Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Stabbing Foreigners, Moonlighting Strippers and Other Fun

There have been a few posts coming out about Taiwan that, while I wouldn't say I entirely disagree with them, I feel they present foreigner-Taiwanese relations in a light that is not entirely correct or fully realized, or skewed in some way.

A story coming out about five Taiwanese down south who stabbed a foreigner (an Indonesian worker in Kaohsiung) - and some commetary on it - is one.

My issues with this are threefold:

1.) Someone should really address the fact that many Taiwanese see foreign labor in working class jobs - the 外勞- very differently from how they see Westerners or Asians from developed countries. The former tend to be Indonesians, Thai, Vietnamese and Filipino (and some throw Chinese foreign brides into that category). The latter tend to be office workers, engineers, English teachers and other expats in better positions. Nobody calls them 外勞, often they get the more complimentary 外國朋友.

To this end, a friend of mine has mentioned something he once saw from a bus window: a protest against foreigners. I'm not sure if the signs said "Foreigners Go Home" or "Foreign Labor Go Home" - a big difference when rendered in Chinese, but it was pretty clearly aimed at foreign labor. They weren't telling the English teachers to hoof it back to Canada. It's racist and wrong, I know, but that's the attitude.

This isn't fair or right, and certainly not every Taiwanese person feels this way, but it is something that is sadly common. The foreigner stabbed in the case above was an Indonesian worker. I'm certainly not saying that this makes it less serious - far from that. It's just as wrong no matter who the victim is. My point is that this post makes it sound like roving gangs of angry Taiwanese youth are happily stabbing English teachers and foreign office workers in the street. They're not. Heck, they're not out stabbing foreign laborers, either - this is an isolated incident and not an indicator of widespread violence (although violence against foreign labor is a bigger problem than violence against Western/non-working-class expats).

2.) As above, this was an isolated incident. There are simply not wand'ring gangs of disaffected youth waiting to stab us in the streets. Michael Turton's link to this post made it sound like there are groups of angry Taiwanese gathering like the KKK to take out foreigners. Simply not true. No country is 100% safe and Taiwan has its share of crime problems (mostly mob-related, some two-people-in-a-feud or family related, some just random acts of violence), but Taiwan is relatively safe. You're almost certainly not going to get stabbed in the street for being a foreigner.

3.) I don't care for the first part of Ozsoapbox's post:

