I know I should be blogging about the latest tourist attractions that I’ve seen or the traditional Chinese market I went to over CNY or of any other ten different topics related to travel, but I wanted to stop all that for a while and write about something a little different.

I want to talk about being a minority. Specifically, I want to talk about being a white, blonde woman in  Taiwan. It is an incredible feeling that carries both its positives and negatives here and I don’t really know what to think about it or even if I ought to have an opinion one way or the other.

When I first moved to Poland I distinctly remember noticing how much people stared at me. I couldn’t figure it out. It was like I had a tattoo stamped across my forehead.  I would complain to my sister and she would just laugh and say I’d get used to it.  When I raved about why it was happening she finally told me to stop speaking English and I wouldn’t attract so much attention. Yep. Turned out that worked pretty well.

Being fresh to living abroad and rather smug and arrogant, my initial way of dealing with it was to engage in a staring contest with the offending party which I would usually win. Later, I realized that frank eye contact like that was a bit hostile and aggressive and sent a clear message that others should feel free to talk to me. In the case of men  it signaled my interest  in them and sent an invitation to being approached. Oops. Not quite the message I was trying to send.

My sister was right though. I did get used to it. It took maybe a month or two, but after that I pretty much never noticed it again. Besides, my face shouts that I’m Polish for all the world to see. As soon as I shut my big mouth I blended right in. Certainly, people never thought I was anything else until they were forced to listen to my mangled Polish.

Here, I couldn’t blend in even if my life depended on it. I noticed it the most the first few weeks after I arrived. I got stared at everywhere. And it has never ever stopped. Six weeks in and I was on the verge of  a melt down. Do you have any idea at all how freaky it feels to know that people are staring at you no matter what you do or where you go? Can you fathom it? How well can you handle being the never-ending focus of everyone around you and a source of entertainment should you trip or do something equally foolish?

It does  have its positives sometimes, I must admit.  Ask a question and ten people jump in to try to help you. Strangers, all, yet they bend over backwards to be helpful and welcoming. Friendliness is a trait the Taiwanese are famous for, and thank God for that. Had it not been for the general friendliness and consideration the Taiwanese have shown me, I would be having a very different experience full of considerably more frustration and helplessness than I do now.

And it’s certainly nice when I get preferential treatment, I can’t deny that. Like when I lost my key to my locker at the pool. They didn’t charge me. Or when I’m working out and I take over the bench and three sets of weights and no one so much as peeps. Or when I get free guest passes at other gyms. Or even when I went to the market and people offered me free samples of their goods, not because I asked for them, and not  because they were offering them to the public, but because I am a white westerner and they wanted me to feel welcome.

None of these examples might seem like a big deal but they happen pretty regularly.  Just little perks to being a clear Westerner (and by Westerner I mean white), and a blonde one at that.

The Taiwanese take great pride in maintaining their reputation as being very friendly. They especially take great care with foreigners. All foreigners to some degree I think…as long as they can tell you’re foreign. I’ve read and heard that many Asian people born abroad don’t get remotely the same treatment, nor do other traditional minorities.

There is tons and tons of chatter on the internet about the multitude of different experiences all types of foreigners have had in Taiwan. You can read about some of those opinions here, here and here. There are as many different experiences as there are visitors to Taiwan.

I can only speak for my own. There are perks sometimes, and sometimes just funny experiences.  I get a great deal of amusement from young kids, for example. There is nothing quite like it. I’ll be riding around the metro or somewhere and will suddenly notice some two-year old staring at me with eyes the size of saucers. The look of absolute shock and wonder in their eyes is at once touching and funny. It’s usually also entertaining when people ask to take pictures with me. Makes me a feel like a superstar. Not that it’s happened a lot exactly, but it has happened. It is slightly weird though, and I suspect if it happens much more it will quickly lose its remaining charm.

Less endearing is when people are overly friendly. The tons and tons of Facebook friend requests I’ve gotten from people I’ve encountered here and there, people I was at the same party with but never even spoke to, or even worse, people I’ve never met at all. I’ve never been friended this often in the entire time I’ve had Facebook.  It does not make me feel warm and fuzzy inside. Especially not after I realized that many of these requests are a form of face for some people who just want to show off how many western friends they have in their friend list. Not cool.

Nor is it particularly great when people constantly wave at me to say hello, or worse, engage me in conversations for no reason other than (as far as I can tell) that I’m white. I thought it was flattering and friendly at first, but it lost its charm a long, long time ago.  Seriously, I’m just walking down the street minding my own business, what do you want???  The flowery compliments I don’t understand either. Don’t get me wrong. I love compliments.  What woman doesn’t? But I have never been called beautiful over and over and over again until I moved to Taiwan. I’d find it a little more believable if I had ever heard it from someone not Taiwanese. Its true I’m no troll and that’s a fact.  Neither am I drop dead gorgeous though so let’s not go over the top here.

The worst has the be the xenophobia that I encounter.  The dirty looks I get from some people. The way I’m followed around in small shops like I’m about to rip off the entire inventory. The not so hidden sneers from some  shop assistants when I don’t fit into the tiny clothing, and the look of smug satisfaction when they tell me they don’t carry anything other than a size five. The look of disgust on some people’s faces when they find out I’m an English teacher.

Actually, I don’t blame them for the latter. The poor reputation of English teachers here is well deserved and I basically think the same thing but that doesn’t mean every English teacher is a loser misfit here either.

Over all, every reaction is part of the adventure of living abroad. It is the spice that keeps life interesting and the longer I’m here the more I learn about how much I still have to learn. Even though there are some negatives there are many positives too and I can’t deny that it has forced me to evaluate how I treat the world around me as well. That alone is an experience worth having and I’m happy that I’ve been lucky enough to have it.