Category Archives: Society & Culture

Asian Anti-Foreigner Bigotry [Pt. II]

Part I gives a brief overview  of Asian attitudes towards race and racialism. See: Asian Anti-Foreigner Bigotry [Pt.I]. Part II discusses  some personal experiences of racism in Taiwan, specifically interpersonal racism. (Institutional racism is for another time).

I’m struggling with how to present the topic. A kind of casual, friendly, racism is the background music to my daily life in Taiwan. Yet it almost never reaches a distressful level. Sure I notice the obāsan pointing at me and telling her grandchild, “Look, look at the foreigner. Look at it!” Sure, I’ve noticed people who’d rather stand than sit beside me. If things like that bothered me, I wouldn’t have survived a month in Taiwan. But, I rather think I deserve ogling—I’m quite the specimen—and having some space on the bus is always pleasant. The following are examples of Taiwanese racism crossing my annoyance threshold.

I previously worked at a University with two campuses, one an hour outside Taipei. The school provided staff busing to the outlying campus. One day it was announced all foreign staff would be required to ride in the back of the bus. Some Taiwanese workers didn’t like sitting beside a foreigner for an hour. That annoyed me.

Administrative pronouncements are a speciality of Taiwan’s universities. Racism has a casual, unwitting, quality here. I don’t believe administration ever understood why their back-of-the-bus policy caused backlash. The whole episode dovetailed with American history in an unfortunate way. The next day I took a front seat, beside a Taiwanese colleague, and got as far into his personal space as decency allowed. The other foreign teachers did the same. Thus ended that rule, and with it my civil rights activism.

During a university-wide meeting at that school the foreign staff listened as a Taiwanese professor lobbied for the firing of all foreign teachers, presumably because we’re icky. That annoyed me. I’m pretty sure he was the dilhole behind the back-of-the-bus dictate.

On two occasions, while in smaller towns, local toughs have hurled racial epithets and threats at me. always of the prosaic get-lost-whitey variety. This may actually have happened many times, it happens in Taiwanese, which I don’t understand. The only reason I’m aware of those is the Taiwanese women with me tensed up and pushed me past the offending troglodyte. I’d learn what happened when I complained of losing my place in line for deep fried squid. That annoyed me,… and sometimes scared me.

The first time I came to Taiwan, over thirty years ago, small hotels used to post their prices behind the reception desk. Normally there was a price for locals and another for foreigners. It wasn’t a secret, you just needed to be able to read Chinese. These foreigner prices still exist. It happens in small shops, at night markets, or while bartering. In my personal experience Taiwan is not bad for this, so I’m only minimally annoyed. Just slightly bothered I have to keep my guard up.

I used to date and develop an intimate relationship with women that assumed I understood we’d never be boyfriend and girlfriend. They thought I realized I’m white and ineligible for a relationship. Unfortunately, I had little concept of my alabaster sheen. That annoyed me. This has changed in the time I’ve been here. It’s less likely now to find a woman indulging her latent psychopathic narcissism at your expense. Though I must admit it could be delightful, if you understood the rules of the game.

It sounds bad, but isn’t really, at least for me. Taiwan is unique among Northeast Asian countries for its relative acceptance of outsiders, which developed in parallel with the trend away from self-identifying as Chinese. I’m not sure if that’s causation or coincidence. I suspect it has been a factor allowing the country to re-create its relationship with racialism and provides the freedom to be more inclusive. Strides are being made at the interpersonal and institutional levels. A lot of the Taiwanese attitude about race is grounded on an education system deeply rooted in Confucian values and teachings. Confucius didn’t say much about race relations, so not much is taught on the subject now. As a white man, I can’t speak for other races, I rarely experience aggressive racism in Taiwan. Culturally things are usually never in your face in Asia. By far the most common way I experience racism in Taiwan is through white privilege—I’m coddled. [See: White Privilege in Asia]. It’s racist, but if you’re going to experience racism, that’s the kind you want.

