More Than Skin Deep – Taiwanese’s Attitudes to Foreingers

This entry is a feature I wrote for my Journalism and News Editing course.

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This billboard hangs at the MRT Taipei Zoo Station in Muzha, Taipei

TAIPEI, Taiwan: “Beauty does not distinguish between black and white” reads a billboard at a metro station here. The words are complemented by the smiling face of a Taiwanese girl, printed in black and white contrast.

“Do you want to run everywhere? Are you not afraid of getting darker?” the dialogue-like message continues.

“Isn’t dark skin beautiful?” comes the reply.

The billboards expose issues that have characterized the Chinese civilization for years: skin tone and physique as a measure of beauty.

“The majority of Chinese think that only with big eyes, a straight nose, small mouth and delicate white skin is one beautiful,” reads a lesson in “Practical Audio Visual Chinese 2”, a textbook widely used to teach Mandarin to foreigners here.

“This reflects the Chinese standard of beauty,” a cultural note explains. “Chinese do not consider dark skin to be beautiful. Most Chinese women like to keep their skin light, so they often carry parasols under the sun,” the note continues.

And these cultural values contribute to what some foreigners here say is discrimination against them.

Taiwan’s economic success, its diplomatic efforts and social and educational transformations have resulted in an influx of foreigners into the country. These non-natives come from all sections of the globe and represent a multiplicity of ethnic groups.

And some foreigners believe and academics say that expatriates in Taiwan are treated differently because of their ethnic group.

David Hedlund is a sociology instructor at Ming Chuan University (MCU) International College (IC). His students come from about 65 countries in Africa, the Caribbean, North, South and Central American, Europe, the Pacific Islands and Taiwan.

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MCUIC brings together students from all over the world.

One of their assignments each year is an essay on the topic “Have you ever been discriminated against in Taiwan?”

Hedlund says most Taiwanese students “can’t imagine any situation that they have been in when they have been discriminated against”. He however says the foreign students consider discrimination against them to be “as plentiful as an expensive floral basket”.

Hedlund further states that “darker” students always say that few persons sit next to them on the metro, bus or train.

“They always point to this as racism,” he says.

The problem is not limited to the use of public transportation, as Dr. Eva Salazar, who teaches psychology at MCUIC, explains. She says foreign students often have to deal with “rejection issues” inside the classroom.

“They have a crush on someone… they make a move and they are rejected simply because of their colour,” she explains.

Many of her students come to Taiwan on scholarships and in many instances represent some of the “best” in their home country, she says.

“They are highly confident and capable people and they come here and people reject them simply because of their colour and that’s painful.And, even in (class) groups, some of the students are not accepted – not because they can’t do the job – but because of their colour,” she further explains.

Dr. Salazar, a practicing psychologist, was born in the Philippines and married a Taiwanese 20 years ago. She has developed her own mechanisms to deal with the rejection.

“I am a Chinese-Filipino. If I just say ‘Filipino’, they will look down more on me.”

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Dr. Eva Salazar and her Mass Communication Major Psychology students

Sociology lecturer Hedlund recognises the biases in Taiwanese’s dating practices, and notes, “You can be an ugly, white guy but still have beautiful Taiwanese girlfriends.”

He, however, believes that what some foreigners describe as discrimination “is not quite right but certainly not incorrect” since, Taiwanese’s perception of “discrimination” and “racism” are not the same as Westerners’.

“I think to some extent, it is a fear of the unknown. It is not necessarily racism,” he opines.

He suggests that morbid fear of speaking English among some Taiwanese may be the root cause of the situation.

“Taiwanese people are actually scared out of their pants to speak English to you. They will just as soon urinate right there on the spot than speak English with you,” he says.

Hedlund, who has done research on gender, race and social class and how they affect athletes, however notes that feelings are valid, regardless of the cause.

“If you are honestly having this feeling, that feeling is valid. Whether your interpretation of why you are experiencing this feeling is right or wrong, that is a different question,” he says.

Hedlund has been living in Taiwan for four years and says that Taiwanese are “generally courteous and helpful”. He however says that, like any other group of people, when faced with “a situation for which they do no have an immediate mechanism,” Taiwanese must “flight or fight”.

