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Clean Underground, Dirty Restaurants - Thoughts About a Taiwanese Contradiction

While I was at Taipei MRT Station this evening I saw the following sign:

As you can see, there is a foreigner on the picture, who of course lacks manners and knowledge so that he eats and drinks in the MRT. A foreign barbarian disrupting the local order - a disgraceful sight. To be fair, I have seen a few foreigners do that before, mostly because we don't have such regulations in the West, so we can't even imagine that they exist. I used to eat and drink in Berlin's underground all the time and never thought there was something wrong or disgusting about it.

Certainly, Taipei's MRT is superior to most Western underground systems as far as cleanliness is concerned. However, I do not totally understand why Taiwanese are so obsessed with the cleanness of their underground, while they often disregard the cleanness of the restaurants they eat in.

The reason why I am writing this post and share with you my doubts is that two weeks ago I went to a Taiwanese restaurant where I swore to myself never ever to go again. It is a vegetarian Buddhist restaurant in Gongguan area. I've been there many times before, and I had already noticed that it wasn't at all clean. However, I wanted to get used to local life, and this kind of small street restaurants are just like this, and no one seems to care much about it.

But last time ... well, that was really too much. Warning - I am going to tell you something totally disgusting, so don't read it if you are too delicate.

I was sitting at a table at the back of the restaurant, right in front of the wall and a big sliding glass door. Behind the glass door are stored things like rice and other foodstuffs. On the wall there was a huge, disgusting dead cockroach, who must have been there for some time because its body was partly decomposed. You can guess... how disgusted I felt. I just lost my appetite completely, and I wish I could erase this image from my memory.

Now, when I talk with Taiwanese and point out that some restaurants are dirty, I am perceived by some people as arrogant or too picky. And if I say I don't understand why one cannot even drink in the MRT, I am perceived again as arrogant or disgusting. I mean, what is the point of being so strict about the cleanliness of the MRT when no one goes to check the hygienic conditions of restaurants? I must be really missing something; and I wish I knew what it is.


  1. Hi Aris Teon, I read your blog from Berlin, Germany. You say, you were used to eat in the underground. First of all, eating in the trains was already prohibited, but there were no controls and this prohibition was not appropriately signalised. Now, in the last two years the underground company has provided signs in the trains, which signalise food and alcohol prohibition; beverages are admitted only in closed recipients.

    As far as I am concerned, I find disgusting, if people eat in the trains. There is no adequate air circulation and food smells intensively - noodles, chips, döner: just disgusting.

    Sorry for my English, I know it is not that good, but I hope I made myself understood.

  2. @anonymous

    Don't worry, your English is great: ) I find your opinion absolutely legitimate, and in fact I stressed that the MRT in Taiwan is very clean and comfortable, which I praised. I also think that it was improper on my part to eat in trains when I was in Berlin, and this is something I have 'learned' in Taiwan. I have to admit that I wasn't aware of that regulation you referred to when I lived in Germany.

    However, in my article I didn't want to criticise the cleanliness of the MRT, which is a good thing. My point was that many Taiwanese seem to have completely different standards of cleanliness when it comes to restaurants. I don't understand why the same people find it acceptable to eat in a dirty restaurant, but consider it outrageous even to drink water in the MRT. If the MRT is clean and people are proud of it, they should also care about the cleanliness of the places they eat in.

    I also wanted to hint at the fact that the sign shows a foreigner as a transgressor. But I am not sure what to make of this. On the one hand I don't think it's nice to pick a certain group and associate them with a negative behaviour; on the other hand, perhaps this is just meant to be an innocent or funny thing.

  3. It's say its refreshing to see a nice poster of a mixed family. It normalises it a bit, the fact he's eating in a humourous way with his wife and daughter looking mock serious for me means there's no need to get worked up about it.

    On the cleanliness thing, its a weird thing across East Asia, restaurants and food stalls and people's kitchens from Japan, to China to Taiwan (the only three place I've been to!) have all been pretty dirty. And Taiwan is the first place I've seen with signs on the escalators saying 'the hand rail is continuously sanitised'.

