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By Charlene (Worked and studied in France. Now living in Sweden.)
Hearing a familiar song in a coffee shop, I grew sentimental all of a sudden.
Living alone overseas for more than three years, I have become more and more like some kinds of deformation that I intend to get rid of the constraint from my past and non-stop running but when I go really far, I start looking back to my home.
Someone once asked me why I don’t want to go back to Taiwan, get a job and settle down. I answered with something that might sound harsh to the Taiwanese, “Because I don’t like the Taiwanese culture.”
The person who asked me the question was very agitated and could only blame me for using the wrong words.
The Taiwanese culture I’m referring to isn’t historic relics or literature, but the distance between people and how they get along with one another.
Of course I still like the Taiwanese culture, but the side effect of enjoying the culture is being bond by it. I know that nobody can completely escape the restrictions of any culture, and that’s why I would rather bear the loneliness and wander between different cultures like a drifter.
I feel very uncomfortable when living in Taiwan, sometimes even painful. Everything I do is restricted, no matter when and where, and is bond by an unreasonable ethic and value system.
I felt nothing when I was still in Taiwan. It only hit me when I was in France.
It was at a school party in France. I walked across the grass under the dim streetlights with my friends from Brazil and Poland, and we went on our separate ways to talk to people once we arrived at the party. The venue was an outdoor bar with black and white Minimalism interior decorations, and people chatted outside.
I saw some familiar faces among the sea of strangers and we started talking like we had known each other all our lives. We laughed and danced, and I suddenly felt a sense of infinite freedom when I was swaying.
Because here, nobody would ask me about my family background, work experience and education. No one knew my past and they didn’t care. All they could see was a girl laughing and dancing around.
They didn’t know I was from a single-parent family or whether or not I had good grades. They didn’t know I’m actually shy and only have a few friends. They knew nothing about the past twenty-something years of my life, but only saw the person I was that night.
I felt free because I could forget the past burden of my family and my behaviors. I could create a brand new me, or I should say, I could actually be the person I really was.
I no longer needed to care about my family, teachers and expectations of the society. I didn’t need to be the quiet person and obedient student. I didn’t need to build that docile image. It was then did I realize the heaviness of the shackles that held me back before.
Since second grade, the teacher would always ask some general questions about the students’ families on the first day of school. I remember the teacher would say, “Please raise your hand (or stand up) if you are from a single-parent family.” I would raise my hand and my classmates would stare at me. Some showed no expression while others looked confused or sympathetic.
Okay, now everyone knows that I am a kid from a single-parent family. This label made me feel that I was an underprivileged species.
Perhaps people say they don’t really have any comments regarding single-parent kids, but what if every teacher needs to point out this fact? Of course I would label myself with a label that says I lack something compared with others. This is why I was taught that I was a “defective” person since I was a child.
Even when I was in high school, my homeroom teacher asked my boyfriend at the time, “Out of all the girls in the class, why do you want to go out with her?”
“What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s from a single-parent family. Don’t you know they have complicated and abnormal mental issues?”
Even though I had done nothing, I was still labeled with all kinds of definitions, so people started treating me according to these words. Gradually, I started behaving like these labels, even when there were people who saw me for who I really was, because that was what the society expected me to be.
So the person I was before was shy, timid with only a few friends. I also used to assume that every one hated me.
And in order not to let every one hate me (a complete fantasy in my tiny world), I would keep quiet and do nothing, so that people couldn’t gossip about me, but I also became invisible.
Aside from this childhood trauma, I was deeply influenced by the “pretty girl culture” in college.
In Taiwan, good looks are very important. Regardless of your personality, as long as you are pretty, guys flatter you in every way. The personality, charm and inner beauty of women are completely ignored.
However, in the three countries I have stayed in before, France, Germany and Sweden, not only can appearances attract men, but also the personality and charm that comes out of conversations, such as confidence, ideas whether or not you make sense and so on.
For example, my roommates once invited several French classmates to our home for dinner. This was my first month in France and I was still acting according to Taiwanese social habits, helping to make dinner, and greeting everyone with a smile on my face.
When everyone was chatting, I listened and smiled. Basically, I didn’t try to control the conversation or give any opinions. I thought the foreigners would come and talk to me on their own because that was how it worked in Taiwan; men usually make the first move.
I was like a typical Japanese housewife that entire night, doing the dishes, being quiet and just sitting there. Being the complete opposite of me, my roommate controlled the whole situation, bringing up lots of interesting topics and joking around with everyone. I could see the invisible microphone being passed between her and the others, giving them a good time. At the time, I felt as if her classmates really liked her, and compared with her, I wasn’t attractive at all. I just sat there all night and thought someone would come talk to me.
