A Bit More on Being Called a Foreigner

Here in Taiwan, one brand of toothpaste is called "Black Man"

Here in Taiwan, one brand of toothpaste is called “Black Man.” Can you believe it?

For those who’ve read my blog before, you now know that one of my entries is about being labelled a foreigner here in Taiwan, on a daily basis, practically, and there is a recent entry on my daughter, who is mixed-race (white/Caucasian/ European-American, however I should term that, and Taiwanese), also being called a foreigner. Moreover, I recently added an entry about a Love See No Color shirt I once wore in college. Clear it seems to be that the topic of race has been on my mind lately. Since my last posting, a few more discussions on and occurrences similar to said subject have taken place, too, and that has resulted in an even greater curiosity about race in Taiwan.

For one, after posting about my daughter and how folks in Taiwan have labeled her as a foreigner, I used the topic for a conversation starter in one of my private classes here, a class of four adult Taiwanese women, all of whom are 40-years old and above. The upshot of that discussion is simply that none of them considers my daughter Taiwanese. Explaining that she was born in Taiwan, that she possesses a Taiwanese passport (and an American one), and that she looks Taiwanese enough that nobody could tell her “real race” (if you will) if I wasn’t nearby, I argued that she was, indeed, Taiwanese. To no avail. They all concurred with each other that because she has a “foreign” father, she is an “outside country person,” which is the direct translation of the word “wei gwo ren” in Mandarin. Simply put, I just couldn’t believe it.

Along the same grain of thought, I also asked some Taiwanese folks here I know via FB messages (private ones so as not to irk those who don’t see such discussions as necessary) if they themselves considered their own children, also being mixed-race kids, “foreigners” or not. Interestingly enough, nobody responded. Perhaps I asked too deep a question. However, face-to-face, on another interesting note, a Canadian dad I talked to mentioned that his wife gets the question, “Are you the nanny?” because their children have lighter hair and more Western features, if you will. How interesting, eh?! It seems I am not the only one who has to deal with such affairs (of course I knew that already).

Additionally, driving my curiosity about this topic deeper, though it wasn’t necessarily a new revelation, another private student, a high-school male this time (and the four women also agreed in their class with his response), explained the notion to me that there are different designators for different races or nationalities that might come here to Taiwan. If a Taiwanese sees a Japanese, he/she will call said visitor “Japanese.” And a Korean would be called a, well, “Korean.” The same goes for a Chinese from China. However, a (white) Canadian, a German, an American, or a South African, etc., would be called an “outside country person.” Someone told me that years ago, too, and regardless of the years that have transpired since and the time I’ve spent here, I just cannot believe there is a difference in how people are plastered with a tag like that. How on earth are there a variety of categories for different races? Thus, I asked the aforementioned students why it was so, and I even drew a map to prove my point: if someone is from outside Taiwan, wouldn’t that person be called an “outside country person” no matter from which country they’ve come? Sadly, and somewhat oddly in my opinion, that’s not the case. By the way, if one is black, regardless of his/her country of origin, he/she is classified as “hei ren” or black person. What an interesting set of criterion that exists here.

To say that these issues have been at the forefront of living in Taiwan recently would be somewhat inaccurate, for I’ve got others daily tasks, family affairs, outlets, etc., to occupy my time, but because I’ve been blogging about them and using them as conversation starters in class, it appears that some take this as complaining–and others have even made sure I know that Taiwanese mean no harm by labeling my daughter (or me) as a foreigner. Immediately, I’ve retorted that I’ve never once felt hurt by it, and I’ve never considered it harmful. My gut and logic, rather, both tell me that it is ignorant. My experience overseas and insights allow me to somewhat chalk it up as a cultural difference. Someone close to me, in the same breath as explaining there is no harm intended, stated that when Taiwanese say my daughter is mixed-race, which I’ve never noticed (because I don’t know the Mandarin term for that and because I only ever hear “wei gwo ren”), they are actually complimenting her. Really? Apparently, some here believe that being mixed-race is something fancied; however, as I’ve heard directly from other Taiwanese, it is being mixed with a white, not a black, Filipino, Thai, Malaysian, etc., “foreigner” that is looked highly upon. Go figure.

