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Life as a Foreigner in Taiwan – Of High School Students Interviewing Foreigners

In my post about my first impressions after coming back to Taipei from Hong Kong, I mentioned that sometimes Taiwanese high school students interview “foreigners” (meaning, I guess, Westerners) on the street. This is a kind of school assignment in Taiwan which is apparently very popular.

Well, today it happened to me again. I was sitting at Yamazaki, on the campus of National Taiwan University. I was studying Chinese; two days ago I bought a silly book at 7-11, called “這次是我愛上妳” (This time it’s me who’s fallen in love with you). I chose it because the books from regular bookstores are too difficult to read, and the other books from 7-11 are manga or horror books, which I don’t like. So I simply picked this one.  As a man, I feel pretty ashamed to read this sort of stuff which is obviously made for a female audience; but anyway, back to the topic.

I was studying Chinese, when suddenly I saw three people, a guy and two girls, coming towards me with bright smiles on their faces. It took me a few seconds to understand what they were up to. When I saw that the  guy was holding a piece of paper, a pen and a camera, I realized they wanted to interview me. “Excuse me, can you help us with a project? Do you have time?” the guy asked. 

Actually, they had already ‘invaded’ my table, so how could I have said no? Had they talked to me on the street I could have said I had no time for an interview; but in the cafe’, I was basically trapped and had no way to escape. 

As I already explained in my previous post, when I first came to Taiwan I did not mind being interviewed by students. But now, this just makes me feel as though I were something totally different from the rest of the people around me. In Hong Kong, I felt just like a normal person among other persons, but here in Taiwan I am a 外國人, a foreigner; a curiosity, if you will. Some people may like to be different, others not; I guess it depends on your character. 

So, there I was, sitting at a table surrounded by a group of Taiwanese students. The guy asked me to write my name and my home country on a piece of paper. 

“Where do you come from?” he asked.

“I come from Italy.”

All of them said “Oooh!” (I don’t know what this “oooh” meant, though).
Then he asked me the usual question, which is exactly the one I’d like to avoid: “Why did you come to Taiwan?”

I have two options; I can either lie and invent some plausible story, or just tell the truth. Well, I didn’t really have the time to come up with a story. Besides, when I lie my face turns red and I get very nervous. So, I just told them that I had come to Taiwan for love. Then one of the girls, a very cute one with a sweet smile, asked me: “Did you two get married?”

Well, would I be sitting in a cafe’ in the afternoon reading a Chinese book if I had married her? Hopefully not. Anyhow, they already understood from my expression what the answer was, and they laughed. And so did I. 

“What do you think of Taiwanese people?” was the next question.

I said: “Taiwanese people are very nice”; they smiled. I paused, and then added: “At the beginning”. They looked pretty surprised, but still smiled. 

“Why?”

“Everyone in Taiwan is nice when you first meet them”, I said. “But when you become good friends, they change. For example, if I am wearing ugly shoes when I first meet someone, he or she will never say ‘Your shoes are ugly’. But if you get close to each other, they will just say this sort of things. My European friends are usually the opposite; the closer we get, the nicer we become. But in Taiwan, I often made the experience that people who at the beginning were sweet and friendly, afterwards changed and showed me their ‘real self’ which they didn’t show at the beginning; some of them even turned out to have a pretty bad temper and get angry very easily.” 

Please don’t misunderstand; I am not suggesting everyone in Taiwan has a bad temper. I shall explain in a future post what I mean exactly.

They asked me another question that I can’t remember, and then the interview was over. We took the customary picture together (which will be part of their presentation, I assume), then they thanked me and left.

I went back to studying Chinese, but a few minutes later, I saw another group of people approaching. This time there were two guys and two girls. The girls were in charge of the interview, and the guys of filming. 

I have to say that this group was completely different from the previous one. They were much more talkative, and they seemed more interested in what I had to say. The interview also lasted longer and, to be honest, this time I truly enjoyed it because they were really nice, funny and curious (I wanted to use the word ‘passionate’, but perhaps that would be too much).

The first questions were, of course, what is my name and where I come from. The most interesting thing about them was the focus of their interview. The third question was: “What do you think about Taiwanese boys and girls?” 

I didn’t really understand what they meant; they explained they wanted to know if there is any difference in men-women relationships between Taiwan and Europe. I said that, in my opinion, Taiwanese tend to accept gender roles more than Europeans. For instance, some girls want their boyfriends to pay everything for them, they want their husband to be the main ‘bread earner’, or they expect their boyfriends to carry their bags, spoil them etc. (again, I am oversimplifying and basing what I say on some of my experiences).

Then they asked me a really funny question: “How do you think Taiwanese girls look like?”

That was totally unexpected. I can’t imagine they’re going to show this kind of interview to their classmates and teachers! Anyway, I looked at the girl who was sitting next to me, and I must admit, she was absolutely beautiful and cute (fairly enough, the other one was pretty, too, but that’s a matter of taste). So, the words came out of my mouth almost automatically: “I think Taiwanese girls are cute … and pretty.” I wasn’t sure if I should go on, but, well, I just said it: “and sexy.” When I said sexy, they laughed out loud. 

