Taiwan culture shock: Wishing you weren’t a foreigner

You know when you are an vacation or business you have to press palms and talk about yourself. You happily do it for the first few months in Taiwan, but then you remember you are not in Taiwan for two weeks, and sooner or later the non-PC unsubtly and stereotypes begin to get you down – and you lose your perspective for a little time, start to wish you weren’t a foreigner.

On this occasion I was sat outside my school on a bench waiting for class.

“Wai gwo ren (Foreigner),” shouted a passing young mother as she turned her little daughter’s head in my direction and pointed.

“Wave! Quick say, ‘hello’,” she continued, now stopping her daughter dead in front of me, expecting a hello back from the foreigner.

Not again, I sighed, looking around me for other prying eyes, now embarrassed by my white skin.

“Hi,” I answered begrudgingly because I couldn’t bring myself to use the speech I had prepared about the fact that I was a person, and this street wasn’t a zoo; that the Taiwanese didn’t disturb perfect strangers from their own country — Had I signed away my privacy after getting off that plane at Chiang Kai-Shek airport?

“Where are you from?” the mother asked. I was asked this question, along with: ‘How long had I been…’ and ‘Was I used to it?’ a thousand times a day, and, I was beginning to think it was racism.

How did she know I wasn’t from here? Apparently, there was one white guy with a Taiwan passport, and she might have stumbled upon him.

“Here,” I said determined to make a point.

“Really?” she answered sceptically. “So how long have you been here?”

“I said, ‘I am from here. I was born here.”

“Are you used to it here?”

“I am from here. I have lived here all my life. And, of course, I like Chinese food.”

“Really?” she insisted. She was now annoyed I had spoilt her chance to ask if he liked the food. “So…um…where are you actually from? America?”

“Yeah, I give up. ”

“Very good,” she replied. “Huh. Wow. Nice to meet you – Uh…you English teacher?”

“Student,”I replied outraged she would pigeon-hole me in that way, even though I was also a teacher like everyone else.

“You want to teach my son?” she asked.

It was futile she had broken me: “Why not,” I replied. “And when I come to your house I want proper imported coffee, freshly ground from beans. Not the 3-in-1 packets of instant coffee, powdered milk and sugar you Taiwanese drink…Definitely no Chinese tea. If you want to give me lunch then it has to be pastrami on whole wheat bread, heavy on the mayo. And the first time I come to teach, you will have to come and pick me up at my house because there is no way I can find anything in your city…Of course I can’t speak any Chinese.”

“No problem. You come on Saturday for dinner and we take you to TGI Friday. You like steak, right?”

“I am American, aren’t I?”

“Great. I must go,” she said rushing off to her car.

In hindsight I know she couldn’t wait to get home to tell her sister they were all going out to dinner on Saturday with a foreigner, and to ask her where to buy a coffee maker. But at the time all I could think about was she was wearing clothes from a good label and dragging her kid into her double parked Benz. She was obviously middle class, and she should know better than to teach her kids to point at foreigners on the street and make generalizations. She should know only the ethnic minority, because they are sensitive and oppressed, has the right to bring up the colour of their skin, and their ethnic stereotypes. Like it was back home.

Still I thought of the free steak on Saturday, the daily praising of my country, and the well meaning unsubtly of the mother. I felt churlish and ungrateful.

I knew I should just go with the flow. Still it took a while.

About the Author

I have been in Taiwan for nearly fifteen years, deciding to complicate life by adding cultural confusion to the mix of going from cocky early twenties guy to more mature family man. Along the way I have gone through almost every stage that we foreigners do unconsciously trying to reconcile culture shock, love of Taiwan and home. I have also spent alot of my time outside of teaching, being the only foreigner in local companies - big, small, legit and borderline. Dan blogs frequently at his own site,Betelnut-Equation

24 Responses to “ Taiwan culture shock: Wishing you weren’t a foreigner ”

  1. makes me want to ride my bike and eat some hamburgers and buy a lot of stuff at Costco.

    Seriously though… nice post. I can definitely relate.

  2. Pff you’re lucky. It is infuriating to be mistaken for an American every day (because, of course, all white people are Americans). Even my girlfriend’s nieces and nephews refer to me as the ‘maigworen’. In fact, even Americans have the annoying habit of mistaking other white people for Americans.
    Not American (that’s going on my tombstone).

