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The Gray Area. Experience of a Black Woman in Taiwan.

Moving to Taiwan seemed like a good idea on paper. I’d receive a scholarship while submerging myself into a completely different culture and language – a once in a lifetime opportunity that many others would gladly take. It was like getting one of Willy Wonka’s coveted golden tickets and I was eager to be Charlie. Unfortunately, I wasn’t nearly as prepared for what awaited me as I thought. Of course there are the obvious cultural differences that are met with awe and curiosity. The sites, the food and the people, but for someone who planned to spend a formidable amount of years here, I began to pay attention to more than the obvious pomp and circumstance – look beyond the costume and scrutinize the seams.

As first it was met with incredulous disbelief that there are people in the 21st century who are still unaware of the existence of the black/African race. But the longer I’ve been here and the more interactions I’ve had, I realize that though sometimes it’s simply the curiosity for the unknown, there are many instances of subtle and outright racism. There have been a handful of occasions where I’ve seen persons excitedly frantically tapping their friends and pointing in my direction and I absentmindedly look around to see where they’re pointing at and then I realize, it’s just me. I’ve suffered through countless train rides where a stranger’s hand is in my hair tugging at my braids or someone is secretly taking my picture. Don’t get me wrong I understand curiosity and would have probably reacted the same, but when it switches to persons refusing to sit near you or try to avoid any interaction with you, you can’t help but wonder “Are we still at this place?”

1A few years ago I’d have probably written this in my angry black woman voice, furiously typing away in all caps on my laptop in the middle of the night complaining to social media about all the shortcomings of the world and how I, along with my fellow “Melanated Queens” were being continuously mistreated and misunderstood. But alas, after living here for 5 plus years many things have affected me less, while some don’t procure a reaction at all. I’m not saying that I’ve gotten used to disrespect, but I’d like to think that my levels of discernment and rational thinking has improved over time. Sometimes, ignorance may be mistaken for racism and vice-versa. Unlike the west, we’re not subjected to violent, hate crimes and blatant, racial abuse. The line is usually thin and hard to distinguish as it is never grossly disrespectful behaviour. Either way, I refuse to dwell on these instances, neither do I aggressively act out lest I fall into the stereotypical loud and angry black person category.

There’s a lack of understanding for all things black, culture beyond obvious media portrayals seems to be unchartered territory, and though it is sometimes flattering to be regarded as an exotic anomaly, ignorance is unimpressive. Many persons have been quite perplexed about the varying complexions- for some reason the lessons on melanin has been lost in Asia- everyone is expected to have the same features- I’ve engaged in many conversations where the other person was adamant that my friends could not be my country mate, since our skin tones and hair types were different. Speaking of hair types, it is always met with incredulity that hair can in fact grow from the scalp with these weird kinky curls that do not need to be washed on a daily basis and still manage to have some semblance of cleanliness. Variations in accents are also an issue, though they are sometimes received as a party trick that can be turned on and off at request. The more pronounced ones accent is, the higher the assumption that your actual English speaking ability is non-existent or poor and that your Chinese is speaking ability is equally lacking. Correspondingly, the reaction to me and my peers uttering even the simplest Chinese term remains the same. I’m always awarded with the highest levels of praise as my slightly incoherent Chinese is always “very good!!!!” for a foreigner.

There are obvious reactions to varying skin tones, the lighter your complexion, the more acceptable you appear to be. Unsurprising, since the locals are of the opinion that the fairer the complexion, the closer to perfection they are. White is deemed better, supreme, and more powerful; evident in the beauty products stacked on the shelves that promote whiter, brighter skin. Correspondingly, anything black is synonymous with being dirty, second class, unworthy. I was in slight denial about this fact even after seeing Darlie toothpaste darkiesitting casually on the shelves of almost every grocery store but this notion was cemented when I saw the Chinese laundry detergent ad of a few years ago, where a black man was placed in a washing machine and came out a clean Chinese man. Understandably, the black community was in a collective uproar and though I can’t remember what happened to the infomercial afterwards. I remember feeling completely disappointed that, this concept had passed all checkpoints and was deemed okay for publishing and mass distribution. hqdefaultMany situations may be subject to the wrong interpretation which consequentially results in the wrong reaction. One of the primary instances of misconception is when the hearing the Chinese word “NeiGe ” for the first time. Though seemingly harmless, it has ruffled a bit of feathers due to its similarity in sound to the infamous “N word”. Imagine casually cashing at 7/11 and hearing the cashier randomly utter a perceived racial slur mid-sentence towards you. It’s bound to throw you off or leave a bad impression. However, I’ve come to realize that in Asia, almost anything goes. As long as it’s not offensive to the locals, and in this case ,you learn to roll with the punches.

