Saturday, June 29, 2013

"Hi, can I talk to you? Are you interested in meditation classes? Let's have coffee! What's your phone number?"


I've lived in Taipei for seven years now, and there's something I've noticed that goes on here more than anywhere else I've lived.

It seemed like a good thing at first - a point in Taipei's favor - but after awhile, I started to wonder. Then I had a bad experience, and heard of someone else's bad experience, and started to wonder if there weren't people out there, both local and Western, who were taking advantage of the famous friendliness of Taiwan.

The thing that kept happening to me - and still does, although I deflect it more now - is people coming up to me not only to "chat" but also to "make friends" in a way that seems very purposeful. I'm not talking about the sort of chats where you exchange information after awhile because it seems natural. 

I'm talking about the times when they're aching to be your BEST FRIEND RIGHT NOW. The ones whose initial purpose seems to be chatting, but who are noticeably intent on getting your name, phone number or e-mail address. If they get ahold of your phone number they may call you again and again, inviting you "out" or to "join a cool activity" or to "have coffee with us", and will continue doing so even after you've rejected them a few times.

I am writing about it here because it seems to happen far more often to Westerners, especially women, and because it's really easy to get pulled in by this.

And so, because it seems to disproportionately affect expat women, I felt it was worth it to write something.

The two most common (aside from guys trying to hit on you, occasional people with mental health issues or social awkwardness, and people who want you to be their English-speaking friend or teacher) seem to be people from religious organizations (Buddhist and Christian, mostly) and MLM people (think Amway).

I've been approached several times by the religious people - mostly Westerners studying Buddhism. I live in downtown Taipei, by the way, in Da'an. It seems to happen a lot around Technology Building MRT and Shi-da. There is one organization that seems to do the most recruiting around there, but they are by no means the only one in Taiwan that does this.

What happens to me pretty often is that I'll just be walking  - maybe waiting to cross the street or not, maybe with headphones or not - and a very sincere-sounding person will approach me. In my case it's always been women - a few foreign women and one local. It doesn't seem to matter if I'm moving or if I appear to be listening to headphones. They'll come up and try to talk to me anyway. They might start with just "hi" or "it's nice to see another foreign woman" or "hey, can I talk to you for a second" or "can I ask you a question". One has lots of postcards on hand detailing her organization, another "just happened" to have an artfully rumpled brochure that she could give me ("I'll just get another one!").

In every instance, they start out seeming to just want to chat, but quickly reveal that their main purpose is inviting me to an event or scoring my contact information. These tend to be cultural or spiritual activities, from scenic walks to artistic stuff to, more often, meditation and qigong classes or "studying Buddhism".

The first time someone approached me, I was intrigued and took the brochure. I never did join a class or activity because I didn't have time and am not into religion at all, or even spirituality. I also thought she seemed a bit odd, but hey, I can be socially awkward too so who knows. The second time I began to wonder. The time I got someone who seemed truly dotty who approached me with headphones in I grew suspicious. Why DID this keep happening to me? Wouldn't any reasonable person see 'headphones' and think 'she doesn't want to be bothered'? That's half the reason why I wear them sometimes! Another time, someone tried to approach me with the "it's so good to see another foreign woman" line, "it's tough to be here, alone and single, and all the guys are doing their own thing", she said.

"Yeah...I'm not single, sorry. Actually I'm doing great. But I'm sorry to hear you feel that way. If you'll excuse me, I have to get home." I mean I don't disagree with her that a lot (not all, just a lot) of expat guys are dicks, but I do have a husband and male friends and don't really want to start a conversation by disparaging them. I didn't appreciate the assumption that as a Western woman in Taiwan, I must be single and I must be frustrated. That made me wonder if they specifically target Western women who appear to be single. And if so, it made me wonder why (such women are possibly lonelier, and therefore more vulnerable)?

I started talking to others about it, and found that I'm not the only one. Other female friends have said they've been approached in that area, too. It's weirdly common. Most male friends, including my husband, have not, although my husband says he wears headphones almost all the time in Taiwan. He didn’t in Korea and was frequently approached by Christians inviting him to various church activities. 

So after awhile I started talking to people who have had direct experience with this group. The classes and activities you are invited to are all real. although from what I hear "meditation class" is really just a bunch of people gathering around to chat. It's not a front. But if you start out doing the activities and get more involved in the group, they start to try to get ahold of you. They'll hold classes at odd times of night (depriving you of sleep), tell you that you should talk to "good" people with "good" souls (controlling who you talk to and interact with and making it so that all of your good friends are also in the group), will encourage you to speak about any secrets or past issues that "bother you" so that you can be more "at peace" in studying Buddhism (gathering information about you that they may use against you later), making you feel not "spiritual" enough (think of it as spiritual negging - complimenting you on your achievement but telling you that you must do more, in an attempt to make you feel inadequate) and making you feel that without them - their classes, their teaching, their master - that you will be spiritually bankrupt or are hurting yourself. From what I've learned, most of the bad experiences are among the women - men have an easier time of it. I don't know why.

I've seen it with locals, too. The other day I couldn't help but overhear a conversation between an ABC and a local involved in some Christian group. The ABC was using the same negging tactic and disparaging other Christians and atheists to try to keep the local in the group when the local expressed doubts. It's one thing to be in a group together and support each other - and I don't care if your group is spiritual or not - but another to use manipulative tactics to try to keep people in your group.

And in all cases except the final few, it didn't occur to me to be suspicious because "Taiwan is so friendly". I had my guard down. 

And of course, there are the occasional MLM people.

