I recently caught myself being racist against myself. I was sitting at a Taipei intersection watching a crowd of white people, with varying degrees of success, trying to negotiate traffic. There were tourists, seemingly confused by the flurry of vehicles, looking hopelessly maladroit. They reminded me of the punchline to a joke popular when I first arrived 流浪狗都會過馬路了 [even a stray dog can cross the street], an allusion to foreigners being too stupid to use a crosswalk. There were also long term residents confidently riding bicycles and scooters through the intersection. I hated it. I felt like a crotchety old man, wanting to yell at the kids to get off the lawn, or in my case: “Get out of my Asia. Go home, Whitey!”
Taiwan was the first Asian country I ever visited, approximately 35 years ago. I came to study Chinese folk religion. I spent about a month traveling Taiwan, and a week in Taipei. In the entire time, I spotted one foreigner. How could I not cross the street and talk with him? It was exciting. He was a foreign businessman, and the only foreigner, not part of my class, I saw that month.
I began my ESL career around 25 years ago in Yeosu (여수시), South Korea. At that time Yeosu was a small city relying primarily on fishing. When I first went there television news cameras followed me for a period of days. I was—almost—the first white person to live there, at least in living memory, a real novelty. There had been a white woman that arrived a couple months before me, but for some reason didn’t elicit quite that level of excitement. Possibly it was a problem of misogyny, or that she was unlikable. It gave me a sense of why celebrity sucks—those damn paparazzo.
When I started teaching in Taiwan, almost a quarter century ago, there were some foreigners around, especially in Taipei. However, we were still a small community of outsiders. If I didn’t know you then I’d probably seen you around and recognized your face. It was de rigeur to say hi or wave at any foreigner you bumped into. I enjoyed summer in Taipei back then, because foreign students would come to Shida (師大) to study Chinese. Also, the American born Taiwanese would come back to visit their relatives. There’d be a lot more English on the street. A chance to learn new slang. There would be more foreign faces in the crowd. It created a festival atmosphere and was fun, but—and this is important—then they would leave.
I’m aware there are a lot of advantages to me personally in Taiwan’s foreigner community having expanded (see: The WTO and My Waistline). I sometimes miss being unique, the feeling that I’m a special little flower. There were some distinct advantages. My favorite was that police would go out of their way to avoid you. If you did something they couldn’t just ignore, all you had to do was talk really fast at them in English. They’d let you go. They just didn’t want to deal with it. That’s not true anymore.
Beyond that there was the camaraderie of being part of a handful of foreigners against the world. It was like living in a small town and had a similar know-your-neighbor mentality. The other day I was walking down the street and out of the corner of my eye I caught a puff of blond hair. I turned, smiled, waved and said “hello”. The young woman, in her mid-20s, stared at me like a piece of shit on her shoe. She didn’t say hi, smile, nod, or wave,… nothing. This has become the norm. I guess I could understand if it looked like I might accost them, or try to talk, but I have always been clearly walking or riding past. Foreign guys are only marginally better. Coldness amongst foreigners is the inevitable consequence of the expansion of Taiwan’s foreigner community. Random friendliness is increasingly met with the stink eye.
Yep, I miss it when white people were a little less common.