It's been a long weekend and I'm still recovering from a party last night (oh, Kaoliang, you evil temptress!) but I've been turning this article around in my head since I read it nearly one week ago, and thought I'd share my delayed reaction.
Before I go further, I should note that it's written by a famous - and to some extent, infamous - expat-cum-immigrant in Japan. Asia expats might have heard of Debito: he has settled permanently in Japan and regularly makes the news for his social activism. Some agree with him, some disagree, some agree but don't care for his abrasive manner. The last I'd heard of him was from something he wrote about being excluded from "Japanese only" hot springs along with his child who looks more foreign, while his child who looks more Japanese was allowed to enter. Another Taiwan blogger linked to this most recent article saying we'd "recognize our Taiwan experience" in it.
Here are my husband's thoughts, too. He articulates a lot of things more clearly than I have. His two best thoughts, in my opinion, are 1.) that a lot of expats in Asia expect that Asian countries should approach race in a way that mirrors their own culture's idea of political correctness, and get all bent out of shape when they find out that their own country's way of dealing with it isn't universal, and that not everyone in the world agrees that it's "rude" to bring up race; and 2.) a lot of expats see insult or aggression where there is none, because they're not used to not having the privilege of being one of the majority.
On one hand, yes, there are some things I do recognize. The constant wonderment at the fact that I speak halfway decent Chinese. Friends who know I understand Chinese and yet still ask me if I can "read this menu" or if I need an English menu when we've gone out to eat. People amazed that I can use chopsticks. I've been asked "when" I'm moving home. I suppose, in the right frame of mind, you could consider these, as Debito puts it, "microagressions", whether consciously or not by the employer of them, a means to keep me in a subordinate position, to remind me that I am "other", and to imply that I am not of their country. I can't honestly say that I don't recognize some of my Taiwan experience - some - in these incidents. And yes, at times they can be draining - times when I feel like having a real conversation, for instance.
On the other, no, I just don't buy that they are "microagressions". Something can only be used as a subordinating tool if either the speaker and the listener feels that it is. If the Taiwanese person asking me how I learned to speak Chinese, or expresses amazement that I can use chopsticks, but is asking out of a genuine desire to converse with me and not out of a desire to remind me of my "otherness", and I take it at face value: this person is chatting with me in the way that we might bring up the weather, traffic or something around us to a stranger back home as a means of striking up a conversation. That's all. Are they doing it in a somewhat awkward and occasionally annoying way? Yes. I'd go so far as to say that they probably want to talk to me specifically because I am foreign, and they choose these irritating topics because they just don't know what else to say. I mean, think about it - with a new person in your own country, you start with boring, even annoying topics. Who really cares about the weather? If you don't know someone, you have to start somewhere, and there doesn't seem to be much of a cultural equivalent in Taiwan to chatting with a stranger about how rainy or sunny it is.
Could their amazement at my level of assimilation (which is not 100%, not by a long shot) be construed as an assumption that I am "other", with a whole set of prejudices to go along with it? Yes.
That doesn't mean that such talk is designed - consciously or not - to put me in my place, any more than chatting about the weather is. If they don't intend it that way, and I don't take it that way, then how can it actually be that way? It's not a tree falling in the woods - if nobody is there to scream "racism and microaggression!" - then no, it did not make a sound.
Next, I find that once those "yes I can use chopsticks" topics are exhausted - which is pretty quickly - that if you have chemistry as potential friends, most people do want to keep talking to you, and the conversation becomes more interesting. If they lost interest after all their curiosities were satisfied - OK, she can use chopsticks and has lived here for five years, I know everything I need to know, time to move on - then that would be upsetting. More often than not, though, it's simply not the case.
This may well be one of the reasons why foreigners in Taiwan seem to have so few Taiwanese friends - although I have noticed a greater proportion of local friends among expats here than in China, and we seem to have more Taiwanese friends than our friends in Tokyo have Japanese friends. If you're nobody's classmate, few peoples' coworker and nobody's family, and you rebuff locals' efforts to chat with you when you're out and about, then of course you're not going to make many local friends. DUH 101.
Next, I really feel you can't quite equate foreigners in Asia with immigrants and expats in the USA or any very diverse country: in the USA an Asian person or person of Asian heritage (or whatever, I don't want to twist myself into linguistic pretzels) is not a rarity, at least not in the part of the country I'm from. There's no reason to think any differently of that person than anyone else you'd see on the street. In Asia, I'm sorry but if you're a foreigner, you are a rarity, even in major cities (although to a much lesser extent). That is never going to change. Not even if you stay here forever. Not even if you marry local. The people who live around you and see you everyday will get used to seeing you around, but most people aren't your daily crew. The questions might be old to you, but they are new - or rare - to the person asking them. The dynamics are just different: you can't compare a mostly monocultural/monoethnic society with a diverse one and expect the same prevailing attitudes. This is also why I don't think it's a big deal when Taiwanese people relate to race and relate to foreigners differently than, say, Americans, British or Australians might. They come from and are in a country where most people look like them and, more or less, share their culture. We are not from such a country. You can't expect the same attitudes (although I'd like to see more diversity generally. That would help ameliorate such issues).
Furthermore, Debito might be fully Japanese and attempting to assimilate as an immigrant would, but most of us aren't. Most of us are expats. Sure, we can expect similar treatment to locals in terms of friendliness of service and generally not being subject to racism, but we can't expect to be related to as 100% locals, because we aren't locals. We're not at all. Most of us maintain - as my friend J put it - some sort of connection to an identity that's tied to our own culture and country. It is not wrong to recognize that (although I would draw the line at unfair treatment as a result of it, which does happen). I do think there is an acceptable balance between locals knowing I am a foreigner - because, duh, I am! - and yet treating me respectfully and kindly. To some extent, I am an other in the way that a minority in the USA isn't.
