The Foreigner Phenomenon

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G. K. Chesterton

In some ways, I’m more used to being a foreigner than I’m used to blending in as a native of a country.  Living in Taiwan, it always felt more natural to stick out in a crowd than to not be noticed because of blond hair and fair skin.  When I first returned to the states for college, the weirdest part was having everyone look like me.

Different countries clearly have different perceptions and opinions of foreigners (in this entry, “foreigner” will be used to refer to Americans).  Some countries view them as rich people, only good for getting money from.  Some countries see them as enlightened.  Others harbor bitterness toward them, blaming them and pointing to them ass selfish and tyrannical.

A couple of recent encounters have caused me to think about why some Taiwanese view foreigners the way they do.  The Taiwanese perception of the foreign falls on the more favorable end of the spectrum of feelings.  Granted, there are those who do not share those sentiments, but that’s the overall impression.  Knowing this, I was still a little surprised to hear it coming so blatantly from a woman at the airport.  I had just woken up from dozing, uncomfortably curled around my backpack and awkwardly trying not to sprawl over three seats.  I sat up, and a Taiwanese women had sat down next to me and was playing with he iPhone.  Fortunately, she seemed not to be a member of the group of Taiwanese that had taken over the gate waiting area.

“Excuse me,” she said in rather impressive English, “could you tell me what the time difference is here?”

In Chinglish told her what the time difference between Tokyo and Taipei was.  She was impressed that I spoke some Mandarin, and asked me if I was a study abroad student.  Ha, yeah right.  No, my parents were missionaries, and I had grown up there my whole life.  It was her next statement that I found rather interesting: “We’re grateful for people like you parents,” she told me, speaking of the collective Taiwanese.  “They teach the people of Taiwan how to be good people.”

What?  Really?  That’s how Taiwanese feel about missionaries?  Other countries feel like missionaries force their religion down natives’ throats.  Even though the point of my parents’ ministry is a little more than teaching people to be good, I thought that was an interesting perception.

About a week later, we were having dinner at the house of one of the church members.  Besides the slightly unexpected and highly traditional nature of the dinner, the other aspect that I found unique was the undying devotion displayed by our host to the ways of the foreigner.  Okay, maybe a little extreme, but constantly coming up in the conversation was the idea of getting advice from my father (the foreigner) on how to do things, how to arrange things, how to structure lessons, raise children, etc.  Good grief, I thought, you’d think America was the divine country of enlightenment or something.

What is it that makes Taiwanese see American foreigners in such a favorable light?  In my opinion, the people of Taiwan portray qualities that America could learn from–a sense of community, loyalty to the family over oneself, a devotion to knowledge and learning–and yet, they look at America as teaching them to be good.  Is it the age-old phenomenon of the grass grows greener on the other side, we all want what we don’t have?  Or maybe I’m just too disenchanted with my own culture, and fail to see the positives that Taiwanese people see.  Or maybe, just maybe, there’s still enough faith left in America to shine through to the other side of the world.

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