Tongues like Swords: American Privilege in Taiwan

Being an American is a funny thing. Because, being an American carries some serious cultural currency in most parts of the world, mostly due to the fact that since the end of WWII the US has held hegemonic power, both militarily and economically. (Not to say we are or are not necessarily well-liked, but that’s a different question altogether). In many parts of the world, the sort of idea that “West is best” has been very pervasive, and this manifests itself in all facets of life. This is reinforced by quite a few different things, ranging from representation and story tropes in large Hollywood productions, and presence and attitudes of affluent white tourists in “less developed” countries. On the macro level, where your country stands in the metaphysical world ranking does have an effect on your standing as an individual in the micro. And particularly in Asia, both East and Southeast, American military and economic might has had a lasting historical legacy. In the US, representation and treatment of Asians and Asian Americans alike have been fraught with problematic representation and stereotyping. But what of being a Taiwanese American in Taiwan? How does changing environments change our political identities? Do we have privilege in Taiwan, and what does it look like?

[A quick word on my use of the word privilege: I mean this word in the context of social inequality, as in some groups in society have certain benefits over others. Having privilege is not to say that one’s life is necessarily easier, but that society affords one certain things that are not as accessible to others, be that opportunities, safety, wages, etc. A person of privilege just doesn’t have to think about some things that people without that privilege do (i.e. for an able-bodied person, the question of ‘is this building wheelchair accessible?’ is one that doesn’t come up so often). Another thing to note is that there are multiple kinds of privileges (white, male, heterosexual, etc) and that these different kinds of privileges and oppressions are intertwined and complicated. Every person has multiple facets to their identities, and they play off of each other a myriad of ways.]

But back to American privilege in Taiwan as Taiwanese Americans. Well, yes we do have it, especially if we “look” a certain way, and I’m living proof of it. Living in Taiwan was never something I expected to do, but I am here now trying to learn as much as possible from this unusual yet wonderful circumstance. Being in Taiwan as a Taiwanese American has brought some parts of my identity into sharp relief, which has been interesting, albeit somewhat jarring. One of those things is being conscious of, leveraging, and managing my American privilege. It boils down mostly to these two points:

* Language – People cater to my native tongue
* Culture – I’m interesting and cool without actually having to be

English being my first language, and it being of the “right” accent, affords me countless little advantages over the average local Taiwanese person, which really add up. English is the international language, the common language, and this is also due to British and American imperialism. It affects my every day. In my program in Taiwan, we read scientific papers and textbooks written in English. There are English versions of all important paperwork. Most street signs have English translations, as do many menus. Knowing English is in high demand, so everyone is learning it. I can charge a higher than average amount of money to tutor English. If I can’t find a way to express myself in Chinese, I can fall into English and 9 times out of 10 it will work out and someone will understand me and help me out. If there is any breakdown in communication, it will defer to English and not to Mandarin. People continually tell me my Mandarin is really good, even when it’s really not.

In terms of culture, Taiwanese people are famously friendly, and I am treated much, much better than the average non-white person the states is generally treated. People go way out of their way to help me find things, understand things. A common thought I have is “What could I have possibly done to deserve this? Oh yeah, that’s right, nothing. [Expletive].” Don’t get me wrong, I love it and am so thankful, but I only wish that people were that nice to the Mexicans, Somalis, Chinese, Indians, etc back home. Or even other non-white and non-East Asian people living here.

And, I am somehow interesting by default, just having grown up in the States. People want to know my opinion, my experiences, my past. People think my perspective on society is “new” and “modern” and “freeing,” instead of the at best “traditional” and at worst “backwards” opinions Americans have about views of non-white immigrants. My experiences in the US are taken as a gold standard. When I talk about my experiences and the things I’ve enjoyed, it’s taken as language of superiority and I cannot for the life of me separate my words from their cultural clout. They fall heavy as they leave my lips, and until they crash to the ground and the sound echoes around me I forget their weight. I’m learning to speak lighter.

Being a Taiwanese American puts one in an interesting niche in Taiwan. Foreign, but not so foreign. An outsider but with some built in personal cultural competency (hopefully). Blend in well enough, stand out well enough. But it is my tongue that holds the difference. Honed in English, buoyed by hegemony, it is a sharp tool. It can be used to reinforce ideas of supremacy and modernity or cut them down, phrase by phrase. It has been a lesson to realize my words are stronger, my tongue sharper, my meaning swifter than they were back home. My latent privilege manifested itself when I came to Taiwan, and I am doing my best to do good with what I have been given. Taiwanese Americans may have tongues like swords, but whose side are we on? [insert Spiderman quotation here, you know the one]. We can hold our privilege over local Taiwanese people and be guards for the structures of oppression, or we can fight against them and turn imperialism on its head. Reject notions that America is better, that Americanness is what we should strive for. The battle is ongoing, who will you fight for?

3 Responses to “Tongues like Swords: American Privilege in Taiwan”

  1. Wow, I’ve experienced this myself whenever I go back to Taiwan to visit. I stay there for weeks at a time and after speaking to the locals, I feel that my experience is somehow superior even when it’s not.

  2. Even as an ABC who grew up in Taiwan for 16 years, locals still see me differently: respectfully and with reverence just because I grew up in a house that spoke english.

  3. I have to say I have the completely opposite experience. I will clarify and say that I am a student here. When I was simply visiting for a summer vacation, I had similar experiences to this article, but it is completely different now that I live here. Local students typically believe that I am wealthy when I am not and they have accused me for being a “green card” baby which is not only offensive, but not true. I am looked down upon because my Chinese is not fluent and am not treated with the respect my fellow international students recieve. Local students use me to check their English homework while international students expect me to help with their Chinese homework.

Leave a Reply