“You stay and stick it out or you just run away,” Hedlund says.

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Sociology instructor David Hedlund says that all genuine feelings, whatever their cause, are valid.

Another teacher at MCU, who identifies himself as “Aaron”, says that, while not every foreigner in Taiwan is promiscuous, this opinion among Taiwanese is not unfounded.

“These stereotypes exist because foreigners are doing these things,” explains Aaron, who has been living here for nine years.

He adds: “Many Taiwanese will see one person or two people’s behaviour and kind of blanket it over.”

Jeana Noel and Jamali Jack, students at the National Cheng-Chi University, are Afro-West Indians from the Caribbean nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Noel has been in Taiwan for three years and Jack arrived here 15 months ago.

“I will say that it is a mixed-bag,” Jack says of his experiences in Taiwan.

“The way they behave toward people who they consider to be strange is too obvious: the pointing and the staring and the whispering and so on…. And often times you meet people who are more settled,” Jack explains.

He says that Taiwanese’s reaction to foreigners of different ethnic groups is “more or less” the same, but adds, “With black foreigners, they respond in a more outrageous way.”

Noel’s experiences are “pretty much the same” as Jack’s, but says her hair is “the other dimension”.

“They always have questions or want to touch. …It is difficult to understand how something as common as a black person in a developed city could be such a novelty to people that every time they see it, it evokes this reaction as if they have never seen this before,” she says.

However, Jack, who is a member of his school’s basketball team, says he has noticed some “discrimination” in referees who do not call fouls committed against him. He says that a referee excused the problem, explaining that he believes Jack can play through it.

“While that might be true, rules are rules, and it should not matter who the person is,” Jack says.

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Jamali Jack (with ball) has noticed reluctance among basketball referees to call fouls committed against him.

Noel, on the other hand, has to think “really hard because those experiences have been so few and far in between”. She further says, “The overwhelming positive reaction and attitudes of people have been such that I don’t remember bad experiences.” She however mentions an incident in which a vendor pulled away from her a hat that she and some of her friends were looking at while shopping at a night market.

And while Taiwanese do use skin tone and physique as a measure of beauty, MCUIC student Jerry Wang says that this may merely be fashion.

“Like one thousand years ago, the Chinese people think that if you are kind of chubby then that’s beautiful. But these days, they think that as skinny as possible and the people will say you are beautiful, you have a good shape,” Wang says.

“And the skin also, if you are white they will say you have beautiful skin. If you get sunburn or the colour is darker, they think it is not as beautiful as the white one. I think it is because of what some people think – what is fashionable,” he explains.

He further says that as a child, his parent never discussed racial issues with him and before spending a year in Canada what he knew about foreigners came from movies.

Back then, Jerry had believed that Caucasians “must be smug and strong and kind of selfish because they don’t care about rules…. And [people of African descent] must be good at sports.

“I learnt from the Social [Studies] class that before they [Caucasians and African Americans] were kind of against each other and black people where kind of trouble-makers. But after I have been to Canada I think that people are people,” he explains.

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Jeana Noel (Left) and Jerry Wang

The results of a questionnaire survey for this article suggest that while Taiwanese have their own standard of beauty, they do not judge others by these standards.

Of the 10 male and 10 female Taiwanese undergraduate students 18 to 25 at MCU who completed the questionnaire, 75% have travelled outside the country.

Seventy percent (70%) of the respondents say Caucasians and people of African descent in Taiwan are “just another person”; 30% say people of African descent here are “good” or “mostly good”; 25% say that Caucasians here are “good” or “mostly” good with 5% or one student saying that Caucasians here are “bad”.

The results were the same for the questions, “Will you marry a ‘white’ person?” and “Will you marry a ‘black’ person?” with 50% saying “yes”; 40% saying “no” with the remaining 10% undecided. The vast majority, 85% of respondents, said “all” skin types are “most beautiful,” while 15% chose Asian skin.

A similar survey of foreign students here shows that 65% have been in Taiwan for less than one year, 30% came here between one and two years ago and 5% have been here for more than five years.

