Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Life as a Westerner in Taiwan and Hong Kong

When I came to Hong Kong for the first time back in 2012 I had already lived in Taipei for about half a year. One of the first things that struck me was that people in Hong Kong seemed to have a different attitude towards foreigners than Taiwanese (generally speaking, of course). Even in Taipei, the largest and most international city of the island-state, I always felt as if I were an exotic creature. People talked to me because they were 'curious', or because they wanted to practice their English, or because they regarded me as a guest that they should treat with a politeness reserved for people from faraway lands.  

In Hong Kong, on the contrary, most people seemed to be indifferent to me. They didn't look at me when I took the metro, when I went to public toilets, libraries or restaurants, as it was the case in Taiwan. Obviously, I wasn't a local either in Taiwan or Hong Kong. But in the latter I felt more comfortable. I did not stand out. I was not perceived as an 'alien'. I could just blend with the anonymous crowd. My friends and acquaintances, too, seemed to treat me with more ease. I was neither a superstar nor an attraction, I wasn't a guest that should be impressed through particular gestures of kindness. I was just a person like anyone else.

One of the things that might be troublesome or, according to each one's perspective, enjoyable, in Taiwan, is the fact that some people are not familiar with Western culture, or that they treat foreigners either with exaggerated interest and politeness, or, in some cases, with resentment. I often heard Taiwanese say, "We are nice to foreigners", or "Taiwan is a paradise for foreigners"; I often saw Taiwanese using foreigners as status symbols; on the other hand, I also met Taiwanese who told me, "We are too nice to foreigners", "We are not nice to each other but we are very nice to foreigners". Of course, these two groups do not represent all Taiwanese, but they are examples of certain behaviours I have observed.

But why is it that Hongkongers and Taiwanese seem to have such a different attitude towards foreigners?