It’s always interesting to move to a new neighbourhood, I’ve done it at least three times in my 5 years here and the reaction has always been the same – everyone literally falls over themselves trying to get a glimpse, take a picture or just watch you walk by or catch a bus. The more rural the area, the more obvious the stares, pointing outlandish behaviour. In my last neighbourhood, I was referred to as the “Chocolate Lady”, which wasn’t as harsh as “Black Person”. The first few weeks consisted of stares, whispers and smiles. It was only after I’ve reciprocated these actions does interaction go further to small waves and receiving little gifts. Coincidentally, I’ve noticed this happening with the older generation, children, and the middle aged. The younger generation /peers are generally shyer and when they do pluck up the courage to talk, they simply tell you how beautiful they think you are and compliment your exotic appearance.

Then there are the compliments that aren’t really compliments, the comparisons to celebrities, the constant surprise at how great your English is or how cute you are when you attempt to do anything related to Asian culture. They are duly noted and categorized as slightly offensive. Fellow foreigners are also racist through offhanded comments or jokes under the guise and think it’s completely okay because we’re all aliens residing in Asia experiencing the same issues. we’re not but… whatever. Being here for the number of years you tend to become a part of the community and realize that your experiences are not as unique – regardless of our backgrounds and origins as black people we are connected. the 6 degrees of separation has whittled down to 1 since everyone literally knows each other. This may be due to the international student scene and the close knit party scene. 1

Dating isn’t bad but like everything else, dating with a purpose as opposed to dating out of loneliness, entertainment or curiosity takes time and effort. Once you get past the pickup lines that make reference to your exoticness, and the overzealous compliments about your regular black features, or flattering racial stereotypes, about how well you dance and other sexual connotations. It  becomes easy to differentiate whether a guy’s interests go beyond fetishes and curiosity or genuine interest – but let’s face it, wherever you go dating is hard especially when it comes to making and maintaining a good impression.

There are many instances of subtle racial aggression. Asian employers often specify their need for a white foreigner to fill their English teaching positions as it goes better with the school’s image. I, along with a few of my friends, have been on many interviews where we knew even before the interview began that any attempt to secure employment was a lost cause, simply because we had the wrong skin colour or the wrong nationalities. On these not too rare occasions, interview questions veer off the courses of professionalism and end up in the depths of our personal lives. In these instances, I just smile and accept whatever excuse I eventually receive for not being hired though the credentials are present, feigning ignorance but knowing damn well that it was because I wasn’t white, or American.

When I was finally hired after countless interviews, I was pulled aside and advised to state that I was an American to anyone who asked. Why? Because parents preferred having an American teacher for their students. Screen Shot 2017-08-26 at 18.01.19.pngWhy? I have no idea. Since they couldn’t change my colour, they changed my nationality. Even though I have never stepped foot in US, apart from being in transit to and from Taiwan. I must say this never occurred with foreign employers at other institutions, because for them, it was merely business as usual.

Direct Chinese to English translations also lack tact. Words are rarely sugar-coated – but rather blunt and to the point with a lack of consideration for the receiver. As a result, innocent questions or compliments are often received negatively and may again evoke the wrong reaction. Too many persons think it’s a completely normal form of flattery to approach a stranger with an opening line of, “You’re so black!!” And that performing a side by side complexion comparison is normal.

At university, I reacted with scepticism at the thought that Asians, who were so technologically advanced and classified as first world nations, reacted this way towards black people. I was never expecting anything close to the hybrid western cultures but the levels of homogeneity was baffling. I found the notion preposterous and laughable that this attitude still existed. I couldn’t accept it. Literally everything you needed to know was a google search away. There was no excuse for ignorance. Then I started teaching and it got worse before it got better.