You’re treated differently (usually positively) simply because you don’t look Taiwanese, people stare, they’re perhaps more careful about what they say and of course there’s always the familiar ‘OMG WAIGOREN WAIGOREN!’ calls you hear randomly.
Calls to which the equivalent in the west would be going up to an Asian looking person, pointing and shouting ‘OMG ASIAN ASIAN!’ 
The first sentence is true - you are treated differently often positively, because you're a foreigner, but that's true around the world. It's not unique to Taiwan. It even happens in New York.
I haven't found that people are more careful about what they say - if anything I feel people say more outrageous things to me because I'm not Taiwanese, so people who hold their tongues among Taiwanese for fear of social exclusion will tell me their uncensored opinions because I'm different and can't exclude them in that way, or I might be more accepting. Sometimes these opinions are refreshingly honest and insightful. Sometimes they're downright racist or ignorant. Like people everywhere.
But mostly, it's simply not true that shouting "Waiguoren!" at a foreigner is the same as a foreigner shouting "Asian!" at an Asian person. Neither is a good idea, and I don't condone either, but c'mon. Our home countries are generally speaking far more diverse than Taiwan. "Asians" are not an anomaly or unique, at least not where I'm from. They don't stand out. Many people of Asian heritage were born and raised where I was from, meaning they're just as American as I am. It's very different to go up to an Asian in, say, Washington DC and shout "OMG ASIAN!" than to go up to a foreigner in Taipei and do the same thing. I'm not saying it's a good idea (I refuse to go down the "different culture, they don't know better" route because I don't believe it's true), just that it's not the same thing. We really do stand out. We are a relatively rare sight. It's human nature worldwide to notice things like that. I'd love to see a world in which nobody commented on it, but for now we're stuck with what we have.
Anyway, really, for those of us in Taipei - how often do you get the "WAIGUOREN!" treatment? Maybe from very small children who don't know better (true of children the world over - American kids say similarly embarrassing things) but from everyone else, including older children, does this happen at all in places with high concentrations of foreigners? I don't know where Ozsoapbox lives, but I have observed that once you get to an area where foreigners are not unique, not an anomaly and don't stand out, people stop commenting. Why? We're all still foreigners. We're still not Taiwanese. We still look different - it's because there are enough of us, like Asians in most American cities, that we don't stand out. And poof, the problem disappears, because it wasn't a problem of racism to begin with. 
There's also this post - and I'm commenting on it as a foreigner who doesn't feel connected to the foreign community. I'm not saying I'm "Taiwanese" or that I don't have expat friends, but there is a community of expats that I don't really feel I relate to or connect to.
Sure, one of the two people mentioned in the altercation was a foreigner, but I see nothing in the news item that indicates that the Taiwanese treat all foreigners as the same or as a cohesive "other". The same altercation could have taken place between two Taiwanese people and been largely the same, albeit without "illegal work status" issues (though "moonlighting as a stripper" would have been mentioned) or the word "foreigner" used. Otherwise, all I see is an indication that there was an altercation and one of the two happened to be a foreigner. Not any sign that all Taiwanese think of all foreigners in a certain way and treat them as such.
The same goes for the full article - I don't think many Taiwanese would think that moonlighting as a stripper is "appropriate behavior" for another Taiwanese, either (but that has more to do with conservative values). As for the guy in question, the law is the law. Just because there's a law that a foreign worker can only do for a living what his/her work permit states doesn't indicate that Taiwanese all think of us as One Big Group of Other. I also get the strong feeling that the government is more concerned with foreigners moonlighting in dodgy industries (such as stripping) or downright illegal ones. If you work as an English teacher and freelance teaching private classes, editing, doing IT work or whatever else, well, that's technically illegal but not something to worry too much about. Those aren't dodgy situations that are likely to get you deported. 
The article itself is kind of ridiculous, though. "Foreign workers to be targeted"? Um, so they're going to hunt us down in the streets and corral us into deportation cells? Hardly. Why the alarmist headline? "Good samaritan"? Say WHAT? Does that even make sense?


Brendan said...

Gotta love those disaffected expats who would have you believe that to be a Westerner in Asia is to endure a constant cacophony of "HELLO!!!" and "Waiguoren!".

Yes, you get it sometimes if you go to a region that doesn't get many Westerners. There are a couple of old guys in Puli who enjoy shouting "CONGRATULATIONS!" at white people for reasons that no one can discern, for instance.

But these complaining expats never mention the more than 99% of Taiwanese who don't go around loudly reminding foreigners that they are foreigners. Instead, they harp on a small number of oddballs and smear their oddness over the whole population, like they're representative of all Taiwanese.

Jenna said...

Seriously...I'm not saying expats have no right to complain, and certainly there are things to complain about, but I don't get the whole "disaffected expat" thing. There are issues that foreigners face in Taiwan but I just do not understand the doom-and-gloom (it's one of the reasons why, on the rare times I read Laowiseass's blog, I get nothing but annoyed).

But maybe I belong to the "I live here because I like it, and if I didn't like it I wouldn't live here" school of expats.

Honestly in Taipei I don't feel any more like I get "OMG FOREIGNER" than an Asian in an American city would get - basically not at all, or an extreme anomaly/rarity. It happens in the countryside, but then in rural America where you don't get much diversity I'd expect that people who look "foreign" would get it more, too...I'm thinking of the Lao guy on "King of the Hill" - neighbors would ask him "So are you Chinese or Japanese?"

OzSoapbox said...

Yes yes the Taipei bubble is wonderful to live in but remember that only 2 million people live there, and there's over twenty million people living on this island.

Go live outside of Taipei for a few years and tell me what I published is not true.

I can't stand the Taipei-bubble expats and their self-righteousness sometimes.

I love living here too, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to call out a spade when Taiwanese youths are running around slitting the throats of Indonesians over bloody courage bets!

How Taiwanese class foreigners is irrelevant and sadly apologetic for this kind of behaviour.