We chatted for a while. They asked me, of course, why I came to Taiwan. They also wanted to know if I can speak Chinese. At that point, I showed them my book full of notes to prove that my Chinese still needs a lot of improvement. But they were very impressed I was reading a book at all. 

“This is a stupid book,” I said. “Look!” I showed them the cover, and they laughed. “I feel so ashamed to read this kind of stuff in public that I always put my hand on the cover when I’m on the MRT.”

They also asked me a few questions about Italy: what places they should visit if they go travelling there, and so on. I think the interview lasted for around fifteen minutes, or even more. They were very friendly, and also relaxed. Most students usually seem in a hurry, as if they wanted to finish the interview as quickly as possible. But they weren’t. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask them to send me the picture.   

As I said, I did enjoy this last interview. But this experience somehow also confirmed the feeling I had when I came back from Hong Kong around a week ago. I wonder if there is any other country in the world where high school students walk around on a campus interviewing foreigners. Apparently, ‘we’ foreigners are seen as something different, something locals are curious about, but also very distant from. Interviews are one of the funny parts of the love-hate relationship between Taiwan and the West. I just can’t help thinking that foreigners are often seen as ‘status symbol objects’, a sort of cool decoration. 

I remember that when I came to Taiwan the first time I had a very interesting experience. One of my Taiwanese friends asked me to go to her university for a presentation. Students had to talk about their experiences with language exchange partners or pen pals. Most of her classmates only corresponded with their foreign friends, but I was in Taiwan and she could bring to her class the real me instead of a mere picture. So, I agreed to help her. My friend gave the presentation, and afterwards the other students gathered around us and asked me questions. 

To be fair, they were all very nice and friendly, no doubt. But honestly, I felt as if I was an animal in a zoo; a very special animal, for sure, who can talk and wears clothes, but still… 
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Categories: Uncategorized

9 replies »

  1. I know exactly what you mean about being an animal in a zoo. I'm a white, blond, blue/green eyed foreigner and at my old school (which I am returning to in a few months), they would come and take pictures of me (unannounced) while I was teaching (history) to put in their pamphlets. Or come by my room with interested families. It's kind of like showing off the foreigner… I feel similarly with the constant requests for pictures with me on the street… Never been interviewed on the street in Shanghai, though. Only once in Seoul. Will have to come to Taipei to experience that!

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  2. Thanks for this great blog post. I can also relate to this. I have been to Taiwan multiplie times and made great friends there. Over time the “polite barrier” get's lower and lower. My Taiwanese friends can be brutaly honest, wich is something I don't get in Europe or else where. But this is not only with friends. I once had an experience at the Taipei Airport, where a guard who was checking my passport, smiled at me and as he checked my old pass port picture said “ooh, you lost a lot of weight”.

    As for the “zoo” part, I get to experiance this too, but it was worse when my wife was with me once. She has light skin ad red curly hair. It's funny if small children point at us and say 外國人 or 美國人, but in Tainan there was a lady (porbably a tourist form mainland china) who simply grabed her arm and wanted to take a picture of her. With my then very limted chinese I grabed the other arm of my wife and said “不可以” and walked a way whilst holding my wifes arm.

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  3. I have the same feeling all day long..
    That I'm an alien or something, not saying it's bad though, but unnatural to me yet

    Nobody has stopped me for an interview so far, but some girls usually ask for a picture. That's just unreal.. I'm here only for a month though, maybe after some more time I'll get used..(Or not)

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  4. Thanks for your comments guys. It seems that many of us have a similar experience. Some people don't mind being different, they even enjoy that. But I don't like feeling like an alien. This is the first time that I am glad I'm not blond.

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  5. Moved here b/c husband is Taiwanese. Boy, do I feel like an alien. The constant starting, gawking, even at times getting the rude evil eye (the snake eye is usually from older people). Don't know if I will ever get used to it. I don't understand it as the Taiwanese people are very friendly but tired of being stared at like I have 3 heads or something. With all the foreign channels and movies on tv as well-obviously people are exposed to westerners so not sure why this happens. I WISH someone kids would stop me to interview me as I would love to point this aspect out to them!!

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  6. @anonymous

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I think you should walk around Taida campus during the second and third week of May, because that's the period when students interview foreigners. Chances are they might interview you, too.

    I think that despite Western TV and films, a lot of Taiwanese see foreigners as something different, especially if they are blond and tall. But in your situation it might even be worse, because there don't seem to be many couples with a Taiwanese man and a Western woman. People might be curious, and someone might even have stereotypes. I hope this attitude will change, or at least you will get used to it (which I probably couldn't).

    I wish you all the best for your life in Taiwan.

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  7. In the next interview, how about telling them honestly how you feel? About the animal in the zoo thing or how it makes you uncomfortable the way people see you. Without accusing anyone, just stating how you feel. Maybe it will make them think a little…

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