Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Dec 19 2007

Being Another

Jorees has written an interesting post about life in Taiwan as a minority: Being an ‘other’ in Chinese culture


As you can imagine the pressure of dealing with everything regarding my current schedule has been a lot to deal with. One particular factor has also been getting to me. Being an ‘other’ in Chinese culture. When you are an ‘other’ you are different than the dominant socioeconomic majority. This can be defined through race, class, sex, or gender.In Taiwan I am ‘othered’ through language, culture, class, and race. My white skin is different. My nationality is different. My language is different. In addition, my job is high paying which many Chinese understandably resent. This ‘otherness’ is not always present. However, it has been adding to my stress level recently. As an ‘other’ my mistakes are more noted. More is expected to produce a success. I feel ‘othered’ in certain schools where I’ve worked and in a few graduate level classes. I am “othered” in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. Most commonly ignored during a social interaction. Or spoken to in Chinese when it is known that I will not understand. If I do try to speak Chinese what I say is not understood or mocked. Assignments or group work will not be explained to me in class as I am not part of the social ‘group’. My name will be miss pronounced or I will be referred to by another name on purpose.Part of this ‘othering’ has to do with the competitive attitude of graduate school and I was put through the same social duals during my M.A. at McGill. Social combat and competition are part of being a graduate student. Leaning to deal with high powered people is one of the unspoken lessons learned during a graduate degree. As the only English student in a Chinese program I also should not expect to have others look after me and should expect to be ‘othered’ due to cultural difference. But it still takes a lot out of me.It is also present in the workforce at certain language schools. Here I am not perceived as a person but as an ‘other’. This petty attitude of ‘othering’ usually comes down to simple economics. I make more money and come from another culture therefor my social worth is less. Often an authority figure at the school will not acknowledge my contribution to a class and small mistakes are constantly picked at. Some days, I find people can have a hot or cold attitude when it comes to dealing with me regardless of my behavior. Again this is because when you are an ‘other’ your actions or personality have little impact to the dominant majority culture. The culture does not see your actions but instead views your skin color. Your personality does not have value in comparison to your minority culture or language. As an ‘other’ you produce no impact accept for the purpose of being ‘othered’. Taiwan has given me many gifts and I feel very thankful for the professional opportunities here and my life in Asia. However, their is a dark underside to being a minority in Asia. Today I feel like making that small darkness heard.

My first thought on reading this was simply a snarky “Welcome to life as a minority,” something I got used to long ago, but then it got me to wondering if the situation in Taiwan today as a person of non-Chinese ethnicity is much different in this respect than it was 20 years ago. In other respects it has changed a lot, of course, in that it is much easier for such people to live here without integrating into the local society now than it was then. By this I mean mainly having access to the Internet as well as a wide range of Western and other non-Chinese media, entertainment, food, styles, and even languages than before.

In the late 1980’s, there was one MacDonald’s in Taipei, and virtually no other foreign cuisine options outside of Tienmu, where I never went. The MRT hadn’t even been thought of, and all transportation was via motorcycle or bus. It was all well before the Internet, of course, and letters from abroad would come once every few weeks. Exposure to Western stuff came in the form of a very limited selection of books from Caves and the occasional Hollywood movie from whence most Taiwanese people formed (and still seem to form) their views of what life outside Taiwan in American and European countries was like. Most foreigners that I knew at the time hung out with other foreigners for the most part, their only contact being their Taiwanese girlfriends (often resulting in hilariously feminine accents in their Chinese) but I don’t claim to have any authoritative knowledge on the subject because, as Prince Roy can attest, I pretty much avoided foreigners in a fairly religious fashion. This was a combination of insecurity on my part, a desire to learn more about and become more a part of the local society, and just plain stubbornness on my part.

Today, all of these things have changed drastically, and not just in the capital city. Over the last couple of decades, I’ve also become more secure in my own identity and place in this society. I wonder, however, if the current ease of access to attributes of their original culture causes people within the non-Chinese minorities here to feel more isolated from the people around them in daily life, which seems to be the case here (though I can’t be sure as this is pure assumption on my part). In fact, do such people even see themselves as minorities? It seems to me that some foreigners, especially white foreigners from white countries, still can’t bring themselves to realize that fact, even though they have lived here for a substantial period of time.