Children are a reflection of their society and in my first few weeks of teaching I got the raw unfiltered reaction to my appearance. 0606life-1I’ve walked into classrooms for the first time only to be greeted by: gasps, awkward giggles, darting eyes and a hint of excitement. I’ve had students wipe the spot on their body where I’ve touched. Sometimes it’s subtle, other times it’s quite obvious and overly dramatic. Others have slowly backed away from me like I was a ticking time bomb ready to explode. There have been days where students would just point at me and laugh and whisper. Many would just stare and run away. Often, my face and attitude remains calm I’d be reeling with anger, or embarrassment.

Over time, my tolerance level has increased and my general attitude has become a bit more relaxed. heightened comfort levels in the classroom have brought some pretty outrageous questions. Students have literally asked everything they could think of. Topics have ranged from the size of my nose to the texture of my hair. Why the palms of my hands are white and the other parts of my body were black or how my hair grew 12 inches over the weekend when it was a poufy cloud the days before. And at least 5 minutes of class time would be spent trying to convince the entire class that a picture of a random black person in the textbook was neither me, my boyfriend nor my child.

Students have confessed that they were initially afraid of me and they didn’t know how to react towards me, what I interpreted as disgust and hostility was ultimately fear. And even though I knew the reasons. I’ve coyly asked many times “Why were you afraid of me?” The answer is always so simple: “Because, you are black”

But somehow, eventually it changes. Hands that would have quickly retracted if mine got too close would now find their way into my hair, rubbing my skin or just playing with my fingers while I checked their books. Bodies that would tense up or step back whenever I took a step towards them, would run towards me or hug me. Children who didn’t want me touching their belongings would bring me small gifts or offer to share their food. The points and whispers in the corridors about the “Black Teacher” are almost usually replaced with smiles, waves and warm greetings.

As the authority figure and the educator, I’ve learnt not to act on emotion but to instead provide facts. It’s sometimes difficult to look beyond the insults and not take it personally but I never ignore the opportunity to set the record straight.

I welcome these questions as they’re just as important as whatever topic is on the syllabus. I’ve come to realize that the only way we can change their attitude is by imparting knowledge. Since black teachers are literally responsible for their opinions and views of our entire race and culture. Regardless, his shouldn’t be the case- I shouldn’t be the primary source of information, thought I may be there to facilitate the discussion.

Although, these conversations continue to be fruitful and enlightening I haven’t successfully convinced my younger students that melanin is not synonymous to chocolate – the general conclusion remains a matter of fact, that I am made of chocolate.

—–

For anyone , moving away from home means so much more than a change in physical location. Its abandoning the norm , & straying from acceptance and familiarity . and going moving something completely new on so many various levels that you may not have prepared for . many aspects of your existence that you may not have even noticed are being questioned and many times and this may put you on automatic defence mode. On what may seem as an attack or unacceptce of your culture .

There are some of us who thrive in this environment, who live for the praise and the attention and sometimes god like treatment for mediocrity, something that may not necessarily exist at home. Others remain unbothered while there are some who absolutely dislike the attitudes towards them and constantly speak out against it. It’s hard not to waver on the scale of tolerance, especially as a female dealing with hormones, homesickness and other daily grievances personal and professional. Sometimes you simply don’t want to feel like a walking attraction for simply existing, you don’t want to be compared to or held responsible for anyone else but yourself. You don’t want to act as a cultural ambassador. You just want to be.

However, to say that this is a reflection of the entire society would be an unfair representation of the may persons who have welcomed me with open arms and have gone above and beyond to ensure that I remained comfortable. Those who see past colour and are genuinely interested in personality and character. Those who embrace the obvious differences in appearance, culture, and beliefs and attempt to learn as much as they possibly can as well as teach as much as they can (engage in the positive discussion exchange of knowledge). For this I have become more tolerant and understanding of their points of view and have tried to be more rational in my thinking and behaviour towards them. The longer you’re here, I’d like to think that although many changes may not change, at least our attitudes have. You stop comparing it to somewhere else and accept the reality and respect it for what it is.

