Cross Cultural Romance and Nationalism in Taiwan

by on Tuesday, 18 February 2014 Comments


The term Xicanmei [lit. Little sister who eats Western food], refers to women, born and bred in Taiwan, who have a preference for partners from Europe and America in terms of sexual relationships and dating.

I'm not denying that this phenomenon exists, however, I'd like to take it to a deeper level. Why, for instance, haven't we come up with terms such as Xicandi for younger men, or Xicanjie for older women or Xicange for older men? We shouldn't limit our gaze to younger Taiwanese women, we can widen it to other groups, there are lots of people who want to date foreigners, whether it be young women or young men and they don't necessarily have to be young either, maybe they're older, or maybe they're gay.

The reason that there is this focus on young women goes back to manipulation by the media, what the media have created is the image of a Taiwanese girl who is more open, who lives a little more unrestrained life. There are also implied stereotypes surrounding the foreign men with whom they form relationships.

When faced with this kind of manipulation by the media we should touch upon a certain issue and that is nationalism. The reflections on the issue they make, such as asking why Taiwanese women don't love Taiwanese men, basically puts private relationships into a nationalistic light, wherein the private relationship no longer belongs just to you, it belongs to your country, belongs to this or that community or group, so, you have to view your own relationship through the eyes of others.

So a big part of the reason we talk about Xicanmei and nationalism is because of media manipulation, however, if we look at those people who refer to themselves as Xicanmei, as we do come across people on the internet who refer to themselves as Xicanmei or they say that they're dating a foreigner, that they're engaging sexual relations with women or men, we can discover two things. The first is that a lot of it seems to be simply for dramatic effect, in the story they tell to validate themselves, they'll say, I liked dating foreigners from when I was young and which parts of the body is stimulated during intimate contact with the foreigners they dated, what nationalities they've been with – German, American, Italian or French – and how many people they've been with. They can often list them at will, every one. A woman might say she's been with 6 handsome men or pretty girls, for example, where each event happened, in what bars, or in what villas. I think that the Xicanmei phenomenon, first of all is a media construction that was later fleshed out by internet users, but we don't really know if their experiences are real, maybe they are. I've seen some blog posts online, and my feeling after reading a few of them is that, the idea of Xicanmei was a media creation, and this was interpreted in two ways by internet users. The first interpretation was to dramatize it, as I just mentioned. The second was to eroticize contact with foreigners. Why is it that we only ever talk about sexual contact? Can't we talk about negative aspects, like misunderstandings thrown up by language barriers and cultural differences? Or how these differences can be resolved, and friendship can be formed?

Xicanmei are representative of a phenomenon in Taiwan. When we talk about Taiwanese people making friends with foreigners, we always view it through a lens of eroticism. We should broaden the way that we see the interaction between Taiwanese and foreigners, for example, we can talk about business people from America or Europe who come to Taiwan to work for multinationals, those who come to Taiwan to learn the language or on exchange programs, or those who meet their Taiwanese partner abroad, whether it be their wife or their husband, and subsequently comes to live in Taiwan. This will give us a chance to reflect on the idea of Xicanmei, and maybe approach the issue from a different angle.

I did research into cross cultural weddings and romance between Taiwanese and French people, and what I discovered was that they're not as great as we make them out to be. Feelings start to develop between a foreigner and a Taiwanese man or woman, and perhaps the Taiwanese person will marry the foreigner, but I wanted to research how they make the relationship work once they are in a stable relationship. That's why I think that we shouldn't see relationships between Taiwanese and foreigners as one-night-stands or as short term sexual intimacy; but rather, we should look more deeply at how they negotiate longer term relationships and friendships.

The terminology used to suggest these relationships, with an image of girls who eat 'Western food' being used to represent Asian girls who date Western guys or the image of girls who eat 'Chinese food' being used to represent Asian girls who date Asian boys employs food as a metaphor for a country or a culture.

