Category Archives: Expat Life

The Monolingual Expat

While back in Canada, chatting with strangers, I mentioned living in Taiwan. They asked if I speak Chinese. [Actually the question was whether I speak Thai, but that’s a story for another day]. I replied, “Well, define Chinese,” baffling the table. So I explained, “Yes, I do speak Chinese. I speak shit Chinese.” They clearly assumed I’d simply confirm my fluency. There is a reasonable expectation that long-term expats in Taiwan would have passable Chinese. Often that is not true.

Monoliguisticexpatitis is an English-speaker’s disease. Since English is the world’s lingua franca, it is too easy to be understood everywhere. It’s hard to imagine any reasonably large urban center or tourist destination where—when you’re recognized as a foreigner—people wouldn’t speak English. It’s detrimental to language learning. In Taiwan’s large centers, surviving with just English is easy. Often it’s hard to get Taiwanese people to speak Chinese with you.

Opportunities to speak Chinese are not as widespread as you’d assume. If you’re new to Taiwan most your Chinese interactions are probably with service people. These exchanges are often too simple to help with more than the basics, or descend into the surreal. My favorite occurs when the young counterperson freaks as I enter an American fast-food chain. Stone-cold terror. “Oh God my English is so bad. I can’t spell and have no idea when to use the auxiliary verb—what am I going to do? I should have studied harder for that test.” It doesn’t happen every time, but when it does I  like to put them at ease right away with my smooth Chinese ordering, because I’m a nice foreigner: 請你給我一個1號餐. Usually that draws a bug-eyed gawp. Well, these things happen. So, ever the charming foreigner, I’ll repeat myself in passable Chinese, 請你給我一個1號餐. The steadily widening eyes by this point usually look like those of a drunken Russian getting kicked in the nards on YouTube. It begins to feel like a passion play, but it’s not clear which of us is Christ. Around this time the server will skitter off to find the manager. On their return, I get a third chance for some real-world Chinese practice, 請你給我一個1號餐. The manager, older, wiser, and unintimidated by my blonde hair, will probably recognize Chinese. These interactions have minimal positive impact on Chinese learning. 

The opposite is also common. Sometimes you’ll meet Taiwanese dying to speak English with a native speaker. It’s almost impossible to get them to interact in Chinese. It is unnatural to continue speaking Chinese while being replied to in English. You’re being socially awkward. It can be demoralizing for the language learner. It feels like they think  your Chinese is inadequate.  Dealing with a conversation partner who’s either too scared or excited is not good for language learning.

Non-English-speaking Europeans tend to have better Chinese skills. Partially it’s that many come from multilingual countries and are used to interacting in their non-dominant language. But also, not many Taiwanese are going to speak to them in French. If their English is poor, they have to speak Chinese. For them, Taiwan is an immersive Chinese language experience. I’d never say it’s good to be French, but in this one way it’s advantageous.

While Europeans are often multilingual, English speakers tend to be monolingual. Partly it’s an accident of geography. English developed in England, relatively isolated from other languages. Insularity seems to have bred linguistic self-centeredness. Whether for historical reasons or pure arrogance, many English speakers have the attitude that:  English is my first, and God willing, last language. [What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? English].

The stereotypical English attitude to other languages is a factor in some English-speaking expat’s monolingualism. Also, many of us—despite living in Taiwan—inhabit remarkably English environments. There’s a reason English teachers tend to have terrible Chinese. We spend our workdays speaking English in class, taking breaks with other English teachers, and interacting with staff in English. It is an entirely English work environment. Many other technical experts in Taiwan exist in a similar English bubble. It’s bad in many ways. It definitely makes Chinese fluency difficult. For these expats, learning Chinese in Taiwan has little advantage over studying Chinese in their home countries.

There is one last problem. Motivation. Sometimes comprehension is undesirable. I don’t want a clear idea what my in-laws are saying. When they’re talking I turn my brain to the Charlie-Brown’s-teacher setting: wah, wah, woh, wah, wah. Likewise, sometimes you just don’t want to know what your wife is saying. Nothing good can come from it, just more chores and probing insights into how you should change—monolingualIsm has its advantages.

The article is intended as an explanation—not an excuse. It is wrong to live in Taiwan and not make an earnest effort to learn the language. Personally, I do study and speak Chinese, but am embarrassed at my level of fluency.

A Bigot Abroad?

Recently I had dinner with a longtime reader of The Salty Egg. He mentioned that one of my posts had caused a shitstorm on Twitter. I am only dimly aware of people’s reactions to my writing. When I publish a post I don’t really pay much attention to what happens after that. I don’t read the comments. (If you’ve really given me what-for in the comments,…you haven’t). I don’t track who is re-posting. As far as I’m concerned it’s out there in the ether, I’ve said my piece, and I’m onto new things. The way I notice I’ve caused a kerfuffle is when my website gets a spike in traffic. Normally I get hundreds of readers a week. If I suddenly get 10,000 readers in a couple hours after a new article, I know people are mad about something. The Internet loves to be pissed off.