These students come from North, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, Pacific islands, Europe, South East Asia and India.

They identify themselves with the following ethnic groups: Caucasians (10%); Latin American (30%); African Descent (40 %); Pacific Islanders, Asians, Indians and Overseas Chinese 5% each.

Half of the respondents say they have been discriminated against in Taiwan. Of those who say they have been discriminated against, 40% are of African descent, 30% are Latin American, with Caucasians, Indians, and Pacific Islanders accounting for 10% each.

Among the specific acts of “discrimination”, respondents mentioned a girlfriend’s teacher who asked if she was still dating “the white potato”.

“And don’t forget the killer looks and stares to death of old people in the morning market,” wrote the Caucasian male.

“Stores refuse to give me service because I am a wai guo ren (foreigner),” commentedone male student who is of African descent. Another male student from that same ethnic group says, “On the buses, train, metro, etc, Taiwanese point, laugh, do not say excuse me; refer to me as hei ren (black people).”

That same respondent further says, “Some people have issues with me having a scholarship from their government. Some services, incentives offered to students in my university, as long as you hold a scholarship, you are barred from receiving [them] even if you qualify.”

“I think [that] in Taiwan it is more about the skin. People are friendly, but every now and then, you come across people who like white people…. I only felt the discrimination thing once, but it is not worth mentioning,” says an Indian student.

“I feel Taiwanese are not as open to Latin Americans as other ethnicities. Some discriminate [against] you just because your native language is not English,” wrote one female Latin American student.

However, the discussion with MCU student Jerry Wang and the finding of the survey of Taiwanese students suggest that, while Taiwanese might be indifferent to a foreigner’s ethnicity, they are not too willing to have intimate relationships with them.

Taiwanese are generally considered children until they get married, no matter their age. While Wang’s parents do not object to his Japanese girlfriend, they might not be too pleased if he decides to marry her.

Taiwanese parents, he says, want their children to have happy marriages and “they might think it is difficult to marry with a foreigner”. The 20-year-old Wang however describes his parents as “quite open,” and believes they will not try to prevent him from marrying a foreigner if he so decides.

He further emphasizes that people can see things from different perspectives when the roles are reversed.

“Now, I am speaking as a student. But if one day, as a father, you ask me if I will allow my daughter to marry a foreigner, I might have a different answer,” he says.

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16 thoughts on “More Than Skin Deep – Taiwanese’s Attitudes to Foreingers

  1. Very interesting info. I however gather from the way you write that you yourself may have been discriminated against. It is true that Taiwanese don’t like black skin but I believe it has to do with their education. I have a Taiwanese friend who told me that before they believe that all foreigners dressed like knights and live in castles. Go figure

  2. Very Interesting article……….That’s the most amma say for now……cause if I say anything else…..you will probably say why you are not surprised at what I say……:P

    But interesting article

  3. It is what it is man, racism exists everywhere in the world, even among some people of the same ethnicity. In Africa some light-skin blacks will discriminate against the darker skin ones, the brown skin blacks are called fake blacks. I think everybody has a bit of racism in them, take for example the movie “Crash’, it depicts a situation where every body hates everybody at some point.
    David is right about it being fear of the unknown and not knowing how to express ones self, I can think of a situation where I myself have failed to express myself to a girl…..my reaction, RUN! The lady could speak English, but I always ran out of words when she was nearby, ouch! However I’m not condoning their behaviour but merely emphasising that understanding, and not blame is the way forward.
    What we need are more “ice breakers” and less finger pointing, for example playing sport has earned me a lot of Taiwanese friends, some truly genuine. As for the women, women are naturally afraid to talk to men all over the world. Let’s not mistake clear rejection for racism, “if she dont’t like u, SHE DON’T LIKE U!” That’s that man…..haha!

