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Are Taiwanese Nice to Foreigners? A Few Thoughts on Prejudice and Freedom

Years ago I wrote a post about the contrast between the clean MRT and dirty restaurants in Taiwan. Yesterday a Taiwanese user posted the following critical comment:

Read through your paragraph, so you want to spend a little money but experience the luxury, you are telling the joke. Actually, if you feel bad toward this kind of experience, you can go back to your own country, right ? No One Force you to come here, buddy~ If you think the restaurants in your country are much cleaner than ours, then.... you don't even have to torture yourself, just go back and do not waste your time to write down these shit. Last but not the least, come to a new environment, you should learn how to get accustomed to their culture, including learn their language, not just complain all the day. 

You can read my short reply to him here

Now, does the logic of this Taiwanese netizen's comment sound familiar to anyone? Let's compare it with the following sentence: 

We feel a growing discomfort when people abuse our freedom ... People who refuse to adapt, who attack our habits and reject our values ... if you so fundamentally reject our country, I prefer that you leave.

Who said this? The answer is, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who before the Dutch elections tried to win over far-right voters. This is the language of nationalism. Pure and simple. If you don't do as I say, if I don't like you, I want you to leave. The country is mine, and if I think someone doesn't belong here, they should disappear. 

So where is freedom of speech? Where are individual rights? Is a foreigner, or a person of foreign descent, obliged to live as a puppet of the majority? Can locals force foreigners to give up their individuality? 

In this post I want to talk about a specific and a more general issue. First, are Taiwanese "nice"? Second, how much individual freedom should foreigners enjoy in a host country? 

How Nice Are Taiwanese?

First of all, I have to say that I don't care much anymore about people's reactions to my posts. Time and again I have received e-mails where I have been called 'white trash', where people told me to 'leave', to 'shut up' etc. I believe that some people are too nationalistic or too intolerant to accept different opinions. They are angry about points of view that they consider 'humiliating' for their country. 

To be honest, that's not my problem. I never insult anyone, and I have the right to express my opinions. I am happy to discuss and listen to what others have to say, but I don't like being bullied. I will keep saying whatever I want, despite people's intolerance. 

The second point is, I'm well aware that this post is just one opinion among millions. I'm not here to reveal holy truths. I have my own perception. Everyone can compare what I write with their own experiences and draw their own conclusions. That's fair enough. 

Let me now get to the main point. 

One thing I noticed is that the majority of Taiwanese I've met love to praise their country. This is contrary to the popular myth that Taiwanese are 'humble', and in my opinion this is due to the traditional concept of 'face'. Taiwanese people seem obsessed with 'face'. And this includes the 'face' of their country. 

It seems to me that Taiwanese want to be proud of themselves, that they love to be praised by foreigners because this gives them collectively more 'face'. 

For instance, back in 2012 Shaun Bettinson, a British citizen living in Taichung, launched an "I love Taiwan" photo campaign that gathered 35,000 photos and 500,000 YouTube views in five months. The Chief of Taichung's Marketing and Planning Division praised him: “Shaun is really great and really sweet. He’s bringing people together to show that everyone loves Taiwan. Only during election day or national day do you usually hear people declaring their love for their country." 

In a video, Bettinson said: "I think Taiwan is a fantastic place. I want to say thanks to the people of Taiwan for their warmth and help. When you think of Taiwan, how do you feel? For me, I think, wow! So many beautiful places, lots of special culture, great food, and, also, the Taiwanese are so friendly!" 

This is exactly what Taiwanese love to hear and to retell. I'm not disputing Bettinson's sincerity. But as I see it, this kind of statements blot out all the problems and hardships (such as extreme social pressure) of life in Taiwan. There is little nuance in such statements. It's all about how great everything is. If a British said the same things about China, Germany, or France, I guess I would not be the only one to find it ludicrous. 

But if a foreigner criticizes Taiwan (or criticizes anything about Taiwan), many will get instantly upset. They can't live with it. Suddenly their alleged friendliness is gone, and you are branded a 'bad' foreigner who doesn't want to adapt, is disrespectful, wants to take advantage of Taiwan. "If you don't like it here, just leave." 