Racism is racism, whether it's positive preferential treatment or having your head bashed in with iron bars for being non-Taiwanese.

Jenna said...

Errr, Oz, I may live in Taipei but I've traveled extensively and have friends who live in other parts of Taiwan, and what you're saying is not *really* true. I feel like with your tone in that post, you're looking for a reason to be disaffected and looking for offense.

First, yes, it's more common for locals to shout "foreigner!" outside of Taipei, but STILL not nearly as much as you make it out to be, STILL mostly from little kids or slightly senile old folks, and the Western equivalent (not shouting "foreigner!" but asking "foreigners" stupid questions like "where are you REALLY from") is almost as prevalent. It's not unique to Taiwan. It's not even unique to Asia, and when it does happen in Taiwan it's not quite the same thing as back home. Yes, it's racially ignorant but I would not go so far as to call it "racism". (There is racism prevalent in many other parts of Taiwanese society though, more often than not working in we foreigners' favor. This is just not a good example of it).

As for the stabbing, which is a real issue, ONE GROUP of Taiwanese youths ran around trying to stab foreigners. Your tone is alarmist and paranoid as in your original post - it's not like there are gangs of them wandering around maiming every foreigner they see. It's one incident, one rare tragedy in a country where foreigners - whether they're English teachers or foreign laborers - are generally quite safe, certainly safer than they'd be in my own country. Yes, crime against foreigners happens, and it's tragic no matter how that group of foreigners is classed by locals, but it's just *not* that common, even outside Taipei.

And my mention of how Taiwanese class foreigners is not beside the point - do you think that gang of douchebags would have stabbed a white guy? Maybe, but my guess is "probably not". They - and yes, this is racist of them - stabbed an Indonesian because they probably thought it wasn't as big a deal, they probably thought less of SE Asians than Westerners, and would have probably felt the consequences of stabbing an American would be far higher and would have stayed away. I'm NOT saying that's right or OK - nothing about what they did was OK - but that it's very probable, which exposes an entirely different angle of racism.

Either way, it's ridiculous to imply that every foreigner now needs to cower in fear because they might get hacked down in the streets in Taiwan. *One* group of vile idiots does not mean we're looking at organized roving mobs here.

And it's not apologizing or making excuses - of course it's just as wrong and just as much a tragedy regardless of who was attacked - it's not "apologizing" to make a point and shed some light on some of the deeper factors at play in this incident, which are very much worth mentioning. Pretending they don't exist or are irrelevant, as you are doing, is far worse than brutal honesty about race relations and what it means that this guy was Indonesian.

OzSoapbox said...

Come on Jenna, visiting friends isn't the same as living outside of Taiwan's cities. I'm talking from personal experience myself here.

Anyone who pretends like there isn't a 'OMG WAIGOREN!' 'Hallooooo!' culture outside of Taipei's cities has surrounded themselves with other foreigners, hasn't made the slightest effort to interact with the locals or does nothing outside of 'go to work and come home'.

It's practically a daily experience, if not multiple times daily

I've caused near scooter accidents just walking around it's so ridiculous at times.

Being racially ignorant is no excuse, it's racist. You're treating people differently solely based on race.

I come from the vastly multi-cultural city of Melbourne in Australia and this nonsense is unheard of. Unless you speak with a thick accent, on a visual level nobody assumes you're from overseas just because of the color of your skin.

As for the stabbing, it was made quite clear that it was one group so I don't know why you're getting your knickers in a twist.

Was there anything factually wrong with the title 'Taiwanese youths stab foreigner over courage bet?'

It is after all exactly what happened right?

And from the sounds of it, gangs of Taiwanese youths going around attacking foreigners (sorry, I don't racially differentiate between white visitors and Indonesians as I'm not racist) is exactly what's going on down there.

One of the news reports mentioned 'this incident was more severe than the usual attacks against foreigners which is usually just the throwing of stones', and another detailed an iron bar incident just last month.

Sorry if this ruins your Taipei 'Taiwan is the friendliest place on Earth' fantasy, but it is what it is. Apologising, trying to claim it's ok under any circumstances (cultural or otherwise) is just unacceptable and appalling.

