People call me the F-word. Countless people, that is. Incessantly. So does my wife.
As the old expression goes: If I had a dollar for every time this happened, I’d be a wealthy man. Shoot… I’d be able to afford a steak dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House every night of the week if I were to cash in the bountiful tally of F-word remarks I’ve experienced hitherto.
On a near daily basis, I hear this F-word whispered warily, uttered uncertainly, or even shrieked surprisingly, albeit all in Chinese. Now, please don’t go so far as to think I am posting a blog about someone calling me a fu_____ or some other variant of the most-famous F-word that we know. Instead, the focus is on me being a… foreigner.
More often than not, after select locals here get a glimpse of me, a cacophony of repeated “wei gwo ren,” which translates from Mandarin to “outside country person,” ensues. Yes, I am a foreigner, but does that fact have to draw attention like it does? Does my foreignness need to be emphasized? Why even point it out? I wonder.
Their disbelief and incredulousness that a foreigner is in their presence stands out in my mind more often than not when I stop to consider living overseas and here in Taiwan, where I am, even according to my wife, who is Taiwanese, a foreigner. Well, she didn’t necessarily call me a foreigner outright. Not once has she stated, “You foreigner, you!” However, she does consistently claim that those who call me a foreigner–and it undoubtedly happens regularly, as I’ve stated–aren’t wrong in doing so. To her, the term is totally appropriate, and she thoroughly feels it isn’t offensive.
Eager to teach me the way of life in Taiwan, antipathetic to my incredulousness, she underlines how innocent it is, how nobody means any harm by it. That the expression isn’t accompanied by disdain is clear to me; however, I just don’t see a need to even highlight my status here. Actually, I am opposed to it even more nowadays, for I’ve lived here for so long that I really only desire to blend in. Undoubtedly, when I’ve traveled to places such as India or Sri Lanka, Guatemala or Belize, or Laos or Cambodia, I have had no qualms about being labeled an outsider. I am. I’ve heard it all: extranjero, orang asing, gaijin, and farang. Perhaps it is the duration of my time here in Formosa that prompts a desire to not be labeled so. Such a moniker doesn’t always bode well with me.
A handful of my former and current students and even my Mandarin teacher have also claimed it is utterly innocuous behavior, the labeling of “outsiders” here. My teacher in particular was really ready to defend the it’s-apparently-a-cultural-thing, curious habit. From her seemingly-rehearsed explanation of it, I figured I wasn’t the only student of hers to ask about said classification of expats here. To many here, the terms is totally acceptable; to me, unacceptable.
I, on the other hand, ruminate about how their calling me a foreigner focuses on my differences, my foreignness. Moreover, I cannot help but consider how, if I were to call someone a foreigner back in the US, where I’m from, it would be considered rude, narrow-minded, and lacking in political correctness. Simply put, I usually feel such a reaction teeters on being provincial. The debate, though, about Taiwanese being inconsiderate or not is definitely, well… debatable.
Unquestionably, I recognize that an assortment of Americans back Stateside may very well do the same when someone “different” appears in front of them. In certain neighborhoods, if a person of another ethnicity comes strolling by, local residents may indeed stare. Some may point. Others may snicker. Indeed, there are those who might simply offer a hello, yet, surely, some ignorant ass may utter something rude. Indeed, you may even overhear a “Honey, get my gun!”
Such classically racist responses like “go back from where you came” or “go home” might also be overheard. However, how often would the word “foreigner” be used these days, I wonder? One would assume that in a more international and ethnically diverse big city, somewhere like New York City or LA, the chance of this happening would be minimized. In a backwater, rural township, the possibility is most likely increased, I’m inclined to think. Because the city in which I now live has over a million people, I’ve long assumed that openness would prevail, but Kaohsiung is perhaps more akin to a rural big town, much more than its cosmopolitan cousin, Taipei, to the north, where there are also more expats.
Perhaps in the previous paragraph, I shouldn’t have used the word “openness”. Maybe I am wrong in equating the usage of the word “wei gwo ren” with being narrow-minded. It very well could boil down to my cultural blinders and expectations coming into play here. If that is the case, I am wrong. Then I am the one being narrow-minded, right?
