Lonely Americans In Taiwan: Why Making Friends Is Harder Than We Thought

Before I came to Taiwan, I imagined living here would be a lot of fun and I would make new local friends quickly and easily. This had always been the case wherever I’ve gone, and I assumed Taiwan would be no exception. However, after arriving to Taipei I soon realized I was wrong. I wrote about this in a post called How To Make Friends In Taiwan. Fortunately for me I am a quick learner, and I began to meet Taiwanese people and get acquainted.

However, after more than a year later, I felt like nearly all of my acquaintances had still not converted to deeper friendship, and continued to lack meaningful connection and closeness. I attributed this to “cultural differences” which I explored in a post called Taiwanese People Are Superficial and Fake? A Western Perspective.

I’m still searching to unravel the mysteries of closeness and connection in Taiwanese culture. Obviously people here form strong bonds, despite my inability to. In my search to understand, I shared my feelings and experience with my Chinese tutor. He is also American, like me. But unlike me, he speaks very fluent Chinese. In the video above he shares his perspective (in Chinese! with English subtitles) about the challenges of making friends in Taiwan.

If you have any personal stories, insights, or advice for me on this topic, please share in the comments. Thank you!

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  1. British is far more difficult than Taiwanese. I have known that many international students studying in London for a year and can hardly make a British friend.

  2. I think finding common interests is really important when making new friends. And also, from my experiences, most Taiwanese people see foreigners as language exchange partners only, nothing more. Maybe its because they feel like foreigners won’t be staying in Taiwan for too long, so there’s really no point in keeping a close relationship/friendship with them. But this is just my two cents, I could be wrong, I don’t have many foreign friends.

  3. How long has it been since he learn Chinese? There are some tones that are a bit off but it’s very impressive. Where is he a native of?

    He doesn’t act very Western. He feels very Taiwanese to me. That means he doesn’t look “fake”. That’s from my Asian point of (distorted) view obviously, no offense to Westerners. Those very energetic oh-how-are-you-doing-*shake hands*” “diplomatic responses” kind of put me off. So to me I think he probably find it easier to make friends.

    But then what do I know. I can’t say I’ve had a close Western friend. I only speak about the the initial knee-jerk reaction.

    Secondly cultural background is definitely an issue. It’s not the language issue per se but walking into a new society it’s like being totally cultural illiterate and there are things that you just don’t relate to. You can be missing the “hey we are in the same gang” kind of feeling.

    Thirdly I think Taiwanese friends have these really hard-bound circles it’s hard to break even among Taiwanese. A Taiwanese’s high school friends are not likely to to to know his/her college friends. If he/she invite both group of people to the same event, they’re not as open to new friendships and they will split into two groups, and feel awkward for both groups.

    • I’m not really sure. I think different people have different experiences. I would hesitate to pin it exclusively on Taiwanese people or American people, I think it’s a complex issue with a lot of variables. I’m curious to know what others might think?

      • I think it relates to all cultures, but in Asia it just stands out so much more. I have moved from Southern Italy to Northern Italy and approaching friends is totally different and so much harder. Who would have thought it possible ? I think that age enters a general equation as well. Anyway a very interesting topic, I would love to hear more about it. It is interesting and maybe little discussed but so important in my opinion.

  4. But most of my friends are willing to make friends with foreigners, most local Taiwanese might be shier and more conservative than you think or they think that foreigners are also hard to go into deeper friendship as well… I don’t know, maybe most of them feel uneasy when they are with people from other countries?

  5. I have to give you guys credits for trying and digging deeper into this subject. It would be so easy to shrug off and blame cultural difference for everything and stop right there. I applaud you for the effort.

    As a Taiwanese who now lives overseas, I have a few guesses. This can be totally off, so please take my opinion on this with a grain of salt.

    When I was growing up, English served two functions, to get a good score and/or to know foreigners. People who took English as a learning subject were mainly interested in getting good grade, or people who took English as a way to know foreigners were mostly attracted to the idea of hanging out with foreigners in a very superficial way. Neither results a meaningful channel.

    Later in life, people who took English as a learning subject were easily embarrassed when communication didn’t go as well as they thought. (Most of time it doesn’t. Knowing the autonomy of a language doesn’t always guarantee good conversations in the first few tries) so they stopped. People who were interested in hanging out with foreigners often amplified the bad stereotype we had at that time that foreigners just wanted to get in bed with locals. I know there is a cultural difference defining a relationship and the accusation is not fair in many cases, however, it was a common belief back then. With that being said, many Taiwanese would not want to get involved with foreigners.

    Both you and your tutor want meaningful friendships. However, most meaningful “grown up” friendship need many many meaningful communications. I am not talking about deep subjects. I am talking about a right comment right on the spot, or a right worded encouragement at a right time, that sort of thing. Making a meaningful friendship as an adult, or to be specific, as a worldly adult is never easy. When I moved overseas after college, I spent three years just to know “things”. Only after four years I started to develop an opinion and taste for this type of deeper understanding regarding to the specific environment that I was in. To my experience, that type of deeper understanding is very needed when establishing a meaningful friendship as an adult. It’s not difficult to find people to hang out with, but it takes a lot longer and lots of effort to have a fulfilled connection.

    Also, the education system in Taiwan is the army style (or was, to the wishful thinking). It’s designed with the collective body in mind. It isn’t meant to define and develop an individual, it is more toward a system to train various levels of technicians. Therefore you don’t get an original opinion very often because people mostly just repeat what they learned or heard. Thus you might feel they are fake and superficial ( borrowing the words you used in one of your articles), or simply don’t feel the “click” that a bonded friendship needs.

    I just got back from my annual trip to TW. I noticed there seem to have a different breed of foreigners in TW now. They are more reserved and wanted to fit in. As a Taiwanese, I appreciate the attitude. To get a full benefit of knowing a culture that you are not born in, to fit in opens many doors to a deeper understanding and appreciation. I made an effort to act the part when I move to a different culture, and I know that’s way way harder than just partying and showing photos on facebook. I am lucky enough to have many people who helped me along the way. If it sounds like a good idea to you, I can introduce some of my friends to you or/and your tutor ( I know this is an old post so the issue might be dated). It might not result anything meaningful, but again, you never know.


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