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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Comedy is not pretty

Our cat defends her turf from an intruder

A friend of mine recently posted on his blog a link to an article about an American family that had relocated from their native Texas to Tianmu 天母, one of the more upscale neighborhoods in Taipei 台北, Taiwan. He described the story as being “comedic”, sarcastically describing life in Tianmu as being “brutal”. Looking forward to a good smirk myself, I followed the link to a piece that was, to paraphrase the Bard, a little ado about nothing much in particular. Expecting to read about a well-off family of ignorant Yanks whining about life in an Asian country, I was surprised that the only critical observation they made was that they were paying more for a place to live that was half the size of their home back in the States. Considering Taipei’s overheated real estate market, it was a valid criticism. True, Taiwan was rather condescendingly described in the article as “a small island in the Pacific Ocean”, but this was a remark made by the writer, not by any of the members of the family. In fact, the family in question seems to be enjoying their life in Tianmu, and generally had nice things to say about their new expatriate mode of living. Far from an unintentionally hilarious and risible story on a pampered group of people who don’t realize how good they actually have things, the article was a pleasant piece of fluff written for the local paper back home about a typical American family enjoying themselves in a foreign land. Pointless and without anything of note to say, but still a harmless story that doesn’t portray Taiwan in some ridiculous exotic Oriental light. 

I think I understand the overreaction to a small newspaper item that was never worthy of being cited in the first place. For people who have spent a good portion of their lives in a foreign land, who have settled down and started families there, who have learned the local language and have striven to understand the different customs, it can be frustrating to have to hear or read about the experiences of relative newbies on the scene. What makes it even harder to bear is when said newbies have been put up in neighborhoods much nicer than the ones where the long-term residents have set up home. I know because I felt the same way when I lived in Japan and Taiwan. 

Most of the years I lived in Tōkyō 東京 were spent in the city’s Setagaya Ward 世田谷区 or in neighboring Komae City 狛江市. The neighborhoods where I lived were quite pleasant, with relatively short commutes to and from central Tokyo and enough dining and retail options to satisfy most of my daily needs. But I still resented those gaijin 外人 who were living the good lives in areas like Hiroo 広尾 or Nishi-Azabu 西麻布. They had larger apartments than the ones I lived in, easy access to supermarkets like Meidi-Ya 明治屋 which stocked goodies from home, and were just short taxi rides away from Tokyo’s nightlife zones. Everything they ever needed was available on a short stretch of the Hibiya subway line 日比谷線, and to add insult to injury, most of them were on generous expat packages paid for by their employers. So when one of those members of the privileged elite had the gall to complain about some facet of their Tokyo life, I was ready with my sharpened tongue and deadly venom.

In Taiwan, it was even worse. Living in a typically ugly Taiwanese row house, with its narrow spaces and lack of natural light, located in Shengang 神岡, a typically ugly Taiwanese town with its combination of small farms and equally small factories, I seethed with righteous rage and indignation every time I read a blog entry from some Westerner living what seemed to me to be the life of Riley in relatively cosmopolitan Taipei. What got me particularly riled was how these people would assume that what they experienced in the capital was true for everywhere else on the island, and then presume to write about “Taiwan” and “the Taiwanese”, when they were actually referring to Taipei and its denizens. My previous blogs were filled with such resentment-fueled entries aimed at these bloggers, and I would leave equally caustic comments on various Internet forums whenever someone commented about Taiwan when in fact what they were talking about could only be relevant to Taipei.

And yet, if the opportunity had ever arisen to leave my rabbit hutch in Tokyo’s suburbs for a large, Western-style apartment in Shirokanedai 白金台, I wouldn’t have hesitated to have seized the chance. Likewise, only a masochist would continue to live in a shithole like central Taoyuan 桃園市 or in the barren wastelands of Yunlin County 雲林縣 even if they were given a choice to reside in Taipei’s Neihu 內湖 neighborhood. We feel resentful toward those who have what we would like, too, and find it incredulous when such folks have the gall to say something critical of their present situation.

Here in Shànghăi 上海, my present situation is somewhat, ahem, different. The housing I’ve been provided is not the typical type of residence for most of the city’s denizens, and as my neighborhood is in an area popular with expat families of various nationalities (Asian, European, North American and Oceanic), import supermarkets and familiar types of restaurants abound.  For me, in particular, having a native Mandarin-speaking wife and child has made interacting with the local population a generally stress-free experience. If I were to complain about some aspect of my life here, I would not be surprised to be mocked mercilessly by any Westerner who came over here on their own, and struggled to make a life for themselves in a place where they will always be treated as an outsider.  

As our two-year tour winds down, I’ve been surprised with how much I’ve enjoyed it here (I was never bitten by the "China bug" and will never become an Old China Hand). But I know that I would be feeling a lot differently had I come over on my own to teach English, for example, living in a so-called "model quarter" and eating too much greasy food. It doesn’t mean, however, that I should refrain from any honest observations of our life here in China (which must be expressed with the tact that is a necessity in my current occupation, and with all relevant disclaimers posted on the bottom of this blog). You can't really learn from your life abroad without taking into account everything you experience - the good, the bad and the ugly.

However, if I start complaining about the age of the exercise equipment in our compound's gym, feel free to tear me a new asshole - I'll deserve it. 

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