Category Archives: Expat Life

Life as a Freak: Being Other in Asia

This article examines the casual, almost charming, racism that gives color to expat life, those small moments that remind you that you’re really an outsider. I am relating the following stories for their anecdotal charm. If you want a more serious look at racial issues in Asia try: Asian Anti-Foreigner Bigotry Pt.I and Pt.II.

Being different in Asia can lead to bizarre experiences as locals, often unrestrained in dealing with foreigners, toss normal social mores when faced with the obvious outsider. There is often a kind of fast-and-loose disregard for social niceties as related to foreigners. The oddest examples are in Inappropriate Touching and Being Other where I describe literally being petted like an animal. The experiences ran from the pleasurable, having my arm and leg hair petted by strange women, to the less desirable vigorous chest hair stroking by a Korean man, while freebagging it in a steam bath. Don’t miss those stories.

You’d assume for homoerotic oddness that’d be unmatched, but no, during my very early days in Thailand [I lived there briefly], Korea, and Taiwan I somewhat regularly got hit on by gay men. Fine.  But, sometimes the inappropriateness of the situation made me think I must be doing something wrong. After an unusually assertive mid-afternoon invitation to enjoy a blowjob in the nearby public restroom—on a Wednesday—I was particularly flummoxed. There was no reason to believe me either gay, or looking for action. This happened during my early days in Taiwan, but also occurred in Korea and Thailand. I asked an older male student why these things were happening. In his words, it was probably because as we [Taiwanese] “know all foreigners are gay”.” Ahh. Well that explained that. I had been told something similar in the other countries. One of those racial situations that isn’t so bad, but causes pause. I’m pretty sure this belief has died over the last couple decades as interactions with the West have grown.

As globalized as Asia is becoming, you can always count on obasans to keep it real. It is a frequent refrain to hear old ladies telling their grandchildren, “Look, look,” with emphatic finger-pointing. “See the foreigner? Over there, look at him.” Gawp at the weirdness that is a foreigner. I have many friends—both Taiwanese and Western—who get really pissed off, but I don’t care about this one. You’re never going to change old ladies, and children are children.

It doesn’t stop there, when I step outside, I’m stared at by Taiwanese of all ages and genders. I’m used to it. I like it. It’s been a constant part of life since I was nineteen. During my first trip to Taiwan, thirty-three years ago, I walked into a nightclub and everything stopped. The music stopped. The dancing stopped, Conversation stopped. The houselights came up, and the entire club turned and stared at me for a solid twenty to thirty seconds. That’s the way it should be. However, ogling has been in steady decline as the expat population has grown. I don’t like it—it feels like people don’t appreciate what a special little flower I am.

As much as I might enjoy the attention it has cost me two relationships that I’m aware of. One was serious, but she couldn’t deal with the constant attention. She interpreted it—at least partially—as moral suasion aimed at getting her to conform, stop being a white-dating slut, and fulfill her social obligation to date, marry, and bear a Taiwanese. The other simply disliked being constantly noted. There’s a lot of pressure in Asia to just be another cog in the wheel, to not stand out. I stick out like a sore dink, and anyone who’s around me gets hit by the spotlight too. I guess it’s good that Westerners are less unique now—it’s helped stabilize my social life.

As a foreigner, I have been the recipient of a lot of weird friendliness, where people try to be affable, but the execution falls flat. Once while scootering around Taipei, I was chased from stoplight-to-stoplight by a young Taiwanese guy who kept trying to engage me in English and offer his assistance. I believe he was genuinely trying to be nice, but it was really uncomfortable to be chased all over town by a stranger—no matter how well-intentioned. When I came to Taiwan to study, thirty-three years ago, I went to the National Palace Museum and was quickly swarmed on all sides by hundreds of students yelling, “Hello, nice to meet you,” and trying to shake my hand. Rationally I know they were just teens trying to practice their English, but when you’re surrounded, jostled, and yelled at—no matter how friendly the intent—the result is intimidating. Similarly, at that time, I used to get chased around the city streets by adults yelling, “Nice to meet you. How are you? Nice to meet you. How are you?…” Undoubtedly they were looking for a chance to practice their English, but it was alarming.

As a Westerner, I’ve always considered myself a bit of a zoo animal in Asia—on display for the pleasure of others. The constant scrutiny has decreased over the decades as Asia has become more international. It’s like going from a caged zoo animal to one that lives in a nature park. To me the feeling of being on exhibit is an integral part of the expat experience, but life is undeniably more comfortable as one of a crowd—even if some sick part of me misses the over-the-top attention.