  4. very good writing!!!!!!
    u always can write good articles :)
    I enjoy reading in ur blog
    I totally agree with you
    u know if I didn’t enter the IC maybe i will be like that kind of people u mentioned above…then that would be really bad, i know it!
    thankfully, I have the opportunity to interact with all kinds of people of the world
    that’s a really good chance to touch a lot of people and things that we may have never encountered and experienced before!
    it’s unfair to judge the person only because their skin color
    actually,sometimes the white people they are more selfish and smug than any other ethnic groups
    let’s get along peaceful and joyful!!!!!!!
    skin color is not a big matter; we don’t care about this at all!!!!
    it’s only everyone can play, share,and talk together then that’s enough
    its global village^_____^
    people link together, help each other,care each other!

  5. racism is a willfull act, not one merely taught to people in an inductrination process. Many who we think are racist are just suffering from ignorance and really cannot be blamed for their behaviour. Get this..the whole human genome was sequenced they never found the gene which makes Jane black and Mary white.
    It’s a card which is used by many, who understands the art of crowd control.In other words this is one of the tactics used by those who know to manipulate the masses into different frenzy. The skin colour is nothing but a hoax..when people really want to associate colour does not matter..things like religion and ideologies are more important. And the advertisement that you quoted in the beginning of your article is just the commercial sector capitalizing on some perceived ignorance….get over it..and move on.

  6. Good job Kenton.
    Pretty interesting article. However I’m not clear of your sample of “foreigners” and I’m curious as to the motive/ reason for the Taiwanese government scholarships to students around the world. I’ll hazard a guess that they probably felt to “open-up” their society. If so then to what extent they need to assimilate other cultures into theirs?

  7. Hi Sheron,

    Thanks for your comments. Unless otherwise stated, “foreigners” refers to all non-Taiwanese. That is anyone to whom a Taiwanese refers to as “外國人- wài guó rén” meaning “foreigner”, including “華僑huá qiáo” or “Overseas Chinese”.
    I do not know the exact reason or reasons for Taiwanese government scholarships to students around the world but I know that many are diplomatic scholarships. That is citizens of Taiwanese diplomatic allies, because they are citizens of ally nations. However, the government does also offer non-diplomatic scholarship, to citizens of non-allies.

    • From what I understand through MOFA and my oversea studying experiences, Taiwanese government offers scholarships to foreign students for three major reasons:
      1. Bringing elites to Taiwan that can push Taiwanese students in both of the academic and the extracurricular field (that was the reason for signing exchange-student contract with China last year.)
      2. Strengthening diplomatic ties with the allied nations
      3. Planting the friendship seeds in the non-Taiwanese students heart while they are still young, thus in the later years, it benefits Taiwan in some ways. And if they ever become important decision makers in the future, their decisions could be positive to Taiwan. (the same reason for the US allowing thousands of high school exchange students enter its territory for free every year.)

      • Amanda,

        Thank you for reading my post and for your comments. I am glad you mentioned “bring elites to Taiwan”. Some Taiwanese, including many who have themselves studied overseas, think that foreigners come to Taiwan because they don’t amount to much at home.

  8. Taiwnese attitudes toward foreigner. It is a matter of perception. I guess It is probably true around the world. Being different in a certain society creates curiocity and attention on the part of the locals yet sometimes confusion and frustration to the outsiders. Both the locals and the outsiders need to learn from each other and be educated for better understanding.

    Born and raised in Taiwan, I never thought that I was any different from any other people until I went to the U.S. to study and lived there for a few years. And I realized that I am ‘colored.’ There was even a student organization advocating for non-whites. I forgot the exact name but it seemed to be: Students of Color Advocate. I was so shocked when they were recruiting new members in the campus. This realization came as a blow since I’d never felt that I was perceived differently while I was in Taiwan.

  9. Pingback: Why Gōng xǐ? 為什們要說 “恭喜?” «

  10. Kenton, i want to congratulate you for this article, you did an awesome job. The skin color in Taiwan is definitely a big issue and people have been avoiding it. I would like to point out that it is not only about the skin, but also the country u come from. A black from USA is welcomed differently than one from Africa or another country in the Caribbean.
    This idolization of white people goes beyond Taiwan’s borders; this link can only strengthen my point

    http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/world/2011/05/23/lah.skorea.plastic.surgery.cnn?hpt=C2

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