When visiting Taiwan, prepare for generosity

Joseph McNally

Prepare to become a recipient of Taiwanese Generosity! During your visit, you will undoubtedly receive more gift boxes stuffed with food and fruit than you could ever eat, more dinner bills paid for you before you have the chance to walk to the counter, and most importantly, courtesy and friendship from strangers and friends that will warm your heart. If you’re planning on visiting a friend’s house, consider buying a “Li” or a food or fruit gift box, as a kind, inexpensive gesture of friendship. Whether your gift boxes are filled with tasty snacks, fresh fruit, or dried meat or sea food, there are only two requirements: 1. It has to be edible 2. It has to be in a box! During Chinese New Year, in order to squeeze through the store fronts of many convenience stores, one has to wade through piles of gift boxes stacked as high as the ceiling! The custom of giving and receiving these gift boxes is so common that during the holidays, many of my friend’s living rooms and storage rooms are filled corner to corner with these boxed tokens! On one occasion, after receiving one such gift, a close friend of mine didn’t even open it, but simply gave it to another friend! Of course, she made sure that these two friends didn’t know each other!

Have you ever been eating at a restaurant, only to suddenly be disturbed by two people at a distant table, fighting over what seems to be the bill for the meal? Maybe you’re thinking, “They should have worked this out before hand, some restaurants here are pretty pricey, and …” until they get closer and your every growing Chinese vocabulary tells you that they’re saying something like, “I’m gonna pay for it!” “No, no, no. I’m going to pay for it.” The voices are getting louder now. But at least you’re not as worried as you were a minute ago. In most cases, everyone at the table basically knows who’s going to pay for the bill at the end. More often than not, foreign guests, students (with parents), or relatives from out of town are excluded from this list. Nonetheless, at almost every meal, at least a couple people manage to vigorously debate over who’s going to pay this time! Perhaps offering to pay for the bill is a kind gesture of generosity, maybe even part of the culture here. You should try it some time! Be sure to bring the cash to back it up though. As I was rushing in the local “baby market” to buy diapers for my 1-year-old daughter last week, a middle aged man beamed a smile at me. Before I knew it, I was exchanging baby tips with him and his wife, all the while playing with his small son!

As I was coming home from a walk with my wife the other day, the new guard in our apartment complex struck up a conversation with us, even commenting on how similar that he feels we look! I know in some cultures, it’s very out of the ordinary to even talk to strangers beyond a simple “how do you do,” but here in Taiwan, everyone wants you to feel that this country is one great, big, happy family, and yes, you are also a part! What I’ve learned: People here in Taiwan care about the most important thing — other people. Almost all of the friends that I have here are as rich in friendliness and warmth as Taiwan is plentiful in fresh fruit and earth-restoring rain.