While this story is hardly newsworthy, it does serve to highlight one of the implications of being a foreigner in Taiwan.
On June 5th 2013, a woman (Shen) was on the MRT (subway) when she saw a foreigner get on and take up 2 seats – one for herself and one for her bags. A few stops down, an elderly couple got on, and as good manners dictates, Shen got up and offered her seat to the woman. At this point, Shen also asked the foreign woman to give up her seat so that both members of the couple could sit down. And then shit hit the fan.
According to an article in the Taipei times:
“However, the woman refused and rudely admonished me for not having said ‘please,’” Shen said.
“While berating me, she said she was an American and flashed her AIT employee card. It was as if she was implying that Americans can take up extra seats and do not have to give up those seats to anyone,” Shen added.
On Forumosa, a popular forum for foreigners in Taiwan, it was further clarified that Shen herself is an American. Also, the other foreign woman wasn’t sitting in priority seating (seats reserved for elderly, diabled and pregnant women – they have to be given up if the need arises). She was in regular seating.
Shen posted this on Facebook and it went all over Taiwan. Numerous messages were sent to AIT asking them to verify that the woman was an employee.
Finally, on Monday last week, AIT sent an apology letter to Shen’s son. Parts of it were also posted on the AIT Facebook page:
We have identified the person in the picture as an AIT employee, and appropriate action is being taken. We will not provide the name of the person or the actions taken because of our obligations under the US Privacy Act.
We regret that Mr Hsiung’s mother was inconvenienced during her MRT ride. We are investigating the incident internally and will handle it appropriately. In the meantime, please be aware that the American Institute in Taiwan strongly believes in encouraging personnel associated with AIT to abide by local regulations governing public transit…
AIT (American Institute in Taiwan) is basically the American embassy in Taiwan.
Like I said before, this isn’t really a newsworthy story. If it had involved only Taiwanese, it wouldn’t have been on the news. Riders on the MRT ignore old people everyday, and no one says anything about it. Life goes on – people are rude to each other everywhere, so what’s the big deal?
BUT if you are a visible foreigner, you are held up to different standards. Granted, it may be unfair, but it is what it is. Most foreigners are aware of this, and adapt their behaviour to fit the social mould expected of them. On one hand Taiwanese elevate foreigners (westerners) as having enviable lifestyles. The other side of the coin is that when westerners behave badly, they can be demonized beyond the scope of their actions, because they are held as having a different set of standards. Because of this perception, this kind of story makes the news – foreigners acting badly!
That being said, knowing that more attention is focused on you, I’d imagine, you would do what you can to keep your head down and avoid the spotlight. Most foreigners I’ve met in Taiwan are a great bunch who like and respect the country. They’ve made an effort to learn about the differences in Taiwanese society, and have respect for the way things are done here. They follow the rules and avoid unnecessary trouble.
But then there are the small percentage who are douchebags. Like the lady who took up 2 seats in the MRT.
While she wasn’t obligated to, giving over her seat would have avoided this whole mess. And this isn’t even a Taiwanese thing – I’d imagine giving up your seat to the elderly is a universal thing. There was no need to berate Shen for asking her to. A simple show of good manners would have smoothed everything over. But, of course she did the opposite.
Going one step further and waving around work ID and shoving your nationality in everyone’s face is just absolutely moronic. Let alone making a fool of yourself, you are also shaming the organization and country you represent by your actions. Not only that, this kind of behaviour creates an even more unfavourable opinion of foreigners in the eyes of the locals.
I really can’ t imagine what line of reasoning led this woman to think any of her actions were a good idea. When you are the obviously visible exception to the norm, you try to fit in – not flagrantly display the difference and expect to be treated as a VIP. Ah well, she’s the one who has to pay for it now.
It’s important to realize how differently we are judged by the locals. There is nothing to be done, but just accept this double standard the way it is. And once it’s realized, then modify behaviour so that the Taiwan’s news media doesn’t have too many sources of “bad foreigner” stories anymore.