Male-Male vs Female-Male

I’ve been distracted by the covi-plague, but it’s time for me to get back to my bread and butter—writing about nothing. That’s my sweet spot.

As mentioned in Expat Friendships developing deep companionships as an expat is difficult. The problem extends to expat-Taiwanese interactions, though for different reasons. I’ve been here a long time. Most of my friends and acquaintances are Taiwanese. I have some wonderful female friends; but guys, not so much. I have actually actively sought male friends, largely unsuccessfully.

When I was single, I was aware of the problem, but not much bothered. I had an army of female friends. If I wanted to see a movie, go dancing, have coffee, take a trip I knew the perfect companion. Beyond my obvious sexiness—to know me is to need a change of panties—there were other appeals for Taiwanese women in having an intercultural friendship.

Twenty or more years ago there was a distinct coolness factor in having a foreign friend. Look, I’m international, I can function in the wider world. However, familiarity breeds contempt, with a passel of foreigners on every corner now, perceptions of our suavity have slipped. But still, we retain some appeal. Many women enjoy communicative activities and language learning. Foreign friends are a great way to practice these skills. That’s why the whole language exchange thing was such a great fiddle for finding dates. It was useless for learning Chinese, but awesome for the social life. Still works, but not as well.

Great, right!?!

Not totally. From my earliest days here I’ve focused more on developing Taiwanese friendships than expat friendships. I hoped to gain cultural insights and smooth the transition into Taiwanese society. It worked, but I ended up with all female friends, any guy friends were expats.

As much as Taiwanese women may enjoy intercultural friendships, most Taiwanese men find them wearisome for much the same reasons. What guy wants the annoyance of communicating through a haze of cultural misunderstandings and worse—in English? It’s like doing extra credit in school long after graduation.

As an illustrative anecdote, years ago I was at the site of a traffic accident where a car struck a scooter. I went running up to assist. The scooter driver was on his back, on the asphalt, looking surprisingly chill—until he saw me, when genuine panic Took over. He started sliding on his bum away from me, pushing himself with his hands and uninjured leg, while agitatedly saying, “No English,… no English”. I tried to calm him, but he wasn’t having it. The perfect metaphor for my attempts at friendship with Taiwanese guys.

Also, I was twenty-nine when I arrived in Taiwan. By that age guys have their circle of friends and generally aren’t looking to expand. I found there were simply less opportunities for developing male-male friendships with Taiwanese.

The feeling was a bit mutual. I didn’t seem to have much in common with most Taiwanese men. The ones I met didn’t have a lot of hobbies or interests. They just wanted to talk about their jobs and stock portfolios. The Taiwanese stock market was really booming at that time, and guys were deeply fascinated by how well they were doing. Not a great conversation.

The downside relying heavily on XX chromosome friendships became manifest when I got married. I lost all my friends when I tried cleaning out the non-platonics.  Turns out all the female friends I’d accumulated over a dozen years weren’t as conversant with Plato’s canon as my wife would’ve preferred. Somehow I’d failed to notice that even my purest friendships were less than transcendent.

Marriage may have closed a beautiful door, but it did open a less comely window. I’ve developed some male acquaintances from among my wife’s guy friends. They’re forced to interact with me. Before marriage I had one true Taiwanese guy friend, after marriage maybe two—I have a pretty strict definition of true friendship—and a  handful of acquaintances.

I think the situation I’m describing is no longer. Younger Taiwanese men seem more open to developing international friendships. And, the plethora of foreigners living in Taiwan means Taiwanese women have more chances for cross-cultural friendships and language practice should they desire. Now a moderate looking foreign guy is unlikely to find himself with such a stack of female friends, at least not without considerable effort. I suppose these changes are one  impact of globalization. It’s an improvement.

I have no idea if long-term female expat experiences are analogous, and they also find it easier to develop friendships with Taiwanese women. I’m going to guess it’s similar, but less extreme.

Vignette #21: Expat Recidivism

When you’re young it seems the world is giant, full of adventure and possibilities. I chased that feeling as a young man. I retain that boundless boneless desire for travel, though tempered by a middle aged need for roots.

My first decade abroad I was scrupulously careful not to acquire anything that couldn’t be thrown away, or stuffed into a rucksack. I always wanted to be ready to roll down the road again as a peripatetic pedagogist. I had a kind of a permanent wartime mentality. If I’m down-and-out and running, what do I need, and what can I shed?

