5 Customs in Taiwan

Chinese culture plays a predominant part of our modern homogenous society. After all, it is hard to find a major city these days that doesn’t have a Chinatown. The smells and sounds of a Western Chinatown bring nostalgia to people from all regions of Asia, but don’t always indentify with core Chinese principles found back across the Pacific. Chinese people are proud to note the ancient roots of their ways and the ability to draw forth explanations from centuries past.

Risa in front of red couplets

1. A red couplet for every door

Luck is an underlying scheme that can be found everywhere in the world.  The Chinese take luck to a different level, following their superstitions with unsurpassed virtue. The color red is an unmistakable theme that adorns everything from bathroom wall trimmings to temple altars. Chinese couplets are painted on long strips of red flimsy paper year round. These poems lace black or gold characters with prose speaking of prosperity, good fortune, and posterity. These red poems are the centerpiece of most foyers, office lobbies, and homes. They are normally hung up on around Chinese New Year and stay year round to continue blessing their environment with luck. It is common to see single Chinese characters hung upside down to signify the coming or changing of an event. The characters fu (福) or chun (春) are often displayed in this way to represent the coming of good luck and spring. Chinese New Year gifts are not exchanged with sparkling gift wrap or ribbons, but instead with red envelopes containing generous amounts of cash. Exchange of money in Chinese society is also associated with the color red.

In Taipei, Taiwan, where I have been teaching for the past year and a half, red colored pencils in my classroom are chewed down to oblivion by Taiwanese elementary school students. Red, though not everyone’s favorite color — is still apparently the most popular.

2. Drinking your dumplings

Taiwan has an odorous array of night markets that offer an exotic blend of Chinese snacks from across the mainland. Large won-ton noodle stands, aromatic steamed buns, and an assortment of chicken parts ranging from head to toe, lay intermittently along fluid causeways of people. If food is said to be an important part of life, the Chinese hold it at its highest reverence. The range of tastes and smells that exist are only as far as the mind can imagine. Taiwan’s infamous curd snack, stinky tofu, may arouse suspicion in the judgment of the local food; however, fresh steamed dumpling soup, a dumpling that must first be drunk by sucking the soup out of the side, is just one of the enticing dishes that you can dive right into.

In Taiwanese night markets it is common to see people eating everything from fried chicken to fruit wrapped in pancake crisps while walking. For those who are feeling adventurous there is always the option of snake blood, chicken heart, and pig face.

3. Squatting toilets

Though most households have become accustomed to western style sitting arrangements with regards to the lavatory, many public and rural places in China still utilize squatting toilets. The first time opening a bathroom door – revealing a ceramic hole in the ground – might pose some qualms, but don’t be unnerved. Presuming your thigh muscles are in working order, this method is believed to work on the side of gravity, taking a more natural pace to things. In public facilities it is usually expected that people place all used toilet paper in the provided trashcans to prevent poor plumbing congestion. Though not frequent in major cities, it is generally a good idea to BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper). Tissues are often sold by street vendors and sometimes even given with business cards.

A woman burns paper for good luck

4. Burning for prosperity

In Taipei it is a common sight to see small rusty iron crates that resemble garbage cans along the side of the road. Do not throw your garbage there. At first it may appear that people are burning some trash or old office documents, but don’t be misguided. Stacks of gold parchment found in supermarkets and local stores are commonly burnt on the street. These coarse pieces of cardboard-like paper are driven by the handful into fire to release good fortune. They are generally manufactured in local temples, where monks stamp the paper with different designs laced in gold. They are placed in front of businesses and homes, and there is never a bad time to make an offering of this smoky-sort.

The unnecessary pollution is outweighed by a long tradition of offerings by fire. In Chinese funerals people commonly burn paper replicas of personal items of the deceased in hopes that they will join them in their next life. It is said that these offerings were performed long ago by burning the person’s actual possessions.

5. Education and posterity

Most Chinese households commit a great deal of their annual income to the education of their children. Education of future generations is regarded as an innate virtue. Students generally spend many hours a week studying Chinese, Math, and English outside of their public school in cram schools or with private tutors. Usually, when there is a national holiday, schools of all breeds schedule makeup days for students on the following weekend(s).

The Chinese household is very closely knit, with the majority of younger generations choosing to continue living with their parents into their late twenty’s or early thirty’s to avoid the burden of paying their own rent. It is assumed that by being taken care of by their elders, they are entitled to provide for the elder generation in return creating a harmony of respect and duty throughout the centuries to come.

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