Whenever someone seems shocked that I am present causes a plethora of responses both internally and externally on my part, admittedly. Depending on my mood and the manner in which a local’s astonishment is displayed (in addition to a countless number of other variables), I may say something in response. At other times, I utter not a word. I might get insulted; I may blow off their remarks. Periodically, I even offer some sort of physical reaction to dramatize my mental musings.
Occasionally, if a kid exuberantly points at me on the street or while grocery shopping, etc., dropping his/her ice cream cone, exclaiming, “Wei gwo ren! Wei gwo ren!” I will retort, in Mandarin, “Where? Where? Amazing! Be careful!” At other times with similar kids, I may merely offer a hello. From time to time, however, my mood tainted or my emotions low, especially, I respond with a, “Taiwan-ren, Taiwan-ren!” and point back at my new friends, adding a rolling of the eyes and a shake of the head for effect. Usually, startled, they don’t know what to say after that.
Accompanying the variety of verbal reactions I consistently receive in public here, which usually includes the F-word, are countless facial expressions and bodily gestures, ranging from dubious double takes to jaws dropped opened in shock. Okay, it isn’t really that severe, but at times, folks here do appear dumbfounded when they detect my presence, an expat, living amongst them.
Every so often, a slight smile sneaks out from a crowd of passersby, or a tentative, yet inquisitive wave from a relatively bold tyke catches my eye. Those moments are subtle enough that I barely notice them; I rarely raise an eyebrow in response.
However, there are days when I get an entire family to stop in front of my table while I am at an outdoor cafe, for example. Once, I readily recall, a family actually backtracked on the Love River boardwalk after one of the kids in their entourage pointed me out by tugging on his dad’s shirtsleeve. I’ve also had grandpas or grandmas hold up their grandchildren at a park and stand in front of me, pointing at me, uttering, “He is a foreigner,” in Chinese of course.
Moreover, don’t these folks realize I understand what they’re doing? Doesn’t it register that I actually see them? Wouldn’t they know I desire not to be treated like or looked at like a zoo animal? Folks eagerly gathered around the primate cage at our local zoo in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, act the same way. Perhaps I should start scratching my arm pit while eagerly emitting some chimp-like “Ooo-Ooo, Ahh-Ahhs” as I do.
Looking for other options to expand my repertoire of reactions to such encounters, I’ve even asked my wife how I can say something in Mandarin like “I am not a zoo animal”, yet I cannot remember the expression well enough to employ it wittily. Having asked my students, too, about alternative potential quips, I’ve also learned to say, “I am not a ‘wei gwo ren’; I am a person,” which sounds more effective, I was told, in Mandarin than English.
As for the grandparents–or even parents who do it, too, don’t they see that they’re carelessly promoting and perpetuating the notion of pointing out someone’s differences, showing their child/grandchild that it is acceptable protocol to call someone an “outside country person”? Perhaps it is my fault that I don’t accept it nor chalk it up to a cultural difference. Am I being too sensitive? Am I wrong to expect that the people of Taiwan not call me the F-word?
Undoubtedly, the existence of this phenomenon in my life causes me to ponder such happenings from time to time, enough so to blog about the experience. I assume, by this point, you’ve noticed that, eh?
Just today (14/3/2013), while purchasing a drink at 7-11 with my daughter, one clerk, who was busy with another customer, said to her coworker, in Chinese, “Help the ‘wei-gwo-ren’, please.” Why couldn’t she just have said, “Help that gentlemen”?
And where I teach a private lesson every afternoon, in a high-end luxury building, and have for nearly two years, the security staff for the first month would call up to my student’s home and say, “The foreign teacher is here.” Eventually, I explained to them that it wasn’t necessary to say “foreign” teacher and that, being just my opinion, it would be better to simply state, “Your teacher is here.” Since then, the primary culprit, a woman on staff, calls up to announce just that. It seems as if she got my drift. But that’s just one small victory, if you will.
Although I’d be a fool to think I can change the reactions of folks here who do openly use the term, hoping idealistically that nobody would ever point out a foreigner again, innocently or not, I acknowledge that such blatant idealism is treading dangerously close to cultural chauvinism. If my culture, whatever that may be, if there is such a thing, expects political correctness and similar sensitivities–where one cannot label an “outsider” as a “foreigner”–I cannot demand that an entire system (or a segment of the society, those who do use the term) adjust to my expectations. Right?
