Friendly Indifferences: What Foreigners Do or Say Does Not Matter in Taiwan

Friendly Indifferences: What Foreigners Do or Say Does Not Matter in Taiwan
Photo Credit:移民署

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In my last article, I tried to explain why I think Taiwan is not a xenophobic place. I believe tensions, if they arise at all, between foreigners (here always being Westerners) and locals in Taiwan are more accurately termed, “resentment.” But most encounters are best described with the term “indifference.” That is, whatever foreigners say or do as foreigners doesn’t really matter. This could be good news. Why should it be otherwise? Inter-cultural relationships should be based on individual sympathies, interests, or personal traits, but never on nationalities or cultural affiliations.

Indifference may surprise readers, given the particular friendliness and curiosity of Taiwanese most foreigners experience here. But I think people here are often indifferent to what we do and say because we are foreigners, despite finding “foreign” thinking more persuasive.

This latter side of the paradox might help explain why people here are often curious and wish to learn more about life in other countries. But communication resulting from such curiosity is often expected to be an exchange of pleasantries. Taiwanese do accept criticism, but often only in a soft version and when coming with positive remarks on other local cultural idiosyncrasies. You may get to softly criticize some local features if you start by telling them things are all right here in general. This is cultural exchange on the surface and there is nothing wrong with it. Most casual conversations are like this; no matter where and who you are, millions of clichés are exchanged in this easygoing way.

What the people in Taiwan don’t like to hear is criticism that comes without anteceding flattering. This could be the end of intercultural fun, and sometimes also the end of the conversation. Conflicting thoughts not really welcome in intercultural encounters. It doesn’t matter what reasons you give regarding why you think that things are not as good as many here think they are. The case is lost from the beginning; the shutters of the mind have gone down. Intercultural conversations here are not so much about right or wrong or better or worse. They are more about making locals feel good.

This prevailing cultural relativism is hammered into the minds of the people on this island since birth. You can find it everywhere. Even many professors share it. Cultural relativism holds that things here and there are different, yet both are equally valuable. Cultures, therefore, must not be criticized. Instead, they must be respected.

This all sounds good, and there is a lot of good will behind such mentality. Cultural forms of life can often be quite charming. But sometimes they are not and are quite nasty. Propagating cultural relativism, therefore, also encourages forms of human behavior that are harmful, cynical, inherently intolerant and contradictory.

In general, cultural relativism is harmful because it protects “cultural” life forms, which are simply cruel and inhumane. For example, female gender mutilation is as much of a cultural practice as the stoning of presumably adulterous wives is, so is child marriage or execution of homosexuals. If nobody vetoes such ghastly cultural practices, we would cynically perpetuate them in the name of cultural diversity. It is also intolerant because it forbids critical reviews of its own cultural practices, contradicting its self-proclaimed stance. It holds its own relativistic position to be truer than all other approaches.

The Taiwanese version of cultural relativism is usually more harmless. But harm is still being done in more subtle ways. Relativism closes minds vis-à-vis views that may enrich one’s world, rendering locals quite helpless when dealing with critical “foreign affairs.” There is not much arguing going on when you disagree. The reaction you often get instead is that people look at you in a peculiar way.

I witness this situation at school all the time; criticizing some indigenous habits, ways of life, thought patterns or values means you lose your audience even if they agree with you. Things, they insist, are different here because this is Taiwan where things are, well, different.

Foreigners, they often conclude, are different, and that’s why they don’t really understand what is going on in this country. We are what we are, and they are what they are. That’s it. In the end, it does not matter what you say. The force of an argument does not count. What counts instead are their world to which only locals have the keys. Closed worlds in closed minds. Many of my foreign students have had similar experiences. There is not much cultural exchange going on despite an abundance of opportunities. Exchanges are rather physical, at a very particular level.

There is little awareness that what many call culture is just a habit of doing things in a certain way, which could be also done in a different way. Culture for them seems rather to be fate, and fate cannot be changed. Cultural relativists are often cultural determinists treating values as if they were laws of nature, which nevertheless differ from culture to culture. Things here don’t matter there.

Indifference often also characterizes the relationship among foreign and local faculty. Universities, one might think, are ideal places for exchanging ideas and exposing them to critical scrutiny in dialogues with like-minded people. But this is wishful thinking here. Many foreign colleagues feel quite lonesome when trying to engage local colleagues in dialogues on a commonly shared subject matter, of which I know many cases.

I myself haven’t talked with several local colleagues at my department for more than three minutes in the past decade or so. Nearly nobody is really interested in what you are doing, what you are reading, what you are working on, what you are thinking about, what’s going on in the world and so on. Chitchatting is the utmost form of communication and it’s usually about food. Nobody argues with you, and what’s worse: nobody wants to argue with you because nobody cares. Of course there are exceptions, but they are exceptions. Life is very different at European universities where I have worked for many years.

People here are, generally speaking, very friendly to foreigners in daily communications, like people all over the world. However, the moment you confront them with ideas and values different from theirs, the interpersonal climate often cools down and indifference reigns in. But at least it usually comes with a smile.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Eric Tsai