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.