We all have prejudices and we all tend to use stereotypes when we think about “other people”, at least to some degree. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that, but I do think it’s good to be mindful, both of the prejudices you have about others, and the prejudices others might have about you. With that in mind I am writing this post to inform my readers how Taiwanese people tend to view “foreigners”. First a quick disclaimer, I cannot claim to be presenting scientific facts here, this is merely based on my own experience of living here for a number of years. Before I go on I must point out that I am white and as such I can only speak to the experience of white people in Taiwan; someone of another race might have a vastly different experience.
The term waiguoren, meaning foreigner, is generally used to denote anyone whose outward appearance doesn’t match that of the locals. People who look similar to the typical Taiwanese e.g. Japanese, Koreans or Europeans/Americans with an east Asian heritage will normally pass for local – at least until they open their mouths. Historically speaking, most foreigners coming to Taiwan, at least in the recent 70 years or so, have been white Americans, and because of this we get the first stereotype. Though the word waiguoren refers to all foreigners it has become a kind of synonym for white people, or perhaps it’s better to say that white people have come to represent all foreigners. So when a Taiwanese person is speaking about non white people they will often refer to their race e.g. Black people or “Arabs” but the phrase “white people” will really only be used when differentiating between races, otherwise are simply called “foreigners”. This is so ingrained in the day to day language that a Taiwanese person travelling in Europe will use the term foreigners to refer to the European locals.
Another aspect of this historic fact is that white people in Taiwan are often assumed to be Americans. This is especially true of the older generation who sometimes seem to believe that all whites actually come from the US, but younger people will also do it some times. Personally I find it a bit annoying and I always feel happy when someone guesses that I’m Canadian.
Another common stereotype about foreigners is that we do not speak Chinese or Taiwanese. You can see this from the reaction of shop clerks and restaurant waiters who often become quite nervous when they see you approaching, if you then address them in Chinese they will be visibly relieved. It’s also quite common for service staff to talk to your Taiwanese friends rather than you, even if you clearly show you are able to speak the language. Every once in a while you will come across someone whose belief in this stereotype is so strong that they do not understand you even when you do speak Chinese; it’s like their mind is already made up so they do not even register that the words coming out of your mouth are Chinese. I think there is a degree of truth to this stereotype; a lot of foreigners who come here only learn a few basic phrases like “hello” and “thank you” then rely on a mix of English and charades. However, many of us do speak at least some Chinese and the fact that people make this assumption gets tiring in the long run.
With those rather obvious stereotypes out of the way let’s get a bit deeper into the way Taiwanese people view us foreigners. If you, at least as a white person, go travelling in south east Asia you will quickly notice that people tend to hold one of two views about Falang, as they call us tourists. They either view us as some kind of highly valued /highly respected customers and they will show us a level of deference we are not used to, or they view us as little more than walking ATMs, easy targets for price gouging, scams, pick-pocketing and such. If you don’t know much about Taiwan you might be liable to think that this kind of mentality is common here too, but that is not the case. I think it’s because Taiwan is so much more developed than most south east Asian countries; people here don’t rely on foreign tourists for their income so they don’t see us as a source of money in that way.
The attitude here is rather that of curiosity: Foreigners are not really that uncommon in this country but still, if you leave Taipei people sometimes look at you like they’ve never seen a real life white person before. This is especially true of little kids who will point to you and say something along the lines of “look mom, there’s a foreigner”. Adults won’t exactly point and stare but every once in a while a random person will strike up a conversation with you, in what little English they know, in order to satisfy their curiosity. This normally involves the questions “Where are you from?”, “Do you like Taiwan?” and “Are you used to Taiwanese food?”. I can understand people feel curios but the same few questions over and over again get tiring in the long run. One questions that really baffles me is “Do you know how to use chopsticks?” as if using chopsticks is some strange mystical art that white people couldn’t possibly learn. I guess this is similar to the stereotype about foreigners not speaking Chinese, except, nowadays I think most westerners have been to Asian restaurants enough times to know the basic technique.
One similarity between south east Asian countries and Taiwan is that as a (white) foreigner you will often find yourself in a position of privilege. This is not so much a case of concrete privileges like laws or regulations giving you advantages over the locals, but rather a question of attitude. In south east Asia it’s quite easy to understand, the people who view you as a rich, and thereby valued potential customer will likely treat you better than they treat others. In Taiwan the reason this happens is a bit less clear. I think it partially has to do with the general culture of respect and politeness that is a big part of the Taiwanese heritage – people are brought up to put the needs of their guests above their own, and as a foreigner you are a permanent guest. I also think it partially has to do with Taiwanese people being aware that foreigners (generally) do not understand Taiwanese culture or the way that Taiwanese society works. This means that we can get away with certain behaviors that wouldn’t normally be acceptable because we are “just dumb foreigners”.
I think that more or less sums up the views that the average Taiwanese person holds about waiguoren. However, there is one other aspects that I would like to mention. In the recent two or three decades (or perhaps even earlier) a lot of the foreigners coming here for a longer period of time have found work as English teachers, usually in one of the many cram schools. This has become so common that some people will assume that a white person living here must be working as an English teacher. This wouldn’t be such a big deal except that these foreign teachers have somewhat of a bad reputation. People tend to think that they only came here because they couldn’t find a proper job in their home country and that their only qualification for the job is their foreign name and white face. I don’t think this is necessary true, I know that the English teachers in the public school must be native English speakers with a teaching license from their home country, but still it feels good that I can tell people I’m an engineer.
That’s it as far as my own experiences go. According to my wife there are people in various online forums whose views on foreigners are less benign. They make all kinds of more or less racist claims about us for example that we come here to steal the Taiwanese women from the good Taiwanese men (as if the women couldn’t choose for themselves), that we treat local people badly, that we don’t respect customs and so on. Now, I have not read any of these post because my Chinese reading ability is very limited so I cannot speak to how prevalent these kinds of opinions are or exactly what those people think of us. I simply know that people with this kind of opinions do exist. Personally, I have never run into any of them out in the real world.