  3. Haha – Tricky Business – You sound like a Canadian.

  4. Yeah, that’s the second mistake Americans make 😉

  5. Your tombstone should read “Not American, and definitely not Canadian”.

  6. I felt like every single Taiwanese was conspiring about which top 10 questions to ask foreigners when they saw them. Of course, it wouldn’t matter where or when… see eating dinner or mid conversation with someone else. I got to the point that I would pretend not to be able to speak Chinese or English if I wasn’t in the mood to do the intro language dance.

  7. Hey there,
    Thanks for the honesty in this article. Well, I have to admit it feels terrible when the locals keep treating you like a tourist, and never listen what you have to say. I am very sorry for that, on the behave of one of those ‘most friendly groups’ in the world.
    I’d like to encourage you though (if it helps…:P) The situation in Taiwan is much better than other developing countries in the world, at least no one over-charge you, or expect to receive gifts from you for granted. People are generally nice there, they are. If you had been to India, you would be amazed that people actually tried to touch you physically (super star experience?) or take a photo of you……
    I guess in this case, Taiwanese are welcoming like that, but it’s good to know they would never expect something from you. Isn’t it a part of a culture you can enjoy while you’re there? Free steak c’mon! (you can be as healthy as ever) I really do hope you get to enjoy more.

  8. I think it has to do with the education system in Taiwan. Children brought up in Taiwan have been forced to be good in English, and they envy those who can speak English well. So being around foreigners will somehow make themselves feel “upgraded”. I think Taiwanese people should take pride in their own language. Being a taiwanese who does not know how to read chinese, I received little criticism at school, because everyone is encouraging the use of English. The education system in Taiwan is falling apart just because of the sudden usage of English textbooks in universities. Many of my classmates just don’t want to study them. They crave for the knowledge, but those textbooks hindered them from learning. No wonder we people in Taiwan can’t make good progress in their specializing fields.
    Anyways, the article you’ve written is interesting, but please always keep this in mind, “The people here will always welcome you, no matter where you are” and you should always be proud of the nationality God has given you, because it’s been done for a purpose.

  9. Your anger at Taiwanese people’s clumsy attempts at friendliness is pretty common among foreigners, even ones who’ve “learned to go with the flow” as you say.
    I remember talking to a foreigner many years ago and he was outraged that a Taiwanese family he’d just met had invited him into their house to have tea. He turned them down, but this experience had clearly made him very angry.
    I’m paraphrasing here but the gist of what he was saying to me was, “What, because I’m white??!! Because I’m American? I don’t know you. Why would would I come into your house and have tea? WTF?”

  10. Some foreigners are just crazy and don’t respond well, but I also felt annoyed by the whole limao friendliness thing. I think it is a way the Taiwanese attempt to keep you close and far away at the same time. Sort of controlling and manipulating at the same time. Not everyone takes it to the extreme, and I was thankful they were at least pretending to be nice rather than the many poor alternatives.

  11. Great post. I don’t live here but come to Taiwan once or twice a year to stay with my wife’s family for a month or two, ironically so that my kids can speak & write better Mandarin.

    The questions you mention are spot on. May be there is a web site somewhere with that all Taiwanese consult with the top 10 questions? I was even asked how old I was yesterday, not uncommon but it was the second question. Was expecting the money question but it didn’t come. I had to also point out that those people there are my wife and kids, not a tour guides.

    @ Tricky Business.. the first thing I learned in Chinese was “I’m not American, I’m English.”

    @ Johnny Z… I once resorted to my very poor French

    Not sure what it is about eating Chinese food that the Taiwanese find so surprising. I’m from England and we pretty much eat food from any country.

    I have though lapsed into the very reluctant reply of “Hallo” and a general feeling of “Can you just get over it?” Some woman drove past our shop today and nearly fell off her scooter as she stared at me.. 10 years ago I might have thought it funny, now I’m not so much angry, just bemused by the reaction.

    We all know what the pandas feel like in the zoo.

  12. Ah, white people complaining about so-called “racist” behavior.

    MY GOD…they said, “hello” to me on the street! Then they proceeded to offer me a chance to earn tax-free income and a free meal. Those insensitive bastards!

    please do shut up.

