American in Taiwan: top 5 takeaways.

Brooke Robbins
Jul 9, 2018 · 8 min read

A week has passed since I stepped on a plane that was New York-bound. Coming home has been, in many ways, a sigh of relief — a return to creature comforts like non-squat toilets and clean tap water, supermarkets lined with skyr yogurt and fresh mixed greens, and the familiar sounds of the English language. But coming home home has also meant leaving my temporary one, and saying goodbye to the students, co-workers, friends, coffee shops and communities that I’d come to know — and love — over the course of my year in Taiwan. Fragments of that place are forever ingrained in my mind and memory, and I know that Taiwan will always have a special place in my heart. Inspired by my good friend and fellow Fulbright ETA Charles Du, I thought I’d take a moment, while these experiences are still fresh, to share what I’ll deem the top five things (in no particular order) that I’ve taken away from this year.

Longer descriptions to follow each point below.

  1. Patience is one of the greatest gifts we can give.
  2. I need to be mindful of and deliberate about the people I spend time with. They will shape my values, influence my ideas, and play a crucial role in who I will become.*
  3. Normal is just a setting on a washing machine.
  4. Representation matters.
  5. We’re failing our girls.

1. Patience is one of the greatest gifts we can give.

This is particularly true with regard to interactions with foreigners in our homeland, and more specifically, as it pertains to language barriers and cross-cultural mishaps. In Taiwan, I encountered a truly astounding level of linguistic patience. Particularly at the beginning of my stay, having arrived in Taiwan with no prior knowledge of Mandarin, I had a lot of trouble grasping the nuances of Mandarin tones, and consistently butchered many integral consonant sounds (that elusive r/j/y sound in 人/rén and 熱/rè for one, the subtle “ts” of the pinyin “c” in 菜/cài for another), rendering futile many of my early attempts to order food, complain about the weather, and ask for directions. But I was consistently blown away by the patience with which the Taiwanese listened to me butcher their melodious language, and, rather than laugh or scowl or brush me aside, instead try their honest best to understand my meaning. Often, they’d do this with a smile; sometimes even with words of praise or encouragement.

As a New Yorker, I have seen far too many instances of linguistic impatience, as New Yorkers tend to grow quickly frustrated trying to understand the accented English of tourists on the subway, or foreigners in coffee shops. Part of this, I’m sure, stems from our unfortunate national proclivity toward monolingualism. Whereas nearly every Taiwanese person has struggled through years of English in primary and secondary school, many of us have no idea what it feels like to struggle to communicate in a foreign language, much less a foreign land. But lamentations about American disinterest in foreign language is a discussion for another day. The point is, as I prepare my return to the U.S., I’ll be focusing on cultivating the sort of patience — linguistic, cultural and otherwise — that I have so admired in the Taiwanese.

2. Normal is just a setting on a washing machine.

Before my year in Taiwan, I had never before stepped foot in Asia. And frankly, what they say is true: it is a whole other world. What I mean by that is, quite simply, everything is done differently. From recycling practices, to pop culture trends, to eating utensils, to school lunches, living 8,000 miles away from your hometown causes you to question all — and I mean all — of your assumptions.

Which is why I was so amazed to find, upon returning to the U.S., just how much of Taiwanese culture I’d grown accustomed to over a relatively short period of eleven months. Over the course of my first week home, I’ve cringed at the sight of food waste, plastic bottles and paper plates making their way into the same trash bin; let my water bottle overflow (continuously) with filtered water from the sink, having grown accustomed to the slow-and-steady drip, drip, drop of the filtered water spigot in my Taiwan apartment; and accidentally addressed an embarrassing number of individuals with 早安’s and 不好意思’s in place of good morning’s” and pardon me’s. Not to mention the many once-unfamiliar smells (stinky tofu, tea eggs) and sounds (the garbage truck song) that once caused me to cringe or chuckle, that have become, over the course of eleven months in Taiwan, as “normal” and to-be-expected as the smell of fish by the ocean or the sounds of birds in the mornings in upstate New York.

In high school, a teacher of mine (Mr. Levine) had a saying: “normal is just a setting on a washing machine.” I’m not sure I ever fully understood his meaning. But coming off of an eleven month stay on the other side of the world, I feel like I have a slightly better sense. I suppose part of what Mr. Levine meant to underline is that “normal” is a wholly arbitrary term, which we use to label whatever it is that we’re accustomed to. And our conception of what is “normal” is subject to constant, rapid change — particularly as we experience different walks of life and travel to different parts of the world. Living in Taiwan has encouraged me to question all of my assumptions, including what we may choose, at any given time or in any given part of the world, to define as “normal.”