But what if some people even blatantly discuss how I am not the same as them physically? I’ve had a group stare at me, quizzically, while I was standing on the subway platform with my kids, pointing at me as they excitedly discussed my outward attributes and how I am apparently so different.
Periodically, locals here also chat openly about my physical dissimilarities, often from within arms’ reach of me, comparing the differences of our facial features. Some have even stuck their fingers perpendicularly over their eyes/eye lids to exhibit how my recessed-in-the-socket globular organs can close, unhindered, and how theirs cannot. This act has occurred at least half a dozen times over the course of my time here, which is around eight years, and I simply remain incredulous that one would even consider the depth of one’s eye sockets or another’s. Perhaps I just need to be more openminded to their curiosity and, no offense, naiveté. Oops! Did I say that?
There also have been a number of times when small groups–or perhaps just a couple, standing in front of me in line somewhere, have exhibited entertainingly to each other how my nose is larger and more pronounced than theirs (yes, it is bigger, thank you very much), using an index finger to emphasize that the amount of space they have between their finger and the bridge of their nose, with the finger placed from the tip of the nose to the point directly between the eyebrows, is greater. When this happens, it seems as if said perpetrators don’t think I have observed their more-than-obvious, animated gestures.
If said parties really stopped and considered their own actions, they might actually realize that everyone in their own right looks dissimilar from the next individual. Why don’t these folks stop and point out that another Taiwanese in their presence has a double chin, or another has elongated ear lobes, or an asymmetrical face? Okay, that’s not the greatest set of examples to illustrate my point, but the idea that I am so different that it merits a crowd gathering around me is oft a hard pill to swallow. Once again, Taiwan is my home. Traveling elsewhere overseas doesn’t beget similar emotions.
Of course, the conversations that accompany these charades are further peppered with the ubiquitous “wei gwo ren”. As always, the F-word abounds.
At a place called the Dream Mall in Kaohsiung, during the timeframe of my writing this very blog, too, where I was shopping with my daughter, a young lad and his brother sat at the next table over from my lil’ one and me in the food court. The youngster closest to us turned in his seat to ogle me; he stayed in that position, a mere meter away, for a few minutes. Perhaps he had never laid eyes on someone different, somebody not from here, but I doubt that that is possible, for there are quite a few expats here, working in various sectors but mostly in teaching in English cram schools. I couldn’t possibly have been the first white-skinned guy with larger-than-his-eyes eyes that he’d seen. An ooze-coated, six-eyed Martian with a penis growing from its forehead may have received the same attention that I got from this kid.
Getting a bit tired of the constant gaze, two feet away over my daughter’s left shoulder, as if he were looking through a magnifying glass, examining the fine details of an ant on the sidewalk, I turned and uttered an enthusiastic, “Hello!” Having learned that that’s the greatest extent of some kids’ English conversational skills here (no offense), even though they’ve learned English from an early age (often in a classroom where the teachers speak Chinese only to explain English grammar), I simply wanted him to get too nervous about hearing English to want to continue his overt inspection of me. Sometimes my “hello” overwhelms kids.
Tentatively, he muttered a timid hello and then turned back to his family. Ah, it worked, I thought. However, within ten seconds, he’d returned to his focused observations of me and my features, his eyes protruding in amazement, his expression completely agog. I felt like I did have a penis protruding from my forehead.
Again, I turned to emit another hearty “hi” so that he might get the picture, but he then proceeded to confer with his mom about my presence, with an excited “wei gwo ren, wei gwo ren”-riddled explanation about my eyes to follow. If I also had a dollar for every foreigners’-eyes-are-so-big comment I’ve overheard, I’d purchase that Aston Martin I’ve long desired. Eagerly, he then dramatically stretched his eyes open vertically, showing her how big my eyes were in comparison to theirs.
That’s when I lost my patience and turned to the family, expressing somewhat snappishly in Chinese that he shouldn’t do that, concurrently using similar tactics to spread my eyes further open, as he did. Undaunted, I then irritably stated that in America I wouldn’t pull my eyes horizontally to exhibit how his eyes aren’t the same as mine, doing that east-west gesture to prove my point. I think I huffed indignantly at one point.
