Taiwanese Mandarin and Hokkien

Traveling to a country different than the one you were born in can often involve dealing with a language barrier.


In my case, I’ve found this to be too true. Although a large amount of people in Taipei can speak a decent amount of English, it is common for people outside the city to know less, and in both situations there is still not much room for lengthy communication.

I stand by the statement made by Rita Mae Brown when she said that, “Language is the road map of a culture.  It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.”

Not understanding a certain language can leave you feeling all of the above, but I really believe that you cannot completely understand another culture, or really get to know the people you meet from it it, until you speak their language.

Sure I can have basic conversations with Taiwanese people but even not being able to ask a sales person more than “How much for this?” in Mandarin bothers me.

And just when I thought I was starting to be able to detect the sound of Mandarin. I was walking down my street one day past a place where an elderly man owns a small fruit market.


He was sitting close to the street talking to what looked like his close friend, only it didn’t sound like Mandarin. After consulting with one of my Taiwanese friends they suggested it was likely Hokkien, which instantly made me wonder, what is Hokkien?

Hokkien is a dialect that descended from old mainstream Chinese. And after some research I realized there’s several variants of the Hokkien language, Taiwanese Hokkien just happens to be one of them! But Medan Hokkien and Singaporean Hokkien also exist as spoken languages in parts of Indonesia today!

The majority of the people who continue this language are elderly Chinese men and women, as Mandarin has become the more commonly used standard. Despite this, author Kuan Eng has created, “My First Book of Hokkien Words” to help continue and teach Singaporean youth the language. hokkien

If you think Mandarin sounds difficult to learn consider the fact that Hokkien has 8 tones, instead of 4 tones like Mandarin. These tones come with strict rules of pronunciation that I think native speakers would agree are no piece of cake to learn.

Mandarin and Hokkien represent just one case of language differences. However there’s even differences between the Mandarin spoken in mainland China and Taiwan!

Often the same words are used but mean completely different things, or the words are simply completely different! Take for example the word “pineapple.” In China it is called bo luo but in Taiwan it is referred to as feng li.

For more on those differences, check out this video.

With so many languages in South Asia that were previously unbeknownst to me, it’s been an interesting struggle to try and learn some basic phrases and comprehend the differences between each.

(Don’t even get me started on the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin)

However this difficult learning experience made me realize that had I never taken this amazing opportunity to travel and work abroad I would likely still have no knowledge of these languages or their existence.

In North America the popular mindset is that English can get you anywhere, and through any circumstance, but I’m here to tell you that simply knowing English will not provide you with a truly deep experience while you travel, so if you have the time and the means, the best advice I can give would be: learn another language. 

For more info about Hokkien:



A Drive for Democracy

Recognize the monument pictured above?

Its the entrance to Liberty Square in Taipei’s Zhongzheng District, and it acts as a reminder of the development of democracy in Taiwan. In fact, the country recently elected a female President, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, to be its leader.

Let’s face it, no democracy is perfect. However, what I think a lot of  North American people don’t realize (my former self included) is that Taiwan is in fact a democratic country, separate from its communist neighbour China.

Recently, I visited Hong Kong, a state that in 1997 was released by the UK back to China. I absolutely adored my time on the skyscraper island as I was able to experience the perfect balance of city and nature type adventures.


(Stay tuned for an article on my favourite excursion)

During my time in Hong Kong I noticed some differences between it and Taipei, Taiwan:

  • The Subway system in Hong Kong is referred to as MTR (Mass Transit Railway opened 1979), but Taipei took a hipster approach, and named their’s MRT (short for Taipei Rapid Metro opened in 1997).
  • Both have separate versions of delicious tea, HK’s being Lai Cha Tea and Taiwan’s being Pearl Milk Tea.
  • Hong Kong drives on the left side of the street and Taiwan the right.
  • In Hong Kong the majority speak Cantonese, while in Taiwan the majority speak Mandarin.

Yet similar to Taipei, the mainland of Hong Kong is beaming with extremely impressive infrastructure, amazing shopping, and delicious restaurants. Taiwan and Hong Kong are both accented by beautiful mountains and smaller islands.

Hong Kong is an overall more international city, that actually just had an important political election.

Politics. Its the topic that isolates family members, ruins friendships, and divides nations. It’s a complicated subject to say the least, and one that I do not pretend to know much about, especially in regards to a country that I just began living in.


But what I do know is that there are some important differences between Taiwan’s and Hong Kong’s current political structures and policies.

Currently, Taiwan enjoys a separate identity and constitution from the Republic of China. They use a first past the post electoral system, and as proven in the past election, the majority of citizens do not wish to unite with mainland China.

