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The Unbearable Lightness of Being an Expatriate

Comrades,

I have struggled with the thought of writing something about my experience of living in Taipei for four years. I have complained, sometimes loudly to my friends, about the community of foreigners that I often had little choice but to hang out with.

I have always wrestled internally about what my opinion of Taipei should be. On the one hand I have genuinely wanted to discover it and take its pulse, on the other I have not made the necessary efforts to sally too far off from the expat community with whom I shared the comfort of a common language and cultural references.

Several months ago, upon seeing my photography of Taipei, a close friend remarked: “I would say you are rather fond of Taipei, despite your recriminations”. It is true that my most intimate moments with the city have been when I went out with a camera, pounding its pavements for hours on end. The occasions have given me the opportunity to appreciate Taipei in my own way, instead of parroting somebody else’s lines like: “oh it’s so convenient!” or “I feel like I can do anything here!”

Swinging back and forth between the cloned nightclubs and expatriate bars is not knowing Taipei. Despite the best efforts of its undemocratic administration to make it ‘hao hao kan’ by pushing the working classes and students further and further to the outer rims and building airtight cages of opulence adorned with phoney floral exhibitions, there remains a Taipei of betel-nut chewers, riverside drinkers and small industries. This is the Taipei which lies outside the map of the average expatriate whose petty life revolves around attending cesspool parties, or ogling dick-in-hand photographs of ladies’ nights at Luxy, Wax or Babe 18 -courtesy of everyone’s favourite event photographer Fifi Millicent. This element of the expatriate community with its head so deep in its asshole is complicit in fuelling the bulldozers that roar all around the city.

The tragedy of it all is that the overwhelming majority of the expats who have contributed to this economy of destruction are so deep in their alcohol-induced stupor that they are completely incapable of realising the part they play.

Although the academic focus of my work in Taiwan has been on the question of sexual identity, I have held a personal interest in the developmental policy of Taipei. And it is not too difficult to see the parallels between the Western expatriates’ vision of Taiwanese sexuality and the urban developments occurring in the city since the mid-1990s.

Let’s face it, Taipei is not some dainty fairy land. Its chief ornamental features are either Memorial Halls for a murderous single party regime, or mere capitalist ventures motivated more by a desire to profit from land speculation than to provide a service for a broad income demographic (Da-an Park, Treasure Hill, Xinyi district).

It is almost as if the Taipei City Government is trying to build a giant turbine to chase the rain clouds over Taipei, so often depicted in the movies of Tsai Ming Liang. Floral arrangements with their accompanying mascots and temporary gallery buildings promoting development projects are springing up left and right.

The concept of ‘temporary gallery buildings’ needs further explanation for readers who are not familiar with the bizarre politics of Taipei’s urban development. These structures are immediately identifiable from their white exteriors and small trendy cafes adorned with all manner of symbolisms that set them apart from the usual messiness of Taipei. Effectively, these are mere placeholders for upcoming residential monstrosities. The cream and the crust of Taipei are invited to these whitewashed trenches of the war against urban spontaneity to sip cappuccino and ponder themselves as pioneers of ‘bohemian’ neighbourhoods, driving in and out of iron gates supported by Roman columns, without so much as glimpsing at the uniformed security guards.

The same security guards take it upon themselves to chase curious camera wielders (like yours truly). One wonders if they object so eagerly to the photographic immortalisation of their master’s property due to any legitimate concerns over security, or because they do not wish the world outside to see what ostentatious fortresses they have been paid to bark in front of.

It is to this monstrous advance of opulence that the live venue Underworld has fallen victim. The starting place for many of Taiwan’s bands that are now exported abroad, Underworld was little more than a hole in the wall. The conflict of interest between the Shida residents’ association and their desire to see the property prices in the area shoot up with reconstruction projects, and a group of dedicated alternative music fans was, from the outset, an uphill battle. And as it is in real life, as opposed to heartwarming biblical stories, the stronger side inevitably won.

The relationship between an outsider’s perception of Asian sexuality and the urban sprawl of Taipei should be clearer by now. Let us look for example at the observation one expatriate made on Facebook:

“Taiwan, you’d be beautiful were it not for all that damned stupid make-up you keep wearing. Take off the eyelashes, baby. Put the wig away. Get a tan. Put on some hip fat. Go out. Get laid. Formosa, you’re beautiful as all hell, but you just try too damned hard…”

The metaphor of Taiwan as a young woman who wears too much make-up, avoids the sun, and practices sexual abstinence, serves to draw a parallel between the urban environment the typical expatriate dwells in and the women he typically associates with. The same expat then helpfully takes it upon himself to advise both Taiwan and Taiwanese women to do away with what he considers to be artificial embellishments and embrace instead their inner ‘natural’ beauty.

The first problem with the statement is of course the patriarchal and colonial assumption that it takes a heroic white man to rush to the rescue of the Oriental woman and free her of the wicked ways she was brought up with in her own native environment. This is of course one of Hollywood’s favourite fantasies when it comes to dealing with cross-cultural romance between East and West. The story often comes to a happy end with the dashing hero rescuing the damsel in distress from the Triads, the Communists or Fu Manchu and incorporating her into the fabled ‘American way of life’. Which is the only way of life that befits a human being, or so we are told.

The other problem I wish to focus on now is the cross-section of women that is taken to be representative of Taiwan. The stereotype of skinny Taiwanese girls with fake eyelashes (I have no idea where the wig comes from) is something of a stalwart in the expatriate litany of offensive stereotypes. In almost every single case, this caricature is cited to make a point about the superficiality, the submissiveness or the artificiality of the Asian personality. However, more than making a point about Asians, it makes a point about the person who relies on these stereotypes.

A strictly statistical survey of the Island may have revealed that women over the age of 35 who work as farm labourers to be a more representative demographic than that picked by the speaker. Or, indeed, the beetle nut chewing, grease stained scooter repairmen. A metaphorical exploration of the island on the other hand, through a survey of Taiwanese literature and cinema, may also reveal the insignificance of the above stereotype, as to my knowledge (though I am by no means an expert, and thus would love to hear from them) Taiwanese storytellers are more inspired by Taiwan’s underworld than they are by characters that are largely manufactured by Occidental fantasy. It can be said, then, that these expats’ ideas about who represents Taiwan are predictably skewed by the environment by which they are surrounded.

This environment is the official ‘top 10 must-see tourist destinations’ environment that has been created by the Taipei local government to create a Disneyland of affluence. The Xinyi district, with all of its nightclubs that are specifically designed to facilitate staged events of conspicuous consumption, and its giant phallic monument – Taipei 101 – are the ultimate examples of such a space. I will not deny that a place like the Xinyi is an aspect of Taiwan. When it comes to a realistic representation, however, it is as representative as the movies screened in the ‘Warner Village’ – which it hosts – are of the United States, the Vietnam War or a possible alien invasion.


One Response to “The Unbearable Lightness of Being an Expatriate”

  • jazz Says:

    A unique insight with a very sharp tounge. Though a very general observation of expats (especially “westerners”), nonetheless it reflects more truth than just mere critisicm. Looking forward to upcoming posts.

    “However, more than making a point about Asians, it makes a point about the person who relies on these stereotypes.”

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