United States

Brexit’s Warning to America

Originally posted to Fay’s Medium.

Brexit’s Warning to America: Don’t Validate Your Racists

In the wee hours of Thursday night, just before falling asleep, I checked the news one last time before bed to see if there were any interesting headlines from around the world. As Washington, D.C. snoozed, those of us tuned into the waking world felt sleep suddenly leave us as we found out the United Kingdom had voted, by a slim margin, to leave the European Union. The Brexit was now a reality, and its implications were sending the media and markets into a tailspin.

Though I read world news for at least an hour every morning for work, I tended to skimp on reading about the Leave campaign or UKIP (U.K. Independence Party) simply because the notion of a Brexit sounded farfetched. The idea of the U.K. shooting itself in the foot both economically and politically by leaving the E.U. sounded even more outrageous and unimaginable than last year’s infamous referendum vote in Greece that inspired a similarly punny term: “Grexit”. In July 2015, the Greek people, beaten down by years 0f austerity and pushed by populism voted overwhelmingly to renege on their debt and leave the E.U. as well. In the end, however, their leadership ignored its people and listened to E.U. leaders. The Greek government opted to avert an even worse financial crisis at the expense of its democratic integrity. Needless to say, as bad as Greece is today, it would have been worse had it left the E.U. and attempted to resuscitate the long-dead drachma.

But I digress. The Grexit and the Brexit are only similar in the fact that from the outset they sounded so unbelievable to the average person. Indeed, a viable Donald Trump candidacy for President of the United States began equally as unbelievable — laughable, even. How could the average, decent human being be caught so off-guard by the burgeoning hate within their own country? Many European countries as well as the United States have supremely underestimated the power of this extremist, xenophobic contagion that has spread across the Western world since the 2008 recession, amplified by the refugee crisis, and stoked by demagogues looking for an easy path to power. This contagion goes by many names and slogans — “Make America Great Again,” “Freedom for Britain,” National Front, Golden Dawn, etc.— , but they all share the same features: the scapegoating of immigrants and ethnic minorities, a propensity toward violence, and a touch of religious extremism.

All this to say, that on June 23rd, 2016, the United Kingdom did not just vote to leave the European Union, they decided to leave the modern world and decent society and legitimize their bigots instead. On Saturday, a compilation of more than 100 tweets from the U.K. went viral on Facebook (they have since been removed for unknown reasons). The tweets came from British citizens who woke up to a “new Britain” they no longer recognized or felt safe in anymore. Decent British citizens suddenly found themselves in a country where people publicly harassed and berated men, women, and children because they had an accent, spoke another language, wore traditional clothing, or had darker skin.

 

Trending on Twitter: #PostBritishRacism #PostRefRacism

What UKIP and the Leave campaign has done to British society, a Donald Trump White House will do for the United States.

A Plea to the America’s Maybe Trump Voters

It’s not impossible for this kind of blatant hate speech to become more normalized in the United States and manifest in actual violence. Indeed, we have already seen several examples of how Trump’s rabble-rousing is doing just that. But we have a chance to stop it. Let us take the Brexit as a warning and recognize that the United States does not accept blind prejudice, racism, and an unjustifiable fear of immigrants.

There is an unsettling number of maybe-Trump supporters in my life. Many of these folks are not hateful people. They are people who want some kind of genuine change to take place in the American government, and they want to feel like they have a voice in the behemoth of the American political machine. Many are not people who you would call racist/sexist/homophobic/etc., but are people who believe that someone new in the Oval Office who will either frighten or inspire our stagnant Congress into action. Given the option of Clinton or Trump, these people think “at least Trump will shake up the system because he’s an outsider and brash.” Many Americans can sympathize with this sentiment, but the belief that Trump is the outsider we need to shake up the American political system is specious and naive. It is also a bit lazy to believe that all the work you need to do to change your country for the better can be done in a single, specific election.

