Tips from an American on on driving in Taiwan

Although I have been a passenger in a car many times, I thank my lucky stars that I have never had to be the person behind the wheel in Taiwan. But if you decide you want to give it a shot, you might want to pick up some driving tips from an American who spent time in Taiwan as an English teacher, part of his Teaching English in Taiwan site. My conclusion is simply that one should merely avoid driving entirely.

The text is largely disconnected from the pictures, but that's okay. The pictures just bring back memories of Taiwan in both its scenic and not-so-scenic glory.

In the section on learning Chinese, he remarks:

Most foreigners go through a difficult phase after they know some Chinese, in which they think they are speaking Chinese, but actually, because their tones are unclear, they are speaking gibberish which the locals literally cannot understand. ...

You will know that your Chinese tones have arrived when you hear another foreigner speaking during this phase of her learning, and you discover that you can't understand a word they are saying.

I guess that's good news for me, as my sense for Mandarin tones didn't take long to develop (having grown up with a tonal language, albeit a different one). Too bad my vocabulary and grammar are still effectively nonexistent. Although I can pronounce each of the tones, I often just plain forget which tone a word is in! (My cousin lent me some textbooks that use a different system of representing tones: Instead of treating the tone as an add-on, it incorporates it into the spelling of the word. Words therefore have no superscripts or accent marks. This may actually stick, I'll have to try it out and see.)

Comments (19)
  1. Tom. says:

    I guess that’s good news for me, as my sense for Mandarin tones didn’t take long to develop (having grown up with a tonal language, albeit a different one).

    Which language is that?

  2. I already answered that question last year.

    Sometimes I feel like I’m having the same conversation over and over again…

  3. Wow, having read that I think I could copy the text and change the pictures and have a page called "Driving in Thailand"! The only difference is that here we drive on the left side of the road.

  4. Hmm, actually thinking about it there are some more differences. There are no speeding cameras in Thailand (and no one seems to know the speed limit anyway (I know I don’t)) and be prepared for a 30 minute break if the king of Thailand happens to be out on the road. The police will stop all traffic in the direction the king is going well in advance.

  5. Rob says:

    It sounds exactly like driving in the Philippines, though I haven’t actually driven there; I’m always a passenger.

  6. mastmaker says:

    India too.

    Just make the chaos 10 times more and make the roads 10 times worse.

  7. Starfish says:

    > Sometimes I feel like I’m having the same conversation over and over again…

    At least you can console yourself with the knowledge that you’re talking to new readers and not the long-time followers!

  8. Now, I may not be spot on on the numbers, but I’ve read that, though mainland China has only 12% of the world’s cars, it is responsible for over 30% of the world’s roadway fatalities.

    This would make driving seem scary until reading further on, that 70% of these fatalities are people *not in the cars.*

    And, of course, if you’re looking for a classic image of driving in mainland China, look no further than:

    I can only imagine that things are roughly the same in Taiwan.

  9. JamesW says:

    India too.

    > Just make the chaos 10 times more and make the > roads 10 times worse.

    My thoughts exactly! I was looking at the pictures and wondering what he was complaining about – especially the highway shots. Thrillseekers should try the Mumbai-Pune expressway. It’s a tree lane dual carriageway and the surface is high quality road by Indian standards. However, it is spiced up by the addition of hairpin bends, steep gradients, enormous speed deltas between modern cars and ancient trucks, insane driving, people carrying out vehicle maintanance in the central lane, I could go on…

    In general, the only traffic law that is obeyed is ‘might is right’. You’re meant to drive on the left, a remnant of empire, but if the opposite lane is empty then just use that instead! If there is oncoming traffic size it up: if it’s smaller stay in lane, otherwise get out the way. Whatever you do ensure that you’re horn is blaring at all times.

    Jumping red lights happens all the time. A lot of busy intersections have countdown timers to indicate how long the light will be on red. The rationale is that drivers will cut the engine, thus saving fuel and polluting less. Nice idea. The side effect is that the traffic starts surging forwards as soon as the clock shows less than ten seconds to go creating bedlam as it meets the traffic still coming through the green lights. Of course vehicles will continue on regardless once the lights do eventually change.