To add to this, I feel that a lot of the time, locals just don't expect that we're interested in assimilating into their culture. Let's be honest - most of us aren't (I am, but only to a certain extent and in certain ways). Most expats will stay as long as their assignment lasts, or will slum it in a cram school for a few years, or take some Chinese classes, and then go home. A very few will stay long-term and fewer still will assimilate fully. Even ones who marry locals might not assimilate, and might eventually return "home" with their spouses. Most locals figure, these folks come from countries we want to move to (allowing a broad definition of "we"). They come from countries that attract immigrants. Westerners already have it all: they wouldn't want to immigrate to this hot, crowded island that I want to escape! For the most part, the locals are right. Few of us are interested in full assimilation, and fewer still actually want to immigrate permanently and gain citizenship. I can't fault the Taiwanese for being right about this. Immigrants and minorities in the USA, while retaining their home culture to some degree, also tend to assimilate through generations. Expats who will eventually go home tend not to. Exceptions are few. We are Other.
The chopsticks thing is annoying - I have been asked this but my husband says that while it happened in Korea, it has happened to him exactly zero times in Taiwan. The other questions, though - well, most foreigners can speak some Chinese, but not always well (and so many can speak hardly any, if any). In fact, the people who seem most impressed by my Chinese ability are other foreigners who haven't learned it. Most do seem to hang out with other foreigners, which I can't entirely blame them for, and are not necessarily knowledgeable about local affairs. Locals express surprise that I know who 千里眼 and 順風耳 are, but let's be honest, while plenty of long-termers or enthusiasts would know, the majority of foreigners would not.
I also feel that a lot of foreigners in Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia are often "looking for a diss". If you're always on your tiptoes looking for something to bitch about, to hate about where you live, to be offended by, BY GOLLY YOU WILL FIND IT. Sometimes the complaints are valid - even I need to blow off steam sometimes. My pet peeve is slow walkers with no consideration for other pedestrians sharing the sidewalk, escalators or MRT platforms. Especially in the rain.
Sometimes, though, they're ridiculous.
"People never sit next to me on the MRT or bus. They're afraid to sit next to foreigners!" Yeah, no. I have found that to be completely untrue. Maybe you just look creepy, because I don't have that problem. I've heard this three times, once on a blog, once from someone whom I think heard it said at Brass Monkey or whatever and was just repeating it, and once from a guy with really bad breath (so with the last one, well, that's the reason, we're just all too polite to say so).
I'm sure this has happened - I'm sure that occasionally a foreigner will find themselves on a full train or bus and notice that the only empty seat is next to them. I just don't think it's a "phenomenon", I do think that sometimes (not all the time) this has to do with the actual foreigner in question, and that occasionally those who notice this might not notice the 1 or 2 other empty seats also on that bus or train car. Allowing for random chance, that brings the likelihood that this is some sort of anti-foreigner racist no-sitting conspiracy very low, if not nil.
Or in IKEA, between two foreigners in line behind me: "The Taiwanese don't understand foreigners speaking Chinese! Sometimes I think they don't want to understand us. They don't want us to learn their language, so they purposely misunderstand! Just a minute, I need to buy a bag and the 22 kuai ones aren't there." Then, to the clerk, "可以買二十二塊的包子嗎？"
And, y'know, maybe if you're constantly looking for a diss, looking for offense where none was meant, then maybe again that's why you're having trouble making local friends. Debito says some foreigners "cultivate a group of close friends, hopefully Japanese but probably not" in order to deal with this. I can't speak for Japan, but while I concur that it can be challenging to make local friends in Taiwan, it's not impossible (I did it, and I can be so socially awkward it's not funny, despite being outgoing). If you're a long-termer and your circle of good friends includes no Taiwanese other than maybe your girlfriend, then the problem is you.
Obviously, there are times when locals - especially in a work situation, or when members of the opposite sex are involved - do try to put foreigners "in their place". These instances are especially insidious, though, and have much more impact than a simple "oh, wow, you can use chopsticks!". While many locals might feel shy or a bit nervous around foreigners - something more diversity will help change, as will more cross-cultural friendships (not so much relationships, but friendships - I feel that when you take sex out of the equation the influence is actually stronger) - fairly few will feel the need to force you into a subordinate, "other" position. And they're usually your boss, or some local guy who wants the girl you're macking on.
Finally, a quibble with the article itself rather than its assertions. To quote:
Alas, my actions to stem or deter this just make me look alarmist, reactionary and paranoid in the eyes of the critics (especially the NJ ones, who seem to think I'm somehow "spoiling" Japan for them), either because they haven't experienced these microaggressions for themselves, or because they live in denial.
Well, if someone who lives abroad hasn't experienced these microaggressions for themselves, then maybe they're not as common as you think? DUH 201, which you can take after you pass DUH 101 as a prerequisite? I can understand how the constant sameness of the questions wears you down, but maybe, just maybe, the "invisible insults" you read into them aren't the microaggressions you are making them out to be?
I also can't really get on board with "...or because they live in denial". I mean, that's just like saying "those of you who don't agree with me are stupid" or "if you don't see what I am talking about, you are an idiot" rather than forming a clear argument and strong case. It's a wimp's way out - although I am tempted to use it on certain types of conservatives.
I get asked these questions fairly frequently. It gets irritating sometimes, but I don't feel insulted or subordinated. I do draw a distinction between actual subordination based on racism and these silly conversation topics. I don't think this means I "live in denial" - just that I approach it differently.