To be an other

I met Kenzie at a party. We were standing amidst of group of people engaged in small-talk, which is, admittedly, not an area of competence for me.

Kenzie said she felt liberated living in Taiwan. As a woman, as an African-American. Well, good. I’m glad, I thought. And I meant it.

The conversation carried on. I kept a toehold in it, while the rest of me went off somewhere. I took a booth at the back corner of my mind. There I carried on a separate conversation, albeit a related one.

And still, I nodded my head like a metronome, keeping time with the rhythm of the conversation. The guy feigning to listen was the amiable, somewhat socially competent part of me. That guy, unfortunately, decided to tuck in for the night. The old curmudgeon punched in for the late shift. He immediately decided Kenzie was a bonafide, card-carrying optimist—the curmudgeon suffered optimists like he suffered fools.

I bulldozed back into the conversation, no idea how long I’d stood there in absentia.

“But back to what Kenzie was saying, doesn’t our experience here have more to do with the fact we’re strangers? It’s not that there isn’t discrimination in Taiwan. It’s not like Taiwan has somehow eliminated prejudice, or that we won’t ever have to deal with it as foreigners living here.”

“We are still an other,” I said. “We are still outsiders. Maybe they (I meant Taiwanese people) just don’t know how to categorize us (I meant the expats in the room). We don’t fit into their daily experience. We aren’t easily placed within the established hierarchy. That isn’t to say there isn’t one. That isn’t to say we’re going to somehow avoid unfair treatment that has something to do with who are or how we look. Being an expat may work to our advantage sometimes, sometimes but…”

Dahlia put her hand on my arm, squeezed it gently. It was my curtain call, more subtle than a vaudeville hook, but it had desired effect.

That was weeks ago. But as I sat at the kitchen table this morning, I thought about that conversation, thought about what I might have said had Dahlia allowed me to carry on.

…we’re still foreigners. We will always be laowai. Because of the way we look. Because of our accent. Because culture leaves its mark. We will never quite belong, and for that, we’re always be made to pay the foreigner tax in one form or another.

I think that’s where I was going.

I might have hastened to add: This has nothing to do with Taiwanese culture. It has everything to do with the human condition. We are hard-wired to discriminate. We organize our world into competing tribes, us and them. It is baked into our DNA. 

This isn’t, of course, any kind of excuse. Our biology does not justify our prejudice. (I think I would have made that point clear.) We aren’t automatons after all. We have a will. We have a fucking choice, and we can choose to be better than that.

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