White Privilege in a Taiwanese Prison pt 1
“To the privileged equality can feel like oppression.”
White Privilege is very real in Taiwan, perhaps even more so than in western societies. White privilege is the other side of racism. Taiwan loves America. Taiwan is heavily influenced by Japanese and American culture. America has vowed to defend Taiwan against a mainland Chinese invasion. Also, because of the culture, pale skin is seen as beautiful. Caucasians are popular in Taiwan. The Taiwanese (stupidly) believe that an Asian born in America or any western society cannot speak English as fluently as a caucasian can. This is reflected in the different pay scales that English teachers receive, caucasians receive a higher salary than American Born Taiwanese. Because view few people in western countries even know about Taiwan, Taiwan has few caucasian tourists. Most people still think Taiwan is China. In my experience, it’s never the normal or cool caucasians that come to Asia. It always seems to be the weird, socially awkward, dorks, creepers, criminals, or very religious that choose to come to Asia to start a life. It only makes sense, because if their life was so good in America or England or any other western country, why would they ever leave? Why would they need to leave? What are they running from that they have to come halfway across the world to get away and start over? When these social misfits come to Taiwan/Asia, they automatically move up the socioeconomic ladder a few rungs. They go from bottom of the barrel, low-class, and unpopular to popular, a dork to a ladies man, from unwanted to in-demand. It’s not easy though, it takes courage to move halfway around the world to a new culture and a foreign language. It’s not for everybody, most of them end up moving back home after a few years, but some learn the culture, adapt and end up making a decent life for themselves.
My 3rd cellmate was a man by the name of Paul Farrell, 31 years old. He’s got anger issues with wild mood swings and is an alcoholic. He got on my last nerve, but I decided to keep rooming with him because I thought it was fascinating to see how a white person would react to imprisonment in an Asian prison. I fancy myself a Sociologist and this, if nothing else, would be a fascinating case study. Paul’s a british citizen, who’s lived in Taiwan/Asia for 10 years, he left Britain when he was 18. He’s an absentee father, he has an 11 yr old son back in England that he never sees. Taught English for years but hated it, so he decided to open up a night market stand selling pork gyros.
Paul was married to a Taiwanese woman, Miko, who was fluent in English and Mandarin. They met in Australia, when he was working there and she was on vacation, he followed her back to Taiwan. When they were in Australia, she got pregnant, he said he would take care of the baby, she decided to get an abortion. When she brought Paul home to meet her parents, her dad hated him. Her dad works on the docks, so he thinks all foreigners just want to get drunk, play, then leave. He works on the docks, so all he probably sees is the military soldiers and navy seamen, so I can’t really fault his mentality. It’s what they do. Whenever he gets in trouble, which is pretty often, he would call her to talk him out of trouble and bail him out. They got divorced sometime before his arson charge.
Paul’s charged with Arson, and intimidation. After work one night, he went to Family Mart and bought a hamburger. They didn’t have any more ketchup, so he returned it because he can’t eat a hamburger without any ketchup. The employees allowed him to return it, even though it was already prepared. A week later, he returned to the Family Mart after a night of drinking and tried to purchase a hamburger, and they employees refused to sell it to him. He got angry and started yelling at the employee’s, they still refused to sell him a hamburger and told him to leave. Paul got on his moped and rode to a nearby gas station, filled up an empty liquor bottle with gasoline and drove back to the Family Mart. He dipped a rag in the gasoline and stuffed it in the gasoline-filled liquor bottle, basically a molotov cocktail, lit the rag and threw it underhanded onto the sidewalk in front of the Family Mart, got on his moped and drove off. As he was riding off, a Family Mart employee came out to put out the fire with a fire extinguisher, from his moped Paul looked at the Family Mart employee and made the gesture of sliding his finger across his throat. That’s where the intimidation charge comes from. There are cameras everywhere in Taiwan, so they have him on tape arguing with the Family Mart employees, driving to the gas station, driving back to the Family Mart, and his hand throwing the molotov cocktail.
