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(Last update to this page: 8/11/2002)

"The Way of Tea (and Slippers)"

If you have the opportunity to visit the homes of some of the older residents of Taiwan, you're bound to get a stronger taste of the culture. You'll probably have to take off your shoes at the front door and put on plastic slippers. You'll curiously view shrines erected for the purpose of paying respects to their ancestors. You'll be invited to drink cup after cup (after cup...) of delicious, scalding oolong ("dark dragon") tea. You'll be praised on your perfect Chinese pronunciation after having only said "Hello."

You might find some things that are simply confusing. Other things may make you laugh. You'll also surely experience a few things that you might find unpleasant or even impossible to endure. Of course, the concept of "face" -- common to many Asian cultures -- creates a denial factor so great that it prevents many Taiwanese from even owing up to some of the "less cultural" elements of the local culture (see several examples below) so that they can do something to improve them. The movie Mondo Cane -- from which the name of this website is derived -- mentioned dog meat as a Taiwanese delicacy in 1962. I photographed a restaurant that still served dog meat in the year 2000. Eating dog meat was only outlawed in 2001, and I'd bet that a lot of those restaurants are still in business.

What else defines "culture" in Taiwan? Is it wearing blue plastic slippers while driving a Mercedez-Benz (which you feel you can double- or triple-park anywhere you like)? Is it having a cell phone whose ringtone plays Mozart during the performance of Swan Lake? (Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Cha bu duo!) Is it greeting people you haven't seen in a while by telling them how "fat" they've gotten?

Would you care to take a vicarious journey into the "mondo" culture of Taiwan? Do you dare?! Then read on!
"Blood in the Streets"

A Nutty Culture

If you ever take a taxi in Taiwan, you'll no doubt experience the strange scent of "betel nut." Betel nuts are the seeds of the betel palm which are usually prepared by having a slit cut in them into which a slaked lime (CaO) paste is added. They are then wrapped in a leaf. People -- usually drivers of public transportation -- chew them and (despite laws outlawing such behavior) spit the blood-colored juice everywhere -- in the street, on buildings, on the backs of cars that get in their way, etc. If you can speak the local languages (Chinese or Taiwanese), the driver of one of the aforementioned taxis might offer you a betel nut and tell you something about "Taiwan's culture." (It's probably a good idea to thank them for the offer, but politely refuse!)

The nuts come 20 per box, usually with a picture of a topless or scantily-clad girl decorating the box. They are often sold by "betel nut beauties" (bin1 lang2 xi1 shi1) -- young girls (some aged only 16 or 17) in miniskirts and ultra-high heels sitting on elevated stools behind glass windows (see below). The going price is 20 for NT$50 or 3 for NT$100. 3 for NT$100?! Well, I hear that for NT$100, at some places you can get one betel nut and squeeze two nipples on the betel nut beauty. (A Taiwanese woman once wrote e-mail to me denying that this is true, but I have seen with my own eyes a TV interview with a betel nut babe describing this activity.) Some awesome photos have recently arrived. They will be posted on a separate page ASAP!
Blood in the streets
(and in the hospital beds)...

Betel nut not only stains the lips and teeth of the users. Their spit stains something almost anywhere you look. If you chew betel nut long enough, it may even cause oral cancer. The extent of the destruction caused by betel nut goes even further. The farming of this cash crop has created many other problems for Taiwan. The roots of the betel palm don't hold much soil, and erosion occurs at a rapid rate. A lot of these trees are grown in mountainous areas, and serious landslides have occurred in these places, especially since the 9/21/99 earthquake.

It is said that the demand for betel nut in Taiwan is so great that it must be smuggled in from other countries. Yikes! What a culture!


Stage 1: Betel nut palms

Cut Betel Nuts

Stage 2: Sliced betel nuts

Betel Nut Box.JPG

Stage 3: Packaging


Stage 4: Blood in the streets!

A roadside betel nut stand
(detailed photos at right)
This photo was "stolen" from
Details from photo at left:
Buddha statue (to left of door)

Typical attire of salesgirls
Tube top, miniskirt,
dangerously high
platform shoes...

"Broken English?"

Where else but Taiwan could you get wedding photos with simply bad English or something as unbelievable as the words "Broken Promises" on them? (The real question may be "Why would anyone want to do such a thing?" Possible answer: Because it's cool! "NVTVRVLLV JCJC"?)

From a motorcycle: "Jog -- the friendly scooter on Earth."
"Erotic Sidewalk Culture"

A calling card for a "special" business. They can be found on sidewalks all over Taiwan.
Erotic KTV, Underwear MTV
(Really! Haha!)
"KTV" business cards like the one at left -- some even more revealing -- can be found all over the place: on car windshields, on motorcycle seats, on sidewalks, and in my wallet! (A Taiwanese woman -- the same one mentioned in the "Betel nut" section above -- once sent me e-mail denying this and saying that I had something wrong with me because I notice the "few" that exist. Ha! You can guess how long a car has been parked in one spot by counting the number of these things stuck on the windows!) KTV actually means "karaoke television" -- a form of entertainment popular in Taiwan and Japan which seems (unfortunately) to be spreading to the rest of the world. People sit in front of a large TV screen and sing along with the music while girls strut and sway on the video and the lyrics are shown as subtitles. Many of the KTVs in Taiwan are a little bit different. While operating under the guise of KTVs, these places are actually rinky-dink wannabe whorehouses. For outrageous fees, you may actually be able to sit next to a girl who is wearing only underwear while singing pop tunes! Wow! If you want to touch her, it'll cost you. The ads often imply that there will be much more, but I have heard that will only happen for tens of thousands of NT dollars. (As of 8/10/2002, US$1 = NT$33.67, so NT$10,000 = US$297!) (Another aside: the same Taiwanese woman mentioned above also said in her e-mail that this was another lie. Although I haven't visited these establishments personally, I have both foreign and Taiwanese friends who have, and they provided me with the details. Plus, I see the arrests of semi-nude girls and women on TV often enough to have a reasonable idea about what goes on in there.)