Despite what it does for my traffic, I’ve never intentionally set out to annoy or anger. It usually comes as a shock when it happens. A lot of the outrage is frankly ridiculous and ignorable. Some is more weighty. The specific nexus of the Twitter storm, mentioned by my fan, was issues over what gives me the right, as a white man, to comment on Asian culture/race?

A solid question. One that I have grappled with since my historical methodology course in grad school. Do outsiders really have the right to examine and write about other people’s history? At the time I was writing about French history. My people are not French. I wasn’t even a Francophile. Was my perspective valid? Can white men write about African culture? Can men write the story of women?

This is one of those navel-gazing topics academics enjoy debating. I’m going to skip to the end, and give you the answer. Yes. If you are honest about your background, perceptions, and biases, then you will add a valid perspective. Ideally we should have lots of insider and outsider viewpoints represented. As a practical matter, it simply must be that way, otherwise commentator specificity is subdivided ad infinitum, until only a pubescent German-Dutch Jewish girl living in the Netherlands, preferably near Amsterdam, can present a valid look at Anne Frank’s life. Personally, I have always enjoyed outsider history. They see things from a differentpossibly more truthfulperspective.

Specifically related to my blog, I wish there were more outsiders writing about life in Taiwan, offering a range of different perspectives. I wish more foreign women writing about their lives in Asia. I would also like to know the experiences of Black people living here. More perspectives are better.

So that is my position on outsiders commenting on other cultures. Now here’s the part that seems to fuck with people’s heads—I am not an outsider, at least not totally. I have lived in Taiwan for decades, my entire life is in Taiwan, my family is Taiwanese, my work  is Taiwanese. I live a (culturally) Taiwanese life. I am more Taiwanese in thought and action than I am my own ethnicity of German-Ukrainian Canadian. Taiwanese society is my society. Taiwanese culture is my culture. Taiwanese family life is my family life. Trippy, right?

Interestingly, white people seem to have the biggest problem with this. The further people get from being part of Taiwanese culture the more my writing offends their sensibilities. In general, Taiwanese people, born in Taiwan, and living in Taiwan have less issueS with my writing than American-born Taiwanese living in Taiwan, who have less issues than American-born Taiwanese who’ve never lived here.  Longterm expats in Taiwan accept my writing more than white people who’ve never left their home country.

The issue seems to be that people, particularly white people, are clinging to a 1950s idea of race where races are seen as distinct, whole, homogeneous, and separate. These ideas extend to culture as well. In our globalized world it’s an anachronism. We are living in a post-racial world, not that there aren’t different races, but that the cultural signifiers differentiating races/cultures  are becoming fuzzy. A lot of people haven’t caught up to this yet.

I get complants that I’m a white man telling Taiwanese how they need to change. First, I’ve never done that. Second, am I really “a white man” in the way they mean? I am not looking outward, as a foreigner, and commenting on Taiwanese society. I am looking inward, at my own life and family, and describing that. Those people that are triggered by this have a narrow view of race and culture that is out of sync with our interconnected world. I find the criticism slightly ridiculous. I maintain that I have the right to have opinions about my life, and to write about them. Essentially people have a problem  categorizing a white person who’s lived their entire life in Asia, and become in a sense a racially non-Asian Asian. The bending of clearly defined racial/cultural subsets into something more amorphous challenges society’s assumptions of self and other.

I’d like to propose a different way of looking at this issue. I think we should be looking at the degree to which people are cultural stakeholders in a society, rather than their race, ethnicity, or birth culture. That should inform the degree to which they can meaningfully comment on a culture. If some lunatic is on a racist screed against African culture having never been there, eaten the food, had a conversation with an African person, etc. then obviously whatever they’re saying needs to be understood as not coming from a cultural stakeholder. However, if there is someone commenting on Korean culture who has lived in Korea their whole life, speaks the language, has studied the history and culture, is essentially Korean in all but skin tone, then their viewpoint needs to be understood by the degree to which they are a stakeholder in Korean culture.

Just my two cents.

These topics have been running themes. See: State of the BlogLife as a FreakWhite Privilege in Asia, Humor’s Intercultural Peril, and Transnationalism and the Global Soul, among others.

Totally Random Musing #1

I don’t know if it’s the summer heat or just general lassitude, but I can’t get excited about anything beyond the next Uber delivery and new Netflix series. As hobbies go, having a weekly blog resembles a job. I’ve been lazy, but to tide you over I offer this short observation.

Recently an expat friend was discussing feeling very old. He’s in his mid-thirties, hardly decrepit, but when he looks around all he sees is people younger than him. [Just wait, it gets worse, is what I say]. But, he does have a point.

