Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Racist rant sparks debate in Taiwan

Video of man verbally abusing Briton leads to soul-searching over how foreigners are viewed
By Li Xueying, Regional Correspondent In Hong Kong, The Straits Times, 30 Nov 2015

A video clip showing one of their own in a protracted xenophobic rant has prompted a bout of introspection over just how welcoming the Taiwanese are of foreigners, in a society that prides itself as being among the world's friendliest.

Over eight minutes during a subway ride in Taipei last month, a security guard hurled repeated verbal abuse at British teacher Christopher Hall and his Taiwanese girlfriend. Mr Hall has lived in Taiwan for a decade.

The encounter, which was recorded by Mr Hall's girlfriend - who was not identified - went viral after he posted it online about three weeks ago.

In it, the bespectacled Taiwanese man is heard taunting him as "an inferior foreigner". Mr Hall said he did not provoke him.

The man is heard saying: "Overseas, you are a beggar, you are trash. You are here in Taiwan to scam a living. In your own country, you won't survive. Has a foreign girl ever liked you? You are not welcome here. Taiwan is too good for you."

The man went on to insult Mr Hall's girlfriend, saying: "The whole of Taiwan despises you. You think you are smart for dating a foreigner? You will live to regret it."

The man has been identified as a Mr Liao, 30, and has since been fired from his job, and questioned by the police. He has been handed over to prosecutors on charges of public insult.

In his police statement, Mr Liao said Mr Hall bumped into him on the crowded train but did not apologise. Mr Hall, however, denied this. Mr Liao was further incensed when Mr Hall's girlfriend began recording the altercation, he added.

The incident has led to pitched debates as politicians and the media waded in to discuss Taiwanese attitudes towards foreigners.

On the Internet, locals and foreigners alike chimed in. Some said the bystanders did nothing to intervene. "Some were chatting, others pretended they didn't see anything. It seems like there is a wall in our hearts, and those who can scale it are in the pitiful minority," wrote one Taiwanese netizen.

Others asked if "spoilt foreigners" themselves were to blame.

"A lot of what this guy says is true - guys like that go overseas to feel glorified, chase women, for the wrong reasons," another netizen said.

One popular theory is that the episode, though a one-off, illuminates broader social tensions over concerns that foreigners are robbing Taiwanese of "women and jobs", even as the island remains mired in economic stagnancy.

It is a perception peddled through generally accepted racist jokes and stock stereotypes. Terms such as xi can mei, or "Western cuisine girls" - to denote women who seek Caucasian partners - abound, including in the island's mandopop industry and media.

Rap artist MC Hot Dog, for instance, airs his frustrations at losing out to foreigners who go to pubs to pick up Taiwanese women in a song.

Said one netizen: "It leaves the impression that no one in Taiwan actually cares to understand other cultures because that would spoil all the humour value you can get from mocking the stereotypes.

"It seems like a poor trade-off, especially for a country that is greatly in need of international support and understanding."

In recent years, more foreigners have ventured to Taiwan to work, after rules on imported labour were relaxed. Today, the island is home to about 30,000 expats in white-collar positions such as teaching, and 500,000 in lower-skilled work like construction, though together they represent just over 2 per cent of a total population of 23.5 million.

However, the reality is more nuanced. Professor Wu Chyi-In, deputy director of the Institute of Sociology at think-tank Academia Sinica, said Caucasians are not often seen as a threat because those that are in Taiwan are in "elite positions".

Hostility tends to be aimed more at lower-skilled South-east Asian and mainland workers as they are the ones viewed as the competition depressing the wages of locals.

Rules in industries such as construction were liberalised a decade ago following a labour shortage when locals turned down such jobs.

"But the locals got stuck when they found that they could not move on to more professional work due to lack of qualifications, and wanted to do a U-turn," said Prof Wu.

The challenges that Caucasians face are more in the form of being "ghettoised", said Mr Michael Turton, 52, an American who has lived in Taiwan for two decades.

"Everyone is very polite to us, but try finding a permanent position in a university or business in one's own skill," said Mr Turton, who teaches English at a local university and said he knows of only two Caucasian deans among Taiwan's numerous universities. "Tension is ameliorated because everyone knows foreigners have no power."

One reason is, unlike Singapore or Hong Kong, Taiwan is not a regional financial hub that would have as many job opportunities.

Language is another barrier.

That said, Taiwanese women do tend to find Caucasians to be desirable matches, said Mr Turton, who is married to a Taiwanese woman. They have two children.

"How many local girls want to marry foreigners? Lots. That is because foreigners are an escape fantasy," Mr Turton said, referring to familial obligations women married to local men have to fulfil, and a perception of a better life in a Western country.

Ultimately, said Prof Wu, the subway incident is one that is likely more about Mr Liao's personal issues than anything else.

He said: "He probably had some problems and was using the foreigner as a punching bag."

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