Asian Anti-Foreigner Bigotry [Pt. I]

This article and its second part are an extension of White Privilege in Asia, and look at the downsides of being a racial minority in Asia.

Asian acquaintances sometimes ask about my experiences with racism in their country. I struggle to respond in a meaningful way. Is there racism in Asia? Certainly. Is it overt? Frequently. Does it have a negative impact on my quality of life? Not so much. Asia has a very different history, perceptions, and socio-cultural norms regarding racial discrimination.

When I first moved to Taiwan 20+ years ago most Taiwanese self-identified as Chinese, and held Chinese views on racism: “We are the victims of Western imperialism and cultural bigotry. By definition we cannot be racist—we are the oppressed, and thus free to say anything.” A pretty good example came in conversation with a middle-aged Taiwanese man explaining how Western racial ideology brutalized Asia. He had a point, that was undercut by the fact he was concurrently expounding on his theory that black people [that’s not the term he used] had barely evolved from the apes. He was explaining why they’re all drug-addled animals…. But still, according to him, Chinese racism is an oxymoron—victims that they are. Surreal as the conversation was, it was not an outlier at that time.

As a graduate student in Canada I was classmates with a PhD candidate from Beijing. We were in a historiography (philosophy of history) class together. A lot of time was spent debating racist underpinnings in the writing of history. After one such class, he asked me why we considered racism wrong. In his opinion, as long as you could logically support your arguments, racial prejudice was valid. If you’ve read Chinese history, written by Chinese scholars, you have an idea where he was coming from. He tried to engage me in academic debate, but my own cultural/academic background prevented me from serious discourse on intellectual racism’s merits. He was not a bad guy and I wouldn’t exactly call him a racist. He simply reflected his own cultural background.

Shortly later I found myself living in a small South Korean city. The Land of the Morning Calm is one of Asia’s most xenophobic countries. My Korean experiences opened my eyes to Asian attitudes on race and racism. My favorite story is of a very sweet female college student in my class. One day she demurely informed me that, “Racism is one of the great flowers of Korean culture.” To her chagrin I burst out laughing. I could see on her face she was rechecking her English. I told her, “I’m not sure what you meant to say, but that definitely wasn’t it!” I was wrong. She got the English exactly right.

I’d spent my entire life absorbing an anti-racist message through school, family, media, etc. Korea taught me the same wasn’t necessarily true in Asia. Indeed many Asians saw nondiscrimination as potentially culturally dangerous. At that time the Korean economy was booming, The government was pushing global integration as the way forward and my adult class was animatedly discussing globalization in Korean. They were all very enthusiastic and asked my opinion. I told them they couldn’t realistically hope to globalize while maintaining a culture of ethnocentrism. They were outraged. As a single voice they leapt to racism’s defense. I pointed out globalization required foreign experts be welcomed as members of Korean society, so they’d be willing to stay and dedicate their working live’s to Korea. That brought the discussion crashing to an angry end—nothing must ever challenge Korea’s racial and cultural homogeneity. During their long history of invasion xenophobia was used to maintain the Korean race. For me to blithely call racism bad was to attack Korean culture’s very soul.

Korea is extreme, but not unique. All Asian societies are racially uniform, plus ethnically and culturally monolithic to a degree hard to comprehend for the average Westerner. In such homogeneous societies who is there to speak up against racism? Prejudices can proceed unabated by contact with other races. Most Asian societies prefer/demand racial and cultural constancy; change and diversity are seen as a threat. [See: The Unified Field Theory ]. It is no wonder many Asians don’t see a problem with racism—as long as it isn’t directed at them.

Have a look at Asian Anti-Foreigner Bigotry [Pt. II] for specific examples of white privilege not being all it’s cracked up to be.

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.

Humor’s Intercultural Perils: Why’s Everyone Pissed Off?

Do Chinese speakers have a sense of humor? On its face it seems a ridiculous question. However, many Westerners living in Taiwan have reached the conclusion that humor and Chinese culture are antithetical. As crazy as it sounds, it has a logic.

