Expat Magazine

Stared At, Talked At, Or Completely Ignored: Frustrations Of A Foreign Woman In Taiwan.

By Zach Zine @Int_In_Debt


At times in my current life in Taiwan, I feel like I’m caught in a 1950s sitcom, such as “Leave It to Beaver.”

Both Zach and I were brought up to think of and treat every person fairly and equally.  Everyone, no matter what size, shape, color, gender, wallet size, etc., should be considered just the same as the next.  Because I grew up surrounded by this idea, if anyone tried to convince me otherwise, I had my security blanket of years of understanding to back me up and keep me safe and warm (physically, this blanket represents either eye-rolling or an inability to keep my mouth shut when I’m angered).  Because I knew my moral values were the ‘correct’ values, I became very stubborn and found it difficult to even listen to anyone with views other than my own.  In my head, I knew I was right, and that was all that mattered.

Then, almost a year and a half ago, I landed on a small island known as Taiwan, and my ideology has indeed been challenged.  Before I go on, I’d like to mention that Taiwan has definitely progressed into the 21st century and is trudging toward Western ideals.  However, there are still instances where I feel uncomfortable and am put into situations I hadn’t really dealt with back home.

When coming into contact with older Taiwanese men, it seems there are in general three different responses from them: unabashedly staring, striking up a one-way conversation, or completely ignoring me.

Exhibit A: The Gazer.  It’s inevitable, being a foreigner in a country that is homogenized and whose economy doesn’t rely on tourism, that staring is going to be a part of your daily life.  You are simply an interesting creature to the locals and they want to study your weird traits and habits.  This gets easier to adjust to, and generally when you look back at them, they’ll realize they’ve been caught and look away.  That’s fine, I enjoy people watching here just as much as they do.

The jaw-clenching moments come when you can feel their eyes glued to you for some time and you give them the “I know you’re looking at me glance,” but they refuse to back down.  So, I squint my eyes and furrow my brow in return to acknowledge my discomfort, but they press on, gaze unchanged.  The culprit in this situation is, 100% of the time, a Taiwanese male aged 50 or older.  Their unwillingness to look away from me makes me feel like they are gaining some sort of power over me. It makes me feel that if I look away and ignore it, they’ve won, and they’re free to look me up and down for as long as they’d like, while I stand in front of them, feeling essentially naked and powerless.

There have been numerous occasions where this happens and I’m forced to either position myself in a different direction or completely move out of their view because I feel so uncomfortable.  I’ve decided from now on, I’m going to take out my phone and capture pictures of the old stubborn scums.

Exhibit B:  The Lecturer. I was sitting on the train, going over my Chinese workbook when older Taiwanese man sits down next to me and soon reaches over to point to a character in my book.  In English, he tells me that the translation I had written for this certain character was wrong.  I thanked him, and we began to chat- kind of.

He started by asking me why I’m here in Taiwan.  At this point, this answer is robotic, so I open my mouth to quickly spit out the same story I’ve told many times before when I’m suddenly silenced mid-sentence by my new acquaintance, who begins to talk about himself.  Apparently my story wasn’t entertaining enough for him.  He begins to tell me about a foreigner, whom he calls a “yankee” because he’s from New York, who he had been “consulting” for some time in regards to climbing a mountain here in Taiwan.

He continues on about himself as I nod along.  Every time I open my mouth to comment, I’m immediately interrupted by something else he finds more important than whatever it is I’m about to say.  He then takes out his wallet and hands me his all-Chinese business card.  I start to tell him that I recognize only a couple characters and if he could translate the information for me, when I’m again interrupted.  He reaches over, takes the card out of my hand, turns it around, and points to the cell phone number in big, bold numbers.

“You see this number?”  I nod, talking at this point is a waste of my breath.  “You can call this number any time you want and I can consult you about Taiwan.”  I’m not sure if he was listening when I said how long I’ve been in Taiwan, but I gave him my thanks and, by a stroke of some sort of luck, I look up to see that my stop is next.  I jump up out of my seat early to escape this lecture a few seconds earlier.  Blocked by a brick wall of people all eagerly waiting to be the first to get shoved off the train, I don’t venture too far away.  As I impatiently tap my foot as the train slowly comes to a halt, I can feel his eyes burning through my skin.  He never even asked for my name.  Thanks a lot, Evan.

Exhibit C: The BusinessMAN.  The first time we met our current landlord, Zach and I sat down with him to go over our lease.  At first, he seemed like a nice, happy-go-lucky man that was excited to begin taking our rent money.  While talking through the lease, however, I noticed he wasn’t throwing a single glance in my direction- his eyes were locked on Zach.  Even when I would respond to some of his questions and comments, his gaze stayed fixed on Zach, as though Zach were the one to have just spoken and I was simply air that filled the room.  Perhaps I’m not supposed to have a say in such an important decision?  I sat back and began to pout, silently.

It’s interesting because when I want to have the attention, such as in a conversation where I want to be included, I’m not receiving it.  However, when I don’t want the attention, such as when I’m just a public display of artwork in a museum or an animal in its cage at the zoo, I can’t escape it.

This is not intended to set a generalization for all older men in Taiwan.  I have had my share of great conversations and respect from Taiwanese men that are older than myself.  However, I’d be lying if I said they were all respecting of foreigner women, or women in general.  I can’t speak for Taiwanese women, because I myself am not one, but I can say that I have witnessed cases similar to my own.

What I have learned thus far, is that I can’t control other people’s views, opinions and beliefs.  At times, especially when dabbling into alcohol, I can begin to lecture people with views other than my own, but I think that being immersed into a completely different culture is teaching me to accept all people and their beliefs.  If I don’t believe they are right, I can simply brush them off and not bring up the conversation again, or remove myself from the situation.  In the end, it takes much less energy to just bite your tongue and feel badly for the person and their close-minded outlook.  Instead of making my blood boil, I’m just going to snap their pictures and maybe start a Facebook album of the perpetrators.  Stay tuned for the photo essay.

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