Tag Archives: racism in Taiwan

Asian Anti-Foreigner Bigotry [Pt. II]

Part I gives a brief overview  of Asian attitudes towards race and racialism. See: Asian Anti-Foreigner Bigotry [Pt.I]. Part II discusses  some personal experiences of racism in Taiwan, specifically interpersonal racism. (Institutional racism is for another time).

I’m struggling with how to present the topic. A kind of casual, friendly, racism is the background music to my daily life in Taiwan. Yet it almost never reaches a distressful level. Sure I notice the obāsan pointing at me and telling her grandchild, “Look, look at the foreigner. Look at it!” Sure, I’ve noticed people who’d rather stand than sit beside me. If things like that bothered me, I wouldn’t have survived a month in Taiwan. But, I rather think I deserve ogling—I’m quite the specimen—and having some space on the bus is always pleasant. The following are examples of Taiwanese racism crossing my annoyance threshold.

I previously worked at a University with two campuses, one an hour outside Taipei. The school provided staff busing to the outlying campus. One day it was announced all foreign staff would be required to ride in the back of the bus. Some Taiwanese workers didn’t like sitting beside a foreigner for an hour. That annoyed me.

Administrative pronouncements are a speciality of Taiwan’s universities. Racism has a casual, unwitting, quality here. I don’t believe administration ever understood why their back-of-the-bus policy caused backlash. The whole episode dovetailed with American history in an unfortunate way. The next day I took a front seat, beside a Taiwanese colleague, and got as far into his personal space as decency allowed. The other foreign teachers did the same. Thus ended that rule, and with it my civil rights activism.

During a university-wide meeting at that school the foreign staff listened as a Taiwanese professor lobbied for the firing of all foreign teachers, presumably because we’re icky. That annoyed me. I’m pretty sure he was the dilhole behind the back-of-the-bus dictate.

On two occasions, while in smaller towns, local toughs have hurled racial epithets and threats at me. always of the prosaic get-lost-whitey variety. This may actually have happened many times, it happens in Taiwanese, which I don’t understand. The only reason I’m aware of those is the Taiwanese women with me tensed up and pushed me past the offending troglodyte. I’d learn what happened when I complained of losing my place in line for deep fried squid. That annoyed me,… and sometimes scared me.

The first time I came to Taiwan, over thirty years ago, small hotels used to post their prices behind the reception desk. Normally there was a price for locals and another for foreigners. It wasn’t a secret, you just needed to be able to read Chinese. These foreigner prices still exist. It happens in small shops, at night markets, or while bartering. In my personal experience Taiwan is not bad for this, so I’m only minimally annoyed. Just slightly bothered I have to keep my guard up.

I used to date and develop an intimate relationship with women that assumed I understood we’d never be boyfriend and girlfriend. They thought I realized I’m white and ineligible for a relationship. Unfortunately, I had little concept of my alabaster sheen. That annoyed me. This has changed in the time I’ve been here. It’s less likely now to find a woman indulging her latent psychopathic narcissism at your expense. Though I must admit it could be delightful, if you understood the rules of the game.

It sounds bad, but isn’t really, at least for me. Taiwan is unique among Northeast Asian countries for its relative acceptance of outsiders, which developed in parallel with the trend away from self-identifying as Chinese. I’m not sure if that’s causation or coincidence. I suspect it has been a factor allowing the country to re-create its relationship with racialism and provides the freedom to be more inclusive. Strides are being made at the interpersonal and institutional levels. A lot of the Taiwanese attitude about race is grounded on an education system deeply rooted in Confucian values and teachings. Confucius didn’t say much about race relations, so not much is taught on the subject now. As a white man, I can’t speak for other races, I rarely experience aggressive racism in Taiwan. Culturally things are usually never in your face in Asia. By far the most common way I experience racism in Taiwan is through white privilege—I’m coddled. [See: White Privilege in Asia]. It’s racist, but if you’re going to experience racism, that’s the kind you want.

White Privilege in Asia

I am aware that my entire life I’ve benefited from being white. Certainly it was advantageous being white in Canada, but I was also part of Generation X. When I came of age my entire generation was receiving an inter-generational boot-fucking of legendary proportions. It didn’t matter too much what race, color, creed, or sex you were—everyone was being bent over the hood of the same car. Was I offered lube because I’m white? Sure. I was, of course, relatively privileged, but it’s hard to feel it when you can’t spend that entitlement on anything of economic value.

Weirdly, I’ve never felt my white privilege more overtly than in Asia. There are real economic benefits to being Caucasian here. The entire ESL teaching profession is built on selling your whiteness. We get paid more money for doing less work than an equally or better qualified Asian. Straight-up white privilege. At the buxiban end of the profession, cram schools need foreign faces for marketing, traditionally this has meant pink complected. Other colors need not apply, no matter if you’re a native speaker. Parents like to see their children being taught “real English” by “real English people” (read white). Taiwan has slowly become more sophisticated and willing to employ a wider range of races as English instructors, but every school still wants a disproportionate number of albinos in their stable. My first year of full-time teaching, in Korea, was shite. I still find it hard to believe I managed to get paid for that. I had no skills. All I had to offer were a white face and a personable attitude. Good enough: many manage with just the former.

The economic benefits of being white in Asia extend into business. It is not uncommon for white people to exceed their natural corporate positions upon arrival in Asia. If the person turns out to be competent at their new level, the arrangement can be mutually beneficial. But if not, it’s like taking the Peter Principle, shoving it in a penis pump, and really enlarging the situation’s knobbiness. Of course it is part of the reason people come—overemployment in Asia beats underemployment back home. This is particularly notable in areas of Asia that are developing and booming. At one time that was Japan, later Taiwan and Korea, then China, now Vietnam and India. During rapid growth businesses want white visages on the payroll. It gives them face. Part of the foreigner’s job is to show up at company events and be on display. “Who’s that? Oh, that’s our white guy”. It’s a bit like being Donald Trump’s black guy. Tokenism on crack cocaine, but God bless us whities—we’ve really leaned into it.

From the company’s perspective, the practice is not unreasonable. Asia’s super heated growth has been based on manufacturing and export to the Western market. It is sensible to have some supervisors and representatives from those markets. That’s also why having a small stable of foreigners on staff gives face, it makes the company look like an international concern, busily slicing and dicing those foreign markets. If the price of such PR is paying a white guy to play solitaire on his computer—so be it. Those gold rush days inevitably fade, the companies stop needing a white figurehead, and those people either have proven themselves useful, or they’re down the road to the next booming area.

Probably the most notable expression of white privilege in Asia can be seen in the foreigner’s licence. It is a direct application of privilege. Using your foreigner’s licence is when you either feign ignorance, or just directly use your foreignness to get something you don’t deserve. My foreigner’s licence has done everything from getting me a last-second seat on a fully booked plane—and some other poor schmuck thrown off the plane—to getting me out of traffic tickets. Often it is not necessary to do anything, it just happens—sometimes against my will. It worked much better thirty years ago, but it’s still a thing.

Of course there’s also racism in Taiwan, and yes it can be directed towards white people, but often it takes an oddly pleasant form. It’s a racial fetishism where white people are regarded as “advanced”, “clean”, and “prosperous”. I believe this is some sort of residue of imperialism, us Asian-based whities are the vestigial tail of European imperialism. We lack the real power of that bygone era, but retain a whiff of privilege. I don’t want to talk too much about this as it’s the topic of an upcoming article.