If he were living in his home country he probably wouldn’t feel the aging process so profoundly. Though the population of Taiwan is aging, just as it is in most of the world, the expat population never grows old. Each year a new batch arrives. They are usually young (recent graduates), excited, energetic—full of piss and vinegar—and having a grand adventure. They stay for a few months or a few years and then they’re gone. It can make you feel middle aged by your early thirties. I feel positively ancient. Every year I get older; but they just stay the same.

I think that’s why so many old hands seem to be in a state of arrested adolescence.  You act like the people around you. I feel old here, and young in Canada.

I’ll be back with something more substantial soon.

Expat Archetypes

Here are a few archetypal expats I’ve met, or been, during my time in Asia. Personally I’ve passed through several of these archetypes. I’m guessing that’s not unique. 

The Burner: People who wash up on Asia’s shores because they can’t stay in their home countries. They end up here because of bankruptcy, divorce, legal problems, etc. They’re jet-setting losers. The Burner usually does well. Asia is a second chance and they’ve got the smarts and life experience to take advantage. They’re a personal favorite, they have the best stories, just crank them up with a couple drinks and let ’em fly—entertainment all night.

Characteristics: Alcoholism, frown lines, a brooding thousand yard stare, and cargo shorts; barely repressed rage directed at the West.

The Irrationally Angry Foreigner (IAF): Chronically incapable of adapting to change, they lash out at any differences from their perceived social ideal (the West). IAFs are raging assholes, totally lacking self-awareness, and assuming themselves the only right-minded people in a nation of idiots. It’s annoying—even Tom Cruise is mindful enough to know he’s short and crazy. Avoid IAFs at all costs. They’ll drag you down to their level, and have you violently raging about how much better Western grommets are than Asian grommets. The fury that burns brightest is the briefest—thankfully IAFs don’t last long. They either get over it or get out.

Characteristics: The red-faced pedestrian punching the taxi grill while bellowing at the driver for some perceived infraction is an IAF. The foreigner in a pet about pedestrian rights and pitching parked bicycles off the sidewalk is an IAF. They’re everywhere.

The Backpacker: Present throughout Asia in their current iteration since the late sixties, they’re traveling through seeking experiences they can afford. Northeast Asia is the wrong part of Asia. Coming here for budget travel is like going to Dubuque, Iowa for the opera. The Backpacker can be annoyingly cheap as they try to make their exit date. They were responsible for many Asian stereotypes of Westerners when I arrived. My sense is this is changing as Asia gets more sophisticated in its view of foreigners and stereotypes evolve.

Characteristics: Backpack adorned with flags and vibram-soled sport sandals. They’re in wonder of everything, knowledgeable about nothing. Usually they’re fun for short periods.

Subset: The Begpacker funds their international backpacking by begging as they go. Recognizable by their cardboard sign, alms bowl, and ability to relax on any piece of shopping district sidewalk. Generally they’re young, white, and ridiculously entitled; you’d have to be to fly from Europe or N. America to Laos or Cambodia and beg from subsistence farmers. They’re the unsolicited dicpic of expats.

The Addict: From the kindergarten teachers on speed (children love it) to the drunk falling off his barstool, they are our ever-present id. The expat life—if not actively promoting it—certainly aids addiction. It’s a bit like the military; lots of young people, free from family constraints, far away from recognizable societal guardrails, in an unknown land where the party runs 24/7. The most common entry level expat job, cram school English teacher, [inadvertently] promotes the party life. Most of the work is from 3:00-10:00pm. After work, what are you going to do? You’re making relatively good money and can sleep until mid-afternoon, for many the answer is clear. It can be vertigo-inducing after spending your teen years in Bumblefuck, USA. For some older expats the party never ended.

Characteristics: They travel in fun-loving packs, and can be seen in large numbers in their native habitat—bars and clubs. They’re great fun to be around. To find the related subspecies, Homo Hungoveris, The Addict’s less charming cousin, check buxibans in the afternoon.

The Slut: Some men arrive here specifically to bag Asian women. I’m not talking about normal guys who arrive for a long-term stay desiring an active social life. No. I mean guys trophy hunting and collecting beaver pelts. These guys are young, dumb, and full of cum. They’re very predatory. Honestly I’ve never seen this behavior so blatantly displayed outside the expat community. I suppose it exists everywhere, but the phenomenon is on crack cocaine here. I suppose the expat lifestyle’s freedom from social restrictions, combined with a depersonalized view of Asian women as easy china dolls, allows it to flourish. Amazingly, despite being as charming as an abscessed perianal boil, some of these guys get more ass than a toilet seat. Toxic masculinity exists for a reason I guess.

Characteristics: Men with hyper-aggressive banter, heads on a swivel, and eyes on pinions. You’ll find the Slut hitting on your mother-in-law, the hottie in the bar, their students, or the local obosan collecting trash. As one told me, “always be closing.”

