The territory covered by a “cultural guide” can be both vast and devious. There are subtleties to navigate, generalizations to make, and, to be sure, a lot of space to cover. Amy Liu gallivants through this tricky terrain with gusto. Taiwan A to Z, The Essential Cultural Guide is at once a dictionary, menu, sociology text, travel guide, history, brochure and easy read. Mostly, it’s the inside scoop in manageable doses, alphabetized, too.
Make no mistake, Liu writes about her beloved island through a rose-tinted pane — not that this makes her accounts any less appetizing; she knows the way to the heart is through the stomach. F is for “Friendly Taiwanese,” a gimmicky chapter that may be difficult to digest (more on that later), but also for “Fruit Paradise,” a mouthwatering compilation ranging from wax apples to star fruits.
Liu’s guide entices readers with the best of Taiwanese cuisine, from pearl milk tea (珍珠奶茶) to fantuan (飯糰), or sticky glutinous rice rolls, to eight different varieties of dumplings. As for xiao chi (小吃), or snacks, Liu guides visitors to the homes of signature dishes: Hualien for mochi (麻糬), Keelung for tempura, Shenkeng for stinky tofu. To eat Taiwanese fare, Liu offers a chapter on using the country’s utensil of choice, though it may be difficult to translate the painstaking directions into actual skill with chopsticks.
Equally tricky to grasp may be mannerisms intuitive for native Taiwanese, but Liu treats these more subtle aspects of culture with good humor. “I” is for “Indirect Communication — How Taiwanese express themselves.” “The Taiwanese value indirect communication and they don’t spell out everything,” Liu writes, before translating a few phrases. “Yes,” for example, frequently means “I hear you” and is more popular than the only reluctantly uttered “no.”
The “Etiquette” chapter is perhaps the guide’s most practical. Caveats against impaling a bowl of rice with chopsticks (only done at funerals) or proffering business cards with only one hand are valuable tidbits. Some rules stem from common sense — don’t pick up food then put it back in the dish — but others — do not use chopsticks to spear food and don’t write on someone’s business card (it represents their face) — could be a newcomer’s saving grace.
Other must-reads fall under P, for “People of Taiwan,” which gives a broad overview of the island’s history and demographics, or under B, for “Betel Nut Beauties,” Taiwan’s notorious hawkers of the chewable nut popular for its tobacco-like buzz, as well as of revealing marketing strategies. Handy details are scattered here and there. Ganbei (乾杯), for example, means “bottoms up” and should be uttered with the generous toasting inevitable at formal business dinners.
If the guide does not shy from generalization, it also isn’t burdened by the need to dissect all its claims. It must be said, however, that characterizations such as, “ABCs by and large are well-educated, energetic, adventurous, and independent,” are startling, to say the least. It might be better to encounter “Friendly Taiwanese” in person, rather than in words stating, “Indeed the general impression … is that the Taiwanese are, among other things, friendly, polite, hard-working, kind, passionate, easy-going, reliable, open, and flexible.”
Liu’s social studies are her most ambitious. For the most part, it boils down to “Westerners value individualism, while Taiwanese respect group-orientation.” In “Identity, ‘I’ or ‘We’ — it all starts from the nursery.” Liu describes the difference between Taiwanese parents, who sleep in the same room or even bed as their children (sometimes at the price of the father’s exile to another room) versus Western families, who often have their babies sleep alone starting on the first day in order to instill independence.