostly happen in front of shops and restaurants. These pieces of paper are "paper money". 

Burning paper money has been for centuries a common religious practice in Chinese culture. It was officially introduced to the imperial sacrifice already in 738 AD (Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien: Collected Writings on Chinese Cultural History, p. 99). 

Burning paper money is a way to ask for good business and for ... real money! On some days there are so many people burning paper money that whole streets are invaded by smoke and small pieces of papers flying in the air.


  1. hi,just showing some of my opinions,i think the high pitched voice part is a little confusing.
    as for me(a taiwanese high school student),my natural voice is sometimes high,while sometimes may be lower.but it all depends on the mood im in.if i am excited or thrilled,the voice could be really sharp and high-pitched.and im a hundred percent sure that im not faking it.
    however ,its just my thoughts,i love your blog anyways.thanks for the sharing.

  2. Thanks for sharing you thoughts: ) It's interesting, perhaps many of the people I've met just have a natural high-pitch voice. So you think that this kind of voice is not related to politeness?

    Haha, if the voice of the girl in the cafe' was natural then I should feel guilty now for talking about her in this way.

  3. Where can you get them in Taipei?

  4. Surgical masks I mean.

  5. From cosmed or Watson's. Or 10 dollars stores. Actually they are everywhere.

  6. Hello. For the clean MRT versus dirty restaurant, I think you may have to consider it from the opposite angle. It is BECAUSE restaurants look like dirty (and it was much worse before) that the authorities made the move to forbid food and drink inside the MRT, and avoid making it as dirty as outside, possibly. I think it has also had a good influence in the habits outside. (from quite dirty to more cleanness) . My 2 cents ;-)

  7. Agree with the hyper clean MRT but TOTALLY disagree with the hyper dirty restaurants. That is not more than false and I bet it was in some way biased. I may understand your post was somehow true three years ago. I've been a bit more than two years and I go out to restaurants at least twice a week since then. Visited many restaurants, different cuisines, different concepts, buffets, fast food and never ever could I say I've been in a HYPER dirty restaurant. Now, if you're talking about the street/night markets, I would agree they are not as neat as the subway, but not as dirty as to use HYPER. And about the "stinky" fact, that I bet was because of the Stinky Tofu dish, which I agree is nothing close to a Chanel perfume, but varieties of food around the world may lead you not only to different tastes but to different smells as well. Usually street markets sell that Stinky Tofu like you would find taquerias in Mexico and McDonalds in USA (which by the way smell just differently bad).

    1. Thanks for your comment. Well, I have described what I have experienced, I think it would be quite strange if I had to forget what I have seen only because other people haven't seen it. And I can only say that I've been to quite a few dirty restaurants. The one I described in this post is a Buddhist vegan restaurant close to Gongguan night market. It is opposite the little playground. I think it's called 'Buddhist vegetarian paradise' or something like that, on the ground floor of a small building. If you happen to stumble upon it some day, go in and have a look! Regards


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