Sunday, May 13, 2012

Yes, I Can Use Chopsticks: A Rebuttal

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.


Brendan said...

See, if I ever actually got 'Can you use chopsticks?' here in Taiwan I'd naturally assume that I was being involved (against my will) in a piece of performance art concerning interactions between Asians and Westerners. And I would respond that I was uninterested in playing that role, I have my own life to live, sorry.

But that leads into one point I want to make: people in Taiwan, Korea, and probably China and Japan (I haven't lived in the latter two places) have things they say to foreigners to be polite that aren't meant to be taken literally. Koreans are infamous for complimenting foreigners on their chopsticks use. It's practically an in-joke among the expat population. But I never, ever felt that there was the assumption that, as a foreigner, I wouldn't be able to use chopsticks.

I used to joke that Koreans did this because they knew it was a national stereotype and, as patriotic Koreans, they felt they had to do their part to keep up appearances and keep asking foreigners if they possessed chopstick-utilizing skills.

But in reality, it's all about polite conversation. It's basically small talk. They feel as if they're missing out on a conversational gambit if they see you using chopsticks and they don't compliment you on it.

I suspect complimenting a foreigner on being able to make themselves understood in the local language is similarly done out of politeness. I always feel like I'm in the minority when I say so, since the idea that East Asians are uniformly astounded when white people can speak their languages coherently seems to have taken up residence in the minds of a lot of expats, but it's honestly the impression that I get.

Now I'm going to make this long comment even longer. I like to reduce what seems like cultural differences to first principles, perhaps unfortunately for people within earshot of my pontificating. As I already mentioned on Facebook, I honestly get the feeling that the source of a lot of the 'microaggressions' aggravation stems from the fact that these Westerners, for the first time in their lives, do not have in-group privilege. In-group privilege means, when a stranger makes an odd assumption about you, you don't have to wonder if it's because of your ethnicity (or other social group). On this point I suspect there isn't such a huge gap between countries like the USA and countries like Taiwan.

Yes, the USA is more multiracial, but I've heard anecdotal evidence of people not of the dominant racial group in the USA experiencing much the same kind of 'microaggressions'. Not from everyone, of course. But on the flip side, I interact with people every day who are probably interacting with me in precisely the same way that they would if I were native Taiwanese and had the ethnic features to match. And that's me with my pretty poor level of spoken Mandarin.

Okay, I need to turn this into a blog post. This comment is way too long.

Taiwanxifu said...

Oh, now I am beginning to worry that there is something wrong with me! No-one ever asks me if I can use chopsticks. Maybe this is because I live and work in downtown Taipei, and people will notice you are a foreigner but try so hard to be cool and cosmopolitan about it. And I have noticed similarly that other foreigners tend to avoid eye contact with each other, presumably because they want to show they are cool and localised (so different from my experiences in southern Taiwan as a student 15 years ago where you would practically wave at other laowai!)

My most commonly asked questions are about nationality (are you American?), the number of years I have been in Taiwan (usually when I am able to articulate an address to a taxi driver), whether I have accompanied my husband to Taiwan (actually the other way around) and whether or not I like stinky tofu. I don't tend to have empty seats next to me on the MRT, so good I guess to know that I don't look creepy or have BO.

As a mother of a Eurasian boy, people's reaction is interesting. Mostly they look at him, then look at me, then back again but don't say anything about nationality (although it sometimes provokes the start of an English conversation). My little boy looks more like his Dad so it is clear that he is Eurasian. But recently a Taiwanese friend married to an Australian said that other parents in Taiwan constantly asked her if her little boy is 'hunxuer' (mixed blood). She was getting quite frustrated by it. He is blond so I guess he stands out, but it is interesting how people were more direct to someone of Asian appearance than a Westerner.

Jenna Cody said...

I live in downtown Taipei too and rarely get asked *in* Taipei about my chopstick use - but I often work in places like Tucheng Industrial Park, Wugu Industrial Park, Hsinchu Science Park, Taoyuan County (and occasionally downtown or Xinyi) and I get asked all the time in those non-central places where one rarely encounters foreigners, and when you do, they're usually visiting on business and actually can't use chopsticks.

I usually get asked how long I've been here, if I'm married, whether I have children (and "why not" when I say I don't), whether I am a student (because I speak Chinese and I suspect a lot of people expect that students can, but cram school teachers and businesspeople can't) and what I think of Ma Ying-jiu.

John Scott said...

