I'm one of those Western guys, who until the age of 25 had no interest and very little knowledge of East Asia. And then I begun to travel, because I wanted to discover new dimensions and ended up in this region - and fell in love with it. I think it's fair to say that there are many European guys like me, who find themselves in a similar situation: You visit, you see it and you instantly love it. The food, the people, the life style, the language, the art, the scenery, you name it! - it all looks so interesting, because it's so different than anything you've seen or experienced before (at least in my case). Growing up in Europe gives you the chance to visit foreign countries within a few hours of drive. And in one day you can pass through many of them, but do you really feel foreign? In my case - not really. If I walk around Bratislava, Vienna or Zagreb without a big DSLR around my neck, I'm almost as one of the locals - it's a completely different experience from being a foreigner in Taiwan. There is no wall between me and them (the wall I am trying to knock down bit by bit ever since I moved here).
But when you come to the Far East, the experience is much deeper and that includes the challenges and the rewards. I'm not sure, how you ended up in Taiwan (or Seoul or Tokyo), but at one point, just like me, you had to make a decision to leave everything behind for good, or just for a period of time, because you thought that it will fulfill your life or give you something you have desired for a long time and couldn't get it back home. Very often guys like us picture East Asia as our of Garden of Eden, where for little work we will earn a lot of money, hot girls will just crawl all over us, people will treat us with friendliness and respect everywhere we'll go, because we're supposedly "rich and handsome" and come from a country where "everything is better" and hence they can only learn from us and never vice versa. The fringe of some of these goodwill ambassadors from the West truly believes in these things and acts accordingly. If you read my blog for a while, you know that I am not a big fan of them. However, they are part of the deal - same as the other extreme of people, that become naturalized citizens, learn local dialects and completely lose their identity and replace it with a new one. I admire them, but only to a certain extent.
However, those of us, who are not driven by white supremacy, nor white guilt (I'm intentionally using those heavy terms), find ourselves in a tricky situation, when we realize that things are not the way we have imagined them before. Fact is, that stereotypes on both sides (Europe/East Asia) prevail in the way we see each other. It must be a very sobering moment for a female Taiwanese traveler, who wants to experience the romantic Paris and suddenly finds herself roaming around the stinky subway trying to find a clean toilet and failing. Same goes for a Japanese tourist visiting Rome and getting his watch and wallet stolen by a pickpocket. I don't think he will return home and share his amazing stories of Italian dolce vita. And let me not start with all those guys who come to the Far East just to realize that life is even harder here. In my case, I know most stereotypes are not true, but somehow it's very hard to let them go, as they make us feel safe. They make me feel safe.
Just the other day my wife and I went to a store. As an interracial couple, we almost always garner attention and so I wasn't surprised, when an uncle in his forties - wearing undershirt, chewing betel nut - asked her "if she had a certain certificate in English" (according to my wife, he was "assuming that since she's with a White foreigner, her English must be excellent"). She replied "no", on which he followed up with "How are you able to communicate with that foreigner then?". She said "I'm just trying my best to talk and practice, that's all." When she later shared the details of their conversation with me, I told her that next time she should say yes, if someone asks her the same question. I explained, that he was a simple man and judging by the question he asked, he sees a very simplified reality in regards to communication issues in interracial relationships. So why popping his bubble, if he feels safe in it? Sure, you can accuse me of stereotypical thinking as well ("assuming that people like him do not understand a complex reality"), but at least I am aware of that and have no agenda to do so, it's pure altruism.
But aside from these cases, I'm mostly trying to question stereotypes, my own and the ones of others' (especially when bloggers write articles on the issue). I tend to be provocative at times, maybe getting few enemies along the way, but I feel that's the price you have to pay, if you want to evolve, mature and eventually become a wiser person (which is one of my goals in life). I'm clearly not yet stereotype-free (who is?), but at least I'm working on it. My wife and I have vigorous debates about Taiwanese and European ideas and practices - stuff, that probably wouldn't be PC enough for this blog, but we never overstep certain boundaries. She popped many of my bubbles, after I moved here, but I love her more and understand her better day by day. Most of us, before we move to the Far East, know, that we won't find docile geishas serving every of our needs, we know that life in a big city such as Taipei, Tokyo or Beijing won't always be exciting and awesome, yet we still hope that we will find snippets of these stereotypes here - that's the dream, that keeps us going, when life gets tough. At least that's what keeps me going.
I've made the right decision to come here, even if times are tough and many things are different than I have imagined them to be. I've always wanted to live in a big East Asian city and work in an international company - now I can say, that my dream came true. In addition, I have a beautiful wife and many new friends and the job gives me respect and admiration by the dear ones I have here and back home in Slovenia. But if you'd asked me, if I was happy, I couldn't answer you with a clear and straight yes or no. My mind is not clear yet, I'm still not 100% here, but I know that I'm long gone from where I came from, long gone from the lives of the people I was part of. I'm sure I'm not the only one with this struggle. My question is: When did you pop your bubble and how did you manage to carry on?
[My TAIWAN LIFE page][Photo by MKL, 2011]
*Before you accuse me of being a creep, the woman on the photo is my wife.