The Enjoyment of Being a Foreigner – The Foreigner in the Room

I’m not crazy about always being referred to as a foreigner. Even in my local little beef noodle spot, I am still referred to as the foreigner despite the owner and staff knowing me on a first name basis. I don’t enjoy being reminded with interactions that I’m “different”. I know I’m different because the Taiwanese concept of being Taiwanese is to be ethnically Han or aborigine and being an outsider to those ethnic groups, makes me the foreigner in the room.

Being foreign abroad isn’t an eternal holiday

Sometimes, I pretend I can’t speak Mandarin. I know it comes off as rude, and rightly so. But when I constantly have to hear surprise, astonishment and get the same five questions I’ve answered a million times, again and again, it just gets a little bit tiring.

Okay, it isn’t a bad thing either. Someone showing curiosity towards you is better than them being hostile and rejecting you and I always smile and engage in the conversation with people. I’m not a psychopath and these people are still being very sincere and nice to me.

I mean, a lot of Taiwanese go out of their way to accommodate foreigners that can’t speak Mandarin. When I look at America right now in the news, all that I see are a bunch of racist and bigots tell people with a different first language not to speak it. Thankfully they aren’t everyone in America though.

Hell, anti-foreigner sentiment in Ireland was pretty bad when I was growing up, and even though it looks like it has gotten better, I am 100% sure there are a lot of people that are just as ignorant as they were before.

However, some people enjoy being foreign in Asian countries. It harkens back to when someone goes on holidays and being the outsider is kind of the point. You’re not staying there long enough to become invested, but you’re staying long enough to enjoy yourself in a new culture.

A lot of people in Asian countries live continuously for a long time as if they are on an eternal holiday.

Tapas living in Asia

Holidays are amazing. You get to enjoy small bites of local culture and society and leave when you are full. But for a lot of people, they enjoy Asia this way for a long time. I call it tapas living. It’s like taking the bits and pieces you want and leaving the rest. 

The bubble people create for themselves is only there to allow them to encase themselves in the idea that they don’t belong to the society, and that they are allowed to be critical, whilst not having any responsibility to correct the issue they are critical of.

Being like this is in many ways, a cop-out. You take from society what you enjoy, and reject the rest. I’ve called out people before because they behaved like this and they simply reply along the same line “you’re a foreigner, you shouldn’t care about local matters” because they sure as hell don’t.

The foreigner in the room

The idiom “the elephant in the room” is a funny one and I changed the elephant with a foreigner. You’re the center of attention sometimes. I think in Taiwan it is less so, but there is a certain amount of attention gained from being foreign in some circumstances.

Some people never grow out of the habit of enjoying that feeling of being the other and being special. Personally, the further I can get away from being the foreigner in the room, the better. I don’t want the special attention. I just want to get on with life because I have settled down here. I’m not here to sample the little parts of culture and life. That’s fine if you’re on holidays or you’re traveling, but even then you should still show some respect.

I sometimes remain silent because I don’t like having attention called to me because I can speak the language of the country I live in. Taiwanese people wouldn’t be applauded in Ireland for their ability to speak English, but in Taiwan, you’d almost get a medal for not butchering a nihao. Again, it’s circumstances, the amount of foreigners in Taiwan that can speak Mandarin to a good level is small, and the rest are able to say “this” and “that” whilst also confusing people who can’t speak Mandarin who think they are being racist (那個, 那個, 這個).

If you’re not what is thought by locals to be ethically Taiwanese, you are going to probably get some attention. It’s what you do with the attention and how you decide to move forward that matters.

I ignore it. People are curious and Taiwan is changing. As more foreigners come to Taiwan from all over the world, the foreigner in the room hopefully might vanish and nobody will care if you are foreign and throw a biodegradable banana from your car window into a hedge.

Don’t be that foreigner guy

Don’t be that foreign guy that wants to forever treat Taiwan or Asia as their eternal holiday vacation. By that, I don’t mean blow off people that live a lifestyle that is laid back, but rather, blow off people that treat Taiwan like they can live here, make judgments, and not be invested. It doesn’t matter if someone is Taiwanese, Filipino, French, Brazilian, or from whatever country, if you call Taiwan your home, you are part of society. Sure, your citizenship isn’t Taiwanese, but you pay taxes, partake in society, and all in all, you are part of the evolving story and narrative of Taiwan.

Don’t live outside that story, be part of it and enjoy Taiwan.

You don’t have to be a 學霸 to be part of society

I don’t want to be that guy that tells you that you will only enjoy life here if you speak Mandarin, but it helps. You don’t have to speak Mandarin to be part of society, but it’s useful. To me, understanding any place in the world requires two things; understanding the culture and language.

You can’t have a full understanding of where you live without both. Sure, you can understand every aspect of Taiwanese culture, but without the language to engage with it, you can’t do much with it to grant you a more holistic view. Likewise, you can speak all the fluent Mandarin you want, but if you can’t understand the underlying history, culture, and societal values that make Taiwan what it is, good luck to you.

You might say you know people who don’t speak a lick of Mandarin but have a great understanding of the economy, culture, demographics etc, and you know what, they do. I can’t say I have a strong understanding of Taiwanese culture and society because I haven’t been here long enough and my Mandarin can always be improved, but recognizing that is half the battle.

Let me put it to you this way, if someone lived in your home country for a decade and couldn’t speak the local language, but said they understood every aspect of your country’s culture, you would be a bit taken aback. Now imagine that same person only picks and chooses the parts of your culture and society that benefit them, and they criticize everything else. You’d probably not want a lot to do with them and they are missing out on a lot of things.

Hence, I would suggest to anyone living in Taiwan, or Asia in general, take the time to stop being the foreigner in the room and take some language courses, get involved in your community, and read a book or two on the history of the island you call home.

I’m really going to annoy people with this blog post!

Tomás 孫柯

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