I don't know how long you've lived here but it's apparent you've let your moral compass plunge somewhat, which is admittedly easy to let happen at times.

And white guys do get attacked too, the surfer guy in Hualien was just one such incident.

And to be fair, that was the first article in two years I'd run on an attack against foreigners... so you're a bit precious if you think that's going to make people think it happens all the time.

Would you have been more comfortable had I wrote a paragraph on the actual attack and instead focused on apologising for the youth's behaviour because the victim was Indonesian and convincing everyone this attack was a once-in-a-century event?

And where did you get the cower in fear bullshit from? Honestly, you read something covering one attack, instill your own fears and racism (differentiating between Indonesians and 'white guys' is racism) and then hold me accountable to the bullshit you make up in your head.

If you want to cower in fear after reading about the attack, that's your business - but don't put words in my mouth and claim that's why I wrote the piece and what my intention was.

I try to cover all aspects of life here, the good the bad and the ugly and as much as I love living here, these incidents need to be covered in English.

I'd do the same no matter where I was living.

Jenna said...

I got the "cower in fear" from the tone of your post, which made it sound like this was a prevalent issue or a massive problem (ie "what's wrong with southern Taiwan?") and "when Taiwanese youths are running around slitting the throats of Indonesians over bloody courage bets!" sounds like you're afraid this isn't a one-time incident. Your tone is the one of fear-mongering, and Michael's wording in the link exacerbated it. I see it a lot in expat blogs. It bothers me.

And I agree that there's no "excuse" for shouting "FOREIGNER!" **but** there is an explanation. Racism is defined differently by different people, but to me it means prejudice against another group - noting that another person is a foreigner is not necessarily prejudice against them, it can just as well be making note of something that that particular local doesn't ordinarily see. There's a difference, and I'm sorry but you are still wrong that it's not worth mentioning. It IS, and saying so doesn't mean I'm condoning racism.

Also, as I said, doing this in a city like Melbourne is NOT THE SAME as doing it in Taiwan: Melbourne is relatively diverse, and so seeing people who look foreign is common. An Australian who sees foreigners every day has zero reason to comment on them...but a Taiwanese person in a small town sees foreigners quite rarely. I don't think that means s/he should comment, but it does show that the situation is really quite different. I also said in my original post, which I am not sure you read that carefully, that I won't go down the "they don't know better" route because that's not what I mean - I mean exactly what I say. It's different. It's not good or right, but you can't compare Melbourne to non-Taipei Taiwan.

Of COURSE you would not assume someone who looks different is a foreigner in Melbourne, because there's a good chance they aren't. But a Taiwanese person sees, say, me - c'mon, I'm clearly a foreigner.

And once again, I am NOT APOLOGIZING for the youths. Do you even read the entirety of what I write? I said, multiple times, that what they did was wrong and it doesn't matter what race the foreigner is. I at no point said that the fact that many Taiwanese - not all, mind you - classify SE Asians differently from Japanese and Koreans as well as Westerners - is OK. In truth I said quite a few times that it is *not* OK.

So, as you clearly didn't read what I wrote above, I'll say it again: I am not attempting to apologize for the youths. I am not saying it's more acceptable because the guy was Indonesian. I'm saying that the fact that the youths quite probably felt the Indonesian guy was different somehow from us had something to do with why he was targeted, and why the same youths wouldn't target us. That is not an apology nor is it an excuse. It is an observation of what their thought patterns quite possibly were.

I don't see how that means my "moral compass" is off, but since you most likely threw that in as a gratuitous insult because you're offended I didn't care for your original post, I'm taking it with a grain of salt. For what it's worth, I've been here for five years.

And if more foreigners lived in the rest of Taiwan, you'd see a dramatic decrease, or a stopping altogether, of anyone shouting "FOREIGNER!" I know you like to think we Taipei residents know nothing, but I've spent enough time in the rest of Taiwan to know - and had friends in the rest of Taiwan tell me - that it really is not all THAT common and while it does happen, it's actually less common than a lot of other countries. India comes to mind, and it happened to me quite a bit in Sumatra, Bangladesh and other places. My husband has said that it happened more regularly in Seoul than it ever happens when we are in Taiwan, outside Taipei.

