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Saturday, November 12, 2011

That's what Edward said

In this age of globalization, Japanese tourists apparently will fly to Taiwan in order to have Thai-style massages. Or is just the misspelling of "Tai" that is confusing them?

Life isn’t easy on the mean streets of T'aipei 台北. Fortunately, having both talked to a lot of expatriates in Taiwan and read a number of Taiwan-centered blogs over the years, I have been able to glean several easy steps that can be taken to help you cope with your difficult living environment:

First of all, forget the fact that in Taipei all you have to do is ride the subway for a few minutes (a convenience unavailable elsewhere in Taiwan, with the possible exception of Kaohsiung 高雄) before finding yourself in a world teeming with upscale department stores, ritzy boutiques, fusion restaurants, cafés serving imported beers, hopping nightclubs and specialist stores stocking many of the familiar comforts of home. Focus instead on your immediate environment and on the need to integrate into your new surroundings…or at least as much as any foreign barbarian can in these circumstances. This can be done by making an attempt to learn the local lingo and trying some of the more “exotic” dishes (don’t eat anything familiar, even if your neighbors seem to enjoy do so.) Later, when talking to fellow expats, you will be able to toss in local words and phrases into your conversation, and identify things like food items only by their local name, without any accompanying definitions. This will force your foreign friends and acquaintances to ask for clarifications and explanations, thus giving you “street cred”.

Second, try not to think of the people around you as flesh-and-blood human beings who share many of the same likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams, and fears and worries as you. Instead, always remember that they are stock characters, Exotic Others in your Asian (Taiwanese) Experience. This will help to enhance the excitement of your life abroad, and impress the folks and friends back home who will marvel at your descriptions of life in Taipei/Taiwan, and marvel at photographs such as this one:

Once you have located your local comfort zone, be sure to stress how much better life in Taipei/Taiwan is compared to your country of birth and/or nationality. This can be done by deliberately overlooking the more unpleasant or seamier sides of life in Taiwan, and ignoring the fact that on such a compact island everything will be much closer than in vast, continent-wide states such as Australia, Canada or the United States. All that personal space and freedom in the latter countries are vastly overrated anyway.

Now you are ready to assume your role as an interpreter of all things Taiwanese to the outside world. This can be done in conversation, blog entries and postings on Internet forums. Remember while explaining Taiwan to those on the outside to always stress the differences, not the similarities, and of how much you understand and have adapted to these cultural shocks. Be careful of boasting, but do try to pepper your conversation with local words, and try to bring up as often as you can the exotic dishes you enjoy eating (and, if necessary, force yourself to drink Taiwan Beer on a regular basis), as well as the “incredibly beautiful” places you have visited. Make a habit of watching local soap operas and listening to the latest pop hits by artists that no one outside of Greater China has ever heard of. Be sure to get your news fix from TVBS, not CNN or BBC. Always keep your focus on the “unique” aspects of Taiwan, and don’t concern yourself with context. Most importantly, never forget that every experience with a local, especially when conducted in the local language, is an experience worth not only treasuring, but sharing with others.

Finally, always keep in mind that you are the sole interpreter of Taiwan. It’s a heavy responsibility – there are plenty of people in the West who rely on you to define Taiwan for them. Do not try to accommodate differing opinions and/or observations, even though they may be the result of another individual’s experience that could be very different from your own. Explaining the Exotic Other of Taiwan is a zero/sum game, and you need to be adamant when standing your ground. Giving even an inch could mean ceding your turf to another barbarian observer.

Oh, and should you ever come across a book called Orientalism, don’t pick it up and start reading. It’s heavy-going and humorless, and, besides, you might not like what is written inside.

Now you're ready - go forth and pontificate!

A colorful native tries to work out the meaning of しょくえいぼう (shokueibō)...or not

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