Awhile back my husband said something interesting on his blog:
Lurking within the psyches of Western expats in Asia is the dark figure of the local who has absolutely no clue how to deal with the fact that there are foreigners living in their country. Most often this takes the form of a local who is absolutely determined not to understand anything a foreigner says, even if the foreigner does an excellent job speaking the local's native language. Rather like the running gag in the movieAnchorman, where Will Ferrell's character can't understand Hispanic people speaking English, because he 'doesn't speak Spanish'.
I don't deny that such people exist, although I do suspect they are rather less common in real life than they are in expats' imaginations.
Here is my plea:
Let those people be batty, illogical individuals. Don't smear their individuality all over the culture they came from. Don't use some variation on 'Oh well. People in this country haven't had much contact with foreigners.' Everybody has a right to have foibles.
I like this – not only because my husband wrote it (BOOYAH!) but because it indirectly makes a point that’s been on my mind recently. It’s been on my mind because it’s been lobbed at me recently, both as an expat and as a woman: generalizing vs. stereotyping.
It’s not really important how it has affected me recently, as those events were merely the catalyst for my thinking about the issue, but suffice it to say I’d heard enough of comments along the lines of “Well that’s because women are/do X”, and on another front, a student who made a comment about foreigners that, while it might be true of many foreigners, was certainly not true of all of them. A well-meaning (Asian, if it matters) Facebook friend made a comment about how Asian women accept second-class status and don’t stand up for themselves, which I countered with something along the lines of it’s true that many women don’t and that it’s a problem especially in Asia, but I know plenty of Taiwanese women who kick ass and demand what they’re worth.
I firmly believe that generalizing has a time, a place and a use: making a broad observational statement about a noticed trend is nothing to be ashamed of or avoid, as long as it’s consciously done as such and not used to implicate individuals. Using anecdotes and snippets of conversations with people you know fairly well – something I do frequently on this blog – to make points about Taiwan as a whole – is a useful tool as well.
One thing that makes this more palatable is to acknowledge or clarify that the statement being made may be true on a general level but cannot be applied to individuals, or that the anecdotal evidence is just that: your observations based on experiences that don’t begin to constitute “data”. Words like “many” or “on a general level” or “I’ve noticed” or “my experience has been that…” or “often” help, as well.
The point is that I hear this constantly in expat circles in Taiwan – and in other countries – regarding locals (and from locals regarding foreigners, to be fair) and it really pisses me off.
I’ve heard statements along the lines of “but the Taiwanese don’t care about X” or “The Taiwanese don’t understand their own language” or “The Taiwanese don’t want to be friends with foreigners” or “The Taiwanese are shy” or The Taiwanese X or they Y or they Z.
I get the feeling that some of these beliefs are picked up while socializing with other expats – they hear enough opinions from enough expats (and at the risk of stereotyping I’m going to say that many times those expats are limited to people their own age, male, with Taiwanese girlfriends and not a lot of variation) that they start to believe them despite having no similar direct experience, and from taking a few isolated incidents and using them to project a massive – and often wrong – generalization-turned-stereotype on the Taiwanese themselves.
One such example was a recent letter in the Taipei Times. Kevin Larson – who clearly stewed angrily for several years over a minor incident in which a Taiwanese woman who treated him rudely – took an anecdote about one rude woman:
A few moments later, I ran out of my own supply so I went back to the young boy and asked him if he could give me a small handful of the feed for my son. The boy’s mother saw this and was quick to admonish me, hysterical body language and all.
She yelled at me, saying: “Go buy your own.”
However, when I tried to explain that it was I who bought the feed — expecting an apology — she only grabbed her child by the arm and, in a huff, took him away. She had lost face and did not know how to deal with it.
…and turned it into a truth he believes about all Taiwanese people:
Criticism, and mine was merely a factual observation, turned her plain ugly. However, do not blame the Taiwanese, blame the Taiwanese education system….