The true impact of a Trump presidency will not be a 50-foot border wall along the Mexican border nor will it be a Nazi-esque database of Muslims that will track every American Muslim’s information. President Trump’s true impact would be in the public acknowledgement that the majority of Americans are justified in their fear of one another, and that the only way to deal with that fear is to sequester ourselves away from diversity, human decency, and the modern world. To vote for Donald Trump would be to disavow the values and achievements of the United States.

Britain did not just shoot itself in the foot this week economically, but it has further emboldened racism in its country and the ramifications are striking. We have come too far, America, to regress socially as Britain has sadly decided to do. Make no mistake, the general election in November is not about “PC culture” and it’s not about “making America great again.” This election is about preserving the achievements we have made as a nation over the last 240 years in order to make our citizens and soon-to-be citizens safer, more prosperous, and a part of the American community. Because, personally, I don’t remember the past as that great and worth “going back” to, do you?

What utopia from the past would we try to return to? The past where an African American person would essential risk their life simply to exercise their right to vote? The past where women weren’t considered capable or intelligent enough to vote, file for divorce, or acquire contraception? The past where child labor was considered normal? The past where social security didn’t exist and we were perfectly okay to let our seniors die impoverished and alone? The past where people could openly and without retribution deny opportunities in education, housing, and financing just because of someone’s race, sexuality, or gender? I cannot imagine anyone wants this country to go back to any of those versions of America. No matter how bad we think things are today, “going back” is not an option.

The “real America” is not supposed to be a society with a tribal mentality where our freedoms and rights are viewed as a limited resource of privileges that only certain groups can hold at one time. No, the “real America” believes we can move beyond that petty tribal squabbling of “whites v. everyone else,” “immigrants v. native born” “Muslims v. Christians,” etc. and that we are able to engender trust in the presence of diversity and change. There are still severe injustices in our country for people of all groups and classes, but we cannot fix these problems by being suspicious and hateful of one another. Believe it or not, America can become better and better if we work together.

Though the United Kingdom is an ocean away, I urge all Americans, to take the social implications of the Brexit very seriously. The United States must not vote for or encourage the bigotry upon which Donald Trump has built his entire campaign. Hillary can be a great president even if you distrust her last name as a legacy of “the establishment.” At least, she has avoided the use of platitudes, hate speech, and fear mongering to get this far. The same cannot be said for Donald Trump. You, our families, our friends and I will be safer living in a Hillary America than a Trump America.

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Farewell Pt. 2: Sort-Of “Passing” AKA Blending in Taiwan

**NOTE**Before I tumble down the rabbit hole of racism and sexism in Taiwan v. Greater Asia or the United States, I want to pause and remind anyone reading this, that I’m focusing on specifically my OWN experience. I am just recording and reflecting on what I’ve noticed happen to me and around me during my year here.***

Elephant in the Blog

One thing I’ve consciously tried not to do on this blog is to make my race a point of discussion as I experience life in Taiwan. I wanted to see my grant through the eyes of a teacher first, rather than as a “raced-person” first. Also, I think that the story of Western-Foreigner-in-Asia is overtold. Likewise, the tale of the Asian American in East Asia, though less known to the average non-travelling American, is definitely often talked about among travelers and in expat communities.

Why write about this topic? Because my racial background did impact my quality of life in Taiwan. I’ve heard too many of my expat and Fulbright friends say, “I wish people didn’t just point me out on the street all the time.” Or, “I wish people didn’t just assume I don’t know Chinese.” Or, “I wish people would stop taking pictures of me.” And I have not shared that same experience on my own.

When I compare my experiences to that of Asian American friends, White American, or Black American friends here, I would argue that being half-Asian only made my daily life easier. In fact, I would say being a half-Chinese-half-European-American woman in Taiwan is probably the most privileged, respected life I have ever lived. It’s really weird to type, think, and acknowledge, but I would be lying if I said that life in Taiwan has really shocked me culturally (though there are several cultural discrepncies). I am half-Chinese afterall, so some cultural things were already familiar. Granted, there are institutional things in the education system, immigration system, the driving culture, or the police culture that surprised me, but I never experienced a level of culture shock in Taiwan where I envied my previous life in the States. Well, except maybe when it comes to food…

Come here, you beautiful bastard.

