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.