Tuesday, July 2, 2013

They Push And They Pull

From here: http://dapili.pixnet.net/album/photo/163886469

This post is about something that's been on my mind these past few days - how hard it is to accurately depict your feelings on expat life in Taiwan in a conversation. I feel like either I end up sounding too negative, or too positive, when really I'm moderate-trending-toward-positive.

Two conversations:

In the first one, I was the only foreign woman on a boat carrying approximately 100 people. Otherwise all the men were foreigners, and all the women were Taiwanese. I don't know how many "ABCs" - or to be more nuanced about it, Westerners of Asian heritage - there were. There was at least one. It turned out later that I was one of two foreign women. I noticed that and commented on it, and although I didn't mean for it to come out particularly negative - negative in terms of the skewed ratios of the expat population, certainly, but not negative in terms of life in Taiwan - it probably did. I probably came across as more bitter than I actually am (which is not very). In another, I was not the only foreign woman there - there were several women, ABC and foreign, and several men of different backgrounds. I was attempting to say how happy I was to see that, that so often it's "Asian women and Western - usually white - men", but again, I probably came off more bitter about it than I actually am.

In the other, I was chatting with a colleague who hates it here. I'm not sure why he's stayed for so long, - the only positive thing I've ever heard him say about Taiwan is a compliment on Taipei's public transportation network (which, let's be honest, is awesome. Poor Taichung. You just don't even know). This coworker is a funny guy and a generally nice person and I don't dislike him. However, whenever he gets on his Taiwan Hate Spree, I feel like I'm put in the position of pointing out all the good things about this country. If he points out the hideous bathroom-tile buildings, I point out the lovely brick Japanese baroque architecture ("but they tore all that down!" "Not all of it, and they're now finally trying to preserve what's left"). If he points out that every taxi driver tries to screw him, I point out that that almost never happens to me, so perhaps he's seeing malice where none is intended (I don't point out that if you can show you speak solid Chinese, beyond knowing your destination, that people are far less likely to try and pull that crap on you). If he points out that "this would never happen in Canada", I point out that his country is far from perfect (although I'll admit it has some strong advantages over the USA) and certainly crazy and annoying stuff happens in Canada, too. All in all, I probably come off as far more starry-eyed about Taiwan than I actually am. I quite possibly sound like someone who thinks this country is perfect.

And...neither are true! I will admit I feel the positives of Taiwan outweigh the negatives by a pretty significant amount. If they didn't, I wouldn't have stayed. Goodness knows I left DC and China after 3 years (not counting college) and 1 year, respectively. They both had their good points, but their negatives outweighed them.

I just feel that, especially in shorter conversations or conversations where you don't know people well, that the natural wending of the discussion will lead many people to come off as too positive, sounding like we think Taiwan is absolutely perfect! In! Every! Way!!, or too negative, in that it! sucks! giant! snakeballs!

If everyone around you is talking about how great Taiwan is and you join in, the one guy who is miserable will assume you're all just brainwashed or full of over-optimism. If everyone around you is having a bit of a whinge (hey, it happens, even for those of us who love it here) and you add your own bad experiences, the one person who loves it here will assume you're all just narrowminded, possibly racist, definitely embittered cultural imperialists.

And yet, if everyone around you is talking about how great Taiwan is and you feel compelled to point out that it's not perfect, everyone else may assume you're, well, narrowminded and bitter (I don't think that happened in my example above, but I've definitely seen it happen - the person who points out a fault is jumped on for being "too negative" when they aren't feeling negative at all, just pointing out one little issue). If everyone is whinging about Taiwan and you feel it's gone a bit 太over啦 (overboard), and start pointing out the positives - as I do with my coworker who will not stop complaining - they may assume you have a head full of stardust (that coworker probably thinks just this about me).

It also happens online - someone who sees one post of yours in a thread either praising or complaining about Taiwan quite possibly assumes that's the sum total, or at least an accurate portrayal, of your entire opinion, and gets a very wrong idea about you.

And, of course, it's also influenced by your mood that day - you may come off as miserable in your life in general if you meet another expat when you happen to be having a bad day or week, or you may come off as Happy Fairy Expat because you happened to have a great day or week. It seems, in the expat world, there isn't much accounting for how you may feel more generally. Either you love or hate it here, and that decision will be made for you by bystanders based on the exact circumstances of that moment, and only those circumstances. I feel people really are more forgiving in their home countries, where most people are culturally integrated. There is more room back home for "she's just having a bad day" or "he's happy with his life, but if you talk to him longer you'll realize he's aware of the negative aspects of his own country, too".

I guess this is because so many expat conversations, especially among people who don't know each other, tend to start out with talking about our lives in Taiwan and what we like or don't like, and snap judgments are made. Not too many conversations in America, unless you're at a Tea Party BBQ I suppose, focus on our lives in America and what we do/don't like about them.

There's no easy answer to this, I just felt like writing about it.

In the end I hope I come off as too positive more often than I do too negative. Frankly, I'd rather have a head full of stardust about where I live. It is where I live after all. May as well try and like it, even on the bad days.

1 comment:

Eileen said...

You basically summed up how I felt when it comes to bringing up Taiwan when I was living there.

"In the end I hope I come off as too positive more often than I do too negative. Frankly, I'd rather have a head full of stardust about where I live. It is where I live after all. May as well try and like it, even on the bad days."

Couldn't agree more. I can't wait to go back to Taiwan.