Essentially, I noticed something happening to me in Taiwan that has only occaisionally happened in the U.S. I was simulatenously passing as a member of the majority population and living a Western expat life.

Racial passing occurs when a person classified as a member of one racial group is also accepted as a member of a different racial group. The term was used especially in the U.S. to describe a person of mixed-race heritage assimilating into the white majority during times when legal and social conventions of hypodescent classified the person as a minority, subject to racial segregation and discrimination.

–Wikipedia

In more detail that means…

1) I can “pass” for Taiwanese better than other foreigners.

Put me in a Taiwanese-style outfit and you wouldn’t take a second look at me as we passed on the street (this has happened often with White people in Taiwan). Dark hair, angled eyes and a similar complexion help, but upon closer inspection my prominent Greek nose still sets me apart from time to time. Luckily, Taiwan offers a bit of racial wiggle room. For instance, I’ve been told by some of the Taiwanese Aboriginal (yuán zhùmín) shop owners in Cishan that my nose is fēicháng hǎo (great) as they also touched or gestured to their equally well-bridged noses. I even had a parent at my school speak to me in Hakka and when I couldn’t respond she asked, Nǐ shì bùshì kèjiā rén? (“Aren’t you Hakka?”). Blending in means I can go pretty much anywhere unnoticed in Taiwan where there’s a moderately sized crowd and no one will be the wiser. Until I open my mouth, that is, and nothing but “American” comes out.

No one screams Wàiguó rén! (foreigner) or Hēirén (black person) at me on the street and there’s less of a chance for people stopping me at random to play 20 Questions with them, though it does occasionally happen. Blending in also means that occasionally my students will ask (as one did in June), “Justin laoshi, Fay laoshi is American, right? I can’t remember.”

Peace signs for days. Yeah I look different, but I don't look

My co-teachers and I had an awesome surf lesson in Kenting in May. Here, we pose with our coaches (the three guys in the book). I look different, but not “American.” As some locals might say.

2) I always have a Get Out of Jail card AKA the Wàiguó Rén Card. Blending in often means that Taiwanese will treat me like another Taiwanese. I’ll get solicited by Greenpeace on the street just like I used to in NYC, store clerks will try to get me to join rewards programs, Taiwanese will ask me to give directions, and I’m overall be expected to know Chinese fluently. Yet, the moment I get into a Taiwanese situation that I don’t want to be in or can’t handle because the language is way over my head, I just throw out the Tīngbùdǒng Card. Tīng bù dǒng (聽不懂) literally means “hear but don’t understand,” and it’s a phrase that is kryptonite to any Chinese language conversation.

Commit a cultural faux pas? Tīng bù dǒng. Don’t want to eat some strange food being offered to me? Tīng bù dǒng. Trying to get into a friend’s building without a key or any identification without being stopped? Tīng bù dǒng. Don’t want to accept an invitation for an event from an acquaintance or stranger? Tīng bù dǒng. Being asked my number? Tīng bù dǒng. Running a red light? Tīng bù dǒng.

Being a foreigner who doesn’t understand Chinese is an amazing escape hatch. Locals are never angry or disappointed when they hear tīng bù dǒng because suddenly standing before them is this new opportunity or experience they haven’t had before. A foreigner! And this is where the privilege comes in. I get to benefit from blending in at first, but I don’t have to keep up with any social responsibility that a Taiwanese person is expected to follow. Instead, I somtimes have the choice to self-isolate.

