Because it's just that: My personal experience. I cannot speak for all people who live/have lived as minorities, I cannot speak even to the general experience of all tall white girls in Taiwan. I can only speak about what I personally am experiencing. So this is not a manifesto, just a personal meditation.
When I last wrote about getting stares, I was still in Taipei. North of the island, biggest city in Taiwan, etc etc etc. I wrote that they were minimal, that they were more curious than lecherous, just interested passing glances. Now I'm in a small town in the south. Now the stares are unabashed and lingering. Now I feel like I'm in a zoo, except I'm the animal. And I'm the only one. And they're all here to see me. I wish they'd at least bring food.
I know I'm tall. I know I'm white. I know my eyes are blue. I know I have tattoos and curly hair. Most of these things have been a lifelong thing for me - even the tattoos started eleven years ago. None of this is new for me.
It's pretty new to most of the folks in Pingdong, apparently.
Today some friends were going to go swimming. They asked if I wanted to go. DUH YES. I mean... yeah, if you know me, you know how I feel about swimming. Just what I need, I thought. Especially after last night, drinking with other students in the program and getting into a pretty intense discussion about trans* people and how they aren't unnatural or gross with a bigot in the group.
The place was really magical. For a water-junkie like me, it was a literal heaven on earth. There was a 50-meter long pool for swimming (only one real lap lane that had several people in it, but laps were do-able), and next to it in the corner was this wall about hip-high. Climb over this wall and you find two big soaking pits, one is just warm with these three crazy jets shooting down from the short ceiling you can stand under for a massage, and the other is super hot for soaking, next to some small windows that open into this jungle-looking area with a nice breeze passing by.
And if that wasn't water-heaven enough, downstairs with the dressing rooms (which have both a sauna and a steam room) is this thing called the SPA. Walk down the hallway and you again have to climb over a short wall which puts you in another water pit. This one is kinda lukewarm too, and there are different jet-things everywhere. You can scoot back into a u-shaped cave area where jets will come at you from different angles, you can stand under more of the crazy shower-jets, you can scoot through a maze of little cube-posts that shoot jets out from different heights, you can lay back on the bed-chairs that have jets shooting up at you from underneath... water decadence! It was wonderful! It would have been perfect...
... if I hadn't been the zoo animal.
One girl came around the corner in the dressing room, and when she saw me, drew a sharp intake gasp of breath, her face went all shocked, and she literally jumped back. Yo, .... what? I'm just another human. I'm not some crazy devil monster who's going to attack you. I mean, ... except ...
...that we are literally referred to as "white ghost" here. We were taught this by the program director on a slide in her powerpoint presentation on Taiwanese culture. The slide was titled "How are Americans perceived?" There were bulletin points with racial slurs. White ghost is a little outdated, though. These days, apparently, the popular one is something to do with what freakishly long noses we have. How is that appropriate to teach as a class?
I go through this and I think about my friends of color back home. The thing is, I really don't have it that bad. Sure, I look over in the pool and realize that this old dude is going underwater so he can stare at my body underneath the water's surface, and that's really creepy and weird, but it's not like he's denying me any rights, or spitting on me or anything.
And that's my experience. That I am a novelty, a freak, something to be exoticised, and I don't like it, and I want to complain, and I stare right back now at those who stare at me. And when the little girl who keeps bumping into me in the pool to say, in English, "Oh sorry sorry" finally decides that she's tired of me ignoring her and actually grabs me while I'm swimming and pulls me under so that she can say "Oh sorry sorry" again and surely I'll respond this time, I do, and I look her right in the eyes, and I say, in Chinese, "What? What do you want? What would you like? What?" and she swims away but her friends keep staring and saying, in English, "HALLO HALLOOOO!" and Jesus Christ I just came here to swim people, to get my zen on, to knock out a thousand yards until my body feels completely exhausted and like a million bucks at the same time. I love how my body moves in the water, but I don't want some creepy old man going under to love it too.
And yet I can't have these experiences without thinking about how I really don't have it that bad as a minority here. Yeah, when I complain to a friend who went with me to the pool, he says, in English, "But it is because in Taiwan, we think foreigners are so beautiful!" And I realize he means it as a compliment, genuinely, and so does the creepy old man, but that doesn't make it not racist.
The other night I took a train with a few friends (two Taiwanese, one Vietnamese-American) to Kaohsiung, the second biggest city in Taiwan which is just a half hour up the road. When the conductor passed, he said something in Chinese, and the two locals started laughing. They explained it to the Vietnamese-American, whose Chinese is way better than mine, and he explained it to me. The guy said what he always says, but this time, he said it "like an American would say it." Once he saw me, he decided, I guess, he should do his best American accent. And they all thought it was hilarious and dissolved into laughter.
And I think, well, but I'm still allowed to ride the train. It's not like there's a "White Ghosts Only" car in the back or anything. But I can't help getting pissed.
This has really been a busy and interesting week. There was an opening ceremony, a few days of classes, and a school-led trip to Kaohsiung with a huge Buddhist monastery, a mountain climb with monkeys, and a harbor visit. It was all rad, and I know I should have written about it by now... but I've been kindof confused about how to write about those awesome things and also this prevailing weirdness. So here's this post dedicated to weirdness, and hopefully tomorrow I can write about awesome things only. In the meantime, hopefully, I will just learn and grow.