From the start, I never expected local people to take pains to adapt to what they thought were my limitations in this respect, but the fact that it bothered me when some people did so sounds similar to what Jorees is talking about here. However, it seems to me that most of this “othering” that Jorees mentions occurs in situations where non-Chinese are likely to be found, e.g. in an English-language teaching environment or at an international business. Outside of these environments, I’ve found it far easier to “just be a person” and a normal part of society. But I don’t expect people to mispronounce my name, and they hardly ever do as it is a fairly common Chinese name (though some Japanese people say it is also a normal Japanese name), and when they speak Chinese to me, I place all of the responsibility for understanding on myself. Occasionally I will encounter people who insist on treating me in that bizarre fashion that somehow combines a sense of fascination and revulsion with my very existence, but, as with any other unpleasant person, I can choose to stop associating with them and move on with my life.

Jorees’ difficulties aside, there is always going to be a natural pressure to conform to the society you live in, and there are always going to be people within a society who try to take advantage of perceived weaknesses in others. But all in all, this phenomenon is another reason to persist in integrating with the society we live in, at least to a certain degree that doesn’t result in the nagging personal discomfort that Jorees and many foreigners seem to be vulnerable to. Of course this is an oversimplification of the situation, as I am not a social studies expert or even actually social. But I still think that, just as the reason Taiwanese deal with foreigners the sometimes-odd ways they do today is the result of decades of imported entertainment sources combined with social exclusion on the part of foreign businessmen and soldiers with no interest in learning the language or culture, the way we deal with these issues will influence the way the average Taiwanese person deals with immigrants in the future.

posted by Poagao at 12:45 am  


  1. I think she may have thought better of her piece, because it’s gone.

    I don’t agree with you-I think it was just as easy twenty years ago to live here without integrating into local society, if not easier, which is why so few foreigners back then even bothered learning Chinese.

    What I think has changed is that it is easier to integrate into local society if you want; this may be a cause and effect result of so many more foreigners capable of interacting in Chinese now.

    Yet the old foreigner’s ghetto mindset still persists in Taipei, which makes it harder for those of us trying to escape that. I think it’s a lot better now, though, truth be told. But there remains a sizable minority of Taiwanese who still think foreigners expect that.

    Yeah, I sure do remember the stubborn Poagao of our student days. It’s one of the things I admired about you. It seems like you’ve lost some that now.

    Comment by Prince Roy — December 19, 2007 @ 11:24 am

  2. PR, if you read carefully, I think you’ll find that you actually agree with me. I was trying to indicate that, even though a lot of external things have changed, that aspect has remained much the same.

    As to my apparent selling out, I guess I’ve mellowed in my old age. I don’t think my feelings on the subject have changed that much, but I just don’t get as upset about things as I used to.

    It does seem like she took her post down. I hope she doesn’t mind it being referred to here.

    Comment by Poagao — December 19, 2007 @ 12:01 pm

  3. Well, I don’t know if I’d call you a sell-out just yet. At least not until you start playing an electric washtub base.

    Comment by Prince Roy — December 19, 2007 @ 12:06 pm

  4. Electric washtub bass? Never!

    But it is true I hang out with foreigners a lot more than I did in college, and I don’t go out of my way to avoid them as much, but I’m pretty sure I still spend more time with other Taiwanese than I do with foreigners. Everyone has to find their own balance.

    Comment by Poagao — December 19, 2007 @ 12:16 pm

  5. Based on the excerpt that you quoted, T.C., I can’t imagine wanting to read an entire book of that crap. The simple reality is that, for the Taiwanese, either you are one of them, or your not. Doesn’t matter if you marry local, naturalize, or spend the best-years-of-your-life in the ROC, if you are not ethnically Taiwanese/Chinese you are an other. That doesn’t neccessarily have to be a bad thing, thought it comes with many anoyances and frustrations – it is what it is. Either make peace with it, or move on. No book writing required. Can’t imagine that book flying off the shelves at Caves.

    Comment by mwalimu — December 21, 2007 @ 3:11 pm

  6. Mwalimu, it’s not a book, just a post, one that was apparently deleted. I emailed her about it but got no reply.

    By “The Taiwanese” I assume that you mean the majority of Taiwanese people who don’t know me, which is basically true. But it’s more important to me what my friends think of me than the great unwashed masses. In any case, as I said, I’ve become more secure in my identity as not-quite-fitting-into-either category over the years, and things like the issues described in the post don’t bother me as much. I do find it ironic that, if the same thing were written by a person of color in the US, the conservatives would be all over it, saying how that person has a duty to adapt and learn the language, stop whining, etc.

