The Foreigner Bubble

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Asian-American literature. In every one that I have read so far they refer to foreigners as “ghosts” in Maxine Hong-Kingston’s “Warrior Woman” her mother often refers to America as ghost country, and refers to everyone who is not Chinese as a ghost (the postman ghost, the milkman ghost, the doctor ghost). It is not so common here anymore to hear someone whisper “white ghost” when you walk by or be blatantly pointed out and called ghost, in a crowd, but from time to time I’ve heard of it happening. It is supposed to be derogatory, especially in such a superstitious society, as in they are nothing they don’t count as humans and treat them as if they don’t exist. I started really thinking about this term ghost, not counting as a real member of society, and the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. I do live in Taiwan as a ghost, drifting by quietly trying not to interfere or be noticed as little as possible, getting by with the minimum amount of effort.

I tried explaining to friends and family back home how overwhelming it was to be in America again when I was home last. I almost had an anxiety attack in the airport because I could understand everything around me, I could hear and comprehend every single persons conversation (even parts of the Spanish ones I heard), I knew exactly what people wanted and everything that they needed from me, I wasn’t a ghost anymore. When I first left America I was really nervous about coming to Asia, it has always made me anxious to be in crowded places and in the middle of tons of people, it stresses me out. But after moving here, I can push my way through a crowd and not feel any of that. There are millions of people but my brain is quiet. I’d like to think that it’s because I’ve learned to “go with the flow” but I’ve come to the realization that it’s only because I have very little understanding of what’s actually going on around me. I can’t understand so I tune it out, it’s white noise, I can turn it on or off whenever I like.

Most of the time when someone says something to me and I’m not sure what they’ve said, I nod and smile, point, or shrug my shoulders and say “Wo bu zi dao” (I don’t know), my three go-to replys. I realized that I have been living in this ghost world and not really in Taiwan, just the bubble foreigners create for themselves while living in a foreign country. In some respects, it is impossible to break out of this bubble, no matter how much Chinese I learn or how long I am here I will always be a foreigner, always the “other”, an outsider. But that does not mean that it is okay to just float by in this ghost bubble. This is partially the issue I have with Taipei and why I have no desire to live there, it encourages and nurtures the foreigner bubble and makes it something to be desired. A lot of people have asked me “Why don’t you live in Taipei? It is more convenient” Well because it’s too convenient, too easy just to float and not experience. Floating and experiencing are two different things. I have known people to live in Taipei for months and not have to speak a word of Chinese or ever leave their comfort zone. If you don’t leave your comfort zone you will not grow, you will always be a ghost and never a real person.

So, I’ve been trying to break out of my foreigner bubble. I don’t have any foreign female friends, I guess now that I think about it, my only friends are other foreign males and Taiwanese girls. This I think is not typical for other foreign females in Taiwan, it seems they usually band together in little packs, my best friend explained to me she has never been friends with a foreign girl and it’s not very common (I think this is due to petty squabbling over the few western men that are here). When she couldn’t leave the house this weekend with a broken foot I hopped on the bus to her house in the countryside to bring her lunch, a bus route I have never taken trying to remember how to get to her house from the last time we went via scooter. Today I hung out with my new student and had a very Taiwanese day of going to the movies at TaiMall (Transformers-terrible movie. God-awful writing shameless advertising. The only good part was one of the characters said “How do you say get the f*ck out of the way in Chinese?” and I could laugh along with everyone else in the theater) and the Taoyuan night market. I tested my little Chinese and she got to practice A LOT of her English. Friday morning I went to go look at my new apartment in Taichung and I wandered around looking for the right bus to get from my apartment to my new job, I even asked an old lady for directions (though I think I scared the shit out of her, she probably wasn’t used to ghosts directly addressing her).

With one month left until my boyfriend visits and my job ends I need to brush up on my Chinese (and by brush up I mean learn it) before he gets here. I am moving to Taichung in August, the third largest and oldest city in Taiwan, which means a new comfort zone to break into and out of. I am trying to pop this foreigner bubble but I know it is going to take time especially since I like to take baby steps out of my comfort zone, but it will happen and I think studying Chinese is the first step to making it happen, without understanding there can be no empathy, no true experiences. I don’t want to live as a ghost I want to participate, this is my life I don’t want to be a passer-by.

6 thoughts on “The Foreigner Bubble

  1. I can identify with this post pretty deeply. I’ve felt the same way at times, like, the only way for me to be involved in this world is to be able to speak Chinese…. I moved to a new apartment this weekend and my roommate from Spain is nearly fluent, which makes me broil with envy. The foreign bubble is different here, foreigners are cold and almost territorial as if they are the only ones that have a right to be walking these streets!

    Your blog is so introspective, haha, you have a knack for analyzing your experiences in a very thoughtful way. I feel like I have been too hedonistic to really reflect on what I have been experiencing!

    • I bet you are 100x better off with your Chinese then mine, I’m learning like one phrase at a time and at least you had a base before you went to China… are you still taking classes, I want to take a language class after I move in August. I know what you mean about foreigners being cold, like I am “the foreigner” in these parts and I was here first.
      Ha-Ha I’ve only been introspective lately because I haven’t had the money to do anything else!!

  2. I’m not in China but my experience in Thailand is much the same – I can completely understand what you mean by floating around in a foreigner bubble. I’ve started to learn how to read Thai (hard – but probably much easier than Chinese I would guess) which is starting to help as I can now know the name of a restaurant or other simple things like that so everything isn’t so alien all the time and I’m not a clueless. I still don’t know what’s going on around me 85% of the time though!

    • I think it is like that in any country, especially here in Asia where the Latin alphabet isn’t even used. It is kind of nice in a way to not know what is going on around me, like when I dress or act really oddly in public(which I do often, much to the dismay of my Taiwanese friends) and I have no idea what anyone else’s reaction to it is, and it’s partially because I don’t know I don’t care. Like people could walk right up to me and say “you have such dirty feet and you are a manly stinky woman” and I would have no idea. It’s freeing. But it has been nagging at me lately, is ignorance really bliss?

  3. Colleen, this is a beautiful essay that truly captures the nature of the “foreigner bubble” for expats. Like you, I seek out these adventures, and one of the most rewarding was while living in Khartoum, Sudan and learning to speak Arabic – like a 3-year-old. 🙂 I taught Sudanese teachers how to use a computer for the first time in their lives. We felt our way along the language issue, and at the end of several months, my student Leila said to me in broken English (with tears in her eyes), “Thank you for teaching. My husband is a computer consultant, but I could never learn to use computers. Now I have – and I showed him last night. He couldn’t believe it.” Yay! I truly admire what you’re doing and applaud your intrepid spirit. All the best, Terri

    • Wow Terri, thank you for the encouragement. I have been trying to delve deeper lately into more of the Taiwanese culture so I can truly get a sense of the community I am living among. Your experiences sound amazing! I hope to have that kind of rewarding moment someday! Best wishes to you!

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