Screen Shot 2017-08-26 at 20.25.04

Higher levels of familiarity decrease the discomfort and people start seeing beyond the obvious differences and preconceived stereotypes and start to realize that we are all the same. And that everything is not always black and white..

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18 thoughts on “The Gray Area. Experience of a Black Woman in Taiwan.

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  1. This article is nothing but conjecture and victim exceptionalism. I am an English teacher here and an actual student of Taiwanese culture:

    Despite being a country under threat of invasion by an imperialist superpower (China), a country who is not allowed to compete under their own flag and name despite being the U.S.’s 9th largest trading partner, who had their agency manipulated by the American military and bombed by the American military because it was a Japanese colony ((remember America bullied and threatened Japan into becoming colonialist to gain a trading post for itself only to have to drop nuclear weapons on them twice after Japan became “too colonialist” and started to act like…America (see Phillipino fight for Independence)), a country who then had their protection all but abandoned by the American government after Maoist China proved a more valuable trading partner for corporate profit, a country who has lived under the White Terror dictatorship, Japanese rule, Dutch Rule and even temporary American rule, and still despite constant threat of losing their rights and agency has managed to form one of the safest and most educated cultures on planet Earth, where gay marriage is legal, crime is minimal, and a woman is President.

    Despite ALL OF THIS, the author has decided to describe this multi-cultural populace as some homogenous nuisance to their self-centered individualism and cultural “experience”.

    Who is the real victim here? The black girl whose country and family is protected by 31,000 nuclear warheads? Or this resilient but imperfect populace of disenfranchised people who can’t even sit in the United Nations?

    Here’s the truth. The reason Taiwan and Japan are so safe is because of the balance of individualism and collectivism. The willingness to pick your battles and deescalate a situation for the sake of your family and neighbors is collectivist. This is where an American would be expected to act impulsively, because an individualist stands up and fights when disrespected… unlike those “spineless pushovers in Asia”.

    1. Don’t let the fact that the author is not American (and she states so in two separate occasions in her article) distract you from your rant.

    2. “W” the lady did not claim she was American but you seem to have gone on an anti-American rant and geo-political analysis of a deeply personal experience. That is all it is; a personal experience. Are you claiming that the stares and comments, and experiences are imagined? Or are you implying that they are irrelevant in the face of this utopian hybrid of individualist collectivism that you reverentially prostrate yourself to? To deny the experience that someone provides is to render them invisible. You sir, lack empathy.

  2. Schools wanted American teachers only? Haven’t they seen our President or heard him speak? He’s a walking endorsement for anti-Americanism.

    I wouldn’t exactly say I enjoyed your story, but it was eyeopening and well-written. Appreciate you sharing it.

  3. First, I would like to say that I agree with you in that it is quite important for educators to refrain from acting with emotion but instead use facts. This is why I have decided to write this reply at all.

    Before I get into that I would like to very clearly state that there are definitely times when I have seen or experienced racist remarks or actions. It is a problem, though not everyone is educated enough to realize it.

    Throughout this article I noticed a few things that may be in need of some clarity such as the word 那個 (“na ge” or “neh ge”). This can literally translate to ‘that’ or sometimes used as an interjection akin to ‘umm’. So, as stated in the article, it is harmless. It generally has nothing to do with your race and is quite common.

    Another thing to note are the reactions of people when they see you. Simply put, darker skin is rare in Taiwan, but it is also worth noting that aboriginal skin tone is usually darker. I live in southern Taiwan and in a bit of a rural neighborhood, so I have the pleasure to experience aboriginal culture quite often. Being a foreigner here is rare. So is having a beard, which I have. Sometimes you get a reaction simply because it is not common. And while there are most definitely times when it is skin color, I have found that most of the time it is simply because you are different. Skin color just happens to be the most obvious difference for most people. Yes. You look different, people noticed… they told their friend.

    As for the students reaction of ‘fear’. You state that the answer is always so simple. Have you thought about people being afraid of you because they are unsure of how to speak your language? I am not black. Yet all of the reactions you describe; the giggles, the gasp, even wiping off a spot I have touched. My students point at me, whisper and laugh. I assume it is because… actually, I have no idea why. Even if I eaves drop on their Chinese conversation, the reasons change daily. It may be they think I didn’t wash my hair or maybe they think I am handsome, I have heard many reasons. It seems that the answer isn’t ALWAYS so simple.