    Comment by Poagao — December 21, 2007 @ 10:10 pm

  7. Sorry, T.C. — quite right, I see now that is does say, “post” not “book”, not sure what I was thinking.

    As a faithful reader of Your Planet, lo these many years, I’ve often wondered what inner dialogs you must be having as middle age approaches. As a you man, full of passion for everything Taiwanese, clearly wanting to be different than the average f.o.b. foreigner, and (for reasons I don’t think you’ve every writting much about) also clearly wanting to leave the USA way in your dust – you took the pretty radical move of renouncing your nationality, and throwing your lot in… with The Reuplic of China. I wonder if you ever have regrets, if you every ask yourself “what they hell was I thinking?”, or… if you had to do things over… would you do the same thing again?

    At the outset of your blog, I think you thought of yourself as a world traveler, and Taiwan as part of a greater adventure – over the years, however, Taiwan seemes to consumed you, and you break out only rarely – and only for short trips around the region. Has your intense immersion been worth it? Do you stay because it still gives you everything it promised in 1990, or because you feel you have no place else to go?

    Just curious. (Written without respect, and without hostility)

    Comment by mwalimu — December 22, 2007 @ 12:38 am

  8. Mwalimu, those are some pretty deep questions. Although I didn’t originally have a great amount of dislike for the US, the way things have been going there over the past few years is a little intimidating. All in all, I think I’d still choose Taiwan. Obviously, life is a work in progress, and we are different people than we used to be, so asking what we would have done then is kind of useless as we weren’t the same then, and the world wasn’t the same either. Taiwan is certainly different now than it was in the late 80’s when I first arrived. And when I started this journal I’d been in Taiwan for over a dozen years, so I don’t think I ever really saw myself as a world traveler. It’s true I haven’t traveled a lot in recent years, but things are always changing.

    Comment by Poagao — December 22, 2007 @ 5:43 am

  9. It seems to me that, among the foreigners in Taiwan, we find the transients, the expats, and the exiles. To me the transients are those who come and never dig in, either for a few months or even a few years – Taiwan never really touches them, and they use it for their own purposes. The expats, in my lexography (not that you care what mine ie)both white collar, and teacher/entrepreneur, are the ones who make a life, embrace the experience (by choice or by virtue of a transfer), and come to think of taiwan as a kind of home, without loosing or disconnecting with the mothership. Then there are the exiles… mostly self imposed… the ones who get washed up on the shores of the Beautiful Island, and then disconnect with their homeland, and families. I’ve never met you, but from this blog, I gather that you are probably one of the latter (forgiving the label). I gather that you have not been back to the States in many, many years… and that’s what I find curious… about you, and others like you, who I have met in Taiwan, over the years. It’s Christmas…. and I will be spending yet another one “in the bossom of my family”, and that’s a great thing. Really. I feel bad for you guys that your relationships with your own families don’t allow you to share the same kind of experiences. Last year I was there with my Dad when he passed away, I’m invloved, on a day to day basis with my Mom, my nephews and nieces, my sisters and brothers – my life (after coming home) is no longer just about me… and I’m no longer an expat, nor an exile… though… there were times I might have been drifting…

    Rambling as usual.

    I will leave you with one last thought: Packing up, and heading home after 12 years in taiwan was one of the best things I’ve ever done – I’ve created a successful business back here in the States (which, by the way is way to complex and intersting a place to be “intimidated” by), and most importantly… I’ve reconnected with my family… and that in itself is a wonderful thing. A fundamental thing. A blessing – and I’m an atheist. Just no a selfabsorbed one, anymore.

    Merry Christmas, Poagao.

    Comment by mwalimu — December 22, 2007 @ 6:10 am

  10. Poagao, I’ll say you’re not a traveler. It still boggles my mind that you had never visited Shanghai or Beijing until last year. And you even lived in the PRC for a spell.

    Seriously, I think a lot of people are intrigued by you and your life choices. It comes up a lot among the foreigners I meet when they discover I know you. I’ll admit to more than a little curiosity myself. If you ever do publish the English version of your book, I certainly hope you expand on that.

    And don’t worry, I’m here to help you become the savvy world traveler. At least you have Laos to look forward to!

    Comment by Prince Roy — December 22, 2007 @ 12:12 pm

  11. Dear TC,

    Thank you for referencing my post “Being an Other”. Your response is thoughtful and well-written. In addition, your photographs are incredible and seem to catch the moment and true character of the people you photograph. Earlier this week I deleted the post temporarily as I do not want to project a negative attitude of Taiwan or the Taiwanese people. I heart Taiwan but just don’t heart being an ‘other’. The post is now back up.