3) No Catcalling. Living in New York. No, living in the whole wide world has made me very self-conscious about how, where, when, and what I wear when I walk outside alone. I have been street harassed in at least 90% of the places I’ve ever lived in or visited. Despite what the “mens-rights activists” may say, catcalling is seriously wrong, and it’s a psychological burden for the person who is being targeted over and over again. It’s a constant reminder that you are seen and treated as a subordinate in a social hierarchy. It wasn’t until I moved to Kaohsiung did I notice that the defensive behavior I picked up from back home to combat street harassers was unnecessary in Taiwan. Within the first couple of months, I noticed that I typically walked with my eyes staring only at the sidewalk directly in front of me, I consciously wore a frown, that I subconsciously avoided making eye contact with people, and that my ears were always piqued to listen for a muttered comment or rude shout from whomever I’d just passed. However, eye contact, smiles, and nods are just acknowledgements of another person’s existence in Taiwan. There is often no ulterior motive (though I won’t deny that creeps exist in every country). Without catcalling, I feel so much more liberated to just wander anywhere in the city on foot in any style of clothing I feel comfortable in. It’s like I have permission to be myself in public.

**Sidenote** I have been catcalled once in Kaohsiung while walking with a friend to a club late at night. The two men were from North America, not Taiwan.

4) I feel comfortable. Sure, I get pointed out for being American or foreign sometimes, but it’s not as intense for me. I’m foreign, but I’m only so much foreign. People kind of expect me to speak Chinese and won’t patronizingly applaud my “great Chinese” after simply saying the words 謝謝 xièxiè (thank you). No one wants to play with my hair or touch my skin because thei texture and color is too similar to the Taiwanese. Often my students even forget I’m American. At one point near the end of the first semester, one of my students, Mars, asked my coteacher, Sam, “Teacher Fay bùshì Táiwān rén ma?” (Teacher Fay, isn’t Taiwanese?) No, Mars. Do you really think I choose to speak Chinese this badly?

It Can’t All Be Rainbows and Sunshine

Taiwan is not perfect. It’s certainly grappling with its own race and gender issues today and equal respect is not bestowed upon White, Black, or East and Southeast Asian foreigners . Don’t believe me? Look at this toothpaste.

Darlie Toothpaste AKA 黑人牙膏 literal translation: Black Person Toothpaste. The original concept came from the early 20th century when the toothpaste was originally called “Darkie.” The brand concept came from the British and its implicit message was that your teeth would shine white like a black person’s. This toothpaste is widely sold all over Southeast Asia, and is the go-to brand in Taiwan.

Or you can check out Taiwanese rap group 911’s new video “Foreigner” or mockingly “歪國人.” It can pretty much sum up all the most common negative stereotypes Taiwan has for it’s foreigners. The ending is the worst because it shows how little interaction or empathy many Taiwanese have with the rest of the world.

For solace, I’ve provided some reaction videos made by international students in Taiwan (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xx2e2Xc49Pc & https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50LnRgUuQco). Their channels are pretty great, by the way.

What I want to explain here is that despite all these awful stereotypes bestowed upon those who carry the “foreigner” label, in my first year, many foreigner stereotypes were not applied to me directly. As you notice in the video, the majority of the negative stereotypes are applied to male foreigners because of the incorrect belief that Western and African men want to “take” Taiwanese women. This creates a familiar dichotomy that we see playing out all over the world right now where male foreigners are “invaders” and female foreigners are “prizes” to be “taken” from the “invaders.” Acknowledging this dichotomy and implicit sexism SUCKS because it is so disheartening for me to imagine that this is the reality I live in. But when it comes to exoticizing foreign women, in Taiwan I rarely get any heat, and I think it’s because I look too similar to the regular population. This is a huge departure from my experience in the U.S. As a Woman of Color in the United States, exoticization of my ethnic background happens too frequently

From my own experience, I think Taiwan as a whole has not consciously acknowledged that many of these racist and sexist beliefs are wrong. I think in many cases, this way of thinking is very similar to the White middle class thinking of the U.S. in the 1950s, where the stereotypes are taken as facts of nature and little is done to change them by people with power because they don’t see how these views could ever impact their daily lives.