  13. Not nice Blackballs… Once you are in Taiwan an extended period of time you will get all types saying hi to you for good and bad.

  14. Cindy: Hey there,Thanks for the honesty in this article. Well, I have to admit it feels terrible when the locals keep treating you like a tourist, and never listen what you have to say. I am very sorry for that, on the behave of one of those ‘most friendly groups’ in the world.I’d like to encourage you though (if it helps…:P) The situation in Taiwan is much better than other developing countries in the world, at least no one over-charge you, or expect to receive gifts from you for granted. People are generally nice there, they are. If you had been to India, you would be amazed that people actually tried to touch you physically (super star experience?) or take a photo of you……I guess in this case, Taiwanese are welcoming like that, but it’s good to know they would never expect something from you. Isn’t it a part of a culture you can enjoy while you’re there? Free steak c’mon! (you can be as healthy as ever) I really do hope you get to enjoy more.=)CINDY

    It is not free, she thinks by inviting an American that her kid can learn English…otherwise he won’t be invited.

    Let’s take it for what it is instead of constantly saying ‘Taiwan is better than other third world countries’ etc…

  15. I think what people get angry about is ‘ignorance’. Because even with high income, high education etc. most Taiwanese insist to stereotype people of different colours and they continue to teach this to their children. Not only is it poor manners, it is giving their children an unbalanced and frankly wrong view of the outside world.

  16. European in Taiwan:
    I guess in this case, Taiwanese are welcoming like that, but it’s good to know they would never expect something from you. Isn’t it a part of a culture you can enjoy while you’re there?

    Cindy, You are right. I have never had a real bad experience in Taiwan. Not a terrible, stolen item, stabbed or assaulted experience. The sort you often get in London.

    On the whole what people are saying here are minor things. I love Taiwan and the Taiwanese. There are so many good things to say about the place.

  17. I have been to Taiwan and I had nothing but the best experiences. All people I met were great. People I didn’t know smiled at me, said “hello”, complemented me on my skills with chop-sticks…If you are an open-minded person that enjoys new experiences then get to Taiwan.

  18. Hahaha! Pretty funny stuff 😉 Yes, I sometimes just get a kick out of freaking out the locals by doing odd things like: lifting weights (which girls don’t do), studying Buddhist philosophy (which is apparently the same as fortune telling), being a vegetarian yet still drinking beer, wanting a kitchen in my apartment, not eating at McDonalds, living in more than one room, and not teaching english, amongst other things. When my Chinese teacher found out I am a natural blond who dyes her hair dark she asked me if it was because I’m interested in Chinese culture. LOL It gets old sometimes but hey, you can’t change them as easily as you can change your reactions to them 🙂

  19. I love it. Not much has changed in 20 years since I was a student. I put it down to 1) there are mono-cultures in Asia, where we are used to a lot more diversity in the States and Europe. 2) We Americans cannot compare the rest of the world to the US regarding what is politically correct or even correct…or think that pedestrians have the right of way…it is futile. (And, who knows what experiences TWNese have in the US, especially if their English isnt too great. Most people really are trying to be nice. One hears the opposite complaint, no one ever invited me over during my year (s) abroad. I still don’t know why old people used to ask me if I were Japanese a couple of decades ago (blonde American) however. Maybe it was a joke…

  20. I lived in Taipei, (Tien Mu) from l982 to 1988. When I came there I was at the end of a 25 year marriage to an American which ended a couple of years later. Then I dated Chinese men for a couple of years until I met my husband in l986. His wife divorced him after a 15 years marriage. Three months later he and I and his two children moved to America where we lived for 20 years. Then his father, who lives in Yilan, had a stroke and he, as the oldest son, retired early and we moved to Yilan where we have live for the past year.

    He was 9 years younger than I but it didn’t seem to matter at the time. Now, 21 years later, he wants a younger woman and says I make him feel old and she, 36 years younger than I, make him feel young. He has the idea that she should move in with us…fat chance! She has made him promises that she would take care of him and me and his parents, etc., etc. His children live in the U.S. so he is worried about who would take care of him in his old age. She thinks that he is rich but she is wrong. She thinks that when his father dies he will inherit money but it will be divided up and taxed until not much will be left. So, she is in for a surprise or two.

