“Bustling streets”, “all the confronting smells”, “chicken bus”, “roadside food stalls”, “sticky heat”, “loud noises”, “shouting at each other”, “fiery”… these are all words you will often find in guidebooks, in blogs, when people talk about Asia..
When you read guidebooks on Europe (particularly northern Europe), though, suddenly it’s “polite”, “kind”, “subdued”, “respectful”, “quaint”, “dramatic landscape”… because god forbid anything else is dramatic, except maybe in Spain or Italy.
In my ageing years, I have found my experience of both to be rather the opposite. Not in all aspects, of course, no. But I find Oxford St in London a “bustling street” with “all its confronting smells” of being the most polluted street in Europe (I’m pretty sure that’s changed now but bear with me it’s been a while for me). I find the hooligans “shouting at each other” in both city streets and pubs rather terrifying. And I find the way girls dress for the clubs rather “fiery” and not in a good way.
In my Asia, people tend to be “polite”. No, not all men are “respectful”, but women mostly are. Even if they talk shit about your big boobs, they’re probably just jealous so… take that Thai grandma. And you know the “landscape” is pretty freaking “dramatic” out here in the East.
My point is, your humanity has everything to do with how you experience the world. Your skin colour has everything to do with that, too. Your skin colour determines the kind of service you’re going to get, the level of smile, the customer service…
To many Westerners, it’s still a bit of a joke how much white worship goes on in Asia. And yes, to an extent, it does. Particularly in more rural areas, girls fawn over white men no matter how ugly they might be *shiver*, restaurants are more likely to seat you, or you get served faster at the tea shop (personal experience. doesn’t happen anymore but sure used to). To the trained eye, however, you will see how it has also declined massively in the last ten years. It has been a real eye-opener to how attitudes have changed. Foreigners that can speak Chinese are now gladly accepted with some relief rather than awe, because that means not having to practice English this time round. Not all Westerners come with wads of cash, that much is also clear. People aren’t spending as freely as they were anymore, and that, my friends, is a trend that cuts across ALL cultures. Some Asians have even had the gall to be annoyed that foreigners don’t speak their language! (in Taiwan this foreigner was complaining that staff didn’t speak English in the store when he’d been living in Taiwan for over 10 years without speaking any proper Mandarin) I mean, how dare they. You mean, for one to visit another country, we need to make an effort to learn and speak the local language? (Can I just say here, just to piss off my British friends, the French had it right all along?)
To me, it’s a bit of a running joke to travel because I wonder what nationality I will be called next. My brown skin, my black hair, my mixed features means I get to blend in a lot. A LOT. In Bali I’m Balinese, in Thailand i’m Thai, in Malaysia I definitely blend in with my Chinese language. In Spain people just treated me like a Spanish girl who has a bit of an accent. In America I’m well, just normal because everyone in America is going to be beige like me in 2050 (cheers R Peters). And when I laugh and demurely admit I am not from their country they laugh a little, disappointed, and go, “really? Are you sure?” as if I am playing them for a fool. I will guarantee I am Taiwanese by speaking a little bit of Mandarin and our transaction continues (sometimes in Mandarin), smiles all round and giggles too. I can’t WAIT to hit South America because I for sure will be spoken to in rapid Spanish with their funny accents.
But I’m going to switch it around for a second… in Europe… guess what? I got spoken to slowly. (white) People look at me and I can feel their insides tightening. I look a little bit too foreign, and not the foreign they’re used to. People of Pakistani or Turkish decent, they can deal with, but I don’t quite look like them. Maybe I’m Chinese? Hmm. Too dark. What if she’s Spanish and she’s going to talk to us with that strange accent we can’t understand? And then I open my mouth, some American drawls out. Tension lost. Some maybe even pass wind. Who is the jackass here? Me, for looking like my mixed up self or them, for assuming the worst and not giving me a chance?
Let me ask you: how often do you give people a chance before they open their mouths? How often to do you throw caution to the wind and just speak to people like you would your friends before adjusting your language, tone, and vocabulary to better suit the person you are speaking to?
SE Asia vs East Asia
The reason I write this post is because my super close friends are currently on an adventure of a lifetime. An insane amount of countries are being covered in the space of 4-5 months, and along the way, they were bound to experience discomfort and have to confront their reality of who they are vs what they see vs the setting they are in. They’re very well-seasoned travellers so I know that they will make the right decisions and go with their gut when necessary. A while ago, they had a rather troublesome experience with a chicken bus from Laos to Hanoi (eurgh I’ve never wanted to do that and now for sure never will). The things that they described can best be considered terrible. I wouldn’t necessarily wish that on my worst enemy (actually… I know a few people that probably deserve it but who am I to punish them. Karma will do the job for me). And by the sounds of it… it’s like… well, positively backward.