    One part of the article read that black teachers are literally held responsible for their opinions. Yes. Yes, you are responsible for your opinions. But not because your black. You are a TEACHER. That is a responsibility that cannot be understated. And I challenge that same paragraph further by saying that you should indeed be the primary source of information, teacher. If a teacher isn’t OK with being the primary source, then there is a problem, especially when your life’s experiences fit the content first hand. You seem to be a reasonable individual, but a few things in this article seem to lack perspective. This is without looking into the judgement of a culture from an outsider.

    Also, something I heard from several people is that white has been thought of as a good skin color because it means that you have a job which allows you to be inside. (Such as the emperor being indoors all day or government officials.) Whereas dark skin means you most likely have a blue collar job, placing you outside in the hot and uncomfortable sun. (Quite a different take than the normal western love of time in the sun.)

    I am no expert, but I have been here for 9 years, got married here, and manage a business, so I may have learned a thing or two within all that. Just maybe.

  4. Very well written, Trellz. You have captured the essence of what it means to be a woman of color in Taiwan. I appreciate your honest and mature approach and relived many of my own experiences while reading your article.

  5. Very well written. You covered just about every aspect of my years living and teaching in Taiwan and South Korea. From the stares to taking those opportunities in class to educate and inform rather than react on emotion (so true). I hope the rest of your stay is enjoyable. Take care.

  6. While I am Caucasian, I still can sign my name under all I’ve just read!
    The racism means you perceive other people through the color of the skin. Regardless of which color that is. Yes I am white. And yes I am blonde with blue eyes. One could think – I can’t get to say, but I actually do. Being from where I am, many times they associate me with those white women who only grasp poor Taiwanese husbands, put a spell on them and they simply can’t say no to us. AKA I must be a w**re if I have a good appearance otherwise, how could I make my living here, if not just by selling my body. All comes from such a misunderstanding…stereotypes as well, and those from a lack of knowledge indeed. I was equally shocked when my African or afro-American friends were treated worse than myself, when we got somewhere together. Also shocked, when I first heard that I almost have no right that it’s cold here in the winter cause I do come from a way colder country where in winter there’s a bunch of snow and below 0 temp.is just a norm…so am I trying to be ridiculous or what?! If I don’t like it here I can also move back. How many times have you heard that?

  7. I think you over think and over judge others. My daughter is also in Taiwan on scholarship, and yes her experience is basically similar to yours. People everywhere react to persons who are different. In my Island we react to Chinese people, some more overtly than others, some with respect and disrespect. Get over it. It’s human

  8. I think that it’s great and honorable that you are here in Taiwan educating people about race, even if that was not your original mission. As you said, most people here have never (though it’s all available through the Internet) come in contact with people different from themselves (some call it island mentality). And I am sure that poor portrayal from US media, etc has created some bad stereotypes that only contact and communication can wash away. It sounds like you have been through some tough times, but also found that Taiwanese are “cute”, mostly harmless people. Keep it up and stay positive! I just wanted to give you words of encouragement because the World needs more understanding and adventurous people like you.

  9. Outstanding essay. Little do they know, you’re a far superior educator than the majority of expats fartin around over there.

    Speaking as an American: how is it that they still didn’t get the memo that we Americans are the last people you want to turn to for any sort of language consultation, let alone full-blown instruction? Sign me up for a St. Vincent teacher any day, please.

  10. Living in Taiwan I could also identify to most of the general ‘foreigner’ treatment things you list, e.g.
    1. I also get pictures taken of.
    2. I also get avoided sometimes on the MRT.
    3. 「你好」——「你的中文很好」

    That being said, I’m white and was a bit shocked when I first saw the 黑人牙膏 toothpaste. Maybe now it’s called Darlie but it used to be called Darkie, which somehow seems much worse. Thanks for sharing your story, and I hope Taiwan will become more diversified over the years so these things become a thing of the past.