I once was one of those foreigners—I’ve since reformed. I would tell people that if you were being politically correct you’d say that humor is culturally defined and each culture has its own distinct sense of whimsy. However, if you were being truthful, you’d admit Chinese speakers have no sense of humor. I’d further explain most Chinese speakers, upon hearing a comedic aside, analyze it from every angle seeking a way to be offended. Further clarifying that a typical Chinese inner monologue after a joke might run: Have I been insulted; has my culture or race been slandered; and, how morally indignant am I, on a scale from outraged to apoplectic? If I wasn’t belittled, who was? Do I care? How much? If not directly about me, am I somehow peripherally being mocked? Let’s dig through five thousand years of human history trying to find some way to take umbrage. If not insulting, then is the joke somehow socially inappropriate?… After all this mental arithmetic, nothing is ever funny. That’s why sarcasm doesn’t exist in Chinese. That’s why Chinese speakers rely on the most unsophisticated types of humor; puns and puerile jokes, the domain of young children in the West.

I was wrong.

Well, sort of, like everything about culture, there are shades of grey. The mental gymnastics described above though overstated are kind of true. Thus, American humor can be very tough for Chinese listeners. A lot of American humor is outwardly directed, sometimes aggressive, and based on sarcasm and insult. Chinese speakers do better with American wit when that aggression is turned inwards to become self-deprecation. Then it’s clear to us Chinese speakers who is being insulted, and we’re okay with it.

Here’s where I was really wrong. Sarcasm exists in Chinese. It is very common for a group of friends engaged in badinage to be stunningly insulting and sarcastic, in a humorous way. The difference isn’t so much a matter of humor as variation between high-context and low-context communication styles (See: A Low-Context Dude and Unified Field Theory for background on the cultural linguistics). Americans are noted for their ability to move from strangers to ass-slapping and calling each other Butthead in the course of an evening. It’s friendly. It is also a very low-context cultural style. Other Western cultures, though perhaps more reserved, are also relatively low-context.

Chinese culture, and Asian cultures in general, tend to be more high-context. There is an emphasis on forming and deepening relationships within your group. As a consequence of this cultural style, humor is geared towards the in-group. If you’re not part of the group, you won’t understand the in-jokes, and likely will never hear them. Shared humor builds group cohesion and helps distinguish the in-group from outsiders. It’s coded messaging for the initiated. On the macro level, Taiwanese humor is a good example, much of it is based on the interplay of Chinese and Taiwanese, kind of creating puns across linguistic lines.  Only proficient Taiwanese speakers can really hope to understand, even in Taiwan that’s only a bit more than half the population. Non-Taiwanese have no hope.

Ultimately the tendency to confine joking to peers explains  why many foreigners living among Chinese speakers think they lack humor and don’t understand sarcasm. As outsiders, they are not invited to share in the jokes. Taiwanese people are capable of great sarcasm, and cut on their friends hard, but that’s just it, the humor is for close friends.

Humor and sarcasm coming from outside the in-group can seem aggressive to Chinese speakers. That is not how humor flows in Taiwan, rapier-like wit should only cut a group member—for social cohesion there’s an emphasis on maintaining surface calm among the wider society. For foreigners from a low-context culture, that doesn’t emphasize maintaining a respectful separation between social groups based on status and hierarchy, it is easy to inadvertently cause discomfiture with your banter. It is part of how we try to break down barriers and be more friendly and interesting. High-context cultures like their barriers just as they are—thank you very much.

The Problem With Asian Christians

It might surprise you to learn that I never set out to be controversial, disparaging, or offensive in my blog. I run through each article trying to insure no one would be insulted. It is genuinely perturbing when my writing causes some readers to become indignant. This article is different. I know some will find it insulting, but I still want to post it. It’s on a subject that, because of my jobs, has had an outsized affect on my expat life. Christians. Specifically Asians—living in Asia—who have personally felt the need to convert to Christianity.

