What Foreigners Notice About Taipei Might Surprise Taiwanese People

(Photo credit: chrystal-clear.com)
(Photo credit: chrystal-clear.com)
(Photo credit: chrystal-clear.com)

As a foreigner arriving to Taipei for the first time, you are sure to notice three things:

  1. The lack of public garbage cans.
  2. Musical garbage trucks.
  3. It’s the safest big city you’ve ever been to.

This post addresses #3.

In what other big city can you ride the subway with your new iPhone and several thousand NT dollars in your back pocket during rush hour and expect it to still be there when you get off? 

You might presume to find safety threats lurking in dark alleys in other big cities, but not in Taipei.

My best guess as to why this is the case has to do with Taiwanese culture and customs.

Taiwanese people are usually timid in public. They do not make eye contact with strangers. Body contact is reserved for one’s most intimate relationships, so even on a crowded bus or train you won’t be groped or subjected to someone pressing their body onto you.

Taiwanese people also do not typically misuse or abuse public property. My guess is that this is a byproduct of a collective, group-oriented culture. For example, the MRT is immaculate, there is not graffiti or defacing of any kind.

Taipei is chock full of security cameras. It’s like a crime-fighting version of the paparazzi has installed itself all over the city, keeping a watchful eye in case of any mischief. But it makes me chuckle. I imagine someone watching hours and hours of video surveillance footage of people being courteous and respectful of each other and public property.

Despite all of this, Taiwanese people seem to be extremely worried and fearful of their safety. There is a deep seated mistrust of anyone that is not familiar. For example, it’s rare for Taiwanese people to invite acquaintances into their homes.

In fact, nearly every Taiwanese person that I have told about Couchsurfing has asked, shocked, “But is that safe!?”

And when I’ve asked my Taiwanese friends why there are so many security cameras they tell me, “For safety.”

In all fairness, crime does exist in Taipei. But it’s rarely the classic, violent type. Usually crimes consist of businesses getting ripped off after hours, or some scam that tricks you into parting with your money. But mundane thievery like muggings and pickpockets are  uncommon, as is personal violence.

The sad irony is, Taiwanese people in Taipei are living in one of the safest big cities in the world, and yet they feel unsafe. To me, I feel extremely carefree and lucky to be living in such a safe haven!

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  1. About #3, I think it largely has to do with the legacy left by the Japanese occupation. A lot of what you mention, cleanliness in the MRT, respect of public property, etc… echoes what you’ll find in Japan.

    • Interesting. I’ve heard this reasoning before. It amazes me that the Japanese, in only 50 or so years, had such a profound and lasting influence on Taiwanese culture. Thanks for sharing your comment and widening the discussion!

  2. Interesting!

    I didn’t notice the lack of public garbage cans and noticed the musical garbage trucks first on my fourth stop in Taiwan in Makung.

    I also felt very safe in Taipei/Taiwan.

    What three things I noticed first?

    – the area around the train station can be VERY confusing if you arrive, don’t speak Chinese and have no idea which exit to take. It took me over an hour to find my small hotel which is maybe 150 metres from the station.

    – little bakeries that over very good food. During my first two days I struggled to find “food” which I knew what it was. No, I don’t visit McD and such. So I often headed to those “self-service” bakeries to help myself.

    – great public transportsystem, which is easy to understand even if you don’t speak the language. No matter if you use MRT, local train, local bus or long distance trains. Staff at central train station is very helpful in these matters.

  3. Taiwanese people do not trust strangers as much as the U.S. people do. I think this can be improved, and will be improved. If you go to China, you’ll find that people do not trust strangers even more.

    Prof. Du Wei-Ming in Harvard U. called the average mutual trust as a kind of social capital. In places with high social capital like the U.S. or Japan, people tend to trust others, and the society works in a way of low surveillance. This increase the efficiency as a total. I think this is one of the reason why the developed countries have such high income.

    As a Taiwanese, I remember the lessons we learned from our parents was that we should not trust strangers. The collective fear was high in old days when lots of children were kidnapped and sold as slaves or prostitutes. Also people tend to look at the bad parts of the society, so they feel insecure — I feel sad about this, but before I went to the U.S., this is also the way I did.

    • Mutual trust as social capital? Interesting! Thanks for sharing that idea here! I think parents all over the world try to protect their children from harm. I remember my parents telling me not to trust strangers. Yet, I observed them engage in small talk with strangers and extend trust to strangers when they felt safe doing so. It wasn’t such a rigid, hard line. Anyway, thanks again for sharing your comment and widening the scope of the conversation! 🙂

    • Ha! Great point! Although I tend to believe that the news focuses on criminal activity to attract viewers and ratings, and does not necessarily reflect the overall reality for most people most of the time.

      • I agree with both of you, but the news points out that there is stabbings, killings, and rapes that go on everyday.

        Also, i really don’t think that the reason why Taiwanese people don’t invite friends back to their homes has to do with safety. It has to do with the fact that most taiwanese homes are not suited for entertaining, and most unmarried people still live with their parents.

  4. The reason the MRT is clean is because there is a 10000 NTD fine for eating and drinking. When the starting salary is 22000 NTD, it’s a lot of money.

    You will see graffiti in Taipei, mostly on the pull down metal doors of stores. It’s not visible in the day, but during holidays it’s more noticeable.

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