Thursday, May 14, 2009

Why we (foreigners) get involved

The question of whether waiguoren, or “foreigners,” should get involved in Taiwanese politics is one that has been asked for decades, starting with those, like George Kerr, Linda Gail Arrigo and Lynn Miles, to name but a few worthies, who sought to defend this beautiful country from the abuses of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime from 1947 on. Quite often, the argument is made that foreigners do not understand Chinese culture, which inherently makes them outsiders and mere meddlers in domestic affairs.

A recent comment posted in response to an entry titled “PRC police to Taiwan” on Michael Turton’s excellent blog, The View from Taiwan, perfectly encapsulates that viewpoint and is well worth, abusive language notwithstanding, quoting in full:

Great!! … The sooner [foreigners leave Taiwan] the better!! … As a matter of fact, all of the foreigners supporting TI [Taiwan independence] with no intention of sheding [sic] your blood, or scraificing [sic] your family or your property should leave Taiwan tomorrow … We Taiwanese will be happy NOT to see your face again EVER!! BYE~~ BYE.

Leaving aside the possibility that this response was posted by a hardcore pro-unification individual, and bearing in mind that such opinions are by no means shared by all Taiwanese, the key factor here is the perception that somehow expatriates in Taiwan are all transitory, perpetual exiles that have no real sense of belonging here. Having been confronted to such accusations myself — made by Taiwanese, Chinese and expatriates — I have long pondered their meaning and whether there might not be some truth in them. After all, the future of Taiwan is for Taiwanese themselves to decide, right?

The problem with this argument, however, is that it altogether fails to take into account the impact of globalization and multiculturalism. Brought down to a local level, it is akin to reprimanding someone who seeks to improve the community he inhabits based on the fact that he was born in the village next door. This has often made me think about my past, when, in 1994, I left home in Quebec City and moved to Montreal, 250km westwards, to go to university. Would someone have been justified in criticizing me for seeking to make my environment a just, clean, tolerant one simply because I was not born there? Of course not. Over time, Montreal became my new home, and the part of the city I lived in — in the “gay village,” which happened to be relatively inexpensive and close to my workplace — became a community that I identified with and cared for. I also wanted the various ethnic groups that constitute that vibrant city — my Lebanese and Colombian friends, and the Italians, Haitians, Pakistanis, Algerians, Jews, Muslims — to be treated with respect and justice. As such, as I developed roots there and became part of that community — in other words, as Montreal turned into my new home — I wanted it to evolve and improve itself because I cared for it. In fact, there was a selfish need in that desire to see the city prosper: I was proud of it, proud of being one of its inhabitants, and the better it got, the more international attention it gained through its achievements, the prouder I became. After all, there is nothing wrong with seeking a nice living environment for oneself.

Eleven years later, I left Canada and moved to Taiwan, which for various reasons came to feel more like home than anywhere in Canada. Having discussed this with many expatriates in Taiwan, I know for a fact that this is a sentiment that is shared by many. Several expatriates — British, Americans, Canadians, Australians, among others — have been in Taiwan far longer than I have. Many have wives or husbands here, and quite a few have children who are Taiwanese citizens. Close friendships have also developed over the years, oftentimes with Taiwanese. Many of those foreigners are therefore not simply “passing through” Taiwan like in the old days, seeking to make a quick buck before moving on to something else. Many have started families, worked on their careers here and, as a result, have become part of the community, which in the past 10 to 15 years has become increasingly multiethnic.

As such, why is it that we never (or at least far less often) hear critics say that Lebanese in Montreal, or South Koreans in Los Angeles, or Indians in London — or Taiwanese in Vancouver — should mind their own business when they seek to improve their communities and fight for justice in their adopted countries, but it is perfectly acceptable for Taiwanese or Chinese to berate foreigners in Taiwan who seek, as members of the community, to make it a better place? Why can a Haitian in Montreal work to make the city more inclusive, or, once he becomes a resident of Canada, vote on whether Quebec should separate from Canada — in other words, become a full participant in the decisions that have a real impact on the fate of the community — while a Canadian like yours truly in Taipei should shut up and not, as an equally involved member of this community, endeavor to make Taiwan a better place for all and ensure that the decisions that pertain to its future are not made through coercion, fear, military threat, or lies? Is it not conceivable, for a person like me who has a Taiwanese partner, who works as a reporter in a (still) free press, to seek to change things when I hear about plans for authoritarian China to deploy Chinese police officers in Taiwan, or when a Hakka Taiwanese is told by the authorities that he cannot obtain a license for his company because the proposed name of said company alludes to a pro-independence movement from years ago? This is not mere missionary zeal, or an odd twist on the “white man’s burden” (which begs the question: have my accusers managed to rid themselves of their colonial mindset?) — this is the real, selfish desire to live in a place that is free and democratic, the same desire that animated me when I sought to do by part for the community in Montreal, or afterwards in Ottawa.