Jenna said...

BTW, I'm not saying you shouldn't be writing what you wrote, or that you don't have the right to say what you said.

I'm saying I disagree with some of it, enough to write my own post about it.

Huge difference, that.

OzSoapbox said...

The southern Taiwan comment was in reference to the two other incidents mentioned in the news stories,

a. that attacks on foreigners down there are common (throwing stones)

b. the recent attack on Phillipinos with iron bars

I've never heard of this stuff up in the north or central (not saying it doesn't happen, just that it'd be news to me).

As for fear mongering, there's no nice way to write about such news. And if I was living in Khaosiung you'd bet news like this would put me on edge.

You'd be a moron not to worry about your personal safety a bit after hearing about youths running around stabbing foreigners.

Regaring diversity, or rather a lack thereof, it's not an excuse. Racism is racism.

A lack of diversity does not make it any more socially acceptable to single out people by the color of their skin. And I really don't care what country we're talking about here, be it India, Australia or Taiwan.

And on apologies, regardless of what you think you're writing, all I'm seeing is excuses and apologies for their behavior (oh but they don't see foreigners often, oh but it's an isolated incident, oh but it happened to Indonesians, not white people, oh but it's their precious little thought patterns).


And finally, once again spending time is not living. Your foreigner shine wears off very quickly if you're actually living out of Taiwan's cities.

Daily racism outside of Taiwan's cities (positive and negative) is a fact of life, and as widespread as it might be, will never be acceptable in my eyes.

catherine_sr. said...

Whenever someone *did* scream "Asian!" at me (or "Cheeeeeeeeenaaaa" or "chinky chinky" or "konichiwa") back home in the US, they were almost always doing it in a derogatory context. Whether they were trying to sexually harass me or meant it in a "go back to Asia" kind of way, it was meant to make me feel uncomfortable. No one ever shouted "congratulations" at me because I'm Asian. There were times (especially during the early to mid 1990s) when anti-Asian/immigrant sentiment was so acute in my area that I would be genuinely scared for my family's safety.

On the other hand, there were people who brought up I was Asian because they grew genuinely curious about my background. Usually these people were older or from areas with very few ethnic minorities. It still bothered me (I'm not the Ambassador of Asianness, for fuck's sake! I'm just another random person!) but eventually I realized that it was more a reflection of their background and ignorance, and certainly not malicious. It made me aware that I'm pretty privileged to have the background that I do -- yes, it sucks dealing with racism, but I got to take growing up in a multicultural environment for granted and not everyone gets to do that.

I don't think it's my place to tell someone how they should react emotionally to racism, but, in my experience, being able to place each situation I experience in context has been helpful (even if it means simply keeping my blood pressure down).

Jenna said...

I agree totally, Catherine, of course.

I do feel that when I get the occasional - very occasional, and usually from a child - "HELLO FOREIGNER!" - it's not meant to scare, demean, humiliate or harass me. Obviously it'd be better if that person hadn't shouted in the first place, but I see it as backed by a very different attitude from someone in the USA shouting "Cheeeeena" at a person of Asian descent.

But FWIW sometimes I feel in Asia like any given Westerner is the Ambassador of All Things Western.

Thing is...I feel it a lot less in Taiwan than in any other country I've been to in Asia, with the exception of the Philippines where I can't recall getting that treatment at all, in two visits.

I have to admit, if I am in the USA and see/hear someone who I think is Taiwanese (usually something I surmise from what they say if they're speaking), I feel like - hey, we have something in common and could chat about Taiwan...but more often than not I don't say anything because I certainly don't want any given person of Asian descent in the USA feeling annoyed, bothered or put out by Random Whitey pretending she's your best friend because she's been to Taiwan, too.

An observation, though: with Asian Americans (or other countries), there is a feeling among many - I don't claim to speak for individuals, though - that asking about background (especially the ever-annoying 'so where are you REALLY from?') is irritating or even verboten.

