With more than 23 million inhabitants, Taiwan, a comparatively small island roughly the size of Switzerland, is one of the most densely populated countries worldwide. Roughly 98% of the country’s inhabitants belong to the ethnic group of Han Chinese, the most numerously represented subgroup of which are the Hoklo and Hakka people. Approximately 14% of the Han Chinese population living in Taiwan today is known as waishengren, a term that denotes immigrants that came to Taiwan after 1945, and their descendants. The remaining 2% are made up of aboriginal Taiwanese peoples, as well as a sizeable expat population.
If you have not had any experience with Chinese before embarking on your adventure in Taiwan, the language barrier will be one of the main obstacles for you. Granted, large parts of the nation’s educated workforce are fluent in English (which is a compulsory school subject in Taiwan) and/or other foreign languages, but do not expect your daily life to be easy — if at all manageable — without knowledge of Taiwan’s languages. Although there are English resources catering to the growing international community, such as the Taipei Times, we’d still like to stick with this advice: if you can, prepare thoroughly for your new life in Taiwan by acquiring at least some basic language skills.
The language you will without a doubt be in most contact with is Mandarin Chinese, the main language of media and broadcast as well as the native tongue of the majority of the population. Since its introduction as the official language after 1945, it has also been the lingua franca of the different demographic groups in Taiwan. As is the case in Hong Kong, for example, Traditional Chinese characters are used in Taiwan, as opposed to the Simplified Chinese characters used in mainland China. The second most significant language among the people living in Taiwan, and one that has gained more widespread use and popularity in the media, is Taiwanese Hokkien, or Taiwanese for short. You will quickly find out that Mandarin and Taiwanese are two distinct entities, and the debate on whether or not Taiwanese is a dialect of Chinese or a language of its own is usually a politically charged one.
As we have shortly mentioned in our article on moving to Taiwan, the question of whether or not there is a Taiwanese identity distinct from a general Chinese one is still a matter of debate among the population. The island’s disputed legal status and the related issue of the cross-strait relations (i.e. relations with the PRC) are the dominant political topics that you will not be able to escape while living in Taiwan.
Many surveys have been conducted on this topic, and more often than not, the results have been somewhat contradictory — it seems as if context and wording of the questions influence the outcome drastically. The question whether people living in Taiwan see themselves as Taiwanese, Chinese, or both will surely continue to be a matter of much discussion. As with most such matters, expats should probably try to steer clear of the topic in everyday conversation.
As a general rule, expats in Taiwan are mostly safe from crime. However, illicit prostitution exists in all cities of the country, and areas with barbershops or massage parlors which do not openly advertise their services in their storefront window appear to be a sign for criminal activity. Steer clear of them if possible. You are fairly unlikely to witness violent crime. Keep in mind that theft and purse-snatching are relatively widespread, so you should keep copies of your important documents in a safe place.
What you will invariably encounter when living in Taiwan, however, are earthquakes. Taiwan is located in one of the most seismically active areas in the world, and earthquakes occur on a regular basis. Not all of them are strong enough to be felt, however. If your new life in Taiwan is your first foray into an earthquake area, please take the information on this issue, provided by the Information for Foreigners in Taiwan website, to heart.
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