"Micro-aggressions"? Oh, no-- another trendy pop-psychology term that I need to add to my vocabulary? :)

The empty-seat-on-the-bus/MRT "thing" (sure it's not a phenomenon?) has happened to me many times in Taiwan. Is it my fault? Perhaps you are right, because I am quite tall and have a beard, and am obviously of European ancestry.

But it doesn't really bother me, because I understand that people (me included) are operating under a very complex set of both conscious and subcounscious social expectations, learned behaviour and cultural conditioning which none of us are actually able to articulate at any given time. In other words, I don't take it personally.

Here's a variation on that "thing" which I see from time to time. Beside me is the one empty seat. Guy gets on and heads for the seat, then notices me, stops in his tracks, looks around to find another seat, sees none, so takes the empty seat with a sigh of resignation. The first time another passenger gets off the train, the guy walks over to take that seat, sits down and can finally relax comfortably.

Of course, I ride the bus/MRT almost daily, so I don't notice the 1000s of times it DOESN'T happen! But we do remember the few times that it DOES happen. We remember the few times when people have some particular reaction to us. We don't notice the people who have no particular reaction.

I think some grad student in sociology should use a hidden video camera and go around setting up these kinds of "micro-aggressive" situations as a sort of experiment in sociological analysis. Or maybe the silly evening Taiwanese comedy shows could have fun with that!

MKL said...

This is one of the best articles I've read recently. I definitely need to bookmark it to use it as a quote for some of my future posts. Big thumbs up from me. I agree 100%.

Jenna Cody said...

John - the thing is, I really don't think it's a phenomenon. With one possible exception: it might happen to Western men more than it does to Western women, and it gets so much press because 1.) the men notice it and 2.) there are more foreign men than women in Asia. I could see how someone might find a Western woman less 'threatening' than a man and therefore be fine sitting next to her. I have never, ever, EVER had someone do what you described as a variation on this. Of course that doesn't mean it doesn't happen, just that it's never happened to me - which might mean it's so rare as to not mean anything, or might mean that it doesn't happen to women as much.

But, more likely, rather than it being a "phenomenon", I think it happens quite rarely but the Westerner it happens to notices simply because it's out of the ordinary, and blows it up into something bigger than what it is - when sometimes it's just one racist, wimpy person and sometimes it's the luck of the draw and sometimes it really is that the foreigner looks sketchy.

Not to say *you* look sketchy. I don't even know you. You're probably fine. Not every foreign guy in Taiwan does look dodgy, but I'll be honest, enough of them do that I think sometimes it might just be because of them.

John Scott said...

I am definitely NOT the prickly type who is looking to identify cultural transgressions. When I am living and working in a foreign country, I am trying my best to blend in and disappear ...which admittedly is much easier in some places than others. But I admit that my interests in history and culture do make me curious about the way people react to me.

Another reason for my curiosity is because I have lived/worked long-term in several countries, and so it is interesting to see the big differences in how foreigners are perceived by locals.

I wouldn't call these kinds of situations racist, and would never waste breath "blowing them up", etc., because that would be essentializing the dynamics far beyond what is necessary to explain them. Most (like the empty seat thing) are simply examples of gut-level reactions to a set of circumstances --not some carefully considered decision.

It is simply one small outward manifestation of the types of reflexive behaviours that one is likely to see any place or culture where people are not used to dealing with diversity or Others in their daily surroundings.

People who react to foreigners in that way ( ANY similar social situation, not just the empty-seat thang) are probably going to have that reaction regardless of how the particular foreigner in front of them is dressed, for example. The reaction comes basically from a person seeing a foreigner in a place/situation in which they are not prepared to have a close encounter with one – I really doubt that it is about them forming a split-second opinion of the approrpriateness of my hairdo or my color scheme.

Of course, I am aware that the hairy arms ARE a bit scary here... but I'm not into waxing. Should I try harder to fit in?

I mentioned this kind of behaviour (micro-behaviour?) to Taiwanese friends, and here's some of the best explanations I got:

It's not necessarily that that person doesn't like foreigners, it's just that that they are unsure about what they are expected to do when sitting right next to one. They are probably the type who notices/stares at foreigners, and so they are also afraid that if they sit next to you, people will stare at them, also. They are afraid that other people will wonder why they chose to sit next to you, and that people will watch to see what they will do while sitting next to you; if you will speak to them, if they will speak to you, etc. The point is that it is just so much easier for overly self-conscious people like this to just not sit down at all, and thereby avoid that whole complicated set of choices and "face"-related social threats.

It's more of a "comfort-zone" thing than anything else. People who are not worried about how to react next to a foreigner (and who don't care what other people are thinking) will not react in that way.