3. I need to be mindful of and deliberate about the people I spend time with. They will shape my values, influence my ideas, and play a crucial role in who I will become.*

*To give credit where credit’s due: I took this one from Charles, but I think it’s an excellent point, and definitely one of the top five learnings I’ve taken away from this year. I recently read a book called The Invisible Influence, by Jonah Berger. His basic idea is that there are hidden forces — often in the form of social pressures — that shape our beliefs, mindsets, opinions, and overall behavior to a surprising extent. According to Berger, we typically, often drastically, underestimate the influence that our environment (including the people in it) have on us.

By extension, the old adage is true: whether or not we realize it, we do in fact become the people we spend the most time with. Given that, it is absolutely crucial that we curate those influences. We should choose our friends wisely, and deliberately. It is better to spend time alone than to pass time with individuals who bring about a version of yourself that you don’t like, can’t respect or wouldn’t want to emulate. Because it is human nature to do so.

4. Representation matters.

Taiwan is incredibly homogenous. Barring the capital city of Taipei, foreigner spottings are relatively few and far between, and interactions with non-Taiwanese (or non-East Asians, more generally) are simply not in the realm of possibility, particularly for those living in rural areas or mountain villages. As a result, for a typical Taiwanese person, Americans are what movies, TV, the news and English textbooks portray them to be: generally speaking, hamburger-eating, gun-carrying, white people.

I suppose it should have come as no real surprise, considering all of this, to hear my Asian-American colleagues report their students’ difficulty or reluctance to believe that they are “real Americans.” I suppose it should also have come as no surprise to hear a seemingly kind, otherwise perfectly polite Taiwanese woman express her fear at seeing a black man on the subway while visiting New York, as she mimed the “boom boom” of gunshots with her hands.

But the truth is, it was surprising. And infuriating. Perhaps because, from the vantage point of a New Yorker — particularly one coming out of four years at a highly diverse, particularly liberal campus — a legitimate belief in such stereotypes seems absurd. The truth is, though, the version of “America” presented in Taiwanese textbooks and through American film and television often does not include Asian-American characters, or African-American protagonists, or even, on a sillier note, vegetarians. “American” can only mean one thing to those whose only exposure to American culture comes through TV-and-textbook-osmosis.

This deceivingly single-dimensional version of America, I’ve come to realize, is shockingly present in the minds of many Taiwanese, and likely also of people living all over the world. And it has far broader consequences abroad that one might recognize from the inside.

Media has a part to play in reconciling this. But there are also other important players here, Fulbright and programs like it included. As long as Fulbright programs across the globe continue to present homogenous cohorts of Americans to the world, it will continue to play into an inaccurate conception of what it means to be American — one that ignores the diversity that makes our country what it is.

5. We’re failing our girls.

As an elementary school teacher in Taiwan, I have listened as eight year old girls compare weights, watched as the future women of the next generation spend hours filtering their faces to produce whiter, thinner, more rosy cheeked versions of themselves, and struggled to respond to the “compliments” offered by others that served to equate my contribution to my classrooms and community to various aspects of my physical appearance.

To be very clear: this is not a problem unique to Taiwan. On the contrary, I remain convinced that all over the world, women and girls continue to be fed messages — both implicit and explicit — equating their value to their appearance. We have a collective responsibility as a global community to empower women and girls to develop a deep sense of self-pride that is rooted in core values and unique interests, not outward appearances.

To be sure, these five points fall far short of encapsulating the totality of my lived and learned experience in Taiwan. Rather, they represent a slice of the memories, thoughts and reflections that I’ve come away with after eleven months. I hope, by sharing them with you all, to open up a space for deeper conversations about some of these takeaways.

Finally, to all of my fellow Taiwan Fulbrighters, incredible co-teachers, and members of the amazing community I got to call home for a year: thank you. Thank you for opening your hearts and homes to me, for the opportunity to teach your amazing children, and for teaching me more about Taiwan, hospitality, family and friendship than I possibly could have imagined. It’s been a hell of a year.

This is not an official Department of State website or blog, and the views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program of the U.S. Department of State.

Brooke Robbins

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24 // adventure-prone and loves a challenge.

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