My days of spending dangerously

Cultural ignorance and functional illiteracy cost me $450…

A box for a 3M ‘S0004’ water filter kit, on a tile floor in front of an under-bench water machine.
An expensive water filter. Photo: Zhen-Kang.

People in Taiwan are unfailingly helpful. My friends (and some strangers) repeatedly offer to assist with almost anything, and their offers are genuine.

But I don’t want to be burdensome, so I try to do things on my own.

Unfortunately, my dreams of independence led me to waste $450 in just over a week…

Mistake 1: The water filter

My apartment contract requires me to replace the water filter every August. I assumed it would cost around NT$2,000 (NZ$100), so was shocked to see it listed on sale for NT$7,140 (NZ$360), on the 3M Taiwan website.

I googled the model number and couldn’t find it cheaper elsewhere. So, because I was contractually obligated to replace it, I begrudgingly made the purchase.

(Unable to read Chinese, I rely on browser-based translation, best-guesses, and good luck to buy things online.)

The filter arrived in a seemingly-larger-than-necessary box. Using the Translate app, I read the instructions and switched-in the new filter. That went fine.

Finished, I picked up the box to prepare it for recycling—and discovered it was still quite heavy. Removing more packing materials, I found brackets, hoses, screws, taps, and wires inside. I hadn’t just bought a replacement filter: I’d bought a bundle for a whole-new installation.

That was frustrating enough, but then a couple of days later, I received a phone call…

I get a lot of cold calls in Taiwan. I usually answer “wéi” (hello caller), then wait for the salesperson to read their spiel before saying “I’m sorry, I can’t speak Chinese” (ironically, in Chinese).

At this point, the caller might say “xièxiè, bye bye” (thank you, goodbye)—or they hang up immediately. But I still appreciate the chance to practice Chinese with strangers while hoping they’ll blacklist my number.

On this particular call, after I said “I’m sorry, I can’t speak Chinese”, the caller said “no problem, English is fine”.

He was calling from 3M. Apparently I hadn’t just bought a bundle for a whole-new installation; I’d also paid for a plumber.

Money wasted NZ$360
Running total NZ$360

Mistake 2: The import duty

I bought a phone for my soon-to-launch business, then ordered a Peak Design case that can lock into my scooter’s phone holder.

The same case is sold locally for the same price, but I’d previously had a good experience making a warranty claim with Peak Design, so was motivated to order direct from the manufacturer.

It shipped from Hong Kong.

But this relatively small purchase tipped me over some kind of cumulative threshold, so when the package landed in the Taiwan, the government required me to pay an unexpected import duty of NT$807 (NZ$40)—for a phone case.

Money wasted NZ$40
+ The water filter NZ$360
Running total NZ$400

Mistake 3: The gift card

For a couple of months, in between on-campus Chinese classes, I briefly reverted to online lessons.

(All of my teachers—online and on-campus—have been amazing. If you ever consider studying Chinese in Taiwan, please contact me for details.)

During the seven weeks of online lessons, my teacher spent a lot of non-class time helping me and my classmate: marking homework, answering questions via the LINE messaging app, and giving detailed feedback.

By the time of our final class, I was determined to find a suitable thank-you gift. But I didn’t know much about her, or what she might like.

So, via LINE, I sent her a NT$1,000 (NZ$50) voucher for the large shopping mall near campus. I thought she might spend the voucher at its impressive book store on the 17th floor.

Unaware of gifting norms, I’d carefully considered how much to spend. I concluded that, because NT$1,000 was roughly equivalent to what I pay for two hours’ class time, it was the minimum I should spend to acknowledge her many hours of extra work.

Unfortunately, my teacher didn’t see it that way—and was genuinely upset I’d spent so much. She was uncomfortable having it in her LINE account. I tried to explain how much I appreciated her time, but it was clear she considered the amount distastefully large. I wanted her to feel appreciated, but instead made her extremely uncomfortable.

A friend later said around NT$150 (NZ$7.50) would’ve been appropriate.

I’ll ask for help next time.

Money wasted NZ$50
+ The water filter NZ$360
+ The import duty NZ$40
Grand total NZ$450