How, exactly, did he go from “this woman was so rude” to “blame the Taiwanese educational system”?
He went from “this woman was rude” to “this woman lost face” to “this woman is Taiwanese” to “Taiwanese become rude when they lose face”.
Which I have found not to be true, by the way: I’ve noticed that in Taiwanese culture the tendency is to become reticent, even silent, and beat a hasty retreat or become quite distant when face is lost, after a slapdash effort to preserve some sense of harmony on the surface even when all parties involved know there’s roiling waters beneath.
I have an anecdote that makes my point: I was given insufficient, confusing and incorrect information at work, I screwed up a work-related thing as a result, I lost my temper over it, this caused the boss to lose face, but in the end we pretended to ‘see where the other was coming from’ and shook hands, knowing that the other was still angry and neither of us did in fact see the other’s point at all. I hesitate to flesh that story out, though, because it might seem contrary to my point that such an anecdote cannot be inflated to include All Taiwanese and Their Sense of Face. My boss is just my boss, and yes, I do believe that his actions were indicative of a broader trend or cultural norm, but that still doesn't make my boss any less of an individual and his actions do not speak for all Taiwanese.
I will say one thing in Larson’s defense: it’s true that he used several good modifiers in the beginning – “seems to me” and “many Taiwanese” among them. Only later on does he take one crazy woman and extrapolate her actions to cover All Taiwanese.
When, really, my husband is right. Doing this takes away individuality. It creates a tendency to refuse to see people from other cultures as individual people who are capable of being rude just because they are rude, not because All Taiwanese are rude, or crazy just because they’re crazy, not because All Taiwanese are crazy. It takes away their right, as independent entities, to be kind, caring, insane, temperamental, sexist, wrong, stupid, shy, hardworking, lazy, illogical, straight-laced, inexperienced, promiscuous or any of the myriad of adjectives one might use in a drunken rant about All [X People].
It’s no more OK than “my ex-wife was a bitch so all women are bitches” – err, no, maybe it was just your ex-wife. Or “all New Yorkers are rude because this guy was rude to me” – maybe that guy was just a douche. People are individuals, and they are not any less individuals just because they belong to a cultural or ethnic group different from your own.
Which, as I’ve said, I do this to some degree and I have thought about the limits of how much or whether it’s acceptable: I frequently tell stories and give anecdotes about my social encounters in Taiwan here, and I often do spin thoughts and ideas about Taiwanese culture from them, like cotton candy around a paper tube. I do have to remind myself occasionally not to fall into the trap of “my friend is this way, so all Taiwanese are this way” and that between the slender filaments of my observations is a heck of a lot of air and quite a lot of potential stickiness.
I have to keep in mind the difference between an interesting anecdote and a story that indicates a trend, and be careful to note that neither can be used too bluntly. To stop doing so completely would take away a tool I value in cultural observation, plus, hey, I like to tell stories.
Related but from another angle, there’s generalizing about an entire people and then applying it to individuals (which happens a lot to women – “all women love shopping so you must love shopping!” style) – something else I see in the expat community here. I mostly see it regarding Taiwanese women – Taiwanese girls are sweeter or more accommodating than Western ones so expat so-and-so is going to go off and find himself a Taiwanese girlfriend because presumably she’ll be that way, too. Ugh. Or that Taiwanese bosses are manipulative, dishonest and money-grubbing so I’m going to go into this job assuming that my boss is that way. Or Taiwanese are shy so I am going to assume that this person is shy (and if you think all Taiwanese are shy, come meet my friends Lilian, Sasha or Cathy someday).
Catherine of Shu Flies not long ago said it best: in the comments of this post she noted that she “prefer[s] to avoid making statements that begin with "the Taiwanese are" because it veers too close to crossing the line from cultural analysis to cultural stereotyping for [her] comfort.”
And that’s the crux of it right there. I hope both expats and locals stop doing this regarding each other. It hinders individual friendships and real exchange. Maybe that's too much to ask for, though.