Just for context, I’m definitely not an atheist. I can be kind of agnostic sometimes, but generally believe in something greater than myself. Personally my religious beliefs and  observances tend to be a poorly thought out hodgepodge of Buddhism, Christianity, and religious Taoism. I have no problem with religion. I think it offers hope, peace, and psychological support for many. That’s beautiful. Nor do I have a specific issue with Christianity. I’m a big admirer of Jesus, but some of his fans—not so much.

I began my expat journey almost twenty-five years ago teaching in a cram school on Korea’s coast. The school’s owner, my direct boss, Mr. Lee, was an ardent catholic. As I was newly arrived from Canada, that seemed natural to me, and I didn’t think much about it.

As I got to know him, I came to recognize some of his shortcomings as a boss. The biggest problem for us employees was that he was bereft of a moral center. He was being medicated for a psychological condition. I’m not sure if being conscienceless was a symptom of his condition. He did lots of amoral things. A small example was offering a job to a person in Canada, who then booked and bought a ticket to Korea, to be reimbursed later. Before he arrived, Mr. Lee found another candidate he preferred. The poor Canadian found himself out the price of the ticket, jobless, and broke in a foreign country. The only thing that saved him was that the other teachers stood up to Mr. Lee and insisted he honor his word.

Stuff like that happened continually. I was the one who mostly had to deal with Mr. Lee, since I was the senior teacher. He confessed once that he couldn’t distinguish right from wrong, and had difficulty putting himself in other’s shoes. He further stated that was why he liked Catholicism. I didn’t entirely understand his meaning, but filed the information away.

A couple years later I found myself in Taipei teaching English at a Christian organization when Mr. Lee’s words came slamming back. My boss there was a carbon copy of Mr. Lee. He was a vocal Christian much given to pontificating on Christianity and our Christian mission, but when you scratched the surface he was morally defective. This time I wasn’t the senior teacher, but he did keep me astride of some of his meetings with our boss. The boss clearly struggled to distinguish good from bad. I dealt with a lot of Taiwanese Christians at that job, most of them were wonderful people, but a seemingly higher than normal percentage lacked a moral center.

Also, hard-right ultraconservative evangelical groups have found fertile soil for recruitment in Taiwan [see: Gloria Hu]. These groups, such as International House of Prayer (IHOP) and the Bread of Life Christian Church, are hate groups, or at least share many of their characteristics. Of course, the rise of these groups is not solely a Taiwanese phenomena, but the speed of their rise here reinforces my biases, and hints at moral turpitude among a significant portion of Taiwan’s Christian community.

Which brings me to my hypothesis: If you’re born into a religion it means nothing; but, if you choose one, it says something about your personality. If you’re born into a Christian family, and you continue to follow that religion, it doesn’t provide insight into your personality. You’re just following your family tradition. So, if you’re Asian and you’re born into a Christian family, none of this applies to you. However, a noticeable portion of Asian Christians arrive in that religion because they recognize a personal flaw and they need Christianity’s clearly stated Manichean distinctions between good and evil—Thou shalt not….

Buddhism and Taoism do not provide such a clear list of does and don’ts. Both have a moral code that followers are encouraged to adhere to, but it’s presentation is fuzzy. A lot of it is about finding the true nature of something, someone, or yourself and then allowing that something, someone, or yourself to follow its true nature. Or, seeking to accept the nature of your existence. [Please forgive my extreme, and somewhat inaccurate oversimplification, I’m trying to make a point about Christians, not discuss Eastern religion].

If you’re born unable to distinguish good from evil, but aspire to goodness, Buddhism and Taoism can be indecipherable for the novice [high-context religions]. Whereas, at the very front of the bible there’s The Ten Commandments [low-context religion]. It is easy to see the appeal of Christianity for people lacking a moral compass. Christianity doesn’t change these people. Unfortunately, inability to empathize isn’t a religious failing, it’s a character failing.

These are my personal experiences,  you may have had a completely different experience of Christians in Asia. I hope you have. With my jobs I’ve rubbed elbows with an unusual number of Asian Christians. It hasn’t been an entirely positive experience, and has left me a little wary of Christians here.