Venturing to a new country is always full of exciting novelties! After living in Taiwan for three years, I am still finding new experiences to get excited about. In order to share some of my big first impressions of Taiwan with you, I’ve made this list of 10 surprising things about life in Taiwan that no one told you about!
- 1. It can, and does, snow!
- 2. Chewing betel nut is a national pastime
- 3. Claw machine arcades are everywhere!
- 4. Full-length rain ponchos are decidedly in
- 5. No one uses a clothes dryer, but hair dryers are a must
- 6. Your daily purchases can win you the lottery
- 7. There is a big hot springs culture
- 8. Japanese food in Taiwan is really good
- 9. The queueing is very civilized (even in, especially in, the MRT!)
- 10. Pokémon GO is a big deal
1. It can, and does, snow!
I didn’t realize this before coming here, but it’s true! While it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll ever see snow in any of Taiwan’s cities, you may have more luck along the central mountain range, which extends from north to south of the island. Running alongside it are two famous mountain ranges: Yushan (玉山山脈) & Xueshan (雪山山脈), known as home to Taiwan’s tallest peaks – Yushan (Jade Mountain, 玉山) at 3,952 m (12,966 ft), and Xueshan (literally “Snow Mountain”, 雪山). These two peaks are some of the best spots in Taiwan for finding snow.
2. Chewing betel nut is a national pastime
I had never even heard of betel nut before moving to Taiwan, which surprises me now given its prominence all over Asia! It has been used in social and religious ceremonies and in medicinal practice going back thousands of years. In Taiwan, it has been particularly important in aboriginal culture. It is the 4th most popular psychoactive substance in the world. In the 80s the industry got so big that betel nut became known as “Taiwan’s chewing gum”.
Betel nut (槟榔 bīnláng), or areca nut, comes from the areca palm tree, and is actually a seed. It contains arecoline, a psychoactive stimulant similar to nicotine, so when the nut is chewed it has an effect similar to chewing tobacco or drinking a lot of coffee. It is most commonly used as a stimulant by blue collar workers in industries that require long hours, helping them to stay awake and giving them the jolt they need.
You’ll know the betel nut stand by the “betel nut beauties” (less common today) or the large flashing neon signs. You can buy a pouch of 20 betel nuts for about $30 NTD.
The betel nut comes wrapped in a betel leaf. To chew it you must first bite off and spit out the top, then continue chewing as a liquid forms. It turns your saliva (and mouth!) red, and if you ever see red stains on the sidewalk you know it’s betel nut spit. (Bear in mind betel nut preparation differs across region and country so it maybe be a slightly different experience depending where you go).
Though it has been declining in popularity since the government began running aggressive campaigns against oral cancer, it is still part of daily life in Taiwan. It is important to note that chewing betel nut is addictive and carcinogenic, and as such should not be chewed habitually.
3. Claw machine arcades are everywhere!
This one surprised me so much that I decided to dedicate a whole post to it! I found the arcades to be so novel when I arrived. Sure I was familiar with claw machines, but I’d never seen an entire arcade dedicated to them, let alone thousands of them! In Taiwan they are almost as ubiquitous as convenience stores, and Taiwan has the second highest density of convenience stores in the world!
They are a fun place to spend your extra change, and the wide variety of prizes means that there’s something for everyone! There’s also a whole range of skill levels – from the easy wins to the impossible. Just be careful how much cash you bring with you as it can be quite addictive!
4. Full-length rain ponchos are decidedly in
We’ve all used a rain poncho on thunderous occasion, and have been grateful to have had them on hand. But when it comes to ponchos, Taiwan is in a league of its own. At least in the north, everyone (who drives a scooter, at least) has a full-length thick plastic poncho.
The prevalence of these ponchos is thanks to how many people drive scooters – come rain or shine. Since it would obviously be extremely difficult and impractical, not to mention dangerous, to use an umbrella while scootering (although I have seen it done!), the full-length ponchos protect scooter drivers and their clothes on those rainy days when they’re still required to go out and about in the world. Food delivery platforms like Food Panda and Uber Eats even have their own branded full-length ponchos for drivers.
5. No one uses a clothes dryer, but hair dryers are a must
In Taiwan, hang-drying clothing is the norm, despite the high humidity. It’s difficult to find an apartment with a dryer, and if you want one chances are you’ll have to buy it yourself. There are, however, designated places for hanging your clothes – often a high bar running along the ceiling of an enclosed balcony.
Living in northern Taiwan you quickly learn to take advantage of sunny days to do your laundry, as clothes will dry much faster. During rainy or humid weather it can take days for clothes to dry, and even then they sometimes won’t dry completely until you take them inside (where the dehumidifier is running).
Though it is more time consuming, and sometimes I miss collapsing into a pile of warm-from-the-dryer clothes, I’ve adjusted. Hang-drying clothes can be quite a contemplative activity, and is much better for the environment (plus it saves money on utilities). In fact, I now find it absurd that hang-drying is not the norm in the dry climes Colorado (from whence I came)!