The following day the police raided his apartment in Sizihwan and found him sunbathing on the roof. He says “There were 10 policemen, they stormed the apartment building, searched my apartment and interviewed all my neighbors. I fucked up because I had the receipt for the liquor bottle and the gasoline in my pocket still from last night.” He was all over the news, everything makes the news in Taiwan, but especially foreigners. The headline is usually something along the lines of “look at these foreigners causing trouble again.” His apartment was dirty and messy, because he’s a dirty and messy person. The newspaper propaganda machine was in full effect, it says he was ‘living in squalor.’ Paul said he got along with most of his neighbors, but there was one he had gotten into an argument with a few days ago, and that neighbor was the one the media interviewed. The media did not portray him in a positive light.
The judge allowed him to post bail, Paul hopped on a plane and fled the country the next day. He went back to England intending to never come back. They put a hold on his passport but it takes a few days to go through, he left before hold took effect. He spent 3 months in England and said he hated it. He checked online for the penalties for arson, and saw that it was a year or less, so he decided to come back and face the consequences. I asked him “why did you even come back?” “England sucks, I love Taiwan.” The authorities picked him up at the airport. He spent 2 days in a holding cell before being transferred to my wing. I was out at visitation and when I came back the head C.O. took me aside and told me “there’s a Englishman here in for Arson, his Mandarin isn’t very good, I want you to room with him and translate for him. Help him if he needs help.” I said “Ok.” We got our own cell right behind the guard’s desk, cell #7.
It was nice to have somebody to speak English too, but I couldn’t read Mandarin very well, so ordering commissary was difficult at first. The first time I ordered it, I had to fill it out 4 times before I got it right. His Mandarin reading and writing skills were nonexistent. I have the worst impression of British people because of him, he was dirty, messy and smelly. He didn’t wash his clothes everyday or brush his teeth daily. He would sleep all day then complain he couldn’t sleep at night. I genuinely felt bad for him, being locked up in a foreign country, not being able to speak the language very well, being away from his family and loved ones. I would give him some food and drinks whenever I had extra, just because, not because I expected anything back in return. But, whenever he would ask for something and I didn’t want to give it to him, he would bring up the one time he did something or gave something to me or he would throw a hissy fit and try to intimidate me (it didn’t work). As time passed, I became less generous and more guarded.
Being Caucasian in prison in Taiwan certainly had its privileges. He would get preferential treatment. When a person first gets to prison, they have to wait at least 10 days for cigarettes (if they smoke). That’s because cigarettes are ordered on Wednesday ,and they don’t process and distribute your cigarettes until the Friday of the next week. I had to follow this procedure, but I made friends quickly. Other prisoners would give me cigarettes to smoke, since mine hadn’t come yet. The C.O. let him have his cigarettes in 3 days instead of the usual 10. He just had to order twice the amount of cigarettes (2 packs instead of 1) when he put in the order, to pay back the C.O.. Another time Paul didn’t fill out the order form correctly, so his commissary was returned and he didn’t get cigarettes for the week. He complained, and the C.O. gave him cigarettes for the week as long as he filled out double the amount next time, to pay him back. Other inmates had no such luck. He would ask absurd questions such as “is there mail on weekends?” even though he asked the question before and knew the answer would be ‘NO.” When I asked him ‘why?’ he said “They might say yes.” “It is because you’re white and you get special treatment?” “Yes.”
