Culture Shock: “Look at the foreigner!”

For those of you wondering what it might be like for an American to live in Taiwan, here’s a snapshot of a typical day:

After conducting a morning training seminar, I repaired to the wedding reception of a close friend. The reception was attended by nearly 400 people, and I was the only non-Taiwanese person in the banquet room. The groom is a professional educator and a graduate of both the #1 high school and the #1 university in Taiwan. His wife works for Cathay Life Insurance. So the crowd, comprised of educators and business people, was well-heeled and well-educated. I felt completely at home, not at all like a foreigner, because nobody treated me like a foreigner. I love to meet people like that, who view me as a person rather than an exotic breed of non-Taiwanese, and who don’t care enough about my nationality to make it an issue.

After the reception, I went to an afternoon meeting that ran until about 5pm. After 45 minutes on the subway, I got off and started walking toward home. Waiting at a stoplight, I heard a man standing behind me say, in Mandarin “The foreigner is going to cross the road,” followed by a woman’s response that was too soft to make out.

I was indeed planning to cross the road, but that was hardly worth commenting on, except for the fact that I am a tall white person in a land of people who don’t look much like me.

I turned to look at this pair and saw an older man, about 60, with a woman in her 20s. They were about two feet away from me.

The man made another comment: “Now he is looking right at you!”

I nodded my head and said, in Mandarin, “He can understand what you are saying.”

The woman then said. “I told you he could understand Mandarin.” I have no idea how she knew I could understand Mandarin, as I don’t wear a t-shirt proclaiming such, and most people who use the third person to discuss a foreigner standing directly in front of them, as if the foreigner is some kind of zoo animal, typically assume that the vagaries of the Mandarin language are beyond the comprehension of the descendants of hairy barbarians.

At this point, I just shook my head, turned back around, and waited for the light to change. They continued to discuss me in the third person, apparently still unable to grasp the concept that I fully understood what they were saying or, more likely, not caring. As much as I enjoy my relationships with well-educated, open-minded Taiwanese people, these sorts of encounters are discouraging. It is quite strange and discomfiting to be made out to be something not quite human by narrow-minded dolts.

Living in Taiwan, this sort of thing happens to me on a nearly daily basis. There is an incident or two per week on the MRT, where I either have to ask people to stop discussing me while I am standing next to them, or I have to change seats to get away from a group of idiots. When I go to China, it is the same, or worse. It actually happened again at the grocery store later today, when I caught a family by surprise, pushing my cart down the aisle they were parked in the middle of. I guess they haven’t seen too many foreigners, because there was a big, loud discussion about various aspects of my foreignness (including the very astute observation that “foreigners also go shopping at Carrefour!”) , and about foreigners in general, even after I had called across the central aisle to my wife, in Mandarin.

What can one do in such situations? Not much, actually. You aren’t going to be able to educate people like that, who are so lacking in any sort of understanding of the larger world that they simply couldn’t wrap their brains around the idea that I am actually just another human, rather than a bloody foreigner. At times like these, you remind yourself that if you lived in the US somewhere, you’d be just another American, which would be nice, but you wouldn’t get to deal with being an outsider, or a zoo monkey, all of the time. Comforting but boring in the end.

Sometimes living in Taiwan is an exercise in dealing with contrasts that can challenge the sanity of even the most easy-going person, but it is that challenge that makes life interesting.

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4 Comments

Filed under Culture Shock, Taiwan

4 responses to “Culture Shock: “Look at the foreigner!”

  1. Yes, it’s annoying isn’t it, but on the grand scale of things it’s little more than a nuisance. Sometimes I’m actually grateful that people’s comments are at the benign level of hey-look-at-that-foreigner, and not hey-let’s-go-beat-up/spit-on-that-scumbag-foreigner. There are plenty of countries where foreigners have to deal with a lot worse sh*t than just being stared at or talked about.

  2. truettblack

    Yes, I go back and forth on this. It is usually only annoying when it happens several times in one day–I seem to have some sort of internal meter that sets off an annoyance alarm after four or five “Look at the foreign monkey!” encounters with adults (with kids, it doesn’t go off at all, because I figure they are the victims of ignorant parents and thus blameless).

    I am aware that for most Taiwanese, foreigners don’t register very high on the radar screen of daily life. That’s actually the way I want it. But when there is some reason to make observations about foreigners–usually when boredom or curiosity sets in–it is often in a very condescending or objectifying manner, and I find it very irritating.

    Sure, I know that for many people it’s just a matter of education, or the lack thereof. I also know that in other countries it is much worse (I mentioned how much worse it is in non-Shanghai China), but it is still annoying. As many my Taiwanese friends like to say “Education!”

  3. It is funny to see how this sort of issues comes up often on blogs or posts written by american people.

    I am french, i understand my bit of chinese, i lived for a little while in Tainan County (where it is much worse) and neither i nor my french friends have any issues whatsoever with this kind of comportment.

    Granted, I’m not married to a local woman (but spent 6 years with the previous one) nor have spend as much time here as i can guess you have, but i still think this shows a cultural bias. As far as we see it, this comportment is just a gentle and usual way to fill in the conversation and express emotions. Quite franckly i think you should get back to a more basic, candid, and innocent vision of this as a way of living all together peacefully.
    I am guessing you may know how acerb and intellectually agressive the french people and our culture can be during conversations and daily life, yet we fortunately seem to be dealing quite well with the “Hello-Kitty Way of life” to be found here.

  4. truettblack

    Well yes, Ed, it is my choice to respond in this way, and certainly, I am a product of my cultural background. I grew up in a city where about 5% of the population is of East Asian descent, and would never think to shout out an identifying comment such as “Look at the Japanese person!” while going about my daily business.

    The fact is, that older man and his daughter are like so many people in Taiwan: uneducated in the ways of the world. As such, I should let their behavior go, and I do in fact usually let it go. The problem arises when I have to ignore this sort of behavior so many times in a day that I begin to feel exhausted with it.

    I suppose my post here is a way for me to work through a fact that I’m going to have to deal with as long as I live in Taiwan. That is, the fact that I will always be a bit of an outsider in Asia. Ironically, I get a great deal of capital, both economic and social, out of the fact that I am an outsider, so it is a complex and sometimes confusing issue, this foreignness.

    I appreciate your comment and I think I understand it for what you intend.

    I look forward to spending a great deal of time in Western Europe in my retirement years. I’ll remember what you wrote about the French. I don’t mind intellectual aggression, if it is intelligent.

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