And yet among people born and raised in Asia - say, a Taiwanese person who moves to America in his 20s or older - the feeling doesn't seem to be there: if anything, they're delighted that Random Whitey can speak their language and has been to/lives in their country and can discuss it in detail. A few days ago I went to Happy China Buffet with my in-laws, because I love General Tso's Chicken. I just do. It's not Chinese but I love it. The waitstaff was speaking Chinese, so I talked to our waitress after confirming that she was, in fact, Chinese (plenty of those restaurants hire people who are not from the place that the food claims to be from because 'they look Asian, that's good enough').

And you know, she was absolutely delighted (and I mean that - I can usually tell when someone is actually annoyed but putting on a pleasant face).

Jenna said...

And we're still not sure what was up with those old guys in Puli shouting "congratulations!"

I can't even be offended by that, because it was just so odd.

catherine_sr. said...

"An observation, though: with Asian Americans (or other countries), there is a feeling among many - I don't claim to speak for individuals, though - that asking about background (especially the ever-annoying 'so where are you REALLY from?') is irritating or even verboten. "

From my own experience, that is because it's sometimes hard to convince people that, yes, I AM American. There have been studies done showing that many Americans consider Asian-Americans "foreigners," no matter their country of origin. They simply cannot wrap their head around being Asian AND American. It's basically the same attitude that got Japanese Americans interned during WWII while German Americans were left free to roam.

I think the reason the feeling of defensiveness is more acute among US-born Asian-Americans is because, frankly, it's annoying to be told that we're not "genuine" Americans when that's the only home and culture we have ever known -- especially if you feel a bit estranged from your ethnic heritage. I mean, before I came here, I could barely speak Mandarin, I didn't know my family's history because they never shared it with me and I didn't spend a lot of time with relatives. So when people probed me about my background or asked questions like "no, where are you REALLY from?" it angered me that they would not take "northern California" for an answer.

I deal with the same thing in Taiwan -- Taiwanese people (and some of the more narrow minded expats) don't believe I'm really American, because (as they put it), I don't *look* American.

I think it's different for some (certainly not all) Asian-born Asian Americans because they didn't have that baggage when they were growing up and in the process of forming their identities. (I've noticed that it often depends on how old they were when they moved to the States… I've seen differences in attitude among sets of siblings, for instance).

Over the last four years, I've become more comfortable with the two halves of my identity. For example, it used to really annoy me when Taiwanese people asked "how long have you been *back* in Taiwan?" I always wanted to scream "I didn't COME BACK, I was born in the US! Hence, my American accent that you just made fun of, remember?!?" Now I just brush it off as a figure of speech... in fact, sometimes it gives me a cozy feeling to be considered a member of the "tribe" despite my accented Mandarin and different cultural references. But, yes, it's still a complicated, emotional issue… at least for me, anyway.

Jenna said...

Yeah, I agree. It's totally understandable that that feeling exists among Asian Americans. If I had been born in, say, Hong Kong and people kept asking me 'where are you REALLY from?' I'd have gotten annoyed, too, that they wouldn't have taken Hong Kong as an answer.

I just find it interesting that the same feeling doesn't exist, at least not nearly so much, among immigrants. I do think you're exactly right as to why, though I'd add my observations of how talking about and commenting on race is far more cavalier in Asia than back home and say there could be a cultural element to it. If you grow up in a culture where it's more acceptable to comment on race, then when you move abroad and people comment on your race, it might not feel that abnormal.

Which is why I don't think "HELLO FOREIGNER", when it does happen (and I still feel it's rare even outside Taipei) is quite the same thing as similar incidents in the West. It *is* more acceptable to comment on race here, so telling people they can't or shouldn't is dangerously close to saying that Western culture is 'right' and the Taiwanese attitude on race is 'wrong'. (Don't get me wrong, there are instances of true racism all over Taiwan and Asia, and I do believe there is some objective line beyond which racism is just racism and it's not acceptable in any culture, and I won't make excuses for it in any culture - much like sexism - I just don't think "HELLO FOREIGNER" counts as having crossed that line).

J said...