My first experience of this kind was with a devotee of the Holy God of Amway. I was still pretty new in Taipei. I got to chatting with a Taiwanese woman in a ladies' room at a Zhongshan Hall concert - her being Taiwanese is important to the story, as at the time I had few local friends and I was eager to make more. We hadn't chatted long when she asked to exchange contact information. I thought that was a bit odd, but figured "Taiwan is really friendly, and safer than the USA. Maybe it's a cultural difference or she's just a bit awkward, anyway, you don't have to be as guarded around everyone the way you did in DC."

She kept calling me, inviting me to "have coffee together" and "talk about music" (as we'd both been at a concert and were therefore both ostensibly interested in music). "I know the main performer at the concert," she said, "we're friends. I'll introduce you because I think you would like each other." That was the hook I needed - more local friends! Interesting musician friends! I've missed music so much since graduating from college! Her invitation times were never convenient for me. I actually felt bad turning her down so often, but I just couldn't make the random times she suggested. I think a normal person, feeling like their invitations have been rejected a few times, would probably stop calling. I knew I would. But I was still idiotically duped into thinking "but Taiwan is SO friendly, and the etiquette about this sort of thing is probably different than back home" (hint: it's not).

So one day she suggests a day I happen to be free, and I say yes. Then she says she lives in Taoyuan (!) and can we please meet "in the middle" at Taimall in Nankan. I really wish I'd just said no, it's Taipei or nothing, but I'd already turned her down so many times and felt bad. So we ended up on a bus to Nankan, had coffee not at Taimall but at some Amway center behind it, and then got dragged through a presentation I couldn't wait to get away from. You should have seen me sprinting off that bus with Brendan in tow. She never called me again. I never did meet those musicians, surprise surprise.

I was lucky it was just Amway, in retrospect. I have most certainly heard of young foreign women at the business end of cons to trick them into prostitution rings, cults and worse (I have not heard of anything like kidnapping or murder, or rape - although I feel you could call "tricked into joining a prostitution ring" rape, as by the time you figure out what's up, you're quite likely to also be in a position where it's submit or be beaten, held hostage, threatened or killed).

The second time someone was similarly friendly (an older woman on the MRT), I again had to turn down a lot of invitations, again felt bad. She kept calling "to have coffee" and after awhile I felt - "this is just weird". I decided not to take her calls. My previous experience was telling me something wasn’t right. She finally gave up.

The warning here isn't just "don't be dumb like me" - although that's part of it. It's this: Taiwan is an extremely friendly country and for the most part it's safe. All this "Western women being led to prostitution rings" is the exception, not the norm, and seems to be less common than it was 20 years ago.  Even if you are a savvy traveler and would beat a hasty retreat at such over-friendliness in other countries, it's easy to let the soft lullaby of "it's safe here" dull your instincts. Especially if you are female and you've spent your entire life keeping your guard up, expending energy maintaining your psychic and physical fortifications, and you're just tired. The break - the desire to just trust without worrying too much - can be very tempting. And in Taiwan, for the most part, you can give in a little bit and still be safe. But you can't let that blunt your most basic instincts - you don't need to always be ready to kick someone in the soft&delicates (like I was in DC), but there still needs to be some modicum of savviness.

So let the warning be clear: Taiwan is very friendly. People who come up to chat with you are mostly harmless. But "overfriendliness" to the point of pointedly asking for your contact information before you've even really gotten to know the person...that's just as weird here as it is in other countries. Someone commenting on your Chinese ability and then chatting with you for a second is normal and fine (if you don't find it annoying - I don't). Someone approaching you under no pretext, or a flimsy one, and being just as interested in your e-mail address as actually talking to you - that's not normal here. That's not "Taiwan's famous friendly culture". Don't fall for it.

Don't be taken in. Be on your guard, just a little bit. Chat with people, but know where the line is. Above all, be aware. Don't get pulled into a bad situation.If you feel a group is trying to dig its claws into you, if they are trying to get you to come in at odd hours, attend classes at midnight, call you in for no reason at all, tell you who you should and shouldn't talk to, gather information on your past issues or make you feel inadequate as you are, GET OUT.

If someone you have talked to for a total of two minutes keeps calling to invite you out "for coffee", that coffee will most likely either be at a religious center or an Amway center. Don't go.

Taiwan is safe, but that doesn't mean it's utopia.

2 comments:

Alexandra Hartline said...

Thank you for writing this post! I've had very similar experiences, particularly with the Buddhist meditation group you mentioned. I actually attended one of the late-night meditation classes and have since then steered clear. I've advised my friends to stay away as well. I really appreciate your insight about safety and friendliness in Taiwan.

cathy said...

I so wish I had a better memory. Yesterday I met a really nice couple, we bonded over food condiments, started talking about cooking, they invited me to their coffeeshop for a cup of tea...

Turns out the coffeeshop was an Amway coffeeshop. In a huge Amway building. EVEN then I was not suspicious. It reminded me of Amtrak, and as my chinese isn't very good I figured they owned the coffeeshop in the building and Amway was something else.

Only when they gave me a tour of the products and then got all excited when the "teacher" came (photo posted on wall) did the words amway start being connected back to lao ren cha. There was no buddhist talk here which is why it took me so long for it to sink in. thankfully I was able to fake a lunch appointment and high tail it out of there. HOWEVER my chinese is bad and i dont know how to say "it was nice to meet you and you are great people but im not interested in amway or really being your friends as ive got a busy schedule now. thanks and have a good life! sorry!" for when they call back. Too rude? I dont want to drag this out with politeness, I want to make it clear that I am not interested in being associated with amway AT ALL.