    After 6 years, I thought I understood a lot about Chinese culture and thinking but I found out that there is a lot that is not easy to find out or to understand until you find yourself in the middle of it. So, I say to you…be careful of knowing ALL the details of another culture. The Taiwan combination of the Taoist philosophy and the Buddist religion make for an interesting, not always compatable mix. Pure Taoism askews the worship of Gods but the Taiwanese have them everywhere and revere them. Many people here claim to be Buddist but haven’t even the foggiest idea of the basic tenants. There is also a lot of ancestor worship and many people spend countless hours on these three things and neglect their famlies and other realities of life. It seems to me to be a way for them to excape the responsibilities of life. So, good luck to all of you other foreigners here.

    Oh, and by the way, to those who don’t always use a condom, genital herpes affects one in 5 of the adult population here and it doesn’t always show up for 3 weeks, 3 months or 3 years for the initial outbreak. It can be spread even when there is no outbreak. It resides in the blood for the rest of your life and can be spread by the periodic shedding of which no one is aware. So, even though a condom cannot guarantee protection, it is a necessary precaution to take.

    I loved living in Taipei where I had many English speaking friends but here in Yilan there are almost no people who speak English with the exception of some doctors. It is very lonely here and I feel very different than when I lived in Taipei. I recommend that newcomers go to Taipei or Tainan where there is and English speaking community and support.

  21. I go through that everyday too. I am Taiwanese, by blood too though I was born in the U.S., was raised and educated here (American school) and then went on later in life to study in the U.S. I speak all three languages fluently. People call me white. Excuse me ?!!!

    My home (Taiwan) is just as much as your home – so why do they treat us this way? I go off sometimes pretending like I don’t speak a word of English and just speak straight Taiwanese. It’s really annoying that I have to do that all the time. And it makes me angrier so to see the same expression on their faces as you described about the mother. I hate ignorance and disrespect which is completely opposite of the culture here, yet, our very own people are full of it on a daily basis.

    I can only ask myself why. I’ve finally asked this after almost two decades of asking and peering at myself to see what’s different about, what about ME do people see that makes them think I’m white?!!

    I don’t have the answer and am just as annoyed as you are. What do you recommend that we could do?

  22. I have a Taiwanese wife and a child that looks more like me. She gets the “waigouren” call at school almost every day. She gets invited to freind’s homes so the kids can practise their English. The kid’s parents insist that they can’t speak Chinese. I speak fluent Chinese and I usually only get to use it without being a novelty when I’m in China. We are considering leaving this place.

    Taiwan is a bad place to live for foreigners if you really want to make a home here. Taiwan is great, but only good for Taiwanese. They’re never going to accept others because Taiwan is Taiwanese and they like it like that.

    Thanks for the article.

  23. “the dude abides”

  24. Hello.

    I am European psychologist currently based at Taipei. I am doing research about social exclusion through language at Taiwan – that kind when people speak to you in English if you doesn’t look as Taiwanese for them even if they know you can speak Mandarin or Taiwanese. I don’t mean that kind of behavior, when people speak to you in English when they don’t know you (and they possibly turn into Mandarin/Taiwanese when they recognize you can speak them). I also don’t mean racism, when people make notes or are aggressive because of your skin color or physical characteristics, because they want to express their bad feeling for some particular race or ethnicity. I mean that behavior, when your appearance is “objectified” that way, that you are expected or demanded to be an English speaking person and people continue to speak to you in English even if they know they could not (and simultaneously they speak in Mandarin to others but not to you) and they exclude you from the community this way.

    I want to learn more about this behavior from people, who live at Taiwan longer than me and make some interviews with them. If you live at Taiwan several years, you are visually distinguishable from Taiwan majority population, your Mandarin or Taiwanese speaking ability is enough to make a normal conversation (so you may have experience of that kind), you have experienced language social exclusion behavior as described above and you want to share your experience with me (maybe one hour interview), please contact me at:

    chupachups567 (at) yahoo (dot) com

    Dan, Peter or Lanhua or anyone other reading this and having this experience, if want to share with me your experience, please write me!

    Thank you!

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