Or, “Don’t Bother Me, I’m Eating!”
I probably wouldn’t be writing this article if it weren’t for Fili, who has 2 excellent articles this week on a similar subject. I suggest that you read those articles to get some background information and another viewpoint.
A few days ago Hui-chen and I went to see the new Indiana Jones movie at the Hsinchu Vieshow theater complex. The theater is in a mall and there are some good places to eat before the movie, and that is just what we did. Enjoying my lunch at the excellent Wasabi restaurant, I was surprised to look up and find a woman standing way too close to me, with that dumb smile on her face that only a local person can give to a person they perceive to be a “foreigner” when they are “admiring” them. If you are not native born and spend any time in Taiwan, you know exactly what I mean. A pandering, condescending smile that is akin to “Awww, isn’t it cute?” that just frosts my ass.
I’ve lived in Taiwan long enough that my personal Chinese conversational skills are sufficient to handle just such occasions.
“Is there a problem?”
“Is there a problem?”
“What are you looking at?”
“I asked you what are you looking at?”
By this time I realized that I had a live one (as my father used to say). I gave her an icy stare and she walked away without saying so much as a single word.
Hui-chen had been getting more food from the buffet line at the time, and when she returned I told her about the rude woman who had been staring at me while I was eating.
Believe it or not, she came back. Only this time, she walked directly over to our table and sat right down! Not only was she not invited, we didn’t even see her coming up from behind us until she had pulled the chair out and sat down. Her introductory line was “What country are you from?”
Folks, if I told you how much I hate being asked that question, you would have to at least double it to get the feel of how much I honestly don’t like to be asked. The reason is because it’s a assumption and a stereotype. When someone opens the conversation with that question, I always ignore them because I have no interest in anything that follows. That opening line just pegs my Bull Meter [………./]
I looked at my wife. She was incredulous. Hui-chen asked “What do you want?” The woman answered “I want him to help me.” She then turned again to me and said:
“Are you German or Italian?”
(Are those my only choices?)
“Lady, I’m Taiwanese.”
[Laughs] “You’re Taiwanese?”
“Yes, and you’re very rude!”
She had taken a name card from the restaurant and scribbled 2 phone numbers on it. She attempted to give it to me. I refused to look at it. Just then, the manager came over and told her to get lost. She attempted to leave the name card behind, but I threw it at her. The manager apologized profusely but I assured him that he hadn’t done anything wrong, it wasn’t his fault, she’s a nutcase, etc. People sitting around me were clearly embarrassed by this woman’s behavior.
Why did this happen? I’ll tell you why: because of a deep-seated lack of respect for people who do not appear to be “Taiwanese.” Buy why is there such a lack of respect? This question is going to be asked for decades because it takes generations to wipe such things out. But know this – that woman never would have done that to someone who “looks” “Taiwanese.” Never. Ever.
Back in the US, these issues were beaten into me over time. I’ve been through the American Civil Rights movement, busing (to eliminate racial segregation) the Feminist Movement, you name it! It wouldn’t occur to me to view someone’s race or gender as a consideration in any event. I can proudly say that I only associate with people who are of the same viewpoint. Taiwan has experienced none of this “beating up” and in fact, stereotypes that are illegal in the US are commonly held here. Assumptions are rampant because quite frankly, nothing happens to anyone who would say them. Back in the US, saying “blacks smell bad” would earn you a NY City ass-whooping. In Taiwan, everyone would agree while pouring more Taiwan Beer, the majority of people being in agreement, having never actually met a black person before.
So, why shouldn’t that woman have assumed that I’m here on business, or an English teacher and ready and willing to accept any level of humiliation in my haste to get a few extra NT on the side for doing whatever she requires? Why should she even consider that her actions were rude? After all, I’m not a person, right? I’m a “ghost” a “foreigner” or “English teacher” – anything except a “person.” The fact that this kind of stereotyping is morally wrong just doesn’t matter. She doesn’t get it. Hardly anyone does.
People love lists. So here is a list of some of the outrageous stuff I’ve personally been told:
- Foreigners are here to help us learn English.
- I think I know my English teacher (in response to my saying I’m not that person’s former teacher).
- Honestly, you all look alike to me.
- I know you’re a foreigner because I can see your face.
- There’s a foreigner – go talk English (mother to small kid in the night market).
- Wow, you opened your own business in Taiwan! So, can you teach me English?
- [In English] Wow, you can speak Chinese? Amazing!
In the US, we are taught to respect all people as equals. If a foreigner comes to the US and they have a Green Card, then they are considered to be an American and treated as such. My next door neighbors were from Cambodia and they owned a home, cars and all had Green Cards and driver’s licenses. I never tried to yell Khmr, Thai or any other language at them over the fence. We spoke in English. They were the nicest people you’d ever want to meet.
My wife and I run a successful trading company in Taiwan. We own a home, 2 cars and yes I have a “Green Card” (called an ARC in Taiwan). All I have to do to qualify for Citizenship is to remain here for 2 more years and process the paperwork. For all intents and purposes, I am a Taiwanese and I consider myself as being so. And yet, yesterday a woman moving her motor scooter said “Excuse me” in English. How does she know I speak English? I speak Russian too, but no one here has ever spoken a single Russian word to me. Aren’t Russians “white” too?
Get this – people on the street speak English to Hui-chen because she is with me. I’ve endured incredible conversations where people started questioning where my wife is from because she is with me. “Can your wife speak Chinese too?” “Yeah, probabably since she is Taiwanese.” Duh. What are people thinking?
They’re not. Plain and simple. They are simply reacting on a base level. Because I’m a “foreigner” my wife/gf would have to speak English, so the chances are good that she is an “American” too, right?
So, what’s it going to take for the local people to consider me as a Taiwanese? This is the reality that has set it. It’s never going to happen.
Nevertheless I am not going to let anything hinder my love and appreciation for this country and it’s people. I love Taiwan and I’m here to stay. So, get used to it!