    Comment by Joanna — December 23, 2007 @ 3:30 am

  12. Thanks, Joanna, I was wondering.

    PR, I look forward to visiting your Laotian kingdom when you get it set up.

    Mwalimu: If things were as simple as you described, it would be a dire situation indeed. I’m not surprised that you can’t seem to understand why I choose to live my life the way I do; most “transients” -to use your terminology- can’t seem to get their heads around it.

    But, please, spare me your pity. It’s great that you’ve come to realize the Wonder that is life back in the US of A with your ever loving family…that’s just peachy. But just because you failed to find a meaningful existence in Taiwan doesn’t mean that those of us who have attained it should be the subject of your casual disdain.

    Comment by Poagao — December 24, 2007 @ 6:09 am

  13. Interesting bit about grad school in her piece. I never experienced ever feeling like I was not part of the gang in grad school here or an “other”. But then again, most people think I am from an”other” planet altogether.

    BTW, here’s some trivia–did you know it was a letter from Prince Roy many, many years ago, sent to classmates wondering what Taiwan was like, that was one of the reasons I came here in ’89?

    Comment by The Taipei Kid — December 24, 2007 @ 11:20 am

  14. I should really try and refrain from late night posts, after a couple of glasses of wine. Reading my post again, it was poorly written and edited. I can understand why you had the reaction you did, and, for what it’s worth – I aplogize for posting something that came off sounding so preachy and patronizing. Certainly no disdain meant. Again, Merry Christmas.

    Comment by mwalimu — December 24, 2007 @ 1:48 pm

  15. Taipei Kid,

    that anecdote just begs for an explanation. The only letters I ever sent back then were sealed in empty bottles of Taiwan Beer which I flung into the sea near Kenting. To which classmates do you refer?

    Comment by Prince Roy — December 24, 2007 @ 9:01 pm

  16. Poagao,

    I have been reading your site for a while and enjoy it greatly. I have been here for six years now and Taiwan was where I wanted to make my life. I did everything I could to get to know the locals, learn the language, culture and norms of the country. I did a Master’s program in Chinese where I finally realized what it was like to be another. I an white but speak Chinese just like a local, which sometimes hurts me more in many interactions whether they be in class, at work, in relationships, in nightclubs and what not. It also seems that foreigners who do NOT even attempt to fit in and do not speak the language, get into bands, smoke dope and sleep around have a much better time than me and people like me. Taiwan is not a country where ‘political correctness’ is even a concept (so there is not even a proper Chinese name for it) and so racism, respect for women and the like are not even considerations for most of the people here. Racism is rife here, basically because Taiwan is not yet a multicultural society and probably never will be. Last night, the 25th, I went to Mcdonald’s by myself and ordered from a new employee there. As I was waiting, a guy who I have chatted with before who works there asked the other employee three times 「ㄟ 那個老外點了嗎」 Back home, I could sue him for racism. But here, that is normal and what you have to be able to put up with to stay here in a sane fashion. Taiwan is a great place and fun to be in, but it is essentially impossible to fit in and be treated like an equal on a BROAD basis outside your group of friends or people who can accept you as a person, even if you speak the language, do Chinese things, hang out with only Chinese people and what not. This is my experience after trying to be treated like an equal for six years. Others will always be others, even those of us who speak Chinese and know what is expected in different situations. For those who can put up with these things, Taiwan is great. For those who cannot and have devoted most of their life to this place, Taiwan can be a living hell and very, very disappointing.

    Comment by Wahzai — December 26, 2007 @ 5:05 am

  17. Wahzai, it seems like you’re having a hard time lining up your expectations with reality here, and that you are very bitter about Taiwan as a result. Good luck, and I hope things work out for you.

    Comment by Poagao — December 26, 2007 @ 6:25 am

  18. Wahzai, I feel your pain, but I don’t think your McDonalds experience is necessarily an indication of racism. 老外 is not always a pejorative, in fact in most cases I don’t believe it is. I’m not saying it wasn’t in your case, but it is not the first conclusion I would draw.

    I’ve also never understood this burning desire some foreigners have to be treated like ‘equals’. You’re not. You are from another country and one day you’ll return. If you do want to stay in Taiwan for good, but don’t take the steps to become a citizen, then you’re not an equal by definition. Foreigners in the US aren’t even treated as equals.

    Now, if you were to become a citizen here, like Poagao, and you still felt you weren’t treated as an equal, then you might have a legitimate gripe. I wonder if the courts or legal system would be sympathetic. I guess there is still few people like Poagao. Maybe he could be our test case.

