Tag Archives: Cultural assimilation Taiwan

The Benefits of Being Misunderstood

One of the first benefits to the expat lifestyle I discerned was being misunderstood. It doesn’t sound like an advantage, but it has its moments.

I wasn’t here too long before I discovered how much more appealing I am to the opposite sex when they don’t quite understand me. It worked a charm on my social life. I was used to Canadian women examining every word I said fifteen different ways, if a Foucaultian deconstruction didn’t yield results, then it was time for a psycholinguistic or cognitive-linguistic approach. I’m not that deep, and often didn’t fair well in these analyses.

Taiwanese women may have wanted to subject me to that level of interpretation, but they lacked the cultural and linguistic skills. I found it refreshing. My first Taiwanese girlfriend didn’t speak much English, so we relied on my Chinese. Anything I said was pretty basic, and didn’t support much scrutiny. Other women I dated had better English, but not good enough to pretend to find hidden meaning in every word. If my words or actions could be interpreted a couple ways, I got the benefit of the doubt [the opposite to Canada]. Dating is easier when you’re not understood.

It’s good expats weren’t widely understood, because the expat community 20-25 years ago was overwhelmingly male. If you’ve ever been in very isolated male-dominated working and living environments—rig-worker, lumber camp, the navy, etc.—you know that it tends to be unhealthily male—straight-forward, rude, and coarse. Taiwan’s expat community was no exception.

At that time, I’d only been here a year or two, and was hanging out with other newbies. People used English as a tool of obfuscation while working out their culture shock and assimilation issues. The struggle to learn and adapt sometimes took the form of offensive commentary on Taiwanese culture and people, frequently murmured in public, with Taiwanese around, but hidden behind English. Most these expats were decent, broadminded, and culturally sensitive people who have adapted and become productive members of Taiwan. They wouldn’t have wanted to make any Taiwanese uncomfortable, but being an expat is hard, and it isn’t always pretty. They assumed they were speaking behind a cloak of incomprehensibility.

I didn’t hang out with an abnormally rude batch of foreigners. There were many different expats from diverse backgrounds, but this dyspeptic foreigner’s disease afflicted most at some point. It’s universal. I’ve helped several Taiwanese who have moved to the West deal with culture shock and assimilation. They behave the same—classic immigrant stuff.

The other type of private conversation commonly held in English, in public, was commentary on the surrounding pulchritude. It was like taking a men’s locker room and dumping it in the middle of a Taipei street. Again people assumed they were concealed behind English. As I said, the expat community at the time was a sausagefest, so there wasn’t much self-censorship. This has changed, there are more foreign women coming and staying in Taiwan. It has had a salubrious effect on the level of discourse among foreigners. [See: Sex and the Expat Woman]. Also, a rise in general English levels, at least in Taipei, has curbed public rudeness among expats.

I must admit to still assuming an environment of incomprehension and saying things I shouldn’t. I’m not rude towards Taiwanese people, culture, or women, but I do publicly say things not intended for universal consumption. My remarks aren’t terrible, just personal, nothing you’d want broadcast to an entire coffee shop. (I have a clarion voice that cuts through classroom noise and carries to any room’s far corners. I can’t seem to control it). Usually I’m with a Taiwanese person, and they give me a look to remind me that the people around us might understand.

I’ve noticed that many long term expats have no bone in their tongue. My generation of expats, and earlier, spent years living in a verbal free-fire zone, where anything went. It is hard to put that gibbering monkey back in the can, especially as concurrently the aging process drives you to not care. Inappropriateness, thy name is aged expat.