(Note: Having said that, there are plenty of laundromats where you can use industrial-strength dryers, particularly useful if you’re washing a load of bedding during rainy season.)
While it’s okay for clothes to hang dry, culturally it is frowned upon to leave your hair wet from a shower, swimming, or even sweating. It is thought that wet hair can leave one open to harmful kinds of wind, understood in Traditional Chinese Medicine to make one susceptible to illness and disease.
For this reason, you’ll notice that anywhere you go that might involve wet hair also comes with public-use hair dryers. They are available at swimming pools, hot springs, campsites, or even classrooms! If kids go run around outside and get all sweaty, the first thing they’ll do upon returning to the classroom is line up to get their hair blow-dried!
6. Your daily purchases can win you the lottery
Yes! Simply buying a bottle of water or a candy bar at the 7-11 could potentially result in winning up to 10 million NTD! That’s a lot of money!
But, wait, what?! I don’t have to buy a lottery ticket?
No! By virtue of making a legal purchase at a shop that issues receipts, you have already entered the lottery. Your receipt is your lottery ticket (specifically, the numerical code at the top).
The lottery was initiated in the 50s in order to incentivize businesses to legally record all transactions. It is called the “Uniform Invoice Lottery” (統一發票 Tǒngyī Fāpiào), and numbers are drawn for each two-month period (January & February, for example). To find out more, check out my comprehensive guide to the Taiwan Receipt Lottery.
7. There is a big hot springs culture
Along with some great infrastructure, Taiwan has also inherited widespread onsen culture from Japanese colonialism. Given it’s location along the Pacific Ring of Fire, Taiwan is an ideal place to find hot springs. In fact, hot springs are a major source of livelihood for areas where they are abundant, such as Beitou 北投區 (a northern district of Taipei City) or Jiaoxi 礁溪鄉 (a township on the northeastern coast in Yilan).
There are many ways to experience the hot springs in Taiwan – from public foot soaking pools to private hot spring bath rentals to traditional public Japanese onsen to luxurious hot spring hotels with private facilities.
During the holidays in Taiwan (especially in the winter), the hot springs are an extremely popular getaway, so if you want to go make sure you book early!
8. Japanese food in Taiwan is really good
This, of course, makes perfect sense given Taiwan’s history, but before coming it never occurred to me that there would be such good (and such plentiful!) Japanese food in Taiwan.
You can find virtually any kind of Japanese cuisine and dining experience here – ramen, sushi, tonkatsu, shabu-shabu, gyuudon, kaiseki, yakiniku, teppanyaki, or a traditional tea house (pictured below is the Eighty-Eightea Rinbansyo in Taipei), just to name a few.
My personal favorites are the Izakaya restaurants, which are essentially Japanese pubs – places to unwind after work, drink some beer and have a delicious snack or meal, often including grilled skewered meats, deep fried foods or noodle dishes.
At night markets it is also easy to find delicious Japanese street foods such as okonomiyaki or takoyaki.
9. The queueing is very civilized (even in, especially in, the MRT!)
Some attribute this, also, to the influence of Japanese rule in Taiwan, as the Japanese are famous for order and efficiency. However, I have to give Taiwan extra special credit for this – even when I was in Japan I didn’t see such amazing queueing as in Taiwan!
If you find yourself using the MRT, Taiwan’s metro system, you’ll find that even at the busiest stations during the busiest times people line up for the escalators. Moreover, they line up to use only the right-hand side of the escalator, as the unspoken rule is that the left-hand side is strictly for people who want to walk up the escalator steps. While other places try to do this too, I’ve never seen it done so conscientiously and successfully by the entire community.
Having grown up in Hong Kong, where the MTR often feels like a free-for-all, this is such a welcome form of etiquette. I’ve never seen queueing like this in any other subway I’ve been in!
10. Pokémon GO is a big deal
When I first moved to Keelung, I started noticing that on certain days and at certain times, large numbers of people would congregate outside my apartment and huddle on the sidewalk for hours on their phones. Like, overwhelming numbers of people, just standing there. It was difficult to get in and out of the front door.
After months of utter bafflement, I finally realized that they were playing Pokémon GO, and that there was a training gym outside my house.
It’s pretty common for people to play on multiple devices. Many people have trays laid out with up to five or six phones that they’re playing on all at once. There’s even one grandpa who is the stuff of legends, and has purchased 64 phones to play on just because he loves it so much! The South China Morning Post even made a video about him:
If you enjoyed reading, check out some of my other posts about life in Taiwan: 12 Compelling Reasons to Move to Taiwan or Life in the Time of COVID: Taiwan Edition. If you have any questions or comments I’d love to hear them below! Have you been to Taiwan? What did you find surprising? What would you say is novel about where you live? As always, thanks for reading!