No one believes me until they’ve been, but Taiwan is like, developed? We have high speed trains and smart buses and a more sophisticated banking system than you realize and everything is super freaking convenient. I’ve never had to go to the post office to pick up a package because I just get stuff sent to my local 7-11. I don’t know how to pay my phone bill other than at 7-11. We have nice cars and wide driving lanes and food from all around the world (the pasta game really needs to be upped but who cares when you have hot pot shops on every corner).
Even to my severe disappointment, an ex of mine was really shocked at how developed Taiwan was when he came to visit. He thought we were a country of tuc-tucs when we have yellow cabs. That actually, in hindsight, has become a real sore point for me because that opens a whole can of worms as to how he viewed me but let’s not go there.
Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and even to a certain extent, China, is much like this. I grew up not knowing a lot about poverty. My grandparents lived in a house with no running water and an outhouse, but that’s as close to poverty as I got (OK so pretty close but even that got knocked down pretty quickly in my lifetime). And like any fellow countryman/woman, I am fiercely proud of Taiwan. You could say I’m more Taiwanese than I am Dutch in a lot of ways, because I grew up there. A lot of who I am is because of Taiwan and the values she instilled in me. It’s no surprise I get defensive of Asians. 1. Because we mostly get lumped in together, and 2. because as a Taiwanese person, I help support people who don’t really get a chance to speak themselves and I don’t know any SE Asian youtubers so here I am. 3. A lot of my white friends don’t have a lot of foreign friends so I am like the foreign spokesperson standing up for other cultures against their white privilege. 4. Surely that’s my duty?
But… it’s not. I can’t take responsibility for an entire continent. Or even half. I can only speak from my experience which is bound to be different to theirs. I can only speak from my view of Thailand or Bali or Singapore because I am going to be treated differently to them, because of my skin colour, my ability to smile to break tension and my international accent.
Seeing the Difference
Travel is something that a lot of people love to do. Most of my friends are avid travellers and my future partner has to love travel as much as I do. But why do you travel? My friends from above say it’s to expand their worldview and to see things that you otherwise wouldn’t see. White privilege check.
Travel because you want to connect with people.
Instead of pointing out differences, travel to find the commonalities. Deep down, we are all the same. We are all scrambling to make ends meet and do the best for our children or families. We all want a nice house in the country and have friends over for a BBQ in the summer. We all struggle with mosquitos. We are all addicted to our phones. So that tourist hawker that you complained fleeced you of an extra pound? They are going to feed their children with that money so shut your overprivileged mouth and let the kid have their ice cream treat today because mum was smart enough to manage to get an extra pound off you you stupid cow. Do your research.
And when you do travel, see how others treat locals versus how you treat them. If you had English lad pack after English lad pack coming through, disrespecting you and your culture you would hate English people too (even as an English person, as my friend pointed out).
See how locals treat you, versus how they treat each other. See how locals treat you, versus how they treat travelling families (or solo travellers, depending on who you’re travelling with). How they treat their locals, is that much different from how shop keepers or waiters would treat people back home? That’s where real humanity comes in.
Travelling isn’t about judging how people treat you in their second of third language, it’s about experiencing how other people treat each other. Take the experience outside of yourself, and try to look with a sense of appreciation and a healthy dash of reality. If England had the same amount of backpackers trawling through its backwaters it would feel pretty pissed, disengaged, and try to take advantage as much as you feel you are being taken advantage of in Vietnam or Thailand or Cambodia.
OK I have a business to run so I need to stop talking about privilege and actually get moving on with my To Do List (it’s heinously long today) and I have a PT session later at the gym followed by a client lunch so I need to majorly hustle. But before I sign off, let me just say: be mindful of your experience, and be mindful of how you interpret it. Always step outside of yourself to look at things without emotion attached. Emotions are fleeting, but experiences are forever. By taking a look outside of your own privilege-tinted glasses, you might be surprised to find that the world isn’t the big bad world it’s made out to be, especially in SE Asia. Next time, we will talk more about English Privilege.
Until then, I send much love to my travelling duo somewhere in Asia (I’ve lost track).