In Taiwan Western food is used to refer to food and drink habits that don't come from Taiwan's indigenous food culture itself, and through these food and drink activities, Taiwanese people come into contact with the world outside, so the idea of Western food can be interpreted as referring to this, and of course the idea of Xicanmei exists in other countries too. Abroad there are several terms for people who like Asians, by saying they like Chinese food, or rice. In Asia and the US, if someone is said to like Chinese food, or rice, it can mean in some contexts that they particularly like Asian men or women, and that they like to date Asian men or women. So the concept behind the term Xicanmei – literally 'Western food girls,' is not unique to Taiwan.

As to whether the idea of 'Western food' in reference to sexuality has any relation to nationalism, I would like to give a bit of background on Taiwanese politics in the past decade or so. We all know that, from 2000, when Chen Shuibian got into power, Taiwan's academic and political circles have been looking to take part in academic and political movements to build up Taiwanese nationalism. The political movement aimed at broadcasting the name "Taiwan" to the world, that is to say, not a desinification exactly, but just that the word "China" wouldn't be brought up as often in rhetoric. They tried their best to use the name "Taiwan" in all arenas, like food and drink, culture, or in terms of politics and diplomacy. You can see that even our passports, Taiwanese people's passports, emphasize the name Taiwan. In this context, over the last ten years or more, there's been a growing atmosphere in Taiwanese politics, so that the time has come where we can talk about Taiwanese nationalism. Of course, academic circles have also had a contribution, particularly in research in the social sciences. A common term that often comes up is national identity, in other words, if you mention anything to do with Taiwanese history, sociology or anthropology, I can guarantee, that the words "national identity" will appear very frequently. So why is this? It was the fruit of this atmosphere, this political climate, which formed under the name Taiwanese nationalism. After this nationalism arose, a binary opposition was produced as a result, that is Taiwan was posed against foreign countries. This kind of contrast is often oversimplified. The first simplification is of Taiwan itself, Taiwan is not just Taipei, it also comprises Taizhong, Gaoxiong, aboriginal cultures, Hoklo and Hakka. The other simplification was the idea of foreigners, "the West" so to speak, which is not just made up of the US. Even when talking about the US, there was a tendency to overlook the diverse range of communities there, the urban rural divide being just one example. A lot of "the West" would actually include Europe too, but in this kind of political climate, things often get simplified, in order to make Taiwanese nationalism seem more profound, or more influential, we simplify it to "Taiwan" and ignore the diversity of communities therein. If viewed through this lens, the implications of the term Xicanmei takes on a clearer image.

As to why we praise foreigners who eat food Taiwanese people don't normally expect them to eat. I have to say this has already been discussed a lot in anthropology. In anthropology, if an outsider, when eating with the tribe, doesn't like their food, this is of great significance, it's not just practical, but metaphorical too. The practical meaning is, that you accept someone else's invitation, and that you should put a bit of effort into accepting the kindness of other people, because other people have given you something, so you can't refuse it, that's the first thing.

The second aspect is, the metaphorical layer of meaning, and that is why food and drink affect such a large range of transactions. You accept other people's food, and you eat it, when you eat other people's food, it signifies that your body is taking the good will into your bloodstream; it's a symbol in anthropology. What's it is really saying, is that when you eat food that others offer you, it's a way of accepting something they've made an effort to prepare for you, to accept their good will. When they see that you've eaten what they offered you, they'll think that you're accepting their good will, and that will signify that you're a person that they can interact with successfully.

And if we go back to the Taiwanese media, and why they put so much effort into reporting when foreigners eat Taiwanese foods that they don't necessarily like, stinky tofu for example, or Taiwanese black pudding, or chicken feet, or any of the innards of pigs and chickens, it's because the media want to say, "Look! This foreigner is willing to try something that's not part of their food culture," and they'll interpret this as the foreigner making an effort to understand Taiwanese culture - not just paying lip service mind, but actually eating it.


Hot dog stand picture by byronv2.

Interview translated from the Chinese by Conor Stuart with further editing by Daniel Pagan Murphy.

Also refer to eRenlai past Focus on Women and Nationalism, featuring this interview with several women and one men about the expression "xicanmei".


Fongming Yang (楊豐銘)

PhD sociology student (EHESS, Paris)


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