Why is it hard to make friends in Taiwan?4 reasons why

A guy by the name of Confucius once said that it is a delight to have friends coming from afar (有朋自遠方來不亦樂乎). In Taiwan, there seems to be a lot of friends from afar coming to these shores and settling for both the short and long-term. Yet, one key complaint that some make is that it is very difficult to interact and makes friends with locals.

This is nothing unique to Taiwan, expats and immigrants from and in every country have issues of interacting and befriending locals. This is blog post is simply addressing some of the issues that pertain to Taiwan.

I have heard every reason why possibly foreign nationals in Taiwan don’t interact with locals beyond the courteous “nihao” and maybe the odd conversation. Some people have told me Western and Eastern cultures are simply incompatible; a statement that had been ironically made by someone that chose to live in Taiwan.

I don’t think cultural barriers are the reason behind why many foreigners feel it is difficult to make a circle of Taiwanese friends. It might be an element but it isn’t the sole reason. Similarly, some people like to use the excuse that it was cultural differences that ended their relationships with locals, when in reality, it was a myriad of many reasons. Sticking to “cultural differences” is a crutch that prevents people from exploring the other reasons.

From my understanding and experience, the reason why it can be difficult to make friends with locals in Taiwan are as follows:

1. The language barrier is the major issue, not the cultural one

I don’t think I can put a percentage on the number of foreigners in Taiwan that can speak a decent amount of Mandarin, but I would be confident in saying it isn’t overly high. A lot of people who live here don’t speak much more than “zhe ge/這個” and a “bu hao yisi/不好意思”. That isn’t me passing judgment, but it is the reality for most foreigners living here. I have already written on why Mandarin isn’t worth your time unless you are committed to living in Taiwan or have a reason other than “it can help me with my job prospects” and having an Asian fetish.

Should it be much of a shock that many Taiwanese don’t want to interact with people who don’t speak their native tongue? For some Taiwanese, they might get embarrassed if their English isn’t up to scratch, and it is easier to avoid conversing in English. Most foreigners Taiwanese interact with don’t speak Mandarin very well, so I think it is more than fair for them to expect most foreigners to not have a good level of Mandarin.

Think about it, you are on a night out and you want to enjoy yourself. Do you really want to speak a foreign language that you don’t speak well to someone you just met for the entire night? There are a lot of Taiwanese who do that and speak English better than a lot of native speakers, but for the majority, it is easier to have a good time by staying in a homogeneous group of people who speak Mandarin and I can’t blame them for that.

The same can be said for many foreigners who would rather stay in a homogeneous group where English is a common language. Even if a foreign national can speak good Mandarin, it can still be difficult to keep up with conversations.

Fortunately for me, I can make conversation, but I always run into a brick wall which is:

2. Sooner or later I can’t follow the conversation with groups

Even with a good level of Mandarin, I sometimes get really lost in group conversations. One on one talks are fine and even with two people, but add a group dynamic and I’m screwed. I can’t follow the conversation or the pop culture references being said, and let’s face it, it isn’t fun having to explain these references to someone like me all the time.

It might be fun to explain a few things now and again to a friend who is in the dark, but when you are constantly asking what is this and what is that, you kind of stunt the conversation and become more of a hindrance. Eventually, you might just end of being silent and pretend to know what is going on. Both locals and foreigners have been in the these situations and it can be intimidating.

If i’m being honest, sometimes I would hijack conversations in groups in order to keep the topic on something I could follow. It was selfish, but it was also the only way I could follow what was going on.

I know a lot of Taiwanese who would agree that once they get into a group conversation, they find it hard to keep up with the pop culture references and the banter.

Other conversations I find hard to follow are also telephone calls. I don’t know what it is, but if I can’t visualize someone speaking a foreign language to me, I find it hard to understand what they are saying. Hence why I failed a lot of listening comprehension exams in my Mandarin classes.

3. You have more in common with other foreigners than you do with locals.

It doesn’t matter where you are from and where you decide to live, as a foreigner national, you are more likely to mingle with other foreign nationals than you are with locals in any country.

I know this from experience and from conversations with foreign nationals in Ireland. Although it isn’t always true, it is still common.

Foreigners in Taiwan are from a wide range of countries that can have many and few things in common, culturally and linguistically. Yet, when put into the situation of being a foreign national in Taiwan, many foreigners will congregate together, despite being from so many different backgrounds.

Taking the example of exchange students, they are more likely to interact with other exchange students than they are with locals. Think about it, they are all in a new country, learning a new language, with the same challenges and issues.

It is very hard to explain and discuss visa problems and cultural issues to someone who doesn’t know anything about that, i.e a local. When they are in the company of other foreigners, they are able to discuss these challenges and in some way, they feel a sense of comradery.

As an exchange student in China and a Master’s student in Taiwan, I genuinely feel that I am able to voice my own challenges and sense of disconnection with other foreign students than I am with locals who don’t understand it.

The funny thing is, you probably would be more likely to make friends with Taiwanese if you met them outside of Taiwan. If you are both in the same boat as exchange students, expats or on a holiday work visa, you will have more in common.

4. Not hanging with the right people

Sometimes, the people that are immediate to us aren’t always the people we should spend time with. Classmates, work colleagues, neighbours and friends of friends are all easier to make acquaintances with, but if you have nothing in common or have different expectations for what fun is, you are not going to get along very well.

For some people, having fun is KTV and a small bit of alcohol. For others, it is getting wasted drunk in a dive bar. For me, it is Revolver, Speakeasy, On Tap or BeerGeek with friends and strangers enjoying the banter.