  11. I hope I can represent my people and apologize for what you’ve experienced.

    But please understand that a lot of the discriminations mentioned in the article aren’t because of your skin color. They also happen to white foreigners here and it’s simply due to the fact that many locals don’t know how to interact with foreigners especially in languages they are not familiar with.

    And honestly, I think our people owe more apologies to SEA foreigners discrimitive speaking.

    Most of our Buddhist God avatars are black. Please don’t hate us ^^

    1. Yes, you are absolutely right that all of the disriminations mentioned in the article also happen to white foreigners; I as a black male can attest to that. BUT one difference is this email below, which white foreigners do not get. Please tell me how wanting a white teacher as apposed to a black teacher isn’t racist and bigoted towards a specific race of people who have darker skin?

      craigslist 5917106790
      Thu 2016-12-15, 3:09 AM
      bca83914b6ca3669b9ccbabd4fe139d2@reply.craigslist.org;
      Dear Hannington,
      I know that but the middle or high schools I have here want white teachers. But we can keep in touch. If I got any suitable offer I will let you know. Do you have any preferred city? And your expectation of salary is?
      Mary

  12. Your observation that class-based colorism as the root of many of the issues mentioned is accurate, although it is further confounded by Black stereotypes through rap culture and Hollywood, two of the most heinous sources of oppression of Black people worldwide. They are continually used by Whites and Blacks (usually of American nationality) to denigrate Blacks in order to both profit off of stereotypes of inherently criminality, lack of intelligence, promiscuity and athleticism (which APPEARS positive but only reinforces the “animal nature” of Blacks) and secure the status of Whites and light-skinned individuals as inherently good, pure, rational and professional. In short, what surfaced as a indicator of social class became further strengthened by cultural imperialism with the goal of both profits and securing a worldwide hierarchy based on skin color. I commend– and encourage– individual effort in the classroom to educate Taiwanese youth about your culture, but individual effort is not enough. It took the indigenous people decades of activism to win (some) of their rights back, and a marked difference between the attitudes of old vs. young Taiwanese toward the indigenous is testimony to the hard work put into making change. As the Taiwanese are indeed savvy internet users, new media can serve to dismantle biases and racism with possibly speedy effects. Local or fluent Chinese users are probably going to be needed to translate materials for publishing. The issues with that I see is most Black expats in Taiwan are students or young teachers without significant funds to back these projects, and the Black expats that have settled here and possibly started a family have limited time or have become accustomed to the biases and racism. Overseas Taiwanese or local allies are needed due to the unfortunate language barrier. Once the work is put out there, Taiwanese civilians and mainstream media alike are likely to pick it up. This work takes concerted and dedicated effort though.
    Feel free to reach me through my website if you are interested in exploring this further.
    Best wishes

  13. I wish to thank you my Caribbean neighbour for this article. I am from Barbados a country 30 mins away by flight from your island St Vincent. I am a proud black woman who run a business on my island.

    Recently I felt for a change to get out there and explore the world and immerse myself in a totally different culture. I started to do my research on Asian countries. Leaving an island of only 166 square miles is very scary, especially not knowing the language. China is was my first preference but one friend thought that I should look into Taiwan.

    This article have put things into perspective for me. I do know we all have our own experiences but one has to know if they are ready to take on the world or not. I yearn to leave my island for a bit to further develop myself. Barbados boost a very high literacy rate of 99.7%. 94% of our population are black. The rest are made up of other races including Chinese who have come to our island and we have embrace with open arms. Caribbean people are very hospitable.

    Miss St Vincent I want to applaud you on taking this step of moving from the safe haven of your island. I want to applaud you for the bravery you have exhibited in this new land. I applaud you for sticking it out for 5 years (where others may have bolted, myself included). Let me say thank you for this insightful first hand experience article that I would never have found by reading books on the culture of the people.

    I don’t get into black, white or even pink arguments. I see myself as equal to anyone. I give respect and expect it in return. I’ve done a lot of travelling but honestly never encountered any racism so this would be new for me. My clients are made up of persons from all over the world who come to my country. It would be a bit silly of them to come to a black country and show racism (I am sure we do have racism here not saying otherwise, I just haven’t encountered it).

    Just wanting to say thanks once again.

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