Sunday, February 26, 2012

On "Going Native"

A highly fluent student of mine used this phrase, not necessarily something I'd teach, to describe me after I mentioned in one class that I am an avid user of 白花油,萬金油 and various other aromatic, camphored oils, that one room of my apartment is decorated with Hakka flower fabric, that I go to temple parades regularly and actually try to keep track of where and when they will take place, and that I regularly brew lao ren cha at home. 

I thought about it, and realized that no, he was not quite correct. "Going native" implies that you're acting and thinking more or less like everyone around you instead of knowingly sticking out and staying somewhat separate.  But how many Taiwanese people do you know who use White Flower Oil, decorate their apartment with Asian textiles (not just the Hakka fabric - I've collected textiles from around the world - mostly Asia though - for years), make tea that way and actually follow those temple parades as a hobby? Some might do many of those things, but at the very least, I don't know many people who would decorate that way: it may look Asian, but deep down, it's super-duper-foreign-tastic to do that. Well, not the oils. Using them is totally common.

I joked that if I wanted to "go native" for real, my apartment would have white walls and a tile floor, bare walls save for one red-and-gold calendar with a fat Buddha on it, a round table with metal legs and some chairs, one of those wicker stools that's lacquered heavily, to the point where it's orange-yellow, a blue or black vinyl couch with lace doilies on the back, a flat screen TV attached to one wall, and a yellow wood over-lacquered side table topped with thick plastic that's a bit old and discolored, topped with one of those purple orchid plants (fake would be OK). I'm joking, know. Not really joking.

Or, if I had money, I'd decorate it in a Hola Casa (ever been in that store? Furniture sets for the jet set) purely Western, white-leather-and-dark-wood style, not a trace of anything "Asian" anywhere.

And I'd pay little attention to temple parades, but a lot of attention to TV, although watching a lot of TV is hardly relegated to Taiwan.

And I wouldn't drink traditionally brewed tea, I'd drink lattes (I drink those, too, for what it's worth).

And, in the end, the very things that might cause one to believe that a foreigner has "gone native" are in fact the things that have caused me to stick out.

Or, as one friend put it, "Even if I didn't know you, if I saw this apartment I would say 'foreigners live here'."

Me: "Why?"

"Because it's too Chinese!"

1 comment:

Readin said...

I don't know how "going native" is usually used, but when I've seen it it has generally implied a switch of loyalty from your original country to the country you're living in. But I can see various degrees of that.

You can choose to reject everything associated with your home in order to totally embrace the other culture. I think this is unnatural and different and would likely lead to one being "more Taiwanese than the Taiwanese".

Another degree would be to abandon your original position as a foreigner to live among the natives, but without the deliberate rejection of your own native culture. For example, obtaining Taiwanese citizenship (if possible), buying a permanent home, etc.. In this case you are making Taiwan your home and Taiwanese people your people, but with the realistic understanding that you'll never be fully Taiwanese and that as much as you love Taiwan there are still things about your own culture that you love and that are part of you.

I would say that I was at the next level, which is not quite "going native". I was "in Taiwan but not of Taiwan". I lived among the Taiwanese. Outside of one or two people at work I had little to no contact with other foreigners. My livelihood was all in Taiwan and I did not receive external support. The foods I ate, the transportation I used were the same things available to Taiwanese (though I didn't necessarily make the same choices). But the key thing was that while I had a strong affection for Taiwan I was always in my heart an American. While I saw wonderful things about Taiwan, I loved America more.