If you want to hang out with people, make sure you have something in common with them besides working, studying or living together. That might sound like common sense, but when it is convenient to make plans with people close to you, you might only ever try to hang out with people like this, and not people who might have the same interests with you.

You should check out events going on in your city on Facebook and look up what is happening on meetup.com. You are far more likely to make friends with people that share a hobby or interest. I have met most of my local friends doing things that I like doing. From live music, second hand markets (I know, very hipster) to joining in meetups and events, you will find a myriad of opportunities to meet like-minded people and not depend on people that are closest to you, but share nothing in common with you.

One trap I fell into was having language exchanges with people I had nothing in common with. The most effective way to have a language exchange is with people on a topic you are both interested in. It is not enough to simply want to learn the other person’s language, you need to have a common ground for wanting to meet up besides language, because frankly, language exchange is always one-sided anyway.

5. Closing Thought

For some of you reading this, you might be saying “I have a circle of Taiwanese friends” and what I am saying is flawed. I am not here to suggest it is impossible to befriend locals, but that there is at least some reasoning behind why it isn’t always easy to mingle with a crowd of locals on a night out or in your workplace or university.

From linguistic barriers, mingling with other foreign nationals who are experiencing the same transition to Taiwan, to not looking in the right places for friends, there are many reasons why people don’t make friends with locals in Taiwan.

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4 Comments

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  1. Well written. Adding my two cents: From my experience traveling around many parts of the world, I’ve found that it’s easier to talk, relate, and possibly befriend anyone in the world who isn’t Oriental (not going to say Asian because I can relate to Russians, Indians, etc.). It’s about upbringing and national conditioning (I agree that it has nothing to do with culture, unless your culture is prone to being ethnocentric, which some are) that shape how people tick as they develop as a person. As a teacher, I find it’s much easier to relate to the Taiwanese elementary kids I teach because they haven’t been fully indoctrinated in the national way of thinking. My observations after traveling have found that most Orientals (not by DNA but from national upbringing) have a way of thinking and operating that is very different from the rest of the world. I related and befriended people from all over the world when I was traveling, both locals and foreign nationals whom weren’t Oriental. You may disagree, but from my first-hand experiences, I’ve found that it’s very hard to comfortably relate and befriend most Orientals because of their national conditioning. That’s a shame because I have always liked conversing with locals and getting to know all different types of people around the world. My close Taiwanese friend happened to go to university in Australia for 8 years, so I’m able to relate and comfortably hangout with him because he broke out of the national bubble. Every country has a national bubble mentality, but Orientals’ seems to be more intricate. I’m not saying that there is something wrong with Orientals’ national conditioning per say, I’m just saying that it closes them off from relating to the rest of the world that thinks and operates differently. And don’t get me wrong, I love Taiwanese and other Orientals even if I don’t relate with them.

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  2. It doesn’t matter what race you are, what’s your DNA, what culture you have, it all boils down to what your national upbringing is that shapes your mentality. Of course, there are always those few individuals that break the mold and think their own way despite national brainwashing.

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  3. Age and responsibilities (having dependents) will dwarf all of those things. You can’t go out to the pub every night to piss your money away when you have to get up at 6am for work every weekday morning. And then 3am on Saturdays.

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  4. As a Taiwanese person that grew up overseas, that speaks perfect mandarin, to me culture is the biggest factor. For my first 4 years in Taiwan I really made a huge effort to befriend locals. I worked in various Taiwanese companies. I had lunch with my colleagues everyday, at night I’d hang out with them, go to KTVs, hotpot dinners, coffee, etc. At one point I realized that I just don’t enjoy having conversations with them any more. I even did my millitary service and I also did my very best to befriend other conscripts during that year. In my final four years in Taiwan I gave up and pretty much hang out exclusively with foreigners.

    Here are some factors:
    1. Topics of conversations. Simply I had nothing in common with most Taiwanese. My ex-colleagues could talk about online shopping for an hour, or talk about Korean soap operas, obsession with food and restaurants. For me I could never relate to them, as culturally we are so different. For me its unbelievable that they’ve never seen the Godfather films, or heard of Green Day or U2. Also its nigh impossible to talk to them about sports. I love to travel but most Taiwanese only go to neighbouring countries or at most United States, more often than not in awful tour groups.

    2. Humour. Taiwanese do not have the concept of many things we consider humorous in the west. Such as sarcasm, irony, euphemism, etc. Often I speak sarcastically and they think I”m stating the obvious or simply being stupid.

    3. Superstition. Taiwanese are incredibly superstitious and we in the west tend to be more logical. I listened to my ex-colleagues talk about marriage rituals and do this and that, eat this and that to avoid cancer (they’ve told me to soak onions in red wine is an example), or even tell ghost stories for hours. I simply cannot tolerate this kind of conversation.

    4. Believing in stereotypes, often to the point of bigotry. Taiwanese revolve their lives around stereotypes of foreigners. They’d make horrible comments about brown skin people. Especially people from India, South East Asia, Africa. They feel they are superior and classist. Often its just ignorance and poor education. For example in my company we had a visitor from the US head office and he is an African American. One colleague went up to him and said: do you play basketball? do you like chicken?

    5. Hypocrisy
    For example: They’d say westerners in Taiwan should be openminded and try stinky tofu, gaoliang etc. While themselves overseas on business trips they stick to Chinese restaurants and refuse to try any foreign food. They pride themselves on being friendly and hospitable people, yet they treat their Filipino housekeepers like slaves.

    After 8 years, despite having a decent career and good friends, I decided to move out of Taiwan. As simply I couldn’t stand the people (the living environment is another factor). Working with Taiwanese people is whole other story that is even more complicated.

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