Monday, October 31, 2005

On Being An American in Taiwan

In Asian American studies, they teach you to think that there's this system set up in the world with white people at the top and other people, namely people of color, in solidarity at the bottom. Although I sometimes question this world view, coming to another part of the world, particularly one in which people who at least look like me are in the majority.

I would say that Asians in Asia, compared with Asians in America care much less about white people. However at the same time, the nervousness that many Taiwanese people seem to have about speaking English, or occasionally interacting with white people seems very different than the attitude Americans have when dealing with foreigners in their country.

There's something that's sort of stuck with me, which is a comment someone made about a TA at my school, which is that she likes to show off her English by talking to other Taiwanese people on her cell phone in English. The implication to me was that the speaker thought that this girl thought she was better than everyone else because she spoke good English.

In some ways this reminds me of home, because it seems a similar sentiment to when someone would talk about a haole-fied cousin, or when one of my classmates would use the term "banana" or "twinkie" to describe someone else. It was the same feeling of "He or she thinks they're better than us." Better than of course meaning white. It's not the same here. Westerners and white people are curiousities here rather than a genuine presence, so the feeling is different, but there are definitely times when I feel the difference. That despite everything, I sometimes get the feeling that Taiwanese feel like they have to defer to Westerners because Westerners at the end of the day are better than they are.

For example, when a bunch of white Westerners sit down in some place and start talking in English, paying me no attention because they think I'm Taiwanese. I'm not saying that it's not an honest mistake but at the same time, we're all Westerners in a foreign country, but there's something that separates them from me. Even though we occupy the same space, they don't feel like they have to acknowledge me, assuming I can't speak English Also, honestly, in dealing with Taiwanese people, I lose the edge that some Westerners have simply by making Taiwanese people nervous by their presence. Myself, I don't really inspire fear in the same way.


disreputable bird said...

It does seem illogical that Westerners should be considered superior in a country where they're not in the majority or in positions of power. Sometimes I wonder if it's because most Westerners take their status for granted - it's something they grow up with - and non-Westerners get caught up in their certainty.

Another way to look at being called haole-fied, a banana, or a twinkie is as criticism of people who are trying to be something they're not and are doing it by todaying to the dominant group. I've always thought that the disdain in the terms comes from the idea that these people aren't genuine and are suck-ups on top of it.

And as for not being perceived as Western even tho you are, I know there have been several times here when people at stores or other public places have assumed I can't speak English simply because I look...well, probably like the last Asian they saw somewhere who had to struggle to communicate in English. In casual encounters, people just read the surface and don't make distinctions.

mark said...

These structures of global really exist - nation, race, West-East, man-woman etc - and are revealed when it never even occurs to a group of Westerners that you might not also be a Westerner. It's the way that it never even occurs that for me shows the deepness and also the fundamental banality of these categories. I guess your Asian-Americanness gives you a particular insight into how this stuff works.

It could be worse, though. You could live here in Britain. There is a big Afro-Caribbean and South Asian population, but very small East Asian one here, and people's attitudes to Chineseness is like something out of the 50s. It's Suzy Wong, and Chinese takeaway.