Being in small town Taiwan, people are naturally curious about westerners. Like an endangered species, we aren’t spotted in the wild too often. My town is shunned by westerners because it’s sleepy and boring compared to the bigger cities. While there a handful of us here, the locals aren’t used to seeing our kind too often, and thus don’t have a clear idea of what we are exactly.
That’s not to say they are foreigner-wary, or foreigner-cautious – just foreigner-uninformed. Western foreigner, that is.
I started realizing this when my Mandarin got good enough to have rudimentary conversations with people. I’d go to a store to buy something and upon speaking, it would become obvious that I’m a foreigner. The conversation would go something like this:
Taiwanese person (T): “Nǐ hǎo. Nǐ yào shénme?” (Hello. What would you like?)
Me: “Nǐ hǎo. Wǒ yào mǎi…” (Hello. I want to buy…)
T: “Nǐ shì wàiguó rén ma? Nǐ shì nǎguó rén?” (You’re a foreigner? Where are you from?)
Me: “Wǒ shì Jiānádà rén.” (I’m from Canada)
T: “Jiānádà rén?? Zhēnde ma??” (Canadian?? Really??)
The last would be said with confused looks. Invariably the person would glance over me again, as if to make sure their eyes weren’t fooling them. I didn’t understand why I was getting this reaction, until one day someone told me I look Thai.
Duh! I should have figured it out sooner. To put it in perspective, I’m not a white caucasian. I have darker skin, black hair and brown eyes. It didn’t even occur to me until I remembered that in small town Taiwan, the perception of any western foreigner is white, blonde hair and blue eyes!
Back home, it’s a non-issue – Canadians come in all shapes, colour and sizes. I was so used to having a Canadian identity, that I forgot people outside of North America (especially those not used to multicultural societies) would not identify me as such.
As I had more conversations with the locals here, I started discovering that this is a common perception of people in small town Taiwan. It’s a mostly homogenous society (barring a few Asian foreigners), so people have categorized races according to what they see in movies and the media. And of course, having very little contact with westerners, it’s a surprise for them to see someone not white identifying as a Canadian.
I can see how having a different ethnicity could be confused with nationality. In a homogeneous society, your ethnicity and nationality are the same, but not so in multicultural societies. Because of their lack of exposure to multicultural, western societies, the people in small town Taiwan seem to think that all Canadians (or westerners for that matter) are white, and have to challenge their personal perceptions when they see me walking around with a maple leaf on my T-shirt.
While I read all this before coming to Taiwan, actually experiencing it is a different matter. It’s not so much offensive, or negative, but more eye-opening and educational. It gives a real insight into how black and white (no pun intended) the thinking is – at least when it comes to races and nationality. Because of the lack of international experience, white = western and non white = non western. The rammifications of this extends to jobs, social interactions and basically all facets of life here.
Also, disregarding the whole racial aspect of it, this type of physical perception thinking categorizes people into boxes that may not be totally fair. For example, a clean cut, well dressed idiot will be taken more seriously than a casually dressed, messy haired genius. While this does exist in the west, it seems to be much more important here. Forming to the perception of what people value may carry furthur with Taiwanese than actually having ability. So if you can talk the talk, maybe you don’t have to walk the walk.
Realizing all this made me think of something similar, in reverse back home. While here, they have difficulty acknowledging different races can belong to one nationality, I had (and still have) difficulty telling different (Asian) races apart. Because of lack of experience, I can’t distinguish between Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese and Chinese very easily. My Taiwanese friends, of course, have no problems doing this. This is a lack of education and experience on my part, and will (hopefully) be remedied with more time spent here.
For the time being, I’m still an oddity to people in my town, and I’ve actually come to enjoy the surprised looks I get when I tell people I’m Canadian. It’s one thing I will probably miss if I move to a bigger, more international city in Taiwan.