His mother, who lives in England, kept calling the British consulate asking to speak to him. The British consulate kept calling the prison asking to speak to him, and asking about his treatment. Usually prisoners have to wait 3 months before they get a phone call, myself included, he got one within 2 weeks. As his phone call was being scheduled, I asked the head C.O. “Where’s my phone call?” “Nobody is calling for you.” The C.O.’s and I all had a laugh at that. The next day the head C.O. said he felt bad and that since he’s giving Paul a phone call, he’ll allow me to have one too, it’s only fair. “Thank you, I appreciate it.” We had to buy telephone cards to call home, they took over a week to come, so the head C.O. said “Look, your cards are delayed for some reason. If I order them, they’ll come today at 3pm, so what I’m going to do is, I’ll order them for you. When you get yours just give them to me.” “Thank you, just so you know, you’re an OK dude.” Our phone called was schedule for 4:30pm on a wednesday. All phone calls are recorded and monitored by a C.O. standing beside us. The 3 of us couldn’t figure out how to dial long distance out of the prison on a landline. We gave up after 20 minutes. The 3 of us went back to our section and the head C.O. was on the phone with somebody asking what the proper procedure was. The random peon C.O. who was suppose to supervise our phone call was getting antsy because it was almost 5pm and he wanted to go home. We were all waiting for a call back when the random peon C.O. said “fuck this, tell them I’m going over there right now to sort this out.” Random peon C.O. came back 5 minutes later with a piece of paper, and said “to dial out, you have to dial 009, then the country code, and it should work. I’m not going to let you call today because I’m going home, but, I’ll find somebody else to supervise you tomorrow.” It took longer than expected, but both of us got our phone calls eventually.
I bullied him relentlessly. I took his stamps, envelopes, chopsticks, slippers, paper, lotion, pretty much whatever I needed, whenever I wanted. I constantly teased and taunted him, the other inmates and I would laugh at him to his face and behind his back. In my defense, he’s probably the dumbest white boy I’ve ever met in my life. Paul would complain constantly that the other prisoners and the C.O.’s would never address him, they would always talk to me and I would translate for him. The problem wasn’t that they didn’t understand him, they did, it was that he didn’t understand them. I tried to explain to him “They don’t mean any disrespect by it, you’re Mandarin is terrible, how would you feel if you had to dumb down and slow down your speech just to accommodate this nobody. You wouldn’t like it very much, you’d probably do the same thing in their shoes. It’s easier for them to talk to me and just have me translate. Trust me, I don’t like it very much either, your ass is like a child I have to babysit.” It’s not like he made much of an effort either, he would just ask me to speak to the C.O. whenever he needed something then complain that they wouldn’t talk to him. Eventually, I just got sick of hearing him complain and slowly refused to translate for him. I reasoned that he not try to communicate with them, then complain to me that they don’t communicate to him. Who does he think he is, this is prison, nobody is trying to talk to his ass. He’s not important in here. Problem was, he thought his Chinese was better than it really was. When he would say something, there would come a point when he couldn’t understand, then I (captain Save-a-ho) would have to come in to help. He hated that. He fancied himself independent.
He got into an argument with a C.O. that I nicknamed Elmer Fudd one morning over nothing. He was throwing a hissy fit that morning, and he was upset that nobody was talking to him and they only talk to me. He told Elmer Fudd, “I’m tired of Wizzo always telling me what to do, I’m not his bitch, I don’t want to be ignored anymore, and I don’t want Wizzo translating for me anymore.” I was chilling in the back of the cell, leaning against a wall, amused at the whole situation. I thought “Great, less work for me.” Elmer Fudd started talking to him in Mandarin, he basically said “What’s the problem, what’s wrong? Ok, Fine, no problem.” Paul replied “What do you mean?” then, Elmer Fudd turned to me and asked “he didn’t understand what I just said did he?” “Nope.” “So, let me get this straight, he doesn’t understand, but he doesn’t want you to translate for him either?” “Correct, white people are crazy,” I said. Elmer Fudd just laughed and walked away. The whole situation just made Paul more angry, it was exactly what he was mad about, but it illustrated my point exactly, that he’s basically a petulant child that needed to be babysat whether he liked it or not. He started screaming for the guard to come back and he’s tired of being ignored. Elmer Fudd came back and Paul was still screaming incoherently. Elmer Fudd said “Wizzo, translate this word for word, you’re not at home. You can’t do whatever you want here. You need to adjust to your new surroundings, if you don’t want Wizzo translating for you, too bad. He’s the only one here that speaks English fluently. He’s your translator, he’s here to help you. I’m the C.O. you don’t talk to me like that. You talk to me like that again or one more outburst and I’ll send you to solitary confinement.” Dumbass Englishman. I had this smug look on the face the rest of the day.
To be continued in my next blog post !!