"Safety First!"

While in Taiwan, you might also be curious to find out that the first thought that comes to mind when "MTV" is mentioned is not Music Television. Here, it stands for "movie television" and refers to establishments where you can watch movies (and perhaps do "other" things) in private rooms. MTVs are often located in buildings where the fire exits are blocked, the extinguishers empty, and care completely forgotten. (Search for "Crazy Horse" on this page for more info about what else goes on inside these establishments.)
If you ever go to a KTV or an MTV, be careful! Your life could depend on it! Lots of Taiwan's KTVs and MTVs are veritable firetraps. Many businesses in Taiwan seem to think that putting locks and chains on their fire exits will make their places safer. Be sure to check out the situation before committing to an evening in such a place. Don't go to a KTV or an MTV in a high-rise building either. After the 9/21/1999 magnitude-7.6 earthquake, patrons at a Taipei Cash Box KTV weren't allowed to leave without first paying!
A "Hello Kitty" credit card! Ack!

"Get Off the Wagon!"

From an overseas Taiwanese: "I think [the] bandwagon mentality is fundamental to Taiwanese mentality. When something is profitable or in fashion, everybody jumps on it. It has happened in textile/clothing, plastic products/toys, personal computers, and many industries. ... One of my pet peeves is seeing grown up women (in their mid-to-late 20's) trying to be cutesy with cartoon decorations ("Hello Kitty" credit cards, Mickey Mouse, etc.)"

If you think that's bad, you should see male "gangsters" in their 30s and 40s driving around in sports cars decorated with Hello Kitty! Hello Yucky!

What do YOU have to say about any of this? Write to me!

"Suicide Solution"

On nearly a daily basis, I hear news stories of suicides in Taiwan. I purposely use the plural here because there tends to be more than one news story on the subject each day. In fact, there were an average of 6.5 suicides per day in Taiwan in 2000 -- though they aren't always in the news (source). According to the Ministry of the Interior, suicide was the number 9 killer in Taiwan in 2000 (source). In 1999, Taiwan had the 15th highest suicide rate in the world (10.36 cases per 100,000 people) (source). Reasons for such drastic actions range from failing the high school entrance exams to having a son arrested for a rape/murder committed when the boy was 15, but quite often it's because of unrequited love. Others get themselves indebted for hundreds of millions of dollars (gambling, drug addiction, failed business, unemployment, etc.), thus leaving themselves with no other way out. An alarmingly high number of police officers and mililtary conscripts in Taiwan take their own lives due to unbearable pressure from superiors. Methods include jumping off of tall buildings or high bridges, overdosing on sleeping pills, hanging by the neck, lying on the railroad tracks, asphyxiating oneself with propane gas, carbon monoxide, or by burning charcoal in a closed space, slitting the wrists, ingesting pesticides, and more.

Related links: Breaking a Suicidal Cycle | Culture and Suicide in Chinese Societies | Lacking Open Communication | A Novel and Contagious Method of Suicide
What other images would you like to see accompanying this not-always-so-scholarly examination of Taiwan's culture?

"Wouldn't you like to be a pervert, too?"

Pervert.GIF One of the most frequently heard words in Taiwan (besides "Viagra" -- Oh, wait! That's just in today's news!) is "biàn tài" or "pervert." With their very ambivalent attitudes about sexuality, it's no wonder if indeed there may actually be a large number of sexually dysfunctional and/or deprived human beings in Taiwan.
Many Western men admire the physical beauty of Asian women, but owing to this sexually ambiguous element of the culture, the word "impenetrable" can be applied (in many cases) literally, culturally, or even spiritually. It's not very hard to find a 25 or 30-year old virgin in Taiwan. The family of a Taiwanese woman can be a great obstacle to a Western man who seeks their daughter's hand. They fear all the worst possibilities: that the man will take the woman's virginity and dump her after a short time; that he will marry her and take her away to another country; or worst of all, that he will marry her but then leave her with the social scars of a divorce -- a fate worse than death (?). The media certainly doesn't do anything to help this situation. Newspapers regularly print stories saying that Western men in Taiwan just want to fuck Asian women. While it may be true in many cases, this sort of propaganda doesn't help the situation regarding relationships based on something more than physical attraction.
The media also creates an imbalance in the cross-cultural awareness of such couples. Asians, via TV, movies, and other media, are much more aware of Western culture than vice-versa. This seems to allow Taiwanese to be relatively forgiving of cross-cultural mistakes made by Westerners as well as making them less likely to make such mistakes. On the other hand, repeated "mistakes" seem difficult for them to endure, and the Westerner in Taiwan is expected to "conform or be cast out." Well, you know the old saying, "When in Taiwan, do as the Taiwanese"!
E-mail me your thoughts on Taiwan's culture.

Please let us know if any information here is inaccurate or outdated.
If you have any suggestions, comments, complaints, or criticism,
send them to us, or wither away in complacency ! ! ! ! !

Check out the most recent additions to the Mondo Taiwan website:
Sounds of Taiwan
Spot the Difference
Translations of "Western" Movie Titles