A few people are natural born rovers, who pursue an itinerant lifestyle until their ashes are cast upon the wind. I respect them. I love the romance of what they do—but it’s a hard life.

Most wanderers begin craving permanence, stability, a lasting connection to places and people. Usually sometime in their mid-thirties to early forties, they look around and find nothing; no meaningful possessions, no significant relationships, nor any feeling of belonging—not even a goldfish to mourn their passing. That’s the international vagabond’s midlife crisis.

At heart I’m a freebooter, but I have other needs too. The expat lifestyle is a good compromise. You get to put down roots, yet still feel you’re on the road. There’s still the chance to feel you’re in a foreign land, discovering new things, and being surprised by the patterns of life. For me, Taiwan is home, but it remains fresh and exciting.

It’s that feeling of having the best of both worlds that salves the wanderer’s soul, and makes expat life addictive. I’ve known many who’ve tried giving it up and returning to their home countries; it’s a rare few that succeed. Of course practical matters of job and finances are factors. However, I believe most can’t face a life without the possibility of being excited or stunned by prosaic pieces of daily life. That’s an adventure too.

White Privilege in Asia

I am aware that my entire life I’ve benefited from being white. Certainly it was advantageous being white in Canada, but I was also part of Generation X. When I came of age my entire generation was receiving an inter-generational boot-fucking of legendary proportions. It didn’t matter too much what race, color, creed, or sex you were—everyone was being bent over the hood of the same car. Was I offered lube because I’m white? Sure. I was, of course, relatively privileged, but it’s hard to feel it when you can’t spend that entitlement on anything of economic value.

Weirdly, I’ve never felt my white privilege more overtly than in Asia. There are real economic benefits to being Caucasian here. The entire ESL teaching profession is built on selling your whiteness. We get paid more money for doing less work than an equally or better qualified Asian. Straight-up white privilege. At the buxiban end of the profession, cram schools need foreign faces for marketing, traditionally this has meant pink complected. Other colors need not apply, no matter if you’re a native speaker. Parents like to see their children being taught “real English” by “real English people” (read white). Taiwan has slowly become more sophisticated and willing to employ a wider range of races as English instructors, but every school still wants a disproportionate number of albinos in their stable. My first year of full-time teaching, in Korea, was shite. I still find it hard to believe I managed to get paid for that. I had no skills. All I had to offer were a white face and a personable attitude. Good enough: many manage with just the former.

The economic benefits of being white in Asia extend into business. It is not uncommon for white people to exceed their natural corporate positions upon arrival in Asia. If the person turns out to be competent at their new level, the arrangement can be mutually beneficial. But if not, it’s like taking the Peter Principle, shoving it in a penis pump, and really enlarging the situation’s knobbiness. Of course it is part of the reason people come—overemployment in Asia beats underemployment back home. This is particularly notable in areas of Asia that are developing and booming. At one time that was Japan, later Taiwan and Korea, then China, now Vietnam and India. During rapid growth businesses want white visages on the payroll. It gives them face. Part of the foreigner’s job is to show up at company events and be on display. “Who’s that? Oh, that’s our white guy”. It’s a bit like being Donald Trump’s black guy. Tokenism on crack cocaine, but God bless us whities—we’ve really leaned into it.

From the company’s perspective, the practice is not unreasonable. Asia’s super heated growth has been based on manufacturing and export to the Western market. It is sensible to have some supervisors and representatives from those markets. That’s also why having a small stable of foreigners on staff gives face, it makes the company look like an international concern, busily slicing and dicing those foreign markets. If the price of such PR is paying a white guy to play solitaire on his computer—so be it. Those gold rush days inevitably fade, the companies stop needing a white figurehead, and those people either have proven themselves useful, or they’re down the road to the next booming area.

Probably the most notable expression of white privilege in Asia can be seen in the foreigner’s licence. It is a direct application of privilege. Using your foreigner’s licence is when you either feign ignorance, or just directly use your foreignness to get something you don’t deserve. My foreigner’s licence has done everything from getting me a last-second seat on a fully booked plane—and some other poor schmuck thrown off the plane—to getting me out of traffic tickets. Often it is not necessary to do anything, it just happens—sometimes against my will. It worked much better thirty years ago, but it’s still a thing.

Of course there’s also racism in Taiwan, and yes it can be directed towards white people, but often it takes an oddly pleasant form. It’s a racial fetishism where white people are regarded as “advanced”, “clean”, and “prosperous”. I believe this is some sort of residue of imperialism, us Asian-based whities are the vestigial tail of European imperialism. We lack the real power of that bygone era, but retain a whiff of privilege. I don’t want to talk too much about this as it’s the topic of an upcoming article.

