Don’t invite death to dinner

Hold on

Hold on

Becky Husky

When in Taiwan, don’t just stick your chopsticks in the rice bowl.

In any culture, there are certain norms and customs a foreigner must watch out for. My current stay in Taiwan has been an interesting lesson in behavior. Ignorance of something such as chopstick etiquette could lead to a bit of embarrassment.

After eating a meal in Taiwan, it is important to never leave your chopsticks standing up in the bowl. This action is symbolic of incense sticks used at funerals and in temples. It is a sign of bad luck and is the equivalent of inviting the dead to dine at your table. Instead, chopsticks should be laid across the top of the bowl or in a chopstick holder. During my first few restaurant outings, I often forgot this simple rule. But, an uneasy glance from a neighboring diner was always enough to spark my memory.

Another thing to remember while dining out is the custom of tipping. In the United States, tipping is most often expected and becomes habitual. Even in a foreign country, I find the urge to drop a few bills onto the table. But, on the island of Taiwan, tipping in most restaurants is seen as an offense. In fact, tips are usually only given to bellhops at expensive hotels. Overall, tipping seems to be a custom not adopted by the Taiwanese.

At home, I beckon a person with my palm turned upward while wiggling my hand or a single finger back and forth. In Taiwan, this same gesture is used only for animals, and is considered rude when used on a person. Instead, a person beckons by turning the palm down and making a sort of scratching motion with the fingers. This motion resembles the American gesture for “shoo.” I often think people are shooing me away, when really they’re calling me over.

Over the past two months, I have learned that wearing sandals is much more convenient than wearing lace up shoes. Here, it is customary to remove your shoes when entering a person’s home or other specified places. The classroom where I teach my English classes is one of these places. At first, it seemed quite odd, showing my bare feet to a room full of students. But, I have since learned to bring along a pair of slippers and don’t mind the excuse to don something cozy.

Aside from these everyday norms, I have also discovered certain Taiwanese superstitions that aren’t so obvious. For example, I have heard that it is bad luck to give someone an umbrella. Apparently, the Chinese word for umbrella is very similar to the phrase “to break apart.” So, offering this taboo gift to a friend could be taken as an omen that you will never meet again. Similarly, it is also bad luck to present a friend with a clock or a handkerchief. But fortunately, the bad luck of such a gift can be offset if the receiver offers the giver a small amount of money, making the exchange a purchase rather than a gift.

Learning bits of Taiwan customs is something I enjoy day to day. I have successfully remembered where to place my shoes and where not to place my chopsticks. Now, I just need to remember not to give anyone an umbrella.