"You will never understand Taiwan."
I haven’t heard this recently…but I have heard it. Heck, someone left it as a comment on this blog once. I’ve also heard it said about or to expats in China, Korea, Japan, India and plenty of other countries.
It used to offend me – who is this person to place limits on what I do or don’t understand? Why does this person think that my range and ability to understand a place is limited in ways they can arbitrarily set, despite the fact that they barely know me? What makes them think I’ll never really get it? Do they think that I’m that dull, that thick, that unadaptable?
Now, though, I have to say, it doesn’t really bug me so much. In fact, I think there’s some truth to it (but not that it’s 100% true). I believe this for several reasons:
1.) Think of first-generation immigrants to your own country – in my case, the USA. It’s a fairly well established trope: the immigrant parents who live their lives in the USA but never really quite ‘get’ America, and their American kids who still have ties to the Old Country but who do get the country they were born in – the country they are therefore from – and who often cringe at their parents’ hijinks. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about: it’s the basis for most of Russell Peter’s jokes, approximately 90% of all “immigrant to a new land” and “child of immigrants to a new land” literature (think Jhumpa Lahiri, Amy Tan, Khalid Hosseini and so many others) and plenty of movies (My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Joy Luck Club, The Namesake).
We tend to be fairly forgiving of those immigrants – the occasional brain deficient yokel who shouts “learn English!” notwithstanding. We understand that it is hard to get all the subconscious, learned-from-childhood, ingrained-in-culture cues if you didn’t grow up in that culture and your intuition comes from an entirely different set of social rules. So why do we get all defensive when it’s laid bare that we, also as foreigners (some of us travelers, some of us expats, some of us immigrants) in a foreign land, irrefutably face the same issues? That we are not and cannot be any more culturally fluent than those who settle in our home countries?
Of course there are different levels and adaptations regarding cultural fluency – some people who move to a new place do adapt at astonishing speeds and to a great depth and some never stop splashing in the shallow end. I would say even those swimming at the other end of the pool still aren’t totally culturally fluent – just more so than others.
2.) To the person who says “you will never understand Taiwan” (or China, or Japan, or wherever), well, that phrase likely means something different to them than what it means to you. You might hear it as “you will never understand anything about Taiwan”, but honestly, I think it’s meant more as “you will never understand every little thing about Taiwan”. There’s a great gulf of difference in those two phrases.
Sure, occasionally you get some vindictive idiot who does mean to imply that as much as you learn you’ll always be a stupid outsider, but I find that most people around the world are good, and most don’t mean it that way at all, even if it comes across as rude. I used to hear “you’ll never understand _______________” (fill in at your leisure, I’ve been to a lot of countries) and hear an implication that I do not and cannot understand anything about that country. That is not necessarily what the speaker intended – you can understand a lot, you can understand a surprising amount, you can understand in some depth, without understanding everything. As much of an Old China Hand or Old Taiwan Hand or whatever that you are, there will still probably be social cues you miss, culture gaps you can’t bridge, and cultural tics you will always find unfathomable. That doesn’t mean you don’t understand anything, just that you don’t understand totally. There’s nothing wrong with that, nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not the culture you grew up in, so how could you grasp it on the same level as someone who did grow up in it?
3.) You don’t have to listen to people who imply that because you aren’t Taiwanese (or whatever) and so you can’t intuitively grasp the nuances of Taiwanese (or whichever) culture and therefore shouldn’t make any observations regarding it – that basically you have no right to speak. This is 100% wrong. It may be true that you are not totally culturally fluent, but that does not mean you have no right to make observations, give opinions or offer advice based on what you do know. As I said above, you might know quite a lot, and if you’re running your mouth, I would hope you know enough at least to support what you’re saying (I hope…so many people don’t, but I have faith in my readers that you’re not like that)! You don’t need to have been raised in a culture since childhood to
4.) Heck, sometimes I don’t understand my own culture. Or if I have a culture. I don’t mean this as “America has no culture” – it does. It’s just that America is a big place with a lot of different regions, groups and cultures and while there are threads connecting them, I would not say that someone from, say, New Orleans and someone from New York have the “same culture” because they’re “American”. Similarities exist, sure, but you can’t ignore the differences. The same is true in China and in India – both huge countries, neither of which can honestly say that every part of their territory and the people in it falls under an identical cultural rubric (I mean, the Chinese government and many Chinese people try to say that but they’re wrong).
So firstly, as a foreigner I might come to understand fairly deeply the culture of the region I’m living in, but that’s no guarantee if I live in a fairly large nation that I’ll understand the nuances of another region’s culture. I lived in Guizhou for a year – does that make me an expert on Tibet or Xinjiang? Hell no. It doesn’t even make me an expert on Guizhou, Yunnan or Sichuan, although I have far more street cred in those areas. I studied in Madurai, India. I know a lot about Tamil culture. I don’t claim to be an expert, but what I really cannot do is claim that this makes me somehow knowledgeable about Punjabi, Bengali or Gujarati culture. It doesn’t (although I have been to Bengal and Punjab, but only briefly).
Secondly, really, I don’t understand every little thing about American culture (who does?) - and it’s my homeland. I really don’t get why Americans are so often happy to drive gas guzzling cars everywhere and yet complain about the price of gas and long commutes. DUHHHH. I don’t get why people are so opposed to decent public transportation. I don’t get the widespread – yet fortunately fading – fear of homosexuality. I really don’t get the puritanical ideas that Americans have about drugs like marijuana and alcohol (disclosure: I was allowed to drink at home well before I turned 21. At 13 I was permitted wine and beer and by the end of high school my parents felt they could trust me). I do not understand why the right to own a firearm is so damned important to some people. I don’t understand a lot of political beliefs (don’t even get me started on health care reform and the idiots who think the system we have now actually works). I do not understand big box stores. I do not understand McDonald’s. I do not understand a lot of American cultural tics regarding personal space, topics deemed interesting and appropriate for conversation or…well, or many other things. I don’t understand why tipping is still a ‘done thing’ (although I do tip, and generously).
If there are things, people, groups, ideas and cultural issues I don’t understand in my own country, how can I claim to understand all the variety and complexity of views, thoughts and actions in another?
In the end I think that in some ways, it’s a strength. There’s an old Chinese idiom floating around that I can’t find now, but it goes something like: the chess game is clearer to the observers than the players. I have heard it used to describe romance, where two people who feel like everything is unclear are blindly feeling their way through whereas everyone around them knows what the deal is, but it works here too. I’m not saying that Taiwanese culture is clearer to me as an observer than it is to a player, but I do have a different viewpoint, and surely some things that are unclear to a local would be quite clear to me. In fact, it’s happened when I’ve observed some social phenomenon and a friend or student has responded: I never thought about that before, but yes! That’s true!
So, you know, those people are right…sort of. I will never understand Taiwan – or at least, I will never fully understand it. I will never understand it in the way that someone who was born here understands it. That’s OK. As long as nobody tries to say that I don’t understand it at all, I am OK with the idea that I do not and cannot understand it in totality.