First, let me say Joseph Fritz is my friend. When we arrived in Taiwan almost two years ago, Joseph was one of the first people who genuinely reached out to my family and spent time trying to help us adjust and find ways to make life work in this culture.We couldn’t be more different, but that actually makes our friendship quite valuable. We are still friends today.
I wrote Joseph after he posted his article and told him I would be writing a response to his article, so this should come as no surprise to him.
I have been coming to Taiwan for the last ten years and moved here almost two years ago with my family. We love Taiwan, Taiwanese people and most things about Taiwanese/Chinese culture. It does seem that we have a rather odd expat culture here in Taichung. I will only write concerning Taichung because I don’t have much experience outside of this city with which to gauge the whole island.
First a little about my personal experiences. More often than not when we run into other expats on the street, in a restaurant or in a public place, it is standard practice to pretty much ignore each other. We’re from Texas, and it’s in our cultural blood to engage with others, so when we see other expats, it is very natural for us to say hello, stick a hand out for a handshake, try to start a conversation. On most occasions, those initial expressions are met with a cold stare, a lone hand stuck out left alone or an awkward hello left hanging. Now, to be fair, I should say maybe some of the people we ran into were not fellow English speakers. They could be from some of the countries represented here that are of European descent, but don’t speak English or share our sense of Southern Hospitality.
On the other side, I have met lots of really great people here. I’ve been to an AMCHAM meeting where the people were more than friendly. A news discussion group hosted by Courtney Donovan Smith that was really great. I’ve run into people out in public where we ended up really connecting and finding out we had lots of things in common other than the fact that we weren’t from Taiwan. Several of the events where foreigners gather have a really great vibe and a lot of the expat restaurant owners are really great.
So, the question that I think Fritz was getting at – Why? What’s going on when Expats encounter each other and pass like ships in the night?
This is where I offer some of my own thoughts. I don’t necessarily disagree completely with what Fritz puts forth, but I think there are other more significant reasons:
– To take off and move across the world to any country requires a certain type of person. Not necessarily a personality type, but a certain kind of person. That person has a certain level of independence that others may not. Taiwan, as you may know, is a highly interdependent culture. Arriving here, independent living is absolute anathema to the vast majority. So this person who used their highly unique personality and skill set to move themselves across the world finds their self quite alone. And the other expats they run into are also really independent people, which in forming relationships only adds to the complexity.
– In addition, in this culture, Westerner’s can be (not always) idolized to some degree. Unfortunately, Taiwan has placed Western culture and it’s people on a pedestal. So the English teacher, the Engineer, the Professional from the West ends up even more isolated and placed on some artificial pedestal. This can give the Expat an unhealthy image of themselves. They are always praised, always given special privileges, so that their self-perception becomes a little exaggerated.
– Another possibility is that there are some individuals who just never really learned how to get along with people in their own culture. They have potentially been outsiders for the majority of their lives. In response, it is actually much easier to live in a foreign culture than to live in their home culture. In the foreign culture, they don’t experience the sense of isolation or rejection that their home culture gives them. However, when they encounter other Expats, it may remind them of the home culture and it’s just easier to avoid them in this big city and stay somewhat isolated and alone.
– In the responses on the Info Exchange, one poster noted the communication issue. I think this has some merit, on both sides. For those who attempt to learn Chinese, most effort is rewarded with praise from the Taiwanese, contributing to the superhero complex. But it also results in a constant comparison with other foreigners – “How well do you speak? How many characters do you know? Can you read and write? etc…”
– In our home cultures, we easily are able to share our thoughts and feelings, have our non-verbal cues read by others, etc. Here, that is taken away from us. This contributes to an almost constant state of isolation. I’m not sure exactly how this plays into our interactions with other expats, but I think it does.
I’m sure there are plenty of other reasons. This is a complex issue and can’t be oversimplified. Many people are here because they want to be. They provide a great service to this culture, they work hard, bring value to the people they work and live with, they strengthen the economy and do their best to be a benefit to the culture. Living in a foreign culture is a stress in itself, let alone the work, language, cultural issues.
If you are struggling with any of these assimilation issues, adjusting to a foreign culture or have some personal issues that you have never worked through. I wish you the best. Perhaps, for your own personal health and your future good, you should give some thought to these issues and any help you might need.
I will continue to be a friend to all and friendly to everyone. It’s hard enough as it is.
I welcome your thoughts and commentary below. I will respond to thoughtful posts.