Sunday, January 25, 2009

Taiwan culture shock: Wishing you weren't a foreigner

You know when you are an vacation or business you have to press palms and talk about yourself. You happily do it for the first few months in Taiwan, but then you remember you are not in Taiwan for two weeks, and sooner or later the non-PC unsubtly and stereotypes begin to get you down – and you lose your perspective for a little time, start to wish you weren't a foreigner.

On this occasion I was sat outside my school on a bench waiting for class.

“Wai gwo ren (Foreigner),” shouted a passing young mother as she turned her little daughter’s head in my direction and pointed.

“Wave! Quick say, ‘hello’,” she continued, now stopping her daughter dead in front of me, expecting a hello back from the foreigner.

Not again, I sighed, looking around me for other prying eyes, now embarrassed by my white skin.

“Hi,” I answered begrudgingly because I couldn’t bring myself to use the speech I had prepared about the fact that I was a person, and this street wasn’t a zoo; that the Taiwanese didn’t disturb perfect strangers from their own country -- Had I signed away my privacy after getting off that plane at Chiang Kai-Shek airport?

“Where are you from?” the mother asked. I was asked this question, along with: ‘How long had I been…’ and ‘Was I used to it?’ a thousand times a day, and, I was beginning to think it was racism.

How did she know I wasn’t from here? Apparently, there was one white guy with a Taiwan passport, and she might have stumbled upon him.

“Here,” I said determined to make a point.

“Really?” she answered sceptically. “So how long have you been here?”

“I said, ‘I am from here. I was born here.”

“Are you used to it here?”

“I am from here. I have lived here all my life. And, of course, I like Chinese food.”

“Really?” she insisted. She was now annoyed I had spoilt her chance to ask if he liked the food. “So…um…where are you actually from? America?”

“Yeah, I give up. ”

“Very good,” she replied. “Huh. Wow. Nice to meet you - Uh…you English teacher?”

“Student,”I replied outraged she would pigeon-hole me in that way, even though I was also a teacher like everyone else.

“You want to teach my son?” she asked.

It was futile she had broken me: “Why not," I replied. "And when I come to your house I want proper imported coffee, freshly ground from beans. Not the 3-in-1 packets of instant coffee, powdered milk and sugar you Taiwanese drink...Definitely no Chinese tea. If you want to give me lunch then it has to be pastrami on whole wheat bread, heavy on the mayo. And the first time I come to teach, you will have to come and pick me up at my house because there is no way I can find anything in your city…Of course I can’t speak any Chinese.”

“No problem. You come on Saturday for dinner and we take you to TGI Friday. You like steak, right?”

“I am American, aren’t I?”

“Great. I must go,” she said rushing off to her car.

In hindsight I know she couldn’t wait to get home to tell her sister they were all going out to dinner on Saturday with a foreigner, and to ask her where to buy a coffee maker. But at the time all I could think about was she was wearing clothes from a good label and dragging her kid into her double parked Benz. She was obviously middle class, and she should know better than to teach her kids to point at foreigners on the street and make generalizations. She should know only the ethnic minority, because they are sensitive and oppressed, has the right to bring up the colour of their skin, and their ethnic stereotypes. Like it was back home.

Still I thought of the free steak on Saturday, the daily praising of my country, and the well meaning unsubtly of the mother. I felt churlish and ungrateful.

I knew I should just go with the flow. Still it took a while.


夏天的孩子 said...

Me and my Russian girl did that in Japan. Everywhere we went we would insist that people speak to her (the white girl) in Japanese and me (the Asian girl) in English. Her Japanese is a lot better than mine, and my English is a lot better than hers, but the Japs don't seem to get the idea.

Almost all countries (except America, Australia, New Zealand and other immigrated countries) like to think they are homogeneous in race. It is not true in most places anymore now-a-days. Taiwan has a lot of foreigners that call this island their home, and so does Japan. It's just that we choose to not think about it.

Don't be too upset tho. I've once read this blog of an ethnically Pakistani girl in London. Even though she grew up in London, and have never been to Pakistan, she was often asked where she was from. People also didn't seem satisfied with her "I'm from London" answer.

It is always interesting to see things from another perspective. But see, it would be a lot more convincing if you could yell back at the lady with perfect Chinese.

Dan Chapman said...

Hi summer girl. Thanks for all your kind comments. I would love more Taiwanese to read the blog. If you want to recommend it or translate and put on your blog then that would be great.