If calls of "helllooo" are a daily experience outside Taipei we'd only need to spend a day outside Taipei to experience them, no? For my part I've spent about two months added up living in Miaoli, which sees next to no foreigners. Yet I can't remember a single incidence of people calling out to me (perhaps they spoke about me behind my back in Hakka).
The real issue here is racism against southeast Asian laborers. I don't see any connection to Taiwanese treatment of Westerners. I don't think it's very scandalous that we get treated differently; I think this is common in any mono-racial country, and probably more common than white people think in multi-racial western cities. And then you have to separate the insensitive and ignorant from the bullies, as Catherine pointed out. In the case of Taiwan, sometimes I do meet assholes, but they're always harmless and are a tiny minority. I have not heard of any Westerners with different experiences.
I appreciate that I am treated better than people of other races here, but that's not racism against me, that's racism against other races.

Jenna said...

I don't find the differing feeling toward SE Asian laborers and Westerners to be scandalous, either, because I agree - it's not surprising at all.

I do find it to be racist and very unfortunate.

Now, one thing that *does* happen both in Taipei and outside of it are people who strike up a conversation with me simply because I'm foreign. Sometimes in English, more often than not in Chinese when they find out I speak it. Occasionally a very outgoing southern Taiwanese person will try to converse with me in Taiwanese, despite repeatedly hitting a wall because I don't speak it.

I suppose this should "bother" me, because I'm being targeted for conversation solely because I'm a foreigner, a curiosity, but it doesn't. It gives me a chance to chat with all sorts of different people and interact with more locals. I think that's a good thing,

Michael Turton said...

Jenna, the Taiwanese do not treat all foreigners as a cohesive other. But for all intents and purposes, when some jerk makes trouble that balloons, they DO treat us foreigners as an identifiable group that can collectively suffer because of some dumbass. In this case it all looks like it will blow over.

As I said, foreigners may not see themselves as part of a community, but the Taiwanese will treat us as if we are an identifiable group.


Marc said...

Couldn't find the "LIKE" button on your post, Jenna, so I'll just say it.

You know, more often I hear people around the Isla point me out and declare, "Meiguoren" - and I've noticed that a lot of other white folks are called that rather than "foreigner." Sort of irksome if you're a Brit or a Swede, I suppose.

But tonight I was in a shop and someone called me "Erguoren", and when I asked why, she said I looked that way. I told her I was "meiguoren" and she replied that Russians and Americans look the same to her!

John S said...

One previous poster who describes herself as having Asian ancestry was "bothered" when "ignorant" Americans in the U.S. were curious about her background.

Sounds like their may be a bit of a culture gap there. Compared to people in less-diverse parts of the world, Americans generally are quite interested in their own various ethnic backgrounds, and can often tell you about where their various ancestors are from, and how and when they got to the U.S.

Along with this interest in family history comes the notion that it is an appropriate topic for conversation among friends, and that it is appropriate to show interest and ask questions about another's family background. If a person looks a bit different, then people may be that much more curious. So, don't be insulted or overly-sensitive if people are curious.

In Taiwan, I understand completely that people are curious about where I am from and why I am here. I stick out like a sore thumb. Yes, the first few months were strange to be so noticed everywhere. But you either get used to it, or else it makes you uncomfortable enough to leave, or... you stay and write blog posts for years about how annoyed it makes you.

I am a patient guy, and it usually does not "bother" me if people are curious. I don't think they are "ignorant" for being curious.

I do not want special attention, but it is understandable that I get it in some places.

What is annoying, however, is hearing stuff like, "哇! 你們看! 這麼高的外國人! 哎喲! 身體毛好多啊!! ohmygod!" But this really only comes from boys 13-18, and only when they are in groups of three or more. There's always one in the group who wants to be the first to spot and point out the foreigner to the others.

Is that, or shouting "I love you" at the foreigner racist? Is putting Indonesians and Canadians into different categories of social status racist? Probably.

But I do think we can admit that IT IS "cultural" or "don't know any better". Parents in racially-homogeneus societies do not typically teach their children to be tolerant or sensitive to diversity. I've seen the same thing in parts of Europe. That is where their culture/society is at its present stage of development. With greater diversity and sensitivity, this will hopefully change.

catherine_sr. said...

John S: "Along with this interest in family history comes the notion that it is an appropriate topic for conversation among friends, and that it is appropriate to show interest and ask questions about another's family background. If a person looks a bit different, then people may be that much more curious. So, don't be insulted or overly-sensitive if people are curious."

