Racism in Taiwan
Is there racism in Taiwan? Of course there is. There is racism anywhere there are people.
The question is not whether or not racism exists in Taiwan, but what the nature of this racism is, and how prevalent it is in Taiwanese society. For example, are certain racial attitudes obvious to the outsider? Or are they obvious the minute you start talking to a Taiwanese person? Are certain racial attitudes observable everywhere equally? And how would a Taiwanese person define "race?" Would their definition of "race" correspond to the Western definition of the term?
These are just a few questions we might ask in the course of this discussion, though there are certainly many other, equally valid questions we could pose.
It might be useful to begin with the racial makeup of Taiwanese society. Taiwanese society seems fairly homogeneous at first glance, but like anywhere the groups competing for power, influence, and status are numerous. Some of these groups are divided from one another by linguistic/cultural characteristics, others by place of origin, still others by (perceived) physical attributes.
At the center of Taiwanese society are the Han Chinese, or ethnic Chinese, regardless of what part of China they come from. This group represents 98% of Taiwan's total population. This group can also be divided into Hakka (15%), Taiwanese (70%), and Mandarin-speaking Chinese who arrived with the Kuomintang (12%). Do prejudices exist between these groups? Certainly. Could this prejudice be defined as racism? I don't think so. These groups hold too many characteristics in common, and the shifting nature of modern Taiwanese society has not really placed them into conflict.
Beyond the Han Chinese, there is the aboriginal population, some of which shares ancestry with the Han Chinese. The aboriginal tribes make up a little over 2% of Taiwan's total population. They are concentrated in the central and eastern portions of the island, though of course they often migrate towards places where opportunities are more plentiful. Do prejudices exist between the Han Chinese and the aboriginals? Oh yes. Could this prejudice be defined as racism? Certainly.
You won't notice this on the west coast of Taiwan - where the aboriginals aren't as numerous - but on the east coast there is plenty of racism toward the aboriginals. I often hear (Chinese) people complain about the aboriginals - how they're all alcoholics, how they're lazy, how they have unfair advantages when it comes to certain things, etc., etc., etc. It is not an unusual thing. All one has to do to hear such stereotypes is to ask most people on the east coast what they think about the native tribes.
Some of these stereotypes do, unfortunately, have some basis in reality, but people's attitudes can be a powerful barrier against breaking these same stereotypes. I know plenty of aboriginal people who aren't drunks, or lazy, or less intelligent, but those aren't the people used as examples. Our attention is often drawn to the worst that any culture has to offer, fair or not.
Then there are the foreigners. Of foreigners - in many Chinese people's thinking - there are two types: the Western variety and the "workers." The "workers" are the people from places such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and other countries poorer than Taiwan. They are the people who come here to work in factories and hospitals. They are the people who take care of senior citizens, who are employed by Taiwan's struggling manufacturing industry, and who live in dormitories.
As far as Western people go, is there racism? I would say yes, sometimes, there is. But it's usually not harmful racism, and therein lies the confusion. Taiwanese society, being very insular, is loaded with stereotypes regarding Westerners. But I don't think that these stereotypes represent the same kind of barrier that other minority groups have to contend with. Yes, Taiwanese people assume a great deal when interacting with Westerners, but these assumptions don't prevent Westerners from getting married, getting a job, or getting a place to live - at least, not most of the time.
The one exception to this, for non-white Westerners, is employment. Many schools do advertise and discriminate based upon race, and Caucasians are often preferred for many positions. To be fair to these "racist" employers, many of them are attempting to screen out Taiwanese, or other nationalities that are truly unqualified for the positions offered. Yes, they are discriminating, and yes, it's not right, but I don't think that it's always for the assumed reasons. The owners of such schools must constantly guard against the suspicion that their teachers aren't really native speakers of English, and there are many foreign, non-native speakers of English that are working as if they grew up speaking the language.
For the "workers," however, life in Taiwan can be hard. Attitudes toward them vary from the tolerant, to the exploitative, to the antagonistic. They are regarded as poor and uneducated, and often as a source of dissension in Taiwanese society. Many Taiwanese dislike them for "stealing" jobs from Taiwanese people, even if the jobs "stolen" are jobs that most Taiwanese would refuse to do. One need only think back to Taiwan's recent argument with the Philippines to discover other examples of this kind of thinking. During that argument I was reminded, more than anything, of my own country's attitude towards Mexico and Mexicans.
Are Taiwanese people racist? Some are. But then again everyone is racist some of the time. We tend to think in categories, and we often (mistakenly) apply these categories to people. So of course you find racism in Taiwan, especially considering that Taiwan originates from a larger, Chinese culture that divides the world into "China" and "Everything Else." Taiwan is a traditional society, and tradition often makes racial thinking a part of everyday life. In other words "Us" vs. "Them" becomes a question of continual importance.
But I wouldn't grow despondent over this. I think the attitudes of most Taiwanese people are quite tolerant. If they are racist, it is only because they haven't had the same chances to interact with those from different countries - not on the scale which one sees in the US, Canada, or even Hong Kong. They often want you to point out their misconceptions, and this is a good thing.
To me, it is a situation far preferable to what I encounter in America. In America people are obsessed with race, to the point where society is breaking down. In attempting to erase barriers, Americans have limited their ability to communicate and to function together. In attempting to "get to the root of the problem," Americans are making mountains out of molehills, and reviving old quarrels that are probably best forgotten. In the American dialogue on race, one sees a society that is increasingly trapped in the past, and not looking towards the future.*
Society is, I think, something that should transcend race and racism, not something that should be defined by it. No, we cannot walk around saying "We are all the same," but neither can we walk around saying "We are all different." A society functions best when we achieve a balance between these two attitudes, and I think Taiwan is fairly close to achieving that balance.
That's my opinion anyway. You might have another point of view. If you do, I would be glad to hear about it. We all have our differences - whether real or imagined - and it is good to talk things out.
Taitung's New Movie Theater
禁煙節 Non-Smoking Day
Foreigners I Have Known
"Demographics of Taiwan" article on Wikipedia
National Statistics Republic of China (Taiwan)
Wasai Taiwan: Racism in Taiwan
Forumosa: Taiwanese Racism
*I didn't know it when I was writing this, but much of this argument is also to be found in Philip K. Howard's "The Death of Common Sense" (1994). It's a good book, an easy read, and well worth your time.