Tricky Appearances

by on Friday, 27 February 2009 Comments
We all know that fusion is exotic. It’s that urge that propels us to douse a hamburger with teriyaki sauce or pair your denims with a Cheong-Sam. Marriages of East and West are a harmless intermingling of culture, and second-generation Asians in the U.S and Europe are increasingly becoming the largest minority, but what are the complications for a generation of people of either pure or partial Asian heritage with a tendency towards Western orientation?

The world generally prefers its citizens in their own categories: Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Korean. They represent the sanctity of our nation-states. After all, if you’re not one or the other, what are you? Whether you’re half Asian half-Western, or purely Asian raised in the West, you are associated by ethnic groups by your facial features – not that it determines half of what you are – but it often elicits a certain regard from others. This is the case in Taiwan, where most are inclined to associate one’s character with the way one looks, talks, and their mannerisms. Mainly the way one looks.

Classification by appearance can be good and bad news, depending on what you resemble. “In Taiwan most people think I am A.B.C because they think I sound American when I speak English”, says C.B Leeuwenhoek, who is a half-Dutch half-Taiwanese, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. “They look at me and they know that I’m not local but that I look like Asian…They look at foreigners a little weird here, but they think I am still one of them”. Born and raised in Rotterdam, the 21-year-old is not at all bothered by the recurring mistakes made on his nationality in Taiwan. ABCs (American-born Chinese) have the privileges in Asia of being the offspring of Asian immigrants whom are often associated with many of the Western qualities that many Taiwanese deem impressive i.e. ability in the English language, overt American/Westernised culture. A lot of it has to do with the general high regard for the American entity in contemporary Taiwan.

C.B recalls a time in his childhood when Chinese was all he could speak at the age of three, facing rejection from the other local kids in the Kindergarten at Rotterdam who could not communicate with him. “My teacher told my mum that she’d have to teach me either Dutch or English otherwise no one would play with me. From then on, my mum only spoke in Dutch with me.” C.B now speaks Dutch as his first language, fluent English, and consequently, little Mandarin. All that trouble, only to find himself now living in a predominantly Chinese-speaking environment.

“You do Kung Fu?” is a common question that French-born Belgium Jean-Jacques Chen hears on the streets of Brussels. Jean-Jacques is born to Taiwanese-Chinese parents whom immigrated to Paris during a particularly difficult financial time in Taiwan. They later moved to Brussels where Jean-Jacques spent most of his life growing up. “When I was little, the fact that I was the only Asian in my class, I was often gibed at”. In entering schools that were more multi-cultural, Jean-Jacques finally felt at ease in an environment where one would be less likely to adopt a condescending attitude towards foreigners who were now the majority.

“In Brussels, most would think I am Chinese, while in Taiwan, often people would think that I am either an old man or an alien, and very often, Japanese. Perhaps because of my moustache and the fact that I sport very traditional Chinese clothing that none of the young locals would wear...” When asked about the difficulties he faces living here with his looks and old-school fashion, Jean-Jacques laughs, “I face difficulties it comes to hitting on girls, it doesn’t work so well when one thinks you’re old, but in Brussels it does!”

Just as one may be approached with admiration for being or mistaken as an American-born-Chinese, one may also face hostility in Asian circles, with the latter of a visibly smaller extent in the Taiwanese society. Peter-Nam Hoang Dinh sports dreads and was born in Oakland, California to Vietnamese parents and looks little like any of the Asian-American crowd in Taiwan- or what I have seen so far. He is often complimented for his facial features and the fact that he is Asian-American, but upon hearing his heritage, a man responds, “Vietnamese? But your features don’t look Vietnamese.”. Having had just complimented on his good-looking features, one couldn’t help feeling a tad bit insulted for the Vietnamese person. Peter is often treated with much respect and admiration, with or without his thick-framed glasses, which apparently made him look more Taiwanese. “They generally treat me very well, when I have my glasses on they are less afraid to come up and talk to me- thinking I am a local. When I don’t have them on, Asian-American is what they see.” And Asian-American he is - Peter is in the lucky position for being recognised for who he is. Some us are less fortunate.

Growing up abroad it is hard to find a comfort zone with Asian features as kids of other nationalities can tease and be cruel. Despite being one the very few Asians at school in Africa, I myself was rarely teased with racial slurs growing up. In coming to Taiwan I was held at times with, if possible, a lower regard apart from the times when they mistake me for an Asian-American. Among many incidents, one that I often raise as an example for my friends is a rather unpleasant encounter in a taxi- whereby a taxi driver asks me upon boarding his car, if I was looking for my ‘Master’ in a tone that left me feeling rather undignified. “No sir, but are you?” was my wry response which he chose to ignore, “Philippines or Indonesia, you?” asked the nasty fellow.

Filipinas are largely employed as domestic maids in this country, a fact that I am well aware of. His reaction and the reactions of many others showed me a side of Taiwan’s bigotry with respect to Filipinas, Indonesians and Thais that came as a surprise. It occurred to me as highly unfair to be treated in this manner – whereas if I had been speaking in English loudly in open public, one would have given me more credit. In any case, I was pleased to be referred to a race of people whom I find beautiful, though it would’ve been admittedly nicer had they spoken with me in a more respectful manner.

False assumptions and stereotyping are passé, I no longer pay heed to what one may say about appearances.



Alice Lin (林炳秀)

Alice is a Taiwanese-born journalism major who spent most of her childhood in Windhoek, Namibia. Having left home at a young age for boarding school, she has since then lived in Singapore, New Zealand and France. She worked briefly as a translator for a Paris-based NGO and recently returned from a work placement in Morocco, where she freelanced for local papers El Watan and Morocco Today. She is now studying in France.


Alice worked as the English editor of eRenlai from December 2008 to June 2009.

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