a short summary of being a foreigner in southern Taiwan
Most of the reason people find so much curiosity in me is because we live in a fairly small rural town that rarely attracts much tourism. I can count on my hands how many times I’ve seen a foreigner in Pingtung since I’ve been here. I’m a sight people don’t see often. So there is bound to be some curiosity. But I’ve never cared much to be the center of attention so it makes me uncomfortable. It’s a new feeling for me to be treated differently because of my skin color. Or to be noticed just because of it. Fortunately the way I am treated is usually always good. There are very few here who do not think being American/white is a good thing.
About 85% of peoples reaction to me is to stare. Some stare for a few minutes and some only stare for a few seconds. Either way I can attract attention because I am an oddity. The worst (funniest?) part is when I’m walking on the street and someone stops their moped or bike just to watch me walk past. One man even ran his bike into the back of a parked car because he was craning his neck to look at me. I felt a bit bad for him actually. At first, I felt a lot more self-conscious with all the attention and felt like I always had to have my hair done and my makeup on. Now that I’m more used to it I don’t worry so much about how I look.
Another reaction I receive is being actively ignored. Most of the time it’s because they assume I don’t speak/read Mandarin (they’re not entirely wrong seeing as how my Mandarin IS limited) or they assume Ryan can since he looks Taiwanese (they’re not entirely wrong seeing as he speaks much better than me). I actually wish this happened less so that it would force me to practice speaking more, but I can’t blame them for assuming correctly. I think they also ignore me in favor of Ryan because they are afraid to speak English. They might know a little English but haven’t had any practice so they get nervous.
The opposite reaction to being actively ignored is to be actively spoken to because I am white. This is a tricky topic that I find hard to express in a way that makes sense. I’ll just say that white people (Americans especially) are thought of very highly here because of American TV/movies/music and it definitely influences peoples opinion of me from the beginning. From what I have heard a few darker skinned people here say is that it’s much more hard for them to be so easily accepted. Honestly, it’s really not that different from America as we have stereotypes we think highly of and those me look down on. It’s just that here they perceive white skin (and American people) as rich and beautiful while dark skin is poor and unattractive.
This is unrelated to how people treat me but I think it’s interesting to point out what most people already know….in general, Taiwanese are built different than me. My feet are too big for most shoes! And most of the clothing is too short in the arms or legs. I guess it’s a good thing because I don’t spend money on clothes…just bubble tea!!
The most notable reactions I’ve received:
There was one instance in the Kenting night market where a group of Taiwanese students were daring each other to talk to me in Mandarin to see if I could respond. One guy even dared his girlfriend to ask how much something was and if I answered back in Mandarin he would buy her a snack. I wish she would have actually done it so that I could have answered and shown them up. This was the most open display of attention and I had no idea the whole situation was occurring until someone told me later.
In the Kaohsiung night market I had another group of people start taking a pictures of me on their phones…I really disliked this because they were trying to be sneaky about it and they didn’t think I could understand. I wish now I would have said something, but I passively just turned my back to them. I need to grow a backbone I think.
I didn’t mind another instance when a couple of girls respectfully asked me if they could take a picture with me. This was definitely the right way to take a picture of someone.
Younger children tend to just blurt out “ Měiguó rén” (American) when they see me. Honestly, it’s adorable because they have no filter but there are some older Taiwanese who yell “Hello!” to me or “You’re so pretty!” when I’m walking on the street annnnddd that’s not very adorable.
There is a group of high school students who ride their bikes every morning on the same street as we take towards our bus. And without fail, they always yell “Nice to meet you!” when they pass by. Usually I just say good morning because really why do they have so much energy so early?!
I was asked to be in a Thai festival fashion show at school. I wouldn’t have necessarily thought it was because I was foreign…but at the time it was me, another white foreigner, and Ryan and the people didn’t extend the offer to Ryan…
So this is just a small overview of how it’s been to live in Pingtung. I find peoples fascination of me unnecessary and unwanted. But I realize they’re not seeing me as an individual but as a foreigner and are just curious. I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable enough to completely ignore it though. Even if my Mandarin was perfect I would still be a foreigner.