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 different—possibly more truthful—perspective.
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 Blog, Life as a Freak, White Privilege in Asia, Humor’s Intercultural Peril, and Transnationalism and the Global Soul, among others.