Guest Article: I Am Not Lihai

This week our guest article was written by David Reid, author of one of the most widely read and informative Taiwan blogs, David on Formosa.   We hope you enjoy this guest article as much as we do!

I am not lihai.

It seems that everywhere I go in Taiwan people tell me I am very lihai. This is a commonly used word in Taiwan that in this context means something like amazing or extraordinary. If I do something that is amazing then by all means praise me. However, it seems that even the most ordinary things, when done by a foreigner in Taiwan, make them in the eyes of the locals extremely lihai.

Here are a few examples of the conversations I might encounter.

You can eat stinky tofu?! Oh, you’re very lihai.

You can take a bus around Taipei by yourself. You’re very lihai.

You can speak Mandarin. You’re so lihai.

What does this say about Taiwanese people? I think it means that their experience or expectations of foreigners is limited. They think Taiwan is something that foreigners can’t meaningfully experience or participate in. Admittedly I think some foreigners who come here do live in a relative degree of isolation. Some of them would think doing some of the things mentioned above is lihai. But just because I live in Taiwan and do things that most Taiwanese people ordinarily do I don’t want to be regarded as lihai.

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  1. David, the comment that i find awkward is when TW people say “you’re so lihai!” because you drank a lot of liquor. like that’s an accomplishment to be proud of!

  2. When people have their biases countered by facts, they say things like “lihai”. And Taiwanese people in general are very biased (my parents being good examples)

  3. At first being called lihai was somewhat of a confidence builder for me, now it’s just annoying. I’ll deserve it when I catch a helmet-less child who is thrown from a crashing scooter or help a woman deliver a baby in a stuck elevator. I don’t deserve it everytime I order breakfast.

    Todd’s last blog post..Kyoto – Ryukoku University

  4. i think that David has the principle correct. when one of us acts differently than the stereotyped expectations we are viewed as “special” and thus called so. the trouble is, the stereotypes abound. just the other night at Shao-hui’s birthday party, just when i thought i was surrounded by hip friends who knew me, some girl comes over with the usual “oh so you’re a foreigner and i want to see you up close” tactic. i asked her “how do you know i’m a foreigner?” her answer is “i see your face. you are a foreigner” (she doesn’t understand the concept of an “immigrant”). now the weird part is that this girl went on to tell my wife that because she looks like an aboriginal, people assume she is and treat her differently and usually badly! the irony was completely lost on her.

  5. “Lihai” was a confidence boost for me too when I learning Chinese even when I knew it wasn’t really that big of a deal. These days I just tell people that their English would be as good as my Chinese if they lived in the US or England for 14 years!

    As for stinky tofu, it bugs the hell out of me that friends and Taiwanese relatives I’ve known for years who have seen me eat the stuff on many occasions STILL act surprised when I order it. I just say “That’s what you said last time.” And then I’ll make some kind of joke about them having Alzheimer’s, except when it’s ah-ma’s mother who may actually be suffering from Alzheimer’s!

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