On a personal level, people are fine if you criticize something about Taiwan they themselves don't like. If they hate the Guomindang, it's fine if you also do. If they hate their supervisor, it's a proof of friendship if you do, too. But if they think you criticize something that makes Taiwan lose 'face', many Taiwanese will be upset.    

When I was in Europe, I met Taiwanese who criticized something they didn't like about Europe: "service is not good", "people are rude", "shops close too early", etc. I was always fine with it and never argued that they shouldn't express their opinion. 

But when I went to Taiwan, suddenly I found that many people tried to limit my freedom to express myself. I had to like everything, or else I was hurting them. "You have to adapt". 

In all fairness, I also met many Taiwanese who are open-minded and can talk freely about anything. But generally speaking, I felt the majority were easily hurt or angered by negative remarks. 

Interestingly, some people even use nationalism to win arguments. "You are in Taiwan and this is how we do things." It's a cheap way for people to get their way when dealing with foreigners. 

I have never thought of telling Taiwanese people living in Europe that they "should leave" because they criticized a restaurant, a company, the food or the way of life of European countries. Don't Taiwanese people criticize German food, dirty underground stations, lack of safety, the absence of convenience stores, or many other things? Isn't it natural to have an opinion, to make comparisons? 

However, when I went to Taiwan, many people were not that magnanimous. My impression was that you, as a foreigner, are expected to say: "I love Taiwan". If you say so, you are a good foreigner. If you promote Taiwan, people will be happy. 

But if you have a critical attitude, they think you are rude, you don't want to adapt. 

However, think about it. Who on earth likes everything, even in his own country? Isn't it absolutely normal to like something and dislike other things? 

I am not saying that all Taiwanese are not nice. There are nice people, but not all of them are. It sounds like common sense. But has any foreigner in Taiwan ever felt the pressure to be positive about Taiwan, feeling pressure to praise, knowing that criticism would have negative effects? 

How Much Freedom Should Foreigners Have?

The problem I encountered is not unique to Taiwan. I think it exists, in different forms, in various countries. Immigrants in Europe or the US may feel a similar kind of pressure from the majority. 

As I see it, if a country is a democracy and its laws respect basic human rights, it is fair to say that all foreigners have a moral obligation to respect the laws of that country (in the case of dictatorships, I think it's a different question, but it's not the topic of this post). 

However, if foreigners don't break the law, it is extremely unfair to harass them just because they're expressing their views. Even if foreigners don't like their host country or something about their host country, at the end of the day, what's the problem? 

If you disagree, feel free to comment below.  

Read also: Living in Taiwan - Seven Reasons Why It's Good to Be Here


  1. Hi, I read this article and I definitely agree about how it’s wrong to be unkind towards foreigners just because of criticism. It’s rude and it isn’t right. However, I do want to say something, it’s not an insult, so hear me out. I’m Chinese, which is about the closest thing to Taiwanese, and I wanna say that in China, people follow a similar concept of ‘face.’ In China, they’re actually less welcoming to foreigners than Taiwan and that if you don’t look Chinese, no matter what, they treat you like an outsider. I think the issue here is understanding Taiwan. As you may know, Taiwan is suffering from a lack of recognition. Only 17 countries worldwide recognize Taiwan as an independent country and their voice is flushed out by China’s, just look at the olympic games. As a result, the people of Taiwan are extremely prideful about their country, which like you said, can be a bad thing if you offer criticism, but it’s because they want recognition. It’s wrong, but it is the truth, Taiwan sees itself as a great nation that isn’t getting what it deserves, so criticism feels like an attack to the nation. In contrast to the USA, where we practically make a joke out of the country, Taiwan is very prideful, and it in a way, is part of China’s fault, which I’m not too proud to say. I hope that at least this helps you understand the perspective of Taiwanese people, sometimes it isn’t about freedom and liberty, sometimes it’s about understanding others and why they are that way.


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