It was then did I realize what foreigners care about is whether or not a person shows his or her personality.
Another example is when I was in Germany. I had already been living in Europe for two years, so I kind of knew how to socialize with foreigners a little more. I was staying in an apartment of a German friend with some other Japanese and German friends. We didn’t know each other that well and were still in the phase of talking about random things.
After thirty minutes, I was chatting with a group of Germans, and the Japanese girls were chatting by themselves. Those girls still maintained their Japanese social habits; don’t take the initiative and talk to men and don’t show your personality easily. In the end, they went home together silently. But I made many German friends in this gathering.
I told my boyfriend about this experience and he told me that his Swedish friends came across the same social difficulties in Korea, but in the men’s viewpoint. His Swedish friends were very frustrated socializing in Korea. Some said Korean girls were indifferent, always answering in very short sentences. Others said Korean girls were boring and didn’t talk lively.
Upon hearing this, I gave him a bitter smile. In Swedish bars, it’s common to see women approaching men. On the opposite, guys who try to pick up women are taken as perverts. In the Asian culture, women taking the initiative is a bad thing in the public perception, so Asian women usually play the passive role.
In my perspective, Asian men prefer gentle, obedient and virtuous women to the aggressive ones, which is even taken to be a flaw. Nevertheless, western men prefer women who are active and have a strong character.
But this is only my personal perspective. It’s not the same for everyone.
Aside from the different expectations of women in western and eastern cultures, Taiwanese men like to frequently criticize the physical appearance of women.
For example, western men have never criticized my appearance during my three years living overseas. But when I met up with my old guy friends in Taiwan, the first thing they said to me was, “You look fatter” and “Swedish food must be delicious, huh?” This is why I truly believed I was fat all these years.
Every time I used to see this photo, I would genuinely think I was fat and ugly. All I wanted was to have a thin face.
Some people might think I’m just faking it to be comforted, but I really thought I was fat and tried all kinds of methods to lose weight: vegetable soup, not eating after noon, keeping track of calories, no starches, Korean aerobic exercises and not having starches and protein together and so on. However, my highest weight was only 42 kg.
Now that I have woken up, I look back at myself then and finally realize I was really sick. This is something I hate about the Asian culture; taking the demand of women’s physical appearances for granted.
In the Asian society, women aren’t the only ones oppressed, but also men.
The society unreasonably expects men to be rich and to take on the entire responsibility of raising a family. I used to think that the idea, “You can only have a wife if you have money, a house and a car,” only existed in certain families. I never thought it would happen to me.
I come from a single-parent family, but even my mom has these unbearable snobbish thoughts. Without even knowing my boyfriend, she only asked questions regarding his family background and salary. When she heard that he didn’t make up to NT$ 200,000, she got mad and scolded me hysterically.
But I’m perfectly capable of making a living on my own, so why do I need to rely on a man? Why does my mom judge a person’s value based on money?
This is the culture I dislike and can’t escape from. Every time I call back home, my relatives can ask me when I will get a raise and how much I have saved.
At this moment, all I can do is envy the social system in Europe where children receive free education. If you want to study abroad, you can even apply for a government loan. So, raising a child costs very little in Europe and parents don’t need to spend most of their life savings on their children and have high expectations. The children also don’t need to live their lives under the pressure of their parents’ high hopes.
I have crushed almost everyone with this article. A single phone call with my mom reminded me of the stress coming from the Taiwanese society, but I can’t blame everything on the society. After all, a single person can’t represent the culture as a whole. There are still many open-minded and democratic parents whose children have never been oppressed or discriminated by the society, and have grown up happily.
The next day after I calling my mom, I was still thinking about this. Sitting on the park bench under the sun, I said to my boyfriend, “I don’t know if I should work hard and make money to meet my mom’s expectation and to win her approval or if I should just ignore her and living this happy life without needing lot of money.”
He said, “I think one of the reasons human beings reproduce is once people grow older, they are unable to change their values to adapt to the society. Your values are the productions of the modern society. If you change your behavior just to meet the values of your mom’s generation, don’t you think your personal development of the past twenty years has been meaningless?”
It was a warm and sunny day in Gothenburg. The kids were throwing sand at each other in the park. I said, “Their toy cars are parked in all directions. I’m going to draw some parking spaces and charge them. Five candies an hour. If they don’t pay, I’ll tie their cars to the trees…” and started going on with my usual nonsense.
The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original piece was published here.
Translated by Zoey Lo
Edited by Olivia Yang