    Comment by Prince Roy — December 26, 2007 @ 6:42 am

  19. I have several friends who are citizens and they are still treated the same as any other foreigner who is “from America and teaches English” by way of the stereotype. We create our reality with our minds and I guess we have optimists and pessimists. This is an issue of ‘feeling like you belong’ and ‘feeling at home’. I guess it’s a sensitive topic for many. I was merely saying that Taiwan is not what a lot of foreigners think it is and what they wish it to be. I would not say I am bitter. I have many friends here and that is what keeps me happy when I get down about some things. I was only trying to draw a comparison between Taiwan and other places in this world, for Taiwan has a long way to go in many respects.

    Comment by Wahzai — December 26, 2007 @ 7:06 am

  20. That’s interesting. Where are these people originally from? Are they non-Asian? But even then, maybe it’s more of a first generation immigrant thing. It would be interesting to see if succeeding generations feel the same. Maybe they would. But I don’t think Taiwan would have a lock on that. Many Asian immigrants to the US say they have the same experiences of being the ‘other’ in the US, even to the 2,3,4 generations. At least this is what some of them have told me. It’s sparked a whole genre of literature.

    Comment by Prince Roy — December 26, 2007 @ 9:07 am

  21. i first went to taiwan in the late 80’s too. the worst thing for me was people using me for english. after i got over their primary motive for being so nice to me, i could accept it and still be friendly or just ignore it. as my chinese improved, i met others who didn’t care that i spoke english. i lived in taiwan for 7 years and felt i was generally treated very well. even though i have been back for 10 years, i still very much miss that friendliness- it made me a more outgoing person.

    Comment by v — December 27, 2007 @ 1:22 am

  22. Prince Roy–You wrote a letter to U of O’s Chinese Dept. or perhaps a teacher there and/or students, giving everyone the lowdown on life and the opportunities in Taipei.

    Comment by The Taipei Kid — December 30, 2007 @ 11:21 am

  23. Hey guys, long time no see!
    I’m sorry we didn’t get to hang out more, I guess that I’ll try to be more social this year. I’m somewhat of a social recluse, I like hanging out with my dog most of the time.

    JoRees is my wife and this hasn’t happened to her a lot in her life. It happened to her when she moved to Montreal. As an English speaker, she faced some hostility from the French speaking majority.

    Anyway I digress.

    The purpose of this comment was to relate another viewpoint. I’ve been an “other” all of my life. I’ve been a visible minority all of my life. I’ve never lived in India, where my parents are originally from. I was born in Germany and lived in France before moving to Quebec, Canada. I have to say that being the only brown kid in a sea of white is not a lot of fun. I could tell you stories.

    Over the years, my skin has thickened quite a bit and it takes something significant for me to really get pissed off.

    I have no problems dealing with the Taiwanese in a day to day way. I have had problems in my work relationships. Their is always this power hungry young teaching director who wants to nag and boss the foreigners around. It is endemic of the buxibans. I have worked at a several different types of schools in Taiwan and it has always happened.

    On top of that, as I am not white, I face a sort of over the top racism as well. As a customer, I’ve only gotten the condescending attitude once, and I made a stink and a scene when it happened. I won’t tolerate it, especially if I spend money in a shop. This happened in Hsinchu.

    I have pleasant dealings with my scooter shop and breakfast shop, as well as other shops that I go to.

    Taiwan for us is a stop in our lives. We don’t plan on living here forever. We have definite plans on leaving by 2010. We aren’t really travelers, as my wife and I will both be pursuing graduate degrees here.

    Comment by range — January 6, 2008 @ 12:23 am

  24. […] Reactions to one of my wife’s posts. These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. […]

    Pingback by Being An Other at memoirs on a rainy day — January 6, 2008 @ 12:27 am

  25. “In fact, do such people even see themselves as minorities? It seems to me that some foreigners, especially white foreigners from white countries, still can’t bring themselves to realize that fact, even though they have lived here for a substantial period of time.”

    It was interesting to find out what being a visible minority was like when I lived in Taiwan.

    In response to this quote from your article, and I hope I’m not missing the point, I would like to point out that Han who study, work, travel, and even gain citizenship abroad treat non-asians as foreigners wherever they are.

    At the best of times, people who have lived here (say in Canada) for a long time may learn to say 洋人 instead of 老外, but that may only be when they know I’m listening.

    Comment by Wenwang — June 16, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

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