Although Hong Kong exercises autonomy, their situation is a little more complicated with a policy of “one country, two systems” in accordance with mainland China.

Since 2014, where young Hong Konger’s held mass street protests demanding universal suffrage (the right for all citizens to vote), the path to political independence from China is starting to become more clear, as in its most recent semi-democratic election (to determine Hong Kong’s Legislative Council) one elected political party’s leader is 23 years old.

However in response the Chinese government has announced that Hong Kong must accept Beijing’s control and oversight, their basic message being that ultimately they hold power and jurisdiction over Hong Kong.

Yet with voter turn out rising 5% in this past election and younger citizens with democratic ideals becoming involved in the countries politics, there is definitely hope that one day, despite the constraint of “one country, two systems”  Hong Kong will be able to establish a true independent democracy, similar to that of Taiwan’s.

Demonstrators hold signs and umbrellas in support of Hong Kong's pro-democracy marches, at Times Square in New York

Things are about to get interesting: the millennials have spoken, attitudes are changing, and just like the citizens of Taiwan, Hong Konger’s have demanded their rights.

Okay people now here get information:

(^to the tune of Beyoncé’s formation, obviously)












The Ghost Festival

As August comes to an end I wanted to highlight what this month really means to the majority of the people living in Taiwan.

The Hungry Ghost Festival in Taiwan, also known as Zhong Yuan Jie ( 盂蘭節), is a traditional Buddhist and Taoist festival. In the Chinese calendar, (which is lunisolar) the Ghost Festival is on the 15th night of the seventh month but according to the Gregorian calendar, which is used in Taiwan, it occurs on the 15th night of the eighth month.


During this month it is believed by many that ghosts and spirits, even those of deceased ancestors, visit the living. It is said there are two kinds of spirit that visit: the good, called shén (神) and the bad, called guĭ (鬼).

Bad spirits are described as those who died an untimely death. To appease their suffering, feasts are prepared in their honour so that no harm may come towards family members still living. Large meals, often of the vegetarian variety, are placed on long tables that are made up as if someone is actually about to eat from them!  Water and towels can also be left for dead spirits, so that they may cleanse themselves.

Other rituals can include burning incense, joss paper, and releasing miniature paper boats and lanterns on water, which signifies giving directions to the ghosts, spirits, or ancestors who may be lost in the spirit world.


On the last day of the month it is said that the ghost gate to the world of the living closes. To conclude Ghost Month or Zhong Yuan Jie, there is an event called grappling with the ghosts, held each year in the city of Toucheng, in the province of Yilan.

Picture a real life version of Disney’s Mulan, recall the scene where she climbs up the tree trunk, except now its a greased up tree trunk  with not just one person but a group of Taiwanese men trying to get to the top using only a cloth and each other to boost them up.

mulan-traininggrappling with ghosts

After they reach the top they must swing themselves over an elevated platform, and then scramble up bamboo lattices to be the first to cut down a flag. The team who wins receives cash prizes and admiration! Often winners sell the flags to fishing boat captains who believe that the flags will protect their boats and employees through another year.

Crowds of people gather to watch the different teams, where it seems both food and music is enjoyed. Here’s footage from last years event: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GunohPGgqk

In case you want to visit Taiwan during this month, here’s an interesting list of just some activities that you should and/ or shouldn’t do:

1.DON’T go swimming : arguably the most popularly followed rule, it is believed evil spirits who may have drowned will try to gain a chance at rebirth.

On the plus side, if you’re a nonbeliever you’ll have the beach to yourself.

2. DON’T just turn your head around if someone pats you on the shoulder

It is believed that the living have two protective flames, one on each shoulder. If a ghost pats you on the back and you only turn your head, you’ll snuff out a protective flame, thus making you vulnerable. To avoid this, turn the whole body at once instead of just the head.

3. DO consider being a vegetarian for the month

Those of the Buddhist faith abide by this to help absolve the sufferings of the deceased.

Luckily, Taiwan has an abundance of yummy vegetarian restaurants to choose from. 

4. DO burn hell notes

Burning joss (blank) paper on the sidewalk or in front of ones house is an offering to ones ancestors and on the 15th is considered a gesture of good will towards lonely spirits.


And probably my favourite,


5. DON’T pee on a tree!

Apparently, it is believed that urinating on a tree could anger tree spirits who will seek vengeance upon you!

Personal belief here but you should probably always follow this one? Just saying…


Want to learn more? Continue your quest for knowledge here:

Ghost Festival( Hungry Ghost Festival )


Top 10 taboos to avoid during Ghost Month in Taiwan


Chinese Vocabulary for Ghost Month


Grappling With the Ghosts