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How it feels to be a foreigner in Taiwan

Before going to Asia, a few friends of mine told me about their experience in China. A German guy said that in China he felt for the first time what it means to be a foreigner. He is blond and has blue eyes, so it was easy for him to be spotted among the crowds of Chinese.

People looked, even stared at him, sometimes for minutes. Someone asked to take a picture with him, as though he were a tourist attraction, children pointed at him on the streets. He didn’t seem to be very happy about receiving so much attention from passers-by. Neither would I have been.
I am not blond, so at least I am not as conspicuous as he is. However, it’s still easy for Asians to notice me, of course. And I was afraid of being stared at on the streets or in public places, which makes me feel quite nervous.
When I arrived in Taiwan, I was positively surprised. I never saw anyone staring or pointing at me. Strangely enough, I felt here even more relaxed than in Germany. When I was in Berlin I often felt observed by others. Once I was sitting in a tram with my flatmate, talking about Germany, when a German guy who was sitting opposite to us suddenly turned around: “Sorry to bother you,” he said smiling, “but I don’t agree with your opinion.” This sort of “intrusion” (a benevolent one, for sure), has never happened to me so far in Taiwan. People mind their own business and don’t seem to focus too much on what others do. At least that’s what I’ve observed in Taipei. I heard that in smaller cities it might be quite different.
I live in Xindian, which is a district in New Taipei City. I seldom see any foreigners. When I took my first walk near my new home, I saw a lot of old people and street vendors with their stands placed on the pavement. I was expecting they would look at me, but actually, no one did. I was relieved. I felt somehow “free”. In their eyes, I wasn’t strange. I was just a normal person walking around. I was very happy about that.
Now that I’ve been living in Taipei for a year, however, I’ve become aware of certain nuances I had not noticed during my first months. For instance, I realized that some people do look at me. But they do it in a very discreet way. Instead of staring at me, they look at me with the corner of their eye. If I look at them, they immediately turn away. Some people are so good at it that I can barely notice them.
What makes me feel quite uneasy is when a beautiful girl sits or stands in front of me, looking at me from time to time. Eye contact with a stranger is one of those situations where I really don’t know how to behave. Once I was waiting for a friend of mine at Eslite Bookstore in Taipei City Hall Station. I was trying to read a book in Chinese, and to my great surprise I managed to understand the first page without using a dictionary. I was concentrating on the book, when suddenly I got the feeling that someone’s eyes were fixed on me. I looked up and saw a girl. A very pretty one, I must add. She immediately lowered her eyes. We exchanged looks several times, I was even thinking about talking to her. But then, my friend came and the girl disappeared.
It seems to me there are some Taiwanese who are really curious about foreigners. It’s not bad, it’s even flattering to receive such attention. But it’s also deceptive. Why would you want to be friends with someone who is interested in you only because you’re a foreigner, regardless of your personality? There are so many foreigners, they can quickly replace you with someone else.

After spending a few months in Taiwan, last April I went to Hong Kong to apply for a visa. There nobody looked at me. In Taiwan I felt like I was something special, but in Hong Kong I was just a tiny drop in the ocean. That’s easy to explain. Hong Kong is way more international than Taipei. Besides, for a century it was a British Colony, and Hong Kongers got used to seeing foreigners. It made me feel a little bit lonely to be completely lost in the crowd, but I learnt to appreciate it. During my second stay in Hong Kong a few weeks ago, I got the feeling that most of the people I met there were interested in me for who I am and not just because I am exotic. A part of the people I met in Taiwan (maybe around 40%, I would guess) seemed rather interested in just making a foreign friend. 

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Categories: Uncategorized

7 replies »

  1. @Peaceful warrior,

    thank you for your comment. Yes, I agree with you. But to be honest, I think I haven't been coping very well with cultural differences over the last couple of months.

    I hope I can become like you in the future. Maybe it just takes more time and effort: )

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  2. I cannot agree more with you~
    I also find this 'western superiority' mentality, esp if you are from USA. I used to think Taiwan is pro-Japan (having adopted so much of Japanese food and culture), but how wrong I was – they worship non-asian foreigner! though english learning is in the trend, they rather be taught by non-certified westerner, than a certified english speaking asian. From where i came from, it's about qualified skills, not skin colour for a job.

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  3. Hello Janet, thanks for your comment: )

    Well, as far as I could observe, most schools in Taipei hire only native speakers of English, or at least people with a passport from an English-speaking country. That explains why they tend to prefer Westerners, although I have met a couple of ABCs who work as English teachers, so the skin colour doesn't seem to be decisive.

    As to Japanese culture, I personally know lots of Taiwanese who think Japan is cool. Btw, can I ask you where you are from?

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  4. Its easy for westerners to get a big ego in Asia because they will seldom be challenged.. In Taipei because everyone will be so polite and never confrontational this is the case too. It is the vibe of this place, and I find it funny that anyone would want to be friends with someone just because they are a foreigner as well.. I have to tell you there is nothing good about foreigners because they are foreigners Taiwanese (girls)!

    Anyway I am a blonde haired/blue eyed American and I do get some people looking at me, but I don't notice too much. I think the Taiwanese are pretty reserved and keep their eyes to their selves. When I was in India you will get hosts of people wanting to take your picture and kids laughing at you and all kinds of funny things even from non-poor people. They are really outgoing there. Taiwan is nice but more reserved at the street level.. Oh and I think there are drawbacks to being a foreigner always in a lot of countries.. It is not always this great thing.

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  5. Hi , thanks for your comment: )

    I agree with you, we foreigners can definitely get a big ego because you get a lot of attention only because of how we look like and where we come from. However, in my personal experience this interest mainly existed at the beginning. I think that when you get close to people, the whole facade of politeness and friendliness goes away and they start treating you in the same way they treat each other; which is way more direct and confrontational.

    Anyway, I hope you're enjoying your time in Taiwan: )

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  6. Yes Taipei is less international than HK. I have to say, being a Taiwanese I'm always uncomfortable when foreigners are around. Believe it or not, I feel the same way you feel when you are noticed secretively by others!

    Sorry about my poor English, hope you understand how Taiwanese feel in such a situation.

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