Why Am I Staying in Taiwan? Because I Am More Me Here.

by multilingualmania on April 14, 2010

in Uncategorized

Here is the ritual greeting that takes place in Taipei when I pay the fare to the taxi driver, order a latte at a Starbucks, or pay the bill in a restaurant.

How much is it? ????

NT$100. Are you Japanese / Overseas Chinese / Korean? 100???????????????

I am from Japan. ??????

You speak Chinese really well. ????????

Thank you. ??????

How long have you been here? ?????

5 years. ????

That’s awesome! ?????

If I am talking with a person over 40 years old, this question pops up.

Why did you choose Taiwan? ?????????

Because… ??

And then I always pause. Each time, an internal voice whispers I still don’t know, followed by But I love being here, that’s for sure. I say things like “Because Taiwan is a great country with great people and great food” (which is all true, by the way). I get nervous thinking the person in front of me might suspect I am merely trying to please her, which makes my response even more robotic and suspicious.

I can list things that make Taiwan/Taipei great. Inexpensive yet tasty food. Relaxed atmosphere. Mild-mannered people. Near-flawless public transportation. Unbelievably cheap and sophisticated medical care.  A modern city with accessible nature in its backyard.

But none of them hits the bull’s eye. I had access to all of them back in Japan, except for the inexpensive food and relaxed atmosphere. Food prices never affected me much. So is it the ability to relax more? No, a critical factor is still missing.

One weekend, while riding on a train and looking at the streaming landscape, I got it. The clue has been there all along, right in my view, like in these photos.

There is nothing photogenic or remarkable about these scenes, to be fair. Miniature balcony jungle flourishes inside an old apartment. A golden temple shines brightly inside an office building. A makeshift playground replicating Gulliver in Lilliput lies in front of a memorial hall. If there is any theme in them, it is that there is no theme at all—what we see is only the co-existence of unrelated objects. Yes, they are what makes Taipei, Taipei.

Wait, hadn’t I experienced it in Japan, a place more famous than Taiwan for accepting weirdness? Well in Japan, every foreign object must go through a “transforming” stage before lining up in the stores or being introduced in a media outlet, its cuteness exaggerated and any threatening element de-emphasized. In other words, foreign stuff must be assimilated and sanitized. That’s why Japanese cultural items are always, er, Japanese. Might be peculiar at times, but always safe.

In Taiwan, things exist more as they are, not falling into sameness under the “Taiwanese” label. That same principle applies to people, or expatriates in this case. Looking back on my five-year experience living here, one of the most remarkable things is that I’ve never had to compromise my identity to be like someone else. I do not say I could always do what I wanted to. But no one forced me to behave like someone I am not, either. In fact, I already wrote about that experience in expat+HAREM.

The Taiwanese view me as “Laowai”, a foreigner. Not Japanese, more like Overseas Chinese. I act the way that feels right to me, and the Taiwanese view me the way that feels right for them, and we both feel fine about not understanding each other’s point of view.

I am like those odd objects in the photos. I am alien to the local culture, and also part of it. Folks, now I have the answer to the original question; why I have been sticking to Taiwan—and the whole story, which has taken me five years to figure out, has taken you three minutes to read.

P.S. It is time for me to take a nap at lunchtime in the office—an important part of the Taiwanese business culture—and I safely close my eyes and bend my neck toward the ceiling (opening my mouth is optional), against the proper manner of burying one’s head into the arms, like my colleague sitting next to me.

About the Author: Isao Kato is a nomad Japanese technical writer living in Taiwan, melting technology and communication in the Asian pot.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kofla Olivieri April 15, 2010 at 11:13 pm

Interesting observations. I am still trying to find out why I stay in Philadelphia. Maybe I’ll write about it in my blog this weekend.

Isao April 16, 2010 at 4:26 pm

There should be a reason because you haven’t left Philadelphia. It is so easy for us to take something for granted (for example the place we stay) and focus on things we do not own yet…

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