Where I’m from, strangers say Hello, Good Afternoon, Thank You, and Take Care Now to each other. It was great to be home in Indiana. We have our own problems in the United States. But after living in Taiwan, charms of other countries I’ve been withstanding, it’s still pretty damn good to be American.
I missed little things. Chipotle, Jimmy John’s, non-watery avocados. Hugs. Pizza without corn (10 Crazy Asian Pizzas). Bread with texture.
There are some things I dig most in Asia. Bubble tea is best in Taiwan. KFC has this mutation called the Chizza which is a pizza with a fried chicken crust. But these are just things. Things change and they change as fast as the arrival of the next entrepreneur on either side of the ocean. For example, Costco is now a big thing in Taiwan, China finally started getting American beef (but then banned soft cheese imports), and bubble tea is all over American colleges. Culture, is way more difficult.
I missed big things. America’s “Have A Nice Day” culture. A sense of people taking care of one another. Just because. Our flights delayed, I sat in SEA amongst southerners, some Chinese, some not. Chatting it up, watching each other’s luggage, enjoying being humans in the same situation. (By the way, watch this video if you want to learn more about Chinese from the American South)
Helping strangers generally isn’t a thing other Asians in Asia do for each other. People wish each other well in Taiwan, but your problems are your own. For example, if you’re Asian and lost, good luck getting directions from people on the street. It’s not mean — just how people socialize. Conversely, if you’re white, people often go out of their way to help (it’s that obvious you need help).
Asian Fusion cuisine started taking off. Asian stuff started becoming cool. And then you started witnessing Asian Fusion in other areas, like interior design, babies, etc.
In my generation, Americans are more accepting of people who are different than themselves. Learning about world cultures, civil rights and debating that was a big thing in primary school. When Asians fly into the U.S. for college, there’s usually a Christian or Chinese students group ready to give you a ride home, help you find your way around, or be your new friends.
I also grew up in an era where Asian Fusion cuisine started taking off. Asian stuff started becoming cool. Sony. Nintendo. Stir-fry. Sriracha. Oriental Pearl Cream. And then you started witnessing Asian Fusion in other areas, like interior design, babies, etc. Americans started embracing Asia. My parents were pioneers who were a little too early, and so I felt more love from the community than they did.
Asian stereotypes were and are still a thing, but it’s not the issue it was. Instead, Asians in America tend to have a more difficult time with self-identity — especially those who are the children of immigrants. Thankfully, I got over these a long, long time ago. But now, I have to face them from the other side, in Taiwan.
Living in Taiwan is Difficult for American-Born Chinese
Adjusting to Taiwan wasn’t easy. I’m not a tourist, I’m living there. There’s no help from a company because I’m not working here. I didn’t know anybody. Well, I have some family but they’re more well-wishers than team-mates. I had a crew of people that I studied intensive Chinese over the summer with, but they went home. Starting over a second time, I learned a few things about myself. As Leonardo DiCaprio says, “Every next level of your life will demand a different you.”
Sometimes you’ve got to be more resilient, you don’t have to be so tough, but you may have to be tough on local Taiwanese to get them to do what they’re supposed to.
Dealing with mold issues in my campus apartment, I spent the beginning of the school year in the emergency room. I ended it with a respiratory infection, coughing up blood in the morning. Sorting this out was difficult. Sometimes you’ve got to be more resilient, you don’t have to be angry, but you may have to be tough on local Taiwanese to get them to do what they’re supposed to. You’ll otherwise never sort out what can’t be done, vs. when a person in Taiwan’s super set of Chinese + island culture doesn’t want to be bothered. You can’t necessarily take people at their word, even though word is bond in Asian cultures.
Oh, and being a nice guy when you have a real issue doesn’t help a lot. You’ll probably just be ignored. But apologizing for the inconvenience goes a long way when getting anything done.
I’m a foreigner, but Taiwan classifies me a dual-national. Although locals know I’m definitely not from around here, I’m expected to fall in line and know what’s up, which requires adjusting.
Lots of cool people in Taiwan. Truly. I’m blessed to have met some awesome Taiwanese. But generally speaking, the idea of “cool” in Taiwan has more to do with looking the part and who you know, than being cool to other people. This is true in the U.S., but it’s differently balanced in Taiwan. People often avoid, instead of include or deal with it, partly because a big piece of Confucianism is taking care of your immediate group. Getting off to a fast start means BYO connections, since random people don’t just talk to each other. Sure, there’s ways I can avoid dealing with reality, but then, what am I learning from being here? I have to gut it out and keep building.
I’m expected to be a language native, though I’m not allowed to take the Chinese classes for foreigners at National Taiwan University. Because, I’m not technically considered a foreigner. That dual-national thing. No excuses. If you look Chinese, you must speak Chinese. That girl at the counter who giggles when your Caucasian pal speaks Chinese to her? She’s the same one who will look at you like an idiot if your Chinese isn’t at her level, even if it’s way above your friend’s. It’s cool, though. Like I’ve said, if you’re Caucasian in America and can’t speak English like the person on the receiving end, you don’t have to wait long for the funny looks. On the flip side, because my English is tip-top and I look Chinese, I get some great opportunities. I’ve had the honor of representing Taiwan to foreigners and foreign countries several times. Thank you.
There’s a bigger lesson to this story. Americans and American-Born Chinese (and foreign-born Chinese) will have a totally different experience. For those who aren’t Caucasian, learning Chinese beyond a functional day-to-day level will make life considerably easier. Trust me.
Finally, I didn’t make things easier. As student council president, I found myself dealing with complaints from all sides. Complaints are normal, but people were addressing them in totally ineffective and immature ways. We used systems thinking, which, unfortunately, is like a Robert Mueller special investigation — it reveals baskets of issues that were hiding in the bushes. Do I have experience solving cross-cultural issues? I definitely do, now.
Making Taiwan Work
What life’s about. Spending time doing things you like with people you love.
At a certain point, the stardust wears off. The most important thing is managing your perspective as your beliefs and assumptions are challenged. If you know how to live with yourself, you’re already a leg up on most people who decide they’re going to live in a culture that’s opposite their own. I’m a little heavy with the inspirational quotes today, but this one is really true for expats.
“People who believe they’ll be happy if they go and live somewhere else learn it doesn’t work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.” – author Neil Galman
It’s on you to find ways to be happy and ways to deal.
I made time to get outdoors and away from the city. It’s so easy to do in Taiwan. And instead of embracing people who won’t accept me anyway, I accept them anyway, while looking out for like-minded people who are enthusiastic about being human.
Like moving anywhere else, you need to:
- Double down on the core of what makes you, you
- Make room in your mental space to learn the way other people see things. Maybe you’re both trying to speak the same language, but you’re not really speaking the same language, 朋友
- Bring some of what you’ve learned into your own life
My advice? Make a habit of what you enjoy, and spend time with people you care about who care about you. Life gets much better. And to me, that’s what life’s about. Spending time doing things you like with people you love.
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