Finding Strength In Lack of Numbers
They say you should travel at some point in your life. It broadens horizons. This is true. You can learn another language. True. You come to understand your own cultural background better. True again. But know what the most valuable thing for me is? Being on the receiving end of prejudice.
I think the usefulness of being a member of a minority is too often ignored. You’re never quite able to guess what those around you might be saying in private, no matter how they act in your presence. You come to see the extent of the ignorance, the effect of assumptions made before you’ve even opened your mouth.
You, moreover, experience the stark reality of being “other”. You are not one of us. You do not fit in, you never will.
A depressing notion? One you’ve considered before? It was something I’d thought of but never truly felt before coming here. Now I’m convinced it’s going to be one of the most important things I’ll take with me when I leave.
This is defined quite simply as “understanding and entering into another’s feelings”.
Think about how people grow up and the views they inherit. Most members of majorities are not particularly well endowed with feelings of empathy.
They either invest little time in understanding what minorities in their countries have to endure or find themselves unable to do so. Like it or not, many find a bridge between themselves and people of a different background or race.
Empathy is necessary because we all hold assumptions about others. Even the word itself has dangerous connotations.
Whether Taiwanese, African, Western – or whatever – remember some of the things you may have said about others or heard said about you.
“Taiwanese have no imagination!”
“My god, Westerners love to drink! And they’re so loud!”
“Jeez, don’t Asians have a lame sense of humour?”
“All foreigners have one night stands…”
When many Westerners come to this country they are utterly unprepared for what awaits them. Most have rarely left their own cultures and soon find that they had been one hundred percent encased by it.
Perhaps there were variations marked by spells of travel to other Western nations, but they were variations on a single monocultural theme. Many have always been “normal”, easily able to find acceptance in society.
Here, when you sit on the transport system there’s not a single other person like you and you couldn’t even begin to imagine what thoughts are passing through the minds of those around you.
Maybe you can hear Japanese somewhere behind you, nearly as incomprehensible to modern Taiwanese as it is to you, but before that person opens their mouth they remain able to disappear in the crowd.
Most of the readership of this magazine will understand this and, like me, find it difficult and at times annoying or depressing. However, consider an alternative perspective.
Once you’ve been a member of a minority it’s a little easier to transpose yourself into the shoes of the immigrants arriving in your home country.
The same utter foreigness and difficulties with the language. The same ignorance, often with a good dash of racist hostility. I’m not saying it’s really possible to imagine the plight of a Chinese or African immigrant to the West.
Their struggle always was and will be manifestly greater than people like myself will ever experience. Not only migration but often poverty and having to begin from a much lower position in the new society. People like myself find themselves on the positive side of prejudice in Taiwan.
I hope, though, at least those like me who came here with literally nothing and knowing no one are able to better empathise with the loneliness and struggle of building an entirely new life from the bottom up.
Migration is a trend that is universally on the increase. Especially as the 21st century gets more fully into its stride and the scales of global power and wealth tip in favour of the East, we may come to see the next generations of Westerners moving eastward on a more permanent basis than is now the case.
Most Western foreigners now only move east in search of a way to quickly save money before returning home or a chance to open their eyes more fully to the world around them. It is a luxury that we are not forced to look abroad for the best means to secure the futures of our children.
However, might our children or children’s children be forced to do this to secure ours?
Being a member of a minority is entirely contextual, anyone on earth can join this group by simply moving abroad. Those who do can more easily reflect on the difficulties of peoples anywhere who find themselves unfairly judged or treated.
It’s worth spending some portion of the time spent in this country to reflect and attempt to develop empathy for the struggles of minorities worldwide.
It’s time well spent.
- by Nathan Haslewood, Taiwanease magazine, 2007