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Monday, May 23, 2005

A Day at the Beach

Baishawan is one of the closest beaches to Taipei. The words bai sha mean white sand, and Baishawan used to have just that. On Saturday, however, the white sand was half gone, replaced by a grainy black sand that gave the whole beach the appearance of being dirty. The water was kind of murky as well, but pleasant, and all in all it was a good day for the beach.

I was at the beach with Natalia and a couple of foreign teachers, an American girl and a Canadian guy. We all fell asleep for awhile, and when we woke up we sat watching the people walking and playing in front of us. A sample:

"Now that is typical Taiwanese, there!"
"Why would you come to the beach wearing pants and a long sleeve shirt?"
"She has to be careful, she has a little leg showing - she might get some sun!"
"Oh - now that is classic. A girl with her handbag draped over one arm, holding up her dress in the other so she can walk in the water. What is this?"
"Jeez - even the guys go in the water with their shirts on."
"Not that guy - Look at that speedo. And in white!"

I will admit that it is easy to shake your head at Taiwanese beach habits. It is rare to see a Taiwanese girl in a one piece bathing suit, let alone a bikini. Girls and boys alike normally wear long shorts and a T-shirt when going out into the water. While sitting on the beach, they tend to sit under cover, and some Taiwanese women will, when walking on the beach, hide under an umbrella (this is very common on the city streets).

"She must be a foreigner."
"Oh, has to be. She's wearing a bikini."
"Yeah, look - foreigner."
"A Taiwanese girl would never wear something like that."
"Or have boobs that big."

A brief exchange between Natalia and our American companion led me to start thinking about all of this from a different point of view. I began to think as a Taiwanese might. What might they say, for example, about someone like me who on Thursday visited a doctor to have some moles looked at for skin cancer and whose face, according to some, looks older than its years due to time spent out in the sun? Would they laugh at the girl all but naked in a bikini in the morning, barely able to sit down for the sun burn at night? Or perhaps in their minds and in their whispered conversations they say "Someone with a body like that should not be wearing something like that."

I think it is a habit of westerners in Taiwan to shake our heads and laugh at the habits of the Taiwanese that just don't make sense. Even now that I have become used to so many things here, I find myself baffled by the emotional immaturity of so many twenty-somethings, or the fact that chlidren spend so much time at school. Though I enjoy eating with chopsticks, I wonder how much wood must be used each year in order to supply all of the restaurants with chopsticks, and if perhaps it might not be a better idea to just use silverwear. This is besides the point, though.

It is easy when you go to new places not just to notice habits that differ from yours but to somehow dismiss those habits as being strange or ridiculous. This is not just something that Americans or Canadians might do. I've heard plenty of folks from England say some downright awful things about different places I have visited. Australians as well. I suppose it is easy to see, then, why these western, first world countries might come off as being arrogant.

Let's talk about food for a moment. People across Asia eat some strange things (to a western mind, here). They eat brains from still-living monkeys, dogs, rodents, snake, and insects among other things. It is easy to be disgusted. I wonder, though, as fast food chains have spread across the globe, what people from other places would say if they knew what goes into the dishes avaiable at McDonalds or Burger King (I'm re-reading Fast Food Nation right now). There is also the matter of portions. I have heard plenty of people (myself included) complain about the smaller portions served abroad. But then, I have also heard Taiwanese returning from America say, "How can you eat so much?"

When I started writing this, I had plans to bring it smoothly around to the recent Newsweek / Koran-abuse/ torture scandals that have made news across the world. I am quite distracted though, and I haven't been able to do it. I'm just going to kind of force it in here. Of all the news surrounding Newsweek's story about Koran-abuse at Guantanamo, and of stories about the depth of abuse in Afghanistan, what disturbed me most was that most of the American public (I'm just going by news reports here, so I don't know if this is true or not) did not initially think much of the fact that these actions had taken place. It was only after violent protests across the Muslim world took place that the public took notice.

This is obviously a much larger scale case of not trying to understand something from another point of view, I know. The fact of the matter is, though, that a greater effort needs to be made to consider the reasons behind the actions of another culture instead of dismissing the actions out of hand. That might help some of us foreigners (and Americans) to understand why those in other cultures shake their heads at the things we do - and perhaps take steps to better explain ourselves and to find a more common understanding about things.


Anonymous Julien said...

Dear Alan,

I have found your blog's address on Leslie's photoblog. I would have sent you an email, but I couldn't find your email address on your blog.

My name is Julien. I am building a new website for expatriates, and will be the webmaster of In the last three years I have spent a lot of time travelling and living away from my home country, hence me setting up

I had the idea to create a blog so I could share my experiences of living abroad and keep in touch with my family and friends. While reading other expatriate blogs the idea came to me to create a classified expat blog directory. This would include a free blog hosting platform with interesting features such as picture albums designed specifically for expatriates. I do not believe this would be in competition with existing blog platforms such as blogger.

The website is still in working progress. The present situation is as follows:
> The expatriate blog directory, including a classification per country and language - I am working on this at the present time
> The free Blog platform – this section will be completed by the middle of June.
> An Expat resource directory - this will include all expatriate suggestions.
> A forum designed to encourage interactivity and questions/answers from expatriate to expatriate

This is the global presentation of the website. Do you think my project is a good idea?

Would you like to add your blog in the expatriate blog directory?

I look forward to hearing from you



1:32 AM  

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