I sort of don’t fit in here.
That doesn’t mean I haven’t tried. But at 5’10” with frizzy, auburn hair and pale, white skin I haven’t got a chance. Walking Taipei’s narrow alleyways, riding the subway or cramming into an elevator, I feel a strange kinship to this:
Though acutely aware of my high-level profile, I defiantly choose the path of denial, and refuse to resign myself to “Ugly American” status. (There is no irony in this.) I’ve taken up my cross to disprove such stereotypes, one encounter at a time. I share this knowledge and experience here, knowing that the probability of cross-cultural encounters are increasing, even as our world gets smaller and smaller. Here’s what’s worked for me:
#1 Immerse Yourself into the Culture
- Mandarin: Billions of people speak it. How difficult could it be? In preparation for my first trip to Asia (to meet my future in-laws), I practiced – on the flight over, between instant noodles, naps, and movies. Thirteen hours of “practice” was sufficient indeed, to turn a standard, respectful greeting into “Hello, old items.” Appropriate, as we were there to celebrate a retirement. (Tip: Producing heirs – in my case two grandchildren – covers a multitude of sins.) I also had success with language CDs prior to my first trip. I learned to express my nationality by saying “I am an American” in a way that actually translated as “I am a beautiful melon.” Neat.
Or, arrange for reliable translation.
- Except at certain restaurants, like these, where ignorance is bliss:
- When joining a group that will not be conversing in English, avoid sitting beside husbands who only translate jokes. In this way, delayed laughter will not offend the person across from you, who just shared that her pet hamster died. Also avoid sitting near people that enjoy pointing out the chicken testicles on your plate.
Better yet, just take a language class.
- I highly recommend this route. You can kill two birds with one stone, especially if you hope to grow spiritually (humility, long-suffering, self-control) as well. I opted for the more difficult Mandarin immersion class seeing as I’ve only been out of school 20 years. I was easily in the top five of my five-person class, as displayed in this quiz:
I was batting over 50% – a respectable 6 points out of 11. Finding out later that this score was actually the date (June 11) did not steal my thunder. I was the teacher’s pet. I know this because she kept walking back to my desk to give me hints on the final. (Something about me saving face. . .)
#2 Become a Student of the Culture.
Through Available Resources.
- Take advantage of the ample resources available prior to traveling. I skimmed Culture Shock: Taiwan (also on the plane, after watching Pride & Prejudice three times) for its understated approach to cultural sensitivities. It really helped me integrate, especially when locals noticed the title.
- Public transportation provides excellent opportunities to appreciate and practice the beauty of a new culture. I marvel that you can ride Taipei’s MRT (subway) with hundreds of people, and still hear a pin drop. Passengers regularly offer up their seats to elderly or disabled. Locals wear masks if they are sick, out of consideration for others. My husband and I have endeavored to teach our kids to follow suite. By the end of our recent month-long visit, my heart filled with pride as I felt the approving eyes of passengers in our packed car. It was rush-hour, and my crew was handling it beautifully – speaking in whispers and giving up their seats to those who needed them more. So considerate were we that one in our party (the one who was coughing without a mask) did not want to trouble us with the need to use the restroom, and instead left a parting gift on the floor, before exiting.
#3 Engage with Locals to Overcome Stereotypes.
In Rural Areas.
- This is especially effective outside of the major metropolitan areas, less-frequented by overseas visitors. It is here where locals may first encounter Westerners. Language mastery (“Hello, old items, I am a beautiful melon.”) and my Culture Shock book have allowed me to provide a powerful alternative to “Ugly American” stereotypes. Like the time I strolled in a rural park, and graciously allowed a group of middle school girls to take their picture with me. Their enthusiastic cries of “big nose” (eagerly translated by my husband) as they departed was purely coincidental, I’m sure.
Among the Stares of the Curious.
- I often solicit the curious stares of babies. I’ve found that peek-a-boo has universal appeal, and communicates that foreigners are not weird, but fun. They in exchange, return cautious smiles. Sometimes I wonder what they are thinking. Something like, “If I cover my eyes long enough, maybe she’ll finally disappear.”
- I’ve had dogs stare too. Once, one continuously peered at me from outside the window of my favorite coffee shop. I found myself nervously smiling back, wondering what the dog was thinking. Something like “Finally, someone with a nose as big as mine!”
The staring continued for about 20 uncomfortable minutes. I almost resorted to peek-a-boo, when he finally flinched as the person (his person) just beside me stood up to leave. Was he devotedly zeroing in on his owner the entire time? Perhaps. But I think we bonded in the solidarity of being “outsiders”.
I may never fully fit in here. But at least I’ve tried.
I’m optimistic that some “Ugly American” stereotypes have died along the way. At least I hope so. Replaced, I daresay, by the modest appeals of a “Beautiful Melon.”