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.