In the modern world, the very terms “foreigner,” “waiguoren” and “expatriate” have become antiquated, a provincial viewpoint on locality that does not stand scrutiny. As the yellow banners in the picture above clearly state, Taiwan is my country. I may have been born a Canadian, but right now Taiwan is my home.

Should the “foreigners” who have made Taiwan their home, who have developed roots here and care about the place, get involved? You betcha!


Άλισον said...

“Taiwan is my country” is a statement shared by you and many other “foreigners” (shouldn’t call you guys foreigners anymore!)


“Taiwan is my springboard” (to suck the benefits and then go to USA, Canada, or go home to China) is the common attitude of the KMTers.

“clearly expressed desire to continue a common life” defined by Ernest Renan’s “What is a Nation?” is one very important criterion for the existence of a nation (country).

The KMTers lack this desire.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with your comments. However, please also bear in mind some attitudes held by Taiwanese against foreigners do not necessary mean they are discriminating on purpose. Most Taiwanese, compared to Americans, have far less or no experience interacting with people from other nation/cultures so they may not behave properly but that does not necessarily mean they dislike you.

Ren From Taiwan said...

Thanks for your great article, for a Taiwanese lived in Vancouver right now, I certainly share the same view of yours.

I'm actively reading news papers about public policies, elections just finished recently, and over the meter Olympic cost, etc. I do hope Vancouver become a better place, not just a place so I can work with better income.

I , too, also watching closely to the trend happen in Taiwan, and I agree, it's not a good one, for many time when watching news, I simply can not stop cursing and sometimes, try to hold my tears from falling.

The colonial mindset, yeah, I have the same feeling that, for the most part, discourage for many local or oversea supporter to even trying harder or act, so many people are just filled with the idea that no matter what you do, it won't chnage anything, and it's not just a few, there is a lot of percentage of Taiwanese behaving like that. They do have their political opinion, but in turns of actually participate public affairs, many of the parents strongly discourage their children from getting involved.

You might be as troubled as I do, it took me sometime to process the overwheming information and history facts available util I study in high school, then I suddenly transformed from Chinese into Taiwanese. Not many of Taiwanese have the means or motivation, they just want to live a living, democracy comes so fast and so easy to most of the people, not many knows that the fact we have our democracy is a hard and long sacrifice of many ancestors( including those you've already mentioned, and one that I respect most, Dr. George Leslie Mackay, who is also an Canadian.)

They just didn't know about it, KMT hide and denied past history so hard and cruel, while the parents still live in fears, children doesn't know which is the truth from media, and how to check the facts in this free world of acess informations. We simply doesn't teach our children to think independently, to see through the debate and questions, and find your own answer. Instead, go to higher education, earn more and more money is the only goal of life, which many feel it is so true, they might want to sell their soul for money.

It was suppose to take times so people recover from the authoritarian life style and slowly gain knowledge, establish their bond with their island. Maybe all this is a test, to all the Taiwanese/Formosan, to know that with this say worst economic in a century, different from the booming past that leads to our democracy, is the time to test your will, your wits to survive it, and the wisdom to make correct choices.

Liberty simply doesn't drop from sky, and ain't come free. I sincerely thank you for supporting Taiwan, the more the better. :)

See, I only lived in Taiwan for about 30 years, compare to many of the so called "waigouren", I might know less history about Taiwan then they do. That I must continue to pursuit, and one day I'll go back, either to fight for freedom, or to make Taiwan a even better place to live.

FOARP said...

I would say "Taiwan is my home for the time being" is a sentiment shared by many expats in Taiwan. How many would give up their original citizenship to stay there?

MikeinTaipei said...


Valid question, and one that I obviously cannot answer. However, I’m sure that political uncertainty has something to do with the reluctance you’ve highlighted. I’m also not quite sure we can equate citizenship with one’s sense of home, nor that having a citizenship that differs from one’s “home” means that one would not “fight” to defend his home. I may have Canadian citizenship, but this does not mean that I am any less involved in, or willing to defend, my home. Home, after all, is where the heart is. And can one only have one home? Cannot, to use myself as an example, both Taiwan and Canada be home, and as such worthy of my political and emotional involvement.

Again, great, searching questions — thanks for that!

MikeinTaipei said...

Dear Ren from Taiwan:

Thank you very much for your touching testimonial. I’m sure, given the size of the Taiwanese community in Taiwan (my Taiwanese in-laws actually live there), that the apprehensions felt by Taiwanese in Vancouver can be communicated to the provincial and federal governments and, in the process, that more Taiwanese there who would otherwise not become engaged in politics at home (that is, back in Taiwan) can learn about the plight of their people, the history of their ancestors, etc.

The issue of Taiwan cannot be allowed to disappear from the radar screen. In other words, it cannot become “internalized.”