    Diversion? Road closed? Road completely missing due to monsoon floods? Ignore those pesky signs! As long no police are looking just carry right on.

    Taiwan appears to be an amateur in the world of crazy driving. India is the true champion.

  10. Tom says:

    "I already answered that question last year.

    Sometimes I feel like I’m having the same conversation over and over again…"

    I guess if I read all the blog entries I could have found the post you linked to where you said:

    Even though my meager knowledge of Taiwanese should’ve given me a head start (since about 80% of Taiwanese words are to varying degrees cognate with Mandarin Chinese), it doesn’t help with the grammar at all because I don’t understand Taiwanese grammar consciously. The words just make sense and I don’t know why.

    Meagre knowledge makes me think that you Taiwanese is not your first language. On the other hand ‘I don’t understand Taiwanese grammar consciously .. the words just make sense and I don’t know why’ makes me think that you grew up with it, perhaps in a mixed English/Taiwanese environment, especially given you pointed the post out.

    This reminds me of a funny story from Undocumented DOS. In the first edition, they did some tests of their file system redirector code on Windows 3.1. They reported "we were able to start Phantom, and it set up a drive. However it was only visible in the Dos box it run in, not in other Dos boxes or in Windows applictions". In the second edition, where they cover the fact that Dos boxes have effectively a private copy of the (undocumented) Current Directory Structure and thus drive mappings when Windows starts, they said that one of the tech reviewers commented on their first edition commented that "only an idiot would expect that to work". That made me laugh, since the assumption is that only an idiot would not know that some undocumented structure is instanced by Windows.

    Maybe some things are obvious to you that aren’t obvious to the rest of us?

  11. JamesW says:


    I’ve not been to Bangalore but I have been to Mahabaleshwar  which is a hill station near Pune. I have some video of that trip – the overtaking around blind bends without any concern for oncoming traffic made it very interesting. There were some nice steep drops too – good fun!

  12. iglowindark says:

    I don’t know how it compares to Taiwan, but driving situation in mainland China is very bad too. The number one rule to remember is: vehicles do not yield to pedestrians.

  13. Phylyp says:

    JamesW: If those are your complaints about the M-P expressway (considered *the* best road in India), you really ought to come down to Bangalore, or take a trip up to any hill station!

  14. Dan Maas says:

    Yeah, vehicles not yielding was a surprise. That, and the fact that Taiwanese love the privilege to turn right on red lights about as much as we Americans love our First Amendment :).

    I think people make too much of a big deal about tones in Chinese. In my opinion, they aren’t so much of an "add-on" feature as a proxy for syllable stress and sentence intonation — things one has to learn to speak most any language well, including "atonal" ones like English.

    To me, Chinese spoken with incorrect tones sounds like English spoken with incorrect syllable stress.

    e.g., consider the different pronunciations of "perfect" as an adjective (stress on "per") and "perfect" as a verb (stress on "fect"). Take that distinction a little bit further, and you have tones.

    (consider 事實 vs 時事… the tones dictate the stress)

  15. cheong00 says:


    Not exactly. Taiwan traffic police had done far a better job. In mainland China you can see people cutting lines even in major city area.

    And beware of the army’s vehicles, they essentially don’t following traffic rules. For example, usually when a branch road entering the main road, the car in branch road have to stop and letting the car in main road pass first. But in case of army vehicles, they’ll simply go off the branch road to main road. The drivers in main road should be well alert of this issue or have some scary experience. (Usually scary only with no real harm done, because the driving technique of army drivers are usually excellent, and they could be get used to the "unprepared drivers")

  16. cheong00 says:


    This reminds me of the old joke of "我想要水餃一碗"(I’d like to have a bowl of dumpings.) and "我想要睡覺一晚"(I’d like to sleep for a night.)

    The slight difference in pronunciation totally changes the meaning of the sentence.

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