The Earth Muffin: All expat archetypes are annoying in their own way, but my choice for most annoying are Earth Muffins. They’re here on a spiritual journey of self-discovery and tofu. The magical mystical East is the place to find both. I guess what bothers me is they take Eastern religion, philosophy, and mysticism, add a gloss of new age spirituality, and masquerade it as depth and meaning. It’s a mish-mash of bullshit. The Earth Muffin shouldn’t be confused with people earnestly studying religion, meditation, qigong, kung fu, or whatever. You can find The Earth Muffin in the park doing their own creative take on Tai Chi because, “it is all about spirituality and individualism—not a set form—but free-flowing energy and communing with the universe.” [Read in a laidback, yet pretentious voice].

Characteristics: They look like they went on a granola run, got lost, and ended up in Asia. Male—Man bun, Thai print harem pants, embroidered Hmong satchel, day old granola in the hair, and morning tofu breath. Female—virtually indistinguishable from the male, except smelling of patchouli.

 

I can think of more archetypes, but this is too long already.

 

White People Look Weird: Expat Self-Alienation

Being a minority in Asia has given me an odd perspective on my country, my culture, and myself. In the mid- 1980s—pre-globalization, the Internet, and most immigration—Asia was, from my perspective, stunningly homogeneous.

As an outsider, it was enough to change your self-perceptions. In Korea I became so alienated from my race that I stopped regarding white as normal. For the first six or seven months in Yeosu, I never saw another foreigner. Hard to imagine in the Internet age, but not only didn’t I see another living foreigner, I also didn’t see a picture of a foreigner, one on TV, nor in film—all I saw for half a year were Koreans.

I gained perspective on what it felt like to be Korean living in virtually homogeneous Korea. Any variation from the racial norm stuck out as unnatural. During that time, I traveled to a larger center and spotted a mixed race school girl. If I saw her in Canada, I wouldn’t have noticed her, or I’d have thought her looks a pleasant racial blending. When I saw her, through my Korean eyes, I found her freakish. She had freckles, slightly lighter skin, and hair running to auburn. Frankenstein’s monster. Undoubtedly, she was cute, but after seeing only “pure” Koreans for months, she seemed exceptional, in a negative way.

Don’t judge. The first time I saw another white person I had a similar reaction. After a few months, I found a theater playing a Western movie. The film transfixed me. It wasn’t the story, nor the special effects—I couldn’t get over how bizarre the white people looked. I spent the whole movie staring and thinking, “My God, look the nose on her—it’s huge.” Seriously, it felt like it was coming right out of the screen. I was hypnotized by the freakishly colorful eyes. Don’t get me started on the uniqueness of each person’s hair. I was so estranged from my race that I saw my Caucasian characteristics as weird and unseemly.

I don’t think this could happen anymore. The consumption of pop-culture is more globalized. Helped by video sharing sites, downloading, and Netflix, we listen to each other’s music and watch each other’s TV shows and movies . If I lived in Yeosu today, I wouldn’t lack visual images of white people. I would have access to endless videos and photos—I’d find imagery of my own race. Plus, it is undoubtedly more international now, with a foreigner community. I wouldn’t disassociate from my race.

For travelers and expats, the Internet’s ready access to your own culture provides comfort previously undreamed of by international travelers. Still, something important has been lost. It is now feasible to physically live in a foreign country while not really living there. You can live in Taiwan, do your shopping in American [online] stores—except for shoes, where Italy is obviously the place to shop—buy English books, watch Hollywood movies, and even access regional TV programs from your home. It’s truly awesome and comfortable and … limiting.

It is much harder to escape your culture and immerse yourself in another. It may be impossible to experience the cultural uncoupling I’ve described. That’s sad. My time in Asia has roughly corresponded with the rise of the Internet. My quality of life has risen dramatically with improved access to Western goods and cultural items. Also, concurrent globalization and trade liberalization means you can find a range of international goods in-country.

I also feel a sense of loss. It’s healthy to, once or twice, get so removed from your race/culture that your own weirdness slaps you in the face. Many small difficulties of expat life have disappeared, like traveling hundreds of kilometers to the only English “bookstore” in your region to gaze in wonder upon the dozen thirty-year-old titles, or uncomprehendingly watching Chinese TV, because what else? The expat life is special, and it makes you special. But, how special are you really if you travel to Asia, but only eat the regionally grown organic quinoa of your birthplace, or exclusively drink Starbuck’s double shot, half-caf, decaf, almond milk, mint mocha macchiatos, with a gentle breeze of cinnamon?

For a bit more on the Internet’s impact on expat life see: WTO and My Waistline and Kickin’ it Old School. For the whiny alternative viewpoint see: Making Taiwan Better.