We should not underestimate the power of foreign government pressure on the policy decisions of the Ma administration. As I wrote in a previous response, home is where the heart is; your current home may be Canada, but this does not mean that you cannot also be involved, in one way or another, with matters that pertain to your “other” home — Taiwan — in the same way that I remain involved in what happens back “home” in Canada, especially on matters that pertain to Canada’s participation in the “war on terrorism” and in Afghanistan, about which I have written a number of articles and written a book. As I put it in my piece, the modern world makes it possible to have more than one home; in fact, it makes it possible to think of the entire world as one’s home, in which case injustice, whatever its form, must be met steadfastly wherever it arises.

FOARP said...

@Mike - I would say it represents a further level of commitment to the country you live in, rather like marriage does between two people.

If the curtain is ever rung down on Taiwan, no doubt all the 'representative offices' will be flooded by people waving their passports and wanting their chopper ride back to the world. Most Taiwanese citizens lack this insurance.

I was very much impressed by the example of Robert Winkler, who took up ROC citizenship and even put himself forward for election (but wasn't allowed to run). People with that level of commitment to Taiwan are rare, both among expats, and, to a certain degree, among the people of Taiwan.

Fili said...

Some good points made, very interesting topic.

I understand your position but have come to see expats involvement in local affairs as somewhat of a concern if only for the fact that expats do not see themselves as Taiwanese, and the ones that do usually do so in the neo-colonist "we would be better Taiwanese than those local savages Taiwanese ever were".

While I encourage expats who are devoted to Taiwan and care about their environment to make a contribution and become involved, I also suggest that expats do so with extreme caution. My apologies with stereotyping, but - with the exception of a selected few I know (some of who are in our blogosphere) that atleast have sort of Taiwanese language, politics and culture fluency, and a strong bond with Taiwan, most expats live in their expat bubble constantly judging everything around them in cultural-political context they bring back from their home countries, usually having an extreme positive bias towards how they see themselves and an extreme negative bias in how they see Taiwan and Taiwanese.

As long as you sincerely care, you feel as though you belong, and you have made the commitment, I say step right in. If you're in Taiwan for 2 days, and constantly complain about how betel-nut chewing Taiwanese run through red lights don't care about their environment and all that I heard on a daily basis - I suggest some cultural sensitivity classes first. Taiwan would do fine without you.

Hawaiiki resident said...

The ideology coming out of China that is embraced by the KMT is racist nationalism -- the same kind of thing that made Nazi's look down on Slavs or Gypsies (and of course Africans and Jews).

If you are associated with the ethnic "Han" Chinese you are accepted no matter where you were born. If you are Austronesian, you are looked down upon as an unfortunate distraction. If you are of African, European, Indian, Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian etc. descent, you are an outsider that to them has no business nosing in the affairs of their great race.

They would not use those terms, but I think this Han chauvinism approaches this kind of racism.

dennis said...

foreigner? where? i dont see any foreigner. you my friend are 500 times more Taiwanese than the like of Ma Jing Jeo, who if you ask me should be trialed for treason.

dennis said...

and of course the many others such as David, Michael Turton, Claudia Jean... Taiwan is lucky and proud to have such patriots

Jade said...

I started to read many blogs matained by "foreigners" in Taiwan only recently. I am raising a family in the United States and the daily routines had kept me from reading too much blogs. Now that my children are getting older, I spent more and more time reading these blogs. I was totally touched by many of them. I started to wonder why these people would spend their time writing many historical facts to help Taiwanese understand their history. I felt these are people who have the moral courage to do what is right. From historical reason, I tried not to read too much news articles from Taiwan. To me most of them are to KMT what Xinhua is to CCP. So these blogs became my resources of Taiwan news. Most of these blogs gave me a lot of in depth understanding of what is happening in Taiwan. I would think many of the readers of these blogs have the same sentiment. I appreciate your efforts warmheartedly and I would never consider you are foreigners.

馬諾Manuel said...

According to the ROC law it is illegal for non Chinese heritages (if you are an oversea Chinese it's a different issue) to speak up, to gather with political activist or say loud any opinion about Taiwan nor China in public.

Robin Winkler for example is an environmentalist. He may not say "Save Taiwanese forest!", but "Save American forest!"...Taiwan is so backward with its freedom of speech that you need to have an ROC citizenship to say anything about Taiwan, China or even Tibet (all are parts of the ROC).

If you want "internationals" more involved in Taiwanese "heart issues" change the law first, but I already can tell you that the AIT will prevent any administration from doing so, because that would threaten the security policy.

So, let's unit Taiwan with the US then use the US law and right of speech of freedom in the Taiwan state.

Poohat said...

Very nicely said. It has always bugged me when Taiwanese people have said that we foreigners can never understand Chinese culture/politics... Like somehow what is happening here is akin to advanced quantum physics and all other world political issues school yard shennanigans.