Is Taiwan Xenophobic?

Is Taiwan Xenophobic?
Photo Credit: Kumar's Edit @ Flickr CC By 2.0

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Recently, a YouTube video showing a Taiwanese man in Taipei insulting a foreigner and his Taiwanese girlfriend for xenophobic reasons went viral. It triggered a debate on the island about racial attitudes towards foreigners. Even BBC reported on this matter, quoting diverging opinions. Its conclusion whether or not Taiwan is xenophobic is left to the reader.

So, is Taiwan xenophobic?

When trying to answer such a question I am moving on a veritable minefield. Clichés, simplifications and generalizations are unavoidable. No relevant study corroborating my opinions has been consulted and I am referring exclusively to Taiwanese-Westerner relationships, the situation here being somehow different with Asian foreigners. In the end, all depends on individuals.

I have been living in Taiwan for the past sixteen years without having ever been harassed because of my skin; chances are higher that this happens to Taiwanese when being abroad. Most of the time Taiwanese people have been friendly to me as they have been to other foreigners. I have, therefore, no reason to think that Taiwan is xenophobic. Yet further distinctions may be helpful to explore the rationale of the present debate.

Of course there are some racists roaming this island, but you find such idiots everywhere in the world. Their number here is, as I guess, rather small, and I am not aware that they are, unlike elsewhere, organized in associations or in political parties that have an anti-foreign thrust as their raison d’être.

Yet I think that there may be some uneasiness in relationships between foreigners and the locals, which might be rashly misinterpreted, as xenophobic. The BBC report offers some reasons for this mutual discomfort via its interviewees; reasons such as western men are more successful with local girls, foreigners enjoy privileged treatment and they make more money than locals for similar jobs.

I believe there is some truth in all three views, which understandably cause resentment. But resentment is different from xenophobia; xenophobia targets (groups of) people, while resentment targets rather constellations. Resentment I think would be understandable if regarding the last two views. The problem, however, is that the rationale in both examples for blaming foreigners is homemade. Taiwanese have to blame themselves when unfairly privileging or overpaying foreigners who usually did not ask for it. That’s why I wish to focus on the first example.

It seems indeed that foreign young men are quite successful on the sex front. Related stories I am told by some male Western students are rather impressive, at least in terms of quantity. They confessed they would be less triumphant back home.

But let’s take a closer look at this case. The common opinion among some girls here that Westerners are more handsome and richer is so silly that I wish to ignore it; silliness knows no boundaries. But if Taiwanese men feel disadvantaged in this aspect, well, the first to be reproached should be their own “domestic female products." And, in a second step, they should ask if there is a good reason that makes Western men more attractive to some girls.

As for the first point, I see no reason to reproach girls for preferring physical engagements with so-called Caucasians. If there is a problem at all, then it lies rather elsewhere: in perceived mismatches. Girls here are probably less aware of the social codes that form individual characters and relationships in the West (and vice-versa). Those codes refer to tastes, social habits, ways of speaking and walking, to the selection of friends, books and bars, to interests and hobbies, and so on. They are life preferences, which often also function as vital ingredients in the search of like-minded partners: if you like Bach, you probably don’t like rap music; and if you like someone who likes Bach, you probably don’t like someone who likes rap. If you are slim and sporty, you don’t have a fat couch potato as your boyfriend; and if you are smart, you often wish your boyfriend to be at least as smart as you are.

To a certain extent Western societies work in this way. This is, however, not necessarily so in Taiwan where patterns of behavior are more standardized, making individuals less distinguishable by the way they think or act. There are other codes. They are less individualized, but more cultural; meeting the expectations of dominant cultural clichés here is often an asset. Maybe this is why for a local woman often a Westerner is a Westerner is a Westerner, regardless the existence of particular codes. Things here are more easy-going anyway. Mésalliances ensue, at least in the eyes of outsiders. You know the story; pretty, smart and slim girls from here, hanging around with their Western boyfriends of rather modest interior and exterior designs.

Partnerships in the West are built more around those codes. They function as a kind of discretionary firewall narrowing down the pool of candidates for future romances; a handsome man may be quite unattractive for women who live along very different social codes. It matters if he, for instance (to mention a few more examples), doesn’t know how to properly use a fork and knife, or doesn‘t lift his feet when walking, or if wearing a pink tie with a green jacket or brown socks with a dark-blue suit, or when his food-intake comes with the soundtrack and so on.

Firewalls are also in place here, but their local designs seem to be less efficient vis-à-vis foreign boys in marshaling the sort of protective distinctions mentioned above. It seems that the software does not easily recognize the “danger" of mismatching. Once such a perception emerges, especially if pretty and smart girls are involved, male resentment enters the stage.

As for the second point, girls being more attracted by Westerners, it seems girls with a rather distinct mental life prefer partners who are more outspoken and more opinionated, especially in existential, social and public matters. Westerners usually score higher in that category; their egos and opinions are often more determined. (Which, however, says nothing about them being cleverer or more intelligent; many idiots are outspoken, and not all wise men like to talk.)

Taiwanese men are less outspoken. They often call this softer trait respect or harmony, but it’s more a weakness of character in the eyes of women who prefer men with a stance. A woman’s nightmare here in Taiwan is a mother-in-law enslaving her son’s wife, with the son always being on his mother’s side. It’s no wonder smart girls are not really fond of such homemade outlooks.

But also in this case resentment would be, as with the previous examples, a self-made problem. Foreigners haven’t asked girls to admire them more than their domestic counterparts, neither did they create so many mommy boys, and nor are they responsible for the cluelessness of so many young people regarding social or public affairs.

It all boils down instead to a culture that, for centuries, has deliberately created such world-less and obedient minds, which, are now under pressure since the gates have opened and thus allowing other very different ideas and worlds to settle on this island.

Edited by Olivia Yang