Sunday, October 22, 2006

A Noisy Wakeup

I don’t know if it is like this throughout the non-English-speaking world, but at least here in Taiwan, there is this assumption that if you’re foreign-looking — and above all, “white” — you must inevitably be English speaking. Never mind that in an international city like Taipei, people from Germany, France, Spain, Russia, Italy, Sweden and other countries come to work; foreigner equals English, and English means American.

Once can hardly blame schoolchildren for holding such conceits, as foreign teachers themselves encourage those perceptions. I was in Taipei 101, on my way to a bookstore that I frequent there, when I ran into two dozen young children accompanied by a blond foreigner in her mid-40s. Immediately upon seeing me, the teacher turned to the children and shouted “Look, an English-speaking person!” whereupon in one ear-shattering and unusually high-pitched chorus the children shouted, in turn, “good morning,” followed by an incomprehensible, nerve-wracking consecution of words. I waived politely as I hurried away to the escalators, but it now transpired that the children, along with the teacher, were in hot pursuit and reached the escalators from the other side before I could escape. Seeing my discomfort, the teacher said, “You can run, but you can’t hide,” which somehow was interpreted by the children as yet another prompt to ransack my ears with the enthusiastic squeals.

Besides the offensiveness of such an unwelcome wakeup and, as I already mentioned, the groundless and quite disrespectful assumption that a foreigner must by default speak English, the incident made me feel like an animal in a zoo, something “other” that inherently warrants special attention. I have lived in Taiwan for nearly a year, integrated its society and am a tax-paying, law-abiding full participant in its fabric. Though my citizenship is Canadian, I am presently a resident of Taiwan, and as such I should be treated — and usually am — like one. Expatriates should therefore never feel compelled to become a spontaneous teacher, or a temporary amusement, on the bus, in shopping malls or on the sidewalk, nor made to feel that by virtue of being foreigner it should be expected of me to teach left and right those who are learning the language.

Did I, when I was in Canada, start shouting “ni hao” to every Chinese-looking person I encountered, expecting to obtain a free five-minute Mandarin lesson? Of course not; that would be rude. Why, then, should it be different in Taiwan, and why would foreign teachers, of all people, impress upon the children the idea that it is ok to approach expatriates in such a manner?

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