    I've no answers; dirty kitchens seem common. Last time I went to Taiwan I got food poisoning from my sister-in-law! The doctor called it, with wry amusement, "Chinese food syndrome". My wife and sister in law asked why they didn't get it too and he said they were used to eating dirty, crappy food. I'd say then it's something people accept, are used to and would be difficult to change. The underground is a clearly 'modern' thing, able to be shaped in an ideal way: it's not a syndrome ;-)

  4. @hello_operator

    thanks for sharing your view. You're right, actually it's a nice poster with a cute family. But there is still something I don't find so nice about it. I think foreigners here are targeted because they are the group that is most likely to transgress this rule. But, as you said, there's no reason to get too excited about it. I just wanted to know how other people perceive it.

    As to the restaurants, actually I didn't mind the dirt until I saw that dead cockroach... I mean, that was really so disgusting... I couldn't keep on eating. The kitchen was to the right of the sliding window, and the staff were going in and out of the kitchen all the time. I can't understand why they didn't clean the wall, and why I was the only one, even among the customers, who seemed to care about it.

    I've always enjoyed eating Taiwanese food, and I seldom eat Western food. I just discovered the limit to what I can accept.

    Greetings from Taipei: )

  5. hallo, I am an international student in the States who originally born and raised in Beijing. I traveled a lot and enjoyed meeting new ppl and learning about new culture. I have been in States for more than five years and also spent a semester in Berlin. I am going to Taipei at the end of this summer. Anyway, google led me to your blog. While I have enjoyed most of your blog, I don't appreciate the words and tone of this particular post. Yeah, dead cockroach is pretty disgusting, I don't that it is a standard thing of all restaurants in Taiwan, also whole east asian area. Every country has its own registrations an laws for restaurants and most important not all restaurants are legally registered. Moreover, different country has its own food traditions. In taiwan, the restaurant you mentioned may be a local family owned restaurant that severed for working class and ppl who do not care about the cleaness that much, Like the donër box in Berlin streets. I understand that your limit of trying new thing, however, I would much prefer that you wrote this like a objective facts with respect of different cultrue

  6. @anonymous

    Thanks for sharing your view and welcome!: )

    Well, let me say that this post is not objective, but totally subjective. So you shouldn't take it too seriously. I have described my own feelings while eating in that restaurant. If other people don't mind eating in front of a dead cockroach, I'm fine with it. It's their own choice. But that's simply too much for me. I am an individual in a foreign country, and I have my own standards and principles. In my opinion, respecting another culture does not mean that I always have to agree with everything. I am sure that you, too, as a foreigner in the US, find things about the US that you don't like, and I believe it is your right to express your opinion.

    You are perfectly right about the restaurant. It is a small restaurant, probably family-owned. I didn't mean to suggest that all restaurants in Taiwan are dirty. I would say there are different kinds of restaurants in Taiwan, some of them are dirty while others are clean.

  7. Eating in front of a dead cockroach is disgusting, even by "Asian" standards. I'm sure if you had flagged down the waitress and pointed this out they would have cleaned it up right away. With that said, I do definitely agree with you on the cleanliness part. Growing up in the US, people are not accustomed to eating in small cramped places which often have dirty floors or chairs. However, of the times I've been to Taiwan I have never had any issues with the food.

  8. Read through your paragraph, so you want to spend a little money but experience the luxury, you are telling the joke.
    Actually, if you feel bad toward this kind of experience, you can go back to your own country, right ? No One Force you to come here, buddy~
    If you think the restaurants in your country are much cleaner than ours, then.... you don't even have to torture yourself, just go back and do not waste your time to write down these shit.
    Last but not the least, come to a new environment, you should learn how to get accustomed to their culture, including learn their language, not just complain all the day.

    1. First of all, I write whatever I want and it's not up to you to tell people what they should think.

      Second, if you are too intolerant to accept criticism of a restaurant (have I criticized you personally, or your family? I don't think so. I have JUST criticized restaurants!) it is your problem. I hear often 'Taiwanese are nice'. Certainly many people are. But there are also many people like you, who are not nice, who want foreigners to go to Taiwan and praise you and say how great everything is. If you don't like foreigners to think independently, then don't let them come in, shut your country off like North Korea.

      Third, I have left Taiwan, and one reason why I have left is the negative experience with intolerant people such as you.

      Fourth, it is true that people should get accustomed to a new culture, but foreigners are not puppets who are there to do whatever Taiwanese tell them to do. People are free.


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