As I pulled my eyes in that direction, I spontaneously recalled scenes from movies in which some racist idiot had done that in the face of an innocent, incredulous Asian character, usually resulting in some offense taken or hurt feelings, naturally. My feelings weren’t hurt. It boils down to thinking it ridiculous enough to speak my mind.
In my best Mandarin, which was, admittedly, broken and, frustratingly, incomplete, I tried to explain that one doesn’t have to highlight someone’s differences, especially in front of the person, particularly in front of his daughter, even if she mostly had her back turned to his antics (though of course she was in earshot of all that he’d said so far about my big eyes–and in earshot of my explanation about it all, which is my bad). His mother just sat there, though, timidly, her own facial expression blank, choosing to not say a thing to him.
At the risk of sounding preachy and sanctimonious, I can say that if my daughter points at someone, I immediately explain to her not to because it is rude or that it could be taken the wrong way. Moreover, when she, just being four years old, looks for too long at a person with a disability, for example, I explain to her that it isn’t polite, hoping that she doesn’t make someone feel uncomfortable.
In contrast, many parents here don’t say a thing during these exchanges. Perhaps it isn’t chalked up as being rude here. Perhaps passivity takes over. The possibility of losing face might kick in. Oh how I wish I’d at least hear, “Johnny, that isn’t nice. Stop staring!” More astounding would be something akin to “Well, there are expats here, and… well, isn’t it amazing, Susie, that the world is so beautiful because of the variety of people in it. You should cherish the diversity.” If I heard that, I’d literally fly out of my socks.
Not to beat a dead horse, but the reactions of folks here when they see me runs the gamut of human behavior. At times, it is more “positive” (though I really do prefer that I am not the recipient of any reaction, good or bad). Now and again, I’ve been called handsome; teens have even taken pictures of me. However, the surprise factor is oft more prevalent, it seems. Some people physically move far to the edge of the sidewalk if I pass, kids have stopped dead in their tracks and chosen another route, detouring if they can to avoid me, and, when I play with my children on equipment at a park, local youngsters sometimes start up the ladder behind us, then see that I am there and suddenly change their minds and descend.
Once, a woman chatting with friends picked up her purse from where it was placed next to her at a fountain in a park and put it over her shoulder (I turned around, discreetly, after passing, and saw her set it back down again once I was a safe distance away). Petulantly, I wanted to stroll back over to her and explain that I simply don’t need to steal, for I make enough of a salary to not need her possessions, whatever they were, or her money. Yes, a snooty response on my part it was, but it was ludicrous behavior on her part in the first place.
Overall, these experiences, at times, make life abroad a trifle more fascinating and interesting–if I ONLY focus on the captivating idiosyncrasies of human nature and how funny we all can be, but there are days when such antics simply just annoy the hell out of me. One recent happening, though, showed me that I can adjust my own perspective of this phenomenon and take from it a sense of it all just being friendly curiosity.
During the span of my writing this blog, while on a stroll down an alleyway in a seaside village on the SW Coast of Taiwan, I reacted in a more positive fashion, which I do intermittently do. Though I was with my two children, my wife, and her parents, who are from Taiwan, a group of ten-year olds on bikes still exuberantly squawked in unison, upon seeing me, “Wei gwo ren, wei gwo ren”! Even surrounded by my Taiwanese family, I was on the receiving end of the F-word again. Maybe this revealed to me that there is no ill intent in these exchanges. Because I was with my in-laws, I gave my best, “Have you eaten?”, a typical query a local poses as they approach someone. My having used Mandarin shocked them enough to stop them from only focusing on my differences, and a few even tried their best to use English to speak to me. Something like this verbal intercourse wasn’t offensive–and it was cute enough to say I enjoyed it.
Much of what takes place during these exchanges is on the surface and remains superficial, and though I sometimes let it get to me internally–enough so that I chose to blog about such encounters, it isn’t that deep enough of an annoyance or issue to make life here more complicated or overly uncomfortable. At least I recognize that getting vexed by it does nothing for my sanity. I suppose that, just like with everything in life, I need to monitor and alter my own attitude about being called the F-word. Surely, getting upset about it will not improve anything. However, I’d do harbor hope that if a Taiwanese sees me on the streets here, I won’t hear the F-word. Is that too much to hope for?