Asia and The West are different in many ways, and whichever country you travel to, you should do as much research as you can before you go. This will help you avoid frustration, confusion, and even embarrassment.
One thing that helps first-time TEFL Teachers avoid culture shock, is a familiarity (or at least moderate understanding) of the culture they find themselves in.
Today's article is going to use Taiwan as an example, to highlight some of the things you might experience when teaching English in Asia. Not every country is going to have the same cultural differences, but Taiwan is a great example, as it is a bit of a mixture of several cultures.
Let's start with the most positive aspect of Taiwanese culture, the high level of friendliness they offer towards foreigners. It seems like the newer you are to the island, the more accommodating they'll be. Everyone gets treated well, but Taiwanese will go above and beyond when they know somebody is new and likely in need of extra help.
Don't be surprised either, if you're invited to dinner, to somebody's house, or to join in another activity after only knowing a local for a short time. They just want to help you feel at home.
If you are invited to something like the above, then you'll probably be wondering what's an appropriate gift to take. Taiwanese aren't as big on wine or alcohol as other countries, so you'd be better off taking fruit or cookies as a gift.
We published another article that covered the concept of face in more detail, but it warrants mention again here.
The general concept of "face" is about being polite and not losing your temper or expressing anger in public. There are more nuances to it than that, but to the uninitiated foreigner, you only really need to worry about being courteous and polite.
These days though, a lot of Taiwanese people will be aware that foreigners might not know all the rules and traditions of their culture, so they are generally excused from this concept. It's still better to avoid losing face yourself, or making someone lose face.
On a more everyday level, you'll probably notice that people tend to "laugh off" or nervously giggle when there is a cause for embarrassment. As frustrating as this can be for you, it doesn't mean they're not taking something seriously, just that they're trying to save face.
As this article mentions, the best thing to do is just smile back.
The younger generation will be much more likely to shake hands, particularly in Taipei in a business situation, but you will still notice that a lot of people will wave or nod as a greeting.
Many Taiwanese men and women will shake hands when meeting a foreigner, but be advised that overly strong handshakes are considered excessive.
Asking "How Are You?"
A lot of people in Taiwan will ask "Have you eaten?" instead of "How are you?". This can be confusing at first, as you may think they're offering you food. The best answer is just "Yes I have".
This is actually the Chinese culture's equivalent of asking "How are you?", because it's inferred that if you've eaten, you're fine.
You might also find that Taiwanese don't necessarily ask "How are you?" or "How was your day?" as readily as westerners do. This isn't a sign that they're uninterested. They might find it strange themselves that you're always asking, as if something might be wrong.
If In Doubt - Be Polite
At the end of the day, when learning a new culture, you might well make the occasional faux pas. Generally, Taiwanese are very polite and understanding, and are lenient towards foreigners when it comes to their culture. They might politely point out to you when you've done something wrong or made a mistake, and will actually enjoy telling you a little bit about their culture and asking about yours.
The younger generation in particular will embrace the differences, so you really needn't worry about doing anything particularly taboo. As long as you are sensitive to people's moods and reactions, you should be fine.