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Taipei is a crazy bustling capital city like other busy cities in east Asia. It has all the mod cons of a modern city, excellent transport options, wide roads and pavements, a safe and welcoming place to be.
But even for someone that is pretty well travelled, I still got a culture shock when I arrived in Taipei. The bright lights and the traditional Chinese script everywhere made everything an assault on the senses to a first time visitor. But a pleasant one that meant I was travelling somewhere new and exciting.
But after being in Taipei for a while, I started to notice some small other quirks. Things that aren’t necessarily apparent straight away, but some quirks that I hadn’t noticed in other places. So here is a light hearted look at some of the culture shocks I experienced the first time I arrived in Taipei.
The 9 Culture Shocks for a First Time Visitor to Taipei
1. People are asleep on every train
Coming from London, I’m used to being on a large metro system and used to seeing people having the occasional snooze whilst on the train.
But the MRT trains in Taipei are filled with more sleeping people than a hotel.
And this is at all times of day!
No matter what time of day or what train I get on, there is always a few people asleep in each carriage. And not just a the one guy that has obviously had a tough day at work. There was the couple on the way to a tourist site, the older woman by herself and the young girl that just nodded off. In a row of 8 seats, 4 were asleep!
2. You will spend half your time walking around the city waiting for red lights
Taipei is a city that’s very easy to walk around. There are wide pavements and the city is safe.
However, if you look at your maps and it says it is a 5 minute walk, you may have to double your estimates. Being a grid based city, every block has traffic lights and rules are adhered to in Taipei. If the man is red, nobody crosses. At all. In other countries, people will still run across when the lights are red for pedestrians, but it just doesn’t happen in Taipei.
And the waits between light changes can seem like they last forever. In reality, they are a minute or two at most, but it still feels like an interruption to your walk!
So if you’re wanting to go somewhere that involves crossing a few roads, be prepared to wait.
3. More people have animals in strollers than walking them
Before coming to Taipei, I had only ever heard about people taking their dog for a walk in a stroller. The small buggy like devices, that in my mind are designed to hold babies, could be used for animals but it was a thing that only the socialites of LA or New York did.
How wrong I was.
Taipei must be the home of the animal stroller. Cats and dogs of all sizes are being pushed around by their (relatively normal looking) owners all over the city. Through parks and busy roads and even shopping districts there doesn’t seem to be a place in the city that is off limits for the people that would like
4. There are more 7 Elevens than people
Even for someone who has travelled through Thailand and has seen the countless 7 Elevens on Koh San Road, Taipei has more 7 Elevens than I have ever seen before. The popular south east Asian convenience store chain seems to have at least one store on every street and you never seem to be more than a 2 minute walk away from one.
Even if you can’t see a 7 Eleven from where you are standing, it is still likely you will be able to see a Family Mart, Hi-Life, or OK store which are all variations on a theme.
5. What you can get fined for on the train…
Something that might be a shock to those that have been living in an almost Covid free world since later 2021, if the mask policy in Taipei.
Whilst masks are no longer compulsory outdoors, many many people still choose to wear them, I would hazard a guess at 99% of the population.
On the MRT however, masks are still compulsory with a fine of NT$15,000 if you don’t wear one.
Add to that a fine of NT$7,500 if you are caught eating and drinking on the train, and it could turn into a very expensive train journey.
There are also signs asking you not to speak loudly and be cautious when touching surfaces.
Although they are fast, efficient and cheap, the MRT trains can make you feel like you are back at school!
6. It feels more like Seoul than other east Asian cities
I’ve travelled to a lot of places in Asia and making comparisons is something that you do naturally when you visit a new place.
Comparing Taiwan to south east Asia is like comparing apples and oranges, Taipei is a much more organised city but without the diversity of Singapore.
Taipei has convenience stores everywhere like in Japan, and with Japan having formerly colonised the island, there are some similarities in the way the city is designed with an efficient grid like structure.
The language and culture is most similar to mainland China, but the use of technology and a better command of English by locals, gives enough of a difference to be noticeable.
But there just seems to be something that reminds me of Seoul when it comes to Taipei. Fast efficient transport, friendly people and a good level of English. Ximen is like Hongdae, Taipei 101 is like Lotte World Tower. The city is green with mountains all around. Of course there are differences between the two, but this is my personal feelings.
7. The gambling and arcade games
There are more shops filled with arcade games and grab machines than in any other place I have visited. Japan had a lot of them but Taipei takes the win here.
Every night market I have been to has stalls of arcade games. There are entire stores that are open on the side of the street with rows of grab machines, and I have also seen pinball games being set up in rows along the street.
And there always appears to be people playing or using them at all time!
8. Not quite knowing what a shop is…
There are plenty of times I have walked past an open store front on a main street in Taipei and not known what it is. Is it a shop? Is it a family business? What does it sell? Is it a restaurant?
There have been occasions when there has just been a guy sitting at a desk with… stuff…. around him. And he is always eating. What are these places? Can I go in? The mystery continues…
9. The rubbish trucks play Fur Elise
With so many apartment buildings, rubbish disposal is a bit different to what I have seen in other places. In Taipei, the rubbish trucks drive around the city and play music which lets the tenants know that the truck is waiting outside for the next few minutes and to run out with your rubbish bags. Similar to how ice cream vans operate in the UK.
Of all the tunes and jingles they could have chosen, Fur Elise, one of the more recognisable sounds written by Beethoven, is a regular that I heard across the city.
Why? I have no idea, but I will now think of rubbish every time I hear it.
Taipei quickly became a favourite city of mine after just a few days exploring everything it has to offer. However, some of these culture shocks took me a bit longer to get used to! Having been to a number of countries around the world and in east Asia, I still enjoy having little culture shocks like this wherever I go. Have you experienced any of these culture shocks in Taiwan or anywhere else you’ve travelled to?
Dan is an avid traveller from London. His first big adventure was in 2010 living in Malaysia for 3 months and becoming a divemaster. He has been on the road almost constantly since 2015 travelling to destinations that aren’t on the mainstream tourist trail.