F@cking the Dog in Taiwan: Inter-Expat Variance

The expat lifestyle’s greatest pleasure for me is meeting and interacting with people of diverse backgrounds. The Salty Egg normally discusses this in terms of interactions with the dominant culture. However, Taiwanese is not the only culture here that is alien to me. Expats themselves are drawn from all over the world. Taiwan-based expats are a heterogeneous soup of races, cultures, and creeds. It gives expat friendships some of their zest. Cultural misunderstandings among expats are almost as likely as Taiwanese-foreigner mix-ups.

I used to work in a school that had a nice mix of Americans, Canadians, Australians, Kiwis, South Africans, and a Brit. Every Monday morning, as colleagues will do, someone would ask me what I’d done over the weekend. I’d usually breeze by, and say something like, “Not much, you know, I just fucked the dog”.  Apparently my standard answer was causing vexation and concern among coworkers. Who knew fucking the dog isn’t a universal English idiom? My colleagues apparently imagined I (might) have had a canine sex slave chained, spread-eagle, to the bed.

I didn’t.

I still can’t believe I have to explain this, but fucking the dog means laying about. I suppose it started as doing the dog, meaning to lounge around, like a dog. Inevitably doing became fucking, and thus this eloquent phrase was born. (Dog Fucker is the noun form—use it well). I now know that despite it being extremely commonplace where I’m from, many other English speakers don’t know the colloquialism. All it took was a single visit from Taiwan’s SPCA to banish that piece of Canadiana from my lexicon. The potential for inter-expat misapprehensions is high, not surprising when you consider the expat diaspora.

By volume, the largest expat groups come from South-East Asia. They do all the work; build Taiwan’s buildings, catch the fish, work as maids, care for the sick and infirm, and become wives.  They’re a common sight on the streets, but other expats don’t generally rub elbows with them. Their concerns and lifestyle are different from the average Western or Japanese expat. You’re unlikely to meet them at the normal foreigner hangouts. They usually have less time, less expendable income, and in terms of where they socialize, there’s a tendency towards ghettoization. The potential for intercultural gaffs between these expats and others abound, but lack of proximity makes it unlikely.

It used to be, if you saw a white face in the crowd, it was an English teacher. The primacy of English teaching among Western expats is a thing of the past, but we’re still a very large component of the Western expat community. There’s often misunderstandings between English teachers (the lumpenproletariat) and English speaking businessmen, technical specialists, diplomats, engineers, etc. The groups exist in Taiwan and are drawn from the same countries, but experience Taiwan and expat life differently. I spend most of my time with English teachers, but of these exogenous groups I personally spend time with diplomats and corporate managers. Their experiences of expat life are so remote from mine as to be almost useless as a common reference point. We share the same watering holes and interests, but there’s plenty of room for internecine culture shock.

Opportunities for mutual misunderstanding among expats grows as the home cultures become more divergent. There are a lot of Japanese expats here, mostly Japanese businessmen and the wives of Japanese businessmen. The former work and drink (normally in establishments catering to the Japanese), the latter shop. There aren’t many points of commonality between us. Usually expats of such dissimilar backgrounds only have one common denominator—Chinese class.

Taiwan also has lots of non-English speaking crackers [along with whitie, I’m trying to bring back this racial epithet]. By a series of circumstances I have quite a few francophone friends and acquaintances. They’re generally not here to teach English, or French for that matter, a lot are businessmen, and there’s a surprising number of artists, writers, and other creative folk. I enjoy hanging out with them—they’re totally different than my normal expat crowd.

When the Russian economy tanked approximately fifteen years ago, there were lots of Russians in Taipei. That was a particular treat. They may not have sent their best, but they did send their models. Taipei was lousy with leggy, lithe, angular Russian women, each sporting a Melania Trump moue. Good times. Good times.

The kaleidoscope of foreigners in Taiwan gives life and friendship here its piquancy. I truly love it, but I must admit that my very best friends are usually Canadian (and Aries). I suppose it is more familiar, comfortable—with a lower chance of misunderstanding. Even there, though, Canada is a large variegated country with lots of room for regionalism. Cultural misunderstandings are common even among Canadian expats. Misconception and misinterpretation are a big part of expat life; whether from the host culture or other expats, you just have to deal with it. I choose to find it charming.