On a final note, my experience last week in visiting a pre-school with my wife and children kept this ball in further motion recently. While there, holding my daughter’s hand as we walked the hallways on a guided tour, I was bombarded with a cacophony of “wei gwo ren” remarks the instant we passed the open windows of a pre-school class. Naturally, my gut reaction was to want to shield my daughter from this, but there was no way to do that, so I simply blew it off on the surface. However, deep inside, I wondered why pre-schoolers would even know the word for foreigner. Why would a parent bother to teach that to a young child? These kids are just three or four. Again because of my own cultural blinders, I just can’t fathom someone teaching his/her offspring the term, yet a dozen or so kids were yelling it out. Peculiar? Not? What do you think?

How does it strike you that different races or nationalities are categorized here? Fair? Not? Odd? Just reality? I’d love to hear what you think.

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9 Responses to A Bit More on Being Called a Foreigner

  1. Karim says:

    Being called a foreigner is normal specially in Arab countries. As a person who spent considerable period of time in arab countries, I receive being called a foreigner with a smile. It is a distinguishing factor. Even if you are born and brought up in that same country you are still a foreigner. Of all the middle east contries, Saudi Arabia tops the list interms of such ‘foreigner’ like terminologies. The kingdom associates foreigner with everything bad happening to it. Imagine, besides being called a foreigner and working under your sponsor, you need your sponsor’s permission to remit money, get married, get a driving license, travel, and lately even to perform some sort of a prayer! It is much better in Qatar and Dubai where at least you have your basic rights as a foreigner. At least you can sue your sponsor and win the case.

    Why I brought thins thing is just to cool you down if you feel pissed off being called a foreigner. If you get your rights observed then there is nothing to worry about. By the way, it is even the teenagers that call you a ‘foreigner’ specially in Saudi Arabia. I think they are fed the word foreigner together with their milk formula in their early years 🙂 . Take it easy and enjoy life!!!

    • vagabondwithfamily says:

      Hi, Karim. Thank you for your insight and advice. Wow, I suppose I should appreciate that here in Taiwan the term isn’t really derogatory nor hurtful–and that I do have all the rights I need here!

      By the way, I am not necessarily pissed off, but my emotions to change a bit when my daughter is in earshot.

      Wishing you well,

  2. Sis says:

    Not knowing the nuances of Taiwenese life nor how older Taiwanese folks view race differences, it’s hard to comment overall……. but I was just reading a parenting book (Nurture Shock by Po Bronson) and they talk about how if you DON’T have specific/direct conversations with children as young as preschool about race differences, it seems to make matters worse as they age. Parents who want their children to be “color blind” need to have frank conversations about the different colors we all come in and what that means/doesn’t mean. So I’m curious if parents are teaching these preschoolers this information in a positive light – ie, as the one said, not meant to be hurtful or negative at all. But from our own frame of reference, we who grow up in a country where we are taught (generally) from a young age not to “notice” (ie, openly speak of) color differences view the comments as negative because of our own upbringing. Not sure if that makes sense as it’s hard to explain here but it is interesting to ponder!

    • vagabondwithfamily says:

      Yes, I see the importance of having dialogue about it, and I’ve started to. Today on the way to the grocery store, I brought up the idea, and Lil’ I said that she would simply tell people, “I am just a person,” if someone asks in the future where she is from. Not a bad answer for a four-year old.

      Again, I don’t see any intentional harm in comments here, so I don’t think that little kids here use it in a derogatory fashion–nor that they are bred to see it in a negative way. However, hearing comments about other Asians from countries where folks are darker skinned, I wonder if racism isn’t far around the corner. Some responses from expats here have noted that it is prevalent, just not towards white expats.

  3. I’ve still got a package of Darkie toothpaste in Canada. Don’t really know why, maybe I thought it would be a collectors item.
    I’ve found most things you wrote above to be accurate. How do I feel about it? Just reality. These distinctions are made amongst themselves as well as in 本省人 and 外省人.
    Great blog and photography, BTW.

  4. vagabondwithfamily says:

    Dear Community:
    I’ve used the above photo after a Google search on “BlackMan toothpaste,” though I haven’t received permission from the woman herself. Her blog is great, by the way, if you have a chance to check it out: http://www.millermemoires.com/p/travel-taiwan.html

    I’m asking right now if I can use it by writing her directly.

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