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.

The Care and Feeding of the Elderly in Asia

He looked at me through drooping eyebrows and dread eyes and in a slow choked voice whispered, “You have to. It’s your duty, you understand? There’s nothing more important in life.” My father-in-law had just asked how I intended to care for my aging parents in Canada. I gave a flip response, because everything I do is flippant, it’s part of my charm. I may have made some reference to that time-honored Canadian tradition of taking your aged, no longer productive, parents and putting them on an ice floe and setting them adrift. I’ve always thought the practice a marvelous piece of Canadiana. Of course I was joking,… probably, but it worried him. The unstated question was what are you going to do to me?

His fear gets to the heart of one of the traditional impediments to intercultural marriage. What’s going to happen to me? Will my foreign son-in-law or daughter-in-law care for me the way I expect? Often I’ve heard Taiwanese say that foreigners are too independent, using the word as a pejorative. They mean that many foreigners are only concerned about themselves and not their family. Like most cross-cultural beliefs this is a half-truth built upon a misunderstanding.

Most Westerners are relatively more independent from their families than the average Asian. Most Asians think it unilaterally the child’s idea, so they can selfishly pursue their own life, their own goals, their own pleasures. That’s not true. Traditionally Europeans lived similar to the Asian ideal. A large extended family living in close proximity, ideally under the same roof, caring for each other. The goal in Taiwan is still to have three generations under the same roof—all beaking off simultaneously. In North America that changed around 4 to 5 generations ago? Of course this varies by family and geography. In my family it was my grandparents who started the change. My great-grandparents would have liked to live with their children as they aged, but my grandparent’s generation did not want this. Their reasons undoubtedly were multivariate, some selfish and some altruistic, but it was a sea change in family life.

Here’s the part many Asians don’t get, when my grandparents generation became elderly, they didn’t want to live with their children. This is perhaps more a North American attitude than European. In the New World, rugged individualism was of paramount importance. On the frontier you needed to fend for yourself, children were raised to be independent for survival. These pioneers did not want to live in their children’s house in their twilight. It would have taken away their dignity and independence, the most important human attribute—what made a man a man. A short trip on the ice floe was preferable.

Also, the quality of care provided by family, though well-intentioned, is not the best. If grandma moves into the home and needs special care most families are ill-equipped to handle it. They have neither the skills, nor the time. The system was adequate for an agrarian society, but Asia has very rapidly urbanized. [See: My Parents Are Nuts].  Who takes care of grandma while mother and father work? The grandchildren? The whole situation is a untenable.

Here’s an anecdote showing the stereotypical differences between a Westerner (me) and traditional Taiwanese (my Favorite Student). One day I walked into class and he was behaving a little strangely. His chest was puffed up and had that cock-of-the-walk look. He was explaining his mother had moved into his house. Everyone was praising him as a good son. I walked in and immediately shat a triple-coiler all over his parade, when without thinking I rather pissily said, “Why are you doing that?”

He replied, “Well, she’ll be able to live with us and take care of the kids. Won’t that be nice?”

I was FOB and vehemently replied, “Nooo. Grandma is old, don’t stuffed her into a back room and expected her to care for your children. Child care is hard work. Grandma’s done enough work in her life. You made them, you take care of them. Let her enjoy the time she has left.” With hindsight I might’ve been a little too real. [I wasn’t always the paragon of cultural sensitivity I am now]. It shocked my favorite student and most of his classmates, but I did see one young woman nodding agreement. Things are change, society has  no choice.

As for my in-laws, when I was getting married I had the foresight to insist that no Chen would ever live with us. The wife readily agreed, though she was in love back then, so who knows. I have two parents-in-law and a brother-in-law that require medical care. Will they ever live under our roof? Never say never—but never.

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.

Vignette #23: Flashing Lights and Arrests

Have you heard the one about the Taiwanese exchange student in Texas? It seems the highway patrol wanted to pull him over so they put the flashing lights on and drove up behind them.  The hapless student led them on a merry chase for twenty miles, all the while blissfully unaware that he was in a scene from Smokey and the Bandit. When apprehended and asked what he thought he was doing, his reaction was: Huh!?! How could I know you wanted to stop me. There were no hints. Likely apocryphal, but possibly it’s true.

For those who don’t know, Taiwan’s police drive everywhere with their flashing lights on. It doesn’t imply any sort of rush, emergency, or desire to apprehend you. The flashing cherry simply tells the world: Hey look. I’m driving,… in a car,… and it has some flashing lights…. Fun!

Many foreigners, when they arrive, ask the obvious question: Why? Most Taiwanese can’t answer because they’ve never thought it strange, but it is weird, prevents stealth, and impedes police work.

Embed from Getty Images

I have a theory. During martial law it made a lot of sense for cops to drive around with the lights a-popping. They weren’t a police force as we currently understand it. They were a force of oppression,  there to keep the citizenry in check, and be a visible symbol of governmental power and reach.  It makes perfect sense to try to draw as much attention as possible. We see you. The government is everywhere.

I think when martial law ended, the police showed up for work the next day, and exhibiting the Asian preference for doing it the way it’s always been done, turned on their flashing lights and headed out. A few decades later, and no one has given it a second thought—except yours truly.

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.