I think you're missing the point of my comments. I'm don't label people ignorant *just* because they ask me questions about my background and I certainly welcome questions from friends as part of a conversation. In fact, that is one of my favorite things to talk about: ethnicity, culture and background.

What is bothersome to me is when I am in a situation where someone already has a stereotype in place they just want me to confirm. Talking to them is like talking to a brick wall.

I don't think I am an "overly sensitive" person, nor am I easily insulted, but I do feel annoyed when the sole reason someone has engaged me in a conversation about my race or cultural heritage is to reinforce their own prejudices.

As I noted in my first comment, which you might have missed, I am in agreement with you that gauging the context of each conversation is extremely important before you start accusing someone of bigotry or racism. And I don't think ignorance is a bad thing if it comes coupled with open-mindedness. After all, that's how most of us learn about other cultures.

catherine_sr. said...

Also, John S., as I stated in my comment, I *am* American, so there isn't a "bit of a culture gap there."

Jenna Cody said...

Catherine, of course I agree (I was going to point out to John that you were born and raised in America and so are American, so there's no culture gap, but I figured you'd come back and say so yourself).

Although as an American I do feel there is a culture gap within our country. I can't assign it an exact geography, but "coasts vs. Midwest" is a rough outline. There is definitely a generation gap that sometimes feels cultural between me and my grandparents.

Michael - yes, some Taiwanese think that way but I can't say that I believe they all do. Some government types looking for a politically neutral place to take a 'stand' (and I do think that Westerners in Taiwan is a fairly politically neutral topic) and a few yokels, but not everyone.

Plus, as I noted, they *don't* see foreigners as one cohesive group: those people see *Westerners* as one group, and laborers/SE Asian domestic workers/Mainland brides as another group. Some people see the KMT diaspora as "foreigners" (I don't agree, despite my strong green leanings).

catherine_sr. said...

Jenna: Yeah, I was thinking after I left my comments that the US is such a huge country, there are bound to be culture gaps within it. I was talking to a friend of mine who is in academia and she said that she feels the problem with Asian American studies is that it focuses mostly on the experiences and history of Asian people in California. I know some Asian Americans who grew up on the East Coast experience culture shock when they visit California and see how confident Asian Americans there seem, because as far as minority groups go, we're relatively visible (in business if not politically) and comparatively affluent.

And, yes, there is the generational thing. Also, as my in-laws report, Texas sometimes seems like an entirely different country :-).

Jenna Cody said...

You know, I have a Taiwanese friend whose grandmother and cousins live in Texas (the cousins were born there) and he attended grad school there.

He didn't comment on whether Texas feels like a different country (I've visited a friend in Houston a few times and I think it does!) but he does think it's friendlier than New York.

That makes me wonder, because while there is Texan hospitality, definitely, there is also a lot of prejudice. New York's not perfect but I'd have thought that he would have felt he was treated better there.

I also happen to think New Yorkers *are* friendly and hospitable. Their directness puts some people off but that's not the same thing as being unfriendly.

John S said...

C'mon... let's not all pile onto Texas! But I guess most of us (me included) would like to think that predjudice is something that happens more in those other places where we are NOT from.

I think Texas is the kind of place where people still talk and even get aquainted with each other at the bus stop, for example. I think that casual and friendly attitude (which may sometimes include honest curiosity) is something that people appreciate.

I have lived here and there around the world, and I know you don't see that everywhere.

Jenna Cody said...

John - thing is, people still get acquainted at bus stops in other places, too. One of my best friends is someone I met at a bus stop in Falls Church, VA (I made a lot of friendly acquaintances on the buses of the DC Metro area).

I've been to Texas and did not personally witness prejudice, but it wasn't a long visit.

But anyway - I didn't choose Texas to single it out as a "bad" place. I chose it because it happened to be where that friend went to school, and so he happened in conversation to compare it to his visit to New York where he felt people were unfriendly (although in New Yorkers' defense, he gave one example and the guy very well might not've been racist per se, he might've just been an asshole to everyone. It was more douchebag material than racist material).