Thursday, December 22, 2011
Sticks and stones may brake my bones, but bricks are really heavy
The onset of a cold combined with my usual gastrointestinal troubles have left me with some unexpected free time this morning. Seeing as I'm not in the best of moods right now, it seems like a good time as any to rant and rave, so here goes...
A rather disturbing letter was published in yesterday's edition of the Taipei Times newspaper. You can read it here, but to summarize things, a non-Taiwanese man was out for a walk one recent evening with his Taiwanese wife and bi-cultural children. Seeing a local man on a scooter with two kids, he stopped to upbraid the gentleman for the latter's failure to see to it that the children were wearing helmets. As anyone who has been here for a while can tell you, kids riding on scooters without any kind of protective head wear is a sadly all-too-common sight in Taiwan. The Taiwanese man didn't take kindly to a foreigner telling him off, and proceeded to call a couple of his friends, who soon showed up at the scene. One of his mates was armed with a brick, which he proceeded to use on the back of our hapless 外國人's head. Fortunately, no serious injury occurred , but an ugly incident will no doubt result in some unpleasant memories of life in Taiwan.
It's probably only a matter of time before the blogosphere is lit up with comments from local foreign residents pointing out that the letter writer was "arrogant" and somehow "had it coming". There is some truth to this, as I wonder as well why he felt he the need to remark to the Taiwanese man on what the latter should or should not have been doing. I wouldn't have said anything, and not because I would be afraid of getting a brick to the head. Basically, it's none of my business. Taiwanese adults are not naive innocents who have little clue as to the dangers of riding a scooter without a helmet (many adults do, in fact, wear helmets while their kids go without!). They know the perils, but have chosen to ignore them, and take the risk of a serious injury (or worse) happening to their offspring. It isn't my place to tell them otherwise, but if something nasty should occur, they won't be getting much sympathy or understanding from me (I'll feel sorry for the children, of course, but nothing for their parents). I don't allow my daughter to ride on scooters, except for short trips in the neighborhood with her mother, and then only if she's wearing her bicycle helmet. Had I been in the letter-writer's shoes, I would've just kept on walking without saying a word, and just hoped that nothing terrible would happen to the kids.
What will bother me about the inevitable remarks from my fellow non-Taiwanese residents will be the feeling that the foreigner in question will have somehow "deserved" what happened. For no matter how arrogant someone might be, or appear to come off as, there is no excusing a violent physical assault as the one described in the letter to the Taipei Times. Unfortunately, there are too many 外國人 here living in a different world than the one I'm familiar with. These souls inhabit an alternate Taiwanese universe where all the locals are warm, friendly and fuzzy, and every experience is worth treasuring and sharing with others via the various forms of social media available online. The fact that unpleasantness does occur even on the Beautiful Island is a threat to the Orientalist lifestyle they have worked so hard to establish, and any outbreaks of xenophobia, racism or just plain, good old fashioned thuggery has to be quickly contained and isolated. This is usually done by blaming the victim ("the obnoxious white guy"), and finding excuses...er, I mean reasons for why the local person acted the way they did. After all, one of the keys to being a contented foreign resident in Taiwan is the opportunity to explain the Local to the Outside (i.e. Western) World, though only within the narrow parameters that the happy foreigner has set up.
Now, I'll be the first to say that I have met a lot of great people here in Taiwan. But by the same token, I've also encountered a lot of boorish louts (and their equally repulsive offspring). I've had a number of unpleasant encounters over the years, many of which I admit were my fault, or which I certainly could've handled in a much better manner than I did. However, there have also been many cases where the only thing I did wrong was to have been born outside of Taiwan. Luckily, I've never encountered anything as serious as the experience of the letter-writer. I like to think this is due to the fact that I keep to myself most of the time, limiting my interaction with the natives to only those times when communication is required. I'm also taller than most people here, which no doubt intimidates some would-be troublemakers, especially when they are by themselves. And some of these folks probably can sense that I'm a tightly-wound individual who doesn't react well to stress, and therefore decide I'm not worth the trouble of fucking with. Certainly, if anyone came at me with a brick, an altogether different story would have appeared in the Taipei Times, and not in the Letters to the Editor section.
In any event, I don't harbor any fantasies about what a wonderful place Taiwan is, and how swell the people here are. Like anywhere else in the world, there are good and bad, and all kinds in between, and you have to deal with all of them (and they with you). The Old Tea types might revel in how wonderful their lives are here, but I'm all too aware of the undercurrent of violence that runs through Taiwanese society. As the letter-writer learned the hard way, when some Taiwanese are made to feel "humiliated" or "wronged" by someone else (a feeling made even worse if the other person is a foreigner), they will resort to violent means to restore their honor. Such folks are hardly the norm here, but at the same time they are far from rare anomalies, either. And as the letter makes it very clear, status in this society isn't earned by standing up for yourself, it comes from being able to get others to do it for you. The father of the helmet-less children didn't attack his criticizer himself; instead, he got a couple of buddies to do it for him. And it's not just hapless outsiders that are on the receiving end of this. In today's China Post, there's a story about a group of (admittedly drunken) civilians who attacked and injured 9 military personnel on Chinmen (Jīnmén) Island 金門. The reason? Apparently someone named Chang 張 had a dispute with an officer at a military base, and
"...instigated his friends to come to the base's front entrance which ultimately ended in assault..."
The moral of the story is...well, I don't know, actually. I'm sick, and just rattling off whatever pops into my head right now. I guess the point is to enjoy your stay in Taiwan, but be aware that it isn't all brightness and sunshine out there. Keep a low profile, and more importantly, keep your cool and mind your own business. If trouble does arise, do your best to extricate yourself and your family from the situation.
And, most important of all, watch your back.