Reflection

The sad thing I realized while living in Taiwan, is that in the U.S. I have never really been able to “just live” with my existence in a space going unquestioned. In Taiwan, I’m allowed to live my life without oppressive social and cultural interference because I am can be part of the power class. In America, microaggressions consistently remind me I am powerless (I.e. not White or a man). Sometimes I’ll go for days without a microaggression, and then it suddenly comes out in little quips in the office or in the form of street harassment. “Oh, guys, we got our resident Asian in the office today!” or “Yes, Chinese princess, I knew I woke up for a reason!” (yes, these are real things I’ve heard before). As if my part in society is to act as some kind of raced and sexualized ornament for the mainstream population. From elementary school until after college graduation, I was often a, “first Asian friend,” “the only Asian around,” “the only Asian girl in soccer,” “the only girl on the team,” “the only loud Asian” someone had met, the “first Asian” someone had met, the “first cool Asian” someone had met, the “first half-Asian friend,” the “first dumb Asian” someone had met, the “first Asian girl with an ass” that someone met, the only “cool, chill girl” someone met (as if all other women are frantic and emotionally unstable). These are all real encounters I’ve had with acquaintances, strangers, and friends. And they really are oppressive because of how relentlessly they other the person being discussed.

In Taiwan, I don’t experience tolerance like I do in America. Instead, I feel like my differences in identity are accepted and validated better–at least on the surface. People see that I’m foreign or sort of Asian/Taiwanese and move on. Maybe I’m naive, but it really feels like my personal racial identity is unimportant in finding happiness in my daily life and that’s a wonderful privilege.

Thoughts on Returning to the States

“I’ve been here three weeks and I haven’t even said it. I haven’t even thought it. And it made me say, ‘Oh my God, I been wrong.'”

The first thing I thought when I had the idea for this blog was, “Oh my god, is this how a White man in the U.S. feels?”

The second thing that came to mind, though, was an old Richard Pryor stand-up special where he talks about his experience touring Africa. Though it doesn’t seem directly related at first, the same sentiment is there. To offer context to Pryor’s comments, it was the first time he had ever visited Africa, meaning it was the first time he’d been a part of the racial majority. This is my second time in a Chinese-dominant country (first time was China in 2011), and both times I shared Pryor’s realization and amazement of how it felt to be a part of a majority for once in my life. A majority that has people that look similar to me that aren’t cast as stereotyped clichés. In the U.S. I’m regarded as “an Asian” or “an Asian girl” and all the cultural baggage that comes with it. In China and Taiwan I’ve caught myself thinking, “There are no ‘Asian people’ here, there are just Chinese or Taiwanese. They are just people and they are all so different from each other in their own way and we are ALLOWED to be different beyond the boundaries I knew in the U.S.” The caveat here with “allowed” is if you look Chinese or Taiwanese.

I know this probably doesn’t read well for my White or Black friends here because in Taiwan they are relegated to minority status. In Taiwan, all White people and all Black people are difficult to tell apart and it’s hard for the average Taiwanese person to think of an individual White or Black person as being different from the entire group they represent. Just like how in the U.S. and European countries “all Asians look the same.”

Before coming to Taiwan, I used to think that I will never find a society I could even truly call “home” because no society exists that would accept me into the majority. I’m too much of a demographic drifter and a permanent outsider, and I had made peace with that belief. I did have this kind of fantasy, though, about moving to Hawaii (60% Asian descent), but there’s nothing to bring me there. This is not to say that I think of Taiwanese society as “home,” but living here has been personally pretty easy (minus the severe lack of good Western food and a proper kitchen in the average apartment). But I can’t call Taiwan “home” because it simply doesn’t feel that way.

Still, I feel strangely empowered living in Taiwan. As if I’ve had a chance to sample what it would be like to be American first and an other second, rather than the other way around. I miss the U.S. for a lot of different things: my family, my friends, its seasons, New York City, the food, the music, driving, the overall energy of the country. Still, nothing makes me think that when I get back to the U.S. that I will enjoy my transition back into minority status. I’m not living in Taiwan forever, but there are parts of it I wish I could take back with me.