Black In Taiwan: My Experience
My experience in the Far East as a mega-minority.
One common question that I’ve gotten from family and friends back home is how I am perceived by the locals in Taiwan, more so in regards to race as oppose to nationality. To be honest, it’s a loaded answer. What I’ve heard versus what I’ve experienced has been both validating and contradicting at the same time.
On the internet, you can find horror stories and comical videos shared by black travelers and expats talking about their experiences in East Asian nations (like this and this). You can also find stories and funny videos on how [some] people of East Asian descent view and treat blacks in the United States (especially in the inner-cities), like this. Because of this, [some] black people have very one-sided views about people of the Far East despite never stepping food in any those countries.
I decided to shed some light my theories and conclusions drawn based on my experience as a foreigner who has lived in Taiwan for about six months now.
They Keep It Real
One common trend that I have noticed in Taiwan is that when it comes to physical appearance; [many] people call it like they see it. They don’t sugarcoat. If you’re fat, they call you fat. Not plus-sized, curvy, plump, thick and other “nice” sounding words. If your skin is dark, they call you black. Those things aren’t considered offensive in their culture compared to American culture where those words may have a negative connotation according to some (depending on the context).
Taiwan Is Homogenous
Like much of Asia, Taiwan is racially homogenous. Over 90% of the people in Taiwan are Han Chinese.
Being black in Asia is like being a unicorn. There are people who’ve never seen a black person a day in their lives. To many, people who look like me do not exist in their minds. As a result, there will be stares (especially from children and the boomer/elder population). People will be fascinated and curious about you. I had one student who rubbed arm and had a mind boggling look on her face because the brown didn’t come off.
I would say the Millennial and some of the Gen-X population are more in the know compared to other generations because they grew up with the World Wide Web and/or they’ve studied/lived/traveled abroad and have been exposed to other races. I find that the further you are from the big cities, the more stares you will get from the locals.
Unlike Mainland China, I’ve noticed that people in Taiwan don’t really give you the paparazzi treatment (like this and this), meaning random folks follow you and try to take photos with you because they’ve never seen a black person before (or think you’re a celebrity). They will stare, ask questions about your hair, or start a conversation with you if they’re confident with their English (or they’ll just talk to you in Chinese), but the number of times people have asked to snap pictures and/or touched my hair without asking, can be counted on one hand.
They Know Very Little About The Black Diaspora
I’ve noticed a common trend with people from non-black homogenous countries. Since they grew up in a society where the majority is of the same or similiar race and ethnicity, the ones who are ignorant of the world can’t really fathom diverse nations. To them, being black means you were born and raised somewhere in Africa, not the USA, Canada, UK, France, Spain, and other majority white nations. Part of me can’t really blame them since there are folks in North America who still don’t know that there are [tons of] people of African descent that were born and raised in Latin American countries (but that’s a story for another day).
I remember when my students were trying to figure out where I was from. A girl was like “Teacher, you speak like America but look like Africa. Where you from?” This turned into a history lesson on how America is a diverse nation and that anyone can look American, not just white people.
Another side note: I’ve met quite a few white South Africans in Taiwan; I’m sure that confused the heck out of some people as well.
Pop Culture & Media
Since there are very few black people in Taiwan, all of their information about them comes from the media. If you look at how Black Americans are presented in the media, you will see rappers, drug dealers, gang bangers, video vixens, athletes, broken families, run down neighborhoods. Even though Barack Obama was a nice, well-known, positive [to most] representative on a world stage, the negative stereotypes still hold more weight compared to his lone prestigious position.
If I had to explain to some of fellow my Americans that all black people aren’t like what they see on television, then it’s easy to conclude that there are people outside of the country who think those stereotypes are true as well. It’s a sad reality.
I have no doubt in my mind that there’s people in Taiwan who take what they see in the media and run with it; however, no one has openly assumed any of those things about me. Well….excluding the athlete assumption, but I think that has moreso to do with the fact that I’m tall, have an athletic build, and still exercise. That assumption is true. I was an athlete, so that’s not a big deal for me.
In the United States, we tend to focus on race a lot. There’s often many cases where people are discriminated and treated differently because of their race. I find in Taiwan (as well as some other countries in this region), nationality also holds weight in regards to determining how you may be treated by the locals or when job hunting.
Westerners tend to get the best treatment compared to other nationals (especially if you’re of an anglophone country since English is the money language). Western anglophones can come into Taiwan (as well as many other countries) and can be paid well in comparison to a Taiwanese person that works in a “good” career field. Someone from a so called developing nation, like Vietnam or Indonesia, would most likely be paid significantly less money compared to a westerner (and work a lot harder).
When it comes to English speaking jobs (especially in education), white employees are typically preferred over any other race in Asia because of the “white is right” mentality, but I think if a hiring manager had to choose between a black westerner and a black African/Caribbean, they’d probably choose the westerner because of the perceived status of those type of nations (and also the fact that American/Canadian accents are in high demand).
Colorism (n): a form of bias based primarily on skin tone and hair type; presented in cultures all over the world; occurs on an inter-group and intra-group basis; an evil that must end
White supremacy has influenced the world with their eurocentric standards. Just like the Black and Latin communities, colorism is BIG in Asia, Taiwan included. They have the same house slave/field slave complex. Dark skin is equated to being a poor field worker, while light skin is equated to wealth and status because you weren’t outside slaving away in the sun.
In much of Asia, Taiwan included, you can easily find skin bleaching agents over the counter at your local store. If they’re not bleaching, many people are ducking and dodging from the sun because they don’t want to get a tan. For those who’ve never been to Asia, one thing that may surprise them is the number of dark skin Asians out here. Many people do not know this because they are the private face of Asia.
With All Of This Being Said…
Majority of my interaction with the locals have been positive for the most part. If I catch someone staring, I just say “ni hao” (hello), and about 75% of the time they smile and say hello back. When I do “cool” moves at the park during my work out, people clap, give me a thumbs up, say “good job,” and if they’re feeling talkative, initiate a conversation.
Despite all of theories about the Taiwanese perception of black people, I’ve had a number of people stop me on the street just to say that they like my hair, my skin, or they say “piàoliang,” which means pretty.
So what does all of this mean? Do they think dark skin looks good on other people but not themselves (themselves meaning, their kind)? Are they not racist/prejudice after all?
Short answer: Yes….and no.
Long answer: Like everywhere else in the world, no matter where you go, your experience will be hit or miss. While people of specific groups may have some commonalities, they aren’t a monolith. You can encounter amazing people and your worst nightmare in the same place.
Have you ever traveled around ot lived in Asia? How were you perceived by the locals?