Stop for a moment and think about all the personal encounters you’ve had in the US with non-English speakers or have witnessed, and think about the level of impatience or complete dismissal you may have had with that person, or again may have witnessed. We are as a nation pretty ridiculous. As are some other nations when it comes to non-speakers of their language. I mean between the hostility and the outright refusal to deal with people who don’t speak the same language is inane, especially if you’re a business owner because you’re just losing money.
One of the greatest things I’ve found about being in Taiwan is how friendly people have been and how patient they’ve been with our utter language barrier. If they can’t communicate with you, they try and find someone who can at least put a few English words together. If they can’t find them then we work it out through a series of hand gestures and the maybe one or two words they know, and more pointing. If you’re in a store, they’re quick to whip out a calculator to tell you the price if they can’t say the numbers. And they’re not impatient, they let the encounter take as long as it needs to. Maybe that’s just how they do business, but even people on the street have yet to be rude to me because I don’t know a lick of Mandarin. For most everything else, the signage and such, there’s usually an English translation underneath it–so we’re privileged in one sense.
I’ll admit, I’ve always had pause about visiting an Asian country, because not only do I not know the language but the characters are indecipherable without learning. At least if I visit a country with a romance based language I can kinda guess at the word or at least be able to look at it and type it into a translator. There’s NO typing these characters into a computer to auto-translate. But given how much the signage and maps are translated into English, and how kind people have been when it isn’t, I’m much more excited about being here and doing future travels throughout Asia. Although, I do want to learn the language as well so I’m not completely handicapped.
Also for thought, is being African-American and travelling. It almost always presents issues. Given the homogeneity of many Asian countries, you stick out like crazy. And like I said, people are always staring, pointing, and giving you the one over. If you’re really lucky, they’ll come up to you and say the one word they can utter in English–“picture?” and then take a picture with you while either waving, throwing up a peace sign, or giving a thumbs up. I got asked to take my first picture today with some lady at the Sun Yat Sen Memorial. Silly me, I thought she was asking if I would take a picture of her and her friends, but nope. They wanted to take a picture WITH me. I guess to say they met a black person. Scratch that, it wasn’t the first ask, the very first came while I was on the plane from Tokyo to Taiwan and the lady sitting in the row next to us (who had been teaching Val to use chopsticks to eat her dinner), asked to take a photo of me.
Here’s the thing–even if you never met a black person in your life as most people who come from homogenous countries like many of these Asian nations and most other countries that didn’t really participate in a slave trade–there is NO excuse for the treatment that so many of us face in our damn countries. I mean over here, their lack of exposure hasn’t translated into hostility, I’ve never once been followed in a store. And even then I could maybe understand it a bit more with their utter lack of exposure. At worst it’s innocent curiosity, that’s sometimes somewhat misguided, but here, they really do only encounter stereotypical images of black Americans–hip-hop culture and athletes are the ONLY images of black people you see here. They may touch you but in the way that a kid who touches something new and fascinating.
In the US, on the other hand, there are still situations where some white folks are loath to give service to African-Americans (or other people of color for that matter); who follow you around in stores, who are hostile when you enter a store that sells items they’ve predetermined you couldn’t possibly afford, who in encounters with you are quicker to irritate, become dismissive, or give you impatient service so that you’ll get out of their face. Some of it’s unconscious too, when they don’t “see” you–they bump into you and don’t say anything, or cut in front of you in lines or just walk in front of you and don’t even realize. All of this from a people who see black people everyday, live in the same communities, shop at the same stores, and ride the same public transportation–some of whom are raised by brown and black domestics as surrogate mothers or mainly serviced by brown and black people–and yet they still manage to live in completely different worlds-both literally and figuratively. I mean we’re STILL exotic within our own damn country: people trying to grab your hair; commenting (rudely) on differences in physicality (ghetto-booty, thunder thighs, flat noses, big lips, etc); the back-handed complements on how human-like (read white-like) we are, when they tell us how “articulate” or “honest” or “well-read” we are; or assuming if we go to college that we’re some “rags-to-riches” case.
White Americans (again some not all) may not claim responsibility for their actions and behavior saying its the fault of their lack of interaction because we live in different neighborhoods or go to different schools, or that all they know are the stereotypical, one-sided images in the media, but it’s ridiculous given the over-abundance of opportunities to see AND interact with an overwhelming number of black Americans living their lives in a completely different manner. Much of it is a matter of choice, whether you choose to interact with and open your eyes and minds to those examples. But I won’t negate the institutional nature of it–that our nation is founded upon and functions off of racism; one that structurally denies the visibility of positive examples of brown and black people and cultures, that paints a picture of us as a leach on the system or people who are inherently going to underperform. And as follows, they create mechanisms that fulfill the ideologies so that the barriers to success, to basic equality are numerous, and even if you do beat them, the racist mentality still trumps (you only got here via affirmative action).
Anyway, travelling has always been and continues to be a way for me to reflect on life and society(ies) and my position in it. And my identity as a woman and as a person of color really shapes how I encounter the world and think about my interactions with other people. Stepping outside of the US is always so thought provoking and today, it really just made me think about how ugly the legacy of racism has been within a country that I call home. This isn’t to dismiss the racism that crosses national boundaries or to deny its existence or say that people of Taiwan are all so happy and accepting, this is just the opinion of one person having her own life experience.