Hand Signals & Calculators

Stop for a moment and think about all the personal encounters you’ve had in the U.S., or have witnessed, with non-English speakers. Think about the level of impatience had with, or complete dismissal of, that non-English speaking person. We are, as a nation, pretty ridiculous. As are some other nations when it comes to non-speakers of their language. The hostility and the outright refusals to deal with people who don’t speak the same language as you is inane, especially if you’re a business owner, because now you’re just losing money.

One of the greatest joys I’ve found about being in Taiwan is how friendly and patient people have been with the complete language barrier between us. If they can’t communicate with me, they try and find someone who can at least put a few English words together. If they can’t find another person, then we work it out through a series of hand gestures, the one or two words they do know, and more pointing. If you’re in a store, they’ll quickly whip out a calculator to type out the price if they can’t say the numbers. And they’re not impatient; they let the encounter take as long as it needs to. Maybe that’s just how they do business, but even people on the street have yet to be rude to me because I don’t know a lick of Mandarin. For most everything else, the signage and such, there’s usually an English translation underneath it–so we’re privileged in one sense.

I’ll admit, I’ve always had pause about visiting an Asian country, because not only do I not know the language but the characters are indecipherable. At least if I visit a country with a romance based language I can kinda guess at the word or at least be able to look at it and type it into a translator. There’s NO typing these characters into a computer to auto-translate. But given how much of the signage and maps are translated into English, and how kind people have been when it isn’t, I’m much more excited about being here and doing future travels throughout continent. It would be nice to learn some of the language so I’m not completely useless.

I also have to think about what it means to travel while Black. It almost always presents issues. Given the homogeneity of Taiwan, I stick out; people are always staring, pointing, and giving me the one over. If you’re really lucky, they might come up to you and say the one word they do know in English: “picture?” and then take a picture with you while either waving, throwing up a peace sign, or giving a thumbs up. I got asked to take my first picture today with some lady at the Sun Yat Sen Memorial. Silly me, I thought she was asking if I would take a picture of her and her friends. Nope. They wanted to take a picture WITH me. I guess to say they met a black person. On second though, I take it back. It wasn’t the first ask. The first picture request came while I was still on the plane coming to Taiwan from Tokyo and the lady sitting in the row next to us (who had been teaching Val to use chopsticks to eat her dinner), asked to take a photo of me.

Here’s the thing, even if you never met a black person in your life–as most people who come from homogenous countries like many of these Asian nations and most other countries that didn’t really participate in the slave trade–there is NO excuse for the poor treatment we receive, ESPECIALLY, the abuse we face in our damn countries. Over here, their lack of exposure to Black folks hasn’t translated into hostility; I’ve never once been followed in a store or denied service. And even if I had, I could maybe understand it a bit more because many folks living here have never seen a Black person in real life. At worst, there was an innocent, albeit somewhat misguided, curiosity about me. Most of the images they receive about Black people and Black culture comes from hip-hop and athletes. You might get touched or gawked at, but more like the way a kid would who is experiencing something for the first time and is fascinated by it.

In the U.S., there are still places where some white folks are loath to give service to Black people (or other people of color for that matter); who follow you around in stores, who are hostile when you enter a store that sells items they’ve predetermined you couldn’t possibly afford, who, during encounters with you, are quicker to get irritated, dismissive, or give you crap service so that you’ll get out of their face. Then there’s that unconscious (or subconscious) racism. Like when they don’t “see” you–they bump into you and don’t say anything, or cut in front of you in lines, or just cut off your walking path and don’t even realize. All of this from a people who see Black people everyday, live in the same communities, shop at the same stores, and ride the same public transportation. Some of them were even raised by brown and black domestics as surrogate mothers, or had brown and black house workers. With all of that interaction, they still manage to live in completely different worlds-both literally and figuratively.  We’re still exotic within our own country: between people trying to grab your hair, commenting (rudely) on differences in physicality (ghetto-booty, thunder thighs, flat noses, big lips, etc), giving back-handed complements showing their surprise that we’re “civilized” (read white) by saying how “articulate” or “honest” or “well-read” we are, or assuming if we go to college that we’re some “rags-to-riches” case. I could go on and on.

White Americans may not claim responsibility for their actions and behavior, blaming their lack of exposure due to segregated neighborhoods or schools, or the prevailing imagery in the media, but that’s bullshit. There is an over-abundance of opportunities to see AND interact with us. It’s a matter of choosing not to. And if you truly live in rural America with .01 Black people per square mile, there is no excuse for you not to read a book or watch something other than music videos. I won’t negate that our nation is founded upon and thrives off of institutionalizing racism. That it systematically denies the visibility of positive examples of brown and black people and cultures. That it paints a picture of us as leaches on the system, or people who are inherently going to underperform. Or that it creates mechanisms to fulfill those ideologies so that the barriers to success and equality are numerous, and even if you do beat them, the racist mentality still prevails (i.e., ‘you’re-only-here-because-of-affirmative-action).

Traveling has always been, and continues to be, a way for me to reflect on life, as well as society(ies) and my position within it. My identity as a woman and a person of color really shapes how I encounter the world and think about my interactions with other people. Stepping outside of the US is always thought provoking, and today it really made me reflect on how ugly the legacy of racism has been within a country that I call home. This isn’t to dismiss the racism that crosses national boundaries or to say that the people of Taiwan are all uniformly happy and accepting, this is just the opinion of one person having her own life experience.